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samurai champloo fanfiction: kitsune in koshu chapter 37

 

Chapter 37


Recherche Rituals and Rascality, Part II


Kofu, Enpo Period, Year 6, Month 3, Day 20


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


Fuu had begun to look the part of a plump boy, thought Munefuyu, as he observed her make short work of another plate of dumplings. What did Jin see in her? There was certainly a gamine charm about her, but in the long run that was bound to fade. The contrast between their personalities would then surely make them incompatible. But young people rarely saw such things.


On the bright side, there was a quality of robustness about her; she looked like a healthy girl who would bear him healthy children. She would also be able to appreciate Jin's dedication to kenjutsu, given that she had similar interests herself. And there were rumours that she put a higher value on the concept of giri (duty/loyalty) than Jin did, at least in the conventional sense of the word. On the basis of what he had gleaned from Jin, he got the impression that she was going to follow Lord Masakuni's order to marry the other fellow – was his name Tanaka? – and unless something happened to change Lord Masakuni's mind, she would stand by that decision. If that particular trait were to rub off on Jin, he might even be persuaded to give up his ronin status and take up employment as a retainer of some daimyo.


But all these speculations aside, what on earth was she up to? Her aunt and uncle must allow her a lot of freedom, what with her miai looming over the horizon. She should be sitting put at home, helping with the preparations, like a good, demure, Japanese girl, rather than gallivanting about town in that ridiculous disguise. Yet in a way this was quite natural, given that she had spent significant years of her life unfettered from social constraints, albeit as an unsheltered and unprotected orphan child. Her desire for freedom and independence must therefore be in constant conflict with her desire for a sheltered family life.


Marrying Jin would, in a sense, resolve this conflict; he was the type of man who would allow her a lot of freedom and at the same time protect her and provide for her. From her point of view, then, Jin was an ideal partner in life. But would she be suitable for Jin? He could certainly do better, provided, of course, he didn't get killed in a duel with Munefuyu, on which subject Munefuyu was still undecided. Jin definitely deserved better than being saddled with the daughter of someone connected with the Kakure Kirishtan. He could, in fact, marry to his material advantage, should his past family connections become known to the world.


Fuu, sitting across the table to Munefuyu, sipping her second cup of sake, smiled at the uncertain, contemplative look on his face. "I am a good listener as well Heikichi-san, and it looks like you too are worried about something...No, thanks, I won't have any more sake. I have been sipping it slowly as you suggested, but it is definitely making me sleepy."


Although a little worried about returning to Sekisuiji Inn on time, Fuu was beginning to take a liking to the old gentleman before her. Heikichi reminded her of the elderly proprietor of the tea-house she had been waitressing at before her trip to Nagasaki; he had the same, kind and trustworthy disposition, and spoke in a gentle, grandfatherly sort of voice. There was also a dash of something she couldn't put a name to, but that dash of something was reminiscent of an intangible quality she associated with her jojutsu sensei. This combination of traits, and perhaps the influence of sake, put within her the urge to confide in him. She wanted to tell him everything – about her forthcoming miai, her love for Jin, and her lack of success in playing detective today.


She had found, to her dismay, that in her present disguise people were less inclined to tell her things. But she had managed to locate the address of Sachiko's neighbour, a garrulous elderly woman with failing eyesight, who had looked after Sachiko during her illness. The conversation with this lady hadn't been particularly fruitful; she had a tendency to go off on a tangent, digressing to subjects unrelated to the questions Fuu asked her, and Fuu had a difficult time steering her back to the topic of how her 'great aunt' spent her last days. All she was able to glean for her efforts – which had been great indeed given that she had to maintain a tone of voice that would pass off as belonging to Sachiko's great nephew from Edo – was that Sachiko had said some odd things in her delirium. Apparently Sachiko had repeatedly uttered the phrase 'purple flowers, blue flowers, and blueberries' on her death bed, in addition to 'the leaves brewed in the tea looked like comfrey leaves'. Prior to her illness she had gossiped with her neighbour about some of her co-workers at Toshitsugu's incense factory, and it seemed she hadn't gotten along very well with them.


It certainly wasn't much to show for a day's work, thought Fuu. But seeing Heikichi watching her keenly, she shook herself inwardly, making a conscious attempt to look cheerful. It would have been nice to be able to discuss her problems with such a kindly old gentleman, but there was no time. And yet her attempt to deflect his inquiry into her worries had not succeeded. Rather than respond to her request, he seemed to be waiting patiently for her to speak. So she said, "It is really a long story, Heikichi-san. Suffice it to say I tried to disguise myself because my family and friends believe that someone is trying to kill me...There, I said it – sounds dramatic, doesn't it?"


Munefuyu thought: So they think that whoever sent Inuyama is likely to strike again. But outwardly, he showed no signs of having made any inferences based on Fuu's remark. He said, "It does indeed. But then why take the risk of venturing out unguarded? You could stay at home."


"I, uhm, was trying to help a friend. I don't think I've been much of a help though, so I might as well have stayed at home!"


"How exactly did you plan to help your friend?"


