from THE ASSASSIN'S TOUCH
Edo, Genroku Period, Year 8, Month 4 (Tokyo,
gunshot boomed within Edo Castle and echoed across the city
that spread below the hilltop.
On the racetrack inside the castle, five horses bolted from
the starting line. Samurai riders, clad in metal helmets and
armor tunics, crouched low in the saddles. They flailed their
galloping mounts with riding crops; their shouts demanded more
speed. The horses’ hooves thundered up a storm of dust.
Around the long oval track, in wooden stands built in tiers
and shaded from the sun by striped canopies, officials urged
on the riders. Soldiers patrolling atop the stone walls of
the compound and stationed in watchtowers above it waved
and cheered. The horses galloped neck and neck until they
reached the first curve, then crowded together as the riders
jockeyed for position along the track’s inside edge.
The riders struck out at their opponents’ mounts and
bodies; their crops smacked horseflesh and rang loud against
armor. Fighting for the lead, they yelled threats and insults
at one another. Horses whinnied, colliding. As they rounded
the curve, a rider on a bay stallion edged ahead of the pack.
The sensations of power and speed thrilled him. His heartbeat
accelerated in rhythm with his horse’s pounding hooves.
The din resounded in his helmet. Through its visor he saw
the spectators flick by him, their waving hands, colorful
robes, and avid faces a blur in the wind. He whooped as reckless
daring exhilarated his spirits. This new horse was well worth
the gold he’d paid for it. He would win back its price
when he collected on his bets, and show everyone who the
best rider in the capital was.
Hurtling along the track, he drew a length in front of the
rest. When he looked over his shoulder, two riders charged
up to him, one on each side. They leaned forward and lashed
their whips at him. The blows glanced off his armor. One
rider grabbed his reins and the other seized his tunic in
an attempt to slow him down. Ruthless in his need to win,
he banged his crop against their helmets. They dropped behind.
The audience roared. The leader howled with glee as he veered
around the curve. The pack rampaged after him, but he coaxed
his horse faster. He increased his lead while racing toward
In his mind there suddenly arose an image of a horseman gaining
on him, monstrous in size, black as night. Startled, he glanced
backward, but all he saw was the familiar horses and riders
laboring through the dust in his wake. He dug in his heels,
flailed his whip. His horse put on a burst of speed that
stretched the gap between him and the pack. Ahead, some hundred
paces distant, loomed the finish line. Two samurai officials
waited there, holding red flags, ready to signal the winner.
But now the monstrous horseman grew larger in his perception,
storming so close that he could feel its shadow lapping at
him. He felt a sharp, fierce pain behind his right eye, as
though a knife had stabbed into his skull. A cry burst from
him. The pain began to pulse, driving the blade deeper and
deeper, harder and faster. He moaned in agony and confusion.
What was happening to him?
The sunlight brightened to an intensity that seared his eyes.
The track, the men at the finish line, and the spectators dissolved
into a blinding shimmer, as if the world had caught fire. His
heart beat a loud, frantic counterpoint to the pulses of pain.
External sounds melted into dim drones. A tingling sensation
spread through his arms and legs. He couldn’t feel the
horse under him. His head seemed disconnected from his body,
which seemed very far away. Now he knew something was dreadfully
wrong. He tried to call for help, but only incoherent croaks
emerged from his mouth.
Yet he felt no fear. Emotion and thought fled him like leaves
scattering in the wind. His hands weakened; their grip on the
reins loosened. His body was a numb, dead weight that sagged
in the saddle. The brilliant, shimmering light contracted to
a dot as the black horseman overtook him and darkness encroached
on his vision.
The dot of light winked out. The world disappeared into black
silence. Consciousness died.
As he crossed the finish line, he tumbled from his mount,
into the path of the oncoming horses and riders.
Above the racetrack, past forested slopes carved by stone walled
passages that encircled and ascended the hill, a compound stood
isolated from the estates that housed the top officials of
the Tokugawa regime. High walls topped with metal spikes protected
the compound whose tiled roofs rose amid pine trees. Samurai
officials, wearing formal silk robes and the two swords, shaved
crowns, and topknots of their class, queued up outside. Guards
escorted them in the double gate, through the courtyard, into
the mansion that rambled in a labyrinth of wings connected
by covered corridors. They gathered in an anteroom, waiting
to see Chamberlain Sano Ichiro, the shogun’s second in
command and chief administrator of the bakufu, the military
government that ruled Japan. They passed the time with political
gossip, their voices a constant, rising buzz. In nearby rooms
whirled a storm of activity: The chamberlain’s aides
conferred; clerks recorded business transacted by the regime,
collated and filed reports; messengers rushed about.
