The Star of Bethlehem
Crossing an unknown river far from your domain, observe the surface turbulence, and note the clarity of the water. Heed the demeanor of the horses. Beware of massed ambush.
At a familiar ford near home, look deep into the shadows on the far bank, and watch the movement of the tall grass. Listen to the breathing of your nearest companions. Beware of the lone assassin.
Heiko, feigning sleep, kept her breathing deep and slow, her muscles relaxed but not slack, her lips closed, at the very edge of parting, her eyes soft beneath unfluttering eyelids, her hooded gaze turned within, to the calm place at the center of her being. She sensed rather than felt him awaken beside her.
When he turned to look at her, she hoped he would see:
Her hair: the utter dark of starless night spilling across the blue silk undersheet.
Her face: pale as spring snow, glowing, with light stolen from the moon.
Her body: suggestive curvatures beneath the coverlet, also of silk, emblazoned with a finely embroidered pair of white cranes, their throats crimson with mating frenzy, dancing and dueling in midair, against a field of gold.
She was confident of starless night. Her hair--dark, lustrous, fine--was one of her best attributes.
Spring snow might be too far a stretch, even with generous metaphorical license. She had spent her early childhood in a fishing village in Tosa Domain. Those happy hours in the sun so long ago could never be completely erased. Her cheeks were ever so slightly freckled. Spring snow was not freckled. Still there was that moonlight glow to make up for it. He insisted she had it. Who was she to disagree with him?
She hoped he was looking at her. She was an elegant sleeper, even when she was actually asleep. When she was performing, as she was now, the effect on men was usually devastating. What will he do? Will he remove the concealment, lightly, discreetly, and look upon her unconscious nakedness? Or will he smile, lean down, and wake her with a soft caress? Or will he watch, patient as always, and wait for her eyes to flutter open on their own?
Such conjecture would not have troubled her with any other man, would not even have entered her thoughts. This one was different. With him, she often found herself indulging in such reveries. Was it because he was truly unlike the others, she wondered, or was it simply because this was the one to whom she had so foolishly lost her heart?
Genji did nothing that she had anticipated. Instead he rose and went to the window overlooking Edo Bay. He stood there naked, in the dawn chill, and watched whatever he was watching with close attention. Occasionally, he shivered, but he made no move to dress himself. Heiko knew that in his youth he had undergone rigorous training with Tendai monks atop Mount Hiei. Those austere mystics were said to be masters of internal heat generation, able to stand naked beneath icy waterfalls for hours at a time. Genji prided himself on having once been their disciple. She sighed and moved, as if shifting slightly in her sleep, to stifle the giggle that almost escaped her. Obviously, he had not mastered the technique as well as he might have hoped.
Her sigh, as beguiling as she knew it was, did not distract Genji from his observation. Without so much as a glance in her direction, he picked up the ancient Portuguese telescope, opened it to its full extension, and focused again on the bay. Heiko permitted herself to feel disappointment. She had hoped . . . What had she hoped? Hope, small or large, was an indulgence, was it not, and nothing more.
She pictured him standing there by the window. She did so without actually looking again. Genji would not fail to notice her awareness if she pressed too much. She wasn't entirely sure he hadn't already. That would explain why he had ignored her earlier when he arose, and again when she sighed. He was teasing. Or perhaps not. It was hard to say. So she gave up thinking and pictured him.
He was rather too pretty for a man. That, and the way he habitually carried himself in an excessively casual and unsamurai-like manner, made him seem frivolous, fragile, even effeminate. External appearances were deceiving. Without clothing, the visible striations of his musculature testified to the seriousness of his martial dedication. The discipline of war was a near neighbor to the abandon of love. She felt herself warming with remembrance and sighed, this time involuntarily. It was too difficult now to maintain any pretense of sleep. She allowed her eyes to open. She looked at him and saw what she had pictured. Whatever was on the other end of that telescope must be truly fascinating. It held his full attention.
