So this is a departure from my regular series of Kunoichi Companion Tales. But it should still be fun!
The wonderful YA author Mackenzi Lee runs a regular Twitter feature called #BygoneBadassBroads. It offers profiles of historical women who were… well… baddass. I came across her when she did a profile on one of my favorite bygone baddass broads, Lady Mochizuki Chiyome. A week or so ago, she profiled Locusta the Poisoner, who ran a school for assassins under the Roman emperor Nero. I joked that someone should write a crossover between the two; she joked back that I should throw in Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, Queen of the Fences in late 19th century New York, who ran Marm Mandelbaum’s School for Gifted Youngsters, training the Gilded Age’s pickpockets, thieves, and master criminals.
How could I resist?
Here’s the story that sprang into my head!
Schools for Gifted Youngsters
Monthly Headmistresses’ Meeting
The door opens at sundown on the twenty-eighth day, as Chiyome knew that it would. As it always does. One moment there is nothing but plaster, then next, an odd, hinged door swings open, revealing a dark room where no room could be.
It does not do to think on it overmuch.
The first to arrive this time is Locusta, her yellow woolen robe flung over her shoulder, making her look like a monk. Just behind that shoulder stands the young girl — what was her name? Canidia, with her strange brass-colored hair, bronze eyes, and pink skin, smiling broadly from behind her sober-faced matron’s shoulder.
“Welcome, ladies,” says Chiyome, tipping her head minutely.
Locusta as always steps forward and presses her lips against Chiyome’s cheek — an invasion Chiyome loathes, but that she has come to tolerate as a mark of the strange woman’s respect. A half a world and over a thousand years in separation excuse some barbarity. “Greetings, Lady Chiyome. We have brought you some very interesting mushrooms — they’re the ones I was telling you about last time.”
Her attendant holds out a basket holding several handfuls of a rather innocuous-looking fungus — green-topped, with white stems.
“Thank you, Lady Locusta,” murmurs Chiyome, taking the basket and handing it to her own attendant. “Give this to Kee Sun, Mieko. And make sure he knows not to cook with them.”
Mieko bows deeply and carries the basket toward the kitchen, peering into the basket with interest.
“Ladies, come, join me,” Chiyome says, indicating the table.
“What lovely flowers,” says Locusta with a smile.
Though Mieko chose them, the gorgeous blooms were arranged by Sachi, another of Chiyome’s students: stalks of the green-flowered doku utsugi and the feathery doku zeri around the beautiful purple spikes of torikabuto.
The two Romans sit at the table. “So wonderful. Tell me, Canidia, dear, do you recognize these?”
The flame-haired girl’s grin grows manic. “Well, the aconitum has such gorgeous flowers, I’d know it anywhere. And that—“ She points at the doku zeri. “—looks like cicuta, though a bit different than what we grow in our garden. Not sure about that, though.” Her smile dims into a frown as she gestures at the doku utsugi.
Her mistress smiles indulgently. “Yes, well done. I’m guessing that this—“ She too extends a finger toward the utsugi. “—has clusters of black berries?”
Smiling, Chiyome casts a glance at Mieko, who has returned and is looking self-satisfied as usual, the insufferable chit. When Mieko nods, Chiyome says, “Indeed it does. The berries can be mistaken for blackcurrants, which of course can be quite an unfortunate misunderstanding, because these lovely things cause horrific convulsions.”
“Oh, yes,” says Locusta with an answering nod, smiling now as broadly as her acolyte. “That would be quite unfortunate. We call this coriaria. One of my favorites.”
“Ah. How nice.” Chiyome likes Locusta, likes the Roman’s dark sense of humor and her wide knowledge of herbs. Yet it is always a bit disconcerting how much delight the woman takes in the tools of their trade.
The door opens again, this time revealing a small, prodigiously wide figure in peculiar black robes wearing a black hat capped with an absurd white feather.
Chiyome rises, but Mieko, with the limberness of youth, beats her to the door. “Lady Mandelbaum,” says the girl with a bow.
