Jun 29 2012 10:00am
CHAPTER THREE: Red Saké
Masaru squinted through the pall of greasy smoke at the cards in front of him. The dealer watched him through half-closed lids, a blue-black wreath coiled in the air around his head. Masaru lifted his pipe and inhaled another lungful of lotus.
“Don’t let the dragon steer the ship, my friend,” whispered Akihito. It was the traditional warning for a lotus smoker about to make a very bad decision.
Masaru exhaled, tendrils of smoke wafting up through his graying mustache, past bloodshot eyes. He took a sip of red saké and turned to his friend, eyebrow cocked.
Akihito was a mountain carved out of solid teak, harder than a seven-pipe hangover. His hair was drawn back in diagonal cornrows across his scalp, blond streaks bleached through the black. Four jagged scars ran along his chest, cutting across the beautiful phoenix tattoo on his right arm. The big man was handsome in a rugged, weather-beaten kind of way, dark, clear eyes regarding his friend with concern.
“You worry too much,” Masaru smiled.
Six men sat in a semi-circle around the low table of the gambling house, their cushions torn from some abandoned motor-rickshaw. The walls were rice-paper, painted with figures of exotic women and even more exotic animals: fat panda, fierce leopards and other extinct beasts. Low light flickered in the overhead globes. A sound box sat above the bar; crafted out of dull, gray tin, its speaker cans connected to the main unit with frayed spools of copper wiring. Guild-approved music spilled from its innards; the thin wavering notes of shakuhachi flutes, accompanied by the clicking beat of wooden percussion. The growl of a struggling generator could be heard somewhere downstairs. Fat, black lotusflies swarmed among the rafters.
Each man had stripped to his waist in the sweltering heat, displaying a myriad of irezumi— tattoos—in all colors of the rainbow. A few of the players were Tiger clansmen, sporting ink from the hands of minor artisans that marked them as men of moderate means. Two others at the table had no kami spirits marked on their flesh at all, just simple patterns of koi fish, geisha girls and wildflowers that singled them out as lowborn. Known as Burakumin, these clanless types lurked at the bottom rung of Shima’s caste system, with little hope of ascending. Unable to afford elaborate ink-work, a straight razor and a smudged handful of cuttlefish ink was the closest any of them had come to a real tattoo parlor.
The intricate imperial suns radiating across Akihito and Masaru’s left upper arms had been noted by everybody in the room, and not for the fact that the irezumi marked the pair as the Shōgun’s men. There was no shortage of desperate folk in the streets of Downside, some perhaps even desperate enough to risk Yoritomo-no-miya’s wrath, and the simple fact was that the more elaborate a man’s ink, the fatter his purse was likely to be.
Hushed conversations could be heard from the thugs and lowlifes skulking at other tables. Rumors of last week’s refinery fire, news of the war against the round-eyes overseas and whispers about the latest attack of the Kagé rebels on the northern lotus fields all drifted in the air with the smoke.
Masaru cracked his neck and touched the exquisite nine-tailed fox design sleeving his right arm, whispering a prayer to Kitsune. Fox was not as fierce as Tiger, brave as Dragon, nor as visionary as Phoenix. His people were not great warriors or explorers, nor lauded artisans; among the clan kami spirits, he was the easiest to discount. But Fox was cunning and quick, silent as shadows, and in long-forgotten days when the kami still walked Shima with earthly feet, Fox had imbued his people with his most precious gift. The gift of a desperate, uncanny luck.
Masaru rolled a kouka coin between stained fingers; a two-inch rectangular braid of dull gray iron stamped with the seal of the imperial mint. The game was oicho-kabu, a pastime older than the Empire itself. It was Masaru’s turn as first player; he would determine how many cards were dealt to each of the four fields in front of them. He pointed at the second field on the table, asking for another card, and left the others alone. The assembled gamblers glanced at each other and muttered, each bidding his stake a reluctant goodbye.
The dealer was a blubbery slug of a man, his fat, shaved head gleaming in the dirty light. The serpentine design spiraling down his right arm declared him a member of Ryu, the Dragon zaibatsu; once a clan of seafarers and raiders in the dark, uncivilized days before the unification of the Empire and the rise of the Lotus Guild.
