The Snow Empress: A Thriller

The Snow Empress: A Thriller by Laura Joh Rowland Read Free Book Online

Book: The Snow Empress: A Thriller by Laura Joh Rowland Read Free Book Online
Authors: Laura Joh Rowland
Tags: Fiction, General, Historical, Thrillers, Mystery & Detective, det_history
already had-the distant barking of dogs, coming closer.
    The dogs in the settlement growled in reply. Reiko heard crashes, rustles, and a scraping, whizzing noise from the forest. Down a path came ten hounds, each harnessed to a wooden sled. On each sled sat a samurai, driving his dog like a horse. The men wore swords at their waists, bows and quivers full of arrows on their fur-clad backs, and leather helmets. At first Reiko was glad for this sign of Japanese civilization, but as the dogsleds burst into the camp, Sano reached for his sword. Hirata, the detectives, and the Rat rushed from their hut, alarmed because they’d sensed a threat. The Ezo men grouped together, bracing for an attack.
    I have a feeling that getting to Fukuyama City isn’t our biggest problem,“ Sano said.
    The riders were youths in their late teens, led by one who wore deer antlers on his helmet. Sano supposed they were Matsumae soldiers, they’d found the wrecked ship on the beach, and they’d come looking for survivors. The riders steered their sleds up to Sano’s party and reined in their dogs, who halted and panted, muzzles dripping icicles, teeth sharp.
    “There’s too many of them to take back to the castle and execute,” Deer Antlers said as he and his comrades jumped off their sleds. “Let’s kill them here.”
    Sano realized that the trouble in Ezogashima had come straight to him. “Stop right there,” he said.
    They ignored his order and advanced on him. Detective Marume said, “It’s been a while since I’ve had a good fight.”
    He drew his sword. Fukida and Hirata followed suit. The samurai aimed bows fitted with sharp, deadly arrows at them.
    “Drop your weapons!” Deer Antlers said. He had thick features set in a cruel, hungry grin. “Line up in a row. Prepare to die.”
    Reiko moaned softly, but she held her dagger in her hand. Sano knew that although he and his comrades could probably take these men, there were too many more where they’d come from; he’d better stop the fight before it started. He said, “I’m the chamberlain of Japan. Put down your bows and kneel.”
    Deer Antlers aimed at Sano and said, “Shut up! Do as I said.” But his friends gaped at Sano, exchanged glances of dismay, and lowered their bows.
    “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” Deer Antlers said. “We have our orders. Shoot them!”
    “Orders from who?” Sano asked.
    “Lord Matsumae.”
    “I outrank him. You’ll follow my orders, not his.” Sano spoke with all the authority he could muster.
    Nine bowstrings went slack. Deer Antlers said, “Don’t listen to him!”
    His friends objected: “He’s too important to kill.” “We’ll get in trouble.”
    “I’m here on the shogun’s business,” Sano said. “Hurt me or anyone with me, and you’re dead.”
    “We’ll get in trouble if we don’t kill him,” Deer Antlers said, his arrow trained on Sano. “Lord Matsumae will kill us.”
    One of his men said, “Then
you
shoot him. When he doesn’t come home, when the shogun’s army comes up here to see what happened to him and finds out he’s been killed, we’ll say you did it.”
    Deer Antlers hesitated, torn between murder and fear of punishment. His eyes shifted, seeking a compromise in which he wouldn’t lose face.
    Sano said, “Let’s go to Fukuyama Castle and sort this out.”
    “All right.” Deer Antlers scowled. “But hand over your weapons first.”
    Although Sano hated to be disarmed, he nodded at his group. Carrying their possessions in bundles, they marched along the road, the ten samurai riding the sleds behind them, dogs panting at their heels. Gaps between the trees showed glimpses of the ocean, brilliant blue and crusted with ice at the shoreline. The clear air was bitterly cold despite the sun, but Sano began to sweat from trudging through the deep snow. Reiko lagged, and he pulled her along. At least the exercise kept them warm.
    “You’ll all be sorry we came,” the Rat muttered.
    Sano

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