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[personal profile] glitterburn
Title: East Wind Melts The Ice
Fandom: TVXQ
Pairing: Changmin/Yunho
Rating: R
Summary: In a society built on hierarchy, Changmin knows his place—until the careful order of ownership is thrown into disarray by a mysterious stranger who breaks all the rules.
Notes: AU. For [ profile] thier_sess, a mash-up of things talked about on Twitter ♥ Set vaguely in the late 17th century. | For those unfamiliar with this period of Japanese history: Yoshiwara/the Five Streets was the licensed pleasure-quarter built outside Edo. Women were displayed in cages attached to the front of brothels. A kagema was a crossdressing male prostitute, often connected with Kabuki theatre and often, but not exclusively, an onnagata (female role actors). | The quote from The Tale of Genji is from Royall Tyler’s translation (Ch.26, Tokonatsu; p.470 of the unabridged edition, 2001). | The title is from the Chinese almanac, which was used historically in Japan.

East Wind Melts the Ice

The sun is brutal. Hanging low in the sky, its light is harsh and unforgiving. Changmin has nowhere to hide. The shadows of the wooden bars cut across the hems of his kimono and under-gowns, and stripe across the silk-wrapped koto at his feet. He keeps his chin up, lips pressed into a line, and fixes his gaze on the slate-grey rooftop of one of the finer establishments two streets away.

Beneath the padded layers of his garments, he’s cold. Winter has been harsh this year. Though the snows have gone, in the mornings the ground is still riven with frost. The beaten earth floor of the brothel’s cage is as hard as iron. Despite the wooden clogs he wears, he feels the creep of frost through his feet and worries for his koto.

She is not used to such treatment. Usually he keeps her in a cherry wood box in his sleeping chamber; usually he takes her out and touches her silken strings by candlelight, on his knees before her with the scent of orchids or plum blossoms between them. Only when his mind is quiet and all due reverence has been paid will she sing for him.

Red Dappled Silk is the most precious thing he owns. She does not deserve to lie on the ground like some common object, but since she played a role in his transgression, she must share his punishment.

Changmin focuses on his breathing. He can’t be seen to be like the men clustered on the other side of the cage. Their breaths puff clouds of heat into the frigid air. He inhales and exhales slow and shallow. To the men it will seem as if he scarcely draws breath at all.

“Look at him,” they say to one another. “He truly is as cold as ice. Ah, to be the one who thaws that beauty and makes him burn!”

Perhaps the glare of the sun is a blessing. It casts the faces of his audience into shadow, although he can tell from their clothes and their accents that Yoshiwara servants and shopkeepers stand amongst the merchants and men of greater worth. Some are still drunk from a night of excess, but others are alert and talkative. Without fail, all are eager to witness his humiliation, cried aloud up and down the Five Streets as soon as day dawned.

The artist Moronobu slips between the crowd and stares through the bars with fixed intensity. He studies Changmin’s kimono of black watered silk; plain above the obi, red and green leaves fall beneath it to swirl around the trailing hem. The obi itself is heavy grey striped with leaf-green and sewn with silver thread. Changmin wears three under-robes, the first patterned red and white, the second pure white, and the third pale grey. His hair, worn long in defiance of the orders of the shogunate, is arranged in the split peach style and dressed with pins of tortoiseshell and silver.

“Tamakazura,” Moronobu says, recognising the outfit as one Changmin wore in the Kabuki play that had made him one of the most celebrated onnagata in all of Edo. “Will you be like that lady, I wonder, endlessly rejecting suitors?”

One of the men standing nearby laughs. “A kagema can’t afford to reject suitors. A friend of mine had him for one hundred monme of silver. Best three hours of his life, my friend said.”

“Your friend is to be envied,” another man calls out. “When I fucked him, the pleasure cost four times that amount. I have no complaints, though—the Prince of Ice knows how to make a man die of ecstasy. Despite his name, he’s hot and tight inside, and oh, his mouth...”

“That must’ve been after the success of The Love Suicides at Katsuragawa,” a third man says, sounding aggrieved. “His master Kazen raised his price around that time. I’d saved enough for one night, but when I went to make the arrangements, the go-between told me it would cost more. Curse those pimps from Kyoto! They don’t care about love, all they want is money!”

