Set in the final years of Japan’s turbulent Sengoku period (c. 1467?1603) and the first few decades of the Edo era (1603?1867), the story portrays the life of a minor feudal lord’s wife who steps forward to save her domain in its time of crisis following the assassinations of her husband and son.
In the year 1600, shortly before Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan and established his shogunal government, the 15-year-old daughter of the lord of Hachinohe, at the northern tip of Honshū, encounters a Japanese serow with only a single horn. The young lady’s name is Nene, and following her father’s death from an illness, arrangements had been made for her to marry Naomasa six months before, bringing him into the clan as the 20th lord of Hachinohe. The serow and Nene form a lasting friendship, and even after the serow’s death, his single horn becomes a protective talisman for Nene and remains a companion to her for the rest of her life. In an unusual twist, the story is narrated from the perspective of the serow and this horn.
The Hachinohe domain is under constant pressure from Nene’s uncle Toshinao, her mother’s younger brother, who is lord of the neighboring Nanbu domain. Though regarded as a wise ruler, Toshinao does not shy from using a strong arm or underhanded means to bend others to his will; coveting Hachinohe’s access to the ocean and its bounty, as well as the black sands in the north that provide a source of iron, Toshinao has designs on the territory and is ever on the watch for an opportunity to pounce. He assassinates both Naomasa and his young heir, Hisamatsu. In the face of this existential threat to the domain, Nene, now 29, declares herself the 21st head of Hachinohe. Toshinao is compelled to recognize her, but his skulduggery continues. He gets the shogunate to issue an order reassigning Nene’s clan to the small and turmoil-ridden inland domain of Tōno. Nene complies: a pragmatist to the core, it is her policy to avoid unwanted and useless wars.
The serow’s horn comes to Nene’s rescue time after time not only by developing the ability to gather information instantly, but by appearing in Nene’s dreams at times of crisis, and even by taking possession of her and speaking in her voice. Once Nene loses her husband and son, the horn is effectively her only friend.
Hachinohe is part of the Tōhoku region that was hit by a massive tsunami in March 2011, and the narrating serow is said to have lost his mate to a tsunami as well. While placing her tale in the historical past, author Kyōko Nakajima deftly weaves in details that give it relevance to the present.