Mieko wanted to leave.
She was sitting on a worn stone shrine beneath a dripping red pine. Rain was falling, and she had been waiting here, slowly getting wet, since the clouds had sloshed in around midday. She and Kuniko had split, Mieko searching the area on the south side of the valley while Kuniko searched in the village on the north side. They were looking for young Sachi and Hoshi, the two newest kunioichi, who were supposed to have checked in from their mission at dawn.
Mieko wasn’t worried — not really. Kuniko was more than capable of taking care of herself, and Sachi and Hoshi weren’t stupid. Their mission was a fairly simple one: wander up to Tiptown, where the Uesugi commander kept the headquarters for this part of the province, and see if any of the soldiers might let something slip to a couple of pretty girls. It was a mission that Mieko and Kuniko could have done in their sleep — had done more than once — but it seemed like a good, straightforward test for the two younger girls.
The two newly initiated kunoichi.
But they were behind enemy lines, and they hadn’t arrived at the rendezvous at the roadside shrine this morning. And while Mieko had wanted to charge up to Tiptown to make sure the girls were safe, Kuniko had sensibly pointed out that they had probably just lost track of time or gotten turned around. And so she had suggested that they split up and search this part of the valley before heading into the enemy’s stronghold.
They’d agreed to meet up on the main road at this battered old shrine to some nameless forest god. They’d agreed to meet at the hour of the horse — noon, which would give them plenty of daylight to make their way to Tiptown, if they had to. And Mieko had quickly confirmed that no, Sachi and Hoshi weren’t at either of the forest shrines further off the road, nor at any of the farms that dotted the southern side of the valley. And then she’d returned to their meeting point and, as the rain began to fall, she waited.
She wanted to leave, but she couldn’t. She was waiting for Kuniko. And Sachi and Hoshi.
Mieko sighed, wiping the drizzle from her eyelashes. She should have worn a hat.
A movement to her left startled her — but it was just a cat. Sleek and orange, it sauntered up the road, bathing her briefly in the glare of its yellow eyes before slinking off into the woods behind the shrine.
Trying to get dry, probably, thought Mieko with a sigh.
She should have planned for rain. She really should have brought a hat.
Were Hoshi and Sachi safe? Sachi could charm anyone, and Hoshi seemed very capable of protecting them both; she was no Kuniko, but she could hold her own against Mieko herself in hand-to-hand combat more often than not.
Not with a knife, of course. No one was better than Mieko with a knife.
Mieko felt the usual twinge of annoyance when concern about her friend stabbed at her. Kuniko would hate that Mieko was worrying about her.
Kuniko was the most self-sufficient person Mieko knew — even more so than Chiyome-sama, if Mieko were being completely honest. During their childhood together back at Wingtip Castle, when Kuniko could have depended on Mieko for everything — should have, really, at least according to Mieko’s mother — Kuniko had insisted on doing everything for herself. Dressing herself. Cleaning herself. Defending herself.
And when the castle had fallen, all of their families gone, and they had had to dress as shrine maidens to escape the Akita, Kuniko had promised to take care of Mieko — to protect her.
And she had always done so.
And Mieko had promised the same: that she would always protect Kuniko, would always take care of the other girl, as she had been born to do.
It was an oath she had sworn to herself before she and Kuniko had met Lady Chiyome, and the only duty that Mieko held above the one she had willingly sworn to the mistress of the Full Moon. But she had had to take that oath silently — to herself. She knew that, quite rightly, Lady Chiyome would accept no divided loyalty, and that Kuniko would be hurt that Mieko felt that Kuniko needed protection. So Mieko worried about her other half, her friend, her second soul, but she did so without letting anyone see that she was worried.
Sitting there on a mossy stone shrine beneath a dripping pine, however, with Chiyome-sama and Kuniko nowhere in sight, Mieko couldn’t help but feel the drip-drip-drip of concern for Kuniko’s well-being chilling her chest even as the rain chilled her neck.
A sound from down the road in the direction of Tiptown, and Mieko was on her feet before she had recognized it as a horse’s shod footstep on the road. Startled by Mieko’s sudden movement, the cat scurried out from behind the shrine and shot into the undergrowth on the far side of the road.
Mist obscured the view down the tunnel of branches, and so Mieko could only check her weapons, uncertain what might be coming down the path from the Uesugi stronghold. A mounted samurai? A squadron of lancers? A farmer?
