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samurai champloo fanfiction: kitsune in koshu chapter 33

 

Disclaimer: I don't own Samurai Champloo or any of its characters


Chapter 33
 

Umarete wa

shinuru hazu nari

sore naraba

(Since I was born

I have to die,

and so...)

'death poem' by Haiku poet Kisei (1687-1764)

[From Hoffman, Y. (1986), 'Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death,' Tuttle Publishing]
 

Of Verses and Verity, Part II


After spending a moderate amount of time in the tea-room, the venue of the meeting between Yoshinori, Munefuyu, and Jin shifted to the reception room, just as Jin had expected. The change of venue brought about a distinct change in the attitude of Takeda Yoshinori; he became very brusque in his manner and seemed more conscious of his role as the town magistrate. Munefuyu, however, continued to converse with both Jin and Yoshinori in a friendly way.


Yoshinori addressed Jin with some sarcasm. "I hope Jin-san that you have overcome your reluctance in meeting with us. He is even reluctant to attend Keiko with us. We are lucky, Munefuyu-sama, to have him here today."


Munefuyu looked puzzled. "Is that so?"


"Not at all, Munefuyu-sama," said Jin. "I was only concerned with meeting you in circumstances that were too public, due to my involvement in the kitsunetsuki case. Had I not been involved in it, I would have been only too honoured to attend a martial arts lesson given by you."


Yoshinori was reluctant to agree with Jin. "Yes, yes. I know that you have laid a trap of some sort for the suspects by pretending to be a client. It wouldn't do to be seen with police officers and public officials. But I doubt they would be watching your movements so closely. It is just a matter of being a little careful."


As if to circumvent the escalation of tensions between Jin and Yoshinori, Munefuyu said: "Both of you are right. Perhaps Jin, you can report to us in disguise. A pair of glasses, and a hat, often does the trick. Ah, yes, the kitsunetsuki case. I am keen to hear all about it."


Jin wondered whether Munefuyu's suggestion was another indirect hint that he knew all about him, including the fact that he had at one time travelled in a similar disguise. But there wasn't anything sinister in his manner.


Yoshinori nodded curtly in the direction of Jin, implicitly suggesting that it was up to him to summarize the case for Munefuyu's benefit. Jin obliged by presenting a gist of developments in the case, including the findings Manzou had discussed with him earlier during the day. Manzou had been able to confirm Fuu's finding that Hachiemon had been seen with the monk Joben on the day of his murder. There was also the possibility that Hachiemon was the last person to have seen him alive. And there had been some interesting rumours about Mayumi. Apparently his students were claiming that he had kitsunetsuki.


Yoshinori said: "As I understand it Jin-san, the prime suspects in the case are the women at the Furin Kazan Inn, and Takatoshi – the man who accepts bets on whether intended victims will stay alive at a certain date. Next on the list are the merchants Hachiemon and Toshitsugu. The former is known to have a history of 'kitsune pranks' and is close to the ladies at the Furin Kazan Inn. So are Toshitsugu and his wife."


"And then there is Mayumi, who is a good actor, and a puppeteer well versed in creating special effects. So he could be an accomplice in the sense that he could be used to create illusions for an intended victim. But he could just as well be a victim, given his recent erratic behaviour."


"There are also suspects in each of the individual cases. For example, the doshin Kansuke, and Lord Ienobu's retainer Uesugi Kenta might have had a motive to kill my son Yoshiyasu. Likewise, the other victims had enemies too. Am I right, so far?"


"Yes."


"Well then, it seems to me that a lot of information has been collected, but there has not been much action in terms of using that information."


"What do you mean?"


"Well, for instance, why hasn't anyone thought about capturing one of the prime suspects, say Takatoshi, and making him confess?"


There was a cynical smile on Jin's face. "I suppose you mean, why hasn't someone beaten a confession out of him?"


"I see that you are, uhm, idealistic, and the idea doesn't appeal to you. But don't you see it is the most efficient way to solve this case? The man is obviously a scoundrel – why should anyone suffer pangs of conscience if he is tortured?"


"Yoshinori-sama, I doubt it would 'solve this case' as you put it. I suspect he doesn't know much about how the killings are carried out. He only deals with the financial aspects of the transactions underlying this case. There is also no evidence to suggest that the ladies at the Furin Kazan Inn do anything other than performing strange rituals. No, I am not even sure that they can be called prime suspects."


"I suppose you are going to suggest torturing all the suspects. But surely you don't think that is the 'right' way of doing things? Perhaps they would all confess under torture, and then they could be executed. Perhaps that would resolve the problem at hand, in the event one of them happens to be the mastermind behind the operation. But innocent people would have died in the process, and you still may not know the truth. You wouldn't know how the murders were carried out, so you wouldn't be able to prevent them from happening again."


Yoshinori appraised Jin's flushed countenance with some amusement. So he can be provoked into expressing strong emotions after all. He is quite angry with my suggestion, as I expected. "Don't worry Jin-san; I am not planning to give that order – not at this time. But if I don't see enough progress on this in a couple of weeks..."


Munefuyu said: "I think you are being a little harsh, Yoshinori-san. This is a very complex case after all. People with the motive are different from the people with the means and the opportunity to kill. I think Jin's theory is correct – it has to be poisoning of some sort. But there have been so many individual cases. Finding the common factors involved in all cases is the key, but it is easier said than done."


It was surprising, to Jin, that Munefuyu had spoken on his behalf, appearing to be on his side. "You are right, Munefuyu-sama. We haven't been able to find what the poison is, and more importantly, how it is administered. The victims had different habits, frequented different places, and had different physicians recommending different methods of treatment."


