Today I have my spot on The Shogun’s Queen #blogtour. Lesley Downer has given me the perfect excerpt for you all to read. Enjoy, Kelly xoxo
The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl’s world is about to be turned upside down.
When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan’s way of life is threatened. But it’s not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord – to save the realm.
Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women’s palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind the palace’s immaculate façade, amid rumours of murder and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate, it seems, is irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people
The Shogun’s Queen ~ Sneak Peek ~ Excerpt
PART I THE BARBARIANS ARRIVE
Chapter 1 Okatsu
Twenty third day of the sixth month, Year of the Ox, Kaei 6, a yin water year (July 28th 1853): Ibusuki, in the Satsuma domain
Ibusuki was a beautiful place, a land of gold and sunshine where the sky and ocean were perpetually blue. It was a spa town, famous for its health-giving waters, where people came to be buried in the steaming black mineral sands along the beach. Whenever the wind changed the pungent rotten-egg smell of sulphur wafted through the streets. Cranes swooped, birds twittered, monkeys roamed the flower-clad hills, palm trees swayed and the purple cone of Mount Kaimon, more perfect than Mount Fuji, rose misty on the horizon.
The governor of Ibusuki, Tadataké Shimazu, was a minor lord, not important or rich enough to be entitled to a castle, but he had a large and splendid mansion set in expansive grounds which dominated the samurai section of town. Here one hot summer’s morning his daughter Okatsu knelt gazing out at the gardens, drumming her fingers on the tatami.
Two and half years had passed since that memorable night when Okatsu visited Crane Castle. She was seventeen now, tall and long-limbed. She was not a classic beauty. Her skin was white, white as porcelain, but her face was oval rather than melon-seed-shaped and she didn’t have the long jaw and bland expression of the beauties in the woodblock prints. Her nose was a little too pronounced, her mouth full, almost sensual, more suited to a geisha than a lord’s daughter, and her sparkling black eyes were unusually large and expressive.
The strangest thing of all was that she was still unwed. Most of her childhood friends had married at fourteen or fifteen and moved in with their husbands’ families. She met them in the street from time to time, babies proudly tied to their backs. Her oldest brother too had taken a young bride who’d recently moved into the house. But Okatsu still had unblackened teeth and unshaved eyebrows and wore girlish kimonos with long fluttering sleeves. If her parents waited much longer to arrange a marriage for her, she thought, she would turn into that most pitiable of creatures, an old maid. She snapped her fan open and started to whisk. The scent of sandalwood mingled with the smell of leaves and flowers and moist earth and the faint perfume of her blue and white cotton yukata.
A bell rang out, sounding the fourth hour. The rain doors that formed the outer walls and the gilded screens that divided the rooms had all been taken out, turning the mansion into one vast airy pavilion. She shuffled impatiently and glanced across the open rooms to where the servants swept and dusted on the far side of the house and the cooks prepared a meal in the kitchens. No one was paying any attention to her. If she was careful she’d be able to slip out.
Haru was kneeling beside her, sewing placidly. She had been Okatsu’s maid since childhood and was her accomplice in everything. She gave an imperceptible nod. She knew exactly what was on her mind.
Okatsu rose to her feet and strolled languidly towards the front of the house, making believe she was going nowhere in particular. She’d nearly reached the shadowy vestibule when a dainty figure came pattering across the tatami.
Okatsu gave a guilty start. It was Wife Number Three, one of her father’s concubines, a perfectly-coiffed geisha with a brisk down-to-earth manner. ‘Going out, are you?’ asked Wife Number Three. ‘It’s very hot out there, you know.’ Okatsu’s heart beat uncomfortably hard. She knew exactly what Wife Number Three meant – that a clan lord’s daughter did not go out in public. ‘I’m just going for a stroll,’ she replied. ‘There’s a festival today.’ Wife Number Three looked her up and down through narrowed eyes. ‘I was young myself once,’ she said with a smile.
As Okatsu stepped outside the wave of heat nearly knocked her off her feet. Haru was at her heels, holding a parasol over her head. A young girl of good family certainly couldn’t be out on her own.
The street was packed with people – bent old women, swaggering young men with their hips thrust out and their sashes slung fashionably low, peddlers, flower sellers, geisha, burly workmen and a woman with a monkey clinging to her back. Shouts filled the air and succulent aromas rose from roadside stalls where men with chequered headbands grilled up octopus and squid.
Okatsu pushed her way through. She glanced behind her one last time to make sure no one had followed her, then turned down a narrow lane just wide enough for one person to walk along. Haru had slipped away discreetly, gone to wait at her aunt’s house.
When she was out of sight of the crowds Okatsu picked up her skirts and ran. Soon she had left them far behind. She smelt sulphur and heard the crash of breakers, then scrambled up a ridge of black sand dotted with pines and palm trees and ran down the other side onto the beach.
The sea stretched blue in front of her, turning a deep shade of sapphire as it rippled towards the opposite shore of the bay. Trees tangled in foliage tumbled almost to the water’s edge. Seagulls shrieked and soared and a cormorant swooped with a flash of black feathers.
Okatsu kicked off her sandals, feeling the sand hot between her toes, and ran to the hidden cove she knew so well. She was late. He would be wondering where she was.
But the cove was empty. There was no one there. ‘Kaneshige-sama,’ she called. Her voice echoed around the rocks. ‘Hurry. I don’t have much time. I’ll have to go back soon.’ he gazed around at the little beach, the waves lapping on the shore. They’d spent so much time here over the years. Kaneshige. The salty smell, the roar of the surf, reminded her of how he used to tease her and chase her across the sand when they were little, and bring her seashells he’d found or strands of seaweed. Even when they’d reached the age where boys and girls were no longer allowed to spend time together, they had found ways to meet. They’d tell each other what they were doing and what they were studying. Her hopes and dreams, her picture of the world, had grown larger than if she had just sat at home sewing, as girls were meant to do.
All these years that her parents had never arranged a marriage for her, she’d always clung to the secret hope that they might marry her to Kaneshige. After all, their families were friends – though they both knew that that was not the way things worked. In the end, they were just pawns. Sooner or later they would be married off in political unions.
Kaneshige was still a good friend of her brother. But no one could ever know about their secret meetings. If anyone had found out they would have been in terrible trouble. Her father might even have been ordered to kill her. Time passed, the shadows moved. She paced up and down in the shade, filled with foreboding. It was unbearable not knowing where he was. Supposing he never came? Supposing his parents had found out about their meetings and forbidden him to leave?
Then she heard the pad of footsteps and a slender figure appeared on the ridge. For a moment he was silhouetted against the deep blue of the sky, the sun lighting his face, his robe tucked casually into his belt, his legs bare, his two swords glinting. She jumped up, laughing joyfully.
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