It was hot. Hotter than the stones in front of the temple, hotter than the stove where the servants cooked dinner, hotter than mother’s skin right before she died. Rin lay on her back in the middle of the room, trying to draw a hint of coolness from the sodden air. Even the light summer kimono she wore hung heavy on her, sticking unpleasantly, weighing her down. Her father’s house was hushed, servants moving slowly about their duties or abandoning them entirely. Rin couldn’t blame them, she was avoiding her work too.
The screen door whispered in its tracks, bringing a blessed puff of fresh air, but Rin’s mood soured quickly when she saw what accompanied it.
“Go away,” she grumbled, turning her head back towards the wilting courtyard.
“You haven’t moved in three hours,” her older sister Mayumi scolded gently. “At least have some tea with me.”
“It’s too hot for tea.”
Rin considered, brow furrowed, then sat up with a sigh, eyeing her sister over the low table in the center of the room. Oblivious to her younger sister’s scrutiny, Mayumi bent to pour water into two simple pottery cups. Like Rin, Mayumi was dressed in a summer kimono, her hair tied elegantly back in the manner of unwed women, but where Rin sprawled with her legs akimbo, Mayumi knelt, knees and ankles together. They were full sisters but their servants joked that one had all of her father, the other, only her mother. Rin was tall for her age, all elbows and knees, with thick, coarse hair and thicker, coarser brows on a narrow, sun-darkened face. Mayumi was small and polished, her hair a perfectly-tamed river framing her pale, round face with two little black arches serving for brows. Everyone said Mayumi was beautiful, even Rin had to admit it. No one had decided on Rin yet. They called her stubborn, lazy, nosey and contrary, but never within the family’s hearing.
“You should help with the preparations,” Mayumi told her, placing the larger cup in front of her sister.
Rin narrowed her eyes but remained silent, drinking from her cup and sighing as the sweet coolness made its way down her throat and into her core.
“It isn’t so difficult, even I can do it.”
Rin snorted but said nothing.
Sighing at her sister’s lack of manners, Mayumi took a sip of water. “Father will be disappointed when he hears how you refused to do your part in welcoming the lady home.”
“It’s not her home,” Rin snapped, slamming cup and spilling water across the table. “It never will be, and I don’t care if he’ll be disappointed. He should have considered my feelings if he wanted me to consider his.”
“Oh Rin, look what you’ve done now,” Mayumi scolded, lifting her cup and backing out of the way of the flood of water. “Why should father consider you? You are his daughter, not his friend, his lord, or his advisor. Besides,” she softened her tone, laying a gentle hand on her sister’s elbow, “you’ll be married in a few years and gone to your husband’s domain. Why make such a fuss over something that won’t mean anything in a few years?”
Almost, Rin relented, then the fire was back in her eyes as she snatched her arm away. “You don’t care because you’re abandoning me too. You’ll get married and move across the mountains, then father will ride off to help Lord Takeda and leave me here with her, that northern witch!”
“Rin!” Mayumi exclaimed, shocked, but Rin felt herself beginning to cry so she whirled on her heel and stormed out of the room.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid,” she chanted, bare feet slapping the wood of the external halls she stormed down, frightening the servants who ducked around corners when they caught sight of her. Even her friends avoided her. They knew that look.
Still chanting, Rin stormed down the front steps, donning the first sandals she could find and stomping down the road as hard as she could. Her eyes were on fire now, but she didn’t allow herself to sniffle until she was well down the street and out of sight.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Her heels hurt. “Stupid, stupid.” Was it Mayumi who was stupid? Or their father? “Stupid.” No, it was Rin, temperamental Rin, always flaring up and making a mess of things. Why couldn’t she be more like Mayumi? “Stupid.”
Ahead, Rin caught sight of a dust cloud, too large for a group on foot. A thrill shot through her. Her father! No one else could muster so many riders. But, her heart fell, she could not let him see her like this. Not with his men, especially not with that woman beside him. Glancing off to the side of the road Rin caught sight of a small trail, too small for horses, almost too small for humans, but not too small for a twelve-year-old girl, even an oversized one like Rin. In the space of a breath she had darted up the road and into the bushes. The track narrowed farther in but not so much that it was impassable and by the time her father’s outriders thundered by Rin was well-hidden within the trees. The procession would take some time - and Rin wanted to avoid the inevitable confrontation as long as possible - so she headed deeper into the woods.
For the first few steps Rin gazed about herself in wonder. She’d been in the forest before when she and Mayumi played as children, before Mayumi discovered fancy silks and manners. Rin played long after such games were inappropriate, sneaking out of her lessons to throw mud at the boys and watch her father riding with his troops. But her experience was confined to the woods by her father’s house where the soldiers practiced regularly and the hunters probed for game. This far down the road the underbrush was thick, the canopy so tangled Rin couldn’t see the sky. Here were birds and flowers she’d never seen, fierce, wild things sharing rocks and branches with the most delicate, vibrant petals and feathers she could imagine.
Still, even the beauty and excitement of new exploration couldn’t withstand the assault of summer and within an hour Rin was tired and grumpy, glaring down at her feet where she placed them one before the other, oversized sandals rubbing between her toes, forming blisters. The path ran true or she might have thought to turn aside. In the deceptive twilight beneath the trees she could not see the gathering clouds or sense the gradual dimming of the air. So Rin was unprepared when a sudden crash split the sky, pouring down water so thick it penetrated the leaves and branches overhead and drenched Rin within seconds. Tilting her head back Rin enjoyed the sensation of cold water for a moment before setting her mind to her task. She could have headed back along the path the way she’d come but by her reasoning she’d walked nearly parallel to the road for the past half hour, and so would return home quicker if she cut cross-country. Hesitating a moment at the thought of the scolding she’d receive, another crash of lightning decided her. She’d take a scolding if it meant a dry bed. She set off in the direction she thought would lead her home. Unfortunately for Rin, her sense of direction was not as good as her penchant for arguing and within a few minutes she was hopelessly lost.
“The road should be right here,” she grumbled to herself, kicking the underbrush at her feet. Despite the violence of her assault the road did not appear. Sighing in frustration she turned, intending to retrace her footsteps and follow the path back, only to realize, she had no idea which direction she’d come from.
Swearing to herself in language that would have shocked even her father, Rin stamped in a little circle but could see no way out of her predicament. Tears threatened, but she mastered herself with an effort and sat in the flat space she’d cleared, swallowing until her eyes stopped burning. When she was a child and her mother was still alive Rin had run away from home, the first time of many. She was only five and she’d gotten lost immediately. Fearless in ignorance, she’d spent the night curled under the branches of a thick-branched pine and returned, dirty and hungry, the next morning.
Rin was older now and knew better than to trust in the innocence of the forest. Last time she spent the night under the trees she was accompanied by three servants, a horse and several dogs, and they stayed close to her father’s house. Even with their precautions a boar attacked their campsite and sent them precipitously home.
Rin shivered. It was dark. She wouldn’t be able to find her way home now even if she knew where she was. Night had fallen and with it rose all manner of unearthly noises. Wondering if the stories of beasts living in the woods were true, wishing she’d brought her naginata, the weapon for female samurai she’d trained in since childhood, Rin settled for the protection of a nearby stick. Hoping an answer would come to her by sunrise Rin resolved to remain vigilant until then. She promptly fell asleep.