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samurai champloo fanfiction: kitsune in koshu chapter 32

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

Chapter 32

Kaite mitari

keshitari hate wa

keshi no hana

(I write, erase, rewrite,

erase again, and then

a poppy blooms.)

'death poem' by Haiku poet Hokushi (1665-1718)

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

Of Verses and Verity, Part I


To his close friends and family members, Tanka Etsuo had often admitted to being indecisive. But he claimed that he more than compensated for this flaw by being single minded in the pursuit of his objectives, once his mind had been made up. In other words, once he knew what his objectives were, he prided himself as a man of action.


The encounter with Fuu earlier during the day had in fact served to clarify his objectives in relation to at least one important aspect of his life, namely his choice of marriage partner. Prior to meeting her, he would have found it difficult to name the attributes he would have liked his future wife to possess. Perhaps it would also be inaccurate to say that he would have been able to do so now, but it was safe to say that he liked the 'certain something' he saw in Fuu. She was exactly what he wanted.


Later, when the cool fragrance of a spring evening in Kofu had combined with a few cups of sake, and the maudlin persuasions of his subconscious mind had come to the fore, it would have been easier to state more precisely what he liked about Fuu, had someone asked him about it. He would have talked about the innocent, child-like expression of her beautiful eyes, and the contrasting femininity of her figure, a combination he found irresistible. He would have said she was enchantingly unusual - so bold in her approach towards him, not to mention her intriguing accomplishments in the martial arts. And he hadn't failed to notice the respect with which she had been treated by others participating in that jitte-jutsu class.


He had left soon after Jin and Fuu departed, returning to the training hall where the jitte class had been held, hoping to find Manzou. Manzou, to his relief, had still been there, practising some solitary cutting drills with a wooden sword.


"I am extremely sorry to interrupt Manzou-san, but I would like to speak to you about something," Etsuo had said, quite abruptly, as Manzou halted his practise, looking at him in surprise.


"Etsuo-san! You are back. How may I help you?"


"That gentleman you were speaking to just before I left – I believe his name is Jin – I would like to get in touch with him."


Manzou had stared at him suspiciously. "Why do you want to get in touch with Jin-san?"


Seeing Manzou's reluctance to reveal the whereabouts of Jin, Etsuo decided that telling the truth would be the best course of action. He said, "I told you earlier that I am just a visitor to Kofu. But there is another purpose to my visit. You see, my family has arranged an omiai for me. It is to take place at the end of this month."


As expected, Manzou looked even more perplexed, but his confusion cleared somewhat as Etsuo added: "That young lady who took part in this class, Miyamori Kimiko – I believe her nickname is Fuu – she, uhmm, is the prospective bride. Jin-san is her bodyguard and chaperone. I, uh, need to see him, so that I can, uhmm, convey a message to her."


Etsuo had felt a little embarrassed while making this speech, and his discomfiture increased further as Manzou stared at him with a great deal of curiosity, making a series of 'Ah-h-h' and 'Hmm' sounds, each with a different intonation, and a different expression on his face. After what seemed like an interminable pause to Etsuo, he remarked, "I see. Perhaps I can help you. It so happens that I need to see Jin-san too. I was, in fact, planning to go to the Sekisuiji Onsen Inn, where Jin-san is staying, and you may accompany me if that suits you. I will need to meet him privately first, but you can join us later."


"Er, I too would like to meet him privately. So, if it is not too much trouble Manzou-san, I will wait outside and you could send him to meet me, after you have concluded your business with him."


Manzou was disappointed; he had hoped to have been present to watch the interaction between Jin and Etsuo. But he had no option but to agree to Etsuo's suggestion, so he said, "All right, Etsuo-san. But I have a few errands at the police headquarters, so you will have to wait here for a bit. Don't worry though, I will be back soon."


Etsuo's younger brother Fumio had returned soon afterwards, and was surprised to find his brother sitting in a corner of the training hall in front of a makeshift desk, on which was stretched out an untidy looking roll of mulberry paper, and the usual implements of calligraphy. "Onii-san! What are you doing? The archery competition will begin soon; crowds have begun to gather around the arena. If we don't go there now we will miss out on capturing a good viewing spot for ourselves."


Etsuo acknowledged his brother's presence somewhat absentmindedly, waving an ink stick at him. "I won't be watching the competition. You go ahead. I have to, uh, go somewhere."


"What? Where do you have to go?"


There was no response from Etsuo. Taking his footwear off Fumio entered the hall and walked towards the corner in which his brother was sitting. "What are you doing here, smiling at a blank piece of paper? I thought there was going to be a jitte class here. Did it turn out to be a calligraphy class instead?"


"Fumio, you should go ahead and reserve a good spot for watching the competition. I will explain everything later this afternoon when I return to the Kasugai Inn. Right now I need to, uh, compose something, and I need to be alone."


