Also by Laura Joh Rowland The Snow Empress ??Red Chrysanthemum ????The Assassin’s Touch ??????The Perfumed Sleeve ????????The Dragon King’s Palace
??????????The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria
??????????????The Samurai’s Wife
????????????????The Concubine’s Tattoo
??????????????????The Way of the Traitor
Laura Joh Rowland
ST. MARTIN’S MINOTAUR
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in thisnovel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
THE FIRE KIMONO. Copyright ? 2008 by Laura Joh Rowland. All rights reserved. Printed in theUnited States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, NewYork, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
????????Rowland, Laura Joh.
????????????The fire kimono / Laura Joh Rowland.—1st ed.
????????????1. Sano Ichirō (Fictitious character)—Fiction.????2. Samurai—Fiction.????????3.Japan—History—Genroku period, 1688—1704—Fiction.????I. Title.
????????PS3568.O934 F57 2008????????813′.54—dc22
First Edition: November 2008
To all the readers who have supported this series.You know who you are.
EdoGenroku Year 13, Month 2
(Tokyo, March 1700)
A fierce windstorm swept the hills outside Edo. Lightning seared bright white veins down thegray sky while distant thunder reverberated. A Shinto priest hurried along a path through theforest. He clutched his black cap to his head and staggered as the wind buffeted him. His whiterobe flapped like a swan in mad flight. Dirt and leaves swirled around him in cyclones thatstung his face, blinded him. He stumbled faster uphill toward the shrine, where he could takeshelter.
The trees swayed, creaked, and thrashed. The wind’s howling force knocked the priest to theground. As he struggled to regain his feet, he heard an ominous cracking noise, as if the worldwere splitting. He saw a huge, dead oak tree pitch toward him. Crooked, leafless branchesreached down like monstrous hands to grab him as the tree toppled, its massive trunk a blackbattering 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 thebranches, 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 hadtorn loose from the dirt. They’d left a yawning hole in the forest beside the path. Somethingin the lumpy earth just below the surface level at the edge of the hole caught the priest’sattention.
The object was brown from the soil, with a rounded top the size of a small melon. The priestsquatted for a closer inspection and recoiled in dismay. Empty eye sockets stared and bareteeth 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, LordMatsudaira, had escalated drastically. Their troops brawled in the streets of Edo, eager forwar. 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 mountedguards blocked her view of the high walls and roofed gates of the mansions in the officialdistrict. All she could see were armored legs astride moving horse flanks. Her bearers marchedin time with the steps of the foot soldiers in her entourage, which numbered fifty armed men inall. Reiko leaned back on the cushions and sighed.
Not a glimpse of the city’s color and bustle or breath of spring air could reach her. Yetthese precautions were vital. Last winter, Lord Matsudaira had served notice that Sano’sfamily wasn’t off-limits in the power struggle. He’d had Sano and Reiko’s then-eight-year-old son, Masahiro, kidnapped and sent to the far north. Knowing that she might be the nexttarget, Reiko left Sano’s estate inside Edo Castle only on the most serious business.
Her aunt had died, and although they hadn’t been close, the woman had been kind to Reikoduring her childhood. That fact, plus family duty, had obligated Reiko to brave venturingoutside to 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 lumberblocking an intersection. Such carts, owned by the government, were the only wheeled vehiclespermitted in Japan. Forcing everyone to travel by horse or by foot prevented troop movementsand 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 theextra 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 herpalanquin, she felt another thud as another man landed.
“Ambush!” shouted the guards.
The doors of the palanquin burst open. Reiko screamed. Her attackers—two young samurai withknives gripped in their teeth—swung upside down from the roof at her. As she drew the daggershe 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 theyslashed at her. Their hot breath and pungent sweat filled the palanquin. Reiko saw the crestsstamped on their kimonos. They were Lord Matsudaira’s men, no surprise. She franticallyparried against their blades. One grazed her face. Outside, swords clashed while her guardsfought off more Matsudaira troops who’d joined the attack. The combatants’ bodies thumpedagainst the palanquin. Horses whinnied as the battle raged.
“Turn around!” her guard captain shouted. “Head back to the castle! Somebody get thosebastards off Lady Reiko!”
Reiko heard her chief bodyguard, Lieutenant Asukai, call her name. As her attackers pinned herarms and she kicked at them, he lunged into the palanquin and seized one of the men. Thepalanquin 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 threwhimself on top of Reiko. He clutched the wrist of her hand that held the dagger. His weightimmobilized 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 shinysteel.
