of Blood and Rain at the Gates of Dawn
By Christopher West
Ever since I was a small child I’ve had a fondness for bright colors. I used to crawl into the mounds of freshly laundered kimonos in the washroom of my father’s castle and roll about, watching the blur of colors as I flip-flopped through them, only to be chased away moments later by the head maid. Of all of the memories of my childhood, that was the one that came to me as I stood over the body of the woman I had killed just moments before. The blues and pinks of the kimono of the daughter of the man who had killed my father darkened as her blood soaked into the cloth. The smell of perfume and blood was invigorating.
I dabbed my fingers in the blood glistening on her naked breasts, and raised them to the window. The blood was crimson in the early morning light. In a moment of inspiration, I applied the blood to the woman’s moist lips. I was careful and loving. Her beauty was staggering, as if I was observing a real life arrangement of an ukiyo-e.
The sounds of the maid servants echoed down the hall as the castle was readied for another morning, and I knew that I didn’t have much time. I checked my kimono in the mirror for blood. There was none. I pulled the bedding over the body with a slight pang of regret. Not at what I’d done, but that I didn’t have the time to appreciate the scene further. I lived to sense the colors, to breathe in the scene.
The noises of the rain shutters sliding open nearby moved me to action. I lifted the bloody knife from the tatami floor, wrapping it in a white cloth. I rinsed my fingers in the basin, and put the cloth in my kimono, listening. The maids were far enough down the hall that I could still get out unseen. I quietly slid the shoji door open, waited a moment, and carefully leaned into the hallway. I could see grains of dust floating in the hall, undisturbed, as if held in suspension by the dim early morning light filtering through the cracks in the closed shutters along the walls. Down the hall to the left I could hear the maid servants pulling open more rain shutters, and others chattering early morning banter about those meaningless things such low women talk about.
I looked over my shoulder once, surveying the lavish quarters. It appeared normal, as though someone were still asleep within the bedding. I stepped silently into the hallway, closing the shoji door behind me. As I slid the door into place and turned to go, a junior maid appeared before me.
“Yumi-dono! I did not realize you were up already,” she said, shoulders hunched, apparently startled by my unexpected appearance. “Has the princess awakened yet?” She asked, eyeing the closed shoji door behind me. I paused, collecting my thoughts.
“It is too early to disturb the princess,” I said sharply. “But while you are here, I need some assistance in the storage room. Follow me,” I stated, putting all the force of my authority behind my voice.
“Of course, mistress.” She bowed her head, and followed me. I walked slowly and quietly, praying to all the gods of vengeance to avoid meeting anyone else. Aside from the occasional squeak of the floorboards, the short walk was uneventful. We reached the entrance to the storage room, and I motioned the girl to open the door. She dutifully unlatched the door, and bowed. She held the bow until I was inside, and she followed. I closed the door quietly behind us, and motioned to a large ceramic pot on a low shelf, “I need this moved to my quarters.”
“Yes mistress,” she said, and after a short bow, turned her back to me and leaned towards the pot. I silently slipped the cloth package out of my kimono, and removed the knife. The girl bent to lift the pot. “Be careful,” I said sternly, “that vase is more valuable than you!” She paused, obviously flustered, and carefully adjusted her grip. I slid up behind her, and hooked my left arm around her head, grabbing her by the hair. Before she could scream I jerked her head to the left, and drove the knife into her neck, pulling back sharply. The tender flesh and tendons gave way easily under the blade of the knife, and unleashed a torrent of blood. She went limp after barely a twitch, and I lowered her to the floor. Her heart continued to pump blood from the gaping tear in her neck for a few short seconds, and then the blood slowed, soaking into her hair. Her glassy brown eyes stared sightlessly up at me.
From the collar of my kimono to my white tabi socks, I was drenched in blood. I moved towards the door, leaving bloody footprints in the dust. Placing my ear against the supply room door, I listened. All was quiet; the castle was still in the process of waking for the day. I quietly opened the door, and stepped into the hall. As I shut the door behind me, I heard a scream nearby – one of the maids had found the body of the princess under the bedding. Around the corner to the left I could hear the commotion building. I quickly turned right down the hallway and moved forward, trying to keep to the shadows on the side of the hall. Behind me I could hear the loud crashing of armed castle guards storming down the hall, throwing open doors and searching rooms. I quickly made my way to the stables, hiding the knife in my kimono sleeve.