"What's wrong with you? Have you managed to catch the kitsunetsuki that has been going around town? Speaking of kitsunetsuki, someone mentioned that there is a master puppeteer and kabuki actor here, called Mayumi, who might be a kitsune! Apparently his performances as Kuzunoha are a little too convincing, if you know what I mean, Ha-Ha-Ha. Perhaps we should -"


"Fumio! Go away. Now."


Fumio, who had rarely heard such a harsh note in his brother's voice, was surprised and a little angry. He wanted to stand his ground and argue with brother, and get to the bottom of his mysterious behaviour. But his favourite segment of the archery competition, the yabusame, in which competitors were to aim for the target while riding a horse at full gallop, was about to begin. So he decided that walking away with an air of offended dignity would have to suffice, at least for the time being.


The effort was wasted on Etsuo, who continued to stare at the piece of paper in an absentminded fashion.


-xxx-


Yatsuha disapprovingly scrutinized Fuu's martial arts uniform. "You aren't going to be wearing that, are you, when we go to Toshitsugu's?"


Glancing downwards at her hakama, Fuu placed her hand on its pleats at the front. She had the look of having suddenly remembered something. "Uh-Oh, I forgot to bring a change of clothes!"


She has a lot of colour on her cheeks, and her eyes sparkle
, noted Yatsuha. I wonder what happened at the martial arts grounds. "It doesn't matter. You can borrow one of my kimonos."


A somewhat musical sigh emanated from Fuu. "You know Yatsuha, I wish it was common for women to wear a hakama-and-kimono style of dress, like the ladies of the court used to wear in the Heian period. Our kimonos are so restrictive. The hakama-and-kimono pair that men wear, on the other hand, is so comfortable! The hakama is so securely tied, and one can take longer strides." As if to demonstrate her point she circled Yatsuha's room in long, exaggerated strides. Then she started to skip, only to regret it soon afterwards as she felt a sudden pinch in the area of her wound.


"Ouch!"


"Hey, take it easy! You are in an exuberant mood today, aren't you?"


To Yatsuha's surprise, Fuu came over to her and put her arms around her waist, squeezing her tightly. "I am annoyed you told Jin about my plans, but I am also very, very happy that he came. Thank you for sending him to the martial arts grounds."


"Ah-h-h. From the way you are blushing, I take it something interesting happened there."


Fuu summarized the events of the morning for Yatsuha's benefit, concluding with: "I know there is no reason for me to be so optimistic. I mean, I have no idea what Jin is going to do – he wouldn't tell me – but the way he said he would take care of everything...it made me happy."


"I would have liked to be a fly on the wall of that training hall. Jin's entry must have been quite dramatic!"


"Actually, I was quite relieved when he appeared. I had made a mess of things, and they were getting out of control. Etsuo, er, tried to kiss me." At this point Fuu seemed quite embarrassed, and avoided looking at Yatsuha directly. "Not that I would have allowed it to happen. But Jin's entry was very timely. I don't quite remember how he did it, but in the blink of an eye I was out of Etsuo's reach."


There was a burst of laughter from Yatsuha. "Do you think Jin was jealous?"


"Oh no. There was no reason to be jealous – he must know that I love him. But for some reason, he didn't trust Etsuo. I mean, I can't imagine Etsuo would ever force me to kiss him. But Jin wasn't taking any chances."


"Hmm, it is said that even the devil is pretty at eighteen. I never understood that proverb until today."


"I don't understand what you mean," said Fuu, a little irritated with Yatsuha's obvious amusement at her expense. "Why are you smiling like that? What's so funny?"


"Well, in the eyes of Etsuo, you couldn't do any wrong. You pretty much insulted him by telling him directly that you didn't want to marry him. And yet you got away with it. In fact, he is now an infatuated admirer of yours. You certainly have the natural charm of an eighteen year old."


Yatsuha regretted her remark almost immediately; the air of dejection around Fuu had returned as she sat down on the tatami with a slump in her shoulders.


"Oh no, you mustn't be sad Fuu. Didn't you just tell me that Jin had an alternative plan? I am sure he will find a way out of this."


The mention of Jin brought the colour back into Fuu's cheeks as she smiled at Yatsuha. "You are right. Anyway, I shouldn't be brooding over my problems. We have a job to do, don't we?"


There was a reluctant nod from Yatsuha, and it seemed that she still had misgivings about Fuu's involvement. "Yes. About that...we need to discuss things before we get there."


Impatient with Yatsuha's attitude, Fuu said, "You are going to tell me how dangerous this task is aren't you? Don't bother. Jin already gave me a long lecture on the way here."


"My dear Fuu, you must know that the monk Joben got murdered after hearing a confession from Sachiko. Whatever she told him, it is a piece of information very dangerous to have. Now if we go there and start asking a hundred questions about her it is very likely that the murderer or murderers will get wind of it. And then you will definitely be in danger. Jin was right to be concerned."


When will people stop treating me like a child?
thought Fuu. Or do they think I am just stupid? "Ahh Yatsuha! We are not going to directly ask questions about Sachiko. She will have to just 'crop up' in the natural course of conversation. We are going to be posing as keen students of the art of incense discrimination, so we will be asking a hundred questions about incense, not Sachiko."


