The battle, if that’s what it was, didn’t last very long.
Quickly, the sound diminished to almost nothing. There was still some shouting, but it was growing more and more distant.
I snuck carefully out of my hiding place and made my way downhill toward where I knew the road must be.
It was not quite the scene of carnage that had met us that morning when we had first met Masugu-san and his soldiers. There were three dead men I assumed were part of the bandit gang. They’d been piled by the side of the road. There was also one dead horse, and one of the lancers was growling in pain as one of his comrades pulled an arrow through his thigh.
Most of the rest of the Takeda soldiers were missing. Aside from the wounded man and his nurse, only Masugu was there. Lady Chiyome and Mieko were talking with him. Mieko held an arrow in her hand.
The Little Brothers stood guard while Aimaru, Emi, and Toumi were holding the horses. All three looked as if they were waiting for another attack.
“Ah, there’s the little rodent!” said Chiyome-sama. “Come here, Risuko.”
Uncertain, I slid down the bank to the road and walked, trembling, to my mistress. “Yes, Chiyome-sama?”
“Mieko here tells me that you’re the one we have to thank for warning us before those ruffians attacked.” The old woman squinted at me. “Is this true?”
Her expression made me feel very much as though I had done something wrong—though I had been feeling, as I thought about it, rather proud of myself. “Y-yes my lady. Mieko-san told me to.”
She peered at me some more, smirked at first Mieko, and then Masugu, and walked toward where the Little Brothers were guarding her palanquin.
Blinking, I looked up at Masugu-san and Mieko-san. The lieutenant smiled at me. “Good job, Murasaki-san. I was just telling Lady Chiyome and Mieko that if they’d let you go, I’d find a job for you in the scouts today.”
My cheeks burned at the compliment.
“And I was telling the lieutenant,” said Mieko brightly—almost too brightly—“that you are very badly needed where you are going, and so that he would have to find his scout somewhere else.”
“Um. Thank you,” I said to both of them. Badly needed?
“Mieko,” said Masugu-san, and seemed about to say something more, but didn’t speak.
Mieko lifted her chin. “Masugu?”
After looking back and forth between them for an awkward moment, I was just about to excuse myself when Mieko sighed and held up the arrow for Masugu to look at. “Did you notice the fletching?” She ran a finger over the feathers, which were from a snowy owl—white, with brown spots.
He frowned. “You think this was an enemy raiding party? It’s awfully far from their territory.”
“I think,” said Mieko with an impatient sigh, “that they probably weren’t bandits.”
Once Masugu’s soldiers had returned from chasing the attackers—one more of the enemy dead, but the rest evaporated into the mountains—and once a bier was lit for the three dead men and the horse, we resumed our descent into the valley.
I did not mind riding in front of Masugu-san now.
We made our way through a narrow valley with muddy fields. The farmers came out to their fences and bowed to us as we passed.
We climbed a ridge that lay across the valley like a cat catching the afternoon sun. A low, gated village swelled out of hilltop ahead. Through the torī arch and the open gates I could see at least a dozen buildings, whitewashed so that they glowed in the sunlight. The Full Moon.
Mieko and her rider cantered up beside Masugu and me. “Welcome to Mochizuki,” she whispered, smiling.
We passed through the huge red arch (and the heavy wooden gate behind it) entering a white gravel courtyard. In front of the largest of the buildings, which looked as big as the Temple of the Sun Buddha in Pineshore, stood a still line of figures: six or seven young women and a single man. The man and the three youngest women were dressed in blue like Emi, Toumi, and me. The older ones were all in the red and white attire of shrine maidens.
The two Little Brothers placed the palanquin on the ground with a quiet crunch, and then sprinted back to close the gate. The two youngest girls ran forward, knelt beside Chiyome-sama’s sedan, and slid open the door.
As Lady Chiyome stepped out, all of those assembled bowed deeply, touching their heads to the gravel in deepest respect. The old woman slid out of her box and stretched, grumbling.
As we all dismounted, she surveyed her troops, who rose to a kneeling posture. She gave a grunt that sounded almost satisfied, and called out to some of the women in miko dress, “Are the baths prepared?”
Two of the women nodded.
Chiyome-sama smiled grimly and spoke to the square-faced man in the line. “Kee Sun, see to the wounded boy and get some supper ready. I’m famished. Fuyudori,” she called to the one blue-clad girl who had not opened her door; by her face, I’d have guessed she was at most three years or so my senior, but her hair was as white as a crane’s tail. “These three are your new charges: Toumi, Risuko and Emi. Get them stowed away. I want their training to start immediately.”
With that, she strode forward toward one of the smaller buildings, one with steam rising from it that I took to be the bathhouse. Mieko and the other women seemed to be taking charge of the unloading of the packhorses. The soldiers began leading the warhorses away to an enormous stable just inside the gate.
Masugu-san ran from my side, pulling something from beneath his armor—a small cylinder—and whispered something to Lady Chiyome just as she was about to enter the bathhouse. She nodded at him, and then dismissed him with a wave. He walked back to supervise the care of the horses.
He went over to his wounded soldier, who was being helped by the older man in blue, calling, “No poppy juice, remember. I don’t trust that stuff.”
The man in blue growled back something that sounded like a confirmation, and led the wounded rider toward the big building.
Masugu nodded and turned.
I was about to ask him what he had been talking to Chiyome-sama about when I caught a glimpse of Fuyudori, the older girl who had been ordered to take charge of us. Her gaze had followed mine toward the lieutenant; she had a small, quivering smile. To be honest, it looked more like a grimace of anxiety than a grin.
As I considered her, I realized that this girl looked exactly as I’d always imagined a character in a fable my mother used to tell sister and me—the story of Long-Haired Girl who saves her town, but whose hair turns white in sorrow. Fuyudori was extraordinarily pretty, and the whiteness of her hair made her beauty all the more remarkable. She looked at the three of us, the uncertainty melting from her face, and in a sweet voice said, “Please close your mouths. It’s not polite to stare.”
As she led us away from the courtyard, I turned in search of Aimaru. He looked rather lost, following the Little Brothers as they unloaded the packhorses. I waved to him, but he didn’t see me.