dont make a peep

assassination of lord kuro

My name is Tohru and this is my confession.
From the night I made my plans, I had to wait another ten until it rained hard enough for me to set out. As if the gods had heard me scheming, they sent ten days of bright sun to try and convince me I was in over my head. The bright, hot sun falling across the leaves might have scared off someone less determined. Surely no better sign could be given, in the middle of the rainy season, that my plan was going against the will of the divine. Perhaps the god of the mountain itself conspired against me. I am sure they knew what was waiting for me in that castle, but I wouldn't be persuaded. I had already accepted that I was damned. That is why it was up to me to complete this dark task. More sin couldn't stain my soul any redder.

The morning of the assassination, I could already see the clouds building on the horizon, and I knew I'd won- the gods had flinched from my iron will. I felt a guilty pride- I'd failed so many times in my life, but this would not be one of them. A storm would come tonight, and I would be ready.
I spent the day doing my usual errands and chores. This was not my first taste of killing, and my nerves were calm. Almost relieved. I tried to suppress the part of me that was certain this was the end for me. I didn't know if I was successful; did the fruit vendor or milkmaid see the emptiness of my eyes that day? Did I look like a dead woman walking? But nobody was bold enough to mention it if I did. I had long established myself as a lone wolf, dangerous to anger. Nobody in this town even knew my real name, even though I've been here for years.

To my dismay, as the sun sank behind the dark, rumbling clouds and the air was thick and wet, some of my resolve had eroded. I was waiting in my little hut on the outskirts of town, and I was overwhelmed with the desire to bury my blade into my own body, end it now and never again have to think of Lord Kuro and the things he'd taken from me. I was frustrated with myself for this weakness; after all these years, that I'd even consider not seeing this through was an insult. Instead of sinking into despair, I sat in the doorway of my hut, watching as the light faded, picturing Lord Kuro's face in my mind, letting my anger ball up inside me in order to drown out the desire to die.

It had been seven years since I'd seen him with my own eyes, and according to local rumor, at least three years since anyone had seen him outside the castle. The reasons why varied depending on who you asked; some say he'd looked into the deep lake behind the castle and the giant koi there had deemed his soul unworthy and snatched it from his body. The woman who sold me goat milk and cheese claimed that when he'd let the ronin set fire to the forest a few years back with no retaliation, the god of the mountain had retaliated in anger and cursed the prince's body and face to burn an inch for every acre of woodland destroyed in the blaze. Children playing on the street like to joke that he was afraid of his own shadow. Even during those sunny days I remember seeing two little ones play-pretending such a scenario, acting out a noble walk with joyful exaggeration, one of them barking commands and being rude to the other, until his companion pointed behind him. The faux-Kuro whipped around with expert comedic timing, looking with an expression of dread at the shadow of his own head, following the grayish copy of himself until he was staring at his own feet, then leaping into the air and running away. His friends laughed and taunted, throwing names and pebbles at his back, calling our iron-fisted lord a great many vulgar things. How bold they'd been, mocking a lord in his own streets. Kuro's tight control seemed to be loosening. Of course they didn't realize how close they were to the truth; they'd have been terrified if they did.

A few more pragmatic villagers wondered simply if he had fallen sick or even died; I doubted the latter, judging by how calm and quiet the lord's household was. If Kuro had died they would not benefit from hiding it. A change in leadership would benefit even those who had power under his rulership, and the less predictable he'd become the less his own household could handle him. He had not done much to usher in peace or keep other lords at bay. Everyone had an opinion; Kuro was unpopular with most villagers he ruled over, and his failure to defend us from numerous threats over the years was grinding down our souls. We had all hoped, that summer when something had scared him from public view, that it might be a sign of better things to come. But there we were, years later, still waiting.

