The Hour of the Rat, by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

Moving swiftly through the shadows and evading guards and servants, a girl means to retrieve an important heirloom, but Nezumi would soon find out she was not the only one looking for revenge in the house of Lord Tomigawa no Kana that night!

 

shigururu ya                             winter rain

   nezumi no wataru            a mouse runs

     koto no ue                       across the koto

—Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

 

Nezumi’s heart pounded as she pressed against the wall. She willed herself to be as invisible as the night all around her. She put a hand over her mouth so that the puffs of her breath would not give away her position. Within the estate beyond the wall, a guard approached her position. Nezumi whispered under her breath.

Namo amida butsu. Namo amida butsu…”

She used the prayer to keep time. Two hundred repetitions between the passes of the guards as they made their rounds. Not much time to get over the wall. Nezumi shivered. It was going to rain. She didn’t know how she knew, but she always knew.

There. One hundred. The guard would be at his farthest point away. Nezumi pulled out the rope she had hidden in the folds of her dark kimono. It took tries, but the rock tied to the end finally caught on the tree in the courtyard beyond. Nezumi scrambled over the wall and dropped down into the shadows behind the tree. She heard footsteps on the gravel path and froze.

The footsteps froze, right at Nezumi’s tree. She tried not to breathe. A soft moan and the guard let loose a stream of urine at the base of the tree. Nezumi swallowed down bile. She mentally cursed Umeko as the man emptied his pathologically large bladder.

It had to be Umeko, and Nezumi was going to make her pay. Or at least that had been the plan. Now she wasn’t sure she could even find the servants’ quarters with the clouds hiding the moon. Well, one problem at a time.

The man finished at last and walked away humming an off-key tune. Nezumi dared a look from behind the tree. She could just make out the servants’ quarters perhaps twenty yards away. Quiet and quick, quiet and quick. She crouched low and darted for the next tree.

To her right, something rustled on the tiles of a nearby roof. Nezumi looked and saw nothing. Vermin, perhaps. The thought that she wasn’t the only creature sneaking into the estate tonight made Nezumi smile. The sight of a guard’s lantern in the distance reminded her why she was here.

She made it to the servants’ quarters and slipped in the kitchen door. The room glowed with the embers from a large cooking fire, pots and utensils glowing a strange red. Nezumi thought of the stories her mother had told her of the one night a year when household goods came to life. She hoped that tonight would not be that night.

A kitchen-girl slept curled up against the hearth. Onna-san would have skinned alive any girl in her kitchen for falling asleep. The coals might catch the room on fire, or even worse, the fire might go out and the master would have a cold breakfast. Nezumi was glad that she had moved up to a house-maid, but all the servants back home were still under Onna-san’s watchful eye.

It was Onna-san who had, unwittingly, given her the idea for tonight’s adventure. The old hag was always accusing Nezumi of being a thief. Tonight she was acting like one. Nezumi took a kitchen knife from her sleeves, shuddering to think what Onna-san would do if she discovered it missing in a few hours’ time. Nezumi had to be done by then. She arranged a hood over her face, masking all but her eyes. Then she shook the kitchen girl awake.

“There’s a knife at your throat.” Nezumi hoped the girl would be too scared to realize it was the dull back of the blade. “Cry out and you’re dead. Nod once if you understand.”

The girl shook so much her teeth almost rattled, but she nodded.

“Does Umeko the maid live here?”

Another nod. The acrid smell of urine filled the air. The girl had wet herself. Wonderful.

“I’m going to take the knife away so you can tell me where her room is. Scream, and I’ll kill you.”

Nezumi pulled the knife back. The girl’s eyes stayed wide. She took a few breaths, as if she was afraid her lungs wouldn’t work.

“Down the main hall, third door on the left.” Nezumi had almost turned when the girl continued. “But she’s not there tonight.”

“Where is she?”

