A strange little boy leads a veteran detective on a remarkable odyssey.
In 11th-century Japan, sometime sleuth Sugawara Akitada, senior secretary in the Ministry of Justice, is headed back to the capital after completing a mission in rural Hikone. In a dark forest, he finds a whimpering young boy, mute or deaf or both. Having recently lost his young son Yori in the smallpox epidemic, Akitada has tried with little success to work through his grief. Lifting the boy onto his horse, Akitada takes him to the nearest town, where a gruff couple, the Mimuras, claim him. Uncertain of their legitimacy but equally uncertain of his own judgment in light of recent events, Akitada relents but later decides to return. When his suspicions of abuse are confirmed, he seizes the boy. Far from ending troubles for the two of them, his action simply fosters more, and he ultimately surrenders the boy again. Akitada's retainers—elderly Seimei, sedentary Genba and hearty Tora—worry about his well-being; Tora somewhat less, as he's involved in a torrid romance with Hanae, a flirtatious dancer and singer. Her sudden disappearance is the first of a series of baffling mysteries—including one that involves the silent little boy—that Akitada is challenged to unravel, drawing him progressively out of his grief while paradoxically threatening his relationship with wife Tamako.
Akitada's stately seventh case (The Convict's Sword, 2009, etc.) builds slowly, but the character development and plot foundations in the first half pay dividends in the closing chapters, especially for series fans.