Chapter 98: Misdirections
I woke up this morning with a start when I fell out of bed. And left from my dreaming was a feeling of unnameable dread. My high is low, I'm dressed up with no place to go. And all I know, is I'm at the start of a pretty big downer...
~ "Sword of Damocles"
Once the matter of the Tsumes was taken care of, father paused and changed direction. It seemed again I was not to spend more than a night at home. The Miyara had another task for me.
Summer was making way for autumn, and Miyara-sama reminded me of the date. Ah, yes. Every fall, the shugenja of Nippon gather, to meet, politic, and compete at a festival hosted by Phoenix at the shrine of the Ki-Rin.
The single shugenja who wins at the end is given a collection of scrolls, and is accorded the respect of all the others. Isawa, of course the most skilled shugenja in Nippon, usually dominates the competitions, but an Isawa doesn't always win. So interest remains as high as hope does, and I think any non-Isawa who wins gains more than a victorious Isawa does.
The festival is also a reason for courtiers to play their games. The Emperor's family is usually there, and all seven of the great daimyos plus a few minor ones attend. Father said this year's promises to be especially interesting. One of the Emperor's nieces, Okomu Yoroshiku, will be there, and the Emperor has just announced her eligibility for marriage. Suitors from every clan will be there trying to convince the Emperor and her father that they want him to marry into the royal family. Of course, only the highest status families will have even the barest chance.
In preparation for the festival every year, Isawa sends a caravan all around Nippon to gather the scrolls. For months the caravan travels, carefully guarded, each daimyo providing guards for each leg of the journey.
Miyara has been given the honor of guarding the caravan on the last leg of its journey to Ki-Rin, where the festival is held. My brothers have other tasks this year, so this honor falls to me for the first time. I have never attended the festival before. Had Isawa Godanji lived, I would have attended as his bodyguard and also would not have been available to guard the caravan. But I am, and I will.
We will meet the caravan at a castle near the City of the Rich Frog, a Unicorn city in Unicorn territory. The caravan itself has its own set of guards. I will take command of those guards, and my horde will add to them. To all appearances, the caravan is merely a small merchant caravan, and doesn't advertise itself as what it is. The number of guards is far smaller than the cache of Nippon's most valuable scrolls would deserve. There are scores of such caravans throughout Nippon.
Having accepted Miyara-sama's duty for me, I retired for the night. I sent a servant to alert all the members of my horde to be ready to travel again the next morning. Father apparently set things into motion earlier, because the servants had already unpacked everything from the previous trip, cleaned and freshened it all, and re-packed it. So it seemed I was ready to go before I knew I was going anywhere.
Another morning, another journey, another duty to family and clan. The warm weather still held, and the next twenty days were entirely quiet. The road followed the river, as many of our major roads do when possible. We had no time to spare, and we travelled lightly. Donku drove a small wagon so we didn't have to carry everything. We carried little food, and Donku wasn't called on to cook this trip. We stayed at inns along the way, which allowed us to travel further each day. We also took some horses.
Many Nipponese warriors learn to ride and fight from horseback, and in fact, travel by horseback is common throughout the lowlands. Miyara have always been foot-warriors. We live near mountains, and horses were not practical for traveling near home. So I had never learned to ride: I had other things to do. And when we set out west several years ago, we set out on foot. I walked across the Chin lands, through mountains, across snow and ice, across a continent, all the way to the sea far to the west.
In the intervening years since I left, my cousin Jiro developed an interest in horses, and now many Miyara ride when possible. None of my horde had ever ridden either, but we brought horses for any interested in learning, and so a few of us rode the quietest ponies Jiro had. So, some of us rode, some walked, some rode on the wagon. From the back of a horse, Meili complained less about walking with a river in sight. I liked the view from the back of a horse.
Twenty days later, we reached the City of the Rich Frog. It was minutes from there to Shinjo Gidayu's castle. We'd beaten the caravan there, and Shinjo Gidayu welcomed us and bid us to consider his castle our home until the caravan arrived. He left for the festival the next day.
For two days we waited. The castle was small, and very quiet once Shinjo Gidayu left. Meili used the time to get into tune with her bow in one of the rock gardens. Toni joined the castle guard for weapons practice. Fibi communed with her spirits in a maze made from hedges. I didn't see how Grieg and Peter spent their time. I spent two days in quietude, which much restored me after the 20-day long dash across northern Nippon.
