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Laura Joh Rowland

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Excerpt from The Cloud Pavilion


Cover: The Cloud Pavilion by Laura Joh Rowland Edo, Genroku Year 14, Month 5
(Tokyo, June 1701)

The pain pierced like knives into her breast and jarred her out of black unconsciousness. A gray blur swirled across her vision, as if she were looking up at a sky filled with wind blown mist and clouds. Through dizzying nausea flashed pure, visceral terror.

Where was she? How had she come to be here?

A touch grazed her thigh. She gasped as fingers caressed her. The clouds had hands! Hands that were warm, and damp with the mist. As they stroked her hips and groin, she became aware of movement around her, of human flesh pressing on hers. The clouds inhaled and exhaled quick, hoarse gasps. There was a man with her. He and she floated together, suspended in the clouds, somewhere far above the earth. Her terror worsened.

Who was he?

She couldn't see him through the clouds, but she smelled the foul stench of his sweat; she sensed his lust. She knew what his caresses on the most intimate parts of her body portended.

She called for help, but the clouds absorbed and dissipated the sound. She tried to push the man away, but her arms, her legs, her muscles and bones, seemed disconnected from her will. She couldn't feel them, or any part of herself, except where the man's hands touched. Her heart was a disembodied pulse that thudded with panic.

Black waves of sleep welled up around her. Although she craved merciful oblivion, instinct compelled her to fight for her life. The blackness permeated the clouds, drawing her into its depths. She struggled to retain consciousness.

A new stab of pain, in her other breast, revived her again. The shape of the man, clothed in mist, spread above her eyes. He lowered his weight upon her. The clouds swayed under them, buoyed them while he gasped louder and faster. She felt an awful, tearing thrust between her legs. Thunder reverberated.

His face suddenly protruded through the swirling clouds. They stretched like a tight, opaque skin across his features. Two holes that appeared cut in the mist revealed his eyes, which glittered with desire and cruelty. Beneath them opened another hole, his mouth. The lips were red and swollen and moist; sharp teeth glistened with saliva. She smelled the hot, noxious rush of his breath.

She screamed.

For only an instant did she glimpse him. The clouds veiled her eyes as he took her. His every move within her was agony, flesh sawing flesh. The waves of sleep rose up and drenched her in a black fountain, obliterating his shape from view, the sensations from her awareness. The thunder crashed, distant and faint now. She heard the clatter of rain falling.

Then she plunged into a dark, silent void.

Chapter 1

Conch trumpets blared a battle cry. War drums boomed. On the opposite banks of a small lake stood two generals clad in leather armor and metal helmets. They waved their war fans and shouted the command.


Two armies of mounted troops plunged into the lake and charged. Chamberlain Sano Ichiro rode at the forefront of his yelling, whooping comrades. Water splashed his armor as his horse galloped toward the onrushing enemy legion. He and his army drew their swords while their mounts swam into the deep middle of the lake. The opposition met them, swords waving, lances aimed. On shore the generals barked orders to stay in ranks, but in the lake it was utter chaos.

Soldiers hacked wildly at one another with their swords and lances. The noise of wooden weapons battering armor and metal deafened Sano. As he fought, he sat in his saddle waist deep in water that was filthy with mud and manure. His army's mounts buffeted his horse, rammed his legs. Sano thanked the gods for iron shin guards. He swatted his opponent, knocking the man off his mount. A rider armed with a lance charged at Sano. Sano whacked the lance with his sword. Unbalanced, the rider toppled into the lake. Cheers and applause resounded.

The audience was crowded in stands alongside the artificial lake and leaning out of windows in the covered corridors that topped the walls which enclosed the Edo Castle martial arts practice grounds. Spectators laughed as they egged on the armies, enjoying the tournament.

But Sano and everyone else who competed in them knew that these tournaments were almost as dangerous as real battles. Somebody always got hurt. Sometimes players were killed. Audiences enjoyed that the best. It was the most exciting part of the game.

