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  The Dragon King's Palace by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
"Rowland brings the people and customs of ancient Japan to life."
— WritersWrite Reviewer on THE DRAGON KING'S PALACE

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Cover: The Dragon King's Palace by Laura Joh RowlandJapan, Tenwa Period, Year 2, Month 5 (June 1682)

Across dark water skimmed the boat, bound on a journey toward misadventure. Poles attached to the narrow, open wooden shell supported a red silk canopy; a round white lantern glowed from a hook above the stern. Beneath the canopy, a samurai sat, plying the oars. He wore cotton summer robes, his two swords at his waist. Though his topknot was gray and his face lined with age, his muscular body and deft movements retained the vigor of youth. Opposite him, on pillows that cushioned the bottom of the boat, a woman reclined, trailing her fingers in the water. The lantern illuminated her flowing black hair and skin as radiantly white and limpid as moonbeams. An aqua kimono patterned with pastel anemones adorned her slim figure. Her lovely face wore a dreamy, contented expression.

"The night is so beautiful," she murmured.

Lake Biwa, situated northwest of the imperial capital of Miyako, spread around them, still and shimmering as a vast black mirror. On the near shore, lights from the inns and docks of port villages formed a glittering crescent; darkness and distance obscured the farther boundaries of the lake. Many other pleasure boats dotted the water, their lanterns flickering. Fireworks exploded into rosettes of green, red, and white sparks that flared against the indigo sky and reflected in the water. Cries of admiration arose from people aboard the boats. A gentle breeze cooled the sultry summer eve and carried the scent of gunpowder. But the samurai gleaned no enjoyment from the scene. A terrible anguish tortured him as he beheld his wife.

"You are even more beautiful than the night," he said.

All during their marriage he'd taken for granted that her beauty belonged only to him, and that he alone possessed her love, despite the twenty years' difference in their ages. But recently he'd learned otherwise. Betrayal had shattered his illusions. Now, as his wife smiled at him, he could almost see the shadow of another man darkening and fouling the air between them. Rage enflamed the samurai.

"What a strange look is on your face," said his wife. "Is something wrong?"

"Quite the contrary." Tonight he would redress the evil done to him. He rowed harder, away from the other boats, away from the lights on shore.

His wife stirred and her expression turned uneasy. "Dearest, we're getting too far from land," she said, removing her hand from the water that streamed past the boat. "Shouldn't we go back?"

The samurai stilled the oars. The boat drifted in the vast darkness beyond the colorful bursts of the rockets. The explosions echoed across the water, but the cries were fainter, and the lights mere pinpoints. Stars glittered like cold jewels around a filigree gold moon.

"We aren't going back," he said.

Sitting upright, his wife gazed at him in confusion. He spoke quietly: "I know."

"What are you talking about?" But the sudden fear in her eyes said she understood exactly what he meant.

"I know about you and him," the samurai said, his voice harsh with grief as well as anger.

"There's nothing between us. It isn't what you think!" Breathless with her need to convince, his wife said, "I only talk to him because he's your friend."

But the man had been more than a friend to the samurai. How the double betrayal had injured his pride! Yet the worst of his anger focused on his wife, the irresistible temptress.

"You were doing more than just talking in the summer house, when you thought I was asleep," the samurai said.

She put a hand to her throat. "How--how did you find out?"

"You let him touch you and possess you," the samurai said, ignoring his wife's question. "You loved him the way you once loved me."

Always fearful of his temper, she cowered. Panic glazed her eyes, which darted as she sought a way to excuse herself. "It was only once," she faltered. "He took advantage of me. I made a mistake. He meant nothing to me." But her lies sounded shrill, desperate. Now she extended a hand to her husband. "It's you I love. I beg your forgiveness."

Her posture turned seductive; her lips curved in an enticing smile. That she thought she could pacify him so easily turned the samurai's anger to white-hot fury.

"You'll pay for betraying me!" he shouted. He lunged toward his wife and scooped her up in his arms. As she emitted a sound of bewildered surprise, he flung her overboard.

