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In the wake of a terrifying earthquake, Sano Ichiro races to solve a crime that could bring down the shogun's regime
Japan, 1703. A devastating earthquake has left the city of Edo in shambleseven the shogun's carefully regulated court is teetering on the brink of chaos. This is no time for a murder investigation. But when Sano discovers the bodies of two young sisters buried beneath the rubble, he suspects that incense poisoning, not the earthquake, killed them. Worse yet, their father, a powerful nobleman, threatens to topple the vulnerable regime unless Sano agrees to track down his daughters' killer.
With the help of his wife, Reiko, and his chief retainer, Hirata, Sano begins a secret investigation that jeopardizes his whole family. And with Hirata mysteriously neglecting his duties and an old foe plotting to overthrow Sano and the shogun himself, the shockwaves from the earthquake are only the beginning.
In The Incense Game, Laura Joh Rowland's most powerful and evocative thriller yet, Sano and his wife strive to solve the case in a world that is crumbling around them.
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A MONTH AFTER the earthquake, Edo was a landscape from hell. Entire neighborhoods were leveled. The few intact areas stood like islands amid a sea of wreckage. Edo Castle resembled a beehive after a monster has shaken and mauled it to steal the honey. Up and down the hill, laborers swarmed, cleaning up timbers, plaster, and roof tiles from fallen buildings. The cold air rang with their shouts, the din from their shovels and hammers, and the rattle of the oxcarts that carried the debris downhill. Dust hazed a wintry blue sky darkened by smoke that rose from bonfires as Edo’s million people—the majority now homeless—tried to keep warm.
Accompanied by troops, officials, and secretaries, Sano inspected the palace. His chief bodyguard, Detective Marume, walked ahead of him, clearing a path through crowds of porters hauling planks. Sano strode through gardens once beautifully landscaped, now awash in mud and manure, while men sawed boards, mixed plaster, and lugged supplies. Much of the huge complex had collapsed during the earthquake. Although the wreckage had been cleared away, new framework for only one section—the shogun’s private chambers—had been erected. Other sections were nothing but bare foundations. Sections that hadn’t collapsed leaned precariously.
“When can you finish?” Sano asked the chief architect.
“I wish I knew.” One of thousands of samurai officials in the bakufu—Japan’s military government—the architect had the grimy, haggard appearance of them all, including Sano. They’d been working day and night to rebuild the castle and the city and help the survivors of the earthquake. “We haven’t enough skilled carpenters, or building materials, or food for the workers. Can you get us some more?”
“I’ll try.” Sano was in charge of the rebuilding and disaster relief. People came to him for everything. “But I can’t make any promises. The other carpenters are busy fixing the bridges.” Most of the bridges that spanned Edo’s rivers and canals were down; movement through the city was severely limited. “I’ve ordered building materials from the provinces, but they’ll be slow getting here because the bridges along the highways are down. Food shipments are delayed, too.” Would that they arrived before a famine started! Much of Edo’s food supply had been destroyed by the fires, and what remained was quickly dwindling.
A clerk carrying a scroll hurried up to Sano. “Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, here is an urgent communication.”
Sano unfurled the scroll and read it. His spirits sank lower. “The death toll in Edo is now at three thousand,” he said to Marume.
Every new count was higher than the last. This was the worst disaster Sano had ever seen. He still couldn’t believe it had happened.
Sano continued reading. “There’s more bad news. The treasury is already seriously depleted by earthquake relief and repairs.” The Tokugawa regime, which had endured for a century, was nearing insolvency.
Marume didn’t answer. Once Sano could have counted on him to make humorous remarks that lightened the direst occasions. But Marume’s partner, Fukida, was among the casualties, killed when the barracks at Sano’s estate collapsed. Sano thought back to that terrible night, when he’d led the search for victims in the ruins of Edo Castle. He remembered Marume sobbing over Fukida’s broken body. The two men had been like brothers. Marume seemed a ghost of himself. His eyes were darkly shadowed. He never smiled anymore.
Sano felt guilty that his own wife and children were alive and well, when Marume and so many others had suffered such grievous losses. And he missed Detective Fukida, who’d been one of his favorite, most trusted retainers. Although he customarily had two bodyguards, Sano hadn’t assigned Marume a new partner. He didn’t have the heart. Now he felt a wave of exhaustion so powerful that he swayed. He hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in a month. Closing his eyes, he took a moment’s nap on his feet. He couldn’t keep up this pace for much longer.
He was forty-six years old, and he felt like a hundred.
Edo had risen from disasters in the past, most notably the Great Fire almost five decades ago. Would Edo rise again? If only Sano could pull it up from the ruins with the strength of his own hands and will!
