Chapter One

Edo, Japan, during the Tokugawa Shogunate

 

THE ANMA, the blind masseur, who was coming to take Sho away, trudged toward them. Hirata watched the man approach from where he stood, Sho on his left side, Sho’s parents nearby, and his own mother and father on his right.

The anma appeared harmless enough, dressed in a kimono and cloak, his calves wrapped in gaiters, feet in tabi socks and dirty rope sandals, guiding himself in slow, measured steps with a long cane. But to Hirata, he might as well have been a demon because in just a few minutes, he’d leave again, taking Hirata’s heart with him.

No doubt, this anma would shave Sho’s hair close to the scalp like his, dress Sho in one of those ratty cloaks, and drag Sho around with him, hustling to rub strangers’ shoulders in exchange for a coin. Sho might not be a samurai, like himself and his family, but neither did Sho deserve the fate to which both his own and Sho’s parents were tossing him. Hirata grasped Sho’s hand. “Father,” he whispered, “there must be some other way.”

“I’m sorry, my son. This is what Sho needs. His mother and father want this for him. He’ll be with others like him.”

Hirata glanced at Sho, who stood motionless at his side. Of the two of them, Sho had always been the quiet one, saying very little, keeping his feelings and opinions inside. Though they were both only in their tenth year, Sho had always seemed much older. Sho couldn’t see the anma, only hear his footsteps in the dirt of the road, but the way Sho’s hand returned Hirata’s grip told Hirata without words the way his friend felt. Terrified.

After today, there would be no more scampering on the rocks along the river, or climbing trees, or sword fighting with the wooden sticks from his father’s training school. Even after Sho had endured the illness that left him blind, Sho still did everything Hirata did. In fact, the intensity of their play was heightened by Sho’s sharpened senses, which compensated for his loss of sight. Sho could hear sounds from miles away, long before a sighted person could hear them. And Sho could smell things from great distances, things that only a ninja or highly trained spy could. He could even smell emotions, which, he once explained to Hirata, people emitted the same way they did body odor.

This couldn’t happen. There was never a time he and Sho had not been friends. He and Sho were exactly the same age, born only days apart, and since Sho’s parents worked as servants in his house, they’d never been away from each other. Sho was part of his very being. Separation from Sho made him feel like his own heart was dying.

Hirata stepped in front of Sho, pushing his friend behind him, still gripping his hand. “I won’t let them take him!” He glared at his father. Wasn’t that what a samurai was supposed to do? To protect the one whom his heart was sworn to serve? Sho might be a peasant, the son of his father’s servants, but if they really knew Sho, they’d understand he was nobler than any daimyo, even the shogun himself.

Sho’s mother and father stood nearby, watching them. Sho’s mother’s eyes shone with tears, but Hirata didn’t care. If they loved him so much, they shouldn’t be giving him away.

The anma had nearly reached them, his trudging steps ominously closer. Hirata stepped back, as if he could be a human wall between Sho and his fate, and then felt his friend’s fingers curl more tightly around his. Sho had always expressed his feelings as much in gestures as in words. This silent gesture said, “Don’t let go, ever.”

Hirata tugged his father’s sleeve. “Sho has promise as a swordsman, even though he’s blind.”

“Sho is not a samurai,” his father said. “He’d never be allowed legally to carry a weapon. If he were a samurai, he could fill some sort of office, even with his blindness. But he’s not. There’s nothing for him without the Guild for the Blind. With their help, Sho has many choices. He could end up an anma in the home of a lord. He could become a composer, a musician, a banker, so many things. Without the Guild’s help, he’s confined to this house for the rest of his life. What would you have him do? Empty our night soil each day? Cook rice?” Hirata’s father gripped Hirata’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Hirata. If you really care for your friend, you must let Sho face his destiny.”

“His destiny is with me!” Hot tears crowded Hirata’s eyes. He fought them back. He’d never been able to control his emotions as a proper samurai should, and he wasn’t able to do it now. Especially when he was losing his best friend in the world. They might never be together again. “Father… please.” His voice fell to a whisper.

“Hirata, let him go.”

The anma reached them and came to a stop. He bowed. “I’m Zato no Ichi. I’ve come for the boy.”

Hirata’s gaze flew to the older man, whose closely shorn head glinted with silver amongst the ebony stubble. The anma called Ichi opened his eyes, just for a moment, revealing only whites before sliding his lids closed again. Hirata’s heart lurched. If Sho could see this man, he’d run away in fear. Then again, if Sho could see him, the anma wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Hirata’s father, still gripping Hirata’s shoulder, acknowledged the greeting with a bow of his head. “Ichi-san, I’m Yoken Morimasa. I represent the household that turns this child over to the care of you and your guild.”

