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Kanzashi by Christopher Kincaid is an absorbing read about a maiko’s struggle to find her place in the world.


Mameko never thought she’d witness a murder. Her life consists of songs, stories, lessons, and the other social demands of a maiko. Mameko tries to be a good daughter and follows her mother’s guidance, though she is known to rebel against tradition when she deems it necessary. Even with her rebellious acts, she is poised to become one of the most prominent geiko in Gion.When Mr. Funaki is murdered with Mameko’s hairpin thrust into his throat, she becomes the main suspect. Mameko must resist the police’s efforts to get her to confess to the murder. As the news spreads and her reputation declines, she must find the true killer, or her dream of becoming a geiko will end.

Geikos are women skilled in the art of entertaining men with dancing, singing, pouring drinks, and telling stories. Maikos are apprentice geikos. Mameko is one such maiko, training to be a geiko under the stern guidance of her mother. Her calendar is choc-a-bloc with training, appointments, and other social demands of a maiko. Being a daughter of a prominent geiko family, everyone thinks life is easy for her. However, only Mameko knows how hard she works.

Amid all these, one of Mameko’s patrons, Mr. Funaki (who is also an important politician), is murdered with her hairpin stuck in his throat, thus, making her the prime suspect. She must resist the police’s effort to make her confess to the crime and find the true killer, or else her dream of becoming a geiko will never be fulfilled.

Kincaid’s Kanzashi starts on a great note. Firstly, the title means a hairpin used in traditional Japanese hairstyles, which itself is symbolic of the murder weapon. Secondly, the novel warmly welcomed me to the Japanese culture and introduced me to the iconic world of geikos and maikos. Theirs is a world where beautiful and skilled women make the men forget their worries by their songs, dance, and stories. The book prodded me to find out more about these Japanese traditions.

Further, the characters are well-developed. Be it the protagonist Mameko, her best friend Takeko, her overbearing mother, or even the patronizing police chief – I could identify with every person’s feelings and motives. The book resonated with me by showing how parents’ high expectations are a great burden on children. In their quest to discipline their children, they often forget that love, instead of strictness, can empower children far better. Also, Kincaid beautifully describes the various period costumes worn by the characters. They were a treasure to read about.

However, Kanzashi fails to fully realize its potential. A murder mystery set in the glamorous world of geikos during the first half of the twentieth century should have made for an excellent story. While the world of geikos with its envy and passive-aggressive power play between the various geiko families/teahouse proprietors is immaculately portrayed, the resolution of the murder mystery was inefficiently executed. Without revealing any spoiler, I can only say the way Mameko made the murderer confess seemed implausible to me. The murderer was a vengeful and shrewd person. That the person could not see through Mameko's trap is hard for me to digest. Further, there are some typos, however, one of them is a glaring error.

To conclude, the author intricately weaves the traditions and culture of the geikos with a murder mystery, resulting in an absorbing read. However, the way the mystery was resolved undid the good work established by the book. If only the climax was more believable, Kanzashi would have been a great historical mystery.

Reviewed by

I am a twenty-something avid reader. Be it work or leisure, you will always find my nose buried in books. I like the genres mystery/thriller/suspense, romance, fantasy, contemporary and historical fiction, but what I am looking for IS a good story. You can find me at Debjani's Thoughts (book blog).


Mameko never thought she’d witness a murder. Her life consists of songs, stories, lessons, and the other social demands of a maiko. Mameko tries to be a good daughter and follows her mother’s guidance, though she is known to rebel against tradition when she deems it necessary. Even with her rebellious acts, she is poised to become one of the most prominent geiko in Gion.When Mr. Funaki is murdered with Mameko’s hairpin thrust into his throat, she becomes the main suspect. Mameko must resist the police’s efforts to get her to confess to the murder. As the news spreads and her reputation declines, she must find the true killer, or her dream of becoming a geiko will end.

“I don’t know why you maiko insist on following me whenever I have to take a piss,” Mr. Funaki said.

I smiled despite wanting to hit him with my shamisen pick. Every time I entertained him, he did something to insult my profession. “Most men would enjoy a pretty girl showing him—”

“Pretty? I’m not even sure you are a girl under all that paint.” He stumbled a little from a bladder full of saké. “That’s the problem with women like you. You think too much of yourself just because you can dance and play instruments.”

“You seem to enjoy my stories, Mr. Funaki,” I said. I had to rush to get ahead of him so I could open the door.

He paused for a moment in the entrance to the toilet. “Seem is one word for it. Don’t be standing here when I finish or try to talk to me while I’m in there.” Mr. Funaki grimaced. “I don’t know why I keep letting Gyo talk me into this.” He looked at me. “Why are you still here? Go on now.”

I knew what I was supposed to do, but I was tired of the man, so I left him to do his business. As I entered the tea room, Ren frowned at me. I didn’t need her look to know I had violated custom, but she wasn’t the one who had to escort the man. If Mr. Funaki disliked maiko and geiko so much, he needed to stop attending teahouses. At least his friends smiled at me as I shuffled to kneel next to Ren. I envied her simple kimono, classic and beautiful, but the men favored my white-painted skin and heavy layers of silk. I glanced at the closed door. Mr. Mori still hadn’t arrived, and I wondered what kept him, considering he paid for the expensive party. As for Mr. Funaki, he could spend the rest of the night in the toilet if I had my say.

“You are supposed to wait for him,” Ren whispered while pouring another cup of saké for a rotund man whose name I couldn’t remember.

“I know, but it’s Mr. Funaki,” I said. “You know how he hates maiko. He stormed ahead of me, and I could barely get to the door fast enough to open it for him.”

The round man leaned in. His puffed cheeks were splashed red with alcohol, and his speech was slurred. “What are you whispering about, ladies?” His friends stopped their conversation and watched us expectantly.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly tell you and embarrass poor Mameko.” Ren made a show of touching her cheeks as if embarrassed. “She has quite the problem when it comes to knowing about certain things.”

“Maybe we could offer some advice,” the youngest man—Mr. Rizo—said.

“Oh no. It is a private female matter.”

Ren liked to play this game with the men. Of course, the men knew it for a game, but that didn’t stop their enjoying it. I took my cue and hid my face as if I were overcome with shame and peeked between my fingers. “Elder sister,” I whined.

The rotund man reached across Ren and patted my forearm. “We understand, my dear. There’s no need to feel shame for such things.” He shot a look at the younger men. “The younger men love to act brash and knowing, but they blanch at such female things when they confront them.”

“Who was it that passed out when I cut my finger with a knife?” Mr. Rizo asked the round man.

Suddenly, the door slid open with a bang, and Mr. Funaki stumbled in. Crimson sprayed from between the fingers he clenched around his throat. His eyes bulged in his thin face, and his bloody lips moved as if trying to say something. The men scrambled back, cursing, yelling, and falling backward as their drunken legs refused to cooperate. Ren shrieked. Strangely, I found myself unable to move as I watched the red droplets scatter over the table and the men move a little too slowly. A splash of blood landed on my cheek. Mr. Funaki took a few faltering steps into the room and collapsed. Blood spurted in a few fast pulses across the woven rice-straw mats before pooling around his head. A thud pulled my attention. The round man stretched on his back as growing blood splatters stained his puffed white shirt. Mr. Rizo wiped at his face with a handkerchief balled in his shaking hand.

Footsteps thumped from the hall beyond the open door, and as I turned toward it, I saw a hairpin jutting upward from Mr. Funaki’s neck, just under his jaw. There was no mistaking the hairpin’s fox decoration. Mr. Mori had given it to me when I debuted and began entertaining in teahouses. I forced my hand not to reach up to my hair. It had to be a mistake. It was impossible. My leg muscles twitched as if they wanted me to run. My thoughts scattered as the shock of the hairpin and the blood, so much on the rice-straw floor and polished table, nailed me to where I knelt.

I looked up to see Mr. Mori looming in the entrance with his arms crossed. In the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen the expression Mr. Mori wore then. His lips pressed tight and his brow drew over his eyes. My quick heartbeat stumbled as I watched him. Mistress Sonada, the proprietress of the teahouse, peered around Mr. Mori. She grimaced as if she had found a fly in her tea.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen such violence,” Mistress Sonada sighed. “I will never get the stains out of the floor.”

How could she say something like that? She spoke as if someone had spilled a saké bottle. I glanced away, feeling sick. Why wasn’t anyone helping Mr. Funaki? My thoughts slid away from me again. I wasn’t able to move, and even if I could have, I didn’t know what to do. Beside me, Ren knelt frozen in place. Her wide eyes locked on Mr. Funaki, and all the color left her face. I felt grateful for my white makeup. Mother wouldn’t allow even my first vision of a murdered man to upset the poise she had drilled into me. Only her training allowed me to function the little that I could.

Apparently, the white makeup didn’t hide me as well as I had hoped because Mr. Mori stepped over Mr. Funaki’s splayed legs and knelt beside me, wiping the cooling blood droplet on my cheek and gently turning my face away from the scene. “Don’t look.”

