The Twelve Kingdoms: A Thousand Leagues of Wind
er mother dabbed at her eyes. "Take care," she said. Her father and two older brothers remained steadfastly silent. Her younger sister and brother wouldn't come out of the house. Standing at the door, Suzu could hear her grandmother comforting them.
"What's all this carrying on?" said the man next to her. His was the only cheerful voice. "Aoyagi- sama is a wealthy man. He'll dress you in fine clothes, teach you how to behave in civil society. When your apprenticeship is complete, you may well become the kind of proper young lady who can go wherever she pleases without the slightest reservation."
He laughed loudly. Turning her head to glance up at him, Suzu's eyes took in the broken-down shack before them. The posts leaned and the thatched roof sagged. The dirt floor was divided into a mere two rooms, and everything inside leaned or sagged as well.
Theirs was an impoverished life. They were tenant farmers who farmed rice, with most of the yearly yield going to pay the rent. On top of that, the previous year's harvest had proved meager, and when summer came again, ears did not appear on the stalks. As it was impossible to pay the rent, Suzu was indentured as a servant. Not her seventeen-year-old brother, or her eleven-year-old sister, or any of her other nine siblings. It was Suzu, fourteen years old according to the traditional lunar calender, but only twelve if you counted the years from her birth.
"Well, let's get going."
At the man's urging, Suzu bowed. She said no farewells. If she tried, she wouldn't be able to hold back the tears. She steeled her gaze and refused to blink. She looked at her home and memorized the faces she saw there.
"Take care," her mother said again and wiped her face with her sleeve.
With that, Suzu turned around. Her weeping mother, her stubbornly morose brothers, she understood now that none of them would be stepping forward to hold her back.
Suzu trudged silently after the man as they passed through the outskirts of the village. It was near noon and they had already reached the limits of the world that she knew. The trail cut up the slopes from the foot of the mountain. Suzu had never set foot beyond the remote mountain pass.
"You're a good kid. None of this weeping and wailing. That's what I like to see."
The man's cheerful attitude never flagged. He walked with long strides, saying whatever came to his mind. "Tokyo is a great city. You've probably never seen gaslight, huh? The estate you're going to, you'll be able to ride on a street car as well. Do you even know what a horse-draw trolley is?"
Suzu ignored him. To keep herself from looking back over her shoulder, she focused on the man's shadow and let his pace drag her along. When they drew apart, she would catch up in a flurry of tiny steps and then tread with satisfaction on the shape of the man's head.
Repeating this over and over, they crossed the mountain pass. Starting down the other side, the shadow of the man's head disappeared. He had stopped to look up at the sky.
Clouds raced across the sky from behind them. The shadow Suzu had been walking on grew faint.
"Looks like rain."
They glanced back at where they had come from. A shadow climbed the luxuriant, tree-covered slopes from the village. The shadow of the clouds stuck to their heels, almost as if the rain were pursuing. A warm breeze began to blow. Drops of rain drummed on the road.
"Well, this is unfortunate," the man said, and dashed to a giant camphor tree growing along the side of the road. Suzu hugged her furoshiki -wrapped bundle to her chest and followed after him. The big drops of rain thudded against her cheeks and shoulders. Almost as soon as she had reached the cover of the branches, the squall turned into a driving downpour.
Suzu scrunched up her neck and ran toward the base of the tree. The twisting trunk jutting out of the ground provided some cover as well. Probably because of the roots being worn smooth by any number of travelers stopping here to catch their breath, she lost her footing.
Oh, don't trip, she thought, and at the same time was sent sprawling. She pitched forward and with her next step caught her toes on another root. She started to fall. Her feet slipped out from under her. Suzu skittered up to the end of a precipice in a little dance.
"Hey, watch out!"
Halfway through the warning, the man's voice turned into a shout. Where the trunk of the huge camphor tree split apart was an embankment steep enough to be called
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