~ : ~ : ~
The sky was already starting to lighten with the dawn when Hikaru returned home. Her maid was drowsy, but not so much that she didn't notice Hikaru's smile. "You look happy, Hikaru-san. You must have had a very successful night."
Successful? Not really, but it had been a good one. Dressed in a loose robe, she sat before her mirror and cleaned her face, working carefully so as not to stretch her skin, and all the while thinking about the young man she'd met. He had cost her hours of time that she'd had to make up, so she would get little sleep today. Had it been worth it?
She decided that it had. He had seemed such a boy at first, and she'd thought only to amuse herself while she took a short tea break. Although not much older than him in years, she knew herself vastly older in experience, and she'd been able to manipulate him with eyes and smiles just as she could any other young man (and most older ones as well). But she was observant, and she quickly realized that to take him less than seriously simply because he was young would be to underestimate him. His black eyes, so sharp and intense, had seen death and dealt it out. He parroted his master's philosophies, but he'd also thought them through and met every challenge to them that she'd thrown at him. Furthermore, although she knew very well that he'd lied when he said he didn't think her pretty in some ways he was transparent as glass he had been able to set that aside and talk to her as if she'd been another man. Having an opportunity to discuss something freely with a man, without worrying about how she was presenting herself or about earning her fee, had been pleasant, but to do so with a mind and will as strong as Kakunoshin Niitsu's had been exciting.
In fact, she realized, tonight was the first time since her early childhood that, at least for a short time, she hadn't felt alone. That was a pleasure which could easily become addictive.
Somehow she knew that she would see him again, although she had no rational reason to believe it. He'd given no indication that their hours together had been anything more than a single interlude in a busy life. But she believed in fate, and she had a strong feeling Niitsu might be bound up with her life in some way. Therefore she was not surprised to meet him again at a crowded party at the Asari teahouse a few days later.
She was alerted to his presence, not by some special awareness, but by her best friend, Umeko, who came up to her, wound an affectionate arm around her waist, and said into her ear, "Who is that pretty young man that keeps staring at you?"
She turned her head, and there he was, standing near the door which led out to the gardens, with his arms folded across his chest, looking as if he were bored and brooding. As soon as their eyes met, he left. She turned back to Umeko. "I wouldn't call him pretty."
"You are too picky! And he's so romantic looking, too. Where do you know him from?"
Umeko was a good-hearted woman, but she was also a silly one, and she didn't know how to hold her tongue. Hikaru said, "I don't know him. I have no idea why he was staring at me."
But Umeko wasn't that silly. "So you are going to be mysterious. Is he your boyfriend?"
"Umeko! As if I would do anything so foolish, when Mr. Nakatoni is so good to me."
"But Nakatoni-san is in the country now, isn't he, and not here in Edo?"
She rapped Umeko's cheek with her fan. "Stop being naughty. You have a wicked mind. Look, Mr. Hamada has an empty sake cup and is looking for you to fill it for him. How can you be so neglectful?"
Umeko laughed and left her.
She had promised to stay at this party for two hours, and she waited until exactly the end of that time. When she bowed herself out, therefore, no one wondered at it. Her evenings were always full. However, when she left, anyone except Umeko would have wondered at the direction she took, because instead of leaving the Asari teahouse and moving on, she borrowed a tea table and some sake from the teahouse mistress, using the excuse of a headache, and went out into the garden. She lit several lamps, careful to choose colors which suited her, and turned to find him standing there. She gave a little start. "You move very quietly!"
He took the last lamp from her hand and hung it. "No, I don't. You make enough noise to drown the approach of an army."
"You are too severe! I will not let you talk to me as if you were my master and I an apprentice." That got a smile from him. Umeko was right, she thought. He was pretty, in a way. His nose and chin were too sharp for real masculine beauty, but he was tall, well built, and had a good strong jawline, beautiful eyes and a wide, attractive mouth. She held up the sake. "I brought an offering. I was only able to get one cup, however."
"If I asked for two, the servants would wonder about it. I don't want any gossip about me. It could hurt my reputation."
"Very well. We'll share it."
She wondered if he was aware of the flirtatious, even seductive, connotations of a man and a woman sharing a single sake cup. She couldn't tell, looking at his expression as he sat. But when she poured and he took the cup from her, she decided he didn't. He acted as if it were a perfectly natural thing, handing it back to her, and made no attempt to touch her hands. She let her eyes smile at him. "What shall we talk about tonight?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Yes, but I don't promise to answer it."
"Why did you become a geisha?"
She was so startled by the directness of the question that it took her a second before she said breezily, "I don't have long to stay this evening. Not long enough to tell you my life story."
"I didn't ask for your life story. I just wondered why you do this. If you don't want to tell me, say so. I won't be offended."
