By Christopher Orr
The dying sun cast a red luster through the shoji, bathing both occupants in a gentle radiance. The girl could feel the heat wisping off her body, even as the blush spread across her maturing figure. She could only shudder as she obeyed the man's commands. Her powdered red under kimono fell to the floor with a faint sigh.
The two forms pressed closer together, satisfying the desires of only one.
The pain was not so great that she had to cry, but the tears welled in her eyes
anyway. Without a word, the man rose and huffed slightly as he retied his hakema.
The young girl rolled over, concealing herself within the folds of the futon. The ceiling seemed to dance with the pent-up tears she clenched back. She could hear the man speaking with her father in the hallway. Even though she knew how much it would ache, she strained to make out the words.
"…she will be acceptable, by my reckoning."
The dull clink of koku was obvious in the still evening: koku she had earned but would never see. The only other noise was the odd staccato of her father's limping steps leaving the House alone.
With that, her strength failed and Kyoko's tears fell unchecked down her slender cheeks. She clutched at her face with her hands. Each shuddering sob sent more falling onto her wrists where the failing light made them look like the promise of blood.
Moemi gasped violently through her clenched throat. The soft glow of the moon reminded her that it was nothing more than a dream, a pain she had long buried. However, the memories refused to remain masked forever, and had emerged recently.
With the gempukku ceremony, that which had been Kyoko finally died. Taking a new name allowed Moemi to become a different person, a new person. This person was supposed to be free of Kyoko's past and their pain.
It was just a dream, a bad dream. Still, one thing remained. The tears were real.
She turned her head gingerly in the wooden pillow, taking care not to spoil the elaborate, twisted bun into which her hair was now drawn. Moemi stared at the table across from her, full of the tools she used to ply her trade.
Paints and masks…the tools of the Shosuro.
With a rasping sigh, Moemi sat up in the darkness, allowing the tears to fall into her lap where they could do no harm.
The stage becomes the world for an actor, the play or the dance becoming the only truth. It was in this world that Moemi lost herself while performing. She could become anyone, even a happy person if the role asked for it.
However, while in Otosan Uchi she was denied this release. She had to remain ever vigilant. More often now she performed under orders. Hers was the task of promises and betrayal. She knew enough to do what was necessary to see her missions through, whatever that may entail. Moemi also knew that her masters manipulated her easily enough. They had no reason to fear she would fail.
After all, Moemi knew the price of her failure. She desired death before returning to that house. It was never a home…she had never known a home since her father sold her. Certainly not with those who taught her how to use her wiles and her body.
The graceful Shosuro wanted desperately to fall into the sheltering oblivion of the dance, but as she gently dipped the fan and brought it up to her face she searched the assembled mass.
The Matsu she had been sent to Otosan-Uchi to find eluded her still. The gifted son of a prominent, and elderly, Lion daimyo, he had shown himself pliable to the whispered advances of the Scorpion. Moemi was to bring this valuable ally into the fold.
Perhaps it was foolishness to look for a Matsu at the performance of such an obviously delicate art, but Moemi knew much of patience. Eventually, she would find the brash Matsu.
Was the other one there? Her eyes darted to the rear of the theater, searching without thought. Orienting herself, she glanced at the ancient carving of Bishamon. The deep recesses of the monument were ideal for those who wished to peruse the stage without being conspicuous. Over the weeks she had learned much of those who frequented the halls. Of particular note were those who attended her performances. However, there was one whose attendance was particularly striking
This man, this Doji, had never been absent. There was little spectacular about the Doji. Still, it was not only his unflagging presence that pulled at Moemi, which made her relax when she found him. His sincere appreciation drew something indefinable from within Moemi.
Without fail, the young courtier stood alone. Finding his name and position had been a simple matter, easy enough for one with Moemi's talents. Doji Yasaku, a promising student from the Doji schools. Dangerous enough with his words that his name was familiar, but his lack of influence kept him from appearing a threat.
Moemi was aware of him watching her body. Unlike the countless others before him, however, it was not with naked desire. This alone would have made the aspiring Doji courtier a marvel to Moemi, but the allure seemed so much profound. In a way she could not allow herself to imagine, Yasaku was the only audience that mattered to Moemi.
He watched her move with a sense of wonder and appreciation. She studied his eyes very carefully. The Doji seemed to anticipate each move, as if he alone understood the story she was telling through the dance.
With an inward smile, she modified the dance. The trivial movements of the dance were abandoned. In their place, Moemi began the weaving of a tale. Moemi moved much more subtly, barely perceptible movements leading to complicated patterns with the fans. Even so, the Crane was able to keep time with the game. Yasaku smiled slightly and nodded as she snapped the fans shut and bowed to her audience.
