On a whim of the shogun's mother, a procession has left the sweltering heat of Edo, bound for the cooler climate of Mount Fuji. Among her traveling companions are Reiko, the beautiful wife of Sano Ichiro, the shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People; Reiko's friend Midori, nine months pregnant; and Lady Yanagisawa, the deranged wife of the shogun's powerful second-in-command. None of them look forward to the trip. But their troubles have only begun when their procession is stopped suddenly on a deserted road. The entire retinue is viciously slaughtered and the four women are bound and taken away, imprisoned by a mysterious kidnapper.
Sano now finds himself faced with the most important case of his career. The shogun demands quick action, and under the threat of death, Sano is forced to work with his bitter enemies---Chamberlain Yanagisawa and Police Commissioner Hoshina.
The women are in imminent danger, and the delivery of a ransom note only complicates matters---forcing both Sano and Reiko to take desperate measures. Once again, Laura Joh Rowland's dazzling combination of history and storytelling draws us into a sumptuous and treacherous world, in The Dragon King's Palace.
About the Author
Laura Joh Rowland, the granddaughter of Chinese and Korean immigrants, was educated at the University of Michigan and now lives in New Orleans with her husband. The Dragon King's Palace is the eighth novel in her widely acclaimed series featuring Sano Ichiro.
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
The Dragon King's Palace
By Laura Joh Rowland
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Laura Joh Rowland
All rights reserved.
Edo, Genroku Period, Year 7, Month 5 (Tokyo, June 1694)
The great metropolis of Edo sweltered in summer. An aquamarine sky reflected in canals swollen from rains that deluged the city almost daily. The multicolored sails of pleasure craft billowed amid the ferries and barges on the Sumida River. Along the boulevards, and in temple gardens, children flew kites shaped like birds. In the Nihonbashi merchant district, the open windows, doors, and skylights of houses and shops welcomed elusive breezes; perspiring townspeople thronged marketplaces bountiful with produce. A miasma of fever rose from alleys that reeked of sewage; pungent incense smoke combated buzzing mosquitoes. Roads leading out of town were crowded with religious pilgrims marching toward distant shrines and rich folk bound for summer villas in the cooler climate of the hills. The sun blazed down upon the peaked tile roofs of Edo Castle, but trees shaded the private quarters of Lady Keisho-in, mother of the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Japan's supreme military dictator. There, on a veranda, three ladies gathered.
"I wonder why Lady Keisho-in summoned us," said Reiko, wife of the shogun's sosakan-sama — Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. She looked over the railing and watched her little son, Masahiro, play in the garden. He ran laughing over grasses verdant from the rains, around a pond covered by green scum, past flowerbeds and shrubs lush with blossoms.
"Whatever she wants, I hope it doesn't take long," said Midori. She was a former lady-in-waiting to Keisho-in and a close friend of Reiko. Six months ago Midori had married Sano's chief retainer. Now she clasped her hands across a belly so rotund with pregnancy that Reiko suspected Midori and Hirata had conceived the child long before their wedding. "This heat is too much for me. I can't wait to go home and lie down."
Midori's young, pretty face was bloated; her swollen legs and feet could hardly bear her weight. She tugged at the cloth bound tight around her stomach beneath her mauve kimono to keep the child small and ensure an easy delivery. "This thing didn't work. I've grown so huge, my baby must be a giant," she lamented. She waddled into a shady corner of the veranda and sat awkwardly.
Reiko pushed away strands of hair that had escaped her upswept coiffure and clung to her damp forehead. Perspiring in her sea-blue silk kimono, she wished she, too, could go home. She shared her husband Sano's work, aiding him with his inquiries into crimes, and at any moment there might arise a new case, which she wouldn't want to miss. But Lady Keisho-in had commanded Reiko's presence. She couldn't refuse the mother of her husband's lord, though her eagerness to leave stemmed from a reason more serious than a desire for exciting detective work.
The wife of Chamberlain Yanagisawa — the shogun's powerful second-in-command — stood apart from Reiko and Midori. Lady Yanagisawa was quiet, dour, some ten years older than Reiko's own age of twenty-four, and always dressed in dark, somber colors as if to avoid drawing attention to her total lack of beauty. She had a long, flat face with narrow eyes, wide nose, and broad lips, and a flat, bow-legged figure. Now she sidled over to Reiko.
"I am so thankful I was invited here and given the chance to see you," Lady Yanagisawa said in her soft, gruff voice.
