Image Border

Laura Joh Rowland

 home  |  books  |  author  |  appearances  |  surprise!  | Charlotte Brontë

Excerpt from The Incense Game

Winner of the RT Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery Novel


Edo, Month 11, Genroku Year 16 (Tokyo, December 1703)

The earth trembled as if a massive, restless dragon were uncoiling beneath the city. On the black expanse of the Sumida River, the moon's reflection shivered. Thousands of houses shifted, groaning and creaking. Wind chimes tinkled in the icy air. At two hours before midnight, the few soldiers patrolling the streets reined in their skittish horses. Sleepers tossed, troubled by bad dreams.

In a small house in the Nihonbashi merchant district, three women looked up as the tatami floor where they knelt shook under them and ceramic vessels on shelves rattled. The square white lantern above them swayed, casting eerie patterns of light and shadow across their anxious faces made up with white rice-powder and red rouge. Breath held, the women didn't speak.

The shaking stopped.

They released their breath.

Earth tremors were common. Everyone lived with the fear of the great quakes that devastated Japan at unpredictable intervals, and went about their business in the meantime.

The oldest woman turned her attention to the items arranged on a mat before her. Her name was Usugumo. In her forties, she had the sleekness of a cat, her face molded from triangular planes. Silver streaks gleamed in her upswept hair. She picked up metal chopsticks, removed a white-hot coal from a brazier, and dropped it in a celadon ceramic bowl filled with ash. While she mounded the ash over the charcoal, pierced a hole in the mound, and drew a pattern of lines on it, she flicked her narrow-eyed glance at the other women.

They were sisters, in their twenties. The younger was prettier, the elder more expensively dressed. Usugumo could feel hostility between them. She used tweezers to place a mica plate above the hole in the ash, then picked up three origami packets made of pale green, gold-flecked paper. She shuffled the packets, opened one, and removed a little ball of incense, which she set on the mica plate. Smoke tinged with the aromas of fruit, wood, musk, and spices arose from the bowl as the incense burned. Usugumo sensed anticipation in the air, and a tension at odds with the serene ritual. The other women gazed down at the paper, brushes, ink, and inkstones arranged before them, their expressions stony.

"The incense game begins," Usugumo said. The sisters sat up straighter, like warriors preparing for battle. "Listen to the incense. Let its voice tell you who it is."

She set the celadon bowl on the floor between her and the elder sister and bowed. The elder sister picked up the bowl, holding it on her left palm. She curled her right hand on top of the bowl, forming a small hole between her thumb and forefinger. Her sister watched closely, leaning forward, as if impatient for her turn.

The earth shuddered again.

The elder sister lifted the bowl to her face, placed her nose against the hole, closed her eyes, and slowly, deeply, inhaled.


Sano Ichiro, chamberlain and second-in-command to the shogun, the military dictator of Japan, was alone in a small boat on a turbulent sea. Thunder boomed in the stormy sky. He clung to the sides of his boat as it rocked and pitched. High up to the crest of an enormous wave he soared; then he came down with a jarring crash.

He awakened, a yell caught in his throat.

He was lying in his dark bedchamber. His fingers gripped the heavy quilts that covered him. The rocking and thunder continued. His wife Reiko, beside him, said in a sleepy, worried voice, "Why are you shaking?"

"It's not me," Sano said.

Their twelve-year-old son Masahiro ran into the room, shouting, "Earthquake!"

The room heaved and rocked with an erratic, accelerating rhythm and terrible force. Sano and Reiko sat up while doors slid open; cabinets spewed their contents. They heard the rasp of the house twisting, its joints wrenching. Cracking, shattering noises came from above as roof tiles loosened and fell. Crashes reverberated throughout the compound inside Edo Castle where Sano and his family lived. From her room down the hall his five-year-old daughter screamed.

"Akiko!" Clad only in her night robe, Reiko ran out the door, her long braid of hair flying.

Sano was up now, too, shivering in the winter air. He said to Masahiro, "Help me get everybody outside before the buildings come down."

They raced through corridors, where they met guards and maids already fleeing. They leaped over gaps that opened between sections of the mansion. "Be careful!" Sano shouted. "Hurry!"

Ceiling beams crashed behind them. Lattice-and-paper partitions collapsed. Sano and Masahiro herded people between leaning walls and down tilted floors. The crowd stumbled free of the mansion, into the icy night.

"Reiko!" Sano called, looking frantically around.

"I'm here!" Reiko trudged toward him, carrying Akiko on her back.

