from The Fire Kimono
Edo, Genroku Year 13, Month 2 (Tokyo, March 1700)
A fierce windstorm swept the hills outside Edo. Lightning seared bright white veins down the gray sky while distant thunder reverberated. Along a path through the forest hurried a Shinto priest. He clutched his black cap to his head and staggered as the wind buffeted him. His white robe flapped like a swan in mad flight. Dirt and leaves swirled around him in cyclones that stung his face, blinded him. He stumbled faster uphill toward the shrine, where he could take shelter.
The trees swayed, creaked, and thrashed. The wind's howling force knocked the priest to the ground. As he struggled to regain his feet, he heard an ominous cracking noise, as if the world were splitting. He saw a huge, dead oak tree pitch toward him. Crooked, leafless branches reached down like monstrous hands to grab him as the tree toppled, its massive trunk a black battering ram aimed to kill. The priest flung his arms over his head and screamed.
The tree crashed with a thud that shook the world. Branches scraped the priest, enmeshed him. He was stunned but miraculously alive. The wind's fury ebbed. Untangling himself from the branches, he saw that the heavy tree trunk lay close beside him. The gods had spared his life.
Dazed, the priest climbed the hill, gawking at the fallen corpse of the tree. The roots had torn loose from the dirt. They'd left a yawning hole in the forest beside the path. Something in the lumpy earth just below surface level at the edge of the hole caught the priest's attention.
The object was brown from the soil, with a rounded top the size of a small melon. The priest squatted for a closer inspection, and recoiled in dismay. Empty eye sockets stared and bare teeth grinned up at him. It was a human skull.
Lady Reiko rarely left home, and never without an army for protection.
In the past few months, the strife between her husband, Chamberlain Sano, and his rival, Lord Matsudaira, had escalated drastically. Their troops brawled in the streets of Edo, eager for war. No one was safe; anyone could be caught in the violence.
Riding in a palanquin through the city, Reiko peered through the window shutters. Her mounted guards blocked her view of the high walls and roofed gates of the mansions in the official district. All she saw was armored legs aboard moving horse flanks. Her bearers marched in time with the steps of the foot soldiers in her entourage, which numbered fifty armed men in all. Reiko leaned back on the cushions and sighed.
Not a glimpse of the city's color and bustle nor breath of spring air could reach her. Yet these precautions were vital. Last winter, Lord Matsudaira had served notice that Sano's family wasn't off limits in the power struggle. He'd had Sano and Reiko's eight year old son, Masahiro, kidnapped and sent to the far north. Only the most serious business could draw Reiko from Sano's estate inside Edo Castle, for she might be the next target.
Her aunt had died, and although they hadn't been close, the woman had been kind to Reiko during her childhood. That fact, plus family duty, had obligated Reiko to brave venturing outside and attend the funeral. Now her procession suddenly slowed. Guards at the front ordered, "Get out of the way!"
She risked opening the shutters a crack and saw two oxen yoked to a cart filled with lumber, blocking an intersection. Such carts, owned by the government, were the only wheeled vehicles permitted in Japan. Forcing everyone to travel by horse or by foot prevented troop movements and insurrection—at least in theory. Soldiers behind her called to the others, "Keep going, don't stop!" The front guards yelled, "Move it now, or die!"
A jarring thud hit the top of the palanquin. Reiko gasped as her bearers wobbled under extra weight. One of them shouted, "There's a man on the roof!"
The man must have jumped off the wall. While her guards shouted and jostled around her palanquin, she felt another thud as another man landed.
"Ambush!" shouted the guards.
The doors of the palanquin burst open. Reiko screamed. Her attackers swung upside down from the roof at her. They were two young samurai with knives gripped in their teeth. As she drew the dagger she wore in a sheath strapped to her arm under her sleeve, they flipped into the palanquin, transferring their knives from teeth to hands.
"Help!" Reiko shrank into the corner and lashed her dagger at her attackers.
Her blade cut their arms. They seemed not to care. Blind savagery glazed their eyes as they slashed at her. Their hot breath and pungent sweat filled the palanquin. Reiko saw the crests stamped on their kimonos. They were Lord Matsudaira's men, no surprise. She frantically parried against their blades. One grazed her face. Outside, swords clashed while her guards fought off more Matsudaira troops who'd joined the attack. The combatants' bodies thumped against the palanquin. Horses whinnied as the battle raged.
"Turn around!" her guard captain shouted. "Head back to the castle! Somebody get those bastards off Lady Reiko!"