The rain finally began to fall, pulling me from my memories. I was thankful; the next few memories, pulling at the edge of my conscious, begging to be acknowledged, were not pleasant ones. Big fat drops fell onto the dust in front of me with audible slaps, and the sound banished my dark thoughts. It had grown dim around me, the evening washed in shadows of blue and black. The wind picked up and the trees whistled, and the slow fat drops fell with greater force. The time for action drew near.
I pulled myself up, my joints protesting painfully. I put my sword into its hiding place in the rafters on the ceiling, exchanging it for a small sheathed dagger. My little hut had a simple roof, and it had taken some clumsy additions to make a cubby large enough to slot a sword into. The ceilings in Kuro's castle were much more accomodating. One could hide a grown woman up there in the shadows, the sound of her movements drowned out by the patter of rain and howling of the wind.

After tugging on my thin dark blue linen, the darkest clothes I owned, and tying my hair in a tight bun, I went into the woods. The ground beneath the trees was already starting to wet, the branches creaked heavily above me, threatening to fall and crush me if I didn't turn back. I knew the god of the mountain looked down on murder, a death that didn't suit the natural balance of his domain. But even the mountain god had not escaped unscathed by Kuro's carelessness, and I reminded him silently of the fires and the bodies buried in secret on his mountainside. The trees groaned and moaned, but they let me pass.

It took me almost two hours to reach the castle, avoiding all roads and any paths where another person might see me, sticking to the trees and shrubs as long as they weren't too dense for me to scrape through. I was worried the storm might blow itself out, but it raged on. I was sopping wet when I arrived at my preconceived destination. The castle was built partially into the side of the mountain, so it could peer down over the village. There was a massive trench between the border wall and a large stone cliff face; no guards here, the trench ended in a climb too sharp to ascend either castle or mountain. But midway between, hidden from the main path, one could climb the wall (if one had some experience scaling walls, and was very lucky) without too much danger, and end up on the roof of the kitchen.

Partially shielded from the rain, I scooped some mud from the ground and wiped it over my face and arms, and then started my climb. The wall was mostly flat stone, but there was a massive crack in the surface, zigzagging upwards, widening toward the top, as if the wall had been struck by a massive cleaver. I had come here twice before under the cover of darkness and practiced climbing along the crevice; it left my hands raw the first time, and I'd almost slipped half a dozen times even without the pouring rain. But now the path was familiar and I scrambled upwards as fast as I could push myself, going almost entirely by the feel, blinded by rain and darkness. The wind howled in my ears almost painfully, but at this point I imagined it was encouraging me, pushing me on desperately, and I didn't register my skin getting scratched up as I edged closer to the top. I could not afford to fail, not so close to my goal.

After what seemed like ages I pulled myself to the top of the stone portion of the wall, then hoisted myself onto the wood beams at the top. It was a precarious height and a stomach-churning angle, but from there it didn't take me long to sneak onto the roof of the kitchens.

I peeled off my muddy shoes, nestling them neatly into a groove between wood and clay tiles, and then I waited for more than twenty minutes above the servant's pantry entrance, listening for anyone working late to clean or prepare for the next morning's meal. This was the riskiest part of the plan. The wall climb was hidden from view; in the main building I could climb up to the rafters above and move without being seen. But the kitchens had lower, simpler ceilings. I'd need to get through the pantry and kitchen and deeper into the building on the ground. It would be a blind dash, and if I ran into anyone... I swore I would not shed any innocent blood, but I'd do what I needed to get past them. This was too important a job to be ruined by someone trying to pilfer a midnight snack.

I waited more than twenty minutes, but I didn't hear a peep from inside the pantries, or see anyone go in or out. Nervous with uncertainty, I lowered myself down from the roof, dangling by my hands for a moment as I scanned the clean little alley around me. Clear. I dropped down as quietly as possible, the splat of my wet feet touching down on the floor seeming loud to my ears. I landed in a crouch and stayed down low, not drawing up to my main height. I pulled my dagger out to break the lock on the rickety little door, but found it was unlocked tonight. Thanking whatever divine power had given me some luck I pressed onward, moving along the floor as low as I could. Pantry empty. The kitchens were too, stone ovens cool, lights extinguished. The smell of rain gave way to the smell of burnt coal and distant food. The storm was muffled in here, but the building creaked, wooden beams above groaning against the wind. Good.

