THE EIGHTFOLD FENCE

ONE

 Kasigi Omi stopped the convoy at the junction of two paths and consulted briefly with the local man who had been paid to act as their guide. The footsoldiers halted in meticulous order, glancing around cautiously at the dripping trees and rock-strewn hillside but making no sound. Omi passed them without a look or a thought, passed the first four mounted samurai likewise, and reined in close to the two Europeans. "Anjin-san, Tsukku-san," he said, respectfully, "this man says the valley road can be dangerous in winter weather; there is a higher path, but we must dismount and lead our horses."

Tsukku-san - Father Martin Alvito of the Society of Jesus - shot a sideways look at his travelling companion to make sure the man had understood. In almost three years in Japan John Blackthorne had learned to communicate with some fluency in the complicated Japanese language, but there were still times when he failed to follow what was being said. Alvito, so well-versed in the language that he was capable of simultaneous translation and had long ago found himself thinking in Japanese rather than his native Portuguese, was prepared to translate if necessary.

"Domo, Omi-san," Blackthorne answered, smoothly. "Do omoimasu ka?"

Omi looked thoughtful. "I think he's a trustworthy man, Anjin-san," he said, "but I don't know this area well. I think we should follow his advice."

Blackthorne nodded. Once an enemy, Omi had later become a good friend who had sworn allegiance both to Yoshi Toranaga, the Shogun, and his trusted Admiral Anjin. Strictly speaking the barbarian pilot had usurped Omi's place in Toranaga's chain of command, but Omi bore no malice and had continued to do his duty faithfully. Omi was, perhaps, Blackthorne's closest Japanese friend and most trusted ally. The pilot showed his approval of the suggestion by dismounting, and Omi walked his horse back down the column giving the order to dismount to the rest of the cavalry.

The Jesuit priest, in his flame orange robes, hesitated only a moment before dismounting as easily as any of the other riders. He sat a horse better than most of his calling, and managed the inconvenient skirts of his cassock with becoming grace. He was thirty-seven years old, his black hair and beard shot through with streaks of premature silver-grey, and his manner in Blackthorne's presence was guarded and cautious. They disliked one another, but politely.

Blackthorne spared him only the briefest of scrutiny. Already on this journey the man had shown himself as well able to deal with the hardships of travel over rough terrain as any Toranaga samurai, a fact which had earned the Englishman's grudging respect. It could not, however, overcome his natural dislike both for the Portuguese and for Catholic priests - the first rooted in the arrogance with which Portuguese navigators had claimed so much of the world for their King, the second in the unthinking persecutions visited by so many on those who did not share their faith.

Before them on the road the footsoldiers reorganised themselves into two files as the old man, with Omi immediately behind him, set off on the narrow path that led away to the left. One by one the dismounted samurai guided their animals onto the track, and Blackthorne held back to let Alvito go first; he would rather have the man where he could see him. Behind them, with silent economy, the rest of the convoy sorted itself into its new travelling order. Blackthorne spared it one glance, saw that everything was under control, and led his horse behind Alvito up the slippery path.

It was fortunate that being in single file gave very few opportunities for conversation, as Blackthorne was rapidly running out of things to say to the priest. After commiserating with him on the recent death of the Father Visitor of his Order, Father dell'Aqua, and enquiring about the progress of the cathedral being built at Yedo he had found himself against a stone wall where every conversational initiative was met with polite dismissal. Since their first meeting they had been rivals, certainly, if not enemies, the priest seeing Blackthorne as a representative of those who sought to disrupt the Order's work in Japan and, more dangerously still, as one who meddled at the highest level of Japanese politics without any clear idea of the implications of what he was doing. Such distrust scarcely made for easy converse.

They had been on the upper path a little short of an hour, wending cautiously upwards over a track progressively becoming narrower and more slippery, when their way was blocked by a torrent of water flooding across the path. Omi and the old man led their horses through it, and the footsoldiers made gallant attempts to follow, but it was rapidly obvious that the torrent was gaining strength all the time and bringing down mud and stones and vegetation in astounding quantities. The ground seemed to shake, and Blackthorne turned back to comfort his startled horse with a reassuring hand on its nose. Behind him, even the well-trained Toranaga samurai who had gone through battle and terror with him appeared struck by an un-named fear as the elements themselves seemed to conspire against their convoy.

Then, quite suddenly, the first man was swept off the path, a footsoldier, some distance behind Blackthorne, his cry of amazement becoming lost in the branches of the trees through which he fell. He was gone, over the steepest part of the cliff's edge; anyone sent down to him could do little for him, if he had survived, but send him onward with all dispatch. There were immediately volunteers, and Blackthorne acknowledged the desire of two of the man's colleagues to follow him down to assist him in dying if they should be needed - but even as they began their cautious scrambling over rain-slicked rocks and tree roots another deluge of mud followed in the path of the first and both were swept down by it.

Turning back, he sought out Omi and the old man, cut off from the main body of the convoy by the first torrent that now swilled as wide as a river, wondering whether he could force his samurai through the water onto what seemed the comparative safety of Omi's refuge, but soon realised it would be impossible. Instead he gave the order for those at the rear of the column to retreat back down the path until they could find safety. The footsoldiers obeyed at once; the cavalrymen, struggling with disobedient and frightened horses, followed his orders as well as they could. He had done his best for them, and for a moment watched their retreat in deep concern before turning back to assess the possibility of his own escape.

The priest was praying, damn him, standing calmly awaiting Blackthorne's instructions and at the same time calling on his God to deliver him. Beneath the man's very feet the path was already beginning to crumble, washing away into the valley. Blackthorne's horse screamed out in terror and the sound was taken up by men and horses still on the path behind him and blended with the cacophony of the tearing earth and rushing water until it sounded as though the earth-kami itself was screaming at them for their insolence in traversing its secret paths. For a moment Blackthorne's eyes met those of the priest and became a party to their dark, calm certainty; caught between life and death, the two men measured one another's worth silently and Alvito's mouth curved into a serene smile - and then suddenly the path fell away completely from beneath him and the bright orange figure teetered on the edge of the precipice.

Without thinking Blackthorne lunged forward, his grip closing compulsively on the floundering figure, fingers first digging into the winged shoulders of the cassock as he hauled the semi-conscious man towards him. The cries of samurai and horses engulfed by the torrent assaulted his ears as the ground heaved and slithered in malicious contortions, taking away the footings of those who thought they were safe and throwing onto firm ground those who had looked death in the face. With Alvito bundled against him he fell backwards, down, branches of trees tearing at his clothing as the cliff opened up beneath them. He could feel the Jesuit's hands closing on his arms as shreds of consciousness returned, but the sky and the earth were alike black and he could see nothing but shards of lightning and the orange blur that was the priest. There was none of the clear, slow-thinking precision that had once enabled him to tear Toranaga from an earthquake's jaw; the mudslide was a confused malevolence sucking out thought and breath and daylight and giving him only one anchor - his enemy Alvito.

His face was full of mud and debris, eyes and mouth and nose blocked. If ever he could get breath again, he would vomit back the stinking refuse. His arm caught at something, hooked around it and tore muscles from wrist to shoulder, his cry of pain choking as the mud slammed his burden against him. Rain and leaves blew into his face, but at last the roaring of the earth subsided briefly and Blackthorne found breath enough to expel the filth from his throat, his burning arm still tangled around something that did not move. He hauled in a breath that was as much water as air, gripped with his undamaged arm the unmoving form of the priest, and turned his face upwards to cry out for assistance; another cascade of mud and debris flew from the cliff-face, landing around him, strangling the cry before it could be uttered and stealing the last of the daylight together with his senses. Under the pressure of the falling avalanche he dropped across Alvito's body and slid into the peace of unconsciousness.

 

He woke to a great calm penetrated only by the hushed, familiar tones of Omi nearby and sat up suddenly, his head ringing with a sharp pain that closed his eyes again as nausea washed through him.

"Omi-san?" he called out, struggling to rise. He was inside a small but beautifully decorated room which smelled clean and fresh and above all dry, the sound of the rain drumming on the roof above him echoing around like thunder. Looking down at himself, he just had time to notice that he wore a light, sand-coloured kimono that was certainly not his own, and that his left arm was swathed in aromatic bandages, before the shoji slid aside and Omi entered the room.

The samurai bowed. "Anjin-san, ikaga desu ka?"

"Thank you, Omi-san, I'm very well; my head hurts and my arm burns like fire but I'm alive, neh?"

"The gods are kind today, Anjin-san," Omi bowed, obeying Blackthorne's clumsy gesture and sitting down while the Englishman disentangled himself from the bedding and moved to sit opposite him. A tiny maid, no more than eleven or twelve years old, slipped into the room unobtrusively and began to tidy away his bedding. Knowing it would not be good manners to notice her, Blackthorne concentrated on Omi.

"Where are we, Omi-san? How many men have we lost?" For there was no doubting that several of the men swept over the cliff would have been killed.

"Nine, Anjin-san, and four horses. We are in the old man's village - this is the tea house, the finest accommodation they have. The village is also damaged by the storms, Anjin-san, and their hospitality is very limited; excuse me, but I have arranged for you and the Tsukku-san to share this room - it is the only room good enough to house you."

"The priest is alive?"

"Yes, Anjin-san, he is alive because of your bravery. If you had not thrown yourself across him he would have drowned in that torrent of filth. We pulled the two of you from the mud quite unconscious. Tsukku-san was not hurt; he had woken by the time we brought him to the village and he asked if he could bath. There is no doctor here but there's an old woman who treats illnesses and she says he only needs sleep and rest before continuing the journey. Your pardon, Anjin-san, but you could not be woken; I had the maids clean you and change your clothes - the smell of that mud was terrible, neh?"

Belatedly Blackthorne noticed that Omi was also in a fresh kimono.

"Thank you, Omi-san, but ... these clothes? Where did they come from?"

"They belonged to a samurai who died here several months ago, Anjin-san; the mama-san of the house kept them. It was theft, of course, but excuse me Anjin-san I do not think she should be punished for it since she gave them up when they were needed."

Blackthorne smiled. No matter how long he knew Omi he could not seem to find any limitations to the man's sense of honour; although strict in enforcing his rights, Omi was frequently generous to those of an inferior station in life. A village mama-san with only a small tea-house and two or three courtesans of low rank would always be short of money, and good quality kimonos were very valuable. It was not surprising that she had kept them.

"You're quite right, Omi-san, do shimasu. We stay here for the night, then, and proceed in the morning?"

"I think it would be best, Anjin-san, although I don't know whether we'll be able to proceed if the weather is still bad. The old man and I will go out and examine the road as soon as it's light. If you need me for anything, I and some of my samurai will be in the room next to yours. I've ordered a meal for you, Anjin-san, as soon as Tsukku-san returns from the bath house."

"Thank you, Omi-san, you think of everything."

"Nani mo." It's nothing.

Pleased to have been of service to his friend, Omi bowed again and excused himself to deal with the devastation and confusion in the village; despite his confident assurance he doubted he would get a great deal of sleep that night, but there was no reason to trouble either Anjin-san or Tsukku-san with his problems - Toranaga-sama had charged him to take the very best care of both of them, and to ensure they spent time in one another's company whenever possible, and he was taking his instructions very seriously indeed.

Some minutes later the shoji parted soundlessly and Blackthorne barely glanced around as the priest entered, followed by the tea house maid bringing a tray of food for them. As she moved about economically, reorganising things so that they could sit in comfort in the middle of the room, her feet whispering on the matted floor, Alvito crossed the room to where Blackthorne looked out across the sodden garden.

"Today is full of unexpected surprises, Anjin," he observed, quietly. "Not only do I find myself entertained in the pleasure room of an immoral house but I am also placed in the unique position of being grateful to you. Omi-san tells me I owe you my life," he added, the slightly mocking edge banished from his voice. "Arigato."

Blackthorne turned from his reverie and was about to speak when he realised with a start that Alvito had returned from the bath-house wearing a green and grey kimono with a design of stylised pine branches on it. Despite his beard and the European cast of his features he looked almost Japanese, comfortable in the clothes and the setting in a way Blackthorne could not have imagined and could only envy. Only the rosary worn at his waist served as a reminder of his true identity and calling. Bemused, Blackthorne responded with a truly Japanese gesture, a half bow and a muttered "nani mo."

Alvito smiled. "I don't know which of us is the host and which the guest," he said, indicating the tray of food where the maid had placed it. She knelt on the floor beside the shoji awaiting their further commands. "Nevertheless, we should eat it or someone will take offence."

"Willingly," was Blackthorne's too hearty response as he seated himself and inspected the food. Everything necessary had been provided, and with a sharp little nod he dismissed the maid. He was reaching for the food when he noticed the priest's lips moving in a silent grace, and waited until he had finished before commencing. The meal was a piquant fish delicacy and had a flavour he had actively disliked on first acquaintance but had gradually come to savour.

Blackthorne noted that without consultation or apparent decision they both ate in the Japanese manner, neatly and elegantly. He knew Alvito had been many years in Japan, and that he had no doubt absorbed the customs and manners of the people far better than he himself would ever succeed in doing, but he now became aware that he had always been guilty of seeing the priest merely as a cipher for his calling - the cassock, rather than the man within. In Japanese clothing, however, and freshly brushed and scented, Alvito was no longer a Portguese Catholic and thus Blackthorne's natural enemy but merely a traveller like himself who by some accident had come to Japan and learned its ways.

What a formidable enemy you have been, priest, he thought, watching the man eat. Strong and courageous and clever. And what a good friend you would have made; the kind of friend a man would give his life for.

The thought struck him abruptly that he had almost done just that, on this very day. Instinct had sent him after Alvito into the mudslide; instinct aided, perhaps, by the guiding hand of Mariko reaching down from Heaven. She had always wanted the two of them to be friends; had wanted them to see beyond the ciphers. Her wisdom was difficult to follow, sometimes.

She's right in this, though, Jesuit - I don't want to lose you. I want you for a friend, damn your eyes. You fascinate me, because I don't understand you and I wish I did; you're as incomprehensible to me now as everything Japanese once was, and I'll learn you in the same way. There's something about you that scares me, something I can't quite put a name to - as if you can see through me to my weaknesses and you're just biding your time before you turn them against me.

But what are my weaknesses, priest? What secrets do you see that I don't?

The food finished, they reached at the same time for sake and both began to relax a little. Blackthorne, setting his hand upon the bottle first, poured for the priest.

"It seems you are the host and I am the guest," Alvito observed, idly.

"As you say," Blackthorne responded with a shrug, "this is a most unexpected day."

Alvito nodded, lifting the tiny sake cup to his lips. "It's an unexpected world, Pilot-major. Especially the corner of it you inhabit. When I first had word from Father Sebastio that your ship had foundered and you and your men were taken prisoner, I doubt if I imagined how ... resourceful you would prove to be. I congratulate you on your continued existence, Anjin-san; Lord Toranaga is wise to take you into his confidence."

The words, although expressed without malice, had a ring of treachery about them. Blackthorne stopped with the sake halfway to his mouth and regarded Alvito across the top of the cup, assessing him with eyes that expected to see nothing good. Instead he found himself noting the careful way the priest's wet hair had been brushed into shape, and the sharp, clean scent of the bath-house that rose from his skin and clothing.

"Lord Toranaga does me great honour," he said, mechanically, gulping back the sake to cover up his discomfiture.

"You're cautious," Alvito noted. "That's good. You have no reason to think well of me, Pilot, nor I of you - yet here we are, alike in so many ways. We are both survivors. Your samurai and my lay brothers die around us in unthinkable numbers, but we two survive. Today, I survived because of you; one day I shall hope to repay you."

"Giri, neh?" Momentarily distracted, Blackthorne was not aware he had replied in Japanese until Alvito echoed the word in his own language.

"Duty? I doubt if I have ever been a part of your duty, samurai. We are fire and water, natural enemies. Today you were merely an instrument in God's hands; He works in mysterious ways."

Disliking the dismissive tone of the priest's remarks, Blackthorne rose and called the maid to remove the dishes. "Your God must have a strange sense of humour, Jesuit," he said, sourly, "to send a flood to tear down a cliff face and bury nine men and four horses solely in order to put you in my debt. For myself I hold you discharged; I don't wish you beholden to me."

Alvito absorbed the criticism in good humour. "And yet we are here, Anjin, and for one night at least there is peace between us. Who is to say whether or not God's purpose is achieved only by that?"

"God's purpose does not trouble me," Blackthorne told him, sharply, aware that in the small and delicate setting of the pleasure room he had again become the heavy-footed barbarian ill-at-ease with his surroundings - surroundings into which, unaccountably, the Jesuit priest fitted like sword into scabbard. "Toranaga's purpose in ordering us both to Nagasaki at this time, however ... "

"He does not order me, Pilot; I'm not his retainer. He ordered you to Nagasaki and then offered you to me as escort, knowing I also wished to go. This is scarcely the season for making so long a journey, but there are forty converts in Nagasaki awaiting baptism; I would be failing in my duty if I didn't hasten to them at the first opportunity."

"And my errand could also have waited," Blackthorne explained, sitting down again and taking hold of the fresh bottle of sake the maid had brought. "Recruiting foreign crew for his navy is not a matter of urgency, but when I explained that he still insisted. I can only assume that he wants us away from Osaka for a time for some reason of his own."

"My own conclusion exactly," Alvito smiled, stretching out his legs and yawning. "A reason he has no doubt confided to Omi-san, which explains his choice of this curious route."

"He disposes of us the way your God does, priest, and God and Toranaga have much the same sense of humour; perhaps God is Japanese, after all."

Two or three years earlier such a comment would have drawn a stinging rebuke from Alvito. Now he laughed softly, scarcely disconcerted by such a mild piece of heresy. "It would explain much that I don't understand," he conceded, "and would mean that I could do His work just as well in a tea house as a cathedral."

The words pinned down for Blackthorne the feelings he had experienced on meeting Alvito at Osaka Castle, brought back to him the wave of bewilderment that had washed over him when he first saw the man - to be dispelled only moments later by the tender sensation of his first encounter with Mariko; since meeting her he had forgotten that initial surge of emotion towards the priest, but it returned to him now with all the force of the cliff avalanche.

"I never saw a man less fitted to be a priest!" he exclaimed, with the violence of a sudden revelation. "Whyever did you choose such a calling? You could have been ... "

The other man stopped him with a wave of the hand. "I would have been nothing," he said, calmly. "I was starving when Father dell'Aqua found me and took me into his care; priests do, at least, eat well."

"He found you?" Blackthorne poured more sake for them both, aware that the conversation was becoming more intimate than either of them had intended and determined always to be half a cup of sake behind the priest so that he could absorb and understand the other's words before the demon in the bottle drove the wits from them both.

Alvito sighed. Since the death of Father dell'Aqua some weeks previously he had experienced very few opportunities to think about the man who had not only been his spiritual mentor but in almost every other respect had replaced the father he had never known. It would be good to discuss him - and to do so in Portuguese, which this Englishman knew almost as well as Alvito himself.

"He found me," he conceded, "begging on the streets of Lisbon. I was ten years old. There and then he offered me a new life, and there and then I accepted. I never returned to my old home; I would hardly imagine my absence was noticed."

"But ... had you no family?" With a twinge of guilt Blackthorne realised he had not thought of his own family in months; his wife Felicity, his children ... he could barely recall their faces.

"My father bought my mother for the night," Alvito told him, without self-pity. "She was a waterside whore, fifteen years old when she bore me and died of it. I should have been smothered at birth, but instead I was allowed to live and set to begging as soon as I was old enough. Martin Alvito is not the name I was born with; it is the name of Father dell'Aqua's patron - I was renamed in his honour."

"And the Father Visitor brought you to Japan?"

"More than twenty years ago, after some time in Manila. I learned very quickly that I could absorb and understand other languages than my own; I even have a few words of English, although not as accomplished as your Portuguese."

"But you haven't said why ... why you became a priest?"

Alvito's dark eyes turned full on him, and Blackthorne shuddered. "Because Father dell'Aqua wished it," he said simply. "I owed him my life, Pilot. What more could I do?"

"And now you owe me your life."

"As you say. It is a circumstance that pleases neither of us, Anjin-san, but honour is honour." Alvito inspected the sake bottle with some care. "There is too much 'veritas' in this 'vino'," he declared, sagely. Raising his voice, he called out for the maid to return and prepare the room. "Your company is refreshing, Pilot-major," he observed, with some formality, "but I fear I must deny myself the pleasure of conversing with you any further. I think it is time we retired to sleep."

Blackthorne watched the shutters close across the other man's eyes and knew their meaning. Kinshi. It is forbidden to trespass further. Respecting Alvito's privacy, he allowed himself to be drawn into preparations for sleep.

 

The fullness of his bladder woke him some little time later, long after the priest was asleep. Reluctantly abandoning the comfort of his futons Blackthorne slipped out through the shoji and asked his samurai guard for directions to the privy; he could never get used to the Japanese habit of pissing wherever the fancy took them.

The night was still wild and the wind howled around the pines, but no further rain had fallen and shreds of silver moonlight escaped between the high dark clouds to show him the ruins of the trim little garden; he would remember to give the mama-san the money for its repair before he left, in recompense for the strange delight this tea house had given him.

When he returned to the pleasure room the moon had broken free of its bonds and was casting cold beams through the shoji, and Blackthorne slipped back into his place between the futons with some alacrity, letting their retained warmth seep back into his chilled body. Idly, he reflected that although this was not by a long way the first time he had been entertained in a tea house's pleasure room, it was the first time he had spent the night in one without taking advantage of the services offered. A night in a pleasure room with a Catholic priest - and a Jesuit at that - offered few attractions.

Not that he was entirely indifferent to Alvito, he realised as he listened to the pleasant, even sound of the man's breathing. It had felt right to share a meal and a room with him; it was difficult to remember a man was your enemy when you had slept so close to him and watched the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest so intently. He had watched Mariko sleep, often, and it had enchanted him to do so, knowing that she could never have drifted into such dreamless ease if she distrusted him. Did Alvito trust him in the same way? Had saving the man's life really broken down the barriers between them to the extent that Alvito could sleep beside him without a qualm? It seemed so.

Mariko and Alvito; they couldn't be less alike, and yet the emotion as he watched the priest sleep was shockingly familiar, the desire to be close to him springing from motives he recognised with a sick lurch of fear. How could they remain enemies when they needed one another so much? When he needed Alvito as he hadn't needed anyone since Mariko's death? The priest seemed so tranquil, so at peace with himself, long dark eyelashes and high cheekbones taking the moonlight and making him appear ten or fifteen years younger than his true age. Blackthorne could almost have gathered him in there and then, just for the pleasure of having those liquid dark eyes open onto him and scan his face ...

I want to touch you, priest, he thought, the heart sinking inside him. God forgive me, I want to tear your clothes away and lose myself in you. The sudden desire somehow did not surprise him; desire never did, however misdirected. What am I, a sodomite? Would that shock you? Aren't all God-cursed Catholic priests sodomites anyway? Maybe you'd welcome it. Maybe you'd give yourself to me. The notion made him so hot he could barely contain his urgency, and one hand slipped beneath the futon to fasten on himself. He was fully erect, achingly so, his fingers straying sensuously across his own flesh to soothe away the almost uncontrollable need.

And that's a sin, too, he told himself, ruefully. All pillowing is sinful, neh? That's what Mariko told me the priests believe. But this is Japan; here samurai pillows with samurai and nobody seems to care. Men with men. Not forbidden. Here in Japan I could have you, priest, if you were willing.

It had been a long time since he'd been tempted by another man's body - years ago, before he had married Felicity. He'd sworn never to give in to that temptation unless he trusted the man with his life and his honour and more besides, and he'd never met a man he trusted enough. The decision had cost him a great deal of travail, especially on long voyages far from land; on the outward journey to Japan, with so few landfalls and all of the women treacherous, Crooq and Pieterzoon had found one another and stayed faithful right up until Kasigi Yabu, Omi's uncle, had murdered Pieterzoon - since when the younger man had never mentioned his lover's name again.

We laughed at them, he recalled, but they were sincere. We were just afraid of that sincerity. It was their karma to be parted by Yabu's evil plans, just as it's my karma to want this man. A Jesuit father; a truly remarkable choice. He'd have me disembowelled in the market place at Yedo for only mentioning it, and nothing even Toranaga could do would save me. Ah, but if he wanted me ...

The mental picture of Alvito turning to him, his body anxious and receptive, his silken voice whispering passionately in scented darkness, ripped through Blackthorne like a taifun; in silent anguish he reached climax, flooding his stroking hand with his seed, listening in awe to the frantic beating of his own heart, filled with grief and something that was almost shame as the tension in his body subsided.

A Jesuit father, he thought again, settling himself more comfortably. Jesus, Mary and Joseph save me from giving my heart to a Jesuit father. But even as he thought it, some voice of reason inside his head was insisting it was already too late.

Entering Toranaga's private quarters with some trepidation, Omi made his deepest bow to the Shogun who sat on a small dais at the far end of the room. Four samurai guards were present, but Toranaga dismissed them as Omi came forward in obedience to his signal.

"Omi," he said, cheerfully, "please sit down here. I wish to talk with you most privately."

Omi bowed again, and somewhat diffidently seated himself as indicated. He was not, in all honesty, afraid of Toranaga, although since the War the man wielded almost unlimited power; he wielded it with justice, however, and there were few who had cause to fear him. Omi had great respect for the man who was his liege lord and, in his opinion, a good man. Toranaga had a reputation for great wisdom, and although sometimes his orders were incomprehensible it was generally the case that he had good reasons for issuing them.

"Anjin-san has given me his report about the trip to Nagasaki," Toranaga continued, thoughtfully. "You were present when he did so. Have you any information to add to what he told me?"

The question was somewhat bewildering to Omi. Blackthorne had given a concise account of his journey and his attempts to recruit crew, and had presented to Toranaga the six men he had succeeded in persuading to accompany him back to Osaka; they were a very mixed and unpromising-looking selection, but at least during the return trip - for which Toranaga had sent a galley - Blackthorne had persuaded them all of the necessity of washing frequently and learning a few words of Japanese.

"Excuse me, Sire," Omi said, allowing something of his confusion to show, "but I don't understand what it is you are asking. Everything that Anjin-san told you is the truth."

"Of course, of course." Toranaga paused, as though seeking appropriate phrases for what he had to say. Omi had never detected any uncertainty in him before, and even the vaguest hint of hesitancy was disturbing. "But Anjin-san passed very lightly over the incident of the mudslide and the rescue of Tsukku-san. Did you find that omission somewhat unusual?"

Omi considered his reply carefully. "Sire, it's not his way to mention his own bravery and..."

"And?"

"Pardon me, Sire, but it's my humble opinion that he surprised himself by what he did."

To Omi's great astonishment, Toranaga smiled broadly. "Ah so desu ka," he said, contentedly. "That's a hopeful omen, neh? Omi, these barbarians create quite a problem for me. I have to ensure that they both remain in Japan, and that they will both be safe after I have gone into the void. The Empire needs them both, and for as long as possible. It's a considerable difficulty, neh?"

"Yes, Sire." Deliberately Omi did not ask whether Toranaga had found a solution for the difficulty; he was wise enough to understand that the Shogun had something he wished to convey.

"Consider for a moment, Omi. Imagine that you have two samurai in your command who are very necessary to you separately and who together would be a formidable weapon indeed. Suppose that neither man is married, and that only one of them has been known to pillow with women. Do you draw any conclusions from this information?"

Omi's eyes suddenly became huge with comprehension. "If they were my samurai, Sire, I would try to arrange matters so that they pillowed together. But, Toranaga-sama, excuse me, isn't it against barbarian custom for men to pillow with men?"

"That's so."

"And barbarian priests ... don't pillow at all," he added, mystified.

"As you say, Omi, these are barbarian ways. But Anjin-san is samurai and hatamoto, and no-one who is not Japanese can be these things; it follows that the Anjin is Japanese."

The argument was pure brilliance. Omi followed it with increasing delight. The barbarian admiral and the barbarian priest - what a strange picture that would make!

"But, Sire - Tsukku-san is not samurai or hatamoto; he's a priest of their Christian faith. He had Urano-san shamed for merely visiting a tea house; he's a fanatic. He would never ... " Feeling he had said too much, Omi stopped abruptly.

Toranaga's pleased expression had vanished, leaving instead a stern countenance which only just succeeded in remaining tolerant.

"You understand my difficulty, Omi. Now, since we cannot change the man and we cannot force him to be what he is not, perhaps we should leave the decision to Tsukku-san himself? Bring him to a time and place where he can choose to pillow with Anjin-san if he wishes? Let nature take its course, neh?"

"A very wise plan, Sire, but forgive me - there is still something I don't understand."

Toranaga raised an eyebrow, and Omi swallowed nervously. "What is that, Omi?"

"Humbly, Sire, please may I ask - why do you believe that Anjin-san would wish to pillow with Tsukku-san? I always thought they hated one another."

"But not on the trip to Nagasaki," Toranaga told him, leaning forward to make his point more forcefully. "Not after the Anjin saved Tsukku-san's life. Not after the tea house, which you arranged so cleverly without knowing why you did it. I read it in Anjin-san's face when he made his report; mention of the barbarian priest is painful to him. It was the same pain I always saw in your eyes before the Anjin gave you Kiku-san's contract. That isn't hate, Omi, is it? If Anjin-san felt that way about a courtesan I would buy her for him without hesitation if it would keep him here; if it were a boy, I could do the same. But barbarians are far more complex than we are. I can't buy a barbarian priest; there isn't enough silver in all Japan for that. However, if I can persuade the priest to give himself ... "

He left the speech unfinished, and Omi merely marvelled at the scope and breadth of the scheme. It was audacious, certainly, and so bizarre it must have a good chance of succeeding. The two barbarians together ... It was a staggering idea.