After a time, she said in a sleepy voice, "My lord, you are shivering."
He continued watching the bay, but he smiled and said, "A foul lie. I am immune to cold."
Heiko slipped from the bed and donned Genji's underkimono. She wrapped it close around her body, warming as much of it as she could, while she knelt and tied her hair loosely with a silk ribbon. It would take her maid, Sachiko, hours to restore her elaborate courtesan's coif. For now, this would have to do. She stood and walked toward him with the short, shuffling steps required of gracious women, then went to her knees and bowed when she was a few feet away. She held the bow for several moments, not expecting any acknowledgment from him, and not receiving any. Then she rose, took off the underkimono, warm now with the heat of her body and redolent with her scent, and put it around his shoulders.
Genji grunted and shrugged himself into the garment. "Here, look."
She took the offered telescope and scanned the bay. Last night, there had been six ships at anchor, all warships from Russia, Britain, and America. Now there was a seventh, a three-masted schooner. The new arrival was smaller than the naval vessels, and lacked their paddle wheels and tall black smokestacks. There were no gun ports along her sides and no cannon visible on deck. As insignificant as it looked beside the warships, it was still twice the size of any Japanese ship. Where had it come from? West, from a Chinese port? South, from the Indies? East, from America?
She said, "The merchant ship wasn't there when we went to bed."
"It just dropped anchor."
"Is it the one you've been waiting for?"
Heiko bowed and returned the telescope to Genji. He hadn't told her what ship he was waiting for, or why, and of course she hadn't asked. In all likelihood, Genji himself wouldn't know the answer to those questions. He was, she assumed, awaiting the fulfillment of a prophecy, and prophecies were notoriously incomplete. Wherever her thoughts went, she kept her eyes on the ships in the bay. "Why were the outsiders making so much noise last night?"
"They were celebrating New Year's Eve."
"New Year's Eve is three weeks away."
"It is for us. The first new moon after the winter solstice, in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Komei. But for them, the New Year is already here." He said in English, "January 1, 1861," then shifted back to Japanese. "Time is more rapid for them. That's why they are so far ahead of us. Here it is, their New Year's Day, while we remain mired three weeks in the past." He looked at her and smiled. "You shame me, Heiko. Don't you feel the cold?"
"I am a mere woman, my lord. Where you are muscular, I am fat. That flaw keeps me warm a little longer." In fact, she was using all her discipline not to react to the chilly air. Warming the kimono, then giving it to him, was a moderately attractive gesture. If she trembled, she would be putting too much emphasis on what she had done, and all grace would be lost.
Genji looked at the ships again. "Steam engines that propel them whether the wind blows or the seas are becalmed. Cannon that can hurl destruction miles away. A handheld firearm for every soldier. For three hundred years, we have deluded ourselves with the cult of the sword, while they have been busy being efficient. Even their languages are more efficient. Because of that, so is their thinking. We are so vague. We rely too much on the implied and unspoken."
"Is efficiency so important?" Heiko said.
"It is in war, and war is coming."
"Is that prophecy?"
"No, only common sense. Everywhere they have gone, the outsiders have taken all they could take. Lives, treasure, land. They have seized the better part of three-quarters of the world from its rightful rulers, looted, murdered, and enslaved."
Heiko said, "How unlike our own Great Lords."
Genji laughed brightly. "It is our duty to ensure that all looting, murdering, and enslaving in Japan is done by us alone. Otherwise, how can we call ourselves Great Lords?"
Heiko bowed. "I am secure in the knowledge of such profound protection. May I draw a bath for you, my lord?"
"For us, this is the hour of the dragon. What time is it for them?"
Genji looked at the Swiss clock on the table. He said in English, "Four minutes after seven a.m."
"Would you prefer to bathe, my lord, at four minutes after seven a.m., or in the hour of the dragon?"
