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Prologue

Haibara, Japan — August 1587

 

“By order of the regent, Christianity has been banned from the nation.”

Sen shivered in her light silk kimono, her arms wrapped against her body. The mounted samurai directed his pronouncement toward her master, castle lord and regional governor Fumio Akamatsu. The mounted samurai, flanked by two more men on horseback, swept his icy stare over her and the rest of the servants and samurai. The meaning was clear. The pronouncement applied to everyone at Haibara Castle.

Behind the three horsemen, hundreds of additional samurai advanced on foot in the early sunlight, their long shadows as menacing as their number. A token show of the much larger force outside the gate, and an indication of the fate that awaited all the castle servants if they didn’t obey.

The three leaders dismounted. All three horsemen wore gray hakamas, the samurai seven-pleat skirt. A kiri flower, the crest of Regent Toyotomi, decorated their flowing blue robes. Did these men despise Christians or were they following orders? Sen bowed low as the men passed, and struggled to maintain a passive face. The feelings of these men toward Christians didn’t matter.

The samurai stopped in front of Lord Akamatsu, exchanged perfunctory bows, and the tallest one pulled out a scroll. “Akamatsu-sama, you and your assemblage must renounce your faith.”

Sen swallowed hard and glanced at Lord Akamatsu. Dressed in his fine golden kimono for the morning service, his regal bearing exuded confidence and peace. She laced her fingers and pressed her hands to her chin as she stared at the spectacle, drawing her arms in close.

Lord Akamatsu’s voice rang across the keep. “I am a servant of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the human pillar of the one true faith.”

Stoic, the leader stared back. “The regent requests you reconsider. He reminds you of your great service to him over many campaigns. He does not wish to see it end.”

Lord Akamatsu nodded, but his expression remained impassive. “I am grateful for his recognition. It does not have to end. Still, I am a follower of my God.”

Sen’s throat constricted as the words swelled her heart. The lead samurai’s eyes widened. He rolled up the scroll, glancing at both the men with him before focusing on Lord Akamatsu. “Then, you are ordered to surrender your castle and lands.”

“And if I refuse?”

The two flanking samurai stepped forward and drew their katanas, crossing the long swords at Lord Akamatsu’s neck. “Then our forces will lay siege to your castle, lay waste to your grounds, and lay your Christian followers in their graves. We will eradicate this faith, starting with you.”

A trickle of blood oozed from Lord Akamatsu’s neck, and Sen gasped.

Lord Akamatsu’s lips thinned, but he did not move. His gaze scanned both the servants and his own group of samurai nearby. His eyes conveyed love. “And if I accede? What happens to my people?”

“We will question each one of them. They will be given the same chance as you. Renounce this foreign religion, and they may keep their station for whomever takes over the castle. Refuse, and they will face our judgment. Those we show mercy to may walk away with the clothes they wear. It is over. You are in our power now.”

“If you have power over me, it’s only because it was granted to you by God. I surrender the castle.”

Pride welled inside Sen at Lord Akamatsu’s steadfastness, and her arms relaxed as the samurai removed their swords from his neck. They spared him. But Sen’s breath caught in her throat as the samurai faced the crowd. “Line up,” the lead man said, pointing in two directions. “Lord Akamatsu’s samurai to the left side. His servants over here on the right.”

Sen let the movement of the crowd carry her forward with the other servants. She bowed low as more samurai passed and headed to the front of the servant line. She closed her eyes briefly. Lord, please help us.

A woman screamed, and the sound cut Sen’s soul. She craned her neck to see around the fifty or so people in front of her and watched in horror. A maid from the kitchen—it looked like she’d been first in line—fell to the ground. Blood poured from both sides of her neck. Her body convulsed, then grew still as the life flowed out of her. She was a young woman, only fifteen. Now she lay on the grass, her pale green servant’s kimono stained red.

Sen gulped air but couldn’t swallow. She glanced around as best she could without moving her head. All of the servants' shoulders drooped. Did she and everyone in line face the same fate?