Daggers at either wrist and hidden in the hairpins that held her hair more or less in place. The steel fan with its envenomed, retractable blades tucked in her sash. Three pouches of poison, also in her sash — one to cause uncontrollable nausea, one to blind, and the third to cause incapacity and slow death. A locket with hidden spikes that would serve as a caltrop if thrown on the ground. A wire garrote concealed as an anklet beneath her skirts. Another, longer dagger strapped to her thigh.
Mieko stood at the ready (the Two Fields), doing her best to appear as meek and inoffensive as possible while preparing to take on an army if need be.
A shadow resolved itself out of the mist: a figure on horseback wearing a slanted hat. Likely male. What looked like a sword hilt projecting from his side.
Not Kuniko. But no other visible threats, at least.
The rider approached through the drizzle: a lightly armed samurai on a sleek, black charger. No insignia to mark allegiance. A short sword.
An open, warm face…
“Miss?” he said. “Do you need —?” He peered down at her. The reins dropped from his fingers. “Mieko-san?”
Who—? Mieko blinked, splattering more water onto her cheek. “I… This humble servant begs —“
“Please, Mieko-san,” said the man, bowing in the saddle, “it is I who beg your pardon. I am too forward.” He slid from the horse and bowed again. “We met last year when I was a guest of the, um…” He glanced around. “At the castle. You served my commander and the other captains tea and wine.”
Oh! “Masugu-san?” A strange shiver passed through her chest, different from the cold drip of fear. She realized that she had taken his hand. “You… You are well?”
Yes, that was it: she was relieved. They had left the Takeda warrior at the Imagawa castle unconscious. Kuniko had knocked him out — rather harder than necessary, Mieko had felt — in order to make it look as if he had been attacked attempting to stop their escape, rather than assisting it. “The ruse worked?”
He nodded earnestly, then winced. “It was… very effective. And the most important thing was that you were able to escape.”
Again, Mieko felt that cold-hot feeling, and could only nod.
He nodded back. “And… you and your friend…?”
“Yes. You and Kuniko. Are you on ku—“
“Miko business, yes,” she found herself chirping. She patted the featureless shrine.
“Yes, yes, of course.” He nodded again.
“And you, Masugu-san? Are you on some… business yourself?”
He shrugged. “My tenure as a… guest at… um, yes. The castle. It ended while I was in the capital. I’m making my way… back to my family.”
“Ah.” They nodded at each other.
Mieko worked very hard to cultivate an air of calm and of decorum. That appearance served to make her seem both less threatening and, when the circumstances required it, more so. Yet at the moment, she felt neither calm nor decorous, and she was annoyed at her own agitation — annoyed with herself, but also, somewhat unfairly, with Masugu.
It did not help, of course, that, so close to the frontier between the part of Dark Letter Province controlled by the Uesugi and that controlled by Lord Takeda, both of them were conscious of being in enemy territory — that they both felt the need to speak covertly, though no one but the nameless god of the shrine or the ginger cat was likely to overhear.
Masugu’s horse tossed its mane, splattering water onto them both.
Both she and Masugu started at the sudden cold, and then, predictably, each began to apologize to the other. Then each began to wave away the apology — though neither let go of the other’s hand.
Then they settled into uneasy silence.
As Mieko worked to find her equilibrium once more, uncertain where or why she had lost it, Masugu worried at the edge of his hat, still in the hand not holding hers.
Finally, he said, “I hope that you have been well, this past year?”
She kept herself from simply nodding once again like an idiot, and answered, “Very well, thank you, Masugu-san.”
“Ah. Good. I am glad to hear it.” He peered into her eyes. “There have been reports of bandits and such on the roads. I am glad that you are well.”
Mieko kept to herself the response that first occurred to her (The bandits would be better off to worry about me and Kuniko than the other way around) and answered as politely as she could, “Thank you, Masugu-san. Kuniko and I keep each other as safe as we can.”
“I am quite certain that that is true. Yet we live in such desperate times that I am glad to hear that you and… your friend continue to be careful.” His look was, as always, sincere and open, and told Mieko that in fact he meant it — that he believed that they could defend themselves, but knew that dangers lurked everywhere for the unwary.
“Of course. As I am glad that you have been careful on the road from the capital. A lone samurai on the Great Mountain Highway may meet with so many unsavory characters and unsafe situations.” A thought occurred to her. “Why did you make your way back to your family by this route? Would the Great Sea Road not have been safer and nearly as direct?”
