“If you come with me quietly, Risuko–chan,” Fuyudori said in very hushed tones, waking me from a dreamless sleep, “I can show you something worth watching.” She pulled down my covers, giving me no choice in the matter.
Yawning and shivering, I threw on a winter coat and sandals. Fuyudori placed her finger over my lips, looking down at Emi and Toumi, who were still sleeping.
It always felt as if it were the middle of the night when Fuyudori woke us. But as we made our way out of the relative warmth of our dormitory, there was not even a hint of a winter dawn in the night sky. The snow had stopped and the sky cleared. The stars blazed down on us, big as snowflakes themselves.
I followed Fuyudori out across the undisturbed snow blanketing the courtyard. Dark and moonless as the night was, even the white of the snow seemed dim and grey.
Fuyudori pulled me relentlessly toward the great hall, but before we arrived, I finally woke enough to stop, digging my heels in. “What’s going on?” I asked.
The older girl blinked at me, a rare scowl of annoyance cracking her usually calm mask. “Chiyome–sama and Masugu–san are arguing—arguing about you,” she muttered in as low a voice as she could manage. “I thought you might want to hear—that it might be to your benefit. But if you don’t want—”
“No,” I said, shaking my head stiffly. “I… I want to know.”
Her face fell back into its familiar blank smile, and I followed meekly where she led. To my surprise, we did not go to the front door, nor toward the kitchen entrance. Instead, we went to the side of the hall where there was no door, over toward the storehouse. Dry as that mountain snow was, my feet were beginning to feel chilled and damp as we slogged along.
We arrived at the northern wall of the great hall, ten paces or so from the enormous hemlock that I had been aching to climb since our arrival. The wall of the main building was blank except for some half-timbered beams and a single window just below the roofline. A flickering light on the eaves showed that the window was open.
I felt Fuyudori’s breath in my ear. It tickled. Very softly, she whispered, “That’s Chiyome–sama’s private chamber. I heard them yelling at each other before they stormed up there. It was your name they were yelling.”
I could make out a low rumble from above, but no words. “We’re supposed to climb up and spy at Lady Chiyome’s window?” I hissed, before her hand clamped down over my mouth.
“Not we, Risuko–chan. I cannot make a climb like that. I doubt if any of the women here could. I have been told, however, that you are an excellent climber. Besides, one of us needs to stay down here to keep watch.” Her hand still on my mouth, she moved in front of me. Though her white hair glowed in the starlight, her eyes were dark as coal, and lightless, and the hard line of her chin let me know just how determined she was. “This is for your own good, Risuko–chan. We need to know if you are in trouble. If you are in trouble, it will reflect on me. Please.”
I considered. I did want to know what Lady Chiyome and the lieutenant were saying. And I ached to climb again, but if I was caught…
Fuyudori’s eyes pleaded with me.
Her face relaxed. “Thank you, Risuko. You won’t regret this. I will hide beneath this fir tree.”
“Hemlock,” I yawned.
She frowned up at the lowering bows as if just noticing the short, bristly needles, totally unlike the long, silver needles of a fir. “Yes. Hemlock. If someone is coming I will give you a signal like a wood owl’s hoot.” This at least she quietly managed to imitate—more or less.
I shrugged and pressed a foot into the bark of the tree.
“No,” whispered Fuyudori, grabbing my shoulder. “Not the tree—the hemlock. It’s too far, you won’t be able to hear.”
We both looked over to the great hall’s icy wall. I gulped.
“Well,” Fuyudori sighed in her kindest, cruelest voice, “perhaps it is too difficult….”
Before she finished the sentence I had strode over to the wall and begun my ascent.
It was, perhaps, wrong of me to enjoy doing something so dangerous and so obviously likely to anger my patron. But digging my fingers into the narrow, icy half-timbered beams provided enough of a challenge that my breath began to pull. When I reached the first horizontal beam, I looked down to see Fuyudori staring up at me, her mouth and eyes perfect circles of astonishment. I allowed myself to grin as I continued on up.
The last section of the climb was extremely difficult. The only handholds were two beams that ran straight up to either side of the small window. I had to press with all of my strength against either side with my toes and thumbs, scooting up slowly. The wood was cold and I had to move carefully so as not to slip, and the plaster rubbed roughly against my cheek and stomach. It was the hardest climbing I had ever done. The muscles on the outsides of my legs and arms, my shoulders and my hips ached and began to quiver from the strain.
Just as I was sure that my strength would give out, dropping me to a certain broken bone or three, my forehead hit something.
It was the window ledge. I had made it.
Looping one set of fingers and then the other over the outer sides of the ledge—I didn’t want my fingers to be visible from inside—I could at last use my fingers and the insides of my arms to hold me up, allowing the thumbs and outsides a well-earned rest.
As my heartbeat stopped racing and I caught my breath, I could hear Lieutenant Masugu’s low voice rumbling from the room. “I will stake my honor on it, lady, it wasn’t her.”
Lady Chiyome’s voice managed to be even colder than usual. “You’ll risk so much on such a little creature? One whose family honor is hardly equal to yours?”
There was silence in the room, and my heart sped right back up again as I suddenly realized that the family she was insulting was mine.
When it came, Masugu–san’s voice was quiet but as sharp as a falcon’s cry. “It wasn’t Murasaki. She saved our lives.”
“Hmmm.” Unfazed, she clucked her tongue. “Well, unless you think the spirits have been playing games, then someone was in your chamber, Masugu.”
He grunted. “I think the spirits must have better things to do than to move my papers around. The Little Brothers tells me there are signs of the raiders still being in the valley.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even so, do not let your affection for the girl blind you to what she is,” the old woman said, her voice as cold as her ledge.
Masugu muttered something that I could not hear.
My shoulders were beginning to quake with the effort of keeping myself in place, and yet I could hardly move. I needed to know what it was that they suspected me of. Looking down, I saw Fuyudori skulking at the base of the tree, her white hair like snow, gleaming in the starlight; she looked even more ghost-like than ever.
“In any case, Chiyome–sama,” Masugu–san said, “it wasn’t found. It’s still safely hidden away in the chimney.”
“Good,” Lady Chiyome grumbled. “Lord Takeda’s plans depend upon it being delivered, Lieutenant. Don’t forget that. As tedious as this service may be, my young friend, stuck among all of these young ladies, it is nonetheless essential, yes?”
“Yes, lady,” Masugu answered, though he didn’t sound terribly happy.
“Now get back to your room, Masugu, and let an old woman get her sleep.”
“Yes, lady,” he said, and I heard his steady footsteps going down the stairs.
Before I was able to begin my descent, however, I heard Chiyome–sama speak once more. “Come in, Risuko. You’ll catch your death hanging outside of windows like that.”