zenigata coin

The Golden Virgin

by Kodo Nomura, Shelley Marshall (Translator)

1

"Heiji, I have a special favor to ask of you. Will you accept?"

"Yes."

Zenigata Heiji had difficulty deciphering his true motives and furtively glanced up at the stern but handsome man of twenty-four or -five years old, who was sitting with his knees covered by a lined kimono specked with small indigo dots. The man gently placed a hand, accustomed to playing with a Yazo balancing toy, on the floor in front of him.

"In the worst case, Magistrate Asakura Iwami-no-kami-sama will be the instrument for harakiri on behalf of the shogun's Council of Elders. I can't force you, Heiji, but will you risk your life to do this for me?" asked Sasano Shinsaburo, the police sergeant of the Minami-cho magistrate. He was a man said to be the personal adviser to Magistrate Asakura Iwami-no-kami but also had mysterious noble appearance and physique.

"Whatever you wish. Sir, if this matter is important to the man who performed many favors for my father, I don't have enough lives to give. Please, tell me everything," said Heiji.

As Heiji stepped up to the parlor, Shinsaburo slid off the floor cushion as a signal to invite him inside and said, "The shogun has announced another falconry hunt in Zoshigaya."

"What?"

"You probably heard about the disturbance during the last hunt there."

"I know a little about it."

Heiji had heard about the incident. When Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun, released a falcon near Kishimojin in Zoshigaya, an arrow came out of nowhere and flew dangerously close to the top of his shoulder. It glided into the metal backing of his jingasa camp helmet bearing the hollyhock family crest of the Tokugawa, and dropped to the ground three paces before his eyes.

The search for the scoundrel began at once, but he got away.

Later investigations revealed the deep penetration into the falcon's wing of the arrow up to its shaft and a variety of wolfsbane poison known as torikabuto, used by the Ainu people of Matsumae, smeared on the polished white, two-inch arrowhead.

Heiji said, "Although the villain was still on the loose, the shogun announced he would go out on another falconry hunt in Zoshigaya. Of course, the Council of Elders, as well as his advisers, offered various objections. But in line with his normal disposition, once the shogun made his announcement, he would never alter his plans. As a result, the Council of Elders made a direct request to Asakura Iwami-no-kami-sama to hunt down this villain who dared to shoot a long-distance arrow at the shogun by the day of the falconry hunt. What do you think would be a good strategy?"

This generation's man of ability, Sasano Shinsaburo, relied on Heiji with his bearing of a police detective as well as his mind.

Shinsaburo said, "You've told me quite a lot. Officer Miyori, Heiji will be in charge, so please hide nothing and tell him everything you think I would want to know."

"Of course, please feel free to ask questions about anything you don't understand," said the officer.

Heiji said, "All right, I have a question. Could you tell me exactly why the shogun is drawn to Zoshigaya for falconry? I'm asking because not many small birds live there. This fall, the opinion is game animals are in abundance in Meguro and Kirigaya."

"Now, there's no need to raise your voice."

"Yes, well, I'm at a loss about what to do without knowing about the day."

"There has been talk, even on the back streets. On the way back from the falconry hunt in Zoshigaya, the shogun decided to stop and enjoy a cup of medicinal tea in the newly built Takada Palace at the Otsuka Medicinal Herb Garden."

"Which means?"

"You've probably heard the gossip. Touge Soujuken, the herbalist in charge of the garden, has a daughter Sayo. She is a woman with beauty unrivaled in the prefecture."

"In that case, the shogun is smitten, too."

"What?! What are you saying?"

"Well, thank you very much. From what you've said, I now understand the crux of this matter. I'm also aware of Sayo's beauty. She is in no way an ordinary woman. For better or worse, I will aim for success even if I pay with my life," said Heiji whose youthful face glowed with inspiration. His heart pounded like he had forgotten the difference in their ranks.

"The falconry hunt is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. I don't intend to make any mistakes. I have my own strategy. If you're not careful, this may become a duel of achievements," said Officer Miyori.

"All right."

They exchanged glances and smiles of satisfaction. The police sergeant and the detective were as different as heaven and earth, but the two shared the spirit of a master.