Another messenger came running toward Sano. “Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, His Excellency the Shogun wants to see you, right now!”
* * *
THE SHOGUN’S TEMPORARY quarters were in a minimally damaged guesthouse. A few cracks in its plaster façade had been patched, a few broken roof tiles replaced. Pine trees and a stone wall screened it from the disorder everywhere else in the castle. Sano entered the small reception room, which was stifling hot from the lanterns and charcoal braziers that surrounded the two men seated on the dais. Both men were bundled in quilts up to the chin. The shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, wore a silk scarf around his head under the cylindrical black cap that proclaimed his rank. An angry pink spot on each withered cheek brightened the pallor of his weak, pouting face.
“I’ve been waiting for, ahh, more than an hour,” he said as Sano knelt on the tatami floor and bowed. Intolerant of disruption under the best circumstances, the shogun had been thoroughly unhinged by the earthquake. He viewed it as a personal affront, and he had more complaints every time Sano saw him. “Why does it always take so long for you to be fetched?”
He hadn’t seen the devastation created by the earthquake, or how much work there was to do, because he never left his quarters. He vaguely knew that many of his subjects had died and many more had lost their homes, but all he really cared about was his own convenience. A mere month after the disaster, he thought everything should snap back to normal and everyone be restored to his beck and call.
“My apologies, Your Excellency,” Sano said. A samurai must serve his lord respectfully and unstintingly, no matter how thin his patience was stretched. That was Bushido, the warrior code of honor that Sano lived by. He turned to the other man on the dais, the shogun’s nephew. “Greetings, Honorable Lord Ienobu.”
“Greetings,” Ienobu said, his voice a tight rasp that sounded squeezed out of his stunted, humpbacked body. He had an abnormally small lower jaw, which made his upper teeth protrude. At age forty-two he looked a decade older. Rumor said he had a hereditary, degenerative bone condition that caused him chronic pain. No one knew for sure except his physician, a blind acupuncturist. No one spoke openly about his condition because he was a Tokugawa clan member—the only son of the shogun’s deceased older brother Tsunashige—albeit one of dubious status.
His father’s birth and death had been shrouded in mystery. His mother had been a chambermaid, who’d borne Ienobu when his father was quite young. His parentage was kept secret lest it jeopardize his father’s betrothal to a noblewoman. Ienobu had been brought up by a family retainer and given the retainer’s surname. Not until Ienobu was eight years old, and his father’s noble wife died, was he recognized as Tsunashige’s son and heir and a true member of the Tokugawa ruling clan. Not until this past year had Ienobu emerged from his luxurious villa to renew his slight childhood acquaintance with the shogun, who was sixteen years his senior.
The shogun said to Ienobu, “Chamberlain Sano leaves me here all by myself. But at least I have you, Nephew.”
“Yes.” Ienobu smiled; his lips stretched around his protruding teeth. “I’m glad to help you through this difficult time.”
Sano thought Ienobu had taken advantage of the earthquake to get close to the shogun. With all the court officials busy at work, there was less competition for the shogun’s favor than usual. And Sano doubted it was a coincidence that Ienobu had appeared on the scene ten months ago, after the shogun’s then-favorite male lover, Yoritomo, had died suddenly. That was when Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu—father of Yoritomo, former chamberlain, and long-standing chief advisor to the shogun—had relinquished his control over the government and gone into seclusion. Sano wondered what Yanagisawa, his longtime enemy, was doing, but felt thankful not to have to worry about him. Yanagisawa’s absence had left a political vacuum that Ienobu had filled. Sano suspected that Ienobu had designs on the succession. Ienobu’s pedigree made him a logical candidate to become the next dictator, since the shogun had failed to produce a direct blood heir.
But today Sano didn’t have time for speculation about Ienobu. “What can I do for you, Your Excellency?” he said, hoping to get it out of the way fast.
“You can answer a question,” the shogun said. “Where is everybody?”
It was the question that everyone had been hoping the shogun wouldn’t ask. “Whom do you mean, Your Excellency?” Sano said, buying himself time to think how to defuse a dangerous situation.
“My usual attendants and servants,” the shogun said. “They’ve been, ahh, very scarce lately. Some of my boys are missing, too.” An enthusiastic practitioner of manly love, he had numerous young male concubines. “And I don’t recall seeing some of my, ahh, most important officials in a while. I’m aware that their offices in the palace were damaged and they have to, ahh, work from wherever they’re living, but I should think they would come and see me every so often. Where have they gone?”
No one wanted to tell the shogun how many casualties his regime had sustained during the earthquake. Soon after it, he’d greeted the news of each death with attacks of hysteria that made him so ill, everyone feared he would die. The Council of Elders, Japan’s chief governing body, had ordered that he wasn’t to be apprised of any more deaths. He’d calmed down and been satisfied to believe that the people he missed were simply busy elsewhere.