Moronobu turns to the men. “He’s skilled with his mouth, you say? How unusual.” His fingers twitch as if he already holds a brush in his hand.

“Look closely,” the second man says, pointing through the bars. “Even with the make-up you can surely see the lushness of his lips. Now imagine them slicked wet with wine, the paint smearing as he takes your cock in that pretty mouth. The pleasure is beyond belief, friend! As good as sinking into a juicy cunt. No, better!”

The other men laugh and agree. “You should draw him like that,” someone says to Moronobu. “I have every print you’ve produced with his likeness and would happily buy more—especially if your next series depicted the joys of springtime.”

Changmin stares so hard at the rooftop that his eyes water. He blinks away the moisture and grits his teeth. He has all of Moronobu’s prints, too, rolled up and tucked safe inside a lacquered box. He takes them out sometimes and looks at them, a succession of his most famous roles: the lovesick maiden Otane, the fox-bride Kuzunoha, and eight different images of Tamakazura.

Two of the pictures show him with the koto. A year ago, Moronobu had paid a small fortune merely to kneel in Changmin’s reception room and draw Red Dappled Silk. Now Changmin sits alone in the cage that fronts this fifth-class brothel, his services available to any man bold enough to throw down a coin.

But though the crowd grows as the sun climbs higher and the day warms, no one has the courage to buy what already belongs to another.

Moronobu looks back at Changmin. “Perhaps I should do a springtime series,” he says. “From what I hear, the Prince of Ice will soon be taken from our admiring gaze.”

“You heard right,” one of the others says. “Sakabe Doya has offered for him. Five hundred gold ryo.”

“I heard seven hundred,” someone else puts in, and the crowd buzzes with argument and counter-argument as they try to agree on Changmin’s price.

“What is it, O Prince of Ice?” Moronobu leans against the bars, smirking. “No man here can match Master Sakabe’s riches. I doubt even the shogun can claim to have more wealth at hand. How much are you worth?”

Changmin lowers his gaze, veiling his eyes with his lashes. He wishes he could get up and go inside. Even though the brothel is a foul, ill-smelling place crawling with lice and full of women who loathe him for scaring off whatever poor trade usually comes their way, their scorn is preferable to this awful humiliation. But he can’t leave the cage, not until the auntie who runs this house gives him permission—or until one of these men buys his favours.

“Doesn’t matter how much Sakabe is paying for him,” the second man says. “For the next ten days he’s worth as much as one of the broken-down whores in this dump. A few coppers, isn’t that right?”

“I believe so,” says Moronobu, “but are you willing to risk Sakabe’s wrath?”

The second man utters a nervous laugh. “Not me. Sakabe is a rabid dog when crossed. He’s had men killed simply for jostling against his palanquin in a crowded street.”

Mutters of agreement. Tension curls through Changmin. He tries to relax, but it’s impossible. He must endure ten full days of this, and all because he refused to play the koto for Sakabe Doya.

Two days ago, his master Kazen informed Changmin that someone had offered to buy his freedom and clear his debts. After twenty years in Kazen’s house, the costs of his keeping, his training in song and dance and the arts of love, not to mention the expense of his wardrobe, had all ensured that Changmin’s debts were as vast and deep as the ocean. He had made Kazen rich, but he could never hope to recoup the outlay his master had spent on him. Few courtesans ever gained their freedom through their own efforts; most clung to the hope of being sold as a minor wife or concubine to a besotted patron, but Changmin had no such hope. Kagema made poor wives and worse concubines.

And then Sakabe had offered for him. Of the merchant class and possessing almost unimaginable wealth, Sakabe’s taste for the finest, rarest, and most expensive things in life was matched only by his vicious temper. Changmin knew of two onnagata who’d temporarily enjoyed Sakabe’s patronage. One of them was beaten half to death for speaking out of turn. The other had one eye gouged out when Sakabe caught the boy flirting with one of his retainers.

As for the kagema he’d bought... Rumour had it that Sakabe had killed any number of boys from Kyoto and Osaka when they displeased him, or he’d abandoned them in remote places like Dewa and Mutsu, where they’d put an end to their lives rather than suffer more misfortune.

None of this mattered to Kazen. He was overjoyed by the offer of seven hundred ryo for Changmin’s contract, but like the cunning snake he was, Kazen tried to drive the price higher by insisting that Sakabe court Changmin publically for a month before the contract was exchanged.

