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  The Assassin's Touch by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
"This series has staying power and offers hours of reading enjoyment."
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Edo, Genroku Period, Year 8, Month 4 (Tokyo, May 1695)


Cover: The Assassin's Touch by Laura Joh Rowland A 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 the finish.

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.

Chapter One

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 been caught?”

“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 gone underground.”

“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 all.”

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 them.”

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 power.

“Really?” the shogun said. “When did he take office?”

“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 before.”

“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 faces. “Why?”

“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 them.

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, Sano supposed.

“ 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 lord.”

“ 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 service.”

“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 getting restless.”

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.


©Laura Joh Rowland, 2005
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
ISBN 0-312-31900-2

"The compelling story line, evocative detail and suspense
should engage newcomers and satisfy longtime fans alike.
At a point when many series show signs of wear,
Rowland's characters remain fresh."
— Publishers Weekly on THE ASSASSIN'S TOUCH


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