The Iris Fan by Laura Joh Rowland is the 18th mystery and finale of this acclaimed series set in feudal Japan, featuring the recently demoted Sano Ichirō whose last case will involve a brutal attack on the shogunate itself (available December 9, 2014).
Japan, 1709. The shogun is old and ailing. Amid the ever-treacherous intrigue in the court, Sano Ichirō has been demoted from chamberlain to a lowly patrol guard. His relationship with his wife Reiko is in tatters, and a bizarre new alliance between his two enemies Yanagisawa and Lord Ienobu has left him puzzled and wary. Sano’s onetime friend Hirata is a reluctant conspirator in a plot against the ruling regime. Yet, Sano's dedication to the Way of the Warrior—the samurai code of honor—is undiminished.
Then a harrowing, almost inconceivable crime takes place. In his own palace, the shogun is stabbed with a fan made of painted silk with sharp-pointed iron ribs. Sano is restored to the rank of chief investigator to find the culprit. This is the most significant, and most dangerous, investigation of his career. If the shogun's heir is displeased, he will have Sano and his family put to death without waiting for the shogun's permission, then worry about the consequences later. And Sano has enemies of his own, as well as unexpected allies. As the previously unimaginable death of the shogun seems ever more possible, Sano finds himself at the center of warring forces that threaten not only his own family but Japan itself.
SLOW, HISSING BREATHS expanded and contracted the air in a chamber as dark as the bottom of a crypt. Wind shook the shutters. Sleet pattered onto the tile roof. In the corridor outside the chamber, the floor creaked under stealthy footsteps. The shimmering yellow glow of an oil lamp diffused across the room’s lattice-and-paper wall. The footsteps halted outside the room; the door slid open as quietly as a whisper. A hand draped in the sleeve of a black kimono held the lamp across the threshold. The flame illuminated a futon, covered with a gold brocade satin quilt, in which two human shapes slumbered.
The quilt rose and fell with their breathing. The black-robed figure hovered at the threshold, then tiptoed, on feet clad in split-toed socks, into the bedchamber. The hem of its silk kimono slithered across the tatami floor. Its breathing was shallow, ragged with anxiety. It paused by the bed, holding the light over the two sleepers, whose gentle, rhythmic respirations continued. Then it crept to the one on the left, nearest the door. Kneeling, it set the lamp on the bedside table without a sound. In the dim light from the flame, a hand slowly, carefully, drew back the quilt.
Underneath, a man lay on his stomach, his head turned away from the intruder. He wore a white nightcap over his hair; his body was naked. The intruder contemplated his thin back, his protruding ribs and spine, his scrawny limbs. Red blotches covered his sallow, sweaty skin. He coughed in his sleep; he didn’t wake.
The intruder sat back on its heels. Its ragged breaths quickened as its hand withdrew from beneath its sash a long, thin object with a sharp, gleaming metal end. The intruder glanced over its shoulder toward the door.
The corridor was silent, still.
Sleet bombarded the roof with a noise like raining arrowheads.
The wind moaned.
The intruder sucked in a deep, tremulous gasp, raised the weapon high above the sleeping man, and brought it slashing down.
“IT’S A BAD night for a trip to the pleasure quarter,” Detective Marume said.
“It’s a good night when we’re following up on the first lead we’ve had in this investigation in more than four years,” Sano said.
They rode their horses along the Dike of Japan, the long causeway above the rice fields northeast of Edo. Metal lanterns swung from poles attached to their backs. On this winter night just after the New Year, they had the road to Yoshiwara to themselves. Their cloaks were drenched by sleet that lashed and stung their faces. Ice coated their metal helmets. Cold wind seeped through the heavy padding in Sano’s cloak, under his armor tunic and his kimono. As sleet turned to snow, a veil of white crystals obscured the distance.
“How did you get us assigned to patrol the dike tonight?” Marume asked.
“I didn’t even have to try. You know the captain likes giving the worst assignments to the shogun’s disgraced former chamberlain and second-in-command.” Bitterness edged Sano’s wry tone.
In four years he’d been demoted four times, from chamberlain down to patrol guard, the Tokugawa regime’s lowest rank. His son, Masahiro, aged seventeen, was also a patrol guard, with no prospects for advancement, and their family had been evicted from their estate inside Edo Castle. It was a great humiliation for Sano, but he was lucky to have a position at all. For more than four years he’d been pursuing a forbidden investigation, a thankless mission of honor.
Marume laughed. “He did us a favor without knowing it.” The big samurai relished humor in any situation. “How do you know our new suspects are in Yoshiwara tonight?”
