Chapter 99: What the Other Hand was Doing
Let us accustom ourselves, then, to avoid judging of things by what is seen only, but to judge of them by that which is not seen.
~ Frederic Bastiat, "That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen"
Several more days passed quietly, but we were all on edge. As we traveled towards the Shrine of Ki-Rin, the terrain became hilly and rocky. We were getting close to the mountains where the shrine is. We were still in territory that belonged to no clan, and it was very empty. One morning, I took a look around us and figured we were about three days out from the shrine, and getting close to Phoenix territory. The road was narrow: the wagons just fit with no room to the sides. The road was rougher, and the edges of the road sloped sharply up or down. Toni preferred to remain at the front of the caravan, so I took rear guard.
Late afternoon, the other shoe dropped.
We were making our way up a steep slope, and we were in a perfect place for an ambush. From my position in the back, I couldn't see around the wagons to the front. All I knew was that the caravan suddenly came to a halt. And arrows began to rain down on us.
I yelled something about taking cover, and scrambled off the horse. I put Donku's wagon between me and the arrows and looked around me. Fibi had immediately dove under Donku's wagon and was safe. Meili was crouching behind a large rock, looking up towards the archers. I hoped she might be able to hit some of them back, just to disrupt their fire a little. The guards around me had likewise put themselves behind wagons, and those who carried bows began to put themselves in position to try to fire back. All was as well as could be, here at the back.
But there were a lot of arrows, volley after volley. We were vastly outnumbered. I said a few unkind things about our attackers, then thought not just of the scrolls in the second wagon, but of the shugenja within. Perhaps he knew spells useful for this sort of thing. I just reached the wagon...
I opened my eyes, and I was on the ground. I sat up quickly and discovered three important things immediately: I had missed the entire battle; most of us were miraculously unharmed; the scrolls were missing.
Toni gave his report: he and the front guards, and then Meili, had charged up. He said their arms and armor weren't high quality, but were decent. They were wearing peasant clothing over their armor. His guess, probably a good one, was they were ronin trying to look like bandits. Someone hired them to attack us.
From what I had seen and what I heard now, they were obviously very well organized. They did very little damage to us on purpose. They could have wiped us out easily, but they didn't. Grieg was missing and Iuchi was dead.
I spared a few silent curses at that: the shugenja was the only one of us who could sense the scrolls and therefore figure out where they were.
The guards near the second wagon, Peter, the merchant driver, and I were all felled by some spell. Fibi said she couldn't tell what actually killed Iuchi. There was no mark on him. Another spell, obviously. There was a hole in the bottom of the wagon and a pile of burnt trade goods scattered around. I despaired for a moment, reckoning the scrolls were nothing but ashes now. Utter and complete failure. And only one thing to do, and my death wouldn't fix anything.
But Fibi said thoughtfully that she didn't think that was what had happened. There was no sign of the chest and its contents, and although the trade goods were burnt and charred, there wasn't anything else missing. It seemed more likely that the chest had been spirited away rather than sent up in flames. The fire, the attack: all else was more misdirection, to confuse us and lead us to false conclusions.
The samurai guards gathered the horses, which had scattered a little under fire. I stared around me, not thinking quickly or clearly. Toni suggested we move out of this area, and he said about a mile up the road was a much better place to stop and camp for the night, and not be in danger of another ambush. I thought bitterly, why would anyone attack us now? The scrolls are gone and I've failed.
The merchants started to load the goods back into the wagons, as Fibi and the others had apparently torn apart everything searching desperately for the missing chest. Toni pointed out that Grieg was still missing.
Ah, yes. He seemed hopeful that perhaps Grieg used his peculiar ability to snatch the chest to safety. I had no hope of that; if that were true, the ambush would have destroyed us in their quest for the chest. But he and I and two guards mounted up and brought an extra horse and traveled back about 5 miles, searching for Grieg along the way. He could only zap himself to a place he's seen.
We left the others with the direction to load up and move ahead to the spot Toni'd picked out. Meili was in charge of that force. Although Toni did warn the ranking samurai to back her up, but not to follow her in a mindless charge into the enemy. I almost felt like smiling at his "hai". We Nipponese appreciate a desperate charge into the enemy.
And it seemed Toni had done exactly that himself, before Meili darted out, moving up with the front-most guards into the teeth of the arrows.
We found nothing and turned back to rendezvous with the caravan.
We reached the ambush site, and as we climbed through the rocks that had sheltered our attackers, Toni and I snapped around to the side: Grieg's voice, weakly calling for help.
He and I went forward on foot along the rough and broken terrain, leaving our horses behind with the guards. Toni's lantern lit the way, and we found Grieg. He was barely conscious, bloody, and had an arrow sticking out of his back. He was grateful to see us, as he was certain he'd been abandoned. He'd woken up alone and in pain, poor boy.
He'd tried his usual trick, he explained as Toni bandaged him so we could take him up to Fibi and Peter. He zapped in behind an archer and knifed him in the back, then another, and another. But he was in the middle of our attackers, and the arrow found him before long.
At the caravan, all was well, and Donku had already begun preparing a good meal. Fibi took care of Grieg and sat down to rest for a while. Donku brought her a cup of tea.
I ate dinner, but it tasted like sawdust. Not Donku's fault. I have very little time to salvage this sorry state of affairs, and few good paths forward. We will certainly talk to the prisoners. I hope we can glean useful information from them, but can't rely on it.
With no time constraints, we could probably track them down pretty easily, even with their large lead. But we're on a very tight schedule.
The festival itself lasts ten days, and the scrolls won't be needed until the end. We are expected to arrive with them at the beginning, of course. Miyara and Phoenix would lose face if we show up late with the scrolls, but certainly less so than if we show up on time without them at all.
If whoever arranged for their theft shows up with them, having saved them from our incompetence, they don't gain anything, but we lose for failing.
If we don't show up when we're expected because we're chasing the scrolls, there are people who will worry, especially Father. He would make an announcement that something terrible had surely happened and send out people to find us. Who would then discover we lost the scrolls, but perhaps can find them again.
If I go to Father now without the scrolls, get there on time, and tell him what happened, he could totally freak out. He probably wouldn't -- it's just not his style, or at least it hasn't been up to now. I suspect he might keep the situation quiet, cover up the missing scrolls, and give us a little time to go back out and find them. It would give us ten days, but we would have lost four days -- two there and two back here -- in finding them.
After he let everyone assume they were in the wagon, it would mean a much greater hit on Father's reputation if we failed in bringing the scrolls to the festival by the tenth day. Or if someone else showed up with them. I would hate to have to commit seppuku kneeling beside Father doing the same, knowing his death and dishonor was my fault.
I will discuss our options with the others, especially Toni and Meili. But I think the best option may be to split our forces. I and some of the others will escort the wagons to Ki-Rin while the rest track the damned thieves. I'll lay the situation out truly for Father and see which way the winds blow. If he decides I'm worth risking Miyara honor on, we can return quickly without the wagons and, I hope, track down the others and ultimately find and return the scrolls to Ki-Rin before the final deadline.
And if it all falls apart anyway... If Father plays it carefully, perhaps I can take full responsibility for lying to him and take the heat myself. He would lose face for having been a dupe to me, but much less so: my death would save Miyara and Phoenix most of the dishonor, I think.