Rihaku put his bulging wallet into his breast pocket and continued along the road towards the pleasure district. It was his first holiday since he got paid the other day. He, the military official, lived in the lodging house but in his holidays, he set out for town. His destination – the brothel that had the Rose.
There was a bounce in his steps today. Just then, he had met up with a palace lady acquaintance. The girl called Maomao, her looks weren’t much to speak about, but her connections were spread out surprisingly far. She was close to Pairin, the Rose, to the point of calling her ‘older sister’. Maomao was just about the pass through the gates, carrying a small cloth bag. She said it had been a while she got a holiday and was going home to the pleasure district. If so, that meant she will inevitably greet her older sister. A tea party might even ensue in the lobby of the Rokushoukan.
This was a good chance for Rihaku to see the face of the flower, as his usual visits to the Rokushoukan usually end with him just drinking tea with a kamuro. In other words, he had an ulterior motive to meeting Pairin by taking out Maomao.
And so, it was good he was heading for that, but the sun was still just crossing the meridian. Guests only come in when the sun is hidden in the pleasure district. They might open in the daytime, but he heard from a kamuro that Pairin was a night owl who wakes up close to evening. Even if he went, it was still too early.
“Ah well,” he said.
Rihaku decided to kill some time at a nearby eating house.
“Customer-san, what would you like?” A girl who gave off a wanton impression called out to him in an over-familiar voice. Though she conducted herself like a waitress, her gaze was appraising Rihaku. The interior of the shop was spacious, but it was dim and there were few guests scattered about. There were those who were whispering amongst each other, and some who were being excessively clingy to the waitresses.
Rihaku thought he made a slight mistake by entering this shop.
Though the location was a fair distance away from the pleasure district, this shop seemed to have that kind of function. The ground floor was an eating house, the first floor an inn where waitresses will guide customers into the rooms and don’t come out, that kind of shop.
It was a shop that honestly couldn’t go public.
What this shop did was the same as a brothel in the pleasure district. The problem with it is that it wasn’t a shop that was publicly approved. A shop would gain more revenue than just selling meals by selling flowers. In that case, the tax rate it came under will also change.
Hypothetically, if Rihaku was obstinate, he would probably flash evidence of tax evasion and go for the merit. However, he wasn’t that type of person, only ordering what the person sitting beside him was eating, as it looked delicious. Rihaku knew that this sort of thing was required for a promotion, but he didn’t think that far. His character comes from physical strength and even if he did a poor job of showing tax evasion, it’ll be a pain if he was glared at by the official who presided over it. If he did it, the civil official he was acquainted with who had a sense of justice will just grumble about it when he drinks heavily.
The waitress, understanding that Rihaku was only here to eat, fixed her flirtatious attitude and returned to the kitchen with light footsteps. Women who work in these kinds of places are really quick at switching.
Rihaku put his feet on the table and regarded everyone around him with a glance. The guests were a duo who were flirting with a waitress, a trio who were talking amongst themselves, a duo who were eating at the seat beside his, and finally Rihaku who was on his own.
Oh, Rihaku’s eyes were drawn to the seat with the trio. One among them was drumming his fingers on the table. There was a small piece of paper under his fingers. When a waitress came over with a second helping of alcohol, she took the empty wine bottle and retreated. When she did so, the scrap of paper that was left on the table was gone.
I see now, Rihaku thought.
Of course, a disgraceful shop gathered disgraceful things. Aside from meals and flowers, this shop also sold information. He listened intently to the trio who were chatting.
“How are the sales recently?” One said.
“Well, no changes. Just the price of linen is a little higher, I guess,” the other replied.
Extremely normal merchant conversation. There wasn’t anything suspicious about it. It would have been fine if he let it go with just that, but he listened out of habit. He ended up trying to sound for secret language from the conversation.
Rihaku believed that the current society wasn’t a bad era, but nonetheless, there were those who spoke of discontent. Even speculations about who was the cause of the warehouse explosion the other day was rampant. In the end, it was determined that cause of the fire was due to the warehouse man’s careless smoking.