"Toranaga-sama," he said, bowing, a little breathless at the magnitude of his lord's expressed intention, "please allow me to assist you in your noble plan in any possible way. I admire the Anjin-san most particularly, Sire, as you know, and it would be a privilege to do anything - under your honoured direction - that would make him content to stay in Japan. Please advise me how I can be of service in this matter."

The Shogun permitted himself the merest shadow of a smile. "Firstly, Omi, this is our most protected secret; if ever I hear that it is known beyond these walls I will order you to commit seppuku at once, do you understand?"

"Yes, Sire." Omi bowed.

"Good. Secondly ... next month the trees will be in blossom. It would be a good time to go hunting, neh? I should like to instruct the two barbarians in the Japanese method of hunting. You will make all the arrangements for me, and of course you will accompany us. When the time and the place are right ... perhaps barbarian lust will make the task easy for us, neh?"

Relishing both the scheme and the return of Toranaga's good-humour there was nothing Omi could do but offer, once again, his most deferential and admiring bow. The Shogun really was the wisest man in Japan; if Anjin-san and Tsukku-san were sensible they would not struggle against his plans for them. On the contrary, if they accepted their fate and did as Toranaga wished there was every possibility of their being both loyal and happy for the rest of their lives. It was almost possible to envy them, he thought, as Toranaga detailed the arrangements he wanted Omi to make for the hunting trip.

Dismounting from his horse in a section of Osaka he distrusted intensely, Omi signalled to three of his personal samurai to accompany him to the doorway of the large white house. He had never visited the Jesuit mission before, and immediately he disliked the smell of the place - incense and barbarian food - as well as the stillness that hung over it even in the bustling middle of the day. One of his guard samurai stepped ahead of him and pulled the string on the bell over the entrance, and almost immediately the outer door was opened by a young and officious foreign priest dressed in the black robes Omi had been told they wore when on their own premises. Omi bowed to him, and received a courteous European bow in exchange.

"Kasigi Omi," he said, introducing himself. Then, with some trepidation, he launched himself precariously on a few words of garbled Portuguese extracted from Father Sebastio. "Eu querer fazer fa'ar com a'guem Tsukku-san," he said, carefully, which he hoped would indicate that he wished to speak with Father Alvito. The black-robed priest's eyes became huge in surprise, but he merely nodded understanding and stepped back to permit Omi and his three samurai to enter the building.

"Please wait here," he said, and although Omi did not recognise the words the gesture that accompanied them was unmistakeable. Uncomfortable in what felt like hostile surroundings, Omi rested a hand on the hilt of his sword as he waited.

Some moments later the plain shoji through which the priest had passed re-opened, and Father Alvito stepped out from the inner room. He, too, wore black, his dark hair just touching the back of his high collar. Omi admired the grace with which the man moved; he was very elegant, and his spine was as straight as any soldier's.

Omi bowed most respectfully. "Konnichi-wa, Tsukku-san," he said, cautious of his reception. "Please excuse me, but I have a message for you from Toranaga-sama."

"Konnichi-wa, Omi-san, this is an unexpected honour. I would be most happy to invite you into the private room," Alvito said, indicating the doorway, "but I regret we do not permit weapons to be brought in; would you consider leaving your swords with your samurai? If you wish, the door can remain open while we speak."

Without demur Omi removed his two swords and handed them over to one of his guard samurai. At the same time he turned and took from another man a large, silk-wrapped bundle he had been carrying and brought it with him when he followed Father Alvito into the inner room.

Omi stared around him in ill-concealed wonderment. Although in a Japanese building, the room he entered was completely foreign in style. There were no tatamis on the floor, and the furniture was large and ugly and very alien to him. He recognised the Christian cross on one wall, with two candles placed before it, but the other wall decorations were less comprehensible; he supposed they were pictures of Christian gods and heroes that he could hardly be expected to recognise.

Understanding his discomfiture Tsukku-san gave some orders in his own language to the other black-clad priest, who went quickly and found two small stools such as the ones Toranaga used when on campaign and set them in a corner away from the door. Father Alvito gestured to Omi to be seated, and he placed himself carefully on one stool with the package resting on his knees.

"How can I be of service to you, Omi-san?" the bearded priest asked, when the other man had departed.

"Tsukku-san, Lord Toranaga wishes very much for the honour of your presence on a hunting expedition he intends to make. He asks if you will kindly join him two days from now at the Hour of the Dragon. A horse and a servant will be provided for you."

The polite invitation drew a response of stunned silence from Alvito. He had never previously received any summons from Toranaga that was not purely official in nature, and did not suppose for an instant that the Shogun had suddenly discovered a desire for his company.

"Naze desu ka, Omi-san?" he said, at length. "Did Lord Toranaga say what he wanted? I don't hunt," he added. "At least, I never have, although," he went on, noting a certain misgiving in Omi's expression, "it's not forbidden to us, it's merely considered ... " he chose the word with care " ... unnecessary."

The bluntness of the question and the implied suspicion of Toranaga's motive shocked Omi, but he remembered that foreign barbarians found it difficult to trust where they did not understand.

"I'm sorry, Tsukku-san, but I know only that Lord Toranaga wishes to show you the Japanese way of hunting. If he has any other business to discuss with you he has not honoured me with his confidence. Do you accept his invitation?"

"Could I refuse?" One dark eyebrow rose in enquiry.

"Yes, Tsukku-san, you could, but ... excuse me, I think you should accept. I think you would find it very interesting."

Sensing a story far more complex than the one he had been told, Alvito nodded. "Very well, Omi-san, please tell Lord Toranaga I am honoured to accept his invitation."

The relief that flooded through Omi was almost palpable. "Domo, Tsukku-san, thank you. In addition, Lord Toranaga hopes that you will accept this gift. Tsukku-san, it's really a most valuable gift; Toranaga-sama does you a great honour. He sends you three of his own kimonos; there are two for everyday wear and one for formal occasions, and he has also sent one for sleeping, a yukata. He says that as you will be on a Japanese hunting expedition it would be suitable if you wore Japanese clothing. I am to show you how to wear these clothes, if you require - although I do not believe that is necessary."

Alvito took the parcel from Omi and walked over to the desk with it, setting it down and opening it carefully. The contents were scented with fragrant herbs and as he inhaled a vision of a fresh country morning filled his mind. Really, the Japanese were most particular about their appearance and their cleanliness, and it was certainly no dishonour to be presented with such fine garments by a daimyo of Toranaga's importance. The package contained a grey-blue kimono, a buff-coloured one, and a dark blue one with a design in red which he believed represented fireflies. In addition there was a white sleeping kimono and a selection of sashes and undergarments, as well as a fan with the character for 'duty' painted on it. The priest let his fingers wander gently through the expensive fabrics, and then turned a bewildered expression towards his visitor.

"Please convey to Lord Toranaga that I am overwhelmed by his generosity," he said, a little unsteadily. "I will do what I can to deserve his many kindnesses, and I will place myself at his disposal two days from now as he requests."

Omi-san stood up, thoroughly contented with the success of his endeavours. "Domo, Tsukku-san, domo. It will be my honour to bring an escort of samurai to take you to Lord Toranaga at the appropriate time."

Alvito bowed. "I will be ready when you arrive," he said. "Until our next meeting, Omi-san."

"Sayonara, Tsukku-san." Omi returned the bow, then turned and left the room almost abruptly, more than a little pleased to have completed his task. Gathering up his swords and his samurai, he left the Jesuit mission swiftly and hurried back to report to his master on the success of his venture.

 

Sitting at Father dell'Aqua's desk in the early morning light, Martin Alvito applied the finishing flourish to the last of the letters he had spent the night composing. He was dressed in one of the kimonos Toranaga had sent him, a grey-blue one with a design that represented the sea, tied with a white obi. He was comfortable in the clothes, cool and relaxed, his mind wandering back beyond the incident of the mudslide and the night in the tea house to his earliest years in Japan, before he had begun to study for the priesthood. He had mixed freely with Japanese children of his own age, dressed as they did, played their games, almost become one of them. Since those days he had given himself earnestly to the Order, practising obedience and humility and gradually becoming what Father dell'Aqua had always wished him to be - a strong and loyal heir-apparent. The mission in Osaka had been his own small kingdom, where Father Alvito's word held sway; he had run it efficiently and wisely, earning the respect of all those he dealt with. He had never needed to trouble the Father Visitor with everyday cares, leaving him to attend to the spiritual welfare of the brothers.

He got to his feet, blowing out the guttering candle on the desk, and stretched his limbs wearily. After working all night the prospect of a day's hard riding did not much appeal to him, but the fresh country air would do him good; he felt confined in Osaka, much preferring to be out on the road somewhere in the service of the Order - or of Toranaga.

The sound of horses' hooves in the street attracted his attention, and he looked out briefly to see his escort assembling in front of the mission. In a moment the bell would be rung and Omi-san would present himself respectfully to Father Soldi and enquire for the Tsukku-san - the honourable interpreter. He ran an eye over the company; there were several samurai he knew, and Omi-san and Buntaro-san, the widower of Lady Mariko. Finally, at the back of the group and well away from the doorway, he discerned the figure of the English pilot and the sight caused him to draw in his breath sharply.

"Anjin," he said, the spirit in turmoil within him. "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." His eyes closed, his head bowed, he concentrated for a moment on a last appeal to the Master he had served all his adult life. Then, with resignation, he straightened and turned away from the window. "Nevertheless, Lord, not as I will but as thou wilt."

"Father Alvito?" The priest was so preoccupied that the opening of the shoji took him by surprise, but he turned and smiled warmly at the man who entered.

"Good morning, Brother Michael," he said softly. Michael was Japanese, from a samurai family, one of those childhood playmates who had remained always at his side. All of his family had become Christian under the influence of Father dell'Aqua, and Michael himself had been Alvito's most loyal and trusted aide in the weeks since the Father Visitor's death.

"I came to see if you needed any assistance in dressing," Michael told him, mildly, "but I see you have forgotten nothing. Toranaga-sama was exceedingly generous, neh?"

Alvito's hand flew to the front of the grey-blue kimono. "I should have refused his gift," he said, irresolutely. "I have never owned anything in my life before this, and I should not have accepted it."

Michael permitted himself a little laugh. "Where is the harm, Father?" he asked, gently. "As Father dell'Aqua used to say, 'one does not refuse Toranaga'. Surely there can be no evil in paying a compliment to a powerful warlord who has been a protector and friend to our Order even though he is not himself a Christian?"

"Evil?" Alvito echoed the word distractedly. "There may be very great evil, Michael. The heretic Blackthorne is among my escort; I have long known that he would in some way be my destruction. I regret now the way I treated your friend Urano-san, Michael; I have learned since that I am weak, too."

"Father ... Martin, my friend," Michael said, abruptly, alarmed into abandoning the rigid courtesies of the Order, "you speak as if you do not expect to return."

Alvito sighed, and walked slowly around to behind the desk. "There is a letter here addressed to Bishop Mendoza stating it as Father dell'Aqua's last wish that you be ordained here as soon as possible," he said, in his most businesslike tone. "He should arrive this month or next, with Rodrigues on the Black Ship. We both know that Father Sebastio is not generously endowed with intelligence, Michael; you must look after things until His Grace arrives. Father Soldi will advise you on everyday matters - you may rely on him. I have summarised our financial position for you; I think you'll find everything in order."

"But Father Alvito ... "

Burning dark eyes fastened on Michael's face, and the quiet, almost hypnotic voice of the priest quelled his momentary rebellion. "Obedience, Michael. You have learned that by now, I hope?"

Automatically Michael dropped to his knees. "Yes, Father," he said, humbly. "I will carry out your instructions faithfully. But please tell me ... do you expect to die?"

The sounds of his samurai escort outside the building reached Alvito through the haze of preoccupation. "Perhaps not," he said, tiredly. "But you and I may both wish that I had. God has shown me a path I am afraid to tread, Michael. I have done my best to serve Him in humility and obedience, but I fear it has not been enough. I am afraid I will never say Mass in the new cathedral at Yedo," he added, wistfully. "If I am still alive a few days from now I will return whenever I can."

Michael's head remained bowed, but his words were just intelligible. "Yes, Father."

"Good. Now, stand up and come with me to the door; we may not meet in this life again and I want to part from you as your friend."

As Michael rose, Alvito accorded him the very Japanese courtesy of not noticing his tears. Exiting the private room, they found themselves in the entrance hall where Father Soldi, Kasigi Omi and two servants waited. Omi bowed low.

"Ohayo gozaimasu, Tsukku-san," he said, also bowing to Michael. "Ohayo gozaimasu, Brother. Tsukku-san, your escort is waiting."

"Domo, Omi-san, I'm ready. Goodbye, Father Soldi," he said, taking the man's hand almost affectionately. "Sayonara, Michael. Pray for me." He held out his arms, and before Michael understood what was happening he had been embraced and kissed on both cheeks in a most European way.

"Sayonara, Tsukku-san," he said. "But I'll see you again," he added, raggedly, not certain what he promised.

Alvito detached himself from Michael's clutching embrace and turned and walked away. A servant bent to assist him to mount his horse while another did the same for Omi. Alvito gripped the reins tightly and resolutely guided the beast through the pack to where Blackthorne sat, impassive. The Englishman watched him approach, knowing how poor he was at concealing his emotions and that the flame in his eyes must be obvious to everyone, not least Martin Alvito. Nevertheless he held the priest's gaze firmly and risked a pallid compliment.

"Ohayo gozaimasu, Teki-san," he said, calmly. "Honourable enemy, you look most Japanese today."

Alvito regarded him a long moment with equal coolness. "John Blackthorne," he said at last, "you are my own personal purgatory." He reined his horse in beside Blackthorne's, and after an interminable moment of pregnant silence Kasigi Omi gave the order for the column to move. Alvito departed the Jesuit mission without a backward glance, and no flicker of emotion crossed his face as he rode away.

* * *

TWO

 The hunting-camp, reached at the end of a long day's ride, was located on a small but steep promontory overlooking a wide expanse of silver lake. Trees laden with blossom in varying shades of pink, white and cream clustered along the shore, at the highest point of which had been erected an encampment of half-a-dozen pavilions to serve as living accommodation for the samurai. In a screened off area among the trees a camp kitchen and separate accommodation for the servants had been arranged. Reining his horse to a halt in the centre of the convoy Blackthorne noticed idly that there seemed to be no women servants with the party, although three superbly-draped palanquins had attached themselves to the rear of the convoy which presumably contained ladies of high birth.

Descending from his horse, he held the reins of Alvito's mount while the priest dismounted, and noticed a certain heavy-eyed pallor which indicated that the man's resources of energy were running low. Seeking to divert him with some relatively innocuous remark, he waved a hand in the direction of the palanquins.

"Do you recognise any of the ladies?" he asked, a quizzical eyebrow lifting in the priest's direction. "We were not introduced at the start of the journey."

"Doubtless with reason, pilot," was Alvito's barbed reply. "They are not ladies, they are kosho. Beautiful young men. I suspect their purpose on this expedition is primarily to be an embarrassment to me; you did the same thing yourself when you invited courtesans to travel with us to Yedo."

Blackthorne watched the delicate movements of the kosho as they alighted from their palanquins, and his appreciation of their sensuous elegance surprised him. He was not the only one so struck; many men had stopped what they were doing in order to appreciate the beauty of the pages, Buntaro notable among them.

"They are exquisite," the Englishman acknowledged, amused by the un-looked-for possibilities of discussing this particularly pertinent subject with Alvito.

"Are they? If so, you would do well not to notice," was the priest's waspish response. "These boys are here for your master's personal amusement. If he wishes to honour you, or any of his samurai, he may give you one of them for the night; however they remain his property, just as much as any of his concubines."

"Toranaga ... pillows with boys?" If the suspicion had entered his head before this, Blackthorne had not entertained it for long. Now, however, he accepted it without question.

"So I am told. Our Order is always well informed," Alvito conceded, with a sidelong glance at Blackthorne. "Every effort is being made to discourage such objectionable practices, but the samurai are as tenacious in this as in all other matters. You have been in this country four years, now, pilot; surely you know that some Japanese have a partiality for this vice?"

Blackthorne nodded. "I was aware of it," he conceded, "but I was not aware that this was to be anything but a hunting trip. Can I ... " He paused, phrasing the question carefully. "If he offers me one of the boys, can I decline without giving offence?"

Alvito turned to face him, dark eyes engaging Blackthorne's.

"Certainly, if that is your preference. You can claim to be unwell, or to have taken too much sake. I would advise against denouncing the sin too strongly in Toranaga's hearing, however. He may consider that you are denouncing him for continuing to indulge in it."

"I would not denounce it," Blackthorne informed him, evenly, watching with something between delight and horror the sudden heightening of colour in Alvito's cheeks. Damn you, priest, he thought, I will have you, or die in the attempt! It had become an obsession, a demon he could not exorcise from his mind.

"Ah so desu ka," Alvito told him, with distant politeness, half-bowing as he turned away to conceal his embarrassment. "Then perhaps you should accept."

"No, I don't think so," Blackthorne told him, dangerously. "Boys are not to my taste."

Trapped into an untenable situation, Alvito made no reply. Indeed, he could hardly have spoken at that moment had his life depended on it; his throat had closed and he found breathing virtually impossible. The clear blue of Blackthorne's eyes still burned into him, torching through his resolve like flame through the tallow of a candle. The weakness he had acknowledged to Michael - without identifying it - had stolen across him and taken sense and will together. Desire for Blackthorne raced through him suddenly, and was as suddenly suppressed. Father dell'Aqua's stern words on the subject were never far from the forefront of his mind, and he recollected them now in the face of a greater adversity than he had ever known.

"It is the gravest of sins, the most carnal of all desires; the sword of divine justice will fall on any man who lowers himself thus far. They are more unclean than pigs and less worthy than dogs, those who indulge in these practices. Purge it from your mind, Martin. Be strong and faithful and keep God's commandments. He has sent the English heretic to test our resolve; we must resist him in every way."

Yet that resistance became more and more impossible. Hitherto the knowledge that Blackthorne had pillowed with Mariko had been his only safeguard. Now, however, it was clear not only that Blackthorne did not condemn the practice of sodomy but that there was an undoubted intensity in his gaze when he looked on Alvito that a man would have to be blind not to recognise. The temptations were becoming greater by the hour; Toranaga's invitation, the gift of the kimonos and now the presence of the o-kosho all conspired against him, and his resolve began to waver. It would be so easy to succumb, to give himself to John Blackthorne and not to consider the consequences, but he must fight every step of the way; God sent temptation only so that men could learn to master it, and if he was to continue to serve God as a member of the Jesuit Order he must resist this temptation with every resource at his disposal - even with his life.

 

The realisation that once again he would be required to share sleeping quarters with Blackthorne did very little to improve Alvito's peace of mind, but a command - delivered with utmost respect by Omi but a command nonetheless - that they prepare themselves to attend a formal banquet in Toranaga's pavilion almost at once served as an effective distraction. Attended by servants the two Europeans changed out of their travelling clothes and into formal kimonos as rapidly as they could, Blackthorne wearing a plain kimono with cream and brown overmantle, Alvito dressing in the dark blue and red formal kimono that had been part of his gift from Toranaga. They were ushered into Toranaga's presence within minutes, and made their formal bows gravely.

"Tomo yo," greeted the Shogun expansively. "Friends, dozo suwatte."

Cushions had been placed for them at Toranaga's side, and as they took their places they bowed in greeting to Omi and Buntaro, who appeared to be their host's only other guests. Blackthorne noted without surprise, however, that the kosho were in attendance. One advanced at a signal from Toranaga to pour sake for all the guests. A small detail of samurai guards remained in the pavilion, their eyes fixed resolutely on the figure of the Shogun, throughout the meal, alert to the possibility of any threat to their master.

When the last morsel had been eaten and the trays cleared away, Toranaga himself poured more sake and handed it round. The food had been only the preliminary to the serious business of the evening, which was to be the drinking and exchanging of stories - of an increasingly bawdy nature as the evening progressed, if previous evenings Blackthorne had spent in Toranaga's company were any guide. Although not a coarse man by any stretch of the imagination, he had the typically earthy Japanese sense of humour, and subjects that would not have been aired in polite European society were the common currency of social evenings to which ladies were not invited.

"Tsukku-san," he began, innocuously enough, "I thought you would be entertained to know how Japanese hunt. In Europe things are done differently, neh?"

"I hardly know, Sire," Alvito acknowledged modestly. "I was brought to your country as a boy; I remember very little about Europe. Anjin-san would be better able to answer your questions."

Toranaga's smile was encouraging as he turned in Blackthorne's direction. "Anjin?"

Blackthorne accepted the challenge calmly. "Well, Sire, hunting is different according to a man's station in life. In Europe a lord as important as yourself would hunt in much the same way - with hawks and falcons, and from horseback. The game would be similar, too; partridges, pheasants, rabbits. When hunting for bigger game - for deer, for example - huntsmen set a pack of dogs on the animal's trail. The dogs chase and corner the animal, which is then killed. Some men kill game with pistols; some use bow and arrow. Lesser men trap and kill game in any way they can."

"And do they build hunting camps the way we do, Anjin-san?" Omi asked,spellbound by the Englishman's description of the traditions of his far country.

"Important people do so, Omi-san, but not with such fine pavilions."

"Do ladies travel with them?"

Prepared for the question, Blackthorne answered smoothly. "Yes, Omi-san. In England, at least, ladies hunt alongside the men. Our Queen, in her younger years, was very fond of hunting and rode as well and as hard as any man."

"Here no lady would hunt, Anjin," Toranaga informed him, mildly. "Women servants are sometimes taken on the journey, or courtesans for amusement, but if a lady of good birth travels with a hunting party it is only for the sake of convenience - because she is under their protection. She would not take any part in the hunting. Personally, I do not consider women necessary on hunting expeditions."

Blackthorne bowed in acknowledgement of what was not said. "So I understand, Toranaga-sama. May I compliment you on the grace of your o-kosho?"

Surprised but gratified by the directness and quite Japanese simplicity of the remark, Toranaga inclined his head in acceptance. "Domo, Anjin. I understood that Europeans - Christian Europeans - could not appreciate male beauty. Is that not so, Tsukku-san?"

Alvito, jolted at suddenly being addressed, fielded the question cautiously. "Sire, beauty is from God," he said, slowly. "Not to appreciate one of His gifts would be unthinkable. Yet, if I understand you correctly, it would be true to say that we are taught that men should not pillow together."

Toranaga gestured for the kosho to pour more sake, and waited until everyone's cup had been filled before speaking again. In the interim, Blackthorne had time to notice the effect the nearness of the boy was having on Buntaro, who looked as if he was on the point of swooning from frustrated desire.

"So that, if I were to offer you one of these o-kosho for the night, Tsukku-san ... ?"

Buntaro almost choked on his sake, inhaling in astonishment at the outlandish offer.

Alvito, scarcely less disconcerted by the suggestion, concealed his confusion with a graceful bow. "I would be honoured, Sire," he said, the words strained but the tone still even and almost serene, "but I would be unable to accept. My vows as a priest do not permit me to pillow with anyone, man or woman."

"So desu ka." The expression on Toranaga's face was unreadable - still pleasant but somewhat fixed, as though he were struggling with some dilemma he did not understand. "It's a strange thing to vow - a life without pillowing. Anjin-san, do you pillow with men? Buntaro does," Toranaga added, although it was scarcely necessary to do so. "Omi does not."

Nothing but complete honesty would serve. Blackthorne summoned up his courage and answered simply.

"No, Sire, I never have. A man tried to force me once - when I was twelve years old. He was the first man I ever killed."

"Your first killing at twelve? That's quite remarkable. Even in Japan that would be a considerable achievement. What do you think, Tsukku-san?"

Blackthorne did not dare spare a sideways glance for the priest, but detected a tension in his body as he made his answer.

"Quite precocious, Sire, I agree."

"But why kill him, Anjin-san?" Buntaro asked, a sharpness in his tone. "Because you share the Christian distaste for pillowing with men?"

"Not at all, Buntaro-san. I killed him because I had no wish to be forced. If ever I pillow with a man, it will be out of desire, not out of fear." He glanced across at Toranaga, reading the effect of his words in the Shogun's expression. What he saw there was a satisfaction that amounted almost to triumph.

"Then, Anjin-san," Toranaga said, slowly, "you should know that if ever you do pillow with a man you will be certain of my protection against the displeasure of the Christian priests. You are Japanese now; no European can judge you. My samurai are answerable only to me. Wakaru ka?"

The question, and the tone in which it was asked, took Blackthorne back to his earliest days in Japan, when people had asked him constantly whether or not he understood them.

"Hai, Toranaga-sama, wakarimasu," he answered, smiling slightly as he acknowledged the promise. "Domo arigato."

"Yoshi, Anjin-san," bowed the daimyo, massively pleased with his little subterfuge. "Very good. This talk of love and pillowing is good for the soul's harmony, neh? Shall we all walk outside and see the moonlight reflected on the lake? At this time of the year the gods live in this place; beauty is not the prerogative only of the Christian God, Tsukku-san - come and see what the Japanese gods have made."

Not caring to become involved in a theological dispute with Toranaga over the identity of the hand that had created the Japanese landscape Alvito got to his feet as indicated and, together with the rest of the party, followed Toranaga outside into the moonlight.

 

Strolling to the edge of the escarpment, beyond the ring of guards and campfires, Toranaga brought his party to a halt at the top of the slope that dropped away to the water. The Shogun had judged the date and time perfectly; the moon hung suspended low over the water, an icy cold sphere with all the lustre of a pearl, a ladder of silver light rippling across the lake's black surface towards it. Framing the vista was a natural avenue of cherry trees, their branches touched by an errant breeze showering petals into the water.

"Fushigi na desu," Blackthorne breathed, brilliantly aware of the nearness of Alvito and the knowledge of Toranaga's intentions for them. He remembered how much he had desired Mariko before she had given herself to him, and the memory paled by comparison with the frenzy he felt towards the Jesuit. A less civilised man would simply have taken what he wanted; Blackthorne had merely set out to obtain it at all costs.

"Yes, Anjin-san," Omi said, echoing his tone of voice, "It is a marvel. The tree-kami and the water-kami made this night between them as a gift to the moon."

Blackthorne turned and looked at him in wonderment, impressed by the reverence in Omi's words.

"It's a lovers' moon," he said, slowly. "Lovers in this place would be happy indeed."

Omi's normally serious face split into a grin, and he turned knowing eyes in Blackthorne's direction.

Dear God, the Englishman thought, alarmed, does everyone know I desire Alvito? Toranaga knows, certainly; Alvito knows - it's impossible that he would not. Omi seems to know, too. Does Buntaro? Who else?

"Toranaga-sama," Omi said, turning away and addressing the daimyo, "this would be a good place to play the poem game Mariko-san enjoyed so much." He hoped he had not mentioned it too soon or too abruptly; Toranaga had been most particular about the circumstances in which he should introduce the subject.

"The poem game? Yes, that would be appropriate. You start, Omi; I seem to remember you are good at this game."

Glancing around him reflectively, Omi seemed to be considering his response. At length he said;

"Over the mountain ledge

Flights of wild duck

Noisily go;

But I am lonely,

For you are not here."

Toranaga smiled his approval. "Yes, excellent. Umai. But it's an autumn poem, not a spring one. Buntaro?"

Buntaro sighed heavily. He scarcely seemed like a man who would memorise love poetry, but when he quoted a stanza the words seemed to flow from the heart.

"He whom I prize

As moon and sun in heaven -

That day by day

He must grow old!"

Finishing, he looked away as though embarrassed to be caught in poetic reflection on the transient nature of love.

"Ah so desu ka," Toranaga acknowledged, his tone warm with what might have been sympathy. "Very suitable indeed, Buntaro. Anjin?"

"Gomen nasai, Toranaga-sama," the Englishman put in, gruffly. "I must beg to be excused; I'm woefully ignorant of Japanese poetry, and I know nothing in my own language that would meet the case." Any scraps of verse he might possibly have called to mind had been driven from his head completely by the stillness of the sky and the extraordinary nature of the situation.

"A sad omission, Anjin-san, and one you should remedy at the earliest opportunity. A good knowledge of poetry is essential to a samurai if he wishes to be of service to his lord. I will have a book of poems prepared for you; perhaps Tsukku-san would help you with the translations. Tsukku-san," he added, almost affectionately, "do you have a verse?"

To Blackthorne's surprise, Alvito was equal to the challenge. "Only one, Sire;

Our glorious Prince

Has snared the moon

That walks the eternal sky

And makes of it his silken canopy."

Gentle laughter from the darkness told the hearers their lord was well satisfied with the priest's answer. "A very fine choice, Tsukku-san. My own preference however is for this;

If I cannot accept

The real as real

Then how do I accept

A dream as a dream?"

He paused, assessing the reactions of his audience. When no-one spoke, he knew he had made them all understand. It was not necessary for him to explain to them that small chances for happiness must be seized whenever they arrived; it was not necessary for him to issue any further instructions, or to do anything whatever except retire and allow the gods of the pool to work their magic on Tsukku-san's soul.

I have brought him to the time and the place where he can choose as he wishes, Toranaga thought, with some pride. I have given him a choice of paths. Let the Japanese gods and the Christian God help him to make his decision.

