“My name is Fuyudori. I am the oldest of the initiates here, and so you may address me as Fuyudori–san or Fuyudori–senpai.” We followed her steady stride toward the back of the compound. It was impossible not to watch the white, silken hair flowing behind her as she walked. “As the head initiate, I make sure that you know the rules and obey them. Any infraction is seen as a failure on my part; I do not accept failure easily. But I also like to think that I am here as an adviser and a friend.”
In all honesty, my mind was still back at that morning’s battle. I wasn’t quite sure how we had ended up following this remarkable looking young woman around.
Toumi and Emi looked just as lost.
Following Fuyudori, we entered a small building that was just inside the rear wall, behind the bathhouse. There were two rooms. She led us to the one on the right, in which two bedrolls were leaned against one wall. “You will sleep with Mai and Shino, the two other initiates, in this room. As head initiate, I sleep over here.” She pointed through the sliding door into another room, just as small (if not quite as neat), but with a single bed in it on a low platform.
We deposited our bedrolls next to those of the other girls—Emi and I on one side, and Toumi on the far, other side. It was almost reassuring to see that Toumi looked as uncertain as I was feeling.
“Fuyudori-san,” Emi said, scowling as usual, “what’s a… a novice?”
The older girl’s mouth pursed in a tiny smile. “That’s you, of course.” She began to walk out of our new home, and we followed her. “Chiyome-sama likes to joke that we are nuns here, but it’s not far from the truth. Just like novice nuns, you three will be given the most menial tasks, the most basic training. When you have earned the teachers’ trust, you will be made initiates.” She pulled dreamily at her sash, which unlike our blue ones was red, edged in white. “Once Lady Chiyome judges that you have completed your training, you will become a kunoichi. I am due to be given my robes after the New Year.”
That word again. “What’s a kunoichi?” I asked.
She turned and smiled sweetly at me. “You are the one Lady Chiyome called Squirrel, yes?” I nodded. “You should treat your elders with respect. Ask permission before asking a question, Risuko-chan.” Squirrel-child.
Next to me, Toumi gave a smirk—whether it was aimed at me or the older girl, I wasn’t sure.
“I beg your pardon, Fuyudori-senpai,” I said, “I’m sorry. Would Fuyudori-senpai do me the honor to answer my unworthy question?”
“Of course, Risuko-chan,” she said.
“May I ask, what is a kunoichi?”
The white-haired girl smiled again, but this time the smile was more mischievous than sweet. “Yes, Risuko-chan, you may ask. However, I’m afraid that I’m not going to tell you.” She turned and strode away.
Feeling tricked, I skittered after her.
“Nor will any of Lady Chiyome’s other servants. If you are so interested, you’ll just have to find out on your own. And before you ask, my hair is white because when I was a young girl, an attack on my village killed my family and all of the other inhabitants but me. I was rescued, and sent here, to learn everything that I could from Lady Chiyome and her servants about becoming a shrine maiden and, of course, training in the talents that make one a kunoichi. Keep up with me, please.”
We trailed Fuyudori as she gave us a quick tour of the compound. She showed us the bathhouse—and told us that we were expected to bathe every evening. “The lady expects you to stay clean and healthy. Of course, as novices, you are expected to clean the baths out each night and to prepare them each morning for all of the inhabitants of the Full Moon,” she said. Next to that was the older women’s dormitory, which Fuyudori called the Nunnery. In the corner, between the gate and the women’s dormitory was a small guesthouse. We saw Lieutenant Masugu moving his gear into it.
I was mostly noticing, honestly, that unlike our dormitory, the buildings at the front of the compound had decorative timbers that would make them easy to climb. Would they let me climb?
Past the gate were two low buildings: the stable and a teahouse where Fuyudori told us we would receive much of our instruction until we became initiates. Behind that was the men’s dormitory, which was smaller than the women’s, and which was called, we were told, the Bull Pen. We all started to giggle, until Fuyudori looked back at us very seriously and said, “As novices you are not to speak to any of the men—or boys—except at meals.”
Emi’s face twisted into an even deeper frown than usual, and she caught my eye. Were we both thinking of Aimaru? I gave the smallest shrug I could manage, and she nodded.
Fuyudori primly pointed out the main storehouse, and began to lead us back toward the big building where we had dismounted. “What’s that place?” Toumi called out.
Fuyudori turned around with a mixed look of annoyance and amusement.
Toumi gave a stiff bow. “Pardon me, Fuyudori-senpai.”
“What’s that building over there?” Toumi jerked a finger up toward a small building hidden behind a tall hemlock, up past the storehouse.
Fuyudori held her hand up in front of her face, but then regained her composure, though her ears were still pink. “I beg your pardon, Toumi-chan. I forgot about that one. That’s called the Retreat. We go there during our moon time.”
We all giggled nervously again, even Toumi.
Fuyudori looked us over. “You probably won’t need to use it yet.” With the smooth bearing she seemed to have studied from Mieko, Fuyudori strode toward the central building, and we all trailed behind her.
