"Lord, is there a reason for you to be incognito?"
"Incognito?" The suggestion amused Genji. "I am about to go into the street in a formal procession surrounded by a company of samurai, all wearing the sparrow-and-arrows crest. Do you really think anyone will fail to recognise me?"
"Lord, you give your enemies an excuse to pretend they don't, and this the freedom to insult you and instigate a crisis.
"I will refuse to be insulted," Genji said, "and you will prevent any instigation."
"They may not permit you to refuse," Saiki said, "and I may be unable to prevent."
Genji smiled. "In such case, I am confident you will proceed to kill them all."
Kudo, the security chief, bowed and entered the room.
"Lord, your guest will leave the compound after you depart. Would it not be advisable to have her followed?"
"For what purpose?" Genji said. "We know where she lives."
"A simple precautionary measure," Kudo said. "Outside your presence, she may let down her guard. We may learn something of value."
Genji smiled. He has known Heiko for less than a month and he already knew she never let down her guard.
"We should do as Kudo suggests," Saiki said. "We have never looked into the woman'sbackground and past associations as thoroughly as we should have." What he meant, but did not say, was that Genji had forbidden any such inquiries. "Some rudimentary surveillance would surely be appropriate."
"Don't worry," Genji said, "I myself have investigated Heiko thoroughly, and find nothing to doubt."
- Cloud of Sparrows, Takashi Matsuoka. [pages 31-32]
His two advisors followed him down the hall to the outer courtyard. Two dozen samurai awaited his presence, a palanquin and four bearers in their midst. Members of the household staff lined the way to the gate, ready to bow as he departed. They would be there, bowing again, when he returned. It was, all in all, a tremendous waste of human energy. His destination was only a few hundred yards away, and he would be back within minutes. Yet a rigid and ancient protocol of rank demanded that his every departure and arrival be treated with ceremonial seriousness.
He turned to Saiki. "No wonder Japan has fallen so far behind the outsider nations. They have science and industry. They produce cannons, steamships, and railroads. We, in patheitc contrast, have a super-abundance of empty ceremony. We produce bows, kneelings, and more bows."
"Lord?" Saiki's expression was clouded with confusion.
"I could saddle a horse, ride there on my own, and be back in less time than it took to assemble this unnecessary crowd."
"Lord!" Saiki and Kudo both dropped to their knees on the hallway floor. Saiki said, "I beg you, do not even consider such a thing."
Kudo said, "You have enemies among both supporters and opponents of the Shogun. Going without an escort is tantamount to suicide."
Genji gestured for them to rise. "I said I could. I didn't say I would." He sighed and went down the steps into the sandals that had been placed on the ground for him. He took five steps to the palanquin (which had by now been raised three feet by the bearers, making it possible for him to enter with a minimum of effort), removed the two swords (which he had just a minute earlier placed in his sash), and put them inside the palanquin, stepped out of the sandals (which the sandal bearer now bowed to before placing in the sandal compartment under the entrance of the palanquin), and seated himself within. He looked out to Saiki and said, "Do you see what I mean about empty ceremony?"
Saiki bowed. "Lord, it is my failing that I do not. I will study the matter."
- Cloud of Sparrows, Takashi Matsuoka. [pages 33-34]
Genji's contemplation moved in another direction when he saw an elaborate coiffure among the bowing heads of the household staff. It was formed by the same lustrous hair that had so recently decorated his pillow like night itself spilling from the sky. Her kimono was one he had never seen before. He knew that she wore it now for the sole purpose of bidding him farewell. It depicted dozens of pink roses cast about by white foam on a sea of deepest blue. Her white overcoat had exactly the same design, but without any additional colours. Three different textures of silk for white roses on white foam on a sea of white. It was evocative, daring, and extremely dangerous. Heiko's roses were of the variety sometimes referred to as American Beauty. The most rabid antiforeign samurai among the reactionary clans took offense at everything that came from outside. With the same simplistic arrogance that enabled them to style themsevles Men of Virtue, it was entirely possible that one of them might think to kill her merely for wearing this design. Against such an attack, her only defense was her courage, her fame, her incredible beauty.
"Stop," Genji said.
Immediately, Saiki cried out the order. "Halt!" The leadeing contingent of samurai had passed through the front gate of the compound and was now stopped in the street. Genji's palanquin was just inside the gate. The rest of the bodyguard corps was still in the courtyard beside him. Saiki grimaced.
"This position invites ambush, lord. We enjoy neither the protection within nor the freedom of movement without."
Genji opened the sliding door. "I have complete confidence in your ability to defend me at all times, in all circumstances." Heiko was still bowing deeply, like everyone else.
"Lady Mayonaka no Heiko," he said, using her full geisha name. Midnight Equilibrium.
"Lord Genji," she replied, bowing even lower.
How was it, he wondered, that her voice could be so soft and so clear at the same time? Were it as fragile as it seemed, he should not be able to hear her at all. The illusion was tantalizing. Everything about her was tantalizing.
"Such a provocative kimono."
She came out of her bow, smiling, and slightly spread her arms. The wide sleeves of her kimono opened like the wings of a bird about to take flight. "I am sure I don't know wgar Lord Genji means," she said. "These colours are so common I border on visual cliche. Surely only the most hopeless of idiots could be provoked by it."
Genji laughed. Even the steadfastly dour Saiki was unable to suppress a short chuckle, though he did a fair job of disguising it as a cough. Genji said, "The most hopeless of idiots are precisely the ones who worry me. But perhaps you are right. Perhaps the traditional colours will blind them to the foreign roses."
"Foreign?" A most beguiling look of query widened her eyes and caused her head to tilt. "I have been told roses, pink, white, and red, blossom every spring in the innermost garden of the famous castle, Cloud of Sparrows." She added pointedly, "I have been told, though I have never been invited to see for myself."
Genji bowed, not too deeply. Protocol forbade a Great Lord from bowing low to anyone below him in rank, which was practically everyone but the members of the Imperial Family in Kyoto and the Shogunal Family in the great castle that towered over Edo. With a smile, he said, "I am certain that oversight will be remedied in a day not distant."
"I am less certain," she said, "but I am heartened by your confidence. In any case, is that castle not one of the most ancient in all Japan?"
"Yes," Genji said, playing along with her. "It is."
"Then how can these flowers be foreign? By definition, what blooms in an ancient Japanese castle must be Japanese, must it not, Lord Genji?"
"It is obvious I was wrong to worry about you, Lady Heiko," Genji said. "Your logic is certain to deflect all criticism."
- Cloud of Sparrows, Takashi Matsuoka. [pages 34-36]