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samurai champloo fanfiction: kitsune in koshu chapter 36

 

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


Chapter 36


Recherche Rituals and Rascality, Part I


Kofu, Enpo Period, Year 6, Month 3, Day 20 (April 20, 1678)


I. Early Evening at the Inari Shrine of the Furin Kazan Inn


"Oi, Fish-Face, how come we didn't notice this before?"


Mugen and Jin stood at the entrance of the Inari shrine in the compound of the Furin Kazan Inn. It was the 'shrine in the backyard' that had been casually pointed out to them during their previous visit, but today it appeared to be a lot larger than it did that day.


"The cherry blossom trees were in full bloom then. They would have obscured the view from the balcony."


The pair of kitsune statues flanking the entrance appeared to be grinning at them, noted Jin, as though they were saying, 'You aren't as observant as you thought you were, are you?' Mugen too evidently interpreted their expression the same way as he irreverently kicked up some dust in the direction of one of the statues, before Jin could stop him.


"Your cousin Tomoe cast a spell on us or what?"


"I wish the two of you would stop referring to her as my cousin. It is juvenile."


Ever since Tomoe had alluded to the 'kitsune lineage' of the Takeda clan during the Ko-Kwai, Mugen and Fuu had occasionally teased Jin by addressing him as 'Tomoe's cousin' or 'Tomoe's employee'. Jin hadn't minded this, even though he pretended to be mildly offended. It was only good natured ribbing, and good natured ribbing was a nice thing; you only received it if you had friends. It was all the more pleasant when Fuu tried to make it up to him. A physical demonstration of affection was out of the question, given the restrictions Hideo had imposed on them, but a gentle tug of his kimono sleeves as her honest brown eyes glanced up at him lovingly, was enough to warm his heart.


Observing that Jin was smiling to himself, Mugen remarked, "You'd better not start day-dreaming about her. We're supposed to stay sharp, otherwise taking part in this dumb ritual will be a waste of time."


"If rumours regarding these rituals are to be believed, it is rather difficult to 'stay sharp' during them."


"What do you mean?"


"There are, uhm, some 'visions' involved. I suspect that we will be required to either ingest or inhale some things – things that are bound to be hallucinogenic."


"Hallucino-what?"


"Hallucinogenic. It is the name Europeans give to things that produce visions, which they call hallucinations. Do you recall that time during our Nagasaki trip, when we found some wild mushrooms?"


"You mean we'll see wasabi eating zombies or some such crap?"


A line formed between Jin's eyebrows as he looked at Mugen with a puzzled frown. "Perhaps...Intriguing. You too saw wasabi eating zombies? And that treasure hunting man, who claimed to be a descendant of the Heike?"


"Yup. Guess we all had the same hallucination."


"Hmm. That is odd...A shared hallucination. I suppose some things are beyond explanation."


Mugen looked at the shrine, his eyebrows furrowed. Viewed in the mellow light of the evening it looked older, more ancient than it was, lending to the eerie atmosphere of the surroundings. "So you think these dames create illusions by drugging people?"


"It seems to be a plausible explanation. They may even be involved in creating illusions for the victims, but there is no direct evidence to support that theory. According to Manzou-san, they have never been seen near the victims of recorded kitsunetsuki cases."


"It has worked in all cases, hasn't it? Yatsuha might end up..."


Jin's response belied the uncertainty he shared with Mugen. "The Kofu police will be watching over her. Besides she sounded quite confident today, in her knowledge of poisons, and how they are administered. She said she would be able to see through any attempts to kill her by those means."


"Yeah, I guess so."


There was an uncomfortable silence as they thought about the danger to Yatsuha. She was a kunoichi and had volunteered for this mission, and had met them with a brave smile today, as they requested an item of her belongings for use in today's ritual. But somehow it didn't seem right. She was, after all, a woman, and doing something like this was, well, unchivalrous.