I sped through several narrow corridors, heart in my chest. No room to hide if I ran into someone coming the other direction; no way to turn around if someone came at me from behind. I held my breath through these, going as fast as I could without making undue sound. But the corridors were eerily silent. Soon they opened up to more elaborately decorated rooms, a banquet hall, and a more private dining hall, and still no sign of anyone. I felt a chill then, stopping momentarily to figure out my position. I surely couldn't have been so fortunate to not see a soul? I couldn't feel a hint of dust on the floor, or feel crumbs or grime. Clean, well-used. But the building around me felt silent as a grave.

I took a half-remembered turn and then, in a corridor I wasn't familiar with, I guessed and turned left, and then I was in the royal quarters. I was so relieved I almost sighed out loud as the space above me opened up. Finally, I could get up to the rafters above and slow down. In this corridor there was slightly more light, and my strained eyes could see wooden panels and gossamer curtains in diluted blues and grays, hidden in shadow, but there were a few narrow slit windows near the ceiling that let in even the faintest of natural light from the night sky.There was a servant's corridor to my right; the elaborately notched wood decorating its entrance was just enough for me to hoist myself up, and from there I could gingerly pull myself up to the decorated beam above. Higher than that were rafters; narrower than I had imagined them, now that I was up there and putting my full weight on those thin panels, and a very tight squeeze between them and the hard ceiling. But I fit, and after awkwardly squeezing myself into that tiny space I could stop and let myself breathe.

My dagger, tucked into a thick wrap of cloth around my chest, pressed reassuringly against my skin as I inched forward. I realized I hadn't taken time to squeeze my clothes properly of water, and I held my breath, trying to listen for any water patter below me. I felt quite wet still, but I didn't think I was dripping. I edged closer to the side of the room with the windows, then started to squeeze out any excess water, hoping that if the puddles were discovered they'd be blamed on the window slits.

It must not have been more than a handful of minutes when I noticed the dim light. Something was flickering in the corridor ahead of me, coming from the direction I had to go to reach Lord Kuro. After a moment the light got a little brighter, and two people scurried into the room, audibly panting, breathless like they'd just fled a murder. A man and woman, both in the clothes of servants who were expected to be seen and look unobtrusively pleasant- their youth made me think they could be lovers, but I had no evidence to support the thought, and they could just as easily have been siblings or even strangers. But they hovered close to each other even through their attempts to silently hurry through the corridor. The woman only held a single candle, but with my eyes so adjusted to the extreme darkness it lit them like a torch, and I froze, hoping its meager light didn't stretch upwards to my hiding place.

The two sped in the direction I'd come from, the woman hissing "go go go go" under her breath, even though she was in the lead. Then they got to the point where I'd been standing just minutes ago, and the small amount of water I'd left behind on the smooth polished wood floor.

The woman went down first, only a small slip of the foot, but she was in such a distracted hurry the momentum took her by surprise and she stumbled. The man bumped into her; if they'd been going faster they might have slid down the hall, but like me they'd been trying to be silent, and it had slowed them down. The woman didn't lose hold of the candle, some hot wax dripping on her hands, but she didn't seem to notice. The man bumped into a small end table, the empty decorative vase on top of it giving a wobble. He let out a sharp gasp and they both reached for it, desperate instinct telling them to stop it from falling. Under their mad grip it settled, but neither were looking at it now. Both of them had whipped their heads around, even as they scrambled to help each other up, looking behind them as if pursued.

