Naniwa no yume

Naniwa no yume: Dreams in Naniwa

In summer, the bay of Naniwa was crowded with merchant ships loaded with wares for the Land of the Setting Sun. The roaring bustle of the port rose above the crowds like a wind dragon. 

There was a lucky charm in Yamato for those with big aspirations: ‘Dreams in Heijo-kyo, dreams in Naniwa.’ Repeating this was believed to make someone’s wish a reality. While the capital Heijo-kyo represented the hope for social success, Naniwa, the commercial center of the kingdom, fed the desire for financial gain.

Naniwa was protected by the shade of Mount Ikoma, a mighty god with blue-smudged peaks. It loomed over the Yamato plains and the province of Settsu, jutting proudly above the bay, its shadows darkening the sea at sunset. Merchants pursued their blessings at the various shrines scattered in the port, but old seafarers prayed to one god and one god only. As their ships left the shore on a wavy sea, just as the last of the land of their ancestors was vanishing in the horizon, the sailors turned their misty eyes for one last glimpse of Mount Ikoma, and they asked for divine blessing and favorable wind.

Naniwa was surrounded by green hills that rose up and then sloped down gracefully into the sea. The Uji River, which sprouted from Lake Ōmi, spilled into a bay enclosed by a pebbled beach. The morning wind brought clamoring waves to a shore shielded by bamboo reeds, while in the evening, seagulls perched on the drifting ocean weeds.

That summer, Hirotsugu visited Naniwa Bay with his father. It was a short two-day visit, intended to teach Hiro about the trade ships owned by the Fujiwara clan, so Ryū stayed at home in Fuhito’s palace.

After the past two months, it was strange for Hiro to have a room to himself again. As he stared at the walls at midnight, wondering why he was still awake, it came to him like an unexpected caress. He’d grown accustomed to listening to Ryū sleep, and he missed it.

Umakai spent the first morning scowling over the ledgers of the twelve Fujiwara ships. The vessels would be sailing to Tang later that month, laden with barrels of rice and sake and rolls of silk. When most of the inspection was done, he allowed his son, followed by a guard of six men, to saunter around and see what the place had to offer.

Naniwa was famous for its trade shops, from those working bamboo into everyday wares like ladles and bowls, to those building vase stands or trays from hardwood, to those making toys out of straw.

Hiro found the port loud and smelly, but also wondrous and remarkable. He saw people from Tenjiku for the first time in his life, and he couldn’t help gawking at their dark skin and impressive mustaches. Their noses were pierced with golden earring loops, and their foreheads were marked with red circles. Hiro stopped by their ship to listen as they shouted commands in their strange language. One of the men sold him four bronze flasks filled with sandalwood oil. 

There were even ships from Tang and Silla, and Hiro visited each and every one.

He returned to his father at noon and spent the afternoon drinking tea from Tang. Umakai introduced him to a variety of merchants and to the owners of the most respectable trade houses. By the time night arrived, Hiro couldn’t wait to fall face-first on the shitone and sleep for a decade. 

His father had other ideas.

Naniwa offered many kinds of brothels. The ones near the port welcomed their customers into hideous hovels, some no more than lean-tos hidden in the reeds, where the price for a woman was cheaper than a bottle of sake.

A ri away from the port, at the end of Merchant’s Lane, was the Flower District. By day, the brothels here were inconspicuous enough to pass for private houses. But when night dropped its mysterious veil and the moon’s shine reflected in the sake cups, the red lanterns in front of the shops flared joyfully, and dark-eyed beauties appeared through open windows. They beckoned the customers who held heavy purses to join them for a night of pleasure.

And then, there was the Yoshiwara Iris.

Hiro felt small as he stood in front of it. The Yoshiwara Iris proudly occupied the center of Naniwa, all roads leading to its gates as if toward a temple. And what impressive gates they were. They were richly inlaid with images of flowers, their uprights and cross beams carved with elaborate embellishments. 

