Again… those words again.
“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine.”
Aoshi shook his head against the memory of Misao’s declaration that night… and the cold fury that had roared to life within him, unbidden.
There was a heaviness weighing on his brow. He felt too sluggish, too stiff… leaden.
“You’re angry. I disappoint you. You think I cannot be trusted.” She looked up at him differently this time, eyes dark and pleading despite being a picture of dishabille with her red lips and parted blouse, the small marks on her neck.
“Misao, I frankly cannot care less.”
A groan cut through the haze of his memories. He made his eyes open, and his heart started pounding when he realised he couldn’t move. His limbs were bound.
Aoshi grunted, trying to lift his head. To his right was Misao, tied to a chair, slowly coming to consciousness; further to her right was another man bound to his seat. Aoshi blinked when he recognised him. Hirai?
What had just happened?
“Ah you’re finally awake.”
Aoshi’s instantly tensed. It was dark, but in the faint candlelight he could see their captor move forward.
“It seems we have made quite the catch tonight.”
Their captor was a dark haired man with a familiar but seemingly unassuming face, the kind one hardly noticed daily. His chiding voice, however, was a distinct smooth velvet.
“Lady Sotsu, Shinomori Aoshi and Lt. Col. Hirai. A most unlikely group, but quite intriguing – certainly the last people I’d expect to come together to try bring down our operations.”
Aoshi tried to remember. Was it not just a week ago when he had decided to join the Nishitaka? Too much had changed in that time. He closed his eyes as he tried to recall more of what had happened since...
“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine” – the roaring fury that drowned out all his senses, leaving him unsettled still. He grated his teeth to regain focus.
“Since I’m sure you’re all disoriented let me try to help clear your minds. You had been on a mission tonight. My master Lord Shiya was your target due to his involvement in a series of recent information leaks.”
Of course. Lord Shiya. It was a mission Aoshi had set himself: the man’s name had come up in the leakage of Oniwabanshuu intelligence the past year, and his presence in Yokohama was timely. Lt. Col. Hirai and the military had clearly been thinking the same way, and Misao ensured the Nishitaka’s involvement at the last minute.
“Tonight, you nearly succeeded when you managed to steal some documents from Lord Shiya’s suite. But none of you anticipated that I would act.”
Aoshi then remembered running towards the woods away from estate, Misao near him, and Hirai a bit further ahead. He recalled the sudden faltering in her steps—the way she turned to them jerkily, “Make sure you get to Enishi-kun, he’ll know what to do.” She turned to Aoshi as her eyes glazed over, “Go!” before falling down, a poisoned dart sticking from her neck.
“It is of no matter now however, I have acted in time. You have failed in your mission.”
Aoshi looked up to find Misao staring at him and read the silent question in her gaze.
“Wrong.” Hirai responded curtly. “I was able to pass the evidence to one of my men, and we had Lord Shiya taken away for custody. I am fairly certain we did not fail.” Aoshi also wondered at him; He must have come back for them.
The man before them waved a hand dismissively, “Yes, but even though Yukishiro Enishi has the evidence and my Lord Shiya is currently behind bars, no one can do anything more at this point, not when I am out here and I have the three of you in my hands.”
Misao turned to him, pensive.
“You are Sen Kaita, Lord Shiya’s second-in-command. I met you earlier tonight. We had focused on Lord Shiya, but I knew something was off… it couldn’t have been that simple.” Realisation dawned on her face. “It’s been you all this time, hasn’t it? Not him.”
Kaita smirked, “Very good, Lady Sotsu.” His voice lilted patronisingly. “Took you long enough. It’s not the most obvious place to look, granted. I’ve run my operations with Lord Shiya’s money and influence, if not his knowledge.” He grinned at them disconcertingly. “But then again, that’s what I have always specialised in. Information.”
He then started pacing leisurely before them, disappearing from sight where the candlelight could not reach. “I was told to be careful of the Nishitaka in Yokohama, and I’ve been keeping an eye on your group. After that public scandal between you and Lt. Col. Hirai last month, I had it on good authority that that there was no need to worry for now. Imagine my surprise when in a single week, you managed not only to make a memorable comeback into the Feast, but also catch Lord Shiya’s attention.”
He stopped in front of Misao, “And you had your same public enemy and a legendary Okashira working with you, no less! An alliance of people that been on my trail for some time now, and you almost got away with it.” He paused and regarded all of them thoughtfully, “Like I said, very good.”
He then smirked. “But it’s my turn now.”
At this, he lifted the candle to fire a gas lamp, bathing their location in brighter light. Aoshi’s eyes widened at the familiar room they were in, the mirrors at opposing walls. He had been here before. Backstage in the Nishitaka theatre.
“Why here?” Aoshi looked around, tense. And where was everyone else?
Kaita only sneered. “You’d be surprised how little people look for the missing in their own premises. Not the most obvious place to look, remember?”
He grabbed a chair and set himself at ease in front of them. “Now, I have enough influence to do undo the damage you have done, and it won’t take more than a few hours. In the meanwhile then, I might as well do what I’m good at and get some value out of this.”
“It’s my turn for information now. It’s time to learn more about you and your Nishitaka group.”
One week earlier
For all that Enishi had portended what the morning after the ball would bring, it turned out to be surprisingly quiet for Aoshi. There had been too many things to catalogue from the previous night—and too many things he couldn’t even yet begin to examine—but after a bout of early morning meditation, he had returned to find that Misao had already gone for the day, avoiding any confrontation. Aoshi had already been too unsettled by his reaction to her from the previous night – defied, refusing her decision to stay away without his leave, even when he hadn’t wanted her near in the first place – but the way his mood turned darker at her absence had been even more disturbing.
And yet he had much to do, especially when the day included meeting with the rest of the Elders to finalise their agreement. After a visit to an Oniwabanshuu checkpoint on the outskirts of town, Aoshi went to meet with Sagara as agreed the night before. It was only when the doors were guardedly opened for him that he realised that he was at the famous Nishitaka Theatre.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you in. Show tickets aren’t for sale until the afternoon, if that’s what you’re after.”
