We Mantis are often accused of being “jumped-up,” that we forget our place and origins and pretend to be of a class with samurai who are vassals of ancient Great Clans. Tossing aside the easy response that it is impossible to forget our humble origins because so many people spend so much time reminding us of them, I am constantly reminded of where I come from – a magistrate lives among such people. The upper crust never meets a man like me in the course of business, even when they trample over the laws of the lord or the Emperor – that’s what Emerald Magistrates and house arrest and assignment to some shameful post are for. Everything is swept away and peace is maintained by politely ignoring those who would disturb it.
The Kanshigumi, like the Clan Magistrates, are up to our armpits in those who would disturb the peace because they can. They’ve spent their lives presuming that the Komono can be bribed, the Doshin will either ignore them or are also willing to take money for deliberate disregard, never mind the yoriki, who cannot be bothered with the nonsense of rowdy peasants. Men and women try to make a living in such places and people like the Yakuza live like parasites, feeding off of people unwilling to defend themselves, since that would be a violation of the law. It’s a bitter irony – for peasants, the law is only an enabler for lawbreakers, restraining victims from defending themselves. Thugs then think that they can get away with murder. But then, they have not yet met me.
Our patrol had gathered at Iyashite Kudasai for our regular evening out. We had started searching for leads on a murdered whore but all we had found was her place of employment – The House of the Lotus Root. I had found the place and the sight was not one I would soon forget. There are a number such houses all over the empire – they thrive in the dark when you can’t get a good look at the condition of the building or of its occupants. Isawa-sama had been oblivious to the whole matter; no doubt, he was calculating how to get back into the good graces of our august leaders. Our patrol talked in that way of people who stand somewhere between acquaintances and friends – a lot of empty subjects with hints of what we were really thinking about. I then noticed that Aiko was flustered all to hell tonight. Sake bottles tottered on her tray and she seemed to stop every two minutes to reign in a breakdown in her composure. I am physically incapable of keeping my nose out of other people’s business when I see distress. It’s not appropriate for a samurai, but I think it’s a good trait for a magistrate. After the obligatory denials, she finally let us know what had happened – Kanjiro had gone astray. No one had seen or heard from him for the better part of the day. I was certainly not about to let the boy who had risked his hide to lead us to the firemen end up vanishing and, to his credit, Isawa-sama agreed that we ought to search for the boy, though it became clear he had neither the will to see that through nor the first clue how to go about it.
Kanjiro is a 12-year old boy and, like most 12-year old boys, desperately wants to be treated like a man. When you’re a samurai, that’s not a complicated matter: you’re already well on your way to your gempukku and under the demanding eye of sensei who have no intention of coddling you like a child (unless you’re a Crane, in which case, the coddling may continue well into your 50’s). For peasant boys, this usually leads to some sort of rebellion if they can’t get out and find their own way in the world. In the city, the Yakuza take great advantage of this, offering them a piece of the action if they’ll act as lookouts or runners. Real money in your pocket, something resembling responsibility with just a hint of danger and thumbing your nose at those who would tell you to “know your place” – it certainly would have tempted the hell out of me. We headed into bar row to see if we could find the place where the young thugs hung out. It was at this point that I began to consider how we might be able to conduct these sorts of searches and give Isawa-sama something useful to do very far away. His interrogation technique netted him, I think, solicitations as opposed to leads. Eventually, we got one barfly to inform us that the local gang was partying tonight… at the House of the Lotus Root. Yes, that made sense – such a dingy place would likely be cheap and just the sort of place that would cater to punks who had little coin but wanted to be “entertained.”
The House of the Lotus Root did not improve as much as I had hoped under cover of darkness. The night’s shadows just made the brothel look haunted rather than derelict. I suppose, in a sense, it is haunted by people who are dead or dying inside. We made our way inside without proper introductions. Isawa-sama looked like he desperately wanted a bath from the moment we came in. The okaasan greeted us with the thinly veiled contempt of someone who’s used to law enforcement that can be bought off. When I asked about the party, she gave us a denial that would not have fooled my rock-thick younger brother. When I heard the pitter-patter of little snitch feet, I threatened to make my own inquiries. She gave this shocked look with her watery eyes, stunned by the notion that we were, in fact, here on business and would not be deterred. She pointed us down the hall and we went to meet the neighbors.
The smells and sounds that emanated from the rooms we passed are best left unmentioned. When we got to the room, we heard a terse discussion going on within; apparently, snitch feet had managed to arrive before we did. Having dispensed with the notion of surprise, I tossed open the door. There were about a dozen of them, ranging from my age to a certain twelve-year old. A punk in a dirty kimono, who I would learn was named Katou, asked us our business. I put on my best friend-making face.
“I am Yoritomo Shunsen and we are the Kanshigumi. I hope you are all enjoying yourselves but Kanjiro is needed at home.” Kanjiro looked incensed that I had embarrassed him, but when you’re dumb enough to fall in with the Yakuza, you might as well consider a little embarrassment the warning. Katou, apparently the tough guy of this particular gaggle, inquired of me as to what my intentions were if Kanjiro didn’t want to go or, more to the point, if he and his friends weren’t interested in turning him loose. I gave a fairly factual account of how that might go for him and his friends and I watched the blood drain out of his face – someone in the room mentioned Hideo and it began to dawn on this collection of scholars that they were not ready at that moment for that sort of fight. Katou decided to take it out on Kanjiro, making snide remarks about running home to mother. That’s a typical bully’s tactic: If you’re whipped, find an opponent who can’t fight back and reclaim your lost manhood. His face burning with shame, Kanjiro sulked his way outside with us. Katou and I exchanged a long stare that said this was not going to be our last meeting.
Outside, I grabbed Kanjiro by his raggedy kimono and explained to him that men (to use the term loosely) like Katou were going to end up in fights with men like me and it was up to Kanjiro to decide what side of the battle line he would be standing on when that day came. He stammered out that he was sworn to return to the right and noble path but he would have been a damn fool not to with the big, bad samurai looming over him. I walked him back home even as Shinjo-san and Hiruma-san decided to stay on bar row and “investigate” whether there was cleaner entertainment to be found. Isawa-sama continued to follow us, mildly bewildered by the strange world of the peasantry.