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2 — Putting on the Lotus
I began to back away. I was thinking—if I was thinking—that I could get underneath the bridge, in among the tangled beams where I had hidden so often before. No one had ever been able to find me there. Except, of course, my father.
Before I had managed even to stagger back to the small road leading to the bridge and to my home, a hand as big as a melon closed around my wrist. The giant called Little Brother’s expression was hardly threatening, but far from friendly. With his free hand he untied the belt at his waist, which turned out to be a thick length of smooth cord. He let his polished wooden sword fall to the road. Turning back to the palanquin, he grunted. “Wrists?”
“That depends,” said the old woman. She smirked at me. “We can do this any one of a number of ways, Risuko. You may come as my guest, in which case he will simply tie the rope around your waist so that you don’t… get lost. You may come as my prisoner, in which case he will bind your hands to keep you from escaping too easily. Or you may come as my possession, in which case he will hog-tie you and carry you on the bar to my palanquin here. Now. Which shall it be?” Her face seemed almost kindly despite the obvious threat, and yet I felt her eyes boring into me. “Well?”
I looked up at the two men, whose faces were stone, and glanced desperately down the path to the village. Little Brother’s hand remained on my wrist, and I knew that I could not possibly have escaped his grasp. My throat was thick, but a kind of awful, resigned relief settled on me. I looked to the lady again, whose made-up face seemed hardly to have moved, and then, finally back up into the warm, boulder-like face of Little Brother. I slumped. “Guest.”
“Excellent,” said the lady, as Little Brother tied one end of the long cord around my waist, picked up his sword, and handed the other end of the leash to his fellow, who favored me with a grimace that may have been another smile. “Enough of these delays,” barked the noblewoman. “We have a delivery to make. Go!”
Down the path to Pineford and away from my home they went, and I stumbled along behind them, down into the valley, watching the clouds thickening the sky above us, blotting out the thin midday sun.
I couldn’t feel my feet, and it was not because of the cold—or not only because of the cold. Mother had sold me. I would never see her or Usako again. As I stumbled beside the palanquin, my shock began to turn to cold rage, and then to fear. Who was this lady who now owned me?
An Imagawa rider galloped by us in the opposite direction, splattering slushy mud onto my already cold, already filthy legs.
My stomach rumbled against the rope bound around my waist. Between climbing and walking I was tired and even hungrier than I had been.
We walked along the main street in Pineshore some time later, I saw some boys a little older than me carrying baskets of dried fish up the road. They stopped and bowed as we walked past them, and the look in their eyes was one of pure awe. For a moment I woke to myself, and thought what a remarkable picture we made: the two enormous servants carrying the elegant lady in the box, with the ragged, skinny girl shuffling along behind them at the end of a rope like a goat.
A gang of anxious-looking soldiers paid us no notice at all.
We approached an inn near the center of town. Two young women with the emblem of a ten-petaled lotus on their winter robes stepped out into the street and escorted us into the courtyard.
“Lady Chiyome,” said the finer-featured of the two maids. “Welcome back. I see you have hunted well.”
“Yes,” said the lady, as Little Brother helped her out of the box, “I’ve managed to bag myself a squirrel.”
The maids gazed at me as if I were indeed a trophy from some exotic hunt.
“Her name’s Risuko,” the lady laughed, hollowly. “Little Brother, you can untie her. I’m sure that our guest won’t bolt.”
The smaller carrier walked over to me and undid the knotted cord around my waist. Now he favored me with what was clearly a smile.
The courtyard walls were tall, but timbered; if I had been alone, I could have gotten to the roof, but—
“I want to get out of here. The Imagawa are nervous. We’re leaving immediately, as soon as I have had a bit to eat. Mieko, give her something more presentable to wear than those rags, then take her to the others and feed her.”
