Yumi reached the edge of the town. Before her lay a bamboo forest. There was no one to meet her. She sighed. Serves me right to expect a man to be on time.

 She folded her veil and looked up at the night sky. The moon was full, a circle of white in the sea of midnight blue. She felt the faint light of it on her face, as if
it was filling her with its magic. A faint smile crossed her face at the thought.

 I have never believed in magic ... because I am an oiran.


 Yumi turned. A young man, maybe eighteen or so, was walking toward her. His hair was cut short and framed his face, and his eyes were mild, his features pretty. Yumi almost mistook him for a girl. At his waist was a sword.

 "I am Yumi. Are you the person that is supposed to meet me here?"

 "Hai. My deepest apologies for being late." The young man bowed. "I am Seta Sojirou, a follower of Shishio-sama's. Will you follow me?" He began to walk through the woods. She silently fell behind him.

 "Are you afraid?" Sojirou asked her as they walked. He asked the question as brightly as if he was asking her about the weather.

 "Should I be?" she tossed.

 "I don't know ... you are meeting a man who you have never seen before, in the middle of nowhere," he reminded her.

 "A man is a man, whether in a room or in the middle of a forest. I have done this business ever since I was old enough to. If your lord for some reason wants to kill me, then let him do so. I have nothing in particular to live for at this point." She shook her head as she thought of Karen. She can live without me anyway...

 "What do you think of the Meiji government, Yumi-san?" Sojirou suddenly asked.

 "You are very talkative for a man," Yumi said sharply. This was a first in all her years as an oiran - what was this, a test? "Is your lord a government official?"

 "Not at all, Yumi-san."

 Yumi thought for a moment. "... If your lord wishes to know my opinion on the subject, he will have to ask me himself."

 Sojirou chuckled and smiled. Yumi wondered if he ever stopped looking so cheerful. "I think you will please him, Yumi-san."

 "That is my job," she retorted as they approached a small clearing. In the middle was a small pavilion, and under it sat a man. It was too dark to get a good look at him, but Yumi felt his eyes on her. She took a deep breath and approached. Sojirou bowed and vanished into the shadows.

 "Come closer," the man said. His voice was deep, with an underlying hint of undefined passion. She walked toward him and stepped up to the platform, taking off her shoes. In the faint light, she could see him a little bit better.

 His appearance was most strange, to say the least. His entire body was covered in white bandages, with tufts of hair sticking out from where his head was. Bits of skin showed through, revealing scars, as if he had been burnt severely. Over one shoulder was draped a kimono. He was obviously well built and not a fat old government official. But it was his eyes that drew Yumi to him. Strong, burning, charismatic eyes...

 She took off her veil and sank into a deep bow. A shiver ran through her as his eyes met hers.

 "Come and pour my sake, Yumi," he said briefly.

 Yumi gracefully rose and approached his side. With a skilled hand she poured a cup of sake, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. Her heart was beating loudly, as it never had before.

 What's his name? ...Shishio-sama, I think Sojirou called him. He is different ... from any man I have ever met before... a real man, one who lives for his ideals, and not for power, or money...

 Then she mentally shook herself. Get a hold on yourself, Yumi! You haven't even exchanged a word with him yet. What would Karen say?

 Shishio took a drink out of his cup. He then set it down and looked at her. She met his gaze.

 "Better than I expected, I must say," he commented crudely. "See here, Yumi, are you not frightened of me?"

 "I am not easily frightened, Shishio-sama," Yumi smiled.

 "Then disgusted?"

 "Why do you think I am disgusted? Do I look like I am?" Yumi retorted, somewhat hotly. What does he want me to say?

 Shishio glanced at her for a minute, then let out a cynical laugh. "Excuse me. You're obviously not a normal oiran."

 "And what, if I may ask, is a normal oiran like?" Yumi asked saucily.

 "Well..." Shishio looked at her. She felt the burning gaze on her body, and suddenly was frozen. "Most oirans tend to like this."

 He suddenly wrapped his arm around her waist and roughly pulled her forward. Before she could react, his mouth was on hers. "Mph!!"

 His lips seared hers like a brand, making her entire body tingle with a feeling entirely foreign to her. Never before had anyone kissed her with such passion. For a moment she lost herself to the incredible power that radiated from this strange man. Then hot fury washed over her.

 With a cry she pushed him away, nearly upsetting the table. He looked mildly surprised at her reaction. "Is something wrong?"

 "What do you think you're doing?!" Yumi snarled, glaring at him with eyes full of rage. She clenched her fist. "I thought you might be different from those I've met before, but it seems I was wrong. Am I no more than a plaything to toy with at your pleasure?!"

 "Did I do anything to insult an oiran?" Shishio said calmly.

 Yumi's flushed face paled. Without a word she sat down again. She yanked the strings that tied her kimono, and they fell, baring her white shoulders and exposing her skin. Then she bowed her head. "Forgive me for my rudeness, my lord."