Aoshi would have found his suspicion insulting had it not been for his encounter with the other side of Yokohama from the previous night. “I’m here to meet Sagara Sanosuke.”
The door opened wider, and a man stepped into the light. He had auburn hair and piercing green eyes that peered at Aoshi with caution.
“And your business with him?”
“I was told to meet him here at 9 in the morning.” Aoshi had come a quarter of an hour earlier just in case.
The man narrowed his gaze at him, “Bit early for that aren’t we?” His lips quirked upward, and the doors were opened to allow Aoshi entry.
Upon stepping inside the Nishitaka theatre, Aoshi had to hold his breath. Despite the morning light on the high ceilings, the place looked like the darker cousin of Yukishiro’s Miradono hotel; a sweeping staircase greeted them, rich-coloured furnishings gilded the walls, and accented details provided a unique, secretive mystique.
“My name is Daiichi – you can call me Dai. I’m not sure if Sanosuke-san is in, but you can try him through the stairs at the Gallery. We have lots of unwanted guests today so I have to stay here at the box office, but it should be easy for you to get around.”
What followed next had been unexpected.
Aoshi was led on a seemingly fruitless search from room to room in the building, where he encountered one theatre member after the other, but saw no sight of Sagara.
In the Gallery, he had met Eisai, whose identical looks to Dai momentarily confused him -- “We’re twins and we share a face, but I’m the actor, the one who loves all the ladies,” an unabashed grin, “while Dai’s the one in charge of staging. I’m sorry, what was your business with Sano again?”
Aoshi was then advised to go to the staff rooms (as Eisai had to ‘train the pups’), where he again had to repeat himself to Naomi, a woman whose bright skin and long black hair belied a classical beauty and a sharp tongue. “My, would I love to dress you up… I’m sorry if I’m forward, I used to be a dressmaker before I joined. I take care of Costumes, but I was also lead actress for awhile when Misao-san quit. Anyway– did Dai really tell you to come up here? And what’s your business with Sanosuke-san?”
Finally, once Naomi had been comfortable enough with Aoshi to lead him through the studios and work rooms towards backstage, he was introduced to Haru, a tall, quiet figure with a pale complexion and piercing grey eyes. It emerged that he was a foreigner (Harold was his actual name) who had been sailing with Enishi’s crew before choosing to settle in the theatre instead. He had the striking looks for the stage, but preferred art and languages, “I work on theatre props, and I only go onstage with a mask or disguise. There are other actors and actresses though, but they don’t live here like we do.”
Aoshi had already met one such actress, and when he heard, “Shinomori-sama, we meet again,” and turned around to see Mitsue Himeko, it had been ironically timely. The oft-mentioned heiress greeted him with a warm smile and tried to make sense of everything as she led him back to the Gallery.
“You’ve just met the Regulars of the Nishitaka theatre, Shinomori-sama, the ones who actually live here. It’s all quite unexpected. You’ve met the twins – Dai is very careful, but he let you meet his brother Eisai; Haru isn’t sociable, and Naomi gave me much trouble when I replaced her as lead actress. And yet they took to you quite easily… all while Sanosuke-san wasn’t even in the building yet. The question is, why?” Himeko placed both hands behind her back and smiled. “And I think I’ve figured it out. Shall I enlighten you?”
Himeko’s company was unexpectedly easy; her enthusiasm welcome. “By all means.”
“It’s because you asked for Sanosuke-san, and you were a quarter of an hour early.”
Aoshi’s blank look prompted her explanation.
“People usually come to see Fujita-sama and Enishi-sama, but the best way to get their attention has always been through Misao-san. Enishi-sama consults her on everything, and he doesn’t have the patience to entertain anyone unless they go through her first; as for Fujita-sama… well, you know how he is. However, Misao-san is notoriously hard to get hold of – she’s always moving from one place to the next. It’s only Sanosuke-san who ever knows when and where she is always. So anybody who knows the Nishitaka knows that the fastest way to get something done is to go through Sanosuke-san first. And you did.
“What’s more, the fact that you arrived early also works for you. Most guests, the aristocratic ones especially, tend to look down on Sanosuke-san and order him around. You showed courtesy, which to Dai makes all the difference.”
Aoshi found himself raising a brow. First impressions. “I’m beginning to understand.” This was Yokohama, after all. He shouldn’t be surprised to be scrutinised, himself.
Himeko’s smile was infectious. “You may have passed a test without knowing it, Shinomori-san. Dai introduced you to everyone because he knew you were important, but most of all because he knew we would like you.”
There was a brief moment of silent—collusion between the two of them at that, as if they both privately agreed that though her explanation seemed unbelievable, it might actually not be far from the truth.
Aoshi paused now, surprised at himself.
“Masaka, Aoshi,” Sagara’s wry voice cut through them. “I’ve just arrived. On time. How is it possible that you’ve already been kidnapped and given the tour by the Regulars?” He allowed Himeko to greet him hello and placed an arm on her shoulders, “And what has our Himeko been telling you?”
They were interrupted when the theatre doors opened from the floor below to let Saitou in, followed by Misao. They fell in step with a sense of authority and purpose, talking in hushed tones. It was the same neutral but unbreachable front they presented at every meeting.
“Ah, she must be briefing him now. For some reason, she had been out the whole morning.” Sagara deduced.
Aoshi felt another unexamined tendril of ire unfurl within at the thought.
However, from below, Misao caught sight of the box office, where Dai, Naomi and Haru had all paused to gather. The blank look on her face fell away and her mouth bent into a wide smile. Saitou rolled his eyes.
Misao then ran to jump onto Haru’s back without preamble, and all but squealed.
“That’s right, underlings, I am back! And right now,” she added unnecessarily, “I’m taller than all of you.”
“Kisama,” Saitou swore as he quickly escaped up the stairs, “Couldn’t you have waited until I was safely away before the histrionics?” He was gleefully ignored.
“No more sneaking about after hours!”
“And you can finally stop shirking from training the pups… if you can call them actors at all!”
Misao sniffed, managing to look indignant from the pedestal of Haru’s shoulders, “In case you didn’t notice, I was not shirking. I was just—banned from coming in.”