"Fortunately, regarding methods of treatment and physicians, one has at least a narrower set of possibilities to look into, which Manzou-san and others are vigorously investigating. There are, for example, not that many physicians in the town of Kofu. Interviewing all the physicians that have been involved in treating kitsunetsuki victims might throw up some commonalities. As we speak, my friend Mugen is probably talking to the exorcist Gonzaemon, who has often been consulted for the 'treatment' of alleged kitsunetsuki victims. And once the 'trap' we have set takes effect, we will uncover additional clues."


Yoshinori allowed himself a condescending smile at Jin. "Well then, get on with it. If there is any way I can help, let me know."


A little startled by Yoshinori's offer, Jin hesitated before answering. There was, indeed, something Yoshinori could help him with, but he didn't feel confident that his request would be granted. Nevertheless, it didn't hurt to try. "Well, if it is not too much trouble, I would like the opportunity to speak with Hitomi-sama."


The smile froze on Yoshinori's face. "Jin-san, as I have said before, I don't like Hitomi having to deal with such things."


Yoshinori hadn't directly refused, but Jin knew that his answer was, in terms of the conventions of Japanese society, as good as a refusal. It would then be considered extremely rude, if Jin made a further attempt to persuade him. But there were some other, very important personal motivations underlying his request. Yet requesting a meeting with Hitomi on personal grounds that had nothing to do with the case would be extremely awkward and embarrassing. It amounted to asking for a favour, and asking for a favour was rather distasteful.


Ideally, if he were able to persuade Yoshinori to grant an interview with Hitomi for the purpose of the kitsunetsuki investigation, things could work out very well for him. That way, his real purpose in meeting with her could be camouflaged. Eventually, he would have to ask her for a favour, but requesting a favour of Hitomi would be far less unpleasant.


But then again, it was unlikely that Yoshinori would allow an interview with Hitomi regarding the kitsunetsuki investigation. The only alternative was to tell the truth. And for the sake of Fuu, he would do it.


"Yoshinori-sama, I understand your concerns. It would be very unpleasant for Hitomi-sama to answer questions about the murder of your son. My request, uh, is of a personal nature. It has nothing to do with the case."


Both Munefuyu and Yoshinori looked curious. Yoshinori said: "Oh? What is it that you want to ask her?"


"I believe Hitomi-sama is very knowledgeable about the Takeda clan of Kai, and she may be able to help me in tracking down some relatives."


The expression on Munefuyu's face was that of puzzlement, but Yoshinori looked speculative. Perhaps we will find out today, whether or not he is Takeda Jinemon's son. "Well...I am not as knowledgeable about these things as my wife is, given that I was adopted into the Takeda family, but perhaps I can help you. Hitomi is away visiting some temples today. But tell me, why do you suddenly feel the need to track down relatives?"


There was a slight pause, as Jin's cheeks coloured a little. He was obviously embarrassed about what he was going to say. "There is, uhmm, a young lady I wish to marry. But there are obstacles. My proposal is not likely to be accepted by her family as there is another person in contention. He has the advantage in that he is represented by a family, and has a go-between. As you know, in our society, it is often the tatemae (appearance of things/facade) that matters, not the honne (reality/truth). Which is why, were I to be represented by a family and a go-between, things might become more respectable, more appropriate, so to speak. In that case, accepting my proposal and rejecting the Tanakas – the other family involved – will not involve any loss of face for the Tanakas, thereby making it easier for the girl's family to accept my proposal."


He was slightly out of breath after making this speech, his heart beating rapidly, even though he had intended to appear composed and dignified. The fact that Munefuyu and Yoshinori enjoyed his discomfiture made him even more uncomfortable. But their laughter was not an unkind one; it evidently represented an 'Ah-The-Follies-Of-Youth' type of sentiment. In a way, this surprised him – he was expecting hostility and disapproval, at least from Yoshinori.


Munefuyu said, "Ikiru koto wa subarashii desu – life is beautiful. I am very pleased to hear Jin that you are capable of falling in love. Mariya Enshiro had given me the impression that you were a little too focussed on the study of kenjutsu, to the point of excluding everything else that is important in life."


Yoshinori thought: If he is indeed the son of Takeda Jinemon, he should say so. It would make life somewhat easier for him. There would be many Takedas wanting to claim a relationship with a former koke of Kofu. Aloud, he said, "I see. I would like to help you. But what happens if we are unable to find your relatives?"


To Yoshinori and Jin's surprise, Munefuyu interjected with: "I have an idea. Why don't you represent his family, Yoshinori-san? You are probably very distant relatives, but that is irrelevant. And I can act as the go-between."


There was a stunned silence in the room following Munefuyu's suggestion. Jin wondered whether he had heard what Munefuyu said correctly, and Yoshinori was decidedly uncomfortable. To say no to such an exalted personage as Munefuyu was difficult, and yet he wasn't sure whether he wanted to represent Jin. Jin was after all only a ronin with the dubious distinction of being a 'teacher-killer'. On the other hand, Munefuyu probably knew more about Jin than he did; he had been an o-metsuke officer at one time. Perhaps Jin was indeed Takeda Jinemon's son. And perhaps Munefuyu intended to give Jin the menkyo certificate Mariya Enshiro had written for him. That would certainly increase Jin's respectability.


As if he had read Yoshinori's thoughts, Munefuyu said, "Don't worry Yoshinori-san, Jin here is quite a respectable fellow, I am sure. He will be even more respectable if he solves this case. In fact, why don't we make this conditional on Jin solving this case? With the help of the police and his other friends, of course."


"Munefuyu-sama...I am not sure I understand."


