“You’re late,” grumbled Choji when we finally appeared in the kitchens to help prepare lunch. “What were you doing up there – washing everything twice over?”
As a punishment, he made us skip our afternoon weapons training and told us to scrub the kitchen floor with hot water and sand. “When I return, I don’t want to see a single spot of grease anywhere!”
He turned on his heel and left the kitchen. Hana and I glanced at each other in surprise.
“What’s wrong with Choji?” I asked Ko, who was busy kneading noodle dough at the table.
Ko made a face. “He’s been like it ever since he came back from the village without any supplies,” he said. “One of the other servants said that there’s little food available to buy. The village’s almost deserted. The jito has samurai soldiers posted on every street corner. They take a percentage of any food that comes in for the diamyo and what is left over is not enough… People are beginning to go hungry.”
We served a small lunch to the students, and all the servants sat in thoughtful silence to eat their own thin fish soup. Choji wasn’t present. Ko said the Head Servant had gone to talk to Master Goku. He was hoping the Masterwould appeal to Lord Hidehira for more food.
Hana and I worked hard, and by the time we made our way to the Meditation Room that evening, we were almost dead on our feet. Our arms ached from wringing laundry and our hands were raw from spending most of the day being plunged into buckets of hot water. Our bellies growled with hunger.
As soon as meditation began, I closed my eyes and felt myself drifting away…
After the session, the relaxed atmosphere remained. Students talked quietly as they left the meditation room in small groups. Hana and I went around with the other servants, sweeping up the ash beneath incense sticks and putting out lanterns.
Suddenly Hana dug her sharp elbow into my ribs. A messenger was standing in the doorway, his clothes dusty from the road. He bowed low and approached Master Goku.
“Greetings, Sensei,” he said breathlessly. “I bring word from your friend, Master Jin of Sagami to the east.”
Master Goku signaled to one of the other servants to bring cha. “What does my good friend Master Jin say?”
The man bowed again. “He apologizes, but he cannot continue his correspondence with you. Alliances between neighboring provinces are being dissolved upon the word of your jito. Lord Hidehira has announced his intention to seize the surrounding territories for himself. Therefore Master Jin says that he regrets to tell you that from this day onwards, you and he must be considered enemies.”
Master Goku closed his eyes briefly, and for a moment he looked like an old man. “The alliances are being dissolved.” His voice sounded heavy and tired. “And it is as I feared…”
I knew Father had worked hard to build alliances throughout the kingdom, to bring peace to neighboring estates and form relationships with other provinces. But Uncle was destroying everything.
When the servant returned with cha, Master Goku dismissed us all and drew the messenger into a quiet corner, obviously to question him further.
Outside in the hallway, Ken-ichi was strutting like a peacock. “Soon the whole Kingdom of Japan will be in my father’s grasp,” he bragged. “Before long he’ll be jito of all the estates between here and the Southern Islands. He’ll be Shogun!”
Behind me, Ko and another servant boy, Sato, were whispering.
“Lord Hidehira has raised taxes on all farmers,” Sato said. “My father is headman of our village and he says the new taxes will cripple them!”
“I heard that the local people have a new name for the jito,” Ko said with a nod. “They are calling him Kaminari.”
Kaminari… Thunder. It seemed an appropriate name for Uncle. He was unleashing a storm upon our lands.
Up ahead, Ken-ichi suddenly wheeled around, his dark eyes flashing. “Who said that?” he demanded.
Ko turned pale. “It was me, Ken-ichi-dono,” he stuttered.
Ken-ichi strode back along the hallway until he was standing in front of Ko. He towered over the younger boy, who began to tremble. “You filthy peasant,” he said, his voice dangerously quiet. “How dare you insult my noble father!”
“I – I meant no insult, Ken-ichi-dono,” Ko said.
“Whether you meant it or not, you still insulted him,” Ken-ichi said. “My father is the jito – and he’s your lord and master. You owe him your loyalty.”
Ko bowed low, his face ashen. “He has it, Ken-ichi-dono.”
“You called him Kaminari,” Ken-ichi insisted. “And you must be punished for that!”
Ko began to tremble as Ken-ichi glared around at the other servants. “Someone fetch this peasant a sword so he can defend himself,” he cried, his hand on the hilt of his own nihonto.
They were going to fight!
“This isn’t a matter to be decided by the sword,” I said, quickly stepping in front of Ko to protect him. “Ko didn’t give your father the name Kaminari. He was only repeating what he heard.”
Ken-ichi flushed angrily. “Who asked for your opinion, rice-boy?” he snarled. “Now, get out of my way.”