The family huddled together in the courtyard with Sano's retainers and the servants. The barracks that enclosed the compound shuddered as the earth rocked harder and faster. Roof tiles flew like missiles. Cracks zigzagged across plaster façades. Buildings began to crumble.

"Go out!" Sano yelled. "It's not safe here!"

The crowd surged through the gate to the stone-paved avenue. Across this, estates belonging to other government officials occupied a lower level of the hill on which Edo Castle stood. Buildings collapsed like strips of silk curling in a breeze. Screams of terror and agony came from people trapped and injured. Sano looked up to see trees, walls topped with covered corridors, and guard towers sliding down the hill. Groans swept the crowd.

"Merciful gods," Reiko exclaimed.

Sitting astride Reiko's back, Akiko cried, "Look!"

Sano turned in the direction she was pointing. With the estates across the avenue gone, a new, clear view of the city below had opened up. Sano, his family, and his household gazed down in stricken fascination, clinging to one another as the world bucked with thunderous jolts. In the dim moonlight Sano could see that Edo's skyline had flattened. Faint, distant screams rose amid scintillating dust clouds. Orange lights flared like torches across the landscape. Fires inevitably followed earthquakes, when lamps, braziers, and stoves were knocked over and ignited the houses.

"The city is burning," Akiko said, her voice hushed with awe, her eyes round and solemn.

Sano and Reiko looked at each other in horror: The world as they knew it was ending.


A month after the earthquake, Edo was a landscape from hell. Entire neighborhoods were leveled. The few intact areas stood like islands amid a sea of wreckage. Edo Castle resembled a beehive after a monster has shaken and mauled it to steal the honey. Up and down the hill laborers swarmed, cleaning up timbers, plaster, and roof tiles from fallen buildings. The cold air rang with their shouts, the din from their shovels and hammers, and the rattle of the oxcarts that carried the debris downhill. Dust hazed a wintry blue sky darkened by smoke that rose from bonfires as Edo's million people—the majority now homeless—tried to keep warm.

Accompanied by troops, officials, and secretaries, Sano inspected the palace. His chief bodyguard, Detective Marume, walked ahead of him, clearing a path through crowds of porters hauling planks. Sano strode through gardens once beautifully landscaped, now awash in mud and manure while men sawed boards, mixed plaster, and lugged supplies. Much of the huge complex had collapsed during the earthquake. Although the wreckage had been cleared away, new framework for only one section—the shogun's private chambers—had been erected. Other sections were nothing but bare foundations. Sections that hadn't collapsed leaned precariously.

"When can you finish?" Sano asked the chief architect.

"I wish I knew." One of thousands of samurai officials in the bakufu—Japan's military government—the architect had the grimy, haggard appearance of them all, including Sano. They'd been working day and night to rebuild the castle and the city and help the survivors of the earthquake. "We haven't enough skilled carpenters, or building materials, or food for the workers. Can you get us some more?"

"I'll try." Sano was in charge of the rebuilding and disaster relief. People came to him for everything. "But I can't make any promises. The other carpenters are busy fixing the bridges." Most of the bridges that spanned Edo's rivers and canals were down; movement through the city was severely limited. "I've ordered building materials from the provinces, but they'll be slow getting here because the bridges along the highways are down. Food shipments are delayed, too." Would that they arrived before a famine started! Much of Edo's food supply had been destroyed by the fires, and what remained was quickly dwindling.

A clerk carrying a scroll hurried up to Sano. "Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, here is an urgent communication."

Sano unfurled the scroll and read it. His spirits sank lower. "The death toll in Edo is now at three thousand," he said to Marume.

Every new count was higher than the last. This was the worst disaster Sano had ever seen. He still couldn't believe it had happened.

Sano continued reading. "There's more bad news. The treasury is already seriously depleted by earthquake relief and repairs." The Tokugawa regime, which had endured for a century, was nearing insolvency.

Marume didn't answer. Once Sano could have counted on him to make humorous remarks that lightened the direst occasions. But Marume's partner, Fukida, was among the casualties, killed when the barracks at Sano's estate collapsed. Sano thought back to that terrible night, when he'd led the search for victims in the ruins of Edo Castle. He remembered Marume sobbing over Fukida's broken body. The two men had been like brothers. Marume seemed a ghost of himself. His eyes were darkly shadowed. He never smiled anymore.

Sano felt guilty that his own wife and children were alive and well, when Marume and so many others had suffered such grievous losses. And he missed Detective Fukida, who'd been one of his favorite, most trusted retainers. Although he customarily had two bodyguards, Sano hadn't assigned Marume a new partner. He didn't have the heart. Now he felt a wave of exhaustion so powerful that he swayed. He hadn't had a full night's sleep in a month. Closing his eyes, he took a moment's nap on his feet. He couldn't keep up this pace for much longer.