"If the case is solved satisfactorily, we represent him. If not, he will just have to find other representatives."


Jin found it difficult to believe what he was hearing. Why was Munefuyu so keen to help him? He was suspicious of Munefuyu's intentions, and yet he found himself wanting to believe that Munefuyu was sincere. At least, there was nothing about Munefuyu's behaviour to suggest that he was a dishonourable man. And yet, Munefuyu had been one of Kariya Kagetoki's colleagues. Could he have an ulterior motive underlying his offer to represent him? Perhaps, just like Kariya, he wanted to use him as a hired assassin.


Munefuyu chuckled at the wary expression on Jin's face. "There is no catch here, Jin. All you have to do is make sure that this case is solved. I give you my word."


Jin said, "In that case, I accept."


He decided, however, to keep looking for relatives, just in case things didn't work out.


-xxx-


Hachiemon was obviously quite familiar with Toshitsugu's factory. Standing at the gate of the factory with the air of a teacher lecturing his students on a field trip, he provided Fuu and Yatsuha with a quick description of everything in the compound. "That row of capstans to the right – those are devices for the extrusion of incense. On the left you can see enclosures or rooms for grinding and mixing various ingredients. The building you see diagonally across to the left side of the compound has two rooms – one of them stores the ingredients and the other is the warehouse. Do you see those huts further ahead of the warehouse? They are used for drying out the incense. Water from the well you see at the centre of the compound is used for mixing the ingredients."


"Well ladies, that is all there is to it! Why don't we leave this boring place and go over to the theatre district. There would be quite a few amusing things to see there. How about it?"


Fuu and Yatsuha exchanged amused glances and then smiled at Hachiemon. Fuu said, "What's the rush, Hachiemon-san? Since we are here, we might as well have a look. And I believe Toshitsugu-san's wife Kiyoko-san is expecting us. It would be very rude to go away without meeting her."


Hachiemon looked at Fuu and Yatsuha in mock disappointment. "Oh, all right, have it your way. I expect Kiyoko is in one of the mixing rooms. Let's go into that one – the second one from the gate. By the way, it's quite noisy, isn't it?"


It was indeed fairly noisy. Rhythmic sounds of the type made by mortar and pestle came from the grinding rooms, and there was quite a cacophony of conversations emanating from the grinding and mixing rooms. Workers operating the capstans were quieter, but the devices made creaking noises at regular intervals. Typically this happened when pressure was applied to rotate a wheel at one end, causing the extrusion of incense paste at the other. The extruded incense came out like flat, noodle like strands, after which it was arranged on a tray. The trays were eventually taken over to the drying sheds diagonally across to the gate, at the end of the compound.


Apparently some of the workers in a mixing room had heard them talking, and one of them, a young woman wearing a top and knee length trousers, peeped out of the door. She ducked back into the room when they spotted her, but they could hear a shrill voice calling out 'Kiyoko-san!' after which the lady in question emerged from the room.


Having had the opportunity to converse with Toshitsugu's wife during the Ko-Kwai, Fuu was confident of having formed a reliable impression of her. She had found Kiyoko to be a polite, mild-mannered sort of lady without strong opinions; she seemed to conform to husband's opinion of things, without having strong convictions about them. Her politeness, unlike Toshitsugu's was untinged with obsequiousness, and there was a greater sincerity about it.


But today, just like in the case of Hachiemon, she seemed a little different to Fuu. There was an air of authority about her as she walked up to greet them in a simple unpatterned dark-blue kimono tied with a black obi. She was her usual soft-spoken self, but conveyed the distinct impression of being in charge.


"Fuu-san, welcome! I am so pleased you have come. And you must be Yatsuha-san. Pleased to meet you."


Kiyoko also nodded and smiled in the direction of Hachiemon, but she didn't seem particularly surprised to see him. He must be quite a frequent visitor here, conjectured Yatsuha. And did I just see a flicker of a guarded look in Kiyoko's eyes when she was looking at me? Perhaps Fuu was right. I should be more careful while making observations.


To Yatsuha it almost felt as though Kiyoko had read her mind, when she remarked: "I wasn't expecting you Hachiemon-san, but it is nice to see you too."


Subsequent to this moment, Kiyoko's behaviour seemed natural and unassuming, so Yatsuha dismissed her speculations. But she made a note of being careful. Beyond a certain age, she reasoned, many women learnt to be like kunoichi. They were naturally intuitive, and experience taught them to be perceptive.


Yatsuha decided to enter the conversation by answering Kiyoko before Hachiemon did. "Toshitsugu-san was rather busy today, so Hachiemon-san very kindly offered to bring us here."


Kiyoko smiled. "I am glad he was there to help you." In a somewhat maternal gesture, she placed the palm of her hand on Fuu's back. "Come, let's go to the warehouse and have a cup of tea. Then I'll take all of you on a tour of our little factory."


Fuu observed that Hachiemon had been a little subdued since Kiyoko joined them. Was it because this lady had at one time been his boss? "Hachiemon-san was telling me and Yatsuha that he was once a part-time worker in your factory. And having seen this factory, I am beginning to think that it must have been a wonderful experience. I mean, it would have been a lot of hard work of course, but it would have been so much fun to learn how to make different varieties of incense."


Kiyoko and Hachiemon both smiled warmly at Fuu's childlike enthusiasm, but Yatsuha was a little worried. She seems genuinely excited about the factory. I hope she doesn't end up asking Kiyoko for a job. But goodness me, she was totally believable! Either she is a fine actress, or she really likes incense.


Hachiemon said: "It is certainly a great experience! But it is not for faint-hearted or delicate sort of people. Kiyoko-san here is a perfectionist, and quite the taskmaster."