I stared at Mr. Mori’s brown irises. We had never been so close. His skin reminded me of a Westerner’s shoes. His breath smelled of liquor, but his eyes lacked the red webbing of drunkenness. I could see small tufts of white chest hair peeking from the neckline of his kimono. He held my gaze for a moment before straightening. I shivered and wondered how he could act so strangely calm. Almost as if he expected Mr. Funaki to—I couldn’t make my mind say the word. I reached out blindly and grabbed Ren’s hand, making her startle and turn toward me. Green tinged Ren’s mouth, and I wondered if I would have to find a bucket for her. I doubted my shattered composure would survive that. I’d likely join her.

I swallowed. “Shouldn’t someone check to see if he’s alive?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s dead,” Mistress Sonada said.

I frowned at her, unable to understand her behavior. “Mr. Funaki is dead,” I said. “Why doesn’t anyone do something?” I clenched my teeth against the sourness that rose from my stomach.

“You’re right, Mameko. The...shock of it has rattled all of us,” Mr. Mori said. “Uda. Uda!”

Mr. Rizo looked up.

“Help Miyato regain his senses.” Mr. Mori bent over Mr. Funaki and wrenched the suit jacket free and covered the man with it. Mr. Funaki’s hair protruded from the coat, as did the pool of crimson. The way the jacket exposed his undershirt and unfastened trousers spoke of his undignified end. “Mistress Sonada, if you would contact the police,” Mr. Mori said.

“Giving me orders in my own teahouse now?” she asked.

Mr. Mori stood and wiped his hands on his kimono. “Please, just contact the police.”

Mistress Sonada muttered something and left the room. Mr. Mori joined Mr. Rizo in trying to wake their friend.

The teahouse’s walls closed on me. I shook Ren until she finally looked at me. “We have to go,” I said.

Ren nodded and stumbled to her feet. I stood with the same difficulty. Panic combined with the tightness of my heavy kimono, and my obi pressed against my ribs, adding to the crushing feeling. Mr. Mori caught our motion and looked over. Ren bowed to him. “P-please forgive us, but we have other appointments.” Her voice quavered, ruining the effect.

I bowed. It wasn’t my most graceful bow. “Thank you for calling on me, Mr. Mori. I hope to serve you again.”

“You both get some air. I’ll take care of this when the police arrive,” he said.

I had no intention of waiting for them anyway. My sister and I shuffled along faster than decorum allowed, but at that point, I didn’t care. As we passed Mr. Rizo, he muttered something about ice and geiko as he slapped the round man awake. I didn’t catch exactly what he said as I only cared to get home, but it didn’t sound complimentary. We had to step over the Mr. Funaki’s feet. I noticed how the man even wore dark western socks rather than traditional socks, and I focused on them to keep myself from looking at the blood around him as we left. Ren snapped the door shut behind her and let out a long breath.

She looked at me. “I’m not going to any more appointments.” Her hands trembled.

I nodded. Ren led the way, taking strides as wide as our tight kimono allowed. In the hall’s dimness I could almost ignore the streaks of blood on the walls and floor. The muffled voices of Mr. Mori and Mr. Rizo filtered through the thin walls. The maid Rikiha knelt in the hall, wiping her hands on a red rag as we hurried past. She regarded me with the same blank stare she had given me when she had set the table. She didn’t seem concerned that a man died in the room beyond. But I didn’t have time to dwell on this as Ren dragged me into the cool night.

Kudo waited for us. Our umbrellas and my shamisen case clattered as he raced on his old legs to meet us. “What happened? Neither of you look—”

“We’re going home,” Ren said without breaking her stride.

The old dresser frowned. “Tell me what happened, Mameko.”

I shook my head. It was too fresh. “Just take us home, Kudo. Please.”

He muttered something I couldn’t make out and ushered me ahead of him. Ren strode well ahead of us. I didn’t bother to try to catch up to her. Instead, I let the cool air settle my stomach and my nerves as I tried to forget what had happened. Someone had murdered Mr. Funaki. Visions of black-clothed assassins flashed in my imagination, and I shook my head to banish them. They were ridiculous. After all, it wasn’t the feudal ages anymore.

“It looks like Ren is going home,” Kudo said.

I looked up to see my elder sister cut down the street instead of walking in the direction of my home. She didn’t even look back. People watched with curiosity. Geiko never allowed themselves to look hurried or lose their poise. A few women glanced over at me with shock written on their faces. I offered a smile and kept walking at the measured pace my wooden clogs allowed. Kudo walked closer to me, as if he intended to catch me if I fell. I knew he wanted to ask me what would drive my mentor to abandon all propriety, but he kept silent, for which I felt grateful. As we walked between lanterns and electric lights, we drew looks from fellow geiko and other people going about their business. A maiko wasn’t supposed to be out without her elder sister. A few confused maiko bowed beside their elder sisters as I passed, but I could only offer a cursory head bob. Two blonde westerners swaggered down the street. Their disheveled suits reminded me of Mr. Funaki. I forced down the memory of the man before it could turn my stomach again. A part of me—I am sad to admit—liked the idea that I wouldn’t have to entertain him again. He attended Mr. Mori’s parties only because of some debt he had. Mr. Mori, for his part, tolerated his remarks about tradition and geiko only because Mr. Funaki was a cousin. Mr. Funaki hated everything I grew up within, and he relished everything Western—the opposite of Mr. Mori.

“Mameko.” My friend, Takeko, tottered up to me with her elder sister Keiko swaying behind her. Both looked worse for drink. Takeko’s blue kimono glittered in the street lights. Despite her painted skin, the exposed skin around her hairline held a flush, and red rimmed her eyes. Takeko didn’t get along well with liquor, but she refused to follow my lead and not drink at all. After all, maiko weren’t supposed to drink while entertaining patrons, but I couldn’t tell her elder sister that. Takeko worried about standing out as much as I did for it. But the fact I avoided alcohol seemed to interest patrons in me more.

“Where is your elder sister?” Keiko asked.

Takeko stared at me and straightened. Concern replaced her slack expression. “Are you feeling well?” Takeko asked. “I just saw police heading toward the O’sude Teahouse. You had an appointment there, right? What’s going on?”

I held up a hand against the questions. My mind reeled, and I shivered within my layers of kimono. The obi made it hard to breathe. Takeko touched my upper arm with a look of concern.

“Mameko is just tired and had to leave early,” Kudo said.

“And you left your elder sister there,” Keiko said. “That’s the famed Katagiri family it seems.”

“Don’t listen to her, Mameko,” Takeko said. “She’s just drunk again.”

Keiko swayed. “It’s not like it will affect her, of course. Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t have to worry about paying back anything.”

I blinked and stumbled back from her. I didn’t know how to respond.

Takeko rounded on her elder sister. “She has more to worry about than you think.” She grabbed Keiko’s sleeve. “Let’s go. Sorry, Mameko.”

Keiko pulled away. “More to worry about?” She laughed. “She’s a daughter. She has nothing—”

Kudo stepped between us, and Keiko blinked with surprise. “Mameko has had a long night and is tired,” he said. “I’m sure she will be happy to tell you what happened during lessons tomorrow.”

Keiko opened her mouth and hesitated, apparently thinking the better of what she wanted to say. Kudo wouldn’t be above tying her up in her obi. She glared at me and turned away. Takeko offered me a sympathetic and tottered after.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. A headache throbbed, and I hoped Takeko wouldn’t remember to ask in the morning. While she was my friend, I just wanted the night to end and fade like a nightmare. Kudo steered us through the busy streets, keeping us away from the too-bright electric lights. The streets of Gion bustled at all hours, but only at night did they truly come alive. Geiko and maiko flowed around the crowds of people browsing the shops that hid along the wood-lined streets. Here and there, a geiko accompanied knots of women. Contrary to what most people believed, teahouses welcomed women. Ren and I had entertained many wives’ nights-out. Regardless of what they were doing, everyone wore their best. Gion was the place to see and be seen. Of course, this wasn’t to say people didn’t release their belts as the night wore on. The late night would see many people with too much drink staggering home in their rumpled best. But the streets were only just hitting their stride as we worked our way home. Normally, I would also be reaching the peak of the evening’s appointments. The air buzzed with conversations and the scent of catered food. Kitchens that specialized in supplying teahouses worked well into the night, creating a mix of familiar fish and rice scents with the recent aromas of western pastries. The aromas of the carts that passed soured my stomach.

My shoulders relaxed when we finally turned onto my darkened and empty street. I breathed easier when we paused at my home’s almost hidden door. Like most geiko families, we lived behind a wooden wall. Kudo followed me inside, and the freshness of our garden, nestled under the large willow my grandmother had planted decades ago, calmed me. No more than twenty kimono-clad shuffles separated the house from our walled gate, but I had spent hours playing in that twenty-shuffle garden between lessons. I especially enjoyed the section that separated our living quarters from my family’s small teahouse. I would dangle my feet in the tiny pond and read collections of old stories. Few geiko families had money enough to own a small teahouse and run their business, but I treasured the garden more.

