I put bowls of rice and soup on the table before turning around. My parents ran a tavern and every day I helped them. Since I was the only daughter so it was my job. Although to tell the truth I didn't really like the job. I walked past the crowded tavern. It seemed tonight would be a busy night. I halted when I felt hand on my waist. I took the hand, turning around.
"Look at what I find here. A hand," I said to a grinning fat man, still holding his big hand.
"Hello Nami, you look pretty tonight."
"Thank you," I said. I gave small smile and then twisted the hand.
"I'm sorry! Nami, I'm sorry!"
I ignored cheers from other patrons, leaning to say in the man's ear. "Keep your hand or next time I'll put it in your soup." I released his hand and walked toward kitchen. A heavy sigh escaped from my mouth when my mother approached me.
"What are you doing? What if they won't come again?"
"That's better," I mumbled.
I looked aside, rolling eyes. Thankfully my father came in before my mother could explode.
"Saeko, that's enough. Nami, why don't you take the order?"
I nodded at my father. I glanced at my angry mother and went to kitchen. "I hate this job," I mumbled. I approached my aunt, Marilyn. She was pouring soup into bowls. "Where's the order?"
"Here. Another rude man?"
I nodded, taking the tray from her. "Just this or there's another?" I took another tray from Marilyn and was about to turn around when she called me.
"Nami, I have something for you. Come to my room after close, okay?"
I gave a nod and smile. At least my aunt was very nice. Marilyn was my father's sister. She lived with us and helped with the tavern. I had thought Marilyn as my older sister. I couldn't wait to see what the present was.
I was cleaning up the table when someone called my name. "What are you doing here?"
"What do you think?"
"Wow, tonight was crowded."
"Yeah," I mumbled a reply while wiping table. After cleaning, I turned to Asahi and Hinata. They were my best friends. We had been grown up together. "Why don't you help me?"
"We're guests," Hinata said but then chuckled. "Sure."
"Let's go then," Asahi said.
After closing the tavern, we went to Marilyn's room. I was lying on Marilyn's bed with Asahi beside me. Marilyn was helping Hinata with her long hair. "So, what is it you want to give to me?"
"Oops, forgot it," Marilyn said. She took something from her kosode. It was a folded paper.
I took it from her. "What's this?"
"Open it," Marilyn said.
I unfolded the paper. "Sarukawa's…group…performance?"
"Sarukawa's!?" Asahi gasped.
"That Sarukawa's!? Ouch, my hair!" Hinata cried.
I turned to Asahi who suddenly jerked body up, and then to Hinata who cried as her hair stuck on the brush.
"I told you not to move," Marilyn said to the crying girl.
Asahi suddenly grabbed the paper from my hand.
"It's Sarukawa's group performance. How did you get it?" Asahi asked.
"You know me," Marilyn said and winked at Asahi. She then looked back at Hinata. "I say don't move."
"Do you know that?" I asked, curious a little.
"You don't know about this? Where have you been Nami? This is a traveling circus. They've been staying for couple of days, I heard," Asahi said.
"Everyone was talking about it," Hinata said and let out a sigh. "I want to see their performance."
"Well you can see now," Marilyn said.
"Really!?" Hinata turned around to Marilyn- or she tried -and once again cried. "Ouch!"
"I say don't move," Marilyn said to Hinata. "Of course you can see. That paper is a free pass. Show it and you can see for free."
"Really!?" Asahi asked in excitement. She screamed when Marilyn winked. "Thank you Marilyn!"
"It's just a circus," I said. I still didn't understand what made a circus so special. Indeed people enjoyed performances these days but still it was just a circus. Asahi gasped. She startled me by suddenly grabbing my shoulders.
"Nami, listen. It wasn't just a circus. Trust me you'll love it."
"Don't forget Sarukawa's prince," Hinata said while trying not to move or Marilyn would smack her head.
I knitted my brows. "Sarukawa's prince?" I looked up, following Asahi's gaze but only to saw ceiling.
"Yes, Sarukawa's prince," Asahi said with both palms on chest. "Rei."
I looked down for my neck got tired. "Rei?" I asked. Asahi nodded, still holding gaze on ceiling, daydreaming. I took a breath, shaking head. 'Must be another stupid man'
"Don't push me," I said to Asahi and turned to Hinata. "And don't yell in my ear."
I sighed at their excitement. We were watching the circus. They insisted and I finally gave up. But to my surprise, I enjoyed the show. The dance was beautiful. I liked the music too. I looked around and saw many people inside the big tent. This kind of circus was rare in my village. No wonder many people came to see even though they had to pay. But it didn't cost much money.
"You think he'll do performance tonight?" Asahi asked.
I just shrugged and turned to Hinata.
"You see there are many girls here, it means he will. For what I heard, he's famous among girls."
