Squirrels are not creatures of the night. So sitting there on that stump in the dark trying to mend embroidery—trying not to stab myself with the sharp needle while keeping my ears pricked for any strange sounds—wasn’t easy on my nerves.
I fetched Masugu’s short sword from where my bedroll still lay, warm and inviting. The black lacquered sheath made a nice, hard surface for me to work against.
As I picked out the orange threads, cutting them with the tip of the needle, my mind worried at our destination. The capital.
Could I kill him?
Did I hate him?
I knew I hated the idea of him. I hated what he had done to my father, to Emi and Toumi’s.
But to kill him?
By the light of the waxing moon, I removed the threads of the Hōjō mon. One by one, I dropped them into the soot-covered embers of the fire. There they would briefly catch flame, writhing like snakes as they burned.
I was left, finally, with the blank white disk of the Mochizuki. The Full Moon.
A convenient emblem for a clan of spies and assassins.
I was just finishing the top blue stripe to the mon on my kimono when one of the horses snorted. I responded with my own snort of amusement. Do horses dream? What do they dream of? Running? Long, green grass and clover? Stomping on snakes?
Another sound broke my reverie, however—whispers. The sound was barely audible above the smooth rush of the water and the gentle rustle of the night breeze in the leaves overhead. But I was sure it wasn’t my imagination. Low voices came from the direction of the horses, like stones rumbling down through a stream.
I found myself on my feet, the beautiful robe forgotten in the dust, and strode toward the riverside with my sword drawn.
So much for being a cautious coward.
Moonlight swirled across the surface of the river, which sang soothingly back. But the horses were under the trees by the bank, and so I couldn’t see them, nor whoever was whispering.
Mieko, Emi, Aimaru, and Toumi were all sleeping soundly. Unless I’d heard one of them talking in their sleep, someone we didn’t know was near the horses, and I couldn’t imagine a good reason for that.
Unless, of course, I’d imagined it.
Sword out, I tiptoed toward the bank, as shy from not wanting Inazuma and the other horses to see me imagining things as to sneak up on the intruders. I was most of the way to where we’d tied up our mounts, and was just about to turn around, sure I was embarrassing myself, when a voice whined, “How come you get the big one?”
“‘Cause I’m older. And ‘cause I saw it first.”
“Fine,” mumbled a third man, “but I get the mare.”
“So I get one of the geldings?” asked the first voice in a whine that sounded familiar.
“Sounds about right,” said the older man with a chuckle.
What I should have done at this point was to go back and get the others. I was clearly outnumbered, and my friends and teacher were only a few steps away. The horse thieves might have been able to sneak in along with water, but wouldn’t be able to get the horses away along the steep, narrow riverbank. They’d have to come back by our camp.
That would have been the smart thing to do. The cautious thing to do.
I tiptoed forward. Why? In the moment, I was worried for poor Inazuma.
A horse whinnied.
Four huge shapes blotted out the flow of silver moonlight to the left. To the right crouched three more or less human shadows, one of them leaning forward, as if to try to untie the reins of the closest, largest horse — Inazuma.
The big stallion gave a warning nicker, pulling up as far as the reins would allow.
“Woah, there,” said the second voice, and from the shape and the voice, I thought it might be Zashiki, the storeroom guard from the Tiptown garrison.
“Watch out!” gasped the younger one — tall and skinny, he had to be Joshi, the armory guard.
The third voice grunted, “Think I saw those other three with that bunch of pretty ladies came through just after the alarm. Didn’t see a big, black monster like this one though.”
Zashiki reached out again to try to grab the stallion’s harness.
Inazumi gave a horsey cry of outrage and lashed out with one of his front hooves.
When Zashiki retreated, stumbling against the others, I stepped forward, raising my sword. “Stop!”
The three would-be horse thieves spun to face me, all drawing swords — though young Joshi dropped his. As he scrambled to pick it up, the third man, the one with the close-set vole eyes from the Tiptown gate, squinted at me. “You? Weren’t you one of the maids of that lady rode out the gate?”
I didn’t answer. In all honesty, my mouth was too dry, and I was trying to think how to wake the others. I should have thought of that first.
“Yeah,” Joshi said, sword gripped in two trembling hands. “She’s one of Toumi-chan’s friends.”
Zashiki squinted. “Right. What are you doing dressed as a miko?”
“I…” I gave something like a Lady Chiyome scowl. “Get away from our horses.”
It didn’t have the affect I had hoped for. Zashiki and the vole both snorted. “Right,” said the vole. “Make us.”
I was about to call for help, for rescue, when Zashiki’s eyes narrowed. “I asked once. Not going to ask again. What you doing dressed up as a miko?”
“I… I…” The cover story we’d discussed that morning — a lifetime before — had been that Lady Mieko trained her maids as shrine maidens. It was close enough to the truth, substituting Mieko for Chiyome and leaving out the assassination and espionage. But I couldn’t squeeze the words from my traitorous, sawdust-filled mouth.
Joshi came to my defense. “I’ve heard about those rich ladies training orphan girls to be miko.”
Zashiki spat. “Naw. That’s a Takeda war widow down the other end of the province, not a Hōjō bride from up in Armory. And if they’re Takeda—” His grip on his sword tightened and he began to lean forward.
Not thinking, I shifted my left foot back, the heel slightly raised, my sword still held before me. The Small Taming, the ninth stance in the Sixty-four Changes — a defensive variation on The Two Fields.
My whole body was getting ready for the three men to charge and run me through. And still I couldn’t speak.
Zashiki growled, shifting forward, and I could see the attack he planned: a slash across my blade to leave me defenseless to the others.
I prepared to drop my blade to avoid his so that I could raise it again to defend against the other two and—
And there I’ll leave poor Risuko.
Mean of me, I know!
What do you think? Did you enjoy this latest sneak peek at Kano, the third Seasons of the Sword book? How do you think it’s going to turn out?
Kano (Seasons Of The Sword #3)
Can One Girl Save A Nation?
With Japan’s future in the balance, Risuko may recover the Kano clan’s honor — or she may destroy it forever
Lord Takeda has sent Risuko, Emi, and Toumi on a mission to the capital. The road is dangerous. The destination is treacherous. Risuko — the girl who just likes to climb — must make a choice that will have repercussions not only for Risuko’s life and those of her friends, but possibly for all of Japan.
In this thrilling third book in the Seasons of the Sword, she encounters old friends, new enemies, and a strange boy from a far-off land called Portugal. Through raging battles and deadly court intrigue, Risuko must follow a path narrower and less stable than any pine branch. And the consequences should she fail are sharp and hard as rocks below.
The red-and-white disguise of the kunoichi awaits.