Blade of the Samurai, by Susan Spann, is the second historical detective mystery in the Shinobi mystery series, featuring a master ninja and a female samurai in feudal 16th Century Japan (available July 16, 2013).
June, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori receives a pre-dawn visit from Kazu, a fellow shinobi working undercover at the shogunate. Hours before, the shogun’s cousin, Saburo, was stabbed to death in the shogun’s palace. The murder weapon: Kazu’s personal dagger. Kazu says he’s innocent, and begs for Hiro’s help, but his story gives Hiro reason to doubt the young shinobi’s claims.
When the shogun summons Hiro and Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit priest under Hiro’s protection, to find the killer, Hiro finds himself forced to choose between friendship and personal honor.
The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and overthrow the ruling Ashikaga clan. With Lord Oda’s enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro must use his assassin’s skills to reveal the killer’s identity and protect the shogun at any cost. Kazu, now trapped in the city, still refuses to explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a suspicious shogunate maid, Saburo’s wife, and the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want Saburo dead. With the shogun demanding the murderer’s head before Lord Oda reaches the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time…or die in his place.
Hiro opened his eyes in darkness.
Night enveloped the room like a shroud, broken only by the beam of moonlight streaming through the open veranda door. The still air and the moonbeam’s angle told Hiro that dawn was still an hour away.
In most Kyoto houses an open shoji represented a dangerous oversight. For Hiro, a shinobi assassin turned bodyguard, the door was an early warning system that had just paid off.
He strained his ears, listening for the sound that woke him. He heard only silence.
A weight shifted atop Hiro’s feet as his kitten, Gato, twitched in her sleep. The shinobi found that reassuring. Gato’s ears were sharper than his own, and the cat never slept through sounds she didn’t recognize.
Hiro yawned and closed his eyes to weigh the merits of early-morning exercise against two more hours of sleep.
A board creaked outside the veranda door.
Hiro’s eyes flashed open. The kitten raised her head, ears pricked toward the sound.
The loose board sat between Hiro’s door and the one to the adjacent room, where Father Mateo slept. The Jesuit had wanted to fix the squeaky timber, but Hiro insisted the board stay loose to help the shinobi protect his Portuguese charge.
Hiro slipped out from beneath his quilt and pulled on a pair of baggy trousers. As he tied the ankle straps to keep his cuffs from tangling in a fight, he listened for the second creak that would tell him when the intruder stepped off the board.
He heard nothing.
A surge of adrenaline loosened Hiro’s muscles. Only another shinobi could move with sufficient stealth to prevent the board from creaking a second time.
He wasted no time wondering why an assassin had come. Hiro’s clan, the Iga ryu, had ordered him to defend the Jesuit’s life at any cost, and Hiro would not allow himself to fail. He grabbed a dagger from his desk and scurried up the built-in shelves on the southern wall of the room. He was glad he had reinforced them to hold his weight.
The wall ended at rafter height, leaving plenty of space for a man to crouch beneath the peaked thatch roof. Hiro crawled onto the nearest rafter and glanced over the wall into Father Mateo’s room. The Jesuit slept soundly.
A shadow blotted out the moonlight as a human form appeared in Hiro’s doorway. The intruder paused only a moment, then stepped inside.
Gato arched her back and hissed before vanishing into the shadows.
The assassin wore a cowl that hid his face. He moved across the floor with an inward twist of the toes that Hiro recognized as a hallmark of the Iga ryu.
This killer had not come for the Portuguese priest.
Hiro gripped his dagger and readied himself to jump. As he drew a final, preparatory breath he caught the faint but unmistakable scent of expensive wintergreen hair oil.
Betrayal seared through Hiro’s mind like flame. Only one Iga shinobi used that scent, and until this moment Hiro had considered the man a brother.
Plunging a knife into Kazu’s heart would hurt Hiro almost as much as suicide.
Almost, but not quite.
Hiro leaped from the beam as, below him, Kazu whispered, “Hiro? I need your help.”
It was too late to arrest the fall. Hiro flung his arm to the side to stop the knife from striking a fatal blow.
Kazu jumped away, stumbled, and pitched forward onto the futon.
