Excerpt from THE PERFUMED SLEEVE
Genroku Period, Year 7, Month 10 (November 1694)
of trouble sent Sano Ichiro abroad in the city of Edo at midnight.
Clad in armor and metal helmet, his two swords at his waist,
he galloped his horse down the main avenue. Beside him rode his
young chief retainer, Hirata; behind them followed the hundred
men of Sano's detective corps.
Constellations wheeled around the moon in the black, smoke-hazed
sky. Cold wind swept debris past closed shops. Ahead, Sano
saw torches flaring against the darkness. He and his troops
passed townsmen armed with clubs, standing guard at doorways,
ready to protect their businesses and families from harm. Frightened
women peered out windows; boys craned their necks from rooftops,
balconies, and fire-watch towers. Sano halted his army at the
edge of a crowd that blocked the avenue.
The crowd was composed of ruffians whose faces shone with
savage glee in the light of the torches they carried. They
avidly watched two armies of mounted samurai, each some hundred
men strong, charge along the street from opposite directions.
The armies met in a violent clash of swords and lances. Horses
skittered and neighed. The riders bellowed as they swung their
blades at their opponents. Men screamed in agony as they fell
wounded. Groups of samurai on foot whirled in fierce sword
combat. Spectators cheered; some joined in the carnage.
"I've been expecting this," Hirata told Sano.
"It was only a matter of time," Sano agreed.
As the shogun's sosakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator
of Events, Situations, and People--Sano usually occupied himself
with investigating important crimes and advising his lord,
Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, dictator of Japan. But during recent months
he'd spent much time keeping order in Edo, which had become
embroiled in political upheaval. The bakufu--the military government
that ruled Japan--had become divided by a struggle for control
of the Tokugawa regime. One faction, led by Chamberlain Yanagisawa,
the shogun's second-in-command, opposed a second led by Lord
Matsudaira, a cousin of the shogun. Other powerful men, including
the daimyo--feudal lords--had begun taking sides. Both factions
had started building up their military forces, preparing for
Soldiers had poured into Edo from the provinces, crowding
the barracks at daimyo estates and Edo Castle, overflowing
the district where Tokugawa vassals lived, and camping outside
town. Although Chamberlain Yanagisawa and Lord Matsudaira hadn't
yet declared war, the lower ranks had grown restless. Idle
waiting bred battle-fever. Sano and his detective corps had
already quelled many skirmishes. Now, the city elders who governed
the townspeople had sent Sano an urgent message begging him
to come and quell this major disturbance that threatened to
shatter the peace which the Tokugawa regime had maintained
for almost a century.
"Let's break up this brawl before it causes a riot and
wrecks the town," Sano said.
"I'm ready," Hirata said.
As they forged through the crowd, leading their troops, Sano
recalled other times they'd ridden into battle together, when
he'd taken Hirata's competent, loyal service for granted. But
last summer, while they were attempting to rescue the shogun's
mother and their wives from kidnappers, Hirata had disobeyed
Sano's orders. Now Sano could no longer place his complete
trust in Hirata. "In the name of His Excellency the Shogun,
I order you to cease!" Sano called to the armies. He and
his men forced apart the combatants, who howled in rage and
attacked them. Blades whistled and slashed around Sano. As
he circled, ducked, and tried to control his rearing horse,
the night spun around him. Torch-light and faces in the crowd
blurred across his vision. The armies drove him to the edge
of the road.
"Behold the great sosakan-sama," called a male voice. "Have
you been demoted to street duty?"
Sano turned and saw the man who'd addressed him. It was Police
Commissioner Hoshina, sitting astride his horse at the gate
to a side-street, flanked by two mounted police commanders.
Fashionable silk robes clothed his muscular physique. His handsome,
angular face wore a mocking smile.
"You shouldn't lower yourself to breaking up brawls," Hoshina
Anger flashed through Sano. He and Hoshina were longtime enemies,
and the fact that Sano had recently saved Hoshina's life didn't
ease their antagonism.
"Someone has to uphold the law," Sano retorted, "because
your police force won't."
Hoshina laughed off Sano's accusation that he was neglecting
his duty. "I've got more important things on my mind."