 Shishio watched her for a moment, then grinned. "My apologies, Yumi. I did not expect such an oiran."

 "It's not your fault," Yumi said through white lips. "All men think of us as bitches that come at their beckon and call. Why should you be any different?"

 "I am not 'all men', or else you would not have fallen for me," Shishio said quietly.

 Yumi stared at him, her eyes reflecting pride and passion all at once. "I did not say I had fallen for you, Shishio-sama."

 "But you have." Shishio moved closer, his eyes holding hers. "I know."

 Yumi felt his breath on her skin, his lips again touching her own. A voice inside her protested, but she wouldn't listen to it, feeling hungry hands grab her shoulders, and burning flesh against her own. This is who I have been waiting for all my life ... this man is my lord. She let out a moan as his hands moved to pull off her kimono. The faint scent of jasmine surrounded both of them as the night deepened.

 Karen propped herself up on her elbow and turned on her side, watching the chest of the man beside her fall and rise. Her hair fell over one shoulder, and she was naked underneath the covers. With a gentle hand she touched his hair.

 He's younger than I am, for all his arrogance. This must have been his first time. I wonder what prompted him to come here and seek me ...

 Moonlight crept into the room, making a pool of silver frost on the floor. Karen lay back down, into the arms of the man beside her. Her thoughts wandered to her father, who she had left several months ago after living with him for several years. Hiko Seijuurou... the successor of one of the most dangerous kenjitsu in Japan - Hiten no Mitsurugi.

 I hope Father isn't too angry at my leaving without his permission. Though from what I've heard Battousai also left in that way. Karen found herself wondering what her father's only pupil was like. Himura Battousai ... Father called him Kenshin ... the only person in Japan besides Father and myself that knows Hiten no Mitsurugi...

 I wonder how Yumi fares...

 Her thoughts were interrupted by the stirring of the man at her side. He blinked, then smiled at her sleepily, still rather drunk. "Awake, Karen?"

 "I was watching you sleep," she said coyly, letting him draw her into his arms.

 "Do you know who I really am?" he said drowsily.

 "Will you tell me if I ask?" Karen asked.

 He laughed. "My name is Aoki Sorata."

 Karen blinked in surprise. "The millionaire ... Aoki Sorata?"

 She had heard tell of Aoki Sorata. He was a successful businessman who had earned quite a pile of money - just what exactly his business was remained a mystery. There were some rumors that he dealt in selling weapons in the black market, but nothing had ever been proven.

 "Surprised? Most people are." Sorata smiled.

 "But ... you're so young..." Karen recovered her self-possession and snuggled up to him. "Very attractive, a handsome young millionaire ... you must be very intelligent to become so rich at such an age."

 "Intelligent? Yes, but I also know how to handle people," he said arrogantly. "Especially the yakuza."

 "The yakuza..." Karen hid her surprise this time. "Do you mean...?"

 "They're a very nice group of people once you get to know them," Sorata grinned. "And very easy to control with money."

 "You are very free about such information," Karen noted.

 "Because I know you won't tell."

 You're right about that. The things we oirans hear in bed could destroy all of Japan if we chose to tell them to the right people, Karen thought amusedly.
 He yawned. "Today there is news a new someone is in town."

 "And who might that be?"

 "Shishio Makoto."

 The name sounded vaguely familiar. Karen tried to stir her memory. "Didn't he work for the government as a secret assassin after Hitokiri Battousai?"

 "Very smart girl," Sorata said approvingly.

 "But ... isn't he supposed to be dead?"

 "He's alive," he nodded. "Very alive. I mean to hire him and get him on my side. He has ambitions, you know."

 I can imagine ... Karen shivered. Aloud she said. "Ambitious men do not take kindly to being hired."

 "I have a few tricks up my sleeve," he said sleepily.

 Karen questioned him no more, and soon he fell back asleep. She furrowed her brow. Why does this give me such a bad feeling? Why do I care about his dirty plans? And they are dirty... and here I was thinking he was such an innocent young man. I'm missing something here...

 A cool breeze that carried the faint scent of wild cherry blew through the forest, cooling the drops of sweat on Yumi's forehead. Shishio's body seemed to be radiating heat, but she made no move to move away. She ran a hand lightly over his chest, over the burnt skin.

 "Who did this to you, Shishio-sama?"

 Shishio turned his head to look at her. "Yumi."


 "What do you think of the Meiji government?"

 "... I curse it," Yumi curled her lip in contempt. "It has been nearly eight years since they have taken over Japan, and they have done nothing to bring a world where everyone can live happily. They treat us like dogs, and they ruin the lives of many who seek a happy life. We oirans know that better than anyone else..."

 "It was the Meiji government that tried to kill me," Shishio told her. "Do you know of Hitokiri Battousai?"

