from THE SAMURAI'S WIFE
Genroku Period, Year 4, Month 6 (Tokyo, July 1691)
Nine hundred years ago, the city was Heian-kyo, Capital of
Peace and Tranquility, founded as seat of the emperors who
ruled Japan. Now, long after the reigning power passed to the
Tokugawa shoguns and their stronghold in Edo far to the east,
it is simply Miyako, or Kyoto--the capital. But the shadows
of the past haunt the present. The Imperial Palace still dominates
the city, as always, forever. There the current emperor and
his court exist as though suspended in time, masters of no
one, human relics of bygone splendor. After centuries of war
and bloodshed, of fallen regimes and changing fortunes, the
eternal antagonisms, forgotten secrets, and ancient dangers
still survive . . .
In the imperial enclosure, the palace's innermost private
heart, a warm summer midnight enfolded the garden. Over flowerbeds
and gravel paths, the foliage of maples, willows, cherry and
plum trees arched in dark, motionless canopies. The evening
rain had ceased; a full moon glowed within a nebula of vaporous
cloud. The calm surface of the pond reflected the sky's luminosity.
On an island in the center of the pond, a rustic cottage stood
amid twisted pines. Inside burned a lantern, its white globe
crisscrossed by the window lattice.
West of the garden loomed the residences, ceremonial halls,
offices, storehouses, and kitchens of the emperor's household.
Their tile roofs gleamed in the moon's pallid radiance. From
a passageway between two buildings, another lantern emerged.
It swung from the hand of the left minister: chief official
of the imperial court.
He strode along the pond toward a stone bridge leading to
the island. Heat hazed the air like a moist veil. Fireflies
twinkled feebly, as if the humidity quenched their light. A
waterfall rippled; frogs croaked. The chirps of crickets and
shrill of cicadas blended into a solid fabric of noise stretched
across the night. The lantern cast the shadow of the left minister's
tall figure dressed in archaic imperial style--wide trousers
and a cropped jacket whose long train dragged the ground. Beneath
his broad-brimmed black hat shone the sallow face of a man
in middle age, with the arched brows and haughty nose inherited
from ancestors who had held his post before him. As he followed
a path between the trees toward his secret rendezvous, anticipation
increased the left minister's pace. A smile hovered upon his
mouth; he drew deep breaths of night air.
The drowsy sweetness of lilies and clover drifted heavenward
over the pond's marshy scent, masking the rich summer odors
of damp earth, grass, nightsoil, and drains. A sense of well-being
intoxicated the left minister, heady as the night's aromatic
breath. He felt as vigorous as in his youth, and extraordinarily
alive. Now he could look back through years of anguish with
Fifteen years ago, an unfortunate convergence of fate and
deed had condemned him to serve two masters. Birthright had
placed him in a station at the heart of palace affairs, in
a position to know everything worth knowing. A crime committed
in passion had rendered him vulnerable to persons outside the
sequestered world of the court's five thousand residents. His
two best qualities--intelligence and a gift for manipulating
people--had doomed him to live in two worlds, as an impotent
slave in one, while deception isolated him from family, friends,
and colleagues in the other. He'd been an actor playing two
opposing roles. But now, having reclaimed the power to shape
his own destiny, the left minister stood ready to unite his
two worlds, with himself at their summit.
Tonight would bring a taste of the rewards to come.
The light in the pavilion kindled the left minister's eagerness.
He walked faster as a surge of sexual arousal fed his new sense
of omnipotence. Although much uncertainty lay ahead, with possible
threats from enemies, the chance of betrayal, and harsh repercussions,
confidence buoyed the left minister. Soon he would realize
his highest ambitions, his deepest desires; but here and now,
everything was arranged for an advance celebration of his triumph.
Along the pond, a bamboo grove rustled in the breezeless air.
The left minister paused, then dismissed the sound as the movement
of some harmless feral creature and continued on his way. But
the rustling followed him. Hearing footsteps, the left minister
frowned in puzzled annoyance.