She fell sideways into the lake with a splash that drenched the boat. Her long hair and pale garments billowed around her, and she flailed her arms in a frantic attempt to keep from sinking in the deep, black water. "Please!" she cried, sobbing in terror. "I'm sorry! I repent! Save me!"

A lust for revenge prevailed over the love that the samurai still felt for his wife. He ignored her and took up the oars. She grabbed the railings of the boat, and he beat her hands with the wooden paddles until she yelped in pain and let go. He rowed away from her.

"Help!" she screamed. "I'm drowning. Help!"

Rockets boomed, louder than her cries and splashes; no one came to her rescue. While the samurai rowed farther out onto the lake, he watched his wife grow smaller and her struggles weaken, heard her gasps fade. She was a water lily cut loose and dying on a pond. She deserved her misfortune. Triumph exhilarated the samurai. His wife's head sank below the surface, and diminishing ripples radiated toward the circle of light cast by his boat's lantern. Then there was silence.

The samurai let the oars rest. As the boat slowed to a stop, his triumph waned. Grief and guilt stabbed his heart. His beloved wife was gone forever, dead by his own actions. A friendship he'd cherished must end. Sobs welled from the void of despair that burgeoned within the samurai. He didn't fear punishment, because his wife's death would seem an accident, and even if anyone guessed otherwise, the law would excuse an important man of the ruling warrior class. But remorse and honor demanded atonement. And to live was unbearable.

With trembling hands, the samurai drew his short sword. Its steel blade gleamed in the lantern light and reflected his tormented face. He gathered his courage, whispered a prayer, and shut his eyes tight. Then he slashed the sword downward across his throat.

A final explosion of fireworks painted the sky with giant, sparkling colored flowers and wisps of smoke. The flotilla of pleasure craft moved toward shore, and a hush settled over Lake Biwa. The samurai's tiny lone boat drifted in the glow of its lantern until the flame burned out, then vanished into the night.

Chapter 1

Edo, Genroku Period, Year 7, Month 5 (Tokyo, June 1694)

The great metropolis of Edo sweltered in summer. An aquamarine sky reflected in canals swollen from rains that deluged the city almost daily. The multicolored sails of pleasure craft billowed amid the ferries and barges on the Sumida River. Along the boulevards, and in temple gardens, children flew kites shaped like birds. In the Nihonbashi merchant district, the open windows, doors, and skylights of houses and shops welcomed elusive breezes; perspiring townspeople thronged marketplaces bountiful with produce. A miasma of fever rose from alleys that reeked of sewage; pungent incense smoke combated buzzing mosquitoes. Roads leading out of town were crowded with religious pilgrims marching toward distant shrines and rich folk bound for summer villas in the cooler climate of the hills. The sun blazed down upon the peaked tile roofs of Edo Castle, but trees shaded the private quarters of Lady Keisho-in, mother of the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Japan's supreme military dictator. There, on a veranda, three ladies gathered.

"I wonder why Lady Keisho-in summoned us," said Reiko, wife of the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. She looked over the railing and watched her little son Masahiro play in the garden. He ran laughing over grasses verdant from the rains, around a pond covered by green scum, past flowerbeds and shrubs lush with blossoms.

"Whatever she wants, I hope it doesn't take long," said Midori. She was a former lady-in-waiting to Keisho-in and a close friend of Reiko. Six months ago Midori had married Sano's chief retainer. Now she clasped her hands across a belly so rotund with pregnancy that Reiko suspected Midori and Hirata had conceived the child long before their wedding. "This heat is too much for me. I can't wait to go home and lie down."

Midori's young, pretty face was bloated; her swollen legs and feet could hardly bear her weight. She tugged at the cloth bound tight around her stomach beneath her mauve kimono to keep the child small and ensure an easy delivery. "This thing didn't work. I've grown so huge, my baby must be a giant," she lamented. She waddled into a shady corner of the veranda and sat awkwardly.