The girl looked down at the floor. She didn’t want to answer. What was scaring her more than a masked person with a knife? It took the pressure of the tip against her cheek to get the girl to answer.

“Master Tomigawa. I saw her being led away to the master’s chamber, dressed like a high-class courtesan. With powdered face and combs in her hair and everything. She hasn’t come back.” The girl looked at the floor again. “The pretty ones never come back.”

Nezumi was only half-listening, her mind in rapid motion. She had taken enough chances tonight getting to this outer building. The master’s chamber would be in the center of the estate. Could she get there and get out again? Did she have any other choice? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to get the lay of the land.

Nezumi turned to the girl, her knife flashing in the light of the coals. “Tell no one about me and I may let you live…” The girl’s form went slack. She had fainted.

Nezumi positioned her against the hearth. Perhaps when she woke the girl would think it had just been a bad dream. It would be nice if the whole situation were just a nightmare. But if it were a nightmare, Nezumi had been dreaming it since her mother had died and her father had sold her as a kitchen-girl to pay his drinking debts.

It could have been worse. Onna-san loved to tell stories of disobedient girls sold to work in “tea houses.” Illegal brothels catering to the roughest clientele. Somehow Nezumi found it hard to be grateful to her father for being only a half-bastard.

Her master and mistress were better than others of their class. She had never heard of her master testing the killing edge of a new sword on a servant or forcing himself on one. Her mistress never beat her. She let Onna-san discipline the female servants. Nezumi was fed, clothed, even given the occasional festival free of duties. Umeko’s master seemed to be of the more traditional sort.

Served the bitch right.

Nezumi listened for footsteps and then slipped out the kitchen door. The night had grown colder, and much quieter than Nezumi liked. This time of year the insects would be hibernating, or dead. Fewer sounds to cover her movements.

She took a moment to orient herself. The next building over likely belonged to the mistress of the estate. Then came an elaborate garden, complete with a hut for the tea ceremony. Which meant the large building beyond it held the master’s chamber. Light filtered through the paper walls of the central building. All the others lay dark. Nezumi crept onward.

She reached the edge of the garden with no problem, crouching beneath a low evergreen as a guard walked past. Quiet as a mouse. She forced her imagination away from what might happen to her if she were caught. Studied the central building for a way in.

The light filtering from the building silhouetted three tall objects. At first Nezumi thought they were statues, until one of them slapped his neck. More guards. Big guards. Nezumi needed to get past them. She had now idea how.

Another guard slapped at his neck. Nezumi frowned. It was the wrong season for mosquitoes. A series of screams suddenly rang out from the house. They started like the screams of a woman in absolute terror and crescendoed into shrieking, bestial cries. The guards did not react at all. As if such screams were commonplace at this estate.

The sound at last cut off. Nezumi shook in her hiding place. What had she gotten herself into? The third guard slapped at his neck. Just another night for him. That was it. Nezumi couldn’t risk getting caught. She had to go back.

Nezumi turned from the main building, giving her eyes a chance to readjust to the darkness. From behind her came three soft thuds. Nezumi looked back at the house. The guards no longer stood sentinel. Three masses lay where they had been.

It was a sign. Some god had decided to aid Nezumi in her quest. She took a deep breath, released it. All she had to do was cross the garden, enter the house, find Umeko, and take back what was hers. Easy. Right.

She still trembled as she made her way across the garden. Darting from shadow to shadow, she made the journey quickly, quietly. There would be footprints in the sand bed, but Nezumi would be long gone before anyone discovered them. She reached the steps leading up to the porch of the main house. She permitted herself a smile.

Strong arms pulled Nezumi against a form slightly larger than herself. She felt her hood ripped off. The edge of a cold blade pressed against her throat. Fear prickled up her spine.

Someone spoke in a quiet, rough voice. “The knife will slit you open if you make a sound. Nod if you understand.”