The Imperial Family, their lives circumscribed by tradition,
rarely ventured outside so late. Desiring privacy for his rendezvous,
the left minister had ordered everyone else to stay out of
the garden tonight. Who dared to disobey?
Reluctantly the left minister stopped again. The bridge lay
a hundred paces ahead; across the silvery pond, the cottage
lantern beckoned. The left minister peered into the dense thicket
"Who goes there?" he called. "Show yourself!"
No answer came. The moving bamboo leaves stilled. Angry now,
the left minister stalked toward the intruder. "I order
you to come out. Now!"
An abrupt change in atmosphere halted him ten paces short
of the grove. Here the night seemed charged with energy. A
soundless vibration pulsated through the left minister. The
insect shrills receded to the edge of his hearing; the darkness
paled within the space around him. His skin tightened, and
his heart began to thud in deep, urgent beats. The will of
the person behind the bamboo grove seemed to close an invisible
hand around the left minister's mind. Inexplicable fear seized
him. Icy sweat broke out on his face; his muscles weakened.
He knew that the person must be a member of the emperor's
family, a servant, courtier, or attendant--a mortal human.
But the strange force magnified the left minister's image of
the intruder to gigantic size. He could hear it breathing monstrous
gulps of air.
"Who are you?" His query came out sounding weak
and timorous. "What do you want?" Somehow he understood,
without word or gesture from the anonymous presence, its evil
intent, and that what it wanted was him.
The ominous breathing came faster, louder. The left minister
turned and fled. On north and south, fences sealed off the
garden. To the east, a stone wall separated the imperial enclosure
from the estates of the court nobles. Vacant audience chambers,
locked at night, cut the left minister off from the shelter
of the palace. There was no refuge except the island cottage.
The left minister ran toward the lighted window which promised
companionship and safety, but his legs felt clumsy, his body
weighted with the heavy malaise of nightmares. He stumbled,
dropping his lantern. His stiff, cumbersome garments further
hampered movement. Close behind, he heard the breathing, a
vicious, predatory rasp. The ghostly hand around his mind crushed
"Help!" called the left minister, but his pursuer's
will strangled his voice. Now he was sorry he'd banned everyone
from the garden. He knew he could expect no help from the cottage's
As he struggled on, the eerie force enclosed the left minister
like a bubble. Desperately he zigzagged, trying to escape its
radius, but the awful pulsating sensation followed him. The
weakness in his muscles increased. Flinging a glance over his
shoulder, the left minister saw, through the force's pale halo,
the indistinct silhouette of a human figure advancing on him.
His heart pounded; his lungs couldn't draw enough air. He reached
the bridge without the strength to run any farther. Falling
to his knees, he crawled. The bridge's rough stone surface
abraded his hands. He heard the chilling tap-tap of the intruder's
footfalls coming closer. Reaching the island, the left minister
dragged himself across sandy grass. He clutched the railing
of the cottage veranda and pulled himself to a standing position.
The three steps to the door loomed like towering cliffs. In
the window, the lantern glowed, a mocking symbol of hope denied.
The left minister turned to face his pursuer.
"No," he gasped out, raising his hands in a futile
attempt to ward off the undefined threat. "Please, no."
The intruder halted a few steps away. Its noisy breathing
stopped. Waves of panic washed over the left minister as he
cowered in the sudden awful silence. Then, in the blurred oval
of its face, the intruder's mouth opened--a darker void in
darkness. Air rushed inward.
A scream shattered the night: a deafening wail that encompassed
the full range of sound, from deepest groan to shrillest whine.
The ghastly, inhuman voice blasted the left minister. Its low
notes thundered through him with rumbles a million times stronger
than an earthquake. The left minister's limbs splayed as sharp
cracks like gunfire shot along his bones. As he howled in pain,
sinews snapped. Terror combined with wonder.
Merciful gods, what is this terrible magic? And who commands
The scream's middle notes churned his bowels into liquid fire.
