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samurai champloo fanfiction: kitsune in koshu chapter 31

 

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


Chapter 31

Oni mo jiu-hachi

(Even a devil [is pretty] at eighteen)

- Japanese proverb

Paradoxical Persuasions

It surprised Fuu that the guard at the gate of the martial arts grounds had let her in so easily. She also thought that it was anticlimactic, given that she had been rehearsing what she would say in order to gain entrance. But she barely got the chance to utter, 'I am here to see Manzou-san' before he simply opened the gate for her, subjecting her to only one scrutinizing glance that seemed to assess her from head to toe.


She decided it had something to do with the fact that she was wearing her martial arts uniform of blue gi and black hakama. There was an archery competition to be held here shortly, and perhaps he assumed that she was one of the contestants. But then again, she wasn't carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows - weapons typically seen with practitioners of kyujutsu. In fact, she wasn't carrying any weapons at all – spare weapons for the purpose of training could easily be borrowed from the stocks held at the various training halls on the grounds.


The mystery was partially solved as the guard spoke to her. "Fuu-san, Manzou-san is holding keiko in that hall over there, at that corner of the ground." He pointed towards the single row of training halls on one side of the martial arts grounds, facing the open spaces that were reserved for horsemanship and archery.


He knows my name? Maybe he was here when I came with Jin, and recognizes me.
"I, uh, thank you."


"It was a privilege to train with you the other day, Fuu-san. I hope I have that honour again, when I am not on guard duty."


Ah yes, he is the doshin who was one of my training partners that day. He gave me quite a hard time. But why is he so excessively polite and respectful today?
"Er, thank you, I hope so too," she said uncertainly.


Uncomfortable with prolonging the conversation any further, she bowed politely and excused herself, walking away hurriedly in the direction of the training halls. She was quite used to men acting in a patronizing or even hostile manner towards her whenever she attended classes – at least that had been her experience at her own martial arts school, and the one training session she had taken part in at Kofu. But this doshin had been acting as if she was a senior student or an instructor, in great contrast to his previous behaviour towards her.


As she made her way to the training hall she found it even more interesting to see several other doshin on the grounds acknowledge her with a respectful bow as she passed them. What had happened here? Was it because of the duel with Inuyama? Yatsuha had warned her about her celebrity status as a result of it, but Fuu hadn't believed her. But now, confronted with such evidence, she could no longer deny it.


It was terribly inconvenient. She had spent a lot of time thinking about how to be discreet about this visit, but it seemed that her efforts had come to naught.


She reached the one-storied building comprising of the training halls, and stepped on to the walkway running along the side of it, an open corridor along which she could see the front entrances of the training halls at evenly spaced intervals. Most of the training halls were empty, but some of them had informal gatherings of a small number of people practising various types of martial art. It was, however, a room immediately adjacent to the hall where Manzou's class was to take place that caught her attention. The voices she heard coming from it sounded familiar, and as she drew closer she knew that they belonged to Tanaka Etsuo and his brother.


She passed the room casually, and then paused, pretending to examine something on her foot, hoping to catch something of their conversation in the process.


Tanaka Etsuo was saying, "Well, it seems we are here a little earlier than usual. Why don't we use the time for some martial arts training? I heard that there is an expert in jitte-jutsu talking a class here, around the Hour of the Snake. We could ask permission to attend."


"I am not in the mood onii-san, but why don't you go ahead and do that. I'll just take a walk around the neighbourhood and come back later."


Fuu didn't stay to hear the rest of the conversation. She was agitated and a little confused about her next plan of action. Should she attend the class and risk being introduced to Tanaka Etsuo before the miai took place? She might, of course, get away with being introduced simply as Fuu-san – Tanaka Etsuo would only know who she was if she were to be introduced as Miyamori Kimiko. But he would know eventually, so she might as well introduce herself as Kimiko. The 'meeting' would be accidental, so no one would blame her for its occurrence.


And then, why not use this opportunity to finagle a private meeting with Tanaka Etsuo? It was the perfect opportunity to drop a hint – albeit a very subtle one - that she wasn't keen on the marriage. Etsuo would then think along the lines of rejecting her before she could reject him. If she were to execute such a plan properly, no one would know that she had instigated the rejection.


Yes, that's what I will do
, she thought, as she entered the training hall in which Manzou and his students had gathered.


-xxx-


Yagyu Hida no Kami Munefuyu sat in the position of honoured guest in one of the dining halls of the Kofu Castle. The chef had served a traditional three course meal in the shichi-go-san (seven-five-three) format, whereby the first, second, and third courses consisted of offerings of seven, five, and three dishes respectively. While Munefuyu thanked Tokugawa Ienobu for organizing such a lavish feast in his honour, and complemented the chef, he was secretly a little put out by it. A simple meal of rice and vegetables would have been enough for Munefuyu, who was a man of somewhat ascetic tastes. Besides, at the age of sixy-five, he no longer possessed the constitution or appetite for a meal of this kind.


"It is a shame," said Ienobu, "that you can't stay with us at the Kofu Castle."