Her gaze flitted over Reiko with yearning intensity. Reiko stifled the shudder of revulsion that Lady Yanagisawa always provoked. The woman was a shy recluse who seldom ventured into society, and she'd had no friends until last winter, when she and Reiko had met. Lady Yanagisawa had attached herself to Reiko with an eagerness that attested to her lonely life and craving for companionship. Since then, Lady Yanagisawa had visited Reiko, or invited her to call, almost daily; when their family responsibilities or Reiko's work for Sano precluded meetings, Lady Yanagisawa sent letters. Her devotion alarmed Reiko, as did her unwelcome confidences.
"Yesterday I watched my husband writing in his office," Lady Yanagisawa said. She'd told Reiko about how she spied on the chamberlain. "His calligraphy is so elegant. His face looked so beautiful as he bent over the page."
Ardor flushed her pale cheeks. "When he passed me in the corridor, his sleeve brushed mine ..." Lady Yanagisawa caressed her arm, as though savoring the contact. "He looked at me for an instant. His gaze lit a fire in me ... my heart beat fast. Then he walked on and left me alone." She exhaled with regret.
Embarrassment filled Reiko. She'd once been curious about her friend's marriage, but now she'd learned more than she liked. She knew that Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who had risen to power via an ongoing sexual affair with the shogun, preferred men to women and cared nothing for his wife. Lady Yanagisawa passionately loved him, and though he ignored her, she never gave up hope that someday he would return her love.
"Last night I watched my husband in his bedchamber with Police Commissioner Hoshina," Lady Yanagisawa said. Hoshina, current par-amour of the chamberlain, lived at his estate. "His body is so strong and masculine and beautiful." Her blush deepened; desire hushed her tone. "How I wish he would make love to me."
Reiko inwardly squirmed but couldn't evade Lady Yanagisawa's confessions. The chamberlain and Sano had a history of strife, and although they'd enjoyed a truce for almost three years, any offense against the chamberlain or his kin might provoke Yanagisawa to resume his attacks on Sano. Hence, Reiko must endure the friendship of Lady Yanagisawa, despite strong reason to end it.
Lady Yanagisawa suddenly called, "No, no, Kikuk-ochan."
In the garden Reiko saw her friend's nine-year-old daughter, Kikuko, pulling up lilies and throwing them at Masahiro. Beautiful but feebleminded, Kikuko was the other object of her mother's devotion. A chill passed through Reiko as she watched the children gather the broken flowers. She knew how much Lady Yanagisawa envied her beauty, loving husband, and bright, normal child, and wished her misfortune even while courting her affection. Last winter Lady Yanagisawa had arranged an "accident" that had involved Kikuko and almost killed Masahiro. Ever since, Reiko had never left him alone with Lady Yanagisawa or Kikuko, and she employed Sano's detectives to guard him when she was away from home. She always wore a dagger under her sleeve during visits with Lady Yanagisawa; she never ate or drank then, lest her friend try to poison her. Extra guards protected her when she slept or went out. Such vigilance was exhausting, but Reiko dared not withdraw from the woman, lest she provoke violent retaliation. Would that she could keep away from Lady Yanagisawa!
The door to the mansion opened, and out bustled Lady Keishoin, a small, pudgy woman in her sixties, with hair dyed black, a round, wrinkled face, and teeth missing. She wore a short blue cotton dressing gown that exposed blue-veined legs. Maids followed, waving large paper fans at her to create a cooling breeze.
"Here you all are! Wonderful!" Keisho-in beamed at Reiko, Midori, and Lady Yanagisawa. They murmured polite greetings and bowed. "I've invited you here to tell you the marvelous idea I just had." She dimpled with gleeful excitement. "I am going to travel to Fuji-san." Her sweeping gesture indicated the peak of Mount Fuji. Revered as a home of the Shinto gods and a gateway to the Buddhist spirit world, the famous natural shrine hovered, snowcapped and ethereal, in the sky far beyond the city. "And you shall all come with me!"
Stunned silence greeted this announcement. Reiko saw her dismay expressed on the faces of Midori and Lady Yanagisawa. Keisho-in regarded them all with a suspicious frown. "Your enthusiasm overwhelms me." Displeasure harshened her crusty voice. "Don't you want to go?"
The women rushed to speak at once, for Lady Keisho-in had great influence over the shogun, who punished anyone who displeased his mother. "Of course I do," Midori said. "Many thanks for asking me," said Reiko. Lady Yanagisawa said, "Your invitation does us an honor."
Their insincere replies faded into more silence. Reiko said, "But religious custom bans women from Fuji-san."
"Oh, we needn't climb the mountain." Keisho-in waved a hand in airy dismissal. "We can stay in the foothills and bask in its magnificence."
