Desire worsens when fed. This realization only dawns on Hisana when her eyes blink open.
The act has been done. The monster nursed, but its hunger only grows. And she is left to guess at the high cost it will demand in time.
Her gaze slides to the door. The pale indigo of morning burns at the horizon and creeps into the room through the gaps between the shades and the ledge of the windows.
It’s late, she thinks. Her absence at the House will be noticed. Questions will be asked. Her mistress isn’t a stupid woman; her life depends on the House’s financial success after all.
Carefully, Hisana peels herself away from her lover. Her heart aches at the chill of the night air nipping at her shoulders and neck. Every fiber in her body bulks at the thought of leaving his warmth.
But, this is reckless. Dangerous, even. If not for him, then most certainly for her.
Distracting her stubborn body with stories she can sell when confronted by the questions that will surely be asked of her, Hisana thinks of a few ways around what she has been doing all night.
None of her excuses seem plausible.
All of them would flake away like dried leaves under much scrutiny, or worse, much vetting. Even her usual co-conspirators when it came to the selling of big, little lies—Tojuro and Okuni—would crumble if pressed, especially since she doesn’t have enough time to tell them of her plans.
Inhaling a deep breath with a heavy brow, she slowly convinces herself that she can weather this storm. She must. No, she will.
Desire. Pleasure. Security.
The life facing her doesn’t care about any of her wants. Wanting makes women weak. And, she has no better evidence of that simple fact then right now: Heart throbbing, thick and heavy, in her chest forcing her lungs to take the shallow breaths of a drowning woman.
You’re a fool to think this gets easier, Hisana, her inner pragmatist reminds her.
Hisana latches onto this shred of resolve and swallows the lump in her throat.
You must leave.
She twirls the length of hair into a quick bun. Instinctively, she reaches for the beautiful red blossom kanzashi that Byakuya gifted her. Her fingers lightly graze the coolness of the gold prongs before recoiling as if the pin has turned to flame.
Through the heavy shades of darkness, she peers down at the hairpin. It’s beauty is undeniable. Her heart slows its jittery pace.
You must cut this feeling out of you. It will only worsen.
Her eyes squeeze together under the burn of knitted brows. She knows. She knows pain better than its absence.
And yet . . . .
Her fingers find the kanzashi through the darkness of her shut eyes and tuck the piece in the breast pocket of her kimono. Right over her heart.
She tells herself it would be inappropriate to reject his gift. She tells herself that it would injure his pride. She tells herself that it would jeopardize his patronage.
She, however, cannot convince herself that any of those reasons explain why she takes it. Why she wants to take it. The weight of the kanzashi against her chest feels too potent, too tender to her. It feels more real than the cool weave of the tatami against her bare feet or the grain of the wooden doorframe against her fingertips.
With breath trapped in her chest, she slides the door back. The act feels violent, like throwing off the covers in the middle of an icy room.
Every muscle in her chest and legs tenses until the gap between door and frame widens enough for her to slip through. The quiet susurrus of wood pulling over itself does not alert her lover, a fact that she confirms with a sidelong glance.
Her heart kicks at her ribs at the sight of his lean form. The moonlight plays in the strands of his dark hair and limns his pale skin in silvery radiance. Slow and even are the rise and fall of his chest. His slumber is deep. So deep and peaceful.
She doesn’t deny the sting that accompanies her next thought: What will he think when he rises without her by his side?
Before she can venture a guess, she is distracted by the humid summer wind that tugs at the hem of her sleeve, reminding her that she must leave. Wordless, she plunges into the inky night.
When she reaches the Peony House, Hisana braces for the warm glow of lantern light. The House is still awake. Distant sounds of laughter eclipse the bellowing of frogs and chirping crickets. As she shoves her way inside one of the back entrances, she is relieved to find that the merrymaking emanates from one of the grand banquet rooms stationed at the opposite end of the House.
Shedding her geta in the sunken place in front of the door, Hisana begins down the hall, careful to miss the creaky floorboards.