Dai smirked. “I heard you managed not to offend too many people last night to be embargoed from society again. I don’t know if we should be impressed or insulted.”
Misao grinned. “I know I’m talented at it, but is that all you think I’m good for? Who should I offend this time? Glad to know you think so much of me.”
“You don’t need to climb on a high horse for us; I thought my shoulders were quite adequate.” Haru let out with a small teasing grin.
Naomi snorted. “And there’s no need to hold back on our behalf. I’d walk into a ballroom with three gentlemen if I could get away with it.”
Misao paused and gave them an incredulous look, “Right. Gossip does not spread that fast. You got that from an insider.”
Himeko cleared her throat from next to Aoshi.
“I see you’ve decided to spy—” But Misao’s grin froze in place when as she looked up into Aoshi’s direct gaze. All sound fell away.
—“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine”—
Aoshi turned away, just as Misao resumed her focus.
“…Of course we needed to watch out for you.” Himeko spoke, sighing dramatically. “We needed to see if you really will be back and annoying as ever.”
Misao turned to find Sagara shrugging, amused. Dai had covered his laughter with a hand and Haru coughed. She then shook her head slowly, disarmed for all of a second as a different smile grew on her face.
“Unbelievable, you lunatics actually missed me back.”
Aoshi exhaled sharply at the recollection of how he came to know the very theatre they were being held hostage in.
Before them Sen Kaita stood. He was not a tall or imposing man; he did not look naturally threatening or powerful. At the moment however, his exposition had rendered his face in its best light—cunning, focused, in control.
“I have used intelligence on the Oniwabanshuu before, and it’s no secret that our target this time was the military. There was quite a price for any information I can find on them.”
Kaita stopped to look down at Misao. “The Nishitaka however, you are quite good. You may have been only operational for no longer than two years, but you have become quite a presence in this city. And my, have you ruffled some feathers, and not just for your unconventional theatre. There is a high price for information on you, if you need to know, but so far, none of the usual routes have been successful.”
Kaita drew a file from the desk behind him and began rifling through its pages. “They say you can pay for any intelligence in Yokohama, but this is worthless. Fujita Goro – no information, but everyone knows his history as Hajime Saitou; same with Yukishiro Enishi and Sagara Sanosuke… nothing to explain what they are doing in Yokohama and what their motivations are. No weaknesses to exploit.”
He took out a page in particular, “Your file was interesting however, even though it seemed equally unusable. There is a lot of detail on your reputation, your exploits and paramours.” He sniffed disdainfully, leaning on the chair to level his eyes with Misao, “Tell me then, where do they get this information from? Thieves, lovers and gossip-mongers?”
Misao paused. Her face fell into a neutral smile. “I’m fairly familiar with all three.”
“Ah well, I won’t be surprised if you know exactly what’s on these pages then.” Kaita grinned as he tossed the file aside. “I also won’t be surprised if threatening to harm you for actual information will get me nowhere, especially when none have succeeded before… Now don’t look too shocked, I am fairly familiar with these things too, you know.”
Misao narrowed her eyes at the misdirection, and he simply went on, “Let me change tack then.” Their captor shifted his pose, “I also know other things… say, about the—residents here in your theatre, for instance. What do you call them, the Regulars?”
That changed the look on Misao’s face instantaneously.
“They don’t take kindly to guests, for instance. You have a quite impressive pair of twins downstairs who fought us tooth and nail when we arrived here earlier tonight. There’s also that strange pale man who got in the way between us and that woman with the mouth. But no matter, we took care of them.”
Misao’s eyes widened and Aoshi could see how Kaita’s vivid descriptions summoned up names: the twins Dai and Eisai, Haru, and Naomi. People Aoshi had only just met himself and was beginning to know.
“I know they are merely theatre employees, but it’s quite impressive, their loyalty once they saw that we had you captive. I’d say they actually cared for your safety, which is all quite sweet and dear. It’s really all too obvious now for me then, how to get you to speak.”
Misao looked up at him carefully, “What do you mean?”
“Their lives, for your cooperation, Lady Sotsu. I have men waiting just outside on the stage, who would shoot your little theatre-family at my orders.” He moved across the room to open the door, revealing a jarring view of the others slumped on the stage, kept under the watch of two men with arms. “It is stage-worthy enough, don’t you think?”
Aoshi fell still. Next to him, Misao stared at Kaita for a long moment. She then directed her gaze towards the doors.
Aoshi suddenly remembered the look in her face two weeks ago, the smile that made its home in her face as she looked in wonder at the people around her. There would be many times when he would question Misao’s actions and intentions, but that was the one look he would always know was genuine. It was also the one that, despite all that happened afterwards, will have the power to sting the most.
Misao then turned back to Kaita, closing her eyes as she conceded.
“Ah, Kaita-san, you are very good, indeed.”
Three days earlier
Aoshi’s memorable encounter with the theatre Regulars would be far from his last; in fact, he would spend most of his time with them over those early weeks. It was partly a natural result of his arrangement with the Nishitaka: nights consisted of missions, and mornings of debriefings and reports sent to the Elders back in their own towns. It left his afternoons free.
Aoshi had initially spent this time to explore Yokohama, building a mental map around its markets, gated establishments, migrant regions and transport links. For all that the city’s underworld had a nefarious reputation, it quickly became evident why this side was hard to access, much less breach. People were generally tight-lipped and tight-fisted, easily wary when it came to questions that did not come with bribes.
Aoshi came to spend afternoons in the Nishitaka initially by accident. While Saitou, Misao, Sagara and Yukishiro did not seem to spend as much time there, the Regulars were a constant presence, and Aoshi had been on his way after a briefing, when he saw the foreigner Haru fall without reason, his fingertips trembling as his limbs locked onto himself.
When his eyes rolled back, nobody around him seemed to understand what was going on. Aoshi, however, had seen seizures like this before—Hannya—and went to work immediately. He went down on his knees, laying Haru on his side to prevent him from choking on his own saliva. “It’s a medical condition. Grab something flat and firm; something that would fit into his mouth—quickly now!”