The maid nodded, and then Lady Chiyome looked at me, impaling me with that cold, level stare that I had encountered in the woods. “Don’t be boring and decide to behave like a possession rather than a guest. Tonight, once we reach our destination, Mieko here will bring you to me, and we will see how fine a prize you actually are.”
I bowed and began to back away, but her voice stopped me. “Kano Murasaki, you may not realize it, but I have done you a great favor. I have it in my power to give you a gift that you don’t even realize you desire. Make yourself worth my trouble, and you will be glad of it. Disappoint me, and you will be very, very sorry.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. To be honest, I was stunned that she had used my full, true name. No one had called me that since Father went away. I looked up into her face, but it was as empty and without answers as a blank-faced Jizo statue’s. “Kuniko, I want a bath,” she snapped. Then she turned and walked into the inn, followed by one of her maids.
“Come, Risuko-chan,” Mieko said, “follow me.” She turned smoothly around and began to walk across the courtyard, her tall wooden sandals clopping on the stones like horse hooves, a sound made hollow by the snowfall.
As I stumbled behind her, my body came back to me and I began to shiver—huge, uncontrollable vibrations. Tears began to roll down my face. At last.
She led me through the coin-sized flakes of snow. Though it must have been midday, the storm made it dark, and her form seemed to fade into the falling feathers of the crystal flakes. I danced across the cold stones, my bare feet fleeing from freezing earth to freezing air and back again, leaving me hopping like a mating crane next to Mieko’s smooth stride. “We will get you changed and fed before we go,” she said.
There was no one between me the inn-yard entrance. I thought of bolting. But food…
We reached a wide door that looked like the entry to a stable. Mieko opened it and beckoned me in. “Come, Risuko.”
I entered behind her and peered into the gloom. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out five figures, all seated around a tiny fire.
The room looked as if it were indeed intended to be a stable, but had been transformed into a sort of servant dormitory. Low, age-darkened beams crisscrossed, holding up the roof. Bedrolls lined one wall and a small, smoky fire-pit warmed the center of the space—almost.
The five figures stood and turned toward me. I felt the urge to climb up into the low rafters, just to get away. Too late to fly away, I realized.
I recognized the two bulkiest figures as Lady Chiyome’s carriers. They glanced at me, bowed their heads, and then turned back to the fire, stirring rice in a pot.
The other three figures came toward me. As they stepped away from the fire, their black silhouettes softened and I could make out their features. They were older than me, but definitely children. The biggest was a boy, with a doughy, smiling face. The middle one had a smile too, but it wasn’t a friendly one at all. And the smallest one, who was just a little bigger than me, wore the most ridiculous frown on her face that I’ve ever seen.
“Children,” said Mieko, a hand resting gently on my shoulder, “come and introduce yourselves to our newest companion.”
“So,” spat the middle girl, “you’re the reason we’ve been waiting here.”
I tried to step back, but Mieko’s gentle grip held me in place.
The boy spoke as if the girl hadn’t said a thing. “I’m Aimaru. And this is Emi.” He gestured to the sad-faced girl.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice was pleasant, but the scowl didn’t break at all.
The boy was about to introduce the other girl, but she slapped away his hand. “I’m me,” she said. “I don’t care if you know who I am or not, but I want to know who you are, and why the lady was looking for a scrawny mouse like you.”
“She’s not a mouse, Toumi,” said the frowning girl. “She’s too big.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking, or just hadn’t understood.
The girl called Toumi gave a dismissive snort and walked back to the tiny fire.
“There’s food,” said Aimaru. “Come.”
“What’s your name?” asked Emi.
I shuffled. I’ve never liked Mama’s nickname for me, but that was how everyone seemed to know me there. “I’m called Risuko,” I muttered, looking down.
“A squirrel’s sort of like a mouse,” said Emi, her face still twisted in a severe pout.
Is she simple? I wondered. Is she making fun of me? I somehow couldn’t believe that either was true.
“Come, Risuko,” said Mieko. “We can get you some clean things to wear and then you may eat.”
