Breakfast was finished, and the meal room was almost empty as Kentaro poked his head around the open door.
"Anybody seen Chiko?"
The handful of men lingering over their meal turned to see who had broken the silence.
"He's out on the training field—why?"
Kentaro grinned mysteriously, replying, "Oh, I just have something for him, that's all. Thanks—I'll find him."
He withdrew and threaded his way along the dim, claustrophobically narrow corridors toward the rear of the compound, neatly dodging women lumbering along under piles of laundry and young boys running—always running!—to stock the training ground with shinai and bokken, naginata and tanto, wristguards and bandages, and emerged into the thin autumn morning light. Taking the steps in a quick rush, he jogged over the moist ground to the rise overlooking the large bare meadow sheltered on three sides by the remnants of a bamboo forest. He shielded his eyes against the backlighting of the sky to peer into the shadow cast by the forest's looming height, moving his gaze from figure to figure in the crowd, formed into groups for the day's practice.
Ah, yes, there he is.
For a moment, he watched, appreciating again the smooth teamwork, the fluid give and take of tori and uke, the coordinated techniques of squad moving against squad, of tracking and hunting and attacking. He felt the familiar satisfaction again, watching these men, his comrades, knowing he belonged and was depended on. Then he turned on his heel and headed back down the rise, toward his right, toward the stables.
It had taken him more than a month, and he was now indebted to the tune of three jugs of the very special, ancient-style Nigori sake, that lovely, milky-white nectar, and a full week of graveyard shift guard duty stretched before him, but as he fitted the halter over the steed's fine head and stood back to gaze at it stamping and tossing its head in eagerness to be out, he felt the thrill of the deal well-struck, of the quest fulfilled, of the obligation about to be filled with a vengeance.
The horse was fast—his own astonished eyes that day at the track had assured him of that!—and was as nearly perfectly conformed as he'd ever seen. And that was disregarding the burnished copper of its coat and the tractability of its nature, so unexpectedly paired with such a fiery eye.
With a little frisson of anticipation, he took the lead in hand and stepped out of the stable door, the sweet music of solid hooves clip-clopping beside him back over the dewy grass toward the training ground.
Gozaemon groaned a little to himself as he sat up, and instantly a supporting hand was under his elbow.
"Are you all right?" Yoshi sounded only a little worried these days: although he'd felt the need to stick close for the last several weeks, his old friend had seemed to be healing nicely, especially given his age and the beating he'd taken.
"Yes, yes, I'm no dried leaf, you know!" Gozaemon held the back of his head with is free hand, feeling the remnant of the lump that was the remaining souvenir of his adventure. He immediately regretted his sharp words. Yoshi had been a god-send in every way: a competent nurse, and one who didn't fuss, but had seemed to anticipate his needs intuitively, bringing tea just when he needed it, returning from an unusually long morning's absence with a string of fish just on the day when Gozaemon's appetite had returned. "Thanks. My head just still hurts a little."
"Do you want anything for it? I still have some of that compound prepared…"
Gozaemon pulled himself up, stretching his neck against the lump and testing the limit of the pain. "No, but thanks anyway. It's much better today. In fact, I think I'll get dressed and see to the garden. It needs to be thatched for the winter…" He began to pile himself up, limb upon limb, stacking his bones for standing.
"Would you just stop and wait a minute? Let me help you!"
"Oh, all right!" Sighing in what he hoped sounded like impatience and exasperation, the old man paused and waited, waited for the helping hand that he actually still needed, waited for the muscled shoulder he'd come to depend on, waited for the borrowed strength he was going to need if he was going to see another spring…
THE SHISHIO FAMILY COMPOUND
"My lord, I've found the perfect place! It will take a lot of work to make it what we really need, but even as it stands it will serve well. It's several joined chambers with a hot spring moderating the temperature, and the entrance is impossible to detect. There is even access to a completely enclosed high meadow—ideal for training."
Houji's eyes glittered with excitement—he had not even told the best part: this gem of a headquarters, with all its promise for their future, was buried in none other than the sacred mountain of Hiei.
Nothing less would be fit for the glorious endeavor that awaits us!
He bowed low, bracing himself against the floor in a vain attempt to steady his thin frame's trembling with joy. His master's sudden arrival, in the dead of a black, new-moon, autumn night, on a horse so spent it had to be put down, had been surprising enough, but the shocking condition of his body had nearly unhinged the loyal servant. The weeks of recovery, and the tension of the stealth necessary for his master's safety, had all taken their toll on them both, but now, now that the lair had been found, now that he could feel his master's strength returning, now…
In the dim light of the inner rooms in which he'd taken refuge from even his own father, whom he'd not seen since his return, couldn't bear to face in his weakened state, Makoto's eyes reflected the glow from the smoldering tobacco in his pipe's bowl, that curiously long graceful pipe he'd brought back with him, a pipe unlike any Houji had ever seen.
"You've done well, Houji-san. Set it up."