It was a device that looked like a shoehorn that did the trick in the end. Dai had been called and had found the very object in Haru’s pocket and Aoshi slotted it onto his mouth to prevent the seizures from injuring the tongue. He kept a steady eye on the man until the trembling ceased and reassured the others when stayed unconscious after that, saying he only needed rest.
“You were remarkably calm during Haru’s episode.” Dai observed, his first words to Aoshi since the morning after the ball. “Have you treated people with those symptoms before?”
“No,” Aoshi found no need to accept credit where it was not due. “But I’ve seen it done before. One of my men had a—phase—where he had similar episodes.”
He felt Dai’s assessing gaze on his face, but he did not probe. “Not many people know about Haru’s condition. Even Enishi didn’t. Nobody else would have known what to do in a situation like that. He could have been harmed.”
Aoshi dismissed this with a nod. “You have nothing to worry about. I can be trusted not to reveal any more details to the others.”
Dai exhaled. “I am trying to say thank you, Shinomori-san. You’ve done more than I would have expected.”
And this became the final push that brought Aoshi into the confidence of the Regulars. He had yet to realise it then, but their company would answer his questions more than any of his own outside ventures would. Their knowledge about the city and their audiences would display a breadth of perceptiveness that Aoshi would not be able to find elsewhere.
Eisai and Himeko, for instance, gave him his first taste of the how the theatre operated and was perceived in society. They both were its most popular talents, performing onstage every other night. They embodied the skill required to create characters for their audiences, and before he knew it, Aoshi would find himself learning about their twice-monthly production turnover, or being invited to read with them during rehearsals. Aoshi learnt more than just their trade however. Individually, their knowledge of Yokohama society was quite impressive.
Eisai, whose popularity as an actor made for invitations and access to many events, had an extensive knowledge of the issues, controversies and scandals that circulated among each social set. “You have no idea how much people talk about these things… I’ve become our resident Master of Intrigue!”
Himeko, herself a much-discussed figure in the city’s social circuit, was the one who knew the most about its rules and expectations. Despite this, she was too curious not to ask questions or test boundaries. She was well aware of her label as a ‘rebel’ for choosing the theatre, as opposed to fulfilling her role as an heiress by marrying. Her unself-conscious daring was hard to begrudge, if a touch naïve. She was the one who took to spending time with Aoshi of her own volition, and he found himself not minding in the least.
“I believe you are a mystery, Shinomori-san,” she once confessed to him in a low voice. “But I’ll take my chances were I can.”
“Careful, you don’t want her falling in love with you.” The other actress Naomi told him later that evening, an arch look on her face. “You would want to avoid encounters in the dark.”
Aoshi had simply given her a neutral look, unwittingly recalling a particular encounter he had yet to forget. “I wasn’t aware this was something to discuss.”
Naomi shrugged. “There are enough eyes watching people when they think they’re not looking.” She looked at him with familiar candidness, “Enough trouble has come from that.”
The trouble was that Naomi was also most likely correct. Among the people he had met so far, she had a particular kind of perceptiveness, one that came from seeing patterns in the whole and that allowed her to accurately predict situations. The problem, in her own words, was that she couldn’t keep her mouth shut about it.
Naomi had never made any secret of her background. She had come from a respected family of tailors, and had been talented enough in her craft, aside from being blessed with her own classical beauty. However, she had a strange propensity for blurting out whatever came to her mind—most of which, while true, lacked the subtlety to be socially acceptable.
“I ran away when my parents thought they could change what should come out of my mouth,” She once revealed with surprising casualness. “At least in the theatre, I can decide which other person I can pretend to be.”
The man almost always attached to her by the hip, Haru, was the opposite experience however. It was clear in his demeanour and preference for quieter, less ostentatious pursuits that he had been seen as ‘different’ from a young age, if not from his medical condition, then from his appearance. His fine features and grey eyes spoke of a mixed heritage that was not always welcome, and it was no surprise that he had first been in Enishi’s employ as a sailing traveller before. In the Nishitaka however, all awkwardness fell away whenever his skill in stage design and arts came to full force.
Haru and Naomi were both similar in their how they saw things. Their combined approach of loud silence led to an unlikely alliance that was legendary in its creativeness, as well as its scrutiny of everything, profound or ridiculous.
It was the two of them who invented the infamous “Sulk System” that impacted everyone from the Nishitaka theatre to the Miradono hotel. It was a system that was (rather impertinently) linked to the state of Enishi and Misao’s day to day interactions.
“One,” Naomi began, “usually means they’ve been arguing, as they always do, over the small things… like which food tastes better, or which décor is less annoying—I kid you not, it’s things like that. They are still quite manageable that way though. It’s their default state.
“Two is when they start butting heads over something that sticks… the sort that leads to some shouting and sulking for days. Misao stops dropping by the Miradono, and Enishi-sama gets more bad-tempered with everyone else. You can imagine what this means for the Miradono staff…”
“More blow ups, and more of them hiding out here.” Haru supplied with a small grin. “Remember that the Miradono hotel is just behind the Nishitaka. We share a back garden with them—that’s how his staff escapes to hide here. The more of them you see, the fouler his mood is.”
“Three is rarer, but it’s hellish for everyone else. They last a little more than a week, nobody knows what the hell the argument is all about, and they just get downright bitter.” Naomi then continued, “And we’re talking about Misao here. It’s happened once or twice.”
Four as an idea hadn’t happened yet, but they were all gearing up for the possibility. “They’re our bosses. We all know how Enishi can be. Misao-san is the only one who bothers with his moods, and when she throws a tantrum instead… well there’s nothing anyone else can do.”
As it turned out, right before the evening of ball, Sagara had deduced that they were on a level Two scale, which he upgraded to a Three after the mission.
“Misao-san had complained about that. She insists it wasn’t supposed to be that bad.”
Aoshi, who remembered that particular argument in the woods, privately disagreed.
“Well, it’s no matter – they’ve moved back to One now after they had it all out the other day.”
Aoshi remembered the story well, even though he had not personally been there to witness the event. The watered-down version involved Misao finally going—rather, stomping—towards the Miradono to confront Enishi when she heard certain rumours about his role in defending her honour at the previous ball… by breaking Minamoto’s fingers.
