Risuko — Chapter 8: The Mountain

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8 — The Mountain

For three days, we rode quickly, without speaking until the mirror of the sun passed behind the mountains. On the first two days, we passed large groups of soldiers bearing the Takeda four-diamond banner marching toward the battles we had just left behind. By the third day, we might as well have been the only people in all of Worth Province —in all of Japan. We passed no one. Even the villages seemed empty.

Every night, the soldiers would make camp—in dry rice paddies or on the edges of fields. They would start preparing a simple meal, which Emi, Toumi, Aimaru and I would help clean up. The men would start talking to each other, and to the Little Brothers, occasionally. They would speak respectfully to Lady Chiyome occasionally, and even tease Aimaru and us three girls a bit.

None of them ever spoke to Mieko-san, though the lieutenant seemed always to know where she was.

Riding a horse turned out to be much more exhausting work than I would have expected, even if one was, as I was, merely a passenger.

I found to my surprise and dismay that I, who could climb the tallest tree or building without fear, felt profoundly unsteady on horseback. Every day, Masugu-san would very gently help me up onto his stallion, and each morning I had to work not to tear the poor creature’s mane out in my terror. It felt to me as if I were sitting on the back of nothing less than an earthquake at rest.

The only consolation that I had was that Toumi seemed to hate it even more than I did.

At the end of the third long day, Masugu helped me down off of his horse, and I thanked him, embarrassed not to be able to manage it on my own. He smiled at me and shrugged.

Lady Chiyome was climbing out of her palanquin, muttering and grumbling as she always did. Steam rose from the Little Brothers, who didn’t grumble at all.

The soldiers set up camp in the long-drained rice fields beside a lazy river.

As I had every evening, I looked south, seeing nothing homeward but mist.

For the first time, I turned to the north. The distant sight of a high peak struck me—a perfect, snow-capped cone, like the sand mountains that Usako and I had made when our mother brought us to the beach. Like the endless sketches our father had drawn on scraps of used paper or in the dust.

Mount Fuji.

“The Mountain,” I whispered in awe.

“Yes,” said Masugu from behind me. It was the first time he had spoken to me about something other than to tell me how to sit steady or when to get down since that horrible morning. We stood for a time, watching the sunlight disappear from the peak. “Do you know what our battle flag means—the four diamonds of Takeda?” Masugu asked.

I shook my head, still staring at the mountain, its white peak turning pink.

“It’s the clan motto: Be swift as the wind, silent as the forest, fierce as fire, steady as a mountain. My lancers and the other companies like us are the wind, sweeping all enemies ahead of us. The infantry are the forest, impenetrable and overwhelming. And the heavy cavalry are the fire, consuming any obstacles an enemy might try to put in our way.” He told it as if it were a bedtime story.

“And the mountain?” I asked.

“The mountain is Takeda Shingen himself. Like Fuji-san—” Masugu pointed at the peak. “—he is unmovable, untoppable. He has nerves stronger than any sword, and a mind as sharp. He can out-think any general.” His voice was surprisingly soft, gentle.

As we watched the light fade from the distant mountaintop, I found myself thinking how strange it was that I had spent days riding in front of this stranger, this Takeda warrior, unable to see any part of him but his gauntleted hands, neither one of us speaking. And yet I found that I hoped for the first time that I would ride with him again the next day.

That night, we ate sitting around a campfire, watching the sparks float up to join the stars. The meal was mostly rice and pickled radish, but in that moment it tasted as good as any food I had ever had.

Masugu spent a long time speaking to Lady Chiyome, both of them very serious. Mieko seemed to be listening intently to them, but when Masugu glanced up at her, she looked away.

“Mieko-san?” I asked when a soldier who was carrying wood to the fire crossed to the other side of the circle before putting his logs down.

“Hmm?” She stared up into the night sky.

“Mieko-san, why don’t the soldiers talk to you?” Then I considered. “Is it because of Kun—?”

Her finger sealed my lips gently but without compromise. “Do not use her name.”

“Oh. Of course not.” Mother had taught us that one should not use the name of the dead for forty-nine days after their departure, so that you don’t call their spirit back from the journey to the next life. “I am sorry, Mieko-san.”

Mieko gave me a sad smile. “No apology is needed, Risuko.” She stroked my cheek gently, which made me feel the night’s cold for some reason. “And Lieutenant Masugu’s soldiers have been avoiding speaking to me since long before this ride.” Saying no more, she rose and walked to Lady Chiyome’s tent.

As she disappeared into the shadows, Emi took her place. “I can’t decide if she is really nice, or kind of scary.”

“Both,” I sighed, and Emi nodded. We both turned away from the dark and warmed ourselves in the fire’s light.

As the night closed in around us, we huddled closer together.

It rained as we climbed out of Worth Province, and I spent the next days with a rough blanket wrapped over my head to keep dry. At inns and villages, the people treated our party with great respect. I thought back to the way that the people in our village used to tease Lord Imagawa’s soldiers. Clearly, in Lord Takeda’s domain, his servants were treated with more deference—and fear.

As the days passed, my own awe began to lessen, and I began to talk with Lieutenant Masugu as we rode. We discussed the countryside, we discussed some of the books and poems Oto-san had made me try to read. I sang some of my mother’s favorite songs. He told me stories about his cousins, and sailing boats, and chasing his father’s horse when he was a boy. Often we would simply ride in a damp, thoughtful silence.

One misty morning after we had just begun riding, as we were just on the outskirts of the village we had stayed in, and the weather had trapped the smell of wet smoke close to the ground, curiosity overcame my awe. “Masugu-san?”

He grunted in response.

“What is this… Mochizuki?” I felt sure that we could not actually be traveling to the moon—though it felt as if we had been climbing enough mountains to lead us to the heavens. “The school?”

“You don’t know?”

“No.” I was sorry now to have said anything.

“Oh” He was silent for a bit. I could hear him scratch his chin. “Yes. Chiyome-sama’s school for miko. That’s where you’re going.” He cleared his throat. “I am so sorry. I assumed you knew.”

I shook my head.

“Ah!” Masugu said, and cleared his throat again. “Yes. We are taking you to the school at Mochizuki. It is the great mission of Lady Chiyome’s life since her husband died. There you will be trained to be a shrine attendant…and you will learn a few other skills, as well.”

I absorbed this. “But why did she have to wander over half the country, through all the fighting and robbers and such, just to find girls to be miko? Aren’t there enough unmarried girls near her home?”

“I guess not,” Masugu mumbled.

A miko?

I was silent for some time, but my mind was racing, reliving the conversations I’d had with Lady Chiyome and her servants. Had it been my imagination that I had been purchased away from my family for some purpose much more important than merely to be attendant at some local shrine? All this—sneaking about, taking me away from my home, marching across battle zones and snowy desolation—was so that I (and Emi and Toumi) could be trained to wear red and white robes, to learn sing and dance at weddings and festivals, and to serve tea and rice wine to the old forest gods?

That night I asked Emi and Aimaru about it. They were surprised, not by the news but by my reaction—like the lieutenant, they had assumed that I already knew.

A miko? It seemed… odd. But if that was what she had purchased me for, well, it wasn’t the worst thing I could have been forced to do.

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