Kiyoko rolled her eyes upward, and dismissively waved a hand at Hachiemon. "Ahh, don't listen to him. Hachiemon gets overly dramatic and theatrical when he has pretty young women for an audience." She waved an index finger at Hachiemon. "But Hachiemon, this lovely flower-like girl is already taken, while Yatsuha-san is too good for the likes of you!"


Fuu blushed furiously. Does the entire town of Kofu know about me and Jin?


Hachiemon said: "That delicate, flower-like girl is quite the martial artist, by the way. She's the one who killed the tsujigiri."


Kiyoko looked mildly surprised and somewhat uninterested in this piece of information. "Indeed. How interesting!"


They were soon ushered into the warehouse. It had stacks of packages that covered most of the room, but there was a small amount of tatami covered space upon which a small table surrounded with sitting cushions had been placed. Four bowls of tea were neatly arranged on it, alongside a round bamboo container with red-bean pastries.


"Kiyoko-san, you shouldn't have," murmured Fuu, a little preoccupied with looking at the stacks of finished goods and sniffing at the obvious aroma surrounding them.


"Oh, it's nothing, just some tea and sweets. If you are wondering about the aroma, there is a lot of freshly-made incense here. Typically incense cones and wafers don't have a strong aroma individually, unless you burn them. But this room has a large quantity of them."


"That corner over there – it has an unusual smell."


"Ah yes, some of it is medicinal incense, and some of it is of the 'experimental' type, ordered by clients who are keen on making their own recipes, but aren't willing to put in the labour that is required. Some of it is mosquito repellent incense."


"Oh! I didn't know you made medicinal incense."


Kiyoko shrugged wearily. "We don't. But sometimes, when there is a lot of demand, physicians run out of their stocks and come to us for the labour and some of the ingredients. They bring their own medicinal ingredients, and of course, they have to supervise the process. It tends to get in the way of our usual business. We typically get our part-time workers to help them."


"Sometimes, we manage to persuade them to take the ingredients and part-time workers and make the incense elsewhere. But at other times they insist on borrowing our implements, extrusion machines, and drying sheds as well. They pay for the labour and the ingredients, but not any of the other things. I have often been inclined to refuse, but Toshitsugu-san is a little too kind. He feels that helping physicians, especially at the time of high demand, is our social responsibility."


Yatsuha wondered whether any of the part-time workers had provided their assistance to a physician treating a kitsunetsuki victim. Sachiko, for example, may have seen something while assisting a physician - something that eventually got her killed. It would be a good idea then, to keep Kiyoko talking about the workers.


"Wouldn't it be difficult to use part-time workers to make medicinal incense? I mean, if it is complicated to mix the ingredients, the physicians would be better off with the more experienced type of workers, if they could be spared from their usual work, that is."


"You are right to some extent, Yatsuha-san. But with medicinal incense, experience doesn't matter much from the point of view of the labour involved. It is a matter of following the physician's instructions."


She smiled a little maliciously as she continued, "Of course, if the physician in question is an inept charlatan, who doesn't know the basics of making combustible incense, it might be useful to use one of our experienced workers."


"What do you mean?"


"You see, an important ingredient of incense is the makko, a powder that is made from the bark of the Tabu no Ki tree. It is the part that is combustible. If you have an ingredient that is resinous, or difficult to burn, then you have to use a larger quantity of makko – otherwise the incense cone will not burn. The other alternative is to simply heat the non-combustible ingredient over charcoal. The better physicians know about this, but the charlatans don't. They often complain about our part-time workers not having done a good job."


Both Fuu and Yatsuha wanted to ask for the names of the physicians who had placed their orders here, but it didn't seem like a natural question to ask. Realizing that it was her turn to keep Kiyoko on the same subject, Fuu said, "In that case, the part-time workers must have a hard time of it. Having to deal with irate physicians can't be too easy."


"Hmm, I suppose so. But not all of them are bad. Dr. Mori, for example, is quite patient, and meticulously supervises every part of the process. He is a fairly well known physician; you may have heard of him. But others can be quite idiosyncratic. There is an exorcist called Gonzaemon for example, who fancies himself as a physician of sorts."


Hachiemon interjected at this point. "What? My old friend Gonzaemon! Come on, Kiyoko-san, he isn't that bad."


"Hmmph. He can't make up his mind on the ingredients he wants, and loses his temper quite easily."


Hachiemon was about to say something in defence of Gonzaemon, but Kiyoko interrupted him. "Enough about physicians and exorcists. Let's enjoy our tea. Fuu-san I heard that you are fond of yakimanju. Please have some."


-xxx-


Takeda Yoshinori left the reception room briefly on account of some official business leaving Jin and Munefuyu alone together. Jin felt his unease grow as Munefuyu looked at him contemplatively. There was silence for a couple of minutes in which neither Jin nor Munefuyu uttered a word.


It was Munefuyu who broke the silence. "Jin, this girl you want to marry – is she really worth the trouble?"


Jin answered with a questioning look, as if to say, 'Isn't it obvious?'


"Perhaps I should put it a little differently. What about this rival of yours? Is he a bad sort of fellow?"


"No." Where is he going with this?


"Then would it be so bad, if she ended up marrying him? She will have a secure and stable life, whereas with you..."


Munefuyu left the sentence unfinished. It was unnecessary to continue as he was sure that Jin understood his meaning. He was obviously referring to the fact that Jin as a ronin didn't have a regular stream of income to rely on; such practical aspects were bound to get in the way of a happy marriage with Fuu.


"I will find a way. There is a demand for education among the chonin. Several ronin have in fact set up schools all over the country. I could do the same."