Hiro landed in a silent crouch, knife ready. He would give Kazu a chance to explain, but didn’t let down his guard.
Kazu raised his empty hands. “Hiro, wait! It’s me.”
“I almost killed you,” Hiro hissed. “What were you thinking, coming here unannounced and at this hour?”
Kazu pushed his cowl back onto his shoulders. His worried eyes reflected the moonlight.
“There’s been a murder at the shogunate.”
“The shogun?” Hiro’s expression softened as he realized why Kazu had taken the risk.
Shogun Ashikaga supported the Jesuits’ presence in Kyoto, despite his opponents’ demands that he expel the Portuguese missionaries or execute them as spies. The shogun’s death would threaten both Father Mateo’s life and Hiro’s assignment to protect the priest.
“Not the shogun,” Kazu whispered, “his cousin, Saburo.”
“Your supervisor?” Hiro’s gratitude splintered into anger. He barely managed to keep his voice a whisper. “Have you lost your senses? You risk exposing us both by coming here.”
“Please.” The catch in Kazu’s voice reminded Hiro that Kazu had only twenty years to Hiro’s twenty-five, and although the younger shinobi had come to Kyoto first, Hiro had been an assassin for years before Kazu even received his first official orders—an assignment to spy within the Ashikaga shogunate.
“Someone murdered Saburo with my dagger,” Kazu continued. “The shogun will think I killed him.”
“That doesn’t excuse your acting like a fool.” Hiro inhaled slowly to calm his fury. It didn’t work. “Have you forgotten your training completely? If something compromises your cover, you leave Kyoto. Even a novice knows not to put others at risk.”
“I’m sorry.” Remorse flooded Kazu’s voice. “I panicked.”
“Why come here?” Hiro asked. “Why not run?”
“I couldn’t leave the city. No one passes the outer barricades at night without a travel pass and a good excuse.” Kazu raised his hands, palms up. “I don’t have either.”
Kazu’s fear didn’t soothe Hiro’s anger. Still, the damage was done, and further scolding would not undo it. The shinobi code required Hiro to help a clansman in need unless doing so would compromise his mission. Since Kazu’s arrest might expose both men as shinobi, the choice seemed clear.
“Are you sure no one followed you?” Hiro asked.
“Then tell me what happened, in detail—but first, get off my futon.”
Kazu knelt on the woven tatami that covered the floor.
Hiro sheathed his knife.
“I was working late,” Kazu said, “updating the schedule for the shogun’s personal bodyguards.”
“You work in the records bureau,” Hiro said, “not shogunate defense.”
“True, but a month ago Saburo persuaded the shogun to transfer the bodyguards away from military command and under Saburo’s personal control. He said it wasn’t wise to trust a man from another clan with the shogun’s personal safety. The shogun agreed.”
“The military officials aren’t Ashikaga retainers?” Hiro asked.
“Not all of them,” Kazu said, “and with Lord Oda eager to seize the capital and the shogunate, Saburo’s concern makes sense. The shogun thought so, anyway.”
“Is Lord Oda advancing on Kyoto?” Hiro felt a surge of concern.
“Not openly,” Kazu said, “but he’s sent an embassy to the city. Officially, it comes bearing gifts for the emperor and the shogun.”
“And unofficially?” Hiro asked.
“Everyone knows Lord Oda’s intentions. Saburo feared an assassin among the ambassadors.”
“Apparently not without reason,” Hiro said. “When did Lord Oda’s men arrive?”
“They’re not here yet,” Kazu said.
“Then how did Saburo die?”
“I don’t know exactly.” Kazu shook his head. “I went to Ginjiro’s brewery for a drink, and when I returned to the office I found Saburo dead.”
“Killed with your dagger.”
“But not by me,” Kazu said. “I accidentally left the weapon on my desk. Anyone could have picked it up and used it.”
“Did you alert the shogunate guards?”
“They would have killed me on the spot!”
“You had just returned from Ginjiro’s,” Hiro said. “The gate guards could have vouched for your innocence.”
“I didn’t use the gate.” Kazu paused. “Saburo ordered me not to leave the compound until I finished my work, but that could have taken all night. I slipped out over the wall and returned the same way. I’ve done it before. No one’s ever noticed.”