2

The Otsuka Medicinal Herb Garden, also known as Takada Gardens, was on the grounds of what is now the Gokoku-ji Temple in Otowa. Beginning with the famous Physician Shrine and the Divine Farmer Shrine on fifteen acres, a magnificent palace called Takada Palace was also provided to accommodate visits by the shogun.

The shrine was an imposing structure with a gabled cypress roof and rusted bronze tiles. The aroma from several hundreds of thousands medicinal and sacred herbs was the sweet scent blanketing the surrounding ten-block radius in Otowa. The shogunate's medicinal garden had immense authority and had never been the sort of place a detective and a police officer could approach.

Zenigata Heiji rushed from Sergeant Sasano's residence and soon arrived in Otsuka. He stuck close to the fence charged with a medicinal odor. A place is only a place, but he lacked a plan to get inside.

For half the day, Heiji looked like a bungling prowler and ran out of patience around noon.

"Dammit."

He clicked his tongue as he pulled out a single Ming Dynasty zenigata brass coin from his sleeve and placed it in the palm of his hand. He flipped the coin using the nail of his middle finger and the pad of his thumb. The coin rang out as it flew up two or three feet into the air. When the coin dropped back down to his palm, he divined his fortune.

"Okay, it says to go home."

He dropped the coin back into his sleeve and walked away from the fence and straight to Otowa Boulevard. This coin was one reason for his nickname Zenigata Heiji. The other is a mysterious skill he possessed. When engaged in a difficult arrest, he'd jump back five feet, whip out the Chinese-made coin from his belly band, and launch it at the villain's face. Because the coin is thin and small, but weighty, even if thrown carelessly, the thief or thug flinched giving Heiji the opportunity to foil and arrest him. Thus, despite his youth, Zenigata Heiji was feared like a demon in the criminal world.

Because Heiji gave up on this mission, the secrets beyond the garden fence would not be easily revealed. In a fit of anger, he walked all the way to 9-chome of Otowa Boulevard when he stopped in his tracks. At the top of a hill called Mejirozaka, an indigo shop curtain hung motionless. Recently, the name of the cosmetics shop called Karahana-ya echoed throughout Edo. For some unknown reason, he read the signboards with gilt lettering placed out front. One board read Water from the Garden's sponge cucumbers. Another read Face powders. Secret process of the southern barbarians. And another one read Variety of Secret Medicines Formulated by Touge.

"This is it."

Without thinking, Heiji lowered his head to meditate.

3

"Is Shizu here?"

"Oh, hello Captain."

Heiji peeked into one of the roadside teahouses along the road going east and west in Ryogoku and said, "Oh, you're as beautiful as always. It's a crime, Shizu."

"Captain, if you keep talking like that, I will become disagreeable."

"No, I'm sorry. Don't run away. Today, I have an important favor to ask of you. Oshi-chan, have you shopped at the popular shop Karahana-ya in Otowa?"

"No. All of my friends have shopped there, but I haven't been there yet."

"I see. With looks like yours, you don't need face powders imported from the southern barbarians or water made from cucumber sponges."

"Oh, Captain."

Of course, her looks were breathtaking. She was no more than seventeen or eighteen years old. Her oval face with its fresh complexion was enchanting. The red apron she wore completely covered her cotton kimono with hanging sleeves. Despite the nature of her job, she was judged to be an honest young woman with the purity of a fruit plucked off a branch.

"The truth is… this is a difficult request. Shizu, can you take the rest of the day off and go shopping with me at Karahana-ya?

"Yes, yes, I'll go with you."

Her reply held no trace of ill feelings.

"I thank you. So before you change your mind…"

The detective and the teashop girl made an exceptionally attractive couple. For some time, the two seemed to have inklings of an awakening love in their hearts. This rumor spread swiftly.

The couple rode palanquins from Ryogoku to Kobinata. Then, Shizu walked by herself the short distance to the entrance of Karahana-ya. It was nearing six in the evening when she arrived. Shizu wore her hair in the style of a respectable young lady. From a distance at the foot of Dainichzaka hill, Zenigata Heiji watched her checkered yellow, silk-lined kimono tied with an obi sash with a mottled scarlet pattern disappear behind the shop curtain of Karahana-ya. At that instant, he felt like everything went black before his eyes. He had no reason to be suspicious of Karahana-ya. Perhaps, his professional sixth sense was triggered. Nonetheless, a hunch flashed through his mind that Shizu might become a sacrificial lamb.

