Authors: Laura Joh Rowland
Nine hundred years ago, the city was Heian-kyo, Capital of Peace and Tranquillity, founded as seat of the emperors who ruled Japan. Now, long after the reigning power had 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 maple, willow, cherry, and plum trees arched in dark, motionless canopies. The evening rain had ceased; a full moon glowed through vaporous cloud. The calm surface of the pond reflected the sky's luminosity. On an island in the pond's center, 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 sound 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 on 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 his 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, night soil, 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 detachment.
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, an impotent slave in one, isolated 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, he 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 uncertainty and danger lay ahead, he was buoyed by confidence that soon he would realize his highest ambitions, his deepest desires. Tonight everything was already prepared, an advance celebration of his triumph.
Along the pond, a bamboo grove rustled in the breezeless air. The left minister paused, then dismissed it as the movement of some harmless feral creature and continued on his way. But the rustling followed him. Hearing footsteps, he 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 he 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 of bamboo.
"Who's there?" he demanded. "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 in the bamboo grove seemed to close around the left minister's mind. Inexplicable fear seized him. Icy sweat broke out 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 toward 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 him 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 nightmare. He stumbled, dropping his lantern. His stiff, cumbersome garments further hampered movement. Close behind, he heard the breathing, a vicious, predatory rasp. The ghostly grip on his mind crushed his courage.
"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 lone occupant.
As he struggled on, the eerie force enclosed him like a bubble. Desperately he zigzagged, trying to escape, but the awful pulsating sensation followed him. The weakness in his muscles increased. Glancing over his shoulder, he 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 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, raising his hands in a futile attempt to ward off the undefined threat. "Please, no."
The intruder halted a few steps away. The 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.
Then 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?
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, he breathed with harsh gasps. He fell, writhing in agony. The scream's shrillness arced along his nerves; convulsions wracked him. In the final moment before pain devoured reason, he knew he would never make his rendezvous. Nor would his 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 blinded him. The scream's vibrations escalated until his brain exploded in a 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 moment, 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 enclosure.
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 summer twilight 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 fa‡ades, its storefronts hidden 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 night-soil 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 defied convention by permitting Reiko to help with his cases. Even though both of them knew that a proper wife should be waiting for him at home, he'd learned that Reiko could question witnesses and uncover evidence in places where a male detective couldn't go. Now here to witness the climax of this investigation, Reiko 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, and their informants had 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."
Sano felt excitement and anxiety surging through him. While he yearned to end the Lion's reign of crime, 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 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 tensely coiled grace 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 arc 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 that lay on a table beside him.
"Timing is critical," Yanagisawa reminded him. "Have you given the men their orders?"
"Oh, yes. Everyone's in place."
"How fortunate that I managed to learn about Sano's plans in time to prepare." A smug smile curved Yanagisawa's mouth.
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. As the ruler of Japan in all but name, Yanagisawa had virtually absolute power. 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 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. Sano's daring exploits over-shadowed Yanagisawa's own importance, making him crave the adventure of detective work. And those exploits often meant serious trouble for him. 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 detective.
A movement in the street outside caught 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 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 arm.
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 respectable woman could not be seen, risking social censure and her own lite 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 scandal and disgrace.
"I can't let you," he said. "You promised you would just watch if I let you come."
Reiko began to protest, then subsided in unhappy resignation: Promises between them were sacred, and she wouldn't break her word.
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, and-"
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 upstairs.
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 firewatch 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 fumes!"
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 Yanagisawa!"
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!"
In Sano's mansion in the Edo Castle Official Quarter, Sano, Reiko, and Hirata sat in the parlor drinking medicinal tea to cleanse the poison from their systems. The sliding doors stood open to admit fresh air from the garden. Sano could still taste the acrid fumes on his breath. His head ached violently, and he knew they were lucky to be alive.
"This has gone on long enough," he said in a voice taut with fury. "Yanagisawa has been after me ever since I came to the castle." During the Bundori Murders case, Yanagisawa had sent a spy to give Sano false leads, and almost ruined a trap he'd set for the killer. "He's tried again and again to assassinate me." Sano had narrowly escaped death by attacks from Yanagisawa's henchmen. "When we were investigating the murder of Lady Harume last fall, his scheming almost destroyed me, but I'm the one he blames for Shichisaburo's death, which was his own fault. He's tried everything possible to get rid of me, including banishment." In Nagasaki, Sano had become embroiled in a politically sensitive case involving the murder of a Dutch trader and was almost convicted of treason.
"I've tolerated his evils for two years because I had no choice," Sano continued. According to Bushido-the Way of the Warrior-any criticism of the shogun's second-in-command implied criticism of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi himself. Any attack on Yanagisawa translated into an attack on the lord to whom Sano had sworn allegiance: blasphemy! Therefore, Sano had refrained from speaking out against Yanagisawa. "But he's gone too far by attacking Reiko."
"So you're sure the chamberlain is responsible for the bombing," Hirata said.
Sano nodded grimly. "His arrival on the scene was too coincidental, and he wasn't surprised to find us there-he was disappointed to see us alive. He must have somehow discovered our plans, then taken advantage of the situation."
A servant entered the room, knelt, and bowed. "Please excuse the interruption, master, but the shogun wants to see you right away."
"What does His Excellency want?" Sano asked.
"The messenger didn't say, except that it's urgent."
"At any rate, I have urgent business with him, too." Rising, Sano saw concern on the faces of his wife and retainer.
"You're planning to tell the shogun about Yanagisawa?" Hirata said.
"I can't fight off his plots forever; he'll get me eventually," Sano said. "It's time for open warfare."
"The chamberlain will deny everything you say," Reiko said. "He'll hate you even more for reporting him to the shogun. It might only make things worse."
"I'll just have to take that chance," Sano said, "because they won't get better by themselves."
He left the house and walked uphill through walled passages and security checkpoints to the shogun's palace. Inside, guards admitted him to the formal audience chamber, a long room lit by metal lanterns suspended from the ceiling. All the windows and doors were shut, the heat and smoky atmosphere stifling. On the dais sat the shogun, dressed in dark robes and cylindrical black cap. Attendants awaited orders. In the place of honor at the shogun's right, on the upper of two descending levels of the floor, knelt Chamberlain Yanagisawa. Both men silently watched Sano approach them. The shogun's mild, aristocratic face wore a pensive frown. Veiled hostility shimmered in Yanagisawa's dark, liquid gaze.