“Since your retirement from the stage, your popularity has only grown,” Kazen told Changmin. “I boasted to Sakabe of how much you made from the endorsements of face powder and perfumes and the silk merchant’s shop, and I let him peek at the names on your client list. He said he would pay a thousand ryo to possess you, but once I suggested a period of courtship, he again said seven hundred... but then he agreed to throw a party in the Five Streets to celebrate the evening of your union, and he will pay for everything.”

Kazen’s eyes gleamed with avaricious glee. “Everything. Only think of the money to be made on food and drink alone! Then he’ll need entertainers—geisha, courtesans, tumblers, rope-walkers, and then all the attendants, and the hiring of the teahouses and the paying of bribes to the gatekeeper and the watchmen, and...”

Knowing his wishes were immaterial, Changmin stayed silent and let his master babble on. At length Kazen realised his lack of interest and rounded on him, calling him an ingrate.

“You may be the Prince of Ice, but you will melt for Sakabe, do you understand? You owe everything to me: your success, your abilities, the clothes on your back, the way you walk—it’s all thanks to Father and I. If we hadn’t taken you in, you’d have died on the streets like any other unwanted brat. You will show your appreciation. You’ll smile and flatter and sing and dance for Sakabe when he calls on you, and you’ll make sure that he knows you’re worth every last copper coin I intend to squeeze out of him in return for your freedom.”

Changmin stared at his master. “I do not owe you everything.”

Kazen had opened and closed his mouth like a carp. “What?”

“My skill with the koto. That had nothing to do with you or your father.” Keeping his expression blank, Changmin had left the room, the breath frozen in his throat at his audacity. But what could Kazen do? He wouldn’t risk harming Changmin, not when so much money was at stake, and if he locked Changmin in his rooms, the clients would complain.

Kazen could do nothing. The thought pleased Changmin very much.

But then came his first encounter with Sakabe. Although he’d decided to be as calm and gracious as he was with all his clients, the meeting was a disaster. Sakabe had sat on the triple-banded tatami with a cup of the most expensive wine in Edo and he’d stared at Changmin with lustful greed, and then he’d demanded that Changmin perform for him.

“The koto,” Sakabe said. “I have heard much of your skill. Your fingering is said to be divine. Let one of the servants fetch your instrument. I want you to play for me.”

Kazen nodded and made gestures for him to agree, but Changmin couldn’t. “Your Excellency,” he said, bowing, “I regret Red Dappled Silk sings only when she chooses and not at my command. Though I may be able to coax some paltry tune from her, it would not be worthy of your ears.”

It was clear from the look on Sakabe’s face that few people had ever denied him anything. He put down his wine cup. “You will play for me.”

Changmin met his gaze. “I cannot. To achieve true purity of sound, I must be in a space unencumbered by sordid reminders of the material world.”

“You dare to call me sordid?” Furious, Sakabe lurched to his feet. The wine spilled, staining the tatami and puddling on the floor. Seizing his riding crop, Sakabe went to strike Changmin.

Kazen threw himself forward. “Not his face, Your Excellency! Don’t mark his face!”

Changmin didn’t flinch. He remained absolutely still and let Sakabe rage and threaten him, and then the merchant hurled the whip aside.

“If you want to make good on this sale, you’ll punish this whore for his insolence,” Sakabe snapped. “I am leaving the city on business. Until I return and renegotiate his price, put him on display in the cage of the lowest brothel in Yoshiwara. Let him sit there between the hours of the Dragon and the Rooster for ten full days.”

Kazen blinked in confusion. “But Your Illustriousness, the boy-brothels are here in Yoshicho.”

Sakabe stared down at Changmin, the slow poison of damaged pride festering in his eyes. “I want him amongst the diseased and age-ridden women in a fifth-class brothel. I want him to know the ignominy of sinking so low. And make it known that, like the cheapest whore, he’s available to any man with a couple of coppers to spare.”

Changmin had wondered then if anyone would be brave enough or stupid enough to take Sakabe’s declaration on faith. He wonders the same now. The whole of Yoshiwara, it seems, has come to witness his shame, and yet though they all talk of buying him, though they inflame one another with boasts of what they’d do to him, no one dares to cast down even the smallest, meanest coin.