"May I please have sponge cucumber water?"

Shizu had no trouble with her task. She had already closed her white parasol with ease and taken a seat beside the door.

"Ah, welcome. We have water from cucumbers picked this year. Tokudon, bring over a jar for the young lady."

Despite being a shop where beautiful customers were a common sight, excitement rose. Two or three sales clerks scurried over to her from the left and the right, like iron shards drawn to a magnet.

"And…I would also like to purchase face powder."

"Yes. Yes."

"And rouge too."

Shizu said the bundle would be large, as she quickly scanned the shop. The building was new and had an up-to-date look, but the powerful and strange quirkiness and gloominess of the shop weighed down on her delicate nerves.

"A cup of tea, miss?"

A young shop boy poured green tea, which seemed out of place in this shop, into a luxurious red teacup, which better suited the shop, and gently placed the cup beside Shizu.

"Thank you."

She looked like a proper young woman who may not drink tea, but having worked in a teashop, Shizu was accustomed to serving and drinking tea. She grasped the cup with her lovely fingers resembling pink coral and took two sips.

"Oh my?"

She thought the tea had a strange sweetness and a peculiar smell. Still, she daintily took a third sip.

While the clerks meticulously filled a small-mouthed, unglazed jar with sponge cucumber water and wrapped up the face powder and rouge, Shizu attempted to retrieve coins from her obi. Suddenly, her hair attractively styled in the sexless and innocent Shimada-mage style flopped forward as she was overcome by a terrifying feeling of sleepiness she had been fighting.

"Tokudon, watch outside. You, help me."

The head clerk stood to give familiar orders to initiate a mysterious task.

"This one is a treasure."

"Excellent."

The two young assistants lifted up Shizu whose red skirt and white legs dangled down like she were dead.

Otowa Boulevard was empty. At the bottom of Dainichizaka, Zenigata Heiji, whose eyes glowed in the twilight darkness, suspected nothing.

4

At that moment, Heiji recalled reports of frequent disappearances throughout Edo of young women described as pretty. Three vanished just this fall: Natsu, the daughter of a dealer in household goods in Shiba Isarago; En, the younger sister of a sake dealer in Shimoyatake-machi; and Kou, the daughter of a vassal in Azabukougai-cho. All were incomparable beauties. Because no notes were left behind, they seemed to have been spirited away. However, by the third day at the earliest or the seventh day at the latest, the shocking sight of a butchered corpse was discovered in a river, deep in the forest, or in a place where people often come and go.

The magistrates of Minami- and Kita-cho ordered the sergeants and officers under their commands to mobilize the detectives of Edo to find this demonic criminal, but they found nothing. Not only was the fiend unknown, no one could figure out why he targeted exceptionally beautiful women to kill. Also, each corpse had been bathed and then dumped, but clear traces of gold leaf remained all over her body.

"That's it."

As Zenigata Heiji nodded to himself, he peered through the twilight dusk, noticed the palanquin leaving the back door of Karahana-ya and trailed behind. His first suspicion was Shizu was inside.

The palanquin had no lanterns and promptly turned down a backstreet of Otowa and entered, as if swallowed, the back gate of the Otsuka Medicinal Herb Garden.

"Of course."

Heiji thought about returning to report to Sergeant Sasano to organize a raid on the garden. The insight about the garden was crucial. However, without a direct order from the advisers to the Council of Elders, the hands of a town magistrate were tied. Any delay may lead to the grave consequence of the end of Shizu's life.

"First, I must rescue Shizu."

Thinking about his actions later, this event made him reckless and may have awakened his love. Without thinking, he grabbed onto the earthen wall in the shadows of the trees and effortlessly scaled it to land in the dark garden.

