What have I gotten myself into? Sadao is dragging me farther and farther from the shouting. Maybe I'm supposed to be thankful he's keeping me from being discovered by his fellow ninja, but there's something about a strange handsome man stealing me away. It makes me more than just a little wary.
"Where are you taking me?" I try asking but I'm shushed and dragged along even faster. Does he plan to end my life, anyway?
Sadao stops us leagues away from his men. We're standing by a tent but before I question our whereabouts, he's inside and out in seconds. I'm hardly warned before I'm almost hit with a bundle of clothes—men's clothes. I blanch, unable to help myself. Why would he-?
"If you do not wish to be found Lady Sayuri, you will do everything I tell you," Sadao responds to my expression.
The world is spinning as I stare at him in surprised horror. My spine straightens. "I didn't tell you my name…" I step back and every step I take he follows until I find myself backed into a tree with nowhere to go. I stare at him.
"No you didn't tell me your name but I know it and whose daughter you are. I also know who or what you're running from." At this he smiles and I can see lots of white teeth as he leans close to me until we are nearly nose to nose.
My heart thumps painfully in my chest as we stare at each other. Who is this man?
Sadao leans back on the balls of his feet, "If you want my protection you will do everything I say," he waits for me to nod in agreement. "You're no longer Sayuri but a peasant boy named Haruki wanting to learn the way of the ninja." Sadao gestures to the clothing bundle in my arms.
"You want me to pretend to be a man?" Am I hearing this right? I think I'm going crazy. Yes… yes, that's it! I give myself a hard pinch. Nothing happens except a strange look from the ninja. There's really no choice but to accept his terms. And what was he to gain out of all this? I wasn't about to ask, at least not yet.
So, with a small glare, I go into the tent he gestures toward and rid myself of my femininity. When I come out, I think I look a fifteen-year-old boy.
Sadao clucks his tongue, circling me. "You still manage to look a little lady." He bends down and comes back with a clump of dirt.
"Wha-what are you-?" I gasp as he splats the dirt across my cheeks and nose as if painting on a canvas. I inhale a bit of the dirt and cough. There's no apology from Sadao who now is walking around me once more. I can already tell I'm not passing. His eyes flicker to my hair now and I know exactly what he's thinking.
"You can't cut my hair!"
"Oh, why not?" his brows shoot to his forehead.
"Because—I—err—" I can't even give a good reason other than it's the only thing I have left that marks me a woman. I obviously can't use that excuse in this case. I bite my lip.
Sighing, Sadao unwraps a cloth strip around his wrist. "If you refuse to cut it you will have to wear it in a top knot."
Suddenly he's in my personal space; his hands are in my hair. Successfully swatting my hair clip until it falls at my feet. He twines my hair and wraps it around and around my head until it's in a severe top knot that painfully pulls my scalp. "Ah, so much better." He steps back to admire his handiwork but frowns almost instantly, his eyes skimming my body and back to my face. "You might want to consider binding yourself—better," he coughs as if embarrassed.
My blood drains from my face in humiliation. My hand acts of its own accord before I can stop it.
A skin on skin slap echoes across the trees and mountains. "How dare you!"
Full on shock registers across his features and I realize what I just did.
"I—I'm sorry." I turn back to the tent to do his bidding.
Sadao is waiting when I come back, looking bored. It's as if I never slapped him at all.
I follow him in silence as he explains my new role to me. I'm a peasant boy, interested in learning the arts of the ninja. I didn't ask what would happen if I tried to escape. He knows exactly who I am. That makes me very uneasy. The thought he could haul me to my intended any moment keeps me docile. Could he work for my father? That could be how he knows all about me.
If I'm to be honest, I really have nowhere to go if I escaped. Staying with ninja was a far cry better than trying to survive on my own in the wilderness.
Not long in our walk we happen upon a group of men I can instantly tell are his men. I try not to let it get to me how scary they look.
"Who is this little tadpole?" one of them asks, looking me up and down as if sizing me up. I feel myself stiffening almost immediately but a warning hand on my shoulder forces me to relax.
"This is Haruki. I found this bag of skin and bones wandering in the wood, almost got ate by a wolf. He's going to stay with us a while." The men buy Sadao's little tale without batting an eye and went on to their business. Perhaps they thought this tadpole wasn't worth their time.
If only I knew what kind of things I was about to find myself in, I would have run and gotten out while I still could. Nevertheless, I didn't and had no idea of knowing what kind of horrors and wonders awaited me. Being with these ninja would change my life.