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Jin and the Solstice of Blood (Part 3)

The monks who raised me had perfected the art of investigation in their quest for truth for hundreds of years. Likewise, Ikiru had been sealed in a sword and doing more or less the same thing for who knows how long. Compared to them I was as new as you could get. The one thing I had been doing my entire life, was swordplay.

I could tell from the moment the man approaching me began to draw his blade that he was no swordsman. He may have had some skill, and for an enforcer, which he seemed to be, but he moved like he was going to beat another thug into submission, not win a duel. It was noticeable right away, and I knew he was going to go down quickly.

You see, the method of drawing a blade is one of the most important. For a Katana it was essential. If drawn correctly one could finish a fight on the draw alone. The method was to build momentum in your draw to strike with the maximum amount of strength. Some styles even revolved around the draw so much that after each swing one would sheath the sword again to repeat the same attack. Personally, I didn’t prescribe to this school of thought, but that’s not to say that I didn’t know draw techniques as in all schools they were essential. The enforcer seemed to know little of this and came toward me with his blade drawn and held high. I shifted and easily dodged of his first stroke and drew Ikiru out from under him slashing a deep cut across his torso from the momentum of my own draw.

He collapsed behind me in a pool of blood and intestines behind me. The price is paid. Ikiru intoned as his surface absorbed the blood that had touched it.

The second enforcer, who had said nothing this entire time, now came rushing toward me. He was a bit more skilled than the first and had waited to draw his sword. However, he hesitated for a moment after seeing the first man go down, but only for a second as he renewed his charge and began to draw his blade. I took advantage of the hesitation to check the direction of his swing and dodge again. This time I didn’t strike right away but let him stumble slightly past me as I followed up with a clean slice down his back sending him to join the first in a bloody heap.

You make it look too easy Jin.

Is that why you chose me? Bloodshed?” I answered Ikiru.

Perhaps. I do need a meal once and a while. We all have to eat right?

Cleaning the light coating of blood off my blade with a scrap of cloth I examined both men.

They lay twitching, and the first let out an agonized groan as he tried to move and his intestines tumbled out even further. The second one only shuddered, as I seemed to have severed part of his spine. I knelt down next to the first man. I didn’t take any pleasure in what I had done to them, but when people attacked me, there wasn’t second-guessing to be had.

“Why did Saito want me dead?” I questioned him.

His face was white as a sheet, and he tried to respond, but blood dripped from the corner of his large mouth.

“Tell me, and I’ll give you a clean death, one worthy of a warrior.”

More than he deserves. Ikiru chimed in.

“I… don’t…” He let out a severe fit of coughing which sprayed blood on the rain and blood-soaked stone street. I could see his intestines spilling out as he tried to breathe. “Did…n’t… say.”

I nodded. This man was the kind of thug who was used to only following orders. Not knowing why a target had to die was likely par for the course in his profession. Who knows how many he had sent to the underworld for the same reason. Saito demanded it.

Footsteps sounded behind me, and I looked up to see a pair of law enforcement officers, or Taihoji as they were called here, come running up.

“What’s happening here?” The taller of the two, and most senior as I could guess by a gold cord, which was tied from under his Kimono out to an official badge that displayed the signal of the Xi’an Empire, a dragon surrounded by stylized clouds. He had dark graying hair, which was short in the fashion of the north. I hadn’t seen him before, and I had already met, for one reason or another, many of the Taihoji in the city.

“These men attacked me,” I answered, keeping my hand away from Ikiru. “They’re working for the Saito family.”

The other of the two men, though I felt ‘man’ was a bit old of a term for him as he looked not a day older than sixteen, turned the still twitching body of the second thug over and examined him. “These are Saito colors, sir.” The boy said to the officer.

“Well, it seems you’re justified then. Self-defense…” The officer said, backing down from me. I was taller than him, but even so, he had a way of coming across as imposing.

“I’ll be honest,” I said. “In this section of the city, I didn’t expect this kind of fast response.”

The officer eyed me grimly as if I had told him the idea would have shamed his entire family. “We are Taihoji. It is our place to safeguard the citizens of Naoshima. It should not matter what part of it we are stationed in. The new governor has tasked us with cleaning this city up after all.”