It isn’t much, she thinks. But, she wants to avoid the questioning glances of her contemporaries or their attendants. A fleeting glance toward the small antechamber on her right further quells fears that she may have to explain her lateness. Her mistress’s station is empty and the lantern that usually keeps the small chamber lit has been snuffed out.
Before a sigh of relief can leak from Hisana’s lips, however, she feels a tap on her shoulder. Reflexively, her fingers coil in the fabric of her collar, her shoulders jerk up, and she wheels around, words of protest filling her mouth.
“Shunsho?” she squeaks out, cheeks burning.
Her manservant greets her with a mild look of amusement. “Apologies, Mistress Hisana,” he then sinks into a low, reverent bow, “it was not my intention to startle you.”
A small giggle tickles her throat. “Oh, no need to apologize. I’ve just been,” she stops, not knowing which lie to choose for tonight.
His head bobs up, “Shopping?” There is a kind but knowing glint in his stare.
She gives him a firm nod. “Yes. I guess I forgot the time.”
“Mistress did not seem to notice. She was very pleased with the outcome of the tax measure reported at the end of the day. I bet she’ll be in late tomorrow after her celebration tonight.”
“Oh?” murmurs Hisana as she inches down the hallway.
Shunsho keeps pace with her stride. “Yes. Probably good you got in when you did. The bordello owners and financiers are all in the Pillar Room living it up after receiving word. No doubt that you would’ve been conscripted to join along with Okuni.”
“Okuni?” Hisana’s brows furrow. While Okuni is a sought-after courtesan, she serves a different House.
Shunsho nods his head, long and slow. “Indeed,” he says, dipping his head down conspiratorially close to hers, “all of the Houses brought their most talented oiran to celebrate with the financiers.”
She tenses for a moment.
If the other Houses brought their top talent, then who represented us?
She turns to her attendant, the question rattling in her chest, but before she can ask it, he is already ahead of her.
“Don’t worry, milady. Your standing is secure. Mistress explained your absence, and they made a toast in your honor.”
“Mistress wasn’t displeased, though?”
“No. Plus, she became so drunk there is a good chance she might forget you weren’t there.”
Fat chance of that happening, Hisana muses to herself. Mistress would remember a slight while dreaming. Success favors the treacherous among those in the Pleasure Quarters. A truism that became no less certain and all the more horrifying with each passing year.
Stopping at the door to her suite of rooms, Hisana’s hand lingers on the cool, slick wooden lip of the frame. “Thank you, Shunsho,” she murmurs, tucking her chin down.
He sinks into a dutiful bow. “My pleasure.” When he straightens he hesitates to turn away. His lips twitch slightly, and he rolls his thumb over the pad of his index finger.
Despite their nine years together, Shunsho has never moved beyond the strictest of formalities when addressing her. She used to wonder at this. Was it insecurity? Callowness? Had he been abused by a prior oiran?
She never received a clear indication, only learning to prompt him when necessary. Like now.
“Is there something the matter, Shunsho?”
“Your perfume,” his voice warbles, “it reminds me of the thick scent of cherry blossoms during early spring.”
Her brows shoot up. Hisana does not miss the veiled censure undulating beneath his pleasant delivery: Cherry blossoms are not in season this time of year. And, her signature perfume is not cherry blossom, but plum blossom.
She was more careless tonight than she realized. If it hadn’t been Shunsho who found her in the hall—if it had been a rival, like Sakuran—she would have been exposed. Humiliated, even.
“Of course.” She lifts her head and squares her shoulders, hiding what remains of her surprise behind a conciliatory nod. “Please draw a bath for me in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He offers her a small smile, as if to compliment her on her decision. He then gives her yet another bow. “Good evening, Ms. Hisana.”
Stock-still, she waits at her door, eyes following his retreating back until he vanishes around a corner. Once alone, she slips inside her room, shutting the door behind her.
For a brief moment, she presses her back to the door, closes her eyes, and inhales a troubled breath.
While Shunsho has never given her a reason to doubt his fealty to her, she knows what leverage looks like. And she knows of the many temptations that can demand its assertion.