Cover of Accidental Samurai Spy

Accidental Samurai Spy

ISBN: 978-1532996795

Published May 12,  2016

Published by Ichiban Books LLC

When a twelve-year-old heir to a samurai lord and his dog are rescued from a shipwreck and must live with the enemy who is about to crush his clan, he becomes friends with the enemy's daughter and must choose between the two families.

   Read an excerpt below

What readers are saying about Accidental Samurai Spy


[A] tale fraught with fear, love, misunderstanding, and betrayal all laced with

fierce loyalty to family and self.

The author has a way of holding one's interest for readers of all ages…a page-turner, action-packed, and has a great ending…Great story!

[B]eautiful writing, strong characters, compelling pacing…and valuable themes… An excellent reminder of the dangers of seeing those we don't know as inhuman or faceless enemies…an exciting adventure with a tender heart.

The escalating tension and suspense in this book kept me up at night…Historically accurate, action packed with a dash of young love, and heartfelt characters fill the pages and kept me reading and excited about what would happen next…Readers of Rick Riordan and

James Dashner will love this action/adventure story. I highly recommend this story for

middle school, YA, and adults alike.


[A] rousing adventure full of danger, intrigue, and suspense…fast paced and fun.


1. The seven virtues of a samurai are: gi justice, yu courage, jin compassion, rei respect, makoto honesty, meiyo honor, and chugi loyalty. That do you think about them? Are they virtues you have have? Are they worth aspiring to?

2. Have you ever been in a situation where when you were loyal to one person, you were betraying someone else? What happened? Why did you choose to be loyal to one person rather than the other?

3. When Aritomo negotiates a truce between Lord Genji and Lord Kuroda, each lord has to give something up to get soemthing. Is that what is meant by meeting halfway? What do you think about negotiation?

4. Propaganda is the spreading of ideas or rumors in order to make a population believe something that may not be true. Aritomo learns that his clan told lies about Lord Kuroda and that the Kuroda clan spewed lies about the Genji clan. Did each clan spread propaganda? When a clan or a nation needs its citizens to be united and loyal, is it acceptable to use propaganda? Is propaganda being used today?

5. Aritomo learns that there are good and bad people everywhere. If everyone gave the other side a chance, would there be fewer wars?

6. What do you think of Tama? Do you have a pet that is loyal to you? Are you loyal to it?

7. What is meant by: A good sword is one left in its scabbard?

8.How important is your family to you? Would you put your life on the line to defend and save the members of your family?

9. Have you ever been in a situation where talking face to face worked better than talking on the phone, texting, or emailing? What happened? Why is communication better face to face?

10. A samurai always keeps his word. Is it important to keep one's word no matter the consequences? Why can't we change our minds?

11. Understanding Kuroda's perspective on feudalism and opening Japan to the world alters Aritomo's views of a changing world. Have you ever put yourself in someone else's shoes? Did that help you understand that person better?

12. The Genji clan resisted a new way of life. Is there something new you're opposing?





Hiraki, Japan

July, 1863

Chapter 1


     Aritomo drew back the string, sighted the tip of his arrow on the target, and imagined Lord Kuroda, his father’s enemy to the south. He kept his legs wrapped tightly around his charging horse and reminded himself to stay balanced and keep the bow still. He let go of the string. Zing! The arrow flew and pierced a tree a sword-length away from the straw man target. Ara! He usually hit the target when he stood still, but he had trouble shooting from a running horse. As smoothly as his horse, Tsuki, ran and as rigid as he held his own body, he couldn’t hold the bow quiet enough.

     His shame of failure grew with every step his horse took back to his father. Aritomo dismounted, hung his head in front of his lord and apologized. “I practice, but I’m still not as good as your soldiers.”

     Father’s samurais hit their targets every time.

     Father grasped Aritomo’s shoulder with a firm grip and shook him. “You have time to improve.”

     “But you became a feudal lord at seventeen.”

     “You’re only twelve. In any event, I intend to rule our clan for many more years.”

Aritomo’s dog, Tama, jumped and yipped as if happy about everything he did. She trotted to the target and bit at the figure. One of her triangular-shaped ears pointed up straight as a spike, the other dangled, flopping when she landed on the ground after each leap. She was reddish brown except for a beige area around her eyes and the top of her snout, making her look like a thief with a dark headscarf. Her tail curled up then kinked crookedly to the left.

     The lord laughed. “No matter your performance, your dog remains loyal to you.”

On the other side of the archery range, straw targets covered with pieces of cloth painted with black circles and red centers lined a high stone fence. Samurai soldiers shot from their bows. Arrows thudded as they hit the red centers.

     Aritomo stared at his intact target painted with the beady eyes and crooked nose of Kuroda, the enemy he’d hated for as long as he could remember. “Kuroda can attack us any time. I want to help defeat him.” Aritomo saw the worry in Father’s eyes.

     “I appreciate your bravery, but I need you here to protect our castle.”

     Aritomo drew his eyebrows together, hoping to look fierce. “I am almost a man. I am a warrior. I am not afraid.”

     Father lifted a corner of his mouth in a half smile.