“I can imagine her yelling, ‘You broke Lord Minamoto’s fingers and threatened to cut off his balls? And you didn’t let me know?’ Some of the guests must have been scandalised!”
“I still can’t believe she didn’t know about what Enishi did.” Haru mused, “It was the most sensational part of the gossip that pitched her straight back into the public eye. It’s made her comeback to society certain— if a bit on the notorious side.”
He was right. Despite discouraging Misao’s return to society, Enishi’s actions had inadvertently guaranteed it, if their prominence in the rumour mill was anything to go by. Eisai had heard this himself; there were many versions of what Minamoto did to Misao to provoke Enishi, ranging from the lurid to the sensational.
“They say Minamoto bit her hand and said filthy things about her feet. Or that he wanted to kiss her feet but ended up bruising her hand—I have no idea!” Naomi chuckled. “How much can you say about hands and feet anyway? They usually don’t get that much attention.”
“It’s how Enishi reacted that’s making people talk. They’re speculating that Enishi and Misao have been lovers all this time.” Haru paused to consider, adding, “Again.”
Aoshi didn’t bother hiding his curiosity this time. “Are they not?”
Naomi shook her head and scoffed as if it was obvious, “They’ve made it clear time and again that they aren’t, and I for one believe them. Not that it matters, given how they are.”
That answered one question, yet, “How they are?”
Naomi shrugged as if it was clear, “You know. Mad, never made any sense, except to each other. Take this latest argument for instance. I heard how it ended was plain absurd.”
Haru smiled ruefully. “Misao was starting to rant again because Enishi called her ‘suicidally self-dependent’—don’t ask me—and while she was saying ‘Minamoto’s balls’, she just lost her train of thought and started laughing. You should have seen Enishi cursing; he had to drag her to the hotel bar so she could calm down. When she finally stopped though, he just poured a drink and called her an idiot. Just like that, they were back to normal. Sano-san nearly fell over.”
Naomi raised a brow knowingly, “See? Only in their own convoluted way do they work. They aren’t lovers, yes, but in that sense at least, anything can happen.”
And that caught Aoshi’s attention, even if such answers led to more questions. Much of what Naomi and Haru said was always filled with loaded conclusions that could only come from candid perception. He never took what they said for granted, no matter how vague.
There was one person however, that even Naomi and Haru deferred to, the same way Himeko and Eisai did. The most respected, and yet the most enigmatic of all the Regulars. Their own figurative Gatekeeper, Dai.
Despite sharing Eisai’s face and easy nature on the surface, Dai was much more of an introspective person. He had a self-possession that seemed to have borne him through rougher tides in life, and his awareness of his surroundings far outmatched the others.
He found that Dai used to act on stage himself, switching roles with Eisai every other night, and that like Misao, he had chosen to give it all up for obscure reasons. He had then become more involved in all the other aspects of production, receiving more responsibilities in the process. During downtimes however, he had also taken on manning the box office, and when he offered Aoshi to join him one afternoon, he quickly understood why.
It was the same reason Aoshi was there at this very moment, as the lull of the afternoon slowly gave way to more visitors purchasing tickets. The box office had a special kind of glass partition that allowed them a better view of their customers than the reverse. Dai usually took this as the opportunity to observe each person and to make quiet assessments about their life—yet the most invaluable skill Aoshi had to learn about this city.
“This woman… look at the man behind her who keeps glancing at his timepiece. The decision to watch the show was impromptu on his part, mostly to appease her. He is overcompensating for a slight; he looks like he’d rather be elsewhere. They are not happily married. He’s a merchant, someone who can afford a mistress – look at the quality of his shoes. Nouveau rich, as the foreigners would say.”
Dai made a daily habit of finessing his skills, and Aoshi still had to struggle not to be too impressed. “It is almost disturbing, how quickly you do that.”
Dai grinned and shook his head. “You have to be observant as a performer. None of us would be here if we weren’t. It’s a given – otherwise, how could we be expected to portray our roles well?” He then grinned. “I learned all this with Misao.”
Aoshi stiffened; Dai didn’t appear to notice, thankfully. “Before this theatre became what it is now, Misao and I used to spend many afternoons in this booth between rehearsals, learning to observe and understand every person who walked through those doors. We needed to become quick studies in character, see. It’s all about the small details. You should see her perform a role and you’ll understand. She does it so perfectly, it’s no wonder it’s have gotten us where we are now.”
For a moment, Aoshi kept silent. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen her as of late.”
Misao had indeed been fortuitously absent since the ball. After that first morning, it was almost as if she had gone out of her way to keep her word and stay out of his way, even so far as to avoid the theatre and arrive home really late each night. The hard truth was that Aoshi had no reason to disagree this was probably for the best. Since their last encounter, his own sense of discipline had already been plagued—unceasingly, by memory, instinct, and feeling—in ways that clouded his judgement. For this, self-knowledge had him laying responsibility at his own feet; he could not be certain of any further encounters.
And yet always, regardless of what he discovered and learnt in Yokohama, no matter where his own path took him, everything inevitably led back to Misao.
Dai was shaking his head. “If she hasn’t been around as much, that’s because word’s out that she’s come back to the Feast, and now investors have been asking for her, and hosts are scrambling to get her in their guest lists. It’s a bit two-faced if you ask me, but that’s Yokohama for you.”
That was also true. Aoshi’s thoughts went back to that first day after the ball. After the other Elders arrived, they finalised their agreement in a meeting that Misao didn’t even manage to stay until the end for. They had only been starting when they were interrupted by an urgent request from “an Investor”. Misao had simply risen from her seat when Saitou stayed silent. “I’ll take care of it.”
“I knew the circus would begin.” Saitou finally spoke, his tone dark. “I just didn’t expect it to start before noon.”
Indeed, though Misao had promised to be back soon, she hadn’t been able to join them again that day. More ‘urgent’ business came to call her away, one after the other. And when the time came for the Elders to leave Yokohama in the evening without Misao in sight, Sagara only shook his head in rueful apology, especially to the Young Takanobu, who had been particularly disappointed.