Ten days of this will drive him witless.

The sun has warmed the earth at his feet. The stink of damp earth and effluent rises, spoiling the scent of sandalwood and aloes burned into his clothes. Behind him, through the tattered blue curtain, he hears one of the whores arguing with the auntie who runs this place. The sound is more disturbing than the mutterings of the crowd in front of him. Changmin closes his eyes. The crowd draws breath. Inside the house, the whore utters a scream and begins to sob.

His silks crumpling around him, Changmin slides from his seat onto his knees. The tiny silver bells on his hairpins chime. The crowd beyond the wooden bars takes a step closer, watching him avidly.

Changmin unwraps the koto from the silk. It’s expensive, in shades of dappled red to match her name. He rests his hands on her body, then makes slight adjustments to the ivory bridges supporting the twisted silken strings. The whore’s sobs continue unabated within the brothel. Changmin runs one hand the length of the thirteen strings. His vision blurs, the woman’s misery digging into him. He doesn’t have the jade picks he habitually uses when he plays, but no matter. Red Dappled Silk wants to sing, and he will obey.

He plucks a note, lets it slide, then adds another. It’s not a tune, he realises as he lets the music shiver, quiet at first and then with more force. The koto is mimicking the whore’s anger, but where that ended in tears, this builds to become something beautiful and powerful. It rolls through him, sweeter than orgasm, deeper than love, as endless as death. The music swells, embraces the sound of all instruments, and then it stops, sharp and sudden.

Changmin jerks out of the trance that had held him fast. His breaths are rapid, almost gasping. Sweat streaks his body beneath the silk. He feels dizzy, the world around him tilting. He looks up, trying to focus on the crowd, but the faces and figures blur. The silver bells chime again. He’s trembling. He curls his hands inside his sleeves, feeling the tenderness on the pads of his fingers where the strings bit into his skin.

The sun burns white. He stares right into its face then looks away, dazzled, dark spots dancing in front of his eyes. The crowd murmurs and shifts, and then someone is standing directly in front of him, protecting him from the glare, casting him into shadow.

Changmin blinks, still sun-blind. He sees a man, tall and handsome and with a smile that’s white and terrifying. Accustomed to the cosmetically-blackened teeth of courtesans and the tobacco-stained teeth of his clients, such whiteness is wrong. Like an animal’s teeth, small and sharp.

He scarcely has time to process the oddity of the stranger’s appearance, for a moment later a handful of gold ryo tumbles through the bars to lie glittering in the dirt.

There’s a collective gasp from the crowd, and then a long silence.

Changmin leans forward and picks up one of the coins. It’s warm in his hand.

“Hey.” A familiar voice makes Changmin look up again. Uemon the tofu-seller has wriggled through the press of people and is trying to make the acquaintance of the stranger, who gazes first at the koto and then at Changmin.

Uemon is persistent. “Hey, friend. You look like you’re new to the Five Streets. You probably don’t know how things are done around here.” His smile is ingratiating, his tone wheedling as he tugs on the stranger’s sleeve. “If you have gold to spend, you shouldn’t throw it into the mud.”

The stranger shakes off Uemon’s hand. “And yet the most beautiful flower grows from the mud.”

Changmin’s lips part. He’s glad of the thick layer of make-up covering his confusion.

Uemon seems just as surprised by the misplaced gallantry. “Friend, let me give you a word of advice. This isn’t the right house for you. This is nothing. Let me show you to the high-class teahouses where the most beautiful courtesans await your pleasure. I can make all the necessary introductions. I’m sure that even Ohisa, the most celebrated courtesan in the district, will alter her schedule for a man like you—and her appointments are booked months in advance!”

Curling one hand around the bars, the stranger says, “I don’t want a woman.”

“Not a problem.” Uemon doesn’t miss a beat. “There are plenty of pretty boys available, though the best are in the city. A good friend of mine owns a teahouse in Yoshicho. He hosts all the famous onnagata. I’d be delighted to introduce you...”

The stranger’s grip tightens, his gaze locked on Changmin. “I don’t want a boy, either.”

Uemon stares, utterly bewildered. “Then what do you want?”

* * *

In deference to the gold coins, the auntie gives Changmin the best room in the brothel. It’s scarcely half the size of his parlour in Kazen’s house. Though it smells of damp wood and cheap fragrance and the sourness of bodies, at least it seems mostly clean and free of vermin.

