My shaking arms suddenly went still, as if instantly turned to ice. Looking down, I saw that Fuyudori had disappeared. I was trapped and alone.
“Do hurry, Risuko-chan,” said Lady Chiyome in that quiet voice that still managed to sound quite piercing. “I don’t want to have to call Kee Sun to haul you in. He might slip and drop you, and that would be the most awful mess.”
Arms trembling, my back screaming with the effort and the cold, I pulled myself up, one elbow at a time, peeking over the sill into Chiyome-sama’s chamber.
It was smaller than I would have expected. Most of the space was dominated by a large, black bed that amounted to a small room of its own—a tall box almost like a huge palanquin, self-contained as Chiyome–sama herself, and almost enclosed, with a chair and a desk built into the entry. The space remaining was taken up by tatami mats, in the middle of which stood a small kneeling desk; she was seated cross-legged behind it. Before her on the desk stood a number of small, brightly colored shapes.
“Good evening, my little squirrel,” said Lady Chiyome, smirking sourly. “It is so lovely of you to join me. And by such an unusual route. Extraordinary. Not even Mieko in her prime could have undertaken such a climb unaided. I am most impressed.”
I collapsed to my knees, staring down at the tatami, utterly bewildered. “Thank you, Chiyome-sama.”
“Hmm. You were unaided, I suppose? No mechanical assistance? No one helping you?”
I thought of Fuyudori, who had urged me to climb, and then disappeared. “Nobody helping me,” I said.
She rested a finger to her nose, and then grunted. “Yes,” she said. “Most impressive.” Squaring her shoulders, she peered at me. “Tell me, Risuko, what did you hear?”
“N-nothing, lady,” I spluttered.
“Do not lie to me, girl. You were beneath the window ledge well before Masugu left.”
I knew better, but I could not help staring at the old woman. “How—?”
She favored me with a wicked grin. “Little girls shouldn’t be too curious. Now tell me, Risuko, what did you hear?”
My stomach, which had been clenched tight, suddenly felt as though Kee Sun had force-fed me lead. “I…”
She waited, unblinking.
I took a deep breath. “You were speaking with Masugu-san about me. About whether I could be trusted. About whether I’d done… something. I couldn’t figure out what though. He said something about spirits in his rooms?”
She grunted again. “And were you playing the fox spirit earlier tonight, Risuko-chan?”
I blinked in confusion.
“Where you the kitsune haunting Masugu-san’s chamber? Someone has been playing games there.”
“No, Chiyome-sama!” I said, shocked. “Absolutely not!”
We sat there, staring at each other, until I thought I might choke or that my beating heart might explode out of my chest. Finally, the old woman gave a half nod and said, “Perhaps not. Perhaps not.” She twirled one of the colored shapes on her desk between her fingers—I saw that they were pebbles of various sizes, painted in bright colors and distributed over a large, creased piece of paper that had been webbed with squiggly lines and cramped calligraphy. At the top was written Land of the Rising Sun. The wicked smile reappeared. “Do you know what this is, my little squirrel?”
I was about to shake my head, when the lines and shapes that marked the paper suddenly seemed to come unclouded and I recognized them. “It’s a map. Of Japan?”
My patron clapped her hands together, clearly pleased. “Ah, well, done, my dear. Your father didn’t waste your childhood entirely. Can you find our location upon the map?”
Scowling with concentration, I looked down and found my family’s home province, Serenity—toward the eastern edge at the top. It had many red stones to the northern, left-hand edge, as many of blue at the southern edge and one large green stone in the middle, just where I knew my family’s home to be. I touched the pebble briefly, and then followed the blue line that marked the Weatherbank River’s flow down to Pineshore, and the heavy dashed line that showed the Eastern Sea Road, the great coastal highway up which we had marched—had it been only weeks before? It felt as if that journey had belonged to another lifetime.
Tracing our path through Quick River and Worth Provinces (a sea of red stones, small and large) and into the mountains, I found the southern end of Dark Letter Province; here there were more red pebbles, one at what looked like the Rice Paddy Pass garrison, and one very small one over the tiny mark of a full moon. Clustered around the stone were a number of sharp, metal spikes—pins, such as my mother had sometimes used to use when she was mending our clothes. The top of each was painted red and white. “Here,” I said, pointing.
“Well done, my little navigator. And what would you guess these are?” She touched a dry finger to one of a large number of white stones that stood near the Imperial City.
The painted pebbles were scattered around the map in clusters; the largest number where white, red and blue, with a number of other colors sprinkled here and there. The red-and-white pins were distributed in ones and twos across the provinces, seemingly at random, always near a pebble.
The stones weren’t towns—those were painted directly onto the map, their names labeled in a cramped, neat hand. They could represent rice or gold, but it seemed odd that so many of the stones were gathered around the center of Honshu Island, the main island of our nation; I knew that other parts of the country produced food and wealth.
Knowing that Lady Chiyome hated it when I stuck my tongue out, I bit it as I continued to scowl down at the map. “Are they… ?” I did not want to appear to be stupid. “Are they armies, Chiyome-sama?”
A look of pleased surprise rushed over her face, and I felt relief rush through me. “What makes you say that, my squirrel?”
“Well,” I said, “It looks like a multicolored game of Go, like Oto-san used to play with old Ichihiro from the castle.” Peering back up at her, I asked, “Is this a game?”
The old woman loosed her wheezing, mirthless laugh. “Yes! Yes, indeed, it is a game—a very complicated and deadly one.” She touched the one green pebble where it stood near our home. “Do you see this green marker?”
