Withered Petals
By: Aisaki Sumi

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Chapter 1
Never to love

stretching away from above my raised hands, the expanse of blue is endless
within your arms there are only calm days, deep and still like the vastness above

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After I had woken from the deep slumber, autumn had already passed by - welcoming the beginning of a long, harsh winter. I didn't know I had slept for that long, and missed quite a number of geisha classes. Auntie told me I had fainted on that chilly night; my arms and legs were swollen and reddened – they were barely recognizable when she took me back to the maid's room. The high fever I caught was from the swelling as well as from the night's chilliness. My kimono – my only defense against the coldness of the night – was nothing against the bone-shuddering wind.

My body couldn't move around well after the fever. My swollen arm and knees were slowly recovering, but Auntie told me not to rush into doing my chores right away. She begged mother to give me some light chores to do during my recovery which mother reluctantly agreed to. After a week or two had gone by, I resumed my geisha lessons with Tomoyo, however I was forbidden to take the trial that I usually took to the geisha school, but to take another one.

That path was longer and more time consuming. We had to circle around the Gion district to get there each morning and afternoon. It was twice the amount of what we had to walk before. I apologized to Tomoyo for making her suffer the consequences of my actions, but she merely smiled and said she was glad to go through it with me. I remembered the warm tears pooling in my eyes and how her image became softer and unclear. She was the best friend I ever had, and my only friend at the okiya.

Years have gone by just like that, and I haven't seen him since. Every late autumn I would occasionally stop and tilt my face towards the clouded sky, sheets of wistful smog capturing the light in a greedy act, leaving the earth without sun-kissed warmth. His image would then appear in my mind, unawarely. The jade stone was the only evidence I had from that seemingly unreal meeting with him at the metal gates. Tomoyo gave me a red string the other day and told me to wear the jadestone around my neck.

The weight of the jadestone constantly reminded me that it wasn't a dream or my hallucination – it was all real. He asked me for a favor, he smiled at me, he gave me the jadestone. I would sometimes smile idiotically at night as I tugged it close to my heart. It had the power to bring me pleasant dreams – dreams of burning ambers. I cupped my hands around it each night and whisper a soft 'oyasumi' to the surrounding air, hoping childishly that it could somehow bring the message to him.

I was slowly growing up, from a clumsy shy girl to a grown young woman. My hair was now around my waist, long and silky. Auntie taught me how to take good care of the beautiful auburn hair I had, because it was one of the most attractive things about a geisha. During the day, I would tie it into a knot to prevent it from getting in my way, but at night, I would sit in front of the mirror, loosen the knot and let it fall onto my back, feeling the silkiness sliding pass my bare back (1). I would then take the time to brush through it, running my slender fingers through it, repeating the same movement for as long as I could.

The curves of my body were becoming clearer with the passing days. I had more chests now, but my body remained relatively slim, due to the amount of work I had to do each day, including attending the geisha lessons. I had a svelte figure, long slender legs covered in creamy white skin. My face matured significantly as my emerald eyes started to loose that child-like glint. They reflected years of work and experience nowadays, and an inner shyness and elegancy.

I remembered running Auntie errands the other day, and how people, both men and women turned around to glimpse at me. I lowered my head shyly, hiding away the faint tinge of pink that had spread on my cheeks. But when I looked up, I saw a delivery boy gaping at me as if I were some exotic beauty from a foregin land. His shocked eyes widened as our eyes met, his face flushing a crimson color. It was then he lost control of his bike and ran right into a pile of boxes on the sidewalk.

The children playing on the sidewalk even stopped their games to gaze at me – or rather gawk at me as if there was nothing more intriguing than staring at me with dropped jaws. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. My heart was pounding an unnatural rhythm as I continued down the street, my hands folded together in a very graceful geisha-like manner, something I learned in my geisha classes. I kept my collectiveness but I was inwardly more excited than ever. I could feel my own hands tremble with arousing excitement.

It was then I started to become more aware of my own growing beauty and how to use it properly. Sometimes I would scrutinize at my reflection in the mirror and smile at the beautiful girl inside of the mirror, pondering dreamily of Syaoran's reaction if he ever saw me again. Would he gape at me like that delivery boy did? Or gawk at me with such bewildered expression like the children playing on the sidewalk did? Would he notice me more nowadays? Holding tightly onto the jadestone dangling around my neck, I wished silently to the gods or goddesses of the night to grant my wish.