"Ah yes. But you seem to forget, you are not just any other ronin."


Munefuyu had spoken without any emphasis; his statement had been uttered in a very matter-of-fact tone. Yet the meaning was undeniable.


"I suppose you are referring to my past."


"Yes, there are people who want revenge. Other than that, some people would want to test their skill against yours. After all, someone who has the skill to kill Mariya Enshiro is no mean swordsman."


So, it is all out in the open now. I was wondering when he would get to it
. "Yes, there is that risk. Perhaps I am being selfish in wanting to marry Fuu. But as you said, I am no mean swordsman. It is very likely I will survive the challenges that come my way. In that case, why can't I choose to live a happily married life with the woman I love?"


"Hmm. I don't want to discourage you Jin. I mean to keep my word – if you are successful in this case, I will certainly act as your go-between. But my advice to you is this: Be careful what you wish for. Think about the welfare of this young woman. Is there a chance she could be happy with this other person? If that is the case, she might be better off marrying him. That is all I have to say. Just think about it."


"Is there something else, Munefuyu-sama, you want to say to me? Is there something, perhaps, that the bakufu has in mind for me? It was after all one of your representatives, Kariya Kagetoki, who manipulated Shishou into attacking me. Is there someone else, then, I have to look out for?"


His anger is cold and sharp, probably like the blade of his sword
, thought Munefuyu. But it is like a shield, covering a deep, overwhelming sadness. "Now, now Jin. There is no reason to be angry. As to your last question, the answer is yes. There are probably quite a few people you will have to look out for. And you are right; there is something else I want to say to you. But I am not here to warn you about anyone. I just want to say that your Shishou Mariya Enshiro must have been very proud of you, regardless of what eventually happened. In fact, any teacher of kenjutsu would have been proud to have a student like you."


Jin found himself unsettled, with a lump in his throat. He felt angry at Munefuyu for stirring up his emotions like this. A word of kindness, after having suffered years of abuse and contempt for being a 'teacher-killer' was bound to do the trick. Yet he had been caught unawares by Munefuyu. He could barely recognize his own voice as he said, "Spare me any false sympathy. I don't need it."


Munefuyu stared at Jin gravely. "I am sorry you think that it is false sympathy. But given your past experience, you would be wary of 'representatives of the bakufu' as you put it. Unfortunately, I have to give you further pain. I have something of Mariya Enshiro's that I think should be given to you, as you were unquestionably his favourite pupil."


Saying this he pulled out a roll of paper from his kimono, and passed it on to Jin. "This is something Mariya Enshiro wrote the day he died. A death poem."


Written on the paper, which was indeed dated as Munefuyu suggested, and undoubtedly in Mariya Enshiro's calligraphy, was the following tanka:


It is time to go

to the next world

above the clouds.

Will I forget my last day

in this one?


It was a simple poem, as he would have expected from Mariya Enshiro. In itself, it was unlikely to have much significance to anyone who didn't know the context in which it was written. In Jin's case, it was the fact that Mariya Enshiro had written a death poem, rather than the poem itself, that overwhelmed him.


It was a shock that Mariya Enshiro, who had often made satirical comments about the tradition of jisei, had chosen to follow it himself. He had frequently told his students, "If I knew for certain I was about to die, I might write one. But I am an optimistic man. Even if I were to be very ill, I'd expect to recover and live another hundred years!"


More importantly, the fact that he had written a death poem on that fateful day must mean something. Was Shishou planning to commit seppuku after he had killed me? But in that case, what would have been the point of killing me?


Munefuyu, speaking in soft, low tones, interrupted his thoughts. "I wonder, did he want to forget his last day? Or did he want to remember it, as some form of punishment."


Jin didn't answer. He continued to look at the piece of paper on which the poem was written, but he could no longer discern the characters; his vision was blurred due to the hot tears welling in his eyes.


-xxx-


"I could have dropped you myself, you know. There would have been no need for Jin to have come here again to pick you up. But when he offered, you were so quick to accept!"


A shaft of fading evening light illuminated Yatsuha's room through the open sliding door facing the balcony. It was getting a little chilly, so Yatsuha shut the door as soon as a maid arrived and supplied them with a paper lantern.


Fuu sat near the charcoal brazier, warming her hands over it. "But if you were to drop me off, someone would have to drop you back!"


"No, it wouldn't be necessary; I can take care of myself. Besides, I am not in danger of being attacked by an assassin. You on the other hand..."


"Yes, yes, I know. But I, er, wanted to speak to Jin alone...Although, I am not sure he will be able to come. He was to speak to Oji-san today, to get permission to be my bodyguard. But Oji-san may not have agreed."


"In that case, you are welcome to stay here overnight."


"No, thanks. I think if Jin doesn't come Oji-san will be here to pick me up. But while we are waiting, you can give me that martial arts lesson you promised."


Yatsuha smiled impishly at Fuu. "Hmm. All right. Listen carefully – it is all about the element of surprise."


Yatsuha who was also sitting near the charcoal brazier, moved in closer for the purpose of warming her hands. Fuu looked at her in puzzlement. "Uh, yes. So when are you going to start teaching me?"


"That was the lesson. Didn't you hear? I said, 'martial arts is about the element of surprise'."


"What? Aren't you going to demonstrate some moves?"


"What can I teach you that you don't already know? You are a jojutsu expert, and that also means you know how to handle a katana and wakizashi – it's part of your curriculum isn't it? I could teach you taijutsu, but you already have an idea about it, although you may not know it. Taijutsu is an 'empty-hand' art; you use your body as a weapon. But the principles are very similar. It is about timing, distance, and the element of surprise – everything that applies in the case of weapons applies here. But there is one big difference. Physical strength does matter. So, especially in the case of women, you need the element of surprise."


