Japan, 1704. In an elegant mansion a young woman named Tsuruhime lies on her deathbed, attended by her nurse. Smallpox pustules cover her face. Incense burns, to banish the evil spirits of disease. After Tsuruhime takes her last breath, the old woman watching from the doorway says, "Who's going to tell the Shogun his daughter is dead?"
The death of the Shogun's daughter has immediate consequences on his regime. There will be no grandchild to leave the kingdom. Faced with his own mortality and beset by troubles caused by the recent earthquake, he names as his heir Yoshisato, the seventeen-year-old son he only recently discovered was his. Until five months ago, Yoshisato was raised as the illegitimate son of Yanagisawa, the shogun's favorite advisor. Yanagisawa is also the longtime enemy of Sano Ichiro.
Sano doubts that Yoshisato is really the Shogun's son, believing it's more likely a power-play by Yanagisawa. When Sano learns that Tsuruhime's death may have been a murder, he sets off on a dangerous investigation that leads to more death and destruction as he struggles to keep his pregnant wife, Reiko, and his son safe. Instead, he and his family become the accused. And this time, they may not survive the day.
Laura Joh Rowland's thrilling series set in Feudal Japan is as gripping and entertaining as ever.
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LAURA JOH ROWLAND is the author of sixteen previous novels in her acclaimed series of thrillers set in feudal Japan; two of them have been named among the Best Mysteries of the Year by Publishers Weekly, while a third was declared one of the five best historical mystery novels by The Wall Street Journal. The Incense Game won the RT Book Reviews Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
FIVE MONTHS AFTER the earthquake struck Edo, the castle was a giant construction site on its hill above the city. New stone-faced retaining walls braced the ascending tiers of leveled ground. Guard towers atop walls climbed skyward as masons repaired them. Buildings within the compounds on every tier wore grids of bamboo scaffolding in which workers swarmed. Animated by human activity, the castle seemed to move within the scaffolding, like a creature struggling to emerge from a cocoon. All across the sunlit city below rang the noise of saws and hammers—the birth cries of a city rising from the ruins at a furious, reckless pace.
Chamberlain Sano Ichiro led a procession of samurai officials toward the palace, at the heart of the castle, on its highest tier. Brown ceramic tile fresh from the kiln gleamed atop new, interconnected structures whose half-timbered walls wore a coat of dazzling white plaster. New saplings replaced trees uprooted during the earthquake or burned by the fires that came afterward. New white gravel covered the paths upon which Sano and his colleagues walked through the din from construction in other parts of the castle. The air scintillated with sawdust motes that settled on the men’s black silk ceremonial robes emblazoned with gold family crests, on their shaved crowns and oiled topknots, on the two swords at each waist.
Ohgami Kaoru, member of the Council of Elders that constituted Japan’s chief governing body, walked up beside Sano. “What’s the reason for this emergency assembly?”
He’d aged fast since the earthquake, as had almost everyone else Sano knew. Sad wrinkles in his once youthful face matched the premature whiteness of his hair.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” The earthquake effect hadn’t spared Sano, either. At age forty-six he felt twice as old. Every morning when he looked in the mirror, he saw more gray streaks in his black hair, and his shaved crown had a silvery glint. He’d worked night and day, for five months, to rebuild the city and the wide outlying areas devastated by the earthquake.
“The shogun’s second-in-command is as much in the dark as everybody else?” Ohgami said. “That’s a bad sign.”
The procession marched up the steps to the palace, past the sentries, and into the reception room. The sweet smells of fresh wood and tatami graced the air. A new mural adorned the wall behind the dais—purple irises blooming along a blue-and-silver river on a gilded background. More soldiers than usual lined the walls. General Isogai, commander of the Tokugawa army, stood by the dais. His physique was still stoutly muscled, his head bulbous on his thick neck, but his complexion was too red.
