One morning, Shinta was awakened by the sound of the fusuma being slid open. As the boy sat up, waiting for Kazuma or Neishi to lead him outside for breakfast, instead he saw three girls of about 17 or 18 years step into the room. The fusuma slid shut behind them. They looked as lost and frightened as he had felt all winter.
Shinta watched as the three girls sat on the floor, desperately clinging to each other, seeming not even to notice him. Shinta swallowed and cleared his throat. He would try, one last time, to make a friend.
"Hello..." he ventured timidly.
Startled, the three girls turned and looked at him. When they saw that he was but a tiny boy, they relaxed a bit.
"Hello..." returned one, who looked to be the oldest of the three.
"My name is Shinta," said the little boy with a polite bow of his head.
The three girls hesitantly smiled.
"My name is Kasumi," said the eldest girl.
"It's good to know all of you," said Shinta quietly.
"How long have you been here?" asked Sakura.
"About six months. Everyone in my village died of cholera, except me. The daimyo sold me to get rid of me," said Shinta softly.
"I'm sorry, little one," said Akane softly.
"Thank you," replied Shinta.
Shinta's cheeks tinged pink as the three girls suddenly sat around him and cocooned him protectively in their arms. A very soft "oro" fell from his lips.
The four of them stayed that way for the next few hours. Shinta fell asleep in the warmth and protection of the girls' arms, feeling safe for the first time since his parents' deaths.
Shinta's eyes snapped open as the lock on the shoji was undone and the door slid open to reveal Kazuma and Neishi.
"On your feet! Food time!"
Shinta and the three girls obediently rose to their feet and were led out into the early spring air to the food line where the rest of the slaves awaited their breakfast.
The "breakfast" of stale natto was ladled out to everyone, who received it wordlessly and thanklessly. As usual, not everyone got an equal share. Some received a goodly amount, such as the three girls, while others hardly got any, such as Shinta. Shinta stared forlornly at his meager breakfast. He hated the sour, stale natto, but still he was very hungry and felt like he would pass out without more food. However, he didn't dare voice his desire, lest the slavers beat him.
Seeing that the three girls were about to make a fatal mistake, he stopped them.
"Don't!" he whispered. "If you eat before Kazuma and Neishi say you can, they'll beat on you."
The three girls put down their chopsticks and waited. The slaves watched as Kazuma and Neishi sat down to polish their katana and waited a few moments before finally giving the nod.
Only then did the slaves tuck into their food.
"Here, Shinta," whispered Akane as she moved some of the natto from her plate to Shinta's, "you can have some of mine."
"Are you sure?" whispered Shinta.
"Positive," whispered the Akane back to him.
"Thank you," said Shinta softly, taking a bite of his newly laden plate.
"You're welcome," returned the girl.
The girls smiled and giggled softly at the sight of the little boy whose cheeks were now puffed out with natto. A blush tinged those cheeks as Shinta looked down and concentrated on eating his breakfast. As he ate, Shinta cast glances at the three girls quietly eating around him. They were so lovely and had such nice clothes compared to the other slaves. Surely, they couldn't have come from the same background as he! Presently, he made bold to ask them.
"Kasumi-san, how did the three of you end up here?" he asked softly.
The three girls looked sad for a second.
"You needn't tell me if you don't want to," said Shinta softly, afraid of having upset his new friends.
"No, that's alright, Shin-chan," said Sakura. "The daimyo took us from our parents and sold us into slavery because they couldn't pay their debts."
Kasumi and Akane nodded sadly.
Shinta's face was stricken at this answer and he gripped his chopsticks hard. What a system they lived under! It was one thing for a little peasant boy to be sold into slavery after the deaths of his parents; it was quite another for these three beautiful girls to be torn from their family simply because they couldn't pay some stupid debts. These were human lives!
Shinta wasn't even aware of his vice like grip on his chopsticks until he felt them give and heard the snap. The now useless chopsticks fell to the ground, Shinta looking down indifferently.