"Well, he is kind of working on a case...helping the police, you know. I thought I might be able to help with the investigations."


Ah, so this was a scatterbrained attempt to help Jin
. "He must be rather special, for you to want to take such a risk. Is he your boyfriend?"


It was hard to tell whether Fuu was blushing; sake had already reddened her cheeks. But the expression in her eyes was revealing enough. "I, uhm, no, I mean..."


Munefuyu smiled encouragingly at Fuu. "Come now, Kimiko, you can tell me! I referred to you as my granddaughter, remember? There isn't any reason to be shy of confiding in someone who is like a grandfather, is there?"


Munefuyu's smile was followed by a chuckle, and both were infectious as Fuu found herself responding with a shy smile and giggle. "In that case, Heikichi Ojiisan, I will tell you the truth. My friend – his name is Jin, by the way – is not formally my boyfriend, but we, uhm, like each other."


"Ah. I take it your family doesn't approve?"


Fuu's expression changed; she stopped smiling and suddenly appeared more 'grown up' to Munefuyu. "Well, at the moment, my family doesn't have the option to approve."


"What do you mean?"


"My aunt and uncle, or rather my adopted parents, Heikichi-san, are retainers of Lord Masakuni. To cut a long story short, an omiai has been arranged for me. Lord Masakuni has suggested that I marry the groom in question."


"I see. I am sorry to hear that. But in that case, Kimiko, isn't it futile for you to pursue Jin? You cannot disobey your Lord."


"I- we, are hoping that Lord Masakuni changes his mind. I think if Jin does well on this case..."


There had been some confidence in Fuu's voice as she began the sentence, but her voice trailed off as she watched Munefuyu's reaction. She wasn't quite sure how to interpret the expression on his face, and pessimistically concluded that he was sceptical. Munefuyu, however, was wondering whether Jin had told her about his offer to act as go-between. Based on Fuu's response, he concluded that he hadn't.


"Tell me, Kimiko, is this man Jin really worth it? I mean, in a way you would be questioning your Lord's order...Who knows, you might be better off marrying into the family your Lord recommends. Jin too could perhaps find another woman to marry."


She looked at him a little defiantly. "But we love each other."


A snippet of information from the dossier Sakai Tadakiyo had sent him flashed in Munefuyu's mind. It seemed that the late Kariya Kagetoki, Tadakiyo's former henchman and advisor, had been very zealous in his pursuit of Jin, to the point that his spies had documented information on all sorts of trivial incidents that had occurred during his journey with Fuu and Mugen. One such incident involved Jin assisting a prostitute in escaping from a brothel and seeking refuge in the Enkiri Dera at Kamakura.


Suddenly, however, that piece of information didn't seem trivial anymore. Perhaps he could use it to his advantage. Shrugging his shoulders dismissively, he said, "Love, my dear Kimiko, can happen many times in the course of one's life. Take Jin, for instance. From what I can tell, you are obviously infatuated with him, and he is probably the first man you have been in love with. But what about him? Has he been in love before? If so, he can be in love again, and it is possible for him to be happy with someone else. The same goes for you...you may fall for the man Lord Masakuni has picked for you."


Fuu was still defiant in her response, but some uncertainty had crept into her voice. "The past doesn't matter. Jin loves me now."


"Ah, so he did fall for another woman. You see? It happens all the time. But I understand how you feel, my dear. A youngster like you is likely to make a big deal of it."


Fuu's lips trembled, and her voice was tremulous as she replied, "I don't know what will happen in the future Heikichi-san. All I know now is that I love Jin, and that I will always love Jin. As for the woman he was in love with, she was a prostitute he helped escape from a brothel, where she working to clear her husband's debt. She took refuge in an Enkiri Dera, and I believe she has been there for three years. That means she has been there long enough to be considered divorced from her husband. Had Jin still been interested, he would have gone to her wouldn't he? Anyway, the bottom line is, Jin and I will be very happy together."


After making this melodramatic speech, Fuu was close to tears, and seemed uncertain about her last remark, despite having made it emphatically. Munefuyu didn't miss the uncertainty in her voice, though, and was keen to see if he could bring her insecurities to the fore.


"He must have been madly in love with her to have taken such a risk. Brothels are well guarded, you know, and you aren't allowed to take any weapons with you when you enter one...I see Kimiko, that you are angry with me. But I am just helping you to look at things from an objective point of view."


"What I mean is this: is going against the wishes of your Lord really worth it? What about the alternative? Suppose Jin was to marry this woman at the Enkiri Dera. Isn't it possible that he would be happy with her? And isn't it possible that you could be happy with this Tanaka-"


Munefuyu realized his faux pas as soon as he made it, but there was no going back. Fuu had almost frozen on the spot and there was an angry, somewhat fearful expression in her eyes. "I didn't mention his name - how do you know his name is Tanaka? Who are you?"


Her back had stiffened, noted Munefuyu, and she seemed to be on the edge of her seat as if ready to take flight at a moment's notice. Her hands were under the table, so Munefuyu couldn't see them, but he knew instinctively that they were positioned on the hilt of her bokken. He hastened to reassure her. "I am not an enemy my dear, and this meeting was accidental. There is no need to worry. I have no intention of harming you."