"And exactly how, Miss Know-It-All, is Sachiko going to 'crop up in the natural course of conversation'?"


"Well, Oji-san told me that workers in incense factories are sort of like live-in families. They spend all their lives at the factory, and all family members are involved. Sometimes they live close by in a community or village, so to speak, of incense-makers. But Sachiko, she lived in the Zenkoji temple district, didn't she? So it figures she wasn't a regular worker. She must have been a part-time worker."


Yatsuha was impressed, in spite of herself. It is an astute deduction, coming from an eighteen year old kid! "So where are you going with this? What if she was a part-time worker?"


"As students of incense discrimination, wouldn't it be natural for us to be curious about how it is made? And what better way is there of learning about it, than taking up some sort of internship at the factory? That would make it easier for us to ask a lot of questions about what the part-time workers do, and get us closer to the subject of Sachiko."


"What? Have you taken leave of your senses? Don't tell me you are planning to offer your services to Toshitsugu as a part-time worker in his factory."


Yatsuha felt exhausted, like a nanny in charge of an out-of-control toddler. It was funny, she thought, how she felt so much older than Fuu, even though there was only a five-year age difference between them. Or was it because one became a different person in different relationships? In the presence of Jin, for example, she felt a lot younger although they were the same age. And with Mugen, she felt about the same age, but he was a year younger than her. Although Mugen could sometimes act like a kid...


Making an effort to snap out of her reverie, she focussed on the problem at hand. How should she deal with this overly-enthusiastic amateur detective?


"Look Fuu, it is not a bad idea per se. But it is a job more suitable for a kunoichi, not for someone like you. If I think the circumstances are right, I might consider making that offer. But promise me, you won't do anything of that sort. Think what Jin would say about it!"


"Yatsuha, we don't have to actually take up a job in the factory. We can pretend we are interested in working there and back out later. All we need is an excuse to ask questions about part-time workers."


With a sigh of resignation Yatsuha went over to a closet in her room and pulled out a pink kimono decorated with white maiden flowers on its sleeves and edges. The obi to go with it had white embroidery on a white background, the patterns almost invisible, yet discernable because of the variations in texture relative to the surroundings.


"You aren't taking that out for me are you? No, I can't wear that Yatsuha – it's too pretty. Just any old thing will do."


Yatsuha ignored Fuu's remark, placing the clothes in front of her. "Get changed Fuu, we should be leaving soon." She made Fuu stand up and tugged the string of the front-knot of the hakama. "Hmm, securely tied indeed. And you don't have a bow in the front like Jin does. The jojutsu style of wearing hakama you say!"


Fuu was a little alarmed at the rough manner in which Yatsuha pulled out the back-strings of the hakama that were looped in through the front. It was as if she was taking out her frustration with Fuu on the hakama. She seemed quite impatient with the process of pulling out the strings and made an exclamation of relief as they came loose, causing the back-flap of the hakama to slide from its position on the top of the knot of the underlying obi.


Assisting Yatsuha as she untied the knot at the back, just beneath the obi-knot, Fuu thought: I think she will be even more annoyed with me, when I say what I have to say next. Aloud, she said, "Hey, I can undress myself you know. By the way, I wanted to warn you about something."


"What did you want to warn me about? Hmm, I see the belt is created by the strings attached at the front."


Fuu stepped out of the hakama as the strings crossed over at the back, above the obi, were loosened. She turned her head glancing worriedly at Yatsuha. "You said something about your training in the art of observation – the fact that you are able to figure out what people are thinking by watching their facial expressions, gestures and body language."


Tugging absentmindedly at Fuu's obi, Yatsuha said, "What of it? Aaargh, how the samurai tuck in a daisho into this tightly wrapped thing is beyond me!"


"Uhm, well, sometimes the people who are being observed can observe that they are being observed, if you know what I mean."


The brat is trying to advise me on the art of observation, is she?
"My dear girl, of course I know what you mean. But don't worry; I know how to observe in subtle ways. Here, put your hands through the sleeves."


Fuu did as she was told but continued to glance worriedly at Yatsuha. "But Yatsuha, I don't think – I mean you are great at observing and all that, but I don't think you are able to mask the fact that you are observing."


"For example, even when you are with me, I often find that you are watching me. It is hard to explain, but there is an expression in your eyes – it is as though you are dissecting the meaning of everything that you are seeing or hearing. I mean, you are even doing it now, as we speak. And if you do that at Toshitsugu's factory, it might make people uncomfortable"


"Indeed. And I suppose you are able to mask the act of observation. Fuu, if you are able to 'read' me without my knowing it, I'll willingly give you that martial art lesson you asked for."


Fuu didn't miss the note of sarcasm in Yatsuha's voice, but was nevertheless excited by Yatsuha's offer. "Really? Oh, let me think - ah yes. You like Mugen."


"What?"


"Come on, admit it! I figured that out without your knowing it. So you owe me a martial arts lesson."