My eyes automatically flicked to where they were looking, the hallway they'd just come through. But there was nothing. The dim natural light that came in through the slit windows did not reach through the threshold to the next room; it was black as pitch, completely eaten by shadow. And yet the young couple's gaze was fastened there, and even in the dim light I could see their shaky, twitchy movements and furrowed brows as they ripped their eyes from the dark hall and ran onwards, a little louder and a little faster than before. And then they were gone.

Their candlelight, disappeared and I was engulfed in darkness once again. A little dazed by their sudden appearance and equally speedy exit, and my cheeks burning at how much water I'd trailed through the corridors without even realizing, I had to take a moment to still my heart and breathing. My hand was clutched around the dagger handle in the front of my clothes, though I don't remember when I'd grabbed for it.

For a few minutes, I stared into the hallway ahead and waited. That unearthly calm had returned, only momentarily banished by the two servants in their mad dash, now it flooded back in like a dam breaking. I had been expecting guards, lit lamps, night attendants. But the building felt deserted, and the desperately fleeing couple had raised alarm bells. Perhaps they had just stayed too long when everyone was ordered to leave? But why were they so scared? Why didn't they carry a house lantern, why just the tiny candlelight? Why did they seem so afraid? What had they expected to see following them?

I shook myself out of these thoughts. I couldn't afford to waste time; I was already this deep into it all, I couldn't stop now. So I made sure my knife was properly sheathed and tucked in, and I started to crawl forward. I squeezed through the narrow space between the wall and ceiling as I crossed the threshold into the next hallway, my eyes wide and darting about, trying to identify any potential threat. I saw nothing; shadows so thick I could imagine them rolling like ink dropped in water, and an empty corridor. No sound, no light.

Further I crawled, moving to the heart of Kuro's private quarters. Like a half-remembered dream I recalled the layout of the castle, letting memories from years ago wash over me in order to navigate properly, trying to translate the rooms I'd seen during the daylight hours on foot to the dark view I had from above. I could remember the curtains, yellow and delicate, flowing gently, incense and fresh oranges in the air. I remembered following a servant through these same hallways, still just as quiet, not wanting to attract the attention of anyone, especially Kuro's late wife. Those memories made my stomach roll and churn, and I tried to keep them under control, tried to banish them. Then I remembered the days after; the arguments in the rooms next to these, the secrecy exposed, the knife held to my son's neck-

I had to stop then. I forgot to breathe for a minute and I had to gulp at the air as silently as I could. It was easy to fall, easy to forget one could fall if one's mind wandered away from keeping balance. I looked around me again, trying to stay in the present moment. I breathed in the musty smell of the wood, the draft coming from somewhere outside, still smelling like rain though it seemed like the rain was finally dying down. The wind was muffled here, only a few odd thumps and bumps around the room, no pitter-patter of rain at all. There was an odd smell, too. Something rotten. It was not close to me, but the smell of rotting meat is powerful, even catching a whiff is distinctive. That was not a smell that should be in a lord's castle. I was unsettled, but the oddity of it helped keep me in the present moment.

I was close, I knew. It was disorienting being in complete darkness and silence, but when I got my bearings again I knew where I was. Kuro's sleeping quarters were up ahead; one large room with a smaller room in the center, completely blocked in by paper walls, each side elaborately painted with trees depicting each of the four seasons. I remembered. I clawed forward and when I turned there it was, the room within a room, shuttered undoubtedly around Kuro's sleeping, vulnerable form. I willed my heart still. The moment was close; I played through a few variations in my head. I would climb down, slowly and quietly. He would wake or he wouldn't, I would open the sliding paper doors and he would be near the door or on the other side of the little room- every scenario ended with my blade in his throat, and then I'd go back the way I came.

