Its liquid chime coiled into an almost summer sunset. A sky lingering in the blue hour, just beyond nightfall. The wicket gate creaked open, and Mariko trailed behind Ōkami and Ranmaru as they followed a clean-faced young woman clad in a silk kimono. Her steps were light. Quick. As though she were skimming across the clouds. She led them to a sliding door, pausing only to allow them passage.

When the sight before her centered, Mariko stopped short. Fought to keep from gasping.

This was anything but a simple teahouse. Not once in her life had Mariko ever dreamed of anything its equal.

The pavers winding across a lush, green garden were smooth and black. Perfectly rounded. Some ingenious system—completely obscured from view—had redirected a bubbling brook and sent it churning down a set of three waterfalls, each no higher than the length of Mariko’s arm. At the base of these falls, swirling foam gathered around glossy lily pads and snow-white lotus blossoms. Tiny golden koi darted beneath the surface of a small blue lagoon.

Every outer wall of the main teahouse was constructed of sliding screen doors framed in latticed wood. When Mariko looked closer, she realized the screens were not made of rice paper, as was typical. Instead they were made of thin silk.

Decadent to a fault.

Interspersed between the low-hanging eaves of the roof were many cast-iron lanterns made to look like miniature pagodas. Tongues of blue flame licked between their honeycombed slats. Squat brass braziers perfumed the air with an intoxicating mixture of night-blooming jasmine and clean white musk. Though dusk had only just fallen, the teahouse was ablaze in warmth and light. The sounds beyond the screens were ones of lilting music and shared merriment.

Mariko had expected to find this teahouse in Hanami somewhat sordid. A place men went to lose themselves in fantasy.

Thus far she had seen nothing of the sort. She’d seen only tranquil beauty. Felt nothing but serenity. But Mariko knew better than to trust these feelings. They were obviously part of a ploy to disarm even the most critical of patrons.

Time would soon reveal the truth.

When Ranmaru removed his sandals and stepped onto the landing of the teahouse, Mariko followed suit. She straightened her robes, suddenly conscious of a discomfiting fact: she was not dressed appropriately. Her clothes were far too big. After the garments had first been loaned to her, Mariko had suspected they belonged to Ren. He was the only member of the Black Clan with comparable height. At the time, it had not bothered Mariko to wear something ill-fitting and past the fashions of the imperial city. Nor had it bothered her to wear Ren’s clothing. She’d seen no reason to care what anyone thought of her appearance.

Until now, Mariko had not even paid attention to what her compatriots wore, for it, too, had seemed immaterial. When amongst men, she’d found fine clothing to be of blessedly little concern.

But now—as Ranmaru and Ōkami turned to wait for her—Mariko suddenly felt acutely aware of her appearance. Almost self-conscious. A feeling she disdained.

So much like a girl, despite all her efforts to the contrary.

Ranmaru’s knee-length robe was made of fine, dark green silk. He’d layered it over pleated hakama trousers, and had managed to keep himself immaculate and unrumpled all throughout the long ride from the forest into the imperial city. Ōkami wore a similarly styled robe of rich deep blue, except that his haori hung open, layered atop a kosode of white silk, belted by a black cord.

Though these young men were in truth nothing but a pair of rōnin—and notorious thieves, to boot—they looked as though they belonged here, in an elegant teahouse of wonder and mystery. While Mariko greatly resembled a scraggly alley cat, wrung out to dry after a long spring rain.

I suppose it can’t be helped.

Donning a mask of fortitude, Mariko forced herself forward. Stopped short just beside Ōkami.

He turned away just as swiftly, pausing only to rinse his hands in a basin filled with water, scented by fresh rose petals. Mariko mimicked his actions, feeling all the while as though she did not belong. As though at any moment, someone would tear the mask from her face and reveal her to the world as the fraud she was.

A silk-screened door slid open before them, unveiling another layer of the hidden splendor of Hanami. Another layer of this place of beauty and excess.

Mariko had quietly sneered at the tales of this excess for many years.