“No,” I said firmly.
Our gazes locked and held.
There was a soft metallic whisper as Ken-ichi drew his blade, and in a heartbeat the tip was pressed against my throat. I could feel the chill steel pricking my skin.
I caught my breath, not daring to move.
A silence fell around us. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Master Goku. He came forward and placed his hand firmly on Ken-ichi’s nihonto blade, pushing it away from my throat.
“Sheath your sword, Ken-ichi,” he said to my cousin, his voice hard and cold.
A muscle flickered in Ken-ichi’s cheek, but he didn’t move. His unflinching gaze stayed locked on mine, his eyes full of hate.
Master Goku’s face hardened. “You will not draw your blade against a member of my household.” Goku’s eyes flashed, and he raise his voice. “If there is a dispute, you will bring it to me!”
The silence around us deepened. Then slowly Ken-ichi lowered his blade and rammed it back into its sheath.
Master Goku’s hard gaze swept the assembled students. “There are five days left before the great Tournament which marks the end of kenshu training,” he said. “If there is one more incident like this, any student involved will be forbidden to enter the competition.”
With everything that had happened since our arrival at the dojo, I had almost forgotten about the Tournament. I held my breath as the silence stretched thinly around us all. A few boys looked at the floor as if they were ashamed. Without a word, Ken-ichi turned on his heel and stalked away.
Master Goku turned to Ko and Sato. “Repeating gossip is an activity more suited to washerwomen by a stream,” he said. “I expect better from servants at my dojo. Go and find something more worthy to occupy your time.”
The two boys scurried away, Ko shooting me a grateful glance over his shoulder. The other servants and students soon followed, and Hana and I were left alone with Master Goku.
“Stay out of trouble,” the Mastersaid, his voice gentle. Then he dismissed us.
As Hana and I walked away, I couldn’t help thinking about how bad things had become. Uncle was starving the country and Ken-ichi’s ego was raging out of control.
Master Goku was keeping him in check – just. But I wondered how long things could go on like this.
Later that night, we met up with Tatsuya for our usual practice session. He had heard from one of the other students about my encounter with Ken-ichi.
“Ken-ichi’s a menace,” Tatsuya said, gathering up rocks in preparation for his tea-pouring practice.
“Ko told me that Ken-ichi’s already been boasting that he’ll be Champion of the Tournament,” Hana said. “He says there’s no one here who’s good enough to beat him.”
“I might compete,” I said thoughtfully. “I stand as good a chance of winning as anyone else. Ken-ichi would have to stop boasting then!” And, I thought, as Champion of the Tournament, I would be in a good position to challenge Uncle.
As Tatsuya and Hana began their tea-pouring practice, I perched on a nearby rock, lost in thought. Whoever became Champion would be celebrated and that honor could be used as the grounds to face Lord Hidehira openly. Uncle would not be able to refuse the challenge.
But could I win the Tournament and become Champion? Could I eliminate all competition and be chosen as the best student in the school? During my time at the dojo I had put in hours of sweat and dedication. I excelled in many forms of fighting. Choji had told me recently that I was one of his best students with the naginata spear. Thanks to many moon phases of hard practice with the kitchen knives, I had become skilful enough fight anyone in hand-to-hand combat with a tanto dagger. And my ability with a nihonto had improved dramatically since my sword-fight with Ken-ichi at the dojo gates.
Above all, I was beginning to learn that it was not strength that mastered a blade – but precision. I knew that, with or without a weapon, I could find a weakness in every opponent.
I could do it, I told myself firmly. I could win the Tournament. And once I was crowned Champion, I would have proved that I could fight anybody and win. Thus would I be a worthy challenger to Uncle, and I would have my chance at revenge! My heart beat faster as I saw the way forward in my mind’s eye, like a walkway lit by a shaft of bright moonlight. In five days time I could face my uncle and avenge my father and brothers!
Above us the night sky deepened to midnight black and a faint breeze brought me the scent of blossom. I sat quietly on my rock, as Tatsuya and Hana finished their tea-pouring.
“That was much better this time,” Hana told him.
“Thank you,” Tatsuya said with a small bow. “Your teaching has helped, and I think I have improved. But…” he gave an anxious sigh. “I’m still nervous about serving tea to Goku. It’s one thing doing it right during practice, but entirely different in front of the whole school and all the Masters. What if my nerves get the better of me again, and I’m clumsy?”
“You won’t be clumsy,” Hana said firmly as she replaced the rocks around the shadow-filled garden. She took Tatsuya’s hand. “You will believe in yourself, and you will remember everything you’ve learned here in this garden.”