While I was contemplating my exit I noticed something odd. It was difficult to spot in the dark, but eventually, my eyes adjusted the best they could and I could see a white ring on the floor around Kuro's room. This perplexed me; there hadn't been anything like this the last time I was there, but Kuro had always been the superstitious type (royalty never had to be pragmatic like the rest of us). What had he been up to? Some kind of protective ward, I guessed, and I looked for the best way down. I could try to drop down on an end table near the paper room, but if I toppled over it would be noisy and obvious. I decided I could edge my way down in a corner of the larger outer room, if I was careful, and still make a silent landing. I was looking forward to getting out of the rickety rafters, my old body getting stiff and cramped spending so much time tense and horizontal, pressed against the hard wood beams at awkward angles. Not to mention my wet clothes were starting to give me a chill.

As I moved arm over arm fully into the room, curving toward my chosen corner, I could see the circle around Kuro's room a little more clearly. It was actually two circles, the inner one a little thicker, and they weren't just painted on the floor but raised up from it. There was something else; the weird smell was getting stronger. I was repulsed; there was definitely something wrong here. Maybe Kuro had died, and the household was under some kind of order to keep up pretenses until some relative could come in and take control. What else could explain that rotten stench? I covered my nose as a waft of it seemed to drift toward me. If it got worse than this I would be fighting not to retch. Kuro must have been dead a long time, I thought. Surely not years though? He was alive for his wife's funeral, but that's the last time I remembered him making a public appearance. That had been three years ago...

Now my curiosity was getting the better of me. I hadn't expected Kuro to foil my assassination plot by being dead already. But I was too curious to turn back without opening the doors and seeing for myself. I needed to know; and if he was alive, and this smell was from something else, a pet or a concubine he hadn't wanted to give up even in death, he would still need dispatching. I was starting to turn away from the room so I could wedge myself into the corner and use both walls to ease down. That's when I saw it, out of the corner of my eye. Movement. In the outer room, with me. I froze; the stench was awful, and I covered my mouth and nose with both hands. Was there finally a guard?

But it was worse than that. For a second I couldn't see it properly, I could just barely sense something moving in the darkness. Then it pulled itself around the corner of the paper room, where it was silhouetted against the white of the paper. It was... almost human, like someone had stripped and partially defleshed a corpse. Then covered it in mud and tar, really thick... it was dripping, pieces of it falling onto the floor in little repulsive patters. I don't know if the smell got worse then or just the realization that this thing was the source finally hit me, but I almost retched, fighting my body's reflex with all my might. My muscles cramped and I felt like I was suffocating, but my fear that that thing would see me was even more powerful.

It seemed about to take a step, then hesitate. Perhaps I imagined it turned its head, if it could be called a head, towards me. Time stretched out painfully, second by second, as it swayed gently there, oozing. If I had been the fainting type I might have done it, and the smell felt almost bad enough to do the trick. Then it shifted its weight, limbs pulling and fighting gravity in such an inhuman way, like it was being pulled with strings or pushed with sticks. And it continued its circle around the paper.

I realized it was walking between the two circles on the floor. They must have been some kind of hex or witchcraft or magic. I knew half a dozen people in town who could tell me all about circles that kept things in or out and in the later years I was brave enough to ask about them. I stayed frozen in the corner of the rafters for what felt like years, watching, listening, and smelling that thing as it made another slow round of Kuro's little paper bedroom.

I watched in fear as the thing made two more circles. Each time it stopped at the point in the circle closest to me, and each time I felt a chill, certain this would be the time it stepped over the white line and came for me. I could imagine it pressing up against the wall, sticking like mud, pulling itself up against logic and reason. I'd have nowhere to run, trapped in the rafters like some animal. But it did not breach the circle. The oily mass contemplated me, its body swaying back and forth as if it was in a stiff wind, and then heaved itself forward once again.

On its way out of my sightline, there was a movement from inside the paper bedroom. Something brushed up against one of the walls, giving the door a gentle rattle. It was right near the thing- and its attention was immediately fixated. I was certain it could tell what was going on around it- I couldn't see if it had a face, I didn't want to see- but its globular head and skeletal shoulders shifted weight toward the paper wall. One "arm" stretched out- was it going to touch the paper? It was so horribly moist I was sure it would immediately tear the delicate material. But it only hovered, its focus drawn by some unseen force. It waited even longer than when it "saw" me, maybe fifteen minutes or more went by when it seemed perched, waiting for another sound to come from Kuro's bed. Finally, it lurched forward again. In another minute it was around the other side of the paper walls, out of sight and, presumably, at the furthest distance from me.