Fuu's plaintive appeal, earlier during the day, had brought home this point even more forcefully. She had said, "You guys will look after her, won't you? I know you can't be seen near her, but maybe you can watch over her from a distance. I just don't like the idea of her being all alone in that inn, just waiting...Perhaps I could -"


They had interrupted her quite forcefully, telling her that she should stay away from Yatsuha. But they had exchanged glances briefly, agreeing tacitly that something needed to be done as far as 'looking after Yatsuha' was concerned. It was now time to verbalize that agreement.


"We can take turns to look in on her," said Jin.


"There is not much we can do if it is poison, though. But yeah, we can look in on her. Although, my guess is that the brat will be visiting her all the time."


A sigh of resignation emanated from Jin. "Yes, she can be quite stubborn. I am worried that she may be off investigating as we speak, even though I told her to stay with her aunt and uncle, since we weren't able to guard her today."


Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming towards them from beyond the cherry blossom grove. It was Hiroko.


"Jin-san, Mugen-san, welcome. We will not be starting the ritual just yet. We asked you to come early as it can take a long time, and we thought it would be good to have a light meal before we started. Why don't you come with me please, to the reception hall of the inn?"


Mugen exchanged a glance with Jin. Aa-ha. It will be interesting to see what they serve.


-xxx-


II. Late Morning at the Sekisuiji Inn


Fuu had reluctantly followed Jin's advice, and was with her uncle Hideo in the garden of the Sekisuiji Inn, feeling restless. She had attempted to persuade her aunt and uncle to go to the Zenkoji temple district; that was where Sachiko, the woman who provided the 'kitsunetsuki list' had lived, and pottering around that neighbourhood was likely to yield some clues. But Hideo and Ayako had wanted to stay put at the Sekisuiji Inn, as they were expecting another visit from Miyoshi-sama, the go-between who had arranged the forthcoming miai.


Thinking about the miai made her feel even more restless, as the growing feeling of dread with which she thought about it reasserted itself. There was also the meeting Jin had arranged with Tanaka Etsuo, and surely no good could come out of that. How he could be so placidly calm about it was beyond her comprehension. He certainly had something up his sleeve, but what on earth could it be? It was too much to expect that it would miraculously resolve all the problems at hand.


But no amount of poking Jin in the ribs, and entreating him to reveal his 'secret plan' had any impact. Strangely enough, he had seemed so happy about being poked in the ribs; at first she had done it to tease some information out of him, but later she did it for a glimpse of that glorious smile lighting up his face. Of course, the smile would simply take her breath away and she would forget the questions she had wanted to ask. It would have been annoying, had it not been so exhilarating.


She forced herself to snap out of her thoughts as she felt her uncle's eyes upon her. He looked worried and sad, making her feel guilty. Her feelings for Jin had been a little too transparent, and under the present circumstances that was bound to give him pain. What he had to say to her further heightened her feelings of guilt.


"My dear child, I know what you are going through. You are in love with Jin and I believe he loves you too. And yet I have asked you to go through with this miai. You must think I am a cruel man."


She opened her mouth to speak but Hideo prevented her by raising his hand, palm facing towards her. "Please let me explain why. I really do wish circumstances had been different, and there were no obstacles to your marrying Jin. But I have to admit that your aunt is right about a lot of things."


He had lowered his voice and smiled wryly, as if to suggest that he was unlikely to make such an admission in the presence of Ayako, who was upstairs in their room at the inn, getting ready for Miyoshi-sama's visit.


"You see, the fact that you are the daughter of Kasumi Seizo makes quite a big difference. I didn't tell you this, but Lord Masakuni knows that you are Seizo's daughter. As per bakufu policy, you will be under surveillance all your life. And that is why Lord Masakuni stepped in to, er, suggest that you marry Tanaka Etsuo. Etsuo is soon to be employed as a retainer to Lord Honda, a fudai daimyo, and it will then be his responsibility to, uhmm, watch over you."


Hideo was surprised by the strange look that had come over his niece's face. She seemed distant, as if solving a puzzle that had captured her interest to the point of rendering her oblivious to her surroundings. But he persisted with his explanation. "I know that Jin has raised your hopes by suggesting that he can find a way out of this. He spoke to me about it too; he seems to believe that there is a way to change Lord Masakuni's mind."