“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 intohis eyes. He screamed, let go of her, and reared up. Lieutenant Asukai yanked at his legs untilhe flew backward out of the palanquin, bleeding from the eyes, knife raised, mouth yowling.
Reiko saw the portals of Edo Castle ahead, promising sanctuary. The castle was neutralterritory in the conflict between Sano and Lord Matsudaira, by tacit, mutual agreement. Theyboth lived inside it; neither wanted war on his own doorstep. The sentries stared in amazementat Reiko’s palanquin hurtling toward them and the battle that trailed it like unrulystreamers.
“Let us in!” Lieutenant Asukai shouted, running beside Reiko.
The sentries swung open the huge, iron-banded gate. Winded and puffing, the bearers staggeredcarrying the palanquin through it. The gate 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 doctordabbed medicinal ointment on the cut on her cheek. First his son kidnapped, now his wifeambushed. 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. “Idon’t look half as bad as you do.”
Masahiro, nine years old, had come running when he’d heard about the attack. His white martialarts practice uniform was dirty from wrestling on the ground; he sported cuts and scrapes onhis hands, arms, and knees. A fading purple bruise surrounded his left eye. Ever since hisabduction, Masahiro had pursued his martial arts studies with punishing vigor, the better todefend himself. This was 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 couldhave been killed.”
Sano hadn’t wanted Masahiro to know about the attack, had wanted to shield him from adultproblems. But Masahiro had a way of finding out what happened; his sharp ears and his nose forinformation rivaled those of any spy in the government intelligence service. And he’d matureda 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; butMasahiro was his own, unique person, and he was growing up too fast. There was little room forchildhood in their harsh world.
“Masahiro is right,” Sano said to Reiko. The boy sat straighter, gladdened by his father’sapproval. Sano remembered looking up to and aspiring to be like his own father, now dead elevenyears. How long before Masahiro became aware of his failings and the hero-worship ended? “Youcan’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 arueful smile. She would need to get used to having two men telling her what to do. This timeshe conceded. “For how long?”
She spoke as if she didn’t expect Sano to answer, and he didn’t. He only wished he knew howlong 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 ashowdown 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 tomy son?”
“And to my mother?” Masahiro said.
“It’s not the time for me to challenge Lord Matsudaira in battle,” Sano said. “His troopsoutnumber mine by too many.”
Sano’s army had shrunk drastically since last autumn. He’d come home from Ezogashima todiscover that he’d lost entire regiments during his absence. Without Sano here to keep them inline and their morale up, Lord Matsudaira had easily won them over. That was just as LordMatsudaira had planned when he’d kidnapped Masahiro, and Sano had gone to Ezogashima to rescuehis son.
“And I can’t afford to run a war for more than a few months.” Sano had also lost key alliesamong the daimyo, the feudal lords he’d counted on to fund a military venture.
“It can’t be that bad,” Reiko said. “You still have many allies.” She named some, allwealthy, powerful daimyo with large armies. “You can win.”
“Let’s declare war!” Masahiro’s face shone with zeal and confidence in Sano. “You’re notafraid of Lord Matsudaira.”
Sano dreaded the day when he would see Masahiro begin to doubt him. Now he needed to giveMasahiro a lesson as difficult to teach as to learn.
“Of course I’m afraid,” Sano said, even though he hated admitting fear. “A samurai whoisn’t afraid of a dangerous enemy isn’t a hero; he’s a fool.” More and more often, Sanoheard his own father’s words coming out of his mouth. “A truly courageous samurai masters hisfear.”
Impatient, hardly listening, Masahiro jumped up and paced back and forth, Reiko’s habit whenexcited. “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 thatMasahiro 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 withthe 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 anddrawing 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. “Allright, I don’t want a war, either.” She’d clearly lost her appetite for it now that she sawher son headed for the front lines. “But if you’re not declaring war on Lord Matsudaira, whygo 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, andJapan will suffer. War involves more than the two top men fighting it. Should it spread beyondEdo, 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 thematurity 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 protectthe 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 toppersonal bodyguards. Accompanied by a squadron of troops, they went to the special compoundinside Edo Castle where the Tokugawa-branch clan members lived. Lord Matsudaira, the shogun’scousin, had the largest estate. Sentries were posted outside its gate, at intervals along thehigh stone walls, and in the watchtowers. When they saw Sano’s party coming, their handsflashed 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 nervecoming here. After what you’ve done today.”
he’s done?” Hirata said. “What are you talking about?”“After what
Noting the mystified expressions of Sano and his companions, the man smirked. “Looks like youand your people have lost your memories, Chamberlain Sano. Well, don’t worry; Lord Matsudairawill fill in the blank spaces.”
