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Japan, Genroku Period, Year 7, Month 10 (November 1694)
News of trouble sent Sano Ichiro abroad in the city of Edo at midnight. Clad in armor and metal helmet, his two swords at his waist, he galloped his horse down the main avenue. Beside him rode his young chief retainer, Hirata; behind them followed the hundred men of Sano's detective corps.
Constellations wheeled around the moon in the black, smoke-hazed sky. Cold wind swept debris past closed shops. Ahead, Sano saw torches flaring against the darkness. He and his troops passed townsmen armed with clubs, standing guard at doorways, ready to protect their businesses and families from harm. Frightened women peered out windows; boys craned their necks from rooftops, balconies, and fire-watch towers. Sano halted his army at the edge of a crowd that blocked the avenue.
The crowd was composed of ruffians whose faces shone with savage glee in the light of the torches they carried. They avidly watched two armies of mounted samurai, each some hundred men strong, charge along the street from opposite directions. The armies met in a violent clash of swords and lances. Horses skittered and neighed. The riders bellowed as they swung their blades at their opponents. Men screamed in agony as they fell wounded. Groups of samurai on foot whirled in fierce sword combat. Spectators cheered; some joined in the carnage.
"I've been expecting this," Hirata told Sano.
"It was only a matter of time," Sano agreed.
As the shogun's sosakan-sama-most honorable investigator of events, situations, and people-Sano usually occupied himself with investigating important crimes and advising his lord, TokugawaTsunayoshi, dictator of Japan. But during recent months he'd spent much time keeping order amid the political upheaval in Edo. The bakufu-the military government that ruled Japan-was divided by a struggle for control of the Tokugawa regime. One faction, led by the shogun's second-in-command, Chamberlain Yanagisawa, opposed a second led by Lord Matsudaira, a cousin of the shogun. Other powerful men, including the daimyo-feudal lords-had begun taking sides. Both factions had started building up their military forces, preparing for civil war.
Soldiers had poured into Edo from the provinces, crowding the barracks at daimyo estates and Edo Castle, overflowing the district where Tokugawa vassals lived and camping outside town. Although Chamberlain Yanagisawa and Lord Matsudaira hadn't yet declared war, the lower ranks had grown restless. Idle waiting bred battle fever. Sano and his detective corps had already quelled many skirmishes. Now, the city elders who governed the townspeople had sent Sano an urgent message begging him to come and quell this major disturbance that threatened to shatter the peace which the Tokugawa regime had maintained for almost a century.
"Let's break up this brawl before it causes a riot and wrecks the town," Sano said.
"I'm ready," Hirata said.
As they forged through the crowd, leading their troops, Sano recalled other times they'd ridden together into battle, when he'd taken Hirata's competent, loyal service for granted. But last summer, while they were attempting to rescue the shogun's mother and their wives from kidnappers, Hirata had disobeyed Sano's orders. Now Sano could no longer place his complete trust in Hirata.
"In the name of His Excellency the Shogun, I order you to cease!" Sano called to the armies.
He and his men forced apart the combatants, who howled in rage and attacked them. Blades whistled and slashed around Sano. As he circled, ducked, and tried to control his rearing horse, the night spun around him. Torchlight and faces in the crowd blurred across his vision. The armies drove him to the edge of the road.
"Behold the great sosakan-sama," called a male voice. "Have you been demoted to street duty?"
Sano turned to the man who'd addressed him. It was Police Commissioner Hoshina, sitting astride his horse at the gate to a side street, flanked by two mounted police commanders. Fashionable silk robes clothed his muscular physique. His handsome, angular face wore a mocking smile.
"You shouldn't lower yourself to breaking up brawls," Hoshina said.
Anger flashed through Sano. He and Hoshina were longtime enemies, and the fact that Sano had recently saved Hoshina's life didn't ease their antagonism.
"Someone has to uphold the law," Sano retorted, "because your police force won't."
Hoshina laughed off Sano's accusation that he was neglecting his duty. "I've got more important things on my mind."
