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Heian Kyo (Kyoto): 11th century--sometime during the Poem-Composing Month
The sun had only been up a few hours, but the archives of the ministry were already stifling in the summer heat. A murky, oppressive air hung about the shelves of document boxes and settled across the low desks. These were normally occupied by scribes and junior clerks, but at the moment they were empty.
Akitada, having celebrated his twentieth birthday with friends the night before—an occasion which involved emptying a cup of wine each time one failed to compose an acceptable poem--had overslept and crept in the back way. Now he knelt at his desk, feeling sick and staring blindly at a dossier he was supposed to be copying.
He winced when two of his fellow clerks, Hirosawa and Sanekana walked in, chattering loudly. “Sugawara!” Hirosawa stopped in surprise. “Where did you come from? The minister’s been asking for you. I wouldn’t give much for your chances of keeping your position this time.” Sanekana, a pimply fat fellow, sniggered. “You should have seen his face,” he announced gleefully. “He was positively gloating at the thought of getting rid of you. Better go to him quick!”
Akitada blanched. He could not afford to lose his clerkship in the Ministry of Justice. It had been the only position offered to him when he graduated from the university. If only the minister had not formed such an instant dislike for him. Inexplicably, His Excellency, Soga Ietada, had found fault with everything Akitada had done until he had become too nervous to answer the simplest questions. As a result, the minister had banished him to the archives to do copy work alongside the scribes.
To make matters worse, his fellow clerks had recognized Akitada as a marked man and quickly disassociated themselves from him.
Akitada eyed Sanekana and Hirosawa dubiously. “I don’t suppose you would cover for me?” he asked. “I might have stepped outside when you looked for me.”
They burst into laughter.
With a sigh, Akitada rose.
His heart was beating wildly and his palms were sweating when he was shown into the great man’s office with the painted screens of waterfowl, the lacquered document boxes, and the broad desk of polished cryptomeria wood. On the desk stood the porcelain planter with a perfect miniature maple tree, the bronze brazier with its enameled wine flask, and the ministerial seal carved from pale jade—all of them witnesses to Akitada’s prior humiliations.
The minister was not alone. A thin elderly man in a neat, dark grey silk robe was kneeling on the cushion before the great man’s table. “It is a matter of honor, Excellency, no, of life and death to me,” he said, his voice uneven with suppressed emotion. “I have, as I explained, exhausted all other possibilities. Your Excellency is my last hope.”
“Nonsense!” barked Soga Ietada. Being stout, he was sitting cross-legged at his ease, tapping impatient fingers on the polished surface of his desk. “You take it too seriously. Young women run away all the time. She’ll show up one of these days, presenting you with a grandchild, no doubt.”
The old man’s back stiffened. He did not glance at Akitada, who hovered, greatly embarrassed, near the door. “You are mistaken,” the man said. “My daughter left my home to enter the household of a nobleman. She would never engage in a fleeting, clandestine affair.”
Soga raised his eyes to heaven, caught a glimpse of Akitada and glared, saying coldly to his guest, “As you say. I can only repeat that it is not in my power to assist you. I suggest you seek out this, er, nobleman. Now you must excuse me. My clerk is waiting to consult me on an urgent case.”
Akitada’s heart skipped a beat. Maybe it was not another reprimand after all. A case? Would he finally be given a case?
The older man bowed and rose. He left quickly, with only a passing glance at Akitada.
When the door closed, the minister’s expression changed to one of cold fury. “And where were you this morning?” he barked.
Akitada fell to his knees and touched his forehead to the floor. “I . . . I was feeling ill,” he stuttered. Well, that was the truth at least. His stomach was heaving and he swallowed hard, waiting for the storm to break over his head.
“No matter!” snapped the minister. “Your work has been unsatisfactory from the start. As you know, you came here on probation. Since you have proved inept at all but copying work and are now far behind in that, you cannot afford the luxury of ill health.”
“Yes, Your Excellency. I shall make up the time.”
Akitada looked up and caught a smirk of satisfaction on Soga’s face. “I assure your Excellency . . .” he began earnestly.
“I said ‘no’!” thundered the minister. “Your time has run out. You may get your property and leave the ministry this instant.” He slapped a pudgy hand on the document before him. “I have already drawn up the papers of dismissal. They spell out your gross inadequacies in detail.”
“But . . .” Akitada sought frantically for some promise, some explanation which might sway the minister’s mind, at least postpone his dismissal. “Your Excellency,” he pleaded, “you may recall that I earned my position by placing first in the university examinations. Perhaps if I had been given some legal work, I might have proved satis . . .”
“How dare you criticize my decisions?” cried the minister. “It is a typical example of your poor judgment. I shall add a further adverse comment to my evaluation of your performance.”
Akitada bowed wordlessly and left the room. He went straight to his desk, ignoring the curious eyes and whispers of Sanekana and Hirosawa, and gathered his things. These consisted of some writing implements and a few law books and were easily wrapped into a square of cloth, knotted, and tossed over one shoulder. Then he left the ministry.
Suffering under the humiliation of his dismissal, he did not pause to consider the full disaster -- the fact that he would no longer draw the small salary which had kept rice in the family bowls and one servant in the house to look after his widowed mother and two younger sisters -- until he had passed out of the gate of the Imperial City.
Then the thought of facing his mother with the news made his knees turn to water, and he stopped outside the gate. Lady Sugawara was forever reminding him of a son’s duty to his family and complaining about his inadequate salary and low rank. What would she say now?