That sayin’, Rihaku took out a certain object from his breast pocket. It was something Maomao, who he met, had handed over to him some time ago. It was a pipe with ivory carving. That skilful palace lady said that it might be the warehouse man’s, and polished the carving, making it beautiful. She said it can be used again if you affix a new handle.
“It’s fine if ya don’t give it back. Ya could have just sold it for gold.”
Though he said something along those lines, Rihaku already went to ask the person in charge of the warehouse for the owner’s house. Even he thought he was soft-hearted himself, it couldn’t be helped that his character was like that, so he can’t be one to say about other people. He thought he would try going there after eating.
“But I have to say this is made really nicely.”
Ivory was the tusk of an animal from a distant country. Of course, it wasn’t something that the common people can easily obtain. If they lost such a valuable thing, they’ll surely go looking for it.
“Okay, Customer-san. Thanks for waiting.” The waitress brought over a bowl of warm porridge. The hearty porridge looked delicious; it was made of good chicken stock and was thoroughly mixed with small pieces of vegetables. There was also fried chicken wings and a vegetable, nut and pork stir-fry – it was a course that you know the cooking is good from the smell alone.
“Indeed, it’ll make you really robust.” The waitress winked at him, giving a vulgar smile. Seems like she was seducing him. This girl’s face and body weren’t bad. If it was before, he might have crooked his finger at her, but it was different now. Since his encounter with the ethereal woman who appeared like she was lying sprawled on top of the lotus flower, Rihaku’s ideal had shot through the roof. The current him, having savoured that paradise, cannot be satisfied with a woman that could be found anywhere.
“Time to dig in,” he said.
When the waitress saw that Rihaku didn’t react to her and started eating, she went back to being rude again. As though that woman still hasn’t caught a customer today, she moved on to the duo who sat in the next seat.
There were two plump men over there. One of them looked excessively unhealthy. There were bags under his eyes, his face was swollen. He didn’t eat at all, just drinking tea. The other man ate up all of the delicious looking food.
It’s a waste to not eat such delicious food, Rihaku thought as he moved his chopsticks.
Before long, the trio finished calculating their bill. Rihaku licked his spoon; he didn’t think to do anything even though he noticed that for the amount of alcohol they had, the bill was large. He just took in their faces with a sidelong glance.
And then, a little while after the trio left, the duo who was eating also went out.
The waitress, who missed out on catching customers, gave Rihaku with an exasperated look. Seems like she wanted to him to quickly finish eating and clean up.
“Just what is this about?” Rihaku was walking on the street, breathing heavily. A while ago, he had gone to deliver the pipe after he finished eating. When he did so – how about that – it was the former warehouseman who came out, unshaven faced, stinking of alcohol. The moment he showed him the ivory pipe, the other man declared, “I don’t want it. Chuck that damn thing out as you please.”
Rihaku’s current attire wasn’t official robes but casual clothes. He had taken care of his basic personal appearance so to go meet Pairin, but as he wasn’t wearing the belt and stone that denoted his official rank, the former warehouseman saw him as a mere messenger. He was treated with a rude form.
When he went to ascertain whether it was an important thing, he got, “Heck would I know, that was a gift. I only got it because it was given to me, but I can’t use it at all. It flat out doesn’t light.” Rihaku could only tilt his head.
Where was the fellow who thoughtlessly gave away the ivory item? And furthermore, to a person who didn’t understand the value of this pipe.
Rihaku, thinking it was kind of a waste, explained that the pipe was made from ivory. The other man laughed out of his nose, saying, “Hah? You’re kidding me.” He said that the one who gave it to him was a mere court lady, who asked do you want it or not? and simply gave it to him. Seems he meekly received it since the thing wasn’t bad and looked stylish.
After hearing what the former warehouseman said, there was a point that Rihaku was stuck on.
Though this man seemed strangely apathetic to this pipe, it looked like he was made to expect that this pipe was connected to being the starter of the warehouse fire. Because of that, though the warehouseman was still alive with his whole body covered in burns, he was also fired.