“Ah.” Now his face colored. “I… I may have wished to visit your school at the Full Moon. After our meeting at the castle, I was concerned that you — you and your friend — had returned safely.”
As if in response to his, a blush bloomed across Mieko’s cheeks and down her neck, much to her annoyance. She hid it as best she could behind her free hand. “You are very kind, Masugu-san. As you can see, I am well. We were able to return to the Full Moon without incident — in part thanks to your assistance.”
His gaze remained locked on hers, which of course just made the blush worse. “I am so glad to hear it,” he said. Then he blinked and, for the first time, looked around. “Were you here today with your friend — with…?”
“Kuniko. Yes.” She forced herself to stand straighter, to act as if she were not bright pink, and as if the nerves in her fingers and her stomach weren’t dancing as if set alight by lightning. “We came with a pair of… recent initiates to train them in conducting certain… rites. Unfortunately, they wandered off and seem to have gotten lost. Kuniko and I have been looking for them since this morning.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “Are you concerned for their welfare? We could search on Inazuma.” He nodded to the young black stallion, which was nibbling at grass on the roadside.
“Thank you. Kuniko and I were to meet here at the hour of the horse. I should wait for her here.” When his frown deepened, she added, “But if she returns without them, perhaps we could prevail upon you to aid in our search?”
That caused his frown to reverse itself. “I should be honored, Mieko-san.”
“Thank you.” He smiled, and she was annoyed once more to find her expression mirroring his. “Kuniko may have found them, which would explain why she is somewhat late. But your offer is very kind.”
“It would be my pleasure, Mieko-san.” He grinned, and Mieko was once again irritated to find herself responding to his response. “In the meantime, I shall wait with you, if I may?”
“That would be lovely,” said Mieko, and, with an inner sigh, forced herself to accept that she actually meant it.
Mieko’s duty was to Kuniko, to Lady Chiyome, and to the Takeda cause. Masugu was a Takeda. Masugu was a comrade.
And yet Mieko was finding herself forced to concede that, as with Kuniko, her concern for the young officer seemed to be something more than comradeship. What that concern was and, more importantly, why it was were questions that she did not feel capable of examining at the moment.
She had thought of him, off and on over the past year — of his face, serious and frank as they talked in the hallway outside the room where she had just poisoned Captain Katsudama, who was attempting to convince Lord Imagawa to betray the Takeda and ally with the Hōjo. Of the feel of his hand on hers, later in the kitchens, when he had assured her that he would assist her — and Kuniko — in their escape from the castle.
The feel of his hand on hers…
Concern — she had been concerned that he would be caught and blamed for their escape, for the death of Katsudama. Yes. She had been concerned. And relief — she was relieved to find that he was safe, it is true.
But something more was causing Mieko’s middle to dance and her skin to color.
She looked down at their hands, still clasped. “Masugu —”?
And then the rain began to pour down, harder than before, and the two instinctively stepped closer. Masugu raised his hat over both of their heads.
They stood, nose to nose.
She could feel his breath on her lips, her cheek.
The stallion Inazuma nuzzled its way under their straw shelter, and they both laughed.
Still close, though his face was no longer under the hat — he held it over hers — Masugu asked, “Is there any shelter close by?”
“No. The shrine used to have a roof, but it’s long rotted away.” She gestured at the rotten beams on either side of the stone.
“Ah.” He looked around, though Mieko knew there was nothing to see but trees and rocks and rain. “Let’s leave. Perhaps we could leave a note for… for Kuniko-san, letting her know we’ve gone to find shelter?”
It was not a terrible idea — though Mieko felt somehow as if she would be betraying Kuniko by doing so. “I can’t.”
“Waiting for Kuniko.”
“Oh.” He nodded, his attempt at looking stoic as he continued to hold the hat above her head almost making Mieko want to laugh.
She chewed her lip and attempted to see the shadows of the trees — impossible in the rain. “Do you think it is the hour of the goat, yet?”
He shrugged, the water pouring down his face. “It’s hard to tell. But it is certainly past midday.”
Once again, she looked away from him — it was hard to think when he was so close. It was possible Kuniko herself was in trouble. It was equally possible that she and the two girls were waiting somewhere safe and dry. There was no way to know — and her getting soaked through wouldn’t help Kuniko, Sachi, or Hoshi, whatever the case. There was a farm just a few minutes away, with a barn where they could wait out the downpour.