Fuu raised her voice, but wasn't able to control the tremors in it. "Who are you?"


"I am Yagyu Munefuyu...As you may have guessed, I too am in disguise."


Munefuyu extracted the Yagyu family seal from his bag and showed it to Fuu. He added, "Regarding my knowledge in relation to you, you must know that I am acquainted with Jin. After hearing about your background, it was just a matter of putting two and two together to make four. Besides, I am a former ometsuke officer, so I am in the business of knowing things, if you know what I mean."


Myriad expressions crossed Fuu's face, like clouds floating over the sky. First there was amazement, followed by confusion, and then embarrassment. She blushed furiously and covered her face with her hands. "Oooooh!"


"What is it Kimiko – or should I say Fuu?"


"I, uhm, offered to give you kenjutsu lessons. Gomen nasai – I am sorry! Please forgive me; I am an unmitigated idiot!"


Her hands were still covering her face, but there was a gap between her fingers and a sheepish pair of brown eyes peeped through them.


Munefuyu laughed out loudly. "Never mind, my dear, you didn't know who I was. Besides, the style of kenjutsu you learn as part of your jojutsu syllabus would be quite different from the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu style. Perhaps you could have shown me some interesting things!"


Fuu now looked at Munefuyu curiously. "Munefuyu-sama, did Jin tell you about us? I suppose he must have, otherwise how would you know about the Tanakas?"


"Yes, indeed. And it seems that he didn't tell you that he told me! How odd. He's a cautious young man, that one."


"It must have slipped his mind. There were other things he was preoccupied with."


Munefuyu knew, or rather guessed correctly, that she was referring to Mariya Enshiro's death poem, so he nodded gravely. "Did he tell you about my offer to act as go-between?"


"Huh?"


"Ah, I see. Well, I don't blame him. He wasn't sure about my intentions, I suppose. Besides, it was a conditional offer."


The look of curiosity on Fuu's face had intensified. "Munefuyu-sama, I don't know what you are talking about."


"Well, Jin wants to marry you doesn't he? It improves his case if he is represented by a family and a go-between. Conditional on his solving this case successfully, Yoshinori-san will represent his family, and I will act as his go-between."


Munefuyu chuckled at the look of stunned amazement on Fuu's face. The girl could have been knocked down with a feather! "Why does it surprise you Fuu? Isn't it the most rational and obvious solution to your problem? Lord Masakuni cannot ignore such an offer, can he?"


"Y-yes."


"You are sceptical."


"No, Munefuyu-sama, but I am surprised. I beg your pardon, but I find it difficult to believe that someone of your status would, uhm, concern yourself with the lives of people like us. I mean, why would you want to represent Jin?"


"Your honesty is quite refreshing my dear! But there are quite a few things you do not know about Jin."


Fuu tilted her head sideways and looked thoughtfully at Munefuyu. "Such as?"


"I wouldn't like to say, but I guess you will know sooner or later. You see, Jin has a certain, ah, family background. For whatever reason, he has never made that background publicly known. But a person in my position – as I said before, I was an ometsuke officer – can't help knowing things. He is the son of Lord Takeda Jinemon and Lady Takeda Masako. Lord Jinemon was a former koke of Kofu, and acted as advisor to Lord Ienobu's father."


Munefuyu smiled somewhat gravely at Fuu, who looked as though she hadn't quite digested what he said. "I am telling you this in confidence, my dear. Even Jin doesn't know that I know this."


Fuu looked questioningly at Munefuyu and waited for him to explain what he meant.


"You see, Fuu, even though I have made a conditional promise to act as a go-between, I have reservations about your marriage to Jin. Don't get me wrong – if Jin successfully solves this case, I will act as his go-between, just as I promised. But I can't help feeling that Jin, and perhaps you too would be better off without each other."


Fuu sighed and looked at Munefuyu sadly. "You feel that he is of a higher status, and therefore he shouldn't marry me."


"Hmm, that is one of the reasons. His prospects would improve if he were to marry a family of high rank. On the other hand, being married to the daughter of Seizo Kasumi might hurt his prospects...Yes, I know that too."


"And then there are other issues. Jin's reputation as a swordsman precedes him. This means that there will be other swordsmen wanting to test their skill against him. By marrying him you run the risk of becoming a young widow. Yes, I see you didn't like to hear that, but you have to admit it is a distinct possibility. He is a great swordsman, but there is an element of chance involved in all battles. As a martial artist you must know that."


"I am not saying all these things to deliberately make you feel bad. As I said, I am not your enemy. I am just an old man with an experience of life that is more substantial than yours, and I am giving you my honest, objective opinion. Do you understand that?"


Fuu nodded her head in response, but was silent. It appeared as though she was making a brave effort to control her emotions, and couldn't simultaneously manage to speak.


"And now, my dear, I will escort you back to your inn as I promised. It is the Sekisuiji Onsen Inn, isn't it? On the way we can have a chat about this very interesting case that Jin is working on, and the things you found out today. How about it?"