“Good sentiment. I wish it were true of every Taihoji I’ve met here. You must be new.” I gave him a respectful bow. “I am Yashimuro Jin, greetings to you on the first crossing of our paths.” I threw in the formal greeting of the north.

His bow in return was stiffer but no less respectful. “I am called Shinya. It is true, I was transferred here only a week before. May our paths cross ever in the future.” He likewise added the formal northern greeting.

“I’m sorry that I had to leave you with an incident at our first meeting. Unfortunately, I must be going.” I bowed again.

“Until then.” He returned my bow and then motioned to the boy who drew his sword and cleanly sliced the heads off of both men as I walked away.

True Xi’an justice. No trail, no more than a few questions, nothing. Sure they were both as good as dead anyway, and yes I would have finished them cleanly myself, but they knew no other facts but my testimony and the color of their clothes. There was a reason the investigation of crimes like I did was such as new concept in this country.

Instead of returning home to get the rest I had planned, I now had to deal with Saito as the last thing I needed was a knife in my back while I slept.

Saito operated out of a large building in one of the middle levels of the city. Saito Kenshi was the current family head. As long as Naoshima has been a trade hub the Saito’s have controlled its black market with everything from drugs and contraband, to legal activities such as prostitution and gambling, adding the extras that sometimes pushed it outside the bounds of legality as well. At least until Natsumi came in and took control of most of the prostitution businesses. However, That was still only a small portion of their market. I had tried to stay clear of the Saito’s ever since I’d come to Naoshima, and aside from a few brushes with thugs in my investigations, we’d never gone toe to toe, until now at least.

I wasn’t looking forward to this visit, but I knocked on the front door anyway. Promptly, an older warrior greeted me. He wore a more traditional kimono with the white panther, the Saito crest, on the front. Eyeing me warily he placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. This man was a veteran fighter, unlike the thugs. He had a long jagged scar that ran down his bald head and across one side of his face. I had no doubts that he would be put up a difficult fight. “What is your business here?” His voice came out as if from between sheets of rice paper.

“I’m here to see Saito Kenshi. He sent me a message.”

The man’s gaze was almost unnerving. “Come in. Leave your swords with me.” He extended a club-like hand.

I had a serious problem with leaving Ikiru, or my short sword, in the hand of a man like him, let alone going into the house of the people who just tried to have me killed. “Give me your word of honorable conduct and I will.”

For a moment he looked at me as if I had just told him his ancestors were dogs. “Far be it for a servant of the Saito’s to strike down an unarmed opponent in his own house.” The man sneered back at me, clearly showing restraint enough to not attack me there and then.

Now I had no choice. I untied my swords and handed them to him with a bow. I was assured that this was the kind of man who would sooner end his own life than go back on his word.

I entered the house.

Although I had thought the castle was luxurious, this beat it tenfold. Crime does pay it seems. The castle had been built as a fortress, Saito’s house was built like a finely furnished maze, with wide hallways crisscrossing back and forth, with expensive art and decorations throughout. These were not only works of art from Xi’an but also seemed to span a collection as diverse as Naoshima’s trade reached. Many of the pieces were interwoven with gold, gems, and other precious materials. I didn’t know the Saito’s had such wealth. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. From what I had heard the Saito family traced its roots back to the merchant class. The merchant’s where the lowest but also the wealthiest of the classes, and once in a while there were cases some merchants were more affluent than the Emperor himself. I doubted the Saito’s building would have outshone the actual Imperial palace, but it was grander than that of most nobles houses, that was certain.

The warrior led me through to a large dining hall. Several men were seated around a long table. More men and a few women were along the outside wall of the room. A stained glass window, an actual stained glass window that must have been imported from the west, towards Albion, rested in the stone wall in the back of the room. From it, I could see the light of the new day’s sun reflecting in an array of colors across the room. The wall itself was carved with all sorts of wild beasts tearing at each other in some kind of enthralling sculpting of death. Most of the light from the window fell on the man at the head of the table. He had a medium beard, which was trimmed meticulously. His eyes were pale but not colorless, a light gray.  Burn scars encircled them, but instead of making him look hideous as a beggar might have, they illustrated something about his character. Saito Kenshi was not a man who was afraid to face things himself. They stood out as much as a crown on the Emperor would have. The warrior who led me in beckoned me to sit on the cushion at the far end of the table and then went to whisper something into Kenshi’s ear.  Everyone in the room was watching me, and no one else said a word.

