from THE DRAGON KING'S PALACE
Tenwa Period, Year 2, Month 5 (June 1682)
Across dark water skimmed the boat, bound on a journey toward
misadventure. Poles attached to the narrow, open wooden shell
supported a red silk canopy; a round white lantern glowed
from a hook above the stern. Beneath the canopy, a samurai
sat, plying the oars. He wore cotton summer robes, his two
swords at his waist. Though his topknot was gray and his
face lined with age, his muscular body and deft movements
retained the vigor of youth. Opposite him, on pillows that
cushioned the bottom of the boat, a woman reclined, trailing
her fingers in the water. The lantern illuminated her flowing
black hair and skin as radiantly white and limpid as moonbeams.
An aqua kimono patterned with pastel anemones adorned her
slim figure. Her lovely face wore a dreamy, contented expression.
"The night is so beautiful," she murmured.
Lake Biwa, situated northwest of the imperial capital of Miyako,
spread around them, still and shimmering as a vast black mirror.
On the near shore, lights from the inns and docks of port villages
formed a glittering crescent; darkness and distance obscured
the farther boundaries of the lake. Many other pleasure boats
dotted the water, their lanterns flickering. Fireworks exploded
into rosettes of green, red, and white sparks that flared against
the indigo sky and reflected in the water. Cries of admiration
arose from people aboard the boats. A gentle breeze cooled
the sultry summer eve and carried the scent of gunpowder. But
the samurai gleaned no enjoyment from the scene. A terrible
anguish tortured him as he beheld his wife.
"You are even more beautiful than the night," he
All during their marriage he'd taken for granted that her
beauty belonged only to him, and that he alone possessed her
love, despite the twenty years' difference in their ages. But
recently he'd learned otherwise. Betrayal had shattered his
illusions. Now, as his wife smiled at him, he could almost
see the shadow of another man darkening and fouling the air
between them. Rage enflamed the samurai.
"What a strange look is on your face," said his
wife. "Is something wrong?"
"Quite the contrary." Tonight he would redress the
evil done to him. He rowed harder, away from the other boats,
away from the lights on shore.
His wife stirred and her expression turned uneasy. "Dearest,
we're getting too far from land," she said, removing her
hand from the water that streamed past the boat. "Shouldn't
we go back?"
The samurai stilled the oars. The boat drifted in the vast
darkness beyond the colorful bursts of the rockets. The explosions
echoed across the water, but the cries were fainter, and the
lights mere pinpoints. Stars glittered like cold jewels around
a filigree gold moon.
"We aren't going back," he said.
Sitting upright, his wife gazed at him in confusion. He spoke
quietly: "I know."
"What are you talking about?" But the sudden fear
in her eyes said she understood exactly what he meant.
"I know about you and him," the samurai said, his
voice harsh with grief as well as anger.
"There's nothing between us. It isn't what you think!" Breathless
with her need to convince, his wife said, "I only talk
to him because he's your friend."
But the man had been more than a friend to the samurai. How
the double betrayal had injured his pride! Yet the worst of
his anger focused on his wife, the irresistible temptress.
"You were doing more than just talking in the summer
house, when you thought I was asleep," the samurai said.
She put a hand to her throat. "How--how did you find
"You let him touch you and possess you," the samurai
said, ignoring his wife's question. "You loved him the
way you once loved me."
Always fearful of his temper, she cowered. Panic glazed her
eyes, which darted as she sought a way to excuse herself. "It
was only once," she faltered. "He took advantage
of me. I made a mistake. He meant nothing to me." But
her lies sounded shrill, desperate. Now she extended a hand
to her husband. "It's you I love. I beg your forgiveness."
Her posture turned seductive; her lips curved in an enticing
smile. That she thought she could pacify him so easily turned
the samurai's anger to white-hot fury.
"You'll pay for betraying me!" he shouted. He lunged
toward his wife and scooped her up in his arms. As she emitted
a sound of bewildered surprise, he flung her overboard.