I glanced at Kudo, who had remained silent throughout our walk. He nodded and gestured to go inside. No doubt he wanted to hear what had happened. I sighed inwardly. I didn’t want to face Mother and Aunt Emiko’s inevitable questions—I never came home early. Kudo’s presence helped my fluttering heart settle a little. I never saw judgment in his steady gaze; perhaps it was part of his job. Only professional dressers and young boys were allowed within a geiko’s living space. But that wouldn’t save Kudo if he opened his mouth too often, especially around Mother.

I stared at the wooden door for several moments, my mind blank, before I finally slid it open and entered. I left my clogs at the entrance and stepped into the sitting room. Mother and Aunt Emiko’s muffled voices slid through the crack in Mother’s door. Hoping they wouldn’t notice how I came home early, I crept down the hall to my room. Kudo followed with heavy footsteps that made me wince with every stride. I slid the door to my room closed behind him.

“Do you really think they didn’t notice you?” Kudo asked.

I turned so Kudo could undo the large bow at my back. “I can hope.”

Kudo muttered something and began deftly unknotting my outfit.

“I don’t want to discuss it. Not tonight.”

“What don’t you want to discuss? What are you doing home so early, Mameko?” Aunt Emiko said behind me.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as the sash released. The breath shuddered a little with my stress. I wasn’t sure how other dressers worked, but Kudo took only slightly longer to tie and stuff my bow as he did to remove it. He reached around and helped me slip from my heavy outer kimono. “I just don’t feel well,” I said.

“Kudo?” Aunt Emiko asked. I didn’t have to turn around to know she had her arms crossed.

“She and Ren left the teahouse in a hurry as if it was being attacked.”

I swallowed to steady my voice. “A man was murdered today. At the teahouse.”

Kudo paused. “It was Funaki, wasn’t it?”

I turned, feeling my light under-robe clinging damply to my back. “How did you know?”

Kudo folded my kimono and shrugged. “Mistress Sonada was muttering about him when she left. A hard woman that one.”

“I don’t like the sound of this.” Aunt Emiko glared at me. “Tell me what happened, Mameko.”

Her sternness cut into me, and I felt tears slip from my eyes. I smudged at them with my knuckles, smearing the white paint on my skin. I knew my life was about to get more complicated.

“Leave us for now, Kudo,” Aunt Emiko said. “You can leave the kimono there. I’ll take care of them.”

Kudo bowed and left, casting a concerned look at me before shutting the door behind him.

Aunt Emiko cocked a hand on her hip. “Crying over the likes of Funaki? Your taste in men is as bad as your mother’s.” She smiled at her joke.

I sniffled and clenched my white-smeared hands. “He was intolerable, but...he didn’t have to die like that.”

Aunt Emiko tucked a lock of her gray-streaked hair back into her bun. “Tell me what happened. I need to know what sort of mess this will cause.”

“I had just returned from escorting him to the toilet. Ren—”

“Didn’t wait for him, did you?”

“You know how Mr. Funaki hates maiko and geiko. He had—”

“It doesn’t matter. You know the custom.” She crossed her arms.

I nodded. Of course, I did. I was expected to wait outside and carry on a conversation with the man as he did his business. The practice kept him from leaving the teahouse so we could continue charging him, but no one seemed to give it any thought how strange and revolting the custom could be. I continued with my short account of events. It had happened so fast I had large holes in my memory, but Mr. Mori’s disdain stood out to me. Why had Mr. Mori invited him as often as he had when Mr. Funaki disliked teahouses?

My aunt squinted at me. “You’ll have to tell us more. Later. For now, go wash up and try to get some rest. A little warm saké would do you well tonight.”

I shook my head.

Aunt Emiko chuckled. “It can’t bother you that badly then. If you’d have said yes to that offer, I’d have been worried. There’s a snack waiting for you if you want it. I’ll have to tell your Mother, you know.”

“Please don’t.”

Aunt Emiko glared at me. “She is going to learn about this one way or another. A death like his can’t be hidden. Now don’t look at me like that. You’re going to be a geiko in just a few short weeks. Stand up straight- you are a Katagiri.”

“I’m sorry.” I suppressed a sigh. “This won’t cause too much of a problem will it?”

Aunt Emiko frowned. “In the old days, no. But today, I’m not sure. Too much has changed. Now go wash up and sleep.”

After washing off the sweat and stress of the day, I lay on my sleeping mat, staring at the ceiling and trying to banish what I had seen. The impossibility of the hairpin, my kanzashi, sticking from Mr. Funaki’s throat nagged at me. Would people realize it was mine? Would they realize I was with him ten minutes before his crimson entrance? That alone would tell them I didn’t do it. Despite that thought, I had my doubts. Mr. Funaki was an important man, like all of my guests. His death wouldn’t be a simple, forgotten matter. And I would be a suspect.

Late morning light glimmered through the windows when Aunt Emiko woke me, saving me from a dream of Mr. Mori and Mistress Sonada looming over me. Although exhaust gripped me and I had a long day of lessons and work ahead, I smiled my gratitude toward my aunt for sparing whatever the dream had planned for me. I dragged myself from my blanket and settled in front of my mirror to get ready for the day. I was expected to always look my best, no matter the circumstances. The young woman who stared at me from my mirror wore a stricken look, and her ornate hairstyle needed attention. Stray locks of hair had escaped their wax settings and coiled in stiff rebellion. I looked forward to the weekly washing that would relieve my head of the tacky wax that kept it in place. At least I no longer had issues with sliding off my neck-pillow and flattening one side. I shook my head to try and banish last night’s lingering memory and tucked the escaping locks back into place. When I finally emerged from my room. Mother awaited me in the hallway with a newspaper tucked under her arm.

“So, Mr. Funaki was murdered.” She pulled out the newspaper and opened it to the headline. I didn’t have a chance to read all of it before she snapped it closed. “Emiko told me you were involved.”

“I wasn’t involved. I-I was just there,” I said.

“The paper states a maiko is suspected by police.” Mother straightened to her full height. We stood the same height, which meant we both would stare at a Westerner’s chest, but she knew how to command her height in a way that made even an American pay attention. I still wasn’t sure how she managed that feat.

I forced myself to meet her gaze, but my shoulders slumped. Those ten minutes sitting in the room before Mr. Funaki’s final entrance hadn’t protected me. My hope was naive. “Do you really think I could kill him?”

“No. But what I think doesn’t matter. Only appearances. And this,” she slapped the paper with the back of her hand, “isn’t good. Now tell me what you did wrong.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” I said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Apparently you did. I raised you to think before you do anything. It only takes one mistake,” Mother said.

“I didn’t…I—”

“I don’t like hearing rumors and reading about an event before I hear about it from you, Mameko.”

Already the newspaper and rumors knew about it. Did no one sleep?

“I was there, and I saw what happened,” I said.

“Of course you were there, unless you decided to go gallivanting without my knowledge.”

“I saw it happen. He…Mr. Funaki died right before my eyes.”

“We’ve already established that.”

I gritted my teeth. “What do you want from me?”

“I want to know what you did wrong, Mameko. If you and your sister did what you should’ve been doing this wouldn’t have happened.”

“And you think I could’ve stopped—”

“Tell me what you did so I can know how to clean up your mess,” Mother said.

I clenched my fist and accounted the night’s events, leaving out the part when I broke down in front of Aunt Emiko. Mother had specific ideas about tears: never should they be true and always should they be used on men. A few tears could make a man hesitate. A few more could make him pliable. Aunt Emiko had told me how hard Mother had cried after my father—her danna—had died, but I knew it was unwise to ever mention it.

Mother frowned. “You never should have left him alone. A geiko always waits outside the toilet for a patron.”

“Mr. Funaki pushed me away. I—”

“It doesn’t matter. You knew what to do.”

“Mother, I doubt I could’ve stopped anything….”

“You disappoint me, Mameko. Even your grandmother is likely disappointed. I—we— raised you to know better. To be better. If you had done your job well, the men would’ve been too drunk to think about anything except you and more saké.”

I wanted to protest, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. As if I could stop anyone from killing each other. I swallowed.

Mother folded the newspaper. “In the old days, this wouldn’t have garnered much attention, but now... We can’t afford distractions. You will turn your collar and finally become a full geiko in two weeks. We can’t have anything mar your transition.”

I straightened. “You don’t have to worry, Mother. I will become a geiko who will make you and Grandmother proud.” I did feel proud to be a geiko’s daughter. If I were born into another family, I wouldn’t enjoy the independence I had. Mother thought me naive and ungrateful, but I knew what other women my age struggled with. Even the rich women I had entertained in the past expressed some measure of envy toward the freedom I had. I didn’t have to worry about the whims of a husband or the domination of a mother-in-law. I could choose when I had a daughter. I also earned my own way. A geiko’s life wasn’t easy, but I appreciated the freedom and education it gave me.

“Not if you don’t remember what I’ve taught you,” Mother said. “If you leave a man alone even for a few moments, the spell we weave will fray. You need to speak with him while he does his business. Make jokes and tell stories.”

“Yes, Mother.” I struggled to keep my tone level. She had drilled me in everything there was to know about being a geiko and how to entertain my guests as far back as I could remember.