He was forty-six years old, and he felt a hundred.

Edo had risen from disasters in the past, most notably the Great Fire almost five decades ago. Would Edo rise again? If only Sano could pull it up from the ruins with the strength of his own hands and will!

Another messenger came running toward Sano. "Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, His Excellency the Shogun wants to see you, right now!"


The shogun's temporary quarters were in a minimally damaged guest house. A few cracks in its plaster façade had been patched, a few broken roof tiles replaced. Pine trees and a stone wall screened it from the disorder everywhere else in the castle. Sano entered the small reception room, which was stifling hot from the lanterns and charcoal braziers that surrounded the two men seated on the dais. Both men were bundled in quilts up to the chin. The shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, wore a silk scarf around his head under the cylindrical black cap that proclaimed his rank. An angry pink spot on each withered cheek brightened the pallor of his weak, pouting face.

"I've been waiting for, ahh, more than an hour," he said as Sano knelt on the tatami floor and bowed. Intolerant of disruption under the best circumstances, the shogun had been thoroughly unhinged by the earthquake. He viewed it as a personal affront, and he had more complaints every time Sano saw him. "Why does it always take so long for you to be fetched?"

He hadn't seen the devastation created by the earthquake, or how much work there was to do, because he never left his quarters. He vaguely knew that many of his subjects had died and many more had lost their homes, but all he really cared about was his own convenience. A mere month after the disaster, he thought everything should snap back to normal and everyone be restored to his beck and call.

"My apologies, Your Excellency," Sano said. A samurai must serve his lord respectfully and unstintingly, no matter how thin his patience was stretched. That was Bushido, the warrior code of honor that Sano lived by. He turned to the other man on the dais, the shogun's nephew. "Greetings, Honorable Lord Ienobu."

"Greetings," Ienobu said, his voice a tight rasp that sounded squeezed out of his stunted, hump-backed body. He had an abnormally small lower jaw, which made his upper teeth protrude. At age forty-two he looked a decade older. Rumor said he had a hereditary, degenerative bone condition that caused him chronic pain. No one knew for sure except his physician, a blind acupuncturist. No one spoke openly about his condition because he was a Tokugawa clan member—the only son of the shogun's deceased older brother Tsunashige—albeit one of dubious status.

His father's birth and death had been shrouded in mystery. His mother had been a chambermaid, who'd borne Ienobu when his father was quite young. His parentage was kept secret, lest it jeopardize his father's betrothal to a noblewoman. Ienobu had been brought up by a family retainer and given the retainer's surname. Not until Ienobu was eight years old, and his father's noble wife died, was he recognized as Tsunashige's son and heir and a true member of the Tokugawa ruling clan. Not until this past year had Ienobu emerged from his luxurious villa to renew his slight childhood acquaintance with the shogun, who was sixteen years his senior.

The shogun said to Ienobu, "Chamberlain Sano leaves me here all by myself. But at least I have you, Nephew."

"Yes." Ienobu smiled; his lips stretched around his protruding teeth. "I'm glad to help you through this difficult time."

Sano thought Ienobu had taken advantage of the earthquake to get close to the shogun. With all the court officials busy at work, there was less competition for the shogun's favor than usual. And Sano doubted it was a coincidence that Ienobu had appeared on the scene ten months ago, after the shogun's then favorite male lover, Yoritomo, had died suddenly. That was when Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu—father of Yoritomo, former chamberlain, and longstanding chief advisor to the shogun—had relinquished his control over the government and gone into seclusion. Sano wondered what Yanagisawa, his longtime enemy, was doing, but felt thankful not to have to worry about him. Yanagisawa's absence had left a political vacuum that Ienobu had filled. Sano suspected that Ienobu had designs on the succession. Ienobu's pedigree made him a logical candidate to become the next dictator, since the shogun had failed to produce a direct blood heir.

But today Sano didn't have time for speculation about Ienobu. "What can I do for you, Your Excellency?" he said, hoping to get it out of the way fast.

"You can answer a question," the shogun said. "Where is everybody?"

It was the question that everyone had been hoping the shogun wouldn't ask. "Whom do you mean, Your Excellency?" Sano said, buying himself time to think how to defuse a dangerous situation.

"My usual attendants and servants," the shogun said. "They've been, ahh, very scarce lately. Some of my boys are missing, too." An enthusiastic practitioner of manly love, he had numerous young male concubines. "And I don't recall seeing some of my, ahh, most important officials in awhile. I'm aware that their offices in the palace were damaged and they have to, ahh, work from wherever they're living, but I should think they would come and see me every so often. Where have they gone?"