She fell sideways into the lake with a splash that drenched
the boat. Her long hair and pale garments billowed around her,
and she flailed her arms in a frantic attempt to keep from
sinking in the deep, black water. "Please!" she cried,
sobbing in terror. "I'm sorry! I repent! Save me!"
A lust for revenge prevailed over the love that the samurai
still felt for his wife. He ignored her and took up the oars.
She grabbed the railings of the boat, and he beat her hands
with the wooden paddles until she yelped in pain and let go.
He rowed away from her.
"Help!" she screamed. "I'm drowning. Help!"
Rockets boomed, louder than her cries and splashes; no one
came to her rescue. While the samurai rowed farther out onto
the lake, he watched his wife grow smaller and her struggles
weaken, heard her gasps fade. She was a water lily cut loose
and dying on a pond. She deserved her misfortune. Triumph exhilarated
the samurai. His wife's head sank below the surface, and diminishing
ripples radiated toward the circle of light cast by his boat's
lantern. Then there was silence.
The samurai let the oars rest. As the boat slowed to a stop,
his triumph waned. Grief and guilt stabbed his heart. His beloved
wife was gone forever, dead by his own actions. A friendship
he'd cherished must end. Sobs welled from the void of despair
that burgeoned within the samurai. He didn't fear punishment,
because his wife's death would seem an accident, and even if
anyone guessed otherwise, the law would excuse an important
man of the ruling warrior class. But remorse and honor demanded
atonement. And to live was unbearable.
With trembling hands, the samurai drew his short sword. Its
steel blade gleamed in the lantern light and reflected his
tormented face. He gathered his courage, whispered a prayer,
and shut his eyes tight. Then he slashed the sword downward
across his throat.
A final explosion of fireworks painted the sky with giant,
sparkling colored flowers and wisps of smoke. The flotilla
of pleasure craft moved toward shore, and a hush settled over
Lake Biwa. The samurai's tiny lone boat drifted in the glow
of its lantern until the flame burned out, then vanished into
Edo, Genroku Period, Year 7, Month 5 (Tokyo, June 1694)
The great metropolis of Edo sweltered in summer. An aquamarine
sky reflected in canals swollen from rains that deluged the
city almost daily. The multicolored sails of pleasure craft
billowed amid the ferries and barges on the Sumida River. Along
the boulevards, and in temple gardens, children flew kites
shaped like birds. In the Nihonbashi merchant district, the
open windows, doors, and skylights of houses and shops welcomed
elusive breezes; perspiring townspeople thronged marketplaces
bountiful with produce. A miasma of fever rose from alleys
that reeked of sewage; pungent incense smoke combated buzzing
mosquitoes. Roads leading out of town were crowded with religious
pilgrims marching toward distant shrines and rich folk bound
for summer villas in the cooler climate of the hills. The sun
blazed down upon the peaked tile roofs of Edo Castle, but trees
shaded the private quarters of Lady Keisho-in, mother of the
shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Japan's supreme military dictator.
There, on a veranda, three ladies gathered.
"I wonder why Lady Keisho-in summoned us," said
Reiko, wife of the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator
of Events, Situations, and People. She looked over the railing
and watched her little son Masahiro play in the garden. He
ran laughing over grasses verdant from the rains, around a
pond covered by green scum, past flowerbeds and shrubs lush
"Whatever she wants, I hope it doesn't take long," said
Midori. She was a former lady-in-waiting to Keisho-in and a
close friend of Reiko. Six months ago Midori had married Sano's
chief retainer. Now she clasped her hands across a belly so
rotund with pregnancy that Reiko suspected Midori and Hirata
had conceived the child long before their wedding. "This
heat is too much for me. I can't wait to go home and lie down."
Midori's young, pretty face was bloated; her swollen legs
and feet could hardly bear her weight. She tugged at the cloth
bound tight around her stomach beneath her mauve kimono to
keep the child small and ensure an easy delivery. "This
thing didn't work. I've grown so huge, my baby must be a giant," she
lamented. She waddled into a shady corner of the veranda and
Reiko pushed away strands of hair that had escaped her upswept
coiffure and clung to her damp forehead. Perspiring in her
sea-blue silk kimono, she wished she, too, could go home. She
shared her husband Sano's work, aiding him with his inquiries
into crimes, and at any moment there might arise a new case,
which she wouldn't want to miss. But Lady Keisho-in had commanded
Reiko's presence. She couldn't refuse the mother of her husband's
lord, though her eagerness to leave stemmed from a reason more
serious than a desire for exciting detective work.