“Yes,” she said, “that makes sense.” Then she felt in her sash, moving the small bottles of poison and pulling out a chunk of the limestone that she and Kuniko each kept for leaving coded messages for each other in the field. On the least moss-covered surface of the shrine she made marks that would be meaningless to most passers by, but would tell Kuniko where to look for her — for her and Masugu.
He continued to hold the hat above her head with one hand, even as the other continued to clasp hers.
As she tucked the stone away again, she dared to look back up into Masugu’s face, and was curious to see his eyes wide.
“In your sash,” he whispered, “those bottles —?”
She shifted close to him again, smiling now. “The tools of my trade.” She raised her free hand, letting the sleeve drop away to reveal the knife concealed there. “Like these.”
He gulped, and she found herself laughing, pressing closer to him. “You know, Masugu-san,” she said so quietly that even the forest god and the cat would have been hard pressed to hear her, “I could kill you a hundred and eight different ways.”
Now he grinned again, placing his hat on her head. “I’m delighted to hear it. I hope that you will show me every single one.” And he leaned closer to her — to her, assassin, spy, warrior — until she could once more feel the warmth of his breath on her lips —
“Mieko! Are you there?”
They broke apart. Mieko’s hands flew to her concealed daggers and Masugu’s to his short sword.
An orange blur and a rustle in the woods showed that the cat had decided to disappear completely.
The shadows of three figures were coming down the road from the direction of Tiptown — two tall, one small and slight.
“Sachi?” Mieko called back. “Hoshi? Kuniko?”
As the figures approached, they revealed themselves in fact to be Mieko’s friend and the two missing kunoichi.
“We’ve got news!” Sachi burbled, and then went silent when Hoshi hit her.
“Masugu-san,” said Kuniko. “You have a hard head.”
Sachi’s eyes widened — really, they were always wide when she was around men — while Hoshi’s narrowed.
“So I have been told, Kuniko-san,” he said with a wry smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you under better if somewhat wetter circumstances.” He bowed to the younger girls. “Bannerman Masugu, at your service, ladies.” Then he added in a whisper that barely carried through the rain, “Takeda Masugu.”
Sachi predictably tittered, and Hoshi rolled her eyes, but both of them bowed back. Kuniko grunted, which Mieko knew to be a sign of her amusement. But her eyes bored into Mieko’s.
“We were just about to try to come look for you,” Mieko burbled.
When Masugu began to say something — from his expression, no doubt to correct Mieko’s slight exaggeration — she squeezed his hand, and then at last detached her fingers from his. He blinked at her, but remained silent.
Fluttering her wet eyelashes, Sachi asked, “Would this kind gentleman be willing to accompany us back to the Full Moon?”
Hoshi groaned. “Haven’t you flirted enough, Sachi?” She turned to Mieko. “She was giggling and singing and playing that flute of hers non-stop, from sunset until nearly the hour of the ox, this morning. I swear, if it hadn’t been so overcast, we’d have seen the sun begin to rise before we finally sent those Uesugi soldiers off to bed.”
“Yes,” dismissed Sachi, “but it worked! I told you, Mieko, we have news! The Uesugi —!”
Kuniko shushed the irrepressible girl, scowling.
Mieko gestured down the road. “You can tell us as we walk to Highfield.”
As they all started down the road across the unmarked border between Uesugi and Takeda territory, Sachi shared what the drunken boys had spilled during the long night of besotted silliness: that the Uesugi garrison at Tiptown had added forty muskets to their armory — that the archers (which included two of the three drunk boys) had been training with them in secret out in the hills.
“Do you think the Uesugi are planning an attack?” Hoshi asked.
Mieko looked to Masugu, curious to see what he would say, but he was looking at Kuniko, who shook her head. “Not likely. Muskets are deadly but inaccurate. They are best used against a massed charge.”
Masugu nodded in agreement. “It seems probable that they are intended to reinforce the garrison at Tiptown.”
“True,” said Mieko, “but let us inform the Takeda commander at Highfield even so — and of course Lady Chiyome. Who would love to meet you, Masugu-san, I am sure.”
To which they all agreed.
As they approached Highfield, the girls flanked Masugu and his horse, Sachi skipping, Hoshi striding purposefully, both of them peppering him with questions about his travels, about battles he had been part of.
The soldier — not much older than they — answered them, though he looked thoroughly embarrassed by the attention.
Mieko walked beside Kuniko as the walls of the garrison appeared through the rain. “I’m glad you came. I was worried.”
Kuniko rolled her eyes, as Mieko had known that she would, and then peered at her. “Nice hat,” she said.