There was a quizzical look on Yatsuha's face. How did Fuu know that she was attracted to Mugen, without ever having seen them together? Even in their conversations, Mugen hadn't been a subject of discussion. Of course, his name had cropped up here and there, but Fuu would have to be very astute to have picked up any reactions from her on those occasions.


"Hmm. Well, I suppose there is no point denying it. But it would have been easy to guess – he's a handsome bloke after all."


Fuu had looked expectantly at Yatsuha, hoping she would open up and talk about her feelings for Mugen. The fact that she brushed if off, as if it was something trivial, upset her a little. After all, she had confided in Yatsuha about her feelings for Jin. Didn't Yatsuha regard her as a friend? No, of course she did; it was silly to be insecure about their friendship. Perhaps she was just reserved about such things, and would open up in good time.


"So you are backing out of giving me a martial arts lesson?"


"No. I will give you a martial arts lesson, after we get back from the factory. But before we go to Toshitsugu's, let me ask you this: How do you plan to mask the fact that we are 'investigating' at Toshitsugu's factory?"


"Oba-san once remarked that the best way to lie is to make it as close as possible to the truth. Pretending that I am interested in the process of making incense is not going to be a problem for me because I am really interested in it. It is the truth, so it won't be an act."


Smiling indulgently at Fuu, Yatsuha said: "And what about me? I do know quite a bit about incense, as it was part of my training for an undercover assignment I once took up. But I am not that keen on it. So what do I do?"


"Ah, you like me don't you? So you pretend to enjoy my company! It will be the truth, so it will be just as convincing!"


-xxx-


Tanaka Etsuo regarded Jin with some nervousness. Feeling this way was a novelty of sorts; he was typically a confident person not easily intimidated by others. He wondered why Jin made him feel this way. Was it because he felt inferior to Jin? But that was impossible. There wasn't anything extraordinary about the man who was sitting across to him on one of the benches in the garden of the Sekisuiji Inn. He was certainly good looking, but then so was Etsuo. Yes, there was an aristocratic air about him, but he definitely wasn't an aristocrat. After all, his clothes had a worn-out look about them, even though they were tidy and respectable. He could not possibly belong to a higher social circle than Etsuo's.


No, there was nothing to be intimidated about. He just had to take the plunge and make the request he was planning to. Attempting to inject some confidence to his voice, he began, "Jin-san, if you recall our conversation this morning, you said I could request a meeting with Kimiko-san."


Jin didn't say anything other than a curt 'Aa' in acknowledgment. He looked at Etsuo, at first scrutinisingly, and then it appeared as though he was looking through him, contemplating the situation at hand.


Etsuo was a little disconcerted, but not discouraged. "Well, that is what I am here for. I would like to meet her."


This is going to be a very eventful day
, thought Jin. What had transpired in the morning was unusual enough, and then there had been that talk with Hideo. Soon afterwards, Manzou had arrived, with information about 'new developments' in the case, and summons to Takeda Yoshinori's residence. Apparently he had to go there to 'report' to Yoshinori as soon as possible. And now this.


"You may request a meeting Etsuo-san, but she may refuse. If she doesn't want to meet you then there is nothing I can do about it."


"I understand. But please, won't you convey the request? If she agrees, then perhaps you can send a message back to me at the Kasugai Inn near the Tokoji temple. Any time or place is all right with me."


"You understand that the meeting will have to be chaperoned?"


"Of course. I have been thinking about what you said this morning Jin-san, about the traditional ways, and about propriety. I want to tell you that I understood and appreciated what you said."


Etsuo's remark made Jin a little uncomfortable. When he had seen Etsuo attempting to kiss Fuu, he had reacted spontaneously, and it had led to a chain of events that involved deception. He hadn't regretted his decision to pose as Fuu's bodyguard and chaperone at that time, and he didn't regret it now, as he had received permission from Hideo to guard her. In a sense, then, he had told Etsuo the truth. Even so, he couldn't deny the fact that he was deceiving Etsuo in another way, and he felt a little guilty about it. But there was nothing he could do about it after the fact; the charade had to be carried out to its conclusion whether he liked it or not.


Etsuo, however, was oblivious to Jin's discomfort. "I mean, if were to meet in a clandestine manner, it would expose us to gossip and speculation, in the event people heard about it. I don't care about myself, but I wouldn't want her reputation to be sullied in any way. A lovely girl like her – I mean, I would hate to hear anything malicious about someone so pure and innocent."


Jin continued to look at Etsuo in a contemplative, yet absentminded fashion. After a pause, he remarked, "Etsuo-san, I am glad to see that you appreciate the qualities of my – that is, I am glad to see that you appreciate the qualities of our Fuu-chan. And it is good to know that you understand why, uh, we are so protective of her."


"Then you will arrange a meeting with her?" Etsuo spoke eagerly, and appeared to be fidgeting with something within the folds of his kimono.


"Hmm. As I said Etsuo-san, it is up to her. If she agrees, I will certainly arrange it."