     Lord Genji, Aritomo’s father, was a feudal lord with a territory so vast that it took several days on horseback to cross, starting on the coastline and extending eastward over high mountains. Because Commander Matthew Perry from America steamed into Japan’s port on his Black Ship ten years ago and forced the country to allow foreign trade, Father was in danger of losing his territory. He had explained that America didn’t like Japan’s system of people working for territorial lords and wanted to force the Emperor to allow common people to own their own land. The proposed new government, with the Emperor as nothing more than a figurehead, would be controlled by the white-skinned, tall-nosed foreign barbarians from across the ocean and their powerful, greedy Japanese allies like Father’s enemy, Lord Kuroda. These men planned to take over the country, do away with feudalism, abolish the samurai class, and keep Japan’s wealth for themselves.

     As the last undefeated territorial lord opposing the barbarians’ takeover, Father had to defeat Lord Kuroda to save the way Japanese people had lived for hundreds of years. Aritomo hated the brutal, inhumane Kuroda. Lord Kuroda taxed his people so high that they were practically starving, mistreated his servants, and struck down anyone who didn’t please him.

     “Let me show you my latest purchase,” Father said.

     Aritomo peered up at him in surprise. “Do you not have to prepare for battle?”

     “I don’t know what will happen with this war. Let’s spend a little time together.” 

     The thought of Father being killed in battle frightened Aritomo.

     The lord slapped him on the shoulder and spoke jovially. “We need to go out to the field. Let me get my horse.”

     Leading Tsuki by the reins, Aritomo had to hurry to keep up with Father. Tama trotted beside him. As they cut through a courtyard and one of the many inside gates, guards bowed to them. They followed a wide gravel trail winding through neatly trimmed pine trees, symbols of eternity and immortality, and flowering bushes. Aritomo’s chest swelled with pride when he saw the brilliantly white five-story castle Father had built at the top of the hill overlooking Hiraki Bay to one side and a mountain range to the other. They passed the servants’ quarters, supply houses, tool sheds, and other outbuildings at the rear of the grounds. The samurais lived close to the castle. A few hundred soldiers practiced behind the buildings in the training grounds. Aritomo stopped and watched, admiring the samurais’ skill and power.

     He loved archery, but his favorite military skill was sword fighting, and he watched two men slash wooden swords at each other. Whenever there was an opportunity for hand-to-hand combat, they struck each other with their fists and feet. Aritomo vowed to be as good as them and follow in Father’s footsteps.

     “Itai!” a girl exclaimed in pain.

     Aritomo and Father stopped and peered into the dojo, the indoor training center. Twenty girls, all samurai soldiers’ daughters around Aritomo’s age, struck at each other with their bokkens, wooden practice swords. Every member of the samurai class, whether male or female, had to learn to fight. Aritomo smiled at Natsu, the girl holding a hand to her shoulder. She looked embarrassed, and before anyone could ask if she was all right, she said, “I’m fine. Let’s keep going.”

     The instructor nodded.

     “They are brave,” Father said.

     “Those swords hurt when you get hit,” Aritomo agreed. He first learned with a shinai, thin staves of dried bamboo tied together at several places to keep the slats from spreading apart. The slats were so highly polished that a hit would sting but not cause serious injury.

     Natsu glanced at him. “With war starting soon, the instructor thought we’d better step up our training.” Her face turned grim at the talk of war. “We will defend you, Tono,” my Lord. She bowed so low to Father that the ends of her long hair scraped the floor.

     “Let’s get back to practice,” the instructor said.

     “Ganbatte,” be tough, Aritomo said as he and Father continued.

     At the stable, as the attendant hurried to saddle Father’s stallion, Aritomo watched samurai horsemen tie their rifles and sacks of bullets onto their saddles, readying for the upcoming battle whenever the word arrived.

     “Swords, spears, and arrows used to be how a samurai fought,” Father said, “but the barbarians brought guns. The old way is the honorable way to fight, but we can no longer win that way.” Father had bought as many rifles as he could afford.

     “Three of you accompany us,” he commanded the soldiers.

     Three samurais promptly jumped on their horses.

     “Your horse is ready, Tono.” The attendant held the highly brushed horse for him.

Father, Aritomo, and the three samurai guards trotted their horses out of the large barn. Tama wagged her tail and followed. Bright midsummer sun made Aritomo squint. The Genji Castle compound was as large as a small town, but the field was outside the compound. They guided their horses through two internal gates and out a side door. The animals pounded on firm ground through a large training yard for horses to a small stone shed at the edge of a field.

     The group dismounted, and Father marched to a canvas that covered something large. He gripped the edge of the cover and jerked it off. Aritomo gasped and slapped his chest in delight. The samurai attendants chuckled.

     “You bought cannons!” Until now, Aritomo had only seen pictures of them. He dashed to the large weapons and ran his hand over one of the two huge cones on wheels. Under the summer sun, the black iron felt warm.

     “You’re going to decimate the Kuroda clan. You’re the mightiest lord in the country.”

     “Kuroda, no doubt, has cannons, too. Perhaps many more than I could afford.”

     “How do they work?”

     Father glanced at his attendants. The men hustled to the stone shed, opened a narrow door, and dragged out a bag, a barrel, a brush, a pole, and some other strange-looking devices. One man filled the small cloth bag with black powder from the barrel, stuck it into the tube, and shoved it to the end of the cannon with a long-poled brush.

