Chapter 92: Scene of a Murder
He had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude. They said he was ruthless, they said he was crude.
~ The Eagles, "Life in the Fast Lane"
I saw a Prayer Gate up ahead of us, and samurai waiting. One man stood to block the road under the gate, and five others waited about 50 yards behind him. All wore Crane colors. No one knew to meet us, so what mischief were they up to?
I trusted my horde to follow my lead, and I walked up to the man. He informed me that, with the recent death of their lord Tsume Retsu, they had increased patrols across the territory for security. And he was a magistrate there to collect a tax to help defray the costs.
I demanded to see his warrant, and he gave it to me. I looked at it closely, and it appeared to be as genuine as my own. It designated him as a magistrate of Tsume Takashi, the son of the dead man.
Was I in truth my father, this magistrate would never demand a tax from him. This was the first test: would I be accepted as my father's stand-in, or would I have to press the issue?
I introduced myself as a magistrate for the Miyara, and gently insisted that he would levy no tax on Miyara. He asked for my warrant, and I showed it to him. Still, he insisted that I pay the tax.
And I told him no. Miyara will not pay a Crane tax.
He drew his katana on me.
I drew only my katana, in hope that a swift-enough blow would dissuade him from further attack. I drew and struck, in a single smooth action, while he was busy drawing his own weapon. I cut him good, before he could move.
But he pressed the attack, and his five samurai started running to join the battle. I hoped to make their leader submit to me before they came close enough to be slaughtered by my horde. I drew my wakizashi and we traded several blows. Toni came up beside me, ready to take on the five. I saw an arrow hit one of the men, and knew that Meili stood behind me, fighting for me. Even the cook, Donku, came forward, hefting a heavy frying pan.
I kept my focus on the matter at hand, blocking out everything but this one samurai, who dared to challenge Miyara. At last, bleeding from several deep wounds, he cursed, broke, and ran towards the forest at the side. I cut him again, and he fell to the ground at my feet. I asked for his surrender, and he gave it.
I looked up to see the other five men had also broken and were running for cover. Grieg had moved himself behind them and was trying to catch up, knife in hand. With the leader's capitulation, I shouted for everyone to cease fire. Meili let fly one more arrow, taking one of the five down. He lay in the field, screaming in agony, and Toni walked out towards him.
I said, "I trust there will be no more discussion of the Miyara paying Crane taxes," and he nodded. His eyes rolled up in his head, and he sank bonelessly to the ground, unconscious. I called Fibi up to take care of him, and she restored him to full health. Twice Peter restored her strength, and when she was done at last, she appeared to be only slightly tired. Peter offered more, but she refused his aid: Meili stood beside her, and I think that was the only strength she needed then.
Toni returned, having dispatched the wounded man in the field. He brought back the man's weapons, wondering if it was acceptable by our standards to keep them. I explained the rules governing what he could take from a defeated foe and what he couldn't: weapons, armor, any tools of war were available. Anything else was not. Toni asked about the prisoner, but I left him in place. Toni suspects them of being brigands rather than true Crane men. It may be, but the warrant looked correct to me. I left him in place in case he was genuine: they would not thank me for removing him from a legitimate position. I will tell them at the castle what happened and they can take care of their own bandits if they must.
Later in the afternoon, we reached Tsume lands. The castle itself sits strategically on a hill that overlooks a busy merchant road, plains to one side, a town called Chikuzen, and a river.
The castle is large enough, and impressive in a stolid, blocky sort of way. Of course, it's no match for Shira Miyara, which is both far larger and much more elegant. In my place, father might have demanded accomodations at the castle, but I didn't feel like pressing the issue. Having my warrant and my horde both accepted would be challenge enough, and I had work to do. No point in antagonizing them needlessly.
So we first stopped in town at the Golden Peony and arranged rooms. If we were invited to stay at the castle, I could send a messenger to cancel our stay here. Sun negotiated on my behalf.
Before entering the inn, Tony moved ahead and looked in, assessed the inn's safety, then nodded me in. I felt a sudden disconnect. A lifetime ago, that had been me, assigned as bodyguard to Isawa Godanji. I looked out for him, kept him safe, checked out every situation before letting him proceed. And now, somehow, I was in Isawa-san's place and Tony placed himself in my old place. In a way it was an insult. A samurai who carries the two swords does not need to be protected, and offering protection is a way of saying you don't believe the samurai is competent. But that's not how Tony saw it, of course. He was not assuming I was helpless. He simply looked for threats before we walked into them.
I left the servants behind to set everything up, and I and the horde walked up to the castle. It was a short walk to the castle. Meili had taken a few minutes to change from her western clothing and armor into more proper clothing and looked quite presentable. Tony had not changed, but his identity would not be questioned; he was so obviously the soldier. At the castle's gate, I announced myself to the four guards, and showed them my warrant when their leader asked for it. He bowed to me and returned it, then disappeared inside. A few minutes later, he returned and bowed and told me that General Shizuma would see me immediately. If I were there as myself, Miyara Miwa, a simple Miyara samurai, I would be allowed no more than four followers. Any more would certainly be challenged, and I would have to give ground. However, my father the Miyara would be allowed more, seven or eight perhaps. So I motioned forward my entire horde, all five of them, quietly claiming my father's rank. Which was accepted just as quietly.