No one wanted to tell the shogun how many casualties his regime had sustained during the earthquake. Soon after it, he'd greeted the news of each death with attacks of hysteria that made him so ill, everyone feared he would die. The Council of Elders, Japan's chief governing body, had ordered that he wasn't to be apprised of any more deaths. He'd calmed down and been satisfied to believe that the people he missed were simply busy elsewhere.

Until now.

Ienobu hunched forward. He reminded Sano of a vulture. Sano gave up on deception, partly because he didn't like lying, partly because he was tired of cosseting the shogun. "They're dead, Your Excellency."

A strange look came over the shogun's face, a mixture of horror and chagrin. Sano saw that he'd known all along but hoped it wasn't true. "How many people in the government died?" the shogun asked in a small voice.

"Three hundred and fifty-one, so far," Sano said. "Some are still unaccounted for." He recited the names of dead ministers, functionaries, and army officers, onetime pillars of the regime.

"Merciful Buddha," the shogun whispered, his complexion ashen. "This is a terrible, terrible blow for me!" Stress and fatigue undermined Sano's tendency to hope for compassion from the shogun. He'd expected the shogun to care less about the deaths than their consequences for him. "Who is running my government?"

"The rest of us who are still alive," Sano said, thinking, with no help from you. He quashed that thought as unbecoming to himself as well as disrespectful to his lord. "There's no need to worry, Your Excellency."

"But the government has been reduced to a skeleton," Ienobu said.

Panic filled the shogun's eyes. "Who is protecting me? How many troops did I lose?"

"Over a thousand," Sano said, "but your army is still huge."

"The army is spread very thin," Ienobu said, "trying to maintain order in the city."

Sano narrowed his eyes at Ienobu. Was Ienobu deliberately trying to frighten the shogun so that he would become even more dependent on his nephew?

"Is the castle fixed yet?" the shogun asked.

"Unfortunately, no," Sano said.

"The castle wasn't built in a day. It can't be rebuilt in a day." Ienobu's soothing manner didn't soften the truth of his words.

Maybe Ienobu was trying to tip the shogun into his grave. Sano was so tired he could barely think straight.

"I'm so afraid!" The shogun cowered. "What if I should be attacked?"

"Nobody is going to attack you," Sano said, although an insurrection was a possibility that the government feared. "Nobody knows exactly how vulnerable you are. The number of deaths within the regime is being kept secret."

Even as the shogun looked relieved, he lamented, "The court astronomer just told me that the cosmos is displeased about something. He read it in the constellations. He says they say the earthquake was sent as message." His eyes were round and shiny with terror. "There will be more trouble, I just know it!" He toppled onto the dais, writhed in his quilt like a silkworm in its cocoon, and groaned. "I'm so miserable, I feel a sick spell coming on!"

Astrology was serious business. A dictator must look to the stars for explanations for natural disasters and other calamities. He must heed their warnings, which were interpreted by his astronomer, that his regime was out of harmony with the cosmos. Sano knew this, and felt alarmed himself, but his patience snapped like a stretched rope frayed down to its last thread. After fifteen years of listening to the shogun whine, of catering to him, of enduring insults and death threats, the shogun's reaction was too much. After seeing the devastation wrought by the earthquake, after toiling to pick up the pieces, Sano felt ready to explode. He opened his mouth to tell the shogun to stop acting like a baby and take responsibility for leading his country through this crisis.

The shogun pointed a shaky finger at Sano and cried, "You always bring me bad news! I'm sick of bad news! Go and fetch me some that's good!"

"You'd better go." Ienobu was watching Sano with interest, as if he could read Sano's thoughts. "Why not take a tour of inspection around the city?"

"Yes!" The shogun latched onto the idea with frantic zeal. "Begin at once!"

Sano came to his senses. The heat of his anger faded into cold realization of what he'd almost done—cast aside honor, offended the shogun beyond reparation, and doomed himself, his family, and all his close associates to death. Shaken by his close call, Sano went.


Dressed in armor tunics and padded coats, Sano and his troops rode on horseback out of Edo Castle's main gate. Logs supported the guardhouse above it. A temporary bridge made of planks spanned the moat, whose embankment was riddled with cracks as wide as a man's hand. Laborers used ropes, pulleys, and muscle to haul up stones from the crumbled walls and guard towers that had fallen into the water. Sano inhaled freedom along with the dust and smoke in the air. Even though he didn't have time for a tour of inspection, he was glad to leave the castle for the first time in days. Maybe it would do his spirits good.

