The Ronin’s Mistress: New Excerpt

The Ronin’s Mistress by Laura Joh Rowland
The Ronin’s Mistress by Laura Joh Rowland

Japan, 1703.

On a snowy night, 47 warriors murder the man at the center of the scandal that turned them from samurai into masterless ronin two years before. Clearly this was an act of revenge—but why did they wait so long? And is there any reason they should not immediately be ordered to commit ritual suicide?

Sano Ichiro, demoted from Chamberlain to his old post as Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People, has mere days to solve the greatest mystery of samurai legend—while his own fortunes hang in the balance.

 

Edo, Month 12, Geroku Year 15
(Tokyo, February 1703)

Prologue

Snow sifted from the night sky over Edo. The wind howled, whipping the snow into torn veils, piling drifts against the shut­tered buildings. Flakes gleamed in white halos around lamps at the gates at every intersection. Time was suspended, the city frozen in a dream of winter.

A band of forty-seven samurai marched through the deserted streets east of the Sumida River. They wore heavy padded cloaks and trousers, their faces shaded by wicker hats and muffled in scarves. Their boots crunched in the snow as they leaned into the wind. Each wore two swords at his waist. Some carried bows and slings of arrows over their shoulders; others clutched spears in gloved hands. The men at the end of the procession lumbered under the weight of ladders, coiled ropes, and huge wooden mallets. They did not speak.

There was no need for discussion. Their plans were set, understood by all. The time for doubts, fear, and turning back had passed. Their feet marched in lockstep. The wind blew stinging flakes into eyes hard with determination.

They halted in a road where high earthen walls protected estates inside, gazing up at the mansion where their destiny waited. Two stories tall, surrounded by barracks, it had curved tile roofs that spread like snow-covered wings. All was dark and tranquil, the sleeping residents oblivious to danger.

The leader of the forty-seven samurai was a lean, agile man with fierce eyes and strong, slanted brows visible above the scarf that covered the lower half of his face. He nodded to his comrades. Twenty-three men stole around the corner. The leader stayed with the others. As they advanced toward the front gate, a watchdog lunged out from beneath its roof. He uttered a single bark before two samurai tied his legs and fastened a muzzle over his snout. He whimpered and writhed helplessly. Other samurai positioned ladders against the walls. Up they climbed. Some let themselves down on ropes on the inside. Archers leaped onto the roofs. The leader and his remaining men gathered by the gate and waited.

Three deep, hollow beats struck on a war drum told them that their comrades were in position at the rear of the mansion. Two samurai took up the wooden mallets and pounded the gate. Planks shattered.

Inside the mansion’s barracks, the guards slumbered. The pounding awakened them. They leaped out of their beds, crying, “We’re under attack!”

Grabbing their swords, they ran outside, barefoot and half dressed, into the blizzard. Through the broken gate charged the invaders, swords drawn, spears aimed. The guards tried to defend themselves, but the invaders cut them down. Swords sliced open throats and bellies; spears pierced naked chests. Blood splashed the snow. The guards scattered, turned, and fled toward the mansion, crying for help.

More guards poured out of the barracks. The archers on the roofs fired arrows at them. The samurai who’d breached the back gate came rushing to join their band. They intercepted the guards trying to escape. The battle was a tumult of ringing blades, colliding fighters, falling bodies, and whirling snow. Soon most of the guards lay dead or wounded.

Accompanied by a few men, the leader of the forty-seven ran to the mansion. They brandished their swords in the entryway, but no one stopped them. The leader took down a lantern that hung on the wall, carrying it as he and his men moved along the dark corridors. All was quiet until they penetrated deeper into the mansion, when they heard sobbing. The lantern illuminated a room filled with women and children, huddled together in fright.

“Where is he?” the leader demanded.

The women hid their faces and cried. The samurai continued searching. They came to a bedchamber whose size and elegant furnishings were fit for the lord of the mansion. A futon was spread on the floor, the quilt flung back. The leader touched the bed.

“It’s still warm,” he said.

His gaze went to a large scroll hanging on the wall. He yanked aside the scroll. Behind it was a door, which he opened. Cold air and snowflakes blew in from a courtyard. Bare footprints in the snow led to a shed. The samurai rushed to the shed and flung the door open. The leader shone the lantern inside.

On the floor, amid firewood and coal, sat an old man. His knees were drawn up to his chin, his arms folded across his chest. He wore a cotton night robe and cap. He shivered, his teeth chattering, his breath puffs of vapor. His lined face was white; his eyes shone with terror.

“Who are you?” asked one of the samurai, the youngest, a sturdy boy.

The old man lashed out with a dagger he’d been hiding. The boy grabbed his wrist and wrenched the dagger from his grasp. He cried out in weak, pained protest. The leader pulled off the man’s cap and held the lantern near his head. A white scar gleamed on his bald crown.

“It’s him,” the leader said. “Bring him outside.”

The samurai threw the old man on his back in the snow. They pinned his arms and legs while he screamed. The leader stood over the captive. He removed the scarf that hid his face, then held up the lantern so that the old man could see him. Below his fierce eyes, his nose was long with flared nostrils, his mouth thick but firm. He wasn’t young, and his features wore the stamp of suffering.

“You know who we are. You know why we’re here.” He chanted the words as if he’d rehearsed them. “Now you’ll pay for the evil you’ve done.”

The old man tried to turn his head away, but the boy grabbed it and held it immobile. He moaned and rolled his eyes, seeking help that didn’t come. He struggled to escape, in vain. The leader drew his sword, grasped it in both hands, and raised it high over his head. The old man’s lips formed words of silent protest or prayer.

The blade came slashing down. It cleaved the old man’s throat. All the samurai leaped backward to avoid the blood spurting from the cut that severed his head from his body. An involuntary convulsion splayed his limbs. His face froze in an expression of blank-eyed, open-mouthed horror.

