Silk & Service
“Get my purse, boy!” growled Captain Oniyama, “And more sake!”
Masugu watches the girl appear as if from out of the floor to pour the rice wine into the captain’s cup: smooth gait, smooth hair, smooth—
“Boy! My purse!”
Masugu shakes himself, blushing, and leaps to his feet. “Yes, Oniyama-sama!”
The captain is usually patient and polite, but at these regular mahjong games with the other Imagawa commanders, he drinks. And Masugu doesn’t like being around him when he’s drunk. Doesn’t like watching him lose at games.
Also, the girl…
As Masugu leaves the room, he hears Captain Katsumada chuckle, “What can you expect from a Takeda.”
Masugu has been a guest in the Imagawa household since he was eleven. Well, strictly speaking, he’s been a hostage — a pledge of faith by his clan to their neighbor, ally, and sometime enemy the Imagawa. Captain Oniyama’s son has been living with Masugu’s clan.
It’s supposed to be a way of strengthening the alliance. Mostly, it’s been an opportunity for Masugu to practice patience. And humility. Lots of humility.
“Ignore him,” whispers Katsudama’s page Toki as he slips back into the room.
“Easy for you to say,” Masugu mutters, though he appreciates the support. Like Masugu, Toki is a hostage, but for some reason the captain doesn’t hold Toki’s Matsudaira lineage against him.
The girl… She has disappeared.
Though the last thing in the world Masugu wants is to rush back to the room where Captain Katsudama will insult him and Captain Oniyama will yell at him, he runs to the Oniyama quarters — down two flights and on the other side of the castle.
Hiroyashi, the captain’s valet, glares at Masugu. “The captain should be in his bed. We ride out tomorrow.”
“He knows,” answers Masugu, shrugging. “He needs more money.”
Hiroyashi’s eyes narrow and his mouth twists. “He’s losing. Again.”
Masugu just nods.
“The captain should not gamble when he drinks.”
Masugu just shrugs.
Glaring at Masugu again — as if any of this is Masugu’s fault — Hiroyashi shuffles over to the already-packed luggage and removes coins from a silk bag. “Tell the captain that we need the rest to pay the men.”
Masugu winces at the thought of Captain Oniyama’s reaction to his saying that, but bows and takes the money.
As he sprints back, he finds the girl, kneeling, arranging a porcelain sake bottle and used cups on a tray. He can’t help but stop. “Have they had much more?”
“One more round,” she says. Her face is warm, her smile polite, and yet something sparks in her eyes as she meets his gaze. “I believe it will be Captain Katsudama’s last.”
Then she rises, the cups and wine not moving on the tray as she does. She nods her head in a bow and begins to leave.
“Wait!” Masugu gasps. When she turns in surprise, he says the only thing that comes to his mind, “Please, what is your name?”
“Mieko,” she answers, her eyes wide.
A small, not-so-polite smile bows her lips. “I know.”
From inside the room, there’s a bellow. “Masugu! Where is that boy!”
Flinching, Masugu takes a step toward the door. When he looks back to say goodbye, Mieko is already gone.
It turns out that Masugu needn’t have hurried. Oniyama-sama has somehow managed to win back at least a little of what he’d lost. “My lord?” Masugu whispers into his ear. “What can I do for you?”
“You could have gotten here faster, for one thing.” When Masugu places the small stack of coins in front of the captain, he grunts. “For another, you can help young Tokimatsu bring Katsudama there back to his rooms. He seems to have had too much to drink.”
The other captains all chuckle.
Toki is straining to lift Katsudama, who is built like a bear. A large bear. A large, hibernating bear.
Masugu steps under the captain’s limp arm and helps guide him out of the room, where the other captains are making nasty comments about Katsudama’s inability to hold his wine.
As they drag the captain toward his apartment — on this side of the castle and down just one floor, thankfully — Masugu groans, “When did this happen? Seemed fine when I left.”
“Just after you went.” Toki sounds as if he’s straining just as hard under the captain’s dead weight. “Usually holds his liquor well. Better than your captain.”
“Hey!” Toki is teasing, but Oniyama’s a good commander — except when he’s been drinking — and so Masugu feels as if he should at least try to defend the man he serves.
“This baka must have had more than usual.”
Masugu doesn’t feel any need to defend Katsudama from Toki’s charge that he’s an idiot. It’s not an insult; it’s the truth. And Katsudama isn’t going to hear the insult anyway.
At the Katsudama apartment, Toki and Masugu hand the captain off to the butler and three burly manservants.
As he and Toki recover in the hall, it occurs to Masugu that Katsudama truly was dead weight. That the captain didn’t groan or move a muscle on the whole trip down. That his skin felt cool and clammy. That Masugu can’t remember even seeing him breathe.
He is about to suggest that Toki rouse the doctor when a memory flashes through his head, and he stops himself. “’Night, Toki.”
“Where are you going?” Toki’s put on a girlish pout. “Thought we could have a little rice wine of our own.”
