Woman Combing Her Hair by Goyo Hashiguchi, c. 1920

Risuko — Chapter 6: Tea and Cakes

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6 — Tea and Cakes

A rumble woke us all the next morning. It sounded like a peal of distant thunder. But Mieko and Kuniko were already on their feet before I could sit up and wipe the sleep from my eyes.

“What is it?” I asked Emi, who was rubbing her eyes next to me. “It’s awfully cold for thunder and lightning, isn’t it? And it doesn’t feel like an earthquake….”

Emi shook her head and scowled. We both listened carefully as we pulled on our clothes—mine still slightly damp from the night before, smelling faintly of stale soy sauce and burnt rice.

Another low rumble shook the morning silence. From where I had been sleeping near the kitchen, I could see a grey, thin light leaking beneath the outer kitchen door.

We began to fold away our bedding with a sense of uncertain urgency. I was about to ask again what that rumble might have been, when a new sound broke the silence and explained everything. It was a sharp, high crack. Musket fire. And not very far away, from the sound of it.

My legs went cold and I dropped my bedroll.

The battle had come to us.

Kuniko appeared at the front door, her face as stony as ever. To the younger Little Brother, she barked, “Go guard the rear gate.” To the older one, she said, “Come with me to guard the lady.” Then she and Mieko exchanged a look. It said: the lady’s maid and the four children would have to fend for ourselves.

I caught Emi’s eye, and I could see she shared the dry panic that was squeezing the breath out of me. Even Toumi looked pale and shaken.

There were several more gunshots, and the deep rumble sounded again—cannon fire.

Mieko turned to us, standing there in her thin robe as if she were waiting to sit for a portrait and not waiting for a battle. “Aimaru,” she said, a hoarseness to her voice the only sign that she was nervous, “Aimaru, you take these young ladies to the kitchen. I will guard this door. You should be safe enough in there.”

We all began to stumble toward the kitchen doorway.

“Aimaru!” Mieko called, her voice betraying more emotion than I had ever yet heard, “they are your responsibility, do you understand?”

He snapped a stiff, almost soldier-like bow, and led us into the kitchen.

There was another rumbling sound in the distance, longer and higher than the cannon’s thunder. Horses were galloping in our direction.

Aimaru grabbed a curved chef’s knife from the shelf next to the pots we had cleaned the night before. Its edge was nicked and scarred, but its point still looked lethal. He gave it a practice slash or two, and then looked up at the three of us. I realized that he was as terrified as we were. “There’s a small pantry there. Can you three fit in it?”

I started to object, but he cut me off with uncharacteristic impatience. “Have you been trained to fight?” We all stood, silent. “Can you face a grown soldier?” Our shoulders sagged. He opened the door and pushed us in.

“Does he know how to fight?” Toumi muttered. Her shoulder pressed against my nose. I couldn’t breathe.

The pantry was tiny. The shelves were bare except for a few cobwebs that fluttered as we squirmed to stay quiet.

Emi grunted and turned her head to try to get it away from Toumi’s hair. “I was there when Lady Chiyome picked him up on Mount Hiei, rock-head. He was training to be a warrior-monk.”

Toumi looked as though she might bite Emi, but a loud yell from the front of the inn snapped her to attention. “Who was that?”

There was an answering shout—“Get away from here!”—from a voice that I thought I recognized as Kuniko’s.

“I think that’s coming from the front gate,” I whispered. I could hear our horses braying loudly. Then there was an explosion of noise: the shouting of many more voices, the sharp ring of steel meeting steel, and a wrenching snap that made the whole rickety inn tremble.

I heard the Little Brother outside the back door yell, “Come here, come here! It is a good day to die!” Several angry voices answered his.

There was no escape from the inn.

Now I was panicked—furious—at being trapped in the airless closet. If I could only climb to the roof, I thought, I might jump to the next building… Desperate to find some way out, I looked up.

Above, a crescent-moon sliver of light shone through the thatch roof. Before I had even considered, I had used Toumi’s shoulder to push me up onto the flimsy shelves.

“Hey!” barked Toumi.

“Murasaki,” Emi hissed, “come back down!”

“I just want to see,” I whispered back, feeling a twinge of guilt at leaving them behind. “I’ll be right back.”

I could feel the brisk morning air blowing in through the sliver of space between the wall and the singed thatch, could smell the smoke of a thousand meals that had been cooked in the kitchen below. I pushed up, widening the opening by pressing between the straw and the wall.

As I squeezed up into the smoke hole, I heard Aimaru gasp below. “What are you doing?”

“Uh, just taking a look.”

“Get down!”

“I will, I…” I didn’t want to abandon him or Emi—it didn’t seem fair. But I couldn’t just sit there, locked up. I wriggled against the wall, pushing up into the smoke hole.

Looking up, all that I could see was the charred roof that covered the chimney, keeping rain out. Like all else in the inn, the cover had a moth-eaten look. The supports were charred and spindly, and it looked as if a stiff breeze might have blown it away like the ash from the previous night’s fire.

