Chapter 21

Sano returned to Edo Castle at noon, feeling rushed and discouraged. Now, he rode through the main gate to seek Ch?go Gichin, captain of the guard and second suspect, before attending his miai. Since he couldn’t conduct a secret inquiry in the castle, where spies would undoubtedly report his activities to Ch?go, he hoped a surprise confrontation might prove more satisfactory than his clash with Matsui.

He couldn’t eliminate Matsui as a strong suspect, despite the merchant’s denials and the common sense that told him such a man wouldn’t risk his wealth and position to revive a dead feud. He believed in Matsui’s sinister obsession with General Fujiwara, and had sensed his capacity for violence. During their short encounter, he’d grasped Matsui’s essential nature: bold, ruthless, with a grandiose self-importance that could easily inspire a sense of invincibility. That Matsui’s associates would attest to his good character and his bodyguards to his whereabouts didn’t convince Sano of the merchant’s innocence. All those people were in Matsui’s pay. Still Sano appreciated the difficulty of establishing Matsui’s guilt.

Matsui was far too clever to leave incriminating evidence in his places of residence or work. Sano thought he could probably persuade Matsui’s enemies to contradict the good references from friends and underlings, but he doubted whether he could break Matsui’s alibi. If the bodyguards had taken part in the murders, they would lie to protect themselves.

This next interview would either offer a better suspect, or eliminate Ch?go Gichin and give him more time to incriminate Matsui. Of Chamberlain Yanagisawa, he could not bear to think, because Yanagisawa’s guilt would mean his own destruction. For once, Sano closed his mind to his father’s voice, which would force him to acknowledge the possibility he didn’t want to face.

Inside the castle, Sano entered the main guard compound, where a thousand samurai occupied the huge, stone-walled courtyard shadowed by the towering keep. Some were mounted, others on foot; all wore swords and armor tunics. The long wooden sheds that bordered the compound held an arsenal of swords, spears, bows, polearms, arquebuses, cannon, and ammunition. This was the mighty heart of the Tokugawa military regime. Through it, like an emperor surveying his domain, strode Ch?go Gichin.

Accompanied by three lieutenants, he alone wore full battle regalia. A black metal helmet with deep side flaps and a pair of carved golden pine boughs adorning its crown sat proudly on his head. An elaborate armor tunic, its many plates laced with red and gold silk cord, hung from his high, square shoulders. Chain-mail sleeve guards covered his long arms. His kimono hem was tucked into metal shin guards that covered legs as slender and straight as wooden pillars. His erect, rigid posture emphasized his spare muscularity. As he made his inspection tour, he carried the weight of his armor without visible effort. His voice, barking orders and questions at his ranks, rose above the sounds of footsteps, hoof-beats, and muted conversation.

Sano watched the captain of the guard and tried without success to imagine him a murderer. This man’s family had loyally served the Tokugawa for generations. Ch?go had worked his way up through the military ranks, even doing a stint in the navy. Now he was responsible for the castle’s security during his duty shift. It was his job to protect the shogun, his family, and their multitude of officials, retainers, and attendants; to maintain order and peace.

How could he also be the person who had killed four men and thrown the city into turmoil?

Then Ch?go headed toward his command post, passing the armory sheds, whose red curtains bore his crest: a white octagon with the Fujiwara crescent moon in the center. Sano dismounted and started after Ch?go. Before he’d moved ten steps, a pair of guards accosted him.

“May we be of assistance, sosakan-sama?” one asked. A touch of insolence tainted his courteous bow and greeting. Just three days ago, these men would have treated Sano with fawning subservience. He marveled at how quickly news of his downfall had reached even the bakufu‘s lower echelons.

“I must speak with Captain Ch?go Gichin,” he said.

Scornfully looking him up and down, they advanced until he was forced to move backward toward the gate.

“It concerns a matter of vital importance to castle security,” Sano added.

The two guards stopped, exchanged glances, shrugged. “Come with me,” the spokesman said.

Sano offered a silent prayer of thanks for underlings who preferred to shift responsibility to their superiors. Shadowed by his escort, he followed Ch?go’s steps to a large shed in the compound’s corner, built under a tall watchtower. He braced himself, hoping his arrival would startle the captain into betraying guilt. But as they entered the command post, the guard shot an arm across Sano’s chest.

“Wait,” he ordered.

The post’s anteroom was unfurnished, earth-floored. An open door at the rear showed the captain’s office, which contained a desk, cabinets, chests, pieces of armor and weaponry. The walls were covered with duty rosters and maps of the castle. Sano’s attention flew to the room’s center, where Ch?go Gichin knelt on a straw mat, profile to the door, fists balled on his thighs. He’d removed his armor and helmet; now, a black hood completely covered his head. An attendant was positioning four man-size straw dummies around Ch?go. Finishing, he came to stand beside Sano at the door. He raised a finger to his lips for silence. Sano nodded agreement, eyes riveted on Ch?go. Anticipation tightened his stomach. He was about to witness a demonstration of the martial arts skill for which Ch?go had achieved nationwide fame: iaijutsu, the art of simultaneously drawing and cutting with the sword.