Rihaku had planned to hand the ivory pipe over to the man, but decided not to, seeing as the man said he didn’t want it.
He wanted to investigate what was bothering him.
Why did the court lady give it to him?, Rihaku tilted his head.
The pipe that was given. The court lady who gave it away. The warehouseman. The grain warehouse. And the explosion.
As Rihaku sensed that there was something newly suspicious about the incident he thought was already solved, he headed towards the pleasure district. He walked into a deserted alleyway, avoiding the main street, to take a little short-cut. Since the pleasure district was in the south, he should get there faster if he continued walking in a southerly direction.
Amid that, footsteps resounded in the narrow road. Rihaku’s ears were good, to the point of catching the conversation of a different seat in the bar, to the degree of knowing how much the customers paid from just the sound of money. On top of that, to the extent of being asked many times, “Are you a f*cking dog?”
There were five people – three in front and two at the back. He could hear them from one house over. If people were running across town, it could be that they were being chased by a money lender, or they were being chased by a stray dog – none of the reasons could be good.
He involuntarily scaled the wall before him, going right into private property. The rundown house didn’t look like it was inhabited for many years. No one should complain even if he went in. He sneaked over and peeked through the crack in the wall.
He recognised those faces. They were the customers who were eating at the bar a while ago. The trio being chased were the fellows who bought information, and the others were the plump duo who had been eating.
The duo cornered the trio. The number of people was reversed, but Rihaku understood. The duo moved more sharply than their bodies suggested. The man who looked ill was also like that, but another person, the man who didn’t stand out, dexterously constricted the collar of one of the men who was running away. He was whispering into the caught man’s ears – Rihaku’s hearing wasn’t that good of course.
I stepped into a dangerous place huh, Rihaku thought. He pulled back his face, keeping his back to the wall, and closed his eyes quietly. Kill his presence, concentrate only on hearing.
From the fragmentary, “Who’s instigated this?”, “That aside…”, he heard common interrogative questions. Seems that the other person, the man with the terrible complexion, was standing watch over the remaining two people. Every time the two people who were clinging to the wall made any strange movements, he heard a sharp metallic sound.
Rihaku didn’t know what kind of circumstance this was – in this sort of case, it would be safer to do nothing. If he chased people and interrogated them in a deserted place like this, it can be said he was wicked just like them. He didn’t know who is correct, who is not correct, even if either were not correct. Aside from getting involved with pretty older sisters, he didn’t feel like helping even when he looked at rascals involved with rascals.
Of course, he had to step in if it went as far as killing, but that didn’t seem to be necessary. The plump man, finished with the interrogation, spoke to the other man as if it was nothing. “Let’s go back.”
Just as the duo was going to leave as though nothing happened, one stopped in his tracks. Right where Rihaku stood, separated by a thin wall.
With a thud, a blade pierced through right next to where Rihaku’s face was.
“What is it?” One asked.
“No, I felt there was something there,” the other replied.
It might have been my imagination, he heard a hoarse voice. The voice that sounded like he caught a cold belonged to the man with eye bags. Why was it he had a feeling he heard that voice before from somewhere? However, he thought he remembered it but he couldn’t.
Rihaku propped his hand over his heart and waited for his pulse to settle.
It was when the duo left, and even the remaining trio was also gone, that he finally let out a huge breath. He ran his fingers back his sweaty hair and sighed. Aside from getting into fights, holding his breath and staying still wasn’t his thing. Even so, he prided on the fact that his swordsmanship teacher praised his way of holding his breath like a wild animal. He took the impact from being unexpectantly noticed.
“What’s up with those people?” Rihaku muttered.
That was somewhat tiring, he thought as he raised his back and brushed the dust off his buttocks.
The sky was dyed red, the time when the night butterflies start to flap their wings. The beautiful courtesans would not go for guests with clammy faces. Rihaku slapped both his cheeks. To meet with the beautiful Rose, he must change his mood.
Work was work; play was play. It was important to properly differentiate them.