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Authors: Laura Joh Rowland

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Red Chrysanthemum

BOOK: Red Chrysanthemum
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Red Chrysanthemum

Laura Joh Rowlands

1

Thunder rumbled in the summer dawn. Storm clouds absorbed the light breaking above the hills outside Edo, while ashes drifted upon smoke from a fire during the night. Up a broad avenue in the
daimyo
district, where the feudal lords had their city estates, rode a squadron of samurai. Their horses’ hooves clattered, disturbing the quiet; their lanterns flickered in the humid air. Night watchmen, slouching against the high stone walls that lined the street, jerked to attention, surprised by the sudden excitement at the end of a long, uneventful shift. Windows opened in the barracks that topped the walls; sleepy, curious soldiers peered out as the squadron halted outside me gate of Lord Mori,
daimyo
of Suwo and Nagato provinces.

Hirata dismounted, strode up to the soldiers guarding the portals, and said, “I’m here to raid this estate. Let us in.”

Resentment evident in their faces, the guards swung open the gates. They’d spied the triple-hollyhock-leaf crests, symbols of the ruling Tokugawa regime, that Hirata and his men wore on their armor tunics. Even the powerful provincial lords must bow to Tokugawa authority. And they recognized Hirata as the shogun’s
sosakan-sama
— Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. They dared not disobey him.

As Hirata invaded the estate with the hundred men of his detective corps, he walked with a limp from a serious injury that had healed but still caused him pain. Yet he kept up a quick pace at the head of his troops. Cries of confusion erupted as Lord Mori’s troops swarmed the courtyard.

“Round everybody up,” Hirata ordered his men. “No one leaves or enters the estate until we’re done. Search this whole place. You know what to look for.”

The detectives hastened to comply. Shouting, defiance, and tussles met them. Hirata, accompanied by a team of troops and his two principal retainers, Detectives Inoue and Arai, marched through the inner gate. Across a formal garden of rocks and twisted shrubs loomed the
daimyo’s
mansion, a large, half-timbered structure with multiple wings and peaked tile roofs, mounted on a granite foundation. A samurai bustled out the door and rushed down the stone path to meet Hirata.

“I’m Akera Kanko, chief retainer to Lord Mori.” He was some fifty years of age, pompous and stout. “Why are you intruding on my master?”

“He’s under investigation for treason,” Hirata said as he and his men advanced on the mansion. “I’m going to inspect his premises and interrogate everybody here.”

“Treason?” Akera huffed in outrage; he ran to keep up with Hirata. “With all due respect, but Lord Mori is no traitor. He’s a loyal subject of the shogun and an ally of his honorable cousin Lord Matsudaira.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Hirata said.

Several months of investigation had convinced him that Lord Mori was conspiring against Lord Matsudaira, who ruled Japan through the shogun. During the three years since he’d seized power after a war with an opposing faction, Lord Matsudaira had evolved from a just, reasonable man to a tyrant fearful of losing his position. He’d demoted and banished officials he didn’t trust, and subjected the
daimyo
to strict supervision and harsh fines for perceived offenses. This had spawned widespread disgruntlement and many plots to overthrow him.

Hirata mounted the stairs with growing excitement. Today he would find proof of the conspiracy. His investigation would end with the arrest, conviction, and ritual suicide of a traitor. Hirata would serve his honor by defending his superior at a time when his honor badly needed serving and his reputation with Lord Matsudaira and the shogun could use some improvement. He was thirty-one years old, with a career as a police officer behind him and three years in this post, and he should have been able to stay out of trouble, but it seemed he never could.

Now Akera looked terrified. Everyone knew that the penalty for treason was death, and not just for the traitor, but for all his family and close associates. “There must be a mistake!”

“Where is Lord Mori?” Hirata asked.

“In his private chambers,” Akera said.

“Take me there,” Hirata said.

“No one is allowed to disturb Lord Mori without his permission,” Akera objected.

“I don’t need his permission,” Hirata said. “I have Lord Matsudaira’s orders.”

“Very well.”