Ienobu hunched forward. He reminded Sano of a vulture. Sano gave up on deception, partly because he didn’t like lying, partly because he was tired of cosseting the shogun. “They’re dead, Your Excellency.”
A strange look came over the shogun’s face, a mixture of horror and chagrin. Sano saw that he’d known all along but hoped it wasn’t true. “How many people in the government died?” the shogun asked in a small voice.
“Three hundred and fifty-one, so far,” Sano said. “Some are still unaccounted for.” He recited the names of dead ministers, functionaries, and army officers, onetime pillars of the regime.
“Merciful Buddha,” the shogun whispered, his complexion ashen. “This is a terrible, terrible blow for me!” Stress and fatigue undermined Sano’s tendency to hope for compassion from the shogun. He’d expected the shogun to care less about the deaths than their consequences for him. “Who is running my government?”
“The rest of us who are still alive,” Sano said, thinking, with no help from you. He quashed that thought as unbecoming to himself as well as disrespectful to his lord. “There’s no need to worry, Your Excellency.”
“But the government has been reduced to a skeleton,” Ienobu said.
Panic filled the shogun’s eyes. “Who is protecting me? How many troops did I lose?”
“Over a thousand,” Sano said, “but your army is still huge.”
“The army is spread very thin,” Ienobu said, “trying to maintain order in the city.”
Sano narrowed his eyes at Ienobu. Was Ienobu deliberately trying to frighten the shogun so that he would become even more dependent on his nephew?
“Is the castle fixed yet?” the shogun asked.
“Unfortunately, no,” Sano said.
“The castle wasn’t built in a day. It can’t be rebuilt in a day.” Ienobu’s soothing manner didn’t soften the truth of his words.
Maybe Ienobu was trying to tip the shogun into his grave. Sano was so tired he could barely think straight.
“I’m so afraid!” The shogun cowered. “What if I should be attacked?”
“Nobody is going to attack you,” Sano said, although an insurrection was a possibility that the government feared. “Nobody knows exactly how vulnerable you are. The number of deaths within the regime is being kept secret.”
Even as the shogun looked relieved, he lamented, “The court astronomer just told me that the cosmos is displeased about something. He read it in the constellations. He says they say the earthquake was sent as a message.” His eyes were round and shiny with terror. “There will be more trouble, I just know it!” He toppled onto the dais, writhed in his quilt like a silkworm in its cocoon, and groaned. “I’m so miserable, I feel a sick spell coming on!”
Astrology was serious business. A dictator must look to the stars for explanations for natural disasters and other calamities. He must heed their warnings, which were interpreted by his astronomer, that his regime was out of harmony with the cosmos. Sano knew this and felt alarmed himself, but his patience snapped like a stretched rope frayed down to its last thread. After fifteen years of listening to the shogun whine, of catering to him, of enduring insults and death threats, the shogun’s reaction was too much. After seeing the devastation wrought by the earthquake, after toiling to pick up the pieces, Sano felt ready to explode. He opened his mouth to tell the shogun to stop acting like a baby and take responsibility for leading his country through this crisis.
The shogun pointed a shaky finger at Sano and cried, “You always bring me bad news! I’m sick of bad news! Go and fetch me some that’s good!”
“You’d better go.” Ienobu was watching Sano with interest, as if he could read Sano’s thoughts. “Why not take a tour of inspection around the city?”
“Yes!” The shogun latched onto the idea with frantic zeal. “Begin at once!”
Sano came to his senses. The heat of his anger faded into cold realization of what he’d almost done—cast aside honor, offended the shogun beyond reparation, and doomed himself, his family, and all his close associates to death. Shaken by his close call, Sano went.
Copyright © 2012 by Laura Joh Rowland
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rowlands' stories are always engrossing, and this one is no exception, especially if you enjoy reading about this time period.
Practices two of his favorite moves. Then he sits and sharpens his teeth and claws to needle-sharp points. He pads off to take a nap before the games begin.
"The Incense Game" is one of the best and most realistic historical mystery novels I've ever read. Here’s my numerical review: 16-15-1. It’s a lottery number you’ll win by. Sixteenth Century mystery. Treacherous politics. History. Culture. An earthquake bringing the city down upon them. Number 15 in Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mystery franchise. One of the best and most realistic historical mystery novels I’ve ever read, educating me in a world I knew nothing about. If you’ve never read a historical mystery, this is the one you should read
Pre order book not recieved as yet. I have read all Laura Joh Rowland and I enjoyed them all
Although I have not read this book yet going by prvious books by this author I enjoyed the mystery and the settings.