She finally managed to swallow, but the truth wouldn’t go down so easily. She’d been so close, so close. One more week, and then she’d have left to be with her family. They needed her.

At the thought of her family, Sen reached in her belt and sighed. It was still there, the letter from Mother telling Sen of the death of her sister, Haru. The crinkled feel of the paper brought sadness. It also reminded her of her duty, the duty of a remaining sibling when an elder child had died. She must find a husband to marry into the family business and to help her look after her parents.

The line moved slowly. Maybe thirty people in front of her now. Sen’s feet trembled with each step forward. Some people who’d stood before the samurai now walked free, staring at the ground, their chins tucked against their chests. Why had they been spared? Had they renounced Lord Akamatsu? Had they renounced Jesus? Were they now ashamed? Sen strained to hear, but the voices up front were inaudible despite the silence of the grounds. The samurai obviously meant for no one to listen. Sen leaned left but then righted herself. She would learn soon how the samurai offered mercy.

Another woman and then a man screamed and fell to the ground, blood draining from their necks and streaking their kimonos as the fallen shook and then shook no more. Two more people mercilessly slain. More servants walked past her, apparently headed to the entrance. Dejected with their heads bowed, they carried nothing but shame. Sen looked over at the other line, the line of samurai. Six lay on the ground, motionless. As she might soon be. No screams had come from the samurai. Only the rank smell of death that floated on the air. Christians all, they’d refused suicide. None showed stomach wounds.

Sen craved water to quench her dry mouth. She struggled to breathe, each passage of air sounding in her ears.

Could she make the right choice?

Confess God and leave her parents to Him? Renounce God to fulfill her duty to her family? Was that truly the choice set before her?

Sen wrung her hands as she drew closer to the front. More of her fellow Christians fell to the ground. Still, she could not hear the words. Were people confessing God and still surviving?

Only ten people remained ahead of her in line. One of the samurai wiped his blade on a dead servant’s kimono, then kicked some of the bodies to the side. Sen’s knees and shoulders wobbled as the sun reflected off the metal, stinging her eyes with its harsh light.

A sword. The realization dawned on her. She would die by a sword.

Childhood memories rushed forward like rapids, bringing images of her parents. Father was the best swordsmith in her hometown of Himeji. He’d crafted hundreds of swords over the years.

How would he feel if he knew his daughter had been slain by one?

Sen grasped her belt and traced the edge of the letter with her fingertips. Duty to God. Duty to family. Her breathing grew steady. Measured. Calm.

She neared the front. One more person, an older woman, was ahead of her. The woman walked toward the samurai and bowed. Two samurai crossed their long swords at the woman’s neck. The lead samurai’s words reached Sen’s ears. “I will say this once. Renounce your faith.”

“I am a servant of Christ,” the woman said.

Metal clanked against metal as the samurai completed the cut. The old woman’s hands flew to her neck. Retching, she sank to her knees, then fell to the ground.

My turn.

Sen stepped forward and bowed to the three samurai, her gaze fixed on the bodies at her feet. Lives taken, cut down. The old woman before her twitched and inched toward Sen, the last flashes of her life ebbing away with the red spots that now stained the hem of Sen’s kimono. The coppery smell of blood filled Sen’s nostrils. Bile rose in her throat as she choked back a gag and then straightened to her full height, her eyes focused on the samurai.

The men nodded back, then crossed their long swords at her neck. The cold metal dug into her skin, yet it burned like fire. Sweat poured down her face and back. The leader’s face betrayed no mercy. “I will say this once. Renounce your faith.”

Sen took in a shallow mouthful of air and exhaled. Tears bit her eyes as images of her parents’ faces again rose in her mind.

God, please look after my family.

“I am a servant of Christ.”

The blades bit deeper. The clank of swords sounded in Sen’s ears as she struggled not to cry out. She scrunched her shoulders, bringing them up to salve the sting. Her head felt light and her knees buckled. Her breathing slowed…and then continued. Her dizziness cleared. She reached her hands to her neck and felt the hot liquid. The cuts were deep.