     Fascinated, Aritomo watched one soldier roll out a cannonball and ram it to the back of the tube with a thick-ended pole. Aritomo’s mouth fell open.

     As one of the samurais drove a thick wire down a vent at the back of the tube and drew it back out, Father explained. “He punctured the bag holding the black powder so that some of it can run out. He’s now inserting the trigger.”

     Aritomo was puzzled because the trigger looked like a metal tube.

     Father must have read Aritomo’s expression. “The tube is filled with gunpowder. He’s now sticking a wire key in the tube. He’s going to rip the key with a long string, creating friction. The friction will ignite the powder.”

     Aritomo grinned in anticipation. “Can I light it?”

     Father nodded to the soldier holding the string. The samurai smiled and handed the cord to Aritomo.

     Father said, “Step away from the cannon to the end of the lanyard and jerk it hard.”

     Everyone moved away from the weapon. The horses were tied far back. Aritomo took a deep breath and tugged the cord with all his might.

     A boom louder than a hundred rifles shooting at the same time rang out. The ground shook. Aritomo jumped. Tama yelped in surprise. The cannonball flew out, up, sailed high, came down with a whistle, and exploded far out in the field. Clumps of dirt, rocks, and grass blasted up into the air. Smoke puffed out from the end of the cannon. The air sizzled with the smell of gunpowder.

     “Sugoi!” Amazing! Aritomo jumped up and down. He couldn’t contain the thrill of the flying ball.

     Father roared out a laugh. “Yes, it’s powerful. That’s why we keep the cannons away from gunpowder until we use it. We can’t have any accidental explosions.”

     Tama stuck her head between Aritomo’s legs and tucked in her tail.

     “It is all right,” he said to his dog and petted her. He ran to his horse and rubbed his nose. “Did that scare you? Loud, huh?”

     Aritomo wished that they could blast another cannonball, but Father ordered the soldiers to put everything away. Father had been generous to show him the cannons when Kuroda’s army could be riding towards them any day.

     “You are going to blast Kuroda out of the country,” Aritomo sang out on their ride back.

     “I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. I’ll show you how we’re preparing.”

     As they approached the castle, Father pointed out bamboo spikes slanted into the ground at a diagonal, and freshly chopped trees, their branches sticking up.

     “They’ll slow down the enemy.”

     “Such good ideas.” Aritomo beamed at the great strategist.

     The horses clomped to the large weapons building, Aritomo’s favorite structure, filled with armors, spears, and swords. He and Father dismounted and let the soldiers take the horses back to the stable.

     The seven virtues of the Code of the Samurai were written in large characters high on a wall: gi justice, yu courage, jin compassion, rei respect, makoto honesty, meiyo honor, chugi loyalty. Aritomo read them to himself and stood straighter. He hoped that he possessed all those qualities.

     Territorial lords, who allied themselves with Commander Perry, had spent the last ten years defeating other lords and forcing them to side with the barbarians. The only unconquered lord left was Father, and Kuroda was going to attack them any day.

     Craftsmen in the weapons shop sat on grass mats, making arrows. When Aritomo and Father sauntered over to watch them, a welcome breeze whipped through large open windows, cooling ten men who laboriously whittled two-year-old bamboo into shafts. Other men shaped arrowheads. Everyone bowed to their lord from their seats.

     “We usually use iron or horn for arrowheads, but we’re using bamboo, dried and hardened for six months, because we need too many for the upcoming battle,” Father explained to Aritomo. “You’re doing a good job,” he complimented the men.

     One of the craftsmen fastening feathers onto the shaft looked up and smiled. He was missing several teeth. “We don’t have enough hawk feathers, so we’re also using crane and goose feathers.” He carefully paired right and left crane feathers to make sure the natural curvatures made the arrow fly straight.

     Aritomo nodded. He knew that hundreds, even thousands, of arrows were needed for war.

     “Not quite as sturdy and tough, but they’ll only get used once.” The arrow maker nodded at his own comment as he fitted the arrowhead tang into the tip of the shaft and bound it in place to keep the tip from bursting when it hit the target.

     Tama sniffed at finished arrows poking out of leather containers.

     Father let the men continue their work and trekked between long aisles filled with hundreds of bows, most taller than him, hanging neatly on long rods. Aritomo followed him outside. 

     The sun was not even a quarter of the way across the sky, and the day was already sweltering hot. The air seemed thick, and Aritomo’s kimono stuck to his skin. On their way to the castle, Aritomo swiped at a trickle of sweat dribbling down his forehead and wished that he could go swim and dig the beach for sand crabs.

     No time for play! War was imminent.

     As they approached the castle fortress, he heard men grunting as they suspended logs from ropes.

     “We’ll drop them on attackers,” Father said. “And we’ll pour boiling oil on them from up there.”

     Aritomo stared up at the trapdoors on the sides of the castle in awe.

     “I see archers setting up.” Aritomo pointed to small square openings in the outer walls from where they would shoot.

     “Yes, they’re lining the walls with helmets, armors, boxes of arrows, and their bows. I must keep the battle in the field, away from the castle. If the archers have to defend the castle from here…”

     If the enemy defeated Genji soldiers in the field, they would be close to overtaking the castle. The disturbing thought made Aritomo’s breath catch, as if an arrow had punctured his lungs.