As I approached the door to the stables, a man came around the corner behind me. I moved closer to the wall, trying to conceal the blood-darkened kimono in the shadows. It was the stable-master.
“Mistress! Princess Yuki is dead, and a maid was killed in the storage room! There is an assassin in the castle! I must get you to safety!” He grabbed me by the arm, and started to pull me into the middle of the hallway, and then quickly let go, his fingers coming away slick with the blood of the servant girl. He looked at his hand, puzzled, and from there to my bloody kimono to my bloody socks. In the moment that realization dawned on him and he reached for his katana, I struck him in the chest with my knife. He grabbed my arm and fell backwards, tearing away my sleeve. I could hear the sounds of guards approaching quickly. The knife was firmly lodged in his chest, so I grabbed his katana by the hilt, and pulled it from the sheath. I ran as quickly as I could towards the exit, hindered by the constricting kimono.
I entered the stables, and wedged the door firmly closed with some nearby wooden beams. I could hear the servants talking at the far end of the stables, so I rushed forward. All conversation stopped as I stepped into the light of the stables. They looked at my bloody kimono and unsheathed sword, completely dumbfounded.
“Move you fools! We are under attack from the North gate and this is the only open road from the castle! Move, before the castle is surrounded! Ready the palanquin, or do you wish your lord’s favorite concubine to fall into the hands of his enemies?” I screamed at them. My bit of drama spurred them to action. Within a minute, the palanquin bearers had the palanquin ready, and as I climbed inside, I could hear the castle guards trying to batter open the door. I shouted, “I’ve blocked the door, but it shall not hold for long!” and closed the palanquin door. The palanquin bearers rushed forward out of the stables in a panic.
As we moved out of the castle, I removed my obi with some difficulty within the confines of the palanquin. Using the katana like a knife, I cut out a thick strip of fabric from the top of the kimono collar down the front, and tied it around my waist as a belt to replace the bulky obi. I then cut a slit in the side of the kimono from my thigh down to the base, and cut away the lower portion of the kimono below the knees. I wasn’t likely to get far in this palanquin, and I would need the freedom of movement an intact kimono couldn’t provide if I was going to escape.
The footsteps of the palanquin bearers changed from the crunching of gravel to the soft thud of the forest floor. We were now under the cover of the trees, and in the heavily wooded and treacherous terrain of the mountain path. Before I could give the order to stop and lower the palanquin, I could hear the sounds of horses quickly approaching. The palanquin door was on the right, so I opened it just enough to see out. The thick forest was less than a meter away, and dropped downward. Before I could plan my next move, I heard the whistle of an arrow, and the palanquin jerked sharply to the right and crashed to the ground. More arrows whistled, and all I could hear were the rumble of horses and the screams of the wounded and dying palanquin bearers.
I opened the palanquin door, gripped the katana tightly in my right hand and dove into the dense brush directly in front of me. I rolled uncontrollably down the incline through the thick vegetation, unable to stop my fall through the trees, sharp branches tearing my clothing and skin. Finally, I fell into a small clearing, and using the katana for balance, slowly got to my feet.
The sound of crashing through the underbrush told me the castle guards were not far behind. Raising my sword, I caught a glimpse of the treetops reflected in the blade. Standing in the forest I could smell the rain coming. The moisture was building in the air, carried on the wind. Mingling with the smell of rain was the faint smell of blood, and I gripped the katana tightly with the intent of adding to that smell. All I could think is that today, today is a good day to kill.
Behind me in the forest a foot came down on a fallen branch, cracking it with the sound of a cannon within the confines of the clearing. Sparrows that had been perched in the trees took to flight, and a single feather fluttered down before me. I turned around in time to meet the blade of a castle guard head on. His blow was deflected, my katana nearly wrenched from my fingers. He was quick, but I was quicker – as he pulled back for another strike, I adjusted my grip, and thrust forward, catching him in the neck. He swung his katana weakly towards me, and staggered forward. His blood fell on the dry leaves of the forest floor with the pitter-patter of spilled ink falling on a crisp new scroll. With a sputtering gasp, he fell in a heap at my feet. It began to rain.
I knew the rest of the guards were near, and that they would be drawn to the sound of combat, so I wiped my blade on his clothing, and slipped into the surrounding forest, not knowing if I would survive to see another dawn. But as the rain washed away the blood, dirt, and sweat, I knew I didn’t care.