There were three rooms downstairs besides the dining room and kitchen, but the two closest to the front door were both closed off. The doors were edged with black soot. Lady Chiyome had the Little Brothers carry her chest to the rear room.
Mieko and Kuniko led Toumi, Emi and me to the dining room. I was surprised that Mieko left her own bedroll there in the room with us; I had expected her to spend the night with the lady, but she stayed with us and quietly took charge of the servants’ quarters.
Once we had arranged our sleeping mats on one side of the large space, we filed over to the low tables on the other side. The tables seemed to have been made of fine wood, once upon a time, and what remained of the tapestries that hung on the walls showed that they had been lovely. Now, however, they were dingy and moth-eaten.
Dinner was a greasy stew of some sort of meat and a portion of rice that seemed as if it been cooked too quickly—one half was raw and the other half burnt. Yet we all ate it—even Lady Chiyome. We were starving after our long march. As we finished up, the old couple shuffled out to take our bowls, but Lady Chiyome held up her tiny, regal hand. “My servants will clean.”
For a moment I was caught thinking what a kind, surprising gesture that was, when it suddenly occurred to me that I was one of the servants that Chiyome–sama expected to do the work. I looked around, and noticed that Aimaru and Emi had already stood and were beginning to gather bowls and chopsticks, and that even Toumi had begun to get up and clear the table with a look of angry determination.
I took my bowl and those of the Little Brothers, who were sitting to one side of me. Balancing them carefully, I joined the other girls and Aimaru carrying them toward the kitchen. The old woman waved her hands to stop us from going in. “Eeee, there is no need…”
“It is our pleasure,” said Aimaru, with a quick bow of his head, and we walked through the patched curtain into the tiny kitchen.
There we found stacks of chipped and shattered bowls on cobwebbed shelves. The fire was smoldering, fading as we watched. The remains of the wood seemed clearly to have been shards of fine old furniture, and some unburned wisps of decorated fabric remained; a scrap of tapestry had clearly been used to start the flame. They had literally used their last resource to prepare our meal: the inn itself.
Emi grabbed a bucket and went outside to draw some water from the town well.
We began to clear away the cooking implements—a battered black wok, a frayed wooden spoon and an extremely fragile-looking rice pot. “Pathetic,” Toumi grumbled.
“Did any of us come from better circumstances?” Aimaru asked placidly.
Toumi bit her lip, and then muttered, “Maybe not, but better birthright.” Then she set aggressively to scraping the food scraps from our bowls in the pot.
Emi came back. “At least the water’s clean,” she chirped, with a cheerfulness that as usual wasn’t reflected in her face.
With a snort, Toumi picked up the pot full of burnt rice and small bones, to carry it out to the offal pit. “Unlike some of you, I wasn’t born to this kind of filth.”
“What do you know about what the rest of us were born to?” I said. Without thinking about it, I had stepped right behind her. She whirled around, and for an eye’s-blink I was convinced that she was going to attack me with the spot. My hands rose to my face.
Very deliberately, with a knife-thin smile, Toumi lifted the pot over my head and emptied the greasy contents on me. I shrieked and was about to sink my nails into Toumi’s face—which was probably what she wanted me to do—when I heard Mieko’s quiet, calm voice from the doorway: “Clean it up. All four of you. Now.”
Toumi and I locked eyes for a moment, each waiting for the other to start first. In that moment, I was beyond caring about anything that Oto-san had taught us about doing no harm; I wanted to kill. I could see shoyu-soaked rice dripping from my bangs. It was fortunate that the innkeepers were poor, and we were hungry: there had been little left in the pot.
Slowly, we each bent to clean the mess. Emi and Aimaru helped clean away the last of the dinner. Later, I washed my head in what was left of the clean water, relieved that my new clothing had not been noticeably stained. I was sure Lady Chiyome would not have approved.
When we were done, we put out our bedrolls in the dining room with the other servants. I wanted to talk to Emi, to ask her so many questions. But she was snoring before I had even climbed beneath my covers.
I had to fight to keep silent, because I was weeping. Thinking of Usako and Mother. Of Oka-san having sold me. Of Usako wandering around in the woods without me.
Of the fact that, even were I to slip away that night, I wasn’t altogether certain that I could find my way home, nor whether I would be welcome if I did.