But she would live.

She rose slowly, fearful to glance at the samurai’s face, her eyes fighting tears. She should accept her fate and leave. It wasn’t her place to ask, but she had to know. “Forgive me,” she said, bowing low. “I beg your indulgence.”

The samurai tilted his head, his gaze scanning her up and down. “You’re the first to dare question us. You have courage, as misplaced as it may be. You may ask.”

“Why?”

The lead samurai smiled. “You paused before you responded. You debated this religion in your mind. There is still hope for you.”

Paused? She’d paused?

She’d prayed before she answered. The samurai had taken it for doubt. Her prayer had saved her.

“Thank you,” she responded.

 “Let the lesson burn into you. You survived today only by our justice. Now leave these grounds. See if your deity protects you.”

Sen bowed, glanced once more at the bodies at her feet, and then walked toward the entrance. The castle gate, long a source of comfort, appeared ominous as she approached it. Just a few more strides and she’d be outside. Once outside, she would head for home.

But home was eighty miles away. Could she make it there on her own?

She passed through the gate, took a few steps along the road, and crashed to the ground.

Chapter One

Himeji, Japan April 1588 (eight months later)

 

The faint fragrance of cherry blossoms roused Sen from her slumber. It shouldn’t have.

A creak from the hallway cut through the snores and wheezes of the other castle attendants sleeping around her. A couple of guards making their rounds? It was early, for anyone except samurai.

Closing her eyes, she endeavored to go back to sleep. Yet the scent lingered. It filled her body and raised her spirits. She brought her hands to her neck and traced the scars on each side. Would she wake up every morning and remember that day, a day when samurai murdered twenty of her fellow servants? She clasped her hands under the blanket, remembered her fallen friends, and thanked God again that she’d been spared.

She savored the minutes of solitude while the other women slept. Sen sat up and slipped the letter from Mother from her bag of meager belongings. She opened the paper and traced the characters with her fingertips in the moonlight that filtered through the window. Since that tragic day, she’d carried the letter with her. A reminder of her sister. A reminder that she needed to go home. She put the letter back, looking around to make sure that no one was watching. Tears welled in her eyes as she lay back down, recalling her childhood. Haru, I wish I could have seen you once more.

“Wake up, Sen,” a woman’s voice said.

She opened her eyes and shook her head to clear the blur, seeing the face of her friend and fellow attendant, Moto Omi. Her black hair was pulled taut behind her head and pinned with a red comb that accented her yellow servant’s kimono. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Omi rolled her eyes. “You’re still asleep. Do you want to get in trouble? You’ve only been here two weeks. You need to be alert. If you lose your position, you’ll have no place else to go.”

Sen nodded, then rose and dressed in silence. Omi helped her put away her bedroll, wooden pillow, and bag. Sen slid open the door to the room, stepped into the hall, and then stopped. A narrow viewing portal nearby offered a glimpse of the western grounds. The pale pink cherry blossoms on the trees, a sign of spring, shimmered in the receding moonlight. For the first time since Sen’s arrival in Himeji, a tiny bud of hope sprouted in her heart.

As she wiped a tear with the back of her hand, a gentle shove drew her attention.

Omi glowered at her. “Why did you stop?”

She averted her eyes. “The cherry blossoms are in bloom.”

Omi glanced out the portal and then stared at Sen. “I see that. Why is that important?”

She breathed through her nose, remembering the feeling of a few hours earlier. “Their scent woke me last night. I couldn’t sleep for a while.”

Omi pushed out her lips, her arms akimbo, reminding Sen of Haru. “You must have been dreaming. Cherry blossoms don’t have a strong fragrance, but that explains why you rolled around so much last night.”

She opened her mouth to disagree, but her breath caught in her throat. Omi was right, and she was also trying to help. Sen needed to focus. “You must be right. It was only a dream.”

