Picking a time and sticking with it
One word in the submission call caught my eye: samurai.
Now, I thought, that could be interesting. I’d majored in both Japanese and History (a common theme it seems for several of us in the anthology) at university, though I barely speak Japanese now, so the combination of two old loves was very appealing.
But when to set the story? Japanese history is vast and varied, and the idea of what a samurai is and what roles women held in society shifted and changed down the years. So, off to do some research.
I didn’t particularly want to have a heroine restricted by the mores of the era, or bucking against them too strongly. Japan during the era of the Tokugawa shogunate (also known as the Edo period, 1603-1868) was heavily based on Confucian philosophy with very strict roles for both men and women as well as samurai themselves. Social mobility was nearly impossible. There were many rounin – masterless samurai – wandering the country during this time, and I came close to having a dramatic tale of a samurai daughter (interesting fact: it was the name of a social class, so a woman could very well be samurai, but not necessarily a warrior) and a happy-go-lucky rounin. The word count, however, made that idea a fraction too complicated.
So where else to look? The Meiji period (1868-1912) has proven a marvellous source of inspiration for many writers and film makers (the film The Last Samurai was set in this era), with its clash of East and West (those terms are dubious mind you) and the ancient and the modern, as foreign influence swept through Japan and rapid modernisation took force. It could have given rise to thought-provoking ideas of what it was to be a samurai in such an era.
Eventually though I decided that the Sengoku (Warring States) period (1467-1573), with its great social upheaval, changing alliances, and greater (though still limited) freedom for samurai women. (I suspect if you look at history as a whole you’ll find a trend of greater freedoms for women matching up with times of war. Kind of ironic, really.) For example, my heroine Misato is taught the use of the naginata, long spear with a curved blade. This is not wishful thinking about awesome-but-historically-inaccurate warrior women, but in fact was commonly done to given samurai women a means of protecting themselves if their father or husband was absent from the house.
So, warring states, daimyo lords under constant threat of attack, what could I do with this? Well, a samurai woman may be able to protect herself, but surely her father would like her to have a bodyguard, especially after a ninja has been sighted near her bedroom. And what would happen if our heroine had trouble sleeping, and found herself outside her bodyguard’s room, crouched and curious about the sounds coming from inside? (Interesting fact: voyeurism is something of a reoccurring theme in Japanese erotic art, shunga.)
What would happen indeed. You’re just going to have to read to find out!
At the end of the market stood a small waterway, and over it a bridge that led into the town, and beyond that the rice fields. They reached the base. Misato made to step onto the bridge when Saitou spoke.
“We cannot go into town, my lady. It is too far from the palace.”
“No. But I would like to stand at the top of the bridge for the view.” She met Saitou’s eyes, offering a challenge. “If that is not too much to ask.”
Saitou bowed a little. “That is acceptable.”
The three of them reached the rise of the bridge. Around them people wheel carts, children hurried about in their games, and there was a general chatter in the air. Misato smiled. Every where was full of life.
Sen waved. Misato looked up to see some other women of Sen’s age, gathered together on some low seats on the town side of the bridge. Sen glanced at Misato with a soft pleading, but then turned away.
Misato said, “Go. Saitou will stay with me.”
Sen bowed, thanking her, and hurried down the bridge to see her friends.
Saitou was by her side. “That was kind of you.”
Misato sighed. “Is it a kindness if you do so because you wish to be alone? Sen is with me day and night, and she is a good servant, but sometimes…”
“I’m still here.”
“Ah, but I can’t dismiss you so easily.”
Nor do I want to, she thought.
Saitou grinned his imperceptible grin. “No, you cannot.”
They stood in silence for a while. Misato eventually asked,
“How do you find Tajima province after Inaba?”
“It is… noisier. I like the quiet myself. But it is more than acceptable,” Saitou said.
“Were Lord Kikuchi’s lands quiet?”
“Sometimes yes. We were right near the sea. I could almost always hear it at night.” His face became dreamy, a little melancholy. “I do miss that here.”