Munefuyu smiled approvingly at Ienobu's tutor Arai Hakuseki, observing the confidence with which the young Ienobu had played the role of host. "Lord Ienobu, I am honoured by your offer. But it is your uncle, the shogun's wish that I accept Takeda Yoshinori's invitation to stay at his mansion. That way it will be easier to carry out the task that has been assigned to me."


"It must have been a little inconvenient for you, to have to interrupt your pilgrimage to Ise."


"Not really. I have just postponed it a little, that's all. And I am quite intrigued with the happenings in Kofu. It will be interesting to observe how the kitsunetsuki case is solved."


"The way they are going about it, I doubt that will happen any time soon."


"Oh? Why do you say that, Lord Ienobu?"


"Well, at the moment this Edo specialist Manzou seems to be focussing on only one of the cases – the murder of Yoshiyasu, the son of Takeda Yoshinori. He has had the audacity to ask for permission to interview one of my chief retainers, Uesugi Kenta. And I believe it is at the instigation of that man you are supposed to investigate, Takeda Jin."


"I suppose it is just a routine procedure to investigate everyone in connection with a murder victim."


Hakuseki, who had been quiet until now, joined the conversation. "My Lord, you must allow for the possibility that Uesugi Kenta might be a suspect. There was a close relationship between Yoshiyasu and Kenta, and that is bound to be scrutinized."


The pattern of light reflected by Munefuyu's silvery locks changed as he threw his head back to chuckle with amusement. "It is interesting, isn't it, that two people who have the family names Takeda and Uesugi should be such close friends? I mean, given that there was such a legendary rivalry between the war lords Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin in the Sengoku Jidai Era (Warring States Era)."


Ienobu said, "But they had great mutual respect for each other, didn't they – Shingen and Kenshin?"


Arai Hakuseki nodded thoughtfully. "Another interesting coincidence is that Yoshiyasu had another friend, a doshin by the name of Kansuke – the same as that of Yamamoto Kansuke, one of the famous generals of Takeda Shingen's army. I believe he was beheaded in the battle of Kawanakajima by a young samurai in Uesugi Kenshin's army."


Munefuyu laughed again. "And don't forget, at the centre of all this there is an inn which is called Furin Kazan, after the famous banner of the Takeda army!"


Ienobu was a little perplexed – he didn't find anything amusing about the exchange between Hakuseki and Munefuyu. But out of politeness towards his guest he smiled a little, and let a suitable amount of time elapse before trying to change the subject. "Lord Munefuyu, why is it that you have been asked to investigate Jin?"


"Hmm. Jin. An interesting fellow isn't he? Apparently he is highly skilled with the sword. The shogun, Lord Ietsuna has entrusted me with a menkyo certificate – one that was written for Jin by Mariya Enshiro – and I think he wants me to give it to Jin. But not before I have assessed his merits."


"But why? If the menkyo belongs to him it should be given to him. It was up to Mariya Enshiro to assess Jin's merits."


"Ah yes, but there is a shadow of doubt hanging over Jin because he killed Mariya Enshiro. One has to think twice about rewarding someone who has the reputation of being a teacher-killer. It is not just a question of merits in the strictest sense of martial arts ability; it is also about the man's character."


"He killed in self defence, didn't he?"


"No one knows exactly what happened. But yes, there is some evidence to suggest that Mariya Enshiro attacked him in his sleep."


Both Ienobu and Hakuseki sat up straight on hearing this piece of information. "In his sleep?" exclaimed Ienobu. "How very dishonourable!"


"I see," said Hakuseki. "So you are here to assess whether that particular piece of evidence has any weight. If you find Jin to have honour and integrity, you will be more inclined to believe it. And so, you are going to watch him very closely as he works on the kitsunetsuki case."


Munefuyu knew more than he had admitted to Ienobu and Hakuseki. In addition to being Ietsuna's sword instructor, he had often held some very important positions in the government, including that of 'o-metsuke.' That is, like his father Yagyu Munenori, he too had held a position in the governing body of the shogun's intelligence network. But like other metsuke officials he had developed the habit of keeping the information he was privy to a closely guarded secret. So much so, that there were some things that hadn't even been revealed to the shogun. Like the fact that there was incontrovertible evidence of Jin's innocence, in the form of a diary written by Mariya Enshiro, in which he had confessed his plan to attack Jin.


In his reflective moments he often wondered about his own motives in keeping this piece of information a secret. Was he jealous of this man, Takeda Jin? If so, why was he jealous of him? After all, the Tokugawa shoguns had bestowed a great deal of recognition for the Yagyu School. It was, in fact, considered 'teno ichi', the best school for swordsmanship in the land of Japan. As the head of the Yagyu clan, and the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu School, Munefuyu was probably considered the best swordsman in the country.


No, he was definitely the best swordsman in the country. He had to be. Only his father Yagyu Munenori and his brother Jubei Mitsuyoshi, during their lifetimes had been considered better than him. And that was simply because they had been given plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their excellence. His brother Mitsuyoshi had been on a musho shugyo quest – a warrior pilgrimage – during which he had prevailed in several duels. And his father Munenori had played an important role in the Tokugawa army, during the Battle of Sekigahara, and in the Osaka campaign against Toyotomi Hideyori.


