A richly crafted novel set in seventeenth-century Japan, Laura Joh Rowland's The Concubine's Tattoo unfolds with all the excitement of a superb murder mystery and a sweeping, sensuous portrait of an exotic land.
Sano Ichiro, the Shogun's most honorable investigator, is summoned to the imperial palace to find the murderer of Harume, a young concubine poisoned while applying a lover's tattoo. Sano's new bride, Reiko, insists on helping him with the case. Reiko's samurai blood and warrior's skill alarm her new husband, who expected a docile wife. But Reiko is only the first of many surprises...
As subtle as the finest lacquered screen, as powerful as the slash of a sword, The Concubine's Tattoo vividly brings to life a story of murder, jealousy, sexual intrigue, and political storms that keeps us under its spell until the final, shattering scene.
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About the Author
LAURA JOH ROWLAND is the author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries (Shinju, Bundori, and The Way of the Traitor), which have twice been named Best Mysteries of the Year by Publishers Weekly. She lived through a natural disaster when Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed her house in New Orleans, and now lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
"It is my privilege to open this ceremony in which Sosakan Sano Ichiro and Lady Ueda Reiko shall be united in marriage before the gods." Pudgy, nearsighted Noguchi Motoori — Sano's former superior and the go-between who had arranged the match — solemnly addressed the assembly gathered in Edo Castle's private reception hall.
On this warm autumn morning, sliding doors stood open to a garden resplendent with scarlet maple leaves and brilliant blue sky. Two priests, clad in white robes and tall black caps, knelt at the front of the hall before the alcove, in which hung a scroll bearing the names of the kami — Shinto deities. Below this, a dais held the traditional offerings of round rice cakes and a ceramic jar of consecrated sake. Two maidens, wearing the hooded cloaks of Shinto shrine attendants, stood near the priests. On the tatami to the left of the alcove knelt the bride's father and closest associates: stout, dignified Magistrate Ueda and a few relatives and friends. To the right, the groom's party consisted of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Japan's supreme military dictator, dressed in brocade robes and the cylindrical black cap of his rank, attended by several high officials; Sano's frail, elderly mother; and Hirata, Sano's chief retainer. All eyes turned to the center of the hall, the focus of the ceremony.
Sano and Reiko knelt side by side before two small tables — he in black ceremonial robes stamped with his family's gold flying-crane crest, his two swords at his waist; she in a white silk kimono and a long, white silk drape that completely covered her face and hair. They faced a flat porcelain dish containing a miniature pine and plum tree, a bamboo grove, the statues of a hare and a crane: symbols of longevity, pliancy, and fidelity. Behind them, Noguchi and his wife knelt at a table reserved for the go-between. As the priests stood and bowed to the altar, Sano's heart pounded. His stoic dignity hid a turmoil of emotion.
The last two years had brought him continuous upheaval: the death of his beloved father; the move from his modest family home in the Nihonbashi merchant district to Edo Castle, Japan's seat of power; a dizzyingly rapid rise in status and all the associated challenges. At times he feared his mind and body couldn't withstand the relentless onslaught of change. Now he was marrying a twenty-year-old girl he'd met exactly once before, more than a year ago, at the formal meeting between their two families. Her lineage was impeccable, her father one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Edo. But they'd never spoken; he knew nothing of her character. He barely remembered what she looked like, and wouldn't see her face again until the end of the ceremony. To Sano, the tradition of arranged marriage now seemed like sheer madness — a potentially disastrous pairing of strangers. What perilous turn had his fate taken? Was it too late to escape?
From her tiny bedchamber in the Edo Castle women's quarters, the shogun's newest concubine heard hurrying footsteps, slamming doors, and shrill feminine voices. The dressing rooms would be littered with opulent silk kimonos and spilt face powder, the servants rushing to finish dressing the two hundred concubines and their attendants for the Sosakan-sama's wedding feast. But Harume, weary of the suffocating presence of so many other women after only eight months at the castle, had decided to skip the celebration. Privacy was almost nonexistent in the crowded women's quarters, but now her chambermates were gone, the palace officials busy. The shogun's mother, whom Harume attended, hadn't required her services today. No one would miss her, she hoped — because Harume meant to take full advantage of her rare solitude.
