The sun was setting in Kyoto, sinking slowly into a light autumn fog. People were scurrying along the streets, heading homeward. Most of the houses were lit faintly by small candles within. But some of them were just starting to stir and get up.

 The wooden doors of an oiran house were flung open as women scattered to get ready and greet their guests. They ranged from girls as young as sixteen to matrons in their mid-forties, all clad in bright kimonos and with faces painted to highlight their features. It was a good business, money-wise, though whether it made a woman happy was questionable.

 "Karen! Karen!" A young woman clothed in a gown that was slipping off her shoulders and with her long hair unbound, was shouting at the top of her lungs. She was very beautiful, in her early twenties and had an air that was not typical of a woman of her occupation. "Wake up, wherever you are! Do you have any idea what time it is?!"

 Younger girls scattered as the woman pounced and slid open a door. Inside sat another woman her age, carefully combing her black tresses. She looked up at her friend.

 "Why must you be so loud, Yumi?" she said with a hint of irritation.

 "Guests will be coming any minute and you're still like that!" Yumi snapped.

 "I don't have anyone to meet tonight," Karen shrugged. "And even if I did, why the rush? I don't see any need to take any special care this particular night." Her blue eyes looked rather bored. "Do you have someone tonight?"

 Yumi sat down. "Yes, in fact I do."

 "Who is he?"

 "I don't know, he didn't give his name - he wants me to come and meet him in a small pavilion in the woods."

 "And you accepted an invitation like that?" Karen stared. "What if he's a perverted psycho? What if he owns a whip and chains?"

 "- -; Karen, don't be ridiculous. Comb my hair for me, will you?" Yumi sat down in front of Karen's mirror.

 "I'm serious. What prompted you to accept?"

 "Like you, I bore of the same rich, noble, and absolutely disgusting officials we are obliged to entertain in order to make a living. A psycho may be a blessed change."

 Karen got up and rummaged through her closet, throwing a blue kimono on the floor to wear later. "Psycho or no, he's still a man. Whoever he is."

 "Not all men are the same. There are some who actually know how to love."

 Karen smiled cynically. "We are oirans, my dear friend. We do not seek to love," She started to arrange Yumi's hair.

 "If I found someone worth loving, I would give this up in a second," Yumi sighed.

 "That's most likely what my mother thought before she met my father," Karen said recklessly.

 "I am not your mother, Karen," Yumi almost snapped. Then she paled. "... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."

 "No, I deserved it," Karen shook her head, half-amused and half-bitter.

 "... Why did you come back, Karen? Why didn't you stay with your father?" Yumi asked softly. "It was what you always wished for, wasn't it?"

 Karen's hands paused. " ... I don't know. It just wasn't my path, I guess."

 A silence fell. Yumi watched her friend skillfully comb her hair, her eyes angry and sad. You and I, we are not simple enough to be content here...

 "Would you like me to come with you?" Karen broke the silence. "It could be dangerous. You may keep laughing at the thought of a girl with a sword, but I am more skilled than you think me."

 Yumi laughed. "No, that's all right. I can take care of myself. His servant is to meet me at the edge of town."

 "But the yakuza have been rather jumpy lately, from what I hear. It's dangerous on the streets at night. Especially for people like us."

 "As long as they pay well, I don't give a damn who they are," Yumi jested. Karen allowed a smiled to flicker across her face.

 "Well, if you're so determined to meet this mysterious someone, then I suppose it is my duty to make sure you don't disappoint him." Karen twisted Yumi's hair up and used a golden hair decoration to pin it in place. Her small hands moved deftly. "But I must say I envy you. At least you're meeting someone different."

 "Let's just hope he's not what you picture him as," Yumi giggled. "Chains aren't my style."

 "Please be careful, Yumi. Don't fall in love. Seriously." Karen finished Yumi's hair and stood as Yumi started to put on her makeup. "Falling in love is one of the most foolish things an oiran can do."

 "I was joking, Karen. I know, unfortunately, how men are, pledging eternal love one minute and sleeping with another woman the moment you turn your back. I feel sorry for all those trusting wives out there."

 "Yet without them, how would we make a living?" Karen remarked, braiding and pinning up her own hair. Yumi laughed.

 Karen paused between the noisy rooms full of guests and looked up at the night sky. A cool breeze made her shiver.

 It was on such a night when my mother met my father ... and fell in love. Meiji Era ... chi. What use is there of a new era when we still must live like this? I should leave here ... But she knew she wouldn't. One day perhaps, but not now. Her red lips curled into a strange smile. One day...

 "Karen-sama?" one of the younger girls said timidly. "Are you ill?"

 Karen looked at the girl, not more than eighteen. She had a sweet face and innocent eyes, and Karen could tell she had not yet done full service as an oiran. "No,
I'm all right. What is your name?"

 There are so many...

 "Mariko, Karen-sama."

 Karen smiled at her. "Hurry along and serve the sake."

 The girl bowed and quickly entered one of the rooms. Crude exclamations greeted her as she started to pour. Karen shook her head.

 "Your mother was as young when she met your father, Karen," Yumi reminded her from behind. Karen turned.

 "You look beautiful, my friend." Yumi had her hair pinned up and decorated with several precious pieces, and her gown was a deep jade color that complimented her complexion nicely. She smelled faintly of jasmine. Her beauty was of fiery passion, and reminded Karen of an exotic orchid. Yumi shrugged.

 "I have to look beautiful, it's my job. You don't look too bad yourself, Karen. I thought you said you weren't seeing anyone tonight."

 "Another high somebody has visited, and is willing to pay a price that even I wouldn't dare suggest." Karen's eyes reflected amusement. If Yumi was an orchid, than Karen was a cherry blossom, graceful and with something subtler than Yumi's fire. Yumi frowned, briefly laying her cheek against her friend's.

 "I hope he's not too awful," she said sympathetically.

 "I'm more concerned for you than I am for myself. Are you sure you want to go alone?" Karen looked at Yumi searchingly.

 "I'll be fine. Look, one of the girls is looking for you. I must go now." Yumi threw on a light veil that covered her face and quickly left. Karen watched her disappear into the darkness.

 Why am I so nervous, as if she's not coming back?

 "Karen-sama?" someone tapped her sleeve.

 "I'm coming, I'm coming." Karen shook herself and started to go inside. "Men are so damn impatient."

 Inside a room awaited a young man, his face handsome and arrogant. Karen was surprised - she had expected the usual old fat official.

 "Are you Karen?" he glanced at her.

 Karen made a deep bow. "Hai."

 She got up and sat in front of him, pouring his sake. He kept on watching her as he took a drink. She smiled engagingly.

 "Why do you look me so, my lord?"

 "I've heard about you, Karen," he told her. "You are a very famous oiran. I was curious to see what you looked like."
 Karen laughed. "And is my lord disappointed?"

 "Surprised, but not disappointed." The young man stared at her. "You are more beautiful than any noble's daughter I ever saw. And yet you serve as an oiran?"

 "I suppose it is my destiny," she said casually, moving closer and laying a hand lightly on the man's shoulder. "But if I wasn't an oiran, your lord might never have met me, am I right?"

 The man let out a peal of laughter. "I suppose it is so. Come, Karen, entertain me so I know not that the night wears away."

 That is what I do best, she thought, somewhat exasperated. Yet this man was a bit better than the usual pigs she had to spend nights with. She rewarded him with her most seductive smile as she poured another cup. I wonder if Yumi is having a good time...?