Irezumi across his left arm heralded his allegiance to the Sasori-kai; a gang that ran the illicit card dens across the toxic portside slums of Kigen city. To find a blooded clansman among the yakuza gangs was a rarity, but from the quality of the dealer’s ink, the syndicate of cutthroats, pimps and extortionists was doing very well for itself.
The man-slug placed Masaru’s declared card on the unfinished wood, and taking the fourth card from the deck, he added it to his own hand. A gap-toothed grin spread behind his braided mustache, and he turned over a maple and chrysanthemum. The gamblers scowled and sipped their drinks. One gave Masaru an unappreciative shove.
Masaru held up a hand, tapped his cards with his forefinger.
“What’s the point?” moaned Akihito. “He has nine, dealer wins ties.”
“Fox looks after his own.” Masaru brushed a lotusfly away. “Turn them.”
The dealer shrugged and turned the first field: pine and silver grass for a total of nine. The second field revealed three cherry blossoms, also for nine. The gamblers perked up through the lotus haze; if the third field also flipped a nine, every man would receive triple his bet.
The field already held five points. Akihito prayed aloud, promising to perform several implausibly acrobatic feats on the Lady Luck’s nether regions if she delivered. The dealer turned the final card. Everyone in the room caught their breath. It was a card sent from Uzume herself. A wisteria bloom. A blessed, miraculous four.
The gamblers erupted in a deafening cheer.
“You magnificent bastard!” Akihito clasped Masaru’s face with a pair of meaty hands, planting a kiss squarely on his lips. Masaru grinned and pushed his friend away, holding up his hands for mercy as the other players slapped him repeatedly across his back. He hoisted his saké cup and roared.
“To Kitsune! Fox looks after his own!”
A broad hand slapped the cup away, and it smashed into glittering fragments against the opposite wall. The dealer rose, flushed with anger, hand on the studded wooden club at his belt. Masaru’s new friends began studying the bottoms of their glasses and the fixtures in the ceiling. The serving girl gathered up the tip bowl without a sound and sank behind the bar.
“Damned Kitsune,” spat the dealer. “Cheaters, one and all.”
Masaru’s eyes widened and he swayed to his feet, flipping the table over and sending the cards and coins flying. His skin had the pale gray hue of all lotus addicts, but his body was lean and hard, muscles coiled tightly across long, sharp lines. He wrapped his fist around the polished nunchaku in his belt and glared with red, weeping eyes.
“Typical Ryu,” he growled. “Why do you Dragons always squeal like corpse-rats when you start to lose?”
“Bastard Foxes . . .”
“You cut the godsdamned deck. Another insult to clan Kitsune, and I’ll do the same to my face.”
The dealer raised an eyebrow.
“. . . I mean your face.” Masaru blinked, stumbling slightly.
“You can barely stand, old man,” the thug sneered, glancing down at the nunchaku. “You really think you can swing a pair of those?”
Masaru paused for a moment, eyes roaming the dirty ceiling.
“Good point,” he nodded, and introduced his fist to the dealer’s nose.
Yukiko walked up to the entrance of the gambling den, took a determined expression from the rack and slapped it on her face. She paused to frown up at the noonday sun, its sickly red glare reflected on her goggles. A sky-ship sputtered through the perpetual haze of lotus exhaust fumes overhead, dull light glinting off its filthy, smoke-stained hull.
She wore an outfit of sturdy gray cloth, unadorned save for a small fox embroidered on the breast, cut simply for the sake of utility. An uwagi tunic covered her from neck to mid-thigh, open at the throat, long, loose sleeves with folded cuffs rippling in the feeble breeze. An obi sash of black silk was wrapped tight around her waist, six inches wide, tied in a simple bow at the small of her back. A billowing pair of hakama trousers trailed down to her feet, which were covered by a pair of split-toed tabi socks. Long hair flowed around her shoulders, midnight black against pale, smooth skin. A gray kerchief was tied over her mouth, polarized glass lenses trimmed with thin brass and black rubber covering her eyes.