"For a moment, I wanted to believe it too. Jin didn't elaborate on what exactly he had planned, but he had sounded so...confident. But when I think about it, what can possibly override the fact that you have to be under surveillance? That is why the house you marry into is so critical. It would be easy to keep a watch on you if you were married to Etsuo. On the other hand, if you were to marry a ronin..."


Hideo had stopped because the change in Fuu's countenance was so startling that he could no longer ignore it. She was beaming at him, and her face was flushed red with excitement, as though she had been given a free entry to an anago-don eating competition. Considering what he had just said, it was rather puzzling.


Fuu, in fact, had an epiphany of sorts, and it had been triggered by the word 'surveillance' that had cropped up in her uncle's hitherto uninterrupted monologue. Of course! It was all about the issue of surveillance. And Jin had found a way around it. "Oji-san," she said excitedly, "I think I know what Jin has in mind."


"Fuu-chan -"


"Don't you see, it is about this case he is assisting the police with?"


"Hm?"


"You are concerned about the fact that he is a ronin, aren't you? A wandering ronin at that. But if I recall correctly, when he came to you with a marriage proposal for me he said that he would 'settle down' when he married me, open up a school, or something like that."


"So?"


"Well, for one, that means he will be in one place all the time, as will I, if I am married to him."


"And?"


"Didn't you once tell me about the 'gonin-gumi' system the bakufu has implemented all over Japan? You said that all residential neighbourhoods were divided into blocks of five households, and each block was responsible for monitoring the activities within that block. That, at least, partly solves the surveillance problem, doesn't it? Jin and I will be part of one such block, and we will be watched by other members of that block. That is what they do with other descendants of those linked to the Hidden Christians, don't they?"


"Ah yes, but Fuu, you forget that your father was no ordinary participant in the defence against that attack on Ikitsuki-shima."


"Yes, I know. That is where the kitsunetsuki case comes in."


Hideo knitted his eyebrows before a look of realization dawned on his face. He was beginning to follow his niece's chain of reasoning. "So you think that if he acquits himself well on this case, he may form permanent links with the police. He may even become part of the police force."


"Perhaps. But even if he were to be a part-time assistant, it would do just as well."


"Hmm. I see what you mean. To be watched by the police is an even better option than being watched by the retainers of a daimyo."


"Exactly!"


Hideo rubbed his face with his hands quite vigorously, as if trying to wipe the weariness out of his face. "But Fuu-chan, what if Jin is unsuccessful? That might make the situation worse. The police will probably make a scapegoat out of him, and as per bakufu policy there is always some sort of punishment for failure. If they try to make a case against him, then everything he has done in the past will be looked upon unfavourably. So much so, that he may have no option but to remain a wandering ronin."


Fuu was a little deflated by her uncle's remarks but only temporarily. She leaned across from her bench and slapped his arm lightly with her fingers. "Aaah, Oji-san, there is no reason to be so pessimistic. I am sure Jin will succeed. In fact, we should help him too. That is why I was suggesting we go to the Zenkoji temple district and find out whatever we can about that woman Sachiko. There were a few leads I got, from the visit at Toshitsugu's factory, and I want to investigate those."


Hideo smiled indulgently at his niece, but was firm in his refusal. "Now, now, Fuu, we had discussed this before. You know that Miyoshi-sama is visiting today. And as to you going on your own, don't even think about it. Both your bodyguards are away, and we agreed that you must be guarded at all times."


The earnest, determined look in Fuu's eyes told Hideo that the discussion was not at an end. He braced himself in anticipation of his niece's arguments. She said, to his surprise, "Yes, I know that I need to be guarded. You and Jin are probably right; whoever sent Inuyama may wish to attack me again."


"I am glad you understand that."


"But what if the would-be-attackers didn't recognize me?"


Hideo had obviously not been able to follow Fuu's train of thought; he had tilted his head sideways as if in contemplation of a knotty conundrum, and echoed Fuu's question with a 'you' replacing the 'me'. So she followed up with another rhetorical question. "I mean what if I disguised myself and went to the Zenkoji district?"