He had no idea how much time passed or where they had gone. Several hundred thousand species, like poria cocos mushrooms, cinnamon, trifoliate orange, hawthorn, tetradium ruticarpum, angelica, anemarrhena, ginseng, fennel, Chinese asparagus root, mustard, imonto, funahara, and digitalis, grew thick together with countless medicinal herbs in the fifteen-acre garden. Heiji wandered this maze until he spotted a pinpoint of light and slipped into a pitch-black building.

Perhaps he was in the famous Takada Palace. In any case, the palatial building was the perfect place to slink around. As he went from the hallways into rooms, storerooms, and stairs selected to avoid people and lights, in time, Heiji entered a sealed room in the attic.

Aha! he thought and searched for an exit. He wondered, What is the mechanism? The door and windows were covered on all sides by thick oak planks without even a crack for an ant to pass through.

"Hmm, I'll find her somehow."

He gathered his courage and sat with a thud. From the great hall below, light mysteriously leaked through small and large holes dotted the floor.

When he took a closer look, all of the holes were filled with glass. From this attic, he could observe the situation below. He looked and saw things like the eyes of heavenly beings, impressions of the wings of butterflies, and the stamens of peony drawn on the entire coffered ceiling of the great hall below.

5

Heiji first glimpsed a scene of an indescribably grotesque and vile idol. In front and on both sides of it, the red flames of thirteen pitch-black candles blazed.

In front of the evil idol, the grotesque offerings of a lizard's corpse, a cat's brain, and a half-dead snake were placed on a tall wooden stand. An animated naked body lay face up on a large unvarnished wood altar for sacrifice in the center of the strange offerings. Beside the body, the broad blade of a kitchen knife was plunged into the board.

"Ah!"

The shocked Heiji bit his lip. The baby on the sacrificial altar was neither crying nor screaming, but happily grinning. This was in stark contrast to the hair-raising, evil scene in the gloomy air enveloping the baby.

A ghastly chorus unlike anything he had ever heard erupted and a group of men and women entered the hall like a procession of ghosts. They wore black masks; only their eyes shined. Chanting voices from behind the masks filled the hall with dread.

Four women dressed in fiery crimson cloth appeared with a lone young woman. As he watched the young woman walking in a dreamlike state being pushed onto a pedestal without resistance, he realized the captive dressed like any girl in town was Shizu.

"Ah! At last."

Heiji was on the verge of crying out at the outrageous sight. If he tried to force his way into this secret room, he might slow them down, but they'd probably get away. He could not allow that.

The bizarre chant grew for some time. The ring of people dressed in black surrounding the evil idol and Shizu began circling.

This went on for a while. When silence returned to the hall, the human ring broke apart. While Shizu stood on the pedestal for some time, the hands of the people dressed in black applied a sticky gold leaf to the youthful skin of the seventeen-year-old virgin. Shizu did not move as she stood erect with her head tilted up slightly like a doll devoid of a soul and at their mercy.

When they finished placing gold leaf on the upper half of the virgin's body, a tall man in black, who appeared to be elderly, took off his hooded black mask and went to stand before Shizu.

"Ah!"

Heiji almost cried out again. The man had a frightening glow like a demon who slipped out of a picture of hell.

"…"

The man who removed his mask was Touge Soujuken, the caretaker of the garden. The gray-haired elderly man began to make ostentatious gestures.

Two people stepped forward to stand in front and behind her and touched their lips to the shoulders of the virgin covered in gold leaf. Five or six others draped in black took off their masks and showered the virginal body with kisses.

This blasphemous practice horrified Heiji. He wanted to act, but what could he do to preserve the purity of Shizu? What was the design of this secret room? He searched a second time, but could not find the way out.

The hall below filled with a bustling crowd. As he watched, four half-naked, beautiful women wrapped in the blazing red cloth started to dance a scandalous dance in a circle with the evil idol of the beast with a human face and the golden Shizu at the center.

Many strange scents rose from a huge incense burner in front of the evil idol. When Heiji smelled those aromas in the attic, he became drowsy.

He faded in and out of consciousness several times. When awake, he watched the gathering in the hall. When unconscious, he fell into a deep sleep and lost track of time. He could not continue this way and gathered all his strength, clenched both fists, and forced open both eyes to regain his senses, but like a drunk, he collapsed. He couldn't exert himself forever.

