Excerpt from Seasons of the Sword #2: Bright Eyes
It took no time at all to get the girls and women of the Full Moon into the hall. Most of them were already in the kitchen courtyard discussing what had happened. When Mai and Mitsuke came in from the garden, eyes followed them. Mitsuke looked as bland as always. Mai looked sweaty and uncomfortable, a state that could only partly be explained by her spectacular black eye.
I decided that I wouldn’t pass along Lady Chiyome’s warning to her. I did, however, make a point of whispering to the girls what our mistress had said about our training.
Soon, we were all lined up behind the head table with Lady Chiyome. Eighteen women, five girls — six with Suzume, who stood next to me and seemed to be trying to hide in full view.
Lord Takeda’s men stood at attention between the tables, where we had served them just a little while before.
Takeda-sama himself took Lady Chiyome’s usual spot in the center of the head table just in front of us. Once he was seated, his troops too took to the floor. “Our hostess, Lady Chiyome, has reminded me of something that none of us should need to be reminded of, These young ladies, beautiful as they are, are not here for our entertainment.”
Some of the men began to chuckle, but something in Takeda-sama’s expression stopped them immediately. “Lord Matsudaira is telling his men to show the ladies of the Full Moon all due respect because they are virtuous young women and servants of the gods.” He leaned forward, resting one elbow on the table. “I am telling you that, yes, that is so, and yet there is a greater reason to show respect to the servants of Mochizuki Chiyome. For, as all of you should remember, these lovely young ladies are being trained to do far more than dance, and play, and serve you your food. They are trained too in the arts that you practice. Though they may not look it, these women are your fellow soldiers.”
In the front row, one of the officers — the lieutenant who had been fighting over Mai, in fact — rolled his eyes.
Lord Takeda’s head tilted to the side, and then he glanced back at Lady Chiyome, who smiled and said, “Perhaps a demonstration is in order.” She extended two fingers toward me and Emi, then at the shrine behind us.
We opened the doors, and heard a murmur behind us as we revealed the statues of the goddess Benten, of the warrior-god Bishamon, and of the Buddha-to-come—but also four steel practice swords and the battered armor that had decorated the pig the day before. Mieko nodded to us, stepped forward and took one of the swords.
In the first row, the lieutenant who had rolled his eyes now snorted.
Her smile fixed, Mieko slowly raised the tip of the sword into the pose of the Two Fields. She looked to Lady Chiyome, who tipped her head.
With one long stride, Mieko leapt to the top of the head table; she swung the sword behind her as she took one more long stride toward the kneeling lieutenant, whose eyes flew wide. With an animal growl, she brought the sword straight down as she landed—the Key to Heaven—stopping as close as she had with me the night before, a finger’s breadth from the top of the lieutenant’s head.
The soldier’s eyes remained wide, but his posture didn’t change at all.
“Lieutenant Torimasa,” said Mieko, the blunted blade held steady over his head, “this humble servant begs your forgiveness. I have caught you unprepared. Perhaps you would like to attack me?” She flipped the sword, catching it by the blade, and offered the handle to the lieutenant.
He scowled, started to say something, and then flicked his eyes toward his commander.
Takeda-sama said, “Take the sword, Torimasa.”
His scowl now colored pink, the lieutenant stood and took the practice blade.
Mieko stepped back and bowed to him.
“I cannot attack a woman. An unarmed woman.”
“Torimasa.” The commander’s relaxed posture did not change at all, but his tone was cold.
From her sash, Mieko drew her fan and fluttered it open. “Now I am not unarmed, Torimasa-san.”
Several of the soldiers sniggered. I looked to my right. Mitsuke’s expression was as neutral as ever, but the other women and the girls grinned like hungry wolf pups.
Lip rising in a sneer, Torimasa flicked the flat of his practice blade at her.
Mieko slapped the sword away with her fan. The maneuver would have snapped a normal fan, but this one had steel ribs — and more.
Torimasa frowned, standing at last. With a look of bored annoyance, he swung his sword one-handed — negligently — aiming the dull edge now at Mieko’s head.
She deflected the cut easily and slapped his cheek with the now-closed fan.
It drew blood. Now red with rage, the lieutenant lifted his hand to his cheek, glaring at Mieko.
