1 — The Rising Wave
I meant to take the knife that Mieko was holding out to me, the handle toward my hand.
I meant to. But I couldn’t.
“Risuko,” whispered Mieko, her eyes locked on mine. The rest of Mochizuki’s girls and women were also staring at me.
My eyes flicked toward the pig, which struggled against its bonds, squealing.
We were outside the Mochizuki kitchens, next to the well. The pig was stretched out, its legs tied to four heavy pegs that Emi, Toumi, and I had hammered into the still-frozen packed earth.
What stopped me, what kept me from being able to take the long, narrow blade from Mieko-san’s hand, wasn’t that the pig was in distress. Its squeals knotted my stomach, but I had slaughtered animals for Mochizuki’s kitchens before — chickens, rabbits, even a goat.
But this animal had been dressed in a samurai’s battered armor, with a helmet over its head. And all I could think…
Through the long, snow-bound winter, Mieko and the other kunoichi had used this armor to teach us its weak points — to show us where even the most heavily armed warrior was vulnerable. As we stabbed under the armpits or between the front and back plates with daggers, it hadn’t seemed real; the armor had been on a kind of straw dummy, like the ones we used to put up next to the rice paddies to keep the birds away.
But screaming and straining, the pig was no dummy. It looked like a person, almost. It looked like a samurai. Like…
I looked down and shook my head. “I can’t,” I mouthed.
Mieko started to say something, but then shook her head and held the knife handle out to Emi, who frowned, but took it.
I was still running—past our dormitory, past the white length of the great hall — when I ran into Lieutenant Masugu. Or rather, I ran into his horse, Inazuma.
“Going for a climb, Murasaki?” The lieutenant was leading Inazuma by the reins.
I blinked up at him and shook my head.
“I haven’t seen you climb since… In a while.” His eyes were small, concerned half-moons under his helmet.
I blinked again. “Are you leaving, Masugu-san?” Inazuma carried a pack of supplies, and Masugu was dressed in a full set of armor — not his usual shining black armor with the four diamonds of the Takeda emblazoned on his chest, but rather a battered brown set with the white disk mon of Mochizuki — the Full Moon.
He was dressed, in fact, very much as the pig had been.
I couldn’t hear the squealing any more.
The lieutenant nodded. “It’s time to go.”
“You’re not going to wait for Lady Chiyome to return?”
Now he shook his head. “She knew I needed to leave once the passes to the west were clear. She won’t be surprised.”
I wrapped my arms around myself. “I… We will miss you.” Mieko-san will miss you the most, I thought, but thought it best not to say.
“Well, it shouldn’t take me more than a month to get to the capitol, deliver my… the letter you returned to me, and get back here. No time at all.” He smiled and patted my arm. His horse whickered impatiently. “Besides, Inazumi wants to run.”
“Say, don’t you have a lesson? Shouldn’t you be with the others?”
My gorge rose, but I stared up at him. “Did you know that if I were to slip a very sharp blade up beneath the back of your helmet, I could push the tip just under your skull and sever your spinal chord?”
Masugu’s face froze.
“Mieko-sensei was teaching us to do that. On a pig dressed in armor.”
“That… would be very effective.”
“I couldn’t do it.”
“No,” he sighed. “There is a purpose for your being here, Murasaki-san. I do not know the reason that Chiyome-sama brought you to Mochizuki. I do not know the reason that the gods brought you, Emi, and Toumi here—but there is one.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Learn what Mieko and the rest have to teach you.”
I pleaded, “I don’t want to be a killer.”
“No,” he sighed again. “Neither do I. And yet I am a Takeda warrior. It is my duty. We live in dangerous times. If I were not to fight to protect our provinces and our people, how many more would die?” His sad smile reminded me of the one that Mieko gave me so often. “You are a samurai maiden, Kano Murasaki—the daughter of a warrior. You too have a duty.”