Reiko heard her chief bodyguard, Lieutenant Asukai, call her name. As her attackers pinned her arms and she kicked at them, he lunged into the palanquin; he seized one of the men. The palanquin veered in a jerky about face. The bearers broke into a run.
Lieutenant Asukai dragged the man outside. They tumbled into the street under the horses' skittering hooves and the feet of the battling soldiers. The attacker still inside threw himself on top of Reiko. He clutched the wrist of her hand that held the dagger. His weight immobilized her. She desperately thrashed and writhed, beating at him with her free left hand. His blade strained toward her throat. Reiko could see her terrified face reflected in the shiny steel.
"Hold on, Lady Reiko, I'm coming!" Lieutenant Asukai shouted.
He grabbed her attacker's legs. Reiko struck at the man's face and sank her fingernails into his eyes. He screamed, let go of her, and reared up. Lieutenant Asukai yanked on him. He flew backward out of the palanquin, bleeding from the eyes, knife raised, mouth yowling.
Reiko saw the portals of Edo Castle ahead. Sanctuary lay within them. The castle was neutral territory in the conflict between Sano and Lord Matsudaira, by tacit, mutual agreement. They both lived inside it; neither wanted war on his own doorstep. The sentries stared in amazement at Reiko's palanquin hurtling toward them and the battle that trailed it like uproarious streamers.
"Let us in!" Lieutenant Asukai shouted, running beside Reiko.
The sentries swung open the huge, iron banded gate. Winded and puffing, the bearers staggered the palanquin through it. The gates slammed shut. Reiko sighed in relief.
"That was too close a call," Sano said.
He crouched on the floor beside Reiko, in their private chamber, watching grimly as the doctor dabbed medicinal ointment on the cut on her cheek. First his son kidnapped, now his wife ambushed. Lord Matsudaira had gone too far. Sano tasted fury as raw as blood.
Reiko managed a brave smile. "It's just a scratch. I'm fine, really." The doctor finished, gathered up his medicine chest, and departed. Reiko spoke to Masahiro, who knelt near her. "I don't look half as bad as you do."
Masahiro, nine years old, had come running when he'd heard about the attack. His white martial arts practice uniform was dirty from wrestling on the ground; he sported cuts and scrapes on his hands, arms, and knees. A fading purple bruise surrounded his left eye. Ever since his abduction, Masahiro had pursued his martial arts studies with punishing vigor, the better to defend himself. They were no longer just a game he was good at, but a matter of life and death.
Now he said, "Don't joke, Mama." His tone was serious, reproving, and adult. "You could have been killed."
Sano hadn't wanted Masahiro to know about the attack, had wanted to shield him from adult problems. But Masahiro had a way of finding out what happened; his sharp ears and his nose for information rivaled those of any spy in the government intelligence service. And he'd matured a lot during his experience in Ezogashima. Having survived it by his own wits and courage, he'd earned himself a new place in their family. Sano beheld his son with a mixture of love, pride, and sorrow.
He could see Reiko in the shape of Masahiro's eyes, and himself in the set of his jaw; but Masahiro was his own, unique person, and he was growing up too fast. There was little room for childhood in their harsh world.
"Masahiro is right," Sano said to Reiko. The boy sat straighter, gladdened by his father's approval. Sano remembered looking up to and aspiring to be like his own father, now dead eleven years. How long before Masahiro became aware of his failings and the hero worship ended? "You can't go out again."
"Yes," seconded Masahiro. "You have to stay home."
Reiko had opened her mouth to object, then closed it, taken aback by his authority. Sano hid a rueful smile. She would need to get used to having two men telling her what to do. This time she conceded. "For how long?"
She spoke as if she didn't expect Sano to answer, and he didn't. He only wished he knew how long this feud with Lord Matsudaira would go on.
Unhappiness shadowed her beautiful face. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to see Lord Matsudaira," Sano said.
"Are you going to declare war on him?" Reiko asked.
Excitement charged the air as she and Masahiro waited for Sano's reply. They thirsted for a showdown as much as Sano did. But Sano knew the odds better than they, and he said, "No."
Indignation appeared on their faces. Reiko said, "Not even after what Lord Matsudaira did to my son?"
"And to my mother?" Masahiro said.
"It's not the time for me to challenge Lord Matsudaira in battle," Sano said. "His troops outnumber mine by too many."
Sano's army had shrunk drastically since last autumn. He'd come home from Ezogashima to discover that he'd lost entire regiments during his absence. Without Sano here to keep them in line and their morale up, Lord Matsudaira had easily won them over. That was just as Lord Matsudaira had planned when he'd kidnapped Masahiro and sent Sano to Ezogashima to solve some problems there as well as rescue his son.