The lake grew crowded with men who'd fallen in. They frantically swam, trying to avoid being kicked or crushed by the horses. Fighters howled in genuine pain from the blows dealt by the blunt yet heavy wooden weapons. Sano took a whack on his shoulder and knew he'd have a big bruise tomorrow. As he parried his opponent's strikes, he thought that perhaps, at his age of forty-three years, he was too old for tournaments. But it was his duty to participate for as long as he could.

"Stop!" cried a shrill, reedy voice.

The battle suddenly halted. Men reined in their horses and froze as if turned to stone. Sano sat with his sword crossed against his opponent's. In the lake, men treaded water. Blades hovered, suspended in the act of striking.

"Hold that pose!" the shogun called from inside a pavilion that stood on a rise near one end of the lake.

Thunder grumbled, and a drizzly rain began to fall from the misty gray summer sky, but nobody dared move.

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the supreme dictator of Japan, knelt at a table spread with paper, ink stones, and jars that held brushes and water. He wore a smock over his silk robes, and the cylindrical black cap of his rank. He squinted at the battle scene, then sketched rapidly with his brush. An admirer of all forms of art, he dabbled in painting, and equestrian scenes were among his favorite subjects. Sano had seen his work and thought it not bad, certainly better than his leadership over Japan.

"That's enough," the shogun called. "Continue!"

The battle resumed with increased gusto. Soldiers swung, blades whacked, more riders fell. Sano fought with less care for martial arts technique than determination to avoid a ludicrous accidental death. He had to admit that tournaments were rather fun, in addition to serving purposes even more important than entertaining his lord.

Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa regime, was a city populated by more than a million people, some hundred thousand of them samurai. That equaled too many armed men with not enough to do during a peacetime that had lasted almost a century with only minor interruptions. There hadn't been a battle since Lord Matsudaira had defeated his rival, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, seven years ago. A conflict had then flared up between Lord Matsudaira and Sano, but had ended with Lord Matsudaira's ritual suicide last spring. Now the troops were restless.

Tournaments not only occupied the samurai class and offered it a chance to improve martial arts skills that had declined. They burned off energy that would otherwise be applied to brawling, starting insurrections, and generally causing trouble.

A bell clanged, signaling the battle's end, not a moment too soon for Sano. He and his army rode, swam, and trudged to one side of the lake while the enemy forces retreated to the other. The judge counted the men who hadn't fallen in the water, then announced, "Team Number One is the winner."

The men on Sano's side cheered, as did the audience. The opposition looked disgruntled. Sano urged his horse up the bank, then jumped out of the saddle. He slipped on the mud and would have fallen, but a strong hand gripped his arm. He turned to see who'd caught him. It was a tall samurai in a black armor tunic with red lacings. The samurai took off his helmet. Sano beheld the handsome face of Yanagisawa, his onetime foe.

"Many thanks," Sano said.

"It was my pleasure," Yanagisawa said.

He and Sano had a long, bitter history. Yanagisawa had been chamberlain when Sano had entered the shogun's service twelve years ago. Yanagisawa had once viewed Sano as a rival, had schemed to destroy him. A murder investigation on which they'd been forced to collaborate had resulted in a truce, and later his conflict with Lord Matsudaira had taken Yanagisawa's attention off Sano. Lord Matsudaira had capped his victory by exiling Yanagisawa to Hachijo Island. But Yanagisawa had escaped and sneaked back to Edo, where he'd operated behind the scenes, stealing allies from Sano and Lord Matsudaira, pitting them against each other, and engineering Lord Matsudaira's downfall. Last spring Sano had forced Yanagisawa out of hiding. Yanagisawa had made a triumphant comeback that coincided with Lord Matsudaira's suicide.

With Lord Matsudaira dead, the game was once again between Sano and Yanagisawa. They'd done unforgivable things to each other, and Sano had expected Yanagisawa to renew his attacks with a vengeance. Sano had braced himself for the fight of his life.

It hadn't come.

Now Yanagisawa smiled in the same friendly fashion with which he'd treated Sano since a few days after he'd made his reappearance on the political scene. He smoothed his hair, which had grown back since he'd shaved his head to disguise himself as a priest while in hiding. It was too short to tie in the customary samurai topknot, but thick and glossy and black even though he and Sano were the same age and Sano's hair had begun turning gray.