“It would take only a few more days before it dies down. She’ll be back for good before we know it.”
“Has she told you this herself?” Aoshi only asked as he was sceptical of the man’s certainty. It seemed not even the other Regulars had seen much of her.
“Of course, she said so only yesterday.”
Aoshi paused and looked at Dai directly. “What?”
Dai glanced at him, noting his surprise. “She still does come by, you know. Where else would she go to regroup, otherwise?”
He felt a sudden coldness within him.
“She’s been coming here… daily, for the past week.”
“Of course, for a few minutes at a time, between her engagements. She asks about you. I told her you were making good progress in the theatre.”
Aoshi grew still. Misao had conveniently been too busy to risk any encounter with him, but somehow had enough time each day to ask about him. To check on him.
Had she been observing him all this time, even as she refused to face him?
For a moment, Aoshi thought of the one-way glass used in the booth, which as a concept suddenly felt like a convenient, even insulting, cheat.
There had been an implicit contract in their last encounter that he had eventually accepted, even as the words plagued him.
“I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine.”
All of it seemed like a mere contrivance now… another lie.
For once, Aoshi did not question the surge that rose within him, taking him out through the Nishitaka doors and making him avoid the place entirely the next day.
It wasn’t very often that Shinomori Aoshi felt that he had been played a fool.
“I find the Nishitaka theatre quite contrary, actually.” Kaita mused in the present. “It is a successful business that produces foreign plays, each of them running for no less than two months. The business is owned by Fujita Goro although he leads in title only. It is you who normally run the theatre with your little team on that stage.” He recited, as if quoting from the reports earlier.
“All true, of course,” He paused, turning over his shoulder to peruse. “However, everyone in Yokohama knows it’s just a cover for another business, which is far more controversial.”
Misao kept her face neutral. Kaita shook his head as his lip curled. “Come now, even I know your real business involves spying on the city’s links to organised crime. Yokohama has enough wealth for illegal networks to thrive, and in a city like this, what you do makes perfect sense.” He shrugged.
“But what fascinates me is how you’ve managed to convince most people that, like some theatres, all you do is specialise in a ‘personal’ kind of service. Offering physical pleasure in exchange for wealth and connections, if you will.
“You play to this notion so well in public, Lady Sotsu… flitting around from place to place with one gentleman after another. Now, I need to applaud you for that, because to use a lie to detract from another lie—well, that’s just impressive. No wonder nobody questions your place in the Feast, or your unnatural number of—Investors.”
From next to Aoshi, Misao stiffened. Hirai himself straightened at the word, the implications, same as what he publicly accused her of a few weeks back, still clear.
Kaita had drawn out the notes he procured on her, whistling under his breath as he looked down the list of names. “Since you are clearly well known for this, I have to ask; what are Investors then, and what exactly is their role in your plans?”
Misao looked up at him for a moment, her eyes sharp, briefly considering. He simply raised a brow at her, and after a second, she exhaled.
“Investors.” She began. Aoshi fell tense despite himself.
“We didn’t even come up with that term to begin with. We owe that to Yokohama. ‘Investor’ was the role they gave for every person the we associated with, and so it stuck. To us, investors are anyone we’ve worked or been seen with, who isn’t part of us.”
Kaita nodded thoughtfully. “Straightforward, but I’m sure it’s not as simple as that.”
Misao paused. “No.”
“Far from being business partners and acquaintances, people think they are your clients. Your—personal clients.”
Aoshi looked away as she answered. “They do.”
“And are they, then?” Kaita was done with levity, his voice lowering. “Is that what you do then, seduce these men in exchange for money, connections and information?”
Misao’s response was ready, automatic, even resigned. Aoshi’s gaze snapped back to her.
“I have never denied that.”
Two days earlier
They had a mission the following night. By an ironic twist of fate, this time it involved Misao, Aoshi looked forward to it for once.
He did not labour to contain his anger this time; it buoyed his anticipation.
By that point, Aoshi already knew what to expect from missions. All matters concerning the Wing Fang, he and Sagara usually ended up working on. The two of them had already worked with local officers to flush out their targets; they had visited the various trading dens of Yokohama’s underworld to verify their leads. And although it was clear that most of their information came from Misao, she had made herself scarce each time, providing them leads that didn’t require her presence to manage. Aoshi had connected this with her absence from the theatre as well – that she was doing her job in a way that ensured they didn’t have to be in each other’s way.
Until that night, that is.
They were meant to confront the man who was supposedly responsible for the tip that led to the Wing Fang’s attack on Murasaki during the first meeting, a French gaijin called Fabre, who had been his business partner. They were supposed to find him en route from a Gentleman’s establishment, but they found out at the last minute that he had opted to go to the evening’s ball instead—which incidentally, Misao was also attending with an investor.
“We can’t corner him there. Misao will have to be called in.” Sagara concluded.
Misao, who had actually been keeping her eye on him despite her resolution to stay away, who had been using her own people to keep him in sight, but wouldn’t face him herself; Misao, who he had yet to confront since her daring little stunt that evening after the ball.
“Alright, Tori-atama, what’s going on?” Aoshi heard her ask breathlessly as she entered. There was a gasp when she saw him, a pause. “Aoshi-sama.”
“Misao.” He only allowed smoothly as he turned to her, his thoughts anything but.
She looked different from last time, far from the square-necked work dress cinched in the waist or the shocking fall of black silk from the first ball. Now, her attire was indulgently of the current fashion: rich green in colour, fuller in skirt and more generous in skin at the front, revealing a heaving flush that she might have acquired from drink and dancing. The surprised, almost uncertain look on her face was another matter however.
“There you are, Itachi.” Sagara entered the same alcove, drawing their attention as he immediately began to explain the situation. Misao kept glancing at Aoshi’s direction throughout the whole narrative, however. Aoshi was undaunted by this; the more restless she appeared, the calmer he grew.
“Do you have any ideas, then?” Sagara was still speaking. “We need to find the bait we planted to confirm he’s our guy. I’m not sure how to handle it now that he’s chosen a place as public as this though.”
Misao blinked to attention and slowly nodded. “I need to see him first.”