Abruptly he turned away. "Omi. Buntaro." His commands were little more than whispers, but they left no-one in any doubt that he and his two samurai were withdrawing so that the two Europeans could share the moon's gift. As he passed Anjin-san, he was delighted to notice the look of rapt attention on the man's face, the eyes that never wavered from the slender, upright form of the barbarian priest. He had seen that look in Blackthorne's eyes long ago when the pilot looked on Mariko-san, and he knew they were the eyes of a man who had lost his heart.

This time it will be different, Anjin-san, he promised silently. This time it will not be fire and death but life and peace, at least for a time. Japan needs you both, my friends, and it needs you together.

Well satisfied with his evening's work, Toranaga took his leave of the two spellbound Europeans, and returned with his samurai to his pavilion.

 

Buntaro was the last to turn away, his gaze in the dark raking across Blackthorne's face and conveying emotions that dragged the pilot back through time to an uncomfortable evening in the company of Buntaro and Mariko; he had attempted to get the samurai drunk, and had learned the hard way that Buntaro had a head like a stone and that even after an amount of sake that would have brought any ordinary man to the verge of incompetence the man was still capable of astonishingly accurate feats of bowmanship which made him an enemy to be respected. Buntaro, who had married again very soon after Mariko's death, would never be his friend, but he had long since ceased to be a bitter rival and remained merely a vassal of Toranaga's as he was himself. Nonetheless there was truth between them; Blackthorne's parting bow acknowledged it.

Alvito had walked to the edge of the escarpment and stood looking down over the water. The moonlight had caught the streaks of silver in his hair and the whites of his eyes and made a broad gash of his white obi, but he turned away before Blackthorne could make careful inventory of the expression on his face. There seemed little doubt, however, about the subject of his thoughts; Toranaga had made it obvious that his comments applied to them, and that if they should ever find themselves becoming lovers he and his samurai would protect them to the last drop of blood. The conversation had left Blackthorne shivering inside, afraid to catch the priest's measuring glance. Whatever his own most private fantasies about the man may have been, even in the more relaxed moral climate that prevailed in Japan, Alvito was still a Jesuit father - remote and inviolable and beyond the reach even of dreams.

There would be a price to pay for this evening's indiscretions, he could guarantee it; sake and good company often placed men in situations where they said and did unwise things. This time, however, Toranaga had deliberately provoked the indiscretion, for reasons of his own. Could he seriously imagine that Blackthorne and Alvito would pillow together merely to suit his convenience?

"Toranaga-sama is merry tonight," Alvito observed, addressing his remarks to the vista of lake and sky.

Blackthorne merely grunted agreement. It was in his mind to apologise for his master's excesses, but that would close the subject between them and he was not altogether certain he wanted it closed. He wanted to probe the wound, to examine his feelings regarding this Jesuit once and for all.

"Buntaro makes a surprisingly genial companion," the priest went on. "I always considered him a sour individual, but this evening he was very pleasant. I have grown fond of Omi-san," he added, reflectively.

"He's a good man," Blackthorne conceded, anxious to contribute something to the conversation as the sound of Alvito's voice reaching him from the silvered darkness was recalling only too plainly the night in the tea house - and other nights since - when thoughts of this man had brought Blackthorne to a pitch of quiet desperation.

"He has great respect for you," Alvito went on, dropping into his own language without noticing he did so. Blackthorne made the transition without surprise; they no longer paused to consider in which language they spoke. "And by extension, I suppose, for me. It seem as I am now considered a part of your establishment, Anjin, although I have never been aware how this transformation was effected. Have you noticed how reference is always made to 'Anjin-san and Tsukku-san' in the same breath, as though we were one? Answer me honestly; did you request Lord Toranaga to bring me on this journey?"

Blackthorne let the pause lengthen before replying. "No, I did not. If I wished to see you, I would do so whether or not Toranaga commanded it."

"Then you did not wish to see me? You are displeased that I am here?"

The possibility offered itself, and Alvito clutched at it blindly.

"No, I am not displeased."

The priest let out a long, melancholy sigh. "Do you fear me, pilot, as much as I fear you?" he asked, unable to turn and ask the question to Blackthorne's face.

"No, priest, I don't fear you." The assurance was doubly disturbing for the rapidity with which it was given. "I never have, not since the first moment I set eyes on you. Why should you fear me?"

"You're everything my life has taught me to distrust!" Alvito told him, on a sudden rush of agitation. His clenched fists lifted in an impotent gesture. "I've prayed night and day since I met you that God would remove you from my life. I tried to get you away from Japan at the first opportunity; I wanted you to leave me in peace. You should have known it was not I who set fire to your ship as you thought, nor I who ordered the ninja attack on you. I have never threatened your life; I always wanted you out of Japan - alive, but away from me."

"Why? Why so very particularly away from you?"

For a moment Alvito did not answer, but when he did his words were a revelation. "Because I'm weak, Anjin; weaker than Urano-san and less worthy of your respect. He merely shamed himself with a woman of the town - he could have repented and accepted his punishment and he would have been welcomed back into our Order without a qualm. For myself ... it could never be so."

"Why not?"

A sudden, swift and unidentifiable movement in the darkness stopped Blackthorne's question, a threat that loomed ominously in the black shape of a man who stood behind Alvito, hands reaching out of the dark for the rosary at his waist. Alvito struck out blindly, aware in the same moment of a rushing sound behind him, a sword or stave cutting through the air and directed at Blackthorne. He sidestepped, feet tangling in rocks and vegetation, and felt pummelling fists lash into his body. He had no defence, and his assailant had the advantage of surprise; Alvito went down under the assault, feet crashing viciously into his chest and belly as he fell groaning.

Blackthorne fared better; despite the hands of another assailant gripping round his neck he was able to draw his sword and pull forward, almost shrugging the man off. Alvito's attacker had snatched the rosary and stuffed it inside his kimono, and now drew a knife to approach Blackthorne.

The bared blade of the sword slashed uncontrollably as the second attacker held on grimly to Blackthorne's throat, the knifeman edging around cautiously out of reach of the sharp steel. Then, with a lunge and a scream, the man ducked inside the sword's arc and thrust his knife hilt-deep into Blackthorne's arm, the blade biting through nerves and muscles and sending the sword falling to the earth. The attacker immediately turned away from Blackthorne and picked up the sword as the other man pushed the samurai down onto his knees.

Blackthorne's left hand reached up and extracted the knife from his arm, flourishing it uselessly at the man who held him, but the swordsman kicked at his wrist and sent the blade flying. It fell close to Alvito's face, lifting a small shower of dust and stones. He raised his head cautiously just as the two attackers wrestled Blackthorne into position to behead him with his own sword; as the sword lifted and caught the moonlight Alvito moved sharply, the responses of his long-buried childhood among the stews of the Lisbon waterfront surfacing to aid him. Everyone carried a knife then; everyone knew how to use it. Catholic priest or no, he was a fighter first and last. He grabbed for the knife and swung upwards, running it through the swordsman's throat. The sword dropped abruptly; Alvito slammed at the man and he fell like a stone, dying. Blackthorne lunged back, his elbow shocking the breath from his momentarily distracted attacker who fell sprawling, and wrenching himself around with a supreme effort Blackthorne kicked the man under the chin and broke his neck.

The sudden silence was filled with the crowing pain of harsh breathing and the last painful gasps of the dying men. Blackthorne stumbled across the distance between himself and the priest, his left hand gripped tight around the wound in his upper right arm. Alvito had not moved; he remained standing straight-backed over the body of the man he had killed, his foot almost on the man's face, blood staining his kimono from wrist to shoulder. Blackthorne bent down, ignoring the thundering in his head, and retrieved the rosary from the fallen man's tunic. Straightening, he attempted to press it into Alvito's hand and found that the fingers would not close around it. The thing remained in his own grip as Omi and Buntaro came running across from the camp, Buntaro carrying a burning torch.

"Tsukku-san!" Buntaro's tone was urgent. "Are you injured?"

Alvito shook his head slowly. His eyes were distant and lost in the darkness. Omi, concerned for Blackthorne, offered him an arm to lean on and Blackthorne accepted gratefully.

"Dare desu ka, Omi-san?" he demanded, as the Japanese glanced down at the two bodies. "Who are they?"

"Bandits, Anjin-san. There are many more. Toranaga-sama himself killed two, and Buntaro and I one each, but we have captured some alive. Most of our samurai were drunk - we were caught off guard. So near home, who could expect an attack?"

"Is Lord Toranaga hurt?"

"Only a little. It's embarrassing, neh? These eta had no idea who we were - they thought they had found a rich nobleman to rob. We have too few samurai, Anjin-san, and we were all occupied with other business - we let them take us by surprise."

"Have we lost any men?"

"I don't think so. Not this time." Abruptly recalling Toranaga's purpose in bringing Anjin-san and Tsukku-san on this excursion, Omi glanced over at the barbarian priest, remote behind his unemotional shield. Did they speak of pillowing? he wondered. Did the eta attack before they could declare themselves? Toranaga-sama's right, it's only a matter of time before they realise our way is better. Foolish barbarians, why do you make it so painful for yourselves? "Come, Anjin-san," he said, compassionately, "inside the pavilion; Toranaga-sama is anxious about you and the Tsukku-san."

Blackthorne's eyes swivelled towards the priest. "Tsukku-san?" he said, cautiously.

Alvito did not respond. He merely stood quite still, the bandit's blood drying on his sleeve, lost in another world. Blackthorne looked down at the rosary he still held, and with careful, painful movements tucked it into his own kimono.

"Omi-san, Buntaro-san, please go on ahead," he said, shakily. "We'll follow you shortly."

Buntaro looked down at the two bodies in contempt. "We'll dispose of the carcasses, Tsukku-san, you need not concern yourself with such offal." Blackthorne looked back from Buntaro to Alvito and was stunned to see the priest kneeling beside the body of the man he had killed, forcing himself to pray for the bandit's soul.

"Please, Buntaro-san, leave us," Blackthorne begged, aware of the husky sound of fear in his own tone. "I'll ... I'll escort Tsukku-san," he added, pulling the words out of the swirling of his own consciousness. He dropped to his knees beside the priest as the samurai turned away to obey him. "You claim to have no courage," he said, in Portuguese. "I see courage in everything you do."

Slowly Alvito turned to look at him. "Courage?" he echoed. "What is courage if it does not prevent me destroying a man's life? I killed this bandit, heretic, so that he would not kill you. If that was God's will, then I confess I do not understand it."

"Have you never killed before?" It was an absurd question, he knew, but Blackthorne had killed a man when he was twelve years old; Alvito, raised in the gutters of Lisbon, might well have done so at an earlier age.

"I have never transgressed any of God's commandments," was the subdued reply. "Until today."

"Are you still afraid of me?" The question intruded suddenly, cutting the cold night air between them like a sword blade.

"Yes."

Blackthorne reached into his kimono and brought out the rosary, pressing it now into Alvito's hand and watching with satisfaction as the slender fingers curled around it and caressed it. "Thank you for my life, Tsukku-san," he said, in Japanese. "Arigato gozaimashita."

"Your life is my destruction, pilot. God wills it so." Reaching across the body of the bandit, Alvito retrieved Blackthorne's fallen sword. Turning, he handed it to the samurai in the proper, formal manner. Blackthorne returned it to its scabbard with care, then made an attempt to rise. The loss of blood from the wound in his arm sent his senses spinning, and he sank down again on his haunches.

"Priest ... " he said, weakly, asking for help without shaping the words.

Alvito rose, and dragged Blackthorne to his feet. "Lean on me, my son," he said, making the words a bitter irony.

"Courage," Blackthorne reiterated. "You fear me, my Samaritan friend, but you risk your life for mine."

Alvito's arm wrapped itself tightly around his waist. "You're my karma, Anjin-san," he said simply, as though it precluded any further discussion of the matter.

Blackthorne made no answer, but allowed his weary head to rest on the priest's shoulder; it was more than merely convenient and at the right height for him to do so - it felt appropriate, somehow, and the tightening of Alvito's arm around his waist as if in reassurance only served to reinforce that feeling.

 

Returning to the pavilion they shared, the two Europeans discovered Toranaga awaiting them.

"Tomo yo," he said, startled out of his usual calm formality by their war-torn appearance. "What are your injuries?"

"Anjin-san has suffered a stab wound," Alvito supplied, easing Blackthorne down onto one of the floor cushions in obedience to Toranaga's gesture, and settling beside him. "I can tend it myself if you have bandages. I am not hurt at all."

Blackthorne's expression accused him of a falsehood, but was brought under control rapidly.

"Ah so desu ka. Buntaro, please have bandages and salves placed at Tsukku-san's disposal."

Buntaro bowed and departed to obey. Blackthorne glanced up and noticed that Toranaga seemed flushed from the fight and had sustained a small cut under one eye, but otherwise appeared unhurt.

"Itai desu ka, Toranaga-sama?" he asked, concernedly.

"No, my friend Anjin. These were starving bandits, not fighting men. Eleven are dead."

Automatically Alvito crossed himself, lips moving in prayer.

"They were eta, Tuskku-san," Toranaga explained carefully. "Dogs. Less than dogs. Sword-stealers. It would be a mistake to grieve for such people."

"They are God's creation, Toranaga-sama, the same as you or I." Defiantly, Alvito met the warlord's stare.

"Hmph. Your Christian faith is an astonishing mess of contradictions, Arubito-san." As a particular compliment, Toranaga spilled out the syllables of Alvito's name as best he could. "However you saved the Anjin's life, and for that I owe you my gratitude. Now, I think that wound should be tended - and you, Tsukku-san, need a clean kimono. Please burn that one; it can never be cleansed of eta blood."

Mildly surprised at the instruction when he had understood the kimono to be a valuable one, Alvito bowed his compliance. He had already noticed a tray of sake, a bowl of water and two clean kimonos set out on the floor; Toranaga's servants were always excellent in anticipating the wishes of their master's guests.

When Alvito looked up again Toranaga had gone and Buntaro's servant was standing in the entrance with a small basketwork container which obviously held the promised bandages and medicaments. This he brought in and set down before Alvito, with much ceremony, and then retreated without speaking a word. Scarcely glancing at Blackthorne, the priest poured two measures of sake and handed one to the Englishman who sipped it gratefully, letting the bite of the alcohol dim the pain in his arm. He shrugged out of one sleeve of his kimono, Japanese-style, as Alvito kneeled beside him, careful fingers peeling the bloodied silk away from the edges of his wound. Blackthorne winced as the last threads dragged free, and immediately a wet cloth was applied to his skin to wash away the blood and dirt from the damaged skin. Cleaning the area meticulously Alvito applied a pad and bandage of rough cotton, and rapidly had the injured arm bound up tightly.

"You should rest your sword-arm, samurai," the priest murmured, aware of the irony of his words. "In a few days it will be strong again; meanwhile you should change this dressing regularly. I will do so for you while I am here; after I leave, perhaps Omi-san would help you."

"You're leaving?" Even through the haze of the sake the words had a sharp significance.

"I think it would be wise."

Blackthorne's troubled eyes followed the priest as he packed away the remaining dressings and bandages. Then Alvito sat himself on a cushion and reached for the sake.

"You should change your kimono, Tsukku-san," Blackthorne reminded him, pointing to the blood on his sleeve.

"So should you. Let me assist you."

"No. Let me rest a moment. Here." Reaching out, Blackthorne handed the priest the neatly-folded garment. Alvito had relinquished the grey-green kimono as soon as his own clothes were clean, and had never given it a thought in the interim. "This is yours," Blackthorne said. "I bought it from the mama-san."

Alvito took the garment and set it on the floor, untying his obi. "I assumed you would," he said, distractedly. "You showed great sensitivity to her low station in life."

"Who is high and who is low?" Blackthorne asked him, idly. "I'm only a farmer's son."

"In England you were a farmer's son. Here you're samurai. You're hatamoto, the Shogun's friend. In Japan, you're very important indeed. I don't know if you realise fully the lengths Toranaga would go to, to keep you here."

Hesitating only briefly he opened the blood-soaked kimono and removed it in one swift, almost defiant movement, revealing a slender pale torso criss-crossed with scars, some of them of very recent origin.

"What in God's name ... ?" The words were in English, forced from Blackthorne by shock. Whatever he had expected, it was not the marks of a series of whippings.

"In ... God's name ... " Alvito repeated, also in English. Then he reverted to Portuguese. "What surprises you, heretic? Do you think we never need punishment? Do you think we don't correct ourselves - or one another - when we fall into error? No man is sinless, least of all myself."

He was washing the drying blood from his skin as he spoke, not meeting Blackthorne's gaze. He could feel the burning incredulity of the Englishman's eyes on him like a caress, and a chill fire coursed through his veins bringing with it a return of all his most shameful feelings towards the pilot - those feelings even the devoted Michael and his scourgings had been unable to exorcise.

"But what sin could you possibly commit, locked away inside that God-cursed mission of yours? Who hurt you like this?"

The priest reached for the fresh kimono, but Blackthorne caught his wrist and held it, demanding an answer.

"Michael," Alvito said. "Brother Michael did this, at my instruction - because he is obedient and faithful and understands that men are weak."

"What weakness, priest? What weakness?"

Alvito would not look at him. He tried to turn away, but Blackthorne's grip on his wrist would not permit it. "Pride," he said, at length.

"Lust."

"Lust for what? Lust for whom? For one of the brothers?"

Alvito's eyes were cold obsidian. "How could you ask it?" The mere suggestion that he might have harboured impure feelings towards a member of his own Order sickened him.

Blackthorne released the wrist and sat back suddenly, a glitter of triumph in his gaze. "Then it's me," he concluded simply. "Me you want. Toranaga-sama knows it, and now I know it too."

"You're everything I despise," Alvito told him, wearily. "Heretic, English, sodomite..."

"Not that," Blackthorne corrected. "Not yet, at least, although I have been sorely tempted. Never so much as at this moment. Damn you, I'm drowning in desire for you and still I hate everything you are!"

"You ... desire me?" The alien thought penetrated Alvito's senses only slowly, but he did not alter his expression by so much as a fraction. He unfolded the clean kimono and wrapped it around himself, his gaze remaining level on Blackthorne's face, his eyes still remote and guarded.

"Tell me you feel nothing for me and I'll go away from you now, finally and forever." Blackthorne's tone was urgent, the need to touch Alvito growing and twisting within him. Would it be tonight - or would it would never be?

Alvito's gaze faltered slightly, then regained its former intensity.

"If I told you that, it would not be the truth," he confessed.

"So we agree at last! We admit we lust for one another. Is this where it happens, here and now? Or will you take yourself away from me again?"

"You expect me to pillow with you?" The words were stark and unyielding. "I thought you said you did not pillow with men - and you denied a taste for boys."

Calmly Blackthorne rebutted the insinuation. "Neither a man nor a boy, ever. Women, both in England and Japan. But I've pillowed alone and thought of you - at the tea house, when you were beside me, and since then. I'm not ashamed of it. But I won't take you if you're unwilling; I've never forced myself on a lover and I don't intend to start with you."

"If you intended that, you would have done it before now," Alvito told him, with icy assurance. "You asked if I'd ever killed, and I told you I had not - but what happened to you happened also to me. I was younger, less able to fight - starving and weak; a man lured me with the promise of food and shelter, and made use of me several times. It was from him that Father dell'Aqua rescued me."

"And the man? Was he punished?" Blackthorne poured more sake and pushed the tiny cup towards Alvito, Japanese etiquette forgotten.

"He was a filthy sodomite," the priest repeated dully. "He was sentenced to burn, of course. I know I've failed in my vocation, pilot, but try as I may I cannot see that man in you ... or in myself. I know how sinful sodomy is, and how sodomites and heretics are destined for the same Hell, and yet despite all the prayers and penances I still find myself wanting you - and it was so from the very beginning." Having embarked on his confession, Alvito found he could not now stop. He drew a shaky breath, swallowed back the cup of sake, and continued. "I own I was jealous of Mariko-san," he said, "but she was a good woman, and if Toranaga had given her to you she would have taken you away from me and given me a chance to forget you. You'll never know how hard I pleaded your case, pilot - far more than you ever asked of me - but he was adamant. Japanese will not mate with European anywhere in Toranaga's domain; barbarian blood will not be mixed with Japanese. It's why he wishes us to pillow together; he'll never grant you a Japanese wife."

"I know."

"Naturally, I confessed it; Father dell'Aqua knew it all. I begged him to take me away from you, but he would not. He ordered me to remain in your company and subdue my desire. It was a terrible thing to ask; I could not. I burned for you every time I saw you. I begged for some other punishment, but it was not until after he died that I could attempt to control my feelings. Michael was reluctant to do as I wanted, but he is of course under a vow of obedience. It hardly matters; by then it was already too late. You should have let me die in the mudslide."

"That was not God's will, priest."

"I'm no priest!" The words were torn from Alvito in anguish. "I've lied ... and lusted ... and killed."

"You're a man," the pilot told him, almost casually. "Not a saint. These are the things ordinary men do. We kill when we must, lie when we have to ... and sometimes we lust for people and things we should not have. Did you ever imagine that I wanted you?"

"Never."

"But I do. It pleases me to be in your company, and despite Toranaga and all his legions it would please me to pillow with you."

"I would die sooner than allow you to touch me." The words were icy, defeated, their source far away.

"But suicide is a sin, isn't it? Is it a worse sin than sodomy?"

Alvito's tired eyes met Blackthorne's taunting gaze. "You know it is. Far worse. Suicide is the rejection of God's mercy."

"Don't you think He'll have mercy on you if you give yourself to me?"

"I couldn't ask for it," was the dispirited response. "Not if I had sinned deliberately."

"And would you? Sin deliberately? Give yourself to me?"

"No. Certainly not. You are more temptation than I have ever had to endure - I admit it freely - but I cannot and will not pillow with you."

"Now I understand why you called me your own personal purgatory,"

Blackthorne told him, ruefully, sipping at the sake. "You must know I would never willingly cause you harm."

"I know it. Nevertheless you are unquestionably my karma - my life, and most probably my death. I pray God will grant me the grace to accept that."

Blackthorne looked away. "Then I am never to have you," he concluded, miserably, the ache in his arm reasserting itself viciously.

"Never." Not without pity, Alvito softened his tone. "I will petition Lord Toranaga to allow me to leave the camp tomorrow morning," he said, gently. "There is no reason why you and I should continue to torture one another in this singularly unpleasant way. I have no greater wish to hurt you than you have to hurt me, John Blackthorne."

The careful use of his name caused Blackthorne to turn again suddenly. Alvito's chin had lifted and for a moment he looked the personification of pride, controlled and passionate.

You love me, Blackthorne realised, watching the man's face. This is not about desire - at least, not that only. This is about love. You love me, but your pride and your Church between them keep you silent.

"Arigato," he said, absently. "Nemurimasu ka?"

Alvito's shoulders relaxed, and a half-smile crossed his face.

"Yes, I could sleep," he admitted, wearily. "Today has been too long and too ... "

"Painful," Blackthorne supplied.

"Yes. But after tomorrow we will not meet again ... "

"Not meet again?" Startled, the Englishman interrupted his words.

"Pilot, we agree that being together gives us both pain - because of what we cannot have. It would be safest, therefore, if after tonight we never again strayed into the path of temptation. You have your world and I have mine, and Lord Toranaga is our only meeting-point. Now that he has you, he no longer needs my services - therefore I can return to the mission and my work there."

"And to your Brother Michael and his scourge?"

"In time, perhaps, the need for that will diminish." It was a brave assertion, but both men heard its hollowness.

"Perhaps."

Raising his voice, Blackthorne called for the manservant to make up the futons for the night. As the man entered, Alvito got to his feet and moved away to the far end of the pavilion, ignoring the preparations. When he turned back the servant had gone and the two futons were arm's length apart on the floor. As soon as he was sure of Alvito's attention, Blackthorne moved over and drew one futon across until it was touching the other. The priest merely watched him with raised eyebrows and an expression of mild enquiry.

"I will never break any promise I have made you," the pilot said, standing and facing him across the width of the pavilion, the one small oil-lamp in the darkness throwing fantastical shadows around them. "I will never ask you for what you cannot give. From tomorrow I will never seek you out, nor see you unless you send for me."

A slight inclination of Alvito's head was all the acknowledgement this pledge received.

"But," Blackthorne continued, almost ruthlessly, "sleep beside me. Please."

"I cannot ... "

"Neru dake," Blackthorne reiterated. "Only that. Baku ni shinjimasu ka?"

"Shinjimasu." It was perhaps the most astonishing of all Alvito's admissions; trusting the English heretic had scarcely seemed a possibility before, whatever the promptings of his heart.

"Nemurimasho ka?"

The pause lengthened while Alvito weighed temptation against foreboding, but after what seemed a lifetime he sighed softly.

"Hai. Nemurimasu. Domo, Anjin-san."

"Domo arigato gozaimashita, Tsukku-san."

Blackthorne held out his hand and Alvito stepped closer, allowing his fingers to twine with Blackthorne's and be held fast in a grip that clutched almost with desperation. He could scarcely bear the look of mingled grief and triumph in Blackthorne's eyes, any more than he could bear the courtly way the samurai drew him closer and down towards the futons, maintaining always a modest distance between them. Sinking down he slipped, still fully dressed, between the quilts, relinquishing Blackthorne's hand only when it was strictly necessary.

Extinguishing the lamp Blackthorne slid into place beside Alvito and pulled the man towards him, catching his breath sharply as the muscles in his wounded arm were stretched. Unexpectedly Alvito's fingers in the darkness found the bandage and rested there a moment in what was almost a caress.

"Is there much pain?" he breathed, barely loud enough to be heard.

"Not too much."

Blackthorne's hand lifted, stroked lightly through the other man's hair. Despite the distance that remained between them, he felt the thrill of the touch course through Alvito's body. It would be so easy to betray his promise, to seduce the priest with honeyed words and silken caresses, to lull him into the momentary belief that his principles were unimportant and that pleasure was the only thing that mattered; Alvito was at his most vulnerable, his formidable defences lowered, resting in Blackthorne's embrace as if he belonged nowhere else in the world. It was an illusion of perfection, but an illusion nonetheless.

Ah, Toranaga-sama, he thought, fingertips merely brushing across Alvito's lips, I know when a dream is a dream.

Aloud, he said; "Tomari masen ka?" Please, will you stay?

The answer was compassionate, regretful, but firm. "Asa made take." I will leave in the morning.

He pulled Alvito closer, burying his face in the man's hair.

"Hai," he sighed, hearing the despair in his own voice. "Wakarimasu."

 

* * *

THREE

 

Toiling up the incline from the harbour, Rodrigues paused to remove his hat and wipe a hand across his brow. It had been a warm spring day, and even though the heat was not oppressive it had sapped his energy. After a difficult voyage from Manila he had been looking forward to a few quiet days in port, leaving it to his men to supervise the unloading of the cargo, but by the very nature of the journey this was not to be so. His passenger, the Spanish Bishop sent from Manila to take over the running of the Jesuit mission in Osaka and thus also the management of the Black Ship itself and all its business, had shown a disturbing desire to examine his accounts in painstaking detail, with the result that at a time when he should have been relaxing in his cabin over a mug of grog and a meal of gargantuan proportions Rodrigues was dressed in his finest velvet doublet and weighed down by the two heavy ledgers containing all his figuring. Not that His Grace would find anything amiss in the accounting, Rodrigues told himself. He'd had the books scrutinised in Manila before ever he put to sea, knowing the reputation of the man he was to carry, and they told a straight enough story; whether or not they matched with the accounts kept at the mission was another matter, of course.

Osaka had scarcely changed since the day he had sailed from its harbour three years earlier, commanding the Nao del Trato for the first time. He doubted he would ever forget the circumstances under which he'd obtained his command; in a dispute with Father dell'Aqua over the fate of the English pilot, Captain Ferriera had been shot by Christian samurai commanded by a brother of the Jesuit mission. He wondered whether the Ingeles was still alive. The man was a survivor, that was certain, but he'd heard that the Battle of Sekigahara had claimed lives in the tens of thousands and there was no guarantee John Blackthorne had not been among them. If he'd lived through it, though, there was every chance he was in Osaka with his master. He'd make enquiries, the first chance he got.

The Father Visitor had appointed Rodrigues Captain and Governor of Macao before Ferriera's corpse was cold; two very lucrative appointments they'd been, as well. Thanks to Father dell'Aqua's good offices and his own performance in the job he'd been re-appointed for an immediate return journey, with a bigger and better ship - the Virgem Santissima - and a better and less treacherous crew. He had a lot to thank the Father Visitor for, and had been saddened on returning to Manila to hear of the man's recent death.

Cooler now, Rodrigues replaced his hat and started off up the main street once more. It was thronged with the usual motley collection of fish-merchants, sandal-makers, medicine-sellers and other artisans, some doing business and others merely standing around exchanging the time of day and dealing in gossip and rumour. Here and there one he recognised would bow as he passed, although no-one spoke to him. He could well understand that; if the look on his face reflected what he was feeling inside, it would be more than enough to discourage idle conversation.

Reaching an intersection of the ways, he stood aside as a samurai convoy came into view. Half a dozen footsoldiers and three mounted samurai in Toranaga uniforms were escorting a samurai in a buff-coloured kimono in the direction of the Jesuit mission. Some protégé of Toranaga's, no doubt, since that was Toda Buntaro-sama riding with him.

The convoy drew level with him and he glanced up in idle curiosity, the pale face of the buff-clad samurai shocking an exclamation from him.

"Madonna! Father Alvito, is that you?"

The convoy jolted to a halt in unwonted confusion, the priest's head swivelling towards the sound of his voice.