Hideo burst out laughing. "I must say Fuu-chan, you say such funny things sometimes!"


"I'm serious!"


There was a concerted effort from Hideo to control his laughter, but he couldn't manage to stop smiling. "How exactly do you intend to disguise yourself?"


"Well, Jin recently got hold of a pair of glasses and a hat. He plans to wear them whenever he goes to meet Manzou-san or to report to the town magistrate. But he obviously won't need them today; he has gone with Mugen to visit Yatsuha, and then they will both go the Furin Kazan Inn. I thought I could borrow them."


"So you think a pair of glasses and a hat would do the trick?


"Why not? It used to work for Jin, so why can't it work for me? Besides, I plan to do a bit more than that. I will wear a kimono and hakama, and pad myself up a little, so that I end up looking like a plump boy."


Hideo sighed. "Fuu, I still don't think..."


"Oh, Oji-san, please, please, let me go! I'll be careful, I promise. And I will come back well before sunset. I doubt anyone will want to attack me in broad daylight."


Hideo wished for his wife's presence. Ayako was so much better at saying no to Fuu. He wondered how Umeko, his sister-in-law had handled raising such a lively, headstrong girl all by herself. Umeko too had been a determined sort of lady, but after Seizo had left she seemed to change, becoming a shadow of her former self. Fuu had probably gotten used to getting her way most of the time. What would she have been like, had she led a more sheltered existence with Kasumi Seizo around when she was growing up?


But the poor girl had to learn to look after herself at the tender age of fourteen. And then she went looking for her father, only to end up watching him executed before her eyes. That was followed by a difficult period in which she tried to live by herself in Edo. The realization that a young girl like her had only two choices – either to end up in a brothel or to live under the protection of a family – must have dawned on her as she came to live with them. But even then, constraints had been imposed on her because of their circumstances as retainers of Lord Masakuni. So how could he say no to her now, when she was making a desperate last bid towards freedom and happiness?


Not much good could come out of her misguided attempt to help Jin. But the determination he saw in her eyes touched him. So he said, "Fuu-chan, you may go, but I have some conditions. Firstly, you must be back before the Hour of the Rooster. Secondly, you must restrict yourself to areas that are busy and populated with crowds. On no account must you enter back alleys or lonely streets. And take a wakizashi or a bokken with you. Now go before your aunt -"


He was about to say 'go before your aunt comes down here and makes me change my mind', but was interrupted by Fuu, who had come across to his bench and given him a crushing sideways hug.


-xxx-


III. Late Afternoon at a Tea-House in the Zenkoji Temple District


Munefuyu felt naked. He was dressed in the kinagashi style – wearing only a long kimono without the hakama or haori, in the manner of common chonin. On top of that, his pair of katana and wakizashi was hidden in the cotton bag he had slung over his shoulder, and he missed the comfortable feeling he associated with having them tucked in his obi. But he had no reason to complain; ever since his meeting with that messenger from Lord Tadakiyo, Tokugawa Mitsukuni had been on his mind, and he was seized with the desire to emulate some of his exploits. There had been only a brief mention of Mitsukuni in that dossier Tadakiyo had sent him, in the form of some outrageously circumstantial evidence linking the killing of Mitsukuni's aide to Jin, but it was enough to set his imagination alive. That is, he wanted to roam the streets of Kofu in disguise, just like Tokugawa Mitsukuni aka 'Mito Komon' did in the case of Edo and other places in Japan.


His purpose, though, was a slightly different one from the shogun's cousin. He certainly wanted to investigate the impact of this 'kitsunetsuki epidemic' looming over this castle town – that would be something similar to what Mito Komon would have done. But he also had another motive. He wanted to find out as much as he could about that young love interest of Jin's, Kasumi Fuu. At the present moment, therefore, he had halted at a tea-house in order to plan how he would go about it.


He could go over to the Sekisuiji Onsen Inn and hang around there, under some pretext or the other. The onsen was well known, particularly for its medicinal properties, and it wouldn't be unnatural for an old traveller to request temporary use of it. Jin was probably away making arrangements for that kitsunetsuki causing ritual, so there was no one there who could identify him.