"Maybe I shouldn't travel in my condition," Midori said timidly.
"Nonsense. The change will do you good. And we'll only be gone ten days or so. The baby will wait until you're home."
Midori's lips soundlessly formed the words, ten days, as Reiko watched her envision giving birth on the highway. Lady Yanagisawa gazed at Reiko. In her eyes dawned the amazement of someone who has just received an unexpected gift. Reiko perceived the woman's pleasure at the thought of constant togetherness during the trip, and her own heart sank. Then Lady Yanagisawa looked into the garden, where Kikuko and Masahiro played ball. Worry clouded her face.
"I can't leave Kikuko-chan," she said.
"You coddle that child too much," Lady Keisho-in said. "She must eventually learn to get along without her mama, and the sooner the better."
Lady Yanagisawa's hands gripped the veranda railing. "My husband ..."
As Reiko guessed how much Lady Yanagisawa would miss spying on the chamberlain, Keisho-in spoke with tactless disregard for her feelings: "Your husband won't miss you."
"But we will encounter strange people and places during the trip." Lady Yanagisawa's voice trembled with fear born of her extreme shyness.
Keisho-in made an impatient, scornful sound. "The whole point of travel is to see things you can't see at home."
Midori and Lady Yanagisawa turned to Reiko, their expressions begging her to save them. Reiko didn't want to leave Masahiro; nor did she want to leave Sano and their detective work. She dreaded ten days of Lady Yanagisawa sticking to her like a leech, and the possibility that the woman would attack her. And Lady Keisho-in posed another threat. The shogun's mother had a greedy sexual appetite that she indulged with women as well as men. Once, Keisho-in had made amorous advances toward Reiko, who had barely managed to deflect them without bringing the shogun's wrath down upon herself and Sano, and lived in fear of another such experience.
Yet Reiko dared voice none of these selfish objections. Her only hope of thwarting the trip to was to appeal to Keisho-in's interests.
"I would love to accompany you," Reiko said, "but His Excellency the Shogun may need me to help my husband conduct an investigation."
Keisho-in pondered, aware that Reiko's detective skill had won the shogun's favor. "I'll tell my son to delay all important inquiries until we return," she said.
"But he may not want you to go," Reiko said, her anxiety rising. "How will he manage without your advice?"
Indecision pursed Keisho-in's mouth. Lady Yanagisawa and Midori watched in hopeful suspense.
"Won't you miss him?" Reiko said. "Won't you miss Priest Ryuko?" The priest was Keisho-in's spiritual advisor and lover.
A long moment passed while Keisho-in frowned and vacillated. At last she declared, "Yes, I'll miss my darling Ryuko-san, but parting will increase our fondness. And tonight I'll give my son enough advice to last awhile."
"The journey will be difficult and uncomfortable," Reiko said in desperation.
"The weather on the road will be even hotter than it is here," Midori added eagerly.
"We'll have to stay at inns full of crude, noisy people." Lady Yanagisawa shivered.
"Highway bandits may attack us," Reiko said.
Keisho-in's hand fluttered, negating the dire predictions. "We'll take plenty of guards. I appreciate your concern for me, but a religious pilgrimage to Fuji-san is worth the hardship."
She addressed her maids: "Go tell the palace officials to get travel passes for everyone and ready an entourage, horses, palanquins, and provisions for the journey. Hurry, because I want to leave tomorrow morning." Then she turned to Reiko, Midori, and Lady Yanagisawa. "Don't just stand there like idle fools. Come inside and help me pick out clothes to bring."
The women exchanged appalled glances at this foretaste of traveling with Lady Keisho-in. Then they breathed a silent, collective sigh of resignation.
In the cool of dawn the next morning, servants carried chests out of Sano's mansion and placed them in the courtyard. Two palanquins stood ready for Reiko and Midori, while bearers waited to carry the women in their enclosed black wooden sedan chairs to Mount Fuji. Sano and Masahiro stood with Reiko beside her palanquin.
"I wish I could call off this trip," Sano said. He hated for Reiko to go, yet his duty to the shogun extended to the entire Tokugawa clan and forbade him to thwart Lady Keisho-in's desire.
Reiko's delicate, beautiful face was strained, but she managed a smile. "Maybe it won't be as bad as we think."
Admiring her valiant attempt to make the best of a bad situation, Sano already missed his wife. They were more than just partners in investigating crimes or spouses in a marriage arranged for social, economic, and political reasons. Their work, their child, and their passionate love bound them in a spiritual union. And this trip would be their longest separation in their four years together.
Reiko crouched, put her hands on Masahiro's shoulders, and looked into his solemn face. "Do you promise to be good while I'm gone?" she said.