Things like revenge and ambition, Sano thought. Hoshina had
been the paramour of Chamberlain Yanagisawa until recently,
when Yanagisawa had betrayed Hoshina and the police commissioner
had joined Lord Matsudaira's faction. He was so bitter toward
Yanagisawa that he welcomed a war that could elevate him and
depose his lover. He didn't care that war could also destroy
the city he'd been appointed to protect. A lawless atmosphere
pervaded Edo because Hoshina and his men wouldn't stop the
fighting between partisans.
Sano turned away from Hoshina in disgust. Along the boulevard,
more soldiers and ruffians streamed in as news of the brawl
spread. Running footsteps, pounding hoof-beats, and loud war-cries
enlivened the night.
"Close off the area!" Sano yelled at his troops.
They hurried to bar the gates at intersections. The boulevard
was a tumult of Sano's forces and the crazed soldiers colliding,
blades flashing and bodies flailing, murderous yowls and spattering
blood. As Sano rode into the melee, he feared this was only
a taste of things to come.
It was dawn by the time Sano, Hirata, and the detectives separated
the combatants, arrested them for disturbing the peace, and
dispersed the crowd. Now a sun like a malevolent red beacon
floated up from a sea of gray clouds over Edo Castle, looming
on its hilltop above the city. At his mansion inside the official
quarter of the castle, Sano sat in his private chambers. His
wife Reiko cleaned a cut on his arm, where a sword had penetrated
a joint in his sleeve-guard. He wore his white under-kimono;
his armor lay strewn on the tatami floor around him.
"You can't keep trying to maintain order in the city
by yourself," Reiko said as she swabbed Sano's bloody
gash. Her delicate, beautiful features were somber. "One
man can't stand between two armies and survive for long."
Sano winced at the pain. "I know."
Servants' voices drifted from the kitchen and grounds as morning
stirred the estate to life. In the nursery, Sano and Reiko's
little son Masahiro chattered with the maids. Reiko sprinkled
powdered geranium root on Sano's wound to stop the bleeding,
then applied honeysuckle ointment to prevent festering.
"While you were out last night, the finance minister
came to see you," Reiko said. "So did the captain
of the palace guard." Those men were two of Sano's friends
in the bakufu. "I don't know why."
"I can guess," Sano said. "The minister, who
has recently joined Chamberlain Yanagisawa's faction, came
to ask me to do the same. The captain, who has sworn allegiance
to Lord Matsudaira, would like me to follow his example."
Each faction wanted to recruit Sano because he was close to
the shogun and could influence their lord against the other.
Each faction also wanted Sano and his detectives, all expert
fighters, on its side in the event of war. The victor would
rule Japan unopposed, via domination of the shogun. Sano's
friends were acting as emissaries, wooing him on behalf of
Yanagisawa and Lord Matsudaira. Sano could hardly believe that
he, a former martial arts teacher and son of a ronin--masterless
samurai--had risen to a position where such important men courted
his allegiance. But that position brought danger; both men
would hasten to ruin any powerful official who opposed them.
"What are you going to tell your friends?" Reiko
"The same thing I've told everyone else who wants to
lure me into one faction or the other," Sano said. "That
I won't support either. My loyalty is to the shogun." Despite
the fact that Tokugawa Tsunayoshi had serious shortcomings
as a dictator, Sano felt bound by the samurai code of honor
to stand by his lord even if his colleagues didn't. "I'll
not join anyone who would usurp his authority."
Reiko bound a white cloth pad and bandage around Sano's wound. "Be
careful," she said, patting his arm.
Sano perceived that her warning concerned more than his immediate
injury; she feared for their future. He hated to worry her,
especially since she was still suffering from the effects of
being kidnapped along with the shogun's mother.
He didn't know exactly what had happened to Reiko while imprisoned
by the man who'd called himself the Dragon King. But the normally
adventurous Reiko had changed. During four years of marriage,
she'd helped Sano with his investigations, and developed quite
a talent for detective work; but now she'd turned into a quiet
recluse who hadn't left the estate since he'd brought her home.
Sano wished for a little peace so she could recover; yet there
was no prospect of peace any time soon.
"This city is like a barrel of gunpowder," Sano
said grimly. "The least incident could spark an explosion."