Ch?go sat perfectly still; he appeared not to breathe. But Sano sensed the mental energy flowing from him as his trained perception divined the positions of the unseen targets. While Sano waited in suspense for Ch?go to draw his sword, he wondered what the captain’s proficiency at iaijutsu said about him.

Iaijutsu was a discipline particularly suited to peacetime, when samurai kept their weapons sheathed, instead of drawn as in battle. The techniques could be used defensively, or to secure the opening move in a duel. Hence, most reputable kenjutsu masters trained their students in them. But iaijutsu had a treacherous, and therefore dishonorable aspect. Too often it was used against unwary opponents or unarmed peasants. Many of the latter had died in ““crossroad cuttings,” or “practice murders,” when a samurai merely wanted to test a new sword.

Had Ch?go used his deadly skill to strike down Kaibara T?ju, the ronin T?zawa, and the eta before they’d perceived the danger? Did his choice of discipline imply a willingness to attack helpless or unsuspecting victims? One thing Sano knew: Extreme devotion to the martial arts often indicated an obsessive adherence to Bushido. Had its credo of ancestor worship driven Ch?go to murder?

In a single fluid motion, Ch?go leapt to his feet and whisked his sword free of its scabbard. The blade’s blurred white arc whistled sideways through the air, slicing off the first dummy’s head. Without a pause, Ch?go whirled. He severed the second, third, and fourth heads before the first hit the ground.

Sano’s breath caught at the beauty and precision of Ch?go’s performance. Then a premonition of danger licked at him like an icy flame. He gave an involuntary shout and sprang backward. Heedless of the law that prohibited his drawing a weapon upon another man inside the castle, his hand instinctively sought his sword.

Because instead of sheathing his blade and kneeling again as the exercise dictated, Ch?go came hurtling straight toward Sano, swinging his sword upward in both hands for an overhead killing cut.

Sano had his sword free and ready to parry the blow. Then, at the last instant, the guard and Ch?go’s attendant realized what was happening.

“No, Ch?go-san! Stop!”

Seizing Ch?go’s arms, they arrested his attack. He froze, sword at the peak of its deadly ascent.

Sano froze, too, then slowly sheathed his weapon as he saw Ch?go’s body relax and felt the captain’s murderous impulse subside. With his heart hammering and combat energy still surging through his body, he watched Ch?go step free of his men. He let out his breath as Ch?go calmly returned his sword to its scabbard, then removed the black hood.

“S?sakan-sama.”

Ch?go spoke in a gruff monotone that betrayed little interest and no surprise. His long face conformed to his body’s linearity. Thick, horizontal eyebrows crossed the bridge of his thin nose. His narrow eyes, dark, unblinking, and so devoid of emotion as to appear lifeless, looked out from deep, rectangular gashes set above knife-edge cheekbones. Vertical creases etched his skin from the nostrils to a thin, almost lipless mouth. From the jawline, his chin tapered to a sharp point. Only one feature deviated from this geometric theme: the puckered scar that snaked across his shaven crown.

Encompassing both Sano and the other two men in his deathlike gaze, he said, “We won’t speak of this accident.”

Obviously he meant that no one would report the incident, and therefore neither he nor Sano would suffer the suicide penalty dictated by law. Sano, badly shaken by the violent encounter, could only nod as he tried to match Ch?go’s stoic calm and organize the torrent of thoughts that flooded his mind.

Blindfolded, Ch?go had decapitated all four dummies in the time it would take an ordinary swordsman to sight a target and draw his weapon. Aside from Ch?go’s obvious skill at swordsmanship, however, Sano had another reason to believe he’d cut down four men in the dark of night.

Ch?go had meant to kill him. This Sano knew with every particle of his being, despite the captain’s claim of an “accident.” Had Ch?go lashed out in reaction to the vague threat of a stranger’s arrival? Or because he’d instinctively recognized the man who might expose him as the Bundori Killer?

“Practice is over. Put the targets away,” Ch?go told his attendant. To Sano: “What do you want?”

He dismissed Sano’s escort and moved into his office, where he scrutinized the castle maps whose colored pins represented troop positions. Sano followed. He watched Ch?go shift pins like a general planning a battle. The minimal chance of a siege didn’t seem to affect his dedication to his job.

“Well?” Ch?go asked.

Sano found himself sorting and grouping questions in his mind, much as Ch?go was doing with the pins. “You probably know that the shogun has assigned me to catch the Bundori Killer,” he said, feeling his way.: “So?”

Apparently uninterested, Ch?go strode out of the command post, where he addressed his lieutenants. “The coverage of the eastern perimeter is too thin,” Sano heard him say. “Dispatch another unit there at once.”

Then he returned to the office to peruse the duty rosters. His movements had an impatient jerkiness that contrasted with the fluid grace of his swordplay. Intent on his duties, he seemed not to care if Sano ever stated the purpose of his visit.