“An informer.” Sano had bribed a servant of Lord Tokugawa Ienobu, the shogun’s nephew and designated heir to the dictatorship.
Ahead, Yoshiwara rose up from the rice fields, a city unto itself, the only place in Edo where prostitution was legal. Lights within its high walls made the falling snow above it glow like a halo. Sano and Marume rode across the moat to the gate where two sentries occupied a guardhouse. Moat, gate, and sentries were there to prevent troublemakers from entering the pleasure quarter and unhappy courtesans from escaping. The sentries opened the gate; Sano and Marume rode in.
Naka-no-ch?, the long main street that extended between rows of brothels, was almost empty. A few drunks stumbled to and fro. Snow frosted the tile roofs of the brothels; icicles grew between the red lanterns that hung from the eaves. Storm shutters covered the window cages where courtesans usually sat on display. Sano heard faint music played on samisens, flutes, and drums.
“The cold is keeping the customers at home,” Marume said.
“Or the measles epidemic is.”
The epidemic had been raging across the country since autumn. It had come to Japan via Chinese priests visiting Nagasaki, the only place where foreigners were allowed. In Nagasaki some ten thousand people had died. Hundreds of people in Edo were sick. The disease was often but not invariably fatal. Here in Yoshiwara, as well as in town, incense burned outside doors to chase away the evil spirits of disease, and citizens feared contagion.
“Speaking of measles, how is the shogun?” Marume asked. The shogun had come down with the measles just before the New Year.
“I hear he’s recovering, but I haven’t seen for myself,” Sano said. He’d been banned from court four years ago. That had been his punishment after the shogun had ordered him to stop the investigation and he’d disobeyed. Sano had continued pursuing it for the good of the regime, to the detriment of his own career and domestic peace.
He and his wife, Reiko, were seriously at odds over his actions. Long hours of patrol duty were a blessing for a man who didn’t want to go home.
“So it looks like the shogun isn’t going to die,” Marume said with relief.
“Yes, but he’s badly weakened. His health has always been frail, and he’s sixty-three. Lord Ienobu is going to inherit the dictatorship sooner rather than later.”
That was why this new lead was so crucial.
Sano and Marume turned their horses down one of the narrow lanes that crossed Naka-no-ch? and stopped outside a small brothel. Laughter burst upon them as they peered through the window whose shutters were cracked open to clear out the smoke from charcoal braziers and tobacco pipes. A party occupied a room bright with lanterns. Young women as colorful as butterflies in their gay kimonos, their faces heavily made up and their hair spangled with ornaments, flirted with four samurai and plied them with sake.
“Who’s who?” Marume asked.
“The old fellow at the head of the table is Manabe Akira, Lord Ienobu’s chief retainer.”
Manabe, in his late fifties, had a gray topknot and wore gray robes. His shaved crown and face were brown and shiny like an iron war mask from martial arts practice in the sun. He’d been a top swordsman in his day. When a courtesan teased him, he responded with grunts.
“A real sociable type,” Marume said.
“The men seated with their backs to us are Setsubara Ihei and Ono Jozan,” Sano said. They were big and muscular, their kimonos fashionable with garish patterns, their black topknots slick with oil. They raised their cups in a toast. “They’re Manabe’s aides.”
“The one across from them must have been a kid at the time of the murder.”
“Kuzawa Daimon, age nineteen. He’s a guard.”
Kuzawa was as big and strong as Manabe’s aides, and dressed like them, but his face and body had the softer look of youth. A courtesan stroked his beefy arm while telling him a joke. He laughed uproariously.
“Why do you think it’s these men who killed the shogun’s son?” Marume asked.
“Yoshisato wasn’t the shogun’s son,” Sano reminded him.
“I know. It’s just easier to call him ‘the shogun’s son’ than ‘the cuckoo’s egg that Chamberlain Yanagisawa foisted off on the shogun.’”
Six years ago, Yanagisawa had put Yoshisato, his own son, in line to inherit the dictatorship by proclaiming that Yoshisato was really the shogun’s secret, long-lost son and he himself was only Yoshisato’s adoptive father. Sano had tried to debunk the story and failed. The shogun believed it. So did enough top government officials and daimyo—the feudal lords who ruled the provinces. The shogun had named Yoshisato as his successor, and Yanagisawa had been set to rule Japan through him and gain absolute power. But two years later, a fire set in the heir’s residence had killed Yoshisato.
Sano began the answer to Marume’s question. “Yoshisato’s death cleared the way for Lord Ienobu to succeed the shogun, and we know Ienobu is responsible for the arson.”