Munefuyu had taken part in some duels as well, but these had not been in the public eye, and therefore there were no legends surrounding him. This didn't seem to matter much to him; he had been content to live in the shadow of his illustrious father and brother, claiming he didn't covet that kind of fame.


Until now. He was old and he didn't expect to live much longer. So why not earn some significance for his remaining days on earth, by challenging a legendary swordsman to a duel? Even in the event he got killed, it would be an honourable way to die. But it was more likely that he would prevail, in which case he would spend his last days basking in the glory of having killed a highly skilled swordsman.


Yes, if there was even the slightest opportunity to do so, he would challenge Jin to a duel.


-xxx-


"So, Yatsuha-san, why have you been following me? And I was under the impression that Fuu was spending the day with you."


Jin sat across the table from Yatsuha. They were at a tea house near the Sekisuiji Temple, one that was frequently patronized by guests at the Sekisuiji Inn.


"I wasn't following you Jin-san; I was trying to catch up with you. It's about Fuu."


Jin, who had been examining his bowl of tea in absentminded fashion looked up as Yatsuha mentioned Fuu. There was a look of concern hovering about the edges of his otherwise inscrutable face.


"As I suspected, Jin-san, she probably told her aunt and uncle that she was visiting me. And that would have been partly true because she is supposed to be visiting me this afternoon. But not in the morning."


"I take it you know where she is at the moment."


Yatsuha briefly outlined the events of the previous afternoon, and told Jin about her suspicions regarding Fuu's intention to visit the martial arts grounds near the police headquarters. "I decided I would go to the Sekisuiji Inn to pick her up – that way I could circumvent her plans. But I got the impression that she may already have left when I got there. You see, I spotted her aunt and uncle from a distance. They were in the garden, but Fuu wasn't with them. I didn't approach them just in case she had done exactly as I suspected – I didn't want her to get into trouble with Hideo-san and Ayako-san. And then I saw you leaving the inn and I followed you here."


Jin, who had gone back to staring pensively at his bowl of tea experienced a strange mixture of emotions as he listened to Yatsuha. Hearing about Fuu's misguided scheme of spying on Tanaka Etsuo brought on an intense, piercing stab of euphoria in his chest; it was evidence she cared deeply for him. But he knew that she was still in a delicate stage of her recovery, and the idea of her attending a martial arts class filled him with concern.


"Don't worry Jin-san, I am planning to go there now, and I will make sure she is safe. But I wanted to let you know so you could keep an eye on her in the future – prevent her from doing anything, er, silly."


"Thank you, Yatsuha-san. I will definitely do as you advise, although I am not sure I have much of an influence over her actions. But I suggest you return to the Yumura Inn – I will find her and bring her over to your place. I, uh, need to talk to her and..."


It was kind of touching, thought Yatsuha, how Jin worked so hard to present a calm exterior to the rest of the world. He seemed to bear pain with such grace; there wasn't even the slightest hint of him wanting to unburden himself by confessing his turmoil to others. Had she not been a kunoichi, the signs would have been hard to read. But her intuition, combined with her ability to decipher the minutiae of body language, enabled her to read the gamut of emotions he was experiencing.


"All right Jin-san, I will wait at the Yumura Inn. But before I go I want to tell you one more thing. She loves you desperately and she is in a very fragile state of mind. In my experience people in such a state tend to do things that are crazy, and perhaps even dangerous. Regardless of what you think, you do have a strong influence on her. So please use it. Convince her that the best thing she can do is to focus on her recovery."


Jin experienced another stab of joy mixed with pain as he heard Yatsuha's remark. As she stood up to leave, he said, in an almost inaudible tone of voice, "Thank you Yatsuha-san for looking out for her."


-xxx-


Takeda Hitomi tried to pacify her husband, who was pacing up and down their room muttering angrily to himself. "It doesn't really matter does it, if he doesn't attend the practise session in honour of Lord Munefuyu? His excuse is not unreasonable. It would compromise the investigation if it were known to the public that he had connections with you."


"Of course it matters! It is insulting, to say the least. And Lord Munefuyu and I are supposed to observe Takeda Jin – how are we supposed to do that if he never appears before us?"


"But according to Manzou, Jin never said he was unwilling to report to you. He is only averse to attending a public gathering. Perhaps you can arrange a more private meeting – one in which only you, Lord Munefuyu, and Jin are present."


"Yes, I suppose that is what I will have to do. But it will be difficult. A lot of people are expecting a martial arts demonstration, or a seminar of some sort, from Lord Munefuyu. So a public function in his honour is inevitable. The only thing I can do is organize a separate session which is held privately, and somehow find a way of keeping it a secret. I just hope Lord Munefuyu doesn't take offence."


There was a long pause, one in which Yoshinori kept pacing up and down, before Hitomi said, "You know, I have been thinking about Jin. He resembles someone I used to know. But it was such a long time ago that I am not sure. It was after Yoshiyasu's fourteenth birthday, when you were appointed as the town magistrate and we moved to Kofu."


Yoshinori ignored most of his wife's remark, but the mention of Yoshiyasu had the impact of making him stop pacing up and down the room, and sit down beside Hitomi, looking downward towards the floor. But Hitomi was not discouraged by his lack of response and she continued: "During that time, a distant cousin of mine, Takeda Jinemon was a koke and acted as advisor to Lord Tokugawa Tsunashige, the daimyo of Kofu in those times."