The boy put a whistle to his lips and blew. The shrill, piercing sound signaled that the old man was dead and the forty-seven samurai had accomplished their mission.

Soon would come their reckoning with fate.

 

Chapter 1

The blizzard ended by morning. The sky cleared to a pale blue as dawn glided over the hills east of Edo, leaving the city serene under a mantle of fresh, sparkling snow. Cranes flew over the rise where Edo Castle perched. The great fortress wore white frosting atop its walls and guard towers. In the innermost precinct of the castle stood the palace. Dark cypress beams gridded the white plaster walls of the low, interconnected buildings; gold dragons crowned the peaks of its tile roofs. In the garden, boulders and shrubs were smooth white mounds. Ice glazed a pond surrounded by trees whose bare branches spread lacy black patterns against the brightening sky. The snow on the lawn and gravel paths was pristine, undisturbed by footprints. The garden appeared deserted, but appearances were deceiving.

Under a large pine tree, in a shelter formed by its spreading boughs, three samurai crouched. Sano Ichiro, the shogun’s sosakan-sama—Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People—huddled with his two top detectives, Marume and Fukida. Although they’d covered the ground with a quilt and they wore hats, gloves, fleece-lined boots, and layers of thick, padded clothing, they were shivering. They’d been here all night, and their shelter was cold enough that they could see their breath. Sano flexed his numb fingers and toes in an attempt to ward off frostbite, as he and his men watched the palace through gaps between the bristly, resin-scented pine sprigs.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” said Fukida, the slight, serious detective.

“I would think it a lot prettier if I were sitting in a hot bath.” The big, muscular Marume was usually jovial but was cross now, after an uncomfortable night.

Sano didn’t join the conversation. He was too cold and too downcast after a long run of trouble. Although he usually put on a cheerful appearance for the sake of morale, that had gotten harder as the months passed.

Footsteps crunched the snow. Sano put his finger to his lips, then pointed outside. A man slouched into view. He wore a straw snow cape and a wicker hat. Furtive, he looked around. No one was watching that he could see. Sano had given the patrol guards the night off.

“It’s him,” Fukida said. “At last.”

Their quarry sidled up to the palace, climbed the stairs to the veranda, and stopped by the door. He lifted his cape, exposing stout legs, the loin­cloth wrapped around his waist and crotch, and voluminous white buttocks. He squatted and defecated.

This was the person who’d been sneaking around and fouling the palace late at night or early in the morning.

Sano, Marume, and Fukida leaped out from under the pine boughs. Marume yelled, “Hah! Got you!”

The man looked up, startled. He was a pimple-faced youth. Terrified by the sight of three samurai charging toward him, he jumped up to run, but he slipped in the snow and fell on the dung he’d just dropped. Marume and Fukida caught him. They held him while he struggled and began to cry.

“You’re under arrest,” Fukida said.

“Phew, you stink!” Marume said.

Sano asked the captive, “What’s your name?”

“Hitoshi,” the man mumbled between sobs.

“Who are you?” Sano said.

“I’m an underservant in the castle.” Underservants did the most menial, dirtiest jobs—mopping floors, cleaning privies.

“Why have you been defecating on the palace?” Sano said.

“My boss is always picking on me. Once he made me lick a chamber pot clean.” Hitoshi turned sullen. “I just wanted to get him in trouble.”

“Well, you succeeded,” Marume said. The supervisor of servants, who was responsible for keeping the castle clean, had been reprimanded by the shogun, the military dictator who lived in the palace and ruled Japan. The shogun had ordered Sano to personally catch the culprit. “Now you’re in even bigger trouble.”

What Hitoshi had done wasn’t just unsanitary. It was a grave criminal offense.

“Come along,” Fukida said. He and Marume hauled Hitoshi down the steps.

Hitoshi resisted, dragging his feet. “Where are you taking me?”

“To the shogun,” Sano said.

As Hitoshi protested, pleaded, and wept, the detectives hustled him along. Fukida said, “Another job well done.”

“Indeed.” Sano heard the rancor in his own voice. This was a far cry from solving important murder cases, as he’d once done. It was also a huge fall from the post he’d once held—chamberlain of Japan, second-in­command to the shogun. But Sano couldn’t complain. After the catastrophe almost two years ago, he knew he should be thankful that his head was still on his body.

Marume said quietly, “Sometimes in this life you just have to take what you can get.”

 

In the audience chamber inside Edo Castle, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi sat on the dais, enfolded in quilts up to the weak chin of his mild, aristocratic face. He wore a thick scarf under the cylindrical black cap of his rank. Smoking charcoal braziers surrounded him and three old men from the Council of Elders—Japan’s chief governing body—who knelt on the upper of two levels of floor below the dais. The sliding walls were open to the veranda, where Sano stood with Marume and Fukida. Hitoshi knelt at their feet, sobbing. The shogun had forbidden Sano to bring the disgusting captive inside the chamber. Hence, Sano and his detectives were out in the cold, as if they were pariahs—which, in fact, they were.

“So this is the man who has been defiling my castle?” The shogun hadn’t even bothered to greet Sano. He squinted at Hitoshi.

“Yes, Your Excellency.” Sano knew the shogun didn’t owe him any thanks for his work or for fourteen years of loyal, unstinting service. That was Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the samurai code of honor. But the snub rankled nonetheless. “We caught him in the act.”

The shogun said to Hitoshi, “What have you to say for yourself?”

“I’m sorry!” Hitoshi was hysterical with fright. “Please have mercy!”

The shogun flapped his hand. “I hereby sentence you to execution.” The elders nodded in approval. The shogun spoke in Sano’s general direction: “Get him out of my sight.”

Marume and Fukida raised the blubbering Hitoshi to his feet and dragged him away. Sano frowned.

At last the shogun deigned to acknowledge Sano’s presence. “What’s the matter?”

