Laura Rowland: The Ronin’s Mistress

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Laura Rowland The Ronin’s Mistress
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    The Ronin’s Mistress
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Laura Joh Rowland


The Ronin’s Mistress

Edo, Month 12, Genroku Year 15

(Tokyo, February 1703)

Prologue

Snow sifted from the night sky over Edo. The wind howled, whipping the snow into torn veils, piling drifts against the shuttered buildings. Flakes gleamed in white halos around lamps at the gates at every intersection. Time was suspended, the city frozen in a dream of winter.

A band of forty-seven samurai marched through the deserted streets east of the Sumida River. They wore heavy padded cloaks and trousers, their faces shaded by wicker hats and muffled in scarves. Their boots crunched in the snow as they leaned into the wind. Each wore two swords at his waist. Some carried bows and slings of arrows over their shoulders; others clutched spears in gloved hands. The men at the end of the procession lumbered under the weight of ladders, coiled ropes, and huge wooden mallets. They did not speak.

There was no need for discussion. Their plans were set, understood by all. The time for doubts, fear, and turning back had passed. Their feet marched in lockstep. The wind blew stinging flakes into eyes hard with determination.

They halted in a road where high earthen walls protected estates inside, gazing up at the mansion where their destiny waited. Two stories tall, surrounded by barracks, it had curved tile roofs that spread like snow-covered wings. All was dark and tranquil, the sleeping residents oblivious to danger.

The leader of the forty-seven samurai was a lean, agile man with fierce eyes and strong, slanted brows visible above the scarf that covered the lower half of his face. He nodded to his comrades. Twenty-three men stole around the corner. The leader stayed with the others. As they advanced toward the front gate, a watchdog lunged out from beneath its roof. He uttered a single bark before two samurai tied his legs and fastened a muzzle over his snout. He whimpered and writhed helplessly. Other samurai positioned ladders against the walls. Up they climbed. Some let themselves down on ropes on the inside. Archers leaped onto the roofs. The leader and his remaining men gathered by the gate and waited.

Three deep, hollow beats struck on a war drum told them that their comrades were in position at the rear of the mansion. Two samurai took up the wooden mallets and pounded the gate. Planks shattered.

Inside the mansion’s barracks, the guards slumbered. The pounding awakened them. They leaped out of their beds, crying, “We’re under attack!”

Grabbing their swords, they ran outside, barefoot and half dressed, into the blizzard. Through the broken gate charged the invaders, swords drawn, spears aimed. The guards tried to defend themselves, but the invaders cut them down. Swords sliced open throats and bellies; spears pierced naked chests. Blood splashed the snow. The guards scattered, turned, and fled toward the mansion, crying for help.

More guards poured out of the barracks. The archers on the roofs fired arrows at them. The samurai who’d breached the back gate came rushing to join their band. They intercepted the guards trying to escape. The battle was a tumult of ringing blades, colliding fighters, falling bodies, and whirling snow. Soon most of the guards lay dead or wounded.

Accompanied by a few men, the leader of the forty-seven ran to the mansion. They brandished their swords in the entryway, but no one stopped them. The leader took down a lantern that hung on the wall, carrying it as he and his men moved along the dark corridors. All was quiet until they penetrated deeper into the mansion, when they heard sobbing. The lantern illuminated a room filled with women and children, huddled together in fright.

“Where is he?” the leader demanded.

The women hid their faces and cried. The samurai continued searching. They came to a bedchamber whose size and elegant furnishings were fit for the lord of the mansion. A futon was spread on the floor, the quilt flung back. The leader touched the bed.

“It’s still warm,” he said.

His gaze went to a large scroll hanging on the wall. He yanked aside the scroll. Behind it was a door, which he opened. Cold air and snowflakes blew in from a courtyard. Bare footprints in the snow led to a shed. The samurai rushed to the shed and flung the door open. The leader shone the lantern inside.

On the floor, amid firewood and coal, sat an old man. His knees were drawn up to his chin, his arms folded across his chest. He wore a cotton night robe and cap. He shivered, his teeth chattering, his breath puffs of vapor. His lined face was white; his eyes shone with terror.

“Who are you?” asked one of the samurai, the youngest, a sturdy boy.

The old man lashed out with a dagger he’d been hiding. The boy grabbed his wrist and wrenched the dagger from his grasp. He cried out in weak, pained protest. The leader pulled off the man’s cap and held the lantern near his head. A white scar gleamed on his bald crown.

“It’s him,” the leader said. “Bring him outside.”

The samurai threw the old man on his back in the snow. They pinned his arms and legs while he screamed. The leader stood over the captive. He removed the scarf that hid his face, then held up the lantern so that the old man could see him. Below his fierce eyes, his nose was long with flared nostrils, his mouth thick but firm. He wasn’t young, and his features wore the stamp of suffering.

“You know who we are. You know why we’re here.” He chanted the words as if he’d rehearsed them. “Now you’ll pay for the evil you’ve done.”

The old man tried to turn his head away, but the boy grabbed it and held it immobile. He moaned and rolled his eyes, seeking help that didn’t come. He struggled to escape, in vain. The leader drew his sword, grasped it in both hands, and raised it high over his head. The old man’s lips formed words of silent protest or prayer.

The blade came slashing down. It cleaved the old man’s throat. All the samurai leaped backward to avoid the blood spurting from the cut that severed his head from his body. An involuntary convulsion splayed his limbs. His face froze in an expression of blank-eyed, open-mouthed horror.

The boy put a whistle to his lips and blew. The shrill, piercing sound signaled that the old man was dead and the forty-seven samurai had accomplished their mission.

Soon would come their reckoning with fate.

1

The blizzard ended by morning. The sky cleared to a pale blue as dawn glided over the hills east of Edo, leaving the city serene under a mantle of fresh, sparkling snow. Cranes flew over the rise where Edo Castle perched. The great fortress wore white frosting atop its walls and guard towers. In the innermost precinct of the castle stood the palace. Dark cypress beams gridded the white plaster walls of the low, interconnected buildings; gold dragons crowned the peaks of its tile roofs. In the garden, boulders and shrubs were smooth white mounds. Ice glazed a pond surrounded by trees whose bare branches spread lacy black patterns against the brightening sky. The snow on the lawn and gravel paths was pristine, undisturbed by footprints. The garden appeared deserted, but appearances were deceiving.

Under a large pine tree, in a shelter formed by its spreading boughs, three samurai crouched. Sano Ichiro, the shogun’s sosakan-sama-Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People-huddled with his two top detectives, Marume and Fukida. Although they’d covered the ground with a quilt and they wore hats, gloves, fleece-lined boots, and layers of thick, padded clothing, they were shivering. They’d been here all night, and their shelter was cold enough that they could see their breath. Sano flexed his numb fingers and toes in an attempt to ward off frostbite, as he and his men watched the palace through gaps between the bristly, resin-scented pine sprigs.

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