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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Lord of the Darkwood

Book 3 in the Tale of Shikanoko

The Tale of Shikanoko series (Volume 3)

Lian Hearn

FSG Originals





The girl could see nothing. Her lungs were bursting. At any moment, she would open her mouth and breathe in the fatal waters of the lake. Snatches of her brief life came to her: her mother’s face, her father’s last words, her brother’s cry for help before he disappeared. She had been one of the few survivors after the massacre in Miyako. Now her life was over, and she and Takemaru, the baby she clutched desperately, would join the dead. Tears formed in her eyes, only to be lost in the ebb and flow of Lake Kasumi.

Then suddenly there were dark shapes next to her, strong arms seized her. She was pulled upward toward the light, miraculously still holding the baby. She retched and coughed, gasping for air, taking great gulps of it into her lungs. Hands reached down from the side of the boat and took Take from her. He was limp and pale, but, as she herself was pulled on board, she heard him scream in ragged, outraged gasps. He was alive.

The boat bucked like a living animal in the strong westerly wind. She saw the ocher-colored sail lowered quickly, dropped on the deck, while the helmsman struggled with the oar at the stern. The men who had plunged into the water to save her were lifted up; they tore their wet clothes off and went naked, laughing. Monkeys screamed and chattered at them, dancing at the end of their cords. The sun in the east was dazzling. A crowd surrounded her. The men who were not naked were all dressed in red. They looked like beings from another world and she was afraid that she had drowned. But women stripped the heavy robes from her with hands that felt real, exclaiming at their fine quality in human voices. She and the baby were wrapped in furs, wolf and bear skins, and a bowl of some warm, strange-smelling liquid was pushed into her hands.

Men hoisted the sail again, the hemp flapping, fighting them, ropes snapping, snaking through the air. The monkeys screamed more loudly. In the confusion, one of the boys approached her, holding the lute. Beneath the howl of the wind, the slap of the waves, it was still playing, but more softly, its mother-of-pearl and gold-inlaid rosewood gleaming in the sun.

“Who are you?” he said quietly. “What are you doing with Genzo?”

Fragments of memories came to her. It is Genzo, the Emperor’s lute, Take’s mother, Akihime, the Autumn Princess, had said, and she had promised to tell her where the child Emperor was, but she had not. Could this be him standing before her? It must be, the lute revealed him. But she must hide the fact she knew who he was.

She shook her head at him, as though she did not understand, and held out her hands. His eyes narrowed as he thrust the lute at her. She saw his unease, longed to speak to reassure him, but did not dare say anything. How would she address him, for a start? Words of honor and deference rose on her tongue, but then the sailors shouted roughly at him to come and help them. Beside him the other boy was holding a text, made up of pages stitched together.

“Yoshi caught the lute and I caught this,” he said, holding it out to her. “It’s heavy! How did a girl like you manage to throw it so far?”

She grabbed it from him. She could not explain it, maybe it had sprouted wings and flown. She already knew the Kudzu Vine Treasure Store was enchanted. She tucked it under one arm while she turned her attention to the lute. It gave a sigh, as if it would start playing; she gripped it with her other hand.

More shouts echoed around her. The boys darted from her side and the lute quieted. It retained all its beauty, but it surrendered to her touch and allowed her to play it. It no longer played itself, in that wild irrepressible outburst of joy.

“She is a musician,” one of the men who had rescued her exclaimed. “We must take her to Lady Fuji.”

The other looked back toward Nishimi, now barely visible over the choppy surface of the lake. “She must be from a noble family. Someone will miss her, someone will come looking for her.”

“That was Lord Hidetake’s home,” the oarsman called. “He is dead.”

“Could this be his daughter? The one they call the Autumn Princess?”

“The Autumn Princess would be a grown woman by now,” said one of the women, who had already put Take to her breast and was nursing him. “This one is still a girl. How old are you, lady?”

“I turned twelve this year,” the girl replied.

“And what do they call you?”

She did not want to say her name. There came into her mind a fragment of memory, a poem. “Yayoi,” she said. It meant Spring.

“Is this little man your brother?” the woman asked, stroking Take’s black hair tenderly.

She knew she must not tell them that the baby was the Autumn Princess’s son. “No, my mother died, a long time ago. He is the child of one of my maids.” She went on, improvising, “She died giving birth to him. I like to play with him. I was holding him when I had to run away.”

“What were you running from?” They were sympathetic toward her, but their curiosity was becoming tinged with anxiety.