Things like revenge and ambition, Sano thought. Hoshina had been the paramour of Chamberlain Yanagisawa until recently, when Yanagisawa had betrayed Hoshina, and the police commissioner had joined Lord Matsudaira's faction. Hoshina was so bitter toward Yanagisawa that he welcomed a war that could elevate him and depose his lover. He didn't care that war could also destroy the city he'd been appointed to protect. A lawless atmosphere pervaded Edo because Hoshina and his men wouldn't stop the fighting between partisans.
Sano turned away from Hoshina in disgust. Along the boulevard, more soldiers and ruffians streamed in as news of the brawl spread. Running footsteps, pounding hoofbeats, and loud war cries enlivened the night.
"Close off the area!" Sano yelled at his troops.
They hurried to bar the gates at intersections. The boulevard was a tumult of Sano's forces and the crazed soldiers colliding, blades flashing and bodies flailing, murderous yowls and spattering blood. As Sano rode into the melee, he feared this was only a taste of things to come.
It was dawn by the time Sano, Hirata, and the detectives separated the combatants, arrested them for disturbing the peace, and dispersed the crowd. Now a sun like a malevolent red beacon floated up from a sea of gray clouds over Edo Castle, looming on its hilltop above the city. At his mansion inside the official quarter of the castle, Sano sat in his private chambers. His wife Reiko cleaned a cut on his arm, where a sword had penetrated a joint in his sleeve guard. He wore his white under-kimono; his armor lay strewn on the tatami floor around him.
"You can't keep trying to maintain order in the city by yourself," Reiko said as she swabbed Sano's bloody gash. Her delicate, beautiful features were somber.
"One man can't stand between two armies and survive for long."
Sano winced at the pain. "I know."
Servants' voices drifted from the kitchen and grounds as morning stirred the estate to life. In the nursery, Sano and Reiko's little son Masahiro chattered with the maids. Reiko sprinkled powdered geranium root on Sano's wound to stop the bleeding, then applied honeysuckle ointment to prevent festering.
"While you were out last night, the finance minister came to see you," Reiko said. "So did the captain of the palace guard." These were two of Sano's friends in the bakufu. "I don't know why."
"I can guess," Sano said. "The minister, who has recently joined Chamberlain Yanagisawa's faction, came to ask me to do the same. The captain, who has sworn allegiance to Lord Matsudaira, would like me to follow his example."
Both factions were eager to recruit Sano because he was close to the shogun and could use his influence to further their cause; they also wanted Sano and his detectives, all expert fighters, on their side in the event of war. The victor would rule Japan unopposed, via domination of the shogun. Sano could hardly believe that he, a former martial arts teacher and son of a ronin-masterless samurai-had risen to a position where such important men courted his allegiance. But that position brought danger; both men would hasten to ruin any powerful official who opposed them.
"What are you going to tell your friends?" Reiko said.
"The same thing I've told everyone else who wants to lure me into one faction or the other," Sano said. "That I won't support either. My loyalty is to the shogun." Despite Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's shortcomings as a dictator, Sano felt bound by the samurai code of honor to stand by his lord. "I'll not join anyone who would usurp his authority."
Reiko bound a white cloth pad and bandage around Sano's wound. "Be careful," she said, patting his arm.
Sano perceived that her warning concerned more than his immediate injury; she feared for their future. He hated to worry her, especially since she was still suffering from the effects of being kidnapped along with the shogun's mother.
He didn't know exactly what had happened to Reiko while imprisoned by the man who'd called himself the Dragon King. But the normally adventurous Reiko had changed. During four years of marriage, she'd helped Sano with his investigations and developed quite a talent for detective work, but now she'd turned into a quiet recluse who hadn't left the estate since he'd brought her home. Sano wished for a little peace so she could recover, yet there was no prospect of peace anytime soon.
"This city is like a barrel of gunpowder," Sano said grimly. "The least incident could spark an explosion."