"And I can't afford to run a war for more than a few months." Sano had also lost key allies among the daimyo, the feudal lords he'd counted on to fund a military venture, who'd also defected.
"It can't be that bad," Reiko said. "You still have many allies." She named some, all wealthy, powerful daimyo with large armies. "You can win."
"Let's declare war!" Masahiro's face shone with zeal, and confidence in Sano. "You're not afraid of Lord Matsudaira."
Sano dreaded the day when he would see Masahiro begin to doubt him. Now he needed to give Masahiro a lesson as difficult to teach as to learn.
"Of course I'm afraid," Sano said, even though he hated admitting fear. "A samurai who isn't afraid of a dangerous enemy isn't a hero; he's a fool." More and more often, Sano heard his own father's words coming out of his mouth. "A truly courageous samurai masters his fear."
Impatient, hardly listening, Masahiro jumped up and paced back and forth, Reiko's habit when excited. "I'll ride into battle with you. Together we'll defeat Lord Matsudaira."
Sano ached with pride in his son's spirit. Reiko looked aghast. "You can't go to battle. You're not even fifteen yet!"
Fifteen was the age at which samurai boys officially became adults, when the forelock that Masahiro wore tied above his brow would be shaved during his manhood ceremony.
"A war could last six more years until he is," Sano pointed out. "The wars that ended with the Tokugawa on top went on for almost a century."
"I'm almost as tall as a lot of boys who are fifteen," Masahiro said, standing still and drawing himself up to his full height. "And I'm a better fighter."
"You're also too modest," Reiko said, tart in her fear for him. She turned to Sano. "All right, I don't want a war either." She'd clearly lost her appetite for it now that she saw her son headed for the front lines. "But if you're not declaring war on Lord Matsudaira, why go to see him?"
"To propose a truce. To make peace if I can."
Reiko stared in disbelief. "You mean you're going to let him get away with what he's done?"
"He deserves to be punished!" Masahiro clenched his fists.
"The country doesn't," Sano said. "If we go on like this, there will eventually be war, and Japan will suffer. War involves more than the two top men fighting it. Should it spread beyond Edo, cities and villages everywhere will be destroyed. Thousands of innocent people will die."
"I don't care," Masahiro said stubbornly.
He was too young for the consequences of war to seem real to him, Sano thought. Despite the maturity forced on him, Masahiro was a child, with a child's limited understanding.
"As the shogun's second in command, I have to care," Sano said. "It's my duty to protect the country and the people. And when you inherit my position, it will be your duty."
Masahiro nodded, swelling with pride at the thought that he would someday succeed his father. Hoping he could hold his position long enough to pass it on, Sano rose to go.
Sano summoned Hirata—his chief retainer—and Detectives Marume and Fukida, his two top personal bodyguards. Accompanied by a squadron of troops, they went to the special compound inside Edo Castle where the Tokugawa branch clan members lived. Lord Matsudaira, the shogun's cousin, had the largest estate. Sentries were posted outside its gate, at intervals along the high stone walls, and in the watch towers. When they saw Sano's party coming, their hands flashed to their swords.
"I want to see Lord Matsudaira," Sano told the four gate sentries.
Their leader said, "With all due respect, Honorable Chamberlain, you have a lot of nerve coming here. After what you've done today."
"After what he's done?" Hirata said. "What are you talking about?"
Noting the mystified expressions of Sano and his companions, the man smirked. "Looks like you and your people have lost your memories, Chamberlain Sano. Well, don't worry; Lord Matsudaira will fill in the blank spaces."
He sent a runner to tell Lord Matsudaira that Sano was here. As other guards opened the gate and escorted Sano's party inside, Sano exchanged perturbed glances with Hirata, Marume, and Fukida. This was a strange reception that didn't bode well for their peace mission.
They moved through courtyards and passages lined with armed, hostile soldiers. If not for the prohibition against violence inside Edo Castle, they would have attacked Sano. The air smelled of gunpowder.
Sano found Lord Matsudaira waiting in his reception room. Flanked by bodyguards, with troops stationed along the walls, Lord Matsudaira stood on the dais. His posture was arrogant, his expression murderous. But he was thinner, and visibly older, than when Sano had left for Ezogashima only six months ago. The strain of building his army, juggling allies, and battling treachery had carved new lines in his strong featured face. The fire in his eyes verged on fever.
"What in hell do you want?" he demanded.