"You know, I believe you are the rudest man I've ever met."
"I can't possibly be. Besides, I'm not rude. I'm simply honest."
"I see. To put it very simply, I became a geisha because it was a much better life than what I had. It was certainly better than starving to death, which was what I believed would happen to me."
"Now that I have more experience with life, I know there were many things worse than starving, waiting for me back then."
"How old were you when you made that decision?"
She grinned. She loved startling him out of that mask he wore. "That was when I started my training. Naturally I did not become a geisha, or even an apprentice geisha, for many years. It's not so unusual, you know. I'm sure becoming a geisha is at least as difficult, in its own way, as becoming a swordsman. How old were you, when you apprenticed to Master Hiko?"
"There, you see? Did you also become an apprentice as an alternative to starving?"
"No. Master Hiko would tell you it was as an alternative to robbing and killing, but that's not what it was."
He could startle her, too. "Robbing and killing?"
"I think the story of your life would be much more interesting than mine."
"I doubt it."
"But you say your master was wrong? That wasn't why?"
"No. It was as an alternative to ignorance. He could do something that I wanted to do. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I wanted to learn. It was that simple."
"So you gave up the robbing and killing, not out of some qualm of conscience, but out of a desire to learn to kill in a better manner?"
He laughed. "Conscience may have been a part of it," he admitted. "And if I do kill, it's at least for a better reason now. Are you cold?"
"No. It's your words that make me shiver."
"I'm sorry. I thought you preferred the truth."
"I do. Just not, perhaps, all of it."
"You're a hypocrite."
"Indeed I am, and a well-trained one, too! What else is a geisha?" When he stopped laughing, she added tartly, "And I told you not to talk to me as if I were your apprentice," which made him laugh again. She couldn't remember ever having a conversation like this one, so free and unpredictable. In comparison, the party she had just left seemed dull, and the one she was supposed to go to next, unbearably dull.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Hikaru was wrong about one thing. Although Niitsu had no idea of the more formal aspects of sharing a sake cup with a woman, he definitely recognized the flirtatious part of it. After Hikaru dismissed him, he walked almost half a mile before his knees would behave themselves properly.
He got to the boarding house in what he thought would be plenty of time after all, he'd only spent about half an hour with Hikaru but his Master was already back, in the room's only chair, his sword across his knees, polishing the shining steel with an oiled stone. "Where have you been?" he asked, predictably, sounding irritated but not yet angry.
Niitsu never once thought of lying to him. "At a teahouse, I forget which one."
"Talking to a girl."
"One of the maids, I suppose."
"No, a geisha."
The white eyebrows rose, then came down. "I thought you gave that up."
"Gave up geisha? I never started them, to give them up."
"No, gave up thieving."
"I didn't steal anything!"
"I know damned well you don't have enough money to afford to spend time with one of those women."
Now that he knew he wasn't in trouble, Niitsu dropped onto the floor at his Master's feet. "I didn't have to pay anything."
"You know, I would say you were lying, but if you were, you would never have put yourself within my reach. So tell me how you managed this wonder."
"There's no wonder. She was taking a break, and she likes to talk to me." He hoped he wouldn't have to mention the sake.
"You've met her before?"
"Just once. The night you met with Iwasaki-san."
Hiko grunted and turned his attention back to the sword. The stone slid along the edge with soft, sure, familiar strokes. "So." Slide. "I've never found your conversation to be that interesting, but most of those girls are ignorant." Slide. "Which girl was it?"
"Her name is Hikaru." He had to work hard to keep his tone normal. The name had taken on a magical quality for him, which he considered idiotic himself and he knew would make his Master laugh.
"Hikaru? Are you sure?"
"That's what she said, and my hearing is perfectly good."
That earned him a cuff on the head for impertinence, but it was worth it. "Is she a tall girl?" Hiko demanded.
"Yes, I suppose she is. Why?" Now what had he done wrong?
His Master made an odd, choked sound, and the sword came down beside him, the point burying itself in the floor. It was such a careless move that Niitsu looked up in surprise. Hiko's face was buried in one hand, and Niitsu thought, for one horrible moment, that his Master was having some kind of seizure. Then he realized Hiko was laughing. The laugh became a guffaw, then an all-out belly laugh. "Only you," Hiko said when he'd regained control of his voice. "Only you could wander off to look at the moon and end up drinking sake, for free, with one of the premier geisha of Edo."
"How did you know about the sake?"
"You reek of it, you idiot."
"Is she? An important geisha, I mean."
"You are so ignorant. If you used your ears half as much as your mouth, you would have heard of her."
He shrugged. "Well, she's nice enough, I suppose."
That set his Master off laughing again. Offended, Niitsu rose and stalked to the other side of the room.
Continue to part 3
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