I wanted to see him again… just once more would be enough…

Sometimes at night the thought of him would bring tears to my eyes and how he had become a part of my memories… a fading, tarnishing photograph that couldn't stand a chance against the battle with time. I longed to see those intense, passionate amber eyes again, and the small but confident smile curved upon those lips. It had been six long years after all.

I had changed dramatically into a more mature and elegant young woman, and he probably had changed too. Did he still practice kendo early in the morning and afternoon? Did he still write to his father even though he couldn't mail them? With these questions drifting in my mind, unanswered, I would slip to the verge of sleep and fall into a deep slumber, wishing tomorrow would be a different day.

There was another major change in my life, and that was my second step of becoming a true geisha. Kyoko-san passed by our okiya one day and saw Tomoyo and I practicing our dances and singing in the courtyard. Tomoyo had always excelled in areas of singing, whereas I was more of a dancer than a singer. We would often practice as a pair, pretending that we were real geishas entertaining the most powerful men.

Her extraordinary voice would echo through the vibrant air that carried it miles away by the careless breeze. She was an excellent lute player. The melodies she played were enchanting and captive in every single way. It could bring out the hidden emotions in the listener and make them fall in love with the beautiful harmonic melody created by the vibrations of the strings secured at both ends.

I loved dancing to the music she created. They were somewhat inspiring, and I could interpret it however I wanted to. The music beat through my body, with my own pulse, bringing out the artistic side of me. The movements were so natural and I felt more comfortable than ever. Kyoko-san was deeply impressed by our performance as a pair and spoke to mother right afterwards about becoming our older sister.

I learned from my geisha classes that an older sister had a different meaning in the world of geishas. If an experienced geisha becomes your older sister, it means she has become your mentor, the one who will lead you into the complex real world of geisha entertainment. The older sister must introduce her younger sister to all her customers and the powerful men she knew so her younger sister could gain more popularity.

Mother was enthralled at the proposal and agreed to it without a second thought. Mother had always admired Kyoko-san and her successes, and she often grumbled during dinnertime to no one in particular about the unfairness of life and how she ended up with Nanako-san instead of Kyoko-san. But of course, mother would never say such thing in front of Nanako-san. Occasionally, she would complain to the maid who was serving her dinner about it.

She complained to me about it the other day when I took the dinner to her room, and when she asked me if I agreed with her, I hesitated and remained in silence. Mother chuckled at my reaction to the question and complimented on how far I had come as a servant girl but also as a geisha in training. "You've really grown, you know that? Silence is the smart way out of a tough situation like this, especially when I asked you for your opinion on someone with a higher status than you. If you agreed, I might have one day told Nanako that, and if you disagreed, you would have displeased me."

It was shocking to hear compliments from mother, since she was already the grumpy figure in the okiya. Mother was never satisfied with anything, and her comments meant a lot to me. Even she had noticed my rapid growth. Maybe I really did change a lot… not just physically, but psychologically as well.

I sighed softly, letting that piece of memory trail off my mind as I waited for Tomoyo to get ready. Today was going to be my third apprentice geisha lesson with Kyoko-san, and to say that I was a little excited and eager to see her again would be a great understatement. Tomoyo and I only saw her once a week, and our past two lessons were utterly short but interesting. It was refreshing to hear what life was like as a geisha from a successful and most celebrated geisha such as Kyoko-san.

I stood in the middle of the courtyard, lost in my thoughts as I pondered on the subjects we would touch in this lesson. "Sakura-chan!" I didn't need to turn around to see that bright, ever-present smile on her face to know that it was there. She had a distinctively soft and silky voice that could be identified even among a loud chattering crowd of people.

"Ready to go?" I asked as a playful smile tugged on my lips. It widened as I saw her nod. She could find her way around the okiya nowadays; with that aiding stick of hers that Auntie bought her last year. This helped to boost up Tomoyo's self-esteem, her smiles were more natural and beautiful now because of her newly gained confidence and contentment.

"Saa, ikuyo." I grabbed her hand and held it firmly into mine. It was a habit that I carried through most of my life. I was taught to hold her hand every time we left the okiya, to keep her away from unnecessary harms, and it was becoming hard for me not to hold it anymore. Tomoyo had grown significantly in the past six years. Her hair was as long as ever, sparkling glamorously under the pale sunlight.