We had only two days of idle time. The caravan arrived in the morning. We gathered ourselves together while they watered the horses, and the six Lions who were responsible for the penultimate leg handed the caravan's care over to us. The six of them were bushido to the core. My horde would be less obvious, I think. Only Toni, Meili, and I were warriors and looked it. Although we certainly stood out from the common, but we also did not look like anyone who would be trusted to guard the scrolls.
The caravan was three wagons, loaded with silk and spices and other trade goods to be sold at the festival. Each wagon was pulled by two shaggy and sturdy ponies. Five Unicorn merchants rode the wagons, two each on the first and last wagon, and one on the middle. They knew, of course, what the caravan was really, and their role in disguising that fact. An Iuchi shugenja -- Iuchi Taiga -- rode within the middle wagon, where the scrolls were hidden, in a locked cedar chest under layers of leather goods and forty fur-lined cloaks. Fifteen guards traveled with the caravan, from a mix of clans. Seven were mounted, eight walked.
Toni dressed as a Nipponese Samurai, ready for any threat that might appear. He suggested he walk at the front, and I agreed. Meili wore her own clothing, and rode. Fibi still wore the clothing of a Nipponese lady, but she couldn't help making the costume into her own. She, too, rode, and the two of them stayed mostly towards the back. The mounted caravan guards split themselves, four in the front and three in the back. Those on foot walked interspersed with the wagons, which traveled one behind the other on the narrow road.
The river was usually in sight, and the road wound through grasslands and low hills, with stands of trees not too far away. Visibility was good, at least. I rode around, trying to appear as though I were merely enjoying myself, but keeping a close eye on everything around us. Donku wanted to put his wagon in third position, but I wanted all three wagons kept together, so I put him at the end. Sun rode with Donku, and Peter rode next to the merchant on the second wagon.
We passed only very small villages. We bought food, but camped as there were no inns. We had about two weeks' travel ahead of us.
About halfway there, at the end of the first week, we emerged from no-man's land into Dragonfly territory. On the way to the castle, we were stopped by a patrol: Dragons led by a Dragonfly samurai-ko. Mirumoto, and therefore everyone else, considers Dragonfly a protectorate and Dragon contributes to their patrols. It works to everyone's benefit, because Dragon is aloof. Through Dragonfly, the rest of us can actually approach them. Sometimes.
She asked for our travel papers and I gave them to her. She asked our business, and I told her the truth, of course. She expected us. The Tonbo samurai-ko asked, rather pointedly, if we had any news or business to pass onto Dragon clan, but I had nothing. I've been gone so long from home, she likely could have given me a great deal of news, had she wanted. She escorted us to Kyuden Tonbo.
We were met by Tonbo Sodan, the Dragonfly daimyo's heir. He seemed very friendly to us, moreso than I would have expected. But then, he is young, and his father the Tonbo has already left for the festival, leaving him in charge. He welcomed us and wished us to stay in his castle, which was an invitation I neither could nor particularly wanted to disdain. The only fly in the ointment was I was reluctant to leave the caravan without a guard of my own, and that would be a dire insult to our host. Yet if anything happened, it was not only Miyara honor, but Phoenix honor that would be sullied.
The caravan was parked in a small courtyard and the horses housed comfortably in the Tonbo stable. The shugenja remained within the wagon, and even Tonbo couldn't take offense at that. Tonbo's captain of the guard set up a watch. Toni and Meili both shared my discomfort at leaving the caravan out of our sight. Toni volunteered to just be as foreign a gaijin he could manage and insist on sleeping with the caravan, and Meili suggested a drinking party as an excuse for some of us to remain outside. She and Toni argued good-naturedly, but it ended when Toni pointed out he, at least, would not be very a very effective guard if he were drunk.
Toni started explaining to Tonbo his whole history, laying it on thick about being desperately afraid of skaven and the underground and any enclosed places and he really needed to stay outside. Tonbo looked askance at me, but I managed to smooth it all over, and thus Toni stayed outside with the caravan without insulting our host. Peter gave him some concoction that night to help him stay alert all night.