Before him Suzaku Avenue stretched into the distance. Long, wide, and willow-lined, it bisected the capital to become the great southern highway to Kyushu--and the world beyond.
He longed to keep walking, away from his present life, with his bundle of books and brushes. Somewhere someone must be in need of a young man filled with the knowledge of the law and a thirst for justice.
But he knew it was impossible. All appointments were in the hands of the central government, and besides he could not desert his family. A son’s first duty was to his parents. He despaired of finding a clerkship in another bureau. If only there were someone, some man of rank, who would put in a good word for him, but Akitada was without helpful relatives or patrons of that sort.
He sat down on the steps of the gate, and put his head into his hands.
“Young man? Are you ill?”
Akitada glanced up. An elderly gentleman in a formal robe and hat regarded him with kindly interest. Belatedly recognition came. This was the man who had just been turned away by Soga, a fellow sufferer. Akitada rose and bowed.
“Are you not the young fellow who came in while I was with the minister?” the man asked.
“Yes.” Akitada recalled the embarrassing subject under discussion and blushed. “I am very sorry, but I had been sent for.”
“I know. But I thought you had an urgent case to talk over with the minister?”
Akitada blushed again. “I have been dismissed,” he said.
A brief silence fell. Then the older man said sympathetically, “Well, it looks like we’ve both been dismissed. You look pretty low.” He paused, studying Akitada thoughtfully, then added, “Maybe we can be of assistance to each other.”
“How so?” Akitada asked dubiously.
The gentleman gestured for him to sit, then gathered the skirt of his gown and lowered himself to the step next to him. “I have lost a daughter and need someone to help me find her, someone who knows the law and can quote it to those who keep showing me the door. And you, I bet, could use the experience, not to mention a weekly salary and a generous reward?”
Akitada looked at the gentleman as the answer to a prayer. “I am completely at your service, sir,” he said with fervent gratitude. “Sugawara Akitada is my name, by the way.”
“Good. I am Okamoto Toson.”
“Not the master of the imperial wrestling office?”
The modest man in the grey robe smiled ruefully. “The same. Let’s go to my house.”
# # #
Okamoto Toson lived in a small house which lay, surrounded by a garden, in a quiet residential street not far from the palace. He was a widower with two daughters. It was the younger who had disappeared so mysteriously.
Okamoto took him to a room which was, like the rest of the house, small, pleasant, and unpretentious. Yet Okamoto was known to be wealthy and he was well respected by nobility and commoners alike. He was a man of the people who had been drawn into the world of the great due to his knowledge of wrestling and his managerial ability.
The walls were covered with scrolls showing the rankings of wrestling champions, but one scroll was a painting of a court match with the nobles seated around the circle where two massive fighters in loincloths strove against one another. The emperor himself had attended and was enthroned under a special tent. Over toward one side of the picture, the artist had depicted the small figure of Okamoto himself.
Akitada wondered why the minister had dismissed such a man without giving him the slightest encouragement.
Okamoto’s story was brief but strange. Recently widowed, he had been left with two young daughters. The older had taken over the running of the household, but the younger, Tomoe, was a dreamer who spent her time reading romantic tales and talking of noble suitors. Being apparently something of a beauty according to her father, whose face softened every time he spoke of her, she had attracted the eyes of a certain nobleman and permitted his secret visits--no doubt after the pattern of the novels she had read--and the man had convinced her to leave with him.
All this had taken place without the father’s knowledge, and Okamoto was apologetic. Akitada gathered that the death of his wife had caused him to withdraw from all but court duties, and since his older daughter Otomi had run the household efficiently, he had seen no cause to worry.
It was, in fact, the older daughter who had reported her sister’s elopement with a nameless nobleman.
At this point in the story, Okamoto excused himself to get his daughter Otomi. Akitada stared after him in dismay. Either the girl had been incredibly foolish or someone had played a very nasty trick on her. No member of the aristocracy would take a young woman as his official wife or concubine without her father’s knowledge.
Okamoto returned with a pale, plain young woman in a house dress. He said, “This is my elder daughter, Otomi. Please ask her anything.”
Akitada and the young woman bowed to each other. She went to kneel behind her father’s cushion, her eyes downcast and her work-reddened hands folded modestly in her lap.
Akitada was unused to speaking to strange young women, but he tried. “Did you know that your sister had a . . . er . . . met someone?”
The young woman shook her head and said, “My sister did not confide in me. She is a foolish girl. She is always reading stories, and sometimes she makes them up. I did not think anything when she said she had fallen in love with a nobleman.”
“You did not share a room?” Akitada asked, puzzled how a lover could have visited Tomoe without her sister’s knowledge.
To his dismay, Otomi began to weep in harsh, racking sobs. Akitada shot a helpless look at Okamoto.
The older man smiled a little sadly. “Hush, Otomi!” he said, explaining, “The girls did not get along. Tomoe said her sister snored, and Otomi wanted her to stop reading by candlelight.”
Otomi sniffled. “I think she just said those things because she wanted to be alone to receive this person. How could she go away with him like that in the middle of the night without a word to anyone! But my father has always allowed her to do whatever she wished.”
Okamoto shook his head. “No, Otomi. You exaggerate.” Turning to Akitada, he said, “This is really not like Tomoe. No good-by! Not so much as a letter! I am afraid the poor child has been abducted by a man who had no intention of treating her honorably. That is why we must find her.” His short, stubby hands became fists. “This person of rank knew we are only ordinary people without learning and he thought it would be easy to fool us. You, being a young gentleman yourself, will understand much better than I the person who took my child. What do you think we should do? Please speak frankly. I shall not take offense. My child’s life is precious to me.”