 Yumi nodded her head. Shishio continued. "I was his shadow. When he came out into the light to protect the officials, I took his place as a secret assassin. The government feared me, all the more because I soon learned all their dirty secrets. So they killed me and burnt me."

 "But you are alive."

 "I'm not so weak as to die at the hands of the Meiji government," Shishio let out a cold laugh. "One day, Yumi, I will bring them down."

 "Shishio-sama?" Yumi stared at him.

 "Japan has grown weak under the Meiji government. Other countries will soon start to try and take control on our country. Japan needs someone strong to rule her now, to take over this sickly government." Shishio's eyes glowed with a light that made Yumi shiver. "And I will be that someone."

 He's crazy, was the first thought that popped in Yumi's mind. The Meiji government might be a group of bastards, but it has been several years now and they are not so easily dealt with. No normal man could ever dream of such a feat...

 But he is not a normal man. Yumi looked at Shishio, her eyes burning with passion - and determination. "You will achieve your goals, Shishio-sama. Let me watch you by your side."

 Shishio glanced at her. "Do you truly mean that?"

 "Shishio-sama... I have been an oiran for many, many years." Yumi's hair fell about her face and rippled in the breeze. "In those long years I have met many men, but none I can remember. For all my life I have been waiting for someone..."

 Shishio looked into her eyes. "Then stay by my side, if you do not fear the fires of hell."

 "This entire world is hell, Shishio-sama, is it not?"

 Shishio started to laugh. "Clever girl."

 Yumi walked through the woods as the sun started to peep through the branches. Her heart was full of thoughts.

 Karen will understand... she is like me. But I wish I did not have to leave her alone...

 "Are you Shishio's girl?"

 Yumi froze and looked up at the two men in front of her. She immediately opened her mouth to scream, but someone came from behind and hit her hard on the head. She crumpled to the ground. The man picked her up and motioned to the other two. They stealthily left the woods.

 Karen glared at the sun, which was setting in the west. Her hair was in a loose braid, and she was not at all ready to meet guests that night. Yumi still hasn't returned.

 What happened? Did that guy really have a whip? Why isn't she back yet? Did something happen to her...?

 Karen went into her room and quickly changed into a dojo outfit. She grabbed her sword and left.

 "That's funny. Why is Yumi-san taking so long?"

 Sojirou tapped his foot on the ground, waiting for Yumi to show up. He had been there since late afternoon, with instructions from Shishio to bring her to where he was. But she still hasn't come.

 Footsteps made him turn sharply. A girl with a sword was running towards him. It was Karen.

 "Excuse me, but are you from the oiran house Yumi-san is part of?" Even though I doubt that, considering your clothes... Sojirou looked at Karen questioningly.

 "You know Yumi?!" Karen grabbed him by the shoulders. She stared. "Wait a minute, are you the one that Yumi met last night ...?!"

 "NO! Not me!" Sojirou waved his hands frantically. "It was my master, Shishio-sama..."

 "Shishio!!!" Karen drew in a breath sharply. "Shishio Makoto!?"

 "How do you know Shishio-sama?"

 "Never mind! Where is Yumi?"

 "She went back to the oiran house this morning, saying she'd be back by afternoon ..."

 Karen's eyes scanned the area. Her eye caught a sparkle on the ground, and she went to pick up a small jewel.

 "...Is that..."

 "Yumi's hair piece. Someone's kidnapped her," Karen clenched her fist.

 "Yumi-san? But why?"

 "To get to Shishio-san." Karen clenched her fist as she thought of Aoki. So this is what he meant...

 "So we must rescue her, am I right?" Sojirou smiled.

 "I will go - you may follow if you choose, as long as you do not hinder me," Karen was already looking for a trail.

 "Shishio-sama told me to bring Yumi-san to him, so I suppose I must follow you. Where have they gone?"

 Karen shook her head in disbelief and bent down. Her eye caught a path that seemed fresher than the others. She picked up a leaf and sniffed at it.

 "Half a day old ... they must have taken her in the morning. We'd best hurry. Are you sure you can handle the yakuza?"

 "I may look young, but I think I am stronger than you think, ...?"


 "Seta Sojirou. Nice to meet-"

 "Come on!" Karen was already running. "We have to catch up with them!"

 "^^;" Sojirou quickly followed her lead.

 It was evening by the time the two of them reached a large mansion deep within the woods. Karen's mouth dropped open. "Who would have guessed..."

 "Do we go inside?" Sojirou whispered loudly.

 "- -; I think we should, if we plan to save her. Don't you think so?"

 "Ah! You're right, Karen-san!"

 Karen shook her head and looked around. The mansion was rather heavily guarded, and all the guards held guns and had swords. She narrowed her eyes.

 "Yumi will be in Aoki's office - he will be questioning her. We must head for the top floor..."