The tatami is ragged at the edges. There’s only one futon, where at Kazen’s house he sleeps on three. There’s no alcove containing a beautiful flower arrangement or elegant scroll; nothing to focus the mind and give pleasure to the senses. This is a base room used for base activities.

Changmin kneels on the tatami, his skirts artfully arranged around him. Red Dappled Silk sits beside him. Her notes still echo, calling for him to play again, but he keeps his hands in his lap. He waits, listening to the rough talk of the whores in the corridor as they discuss the stranger. A foreigner, obviously, by his speech and strangeness of dress and his hair, but foreigners are rarely permitted beyond the ports with which they trade. The whores decide he’s an envoy from some far-off place, come to visit the shogun. Only a foreigner would go about unaccompanied with so much wealth on his person. Only a foreigner would come to a fifth-class brothel and spend good coin on a disgraced kagema.

The whores scatter about their business as a door opens. The floorboards creak as the auntie leads the stranger along the hall. The door to his room slides open. Changmin bows, both hands on the mat. He keeps his head low, but not low enough to reveal his unpainted nape. That will come later, once he has the measure of his client.

He waits until the auntie leaves, closing the door after her, and then he says, “Forgive me for receiving you in such humble surroundings, my lord.”

“I am not a lord.” The stranger sounds amused.

“My apologies, Excellency.”

Now the stranger snorts. “I have no title. Just a name.”

Changmin rises from his bow and looks up. “And what is your name?”

“I would have your name first.” The stranger is lounging against the wall, arms folded, his gaze quicksilver bright as he studies the room. He looks at the koto again, then at Changmin, and he smiles. It’s warm and inviting, his smile. “But tell me your real name, not that Prince of Ice epithet the crowd was tossing around like chaff.”

Truly this man is a foreigner. Changmin knows his reputation is widespread across the Three Cities. Men used to journey to Edo from Kyoto and Osaka just for a glimpse of him on stage. Perhaps he should be insulted that the stranger doesn’t know who he is, but it’s refreshing and somehow liberating. He smiles in return. “My name is Changmin.”

The stranger bows. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Yunho.”

Changmin peeps at him, watching as Yunho pushes away from the wall and moves around the room. So much restless energy; it almost shines from him. Changmin has been trained all his life to be still and passive, only able to show his feelings through performance, whether song or dance or conversation or sex. Yunho has exuberance and courage, and Changmin wonders what it must be like to be so free with one’s emotions.

Of course, only a foreigner could act in such a way. Yunho seems oblivious to all the rules regarding assignations. He should be praising Changmin’s beauty by now, or—since this is a fifth-class brothel and such niceties are left unobserved—Changmin should be in the skylark ascending position with his skirts pulled up and his ass in the air.

Instead, Yunho is still ranging around the room, looking at and touching objects with interest as if he’s never seen the like before. Perhaps he hasn’t, Changmin thinks; perhaps there are no low-class brothels in whichever province or country Yunho calls his home. No dirty tatami or thin futons or racks of threadbare clothes.

Changmin turns his head to follow Yunho’s progress. He is handsome, and not in the usual way. He has small, sharp features set in a narrow face with a pointed chin, and he moves with a sure-footed grace that makes Changmin feel large and clumsy in comparison. His hair is the colour of cherry wood, cut short and textured like feathers or fur rather than smoothed back and dressed with oil.

His garments are silk, pale shades mixed with bold colours in combinations that make no sense, and the patterns... They aren’t like the printed silks sold in the city with patterns of checks and stripes and flowers and trees. They’re odd, as if someone had described a pattern from an imperfect memory and Yunho had made the print himself. The scent burned into them is just as peculiar, like ink and cinnamon, warm fur and wet grass.

“You are not from Edo,” Changmin says when the silence is too great to bear. “Your accent, your garments...”

Yunho crouches to examine the koto. “I am from a place west and north of here.”

Changmin thinks. He has only a hazy idea of which provinces lie where, and guesses, “Hizen?”

“Close enough.” Yunho circles around to sit on the tatami. “Why did the artist call you Tamakazura?”

Startled, for he hadn’t seen Yunho in the crowd when Moronobu made that statement, Changmin says, “It is my most famous role. The playwright Ki no Kaion wrote it for me.”

