The air is cool against my damp skin as I rise from the lake, beads of water trickling down my body and glistening like little pearls under the light of the silver crescent moon peeking from the veil of the clouds.
I shiver a little but do not hasten to cover myself, instead relishing the refreshing feeling. I have not, after all, had a bath in days. Taking a bath in the light of day is not exactly a wise thing to do for a woman trying to disguise herself as a man.
For the past three months, I have been wearing the guise of a samurai. Surprisingly, it was easier than I had expected, especially since I am not particularly beautiful, nor are my breasts too large. Once, I detested these traits, blaming them for the fact that I have not held any man’s attention but now, I am grateful for them.
In truth, there was one man who paid special attention to me – my childhood friend, Jiro. Although he was two years older than me, we grew up together and got scolded for much mischief together, but about the time I had started to see him as someone more than a childhood friend or just another boy was the same time he was starting to become more of a man than a boy. Soon after, he left to become a samurai. Five months ago, I heard that he was killed by one of the men of Ryota Funabashi, the master of his lord’s neighboring keep. From what I had heard, Lord Funabashi had ordered an attack on the keep where Jiro was serving in an attempt to seize it. He succeeded and Jiro was among the fallen.
I knew that I had been waiting for Jiro’s return but until his death, I had never really realized how much I needed him or wanted him to be by my side. At first, I was devastated by the tragic news, but after much thought, I resolved to avenge him. An ordinary woman may have simply grieved his death and continued with her life, but ordinary women did not have my father.
“A true woman does not depend solely on the men in her life to defend her,” he had repeated to me many times when I complained about my secret katana training with him. Though he held many unusual beliefs, the quality of his sword-smithing kept his critics silent.
I focus on my task, drying myself off with the towel I have brought with me. Then, I pick up the strips of cloth on top of my pile of clothes and wrap them securely around my chest, binding my breasts so that they are even more obscure. It was a painful task at first, but now, I am used to it.
Once done, I pick up my kimono and wrap it around me, and then my hakama which I fasten with the obi. I have done away with the fundoshi since it felt uncomfortable, especially against my backside.
I put on my socks and my sandals, and then tuck my tanto into my obi. The last remaining piece is my katana, my father’s finest creation which I had stolen upon my departure. I unsheathe it, examining its elegantly curved blade which shimmers under the moonlight. Tomorrow, if I am fortunate, the blade will be stained in blood, Lord Funabashi’s blood, since tomorrow is when he is returning from his journey.
It is his custom to see the new recruits one by one, examining them to make sure they are worthy of serving him, though the rumors say it is only an excuse for him to find a fine, young man to bed. I do not mind the reason. I only know it will be my chance for avenging Jiro.
Thinking of Jiro’s warm smile, I put the sword back in its sheath and strap it around my waist. Finally, I tie my hair up. Of all things, I miss having my hair down, cascading past my shoulders and whipping against my cheeks whenever a harsh breeze passed by. Still, it is a small sacrifice to make.
No sacrifice is too great for the man I love.
I go back to the keep and sneak into the room I share with the other new samurai recruits. There, I lie on my futon and think of Jiro until sleep claims me.
At the break of dawn, I wake up, roll up my futon and train along with the others before having a simple breakfast. Just as I finish breakfast, I hear the people outside scampering.
“The Master is here!” one of them announced.
I get up and look out the window just in time to see Lord Funabashi arriving on his horse. It is my first time seeing him and for a moment, I am filled with fear at his commanding presence, reminded of the tales I have heard about his cunning and his cruelty, but I steel myself, reminding myself of my mission.
I go about the rest of my daily routine as usual and towards late afternoon, we are assembled out on the training grounds. One by one, the men are called and led into the Master’s room, some of whom I see getting out of it with a triumphant grin and others with their shoulders slumped in defeat. When it is my turn, I take a deep breath and follow the guard inside. I kneel and bow at the entrance and wait for him to permit me to raise my head and come closer.
“Come,” he gives the order.
I approach him as he dismisses the guard, leaving both of us alone in the room. Up close, he is even more intimidating, his features having a hard edge to them, but my resolve remains firm.
“What is your name?” he asks.
“Kohaku,” I lie.
He circles around me like a vulture closing in on its prey, his gaze boring into me as if looking into the depths of my soul. What he does not realize, however, is that he is the prey. My prey.
When he leans over to grasp my chin, I quickly unsheathe my katana and stab him in the stomach. He looks at me with eyes wide with horror and he opens his mouth in an attempt to ask me why but no words come out. I push my blade in deeper, letting him fear my rage.
“Die,” I tell him, and as if obeying my orders, he falls down on the floor, his blood painting the tatami crimson. His whole body shudders for a little while and then he is still. He is dead.
I stand over him for just a second then pull out my sword, swinging it to remove some of the blood and then sheathing it. It is time to make my escape.
I leave the room through another entrance and run down the hall to the gardens. Since I started staying at the keep, I have examined every entrance and exit, every means of escape. I knew it was only a remote chance since the keep was flooded with warriors but I would take it anyway, and if I failed, then I would simply take my own life.
I reach the gardens and make my way through it. As I glimpse the gap in the wall, I grin, thinking that my escape is almost complete. I have spoken too soon, however, since I see a guard chasing after me from the side. He is closer to the wall than I am, so I change directions, turning left and down another path. He is relentless.
I make another turn and run faster but then, I realize my mistake as I see the gate barred ahead. I turn around, instead, and ready my sword but the moment I do, I look into a familiar pair of piercing ebony eyes and I freeze.
He, too, is surprised, immediately seeing through my disguise as he deciphers my expression. His own expression turns from surprise to confusion, as if he is debating whether to capture me or hand me over. As we hear voices, it seems that the latter has won over since he takes my sword and points it at my throat.
I have lost.
“Is this the murderer?” one of the guards ask as he arrives at the scene.
“What are you doing, Jiro? Kill him!” another orders. “He has killed our master.”
“Yes, kill him,” another urges.
He presses the tip of the sword against my skin, drawing a trickle of blood, then he raises the sword. I close my eyes, waiting for the deathblow. Instead of cutting me, however, he cuts through my clothes, including the strip of cloth binding my breasts, setting them free and exposing them.
“As you can see, this man is in fact, a woman,” Jiro tells his comrades. “And she has killed the Master because of a grudge against me. I will punish her myself right in front of all of you and if afterwards, you think the punishment is not enough, then I will kill her.”