Reiko pushed away strands of hair that had escaped her upswept coiffure and clung to her damp forehead. Perspiring in her sea-blue silk kimono, she wished she, too, could go home. She shared her husband Sano's work, aiding him with his inquiries into crimes, and at any moment there might arise a new case, which she wouldn't want to miss. But Lady Keisho-in had commanded Reiko's presence. She couldn't refuse the mother of her husband's lord, though her eagerness to leave stemmed from a reason more serious than a desire for exciting detective work.

The wife of Chamberlain Yanagisawa--the shogun's powerful second-in-command--stood apart from Reiko and Midori. Lady Yanagisawa was quiet, dour, some ten years older than Reiko's own age of twenty-four, and always dressed in dark, somber colors as if to avoid drawing attention to her total lack of beauty. She had a long, flat face with narrow eyes, wide nose, and broad lips, and a flat, bow-legged figure. Now she sidled over to Reiko.

"I am so thankful I was invited here and given the chance to see you," Lady Yanagisawa said in her soft, gruff voice.

Her gaze flitted over Reiko with yearning intensity. Reiko stifled the shudder of revulsion that Lady Yanagisawa always provoked. The woman was a shy recluse who seldom ventured into society, and she'd had no friends until last winter, when she and Reiko had met. Lady Yanagisawa had attached herself to Reiko with an eagerness that attested to her lonely life and craving for companionship. Since then, Lady Yanagisawa had visited Reiko, or invited her to call, almost daily; when their family responsibilities or Reiko's work for Sano precluded meetings, Lady Yanagisawa sent letters. Her devotion alarmed Reiko, as did her unwelcome confidences.

"Yesterday I watched my husband writing in his office," Lady Yanagisawa said. She'd told Reiko about how she spied on the chamberlain. "His calligraphy is so elegant. His face looked so beautiful as he bent over the page."

Ardor flushed her pale cheeks. "When he passed me in the corridor, his sleeve brushed mine . . . " Lady Yanagisawa caressed her arm, as though savoring the contact. "He looked at me for an instant. His gaze lit a fire in me . . . my heart beat fast. Then he walked on and left me alone." She exhaled with regret.

Embarrassment filled Reiko. She'd once been curious about her friend's marriage, but now she'd learned more than she liked. She knew that Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who had risen to power via an ongoing sexual affair with the shogun, preferred men to women and cared nothing for his wife. Lady Yanagisawa passionately loved him, and though he ignored her, she never gave up hope that someday he would return her love.

"Last night I watched my husband in his bedchamber with Police Commissioner Hoshina," Lady Yanagisawa said. Hoshina, current paramour of the chamberlain, lived at his estate. "His body is so strong and masculine and beautiful." Her blush deepened; desire hushed her tone. "How I wish he would make love to me."

Reiko inwardly squirmed, but couldn't evade Lady Yanagisawa's confessions. The chamberlain and Sano had a history of strife, and although they'd enjoyed a truce for almost three years, any offense against the chamberlain or his kin might provoke Yanagisawa to resume his attacks on Sano. Hence, Reiko must endure the friendship of Lady Yanagisawa, despite strong reason to end it.

Lady Yanagisawa suddenly called, "No, no, Kikuko-chan."

In the garden Reiko saw her friend's nine-year-old daughter Kikuko pulling up lilies and throwing them at Masahiro. Beautiful but feebleminded, Kikuko was the other object of her mother's devotion. A chill passed through Reiko as she watched the children gather the broken flowers. She knew how much Lady Yanagisawa envied her beauty, loving husband, and bright, normal child, and wished her misfortune even while courting her affection. Last winter Lady Yanagisawa had arranged an "accident" that had involved Kikuko and almost killed Masahiro. Ever since, Reiko had never left him alone with Lady Yanagisawa nor Kikuko, and employed Sano's detectives to guard him when she was away from home. She always wore a dagger under her sleeve during visits with Lady Yanagisawa; she never ate or drank then, lest her friend try to poison her. Extra guards protected her when she slept or went out. Such vigilance was exhausting, but Reiko dared not withdraw from the woman, lest she provoke violent retaliation. Would that she could keep away from Lady Yanagisawa!