As fragments of the grotesque ceremony degrading the golden virgin Shizu burned Heiji's eyes and ears, everything became incoherent like an event from long ago.

6

The next day would be October 9, the day the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu would travel incognito to Zoshigaya for falconry hunting accompanied by a party of twelve vassals. Four of the twelve would be pages dressed identically to the shogun. Another four would be the falconers. The remaining four would be the guards. Traveling incognito was easily accomplished in those days. By order of Iemitsu, soldiers would be positioned close to him to obstruct any view of him. From Otowa through Kobinata and all the way to Otsuka, an unknown number of guards in the thousands would be stationed without space for an ant to crawl through.

Iemitsu was in a bad mood because of the unusually poor hunt that day. The pages were silent. When the hunt ended, the party headed to the Takada Palace in the Otsuka Medicinal Herb Garden, which was prepared to receive the party.

Touge Soujuken, a man about fifty with his hair pulled back in a knot, greeted them at the front gate of the garden. He had always been an herbalist, never a warrior, and wore ceremonial attire made of hemp cloth to escort the party to the palace.

An interior room was prepared with elegant furnishings. The pages were reserved, but the shogun had to be completely relaxed. On the bluish-green tatami with decorative koraiberi edging, the shogun leaned on an armrest and looked off into the distance at the sliding screen with the score of Mogusa written on smooth torinoko paper. The decorative openwork tracings of many insects in the rare foreign wood and the handles and knobs carved by masters added a touch of wonder to the room's casual air.

At that moment, a young woman pulled back the sliding partition. She entered and respectfully carried a teacup by holding it just below her eyes. She was Sayo, the daughter of Touge Soujuken. Her small sleeves were embroidered with the auspicious combination of pine, bamboo, and plum on a salmon-colored background. The elegance of her hair tied in a style popular in town was reflected in Iemitsu's eyes, who was bored with the customs of the long-time ladies of the court. She was twenty-two or -three years old, a little old, but her stunning beauty was not found in a tradesman's house or a samurai residence.

Pale and trembling, she walked two or three steps toward Iemitsu to bring the teacup.

"A cup of medicinal tea, Shogun," she said smiling without reservation and her eyes cast down. Usually, Iemitsu would never witness such forward behavior. Like a daimyo passing through the red-light district with ease, the passion of the shogun Iemitsu in falconry in Zoshigaya was natural.

"…"

Without a word, Iemitsu took the cup. The herbalist Touge Soujuken did not describe what type of medicinal tea he infused, perhaps, it refreshed the mind and purged noxious vapors. Iemitsu brought it to his lips and smelled the aroma of the expensive medicine.

7

Shut up in the attic, Heiji had no idea how many minutes, no, how many days he was unconscious. His eyes popped open to see brightness and dust on all sides. He remembered the bizarre dance and felt nauseous. He was worried about Shizu's safety and peeked through a glass hole again. The expansive hall was put in order and filled with a white light with no signs of the idol or the other cursed objects.

He remembered to continue searching for an exit; this time he found it. The walls were covered by thick oak planks. Only one spot had a railing. He instantly knew that was the exit. He tried pushing and hitting the spot for some time. Why was it springy? Suddenly it opened. Maybe, the mechanism was under the footboard under the door.

He leaped into the swelling white light. Unfortunately, a throng of people filled the garden, the hallways, the meeting hall, and the entryway. He would be unable to jump down from the attic with arms swinging and walk away.

"This is no good. Today is the shogun's falconry hunt."

Finally, Heiji came out of his fog and regained his memory. He intended to capture the villain with the poisoned arrow, but getting trapped in the ceiling foiled his plan.

"I've messed this up."

He stamped his foot in frustration in the attic.

More time passed. The air in the palace suddenly became tense.

He heard murmurs about the shogun's arrival spreading to all corners.

The arrival of the shogun was proof of his conclusion about the falconry hunt made sense. Heiji let out a sigh of relief when those words reached him.

"If there's any trouble, he is on the palace grounds. In that case, there's still hope."

For quite some time, Heiji walked from roof to roof and from joist to joist, then slipped out through a panel and stepped under a detached roof. When he turned his head slightly, he saw the raised koraiberi tatami through an open sliding partition and could see comfortably seated knees covered by black habutae silk cloth.