Before I was able to even try to calm myself enough to sleep, I heard a steady step coming across the tatami. “Kano Murasaki.” It was Kuniko, her voice low. “Come now. The lady wishes to see you.”
I stumbled out of my bedroll, suddenly very aware of how sore and tired my legs were, and how sticky my hair still was.
Kuniko led me from the dark dining room where we were all sleeping in to the cramped chamber where the lady was waiting.
She was seated on a cushion, her robes draped elegantly around her. The two Little Brothers stood behind either shoulder, massive and silent, and Mieko stood in the shadows to one side. In front of her was a low table, on which stood several objects, including sheets of fine rice paper, a bowl with the smoothest, blackest ink I’d ever seen, a box with six different colors of ink sticks, each in its own compartment, and a fine, sleek, red-handled brush.
Kuniko tapped me on the shoulder. I knelt and bowed.
“Come, Risuko,” said Lady Chiyome, indicating with a small, pale hand that I should sit on the other side of the table from her.
I shuffled across the floor on my knees, feeling the rough tatami catching on the cloth of my new pants. In the end, I reached the table, still kneeling, still looking down.
“What have you done with your hair, child?”
I winced, still focusing on the mat and the table legs. “There was… an accident in the kitchen.”
Lady Chiyome gave a husky sigh. “I suppose when I pluck urchins from treetops in the morning, it’s too much to expect them to be ladies in the evening.”
One of the Little Brothers gave a grunt that might have been a chuckle.
“Look up, child.” The lady was either scowling at me, or smirking. She wiggled a thin finger at the writing implements before her.
The bowl that held the ink was eggshell thin, glazed a rich, deep blue that seemed to soak in the flickering light of the small fire and the candles that lit the room. A worn black ink stone lay beside it.
“I would like to see how well your father taught you, Risuko.” She cocked her head to one side, like someone who was trying to look sly. “Write something.”
Still barely lifting my head, I reached out and took a sheet of the rice paper. It was so thin I could barely feel it between my fingers. As I placed it before me, I imagined I could almost see the grain of the table through the paper.
“What should I write?” I asked.
“Whatever you like,” she answered, dismissively waving her hand.
I chewed on the inside of my bottom lip for a second. I couldn’t think of a thing. Then I remembered sitting next to Father, copying one of his poems, trying to match his flowing brushstrokes.
I reached out to pick up the brush, but my fingers were shaking. “The ink is really good.”
Her nostrils flared. “Of course.” She clearly thought it was the stupidest thing she had heard me say.
I took a deep breath, trying to gain time and steady my hand. I tried to visualize the words flowing from our father’s brush, the three lines of Oto-san’s favorite poem. Without even realizing that I had done it, I picked up the brush, wetted it in the ink, and let the tip flow black over the ice-white paper.
Soldiers falling fast
Battle of white and scarlet
Blossoms on the ground
Again, Lady Chiyome smirked, looking down at my calligraphy. This time, however, the smirk was definitely not disgust, but what I was beginning to recognize as the lady’s sour amusement.
“Very nice,” she said, eyebrows arched.
It was. Father would have been proud. It wasn’t as good as his, but the lines flowed cleanly, evenly and easily.
“It’s one of my father’s poems.”
“Yes,” she said, “I know.”
I was about to ask how she could possibly know that, but she held up a small, thin finger. Her face was still on the surface, but looked as if it were twisting underneath. “Poetry is very nice, but anyone can learn a bag full of haiku before breakfast. Show me something longer. Show me some prose.”
I took a deep breath, and I immediately thought of that passage that Oto-san used to have us practice night after night. Again, I took out a clean sheet and picked up the brush. This time, I was calmer. With my left hand, I held back the cuff of my right sleeve.
“Keep your tongue in your mouth, child,” tisked Lady Chiyome.
I sucked my tongue in. I hadn’t even noticed that I was sticking it out. I could feel my fingers begin to shake again.
I took another deep breath, carefully wetted the brush once more, and began to write.
In the reign of a certain emperor there was a certain lady of the lower ranks whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The great, amibtious ladies gazed on her resentfully. Because of this…
My concentration was broken by an odd sound—a wheezing, rolling, rasping sound. Alarmed, I looked up.