"You fought a good battle," Yanagisawa said.

Sano listened for nuances of hostility in Yanagisawa's tone but heard none. "So did you."

Yanagisawa laughed. "We slaughtered those poor bastards."

Not once had he lifted a hand to harm Sano. For over a year he and Sano had coexisted in a peace that Sano hadn't thought possible. Not that Sano minded a reprieve from feuding and assassination attempts, but their pleasant camaraderie felt all wrong, like the sun shining at midnight.

He and Yanagisawa took their places at the head of their rowdy, cheering army. The judge said to them, "Your team wins the top prize for equestrian combat in water--a barrel of the best sake for each man. I commend your excellent coaching."

"Isn't it a good thing we're on the same side now?" Yanagisawa said to Sano.

"Indeed," Sano said with feigned enthusiasm.

Yanagisawa was up to something. Sano knew.

So did everybody else. Sano had overheard their colleagues in the government speculating about what Yanagisawa had in store for him and taking bets as to when Yanagisawa would make his first move.

The shogun came hurrying up to them. He was thin, frail, and looked a decade older than his fifty five years. A servant held an umbrella over his head, protecting him from the drizzle. "Ahh, Sano-san, Yanagisawa-san!" he exclaimed. Delight animated his weak, aristocratic features. "Congratulations on your, ahh, victory!"

Sano and Yanagisawa bowed and made modest disclaimers. Yanagisawa didn't try to hog the credit or make Sano look bad, as he would have in the past. Sano didn't trust this radical change in behavior.

"You make such a good team," the shogun said. "I think I, ahh, made the right decision when I appointed both of you as my chamberlains."

They shared the post of chamberlain and second in command to the shogun. That honor, which had first belonged solely to Yanagisawa, had passed to Sano when Yanagisawa had been exiled. When Yanagisawa returned, he'd expected to regain the post, and Sano had been ready to fight to keep it. But the shogun, always loath to exercise his judgment, had been unable to choose which one of them he preferred and made the unprecedented move of splitting the job between two men.

Two men whose antagonism could wreak havoc in the government and tear Japan apart.

Some said it was the most foolish decision ever made by this dictator not known for wisdom. Nobody thought the partnership between Sano and Yanagisawa would last a day without a blowup. But it had defied the odds.

Sano had expected Yanagisawa to oppose everything he did, to undermine his standing with the shogun, to try to turn every powerful man inside and outside the regime against him and run him out of office. But Yanagisawa had cooperated fully and to all appearance, gladly with Sano. Together they'd overseen the huge, complicated machine of the bakufu--Japan's military government--with smooth, startling efficiency.

Yanagisawa lifted his eyebrow at Sano. "Imagine all the good we could have accomplished years ago if we'd been working together."

Instead of you trying to kill me and me trying to fend you off, Sano thought. "Two heads are better than one," he said out loud.

"Yes, yes," the shogun agreed happily.

Because he hated and feared conflict, he was glad to see his two dearest friends getting along so well. He didn't know they'd ever been enemies or had once vied for control of his regime, which was tantamount to treason. He was astoundingly oblivious to what went on around him, and Sano and Yanagisawa enforced a conspiracy of silence to keep the shogun ignorant.

Often Sano suspected the shogun knew the truth perfectly well, but acknowledging it would require him to take action for which he hadn't the stomach.

"Well, the fun's over," Yanagisawa said. "It's back to business for us, Honorable Chamberlain Sano."

"Yes, Honorable Chamberlain Yanagisawa," Sano said.

Although his former enemy's words were spoken with no trace of a threat, Sano searched them for hidden meanings. He knew the game between him and Yanagisawa was still on, and he was at a serious disadvantage.