The wife of Chamberlain Yanagisawa--the shogun's powerful
second-in-command--stood apart from Reiko and Midori. Lady
Yanagisawa was quiet, dour, some ten years older than Reiko's
own age of twenty-four, and always dressed in dark, somber
colors as if to avoid drawing attention to her total lack of
beauty. She had a long, flat face with narrow eyes, wide nose,
and broad lips, and a flat, bow-legged figure. Now she sidled
over to Reiko.
"I am so thankful I was invited here and given the chance
to see you," Lady Yanagisawa said in her soft, gruff voice.
Her gaze flitted over Reiko with yearning intensity. Reiko
stifled the shudder of revulsion that Lady Yanagisawa always
provoked. The woman was a shy recluse who seldom ventured into
society, and she'd had no friends until last winter, when she
and Reiko had met. Lady Yanagisawa had attached herself to
Reiko with an eagerness that attested to her lonely life and
craving for companionship. Since then, Lady Yanagisawa had
visited Reiko, or invited her to call, almost daily; when their
family responsibilities or Reiko's work for Sano precluded
meetings, Lady Yanagisawa sent letters. Her devotion alarmed
Reiko, as did her unwelcome confidences.
"Yesterday I watched my husband writing in his office," Lady
Yanagisawa said. She'd told Reiko about how she spied on the
chamberlain. "His calligraphy is so elegant. His face
looked so beautiful as he bent over the page."
Ardor flushed her pale cheeks. "When he passed me in
the corridor, his sleeve brushed mine . . . " Lady Yanagisawa
caressed her arm, as though savoring the contact. "He
looked at me for an instant. His gaze lit a fire in me . .
. my heart beat fast. Then he walked on and left me alone." She
exhaled with regret.
Embarrassment filled Reiko. She'd once been curious about
her friend's marriage, but now she'd learned more than she
liked. She knew that Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who had risen
to power via an ongoing sexual affair with the shogun, preferred
men to women and cared nothing for his wife. Lady Yanagisawa
passionately loved him, and though he ignored her, she never
gave up hope that someday he would return her love.
"Last night I watched my husband in his bedchamber with
Police Commissioner Hoshina," Lady Yanagisawa said. Hoshina,
current paramour of the chamberlain, lived at his estate. "His
body is so strong and masculine and beautiful." Her blush
deepened; desire hushed her tone. "How I wish he would
make love to me."
Reiko inwardly squirmed, but couldn't evade Lady Yanagisawa's
confessions. The chamberlain and Sano had a history of strife,
and although they'd enjoyed a truce for almost three years,
any offense against the chamberlain or his kin might provoke
Yanagisawa to resume his attacks on Sano. Hence, Reiko must
endure the friendship of Lady Yanagisawa, despite strong reason
to end it.
Lady Yanagisawa suddenly called, "No, no, Kikuko-chan."
In the garden Reiko saw her friend's nine-year-old daughter
Kikuko pulling up lilies and throwing them at Masahiro. Beautiful
but feebleminded, Kikuko was the other object of her mother's
devotion. A chill passed through Reiko as she watched the children
gather the broken flowers. She knew how much Lady Yanagisawa
envied her beauty, loving husband, and bright, normal child,
and wished her misfortune even while courting her affection.
Last winter Lady Yanagisawa had arranged an "accident" that
had involved Kikuko and almost killed Masahiro. Ever since,
Reiko had never left him alone with Lady Yanagisawa nor Kikuko,
and employed Sano's detectives to guard him when she was away
from home. She always wore a dagger under her sleeve during
visits with Lady Yanagisawa; she never ate or drank then, lest
her friend try to poison her. Extra guards protected her when
she slept or went out. Such vigilance was exhausting, but Reiko
dared not withdraw from the woman, lest she provoke violent
retaliation. Would that she could keep away from Lady Yanagisawa!