Closeted in his private inner office, Chamberlain Sano sat
with General Isogai, supreme commander of the army, who’d
come to brief him on military affairs. Around them, colored
maps of Japan hung on walls made of thick wooden panels that
muted the noise outside. Shelves and fireproof iron chests
held ledgers. The open window gave a view of the garden, where
sand raked in parallel lines around mossy boulders shone brilliant
white in the afternoon sun.
“There’s good news and bad news,” General
Isogai said. He was a bulbous man with a squat head that appeared
to sprout directly from his shoulders. His eyes glinted with
intelligence and joviality. He spoke in a loud voice accustomed
to shouting orders. "The good news is that things have
quieted down since six months ago.”
Six months ago, the capital had been embroiled in political
strife. “We can be thankful that order has been restored
and civil war prevented,” Sano said, recalling how troops
from two opposing factions had clashed in a bloody battle outside
Edo and three hundred forty six soldiers had died.
"We can thank the gods that Lord Matsudaira is in power,
and Yanagisawa is out," General Isogai added.
Lord Matsudaira— a cousin of the shogun—and
the former chamberlain Yanagisawa had vied fiercely for domination
of the regime. Their power struggle had divided the bakufu,
until Lord Matsudaira had managed to win more allies, defeat
the opposition's army, and oust Yanagisawa. Now Lord Matsudaira
controlled the shogun, and thus the dictatorship.
The bad news is that the trouble’s not over,” General
Isogai continued. “There have been more unfortunate
incidents. Two of my soldiers were ambushed and murdered
on the highway, and four others while patrolling in town.
And yesterday, the army garrison at Hodogaya was bombed.
Four soldiers were killed, eight wounded.”
Sano frowned in consternation. “Have the persons responsible
“Not yet,” General Isogai said, his expression
surly. “But of course we know who they are.”
After Yanagisawa had been ousted, scores of soldiers from
his army had managed to escape capture even though Lord Matsudaira
strenuously hunted them. Edo, a city of countless houses, shops,
temples and shrines, home to a million people, afforded many
secret hiding places for the fugitive outlaws. Determined to
avenge their master’s defeat, they were waging war upon
Lord Matsudaira in the form of covert acts of violence. Thus,
Yanagisawa still cast a shadow even though he now lived in
exile on Hachijo Island in the middle of the ocean.
“I’ve heard reports of fighting between the army
and the outlaws in the provinces,” Sano said. The outlaws
were fomenting rebellion in areas where the Tokugawa had less
military presence. “Have you figured out who’s
leading the attacks?”
“I’ve interrogated the fugitives we’ve captured
and gotten a few names,” General Isogai said. “They’re
all senior officers from Yanagisawa’s army who’ve
“Could they be taking orders from above ground?”
“From inside the bakufu, you mean?” General Isogai
shrugged. “Perhaps. Even though Lord Matsudaira has gotten
rid of most of the opposition, he can’t eliminate it
Lord Matsudaira had purged many officials because they'd supported
his rival. The banishments, demotions, and executions would
probably continue for some time. But remnants of the Yanagisawa
faction still populated the government. These were men too
powerful and entrenched for Lord Matsudaira to dislodge. They
comprised a small but growing challenge to him.
“We’ll crush the rebels eventually,” General
Isogai said. “Let’s just hope that a foreign army
doesn’t invade Japan while we’re busy coping with
Their meeting finished, Sano and General Isogai rose and exchanged
bows. “Keep me informed,” Sano said.
The general contemplated Sano a moment. "These times
have been disastrous for some people," he remarked, "but
beneficial for others." His sly, knowing smile nudged
Sano. "Had Yanagisawa and Lord Matsudaira never fought,
a certain onetime detective would never have risen to heights
far above expectation . . . isn't that right, Honorable Chamberlain?"
He emphasized the syllables of Sano's title, conferred six
months ago as a result of a murder investigation that had
contributed to Yanagisawa's downfall. Once the shogun's sosakan
sama—Most Honorable Investigator of Events,
Situations, and People—Sano had been chosen
to replace Yanagisawa.
