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I. J. Parker

Island of Exiles

PROLOGUE

The orange sun disappeared behind the top of the mountain range, and a gradual gloom settled over the garden. At the lake’s edge, a crane emerged cautiously from the reeds and froze, its small black eye on the five humans in the lakeside pavilion. The brilliant red patch on its head and the elegant black and white plumage were clearly visible in spite of the white mist that was beginning to rise from the darkening surface of the water. The air chilled quickly on Sado Island.

The crane was hungry for a mouthful of fish before seeking its roost. The humans, replete with good food and wine, let their conversation lag in the approaching darkness.

Advancing two slow, considered steps, the crane turned its attention to the lake bottom.

Professor Sakamoto and his four guests watched the bird idly. The professor had retired from the imperial university in the capital and settled here to write a history of the island and its famous exiles. This evening his guest of honor was Prince Okisada, a half-brother of the current sovereign and uncle of a future emperor. A frail man in his late forties, the Second Prince was by far the island’s most exalted political exile.

Reaching for his wine cup, the prince raised his eyes from the crane to the mountaintop. Gilded by the last ray of sun, it looked as if a line of pure gold had been drawn between earth and heaven. He drank deeply and murmured, “It is time. The light is almost gone.” His tone and expression were filled with deep emotion, but he slurred his words a little. Grimacing, he pressed a hand to his stomach. “What did you put in that prawn stew, Toshito?” he asked the young man on his left.

“Nothing, Your Highness. The woman uses just prawns, a bit of seaweed, and herbs. I was told it is your favorite.” Mutobe Toshito looked annoyed. He was the governor’s son and filling in for his father tonight.

The professor said peaceably, “It smelled delicious, Toshito.

I am sure His Highness enjoyed the local specialty. What a thoughtful gesture. We were all pleased to see him eat with a good appetite for a change.”

“There is nothing wrong with my appetite, Sakamoto,” said the Second Prince irritably, and belched.

“Is Your Highness feeling unwell?” The other elderly man, on the prince’s right, touched his arm solicitously. Taira Takamoto had been the prince’s tutor and shared his exile now.

The Second Prince shook off Taira’s hand, his face white and drawn. He kept massaging his stomach. “Shunsei,” he murmured querulously to the handsome young monk sitting silently across from him, “come closer and massage my neck.

You are the only one who gives me pleasure these days. Will you stay the night?”

The young monk flushed and bowed deeply. “I am expected at the temple tonight, Highness,” he said apologetically. His voice was soft and his eyes moist with adoration. He got up and went to kneel behind the prince.

The Second Prince fidgeted. “Never mind! Go, if you prefer their company. Is my room ready, Sakamoto?” The professor got to his feet. “I’ll see to it immediately, Highness.”

Lord Taira emptied his cup and rose also. “I shall make sure that His Highness has all he needs. Good night, all.” The two older men walked away toward the house. After a moment, the handsome monk bowed and followed them.

Only young Toshito remained with the prince. He looked after Shunsei with an expression of distaste.

“You d-don’t approve of my lover?” the Second Prince said with some difficulty.

The young man flushed. “I . . . I beg your pardon, Highness?”

“D-don’t bother to pretend. I’ve been aware that you and the governor disapprove of my t-tastes as much as my politics.

It could not matter less to me. We shall prevail against the tyranny of an unlawful regime at l-last.” The governor’s son stiffened and said uneasily, “I must remind you, Highness, that you were sent here as a prisoner. You are not likely to leave, certainly not as long as you voice treasonable intentions. And I’m afraid I shall have to report your words to my father, who will, in turn, report them to the emperor.” The Second Prince did not answer. He turned to look after the others, who had almost reached the house. Suddenly he groaned and bent forward, clutching his belly with both hands.

Toshito jumped to his feet. “What is it? Are you ill?”

“Help me, please!” The prince’s voice rose to a shout of agony.

Sweat beaded his face. He reached convulsively for his throat, choking out the words, “Loosen my collar! I cannot breathe.” The young man approached and leaned down to tug at the prince’s collar, but the brocade robe fit tightly and he had to use both hands. To his horror, the prince began to scream again.

His arms flailed wildly, delivering weak blows to Toshito’s face and chest.

Down at the lakeshore, the startled crane had raised its head at the first shout. Now it spread its huge wings and flew off, a flapping fish in its long bill.

The others came running back to the pavilion.

Young Mutobe was still trying to restrain the wildly jerking prince. “Calm down, Highness,” he gasped, and then shouted to Shunsei, “Run for the doctor!” But it was too late. The prince went first rigid and then limp in Toshito’s arms and sagged heavily against him. He lowered the body to the ground.

Shunsei fell to his knees next to the prince and wailed,

“Beloved, do not leave me yet.”

Lord Taira was still out of breath, but his face contorted, and he struck the governor’s son so violently in the chest that the young man went tumbling backward and fell against the railing.

The professor knelt to check the prince’s breathing. “He’s dead,” he said.

“Murderer!” Taira pointed a shaking finger at Toshito, who lay where he had fallen, stunned with surprise. “You and your father did this. Did you think we would not hear his scream for help? We all saw you choke him. You killed a son of heaven. Not even the present government will countenance such sacrilege.” In the shocked silence which followed Taira’s words, the first frog croaked in the reeds of the darkening lake.

CHAPTER ONE

VISITORS

The two high-ranking officials from the capital arrived in the tribunal of Echigo on a late summer afternoon.

When Seimei brought the news, Akitada was sitting on the remnants of the veranda in his private courtyard. He had been practicing his flute, while his young wife played with their baby son in the small enclosed area between their living quarters and the ramshackle assortment of halls and stables which made up the official headquarters of the province. It was no elegant courtyard with stones, lanterns, clipped trees, and raked gravel streams, but just a small square of dirt with a few weeds growing in the corners of the broken fence and under the veranda. They had been quite happy that afternoon. Tamako had swung the baby high up toward the limpid summer sky and laughed at the child’s delighted gurgling. And Akitada had smiled as he practiced “Dewdrops on the Autumn Grasses.” But he had felt a small pang of guilt when her sleeves slipped back and he saw how thin her arms had become.

He should not have brought her here to this inhospitable place where the rain and snow blew into their rooms, and the winters were as cold as their reception had been. But she had come eagerly, putting aside her old life to be a good and loyal wife to a struggling government official.

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