Now he had me crying. “I’m no s-samurai. My f-family was stripped of its honor.” Oto-san, walking toward the Inagawa castle. Walking toward his death. “Do no harm.”
“And yet your duty remains. If I know anything about your father—or his daughter—I do not believe that any power on this earth would take that away.” He squeezed my shoulder again and swept the tears from my cheeks with a gauntleted finger. “In the meantime, Murasaki, why don’t you forget about knives and samurai and duty for a bit. Climb.”
I nodded and gave him a smile, though it was the last thing I wanted to do. “Thank you, Masugu-san. Come back soon.”
“As soon as I can, Murasaki-san. Take care.”
As the lieutenant led Inazuma toward the front gate, I scrambled up into the lower branches of the enormous hemlock that grew on the eastern side of the great hall.
It wasn’t until I threw my leg over the biggest of the branches, waving at Masugu as he mounted and rode out onto the ridge beyond the gate that Fuyudori’s ghost came to visit.
Not her actual ghost. Angry though the white-haired girl’s spirit must have been, we had performed all of the proper rites for her. Her body had been burned and the ashes buried in the icy ground behind the compound. We had left out a bowl of rice and a cup of sake at our meals. (They had been small ones, though—no one felt she deserved more.) No one had spoken her name. It had been longer than the forty-nine days it would have taken for her spirit to reach the next world.
But sitting there on the branch, feeling the wind stirring my hair, it was hard not to remember sitting on that same limb, watching her climbing after me, furious. Murderous.
I took a deep breath and did my best not to think of her.
Already, Masugu-san was only half visible, disappearing over the edge of the ridge down the path that led to the valley and the road west, toward the imperial city.
I waved again, though I knew he would not see.
It was nice to be up in the tree again. Nice to feel the wind. Across the valley, the mountain peaks were still covered in snow, but lower down all was green — a deep, living green, broken by flashes of silver where streams poured the melting snow down into the valley.
The ridge top too was green. Fresh shoots pushed up through dead, grey grass. White wildflowers inked the field.
I stayed there for the rest of the lesson. A small moment of bliss.
“You staying up there all day, Mouse-chan, or are you getting your mousy behind into the kitchen to help make dinner?” Toumi glowered up at me from the corner of the great hall.
“Can you see anything interesting?” asked Emi. She too was frowning—but then, she always frowned.
“I was waving goodbye to the lieutenant.”
“Oh. He’s gone?” Emi’s frown deepened into a pout.
Toumi made a retching sound. “Come on. We had to bleed the stupid pig. You get to butcher it.”
When I blanched, Emi said, “Killing it was very easy. And put the animal out of its misery.”
“I know,” I whispered.
“Then why didn’t you just kill the stupid thing, baka!” growled Toumi.
“I couldn’t help…”
“What?” Both girls walked below my branch.
I closed my eyes. “I couldn’t help thinking… of whose spirit might inhabit the pig.”
“You… What?” Toumi gaped up at me.
“I couldn’t help but think… that it might be… I don’t know. Fuyudori. My father.”
“Oh,” said Emi.
Toumi gave a harsh laugh. “Unbelievable! Seen you kill enough chickens and bunnies. Do you go around worrying about crushing your father when you step on ants?”
Again I felt the blood leave my face. “I… I will now!”
“Baka-yarou!” Laughing once more, Toumi shook her head. “Come on down here, Mouse. You’ve got your dad to cut up.”
“Toumi!” whispered Emi.
I took another breath, trying to steady myself, trying to find that quiet bliss again, and looked back out at the green and white landscape.
Over the edge of the ridge, where Masugu-san had disappeared, there seemed to be a hazy wave rising. A wave of vertical lines tipped in steel. Spears. Dozens, Many bearing blue flags showing the wild-ginger leaf mon of the Matsudaira.
“Uh… guys?” They both looked up at me. Now, instead of feeling bloodless, I could hear the blood pounding through me. “I think we’re being invaded.”
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Let me know what you think! — DK