“The woman who set the fire said he put her up to it, but she died right after confessing.” Marume watched Manabe puff on his pipe. “You think he helped Lord Ienobu set up Yoshisato’s murder?”
“Yes. My informer says that shortly before the fire started, Manabe and the other three left Ienobu’s estate. They didn’t come back until the next day. They’re the only people from the estate who were unaccounted for at the time of the murder.”
“But what part did they play in it?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out. And then we’ll have proof that Lord Ienobu is guilty of at least one murder.”
Sano already knew that Ienobu was responsible for the murder of the shogun’s daughter. The culprit in that crime, also unfortunately dead, had implicated Ienobu. Sano wanted the proof as urgently as a starving man salivates for food. It wasn’t just duty that compelled him to deliver Ienobu to justice and prevent a murderer from becoming the next shogun. Sano had liked Yoshisato even though he was Yanagisawa’s son and Yanagisawa was Sano’s longtime enemy. Sano wanted to avenge Yoshisato’s death, and he had another, even more personal motive for bringing Lord Ienobu down. Ienobu was the one who’d demoted Sano, as punishment for telling the shogun that Ienobu had murdered Yoshisato. The shogun didn’t want to believe that his nephew and heir had murdered the man he thought was his son. He kept Sano in the regime, but Lord Ienobu constantly found ways to make life miserable for Sano.
Manabe spoke in a gruff, peremptory voice to his subordinates. All four men drained their sake cups and headed for the door. Sano and Marume backed their horses into an alley, watched the men emerge from the brothel, then exited the gate behind them. Across the moat, the men retrieved their horses from a stable and attached lanterns on poles to their backs. They didn’t notice Sano and Marume trailing them as they rode along the dike; patrol guards were ubiquitous, invisible. All Sano could see of them was their lights like swinging stars in the darkness. He was fifty years old, and his night vision was poor.
A glow in the distance signaled that they were nearing Edo. Sano and Marume spurred their horses to a gallop. “Stop!” Sano called as he and Marume caught up with their quarries.
The four men looked over their shoulders. Their lanterns threw arcing beams across the road. They reached for their swords as they turned their horses around, their expressions wary as they squinted through the snowflakes. Recognition appeared on Manabe’s hard, shiny face.
“Sano-san.” His gruff voice rasped with disapproval. “What do you want?”
At long last Sano was about to solve Yoshisato’s murder and defeat Lord Ienobu. Apprehension coiled within his excitement: This was his one chance, a big risk. “To talk with you four.” Beside him, Marume put his hand to his sword.
“You’re supposed to stay away from us and everybody else in Lord Ienobu’s retinue,” Setsubara said. With his strong jaws, prominent nose, and sharp cheekbones, he was a caricature of masculinity.
“Those are Lord Ienobu’s orders, and you know it.” Ono’s lumpy features reminded Sano of a bitter melon.
Even as his heart raced, Sano spoke calmly. “When you hear what I have to say, you’ll be glad I disregarded those orders.” He eyed Kuzawa. The young samurai looked nervous; he hadn’t learned to hide his emotions.
“When Lord Ienobu hears that you’ve disobeyed him, he’ll have your head.” Manabe jerked his chin at the other men. They all started to turn their horses.
Sano said quickly, “You four left his estate shortly before the fire in the heir’s residence started. Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?”
The four men went still. Sano focused on Kuzawa, whose eyes were wide, stricken. Seeing that he was right about the four men, Sano felt a rush of exhilaration.
“We went night fishing on the river,” Manabe said in annoyance.
“Did you catch a big one?” Detective Marume asked scornfully.
“We can vouch for each other,” Ono said.
“Meaning, no one else can,” Sano said. “You weren’t fishing. You were up to your necks in Yoshisato’s murder.”
Manabe uttered a disgusted sound. Setsubara and Ono shook their heads, as if pitying Sano’s foolishness. Detective Marume laughed and pointed at Kuzawa, who looked scared enough to wet his trousers. “Whoops, your young friend as good as admitted you’re guilty.”
Kuzawa ducked his head. Manabe said to Sano, “You can’t prove anything.”
“You’re wrong. I have evidence,” Sano bluffed.
“What evidence?” Ono asked disdainfully.
“The shogun will be first to know.”
“You won’t be able to tell him anything.” Contempt didn’t quite mask Setsubara’s worry. “You’re banned from court.”
“I’ll make sure the information is shouted by every news seller in Edo,” Sano said. “Soon it will be on the tongue of every samurai at the castle. It will reach the shogun eventually. He’ll know you’re as guilty as the woman who set the fire.”