“The death penalty seems excessive,” Sano said.

Two years ago the shogun would have quailed in the face of criticism from Sano, his trusted advisor; he would have doubted the wisdom of his decision. But now he said peevishly, “That man insulted me. He deserves to die.”

“Any act against His Excellency is tantamount to treason,” said one of the elders, Kato Kinhide. He had a wide, flat face with leathery skin, like a mask with narrow slits cut for the eyes and mouth. “Under Tokugawa law, treason is punishable by death.”

Another elder, named Ihara Eigoro, said, “Not in all cases. Some people are the lucky exceptions.” Short and hunched, he resembled an ape. He looked pointedly at Sano.

Sano tried not to bristle at this mean-spirited reference to the incident that had precipitated his downfall. He faced the two elders, his political opponents. “There was no treason in the case you’re referring to.” He’d never betrayed the shogun; he’d not committed the horrendous act for which he’d been blamed.

“Oh?” Ihara said. “I heard otherwise.”

The third elder spoke up. “You’ve been listening to the wrong people.” He was Ohgami Kaoru, Sano’s lone ally on the council. Quiet and thoughtful, he seemed young despite his eighty years and white hair.

The shogun frowned in vexation. “You’re always saying things that don’t make sense.” Not known for intelligence, he never grasped the veiled allusions, the undercurrents of a discussion. Entire conversations took place over his head. But lately, Sano noticed, the shogun perceived that they were taking place even if he didn’t comprehend them. “I don’t like it. Say what you mean.”

“I’ll be glad to explain what everyone’s talking about, Your Excellency,” Chamberlain Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu said as he strode into the room, accompanied by his son, Yoritomo. Mirror images, the two had the same tall, strong, slender physique, the same dark, liquid eyes, lustrous black hair, and striking, masculine beauty. Sano didn’t react outwardly to them, but inside he seethed with anger and hatred.

He and Yanagisawa had been rivals since he’d first joined the regime fourteen years ago. Yanagisawa had then been chamberlain. Events had led to Yanagisawa’s being exiled and Sano’s becoming chamberlain. But Yanagisawa had staged a miraculous comeback. The shogun had then decreed that Yanagisawa and Sano would share the position of second-in­command and run the government as co-chamberlains. Sano would have accepted that, but Yanagisawa couldn’t. With a brilliant, stunning act of cruelty, Yanagisawa had engineered Sano’s fall.

“Good morning to you, too, Honorable Chamberlain,” Sano said. “To what do we owe the honor of your company?” But he knew. Yanagisawa had a sixth sense that warned him whenever Sano was with the shogun. He always managed to put in an appearance.

Yanagisawa ignored the greeting. “Sano-san and the Council of Elders are discussing the terrible crime that he committed against you two years ago, when he investigated a case of kidnapping. Five women were kidnapped and raped. One was your wife. She suffered terribly because Sano­-san didn’t solve the case soon enough to prevent her from becoming a victim.”

“Now she’s too sick and too afraid to leave her bedchamber,” Yoritomo said. He always tagged after his father, whom he adored.

Under other circumstances the shogun might have forgotten the whole affair. Two years was too long for his capricious nature to sustain a grudge, and he cared nothing for his wife. Their marriage was a matter of political convenience, and he preferred men to women. But Yanagisawa and Yoritomo were always reminding him. Now he glared at Sano.

“How could you do such a terrible thing to me?” the shogun demanded. Never mind that his wife was the one who’d suffered; he took everything personally. “After all I’ve done for you. Without me, you would be a, ahh, nobody!”

Sano had been a ronin—a masterless samurai—until he’d entered the Tokugawa regime as a detective inspector in the police department. During his first murder case he’d caught the shogun’s attention. The shogun had created a new position just for Sano—Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. Ever since then he’d accused Sano of ingratitude and overlooked the fact that Sano had more than earned his good fortune, often paying for it with his own blood.

Nettled, Sano defended himself yet again. “With all due respect, your wife’s kidnapping wasn’t a part of the set of crimes. Chamberlain Yanagisawa engineered her kidnapping and rape.”

“Rubbish,” Kato scoffed.

Ihara seconded him; they were both Yanagisawa’s cronies. “You’ve no proof.”

Sano had tried and failed to turn up any evidence against Yanagisawa, who’d thoroughly covered his tracks.

“Sano-san’s accusation is a pitiful attempt to shift the blame, Your Ex4ellency,” Yanagisawa said. “It’s his word against mine. And you’ve already decided whom to believe.”

He mounted the dais and knelt in the position of honor at the shogun’s right. He gave Sano a smug smile, enjoying his own privileged status and Sano’s ignominious position outside in the cold. Yoritomo sat close to the shogun, on his left. He gleamed maliciously at Sano.

An eerie shiver rippled down Sano’s spine. The resemblance between Yoritomo and Yanagisawa grew stronger every year, while the son aged and the father never seemed to change. And they shared a history as well as their looks.

In his youth, Yanagisawa had been a mere son of a vassal of a minor lord. Then he’d enchanted the shogun with his beauty, charm, and sex­ual skills. The shogun came to rely on his counsel and turned over the administration to Yanagisawa.

Yoritomo was the product of an affair between Yanagisawa and a court lady-in-waiting, a distant cousin of the shogun’s. Yoritomo too had enchanted the shogun with his beauty, charm, and sexual skills. Now he occupied his father’s former position as the shogun’s favorite lover. The shogun relied more and more on his advice. Yanagisawa and Yoritomo had a hold over the shogun that no one could break.

Sano thought of his own son, Masahiro, who was eleven years old. He could never make Masahiro into such a political pawn. He loved Masahiro too much.

“You’re right,” Yoritomo said to Ihara. “Sano-san has been bad for the Tokugawa clan, and he’s lucky to be alive.”