General Isogai chuckled. “I never thought I’d
be reporting to a former ronin.” Before Sano had joined
the government, he’d been a masterless samurai, living
on the fringes of society, eking out a living as a tutor
and martial arts instructor. “I had a bet with some
of my officers that you wouldn’t last a month.”
“Many thanks for your vote of confidence,” Sano
said with a wry smile as he recalled how he’d struggled
to learn how the government operated, to keep its huge, arcane
bureaucracy running smoothly, and establish good relations
with subordinates who resented his promotion over them.
As soon as General Isogai had departed, the whirlwind outside
Sano’s office burst through the door. Aides descended
upon him, clamoring for his attention: “Here are the
latest reports on tax revenues!” “Here are your
memoranda to be signed!” “The Judicial Councilors
are next in line to see you!”
The aides stacked documents in a mountain on the desk. They
unfurled scrolls before Sano. As he scanned the papers and
stamped them with his signature seal, he gave orders. Such
had been his daily routine since he’d become chamberlain.
He read and listened to countless reports in an attempt to
keep up with everything that was happening in the nation. He
had one meeting after another. His life had become an unceasing
rush. He reflected that the Tokugawa regime, which had been
founded by the steel of the sword, now ran on paper and talk.
He regretted the habit he'd established when he'd taken up
his new post.
In his zeal to take charge, he'd wanted to meet everyone,
and hear all news and problems unfiltered by people who might
hide the truth from him. He'd wanted to make decisions himself,
rather than trust them to the two hundred men who comprised
his staff. Because he didn't want to end up ignorant and manipulated,
Sano had opened his door to hordes of officials. But he’d
soon realized he'd gone too far. Minor issues, and people anxious
to curry his favor, consumed too much of his attention. He
often felt as though he was frantically treading water, in
constant danger of drowning. He’d made many mistakes
and stepped on many toes.
Regardless of his difficulties, Sano took pride in his accomplishments.
He’d kept the Tokugawa regime afloat despite his lack
of experience. He’d attained the pinnacle of a samurai’s
career, the greatest honor. Yet he often felt imprisoned in
his office. His warrior spirit often grew restless; he didn’t
even have time for martial arts practice. Sitting, talking,
and shuffling paper while his sword rusted was no job for a
samurai. Sano couldn’t help yearning for his days as
a detective, the intellectual challenge of solving crimes,
and the thrill of hunting criminals. He wished to use his new
power to do good, yet there seemed not much chance of that.
An Edo Castle messenger hovered near Sano. “Excuse me,
Honorable Chamberlain,” he said, “but the shogun
wants to see you in the palace right now.”
On top of everything else, Sano was at the shogun’s
command day and night. His most important duty was keeping
his lord happy. He couldn’t refuse a summons no matter
how frivolous the reason usually turned out to be.
As he exited his chamber, his two retainers, Marume and Fukida,
accompanied him. Both had belonged to his detective corps
when he was sosakan sama; now they served him as bodyguards
and assistants. They hastened through the anteroom, where
the officials waiting to see Sano fretted around him, begging
for a moment of his attention. Sano made his apologies and
mentally tore himself away from all the work he had to do,
while Marume and Fukida hustled him out the door.
Inside the palace, Sano and his escorts walked up the long
audience chamber, past the guards stationed against the walls.
The shogun sat on the dais at the far end. He wore the cylindrical
black cap of his rank, and a luxurious silk brocade robe
whose green and gold hues harmonized with the landscape mural
behind him. Lord Matsudaira knelt in the position of honor,
below the shogun on his right. Sano knelt in his own customary
position at the shogun’s left; his men knelt near him.
As they bowed to their superiors, Sano thought how similar
the two cousins were in appearance, yet how different.
They both had the aristocratic Tokugawa features, but while
the shogun’s were withered and meek, Lord Matsudaira’s
were fleshed out by robust health and bold spirits. They were
both fifty years of age and near the same height, but the shogun
seemed much older and smaller due to his huddled posture. Lord
Matsudaira, who outweighed his cousin, sat proudly erect. Although
he wore robes in subdued colors, he dominated the room.
“I’ve requested this meeting to announce some
bad news,” Lord Matsudaira said. He maintained a cursory
charade that his cousin held the power, and pretended to defer
to him, but fooled no one except the shogun. Even though he
now controlled the government, he still danced attendance on
his cousin because if he didn't, other men would, and he could
lose his influence over the shogun to them. “Ejima Senzaemon
has just died.”
