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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Rowland Laura Joh
 

«The Cloud Pavilion», Laura Rowland

Edo Genroku Year 14, Month 5 (Tokyo, June 1701)

 

Prologue

 

The pain pierced like knives into her breast and jarred her out of black unconsciousness. A gray blur swirled across her vision, as if she were looking up at a sky filled with windblown mist and clouds. Through dizzying nausea flashed pure, visceral terror.

Where was she? How had she come to be here?

A touch grazed her thigh. She gasped as fingers caressed her. The clouds had hands! Hands that were warm, and damp with the mist. As they stroked her hips and groin, she became aware of movement around her, of human flesh pressing on hers. The clouds inhaled and exhaled quick, hoarse gasps. There was a man with her. He and she floated together, suspended in the clouds, somewhere far above the earth. Her terror worsened.

Who was he?

She couldn't see him through the clouds, but she smelled the foul stench of his sweat; she sensed his lust. She knew what his caresses on the most intimate parts of her body portended.

She called for help, but the clouds absorbed and dissipated the sound. She tried to push the man away, but her arms, her legs, her muscles and bones, seemed disconnected from her will. She couldn't feel them, or any part of herself, except where the man's hands touched. Her heart was a disembodied pulse that thudded with panic.

Black waves of sleep welled up around her. Although she craved merciful oblivion, instinct compelled her to fight for her life. The blackness permeated the clouds, drawing her into its depths. She struggled to retain consciousness.

A new stab of pain, in her other breast, revived her again. The shape of the man, clothed in mist, spread above her eyes. He lowered his weight upon her. The clouds swayed under them, buoyed them while he gasped louder and faster. She felt an awful, tearing thrust between her legs. Thunder reverberated.

His face suddenly protruded through the swirling clouds. They stretched like a tight, opaque skin across his features. Two holes that appeared cut in the mist revealed his eyes, which glittered with desire and cruelty. Beneath them opened another hole, his mouth. The lips were red and swollen and moist; sharp teeth glistened with saliva. She smelled the hot, noxious rush of his breath.

She screamed.

For only an instant did she glimpse him. The clouds veiled her eyes as he took her. His every move within her was agony, flesh sawing flesh. The waves of sleep rose up and drenched her in a black fountain, obliterating his shape from view, the sensations from her awareness. The thunder crashed, distant and faint now. She heard the clatter of rain falling.

Then she plunged into a dark, silent void.

 

1

 

Conch trumpets blared a battle cry. War drums boomed. On the opposite banks of a small lake stood two generals clad in leather armor and metal helmets. They waved their war fans and shouted the command.

"Attack!"

Two armies of mounted troops plunged into the lake and charged. Chamberlain Sano Ichir rode at the forefront of his yelling, whooping comrades. Water splashed his armor as his horse galloped toward the onrushing enemy legion. He and his army drew their swords while their mounts swam into the deep middle of the lake. The opposition met them, swords waving, lances aimed. On shore the generals barked orders to stay in ranks, but in the lake it was utter chaos.

Soldiers hacked wildly at one another with their swords and lances. The noise of wooden weapons battering armor and metal deafened Sano. As he fought, he sat in his saddle waist-deep in water that was filthy with mud and manure. His army's mounts buffeted his horse, rammed his legs. Sano thanked the gods for iron shin guards. He swatted his opponent, knocking the man off his mount. A rider armed with a lance charged at Sano. Sano whacked the lance with his sword. Unbalanced, the rider toppled into the lake. Cheers and applause resounded.

The audience was crowded in stands alongside the artificial lake and leaning out of windows in the covered corridors that topped the walls which enclosed the Edo Castle martial arts practice grounds. Spectators laughed as they egged on the armies, enjoying the tournament.

But Sano and everyone else who competed in them knew that these tournaments were almost as dangerous as real battles. Somebody always got hurt. Sometimes players were killed. Audiences enjoyed that the best. It was the most exciting part of the game.

The lake grew crowded with men who'd fallen in. They frantically swam, trying to avoid being kicked or crushed by the horses. Fighters howled in genuine pain from the blows dealt by the blunt yet heavy wooden weapons. Sano took a whack on his shoulder and knew he'd have a big bruise tomorrow. As he parried his opponent's strikes, he thought that perhaps, at his age of forty-three years, he was too old for tournaments. But it was his duty to participate for as long as he could.


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