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  The Snow Empress by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
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Excerpt from The Snow Empress


Cover: The Snow Empress by Laura Joh Rowland Ezogashima, Genroku Year 12, Month 9 (Hokkaido, October 1699)

She hastened along a narrow, winding path illuminated by the full autumn moon that shone upon the forest. Her feet, clad in high-soled lacquer sandals, stumbled over the rough terrain. Branches reached out from the darkness and snagged her long hair and her flowing silk robes. A chill wind stripped leaves off boughs that waved and creaked. Wolves howled.

Having grown unaccustomed to physical exertion, she panted, inhaling the odors of pine and dead leaves tinged by smoke. Her heart beat faster with anger. She had better things to do than ramble through the cold night! She hated the forests; she shrank from the eerie voices of the spirits that inhabited the wilderness. If she had her way, she would never venture outdoors again. She didn’t belong here, even though her ancestors had called this land home since the beginning of time. How much better to relax in a warm, lighted, comfortable room than to bother with this foolish business!

Huffing in exasperation, she peered ahead through the whispering shadows. But she saw no one, heard no footfalls nor breaths except her own. Her tongue brimmed with scathing words. She quickened her pace, eager to settle matters for good.

Against her shin pressed a line of tension, as if from a vine grown across the path. She tripped. At the same time, she heard a loud snap. Instinctive fear seized her. She recognized that sound. As she pitched forward, arms flung wide to catch herself, a whizzing noise cleaved the night, rushing through the forest toward her. A hard thump struck her chest below her right breast. Sharpness pierced deep between her ribs. She fell, screaming in terrified pain. Her hands and knees smacked the ground. The impact punched the breath from her lungs. She groped at her breast, searching for the source of the agony.

She found a long, thin, rounded wooden shaft. The end embedded in her flesh was made of iron. The opposite end had two bristly ridges of feathers. It was an arrow.

Blood spilled from the wound, gleaming black in the moonlight, warm and wet on her fingers. The pain was cruel as a hungry animal savaging organs and sinews. It tore gasps and whimpers from her. But she knew that worse was yet to come. She knew what she must do if she wanted to save her life.

She closed her hands around the shaft and pulled. The arrowhead ripped through tissue already torn, scraped bones on its way out. Her shriek blared through the forest. The arrow came free in a gout of blood, dropped from her hands. Black stars coalesced in her vision, obliterating the moonlight. Faintness weakened her. Moaning, she fumbled at her sash. But she’d long ago ceased the habit of carrying a knife. She clawed desperately at her breast, tearing the skin that encircled the wound. Bits came off under her fingernails; all the while more blood outpoured.

Yet she realized it was no use. The arrow had gone too deep, touched her innards, planted destruction. Dizziness and chills attacked her. The moon blazed as bright and hot as the sun. A choking sensation clenched her throat; nausea embroiled her stomach. The spirits of the forest rose up and whirled around her, cawing like carrion birds.

She lurched to her feet and down the path the way she’d come. She called out for help, but the one who might have rushed to her aid did not. Everybody else was too far away to hear let alone rescue her. Convulsions shuddered through her, knocked her to the ground. She keened in anguished protest.

She heard the spirits laughing and exclaiming triumphantly: Now you’ll never leave us.


A world away, in the city of Edo, the autumn moon shone upon Zojo Temple. Warm, mellow light gilded the pagoda. Conversation and laughter rose from the crowd gathered in the garden to view the moon on this summery night. Fashionably dressed samurai and ladies reclined on the grass, composing poetry. Servants poured wine and passed out moon-cakes. Children ran and squealed in delight. Samurai boys fought mock battles, their wooden swords clattering, their shouts loud above the boom of temple gongs. Incense smoke spiced the air. Flames in stone lanterns chased the darkness to the perimeters of the garden, where pine trees shadowed the landscape.

Chamberlain Sano Ichiro and his wife, Lady Reiko, sat amid friends and attendants, laughing at silly poems they recited. But although Sano was enjoying this rare time away from the business of running the government, he couldn’t relax completely. Too many years as a target for political plots had taught him caution. Now the hour was late, and Sano’s party had a long ride back to Edo Castle, through city streets where rebels marauded.