Fuu looked at her with some curiosity. "Are you able to fight men successfully? I mean, are you able to beat them?"


"In a lot of cases. Of course, I have trained very hard physically. Also, lightness and flexibility can give you an advantage. But sometimes, when your opponent is very good, you start to think about his psychology, and try to figure out what would distract him. And when you have distracted him, you launch a surprise attack."


"Hmm. And that works?" There was a sceptical note in Fuu's voice.


"Well...it worked with Mugen. In a manner of speaking. I temporarily incapacitated him."


Fuu covered her mouth with her hands, and her eyes almost popped out of their sockets. "You incapacitated Mugen? When? Where?"


"Uh-Hmm, in the Kansai region, when you guys were travelling through."


"How? And why were you fighting him?"


"That's a long story. As to the method I used, well, I figured he'd get distracted if I shouted 'Look over there, a naked woman!' and he did. Then I kicked him in the nuts."


The look of curiosity on Fuu's face had intensified. "Really? Yes, I believe he could be distracted by something like that. But what about me? I mean, if we ignore the fact that you are physically stronger and you wouldn't have to distract me, how would you choose to distract me?"


"Oh, I could come up with something."


"Hmm. I am sceptical. Especially, if I were to be expecting you to use that strategy – which I would, given that you have just told me that you use such tactics - I couldn't possibly be distracted. I would be watching out for it."


"I think I could manage. Let me demonstrate." Yatsuha got up and opened a closet, which had an assortment of weapons in it. She pulled out a pair of bokken (wooden swords). "You would be no match for me in taijutsu, so I'll level the playing field; I am not particularly good with the sword. Now I'll make a series of strikes, and you keep blocking. We'll keep talking to each other, and eventually I'll say something that distracts you."


Fuu accepted one of the bokken. "All right, go for it."


They went through a series of movements in which Yatsuha struck from various angles, and Fuu blocked successfully. Then following some small talk about the weather, Yatsuha said, "Ah, I believe Jin has arrived." She aimed a horizontal cut at Fuu's left hip.


"That is not going to work!" Fuu had adjusted her position and blocked.


"Of course, I knew it wouldn't work. But did it make you want to look at the door?" She stepped up the pace of attacks a little.


"Well, yes. But as I said before, I am expecting you to try to distract me."


"Hmm, sometimes it works even when the opponent knows I will use that tactic."


Fuu was a little breathless by now, but still able to block competently. "Really?"


"I used that 'naked woman' line with Mugen twice, and it worked both times."


"You really must tell me that story sometime. What happened there?"


"There is not much to tell. I was investigating a counterfeiting gang. I suppose you know about the counterfeit money – you guys found a bag of it in the Kansai River."


"Yes." Fuu stumbled a little while blocking, but recovered quickly. "Those idiots ditched me and ran off to the red light district at the first opportunity."


Seeing Fuu was flushed and breathless, and occasionally grimacing due to her injury, Yatsuha slowed down her pace of her attacks. "Well, in that case you know they ended up in a brothel. I was working undercover in that brothel as a tayu, and therefore called upon to entertain them. Eventually, Jin and Mugen played a game of acchi-muite-hoi in order to decide who would get to sleep with me."[1]


As Yatsuha had expected, Fuu forgot all about blocking and found Yatsuha's bokken positioned a few inches above her head.


Yatsuha felt elated and triumphant about having successfully demonstrated her point, but that feeling lasted only for an instant. Fuu's eyes had widened with shock, and there was something unfathomable in their expression, or rather, something which Yatsuha knew stood for a withdrawal of trust, but didn't want to recognize. Their relationship had changed almost instantaneously, and it was now up to her to undo the damage.


"Fuu, it didn't mean anything. I was just – well, perceived as more attractive than the other tayu on offer. Mugen won the game. I didn't intend to sleep with either of them. I didn't sleep with Mugen, and if Jin had won I wouldn't have slept with him. And I didn't mean anything to Jin, I assure you. Oh dear, I am not explaining this properly, am I?"


Fuu had recovered from her shock, but still looked a little serious. She spoke calmly when she said, "Yatsuha, there is no need to apologize. I understand perfectly. I know that men sometimes have these, uh, urges. And I know that you were just demonstrating a point – you didn't intend to hurt my feelings. So don't worry about it."


Yatsuha looked at Fuu sadly. "Then I suppose it is the fact that I worked undercover as a tayu that disgusts you."


"No! Of course not. It was, uh, your job. You couldn't avoid it. And I knew about it – I mean Jin and Mugen never told me much about that day, but I figured out that you must have been an undercover tayu."


There had been some uncertainty in her manner, and Yatsuha desperately wanted to remove it. "Tayu are expensive you know, so not many can afford to, uh, spend an evening with them. And even in the case of rich clients, they can refuse to go all the way. Of course, you can't refuse all the time but in my case I had been able to arrange some 'plants' – some fake rich clients – and I only pretended to sleep with them."


"Not all kunoichi are as lucky as I am, though. Being the daughter of one of the more powerful shinobi agents employed by the bakufu, I had certain privileges. I was allowed to train in the martial arts, and I worked very hard at it, so I could make myself useful in other ways."


Fuu was surprised to see tears streaming down Yatsuha's face. She had been somewhat unpleasantly surprised by the manner in which Yatsuha had demonstrated her skill, and was still recovering from it. But having observed Yatsuha's sadness and contrition, she felt a deep sympathy for her. "Yatsuha, please, I didn't..."