He hated Sano as much as his father did. When Yanagisawa had been exiled, Yoritomo had stayed in Edo with the shogun. Sano had befriended the youth, who was vulnerable to his father’s enemies. Then Yanagisawa had secretly returned, and Yoritomo had helped him stage his comeback. Yanagisawa had attacked Sano from behind the scenes until Sano had lured Yanagisawa out of hiding. Sano had used Yoritomo for bait, in a cruel trick that Yoritomo couldn’t forgive, even though Sano had apologized. It didn’t matter to Yoritomo that he’d conspired against Sano and deserved retaliation. Yoritomo was now Sano’s bitter enemy.

“Yes, I, ahh, should have put you to death for what you did to me, Sano-san.” The shogun looked puzzled. “Why didn’t I?”

Everybody spoke at once. Sano said, “Because you know in your heart that I’m innocent,” while Yanagisawa said, “Because you’re too kind, Your Excellency.” “Because Sano-san manipulated you,” Yoritomo said. Ohgami said, “Because you need his services.”

There was truth to all these reasons why Sano had been demoted to his former position instead of being forced to commit ritual suicide, the samurai alternative to execution. The shogun wasn’t entirely cowed by Yanagisawa and Yoritomo, and he probably suspected they’d set Sano up. He did have some compassion under his selfishness. Some fast talking by Sano had convinced the shogun not to give him the death penalty. And the shogun had always needed Sano to save the regime from various troubles.

Furthermore, Sano still had friends among important Tokugawa officials and powerful daimyo, feudal lords who ruled the provinces. They’d pressured the shogun to keep him alive. And Yanagisawa had many enemies, who supported Sano as their best hope of checking his rise to absolute power. But no one could say any of this openly. The shogun didn’t know about the struggle over control of the regime. Yanagisawa and his rivals didn’t want their lord to find out. A conspiracy of silence reigned.

But that didn’t prevent Yanagisawa and Yoritomo from doing everything they could to denigrate Sano in front of the shogun. Yanagisawa said, “Even though Sano-san deserves a harsher punishment, at least he’s back where he belongs.”

Sano gritted his teeth. The demotion was an extreme loss of face, a crushing blow to his samurai honor. Although he knew he must persevere for the sake of his family, his retainers, and everyone else whose fortune depended on him, in his darkest hours he thought death would have been better than this constant humiliation.

“Being chamberlain was too big a job for Sano-san,” Yoritomo chimed in. “Catching louts who defile the palace is more his size.”

Ihara and Kato nodded their agreement. Ohgami said, “That’s ridiculous, considering that Sano-san did a commendable job running the government in the past.” He aimed a pointed glance at Yanagisawa. “Better than some people.”

The corrupt Yanagisawa had embezzled from the treasury, had bribed and threatened officials and daimyo into swearing loyalty to him, and had usurped power from the shogun. The honest men in the regime didn’t like the return to that state of affairs. Less did they like the fact that the current strife between Sano and Yanagisawa wasn’t just another episode in a long-running feud. Yanagisawa was more dangerous than ever. Yanagisawa had demonstrated his willingness to shed blood to win power. If provoked, he could start a war that Japan couldn’t survive.

Ohgami was too afraid to speak openly against Yanagisawa. The other elders ignored Ohgami. The shogun frowned, irate because the conversation was going over his head again.

“Well, I hope you have, ahh, learned your lesson, Sano-san.” The shogun waved his hand. “You’re dismissed. Oh, and shut the door before you go. I’m cold.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.” Sano had no right to object; the shogun could treat him however he chose. A samurai must serve his lord without complaint, regardless of the lord’s behavior or character faults. That was the Way of the Warrior. But Sano’s endurance was stretched to its limits. He turned to leave before he did something he would regret. “Wait,” Yanagisawa said, enjoying Sano’s humiliation, wanting to prolong it. He asked the assembly, “Haven’t we any other jobs for Sano-san?”

“I hear there’s been a rash of shoplifting in the Nihonbashi merchant quarter.” Yoritomo smiled spitefully at Sano. “Maybe he should investigate that.”

“That’s a good idea,” the shogun said.

Indignation rose in Sano. That he should be relegated to chasing petty thieves! “Fine,” he said. “I’ll investigate the shoplifting.” Duty was duty, and delivering petty criminals to justice was serving his personal code of honor, even though on a small scale. “Then I’ll go after the real criminals.” He cut a hostile glance at Yanagisawa and Yoritomo.

They were planning nothing less than to take over the country. Yoritomo had Tokugawa blood, which made him eligible to inherit the regime when the shogun died. He was far down the list for the succession, but Yanagisawa was determined to make Yoritomo the new shogun someday. He meant to rule Japan through Yoritomo for as long as they both lived.

That was nothing new. But Yanagisawa’s chances of success increased every day. The shogun was getting older and frailer. Someone had to stop Yanagisawa soon.

Yanagisawa narrowed his eyes at Sano, then smiled a slow, tantalizing smile. “You’re in no position to make threats. Not as long as your family is on this earth.”

That was the threat that held Sano at bay—the harm that his enemy could do to his beloved wife and children. There was no place they could hide from Yanagisawa. His reach was long, his spies everywhere. Sano began to fear that he would never recover from the blow Yanagisawa had dealt him, that he would only fall further. But he resisted the defeat that tried to creep under his skin. He must regain his status and honor, and he must satisfy his burning need for revenge on Yanagisawa.

But how? And when? At age forty-five, he felt in danger of running out of time.

A palace guard entered the chamber. “Please excuse me, Your Excel­lency, but I have a messenger here, with news that can’t wait.”

“Bring him in,” the shogun said, smiling with a childlike delight in surprises.

Sano lingered on the veranda. Even though most affairs of state were no longer his business, he was curious about the news.

The guard ushered in the messenger. He was a boy, about twelve years old, dressed in a faded coat. He was panting and shaking. Snow clung to the hems of his trousers. He fell to his knees before the dais and bowed. His face was flushed, his eyes round, dark pools of fright.