"Takeda Jinemon? I remember him, of course. He died the same year we moved to Kofu didn't he? In a fire."


"Yes, it was the 6th year of Kanbun, about twelve years ago. Do you remember his wife Lady Masako?"


"I believe I saw her a few times, at some of those court functions we attended at the Kofu Castle."


"Don't you think Jin has a strong resemblance to her?"


Yoshinori shook his head and appeared to be somewhat amused by his wife's question. "Don't tell me Hitomi-san, that you think Jin is the son of Takeda Jinemon."


But Yoshinori's expression changed almost immediately as he uttered the name 'Jinemon'. It was a custom of the times, that a samurai boy adopted another name on his coming of age ceremony, and that his new name included a character from his father's name. Now the kanji for 'Jin' in Jinemon wasn't the same as the kanji for Jin's name, but the phonetic resemblance was surely something to think about. It was possible that whoever suggested Jin's name looked at the characters in his father's name, and by association thought of using 'Jin' (仁) as in 'compassion/benevolence', rather than 'Jin' (甚) as in 'great/exceedingly/very'.


"Hmm. That is an interesting idea though. And as far as I know Mariya Enshiro was also from the Takeda clan. It is possible that he was a distant relative of Jinemon, who took the responsibility of looking after Jin when his parents died."


Hitomi said, "The next time he comes here I hope I get the opportunity to ask him. Lady Masako was a lovely lady, and we had developed a friendship during the brief interactions we had with each other."


"If he is indeed Lord Jinemon's son, then he can put in a claim for a piece of land that belongs to his father."


"Wasn't the land sold off to settle Jinemon's debts?"


"Most of it. But there was a small portion no one would buy because there was some sort of superstition associated with it. It is now labelled as state property, because at that time Jinemon didn't have an heir who had come of age, and no one came forward to claim it afterwards. But it could be granted to Jin, if the bakufu thinks that it is appropriate to do so. That is, if he really is the son of Takeda Jinemon."


Hitomi smiled at her husband. "It seems you don't want him to be the son of Takeda Jinemon."


"Well, at the present moment I am sure you understand why I am a little peeved with him."


"Ah, don't worry about Lord Munefuyu's reaction. I am sure he will understand."


"It is not just Lord Munefuyu I am worried about. I wish you hadn't mentioned Uesugi Kenta to Jin in that brief meeting you had with him. Doshin Manzou is now keen to interview him, and I am sure that will not please Lord Ienobu."


"If our son was murdered, Uesugi Kenta would be on the list of suspects."


"Yes, but so would many others. Yoshiyasu had several friends."


"But you didn't get along with Kenta's father did you? Maybe Kenta had a grudge against you because of that."


"Hitomi-san, that is too farfetched. Kenta's father was a very eccentric man and he took offence quite easily. I wasn't able to attend some function at his house, and since then he always acted as if I had insulted him. Besides, if Kenta thought of taking revenge on his father's behalf – incredible as that sounds – why would he choose to get Yoshiyasu murdered? The obvious target in that case would have been me."


Hitomi was silent. It was too painful to state the obvious – that killing Yoshiyasu would have served just as well if not better, as far as revenge was concerned.


-xxx-


Manzou was reluctant to allow Fuu to train in his class, but found it difficult to say so. "Fuu-san, it is too dangerous...You are not well."


"Don't worry about me Manzou-san, and I really need the exercise. And I hear this is going to be a short class – because of the archery competition."


"Ah yes. But are you sure? Did your aunt and uncle think it all right for you to train?"


Fuu experienced a pang of guilt at Manzou's question. Her uncle and aunt were definitely unaware that she was here; they thought she was with Yatsuha. Actually, she had only asked Hideo's permission to visit Yatsuha, and had carefully avoided telling her aunt. After yesterday's fiasco, she knew that her aunt would have been difficult to persuade. Hideo had smiled knowingly at her, as if to say, 'I know what you are up to but I will let you get away with it,' and had given her permission to visit Yatsuha. Now she would have to tell another lie, or rather another half-truth.


"Uhm. They don't mind me getting a little bit of exercise."


Manzou guessed that she hadn't informed her aunt and uncle about this visit, and was worried. He would have to watch her very carefully and make sure that she didn't injure herself again. Otherwise, he would be very worried about facing Jin.


Tanaka Etsuo, who came in a few minutes later, was also given permission to attend. He glanced curiously at Fuu a couple of times, and she wondered whether it was because he had recognised her from the incense shop, or simply because she was the only woman attending the class.


The class started with some warming up drills, followed by various sets of sword v/s jitte drills with partners. Fuu felt a little frustrated in the first half of the class, as Manzou made sure that she only trained with a few of the more experienced students. But after seeing her coping reasonably well with the drills, Manzou felt relaxed enough to call for a scheme of rotating partners, whereby everyone in the group got the opportunity to partner with everyone else at least once. Fuu was therefore inevitably paired with Etsuo.