The wail resonated in his heart, which beat faster and faster,
swelling inside his chest. As his lungs ballooned, the left
minister's breath came in harsh gasps. He fell, writhing in
agony. The scream's high shrillness arced along nerves; convulsions
wracked him. In the final moment before pain devoured reason,
he knew he would never make his rendezvous. Nor would his ambitions
and dreams ever come to pass. Now the left minister's insides
erupted. Hot blood surged into his throat, filled his ears,
choked off his breath, and poured over his vision. The scream's
vibrations escalated until his brain exploded in a violent
cataclysm of white-hot light.
Then death extinguished terror, pain, and consciousness.
The scream echoed across the city, then faded. A lull in
the normal night sounds followed in its wake. For an eternal
time hung suspended in dead quiet. Then the doors and gates
of the palace slammed open; lamps lit windows. The compound
came alive with the clamor of voices, of hurrying footsteps.
Flaming torches, borne by guards, converged on the imperial
A breath extinguished the flame of the lantern in the cottage.
A shadowy figure crept through the garden, merging with other
shadows, and disappeared.
From the attic of a shop in Edo's Nihonbashi merchant district,
Sano Ichiro, the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator
of Events, Situations, and People--conducted a secret surveillance.
He and his chief retainer Hirata peered through the window
blinds. Below them lay Tobacco Lane, a street of tobacco
shops and warehouses, restaurants and teahouses. As the
deepened, the peaked roofs turned to dark silhouettes against
a rosy sky. Tobacco Lane, recently bustling with daytime
commerce, was now a corridor of blank facades, its storefronts
behind sliding doors. Lanterns burned over gates at either
end of the block. Across the city echoed the usual evening
music of dogs barking, horses' neighs, the clatter of nightsoil
carts, and tolling temple bells. The only sign of activity
came from the Good Fortune Noodle Restaurant, a tiny establishment
wedged between two shops across the street. Lamplight striped
its barred window. Smoke wafted from the kitchen.
Dinner's long past," Sano said, "but I smell fish
cooking over there."
Hirata nodded. "She's definitely expecting someone."
"Let's just hope it's our man," Sano said.
Nearby, Sano's wife Reiko stood amid bales of fragrant tobacco.
Her pastel summer robes glowed in the faint light from the
window and open skylight. Twenty-one years old, with eyes like
bright black flower petals and long, lustrous hair worn in
a knot, she was small and slender. Since their marriage last
autumn, Sano had come to rely on Reiko to help with his cases.
She'd questioned witnesses and found evidence in places where
male detectives couldn't go. Now here to witness the climax
of this investigation, she joined Sano and Hirata at the window.
She tensed, listening, her lovely, delicate oval face alert.
"I hear someone coming," she said.
In the street below, an old man shuffled into view, leaning
on a cane. The lantern at the gate illuminated his straggly
white hair; a tattered kimono hung on his stooped body.
"That's the Lion of the Kanto?" Surprise lifted
Reiko's voice. The notorious crime lord ruled a band of gangsters
who ran gambling dens, robbed travelers, operated illegal brothels,
and extorted money from merchants throughout the Kanto--the
region surrounding Edo. "I expected someone more impressive."
"The Lion travels in disguise," Sano reminded her. "Few
people know what he really looks like. That's one way he's
managed to evade capture for so long."
His other methods included bribing police to ignore his activities,
killing his enemies, and keeping on the move. Attempts by Sano's
detective corps to infiltrate the gang had failed; informants
refused to talk. Hence, Reiko had used her special communication
network, composed of wives, relatives, servants, and other
women associated with powerful samurai clans. They collected
gossip, spread news and rumors. From them Reiko learned that
the Lion had a mistress--a widow who ran the Good Fortune Noodle
Restaurant. During a month's surveillance, Sano's detectives
had observed that men of different descriptions regularly visited
after the restaurant closed. Guessing that these were all the
Lion in various disguises, Sano had planned an ambush and taken
over this shop as his headquarters.
