An Extract from ‘The Last Concubine’
“Well, my dear,” she said. “What a lucky girl you are!” She was positively beaming with delight. Sachi had never before seen her behave with anything other than grandeur and haughty condescension.
“You have done very, very well. Your parents will be proud of you.”
Quite forgetting her training, Sachi stared at her, dumbfounded.
“It seems His Majesty has accepted Her Highness’s offer. Of course the arrangements must be made in the proper way. His Majesty has made his wish known, as you heard, and Her Highness has given her permission. The letter will be drafted and sent to His Majesty’s emissary immediately. Come to me this evening when the sun begins to set and I will instruct you and prepare you.”
“Prepare me? For what?”
“The innocence of the child,” said Lady Tsuguko, laughing softly. “You have been promoted to a maid of middle rank. At His Majesty’s request Her Highness is presenting you to him as her farewell gift, as a concubine for him.”
A concubine! Sachi bowed her face to the tatami.
“I am not worthy of such an honour,” she stammered. Then, as she began to grasp the full meaning of the words, she gasped with shock.
“Madam… Your ladyship… This is too great an honour. Her Highness has always been far kinder to me than I deserve. I have no greater ambition than to serve Her Highness.” The words came tumbling out. “Please choose someone else. Not me, your ladyship. Please don’t make me. I’m sure I won’t do it right. I won’t know what to do. I’m not ready. I know nothing, your ladyship. I know nothing at all.”
“Child! Do not presume to question our decision,” said Lady Tsuguko sharply. Then her voice softened. “I know you are young still and know nothing of the world. But even you must understand that this is the greatest honour and the greatest opportunity any girl could ever have, particularly a girl of your background. Everything has happened very fast. I have not had time to teach you everything you need to know. But that is good. Your innocence is your charm. His Majesty leaves for Osaka tomorrow, so we will postpone the formal ceremonies of union until his return. If only you can please His Majesty, your foot will be firmly set on the lintel of the jewelled palanquin. Believe me, you will never have a chance like this again.
“We are depending on you,” she added, her voice stern. “You will go to His Majesty tonight.”
Sachi was still kneeling in a daze when there was a commotion at the door. It was the Retired One. She had never before come anywhere near the princess’s apartments. There was a flurry of silk as the ladies-in-waiting fell to their knees. The next moment she had appeared behind the screens. Her beautiful face was frozen except for a vein that throbbed in her temple. She faced Lady Tsuguko.
“Well,” she said, drawing herself up imperiously. “You must be proud of yourself. You have done very well, you and that mistress of yours, foisting this creature – this foundling – on my son!”
Lady Tsuguko was on her knees. Looking up, she lifted her eyebrows and wrinkled her forehead in an expression of mock humility.
“What a surprise!” she said. “We are most honoured, my lady, that you grace our humble quarters with your esteemed presence. Thank you so much for your congratulations. I have no need to remind you, of course, that Lady Yuri is the adopted daughter of the house of Sugi, bannermen to the daimyo of Ogaki.”
“Jumped up she may be but we all know where she comes from,” snapped the Retired One, the colour rising in her cheeks. “She is an animal, an illiterate bumpkin. We saw her when you brought her here. She could not even speak like a human being.”
“Calm yourself, my lady. Your ladyship knows very well that we have been desperately searching for a concubine to provide His Majesty with a son. You too have been concerned about that. It would be the worse for all of us if the regent, Lord Yoshinobu, were in a position to take power. Several times we have set the selection process under way, but His Majesty has rejected every lady-in-waiting we have assigned him. Nevertheless,” Lady Tsuguko continued smoothly, “for some reason this humble girl has taken his fancy. We should thank the gods.”
“You bring disgrace on the House of Tokugawa,” spat the Retired One.
“I’m sure you have not forgotten, my lady, that the Lady Tama, the mother of the fifth shogun and the beloved consort of the third shogun, Lord Iemitsu, began life as a grocer’s daughter, too lowly even to enter His Majesty’s presence.” Lady Tsuguko’s voice was sugary. “She was, you will remember, an attendant delegated to assist with His Majesty’s bath when she caught his august fancy. The sixth shogun, Lord Ienobu, was the child of a commoner so lowly that she could not even be granted the status of an official concubine. His Majesty, if I may take the liberty of reminding you, had to be reared in secret by a retainer. Then there was the Lady Raku, the mother of the fourth shogun. Let me think now. Was her father not a seller of second-hand clothes?”
“In any case it is nothing to do with us, my lady. You were present when His Majesty himself chose not your candidate but ours.”
“He is a boy,” hissed the Retired One. “He knows nothing. You have bewitched him.”
“You know very well too that it is Her Highness’s prerogative to offer His Majesty a concubine as a gift. You see, you have no reason at all to complain.” She placed her hands on the fragrant rice-straw matting, fingers together, the tips of her forefingers touching.
“Thank you so much for deigning to visit us,” she said with an air of finality, touching her forehead to her hands.
“And you have trained her, have you, in the arts of the bedchamber? I think not. The creature is a yokel. She will not last long!” With that the Retired One flung out of the room.
© Lesley Downer (Bantam Press, 2008)