Akitada hesitated. It crossed his mind that Tomoe had run off with some commoner, perhaps even a rich man’s servant. He said awkwardly, “I do not want to worry you more, but I am wondering why the minister dismissed you. You are a highly respected man, and have had the honor of addressing His Majesty.”
The older man looked uncomfortable. “I was a little surprised myself. Still, I am nobody. It is only my association with wrestling which brings me in contact with the ‘good people.’”
Akitada turned back to the young woman. “I assume you never saw your sister’s visitor. But perhaps she described him when she talked about him. Anything, the smallest detail, may help me to find him.”
She nodded. “Tomoe said he looked exactly like Prince Genji. And that, like Prince Genji, he wore the most ethereal perfumes in his robes. Is there such a man among the great nobles?”
The question struck Akitada as incredibly naïve. He blurted out, “Prince Genji is a character in a novel.”
“I thought so.” Otomi’s expression was almost triumphant. She reached into her sleeve and produced a crumpled bit of paper. “There,” she said, extending it to Akitada. “She left this behind.”
It was a poem, or rather a fragment: “By the pond the frogs sing in the branches of the fallen pine; / Let the two of us, like a pair of ducks, join their . . . ” Either the author had been interrupted or had discarded a draft. But the brush strokes were elegant; both the calligraphy and style were those of a courtier. Apparently that much of Tomoe’s story had been true.
Folding the paper, Akitada tucked it into his sleeve and said, “This may be some help.” Okamoto’s anxious eyes met his, and he felt great pity for the distraught father. “It is possible that the man was sincere in his feelings for your daughter,” he said gently.
Okamoto regarded him fixedly. “He took Tomoe without my permission.” When Akitada nodded, he laughed bitterly. “The poem is just a bit of verse, that’s all. The fine gentleman dashed it off at a moment’s notice to turn a poor girl’s head.”
Akitada said helplessly, “Well, I’ll make inquiries. Can you describe your daughter to me?”
Okamoto tried, but tears rose to his eyes, and Otomi spoke for him.
“Tomoe is in her sixteenth year,” she said, “but well grown and tall for her age. She has an oval face, her skin is very white, and her eyes are large. Tomoe’s hair reaches to her ankles and is very thick. I brush it for her every day.” Otomi compressed her lips before continuing, “In front of her left ear she has a small brown mark which looks like a little bug. She hates it and always wears her hair loose so it covers her ears.” She gave Akitada a fierce look. “My sister is very beautiful. She looks nothing like me at all.”
Okamoto shivered and wiped the moistness from his eyes. Immediately Otomi rose to get another robe and draped it around his shoulders solicitously. “You are tired, Father,” she said. “I shall fetch a brazier of hot coals and some wine.”
Embarrassed, Akitada rose, saying, “I am very sorry for your trouble and shall try to help.”
Okamoto rose also, leaning on his daughter’s arm. “Allow me,” he said and pulled a slender, neatly wrapped package from his sleeve. “This is a token of my gratitude for your interest and will defray any immediate expenses.”
Akitada accepted with a bow and took his departure, wondering why the girl Otomi looked so complacent, almost happy, as she stood beside her father.
# # #
His first visit was to the headquarters of the municipal police to see if there had been an accident involving a young woman. He was shown to an office where an harassed looking sergeant was bent over paperwork. Akitada sat down and waited.
“Of all the things to happen!” the sergeant muttered to himself. “And the coroner is sick! Heaven only knows if I got this right. No names, he says. How is a man to file a report without names, I ask you.”
Akitada leaned forward. “A troublesome case?” he asked.
The sergeant looked up. “Oh. Sorry, sir. Didn’t realize you were there.” A puzzled frown, then a tentative smile. “Haven’t I seen you in the Ministry of Justice?”
Akitada bowed slightly. “Sugawara Akitada,” he introduced himself. “Junior clerk.”
“Right! Yes, we’ve got a nameless suicide. And the report was brought in by a nameless citizen.” He looked over his shoulder, then leaned forward to whisper, “It’s all very hush-hush. Your boss talking to my boss. Actually it was the captain of the palace guard.”
“Ah!” nodded Akitada. He asked in a whisper, “Masahira or Morikawa?” There was a right guard and a left guard of the palace.
“Masahira,” mouthed the sergeant. He continued in a normal tone, “I’ve been told to file a report without names; just the ‘unfortunate female victim’ and the ‘person who made the discovery.’ On top of that we don’t have a coroner’s report. All I know is the girl was dead when we pulled her from the water.”
A girl! Akitada became alert. “Perhaps,” he offered, “I could be of assistance. I am not a coroner, but I learned a little forensic medicine when I was a student at the university.”
The sergeant was relieved. “If you wouldn’t mind taking a look,” he said, getting to his feet. “Just a bit of the jargon and I can finish my report. We’ve got her in the back room.”
The back room was a barren space, dim with the shutters closed, and contained nothing but a covered body on a mat. A faint smell of rotted vegetation hung in the air. The sergeant threw open the shutters, then pulled back the straw mat which covered the corpse.
Akitada held his breath. He saw the face first, and felt an almost physical pain that someone so young and beautiful should be forever lost to the world. Slender brows arched over eyes shaded by thick lashes, now wet against the pale cheeks. The small nose and softly rounded lips were almost childlike in their freshness and innocence. She looked asleep, and like a sleeping child, she touched a hidden desire to cherish and protect.