“I can easily point him out to you later—he is a gaijin after all. Shouldn’t be hard to spot.”
Misao exhaled, “I need to see him first,” she repeated, “in order to make a plan.”
Sagara’s eyes widened. “Ah. Then by all means.” He led them outside and pointed out the man.
Misao’s eyes narrowed in contemplation, and she stood in rapt, quiet observation for a few minutes before finally speaking, her words low as they meandered after her thoughts.
“Look at how he’s standing. See how carelessly he talks to those women—how he insists, even when rejected? He’s on the way to being drunk and he isn’t stopping. He’s holding his glass awkwardly though; he’s not a habitual drinker. There’s something about tonight then, something that’s making him reckless. He won’t be quiet – we can’t approach him in the ballroom floor. Best to try his room, then.”
“His room? How did you—“
Misao nodded distractedly, “This venue is a hotel. He took a key out of his pocket once while trying to lure one of the ladies—he has a room then. He thinks he’s on a hunt tonight, and resistance only tempts him more. Not ideal, but it might work better for us.”
Sagara raised a brow and repeated, “Not ideal?”
Misao kept looking, her focus lowering her brow in a way that reminded Aoshi of Dai in his observations. We became quick studies in character… it’s all about the small details… You need to, as a performer.
Misao had stopped looking at Fabre and was now giving him an odd look. Aoshi averted his eyes.
Misao hesitated for all of a second before turning to Sagara, her expression changing. “Right, this is how it will work. In less than half an hour, my escort will leave and Fabre will try to take me to his rooms. Give me exactly half that time alone with him, and then follow, no sooner or later. Find out where his rooms are, just in case. I should have the evidence by then.”
Aoshi suddenly remembered how she answered Enishi the first time they worked on a mission. Her focus was now solely on the goal at hand, and Sagara did not question her certainty. “I’ll see you later.” She grinned briefly before heading back into the ballroom.
Aoshi volunteered to stay in the ball, and Sagara agreed to inform Yukishiro and their contacts of the change in plan. When he found out where Fabre’s room indeed was, he went back to the ballroom to track Misao.
There was something disconcertingly appropriate about being the one to watch her at work, as opposed to the reverse. Aoshi watched the change in her character, her walk showing a bit less control – a bit more like one of the evening’s more active revellers. She let out a giggle as her escort, a man whose dark hair was streaked with silver, took her arm before he could lose her. She apologised carelessly in the man’s ear and he chuckled and led her across the ballroom floor, where she pushed closer to where Fabre stood.
If it hadn’t been for their brief interaction earlier, Aoshi would have been convinced she was inebriated—there was something almost masterfully loose in her movements. She stepped a bit too wide, turned slightly too much, and her escort had to reach a bit further to catch her in his arms. However, this turned smiles into shared laughter and politeness into private pleasure. It wasn’t long before Fabre was watching them intently as well.
When the dance ended, her escort looked forlorn (a commitment to meet an associate in the cardrooms, which he appeared to sorely regret). Misao shook her head and reassured him (with a hand on his chest), needing the time to go to the powder room anyway. Fabre followed her without hesitation when she departed from the dance floor.
That was the signal. They were to follow, fifteen minutes after she left with Fabre. No sooner or later, she said, almost as if it was a warning.
Aoshi no longer paused to hesitate. He went and followed immediately.
It did not take him long to spot them in a darkened corridor. Fabre had a hand on Misao’s shoulder; Aoshi could only see her back. He moved out of sight, but close enough to catch the tail end of the conversation.
“…I’ve heard of you and I can see right through you. I know you’re here with one of your investors, but surely even he knows you can never have too many. He won’t blame you for trying to—solicit business on the side.”
Misao shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her tone turned plaintive, “Let go of me, please… sir.”
Fabre’s grin only grew.
Resistance, Misao had said earlier, only tempts him more.
The man took out a sheaf from his jacket suit. “Is this enough to tempt you?” He waved the bills in her face. “You should count yourself lucky, lady. I am leaving this city once and for all tomorrow, and I am carrying enough with me to be generous. That’s as sound an investment as any of your other—offers, I am sure.”
That explained the recklessness. Fabre thought he would outsmart his pursuers and escape. Another of Misao’s observations proven correct; all from how he held his glass.
Misao was silent for a few seconds turning away, as if not to be caught considering the money. Fabre sneered, turning her chin to look back at him. When she spoke, her voice was low, diffident.
“Do you have a room?”
Fabre smiled triumphantly.
Aoshi’s heart pounded loudly, overpowering all other sound. He moved immediately, vaulting over the window to the outdoor balcony, ignoring the roaring within his ears as he moved from ledge to ledge to find the right room.
He found the right room just as he heard the door close behind them. He barely jolted when he heard the shifting of cloth; the sound of impact as somebody was pushed against a wall. No sooner or later, Misao had warned—she had warned. Already feeling as if all of his senses were on fire, Aoshi looked.
Fabre had pushed Misao face-first against the mirror, lips leaving marks on her neck as his hands fumbled with her dress. Aoshi’s eyes went straight to her face, half-fearing the worst.
His blood ran cold.
Misao had her lids half shut, a dark look on her eyes, and there on her face was an unmistakeable smile, purely anticipatory, even predatory against her reflection.
The smile grew as she put both hands against the mirror, pushing back to turn fully into the man grasping at her. She angled to expose her neck, which the man took advantage of, sucking at the junction behind her jaw and neck. She gasped loudly at this, her hands going around Fabre’s body, legs to his waist. Fabre chuckled, murmuring in satisfaction. Aoshi let out a rough, shuddering breath.
It took Misao’s eyes snapping open a few seconds later, her pupils blown wide, for Aoshi to refocus his gaze. It then became evident that she had been feeling through the man’s garments, searching and finding what she needed, the whole time. She lifted a folded piece of paper to her gaze, even as she ran a hand to grasp at Fabre’s blonde hair. Her eyes narrowed in affirmation at the evidence, and she quickly manoeuvred to slip the paper at her back.
She then put a firm hand on Fabre’s shoulder, pushing him back. “Not so fast.” And when she was ignored, her other hand went to the other shoulder, her voice lowering hard. “Not so fast, sir.”
