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March 28, 2014 (1)

I.
Once, on a bright morning in the month of March, with branches of blooming cherry trees framing the world, Kumori, a girl of some fifteen-years, sat on a low gunmetal-gray wall, watching party after party of armed men, retainers, their robes showing the crests of a dozen different local lords, riding up to the castle of the recently widowed Lady Kobayashi.

“I would love to know,” the girl mused to herself, lazily waving a sprig of cherry blossoms in the warm air, “just what ill-wind blows those rough-looking bastards here.”

She wasn’t sure what a ‘rough-looking bastard’ actually was, but she had overheard the phrase used in the wine-house that her mother worked in and was dying to try it out. Sunshine, dappled by the swaying branches above her, dazzled her eyes. The girl frowned, staring up at the white wisps of clouds set against the deep blue silk of a sky.

“Or is this about the sacred pledge, I wonder, that my lady made concerning settling, once and for all, her quarrel with Lord Watanabe? Or could she be intending to sweep the woods clean?”

It was hard being only fifteen and having a mother who worked in a wine-house. Most of her friends were already engaged in the Lady’s service. Soon they would be married off to the sons of local lords who remained faithful to the House of Kobayashi. Kumori, though, was considered too rambunctious a girl to learn the tea ceremony and calligraphy and powder her face each morning before the sun rose. However, just because she excelled on horse-back and could hit anything in the air with a bow and arrow didn’t mean that many of the girls who wore fancy kimonos didn’t have secret crushes on Kumori.

“Ah! here comes lovely Fuyu,” Kumori thought to herself, spotting a jovial-looking girl coming down from the direction of the castle. “She might be able to tell me the meaning of this gathering.”

Leaping to her feet, the girl started off at a brisk walk across the field.

“Ah, Mistress Kumori,” Fuyu said as Kumori stopped in front of her. The hand-maiden couldn’t help blush every time the ragamuffin girl was around, despite the expertly applied white powder, “what brings you so near to the castle? It is not often that you favor us with your presence anymore.”

There was reproach in the girl’s voice, though Kumori pretended not to hear.

“I am happier in the woods, as you well know, and was on my way there but now, when I paused at the sight of all these ruffians flocking in to Kobayashi Castle. What undertaking has Lady Kobayashi started upon now?”

“My lady keeps her own counsel,” said girl, “but I think a shrewd guess might be made at the purpose of a gathering. It was but three days since that her grangers were beaten back by all those rude, ruthless, landless men who call you kin; they caught in the very act of cutting up a juicy, fat buck, or so I am told. As you know, my lady, though easy and well-disposed to every girl who comes into her service, is not fond of vagabonds abusing their forest privileges on her land. Just three days ago she swore that she would clear the forest of these poachers. Or, I do not know, it may be, that this gathering of retainers is for the purpose of falling upon that robber and tyrant, Lord Toshio of Watanabe, who has already begun to harass some of our outlying lands. It is a quarrel which will have to be fought out sooner or later, and for my lady it seems the sooner the better.”

“Arigato, Fuyu-chan,” said Kumori. “I must not stand here gossiping with you. The news you have told me, as you know, touches me deeply, for I would make sure that no harm should befall my kin.”

“I plead with you, Kumori-chan, tell no one that the news came from me, for mild as Lady Kobayashi to those who attend on her at her bath, she would, I think, let me starve in the woods if she knew that I might have given a warning through which the brigands might slip through her fingers.”

“Do not worry, Fuyu-chan; I can be as silent as the rot on a tree when the need arises. Can you tell me when her lady’s forces are likely to set out?”

“Soon,” Fuyu replied. “Those who first arrived I left swilling Kobayashi Castle’s rare sake, devouring rice cake upon rice cake. The cooks of the castle have been hard pressed all day, and from what I hear, this band of ruffians will set forth as soon as dusk falls upon the walls of my lady’s keep.”

[to be cont.]