Omi nodded and then turned serious, her thumbs stuck in her obi. “You can look at the blossoms later. They’ll bloom for two weeks. For now, get busy.”

Sen hurried out into the courtyard toward the main keep of Himeji Castle as dawn broke over the castle grounds. Her mistress would rise soon. She needed to be present.

Passing the west wall, she glanced at the tile with a cross on it, nestled at the top. She paused, as she did every day, to stare. Many ornamental ceramic tiles lined the eaves of the buildings, intended for good luck against fires, tsunamis, and typhoons. Yet this tile bore the raised image of a cross in the center. How did it get there? Who placed it there? How had it survived the anti-Christian edict?

She pursed her lips and looked around. The courtyard stood empty. Keeping her eyes open, she brought her palms together but left her hands down as strength flowed within her. She rubbed just below her shoulders and massaged her muscles. Like the cross, she would endure. She hoped to have the answers to the mystery someday. For now, the cross on the wall and the cherry blossoms served the same purpose. Both were signs from God.

But what did they mean?

Did these signs mean she would find a husband here? How? The castle lord was the regent’s brother-in-law. This place teemed with samurai tasked with enforcing the ban. Why had she come here at all?

Lord Akamatsu.

He and his wife had seen Sen back to Himeji. Upon arriving, she’d learned Lord Akamatsu had found her work at the castle. She’d pleaded to be allowed to go home to her parents. He’d insisted it would be better for her here. Why? She was twenty-four, well beyond the age appropriate for apprenticeships and first marriages. Finding a husband willing to marry into her family and care for her parents as they got older would be difficult enough.

Her shoulders sank with her spirit. Finding a Christian husband here would be impossible.

###

Nobuhiro took in the white flowers as he walked the path along the route to the castle. With each stride, his left foot grew heavier. As a child, he’d dealt with his limp, realizing it made him different. As an adult, he’d accepted it, barely noticing any issues in his daily routine. However, as he approached the castle, years of ignored pain weighed on each step.

Himeji Castle was a part of his life, as it was for all the citizens of the city. The three-story structure sat atop Himeyama Hill. If the weather were clear, he could see the castle from the front of the shop at the edge of town where he worked as a swordsmith’s apprentice. When he ran errands in town for his master, he often got close enough to distinguish the castle’s features: the stone base, white wood walls, and terraced eaves. However, this was the first time in seven years he’d stepped on the grounds of the place he’d once called home.

Delivery merchants passed him in both directions. A few familiar nods flickered his way, but he didn’t stop. He rubbed the tightness in his chest with a fist as he crossed the bridge that led toward the castle’s outer wall. Two prominent samurai walked toward him, and a hard lump rose in his throat. Both men wore typical black kimonos with gray hakamas, the skirts extending to the ankles. Both wore two swords in their belts.

Most people would have found these two men intimidating. However, Nobuhiro was accustomed to them appearing at odd times at his master’s shop. His heart swelled at their approach. He breathed deeply and cleared his throat. “You honor me by coming to meet me.”

The stocky older one, Ujihiro, laughed. “Dispense with the politeness, little brother. We would not miss your return.”

“Yes,” the slender one, Toshihiro, commented. “Even if we do remember what a bothersome child you were.”

“But Uji? Toshi? What if someone hears I’m on the grounds? Word will reach our father. It may have been a long time, but he will know I’m here.”

Uji waved his hand to the side in a dismissive motion. “You worry too much. Rest your fears. You’re back home.”

How could he rest? Born with a limp, he’d been a disappointment to his father, a disappointment Nobuhiro never overcame.

Toshi pointed at the long cloth package Nobuhiro carried. “So, what have you brought us?”

He looked down and rubbed his hands along the cotton cloth, then laid the item in his eldest brother’s outstretched hands. Uji unwrapped it, revealing an intricately carved wooden scabbard. He held it, edge up, and partially withdrew the blade. Both Toshi and Uji gazed at it, admiration gleaming in their eyes.

