I don’t take kindly to threats. But it’s also hard to ignore it when it’s from someone like Shi Fan. It’s not like we’d just lie down and die anyway. Ikiru said.
Okay. Before I start sounding like I’m crazy, I better explain. Ikiru was my sword, or instead lived inside it… less crazy? No? Ok well, it’s a long story but let’s just say I’m alive because of him. He’s been the one to show me the world on the other side of ‘the veil’ as he calls it, the world of the Kami, Oni, ghosts, and oh so much more. I was surprised how well hidden this world beyond the veil was. This was a world that was right in front of my face, but like most people, I had been blind to it. Once you knew about it though, there was never going back.
You know Natsumi is a Jiang Shi right? Ikiru chided my inside head. Ever since he joined my thoughts, Ikiru had his own mind to be sure. All I knew of Natsumi is that she had recently moved into the red light district taking control of most of it from the Saito family. Violence had been on the rise in the area ever since. Enforcement had done little to stop it either as I figured most of them in that district either were on Natsumi or the Saito’s payroll, customers, or both.
“What’s a Jiang Shi?”
Really? We haven’t gone over this before? Ikiru quipped back.
“Evidently not. You’re the one with the centuries of experience in these things.”
Alright, alright, no need to flatter me. A Jiang Shi can be several different things but, in essence, a corpse, which has come back to life.
“So she’s some kind of undead?”
Undead that feast on Chi to be particular about it. In her case, she’s sort of like a hungry ghost; only she’s in possession of a dead body not tied to the immaterial form.
Great, so she must be friendly enough, or she wouldn’t be running a business.
You could say that she’s more amiable than most. Probably just smart enough to only feed on the Chi of some of her customers. Good at hiding her real form.
“Wait. Chi as in?”
Lifeforce, energy, what keeps you going, your spirit and all that. Have you really not been paying attention the last few years?
“Just making sure we’re on the same page here. So I’m guessing same as always, just… be careful.”
You got it, though if she’s able to feed on you, remember I’m spirit so she’ll feed on me too. In other words, don’t give her a chance or we’re both screwed.
“Got it,” I replied to Ikiru as I realized that we had finally got to the city ring that was the red light district. Walking past several brothels, I tried not to look at the women inside the barred windows. Displaying the product. Ikiru’s voice was a bit more lustful than I would have liked, we disagreed on some issues of morality.
I continued on until I came to one of the buildings marked with a sign reading “Garden of Delights.” This is it, though she may not have a lot of creativity in her names.
Stepping inside I was greeted by a scrawny man, he kept rubbing the palms of his hands together in an obnoxious fashion. “Hello, sir. How may I help you? I trust you saw one of the girls you’d like?”
“Oh, well we serve all manner of tastes here, I’m sure we can find something for you.”
Oooo one of those places huh? She’s less traditional than I thought.
“That’s alright” I responded to both of them. “I’m looking to see Natsumi if that’s possible.”
At this, the little man shifted back on his feet looking somewhat surprised. “Natsumi? Do you have an invitation?” He said and began eying me warily.
“No, but it’s about one of her girls who’s gone missing, two in fact actually. I need to speak with her.”
The man paused for a second pursing his lips, I noticed how chapped and peeling they looked. He gave me a bow and departed to the back of the building. While he was gone, I looked around the room. It wasn’t large, but it was more spacious than some buildings I’d been in. Paintings of flowers and birds were hanging down several walls. Moving over to one I examined it more closely. This one was a bit different from the others in that it was a landscape painting. Somewhat simplistic, at the same time a monolithic mountain framed the center of the canvas. As I looked closer, a small man caring something in his hands marched his way up the top.
“Xiang Ye,” A smooth voice said from behind me making me flinch. I turned around and faced Natsumi. She had long black hair; it was pleated and set with long hairpins. One side had a red Orchid, which seemed to radiate her smell. It was as if she was wrapped in several layers of perfume, each one mixing with another in a bouquet of sent.
Has to cover up the stink. Ikiru said to me, but it seemed to matter little as I focused on her face. She looked as if she was in her mid-twenties to thirties at most. A small grin of amusement began playing across a delicate mouth. Her dark eyes seemed as deep as the depths of the night sky.
I caught myself staring after a moment and responded, “Excuse me?”
“Xiang Ye. The mountain of penance or as some say, of sacrifice.”
The way she looked back at me made me feel distinctly uncomfortable “Um, interesting…” I replied, unable to think of a good response.
She pursed her lips and seemed to take me in another moment, “What is it you want to see me for Yashimuro-san?”
“You know my name?” I said surprised. While tonight everyone seemed to know me, this wasn’t a common occurrence.
“If what I have heard about the girls that were sent out tonight is true, then, of course, it would be the great hero of Kawajima come to talk to me.” She still seemed amused at this rather than anything else.
I tried to look away; there was something about her that I couldn’t stop… staring… Cut it out. I know where you’re coming from but focus, or we’re screwed remember?
Right. I had to focus.
“Then if you know who I am, and evidently why I’ve come, then what can you tell me what I want to know?” I asked, doing my best to stay on track.
Her small smile broadened. “I know a great many things that you’d want to know, but not much which may be helpful I’m afraid. Would you care to come in back? Our conversation may not be best suited to the entry hall of my establishment.” She asked as a couple of men walked in. As if on cue the skinny man for before came back and greeted them.