Too late! The long hair, matted with mud and rank vegetation, stuck to her skin, was tangled in the clammy folds of her fine silk clothes (lovely rose colors shading all the way to the palest blushing skin tone), and reached to her small, slender hands and feet. There was so much hair, so many layers of wet silk that she seemed to be wrapped in them as in a strange pink and black cocoon.
Akitada knelt beside her, feeling strangely reverent, his eyes on her face. He saw no marks on her except for a thin red line high on her neck beneath the jaw. It disappeared under her hair. He extended a hand, almost apologetically, and brushed aside a strand that covered her right ear.
There it was, a dainty dark brown mark, no bigger than an orange seed. According to her sister, it had worried her, but Akitada thought it most beautiful, this small imperfection in the otherwise perfect face of the girl Tomoe.
“Oh,” he murmured, overcome with pity and regret. The puzzle had turned into something far more real that touched him deeply.
The thin red line widened and deepened just below the ear but did not continue around her neck. It was recent. Whatever had caused it had not been strangulation, though something might have been put around her neck and then jerked backward.
“What is it?” asked the sergeant. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
She was everything out of the ordinary to Akitada’s mind, but he asked, “Did she have anything around her neck?”
“No. Well, was it suicide or what?”
“What makes you think it was suicide?”
“My boss told me it was. He said she left a letter or something before drowning herself.”
Akitada sighed. It was too likely that Tomoe had written a tragic love letter. If Masahira was the lover, he was beyond her reach. He looked at the lovely silent face before him. A young romantic girl would have found the noble captain irresistible. Masahira was in his late thirties and one of the most handsome men at court. All the empress’s ladies in waiting were said to be in love with him. For all that, Masahira had had an excellent reputation up to now. Married to a daughter of the chancellor, he had never been rumored to have affairs or even flirtations. If he was indeed the man, Tomoe must have seen him at one of the wrestling contests held in the palace. He would be in attendance, riding at the head of the imperial guard, resplendent in golden armor shining in the sunlight and seated on a prancing steed.
“Well?” urged the sergeant. “Shouldn’t you take off her clothes?”
Akitada recoiled from the suggestion. Instead he gently opened her lips and felt inside. He pulled out a fragment of a water plant and some wet dirt. “She drowned,” he told the sergeant. “The fact that she swallowed water mixed with vegetation and pond mud proves that she was alive when she fell in.”
“Ah,” nodded the sergeant. “I shall put it in my report.”
Akitada turned her head and felt the skull, moving the wet hair aside from the skin. On her left temple he found a bruise, slightly swollen and discolored. Her hair had become glued to the scalp and as he pulled it loose the tips of his fingers came away red.
The sergeant peered. “Must’ve banged her head when she went in.”
Akitada looked up. “Not if she committed suicide. She would have walked into the water. Unless she jumped from a high place and hit some obstruction. Where was she found?”
“She didn’t jump. It was just a murky garden pond full of frogs.”
Frogs! Akitada was momentarily distracted by the memory of the poem. He asked, “Was the water deep?”
“No. It only came to my hips.”
Akitada looked at the sergeant. “Would you drown yourself in that? Where was this place?”
“Small villa in the western part. You know how things are over there. It’s pretty much deserted. She was staying there by herself. Not even a servant. If you ask me, it was your typical love nest.”
The sergeant cast up his eyes and grinned. “Ah! Your guess is as good as mine. The chief says it’s immaterial. She committed suicide. Case closed.”
“But what about her family?”
“We’ll post a notice! If anybody missed her, they can claim the body.” The sergeant looked worried suddenly. “It is suicide, isn’t it? Or . . . an accident?”
“You mean, could she have run into something with her head and fallen in the water? I don’t know. You will have to show me the place.”
The sergeant frowned. “Aren’t you first going to look at the rest of her?”
Reluctantly Akitada checked the small hands, the dainty feet in their white silk socks. Both were unmarked except by muddy water. Then he straightened her clothes gingerly. The dampness made the silk cling to her skin, outlining high, small breasts, a narrow waist, and delicately rounded hips and thighs. In spite of himself, Akitada felt the blood rise warmly to his face and looked away in self-disgust. Turning the body on its side, he found a long tear in the back of the outer gown. A sharp, thorny branch was caught in the hem, and the silk showed streaks of dirt and many small rips.
“Did you or the constables drag the body along the ground?” he asked the sergeant.
“No. Two of us scooped her out of the water and laid her on the mat she’s on now. She weighed very little, even with all the water.”
Akitada gently laid Tomoe on her back again, plucking at the layers of silk until she looked more decently covered. Then he rose.
“I am afraid, Sergeant, that this young person was murdered.”
The sergeant turned first red than white. “No!” he said. “I can’t put that in my report. I don’t care what you think you saw, it can’t be murder. The chief said suicide.”
Akitada shook his head. “It’s murder,” he said stubbornly. “She was knocked unconscious and then dragged to the water and drowned. Now let us go to this villa and see what we can find out.”
The sergeant looked panic-stricken. “Are you mad? You shouldn’t even be here. Come on.” Taking Akitada’s arm, he pulled him out of the room and locked the door after them.
“Now,” he said as they were standing outside, “you’d better go home and forget all about this.”
Akitada gave him a long look, then said, “As you wish,” and walked away.
The sergeant stood and watched him turn the corner, wondering belatedly what Akitada’s business had been.