Beyond the gates was a garden dominated by shrubs covered in blooming hyacinths. Pale flowers of unohana grew along the tall fence. Golden pheasants and brightly colored ducks lazed on a pond at the back of the garden.

“Welcome, honored Lords Fujiwara.” Four young women bowed in the gravel of a white pebbled path lit by stone lanterns. Behind them, the doors of the Yoshiwara Iris opened wide in Umakai and Hiro’s honor. 

The two-story building was exquisite. The window panels were crafted from latticed woodwork, and the thatched roof had been built like a Buddhist pagoda. Hiro heard one of his guards whisper that a night spent in pleasure with one of the flowers here could cost an imperial officer more than half a year’s wages.

Inside, Hiro paused. His eyes landed on the elevated dais where the royal enclosure stood covered in offerings. Even here, Hiro thought. 

Especially here. 

The hall was one vast space that, in the daylight, would have been separated by sliding panels for patrons’ privacy. But they’d all been removed for this occasion to allow a long feasting table to stretch along the hall’s entire length.

“Is this all for us?” Hiro asked his father.

“I don’t like to be bothered,” Umakai said. “The Yoshiwara Iris is ours for the night.”

Faces of the gods were carved into the ceiling, and the floor was covered with green matting. Painted scenes coated the walls, dark brushstrokes over white plaster. Hiro blushed when he realized what the images depicted.

Umakai was escorted to a large dark blue cushion at the head of the table, close to the Tennō’s dais. Hiro sat to his right, and the guards took the end of the table. In between, there were spaces for sixteen more.

Hiro didn’t have time to question who would fill the spots, because down the wide staircase came ten of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. They dropped in an elegant obeisance in front of Hiro and his father before taking their seats. Two of the courtesans joined Umakai and murmured sweetly, “Welcome back, our favorite Lord Fujiwara.” 

A young woman with twinkling eyes full of mischief sat impossibly close to Hiro, smiling shyly behind the back of her hand. He wondered if she could sense his discomfort.

The celebration started when the matron came to pay her respects, trailing a resplendent green and gold skirt behind her. She bowed and thanked Umakai for his patronage. She had lines on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes, but she was still a lovely woman. She and Umakai shared a glance that was filled with familiarity, and the energy sparked between them. Umakai whispered something in her ear, and she laughed and nodded. When she turned to Hiro, her appraising look made his stomach queasy.

Hiro felt the pressure of everyone’s attention. The gods themselves were watching him. He studied his hands in his lap.

Pipes were offered to the men around the table. They had small bowls containing unknown herbs and mouthpieces made from bamboo stems. Several attendants brought bamboo cups of water and ten hibachi with smoldering coals. Near each hibachi was a pair of long iron tongs, and Hiro’s personal attendant used one to pick up a coal and light the pipe. Her lush lips puffed from bamboo stem and then blew the smoke in Hiro’s face. She laughed when it made him cough.

“For you, my lord. If it pleases you,” she said with a melodic voice. “It will help you relax.” 

Hiro eyed his father for guidance, receiving a grin in response. Umakai had already finished the herbs in his own pipe and was having it refilled by one of the girls attending him. “Try it, son,” he said. “It will loosen you up for your big night.” 

If Hiro had any doubts as to what his father had planned for him, they’d just been pulverized. What could he say? That he had no intention of losing his virginity to a courtesan? That would insult both the Yoshiwara Iris and his father. He inhaled from the pipe and felt his eyes water. 

“Take it slow, Hirotsugu. We have the whole night.”

After the sake was served, six more beauties in even more gorgeous clothing entered the room. They fell on their knees and prostrated themselves until their foreheads touched the floor. 

Umakai gestured with his hand, and they momentarily left the room and returned with a taiko, a drum beaten with sticks, two small tsudzumi, drums thumped with fingers, a flute, and a koto. They arranged themselves on the floor and began to sing. Two women stood from the table to dance. 

Food was brought in lacquered bowls, but Hiro barely ate. He watched the dancers, and their fluid movements, combined with whatever he was smoking, put him in a state of euphoria. 