“And then he’ll have your heads,” Marume added.
Kuzawa gulped. Setsubara and Ono glared at him, but they looked scared, too. Manabe’s hand tightened on his sword.
“If you’re thinking of killing us to shut us up, forget it,” Sano said. “Other people know. If anything happens to us, they’ll make the evidence public. You’re going down for treason.”
The penalty for treason was death. The three subordinates looked anxiously to Manabe; he scowled. Sano urged his horse forward, advancing on them. “But it doesn’t have to be that way, if you confess that you arranged Yoshisato’s murder on orders from Lord Ienobu.”
The four men looked stunned as they realized what Sano was after. Detective Marume clarified, “He doesn’t want your fat rear ends. He wants Lord Ienobu’s skinny one.”
“Give me Lord Ienobu, and I’ll see that you’re pardoned,” Sano said.
He knew he was asking a lot from them. They owed their master their complete loyalty. That was Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the samurai code of honor. And although the shogun was the lord over everyone in Japan, their ties to Ienobu were closer; they were his personal retainers. Anger darkened their faces as they comprehended that Sano was making them choose between dooming themselves and betraying Lord Ienobu, the ultimate sin.
Manabe spoke through clenched teeth. “We will not submit to blackmail. We will not help you destroy our master.” The other men nodded.
Sano had to break them, or heaven help him. “Fine. Be good samurai. But don’t expect Lord Ienobu to protect you when it comes out that you were involved in Yoshisato’s murder.”
“He’ll let you take the entire blame rather than admit you acted on his orders and be put to death along with you,” Detective Marume said.
That was Bushido, too: Loyalty didn’t cut both ways. Emotions flickered across their faces as the four men stared down Sano and Marume. Sano detected fear, confusion, and something oddly sly in their expressions. The wind keened. The lantern’s flames hissed as snowflakes hit them. In the instant that Sano realized what was going to happen, the four men drew their swords and charged.
Sano and Marume barely had time to draw their own weapons before the men were upon them. Horses collided, whinnied, and reared. Sano lashed out. His sword cleaved falling snowflakes. The lanterns attached to his back and the other men’s swung crazily. He glimpsed his opponents in flashes—a red embossed breastplate; a chain-mailed arm; Ono’s snarling face. Everything was dark except where the light momentarily touched. Sano’s poor night vision put him at a serious disadvantage. His opponents flew at him out of nowhere. A blade struck his helmet, and the metallic clang shuddered his skull. He dodged and swung frantically. This was his first battle in more than four years. He practiced martial arts every morning, but real combat was different, not bound by rules, chaotic. And although Sano had won battles in which he was hugely outnumbered, he was older now. Maybe he could beat Manabe, but he couldn’t outmatch the three younger samurai whose vision was sharper, reflexes quicker, and stamina greater.
Marume yelled. Lights swung. In their path appeared a brief image of Marume covered with blood, arms thrown out, falling. Sano was horrified, and not just because Marume was his only ally tonight and among the few retainers he had left; he’d discharged the others when he was demoted and his government stipend reduced. Marume had been his friend for twenty years. Heedless of his own safety, Sano leapt off his mount. He faltered through the tumult of hooves pounding and blades slicing at him, desperate to save Marume.
Marume staggered up from the ground. “I’m all right! My horse was cut.”
The other men jumped off their horses. Kuzawa grabbed Sano from behind. Sano struggled, but he couldn’t break the young man’s grip. Setsubara and Ono wrestled Marume to the ground. His face red with horse blood, Marume shouted curses. Setsubara and Ono bound his wrists. Kuzawa tied Sano’s wrists so tight that the rope cut into his flesh. Sano glared helplessly at Manabe.
“Four against two—are you really that stupid?” Manabe scoffed. He told his men, “We’ll take them to Lord Ienobu. He’ll want to deal with them personally.”
The men boosted Sano and Marume onto Sano’s horse, knotted rope around them so they couldn’t escape, and confiscated the swords they’d dropped.
“You think you know so much, but you don’t know anything,” Manabe said with a pitying look at Sano. “You’re going to wish you’d minded your own business.”
Copyright © 2014 by Laura Joh Rowland.
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Laura Joh Rowland, the daughter of Chinese and Korean immigrants, was educated at the University of Michigan. She is the author of sixteen previous Sano Ichiro thrillers set in feudal Japan. The Fire Kimono was named one of the Wall Street Journal's “Five Best Historical Mystery Novels”; and The Snow Empress and The Cloud Pavilion were among Publishers Weekly's Best Mysteries of the Year. She lives in New York City.