“She was a virtuous woman, this Tamakazura?” Yunho gestures at Changmin’s obi, tied at the back like a respectable woman rather than knotted at the front like a whore’s sash.

His ignorance is touching, and Changmin laughs. “You never saw the play?”

Yunho smiles. “No.”

“I believe the Nakajimaya theatre is reviving it.”

“But you won’t be in it, so watching it would be a waste of time.”

Changmin releases some of the tension he’s been holding. Yunho is flirting with him. This is more like it. He understands this, can control it. He dips his head, coquettish and teasing. “You flatter me.”

For a moment Yunho looks puzzled, then he smiles again. “No.”

Confusion draws Changmin’s brows together. Every time he thinks he has the measure of this man, things shift and leave him grasping after nothing.

“Tamakazura is the lady in the west wing in The Tale of Genji,” he says, taking refuge in the certainty of his own knowledge. “She is the daughter of Genji’s best friend, To no Chujo. She flees from an unwanted marriage and Genji takes her into his home without revealing her whereabouts to To no Chujo. Genji falls in love with her, and perhaps she falls a little in love with him, but she resists his advances and rejects all other suitors.”

Yunho tilts his head. “How singular.”

“She wants to choose her own husband.” Changmin stares at his hands in his lap. “She is a plaything of fate, anchored for a time in a safe haven only for storms to come and blow her to different shores. Other women in her position in the tale put on grey robes and become nuns, but she determines to marry where she wills.”

“I see.” The amusement is back in Yunho’s voice. “And does she love the man she chooses to wed?”

Changmin looks at him. “No. He is a fool, beneath her in every way.”

“Then why did she marry him?”

“Because it was her decision.”

A long silence falls. Footsteps pass by in the hall outside. He can smell tobacco smoke from somewhere. A few rays of winter sunshine force their way through the cracks in the wooden walls, dust flitting and dancing in the light.

“Few things are truly my decision,” Changmin says, his voice scarcely above a whisper. He doesn’t want the auntie to overhear and report his words to Kazen. “When I was younger and in my prime, I could pick and choose from amongst my suitors. Now I am a falling flower, my master urges me to accept every man with coin to spend.”

“They are all beneath you,” Yunho murmurs, gaze dark, his face expressionless.

“Some want me because they think I’m beautiful. Others want me because they’ve been told I’m beautiful.” Changmin pauses, his mouth twisting. “Some want me because I’m famous or because I’m expensive. Some want me because I’m a man. Some prefer me to be a woman, and others want me to be both.” He looks at Yunho, the silver bells chiming on his hairpins. “Sometimes I don’t know who I am.”

Yunho considers, then says, “You are a koto player.”

Another unexpected answer. Changmin pulls himself out of his mood and laughs, more startled than amused. “Like Tamakazura. That’s why the role was written for me, you know. Because of my skill with the koto. ‘It has no deep secrets’,” he quotes lightly, “‘but I doubt that it is easy to play genuinely well’.”

“Oh, it’s very difficult to play well,” Yunho agrees, “but as for having no secrets... That is a foolish thing to say. All musical instruments have secrets, and this koto holds many.” He flicks a hand towards Red Dappled Silk. “Play her for me?”

Changmin knows he should hesitate. He should demur and protest his humble skills, but Yunho has already heard him play, and besides, the koto whispers to him, offering her music. He moves her closer and gathers his concentration. The only thing of beauty in this room is Yunho, but to look upon a lover while playing is considered shallow. Instead he fixes his gaze on the patterned silk of Yunho’s robe.

He plays. An old melody at first, ‘You Shall Have Shade’, and though the lyrics push at him, he keeps them locked inside. Red Dappled Silk needs no accompaniment.

Changmin bends over the koto, fingers travelling the length of the instrument, plucking, soothing, grazing the edge of his thumbnail across all the strings in a wide sweep. Notes flurry and swirl, resonating through him, and he plays variations that segue into something new and dark and sonorous.

Yunho sits rapt, his eyes closed, a smile of delight softening his features. The music flows around him, almost tangible, almost visible, and he responds to it with easy, open sensuality.

Changmin lifts his hands from the koto. The final scattering of notes hangs in the air, vibrating and fading, and then there’s silence.