The door to the mansion opened, and out bustled Lady Keisho-in, a small, pudgy woman in her sixties, with hair dyed black, a round, wrinkled face, and teeth missing. She wore a short blue cotton dressing gown that exposed blue-veined legs. Maids followed, waving large paper fans at her to create a cooling breeze.

"Here you all are! Wonderful!" Keisho-in beamed at Reiko, Midori, and Lady Yanagisawa. They murmured polite greetings and bowed. "I've invited you here to tell you the marvelous idea I just had." She dimpled with gleeful excitement. "I am going to travel to Fuji-san." Her sweeping gesture indicated the peak of Mount Fuji. Revered as a home of the Shinto gods and a gateway to the Buddhist spirit world, the famous natural shrine hovered, snow-capped and ethereal, in the sky far beyond the city. "And you shall all come with me!"

Stunned silence greeted this announcement. Reiko saw her dismay expressed on the faces of Midori and Lady Yanagisawa. Keisho-in regarded them all with a suspicious frown. "Your enthusiasm overwhelms me." Displeasure harshened her crusty voice. "Don't you want to go?" The women rushed to speak at once, for Lady Keisho-in had great influence over the shogun, who punished anyone who displeased his mother. "Of course I do," Midori said. "Many thanks for asking me," said Reiko. Lady Yanagisawa said, "Your invitation does us an honor." Their insincere replies faded into more silence. Reiko said, "But religious custom bans women from Fuji-san."

"Oh, we needn't climb the mountain." Keisho-in waved a hand in airy dismissal. "We can stay in the foothills and bask in its magnificence."

"Maybe I shouldn't travel in my condition," Midori said timidly.

"Nonsense. The change will do you good. And we'll only be gone ten days or so. The baby will wait until you're home."

Midori's lips soundlessly formed the words, ten days, as Reiko watched her envision giving birth on the highway. Lady Yanagisawa gazed at Reiko. In her eyes dawned the amazement of someone who has just received an unexpected gift. Reiko perceived the woman's pleasure at the thought of constant togetherness during the trip, and her own heart sank. Then Lady Yanagisawa looked into the garden, where Kikuko and Masahiro played ball. Worry clouded her face.

"I can't leave Kikuko-chan," she said.

"You coddle that child too much," Lady Keisho-in said. "She must eventually learn to get along without her mama, and the sooner the better."

Lady Yanagisawa's hands gripped the veranda railing. "My husband . . . "

As Reiko guessed how much Lady Yanagisawa would miss spying on the chamberlain, Keisho-in spoke with tactless disregard for her feelings: "Your husband won't miss you."

"But we will encounter strange people and places during the trip." Lady Yanagisawa's voice trembled with fear born of her extreme shyness.

Keisho-in made an impatient, scornful sound. "The whole point of travel is to see things you can't see at home."

Midori and Lady Yanagisawa turned to Reiko, their expressions begging her to save them. Reiko didn't want to leave Masahiro; nor did she want to leave Sano and their detective work. She dreaded ten days of Lady Yanagisawa sticking to her like a leech, and the possibility that the woman would attack her. And Lady Keisho-in posed another threat. The shogun's mother had a greedy sexual appetite that she indulged with women as well as men. Once, Keisho-in had made amorous advances toward Reiko, who had barely managed to deflect them without bringing the shogun's wrath down upon herself and Sano, and lived in fear of another such experience. Yet Reiko dared voice none of these selfish objections. Her only hope of thwarting the trip to was to appeal to Keisho-in's interests.

"I would love to accompany you," Reiko said, "but His Excellency the Shogun may need me to help my husband conduct an investigation."

Keisho-in pondered, aware that Reiko's detective skill had won the shogun's favor. "I'll tell my son to delay all important inquiries until we return," she said.

"But he may not want you to go," Reiko said, her anxiety rising. "How will he manage without your advice?"

Indecision pursed Keisho-in's mouth. Lady Yanagisawa and Midori watched in hopeful suspense. "Won't you miss him?" Reiko said. "Won't you miss Priest Ryuko?" The priest was Keisho-in's spiritual advisor and lover.