His eyes roamed the paintings on the walls. They were suffused with wistfulness from a Tang artist who used only black. Hiro liked Tang paintings. They shared the same concept of simplicity as the Shinto religion. He remembered meeting a god once, and then he realized six years had passed since he’d last seen him.

It occurred to Hiro that perhaps he was intoxicated. In the middle of this brothel, his mind was traveling to Tang artists, Shinto philosophy, and giant white foxes.

He couldn’t tear his focus away from the art. The more he absorbed, the redder his cheeks burned. He examined them one by one, observing their uniqueness. Suddenly, the air vanished from his lungs. 

He leaned over the table and scrunched his eyes. Directly opposite him was a scene of two figures making love beneath a blossom-covered branch. Hiro blinked. Was he seeing right? He leaned closer. Yes, he was.

All the depictions in the hall had women and men in various intimate positions. All except this one. There was no doubt about it, these figures were two men in the thrall of passion, one submitting to the other. 

Hiro stared and stared at the image until he felt someone watching him. He turned and met a pair of dark brown catlike eyes, exotically lined with black kohl. When their gazes locked, the koto player smirked.

A muscle twitched in Hiro’s jaw. He sat up straight and tried unsuccessfully to hide the wonder spreading on his face. The musician’s hands danced over the strings with great talent, plucking at the cords, singing of longing and melancholy.

Hiro was captivated by hair held back with black jade irises and birds. Lips like red cherries, clothes rivaling that of the court ladies in Heijo-Kyo. A black pearl dangling from a pierced ear, casting a shadow over a slim neck.

“You can pick whomever you want, Hirotsugu,” he heard his father say. “This night is yours.”

Wordlessly, Hiro pointed to the koto player. Umakai burst into laughter. “You have good taste, son. That’s your Uncle Muchimaro’s favorite,” he said. “And the most expensive flower in the entire land of Yamato.”

∆∆∆

“My name is Kurohana, Young Lord Fujiwara,” the koto player said, bowing his forehead onto his hands at Hiro’s feet. Black Flower, he was called. “It would be my honor to be yours this evening.”

“Th-thank you,” Hiro stammered.

“Take him, my lovely. Show him the time of his life, and you will be greatly rewarded,” Umakai said, stopping briefly from nuzzling the neck of one of his attendants to leer at the musician. Hiro grimaced, thankful that he hadn’t eaten much.

Kurohana took his hand with an alluring smile. He was taller than Hiro by a head, and he had calluses on his fingers from the koto strings. “Follow me, my lord,” he said, guiding Hiro to the stairs. Walking on trembling legs was a challenge.

Kurohana was stunningly beautiful. He moved with impeccable grace, and the looks he lavished on Hiro were sensual and inviting. He led him to a room made of painted panels showing mountains and the catlike beasts found in Tang.

Hiro approached the panels and reached out to the form of a giant black cat overlooking a mountain. The beauty and workmanship were amazing.

“Those are from my mother’s country. I like them because they remind me of my ancestors’ home.”

Kurohana wrapped his arms around Hiro from behind, lips warm on his neck and tongue turning his knees to water. But when Hiro realized what was happening, he got spooked and jumped away.

Kurohana bit back a smile. “How old are you, my lord?” he asked.

It’s possible that Hiro whimpered, he couldn’t be sure. How old was he? He couldn’t remember. “Fifteen,” he finally said. “Sixteen in half a year.”

Kurohana attempted another step toward him, and Hiro took two steps back. “Perhaps some sake,” the courtesan suggested. He clapped his hands and gave an order to a young girl waiting by the door. When the girl left, Kurohana crossed his arms and regarded Hiro.

“How can I please you, young man?” he asked. 

Hiro flushed and looked down. “I…”

“Your father wants you to have a good time.” Another tentative step. “I want you to have a good time.”

If Hiro moved back any farther, he would drop through an open window.