Nezumi couldn’t help it. Irony forced a strangled, hysterical giggle out of her. The blade pressed closer. Nezumi gave a frantic nod. The knife relaxed but did not withdraw.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“N-nezumi. I serve a household a few streets over. I’m…looking for something.”

The whisper of a blade sliding back into its sheath. Nezumi felt around her throat, finding a drop of blood weeping its way down. She pressed her thumb against her neck to stop the bleeding.

“The Hour of the Rat is a suspicious time of night to be…looking for something.” There was humor in the person’s voice, but Nezumi was still held in a tight grip. “And in a neighbor’s house. In other words, you are a thief.”

“No. I’m just taking back what’s mine.”

Silence. At last the arms released Nezumi. “If justice is truly what you seek, I will not stand in your way. Tell me your story.”

Nezumi turned to face her attacker. She put a hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp. The figure was wrapped head to toe in tight-fitting white garments, only the tips of the fingers and the eyes visible. A long knife and a sword as a samurai would wear hung from a belt and a bracer of what Nezumi assumed were throwing knives strapped across the chest. The tight costume made it clear that the attacker was a woman.

“You’re the White Ghost!”

A laugh, surprisingly musical with none of the earlier roughness to the voice. The woman gave a mocking bow, mocking Nezumi or her own nickname, Nezumi was not sure. “You may call me Fuyu, Nezumi-chan. But come now. This midnight hour grows short. You owe me a story in exchange for your life.”

Nezumi tried not to think of the stories she had heard about the White Ghost. A female assassin who was more spirit than human. Killer by night, upper-class courtesan by day. Or mistress of the shogun. Or daughter of the emperor. A demon in human form who could kill with a thought, or a touch. Nezumi suddenly realized why the three guards fell. Fuyu. She knew the name of an assassin.

She closed her eyes, concentrated on her own story. “Umeko is a maid in this house. We’re not really friends, but we talk together when we’re both sent to the market. Gossip, mostly, foolish women’s talk. How one day a rich young samurai was going to see us in the market and fall madly in love with us and take us to be his wife. That kind of thing.”

Nezumi rubbed at the back of her head before continuing. “The last Festival of the Weaver, we were both given time off. We dressed in our finest kimonos, and I wore the lacquer combs my mother had given to me before she died. They’re all I have to remember her by.

“Umeko and I had a very fun evening. So fun that I don’t remember how I reached home. I woke up in my own bed, fully clothed, except my mother’s combs were gone. Umeko must have taken them. I saw her eyeing them all night. Each time I tried to confront her about it, she acted like she didn’t know me.

“At last I decided to take back what was mine. I, uh, let myself in over the wall, and a helpful kitchen girl told me Umeko had been summoned to her master’s chamber. I was about to go find her when you stopped me. That’s all.”

The other woman slowly eyed Nezumi up and down. “It is a good thing you had no attachment to this Umeko. If Tomigawa has summoned her to his chamber, she is no doubt already dead.”

A chill when through Nezumi that had nothing to do with the season or the late hour. Dead? She had wanted Umeko to pay for her theft, but not…

“How can that be? How are you so sure?”

“Let us just say that I know something about Tomigawa’s…deviant appetites. You are not the only one seeking justice tonight.”

Nezumi recalled the scream she heard not long ago. What kind of perversion would cause such a scream? She didn’t want to know. And then another question occurred to her.

“Justice for one of your…clients? Or for yourself?”

Fuyu did not answer but turned toward the house. “I will help you find your property, if I can. Follow me closely, do exactly as I say, and leave when I tell you.”

Before Nezumi could respond, the woman was up the steps. Nezumi had no choice but to follow or be left in the garden with three dead guards. She tried not to look at their bodies as she passed by. Once on the porch, the door into the main house slid back and as easy as that, they were inside.

Nezumi smiled. Before them lay a polished wooden floor, a wide corridor running the whole length of the house. The glow seen from outside was only slightly stronger here, shining through the paper walls of a large room in front of them. Its door was only a few yards away.