The cobbles around her were awash with people, a tumbling din of voices and the occasional growl of a motor-rickshaw swelling amidst a sea of sweating flesh and colored silk. A chattering flock of neo-chōnin merchants and their stern, silent bodyguards were gathered nearby, haggling with a junk dealer about the price of scrap iron. Gloved hands pawed through ledgers and fingered purses full of coins; Upside men skimming the surface of Downside streets. The entire group wore face-length breathing apparatus to protect themselves from the burning glare of the sun and the exhaust fumes hanging over the city like a shroud. The masks were sculpted of smooth brass, corrugated rubber and twisting filter pipes, the round glass windows covering their eyes filmed in a fine layer of soot and lotus ash. Like Yukiko, most of the grubby crowd around them made do with kerchiefs tied over their faces, goggles crafted from rat leather and cheap, polarized lenses, or perhaps an umbrella of colored rice paper.
Yukiko heard glassware smashing, loud cursing. A man crashed through the doorway in a rain of splinters, nearly knocking her over. He landed face first in the dust and started bleeding the road red, broken fingers twitching. The crowd ignored him, most skirting around without a glance. The gaggle of neo-chōnin merchants stepped over him on their way to whatever it was they considered important.
“Not again,” she sighed, and stepped inside.
She screwed up her nose at the reek of lotus and sweat and red saké. Pulling her goggles and kerchief down around her throat, she squinted into the gloom. She recognized the shape of a giant, sweat-slicked Akihito. Two yakuza were in headlocks under his arms. His headbutt smeared a third gangster’s nose all over his cheeks. Masaru was being held in an armlock by a fat, bloody-nosed bald man. A rat-faced fellow was punching him repeatedly in the stomach to the brittle tune of a shakuhachi flute. Masaru’s salt-and-pepper hair had come loose from his topknot, splayed across his face in dark tendrils wet with blood. As she watched, he craned his head around and sank his teeth into his captor’s forearm.
The bald man howled, released his grip, and Masaru kicked the rat-faced man square between his legs. The fellow let out a high-pitched squeal and sank to his knees. Masaru dropped a hook across the bald man’s jaw, sending him backward into the bar to land on a pile of broken beach glass. He was picking up a table to clobber the rat-man when Yukiko’s voice rang out over the chaos.
“A little early in the morning, isn’t it, father?”
Masaru paused, squinting bleary-eyed in her direction. He brightened when he recognized her, and took one unsteady step forward, a grin breaking out on his face.
“Daughter! Just in—”
A saké bottle sailed into the back of his head and he crashed across the upturned gaming tables, out cold. The bald man picked up his war club from the wreckage and stalked toward Masaru, wiping his bleeding nose on the back of one fat, greasy paw.
Yukiko stepped forward and held up her hand.
“Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai?”
“Not nearly,” he growled. “Get out of my way, girl.”
Yukiko’s hand drifted to the tantō hidden at the small of her back, fingers slipping around the knife’s lacquered hilt. With her other hand, she pulled up the loose gray cotton of her uwagi’s left sleeve. Even in the guttering tungsten light, the elaborate imperial sun inked across her bicep was plainly visible. Her long, shady eyes glanced down to the identical tattoo on her father’s arm, then back up to the face of the advancing yakuza.
“Please, sama,” she repeated, the barest flicker of warning in her voice, “if this insignificant servant of Yoritomo-no-miya, Ninth Shōgun of the Kazumitsu Dynasty, has caused your house offense, we humbly beg forgiveness.”
The fat man paused, breathing heavily, drool and blood dripping down through his goatee to spatter on the floorboards. He surveyed the wreckage of the room: the unconscious bodies, broken furniture and braided iron kouka coins scattered across the floor. The serving girl peeked over the bar, squeaked and dropped back into hiding.
The fat man pouted, brow creased in thought.
“We keep his winnings,” he finally grunted, motioning to her father with the business end of his tetsubo. “Call it even.”
“That is more than fair.” Yukiko gave a small bow, releasing her grip on the knife. “Amaterasu bless your kindness, sama.”
She turned to Akihito, paused mid-brawl, his arms still locked around the necks of the two smaller, rapidly suffocating men.
“Akihito, give me a hand please?”
The giant raised an eyebrow, looked back and forth between the purple faces stuffed into his armpits. Shrugging, he clobbered the men’s heads together and tossed them over the bar. The crash of shattering glass and the sound box’s tune were drowned out by the serving girl’s shriek.