"Vasco Rodrigues!"

"Father Alvito, by all that's holy! I took you for a Japper!" Pushing his way through the melee, Rodrigues found himself at the side of Alvito's horse.

"Matte kudasai, Buntaro-san," Alvito said to the samurai, receiving only a frosty nod of acknowledgement in exchange. The priest swung down from the saddle and gripped Rodrigues by the hand. "I thought you were not due in Osaka for several weeks, Captain Rodrigues," he said, warmly. "Congratulations on your re-appointment."

"Thank you, Father. And my condolences on the death of the Father Visitor. A great loss to us all."

"Indeed."

"It's on account of his passing I'm here, Father. The Black Ship was diverted to Manila to bring Bishop Mendoza. I escorted him to the mission myself this morning, and I'm on my way there now with my account books. He wants to know where every penny has gone, and woe betide me if the books aren't in order. Saving your presence, Father, he's a good man but stricter than Father dell'Aqua, and he's got the eyes of a miser. Madonna, I wouldn't want him for my enemy!"

"So soon?" Distracted, Alvito could barely concentrate on Rodrigues' words. "Well, it's in God's hands. I must make haste back to the mission, Captain; it was very pleasant to meet you again."

"Oh, Father, before you go...there's one thing."

Alvito had already remounted, but he turned back to face his countryman. "Yes, my son?"

"The Ingeles. Pilot-major Blackthorne. Is he alive? Do you know where I can find him?"

All trace of cordiality vanished from Alvito's expression, and his eyes became hard. "He's hunting with Lord Toranaga north of the city. Buntaro-san will be returning there tomorrow. They won't return to Osaka until they are tired of hunting."

"So he survived the battle, eh? Well, I'll be in Osaka until the Bishop orders otherwise. Ask Buntaro-sama to give my greetings to the Ingeles, would you, Father?"

Alvito conveyed the message to Buntaro in a few crisp words, and the samurai turned round and regarded Rodrigues with a stare that cut like a knife. Rodrigues was aware of the man's distaste for him, and uncomfortably convinced he had said something out of place.

"Your message will be relayed to the pilot, Captain Rodrigues," Alvito said, distantly. "Now, you will please excuse me; I must present myself to His Grace."

"Certainly, Father," Rodrigues told him, expansively, watching the convoy draw itself together again and precede him up the hill.

Father Alvito dressed like a Japper! he thought to himself, bewildered. And that God-cursed Englishman still alive - and with a Jap wife and a bunch of Jap children now, I shouldn't wonder! Madonna, this country is enough to steal a man's sanity! Cursing under his breath, he continued his trudge up the hill towards the Jesuit mission.

 

Alvito had barely descended from his horse in the road outside the mission when Father Soldi appeared in the doorway.

"Martin, in Heaven's name hurry and change your clothes! The Bishop arrived this morning from Manila, and he wants to see you immediately."

Calmly Alvito handed the reins of his horse to one of the Japanese servants and walked over to where Buntaro waited, scowling.

"Domo arigato, Buntaro-san," he said, bowing.

"Do itashimasu, Tsukku-san. Sayonara."

"Sayonara, Buntaro-san." The formalities completed, Alvito turned back to face Father Soldi. "Thank you, Gregory," he said, with a smile. "I met Captain-pilot Rodrigues on my way through the town. He will be here shortly, together with his accounts."

"His Grace is looking at ours at this very minute," Soldi told him, standing aside to allow Alvito to precede him into the mission building. "Brother Michael's with him. It was a good thing you summarised everything so carefully before you went away. Did you think you might not return?"

"It was possible," Alvito acknowledged, "but by God's grace, here I am."

He was about to take his leave of Father Soldi and retreat to the sleeping quarters to change back into his cassock when the shoji slid open. A shiver of dread passed down Alvito's spine as he turned in the direction of the sound, and came face to face with the Father Visitor's successor.

Bishop Mendoza of Samar was sixty years old, olive-skinned and grey-bearded, with a stern countenance and eyes that had the power to sear away falsehood and expose the secrets of a man's heart. The expression on his face was one of the utmost disapproval, even when Alvito automatically dropped to his knees.

"Father Martin Alvito," the Bishop said, and it was not a question.

"Your Grace."

"It is hardly fitting, Father, that a member of this Order - an ordained priest, no less - should be seen in the streets of the city attired in this unseemly fashion. Have the goodness to dress yourself more suitably, and then bring that garment to me. Immediately, if you please."

"Yes, Your Grace."

The Bishop turned away, back into the private room, and for a moment Alvito's glance locked with that of Brother Michael. Michael conveyed sympathy and a warning, then followed the Bishop back into the inner room. Rising from his knees, Alvito hastened to comply with his superior's orders.

 

Brother Michael and Father Soldi were still with the Bishop when Alvito returned some minutes later to place the neatly-folded kimono on the Bishop's desk. Attired once again in his black cassock, the errant priest looked the very model of respectful submission as he made his bow. The Bishop looked up from the ledger, eyes sharp as swordblades turning towards Alvito.

"Ah yes," he said, setting aside his pen and reaching out to touch the folded silk cautiously. "The gift from Lord Toranaga. I have heard much of this nobleman and his gifts since I arrived here; in a small community, armed warriors bearing expensive gifts are not likely to go unnoticed. I have heard of a present of silk robes delivered here to you by a heathen named Kasigi Omi. I have heard also of an escort of soldiers which included in its number one John Blackthorne, by repute an English heretic. You were seen to speak to this man. Do you deny it?"

Michael, watching Alvito's face, noticed the momentary flicker of something he could not identify deep in the man's brown eyes. He had known Martin Alvito long enough to understand that something connected with the name of Blackthorne had caused his friend pain. Without conscious understanding of the connection of ideas he brought to mind the whippings Alvito had ordered as penance for a crime he had not specified, and the thought made him shiver. If Blackthorne had been the reason for the penance - if Blackthorne had been the crime - Silently he put up an extempore prayer in his own language.

"No, Your Grace, I do not deny it." The tone was calm, the words controlled, but there was a fire in Alvito's eyes that Michael was beginning to think he recognised. The Bishop, fortunately, appeared to see only a disobedient priest who had allowed vanity to tempt him into error. Michael prayed that he would never see more.

Bishop Mendoza's scrutiny seemed to take a long time. At the end of it, he leaned back in his chair and met Alvito's assumed meekness with an autocratic glare. "There is much about your conduct I consider unsatisfactory, Father Alvito. I have been told my late predecessor reposed great trust in your abilities, but from what I have seen of you so far I am constrained to doubt the wisdom of his judgement. I will enquire into these matters further at chapter tomorrow morning, and until that time you will consider yourself under censure. You will neither eat nor sleep, and you will drink only water. You will spend the night in prayer. You would do well to ask for God's assistance in bringing to light the truth of your dealings with heathens and heretics."

Michael noticed the slight shudder that passed through Alvito's slender frame - the first hint of any misgiving to taint his otherwise perfect composure. Nevertheless the man bowed with respectful humility.

"Yes, Your Grace," he said, accepting his dismissal without question. He left the room obediently, giving no indication whatsoever of the distress Michael was now certain seethed within him.

Ah, Martin my friend, he thought, they don't know you as well as I do. Even when you were a child you controlled your emotions wonderfully; very Japanese of you. These men are Europeans all through, they can't see that you can be European on the outside but Japanese within. It's God's joke on us, and it's a good one. And you've become more Japanese than you know, or what is it about this English samurai that gives you so much pain? Have you pillowed with him? Or do you want to, and fear God will cast you out for it?

Struggling to deal with the myriad of conflicting thoughts jostling for priority, Michael made a superhuman effort to return his attention to the ledgers open on the desk before them, and to the Bishop's detailed questions about their contents. Within minutes he was lost in a tangle of financial complications regarding the Black Ship, and the more pressing question of Martin Alvito's fate had been temporarily banished from his mind.

 

It was late that night before Michael saw his friend and mentor again. The duties of the day concluded he was at liberty to pass his time as he chose, and after most of the brothers were asleep he made his way to the mission's small chapel. It was lit only by the candles on the altar, and in the darkness it was not easy at first to make out the figure of Father Alvito but at length Michael saw him. He was precisely where he should have been, on his knees in front of the altar, hands folded in prayer. Silently Michael made his way to the front of the chapel, certain that Alvito was aware of him from the silken rustle of his cassock and the small sounds of his sandals against the wooden floor. Coming close to where his friend knelt, Michael too dropped to his knees and folded his hands. Alvito did not turn in his direction.

"Heavenly Father," Michael said, softly, "help me to let my friend Martin know that I will always pray for him and always remain his friend."

A quiet gasp in the darkness was the only acknowledgement his words received and Michael lapsed into silence again, framing his prayers in words only to be understood by He to whom they were addressed.

Michael! Alvito thought, calming his racing brain only with difficulty. Would you be so quick to offer me your prayers if you knew how I had spent last night?

The images of the night before had refused to leave him. Over and over again he saw himself being drawn down into John Blackthorne's embrace, caressed and held close with a tenderness he had never in his life experienced. The touch of Blackthorne's fingers on his lips - a chaste enough touch, but for the emotion behind it - had nearly destroyed his resolve not to give himself to the man. It would have been so easy, and he knew now that it would have been most pleasant, too. Blackthorne's actions had proved he was not merely seeking one night of perverse pleasure. If he had wanted that, he could have taken advantage of one of the kosho; merely admitting that he wished to do so would have been enough to induce Toranaga to make the offer. But Toranaga had other plans; plans which required Blackthorne and Alvito to pillow together. It was as if the man had learned every secret Alvito had ever shielded and was determined to bring it into the light. Uncomfortable reminiscences of his recent interview with Toranaga flooded to the surface; the Shogun had seemed vastly disappointed by his defection, and yet had readily given him permission to leave the camp.

"Anjin ga hoshii ka?" he had asked, pointedly. Do you want the Anjin?

"Sire, it is not a question of whether I want or do not want Anjin-san," he had responded, hearing the frailty in his own words as he fought with his conscience. "As you know, I do want him. Very much. More than is safe for either of us. My Christian faith teaches me that if I give way to the promptings of lust I will not only condemn myself for all eternity but condemn him, also. He may be an Englishman and not a Catholic, but he is an honest man with a true heart; I could never bring him hurt of any kind. If you insist on keeping us together, Toranaga-sama, we will both suffer greatly. Therefore, for the Anjin's sake if not for my own, I must beg you to let me go."

Toranaga had snorted his derision, but his expression had been kind. "European ways are very strange," he had observed, thoughtfully. "You would do better to be guided by Japanese customs in matters of the heart, Tsukku-san. Nevertheless, you have my permission to leave whenever you wish. I will send Buntaro-san with you as escort."

Alvito remembered bowing his thanks and leaving Toranaga's presence without engaging in further smalltalk, still bewildered by the daimyo's motives in engineering this extraordinary situation.

Whatever your intentions, Toranaga-sama, you have made one thing clear, he acknowledged, silently. That John Blackthorne... He lingered over the name, caressing it with his mind, picturing its owner as he had last seen him. ...That John Blackthorne loves me and that I love him. That if I had not already pledged my life to God's service I could have found that life with the English pilot. You are right to say that Japanese ways are more sensible than European ways, and it's my unhappy karma that I'm not truly Japanese at all. Perhaps in the next life I'll have that privilege. Perhaps in the next life I'll know how it feels to taste a lover's kiss and to surrender my body to him. I believe I'd give up my chance of Heaven for that even now, if it were possible. If that means that the Devil owns me then I suppose I am damned; men have been damned for less. And yet with the love of a man as noble in spirit as Anjin-san and the support of a friend as Christian and generous as Michael, how can I be truly evil? Would they care for me at all, if I were as corrupt as I believe myself to be?

The arguments went spinning through his mind like dervishes, stealing sense and peace from him and leaving in their empty aftermath a kind of awful tranquillity, a knowledge that there was no demon worse than the one he had set loose himself; that the world's opinion was of little account to him when set against John Blackthorne's. There followed a determination to be worthy of that opinion.

By the time the new day dawned, Martin Alvito had already arrived at his decision.

Morning sun slanted into the room from a point somewhere to the right of where the Bishop was sitting. Michael had managed to place himself halfway down the room on the left, as though poised for some kind of action.

He's samurai, Alvito thought. He never forgets it, no matter how hard I try with him. He's full of obligations and duties that exist for no-one else but him.

He stood, quite still, in the centre of the room, still clad in black, hands folded decorously in front of him. Around him most of the brothers, Michael included, were in their outdoor wear of cassocks coloured to mimic the familiar orange of Buddhist robes, a colour that even the simplest Japanese peasant would understand as being the mark of a priest or holy man. Bishop Mendoza wore black, with a purple sash, the gold cross around his neck flaming to incandescence in the sunlight. Everything in the room was at once utterly familiar and bizarrely strange, the known and safe world of home become a menacing arena where his life would be won or lost. Alvito's dark eyes encompassed it all calmly, then returned to settle on the face of his superior.

"I am told you used the night profitably in prayer," the Bishop said, without preamble.

"Yes, Your Grace."

"Good. Brothers," he continued, in a louder tone, "in the short time I have been among you I have already found cause to enquire into the actions of a member of this house. Matters have been brought to my notice that are so serious they can only be resolved here in chapter, and by us all. The discipline of this Order is clear and simple and known to all; if one of us acts in contempt of this discipline it is our duty to expose his error." As he paused, an almost imperceptible murmur of shock sped around the room, unsettling even the most serene of the brothers. Father Alvito, the Father Visitor's own protege, the strongest and best among them; what hideous crime could he have committed to be so arraigned?

On the desk still lay the buff-coloured travelling kimono Alvito had worn on his return from Toranaga's hunting-camp. The Bishop picked it up, let it fall open to the light, dropped it neglectfully on the floor. Alvito watched these actions without emotion, and thought of John Blackthorne.

"You were seen in the streets of the city yesterday wearing this garment," the Bishop began, mildly enough. "I understand you received a gift of clothing from a nobleman by the name of Toranaga. Is this so?"

"Yes, Your Grace, it is so."

"This was a personal gift and not intended for distribution among the brothers or to the poor, yet in direct contravention of the rules of this Order you accepted it. Why?"

"Your Grace, our house here owes its very existence to Lord Toranaga's continued goodwill. Although he is not a Christian he has protected us and enabled us to continue our work when elsewhere in Japan priests were received only with threats and violence. It is necessary to humour such a man, to flatter him in small ways so that he will continue to regard this house with favour."

"Father Alvito, the only favour a Christian house needs, the only protection it should seek, is that of God. Flattering some local lord who is counted among the heathen is not the business of a Jesuit."

Alvito bowed his head, accepting the rebuke with undiminished serenity. "No, Your Grace."

"These were valuable garments, as I am informed. You left with four, but have returned with only one. I require you to account for those garments which are missing."

"As you say, Your Grace, there were four. Two have remained behind in the hands of Lord Toranaga's servants, the third you have before you. The fourth kimono Lord Toranaga directed to be burned."

"Why would he direct you to burn his gift?"

Alvito straightened, shoulders squaring. "It was stained with the blood of a peasant. Japanese tradition has it that such blood is impossible to remove; anything contaminated with it must therefore be destroyed."

There was pallor beneath the olive of Bishop Mendoza's complexion, and his eyes seemed sunken. He seemed wearied already by his enquiries, but determined to see them through to their bitter conclusion. The matter of the destroyed kimono must undoubtedly be followed up.

"How did it come about that the... kimono... was soiled with the blood of this unfortunate peasant?" he asked, coldly.

Expecting the question, and this turn in the interrogation, Alvito was prepared with nothing less than the truth.

Oh, Michael, he thought, if your loyalty has taught me anything it is this; that truth has to be faced, however uncomfortable it may be.

"Your Grace," he said, calmly, "the man was a bandit, one of a number who attacked the hunting-camp. It was necessary for me to defend my own life and that of another person. In doing so, I regret to say, I killed the bandit."

His revelation caused another, more perceptible sensation among the silent brothers. Alvito scarcely noticed it, concentrating all his attention on the unwavering gaze of the Bishop. The man was looking for sin, looking for any stain on his character. Alvito would be obedient, repentant, but he would not be ashamed. Shame would negate Michael's devotion and John Blackthorne's love, gifts he had not deserved but was determined somehow not to disgrace.

"You...a priest of this Order...admit to the killing of a man?"

"Yes, Your Grace. In a battle for my own life and that of another."

"Which other? Who was this person for whose sake you killed?"

The black-clad priest accorded his adversary increased respect. It was obvious that the Bishop had a quick intelligence, as well as the services of those who made most cautious use of the truth.

"The English pilot," he said, without a tremor. "John Blackthorne."

"You killed...to save the life of a heretic? An Englishman?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

Bishop Mendoza flinched as if he had been struck. "This heretic has been much mentioned to me. I understand he is a favoured vassal of Lord Toranaga and has adopted Japanese ways. He scarcely seems to me to be fitting company for a priest of this Order." The Bishop halted, drew breath, seemed to compose his mind before continuing. "It is suggested to me that there were ladies present on this hunting expedition," he said, raising one eyebrow in interrogation. Close by his side, Father Soldi appeared to be wishing the earth would open and swallow him.

I need look no further for the source of this information, Alvito thought, a leaden sensation of disappointment filling him. There are always those who will wilfully misinterpret what they see and hear. I should have more charity towards you, Gregory, but you make it difficult.

"No, Your Grace, there were no ladies present."

"There were three palanquins in the convoy," the Bishop reminded him, firmly.

"They contained pages in Lord Toranaga's retinue," Alvito supplied. An intake of breath from Michael's direction told him that he had damned himself with the truth, and yet the Bishop could have confirmed from a hundred different sources that Toranaga had taken three o-kosho hunting with him. It would not have seemed remarkable to any Japanese he had questioned; the use Toranaga made of his pages was purely a private matter, and the Christian astonishment at such actions would merely have seemed ridiculous.

"Father Alvito, must I force the truth from you? Tell me whether or not this Lord Toranaga is a sodomite, and whether or not these unfortunate boys were there for his pleasure and that of his guests."

Eyes widening only the merest fraction, Alvito supplied the required answer. "It is as you say, Your Grace. Lord Toranaga pillows with young men, and the pages were taken on the journey for his pleasure."

"Then, Father, we find you in the company of heretics and sodomites - and not unwillingly."

Rising from his seat, the Bishop moved around to the front of the desk and approached the middle of the room where Alvito stood, back straight, hands folded, head erect. Walking slowly around him as though to inspect from every angle the noxious creature that had found its way into his presence, Bishop Mendoza seemed to be gathering his strength for another onslaught.

"The man Blackthorne," he said, almost softly, close to Alvito's ear. Alvito caught himself flinching away from the sound of the name. "Is he also a sodomite?"

"No, Your Grace, he is not." The firm denial rang in the air.

"You know this?"

"I know it."

"Then you and he have had some discussion on the matter?"

"It was mentioned, Your Grace. He asked whether he could decline if Lord Toranaga offered him one of the pages for the night, and I advised him."

The Bishop had turned away. "And was such an offer made?"

"No, Your Grace. Lord Toranaga made no such offer to Captain Blackthorne."

The evasion in the words would have been obvious even to the meanest intellect. The Bishop swung round, a shocked gleam in his dark gaze. "Then to whom was the offer made? To you?"

The silence in the room was positively animated now, a living creature coiled like a snake. The sensibilities of the brothers had been trampled mercilessly, the exposure of Alvito's conduct bringing pain and fear to them all. To the Japanese converts there was only great favour in such an offer; a man could reject it if his tastes did not turn in that direction, but that did not reduce the magnitude of the honour. That Alvito had been so distinguished by a great lord like Toranaga could never be a cause for disapproval, and yet the very thought seemed to have driven the Bishop to the verge of apoplexy.

"Yes," Alvito answered, calmly. "I also declined."

"You declined? Yes, yes, of course you did. But you did not leave the camp immediately. You waited until the following morning. Why was that?"

"The bandits attacked, Your Grace. It would not have been safe to leave the camp in the darkness, and Captain Blackthorne was injured. I tended his wounds, and made preparations to leave in the morning."

Slowly the Bishop moved around behind the desk and resumed his seat, glancing up at Father Soldi with eyes that in a less holy man would have held hate.

"Then in whose company did you pass the night? That of the sodomite Toranaga or the heretic Blackthorne?"

"In the company of Captain Blackthorne," Alvito told him, noting almost with admiration that the Bishop's question did not admit of any possibility but a guilty one.

"And did you 'pillow' with him?"

The suddenness of the question shocked the breath from both Alvito and Michael on the instant, leaving the bearded priest open-mouthed and rigid with astonishment as his heart thudded loudly and painfully beneath his ribs. An abrupt flame of violent fear flashed in his eyes, his distress momentarily visible to all before the mask of firm control returned to his features.

"I have said, Your Grace," he began, voice tortured by the want of breath, "that the Englishman is no sodomite."

"But the thought is the deed," was the steel-cold response. "I ask you again; have you sinned with this man?"

The pause before Alvito made answer was perhaps the longest of Michael's life, and yet knowing his friend as he did he knew also that now there could be only one answer - and when it came, his soul rejoiced in Martin's strength.

"Yes, Your Grace," Father Alvito said, softly. "I have."

For a long, long moment the Bishop watched him in silence, watching the perfect composure return to his features and the air of serenity wrap itself around him like a cloak. It was obvious Alvito was afraid neither of him, nor of punishment. There was only one possible explanation for such indifference.

"It is clear to me that Satan has taken possession of your soul," he said, bitterly. "You stand among us confessed of the most repulsive of sins, yet I see no remorse in you. It is my duty to obliterate any threat to the good conduct of this house, and you with your shamelessness and your sins are a threat of the worst possible kind. You have broken your vow of poverty, your vow of obedience, and your vow of chastity; you have killed. In addition, you have confessed before us all that wickedly, devilishly, feloniously and against the Order of Nature you have committed the detestable, abominable and heretical sin called sodomy, to the great displeasure of Almighty God and the disgrace of all mankind. You are sentenced to die a heretic's death. Your body will be burned and your ashes buried in the latrine pit. The brothers of this house will expunge you from their memory as though you had never existed. You will suffer one week from today; until that time you will be confined without food or light. You are forbidden to speak to anyone. You are cast out, but if you repent it is possible God will receive you with mercy. It is your disgusting Portuguese pride that has brought you to this; you would do well to reflect on that in the time you have left. Father Soldi, remove this man from my sight."

Soldi's eyes were huge and terrified as they turned towards the Bishop, for he was aware even as he did so that his own weakness and jealousy had been exposed; he had expected nothing so extreme from Alvito as a confession to sodomy - women, perhaps, an indiscreet flirtation punishable with lashes and fasting. This was worse, far worse, than he could ever have dreamed - worse, and in its own obscene way better. He hadn't sought Alvito's death, but then a heretic sodomite deserved nothing other than burning.

He waited a moment while Alvito made one last, utterly correct formal bow to the Bishop, then grasped his arm roughly and turned him away from the chapter, part of his mind already revelling in the awesome power he had wielded over Father dell'Aqua's heir-apparent. To bring a man to death at the stake with so few careful words was power indeed; it would make him feared and respected throughout Osaka when it became known. No man would dare to cross him again; he, Gregory Soldi, would stand at the new Bishop's side and direct the business of the Jesuit mission as Martin Alvito had stood by the Father Visitor. To that end, the death of one disgraced priest seemed a small matter indeed.

Dragging Alvito away from the chapter, he owned himself well content with his day's work.

 

Entering the mission's chapel, hat in hand, the following morning, Rodrigues found himself ushered forward to a bench placed close to the front. He didn't recognise the brother who had guided him there, and when he glanced around he realised there were a great many brothers in attendance he had not seen before. Everything had been different in the Father Visitor's day, he thought morosely. You knew exactly where you were with Father dell'Aqua; a devious man, in his way, but utterly fair. Hadn't he saved the life of the Ingeles by standing between him and Ferriera's gun? Old Weasel-face had been the sourest Captain he'd ever had the misfortune to serve under, the meanest man he'd encountered in his life - until he'd met the new Bishop.

The Bishop was the occasion for the fullness of the chapel, he realised. All the Christians in Osaka were curious to get their first look at the Spaniard who was to take charge of their spiritual welfare from now on. A handful of European traders such as himself had found their way to the mission; a healthy representation of his own crew stood at the back, and a couple of dozen Japanese converts in addition to the brothers of the mission filled the benches. Rodrigues took it all in, bowed respectfully to a couple of Japanese he recognised, and sought for other familiar faces in the crush. Father Soldi he knew, and did not much like. Some of the brothers he had seen before. It was curious that there was no sign of Father Alvito, but undoubtedly he would be somewhere close at hand. The Bishop had yet to enter the chapel, and he would certainly not do so alone. A Bishop preaching for the first time in his new cure would undoubtedly take the opportunity of impressing the local populace with every trapping and gewgaw at his command; processions and jewels and plate and prayers that went on for ever and ever amen could be expected, and Rodrigues cursed himself silently for being so devout - or so afraid of hellfire - that he had never considered not attending.

He noticed one of the brothers glancing at him anxiously; a handsome man, tall for a Japanese, with his shining dark hair caught up behind in a topknot. There seemed to be something like anguish in the man's expression, and Rodrigues was at a loss to identify what it might be. His puzzling was cut short, however, by a shuffling of feet and a sudden hush at the back of the chapel and the sonorous, doom-laden voice of Bishop Mendoza tolling on the air like a bell and recalling them all to their duty.

Some hours later - or so it seemed to Rodrigues - when he was finally free to step out into the chilled sunlight again, he foregathered with his crew in the square outside the mission.

"God in Heaven, boys, we've earned our grog this morning!" he said, cheerfully, enjoying the light-hearted way they all agreed with him. They were all good Christians, made their observances regularly - even aboard ship - but not one of them was so bowed down by the weight of his faith that he couldn't appreciate a joke at the church's expense.

"Captain Rodrigues?"

Rodrigues spun round, the sun in his eyes, momentarily startled to be brought face to face with the brother whose anxious expression had distracted his attention in the chapel.

"Yes, Brother," he said, returning the man's bow. "How can I be of service to you?"

"In confidence, Captain," the brother said, seriously.

Rodrigues looked around briefly at the crew, all of whom were quite obviously intrigued to know what would be said.

"Of course," he acknowledged, taking a few steps away from his men. The brother moved across with him, and stood close enough for his voice to be little more than a whisper.

"Time is short, Rodrigo-san," the Brother said, quickly. "My name is Michael; you must mention me to the Anjin-san when you see him."

"Aha, if I see him, you mean!" Rodrigues laughed. "He's a slippery man to get hold of these days, now that he's Toranaga-sama's ichi-ban friend!"

"No, Rodrigo-san, you must see him. Go to the castle and ask for a guide to take you to the hunting-camp. You must take a message urgently to Anjin-san."

The importance of the matter began to seep through to Rodrigues and his expression changed. "Why, what is it, Brother?" he asked, sharply. "What's amiss?"

"Martin Alvito is condemned to die at the stake six days from now," Michael said, quietly. "It's not a necessary death, Captain-san, and he must be saved. Anjin-san will know what to do. Please, Captain, I beg you."

"Hush, Brother, that's enough, I'll go; but what am I to tell the Ingeles? I knew the Father was in trouble for wearing a kimono - Madonna, the place was alive with it when I was here with my accounts on Friday evening - but that's not enough to get him burned, surely?"

"No. Tell the Anjin-san that Martin is condemned as a heretic; that he has confessed to the sin of sodomy. Tell the Anjin...tell him I'll do all I can, but that if he cares for Martin at all he must help him. Tell him that, Captain, in those words."

"If he..." repeating the words in mystification, Rodrigues could not stop his mouth dropping open as his becalmed mind spun in useless circles. "Are you telling me that Father Alvito and the Ingeles...? It's impossible!"

"I would scarcely believe it myself, Captain-san, but I heard the words from his own lips. He's imprisoned here and just waiting to die, Rodrigo-san; he's more than half samurai himself now, and his sense of honour will kill him. You must get him away from here - away from the mission, away from Osaka, away from Japan if you can."

"Enough, enough. I understand." He had faults in plenty, that he knew, but mental slowness was not normally among them. "Damn and blast that Spanish Bishop, I knew he was trouble! I should have thrown him overboard when I had the chance."

"May God forgive you, Captain; His Grace is not at fault. He simply does not understand that a samurai is not like ordinary men."

"Then he's not fit to take the Father Visitor's place, is he?" fumed Rodrigues. "Oh, Holy Mother, you've given me enough to think about, Brother Michael! How will I get word to you?"

"Come to the mission at any time and ask to make your confession. If you ask for me by name I will be able to speak to you in private. The Bishop may suspect what I have told you, but unless he wishes to burn me as well he will never prove it."

Aghast, Rodrigues could do nothing but nod. "Consider it done, Brother," he said, briskly. "I'll away to the castle this moment. God damn me, give me the words to say to Naga-sama to make myself understood!"

Michael spoke a few rapid syllables of Japanese. Rodrigues, who had learned a smattering of the language some years before, repeated them to him imperfectly but coherently.

"God go with you, Rodrigo-san," Michael added, his face a mask of anxiety.

"And with you, Brother. And with Father Alvito."

"Amen to that," Michael said, as he turned away.

* * *

FOUR

Rodrigues had begun to hate his horse before they were an hour from the city, and by the end of the journey he would cheerfully have hacked it to pieces and thrown them to the four winds if it had not been for the necessity of returning almost immediately. If he had wanted to spend his time riding on horseback like some God-cursed pox-ridden landsman he would have chosen another trade years ago; he was a seaman, and he knew he cut a poor figure on a horse.