In a low, tremulous voice Fuu replied, "Munefuyu-sama, there is no need to inconvenience yourself that way. I will be fine. But I thank you for the offer."


"No, Fuu, I insist. Your family and friends have a right to be worried. There is a danger to your life, although I can only speculate as to the source of it. You barely survived an attack recently, didn't you? One mustn't tempt fate. So please let me act as your bodyguard on your return trip to the Sekisuiji Inn."


-xxx-


II. In the Evening, at the Inari Shrine of the Furin Kazan Inn


The Inari shrine of the Furin Kazan Inn was surrounded on one side by cherry blossom trees, while behind it, at the edge of the compound was a thick grove of cypress trees. In the fading light of the evening it looked like a dark wall, if one were to view it from a distance. The shrine, which was partly constructed with cypress wood, was also dark and therefore camouflaged with its background, until visitors were reasonably close to it, after which it appeared to emerge quite suddenly from behind the cherry blossom tree closest to it.


Mugen, who was following closely behind Hiroko, noted that the effect was a little less startling than it would have been, if there hadn't been a light emanating from what looked like a kaguraden (dancing hall) adjacent to the main prayer building.[1] "Is the ritual going to take place there?" he asked Hiroko, pointing towards the light.


"Part of it." She turned around and treated Jin and Mugen with an I-am-in-another-world-and-not-in-a-mood-to-talk look.


"How come there's no light in the main building?"


There was no response from Hiroko, and the only sounds disturbing the blanket of silence enveloping the surroundings were the footsteps of Jin, Mugen, and Hiroko. Jin wondered whether Hiroko's lack of response was a deliberate ploy to create some sort of an atmosphere for the ritual. Indeed, to more impressionable minds, it would have seemed as though birds and insects had stopped making noises to mark the event that was about to take place, and the entire flora-cum-fauna of Kofu had halted its activity to watch the events that were about to unfold.


But Jin and Mugen were intent on being prosaic about things; they were here to observe the ritual as investigators, and there was no room for a vivid imagination, at least for the time being. Sounds of rustling leaves and creaking branches were missing simply because the evening breeze was too gentle. Birds, of course, must have gone to sleep, and the nocturnal insects were just about to get started – this was just a lull before they got their act together. So they continued to follow Hiroko quietly, with a nonchalance that was entirely without affectation.


The kaguraden (dancing hall), they observed, wasn't an open pavilion typical of most shrines. But this was understandable given there was unlikely to be a large audience for any of the dances that may take place here, and a small audience could easily be accommodated around the raised platform inside the hall, which was to some extent also visible from outside, through the entrance of the building.


The fact that the shrine had a dancing hall at all was quite surprising, given that this was a shrine belonging to the only tsukimono-suji family in town. Apart from a few travellers, and some eccentric samurai and chonin families, they were shunned by most people. They certainly conducted quite a few parties and social events for their small group of friends, but didn't invite them to religious or ritualistic events. Rituals, of course, were only conducted for 'clients'.


Following Hiroko's example, today's clients entered the kaguraden as unobtrusively as possible, walking close to the walls, avoiding the raised platform in the centre. At the centre of the platform there was a fire surrounded by a makeshift hearth, and Tomoe and Otane were sitting around it, facing the entrance. As Jin and Mugen entered they smiled politely but didn't speak, in the manner of temple nuns who had undertaken a ritual period of silence.


But Tomoe and Otane hadn't taken a ritual vow of silence, and it was Tomoe who spoke first, addressing Mugen in a low, almost whispering tone of voice.


"Have you brought the item we requested?"


"Yeah. Here it is."


Mugen handed over a handkerchief belonging to Yatsuha to Hiroko, who, in turn, passed it on to Tomoe. Tomoe bent forward a little as she took the handkerchief, and the crown she was wearing glittered in the reflected light of the fire. She shifted her position a little in order to face Jin and Mugen directly.


"I will now briefly explain the ritual. First, we will have the ritual dance to summon the kami. Then comes the chanting of sutras and mantras, after which the kami will speak directly through Otane-chan here. In the final stage of the ritual, some offerings of food and drink are made to the kami. Then the two of you must consume the offerings, and then move to the main prayer hall where you light incense at the altar and pursue a vision quest."


At this point Otane, who had been gazing absentmindedly at the fire broke out of her reverie and looked at Jin. She said, quite abruptly, "Jin-san, you must consume a smaller portion of those offerings. And please remember, a dream is a dream – an illusion. You must not confuse illusion with reality."


Jin was able to maintain a neutral expression in response to Otane's remark, but he didn't say anything, careful to mask his scepticism with a polite nod and a faint smile. Mugen had raised his eyebrows and looked at Jin, but a soupcon of wariness had crept into his eyes. Tomoe, as expected, hastened to reassure Jin. "There is nothing to worry about. Visions are part of the ritual. They are for the purpose of attenuating the karmic burden of the actions you have taken today."


Mugen looked at Tomoe and raised his chin, using it to point in the direction of Otane, who had reverted back to gazing absentmindedly at the fire. "What did she mean about Fish- about Jin?"


"It is nothing of importance. Visions can sometimes be a little, well unpleasant, that's all."