Raising his wine cup, he announced, “One last toast to our good fortune! Then we must go home.”

Amid groans of disappointment, his attendants prepared to depart, called farewells to nearby groups. Sano said to Reiko, “Now if only we can find that son of ours.”

Masahiro was eight years old; independent and grown-up, he preferred to rollick with friends his age rather than sit sedately beside his elders.

“I’ll fetch him.” Reiko walked through the crowd to the boys playing war. “Masahiro! Time to go.”

There was no answer. He probably didn’t want to leave the fun, Reiko thought. Her gaze darted among the running, yelling boys. She didn’t see Masahiro with them. Less worried than impatient, she moved toward the garden’s edge. Perhaps he was hiding in the woods. Then she spied an object that lay on the ground near the pine trees.

It was Masahiro’s toy sword. A replica of a real samurai weapon, it had a hilt bound in black silk cord, a brass guard decorated with his flying-crane family crest, and a wooden blade. Reiko’s impatience turned to alarm because her son would never run off and leave behind his most prized possession.

“Masahiro!” she cried, frantically scanning the other children, the gay crowd, the temple. Dread invaded her heart. “Where are you?”

Chapter 1

Edo, Genroku Year 12, Month 10 (Tokyo, November 1699)

A gray, clouded twilight befell Edo. Thin drizzle glazed the capital’s tile roofs and subdued the crowds trudging through the wet streets. The cold vapors of late autumn floated on the Sumida River. Mist rendered Edo Castle almost invisible upon its hilltop and drenched the lights in its guard turrets.

Seated inside his office in his compound within the castle, Sano saw Detective Marume, one of his two personal bodyguards, standing at the threshold. He paused in the middle of a letter he was dictating to his secretary. “Well? Did you find him?” he demanded.

The sad expression on the burly detective’s normally cheerful face was answer enough. The hope that had risen in Sano drowned in disappointment.

Masahiro had been missing for almost two months, since the moon-viewing party. Sano still had troops out searching, to no avail. The possibility of kidnapping had occurred to him, even though no ransom demand had come. He had suspicions about who might be responsible, but he’d investigated all his enemies and come up with no clues that tied Masahiro’s disappearance to them; in fact, no clues at all. Every day Masahiro was gone Sano grew more desperate to find his beloved son, and more afraid he never would.

“I’m sorry,” Marume said. “The sighting was another false lead.”

False leads had taunted Sano from the beginning. At first he and Reiko had thrilled to each new report that a boy who fit Masahiro’s description had been spotted in this or that place. But as the hunt had gone on and on, as their hopes were cruelly dashed time after time, Sano had come to dread new leads. He couldn’t bear to tell Reiko that this last one had come to naught, to see her suffer.

The only hardship more terrible for them than another day without Masahiro was not knowing what had happened to him.

“Don’t worry, we’ll find your boy,” Marume said, as if anxious to convince himself.

Fighting the idea that despite all his power, his troops, and his wealth he couldn’t bring Masahiro back, striving to remain optimistic, Sano said, “Any new information?”

Marume hesitated, then said, “Not today.”

The only thing worse than false leads was no leads at all. Sano felt his endurance crumbling under a wave of grief, but he couldn’t fall apart. Not only his wife but the Tokugawa regime depended on him. “Keep the search going. Don’t give up.”

“Will do,” Marume said.

A manservant came to the door. “Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain. There’s a message from the shogun. He wants to see you in the palace right away.”

Sano was reminded that the disappearance of his son was only one of his troubles.


Sano found the shogun in his bath chamber. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the military dictator of Japan, sat naked in the sunken tub of steaming water. A blind masseur rubbed his withered shoulders. His favorite companion, a beautiful youth named Yoritomo, lounged close to him in the tub. Guards and servants hovered nearby. Lord Matsudaira, the shogun’s cousin, crouched next to the door. He was sweating in his armor, his stoic expression not hiding his resentment that he must dance attendance on his cousin or lose influence over him and control over the regime.