Then again, maybe not.

The avenue outside the castle was crowded with people who held out their hands and pleaded for alms. They weren't only the usual beggars, monks, and nuns; they were artisans and other workers who'd lost their livelihoods when the earthquake had shut down businesses and destroyed the houses where many among the lower classes had been employed as servants. Sano's attendants tossed coins, but the ranks of the poor had swelled so much; Sano couldn't help everyone. He entered the district where the daimyo—feudal lords who governed the provinces—owned huge estates. Long sections of the walls decorated with black and white geometric tile patterns had fallen. Barracks and mansions were reduced to debris piles and cracked foundations. Some estates had burned down. Tents made of oiled paper and cloth, hung on bamboo poles or wooden beams, served as quarters for the daimyo. Not even their enormous wealth could restore their homes anytime soon. Their troops cleared away wreckage. Scraping noises and crashes deafened Sano. The amount of work it would take to restore the city, Sano's mind could barely fathom.

A lone samurai came riding toward Sano. It was Hirata, his chief retainer, who'd taken over Sano's former post as top investigator for the shogun. He wore a simple cloak, kimono and trousers. His hair was shaved at the crown and pulled back in a topknot, the customary style for samurai, the same as Sano and his other men. Hirata's two swords, mark of the warrior class, jutted at his waist, but he never wore armor. Sano marveled at how much Hirata, in his late thirties, had changed from the boyish, awkward fellow he'd been when he'd first entered Sano's service. Hirata was all lean, sinewy muscle and unnatural grace. That and his confident, keen-eyed aspect were a result of his years spent studying the mystic martial arts. He was the top fighter in Edo.

"Where have you been?" Sano asked.

"Searching for people trapped inside collapsed houses." Hirata turned his mount and rode beside Sano.

Sano looked askance at Hirata. Hirata had frequently been absent, without permission, during the past year, since he'd met three fellow disciples of the man who'd taught him the mystic martial arts. Instead of investigating crimes himself, Hirata often had his detectives cover for him. He spent so little time with Sano that he was Sano's chief retainer in title only. Hirata always had good excuses, but Sano had the distinct, uneasy feeling that they weren't true.

Sano didn't know what was going on with Hirata, but he didn't like it. "Have you found anyone alive?"

"Not in the past few days. Just bodies," Hirata said.

Although Sano had every right to demand a true account of Hirata's actions, and order Hirata to attend to his duties and punish him if he neglected them, Sano didn't. They were more than master and retainer; they were old, close friends, and Sano owed Hirata his life. Hirata had once taken a blade meant for Sano and almost died. Sano wasn't the kind of master who would take that for granted. He would have to confront Hirata eventually, but now, when there were so many more important problems to address, wasn't the time.

"Where are you going?" Hirata asked.

"On a tour of inspection. The shogun wants me to bring him some good news."

Sano and Hirata looked around at the ruins. Expressionless, they looked at each other. Then they burst out laughing. Finding good news for the shogun seemed so ludicrously impossible, it was funny. Sano's men laughed, too, except for Detective Marume.

Humor quickly fled as they rode through the townspeople's quarters. Survivors picked through leveled neighborhoods, looking for anything salvageable. Water-sellers roved, their buckets suspended from poles on their shoulders. The prices they called out were exorbitant, but people paid. Sewage and debris clogged the canals, wells had been blocked by shifts in the rock underground, and the system of wooden pipes that channeled water from the hills had been damaged. Clean water was at a premium.

In the intact areas, a few shops and market stalls had reopened. Long lines of people waited at each. Merchants lucky enough to have goods left to sell demanded prices ten times higher than usual, making fortunes off the earthquake. Crowds gathered on the Nihonbashi River banks as a lone fishing boat docked. Many other boats had sunken or burned. Fights over the catch broke out. Army troops tried to keep order. Sano and his men rode through areas that had burned into deserts of black timbers. Soot drifted; the air reeked of smoke.

Along the banks of the Sumida River floated remains from warehouses and docks. Soldiers stood around the few existent warehouses, guarding the rice that the regime paid out as stipends to its retainers. The rice normally fed thousands of samurai and their households, and the surplus was sold to merchants for cash that funded the government; the townspeople consumed the surplus rice. But much of it had been swept into the river during the earthquake or burned up in the fires. Hungry citizens clamored outside the warehouses. Food riots were becoming frequent.