Jin stood up, and Etsuo followed suit, almost springing up from where he sat, as though he was very keen to be on his most deferential behaviour towards Jin. Jin acknowledged the courtesy with a polite smile, and said, "Now if you will excuse me Etsuo-san, there is some business I have to attend to..."


"Ah, yes, of course. But there is another little thing."


"Yes?"


Etsuo fumbled between the folds of his kimono and juban, producing a rolled up piece of mulberry paper tied up with a red string. "This, uh, could you please give this to her?"


Etsuo was a little unsettled by the fact that there hadn't even been a flicker of a change in Jin's facial expression as he had casually pocketed the roll of paper. "You won't forget, will you? I would like to insist – I beg your pardon, I would like to request – I mean, it is for her eyes only."


Jin raised an eyebrow. "Of course. Good day, Etsuo-san. I will be in touch."


-xxx-


When they arrived at Toshitsugu's incense shop, Fuu and Yatsuha were surprised to see Hachiemon there. Toshitsugu was in fact absorbed in an animated discussion with him, and he didn't notice their entry, since he had his back towards the entrance. It was Hachiemon who drew Toshitsugu's attention to them, as soon as he made eye contact with Fuu.


"Fuu-san? What brings you here?"


Hachiemon smiled amiably while Toshitsugu turned around abruptly, looking a little flustered. "Oh yes, I was expecting the two ladies. Hachiemon-san, you met Fuu-san the other day, but you probably haven't met Yatsuha-san."


As is often the case, a second meeting with a person produces a different impression relative to the first one. Fuu certainly thought that the image of Hachiemon she had formed, based on the evening spent at the Furin Kazan Inn, didn't correspond to what she saw today. He had obviously not shaved recently, so there was some light stubble on his face, giving him an unkempt appearance. She wondered whether Toshitsugu's wife too would seem different, when they met her at the factory. "It is nice to see you Hachiemon-san. We had a wonderful meal the other day – senjitsu wa gochisosama deshita."


Toshitsugu continued to look flustered, while Hachiemon had transferred his attention to Yatsuha. Fuu had used a traditional polite phrase to thank him for his hospitality following the Ko-Kwai at the Furin Kazan Inn, but he had barely noticed it as he curiously scrutinized Yatsuha. He responded somewhat absentmindedly. "Do itashimashite – you are welcome."


Yatsuha correctly estimated Hachiemon to be about thirty-five years of age, although at first glance, the generous smattering of grey in his hair had made her think he was over forty. There was nothing in his appearance to contradict Mugen's finding that he had been a street knight in his younger days; he was a well toned and muscular man, with the exception of a mild degree of flabbiness in his mid-section. "I am pleased to meet you Hachiemon-san," she said, meeting his scrutiny with composure. A ladies man, obviously, she thought.


Toshitsugu interjected, a little nervously. "I am sorry ladies; there will be a bit of a delay in our trip to the factory. Something's come up and..."


Hachiemon looked at Toshitsugu, and then at Fuu and Yatsuha. "You were going to take these ladies on a little tour of your factory, were you? Tell you what – why don't I take them there. I have some business in that part of the town anyway."


There was some relief evident in Toshitsugu's manner, but it seemed as though he was still a little worried about the impoliteness of letting Hachiemon take his place. "I, uh, feel terrible. I had promised that I would take you there..."


Fuu and Yatsuha assured him that they didn't mind if Hachiemon rather than Toshitsugu took them to the factory. Hachiemon smiled affably at them and said, "Well then, it's settled." He positioned himself between Fuu and Yatsuha, and theatrically gestured towards the entrance. "Shall we?"


A little intrigued by Hachiemon's outgoing behaviour, Fuu wondered whether it had anything to do with the fact that Tomoe-san wasn't present. He certainly had been very enamoured with Tomoe that evening, during the Ko-Kwai and afterwards, when they had dinner at his place. Or was it because Jin and Mugen weren't there? Their presence could be quite intimidating, even when they didn't intend it to be so.


At any rate, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to find out a little more about Hachiemon, who along with Toshitsugu and his wife, was one of the suspects in the kitsunetsuki case. So, with a view to starting up a conversation, she said, "It is very kind of you to take us to the factory Hachiemon-san. But are you sure it isn't inconvenient?"


"Inconvenient? Not at all. And Hachiemon never gives up the opportunity to be in the company of two beautiful women." He smiled appreciatively at Yatsuha, and then turned towards Fuu, giving her a significant look as he said, "Although, the heart of one of them is already taken."


At a loss how to respond, Fuu had blushed and looked extremely uncomfortable. "I don't know what you mean. I mean, I am not..."


"There is no point denying it Fuu-san, it was very obvious. In fact, I composed a little senryu in my mind as I observed the way you looked at him. Do you want to hear it? I'll tell you anyway."


With a dramatic air, Hachiemon proceeded to recite the following:


She looks at him

The sun rises

in the evening.


"Huh?"