Sano experienced surprise and dismay. The shogun’s face
took on a queasy, confused expression. “Who did you say?” His
voice wavered with his constant fear of seeming stupid.
“Ejima Senzaemon,” repeated Lord Matsudaira.
“Ahh.” The shogun wrinkled his forehead, more
baffled than enlightened. “Do I know him?”
“Of course you do,” Lord Matsudaira said, barely
hiding his impatience at his cousin’s slow wits. Sano
could almost hear him thinking that he, not Tokugawa Tsunayoshi,
should have been born to rule the regime.
“Ejima was chief of the metsuke,” Sano murmured
helpfully. The metsuke was the intelligence service that employed
spies to gather information all over Japan, for the purpose
of monitoring troublemakers and guarding the regime’s
“Really?” the shogun said. “When did he
“About six months ago,” Sano said. Ejima had been
appointed by Lord Matsudaira, who’d purged his predecessor,
an ally of Chamberlain Yanagisawa.
The shogun heaved a tired sigh. "There are so many new
people in the, ahh, government these days. I can't keep them
straight." Annoyance pinched his features. "It would
be much easier for me if the same men would stay in the same
posts. I don't know why they can't."
Nobody offered an explanation. The shogun didn't know about
the war between Lord Matsudaira and Chamberlain Yanagisawa,
or Lord Matsudaira's victory and the ensuing purge, because
no one had told him, and since he rarely left the palace, he
saw little of what went on around him. He knew Yanagisawa had
been exiled, but he wasn't clear as to why. Neither Lord Matsudaira
nor Yanagisawa had wanted him to know that they aspired to
control the regime, lest he should put them to death for treason.
And now Lord Matsudaira wanted the shogun kept ignorant of
the fact that he'd seized power and virtually ruled Japan.
No one dared disobey his orders against telling the shogun.
A conspiracy of silence pervaded Edo Castle.
“How did Ejima die?” Sano asked Lord Matsudaira.
“He fell off his horse during a race at the Edo Castle
track,” Lord Matsudaira said.
“Dear me,” the shogun said. “Horse racing
is such a dangerous sport, perhaps it should be, ahh, prohibited.”
“I recall hearing that Ejima was a particularly reckless
rider,” Sano said, “and he’d been in accidents
“I don’t believe this was an accident,” Lord
Matsudaira said, his tone sharp. “I suspect foul play.”
“Oh?” Sano saw his surprise mirrored on his men’s
“This isn’t the only recent, sudden death of a
high official,” Lord Matsudaira said. “First there
was Ono Shinnosuke, the supervisor of court ceremony, on New
Year’s Day. In the spring, Sasamura Tomoya, highway commissioner,
died. And just last month, Treasury Minister Moriwaki.”
But Ono and Sasamura died in their sleep, at home in bed,” Sano
said. “The treasury minister fell in the bathtub and
hit his head. Their deaths seem unrelated to Ejima’s.”
Don’t you see a pattern?” Lord Matsudaira’s
manner was ominous with insinuation.
They were all, ahh, new to their posts, weren’t they?” the
shogun piped up timidly. He had the air of a child playing
a guessing game, hoping he had the right answer. “And
they died soon after taking office?”
Precisely,” Lord Matsudaira said with surprise that
the shogun remembered the men, let alone knew anything about
They were all Lord Matsudaira’s trusted cronies, installed
after the coup, Sano could have added, but didn’t.
These deaths may not have been as natural as they appeared,” said
Lord Matsudaira. “They may be part of a plot to undermine
the regime by eliminating key officials.”
Lord Matsudaira’s enemies inside and outside the bakufu were
constantly scheming his downfall, but Sano didn’t
know whether to think Lord Matsudaira was right about a conspiracy
to weaken the regime- within a regime that he’d
established or if he was imagining threats. During the past
six months, Sano had watched him change from a confident
leader of a major Tokugawa branch clan to a nervous, distrustful
man insecure in his new position. Frequent sabotage and violent
attacks against his army by Yanagisawa’s outlaws fed
his insecurity. Stolen power could be stolen from the thief,
A plot against the regime?” Always susceptible to warnings
about danger, the shogun gasped. He looked around as though
he, not Lord Matsudaira, were under attack. “You must
do something!” he exclaimed to his cousin.