“Does it look familiar, child?”
I blinked. The large green stone surrounded by smaller stones of blue and red. “The picture I drew for you. That I saw Lord Imagawa and the soldier looking at.”
“Indeed. That told me that a large battle was coming, though Masugu and his friends brought it to us rather more quickly than I expected. This green piece represents the remaining force of the Imagawa—a considerable army, but a shadow of the power that they used to wield.”
“Then the red… The red are the forces of the Takeda?” I reasoned.
“Well done,” the old woman said, though the praise was fainter in her tone than in the words. Pointing just north of the tiny stone that marked our own little army, she said, “This stone represents the garrison at Highfield, where Masugu’s riders are serving, guarding our territories from the forces of the Uesugi.” A group of yellow stones stood further to the northwest.
Pointing down the river from the red and yellow markers around Highfield, she said very quietly, “And there is Midriver Island.”
Her hand swept southeast, toward the provinces directly below Serenity Province. A group of blue stones sprawled throughout this region. “These are the forces of the Matsudaira; they used to be loyal to the Imagawa, but the arrogance of that old clan drove them to ally themselves elsewhere. Currently they are loosely allied both with Lord Takeda and with the current shogun, Lord Oda. These are his armies.” Her hand passed over the sea of white in the center of the map. “What do you think each of these armies wishes to do?”
Again I frowned—there were a number of ways of answering that question, depending on how you looked at it. “Um, to defend their provinces?”
She waved a dismissive hand, “Of course, of course. But do you think it is good for Japan, this sea of warring colors?”
Trusting that I knew how she wished me to respond, I shook my head.
“No, it is not!” she barked, as forcibly as I had ever heard her. “Our nation has been at war with itself for almost a hundred years. Since the Kamakura shoguns were overthrown, warlords up and down the nation have strived to unite all of Japan under one banner, to become shogun, and to bring law and peace back to our blessed islands. Yet no one lord has been strong enough to defeat the others, and so there has been a constant game of changing allegiances, of treachery and bloodshed, each lord aiming to protect his own clan’s best interests. It must end.”
“And Lord Takeda can stop it?”
She grunted and gave a grim nod. “He is the greatest general of the major powers—noble and strong of mind, unbeatable on the battlefield, lacking Lord Oda’s inconstancy, his fascination with gimmicks and foreign oddities. Once the Imagawa are gone, Lord Takeda will be the strongest force left, save for Lord Oda and his armies. When the other lords unite beneath the four-diamond Takeda banner, the Oda will have to relinquish the capitol city to us, and Takeda Shingen will rule a united Japan as the emperor’s shogun.”
Why was she telling me all of this? I certainly couldn’t have told you at the time. I think in part it was a test—to see if I could follow what she was talking about. In part, too, I think that it was a subject close to whatever served the old woman for a heart. It was a topic about which she had clearly thought long and deeply.
Eventually, she took and released a deep breath. Indicating the white pebbles with one elegant, wrinkled hand, she asked, “And what do you know about Oda-sama, young Kano?”
I thought of the conversations that I’d had with Masugu-san on the long ride to Mochizuki. I couldn’t tell her everything—both because I couldn’t stand to admit how little I knew, and because I wasn’t sure that the lieutenant was supposed to tell me and I didn’t want to get him into trouble. “I… I know that my father served for a time as a samurai beneath him.”
Chiyome-sama narrowed her eyes. “And do you know why your father left his service? Not everyone does, you know.”
“I…” I looked up into her shrewd face. “I know that my father, Emi’s and Toumi’s were sent on a mission that they refused. That is all I know.”
“Then you know more than I thought you did. Do you know anything about this mission?” When I shook my head, she daintily straightened up the stones around the capitol. She quietly waited until I was once again feeling on the edge of bursting. “Ask yourself, Risuko-chan, what your father valued more than anything. More even than his own honor.”
“I…” She was asking such an impossible question, yet I did not know how to refuse or to avoid her gaze. “Family,” I whispered.
“Yes,” she said. “Then ask yourself what mission Lord Oda could have given to so honorable a man as your father that he would have refused.”
My eyes must have given some sense of the horror that swept over me at that moment, because Lady Chiyome laughed. “No, silly girl, he wasn’t ordered to kill you. Why would Oda-sama have bothered?”
A wry smile twisted her still-powdered face. “Such a bright girl as yourself, you should be able to work it out.”
“I… I can’t imagine, Chiyome-sama.” I stared down at the board. “Lady? What are these, these red and white pins?”
Her smile broadened. “I expect you to work that out on your own as well, Risuko. Now I’m tired of idle prattle. Leave me, girl.”
Uncertain, I stood and began to stumble back toward the window.
Her rough, dry laugh burst forth again, stopping me. “No, no! The stairs, stupid child! Once you’ve been caught, you might as well take advantage of the easiest route of escape.” Her face still bore all of the signs of amusement, though her eyes were mirthless. “Do shutter the window, however. It is getting chilly.”
With a nod of my head, I pulled the shutters closed.
“And my squirrel?” the old woman muttered as I began to withdraw toward the stairs. I froze, afraid of what she might have to add. She smirked at me thoughtfully. “When next you decide to listen at windows on a frosty night, do remember that the steam from your breath rises. Place yourself to the side.”
Stunned again, I mumbled a quick, “Yes, Chiyome–sama,” and tiptoed down the stairs and back to my quarters as quickly as my wobbly legs could carry me.