"I have a proposition to make," Sano said even as his hatred toward his enemy flared. He hadn't started this quarrel; he'd been willing to work with Lord Matsudaira to serve the shogun, their master. It was Lord Matsudaira who wanted to be shogun himself, who saw Sano's power as a threat. "I'll excuse your attack this morning, if you'll agree to a truce."
Astonishment raised Lord Matsudaira's eyebrows. "A truce? Are you insane? And I didn't attack you this morning."
Infuriated by the denial, Sano said, "Your men ambushed my wife and tried to kill her. Or have you forgotten you sent them?"
Lord Matsudaira seemed as much confused as scornful. "I didn't." He pointed a finger at Sano. "It was you who just sent your men to kill my wife."
Sano thought of what the sentries had said. Consternation filled him. "You'd better explain what happened."
"Playing innocent, eh?" Lord Matsudaira's face darkened with anger. "I suppose you came to gloat over what you've done. Well, all right, I'll show you. Come."
Beckoning, he stalked outside. His troops herded Sano's party after him, into the garden. More troops patrolled amid azalea bushes in bright red bloom. Increasingly baffled, Sano followed Lord Matsudaira to the heart of the estate, a group of low buildings connected by covered corridors. One lay half in ruins, walls broken, the tile roof collapsed. The ruins were covered by black soot. Servants labored, cleaning up the mess.
"These are the women's quarters," Lord Matsudaira said, gesturing angrily. "My wife was inside. She has burns all over her. It's a miracle she wasn't killed. One of her attendants was." He glared at Sano. "Don't say it's not your fault."
"It isn't," Sano said, as disturbed as sincere.
"No more lies! Two of your men sneaked into this estate and threw jars of kerosene plugged with burning rags into the windows. My men caught them running away from the explosion. See for yourself."
Lord Matsudaira led Sano to a blanket spread on the charred grass near the ruins. He flung back the blanket, exposing two young samurai who lay dead and bloody.
"They're not mine. I've never seen them before in my life." Sano turned to Hirata, Marume, and his other men; they shook their heads.
"You have so many retainers that you don't know everyone who works for you," Lord Matsudaira said. "Look at the crests on their clothes." He pointed at Sano's flying crane insignias. "They're yours, all right."
Sano didn't see any point in arguing; Lord Matsudaira would never believe him. "Well, I have two bodies of men that my troops caught and killed after they tried to stab my wife. They're wearing your crests."
"I had nothing to do with that," Lord Matsudaira protested. Whatever business I have with you, I would never attack your woman." His tone scorned that as cowardly, dishonorable, beneath him. "This is the first I've heard of it."
His shock and dismay seemed genuine. A familiar, uneasy sensation trickled through Sano. He said, "This isn't the first time that people on your side have been attacked and I wasn't responsible, or that people on mine have been and you've claimed you weren't."
During the past six months, Sano's troops had been ambushed, had been the target of fire bombs and snipers. So had Lord Matsudaira's. The frequency of the attacks had increased since Sano had returned from Ezogashima. Each rival had blamed the other, with reason based on evidence as well as motive. But Sano knew he wasn't to blame, and he was ready to acknowledge that perhaps neither was Lord Matsudaira.
"Something is going on," Sano said.
He'd had ideas about what it was, yet they remained unproven. Although he'd investigated the attacks, he'd found no substantiating clues as to the person behind them. He'd never mentioned his suspicions to Lord Matsudaira, who would only think Sano was trying to trick him.
"Of course something is going on, and I know what," Lord Matsudaira said. "You've been faking attacks against yourself, to make me look bad and justify attacking me. Now you've violated protocol against attacking inside Edo Castle." Lord Matsudaira bunched his fists and shook with fury. "Merciful gods, you'll stop at nothing to destroy me!"
"The two of us should stop our quarrel," Sano said, although he realized it was futile to hope he could convince Lord Matsudaira. "Agree to a truce. Then we can get to the bottom of these attacks and work out a peace treaty.
"Take your peace treaty and shove it up your behind," Lord Matsudaira said. "Now leave before I throw you out."
As they glared at each other, Sano felt the war he wanted to prevent rushing on them like a tornado. The sensation was as exhilarating as dreadful. When he and his men turned to depart, Lord Matsudaira warned, "Remember that your home is a target, too."
A servant came running up to them. "Excuse me, but I have an urgent message."
"What is it?" Lord Matsudaira barked.
"The shogun wants to see you. And Chamberlain Sano. At once."
Excerpt from THE
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2008
Published by St.