Footsteps creaked along the passage, and Hirata appeared at
the door. "Excuse me, Sosakan-sama." Although still
free to enter Sano's private quarters, Hirata displayed the
cautious deference with which he'd behaved since their breach. "You
have a visitor."
"At this hour?" Sano glanced at the window. Gray
daylight barely penetrated the paper panes. "Who is it?"
"His name is Juro. He's the valet of Senior Elder Makino.
He says Makino sent him here with a message for you."
Sano raised his eyebrows in surprise. Makino Narisada was
the longest-standing, dominant member of the Council of Elders,
the shogun's primary advisers and Japan's highest governing
body. He was also a crony of Chamberlain Yanagisawa and enemy
of Sano. He had an ugly face like a skull, and a disposition
"What is the message?" Sano said.
"I asked, but Juro wouldn't tell me," Hirata said. "He
says his master ordered him to speak personally to you."
Sano couldn't refuse a communication from someone as important,
quick to take offense, and dangerous as Makino. Besides, he
was curious. "Very well," he said.
He and Hirata walked to the reception room. Reiko followed.
She watched from outside the door while they entered the cold,
drafty room, where a man knelt. Thin and stooped, with a fringe
of gray hair around his bald head, and clad in modest gray
robes, Juro the valet appeared to be past sixty years of age.
His bony features wore a sad expression. Two of Sano's detectives
stood guard behind him: Although he looked harmless, they exercised
caution toward strangers in the house, especially during these
"Here I am," Sano said. "Speak your message."
The valet bowed. "I'm sorry to impose on you, Sosakan-sama,
but I must tell you that the honorable Senior Elder Makino
"Dead?" Sano experienced three reactions in quick
succession. The first was shock. "As of when?"
"Today," said Juro.
"How did it happen?" Sano asked.
"My master passed away in his sleep."
Sano's second reaction was puzzlement. "You told my chief
retainer that Makino-san sent you. How could he, if he's dead?"
"Some time ago, he told me that if he should die, I must
inform you at once," said Juro. "I'm honoring his
Sano looked at Hirata, who shrugged, equally perplexed. "My
condolences to you on the loss of your master," Sano said
to the valet. "I'll go pay my respects to his family today." As
he spoke, his third response, a deep consternation, beset him.
Makino must have been almost eighty years old--he'd lived longer
than he deserved--but his death, at this particular time, had
the potential to aggravate the tensions within the Tokugawa
"Why did Makino-san care that I should immediately know
of his death?" Sano asked Juro.
"He wanted you to read this letter." The valet offered
a folded paper to Sano.
Still mystified, Sano accepted the letter. Juro bowed with
the air of a man who has discharged an important duty, and
the detectives escorted him out of the house. Reiko entered
the room. She and Hirata waited expectantly while Sano unfolded
the letter and scanned the words written in gnarled black calligraphy.
He read aloud, in surprise:
"To Sano Ichiro, Sosakan-sama to the Shogun:
If you are reading this, I am dead. I am leaving you this
letter to beg an important favor of you.
As you know, I have many enemies who want me gone. Assassination
is a constant threat for a man in my position. Please investigate
my death and determine whether it was murder. If it was, I
ask that you identify the culprit, deliver him to justice,
and avenge my death.
I regret to impose on you, but there is no one else I trust
enough to ask this favor. I apologize for any inconvenience
that my request causes you.
Senior Elder Makino Narisada."
Reiko burst out, "The gall of that man, asking you for
anything! After he accused you of treason last year and tried
to get you executed!"
"Even in death he plagues me," Sano said, disturbed
by the request that posed a serious dilemma for himself.
"But the valet said Makino died in his sleep," Hirata
"Could his death have really been murder?" Reiko
wondered. "The letter would have come to you even if Makino
died of old age, as he seems to have done."
"Perhaps his death isn't what it seems." Sano narrowed
his eyes in recollection. "There have been attempts on
his life. His suspicion that he would die by foul play was
justified. And he was extremely vindictive. If he was assassinated,
he would want the culprit punished even though he wouldn't
be around to have the satisfaction."
"And lately, with the bakufu in turmoil, there's been
all the more reason for his enemies to want him gone," Reiko
"But you don't have to grant his request to investigate
his death," Hirata told Sano.