So far, so good. They are accepting me as they should.
We were led through the spiralling passages into the second courtyard, and then inside, where we found General Shizuma. He was an old man, well past the age when most people retire. The guard introduced us, and the General asked, "How can I help Miyara?"
I told him why I was there, and the little I knew about what happened. Although I was sure of the answer, I asked anyway: were any of the visitors here for the Bon Fesitval still here? And of course, they had all left.
I expressed my wishes to pay my respects to the dead man's son, Tsume Takashi, now lord of this castle. General Shizuma was sorry to inform me that he was not here today, but would return tomorrow. He asked if there was anything else I required while I waited? I asked him to tell me what he could of Tsume's death. He told me he would show me instead.
We followed him to the inner tower in the central courtyard. All the other buildings here were at most two stories tall, and the inner tower was four. The entire stronghold was well-armed and guarded. Every courtyard had a squad of samurai standing guard, archers were posted on the walls, and guards at all the gates. This would not have been an easy castle for Tsume to have taken from its prior Lion lord, and he did everything he could to make sure it stayed in his hands. We followed him up to the family's quarters at the top.
The floors were all nightengale floors. Ten guards always slept outside Tsume's door. At the far end of the hall was a hidden sentry post, always manned. The General was certain that no one had come in this way. Tsume's bedroom looked normal. About twelve feet square, with very little furniture: just an empty sword stand and an ornate inlaid chest. A scroll decorated one wall, but the others were blank. The bed mat was missing. The body was found slightly to one side, and I could still make out the faded dark stain, well-scrubbed but still visible. This part of the flooring will have to be replaced before anyone will use this room again. The only room adjoining this one is a dressing room, holding several lacquered chests full of clothes and personal effects. There are no windows in these rooms, or anywhere else on this level. As safe as possible, but there are always ways, as proven by Tsume's death.
The ceiling was wooden tiles; there's usually a very small space between the tiles and the roof. As I looked through the dressing room, Peter noticed that one of the tiles was out of place. On the floor in the dressing room, near one of the chests and easy to overlook, lay a small bead. I picked it up: an obi bead, orange. A near match to my own. I tucked it away for later consideration and rejoined everyone in the main bedroom.
Toni was lifting Meili up to the ceiling to inspect the out-of-place tile, and Fibi was sitting down on the floor with her eyes closed and her lips moving. The General had stepped outside the door, waiting for us and allowing us to inspect everything without interference.
Meili, standing on Toni's shoulders, lifted up the ceiling tile and poked her head through. She called down that she didn't see anything up there, but anyone small enough could have crawled up there between any rooms on this floor. I told her to go up, if she thought she would fit, and look all around carefully. She wiggled up and disappeared.
While she crawled through the tiny ceiling space, Toni and I asked the General a few questions. His maid found him in the morning, dead on the floor, stabbed through the heart. No weapon was left behind: he was killed by a single blow. He was dressed for bed, but not actually on the bed. The sleeping mat was badly stained and had been disposed of.
Fibi came back to herself and stood up, at about the same time that Meili emerged from the ceiling space. Toni asked her for the tile, and she handed it down. He looked at it, handed it back to her to replace, and helped her down. The tile was not scratched in any way, nor did it have any blood on it.
Finished with the Tsume's room, we looked around the rest of the family's rooms. Tsume's rooms were mirrored on the other side of the hall, which were Tsume Takashi's rooms. There was one other room, smaller and with no dressing room attached to it, unused and empty. At the end of the hall was the family shrine.
Tsume Takashi's rooms also held an empty sword rack, as well as the rolled-up bed mat. His rooms were not as spartan as his father's, nor as neat. No blood stains. Meili pointed out a small hair comb on the floor, behind the bed mat. I picked it up and looked at it: nothing special. Certainly not a noblewoman's haircomb, but probably a geisha's. I tucked it away with the bead I had already collected.
I looked through the empty room, which was simply empty, and the shrine. The shrine appeared perfectly normal, although not heavily used. I asked the General if there was a Lady Tsume, but she died about nine years ago, during the plague.
I could not think of anything else to look at, and I asked the others if they could. Toni wanted to talk to a few people, but I said considering the hour, that would be tomorrow's task. Meili asked me to ask the General what sort of weapon had made the wound. He answered, it appeared to be a knife or a sword.
Toni asked several questions of the General. The night Tsume was killed, his son, the ten guards, and the hiden sentry were all here as usual. None of them heard anything at all. Not even Tsume's dead body hitting the floor. His maid had served him all his life. His katana and wakisazhi, the Tsume weapons, were now his son's. The General did not know what happened to the dagger, but nothing else was missing. The General informed us, obliquely, that Tsume Takashi is young and inexperienced.