"Ah, it is a bad poem after all, since you evidently didn't understand it. Oh well! Let me explain it to you. Obviously, the sun doesn't rise in the evening. But when you look at Jin-san, your world seems to light up. In that sense, the sun rises in the evening."


Yatsuha came to Fuu's rescue, noticing that she had gone into a shell, looking very embarrassed and awkward. "Are you a connoisseur of incense, Hachiemon-san? I hope we didn't interrupt any business you might have had with Toshitsugu-san."


"Oh, no, I was in the neighbourhood, and I just dropped in to say Konichi Wa. As for incense – no, I am not a connoisseur. I do enjoy taking part in incense games though, when in the right company."


He had smiled a little flirtatiously at Fuu as he said this. She, however, appeared to be oblivious to the implied complement, and a little distracted by the inviting call of a soba-noodle vendor they had just passed. But she had recovered from her embarrassment, and was able to respond calmly. "Perhaps you are being too modest Hachiemon-san. I recall from the other day that you were almost as knowledgeable as Toshitsugu-san."


"I am flattered Fuu-san, that you think so. In fact, all I know about incense, I learned from that old fellow. I used to be a worker in his factory, you know. But that was a long time ago."


"Really? You worked at Toshitsugu-san's factory before you became a merchant?"


"You bet I did. Actually, I did many different jobs then, just so I could raise enough money to start a business of my own. The rest, as they say, is history! That large drapery store we just passed is mine. But apart from draperies, I sell silks, jewellery, lacquerware, and even soy sauce!


Both Fuu and Yatsuha were perceptive enough to understand that Hachiemon liked to talk about his ascent from humble beginnings, so they implicitly egged him on by making noises suggesting they were suitably impressed.


"A good rags-to-riches story it is, eh? And you ladies make a great audience. Let me tell you, it wasn't easy, to have so many part-time jobs. For one, you have to be ready to run around quite a bit, and learn different types of things. But I didn't mind – learning things can be quite interesting. Learning to make incense, for example, at old Toshitsugu's factory, wasn't so bad."


"Did Toshitsugu-san mind, when you left? I mean, it is kind of inconvenient, isn't it, to lose a trained worker? You'd have to find replacements, and train them all over again."


"Why, Fuu-san, you would make a very good businesswoman! Yes, it can be a little inconvenient. But part-time workers are part-time workers; you typically hire them when you are running short of inventories, to meet the extra demand. And sometimes, you hire them as an act of charity. Ah, I see that you are sceptical Fuu-san. You, of the bushi class, always think of us merchants as excessively mercenary, don't you? In your eyes, we aren't capable of charitable acts."


Fuu was taken aback by the sudden note of hostility in Hachiemon's voice. She was also a little annoyed. How dare he include her in such sweeping generalizations about the bushi class? She was about to retort that she had lived and worked among the chonin, but a warning glance from Yatsuha checked her. Instead, she said, "Of course not. I don't think like that."


"Hmm, I love getting under the skin of pretty young ladies. Your cheeks are red with anger Fuu-san, and I must say I find it very becoming."


Seeing that Fuu was about to lose her temper, Yatsuha hastily attempted to divert Hachiemon's attention. "Surely, Hachiemon-san, it is only well-to-do merchants who can afford such acts of charity. Providing employment for the poor and needy is certainly a good thing, but you'd be making losses if you didn't really need them."


"Indeed. And I must admit that we are sometimes rather reluctant about our acts of charity. You see, sometimes we get requests from abbots of various temples and shrines, to help some of their poorer parishioners. It is hard to refuse in such cases."


"Have you ever refused such requests?"


"Well, I try to help whenever I can. But recently I wasn't able to accommodate a request from the abbot of the Zenkoji temple. He had wanted me to employ a woman – I think her name was Sachiko – in one of my factories or shops. But it wasn't really feasible at that time, so I sent her over to Toshitsugu's, as I knew he was short of workers at that time. He employed her. But she was rather old and hadn't been well. I believe she died recently."


"Was she sick when she came to see you?" asked Fuu. "In that case, it wasn't a good idea to have the poor woman toiling in a factory, was it? It would have been more 'charitable' to help her in some other way, or maybe give her some money."


Yatsuha thought: Ah she is clever. She knows that Hachiemon thinks she is angry, and that sort of a question, with just the right amount of hostility in her tone, comes across as very natural. It is the perfect way to dig for information about Sachiko. Will he fall for it?


Hachiemon had certainly been provoked by the way Fuu had sarcastically stressed the word 'charitable'. He said, "Contrary to what you may believe, Fuu-san, the poor have dignity – just giving them money is not an option. Besides, she wasn't sick when she approached me. And later, when I heard about her illness, I did attempt to help her in 'some other way.' I bought her some medicine, which she was rather reluctant to receive, and went over to visit her frequently, just to see how she was doing. I even gave Sachiko's neighbour some money for the purpose of looking after her."


Fuu looked duly contrite. "I am sorry Hachiemon-san; it was awful of me to speak like that. You did a wonderful thing, helping out Sachiko, and then looking after her when she was sick."