Footsteps creaked along the passage, and Hirata appeared at the door. "Excuse me, Sosakan-sama." Although still free to enter Sano's private quarters, Hirata displayed the cautious deference with which he'd behaved since their breach.
"You have a visitor."
"At this hour?" Sano glanced at the window. Gray daylight barely penetrated the paper panes. "Who is it?"
"His name is Juro. He's the valet of Senior Elder Makino. He says Makino sent him here with a message for you."
Sano raised his eyebrows in surprise. Makino Narisada was the longest-standing, dominant member of the Council of Elders, the shogun's primary advisers and Japan's highest governing body. He was also a crony of Chamberlain Yanagisawa and enemy of Sano. He had an ugly face like a skull, and a disposition to match.
"What is the message?" Sano said.
"I asked, but Juro wouldn't tell me," Hirata said. "He says his master ordered him to speak personally to you."
Sano couldn't refuse a communication from someone as important, quick to take offense, and dangerous as Makino. Besides, he was curious. "Very well."
He and Hirata walked to the reception room. Reiko followed. She watched from outside the door while they entered the cold, drafty room, where a man knelt. Thin and stooped, with a fringe of gray hair around his bald head, and clad in modest gray robes, Juro the valet appeared to be past sixty years of age. His bony features wore a sad expression. Two of Sano's detectives stood guard behind him. Although he looked harmless, they exercised caution toward strangers in the house, especially during these dangerous days.
"Here I am," Sano said. "Speak your message."
The valet bowed. "I'm sorry to impose on you, Sosakan-sama, but I must tell you that the honorable Senior Elder Makino is dead."
"Dead?" Sano experienced three reactions in quick succession. The first was shock. "As of when?"
"Today," said Juro.
"How did it happen?" Sano asked.
"My master passed away in his sleep."
Sano's second reaction was puzzlement. "You told my chief retainer that Makino-san sent you. How could he, if he's dead?"
"Some time ago, he told me that if he should die, I must inform you at once. I'm honoring his order."
Sano looked at Hirata, who shrugged, equally perplexed. "My condolences to you on the loss of your master," Sano said to the valet. "I'll go pay my respects to his family today."
As he spoke, a deep consternation beset him. Makino must have been almost eighty years old-he'd lived longer than he deserved-but his death, at this particular time, had the potential to aggravate the tensions within the Tokugawa regime.
"Why did Makino-san care that I should immediately know of his death?" Sano asked Juro.
"He wanted you to read this letter." The valet offered a folded paper to Sano.
Still mystified, Sano accepted the letter. Juro bowed with the air of a man who has discharged an important duty, and the detectives escorted him out of the house. Reiko entered the room. She and Hirata waited expectantly while Sano unfolded the letter and scanned the words written in gnarled black calligraphy. He read aloud, in surprise:
"To Sano Ichiro, sosakan-sama to the shogun:
If you are reading this, I am dead. I am leaving you this letter to beg an important favor of you.
As you know, I have many enemies who want me gone. Assassination is a constant threat for a man in my position. Please investigate my death and determine whether it was murder. If it was, I ask that you identify the culprit, deliver him to justice, and avenge my death.
I regret to impose on you, but there is no one else I trust enough to ask this favor. I apologize for any inconvenience that my request causes you.
Senior Elder Makino Narisada."
Reiko burst out, "The gall of that man, asking you for anything! After he accused you of treason last year and tried to get you executed!"
"Even in death he plagues me," Sano said, disturbed by the request that posed a serious dilemma for himself.
"But the valet said Makino died in his sleep," Hirata pointed out.
"Could his death have really been murder?" Reiko wondered. "The letter would have come to you even if Makino died of old age, as he seems to have done."
"Perhaps his death isn't what it seems." Sano narrowed his eyes in recollection.
"There have been attempts on his life. His fear that he would die by foul play was justified. And he was extremely vindictive. If he was assassinated, he would want the culprit punished even though he wouldn't be around to see it."
"And lately, with the bakufu in turmoil, there's been all the more reason for his enemies to want him gone," Reiko said.