“Above all, don’t let them kill each other.” Mother grimaced. “Even the most civilized men will resort to violence.” She reached out and bent a stray lock of my hair back to its place. “You can’t even keep yourself dressed. You are missing a hairpin. There’s no excuse for looking disheveled.”

I touched my hair, feeling for where my hairpins speared my ornaments. My stomach inverted at Mother’s reminder. I meant to check last night, but I had forgotten. I had to know if that was truly my hairpin. I turned from Mother and fled to my room, leaving her calling my name. I raced to my makeup kit and opened the bottom drawer, looking for the fox pin Mr. Mori had given to me when I debuted as a maiko. I rummaged through my vanity.

“What has gotten into you?” Mother asked from the door.

“I can’t find it. The hairpin with the leaping fox.”

The hairpin wasn’t there. I strewed the other fox pins I owned onto the floor, most of them in seated poses reminiscent of Inari, but the single one I had of a leaping fox was gone.

“You have others. Now—”

“Mr. Funaki was killed by a kanzashi. My kanzashi.

“Stop your foolishness and get to your lessons,” Mother said.


“Enough. You lost it.” Mother’s gaze failed to touch mine. “Your lessons are waiting. Don’t add lateness to your list of mistakes, Mameko.”

I sagged. Mother’s voice told me she wouldn’t tolerate an argument. It wasn’t possible and yet...perhaps Mother was right and I had lost it. But I remembered seeing it in Mr. Funaki’s throat. I shivered, pushed the thought away, and replaced my collection of hairpins. Mother switched me with her glare as I donned my day kimono. I darted into the kitchen to grab a fast breakfast of fruit, even though I wasn’t feeling hungry. The missing hairpin bothered me. It’s not like it could fall out. Perhaps I didn’t put it in yesterday afternoon, but if I hadn’t it would still be in my drawer.

I rushed past Aunt Emiko, grabbing my shamisen case as I passed, and out into the mid-morning as fast as I dared. I wanted to hitch up my hem and run from my thoughts, but Mother always found out when I made a show of myself. I settled on a fast shuffle and to praying I would make it to the Inoue School in time. I hoped classes would distract me. The instructors brooked no distraction. My shamisen case thumped against me, threatening to trip me. I wished Kudo could have been there to help me with the awkward case. The thought made me feel guilty. The old man needed his sleep. After all, old men needed more sleep than young people. I stifled a yawn and kept moving.

“Mameko. Mameko!” Takeko ran at me with her hem hitched and her drums bouncing off her back. A geiko who looked to be nearing retirement shot a dirty look at her. I slowed down enough for Takeko to catch up and join me. Husks of rice clung to her flattened hairstyle. I grinned. The sight of my friend always helped me feel better.

“Don’t smile at me like that, Mameko,” Takeko said between gasps. “I had a rough night.”

I pulled a rice husk from her hair and flicked it at her. “I see that.”

Takeko pouted a full lip—a feature that made her popular with men. “Why does drinking make your head hurt?”

“And why does your elder sister make you? You know you aren’t supposed to drink at all during a party. It’s for our guests only.” We turned the corner, and I noticed one of the new seasonal kimono advertisements plastered onto the wood wall on my right. The hand-tinted photograph of me stood out against the empty background. White silk ran from my shoulders to blend with waves of cherry-blossom pink. Sparrows frolicked along the lower portion. I still wasn’t used to seeing myself plastered everywhere despite being Mr. Takahashi’s favorite model. My maiko hairstyle and carefully painted white mask looked serene, but the fox hairpins standing prominently against the background tugged at my gaze.

“I also can’t disobey her.” Takeko paused and frowned at my kimono advertisement. “I still don’t see how you can trust your picture being taken.”

I looked away from my image and shrugged. It was just another part of my job and being my mother’s daughter. “You could take my next modeling session. I think I have one in about a week.” Seeing Takeko pushed away some of my worry over last night.

“I’d rather not have my soul taken, but Takahashi’s designs are always so beautiful.” She touched the poster.

“Do you really believe my soul is stolen?”

“Not yours, but I’m sure someone’s has been.” Takeko shivered. “It would likely be mine if I modeled for him. How do those kimono feel?”

“The offer stands. You can model for it.”

Takeko turned away from the poster. “We are going to be late if you don’t get moving.”

I chuckled. “You were the one who stopped to gawk at me.”

“You are among the most famous maiko.”

I laughed at that. It held a strange, desperate edge.

Takeko rolled her eyes. “You still don’t believe that. As if being Takahashi’s only model isn’t enough to convince you.”

“I just work. I’m a terrible dancer, unlike you.”

“But I don’t have people waiting to see me every night. I have to work to get my appointments. Yes, I’m complaining.”

“You can always come with me,” I said.

Takeko stared at me. “Your Ren and my Keiko would love to work together.”

I laughed behind my hand. “That would be something to see.”

Takeko slowed. “Why is there a police officer outside the school?”

I followed Takeko’s gaze. Like all of the schools dedicated to the geiko arts, the Inoue School didn’t look any different from a shop or diner on the outside. The paving stones ended right at the wooden slide door. A few iron lanterns dangled from the low swept eves of the building, and only a small sign hanging among them told anyone it was a school. A police officer stood at the entrance, stopping people as they passed. His dark blue uniform marked him from the people bustling in the street. He swooped into a pair of maiko and spoke with them, gesturing at something he held. One of the girls shook her head, and the other said something that made the policeman bow and wave them into the school. I pulled Takeko off the street and into the shadows of the nearby building. My heart squeezed, and my breath shortened.

“What are you doing? Do you know—”

“He’s looking for me,” I said.

“Why would a policeman be looking for you?” Takeko hesitated. “It’s about what happened last night, isn’t it? What happened, Mameko?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t have told her if I wanted to. A lump had risen into my throat.

“Well, you didn’t do anything. Just tell him that. Problem solved.”

My instincts said it wouldn’t be that easy.

I had hoped last night would just disappear somehow, but I knew the officer hunted for me. Part of me wanted to run, which was foolish. I didn’t do anything. Perhaps the officer just wanted to learn more about the night. So why did I want to run? I watched the man from around the corner of the building. The officer stopped a pair of middle-aged geiko and spoke with them. The geiko shook their heads, said something, and left. The officer planted his fists on his hips.

I didn’t want to talk to anyone about last night. It was still too fresh in my mind.

“We’re going to be late, Mameko. You know how—”

I didn’t move. “I can’t, Takeko. I just...not today.”

The street emptied. Several moments passed before I realized we stood alone. I looked around the corner and locked gazes with the officer. He took a step toward us, and my heart lurched. Without thinking, I snatched Takeko’s hand and tugged her after me.

“Mameko, what—“

I couldn’t get any more involved in whatever had killed Mr. Funaki. In the stories, a murder meant no witnesses, and not even the Edo police could stop a well-laid murder plan. After all, they couldn’t protect Kira from Oishi’s revenge. So I led us across a tangle of turns and streets until we dashed across our district’s bridge and into a street lined with vendors.

Finally, Takeko pulled me to a stop. I stumbled and struggled to regain my balance from the sudden jolt. “What’s gotten into you, Mameko?” She managed between gasps.

She had stopped me in one of the small parks that dotted the district. The calm greenery and shade did little to settle my fear. I wanted to run, to get away, but this time I restrained the urge. Why couldn’t last night have been only a dream?

Takeko collapsed on a stone bench, her chest heaving against her tight sash. Fortunately for me, my closing sash hung loose from my hurried dressing, so I didn’t struggle as much to regain my breath. I ventured a look around the building and at the bridge. No sign of the officer. Only then did I settle back.

Takeko leaned back and gazed at the sky. “At least you chose a good day to lose your mind. You know, Haruta will make us into shamisen skins tomorrow.”

I knew I wasn’t supposed to speak of events during parties, even with another geiko, but rumors would spread with a police officer asking questions in the district. That is if he was asking about that event. Again, I felt foolish for running, but it was already too late to get to the lessons on time. Haruta was harder on tardy students—even full geiko—than on skipped students.

“Mr. Funaki was murdered.” I explained the situation. Takeko didn’t move as I told her what had happened. I mentioned how the newspapers spoke of it too.

When I finished, she grinned. “Are you sure you didn’t do it? Don’t look at me like that, or I may think you did.”

“I just don’t want to get involved with anything at all. My collar-turning ceremony is coming soon. That’s why I can’t speak with that officer.”

“And you think running through the streets like a little girl stealing a rice ball will help your reputation any?” Takeko smirked.

“You were running too.”

“I don’t appear on advertisements everywhere.” Takeko stood and stretched. “We are both going to get it tonight, so we might as well enjoy the day. I have a little money on me.”

Mother would certainly hear of my running and wandering the shopping district by lunch. For being sworn to silence about matters inside a tearoom, geiko didn’t hesitate to gossip. I didn’t want to disappoint Mother, but it would be worse if the officer arrested me. Mother kept a careful watch on my reputation. I could almost feel her gaze on my back. I wondered if Mother had felt the same about Grandmother. My guts roiled with the knowledge I was disappointing them both.