Misato swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
Saitou closed his eyes, and shook his head as if to rid himself of the memories. “I did my duty to Lord Kikuchi, that is what matters. As I will do my duty to Lord Yamana.”
“And to me?”
Saitou once more smiled. “Of course.” He gazed out over the river, and spoke contemplatively. “I wonder why someone wants you dead. It seems an unnecessary way of getting to Lord Yamana.”
He wasn’t asking her opinion, but she gave it anyway. “Hardly. Father currently keeps with Fujiwara clan, but the Sanjo’s would like him to side with them. My thinking is that without my mother, my father has only me, and he stubbornly refuses to remarry. The Sanjo’s would have me killed, blame the Fujiwara’s. He wouldn’t be calm about it, is likely to do something rash. That seems a likely possibility.”
Saitou looked at her, surprised. “You’ve given this a lot of thought.”
“Every night since the ninja came,” she said, her voice flat.
Saitou glanced at her, his expression sympathetic, and he understood what she had meant.
“You were awake the whole time.”
It was the soft swish on the balcony that had alerted her. No one in the palace would creep so carefully without reason, and no one should have been near her rooms. She knew exactly where her naginata stood, but she hadn’t been able to move. Fear had paralysed her.
Even when a shout stopped the intruder, and a thundering of running feet and cries, followed by a deep splash in the moat, brought the whole incident to an end, she had not moved. She let Father believe that she had slept through the whole incident, only wakening to the commotions. She didn’t wish to worry him.
“I’m sorry to hear. You can be assured my lady I will protect you.”
His voice was so sincere Misato could only bow her thanks.
Saitou’s gaze drifted to the river. Unfocused, melancholy, and a touch amused. Like life was both tragedy and comedy. Misato took in the planes of his face, the perfect styling of his hair, the smoothness of his forehead where it had been shaved back. Even with his missing earlobe, he was still a handsome man.
If he knew what she did at night when she couldn’t sleep…
Abruptly, without looking at her, he asked, “Are you staring at my injury, my lady?”
She started. How did she explain it?
After a moment, she said, “I… was wondering if it still caused you pain.”
“It’s tender, but healing well.” He touched it, self-conscious.
“Still, I shouldn’t have stared.”
Saitou turned and grinned. “Well, you were hardly gawping my handsome face.”
Misato’s whole body froze, and she was locked in his gaze. The grin faltered, and he swallowed. Misato followed the rise and fall of his throat. The awkwardness hung like a monkey bent on mischief.
Misato forced a bright laugh. “Oh, you’re funny, Saitou. Very funny!”
Either he took the hint, or he believed her false laugh, for he bowed, and said, deeply serious, “I serve my lady, to protect or entertain.”
This time Misato’s laugh was real. Then it came to an abrupt halt, for a man was approaching.
Even through her laugher, Misato had heard the too-careful steps. She turned and saw him, his face cover in black cloth, thrusting a dagger towards her chest. She swayed in shocked. Saitou was faster than both. He drew his wakizashi, and leapt in front of Misato, blocking the strike with a swift sideways. The dagger sliced the material of her kimono at the sleeve
Saitou made to strike the man, but he snatched his blade away, pushed Saitou’s so he stumbled against Misato. The ninja ran down the bridge and into the town, disappearing into the crowd.
Misato tumbled back, catching Saitou in her arms as his weight made them both fall onto the wooden planks of the bridge. A small crowd gathered to help them, but Saitou was on his feet, running after the ninja.
Misato stood with the help of two women, and Sen came back, going to her.
Saitou appeared again, his face sweaty and red, and his eyes enraged. “I couldn’t catch him, he disappeared into the crowd.” He looked at Misato. “You are safe?”
“Yes. Thanks to you.”
Misato gave him a look that was filled with more than gratitude. If Saitou recognised what he meant, she couldn’t tell, for he only bowed, and said they should return to the palace.
Jacqueline Brocker is an Australian writer who lives in Cambridge, UK. Her short erotic fiction has appeared in anthologies from Cleis Press and she has several works published by Forbidden Fiction. You can find out more information about her stories at her website: http://jacquelinebrocker.net