Toshi sat bolt upright, aware that at some point during the night he’d fallen asleep. He glanced about him, dislodging a thick blanket from his shoulders. He was on a ship–a haunted ship. A chill coursed through him as he recalled all that had gone before.
He grabbed the fallen blanket, not sure where it had come from, and wrapped it about himself. The thought repeated over and over in his mind that normal walls didn’t glow like a million fireflies. The cold air in the cabin made him shiver.
“Would you like some tea?”
He whipped around, entangling himself in the blanket, looking for the source of the voice. He stared in surprise at a well-dressed woman sitting at the far corner of the cabin, serving tea. The cut and style of her light-green kimono and her lavishly coiffured black-haired wig with its silver bells told him she was geisha, an entertainer. Yet, unlike any geisha he had ever heard tell of, this one wore a noh mask over her face.
The delicate traditional theater mask of white-painted wood was of a handsome young maiden with large almond-shaped eyes, rounded nose, and thin, smiling red lips; but its illusion was dispelled as he noticed the woman’s hands and neck were as fleshless as those of a hundred-year-old corpse.
“Who…who are you? What…what do you want from me?” He inched away from the geisha, his voice cracking as he spoke.
The woman looked up at him, soft blue light showing through the narrow eye slits of the mask. With surprising grace and beauty, in spite of her lack of flesh, she bowed to him and introduced herself.
“I am Akiuji Miko, entertainer for his lordship Asaka Ietsugu.”
Feeling awkward at the unexpected show of formality, he made himself return the bow.
“My…my name is Chizuson Toshiro,” he said, absurdly thinking that by the rules of the foreigners his surname would have come last, not first. “Though most people just call me Toshi. I was an apprentice mapmaker to Hirojima Shun.” He licked his lips, apprehension filling him to the core.
The geisha said, “I’m very pleased to meet you, Chizuson-san.”
He glanced away and said nothing, in no way feeling the same. He was also surprised she’d added the honorific to his name. Why would a demon give him such consideration?
“Won’t you have tea? If you’re hungry, I’ve some rice cakes as well.” Her voice was kind.
He stared at the floor and said nothing.
“Won’t you do me this small courtesy? It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to serve tea.” Delicately, Miko lifted a steaming cup and held it out toward him. “Please, Toshi-san?”
His stomach rumbled as the green tea’s aroma drifted toward him. His cold hands and feet insisted a little hot tea would do no harm. He wondered why she’d decided to use his given name instead of his surname. That was normally a habit of people who knew each other well.
Keeping his blanket snug about his shoulders, he rose hesitantly to his feet and advanced to the small table set in front of the geisha.
Making sure the table stayed between them, he sat down. Without comment, Miko placed the cup on the table before him.
Waiting until her fleshless hands were well away, he took the steaming cup. He held it, thrilled by the warmth flowing from it into his hands, his eagerness for the drink itself gone for the moment. When he finally drank, he closed his eyes, grateful for the warmth spreading inside him.
He quickly placed the empty cup on the table, hoping for more but not daring to ask. Miko lifted a plate full of seaweed-wrapped rice cakes from a tray beside her and put it before him.
“Won’t you have some?” She then proceeded to refill his cup.
Studying the rice cakes and figuring they looked safe enough, he picked up one of them and took a small, hesitant bite. Finding that it tasted as it should, he gobbled it down and reached for another. Before he realized what he’d done, he’d eaten them all.
“Toshi-san, how old are you?”
He almost smiled, content now that he was full, until he glanced up at his unusual hostess and remembered where he was.
“I’m almost sixteen.” He wondered why a demon would want to know, but he wasn’t about to ask.
Miko held his attention as her head tilted slightly to the side making the small bells in her hair ring. By the way her shoulders were gently shaking, he got the impression the geisha was laughing behind her white mask.
“All young boys are always in such a hurry to grow up, to go out into the world and meet their destinies.” Miko’s broad green sleeve rose to cover the smiling mask’s mouth.
