FIVE MONTHS AFTER the earthquake struck Edo, the castle was a giant construction site on its hill above the city. New stone-faced retaining walls braced the ascending tiers of leveled ground. Guard towers atop walls climbed skyward as masons repaired them. Buildings within the compounds on every tier wore grids of bamboo scaffolding in which workers swarmed. Animated by human activity, the castle seemed to move within the scaffolding, like a creature struggling to emerge from a cocoon. All across the sunlit city below rang the noise of saws and hammers—the birth cries of a city rising from the ruins at a furious, reckless pace.
Chamberlain Sano Ichiro led a procession of samurai officials toward the palace, at the heart of the castle, on its highest tier. Brown ceramic tile fresh from the kiln gleamed atop new, interconnected structures whose half-timbered walls wore a coat of dazzling white plaster. New saplings replaced trees uprooted during the earthquake or burned by the fires that came afterward. New white gravel covered the paths upon which Sano and his colleagues walked through the din from construction in other parts of the castle. The air scintillated with sawdust motes that settled on the men’s black silk ceremonial robes emblazoned with gold family crests, on their shaved crowns and oiled topknots, on the two swords at each waist.
Ohgami Kaoru, member of the Council of Elders that constituted Japan’s chief governing body, walked up beside Sano. “What’s the reason for this emergency assembly?”
He’d aged fast since the earthquake, as had almost everyone else Sano knew. Sad wrinkles in his once youthful face matched the premature whiteness of his hair.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” The earthquake effect hadn’t spared Sano, either. At age forty-six he felt twice as old. Every morning when he looked in the mirror, he saw more gray streaks in his black hair, and his shaved crown had a silvery glint. He’d worked night and day, for five months, to rebuild the city and the wide outlying areas devastated by the earthquake.
“The shogun’s second-in-command is as much in the dark as everybody else?” Ohgami said. “That’s a bad sign.”
The procession marched up the steps to the palace, past the sentries, and into the reception room. The sweet smells of fresh wood and tatami graced the air. A new mural adorned the wall behind the dais—purple irises blooming along a blue-and-silver river on a gilded background. More soldiers than usual lined the walls. General Isogai, commander of the Tokugawa army, stood by the dais. His physique was still stoutly muscled, his head bulbous on his thick neck, but his complexion was too red.
As men knelt in positions according to rank, murmurs arose. “Why all the extra troops? Is the shogun expecting violence to break out?” “It might, if this is about another round of promotions and demotions.” “These are strange times. Even if you’ve performed admirably in your position for decades, you’re apt to be dismissed in favor of a nobody who can bring in supplies from the provinces or pay extra taxes into the government’s treasury.” “How much more of this upheaval can everyone take?”
The earthquake had made and broken more careers than Sano cared to tally. He seated himself on the raised section of floor immediately below the dais. Ohgami and the other four old men from the Council of Elders sat in a row to his right. General Isogai came over and ponderously lowered himself to his knees on Sano’s left. He wheezed and gripped his chest. The air filled with body heat and the odor of sweat. Sano’s nerves vibrated with the tension that had built up in the atmosphere since the earthquake. Nonstop work had taxed his and his colleagues’ endurance, had depleted their physical and mental reserves. He didn’t know how much more they all could take, either.
The door behind the dais opened. Murmurs subsided as the shogun emerged. The shogun looked a decade older than his fifty-eight years, although Sano knew he’d done not a lick of work for the earthquake recovery. Frail shoulders stooped under his gold satin robes. The cylindrical black cap of his rank sat on a balding head with hardly enough hair to form a knot. The skin on his aristocratic face was like a crumpled, yellowish paper. He leaned on Sano’s twelve-year-old son, Masahiro.
Masahiro settled the shogun on cushions on the dais, then knelt behind him. He wore his hair in a long forelock tied with a ribbon, in the style of samurai who haven’t yet reached manhood at age fifteen. Tall and slender, strong from rigorous martial arts practice, he had intelligent eyes set in a mature, handsome face. Whenever Sano looked at his son, he ached with pride. Masahiro served as head of the shogun’s private chambers, a post he’d won by proving himself capable after older, more qualified palace attendants had been killed by the earthquake.