Where the Ryogoku Bridge's high wooden arch had once connected the city with the opposite shore, only a few pilings jutted up from the water. This was the site of one of the earthquake's worst disasters. Fleeing crowds had massed so tightly on the bridge that they were stuck. The bridge had collapsed under their weight. Hundreds of people had drowned in the river, which had been heated almost to a boil by burning debris.

"We've seen enough for now," Sano said quietly.

They headed back to the castle, through an area crisscrossed by huge cracks that had swallowed entire houses. Townspeople who wore cloths over their faces, thick cotton gloves, and leather boots climbed down into the cracks, searching for victims. Decayed, stinking corpses lay on the street. Sano felt nausea turn his stomach. He doubted that anyone could still be alive underground, but he couldn't help hoping so. He jumped off his horse and said, "Let's help."

He and Hirata and their troops joined the townsmen in lifting heavy roof beams off a wide chasm. The townsmen removed their cloth masks to cool their perspiring faces. A sweet odor wafted up from the darkness underground.

"Is that incense?" Sano asked.

"Yes." Hirata's nostrils flared as he employed his keen sense of smell. "There are people down there, but they don't smell dead."

The hope of rescuing survivors spurred the group to work faster. They cleared a hole above a room in which three women lay curled on their sides. Diarrhea stained their vividly colored robes and the tatami around them. One woman's hair was streaked with gray, the others' glossy black. Vomit crusted their mouths. But the skin on their faces, and their outstretched hands, was unmarked by decay. Their eyes were open.

"They're alive!" exclaimed a young townsman with bristly hair. He squeezed through the hole feet-first, without putting on his mask. He jumped down to the room, calling to the women, "Hey, we're here to save you!"

They neither answered nor moved. Sano and Hirata frowned in puzzlement.

The townsman touched the women's bodies. Recoiling, he cried, "They're all dead! And their eyes! What is this?" He thrust his hands up and yelled, "Get me out of here!"

His comrades pulled him up. He sat on the ground, panted, and babbled. Sano and Hirata flung away more beams until the entire room was exposed. Now they saw what had frightened the young man. The dead women were eerily, disturbingly well preserved, their eyes a bright, gleaming red. The other townsmen exclaimed in shock.

Concern, curiosity, and the instincts honed by fifteen years of detective work compelled Sano to say to Hirata, "We'd better investigate this."

The townsmen inserted a ladder into the hole. Sano and Hirata descended. Seen up close, the women's condition was even more unnerving. Their eyes looked as if fresh blood filmed the irises and whites. Their skin was as fresh as life, their makeup smooth.

"Something prevented them from rotting," Hirata said.

Sano bent to examine each woman. "They don't seem to have been injured."

"What killed them, then? Underground gases?"

"I don't know." Sano turned his attention to items on the floor—writing brushes and paper, ink-stones and cakes of black ink, small jars for water. The gray-haired woman had a charcoal brazier, green paper packets, metal chopsticks, and silver tweezers by her. A celadon ceramic bowl of ashes lay tipped on its side.

"They were playing an incense game," Sano said.

Incense games originated from a tradition called kodo, the art of incense, that had begun more than a thousand years ago. A great industry for formulating and manufacturing incense had grown up in Nara and Kyoto. Incense-makers procured ingredients from around the world—Japanese camphor, pine, and magnolia wood; frankincense from Arabia; clove and nutmeg from Java; patchouli, sandalwood, and cinnamon from India; cedarwood and star anise from China; ambergris from sperm whales; musk from Himalayan deer. They ground the ingredients, blended them with honey and oil, and shaped the mixture into sticks or pellets. The Emperor's court ladies perfumed their hair and their kimonos with incense, which also became an important element of religion.

At Buddhist temples priests lit incense sticks that symbolized the Buddha. Shinto priests offered incense to the spirits, at every shrine. The sweet smoke rose from earth to heaven, summoned the deities to hear prayers, facilitated meditation and trances, led the souls of the dead to the netherworld. Incense had practical applications, too. Some incense blends were stimulants, sleep aids, or aphrodisiacs. It was also used to fumigate diseased places, mask body odor, and sweeten the smell of cremation.

The samurai class had embraced kodo. During the civil war era that had ended a century ago, samurai going into battle carried pouches of incense around their necks, to help their spirits find their way to heaven if they died. Today, kodo was a fashionable hobby. Cultured folk from all classes employed incense experts to teach them how to blend and appreciate incense. Games were an important aspect of kodo. They had elaborate rules by which players burned incense samples, smelled the smoke, and attempted to guess what type they were. The games weren't really competitions; winning mattered less than sharing the enjoyment of the incense.

"It looks like the women didn't finish the first round," Sano said. "Only one packet is open, and all the score sheets are blank."