She latched the door, then closed the shutters. On a low table she lit oil lamps and incense burners. The flickering flames cast her shadow against the mullioned paper walls; the incense smoked, sweetly pungent A hushed, secretive atmosphere permeated the room. Harume's pulse quickened with a dark excitement. She set a rectangular black lacquer box, its lid inlaid with gold irises, and a porcelain sake decanter and two cups on the table. Her movements were slow and graceful, befitting a sacred ritual. Then she tiptoed to the door and listened.
The noise had diminished; the other women must have finished dressing and started toward the banquet hall. Harume returned to the altar she'd created. With eagerness rising in her breast, she pushed back her glossy, waist-length black hair. She loosened her sash and parted the skirts of her red silk dressing gown. She knelt, naked from the waist down.
She contemplated herself with pride. At age eighteen, she was as ripe of flesh as a mature woman, yet with youth's fresh radiance. Flawless ivory skin covered her firm thighs, her rounded hips and stomach. With her fingertips Harume stroked the silky triangle of pubic hair. She smiled, remembering his hand there, his mouth against her throat, their shared rapture. She reveled in her eternal love for him, which she would now prove beyond any possible doubt.
One of the priests swished a long wand tasseled with white paper strips, crying, "Evil out, fortune in! Whoosh! Whoosh!" to purify the room. Then he chanted an invocation to the Shinto gods Izanagi and Izanami, revered procreators of the universe.
Hearing the familiar words, Sano relaxed. The timeless ceremony lifted him above doubt and fear; anticipation soared in him. No matter the risks, he wanted this marriage. At the advanced age of thirty-one, he was at last ready to make the decisive step into official adulthood, to take his place in society as the head of his own family. And he was ready for a change in his life.
His twenty months as the shogun's Sosakan-sama — most honorable investigator of events, situations, and people — had been a nonstop cycle of criminal cases, treasure hunts, and spying assignments, culminating in a near-catastrophic trip to Nagasaki. There he had investigated the murder of a Dutch trader — and been shot, almost burned to death, charged with treason, and nearly executed before clearing himself. He'd returned to Edo seven days ago, and while he hadn't lost his desire to pursue truth and deliver criminals to justice, he was tired. Tired of violence, death, and corruption. The aftermath of a tragic love affair the previous year had left him lonely and emotionally drained.
Now, however, Sano looked forward to a respite from the rigors of his work. The shogun had granted him a month's holiday. After a year-long betrothal, Sano welcomed the prospect of a private life with a sweet, compliant wife who would provide a haven from the outside world. He yearned for children, especially a son who would carry on his name and inherit his position. This ceremony was not just a social rite of passage, but a gateway to everything Sano wanted.
The second priest played a series of high-pitched, wailing notes on a flute, while the first beat a sonorous accompaniment on a wooden drum. Now came the most solemn, sacred part of the wedding ritual. The music ceased. One attendant poured the consecrated sake into a long-handled brass ewer and brought it to Sano and Reiko. The other attendant set before them a tray containing three flat wooden cups, graduated in size, nested together. From the ewer, the attendants filled the first, smallest cup, bowed, and handed it to the bride. The assembly waited in hushed expectation.
Harume opened the lacquer box and took out a long, straight razor with a gleaming steel blade, a pearl-handled knife, and a small, square black lacquer jar with her name painted in gold on the stopper. As she arranged these objects before her, a tremor of fear fluttered in Harume's throat. She dreaded pain, hated blood. Would someone interrupt this ceremony — or worse, discover her secret, forbidden liaison? Dangerous intrigues shadowed her life, and there were people who might wish to see her disgraced and banished from the castle. But love demanded sacrifice and necessitated risk. With unsteady hands she poured sake into the two cups: one for herself; a ritual one for her absent lover. She lifted her cup and swallowed the drink. Her eyes watered; her throat burned. But the potent liquor enflamed her courage and determination. She picked up the razor.