Otane became attentive again, and shook her head, the light of the fire reflecting off her crown to form moving patterns of golden dots on the walls of the kaguraden. "That is not what I meant, onesan. It is the relatively pleasant dreams that one has to worry about."


"You mean hallucinations."


"Well, Mugen-san, some people call them hallucinations. Onesan and Hiroko-san call them visions, while I refer to them as dreams. The point I want to make is that sometimes these dreams feel very real, to the extent that they may be confused with reality. In such cases, it takes longer to wake up, so to speak. It is only when something very unpleasant happens to shock the person out of their dream-state that they return to consciousness."


Tomoe looked at Otane with some impatience. "Even in such cases, Otane-chan, they 'wake up' within half an hour or so." She turned towards Jin and smiled. "I believe Otane-chan believes that, uhm, you have a very sensitive disposition, and are a meditative sort of person that is very susceptible to such visions. But even if you do experience such a vision, Jin-san, there will be no harm done in the long run. There is nothing to worry about."


It was the first time Jin had seen Tomoe display a lack of composure. Furthermore, she had been a little too vehement in her attempt to dismiss Otane's warning, and was now eyeing him with a tense and watchful look on her face. But a snort from Mugen distracted her.


"You mean he's delicate. Kind of like a girl."


Jin looked at Mugen with what he hoped was a sufficiently withering gaze, and then turned to address Tomoe. "The offerings you mentioned – may I ask what they consist of?"


"Well, one dish is our family's version of ochazuke; instead of plain rice, we use red bean rice, topped with vegetables marinated in herbs and spices, and then pour tea over it. Then we have sweets and sake, and an herbal brew. Of course, the kami will taste the food and sake first through Otane-chan, and then the leftovers are consumed by all of us. You see, food blessed by the kami in this way must never be thrown away; that would be inauspicious. But divided among the four of us it will be a very small quantity."


At this point, Hiroko, who had been silent since she entered the hall, let out a peel of laughter. "Since all of us are partaking in the food, Jin-san, you needn't worry about it being poisoned!"


Tomoe glared at her. "Don't be absurd Hiroko." She glanced apologetically at Jin and added, "Hiroko has a strange sense of humour Jin-san. I mean, she doesn't really think that you are worried about the food being poisoned, she is just joking!"


Again, another unusual display of discomposure from Tomoe, thought Jin. What was she worried about?


-xxx-


III. In the Evening, En Route to the Sekisuiji Inn


Fuu was keen to get away from Munefuyu; the conversation she'd had with him had upset her a great deal. There was something about him that made it difficult to disregard the things he said; perhaps it was an aura of wisdom that came with old age, or the unassailable authority with which he spoke. It made one doubt one's strongest convictions, and in the case of Fuu, it was the conviction that she was meant to be Jin's partner in life that had come into question.


She wanted to run all the way back home, and seek out Jin as soon as he returned from the Furin Kazan Inn. She wanted to take refuge in his arms, and to be consoled, comforted and reassured in his gentle voice. He would then tell her that none of the obstacles Munefuyu mentioned – the differences in social rankings between them, her father's association with the Hidden Christians, or Jin's past connection to Shino – were of any relevance. He would tell her that she was the only woman he cared about, and in the end everything would be all right.


Even so, this was none other than Lord Yagyu Munefuyu; she simply could not be rude to him. Her behaviour would have a bearing on Munefuyu's assessment of Jin's performance, and her instincts told her that Munefuyu's assessment was somehow relevant to the grand scheme of things. And here she was, close to embarrassing herself by bursting into tears like a child.


She made another desperate attempt to dissuade him. "Ano...Munefuyu-sama, I do not deserve such an honour...I am quite sure I will be safe. It will be so inconvenient for you..."


After dismissively waving his hand at her, Munefuyu pulled out a wakizashi from his bag, tucking it into his obi. "There, we are all set now. Shall we go?"


Fuu sighed inwardly as she nodded her acquiescence. There was no option but to cut her losses, and file the lessons of the day for future reference. Lesson # 1: Elderly gentlemen who look like a combination one's former boss and Shishou are frighteningly persuasive. Lesson # 2: One must not forget Aunt Ayako's dictum of 'Never Speak to Strangers'.


As they walked out of the teahouse Munefuyu said: "Now then. Tell me about your day. Were you able to unravel any of the mysteries surrounding the kitsunetsuki case?"


Fuu pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and grimaced. "There is nothing much to tell, Munefuyu-sama. I tried to find out something about the woman who supplied the infamous kitsunetsuki list. I had a chat with her neighbour."


She summarized the conversation for Munefuyu's benefit as they negotiated their way through the somewhat crowded street on which the teahouse was located. Munefuyu made a quick but unobtrusive reconnaissance of the area as he listened. Better to keep alert, he thought, just in case those two ronin entertained the idea of coming back.


Reassured that there was no danger to them he turned to his companion. "You did very well Fuu, why do you look so glum?"


"I didn't find anything of importance."


"On the contrary, you found out some very interesting things...Did you say 'purple flowers, blue flowers and blueberries'? That was the phrase that woman kept repeating in her delirium, wasn't it?"