He was painfully aware too that Naga and the other members of his escort were stifling their amusement behind their hands. No doubt they thought they were being polite, but he could see and hear only too clearly their opinion of his riding skills. The situation was made worse for him by the fact that he'd been unable to convey fully the dreadful urgency of his mission. He and Naga-san had sat face-to-face for more than an hour trying to communicate in the simplest of Japanese sentences, no interpreter being available. He would have given his right arm, then, for the services even of Father Sebastio - except that he could hardly have conveyed through the priest that he needed help to rescue Father Alvito. But Sebastio was still at Anjiro, spreading the gospel among the peasants in the Anjin's own feif. Rodrigues' road took him in exactly the opposite direction.

"Naga-sama, Toranaga-sama ni iku ... Taihen desu!" he'd blurted out, almost breathlessly, feeling the critical eyes of Naga's samurai on him as he spoke. "Isogimasu!"

Haste and urgency and fear were unwelcome visitors to Osaka Castle; in company with a large, sweating and apparently distressed foreigner they were positively anathema, and yet Naga had listened courteously when the names of Anjin-san and Tsukku-san were mentioned. Although Toranaga's son and chosen heir and his representative in Osaka while the Shogun was away from home, Naga knew nothing of his father's interest in the two barbarians except that he had chosen to befriend them. Now this barbarian sea-captain seemed to be suggesting that there was danger to one or other of them - Naga could not discern his meaning entirely, but his obvious anxiety indicated as much - and it was his duty to his father to make sure Toranaga knew about it immediately. This was the reason he had decided to escort Rodrigues personally; this, and the suspicion that had strayed into his mind that this was some barbarian ruse to bring harm to Toranaga himself. He'd left Osaka Castle heavily garrisoned and commanded by Hiromatsu, Buntaro's uncle, and had ridden out with Rodrigues as soon as it was light.

It was late afternoon before they encountered the first Toranaga samurai at the camp's perimeter. Buntaro had ridden back with more men two days previously, and now the guard on the camp had been doubled. However since the only marauding bandits in the area had been effectively dispatched the night they attacked the hunting-camp, there had been no further disturbance.

Naga spoke rapidly to the guard, who bowed and pointed to a trail leading away up the hillside, his gestures making it apparent that he was giving directions. When he had finished, Naga nodded and led the small convoy off on the route given.

It took another eternity to reach the hunting-camp, Rodrigues swinging down from his horse gratefully at Naga's signal and looking about him in some concern.

"Hey, Ingeles, are you here?" he bellowed at full volume, ignoring Naga's scandalised stare. "I've urgent word from Osaka, from the Jesuit mission. Ingeles, where are you?"

Moments passed when all life in the camp seemed to have ceased, and when from Naga's fierce glare Rodrigues expected to be knocked senseless at any moment, but he was saved from this ignominious fate by the arrival of Blackthorne. The English samurai was dressed in a dark green kimono with a small gold pattern, and although his face seemed lined and tired he looked strong and in full command of any situation.

"Jesus God, Rodrigues!" he exclaimed in Portuguese. "Three years since you sailed from Osaka and you turn up here! You're fatter than ever, you greedy Portuguese bastard!"

"Ah, Ingeles, thy father was a dog. But this is serious, man; I've news of Father Alvito." Disdaining the ritual exchange of insults that had characterised their seldom easy friendship Rodrigues grabbed Blackthorne by the arm and steered him away from Naga, but the Englishman noticed a quick defensive movement on Naga's behalf and hurried to reassure the samurai that he was not under threat.

"Ië, Naga-san, domo," he said, quickly. "What news?" he asked, switching languages without thought.

"He's sentenced to death, Ingeles. I'm to tell you that I spoke with Brother Michael yesterday, and that ... God curse you, Ingeles, the message is that if you care for Martin at all you must help him. He's to burn for sodomy and heresy and half a dozen other things."

Unable to grasp all that Rodrigues was saying, Blackthorne seized on a detail. "To burn? When?"

"Five days. It's that jealous pox-brained Spanish Bishop brought him to this, Ingeles. Unless it was you, of course."

"Me?"

"Sodomy's not done alone, Ingeles."

"But we didn't ... " Blackthorne stopped abruptly. Whether or not Alvito was guilty of the charge was irrelevant; he had been condemned to die for it. "We didn't," he repeated, seeking to meet Rodrigues' eyes.

The Portuguese pilot regarded him with something between disbelief and loathing. "You and Father Alvito?" he asked, an eyebrow lifting in appalled enquiry.

"It's not what you're thinking. He's changed, these last few years."

"Aye, so I hear. 'More than half samurai', I've been told. He's still a priest, though, Ingeles, and if you've led him astray you've damned him and yourself."

"On my honour, Rodrigues, I never touched him. I don't deny I wanted to, but he refused me. Toranaga'll tell you that; Alvito asked him to keep us apart so that we couldn't be tempted again."

"Toranaga! What the devil does he have to do with this?" Rodrigues was mopping his forehead, staring at Blackthorne with bulging eyes. A dozen answers ran through Blackthorne's mind. He's trying to force us together, he thought. He wants us to be lovers. It suits some plan of his.

He said; "Tsukku-san's his friend. He'll need to be told."

Memories of his interview with Naga uppermost in his mind, Rodrigues nodded his assent wearily. "Very well, Ingeles. But you interpret for me, damn you! My Japanese is rusty from three years away."

"Come with me, then," Blackthorne told him briskly. "And watch your damned manners when you speak to Toranaga-sama, you heathen murdering pirate." Turning, he spoke a few words to Naga, who bowed and moved to follow them towards Toranaga's pavilion.

 

The interview with Toranaga was a singularly painful one for all concerned. Forewarned by his samurai of Rodrigues' arrival, he had assembled Buntaro, Omi and half a dozen guards in his pavilion before Naga and the two Europeans entered. Rodrigues, still sweating and uncomfortable from the ride, made a good deep bow and was acknowledged with politeness, then squatted awkwardly on a cushion beside Blackthorne.

"Anjin, I understand that this barbarian brings word from the Christian house in Osaka. Does it concern Tsukku-san?"

Blackthorne felt the Shogun's measuring gaze on him, but could scarcely meet Toranaga's eyes.

"Sire, he says that the new Christian daimyo has imprisoned Tsukku-san and intends to have him executed five days from now for ... for keikan; sodomy."

A puzzled expression came into Toranaga's eyes. "Keikan? Yes, I understand you - but why?"

"Because, Sire, their church believes that sodomy and heresy are the same. That's when a man denies God, or worships Him in a different way."

"This barbarian Captain is a Christian, isn't he?" Toranaga asked.

"Does he also believe that? Will he help Tsukku-san?"

"I think so, Sire. He brought the message, after all."

"There could be other reasons for that. Ask him, Anjin-san, and tell me his words exactly."

Turning to Rodrigues, Blackthorne couched the question in careful Portuguese. "Lord Toranaga wishes to know whether you agree that sodomy is the same as heresy, and that a man who commits it should be put to death."

Rodrigues's stare was appalled. "Ingeles ... " he faltered, gathering his thoughts with difficulty, "that's no question for you to ask me!"

"It's not my question, Captain, it's Lord Toranaga's. I'm only the interpreter."

Rodrigues swallowed nervously. "Well, then, Toranaga-sama," he said in Portuguese, turning to face the daimyo again, "a man can't help his nature, whether he's a peasant or a priest. Displeasing the church isn't the same thing as displeasing God. I've been around the world enough to know that there are Bishops and Cardinals and even Popes who bed with men, and no-one ever thought of burning them. If you ask me, Toranaga-sama, this Spanish Bishop hates all Portuguese; maybe if Father Alvito had been a Spaniard he'd have ignored the whole business. The Father's an honest man, for a priest. If he burns, it'll be a barbaric waste of a life."

Blackthorne did his best to shape Rodrigues' chaotic words into coherent Japanese, and was rewarded by a grim smile from Toranaga. "Yoshi. He'll help us, then?"

Blackthorne put the question, and was somehow not surprised when Rodrigues' answer was made direct to Toranaga.

"Hai, Toranaga-sama. You can rely on me, Ingeles. Whatever else may be true, Alvito's Portuguese and so am I. I'd not stand by and let a countryman of mine be burned by any damned Spaniard if I could help him."

"Good," Blackthorne told him, translating swiftly.

"Then it's simple," Toranaga said. "You'll take a dozen armed men and release Tsukku-san from his prison, Anjin."

Blackthorne glanced up and met Omi's interested gaze. "Gomen kudasai, Toranaga-sama, it isn't that simple at all," he explained, with a deep sigh. "To start with, I would need to know that Tsukku-san wanted to be rescued."

"Wanted to be rescued?" Naga put in, excitedly. "Anjin-san, are you out of your mind? Why would any man want to be burned to death?" Toranaga's glare told his son exactly what the Shogun thought of the interruption, but it was a valid question nonetheless.

"Yes, Anjin, why?" he said.

"I believe, Sire, he may have chosen to die rather than live with the knowledge of ... of what could not be. He said once that although he wanted to pillow with me he would die before he allowed it to happen - and suicide is a sin among Christians."

"Then you think he would deliberately provoke the Christian daimyo to order him killed?"

"I don't know, Sire, but if he dies ... I will formally ask your permission to commit seppuku."

"If he dies," Toranaga said, firmly, "you may ask me again and I will be sympathetic - but I have decided that he will not die. If Tsukku-san truly wishes to die I will not interfere, but if he chooses to live he will be saved - if you have to kill every Christian in Osaka to do it. These are my orders, Anjin-san. Do you understand?"

"Hai. Wakarimasu."

"Good. Then explain it to the barbarian Captain."

Blackthorne summed up in a few words for Rodrigues. "He orders me to discover whether Alvito wants to die," he said, briskly. "If not, then I'm to free him."

"Aha! What's your plan, Ingeles? Storm the mission with swords and cannon and tear the place apart around the Bishop's ears? Madonna, much as I love my God and my faith, I'd be happy enough to see that damned Spanish miser brought down."

"I have no plan," Blackthorne confided. "And what's more, if anyone goes to the mission to free him it can't be me. I gave my word not to see him unless he sent for me."

Rodrigues rocked back on his heels. "Good God, man, you talk as if you're in love!" he exclaimed, half-amused by the concept. The lack of response to his accusation brought him back to reality more swiftly than any words. "Oh, Ingeles, you fool!" he said, sadly. "Don't you know better than to fall in love with a Jesuit father?"

"It seems not. And when you take Alvito from the mission, you should be wiser than to ask him the same question."

"When I take him ... Ingeles, you're mad."

"I can't do it, Pilot, for the reason I've given you. I made a vow; made it to Alvito himself. It's as sacred to me as any vow he makes to his God. Save his life, get him away from Japan on your ship; it doesn't matter where - China, or somewhere the Jesuits don't own. Keep him alive and keep him safe; you'll have all the men and arms and gold you need, but I won't be with you. I promised."

Glancing up at Toranaga, Blackthorne repeated in Japanese the gist of what had been said, while Rodrigues digested the words.

"Is your vow so important, Anjin-san?" Toranaga asked, gently.

"Yes, Sire, and you know why. I didn't seek to love Tsukku-san any more than I sought to love Mariko-san; it just happened, and I had no control over it. But I won't force love where he can't give it; that would put him in a prison worse than any the Bishop might choose."

"And if I offered to grant you a lifetime wish now, today?"

Blackthorne was startled. A lifetime wish was exactly that; one supreme gift from a lord to his vassal that could never be repeated. By tradition such a wish was always granted, and it was a privilege that was exercised with great care.

"I would beg you to ensure that Tsukku-san was brought safely out of prison and out of Japan, Sire, assuming that is also his wish. If it is not, then I repeat my request to be allowed to die."

"But then I would lose you both," Toranaga mused. "Very well, I will consider your lifetime wish. Instruct the Captain to have his vessel ready for sail at a moment's notice. You had better question him about the tides and plan the rescue accordingly. Buntaro will go in your place to the mission with the foreigner. You will make the plan and ensure that everything is accounted for, but you need not be present during the rescue."

"Domo, Toranaga-sama."

"Nani mo. Now, take this sweating barbarian away and have him bathed. It will take time to plan the rescue properly, and he'll think better when he's clean and fed. I'll order the whole camp to return to Osaka tomorrow morning. Whatever you need, you may ask Naga to provide. Now, leave me; we'll speak again in the morning."

 

"How did it happen, Ingeles?" Rodrigues, bathed and scrubbed but returned to his own brocade doublet and velvet breeches, loomed massively in the midst of Blackthorne's pavilion finishing a huge meal while the Englishman, disenchanted both with the thought of food and with his visitor, stood with his arms folded and his back turned, brooding.

"How did what happen?"

"You know what I mean, my friend; you and the Father. How does a thing like that happen?"

There was sympathetic enquiry in Rodrigues' tone, but Blackthorne chose to ignore it. "Nothing has happened," he said, dismissively.

"Ah, now, Ingeles, that's not strictly true," Rodrigues chided, mildly. "After three years away I had scarcely set foot on Japanese soil when what should I see but our friend Father Alvito dressed up like a samurai prince in what I later discovered was one of Toranaga's own robes? After that it was only a few hours before I learned he was to die for some unholy act committed with you, of all people. When I left Japan, Ingeles, you and he were enemies; tell me how it happened, that's all I ask."

"Or else what?" Scowling, Blackthorne rounded on him.

"Or else I'll die in ignorance," was the easy reply. "Oh, you've got my loyalty already, Ingeles, and you know it, whatever you and Alvito may or may not have done between you. Just satisfy my curiosity, that's all. Tell me what it's like to know you desire someone completely impossible and then to discover they desire you."

Blackthorne grunted non-committally. "Half of me still believes it was Mariko's doing," he said, not meeting Rodrigues' intrigued gaze. "She always wanted us to be better friends. She told Alvito our destinies were interlocked; confessed it to him the last time she saw him. She knew she was going to die.

"After Kasigi Yabu committed suicide I didn't see Alvito again for more than a year. In that time Toranaga fought the War and became Shogun - and I built my ship, The Lady. Then Alvito passed through Anjiro on his way to Osaka, and I noticed that he was a different man. From that time onward, I gradually came to admire him more and more. I don't know how it happened, or why, only that it did.

"I watched it happen to two of my crew on the voyage out here; the man Yabu had killed was one of them. You'll have heard of 'The Night of the Screams', when Yabu boiled a man to death? That man was named Pieterzoon, and he loved a boy named Crooq. All that night, all that long time it took for Pieterzoon to die, I held Crooq in my arms while he cried. I learned something from him, Pilot. Something about love."

"Madonna, Ingeles, it's a serious business," Rodrigues breathed, softly. "Stealing a priest out of God's own house, away from God's own justice. Oh, I'll do it, never fear - but am I damning my own soul, too?"

Blackthorne rounded on him. "Who was the holiest man you ever met in your life, Rodrigues? The closest to God?"

The massive Portuguese grinned uneasily. "Why, Father dell'Aqua, of course," he said, readily enough.

"Amen. And do you think that good and holy man would have let this happen? He only ordered Alvito to face up to his desires and subdue them; he would never have had him or any other man burned for not having the strength to obey that order."

"I know, I know. Oh, Pilot-major Blackthorne, if only I'd known how much trouble you'd be! This'll finish me for Japan and the Black Ship, if my part in it's found out - as no doubt it will be. It's a good thing I've salted away my little fortune where not even the Jesuits can find it! And what I've got, such as it is," he added, hating himself for every word, "is at Father Alvito's disposal as long as he needs it."

"Oh, you'll be paid, you Portuguese whore-monger," Blackthorne told him, bitterly. "Put a price on Alvito's freedom and I'll pay it, even if I have to ransom my service to Toranaga for the rest of eternity."

"That won't be possible if he lets you commit seppuku," Rodrigues told him. "I may not have much Japanese, Anjin, but I have that much. By the Holy Name, Pilot, did you think I would put a price on it? You're in love with the man - and he with you, unless I'm mistaken. It doesn't matter to me who or what you are; I've a soft heart, and I'd just as soon see lovers together. Besides which, I'd do anything to rob that Spanish buzzard of his prey."

"All you need to do is go to confession tomorrow evening," Blackthorne told him, coldly. "Confess yourself to Brother Michael, any sin you like. Tell him to find out whether or not Alvito wishes to be rescued, and arrange for him to get the answer to you somehow. Then prepare your ship to sail as soon as he's aboard. Arm your men. We'll still have nearly four days; this Bishop won't execute him without making him suffer first, as a warning to the others."

"Tell me I won't have to kill a priest, Pilot. Much as I'd like to see Bishop Mendoza suffer, I don't want to kill him." Rodrigues looked alarmed, as though the possibility had only just occurred to him that this might be a rather more serious matter than some buccaneering adventure.

Blackthorne shook his head. "There won't be any killing," he said, firmly. "You just make sure you get Alvito away from Japan alive," he added, menacingly. "The rest is in the hands of God."

The stake and piled brushwood stood in the courtyard outside the Jesuit mission. The brothers, in their orange cassocks, lined the square, all facing inwards, and behind them were half a hundred Japanese from the nearby streets with terror in their faces. Could the gaijin priests really intend to burn one of their number here in front of them all? Surely Toranaga-sama would launch a rescue? Surely the barbarian priest had friends who would come to his aid? His crime was a mystery to them. Keikan, it was said. What was so criminal about keikan? Young men had been falling in and out of love with one another since the gods walked the land; pages and soldiers would walk together, hand in hand, without a thought of anyone's opinion. And what of the Buddhist monasteries in the hills where the young monks all had lovers? If Buddha did not frown on it, why should the Christian God?

And this Christian priest who was to suffer was the best of them, it was said. Yes, he was arrogant and cold towards the lower orders - but that was perfectly proper in a superior. He did not look arrogant and cold now, walking calmly towards the stake. He looked as if his soul had already crossed over - as if it had done so some considerable time ago, and he was now in a hurry to be rid of the body whose desires had betrayed him. It was a horrible death the Christians contemplated, and there was no honour in it, but a man who met any death bravely would be rewarded in Heaven - surely even the Christian God approved of courage?

Struggling for a closer look they noticed his eyes. They were dark and deep, all fear banished, and saw nothing of the square or the stake or the people. If he had to be guided into place on the piled brushwood it was not because he was unwilling, simply that he was already in another place and he knew nothing of what was happening to him. His hands were bound together in front of him in an attitude of prayer, his head lifted as he seemed to regard the sky with a noble detachment. There were white clouds high above, and white sea-birds moving easily through the brilliant blue. How fine it would be to be a part of that sky; to be smoke, rising to meet those clouds! In a barbarian such appreciation was almost supernatural. Could it be, they wondered, that he had come here to turn them all towards the Christian God and instead the ancient gods of Japan had caught him and turned him towards themselves? Could it be that while his body was European, his soul was Japanese? Could that be why he had thought the Japanese way of a man with a man was no sin? Sometimes the gods made miracles like that.

A brother in orange robes had brought a flaming torch from the mission building. Behind him was a cruel-looking old man in black robes with a purple obi; the new Christian daimyo, the one who had come to replace the good and gentle man who had died. Pity the Christian brothers if their new lord was as harsh as he looked. Would he light the fire himself? For a moment it seemed that he would; then he ordered the brother to do it. The brother could not look into the face of the bound man, and when he turned away he was weeping and covering his eyes. The Japanese people waited, open-mouthed and silent, to see how this barbarian priest with a Japanese soul would meet his death.

 

"Martin!" Blackthorne was awake suddenly and shockingly, his heart thudding in his chest and a sick feeling rising from his stomach. The image had been so clear, so horrible - and yet, in its own way, quite beautiful. He'd seen burnings at the stake; they were never beautiful. He'd seen ordinary criminals burned who'd been strangled before the flames were lit, and witches who had been burned alive to drive the devils out of them. He'd seen a pregnant woman burned alive at Tyburn when he was only seventeen. He hadn't stopped vomiting for three days afterwards, and her screams had been in his nightmares for years. He didn't even know whether Alvito would be strangled first, or whether he'd have to face a slow death in the fire; probably the decision would be made by the Spanish Bishop, and if the man was as vindictive as Rodrigues had led him to believe it didn't seem likely that he'd be merciful at the end.

But still there was that beauty; the beauty of courage. What he had seen was exactly what he knew would happen. Alvito would go to his death with a light step, his soul being already safe in God's hands. An innocent death, without protest or fear. God would welcome him, that much was certain, no matter what imagined crime had been the pretext for his death. And shortly after that ...

Blackthorne contemplated the icy swiftness of steel, saw in his imagination the way his stabbing sword would catch the light just before he plunged it into his own belly. He would ask Omi to be his witness, and Omi would kneel beside him the way Blackthorne and Omi and Martin Alvito had knelt beside Kasigi Yabu during his last moments. Whatever his life had been, if he could make a death as good as Yabu's he would be well content. Yabu's death poem came back to him exactly as he had heard it - declaimed fiercely in Yabu's gutteral voice, and then translated into Portuguese for him in Alvito's more measured, more cultured tones.

"The blue sky above the Earth

White clouds rise towards Heaven

Life is only a butterfly's dream

Death, the way to Eternal Life."

It had been a very elegant last poem. Blackthorne wished he were a poet. He could compensate for that lack by making his entire seppuku a poem, by being more Japanese and more correct than any samurai ever born.

Toranaga will be proud of me, he thought. And so will Martin. 

The name had come to him unbidden, a way of thinking of Alvito now that belonged to him alone.

I have never said his name. I have called him 'priest' and 'Samaritan' and 'enemy' and 'Tsukku-san', but I have never said 'Martin'. He said it aloud now, to taste the shape of the word in his mouth. "Martin."

It was a small word, but it described within it everything he needed and wanted, everything he believed. With sudden determination he knew that it would be his death poem, and he knew that the Japanese would understand.

"By Heaven, Ingeles, do you intend to sit there all night repeating the man's name to yourself?" Rodrigues' bad-tempered sleepy tones demanded from far away across the pavilion. "There's nothing you or I can do before daylight, anyway. But still," he added, relenting a little, "if you can't sleep - and I'll be damned if I understand how any man sleeps on a bed like this - we'll talk. Oh, not about Father Alvito if you don't want to. Tell me about England, about the places you've sailed to and the things you've seen. Or I'll tell you, if you prefer."

Blackthorne sat up straight, the futon sliding down his bared chest. It was a cold night but he was feverish with worry, drops of sweat cooling on his skin.

"Aye, Pilot," he said, raggedly. "We'll talk. Tell me what dragons and sea-monsters you've seen. Have you been through the Sargasso, where the water's choked with weeds and there's no current to drive a ship south?" Rodrigues laughed, shrugged off his futon, and sat himself comfortably with his legs crossed.

"More than once, Ingeles," he said, cheerfully. Any subject, any story would do as long as it didn't recall Blackthorne to a knowledge of the fate that awaited Martin Alvito. Not yet. Not before morning, when they could do something about it. "The Sargasso, eh? Did you ever see the eels that live beneath the weed, eh, Pilot? Longer than a ship's keel and thicker than a man's waist ... "

He rattled on, hopping from one subject to another like a mayfly, spilling out a chain of irrelevancies until Blackthorne's mind eased and the fear began to leave him. As Toranaga had said, Alvito would not die. Between them, they would see to that. What would happen after he was rescued he could not begin to imagine, but he would see Martin Alvito free both in body and in spirit and that would be enough.

 

Twisting the brim of his hat nervously in his hands, Rodrigues waited in the entrance hall of the Jesuit mission. Father Soldi had admitted him, and stared at him with those disturbing eyes of his as though he could tell exactly what he was thinking, but at length had gone away to fetch Brother Michael. A brother he did not recognise was present in the hallway, ostensibly replenishing the candles in their sconces, but glancing across towards him at moments when he thought he was not observed. The brother was Japanese, much younger than Michael - a boy, not more than twenty years old. He seemed afraid, although whether that was natural caution towards a stranger or a reflection of his own fear Rodrigues did not know.

It seemed a century before Brother Michael appeared from the depths of the building; a century during which Rodrigues tried to imagine the unseen geography of the mission and the possible places where they might keep a prisoner secured.

Where are you, Father Alvito? he wondered. This place is an inhospitable hovel without you and the Father Visitor to make a man welcome. He would never forget the night he had come here to deliver the maps and logs that had been stolen from Blackthorne's ship the Erasmus. He'd known even then what a valuable cargo he carried, and how bringing it to the Jesuits was placing the English pilot's life in the balance. But then Alvito and Blackthorne had been on opposite sides in an undeclared war. Now, the peace they had declared between them threatened even greater disruption to his own quiet world.

Michael crossed towards him, with a shy smile on his face. "Good evening, Captain Rodrigues," he said, politely.

"Good evening, Brother. If you please, I would like to be confessed." Michael nodded. "Please step into the chapel with me," he requested, opening the door. He lifted a candelabrum from a side-table almost from under the nose of the young brother. "Brother Ambrose, please go and replenish the candles in His Grace's private room."

Rodrigues couldn't decide whether the expression on the young man's face was disappointment or annoyance, but Ambrose bowed his head respectfully and moved in silence to obey Michael's instructions. Michael gestured for Rodrigues to precede him into the chapel; he followed him, and closed the door firmly.

The confessional was a curtained alcove on the far wall of the chapel; red velvet brought from Europe so long ago that its colour had faded to a dusky pink except in the folds hung across the mouth of the alcove, and within a shoji painted with a calm pastoral scene separated the alcove into two booths. Michael placed the candelabrum carefully on a low table before pulling aside the curtain and seating himself on a wooden bench inside one booth. Rodrigues, acutely aware of his huge bulk in relation to the size of the booth, settled gingerly in the other. It was a tiny enclave of musk and shadows, the candle-light entering above the level of the curtains to reflect from the curved white ceiling and filter through the upper part of the shoji.

A quiet cough from Michael encouraged him to speak.

"Brother," he said, softly. "I'm not here to confess, although Sweet Heaven knows I've enough on my conscience. Is it safe for me to speak of another matter?"

"Yes, Captain," Michael told him, in the same confidential whisper. "Only keep your voice low."

"Very well. I rode back from the hunting-camp today with Toranaga and the Anjin and Naga and Omi and Buntaro and every other sama that matters a damn in this city - excuse me, Brother, every other sama that matters in the least, I meant to say."

"I understand." There would have been amusement in Michael's tone in other circumstances, but this matter was far too serious for that.

"I gave your message yesterday to the Anjin. It seems strange to speak of it here, Brother, but he's in love."

"I never doubted it," Michael told him. "What does he intend to do?"

Rodrigues drew in a breath, and felt the shoji shudder between them. "I'm instructed," he said, "to discover whether Father Alvito wishes to die. If he does, then we're to do nothing; he's chosen his road, and he's a brave enough man to walk it to the end. However if he chooses to live, then I'm to rescue him; I and Buntaro-sama. Not the Anjin; he's bound by some promise he made the Father not to intervene unless he's sent for. I can have the Black Ship ready to sail on the evening tide the day after tomorrow; I could take him out of here after Vespers, and have him out of Japan before midnight. I sail directly for Canton," he added, briskly.

"Then ... he could have his life, without any obligation to the Anjin," Michael repeated, for clarification.

"Yes. Toranaga-sama only insists that he doesn't die unless he wants to. No-one's placed any other conditions on the rescue. He's free to be or do whatever he wants, from the moment he sets foot aboard my ship." He paused a moment, and then said; "There's enough money to set him up in any calling he chooses, where the Jesuits can't get their hands on him. I guarantee it, before God."

"And I am to find out what his wishes are?"

"Yes. And listen, Brother, if I come here again Father Soldi will know there's a plot to free Father Alvito. I make confession once or twice in a voyage, not three nights in the same week! Can you be about in the town tomorrow?"

Briefly, Michael considered. "I can be in the Street of Sandal-makers during the afternoon," he said. "I could take sandals for repair."

"Then look for one of the Japanese there," Rodrigues told him. "Omi or Buntaro. I'm too conspicious, and the whole of Osaka knows I'm Portuguese."

"Very well." Michael absorbed the instruction without comment.

"Where are they holding him?" Rodrigues asked, a graveyard tone creeping into his voice. "Anjin will be sure to ask me. Is he chained? Does he have light?"

There was a pause, and then Michael replied. "He is not chained," he said, "but there is no light. It's a store-room that can be locked; under the kitchen, cut into the hill. He's a penitent, Captain; there's no comfort for him. He's permitted to drink water at certain times, and he has a bucket for his body's needs. Apart from that he has nothing but his clothes and his rosary."

"And is he strong?" The phrasing of the question took Rodrigues by surprise, but he knew it was exactly what Blackthorne would want to know - whether Alvito was bearing his punishment with fortitude.

"Yes, Captain-san," was the quiet reply. "Strong as a mountain."

"Hmmm." He had expected nothing else. "God be thanked," he said, fervently, using the opportunity to offer up a prayer for Alvito's safety. Only feet away, in the semi-darkness, Michael also prayed for the same thing.

 

It was not the darkness that oppressed, Michael realised, moving slowly through the building some hours later, so much as the silence. Even in a house of faith there was always someone awake during the night, and even when that someone was engaged in prayer or devout contemplation there was always a sound of some sort. Silken robes carried their own subtle whisper; straw sandals against floors of wood or stone made small sounds; men muttered when they prayed, or fumbled with their beads, or sighed at the turn their thoughts took. Tonight, even these small familiar sounds were absent. There were the occasional noises of people moving past in the street - guard samurai, traders returning late or leaving early, stray animals, men with no good purpose in mind - but within the mission the silence had a tangible quality that wrapped itself like a heavy cloak over every movement Michael made, deadening even the sound of his breathing and the hammering of his heart.