She had it braided into a single bun now, tying the end of it with a violet ribbon that matched her eyes and hair perfectly. Her skin was creamy white, due to the lack of exposure under the sunlight, but it gave her the appearance of a true princess. Tomoyo was now as tall as I was, maybe a bit shorter, but it was enough for the curves of her slender body to show. Recently, every time we walked down the street together in our geisha school kimonos, people would turn to look.

We reached the end of the crowded avenue and hauled to a stop in front of an elegant apartment building. It was one of the few apartment buildings in Kyoto. The foreigners suggested to the governor of Kyoto to build these buildings to keep more lands open for other things. The building had only four floors, yet it was the tallest I had ever seen. It had a modern appearance to it that made it stand out among all the other Japanese styled buildings.

I stepped forward to push the wooden door open and guided Tomoyo toward Kyoko-san's apartment. She was an independent geisha unlike Nanako-san, which I didn't know what it meant at the time, but later did. Being independent meant living without the okiya's support but with the support of a danna, a powerful man who is attracted to the geisha and is willing to pay for everything she needs. Kyoko-san had a danna, a powerful and extremely wealthy one while Nanako-san had none.

We headed down the dimly lit corridor. The carpet covering the ground was soft, the only sound I could hear was the brushing sound created by my own shoes rubbing against the soft fur of the carpet. We arrived at the apartment with that familiar number and knocked lightly. "Chotto matte kudasai!" I heard a call from within and waited patiently as I heard the approaching footsteps of the maid.

The door opened and Kyoko-san's personal maid greeted us with a warm smile. "Come in please and make yourself comfortable." She instructed, holding the door open for Tomoyo and I while one of her hand gestured us to enter. I gave Tomoyo a little push on the back to signal her to move forward. I followed Tomoyo and took off my shoes as well, placing it neatly on the carpet at the door.

Kyoko-san had a very neat place. The apartment itself wasn't as large as mother's room in the okiya, but it was relatively large, compared to the other geishas around her age. It showed her wealthy status as a successful and independent geisha. She even had a personal maid, which Nanako-san didn't have. My eyes swept across the room and saw Kyoko-san sitting by the window, taking a sip of her tea.

She was just as graceful as the first time I had seen her. It appeared to me that time had no affect on her whatsoever; she was just as elegant and beautiful as six years ago, while most other geishas were worrying about their withering beauty and how to preserve it. She was wearing a pale blue-colored silky kimono, the ends of it spreading itself neatly on the floor, giving her the appearance of a sitting goddess, glancing down at the mortal world.

"Ah, welcome to my home Sakura-chan and Tomoyo-chan." She turned our way and flashed us a gorgeous, heartwarming smile. "Yumiko, please go get two other cups and prepare some tea for them. It is autumn again after all, and it is quite chilly outside." Kyoko-san instructed the maid, yet her tone was just as smooth and polite, unlike the other powerful women I had encountered so far. She treated her maids with respect, as fellow human beings as opposed to worthless slaves.

"Please sit down and gather around the tea table while Yumiko prepares the tea. We can begin our lesson right away." Kyoko-san smiled gently, returning the teacup to its original location with such grace in her movement. I had always been an admirer of hers… of her grace, beauty and politeness. She was flawless and perfect - a role model for the rest of us. I wanted to be just like her.

"Today, we shall begin our important lesson by defining the term geisha, and what a geisha must do and mustn't do." I straightened out my back, trying to keep the graceful posture I learned about in my geisha classes. The muscles on my back were aching ever so slightly but I managed to fight it off and folded my hands together, keeping my head titled and a small smile on my face. Geishas could not show their teeth when they were smiling; it was considered ungraceful and un-lady-like back in my days.

Kyoko-san looked at me, her eyes giving the flicker of 'go on'. I swallowed the liquid clinging onto the sides of my throat and began, trying to repeat what my teacher had taught us on the first day of my geisha lessons. "Geishas are artisans. We master different areas of arts, arranging from traditional dances to music and to tea ceremonies. Geishas must be aware of her beauty and posture at all times, and we must mask our feelings well with a simple yet spell-casting smile."

My eyes wandered its way to Kyoko-san's face, trying to read her expression but I couldn't. It was the same as before, making it impossible for me to read her mind. "Anything else you would like to add Tomoyo-chan?" She veered her gaze to Tomoyo's direction and inquired. I saw Tomoyo hesitating a bit, trying to think if there was anything missing from my definition. A thoughtful look appeared on her face as she suppressed her lips into a thin line.