Akihito stooped down and hefted Masaru over one shoulder, flashing Yukiko a broad grin. She frowned in return.
“I asked you to watch him.”
Though he towered a good foot and a half over the girl, the big man looked slightly abashed. “He’s still in one piece, isn’t he?”
She scowled and rolled her eyes. “Barely.”
“So where to, little fox?”
“The harbor.” She stalked over the broken furniture and out the door.
Akihito frowned and stumbled after her. Emerging into the blast-furnace heat, he tugged his goggles up over his eyes with his spare hand. People swarmed about them in the street, lotusflies swarmed about the people, all buzzing to and fro beneath the glare of that burning scarlet sun.
The big man pulled a gray kerchief up over his mouth, a conical straw hat onto his head.
“What the hells are we going to the harbor for?”
In answer, Yukiko produced a scroll from the inner breast pocket of her uwagi and slapped it into the big man’s palm. Akihito shifted Masaru’s bulk across his shoulders. The rice-paper made a sound like brittle bird wings as he unfurled it, scowling over the symbols painted on the page. The kanji were written in a thin, spidery hand, difficult to read through the film of grime and ash covering his goggles. It took a few seconds for the color to start draining from the big man’s face.
“This is an imperial seal,” he said.
“So it is.”
Akihito was pale as old bones by the time he finished reading the orders.
He drew a deep breath, stared at Yukiko for a long, silent moment, then screwed the scroll up in his fist. Blotches of color bloomed at his cheeks.
“The Shōgun is sending us after an arashitora? A godsdamned thunder tiger?”
A trio of passing sararīmen shot them curious glances as the big man’s temper flared. Yukiko took the crumpled scroll from his hand, rolled it up as best she could and tucked it back inside her breast pocket. Akihito scowled around the street, lowered his voice to a furious whisper.
“Why is he doing this? Is he angry with us?”
“He wants a thunder tiger, Akihito.”
“Well, I want a woman who can touch her ears with her ankles, cook a decent meal and keep her opinions to herself. But they don’t fucking exist either!”
Masaru groaned as Akihito shifted him to his other shoulder.
“Do you feel better now?” Yukiko folded her arms. “Got it all out of your system?”
“We can’t hunt what doesn’t exist, Yukiko.”
“You don’t think I know that?”
“And what do you think is going to happen if we fail Yoritomo-no-miya?” The big man punctuated his questions with his free hand. “What do you think will be waiting for us when we come back empty-handed? Orders for Masaru to commit seppuku, for starters. You want to watch as your father is forced to disembowel himself? Who knows what they’ll do to the rest of us . . .”
“Maybe you could tell the Shōgun how you feel. I’m sure he’d understand.”
Akihito drew breath to retort, blinked and swallowed his words. He gritted his teeth and ran one hand across the back of his neck as he glanced about. The streets around them overflowed with people; layers of the social strata heaped one on another, brick upon cracking brick. Neo-chōnin merchants with fat bellies and fatter purses; sararīman wageslaves with their modest lives and honest coin; sweating farmers with half-empty wagons; gomimen with their salvage carts and recycled wares; traveling peddlers with their lives and livelihoods stacked on their backs; beggars in the gutters, fighting with the rats for the tablescraps the rest had left behind. Countless figures jostling in the oily haze, none of them paying anyone else the slightest heed.
Yukiko’s expression softened, and she reached up to lay a gentle hand on the big man’s arm.
“Every word you’re saying is true. But what choice do we have?” She pulled her goggles on and shrugged. “Try to deliver the impossible, or defy the Shōgun and just die right here and now. Which would you prefer?”
Akihito exhaled, shoulders slumping like a flower wilting in the scorching heat.
“Come on, let’s go.” Yukiko turned and began walking toward the docks.
Akihito remained motionless as the girl slipped away into the throng. Screwing his eyes shut and juggling his unconscious friend, the giant pinched himself on the arm hard enough to leave a bruise. He waited a long moment, then opened one eye, glancing around the street. Against all hope, the world remained exactly as he’d left it.
“Izanagi’s balls,” he muttered, and hurried after the girl.
Stormdancer © Jay Kristoff 2012