The girl who had named herself Yayoi began to shiver, despite the furs and the warm drink.

“A bad man came,” she said, and then regretted sounding so childish. “I was afraid he was going to kill me.”

“We should take her back,” one of the men suggested.

“Kinmaru,” the other man reproved him. “Someone was going to kill her!”

“And that someone, Monmaru, could very well come looking for her and then who will get killed? Us, that’s who!”

“Can’t turn back against this wind,” the helmsman called. “It’s impossible.”

*   *   *

It was late in the afternoon by the time they came to the shore near the Rainbow Bridge. The market was almost over. Lanterns were being lit in the streets of Aomizu, on the island of Majima, and along the bridge. As soon as the boat grounded, the acrobats leaped ashore with the monkeys.

“It’s not too late to do a trick or two,” Kinmaru cried. Monmaru began to beat a small drum and immediately the boys threw themselves into a performance, a circle of somersaults with the monkeys, a high tower with three of the monkeys on top, a wild dance where the animals jumped from man to boy to man. A crowd soon gathered around them. Yayoi realized the audience knew the monkeys by name, calling out to them, Shiro, Tomo, Kemuri, and had their favorites, whom they applauded wildly. She was dazed by the noise, the colorful clothes, the shouts in a dialect she could barely understand. She gripped the lute and the text close to her chest, as though they could shield her from this strange, new world.

“Come,” said the woman who had nursed Take—he was now asleep in her arms. “You will stay with us tonight and tomorrow we will ask Lady Fuji what she thinks we should do with you.”

Yayoi slept restlessly on a thin mat in a room with three women and a clutch of children—one other young infant and three toddlers. The toddlers slept deeply like kittens. Take woke once screaming, and the other baby was colicky and fretful. Every time Yayoi felt herself dropping into sleep, the baby wailed and she woke in alarm, half-dreaming something had happened to Take, he had slipped from her arms underwater, he’d been stolen by monkeys. She heard the men and boys return later, their exaggerated efforts to keep quiet, their muffled laughter, the monkeys chattering as they were returned to their cages. For a few hours the house fell silent, but she thought she heard a bird call, while it was still dark, before even the roosters had woken, a long, fluting call like an echo from the past.

The women rose at dawn to prepare the morning meal. Yayoi, who had never made a meal in her life, held Take for a while. He was nearly two months old. He looked closely at her face and smiled.

He will never know his mother, she thought, and felt tears pool in her eyes. What would this day bring for them both? She felt sick and faint with fear.

“Don’t cry, lady.”

“Look how pale she is, white as a spirit.”

“You need to be beautiful for Lady Fuji.”

The women’s voices echoed around her.

“Will Lady Fuji let me keep Takemaru?” she said.

They exchanged looks that she was not meant to see.

“The baby can stay with us.”

“Yes, I have plenty of milk for two.”

“You cannot look after him, you are still a child yourself.”

“Then let me stay with you too!” Yayoi could not hold the tears in.

“This is no place for a young lady like you,” Take’s foster mother said.

It was cool in the early morning, but by the time Lady Fuji arrived the sun was high in the sky and the air was warm. She came in with a rustle of silk, cherry blossom petals in her hair, the sweet perfume of spring all around her.

The women immediately started to apologize on Yayoi’s behalf.

“Her clothes are not yet dry.”

“She’s been crying, her eyes are red.”

“She nearly drowned yesterday; she can’t be expected to look her best.”

Fuji studied Yayoi carefully, taking her head between her hands and tilting it from side to side. “I can see how she looks. What a beautiful child. Who are you, my dear, and where do you come from?”

Some instinct warned Yayoi that her former life was over and she should never speak of it. She shook her head.

“You can’t tell me? Well, that may be for the best. You have a Kakizuki look to you. Are you a survivor of the massacre in the capital?”

Yayoi did not answer, but Fuji smiled as if she had acquiesced.

“Someone hid you at Nishimi, but you were discovered and that is why you ran away?”

This time Yayoi nodded.

“Can you imagine any man wanting to kill something so precious?” Fuji said. “Yet hundreds of women and children were put to death in Miyako last year when the Kakizuki warriors fled, leaving their families behind. I am of a mind to protect this one.”

She looked around and saw the lute and the text. “You brought these with you? As well as the baby?” She picked up the lute and studied it with an expressionless face. It had lost its glowing rosewood and its gleaming inlay, yet Yayoi thought the older woman recognized it.