Resigned yet nervous, Akera led Hirata, Inoue, and Arai to a compound at the heart of the estate. There, a spacious garden, landscaped with lush trees, was so quiet that Hirata could hear frogs peeping and crickets chirping. Insects swarmed over a reed-fringed pond coated with green scum. A cloying, sweet scent of flowers mingled with the rank odor of privies. At the center stood a rustic villa. Ivy draped its barred windows; deep eaves sheltered the veranda. Hirata and his companions approached the villa along one of several covered corridors that extended from the main mansion. They bypassed the guards stationed outside and stepped into the entryway.

The detectives shone their lanterns beyond, illuminating a mazelike space divided by partitions. The air was warmer and staler than outside. Hirata had a sudden impression that something was wrong. He and the detectives exchanged frowns. At the same moment they heard whimpering. The sour, metallic odor of blood hit them.

Behind them, on the veranda, Akera asked, “What is it?”

Hirata motioned Akera to keep quiet. He and his men tiptoed through the maze of rooms, skirted partitions, edged around furniture. The whimpering grew louder, punctuated by sobs. It came from the villa’s far end, where a gap yawned in the partitions. The smell of blood grew stronger. Hirata and his men halted and peered through the gap.

Inside was a bedchamber inhabited by two nude figures, one a man, the other a woman. The man’s heavyset body lay prone on a futon. The woman knelt close to the man, bent over him. Her long, black hair veiled her nakedness and her face. She whimpered, sobbed, and gasped as she shook his shoulders. Where his genitals should have been, a red wound glistened. Blood that had spilled from the wound, and from gashes in his torso, drenched the bed and spread in a thick puddle on the tatami floor. A chrysanthemum rested in the puddle, its cut stem submerged, its white petals stained crimson. Nearby, alongside a heap of robes, lay a dagger with a bloodstained blade and the man’s severed penis and testicles.

Hirata and his men exclaimed in horrified unison. Akera, who’d followed them, cried, “Lord Mori!”

The woman looked up. Her hair fell aside to reveal her bare breasts and swollen abdomen. Red smears of Lord Mori’s blood colored her pale skin. Her delicate, pretty features were contorted by shock and terror, her eyes wild. As she tried to cover herself with her hands, Hirata noted that she was some five months pregnant.

Akera rushed into the room and fell to his knees beside Lord Mori. He shouted his master’s name and seized his hand, but Lord Mori neither answered nor stirred.

Detective Arai crouched, felt Lord Mori’s pulse, and bent over to listen for breath. “He’s dead.”

But Hirata barely listened. He and the woman stared at each other in amazed mutual recognition. “Lady Reiko,” Hirata said in a voice hushed with disbelief.

She was the wife of Chamberlain Sano, the man Hirata called master. Hirata’s horror at the mutilation and death of Lord Mori increased tenfold. “Merciful gods, what are you doing here?”

Reiko shook her head as if dazed. She cowered under the men’s scrutiny, while outside the thunder boomed and rain fell in a torrent.

Akera staggered over to her. “She murdered Lord Mori!” he cried, his face livid with rage, his finger jabbing at Reiko in accusation. “She cut off his manhood and killed him!”

2

The rain poured down on Edo. Townsfolk waded through flooded streets. Merchants peered out from behind storm shutters pulled across their shops. Curtains of water veiled the hill upon which Edo Castle stood. Within the castle, guards huddled in turrets and enclosed corridors atop the high stone walls. Soldiers in dripping armor patrolled the soaked passages. But inside his office in a compound near the palace, Chamberlain Sano sat dry and comfortable with General Isogai, who was commander of the Tokugawa army, and two members of the Council of Elders that was Japan’s chief governing body.

“We’ve requested this meeting to discuss some disturbing recent developments,” said Elder Ohgami Kaoru. He had white hair and pensive, youthful features. He was in charge of the Tokugawa government’s relations with the
daimyo
class.

“The first is an incident in Bizen Province four days ago,” continued Elder Uemori Yoichi, the shogun’s chief military adviser. He inhaled on his tobacco pipe and let out a deep, phlegmy cough that shook his loose jowls.

“I’m aware of the incident,” Sano said. “The outlaw rebels have struck again.”

During the three years since the war, the former chamberlain Yanagisawa’s underground partisans had still been fighting Lord Matsudaira’s regime within the Tokugawa regime. Many had been captured and executed, but the survivors had recruited new troops from among peasants, gangsters, and disgruntled Tokugawa vassals. They concentrated their attacks on the provinces, where the Tokugawa forces were less numerous.