"Um-Hmm. Do you think it may be significant?"


"Well, I am pretty sure there is a poisonous plant which sprouts purple-violet or bluish blooms, but I can't recall what it is called. Likewise, when we are children we are often warned not to eat berries growing in the wild, aren't we? Sometimes, they can be poisonous."


"What are you trying to say Munefuyu-sama? Do you think she was poisoned?"


"Y-yes, that is certainly a possibility. Or perhaps she witnessed a murder, a murder involving poison, and knew that the murderer used such a plant to extract the poison."


Fuu noticed that Munefuyu smiling at her encouragingly, and found that she couldn't help smiling back. Perhaps he was right, and it hadn't been such a bad outing after all. "Yes, I see. That would be a useful piece of information. Once we identify the plant, we will know the type of poison used in these cases. If there is an antidote, then at least future victims of kitsunetsuki may be saved!"


"Perhaps. You see, Fuu, there are quite a few poisons that can produce kitsunetsuki-like symptoms, so it is by no means clear that the same poison was used in all cases. But identifying a few of the possible candidates certainly counts as progress, don't you think so?"


Munefuyu found himself relieved to see that Fuu had cheered up considerably. This puzzled him a little, as he had deliberately intended to unsettle her, and manipulate her emotions so that she decided against marrying Jin. And yet, when she was on the verge of tears, he had gone out of the way to lift her spirits.


He sighed wearily. What was it about young girls and their tears? Did they consciously use them as a weapon? This slip of a girl, although not exceptionally skilled in the martial arts, was a formidable opponent in another sense. It would be hard for a samurai to kill such a childlike young woman; there would be no honour in it. Perhaps Inuyama had a moment of uncertainty and doubt, and didn't finish the job when he could have. Of course, Inuyama had been a hardened assassin, so that sort of a thing couldn't have happened. Had he gone soft in his old age? Did age have an impact of one's innate abilities? It certainly had an impact on physical strength and reflexes. Would he, Munefuyu, be at a disadvantage in a duel with Jin, because of such infirmities? Or, would his superior experience compensate for them?


-xxx-


IV. In the Evening, at the Inari Shrine of the Furin Kazan Inn


Mugen and Jin coordinated their movements to the music created by Tomoe and Hiroko. They had been asked to join the 'dance to summon the kami' with Otane and the other two ladies, but it was obvious that Otane was to lead the dance whereby she would go into a trance and then serve as medium for a fox spirit. Tomoe was playing a biwa( short-necked fretted lute) and Hiroko played a small kakko drum which was tied to a piece of string slinging around her neck, with a pair of sticks. Encumbered this way they couldn't fully participate in the dance, but they circled around the fire, nevertheless, competently coordinating their footwork with Otane's.


Mugen smirked as he stole a glance at Jin. Fish-face looks funny when he dances, he thought. As he looked up to meet Jin's eyes, he was welcomed by an answering gleam in them, and a mocking smile to go with it, indicating he had a similar opinion about Mugen's dancing. But they were here to observe, and they examined every corner of the hall as they moved around the fire. Of course, it was very likely that this ritual was just a sham – a smoke screen to cover up the real modus operandi of the murderers, which came into play after the ritual had taken place. But what happened here might be important in some way, so they didn't want to miss any of the details.


They saw some ornate copper utensils in one corner, which probably consisted of the food and drink offerings Tomoe had mentioned. There were also some brass bowls with charcoal and ash; these were obviously for the purpose of burning incense. The smoke coming from one such bowl indicated that it was already in use. Jin wondered whether the leaves of a psychedelic plant were being burned in it. There was certainly an interesting smell in the room. Perhaps it was the means by which Otane was to go into a trance. But he did not feel that it had a significant effect upon him, at least not yet. He felt a little light headed, but that was probably the sake he had consumed earlier.


Otane showed symptoms of being influenced by it, although she may have been acting. Even so, one couldn't conclude with certainty that these symptoms were those one would expect as a result of inhaling fumes of a psychedelic nature. Did one moan and sigh like that when exposed to a hallucinogen? If he wasn't mistaken, those noises were reminiscent of, well, a woman having a sexual experience. Especially if one took into account the expressions on her face, one would have to say-


He averted his eyes, feeling as if he had intruded on a private moment. Looking at Mugen he knew that his co-investigator too had similarly interpreted Otane's behaviour. And as the dancing progressed, Otane was louder and more uninhibited in all her actions.[2]


Mugen too had noticed the smell as the smoke emanating from the incense burner thickened and swirled around the hall. An experience of three years ago, when he was with Jin and Fuu at the Hakone checkpoint, flashed in his mind. The smell of those burning fields of grass, was it similar to this? Maybe. But that smell had been far more potent than this one. He didn't remember much of what had happened but he knew that inhaling those fumes had rendered him oblivious to his surroundings for quite a while. Right now though, apart from a relaxing heaviness in his limbs, which was attributable to sake, there was nothing to distract him from the job at hand.