“No thanks. We’re marching in the morning.”
They say their farewells, and Masugu sprints down to the kitchens.
I believe it will be Captain Katsudama’s last, Mieko had said, and Masugu finally recognizes her expression. Her face was still beautiful and her tone respectful, but Masugu knows the look that he saw in her eyes.
It was satisfaction.
The satisfaction of a warrior after a victory.
The castle’s huge kitchen is all but empty — most of the cooks and scullery crew will be waking up well before dawn as they begin preparing to feed Lord Imagawa and his many guests and retainers. He finds her where he hoped he would: in the pantry, just inside the small door that is one of the few ways out of the castle other than the front gate. “Mieko!” he whispers.
Once again, she turns in surprise. This time, however, the look is wary, and the body ready to spring. To fight.
For some reason, she has changed into a shrine maiden’s red and white robes. In one hand, she holds a blade, which she points with practiced grace at his heart.
Masugu holds up his hands. “I… I won’t stop you.”
“No?” Her eyes look hard now. Her face, though masked in calm, is dark. So beautiful.
“No.” He keeps his eyes locked on hers, so that he doesn’t have to look at the knife she’s holding a hand’s breadth from his chest. “I just…” Honestly, he doesn’t know what he wanted to do, to say. So he sticks with what he knows is true. “I’m Takeda.” With one finger, he gestures at the four-diamond insignia on his robes.
Her eyes soften slightly, but the knife remains at the ready. “Yes. I know.”
He takes a breath. “Are you? Takeda?”
The pinkness leaves her cheeks. Still the blade is steady.
He needs to know. “I… Captain Katsudama has — had been trying to convince Lord Imagawa to break the alliance. To attack us.”
“He was convincing the other captains to support him.”
“I know,” she sighs, and finally lowers the knife — but only slightly. “We read your reports.”
“Lady Chiyome gave them to Kuniko and myself. Katsudama needed to be stopped.”
“Yes.” Mochizuki Chiyome. Masugu has heard of her, has heard that she is starting some sort of school for warrior women. “You are a… kunoichi?”
A small smile warms her face again. She lowers the blade all of the way and nods. “Masugu. You must go. If you are found with us, you will be suspected for the death.”
Not knowing why, he reaches out a hand. “I will be suspected anyway. I am Takeda. The captain made no secret of hating me.”
“Come with us.” She takes his hand in the one that isn’t holding the knife. Her fingers are warm and soft.
“I can’t. You — no one will notice a maid leaving, even one as beautiful as you. If I leave, suspicion will still fall on the Takeda.” He squeezes her fingers. “You have to… to knock me out. Injure me. So it looks as if I tried to stop you.”
Her eyes grow wide. “I do not wish to hurt you, Masugu.”
“Please. For your own safety. For our lord.”
“I do not wish to,” she says, her smile sad, and squeezes back. “But Kuniko would be happy to do it.” She glances over his shoulder.
Masugu turns just in time to see a broad-shouldered, square-faced girl bringing down a piece of firewood on the top of his head.
When he wakes, he is in the castle’s dungeons, on a bed of vermin-ridden straw. It feels as if an army of taiko drummers is pounding on the inside of his skull, and so it isn’t for a few moments that he notices the raised voices just outside the cell.
“My lord,” says one voice — Captain Oniyama — “he can’t have committed the murder. The poison can only have been administered while the boy was out of the room, getting my money. My valet confirms it.”
“As you say, Oniyama, but the boy’s Takeda,” growls Lord Imagawa. “He had more reason than any to want Katsudama dead.”
“True, my lord, but —”
The pounding takes a turn for the worse; now it feels like the tolling of an enormous temple bell. In spite of himself, Masugu groans.
“Let us question him,” says a third voice — Lord Imagawa’s chief counselor. “He is waking.”
They open the cell door and troop in, looming over Masugu.
“Well, boy,” Imagawa-sama shouts, making the bell toll even louder, “why did you kill Katsudama?” There is the sharp sound of a sword being drawn.
“Didn’t,” Masugu tries to say.
“Didn’t… Tried to stop… Found… assassin at pantry door. But when I… tried to stop… Other hit me with something.”
“Piece of firewood,” says the counselor with a snort.
Oniyama kneels close to him. “Men?”
Lying doesn’t come easily to Masugu. But for this, for not correcting his captain’s mistake, he is willing to bear the stain on his honor. “Two. At least.”
“What insignia did they wear?” shouts Imagawa-sama.
Masugu winces before answering truthfully, “None. Were dressed… as servants.” Before changing into miko garb.
“That at least explains how they were able to get in and out without anyone noticing,” the counselor muses.
“Yes,” Oniyama agrees. “Now, my lord, may I fetch my physician to see to the boy?”
When the lord and his counselor agree, Masugu allows himself to drift back into yawning unconsciousness.
But before blackness welcomes him, he finds himself thinking of Mieko. Of her warm face and soft hands.
And of the warrior’s flame in her eyes.