The door to the mansion opened, and out bustled Lady Keisho-in,
a small, pudgy woman in her sixties, with hair dyed black,
a round, wrinkled face, and teeth missing. She wore a short
blue cotton dressing gown that exposed blue-veined legs. Maids
followed, waving large paper fans at her to create a cooling
"Here you all are! Wonderful!" Keisho-in beamed
at Reiko, Midori, and Lady Yanagisawa. They murmured polite
greetings and bowed. "I've invited you here to tell you
the marvelous idea I just had." She dimpled with gleeful
excitement. "I am going to travel to Fuji-san." Her
sweeping gesture indicated the peak of Mount Fuji. Revered
as a home of the Shinto gods and a gateway to the Buddhist
spirit world, the famous natural shrine hovered, snow-capped
and ethereal, in the sky far beyond the city. "And you
shall all come with me!"
Stunned silence greeted this announcement. Reiko saw her dismay
expressed on the faces of Midori and Lady Yanagisawa. Keisho-in
regarded them all with a suspicious frown. "Your enthusiasm
overwhelms me." Displeasure harshened her crusty voice. "Don't
you want to go?" The women rushed to speak at once, for
Lady Keisho-in had great influence over the shogun, who punished
anyone who displeased his mother. "Of course I do," Midori
said. "Many thanks for asking me," said Reiko. Lady
Yanagisawa said, "Your invitation does us an honor." Their
insincere replies faded into more silence. Reiko said, "But
religious custom bans women from Fuji-san."
"Oh, we needn't climb the mountain." Keisho-in waved
a hand in airy dismissal. "We can stay in the foothills
and bask in its magnificence."
"Maybe I shouldn't travel in my condition," Midori
"Nonsense. The change will do you good. And we'll only
be gone ten days or so. The baby will wait until you're home."
Midori's lips soundlessly formed the words, ten days, as Reiko
watched her envision giving birth on the highway. Lady Yanagisawa
gazed at Reiko. In her eyes dawned the amazement of someone
who has just received an unexpected gift. Reiko perceived the
woman's pleasure at the thought of constant togetherness during
the trip, and her own heart sank. Then Lady Yanagisawa looked
into the garden, where Kikuko and Masahiro played ball. Worry
clouded her face.
"I can't leave Kikuko-chan," she said.
"You coddle that child too much," Lady Keisho-in
said. "She must eventually learn to get along without
her mama, and the sooner the better."
Lady Yanagisawa's hands gripped the veranda railing. "My
husband . . . "
As Reiko guessed how much Lady Yanagisawa would miss spying
on the chamberlain, Keisho-in spoke with tactless disregard
for her feelings: "Your husband won't miss you."
"But we will encounter strange people and places during
the trip." Lady Yanagisawa's voice trembled with fear
born of her extreme shyness.
Keisho-in made an impatient, scornful sound. "The whole
point of travel is to see things you can't see at home."
Midori and Lady Yanagisawa turned to Reiko, their expressions
begging her to save them. Reiko didn't want to leave Masahiro;
nor did she want to leave Sano and their detective work. She
dreaded ten days of Lady Yanagisawa sticking to her like a
leech, and the possibility that the woman would attack her.
And Lady Keisho-in posed another threat. The shogun's mother
had a greedy sexual appetite that she indulged with women as
well as men. Once, Keisho-in had made amorous advances toward
Reiko, who had barely managed to deflect them without bringing
the shogun's wrath down upon herself and Sano, and lived in
fear of another such experience. Yet Reiko dared voice none
of these selfish objections. Her only hope of thwarting the
trip to was to appeal to Keisho-in's interests.
"I would love to accompany you," Reiko said, "but
His Excellency the Shogun may need me to help my husband conduct
Keisho-in pondered, aware that Reiko's detective skill had
won the shogun's favor. "I'll tell my son to delay all
important inquiries until we return," she said.
"But he may not want you to go," Reiko said, her
anxiety rising. "How will he manage without your advice?"