Lady Chiyome looked furious—her white-painted face was darkening and twisted. Then she let out the sound again, fuller and deeper, and I realized that she was laughing. Tears began to stream from her eyes and she was weeping, screaming, howling with laughter.
I knelt there, ink drying on my brush, afraid to move. I had no idea why she was laughing, and was afraid that anything I might do could turn her frightening good humor to anger.
She reached a hand out to Mieko, and from the look on the maid’s face I realized that she was as shocked as I was. Mieko’s perfect black eyebrows were arched so high they looked as if they might snap.
Lady Chiyome took a silk handkerchief from Mieko’s sleeve, and began to wipe her eyes. I noticed that even the two bodyguards seemed astonished.
“Well, Mieko,” the lady said to her maid, “there you are. I look up at the top of the most forsaken pine tree in forsaken Serenity Province, and I find the last great enthusiast of The Tales of Genji.” She gave another rumbling laugh, and Mieko smiled, at least in sympathy if not in understanding. The old woman turned her streaked face to me again. “So, my little romance novelist. Your father did indeed teach you well.” She blew her nose loudly.
“Here, Kuniko.” She handed the wet silk rag to the other maid, whose face was a mask, and then turned back to me. “Now let me see how you can read.”
Smoothly and so quickly that I didn’t even see it happening, she plucked the brush from my hand. Holding it like a knife between her middle finger and thumb, she picked up fresh ink and poised to write on yet another sheet of beautiful, clean rice paper. She looked up, catching me with her gaze, as if to say, Are you watching carefully?
Like me, she pulled her sleeve back, but where my action had been a simple grab to keep my sleeve from trawling through the ink, hers was precise and elegant, like the motion of a dancer.
Her hand barely moved, but the brush slashed a character onto the paper—the phonetic hiragana, ku (く). Then came a sinuous curve—the phonetic katakana, no (ノ). Finally, another, horizontal slash—the Chinese kanji ideogram ichi (一).
She placed the brush down with the same deadly elegance, and looked up at me again. “Well?” she asked, indicating what she had written.
I was perplexed. I understood all of the pieces, but they made no sense. Oto-san said you weren’t ever supposed to write katakana, hiragana and kanji in a single word. I turned my head, thinking perhaps that if I looked at it upside down I might understand it.
“Well,” I said, “the first mark is ku, which means nine. And then there’s no, which is… of? Or on, or sometimes from. And then that line looks like the kanji character meaning one.” Then I sat back a bit, and the word came into focus, like an offshore island appearing through clearing fog. “But the whole thing… If you put the three strokes together it could be the Chinese character for woman (女).”
Lady Chiyome smiled again, the frightening smile. “Yes, my squirrel, yes. A kunoichi is a very special kind of woman indeed.” She looked to her two maids, and then back at me. “Perhaps, if you are fortunate, you will be such a woman yourself some day.”
I stared at her.
“I have one last question for you, child.”
“Yes, my lady?”
She picked up the brush and swirled it in a small bowl of water to clean it. Taking out yet another sheet of paper she said, “This morning, you told me that you could see the paper that Lord Imagawa and his commander were looking at.”
She fixed me with a skeptical stare. “To have seen it from that distance, you’d have had to be a falcon, not a squirrel.”
“But… I saw it, my lady.”
“Hmmph. So you say. Do you think you could reproduce what you saw?”
Now it was my turn to frown once more. In my mind’s eye the image was clear — the large blocks of green, with the smaller blocks of red and blue surrounding them. Lines like arrows sticking out of them. I nodded again.
She pushed the box of colored inks toward me and held out the brush once more. “Keep your tongue in, this time.”
I sucked my tongue in. “Yes, Chiyome-sama.” Then I reproduced the drawing I had seen as best I could.
When I looked up, Lady Chiyome’s eyes were wide. “Are you sure this is what you saw?”
“Yes, my lady.”
She grunted and turned to Kuniko. “We’ll need to get out of here as quickly as possible tomorrow, Kuniko.” Then she waved a hand at me. “Go to bed, girl. We will be traveling again in the morning.” She favored me with a grin in which there was very little of lightness. “Pleasant dreams. Risuko.”
My dreams that night were anything but.
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Image: Traditional Japanese building – by Cy21 @ Wikimedia Commons. Used through a Creative Commons license.