"You owe him nothing," Reiko agreed.
Yet Sano couldn't ignore the letter. "Since there's a
chance that Makino was murdered, his death should be investigated.
How I felt about him doesn't matter. A victim of a crime deserves
"An inquiry into his death could create serious trouble
for you that I think you should avoid." Hirata spoke with
the authority of a chief retainer duty-bound to divert his
master from a risky path; yet a slight hesitation in his voice
bespoke his awareness that Sano might doubt the value of his
"Hirata-san is right," Reiko told Sano. "If
Makino was murdered, there's a killer at large who won't welcome
you prying into his death."
"Makino's enemies include powerful, unscrupulous men," Hirata
said. "Any one of them would rather kill you off than
be exposed and executed as a murderer."
"Investigating crimes against high-ranking citizens is
my job," Sano said. "Danger comes with the responsibility.
And in this case, the possible victim--who was my superior--asked
me to look into his death."
"I can guess why Makino asked you," Reiko said in
a tone of comprehension mixed with disgust at the senior elder. "Makino
knew that your sense of honor wouldn't let you overlook a possible
"He understood that justice matters more to you than
your own safety," Hirata interjected.
"So he saddled you with a job that he knew no one else
would bother to do for him. He tried to destroy you while he
was alive. Now he's trying to manipulate you from the grave." Outrage
sparked in Reiko's eyes. "Please don't let him!"
Sano was loath to oppose his wife and chief retainer when
their opinions were valid; but he felt a duty toward Makino
that superseded reason. "A posthumous request from a fellow
samurai is a serious social obligation," he said. "Refusing
to honor it would be a breach of protocol."
"No one would fault you for refusing a favor to a man
who treated you the way Makino did," Hirata said.
"You ignore protocol often enough," Reiko said,
wryly alluding to Sano's independent streak.
But Sano had more reason to grant the request, no matter the
consequences. "I can't afford not to investigate Makino's
death. If Makino was murdered, the fact may come to light regardless
of what I do. Even he wasn't, rumors could arise that say he
was." Rumors, true and false, abounded in Edo Castle during
this political crisis. "Suspicion will fall on all his
enemies--including me. By that time, evidence of how Makino
died, and who killed him, will be lost, along with my chance
to prove my innocence if I'm accused."
Understanding dawned on Reiko's and Hirata's faces. "Your
enemies have tried to frame you for crimes in the past," Hirata
recalled. "They would welcome this opportunity to destroy
"It's a prime opportunity because of your dangerous position," Reiko
said. "Most of your friends now belong to Chamberlain
Yanagisawa or Lord Matsudaira. Since you won't join either
faction, you have the protection of neither. And if you're
accused of murder, you can't count on the shogun to defend
Because the shogun's favor was as inconstant as the weather,
Sano thought. He'd known that by resisting pressure to choose
sides, he stood alone and vulnerable, but now the high price
of neutrality had come due. "So I either investigate Makino's
death, or jeopardize all of us," Sano said, for his family
and retainers would share any punishment that came his way.
Reiko and Hirata nodded in resigned agreement. "I'll
do everything in my power to help you," Hirata said.
"Where shall we begin?" Reiko said.
Their staunch support gladdened Sano; yet misgivings disturbed
him. Was Reiko ready to brave the hazards of this investigation
so soon after her kidnapping? Sano also wondered how far he
could trust Hirata, after Hirata had placed personal concerns
above duty to his master during the kidnapping investigation.
But Sano was in no position to turn away help.
"As soon as I've washed and dressed, we'll go to Makino's
estate and inspect the scene of his death," Sano told
Hirata bowed; he said, "I'll fetch some detectives to
accompany us," then left the room.
"You must eat first and restore your strength," Reiko
said to Sano. "I'll bring your breakfast." She paused
in the doorway. "Is there anything else you need me to
Sano read anxiety in her manner, instead of the eager excitement
with which she usually greeted a new investigation. He said, "I
won't know until I've determined whether Makino was indeed
murdered. Maybe Hirata and I will discover that he died of
natural causes. Maybe I can dispel suspicion of foul play,
and everything will be all right."
Excerpt from THE PERFUMED SLEEVE
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2004
Published by St.