ronin

Unrecognizable electronic pounding screeched from a broken off-white speaker tacked to the fake wood ceiling tiles. Hot steam from the woks fogged over the windows both inside and out. Red and orange neon flickered between the string of characters for ‘cheap’ and ‘food’. The family mutt shivered by the door, almost blown into the street by every violent draft. The screens played the latest jumble of news and cartoon, whichever pirate signal was the strongest tonight.
The few sets of eyes inside haunted the cobwebbed corners, never plotting but always talking. The three in the corner wore black with bright neon piping stitched into spiderwebs. The frozen chunks of sweat in their hair had finally melted back down into grease. Their long spikes were now wilted into one slick mop that flapped against their heads when they looked around too fast. They watched the screens and scratched at the ports in their wrists, constantly babbling a drivel of tech-talk laced with thinly veiled drug and street-speak. It was all a mess, none of them listened anyway it was just another noise.
He had noticed them and sat down at the counter before the door chime stopped. They were too deep in their withdraw cycle to notice anything more than the jumble of static on the screens. The dog didn’t bark. If he had to guess, he would have said that its chords were slit when it was a puppy. The truth could have easily been that the mutt was just friendly, but that didn’t cross his mind.
He slumped against the counter, clenching his fists to keep his fingers from quivering. His bare legs were numb under his robe. His sword, no doubt, frozen inside its scabbard. He dared not touch the service bell while his teeth still chattered. The constant knocking inside his head helped to drown out at least some of the bleating from the corner booth. It also blocked out the sound of the door chime.
Her touch was delicate on his shoulder but the spasms in his muscles didn’t allow much feeling.
“Sir?” she whispered, muffled into his ear. He heard a hiss and he spun in his stool to face her, biting into his lip to stop his teeth from knocking. Her hood was down and she wore an old rebreather missing both cheek filters. She wore a tattered black  jacket two sizes too big. It glimmered under the light. It lit  red around her head like a haze when the neons hit it the right way. Her hands were wrapped in bright patterned rags like boxers’ fists.
Cocking her head, she peeked under her hood, wondering if the samurai still had his tongue. He cocked his head as well, staring at the shadows where her eyes were. He glimpsed a hint of a faded pink circle half-exposed under her mask. It hissed again as she cycled more unfiltered air. She waved her pale fingers across his face, alternately wondering if he was blind as well as mute.
The samurai flexed the shivers out of his hand and snatched her wrist as if it were a serpent. With a muffled shout she tried to pull away with no use, the samurai undid the bandage with one motion, the fake silk hung for seconds in the air like inkblots in water.
“Hey!” She pulled away finally, her forearm now completely exposed. The ports on her wrist were still swollen and fresh. A mark on the back of her hand confirmed what he had had already suspected.
“I don’t think I can afford you, geisha.” He turned back to the counter, ringing the service bell. Her eyes darted to the lot in the corner and she slunk down onto the stool next to him, swiftly wrapping up her wrist and hand under the counter.
“And why don’t you take off that mask? You look ridiculous. Almost as bad as the hoods over there.” He jerked his thumb to the corner. The geisha stared down, blocking them from view with his body, pretending to read the menu laminated into the counter, no doubt a true fossil trapped in amber.
“You were going to ask me something?” The samurai shifted his sling, letting his sword rest in the small of his back. The geisha glanced at the green and black hilt. The mask hissed through the steam.
“Would you be available for hire?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” He rang the service bell again.
“No?”
“Depends.”
“On what?”
“You available?”
“No.” She crossed her arms on the counter.
“Oh, really?” He scratched at the edges of his stubble.
He leaned close to her and whispered, “I’ve never met a retired geisha before.”
“It’s your lucky day.”
“I don’t believe in luck.”
“I have a job if you want it.”
“I don’t think I’d make a very good geisha, but thank you.”
The cook finally appeared at the kitchen doorway, a creased-faced woman brushing wisps of gray hairs back under a ripped hairnet. She screamed something into the back room and walked up onto the stool behind the counter.
“Fried urchin and noodles,” the samurai pointed down at the menu through the grubby laminate, “and some tea.”
The cook rubbed blood onto her already stained apron and looked to the hooded geisha who only shook her head. Her mask hissed sharply as she coughed. The cook walked through the plastic sheeting, screaming again into the back room. She returned moments later with a cup of steaming tea before disappearing into the kitchen again. The samurai warmed his fingertips against the blue-etched porcelain.
“You’re one of Mistress Yuki’s girls?”
Was.”
“Right.”
“I need help.”
“You and me both.”
“I’ll pay you.”
The samurai smiled and shook his head. “Never heard a geisha say that before.”
Her face was flush under her mask. He couldn’t tell.
“Do you want the job or not?”
“What’s the job?”
“Bodyguard.”
“Ahh” He rolled his eyes, “Of course.”
“So you’ll do it?”
He rubbed his fingers against his thumb and looked dead into her eyes.
“Money rules this cold sword, darlin’. And I don’t believe you have any.”
The geisha reached back into her hood and unclipped her mask, letting it hang limp against her chest. Her pale skin was tattooed pink at the dimples, her lips modified with red ink that never fades.
“I can offer my services in return for your own, samurai.” She slid her hand under the counter to his thigh.
The samurai leaned in close, he could smell her artificial pheromones hanging heavy in the steam. She pursed her bright red lips.
“If I wanted the service of a geisha I would be at a brothel.”
Her mouth drooped to a scowl and then to a frown, the corners of her mouth quivered and she snatched his hand and held it against her cheek.
“Please,” She whispered, “I have nothing else.”
He could see her eyes start to glisten.
“I don’t believe you, but tears were a nice touch.” He snapped his hand back and rested it back on the counter.
The corners of her mouth turned up into a smirk.
“What ever happened to chivalry among samurai?”
“You’re thinking of knights, and knights weren’t homeless.”
“You don’t smell half bad for being homeless.”
“That’s because I bathe in brothels every night.”
There was a clatter and more shouting from the kitchen at the cook appeared again, with fresh bloodstains on her apron and a bowl of noodles in her hands. She tossed it on the counter in front of the samurai and stood looking down at him as he poked at the fried lumps of urchin. She snapped her fingers and said something in Cantonese.
“I’ll take your job, geisha.”
She cocked her eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Just… uh, pay the lady and I’m all yours.”
“Unbelievable.” She rolled her eyes, digging through her baggy coat pockets and slapping a few crumpled notes in the cook’s hand. She said something else in a harsh, unrecognizable tone and walked back into the kitchen.
“Is the way to a samurai always through his stomach?”
Between slurps of noodles and urchin he gurgled out a definitive ‘yes.’

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