"This is one of the strangest things I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of strange things since the earthquake," Hirata said. "What happened? And who are these women?"


A vast camp occupied the Nihonbashi merchant district. Where shops and houses had stood there were now rows upon rows of tents made from anything available—oiled paper and cloth, quilts and tatami mats, costly silk brocade and rags, bamboo poles and scrap wood. Inside the tents huddled thousands of homeless people—mostly women, children, and the elderly, wounded, and sick. Able-bodied men and boys had been sent to clean up debris or help rebuild Edo Castle. A few old men played cards outside the tents; blind musicians tootled on flutes; children danced in mud and laughed. But the general atmosphere reeked of misery, and sewage. The outcasts who usually collected human waste couldn't haul their carts out to the fields to dispose of it because the roads were blocked. Nightsoil removal was suspended indefinitely.

A gong boomed. People trudged, bowls in hand, toward a large tent in which Lady Reiko and four other women stood behind a table laden with pots of rice, tureens of stew made from miso, tofu, vegetables, and fish, and barrels of pickled radish and turnips. Soldiers prevented pushing, taking cuts, and fights while the ladies served the food. Many people didn't have chopsticks; they ate with their hands. Many didn't have bowls; they shared with others or used roof tiles. They all took turns drinking from a common cup tied to a water barrel. Some, injured during the earthquake and fires, had bandaged heads or broken limbs tied to wooden splints. People carried food to those who couldn't walk because they were too badly wounded or too sick from the diseases that ravaged the camp. Reiko saw samurai whose masters didn't have enough food for them. Shamed, they bowed their heads. Their suicides numbered among the deaths that occurred daily in the camp, the earthquake's never-ending casualties. Reiko saw two men carry away a corpse. She felt a terrible pity for her people. Although women of her class didn't usually work or mix with the public, she came here every day because she wanted to help.

"Make the portions smaller," she told the other women, her friends from Edo Castle. "We need to stretch the food as far as possible."

The stores of grains and seeds, pickled vegetables and fruit, salted and dried fish that usually tided the population over the winter were running low. Jars had broken during the earthquake; food had burned in the fires or spoiled in the rain that leaked into damaged houses. Spring crops hadn't been planted yet. Harvests were months away. Food requisitioned from the provinces had yet to arrive. Reiko had heard of people catching and cooking rats and birds, in defiance of the Buddhist prohibition against killing animals and eating meat.

"The food is going to run out anyway," grumbled the wife of the finance superintendent.

"There are too many people," her daughter complained. "We can't feed them all."

They didn't want to be here. Neither did the other two women. After the earthquake they'd begged Reiko to ask Sano for favors—the return of their servants who'd been commandeered for the rebuilding effort, carpenters to fix their homes. Instead of helping them, Reiko had roped them into working with her. They couldn't refuse the wife of the chamberlain, but they muttered about her under their breath:

"Some people don't know their place. They investigate crimes for their husbands." Reiko had been doing that since she'd married Sano thirteen years ago. "They don't know how to be proper wives." Reiko and Sano had an unconventional marriage in this society where most wives were confined to domestic duties. Reiko's exploits had furnished much grist for the high-society gossip mill. "So unfeminine. So scandalous." Most ladies of her class thought that about Reiko. They deplored her father for educating her like a son instead of a daughter. "She even forces well-bred ladies to slave for the peasants."

Accustomed to criticism, Reiko just worked harder. Every morning she rose before dawn to chop vegetables and clean fish. She rode to town on an oxcart that carried food to the tent camps. After serving the meal, she assisted the doctors who ministered to the inhabitants. She didn't get home until after dark. She was exhausted, and she missed her daughter Akiko, but she couldn't bear to sit at home while the townspeople were suffering. Idleness would give her too much time to think about her friends, relatives, and acquaintances who'd died in the earthquake or fires, and to miss those from whom the disaster had separated her. She rarely saw Sano; he was too busy. Masahiro, a page for the shogun, was always on duty. Reiko never saw her father, one of Edo's two magistrates and a leader in the relief effort. And her best friend Chiyo was nursing her father, who'd broken his leg during the earthquake. Work alleviated Reiko's grief and loneliness and her horror at what had happened to Edo. Without work to distract her, she might start crying and not be able to stop.

Now, as Reiko scraped the last rice out of the pot, a sudden wave of dizziness swept over her. Her vision swam, then went dark around the edges. She fainted.


Sano and Hirata climbed the ladder out of the hole. "Bring the women up," he told the townsmen. Their bodies needed to be identified, if possible, then disposed of at Zojo Temple, where the remains of earthquake victims burned in the crematoriums every night.