“Speak,” the shogun commanded.

The messenger gulped, then said in a thin, trembling voice, “The honorable Kira Yoshinaka has been murdered!”

Shock stabbed Sano. A murmur of consternation rippled through the assembly. The shogun gasped. “My master of ceremonies? Ahh, what a blow to me this is!”

Master of ceremonies was a very important post. The court had elaborate rituals for banquets, audiences with the shogun, religious observance, and countless other occasions. That had made Kira indispensable. He’d been in charge of overseeing all details of the rituals. He’d coached the participants and rehearsed them. He’d been the only person who knew every minute, arcane rule of etiquette.

“How do you know Kira has been murdered?” Yanagisawa asked the messenger.

Kato said, “When was this?”

Ihara said, “Where?”

The messenger struggled to compose himself. “Last night. At Kira­-san’s estate. I’m a kitchen boy there.” A sob caught in his throat. “I saw.”

Because his relationship with Kira had been strictly professional, Sano didn’t feel any grief over Kira’s death, but without Kira, Edo Castle could dissolve into chaos. Aside from the duties he’d performed for some forty years, Kira was a hatamoto—a hereditary Tokugawa vassal—from a high-ranking family, as well as a distant relation of the Tokugawa clan. His murder was bound to cause a sensation.

“How did it happen?” the shogun asked fearfully.

Tears spilled down the messenger’s cheeks. “His head was cut off .”

Exclamations of horror arose. “Who did it?” Yanagisawa seemed per­sonally disturbed. Kira had been one of his cronies, Sano recalled.

“A gang of samurai,” the messenger said. “They invaded Kira-san’s estate.”

Fresh shock reverberated through Sano and the assembly. This was a crime of astonishing violence, even for a city in which violent death was common. “Who were they?” Yoritomo asked. “Why did they do such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” the messenger said, shamefaced. “I was too afraid to look while it was happening. I hid, and I didn’t come out until it was over and they were gone.”

Sano’s heart began to pound as hope rose in him. He looked to the shogun.

The shogun was a picture of woe and confusion, his wish to take strong action vying with his tendency to let others handle problems for him. Meeting Sano’s gaze with relief, the shogun pointed at Sano.

“You shall investigate Kira’s murder.” In the shock of the moment he’d forgotten he was angry with Sano, only recalling that Sano was his expert on solving crimes. “You shall capture the killers and, ahh, get to the bottom of this.”

Elated, Sano didn’t mind that he was freezing cold. He saw the murder case as his chance to win back the ground he’d lost. It was a thin straw to clutch at, he knew; but it was better than nothing. “Gladly, Your Excellency.”

Yanagisawa’s and Yoritomo’s faces registered dismay. “Not so fast,” Yanagisawa said. “Your Excellency, we’ve established that Sano-san is unfit for any work more complicated than catching shoplifters. You should assign someone else to investigate Kira’s murder.”

“Do you mean yourself?” The shogun wore his most gullible, eager-to-please expression.

Yanagisawa gave Sano a quick, nasty smile, as if he’d snatched a bowl of rice away from a starving beggar and was glad. “Why, yes, if that’s all right with Your Excellency.”

The shogun’s features altered into a resentful pout. “No, it is not all right!” He sometimes chafed at the control Yanagisawa and Yoritomo exerted over him. They looked appalled that he was rebelling now. He withdrew his hand from Yoritomo’s grasp. “I want Sano-san to investigate.” He cast an ominous gaze around the assembly. “Does anyone else object?”

Kato and Ihara looked at the floor, remembering that the shogun had the power of life and death over them and they had better not cross him. Ohgami gave Sano a covert smile.

“What are you waiting for, Sano-san? Go!” the shogun said.

“Yes, Your Excellency.” Sano decamped before the shogun could change his mind.

 

Chapter 2

Sano’s chief retainer Hirata awakened when a heavy weight landed on his chest. He choked on a snore, opened his eyes, and saw the laughing face of his eight-year-old daughter Taeko, who crouched atop him. Another weight thudded against the bed. It was her brother Tatsuo, aged five. Hirata’s wife Midori rolled over beside him, clasping her pregnant belly.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to jump on us in bed?” she scolded the children. “You’ll squash the baby.” She groaned. “It’s not due until next month, but it almost feels like I’m going to have it today.”

“Come here.” Hirata pulled the children under the quilt, between him and Midori.

“Can I go see Masahiro?” Taeko asked.

Masahiro was Sano’s eleven-year-old son. He and his younger sister, Akiko, were favorite playmates of Hirata’s children.

“No,” Midori said. “You’re in their quarters so often that Sano-san and Lady Reiko are probably tired of you.” Because they lived in the same estate in the precinct in Edo Castle where the high officials resided, Hirata’s and Sano’s families spent much time together. “Let them have some time alone.”

Taeko turned to Hirata. “Papa? Will you let me go see Masahiro?”

Hirata smiled at her attempt to play her parents off against each other. “Sorry. Your mother’s word is the law.” He asked, “You like Masahiro, don’t you?”

“He’s all right,” Taeko said with studied nonchalance.

Midori and Hirata exchanged a look that combined amusement and concern. Their daughter had a crush on Masahiro. Although she was so young, children grew up fast in this world of theirs, and they hoped she wouldn’t be hurt. A marriage between Taeko and Masahiro was impossible; it could bring political benefits to her family but not to his.

“Masahiro got in a fight with some boys yesterday,” Taeko said.

“Why?” Hirata asked.

“They were making fun of us because the shogun demoted our fathers,” Taeko said.

Hirata looked at Midori and saw his dismay on her face. When Sano had been chamberlain, Hirata had taken over Sano’s former position as chief investigator. When Sano had been demoted, Hirata had, too. Hirata and Midori worried about the effect that his demotion would have on their children. Hirata minded less for himself. He didn’t mind giving up his position to Sano, because he knew how lucky he was.