Well, so far, it had been quite entertaining. That broad Otane was putting on quite a show, throwing her arms about, panting and heaving in an erotic manner. He was worried though, that he might enjoy watching her a little too much; that would prove to be, well, uncomfortable.


As he was contemplating this idea, Hiroko, who was dancing behind him, leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "There is no need to be afraid, Mugen-san. Indulgence in sensual pleasures is a way to reach a higher state of being, and thereby connecting with the kami. Should you be inclined that way, we can always find a way of making you more comfortable."


Her words were like cold water splashed on his face. It was a coincidence, of course, but the fact that she correctly read his thoughts, nevertheless annoyed him. As he turned around to look at her he was further irked by the fact that she looked triumphant and smug, and a little like a spider watching its prey, getting ready to have dinner.


He was prevented from making a suitably cutting response as the music suddenly stopped; Tomoe had signalled a halt to the proceedings, and when Mugen turned around Otane had gone still and was looking to the ceiling, her pupils dilated. Then she collapsed to the floor in a heap of red, gold, and white, buckling at her knees, falling face downwards to the floor. Jin had instinctively moved forward to help her, but Tomoe stopped him by raising her hand and whispering, "No, you mustn't touch her."


This was followed by a period of loud sutra reading and mantra chanting, with Tomoe and Hiroko positioned on either side of Otane. Jin conjectured that the sutras and mantras were in Sanskrit, a language neither he nor Mugen understood. Once they had finished reading the scrolls on which the sutras were written, they turned to chanting mantras, which were equally unintelligible to them, although they could distinguish certain repetitive sounds such as 'Om', 'Hring', 'Kling', 'Hrih', 'Hrah'. Finally, when the chanting stopped, there was a period of meditative silence interrupted only by the sounds of breathing, and the crackling and hissing of the fire.


The silence ended when Otane rose from the floor, and all eyes were turned towards her. Jin and Mugen, who had been very sceptical until then, were surprised to experience a jolt of fear as they looked at Otane. It was as if the atavistic part of their psyche fought with the rational side and won, confirming that a spirit possession had indeed taken place. In that particular moment they believed that the person standing before them had Otane's body, but was not Otane. Physically, too, there seemed to be a difference – the eyes staring out of her face were different somehow, and the expression in them, particularly when they rested upon Jin and Mugen in turn, sent a shiver down their spines. Whoever, or whatever, was inside her was not a benign entity.


Tomoe stepped before them and bowed to Otane. "Kami-sama, we are honoured by your presence. May we ask your name?"


A feminine voice very different from Otane's answered. "I am Tamamo no mae."


There was a sharp intake of breath from Tomoe, and she exchanged a surprised glance with Hiroko. Tomoe and Hiroko knelt on the floor again and bowed deeply. Jin and Mugen followed suit; it was quite clear it was expected of them. Their rational side had recovered by now and they both marvelled at Otane's performance, particularly impressed with her ability to mimic a voice so different from her own.


The folklore surrounding Tamamo no mae was known to them both. Jin had first heard the story from his mother, and Mugen had recently read an anthology of tales that included kitsune stories, including that of Tamamo no mae. In a nutshell, she was a malevolent kyubi no kitsune, known to have taken human form as consort of an Indian king, and later as a concubine of Emporer Konoe. In her latter role she was considered the most knowledgeable and beautiful woman in the country. When the Emporer suddenly fell ill, her kitsune identity was discovered and pointed out as the cause of the illness. She was turned out of the court and hunted, and upon being struck by an arrow turned into a sessho seki – a killing stone that caused the death of anyone who touched it. Tamamo no mae haunted the stone until the monk Genno prayed for her salvation and elicited a promise from her never to haunt the stone again.[3]


'Tamamo no mae' now glared at Tomoe, her granite-black eyes flashing. "What do you want?"


Tomoe produced Yatsuha's handkerchief and reverently offered it to 'Tamamo no mae'. "We wish you to become one with the owner of this handkerchief. Explore her weaknesses and teach her the lessons she needs."


"Hmmph. It will be done."


Tomoe and Hiroko bowed deeply again. Tomoe then rose, and said, "Kitsune-sama, please do us the honour of tasting our humble food offerings." She went to the corner of the hall, and assisted by Hiroko, brought over each of the items and served them to 'Tamamo no mae'.


The food seemed to put 'Tamamo no mae' in a good mood and she stopped glaring. She savoured the items one by one, making chomping sounds as she wolfed down the servings of ochazuke, yakimanju, and sake. Then looking at Jin and Mugen she smiled and said, in a very conversational tone," "How's the Emperor?"


Jin was quite amused by the question, but he didn't want to offend his hostesses by showing any form of scepticism, so he answered with a straight face. "We are not acquainted with the Emporer, Kitsune-sama, but I trust he is in good health. I take it you are referring to the Emperor Go-Sai?"


"No, I was referring to Emperor Konoe."


Jin cleared his throat, and avoided exchanging glances with Mugen, who was obviously struggling not to laugh. "I believe, Kitsune-sama, Emporer Konoe died more than five hundred years ago. It is now the 6th year of the Enpo period and Emperor Go-sai reigns the country."


"Oh really? Hmmph. Yes, I think someone told me, but I keep forgetting."