     “I have a meeting with Mori,” Father said.

     “Thank you for showing me.” Aritomo watched Father speed inside. He too, had an appointment. His tutor was waiting for him. He reluctantly turned his mind away from battle preparation.

     He wound his way to the other side of the castle over a stone walkway next to trickling creeks and through flower gardens, Tama at his heels. Footpaths were never straight, but curved to make people slow down and notice the beauty of nature. To Aritomo, it meant running fast, which he wasn’t supposed to do, and bank his body around the bends. He sprinted through the curves and made whinnying sounds as if he were a powerful stallion.

     A stern voice stopped him. “Aritomo.”

     He turned slowly around. “Hello, Mother.” He was in trouble.

     She glared down at him from a balcony. “This is no time for romping around. War is serious.”

     He bowed his head and sighed to himself. Adults were on edge without him annoying them even more. He’d been stupid to fool around. “I am sorry.”

     “Come here.”

     He took his shoes off and climbed up three steps to where his mother sat on a thick zabuton cushion under the shade of a maple tree. Tama knew she wasn’t allowed indoors and curled under a bush to take a nap.

Mother wore an elaborately embroidered kimono and an underlayer. He wondered how she wasn’t boiling hot. She wasn’t even perspiring under her thick white face powder.

     “Sit with me.”

     He dropped on the cool plank floor and crossed his legs.

     “I love the view,” she said.

     He gazed down at a pond, admired Hiraki Bay below, and compared Father to their enemy. The way Lord Kuroda had turned his back on the Way of the Warrior and feudalism and sided with the barbarians just to become richer disgusted him. Feudalism worked well. Fiefs were happy. Lords protected their people, gave them stability. Wiping out feudalism meant wiping out samurais.

     Mother rubbed her wide obi belt with a finger, a nervous habit. She had something to say. “We will be sent away very soon. Kuroda has a mighty army.” Her voice cracked. “I wish your father would not lead but stay behind the line. But, of course, he won’t. I would like to go to the temple to pray, but your father does not want me to leave the castle right now, so I will pray here.” She bowed her head, pressed her palms together, and      closed her eyes.

     He did the same and prayed for everyone’s safety and a quick victory.

     “Father will win,” he said with confidence.

     Mother turned to him and smiled. “I hope so.”

     “I want to fight. I am willing to risk my life for our clan.”

     She laid a loving hand on his arm. “You are going to make a fine lord one day, but I’m glad that you’re too young to go into battle.”

     He set his jaw tightly and growled. “Hosokawa-sensei is waiting for me.”

     “Yes. Go.”

     He tried to shake off his nervousness about the impending battle and dashed down the long wide hall to meet his teacher. He glanced in Father’s office on the way. Father pored over maps of their territory with Mori, his head samurai. Father held his shoulders confidently and would have looked regal even without the fine silk clothing. Aritomo loved the way he listened attentively to others with a thoughtful look.

     Mori, on the other hand, had bushy eyebrows that looked like a flying bird. He looked ferocious even when he smiled. Aritomo knew they heard him walking by, so when they didn’t turn their heads, he left them alone. They were deep in discussion. Battle strategies were tricky and crucial. Aritomo was just beginning to learn how complex they were.

     He rounded the corner at the end of the wing and arrived at his destination, expecting his tutor to have writings on history laid out on the low table for him. Instead, his teacher kneeled on the woven reed tatami floor in front of a stack of books and scrolls. The private tutor’s wispy gray beard, a skinny triangle on his chin, and the deep frown made his face look longer than usual.

     “What are you doing?” Aritomo asked.

     Hosokawa-sensei lowered the book in his hand and shook his head. “We’ll have to leave the castle soon.”

Aritomo had watched the ship being built that Father had ordered fabricated to send his family and the court to safety on an island westward toward China, a country already bowing to the barbarians. He hated the thought of running away on a boat.

     “I’m deciding what to take for you,” his tutor said.

     Aritomo recognized some of the writings sensei pointed to. “Will you need to take so many? I thought we were only going away for a short time.”

     “We hope so, but we can never have too much to read.” His instructor loved books and written scrolls and loved teaching. Sometimes he enacted historical scenes by pretending to be a historical figure. Before the teacher ever placed a writing brush in Aritomo’s hand, from the time he was a little boy, Hosokawa-sensei told stories or used wooden toys to teach him arithmetic without him knowing he was learning. He spent so much time with him, he thought of the tutor like a third parent.

     The sensei tugged on his ear lobes as if he just remembered why his student was there. “Ah, yes. I suppose you should have your lesson until we hear otherwise.”

     Aritomo had barely sat down when he heard the thundering of a horse. He leaped up and peered outside.

A samurai on a horse rumbled across the bridge over the moat into the castle courtyard. Father’s spy! For him to be in such a rush meant that he carried urgent news. Without excusing himself, Aritomo jumped outside and raced barefooted toward him.

     Everyone must have heard the uproar as the spy’s horse galloped over manicured gardens, kicking up chunks of perfectly clipped grass and well-placed pebbles. The scout stopped his horse directly in front of the main entry, flew off his saddle, and sprinted into the castle. Aritomo dashed after him. Inside, court ladies, maids, and servants stopped whatever they were doing and, with worried faces, watched the chief samurais scurry after the scout to the large meeting room. Aritomo followed the men and, to keep out of their way, knelt on the tatami floor in the far corner of the room.