"As geishas, we must shield away our true feelings and use our expressions wisely and appropriately, at the most proper time." Kyoko-san's smile widened slightly and nodded to herself.

"Very good, you both are correct, but there's something else a geisha must do as well, and it is essential to a geisha's survival in the real world." She added, her eyes glinting an enigmatic glow. It was then Yumiko entered the room, with a tray in her hands. There were two cups lining up into a single file and a small porcelain teapot, containing the herbal tea that emitted such pleasant scent.

I kept my eyes on Kyoko-san, afraid to miss anything important. "A geisha must control her feelings for a man, and never fall in love with him, no matter how charming and handsome he is, or how gentle he is to you." My lips parted as her sentence ended, revealing my surprise along with a quiet gasp. Never to fall in love… no matter how charming that man may be… The words echoed repetitively in my ears, deafening me.

"Why is that Kyoko-san?" Tomoyo questioned, her sweet voice snapping me back to the present, saving me from the taunting words. It was a question that played silently in my mind yet I hadn't had the courage to step forward and ask, the way Tomoyo did. Kyoko-san pulled the teacup to her cherry red lips again, giving it a soft blow before taking another sip.

"Because the geisha is the entertainer of many men, charming them is her duty and that allows no love. If she loves another while entertaining the other one, would she still be as successful then? Love to us, is a word with no meanings. Men are there to provide us money and wealth. There is no love involved. They like our appearance, and their hearts are swayed easily."

"They have a family, a wife of their own, do you think they would risk it all to love you? No, they won't. They just need some refreshments, something new to look at, to admire, but other than that, they want nothing from you. Men are always like that, unsatisfied with what they have. They might say they love you, but you must never take it seriously, because the next time you see him, he might be saying that to another woman."

"The concept of love is all too idealistic and unreal for us geishas. We can never rely on one man to survive, but many of them. That is why older sisters warn you before, the dangers of love, and the unfortunate events it may bring upon you. My older sister taught me to scorn love, because it is a mere illusion; an unreal concept that's played on young girl's curiosity and dreams."

"Your job as a geisha is to seduce the men; bewitch them, make them fall for your charms and take control of their mind and their easily swayed heart. Take advantage of them and make them fall at your mercy. Look at them as a tool, a stepping-stone to success. The contract between a man and a geisha can be broken easily. Everything is based on physical attraction, the geisha's witty ways of charming a man. Love is not a necessary ingredient. It is never a part of a geisha's success. The geishas who fell in love with the man they were entertaining all had a tragic ending, and I don't want to see that happening to any one of you."

A heavy silence followed Kyoko-san's speech as my childish dreams of falling in love shattered with each word. I glanced at Tomoyo's way from the corners of my eyes and saw her head lowered, the loosened strands of violet silks covering the sides of cheeks, masking her expression. A heavy dread settled in my heart as I replayed Kyoko-san's words in my mind. Never to fall in love… it is only an illusion created by our desperate minds…

"You might find it hard to believe the things I just said, but trust me. Those words are the most valuable thing you can get out of a mentor." She sighed, eyes looking down at the herbal tea in her cup. It was tepid warm, cooled down by the surrounding air. "I was once a foolish girl… I didn't listen to my older sister's words… I thought she was just scaring me… but I had to learn it the hard way…"

I stared at her in disbelief; there was something sparkling in her dark eyes, but she kept her calmness. "It happened when I was a young girl, a bit younger than you and Tomoyo. A well-known geisha in Kyoto took me into her care and became my mentor. On the first day, she warned me of the dangers and set of consequences love could bring me. But I didn't take it seriously and thought she was scaring me so I could become a better geisha."

I listened attentively, not wanting to miss anything. I was deeply intrigued. "At the first tea party I went to, my older sister introduced me to her customers and the other men that she knew of. There was a young man amongst the other elder and more mature businessmen, governors and ministers. He was just a few years older than me, yet he was very successful. I fell in love with his appearance and kindness the moment I saw him."

Kyoko-san paused, appearing to be reminiscing. "I even met him privately after the party, and he told me that he loved me too. I was enthralled and felt I was the luckiest girl on earth. For the following few weeks, he came to visit me almost every single day, telling me the kind of bright future we would have together. I believed in him, his lies, and convinced myself that things would really turn out that way."