Indecision pursed Keisho-in's mouth. Lady Yanagisawa and Midori
watched in hopeful suspense. "Won't you miss him?" Reiko
said. "Won't you miss Priest Ryuko?" The priest was
Keisho-in's spiritual advisor and lover.
A long moment passed while Keisho-in frowned and vacillated.
At last she declared, "Yes, I'll miss my darling Ryuko-san,
but parting will increase our fondness. And tonight I'll give
my son enough advice to last awhile."
"The journey will be difficult and uncomfortable," Reiko
said in desperation.
"The weather on the road will be even hotter than it
is here," Midori added eagerly.
"We'll have to stay at inns full of crude, noisy people." Lady
"Highway bandits may attack us," Reiko said.
Keisho-in's hand fluttered, negating the dire predictions. "We'll
take plenty of guards. I appreciate your concern for me, but
a religious pilgrimage to Fuji-san is worth the hardship." She
addressed her maids: "Go tell the palace officials to
get travel passes for everyone and ready an entourage, horses,
palanquins, and provisions for the journey. Hurry, because
I want to leave tomorrow morning." Then she turned to
Reiko, Midori, and Lady Yanagisawa. "Don't just stand
there like idle fools. Come inside and help me pick out clothes
The women exchanged appalled glances at this foretaste of
traveling with Lady Keisho-in. Then they breathed a silent,
collective sigh of resignation.
In the cool of dawn the next morning, servants carried chests
out of Sano's mansion and placed them in the courtyard. Two
palanquins stood ready for Reiko and Midori, while bearers
waited to carry the women in their enclosed black wooden
sedan chairs to Mount Fuji. Sano and Masahiro stood with
"I wish I could call off this trip," Sano said.
He hated for Reiko to go, yet his duty to the shogun extended
to the entire Tokugawa clan and forbade him to thwart Lady
Reiko's delicate, beautiful face was strained, but she managed
a smile. "Maybe it won't be as bad as we think."
Admiring her valiant attempt to make the best of a bad situation,
Sano already missed his wife. They were more than just partners
in investigating crimes or spouses in a marriage arranged for
social, economic, and political reasons. Their work, their
child, and their passionate love bound them in a spiritual
union. And this trip would be their longest separation in their
four years together.
Reiko crouched, put her hands on Masahiro's shoulders, and
looked into his solemn face. "Do you promise to be good
while I'm gone?" she said.
"Yes, Mama." Though the little boy's chin trembled,
he spoke bravely, imitating the stoic samurai attitude.
Beside the other palanquin, Midori and Hirata embraced. "I'm
so afraid something bad will happen and we'll never see each
other again," Midori fretted.
"Don't worry. Everything will be fine," Hirata said,
but his wide, youthful face was troubled because he didn't
want his pregnant wife to leave.
From the barracks surrounding the mansion came two samurai
detectives, leading horses laden with bulky saddlebags. Sano
had ordered the men, both loyal retainers and expert fighters,
to accompany and protect Reiko and Midori. He wished he and
Hirata could go, but the shogun required their presence in
"Take good care of them," Sano told the detectives.
"We will, Sosakan-sama." The men bowed.
Reiko said, "Lady Keisho-in, Lady Yanagisawa, and our
entourage will be waiting for us outside the main castle gate.
We'd better go."
Sano lifted Masahiro; they and Reiko embraced. Final farewells
ensued. Then Reiko and Midori reluctantly climbed into their
palanquins. The bearers shouldered the poles; servants lifted
the chests. Sano hugged Masahiro close against his sore heart.
As the procession moved through the gate, Reiko put her head
out the window of her palanquin, looked backward, and fixed
a wistful gaze on Sano and Masahiro. They waved; Sano smiled.
"Mama, be safe," Masahiro called. "Come home
The Tokaido, the great Eastern Sea Road, extended west from
Edo toward the imperial capital at Miyako. Fifty-three post
stations--villages where travelers lodged and the Tokugawa
regime maintained security checkpoints--dotted the highway.
West of the tenth post station of Odawara, the highway cut
across the Izu Peninsula. The terrain ascended into the mountainous
district over which reigned the massive volcano Mount Fuji.