Toshi felt his cheeks grow hot. Yes, it was true he was only fifteen, but he would be sixteen–a man–soon enough. What difference did a few months make? Especially to demons!
He stared at his teacup, stung by the geisha’s silent laughter. Unhappy about this, he said the first thing that came to mind in an effort to distract her.
“Why do you wear a mask?”
He noted with satisfaction that the geisha lowered her sleeve away from her mouth.
“I wear it out of politeness,” she said. “You see, I have no wish to make you afraid of me. My features are less handsome than I would desire and don’t complement my profession very well at this time.”
“Then you and your lord look just like the crew?” The question had left his lips before he gave it proper consideration.
“Yes, we do,” she answered. “Asaka-sama thought it would be less of a shock to you if we minimized our current state in your presence.”
Asaka-sama. Lord Asaka–the honorific said it all. Asaka was their master, and he looked just like the rest. A small chill crawled down Toshi’s back. He felt himself tense as he gathered his courage to ask the only thing he really wanted to know.
“Why am I here?”
Miko’s masked face turned away from him, the bells in her hair ringing softly as she moved.
“Lord Asaka needs a navigator, one who can read the more detailed maps of the gaijin.” She turned to face him again. “It’s partially because of the knowledge we lack that we have come to be as we are. It is our hope that, with you, we’ll now be able to complete what we must. To follow the way and regain our honor.”
He stared at the geisha. He had no reason to disbelieve her, although who could honestly ever trust a demon, yet this couldn’t be all they wanted from him. And since when did demons follow bushido–the samurai code of conduct?
“You mustn’t judge Asaka-sama harshly, Toshi-san. I know all of this is a major change for you,” she said, “but Asaka-sama wouldn’t have done it had our need not been so great. You’ll be safe with us. No harm shall come to you.”
He turned away to hide his expression of confused suspicion, his hand rising unconsciously to brush back his mussed hair. He never felt the leather band that held his hair in a ponytail loosen and fall to the floor. His long black hair spilled over his shoulders.
Only too vividly, he recalled the demon mask with its glowing green eyes and the deep voice booming from behind it. He recalled his first view of the crew, and that white skull with the menacing red glowing stare as they stood watching him. That he would be safe and unharmed here was not something he was in any way willing to believe.
He stared at nothing, a shiver moving through him, as he remembered the implied threat he thought he’d seen in the crewman’s red eyes.
“Let me fix that for you,” Miko said.
He heard the rustle of silk as the geisha stood up and moved behind him. He saw her reach for the fallen leather band. As her skeletal hand rose, it finally dawned on him what she meant to do. Terrified, he jerked away before her hand could reach his hair.
He turned on Miko in a half-crouch, waiting for her to come after him. Instead, he found her sitting perfectly still, her hand half-raised.
“What’s wrong?” She leaned forward. He scooted away from her. “I was only going to tie your hair. I wasn’t going to hurt you.”
He watched her suspiciously as she held out the leather band for him to see.
“No, that’s all right, thank you,” he said quickly. “I would prefer to do it myself.”
Miko turned her head to stare at him at a curious angle. To his amazement, she suddenly bowed to him, her forehead touching the floor.
“Please forgive my thoughtlessness, Chizuson-san. I had forgotten that all you’ve had from us so far was the paralyzing touch. I did not mean to frighten you.”
He felt foolish, seeing her apologizing to him. He was just a peasant boy; she was a geisha and a demon. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen in the world.
“I just thought…”
Miko’s white mask turned up as he hesitated.
“Of course. You had no reason to believe otherwise. But it isn’t true. When we touch others, it doesn’t have to be the paralyzing cold they feel. We can make our touch warm if we like. Almost as warm as a living human’s.” She sat up. “Won’t you let me show you?”
With a fleshless hand, she gestured to the floor right before her. His misgivings showing on his face, he slowly nodded then inched toward her. Turning his back, he knelt on the floor. Despite what she had told him, he bit his bottom lip, waiting for her cold touch to creep into his skin.