Fourteen years ago, he’d been a lowly police patrol officer who couldn’t afford to marry. Then he’d met Sano, who’d made him his chief retainer. He owed his career to Sano. And Sano owed his life to Hirata, who’d stopped an attack on Sano and been wounded so severely that he’d almost died. But Hirata had recovered and gone on to achieve things he’d never dreamed of. He had a wife he adored, two beautiful children, and a third on the way. Life was good.

Still, he feared for Taeko’s and Tatsuo’s future. The world was cruel to the progeny of disgraced fathers, and his children and Sano’s were already feeling the sting.

“Was anybody hurt in the fight?” Midori said anxiously.

“No,” Taeko said. “I scared the boys away. I told them that if they didn’t stop bothering us, my father would beat them up. I said that my father is the best fighter in Edo.”

“You shouldn’t brag,” Midori said. “It’s not polite.”

“But it’s true,” Tatsuo piped up.

Hirata shrugged modestly. He was the best, as he’d proven in the many tournaments and duels he’d won. After his injury, he’d been a cripple, in constant pain. Then he’d apprenticed himself to a mystic martial arts master, an itinerant priest named Ozuno. Five years of rigorous training had restored his health, transformed his broken body into muscle, sinew, and bone as strong as steel, and developed his combat skills to the point that he was almost invincible. Secret rituals had conditioned his mind, endowing him with a wisdom far beyond his thirty-six years and a new perspective. The Tokugawa regime was but a dust speck in the cosmos. Political machinations couldn’t take away the fruits of his hard work. Nothing could.

At least nothing had yet.

“Excuse me, Honorable Master.” A servant knelt at the threshold of the bedchamber. “There’s a message from the sosakan-sama. He wants your help with a new case.”

Hirata was intrigued and excited. He said to Midori, “Maybe this is what we’ve been waiting for.”

After washing, eating a quick breakfast, and donning his heavy winter clothes, Hirata took his swords down from the rack in the entryway and fastened them at his waist. He hesitated at the door.

The best martial artist in Edo was afraid to go outside.

Resisting his fear, he threw the door open. A rush of cold air that smelled of charcoal smoke greeted him. Servants were shoveling snow off the path through the garden. Hirata breathed deeply, slowing his heartbeat, calming his nerves, heightening his trained senses. He heard guards patrolling the castle, servants rattling buckets, and in the distant city the dogs barking, shopkeep ers hawking their wares, and the ripple of the river. He smelled and tasted fish sizzling on grills, noodles cooking in garlic-flavored broth, night-soil in barrows headed for the countryside. Through the flood of sensory details he felt the auras given off by the million people in Edo. Each was distinct, an energy that signaled its owner’s health, personality, and emotions. Although there were far too many auras to memorize, Hirata recognized those of people he knew. He projected his senses outward, searching the city.

Midori came to stand beside him. “Is he there?”

“No.” Hirata didn’t feel the aura he was looking for, that he’d encountered for the first time eighteen months ago.

He’d been at Ueno Temple when he’d felt an aura more powerful than any he’d ever met. It emanated from a man with powers far beyond what Hirata had thought possible for a mere mortal. Struck with awe and terror, Hirata had waited for the man to reveal himself—but he hadn’t.

Instead, the man had begun loitering invisibly near him, taunting him. Once only, he’d let Hirata catch a glimpse of him, then slipped away.

Since then, Hirata had been searching for the man he called his stalker, whose name and face he didn’t know, whose fighting skills he probably couldn’t match, who could follow him anywhere. He lived in fear of an attack that might hurt his family and friends as well as himself. He spent days riding through the city, trying to lure his stalker into the open; but so far his stalker remained hidden and anonymous.

“Maybe he’s not coming back,” Midori said. She was one of the few people that Hirata had told about his stalker. Sano was another. He’d sworn them all to secrecy. He didn’t want anyone else to know he was afraid of a ghost that nobody but himself could detect.

“Yes, he is,” Hirata said. “He’s hovering in the distance, biding his time.”

“For what?” Midori tried, not very hard, to hide her skepticism.

“To fight me,” Hirata said.

Many men would like to beat him in combat and replace him as Edo’s top martial artist. Many had tried. All had failed. But Hirata realized that even his mystical powers couldn’t keep him in his prime forever. Eventually someone would come along who could defeat him. He feared it was the stalker. He sensed that the time for a showdown was near.

“What are your teacher’s sayings that you’re always quoting?” Midori said. “‘What we fear, we create.’ ‘His own mind is a warrior’s most formidable adversary.’ I wonder if your mind is driving you crazy. Maybe this stalker doesn’t really exist. Maybe you made him up.”

“I did not.” Annoyance prickled Hirata.

His wife didn’t entirely believe in his mystical powers, even though she’d seen him perform astonishing feats. A practical woman, she thought everything had a rational explanation. But of course Hirata hadn’t believed in the supernatural until he’d experienced it himself. He couldn’t expect Midori to understand. And he had to admit that there could be truth to what she’d said. Perhaps his mind and his fear had built the stalker into a bigger, stronger person than the man really was. But Hirata didn’t think so.

“I have to go,” he said.

Concern for him crept into Midori’s eyes in spite of her doubts that he was in any real danger. “Be careful.”

 

Chapter 3

Guards in the towers and enclosed corridors atop the walls of Edo Castle looked down at the main gate, which opened to let out a procession of mounted samurai. Sano rode in the lead, Hirata by his side. Marume and Fukida followed with fifty soldiers from his army. His heart lightened as it always did when he escaped the castle’s confines. As he and his men crossed the bridge over the moat, he breathed the eye-watering, cheek-stinging cold and the fresh atmosphere of hope.