It was not that what he was doing was wrong. Not exactly. The Bishop had not forbidden him to move about the mission in the middle of the night without a light, but he had not sanctioned it either. And he had, most specifically, forbidden anyone of any description to have association with Martin Alvito. The punishment for disobeying this command had not been specified, but he could imagine that it would be harsh. Nevertheless there was another charge laid on him now, and the Bishop's displeasure was the risk he took.

First Cook was asleep in the kitchen. Michael heard his snores as he passed through the room, the banked-down coals of the fire providing a sullen illumination. A European-style fireplace and chimney had been constructed, far safer than the usual Japanese cooking arrangement, and First Cook never allowed the fire to go out. That was why he slept beside it, whatever the season, whatever the weather.

Michael's explanation to Rodrigues had necessarily been brief. Part of the kitchen itself was cut into the side of the hill and below it, taking advantage of a natural cave discovered during construction of the building, was a complex of store-rooms some of which were more like low tunnels. Whatever valuables the Jesuits owned, whatever silver and silks and other treasures were not considered suitable for open display, were housed here below ground, protected from the damp and the rats and every other ill except the risk of earthquake - and even those they had survived, shored as they were with strong timber baulks. The underground area was not extensive, but it had been put to good use with the introduction of a number of stout wooden doors that could be locked. Not that any man would dare to steal from the Christian mission, of course, but Father Dell'Aqua had thought prudence the best policy. Besides, on occasion there were items in these strongrooms whose existence he did not want widely known - such as the pilot's rutter stolen from Blackthorne's cabin aboard the Erasmus and brought here by Vasco Rodrigues, before it had been delivered into the hands of Toranaga.

The way down to the cave had been hacked back into uneven stairs, polished smooth now with the passage of many sandalled feet. Michael made his way down cautiously, counting the steps and feeling ahead of him as he moved, knowing this rough stairway intimately from long use but still aware of the perils of overconfidence. Reaching the bottom he paused and listened to the silence, felt it fill up the empty spaces in the darkness, strained his ears to detect any sound other than those he made himself, but he could not.

"Martin?" Barely a whisper, yet his voice sounded to him like the roar of an enraged tiger.

There was no response so he shuffled cautiously across the narrow floor, aware that kitchen refuse was often dumped down here and afraid to put his foot on some slippery piece of rotting vegetation and fall uselessly.

"Martin?" A wooden door under his hands, but this first chamber was large and well-ventilated and contained casks of wine and a quantity of antique silver plate and elaborate vestments Father Dell'Aqua had abhorred. Deeper down, though, where the floor began to dip away, was a room about the size of a tiger's cage with a door not high enough to reach a man's waist. That was where he would be, kept dry and cold between the wine store and the casks of salted meat; in the little room reserved for valuable cargoes and recalcitrant priests. In Father Dell'Aqua's time it had been used so rarely that the community had almost forgotten its existence; but this was not Father Dell Aqua's time.

Reaching the small door, Michael dropped to the ground and pressed his face close to the wood. "Martin? Martin, do you hear me?"

The silence moved with the faintest rustle of silk. Michael almost heard bare feet on stone, the light pressure of Alvito's hand on the inner face of the door.

"Michael?" A whisper, very close to his ear, reverberating loudly through the utter blackness.

"Yes."

Within the small room Alvito leaned heavily against the door, feeling strength leach from his bones. Bent almost double by the low roof of the chamber, he slid down the door to sit with his cheek pressed against its cold surface.

"Why are you here? Is it time already?"

Confused by the remark, Michael realised only slowly that Alvito could have little idea of the passage of time in his dark prison. Night and day would be the same to him, although the sounds of activity in the kitchen above would reach him during the day. It would be easy to lose track of time if one slept - or prayed - a great deal.

"No. It's night." Aware of the urgency of his business here, yet unwilling to startle Alvito by a sudden or misplaced word, Michael examined his thoughts and brought them into order. "Martin, are you afraid?"

"Afraid to die?" Alvito contemplated the question as though he often had to debate it in whispers in the middle of the night. "No, I don't think so. God will forgive me, whatever I have done."

"But you have done nothing. You said as much."

In the dark a sour smile crossed Alvito's face. "His Grace would not sentence a man to death for 'nothing', Michael," he said, and it was impossible to tell from his tone whether or not he meant it.

"And would the manner of dying not mean anything to you?"

"The fire is to cleanse the sin," was the simple reply. "I should rejoice in it."

Outside, leaning so heavily against the door that but for its presence they would have been shoulder to shoulder, Michael suppressed a sigh of exasperation.

"Martin," he said, softly, "do you truly wish to die?"

The silence that followed the question was of such long duration and such a peculiar quality that Michael was flooded with fear.

"Martin?"

From behind the door, a soft cough. Then, in subdued tones; "My obedience is to God through His Holy Church, Michael. If I have disobeyed one of His commands it is my duty to accept whatever punishment His Bishop decrees."

"But the path you spoke of - the one God had chosen for you? Did that path take you to John Blackthorne?"

Reluctantly, the answer came at last. "Yes."

"Then will you allow it possible ... Martin, could it be that God does not want you to die? Could it be that he has work for you that His Grace cannot understand? That God's purpose requires you to live?"

"If I live ... " Uncharacteristically Alvito spoke quickly, anxiously.

"If I live, then I will do so in the deepest sin with the Englishman. If I die, my sins will be wiped away."

Gripping the rosary at his belt to give him strength, Michael said cautiously; "But if God's chosen punishment for you was to live and bear your sin, Martin ... ? If He was not ready yet to forgive you?"

"What are you saying?"

Michael detected in the shocked tones the sound of a man rearranging his ideas. There was a seed of doubt in Alvito's mind, a seed which Michael himself had planted there.

"Only that you should consider ... that God's purpose is never thwarted," he replied, his heart thudding alarmingly. "No man ever escapes His punishment. Escaping from the Bishop's punishment is not the same thing. Bishops are mere human men like you and me; the Lord is with them, but they are still fallible. Even our beloved Father Dell'Aqua made mistakes, and Bishop Mendoza is not above error. He relies entirely too much on the advice of Father Soldi, and Father Soldi has never concealed his envy of you. Would you throw away your whole life to another man's envy?" There was no reply. Michael paused, collecting his thoughts and regaining his breath.

"God can punish a man anywhere and at any time," he went on, at length. "His lightning falls where He chooses. If He wants you to die, Martin, He will choose the time and place. Even if you were away from here. Even if you were with the English pilot."

"Is it Blackthorne that sends you?" The question was bleaker than winter, and Michael shuddered.

"No. Lord Toranaga has sent a message to find out whether or not you die by your own choice. If not, his samurai will free you. Anjin-san will not be involved; he will keep his vow not to see you or speak to you unless you will it."

"And where am I to go?"

"To China, with the Black Ship. It sails on tomorrow's midnight tide."

"To China, with Rodrigues?" There was a note almost of humour in the repetition.

"Yes. Away from Japan and the Anjin for all time."

"Away from Japan." Again, the pensive echoing in Michael's words - and within Martin Alvito's heart the further echo; Away from the Anjin for all time.

Had he really just been using the Bishop's decree as a way of escaping John Blackthorne? If that was what he wanted, there were other ways of escaping. He had thought he was going into God's grace, to a reward for his constancy and humility however bitterly earned. If, instead, he was sacrificing his life to Gregory Soldi's vaunting ambition ... if he was dying only to punish John Blackthorne ... if he was choosing cowardice instead of courage ...

The thoughts scrambled for precedence, tumbling over one another in colourful confusion. In the utter darkness of his cell, the only lights and colours he saw were the ones he carried within him. They paraded through his mind like traders shouting their wares; this way lies madness; this way lies pain; this way lies death.

"A samurai," Michael said, gently, through his bewilderment, "may not die until his Master gives his permission. Whatever his disgrace, he must live with it until then."

"I ... " He had been about to deny that he was a samurai, but with sudden illumination he knew that the word was a better fit than 'priest'. "Am I a samurai?"

"Not by birth," Michael conceded, "but I think you will be one in death."

A samurai under God's direct command! The multi-hued vision burst on Alvito's weary mind. With all the rights and duties of a samurai. It made sense. And if he were a samurai, no-one but his own Master could order his death; anyone who did would be a murderer, and it was his duty to resist them.

It was also a samurai's duty to escape his prison.

Could that truly be the answer? Could Toranaga be just as much God's emissary as Bishop Mendoza? Blackthorne's joking words of weeks before came back to him with renewed force. Perhaps God is Japanese, after all. Despite his situation, he could not help laughing at the suggestion, frightening Brother Michael into an alarmed enquiry.

"Martin?"

Want of food had made him light-headed. He slumped against the door, listening to the sound of his own laughter in complete bewilderment. If an Englishman could become a samurai - hatamoto, a valued retainer of a samurai lord - could not a Portuguese? Blackthorne had not been required to renounce any faith he held - and certainly he retained a belief in God, distorted almost beyond recognition though it was. This being the case, it was possible to serve God and Toranaga at the same time. Such a conclusion, however, forced the consideration of a far more complicated question.

"No," he said, bringing himself under control at last long enough to choose the path he feared the most - the path of madness.

"No?"

"No, Michael, I do not want to die," he said, composure returning with certainty. "Please thank Lord Toranaga for his generous offer, and tell him ... tell him I am at his disposal."

On the other side of the door Michael, too, felt the tension melt from his body to be replaced by helpless, boneless relief. He sagged against the door-frame, his cheek on the rough timber of the jamb, a hand over his eyes, the cold of the floor seeping up through his body. He was quite limp from exhaustion, unable to move had his life depended on it. He remained there for some considerable time, his overtired brain endlessly re-running one circular thought whose bizarre illogic defied any attempt to exorcise it and whose relentless rhythm battered his consciousness into weary submission.

I am taking a soul from God's care and handing him over to Toranaga. I am taking a soul from God's care ... and handing him over to Toranaga.

 

When the dawn rose short hours later Brother Michael had already returned to his duties, his mind scarcely calmer but his outward defences perfectly in place. If a certain tension was detectable beneath the serenity, it was only the same tension that pervaded every member of the community from the Bishop to the kitchen-boy. Although the name of Martin Alvito was not mentioned, the sentence that hung over him hung over them all; his punishment was as much their own, and they felt it keenly. Bishop Mendoza had passed an uncomfortable night. For some years now he had found sleep elusive, and had often passed the night in study or prayer or in some other productive activity. However what had once been mere sleeplessness was now accompanied more often than not by the pain that had become a frequent companion whose presence he was finding it more and more difficult to bear with fortitude. He had taken a measure of strong wine in the middle of the night which had eased the physical anguish considerably, but his mind had raced unstoppably through the ramifications of his actions until weariness overcame him.

With the morning came an unwelcome visitor. Father Soldi, immaculate and unsmiling, requested speech with him, and the Bishop graciously agreed to hear him. He listened without comment to a story of overheard conversations; of meetings between Rodrigues and Brother Michael, of a visit by the same Michael to the cells beneath the kitchen.

"I could not hear exactly what was said," Soldi admitted, and obviously it pained him to do so, "but Your Grace has forbidden any contact with Father Alvito. Brother Michael was in transgression of your decree."

"And you say you were ... where?"

"In the wine cellar, Your Grace. The storeroom in which the wine and valuables are held."

"You have a key to it?"

"Yes, Your Grace. I have charge over all the domestic arrangements for the mission; Father dell'Aqua entrusted me with the key."

The Bishop turned heavy eyes towards him. Taking up Carlo dell'Aqua's burden had so far proved a more onerous task than he had expected, and he wondered briefly how the Father Visitor had kept the peace between the two opposed factions under his charge; how had he kept Martin Alvito and Gregory Soldi from tearing out one another's throats and destroying themselves and all around them? He suspected the man had done nothing, simply leaving his underlings to behave as they chose. Or, more charitably, perhaps he had been too ill to understand what was happening. Too ill to notice that his most favoured protege had turned sodomite and was flaunting himself in the streets among heathens and heretics. Too ill to notice that his chamberlain was victim to the kind of ambition men take to Rome - or which takes them. He could wish his own illness had dulled his perceptions, instead of sharpening them.

"You suspect an attempt will be made to rescue Father Alvito?" he asked, cutting through the verbiage.

There was an unctuous smile hovering close to Soldi's lips as he acknowledged the Bishop's words.

"Yes, Your Grace, I do," he confirmed, with a light heart.

 

* * *

FIVE

 With no suspicion that he might be under close observation, Brother Michael was able to complete his self-appointed task of taking sandals for repair during the afternoon. Not a man with a ready capacity for deception, he still had enough awareness of the world to understand that his thoughts and actions must be disguised in a cloak of obedience and submission. His Japanese upbringing was his staunchest ally in this; he had been raised to keep his thoughts concealed, to pay lip-service to commands other men might have resented, and to keep such emotions as he might experience a secret between himself and his conscience.

In the Street of Sandal-makers there were a good many people he had known all his life. Old Nurse, who had been his mother's faithful servant, had lived here. Her family still did. Here he had played as a child, mixing freely with the children of inferiors. His father had believed that a young man whose destiny was to govern should know all there was to know about those who would one day be his vassals. It was an enlightened attitude which had not found favour among other senior samurai families but had been tolerated - until the arrival of Father dell'Aqua and his olive-skinned protege Martin Alvito had shaken the family's foundations and destroyed every one of its preconceived notions. Michael's parents had become Christian and Michael himself - drawn into the world of the Jesuit mission through his friendship with Martin - had found himself a candidate for the priesthood. It had happened without his conscious understanding, but it was not a fate he rebelled against; if Martin was to be a priest - and there was nothing more certain - then Michael would be one also.

Kasigi Omi was of roughly the same age; a little younger, perhaps. They had known him as children, although much of his childhood had been spent on his family's estates to the east. Omi had always seemed remote, serious in a way that was wholly Japanese. Michael, strongly under the influence of Europeans, no longer felt himself to be entirely Japanese. It was certainly the case that a gulf of understanding lay between Omi and the two intending priests - a gulf that had persisted for a considerable time, and was beginning to close only now.

Spying Omi in the crowded street, flanked by his samurai, Michael stepped back into the shadow of a sloping roof. Even this far past noon there was still considerable warmth in the sun, and his restless night had taken away a great deal of his physical strength.

"Brother Michael." Omi bowed, reservedly. Michael's whole-hearted embracing of the Christian faith had completely bewildered him, and he was never entirely certain these days whether this was still the Michael he had known.

"Omi-san." The exchange of greetings was formal and cautious, like the preliminary snarlings between warring cats.

"Rodrigo-san suggested you might have information for me," Omi said, briskly.

"Yes. Please tell Toranaga-sama that Tsukku-san wishes to be rescued. And tell him, please, Omi-san, that with great respect I wish to suggest to him how it might be done."

 Carefully, missing nothing, he recounted his conversation with Martin Alvito of the previous evening, and as he did so Kasigi Omi listened in growing disbelief and astonishment to a plan whose insane quality of unexpectedness was its greatest brilliance and which would defeat and embarrass the Christian daimyo without a drop of blood being shed. With some trepidation he imagined himself presenting this scheme to Lord Toranaga - but then, compared to the risks others were prepared to take on the Tsukku-san's behalf, it seemed hardly so terrible after all. And if it saved a good man from a horrible death ...

Listening, nodding his head occasionally, he absorbed and delighted in Brother Michael's scheme as he knew the Anjin would when he heard of it. It had the benefit of a magnificent madness - and he knew without a shadow of doubt that it would work.

 

The following evening after Vespers Toda Buntaro halted a small convoy outside the mission building. There were few lights burning, candles behind the shutters casting only the smallest glow into the street. At dusk, when the outer chapel doors were closed, the community retired to bed with the exception of a few brothers with late evening tasks to perform. A porter would be on duty overnight, in case there should be any late callers on urgent errands, and there was often some penitent on his knees all night, but rarely any other abroad in the late hours.

Buntaro glanced at his travelling companion and gave the signal to dismount. Rodrigues did so, and lurched across to the doorway where he hauled on the bell-rope with unnecessary savagery. His eyes met Buntaro's in the dark, exchanging with them a glare which intimated that anything and anybody getting in their way would be reduced to dust without thought; a basilisk's glare. He recognised the young Japanese who opened the door as Brother Ambrose and spoke to him, as Michael had done, in Portuguese.

"Brother, this samurai-sama has urgent business with His Grace."

"Captain Rodrigues, surely it can wait until morning? Unless, of course, it is a matter of life and death?"

"It's that all right, Brother. Tell the Bishop that he can prevent a murder and a war - save any number of souls - if he comes to speak to Buntaro-sama."

Irresolute, the young brother cast apprehensive eyes over the detail of fully-armed samurai Rodrigues had brought with him. They looked exactly like a war party, and their grim expressions left him with no illusions about their intentions. Buntaro, whose natural expression was a stern one in any event, looked as serious and threatening as it was possible to look; Ambrose shivered slightly, an awareness of their purpose dawning on him only slowly.

"They mean business, Brother," Rodrigues advised him, softly. "Go and turn His Grace out of bed and bring him here, or there could be unpleasantness."

"It will not be necessary." The soft sound of a shoji opening was followed by autocratic tones that cut through the tension of the small group. "Unfortunately, Captain Rodrigues, the illness that deprived me of my sleep aboard your vessel has not abated on dry land. Please ask Senhor Buntaro to enter."

Surprised halfway through a sketchy European bow, Rodrigues straightened as the Bishop stepped from the shadows of the hallway into the sparse illumination provided by Brother Ambrose's lamp.

"It won't be possible, Your Grace," he said, uneasily. "Toda Buntaro-sama is here on an embassy from Lord Toranaga. Unless you relax your rule about the wearing of weapons inside the mission he can't enter; Toranaga has given him strict instructions not to remove his swords without his personal permission."

The Bishop's eyes narrowed, the merest flicker of acknowledgement of a strategic intelligence equal to his own.

"Then we must conduct our conversation here," he conceded. "What does he want?"

"Your Grace, I don't have the Japanese for it and the Brother here neither Portuguese nor Spanish enough. We need Brother Michael to interpret. Toranaga's orders were quite specific," he added, passing a hand across his brow in sudden weakness. "He has a high regard for the Brother's honesty - and his scholarship," he added, limply.

"This Toranaga presumes entirely too much!" the Bishop told him, sharply.

"That's so, Your Grace, but it's their way. In his own land he's the lord of everything that moves. The mission is only here because of his generosity; perhaps it would be good to humour him this time, eh?"

"He's a corrupt and unscrupulous warlord and no better than a heathen!"

Rodrigues leaned closer. "All of that may be true, Your Grace, but he'd make a better friend than an enemy. I'd recommend you to hear what he has to say, and Michael is the only one who can give it to you accurately."

The calm sense of these words took a long time to penetrate Bishop Mendoza's offended sensibilities. In the end, he turned to Ambrose with a groan.

"Fetch Brother Michael," he ordered. "And on your way back, light some candles. I want to see this man I am expected to deal with."

 

Within minutes not only had Michael appeared from the heart of the building but so had Father Soldi and several others, alarmed by Ambrose's description of armed men threatening their Bishop at his own front door. The entranceway was illuminated brightly, and Rodrigues - who was not armed - stepped inside, adding to the confusion. Outside the samurai remained mounted, turning stone faces towards the chaos within, their footsoldiers ranked around them silently and without any obvious interest in what was taking place.

"Brother Michael," the Bishop said, loudly, in an attempt to introduce some sanity into the proceedings, "please ask Senhor Buntaro-sama what it is he wants."

Stepping out into the chill night, Michael bowed to Buntaro and put the Bishop's question in Japanese. "My master asks how he can be of service to your master, Buntaro-sama."

Buntaro explained in a few short, sharp words, keeping it very simple in the knowledge that several of the European brothers had a passing acquaintance with the Japanese language and that it would be best if they all understood one another clearly. Michael, turning to the Bishop, managed to keep his expression neutral.

"Your Grace, he says that Toranaga-sama has heard that we are keeping one of his samurai prisoner here and that the man is sentenced to death. He says that if that is the case it would be a very serious matter, since only a samurai's own lord has the right to order his death. A lord killing another lord's samurai is a murder and would be considered an act of war. He says that if Lord Toranaga's man is harmed in any way it would be necessary for him to evict all the Christians from his lands. As he is Regent, that would effectively mean from the whole of Japan."

The words were absorbed without obvious effect, the Bishop signalling calmly that he understood.

"Naturally no-one would wish to risk expulsion," he said, in his most honeyed tones. "However I am happy to assure Lord Toranaga's envoy that we have none of his samurai here. We hold no Japanese prisoners whatsoever, as he is welcome to see for himself."

Michael, translating, knew the answer to that long before Buntaro had spoken it, but restrained his eagerness to answer until the samurai had finished speaking.

"Your Grace," he said, heart thudding dangerously in his chest, "Buntaro-sama says that the man does not look Japanese. He looks European, which may have caused some confusion. He means Father Alvito," he added, worriedly.

"So I would imagine. And by what twisted logic does he claim Father Alvito to be Japanese?"

"He says ... he does not dispute that in a previous life Father Alvito was a member of our Order, but that he has recently been adopted as a member of a samurai family and is therefore Japanese. He says that naturally a lord of Toranaga-sama's importance would not give a valuable present of kimonos to just anyone, but he would certainly do so to a member of his own family."

"Are you suggesting that Lord Toranaga is claiming Father Alvito as kin?" Bewildered by the Japanese way of sidestepping problems, the Bishop could not help echoing Michael's words.

From the sleeve of his kimono, Buntaro produced a neatly-folded document bearing Toranaga's seal. The direction on the outside was written both in Japanese characters and in a European hand. Breaking the seal, the Bishop opened the paper rapidly and leaned closer to the nearest candle, the better to read it.

"'I, Yoshi Toranaga, Lord of the Kwanto, Regent of Japan, hereby adopt into my own family Martin Alvito, of unknown parentage. I hereby declare that this same Martin Alvito is now samurai and hatamoto, with all the rights and duties entailed therein, and that he is therefore subject only to Japanese law. Any action which threatens his safety and well-being will therefore be considered by me as an act of war.'"

Michael turned away to conceal a smile and met the stony glare of Buntaro. Blackthorne's Portuguese translation of the formal patent of adoption, while carrying the sense of the original, robbed it of the elegance of its language and reduced it to a crisp and understated simplicity. Taking the document as the Bishop held it out to him, he examined the seal and the date. It was an excellent piece of work.

"Your Grace, this document was drawn up and sealed before the parcel of kimonos was delivered," he said, cautiously. "It would appear that Father Alvito was already samurai before he accepted them - and that therefore he was not subject to the rules of the Order."

"And that therefore he has not transgressed them? Ingenious." Bishop Mendoza took the paper back from Michael, inspected its calligraphy and its seal, fingered its fine edges in contemplation. "Father Soldi, please bring Father Alvito to me."

"Your Grace, surely you won't ... " Soldi's incipient protest was silenced by obsidian eyes that turned on him in displeasure. He did not wait for the instruction to be repeated, but made off hurriedly towards the kitchen cellars.

No Emperor's arrival could have been more keenly anticipated; it was not only the samurai who focussed their entire attention on the doorway through which Father Soldi had disappeared, but the assembled brethren of the mission too. Rodrigues caught the Bishop's eye briefly as he, too, directed his gaze towards it, a flicker of mutual disapproval passing between them. Rodrigues had worn out his welcome at the Jesuit mission by aligning himself with Toranaga in this business; it was just as well his departure from Japan was imminent and his return improbable.

A rustle from the doorway, and then the shoji parted and Father Alvito stepped through, a very different Father Alvito from the one Rodrigues had seen in the street a few days earlier. Dressed in rusty black, this one was gaunt, pale, red-eyed and tangle-haired, and seemed to be in some difficulty walking. Nevertheless with a flash of the old arrogance he shrugged Soldi aside and made his way through the knot of gathered spectators. His arrival was the signal for all the samurai assembled, Buntaro included, to make deep and respectful bows towards him, which he acknowledged gracefully. Soldi, face like a thundercloud, closed up behind him almost menacingly as he bowed in turn to the Bishop.

"Father Alvito, I am given to understand that you have accepted service with the warlord Toranaga and that you have been adopted into his family. Is this correct?"

Blinking painfully in the sudden light, Alvito took his time before replying. "It is correct, Your Grace."

"Then you are clearly guilty of apostasy; one cannot serve both God and Toranaga."

"As Your Grace says," Alvito conceded, loftily. A long pause, and then the Bishop drew a deep breath. "You may leave with these heathens now; you have given us a salutary lesson in the evils of pride and lust, and henceforth you are forbidden any further contact with any member of this Order. You are excommunicated. May God have mercy on your heathen soul."

"Your Grace, he must be punished! He has admitted to the most horrible crimes, crimes which have injured the good name of our Order ... "

"Enough! You express yourself too freely, Father Soldi. It is time you learned obedience to those whom God has elected your superiors. This is not a matter for debate. Captain-pilot Rodrigues, you, too, are forbidden to enter this mission again on pain of excommunication. It would be wisest if you did not return to Japan. I will cleanse this place of all malign influences while there is still breath in my body!"

Less concerned with the Bishop's words than with Buntaro's actions, Rodrigues noticed that the samurai had dismounted and was calmly holding his horse's head. Reaching out, he wrapped a hand around Alvito's arm and turned him away from the mission towards the samurai convoy.

"Come along, my friend," he said, reassuringly, "let me help you." So saying, he offered a broad shoulder to lean on and somehow, inelegantly, Alvito clambered into the saddle of Buntaro's mount. Taking the reins he nodded acknowledgement to the samurai, his brain spinning far too rapidly to furnish him with coherent thought or speech at the moment. Rodrigues, also, remounted his horse, and Buntaro commandeered the horse of one of his samurai who promptly aligned himself with the footsoldiers just as if he had rehearsed for it all his life.

"Where are we going?" Alvito asked, shakily.

"My ship, Father. The Virgem Santissima. This year's Black Ship, and better and faster than any other." Pride of ownership was evident in Rodrigues' tone, and the simple emotion came as a welcome relief to Alvito after the devious twists and turns of the ecclesiastical mind. "Once you're safe aboard no-one can touch you. My word on it. And we sail with the tide."

The words were loud enough for the brethren to hear, and the knowledge that Alvito would be out of Japan and away from their well-ordered house that very night came as a profound relief to most, although for differing reasons. Only Soldi still seethed with a frustrated desire for revenge, but he concealed it carefully and made every effort to avoid the Bishop's attention as the samurai prepared to move away. In the last moment Alvito turned and exchanged a look with Michael that spoke eloquently of debts to be paid, and then the dark streets swallowed the distance between them and Alvito turned stinging eyes towards the future.

 

"Are you injured, Father?" Giving Alvito a few moments to recover his senses, Rodrigues broke the silence with the question uppermost in his mind.

"No, Captain Rodrigues, I'm not injured."

"Pardon me, Father, you seemed to be limping. If you've suffered any hurt Toranaga will want to know about it."

Annoyed at this persistence, Alvito conceded the point. "Soldi took the opportunity to land a few blows of his own," he said, dismissively. "And I'm weary. That's all. I feel as though I could sleep for a month. You mustn't think me ungrateful," he added, recalling the niceties of the situation with painful effort. "It was a wonderfully contrived bluff, and that document you had looked most convincing. The Bishop has not been in Japan long enough to understand how unlikely it would be for a samurai lord to adopt a gaijin, and fortunately no-one saw fit to enlighten him."

Puzzled, Rodrigues leaned towards him. "Did you think it was a forgery?" he asked. "I suppose it could have been, but I thought it was genuine. Well, you know the Jappers, Father, devious; if it was forged, they didn't tell me about it."

"If it was forged, Pilot, I doubt they would."

Installed in comfort aboard the Virgen Santissima barely an hour later, Alvito had availed himself of the offered opportunity of washing away the dirt and stench of his imprisonment. A wooden tub had been placed for him in Rodrigues' cabin, filled with seawater heated in the galley, and he had sunk into it with gratitude - regretting that it was not as hot as a proper Japanese bath, but only too pleased to be able to scrub away the memories of that dank and dreadful cell.

He sank down deeper into the water as the door opened and Rodrigues entered with a tray of food. Alvito's eyes widened at the sight of the fresh bread, cold meat, oatcakes and fruit. Kicking the door shut behind him, Rodrigues set the tray down and poured a mug of wine, which he handed to the man in the tub.

"Eat and drink slowly," he said. "Otherwise you'll be sick as a dog and roaring drunk."

Alvito took a cautious sip, grimaced, and then sipped again. "Thank you." He handed the mug back to Rodrigues, and resumed washing. Even naked he still wore his dignity wrapped around him like a cloak. "How long until the tide changes?"

Rodrigues shrugged. "Two hours, perhaps. If we don't sail by then we won't get out of harbour until tomorrow morning. If they come after you....."

"Unlikely."

"I'm not taking any chances. I've got armed men on deck, and there are a dozen Toranaga samurai on the quayside. One glimpse of an orange cassock and there'll be violence." Alvito absorbed the words calmly. Then, as if he really did not much care about the answer, he said; "Where is the Anjin?"

"Who?" Rodrigues dealt with his discomfiture badly, not meeting Alvito's eyes.