Genji laughed again his free and easy laugh, and bowed, conceding her point. It was said among his many detractors that he laughed too frequently. This was, they said, evidence of a critical lack of seriousness in these perilous times. Perhaps this was true. Heiko wasn't sure. But she was sure that she loved to hear him laugh.
She returned his bow, took three backward steps, then turned to walk away. She was naked in her lover's bedroom, but her walk could not have been more graceful if she had been in full ceremonial attire in the Shogun's palace. She could feel his eyes on her.
"Heiko," she heard him say, "wait a moment."
She smiled. He had ignored her as long as he could. Now he was coming to her.
The Right Reverend Zephaniah Cromwell, humble servant of the Light of the True Word of the Prophets of Christ Our Lord, looked across the water to the city of Edo, the teeming pagan anthill of sin to which he had been sent to convey the word of God to the ignorant Japanese. The True Word, before these blighted heathens were totally ruined by the Papists, and the Episcopalians, who were only Papists in disguise, and the Calvinists and Lutherans, who were but profit-mongers hiding behind the name of God. Heretical deviationists had beaten the True Word to China. The Right Reverend Cromwell was determined that they not triumph in Japan. In the battle to come, at Armageddon, how powerful these samurai will be, if they take Christ into themselves, and become true Christian soldiers. Unafraid to die, born for war, they would be the most perfect of martyrs. That was the future, if future there was. The present did not look promising. This was a hellish land of harlots and sodomites and murderers. But he had the True Word to sustain him and he would triumph. God's will be done.
"Good morning, Zephaniah."
Her voice instantly melted his righteous rage, and he felt in its place that terrible, now familiar heat rising inexorably in him, firing his brain and his loins. No, no, he would not yield to those evil imaginings.
"Good morning, Emily," he said. He fought to maintain a stern calm as he faced her. Emily Gibson, a faithful member of his flock, his student, his fiancee. He tried not to think of the fresh young body under her clothing, the rise and fall of her ample bosom, the beckoning curve of her hips, the length and shapeliness of her legs, the occasional flash of an ankle beneath the hem of her skirt. He tried not to imagine what he had not yet seen. Her unhindered breasts in naked repose, their fullness, the shape and color of her nipples. Her belly, rich with fertility and ready for his flooding seed. Her procreative mound, so sacred to the commandments of the Lord Our God, so profane with the Evil One's sweetest inducements of sensation, scent, and taste. Oh, the temptations and deceptions of the flesh, the ravenous hungers the flesh called forth, the raging flames of madness the flesh stoked with incendiary lust. "They that are after the things of the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit." He didn't realize he had spoken aloud until he heard Emily's voice again.
"Amen," she said.
Reverend Cromwell felt the world spinning away from him, and with it, the grace and salvation promised by Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. He had to drive away all thought of the flesh. He looked again across the water at Edo. "Our great challenge. Sins in mind and body aplenty. Unbelievers in their vast multitudes."
She smiled that soft dreamy smile of hers. "I am sure you are up to the task, Zephaniah. You are a true man of God."
A blush of shame flowed over Reverend Cromwell. What would this innocent and trusting child think if she knew what foul hungers tortured him every moment he was in her presence? He said, "Let us pray for the heathens," and knelt down on the deck of the ship. Emily obediently knelt beside him. Too close, too close. He could feel her body heat, and despite his every effort not to notice, his nostrils were flooded with the natural perfume of her sex.
"Her princes within her are roaring lions," Reverend Cromwell said. "Her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. Her prophets are light and treacherous persons; her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law. The just Lord is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity; every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame." Gaining confidence from the familiar cadences of the True Word, his voice grew stronger and deeper as he went on, becoming in his own ears like unto the very voice of God Himself. "Therefore wait thee upon me, saith the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy!" He paused to gulp down air. "Amen!" he screamed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cloud of Sparrows by Takashi Matsuoka. Copyright © 2002 by Takashi Matsuoka. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.