They turned on the avenue that separated Edo Castle from the daimyo district, where the feudal lords lived in vast, walled compounds. The wooden framework structures of fire-watch towers were sketched against a blue sky pillowed with white clouds. Snow lay shin-deep on the wide avenue. There wasn’t much traffic except a squadron of samurai on horse back approaching from the opposite direction. Poles on their backs flew banners that bore the crest of a daimyo clan allied with Yanagisawa. They barreled straight toward Sano, their chins tilted up at an insolent angle.

Marume and Fukida galloped forward. “Hey!” Marume said. “Move aside!”

The soldiers kept going. Sano clenched his jaw. While the shogun had backed him, he’d commanded the respect of almost everybody. Since he’d lost favor, no one deferred to him. He should be used to it by now, but it was still hard to take.

Fukida, Marume, and his other troops reached for their swords. Sano said, “Let it go.” The satisfaction of teaching the soldiers a lesson wasn’t worth the loss of human lives. Early on, Sano’s younger, hotheaded retainers had fought many brawls on his behalf. Too many had died. Not only did Sano hate the waste, but he needed all his troops.

His men reluctantly desisted. The soldiers snickered and started to ride through Sano’s army.

Hirata blocked them. He’d moved so swiftly that they were startled to find him in their path. “Go around us.”

His voice was quiet, but his aura of power stopped the soldiers. Their fright showed as they recognized him. They knew he could kill them before they could strike him once. Nobody dared insult Sano in Hirata’s presence. Laughing as if at a joke that wasn’t funny, they slunk around Sano’s group.

Hirata steered his horse back into position beside Sano. Marume and Fukida nodded approvingly to him, but Sano sensed the tension among the three men as the procession continued down the avenue. The detectives didn’t object to Hirata taking his rightful place next to Sano; but when Hirata had been sosakan-sama and Sano had been chamberlain, Marume and Fukida had acted as Sano’s chief retainers. They’d enjoyed the status and responsibility, and they disliked being shunted to the background. And although the detectives liked Hirata, he’d changed since learning the mystic martial arts. They feared him, even though he was their comrade.

But today nothing could darken Sano’s or his men’s spirits for long. One murder investigation fourteen years ago had launched Sano on an extraordinary rise to power. One murder investigation now could be his redemption. His men were excited to be on an important mission, and the city had a festive air. White, sparkling snow covered roofs, streets, and dirt. Women swept their doorsteps, sending flurries of flakes over brightly dressed children pelting one another with snowballs. Pine boughs hung over doors, decorations for the coming New Year. Sano and his men crossed the Ryogoku Bridge, which arched over barges and fishing boats on the glittering Sumida River. They joked and laughed.

Their humor abruptly ended when they found the first evidence of the murder.

The snow in the street between the earthen walls of the estates in Kira’s neighborhood was red with bloody footprints and spatters. These originated at the gate of a mansion two stories tall, whose many curved tile roofs rose above surrounding barracks. As Sano and his men dismounted, Fukida said, “Merciful gods.”

“I thought we were coming to investigate one murder,” Marume said, his usual cheer sobered. “This looks like the scene of a massacre.”

Near an empty guardhouse, ladders leaned against the wall. “That must be how the killers got into the mansion.” Sano glanced up and down the street. People peered out the gates of other estates. When his gaze met theirs, they withdrew. “Let’s go in.” He and his men approached the gate. “Be careful. The messenger said that the killers are gone, but we don’t know what to expect.”

Swords drawn, they lined up on either side of the portals. Hirata gingerly opened the gate. They walked between the barracks, along a path that was covered with more bloodstained snow. Two men lay facedown, dead. Both were samurai, half naked, barefoot. Arrows protruded from their backs. Sano and his men proceeded to the courtyard. Here the blood was so plentiful that it had turned the snow into a crimson slush. Many more bodies were scattered about. Sano’s troops exclaimed and muttered. A few retched. Sano frowned at the gashed chests, the bellies oozing entrails, the throats cut. Vacant eyes gazed up at the sky. Sano almost stepped on a severed hand. His stomach lurched, even though he’d seen plenty of carnage in the past. This attack was surely the most brutal, inflicted on men who clearly hadn’t been prepared.

“This was no battle,” Marume said. “This was a slaughter.”

“But where is Kira?” Hirata asked.

They turned to the mansion. It huddled under the weight of the snow on its roof, its façade in shadow, the veranda dark beneath overhanging eaves. Crows and vultures perched on the gables, waiting to feast on the corpses. The house was as quiet as a tomb. Sano and his men followed bloody footprints up the steps and through the door. They didn’t bother taking off their shoes as polite custom required. The corridor they entered was awash in melted snow and more blood. They crept past silent, empty rooms.

A man rushed from around a corner. He was small and stooped, and he carried a spear. “Don’t come any farther! Get out!” He clumsily thrust his spear at Sano and the other men.

“Hey, be careful with that thing.” Marume seized the spear. The old man squealed and cowered.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Sano said, and introduced himself. He and his troops sheathed their swords.

The old man gasped, dropped to his knees, and bowed. “sosakan-sama. A thousand apologies. I thought they’d come back.”

“Who are you?” Sano asked.

“Gorobei. I’m Lord Kira’s valet.” Grief contorted the old man’s face. “I was.”

“The shogun sent me to investigate Kira-san’s murder,” Sano said. “May I speak to his chief retainer?”

Gorobei sobbed. “He’s dead.”

“What about his other officials?”

“They’re either dead, too, or wounded.”

“Who’s in charge?” Sano said.

“Nobody,” Gorobei said.

“Who sent the messenger to Edo Castle?”

“I did. I also sent for a doctor to take care of the wounded men. They’re in the barracks.”

“You’ve done well,” Sano said. “Where are the women and children?” He knew Kira had a large family. “Are they all right?”