Kenshi sifted, he had an unblinking gaze that never left me. “Welcome Yashimuro-san.” His voice was laden with a deep southern Wakoku accent, emphasizing each of the vowels as he talked. “I see you received my message.”

“You could say that,” I said, “I’m not sure what I did to garner your interest so.”

Kenshi smiled. It reminded me of a tiger about to bear down on its prey. “I simply wanted your attention. I knew those two would be of no threat, and it was the only sure way that you would come see me at your earliest convince.”

Holy Kami. Kenshi had sent two of his own men to their deaths just so that I would come see him right away. I had met cold warlords before, hell, I’d worked for them, and Kenshi was up there with them.

He’s dangerous that’s for sure. Ikiru remarked. Ones who are willing to make sacrifices such as he seems to usually are.

“What may I do for you Saito-san?” I bowed slightly in my seat, spreading my hands as I did so. His gaze never moved, or focused. And that’s when I realized for sure. Saito Kenshi was blind.

He smiled slightly. It was unnerving as it almost felt like he could see my every move, despite his blindness. “Yashimuro-san, you are doing your… what do you call it? Investigative work for the Emperor, are you not? I simply wish for us to come to a mutual business agreement.”

“No disrespect, Saito-san, but I don’t make business agreements with criminals.”

Maybe not the best play there. Ikiru said in the back of my head.

Kenshi only smiled more. I’m getting sick of these creeps laughing at me today. I thought to myself. “Now Yashimuro-san, I don’t think you understand.” He responded in his measured yet almost friendly tone. “I simply want your skills to be on hand for use in my own investigations. I’ve heard of your abilities, not only with the blade but also to get to the bottom of matters which… aren’t what they seem to be at first glance.”

Checking my own tone of voice, I responded carefully. “I don’t see why I’d want to do that… respectfully.”

He laughed. I wasn’t expecting it, but a genuine laugh escaped his mouth, it actually put me slightly more at ease as I suddenly realized how tense I had been growing. “Too true, Yashimuro-san. I would not make an offer without the rest. I believe that I can be of some assistance in your investigation. I know the price you’d pay for failing the emperor, and I’d hate to see a man such as yourself become food for the birds. My contacts are quite extensive.”

So that’s how it was. Either I got my lead from him, possibly the only lead. Or face almost certain death at the hand of Shi Fan who’d have me executed as a fake. I may have mentioned I don’t like being bullied into situations, and while I was able to maintain respect, I wasn’t about to bow to a criminal such as Kenshi.

It might not be the worst idea. You’d probably make a fair amount of money working for Kenshi. Just look at his house… Ikiru started to reason.

“No, Saito-san. No I’m not going to work for you. Not now, not ever. I will not cross your path if I can help it. I will not work doing the things you do.” With that, I began to stand up with another bow.

Everyone in the room was deathly silent. I began to wish again that I had my swords, while I trusted still the honor of the man who held it; I wasn’t too sure what would happen as soon as I left.

“Very well Yashimuro-san. There is no point pressuring you.” His smile returning, “If you change your mind before the end, don’t hesitate to return. I’m sure we’ll meet again.” With that, he gave a slight nod to the warrior who held my swords, and he led me out once more. That could have gone worse.

Finally, with my swords back in my belt and the Saito’s house far behind me, I returned home.

My home, or hut, or room, was near the docks. It wasn’t the most beautiful end of town to live in, but an investigative career wasn’t the easiest way to make money as a warrior in Xi’an. Where I lived was located above a dock house. Bellow small boats were tied to the dock in the shelter of a wooden and stone shed, while the rest of the building was on a second level in a small attic of sorts. My name was written on a plaque, which I had carved in my spare time, and hung outside the door. The rain played a steady beat on of water on the thin wooden roof as I moved inside, removing my sandals.