Oh no, alone with her, not good. Ikiru said in my head as I nodded back to her. What choice did I have? She was my only lead.
“This way.” Her eyes sparkled as she led me down a hall to a room with two mats, several seating cushions and a small table in between. Sitting down she began to pour what smelled like tea into a cup in front of me. “While I know of your fame, I’ve never met you in person Yashimoro-san, it’s such a pleasure.”
“Thank you, the pleasure is all mine.”
“I had wondered when our paths would cross; I’m surprised they have not sooner.” She inclined her hand toward the tea.
Taking it in my hand, I hesitated to bring it to my lips. It smells like Lavender Bud a relaxant, best not to drink it. Ikiru cautioned.
“You don’t wish to drink?” She asked sounding almost hurt.
“Yes, it’s fine, thank you for your hospitality.” I drank a sip. You’re just not listening to me today, are you? Ikiru huffed, and I saw her grin.
“Now, will you tell me what you know about the girls who went missing tonight?” I asked. The sooner I got to business the better.
She gave me a coy smile in return. “You mean the girl who went missing? If I’m not mistaken one’s whereabouts is well known, dead, that is.” Taking a sip of her tea, I waited as she continued. “If you mean the other one, I would have expected her to come home.”
“You mean the girls here have a choice?” I found this doubtful.
She let out a laugh that I could only describe as a light waterfall. “I expect you know these girls were Geisha, not an indentured prostitute, they have trained their lives to be what they are. They are not prostitutes, only the foreigners think such. Are you a foreigner Yashimoro-san? No? But you fought for Xi’an.”
I looked at the tea, my shame was the only thing that made it easier to take my eyes off her. “I didn’t have a choice.”
Her smile lit up at the edges again. “Just like my girls? We all have a choice.”
I took another idle sip of the tea and looked back. “I need a lead, I can help her if she’s in trouble.”
As if she got bored she signed and put down her own cup. “She was new that is all I can tell you, and she was a foreigner.”
Suprised, by her change in attitude I began to stammer out thanks.
“You’re not drinking.” She interrupted.
“What?” I said.
She pointed at the cup in my hands. “The tea, it’s getting cold.”
“Oh, yes.” I took another sip. Bad idea.
“Can I have her description? Or at least her name? Where she’s from? Any reason why either of them would be attacked?”
She took a sip herself of her own tea. “So many questions, didn’t I give you enough already?”
Huh, I guess the dead can drink. Good to know. Ikiru was full of idle quips tonight.
Natsumi leaned forward at this. Her hand reached over and touched mine. Her skin was warm, but I noticed those hands had been holding the teapot. My, she’s forward.
“May I ask you a question?”
I couldn’t stop looking at her eyes. “Ummm very well.”
After a moment she asked. “Do you find fulfillment in the work you do Yashimuro-san?”
Remember to breathe, Ikiru prodded.
“I really never thought of it.” I slowly responded to her.
She nodded slightly as if this was expected. “We are told that desires are the greatest sin. What can be more painful than unfulfillment? Deep unfulfillment that can never be quenched no matter what you do?” She was leaning forward to my side of the table now.
I took a breath as I realized I had indeed been holding my breath. “I-I don’t know.”
“Can you imagine a worse fate?” As she said this she moved her lips over mine, they were cold as ice compared to her hands, but suddenly I didn’t care, all I could think of was giving her all of me, my very essence was wrapped up in her touch. Everything else in my mind had gone only her cold skin against the front of my chest, as I realized she had opened up my kimono. Nothing mattered, but feeding this desire nothing—what time is it?
What? I thought, Ikiru’s voice in my head like a distant echo.
You heard me? What time is it?
Near dawn? I thought barely able to focus… Dawn.
Suddenly a slight ray of sunlight came in through one of the slits for windows. The paper walls began to shed some sort of soft light from the dawn sun. With a scream, Natsumi parted from me. A rooster had crowed at the same time, and with a violent shock, I came to my senses. She huddled before me on the floor. The light showing what was underneath her skin. Rotting flesh. A corpse with stiff joints and rotting knees popping she leaped out of the room with a final scream.
I could only stand there for a moment stunned. I told you. Dead means dead. Were the only words of gloating that Ikiru uttered to my mind.
Hurriedly I gathered up my things and began to leave. The small man at the door eyed me strangely on my way out but said nothing. I didn’t stop to think until I was well on my way out of the red light district.
It began to rain.
I held my clothes tighter around me. Despite having lived here for several years, I could never get used to the hot sticky rain of the summertime. Suddenly I halted. The feeling of eyes watching me raised Goosebumps on the back of my neck. My hand flexed toward the hilt of my sword, Ikiru, though I didn’t make a move to draw. The last thing I needed was a fight which could have been avoided. Looking around for a moment, a couple of men walked out of a narrow alleyway nearby.
“Yashimuro Jin?” One of them questioned. He was large, in fact, both of them were large. They were dressed cleanly but plainly. By their style, not warriors, even though they both carried swords.
“Yes?” Doesn’t just everyone ask me that tonight, or today rather? Can I get a break? Everyone wants a piece of you, some in different ways than others.
“We have a message from Saito Kenshi.”
“What is it?” I asked, hopeful that this would not become what I had a feeling it was about it.
“This.” The man said and began drawing his sword.