Geiko were referred to as living, floating works of art. The very idea had ruffled her sensibilities. That a beautiful woman could be nothing more than a form of entertainment, left to the vices and pleasures of men.

But as Mariko watched—transfixed—while a geiko clad in layers of tatsumura silk drifted across the spotless tatami mats, she realized her first mistake. This young woman did not stand or move from a place of subservience. Nor did she convey any sense that her existence was based solely on the whims of men. Not once did the geiko’s gaze register the newest arrivals. Her head was high, her gait proud. The poise with which she moved—the grace with which she took each of her steps—was a clear testament to years of training and tradition.

The young woman was not a plaything. Not at all.

As she walked, she tantalized. Performed each step as a dancer would on a stage. Painted as an artist would across a canvas. With nothing but the simplest of motions.

Once the geiko had crossed to the other side of the long rectangular tearoom, she turned with studied elegance and knelt in one corner, smoothing the folds of her kimono beneath her knees in one even swipe. An attendant handed her a gleaming wooden shamisen. When the girl closed her eyes and began to strum its strings with a carved ivory pick—her music soft and glowing with the same amber light emanating from the hanging lanterns—Mariko fell upon a second realization. She’d judged something before she’d ever given it an opportunity, the same opportunity Mariko had requested from Yoshi that first day at the Black Clan’s encampment.

The music the geiko played was haunting. A song filled with veiled feeling. Its rhythm was torrid, yet its melody did not burn; rather it hypnotized. The low, constant buzz of the shamisen’s deepest string rumbled throughout the space, lulling Mariko into a near stupor.

There was such pride in the way the geiko performed. Such passion. She played for herself, first and foremost. And Mariko appreciated it more than she could ever have put to words.

Once the song was finished, Mariko, Ranmaru, and Ōkami took their places at a set of individual tray tables on one side of the rectangular room. Two neat rows ringed the perimeter, parallel to each other. The floors were covered in freshly woven tatami mats, their edges trimmed in deep purple silk.

Mariko sat before one of these trays, again catching herself thoughtlessly imitating each of Ōkami’s motions. Hating herself for it. As though she could ever wish to emulate anyone like him. Anyone so smug. So uninterested in anything of import.

Just as Mariko had finished arranging the hem of her robes around her, a bowl of glazed black porcelain—filled with fragrant rice—was placed before her. Lacquered chopsticks were rested atop a stand of polished jade. More female attendants in the same simple silk of the girl at the teahouse gates bore individual servings of food—fillets of amberjack covered in a sauce of fresh sorrel and white miso paste, a cut of creamy bream served alongside a small bowl of ponzu, cool abalone marinated in sweetened soy sauce and topped with finely diced chives.

When Mariko touched the tip of her chopsticks to the amberjack, the fish fell apart in flakes. Flakes that melted in her mouth, buttery and rich on her tongue. Hand-painted flagons of sake and matching cups were set before each of the teahouse’s guests. Soon the room was filled to capacity. And the topic of conversation descended to winking suggestion. Became bawdier. Louder.

Men. Mariko shook her head and looked around, staving off the flush creeping into her cheeks.

Slants of light emanated from matching miniature pagoda lanterns hanging at intervals around the room. The flames within flickered through the intricate slats, creating shadows that danced through the screens, throwing light across the silk-covered walls.

After Mariko finished consuming her food, the sliding door at the opposite end of the main tearoom slipped open. At first, Mariko thought the girl standing before them was simply younger than all the other geiko present. Perhaps even younger than Mariko herself. When the girl began gliding by—each of her steps a gentle brush across the woven mats—Mariko saw the flash of padded red silk positioned in the center of her hair, just above her nape. It was the sign of a maiko—an apprentice geiko who had not yet established her place among the official ranks of floating art in Hanami. The train of the maiko’s long kimono rippled behind her, like a soft swirl of wind. On her best day, Mariko could not imagine the skill it took to walk with such grace when burdened by the weight of three underrobes and a heavily embroidered kimono of brocaded turquoise and pale pink silk. Her obi alone looked as though it weighed nearly a stone, its knot at her back ornate and immense.

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