     The grimy-faced spy, stinking of sweat from his journey, folded himself on the floor in front of Father and lowered his head. Aritomo admired the man for disguising himself as a commoner and sneaking into their enemy’s compound to gather information. He had heard how mean and merciless Kuroda was, especially against an enemy, chopping off a head or cutting off limbs one at a time. Yet Father’s spy was willing to be alone in a strange place surrounded by Kuroda’s men. Nothing could be nobler than being a samurai spy.

     The meeting hall could have held fifty men, but only the top deputies sat on the floor behind the messenger, their backs rigid, their eyes burning with fury. The samurais, the only class allowed to carry the katana swords, all wore the same ocean-blue kimono uniforms, each with their long double swords hanging from their left hips.

     “Tono,” the messenger said, “Kuroda’s soldiers are marching toward us. A thousand men. Less than a day away.”

     Cold air slid down the back of Aritomo’s neck, and he shivered. There had been nothing but talk of battle against Kuroda for months. He had watched the preparation, yet the future always seemed so far away. Now that the two armies were really going to clash, he could scarcely breathe.

Chapter 2


     “Prepare for battle,” Father ordered his top samurai deputies in the meeting room in a guttural voice, the tone he saved for moments of anger. “Good work,” he said to the scout.

     The spy bowed and glided out of the room.

     “Mori-san,” Father said to his right-hand-man, “please remain.”

     The warriors, except Mori, hurried out with determined looks. Aritomo stayed rooted in the corner. He hoped that by staying quiet, Father would not order him to leave, and he would learn what was going to happen.

     “Is the ship ready?” Father asked.

     “Hai,” yes, the samurai answered. “We just need to load the ladies’ clothes and gather the passengers. The servants are waiting to board.”

     Father looked out the window and frowned at the dark clouds rolling in. “The ship must outrun the storm.” He motioned to his son.

     Aritomo padded over and gazed at Father.

     His face softened, and he placed a gentle hand on Aritomo’s shoulder. “Mori-san, make my son look like a commoner and camouflage him in case the enemy gets to them. Everyone who knows him shall pretend not to know who he is. Make sure my only heir is protected.”

     Mori nodded sharply.

     “Aritomo, some of the servants’ boys are about your age. Should the ship be stopped by the enemy...a small will fit in. Act like one of them and don’t be detected. I will send for you when it’s safe for you to come home.”

     “When will that be?”

     Father grimaced. “We face quite a battle taking on Kuroda. His army is bigger than mine. Whatever happens, until you are back with me, never reveal your true identity. Do you understand?” Father patted his son’s shoulder. 

     “Hai. But Father, I do not want to go. Please let me stay and fight alongside you,” Aritomo pleaded once more.

     “You are my heir. You must carry on the family name. Be an honorable samurai and make like a disappearing mist. Mori-san, please come with me.”

     “Wakarimashita,” I understand. Aritomo acknowledged his order and marched out of the room. Once he was behind the shoji door, he spun around and stuck his head back into the meeting room.

At the back of the room, Father pressed a spot on the wall. A panel opened. He and Mori disappeared behind the secret door.

     Aritomo glided noiselessly in his bare feet across the smooth reed floor and peeked in the opening. The castle was filled with concealed rooms and escape routes. He had been taught how to open hidden exits in case of invasion, but he hadn’t known about this space.

     The large room only contained one small chest, large enough to hold a helmet. Father and Mori hunched over the open chest. It was filled with gold coins, each the length of a large mussel and stamped with the Genji family crest, three stacked half-circles depicting ocean waves.

     “Barbarians are charging us more and more for guns,” Father said. “They demand we pay in gold and silver instead of paper money. This is all the gold I have left after purchasing the cannons. You shall take this on the ship. No one else shall know about it except Hosokawa-sensei. Transport the money in smaller boxes in case something happens to the ship.”

     “Hai. We have pine boxes that float well.”

     “I entrust this to you along with my son. Keep this safe and hidden until I send for it.”

     “I will safeguard your family and the clan fortune.” The deputy bowed to show his promise.

     Aritomo pulled his head from the doorway. His heart raced. The clan didn’t have much wealth left, but what it had, Father was sending away for safekeeping.

     Aritomo stepped out of the meeting room before he could be seen and found Shigeru, his servant and friend, outside throwing a stick for Tama. Shigeru was only eleven but was bigger than him, which grated Aritomo. He petted his dog and told Shigeru what was happening, but said nothing about the gold. “Are you going on the ship, Shigeru?”

     “No, only the court, attendants, and enough workmen for you and the court to survive on that island.” Shigeru spoke without rancor. Like most Japanese, he accepted his place in the world. There was no use fighting against class structure when nothing could be done about it.

