Chapter 107: Old Sins Cast Long Shadows
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed. Everybody knows that the war is over. Everybody knows that the good guys lost. Everybody knows the fight is fixed -- the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.
That's how it goes
Everybody knows that the boat is sinking. Everybody knows that the captain lied. Everybody's got this broken feeling. Like their Momma or their dog just died. Everybody's hands are in their pockets. Everybody wants a box of chocolates and a long-stemmed rose.
~ Leonard Cohen, "Everybody Knows"
After the captain left, I stood silent, lost in thought for a moment. It was mid-afternoon, and time was getting short. I had scant hours to find the person responsible for the deaths this morning -- three, now! Otherwise, I would simply be insisting on my honor that Ryuden was not responsible, against a great many people who simply wished the problem to go away. The easiest way for that to happen was to let Ryuden take the fall. I wondered how many duels I could fight before Ryuden would take the fall anyway.
Meili was apparently thinking about the poem, because she asked, "Why was Nantoko out and about in the middle of the night when Himitsu was killed? She was also not with the princess around the time Arawa was being killed."
I nodded. Yes, Nantoko was looking very suspicious to me, now that I believed Shosuro Tage was not the killer.
Toni asked if anyone had seen her after the murders, saying he didn't think anyone had. He mentioned that there was also the possibility that this was done by an outside agent with very powerful players on the inside. His meaning was clear; Niban and Koan. But I didn't think they were responsible either.
Meili, still mentally tracking down Nantoko, asked if all three maids were present at the first play. No one remembered, but I mentioned that after the second, after the princess and all her maids had retired for the evening, Nantoko had reappeared in the room, playing her biwa by the fire. Why?
There was one obvious place to go: I needed to speak with Shosuro Tage. She could certainly say what the note meant, if Hiruma-sama was correct. I was sure he was. If anyone knew who else was so well able to mimic others, she would. I didn't know if she would speak to me. I hoped that since she was willing to drop hints in Hiruma-sama's lap, that she would also be willing to cast a few my way.
The Shosuros' suite was on the same floor as ours, and we were met at the door by a young Scorpion actor. He wore a mask and was dressed as if ready to act in a play. So Asako-sama had arranged for entertainment after pinning murders on Miyara Ryuden tonight.
The young man greeted me by name. When I asked politely to speak with Shosuro Tage, he invited us inside. The suite was arranged much like our own. One of the rooms had an open door, and I could see costumes and props within, and there were several people inside apparently getting ready for the play. She came out of that room and sat by the fire, otherwise ignoring us.
I walked over to the fire and sat beside her. My horde arranged themselves around us. The young man who had led us in and summoned Tage stood outside on the balcony, its door open. People wandered around, getting dressed and talking. This was not so private as I wished. Tage's face was made up, and she wore the beginnings of a costume. She steadfastly did not look at me or any of my people.
I drew the scrap with her poem on it and passed it to her. She read it impassively and passed it back, and I tucked it away.
"Perhaps we can have a private conversation?" I asked without much hope. She obviously did not want to speak with me, although she had consented to do so.
She answered me, all the while looking into the fire, saying that the whole troupe was in the middle of preparing for tonight's performance. She described the play to me briefly, then said that anything I needed to say, I could say in front of all here.
Very well then. I composed my thoughts briefly and asked her, "Why did you give this note to the person you gave it to?"
Finally, she turned and looked me in the face. She then turned to the young man on the balcony and called, "Sake!", motioning that we were all to be served. We waited in silence, as the sake was brought to us and poured. If I thought that she had killed Hiruma-sama, I would not drink her sake. But I was certain she hadn't, so I drank with her.
The sake was a prop to her, and she was in some role I wasn't sure of. She gestured broadly towards the balcony, outside, and said, "Such a pleasant day for walking in the garden." She looked back at me. "The imperial princess herself spent the morning among the willows. She has three maids, no? Three lovely assistants, but only two today. Only two." She looked at me intently.