The assembly bowed to the shogun. He raised his hand in a perfunctory greeting, then spoke. “We have had some, ahh, dark days since the earthquake. It was the worst natural disaster of my reign.” A new tremor afflicted his reedy voice. “I hoped that changing the name of the era, from Genroku to Hoei, would help.” Whenever a run of misfortune plagued Japan, the Emperor would proclaim a new era, in a ritualistic attempt to usher in better times. “But alas, it didn’t. I’m afraid I have terrible news. My daughter, Tsuruhime, died of smallpox last night.”
Sano and the other men in the room cast their gazes downward, troubled by the news of yet another death. More than a hundred thousand people had been crushed during the earthquake, burned in the fires, drowned in the tsunami, or succumbed to diseases afterward. Sano thought of Fukida, one of his favorite retainers, who had died. He felt lucky and guilty that his wife and two children were safe and well. He sensed caution in the air, like a veil of smoke.
No one here had personally known Tsuruhime; she’d lived in seclusion for her entire life. The officials were less concerned about her demise than about its effect on the shogun, whose whim commanded the power of life and death over everybody.
“It’s unnatural to outlive one’s child. How could it happen to me?” Anger lit a red blush spot in each of the shogun’s sallow cheeks. “It’s not fair!”
He’d apparently forgotten that many other parents had recently lost children during the disaster. Sano wasn’t surprised that the shogun was more concerned about his own feelings than about his daughter, who’d died at the young age of twenty-seven. The shogun was the most selfish person Sano had ever known.
“I’m just glad I, ahh, stayed away from Tsuruhime when she took ill. Or I might have contracted the smallpox, too!” The shogun looked horrified at the idea rather than sorry he hadn’t visited or said good-bye to her. “Her fate has made me more aware than ever of my own mortality. I, too, could be suddenly carried off by the evil spirit of death! And that is why…” He paused for suspenseful effect. “The time has come for me to, ahh, designate my successor.”
Coughs among the audience disguised exclamations of awe. For many years Tokugawa clan members had vied to manipulate the shogun into bequeathing the regime to them or their children. Officials had backed the contenders in the hope of favors later. So had the daimyo—feudal lords who governed Japan’s provinces. Now the speculation and competition were about to end. Dismay imploded within Sano.
He knew what was going to happen. He’d been fighting to prevent it, and he’d failed.
“For many years I put off naming a successor because I, ahh, didn’t have a son,” the shogun said. “I’ve been reluctant to adopt a relative as my heir.” That was the usual custom for men of position who lacked sons, but the shogun desperately wished to be succeeded by the fruit of his own loins. “I prayed I would father a male child. I hoped Tsuruhime would, ahh, produce a grandson who would at least be my direct descendant. Well, that hope is gone. Thank the gods I don’t need her anymore.”
The relief in his voice offended Sano, who dearly loved his own young daughter, Akiko, and couldn’t imagine valuing her solely as breeding stock.
“The gods have blessed me with a son, whose existence I was unaware of until recently. Now I present him to you as my official heir.” The shogun clapped his hands. “Behold Tokugawa Yoshisato, my newfound son, the next ruler of Japan!”
A door at the side of the dais opened. A young samurai walked out and mounted the dais. Silk robes in shades of copper and gold clothed his compact, wiry build. He knelt at the shogun’s right. His handsome face was wide with a rounded chin, his tilted eyes thoughtful and wary. The audience reacted to him with expressions that ranged from approval to caution to the horrified outrage that Sano felt.
General Isogai muttered, “If Yoshisato is really the shogun’s son, then whales can fly.”
It was common knowledge that the shogun preferred sex with men rather than women. That he’d sired a daughter was a miracle. Sano couldn’t believe the shogun was Yoshisato’s father by any stretch of imagination.
“Merciful gods,” Elder Ohgami whispered. “It’s really happening. The shogun is going to put a pretender at the head of the government!”
Yoshisato sat still and calm, with self-control impressive for a seventeen-year-old. Sano barely knew him but suspected he was smart enough to understand that although he had supporters who wanted him to inherit the regime, he also had many political enemies who would like to see him drop off the face of the earth, Sano and friends included.