He tensed as a comb gently sifted through his hair. He hardly dared breathe as the small comb descended past his shoulder, stopping once to take care of a painless tangle. Miko worked on his hair, her soft silk kimono occasionally brushing against his arm.
He stiffened as he felt her reach to gather his hair. The burst of cold he expected as her hand brushed his neck, however, never came.
“There, I’m finished. It wasn’t that bad, was it?” Her voice was close.
He shook his head as he gingerly turned to face her again.
“Why…why are you being so kind to me?”
Miko stopped in the middle of placing her small comb back into her own hair.
“Is there a reason why I shouldn’t be?”
He stared at his coarse blanket, not knowing what to do with the unexpected reply.
“No. Well, yes,” he said. “I’m not a noble or a samurai. I’m a peasant, a lowlife. You shouldn’t be wasting your time on someone like me. You are geisha! You are of art, of beauty, of dance–all those things. Why waste your time on one such as me?”
He dared not mention the fact spirits and demons weren’t known for their thoughtfulness, either. His babbling could get him into trouble, and he had no wish to offend Miko in case her kindness was, for whatever bizarre reason, genuine.
The geisha laughed out loud. It was a soft and gentle laugh.
“Oh, dear Toshi-san, where do you think geishas come from? While some may like to forget their humble origins once a wealthy lord has bought their contract, their past is still the same.
“I, like you and countless others, was sold as a child to a merchant who favored me, and have been trained in the arts of the geisha since I was three. I have been lucky compared to those who’ve ended up in the red lantern districts, and I’ve never forgotten it. Every evening I send a prayer of thanks to the gods.” Her eyes glowed. “You and I have more in common than I do with any of the nobles and samurai I have served during my life. Toshi-san, do not belittle yourself.”
“But, Akiuji-san, you have no idea what I’m like.” He stared at his hands, not sure why he was saying these things to her. “I could be evil…or vicious. Maybe even a pervert.”
Miko’s eyes shone bright blue. “I don’t think I have to worry about keeping my virtue intact anymore, do you?”
Realizing he’d yet again made a fool of himself, he nevertheless grinned as her sweet laughter once more filled the cabin.
“Even if I had to, I wouldn’t worry while in your presence.” Miko leaned toward him for a moment. “I’ve always had good instincts for people, and it has rarely failed me. I like you very much already.”
He blushed at the flattery and turned away so she wouldn’t see.
Before he could think of something to say, a bell sounded just outside the door.
“I’m sorry, Toshi-san, but I must go now.” Her hand rested for a moment on his arm. “Try to get some rest. Asaka-sama will want to test your skills this evening, once it is safe for us to rise above water.”
“I’ll meet with you again before then with your meal. Perhaps you would enjoy some music as well?” Without waiting for his answer, Miko stood and silently slipped past him toward the door.
“Rise above water?” He stared at her as she rose, perplexed.
She turned back to face him for a moment.
“It would be wise if you didn’t try to go above during the daytime.”
With a rustling of silk, she left. A cold shiver coursed through Toshi as he forced himself to sit back down.
Alone, with nothing else to do, he examined his cabin. Other than the small table in the corner with its half-filled teapot, his cup, and an empty plate, the glowing space contained nothing but himself, his blanket, and two empty buckets sitting against the far wall.
He stared at the closed and possibly unlocked door as the weight of his predicament once more settled around him. For a moment, he thought again of trying to escape, yet Miko’s parting words and his own recollection of the ship as it rose from beneath the water made him realize there was nothing he could do, except maybe die. It was amazing he wasn’t dead already.
The concept of being underwater yet still able to breathe was more than he could grasp. And he had other problems besides that. He was to be tested by the samurai that night. He shuddered at the thought. In the unfamiliar silence, he wondered what would happen to him should he fail the test. He doubted Asaka would be gracious enough to return him home if he didn’t pass. His mind easily pictured his most likely reward.
Now colder than when he had awakened, he curled up in his blanket and returned to his corner.