When Fuyudori cheerfully woke us the next morning, none of us—Emi, Toumi, Mai, Shino, or myself—was very happy about it. My legs were sore from the combination of riding all day and then staying on my feet all evening. And that wasn’t even counting scurrying through the juniper and gripping that branch with my knees while arrows hissed overhead.
One of the older girls whined, “Why do we have to get up? They have kitchen duty.”
“You have duties outside the kitchen, just as I have had for the past three years,” Fuyudori said. She turned to me, Emi and Toumi. “Little ones, dress and get to the kitchen. You’ll have your music lesson later today.”
When we arrived back at the kitchen, Kee Sun was looking quite unhappy. His hair was sticking out like a dog’s that has been rolling in pinesap.
We got through breakfast—reheated rice and platters of scrambled egg.
Several of the women weren’t given egg—they were fed bean curd. One such, much to her annoyance, was Toumi.
“Told yeh! Too hot! Meat is the last thing a temper like yehr’s needs. No, none for a Falcon-girl!” Kee Sun laughed, and made sure that not a bit of animal flesh—not even egg or fish—passed through her lips. “Too yang,” he muttered, and plopped a serving of the bland, white bean curd into Toumi’s bowl. I could see that she thought about refusing, but like all of us, she knew what hunger truly felt like, and so, a glower of extreme distaste on her face, she ate the bean curd. All of it.
Once we had eaten, it was time to clean. Then, once the kitchen was back to normal, which didn’t take anywhere nearly as long as it had after the feast the night before, we went to our first lesson in becoming a miko.
Music, Fuyudori had said; I assumed it would be learning to beat the drums and the bells that they always play at the forest shrine at home, or perhaps a flute. That didn’t sound terribly difficult—or terribly interesting.
Toumi, Emi and I wandered meekly down toward the Tea House. Fuyudori, Mai and Shino were already there, sitting demurely behind a set of stringed instruments—two big kotos and a hand-held samisen.
Sachi smiled at us as we entered, cleaning out a long shakuhachi flute with a rag on a stick. “Men like watching me do this, for some reason.”
We sat nervously in a corner, close neither to the other three girls nor to our teacher. For once, even Toumi seemed more nervous than angry.
Then Sachi raised the flute to her lips and played.
My mother played the flute—Oto-san had loved to hear her play it—and she had tried to teach me to play. However, I had never been able to get shape of the lips right, so I had never managed to produce much more than scratchy wind sounds. The shakuhachi is a simple instrument—a hollow length of bamboo with five holes for your fingers—but the sound that Sachi produced was anything but simple. It was loss and longing, and it was beautiful.
She finished playing, and yet the music filled the silence. Lowering the flute from her lips, Sachi smirked. “Not bad.”
All of us—novices and initiates alike—laughed.
She turned to me, Emi, and Toumi and held up her instrument. “Any of you play?”
All of us looked down. After what I had just heard, I could barely say that my mother played. I certainly wasn’t going to claim my own feeble attempts for music.
“Hmm. Well, what’s your name—Emi? You’ve got the lips for it.”
Next to me, Emi cringed.
“Sorry,” Sachi said, “I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m always doing that.” She snorted, and took a breath. “I’m supposed to welcome our newcomers. My… teacher welcomed some of us our first day here.” With her flute she gestured at the three initiates. “I heard her give these girls here the same talk when they arrived. So I’ll try to do it justice.”
Taking a deep, slow breath, Sachi raised a hand to her chest, the open palm facing out. “Welcome, ladies, to the beginning of your formal training here at Mochizuki. Lady Chiyome began this school in order to ensure that our nation’s old ways were never forgotten, but also to put to use the talents of young women such as yourselves, whose abilities might otherwise be wasted in the sheer struggle to survive the troubled times in which we live.”
Fuyudori, whose face seemed almost always to be set in a polite smile, scowled.
“Everything that you do here at Mochizuki is intended to prepare you for your new life. In particular, the lessons you learn with me and with the other kunoichi will offer you an opportunity to learn skills that you will need in the years to come.” Sachi paused, and I shivered. She seemed to be calling up the spirit of Kuniko, who I realized must have been the teacher that Sachi had mentioned. She looked at us one at a time. It may have been her intention to see whether we had any questions, but it felt as it were Kuniko looking through Sachi’s eyes, testing us. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but I was absolutely certain that I was failing.
