She latched the door, then closed the shutters. On a low table she lit oil lamps and incense burners. The flickering flames cast her shadow against the mullioned paper walls; the incense smoked, sweetly pungent. A hushed, secretive atmosphere permeated the room. Harume's pulse quickened with a dark excitement. She set a rectangular black lacquer box, its lid inlaid with gold irises, and a porcelain sake decanter and two cups on the table. Her movements were slow and graceful, befitting a sacred ritual. Then she tiptoed to the door and listened.
The noise had diminished; the other women must have finished dressing and started toward the banquet hall. Harume returned to the altar she'd created. With eagerness rising in her breast, she pushed back her glossy, waist-length black hair. She loosened her sash and parted the skirts of her red silk dressing gown. She knelt, naked from the waist down.
She contemplated herself with pride. At age eighteen, she was as ripe of flesh as a mature woman, yet with youth's fresh radiance. Flawless ivory skin covered her firm thighs, her rounded hips and stomach. With her fingertips Harume stroked the silky triangle of pubic hair. She smiled, remembering his hand there, his mouth against her throat, their shared rapture. She reveled in her eternal love for him, which she would now prove beyond any possible doubt.
One of the priests swished a long wand tasseled with white paper strips, crying, "Evil out, fortune in! Whoosh! Whoosh!" to purify the room. Then he chanted an invocation to the Shinto gods Izanagi and Izanami, revered procreators of the universe.
Hearing the familiar words, Sano relaxed. The timeless ceremony lifted him above doubt and fear; anticipation soared in him. No matter the risks, he wanted this marriage. At the advanced age of thirty-one, he was at last ready to make the decisive step into official adulthood, to take his place in society as the head of his own family. And he was ready for a change in his life.
His twenty months as the shogun's sosakan-sama--most honorable investigator of events, situations, and people--had been a nonstop cycle of criminal cases, treasure hunts, and spying assignments, culminating in a near-catastrophic trip to Nagasaki. There he had investigated the murder of a Dutch trader--and been shot, almost burned to death, charged with treason, and nearly executed before clearing himself. He'd returned to Edo seven days ago, and while he hadn't lost his desire to pursue truth and deliver criminals to justice, he was tired. Tired of violence, death, and corruption. The aftermath of a tragic love affair the previous year had left him lonely and emotionally drained.
Now, however, Sano looked forward to a respite from the rigors of his work. The shogun had granted him a month's holiday. After a yearlong betrothal, Sano welcomed the prospect of a private life with a sweet, compliant wife who would provide a haven from the outside world. He yearned for children, especially a son who would carry on his name and inherit his position. This ceremony was not just a social rite of passage, but a gateway to everything Sano wanted. The second priest played a series of high-pitched, wailing notes on a flute, while the first beat a sonorous accompaniment on a wooden drum. Now came the most solemn, sacred part of the wedding ritual. The music ceased. One attendant poured the consecrated sake into a long-handled brass ewer and brought it to Sano and Reiko. The other attendant set before them a tray containing three flat wooden cups, graduated in size, nested together. From the ewer, the attendants filled the first, smallest cup, bowed, and handed it to the bride. The assembly waited in hushed expectation.
Harume opened the lacquer box and took out a long, straight razor with a gleaming steel blade, a pearl-handled knife, and a small, square black lacquer jar with her name painted in gold on the stopper. As she arranged these objects before her, a tremor of fear fluttered in Harume's throat. She dreaded pain, hated blood. Would someone interrupt this ceremony--or worse, discover her secret, forbidden liaison? Dangerous intrigues shadowed her life, and there were people who might wish to see her disgraced and banished from the castle. But love demanded sacrifice and necessitated risk. With unsteady hands she poured sake into the two cups: one for herself; a ritual one for her absent lover. She lifted her cup and swallowed the drink. Her eyes watered; her throat burned. But the potent liquor enflamed her courage and determination. She picked up the razor.
Reproduced from the Concubine's Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland. © 1997 by Laura Joh Rowland, used by permission of the publishers - St Martin's Press.
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