“I hope so,” Tatsuya said quietly.
They bowed to each other in preparation for their usual sparring session. Hana was using a garden rake to defend herself from Tatsuya’s jo.
“Higher,” Tatsuya told her. “Bring your elbow up, like this!” He demonstrated. “And use your left foot more.”
Hana stepped forward with her left foot, swung her rake, and then ducked to avoid Tatsuya’s jo.
“Here,” he said with a grin, “Swap weapons with me. I’ll use the rake to show you a better hand grip…”
They sparred on, swinging and cutting, weapons slicing the air. They leapt and pirouetted, using walls and rocks and even the air as stepping stones, looking more as though they were dancing than fighting.
Tatsuya swung the garden rake again. Hana ducked once more, too late this time, and gave a little shriek as the tip of the rake swept across the top of her head. It caught in her top-knot, and all at once her long hair came loose and tumbled down over her shoulders.
Horrified, she scrambled to twist it back up.
But there was too much of it! Long hair rippling in a waterfall of black silk…
I leapt to my feet. I had to do something before Tatsuya realized!
Tatsuya dropped the rake and stared at Hana, open-mouthed.
“You’re a girl!” he gasped.
At last Hana managed to twist her hair up and secure it on the top of her head. “You are mistaken,” she said quickly.
But Tatsuya shook his head. “I know what I saw,” he insisted. “You’re no more a boy than this garden rake is a lethal weapon!”
My heart was racing and I stepped forward to go to Hana.
Tatsuya quickly stopped me by barring the way with the rake. He stared into my face, a questioning look in his eyes. Across the garden, a frog jumped into the pond with a plop, the sound disturbing the stillness of the night.
“Both of you?” Tatsuya asked.
There was no use trying to convince him. We had to confess. I bit my lip and nodded.
“But why –?” he demanded.
I glanced at Hana and she gave a tiny nod. I took a deep breath and told Tatsuya the truth. “We’re the daughters of Lord Yoshijiro.”
Tatsuya looked astounded for a moment, then he fell to his knees in front of us and pressed his forehead to the ground.
“No!” Hana said in alarm. “Don’t do that. Please get up.”
Slowly Tatsuya raised his head to look at us, but he stayed on his knees. “Forgive me for any rudeness I may have shown you in the past –” he began.
But I interrupted him. “You’ve never been rude, Tatsuya,” I said, pulling him to his feet. “And you don’t have to treat us as if we’re Ladies of the Imperial Court. We’re ordinary girls now. Our father’s dead and we’re in hiding.”
“But why are you in hiding?” Tatsuya looked at us both, a sudden realization dawned across his face. “I remember Ken-ichi boasting to us all,” he gasped in horror. “Lord Hidehira’s men put the household to the sword for their treachery. He said it was the custom!”
“Except that Hana and I escaped,” I said quietly. “Uncle’s samurai were charging through the house, smashing everything in their path and slaughtering our servants…”
Tatsuya held up a hand. “Wait,” he said. “I think you’d better start at the beginning.”
So Hana and I sat in a shadowy part of the rock garden with Tatsuya, far away from prying eyes, and told him our story. We started with our real names, and then took turns describing the night at the compound when Uncle had massacred our household. One of us took up the tale when the other found it too hard to go on.
Tatsuya’s face grew serious in the moonlight. Every so often his dark eyes flashed with anger.
When we reached the end of the story, he clenched one of his fists and pounded it into the palm of the other. “How dare he?” he growled. “Lord Hidehira hasn’t just broken the bushi code; he’s ripped it to shreds and trampled it into the ground!” He looked at us fiercely. “If you ever need my help…” he said. “We’re friends, and friends look out for each other.”
“Thank you,” we both said together.
Then Tatsuya gazed at us again, this time shaking his head in disbelief. “Girls,” he marveled. “I still can’t believe it. You know, I’ve never seen any girl who can fight with the skill that you two have.”
“Not skilled enough, though,” I said. “We must train harder.” Quickly I told him my plan to win the Tournament and challenge Uncle openly.
“And if I win the Tournament, I will challenge the jito on your and Hana’s behalf,” Tatsuya said, looking at me intently.
Hana looked surprised. “No, Tatsuya,” she said quietly. “This is our fight. We are so grateful for your friendship, but we cannot drag you into this.”
I nodded in agreement. “But will you keep sparring with us?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Anything you need, just ask.”
As the Tournament drew closer, the air of excitement in the dojo intensified. The gardens and courtyards echoed with the clash of swords and jo. Students worked until late in the evening, calling for servants to relight the lanterns among the trees as they burned themselves out.