Nezumi took a step forward only to have a firm hand forced against her chest. “Wait. Nightingale floor.”

Nezumi froze. She had heard of the nightingale floor before, but she had never been in the house of someone rich enough to own one. Master carpenters cut and joined the planks and supports of a floor in such a way that it creaked or sang out when someone walked on it. There was only one silent path across the floor. Thus only one who knew the secret could cross the floor unannounced.

“How are we—”

“Quiet. I need to listen.”

For what, Nezumi wanted to ask, but she remained silent. Fuyu closed her eyes and held her head tilted for a long while. At last she nodded and opened her eyes.

“Step exactly where I step.”

Without looking back to see if Nezumi was following, Fuyu executed a series of steps and hops that seemed like a bizarre children’s game. Nezumi swallowed and began following Fuyu. She almost lost her balance twice, but by wheeling her arms wildly, she kept herself from falling. By the time she reached the doorway where Fuyu stood, she was exhausted.

They listened at the doorway. No sound came from the inner chamber save a low drone, something like the hum of a bee, and the sound of dripping water. Fuyu slowly slid the door open.

Nezumi fought back the urge to vomit. The light of a single lamp on a stand showed a man naked to the waist sitting in a cross-legged meditative posture. His eyes were closed as if in sleep. Above him was what remained of Umeko. She had been affixed to a frame above the man’s head, her limbs tied spread-eagle to the frame. Her cheeks were powdered, her hair bore Nezumi’s stolen combs. And her dead eyes stared unseeing with a look of absolute terror.

A lattice-work of cuts covered Umeko’s naked torso. Blood ran down these channels in the woman’s flesh and dropped from the juncture of Umeko’s legs onto the head of the seated man. His face, beard, torso—everything was covered in blood.

“Tomigawa no Kana. The hungry ghosts of your victims await you in hell.”

Fuyu’s voice was so soft Nezumi could hardly hear it. The icy words shook Nezumi even more. Across the room, the man’s eyes snapped open. The droning sound ceased. He hadn’t been asleep, Nezumi realized. He had been praying. Praying to some dark god from the pits of hell.

“They will have to go hungry a little longer.”

With an unexpected grace for so large a man, the seated figure rose and drew a sword. Umeko’s blood dripped onto the floor behind him.

“The White Ghost, I assume. Your reputation precedes you. I was not aware, however, that you had an apprentice.”

Fuyu’s hand clenched and relaxed over the hilt of her sword. “She has no part in this. I am your opponent.”

The man nodded his head. “As you wish.” He let out a shout and rushed Fuyu. Nezumi scurried back to a corner of the room. Her heart raced. Fuyu still hadn’t taken her sword from its sheath. At the last possible moment Fuyu drew and sliced, pivoting away from the attack.

The two opponents faced each other, panting. Lamplight glistened off Fuyu’s upraised blade. A thin trail of blood ran down the edge. A thin red line marked Tomigawa’s face. The man’s brows narrowed.

“You are very skilled. For a woman. But not skilled enough. A shame you will not live long enough to refund your client his money.”

“I was not paid to exterminate you, Tomigawa no Kana. I have been looking forward to this moment for a long time.”

The man looked Fuyu over in a way that made Nezumi’s skin crawl. He smiled and beckoned her on. “Let the foreplay begin.”

He launched himself at Fuyu again. The two blades sang as they crossed, moving so fast that Nezumi could hardly see them. As the fight moved, she circled along the edge of the room to stay out of the way. She found herself right by the frame that held Umeko’s body. She looked up at her mother’s combs, then at the battle. The two had eyes only for each other. Nezumi hurried to the frame.

A wooden pin held the frame upright. Nezumi’s hands shook as she used both of them to draw it out. The device groaned and then hinged downward. Umeko’s dead eyes looked up at Nezumi. She swallowed, retrieved her mother’s combs. She put them in her kimono, close to her heart. Hesitated. Then she reached to close Umeko’s eyes.