Hiro shook his head. “You have to leave Kyoto at once.”
“I can’t,” Kazu said. “I left my travel pass at the shogunate, and there’s no way to get through the checkpoints at the city exits unnoticed. The shogun has every barricade guarded because of Lord Oda’s embassy.”
“Go back to the shogunate and retrieve the pass,” Hiro said.
“Someone will have discovered the body by now. They’ll have guards in the office.” Kazu shook his head again. “I can’t risk it. Not even over the wall.”
Hiro thought for a moment. “Itinerant monks don’t need papers to travel. I have a komus?’s robe and hat you can borrow. If you’re careful, the disguise will get you all the way to Iga.”
He opened his clothing cabinet and retrieved a dingy robe and a pair of fraying sandals, along with a woven basket-hat that smelled faintly of reeds and disuse.
Kazu gave Hiro a grateful smile. “I’m sorry I put you in danger.”
“Don’t mention it,” Hiro said, “especially to Hanzo.”
Hiro lifted the lid of his ironbound weapons chest and withdrew a bamboo shakuhachi flute. He offered it to Kazu. “There’s a dagger hidden inside.”
A loud knocking echoed through the house. Hiro froze. Someone was at the Jesuit’s front door.
“You were followed!” Hiro hurried across the room and threw open the large wooden chest that sat on the floor beside the clothing cabinet. “Get in.”
Kazu wrapped the monk’s robe around his kimono and climbed into the chest. Hiro pulled the quilt off his futon and laid it over the younger man. It wasn’t a great disguise, but they had no time for anything better.
“If anyone finds you,” Hiro whispered, “you’re on your own.” He pulled the quilt over Kazu’s face and closed the chest.
The knocking increased in volume.
Hiro shoved the basket-hat back into the cabinet, slipped on a long-sleeved tunic, and slid open the paneled shoji door separating his room from the oe, or common room, beyond.
Father Mateo had just emerged from the adjacent room. His shoulder-length hair stuck out at odd angles, mussed from sleep. He bit his lower lip in concentration as he tied an obi sash around his hurriedly donned kimono.
Even after three years in Kyoto, the Jesuit had trouble dressing quickly.
Father Mateo looked up as he tightened the sash. “Who could it be, at this hour?”
Hiro shrugged and forced a smile. He didn’t want to guess.
A little over a year before, a predawn visit had summoned the men to a teahouse where an entertainer stood accused of murdering her samurai guest. When Father Mateo intervened to save the girl, the dead man’s son had forced them to find his father’s killer or share the condemned entertainer’s fate.
Hiro hoped this visitor wouldn’t make a similar demand.
He followed Father Mateo into the tiny foyer that opened off the southern side of the common room.
“Who is there?” the Jesuit called through the carved front door.
“God’s peace be with you, Father Mateo,” a voice called, “it is Izumo. Father Vilela sent me.”
Hiro breathed a silent sigh of relief. Izumo was an acolyte at the official Jesuit mission in central Kyoto. Since Father Mateo’s work among the commoners would alienate the samurai elite whose support was requisite for the Catholic Church’s presence in the capital, the Jesuits kept their missions separated. Hiro had never met Gaspar Vilela, the senior Jesuit in Kyoto and Father Mateo’s nominal superior. However, the shinobi knew Izumo, and he recognized the acolyte’s voice and accent.
Hiro withdrew to his room as Father Mateo opened the door for Izumo. The shinobi left his shoji slightly ajar to ensure the Jesuits’ words would carry clearly through the air. Father Mateo considered eavesdropping sinful, but Hiro considered himself exempt from the priest’s religious rules.
The shinobi shed his jacket and trousers in favor of a smoke-gray kimono cut in the latest samurai style. As he dressed, he listened to the conversation taking place in the common room.
“I apologize for waking you so early,” Izumo said.
The acolyte sounded uneasy. Hiro knew why. The Japanese considered an unplanned predawn visit exceedingly rude.
“No need for apologies,” Father Mateo said. “What’s happened?”
“There has been a murder,” Izumo said, “and the shogun requests your help in finding the killer.”
To learn more about, or order a copy, visit:
Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, knife and shuriken throwing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding. She keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. She lives in northern California with her family.