We began by fetching a large bag of rice from the storehouse. A pair of rats stared up at us when we entered, but Toumi growled at them while I swooshed the long stick that Kee Sun had given us to shoo them with, and they scattered. The bag was heavier than I was, and it took the three of us to drag it to the kitchen. Toumi muttered the whole way, and I would be lying if I said that Emi and I didn’t join her once or twice.
Kee Sun kept us busy, hanging pots over the fire to steam the rice and soybeans in, lowering a battered metal grate to serve as a grill, fetching more charcoal. As the sunlight began to fade from the room, we lit candles in the kitchen and in the hall.
When we came back into Kee Sun’s lair, we were overwhelmed by the thick scent of the strips of sizzling, black-marinated beef that were laid out over the fire.
I remember a few times when an old cow had died in the village, everyone coming together for a feast, roasting the poor, stringy old thing. There had not been even such a cow in a long time, however—not in our village.
And still, as good as that beef may have smelled and tasted, it was nothing to this. The air was rich with the scent, and we all stopped, our mouths watering.
“Don’t stand there lookin’ pretty like a bunch of Kwan-um statues!” snapped Kee Sun. “Grab the kimchee from that barrel, there, put it into these six serving bowls and get ‘em out to the tables. Quick, quick!” he yelled, hands clapping.
The bowls were beautifully glazed, pale green like the ocean on a sunny day. Gingerly I picked one up and carried it over to the barrel. Balancing the bowl in one hand I tried to open the barrel-top.
“Both hands, both hands!” shouted Kee Sun over his shoulder, one hand flipping the strips of meat with long chopsticks, the other painting them with a black sauce. I couldn’t tell whether he wanted me to hold the bowl with both hands, hold the wooden lid with both hands, or somehow to manage both two-handed, like some four-armed demon.
Toumi brushed past me, still muttering. “Stupid,” she snapped, and for once I knew she wasn’t talking about me. She picked up the lid, pulled out the ladle that was hanging on the inside of barrel, and began filling my bowl, which I held tightly in two hands. The kimchee was pickled cabbage, sharp-smelling and bright green and red.
I walked as quickly as I could without spilling any of the cabbage. By the time I had laid the first bowl at the head table and was coming back, Emi was shuffling out of the kitchen, her face a grimace of concentration.
As I walked back in to the kitchen, I saw Toumi starting to pick up a piece of the kimchee to taste.
“No!” shouted Kee Sun, slamming down his metal-tipped chopsticks so that the grate rang. “No one tastes in this kitchen except me, yeh hear!” A smile played briefly over his damp face. “That way if anyone dies, it’ll be me, right?” He shook his head and turned back to the hissing grill. “I knew yeh’d be a falcon-girl, swoopin’ in for the kill!” He demonstrated a hawk’s dive with his chopsticks and chuckled, turning back to the fire.
The sky had now gone completely dark outside, and candlelight flashed in Toumi’s eyes, bringing to mind Masugu’s words: an unsheathed blade looking for a place to bury itself.
We laid the tables with bowls of kimchee and boiled soybeans, mounds of rice, and bottles of rice wine from the pantry. Kee Sun barked out orders as he loaded three huge platters with the beef, the smell of which had now worked its way into our hair and our clothes, so that we were reminded of the delicious meal we could not yet eat even when we weren’t in the kitchen. Then he grabbed an unused ladle, stepped over to the back door of the kitchen, and swung the spoon at an enormous, dented gong that was hanging outside the door.
From the hall came a great cheer, as the entire company—Lady Chiyome’s household plus Lieutenant Masugu’s soldiers—flooded in to the dining area. The smell of the dinner had drawn them like moths to a campfire.
Kee Sun fussed with the platters, placing a bunch of watercress at the end of each, then he turned to us, gravely, and said, “If any of yeh drops yehr platter, I’ll skin yeh with the dullest, rustiest knife I’ve got, yeh hear?”
We all three nodded and said, “Hai.” Emi, though, began to titter, which caused Kee Sun’s fierce look to soften.
As we carefully walked through the doorway, which Kee Sun held open for us, Toumi, Emi, and I were greeted with tumultuous cheers. Many of the men and women had clearly already helped themselves to the bottles of sake; most of them sported ruddy cheeks.
Chiyome-sama was seated in the middle of the head table, Mieko on her left and the other women arranged to that side. Just next to Mieko there was an unclaimed space with a bowl and a pair of old chopsticks. I couldn’t imagine that someone hadn’t heard the gong; who was missing? Mieko spooned some rice neatly into the latecomer’s bowl.
Masugu-san sat to Lady Chiyome’s right, with his troops beside him. The Little Brothers and Aimaru were at the bottom of the men’s table. Aimaru smiled at me as I laid my platter at his table.
