Dai Sho Shou
Even the most skilled application of cosmetics left Jun shaking his head in disgust. His wounds had healed, but one side of his face still drooped like melted wax. There was no way he could go on stage looking like this. He'd end up cast as a crone or a demon. His hand shook with repressed rage as he penned a note to the theater explaining his extended absence. Even more disturbing, there had been no word from Hiroshi. His lover had abandoned him to his fate.
Jun knelt before his small shrine, clapped his hands three times, then bowed his head in heartfelt prayer. “Amaterasu, most beautiful of goddesses, you have abandoned me to a life of rejection and ugliness. Tsukiyomi you have turned your back on me, separating me from my beloved. Susanoo, I pray you heed my request. Give me revenge on those who have hurt and abandoned me. Where once I wielded beauty, now let me summon your powers of chaos and destruction.” He lit a single stick of incense as an offering, then turned away to plot the downfall of the house of Murakami.
* * *
Tomorrow stretched into a week, then into two, and Kenshin still found reasons to delay his trip to the pleasure district. His training with Hiroshi had settled into a comfortable pattern. Evenings in his formerly staid household now echoed with laughter, and early morning training now commenced well after sunrise. The nights, however, were no less torturous. His apprentice was a young man, with a young man's desires. Night after night he resolved to find himself a mistress before he snapped and spoiled the budding friendship he had grown to cherish. But each dawn he found an excuse not to visit the teahouses.
During his morning meditation Kenshin pondered the reasons for his hesitation. In part, it was fear he would be unable to perform with a woman. He had never felt the attraction to the opposite sex other men did. Even his master, who had so loving introduced him to the world of sexual pleasure, had a wife and a concubine as well. But the intricacies of the female mind were a puzzle he couldn't decode. If he were honest with himself, he also feared he would enjoy it. Far too many warriors squandered their time and money with the ladies of the willow world. And then there was Hiroshi. It was becoming more and more difficult for Kenshin to hide his attraction to the younger man. The last thing he wanted was to shortcut any chance of a relationship because he was too impatient to wait until his feelings were returned.
* * *
The folded envelope seemed innocuous. The seal of the royal family, much less so. Kenshin turned it over and over, trying to weigh the consequences opening it would surely entail. Finally he broke the seal and unfolded the delicate paper, pausing to appreciate the intricate calligraphy before concentrating on the message itself.
Hiroshi found him staring off into space, a sheet of paper clenched in his fist. “Yakushi-san, are you alright?”
Blank eyes turned in his direction, and his master managed a single strangled word. “Omai.”
"I refuse. My father might have been able to force me to come here, but he cannot force me into a marriage.”
"Not you, me.” It was clear the very thought horrified the samurai. “I knew this would lead to ruin.”
In all honesty it didn't seem like such a tragedy to the youth. After all, his master was a grown man with no family to push him into an alliance. He was free to decline in a way Hiroshi was not. “So say no, if it bothers you so much. I am sure she doesn't want to marry you either.” He pried the letter out of tense fingers, smoothing the page before scanning its contents.
"See? It is the emperor's sister. I cannot refuse.” Kenshin's whole body drooped. “I have to at least meet with her, and I don't know if I will be able to refuse after that. This is all your father's fault.”
"Most everything awful is,” Hiroshi agreed.
"Glad to know you hate me so much.”
"I didn't mean it that way.”
"You made it clear from the moment you arrived you wanted nothing to do with me. Your father's plan to pair us up was a mistake. I wish I had never agreed, then I would still be content being alone. Now I long for things I cannot have, and need to consider a match I never wanted.”
"You long for me?” The whispered query forced Kenshin to turn and face his student. The surprise on his face lit something deep in his soul, a feeling he fought to suppress before it undid him completely.
"How could I not?”
Hiroshi struggled to respond, but the words caught in his throat. And then the moment had passed and Kenshin was gone. Leaving him with nothing but the ill-fated missive as proof the encounter ever happened.
* * *
Jun pushed aside the mass of shredded garments until he uncovered his stored kimono, carefully wrapped in soft silk and nestled in cedarwood boxes. He sent up a small prayer of thanks, losing them would have been a blow he couldn't recover from. After much contemplation, he decided on his third best kimono, sorting through obi until he found a pairing appropriate for the season. Even in this, precision was key.
Having avoided it for as long as possible, he began to pick through the rest of the broken and scattered treasures, carefully packing up a few ornaments and a surprisingly intact box of face powder. Everything else would remain here, in this place of broken dreams. Once he left, he would not be returning.
The boxes and bags were transferred to a waiting cart, a veil carefully positioned to hide the mark of his failure, and Jun shut the door on his past.
Afternoons in the pleasure district are lazy, leisurely affairs. In this closed world of women the highlight of the day is gossiping the long hours away in the baths. From the outside the willow world appears to slumber behind its walls, recovering from the revelries of the night before. In reality, this is the most cherished part of the day, when hopes and dreams are laid bare and all eventualities are possible. The arrival of a curtained palanquin during these hours was unexpected enough to set all tongues wagging. When that palanquin stopped outside a teahouse known for unconventional sexual practices, curiosity overcame all rivalries. Women who normally passed without so much as a nod of acknowledgment put their heads together and whispered ever more outlandish theories. The only thing the pillow girls could agree on was no one recognized the heavily veiled woman who slipped from its curtained privacy into the teahouse. Her wealth was obvious, hair impeccably coifed and clad in a kimono worth more than all of them combined. Why such a person would visit that particular house was debated in ever rising voices. The most obvious answer, a husband with habits no decent woman could stomach, was almost immediately discarded. Such a refined creature would no more discuss such things than she would run naked through the streets. Most wives negotiated their husband's liasons through scrolls and servants, even the most mundane. The lack of subterfuge had all the women on edge. Something darker was obviously at work.
Inside the shadowed confines of the teahouse Jun proceeded to plead his case. Using all the skill he had acquired in his time onstage, he struck just the right balance between misery and vengeance, hoping to sway the proprietor to his side.
"He swore we were eternal lovers. And then he abandoned me.” A delicate handkerchief disappeared behind the veils to dab at watery eyes. “Now I am spoiled for any other.”
"Why come to me? There are many houses that would love to have a lady of your refinement. My customers have base appetites. Your delicate sensibilities will enflame them to greater outrages just to see your reaction.”
"I have no choice,” Jun's voice dropped to a breathy whisper. “I cannot allow another to penetrate my jade gate, and I have no wish to risk becoming enamored of any man. But, I am now without resources, and that means I must compromise. I will accept being used in the way men pleasure each other. Would you have customers interested in such things?”
"I have customers interested in all manner of perversion. I am sure I can keep you busy enough to forget your heartbreak. I assume you would prefer separate quarters?”
"It would be more comfortable for all of us, I'm sure. Still, beggars can't be choosers. I will take whatever you are willing to give me.”
The proprietress carefully packed a long iron pipe with tobacco, applying a coal to the bowl and puffing out clouds of sour smoke. “One of my girls recently left us to marry. Her lover kept her in luxury during her time here. Her house is empty now, I'll have the servants clean it in preparation for your arrival.”