He’s trembling. Arousal has him in its grasp. Changmin exhales a shaking breath. Sometimes this happens, the music wakening desire in him, but never has it happened when he’s with a client.

Yunho opens his eyes and looks at Changmin, expression hazy. He blinks, then sits forward and takes Changmin’s hands, turning them over. They both look at the red marks on the pads of Changmin’s fingers, at the raw lines scraped up the sides of his thumbs from the koto’s strings.

“No more today, I think,” Yunho says.

Changmin stares at him. Yunho’s touch is both rough and soft, a contradiction he doesn’t understand. Longing overwhelms him. He wants to be held. “Now,” Changmin says, struggling to regain his poise, “now would you like...”

“What I would like,” Yunho says, giving him a slow, gleaming look, “is for you to take off your make-up.”

The request is strange. Changmin fumbles with a reply. “I can’t do that. After you are done with me, I must go back outside into the cage. I can’t let them see me without make-up. It’s... it...”

“The illusion would be ruined,” Yunho says. “I understand.” He lets go of Changmin’s hands and rises to his feet, adjusting the fall of his garments.

“But,” Changmin protests, unable to believe that Yunho paid all that money simply to hear him play one tune, “do you require nothing else of me?”

“Not today.” Yunho bows to him, far deeper than necessary, and then he smiles and takes his leave.

* * *

The following day, the crowd outside the fifth-class brothel is much bigger. No doubt they’ve gathered to see if the foreigner dares to engage Changmin’s services a second time.

The whores go out and accost the curious onlookers. Since they’re banned from the cage for the duration of Changmin’s punishment, they have to ply their trade somehow, and they may as well take advantage of the glut of men who’ve come to stare.

Changmin watches the women move through the crowd. Today he is dressed as Kuzunoha, wearing a kimono of pale red decorated with the leaves of the kuzu plant oversewn with swirling golden clouds. His obi is black and orange, printed with chrysanthemums and camellias. His under-robes are red and green, and his hair ornaments are of gold and mother-of-pearl. Red Dappled Silk rests at his feet on several overlapping scraps of tatami.

As the hour of the Dragon draws to a close, Yunho appears. The crowd parts for him, silent as he throws another handful of gold ryo through the bars.

The blue curtain is whisked back and the auntie rushes out, almost tripping over her skirts in her haste to collect the coins. Changmin picks up Red Dappled Silk and carries her inside.

Today more effort has been made with the assignation room. The floor has been swept and a lamp sputters with an indifferent flame. The torn tatami has been replaced and a fresh green smell fills the air. Changmin sets down his koto and kneels, conscious of the thrill tickling through him. He doesn’t know if it comes from Red Dappled Silk, who seems eager to sing again, or if it’s due to the thought of closer acquaintance with Yunho.

The door slides open and Yunho comes in. He bows low to Changmin. The auntie, who had not yet shut the door, stares at Yunho, her eyes wide with astonishment. He straightens and dismisses her faltering offer of wine with a flick of his fingers, and then the door is closed and they’re left alone.

“A report of your peculiar gallantry will be all over the Five Streets within the hour,” Changmin says, smiling. “It is I who should bow to you, not the other way around.”

“You play the koto.” Yunho settles himself on the tatami.

“And do you bow to everyone who plays the koto?” Changmin asks, raising his eyebrows, mouth pressed into a line to stop his laughter.

Yunho flashes him a teasing look. “Impudent creature, of course not. I would grow dizzy and fall over. No, I only bow to true masters.”

The reply flusters Changmin. He draws back a little. “You have travelled. You must know of many people who play better than I.”

“Only one,” Yunho says, voice soft and musing, “and she is dead.”

A tiny sliver of jealousy stabs at Changmin. He ignores it, lays his hands on Red Dappled Silk, and smiles. “Shall I play for you?”


Changmin prepares himself. Today he brought with him the jade picks, and he slips them onto his first and third fingers, onto his thumbs. He gazes into the lamp’s flame to find the focus required, then tilts his head and passes his hands over the strings. He doesn’t touch them; not yet. He feels the vibration in the air as she reaches up to him, telling him which tune she wants to sing. He listens, lets the melody take shape in his mind, then he begins to play.

Red Dappled Silk sighs beneath his touch. Her sound is like liquid fire. He loses himself in her, sinking deeper as they weave magic together.