He seemed to be about to say something when I heard a loud voice from the other side of the hall call out, “Look at the new novices! They’re so small! No wonder they call that one Squirrel!” The women’s table exploded with laughter.
The voice had come from one of the blue-clad girls at the end of the table furthest from Lady Chiyome. That must be Shino and Mai, the junior initiates, I thought. Shino had a thick nose, as if someone had flattened it with a skillet. Mai’s face was sharp, every angle. I knew in a flash that Kee Sun had probably called her Foxy-girlie or something along those lines. “Squirrel,” chuckled Mai again, and Shino snorted.
Fuyudori, our white-haired senior, was smiling, but coldly, I thought—disapprovingly.
Masugu-san’s voice rang out. “Murasaki-san is small, it’s true. But the smallest squirrel will fight fiercely when provoked.” He smiled across to the younger women. “I would think that the women of Mochizuki would know that to be true if anyone did.”
Mai and Shino looked as though they had been slapped.
Mieko spoke, her voice low and pleasant, but her eyes flashing as she poured wine for Lady Chiyome—and for the missing guest. “It is most gratifying to learn that the men who visit Mochizuki have learned that lesson, too.” She looked down toward where I was standing, but it was not to me that she was speaking.
“Ha!” laughed Lady Chiyome as she picked up a piece of meat with her chopsticks. “I said it would be entertaining having the two of them here!”
The older women, those dressed as miko, roared with laughter. Mieko smiled primly, while Masugu turned bright red.
I gave Aimaru a small wave and then sprinted back to kitchen with three empty rice wine bottles.
When I came back, Toumi had already resupplied the men’s table, so I brought the sake to the women.
“Bring that here, Risuko!” called the youngest of the initiates. “Having fun serving at the tables?” she said, bright red circles marking her cheeks.
“You would know, Mai,” said Fuyudori, “since you were serving here yourself at lunch.”
Next to the white-haired girl, two of the older women chuckled.
“Least I’m not ‘fraid of soldiers,” slurred Shino.
Fuyudori’s face blanched, until it was almost as white as her hair. “I am not afraid. But I have cause to be cautious.” I thought of the story of how her hair had turned white—the attack on her village. “Do not we all?”
“Do not we all?” mimicked Mai. Shino snorted.
“Are those peas?” Fuyudori asked me, turning away from the two drunk girls.
She raised an eyebrow. “No, Risuko-chan?”
“No, no, thank you, uh, Fuyudori-senpai.” A bead of sweat dripped into my mouth. “They’re soy beans.”
“Oh.” Fuyudori’s smile remained, but she looked a bit embarrassed, and I hate to say that her discomfort made me feel better.
I took an empty bowl from that end of the table and brought it back to refill it with kimchee.
As the meal went on and we brought out more and more sake, Lady Chiyome’s band of women, her kunoichi, began teasing the soldiers across the way. I had seen some of the women in our village do that sort of thing, and the soldiers had teased right back, answering one rude joke with another.
Here, however, the men seemed almost too terrified to answer. And the quieter Masugu-san’s troops became, the rowdier the women got. As the meal finally wound down, the women began to make the sorts of indecent comments that would have gotten any Imagawa soldier slapped in our village. But these men took the comic abuse in silence.
As I began cleaning up at the men’s table, I leaned over to Aimaru. “How are you doing?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Better now. I was hungry. But… Oh, you haven’t eaten yet, have you?”
I shook my head. Only the raucous conversation had kept my stomach’s rumblings from being heard all over the hall through most of the meal.
“It’s hard not being able to talk to anyone,” he said. “It’s not so different, here, from life at the temple, but even there I had friends I could talk to sometimes.”
I smiled. “It’s only until we become initiates.”
“How do you do that?”
“Well,” he said, grinning back, “let’s make sure that happens soon.”
As Emi, Toumi and I began to clear away the last of the empty platters, a deep bell rang from the back of the hall. All of the noise faded, like flames under rain.
The larger of the Little Brothers stood in front of the shrine. He had closed the doors and sealed them with a twist of white paper.
Mieko picked up the chopsticks at the empty spot beside her and thrust them into the bowl of rice, sticking straight up.
It was as if the whole building held its breath.
“Seven days ago,” said Lady Chiyome, her voice just above a growl, “we lost one of our number. One of the first of our number. She fought bravely, and she fought well; it was all that she would have wished.”
Some of the women grunted. A number looked as if they might be holding back tears. A few—Mieko among them—failed. The soldiers still looked uncomfortable, but they shared the solemn silence.
“Remember her,” said Chiyome–sama, and I was shocked to hear her voice catch. “Remember her, and strive to honor the red and white robes that she wore so well.”
The banquet ended then, as all of Mochizuki’s guests and inhabitants left the hall, grave and quiet.