With careful strokes Harume shaved bare her pubic area, brushing the cut black strands onto the floor. Then she set aside the razor and lifted the knife.
Reiko, her face still concealed beneath the white headdress, lifted the sake cup to her lips and drank. The process was repeated three times. Then the attendants refilled the cup and passed it to Sano. He drank his three drafts, imagining that he felt the transient warmth of his bride's dainty fingers on the polished wood and tasted the sweetness of her lip rouge on the rim: their first, albeit indirect, touch.
Would their marriage be, as he hoped, a union of kindred souls as well as sensual satisfaction?
A collective sigh passed through the assembly. The san-san-ku-do — the "three-times-three-sips" pledge that sealed the marriage bond — never failed to arouse poignant emotion. Sano's own eyes burned with unshed tears; he wondered if Reiko shared his hopes.
The attendant set aside the cup and filled the second one. This time Sano drank first, three times, then Reiko did. After the third, largest cup was passed and the liquor sipped, the flute and drum music resumed. Joy nearly overwhelmed Sano. He and Reiko were now joined in wedlock. Soon he would see her face again ...
Touching the knife's sharp blade to her tender, shaved skin, Harume flinched at the coldness of the steel. Her heart thudded; her hand trembled. She put the knife down and took another drink. Then, closing her eyes, Harume summoned the image of her lover, the memory of his caresses. The incense smoke steeped her lungs in the scent of jasmine. Ardor flooded her with daring. When she opened her eyes, her body was still, her mind calm. She took up the knife again. On her pubis she slowly cut the first stroke, just above the cleft of her womanhood.
Crimson blood welled. Harume let out a sharp hiss of pain; tears stung her eyes. But she wiped away the blood with the end of her sash, took another drink, and cut the next stroke. More pain; more blood. Eleven more strokes, and Harume sighed in relief. The worst part was done. Now for the step that would bind her irrevocably to her lover.
Harume opened the lacquer jar. The stopper was fitted with a bamboo-handled brush, its soft bristles saturated with gleaming black ink. Carefully she brushed the ink onto the cuts, enjoying its cool wetness, balm to her pain. With her bloody sash she blotted up the excess ink and stoppered the bottle. Then, sipping more sake, she admired her work.
The complete tattoo, the size of her thumbnail, etched in black lines, now adorned her private place: an indelible expression of fidelity and devotion. Until the hair grew back, she hoped she could keep herself covered, hiding her secret from the other concubines, the palace officials, the shogun. But even after the tattoo was safely obscured, she would know it was there. As would he. They would treasure this symbol of the only marriage they would ever celebrate. Harume poured herself another cup of sake, a private toast to eternal love.
But when she drank, she couldn't swallow; the sake leaked from her mouth, running down her chin. A strange tingling began in Harume's lips and tongue; her throat felt strangely thick and numb, as if packed with cotton. An eerie, cold sensation crept across her skin. Dizziness washed over her. The room spun; the lamp flames, unnaturally bright, whirled before her eyes. Frightened, she dropped the cup. What was happening to her?
Sudden nausea gripped Harume. Doubling over, hands pressed against her stomach, she retched. Hot, sour vomit clogged her throat, shot up her nose, and spewed onto the floor. She wheezed and coughed, unable to get enough air. In a panic, Harume rose and started for the door. But the muscles of her legs had gone weak; she stumbled, scattering incense burners, razor, knife, and ink bottle. Lurching and limping, all the while struggling to breathe, Harume managed to reach the door and open it. A hoarse cry burst from her numb lips.
The corridor was empty. Clutching her throat, Harume staggered in the direction of voices that sounded distorted and far away. Ceiling lanterns burned as bright as suns, blinding her. She grabbed the walls for support. Through a haze of dizzy nausea, Harume saw winged black shapes pursuing her. Claws snatched at her hair. High-pitched shrieks echoed in her ears.