“I’m not that known,” I said.

“Sometimes I don’t know if you are oblivious or if you just like to hear about how great you are.”

I glanced at my friend and saw her frowning at me. I blinked. What did I say to make her angry? I wasn’t great or famous just because I modeled kimono. Maiko did that all the time. Besides, Takeko won dance competitions I wouldn’t qualify for even if I practiced until I couldn’t lift a paper fan.

Takeko sighed. “Even I can’t always read you through that calm of yours.”

Calm? I didn’t feel calm. Guilty, sure. Afraid of Mother’s reaction tonight. Afraid of the police officer finding me, and afraid of what might happen if he showed up at home. Anxious about missing classes—Takeko was right about Haruta. But not calm.

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d have thought you made up being at Mr. Funaki’s death. Can’t you at least fake concern or worry? And you don’t understand why people nicknamed you the Ice Maiko. You know men take bets as to who will make you melt, right?”

I glanced over my shoulder. Still no officer. Part of me relaxed a little. “They aren’t secretive about that. I’m not completely unaware.” Younger men loved giving me gifts which I gave to Mother for her to sell. They apparently wanted me to warm up to them. I didn’t think I was cold. A cold maiko wouldn’t have a full appointment book, but I also couldn’t be as outgoing as Takeko or Ren. I often didn’t know what to say—a sin for any good maiko.

“If you say so. We might as well enjoy your stay of execution,” Takeko said.

“Mine? What about yours? Won’t Keiko be upset with you for skipping class? It reflects on her too.”

“She often skips her classes and even sneaks chocolates,” Takeko grinned. “Keiko will have a bottom like a Western woman soon. Do you think they have that big of bottoms under those dresses or do they stuff them?”

I smiled, glad that Takeko had already moved on. Takeko never stayed upset for long, but I wondered about what she had said. Did I appear that calm? My calves twitched under my kimono, and I felt like a school of koi splashing in a saké cup.

I hadn’t been through the commercial district except during the evenings. The shops looked different lit by the sun instead of by lamp lights. They lacked the sparkle and mystery night lent. Of course, part of the difference wasn’t just lighting. I found the shops offered different items than usual. My favorite bakery had more bread and everyday items than the expensive pastries they offered during the evening hours. It made me wonder how much of Gion differed from what I thought. The number of shops that remained closed surprised me too, but I imagine it would take a toll on the owners to meet day and night demands. My bakery had a different shopkeeper, a young man instead of Mistress Noneka, but they still sold my favorite pastry, a flakey western-style one stuffed with fruit. Takeko bought two, claiming as she always did that Keiko would want one. She didn’t fool me; Takeko had as bad a habit of eating sweets as her elder sister. We spent the early afternoon browsing the shops and swooning over the new kimono styles. Unfortunately, many had clashing colors and too-large designs that made me grimace. Time passed quicker than it would have in Haruta’s class. All too soon, I bid Takeko goodbye and wandered toward home, feeling a bit better. I weaved through the streets until I paused outside my door. Mother would’ve heard about my missed lessons. She always kept a finger on gossip’s pulse, but I needed a distraction and a break. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

“You are the one who ran from me this morning.”

I jumped and whirled on my heel. The officer stood a short distance away in his pressed uniform and shined shoes. He looked neither young nor old, but he did look like he had spent too much time in the sun. People watched with curiosity as they passed. The officer stepped forward, and I backed into the doorway.

“I just want to ask you a question. I’m officer Nori Amano.” He pulled out a cloth packet and carefully unwrapped it, revealing a geiko’s hairpin capped with a delicately carved fox. Black crusted half of the hairpin’s shaft. “Do you know who owns this?”

Despite myself, my breath caught as I stared at my hairpin.

“Mameko, what is all this nonsense I’ve—what are you doing here, officer?” Aunt Emiko pulled me from the doorway and stood between the officer and myself.

Mr. Amano bowed. “I am investigating a case and thought this beautiful young woman might know something.” He gestured with my hairpin. “Do you know who owns this?”

“How would I know who owns a hairpin?” Aunt Emiko planted a hand on her hip and looked up at the man. “Every woman around here has dozens of them.”

He rewrapped the hairpin, and a phantom smile played on his lips. “I had thought geisha all had their own unique hairpins.”

“We do, but do you expect us to know what every geiko wears?” Aunt Emiko emphasized the proper word for the profession. “We are busy. Don’t come back to bother us unless you have a warrant.” With that, she sketched a bow, pulled me inside, and slammed the garden door in the man’s face.

“Meddling officers. Ever since the Emperor was restored, too many go about traipsing over traditions. We sort out our own problems.” Aunt Emiko rounded on me. “Speaking of problems, your Mother and I will speak with you, young lady.”

I followed Aunt Emiko into the house and into Mother’s sitting room. Soon Kudo would arrive and I would prepare for another evening of work. Luckily, our own teahouse hosted my first appointment. Aunt Emiko and Mother shared the business and household duties. Mother took care of my appointments and the finances while Aunt Emiko tended to the daily chores. One day, my aunt would need someone to take even those off of her. She wasn’t young anymore, but she insisted on doing the chores her way, including the teahouse. Every once in a while, Mother would entertain guests at the teahouse, but she had only done that a few times since I first became a maiko two years ago. Several nights a week I would entertain at home, but I rarely spent the entire evening at our teahouse. I wished tonight would’ve been one of them. The effects of the pleasant afternoon with Takeko had faded, leaving me feeling like a frayed sleeve.

Aunt Emiko knelt in her position next to mother on the other side of the table cluttered with account books, calendars, and other papers. I knelt before them on a thin pillow. I didn’t want to face Mother’s continued disappointment, but I knew this was about my skipped lessons. Mother didn’t understand how I needed a break from time to time, especially after last night. I forced the memory away. Mother busied herself with the accounts without acknowledging my presence. She liked to use the trick to get her way with business arrangements. Silence often made people squirm as I squirmed at the moment.

Finally, Mother lowered her pen and regarded me. “You were seen skipping lessons with Takeko.”

I knew better than to hedge or make excuses; I nodded.

“A police officer was questioning her just outside, Mameto,” Aunt Emiko said.

“I told you this morning that you can’t afford any more mistakes,” Mother said. “You know how much reputation matters for us.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“He was investigating events of last night, apparently,” my aunt said.

Mother turned a page in her ledger. “It doesn’t matter to us what he is doing as long as he stays—”

“He had one of Mameko’s hairpins,” Aunt Emiko said.

Mother froze with the page in midturn and looked at me.

I swallowed and shook my head. “It was the one I couldn’t find this morning. I-I didn’t do it, but I don’t know how—”

Mother huffed and ran a hand through her hair, revealing the bald spot on her crown. “Your grandmother is likely worrying from her grave about how the family business will continue between your nonsense and these accusations.”

I glanced over at the shrine we kept to honor my grandmother. A photograph of my mother and my grandmother sat in the center of the memorial. Mother stood proudly as a maiko and my grandmother stood behind her looking even prouder. Incense smoked beside the photo, filling the room with a faint, woody cinnamon scent and revealing how my Mother had much on her mind. She only bothered my grandmother with her troubling problems or with auspicious events like my successful debut. The faded photograph made me feel ashamed for running from the officer and skipping my lesson. I wanted Grandmother to be proud of me.

“Are you sure it was Mameko’s?” Mother asked.

“Yes,” Aunt Emiko said.

“I must have lost it.” I didn’t know how I could, but I couldn’t offer any other explanation.

Aunt Emiko shook her head. She knew how outlandish the possibility was.

Mother tapped her bottom lip with a finger. “And a hairpin killed Mr. Funaki.” Her gazed focused on me. “I will brook no more nonsense from you, Mameko. We can’t have your collar-turning be marred by any sort of rumor. Although you are a good young woman despite how you disobey me, rumors stick to all of us.” Mother grimaced. “I hope to have you one day pass our business down to your daughter.”

The doubt that crept into Mother’s voice lashed at me. I sat straighter. “I am proud to be a geiko’s daughter,” I said. And I was. Mother didn’t shelter me growing up. In fact, she made sure I knew how other women lived. I didn’t want to be dependent on a husband or any man. “I want my future daughter to be one too.”

“So you say,” Mother said.

“It is the truth. What more can I do to make you—”

“It only takes one mistake to ruin a geiko,” Mother said with a glance at Aunt Emiko.

Aunt Emiko fussed with her bun. “Yes, well, you had best get ready, Mameko. You will be entertaining our guests alone tonight.”

“What of Ren?” I asked.

“Her Mother told me this morning that she’s taken to her bed,” my aunt said.

Mother frowned. “You can’t always depend on your older sisters. Don’t keep disappointing me, Mameko.” She turned toward her ledgers. “Emiko, we will have to purchase gifts for Mameko’s collar turning.”

Aunt Emiko nodded at me—her signal for me to leave. I bowed my head and stalked out. What would it take to convince Mother? What she rather I had died with him?