# # #
Lord Masahira occupied his family mansion on the corner of Kitsuji and Nishidoin avenues. It was a large, generously staffed establishment, and Akitada had considerable difficulty being admitted. The man he was about to meet was a favorite with the emperor and related by marriage to the chancellor. That gave him the sort of power which would make even Soga grovel. No wonder the minister had dismissed Okamoto without the slightest encouragement. No wonder he had used his influence to keep Masahira’s name out of the investigation. They were covering up a murder.
Akitada saw again the still face of the dead girl and the pain in her father’s eyes, and a hot anger against Masahira filled his heart. He had known at the police station that he could not tell Okamoto of his daughter’s murder without at least identifying her killer first. And Masahira was the most likely choice.
The handsome captain of the imperial guard was in a small garden enclosed by the walls of several buildings. He was sitting on the edge of the wooden veranda and had Akitada’s visiting card in his hand. Glancing up, he said, “You are Sugawara from the Ministry of Justice?”
Akitada bowed deeply. He knew he was in the presence of one of the first nobles of the land but was much too angry to prostrate himself. Considering the collusion between this man and the minister, he also did not feel obligated to go into long explanations of his status.
When he raised his head, he saw to his surprise that the man before him had red-rimmed eyes and looked as if he had not slept. Beside him, on the polished boards, stood an untouched tray of food.
“Well? What does Soga want?” Masahira asked curtly.
If the minister found out about this visit, he would see to it that Akitada never worked again in any imperial office. On the other hand, Masahira’s question proved that he had recently consulted Soga about Tomoe’s murder. Righteous disgust gave Akitada the strength to continue.
“I am here on behalf of Okamoto Tosan,” he corrected Masahira. “He has asked for my unofficial assistance in locating his daughter Tomoe. Perhaps I should explain first that I have just come from police headquarters where I have seen the body of his unfortunate child.”
A slight flush appeared on Masahira’s pale face. “I see,” he said tonelessly. “Well? I was under the impression that the matter was being handled by Soga. Is it money the old man wants? How much? Come on! Let’s get it over with.”
Akitada stiffened, remembering the grief and worry of Okamoto. “It is not a matter of money, and the young woman’s father is not yet aware that she is dead,” he said coldly.
“Oh?” Masahira waited.
Heavens, did the man think this was a blackmail attempt? Akitada flushed with fresh anger. “I shall, of course, report to him,” he said quickly, “but I came to you first because I hoped that you might wish to see him yourself to explain what happened.”
Masahira turned away. “No. You may tell Okamoto that I am responsible for what happened and that my life means nothing to me now. I am at his disposal if he desires to discuss the affair or avenge his honor.”
Akitada was thunder-struck. He had expected fury, denial, bluster, but certainly not this quick admission of guilt. He looked at the man’s back and wavered in his estimation. The broad shoulders sagged and his neck, bent, looked vulnerable for all its strong muscles and neatly brushed glossy black hair. But he could not afford to feel sympathy. Masahira was, at the very least, a sly seducer of innocent young women, at worst a heartless killer.
“I am afraid, it is not going to be that simple,” he said, “not in a case of murder.”
Masahira spun around. “What? Murder? She drowned herself. Because she thought I had deserted her.”
“No. Someone knocked her unconscious, dragged her to the pond, and drowned her.” Akitada outlined his observations of the evidence.
Masahira ran his hands through his hair. “It cannot be. Here! He fished a piece of paper from inside his robe. Read for yourself!”
The letter was still warm from lying next to Masahira’s skin. Akitada unfolded it and read the childlike characters. “I cannot bear this lonely place any longer. I think you do not want me and will leave me to die alone. How could I ever have believed you? My sleeves are wet with tears. Soon they will be wetter still.”
“Tomoe wrote this?” Akitada asked, returning it.
Masahira nodded. “I blame myself entirely. I should not have left her alone there. She told me she was frightened and begged me to stay. When I refused . . .” He turned away.
“You could have taken her back to her father,” Akitada offered, his anger melting rapidly along with his suspicions.
“You don’t understand.” Masahira’s voice broke. “I loved her.” He put both hands over his face. “I could not bear to give her up.”
“Then why did you not bring her here and legitimize the relationship,” Akitada asked. “A man in your position is expected to have secondary wives.”
Masahira turned and looked at him bleakly from moist eyes. “I meant to. In fact, I was preparing my household to receive her when it happened,” he said stiffly.
Akitada digested this information and decided to accept it. “Regardless of the letter, which is ambiguous at best, someone killed her,” he said at last.
Before Masahira could respond, the door opened and a tall, handsome woman entered. Her robes were costly, and her glossy black hair swept the floor behind her, but her features were thin and pinched. Lady Chujo, Masahira’s wife and the chancellor’s oldest daughter. When she saw Akitada, she gave him a sharp, appraising look before addressing her husband.
“I apologize if I am interrupting, husband,” she said in the soft, nasal tones of the upper classes. “I wished to know if there is any news.”
“My wife,” introduced Masahira. “My dear, this is Sugawara Akitada. He has come from Okamoto Toson about Tomoe.” To Akitada he said, “My wife is aware of the tragedy, but not, of course, of the fact that murder is suspected.”
“Murder?” Lady Chujo’s eyes flicked over Akitada without interest. “Impossible! My husband found the letter the unfortunate young woman wrote before walking into the pond. I suppose her father must be distraught. It is only natural. But you must convince him that he is wrong about this and that it is absolutely essential the unpleasantness be handled discreetly. Naturally you will also give him our condolences.”
