With a polite bow, Ryuichi left Kieko tsking and headed off to attend his duties before he got into trouble again. Which seemed to be his natural state of being.
No matter how hard he tried, he always screwed things up.
But it’d been good to see the crazy old woman for a moment. Though why they called her crazy, he wasn’t sure. She seemed saner to him than most of the others he was forced to deal with. In fact, he liked her more than most of the so-called sane people who roamed about. At least Kieko wasn’t mean-spirited. Nor did she make him feel bad whenever their paths crossed.
Never had he seen her be cruel to anyone, for that matter. Yet others were terrible to her. They mocked her and belittled her as much as they’d done him. Many times for no other reason than breathing the same air that they did.
He had no idea why she stayed here and tolerated their abuse.
If he had his freedom, he’d leave and never return to this godforsaken village.
Yet Kieko stayed for reasons only she knew.
Perhaps she was as abandoned and friendless as he was. She definitely seemed to be without family or friend.
That made him ache for her and it was why he went out of his way to be nice to her whenever their paths crossed.
And those thoughts brought his sadness back as he headed for the stables.
With a ragged sigh, he darted into the shadows as he saw Mōri Hitoshi and Niwa Kin heading toward him, laughing together in their finery. Like two evil little oni out to menace whatever innocent victim they could find. He even imagined them with horns growing out of their heads.
While they were the same age he was, they thought themselves his superior in every way. Or anyone else’s for that matter.
Even though he knew that neither of them was nearly as good with a sword or even chopsticks as he was. Something proven every day when they trained and he knocked them on their rumps and they screamed that he’d cheated–which he never did. He didn’t have to as they were just that incompetent.
Or at mealtimes when more rice ended up in their laps than in their mouths.
Still, everyone thought they were great and that he was nothing.
Because of the honor and reputations of their fathers.
Last thing Ryuichi needed right now was another encounter with either of their scathing tongues.
Or worse, their fists.
“I wish they’d trip.”
The whispered words had no sooner left his lips than Hitoshi’s sword slipped and tangled with his feet. He gasped and fell into Kin. Entwined, they both landed in a disgraceful lump on the ground.
Ryuichi gaped at the sight as their sensei hastened forward to scold them for their clumsiness.
“Dishonor on you both! Get up and clean yourselves before someone sees you!”
Still, Ryuichi stared at the fulfillment of his whispered desire. What were the odds?
It’d happened just as he wished . . .
So focused on them, Ryuichi wasn’t watching his own steps that carried him straight into someone else.
“Excuse me! Hello?”
Stunned, he realized that he’d collided with an incredibly beautiful girl. One with dark brown eyes that were filled with intelligence and humor. Her black hair was in a geiko shimada that was similar to a samurai’s chonmage . . . except that the top of her head wasn’t shaved.
She also smelled like cherries and almonds.
When she smiled, two deep dimples flashed in her cheeks. “Are you all right?”
Ryuichi could barely think to answer. “Um . . . yes.”
“Then may I please have my arm back?”
It was only then that he realized he’d grabbed a hold of the girl’s blue kimono when he’d stumbled and was still holding onto her. “I’m so sorry!”
Embarrassed, he quickly let go and stepped away.
“It’s fine.” Moving back, she straightened her kimono sleeves and the small Suji Kabuto that she carried. By the number of stripes in that helmet Ryuichi knew that she was from a rich family. For a grown man to have armor that nice would be impressive.
The fact that it was made for someone their age . . .
Ryuichi swallowed in fear of what he’d just done. Accident or not.
Bowing to her, he prayed that he hadn’t offended her.
Most of all, he prayed that she wasn’t from one of the more respected samurai families. She could have him whipped for his clumsiness. “Forgive me, my lady.”
She bowed to him. “Nothing to forgive, my lord. I should have been more careful and looking where I was going, too.” She flashed that impish smile again. “I’m Hattori Takara.”
Of course she was . . .
Of all the people to run into!
Ryuichi groaned inwardly at the Hattori name and his ever rotten luck. She wasn’t just connected . . .
She was related to one of the most prominent families that was renowned for their fighting prowess.
And he’d just run her over. By all the stars above, he’d be lucky if they didn’t disembowel him for the affront.
She turned as one of the elder lords called for her.
Grateful for that distraction, Ryuichi wasted no time running for the stable and removing himself from her sight.
Maybe she’d forget that he’d been there.
Everyone else thought he was invisible. Hopefully, she would, too.
As fast as he could, he skittered around the door, and pressed himself inside, into the shadows so that he could watch Takara.
“Boy?” She glanced about for him.
Of course, she’d remember he was there.
“Takara! Come here, now!”
Grimacing, she glanced about one more time before she headed toward the man calling for her.
Ryuichi’s heart pounded as he watched her go. In his mind, he imagined for a moment that he was Hitoshi or one of the other boys at the party. One who had a family name to give her that would equal her own.
But he was no one.
Only a blight who would embarrass her for having dishonored her by touching her in such a familiar way.
And so he headed into the barn where he heard a horrific sound. High-pitched and unholy, it cut through his ears and made him flinch.
What could make such a screech? A sick owl?
The horses stamped and neighed in their stalls, trying to flee it.
Not that he blamed them. If the sound wasn’t bad enough, it smelled as if Ito had farted in here after eating rotten cabbage.
Ryuichi headed for the first stall, wanting to calm the horse before it injured itself. Yoshi-san would have his head if something happened to his favorite steed.
But before he could reach him, a blur ran past his feet. Something else flew past his head.
“Stop!” a boy shouted from off to his right.
What in the world?
Ryuichi turned and was assaulted by all manner of things exploding around him. Even the very straw seemed to be alive. The pitchforks were fighting saddles, and brooms were attacking bridles.
“Yōkai!” a boy shouted. “Watch yourself!”
No kidding! As if he hadn’t figured that out given the amount of obstacles flying at his head and feet. Ducking, he held his hands up to shield his face while trying not to trip over the things fighting in the straw.
Scared, Ryuichi growled and felt a weird wave rush through him.
The moment it did, the pitchforks nearest him were blasted back, into the wall. Harmless now, they fell to the floor.
The boy who’d called out to him stared in awe. “What did you do?”
“Can you do it again?”
Ryuichi tried to blast the saddles with his thoughts. Two fell to the ground. One ducked, and the rest continued to battle.
Well . . .
He’d almost succeeded.
Then, the rest of the objects turned toward the two of them.
And began to stalk them.
“Um, I think they’re angry.” Ryuichi took a step back.
“I think they’re going to attack.” No sooner had he spoken than they did.
Ryuichi tried to block again.
At least not at first. Not until they reached him. Then, the items blew apart.
Stunned, he stared at his hands, awed by what he’d done without even really trying.
How was that possible?
“Mikito! What are you doing?”
Ryuichi lowered his hands as he realized Mikito was the boy beside him. And the man speaking was a very high-ranking and unhappy samurai.
Mikito bowed. “Forgive me, Father. I was fetching the sword when I was attacked.”
His father looked around at the mess with a dark scowl lining his brow. “Yōkai were after the sword?”