“Impressive,” Uji said. “We’ve been expecting this. In May, Regent Toyotomi will entertain the emperor at Jurakutei Palace. A group of samurai will leave later this morning for Kyoto to deliver this prize.”

Toshi’s eyes sparkled like the sun’s reflection on the blade. “Your master’s work is inspiring. Perfectly balanced, I would imagine. How many times was the steel folded?”

“The core steel was folded five times. The jacket steel was folded fifteen times,” Nobuhiro answered, envisioning the process where the metal was heated, flattened by beating it with a hammer, and then folded on itself. The process removed impurities and created a stronger blade.

“Can you now craft swords like this?” Uji asked.

“I may be at the end of my apprenticeship, but I’m still a long way from this level of skill. I can fashion standard blades. That’s my primary job.”

“Did you make any of the folds on this one?”

He nodded. “Several. Master did the rest. We just received it from the sword polisher. Master reviewed the work and signed his name. He then requested I bring the sword here.”

Uji’s eyebrows rose. “Are you ready to open your own business then?”

Nobuhiro nodded as his mood lightened. “Almost. I will serve my year of gratitude. Then Master will lend me the money to set up my own workshop.”

Uji flashed a wry smile. “Your master is the best. He knows your work will reflect on him. He wouldn’t help you get established if he didn’t think you were ready.”

Toshi laughed and slapped Nobuhiro on the back. “It’s good we let you live then. I voted to throw you in the river when you were first born.”

Nobuhiro froze. He flattened his lips as his brother’s verbal arrow pierced his heart.

Uji’s voice broke his thoughts. “You are too serious, little brother. Toshi was joking.”

Heat flooded Nobuhiro’s cheeks. By having a name that meant family, Uji understood the joys and responsibilities that term carried. Nobuhiro’s actions had shamed his brother. “I know. I beg forgiveness.”

Uji placed a firm hand on Nobuhiro’s shoulder and stared him in the eyes. “Physical ability is but one part of being a samurai. Striving to improve yourself in all aspects of your existence is a greater challenge, and a worthy one for all. You will one day be the finest swordsmith in the region, earning the name of your village as your teacher has done.”

Nobuhiro’s shoulders slumped. Would earning the name of his village be enough to lift his shame? No matter how many katanas he crafted, no matter how fine they were, he would never wield one like his brothers. Or his father.

Toshi shook his head. Did he sense Nobuhiro’s thoughts? “Uji’s right. You worry too much. You are our brother. That hasn’t changed. It’s good to have you back, even for a day.”

Uji nodded his concurrence. “Hai, let’s go,” he said in his gruff voice. “The grounds have changed much since you left.”

Thankful that his brothers had maintained contact with him through the years of his estrangement from their father, Nobuhiro’s mouth spread in a grin shared only by siblings. He rewrapped the cloth around the scabbard, readying the sword for presentation. A blanket of inner warmth from his brothers wrapped his childhood memories the same way. It was a fleeting feeling. His limp had made it impossible for him to become a samurai. His failure disappointed his father. That displeasure resonated in Nobuhiro every day of his life. If only he could prove himself and somehow change his father’s mind.

###

Sen crossed the courtyard, feeling the day’s warmth on her cheeks. The sun was rising, but the morning dew had yet to evaporate, leaving the ground damp. She gazed at the trees, mesmerized by the beauty of the scenery. The surroundings tugged at her heart.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, steeling her nerves.

Focus, Sen. Focus. Remember what Omi said. You need to do your job. You’re fortunate to be here.

Her head clear, she glanced about and stepped back.

Then her foot hit something solid.

She gasped for breath. Her arms flailed. She searched for something to grab on to but clenched empty air.

