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Laura Joh Rowland

The Samurai’s Wife

The fifth book in the Sano Ichiro series, 2000

This book is dedicated to the independent booksellers who have supported my work, especially Britton Trice and Deb Wehmeier of Garden District Book Shop, Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen, Tom and Enid Schantz of The Rue Morgue, Patsy Asher of Remember the Alibi, and Dean James of Murder by the Book. My sincere thanks to you all.

JAPAN

Genroku Period, Year 4, Month 6

(July 1691)

Prologue

Nine hundred years ago, the city was Heian-kyo, Capital of Peace and Tranquillity, founded as seat of the emperors who ruled Japan. Now, long after the reigning power had passed to the Tokugawa shoguns and their stronghold in Edo far to the east, it is simply Miyako, or Kyoto -the capital. But the shadows of the past haunt the present. The Imperial Palace still dominates the city, as always, forever. There the current emperor and his court exist as though suspended in time, masters of no one, human relics of bygone splendor. After centuries of war and bloodshed, of fallen regimes and changing fortunes, the eternal antagonisms, forgotten secrets, and ancient dangers still survive…

In the imperial enclosure, the palace’s innermost private heart, a warm summer midnight enfolded the garden. Over flowerbeds and gravel paths, the foliage of maple, willow, cherry, and plum trees arched in dark, motionless canopies. The evening rain had ceased; a full moon glowed through vaporous cloud. The calm surface of the pond reflected the sky’s luminosity. On an island in the pond’s center, a rustic cottage stood amid twisted pines. Inside burned a lantern, its white globe crisscrossed by the window lattice.

West of the garden loomed the residences, ceremonial halls, offices, storehouses, and kitchens of the emperor’s household. Their tile roofs gleamed in the moon’s pallid radiance. From a passageway between two buildings, another lantern emerged. It swung from the hand of the left minister, chief official of the Imperial Court.

He strode along the pond toward a stone bridge leading to the island. Heat hazed the air like a moist veil. Fireflies twinkled feebly, as if the humidity quenched their light. A waterfall rippled; frogs croaked. The chirps of crickets and shrill of cicadas blended into a solid fabric of sound stretched across the night. The lantern cast the shadow of the left minister’s tall figure dressed in archaic imperial style-wide trousers and a cropped jacket whose long train dragged on the ground. Beneath his broad-brimmed black hat shone the sallow face of a man in middle age, with the arched brows and haughty nose inherited from ancestors who had held his post before him. As he followed a path between the trees toward his secret rendezvous, anticipation increased his pace. A smile hovered upon his mouth; he drew deep breaths of night air.

The drowsy sweetness of lilies and clover drifted heavenward over the pond’s marshy scent, masking the rich summer odors of damp earth, grass, night soil, and drains. A sense of well-being intoxicated the left minister, heady as the night’s aromatic breath. He felt as vigorous as in his youth, and extraordinarily alive. Now he could look back through years of anguish with detachment.

Fifteen years ago, an unfortunate convergence of fate and deed had condemned him to serve two masters. Birthright had placed him in a station at the heart of palace affairs, in a position to know everything worth knowing. A crime committed in passion had rendered him vulnerable to persons outside the sequestered world of the court’s five thousand residents. His two best qualities-intelligence and a gift for manipulating people-had doomed him to live in two worlds, an impotent slave in one, isolated from family, friends, and colleagues in the other. He’d been an actor playing two opposing roles. But now, having reclaimed the power to shape his own destiny, he stood ready to unite his two worlds, with himself at their summit.

Tonight would bring a taste of the rewards to come.

The light in the pavilion kindled the left minister’s eagerness. He walked faster as a surge of sexual arousal fed his new sense of omnipotence. Although uncertainty and danger lay ahead, he was buoyed by confidence that soon he would realize his highest ambitions, his deepest desires. Tonight everything was already prepared, an advance celebration of his triumph.

Along the pond, a bamboo grove rustled in the breezeless air. The left minister paused, then dismissed it as the movement of some harmless feral creature and continued on his way. But the rustling followed him. Hearing footsteps, he frowned in puzzled annoyance.

The imperial family, their lives circumscribed by tradition, rarely ventured outside so late. Desiring privacy for his rendezvous, the left minister had ordered everyone else to stay out of the garden tonight. Who dared to disobey?

Reluctantly he stopped again. The bridge lay a hundred paces ahead; across the silvery pond, the cottage lantern beckoned. The left minister peered into the dense thicket of bamboo.

“Who’s there?” he demanded. “Show yourself!”

No answer came. The moving bamboo leaves stilled. Angry now, the left minister stalked toward the intruder. “I order you to come out. Now!”

An abrupt change in atmosphere halted him ten paces short of the grove. Here the night seemed charged with energy. A soundless vibration pulsated through the left minister. The insect shrills receded to the edge of his hearing; the darkness paled within the space around him. His skin tightened, and his heart began to thud in deep, urgent beats. The will of the person in the bamboo grove seemed to close around the left minister’s mind. Inexplicable fear seized him. Icy sweat broke out his face; his muscles weakened.

He knew that the person must be a member of the emperor’s family, a servant, courtier, or attendant-a mortal human. But the strange force magnified the left minister’s image of the intruder to gigantic size. He could hear it breathing monstrous gulps of air.

“Who are you?” His query came out sounding weak and timorous. “What do you want?” Somehow he understood, without word or gesture from the anonymous presence, its evil intent toward him.

The ominous breathing came faster, louder. The left minister turned and fled. On north and south, fences sealed off the garden. To the east, a stone wall separated the imperial enclosure from the estates of the court nobles. Vacant audience chambers, locked at night, cut him off from the shelter of the palace. There was no refuge except the island cottage. The left minister ran toward the lighted window, which promised companionship and safety, but his legs felt clumsy, his body weighted with the heavy malaise of nightmare. He stumbled, dropping his lantern. His stiff, cumbersome garments further hampered movement. Close behind, he heard the breathing, a vicious, predatory rasp. The ghostly grip on his mind crushed his courage.

“Help!” called the left minister, but his pursuer’s will strangled his voice. Now he was sorry he’d banned everyone from the garden. He knew he could expect no help from the cottage’s lone occupant.

As he struggled on, the eerie force enclosed him like a bubble. Desperately he zigzagged, trying to escape, but

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