“Yes, thank the gods. The gang didn’t touch them. They’re in the private quarters, with the servants.” Gorobei added, “The watchdog was also spared. I found him tied up and muzzled outside.”

Tokugawa law forbade killing dogs. The shogun had been told by his spiritual advisors that if he protected dogs, then the gods would grant him an heir. It hadn’t worked so far, probably because he had sex with men much more often than women. Sano was amazed by the gang’s combination of violence and respect for the law.

“Can you take us to Kira?” Sano said.

Gorobei nodded, choking back tears. He led Sano’s party to the bedchamber. More bloody footprints soiled the tatami around a bed whose quilt was folded back as if the occupant had just risen. Gorobei lifted a scroll painting that hung on the wall, revealing a door.

“My master had this door built, in case of an emergency.” He preceded Sano through the door, into a courtyard. This contained a shed whose door was ajar, the interior filled with coal and firewood. A tarp lay on the ground. Sano could see the shape of a body underneath. Blood had soaked through the fabric.

“I didn’t want to leave him here,” Gorobei said, ashamed and regretful. “But I couldn’t move him by myself, and no one else would touch him.”

“It’s better that you left him until we got here.” Sano was glad to have any clues intact.

Fukida and Marume peeled back the tarp. Bony feet with bunions appeared; next came withered, veined calves, and a beige kimono with blood spatters that grew bigger as the tarp drew away. The whole upper garment was dyed red. Kira’s arms extended out from his sides, fingers stiff. The corpse ended at the neck. Bone, windpipe, and sinews showed through the blood that had clotted around the severed flesh and congealed into a half-frozen puddle.

The detectives let the tarp drop. Fukida sucked air through his teeth. Marume winced. Gorobei wept. Sano and Hirata gazed in silence, paying their respects to their colleague. Sano endured the spiritual pollution that the dead exude. He brushed aside the irreverent thought that he’d stepped in so much blood that he would have to burn his boots when he got home. Then he asked the obvious question.

“Where is Kira’s head?”

“They took it.” Gorobei clarified, “The men who killed him.”

“Who are they?” Sano said. “Did you get a look at them?”

“No. But I know who they must be. They’re former retainers of Lord Asano.”

Sano realized he should have known. Hirata and Fukida nodded in comprehension. Marume said, “Lord Asano. So that’s what this was about. The incident at Edo Castle—when was it? Two years ago?”

“Twenty-two months, exactly.” Sano recited the details of the incident. “Envoys had come from the Emperor’s court in Miyako. The host in charge of entertaining them was Lord Asano Naganori, age thirty-four, daimyo of Ako Castle in Harima Province. Kira’s job as master of ceremonies was to instruct Lord Asano on how to conduct the ritual. An antagonism developed between Lord Asano and Kira.”

“Has anyone ever figured out why?” Hirata asked.

“No. That’s still a mystery,” Sano said. “But one day Lord Asano drew his sword, struck at Kira, and cut his head. Kira survived, but Lord Asano broke the law against drawing a sword inside Edo Castle, which is a capital offense. Lord Asano claimed he and Kira had a personal quarrel, Kira had provoked him, and he had to defend his honor. Kira claimed there was no quarrel and Lord Asano had attacked him for nothing. The shogun believed Kira. He ordered Lord Asano to commit seppuku. The house of Asano was dissolved, its wealth and lands confiscated by the government, and all Lord Asano’s retainers became ronin.”

That was a serious disgrace for a samurai, even when he lost his warrior status through no fault of his own. Sano knew because it had happened to his own father. His father’s lord had run afoul of the third Tokugawa shogun, who’d confiscated his lands and turned all his retainers, including the Sano family, out to fend for themselves. Sano’s father hadn’t recovered from the humiliation until Sano had gotten into the Tokugawa regime and restored the family’s honor.

“It appears that these ronin blamed Kira for their lord’s death and they’ve taken revenge,” Sano said.

“But didn’t the shogun rule that Kira wasn’t guilty of anything and therefore shouldn’t be punished?” Fukida said. “Didn’t he forbid any action against Kira?”

Marume covered the corpse with the tarp. “Yes, but apparently that didn’t stop the ronin.”

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Sano said. Loyalty to one’s master was the highest principle of Bushido. Avenging the death of his master was a solemn duty that a good samurai could not neglect.

“Except that it happened so long after Lord Asano’s death,” Hirata said.

“And except that so many ronin were involved and they killed so many people besides Kira,” Fukida said. “I’ve never heard of a vendetta like this.”

Vendettas usually involved only two people—the perpetrator and the individual who’d wronged him—although sometimes relatives or friends would join in on either side. The scale and sheer brutality of this revenge astounded Sano. It would surely cause an uproar.

“I don’t suppose the ronin bothered to register the vendetta,” Hirata said. Vendetta was legal when the perpetrator notified the authorities of his intentions. This notification served as a warning to his target, who was then on his guard and had time to hide.

“You’re right,” Sano said. “The shogun’s orders prohibited a vendetta in this case.”

“My master was always afraid it would happen anyway,” Gorobei said. “That’s why he had so many guards. That’s why his bedchamber had a secret exit.”

“That just goes to show: If someone’s determined to get you, they will,” Marume said.

“Well, at least the mystery appears to be solved,” Sano said. “We know who killed Kira and why.”

He felt a massive letdown. Kira’s murder was supposed to be the big case that he could impress the shogun by solving, the pathway to regaining his status and honor, but it had proved to be disappointingly simple, almost over as soon as he’d begun.

“We still have to arrest the ronin,” Hirata said, then asked Gorobei, “Where did they go?”

“I don’t know,” the old man said unhappily.

“We’ll find them.” Sano hoped that he could accomplish some good by finishing the investigation quickly. “Let’s get to work.”

 

Copyright ©2011 by Laura Joh Rowland


Laura Joh Rowland is the author of fourteen previous Sano Ichiro mysteries. 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.

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