He sent a runner to tell Lord Matsudaira that Sano was here. As other guards opened the gateand escorted Sano’s party inside, Sano exchanged perturbed glances with Hirata, Marume, andFukida. 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 theprohibition against violence inside Edo Castle, they would have attacked Sano. The air smelledof gunpowder.
Sano found Lord Matsudaira waiting in his reception room. Flanked by bodyguards, with troopsstationed along the walls, Lord Matsudaira stood on the dais. His posture was arrogant, hisexpression murderous. But he was thinner, and visibly older, than when Sano had left forEzogashima only six months ago. The strain of building his army, juggling allies, and battlingtreachery had carved new lines in his strong-featured face. The fire in his eyes verged onfever.
“What in hell do you want?” he demanded.
“I have a proposition to make,” Sano said, even as his hatred toward his enemy flared. Hehadn’t started this quarrel; he’d been willing to work with Lord Matsudaira to serve theshogun, their master. It was Lord Matsudaira who wanted to be shogun himself, who saw Sano’spower 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’tattack you this morning.”
Infuriated by the denial, Sano said, “Your men ambushed my wife and tried to kill her. Or haveyou forgotten you sent them?”
Lord Matsudaira seemed as much confused as scornful. “I didn’t.” He pointed a finger at
you who just sent your men to kill my wife.”Sano. “It was
Sano thought of what the sentries had said. Consternation filled him. “You’d better explainwhat happened.”
“Playing innocent, eh?” Lord Matsudaira’s face darkened with anger. “I suppose you came togloat 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. Moretroops patrolled amid azalea bushes in bright red bloom. Increasingly baffled, Sano followedLord Matsudaira to the heart of the estate, a group of low buildings connected by coveredcorridors. One lay half in ruins, walls broken, the tile roof collapsed. The ruins were coveredby black soot. Servants labored, cleaning up the mess.
“These are the women’s quarters,” Lord Matsudaira said, gesturing angrily. “My wife wasinside. She has burns all over her. It’s a miracle she wasn’t killed. One of her attendantswas.” 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 pluggedwith burning rags into the windows. My men caught them running away from the explosion. See foryourself.”
Lord Matsudaira led Sano to a blanket spread on the charred grass near the ruins. He flung backthe 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 Matsudairasaid. “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 havetwo bodies of men that my troops caught and killed after they tried to stab my wife. They’rewearing your crests.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Lord Matsudaira protested. “Whatever business I have withyou, 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. Hesaid, “This isn’t the first time that people on your side have been attacked and I wasn’tresponsible, 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 firebombsand snipers. So had Lord Matsudaira’s. The frequency of the attacks had increased since Sanohad returned from Ezogashima. Each rival had blamed the other, with reason based on evidence aswell as motive. But Sano knew he wasn’t to blame, and he was ready to acknowledge that perhapsneither 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 theattacks, he’d found no substantiating clues as to the person behind them. He’d nevermentioned 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 beenfaking 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 andshook 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 tohope he could convince Lord Matsudaira. “Agree to a truce. Then we can get to the bottom ofthese attacks and work out a peace treaty.”
“Take your peace treaty and shove it up your behind,” Lord Matsudaira said. “Now leavebefore I throw you out.”
As they glared at each other, Sano felt the war he wanted to prevent rushing on them like atornado. The sensation was as exhilarating as it was dreadful. When he and his men turned todepart, 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.”
The shogun received Sano and Lord Matsudaira in a courtyard of the castle, inside a gatenormally used by servants. Loads of coal, hay, and timber surrounded him and the ten personalguards stationed in a tight cluster. Near them stood Yoritomo, the beautiful young samurai whowas his favorite companion and lover. As Sano, Lord Matsudaira, and their entourages bowed tothe shogun, he rubbed his frail hands together, and his gentle, refined features shone withexcitement.
“Something, ahh, momentous has happened,” he announced.
Lord Matsudaira said under his breath, “It must be momentous indeed to lure you outside thecomfort of your chambers.”
Sano knew that Lord Matsudaira hated being inferior to the shogun, that he envied the shogunhis position at the head of the Tokugawa dictatorship. He thought it should belong to him, byright of his superior intelligence and strength. The strain of grasping at it had taxed hispatience for dancing attendance on the shogun. These days he barely managed to hide hiscontempt.