“So what am I to do with you?” Fuji said finally. “Is anyone going to come in pursuit of you?”

“I don’t know,” Yayoi replied. “Maybe.” She held herself rigid, trying not to tremble.

“Someone must have seen you fall in the lake, but did they see you rescued? If anyone is looking for you, they will start their search with our boats, so I think I will take you somewhere you can be safely hidden. We will hold a funeral service for the children who sadly drowned.”

Hina drowned and Yayoi was rescued.

“Will Take come with me?”

“How can a girl like you take care of a baby? And that would only draw unwanted attention to you. Take can stay here, the women will look after him. One more baby makes little difference to this troop of children.”

She called to the women to bring some clothes, not Yayoi’s own robes, which she told the women to cut up for costumes, but old castoffs that smelled of mildew and something sour like vinegar. When she was dressed, they covered her head with a cloth, which concealed her hair and most of her face.

“I must take my things,” she said anxiously. “The lute and the text.” Clasping them to her chest, she followed Fuji into the rear courtyard of the house, where the boys from the boat were feeding the monkeys and playing with them. A young girl was with them, idly beating a small drum, laughing at the monkeys and teasing the boys when they yawned and rubbed their eyes. Yayoi wanted to stay with them, to be one of them.

She felt the lute stir and quiver and the notes began to trickle from it. She gripped it, willing it to be silent. The girl came to Yoshi’s side and took his hand protectively. Yayoi wondered if they had grown up together, if the girl was a princess like Aki.

Fuji shook her head. “It will be safer hidden away too,” she said. “Kai, dear, I’ve told you before not to hang around here with the monkeys. Go back to your own place. I’m sure you have plenty of chores there.”

“I wish I could stay here,” Kai replied.

“What nonsense! Girls are never acrobats. Be thankful the musicians took you in.”

Fuji helped Yayoi into the palanquin that rested on the ground outside the rear gate, the porters, two strong young men, beside it. They both bowed respectfully to Fuji, who gave them directions in a quick, low voice before she climbed in next to Yayoi and let down the bamboo blinds.

She heard the women call, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Take care of yourself.”

“Goodbye, Takemaru,” Yayoi whispered.

*   *   *

The lute quieted as the men jogged and the palanquin swayed. The stuffy heat and the motion made Yayoi sleepy and she nodded off several times, dreaming in brief, lucid snatches, then jolting suddenly awake. She could see nothing outside, only had the sensation of moving from light into shade, splashing through water, then going up a steep hill, the palanquin wobbling alarmingly as the men negotiated the steps. Finally, the palanquin was set down. Fuji raised the blind and stepped out.

Yayoi followed her, glad to breathe the cool mountain air. Below her, framed by twisted pine trees, lay Lake Kasumi. She could see smoke rising from the villages around its edge and the tiny sails of boats, gleaming yellow in the sun. Behind her a bell tolled. It must be midday.

“This is a temple for women,” Fuji said. “I have sent a few girls here to be looked after, until they are old enough.”

Old enough for what? Yayoi wondered, her mind shying away from the answer. She concentrated on what was around her: the vermilion wooden gate, the flowering mountain cherries, the steps that led upward beneath pines that curved over them like a dark tunnel.

Fuji began to climb them swiftly. Yayoi had to trot to keep up with her. The stones were set too high for a child and, by the time they reached the top, her legs ached. Someone must have been told of their arrival, for at the top of the steps a nun was waiting to greet them. Behind her was a garden, with a spring that filled a cistern then overflowed and ran trickling away from them into a large fishpond.

“Our abbess asks that you will take some refreshment with her.” She looked at Yayoi with cool, unfriendly eyes. “You have another foundling for us to look after?”

“She is called Yayoi,” Fuji said. “I would prefer as few people as possible to know she is here. It will not be for long.”

“No,” the nun agreed, her eyes appraising Yayoi’s height and age. “I suppose she can join the other girls in prayer and study.” She turned and began to walk toward a low building at the side of the temple. Its roof was curved at each end in an upward swoop, like wings, as if it would take flight at any moment.

The nun paused and said to Fuji, “Asagao will want to see you. She can be this girl’s friend. They are about the same age.” She clapped her hands.

A girl came from the building and dropped to her knees before Fuji, who stepped forward to take her hands and lift her to her feet. She looked carefully at her, much as the nun had studied Yayoi. The girl blushed. Yayoi thought her very pretty.