     Aritomo nodded. He had figured that, but keen disappointment made him drop his head. He had no classmates or neighbors, no brothers or sisters. He was surrounded by adults. He learned his lessons alone with Hosokawa-sensei. Samurais taught him combat training. He couldn’t mingle with townfolk. He knew some of the soldiers’ and servants’ children, but they learned in classes of their own and had chores to do. Next to Tama, Aritomo’s personal servant was his only friend. Such was the life of an heir to lordship. Even then, his heart ached at the thought of leaving Shigeru in danger and how much he would be missed. He, too, looked sad as they watched workmen, their long sleeves and hems tied behind them to keep them out of their way, carry cedar tansu chests full of Aritomo’s mother’s clothes and makeup.

     A heavy hand fell on Aritomo’s shoulder.

     “There’s no time for gaping,” his tutor said. Hosokawa-sensei’s eyes were sterner than usual, and he was dressed in a simple cotton robe tied with a sash belt instead of his usual crisp silk kimono. “You must get ready. Come with me. Alone.”

     Shigeru bowed and left.

    Once in Aritomo’s room, the teacher handed him a brown hemp kimono and a skinny belt. “Get into this. Quickly now.”

     Aritomo was not used to such coarse cloth, and his new clothes scratched his skin. Hosokawa-sensei unbound Aritomo’s ponytail and rubbed his head with his hands to rough up his hair. He sloppily retied Aritomo’s hair with a piece of short rope into a bushy ponytail so high it looked like an upside down calligraphy brush. Now he looked like Shigeru.

     In less time than it took for his attendant to dress him in the morning, Aritomo had been reduced from being the most important child in Hiraki territory to a nobody. For the first time, he understood how dangerous their sailing trip might be. Getting to the island safely was not certain.

     “I will no longer call you waka-gimi,” the teacher said. “I cannot acknowledge your position in case we are captured. We must keep your cover even from the workers who may not know your face. From this moment on, you will be called Musashi. I shall pretend to be your father, so you shall call me father. Help me carry this box of books onto the ship.”

     “But that is servant’s work.”

     “Being part of the labor class must come naturally to you. You must build calluses. This is for your own protection. Do you understand?”

     “Not really.”

     The tutor sighed and kneeled next to him. “You were born in the privileged samurai class. You have been groomed all your life to lead your people whenever your father is unable to. The Code of the Samurai requires you to obey Lord Genji no matter the cost. Your father has given his orders. You will not disgrace your family, will you?”

     The Code was ingrained in Aritomo, so he understood at once. “I am almost a man. I will fulfill my duty.”

     “Good.” Hosokawa-sensei smiled sympathetically and said before rising, “I know you’re nervous, but everything will be all right. We’ll be back soon.”

     Aritomo gripped the metal handle on one end of the box and, with his tutor, trudged out of the castle grounds to the stone walkway where Shigeru and Tama waited. Shigeru stared at Aritomo with a stunned expression.

     “Shhhhh,” Aritomo warned.

     Shigeru nodded.

     “Tama is coming with me, right?” Aritomo asked his teacher.

     “We are going to travel on a crowded ship for five days. There is no place for a dog.”

     “Father never said I could not take her. She comes or I stay here with her.”

     “You would disobey your order?”

     “I am willing to obey. You are the one who is keeping me here.”

     The tutor lowered his end of the box to the ground and balled his hands, his face turning red. Aritomo, too, let down his side of the box.

     “No one else is allowed to bring a pet,” Howokawa-sensei hissed. “You’re supposed to be a commoner. We cannot give you special treatment.”

     “Then I will smuggle her on.”

     “How will you do that?”

     “Shigeru, find me a box large enough for Tama to fit into.”

     His servant nodded and ran to the kitchen, returning with a crate and lid.

     “The slats on this box are spread apart so Tama can breathe,” Shigeru said. “I lined it with a sack so people won’t be able to see her.”

     “Good.” Aritomo kneeled next to his dog. “Tama, I have to smuggle you on the ship in this box. I will let you out once we set sail. Will you get in and stay quiet?”

     Tama wagged her tail, but when he picked her up and put her in the box, her tail drooped. She began whimpering as soon as he closed the lid. He felt terrible about confining her. “Please be quiet. I will set you free as soon as I can.”

     Hosokawa-sensei looked warily at Aritomo. “If we get caught, you will not bring her on the ship. Do you understand?”

     “Hai.” Aritomo pressed his face to the box. “Tama, please be good.”

     Shigeru heaved the box with Tama inside on his shoulder. Tama made a frightened sound then became silent. Aritomo and his tutor carried their box, and the three of them wound between small ponds, manicured trees, and raked rock gardens to a small boardwalk on the ocean’s edge. A gust of wind whipped Aritomo’s poorly-tied ponytail. He looked up at the graying sky and hoped the storm would miss them.

     A large ship waited in deep waters out in the bay. For a year, Aritomo had watched boat builders fell, plane, and bend tall pine, cedar, cypress, and oak trees and fit the pieces into a ship large enough to carry forty people and supplies.

     Shigeru gently laid his cargo down at the dock.

     “Stay safe. Take care of my horse,” Aritomo said.

     Shigeru nodded. “Come back soon, and we can celebrate our win.”

     Aritomo tried to smile. He and his teacher lugged the two boxes onto a small boat packed with tansu chests. The air smelled of coming rain.

     The rower glanced at the young heir, and a look of surprise lit up the man’s face.

     Afraid the servant had recognized him, Aritomo thought fast. He spat loudly into the water and sat down clumsily, rocking the boat.

     “Musashi, have some manners,” Hosokawa-sensei said.