Now he said to Reiko, "If that old man is the Lion and
we catch him, we'll have you to thank."
Even as they exchanged proud smiles, Sano felt excitement
and anxiety surging through him. He yearned to capture the
Lion and end a reign of crime, but he was worried about Reiko.
He wished she were safe at home, though what possible harm
could come to her from merely watching through the window?
Up a curve in the road, another watcher peered out a different
window, this one in a half-timbered mansion with a tile roof
and high earthen wall. From his position in the lamplit second-floor
parlor, Chamberlain Yanagisawa had a perfect view of Tobacco
Lane, the Good Fortune Noodle Restaurant, and the shop where
Sano and his comrades hid. Over silk robes he wore an armor
tunic; a golden-horned helmet framed his handsome face. Inhaling
on a long silver pipe, he savored the heady rise of anticipation.
He turned to his chief retainer Aisu, who squatted on the
tatami floor nearby.
Are you sure they're in there?" Yanagisawa asked.
"Oh, yes, Honorable Chamberlain." A slender man
several years older than Yanagisawa's own age of thirty-three,
Aisu had the tensely coiled grace of a serpent, and hooded
eyes that gave him a deceptive look of perpetual drowsiness.
His voice was a sibilant drawl. "I climbed on the roof
and saw Sano, his wife, and Hirata through the skylight. Six
detectives are in the shop below. The side window is open." Aisu
grinned. "Oh, yes, it's the perfect setup. A brilliant
plan, Honorable Chamberlain."
"Any sign of the Lion yet?"
Aisu shook his head.
"Is everything ready?" Yanagisawa asked.
"Oh, yes." Aisu patted the lumpy cloth sack which
lay on a table beside him.
"Timing is critical," Yanagisawa reminded him. "Do
the men have their orders?"
"Oh, yes. They're all in place."
"How fortunate that I managed to learn about Sano's plans
in time to prepare." A smug smile curved Yanagisawa's
Today he'd received a message from his spy in Sano's household,
describing the ambush. Yanagisawa had quickly organized his
own scheme, commandeering the mansion of a rich tobacco merchant
for a lookout station. If he succeeded, he would soon see his
rival destroyed. The misfortunes of the past would end.
Since his youth, Yanagisawa had been the shogun's lover, influencing
the weak Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and winning his post as second-in-command,
actual ruler of Japan. Yanagisawa's power had become virtually
absolute. Then Sano, the upstart scholar, martial arts teacher,
son of a ronin--masterless samurai--and former police commander,
had been promoted to the position of sosakan-sama. The shogun
had developed a high regard for Sano, who now commanded a staff
of one hundred detectives and had gained influence over the
bakufu--Japan's military government. Yanagisawa now faced opposition
from Sano whenever he proposed policies to Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
and the Council of Elders; they sometimes took Sano's advice
instead of his own. Daring exploits performed by Sano overshadowed
Yanagisawa's own importance, making him crave the adventure
of detective work. And those exploits often meant serious trouble
A case of double murder had led to Sano's discovery of a plot
against the Tokugawa regime; he'd saved the shogun's life and
won a post at Edo Castle. During his investigation of the Bundori
Murders, when a madman had terrorized Edo with a series of
grisly killings, Yanagisawa had been taken hostage by the murderer
and nearly killed. Last year he'd exiled Sano to Nagasaki,
but Sano had returned a hero. The final outrage had come when
Sano, while investigating the poisoning of the shogun's concubine,
had caused the death of Yanagisawa's lover.
Now Yanagisawa couldn't stand the sight of Sano and Reiko's
happiness together. Tonight he would be rid of them. There'd
be no more competition for the shogun's favor; no more humiliation.
And as a bonus, he would steal Sano's reputation as a great
A movement in the street outside caught Chamberlain Yanagisawa's
eye. The foreshortened figure of an old man with a cane passed
beneath the window. Yanagisawa beckoned Aisu, who glided swiftly
to his side. They watched as the old man approached the Good
Fortune Noodle Restaurant. "Go!" Yanagisawa ordered.