Akitada took an instant dislike to the woman. An unpleasantness, was it? To be resolved by a message of condolence? Aloud he said, “Madam, Tomoe’s father is not yet aware of her death nor of her connection with your husband. I came here because explanations had better come from Lord Masahira.”
The proud head came up and the lady stared Akitada in the eye. “Impossible,” she said again. “A man in my husband’s position cannot be expected to deal with such low-bred notions. The girl was a foolish child frightened by hobgoblins and fox spirits. I am certain the proper authorities will rule her death a suicide.”
Masahira interrupted at this point. “Did you say Okamoto did not know she went with me? But Tomoe wrote him a letter before she left with me.”
A letter? Here was another puzzle. Of course there was only her sister’s word for the fact that Tomoe had left without notice. What if Otomi had known all along where Tomoe was?
Aloud he said, “He did not . . . does not know. He only suspects that Tomoe was lured away by a man of high rank. It was the sergeant at the police building who told me that you had reported her death.”
Lady Chujo said irritably, “They should make certain such people can be trusted not to blab confidential matters to every curiosity seeker!” She glared at Akitada who was once again reminded of his own precarious position. A word from Lady Chujo to her father, and Akitada could find himself banished to the island of exiles in the far north.
He bowed and said apologetically, “Forgive me, but I was merely carrying out Mr. Okamoto’s instructions.” With brilliant inspiration, he added, “He is very distraught. No doubt the tragedy, when it becomes generally known, will win him much sympathy from his many friends and supporters.”
Lady Chujo looked thoughtful, and her husband said quickly, “Yes, of course. I had better go and explain. Though I still don’t understand how he could have been so completely in the dark. I made no secret of my intentions to Tomoe. It is unfortunate that the empty villa frightened her, but I thought that the young women would arrange for someone to stay with her.”
The young women? So Otomi had known!
“Indeed,” cried Lady Chujo. “My husband was making even more generous arrangements for her, when she panicked. He was bringing her here. But, being a most superstitious person—one of those who are forever muttering spells and buying silly amulets against Heaven knows what-- she simply went mad with fright.” Lady Chujo was warming to her subject. “If she did not drown herself, then she ran into the water out of fear. It was an accident. It is really no one’s fault, but the silly girl’s.”
Masahira said unhappily, “Don’t! Tomoe was not silly. She was very sweet and very young. I should have looked after her better.”
Lady Chujo bit her lip. She was clearly tired of the subject. Her eyes fell on the tray of food. “You have not eaten,” she said. “Let me get some hot food. This dreadful incident will make you ill, and you know you are on duty tomorrow for the emperor’s birthday.”
“I am not hungry,” Masahira said with a grimace, but she went to pick up the tray anyway. She left the room, scented robes and long hair trailing, without so much as a nod to Akitada.
“I do not wish to trouble you any longer, sir,” Akitada said nervously, “but could you direct me to your villa?”
Masahira sighed and rose. “Come! I will take you myself. If you are right about its being murder, it would be a terrible thing, but at least I would not feel that Tomoe killed herself because of me.”
Akitada had not expected the offer or the sentiment from such a powerful man and was surprised again.
They rode--Masahira had superb horses--and crossed the city quickly. In the western district, they entered an almost rural setting. There were few villas and some, now abandoned, had become overgrown with vegetation. Empty lots were covered with tall meadow grass which was alive with rabbits and deer. They passed a few small temples, their steep pagodas rising above the trees, but the streets were mere dirt tracks and the bridges, which crossed small rivers and canals, were dilapidated.
Yet here and there, in the midst of the desolation, a few secluded mansions and villas survived, their rustic fencing in good repair, and the thatched roofs mended. Masahira stopped at one of these, dismounted, and unlatched the gate.
At that moment, a curious figure detached itself from the shadows of the large willow tree at the street corner and walked toward them.
At first glance, the scrawny man appeared to be a monk. He was dressed in a stained and worn saffron robe, his head was shaven, and the wooden begging bowl, dangling from the hemp rope about his skinny middle, bounced with every shuffling step he took. When he reached them, he stopped and stared slack-jawed and with vacant eyes. Akitada saw that he wore several small wooden tablets with crude inscriptions around his neck.
“He’s just a mendicant,” said Masahira. “They live in small temples around here.” He tossed a few copper coins to the man, while Akitada rode into the courtyard. Dismounting, he glanced over his shoulder at the beggar, who had not picked up the money, but was still standing, staring foolishly after them until Masahira closed the gate.
They were in a small courtyard of a charming house in the old style, all darkened wood and sweeping thatched roof.
Akitada looked curiously about him. A stone path led to the front door and then continued around the side of the house to what must be the garden. The cicadas were singing their high-pitched song in the trees.
Inside there was only one large room, but this had been furnished luxuriously with screens, thick mats, silk bedding, and lacquered clothes chests. There was also an assortment of amusements suitable for an aristocratic young lady. A zither lay next to a beautiful set of writing implements, games rested beside several novels and picture books, and a set of cosmetics and combs accompanied an elegant silver mirror. Three tall wooden racks were draped with gowns of silk and brocade in the most elegant shades and detailing, and Akitada counted no less than five fans scattered about. In the short time since she had left her father’s house, Tomoe had been spoiled by her noble lover. He looked around for evidence of the sister’s having been here, but found nothing.