There was nothing wrong with such subterfuge, he told himself. Firstly, he was here at the shogun's request, to investigate Jin, and investigating Jin entailed investigating his friends, particularly if they were of a dubious background. Secondly he had made a promise, albeit a conditional one, to act as Jin's go-between. Wasn't it the go-between's role to investigate the 'other party'?


Even so, part of him felt it was distasteful to do something like this, as he didn't really expect to carry out his promise to act as Jin's go-between. Besides, he was a little tired, and the Sekisuiji district was a few miles away from his present location. But his curiosity about Fuu, daughter of Kasumi Seizo, and killer of the assassin Inuyama, got the better of him, and he resolved to make a trip to the Sekisuiji Inn once he had finished his bowl of tea. In the meantime he would examine the portrait of Fuu in that dossier Tadakiyo had sent him. It had been made by a metsuke-officer-cum-sketch-artist who had observed her under the pretext of taking lessons at the jojutsu school she attended. In the portrait she was in her martial arts uniform, holding the jo in a particular 'kamae' position, in readiness to make a strike with it.


As he scrutinized the portrait, it occurred to him that he should do a quick reconnaissance of the surroundings. Although he was in no danger at the moment, being alert and 'battle ready' at all times was something of a habit with him. And there was something in the air, something intangible, but recognizable to him as an undercurrent that could potentially develop into a dangerous situation.


Certainly, there was a pair of boisterous samurai at that table at the corner, and it would be prudent to keep an eye on them. Other customers seemed harmless. There was a young couple at the table next to his, and an odd looking boy (girl?) wearing glasses and a hat at the table diagonally across. The hat gave him pause; why would someone wear a hat inside a tea-house?


He brushed the thought aside and focussed on the rowdy samurai. Probably a couple of disreputable ronin, he thought, and drunk by the looks of it. The waitress serving them was obviously having a hard time, as they kept making passes at her. She looked miserable, and almost ran back to the kitchen as soon as she had finished serving the food and sake they had ordered.


Munefuyu wondered if the situation would escalate to the point where an incident of sorts occurred. The customers definitely looked worried. The couple at the next table were whispering to each other, and from what he could glean of their conversation, they were planning to make an exit as soon as possible. That androgynous looking boy was also quite rattled. He had stood up a couple of times when they were harassing the waitress, as though planning to intervene, and then sat down, as if having thought the better of it.


Munefuyu chuckled to himself. What did the boy think he could achieve by intervening? He was such a tiny fellow in comparison to those hooligans, in spite of the padded clothes he was wearing. The pair of ronin would probably enjoy beating up the kid; they were bullies who were looking for trouble.


Partly to prevent an incident, and partly out of curiosity, Munefuyu decided he would have a chat with the boy. Tucking the portrait of Fuu in his kimono, and gathering his belongings and his cup of tea, he approached the boy's table.


"May I join you, young man?"


The boy looked a little suspiciously at him first, and then smiled. "Of course, sir, onegai shimasu – please join me."


Munefuyu thought: What a strange voice he has! Perhaps he is at an awkward stage and his voice is breaking. He is trying to maintain a low pitch to cover it up. "Thanks, son. I am Heikichi, by the way, and I am from Edo. I was hoping to have a chat with you about this wonderful town of yours. Nothing better than finding out from the locals what the places of interest are, eh?"


One of the samurai, calling for more sake, banged his cup on the table, causing the nonplussed expression on the boy's face to be replaced with one of disgust. "Aaah, I wish those men would behave!"


"It is best to ignore them son." His voice changed just then, and he doesn't have a nodo botoke (an Adam's apple). Of course, why didn't I see it before! It's a girl!


The 'girl' craned her neck backwards to look at the samurai and then turned back to address Munefuyu. "I wish I could help you Heikichi-san, but my knowledge of Kofu is limited. I too am from Edo, and have been here for a very short while."


"Ah, even better. It is always nice to run into a fellow citizen of Edo when one is travelling. What is your name?"