But the sky beyond was blue—the bright, silver-blue of early morning—and I could just smell the distant tang of the sea through the thick odor of stale smoke. As I pushed up through the chimney, I was so feverish with relief at my soon-to-be-certain escape that I almost missed another scent, one that made the hair on my forearms stand up.

Gunpowder. Close by.

As soon as I raised my head through the smoke hole in the thatch, a thunderstorm of sounds burst over my ears. Gun shots. The ping of steel on steel. Screams.

As I peered around, looking for a nearby roof that I could escape to, I could see knots of dust, with occasional silver flashes. I tried to see any of our party, but the chimney was on the far side of the roof from the inn yard. I could hear the younger of the Little Brothers howling like an angry bear, but I could not see him; he must have been just out of sight, hidden by the edge of the roof. Which way to go? I wondered.

A puff of hay suddenly flew into my face. I couldn’t imagine why—it wasn’t windy, and so there was no reason for the roof to be blowing apart, ramshackle as it was.

I turned toward where the thatch had come from and saw a bright flash of red from the dust-filled street.

I did not hear the gunshot until the bullet had splintered the smoke-lathed support a hand’s width from my ear. The support gave way, and the roof above me squealed as it began to lean and fall.

As I scampered back down into the pantry with a squeak, I could see relief and concern on Aimaru’s round face.

“Well?” snapped Toumi.

“I… couldn’t see anything,” I murmured as I stood once again between them, trying not to tremble.

There was noise now in the corridor of the inn. The older Little Brother must have been fighting like a demon to protect Chiyome-sama.

I thought with terror of poor Mieko, standing frail and alone out in the dining room. Why hadn’t she come back into the kitchen with us, or gone off with Kuniko? She had made a dreadful sacrifice for us, I thought, and had made it with the quiet dignity of a samurai woman, just as our father had always hoped that my sister and I would conduct ourselves. I was ready to call out to Mieko, to tell her to come in and hide with us, when I heard, through the clamor, two men entering the dining room.

Through the thin wall behind me, I heard one say, “Hey, Juro, look what we’ve found!”

“The pretty lady from the group at the crossroads, yesterday. Hey, pretty lady. Give a soldier a kiss?” I thought I recognized the voice of the samurai who had stopped us the previous evening.

I heard Mieko say, with that same polite tone that she seemed to use no matter what the occasion, “Please, gentlemen, go elsewhere. I do not wish to harm you.”

I do not wish to harm you?

The two soldiers laughed grimly and we could hear the sound of tables being knocked aside. One thumped into the wall against which my back was pressed. I could feel Toumi, Emi and myself all try to take a sympathetic gasp of terror for Mieko, but the space was too confined—we simply pressed up against each other even more tightly.

From the dining hall, we heard the sound of a high shriek, and then what sounded like a sigh. There were two thuds, and then the room beyond the wall was silent.

Battle raged elsewhere. Grunts, shouts, the clang of metal—it was too much sound to give me a picture of what was going on outside.

Then a new sound drowned out all the others. It roared like a huge wave breaking on the shore, but instead of crashing and retreating, it kept thundering toward us from the same direction that the cannon fire had come from.

It was the sound of hundreds of galloping horses.

Oto-san told me once—only once—about witnessing the charge of the Takeda cavalry at Midriver Island. He said the thunder of their hooves was both the most beautiful and most terrifying thing he had ever witnessed—except for the births of my sister and me.

The sounds of fighting around us gave way to panicked shouts and the sounds of running feet.

There was more shouting, and then the roar of the horses’ hooves came to a halt.

There was quiet for a few long moments, and then Emi gasped when the latch on the closet was raised. The door was flung open, and bright light blinded us. We all three—Emi, Toumi and myself—stiffened, ready to run, to fight for our lives if need be.

Aimaru stood in the door, his face as tense as ours must have been. “Good morning,” he said.

From the back door, the Little Brother entered, looking much less good-humored than he usually did. His bald head had a large bleeding gash on it. “Ssh!” he ordered. “We don’t know who those horsemen were.” He looked at all of us. “Where is Mieko-san?”

Each of us gave a gasp—in our relief, we had forgotten what had happened to poor Mieko. We burst through the doorway back into the dining area to see if we could help her.

Mieko knelt, her hair loose around her lovely, sad face. She was wiping a long, thin blade with a rust-brown kerchief. Before her lay two soldiers whose armor bore the emblem of Lord Imagawa. The smaller was indeed the samurai who had ordered us up the side road the day before. Both were lifeless, their faces frozen in shock.

Her knife clean, Mieko slipped the blade into a small, flat sheath. With her left hand, she gathered her hair into a bun at the back of her head and then with her right slid the covered blade in so that it neatly held her tresses in place.

She did all of this with the modesty and ritual decorum of a shrine maiden preparing tea and cakes for the gods.

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Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale


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