A New Kunoichi Tale!
I know it's been a while, but I'd love your feedback on a story. This is a departure from my regular series of Kunoichi Companion Tales. But it should still be fun!
The wonderful YA author Mackenzi Lee runs a regular Twitter feature called #BygoneBaddassBroads. It offers profiles of historical women who were... well... baddass. I came across her when she did a profile on one of my favorite bygone baddass broads, Lady Mochizuki Chiyome. A week or so ago, she profiled Locusta the Poisoner, who ran a school for assassins under the Roman emperor Nero. I joked that someone should write a crossover between the two; she joked back that I should throw in Ma Fredericka Mandelbaum, Queen of the Fences in late 19th century New York, who ran Marm Mandelbaum's School for Gifted Youngsters, for pickpockets, thieves, and master criminals.
Here's the story that sprung into my head!
Schools for Gifted Youngsters
Monthly Headmistresses' Meeting
The door opens at sundown on the twenty-eighth day, as Chiyome knew that it would. As it always does. One moment there is nothing but plaster, then next, an odd, hinged door swings open, revealing a dark room where no room could possibly be.
It does not do to think on it overmuch.
The first to arrive this time is Locusta, her yellow woolen robe flung over over her shoulder, making her look like a monk. Just behind that shoulder stands the young girl — what was her name? Canidia, with her strange brass-colored hair, bronze eyes, and pink skin, smiling broadly from behind her sober-faced matron’s shoulder.
“Welcome, ladies,” says Chiyome, tipping her head minutely.
Locusta as always steps forward and presses her lips against Chiyome’s cheek — an invasion Chiyome loathes, but that she has come to tolerate as a mark of the strange woman’s respect. A half a world and over a thousand years in separation excuse some differences in customs. “Greetings, Lady Chiyome. We have brought you some very interesting mushrooms — they’re the ones I was telling you about last time.”
Her attendant holds out a basket holding several handfuls of a rather innocuous-looking fungus — green-topped, with white stems.
“Thank you, Lady Locusta,” murmurs Chiyome, taking the basket and handing it to her own attendant. “Give this to Kee Sun, Mieko. And make sure he knows not to cook with them.”
Mieko bows deeply and carries the basket toward the kitchen, peering into the basket with interest.
“Ladies, come, join me,” Chiyome says, indicating the table.
“What lovely flowers,” says Locusta with a smile.
Though Mieko chose them, the gorgeous blooms were arranged by Sachi, another of Chiyome’s students: stalks of the green-flowered doku utsugi and the feathery doku zeri around the beautiful purple spikes of torikabuto.
The two Romans sit at the table. “So wonderful. Tell me, Canidia, dear, do you recognize these?”
The flame-haired girl’s grin grows manic. “Well, the aconitum has such gorgeous flowers, I’d know it anywhere. And that—“ She points at the doku zeri. “—looks like cicuta, though a bit different than what we grow in our garden. Not sure about that, though.” Her smile dims into a frown as she gestures at the doku utsugi.
Her mistress smiles indulgently. “Yes, well done. I’m guessing that this—“ She too extends a finger toward the utsugi. “—has clusters of black berries?”
Smiling, Chiyome casts a glance at Mieko, who has returned and is looking self-satisfied as usual, the insufferable chit. When Mieko nods, Chiyome says, “Indeed it does. The berries can be mistaken for blackcurrants, which of course can be quite an unfortunate misunderstanding, because these lovely things cause horrific convulsions.”
“Oh, yes,” says Locusta with an answering nod, smiling now as broadly as her acolyte. “That would be quite unfortunate. We call this coriaria. One of my favorites.”
“Ah. How nice.” Chiyome likes Locusta, likes the Roman’s dark sense of humor and her wide knowledge of herbs. Yet it is always a bit disconcerting how much glee the woman takes in the tools of their trade.
The door opens again, this time revealing a small, prodigiously wide figure in peculiar black robes wearing a black hat capped with an absurd white feather.
Chiyome rises, but Mieko, with the limberness of youth, beats her to the door. “Lady Mandelbaum,” says the girl with a bow.
“Do I look like a lady to you?” The woman’s lumpy face twists into a smirk. “‘Ma’ is good enough for the likes of me. Isn’t that right, Sophie?”
The girl behind Ma Mandelbaum stands a head taller and wears her usual bizarre outfit of a tight-fitting tunic and trousers. With her hair tucked under a cap, Sophie looks like a peasant boy. She grins. “If you say so, Ma.”
“Oy. I should suffer such disrespect?” Ma’s smirk remains. “Nu. Ungrateful girl, give Mieko there the little cakes.”
The tall girl giggles and holds out a small bag made of what looks like thick paper to Mieko, who uncharacteristically giggles back.
“Cakes?” asks Locusta.
“The moon-cakes Chiyome was talking about last time, that those Chinese folks used for passing messages.” Ma reaches into the bag and pulls out a small round cake with pink writing on the top — not Chinese characters however.
“What’s that writing?” Young Canidia peers around her mistress’s shoulder to see.
“Looks like Korean,” laughs Chiyome. It has always struck her as odd that the other women can speak in perfect Japanese, but only write in their own languages.
Again, it doesn’t do to think on it too much.
“Yiddish.” Ma Mandelbaum holds up one of the cakes. “‘Meet at Garelick’s.’ Had one of my daughter-in-laws bake it.”
“‘Korean?’” asked the girl Canidia. “What’s that?”
Sophie cocks her head. “Isn’t that a country out here somewhere?”
“Yes,” agrees Chiyome as the two women from the strange land called New York approach the table. “A nation across the sea from us—where our cook is from as a matter of fact. We’ve been trying to invade each other for five hundred years.”
“Ah,” says Locusta sagely. “Like Rome and Tunis. Mind, I hope you’re Rome, and they’re Tunis. Things didn’t end well for them.”
“Hmm.” Chiyome sits smoothly at the center of the head table. She takes a perverse pleasure in watching Ma Mandelbaum struggle to get her large body seated on the pillows. “You know, Fredericka,” she says to the woman, “I could provide a chair.”
“Nonsense. Beautiful eisenhut flowers, by the way. If an old lady like you can sit on the floor, shouldn't I be able to manage?”
“Old!” Chiyome objects, but it is a token — they all know that they are about the same age, for all that they live in separate centuries, on separate continents. For all that they know that each has survived loss and hardship as well as victory and success.
Locusta chuckles. “Well, Ma, you look more comfortable here than Chiyome does at your table.”
Chiyome shoots her a sour look. Ma Mandelbaum’s straight-backed wooden chairs are nothing less than instruments of torture. “Girls,” Chiyome says to the three young women, “go in and fetch out the meal.”
P.S. If you've read Risuko but haven't had a chance to share your thoughts, I'd love it if you'd post a review on Goodreads or Amazon or your favorite ebook store. Or you can even email me or respond to this update and let me know what you thought directly!