"Oh, yes, Honorable Chamberlain." Aisu snatched
up the cloth bundle and vanished without a sound.
Reiko said, "Look! He's stopping."
The old man beat his cane on the restaurant's door. It opened,
and he disappeared inside.
"Let's go," Sano said to Hirata, then told Reiko, "We'll
be back soon."
Her face shone with excitement. "I'm going with you!" She
pushed up her sleeve, revealing the dagger strapped to her
Consternation halted Sano. The problem with their partnership
was that Reiko always wanted to do more than he could allow;
to go places where a woman didn't belong, risk social censure
and her own life for the sake of their work. Always, Sano's
desire for her assistance vied with his need to protect her.
Sympathizing with Reiko's desire for adventure didn't ease
his fear that their unusual marriage would provoke criticism,
scandal, and disgrace.
He said, "You promised that if I let you come, you would
Reiko began to protest, then subsided in unhappy resignation:
Promises between them were sacred, and she wouldn't break her
Sano and Hirata bounded down the staircase. In the dim shop,
six detectives, waiting by the tobacco bins, sprang to attention. "The
Lion is inside," Sano said. "We'll surround the place,
From above the ceiling came a clatter, as though something
had hit the floor upstairs, then the whump of a muffled explosion,
followed by a scream.
"What was that?" Hirata said.
"Reiko!" Sano's heart seized. He turned to run back
A fist-sized object flew in through the window. It landed
in front of Sano and erupted in a cloud of smoke. Sulfurous
fumes engulfed the shop. Coughs spasmed Sano's chest; his eyes
burned. Through the dense haze, he heard the men coughing and
thrashing around. Someone yelled, "A bomb!"
"This way out," Hirata cried.
Sano heard Reiko calling from the attic, but he couldn't even
see the stairway. "Reiko!" he yelled. "Don't
come down here. Go to the window!"
He rushed outside and saw Reiko climbing down a wooden pillar
from the balcony. More smoke billowed out the window and skylight.
Gasping and wheezing, Sano reached up and grabbed Reiko, who
fell into his arms. Coughs wracked her body. From a nearby
fire-watch tower came the clang of a bell. Carrying his wife,
Sano staggered down the street, where the air was fresh and
a crowd had gathered. The fire brigade, dressed in leather
tunics and helmets, arrived with buckets of water.
"Don't go in there!" Sano shouted. "Poison
The crowd exclaimed. The fire brigade broke down the shop
doors and hurled water inside. Sano and Reiko collapsed together
on the ground. The detectives joined them, while Hirata stumbled
over to the Good Fortune. He went inside, then returned. "There's
no one in there. The Lion has escaped."
Sano cursed under his breath, then turned to Reiko. "Are
you all right?"
Sudden shouts and pounding hoofbeats scattered the crowd.
"I'm fine." Coughing and retching, Reiko pointed. "Look!"
Up the street ran the man who'd entered the Good Fortune,
no longer stooped and white-haired but upright and bald. The
torn kimono flapped open, exposing muscular arms, chest, and
legs blue with tattoos--the mark of a gangster. Mounted troops
wearing the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock crest galloped after
him. His face, with the broad nose and snarling mouth that
had earned him his nickname, was wild with terror.
"It's the Lion!" Hirata exclaimed.
Sano stared as more soldiers charged from the opposite direction. "Where
did they come from?"
The leader, clad in armor, slashed out with his lance. It
knocked the Lion flat, just a short distance from Sano. Instantly
soldiers surrounded the Lion. Leaping off their horses, they
seized him and tied his wrists.
"You're under arrest," the leader shouted.
Sano recognized his voice at once. Shock jolted him. "Chamberlain
The chamberlain dismounted. Removing his helmet, he triumphantly
surveyed the scene. Then his gaze fell upon Sano and Reiko.
Dismay erased his smile. He stalked away, calling to his troops: "Take
my prisoner to Edo Jail!"
Excerpt from THE
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2000
Published by St.