Laura Joh Rowland

The Assassin's Touch

The tenth book in the Sano Ichiro series, 2005


Genroku Period, Year 8, Month 4

(Tokyo, May 1695)


A gunshot boomed within Edo Castle and echoed across the city that spread below the hilltop.

On the racetrack inside the castle, five horses bolted from the starting line. Samurai riders, clad in metal helmets and armor tunics, crouched low in the saddles. They flailed their galloping mounts with riding crops; their shouts demanded more speed. The horses’ hooves thundered up a storm of dust.

Around the long oval track, in wooden stands built in tiers and shaded from the sun by striped canopies, officials urged on the riders. Soldiers patrolling atop the stone walls of the compound and stationed in watchtowers above it waved and cheered. The horses galloped neck and neck until they reached the first curve, then crowded together as the riders jockeyed for position along the track’s inside edge. The riders struck out at their opponents’ mounts and bodies; their crops smacked horseflesh and rang loud against armor. Fighting for the lead, they yelled threats and insults at one another. Horses whinnied, colliding. As they rounded the curve, a rider on a bay stallion edged ahead of the pack.

The sensations of power and speed thrilled him. His heartbeat accelerated in rhythm with his horse’s pounding hooves. The din resounded in his helmet. Through its visor he saw the spectators flick by him, their waving hands, colorful robes, and avid faces a blur in the wind. He whooped as reckless daring exhilarated his spirits. This new horse was well worth the gold he’d paid for it. He would win back its price when he collected on his bets, and show everyone who the best rider in the capital was.

Hurtling along the track, he drew a length in front of the rest. When he looked over his shoulder, two riders charged up to him, one on each side. They leaned forward and lashed their whips at him. The blows glanced off his armor. One rider grabbed his reins and the other seized his tunic in an attempt to slow him down. Ruthless in his need to win, he banged his crop against their helmets. They dropped behind. The audience roared. The leader howled with glee as he veered around the curve. The pack rampaged after him, but he coaxed his horse faster. He increased his lead while racing toward the finish.

In his mind there suddenly arose an image of a horseman gaining on him, monstrous in size, black as night. Startled, he glanced backward, but saw only the familiar horses and riders laboring through the dust in his wake. He dug in his heels, flailed his whip. His horse put on a burst of speed that stretched the gap between him and the pack. Ahead, some hundred paces distant, loomed the finish line. Two samurai officials waited there, holding red flags, ready to signal the winner.

But now the monstrous horseman grew larger in his perception, storming so close that he could feel its shadow lapping at him. He felt a sharp, fierce pain behind his right eye, as though a knife had stabbed into his skull. A cry burst from him. The pain began to pulse, driving the blade deeper and deeper, harder and faster. He moaned in agony and confusion.

What was happening to him?

The sunlight brightened to an intensity that seared his eyes. The track, the men at the finish line, and the spectators dissolved into a blinding shimmer, as if the world had caught fire. His heart beat a loud, frantic counterpoint to the pulses of pain. External sounds melted into dim drones. A tingling sensation spread through his arms and legs. He couldn’t feel the horse under him. His head seemed very far away from his body. Now he knew something was dreadfully wrong. He tried to call for help, but only incoherent croaks emerged from his mouth.

Yet he felt no fear. Emotion and thought fled him like leaves scattering in the wind. His hands weakened; their grip on the reins loosened. His body was a numb, dead weight that sagged in the saddle. The brilliant, shimmering light contracted to a dot as the black horseman overtook him and darkness encroached on his vision.

The dot of light winked out. The world disappeared into black silence. Consciousness died.

As he crossed the finish line, he tumbled from his mount, into the path of the oncoming horses and riders.


Above the racetrack, past forested slopes carved by stonewalled passages that encircled and ascended the hill, a compound stood isolated from the estates that housed the top officials of the Tokugawa regime. High walls topped with metal spikes protected the compound, whose tiled roofs rose amid pine trees. Samurai officials, wearing formal silk robes and the two swords, shaved crowns, and topknots of their class, queued up outside. Guards escorted them in the double gate, through the courtyard, into the mansion that rambled in a labyrinth of wings connected by covered corridors. They gathered in an anteroom, waiting to see Chamberlain Sano Ichiro, the shogun’s second-in-command and chief administrator of the bakufu, the military government that ruled Japan. They passed the time with political gossip, their voices a constant, rising buzz. In nearby rooms whirled a storm of activity: The chamberlain’s aides conferred; clerks recorded business transacted by the regime, collated and filed reports; messengers rushed about.

Closeted in his private inner office, Chamberlain Sano sat with General Isogai, supreme commander of the army, who’d come to brief him on military affairs. Around them, colored maps of Japan hung on walls made of thick wooden panels that muted the noise outside. Shelves and fireproof iron chests held ledgers. The open window gave a view of the garden, where sand raked in parallel lines around mossy boulders shone brilliant white in the afternoon sun.

“There’s good news and bad news,” General Isogai said. He was a bulbous man with a squat head that appeared to sprout directly from his shoulders. His eyes glinted with intelligence and joviality. He spoke in a loud voice accustomed to shouting orders. “The good news is that things have quieted down in the past six months.”

Six months ago, the capital had been embroiled in political strife. “We can be thankful that order has been restored and civil war prevented,” Sano said, recalling how troops from two opposing factions had clashed in a bloody battle outside Edo and 346 soldiers had died.

“We can thank the gods that Lord Matsudaira is in power, and Yanagisawa is out,” General Isogai added.

Lord Matsudaira-a cousin of the shogun-and the former chamberlain Yanagisawa had vied fiercely for domination of the regime. Their power struggle had divided the bakufu, until Lord Matsudaira had managed to win more allies, defeat the opposition’s army, and oust Yanagisawa. Now Lord Matsudaira controlled the shogun, and thus the dictatorship.

“The bad news is that the trouble’s not over,” General Isogai continued. “There have been more unfortunate incidents. Two of my soldiers were ambushed and murdered on the highway, and four others while patrolling in town. And yesterday, the army garrison at Hodogaya was bombed. Four soldiers were killed, eight wounded.”

Sano frowned in consternation. “Have the persons responsible been caught?”

“Not yet,” General Isogai said, his expression surly. “But of course we know who they are.”

After Yanagisawa had been ousted, scores of soldiers from his army had managed to escape Lord Matsudaira’s

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