"But you don't have to grant his request to investigate his death," Hirata told Sano.
"You owe him nothing," Reiko agreed.
Yet Sano couldn't ignore the letter. "Since there's a chance that Makino was murdered, his death should be investigated. How I felt about him doesn't matter. A victim of a crime deserves justice."
"An inquiry into his death could create serious trouble for you that I think you should avoid." Hirata spoke with the authority of a chief retainer duty bound to divert his master from a risky path, yet a slight hesitation in his voice bespoke his awareness that Sano might doubt the value of his counsel.
"Hirata-san is right," Reiko told Sano. "If Makino was murdered, there's a killer at large who won't welcome you prying into his death."
"Makino's enemies include powerful, unscrupulous men," Hirata said. "Any one of them would rather kill you than be exposed and executed as a murderer."
"Investigating crimes against high-ranking citizens is my job," Sano said.
"Danger comes with the responsibility. And in this case, the possible victim-who was my superior-asked me to look into his death."
"I can guess why Makino asked you," Reiko said in disgust at the senior elder.
"Makino knew that your sense of honor wouldn't let you overlook a possible crime."
"He understood that justice matters more to you than your own safety," Hirata interjected.
"So he saddled you with a job that he knew no one else would bother to do for him. He tried to destroy you while he was alive. Now he's trying to manipulate you from the grave." Outrage sparked in Reiko's eyes. "Please don't let him!"
Even though Sano shared many of the concerns of his wife and chief retainer, he felt a duty toward Makino that superseded reason. "A posthumous request from a fellow samurai is a serious obligation," he said. "Refusing to honor it would be a breach of protocol."
"No one would fault you for refusing a favor to a man who treated you the way Makino did," Hirata said.
"You ignore protocol often enough," Reiko said, wryly alluding to Sano's independent streak.
But Sano had more reason to grant the request, no matter the consequences. "If Makino was murdered, the fact may come to light regardless of what I do. Even if he wasn't, rumors could arise that say he was." Rumors, true and false, abounded in Edo Castle during this political crisis. "Suspicion will fall on all his enemies-including me. By that time, evidence of how Makino died, and who killed him, will be lost, along with my chance to prove my innocence if I'm accused."
Understanding dawned on Reiko's and Hirata's faces. "Your enemies have tried to frame you for crimes in the past," Hirata recalled. "They would welcome this opportunity to destroy you."
"Most of your friends now belong to Chamberlain Yanagisawa or Lord Matsudaira," Reiko said. "Since you won't join either faction, you have the protection of neither. And if you're accused of murder, you can't count on the shogun to defend you."
Because the shogun's favor was as inconstant as the weather, Sano thought. He'd known that by resisting pressure to choose sides, he stood alone and vulnerable, but now the high price of neutrality had come due. "So I either investigate Makino's death, or jeopardize all of us," Sano said, for his family and retainers would share any punishment that came his way.
Reiko and Hirata nodded in resigned agreement. "I'll do everything in my power to help you," Hirata said.
"Where shall we begin?" Reiko said.
Their support gladdened Sano, yet misgivings disturbed him. Was Reiko ready to brave the hazards of this investigation so soon after her kidnapping? Sano also wondered how far he could trust Hirata, after Hirata had placed personal concerns above duty to his master during the kidnapping investigation. But Sano was in no position to turn away help.
"As soon as I've washed and dressed, we'll go to Makino's estate and inspect the scene of his death," Sano told Hirata.
Hirata bowed. He said, "I'll fetch some detectives to accompany us," then left the room.
"You must eat first and restore your strength," Reiko said to Sano. "I'll bring your breakfast." She paused in the doorway. "Is there anything else you need me to do?"
Sano read anxiety in her manner, instead of the eager excitement with which she usually greeted a new investigation. He said, "I won't know until I've determined whether Makino was indeed murdered. Maybe Hirata and I will discover that he died of natural causes. Maybe I can dispel suspicion of foul play, and everything will be all right."
Copyright 2004 by Laura Joh Rowland