     “Hai, Father,” Aritomo said.

     The rower frowned as if wondering how he could have mistaken a vulgar child for the waka-gimi, and then looked away. Aritomo let out a long silent breath, relieved that his scheme worked. 

     The sharp smell of oil used to seal the unpainted hull became stronger the closer they got to the ship. The gleaming vessel was magnificent. Three masts stood in a row, the tallest one in the middle. The sails had not been raised yet, and ropes puddled around the bottom of the masts. Sailors on upper decks on either ends of the ship secured barrels of water with rope.

     At the ship, Aritomo and Hosokawa-sensei unloaded their boxes and hauled them below deck to the passenger cabin. They left Tama in her box with the passengers and climbed down the hatchway two more levels with the other box. In the cargo section, smells of wax, miso, pickled vegetables, and herbs rose up. The storage area was jammed with boxes and barrels stacked in neat rows all the way to the ceiling. Sacks of grain and rice filled the spaces between the boxes. Aritomo had never realized all that was required in daily life: food, clothes, water, cosmetics, tools, medicine, the clan’s treasure of gold, and he marveled at the preparation to get it all together.

     “Put it up here,” the teacher said. They hoisted their load on top of pine boxes with Hosokawa-sensei’s name on them—the boxes holding the family’s gold.

     Back in the passenger cabin, Aritomo whispered to his dog. “As soon as we cannot turn back, I will let you out.”

     He climbed up to the deck and, on the captain’s order, watched sailors coil heavy ropes and unfurl the white rectangular sails. He gazed over at the white stuccoed Genji Castle. Not knowing when he would be back, Aritomo planted the image of his home in his mind: the black tiled roofs sweeping down each story of the castle like rolling waves, each floor larger than the one above.

     A gust of wind picked up the sails, and the ship began to glide out of the bay. At the same time, the Genji army trotted out from the castle compound led by Father on his horse. A hundred mounted samurais carrying long spears followed. Some held up tall blue and white banners marked with the Genji ocean crest and the clan name. Hundreds of foot soldiers trudged behind. In the summer heat and humidity, the men were sure to be sweltering, dust sticking to sweaty skin. Being a soldier, Aritomo knew, meant being hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

     The banners flapping sharply in the fierce wind seemed to wave good-bye. Aritomo had always hated their enemy, Lord Kuroda, but he hated him even more today for splitting up his family.


Chapter 3


     Aritomo stood on the deck with his tutor and some of the other passengers and watched his home get smaller and smaller as the ship sailed farther from shore. Father would conquer Kuroda and send his army limping home. Aritomo looked forward to coming home soon, but until then, he was with his mother, even if he couldn’t speak to her, and his tutor.

     The wind picked up, and the ship glided west into the strait between Japan and Korea. Even in the middle of the summer, chilly air blasted Aritomo. Land had barely disappeared when drops of rain splotched the deck. Ladies disappeared below. Black clouds roiled in the sky above.

     “Get below,” Hosokawa-sensei bellowed.

Aritomo hesitated, watching sailors fight the storm, but when his tutor rapped the back of his head, he climbed down the steps.

     They joined the passengers in the bow of the ship. The galley in the stern was empty. Aritomo had not realized how huge the masts were until he noticed them poking through from above and continuing into the floor to the bottom of the ship. Open shoji doors separated the large space into two rooms. Servants sat on the wood floor on one side, and Aritomo’s mother and her court ladies rested on the other.

     Aritomo hardly recognized his mother dressed in a commoner’s cotton kimono, her hair woven plainly with no adornments. Her attendants looked just as strange. No one on the court side, including his mother, acted as if they knew him. The only concession for his mother was a thin zabuton cushion. She had never been on a ship before, and her unmade face looked pinched and green.

     Aritomo leaned into his tutor and whispered, “Why can’t I sit with Mother?”

     Hosokawa-sensei replied quietly. “She and her attendants are supposed to be widows soon to become nuns. We, as part of their help, are supposed to be going to a monastery. Having you pretend to be my son is another layer of protection for you.”

     If Father was going to such lengths, the chances of being boarded by a Kuroda ship must be great, Aritomo thought, and he began to worry. He needed Tama to calm him. He dropped next to her box and was about to open the lid when rain began drumming steadily against the side of the ship and the deck above. The beating became faster and louder. Water showered into the room. A man got up and closed the two windows, which stopped the rain from coming in but darkened the room. A lady-in-waiting closed the windows in the ladies’ quarters. A small amount of light leaked into the room, but Aritomo could hardly see.

     The ship rocked to and fro. Just when his head began to swim and his stomach churn, the ship rose as if a huge invisible hand was hoisting it all the way up to heaven to meet Sun Goddess Amaterasu. The room suddenly dropped from under him, and he was suspended in air. He gasped, ladies screamed. Before he could blink, he slammed hard onto the floor. As he toppled to his side, strong hands supported him upright.

     “I’ve got you,” Hosokawa-sensei shouted. The vessel rose again, but this time it tilted forward as well. A few people managed to grab handles on the hull, but most, with nothing to hold onto, slid forward, stacking onto each other. The ship groaned. The smell of fear, including his own, permeated the space.