Four townsmen went into the hole while four above ground threw down ropes. They hauled up the bodies and laid them in a row on the street. Sano and Hirata stood over the bodies, paying their silent respects to the dead. Smoke veiled the sun. The din of hammers, shovels, and picks resounded. Sano mentally increased the death toll in Edo to three thousand and three.

One of the rescuers joined Sano. He was in his forties, with sad features, his eyes red from the dust, his jaws covered with beard stubble. He pointed at the gray-haired woman. "I know her."

"Who is she?" Sano tried to see past the weird red eyes and the white makeup. Her face reminded him of a cat's—triangular and feral. She'd been attractive. Her dark green kimono patterned with pine cones was made of cotton; she was a commoner. The sumptuary laws permitted only the samurai class to wear silk. Sano thought of how little these distinctions seemed to matter nowadays.

"Madam Usugumo. She was an incense teacher. That's her house." The man said, "I lived down the block. My name is Jiro. I'm the neighborhood headman." He cast a rueful glance around. "Or at least I was when there was a neighborhood."

Headmen kept a register of the people on their block. They normally acted as liaison between their residents and the higher authorities. That system had broken down after the earthquake—one reason it was difficult to get an accurate count of the dead.

Sano introduced himself and Hirata and Detective Marume. The headman bowed, awed to meet such important personages.

"What about the other women?" Hirata said. "Do you know them?"

"I've never seen them before. They're probably pupils of Madam Usugumo." Jiro added, "She was very private. She didn't mix with the neighbors."

Sano studied the two other women. Their robes had the luster of expensive silk; they were from the samurai class. They had youthful, rounded features and a family resemblance. "Sisters," Sano deduced.

One's lavish brocade kimono was a deep rose color; she was the elder sister, probably married. The other's was a brighter pink, appropriate for a maiden. Their hair was elaborately coiffed, studded with jade beads on lacquered spikes. A motif in the patterns of their sashes caught Sano's attention. It was a large dot circled by eight smaller dots.

"I know who their family is." Sano pointed to the symbol. "That's the Hosokawa clan crest."

Dismay mixed with his satisfaction at finding a clue to the women's identities. Lord Hosokawa was one of Sano's top political allies, who headed an ancient family that controlled the fief of Higo Province. Higo was a top rice-producing domain and the Hosokawa clan one of Japan's largest, wealthiest landholders.

"I'll have to inform Lord Hosokawa," Sano said, even though he had a million other urgent things to do. This was too sensitive a matter to delegate to a subordinate. "I'd better take some of their personal effects to show him." Sano gingerly untied the women's sashes and tucked them in his horse's saddlebag.

A loud groan came from the bristly-haired young townsman. He staggered as if he were drunk; he held his head in both hands. "Ow, my head aches!" Wheezing, he cried, "I can't breathe!" and then he fell to the ground.

His friends hurried to his aid. He vomited violently.

"What's the matter, Okura?" the headman asked.

A stench arose as Okura's bowels moved and diarrhea gushed down his legs. "I don't know," he said between retches and gasps. "My stomach hurts. I hurt all over." Dazed, he looked around at the ruins as if seeing them for the first time. "What happened? Where am I?"

Sano started to say, "Fetch a doctor," then remembered that since the earthquake doctors were too few and too far between.

Detective Marume said, "Vomiting, diarrhea—the women had those symptoms, too."

"You're right," Sano said. "I think they were poisoned."

"Okura must have breathed the poison when he went down in the hole," Hirata said.

Okura went into shuddering convulsions while the other townsmen tried to soothe him. The headman said, "But we all went down. Why is he the only one who's sick?"

"The rest of us didn't go down until the hole was opened up and the fresh air got in," Sano recalled. "And he didn't wear his mask."

"Is he going to die?" the headman asked anxiously.

"I don't know." But if Sano was right about the poison, it had already killed three people. "He's young and strong. Maybe he got only a small dose of the poison and he'll recover."

Sano did know that the likelihood of poison complicated the matter of the dead Hosokawa women. He said to Hirata and Marume, "This looks like murder to me."


©Laura Joh Rowland, 2012
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

"The compelling story line, evocative detail and suspense
should engage newcomers and satisfy longtime fans alike."
— Publishers Weekly on THE ASSASSIN'S TOUCH


 home  |  books  |  author  |  appearances  |  surprise!  | Charlotte Brontë

Image Border




Site Design/Maintenance by Eclectics
Web Pages for Publishing Professionals

Laura Joh Rowland &
Eclectic InterNetWorks