I just listened, saying nothing. I didn't really care about man. I turned back to stage. Two men walked in to the stage. They were wearing long red and yellow robe. Their faces were covered by mask. I laughed as they did pantomime. Soon the big tent was filled with laughter.
"That was funny," Hinata said.
"The thinner man, I can't…" Asahi held her stomach as she laughed.
I hit my knee, nodding in agreement. "Poor him, I want to see his face." Asahi and Hinata laughed louder.
"Oh my, don't make me laugh anymore, my stomach," Asahi said.
Suddenly, lanterns around us went off, leaving only three lanterns at the back of stage. The crowd turned silent as the next show began. A woman dressing in long white robe came out. Her long hair fell over shoulders and face. She was holding a fan in hand.
I turned my head when they whispered at once. 'Him?' I looked back at the stage. 'So, it was a man' People, or I must say girls, started to whisper to their side. I rolled my eyes slightly, watching the show.
The 'woman' slowly raised both of 'her' hands and flicked the fan open. Whispers eventually died when flute played on. The 'woman' tilted 'her' head aside before raising it slowly. 'She' bent 'her' back and knees as 'she' turned to face the audience. 'Her' face was painted white while lips were red. When 'she' looked up, I dropped my jaw. I held my breath. 'That's him'
How could I forget those eyes? He then straightened his back and started to dance. It was a slow dance. I remembered the move. It was the same move I saw the other day. Instead of katana he was holding a fan. But it didn't change the move, the speed and the elegance. Yes, his dance was elegant and beautiful. He would lift his gaze when he turned to the audience. His eyes were sharp. I couldn't move my body. Just like the other day I was hypnotized by him.
I was still curious on how a man could do a beautiful dance. His dance was smooth and elegant, like a woman. I had never seen something like that before. I had seen many beautiful things before but never saw it in a person, let alone in a man. He lowered his body as he spun around, waving the fan up and down. His long hair would spread around when he spun.
My eyes glued to him as if tried to memorize him. When the crowd clapped and screamed, I fluttered my eyes, letting out breath. Asahi and Hinata stood up, starting to scream together with other people. I looked back at the stage as the light turned on. I was surprised when my eyes met his. His lips curled up. He then bowed, waving toward the audience. I watched as he left. He looked over shoulder at me. I held my breath unconsciously. Asahi and Hinata's hands on my shoulders broke our moment and I looked up at them. I looked back at the stage but he had disappeared.
"So, what do you think?" Asahi asked.
"I…" I licked my lips. "...well that's…"
"Fascinating?" Hinata asked.
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Told you," Asahi said. "Okay, let's go back."
I knitted my brows. "Go back?"
"His performance was the last," Asahi said.
"You're fascinated by him, aren't you?" Hinata teased.
"Shut up," I said. I left my seat, walking out. I could hear Asahi and Hinata's giggles behind me. Outside the tent, Asahi grabbed my arm. "What's wrong?"
"I need to meet someone. Marilyn asked me to give this," Asahi said.
I saw a folded paper in her hand. "What's that?"
Asahi shrugged shoulders. "I don't know. She said give this to Katsuyuki san*. But I can't go by myself." (* honorifics in Japanese)
"I'll go with you," Hinata said.
"I'll just wait here," I said. Asahi nodded. I watched as they walked toward another tent. I blew out a breath, turning around. There was a big board with the circus group's name written on it. I decided to wait near the board. It was a good place for waiting. I looked at people around me while waiting for them.
"Waiting for me?"
I turned around at the voice. It was him. He had cleaned his makeup off and wore his usual robe. His long hair was tied up in a bun. "You? What are you doing here?"
The man grinned, approaching me.
I took steps toward her. "If my memory was correct this morning I wake up here," I said.
She stepped back, mumbling 'oh'. When she was about to turn around, I quickly grabbed her arm to stop her.
"What are you doing? Let me go."
"Ssh, they'll hear us. Come," I said. I pulled her with me to the back of tent.
"Hey, are you deaf? Let me go."
I took a bench for us and sat down. She just stood, staring down at me. I lifted my eyebrow, nodding toward the bench.
"I must leave. My friends are waiting for me."
I sighed and grabbed her wrist when she was about to leave. I pulled her down to sit beside me. "Trust me when you talk to Katsuyuki, it will take forever, so why don't you wait here with me?"
"Fine, but get your hand off," she said.
I chuckled when she pulled her wrist off. "What a strong girl. Are you sure you're a girl?" I teased. Tonight she wore those man clothes.
"A woman. I shall ask you the same question though. Are you a man or a woman?"
"What do you think?"
"I'm asking you."
I leaned a little toward her. "Why don't you check it yourself?" She knitted her brows and I burst into laugh. She was cute when got angry.
I caught her wrist when she was about to leave. "Just kidding. Are you always this serious and scary to your friend?"