A new wave of grief-filled terror washed over Hirata. “No!” he cried. Yanking out of his father’s grip, he dragged Sho and broke into a run, off the road, back toward his father’s compound, which housed their home, the servants’ quarters, and his father’s dojo. Sho tripped and stumbled on the raised stones of the pathway but recovered quickly each time.

Hirata led him to their special hiding place. “Get under here, Sho.” He guided Sho, who willingly dropped to his hands and knees and crawled underneath the raised platform of the house’s floor, then scooted between the heavy timbers that supported the foundation. Hirata crawled in after him and herded him closer to the center. No one would find them here. Perhaps if they hid long enough, Sho’s parents would give up and let Sho stay.

Hirata pulled Sho close and held him, panting from the sudden exertion. Sho was breathing heavily too.

After several moments, Sho stirred in his arms. “Hirata, I don’t want you to get into—”

“Shh! I hear something!”

“Hirata! Come out right now!”

Hirata stiffened at his father’s voice. No doubt he’d shamed his father by his behavior, but he didn’t care, not if defying him meant Sho could stay.

Sho squirmed in his grip. “Hirata,” he whispered. “Please. I don’t want you to be punished.”

Hirata squeezed him firmly. His father’s voice was drawing closer. Did his father know about their special hideout? “Let him punish me. Nothing else matters.” He bent his head close to Sho’s ear. “The stone can never be separated,” he said, referring to their special stone, the smooth disk Hirata had picked out of the stream during one of their outings, not long after Sho’s illness and recovery. Hirata had placed the stone on a larger rock and broken it in half with yet a third rock, giving one half to Sho and keeping the other for himself. As long as they were together, the stone was still complete, even though it had been split.

“I have my half,” Sho answered. “It’s in my pack.”

Hirata felt the bulge of Sho’s meager belongings stuffed into the pack slung across his friend’s slim torso. “I have mine too.” Icy shivers assaulted Hirata’s skin. “I’ll never let go of it.”

“Neither will I. I promise.” Sho squeezed Hirata’s hand.

In that tiny gesture, Hirata felt that Sho, the wiser, more mature one of them, was speaking, telling him that his father was right. Destiny would reign over them. Not Hirata’s desires. Or Sho’s. Hirata didn’t care. They must stay together, no matter what.

At the edge of the house, Hirata’s father’s sandaled feet came to a stop. Hirata clamped a hand over Sho’s mouth.

The next thing Hirata knew, his father had knelt down and peered into the shadows. “I know you’re both in there. Come out, now!”

The anma’s dirty rope sandals appeared beside Hirata’s father’s feet. “Perhaps today isn’t the best day, Morimasa-san. I can return.”

“No. I apologize for my son’s behavior, Ichi-san. Postponing will only make it worse for both of them.”

Hirata’s brother-in-law came running up. “Father, I’ll get them out for you.” He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled underneath.

“Stay back, Ken,” Hirata said, squeezing Sho tightly to himself.

But Ken had never had patience for Hirata’s emotional outbursts even though he always treated his young brother-in-law with respect. He honored his father-in-law more. “Honor your father’s wishes, Hirata. This behavior is beneath a samurai.” He grabbed both Hirata’s ankles in an iron grip.

Hirata struggled and kicked, but Ken was stronger. After a short battle, Ken dragged Hirata out, bringing Sho along with him in his fight to hang on to his friend.

The second Hirata was out from under the house, he was back in his father’s grip and Sho was pulled from him. Ken pried Sho’s tightly fisted hands from Hirata’s kimono. Hirata’s father held him fast while Sho was led away, his head bowed. Sho’s hair had pulled from its tie and long strands of it hung loose around his face. His kimono was dirty and rumpled from the struggle.

“If you really care about Sho,” his father said gently, in spite of his tight hold around his son’s middle, “you’ll let him learn his trade. Let him have that dignity, Hirata.”

Hirata struggled. “I’ll find you, Sho!” he yelled. “One day! I promise!”

Sho turned, his sightless eyes staring in a different direction even though he was facing Hirata. Sho’s cheeks were stained with dirt and tears. Sho waved and then turned, letting the anma guide him back to the road, where his parents waited to say good-bye.

“I’ll find you, Sho. I promise,” Hirata whispered. His father held him tightly until Sho was long gone.