"John Blackthorne." A harsh, tearing note in his voice as he spoke the name. "Where is he?"

Rodrigues' face became deathly serious. He put a hand to his head, shrugging his broad shoulders uncomfortably. He had been dreading the question. "The Ingeles? I don't know, Father. He insisted on staying out of the rescue. Said he'd made you a promise."

Alvito's eyes closed and he recalled the night in the hunting-camp when he'd lain in John Blackthorne's arms - innocently enough, but if the thought was the deed then he had certainly sinned that night. It had been sweet, though, to know the depth of the Englishman's love for him. Sweet and bitter, both at the same time. He had read it in Blackthorne's eyes, heard it in his every word. And Blackthorne had made that earnest vow not to seek him out. Alvito understood the strength of the sincerity and the intent. Evidently the vow was not to be broken even in times of direst calamity; silently he approved Blackthorne's display of willpower, and wished his own had been its equal.

"Captain Rodrigues, it is no longer suitable for you to address me as 'Father'," he said, recalling himself to the present with difficulty. "My name is Martin - or Tsukku-san, if you find it easier."

Rodrigues sniffed. "You're right," he said. "But old habits die hard; don't be offended if I forget." The realisation that the man before him was no longer to be thought of as a Catholic priest came as something of a shock; even though he had been present when Alvito was excommunicated he had been so concerned with saving the man's life that he hadn't stopped to consider what that life would now be. "Maybe you'd like me to find you some other clothes? Mine are too large, but the Mate's about your size; he's got a good suit of green brocade fit for any gentleman."

Glancing ruefully at the cassock he had worn for almost a week, Alvito declined the suggestion. "No, but thank you. That must serve a little while longer," he said. "The simple fact is, I've forgotten how to wear European clothes. Unless by some miracle you have a kimono aboard?"

"Not a one," Rodrigues told him, sadly. "Not so much as a bolt of silk. I could send one of Toranaga's men to get you something from the Castle, though."

Alvito smiled. "No. It won't be necessary."

Rodrigues threw himself down on the bunk. It was a small enough cabin for one, and even smaller for two, yet it was the only fit place on board the ship to house someone as important as his guest.

"Well," he said, easily, "you've food and drink and a bed and soon you'll be clean again - and there's a guard outside ready to die defending you if needs be. You couldn't be safer in Toranaga's own Castle. Is there anything else you want - apart from to be away from here as soon as possible?"

Alvito paused in the middle of his ablutions. "Captain," he said, slowly, "for all your kindness I thank you, but I should tell you that I do not intend to sail with the Black Ship."

"You don't? What, then? You risk your life if you stay here in Osaka; if the Jesuits lay hands on you again, they'll burn you on the spot. Don't you realise they've cast you out?"

"I realise it very clearly," was the contained reply. "I also realise ... that I have made a substantial error in clinging for so long to a life that held nothing for me. Rodrigo-san, I ask one more favour of you."

"What favour?" The sea-captain's eyes narrowed with suspicion, and he sat up slightly.

"That you send a message to John Blackthorne, the Anjin," Alvito said, quietly. "Tell him I wish to see him. Tell him I am sending for him. Tell him in exactly those words."

Rodrigues swallowed his surprise only with difficulty. Then, standing up again, he took a step nearer the tub. "You wouldn't ... give him hope, only to take it away again?" he asked, sharply. "That wouldn't be the act of a friend, Martin."

"It would be cruelty beyond words," was the quiet response. "On my honour ... on such honour as I have left ... I would do nothing willingly to hurt either him or you. Does that suffice?"

"Then you'll accept him. You'll stay with him." The conclusion was not a question.

"If he has not changed his mind." The dark eyes cut through the gloom in the cabin suddenly, a flare of golden fire in the candleglow seared into Rodrigues so unexpectedly that he began to understand the answer to the question he had asked Blackthorne - the question of how it could have happened. In all the time he'd known Alvito he'd seen only the obedient priest, the dutiful and efficient administrator, the talented interpreter; he'd never seen the passion that illuminated the man's soul.

Madonna, if ever there was a wolf in sheep's clothing it's him! he marvelled silently. All the years I've known the man, I never could have guessed it. Put a sword in his hand and give him an army to command and he'd conquer any nation under Heaven. How could such a man ever be content with the priesthood when the world outside is so large? 

And Blackthorne had seen that, and had freed him.

You've loosed a tiger, my friend, he thought, mischievously. Now let's see if you can hold on to him! By all the angels, this tale gets better and better every day!

"Ah, I doubt he's changed his mind, my friend!" Rodrigues told him, with conviction. "Once the Ingeles fixes on an idea, it's set forever - and he's fixed on you." He pulled a coarse linen sheet out of the underbed locker. "Let me help you out," he said, throwing the sheet over his shoulder and approaching the tub. "Then while you dress and eat I'll take the message to the Castle. Myself," he added, meeting the interrogating gaze calmly.

Alvito nodded slowly, accepting the generous offer in the spirit in which it was made.

"Thank you," he said, rising to his feet and leaning heavily upon Rodrigues's shoulder as he clambered out of the water.

 It was not easy to convince the guard commander that he needed a footsoldier as escort through the city, but eventually Rodrigues managed it. Any member of his own crew would have gone with him unquestioningly, but so far he had managed to keep his own formidable bulk between them and the wrath of the Church - and if he could continue to do so he would. There was no reason why any of them should come under the threat of excommunication; it wasn't their fight. It wasn't his fight, either, in truth, but he had got himself involved in it out of separate debts of gratitude to Blackthorne and Alvito; if he could pay both those debts in one, so much the better.

He couldn't communicate with Buntaro's man, except in the most basic of terms. The soldier walked along behind him, scanning streets and alleyways for any perceived threat, hand constantly on the hilt of his sword. It was enough that a foreigner in Osaka at night had an escort wearing Toranaga's colours; no bandit or other importuner would dare make any approach to him.

Obviously, though, the man's instructions had not extended to protecting Rodrigues from his fellow Europeans. Before he had nicely got halfway up the hill he found himself facing the very thing he had dreaded most - the orange-cassocked figure of a Jesuit.

"Where away, Captain?" Soldi asked, standing across the passageway Rodrigues and his escort had just entered.

"The Castle," Rodrigues answered shortly. "Let me pass, please, Father."

Soldi, however, stood his ground. Wearily glancing aside at his escort, Rodrigues was suddenly and unhappily aware that for him, at least, the night's travails were far from over.

 

Blackthorne was on the battlements of the Castle with Omi, looking out over the town towards the harbour. If he screwed up his eyes and peered into the darkness he could make out the bulk of the Virgem Santissima alongside, her elegant lines partly obscured by the intervening oblong of a building. Even at night the lights along the quayside made it possible to see a great deal from this vantage point, and Blackthorne was accustomed to scanning distant horizons and making rapid decisions about what he saw there. He envied Rodrigues the vessel; the Virgem Santissima was a masterpiece of shipbuilding, constructed to stand up to any weather that might be thrown at her and yet swift enough to outrun any buccaneer who tried her.

Rodrigues had expected Blackthorne and his new ship to make the attempt. He'd admitted as much during that endless night at the hunting-camp. He'd suspected that whatever vessel the Englishman and his Japanese craftsmen constructed would be more than a match for the old Nao del Trato, and he'd insisted on a newer and better ship. But The Lady was no longer Blackthorne's to command. Toranaga had taken her away from him and given her to some damned itinerant Dutchman in the China trade - who had promptly lost both her and himself in a taifun. A year's work, wasted; the finest ship in Japanese waters sunk on the Shogun's whim.

"If I still had my ship ... " he said, aloud.

Omi recognised the tone of the words, but not the meaning. Blackthorne had spoken in English, something he rarely did any more.

"Gomen nasai, Anjin-san," he said. "I understand 'ship', but not the rest of what you said."

"I'm sorry, Omi-san. I was thinking that if I had my ship, The Lady, I could have taken Alvito out of Japan myself."

"But you would have broken your promise, Anjin-san."

"Yes. I know that. But the promise was made only because we were both trapped here in Japan. Because neither of us could leave."

"So, Anjin-san, I think I understand. But do you truly feel 'trapped' in Japan? You have great freedom, and Toranaga-sama's favour - do you truly wish to leave?"

Blackthorne turned his attention away from the shoreline and gave Omi a rueful smile. "I don't know, Omi-san," he said. "Once, before Mariko-sama died, Alvito asked me where I belonged. I had no answer then, and I have no answer now. I love Japan with all my heart, but it's cruel to think I will never see England again. And now that Tsukku-san is free to leave, what does Japan hold for me?"

Omi looked away. Such love towards a man was foreign to his nature, although when he considered his love for Lady Kiku it seemed less so. If it had been Kiku leaving Japan forever and leaving him behind, he would also have petitioned Toranaga for permission to commit suicide. He knew better than to suggest that the Anjin might find some consolation with another lover, or that his wounds would heal in time.

"Anjin-san," he said, "sometimes the gods play cruel tricks on mortals. We mustn't resent it, it's just their way. In this life you and Tsukku-san may be parted, but there are other lives - surely you know that? After death you will both return, and perhaps in the next life or the one after that you will be together. If it is meant to be, Anjin-san, it will be. That's karma, neh?"

"My karma is to love and lose," Blackthorne told him, bitterly.

"No, Anjin-san. Your karma is to learn from this life so that in the next life you can be happier. It is the same for everyone."

The open sympathy in Omi's tone touched Blackthorne's heart. The young samurai did not understand his feelings and freely admitted to it, but he was prepared to stand by him as a staunch friend whatever mischief those feelings might engender.

"Omi-san, if Lord Toranaga gives me permission to die I should like you to be my witness," he said, abruptly.

Omi's eyes became large and alarmed in the torchlight. "You honour me, Anjin-sama, but please do not consider seppuku just yet. You are still of so much value to Lord Toranaga, and to Japan."

"When he considers the time is right, he'll give his permission," Blackthorne told him, sagely. "He's a wise man, our Master."

"Hai, Anjin-san, he is. And if he gives his permission, of course I will be honoured to stand with you."

"Then let it be soon," Blackthorne said, suddenly vicious, reverting to English as the hopelessness of his situation struck home.

Why should I go on living, when there is nothing left in life? he asked himself, bitterly. Life's a curse, and I'd as soon be rid of it.

Somewhere below, on that tiny vessel whose slender threads bound it to the shore, was Martin Alvito, about to leave his life for the last time. Martin, whom he had held in his arms throughout that one, bewildering night when love had been acknowledged and shared but there had been no touch between them more intimate than an embrace. They had even slept. Certainly they had barely spoken, simply remaining locked together in that one convulsive hold all night, his cheek resting on Alvito's forehead, Alvito's arms around his waist. At the time he had felt it might be the only comfort they were ever to share, but he had at least cherished the hope of seeing Alvito - even at a distance - thereafter. Now even that hope was gone.

"Gomen nasai, Anjin-sama."

Turning suddenly Blackthorne saw Naga in the doorway behind, bowing gravely.

"Hai, Naga-sama." He returned the bow. "Nan ja?"

"Anjin-san, a messenger from the front gate; the sweating barbarian is asking to see you. He says it's urgent."

"Rodrigues?"

"Yes. Please, Anjin-san, will you go and speak to him? He is disturbing the harmony of the Castle and Lord Toranaga will be extremely angry if he hears of it."

Exchanging a glance with Omi, Blackthorne tore himself away from the vista of harbour and sea. The Black Ship could scarcely sail without her Captain, and if there was some delay ... Hope rose in him, a wild and illogical sensation that swamped common sense. Pushing past Omi and Naga, he had left the Castle and was on his way down its long, shallow stairway before he had time for thought, mania lending speed to his steps as it had on that long ago occasion when he'd feigned madness on this very spot to save Toranaga's life.

He arrived at the gatehouse out of breath and sweating like a barbarian. Rodrigues had seated himself on a convenient rock. He rose as Blackthorne drew near and moved forward to greet him, a grim expression on his normally cheerful features and a silver-mounted pistol thrust into his belt.

"What's amiss?" Blackthorne's tone was sharper than he had intended, but Rodrigues' warlike aspect worried him.

The Portuguese took a deep breath, and heaved out a long sigh. "He'll go with you, Ingeles," he said, uncomfortably. "By God, I hope you know what you're doing." Alert for any threat, Blackthorne's hand went to the hilt of his sword, but either instinct or the set of Rodrigues' shoulders told him it would not be needed; there wasn't a hint of malice in the man's posture, only tiredness. "Get him off my ship, Pilot," Rodrigues told him, in a soft tone that was little more than a whisper. "Priests aboard ship are bad luck, and this one's worse than most."

"What do you mean?"

Exasperated, Rodrigues glared at him. "The message you've been waiting for, Ingeles. 'Tell him I send for him'. Take your heart's desire, you poor bastard, and do whatever it is the two of you are so desperate to do together. But be careful - the Jesuits are trying to take him back. Bring him here, keep him safe. Madonna, this isn't happening!" he growled, passing a hand over his face in confusion. "Listen, Ingeles, the tide changes in an hour, and if I'm not away before then they'll use that stake for me. They sent a man to intercept me, and I had to kill him."

"I said there would be no killing!"

"So you did, Ingeles, so you did."

Reading the expression on Rodrigues' face in one appalled glance, Blackthorne turned back to the gatekeepers and began to issue orders in rapid Japanese; orders about preparing suitable accommodation for the Tsukku-san, who would be staying with them after all. Even as he spoke he did not believe the words he uttered, convinced that he was the victim of some fantastic trick of Rodrigues' - or, more likely, of the Jesuits, with Rodrigues as their innocent dupe.

"If this is a lie, I'll run you through," he promised Rodrigues savagely.

"Madonna, Ingeles, I'd fall on your sword rejoicing!" Rodrigues told him, sourly. "Just stand by me through the town in case that Spaniard has men on the streets looking for me. Although how he could know just yet ... Never mind, it was richly deserved. I can't believe God takes any pleasure in being served by creatures like Soldi."

"Soldi? You killed Soldi?"

"Haven't I just said so, Ingeles? That pox of a Spanish Bishop sent him out to find me, to try and turn me back. He was full of threats - oh, not against you or me, but against Brother Michael. They know well enough who it was who passed the word, but I doubt they'll try to hurt him now; they'll think it was Toranaga's men who killed the priest, and you'd do well to let them go on thinking it." He laughed, a nervous, barbarous sound. "Give that Buntaro footsoldier the credit for rescuing me from an enemy, if you like; I won't be here to give him the lie. And watch over Michael, Pilot. He's too good a man to rot away in that mission all his life."

"He'll be safe. I'll put him in Omi's care."

"Good enough. Now give me a samurai escort back to my ship, and let me be on my way. And God curse your rotten English soul for falling in love with a priest; I'll burn in hell now, for your sake!"

"Then we'll meet there," Blackthorne told him grimly.

"That I don't doubt."

The long walk down through Osaka seemed to take forever; there were eyes and ears in every shadow, fleeting glimpses of shapes that moved when they should not, shapes that watched them pass. Rodrigues seemed possessed, eyes bulging with fear. Death that came to him in the ordinary way he could face and defeat on its own terms, but death brought by priests in defence of their laws terrified him.

Blackthorne scarcely spared him a thought, although he too was alert to every unexplained movement. Aware of the curious eyes of his samurai on him, he still managed to move slowly and with dignity. In truth he was more afraid of what he would find aboard the Black Ship than he had been of anything in his life. The nightmares he had endured about Alvito's execution had shown him exactly what the man was facing for his sake; if Alvito had been subject to similar haunts the effect on his sanity could have been devastating. Surely even the priest's legendary serenity could not have survived contemplation of an imminent, agonising death? Was he on his way now to remove a broken madman from Rodrigues' charge?

Yet the message had been clear enough. 'Tell him I send for him'.

At the foot of the gangplank Rodrigues halted and drew his pistol. The sharp scent of treachery was in the air, and every samurai of their escort and the dozen more on the quay tensed.

"Give him this," Rodrigues told him, pushing the gun into Blackthorne's hands. "From one Portuguese soldier of fortune to another."

Blackthorne tucked the weapon into his obi. "Why don't you give it to him yourself?" he asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously.

"You know why, Ingeles," was the simple reply. "Martin Alvito's still by a long way the best man who ever wore a Jesuit's cassock, and you know damned well he'd only have to take one look at me to know what I'd done." Rodrigues' good humour returned briefly, and he clapped a huge, warm hand on Blackthorne's shoulder. "This is 'goodbye', Ingeles," he said. "I won't be back this way. You might look for me some year at the Canton Silk Fair; I've done well enough to be trading on my own account. We'll meet again if the Lord spares us."

Blackthorne's scowl had melted into a quizzical expression of bemusement. Adrift without bearings, he could do nothing but follow the course Rodrigues had set.

"Aye, Pilot," he said, warmly. "If God spares us, at the Canton Silk Fair. Domo arigato gozaimashita." He bowed, his best, formal Japanese bow.

"Do itamashite, you heathen samurai bastard, and God be with you both. Now get that God-cursed motherless priest off my ship before I throw the pair of you in the harbour. He's on the forecastle," he finished, a warm smile belying the harshness of his words. "Take what happiness you can, Ingeles. Life's short. Cast off for'ard," he bellowed down the quayside to one of his crew. "We sail as soon as the lubbers are ashore. Bosun, stand by to warp us out."

Turning away from Blackthorne, he continued giving orders to his crew as though the Englishman had ceased to exist - as perhaps, for Rodrigues, he already had.

 

Blackthorne moved slowly through the waist of the ship, climbing the ladder to the forecastle without thought, aware only of the gentle movement of the tide beneath the keel. From the higher level there was an extended view of the harbour, still busy with lights and activity during the hours of darkness. Torches and lanterns on the quayside and lamps hung from the rigging of the Virgem Santissima illuminated the scene as though it were the middle of the day, but in the very centre of Blackthorne's vision was a point of utter darkness - a slender, black-clad form silhouetted against the flames. This was an encounter more terrifying than his appearance at Lady Ochiba's reception all those years ago, when Ishido and all the other Japanese had been alert for an excuse to have the barbarian condemned to death for some imagined insult; now, as then, he knew that every move, every word, was a trapdoor which could plunge him into a never-ending fall. As he had done on that occasion, Blackthorne relied on the precise rituals of Japanese etiquette to guide him. Bowing low, he made respectful greeting.

"Konbanwa, Tsukku-sama." Good evening, most honoured interpreter.

The honorific startled Alvito. He turned abruptly from his contemplation of the lights on the water to find Blackthorne standing at the prescribed distance, awaiting his acknowledgement before raising his head.

"Konbanwa, Anjin-sama," he replied, his tone hushed and apprehensive as he returned the bow with equal dignity. "Once again, I thank you for my life."

"The pleasure of seeing you safe and well is all the thanks I need," Blackthorne told him unguardedly, and registered the shock of the words in Alvito's dark eyes. "May I have the honour of escorting you to Lord Toranaga's Castle?"

"Thank you. I should value your protection."

"I have two dozen samurai," was the businesslike response. "And you now own a pistol - a gift from a countryman of yours." Smiling as the sound of Rodrigues' bellowing cut through the night, Blackthorne placed the pistol in Alvito's hands. "If your people want you back, they'll find they have a fight on their hands."

"They are not my people," Alvito replied sharply. "The Society of Jesus has disowned me. I am excommunicated. Cast into darkness." He was examining the pistol with distracted detachment, as though he had never seen one before. Belatedly it occurred to Blackthorne that a priest would have had little use for such a weapon.

"I'll teach you to fire it," he said bluntly. "For now, put it in your belt. Are you ready to leave?"

Alvito did as instructed. "I should thank Rodrigo-san."

"No. You would take away his face."

An arched eyebrow turned quizzically in Blackthorne's direction as Alvito wrestled with a question that in the end he did not ask. The Japanese notion of 'face' was so strong in him that he heeded Blackthorne's warning and did not trespass further. Instead he accepted Blackthorne's assistance in descending the steep ladder to the main deck before he spoke again.

"I trust you will explain that remark when time permits?" was all he said, folding his hands in front of him and giving Blackthorne a look sharper than a samurai knife.

"Before the night is over, on my honour. We're to find Rodrigues in Canton some years hence," Blackthorne told him, by way of response. He was watching every movement of Alvito's, catching every nuance in his tone, struggling to detect any evidence of the man's state of mind.

"Then I am ready to leave," Alvito assured him, on a wistful exhalation that implied a certain reluctance.

The assertion was made in such an unremarkable manner that for a moment Blackthorne was not fully seized of its importance and had in fact already turned away before the impact of the words struck him. When he turned back he met Alvito's calm gaze with renewed astonishment.

"You make it sound such a simple thing," he commented, ironically, stepping aside to allow Alvito to precede him. "But it is not simple at all."

"This is Japan, Anjin-san," was the placid response. "In Japan, everything is simple."

Blackthorne followed him down the gangplank and, like him, returned the salutations of the attendant samurai. "Then I say to you - as you once said to me, Tsukku-san - 'You will never leave'."

The words echoed in Alvito's mind. He recollected well the occasion on which he had spoken them, and the emotions that had prompted him to do so. They had been as correct then as they were now.

"John Blackthorne," he said, tasting the name with the beginnings of a smile, "in time, perhaps, you will be convinced ... You and Japan between you have laid claim to my spirit. I have no desire to leave either of you."

Blackthorne's eyes were on him, devouring his, blue eyes meeting brown in a sudden harmony of understanding.

"You mean it. By God, you mean it!" He was almost incoherent with the shock of the revelation.

"Yes, by God, I do." The mild certainty in the tone held humour, also, and the promise that words spoken in private would add more, far more, to public politeness - for although they spoke in Portuguese there were many in the immediate area who could understand every word.

"I have quarters in the Castle," Blackthorne said, cautiously. "Would it please you to go there with me, or do you prefer that I make some other arrangement?" He could not, for the life of him, remember the substance of the commands he had shouted as he left; he suspected they had been incoherent in any language. Omi, who had remained behind, must make what sense of them he could.

"It would please me to remain in your company," Alvito told him, with sincerity. "I have been alone more than I could have wished."

With a scorch of pity mingled with guilt Blackthorne recollected the punishment the priest had endured - and the death he would have suffered.

"You shall not be alone unless you choose to be," he said, savagely. "My word on it."

"I do not choose to be."

Blackthorne nodded. "Stay close beside me," he said. "I won't risk losing you to an attack on our way through the city."

He gave orders to his samurai to form around them in close echelon, those at the front and back bearing torches, and when he was satisfied with the security of their disposition he gave the order to move.

A fair wind and a calm sea, Rodrigo-san, he thought, stepping away from the golden pool of the Virgem Santissima's lights. The crew were already hauling in the gangplank and loosing the last of the hawsers, hands unfurling canvas at every yard. Blackthorne watched with a mariner's experienced eye, approving the efficiency of the crew. Rodrigues was no plague-ridden Dutchman to lose a ship in the first puff of wind; he'd be there in Canton, just as he said, asking for news of them and padding the price of his silks outrageously. It would be a meeting to relish. God keep you, you murdering Portuguese pirate!

Rodrigues was watching him from the deck; watching the samurai convoy grouped close around the two Europeans as it reached the lee of a quayside warehouse and turned away up the hill towards the town and the Castle. A fresh breeze was in the shrouds and the current was livening beneath the keel; in an hour the lights of shore would be far astern and he could forget all about Osaka and its people and its problems and all about the priest he had killed.

By the stars, Ingeles, he said to himself silently, it's bad company I mix with - an English pilot and a sodomite priest. But take your stolen happiness, you miserable sinner; take whatever God gives you, and be as happy as you can. If ever a man walked into trouble with his eyes open, it's you.

As he watched, Martin Alvito paused and turned to look back towards the ship. For a second his eyes met those of Rodrigues and the pilot knew a moment of panic, but Alvito merely inclined his head briefly with samurai dignity in a gesture eloquent of gratitude - and as quickly was gone. Rodrigues felt a judder run through the ship as she slipped her last line to shore and began to move out into the black water. When he turned to bellow a further set of orders to his crew, his voice had lost something of its harshness and his eyes were wet - but the drying breeze from the shore and the importance of the task ahead conspired between them to put both matters right almost at once.

 

* * *

SIX

 

The samurai on the main gate saluted the little convoy respectfully as it passed. Their slow progress through the town had been nerve-stretching, Blackthorne's hand always on the hilt of his sword as imagined and unimaginable terrors lurked in every shadow, but they were not molested in any way. Idly he wondered how Rodrigues had disposed of Soldi's body, and whether it had been found yet; he had made a point of not asking the pilot where the incident had taken place, but he knew exactly where he himself would have laid an ambush on this route and there certainly seemed to be fresh blood on the road at that point. It was difficult to tell, as the moon was behind a cloud and the flares they carried with them showed only a dully reflecting surface; it could have been anything, but Blackthorne was inclined to believe he had identified the place where Soldi had died.

'Tell me I won't have to kill a priest', Rodrigues had begged, and Blackthorne had assured him it would not be necessary. Well, that had been a pious hope that went unfulfilled - and yet Rodrigues' conscience had not seemed unduly troubled by what he had done, apart from an understandable desire not to face Alvito with the knowledge of his actions. However it could very well be that Rodrigues had underestimated his countryman. The last threads of Martin's loyalty had been sundered at his excommunication; surely even his charitable heart would find pity for Soldi or anger at his death almost impossible.

Within the confines of Toranaga's own holding it was possible to relax a little. Blackthorne nodded sharp acknowledgement of the salute they received, then turned to smile tautly at his companion. Alvito was slightly out of breath from the swiftness of the journey, from sudden activity after his captivity. The smile he returned was faint and exhausted.

"Sleep," Blackthorne said, in Portuguese. "That's what you need, and plenty of it."

"I agree, but I think that may have to wait." Glancing up, he directed Blackthorne's attention to Naga and Omi descending towards them, with two footsoldiers carrying flares accompanying them. Reluctantly Blackthorne schooled his face into a welcoming expression and greeted the two Japanese formally.

"Naga-san. Omi-san. Konbanwa."

Returning his greeting, Naga turned immediately to Alvito.   "Tsukku-san, ikaga desu ka?"

"Thank you, Naga-san, I'm well enough but very tired."

"Hai, Tsukku-san, I understand, but Toranaga-sama orders you both to attend him immediately. I think," he added, cautiously, "he's very angry about something. That barbarian who was here earlier annoyed him."

Blackthorne, reflecting on how much Toranaga disliked being forced to act in haste, could well understand that Rodrigues' sudden and unannounced appearance would have caused considerable disturbance to the orderly routine of Castle life, and indeed as Naga conducted them up the long stone stairway and into the Castle itself there seemed to be a considerable bustle of activity taking place despite the late hour.  Guards were at their accustomed posts in corridors and at stairways and outside important rooms, but there were more of them than Blackthorne could recall seeing at any time since Toranaga had become master of Ishido's stronghold, and a surprising number of the women of the household were also milling about. Resignedly he dismissed their presence as the result of overpowering curiosity; by now everyone from Naga down to the garden boy knew exactly what had been happening, and why. They had all crowded around - under the pretence of having urgent things to do in the middle of the night - to take a glance at the priest at the centre of such undignified proceedings, to obtain some vicarious pleasure from imagining the two barbarians together, and to observe if there should be any embarrassing indiscretion between the two foreigners. Although the Anjin had almost the manners of a Japanese - of a very well-brought-up country person, perhaps - there was always the nagging uncertainty that he might do something completely alien to their customs and good taste, something that just crossed the borderline between amusing and annoying.  At his side Alvito was pale, red-eyed, but neatly groomed and clean; a man who had suffered, certainly, but was determined to overcome physical weakness. They exchanged no words as they climbed the main staircase towards the reception room; in fact, it was observed that they did not so much glance at one another. What sort of love was this, that could not bear to look towards its beloved? The Japanese, pausing in their make-work tasks to watch the foreigners pass, had no answers.

Naga paused outside the elaborately-painted shoji of the reception room, nodded to the guards, and the screens were parted briskly. It was no surprise to Blackthorne that Toranaga was already in his place on the dais, apparently awaiting them with some impatience. His gaze on them as they made their bows was stony and cold, his earlier avuncular concern dispelled perhaps by the lateness of the hour and the irregular nature of their conduct. Obeying his imperious gesture they stepped forward, bowed again, and knelt before him in the approved manner. Naga and his samurai, meanwhile, took up places in the room appropriate to their rank.

Toranaga took a long time to examine both faces before he spoke, assessing the dutiful expressions of their countenances, the barely-suppressed admixture of terror and delight they experienced in one another's company, the misgivings his own harshness was producing in them.  At length he said, gruffly; "So, Anjin. Yet again you have put me to a great deal of inconvenience on your behalf."

Blackthorne nodded. "Yes, Toranaga-sama. I'm very sorry, but I thank you for your help. Domo arigato gozaimashita."

"Hmmm. There may come a time, Anjin, when mere thanks are not quite enough. When some repayment may be required of you."

"Yes, Sire. I understand."

With a dismissive grunt, Toranaga turned his attention to Alvito.  "Tsukku-san," he said, carefully, "I made you a gift of clothing. I understand some of it has fallen into the possession of the Christian daimyo. It is not good manners to be so neglectful of a gift from a superior person."

"No, Toranaga-sama, it is not. I humbly apologise for my carelessness."  Bowing, he glanced up to see Blackthorne regarding him with a thunderstruck expression.