She wasn't able to finish the sentence. The maid who had earlier come in with the paper lantern had returned again, and was kneeling just outside the door. "There is a gentleman downstairs, named Jin. He says he is here for Fuu-san. Shall I bring him upstairs?"


"Yes," said Yatsuha, absentmindedly. She was dejected. Now she probably wouldn't get the chance to explain things fully to Fuu.


-xxx-


Jin had regained some of his outward composure by the time he reached Yumura Inn, but his mind was in a state of turmoil. It surprised him that he wasn't able to hide that turmoil from Fuu and Yatsuha; they seemed to be able to sense that something was wrong, even before he had said anything.


"Jin, is everything all right? What happened? Did Oji-san..."


He had almost forgotten his conversation with Hideo, earlier during the day. "Hmm? Oh it was fine. He wasn't happy about it, but he understood the importance of having a bodyguard for you. And Mugen can't be with you all the time, so the task must be divided between the two of us."


"You look tired, Jin-san. Did something else..."


Jin looked up in surprise at Yatsuha. Were his emotions that transparent? They must be, given the way Fuu and Yatsuha were staring at him. He could, of course, just mention the visit to Yoshinori's residence, and discuss only that part which didn't influence him emotionally. But they would probably see through it.


"I had to report at the town magistrate's mansion." He sighed and produced the piece of paper which had Mariya Enshiro's death poem on it. "I met Lord Munefuyu there, the shogun's sword instructor and former o-metsuke officer. It seems Shishou had written a death poem before he...before I killed him. He wrote it on the day he died."


Yatsuha was intrigued. There were rumours about Jin she had heard, about his having killed his teacher, but she didn't know the details. Fuu's reaction told her that she knew the whole story, and therefore understood the significance of what Jin was telling them, and also of the death poem itself. But she felt it would be inappropriate to interrupt and ask questions. Somehow this was a very private thing, and both Jin and Fuu appeared to have forgotten her existence. It was as though they were enclosed in a bubble, in a world of their own.


Fuu said, "That means...In a way this is proof, isn't it, that he meant to attack you, and you had to kill him in self defence?"


"Perhaps."


There was a silence as Jin contemplated his conversation with Munefuyu. Munefuyu had said, "You said Jin, that the appearance of things sometimes takes precedence over the truth. In your case this has been particularly true. So this poem may not mean anything to to those who don't want to believe that your Shishou attacked you first. At a glance it could be interpreted as a wistful farewell to life, written by a man enjoying the beauty of his last day on earth. Of course, it begs the question why he was expecting to die on that day, but your detractors may not see it that way. A lot of people write death poems long before they die, you know. Your fellow students from the Kisarazu dojo may simply dismiss the fact that he wrote the poem on that particular day as a coincidence."


Jin had remained silent in response to Munefuyu's comment. But to Fuu, he said, "Shishou used to find it laughable that some people wrote their death poems well in advance of their death. So those who knew him might believe that this was indeed written at a time when he anticipated the possibility of death. Even so, it could be interpreted differently. Others may think that he was anticipating treachery in some form, and that he suspected I would attack him."


"What did Lord Munefuyu say?"


"He appeared to believe that Shishou attacked me. He was, in fact, quite sympathetic towards me. Even during the discussion of the kitsunetsuki case, when Takeda Yoshinori was bent on taking an unfavourable view of things, he stepped in to say a few words in my favour. But somehow, his sympathy made me a little uncomfortable."


"What do you mean?"


"Hmm...Something is not as it seems." With this cryptic remark, Jin decided to change the subject; it wasn't the right time to tell Fuu about Munefuyu's offer to act as a go-between, especially if things didn't work out in the end. Instead he asked Fuu and Yatsuha to tell him about their day at the incense factory.


Again Yatsuha preferred to take a backseat while a torrent of words poured out of Fuu, as if she was running out of time in the telling of a story. It was touching to see how her effervescence cheered Jin up. There was an amused smile on his lips as he listened, and the way he gently interrupted her with a question when she became incoherent out of sheer enthusiasm, was beautiful to watch. But it made her a little envious. Would someone ever appreciate her in the tender yet passionate way Jin appreciated Fuu? Would Mugen...No, what was she thinking?


Fuu appeared to have suddenly noticed Yatsuha's dejection, and she made an effort to include her in the conversation. "Wasn't it an interesting coincidence, Yatsuha, to have run into Hachiemon at Toshitsugu's shop?"


Yatsuha smiled. Perhaps Fuu had forgiven her after all. "There have been quite a few interesting coincidences recently, haven't there? Mugen ran into Mayumi, and you and I ran into Hachiemon. And oh, yesterday we ran into Tanaka-san, also in Toshitsugu's shop!"


Jin was reminded of his conversation with Tanaka earlier during the day. "Ah, I almost forgot. Tanaka Etsuo came to see me at the Sekisuiji Inn."


There was a simultaneous exclamation from the two women. "What?"


Jin fished out Tanaka's tied-up roll of paper from his kimono. "He wants to meet you. And he wanted me to give you this."


"What is it?"


"I don't know. A letter, perhaps."


Yatsuha said, a bit impatiently, "Oh, open it! That is, if you don't mind. You don't have to tell us what it is though, if you don't want to."


Fuu untied the string carefully, and stretched out the roll of paper. She read out its contents, which were as follows:


Blossoms fall

Let's meet again

while they scent the air.


Yatsuha playfully nudged Fuu's arm with her elbow. "Ah, how sweet. Tanaka-san's courting you, in the style of court-nobles from the Heian period! He requests a meeting by writing a haiku in your honour!"