"Yes, Mama." Though the little boy's chin trembled, he spoke bravely, imitating the stoic samurai attitude.
Beside the other palanquin, Midori and Hirata embraced. "I'm so afraid something bad will happen and we'll never see each other again," Midori fretted.
"Don't worry. Everything will be fine," Hirata said, but his wide, youthful face was troubled because he didn't want his pregnant wife to leave.
From the barracks surrounding the mansion came two samurai detectives, leading horses laden with bulky saddlebags. Sano had ordered the men, both loyal retainers and expert fighters, to accompany and protect Reiko and Midori. He wished he and Hirata could go, but the shogun required their presence in Edo.
"Take good care of them," Sano told the detectives.
"We will, sosakan-sama." The men bowed.
Reiko said, "Lady Keisho-in, Lady Yanagisawa, and our entourage will be waiting for us outside the main castle gate. We'd better go."
Sano lifted Masahiro; they and Reiko embraced. Final farewells ensued. Then Reiko and Midori reluctantly climbed into their palanquins. The bearers shouldered the poles; servants lifted the chests. Sano hugged Masahiro close against his sore heart. As the procession moved through the gate, Reiko put her head out the window of her palanquin, looked backward, and fixed a wistful gaze on Sano and Masahiro. They waved; Sano smiled.
"Mama, be safe," Masahiro called. "Come home soon."CHAPTER 2
The Tokaido, the great Eastern Sea Road, extended west from Edo toward the imperial capital at Miyako. Fifty-three post stations — villages where travelers lodged and the Tokugawa regime maintained security checkpoints — dotted the highway. West of the tenth post station of Odawara, the highway cut across the Izu Peninsula. The terrain ascended into the mountainous district over which reigned the massive volcano Mount Fuji. Here the Tokaido carved a crooked path upward through forests of oak, maple, cedar, birch, cypress, and pine.
Along this stretch of road moved a procession comprised of some hundred people. Two samurai scouts rode on horseback ahead of foot soldiers and mounted troops. Banner bearers held a flag emblazoned with the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock-leaf crest, leading ten palanquins followed by servants. Porters carrying baggage preceded a rear guard of more mounted troops and marching soldiers. Syncopated footsteps and the clatter of the horses' hooves echoed to distant peaks obscured by dense gray clouds.
Inside the first palanquin, Reiko and Lady Keisho-in rode, seated opposite each other. They watched through the windows as occasional squadrons of samurai overtook them or commoners passed from the other direction. Moisture condensed in the cool afternoon; streams and waterfalls rippled; birdsong animated the forest.
Excerpted from The Dragon King's Palace by Laura Joh Rowland. Copyright © 2003 Laura Joh Rowland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another enjoyable Sano Ichiro mystery.
This book began very slowly. The story line picked up a little over half way through the book, so I didn't feel that it was a complete waste. However, the dialogue was terrible and the way she wrote the shogun's dialogue was down right insulting to readers and Asians in general. I am thankful that I picked this book up for $1.50 because I would have been truely upset if I had paid the cover price. If you are looking for a good detective novel or a good Asian novel look elsewhere.
In 1682 (actually the Genroku Period Year 7) Lady Keisho-in, mother of the shogun, decides to take a trip. The imperial mother demands Reiko (the wife of Sano the samurai chief investigator), the pregnant Midori (the spouse of Sano's assistant Hirata) and Lady Yanagisawa (the wife of the second-in-command Chamberlain Yanagisawa) accompany her from Edo to Mount Fuji. None of the three invitees want to go, but each feels they must as loyalty demands so. The Dragon King attacks their retinue resulting in deaths of the protectors and the four females incarcerated at a ravaged island palace. The Dragon King sends a note to the Shogun demanding the execution of Police Commissioner Hoshina if he wants the return of his mother. The shogun assigns Yanagisawa and Sano to work the kidnapping case, but anyone with ambition sees an opportunity to gain favor by rescuing Lady Keisho. Yanagisawa manipulates the situation to his own benefit, as he prefers men to his wife. The clock ticks closer to a demented individual killing harmless women even Midori who just gave birth in captivity. Though THE DRAGON KING¿S PALACE is typical of a historical abduction mystery, the locale and the characters make this novel unique and wonderful. The story line remains fresh though this is Sano¿s eighth tale because of the insightful look at an era when palace intrigue rivaled Machiavelli and the samurai code rules. Through the actions, reactions, and thoughts of a deep cast, readers obtain a delightful historical investigative tale whose enchanting center is seventeenth century Japan. Harriet Klausner