He breaks free of the music only when Yunho places a hand across the strings and says, “It is the hour of the Horse. Rest now.”

Breathless, his heart racing, Changmin sits back on his knees with a long sigh.

Yunho offers him a cup of wine. “She can be demanding.”

“Yes.” Changmin drinks. He’s expecting the foul-tasting watered slop served by this house, but instead the wine is sweet and potent.

“From Mount Koya,” Yunho says. “A very good vintage.”

Changmin wonders when the wine arrived. It must have been when he was playing; he never notices the passing of time when he plays. If he wasn’t even aware of Yunho watching him today, he certainly wouldn’t have noticed the auntie or anyone else bringing in the wine.

He drinks some more. It’s exquisite, finer than anything he’s tasted before. He drains the cup.

Yunho fills it from the ceramic jar beside him, then lifts it to his own lips and takes a sip. Then he turns the cup and passes it to Changmin. “A little more?”

“Thank you.” Changmin takes another drink. He’s being indecorous, swilling this expensive wine as if it was water, and he sets it aside after one mouthful.

Smiling, Yunho takes back the cup and drinks down the remainder before pouring another full measure. He nudges it towards Changmin.

It really is good wine. Changmin reaches for it, then stops. It wouldn’t do for him to lose his head. He usually takes alcohol in moderation so he can stay in control. Already he can feel the warmth of the Koya wine slow-sliding through him, pulling at his senses. With regret he pushes the cup away and shakes his head.

Yunho acknowledges his decision and drinks the rest of the wine himself.

Red Dappled Silk still wants to sing. Changmin touches her again. This time her tune is simple, little more than fingering exercises, chords merging and swooping with effortless grace.

“How did you come to this life?” Yunho asks.

Changmin stops playing for a moment. The strings hum beneath his hands. “My tale is no different to that of many, many others.”

“Perhaps. But you have a koto, and others do not.”

This time Changmin flattens his palms across Red Dappled Silk and stares at Yunho. “Have you been asking about me? I hope you were discreet. My master will already know of the time you spend here, and the gold. If he knows you’re making enquiries about my past, he may get ideas.”

Yunho looks at him, eyes very bright. “What kind of ideas?”

Surely a man cannot be so ignorant. Changmin huffs a sigh. “Enquiring into my background usually denotes interest.”

“I’m interested.” Putting down the cup, Yunho leans forward and smiles.

Changmin closes his eyes for a moment and clenches his jaw. He reminds himself that Yunho is different. Foreign. Untutored in how things are done here. Yunho’s interest is innocent curiosity, nothing more. There’s no point in hoping—

“I was indentured when I was six years old,” Changmin says, putting a stop to the direction of his thoughts. “I have no memory of my parents and know only that I was sold by a woman in a blue kimono without crests. Perhaps she was my mother. Perhaps she was a servant. Old Uncle, Kazen’s father, didn’t know her. Plenty of women came to him offering their sons for sale. I was one of several boys he bought that year.”

He remembers the time with detachment. There’d been one boy who’d become his friend, and then Old Uncle had sold the lad on to a travelling troupe of actors bound for the Kanazawa domain. From that he’d learned not to get too attached to anyone.

Changmin lets go of the memory and speaks without a scrap of self-pity. “When I was still a child, I used to think I’d been stolen away from my family as part of an elaborate revenge. As I grew older, I accepted that it didn’t matter. No one was coming for me. No one would save me. This is my life; this is the path I have to tread.”

“What of the koto?” Yunho asks.

“It is the only link I have to any kind of family history, but its significance is still a puzzle.” Changmin shrugs lightly. “The woman in the blue kimono told Old Uncle that though I was for sale, the koto was not. She said the koto belonged to me and me alone, and could never be sold or given away unless I chose to do so.” He touches Red Dappled Silk, a loving caress the length of her body. “I could never part with her.”

They sit in silence for a while. When Changmin looks up, he sees Yunho frowning as if deep in thought.

Another moment passes and then Yunho gets to his feet, taking the wine-jar and the cup with him. He strides to the door with a jaunty step, then turns back and bows. “I will call upon you again tomorrow at the same hour.”

Changmin gazes at him. “But...”

“Until tomorrow.” Yunho smiles and is gone.

* * *

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