After the mutual exchange of bows Etsuo and Fuu went through the drills in silence, but couldn't help glancing at each other curiously from time to time. Should I say something? wondered Fuu. Manzou would call for changing partners at some point, so the window of opportunity she had was a very small one. So she decided to take the plunge, and speak to him in the next interval between drills. In that small frame of time, she managed to whisper to Etsuo: "I, uh, saw you at Toshitsugu's incense shop."


Etsuo smiled. "Ah, yes, I thought so too."


"I am Miyamori Kimiko." She had blurted it out, worried that she was running out of time.


A look of stunned amazement crossed Etsuo's face, and his cheeks reddened. But he smiled very warmly at her as he said, "I am Tanaka Etsuo. It is a pleasant coincidence isn't it, to meet this way?"


She didn't have the opportunity to reply as Manzou called for the repetition of a particular drill after pointing out some of the nuances that had been neglected by the students. But at the conclusion of the drill, she spoke to Etsuo again. "I would like to request a brief, and, uh, private meeting with you after class, if it is not too inconvenient."


Tanaka Etsuo was surprised, yet again, but pleasantly so. He thought: It seems my future wife is an unusual woman – a bold and spirited young lady, who is also very beautiful. Aloud, he said, "Of course, Kimiko-san. Why don't we meet at one of the empty training halls? I doubt that anyone will disturb us. My brother, who was here a while ago, might come back, but there is no need to worry about him."


The rest of the training session was uneventful. Partners were changed soon after Fuu's brief conversation with Etsuo. But Etsuo was a little distracted during the remainder of the session; he kept glancing in the direction of Fuu and smiling to himself a lot of the time, much to the puzzlement of his training partners.


-xxx-


Manzou had been surprised at Fuu's hasty exit via the back entrance of the training hall, after she had thanked him and taken her leave. She had been the first to leave – the other students in the group, including Tanaka Etsuo, were still there, taking their time to put away their practise weapons, and conversing with their training partners.


He was even more surprised to see Jin make an abrupt entrance into the hall, a few minutes later. They hadn't planned to meet until a couple of days later, after Jin and Mugen had participated in the ritual scheduled at the Furin Kazan Inn. It then seemed natural to assume that it was Fuu that Jin was looking for, so he said, "Jin-san! Good Morning! If you are looking for Fuu-san, she just left. But I am glad you are here. Maybe we can take the opportunity to discuss a few things."


Jin was in no mood to have a lengthy discussion with Manzou but he had already launched into an elaborate description of his activities since Jin's interview with Takeda Yoshinori. He therefore barely heard Manzou when he said: "You know Jin-san, your leads about Uesugi Kenta and Kansuke might be very important. There seems to be some sort of triangle there, don't you think? More importantly, I have been speaking to some friends and acquaintances of Kansuke, and it appears that he had some dealings with Uesugi Kenta in the past. It is suggested that they had a very close relationship before there was some sort of quarrel. So things don't look particularly good for Kansuke – not only do we need to bar him from working on the case; we will also have to keep a close watch on him. It looks like he might have a motive for getting rid of Yoshiyasu."


But Manzou's emphasis on the phrase 'very close relationship' did catch Jin's attention. Hadn't Kansuke said something about a 'secret' Wakashudo relationship he had experienced? Nonetheless, discussing that with Manzou would have to wait. "Manzou-san, I would really like to discuss these things with you, but at the present moment I need to find Fuu. Do you have any idea where she went?"


Before Manzou could answer, Jin saw a tall man dressed in a white kimono and black hakama approach Manzou. The man said, "Manzou-san, I must leave now. I am grateful that you allowed me to attend your class. I enjoyed it very much and learned a lot. Many Thanks."


There was a polite exchange of bows, as Manzou replied, "It was a pleasure having you in the class, Etsuo-san. I hope you have a good time in Kofu. Goodbye."


'Etsuo' left via the back entrance of the hall. Jin, who had not missed the fact that Manzou had addressed him as 'Etsuo', had looked after him with what Manzou thought to be a very peculiar expression on his face. As if to provide some sort of explanation for Etsuo's presence, Manzou said, "You don't know him Jin-san; he isn't one of the Kofu doshin. He is just a visitor to Kofu."


"Hmm."


"Oh, and I don't know where Fuu-san is, but she left via the same entrance Etsuo-san did. But there is an archery competition to take place soon, and my guess is that most people in this class, including Fuu-san, were interested-"


Jin had left before Manzou completed the sentence. He would apologize to Manzou later, he decided. For now, his instincts told him to follow Etsuo, and that following Etsuo was the key to finding Fuu. He couldn't be certain that this was Tanaka Etsuo, but Yatsuha's description corresponded closely to what he had seen. So he too made an exit via the corridor at the back of the training hall.


-xxx-


Fuu had spent a long time in the corridor connecting the rear entrances of the various training halls in the building. At last, she found an empty training hall, which happened to be at the extreme end of the corridor. She went in, and waited nervously, hoping that Etsuo would let a suitable interval of time elapse before he left Manzou's class. It was possible that others in the class had noticed them conversing with each other, and it could only lead to unwanted calumny and gossip if Tanaka Etsuo left soon after she did. She definitely didn't want to be seen with Etsuo; that would surely be disastrous.