“Do I look like a lady to you?” The woman’s lumpy face twists into a smirk. “‘Ma’ is good enough for the likes of me. Isn’t that right, Sophie?”
The girl behind Ma Mandelbaum stands a head taller and wears her usual bizarre outfit of a tight-fitting tunic and trousers. With her hair tucked under a cap, Sophie looks like a peasant boy. She grins. “If you say so, Ma.”
“Oy. I should suffer such disrespect?” Ma’s smirk remains. “Nu. Ungrateful girl, give Mieko there the little cakes.”
The tall girl giggles and holds out a small bag made of what looks like thick paper to Mieko, who uncharacteristically giggles back.
“Cakes?” asks Locusta.
“The moon-cakes Chiyome was talking about last time, that those Chinese folks used for passing messages.” Ma reaches into the bag and pulls out a small round cake with pink writing on the top — not Chinese characters however.
“What’s that writing?” Young Canidia peers around her mistress’s shoulder to see.
“Looks like Korean,” laughs Chiyome. It has always struck her as odd that the other women can speak in perfect Japanese, but only write in their own languages.
Again, it doesn’t do to think on it too much.
“Yiddish.” Ma Mandelbaum holds up one of the cakes. “‘Meet at Garelick’s.’ Had one of my daughter-in-laws bake it.”
“‘Korean?’” asked the girl Canidia. “What’s that?”
Sophie cocks her head. “Isn’t that a country out here somewhere?”
“Yes,” agrees Chiyome as the two women from the strange land called New York approach the table. “A nation across the sea from us—where our cook is from as a matter of fact. We’ve been trying to invade each other for five hundred years.”
“Ah,” says Locusta sagely. “Like Rome and Tunis. Mind, I hope you’re Rome, and they’re Tunis. Things didn’t end well for them.”
“Hmm.” Chiyome sits smoothly at the center of the head table. She takes a perverse pleasure in watching Ma Mandelbaum struggle to get her large body seated on the pillows. “You know, Fredericka,” she says to the woman, “I could provide a chair.”
“Nonsense. Beautiful eisenhut flowers, by the way. If an old lady like you can sit on the floor, shouldn’t I be able to manage?”
“Old!” Chiyome objects, but it is a token — they all know that they are about the same age, for all that they live in separate centuries, on separate continents. For all that they know that each has survived loss and hardship as well as victory and success.
Locusta chuckles. “Well, Ma, you look more comfortable here than Chiyome does at your table.”
Chiyome shoots her a sour look. Ma Mandelbaum’s straight-backed wooden chairs are nothing less than instruments of torture. “Girls,” Chiyome says to the three young women, “go in and fetch out the meal.”
Every twenty-eight nights for the past few years, the door has opened at each of their schools — their very private institutions for teaching young people very special skills. Assassination. Espionage. Theft. Every twenty-eight nights, they have visited each other to share a table, to share tactics and strategy, but mostly to share company.
For a while, they were joined by Lakshmi, who ran a school for the devotees of her all-devouring four-armed goddess of birth and death. The Indian priestess left in a huff, however, during one of their dinners in Rome. First Locusta had in all innocence served beef, and then Lakshmi and Ma Mandelbaum had gotten into a theological shouting match that left Chiyome and Locusta utterly bewildered.
Chiyome was sorry to see the woman go. Yet she couldn’t help admitting that she did not miss Lakshmi’s fanaticism. Each of them taught their charges to act outside of the normal bounds of morality. Lakshmi, however, took killing as a sacred duty.
Even so, Chiyome looks forward to these meals. It is a pleasure to share a meal with women who, no matter how foreign, and no matter how varied their motives, understand her.
Of course, as each course is served, they all wait until Chiyome, as hostess, has eaten. It started as sensible caution, since dining with such women demands that one be careful. Yet now it was a kind of playful tradition. After slurping down some of Kee Sun’s excellent soup (no pork stock, not with the two women from New York), Chiyome happily announces, “Ah, definitely none of the mushrooms you brought, Locusta. Delicious.”