“Greetings, Chamberlain Sano,” he said.

Five years ago, Lord Matsudaira had set out to take over the regime because he thought he would be a better dictator than the weak, foolish shogun was. His first step was to eliminate the former chamberlain, Yanagisawa, who’d been the shogun’s lover and ruled Japan from behind the throne. Lord Matsudaira had defeated Yanagisawa on the battlefield and exiled him. But Lord Matsudaira had had a harder time maintaining power than achieving it. Now antagonism toward Sano iced his polite manner. Sano felt his guard go up against this man who’d become his personal enemy.

“Are you surprised to see me?” Lord Matsudaira asked.

“Not at all.” Sano was displeased to find Lord Matsudaira here but had expected as much. Lord Matsudaira was always around when Sano saw the shogun, the better to prevent them from getting too close.

“Perhaps, then,” Lord Matsudaira said, “you’re disappointed that I’m still alive after last night’s incident.”

Sano guessed what was coming. Not again, he thought in dismay. “What incident?”

“A firebomb was thrown into my villa on the river while I was hosting a banquet there,” said Lord Matsudaira.

“Dear me, how terrible,” murmured the shogun. “It seems as if this sort of thing is, ahh, always happening to you.”

Although Lord Matsudaira had purged the regime of Yanagisawa’s allies, subjugating some and banishing or executing others, Yanagisawa still had underground partisans fighting Lord Matsudaira with covert acts of violence. And Lord Matsudaira was so insecure in his power that his relations with his own supporters had deteriorated. He harshly punished them for the slightest hint of disloyalty while forcing them to pay large cash tributes to prove their allegiance. He’d created such a climate of fear and disgruntlement that there were many people in his camp who wouldn’t have minded seeing him dead.

“I’d have thought that you of all people would have known about the bombing.” Lord Matsudaira glanced at the shogun, who looked puzzled trying to catch the drift of the conversation, then fixed an accusing stare on Sano. “Perhaps in advance.”

“You’re mistaken,” Sano said, exasperated because this was the third time in as many months that Lord Matsudaira had accused him of something he hadn’t done. He wasn’t responsible for the bombing even though the man had reason to think so.

Last year the folks who’d put Lord Matsudaira on top had started casting about for somebody to take him down. Sano had found himself pushed to the head of the line.

At first he’d rejected the idea of challenging Lord Matsudaira because his duty and loyalty to the shogun extended to the entire Tokugawa clan. But Lord Matsudaira treated him so badly, always criticizing him, accusing him of treason and corruption, threatening him and his family with death. Sano had faced a choice between leading a movement against Lord Matsudaira or bowing down and giving up his post, his self-respect, and his samurai honor.

That was no choice at all.

Lord Matsudaira now regarded Sano with hostility, believing him guilty of the attack no matter what he said. “You might be interested to know that my guards caught the man that threw the bomb. Before they killed him, he told me who sent him.”

“I’m sure that by the time you were finished with him, he would have said anything you wanted,” Sano said, denying that the bomber was one of his men. Now he had his own bone to pick with Lord Matsudaira. “If you’re so determined to lay blame, then consider the attack a retaliation.”

“For what?” Lord Matsudaira said, disconcerted.

“Some troops were ambushed and fired at by snipers eight days ago.” Aware of the shogun listening, Sano kept his speech circumspect; he didn’t say that the troops were from his own army or that he thought Lord Matsudaira responsible.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Although Lord Matsudaira sounded genuinely surprised, Sano didn’t believe him any more than he’d believed Sano. “You may be interested to know that the snipers were seen by witnesses before they ran away. They were wearing a certain family crest.” Yours, his look told Lord Matsudaira.

Outraged incredulity showed on the man’s face. “The witnesses are lying. Why would one send men on a sneak attack, labeled with one’s own crest?”

“Because one didn’t expect anybody would live to tell,” Sano said.