She danced away, flipping the fan open once more. “Perhaps this humble servant must give the lieutenant more reason to treat this exercise seriously?” Pressing a button set into the fan’s hinge, she released gleaming blades from hiding. Her lovely fan now looked like the deadly weapon that it truly was.
It was a sight that few outside of the Full Moon had seen — and lived.
“These are envenomed, Torimasa-san, with the juice of a very lovely berry. I dipped them in the poison just this morning. The death that they bring will be long, but you will be unable to defend yourself within minutes. And you will remain fully aware of your body’s slow failure, right up until the moment of death.”
With a bellow, Torimasa now feinted at Mieko’s left shoulder, switching to a vicious attack at her shoulder.
As if in a dance, Mieko smoothly shifted her weight, catching the slash between the blades of her fan, shredding the lovely silk with its lovely flowers. With a snap of her wrist, she yanked the sword from the lieutenant’s hands, sending it sliding under the table, not far from Takeda-sama’s feet.
Continuing her dance, she spun behind her opponent and let the tips of her fan blades press against the back of his neck. From a sheath in her hair, she pulled a thin blade and held it against his uncut cheek. “Do I have your attention now, Lieutenant Torimasa?”
Unable to move, he grunted “Yes” between clenched teeth.
“Then please, listen. I have ended the lives of one hundred and forty-three human beings. One hundred and eight men, many of them fully armed, and thirty-five women. Sixty-one of them I killed with knives. Eight with swords and three with glaives. Forty-three I strangled, four with my bare hands. The other twenty-eight I poisoned. I have not enjoyed killing any of them, as I would not enjoy killing you.” She smiled grimly at the line of us standing behind Lord Takeda. “Yet I would kill you, Torimasa-san. Nor am I the only woman here at the Full Moon trained in the Way of the Warrior. Risuko?”
Keeping the fan’s poisoned blades against the back of his neck, she lobbed her knife toward me. It was a careful, easy toss, so that I was able to catch it by the handle. And yet gasps of surprise exploded from the assembled soldiers. Mieko smiled, an acknowledgement that I had done well. “Come here, Risuko.”
Feeling a hundred pairs of eyes on me, I walked out from behind the table. As I did, I sensed the weight of all of those Takeda soldiers staring at me. I felt very small and very large, both at the same time. The reason for her choosing me blossomed in my understanding: I was the smallest, least imposing of the girls there (excepting Suzume, whom Mieko didn’t yet know).
And so I was not completely surprised when she asked me, “How would you kill the lieutenant, Risuko-chan?”
Torimasa’s eyes were narrow now with rage, but also something I hadn’t expected to see there: fear.
“I do not wish to hurt you, Torimasa-san,” I said. Only after the words had left my mouth did I realize that I had echoed Mieko herself just before she killed the two Imagawa guards at the Mount Fuji Inn the previous autumn.
“Yet if you had to, Risuko, how would you go about it?” Her eyes were almost kindly.
With a gulp, I walked next to her, behind the lieutenant. Hand trembling, I placed the deadly tip of the knife next to her fan’s blades. “I would slip the tip of the blade beneath the skull, severing the spine.”
The hall was silent.
“Thank you, ladies,” said Lord Takeda. As when we first met him, the warmth of his smile did not reach his eyes. “That will be all.”
Mieko and I lowered our weapons and bowed, and then returned to our place with the other girls.
“I believe,” continued Takeda-sama, “that I have made my point. These are your comrades-in-arms. They go places no soldier could go and do things no soldier could do, and yet they are every bit as vital to our winning this war as any of you. Any of you. Do I make myself clear?”
As one, the soldiers called, “Yes, my lord!” and bowed to him — it felt as if they were bowing to us.
Torimasa prostrated himself before his lord. “My lord, I have dishonored myself in your eyes.”
“Perhaps, Lieutenant. And perhaps it is just as well that we have foregone wearing our swords in this house. I forbid you to punish yourself, do you understand? Your punishment will be simply to do your job, rather than distracting these lovely if deadly young ladies. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, my lord,” said Torimasa, still flat on his belly on the polished wood floor.
“Now, gentlemen, remember: the Matsudaira do not know this school’s true purpose, nor these ladies’ true… abilities. Let us see that that remains the case.”
“Yes, my lord!” called the assembled horde.
Did you enjoy this preview of Bright Eyes? Check out these other excerpts:
Let me know what you think! — DK