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Laura Joh Rowland

The Snow Empress

Prologue

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, lit, 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 poured out.

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, calling 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?”

Edo

Genroku Period

Year 12, Month 10

(Tokyo, November 1699)

1

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

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