Another man followed Yoshisato onto the dais. The shogun said, “And here is Yoshisato’s adoptive father—my good friend Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu.”
Yanagisawa was the only person Sano knew whose appearance had improved since the earthquake. The disaster had strengthened his tall, slender figure and enhanced his striking masculine beauty. His skin glowed with health; his dark, liquid eyes glistened.
Hatred boiled inside Sano as he watched Yanagisawa kneel at the shogun’s left. He and Yanagisawa had been enemies for fifteen years, since Sano had entered the shogun’s service. Yanagisawa, then chamberlain, had seen Sano as a rival. He’d done his best to destroy Sano, sabotaging his work, undermining his authority, criticizing him to the shogun. That was standard practice among officials jockeying for position, but Yanagisawa had also set assassins on Sano and attacked his family. While defending himself, his kin, and his honor, Sano had dealt Yanagisawa a few good blows. The rivalry between them was a constant cycle. One’s fortunes rose while the other’s fell. Now Yanagisawa smiled, with blatant triumph, straight at Sano.
Although Sano was currently chamberlain, the top dog in their feud, and Yanagisawa currently had no official position in the government, Yanagisawa was now the adoptive father of the shogun’s official heir. He’d just won his biggest advantage over Sano: influence with the next shogun, a foothold in the future. And Sano knew he’d done it by sheer, outrageous fraud.
“‘Adoptive father,’ my behind.” General Isogai’s face grew redder with anger.
“If he’s not Yoshisato’s real father, then I’m the emperor of China,” Ohgami whispered.
The shogun beamed, trapped between Yanagisawa and Yoshisato. Everyone in the audience turned to Sano. Hostility narrowed the eyes of the men who’d decided to believe Yoshisato was the shogun’s son and approved of his installation as heir. Sano felt hope pinned on him, like needles stuck in his skin, by his allies who didn’t believe or approve.
General Isogai whispered to Sano, “This is your last chance to prevent your worst enemy and his spawn from taking over Japan.”
“Give it your best shot,” Ohgami urged in a low, fervent voice.
Sano was leader of the effort to disqualify Yoshisato. His allies were either too afraid or prudent to touch the job themselves. Sano didn’t know whether his acceptance of it was more courageous or foolish, but he had to thwart Yanagisawa, or Yanagisawa would deprive him of his head as well as his place in the government. And it was his duty to protect his lord and the Tokugawa regime from Yanagisawa’s plot to gain permanent power. That was Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the samurai code of honor by which Sano lived.
Before Sano could speak, a man in the front row on the lower level of the floor reared up on his knees. He had a stunted figure and a hump on his back. It was Tokugawa Ienobu, son of the shogun’s deceased older brother.
“Uncle, please excuse me.” His tight voice seemed squeezed out of him. His upper teeth protruded above an abnormally small lower jaw. These deformities stemmed from a hereditary bone condition. “I must say this is the wrong time to designate your heir.”
Yanagisawa’s shoulders moved in a slight shrug: He’d expected an objection from Ienobu and he didn’t fear him. Caution veiled Yoshisato’s expression.
“I don’t excuse you,” the shogun snapped. “Why, pray tell, is this the wrong time?”
“You’ve just experienced the tragic loss of your daughter,” Ienobu said. “Your emotions are affecting your judgment.”
“His Excellency has realized the urgent importance of naming an heir,” Yanagisawa interjected in a smooth, reasonable voice. “His son is his rightful successor.”
“Why can’t you be happy for me that I have the heir I always wanted?” the shogun whined at Ienobu. “Why do you want to spoil my, ahh, pleasure?”
“That’s the last thing I want to do, Uncle,” Ienobu said, as desperate to avert the shogun’s wrath as he was to change his mind. “I just think you should consider the alternatives before you make such a serious decision about the future of the regime.”
The shogun frowned in confusion. “What alternatives?”
“Honorable Father, perhaps Lord Ienobu wants to be named as your successor himself.” Yoshisato spoke in a deferential tone while exposing his rival’s base motives.
“Is that true, Nephew?” the shogun demanded. He disliked ambitious men who openly wangled favors from him.