Hiroko and Tomoe now served the food to Jin and Mugen, and for a while there was a silence, and then 'Tamamo no mae' spoke again.


"Well then, how is Emperor Go-Sai?"


"As I said before, Kitsune-sama, I do not have the honour of being acquainted with him."


"Weren't you recommended for the position of sword instructor at the imperial court?"


Jin was a little disconcerted by her question. Around five years ago, there had been a visitor from the imperial court who had attended a few lessons at Mariya Enshiro's Kisarazu dojo. He had been quite impressed with Jin, and had indeed recommended his for the position of sword instructor at Kyoto's imperial court. Jin had been very relieved that another candidate for the post had eventually been selected; at that point he didn't want to discontinue his studies under Mariya Enshiro. Later on, though, he had regretted it, and wondered whether it had been an indirect ploy of Kariya Kagetoki's, to get rid of him. Had it come to fruition, Shishou may not have had to die.[4]


But there was no way the ladies at the Furin Kazan Inn could have known any of these details. Was this just an uncanny coincidence? Or did Otane have genuine psychic abilities? If she did, she was certainly putting it to good use in this little performance of hers.


He was spared from answering her question. She had been a little groggy when she asked it, and had fallen asleep soon afterwards. Tomoe solicitously put her in a supine position, covering her with a blanket, while Hiroko served them the 'herbal brew' that had been promised earlier.


She said, "We must now go to the main prayer hall. It is time for your vision quest."


Mugen sniffed at the bowl that had been served to him. "Aren't you guys also supposed to be eating, and, er, drinking this stuff?"


"Yes we will. But we will do so after the two of you have completed your vision quests. We want to make sure that you are all right after you have had the visions. As Tomoe-nesan said, they can be disturbing. We just want to make sure you leave this place safe and sound."


Jin gulped down his serve of the brew, and Mugen followed suit, muttering under his breath, "We weren't told of this!"


[1] I have been a little careless with the details of the shrine of the Furin Kazan Inn, but it is a household shrine, so I am taking some license with it. Typically, with public shrines there would buildings and structures of the sort you see in the discussion of the shrine in chapter 3 of this novel – i.e, a temizuya, honden, heiden and kaguraden, where the kaguraden or dance hall is typically an open pavilion. Private shrines would have only one prayer hall and a Torii gate.

[2] I couldn't find any direct description of rituals that cause kitsunetsuki, so the ritual of this chapter is pretty much a 'made up' one. But it is not entirely without factual foundations; for the details please see the author's note below.

[3] For details about the legend of Tamamo no mae, see Wikipedia and references therein. Obviously, the Tamamo no mae here does not behave like an omniscient kyubi no kitsune introduced earlier in the novel! Well, there are many possible rationalizations for that, and I leave them to the reader's imagination.

[4] In one of the Samurai Champloo Manga volumes, Jin tells another character that he was once recommended as swordplay instructor at the imperial court, so this bit may be considered canonical. The rest of the details – i.e. Kariya had something to do with it – are from my imagination.


Author's note:

Some comments are in order in relation to the ritual of this chapter:

(1) There is a ritual in The Pale Horse as well, and in a nutshell it involves spirit possession, and some Western occult practices, such as drawing certain signs on the floor and the sacrifice of a cockerel. The objective is very clearly the death of the intended victim. In this case the ritual doesn't explicitly specify death for the intended victim Yatsuha; Tomoe asks the fox spirit to possess her and 'teach her the lessons she needs'. But the rumour surrounding the ritual in Kofu, is that it is intended to cause death. Furthermore, the ritual in The Pale Horse did not involve any 'dance to summon the spirit', 'vision quests' or 'hallucinogenic brews'.

(2) As I said in the footnote above, I couldn't find explicit details on rituals causing kitsunetsuki, so I constructed one based on various practices involving either 'white' or 'black magic' that I could find for that period. On the one hand there were the rituals of Tantric or Vajrayana forms of Buddhism, which were brought into Japan through China by the monk Kukai, aka Kobo Daishi. While there is mention of certain Tantric rituals for the sake of gaining supernatural powers, including becoming employers of foxes, there was no description of rituals causing fox possession of another person. Likewise, there were the Miko rituals of the Shinto religion, and these typically involved a 'dance to summon the kami' who then speaks through the 'miko' or medium. Again, the purpose of these rituals was different - they could involve attempts to heal the sick, gaining blessings for a good harvest, or finding lost articles, but never anything like 'kitsunetsuki'.

So what I constucted here was a miko ritual combined with a dash of some tantric elements. Tantric philosophy, loosely speaking, encourages indulgence in sensual pleasures as a route to spiritual enlightenment, and to that end various left field practices (such as esoteric sexual practices and drugs) that are taboo in mainstream religions are used in their Tantric counterparts. In the ritual described above, Otane is probably 'visualizing' a sexual act, as is done in the case of some Tantric rituals, and there are drug induced hallucinations involved. Actually, psychedelic brews have been used in shamanistic/religious practices all over the world for thousands of years. (See Wikipedia article on psychedelic plants).

 

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