“A shrine maiden has many duties,” Sachi continued in the same low, expressionless voice. “You will learn to dance, to lead some of the important rituals, to prepare shrines for festivals. And you must also learn to sing in praise of the gods.”
She held up the shakuhachi, and suddenly Sachi grinned and her true spirit broke through again. “You’ll also learn to play instruments. Making music during the rites will be one of your most important duties as a miko. And, like I said, men love a woman with good fingering. Now,” she said, “any questions?”
Sachi was, as I have said, a much better musician than my mother. I must admit, too, that she was a much better teacher. By the end of the first lesson, Emi had produced a few warbling notes from the flute, and I had managed to get something resembling a musical tone from the samisen, much to the annoyance of Mai, who was working with me. Sachi managed to bring music out of each of us as Oka-san, wonderful as she was, could never do.
However, I am quite sure my mother never told anywhere nearly as many dirty jokes.
By the time Sachi waved us farewell, the sun was high and the gravel in the courtyard was so bright that it hurt our eyes.
Masugu-san was standing next to Lady Chiyome and several of the older miko. The nine lancers who had ridden our party to Mochizuki were lined up before their commander and our mistress.
The horsemen all had stoic expressions on their faces, but they didn’t appear to regret leaving at all. They seemed almost glad to be departing this community of women for their army camp. Masugu himself looked less than happy that he was staying with us, though I found that I was very happy that he would. He was one of the only adults there who I felt treated me just as who I was.
“Give my greetings to Captain Yamagata at the Highfield garrison,” he said. I noticed for the first time how different the lieutenant’s voice was when he spoke to the men as their commander. This voice was hard and sharp-edged, not at all like the warm voice he used when he was talking to them at dinner—or when he was talking with me. Masugu-san gave a crisp salute, barked out an order, and the horses wheeled to their right and broke into an immediate gallop out of the gate. The Little Brothers closed the gate as the last charger passed through.
Before the swirls of dust had even settled, Chiyome-sama and her ladies turned and withdrew into the great hall. Fuyudori, Mai, and Shino joined them—though Fuyudori seemed to be emphatically not looking at Lieutenant Masugu in that funny way that older girls have. As if he would notice.
I thought she didn’t like soldiers, I mused.
As I began to shuffle behind Emi and Toumi toward the kitchen to begin helping with the midday meal, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I saw Masugu-san; he had touched me with the cylinder I had seen him with the day before. It was a metal tube, I realized, capped at both ends. A letter case, such as I had seen my father use when sending or receiving work from the castle. It was sealed, I noticed, not with the four diamonds of the Takeda, but with a crest of three wide ginger leaves in a circle.
“How are you, Murasaki-san?” he asked, his open face bent in a smile. “Are you finding your place here?”
I began to answer him, but then saw Toumi standing by the kitchen door, watching me. Unsure what to do, I looked down.
“Not supposed to talk to me?” Masugu–san sighed, and lowered his voice. “Ah, well. Listen, I just wanted to thank you for yesterday. You saved lives. Perhaps mine. And…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I wanted to say, what I told you about your father? About the other girls?”
Still looking at the gravel, I gave a small nod.
“Don’t take it too seriously. I think I may have been over-reacting. The other girls probably know nothing about it. It’s best if you don’t mention anything. Understand?”
Again I nodded. Toumi was still waiting.
“Listen,” he continued, “I know you’re only supposed to talk to us at dinner time. But if you need help, I’ll be very happy to do anything I can.”
Still looking down so that Toumi wouldn’t see my lips move, I said, “Thank you, Masugu-san.”
“It is my pleasure, Murasaki-san,” he said, a grin in his voice. He strode away in the direction of the storehouse, whistling and tapping the scroll on his shoulder.
As I began to shuffle over to toward the kitchen door, I sniffed, sensing a sour wind coming over the mountain. Snow was coming soon.
Toumi was smiling as I reached the door. “I saw you talking to him.”
“Are you going to tell?” I asked, trying to look unconcerned.
“No, no, I can’t bother with something as puny as that.” She leaned close and whispered into my ear. “I haven’t forgotten, Kano Mouse. One day, in front of Lady Chiyome and all the rest, I will show them all who you really are.”
Smiling predatorily, she turned and went into the kitchen.