“What’s happened, Your Excellency?” Sano asked politely.
“It had better be worth dragging me over here,” Lord Matsudaira muttered.
“There was a, ahh, big windstorm near the Inari Shrine in the hills this morning,” the shogunsaid. “It knocked down a big tree.”
“Why do we care?” Lord Matsudaira interrupted. “If there’s a point to this story, let’sget to it.”
The shogun narrowed his eyes at his cousin. Sano had noticed that the shogun appeared morenervous lately than usual, as if he sensed something was amiss. He didn’t know that LordMatsudaira virtually controlled Japan, that Sano was contesting Lord Matsudaira, that the twowere on the brink of war. No one had told him, and he was astoundingly unobservant.Furthermore, Sano and Lord Matsudaira enforced a nationwide conspiracy of silence because if
the shogun did find out, the ramifications could tip the precarious balance of power. But evenif he didn’t understand what was going on, he must have perceived that his cousin was thesource of the trouble.
“When the tree fell, the roots, ahh, came up out of the ground,” the shogun continued,speaking slowly, deliberately annoying Lord Matsudaira. “In the hole was a human skeleton. Ithad been buried beside the tree, in an unmarked grave.” He gestured dramatically toward hisguards. “And here it is!”
The guards parted to reveal an iron trunk. The shogun stood as far away from it as possible,avoiding the pollution of death. Yoritomo kept quietly to himself, avoiding attention. Sanounderstood why. Yoritomo was the son of the former, ousted chamberlain Yanagisawa. AlthoughLord Matsudaira had exiled Yanagisawa and his family, Yoritomo remained in Edo because theshogun had insisted on keeping him. The shogun’s fondness protected Yoritomo from LordMatsudaira, who wanted to eliminate everyone connected to his onetime rival, but Yoritomowasn’t taking any chances.
Sano and Lord Matsudaira gazed at the trunk, nonplussed. “Why are you so concerned about anold skeleton, Honorable Cousin?” Lord Matsudaira forced courtesy into his tone. “It probablybelongs to some pilgrim who took ill and died at the shrine ages ago.”
“It does not,” the shogun said, triumphant. “I know who it is.”
“How, if the grave was unmarked?”
The shogun beckoned to a guard, who stepped forward holding a long, narrow, cloth-wrappedbundle. The guard unwrapped the cloth from around two swords. They were blackened by dirt,corroded by rust, and shorter than the weapons samurai carried. Sano estimated them as slightlylonger than the ones he’d given Masahiro. They’d belonged to a child.
“The swords were buried near the skeleton,” the shogun said. “See the characters on them?”
Sano read the characters that gleamed gold amid the rust: ‘“Tokugawa Tadatoshi.’” He turnedto the shogun in surprise. “He belonged to your clan.”
“Yes. Do you know who he was?” the shogun asked, with the air of a child playing a guessinggame.
The Tokugawa family tree was huge, many-branched. Before Sano could think through it, LordMatsudaira said, “He was your second cousin, Your Excellency.”
“That’s right,” the shogun said, clapping his hands.
Lord Matsudaira gave Sano a smile that said he’d scored a point in their competition for theshogun’s favor. Whoever lost it could find himself thrown out of court, banished, or executed.The shogun still had that power.
“Tadatoshi disappeared when he was fourteen years old,” Lord Matsudaira recalled. “InMeireki Year Three, on the eighteenth day of the first month.”
“The day the Great Long-sleeves Kimono Fire started,” Sano said.
“Well, well, the honorable chamberlain knows his dates.”
Everyone knew that infamous date forty-three years ago. No one could forget that fire, Japan’sworst disaster.
The Great Long-sleeves Kimono Fire derived its name from its origin. A girl named Kiku hadfallen in love with a pageboy and made herself a long-sleeved kimono, worn by unmarried girls,out of fabric that matched the boy’s clothes. Kiku suddenly died, and the kimono was placedover her coffin at her funeral. Afterward, the kimono was passed on to another girl, namedHana. Hana died a year later, and the kimono covered her coffin. The same fate befell anothergirl, Tatsu. The girls’ families decided the kimono was bad luck and should be cremated in aceremony at Honmyo Temple. When the priest lit the kimono, it went up in flames that set thetemple ablaze. The fire spread across town. Eventually, some two-thirds of the city burned tothe ground.