“Lady Fuji,” Asagao said. “I am so happy. I missed you so much.”

“Sweet child, I have brought someone to be your friend. Please take care of her for me.”

“Go with her to the girls’ room and show her where everything is,” the nun said. “Give me your things. Well, well, what have you brought with you? An old lute and an even older text? The lute will be useful, but you won’t need the text here. Don’t worry, we will keep it safe for you. When you leave, you may take it with you.”

“Reverend Nun, may we walk a little way with you and Lady Fuji?” Asagao pleaded.

She had an enchanting manner and the nun was charmed. “Very well, since it is so long since you have seen your benefactress. Just as far as the fishpond.”

Red and white carp swam peacefully in the large stone basin, beneath lotus leaves from which the flower stems were just beginning to emerge.

“See how the red and the white can live together?” Asagao said. “Why is our world so torn by war?”

Fuji smiled. “You are very poetic, my dear. I can see you have been learning well. But it is best not to speak of the red and the white. As far as the Miboshi are concerned, there are now only the white.”

“Yet in this pond the white are outnumbered by the red,” Asagao said, so quietly only Yayoi heard. She wondered what her story was and how she had ended up under Fuji’s protection. The two older women walked on and the girls were left alone.

*   *   *

Over the next few days she was able to learn more about Asagao and the other girls. Their ages ranged from six to fourteen. The oldest was gentle, rather tall, as slender as a reed, and seemed shy and younger than her age. Her name was Yuri. The next oldest was Asagao, born the year before Yayoi. Then there were two sisters, so close in age they looked like twins, with red cheeks and a stocky plumpness that the meager food at the temple did nothing to diminish. They were ten and nine years old and were called Sada and Sen. The youngest, the six-year-old, was Teru, a thin, wiry little girl who reminded Yayoi of the monkey acrobat children. She wondered if she was of the same family and, if so, why she had been sent away to the temple.

She mentioned this to Asagao one night as they were preparing for bed. The older girls helped the younger ones, combing their hair, hanging their day clothes on the racks. Teru had fallen asleep while Yayoi was smoothing out the wrinkles from her robe. Yuri was at the far end of the room, singing quietly to Sada and Sen, who were already lying curled together. Her voice sounded thin and mournful. The plum rains had begun and everything was damp. The water fell in a steady cascade from the roofs, drowning all other sound. In the dim days, the girls became both febrile and depressed.

“Lady Fuji probably bought her from her family,” Asagao said. “Many parents have no choice. Daughters fetch a good price. Everyone wants girls these days.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Yayoi was ashamed of asking so directly, but could not control her curiosity.

“My mother was one of Lady Fuji’s entertainers,” Asagao whispered. “I am not meant to speak of it, but I want to tell you. My father was a Kakizuki warrior. They fell in love, he bought her freedom and took her to his house in Miyako. Women on the boats don’t have children—you will find out, I suppose—so I was lucky to be born at all. When the capital fell to the Miboshi, my father did not flee with the Kakizuki, but sent me to Lady Fuji, and killed my mother and himself.”

“How horrible, how sad,” Yayoi murmured, wondering how Asagao could still grow up so pretty and so charming.

“I think you would find all the women on the boats are the same these days,” Asagao said. “They all hide tragic stories of loss and grief beneath the songs and the smiles.”

She stroked Yayoi’s cheek. “I am sure we will be friends.”

At that moment Yayoi wanted nothing more. “Let’s be friends forever,” she said, seizing Asagao’s hand and pressing it.

*   *   *

The following morning Reverend Nun came into the room where the girls were practicing serving tea and other drinks, though water replaced wine, taking turns to be the male guest and the female entertainer. Playing the role of the men made the two sisters giggle uncontrollably, and Sada, in particular, proved extremely inventive in portraying drunken behavior. Asagao was equally gifted as the entertainer, distracting and calming the guests with songs and dances. They did not have to pretend to be in love with her. Even Reverend Nun watched for a few moments, her face softening. Then she recollected why she had come and said, “Yayoi, our reverend abbess wishes to see you.”

This message was obviously shocking to the other girls, who all stopped what they were doing and stared openmouthed. Sada broke off in mid-sentence and began to hiccup for real. Reverend Nun gave her a disapproving look. “Perhaps this role play is becoming a little too realistic. Asagao, put away the bedding. The rest of you can do your dance practice now with Yuri. Come, Yayoi.”