“Not at all, Uncle,” Ienobu hastened to say. But Sano knew Ienobu had worked hard to ingratiate himself with the shogun. Before Yoshisato had appeared on the scene, Ienobu had been the heir apparent. Ienobu’s eagerness to get rid of Yoshisato and regain his former standing was obvious to everyone except the shogun.
“It’s just that you learned about Yoshisato so recently … and the circumstances were so strange.” Ienobu balked at declaring that he thought Yoshisato wasn’t the shogun’s child.
Sano jumped into the fire, although challenging the shogun’s decision, even for his own good, meant walking a narrow path that bordered on treason. To impugn the shogun’s newfound heir equaled courting death.
“‘Strange’ is an understatement, Your Excellency.” Sano repeated the story Yanagisawa had told when he’d sprung Yoshisato on the shogun: “Eighteen years ago, the court astronomer reads a prophecy in the constellations: You will father a son, but unless he’s hidden away upon his birth, you’ll be killed by an earthquake that’s due to strike Edo in Genroku year sixteen.”
Ienobu cast a thankful glance at Sano and continued the tale: “The astronomer confides the prophecy to Yanagisawa. Yanagisawa gives orders that any pregnancies in the palace women’s quarters are to be reported to him and no one else. Soon thereafter, your concubine Lady Someko finds herself expecting your child. She tells Yanagisawa, who takes her into his home. Yoshisato is born.”
“Yanagisawa adopts and raises Yoshisato as his own child,” Sano went on. “He conceals Yoshisato’s real parentage. Five months ago, the earthquake strikes, right on schedule. Your Excellency survives. The danger is past. Yanagisawa reveals the secret: Yoshisato is your son.” Yanagisawa had plopped Yoshisato into first place in line for the succession, to guarantee that he—as Yoshisato’s adoptive father—would be the power behind the next dictator.
The shogun smiled and nodded while he listened, like a child enjoying a favorite bedtime story. “Isn’t it an extraordinary miracle?”
“It’s so extraordinary that I don’t think you should accept it without question,” Sano said.
Vexation darkened the shogun’s face. “Ahh, yes, you said as much when you first heard about Yoshisato. And I thought you had a good point.”
“That’s why I advised His Excellency to have you investigate Yoshisato’s origins,” Yanagisawa said suavely.
Sano suspected that Yanagisawa had suggested the investigation because he’d made sure Sano wouldn’t find any evidence to debunk Yoshisato. “My investigation isn’t finished.”
“You’ve had four months,” Yoshisato said. His youthful, masculine voice had an underlying edge of steel. “Have you proved that His Excellency isn’t my father?”
“No,” Sano admitted. He’d questioned officials, concubines, guards, and servants in the palace women’s quarters, who’d lived or worked there when Yoshisato was conceived. Contrary to common knowledge that the shogun hardly ever bedded a female, the witnesses swore that he’d spent many amorous nights with Lady Someko. Sano suspected they’d been bribed or threatened by Yanagisawa. “But I also haven’t proved that His Excellency is your father.”
“My physician has analyzed Yoshisato’s features and discovered, ahh, striking similarities to mine,” the shogun said. Sano cast a dubious glance at Yoshisato. The youth was nothing like the shogun. “And Lady Someko can testify that I’m Yoshisato’s father.”
“Then why doesn’t she?” Sano asked Yanagisawa, “Why are you keeping her locked inside your house instead of letting me interview her?”
“She’s too delicate to be interrogated,” Yanagisawa said.
“Is the astronomer too delicate? I haven’t been able to interview him, either. He seems to have disappeared.”
Yanagisawa smirked. “With all your detective expertise, you can’t find him?”
He was alluding to Sano’s past tenure as the shogun’s sosakan-sama—Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. Sano suspected that he couldn’t find the astronomer because Yanagisawa had killed the man. “You are the only witness to the astronomer’s prophesying about Yoshisato and the earthquake.” He turned to the shogun. “Are you willing to accept Yoshisato’s pedigree based on one witness’s word?” Sano believed with all his heart that Yoshisato was Yanagisawa’s own son, foisted off on the shogun.
The shogun tightened his weak mouth in defiance. “Yes. Yanagisawa is my old, dear friend. I trust him implicitly. He wants what’s best for me. He wouldn’t lie.”
