“Is this a test?” Shikijō asked when Aoshi came into the dojo with Misao in his arms.
Misao’s hair brushed against Aoshi’s face as she turned to look at Shikijō, bare chested at the middle of the room, hands curled into fists at his sides. She turned back, a hand curled around her mouth, and whispered into Aoshi’s ear.
“This is Misao,” Aoshi said, bending down to give the child a shorter landing. She fell the short distance and pressed against the ground like a spider: knees bent out, hands balanced before her feet.
Shikijō eyed her, looking over her tiny, lithe frame with a caution meant for a figure cutting perhaps a more intimidating shadow.
“And what brings Misao to the dojo?” he asked. He took a step back when Misao stood up, eyes bright in the noonday sun shining in through the open doors leading out into the garden.
“Shikijō,” Aoshi said, tilting his head, hand going round Misao’s narrow shoulders. “Are you afraid of Misao?”
A giggle burst from the girl’s mouth, but she clamped her hands across her face. Her eyes sparkled. If Shikijō looked carefully, he would have seen Aoshi flash a ghost of a smile.
“No,” Shikijō said, considering the weight of his words as he spoke them. “I’m only puzzled as to why there is now a little girl in the dojo.”
The good humor from Misao’s face vanished. Shikijō watched them cock their heads in eerie coordination.
“When I told Misao how we have gained a new member of the Oniwabanshū,” Aoshi said. “She wanted to meet you.”
“What’s wrong with your face?” Misao asked, touching her fingers to the bridge of her nose.
Shikijō looked down at her. He looked down at both of them. At two children looking him over with critical eyes, when it really came down to it.
“Shikijō tried to get into Edo Castle for the other side,” Aoshi said. “I stopped him.”
Shikijō flinched. “Should you tell her things like that?”
Aoshi shrugged and looked past Shikijō’s shoulder toward the garden. “I have no reason to tell her lies,” he said. “Hannya tells me your form is improving. Before dinner, I’d like to see where you stand.”
Before he could respond, Misao gave a delighted shriek and charged toward Shikijō, sliding under his legs on her knees across the dojo to throw herself into the striped arms of the strange boy with the strange face.
Hannya stumbled a few steps back and caught the girl, giving a rare laugh.
Aoshi touched his hand to Shikijō’s elbow. “You have a few hours yet. Ask Hannya if there’s anything you’re unsure of.”
Hannya, with his mismatched eyes and narrow face, passed Misao from his arms back into Aoshi’s. Shikijō watched as Misao took a handful of Hannya’s sparse hair to turn his face to hers for a kiss.
It was strange to see such gentleness in this web of ruthlessness and secrecy: children trapped in a game of war yet still doing better than himself in both victory and the whims of life.
Hannya stood in front of him before he recognized motion.
“Aoshi said he wants us to go over your form,” Hannya said. His voice still had the boyish smoothness of the young.
“Yeah.” Shikijō blinked into the dimming twilight at Aoshi’s retreat, Misao twining her hands through his long hair, her voice carrying in tones across the yard.
Hannya chuckled. “You’ve met Misao-sama,” he said.
Shikijō made a face, though not an unkind one. “Apparently she wanted to meet me.”
Hannya smiled. “She feels it is her duty to meet new Oniwabanshū and welcome them.”
“She’s much too young to be hanging around,” Shikijō said. “What is it with everyone around here being so young.”
Hannya cocked his head. Shikijō imagined if Aoshi and Misao were still in the room, the synchronization would have been the same. “She might be young,” he said. “But it is her duty. Or it will be in the future.”
Shikijō frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Hannya motioned out the doors. Aoshi and Misao were gone, but the wind through the leaves mimicked Misao’s distant voice.
“Misao is the Okashira’s granddaughter,” he said. “When you become Oniwabanshū, you become part of the family any of us has ever known.”