"But I was fooled." I hear the underlying bitterness in her tone. "After the day he proposed to me, I went straight to the owner of the okiya I worked at and told her that I did not want to be a geisha anymore, and that I found someone I loved and loved me back. The owner and I got into a fight of course. I was young at the time, and did not understand the consequences of my own actions. I packed up my things, stormed out of the okiya, and went straight to where he had lived."

"I was very hopeful at the time, and waited by the gates. He eventually came down, but with a cold expression and told me to go home. I asked me if I could stay with him, after all, we were going to get married, but he simply sneered at me, telling me that he never had the intent to marry me. He had his fun, and said that I was only a toy to him." Kyoko-san paused for a moment; her voice was no longer as calm as before. It was full of emotions and bitter resentment.

"It turned out that everything was just a game. He never really loved me. It was just physical attraction. He only liked looking at me, but never took me seriously. I ended up wandering down the empty streets by myself. It was dark and cold, and I didn't have the money to check into a hotel. I was lucky to have my older sister passing by that night and taking me to her okiya for the night."

"I was heart broken, and sullen. For days I refused to eat anything or do anything. But my older sister slapped me hard across the face and snapped me back into reality. She told me to get a hold of myself and that it wasn't the end yet. I could avenge myself by entertaining men and make them fall for my charms and have them at my mercy. Later on that week, she took me back to my okiya and convinced the owner to give me another chance and that I had a bright future ahead of me, but I was young and foolish at the time and made the wrong decision."

Kyoko-san drew out a sigh, her hands cupped around the already cold cup of tea. The atmosphere became more intense and suspenseful after the story had ended. I could feel the weight of the emotions, of the bitterness and pains Kyoko-san had felt crushing down onto my shoulder and chest. It was a long moment of silence, and none of us attempted to start a conversation.

"Now do you understand why I told you never to love anyone? Especially not the man you're entertaining. We, as geishas, must draw an invisible line between us and the person we are entertaining. We must watch our steps, and where we are going. We cannot let ourselves get too close and attached to that person, nor can we allow ourselves to be seen as distant, icy beauties who don't know how to love. You must give them the false impression that you're in love, but in your heart, you know you don't love them."

She paused for a moment to let the words sink. I felt my heart skipping a beat as she glanced at my way. It made me uneasy and nervous as if I was trying to hide an ugly secret from her. My hands were quavering, but I managed to make it barely noticeable. 'Stay calm… Sakura… stay calm…' I instructed myself to even my breathing again. The cold perspiration was trickling down my forehead, and I felt an urgency to brush them away, but that movement would give away my current nervous, panicking state.

The image of Syaoran kept on reappearing before my eyes as my heart thudded a guilty beat. I wasn't sure at the moment of what I felt toward him. Was it a mere infatuation? Or something else… Before I could even dwell on these thoughts, Kyoko-san clapped her hands together, producing a relatively loud sound that disturbed the tranquility of the room. I snapped my head upward and stared at her.

"Aside from that, there is going to be a tea party at the Mizuki's. Many powerful men will be there." A culled smile appeared on her cherry red lips as she saw the astonished look in my eyes. "I will be taking you two to the party and it will be up to you to charm them and impress them with your talents as an apprentice geisha. Now we need to go over a few basic things…"

I looked down at the jadestone in my hands. I usually put it into the hidden pocket of my kimono when I left the okiya so it was within my reach whenever I needed its comfort… and at that moment, I truly did. My mind was confused and scared. But I knew I was different from Kyoko-san. Syaoran never said anything about wanting to be my friend. Our encounter was so brief; ending the moment it had started.

It was only me who was drawn to him, and so fascinated by him. Even after all those years, my heart still longed to see his face again… I tightened my grip around the jadestone, applying a force that was nearly crushing it. The pain felt at that moment provided a temporary distraction for my confused mind and aching heart.

I wasn't listening to Kyoko-san's instructions; I couldn't. Everything around me was slowly fading away, all the sounds became silence, and soundless. I stared into the sky outside, my chest tightening.

Never to love the man you're entertaining…

Love is only a mere illusion…

But is it?

Soon I would find out the answer to my question; soon he would show me what love is really like; soon I would see him again…

Until then, I simply gazed at the hazy whiteness before me, waiting for what the future had in store for me.

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A./N: Withered Petals has been divided up into two parts, with Childhood as its first part, and Ephemeral Dreams as the second part.