Normally, I found comfort in the two or so hours it took for me to prepare for work. I grew up watching Mother prepare to go out and found it amazing how white makeup, clothing, and a few accents could change even a plain woman like me into a beauty to rival even the infamous Jewel Maiden. But the ritual failed to calm my nerves this time. The encounter with Mr. Amano left me shaking beneath my practiced, pleasant composure. I hesitated as I slid my fox hairpins into place. Mr. Funaki flashed in my mind. I remembered clearly the angle of the hairpin, thrusting upward from this throat. Only someone almost as tall as he could have rammed the hairpin at that angle. But how did someone get the hairpin without my knowledge? I tried to push out the thoughts and focus on the evening’s work ahead. Mother knew people that could make this problem disappeared. Gion business was Gion business. That was the way of the geiko and teahouses. Not even the new government and opening to the West would change that. What happened in the teahouse wasn’t spoken of outside the teahouse.

Despite the afternoon with Takeko, exhaustion weighed on me as I prepared. I had a long evening ahead, and I hoped no one would want to see me dance. Unlike Mother and Takeko, I danced poorly when I was rested. Tonight, well, any attempt wouldn’t be called dancing. Luckily, I inherited my grandmother’s ear for the shamisen. I hoped I could fall back on that if anyone suggested I dance. Although it wasn’t proper for a maiko, I enjoyed telling stories while I played instead of singing the traditional songs. My guests seemed to enjoy the change too.

Kudo finally arrived and helped me put on my kimono with all its layers. Aunt Emiko picked out a dark, almost black, blue kimono accented with a geometric design in gold leaf. The color matched my mood well. Kudo must have sensed my mood because he didn’t say anything or offer me any of his candy as he dressed me and tied my heavy obi. We stepped into the garden and the chill night air. The scent of early spring—damp and pungent, yet mixed with freshness, greeted me. The willow loomed darkly above me. It’s hanging branches, fuzzed with its first leaf growth, touched my shoulders. My breath misted as I shuffled along with Kudo behind me, carrying my shamisen. As I entered the rear of our small teahouse, the guests’ laughter greeted me. Aunt Emiko served our guests as a teahouse maid would, and many appreciated the small coziness of our teahouse over the larger houses with many rooms. My aunt could entertain as well as any geiko—but then she had attended the Inoue School when she was a little girl.

I knelt at the room’s entrance for a moment, listening to the merry sounds inside. I realized that this was the first time I’d entertained guests without my elder sister. I kept looking over my shoulder for her. I took a deep breath. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before; Mother had drilled me since I could walk. Inside was a sanctuary for both me and the guests. I slid the door opened as I was trained to do and entered. Kudo remained in the hall for when I needed my instrument.

Four middle-aged men greeted me. Mr. Yamamoto was a regular, and I liked his quiet ways. But he hadn’t visited in several months. Tonight he wore his military uniform, which I hadn’t seen him wear before. The deep-blue coat held more pockets than my vanity had compartments. Burnished badges shined against his chest. His friend, Mr. Keichi, lounged with a drink in his hand and his face already gaining the flush of drunkenness. I didn’t recognize the other two guests, but they looked relaxed. They wore the same uniforms as Mr. Yamamoto, but they had fewer ornaments.

“Mameko, this is the first time I’ve seen you without your elder sister,” Mr. Yamamoto said. “I hope she isn’t unwell.”

“Ren has taken to her bed for those problems women have so I’m all alone tonight.” I feigned embarrassment. “Don’t tell her I said that.”

One of the new guests laughed. “With all the problems women cause us, it’s a shame nature only causes problems for them once a month.”

I hid my irritation at the comment behind a smile. “Mr. Yamamoto once told me young men’s woman troubles come around because young men think with the wrong head.” I touched my painted lower lip with my index finger. “I never could figure out what he meant.” Of course, I knew exactly what he meant, but a geiko’s job was to weave a fantasy for her guests to relax within. Guests expected a young woman like me to feign innocence until she became a full geiko and gained a patron or aged into a more mature role. I fully expected to mature into the role as the heir of a successful family business, but most women relied on a patron to pay their way.

The younger guests looked at each other with puzzlement. One cocked his head at me. “I know a liar when I meet him, but—I had thought a woman like you would know what that would mean.”

Apparently, he didn’t know how to spot a liar beneath a white mask. I padded over and knelt beside Mr. Yamamoto to pour him a drink. Because he was the eldest man there, I wanted to be sure I spent the most time with him. Normally, it would be Ren’s job, but tonight I had to please all my guests. I hoped the younger men wouldn’t notice if I failed to kneel beside them when I filled their cups. Otherwise, my legs would be tired by the end of the evening.

Mr. Keichi raised his cup—which he had poured himself—to Mr. Yamamoto. “If only you had told me that bit of wisdom sooner, Isoroku. You should count yourselves lucky, Ishii and Yohji.” Mr. Keichi marked each of the guests with his cup as he named them and winked at me. So Ishii was the irritating one.

As I stooped to pour a drink for Ishii, the younger man looked me up and down. “I didn’t expect the Ice Geisha to be so young and pretty. I imagined an old crone.”

Ice Geisha? I remembered Takeko mentioning that before too.

“You Tokyo men,” Mr. Yamamoto said. “Geiko is the proper word.”

Ishii froze for a moment and bowed his head at the old man.

“Geiko also have a secret,” I said. “You can never completely tell what’s under the makeup.” I raised my hand to lightly touch the ridge of unpainted skin along my hairline and let my sleeve fall to reveal my wrist and part of my forearm.” Ishii’s gaze followed my gesture and traveled down the skin of my hand and forearm. He swallowed, much to my satisfaction. I enjoyed such slight forms of revenge whenever a guest irritated me.

“Careful, Ishii,” Yohji said. “She might just kill you. Don’t tell me you didn’t hear the rumors.”

Ishii shrugged. “I like dangerous women. I hope the rumors are true. You are the one mentioned in the newspaper right? Doing that Funaki guy in?”

I overpoured his drink, and Ishii jerked his sleeve back just in time to avoid getting it wet. Even these men had heard about what had happened. My shoulders slumped, and a chill gripped me.

“Enough you two,” Mr. Keichi said. “I was right to doubt you would know how to behave here.”

“I’m sorry.” I bowed and stood on shaky legs. “I will clean that right up.”

“See how much you upset her? It’s no wonder you two have problems with women. You—” The door muffled the rest of Mr. Keichi’s words.

“What’s wrong, Mameko?” Kudo asked.

“I just overpoured. I need a cloth to—”

“I’ll handle it,” Aunt Emiko appeared. “You just focus on your guests and stop worrying about what is going on outside of the room. Yamamoto is an important man, and we need the goodwill of men like him.”

I nodded. A geiko’s business flourished with the reputation of its guests. High reputation guests lead to them inviting other well-off guests. Not anyone could call on a geiko or maiko, even if they had the money. Teahouses were insider clubs that depended on introductions and references from established patrons to enter. The level of the geiko depended on the class-level of her guests. Men like Yamamoto made a maiko like me that much more exclusive, which translated to more money for my family. I couldn’t mess up the evening. I gathered myself and entered ahead of Aunt Emiko. I fled to Mr. Yamamoto’s side to carefully refill his half-empty cup as Aunt Emiko sopped up my mess. Mr. Yamamoto sat back with his eyes closed.

“So it’s true. Our Ice Geisha—Geiko—doesn’t drink?” Yohji asked. Mr. Keichi shot a glare at him.

I expected this from new guests, but I wondered what sort of reputation I really had. I didn’t lack for work so it couldn’t have been that bad, could it? I didn’t think of myself as icy. I just didn’t like to drink or act a fool as so many so-called geiko did. Sure, I helped men forget their responsibilities for a time, but geiko were also artists. The world of Genji and the stories of Musashi provided a way to forget too. Despite my fluttering stomach, I smiled. “It is strange, isn’t it? A geiko who doesn’t play drinking games, but I am not a full geiko yet. My elder sister once tried to make me try it, but—oh, I am too embarrassed to tell you.”

Mr. Keichi leaned back, listening despite having heard the story before. The new guests leaned forward.

“When I pour saké, I have to hold my breath.” I demonstrated with some exaggeration as I filled Mr. Keichi’s cup, flashing the underside of my wrist at him to show my gratefulness for how he defended me. He smiled at the gesture. Yohji and Ishii completely missed it, as new as they were. “Because even just the fumes make me tipsy. My poor elder sister wasn’t expecting me to get so lightheaded that I couldn’t stand. I’d hate to see what drinking it would do to me.”

The story was true, sadly. But I had also seen one of my Mother’s friends die because of what the regular drinking did to her liver. That offered another good reason for me not to test my sensitivity.

“It sounds like you need to work up to a tolerance.” Yohji raised his cup. “Just a sip time to time would work.”

Mr. Keichi shook his head. “Don’t bother. When geiko make up their minds, not even Inari or any of the other gods can make them change them. “

Mr. Yamamoto sat through all of this in silence. Fearing he felt left out, I turned to him. “I heard our victory over the Russian Empire goes well, Mr. Yamamoto.”

The older man regarded me. “So you do look beyond your old stories.”