Sano's spies hadn't managed to dig up a single clue as to what Yanagisawa was plotting. To all appearances, Yanagisawa had decided that it was better to join forces with Sano instead of risking his neck again. Yanagisawa had reportedly told his allies among the top officials and the daimyo--feudal lords who governed Japan's provinces--that he wasn't interested in fighting Sano anymore. And he'd not tried to recruit Sano's allies to his side.

Yanagisawa had changed the rules of the game, but Sano didn't know what they were. He felt like a blind samurai heading into battle. He could only wait, a sitting target.

The audience departed; the armies dispersed. Waterlogged troops trudged off to drink, celebrate, commiserate, or bathe. Grooms took charge of the horses. The shogun climbed into his palanquin, and his bearers carried him toward the palace. Yanagisawa looked past Sano and said, "I believe there's someone who would like your attention."

Sano turned. He saw, some thirty paces away, an elderly samurai waiting alone beside the stands, watching him. Recognition jolted Sano. Into his heart crept a cold sensation of dread.

Chapter 2

Sano stood perfectly still as the samurai walked across the martial arts ground toward him. Everyone else receded to the edges of his awareness. Sano felt as if he and the samurai were alone on the muddy, trampled field. He suppressed an irrational urge to draw his sword. Its blade was wooden, and this encounter wasn't a duel.

Then again, perhaps it was.

The samurai stopped a few paces from Sano. He was in his sixties, his physique lean but strong, his shoulders held squarely rigid. He wore a metal helmet, and a leather armor tunic with the Tokugawa triple hollyhock leaf crest embossed on its breastplate over silk robe and trousers striped in dark gray and black. An insignia on his helmet showed that he held the rank of major in the army. His forehead was severely creased, as if from too much frowning. Harsh lines bracketed his tight mouth.

"Good day," he said, bowing. "Please permit me to introduce myself." His deep voice had a faint quaver of old age and an oddly familiar ring. "I am Kumazawa Hiroyuki."

"I know," Sano said.

He'd never met Major Kumazawa face to face; they'd never spoken. But he'd observed the man from a distance and knew everything about him that the official government records, and Sano's own spies, could tell. In Sano's desk was a dossier on the entire Kumazawa clan. Sano had compiled it after a murder investigation that had revealed secret facts about his own background.

His parents had led him to believe that his mother came from humble peasant stock. Not until last spring, when she'd been accused of a crime hidden in her past, had Sano learned the truth: Her kin were high ranking Tokugawa vassals. They'd disowned her because of a mistake she'd made when she was a girl, and she'd never seen them again.

Now Sano felt a flame of anger heat his blood. Major Kumazawa was the head of the clan that had treated Sano's mother so cruelly. Sano said, "Do you know who I am?"

Major Kumazawa didn't pretend to misunderstand, didn't give the obvious answer that everybody knew the famous Chamberlain Sano. "Yes. You are the son of my younger sister Etsuko." He spoke as if the words tasted bad. "That makes you my nephew."

It was just as Sano had suspected: Although he had long been ignorant of his connection with the Kumazawa, they had been aware that their blood ran in his veins. They must have kept track of his mother and her son through the years; they must have followed his career.

The flame of Sano's anger grew. The Kumazawa had spied on him and never deigned to seek his acquaintance. That casting off his mother and refusing to recognize her offspring was what any high society family would have done under the circumstances did not appease Sano. He was insulted that his uncle should treat him with such disdain. He also experienced other emotions he hadn't expected.

Since learning about his new relatives, he had intended to get in touch with them, but kept putting it off. He was busy running the government and advising the shogun; he didn't have time. Or so he'd told himself. But he'd entertained secret fantasies about summoning his uncle to his mansion and impressing him with how well he had done without any help from their clan. The fantasies shamed Sano; he knew they were childish. Now, here he was, face to face with his uncle, soaked with water polluted by horse dung. He felt less like the shogun's second in command than an outcast.

"I don't suppose you approached me in order to inquire about my mother," he said in his coldest, most formal tone.

"No," Major Kumazawa said, equally cold. "But I will ask. How is she?"