“If he wants what’s best, then he should be glad to assist with my investigation.” Sano said to Yanagisawa, “Why not advise His Excellency to grant me a little more time? And let me interview Lady Someko and the astronomer? Surely it’s best that the question of Yoshisato’s origin should be settled, so that nobody can dispute his right to rule Japan.”
Rumbles of agreement came from the audience. Sano figured that his partisans thought there was still a chance he could prove Yoshisato a fake, and Yanagisawa’s partisans believed Yoshisato’s pedigree would be validated.
“Would Your Excellency rather risk putting a man who has none of your blood at the head of the Tokugawa dictatorship?” Sano asked.
The shogun shrank from this nightmare scenario. “Well…”
Elder Ohgami whispered to Sano, “Good shot.”
Yoshisato touched the shogun’s sleeve. “Please excuse me, but if there’s even a slight chance that I’m not really your son, then I would rather go away than inherit a position I don’t deserve.” Sincerity permeated his manner.
The audience clamored in surprise. Few would turn down the chance to become shogun. Sano opened his mouth to call Yoshisato’s bluff and tell the shogun to let Yoshisato go. So did Ienobu. Yanagisawa preempted them both.
“How selfless Yoshisato is,” Yanagisawa said in a reverent voice. “He would sacrifice his right to rule Japan in order to err on the side of caution and protect Your Excellency.”
General Isogai muttered, “How full of horse dung that bastard is!”
The shogun regarded Yoshisato with awe; he wiped a tear from his eye. Yanagisawa said, “The choice is clear, Your Excellency. Listen to Chamberlain Sano and drive Yoshisato away. Or accept Yoshisato as your son and be happy.”
“Those aren’t the only possible choices,” Sano protested. “Your Excellency can allow the investigation to continue, and if it validates Yoshisato’s pedigree, you can rest easy about naming him as your successor.”
Ienobu jumped on the chance of reviving his hope of gaining the dictatorship. “If his pedigree is shown to be false, then you’ve saved yourself from making a terrible mistake.”
The shogun vacillated. Nobody moved or made a sound. Suspense depleted the air supply. Sano could hardly breathe. The shogun studied Ienobu. Visibly repulsed by the physical defects of his nephew, his other choice of an heir, he grabbed Yoshisato’s hand and declared, “Yoshisato is my son, my rightful heir and successor.”
Amid pleased murmurs and resigned sighs, the assembly bowed to their future lord. Ienobu sank down, stricken. Yoshisato bowed in gratitude. Yanagisawa gave Sano a smug glance. No other battle Sano had fought with Yanagisawa had been as critical as this one he’d just lost.
“Now that that’s settled, I have an announcement,” Yanagisawa said. “There will be some changes within the government.” The atmosphere turned noxious with panic as men realized that a purge was about to begin. Yanagisawa’s gaze fixed on Ienobu. “You’re no longer needed.”
Ienobu’s tiny jaw sagged. “What?” he croaked.
Yanagisawa smiled. “You heard me.”
The shogun waved his hand as if shooing a fly. “You’re dismissed. Go.”
A picture of outrage and disbelief, Ienobu shuffled out of the room. Sano breathed the iron smell of blood in the air as everyone realized that if a Tokugawa relative could be thrown out of the court, no one was safe.
Yanagisawa said, “Ohgami-san, you are relieved of your seat on the Council of Elders.”
Horror turned Ohgami’s face as white as his hair. “But … but I’ve held it for twenty-five years!”
“Twenty-five years is long enough,” Yanagisawa said.
Sano hated to see his friend’s distress as much as he hated to lose his main ally on the Council. “Elder Ohgami is one of His Excellency’s most competent advisors.”
“Competence isn’t the issue,” Yanagisawa said. “Loyalty is. His Excellency wants to be sure he can count on his top officials to be loyal to Yoshisato. And he can’t count on Ohgami-san.” He pointed toward the door.
Ohgami limped out like a wounded animal.
“General Isogai,” Yanagisawa said, “You are demoted to captain at the army base in Ezogashima.”