Strong hands grasped her under her arms and held her until she regained her balance. She turned around and looked at her rescuer, a tradesman dressed in a simple blue linen kimono. His eyes brimmed with gentleness and pain. His touch was both light and firm. His heart must be kind.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Her cheeks heated as she bowed. “Ah, sumimasen! I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”

She glanced to the man’s left. Two samurai stood next to him. Her breath lodged in her throat. She opened her mouth, but no sound arose. Instead, she stepped back and bowed again. Her hands trembled as her eyes focused on the ground. “I’m sorry.”

“Sen, are you injured?” a deep voice asked.

Her shoulders stiffened. She brought her palms together but couldn’t still her quaking hands. Anybody but them. I am already too much in their debt. She raised her head slowly and looked back at the samurai. Two weeks ago, these men had met her, Lord Akamatsu, and his wife in darkness outside Himeji. They’d provided Lord Akamatsu with food and escorted Sen to the castle. Now they stood before her. The tradesman who’d caught Sen bore a striking resemblance to the samurai.

The older of her two escorts nodded slightly. “It’s good to see you again.”

“And good to see you smiling,” the younger escort added.

“Thank you both. I’m sorry, again.” Her breaths grew rapid and she looked back down, maintaining her station. “Please forgive me, Samurai-sama. You know who I am, but I don’t know your names.”

She regretted the question immediately. It was not her place to ask. Impertinence would get her killed faster than religion. The two men had befriended her the night she met them. Lord Akamatsu had promised Sen that these men would take care of her, an amazing promise considering her low status. She trusted Lord Akamatsu.

She trusted these men.

She raised her eyes and the samurai introduced themselves. Her initial impression that night had been correct. Brothers.

The one called Toshihiro turned and indicated the man she’d tripped over. The man who’d caught her and kept her safe. “And this is our youngest brother, Nobuhiro.”

A cool breeze blew across Sen’s face, bringing a mix of cedar and pine scents both familiar and comforting. Her lips parted, and she stared for a second. The samurai brothers were both handsome men and friendly, but they had the presence of soldiers ready for battle. Nobuhiro was also handsome, but his broad forehead and soft brown eyes, eyes that drew her in, marked him as a peaceful man. Her heart warmed, matching the rising sun. “Are you also a samurai?”

Nobuhiro turned red and studied the ground for a moment before bringing his eyes back up to meet hers. “No,” he said, shaking his head as if each little movement caused him tremendous pain. “I-I-I work for a swordsmith.”

Her face grew hot and her skin tingled. Many samurai rose from the ranks of farmers and tradesmen. However, it was rare that one went the other direction if born a samurai. Still, her father was a swordsmith, the best in the area. It was an honorable profession.

Movement near one of the buildings drew Sen’s attention. Other attendants hard at work. She needed to return to work herself as well. She bowed before the men. “If it is acceptable, I must return to my duties.” Her breath hitched. “I remain in your debt.”

The samurai nodded and Sen took a step away. Nobuhiro’s face remained in her mind.

“What are all of you doing?” a voice bellowed from behind her.

She turned. An older man whose name she did not know, but whom she recognized as an advisor to the castle lord, approached. His lined face resembled a piece of overripe fruit wrinkled from the sun. Dressed formally in a kataginu, a sleeveless jacket with winglike shoulders, he was not a man to be trifled with.

His eyes flared with anger. “I repeat. What are all of you doing?”

The old man’s eyes shifted between her and the brothers. She trembled under his stern gaze like wind chimes in a stiff breeze. “Sumimasen. I-I just stopped to talk.”

The elder man glared. “I wasn’t talking to you. Be silent!”

She bowed low, but he strode past her as if she were invisible. She wheeled around to look at the four men, backing away a couple of steps. The elder warrior stared at the brothers, and all three showed glimpses of fear, even Ujihiro, who was half a head taller. The older man glanced at Nobuhiro, who clutched the package he carried, and then shifted his gaze back to Ujihiro.

“What is he doing here?” the older man asked, gesturing at Nobuhiro, who flinched and looked away.

“Father, he is here delivering a package for the May festivities in Kyoto.”

Father? Are these men really the sons of this grand advisor? This man reports to the castle lord. He even deals with Regent Toyotomi himself. She began to back away.

