Chapter 1 — The Left-Hand Path
(Totomi, Japan, late autumn, 1570 a.d.)
I knew that spying on the lord of the province was risky. That’s why I didn’t see what was coming. I knew it, but something about being there, high up in that pine, made me feel free.
I watched where Lord Imagawa stood in his castle with a samurai, pointing at a piece of paper. Paper covered with splashes of color. Green, mostly. Blue and red marking the edges.
It was a hundred paces away or more. I must have been squinting hard, trying to make out what they were pointing at. That’s the only way to explain how I didn’t notice the palanquin until it had almost reached my tree.
Below, two hulking men carried the shiny black box by the heavy bar between them. The thing scuttled like a beetle through the slanting morning shadows that darkened the woods. It was coming from the direction of the village.
Seeing it startled me — made my chest tight and my hands colder even than they already were.
I scooted to the top of the pine, hands chilled and sticky.
Half-way up the pine tree though I was, I had the urge to stomp on the dark, gleaming thing. Only nobles traveled by palanquin. And when had nobles ever done my family any favors?
I sensed danger in the steady, silent approach. Had they seen me spying on the castle?
“Risuko!” My sister called up to me. I could not even see the top of her head.
The black box crept closer, into the clearing below me. Then the palanquin stopped.
I scrambled to hide myself. The cold sap smelled sharp and raw as I pressed my nose to the bark. I gave a bird whistle—a warbler call, the one that I’d told Usako I’d use if she needed to hide.
I had actually been looking for birds’ eggs, though it was the wrong season for it. Hunger and the desire to do something, as well as my own pleasure in climbing, had driven me up the tree. Mother had not fed us that morning. Once the weather turned cold, she could not always provide us with more than even a small bowl of rice a day. Also, the castle had been bustling like an ants’ nest that’s been prodded with a stick, and I had been curious….
Someone below me began talking. An old woman, I thought, her voice high and birdlike, though, again, I couldn’t make out the words. Usako—my sister—stepped forward into view. I could see her head bowed, like a frightened rabbit. The old woman spoke again. After a pause, Usako–chan’s face, open and small, turned toward my hiding place. She pointed up at me.
“Risuko,” the old woman said, “come down now.”
She and her men were at the bottom of the tree. I considered leaping across to one of the other pines, but there weren’t any close enough and big enough to jump to. And I was worried that my hands were too cold to keep hold.
Usako scurried off on the trail toward home. Thanks, sister, I thought. I’ll get you for that later. I wish that she had turned and waved. I wish that I had called out a good-bye.
If I was going to be grabbed at the bottom, I decided that I might as well come down with a flourish. I dropped from limb to limb, bark, needles, and sap flying from the branches as my hands and feet slapped at them, barely breaking my speed. Perhaps if I came down faster than they expected, I could make a run for it once I reached the ground.
My bare feet had no sooner hit the needles beneath the tree, however, than a large hand came to rest on my shoulder. The two huge servants had managed to place themselves exactly where I would land.
“What an interesting young girl you are,” the grey-haired noblewoman said.
Somehow I didn’t want to interest her. The two men stepped back at the wave of her hand. She stood there, still in her elegant robes, her wooden sandals barely sinking into the mud. “Do you climb things other than trees?” she asked, her deeply lined face bent in an icy smile, her eyes lacquer-black against her white-painted skin.
I nodded, testing my balance in this uncertain conversation. “That’s why my mother calls me Squirrel. I’m always climbing—our house, rocks, trees….” Her eyes brightened, cold as they were, and I started to let go and brag. “There’s a cliff below the castle up there.” I pointed to where Lord Imagawa’s stone castle stood on the hill at the edge of the woods.
“Ah?” she said, looking pleased.
“I like to climb up the cliff.”
“Oh?” she sniffed, “but certainly a skinny little girl like you couldn’t get terribly far.”
That stung. “Oh, yes, I’ve climbed all the way to the top of the cliff bunches of times, and up the walls too, to look in at the windows and see the beautiful clothes….”