"Here, Shin-chan, borrow mine. I'm not hungry," said Kasumi.
"Are you sure?" asked Shinta
"Very," she said, dubiously eyeing the natto.
"Thank you," said Shinta softly, taking the chopsticks and unenthusiastically eating his natto.
Soon, breakfast was over and the slavers collected the plates and chopsticks from the slaves. Upon coming to Shinta and Kasumi, Neishi saw that hers missing.
"Where are your chopsticks, bitch?" asked Neishi.
"No! I!" Shinta started to protest, but was silenced by Sakura's hand over his mouth.
"Forgive me, sir," said Kasumi, lowering her head. "I lost them."
Kasumi went flying to the ground.
"What's going on here?" came Ushio's voice as he arrived on the scene, attracted by the commotion.
"Ushio-dono, this slave bitch lost her chopsticks," said Kazuma.
"I see," said Ushio, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "We can't have these slaves wasting our property. Chastise her properly, but be certain not to mark her."
"Yes, Ushio-dono," said Kazuma.
Neishi licked his lips and his beady eyes gleamed.
Akane and Sakura held Shinta still as the two slavers led Kasumi away to be "chastened". Shinta struggled and tried to cry out, but the girls wouldn't let him go and Sakura's hand remained fast over his mouth. His eyes turned to Ushio, who stood over them, watching the entire scene indifferently.
Presently, Ushio turned his attention to the three before him and ordered them to their feet, then herded them back toward his house. As they went, a single tear rolled down Shinta's cheek, the crack of the whip and the sound of a girl crying echoing in his ears.
'I'm the one that should be punished! Why is Kasumi-san doing this?' he thought heart-brokenly, Sakura's hand still firmly over his mouth to prevent him from telling the slavers.
It always seemed like others were suffering in his place and he could do nothing to stop it.
Back in the cell, Shinta sat mutely between Akane and Sakura as they caressed him. He refused to look up from the floor.
"This is what Kasumi chose to do, Shin-chan," said Sakura softly.
"It will alright. You'll see," soothed Akane.
Just then, the lock was unlatched, the fusuma slid open and Kasumi was thrust into the room by the slavers, who were still grinning sadistically. Her sisters rushed over to her side and put her arms around their shoulders to help her to her feet. Shinta looked aghast at how pale, sweaty and tear-stained she was.
"Kasumi-san, why?" he asked in a broken voice, tears welling in his eyes again.
"No tears, Shin-chan," admonished Kasumi between gasps as her sisters helped her to sit. "I have no regrets and would do it again in a second."
"I don't understand," replied Shinta, dashing at the tears with the back of his sleeve.
"You don't need to. Come now. Dry your tears and sit with us. Let us talk of pleasant things," said Kasumi, reaching stiffly up to pull the little boy to her heart.
The three sisters settled the little boy between them and held him close. Despite his anxiety over what had happened, Shinta's eyelids grew heavier and heavier and he finally fell asleep, lulled by the warmth of the girls' embrace.
In the afternoon, Shinta was against startled awake by the sound of the fusuma being forced open. In stepped his two least favorite people. They immediately began barking orders at the small boy and three girls.
"On your feet, you dogs! We're moving out!"
Shinta was suddenly feeling very frightened. Where were they going? Were they to be sold at long last? Just then, he felt Kasumi and Akane's gentle hands take each of his with Sakura right behind them.
"Stay with us, Shinta. It will be alright," said Kasumi softly.
Shinta smiled up at his three new friends and followed them as they all got into line to move out.
As the caravan set out, Shinta looked over his shoulder and saw Ushio standing at the doorway, watching his chattel set out down the road. A spark of anger rose in his eyes at the man who had bought and sold him. Ushio's face had been burned forever in his mind's eye as the face of evil.
Upon feeling Kasumi's gentle squeeze on his hand, Shinta looked up and smiled at his friends, all three of whom returned the smile gently. As long as he could stay with his three new friends, he knew everything would be alright.