THE SCREAM MADE Taka drop the snowball she had just been aiming at her best friend’s head and turn towards the gate to see what was happening. In a single heartbeat Mishi was by her side and crawling onto her shoulders to get a better view.
“Mishi-chan!” she hissed. “I can’t see when you do that!”
She brushed her younger friend’s hands from her face, where they had strayed to cover her eyes. Mishi was a cycle younger than she, but barely smaller. Still, the girl insisted that her two fingers’ width of height deficiency meant she could use Taka as a staircase whenever she pleased. Mostly Taka didn’t mind, but someone had just screamed. This was serious.
Once she had cleared her vision of her friend’s hands, she was able to see what was happening at the small gate that led into the snow covered garden.
“Mishi-chan… is that… is that Rika-san?”
She didn’t give Mishi time to reply, for in a single breath they both recognized the older girl, and in one move Mishi had dismounted from Taka’s shoulders and they had both begun running in Rika’s direction. As they neared her, they saw that her face was streaked with dirt and tears, her clothes soaked with melting snow, and her body a mere shadow of what it had been when she had left them only two moons before.
“Rika-san?” they both called, as they ran towards her. Why had the older girl screamed? She was stumbling now, through the small wooden gate and towards the door to the orphanage’s kitchen, which lay only a few tatami lengths away from her across the snow buried garden. Her breath faltered and her limbs shook, and Taka was sure that the girl would collapse at any moment.
Taka and Mishi were rushing to help the older girl when they heard a deep voice shout from the gateway.
“Stop her! Stop that girl!”
They had no sooner heard the voice than they were nearly thrown to the ground by three grown men rushing forward to grab Rika. Just as the men reached her, the girl let out another yowl of despair. The noise was so awful that Taka would have covered her ears if her hands hadn’t been busy holding Mishi up from the packed snow that she and her friend had been flung down on.
Taka couldn’t make sense of what she saw before her. The men appeared to be normal villagers, men she would have recognized from the town market if it had been a normal day. But these men were all grabbing Rika as though she were some sort of dangerous criminal and dragging her back towards the gate with them. They were forced to drag her, her legs flailing as she tried to free herself, her ragged clothing and jagged bones cutting an ugly scar in the snow as they pulled her towards the gate and the black clad man who had first shouted that she should be stopped.
Mishi regained her footing first and jumped forward as though to confront the men, but Taka grabbed her friend’s shoulder in order to hold her in check.
“But Taka-chan, she doesn’t want to go with them,” Mishi said, and Taka knew it was true. She didn’t need to read the girl’s emotions with her kisō to know that Rika wished to be anywhere but in the hands of the men who held her, a fact made clear enough by the way she thrashed with what little strength was left in her frail body.
“I know Mishi-chan, but what are you going to do against three men and a Yukisō?” she asked, her grip firm on Mishi’s shoulder. “They’ll never let her go just because you punch someone in the knees.”
Mishi’s lips turned down at the reminder of how small she was, but Taka still held the younger girl’s shoulder. Taka was having a difficult time restraining herself from helping Rika too, but she was convinced that there was nothing that either of them could do except…
Mishi-chan, run and get Haha-san! she said without speaking, projecting her thoughts and emotions at her best friend instead. Mishi nodded, turned on her heel, and began running towards the kitchen door, but when she was still a full tatami length away from the door it opened on its own and out came Haha-san.
“What’s going on here?” the older woman demanded, as she hurried into the garden and wrapped herself more firmly in her winter shawl. Hope began to bloom in Taka’s chest. Haha-san wouldn’t let these men take Rika when she was so clearly upset. Haha-san took good care of the children in her orphanage. She would protect Rika. Taka was sure of it.
The black clad man’s lips narrowed and his gaze fixed coldly on Haha-san’s face before he replied.
“This miscreant has run away from the Josankō and is to be punished,” he said.
Haha-san hesitated before replying, and stepped back from where the man stood with the three villagers encircling the now quietly sobbing girl. Taka’s hope began to waver.
“Has she done something wrong?” Haha-san asked, her voice now subservient and her gaze directed at the ground before her, rather than the man clad in black.
“Aside from being born a josanpu and disobeying her instructors, nothing at all.” The tone of the man’s voice suggested that either of those offenses were more than enough to condemn a woman.
Taka’s hopes shattered then, as she watched Haha-san simply stand back and observe as the three villagers and the man clad in black walked away with a sobbing Rika carried between them.
Taka had been sure that Haha-san would do something to protect the older girl. Were they really going to stand there and let her be dragged back to whatever place had left her looking like a shade? She had seemed half starved. Haha-san might occasionally treat her wards harshly, or punish them for breaking rules, but she had always done what she could to make sure that the children at the orphanage were healthy and well cared for. Taka didn’t think she was the kind of person to let a girl be so poorly treated, especially not one of her girls.
“You two should get back inside before the cold gets to you,” Haha-san’s voice rang out from the door to the kitchen. Taka had been so focused on watching Rika’s procession away from the orphanage that she hadn’t even noticed the woman’s retreat. As she registered the older woman returning to the kitchen door, a small part of her world view shattered.
Taka turned to look at Mishi and saw that her friend was staring just as wide eyed at the procession of men and girl as she had been herself only moments ago.
“Taka-chan?” Mishi whispered. Even as Taka grabbed Mishi’s shoulder to turn them both back to the orphanage and what small warmth the place had to offer, she began to wonder if it could truly protect them from anything worse than the cold.
“Yes, Mishi-chan?” she replied at length.
“You’ll never let them take me away like that, will you?” Mishi’s voice was as small as the spots on a sparrow’s back.
“No, Mishi-chan,” Taka replied, hoping the words were the truth.
Rika had been the only other girl in the orphanage that Mishi and Taka had shared their secret with. Taka had been only three cycles old when Rika had caught her healing a small scrape on Mishi’s arm after the two cycle old toddler had fallen. She had warned her very sternly then that Taka should never allow anyone to see her using her powers, that she should hide her kisō as though her life depended on it.
Despite the initial warning and the occasional reminders, the older girl hadn’t been very close to either Taka or Mishi. She was three cycles older than Taka, four cycles older than Mishi, and much too old to care about what they did with themselves. But Taka had learned enough in the intervening years to know that Rika’s warning had saved her from a horrible fate, the same fate that had somehow found Rika now. Taka wondered how the girl had found herself exposed? Had she healed someone and been turned in because of it? Taka thought that the most likely answer. Was it impossible to hide who you really were forever? She already knew how difficult it was to know you could help someone, but have to sit by and watch instead because healing them would condemn you.
Taka swallowed then, her mouth suddenly much drier than it should have been, as she took in the silver grey gaze of her best friend.
Mishi was a hundred times more powerful than Rika would ever be. Was there really any way that Taka could protect her from the people who would notice her abilities? She didn’t know what she could do to stop the people who would try to take Mishi away from her, but she was certain that she would do her best.
She nodded then, more to assure herself than anything else.
“I’ll never let them take you away.”
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