After a while Tanaka Etsuo entered, smiling warmly at her. That can't be a good sign – he mustn't like me. "Uhm, Etsuo-san, I uh, must apologize that I didn't introduce myself at the incense shop. I heard your brother mention your name, and I suppose I should have spoken up then, but..."


Etsuo closed the paper sliding door of the rear entrance, and replied, "Don't worry about it Kimiko-san. In fact, I should be the one apologizing. I hope you forgive all the silly things my brother said – he can be a bit immature at times."


Fuu looked worriedly at the door; she thought she had heard a shuffling sound coming from behind it, just when it had been shut. But she didn't hear any further noises from that direction, so she decided to dismiss her fear that someone might be eavesdropping on their conversation. "Oh no, not at all. There wasn't anything offensive – I mean I wasn't offended."


Etsuo now stood fairly close to her and stared into her eyes, as if mesmerized by them. "Are you sure? I am worried Kimiko-san that you may have got the impression that I was reluctant to, uh, enter a state of matrimony."


Ah, an opening I should not miss! Now all I have to do is drop some hints about my reluctance to get married...This will be a piece of cake
. "Oh, is that so? Put your mind at ease Etsuo-san. Even if you did feel that way, it is only natural to do so. In fact, I too have similar feelings – I am kind of nervous about getting married."


Fuu positioned herself closer to the rear entrance now, with her back towards it. She had glanced at the sliding panel briefly before she did so, thinking: Is there a new crack on the screen, or is it just something I hadn't noticed before? No, that crack must have been there – I am just being a little paranoid.


As she shifted her position, so did Etsuo. The distance between them was even closer than it had been previously, and she felt a little uncomfortable. Tanaka was still staring at her intently, taking in every feature of her face, smiling down at her with an expression in his eyes suggestive of deep admiration.


"I am relieved that you didn't mind what was said, Kimiko-san. But I would like to reassure you about certain things. I would like to state, categorically, that I am not in the least bit reluctant about this marriage. Actually, to be precise, I should say that I am not reluctant about this marriage anymore."


Uh-Oh, that's not what I want to hear. Let me put an 'Uh-Oh' expression on my face. There, that should do it
. "You – you aren't?"


"Don't you see Kimiko-san, that there is a spiritual significance to our accidental meetings? And we met twice, not just once, albeit I wasn't aware of it the first time."


"Huh?"


"I think it was a sign given to us by the Gods that we are meant to be together."


Fuu was in a state of panic now, not quite sure what to do. "Er, it was just a coincidence," she said, although it seemed like a weak argument, even to her. Hadn't she given a lot of importance to the coincidences in her life? She had done so even in the present case, but her interpretation of its significance had been different from that of Etsuo's.


"Ah, but Kimiko-san, what a beautiful coincidence. I had always believed that my soul-mate would be a very unique woman. I was looking for a certain spark, a kind of spirit if you like, that I hadn't seen in any other woman I had met previously. I had almost given up hope of finding such a woman. But now that I have met you, the search is over. You are exactly the kind of woman I want."


Fuu's heart sunk on hearing Etsuo's words. In desperation, she blurted out, "But I don't want to marry you Etsuo-san!"


She thought she heard that shuffling sound again, the one she had heard when Etsuo had shut the sliding panel closed. There had also been an additional sound, reminiscent of suppressed laughter. But she dismissed these speculations again, as her agitated mind could only focus on the problem at hand.


"It is very nice of you to think well of me Etsuo-san, but I am not what you are looking for. I – I am very ordinary. I will not make a good wife."


Etsuo smiled at her radiantly, moving a step closer to her. "Ah, but Kimiko-san, you are too modest. Besides, as you said before, it is only natural for you to be a little reluctant about marriage. You are a very young woman, inexperienced in certain things – things of an intimate nature that husbands and wives do together. You are naturally a little frightened about such aspects of married life."


"But I want to assure you, Kimiko-san, there is no need to be frightened. I will guide you in all these matters. In fact, let me demonstrate something for you."


Saying this Etsuo placed his hands on Fuu's shoulders, and then moved in closer as her cupped her face in his hands. She was about to move away from him in order to prevent him from kissing her, when almost in an instant, several things happened:


(1) She heard the door at the rear entrance of the hall slide open;


(2) She saw Jin standing at the entrance;


(3) She saw him step in and put an arm around her waist;


(4) She found herself lifted in the air and deposited on another spot, out of reach of Etsuo.


"Fuu-chan," said Jin, sounding like a teacher admonishing an errant student, "you have some explaining to do. Didn't Hideo-san tell you that you weren't supposed to go anywhere, without being accompanied by me?"


Fuu was too stunned to reply. Etsuo too was stunned, and a little out of balance as he almost fell forward in the direction of the spot that had been so suddenly vacated by Fuu. But he recovered quickly, and had placed his hands on his katana, ready to draw the sword if required. In a harsh tone of voice, he addressed Jin: "And who might you be? Can't you see you are interrupting a private conversation between me and Kimiko-san?"


Jin replied coldly, "I am Takeda Jin, her bodyguard. And when her father Hideo isn't present I proxy as her guardian and chaperone."


"In that case you can't have any objection to her meeting me. I am Tanaka Etsuo, and surely you would know that Kimiko and I have an omiai at the end of the month."