Here the Tokaido carved a crooked path upward through forests
of oak, maple, cedar, birch, cypress, and pine.
Along this stretch of road moved a procession comprised of
some hundred people. Two samurai scouts rode on horseback ahead
of foot-soldiers and mounted troops. Banner-bearers held a
flag emblazoned with the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock-leaf crest,
leading ten palanquins followed by servants. Porters carrying
baggage preceded a rear guard of more mounted troops and marching
soldiers. Syncopated footsteps and the clatter of the horses'
hooves echoed to distant peaks obscured by dense gray clouds.
Inside the first palanquin, Reiko and Lady Keisho-in rode,
seated opposite each other. They watched through the windows
as occasional squadrons of samurai overtook them or commoners
passed from the other direction. Moisture condensed in the
cool afternoon; streams and waterfalls rippled; birdsong animated
"Four days we've been traveling, and we're still not
even near Fuji-san," Keisho-in said in a grumpy tone.
Reiko forbore to point out that their slow pace was Keisho-in's
own fault. Keisho-in had spent hours buying souvenirs and sampling
local foods at every post station. She'd often ordered the
procession to halt while she greeted the public. Furthermore,
she disliked riding fast. The women had now gone a distance
that should have taken them half the time and a fast horseman
could cover in a day. And the trip had already taxed Reiko's
The group had gotten little sleep due to late, noisy, drunken
parties hosted by Keisho-in every night at the inns where they'd
stayed. Reiko, forced to share chambers with Lady Yanagisawa,
had hardly dared close her eyes at all. Now fatigue weighed
upon her; yet she couldn't even doze in her palanquin because
someone always needed her company. Keisho-in didn't want to
ride with Midori, who took up too much space, or Lady Yanagisawa,
whose reticence bored her. Midori said Lady Yanagisawa frightened
her, and Lady Yanagisawa could bear no one except Reiko. Hence,
Reiko divided her time between her three companions.
"This climate makes my bones hurt," Keisho-in complained.
She extended her legs to Reiko. "Massage my feet."
Reiko rubbed the gnarled toes, hoping not to arouse desire
in her companion. So far Lady Keisho-in had satisfied herself
with the soldiers, or the ladies-in-waiting and maids, who
rode in the last six palanquins. But Reiko feared that Keisho-in's
roving eye would turn on her. Estimating at least another two
days on the road before they arrived at their destination,
Reiko sighed. Mount Fuji, hidden by the clouds, appeared as
far as the end of the world, and her return home seemed eons
away. She prayed that something would happen to cut short this
The road angled through a gorge bordered by high, steep cliffs.
Crooked pines clung to the eroded earth. Pebbles skittered
down the cliffs to the road. As the procession moved onward,
the cliff on its right gave way to level forest. The road curved
out of sight between tall, aromatic cedars on one side and
sheer rock on the other. Reiko's senses tingled at a change
in the atmosphere. Suddenly alert, she froze.
"Why have you stopped massaging?" Keisho-in said
"There's something wrong." Reiko put her head out
the window and listened. "It's too quiet. I don't hear
any birds, and no one has passed us in a long while."
A rush of fear assailed Reiko; her heartbeat accelerated.
In front of the palanquin rode Sano's two detectives, and Reiko
saw them turn their heads and sweep their gazes across the
landscape, as if they, too, perceived danger. Then she heard
hissing noises. Torrents of slender shafts whizzed down from
the cliff top. A soldier screamed and collapsed with an arrow
protruding from his neck. The procession dissolved into chaos
as men dodged the arrows and horses bolted. Reiko ducked back
inside the window.
"What is happening?" Lady Keisho-in demanded.
"Someone's shooting at us. Get down!" Reiko pushed
Lady Keisho-in onto the cushioned floor of the palanquin and
slammed the windows shut.
More arrows thudded against the palanquin's roof. Shouts burst
from the troops and servants, and anxious twittering from the
women in the other palanquins.
Outside, the guard captain shouted, "We're under attack!"
Excerpt from THE
DRAGON KING'S PALACE
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2003
Published by St.