"One wonders where the third has gone." If I didn't know what role she was playing, I certainly didn't know the role I was supposed to be playing here.
"There are children's stories that say that the Scorpion use Ninja to gather information. What they don't say is sometimes even the finest actors lose themselves in their roles. A pity." She said the last with anger.
"Perhaps she will find the third by this evening?" The third was gone, down the cliffside after Himitsu's murder, and yet back again, for the other two murders. I wanted to hear what she would say.
"What does Hiruma-sama think?" She asked me.
Meili said at once, "He thinks we can figure it out," and I hid a smile.
"What do you think?" Tage's gaze had not shifted from me.
"I think that a weapon can be over-used." I wasn't sure entirely what I meant by that, and I didn't know where the thought came from. Fibi's spirits, maybe? As I said it, it seemed to hold two questions and a warning, and I wondered what Tage would read into it.
- Would the missing maid reappear and be used against yet another?
- Who was directing her?
- And finally, the warning: this weapon has been used to kill enough people and it needed to stop.
Tage was very obviously surprised by whatever meanings she saw, and she dropped her actress-in-a-beautiful-world role to ask me very seriously, "Will Hiruma-sama be presenting a case against Ryuden this evening?"
"When I spoke with him, I did not know what he intended for this evening." Asako had asked me to solve this quickly and quietly, and I didn't want to tell anyone he was dead yet.
Tage was not fooled. A look of horror crossed her face, and she dropped her sake cup to shatter on the floor. She sprang to her feet, and turned away from me. A heartbeat later, she turned back around, composed again. As she remained standing, I stood as well, and my people behind me likewise stood.
She smiled, and said in her serious voice, "I know who killed Miyara Himitsu and Hiruma-sama, and I will tell you where it is hiding. But first," she spoke to me, but looked around at us all. "You must be certain, friends, that you know whose name you must kill in order to save Ryuden's. I cannot help you with the decision, I can only tell you this. Ryuden's name can only be cleared at great cost. An innocent must be sacrificed. Are you prepared to pay that price?"
It was a rhetorical question, but she still waited for my response. "Please tell me," I said quietly.
She said, still in her serious tone "There are ancient and unused basements beneath the kitchens. There," she said softly,"there you will find the true killer. But be wary -- it has many faces, and some of those may be your own." She paused to stare a little longer. "If anyone asks, of course, I have not seen you today." She turned and walked out onto the balcony, past the actor there.
And so my audience with the great Shosuro Tage was finished, and I had exactly what I needed. I bowed in the direction of the balcony, and my horde did so, too. I led the way out, and back towards our rooms. Before tackling whatever was in the basement, we needed to be sure we were well-equipped.
As we walked, Fibi said quietly that Tage seemed to be Tage herself, and that every words she spoke, she believed. I nodded, although I'd been certain of that myself. Still, it's good to have the corroboration of the spirits. Fibi said, with a little hesitation, "she was hiding something at the beginning. It never became clear what, but ... something." Shosuro Tage knows a great many things she would hide. I had no time to wonder what it might be this time. I could only hope it wouldn't bite me later. Perhaps it was only that she knew who, or what, was responsible for the deaths. Perhaps.
Toni asked me, in Imperial, "What do we say to who, Lady?"
Meili said, "We say nothing. She does."
I said, "Nothing yet, because rumors don't get us anywhere. We're going to have to go down and confront the killer ourselves." Something that I knew well how to do, at last.
Toni grabbed two lanterns and oil, and Fibi eagerly asked to carry one of them. Those of us who wear armor readied ourselves, and we set back out again. I felt grim, and very focused.
Meili, thinking ahead to the problems of tracking and fighting a perfect mimic, said, "Remember this, I can see in the dark. Someone who looks like me and can't, isn't me. What about the rest of you?"
Good thinking. I shuddered at the thought of this creature pretending to be one of us. But there was an easier way. "It's very likely whoever is down there does not speak Imperial." Meili laughed at that, appreciating the simplicity.