I waved my hand at him. “Seeing you here again after so long tells me it’s going well.” I grinned. “And the newspapers.”

“I expect total victory in autumn,” Mr. Yamamoto said.

“Figures,” Ishii muttered. “Just before I got to see serious action.”

Yohji shook his head, belched, and waved at me. “Even this girl managed to kill before I could prove my worth as a soldier.” He smiled at me. “Maybe you can try to use a chopstick on me while we enjoy the night. I won’t be as easy as your ex-lover.”

I regarded the young man from behind my painted mask. “You will not speak to me in that way.” I knew I shouldn’t speak so bluntly. A playful jab mixed with my displeasure usually worked, but I didn’t have the mood for it tonight. “I am a maiko. Not some floozy off the street.”

Yohji blinked at me as the words set in, and his drunk expression darkened. “Haughty little—”

“This party is over. I was mistaken to believe you could know proper behavior.” Mr. Yamamoto’s flushed face contorted, and he glared at the men.

Mr. Keichi’s cup paused midway to his mouth.

Ishii’s brow furrowed. “Wha—”

Yohji belched. “You told us this would be fun. So I’m having fun in my own way, Father.”

I stopped my frown. Yohji was Mr. Yamamoto’s son? I glanced at them, but I failed to see much resemblance. Perhaps in the eyebrows and the ears. Yohji leaned around the table and touched my thigh, shattering my thoughts. He met his father’s gaze and grinned.

Mr. Yamamoto slapped the table, upending a full bottle of rice wine and sending several empty bottles to the floor. “Out! No son of mine will behave in this way. You will show her respect.”

“I am showing her respect, in my own way.” He gripped my thigh.

“Come on, Yohji,” Ishii staggered to his feet and tugged at Yohji’s shoulder. “We can have our real fun just over in the next district. At least there the maids aren’t old, and they are far warmer. Our fathers are just stuck in the past, is all.”

Yohji’s fingers dug into my thigh for a moment before he let go and struggled to his feet. “I wouldn’t want that makeup on my tongue anyway. That man people said you killed must have been a fool.”

Without waiting for permission, the two young men staggered out of the room, leaving a stunned and outraged silence behind. My thigh throbbed under my kimono.

Mr. Keichi downed the last of his drink. “I fear for our new generation. Fools, the lot of them.”

“Part of the fault lies with us,” Mr. Yamamoto said.

Mr. Keichi gestured with his empty cup. “We can only do so much when the old ways die. Men don’t understand the fine things and honor anymore.”

Mr. Yamamoto sighed. “I had hoped if they saw Mameko, maybe some civilization would’ve settled in them. I doubt they will live long enough to see autumn after they ship to the front lines.”

“It will be as Inari wants it to be. At least they will die with some honor,” Mr. Keichi said.

“But without knowing their culture.” Mr. Yamamoto took a drink. “Well, I tried.”

“It is my fault,” I said.

“Bah. It’s not,” Mr. Keichi said.

“It is.” I looked down. “I should’ve played the shamisen and told a story. Perhaps the story of the cherry tree grave.”

“You can’t change fools,” Mr. Yamamoto said. “My son is certainly that.” He made to stand, so I climbed to my feet. Mr. Keichi followed with the help of the table.

“Thank you, Mameko, for an entertaining night, despite the antics of our sons.” Mr. Yamamoto bowed low to me, and Mr. Keichi mirrored him.

I flushed beneath my makeup and bowed to them. “Thank you for allowing me to entertain you.”

“We will call on you again,” Mr. Yamamoto said. He straightened and strolled to the door. I scurried over to open it and escorted them through the empty hallway.

After seeing them out into the early evening and closing the door to the street, Aunt Emiko appeared. “Your poor mood ran them away I see. This—”

“It wasn’t me.”

“It wasn’t her,” Kudo said. “I heard their conversations and saw those young men leave. Those new guests Mr. Yamamoto invited weren’t–”

“It is the geiko’s responsibility to ease such tension, Kudo. Mameko failed to do so.” I wilted as I listened to my aunt’s words. She sighed. “That said, Mother doesn’t need to know, but I need to know if you make eavesdropping on guests a habit, Kudo.”

The old man winked at me. “How do you think I’ve managed to work for so long with all of you geiko? A wise man knows when to listen so he can know when to hide.”

“And an old fool had better know how to keep his mouth shut,” Aunt Emiko said.

Kudo produced a piece of hard candy, popped it into his mouth, and grinned. He offered one to me, and I took it just to be polite. My nervous stomach swirled with my mind. Even men I didn’t know had heard about Mr. Funaki’s death within a single day. And they thought I did it. Even Mr. Yamamoto and Mr. Keichi didn’t seem surprised.

“I’m going to go out. There are several parties going on tonight.” I popped Kudo’s candy into my mouth and hoped it would help my stomach. I had to know the extent of those rumors. I began to wonder if someone was spreading the rumor. How else could even Mr. Yamamoto hear it? As far as I knew, the newspaper didn’t name me or provide other details. Otherwise, Mother would’ve told me—such damage to my reputation would’ve riled her far worse than she was riled this afternoon.

Aunt Emiko smiled. “You remind me of your grandmother sometimes, Mameko. She wasn’t one to let something stop her.”

While Aunt Emiko meant her words to be encouraging, they only reminded me of how I had disappointed Mother and caused trouble for her. Something as small as going to the toilet could potentially upend years of work. I couldn’t make any more mistakes.

After Aunt Emiko struck flint on us for good luck—I could’ve used it earlier— Kudo and I went to work. Lights reflected yellow on the freshly damp streets as we made our way along my usual route. While customers request for certain maiko and geiko to entertain them, sometimes teahouse owners would invite popular maiko to visit for a short time. I stopped at the Tsuyatsuba teahouse, where I often told folk stories. I remembered the first time I had tried it. I was reading a version of Momotaro and brought it up to the guests Ren and I entertained. I shook my head at how stressed I had felt over something so small compared to what weighed on my mind now. As Kudo and I entered, Mistress Tsuyatsuba looked up from behind her desk.

“Ah! Mameko. It’s good to see you.”

I bowed. “Good evening, Mistress Tsuyatsuba. Do you have any guests who want to hear a story?”

She hesitated a moment.

“I know this is unusual. I don’t have any appointments with you tonight, but you know how it is as my collar-turning nears.”

She nodded. “It is a big event. It is just...unusual for you to lack appointments.”

“I had an appointment, but unfortunately business intervened.”

Mistress Tsuyatsuba glanced at Kudo. “That is happening more often lately. Yes, I don’t see anything wrong with you telling a story. My guests would even feel honored to and your elder sister.”

I caught the hesitation, and I had to work to keep from frowning. The muffled sounds of the party behind her filtered through the thin walls. It sounded livelier than past parties I had entertained at the teahouse. A little too lively for a proper teahouse like Mistress Tsuyatsuba’s.

“She isn’t well,” I said.

“I...see. It is an unusual evening,” Mistress Tsuyatsuba said. “I suppose you couldn’ any harm. The one party I have isn’t your usual fare.”

Her hesitance made me wonder if she had heard the rumors too, but just then something thumped against the wall, making Mistress Tsuyatsuba wince and glance behind her. Maybe she didn’t want me to see the type of party she was reduced to hosting. I didn’t think she would be struggling, but Aunt Emiko often said there were too many teahouses for the number of available maiko and geiko. Kudo handed me my shamisen, and I slunk toward the source of the noise, feeling my exhaustion tugging at me.

Even compared to my family’s small tea space, Mistress Tsuyatsuba’s teahouse felt closed. The low ceilings forced many guests to bend. Instead of a hallway leading to various rooms, she had only a low door separating the tea space from the entrance room. The old door to the tearoom required you to crawl to enter. I understood it was meant to force you to bow in respect for the space, but whoever thought of that idea never had to crawl in a maiko’s kimono with a maiko’s large sculpted hairstyle. When I slid the door open, the full noise of the party slapped me along with the scent of cheap alcohol—too cheap for Mistress Tsuyatsuba’s business. I wondered again if she had fallen on harder times than I knew. I had worried the space would trigger memories of last night, and I wondered if I could endure the acrid scent of the alcohol. Teahouses tended to look similar. But the raucousness of the people chased my memories back into their dark corners.

Twenty guests crammed into the room. Three geiko—who I didn’t recognize—tried to herd them. I spotted a few women among the men. While women weren’t unusual—I entertained my share—I hadn’t expected to see them among so many men. They all wore the hairstyles and clothing of wives. I understood why Mother lamented how teahouses were becoming glorified pubs.

The geiko stopped trying to engage the men near them in a drinking game when they noticed me standing in my resplendent costume. I gripped my shamisen tight as their beady gaze swept over me. At that moment, I wished Ren was with me. The woman with an unfortunately long face clapped, cutting through the noise. I hid my shock behind my mock embarrassment and reassessed my impression of the woman. No good geiko would resort to clapping to get attention.

“Look what bird just flew in,” Long Face said.

The men swannecked at me, and I bowed. “Please forgive my intrusion.”

“She’s a beautiful one.”