Kurohana changed tactics and walked over to his mat. He sprawled on the silk, hands behind his head. “Why are you here tonight, my lord? Why did you choose me when you could have had any of the others?”

Why did Hiro pick Kurohana, indeed? His head had been floating in the haze of whatever was in his pipe. Thinking hadn’t come into it. Why did he choose a man?

Suddenly he thought of Ryū. Of the nights spent watching him sleep. Of Ryū’s fingers combing through his own wet hair, soft skin illuminated by the fire pit in their room. Hiro’s heart skipped a beat. Their room.

He knew why he chose a man. Of course he knew.

“Does my lord want me to bring someone else?”

Hiro didn’t hesitate this time. “No. I want you.”

Kurohana’s smile stretched predatorily on his face. “You have me. How can I please you?”

“Show me how to make love to a man.” There, he’d said it. It was out. The focus of his dreams, his embarrassment, what made him hard. This was it.

The sake arrived in heated bottles. Hiro was offered a pillow, and Kurohana poured the drink into the cups. “Do you like men, my lord?”

“I think I like… one,” Hiro muttered. “Do you sleep with both men and women?”

“In the pursuit of pleasure, there is no difference between a woman and a man.”

“I see.”

“May I presume you are a virgin?”

“What?”

“I asked if you have ever done this before.”

“I… no,” Hiro admitted. He took a swig of his sake. It burned his throat.

“After you leave this room, do you want to still be a virgin?”

Hiro’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”

Kurohana set down his sake cup and crawled toward Hiro. “There are many things we can do, sweet boy. You have me for the night. We can kiss,” he said, placing a light kiss on Hiro’s cheek, close to his mouth, “and you can touch me, or I can touch you.” His hand glided over Hiro’s silken agekubi, toying with his chest before meandering farther downward.

When Hiro felt the courtesan’s hand cupping him, he gasped. “I can kiss you here,” Kurohana said, squeezing Hiro’s growing erection. “Or touch you here,” he whispered in his ear, moving his long fingers up Hiro’s ass, rubbing into the crease. “Which would you prefer?”

Hiro’s tremor ran all the way down his legs. Words had lost all meaning. If the man continued to touch him like that…

“Stop,” Hiro said, and it was agony to say it. “Move back a little so I can think. Please.”

Kurohana returned to his mat, his smile never faltering. He knelt with his hands in his lap, waiting patiently for Hiro’s instructions.

Hiro allowed his nerves to settle before he spoke. “Please don’t think this is an insult. I don’t want to bed you.” Then he added quickly, “But that needs to be kept a secret between us.”

Kurohana raised an eyebrow. “You want me to lie to your father?” 

“Yes.”

The courtesan stretched back out over his silken bed, toying with the seam of his collar. “Then what does my lord want to do for the rest of the evening? How can I show you how to make love to a man if I can’t touch you?”

Hiro steeled himself. “I want you to teach me. Show me what to do if I ever make love to a man.” 

“Oh?” Kurohana fingered the sash around his waist, slowly pulling the strings. 

Hiro’s heartbeat started racing again, but he continued. “I want to know how to bring pleasure to another man.” The money had already been paid and there was no way to get out of this, so he was determined to use the night for something instructive.

Kurohana stood and removed the sash, and his long-sleeved robe fell open to reveal his white jade skin. With one fluid motion, the garment pooled at his feet, followed by his skirt. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath. He was glorious, from his long legs to his flat, toned stomach, to the dark hair between his legs. His member rested there, half awake. He raised a hand and pulled out a comb, causing his hair to cascade over his shoulders.

Hiro gnawed his lower lip.

“Go on, take off your clothes,” Kurohana said. “I’m not going to touch you.” As Hiro obeyed, it struck him that this was the first time in his life he’d undressed himself.

“Don’t take your eyes off of me, my lord.” The man walked over and blew out half of the candles. The room was cast in near-darkness, only four candles illuminating his naked body as if he were a performer on a stage. He took a vial from a box and placed it in Hiro’s hand, slowly trailing his fingers away. He took another bottle for himself and returned to the mat, sitting and spreading his legs.