"Quite well." No thanks to you, Sano thought. "She was widowed eleven years ago, when my father died." My father was the ronin--the lowly masterless samurai--that your family forced her to marry, to get her off your hands. "But she remarried last fall." To the man with whom she had an illicit affair, the results of which caused your clan to disown her. "She and her new husband are living in Yamato."

The murder investigation had reunited Sano's mother with the onetime monk she'd fallen in love with as a girl. Loving him still, she'd happily given up her home and her old life in Edo to join him in the village where he'd settled.

"So I've heard," said Major Kumazawa. "Of course, I'm not responsible for what became of your mother."

Sano was glad she'd found happiness after years of disgrace and misery inflicted by her relatives, but she'd left him with unfinished business. "Not directly responsible, perhaps."

Major Kumazawa frowned, deepening the wrinkles in his forehead, at Sano's bitter tone. "My father disowned Etsuko. When he died and I became head of the clan, I merely honored his wishes. Were you in my position, you'd have no choice but to do the same."

Sano didn't think he'd have been so unyielding for the sake of mere convention. He knew it was unreasonable for him to be disturbed about something that had happened so long ago, which his mother had forgiven. Yet he felt that a personal injury had been done to him by Major Kumazawa. He had the strange sensation that they'd met before, although he knew they had not.

"So you upheld your family's ban on contact with my mother, which extended to me," Sano said. "Why break it now?"

Major Kumazawa spoke reluctantly, as if fighting an internal struggle against tradition and duty. "Because I need a favor."

"Ah," Sano said. "I should have guessed." Since he'd become chamberlain, thousands of people had lined up outside his door to ask for favors. Sano regarded his uncle with disgust.

"Do you think I like crawling to you, the son of my disgraced sister?" Major Kumazawa said, angry himself now. "Do you think I want to ask you for anything?"

"Obviously not," Sano retorted, "so I'll spare you the grief."

He turned and started to walk away toward the gate in the stone wall that enclosed the martial arts ground. Beyond the gate lay the shogun's palace, the official quarter, and Sano's own spacious compound--the rarefied world in which he'd earned a place. He wasn't even curious about what his uncle wanted. It had to be money, a promotion, or a job for a friend or relative. It always was.

"Wait. Don't go," Major Kumazawa called.

The anger had disappeared from his voice, which now resonated with such pleading that Sano halted. "I can understand why you don't like me or want to help me," Major Kumazawa said. "But the favor I need isn't for my benefit. It's for someone who had nothing to do with what happened to your mother, who's never done wrong to you or anybody else. Someone who is in serious danger."

That got Sano's attention. His conscience and his honor wouldn't let him walk away from an innocent person in danger. Facing his uncle, he said, "Who is it?"

The sternness of Major Kumazawa's expression had hardened, as though he were trying to keep his emotions at bay. "It's my daughter."

Sano knew that Major Kumazawa had three daughters and two sons--Sano's cousins. All of whom Sano had never seen.

"Her name is Chiyo," Major Kumazawa said. "She's my youngest child."

"What about her?" Sano recalled her name from the dossier. She was thirty three years old, the wife of a captain in the army of a rich, powerful daimyo. She'd married very late, at age twenty seven. Informants had told Sano that she was her father's favorite and Major Kumazawa had delayed her marriage to keep her at home while he found her the best possible husband.

"She's missing," Major Kumazawa said.

Sano remembered that terrible winter when his own son had been kidnapped and he and his wife Reiko had suffered the pain of not knowing what had happened to their beloved child while fearing the worst. His resistance toward his uncle began to crumble. He

"I know Chiyo is none of your concern, but please hear me out," Major Kumazawa said with the gruffness of a man unaccustomed to begging.

"All right." Sano had to listen; he owed his uncle that if nothing else.

"Chiyo disappeared the day before yesterday. She had gone to the Awashima Shrine." Obviously relieved that Sano had given him another chance, yet hating his role as a supplicant, Major Kumazawa explained, "She gave birth to a child last month. A boy." It was the custom for mothers to take their new babies to shrines to be blessed. "She went with her attendants. There was a big crowd at the shrine. One moment Chiyo was there, and the next . . . "

Major Kumazawa held up his palms. "Gone." Anguish showed through his rigid expression.

