White snow. White robes.
White is the color of grief.
This isn’t a new thought to Chiyome. At this point it isn’t even a very interesting thought.
Grief is not terribly interesting.
As her carriers lug her, squashed in her palanquin, up the switchbacks to Rice Paddy Pass, Chiyome considers the snow covering the slopes above and below, all around.
Not terribly interesting.
And yet as the garrison that guards the pass finally appears at the top of the mountainside, it strikes Chiyome as appropriate that the whole landscape is covered in white. The whole nation is wrapped in grief. A hundred years of war have left no province, no family free from more than its natural share of sorrow.
Even so, Chiyome feels her own losses like physical wounds. Two daughters and a son, taken by disease and Uesugi raids — years later and yet these still swath her in blank, white grief. And of course, her husband. That loss is the hardest of all, as unforgiving as these mountains.
Not terribly interesting.
A crimson Takeda flag adds a startling flash of color over the wooden palisade wall that marks the very top of Rice Paddy Pass — why it’s called that, no one has ever been ever been able to explain to Chiyome. She doesn’t particularly want to spend the night among her husband’s old soldiers, but the Little Brothers have had a long, miserable walk up from the valley and they won’t make their way down to a safe shelter until well after dark, and so as her palanquin reaches the brief moment of equilibrium there at the frozen, white top of the world, she leans out the small window of her cramped box and barks, “In. We’re spending the night. Bugano had better have heated the baths.”
The carriers grunt in acknowledgment and turn toward the palisade gates. Steam streams from their bald heads like snow from the top of these mountains.
The baths are in fact hot — the garrison has little to do here but gather wood and watch for enemy invasion, and so the hot tub is in fact blessedly hot, returning a small semblance of humanity to Chiyome. The Littler Brothers have set up her traveling tent inside the garrison’s storeroom — better than the stables, at least, and private. The days when she might have enjoyed a night trapped in the company of a hundred young men are long gone.
When Lieutenant Bugano shows up with a serving of the garrison’s rations, steaming if greasy, Chiyome waves her carriers away to take their own turn in the baths. They’ve more than earned it.
“Chiyome-sama,” murmurs the dog-faced officer, placing her bowl on the traveling table. “You honor us, as always.”
“Liar,” Chiyome says, and then laughs when the lieutenant has the good grace to look uncomfortable. Chiyome can’t remember the last time she laughed. “I’m a soldier’s wife — was a soldier’s wife. I know you’re not running an inn. But where else are we to stop?”
“Indeed.” Bugano laughs along, but it’s still uncomfortable, and that makes Chiyome laugh some more. He raises an eyebrow, and she does her best to try to be moderately polite.
Bugano was there at Midriver Island, after all. He fought with her husband, was there when he fell. Bugano deserves some respect, even if his face is unfortunate.
Nodding, he says, “Actually, we have a couple more travelers who begged our hospitality tonight. That’s what I was going to ask you about.”
“It…” He scratches the top of his balding head. “It’s a couple of young ladies. Shrine maidens, trying to get away from the fighting.”
“There’s nowhere away from the fighting.”
Now Bugano’s eyes meet Chiyome’s, and she can see that his eyes too are filled with white grief. All he says is, “No. Not really.” Then he shakes his head, causing his jowls to quiver. “But away from where it’s worst right now.”
“Shrine maidens?” Chiyome can’t imagine why a pair of miko would be trekking through the mountains in mid-winter, but she supposes everyone has something to get away from.
“Yes. And see…” Again Bugano scratches his head. “See, one of ’em’s real pretty, but even the other one is getting more attention from my men than’s good. I was wondering if they could spend the night in here. Not in your tent!” he adds. “Just, you know, in the storeroom. Away from the men.”
“Ah.” Chiyome knows that there are women who earn a meager living providing soldiers with feminine companionship, but it is not an easy life, and clearly these young women would prefer not to walk that particular path. “Certainly. They are welcome to sleep in the storeroom.”
With a nod and a grim smile, Bugano leaves Chiyome to her barely edible meal.
By the time she has eaten all that she can stomach, there is a knock on the rough wooden door. Again, Chiyome gives a snort of laughter, caught by the incongruity of the whole affair. “Come in.”
Two figures in red and white shuffle through the door, carrying bedrolls. One looks like a man in a dress — broad-shouldered, square-faced, and sullen. The other couldn’t be more different. Pretty, the lieutenant called her, and yes, she certainly is that. Fine features and smooth skin. But there’s something about the way she moves….
“My lady,” the two girls in shrine maidens’ dress murmur, kneeling on the dirty wooden floor.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” Chiyome clucks, “close the door. It’s cold.”
The bigger one slides the big door shut with one hand, turns around, and they both kneel and touch their heads to the dirty floor. Without looking up, the pretty one says, “Thank you, my lady, for letting your humble servants share your quarters.”
“Well, they’re hardly mine,” answers Chiyome. “It’s a spare storeroom the lieutenant is kind enough to let me have when I’m stuck here. Now, what are your names?”
“Mieko is this humble servant’s name,” says the pretty one.
“Kuniko, lady,” says the other.
“Somehow, I don’t get the feeling that either of you is at all humble, or much of a servant for that matter. Are you even miko?”
“Oh, yes, my lady,” both girls murmur into the boards.