Now the attendants served sake to Sano's mother and Magistrate Ueda, honoring the new allegiance between the two families, then passed cups of liquor to the assembly, which proclaimed in unison, "Omedeto gozaimasu — congratulations!"
Sano saw happy faces turned toward him and Reiko. His mother's loving gaze warmed him. Hirata passed a self-conscious hand over the black stubble on his head — shaved during their Nagasaki investigation — and beamed. Magistrate Ueda nodded in dignified approval; the shogun grinned.
From the table before him, Sano picked up the ceremonial document and read in an unsteady voice, "We have now become united as husband and wife for all eternity. We vow to execute our marital duties faithfully and spend all the days of our lives together in never-ending trust and affection. Sano Ichiro, the twentieth day of the ninth month, Genroku year three."
Then Reiko read from her identical document. Her voice was high, clear, and melodic. This was the first time Sano had ever heard it. What would they talk about, alone together, tonight?
The attendants handed Sano and Reiko branches of saka tree with white paper strips attached, leading the couple to the alcove to make a traditional wedding offering to the gods. Small and slender, Reiko barely came up to Sano's shoulder. Her long sleeves and hem trailed on the floor. Together they bowed and laid the branches on the altar. The attendants bowed twice to the altar, then clapped their hands twice. The assembly followed suit.
"The ceremony is successfully completed," announced the priest who had performed the invocation. "Now the bride and groom can begin to build a harmonious home."
Pursued by the demons, Harume somehow found her way through the winding passages of the women's quarters, to the door leading to the main palace. There stood the castle ladies, dressed in bright, colorful kimonos, attended by servants and a few male guards. Harume's strength was fading. Wheezing and choking, she crashed to the floor.
In a loud rustle of silk garments, the crowd turned. A flurry of exclamations arose: "It's Lady Harume!" "What's wrong with her?" "There's blood all over her mouth!"
Now a shifting collage of shocked, frightened faces hovered over Harume. Ugly purple blotches obscured the familiar features of these women she knew. Noses elongated; eyes burned; fanged mouths leered. Black wings sprouted from shoulders, fanning the air. Silk garments became the lurid plumage of monster birds. Claws reached out to grab.
"Demons," Harume gasped. "Don't come any closer. No!"
Strong hands seized her. Authoritative male voices gave orders. "She's ill. Get a doctor." "Don't let her disrupt the Sosakan-sama's wedding." "Take her to her room. ..."
Panic infused strength into Harume's muscles. As she kicked and thrashed and gasped for breath, her voice burst from her in a scream of terror: "Help! Demons! Don't let them kill me!"
"She's mad. Stay back — out of the way! She's violent."
Down the corridor they carried her, trailed by the screeching, flapping horde. Harume struggled to free herself. Her captors finally set her down, pinning her arms and legs. She was trapped. The demons would rip her to shreds, then devour her.
Yet even as these fearsome thoughts flashed through Harume's mind, a more terrifying power gathered within her body. A gigantic convulsion surged through bone, muscle, and nerve; stretched sinews; drew invisible chains tight around internal organs. Harume screamed in agony as her back arched and her stiff limbs shot out. In a cacophony of shrieks, the demons let go, thrown off by the force of her involuntary movements. A second, stronger convulsion, and darkness seeped across her vision. External sensations receded; she couldn't see the demons or hear their voices. The wild, erratic pounding of her own heart filled her ears. Another convulsion. Mouth open wide, Harume couldn't draw another breath. Her final thought was of her lover: With a grief as agonizing as the pain, she knew she would never see him again in this life. Then one last gasp. One more unspoken plea:
Sano barely heard the assembly's murmured blessings, because the attendants were lifting the white drape away from his new wife's head. She was turning toward him ...
Excerpted from "The Concubine's Tatto"
Copyright © 1998 Laura Joh Rowland.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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