As men knelt in positions according to rank, murmurs arose. “Why all the extra troops? Is the shogun expecting violence to break out?” “It might, if this is about another round of promotions and demotions.” “These are strange times. Even if you’ve performed admirably in your position for decades, you’re apt to be dismissed in favor of a nobody who can bring in supplies from the provinces or pay extra taxes into the government’s treasury.” “How much more of this upheaval can everyone take?”
The earthquake had made and broken more careers than Sano cared to tally. He seated himself on the raised section of floor immediately below the dais. Ohgami and the other four old men from the Council of Elders sat in a row to his right. General Isogai came over and ponderously lowered himself to his knees on Sano’s left. He wheezed and gripped his chest. The air filled with body heat and the odor of sweat. Sano’s nerves vibrated with the tension that had built up in the atmosphere since the earthquake. Nonstop work had taxed his and his colleagues’ endurance, had depleted their physical and mental reserves. He didn’t know how much more they all could take, either.
The door behind the dais opened. Murmurs subsided as the shogun emerged. The shogun looked a decade older than his fifty-eight years, although Sano knew he’d done not a lick of work for the earthquake recovery. Frail shoulders stooped under his gold satin robes. The cylindrical black cap of his rank sat on a balding head with hardly enough hair to form a knot. The skin on his aristocratic face was like a crumpled, yellowish paper. He leaned on Sano’s twelve-year-old son, Masahiro.
Masahiro settled the shogun on cushions on the dais, then knelt behind him. He wore his hair in a long forelock tied with a ribbon, in the style of samurai who haven’t yet reached manhood at age fifteen. Tall and slender, strong from rigorous martial arts practice, he had intelligent eyes set in a mature, handsome face. Whenever Sano looked at his son, he ached with pride. Masahiro served as head of the shogun’s private chambers, a post he’d won by proving himself capable after older, more qualified palace attendants had been killed by the earthquake.
The assembly bowed to the shogun. He raised his hand in a perfunctory greeting, then spoke. “We have had some, ahh, dark days since the earthquake. It was the worst natural disaster of my reign.” A new tremor afflicted his reedy voice. “I hoped that changing the name of the era, from Genroku to Hoei, would help.” Whenever a run of misfortune plagued Japan, the Emperor would proclaim a new era, in a ritualistic attempt to usher in better times. “But alas, it didn’t. I’m afraid I have terrible news. My daughter, Tsuruhime, died of smallpox last night.”
Sano and the other men in the room cast their gazes downward, troubled by the news of yet another death. More than a hundred thousand people had been crushed during the earthquake, burned in the fires, drowned in the tsunami, or succumbed to diseases afterward. Sano thought of Fukida, one of his favorite retainers, who had died. He felt lucky and guilty that his wife and two children were safe and well. He sensed caution in the air, like a veil of smoke.
No one here had personally known Tsuruhime; she’d lived in seclusion for her entire life. The officials were less concerned about her demise than about its effect on the shogun, whose whim commanded the power of life and death over everybody.
“It’s unnatural to outlive one’s child. How could it happen to me?” Anger lit a red blush spot in each of the shogun’s sallow cheeks. “It’s not fair!”
He’d apparently forgotten that many other parents had recently lost children during the disaster. Sano wasn’t surprised that the shogun was more concerned about his own feelings than about his daughter, who’d died at the young age of twenty-seven. The shogun was the most selfish person Sano had ever known.
“I’m just glad I, ahh, stayed away from Tsuruhime when she took ill. Or I might have contracted the smallpox, too!” The shogun looked horrified at the idea rather than sorry he hadn’t visited or said good-bye to her. “Her fate has made me more aware than ever of my own mortality. I, too, could be suddenly carried off by the evil spirit of death! And that is why…” He paused for suspenseful effect. “The time has come for me to, ahh, designate my successor.”