As he and Lord Matsudaira stared each other down, Sano felt a sense of momentum careening out of control, as if they were two horsemen tumbling down a hill while they fought together. He’d expected Lord Matsudaira to meet his opposition with due force; Sano had armed himself with a long-term strategy of building support and had hoped for a painless takeover, but the attacks were propelling them toward outright battle. His samurai spirit filled with bloodlust. He could taste both victory and death.

“I don’t know what you’re arguing about,” the shogun interrupted, peevish because Sano and Lord Matsudaira had excluded him from their conversation. “Settle your differences elsewhere. Chamberlain Sano, I brought you here to discuss a very important matter.”

“What would that be, Your Excellency?” Sano said.

“It’s a report that you sent me.” The shogun fumbled at some scrolls beside the tub. “Now which one is it?”

Yoritomo reached over, picked out a scroll, and handed it to his lord and lover. He shot a nervous glance at Sano, who pitied him. Yoritomo was a son of Yanagisawa, the former chamberlain. Although Lord Matsudaira had exiled Yanagisawa and his family, the shogun had insisted on keeping Yoritomo. Yoritomo had Tokugawa blood—from his mother, a relative of the shogun—and rumor said he was heir apparent to the dictatorship. Sano had befriended Yoritomo, who seemed alone and lost at court, a decent young man who deserved better than to be a political pawn and a target for Lord Matsudaira’s schemes.

The shogun opened the scroll and jabbed a wet finger at the characters. “I am concerned about this, ahh, situation you mentioned.” Lately, he’d begun taking an interest in government affairs instead of leaving them to his subordinates. Perhaps he sensed how much control he’d lost and wanted to snatch it back, at this late date. “The one that involves Ezogashima.”

Ezogashima was the far northernmost island of Japan, sometimes referred to as Hokkaido, “Northern Sea Circuit.” A vast, sparsely populated wilderness of forests, mountains, and rivers, it consisted of two domains. The largest was Ezochi, “barbarian place,” inhabited by the Ezo, primitive tribal people scattered among tiny villages. The other was Wajinchi, “Japanese place,” squeezed into the southwest corner, a remote outpost of the Tokugawa regime and its foothold in alien territory.

“You say there is a problem with the Matsumae clan,” the shogun said.

The clan were his vassals who governed Ezogashima, their longtime hereditary fief. In the rigidly organized world of Japan, their status was ambiguous. They weren’t traditional landholders like the daimyo, feudal lords who ruled the provinces. There was little agriculture in Ezogashima, no income from farming. Rather, the Matsumae derived their wealth and political power from their monopoly on trade with the Ezo. They took a share of the money made on furs, gold, wild game, fish, and other products exported to the south. They were looked down upon by samurai society because they blurred the line between warrior and merchant.

Squinting at the inked characters, which had begun to run, the shogun said, “Remind me what the problem is, Yoritomo-san.”

“Lord Matsumae didn’t show up for his attendance this year,” the youth said in a quiet, deferential tone.

“He was due in the summer,” Sano clarified.

The Matsumae came to Edo to visit the shogun about once every three years, less often than other lords, who came annually. This was not only because of the long distance from Ezogashima, but also political factors. Lord Matsumae was supposed to be busy defending Japan’s northern frontier, and he was so removed from the power plays of Edo that he was considered not much of a threat to the Tokugawa, which therefore kept him on a loose rein. He didn’t even have to leave his wife and children in Edo as hostages to ensure his good behavior. However, he did owe respect to the shogun. His failure to appear was a serious violation of protocol.

“Even more disturbing is the fact that there’s been no communication at all from Ezogashima in two months,” Lord Matsudaira said, obviously familiar with the situation. There was a sly smile on his face that Sano didn’t like.

“What have you done about this, ahh, matter?” the shogun asked Sano.

Sano had to pause and think. Masahiro’s disappearance had made it hard for him to concentrate on anything else. “I sent envoys to find out what’s going on. They never returned.”

“Worse and worse,” Lord Matsudaira muttered, but he sounded pleased for some strange, private reason.

“What could be the cause of this?” the shogun asked.