Had she admitted it, it was the first time in Moemi's memory that she left the stage with an honest smile.
The pale moon hung over the Palace, a silent observer to the nocturnal activities of the Empire. It is the glow by which pacts and promises alike are forged. The bustling court grew silent as all went to eventful or uneventful nights, as the Fortunes would favor them.
But even the Lady Moon seemed to turn a blind eye as shifting clouds passed in front of her, sending down a light shower of raindrops.
Shosuro Moemi lay listlessly in her futon, staring once more at the unforgiving ceiling. Her bun was down, and the feeling of her own hair brushing her shoulders was remarkable. She shifted over to her side, drawing her knees close to her chest. Lowering her head, she let the growing pocket of heat warm her. A quiet sigh passed her thin lips as she relaxed.
Her profession, and more importantly her successes, had provided Moemi several luxuries that remained beyond the grasp of others. This small room within the Palace confines was her particular favorite. After all, it was so much easier to maintain the allure when the prize was so close.
For several moments, Moemi idly listened to the soft rapping without understanding its nature. Then, the reverie was broken and she grasped her sleeping robe close to her. She rose and walked carefully over to where a slender figure was silhouetted against the shoji doors.
Such nocturnal callers were hardly unheard of, but usually they came at Moemi's behest. Rarely was she so surprised.
Her surprise changed to shock when she reached the shoji and found her distinctive admirer, Doji Yasaku. With a barely suppressed gasp, she shut the shoji with a sharp clack.
Half-formed thoughts rushed through her mind as her heart picked up its staccato beat. She stood with her back to the door, breathing rapidly. She wanted to tell him to leave, to tell him to stay. Tears rose as her heart fought her mind. It was not allowed for her to love. It was anathema to her missions.
"Moemi-san…" the Crane's soft voice seemed tinged with concern. Silence grew between them as the Shosuro struggled to find the words that matched her discordant emotions.
As she struggled with herself, she heard the soft pat of sandals crossing the wooden deck connecting the wings. When she turned around, she was alone at the shoji again. Was he upset, angry?
Moemi released the breath that she had not realized she was holding. She let her head drop. Only then did she notice the small slip of parchment slid halfway under her door. As she read it, tears rolled down her face, threatening to smear the half-dried ink.
It was a simple, elegant haiku. In the best way he knew how, Yasaku had left her the message she needed to hear.
Empathy and understanding…how was she to fight such underhanded tactics as these?
Moemi sighed audibly. More than a week had passed since Yasaku had drawn closer during that terrifying night. A week of waiting and performing to a crowd that suddenly felt cold and distant. The deepest blow came when Moemi entered the stage to find Yasaku's niche standing empty the entire performance.
She moved through the days reflexively. Still, the carefully brushed haiku gave her pause. Why must she live in such turmoil? But every time Moemi thought about this, her anger melted away to stinging anguish.
Each passing day made Moemi more relieved that she possessed the physical mask to hide behind. The porcelain mask was becoming more reliable than her mental ones. The cool touch of her mask kept her strong.
But, strong or not, her charge remained. The Lion remained in Otosan-Uchi. Moemi could not afford such distractions.
This time, however, Moemi was distinctly aware as she went on stage that her face betrayed no smile.
Staring out from beneath her mask, Moemi gazed at the satisfied Matsu without really seeing him. He sat across the small table from her, eating as if ravenous. An exacting professional, Moemi's wiles were honed to inordinate detail. True to form, it had not taken Moemi long to attract the object of her mission.
The Lion's gruff voice rose from the rice bowl, "The Dance of the Weeping Moon."
Moemi was grateful for the mask concealing her puzzled expression. "What do you mean, Matsu-sama?"
"The dance you were performing when I found you on stage those several days ago." The Lion looked Moemi in the eyes, his face serious. "I recognized it from a winter court several years ago, but its name eluded me until now."
Not sensing the answer to his unspoken question, the Matsu spoke in a more genial tone, "But I forget much of the story. The ending seems odd, the way you slow down so much with the fans brought across your arms."
Moemi hesitated, not wanting to ruin the atmosphere she so delicately created. However, the Lion was staring at her, awaiting an answer.
"The courtier, Miya Akemi, is pining over the loss of both her lover and her position within the Court she grew up in. She finds her lover's tanto inside the saya and opens her wrists with the blade.
"But the tale is an old one among the Scorpion, and such musty tales are not fit for such wonderful days as today."
Moemi knew what had to be done. Coquettishly, she stared at the Lion from behind her folded hands.
"Matsu-sama, there is much to do inside the grand city of Otosan-Uchi. Perhaps it would please my master to experience more of them than one simple meal."
