Laura Joh Rowland

The Concubine’s Tattoo

The fourth book in the Sano Ichiro series, 1998

To Pamela Gray Ahearn, With appreciation


Genroku Period, Year 3, Month 9

(Tokyo, October 1690)



It is my privilege to open this ceremony in which Sosakan Sano Ichiro and Lady Ueda Reiko shall be united in marriage before the gods.” Pudgy, nearsighted Noguchi Motoori-Sano’s former superior and the go-between who had arranged the match-solemnly addressed the assembly gathered in Edo Castle’s private reception hall.

On this warm autumn morning, sliding doors stood open to a garden resplendent with scarlet maple leaves and brilliant blue sky. Two priests, clad in white robes and tall black caps, knelt at the front of the hall before the alcove, in which hung a scroll bearing the names of the kami-Shinto deities. Below this, a dais held the traditional offerings of round rice cakes and a ceramic jar of consecrated sake. Two maidens, wearing the hooded cloaks of Shinto shrine attendants, stood near the priests. On the tatami to the left of the alcove knelt the bride’s father and closest associates: stout, dignified Magistrate Ueda and a few relatives and friends. To the right, the groom’s party consisted of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Japan ’s supreme military dictator, dressed in brocade robes and the cylindrical black cap of his rank, attended by several high officials; Sano’s frail, elderly mother; and Hirata, Sano’s chief retainer. All eyes turned to the center of the hall, the focus of the ceremony.

Sano and Reiko knelt side by side before two small tables-he in black ceremonial robes stamped with his family’s gold flying-crane crest, his two swords at his waist; she in a white silk kimono and a long, white silk drape that completely covered her face and hair. They faced a flat porcelain dish containing a miniature pine and plum tree, a bamboo grove, the statues of a hare and a crane: symbols of longevity, pliancy, and fidelity. Behind them, Noguchi and his wife knelt at a table reserved for the go-between. As the priests stood and bowed to the altar, Sano’s heart pounded. His stoic dignity hid a turmoil of emotion.

The last two years had brought him continuous upheaval: the death of his beloved father; the move from his modest family home in the Nihonbashi merchant district to Edo Castle, Japan ’s seat of power; a dizzyingly rapid rise in status and all the associated challenges. At times he feared his mind and body couldn’t withstand the relentless onslaught of change. Now he was marrying a twenty-year-old girl he’d met exactly once before, more than a year ago, at the formal meeting between their two families. Her lineage was impeccable, her father one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Edo. But they’d never spoken; he knew nothing of her character. He barely remembered what she looked like, and wouldn’t see her face again until the end of the ceremony. To Sano, the tradition of arranged marriage now seemed like sheer madness-a potentially disastrous pairing of strangers. What perilous turn had his fate taken? Was it too late to escape?

From her tiny bedchamber in the Edo Castle women’s quarters, the shogun’s newest concubine heard hurrying footsteps, slamming doors, and shrill feminine voices. The dressing rooms would be littered with opulent silk kimonos and spilt face powder, the servants rushing to finish dressing the two hundred concubines and their attendants for the sosakan-sama’s wedding feast. But Harume, weary of the suffocating presence of so many other women after only eight months at the castle, had decided to skip the celebration. Privacy was almost nonexistent in the crowded women’s quarters, but now her chambermates were gone, the palace officials busy. The shogun’s mother, whom Harume attended, hadn’t required her services today. No one would miss her, she hoped- because Harume meant to take full advantage of her rare solitude.

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

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