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Jin and the Solstice of Blood (Part 8)

Finally, I arrived back, just before the gates closed. It was an easy matter to report the murder of the woman’s son to the Taihoji. I informed them that I had discovered it as part of my investigation and they dispatched a team to see for themselves.

It was around this time the pain started to come back.

So much for fixing your ribs. The Kitsune just dulled the pain.

Ikiru was right, lesson learned with trusting magical creatures. I gritted my teeth and went to the best place I knew to fix it as I didn’t have time to lay on my back for them to heal.

The apothecary’s shop was as empty as usual. Nearly hidden between two larger buildings off to the side of the waterfront, most people would easily be able to miss it unless they were looking for it. From what little I knew of the owner though, that’s probably what he wanted in the first place. Hot, dark, and filled with the aromas of smoke and a conglomeration of herbs from across Xi’an—and sometimes beyond—the shop was it’s own sensory experience. Smoke from some kind of plant or weed-filled the room making me cough slightly which indecently also sent a wave of pain across my damaged insides. There was a shuffle from back behind the counter, and an old man, about half of my size looked up from an ancient tome, though with the light levels in here I wondered how he could read it.

“Back again Yashimuro-dono?” The wrinkled man behind the counter asked, shifting his long pipe to the other side of his mouth. His voice sounded like he had smoked since he was born.

Despite my aching ribs I couldn’t help but let out a smile at the old man. He was one of the few in the city who didn’t look at me as an oddity, or a necessity to get jobs done.

“Back again, Gin-san. I need something for broken ribs as well as a few of your more specialty items.”

Gin let loose a large puff of the oily smoke, which clung to the air around us and made a few notes in his book while glancing at my hand pressed against my ribs. “Bad day?” He asked through his pipe.

“You could say that.”

The old man leaped nimbly out of his chair and moved into the back for a moment and was back just as quickly with a small cloth bag of strong smelling… something.

“For the pain, looks like that should come first.”

I nodded weakly and sat down on a stool near the counter and opened the bag which was filled with a finely ground powder. My stomach felt like evacuating its contents at the smell. “May I ask what’s in this Gin-san?” I asked while trying to control my gag reflex.

“Ground spider legs, opium, hair, lotus petals, mercury, and other herbs I doubt you’d know. It’s quite good for you.”

“Wonderful.” I didn’t sound that convincing even to myself as I took a cup of hot water from Gin and poured the small pouch into it. I think it smelled even worse in the mixture though after I quick stir I downed it as fast as I could.

Just so you know, I feel those broken ribs too, we’re suffering together. Ikuri assured me sarcastically.

Grimacing at the taste, I waited for a moment for the drink to entirely wash down. When I opened my eyes again, Gin was sitting once back behind his desk taking a long drag on his pipe. I wiped away my eyes and tried to focus on the rest of my task.

“I need four whale tallow candles and pure mercury. I know they’re hard to get a hold of now but if anyone would have it…” I trailed off waiting for him to respond.

“Both are in the back, but you’re right they’re not easy to come by Yashimuro-dono.”

I sighed. I had nothing with which to pay him with; these types of candles weren’t made anymore except for Shugenja rituals and nuts like myself. Shugenja priests always said that for any kind of potent magic, some amount of mercury, the purer, the better was needed. According to Ikiru, I’d need the purest available.

“I’m sorry I cannot help you Yashimuro-dono, I have another order for the candles and for me to cross this customer would require something as valuable as this information.”

This troubled me. Who else would want these candles in the city at this time?

“Gin-san, as an old friend. May I ask… who this order would be from?”

I knew he would decline as he shook his head but…

“I cannot, however, they are coming to pick them on in seven minutes.” He replied as he glanced toward a notched time-keeping-candle on his desk.

Nodding in understanding, I turned toward the door. Gin had actually been a great help, and I needed to not bring trouble back down on him. However, there was a way for me to gather my information without implicating him. At least I hoped.

I thanked him pleasantly and politely, slipping him a few coins from my small collection and walked out of the shop. The rain was still coming down, mixing with the hot air to make my skin feel like it was boiling. There were several crates and carts from the dock that were lying nearby the shop, and I obscured myself behind one of them. I noted how the pain in my side had already begun to subside. Gin’s concoctions are like magic all to themselves.

About fifteen minutes when by until two men walked up to the shop. Two men wearing the white panther crest of Saito Kenshi.

Saito? Why would he be performing a ritual? Is this related to why he wanted me to work for him?

Not a bad guess, maybe he found a replacement.