The rest of us were placed in pleasant guest quarters. I asked Sun to keep his ear open for any gossip or interesting news he might hear among the servants. Tonbo entertained us well over dinner. His own amusing anecdotes about Dragon cousins, plus a troupe of sleight-of-hand magicians. It was all a bit much. But the night passed quietly and I slept solidly, to my surprise, despite my worries.
In fact, Sun woke me up. Trouble, and I could hear it from my sleeping mat. I threw on some clothes as fast as I could and settled the folds and tied the obi as I rushed to the courtyard. Sun explained shortly that the shugenja was very upset. Something had happened to the scrolls, and I was responsible.
I arrived to find Iuchi yelling at the captain of the guard. Tonbo arrived at the same time I did. As soon as the shugenja saw him, he laid into Tonbo instead.
The guard had taken the harangue calmly and professionally. Tonbo accepted it at first, with proper humility for a host who had not protected his guests as he should. I saw Toni look carefully into the wagon while everyone else was busy.
In a momentary lull while the shugenja caught his breath, the captain of the guard spoke quietly into Tonbo's ear. Too quietly for me to hear, but Tonbo looked embarrassed at whatever he was told.
I took the opportunity and asked the shugenja what had actually happened? Somebody opened the box of scrolls last night, but nothing was taken or harmed in any way. Nothing beyond the honor of the guards, of course. And he had noticed nothing while he was sleeping.
Tonbo said to me, "It has come to my attention that one of my Shugenja has taken it upon himself to sneak into the caravan last night and copy some of the scrolls for himself."
Iuchu spat, "How utterly stupid. Copying them will do no good at all, it's the scroll that supplies the magic, not the words. What kind of miserable shugenja is he, that he doesn't know that?" And he began his tirade at Tonbo again.
I tried to sidetrack him by asking if he were certain that the scrolls in the chest were still the originals and not copies. He merely said yes and continued. It wasn't long before he crossed an invisible line and Tonbo became angry at the level of insults hurled at him. The situation was escalating.
Toni stepped up and interrupted. He insisted that Iuchi show him the scrolls. He played the stubborn gaijin to perfection, and Iuchi stomped off to show him he didn't know what he was talking about.
Divide and conquer seemed a good idea, so I took Tonbo aside and spoke to him calmly and quietly. He cooled off quickly and apologized for losing his temper. I began to question him, and he immediately suggested that the caravan move on as quickly as possible. He would supply us with an escort to the end of Dragonfly lands, and he would deal with the offending shugenja.
I felt he was hurrying us a bit too much, but could not insist on staying for several reasons. I could, though, make a point using his offending shugenja.
"And how exactly will you deal with him?" I asked.
"He will be dismissed."
Had this been an ordinary caravan, this would have done. My bare words to him were simple, "This matter touches on Miyara honor as well". I said it casually, as if we were discussing the likelihood of snow this winter. But underneath was the iron of a Miyara to a Tonbo, Phoenix to Dragonfly.
He gave way immediately, "He is yours to do as you wish".
I was expecting more resistance. I told him to deliver him to me at his convenience. He snapped out orders to his guard captain to bring him, and to mount up a guard because the caravan was leaving now.
I was not comfortable with that, but could do nothing but leave as he pushed us. Toni and the caravan guards started getting everything in order. I sent Sun to fetch everyone else with the message that we were leaving immediately. It was not long before we were on our way.
Toni still found time to apologize for "messing up his job and letting someone through". I accepted it: he is not to blame for the machinations of a shugenja. The fault is mine for neither anticipating such trouble, nor guarding the caravan adequately. When the first foot guard arrived, Tony assigned him to the wagon with the shugenja. He climbed in. Before the shugenja slid in after, Meili asked him if anything was added to the chest, and he said no, only the scrolls were inside.
Within minutes, the captain of Tonbo's guard hauled a man roughly over and cast him down at my feet. His name was Mirumoto Ikai; a Dragon shugenja, and still quite young. I would deal with him later, after we left, and I assigned two of the bushi to keep him safe until then. Toni assigned another couple of bushi to watch over the other two wagons. I smiled, but didn't let him see: he wasn't really telling them to do anything that hadn't been doing the past week, but by their serious faces and their alert stance, he'd given them a greater sense of purpose.