Coughs among the audience disguised exclamations of awe. For many years Tokugawa clan members had vied to manipulate the shogun into bequeathing the regime to them or their children. Officials had backed the contenders in the hope of favors later. So had the daimyo—feudal lords who governed Japan’s provinces. Now the speculation and competition were about to end. Dismay imploded within Sano.
He knew what was going to happen. He’d been fighting to prevent it, and he’d failed.
“For many years I put off naming a successor because I, ahh, didn’t have a son,” the shogun said. “I’ve been reluctant to adopt a relative as my heir.” That was the usual custom for men of position who lacked sons, but the shogun desperately wished to be succeeded by the fruit of his own loins. “I prayed I would father a male child. I hoped Tsuruhime would, ahh, produce a grandson who would at least be my direct descendant. Well, that hope is gone. Thank the gods I don’t need her anymore.”
The relief in his voice offended Sano, who dearly loved his own young daughter, Akiko, and couldn’t imagine valuing her solely as breeding stock.
“The gods have blessed me with a son, whose existence I was unaware of until recently. Now I present him to you as my official heir.” The shogun clapped his hands. “Behold Tokugawa Yoshisato, my newfound son, the next ruler of Japan!”
A door at the side of the dais opened. A young samurai walked out and mounted the dais. Silk robes in shades of copper and gold clothed his compact, wiry build. He knelt at the shogun’s right. His handsome face was wide with a rounded chin, his tilted eyes thoughtful and wary. The audience reacted to him with expressions that ranged from approval to caution to the horrified outrage that Sano felt.
General Isogai muttered, “If Yoshisato is really the shogun’s son, then whales can fly.”
It was common knowledge that the shogun preferred sex with men rather than women. That he’d sired a daughter was a miracle. Sano couldn’t believe the shogun was Yoshisato’s father by any stretch of imagination.
“Merciful gods,” Elder Ohgami whispered. “It’s really happening. The shogun is going to put a pretender at the head of the government!”
Yoshisato sat still and calm, with self-control impressive for a seventeen-year-old. Sano barely knew him but suspected he was smart enough to understand that although he had supporters who wanted him to inherit the regime, he also had many political enemies who would like to see him drop off the face of the earth, Sano and friends included.
Another man followed Yoshisato onto the dais. The shogun said, “And here is Yoshisato’s adoptive father—my good friend Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu.”
Yanagisawa was the only person Sano knew whose appearance had improved since the earthquake. The disaster had strengthened his tall, slender figure and enhanced his striking masculine beauty. His skin glowed with health; his dark, liquid eyes glistened.
Hatred boiled inside Sano as he watched Yanagisawa kneel at the shogun’s left. He and Yanagisawa had been enemies for fifteen years, since Sano had entered the shogun’s service. Yanagisawa, then chamberlain, had seen Sano as a rival. He’d done his best to destroy Sano, sabotaging his work, undermining his authority, criticizing him to the shogun. That was standard practice among officials jockeying for position, but Yanagisawa had also set assassins on Sano and attacked his family. While defending himself, his kin, and his honor, Sano had dealt Yanagisawa a few good blows. The rivalry between them was a constant cycle. One’s fortunes rose while the other’s fell. Now Yanagisawa smiled, with blatant triumph, straight at Sano.
Although Sano was currently chamberlain, the top dog in their feud, and Yanagisawa currently had no official position in the government, Yanagisawa was now the adoptive father of the shogun’s official heir. He’d just won his biggest advantage over Sano: influence with the next shogun, a foothold in the future. And Sano knew he’d done it by sheer, outrageous fraud.
“‘Adoptive father,’ my behind.” General Isogai’s face grew redder with anger.
“If he’s not Yoshisato’s real father, then I’m the emperor of China,” Ohgami whispered.
The shogun beamed, trapped between Yanagisawa and Yoshisato. Everyone in the audience turned to Sano. Hostility narrowed the eyes of the men who’d decided to believe Yoshisato was the shogun’s son and approved of his installation as heir. Sano felt hope pinned on him, like needles stuck in his skin, by his allies who didn’t believe or approve.