"I'm not scary, besides we aren't friends," she said.
"Yet. Let's be friends then, my name is Ray," I said. I put my hand in front of her but she just stared at my hand. It seemed she was debating whether to take it or no. "Am I that bad to be your friend?"
She finally took my hand. I tried not to smile although my heart skipped a beat when I felt her hand. I raised an eyebrow when she looked up at me while trying to pull hand off. I tightened my hold. She finally gave in.
"Pretty name, like the owner," I said. A chuckle slipped out my mouth when she rolled her eyes. 'This girl, correct woman, is really cute'. She then turned to the passing people in front of us. "By the way it's Ray, not Rei."
"My name. It's not Rei, but R, A, Y."
She leaned forward as I wrote the letters with a branch on ground. I glanced at her. She knitted her brows while staring at the letters.
"These are foreign letters. Not like ours, it doesn't have meaning," I explained. She then turned to me.
"So, you mean it just composes a word but each character has no meaning."
"You are not just pretty but also smart," I said. She narrowed her eyes but then smiled a little.
"So, that's your name, Ray. Only Ray?"
I wiped the letters off with my shoe. "Actually it wasn't my real name."
"Then what's your real name?"
I looked at her curious eyes. "I'll tell you, someday," I said. She just stared back at me. At moment I wanted to touch those smooth cheeks of her. I liked the spots on her cheeks that would show up every time she smiled. She broke the eye contact when someone called her name.
'Finally my best friends realized I was missing!' I turned to him. "I have to…"
My word died in my throat as his lips were once again on mine. I felt something inside my stomach as I looked at his deep eyes. After a moment he leaned back and smiled.
"See you again Nami."
He then stood up, walking away. "Wha…" I huffed and greeted my teeth. 'How could he just kiss me and walk away all the time!? I should punch him earlier!' I clenched my fists. "Crazy, stupid man!" I growled.
I didn't care if everyone turned to me. Asahi and Hinata were standing beside me with jaw dropped down.
"Don’t," I said and passed them. 'Next time I swear I'll kill that man. Uggh!'
After our practice, I decided to have meal outside with Jiro.
"Seriously, why here? There's another better place."
I rolled my eyes, looking at the complaining man in front of me. "You said you're starving."
I put my hand up. "Here or not at all, your choice," I said and quickly lowered my straw hat when a girl passed our table. I hated when girls screamed and clung into me every time they saw me. I lifted my hat a little when I heard Jiro's sigh.
"Fine. Let's order something," Jiro said and lifted a hand.
Moment later a girl approached our table. I kept my face hidden under hat. "Same like him," I said when the girl asked for my order. I finally raised my head after she left. Moment later another girl- a tall girl -came with our meal. I looked at the food in front of me. It looked delicious. I lifted my gaze when Jiro mumbled. The girl was apologizing to him. She had spilled soup on our table. She then took the bowl and hurried to counter. I let out a chuckle when Jiro looked at me. He was blushing furiously.
I cleared my throat, holding back a grin. "Nothing," I said. I lowered my head when someone approached our table.
"I'm sorry sir. Please forgive her, she was new. I am truly sorry sir."
I recognized the voice.
"It's alright, I'm fine. Don't apologize," Jiro said.
"I'm really sorry sir. We will bring another new one. Please wait for a moment."
I lifted my gaze and was surprised to see the woman. "Marilyn?" I knew her. She often visited our camp to see Katsuyuki.
I regretted greeting her. She immediately sat on my lap, hugging me. "Marilyn, I can't breathe," I said. My hat fell off as she tightened her arms on my neck. I glared at Jiro as he grinned.
"Your soup sir."
I was surprised to hear the other voice. It was Nami. She seemed to be surprised to see me, plus with Marilyn on my lap. "Nami?" Marilyn finally released me.
"You know Nami? She's my niece," Marilyn said.
I nodded, turning to Nami, offering a smile. She just stared at me before leaving. 'Was that anger in her eyes?' Marilyn's voice broke my thought.
"How are you doing?"
"Fine," I said briefly, glancing at counter. Nami and the other girl were serving meals to another patron.
"Looks like Marilyn is close to Rei," Asahi said.
I just shrugged, putting bowls on counter top.
"You know Marilyn, she's close to every handsome man," Hinata said.
I let out a chuckle, taking another bowls from my mother. I took a glance at Ray. He and his friend were talking with Marilyn. 'Why was he here?' I wondered.
After the tavern closed, I left to my room. I tried to sleep but couldn't. I rolled onto my side but gained no success. I pushed blanket aside and sat up. I took my brush and paper. When I couldn't sleep, I would paint something. I moved brush over paper. But moments later I stopped abruptly. I had painted him, his performance unconsciously.