Namo amida butsu…

When Nezumi looked up, the fight had made its way back to the center of the room. Tomigawa was cut in many places, though it was hard to tell what blood was his and what Umeko’s. Fuyu was breathing hard, blood streaming from numerous wounds. Her white garments were cut to ribbons in many places. Nezumi’s eyes went wide. The entire left side of Fuyu’s body bore the scars of old burns.

Nezumi was no expert in swordfights, but it seemed Fuyu was getting the worst of it. Although the woman had much more grace and finesse, Tomigawa’s reach and strength were coming to bear. His lips were twisted in a leering smile. Nezumi did not want to know what the man was thinking as he fought.

Nezumi acted before her better sense could stop her. When Tomigawa’s back was turned, she scurried out behind him. Fuyu pressed her attack, and the man went toppling over Nezumi. She tried to crawl out of the way and then screamed as he took hold of one of her ankles. She kicked and kicked, his pull wrenching her hip. At last he let go, Fuyu’s sword through his belly.

Nezumi shivered and pulled her legs close to her body, making sure she was beyond Tomigawa’s reach. The man on the floor swung his sword at Fuyu, but she kicked it out of his hand. Then she reached up and pulled the hood from her head. Nezumi gasped. The right half of Fuyu’s face was that of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Long black hair, high forehead, porcelain skin. The left half was hideous—twisted and scarred, the scars burning an angry red with Fuyu’s exertion.

“This is for killing my mother.” She drew her sword from Tomigawa’s belly and drove it in again. “This is for raping my sisters.” The sword pierced the man’s groin. “And this is for burning my village to the ground.” With a swing of Fuyu’s arm, the man’s head went flying. It knocked the lamp off its stand and into the paper walls, setting them on fire.

There was no sound save for the crackling of the fire and Fuyu’s heavy panting. Then she let out a shout and began to hack at the corpse. A smile twisted the woman’s lips that made Nezumi shiver. She looked from her companion to the growing fire.

“Fuyu. We must leave.”

Nezumi’s voice seemed to call Fuyu back to herself. Her eyes took in the fire in a single glance, and she nodded at Nezumi. Nezumi rose, and they both turned to leave. From the corner of the room came a sound Nezumi had not expected to hear. The laugh started low but grew louder and stronger. It came from Tomigawa’s severed head.

The eyes fixed on Fuyu. “You did not think that it would be that easy, did you? I have fed on the blood of thousands. I have become immortal. I am the hunger that never dies.”

Black blood bubbled from Tomigawa’s corpse, collected together, began to rise from the floor. Took the shape of a monstrous spider. So large it seemed it would burst the burning room. Fuyu’s sword looked to be no more than a splinter of wood in comparison.

“Leave, Nezumi. This is not your fight. If I survive, I will find a way to thank you.”

With a last look at the other woman, Nezumi hurried from the room as fast as her injured leg would let her. The nightingale floor sang under her feet. As she reached the garden she heard footsteps running on gravel paths. The perimeter guards seemed to have noticed the fire at last. Nezumi would have to use their distraction as her opportunity to escape.

“The master’s chamber is on fire. Fetch water. Hurry.”

The men ran off in various directions. Nezumi limped her way toward the servants’ quarters and the tradesmen’s gate. She unlatched the door and slipped out into the street behind the manor. It began to rain.

She looked behind her. Flames covered the central building. She could hear people running everywhere. With a loud crash of splintering wood and crashing tile, two forms suddenly burst up through the flames. A giant white serpent battled with the monstrous blood-black spider. Nezumi wished Fuyu luck. Then she felt her breast. Her mother’s combs were still there. Safe, unharmed. With a smile, Nezumi slipped into the night.

Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. If you enjoyed “The Hour of the Rat,” let him know at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter: @haikufictiondju

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