I knew what I wanted to do then. I let adrenaline fuel me; if I thought for even a second I would run screaming from the room. Instead I dripped the beam I was balanced on and let myself hang down before dropping to the floor. I didn't care if I made noise; there was no chance a guard or servant was nearby. I whipped out my dagger, got down low, and crept up to the double white line.

Up close I could kind of make out details; There was a glistening trail between the two white rings, and I refused to look at it directly if I could help it. The white looked like powder, maybe a fine salt or chalk, I couldn't be sure. The inside line was thicker. They both ran in a beautifully even circle around the paper bedroom, a border between Kuro and the rest of the world. He thought he was safe in there, I realized. He must have done this on purpose. Nobody would dare touch him. I could feel myself getting dizzy, forgetting to breathe. I kept taking the tiniest breaths, not wanting to inhale the awful stench. I reached out my hand with my dagger clenched tight; my knuckles were white as paper, and I trembled. I wanted to do it fast, but I was so frightened, I trembled so badly, I had to inch the knife closer and closer to the inside line.

A glop of goo dropped onto my hand. With fear so thick I could taste it, I looked up. The thing was standing over me. I hadn't heard it. I swear it must have moved twice as fast as it had the entire time I watched it, but it had been completely silent.

Inside my head I was screaming, begging myself to run. I was cold as ice as my entire body broke out into a sweat. It was so close. The smell was overpowering and my eyes watered, and then I was weeping in fear. It didn't make a noise, towering over me, doing that gentle sway like it was constantly focusing to keep balance. I couldn't stop watching its horrible misshapen head, back and forth it moved, minutely, just a little.

It didn't reach for me, like it had to Kuro. My brain could not process this, I just so badly wanted to survive. But the thing wasn't focused on me in the same way, I realized. Its big oblong head was angled down not at my own face, but at my knife. I forgot I was still holding it out, hovering unsteadily over the line. It was... waiting for me. It was "staring"... or whatever it was doing... at my knife. It was waiting for me?

I felt sick thinking this thing might have any sort of comprehension, that it might have any sort of intelligence made me want to throw up.

With horrible, uncontrollable shakes, I flicked the knife into the innermost white line. It was like a powder, and didn't fully break at first. I wanted to bolt so bad I was starting to see stars in my vision, I was clenching my teeth so bad they hurt. I swished my blade in the white stuff, back and forth, frantic, desperate, ready to scream.

A whoosh of air his me in the face; not a blast, but like a door had opened behind me and the air pressure changed. The smell became a thousand times worse. I threw myself backward away from the circle and almost stabbed myself with my own dagger. I didn't bother to sheath it, I just ran with it clenched in my fist, finally taking huge gulps of air as I thundered down the hallway. I didn't care who heard me. I ran like that couple had run, only more frightened, more certain that there could be, would be something following me. The smell lingered in my nostrils and the tears kept streaming down my face but I didn't stop, retracing the path I'd taken so slowly in the rafters in just a few minutes on foot. I felt my feet splash in my puddle of water in the room with the window slits, and I desperately wanted to look back, to just see if that horrible gooey corpse was following me through that hallway. But I couldn't, I was too afraid, and I flew down the corridor like I was on fire, desperate to escape. No guard could have caught me, I was a wild animal running for its life, not comprehending the fullness of the predator, just letting instinct take over.