Masahira wandered dazedly about the room, touching things. He brushed a hand over one of the gowns, then picked up a fan, looked at it, and let it drop again. “Well?” he asked.
“I understand that you could not spend much time with Tomoe,” said Akitada, “but I have been wondering why she did not have at least a servant for companion?”
“There was a need for secrecy at first. I wished to keep the affair from my household. Tomoe herself insisted that she needed no one. But, as I said, I thought surely her sister . . .” he passed a hand over his face, “at any event, she became fearful. The foxes make strange sounds at night. She was not used to it. She developed a fear that I might meet with an accident and never return. She had dreadful dreams. One day I found her nearly incoherent. That was when I decided to bring her into my home.” He sighed deeply. “Too late.”
Akitada looked around the room distractedly. This had been the second reference Masahira had made to the sister. Had Otomi known of this place? If so, why had she lied? In his mind’s eye, he saw again the complacent look on the plain girl’s face as she stood beside her father and said, “My sister is very beautiful.”
He became aware of the fact that Masahira was looking at him and asked, “May I see the pond now? And perhaps you could tell me how you came to find her body.”
Masahira nodded. He led the way into the garden. They followed the stepping stones through dense shrubbery, but trees and weeds had grown up around the path and brushed and tore at their clothes. All around them the cicadas sang, pausing as they passed and resuming again a moment later.
“I had gone home to speak to my wife about Tomoe,” said Masahira, holding a branch aside for Akitada. “To my surprise, she was immediately receptive to the idea. You must understand that I have no other women, and my wife is childless. She confessed that she looked forward to raising my children by Tomoe, and to having her companionship. Overjoyed, I returned the next day to tell Tomoe.” He fell abruptly silent.
The stepping stones only went as far as a stone lantern. Here Masahira turned right. “The pond is this way,” he said. His voice shook a little. In a distance, Akitada could hear frogs croaking. There was no sign of foxes, but the dense shrubbery rustled with animal life.
They emerged from the trees. The pond lay before them, basking in the hot sun.
“When I got to the house, it was empty,” Masahira said, staring at the still water with a shiver. “I was puzzled, for I knew Tomoe was afraid of the garden, but eventually I went to search for her there. I almost turned around when I got to the pond without seeing her.”
The pond was shaped like a gourd, and they stood near its widest end. Up ahead, where it narrowed, a small bridge arched across a dense growth of water lilies and lotus. Clouds of small gnats hung low over the water, and dragonflies skimmed the surface. The sound of the cicadas was less strident here, but the atmosphere of the pond, stagnant in the summer heat and choked with vegetation, embraced them like a suffocating shroud.
Masahira pointed to a thorny shrub near the path. “I saw a small piece of silk there and knew she had come this way. That was when I went to look in the water.” He walked forward to the muddy edge and stared down. “She was here.”
Akitada joined him. The water was brown but not deep. He could see the muddy bottom, pitted here and there by the feet of the sergeant and his constable. A huge silver carp appeared, rose briefly to look at them and sank again. Other fish, fat, their colors dull grey and copper in the muddy water, shifted lazily across the mud, and a large frog, suddenly conscious of their presence, jumped in with a splash and swam away. In this neglected garden, human beings were the intruders.
Masahira said, “She could have slipped and fallen. But I cannot imagine what would have brought her out here.”
Akitada glanced across to where a fallen pine projected over the water. “There are the foxes,” he said.
Two young cubs had climbed up and looked at them curiously. Masahira cursed, clapping his hands sharply. The cubs yelped and ran. A moment later their mother appeared, a handsome vixen with a long bushy tail, her ears pointed and her sharp nose twitching to catch their scent.
Masahira clapped again, but the fox stood her ground. “They behave as if they owned this place,” he complained. “I shall have workmen clean up this wilderness and drain the pond.” He turned abruptly and walked back.
Akitada stayed another moment, looking at the fox. Then he also turned to go.
What had happened here? He no longer suspected Masahira. It was clear that he had loved the girl and had made arrangements to bring her into his family. Who then? The envious sister? A jealous lover? Or a stranger, some vagrant coming across the lonely girl? The image of the scarecrow monk flashed into his mind, and he hurried after Masahira.
He caught up with him in the house and asked, “That beggar outside the gate, do you know him?”
Masahira was surprised. “Yes. He is one of the monks in a small temple a short distance away. Why do you ask?”
Akitada, with the certainty of conviction, said, “He looked deranged. I think he got in and attacked Tomoe.” Masahira shook his head, but Akitada added quickly, “Perhaps she caught him stealing. He could have picked up something and knocked her out.” Looking around the room, he pounced on an iron candlestick, examined it and put it back disappointedly. Next he picked up the heavy silver mirror. “Yes,” he cried. “I see a dent here and . . .” He dashed out into the sunlight with it, squinting at the rim. “There!” he shouted triumphantly. “Do you see it? That is a drop of blood and a long hair is stuck to it. This was used to knock her out. Now do you believe me?”
Masahira came to look and nodded. “Yes,” he said sadly. “You must be right, but the man has always been quite gentle. He has never hurt a living thing. He is not very bright and sells talismans that the other monks inscribe with spells against demons.”
“Of course,” said Akitada. “Fox magic. He knocked at the door, and when Tomoe opened, he offered her one of his charms. I suppose they are those wooden tablets he had around his neck. Then he saw all these fine things and no one to watch them but a young, delicate lady. He helped himself and, when Tomoe protested, they struggled, and he hit her with the mirror. He thought she was dead and decided to hide the body in the pond.”