Fabre finally pulled back. “What is it?” he growled.
Misao easily slid out of his grasp and walked towards the dresser, pausing to remove pieces of jewellery from her person. Aoshi moved back and resorted to looking at their reflection the window pane.
“You should know that I have conditions. No exceptions.”
Aoshi clenched his jaw; was this an often enough occurrence for her to have conditions?
Fabre seemed to accept this, for he indulged her. “Such as?”
Misao spoke to him through the desk mirror. “Some are fairly standard. I don’t kiss on the lips, for one. But you seem to already know that.”
“There will be enough of you to entertain myself with, I am sure.”
Misao said nothing and turned around to perch on the dresser. “No one can remove my clothes except for myself.”
There was a pause before Fabre replied. “I can live with that. You’ve had enough practice, I suppose.”
Misao smirked and simply leaned forward. The angle afforded a generous view. Aoshi felt his throat go dry at its ease and familiarity. She knew what she was doing.
You should see her perform a role. She does it so perfectly.
“Finally,” Misao leaned back, resting her elbows against the desk mirror, she placed one foot against the chair, and the other to perch on the table’s edge, in a single motion forming a tempting portrait of dishabille.
“You don’t do anything, anything, unless I do it first, or unless I say ‘Yes’.”
Fabre finally snapped, at the sight offered before him, or at her words, Aoshi was initially unsure of. “Now that I won’t accept.”
Up went Misao’s brow, “How so?”
Fabre stalked towards her. “We both know you’d spread your legs for anyone with enough money. I am the one who is investing here, and I am not paying you to wait for your approval. I say enough playing—“
He stopped, Misao had placed a foot on his chest to prevent him from approaching any further. The look on his face changed. Slowly, his hand found its way to her calves, sliding it up to his shoulder.
“This is what they were talking about, isn’t it? You and the things you could do with your feet. This is what Yukishiro threatened Lord Minamoto for, correct? Tell me, Lady, what did Minamoto want you to do? Let me match his offer.”
Misao only lowered her gaze. “Do you agree to the terms?”
Fabre sneered. “I told you, unacceptable.”
The tone of Misao’s voice changed. “I thought so,” and the usual the deferential pause disappeared as the same predatory smile from earlier emerged in full. “This, I can do with my feet.”
Fabre did not get the chance to react; the same foot resting on his shoulder had moved quickly towards his neck, knocking him sideways in blow which had him pitching towards the bed, unconscious.
And it was just as well; Aoshi had had enough. He turned.
Misao was straddling Fabre on the bed, tying his hands with makeshift cords made from the bed clothes. It distinctly did not help that her dress was still in disarray around her exposed, stockinged thighs; it was too much a reminder of another night, and it hit too close--
—She cut the space between them. "You must have an idea of how they think I behave behind closed doors." —
He moved towards the window immediately.
“What are you doing here, Aoshi-sama?” came her shocked voice.
— “Did I surprise you?” Her eyes glittered defiantly as she looked back at him.—
For a second, Aoshi would later swear, he couldn’t even see straight.
“Let us finish this.” Was all he said as he moved into the room.
Something changed in her tone at his response. “Just—how much of that did you see?”
—“They think I'm bold," her hand graze the back of his neck. "They think I do unspeakable things," her breath on his neck, making him shiver, "They think I bite." Her mouth at his ear.—
“Nothing more than you had already—” he exhaled. He gathered other items that could be to bind Fabre, his hands moving jerkily, “made me familiar with.”
Misao stood up slowly. “I had asked for fifteen minutes,” her voice was low, careful.
Aoshi turned away from her, moving to work on Fabre, keeping his voice steady as he spoke, “I am aware.”
“I asked for fifteen minutes,” Misao repeated, her voice now catching, almost frantic. “You didn’t have to see—“
“See what, Misao?” His voice rose. “Or is this something you’d want to deceive me with as well?”
“What?” Misao took a step back, her voice sounding faint. “What do you mean?”
Aoshi stopped and looked at her directly and spoke, his voice dangerously low. “I don’t care if you want to stay away from me, but don’t use your Nishitaka people to keep an eye on me while you do. I don’t care what you do on your own time, but I did not choose to join for half-answers and set-up missions. I did not come here to be watched, played with and taken out to use as you please. I did not come here,” his voice hardened, “to be lied to.”
Here he unexpectedly paused, again suddenly besieged with her words from that other night. “I will no longer stand in your way, as long as you stay out of mine.”
The realisation finally hit him with cold precision, reminded as he was by sight of her unfazed intimacy with Fabre, and even her escort from that evening. It wasn’t what she had said which he couldn’t accept, but what she had done before that.
She had dared to pull him close, only to push him away.
“I don’t care how you see me, but I am not one of your investors, Misao. Don’t treat me like a fool.”
That seemed to snap Misao out of her stupor, “Aoshi-sama.”
Her hand suddenly grasped at him as he turned away, and those eyes, those seemingly guileless eyes that had watched him for so many years, that with the same temperament observed the targets she lured to pick apart, those eyes finally settled on him, seeing.
“You’re angry. I disappoint you. You think I cannot be trusted… You really believe that.” She observed, gasping.
The moment of truth for her, finally.
He tried to turn away, but her hand on his arm tightened and she shook her head at him, struggling to speak.
“Aoshi-sama, please listen, please understand… This is what I do; it’s my role. I have to keep playing it, even if it means staying away.” Misao emphasized, frustrated. “But how can I? How can I even try, when you’re—there…” She struggled. “You’re all they talk about, the Regulars. How you took charge and saved Haru, or how well you read lines with Himeko, or how you can keep up even with Naomi... How can I not ask about you, how can I stay away, when beyond this, before all of it even began… you’re still there?”
She looked up at him differently this time, eyes dark and pleading despite being a picture of dishabille with her red lips and parted blouse, the small marks on her neck. It was damning to realise that even like this, she would make him question himself.
This time, he simply pulled his arm away.
“Misao,” his spoke softly, “I frankly cannot care less.”
To be continued in Chapter Four, Part Two