The merchants moved quickly, for merchants, but things were getting awkward as we waited for them. When they finally got themselves settled, we mounted up and left.
The guards spent the day on high alert, and the rest of us were wary as well. I rode around and around, keeping an eye on the prisoner and all around us. The Tonbo honor guard remained with us to their border, which we reached at the end of the day. Little conversation took place with them, although they bid us a good journey politely enough. We rode on another hour, then made camp for the evening just past a small village.
Meili asked Iuchi the shugenja to investigate the chest very carefully again, and he acquiesced. Peter also looked carefully at everything and was certain it was the same chest, but he also pointed out that it's not particularly distinctive in any way. Iuchi was certain it was the same chest, and the same scrolls. I caught Fibi's eye, and she nodded. So, Iuchi was certain that all was well with the chest.
Peter suggested that Iuchi mark the chest in some way and Iuchi interrupted him. Already done; at the beginning Iuchi had carefully marked the lock itself plus items within the chest, and the chest itself had a few small, and identifiable, scratches. Iuchi looked a trifle smug.
Meili shook her head and said slowly that she was certain something was wrong. Iuchi asked what.
Meili said, "I don't know, but it was pointless to break in and make a copy. So something else happened. The copy is a distraction." I nodded agreement: she was giving voice to my own thoughts.
Iuchi asked, "What do we do?" Everyone looked at Meili.
"Be careful, watch everything. Don't assume that things will not appear to vanish. Don't make any assumptions about normal things. I don't know what's wrong, but I've a feeling that something is terribly wrong and we can't see it. Watch for the smallest thing and bring it to Lady Miyara's attention."
It was time to interview our guest. I told his two guards to keep a hold on him, and Fibi to listen carefully. She nodded, catching what I meant. I set us up a few paces outside the camp, but the rest of my horde gathered around as well.
First I wanted to hear his version of what happened, so I told him to tell me exactly what he did last night.
"I snuck out to the wagon and into it. Your shugenja was alseep inside. Very quietly, I opened the chest and copied four scrolls before dawn and I left just before dawn, locking and replacing everything."
Fibi nodded. He spoke the truth, then. "Is that all that you did?" I asked him.
"Yes." Again Fibi nodded.
"Why? What good did you think it would do you?"
"I believed I could, with some effort, if not cast the spells, then at least learn more about how their magic works." Fibi nodded.
"Was this your own idea?" There was something else going on. This was not the main attraction, and I wondered if someone else, Tonbo for instance, might have put him up to it.
"Yes, it was my own idea." And Fibi nodded again. At least he thought it was his own idea.
"How did you open the lock?"
"With a spell." He said that like it was a stupid question, and perhaps it was. Fibi nodded.
"How did you get past the guard?"
"I walked past them." Fibi nodded. That was likely. None of the guards, up to and including the captain, ranked him. They would have done whatever he wanted and not said anything at the time. Most likely he simply walked in and said nothing. The captain had seen him, or one of his gaurd who had told him what happened later, and then he reported it to Tonbo. That report I had seen.
"How did you know the scrolls were here and in that wagon?" It was supposed to be hidden and unknown, after all. And its disguise apparently had worked in all the years past.
"Any shugenja can 'see' them." Fibi nodded again. That alarmed me: what use was the subterfuge, then?
"Did you do anything to 'help' the shugenja inside the wagon sleep?" I was curious why Iuchi had slept through hours of copying.
"No, that is not one of my skills."
Meili asked, "You are a Dragon, and not a Dragonfly?"
Mirumoto acknowledged that fact.
"How long have you been here at this castle?" I wondered how he had found his way here, to this castle, on the scrolls' path. Was he a recent plant?
"Four years." Fibi nodded. So no.
"And where were you before?"
"At the school." He named it, a Mirumoto shugenja school of some repute.
"Why come here?"
"I needed a job, and this was it."
I looked at Meili, but she had no other questions for him. "Do you know how many people you've insulted with your honorless actions?" I asked him.