The Matsu set down his bowl and stuck out his large chin, as if deliberating carefully. "It would. Yes."
Moemi tilted her head and clapped lightly, seemingly delighted.
"Then we shall start immediately."
As they left the teahouse, Moemi grasped the Lion's muscular upper arm with both hands. Following the Matsu, she pointed out several notable and honorable shrines and carvings. The Matsu satisfaction was obvious as she led him to an oft-missed shrine to Hachiman. He spent several minutes in silent communion with the Fortune of War. Moemi watched quietly from the shrine entrance. The role became simply another mask.
Then a familiar face strolled by her. Moemi's heart dropped as the Crane strode past her. He did not deign to give her so much as a glance even though they were no more than two paces apart.
Moemi whirled to approach him. She reached out, taking a quick step to close the gap between them.
Moemi reached out to grasp his arm, but when he turned around she pulled her arm back. She bit her finger to keep herself silent.
Doji Yasaku stared at her, caught in the moment. He stood with his mouth open, as if trying to say something.
Tentatively, Moemi approached the Crane. The apprehensive smile beneath her mask betrayed the emotions she concealed. The crowds broke around them like waves. Each waited for the other to say something, anything.
Unfortunately, the Matsu took the initiative and grabbed his Shosuro by the shoulder. He spun Moemi around to look at him.
Moemi could see the wrath in his eyes. With a quick twist of his arm, the massive samurai cast the Shosuro behind him. His anger seemed to radiate from his body.
The Matsu snarled at the bewildered Crane, placing his thumb on the tsuba of his katana. The seams of his kimono stretched as finely honed muscles were put to use. Yasaku relaxed, not yet falling into any type of fighting stance.
The unvoiced challenge had been delivered. Moemi had been witness to enough duels to find the outcome quickly enough. Yasaku's skill lie in the Doji's voice, not the Kakita's blades.
But that end was still not inevitable.
With a swallowed sigh, Moemi slipped into the Lion's side and wrapped her arms around the Lion's arm once more. Confusion registered on the Matsu's face where only rage had been. While the Matsu was caught off-guard, she subtly led him off the streets of Otosan-Uchi. Moemi twisted her head to see Yasaku again. The pain in her eyes was obvious even beneath her mask.
As Moemi trailed the Lion, she remained aware of Yasaku's eyes watching her leave.
A narrow beam of moonlight streamed in though the window, falling on the smeared brushstrokes:
Fragile lotus bloom
Trapped within gilded wonder
True beauty lies deep.
Moemi read them several times, taking each one to her heart.
The haiku rested in front of her, carefully placed upon a small table. Moemi knelt before it, holding the knife to her outstretched wrist.
Mere hours had passed and the courtier's whispers were already spreading like plague. The whole of the Palace already knew. She had failed today. The proud Matsu shunned her after the scene on the streets of Otosan-Uchi. Honeyed words and delicate supplication had provided no benefit. The carefully planned day and the mission had become a total loss.
All that remained was for Moemi to think about her failing and await the retribution of her masters. A shudder curled her fingers as she prepared for the expected punishment. At least, what Moemi thought to expect.
The knife slid across the veins slowly, but she could put no force behind the effort. Moemi let her hands drop as the will to act left her body. Only a faint trail of crimson betrayed the action.
This night the knock on the door was not unexpected.
Shosuro Moemi slipped over to the thin shoji and slid the door open slightly. She stood motionless in front of Doji Yasaku. Once again, the silence grew between them. This time, however, it was a silence of understanding and warmth. She slid into his arms, not daring to look into his eyes.
For long moments, Yasaku could only hold the Shosuro. The moonlight played off her mask, making it shimmer like still water. Then, without warning, Moemi reached up and removed her mask. She stared at the startled Crane with tear-filled eyes. The knife fell to the floor with a dull clatter.
"It is all over now."
The simple statement took Yasaku off guard. He looked at her questioningly.
"I don't know what will happen now. With the mercy of the kami, I will only have to leave Otosan-Uchi." A ripple of pain washed over Moemi's bare face. "But that will not happen…."
A sad smile played across her face, a smile without artifice or subterfuge. Yasaku tried to speak, but Moemi placed a single finger on his lips.
"I paid for your life today…allow me to enjoy my prize. Just this one night."
Yasaku continued to embrace his Scorpion, the warmth of his body enough to banish the shadow on Moemi's soul. Yet, the unspoken question hung in the air. It was no feat for Moemi to grasp his question; his eyes alone asked, why?
She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the cheek. A single tear rolled down between their faces.
With the same sad smile, Moemi whispered to Yasaku.
"Don't you know compassion can be poison to a lonely girl?"
Yasaku only pulled her tighter.