The cloisters that linked the buildings around the main hall were flooded and rain poured down on each side. It was exhilarating, like running through a waterfall. Yayoi found she was stamping deliberately in puddles, as if she were a little girl again, playing with her brother, Tsumaru, and Kaze and Chika, the children of Tsumaru’s nurse.

“Walk properly,” Reverend Nun scolded her when one unexpectedly deep puddle sent water splashing up her legs.

At the end of the cloister stood a small detached residence, not much more than a hut. On the narrow veranda a ginger cat sat with its paws tucked under it, looking morose. The hut was old and weatherbeaten; the bamboo blinds over the doorway hung crookedly and were black with mold. One of the steps was broken and there were several boards missing from the walls and shingles from the roof.

“Did you say the Abbess wanted to see me?” Yayoi said doubtfully.

“Yes—don’t ask me why! She has never asked to see any of the girls before. It is most unusual.”

“And she lives here?”

“Our abbess is an unworldly woman. She does not concern herself with material things. She chose this hut as her abode when she took over the headship of our community. She agreed to it only if she was permitted to live in this way, as humbly as the poorest peasant. The former abbess was very different, very different. We all miss her.”

Yayoi was hoping Reverend Nun would expound more on the former abbess, who sounded interesting, but at that moment a voice called from inside.

“Send the child in.”

Yayoi stepped up onto the veranda, avoiding the broken step, and pushed aside the bamboo blind. Gloomy as the day was, it was even darker inside, though one small oil lamp burned in front of a statue that Yayoi recognized, when her eyes adjusted to the dimness, as the horse-headed Kannon. A flowering branch had been placed in front of it and the sweet smell filled the room, mingling with incense, not quite concealing the whiff of dampness and mold.

“Come here. I am told your name is Yayoi.” The woman stretched out a pale hand and beckoned to Yayoi to approach. Her head was shaved and her skull gleamed in the light, as if it were carved from ivory. Her features were ordinary—snub nose, wide mouth, small, rather close-set eyes—and her build, though not at all fat, was solid. She wore a simple robe, dyed a deep maroon. Her feet were tucked under her, reminding Yayoi of the cat outside.

Yayoi saw the Kudzu Vine Treasure Store, lying on a shabby cushion beside the Abbess.

The older woman followed her gaze. “You brought this with you. Can you read it?”

“I can read a little,” Yayoi said. “But it often seems very difficult.”

“I should say it does!” The Abbess laughed, a surprisingly merry note. “Many would call it the most difficult text in the world, if they were lucky enough to get their hands on it. Do you mind telling me how it came into your possession?”

There was something about her that made Yayoi relax, as if the woman were a relative, an old aunt or a grandmother, neither of which Yayoi had ever known. She knelt down on the cushion, moving the text aside, happy to feel its familiar touch beneath her hand.

“An old man gave it to me. I was interested in plants and healing when I was little. I used to brew up potions from dandelion, burdock roots, charcoal, and try to get the dogs and cats to drink them, when they were sick. Master … he, the old man, came upon me one day and asked me seriously about my ingredients and measurements and if I was keeping records of the results. Later he gave me the Kudzu Vine Treasure Store and said I would find many cures in it, but I haven’t got to that bit yet.” She hesitated for a moment and then said confidingly, “It only lets me read certain parts.”

“Oh yes,” said the Abbess. “It is a text of great power, but I can see it would be tricky. This old man, can you tell me his name?”

“Master Sesshin,” Yayoi said, and immediately wished she had not.

“Don’t be afraid,” the Abbess said. “Only truth is spoken in this hut. Truth is what I seek: true thought, true sight, true speech. This Master Sesshin, what kind of person was he?”

“He had a lot of books. He lived in my father’s house, I don’t know why, but for as long as I can remember he was there. Even when my mother was alive, before Lady Tama…” She recalled her stepmother’s cruelty and fell silent.

“What is it that Lady Tama did?” the Abbess prompted.

“She had his eyes put out,” Yayoi whispered, “and she drove him away, into the Darkwood.”

“Poor man,” said the Abbess. “And poor Lady Tama, who has added such darkness to her life. Was she your father’s second wife?”

“My mother died when I was very young,” Yayoi said. “My grandfather took Lady Tama from her husband, my uncle, and made my father marry her.”

“Ah, what trouble these old men cause with their attempts to control everything! If only they could foresee the ripples that go on through generations!” The Abbess said nothing more for a few moments but took Yayoi’s hand and stroked it gently.