A long moment passed while Keisho-in frowned and vacillated. At last she declared, "Yes, I'll miss my darling Ryuko-san, but parting will increase our fondness. And tonight I'll give my son enough advice to last awhile."

"The journey will be difficult and uncomfortable," Reiko said in desperation.

"The weather on the road will be even hotter than it is here," Midori added eagerly.

"We'll have to stay at inns full of crude, noisy people." Lady Yanagisawa shivered.

"Highway bandits may attack us," Reiko said.

Keisho-in's hand fluttered, negating the dire predictions. "We'll take plenty of guards. I appreciate your concern for me, but a religious pilgrimage to Fuji-san is worth the hardship." She addressed her maids: "Go tell the palace officials to get travel passes for everyone and ready an entourage, horses, palanquins, and provisions for the journey. Hurry, because I want to leave tomorrow morning." Then she turned to Reiko, Midori, and Lady Yanagisawa. "Don't just stand there like idle fools. Come inside and help me pick out clothes to bring."

The women exchanged appalled glances at this foretaste of traveling with Lady Keisho-in. Then they breathed a silent, collective sigh of resignation.


In the cool of dawn the next morning, servants carried chests out of Sano's mansion and placed them in the courtyard. Two palanquins stood ready for Reiko and Midori, while bearers waited to carry the women in their enclosed black wooden sedan chairs to Mount Fuji. Sano and Masahiro stood with Reiko beside her palanquin.

"I wish I could call off this trip," Sano said. He hated for Reiko to go, yet his duty to the shogun extended to the entire Tokugawa clan and forbade him to thwart Lady Keisho-in's desire.

Reiko's delicate, beautiful face was strained, but she managed a smile. "Maybe it won't be as bad as we think."

Admiring her valiant attempt to make the best of a bad situation, Sano already missed his wife. They were more than just partners in investigating crimes or spouses in a marriage arranged for social, economic, and political reasons. Their work, their child, and their passionate love bound them in a spiritual union. And this trip would be their longest separation in their four years together.

Reiko crouched, put her hands on Masahiro's shoulders, and looked into his solemn face. "Do you promise to be good while I'm gone?" she said.

"Yes, Mama." Though the little boy's chin trembled, he spoke bravely, imitating the stoic samurai attitude.

Beside the other palanquin, Midori and Hirata embraced. "I'm so afraid something bad will happen and we'll never see each other again," Midori fretted.

"Don't worry. Everything will be fine," Hirata said, but his wide, youthful face was troubled because he didn't want his pregnant wife to leave.

From the barracks surrounding the mansion came two samurai detectives, leading horses laden with bulky saddlebags. Sano had ordered the men, both loyal retainers and expert fighters, to accompany and protect Reiko and Midori. He wished he and Hirata could go, but the shogun required their presence in Edo.

"Take good care of them," Sano told the detectives.

"We will, Sosakan-sama." The men bowed.

Reiko said, "Lady Keisho-in, Lady Yanagisawa, and our entourage will be waiting for us outside the main castle gate. We'd better go."

Sano lifted Masahiro; they and Reiko embraced. Final farewells ensued. Then Reiko and Midori reluctantly climbed into their palanquins. The bearers shouldered the poles; servants lifted the chests. Sano hugged Masahiro close against his sore heart. As the procession moved through the gate, Reiko put her head out the window of her palanquin, looked backward, and fixed a wistful gaze on Sano and Masahiro. They waved; Sano smiled.

"Mama, be safe," Masahiro called. "Come home soon."

Chapter 2

The Tokaido, the great Eastern Sea Road, extended west from Edo toward the imperial capital at Miyako. Fifty-three post stations--villages where travelers lodged and the Tokugawa regime maintained security checkpoints--dotted the highway. West of the tenth post station of Odawara, the highway cut across the Izu Peninsula. The terrain ascended into the mountainous district over which reigned the massive volcano Mount Fuji. Here the Tokaido carved a crooked path upward through forests of oak, maple, cedar, birch, cypress, and pine.