“Mph.” She finds herself staring at them. Chiyome knows liars, knows she’s being lied to, but can’t spot the lie. And she isn’t sure she cares. “Fine. You’re sleeping out here.” She points at the bags of rice against one wall. Then she points to her tent. “I’m sleeping in there. My men are sleeping in the barracks. If you so much as open the flap of my tent, they will happily break your fingers, do you understand?”
“Yes, my lady,” they repeat, heads still down.
Chiyome wakes with a start, the tendrils of dream streaming behind her. A girl with white hair flying through the snowy night….
Shaking her head, she shivers, though her thick bedroll is comparatively comfortable and warm.
From outside of her tent comes a click, the slow creak of a hinge. What are those two—? Chiyome stands, wrapping her silks around her, and peers through the entrance to her tent.
At first she sees nothing; all seems still. But then she notices the open storeroom door and watches as two bulky shadows sneak through—not out into the snow, but in toward where the two girls are curled up like cats on the floor.
Chiyome is about to shout, to call for the Little Brothers, when the larger of the girls, the one with the square face—Kuniko—leaps to her feet as if she hasn’t been sleeping. As if she was waiting for just such an invasion. Knees bent, she balls her fists and grunts, “Get out.”
One of the shadows chuckles and steps toward Kuniko. “Like this one,” he laughs. “She’s got fight.”
The other one—Bugano’s soldiers, they must be—says, “That leaves the pretty one for me.” He steps toward Mieko, who Chiyome is shocked to see standing, motionless. Unflinching. When did she stand?
“Please,” the smaller girl whispers. “Please don’t make me hurt you.”
Chiyome, who has been frozen between rage and terror at what she was watching, gawks at Mieko, even as the soldier laughs. Don’t make me HURT you? What can the idiot girl be thinking?
The first soldier reaches out to grab Kuniko, but the girl slaps his hand away with the knuckles of one hand. “I do like’em feisty,” he says with a grunt, and steps toward her again.
She punches at his face; he grabs her hand, but doesn’t anticipate the swift knee to his crotch that bends him forward. Before he can howl and push her down, Kuniko slams her free fist into his throat, then as he begins to crumple, grabs his hair and slams his face against her still-raised knee.
He drops to the floor as if shot.
Chiyome’s eyes flick to Mieko, standing statue-still over the other soldier, who lies motionless on his back. The man’s eyes are open. A dark stain that must be blood spills from his ear onto the floor.
In the doorway, Chiyome sees two more large shadows. The Little Brothers. Her carriers stand wide-eyed, gawking at the scene.
It reassures Chiyome that her carriers are as shocked by what they’ve just seen as she is. Otherwise, she would be tempted to believe it never happened. Trying to sound as if she is in control, she barks, “Take these two ruffians out of here. Drop them with Bugano.”
The carriers bow and drag the two men—the one flailing, gasping man and the slack body—out of the storeroom.
Chiyome considers the two girls, still dressed in their oh-so-innocent miko garb. They are standing now, no pretense of humility. Kuniko’s face is dark, her nostrils flaring. Mieko looks as if she’s been enjoying a lovely nighttime stroll, except for the dark circles in the middle of her cheeks and the splash of dark red across her white sleeve.
“Well, well, well,” Chiyome laughs. “Aren’t you two entertaining.”
“Yes, my lady,” Kuniko grunts through clenched teeth. Mieko says nothing.
Two homeless girls, Chiyome thinks. Harmless. And yet they took down two Takeda soldiers in less time than it would have taken me to tie my robe shut. “You two have done this before. You’ve had training.”
This time Mieko joins Kuniko in mumbling a polite assent.
“Weapons? Or just your hands and feet?” Not that their hands and feet weren’t lethally effective.
The girls stare at each other for a moment; even the ridiculously calm Mieko has the good grace to look nervous when she says, “Glaives, my lady.”
Ah. Chiyome smiles at them. It is clear now: these are no village girls. They must be from a samurai family or possibly even nobility to have received training in the long-bladed spears. Who would think it?
An image: a beautiful screen Chiyome saw at the imperial palace, when her father brought her there to observe some ceremony or other. The screen seemed to her child’s imagination to have shown the whole of Japan, peopled by thousands of figures: armed samurai, elegant nobles, monks, merchants, and, scattered throughout, young girls in red and white. An army.
An anonymous army. Invisible. Able to go everywhere. Able to gather information. Able to strike.
With her toe Chiyome writes on the dusty floorboards: ku (く), then no (ノ), and then finally ichi (一). “Can you two read?”
Kuniko scowls down at the marks. “Nine… in… one?”
Mieko’s peers at Chiyome. She murmurs, “Kunoichi.”
Kuniko blinks at her companion. “Kuno… What’s a kunoichi?”
Mieko’s eyes remain on Chiyome. She knows.
“Ah,” says Chiyome, grinning to herself, “it is… a very special kind of woman. Tell me, ladies. Would you like to end this ridiculous war? Would you like to be kunoichi?”
“Yes, my lady,” the girls answer. Kuniko’s eyes are dark, but Mieko’s glisten.
White snow. White robes.
White robes over red skirts.
White is the color of grief.
Red is the color of blood, the color of luck—the color of weddings.
A miko marries herself to that which cannot die. A kunoichi marries herself to duty, and to Death.
Watching the two special girls walking alongside her palanquin, Chiyome considers that, perhaps, the time for mourning has come to a close.
An anonymous army.
Much more interesting.