I flung myself into the kitchens and saw but didn't understand the light coming from the pantry room. I hurled myself through the doorway with no hesitation, and if there hadn't been some cursed and inhuman creature lurking somewhere in the darkness I might have been surprised when I saw half a dozen servants and kitchen workers. They had two house lanterns on, making the room startlingly well lit, so bright as to blind me for a second. I saw them and they saw me, and we stared in silence, them in shock and me not caring what a group of mere mortal humans might do to me. One woman raised her hand feebly, gesturing to the door I just came out of as if instructing me on where to find my target- no, the mad lord is that way. But I didn't slow, not for a second, and then I was outside. It was dark and my eyes had to adjust from the blinding light of the lanterns, and I took a wrong turn, leading me deeper into the castle complex. It didn't matter. I shimmied up a drainpipe, up onto a roof, vaulted back across to the kitchen roof, and leapt to the wall. I almost went right over, tipping dangerously close to losing my balance as I cleared the top, but I reached out at the last second to grab the wooden beam and pulled myself back in. I took a long time to find the crevice to climb down, but I found it, and nearly skinned my hands and feet going back down. What should have taken thirty careful minutes took less than fifteen, and I'd feel the strained ankle and skinned palms the next day, but I didn't then.

Almost to the ground I looked up once, and I swear, I swear, I saw a shape at the top of the fence. Against the sky, finally clear of clouds and the barest hint of color, I thought I saw a horribly lumpy, mishappen round thing, on a too-thin, drippy neck, looking down at me. I froze, looked away, looked back. Nothing. But it was still so dark. In a fresh jolt of fear, I let go of the wall, falling the rest of the way. Fortunately not a lethal height, but it hurt, hitting the wet muddy rocks bellow. I scrambled over them, and into the forest, not caring what bramble patches and dense shrubs I ran into. I'd left my shoes on the roof, but I didn't care.

It still wasn't light when I reached my little hut. I grabbed my sword from its hiding place, slammed the rickety door shut, slid the feeble wooden bolt, and sank against the far wall. I wouldn't be able to close my eyes and sleep until the sun came up a couple of hours later. I had time to think about what had happened, think about what I'd let loose. The thing had been so close to me. It had been watching me, somehow. Could it see? Could it recognize my face? Would it track me down? These questions haunted me until the sky lightened. Then I finally slept, a sleep full of nightmares and constant starts awake, but at last a sleep.

The news broke the very next day, though I didn't leave my hut until the morning after, more content to barricade myself inside just in case, and spend another sleepless night in fear. But the day after, lured out by hunger and a mad curiosity, probably fueled by my insomnia, I finally went into town. I'd had the sense to put on some cleaner clothes, and find an old, worn pair of shoes, though I still looked bad. The milk and cheese woman didn't stop staring at me as I consumed her wares without tasting them.

She told me about the chaos at the castle. Some people, she said, had heard screams. Most people hadn't heard anything. But In assassin had broken in during the night, the one with the big storm? I nodded that I recalled the storm. She said the assassin had killed Lord Kuro- and seven servants and guardsmen. It had been a gruesome massacre, and they were certain a neighboring rival had been responsible- why else make an example of the innocent servants?

I felt ill. Before I could stop myself the words were tumbling from my mouth. "How did they die?" She looked at me kind of funny, maybe I'd said it too loud. But she said "You must have heard there is something funny going on. They won't let us see the bodies. Some of the families of the dead servants are at the gate; they've given a list of names, but that's it. It must be ugly. He may have cut their heads off," she mused with a disgusted look on her face.

I struggled with the image. I couldn't imagine how the wet, oily thing killed and I didn't want to know. Conjuring the image of the thing sent a chill down my spine, and I realized how afraid I still was. "Did it- did he kill anyone outside the castle? Is... everyone in the village okay?"

The milk and cheese woman shrugged. "I have not heard of any other attacks. Surely we'd know if they were an army after us. But if they have such skilled assassins who can take out a handful of servants, guards, and a lord? Maybe they don't need an army." She was looking troubled, but I'd already turned away. I couldn't handle it. The next day I was gone, traveling, anywhere away from Lord Kuro's castle.

(The image is a screenshot from sekiro.)