Ezogashima was the far northernmost island of Japan. General Isogai’s flushed face turned purple. “No!” he roared, clenching his fists. “You can’t do this to me! I won’t go!”
“He’s the army’s best qualified commander,” Sano protested. “You need him to protect the country.”
“He can’t be counted on to protect Yoshisato.” Yanagisawa knew that General Isogai was among those who’d tried to block Yoshisato’s installation. He beckoned to the soldiers. “You can go peacefully or not. But you will go.”
Threatened with forcible ejection by his former troops, General Isogai hauled himself to his feet. He stalked out, muttering curses. Sano felt the coldness of the empty spaces on either side of him. And now Yanagisawa turned his predatory gaze on Sano.
“I’m taking over as chamberlain.” Yanagisawa blazed with triumph; he’d wrested away from Sano the post they’d fought over for years, and he would probably hold it for his entire life, during the remainder of the shogun’s reign and then Yoshisato’s. “As for you…”
Sano knew there was no use arguing, blustering, or appealing to the shogun, whose gaze avoided him. He demonstrated stoic dignity as terror seized his heart. Yanagisawa wouldn’t merely retire him or demote him. Too much bad blood existed between them. This was the end.
Yanagisawa smiled at Sano. After all these years as enemies they had an almost mystical bond; each could read the other’s thoughts and emotions. Sano looked at his son, Masahiro, kneeling on the dais behind the shogun. Masahiro was too young to conceal his fear, but not too young to know that Yanagisawa would put Sano’s entire family to death, so that nobody in it could avenge Sano. The assembly waited in hushed suspense to hear Sano’s fate. Noise like a landslide of boulders came from the construction site outside.
“You will serve as Chief Rebuilding Magistrate,” Yanagisawa said.
Shock rippled through the assembly. Masahiro gaped. Sano couldn’t believe his ears. As Chief Rebuilding Magistrate, he would oversee the process of converting a pile of ruins to a new capital. Yanagisawa was letting him live, keeping him in the regime. Why?
Yanagisawa reeled off names, demotions, retirements, transfers, reassignments. Sano watched his allies leave the room. Most marched stoically with their heads high; others wept. An elderly minister fainted and the guards carried him out. Yanagisawa announced the names of the replacements, who filed into the chamber and knelt in the vacated spaces. In an instant the whole government had been reorganized. Sano sat alone amid Yanagisawa’s cronies.
The shogun looked blank, unaware of the coup that had just occurred under his nose. Yoshisato’s face was calm, controlled. Replete with pleasure, Yanagisawa said, “Oh, I almost forgot.” He jerked his chin at Masahiro. “Get off the dais. You’re no longer the head of the shogun’s chambers. You’ll be a castle page.”
Obviously crushed by his demotion to his former rank, Masahiro stepped down from the dais, shamed in front of the whole assembly. Sano felt angrier for Masahiro than for himself. He knew how much pride the innocent boy had taken in the position he’d lost through no fault of his own. Sano could barely contain his urge to beat Yanagisawa to a bloody pulp.
The shogun had eyes only for Yoshisato. “Now I will install my son in the residence that is reserved for my heir and successor.”
Yoshisato helped him descend from the dais. Yanagisawa followed. The officials rose and marched after the three men. Shinto priests in white robes appeared. Beating drums, they led the procession out the door. Troops waved banners emblazoned with the Tokugawa triple-hollyhock-leaf crest. Appalled by the festivity that had sprung from carnage, Sano and Masahiro trailed the procession outside. Musicians playing flutes and samisens materialized. A small crowd of men who’d been purged loitered by the palace entrance, too dazed to know what to do or too afraid to go home and tell their families what had happened. General Isogai and Elder Ohgami were among them. As Sano started toward his former allies, General Isogai’s face turned gray. He clutched at his heart, moaned, and collapsed.
“Somebody fetch a doctor!” Sano called, kneeling beside the panting, groaning Isogai.
Ohgami knelt and drew his short sword. His face looked oddly flaccid, as if the blow to his honor had shattered the underlying bone. He plunged the sword into his stomach.
Sano realized with horror that his two friends had reached the limits of their fortitude. But he knew that his own were still to be tested.
Copyright © 2013 by Laura Joh Rowland