“Perhaps an Ezo uprising has prevented Lord Matsumae from leaving his domain or sending communiqués,” Sano said.

From time to time the barbarians warred against the Japanese, invariably over trade disputes and Japanese intrusion into Ezo hunting and fishing territory. The last war had occurred some thirty years ago, when Ezo chieftains had banded together, attacked the Matsumae clan, and attempted to drive them out of Ezogashima. More than two hundred Japanese had been killed before the Matsumae finally subdued the barbarians. But another war with the Ezo wasn’t the most dire possibility.

“Maybe the Manchurians have attacked,” Lord Matsudaira said.

The regime had long feared an invasion, via Ezogashima, by the Manchurians from the Chinese mainland. The Matsumae clan was Japan’s buffer against them. Sano imagined war raging in Ezogashima, the Matsumae defeated, then enemy legions conquering Japan province by province before anyone in Edo knew. As everyone contemplated such a fate, fear opened the shogun’s mouth. He reached for Yoritomo, who held his hand.

“Something must be done,” the shogun said to Sano.

Sano knew what was coming. Even if instinct hadn’t alerted him, Lord Matsudaira’s sly smile would have. He hurried to head it off. “I’ll send a battalion of troops to Ezogashima today.”

“That’s not good enough.” The shogun pointed a dripping, withered finger at Sano. “I want you to go yourself.”

A sense of injustice flared up in Sano. That the shogun still treated him like an errand boy, ordering him here and there on a whim, even now that he was second-in-command! Yet he knew he had no right to be angry even though a trip to Ezogashima was the last thing he needed. He was just as much at his lord’s disposal as the lowliest foot soldier was; he owed the shogun unstinting duty without expectation of reward. That was Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the code of honor by which he lived. And he knew that sending him to Ezogashima wasn’t the shogun’s idea. Sano glared at Lord Matsudaira.

Lord Matsudaira met his gaze with bland indifference before saying, “That’s a wonderful idea, Your Excellency. I’m sure Chamberlain Sano will straighten everything out for us.”

While Sano was gone, Lord Matsudaira would steal his allies and build up his own power base. Then there would be no place left at court for Sano. If he went to Ezogashima, he might as well never come back.

“I’m eager to be of service, but if I go, who will help you run the government, Your Excellency?” Sano said, appealing to the shogun’s self-interest.

That ploy usually worked, but this time the shogun said, “My dear cousin has assured me that he will, ahh, fill your shoes in your absence.” He smiled gratefully at Lord Matsudaira, who smirked.

But Sano had another, more urgent reason besides politics for wanting to get out of the trip. Desperation drove him to beg for special consideration even though he never had before. “Your Excellency, this is a bad time for me to leave Edo. My son is missing.”

“Ahh, yes, I recall,” the shogun said, diverted. “Poor little boy. How terrible for you and Lady Reiko.”

Sano hastened to press his advantage: “I have to be here to lead the search for him.”

The shogun wavered but then turned to Lord Matsudaira. “What do you think?”

“I think that perhaps his wish to find his son gives Chamberlain Sano all the more motive to go to Ezogashima,” Lord Matsudaira said in a portentous tone. “Before you argue anymore, Chamberlain Sano, I have something to show you.”

He stood, reached under his sash, pulled out an object, and handed it to Sano. It was the hilt of a miniature sword, the wooden blade broken off. As Sano gazed at the flying-crane crest stamped on the brass guard, recognition and puzzlement stunned him. The hilt came from one toy sword of a pair he’d given Masahiro. The sword was the mate of the longer one that Reiko had found at the temple. Masahiro had worn both weapons that night.

“Where did you get this?” Sano demanded.

Shrugging, Lord Matsudaira smiled, his expression innocent. “I think you can guess.”

Sano pictured Lord Matsudaira’s soldiers emerging from the woods at the temple, grabbing Masahiro. He saw Masahiro struggle to defend himself, his blade breaking. The soldiers smuggled Masahiro away from town, under the cover of darkness, careful to leave no trail. Revelation confirmed what Sano had suspected from the start despite a lack of evidence.