“This time they ambushed Lord Ikeda’s army,” Sano elaborated. They were after the allies that had supported Lord Matsudaira’s ousting of Yanagisawa, and they’d devised warfare tactics that utilized their relatively small forces to maximum effect. These included sniping, ambush, and arson, plus sabotage of buildings, bridges, roads, and agriculture. “They killed twenty men, then escaped into the woods.”

Everyone looked none too pleased that Sano was so well informed. He knew they’d have liked to control his access to news, the better to control him. But he had a private intelligence service, his defense against ignorance, a fatal weakness for the shogun’s second-in-command.

“My troops are doing the best they can to stop the outlaws.” General Isogai had a loud, forthright manner and a bulbous physique. “But they’re spread too thin. And Edo is vulnerable because so much of the army is deployed to the provinces. Let’s pray that the outlaws aren’t planning a major attack here.”

“We won’t know until it’s too late,” Ohgami said.

Uemori nodded. “The
metsuke
is spread as thin as the army.” The official intelligence service had been working overtime because Lord Matsudaira had its agents keeping tabs on his growing opposition within the government.

Thunder cracked; rain cascaded from the eaves. “This weather doesn’t help,” General Isogai muttered.

It had been an exceptionally wet rainy season, with serious, countrywide flooding. Every news dispatch contained stories of washed-out villages, of families drowned or homeless.

“Nor does it help that so many townspeople have rushed to take advantage of a bad situation,” Ohgami said.

“Crime is rampant,” Uemori noted. “Thieves are looting flooded homes and businesses. Edo Jail is overflowing.”

“Many members of the
bakufu
have also taken advantage.” Ohgami grimaced in disgust at his colleagues in the military government that ruled Japan. “Officials have embezzled from the treasury and stolen from the Tokugawa rice stores. Tax collectors are taking bribes from
daimyo
and merchants to reduce taxes and falsify the account books. We have such a serious shortfall of funds that we may not be able to pay stipends to the thousands of samurai in the regime.”

“Well, we know one cause of those problems,” Ohgami said. “It is all the officials who are new to their posts.”

During the purge immediately after the war, many experienced officials had been replaced by men whose main qualification was loyalty to Lord Matsudaira. The novices didn’t know how to discipline their idle, corrupt underlings.

Sano grew restless because the elders were prone to complain rather than take action. “Well, unless anyone has any solutions, may we adjourn this meeting?” He was nominally their superior, but their seniority and age gave them special standing, and he pretended to defer to them.

“Not so fast,” General Isogai said. “We’ve one more topic to discuss.

“It’s the methods you’ve used to solve the problems,” Uemori said.

Ohgami hastened to say, “Not that we mean to criticize you for taking action when others couldn’t.”

Sano heard the shared, unspoken thought that the shogun was a fool, useless at administration, and Lord Matsudaira couldn’t handle the problems either because he was too busy maintaining his political power to bother with the specifics of governing.

“Please go on.” Sano knew from experience that the men were about to criticize him, regardless of their disclaimers.

“You certainly have made progress toward straightening out the regime’s finances,” Uemori said in grudging admission.

Sano had sent his private spies to watch the treasury and the rice warehouses. He’d caught thieves, recovered loot, and restored the flow of money into the Tokugawa coffers.

“And you’ve reestablished a semblance of law and order in the city,” Ohgami said. During the past three years, Sano had built up a large personal army, which he’d assigned to patrol the streets and help out the police.

“We thank you for taking on tasks that another man in your position might perceive as below his station,” Uemori said.

Sano nodded, acknowledging that he’d been given the dirty work of the regime. He’d done what he had to do, and he couldn’t help being proud of what he’d achieved. “But… ?” he prompted.

Ohgami spoke delicately: “Your methods have been rather, shall we say, unconventional.”

That was not a positive attribute in a society that valued conformity and custom.

“I’ll say.” General Isogai chuckled. “It was brilliant of you to punish the thieving officials and the idle bums by sending them to help out in flood disaster zones. And I like how you made the
daimyo
tax cheats run jails on their estates. That’s turning rotten plums into good wine.”

BOOK: Red Chrysanthemum
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