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9 — Worth
Up and up we rode, around a beautiful lake, and toward the mountain peaks.
A warbler sang from one of the trees and I whistled back. It was a funny time of year for the bird to be here.
“You do bird sounds?” Masugu asked.
“Can you do a loon?” We’d heard one that morning on the lake.
I grinned. That was one of my favorites. I raised my fingers to my hands and gave the loon’s long, sad call.
“Well done!” Masugu laughed. “And how about… a nightingale?”
I turned around to look at him for a moment.
He laughed again. “Fine, fine, I was kidding.” He stared down at me. “How about an owl. Can you hoot three times like an owl?”
“You’re kidding again, right? That one’s easy.” To prove my point, I raised my hands to my mouth again and gave three long hoots: one as a wood owl, one as a snowy owl and one as a Scops owl.
He whistled—not a bird sound for him, just a single note to let me know he was impressed. “Well, Murasaki-san, if you ever decide to give up being an, um, shrine maiden, you’ve got a future in the Takeda scouts.” When I gawked him he said, “Well, that’s one of the ways the scouts communicate. There’s a whole bunch of codes. The loon call means All clear. But the three owl hoots mean Danger–there’s about to be an attack!”
“Well,” he said, “think about it. We’re usually fighting in daylight. How often do you hear an owl hooting like that during the day?”
I nodded. It made sense to use that as a warning signal.
“Mind,” chuckled Masugu, “I don’t know what it would mean if the call were given by three different owls.”
We both laughed and rode on into the mountains, the rest of the party trailing behind us.
As we climbed the winding, narrow road up toward the pass, the air grew steadily colder, and the bare-limbed trees grew sparser and shorter. I didn’t notice, however. With Masugu’s bulk blocking the chill wind, and the stallion warming me, I was chattering on about how scary I had thought he was when I first saw him ride into the inn yard. “Of course,” I said, “samurai are always sort of scary. That’s why I’m glad my father stopped being one, because I wouldn’t have wanted him to be scary.”
After a moment of silence, Masugu leaned close to my ear, “Murasaki-san, do you know… why you father stopped being a samurai?”
We were crossing a stream and I remember the slosh of hooves in water as I paused to answer. I knew what my father had told us: that he hadn’t wanted to kill any more. But I shook my head and the lieutenant gave a deep sigh. “I am not sure that I am the one to tell you this,” he said, “but you should know. Your father was one of Lord Oda’s warriors. One of his greatest. When I was a boy, I saw him fight. Kano Kazuo was famous for his skill with a sword, as well as for being a great poet and courtier. Oda Nobunga ordered him on a mission—what it was, no one but Lord Oda knows, though it must have had something to do with the Imagawa—but he refused. The two samurai who were supposed to go with your father refused as well. So Lord Oda gave them the choice: they could commit ritual suicide, or they could present themselves to Lord Imagawa as common servants. The other two warriors killed themselves rather than face such dishonor; your father became a poor scribe.”
I was stunned. And yet it seemed oddly familiar and true. Mother never told me what happened to him, that day when he walked off to answer Lord Imagawa’s summons. She never told me about any of it. To be honest, she hardly ever spoke of Father, unless she was sad or angry, and so Usako and I had learned never to mention him. Before Masugu had spoken it, I hadn’t heard my father’s name in two years. I had known that Oba-san was a samurai, known that he had seen battles, but the thought of him drawing his swords to fight, to kill… And the thought of what kind of mission could possibly have forced him to refuse…
“The other two,” I asked, trying not to let my voice dissolve entirely, “the ones who killed themselves, who were they?”
“Yes,” grunted Masugu-san, acknowledging that I had asked the proper question. “Hanichi Benjiro and Tarugu Makoto,” he said gruffly. “Emi and Toumi’s fathers.”
I peered around Masugu to where the others were riding. Emi was, naturally, frowning. Toumi looked like a knife looking for a place to plant itself.
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