I laid brush down, taking the paper to tear it up. But as I looked at his elegant picture I couldn't do it. I grabbed another paper, starting to paint. I spent the night painting his picture. When sunrays pierced through window, I stopped. I laid brush down, drawing knees up. I looked at many papers around me.
He was staring back at me.
I rubbed my face, sighing. 'Something is wrong with me'
"Why do I have to come too?"
"You said you have nothing to do," I said as we walked toward the tavern. We had finished our performance for today.
"Have nothing to do means I want to rest, inside my tent," Jiro said.
"Who knows maybe you can meet that tall girl there."
I nodded, wriggling my brows. Jiro grinned immediately. "Now let's go."
We started to walk again. As we approached the tavern I could see many patrons inside. It seemed it was famous around here.
"What's wrong?" I asked. Jiro pursed his lips, looking at me. "What?"
"You do really like her, don't you?"
I didn't expect the question. I looked aside, clearing my throat. "What do you mean?"
"I know you. We've been friends since childhood, remember? I have never seen you like this before."
"Maybe," I said. He patted my shoulder.
"You're in a big trouble, but don't worry I'll always have your back."
I lifted an eyebrow and laughed. Our laughter died when we heard shouts.
"I don't know, let's go," I said. We ran toward the tavern.
There was small crowd in front of the tavern. I walked through the crowd. There in the middle of the crowd was Nami. A man stood in front of her. His outfits showed that he was from upper class. The man was yelling at Nami.
"You don't know me? I can buy this tavern and all taverns in this village!"
"That's very kind of you, but no thank you we don't need your dirty money," Nami said.
I stifled a chuckle as Nami crossed her arms while glaring back at the man. She indeed was a brave girl- correct woman. The man greeted his teeth, clenching his fists. When he walked toward Nami, I quickly stepped in. I grabbed his hand before it could touch her.
"Lay a finger on her and you'll pay for it," I said.
"Who are you? Get your hand off me idiot," the man said.
I released his hand and stepped back as the man pulled out his katana. He pointed it at me.
"Step back," I said to Nami. When the man swung his katana, I moved aside. He let out a roar, turning around. I bent my back and quickly moved behind him. I pushed his buttocks with my foot. It seemed I didn't need to use my katana. The man quickly rose to his feet and attacked me. I moved my body aside and felt the blast against my skin. I bent my back when he turned around, swinging his katana. As I got tired with the stupid game, I took his hand which held katana. I moved to stand in front of him and threw his body down onto ground. He fell with a big thud, letting out a cry of pain. I picked his katana as the man rose to feet.
"I'll remember this. And you idiot woman," he said to Nami. "I'll come again." He called his men to leave.
"Hey, you forgot something," I said and threw the katana toward him. I chuckled as the man tried to catch it but failed.
"You'll pay for this!"
I gave a small bow to mock him. He left while growling at his men. I then turned to Nami. "Are you al…?"
What I didn't expect was a hard punch landed right on my nose. "Ouch!" I had to blink twice. "Are you insane woman!?"
I wrinkled my sore nose and let out a cry. I felt blood on my fingers. "What was that for!?" She gave innocent look, crossing arms in front of her chest.
"That's for kissing me, three times."
I greeted my teeth, lifting my head slightly. "I just helped you now, and this is I got?"
"I don't ask for your help," she said.
"I thought we're friends," I said while hissing in pain. She lifted an eyebrow.
"Friends don't kiss each other."
"Really?" I looked down at my blood-covered finger before looking back at her. For a moment I saw her worried eyes but she blinked it off. "I should let that man pin you down on ground or whatever he wants, oh my nose."
"Don't cry. Just let it for a while and it'll stop."
I dropped my jaw. She then turned around. "Hey, come back here!" I hollered at her.
She looked over shoulder before walking inside. There was a small smile. I turned around when I felt hand on my shoulder.
"Oh man, you look awful."
"Shut up. Where's my horse? We're going back," I said, passing the laughing Jiro.
"You can fend off katana easily but can't handle punch from a girl?"
I shot a glare at him before continuing to walk.
"You'll have big trouble if your father sees that bruise," Jiro said.
'Oh no, he will kill me' I stopped and turned to Jiro. "You'll help me."
"Me? Help you?"
I smirked- or tried to -and let out a curse.
Jiro put hands up, shaking his head. "Oh no, I don't want to get in trouble."
"Oh yes. We're doing practice and you accidentally hit me, sounds convincing, right?"
"No, absolutely no."
"You say you'll always have my back. And if you help me, I'll ask Marilyn about that tall girl, deal?"
Jiro groaned. "That's unfair."
"What you say, deal?"
"Fine, I'll help you. You better keep your word."
"Who do you think you're talking to? I always keep my word."
"Whatever."I laughed but then cursed as I felt pain from my sore nose. 'For a girl she really had nice punch. Oh my nose'