"Kim – Kinsuke."


Munefuyu conjectured that the girl's name was Kimiko. "Well, Kinsuke, what are your impressions of Kofu? The scenery at spring time is spectacular, is it not?"


"Yes, indeed. I wouldn't mind living here, you know. I love the idea of living near the mountains. But it must get very cold in winter."


Munefuyu was about to reply but the two ronin had just finished their meal and sake, and were staggering out of the tea-house. Unable to hide his disapproval, he glanced at them coldly as they passed. He regretted it the next instant, when one of them, a tall, puffy-eyed man with a prominent chin, took offense and paused, glaring down at him with some animosity.


"Why are you looking at me like that, old man?"


Munefuyu sighed wearily. This was a nuisance. He had no intention of becoming involved in an altercation with these men, although he was sorely tempted to teach them a lesson. A few strikes with the blunt edge of his sword would be enough to get rid of these two, but in doing so he would be forced to reveal his identity. It was illegal for chonin to carry a katana, and once he took it out of his bag, he would have to also show the relevant authorities the seal of the Yagyu family. This he didn't want to do, as it would defeat his purpose of travelling incognito. The only option was to eat humble pie and apologize to these idiots.


But to his surprise, he was pre-empted by the young girl, who stood up angrily and yelled at the two men. "Hey! You guys leave him alone!"


The two men turned around to glance at the girl briefly, and then the tall puffy eyed man whispered something to his shorter, relatively nondescript companion. Both the men then burst out laughing quite loudly, with the obvious intention of attracting the attention of everyone in the tea-house. The puffy eyed man said, "Look here, we have a girl dressed up as a boy! Well, sweetheart, we will leave the old man alone if we can have some fun with you. How about it?"


Munefuyu cleared his throat, and then observing that the ronin were now entirely focussed on the girl and had forgotten about him, decided to venture a cough. "Gentleman, Gentlemen, there is no need for this. I am deeply sorry if I offended you. My, uhm, granddaughter here is a little hot headed and very protective of me. Please forgive her. She doesn't mean any harm."


By now a crowd of sorts had gathered around them; the kitchen staff, waiters and waitresses had temporarily suspended their activities, as had the couple sitting at the neighbouring table. The proprietor of the establishment had also come out of the kitchen, and was hesitantly walking towards them.


The two ronin, upon observing that they had an audience very likely to be sympathetic towards the grandfather-granddaughter pair they had targeted, seemed to have second thoughts about their plans. They decided to be magnanimous and 'forgive' Munefuyu and the girl, and settled for directing some unpleasant parting glances at them as they left the tea-house.


The crowd dissipated soon afterwards, but not before they were subjected to some curious glances from the onlookers. The girl, looking sheepishly at Munefuyu, said, "So you too figured out that I was a girl, huh?"


Munefuyu smiled at the girl indulgently. "Your disguise, my dear, is a little flawed. The hat and the glasses you are wearing are a little large for you, and you have overdone the padding; such skinny hands cannot belong to a torso of that size. And it is decidedly odd to wear a hat indoors."


The girl blushed and took off her hat. "Yes, I see. That was really stupid of me!"


Munefuyu called a waiter to the table and ordered some dumplings and sake. "Don't worry my dear, no harm done. What is your real name, by the way?"


"Kimiko."


The pot of sake arrived quite promptly, with a promise that dumplings would follow in a few minutes. Munefuyu offered to pour a cup of sake for his companion, but she refused politely. He poured himself a cup, and tasted the sake contemplatively. "Well, Kimiko, just be careful the next time. I can understand your need to disguise yourself; it isn't safe for young girls like you to travel alone, and the incident that just occurred is a case in point."


"And although I must thank you for standing up for me, I must say it wasn't a good idea. I mean, what could you have done? Those men were armed with a katana and wakizashi, and they were bigger and stronger than us. I see you are wearing a bokken, but unless you are very good at using it..."


Kimiko looked contrite. "Yes, I know...But Heikichi-san, when I see bullies like that, who pick on people they think are a lot weaker than them, it makes me really, really, mad."


