The kawagina flowers bloom in a couple hours after sunrise, but only if it has rained overnight. They are many shades of blue, shading from delicate cyan near the the edges of the petals to a deep indigo at the core. The sepals are mostly lavender, and the stamen are a rich, bloody red. Though they are beautiful to look at, and produce a heavy, cloying perfume that is unmistakeable, they are highly prized as mordants.
Nicolai pushes through the saplings that protect the kawagina grove, bending the young trees aside and lifting his legs high to steps past their silver trunks. Each trunk is thinner than his arm, but they are whippy and pliant; if he loses his grip the tree will spring back with force and strike him leaving a red welt behind if he lucky, and drawing blood if he is not. His father, who sits all day in the vat room, smelling the changes as the dyes cook to completion, will laugh at him if he returns with welts and weals, and that will give his younger brother, Domal, license to laugh as well. Nicolai tenses very slightly when he thinks of that; Domal has many more freedoms at that age than Nicolai had, and they are both very aware of it.
The saplings are past at last, and he pauses on the edge of the grove. Ahead he can see the plants already, long blue spikes sticking out at all angles from a glossy-leaved plant. The leaves are such a dark green that they appear black in the shadows, save for the glossy glints that seem to slide across them like sunlight on rippling water. They are tightly packed; each thin branch puts out enough leaves to completely screen the branch from sight. When Nicolai first saw them he thought that the plants produced cylinders of dark green leaves out of which lanced the blue spike of the flower.
Insects buzz faintly, but it is still early and the sunlight has not warmed to the air enough for many to be awake. The first hints of musky perfume are just being carried on the breeze now; the kawagina plant howls mournfully in high winds as the air is funnelled down the cylinders of leaves. Some gardeners, Nicolai has heard from other children at school, plant kawagina plants to catch the wind, and then prune the leaves back so that sad, haunting harmonies arise from the corners of the garden where they're planted. It sounds awe-inspiring, and Nicolai would love to try it here in the grove, but his father would beat him to death if he thought that the plants were at risk.
He starts to step forward, lifting his leg high, never intending to let it fall, so when the Ninja appears in front of him, silent and dark, a knife with a blade the length of his forearm held in front of him, his other hand holding a spiked metal sphere that can explode on impact, pushing its vicious barbed spikes through skin, flesh and bone, he does not waver off balance or fall over. Instead he lowers his leg, and kneels down on one knee only. He lifts his head, and meets the Ninja's eyes steadily, holding his gaze.
The Ninja is motionless, even his eyes don't move, blink or even flicker. They match Nicolai's gaze as they do every time he harvests the flowers, and he knows that when he blinks the Ninja will leave and it will be as though he was never there. Then, and only then, will he be able to take the flowers as they open, harvest them for the vats.
The Ninja is still there in front of him, still looking at him. The hand holding the metal sphere has been put away though, hidden now somehow behind the Ninja. Nicolai realises for the first time that the tanto's blade is discoloured, and so he looks more carefully. There is blood on the blade.
He lifts a hand, slowly and carefully, making no sudden movements to his own throat, and checks. Is it possible for a knife to be sharp enough to cut a man's throat without him knowing?
His hand is dry, and he lowers his hand again. The Ninja's head inclines fractionally, perhaps a recognition that Nicolai understands the very real danger, and then the Ninja steps aside, turning his shoulder towards Nicolai and revealing what is behind him.
Domal's head is five feet away from his feet, but in the wrong direction. The head sits where it has fallen, on a couple of carefully arranged water-smoothed river stones, the eyes rolled back in the head so only the slightly-yellowed whites show. The mouth is closed, though the tongue protudes through the lips, blackened and swelling. Domal's body has fallen the other way and has crushed a small shrub. Nicolai steps forwards, and lifts it. Domal seems much heavier now that he's dead, even without his head. The crushed shrub is a tea-plant, and Nicolai sighs with relief that it is not a new kawagina plant.
The Ninja has gone now, at least gone from where Nicolai can see him, so he turns back to the flowers; four are now in full bloom, and begins the harvest. Domal can wait.