After a few minutes, the two men exited the shop again carrying tightly wrapped parcels, and I kept to the night’s shadows. Thankfully between being night and the now heavy rain, it was easy for me to follow them without being seen. After a few blocks, they turned up and into the quarter heading to Saito’s house but disappeared into a side alley. With no choice but to close some of the distance or lose them, I ducked into the alley to find only one turn a corner at its end.

I moved forward carefully yet quickly enough so that I wouldn’t lose sight of them again. The rain was less here thanks to being partially covered by the side roofs. However, the sound was loud enough to mask the clatter of a someone dropping behind me and grabbing my neck in a vice. You better not die. I heard Ikiru say to my brain as I trashed around looking for a way to break the chokehold. 

The person’s weight was more than mine, and most of my shifts were futile with the pressure of the hold. My hands grasped for my sword as the other man who had been walking from the apothecaries came running back around the corner with his sword out. He was fast, but thankfully my draw was still faster even with the chokehold and I succeeded at severing part of his arm as he came at me. As my vision blackened, I attempted to twist my blade behind me and strike my assailant and was rewarded by a grunt and solid feeling as my sword connected flesh.

The choke held, however. Who is this? Ikiru’s thought mirrored my own terrified ones as I collapsed into darkness.

I returned to the world in a dark room. At least, it seemed dark. My vision was so blurry it could have been outside under the sun, and I wouldn’t know. A dull ache encompassed my body, I had a feeling that was thanks to Gin’s drugs, bless him, or I would have been in agony. A humanoid form stood silhouetted in front of me.

“Ah, Yashimuro-san. I’m glad you’re coming back to us.” Saito’s distinctive voice cut into my ears through the fog of my mind.

“Happy too. To what do I owe this honor?” I tried to move and felt my hands and arms restrained.

    “Did you not say you would not cross my path if you could help it? It hardly suits the fox to stalk the panther.”

“So I’m the fox huh?” I said it before, I’m not good at comebacks.

“Yes, Yashimuro-san you are the fox. The fox that hides and holes and tries to steal my chickens.” The shape that was Saito moved closer to my face, I could begin to make out his features as well as some vague outlines in the rest of the room.

“What if I don’t like chicken?” Maybe I should think about what comes out of my mouth more.

The shape of Saito moved back away this time a bright light came out of the corner of my vision along with a dark form. It took me a brief moment to realize it was a fire poker and they were trying to torture me. I could barely feel it though, but a dull ache and I marveled at Gin’s alchemy while I began a fake scream as loud as I could. I hoped they bought it; the drug would make this torture go a lot better than it otherwise would, but if they figured it out they could just wait until it wore off.

“You have a sharp tongue Yashimuro-san.” The shape that I now could tell was Saito moved back over to me. The rest of the room, I could tell was nothing much than a stone basement with a brazier in the middle, a few other men were around. “But in this case, if you wish to avoid more pain you’ll answer my questions.”

“No, I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.” 

You didn’t have breakfast moron. With that one of the men removed a poker from the brazier and jabbed it into my shoulder and the dull ache returned. I think I do a good job faking a scream if you ask me.

You might want to take this more seriously. Ikiru reminded me, as I realized my flippant attitude was likely that I was entirely out of it thanks to Gin’s potion.

“You know Yashimuro-san. I’m an honorable man, all I ask is that you tell me what you know of these murders.”

What I know? “I don’t know anything, why do you think I was following your men? To ask them for tea?” I gave him a wide grin which betrayed my careless attitude at the moment.

Still too much. Ikiru was right of course as I was greeted by another application of the fire poker to which I faked another scream.

“How did you know to follow my men to the apothecary?”

“A hunch.”

Poker and more fake screaming.

“I hear your skills of intuition are good, but I don’t believe in that kind of clairvoyance Yashimuro-san.”

“Saito-san, I’m telling the truth. I don’t know anything. But now I have a feeling that you do know who’s behind these murders.”

Saito paused there for a moment, his gray eyes looked as if they could actually see my likely mud-soaked face. His blind gaze shook me more than anyone I’d ever met. “I believe you, Yashimuro-san.” And with that, he turned and walked out of the room. All but one of the men followed him up out of the basement.

It became darker somehow, or maybe it was the sudden silence or the drugs. For a few minutes, I felt like I was floating, the world around me became somewhat of a haze as my brain tumbled over the facts of the case like a ship in a tsunami. Signs in the stars, murders by a giant blue Yōkai, Natsumi, and the old woman, Saito? The Emperor.  Why was he in Naoshima now? Was it for the summer solstice festival in a few days? All this now… I should get you to take drugs more often.

My vision blurred and I lost consciousness again.