Munefuyu looked up from his cup of sake, and gazed at Kimiko with a somewhat reflective expression in his eyes. "And that anger spurns you into action? Even at a high risk to yourself?"


Munefuyu had offered Kimiko another cup of sake again, which she accepted absentmindedly, and then leaned forward resting her elbows on the table, cupping her face with her hands. "I guess I am optimistic. I didn't think, for example, that I could take on those men alone, but what if you and I, and others over here collectively stood up to them? That would change things, wouldn't it?"


"Ah, but Kimiko, most of these other people you refer to are commoners trying to get on with the ordinary business of life, and want to continue to do so. They would want to avoid, at any cost, getting involved in a brawl that could land them into trouble with the authorities. So in the end an old man, and a little girl with a bokken would have to fight those ronin."


Kimiko smiled, looking like a naughty child conspiring with another on a prank. Having a delicate sip from her cup of sake, she said, "Oh come now, Heikichi-san, we could have made a fight of it couldn't we? I could have lent you my bokken, and borrowed a broomstick from the kitchen. If one removes the 'broom' part of it, it becomes just like any other stick. I bet we could have landed a couple of good whacks on them even before they were able to draw their swords."


Munefuyu smiled as he watched Kimiko gesturing with her hands, as though she was making a strike with an imaginary stick. The portrait of Kasumi Fuu flashed in his mind, as he looked at her thoughtfully. "Kimiko, I am a little curious. I assume you know a little bit about these weapons, otherwise you wouldn't be so confident about 'landing a few good whacks' as you put it. Have you some training in the martial arts?"


Her cheeks turned a little pink as she answered, "I, uh, know a little bit. I have been learning the art of jojutsu for about two years. But I am ashamed of what I just said. One should never be looking to pick a fight – that would make me no different from those ronin. In any case, I would be no good in a fight that I initiated. I could only do a reasonable job if I was defending myself. That is, I think that I have a survival instinct, but not a killer instinct. Although, in order to survive I could end up killing someone. Does that make any sense?"


Munefuyu remained silent and contemplative, but nodded to indicate his agreement. Aha. She is definitely Miyamori Kimiko aka Kasumi Fuu. What an interesting coincidence.


Kimiko, or rather Fuu continued, "But people who are really good at jojutsu, like my Shishou, would be able to defend themselves without having to kill, unless, of course, they were facing an opponent of great skill."


A chuckle escaped Munefuyu. "Well, Kimiko, had you landed a few blows with, uhmm, a broomstick, before those ronin drew their weapons, you might have achieved the same purpose!"


Fuu squinted at Munefuyu through her glasses. "Heikichi-san! You are making fun of me, aren't you?"


"No, not at all. I was just thinking about the suggestion you made – you with a stick, me with a bokken, against those samurai armed with shinken (real swords)."


She frowned at him in mock disapproval, placing her hands on her hips. "It isn't funny! Well, maybe a little. But you must know that in the history of Japan, there have been bokken v/s shinken duels, in which the person with the bokken won – Miyamoto Musashi, for instance. It is more to do with the mind than the weapon. As the great Yagyu Munenori once said-"


At this point Fuu lowered the pitch of her voice and gestured dramatically as she continued, "'Deception is doing something unexpected by your opponent, and surprising him. This is the martial arts. Once surprised, your opponents mind will be taken, and his skill undone. Raising your fan or hand in front of him will also take your opponent's mind. Tossing aside the sword you are carrying is also a martial art. If you have obtained the skill of No-Sword, what will a sword be to you?'"


She had delivered her speech with élan, as though she was a professional story-teller narrating a heroic war tale to a large audience. Munefuyu suppressed several chuckles, but his shoulders shook a little from the effort, especially as she quoted his father. He said, "Ah, but I am no Miyamoto Musashi...or Yagyu Munenori."


The naughty, conspiratorial expression in Fuu's eyes had returned, and her face was moderately flushed, even though she had been sipping her sake very slowly. "Heikichi-san, I have a gut feeling you would be very good with the bokken. I could teach you a few moves, you know. And then if those ronin attacked you, you could kick their backsides all the way to Edo."