"According to the traditions, Etsuo-san, the omiai is the occasion in which you meet Fuu for the first time. It is highly improper to meet her like this."


"Fuu?" Tanaka turned towards Fuu and said, "That is also a pretty name, but I think Kimiko does more justice to your personality. You are truly 'Kimiko' - 'she who is without an equal'."


Much to Jin's irritation Etsuo had spoken very gently to Fuu and was smiling at her in a very conspiratorial way. He then addressed Jin again, but in a less hostile manner than he had done previously. "Jin-san, it is the spirit, not the letter of the rules that matters. The omiai is designed specifically so that the prospective bride and groom get to know something about each other, before the sacrosanct decision of marriage is taken. In meeting like this Kimiko-san and I are doing exactly that. And please do not be harsh towards Kimiko-san – it was at my instigation that this meeting took place."


"I respect your concern for propriety Jin-san, but don't you see that a meeting like this is the rational way to do things? In this way we are not hampered by the formality and ritual surrounding the omiai. In fact, in most cases, the bride and the groom barely get to talk to each other in an omiai. It is only the relatives and other family members that do most of the talking."


"Be that as it may, Etsuo-san, I have a job to do. Fuu has another appointment to keep, so this 'meeting' is at an end. Goodbye."


Jin caught hold of Fuu's wrist and started to shepherd her towards the front entrance of the hall. She was still in a daze, but had started to recover from it as she lurched forward, almost losing her balance as Jin pulled her towards the door. Glancing apologetically at Etsuo, she said, "Etsuo-san, sorry, uh, I have to go."


Taking this as some sort of a sign to intervene, Tanaka Etsuo made another, more aggressive attempt to persuade Jin. "It seems Jin-san that the lady is unwilling to go with you. Our meeting is not finished yet. Why don't we settle this with the sword?"


There was absolute silence for a few seconds, as Fuu, Jin, and Etsuo seemed to freeze in their positions. It was Fuu who broke the silence, her voice terrified and pleading as she said, "No, no, no. No fighting please. Etsuo-san, forgive me, but I will go with Jin."


Etsuo smiled reassuringly at Fuu. "Don't worry, Kimiko-san, I only meant that Jin-san and I have a little sparring session. I promise you, I will not hurt him – I am skilled enough to win without doing him any harm."


Jin had turned around, and there was a very faint smile on his face, but it was directed at Fuu. "Etsuo-san, I believe Fuu-chan doesn't want fighting of any kind, so we must honour her wish. And if you are so very keen to meet her outside of the miai, you may request meeting her again, at another time. But that meeting will have to be in my presence. She will not meet you unchaperoned."


"And now, Fuu-chan, we are running a little late, so we must leave immediately."


Etsuo looked a little crestfallen, and made no further attempt to argue, as Jin and Fuu left the building. It had surprised him a little to see Fuu give Jin a very grateful look, when he had subtly declined Etsuo's invitation to fight him. Why should she be grateful to Jin? Who was this man, and why did he have such a strong influence on such a spirited young girl like Kimiko? Well, when they were married, that would have to change. He would make sure that Kimiko had nothing to do with Jin.


-xxx-


Jin kept a very brisk pace as he walked out of the martial arts grounds, and Fuu struggled to keep up with him. "Jin, I can't walk that fast. And it hurts if I try to run."


She was panting and sounded quite breathless as she spoke, and Jin stopped immediately, putting his right arm around her shoulder, as if to support her, while his left hand applied gentle pressure at a spot on her hakama beneath which her wound was supposed to be. "It hasn't re-opened has it?"


He had sounded very worried and there was a note of urgency in his voice, so Fuu attempted to reassure him. "Oh, no, don't worry. It only hurts if I move too quickly, and there is a pinching feeling whenever I do something that involves stretching the muscles in that area."


He was still holding her gently, and it felt like it had been a long time since she had inhaled his sandalwood scent. She found herself closing her eyes, taking in a deep breath as she leaned on his shoulder.


"You don't look well Fuu. I will hire a palanquin for you."


"There is no need. I can walk quite comfortably Jin, please believe me. Where are we going, by the way?"


"To the Yumura Inn, of course. Don't you remember your appointment with Yatsuha-san?"


It must have been Yatsuha who told Jin where to find her, Fuu conjectured. In a way, she was very relieved; things had been getting out of hand in that meeting with Etsuo. But she was also mortified by the fact that Jin had overheard some of that embarrassing conversation. What would he be thinking?


Jin, strangely enough, had returned to his serene and placid self, as if nothing of significance had happened. In fact, his demeanour was very similar to what it used to be during the times they had travelled together, about three years ago. Just as in those times, there was a feeling of silent companionship, and neither Jin nor Fuu spoke very much. And without even realizing it, she had fallen back on her old habit of clutching the sleeve of his kimono for support.


But after a while, she started to worry about the silence. In light of what had happened, surely it had to have a different meaning? Wasn't Jin angry with her? Or had he returned to being indifferent towards her, given that she had been so fervent in her assertion of doing her duty by her aunt and uncle? Was he disgusted by the fact that she had been part of what must have seemed like an assignation with Etsuo? Did he still love her enough to notice that she had been trying to get Etsuo to reject her? Did he want to kiss her as badly as she wanted to kiss him?