“My husband died,” she said finally. “I was still a young woman, and we had one son. I had been married at my father’s command. I had not seen my husband previously. But I came to adore him, and he me, I believe. He died in the north. After his death, his brother begged me to marry him and swore he would preserve the estate for my son, but my grief was so great I could not bear to look at either of them, for they both resembled my dead husband. I chose to leave my son in his uncle’s care and I renounced the binding ties of love and affection. I wanted to know the truth of this treacherous, cruel world, and why humans have to live lives filled with such deep pain.”

“Did you find any answers?” Yayoi asked.

“In a way. We worship the goddess of healing and compassion here, and she has helped me. But I missed my son terribly, and when I was told he had died in the mountains my pain was no less intense than it had been for his father.”

A long silence followed.

“What am I to do here?” Yayoi asked, not knowing how to respond to the Abbess’s disclosures. She thought of her own uncle, her own mother and father. Why were some forced to die and others permitted to live? Where did the dead go? Did they still see all that took place on earth? How could they watch those they loved and not grieve over them and long to be with them? Why did their spirits not return more often?

“Lady Fuji has asked us to take care of you and teach you all you need to know. We do this for several girls she has sent to us. In return, she pays for the upkeep of our temple, our food, and so on. And she protects us. She has many powerful friends. There are not a few, these days, who are offended at the idea of women running their own affairs. They would like to impose a male priest to keep an eye on us. Times are changing, my dear Yayoi; even in this remote place we can sense it. The Miboshi are warriors, not swayed by gentler pursuits as the Kakizuki were.”

“Can I stay here, always?” Yayoi said. She did not want to be reminded of the power struggles in the capital in which her father had died.

The Abbess said gently, “I’m afraid Lady Fuji has other plans for you. We try to give the girls skills, both physical and spiritual, so they may live the best life they can. I see you can read and write, but do you know how to calculate?”

Yayoi shook her head.

“Well, I will teach you that. And you will come to me once a week and we will read your text together.”

*   *   *

“What did she say to you?” Asagao asked jealously. “None of us has ever been sent for. What is she like?”

Yayoi had returned to the girls’ room, puzzled by the conversation with the Abbess. Asagao was alone; the other girls were dancing in the exercise hall. Asagao had been told to put away the bedding, after which she was supposed to sweep the floor, but she was still lying on one of the mats, the broom abandoned at her side. Her face was flushed, her sash loosened.

“I am to learn to calculate,” Yayoi replied. She did not want to speak about the Kudzu Vine Treasure Store.

“Why? Are they going to marry you to a merchant?” Asagao giggled. “You will be totting up how much rice you have sold and working out the value of the bean harvest. What a waste of a beautiful girl!”

“The Abbess will be giving me lessons herself,” Yayoi said.

Asagao pouted. “You are going to be everyone’s favorite. I shall be jealous. But what was the Abbess like?”

“She is rather like a cat. In fact she has a cat, a ginger one. She is merry and playful, but you feel she might scratch at any time.” Yayoi looked at Asagao sprawled on the mat, saw the translucent white of her skin. “Hadn’t you better hurry up? Reverend Nun will be angry if she catches you with the bedding not put away and the floor unswept.”

“I have been practicing for my first time.” Asagao giggled again. “I can’t help myself. It’s so much fun. Yuri showed me. You know she is leaving soon? Here, I’ll show you. Lie down and we’ll pretend I’m your merchant husband.”

Yayoi’s heart was beating fast, with a kind of terror. She could not put it into words, but she suddenly saw her future. She turned and ran from Asagao, ran from the room, out into the garden. Her eyes were filling with tears. She came to the top of the steps. Where would she go, if she did run away? The choices seemed stark. She could stay where she was, and hand control of her life and her body over to these others, or she could die. By this time sobs were shaking her. She crouched down, her head in her hands. She did not want to die. But she did not want to go where they intended she should either.

She heard someone behind her, and Asagao put her arms around her.

“Don’t cry,” the other girl soothed her. “Don’t cry. I’m sorry I upset you. Our lives may be hard, but they will have pleasures, too. Maybe you are too young to understand now, but one day you will. And we will always be friends, I promise you.”

They heard the Reverend Nun calling them.

“I suppose I had better finish the floor,” Asagao said.


Copyright © 2016 by Lian Hearn Associates Pty Ltd.