He looked down for a moment, but then looked back at me. "I'm sorry but no, I don't." Fibi nodded, and I felt a surge of rage. This clueless, honorless... words failed me. I felt my right hand gripping my katana hard, and I had to tell it to let go. No, I would not kill him now. Not yet. Not until I was certain he could tell me nothing more useful. Miyara's honor, and that of Phoenix as well, rode on my actions.
I told the guards to keep watch over this ... person ... very carefully.
"Lady, may I be permitted to restore my family's honor?"
"Soon." Oh yes, very soon. As soon as possible, I wanted this cur out of my sight.
The guards took him away and the rest of us walked a little further from the camp for complete privacy.
Meili said, "We've been misdirected." I nodded encouragement. "We've been rushed out and haven't checked out anything else. This was a distraction from what else has changed, what really happened The other wagons, their loads, we have the same personnel." She half asked, but it was true. The guards, the merchants, Iuchi: all were exactly who they were when we met the wagon and had not been replaced at Kyuden Tonbo. She continued, "Perhaps there's a duplicate chest in another wagon? Perhaps something has been added somewhere in the caravan to enable a spell?"
All excellent questions, and we queried Iuchi. He confirmed that the only other magic here is the scrolls Fibi carries (which we certainly had not told him about). Fibi nodded; truth, again. Meili, Peter, Toni, and I searched everything in the caravan, looking over each other's shoulders. We found nothing amiss. Nothing was different: nothing added, nothing subtracted, nothing changed.
Meili and I looked at each other in frustration. "The less we find, the more worried I am," she said.
We must press on, regardless. We have a tight schedule. And we still had the all-important scrolls. At least, for now. I'm sure we will find out what really happened. It's only a matter of timing. Will we discover it in time to ward off the disaster I felt was so near?
We returned to Mirumoto and his guards. My anger returned at the mere sight of him, but it was cold now and easy to control. Meili asked him what happened to the copies he made.
"Tonbo Sodan destroyed them. I saw him destroy them." Fibi nodded.
Meili asked, "How did Tonbo Soban find out about the copies?"
"I told him." Fibi nodded: this was the truth as he knew it.
But that did not work. Tonbo had been told in front of me about Mirumoto's copying of the scrolls, and he never had the opportunity to destroy the scrolls in front of him. I questioned Fibi, and she said he certainly believed what he said.
Something was off, but again I couldn't make it work.
Meili insisted again that the scroll-copying was not important. "It was not the danger. But we haven't found anything else. I agree with Lady Miyara that Mirumoto doesn't know anything else. He's not important. Maybe we're being too paranoid, but that's our job. We were all focused on the scroll wagon, and ignored everything else for some time, and that's what worries me. We'll know where it happened, but not what, not yet..."
I finished her sentence, "...until it's too late."
I had nothing else for this fool. He was a dupe and nothing more, and knew nothing that would help us. I permitted him to restore his family's honor properly, although for once I doubted even this would erase his conduct. He asked me for the loan of a knife, and I gave him one. He asked one of his guards to act as second for him. The guard looked to me, and I nodded slightly.
He settled himself precisely on his knees, facing us, and sliced himself with the knife. He sliced well and deeply, and made no sound. Indeed, he appeared to feel nothing, and I wondered briefly what magic was afoot. The guard stared for a moment, then neatly decapitated him.
By then, Donku had dinner ready for us. After dinner, one of the guards reminded me that Mirumoto's body had to be properly taken care of, and there was no one in the camp who could do so. "The right thing to do, of course, is to send someone to the village and hire a peasant to do it." I nodded, wondering why he felt the need to inform me instead of just taking care of it.
With a slight embarrassed look on his face, he finished, "Ah, they will need to be paid."
And he rightly expected me to take care of it. I looked for Sun and beckoned him over to me. I told the guard to make the necessary arrangements with Sun. Really, he might have gone straight to Sun in the first place, but I suppose he felt delicate about it, not being a Miyara. Some take offense easily, so I suppose his caution was warranted, from his perspective. At any rate, they returned within an hour, saying the matter would be taken care of come morning.
I lay sleepless for a long time that night. Something was wrong somewhere, but I was not bright enough to figure out what. The scrolls were my responsibility, and so far I was doing a poor job of caring for them.
In the west, there's a saying that describes that feeling of combined uncertainty and certain doom: waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wondered when, and what, would happen when that other shoe dropped.