Hachiemon seemed somewhat pacified by her apology. "Don't worry Fuu-san. You are a spirited young lady, and I provoked you. It was natural for you to have responded that way."


"Oh no, it was terribly rude of me."


Hachiemon smiled, and then looked at Fuu in a puzzled, contemplative way. "Your apology is accepted Fuu-san, think no more of it. It was in fact quite pleasant to see the fiery, more spirited side of your personality. It kind of lends weight to the rumours that have been circulating about you. They may not be rumours after all."


"Huh? What rumours?"


"Hmm. The rumours that you are an onna bugeisha, and that you killed a notorious tsujigiri who happened to be visiting Kofu recently. But aside from rumours, I am also intrigued by your friend here. Who exactly are you, Yatsuha-san, and where did you come from?"


-xxx-


Jin had expected a long wait before being ushered into the presence of Takeda Yoshinori. To his surprise, the retainer who had come out of the mansion to greet him took him directly to a room in the west wing of the mansion. He had been ushered into the room by way of the door facing the garden, and he guessed correctly that he was entering a tea room when he found he had to bend a little to get inside. Entrances to tea-rooms were typically low, serving as a reminder to followers of the Way of the Tea to enter with humility. Yoshinori entered soon afterwards, having to crouch through a low entranceway opposite to the door through which Jin had entered. The room was the size of a typical tea-room, about nine square feet, its floor covered with four and a half tatami mats.


Jin's puzzlement increased when he saw the charcoal brazier at the centre of the room upon which a kettle had been placed. Yoshinori was obviously making tea, and going by the number of utensils placed on a low table at one end of the room, he expected two guests to join him. The realization that he was one of them dawned when Yoshinori said, "I am glad you could join us, Jin-san."


When Manzou had spoken to him about a message from Yoshinori to visit the Takeda mansion, he had interpreted it to be an order to report there. Certainly Manzou had done nothing to change that impression; he had briefed him on whatever information he had gleaned from his investigations, as though he expected Jin to be grilled about the kitsunetsuki case. It was therefore a little disconcerting to find instead that he was to be part of a tea appreciation session. Such things were meant for honoured guests, not for a part-time ronin investigator who was assisting one of your subordinate officers.


Of course, there was bound to be a discussion of the case at some point. But in a tea-room? It was remarkably odd. The rituals of the chanoyu were, after all, designed so that an atmosphere of mutual respect and harmony existed among the participants. You left behind the distinctions of rank, and the cares of the world, for reflection and quiet conversation.


But then again, thought Jin, not everyone looks at it that way. There were some who used it as a means of showing off their refinement, and in some cases to show up the lack of refinement in others. The fact that this would defeat the very purpose of the ceremony was often lost on such blind followers of the Way of the Tea.


So what exactly was happening here? Did Yoshinori want to make him uncomfortable? Or was this some sort of a test? Perhaps Yoshinori wanted to find out whether he was familiar with the rituals of the chanoyu. But why? And who was the other guest Yoshinori was expecting?


The 'other guest,' an old man with an upright posture that belied his age, walked into the room soon afterwards. Jin guessed correctly that it was Yagyu Munefuyu, even before Yoshinori had formally introduced them. He was in the seza position when Munefuyu entered, so he bowed formally by placing his hands before him on the floor, and touching his forehead in the inverted-V space formed by them.


Munefuyu smiled amiably at Jin. "Ah, so this is the young man I have heard so much about! Wonderful to meet you!"


Jin experienced a strange mixture of thoughts and emotions as he returned Munefuyu's greeting. He had already felt an innate sense of respect for Munefuyu; he was after all a revered kenjutsu master, and they were in a tea room. But Munefuyu's unassuming manner of greeting, combined with the evident frailty and wisdom of old age, touched him on a deeper level. Voices and images from the past flashed in his mind. There was the image of Mariya Enshiro, exhorting students at his dojo to 'always treat martial arts masters from other schools with the utmost respect, and there was the image of a 'tea master' from his childhood days telling him sternly that 'in a tea-room courtesy is very important.' His mother's voice, the gentlest of the three, and yet the most powerful and compelling, said, 'Jin-chan, the old are to be treated with reverence; the older you are the closer you are to the Buddha. Always remember this.'


But underlying all these thoughts was a strange feeling. There was an overwhelming perception of danger, an incredibly strong urge to place his hands on the hilt of the sword that was no longer tucked in his obi. He had left it in the care of the retainer who had escorted him here, as it was obviously inappropriate to wear a daisho in a tea-room.


The contradictory nature of his emotions perturbed him a little, before Munefuyu broke into his thoughts with the remark: "Hmm. I see that you are a very shy man. But I know that already. You see, I met your Shishou, Mariya Enshiro occasionally – it was a long time ago, of course. The last time I saw him he couldn't stop talking about his most promising pupil – an introverted young boy called Jin."


Ah, here we go again, thought Jin. He knows all about me. Perhaps he will claim an old friendship with Shishou, and challenge me to a duel in order to avenge his death
.


