“Why I lived, when everyone – Mother and Father, even the baby – died of the fever. Why I lived to come here, and annoy Oba-san, and be a burden to Oji-san.”
I pressed my lips together to hold in the angry denial that wanted to escape. Instead I put my arm around her, and hugged her fiercely.
“Perhaps,” I said, when I had control of myself. “Perhaps the Moon took pity on me…”
“What do you mean?” she asked, surprised.
“I was so lonely before you came. I used to pray for a brother or sister – someone to talk to and play with. Most especially I prayed for a sister: a kind, beautiful sister. Perhaps the Moon heard my pleas and spared you when my aunt and uncle died, not for your own sake but for mine. If so, I cannot be sorry. Though you might be, to have such a sister forced on you, and such a mother as mine.”
“Suzume!” she said, a little amused and a little shocked. “What would your father say?”
“Oh, he never says anything. That is part of what makes Mother so cross all the time. Father knows that if he scolds me I argue, and arguments are so noisy, and—”
“ ‘A quiet house is a happy house,’ ” she chorused with me.
She was smiling now, the sweet, happy smile that I loved to see. I congratulated myself, though I had said nothing but the truth. I was about to suggest that we walk back to the house, when I heard hoof-beats on the road. Lots of them. Travelling at a gallop.
We exchanged interested looks. Mother? No – why would she be in such a hurry so close to home? Besides, we could not afford so many outriders.
As I leaned forward to look down at the road, the troop of riders broke out of the forest. Aimi made a sound of wonder. There were an even dozen of them, and they wore black lacquered armour and rode dark horses. The spring sunlight gleamed on the horses’ gear and on the silver edges of the armour. They made a glorious picture.
I expected them to carry on along the road, but instead the leader, who had a crest of white feathers on his helmet, pointed, and they wheeled their horses and turned on to our little road. The thunder of hooves shook the ground as they rode under the ranks of blooming trees, and pink and white petals showered down, catching in the dark flowing manes and tails of the horses. They looked like an illustration from one of Father’s books.
Yet, as the leader passed us in our hidden place, a cold finger touched my back and I shivered. I did not like the feeling. Sometimes it came when we were about to get bad news.