“The labels on the heads of the killer’s victims bore the names Araki Yojiemon and End? Munetsugu,” Sano said. “Two men who had a troubled relationship with your ancestor, General Fujiwara.”

The captain’s hand remained steady as he ran his finger along the columns of names on the roster. His lips compressed in irritation, but not surprise or dismay. “What of it?”

Sano tried to see the thoughts behind Ch?go’s opaque eyes. If he was the Bundori Killer, he revealed no fear of exposure. But then Ch?go, as a martial arts master, would have trained himself to suppress all signs of emotion.

“General Fujiwara had a grudge against Araki and End?,” Sano said. “He risked his life trying to destroy them. Whoever killed Kaibara T?ju, the r?nin T?zawa, and the priest End? seems to have revived the feud by attacking Araki’s and End?’s descendants. I believe the killer is a descendant of General Fujiwara’s, out to complete his blood score.”

“Pah!” Ch?go’s snort conveyed all the contempt that his face didn’t. Before he could speak, his attendant entered the office, bearing a lacquer box.

“Your meal, Honorable Captain.”

“Set it there.” Ch?go knelt on the mat and pointed to the space before him. The office was warm, and he opened his kimono and rolled up the sleeves. No wounds marked his limbs or torso; he’d either evaded Brother End?’s spear during combat, worn armor, or never fought at all. To Sano, he said, “If you’re asking me if I’m a murderer, I’m not. And my ancestors are none of your business. Besides, the past is dead.”

But was it, Sano wondered as Ch?go unpacked the lunchbox. “Dried chestnuts, kelp, and abalone,” he remarked as each item appeared. “Do you always choose the foods eaten by soldiers before battle?” Perhaps Ch?go wasn’t so indifferent to the past as he pretended. He was certainly familiar with war rituals.

Ch?go shrugged. He ate like a man fueling his body for combat: grimly, washing down each mouthful with a gulp of sake from a battered metal flask. “I eat what I please.”

Having gotten nowhere by subtly probing this impenetrable man, Sano tried a blunt query. “If you’re not the Bundori Killer, then where were you last night?”

“That’s none of your business, either. But I’ll tell you anyway. I was here. At the castle. Where I’ve been for the past fifteen days. I never leave during my duty shift. Any of my men will tell you that.”

Sano tilted a pained glance at the ceiling. Here was another alibi, just as dubious as Matsui’s and even harder to break. The Edo Castle guards, including the gate sentries, owed allegiance to their captain. They would corroborate any story he told, take his side in any dispute, especially one with a retainer who’d lost the shogun’s favor. Even if Sano managed to find a brave or disgruntled individual willing to say otherwise, thousands more would swear to Ch?go’s presence in the castle during all four murders. No magistrate would convict him without more proof. Sano thought of the two kimonos, which he had yet to show the tailors, and of the mysterious missing woman. He wondered if Hirata was having any luck finding the dragon palanquin’s maker, or learning the assassin’s identity.

“Do you own a palanquin with a dragon design on it?” he asked.

“No. I use the castle’s.” These bore no ornamentation except the Tokugawa crest.

“Have you ever hired a mercenary swordsman?”

This time, one corner of Ch?go’s mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. “If I wanted to kill someone, I’d do it myself.”

“What would you say if I told you a witness saw you outside the castle last night?” Sano bluffed.

Ch?go chewed, swallowed, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “That you’re lying. Or your witness is.”

Sano’s frustration mounted. Ch?go had betrayed neither concern, nor knowledge of the witness’s gender.

Finishing his meal, Ch?go said, “Enough false accusations, s?sakan-sama. Time for you to go.”

He rose and strode to the door. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted for his lieutenants in a voice that could have carried across a battlefield. Suddenly the two men were dragging Sano out of the command post while Ch?go returned to his work.

“Let go!” Sano shouted. He managed to shake his captors loose, but more men came to their aid. They hoisted him onto their shoulders, carried him across the compound, and dumped him, stomach down, upon his horse. Someone slapped its rump. Sano barely managed to sit upright in the saddle before his mount bolted. The entire command provided a resounding send-off of cheers, hoots, and laughter.

Fuming, Sano rode away, plotting the revenge he would take by seeing Ch?go arrested, convicted, and executed for the Bundori Murders. The captain’s character, swordsmanship skill, and knowledge of war rituals all warranted more suspicion than his alibi could dispel. But for now, Sano turned his horse toward the Official Quarter. He had no time to waste on thoughts of personal retribution. If he didn’t hurry, he would be late for hismiai.

In the passageway, he stopped a castle messenger. From his sash he took the letter he’d written in a stationer’s shop on Suruga Hill. It detailed his plan for tonight, a course of action he’d hoped would be unnecessary, but now deemed crucial-especially because it could eliminate the need for investigating Chamberlain Yanagisawa. He gave the letter to the messenger, along with a generous tip to ensure quick delivery.

“Take this to doshin Hirata at the police compound immediately,” Sano said.

Then he hurried home to prepare for his miai.

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