Choji noticed our renewed efforts and complimented us both on our improved weapons skill. “We’ll make warriors of you skinny boys yet,” he quipped in his gruff voice.
And every day that passed, I saw that Ken-ichi was training with the same intensity I was.
He’d taken over one of the courtyards on the far side of the school from the servants’ quarters and kitchens, so at first I wasn’t aware of what he was doing. But one evening, just as the sun dipped behind the curving roof of the main practice hall, Tatsuya led Hana and me along a series of walkways, through an ornamental garden to a wooden archway. As we approached, we could hear the sounds of combat – the grunts, the swiftly exhaled breaths, the impact of a fist.
“Look through the archway,” Tatsuya said quietly. “This is what you’re going to be up against in two days’ time.”
I looked, and my heart squeezed tight. Ken-ichi and his opponent, a brown-sash student called Genta, were both stripped to the waist. Their wiry bodies glistened with sweat. Surrounding them, were a group of about eight or ten other students, including Ken-ichi’s two friends. All eyes were fixed on Ken-ichi and Genta.
Genta circled Ken-ichi warily. One of his hands was curled loosely in front of his stomach, the other held straight out in front of him. He seemed tense, uncertain of his next move, and I could see a red mark along one of his cheekbones where Ken-ichi’s fist had already struck.
My cousin, by contrast, was relaxed and alert. A half-smile played around his mouth. He stepped forward and without warning unleashed a powerful punch that almost connected with Genta’s jawbone. Genta quickly bent backwards, swaying slightly, rolling his weight on his heels. Ken-ichi didn’t wait for his recovery. He shot straight in with a hard kick, power channeling through his leg into his foot. The impact was sudden and brutal, a blow that resounded around the courtyard. I cringed as the boy’s head snapped to one side, and all at once Genta was down, his face in the sand.
I saw one of Ken-ichi’s friends punch the air with his fist in triumph.
Ken-ichi lowered his hands and bowed in Genta’s direction – a supreme display of arrogance, for Genta was dazed and thus unable to acknowledge the supposed respect. Then, without the usual etiquette of waiting for an opponent to get up again, Ken-ichi turned to the other students. “Who’s next?”
No one moved. For a moment, I thought of launching myself forward. But I stopped myself. Now was not the right time. I was beginning to learn patience.
“What, none of you?” Ken-ichi said with a sneer. “All right then, let’s make it fair. I’ll take on three of you. Three against one! Come on, you peasants. Who’s man enough to challenge me?”
A few of the students shuffled and glanced at each other. One of Ken-ichi’s friends, big and brawny, stepped forward and volunteered himself before turning and dragging forward the two students nearest to him.
Ken-ichi grinned as all three came to face him, their bare feet making tracks in the sandy floor of the courtyard. They bowed to each other as custom demanded, but Ken-ichi breached etiquette again, coming up from his bow before the others had finished. They had barely gathered their wits when he launched into a punishing attack.
He is his father's son, I thought. Ken-ichi will trample over any sacred rule in the pursuit of triumph. I resolved to remember this fact, to know my enemy.
One of the students – quicker than the others – met him with a high block, while another moved in with a sliding foot which almost swept Ken-ichi’s feet from under him. But my cousin moved fast, fists and feet flying in a blur, one move following hard on another. He caught his first attacker in the ribs, sending him towards the third attacker, who almost tripped over him. Then he ducked down to ram a shoulder into his big, brawny friend, throwing him abruptly to the ground.
The brawny boy lay flat on his back gasping like a landed fish while the other two students sat looking dazed.
One of the boys on the ground recovered quickly, however. He scrambled to his feet, twisted his hips, and sent a flying thrust kick at Ken-ichi’s stomach. Everyone in the courtyard winced as they heard the contact.
For a moment it looked as if Ken-ichi had met his match. He gasped and backed off for a moment, his hands clutched hard across his muscular stomach. But then he shook himself off and darted in again with a double-handed punch. His opponent ducked away at the last minute and launched into another devastating kick.
But Ken-ichi was expecting it this time. He caught the kick in mid-air before it had time to connect, trapping the ankle between his arm and his ribs. He twisted his body, forcing his opponent off-balance. Instantly, the boy collapsed to the ground, locked into an awkward position by Ken-ichi’s painful control over his leg.
“Stop!” the boy yelped.
“Do you yield?” Ken-ichi demanded through gritted teeth.
“Yes… I yield,” the boy gasped in pain.