“You stay put. I will talk to you shortly,” the elder samurai said without turning to face her. Instead, he stared at his youngest son.

“Hand it to me. You are not fit to carry that item any longer than you have.”

She gulped air, and her fingers grew stiff as Nobuhiro handed over his package.

The elder samurai opened the wrappings and examined the item. “Good. It seems to be perfect, as it must be.” He wrapped it back up and handed it to Ujihiro. “Assemble the contingent that will carry this to Kyoto. Leave within the hour.”

“Yes, Father.” Ujihiro bowed.

A short breath escaped Sen’s lips as the old man nodded and dismissed Ujihiro with a blink of his eyes. No return bow? The man then turned to Toshihiro. “As for you, escort this man to the entrance.” He motioned toward Nobuhiro. “He saw fit to leave us seven years ago. He does not belong here now.”

Toshihiro murmured something to Nobuhiro, but it was too low for Sen to hear. He glanced in her direction, his eyes betraying his shame and sadness. She had seen that look before. On Lord Akamatsu when he lost his castle and lands. On his servants when they’d faced the samurai and seen friends killed. She hadn’t seen such looks of despair at this castle. Her throat tightened.

Toshihiro and Nobuhiro walked away, headed for the entrance. Nobuhiro had a slight limp, yet he walked with the same grace and carriage as his brother.

The elder samurai interrupted her thoughts. “And who are you? I have seen you on the grounds but do not know your name.”

“Goami Sen, sir.” He’s seen me? She marveled at his awareness, as there were hundreds on the grounds daily. How did he notice someone as low as her? His stark eyes drilled into her, though the corners of his mouth drooped slightly and his chin quivered.

“Ah, the new arrival. I understand that the mistress you serve is satisfied with your work. However, you would do well to remember your former associations. Those leanings of yours will cause you trouble if you’re not careful.”

She bowed. Memories of her former master and images of the cross tile flashed through her mind. “Yes, my lord.”

“Also, I saw your exchange with my sons. You would do well to remember your place.”

She trembled and bowed again. Thoughts of Nobuhiro increased the beating of her heart. He might be a swordsmith’s apprentice and have his father’s disdain, but he was still highborn. She was lowborn. Whatever attracted her to him, she needed to forget it. “Yes, my lord.”

“And my name is Tokoda Shigehiro. You would do well to remember me. Get back to your duties.”

“Yes, my lord. Thank you for your advice.” Again, she bowed low before the older man, squeezing her body together as if she would fall apart. The old man turned and walked away. Her stomach churned at his mistreatment of Nobuhiro. Still, she kept her head down a few more seconds and then raised it up.

Scary old prune.

She turned and headed toward the main keep. In the distance, Nobuhiro and Toshihiro approached the main gate. She smiled. Would she see him again? She would find a way to do so.

A sudden breeze brought stray blossoms down to kiss her face.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Walt Mussell lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and younger son and has an older son away at college. He works for a well-known corporation and writes in his spare time. Walt primarily writes historicals, with a focus on Japan, an interest he gained during the four years he lived there. He refers to his work as “Like Shogun, but the heroine survives.” He reached Amazon Bestseller status with his novella, Second Chances, part of the Love & Grace Anthology.

Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
I do not know which modern actress I would like to see play the lead. However, if I could go back in time, I would like to see Japanese actress Hiromi Senno (Fujiko from Shogun mini-series) in the role. She was the inspiration for my heroine. That's the type I would be looking for.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Much of the story takes place at Himeji Castle. Among the many roof tiles at the castle, there is one tile with a cross. Amazingly, this tile survived the persecution of Christians in the 17th century. This story is a secular novel, but the cross is the inspiration and plays a part in the story.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The hardest part was getting historical details correct. Himeji Castle is one example. Most people know the castle as a white, six-story structure. In the time period of my book, it was only three stories and possibly black. It's three stories in my book, but I left the color as white.

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