Whenever Sano thought of the night his son Masahiro had disappeared--during a party at a temple--he shivered. "What happened to the baby?"

"He was found lying outside the shrine. Thank the gods he's safe," said Major Kumazawa. "Chiyo's guards couldn't find her. They went home and told her husband what had happened. He told me. We both gathered all the troops we could and sent them out to search for Chiyo. They're still out looking, but there's been not a sign of her. It's as if she just vanished into the air."

Sano knew that his uncle commanded a Tokugawa garrison outside Edo, and Chiyo's husband must have many men serving under him, but the city was too big for them to cover thoroughly. "Did you report Chiyo's disappearance to the police?"

"Of course. I went to their headquarters. They took my report and said they would keep an eye out for her." Major Kumazawa expelled his breath in a disdainful huff. "They said that was all they could do."

The police had their hands full keeping order in the city, Sano knew. They couldn't drop everything to search for one woman, even if her father was a Tokugawa army officer. A major didn't rate high enough.

"Could Chiyo have run away on her own?" Sano asked.

"That's impossible. She wouldn't have left her children and husband without so much as an explanation."

"I suppose you've considered the possibility that Chiyo was kidnapped," Sano said.

"What else could I think?" Worry about his daughter showed through Major Kumazawa's sarcasm. "People don't just drop off the face of the earth."

"Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt Chiyo?"

"Nobody. She's a good, decent, harmless girl."

"Do you have any enemies?" Sano asked.

"Every man with some standing in the world has enemies," Major Kumazawa said. "You of all people should know that. I talked to a few men who have grudges against me, but they insisted that they had nothing to do with Chiyo's disappearance. I think they're telling the truth. They treated me as if I'd gone insane," he added morosely.

"There's been no ransom letter?"

"No letter," Major Kumazawa said. "I'm at my wits' end. You have a reputation as a great detective. That's why I've come to you--to ask you to find my daughter."

Sano could not refuse, for reasons almost as important as saving a woman in peril. His son, Masahiro, wasn't the only member of his family who'd been kidnapped. So had his wife, seven years ago. She'd barely escaped death. Had Sano not managed to rescue her, he would have lost his wife and Masahiro his mother. Sano couldn't withhold his help from another family facing a similar disastrous situation.

"You don't owe me anything," Major Kumazawa said. "You're bitter about the past. But don't hold it against Chiyo. She wasn't even born when my parents disowned your mother. She had no say in the matter of our clan keeping ourselves apart from you. For her sake, not mine, please help me. Do you want me to beg? I will. I'll do anything to save my daughter!"

Major Kumazawa dropped heavily to his knees, as if the tendons behind them had been slashed. Alone on the muddy field, he looked like a general who'd lost a battle and must commit suicide rather than live with the disgrace. He took off his helmet. The damp wind ruffled gray hair that had escaped from his topknot. For once he seemed human, vulnerable. He gazed up at Sano, his eyes fierce with entreaty and humiliation.

Sano had once imagined forcing his uncle to kneel to him, subjugating the man who'd maintained his mother's banishment from her family. But now he felt no satisfaction. He had too much sympathy for Major Kumazawa's plight.

"Very well," Sano said. "I'm at your service."

He had wanted a chance to know his new clan, and here it was. Perhaps he could even reunite his mother with her family, which he knew she'd always longed for.

Major Kumazawa bowed his head. "A thousand thanks." His tone held less relief than resentment, as if he'd done Sano a favor. Although Sano understood that his uncle had lost face, a painful blow to a proud samurai, he was offended at being treated with such a lack of respect or appreciation. Then again, what else could he have expected?

"Don't thank me yet," Sano said. There was no guarantee that he would find Chiyo alive. She'd been gone two days, long enough for the worst to happen. "I'm not making any promises."


©Laura Joh Rowland, 2009
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

"The compelling story line, evocative detail and suspense
should engage newcomers and satisfy longtime fans alike."
— Publishers Weekly on THE ASSASSIN'S TOUCH


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