But Munefuyu didn't seem to have any such intentions, at least for the time being. He simple chuckled at the wary, suspicious look on Jin's face, and turned to his host. "What lovely utensils you have for the chanoyu, Yoshinori-san. I am also enjoying the view of hydrangeas you get from the entrance. Very pretty."


As if taking the cue from Munefuyu, Jin too murmured some polite phrases about the calligraphic scroll and flower arrangement in the alcove of the room. And as Yoshinori performed the 'kata of tea,' a series of graceful movements and gestures involved in the preparation and serving of the tea, Jin and Munefuyu made appropriately appreciative remarks and comments. There was an interval of contemplative silence following which Munefuyu was the first to speak. In a low, reflective voice, he recited the following poem:


Watching spring flowers

over a warm bowl of tea -

Afternoon silence.


It seemed to Jin that both Yoshinori and Munefuyu expected a similarly themed poem from him. Deciding that it would be rude to disappoint them, he composed the following:


The afternoon light

reflects in the tea –

Spring warmth.


He was somewhat relieved to see that they were satisfied with it. Poetry, after all, was not quite his forte.


-xxx-


Hachiemon's questions had taken both Fuu and Yatsuha by surprise. So much so, that the answer to his questions appeared to be written on their faces. Well, almost. Hachiemon certainly had no doubt that the rumour he spoke of had a large element of truth in it. About the details of what actually happened he could not be sure; it would depend on how much Fuu was prepared to reveal. And regarding Yatsuha, he was certain that there was something intriguing to be found out.


Fuu chose to follow her own advice about making statements that were close to the truth. "Uhm, I, er, was attacked, and I defended myself."


Yatsuha noted that Fuu had neither confirmed nor denied Hachiemon's assertion that she had been attacked by a tsujigiri. She wondered whether he would quiz Fuu about it a bit more; serial killers, after all, were not that common. And then there was that question about her. Would she be able to get away with making up a something that was only partially true? She simply had to. Hachiemon was one of the suspects in this case, and it was imperative that he knew as little as possible about her. Otherwise, all their carefully laid plans for the 'trap' would come to naught.


Hachiemon said, "Hmm, good for you Fuu-san. These tsujigiri are a damned nuisance. And I am glad you were able to defend yourself. You must be very good at the martial arts."


"I have been learning jojutsu. For two years or so."


"Jojutsu, eh? Very good. Tell me, exactly how did you defend yourself?"


Fuu made an impatient gesture with her hands. "Hachiemon-san, I don't really want to talk about it! It gives me nightmares – I can't sleep at night. So I would rather forget about it."


"Nightmares, huh? You got injured didn't you? So you must be using moxa treatment. Once the moxa treatment ends you will stop having nightmares."


"Really? What has moxa got to do with it?"


"Well, when moxa is burned, it produces certain fumes. Inhaling those fumes can cause some very vivid dreams. And one tends to remember them too."


"Hmm, you may be right."


Hachiemon, by now had lost interest in the topic of moxa. He turned towards Yatsuha. "I notice you haven't yet answered my question, Yatsuha-san. Who are you? And what is such a lovely lady like you doing in the town of Kofu?"


Yatsuha was prepared with an answer. Without hesitation, she said, "As I told Fuu, I am from Edo. I am the daughter of a merchant called Shichisaburo. I am here on a holiday – to enjoy the cherry blossom season in this area."


Yatsuha's father Jinpachi, when operating undercover in the guise of a merchant, often assumed the alias of Shichisaburo. She had therefore been able to meet Hachiemon's scrutinizing gaze with some equanimity; what she had said was, in a sense, partially true.


Hachiemon, though, was sceptical. "And you are travelling alone? Unchaperoned? That is highly unusual!"


"Yes, I suppose it is." She shrugged her shoulders and looked at him coldly, making it clear that she resented his overly inquisitive questions.


Sensing Yatsuha's resentment, Hachiemon attempted to pacify her. I am sorry, Yatsuha-san, I didn't mean to pry. But the two of you are very unusual. It isn't often one comes across ladies like you and Fuu-san. And I must say your tastes are unusual as well. I mean, why on earth would young girls like you, want to spend time in a boring old incense factory!"


Fuu thought: He seems quite keen to spend time with us. And talking to him might turn out to be more fruitful than talking to the factory workers, or Toshitsugu's wife. Yes, he is a little too inquisitive, and asks awkward questions, but if we can pump him for more information it might be worth the risk.


"You too are very unusual, Hachiemon-san! I am sure Yatsuha will agree when I say that it is extremely rare to find someone who is knowledgeable about so many different types of trade. And you must know a lot about Kofu. You have been here for a while, haven't you? Perhaps you can suggest things the two of us can do in Kofu. We'll appreciate your advice."


"It is very charming of you to say that Fuu-san. I will certainly do my best...Well, here we are, at the factory. Tell you what, why don't I show you around, and then I'll tell you all about Kofu's attractions."

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