Fuu's cheeks had reddened a little upon reading Etsuo's poem, but it was difficult to discern whether she was embarrassed or pleased. Jin conjectured that she was feeling a mix of both emotions: she was flattered and pleased because someone had written a poem in her honour, but embarrassed because it was Tanaka Etsuo. He was amused by her confusion, gently teasing her as he said, "You know, Fuu-chan, etiquette requires that you reply with a poem."


"Oh no! I couldn't write a poem – I don't know how to! And do I have to meet him?"


"Hmm. Not if you don't want to. But..."


"Yes?"


"I think it may be a little unkind. He has requested the meeting in a very respectful manner, knowing that you will be chaperoned. Besides, I think that if you said no, it wouldn't serve any purpose."


"Why not? Isn't it the best way? If I say no, he might get the hint that I don't want to marry him."


Yatsuha said, "I think Jin-san means that Etsuo would assume that he had forbidden you to say yes."


"In that case, I guess I will have to meet him. But do I have to write a poem?"


Jin extended a hand to stroke Fuu's hair, but withdrew it as he remembered Hideo's injunction 'to act in a manner befitting a bodyguard'. "No, but it is quite easy to write one. It doesn't have to be a great one – just something that adequately conveys your message."


"His poem, for example, nicely expresses that he wants to meet you. But if you dissect it, he has used some simple techniques that are common to a lot of haiku."


Yatsuha said, "Could you please elaborate, Jin-san." This is going to be quite amusing. Jin explaining Etsuo's poem for Fuu's benefit!


"Well, there is a fragment – 'Blossoms fall' – and a phrase – 'Let's meet again while they scent the air'. A lot of haiku follow this sort of a pattern – a phrase follows a fragment or vice versa. The phrase runs over two lines, so you have three lines in all. In common with other haiku, there is an image from nature – again, 'Blossoms fall'. This is also the kigo – a word or phrase that indicates a season of the year. And cherry blossoms are also a metaphor for transience. That is, they are meant to remind you to appreciate something that is beautiful and does not last for long. It must be appreciated while it lasts. In a sense, he is exhorting you to appreciate the beautiful moments of life. And from his point of view, meeting you would be a beautiful moment."


"Another aspect of haiku in general is that it must be in present tense – the objective is to capture the feeling of a moment."


This moment is definitely a beautiful one
, thought Fuu, as she stared at Jin, mesmerized by the kind tones of his voice as he explained Etsuo's poem. But I don't have the skill to capture it in words.


"So, for example, Yatsuha and I were admiring the Fuji-san views on our way back here, and I could have tried to capture that with: 'Fuji-san's melting snow/It is nice to watch/with a friend'."


She was met with two smiles, a warm one from Jin and a slightly woebegone one from Yatsuha. "Uhm-Hmm. Or simply: 'Melting snow/It is nice to watch/with a friend'. You could in fact use a variation of what you wrote in Yatsuha-san's honour as a message to Tanaka Etsuo. To say 'yes' to meeting him you could say 'Melting snow/It is nice to watch/with friends'. In this case, 'with friends' could refer to Etsuo and me, so you wouldn't be encouraging him in any way."


"No, I don't think so. I don't want to send a poem. He could very easily misunderstand it."


"All right. It is then just a matter of arranging a meeting."


Yatsuha watched the interaction between Jin and Fuu with some fascination. It is nice to see how calmly he has reacted to all this. But I think he is a little smug – a little too confident about Fuu's feelings for him. Perhaps I could stir the pot a little.


"Jin-san, have you ever composed a poem in honour of Fuu? Doesn't she deserve one from you?"


Jin was a little startled, but didn't say anything. Fuu on the other hand, spoke up immediately. "Oh no, he doesn't have to write a poem for me. I don't mind...I mean..." She lowered her eyes in confusion, unable to look at either Yatsuha or Jin.


Yatsuha changed the topic of conversation to put them at ease. Instead they talked about the kitsunetsuki case and various aspects of it. But she couldn't help notice that Jin, from time to time, would glance at Fuu, as if to assess her reaction to the question she had asked. He was as inscrutable as always, but there was a softness and vulnerability to the expression in his eyes as they alighted on Fuu.


Oh yes, he has written poems in her honour. And by the end of the day he will write another one.


Yatsuha was right. Later that evening, when Fuu was about to go to bed, Jin appeared at the doorstep of her room. He was carrying a bundle of clothes. "I, uh, was carrying your gi and hakama for you on our way back, but I forgot to..."


He placed the bundle of clothes in her arms and disappeared before she could reply. She stared after him for a while, wondering why he had been in such a hurry. Then, as she was putting the clothes back in the closet, she found a piece of paper within the folds of the hakama. She smiled as she recognized Jin's calligraphy, and read out the following tanka:


I wait for the time

we are together

Until then

there is the memory of a kiss

and a cherry blossom tree


[1] This obviously refers to episode 15 titled Bogus Booty. According to the episode guide in the AMALGAM fansite: "The game Jin and Mugen play to decide which of them will accompany Yatsuha is called 'Acchi Muite Hoi," where players will play rock-paper-scissors and then the winner will point a direction (up/down/left/right) while the loser will have to face a direction. If the challenged player faces the same direction as the challenger points, he loses the match."

Author's note: I suppose I should provide notes on haiku and tanka, the tea ceremony, the tradition of writing death poems (jisei), and concepts such as honne and tatemae that appear in the last two chapters, but I am postponing it for the time being. In any case, many of these things can be found on the internet. Regarding the incense factory, I really don't know what such a factory would have looked like in those times; what I have here is an extrapolation based on internet material. The 'extrusion device' though is based on a sketch from a book I have referenced earlier in the novel.

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