“Beautiful? Looks cold to me. Look at her eyes. No warmth there.”

“Bah, she’s a woman too under all that makeup and her kimono,” one of the wives said. “I heard her hairstyle means that she...”

“... her name?”

“You brought a shamisen,” Long Face said. “Why don’t you play for us?”

I bowed again to the mock-geiko. I spotted an elderly man dressed in a business suit sitting at the head of the table. His gaze latched onto me, and a pleased expression passed across his face. I nodded slightly to him, which he returned just as slight. The man must have been like Mr. Yamamoto—trying to instill civilization in younger men and women who considered themselves modern.

I settled into the open area reserved for dance performances, and the room grew mostly quiet. The men jostled each other, and the wives whispered to each other, but I knew divided attention was the best I was going to get. The story of the Snow Woman felt appropriate. I strummed an impromptu rhythm to set the tone, crisp and cold, before beginning:

“A long time ago, lived two woodcutters. Minokichi was so young, and Mosaku was very old. One day, a snowstorm lost the two. As fortune had it, they found a hut to shelter. The hut of the Snow Woman.”

I watched the old man as I strummed and sang the story. He closed his eyes and his finger tapped the table to the slow rhythm I set. The women sat still, and the men stopped their jostling. Even the youngest guests bent their flushed ears to listen, much to my surprise.

With an icicle, she killed old Mosaku, her breath turning him into an ice statue. But young Minokichi, with eyes so wonderful, melted the Snow Woman’s heart. She disappeared into the snow, leaving Minokichi to live with one promise: ‘If you tell anyone about me, I will kill you.’”

Minokichi listened and said nothing to anyone, not even did he tell the wife he married years later. After having many children, Minokichi one night said to his wife: ‘Whenever I see you, I remember what happened to me so many years ago. I had met a beautiful lady like you. I do not know if it was a dream or if she was the Snow Woman.’”

His wife stood up and said, ‘And so you break your promise. I had said if you told anyone I would kill you.’”

I strummed the last note, set my instrument aside, and bowed from where I knelt. As I straightened, the old man bowed his head to me. Pleasure warmed me. Not everyone liked how I sang peasant stories instead of the geiko songs I had learned. Ren grumbled at me whenever I told one of my stories, but luckily, Mother had decided my storytelling helped me stand out from other geiko. I suspected she still disliked how I failed to inherit her talent for dance.

I gathered my shamisen, stood, and bowed again. “If you will excuse me, I have other appointments.”

“What happened?” one of the wives asked.

“You can’t just end the story there,” another man said.

“Don’t go. Stay with us a while longer.”

“Do you think she was singing about herself? Snow Woman.”

I closed the door behind me as the mock-geiko started another drinking game. I felt lightheaded from the alcohol fumes in the room. Kudo nodded at me without breaking his conversation with Mistress Tsuyatsuba, and I offered my assistant a small smile. The knot between my shoulder blades eased. I hadn’t expected a party like that to pay much attention to me, but everyone liked stories. Although finding which stories they liked sometimes challenged me.

“You were right. That wasn’t a usual party,” I said.

Mistress Tsuyatsuba frowned.

“I don’t mean that to offend.” I held up my hands. “But you are right. I’ve seen more parties like that lately.”

“Many of the young men and women don’t appreciate the old ways.” She glanced at her nearby incense burner to note the time. Two sticks equaled an hour of work, but despite spending less than an hour, she would still charge the client as if I had entertained for the entire first hour. It was one of the benefits I enjoyed because of my status as the daughter of a well-known geiko house, but I tried not to take advantage of it too often.

I bowed my head to acknowledge the truth of her statement. “Speaking of that, I’ve heard someone is calling me by an unsuited name lately.” I waved my hand. “Among other misplaced rumors.”

Mistress Tsuyatsuba leaned back. “I—”

“You can tell me. I won’t be offended.”

She sighed. “Customers often have fond nicknames for you.” The party’s noise escalated through the walls.

“Don’t take stock in what people say, Mameko,” Kudo said.

I looked at him. “You know how this world works.”

Kudo shrugged. “Might as well tell her, Teise.”

Mistress Tsuyatsuba shook her head. “The Ice Geiko.”

I frowned and refrained from asking her who had said such. I knew she couldn’t and wouldn’t provide that information. “I’ve heard that before, but I don’t understand why.”

“People also call you the Fox Geiko.” Kudo grinned and gestured at my hair. “Makes sense except for the geiko part.”

That was a new one for me. I must have looked surprised because Kudo laughed.

“Too many people don’t understand the difference between geiko and maiko,” Mistress Tsuyatsuba said.

I couldn’t argue with her, but part of me felt flattered to be considered a geiko already. Although, I wasn’t sure my collar-turning would happen with the rumors swirling around me. I thanked Mistress Tsuyatsuba, gathered Kudo, and left. I had to believe Mother would take care of my rumor and newspaper problem, but I wanted to see for myself how far the rumors went. I already didn’t like what I had seen.

“Your usual route?” Kudo asked once we were back out in the chill night.

I nodded and suppressed a yawn.

We didn’t spend much time in any of the other teahouses along my route. Although I didn’t have appointments in any of the teahouses, they welcomed me. The other parties were standard affairs of conversation, drinking, silly games, dancing, and performances. At my last stop, Takeko and her elder sister Keiko entertained four gentlemen. Mr. Mori sat among them.

I froze as soon as I saw him. Immediately, the image of him standing behind Mr. Funaki flashed in my mind. Had the police spoken with him? I admonished myself. If they had, he wouldn’t have been sitting before me.

“Mameko?” Takeko asked. “Did you come to join us?”

Mr. Mori smiled. “Gentlemen, tonight is a treat. This is my favorite maiko I told you about. No offense to you, Takeko. Keiko.”

Keiko regarded me with her dark eyes and said nothing. Her look told me I was intruding. As a full geiko, she dressed elegantly but without the plumage Takeko and I wore. She wore her hair in the customary bun professionals wore. They only donned the elaborate hair-styles during major special events.

“She is pretty, but Takeko is sweeter,” the man on Mr. Mori’s right said.

“Oh, Mr. Sora.” Takeko giggled and hid her face in her hands. She peeked through her fingers. “You don’t have to worry about Mameko. She is my friend.”

The middle-aged gentleman smacked Mr. Sora on the shoulder. “All he’s done these few days is gush about seeing you again, Takeko.” He looked at me. “I don’t see how this girl could—”

“Mameko,” Takeko said. She stood and scurried to me. “Would you play Spring Rain for me? I want to show Mr. Sora the dance I learned.”

“I’m sure our guests don’t want to hear such a song this time of year,” Keiko said. She continued to glare at me.

“I would like to hear Mameko play,” Mr. Mori said.

“I won’t pass a chance to see Takeko dance,” Mr. Sora said.

Keiko frowned for a moment before replacing it with a professional smile.

Despite my exhaustion and nerves, I nodded. I couldn’t turn down Takeko. I avoided looking at Mr. Mori. In fact, I did what I could to convince myself he wasn’t there. It was too soon. I settled myself and waited for her to get into position. Tired as I was, I played the song well enough. Takeko danced with a talent I envied. While I was popular in my own right—earning at the top of the lists—I wished I could dance like my Mother, like Takeko. As I played, I tried to ignore Mr. Mori’s gaze. Takeko finished her dance, and I let the last note hang in the air a moment before standing. I managed to conceal my tired stagger by bowing and apologizing for needing to leave so soon.

“Don’t leave already,” Mr. Sora said. “I’d like to watch my Takeko dance more.”

“Mameko looks to have had a long day with those bags under her eyes,” Keiko said. “She looks ready to fall over onto your lap.”

“She could fall on my lap since you have Takeko,” the middle-aged man said.

I avoided looking at Mr. Mori as I backed out. “I must really be going.” I managed to escape through the door, but not before Keiko commented about how I can’t even open and close a door properly. I ignored her. I only wanted to get away from Mr. Mori. He had been my best patron since I debuted, but I couldn’t shake my memory of him standing over Mr. Funaki. I had almost escaped the hall when I heard Mr. Mori call my name from behind. I stopped and composed myself. His shadow waved on the wall from the gas lights’ flicker.

“I’m sorry you had to see what you did,” he whispered.

“It’s your decision to hire another maiko. Takeko is—”

“You know what I mean.” His closeness warmed the bared skin of my neck. “I hope the unfortunate event with Mr. Funaki doesn’t cause you trouble.”

I closed my eyes. “He didn’t cause me trouble until that night.”

Mr. Mori chuckled. “At least he only caused you trouble one time. If I’m honest, I’m rather glad to be rid of him.”

I didn’t want to hear anymore and took a step away from him.

“Wait, Mameko.”

I paused, refusing to look at him.

“I hope our relationship doesn’t change just because of...unfortunate events. I want to keep calling on you.”

“It already has,” I whispered and walked away.

About the author

Christopher works as a librarian and studies Japanese media culture--anime, folklore, and more. He enjoys getting lost in research and in the woods. view profile

Published on March 15, 2020

Published by

70000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction

Reviewed by

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