I clamped my mouth shut and blushed. Noble as she clearly was, she could have had me flogged or beheaded for daring to do such a thing. I tensed.
But this odd old woman didn’t have her enormous litter-carriers beat me with the wooden swords they carried in their belts. Instead, she truly smiled, and that terrifying smile was what let me know that my fate was sealed, that I couldn’t run. “Yes,” she said. “Very interesting. Risuko.”
She motioned for the men to bring her palanquin. It was decorated, as were the coats of the men, with the lady’s mon, her house’s symbol: a ten-petaled lotus blossom.
They placed the box beside her, and she eased into it, barely seeming to move. “Come, walk beside me, Squirrel. I have some more questions to ask you.” Then she snapped, “Little Brother!”
“Yes, Lady!” called the servant who stood at the front of the palanquin, the larger of the two men. He gave a quiet sort of grunt and then, in perfect unison with his partner, lifted the box and began to march forward.
“Stay with me, girl!” the old lady ordered, and I scurried to keep up. I was surprised by the strength of the two men—they hardly seemed to notice the weight that they carried—but their speed was what took my breath away. As I scrambled to keep up, the mistress began to bark at me again. “What did I hear about your father? He taught you to write?”
How did she know my father? “Yes, he was a scribe.” I wanted to add, but did not, And a samurai too.
“He can’t have been much of a scribe,” she sniffed. “No apprentice, so he teaches his daughter to use a brush? What a waste. And the rags you wear?”
“He… died. Mother has struggled…,” I panted. “He was a good scribe… But there wasn’t much… need for one here… What do farmers need with contracts or letters?”
We moved quickly, speeding right past the path that led back to my home. Ah, well, I thought, we’ll join up with the main road and come into the village the long way.
“Yes,” she said, looking pleased with herself, “I suppose Lord Imagawa would be about the only client worth having around here in this wilderness. Don’t fall behind, child.”
I was beginning to sweat, in spite of the cold. The smell of approaching snow was sour in the air.
The rear servant—the one who wasn’t quite as enormous as the one the lady had called Little Brother—pulled even with me. Without turning his head, the man gave a low bark. Imperceptibly, the two men slowed to a pace that I could match. Grateful, I looked over toward the servant in the rear. I wasn’t sure, but I could have sworn that he winked.
I could see the bulk of Lord Imagawa’s castle though the open shutters of the palanquin. Banners flew from the roof that I’d never seen there before—blue and red. The old lady followed my gaze up the hill. “Yes, depressing old pile of rock, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t think of any way to answer that. I wasn’t sure an answer was expected.
“You really climbed all the way up to the windows?” She was looking at me closely. I nodded. “Yes, very interesting.” She clicked her tongue. “And today? I don’t suppose you could have seen anything of interest today.”
“Lord Imagawa,” I panted. “Soldier. Pointing at… drawing.”
Now her eyes widened. “You could see that from such a distance? Could you see what the drawing looked like?”
Green squares, surrounded by smaller squares of red and blue. What looked like little pine trees sticking out of the squares. I nodded.
Now the lady smiled, looking like an old mother pig when it’s found a nice puddle to wallow in. Somehow the smile was even more frightening.
At that moment, we met up with the main road. I was certain that we would turn right, back toward the village, to my house, my mother, and that some explanation for this peculiar line of questions would present itself.
Instead, the palanquin turned smoothly left.
Confused, I stopped in my tracks.
“Stop!” the lady yelled. Little Brother and the winking one came to a halt. “Come along, girl!”
“I told you to keep up with me, child.” She wasn’t even looking at me.
“But… the village is…?” I pointed back down the road I had been walking most of my life, to the bridge I could see just behind the spur of trees that led to my house.
“Silly Squirrel. Down!” The two men lowered her to the crossroad. Now she looked at me. “You are not going back there. Your mother sold you to me this morning.” She leaned out the window and barked at the carriers, “Go!”