Unable to bear the silence anymore she said, "Jin, are you still mad at me? I shouldn't have spoken so angrily the other day. It is hard for me to explain this, but I do think there is a serious danger to Oji-san if I were to reject a proposal from Tanaka Etsuo."


"I completely understand Fuu. I don't blame you."


He had spoken very kindly, but his reply had given her pain. Why was he so accepting, so stoical about everything? Did this mean he didn't care about her anymore? But then why had he acted in such a proprietary way when he had whisked her away from that meeting with Etsuo?


"Jin, about that meeting with Etsuo-"


"You don't have to explain anything. I know what you were trying to do. And I must tell you Fuu that it was like a precious gift to me."


She looked at him with tears in her eyes. "But you do understand, don't you, that my plan failed? That means I still have to marry Tanaka Etsuo."


"Hmm. But it was inevitable that it would fail – it was a very bad idea."


"Huh?"


"Fuu, as Tanaka Etsuo said, an omiai is a very formal affair. The bride and the groom rarely get to talk to each other, as I am sure you realize from your previous experience of miai. But have you ever attended a miai other than your own? I mean, in the capacity of a guest, not as a prospective bride."


"No."


"Well, I have had the opportunity to observe several omiai in the capacity of a guest – Shishou had a lot of relatives, and I was often invited to come along on such occasions."


"And?"


"I have never observed a miai in which the bride doesn't look beautiful. In fact, they all looked pretty much the same to me, and I suspect that the bridegrooms must also think that way."


"What exactly do you mean?"


"Well, they are always heavily made up with paint and powder, dressed up in a magnificent furisode, and wear exquisite jewellery. I am sure you would look stunningly beautiful in such finery, but you would also look very similar to any other prospective bride dressed up for her miai. Tanaka Etsuo wouldn't really get to see you."


"But today he got to see the real you, not a made up mannequin that doesn't speak. I am sure you are aware of how lovely you look. And then there is, uhmm, a certain spark, a kind of spirit if you like -"


Jin had a bland look on his face, but Fuu realized he was teasing her by quoting some of the things Tanaka Etsuo had said to her. She had therefore stopped him mid-sentence by punching him forcefully on his arm. "Okay, I made a mistake! Don't rub it in."


She was unable to look at him for a while, as she blushed profusely thinking about some of the embarrassing things Etsuo had said to her. He waited for her to regain her composure before he said, "Fuu, there is something I want to ask you."


"Yes?"


"If you could be certain that refusing to marry Etsuo wouldn't lead to drastic consequences – such as Hideo-san having to commit seppuku – would you change your decision?"


"Of course. You know that."


"Then I would like to make a small request. I recall Hideo-san said you didn't have to make your decision until after the miai. I am asking you to postpone your decision until then."


She looked at him sadly. "What difference would it make?"


"I am asking you to trust me Fuu. I will find a way. That is, if Lord Masakuni himself gives you permission to marry me – there wouldn't be a problem then, would there?"


"Uh-huh. But what will you do?"


He smiled enigmatically at her. "You will just have to wait and see."


Her curiosity had been piqued a little too much for her to be able to accept Jin's answer. For the time being, she would let it pass, but at a later stage, she would have to prod him a little more. At the moment though, there were some other things that needed figuring out. For instance, why was he being so mysterious? Based on what she had seen today, she could only conclude that he still loved her. And yet, he seemed to want to maintain a distance – he was very kind but there were no physical demonstrations of affection.


Of course, the way she had spoken to him the other day, she didn't have the right to expect such things. It was obvious he would no longer take for granted that he was to be married to her. Even so...


And then there were those strange improvisations in the presence of Etsuo – he had pretended to be her bodyguard/proxy-guardian and then claimed that it was Hideo who had authorized it. What if Etsuo found out?


"Jin..."


"Hmm?"


"What if Etsuo wants to have another meeting with me?"


"We will arrange one then. But it is unlikely he will want to meet you if I am present as chaperone."


"What if he finds out you are not my bodyguard and chaperone?"


"I will speak to Hideo-san about that. I think I can persuade him to make that arrangement."


"Jin, I don't understand. Oji-san had said earlier that he wanted a chaperone present when you and I are together. How will you..."


There was another enigmatic smile from Jin, and then he went into 'Hmm-and-Aa' mode. Fuu tried very hard, but was unable to snap him out of it.


Author's notes:

(1) For readers interested in historical things, there are a few anachronisms here. Munefuyu died in in 1675, so I have made him live a little longer in this AU. I don't know whether he ever held a position in the o-metsuke, but it is very likely that he did. His father Munenori was definitely o-metsuke and members of the Yagyu clan typically held such positions. Also, as mentioned before, Arai Hakuseki wasn't tutor to Ienobu until the 1690s.

(2) The shich-go-san style of meal, as far as I know, has little to do with the shichi-go-san festival mentioned earlier in the novel. It is usually served on special occasions such as weddings, or in honour of a distinguished guest. In this chapter, Ienobu is entertaining a visiting daimyo, who is also the shogun's sword instructor.

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