Lord Matsudaira had kidnapped Masahiro.

Such rage beset Sano that a shrieking noise blared in his ears and blood crimsoned his vision. Lord Matsudaira had taken his son, put him and Reiko through two months of hell.

“You!” Sano lunged at Lord Matsudaira.

The shogun exclaimed in fright. The guards dragged Sano away from Lord Matsudaira, who was unfazed. Sano fought them, shouting, “What did you do to him? Where is he?”

“What’s going on?” the shogun cried.

Sano drew a breath to say that Lord Matsudaira had kidnapped his son as yet another move against him in their ongoing strife, to tell the shogun, at long last, that his cousin was after his place at the head of the dictatorship.

“Beware, Chamberlain Sano,” Lord Matsudaira cautioned, shaking his head, his voice ominous, his smile gone. “Speak, and you’ll hurt yourself more than me.”

Prudence grappled with anger in Sano and won. He exhaled his intentions in a gust of air, because he knew Lord Matsudaira was right.

The shogun was still unaware that his cousin had seized control of Japan and Sano was contesting Lord Matsudaira. No one had told him, and he wasn’t observant enough to have noticed. Sano and Lord Matsudaira enforced a nationwide conspiracy of silence because if he did find out, the precarious balance of power could tip in a direction that favored neither of them. Their rivalry could become a three-way civil war if the daimyo on their sides shifted their backing to the shogun, who had the hereditary right to rule. They would see the advantage of grouping together under one leader versus dividing their strength between two. The shogun could emerge the victor in spite of his personal shortcomings. And defeat would be worse for Sano than Lord Matsudaira.

Even if Lord Matsudaira lost his domains, his army, and his political position in a war, his blood ties to the shogun could shield him from execution for treason. He could live to fight another day. But Sano, an outsider, would be put to death, as would his family and all his close associates.

Now Sano’s tongue was silenced, his hands chained. He could only stare with bitter hatred at his foe who’d struck him the lowest blow in his most vulnerable spot.

“I won’t forget this,” he said in a voice so harsh, so threatening, that Lord Matsudaira flinched.

“Forget what?” the shogun piped up timidly.

“Where is he?” Sano demanded again.

Lord Matsudaira recovered his swagger, his smile. “In Ezogashima.”

Although Sano was stunned by fresh shock, he realized he shouldn’t be. The news of where Lord Matsudaira had sent his son had a feeling of inevitability. All the strands of conflict and misfortune in his life had braided together. This whole discussion had been leading up to this moment.

“ In Ezogashima,” Lord Matsudaira repeated, “where trouble is waiting for you to investigate.” His eyes shone with evil triumph. “He should have arrived in the castle town of Fukuyama City a month ago. You mustn’t lose any time getting there.”

If you want to rescue your son, said his unspoken words. The ransom for Masahiro was Sano’s mission to Ezogashima, his absence from Edo. Despite the circumstances, Sano felt the burden of his misery lighten. At last he knew where Masahiro was. Lord Matsudaira could be lying, but Sano’s samurai instincts told him otherwise. His political instincts said that although Lord Matsudaira could easily have had Masahiro killed, that wasn’t the case, because Masahiro was too valuable alive, as a hostage.

Now Sano’s mind shifted focus away from the present scene, to his top priority of retrieving his son. The people around him seemed to shrink as if viewed from the far end of a spyglass. His new sense of mission dwarfed even Lord Matsudaira. Sano would deal with him later.

“If you’ll excuse me, Your Excellency,” Sano said, bowing to the shogun, “I must prepare for a trip to Ezogashima.”

“ Ahh, are you going, then?” The shogun sounded relieved. All he’d gleaned from their conversation was that Sano had decided to obey his orders. Yoritomo gave Sano a strange, tormented, apologetic look, as if he thought himself to blame for Sano’s whole predicament. “Well, ahh, have a good voyage.”

Sano was already out the door. He would rush headlong up north, as if he were a dog and Lord Matsudaira had thrown a stick for him to fetch.


©Laura Joh Rowland, 2007
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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