“Then I declare myself the champion!” Abruptly, Ken-ichi let go and the boy fell to the ground, clutching his ankle. A couple of other students ran to help him up, and he limped across the courtyard.
“Can’t you walk away like a true warrior?” Ken-ichi sneered at him. “A twisted ankle is hardly a major injury. I was holding back – if I’d wanted to, I could have snapped your leg like a twig!”
The boy flushed red with shame.
Out of sight of Ken-ichi, as the boy limped passed, I asked, “Are you all right?”
“I think so,” the boy replied, but he was breathing hard.
“Choji has some medical supplies in the kitchen,” I told him. “Why don’t you go and have your ankle bandaged?”
As his friends helped the injured boy away, I stood up and looked at Tatsuya.
“Seen enough?” he asked in a low voice.
“Yes,” I said.
I had seen enough. I knew now that my cousin was a deadly opponent, skilled and ruthless.
I also knew that if this had been a full contact bout instead of a practice, then it was almost certain that Ken-ichi’s opponent would never have walked again.
The night before the Tournament, everyone gathered in the main Practice Hall for one last formal tea ceremony. The period of intensive kenshu training was over.
“This evening,” Master Goku said, “I would like every student to take a turn at pouring tea for the cha no yoriai.”
Ken-ichi was chosen to go first, and he approached the low lacquered table with his usual confidence. He wore a crisp fresh kimono and neat black hakama trousers, his hair greased and folded on top of his head. With his handsome face and calm self-assurance, he looked every inch the noble samurai, and Master Goku acknowledged him with a bow. He bowed, knelt, and ladled out the tea perfectly.
“Your technique is excellent, Ken-ichi,” the Mastersaid. “You are a credit to your father.”
Ken-ichi walked back to his place, looking at his classmates as if they were already his subjects. One by one, the other students followed him. Each one bowed, knelt, poured.
When it was Tatsuya’s turn, Hana and I watched apprehensively. Tatsuya had worked so hard to improve, but what if, as he feared, his nerves took over when he was under pressure?
We needn’t have worried. Tatsuya was perfection itself. Poised and calm, his movements spare and precise, he could have served cha to the Emperor himself and been praised for it.
Master Goku bowed to Tatsuya. “You have particularly pleased me,” the Master said. “You have not only shown great improvement, but also the unshakeable will to be the best. And the best is what you have become tonight, Tatsuya.”
Tatsuya blushed and bowed low. Master Goku smiled. “You have the focus and passion of a true samurai, my son.”
I felt my heart swell with pride that Tatsuya had reached his goal. I knew that I still had my own challenge to fulfill. I still had to kick down the willow tree.
As Tatsuya returned to his seat, threading a pathway through the other students, I saw Ken-ichi roll his eyes. But Tatsuya was oblivious, smiling happily. Although he could not publicly acknowledge our help in his perfect tea-pouring skills, he bowed slightly to Hana and me as he passed.
Later that night, the three of us meditated together in the rock garden. We didn’t want to spar, preferring instead to save our energies for the next day’s Tournament. I felt as if our time at the dojo had all been leading up to this.
Tatsuya sat in tranquil isolation in a far corner of the garden, his dark hair made silver by the moonlight. Hana was kneeling, eyes closed, face serene.
I knelt motionless in a pool of light shed by a nearby lantern. My spirit felt calm, my whole inner being focused. For a moment I gazed across the rock garden to where the willow’s sad dead branches swept low to the ground. The moment had come.
A breeze stirred my hair. I got up and slowly walked across the moonlit garden to the willow tree. I positioned myself carefully, adjusting my balance as I took a wide-legged stance. My knees were soft, my hands curled one in front of the other near my stomach.
Standing very still, I closed my eyes.
Count your breaths, Kimi… Master Goku’s voice seemed to echo inside my mind. Breathe in, two, three, four... Breathe out, two, three, four…
I focused on my breathing and let conscious thought slip away. Memories faded.
Something happened then. A great emptiness seemed to fill me, abruptly replaced by a vital force that pushed up from the depths of my soul. Power surged through me. My limbs hummed with energy.
Eyes flashing open, I unleashed a fierce yokogeri kick, channeling every ounce of vigor and weight through my leg and into my foot. My heel hit the trunk of the willow like a blacksmith’s hammer. A loud crack! echoed through the night –
I leapt back just in time as the trunk snapped. And then the tree was falling! Branches whipped the air and at last the dead willow tree went crashing to the ground.
Hana and Tatsuya came running across the rock garden, bursting with excitement and exclamations of wonder. “You did it! You really did it!”
I stared at the toppled tree and smiled. “I think I’m ready.”