"Ah! The shogun."

The moment Heiji stretched his neck he could see Sayo offering the cup of medicinal tea.

Just as Iemitsu took the tea in his hands, another motion caught Heiji's eyes. An elderly man was crouched like a shadow outside of the shoji screen. He wore his hair in a knot and was dressed in a patterned arare-komon, ceremonial kimono with his hands properly folded. He was, without a doubt, Touge Soujuken, the caretaker of the garden, who performed last night's grotesque ceremony.

When Iemitsu lifted the cup to his lips, Soujuken's lips twisted and his pupils seemed to radiate a light that passed through the shoji screen.

Ah! The tea's poisoned, he thought.

The sixth sense found only in Zenigata Heiji stirred. He appraised the situation and knew the cup held in the hands of Iemitsu did not contain proper medicinal tea, which Sergeant Sasano often ordered.

Heiji was about to leap out from the canopy, but the detective had no reason to jump out in front of the shogun, so he considered shouting. But that brash spectacle from an outsider would lead to a melee, and he would recklessly expose himself to his rival and create a treacherous situation. The idea of poisoned tea was only a suspicion. It might actually be medicinal tea.

He suddenly remembered and searched his bellyband. Unfortunately, there was no coin only a few small silver nuggets and one thin gold kobana coin. In those days, the kobana was valuable, a fortune to a police detective. The day before yesterday, Sasano Shinsaburo handed this coin to him. But the life of the shogun was at stake. This was no time to be cheap.

Instantly, the gold coin stood between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. He wetted its edge with spit and employed his special coin throwing skill to slice the air with the bright golden yellow kobana and strike the bottom rim of the teacup in Iemitsu's hand thirty feet away. The teacup flew apart and ruined the fine floor cushion and tatami.

"…"

Iemitsu was unperturbed. He raised his head and stared in the inbound direction of the coin.

Sayo gasped. She stood, cheerily approached, and spread out her body and her embroidered sleeves at the knees of Iemitsu drenched in medicinal tea.

8

"What are you doing?" asked Iemitsu.

Sayo laid her face on her sleeve as if chasing the knees of Iemitsu who hurried to sit properly.

The next instant, she shot to her feet and cried out, "He's an impostor!"

"At last, you realized that."

"Oh, this is a shame. Who are you?"

Iemitsu outstretched his arm to seize the obi sash of the woman as she jumped back.

"I am Sergeant Sasano Shinsaburo. I borrowed the shogun's seat. We saw through this scheme hatched by your father and you. Now come along quietly," he introduced himself not in a loud voice, but in a casual tone.

"This is horrible" was heard coming from the other side of the shoji screen where Touge Soujuken sat; his eyes blazed with spite. He heard his daughter gasp followed by Sasano Shinsaburo's introduction. He was quick to his feet as his daughter Sayo bitterly said from the other side of the shoji screen, "Father, we've been discovered. Hurry, the land mines!"

"Oh! Sayo, if I must…"

As he deftly leaped off the narrow porch, Zenigata Heiji flew down from the roof.

"You bastard, where are you going?"

From the beginning, Heiji, who gained famed by nabbing criminals, left little room for him to escape. However, Soujuken was cornered and had unbelievable physical strength. Also, Heiji hadn't eaten in two days, sprained his ankle when he jumped off the roof, and his movements were limited.

"Eh! Outta my way!"

The two grappled with neither one winning nor losing. The pages were too far away when the situation abruptly changed. They were unable to help despite running at full speed.

In the meantime, Sayo groped to loosen the bindings behind her back, slipped out of Sasano's hand like an armload of thick planks, and took off like a scared rabbit. The father and daughter exchanged their final words.

"Father, I'll set off the land mines!"

"I'm counting on you, my dear. Don't let the sacrificial offering escape."

The sleeves embroidered with pine, bamboo, and plums flew deep into the inner room like a large bird.

Hearing about sacrifice shocked Heiji. If the desperate Soujuken and his daughter intended to blow up Takada Palace with land mines, the life of the pathetic Shizu would be snuffed out with ease. The body of the virgin covered with gold leaf and placed on the pedestal was surely hidden in that hall.