The building was in fact a stable. Mieko grabbed some items from one of the bundles by the fire and led me into one of the empty stalls where I couldn’t see the others. She gave a perfect, crescent-moon smile and held out her hand. “Come, give me your clothes.”
Her polished sweetness was as impossible to disobey as Lady Chiyome’s commands. Shaking uncontrollably, I pulled off my thin, wet jacket and trousers. I held them out to her, dripping on the straw-strewn floor.
Her smile froze on her face as she took the clothes by her fingertips. Holding them at arms’ length, she draped them over the wall of the next stall. I never saw them again.
Then she handed me clean clothes: trousers and a jacket, both blue. On the back of the jacket was Lady Chiyome’s ten-petaled lotus.
Mieko led me, newly branded, over to the fire, where there was a large pot of rice and a small platter with some slices of fish.
“I must go help pack up the lady’s things,” Mieko said quietly to me. Turning to the others, she said, “We will be leaving as soon as the lady has eaten. She wishes us to speed our mission and leave Imagawa territory as soon as possible. Please make sure that you are ready to go immediately.”
The two large men nodded simply. Aimaru bobbed his head and Emi just stared. Toumi gave a snort.
With that, Mieko turned and glided out of the stable.
Aimaru and Emi picked up their half-finished meals. Toumi was wedged between the two carriers and the wall. She was mashing the fish into the rice with her fingers—but her eyes were still on me, glistening in the firelight. The big one whom Lady Chiyome had called Little Brother passed me a serving of rice and fish in a wooden bowl with a pair of battered chopsticks. I sat in the straw and started to eat.
Mother hadn’t had food for us that morning, and I’d had a long, cold walk—not to mention the promise of more walking soon—so I was starving. I began to shovel rice and thin slices of fish into my mouth with the chopsticks. They might not have been clean, but I wasn’t going to complain.
As I gulped down the food, barely tasting it but savoring it even so, the others began to gather up their belongings in preparation to leave.
I wasn’t concerned; I had nothing to pack. I finished the last grain of rice, rinsed the bowl out with water from a bucket, the rest of which the younger of the carriers poured onto the dying embers of the fire.
“Does the meal meet with Lady Mouse’s approval?” sneered Toumi from the wall.
“Don’t be mean, Toumi,” said Aimaru. “It’s not her fault we had to wait here—”
“For three days!” snapped Toumi. “What are you? A real prize? Something special?” Her face darkened in the firelight.
I could feel the blood pounding in my ears. My fingertips were buzzing. Food and warmth had returned feeling to my limbs and to my soul. “I don’t know! I don’t know what she wants with me! She bought me off of my mother this morning.” All of the rest of them—even the carriers, even Toumi—gaped at me. “One moment I’m climbing trees with my sister and the next moment I’m being marched off without even a chance to say goodbye to anyone!”
“You’ve got a mother,” said Emi. “You’ve got a sister.”
I gawped at her, her down-turned mouth looking even sadder than it had. I tried to talk but the miserable expression seemed so extreme—like my own sister’s when her straw dollies would break, or she stubbed her toes, or after Father went away—that it struck me dumb.
Aimaru put his hand very softly on my arm. I realized I was gripping my chopsticks like a dagger. He said, in that same even voice of his, “It’s not your fault that the rest of us are orphans.”
“Orphans?” I responded.
Emi and Aimaru both nodded, solemnly. Aimaru said, “The lady found each of us. I grew up at a temple, I was left there with the monks when I was an infant. And Emi…”
“I lived in the Kyoto streets,” said Emi. “I only remember my mother a little.”
Toumi snorted again.
“Orphans?” I repeated. I could feel my eyes beginning to tear up, my throat filling. Why was I crying?
“Well, say what you want, my family’s dead but I’m no orphan,” snarled Toumi. “I am my family. And no one would ever have been able to sell me like trash to a rag-picker.”
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