Smiling indulgently at Fuu, Munefuyu ordered another plate of dumplings, and poured some more sake into her cup. "I might just take you up on that offer Kimiko. But I have a question for you: If you are so good at the martial arts, why bother to travel in disguise? I don't believe it would be illegal for a woman to carry a wakizashi or a bokken."


"It's a long story. And I really must be on my way. My aunt and uncle are expecting me back home before the Hour of the Rooster."


"There is plenty of time. And I am a good listener. I promise to escort you back to Se- I mean to wherever you are staying, well before that time. I get the feeling that you are worried about something, and sometimes it helps to get things off your chest."


-xxx-


IV. In the Evening, at the Furin Kazan Inn


Jin and Mugen didn't speak much during the meal, which was served to them at the reception room of the Furin Kazan Inn. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it; or rather there was nothing to suggest that any of the items had been 'laced' with the ingredients they had referred to earlier in the afternoon. The only thing that was remotely suspicious was that Hiroko had made it a point to serve them somewhat liberal amounts of sake. Mugen didn't refuse any of these offerings, but Jin restricted himself to two cups.


Tomoe and Otane made a brief appearance and then excused themselves, saying that they had to undergo some ceremonies in preparation of the ritual that was about to take place. They were both dressed in garb similar to shrine maidens, in that they wore a red hakama over a white unpatterned kimono. Hiroko, on the other hand wore a pale blue kimono tied with a black obi. She was serious and unsmiling throughout the meal, and at one point looked very severely at Jin and Mugen and remarked: "I believe you gentlemen are sceptical about what we are about to do. But a solemn and respectful attitude is essential to the success of the ritual that is to take place. I therefore suggest you leave your scepticism behind when I escort you back to the shrine."


Her tone didn't go down well with Mugen, and he was about to respond rudely before a sharp look from Jin curbed his natural instincts. Jin then turned to Hiroko and asked, "If I may enquire Hiroko-san, what exactly is involved in the ritual?"


Hiroko smiled maliciously as she started clearing the dishes that had been served to them. "You will find out soon enough, Jin-san. Tomoe-nesan will explain it to you."


She soon left the room with a tray full of used dishes, but not before she looked at them warningly, in the manner of a schoolmistress expecting untoward behaviour from her charges, and said, "I will be back soon."


After she had left, Mugen said to Jin, "As far as I can tell, there were no drugs in the food."


"Hmm. I think there may be some sort of fire ceremony involved, in which certain 'offerings' will be thrown into the fire, generating smoke of a special kind. Or perhaps we will be asked to eat or drink something during the ceremony."


"So you reckon they're going to put on quite a show for us."


"Uhm-Hmm. As per Manzou-san's research, the younger sister Otane is believed to be a medium of some sort. Perhaps she will go into a trance and be possessed by a spirit."


Letting out a very vocal yawn, Mugen stretched his arms wide. "Hope she's a good actress. It might turn out to be kind of entertaining."


"I hope so too. However, Manzou-san also said that the rituals are supposed to be disturbing and unpleasant."


"You mean the hallucinations could be scary? Come on Fish-Face, there is very little that could scare us. Although, I think you should have gone slow on the sake."


"You had about three times as many cups as I did!"


"Yeah, but you are kind of delicate when it comes to sake. If there are drugs involved, you might just pass out before this crap is over. And I'm not going to carry your ass back home."


There was a faint smile on Jin's lips. "You are the one with no restraint, and therefore likely to consume too much of what they serve. It is more likely, then, that I will have to carry your ass back home."


Hiroko returned a few minutes later, dressed in an outfit similar to that of Tomoe's and Otane's. "It is time," she said. "Please follow me."


Author's note:

 Readers probably remember the Samurai Champloo episode Cosmic Collisions, in which all sorts of strange things happen to the trio after Jin and Mugen eat some wild mushrooms. My interpretation of that episode is that it was a hallucination, but interestingly we don't see Fuu having any mushrooms in that episode. See the AMALGAM site referenced earlier in this novel for details.

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