General Isogai whispered to Sano, “This is your last chance to prevent your worst enemy and his spawn from taking over Japan.”
“Give it your best shot,” Ohgami urged in a low, fervent voice.
Sano was leader of the effort to disqualify Yoshisato. His allies were either too afraid or prudent to touch the job themselves. Sano didn’t know whether his acceptance of it was more courageous or foolish, but he had to thwart Yanagisawa, or Yanagisawa would deprive him of his head as well as his place in the government. And it was his duty to protect his lord and the Tokugawa regime from Yanagisawa’s plot to gain permanent power. That was Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the samurai code of honor by which Sano lived.
Before Sano could speak, a man in the front row on the lower level of the floor reared up on his knees. He had a stunted figure and a hump on his back. It was Tokugawa Ienobu, son of the shogun’s deceased older brother.
“Uncle, please excuse me.” His tight voice seemed squeezed out of him. His upper teeth protruded above an abnormally small lower jaw. These deformities stemmed from a hereditary bone condition. “I must say this is the wrong time to designate your heir.”
Yanagisawa’s shoulders moved in a slight shrug: He’d expected an objection from Ienobu and he didn’t fear him. Caution veiled Yoshisato’s expression.
“I don’t excuse you,” the shogun snapped. “Why, pray tell, is this the wrong time?”
“You’ve just experienced the tragic loss of your daughter,” Ienobu said. “Your emotions are affecting your judgment.”
“His Excellency has realized the urgent importance of naming an heir,” Yanagisawa interjected in a smooth, reasonable voice. “His son is his rightful successor.”
“Why can’t you be happy for me that I have the heir I always wanted?” the shogun whined at Ienobu. “Why do you want to spoil my, ahh, pleasure?”
“That’s the last thing I want to do, Uncle,” Ienobu said, as desperate to avert the shogun’s wrath as he was to change his mind. “I just think you should consider the alternatives before you make such a serious decision about the future of the regime.”
The shogun frowned in confusion. “What alternatives?”
“Honorable Father, perhaps Lord Ienobu wants to be named as your successor himself.” Yoshisato spoke in a deferential tone while exposing his rival’s base motives.
“Is that true, Nephew?” the shogun demanded. He disliked ambitious men who openly wangled favors from him.
“Not at all, Uncle,” Ienobu hastened to say. But Sano knew Ienobu had worked hard to ingratiate himself with the shogun. Before Yoshisato had appeared on the scene, Ienobu had been the heir apparent. Ienobu’s eagerness to get rid of Yoshisato and regain his former standing was obvious to everyone except the shogun.
“It’s just that you learned about Yoshisato so recently … and the circumstances were so strange.” Ienobu balked at declaring that he thought Yoshisato wasn’t the shogun’s child.
Sano jumped into the fire, although challenging the shogun’s decision, even for his own good, meant walking a narrow path that bordered on treason. To impugn the shogun’s newfound heir equaled courting death.
“‘Strange’ is an understatement, Your Excellency.” Sano repeated the story Yanagisawa had told when he’d sprung Yoshisato on the shogun: “Eighteen years ago, the court astronomer reads a prophecy in the constellations: You will father a son, but unless he’s hidden away upon his birth, you’ll be killed by an earthquake that’s due to strike Edo in Genroku year sixteen.”
Ienobu cast a thankful glance at Sano and continued the tale: “The astronomer confides the prophecy to Yanagisawa. Yanagisawa gives orders that any pregnancies in the palace women’s quarters are to be reported to him and no one else. Soon thereafter, your concubine Lady Someko finds herself expecting your child. She tells Yanagisawa, who takes her into his home. Yoshisato is born.”
“Yanagisawa adopts and raises Yoshisato as his own child,” Sano went on. “He conceals Yoshisato’s real parentage. Five months ago, the eart...
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