“This is the great hall,” Fuyudori went on, smoothly. “Meals are served here in the morning, at midday and in the evening. Don’t be late—Kee Sun doesn’t wait. I will take you there now, to make sure you are on time.”
Emi frowned and cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Fuyudori… Fuyudori-san. But what’s a kee sun?”
The older girl let out a laugh like morning birdsong, and said, “Oh! Emi-chan, you are going to be such fun to have here. It’s not a what, it’s a who! Kee Sun is the cook. Mochizuki-sama, Lady Chiyome’s late husband, brought him back from Korea; he said Japanese food was too boring for him, he’d never eat it again.” Then she smiled and said brightly, “He’ll be serving the pickled cabbage tonight—try it, it’s delicious.”
Next to me, Emi was looking at her sandals. I pulled at her sleeve, but she wouldn’t look at me. “She wasn’t laughing at you, Emi,” I whispered.
“Well, she was. But she was laughing at all of us. Come on,” I said.
Still a little frightened of this new home, we scampered into the great hall behind Fuyudori and Toumi.
The interior of the large building was open and undecorated, except for a group of small statues in a shrine against the back wall. Three long, low tables were laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. The center table, which was toward the right-hand side of the hall, was on a slightly raised platform.
Toumi shuffled across the polished bamboo floor, muttering.
Fuyudori led us through a wide doorway opposite the tables into what was clearly a kitchen. Where the kitchen at the Mount Fuji Inn had been small and cluttered, however, this room was bright, spacious and as clean as a Buddhist temple. Indeed, a shrine to the Healing Buddha stood beneath a beam from which hung bunches of drying herbs.
At a cutting table just to the side of the fire pit, the blue-clad man we had glimpsed earlier stood with his back to us, his shoulders working and the woodpecker sound of his knife clacking away as he shredded some vegetable. This must be Kee Sun, I thought.
I was confused, however—I had thought we were coming in for dinner, and while the kitchen was full of the smell of the hot fire, spices and cabbage, there was nothing cooking.
The man turned and stared at Fuyudori, then at us. His face was broad and flat. A scar ran horizontally, from his right eyebrow into his scruffy beard below his left ear. As he looked us over, he ran his tongue over his lips. “Well, Ghosty-girl, what have yeh brought me for my supper today?”
His speech was perfectly clear yet incredibly difficult to understand at the same time, hard-edged and musical.
Fuyudori smiled politely. “Kee Sun, these three will be taking over kitchen duty from Shino and Mai. Emi. Toumi. Risuko.” She pointed to each of us in turn.
As he smiled, Kee Sun’s scar twisted too. “Never seen a scrawnier crew.” He shook his head. “Least there’re three of ‘em.”
He squinted at me, then at Toumi and Emi. “Gotta get better names for yeh all. I can never remember those silly Japanese handles.” He scratched his chin and pointed at Emi. “Yeh’re easy. Yeh’ll be Smiley. You,” Kee Sun said to Toumi, “I think I’ll call you… Falcon. And I won’t trust you with any fish, either.” He grinned at Toumi, who looked as if she had no idea what to do with this strange man.
Kee Sun rolled his eyes back to me. “Hmm… Much harder. Did Ghosty-girl here call yeh ‘Squirrel?’”
He shook his head and ran his thumb along his scarred cheek. “I don’t think so.” Then he snapped his fingers and grinned. “Bright-eyes! That’s yehr name, there, right enough!”
I bowed my head.
“So yeh’ll all be working for me here, and out in the hall, cleanin’, fetchin’ from the storehouse, cleanin’, fetchin’ from the gardens, choppin’, and cleanin’ again. Understood?” He fixed us all with a glare until we had nodded that we indeed understood.
He looked to Fuyudori, who turned to address us.
“These duties are yours for as long as you are the youngest here,” she said. “It is your honor to help Kee Sun as he sees fit in the kitchen, and to assist in serving the food. You will eat after the rest of us have finished.”
I looked to the girls beside me. Toumi was fuming, as I might have guessed, no doubt angry at being forced to do such menial work. Emi, on the other hand, looked plainly confused. “Fuyudori–san,” she began, and then stopped, chewing on her lip.
“What is it, Emi-chan?”
“Well,” Emi continued, “didn’t you say we weren’t to speak to the men?”
None of us had any idea what Emi was talking about. Then she went on, “If we’re not supposed to talk to men, how are we supposed to answer all his questions?”
Fuyudori goggled at Emi, and then looked to Kee Sun.
He smirked, put his hands on his hips, and said to Emi, “I don’t count as a man, yeh see, Smiley. I’m a Korean. And besides,” he said, a smirk twisting his scar, this time into a frightening mock grin, “as long as the grub is good, Lady Chiyome don’t give a hoot what’s goin’ on in the kitchen.”
For the first time since I had met her, Emi burst out into loud, belly-rumbling laughter.
Fuyudori’s eyes went wide in surprise, but Kee Sun roared along with Emi, and, soon, so did I.