The man had just been released from a death sentence, and here he was apologising for the loss of a kimono? There were aspects of the Japanese character he still found it difficult to reconcile himself to, and it seemed to him that Alvito's contrition was a totally disproportionate reaction in the circumstances. Yet the priest had a slight, confident smile on his lips and there appeared to be some understanding passing between him and Toranaga. It was too late at night for one of Toranaga's bizarre word-games, and Blackthorne's temper was beginning to fray.

"Very well. You will pay me a small fine for your negligence. Shall we say twenty koku?" The warlord was suddenly brisk and businesslike, gesturing to a scribe who sat a short distance away to record the transaction.

Alvito's stern glance in his direction forestalled Blackthorne's protest before it could be spoken. Instead the former priest bent his head respectfully and said; "Sire, it is a very fair decision but I regret that I do not possess twenty koku. I have no possessions except the clothes I am wearing and one pistol recently given to me by Captain Rodrigues, and I have no way of earning my living in order to repay you. Is there some other way I can make amends for my carelessness?"

His bluff called, Toranaga allowed himself the semblance of a smile.  "Yes," he said, "I had intended to speak to you about those clothes you are wearing. Most unsuitable for a person of your rank. Has that garment you are wearing any value?"

"My cassock, Toranaga-sama? It is silk, but it is not new and has been worn many times. Its value is very small - except, perhaps, as a remembrance of my service to God."

"Is your service to God ended, then?"

"No, Sire, I hope not."

"So desu ka. Well, it is my decision that your 'cassock' is worth twenty koku. I will accept it in payment for the kimono; when it is clean you may present it to me."

"I will, Sire, and gratefully."

"And the next time I see you I will expect you to be properly dressed, neh?"

"Yes, Toranaga-sama."

"Good. As the head of the Minowara family - one of the oldest and most respected samurai families in Japan - I expect the members of that family, however junior, to conduct themselves with dignity. I have not taken you out of the service of your former daimyo and adopted you as a relation only in order to have you treat me with the disrespect you showed towards him."

A startled gasp from Alvito drew Blackthorne's attention towards him and away from Toranaga. Unwittingly he leaned a little closer, as if the man might be in need of his protection, but Alvito was only struggling to master his own astonishment.  "Is something the matter?" Blackthorne asked, concernedly.

"Nothing. Only ... Toranaga-sama, I'm afraid I don't quite understand.  I thought that the document Buntaro-san delivered to the Bishop was only a  ... a device, a trick. Is it possible ... I did not think a lord of your importance would wish to adopt a foreigner into his own family."

The expression on the daimyo's face was still stern. These were serious matters, and even though he retained great affection for both foreigners it was politic not to allow them to see it for the time being.  His anger with them and their gratitude to him were the only things of importance at the moment. The rest could come later.  "I am surprised, Anjin-no Tsukku, that you would consider me capable of forging an official document," he said, harshly. "Your captivity at the mission must have unsettled your reason. Naturally the patent of adoption was a genuine one, and of course it was sealed before I invited you on the hunting trip. It would not be proper to invite a Christian priest on such a journey, but you were invited as a distant relation of mine. I would not normally accept a person of foreign birth as a relation, but I am convinced that you have no intention of fathering any children who would dilute our bloodline. If you ever did so, their lives would be forfeit."

Alarmed, Alvito found his mind unequal to the task of interpreting all the ramifications of Toranaga's words. Instead he fastened on what seemed the simplest detail. "Sire, please be assured that I have never had any desire to ... to make children. I shall never put you to the inconvenience of disposing of any child of mine."

Toranaga nodded. "So," he said, approvingly. "That being the case, then, you now enjoy all the rights and privileges of a member of the Minowara family. You are Japanese. You are samurai, and hatamoto. I understand that you have no sword, and no knowledge of how to use one?"

"No, Sire. I have had no training as a warrior."

"That's bad. I require my samurai to be capable swordsmen. Anjin, you will give Tsukku-san your sword 'Oil-seller' and the katana that goes with it, and you will instruct him in their use. Omi, you may also help in this instruction. Buntaro, you may teach him bowmanship. You are no longer a priest, Tsukku-san; to be of service to me, you must be able to fight."

"Wakarimasu, Toranaga-sama. I will do my best to learn all that these warriors can teach me."

"So desu ka. I will have more instructions for you tomorrow, but tonight you will rest and refresh yourself. From tomorrow you are a new person, in a new life. It is a privilege granted to few men, my friend. I rely on you not to waste it."

Bowing low, Alvito seemed to be fighting an access of emotion. "Sire, I will try to be worthy of your great favour," he said softly. "Domo arigato gozaimashita."

Dismissively Toranaga turned his attention to Blackthorne, allowing Alvito a moment to recover his composure.  "It is reported to me that a European has been killed in the streets of Osaka," he said, briskly. "A priest whose name was Soldi. Do you know anything about this?"

"Not directly, Sire, but I have been told that one of Buntaro-san's men was forced to kill a gaijin in order to defend Rodrigo-san's life. I heard, Sire, that it was a most courageous act. I know Rodrigo-san was very grateful."

The answer seemed to satisfy Toranaga. "Hmmm. And where is the foreign pilot now?"

Blackthorne answered with raised eyebrows, signalling both to Toranaga and to the others present that he was well aware that the warlord had known the answer to that question long before he asked it. It would be most surprising if he was not intimately acquainted with every one of Rodrigues' actions of this evening.

"The Black Ship has sailed, Toranaga-sama. Captain Rodrigues sailed with it. We were present on the quay and can attest to that."

"Then it is settled," Toranaga said, firmly. "You are no longer foreigners, you are Japanese. Either of you may worship whatever gods you choose, but you will do so privately. Attendance at any Christian service is forbidden you, unless it is conducted by you in your own apartments. You are samurai first, Christians second. Do you understand?"

The two foreign samurai acknowledged his command. "Yes, Sire."

"Good. Tsukku-san, you will reside in the Anjin's quarters to begin with. If you require separate accommodation in due course you may request it. And before you leave, there is something you should both know."   Casting off his mask of displeasure he leaned forward as though confidentially, although his words were still audible throughout the room.  "Whatever may be known about a person's pillowing - about his preferences, or his habits - in his own room his privacy is inviolable. Our buildings are made of wood, my friends, and our walls are made of paper, and as we are an inquisitive race of people and we like to gossip you might suspect that we were also a race of spies. Everyone is curious to see you, to watch you together; it's only natural. When a man and woman marry there is always the same curiosity among ill-educated people who have nothing better to think about. It will pass in time; they will find some other entertainment. For tonight, remember this; in Japan, lovers - any lovers - have the privilege of a special privacy. Whatever lovers may say or do when they are alone together takes place behind an eightfold fence - a strong defence between themselves and the world. There is no-one in this Castle who would trespass across that fence. Though your walls are made of paper, no-one can hear or see what may occur behind them. In public, people may stare - but they would all give their lives to protect your privacy."

To Blackthorne, who had been instructed by Mariko in the Japanese notions of secrecy about pillowing matters, this open re-statement of the concept of the eightfold fence seemed to be directed quite as much at the attendants in the reception room as it was to himself and Alvito. In assuring them of their privacy, Toranaga was also issuing an oblique warning to anyone who might be tempted to let his prurient curiosity get the better of him. Glancing towards Alvito he caught sight of the last remnant of a fading blush, so endearingly unfamiliar on the usually confident features.  Suddenly there was amusement, even triumph, in the situation; it was not the aftermath of an unpleasant battle of wills between Toranaga and Bishop Mendoza, it was the beginning of a startling new set of challenges. For Blackthorne, although he had been slow to recognise it, it was victory.

Despite Toranaga's reassuring words it was not easy to retain either their dignity or their confidence on the short journey from the reception room to Blackthorne's quarters. The passages still seemed more than ordinarily bustling for the time of night, and many of the guard samurai seemed to be smirking knowingly as though contemplating the scenes that would take place in the shelter of that eightfold fence. Blackthorne, however, managed to retain sufficient presence of mind to dismiss all but two trusted men who were placed in the corridor immediately outside. Then, sliding back the shoji, he stepped aside for Alvito to enter the room ahead of him. Tiny lanterns had been set at intervals around the floor, and two futons placed side-by-side in the centre of the room. A chill of fear ran through Blackthorne as he tried to remember what commands he had issued in those frantic minutes before he went down to the ship; he didn't think he had ordered the room to be set out like this, but he hardly knew what he had said.  A tray of sake on a low table drew his attention. He certainly felt the need of a drink after the day he had just endured - and belatedly he realised that however much he had suffered, Alvito had suffered still more.

"Will you sit?" he asked, softly. "Perhaps you'd like sake?"

Alvito drew the pistol from his belt and handed it to Blackthorne. "I assume I will not need this here?" he asked, lightly.

"I hope not." Stepping to one side, Blackthorne set the pistol on the floor in the alcove in front of the carved stand on which he kept his swords. He removed both swords from his obi and placed them correctly on their stand, with a small bow to the souls of the ancestors who inhabited them.

"I own a pistol," Alvito said, seating himself in the approved Japanese fashion. "It seems incredible."

Blackthorne poured sake quite formally, and handed it to his guest with a bow. "Rodrigues said, 'From one Portuguese soldier of fortune to another'," he told him, with a smile.

"Is that what I am? A soldier of fortune?"

"I don't know. I don't think I am the best person to ask."

"Perhaps not. Kampai," he added, drinking. "Good health, my friend."

Blackthorne returned the toast. "You are samurai and hatamoto," he observed, returning to their earlier discussion. "A member of Toranaga's own family, no less. Those swords are yours; you'll wear them tomorrow, even if you don't know how to use them."

"I've heard that samurai who have no skill with weapons are sometimes given wooden swords," Alvito smiled. "So that they can be of no harm either to themselves or to anyone else. Perhaps it would have been safer in my case."

Incensed, Blackthorne almost choked. "Never!" he said. "Think of the disgrace!"

Amused, Alvito watched as he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his kimono. "Yes," he said at length. "I must get used to thinking like a Japanese, now that I have become one. It appears that I have a new name," he added, as though it was of little consequence. "Did you notice that Toranaga addressed me as Anjin-no Tsukku - Pilot's Interpreter? Well, I have been Martin Alvito for twenty-seven years and 'Father Alvito' for almost fifteen; a new name will not be easy to accept, but I must say that I like it. Before I met Father dell'Aqua," he added, answering an unspoken question, "my name was Joao. 'John'."

"The same as mine?"

"Yes. But Anjin-no Tsukku is better, don't you think?"

"Yes."

"I truly believed," Alvito went on, "that the paper was a forgery.  That Toranaga would adopt me into his family - I thought it a convenient fiction. Was it his idea, or yours?"

Blackthorne laughed sharply. "Neither. It wouldn't have occurred to me, and Toranaga was waiting for someone else to suggest a solution. It was your friend Michael who thought of it and gave the idea to Omi. He only asked that you be made samurai and hatamoto and the patent be dated back to before the hunting trip; adopting you was Toranaga's improvement on the scheme. Now that he has done so, the Jesuits would be very unwise to try and harm you."

"They will not try." The certainty was so firm that it stunned Blackthorne, and he made as if to protest. "No," Alvito continued quickly.  "The Bishop is a harsh man, but he has no stomach for a long-drawn-out revenge. I could see it in his eyes when he had me brought from my prison - and before that, when he sentenced me to die. He had been forced into a situation not of his own choosing; it was Gregory who manouevred him into it. A man who has only just come to Japan is easy prey for one more versed in the customs of the place. I left the mission at the wrong time, and Gregory made his move. His motives were only too clear; he was always jealous of my intimacy with Father dell'Aqua, and he wanted the same for himself with Mendoza."

"Intimacy?" The word had more than one meaning. Blackthorne sought clarification.

"To work with him closely. To be a friend as well as a subordinate, as I was with the Father Visitor."

"And it was worth your life?"

"Not at first, perhaps. I think he sought only my disgrace, but my death would have served his purpose just as well. The situation was beyond his control, however. And now, he is dead and I am alive."

"He made threats against Michael," Blackthorne supplied. "You were safe, but he was not. Rodrigues had no choice."

"Then Rodrigues killed him, not the bodyguard? That was what you meant about taking away his face? That I would see in his eyes that he had killed a priest? Was he truly afraid I would censure him for it? I should have thanked him warmly, for Michael's sake."

"Then you can do so in Canton, at the Silk Fair, two years hence," Blackthorne promised rashly. "He will be thoroughly European again by then, and we'll disgust him with our Japanese ways." His smile fading, he regarded Alvito with a long, appraising glance as though assessing the effect his travails had had upon the man.  "You astonish me," he said, mildly.

"Oh? Why?"

"Everything is different," Blackthorne told him. "You've walked to the edge of Hell and turned back; you've seen everything in your life fall to pieces around you; you've admitted to feelings that frighten you - but still you're calm. You're like an ocean, endless and deep and never quite tamed."

Alvito's eyes on him were like living coals. "It's generous of you to say so," he responded, with an almost distant politeness. "But I take no credit for myself. God made me, Pilot, and He is still directing my life.  If I can serve Him better outside the walls of His Church, then I will do so happily."

Blackthorne felt himself beginning to relax. "Aye, so be it," he said, cheerfully. "And did He make this love between us that causes so much  anguish?"

"You know He did."

"That was not what the Bishop thought. Was he wrong, then?"

Taking a deep, deep breath, Alvito answered slowly. "The Bishop is a man, Pilot. Men make mistakes. God does not."

A long sigh of relief escaped Blackthorne. "Then you agree?" he said, softly. "One day you will pillow with me?"

Alvito set down the sake cup and regarded him with a look that saw and understood every nerve and sinew, every thought and impulse. Blackthorne shuddered under the silent assault, afraid that he had upset the delicate balance of things by an untimely or ill-chosen word.

"Anjin-san," Alvito said, thoughtfully, "I have given up everything in my life, including my hope of Heaven, out of desire for you. Life, and honour, and much more. Knowing that, and knowing that now there is no hope of escape for either of us - I think it should be tonight. Don't you?"

"Tonight?" Was the man insane after all? Could he really imagine that Blackthorne would insist on having him so soon after the rescue, when he was still - damn his eyes - dressed as the priest he had once been? Did he believe Blackthorne had no soul, no compassion, merely his all-compelling lust? The Englishman was appalled at the misjudgement.

"You will have to guide me, of course," Alvito went on, calmly. "My past experience will be of little use to me with a lover. I have assumed," he added, as though the thought had only just come to him, "that you do not enjoy inflicting pain?"

"How could you ask it?" Wounded, Blackthorne spoke through gritted teeth.

"Then what is the difficulty?"

"There's no difficulty, priest." Glaring across the intervening distance, Blackthorne was unaware he'd used the outworn title and Alvito did not correct him on it. "Aren't you afraid?"

"Of course. Are you?"

A shattering thought broke over Blackthorne, an unacknowledged guilt.  "Yes," he said. "But ... there was a boy."

"What boy?"

"Toranaga's boy. One of the kosho," he explained, scarcely more comprehensibly. "I'd almost forgotten; it was a foolish thing to do, but....." The mere thought of it sullied his conscience; it had been a demeaning experience.

"Anjin-sama," Alvito said softly, "please, calm yourself. Is something troubling you?" His words held the world-weary tolerance of the confessor.

Blackthorne's penitent soul unburdened itself without hesitation.  "Yes. The night after you left the hunting-camp Toranaga offered me one of his pages, and I accepted. Was that wrong of me?"

"I don't know. How can I say?"

"How can you say?" Blackthorne repeated, distractedly. "I thought you were gone from my life for good, but I'd held you in my arms and I knew how much I still wanted you. I'd never had a man or a boy, but I thought ... I thought I could pretend it was you."

Alvito's expression was unreadable. "And could you?"

"No. He was far too experienced, although he understood what I wanted.   He taught me how it's done. How it's done between lovers, I mean," he added, aware that Alvito's past included a bitter catalogue of assaults by a man who had shown him no gentleness.  The boy had been far too knowing. Presumably briefed by Toranaga he had arrived wearing a simple black kimono and an expression of calm confidence, not lacquered and painted and dressed in expensive silks as he had been earlier on the journey. Blackthorne, half-wild with grief and frustrated desire, had been in no condition to refuse him. He'd demanded to be taught the ways of love between men, and the boy had complied. He'd known everything - tricks that in the West only whores used, secret touches that were unquestionably Japanese. He'd given Blackthorne a flask of oil, called choji, to ease penetration. Blackthorne remembered pouring oil into the boy and visualising Alvito's body beneath his hands; when he'd had the boy he'd been able to forget, for a while, that he was not Alvito - but the illusion had faded rapidly as soon as he had relieved his urgent passion.  He shivered in horror of the memory.

Alvito was watching his face uncritically. "Does it trouble you?"

"Yes. You should have been the first."

"You didn't love him."

"No. Certainly not!"

"Then I am the first," Alvito told him, with devastating logic.

"How can you be so calm?"

"How? Because I love you, Pilot. Anata ga dai-suki desu, Anjin-sama.  From the moment I saw you here three years ago, through everything that has happened since."

"Since then?"

"Without question." The supreme confidence was disquieting in a way fear could never be.

Blackthorne crossed the small space of floor between them and caught Alvito by the shoulders, not daring a more intimate touch until he was certain, quite, quite certain that the man would welcome it.  "And I have loved you since that time also - and through everything that has happened," he said, with an intensity that could almost have been frightening, his hands gripping so tightly that wings of black silk bunched between his fingers.

A shaking hand lifted and came to rest on the front of Blackthorne's kimono, and for a moment Alvito seemed to be struggling with thoughts that could not be expressed in words.  "Then at least we are equal," he said, weakly.  A last moment of indecision, uncertainty poised like a butterfly on a flower, and then Blackthorne took the choice away from him by covering his mouth with his own and kissing him with complete concentration. Alvito hardly even seemed surprised, letting Blackthorne part his lips and deepen the kiss, accepting it totally and, in his own hesitant way, beginning to respond. It ended in a gasp for breath, Blackthorne's lips coming to rest on his forehead.

"Christ's blood," the pilot said, "I want you. I never wanted anyone or anything so much. But you must believe I will never do anything against your will," he added, kissing him again, a dark passion for the man rising in him by the moment. He tasted Alvito's mouth avidly, letting his tongue dwell in its depths, drinking him like a man dying of thirst. When he released him, it was only to moan softly and incoherently before possessing his mouth yet again.

Alvito's arms snaked around his neck, drawing him closer, and Blackthorne's hands slid around his lover's waist.

Dear God, he's as slender as Mariko! he thought, bemusedly, bewildered by the nearness of Alvito and the heat of his own lust. I could break him in half with a touch. I never dreamed a man could be so elegant, so graceful, so... tender...  His kisses trailed over Alvito's face, brushing at eyelids and cheeks and temples.  "You're shaking," he noticed belatedly.

"We are both shaking," was the amiable, if breathless, correction.

Blackthorne's hands went to the front of Alvito's cassock, to the uppermost of the long line of buttons that ran down it from neck to hem.   Seeking and receiving permission with his eyes, he unfastened the first button and opened the collar, baring a triangle of golden-brown skin and bending his head to place on it a kiss that was more than a kiss. Alvito's head tilted back, exposing his neck to Blackthorne's lips, feeling the way the pulse in his throat jumped as Blackthorne's mouth descended on it with something between a kiss and a bite.

"Oh!" His gasp was little more than an exhalation of air.

"Does that please you?" his lover asked.

"Yes."

Smiling, Blackthorne unfastened the second button and the third, drawing the opening of the cassock apart to cover the pale skin beneath with similar tearing kisses. Under his mouth he could feel the unevenness of skin where the whip-scars were still healing; scars Alvito had incurred trying to prevent this moment of willing surrender. Alvito's hands were tangling in his hair now, holding his head in place against the overheated chest. He broke the grip, seized the man's mouth yet again and plundered it without mercy as his urgent hands worked on the next button and the next.

The tangled morning fought its way slowly through Blackthorne's consciousness many hours later. Waking seemed so laborious, more effort than his strength would permit, and the one experimental opening of his eyes brought him only dim perceptions of the shadowed room. He decided to remain as he was, stretched out naked, eyes closed, half-covered by a futon that had slid to the left during the night. Whatever the hour, it was too early to leave the comfort of this bed - too early to bring an end to the night they had shared.  He and Alvito - he and Anjin-no Tsukku, the newly created samurai - had spent the night in cautious exploration of one another. It hardly counted as pillowing, he told himself, for although they had both been willing the debilitating after-effects of Martin's captivity had caught up with them long before it could be consummated. The flask of choji, placed for them by some optimist when the room was being prepared, had gone unused; Blackthorne had found himself unable to force his lust on someone so obviously exhausted and in need of comfort rather than carnality. Once he'd managed to calm his own rebellious manhood he had discovered that the stresses of the past few days had taken their toll on him, too, and he recollected the times he had gone to tea houses not to couple with a courtesan but to listen to music, to make civilised conversation, and to fall asleep in scented darkness with an amiable companion. Sometimes that was all the soul needed - the warmth of closeness, not the heat of passion.  So they had slept together, naked beneath the futons, in a half-world between arousal and exhaustion, and if in the night Martin had jolted awake suddenly as in nightmares the prison darkness closed around him again, Blackthorne had been there to soothe him with a word or a touch; and if the aching loneliness had returned to Blackthorne's heart even for a moment, he had been able to place a hand on one warm, scarred shoulder and know that the loneliness was finally ended.  In a way it had been better than pillowing. It had banished forever any last traces of suspicion that their union was built on the sandy foundations of desire. Whatever the Japanese may choose to believe about their uncontrollable barbarian lust for one another, long before morning both men were well aware that what they had built had foundations as strong as Osaka Castle itself and would endure as long.

The sounds of movement outside in the corridor did not surprise him.  Although most of the Castle had been up half the night inspecting the strange creatures in their midst the day's routine would have started before dawn as usual and by now - at whatever hour this was - would be in full swing. It would not be long before they were disturbed by some well-meaning soul desperate to learn how the foreign samurai had passed the night.  Accepting the inevitable he extracted himself carefully from beneath the futon, easing away from the warmth of Martin's body where he lay face down at Blackthorne's side. Hauling himself upright on unsteady legs, he took a clean loincloth from the pile of neatly-folded clothing placed for them by the entrance and fastened it around himself, covering it with a russet-coloured kimono and a gold obi. Making some attempt to brush his hair he wondered, as he often did, whether he could try wearing it in one of the formal Japanese styles that Omi or Naga favoured, or whether it would simply look ridiculous. At least now, in Martin, he had someone who would give him an honest answer to questions like that.

"Anjin-san?"  A soft voice calling from outside the shoji alerted him to the presence in the corridor of Kasigi Omi.

"Yes, Omi-san, I'm awake," he called back. "Wait, please, I'll come out to you." A quick glance towards his still-sleeping companion, and then Blackthorne slid back the shoji and stepped into the passage. "Ohayo gozaimasu," he said, with a smile and a half-bow. "What hour is it, Omi-san?"

"Ohayo gozaimasu," was the amused reply. Omi had apparently replaced the two night guards with two of his own men, who sat cross-legged and impassive on either side of the doorway. "It's the Hour of the Horse, Anjin-san; midday. You have slept many hours. How is Tsukku-san this morning?"

"Mada nette imasu. Still asleep."

"But it is a good sleep, Anjin-san, neh?"

"Hai, Omi-san, it's a very good sleep. Thank you for replacing the guard with your own men."

"Do itamashite. Anjin, I have instructions for you from Toranaga-sama.  He has left the Castle this morning to resume his hunting trip, and taken Buntaro with him." Omi smiled wickedly. "He has given Buntaro that boy he lost his heart to," he added. "I think as a reward for the help he gave you and Tsukku-san."

"That's generous," Blackthorne observed. "And Buntaro was very happy with his reward, neh?"

"Yes indeed. As happy as I was when you gave me Kiku-san's contract."

Blackthorne grinned. "Then we are all fortunate men," he said. "We all now have what we want. Many men are not as lucky as we. You mentioned instructions?"

Recalled to business, Omi made haste to relay Toranaga's orders. "Lord Toranaga says that having saved Tsukku-san's life and arranged his release from the Christian daimyo's prison, he is entitled to claim some service from him. Therefore he has decided that for half a year Tsukku-san will be employed in the capacity of secretary, for translating documents and dealing with foreigners. Naturally this will require him to be wherever Lord Toranaga himself is, and therefore he is instructed to return to the hunting-camp tomorrow."

"I will tell him when he wakes," Blackthorne promised solemnly.

"That's good, Anjin-san. And I'm to accompany him and to begin instructing him in swordsmanship as soon as time permits."

Smiling, Blackthorne bowed. "He could not wish for a better tutor, Omi-san my friend."

"Thank you, Anjin-san. He says, too, that having instructed you to give Tsukku-san your sword 'Oil-seller' he is making you a gift of another pair of swords. The blade is called 'Barbarian', but it is a very old sword and he assures you it has never been used to kill Europeans."

"I'm honoured, Omi-san. I'll prepare a proper letter of thanks for you to take to him."

"That would be very suitable, Anjin. Further, Lord Toranaga orders you to return to Anjiro. He says that you have good carpenters there who have been working on your new ship, and he requires you to have them build a house for him. He has chosen the headland that overlooks the bay; the one on which you and Tsukku-san were standing when I came to tell you that my disgraced uncle Yabu was going to commit suicide."

"A house?" echoed the Englishman, in some confusion. "I've never built a house, but I suppose it is not much different from building a ship. The carpenters at Anjiro know a great deal about building houses; I'm certain it can be done."

"That was what Lord Toranaga thought. He has given me some designs which I am to pass on to you before you leave. The house is to be his own property but he will require it for only one month of every year. For the rest of the time, he says, you and the Tsukku-san may live there as his tenants. It is not good to leave a house empty, Anjin-san; evil spirits can move in and do great harm."

"And when am I to leave, Omi-san?"

"Tomorrow, when Tsukku-san and I leave for the hunting-camp, you will go to Anjiro. Building the house will take you six months; when it is finished Tsukku-san will be discharged from his service with Lord Toranaga and you may live in the house together. You are not forbidden to see one another during the six months, but you will do so only when your duties permit. Lord Toranaga says," Omi added with a shrug, "that he has done you both a great service, and he requires the same of you in exchange. The building of this house has been on his mind for some time," he ended, smiling.

"And this is the repayment he spoke of," mused Blackthorne. "This is the judgement of Solomon."

"Solomon, Anjin-san?"

"A character in the Christian legends, Omi-san. He was renowned for great wisdom. Although I think," he added, noting the suspicious expression on Omi's face, "Lord Toranaga's wisdom is superior. Please tell Toranaga-sama I will obey his instructions to the best of my ability."

"So, Anjin-san, that will please him." Glancing past Blackthorne to the closed shoji, Omi raised both eyebrows in a knowing look. "I'll leave you now," he said. "No-one will disturb you. If you require anything, ask the guards. My greetings to Tsukku-san."

"Domo arigato, Omi-san." Blackthorne bowed, his respect and affection for Omi evident in the gesture. The best and closest of his Japanese friends, Omi had stood at his side through more crises than he could count and was still there even now the Empire was at peace and their own lives were at long last tranquil. It was good to know that men of different races could accept one another as equals, whatever the dissimilarities of their backgrounds.  Omi, too, bowed, and then turned and walked away. Blackthorne returned his attention to the room beyond the shoji, and to Martin.

Martin Alvito, one the fiercest and most zealous Jesuit priests in all Japan, now lay beneath the futons in their shared chamber naked and waiting to be deflowered like a bride on her wedding night. The thought brought a welcome return of last night's lust, and he shuddered briefly as the powerful emotion rippled through him.  I will have you, priest, or die in the attempt, he had promised himself - yet it was Martin who had come the closest to dying. One should never risk what one is not prepared to lose, he told himself, sharply. In risking Martin's life he had risked so much more; his own life, sanity and honour had hung by a thread in those agonising hours.   Yet he had not lost. They had both won - new lives, and one another.  In Japan, it seemed, even the impossible was possible if only one had the courage to reach for it.  Smiling at the thought, he recalled the fantasy that had haunted him waking and sleeping since the night of the mud-slide. He had dreamed of the way Martin Alvito's dark eyes would open to him filled with lust, the way the once chaste and virginal priest would writhe beneath him and beg to be taken. Images flooded his mind, lustful portraits of Martin as wanton as any courtesan beneath the outward mask of propriety, daydreams of olive-skinned nakedness his for the taking. He had won his battle; now, at last, it was time to claim his prize.  Blackthorne set a hand to the shoji, drew it aside, and with joy in his heart stepped into the room.

* * *

EPILOGUE 

Yoshi Toranaga, Lord of the Kwanto and Regent of Japan, died less than two years after the events recorded here. In the same year also died Bishop Mendoza of Samar, racked by the illness that for many years had stolen his sleep. Earlier that year he had finally acceded to the last wish of Father dell'Aqua and had ordained Brother Michael into the priesthood.

During the years that followed, the Japanese attitude towards Christians became increasingly more severe. An edict of the Emperor directed that foreigners could only remain in Japan if they renounced the Christian faith. Those who failed to do so would be put to death.  Many left Japan, but there were large numbers of Europeans who decided to stay on and pursue their faith in secret. Beginning in the year 1617 and continuing for the next quarter of a century Christians were sought out and dispatched ruthlessly; seventy Christians were crucified upside down at Yedo, being drowned as the tide came in.  European Christians discovered were martyred by burning alive.  Before the persecutions came to an end more than two thousand Christians had been executed, including over sixty Europeans.

It is not thought that Martin Alvito was among them.

* * *