At that, all six women tuck in, and conversation bubbles around the table.
On the girls’ side, Sophie and Canidia sit fascinated as Mieko demonstrates how she hides one of her daggers in her hair. Locusta the Poisoner and Fredericka (“Ma”) Mandelbaum, Queen of Fences, argue about whose home city is the larger, and whose public servants more corrupt.
Chiyome eats contentedly. There are very few people in the world who understand any part of what Chiyome does, training young women to do deadly, unladylike things. These women do, even if they do what they do for very different reasons.
As the meal is winding down and the cakes are handed round, Chiyome murmurs to the two women beside her, “How shall we be remembered, do you think? Shall we be remembered at all?”
“Things not going well?” asks Fredericka, rearranging her hat.
“My girls are doing brilliantly,” sighs Chiyome. “The Takeda troops have suffered a bit of a setback in Swift River Province however. I have faith in Lord Takeda, but it is difficult to see our work go for nothing.”
“You tried the purgative in the enemy’s food?” Ma Mandelbaum asks, rubbing her palms together in excitement.
Chiyome shrugs. “Mieko there led several of the girls into the Imagawa camp. They mixed the daiokanzoto into the food of the troops to the right of the line. Yet the commander attacked his right, not the Imagawa right, and so it was all for naught.”
Ma Mandelbaum reaches across and pats Mieko’s hand. “At least the lovely ladies got away unscathed.”
Mieko blushes, which makes Chiyome smile. Not many can throw the kunoichi girl off-balance.
“One cannot always predict the way of things,” says Locusta, who’s developed a fondness for rice wine. “When Gaul was overtaken by the Romans, I would have told you it was the end of the world. And yet here I am! Under the protection of the Emperor.”
“Emperor,” snorts Fredericka. “I got the biggest private enterprise in New York — maybe in the whole country. I got thousands working for me. What would I want with an emperor? We got President Grant. Useless”
As a girl, Chiyome met Emperor Ōgimachi. He seemed like a very nice old man. Descended though he is from the goddess Amaterasu, it doesn’t strike Chiyome as likely that he can protect anyone. Useless.
Then again, Ōgimachi’s empire has spent the better part of the past century tearing itself into bloody shreds. It’s difficult to protect people from themselves. Which is why Chiyome’s small army of deadly flowers is so badly needed.
“Women,” says Locusta grandiloquently, “are remembered not for what they do, but for who they are. I have no doubt—none—that history shall remember us all.”
Yes, Chiyome thinks with a sigh, but how? Instead of voicing that question, she picks up her cake and shows it to Ma Mandelbaum. “Fredericka, what does this one say?”
The woman in black snorts and wags a finger at Chiyome. “It says, ‘Stop asking questions — or else!’”
All six of them laugh at that, and Chiyome hopes that the conversation will return to more mundane matters.
Locusta, however, wants to go on, saying that history is, after all, written by those in power, and that as the protegée of the Roman emperor, her fame is assured. As Locusta holds forth, Chiyome catches young Sophie smirking, until Fredericka raises an eyebrow at her and the girl in boy’s clothing schools her features again.
It gives Chiyome no pleasure knowing that Locusta’s Emperor Nero will commit suicide, and that Nero’s successor will have Locusta executed and her school disbanded. One of Ma Mandelbaum’s army of criminals found the story in a book.
Fredericka swears that she’s never found any book in her enormous, backward city that spoke to how the endless conflict in which Chiyome’s whole world is embroiled will end. Chiyome isn’t sure she believes the woman, but isn’t sure she isn’t just as happy not knowing.
The cake is sweet, and Chiyome tries to take its wisdom to heart.
She raises her cup and proposes a toast to the future.
It does not do to think on it overmuch.
What did you think? I had fun with the idea of these three very different women getting together and comparing notes. (Apologies to Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, btw.)