Masahira frowned. “Could not someone else . . .?”
“No, no. It all fits,” cried Akitada, rushing out. “Let us go back and tell the police.
# # #
When they reached the police building, the sergeant was talking to Okamoto Toson, who had finally come to report his daughter missing, and had ended up identifying Tomoe’s body.
An uncomfortable scene ensued.
Okamoto’s eyes went from Akitada to Lord Masahira. He recognized him instantly and prostrated himself. Masahira went to help him up, whispering something in his ear. Okamoto stiffened, then nodded.
Masahira turned back to Akitada, saying in a tight voice, “Perhaps it will be best if you leave things to me now.”
Akitada looked at Okamoto.
The old man was very pale, but he nodded. “Lord Masahira is right. You have done your part and quickly, too. If you will excuse me now and allow me some time to mourn and bury my child, I shall reward your efforts in a day or two.”
Akitada flushed with embarrassment. He stammered that nothing was owed, that he was sorry to have brought no better news, and left as quickly as he could.
He slept poorly that night. Something kept nagging at him. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamt of foxes. At one point, the vixen appeared on the fallen pine. She raised herself on her hindlegs and paraded back and forth, dragging her tail behind like the skirts of a long robe, making a strange snickering noise. Then the fox’s black eyes and pointed muzzle changed into the sharp features of Lady Chujo, who laughed, baring her fangs. He sat bolt upright, staring at the stripes made by the sunlight falling through the closed shutters of his room.
Stripes . . . lines . . . the thin, red line on Tomoe’s neck . . . the monk selling amulets . . . charms against fox spirits. Of course. The frightened Tomoe had bought one and she had worn it before her death. Someone, the murderer, had torn it off her and had caused the red line on her neck.
Amulets! Lady Chujo had mentioned Tomoe’s belief in amulets. How had she known?
Akitada threw on his clothes and ran to police headquarters. A yawning sergeant was just sitting down when Akitada burst into the office.
“That monk,” cried Akitada. “Did you arrest him?”
The sergeant’s mouth fell open again. He nodded.
“What did he say? Did he visit the girl?”
The sergeant nodded again.
The sergeant closed his mouth and sighed. “It’s too early,” he said reprovingly, “for so many questions, sir. However, the man absolutely denies killing the girl. He sold her a charm, that’s all, he says. Of course, we can still beat him and get a confession that way, but Lord Masahira has asked us not to.”
Thank God for Masahira, thought Akitada. He, Akitada, had made a terrible mistake. He asked, “Did he say when he sold her the charm?”
“Yes. The day before we found her.” The sergeant shook his head. “It didn’t do her much good.”
“The monk is innocent. You must let him go.”
The sergeant raised his brows. “On whose say-so?”
Akitada’s spirits sank. He knew now who the killer was, but he would never prove it. No doubt the poor monk would be beaten into some form of confession and then condemned to forced labor at some distant frontier. And all of it was Akitada’s fault. He had been wrong about the identity of the murderer three times. He had lost his job, failed Okamoto and Tomoe, and added the burden of guilt to his other miseries.
He went to see Lord Masahira.
# # #
Recalling too late that it was the emperor’s birthday, Akitada fully expected to be turned away. Instead he was admitted instantly to face who knew what additional disaster.
He found the captain, dressed in the grey robe of mourning, standing on the veranda of his study. He held something in his hand and was staring at it fixedly.
The face he turned towards Akitada was drawn and white. Today Masahira looked old beyond his years, and Akitada was about to intrude into the man’s grief with a dangerous knowledge. Reminding himself of the vacant-eyed monk in police custody, Akitada stammered, “Forgive the interruption, sir, but I have reconsidered the facts and I now know the monk is innocent. He merely sold one of his charms to Tomoe. It was the day before her body was found. I . . . believe someone else . . .” He broke off fearfully.
“Yes.” Masahira’s voice was flat, his eyes weary. “So you know what really happened?”
Hanging his head, Akitada murmured, “I believe so. Your lady . . .” He broke off. “I am very sorry, sir.”
Masahira sighed heavily. “No sorrier than I. I am responsible, even though I did not kill Tomoe. It was my foolishness that caused the tragedy. A double tragedy. I thought my wife was too accommodating when I asked her if I could bring Tomoe here. I should have suspected.” Masahira’s voice was bitter. “I found this in my wife’s writing box!”
Akitada glanced up. Masahira dangled a small wooden tablet with an inscription. The hemp string was broken.
“Lady Chujo must have gone to the villa after you told her,” said Akitada. “She mentioned the amulet, but Tomoe had just bought it from the monk, and not even you could have known that.”
Masahira said, “I did not.” He added heavily, “My wife will not be arrested. But she has agreed to renounce the world and spend the rest of her life in a remote nunnery. The monk will be released, of course, but I must ask your discretion. I already have Okamoto’s.”
Akitada thought again of the dangerous ground he had trodden. Deeply grateful, he bowed. “Of course, my Lord. I only regret having brought such misfortune to you and your family.”
Masahira waved this aside. “Okamoto is a most admirable character.” He paused to look at Akitada. “I think,” he said, “that, whatever your motives were originally, you acted from concern for him and pity for . . .” his voice shook, but he went on, “his daughter. You were quite right in your feelings about both.” He broke off abruptly and turned away, weeping.
Akitada was backing from the room, when Masahira spoke again. His voice had regained the tone of authority. “About your position at the ministry. I have had a word with Soga. You are to return to work immediately.”