Indeed I will,” Lord Matsudaira said. “Chamberlain
Sano, I order you to investigate the deaths.” Although
Sano was second in command to the shogun, he answered to
Lord Matsudaira, as did everyone else in the government.
In his haste to protect himself, Lord Matsudaira forgot to
manipulate the shogun into giving the order. “Should
they prove to be murders, you will identify and apprehend
the killer before he can strike again.”
A thrill of glad excitement coursed through Sano. Even if
the deaths turned out to be natural or accidental, here was
a welcome reprieve from paperwork. “As you wish, my
Not so fast,” the shogun said, narrowing his eyes in
displeasure because Lord Matsudaira had bypassed his authority. “I
seem to recall that Sano-san isn’t a detective anymore.
Investigating crimes is no longer his job. You can’t
ask him to, ahh, dirty his hands investigating those deaths.”
Lord Matsudaira hastened to correct his mistake: “Sano-san is obliged to do whatever you wish, regardless of his position.
And you wish him to protect your interests, don’t you?”
Obstinacy set the shogun’s weak jaw. “But Chamberlain
Sano is too busy.”
“I don’t mind the extra work, Your Excellency.” Now
that Sano had his opportunity for action, he wasn’t going
to give it up. His spiritual energy soared at the prospect
of a quest for truth and justice, which were fundamental to
his personal code of honor. “I’m eager to be of
“Many thanks,” the shogun said with a peevish
glare at Lord Matsudaira as well as Sano, “but helping
me run the country requires all your attention.”
Now Sano remembered the million tasks that awaited him. He
couldn’t leave his office for long and risk losing his
tenuous control over the nation’s affairs. “Perhaps
His Excellency is right,” he reluctantly conceded. “Perhaps
this investigation is a matter for the police. They are ordinarily
responsible for solving cases of mysterious death.”
“A good idea,” the shogun said, then asked Lord
Matsudaira with belligerent scorn, “Why didn’t
you think of the police? Call them in.”
“No. I must strongly advise you against involving the
police,” Lord Matsudaira said with adamant haste.
Sano wondered why. Police Commissioner Hoshina was close to
Lord Matsudaira, and Sano would have expected Lord Matsudaira
to give Hoshina charge of the investigation. Something must
have gone wrong between them, and too recently for the news
to have spread.
Chamberlain Sano is the only man who can be trusted to get
to the bottom of this matter,” Lord Matsudaira declared.
Sano understood why he thought so. During the faction war
Sano had remained neutral, resisting much pressure to take
sides with Yanagisawa or Lord Matsudaira, but afterward he’d
loyally served Lord Matsudaira in the interest of restoring
peace. And long before the trouble started, he’d earned
himself a reputation for independence of mind and pursuing
the truth even to his own detriment.
“Unless the murderer is caught, the regime’s officials
will be killed off until there are none left,” Lord Matsudaira
said to the shogun. “You’ll be all alone.” He
spoke in a menacing voice: “And you wouldn’t like
that, would you?”
The shogun shrank on the dais. “Oh, no, indeed.” He
cast a horrified glance around him, as though he envisioned
his companions disappearing before his eyes.
If Lord Matsudaira allowed attacks on his regime, he would
lose face as well as power, and Sano knew that was worse than
death for a proud man like him. “Then you must order
Chamberlain Sano to drop everything, investigate the murders,
and save you,” Lord Matsudaira said.
“Yes. You’re right.” The shogun’s
resistance wilted. “Sano-san, do whatever my cousin suggests.”
“A wise decision, Your Excellency,” Lord Matsudaira
said. A hint of a smile touched his mouth, expressing contempt
for the shogun and pride at how easily he’d brought him
to heel. He told Sano, “I’ve sent men to secure
the racetrack and guard the corpse. They have orders that no
one leaves or enters until after you’ve examined the
scene. But you’d better go at once. The crowd will be
Sano and his men bowed in farewell. As they left the room,
Sano’s step was light, no matter what calamities might
strike during his absence from the helm of the government.
Never mind how much work would accumulate while he looked into
Chief Ejima’s death; he felt like a prisoner released
from jail. Here was his chance to do more good, via his investigation,
and apply all the might and resources of his new position to
the cause of truth and justice.
Excerpt from THE
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2005
Published by St.