"Sergeant, take care of them please," said Heiji.

"Yes. I understand."

Inside, they could still hear the retreating footsteps of the running pages. Soujuken lunged ferociously at Heiji only to be knocked down to the grass. Heiji stepped back to chase down Sayo. His sprained ankle felt like it had been struck by a branding iron, but he couldn't complain now.

He entered the great hall he explored earlier. The pungent smell of gunpowder struck him. Soon the fuse of the land mines would be lit.

Overwhelmed by peril, Heiji's hair stood on end. He could not find where Shizu had been hidden.

"You're Zenigata Heiji. Well, it's too late. We will die together."

Sayo with her black hair and clothes in disarray cackled wildly while standing before a large wooden screen decorated with a stormy sea painted in gold. Her sinister eyes glowed.

"Woman, what happened to the girl?"

"I don't know."

"No, you do know. Tell me!"

"I won't tell you. I'll never tell you. You ruined everything. That girl who babbles your name when delirious will be blown to bits along with this palace. It will be wonderful. She's probably your lover. You don't know it, but I already lit the fuse. Ha, ha, ha, ha."

"No, I will save Shizu."

"Fool."

In the macabre scene, the beautiful woman flung her arms around and laughed insanely before the crest of stormy, furious deep-blue waves on the partition screen. The experienced Heiji instinctively staggered back. The pungent smell of gunpowder returned him to his senses. Sayo's eyes summoned her heart and soul and fixated on him like a venomous snake.

"You'll never know. It's already over."

"No, I know."

What was Heiji thinking as he leaped onto the fearsome Sayo's body? He grabbed her slender arms, and she stumbled back. When the partition screen toppled forward, behind it was a six-legged Chinese chest used by businesses inscribed with Herb Garden. He used all his strength to lift the lid and revealed the brilliantly golden, innocent virgin.

Shizu covered entirely in gold was inside and half dead. She was waiting for her destiny of being thrown away or killed.

"Ah! I'll get you out of here."

Heiji kicked back at Sayo clinging to him from behind. Dragging his aching leg, he carried the golden virgin under his arms and rushed outside. The instant he cleared the building, he heard a deafening roar that could shatter heaven and earth.

Enveloped by flames rising to the sky, Takada Palace crumbled into dust.

9

It later emerged that in his former life, Touge Soujuken was an attendant to Major Counselor Suruga Tadanaga. He was fortunate to have knowledge of medicinal herbs and went to Kyoto to further study their mysteries. He concealed his identity until he rose to take charge of the Otsuka Medicinal Herb Garden.

After Tadanaga's suicide forced by his elder brother Iemitsu, Touge was said to resent Iemitsu and set up an altar in Takada Palace and recited incantations to dedicate the shrine to Satan, which was popular during medieval times. Because countless sacrificial offerings were required at that time, his plan was to have his close associates open a haberdashery called Karahana-ya on 9-chome in Otowa to ferret out the beautiful women of Edo and to kidnap the most beautiful among them for sacrifice. Over successive nights, incantations to Satan were chanted in secret to curse the shogun Iemitsu.

Nevertheless, he saw no progress. Recently, his resentment emerged in the actions of the shooting of the poisoned arrow and the offering of poisoned tea by his beautiful daughter Sayo. However, Magistrate Asakura Iwami-no-kami advised the Council of Elders to employ Sergeant Sasano Shinsaburo, who bore a resemblance to the shogun Iemitsu, in a splendid scheme to outfox Touge.

Touge Soujuken killed himself during the investigation, but his daughter Sayo was not seen again.

Soon after, as everyone knows, the Otsuka Medicinal Herb Garden was razed and, in the first year of the Tenna era (1681-1684), donated to become the site of Gokoku-ji Temple.

Zenigata Heiji simply did his job and subdued a mortal enemy who targeted the life of the shogun, but was unable to hand over the villain of the falconry hunt as he promised Sasano Shinsaburo. Given the nature of the incident, he received no public recognition. However, the name Zenigata Heiji made a deep impression in the heart of Iemitsu. Of greater importance, he captured the love of Shizu, the golden virgin. This more than satisfied young Heiji.

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