     The woman next to Aritomo, who smelled of food, probably a cook, yelled, “Iya!” in terror. His mother’s lady-in-waiting screamed for help. “Tasukete!”

     The storm felt like the legendary battle in the sky between Sun Goddess Amaterasu and her brother Susano’o Storm God. Aritomo prayed that he would live to see Amaterasu win and feel the warmth of the sun again.

     Aritomo cringed at the thought of bone-smashing pain to come when the ship dropped again. A bitter taste flooded his mouth. He gasped again as he flailed in space. His stomach shot up into his throat. He scrambled for something to hold onto and found only air. Suddenly, arms wrapped around him. Instead of hard wood, he landed on flesh, his sensei’s belly.

     “Ah!” grunted Hosokawa-sensei.

     Aritomo tried to edge off his tutor, but the ship tilted sharply, sending everyone to one side like round pebbles rolling downhill. A passenger slammed into Tama’s box, knocking it open. Tama, her eyes full of fear, jumped out, scrambled over people, and scampered up the stairs, but the hatch was closed, and she was stuck on the top step. Aritomo spun off his teacher. He ignored sensei’s command to stay put and dashed after his dog. He had made it to the bottom of the steps when the hatch opened so a sailor could climb down. Tama darted past him through the hatch to the deck. Aritomo chased after her.

     “Hey!” cried the sailor, but Aritomo was gone.

     On the deck he got drenched even before he had the hatch closed. The mid-afternoon sky was dark as dusk. Thick black clouds hovered low as huge waves raged around the ship. His kimono whipped up and around his waist. Cold rain blinded him. Goose bumps covered his body, and shivers ran up and down his spine.

     “Tama! Tama!” He staggered to the edge, his hands held out like a blind man. Through the howling wind, he heard the faint sound of his dog whimpering from the stern. He held onto the outer gunwale and crept his way toward her.

      The front and rear sails were down, but the center sail billowed stiffly like a fat man’s belly. The captain on the upper deck pointed and shouted to sailors sloshing on the slimy deck. The wind erased his words, but his gesture was clear. Lower the last sail.

     Four men gathered at the center pole as wide as a temple bell. Two jerked on the thick rope, but when the ship rocked violently, they flipped in the air, landed on their backs, skidded, and banged into the upper deck wall. Aritomo, too, careened on his butt, but a rope tied between the deck and the main mast stopped him. He threw himself onto the rope and clung to it with his arms and legs. Rain battered him sideways and stung like nails.

     Two other sailors wobbled to the center mast like drunks, but as Aritomo watched in horror, a two-story-tall wave curled above the ship, crashed on the deck, and knocked them down. One man slid headfirst into an iron rope cleat, his body going limp. The other man struggled to drag the unconscious man under the upper deck. Gray foam from the wave slimed Aritomo before fizzing and bursting. He tasted salt water. 

     The typhoon was getting worse. He dragged himself toward where he thought Tama was, but then the rope ended. He hated to let go of his safety line, but he had no choice. He pried his fingers off the cord, plastered himself against the gunwale, and inched forward.

     He staggered and swayed, each step a struggle against the wind. Finally, he felt a wet mass of trembling fur paw him. He thanked the gods for the low wall that surrounded this part of the deck. Otherwise, Tama would have been swept out to sea. He set his bottom on the deck to make himself more stable, wrapped his legs around a post sticking up from the floor, and held her. The roar of the ocean was deafening. Water hailed down on them.

     A large wave crashed on the ship and doused him. He spat out seawater. Seeing the angry ocean was scarier than just feeling it. Rolling and twisting swells tossed the ship as easily as blowing an ant off a leaf.

The center sail dipped crookedly and leaned horribly to the left. Aritomo heard a grating groan and turned toward the sound. The main sail slowly toppled into the swirling ocean, the ship slanting with the weight of the sail.

     They were going to capsize!

     Aritomo clung to Tama, both of them shaking. His belly churned like the water. As the mast touched the sea, a gigantic splintering sound added to the roar of the storm.

     The ship was breaking in two!

     The ship creaked and screeched. The small stern section where Aritomo clung shuddered as it fought to stay upright. The center and the bow tilted into the water with the main mast. The sailors who had been fighting the storm on the deck slipped and plunged into the black water. Their screams for help echoed in Aritomo’s head.

As the ship broke apart, the people who were below deck suddenly became exposed. Half a ship with nothing to keep it afloat, he had never seen a more horrifying sight. The crying and shrieking from the passengers mingled with the howling wind and the roiling waves. His mother leaned on a shoji door and looked toward him as calm as if they were in a temple. Aritomo locked eyes with her.

     “Mother!” Aritomo cried out to his mother and stretched a hand toward her. He couldn’t hear her, but saw her lips calling out his name.

     Except for the very back of the ship where Aritomo clung, the vessel pitched to its side. The center and forward section of the ship surrendered to the sail, heavy with water, and began to sink.

     “Mother!” he shouted again as he watched a tear slide down his mother’s cheek. She tried to smile, but her chin quivered. She raised a hand in goodbye as the black sea swallowed her.

     “Mother!” Aritomo bellowed.

     Slowly, the broken ship flipped upside down. The keel bobbed up into the air. The part of the ship Aritomo stood on lurched as another humongous wave climbed over the side and plunged down on him.