Along this stretch of road moved a procession comprised of some hundred people. Two samurai scouts rode on horseback ahead of foot-soldiers and mounted troops. Banner-bearers held a flag emblazoned with the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock-leaf crest, leading ten palanquins followed by servants. Porters carrying baggage preceded a rear guard of more mounted troops and marching soldiers. Syncopated footsteps and the clatter of the horses' hooves echoed to distant peaks obscured by dense gray clouds.

Inside the first palanquin, Reiko and Lady Keisho-in rode, seated opposite each other. They watched through the windows as occasional squadrons of samurai overtook them or commoners passed from the other direction. Moisture condensed in the cool afternoon; streams and waterfalls rippled; birdsong animated the forest.

"Four days we've been traveling, and we're still not even near Fuji-san," Keisho-in said in a grumpy tone.

Reiko forbore to point out that their slow pace was Keisho-in's own fault. Keisho-in had spent hours buying souvenirs and sampling local foods at every post station. She'd often ordered the procession to halt while she greeted the public. Furthermore, she disliked riding fast. The women had now gone a distance that should have taken them half the time and a fast horseman could cover in a day. And the trip had already taxed Reiko's endurance.

The group had gotten little sleep due to late, noisy, drunken parties hosted by Keisho-in every night at the inns where they'd stayed. Reiko, forced to share chambers with Lady Yanagisawa, had hardly dared close her eyes at all. Now fatigue weighed upon her; yet she couldn't even doze in her palanquin because someone always needed her company. Keisho-in didn't want to ride with Midori, who took up too much space, or Lady Yanagisawa, whose reticence bored her. Midori said Lady Yanagisawa frightened her, and Lady Yanagisawa could bear no one except Reiko. Hence, Reiko divided her time between her three companions.

"This climate makes my bones hurt," Keisho-in complained. She extended her legs to Reiko. "Massage my feet."

Reiko rubbed the gnarled toes, hoping not to arouse desire in her companion. So far Lady Keisho-in had satisfied herself with the soldiers, or the ladies-in-waiting and maids, who rode in the last six palanquins. But Reiko feared that Keisho-in's roving eye would turn on her. Estimating at least another two days on the road before they arrived at their destination, Reiko sighed. Mount Fuji, hidden by the clouds, appeared as far as the end of the world, and her return home seemed eons away. She prayed that something would happen to cut short this trip.

The road angled through a gorge bordered by high, steep cliffs. Crooked pines clung to the eroded earth. Pebbles skittered down the cliffs to the road. As the procession moved onward, the cliff on its right gave way to level forest. The road curved out of sight between tall, aromatic cedars on one side and sheer rock on the other. Reiko's senses tingled at a change in the atmosphere. Suddenly alert, she froze.

"Why have you stopped massaging?" Keisho-in said irritably.

"There's something wrong." Reiko put her head out the window and listened. "It's too quiet. I don't hear any birds, and no one has passed us in a long while."

A rush of fear assailed Reiko; her heartbeat accelerated. In front of the palanquin rode Sano's two detectives, and Reiko saw them turn their heads and sweep their gazes across the landscape, as if they, too, perceived danger. Then she heard hissing noises. Torrents of slender shafts whizzed down from the cliff top. A soldier screamed and collapsed with an arrow protruding from his neck. The procession dissolved into chaos as men dodged the arrows and horses bolted. Reiko ducked back inside the window.

"What is happening?" Lady Keisho-in demanded.

"Someone's shooting at us. Get down!" Reiko pushed Lady Keisho-in onto the cushioned floor of the palanquin and slammed the windows shut.

More arrows thudded against the palanquin's roof. Shouts burst from the troops and servants, and anxious twittering from the women in the other palanquins.

Outside, the guard captain shouted, "We're under attack!"

©Laura Joh Rowland, 2003
Published by St. Martin's Press

"...unique and wonderful ... a delightful historical investigative tale
whose enchanting center is seventeenth century Japan."
—Harriet Klausner on THE DRAGON KING'S PALACE


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