It was just as I left it last night. A Futon bed rested in one corner with a small stand for my blades and a kit that I used for maintenance. Near the center of the room was a simple low wooden table with a few rough seating cushions stitched together with simple thread. Around the room, there were several candles I’d been able to acquire for light. Also, a wall that had a variety of herbs and other odds and ends I had procured from a list Ikiru had taught me. Charms and potions. Used for dealing with everything from ghosts to Oni, just in case one of those came crashing around. A simple metal bowl and some firewood sat in another corner and box of iced and dried food at next to it. My meals for the week, yummy. In the actual center of the room sat a small fire pit with a pot hanging over it. Above it was a crack in the roof large enough for the smoke to escapee when I cooked. Right now, however, rain was dribbling down hitting the pot. All in all, my own living conditions were a far cry from the finery of either the castle or the Saito house.

I placed my swords down on their stands next to my bed and prepared myself for sleep.

As soon as I closed my eyes a knocking came from the front door. It’s never that easy. I pulled myself back onto my feet and made my way back to the door with my wakizashi, short sword, in my hand just in case. It had been that kinda day. My door was merely a sliding wood panel, and I pulled it back ready to defend myself against another attack when I found myself looking at a short elderly woman.

She was startled at the fashion I had thrown aside the door and stood there stunned. I relaxed my body, bowed to her and motioned her inside. Shaking herself out of her confusion she gave a rough bow in return and came in and sat down on one of the seating cushions next to the table. I started to make tea with some old tea leaves I had been saving. I had been saving them for later, but one showed respect to the wisdom of age.

She sat there in silence while it brewed. When the tea was finished, I served her some in a simple wooden cup and placed it in front of her. Bowing again, I waited for her to speak.

“I trust you are Yashimuro-san, the one I have heard so much about?” She finally said having drunk some of the tea. It was a question I felt like I had heard more in this one day than my entire life.

“Yes, ma’am,” I responded respectfully. “How may I assist you?”

She paused for a moment as if embarrassed. Most people are nervous or embarrassed when they first come, my job isn’t the most traditional, and except for today, the only had customers who came to me did so as a last resort or to drive evil spirits away or had a problem that they couldn’t fix otherwise. Either way, it wasn’t something they liked to talk about.

“It’s about my son, he has gone missing.” She said at last.

“I must ask respectfully, but have you gone to the Taihoji with this? It is one of their jobs to look for citizens who have disappeared.” Though I knew very well, even if she had, most Taihoji were too busy or apathetic to care for a poor older woman’s son who had gone missing. She looked as if she was from the peasant class, and while they are regarded as higher than that of the merchant class, they were, in fact, the poorest of all, except for the untouchables.

She shook her head. “They will not help. They said he likely is dead, but I know that cannot be the case.”

“May I ask what happened to him, ma’am?”

“Please. Call me Oro-san.” She took another sip of the tea and continued. “My son, you see brought shame on our poor family and became a criminal. Ever since he was released from custody he has lived and worked outside the city in a shopkeeper’s house, not many will hire an ex-criminal, as you know. I asked him to stay with me but…” She paused again as if going on was too painful.

“Your son didn’t want to bring the shame back to you is that it?” I questioned her respectfully.

“Yes.” She replied nodding and taking another sip of tea. She looked so old that her wrinkled skin had an almost ethereal quality to it in the dim light from the hole in the roof. “He has been missing for a week now. No one will look for him. It’s not like him to leave like this, at least not anymore…”

“I think I understand Oru-san. I will look for your son.”

Oh yes, like you have time for this. Ikiru quipped.

Helping people like Oru-san had initially been why I came here and put the training the monks gave me into practice, to help when no one else would, I thought back to him.

Fine, fine, our funeral. When your head gets chopped off for not solving the other case… well, your funeral at least. I’ll be fine.

“Thank you very much Yashimuro -san.” She said while finishing the last of the tea, setting it down carefully.

“It is an honor Oru-san,” I said, giving her a polite bow. “Please, if you would tell me where I can find the store he was staying in, so that I may start my search there.”

A slight smile crossed her face, which was one of the first emotions she had allowed to display since coming to my place. After which she promptly described to me the directions. I thanked her again, and after respectful goodbyes, she departed.

Now I’m going to sleep. I’m betting you’ll get one hour. Ikiru quipped as I finally close my eyes.

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