Hiro looking away from him was not a risk.

Kurohana spilled a couple drops of the oil onto his fingers and waited until Hiro did the same. “Men love to be touched here,” he said, holding his shaft and stroking it slowly and deliberately. “Take yourself in hand, my lord,” he whispered in the glow of candlelight. “See how you feel.”

Hiro tentatively touched the tip of his erection. His breathing quickened at the sensation as his oiled finger slid down the head. 

“Good, isn’t it?” The courtesan moved a hand up to graze one nipple. “Pinch here as you touch yourself. It will increase the pleasure.”

Hiro mirrored Kurohana’s movements, taking his own nipple between forefinger and thumb. “Oh gods,” he gasped. The hand around his hardness increased speed, moving by itself as it searched for a peak to jump from.

“When two men make love, there needs to be some preparation to avoid pain.” Kurohana’s voice was enthralling, a poem in Hiro’s ears. “Watch me, my lord.” Hiro slowed down his strokes and saw the man slip his middle finger into the oil bottle.

Kurohana’s finger entered his own hole as he continued to give whispered instructions. “Add more oil,” he said with increasing effort, “and when your partner is ready for more, give it to him.” He slid another finger inside himself and moaned, his head slowly thrashing from side to side. 

As the man’s fingers moved in and out, Hiro felt himself close to the precipice. Kurohana’s soft sounds of pleasure skimmed over his skin like a warm breath, both giving him goosebumps and making him sweat. 

“Faster, my lord. Watch what you are doing to me.” 

Hiro wanted to block his own cries that escaped, but he couldn’t focus. He covered his mouth with one hand as his other worked himself furiously.

“That’s it, that’s it. Gods help me.” Kurohana tilted his head and arched his back. 

Hiro’s climax was building from the depths of his body. He felt it traveling up his legs, tightening his balls, and making his ass spasm. His breathing was as shallow as the beautiful man’s who trembled in front of him. But when he exploded, it was not Kurohana’s face he saw beneath his closed eyelids.

Hiro came with a salvo of cries, spilling white cream over his fingers and stomach. He fell on his side, exhausted and messy with his seed. He didn’t even realize the man had also finished and was now observing him.

“You said his name.” 

Hiro tried to find his tongue. “What?” he asked.

“Ryū. That’s his name, isn’t it? The boy you like. The one you want to share your bed with.” 

Hiro was too drained to even respond. Kurohana dipped a cloth into a bowl of steaming water and began to clean him.

“Who is he?” he asked, wiping gently over Hiro’s softening member and soaked belly.

Hiro yawned. “Someone,” he answered. “Someone whose name you will not speak in front of my father.”

Kurohana grinned. He brushed the hair out of Hiro’s eyes. “If only all of my clients were like you.”

“Inexperienced and awkward?” Hiro asked.

“Gentlemen,” he corrected.

The courtesan pulled him onto the bed, and Hiro fell into a blissful sleep as he lay in his arms.

∆∆∆

They returned to the inn the following morning, and Hiro spent the day conked out in his room while his father conducted the rest of his business. No one bothered him while he rested. After all, he’d spent an intense night with the most expensive courtesan in the kingdom. And from what Kurohana had told his father about Hiro’s prowess, recovery time was paramount because he had galloped the courtesan like a stallion all night. 

Hiro didn’t even have the energy to blush anymore. 

The truth was that he had woken before daybreak, still in Kurohana’s arms. The man had caressed his hair and cheek and arms, and they spent the next few hours talking. Hiro had quite liked being in another man’s arms. If only the arms were someone else’s. 

Kurohana never told him why he called himself Black Flower. Instead he listened to Hiro speak about Ryū, how they first met, how they met again six years later, how they now shared the same room. In return, Kurohana shared some secrets of his trade. It was exceptionally educational.

Before Hiro fell asleep for the second time, he heard Kurohana say, “You’re a good man, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu. Don’t forget it when the time comes.”

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