"But just in case," I continued, "is there anything else?" Iruko did not speak Imperial, so this wouldn't work for her. I asked Iruko, "Is there a way to tell you from a fake you?"
Iruko thought a moment, and then said, "Teach me four words in their language."
Smart girl. Without a pause, Meili suggested, "You son of a bitch."
"Is that four words or one?"
I told her, "In meaning, it's kind of one, but barbarians have very short words." We repeated it slowly and helped her practice it on the way down to the kitchens. She's a quick study and had the phrase pat by the time we got there.
As we made our way through the busy kitchens, Toni tried to snag more oil, but failed. He also grabbed Donku, who fell in with us hefting a frying pan.
Fibi gave Donku a quick explanation, and she and Meili taught him his own phrase, plus a pass phrase suggested by Toni so he could recognize us. It would also work for Iruko. As we walked down the steps, I could hear Fibi whispering to herself, or perhaps to her spirits, in that strange language she speaks sometimes.
Meili asked me if I wanted to take him alive. I wasn't sure of that answer yet. It depended on who it was and what he did when we found him. She pointedly said, "You need to be sure now, because I'm not going to stop in the middle of a fight to ask."
She was right, of course. And it likely didn't matter whether I had a live killer or a dead one. I told her so, and she nodded in satisfaction. Truth be told, although I would love a chance to question the killer, I preferred to simply kill him. His death would be personally satisfying and appropriate.
We reached the old kitchens. The rumours painted it truly: dark and crumbling. Small pieces of the walls plopped down onto the floor as we searched the large room carefully. There were many doors and halls leading off, but I firmly told everyone we were not splitting up. That would be an invitation to disaster, with the mimic down here. Meili glanced at the door behind us, unguarded. I didn't like it any better than she did, or Toni did for that matter, but there was nothing for it. We had to stay together.
In the end, finding the creature wasn't difficult. We found an old, dried trail of blood and followed it to a deep wall-oven. Meili peeked her head inside, began to speak, and all at once something came flying out at her. She quickly set herself so that the creature should spit itself on her rapier, but it just bowled her over in a spray of blood.
I had no time to spare a thought for Meili. Toni and I sprang in, he behind the creature, and I in front of it. To my surprise, Donku came in next to me, wielding that frying pan, and Iruko stayed out of the way but ready to take someone's place if need be.
I stared at myself.
I stood in front me, two swords out, scarred face with a hateful grimace on it.
The three of us attacked it, over and over. It attacked only me, and when I failed to avoid its -- my -- blades, they sliced hard and deep.
Fibi must have taken care of Meili, because she joined the fight again, beside Toni, and four of us hit it again and again. And missed again and again, as it was frightfully quick. I doubt as many as half our blows landed, and it was strong. I wondered if we would fall, one by one, leaving it -- me -- laughing over us, unhurt.
It finally fell, and I swayed on my feet as I made certain it -- I -- was really dead. As I watched, its shape shifted queasily, and I wasn't looking at myself dead on the floor anymore, to my great relief. It looked vaguely like Kakita Nantoko, but its face was nearly featureless and grey. Black smoke seeped out of its mouth, still open in a silent scream of agony and hate. A shadow brand covered her back and neck, and I shuddered.
I felt Fibi's hand on me, and her spirits healed me. Within a few seconds, I still hurt, but I no longer felt as though I might pass out any moment.
I told everyone that if it became widely known that the maid was this creature, it would reflect badly on the princess and be a dishonor to her. I couldn't help but feel that was no bad thing, and I saw from Meili's quick grin that she thought the same. I continued, "People would either believe she knew a Scorpion spy was working for her, or that she didn't know, but that she or her family should have known."
Meili said, "Nice to know the innocent whose name must be killed wasn't so innocent after all."
I gently pointed out that the princess herself is innocent. Her false position isn't her fault at all, and she has been as poorly used as anyone in this farce.
I looked at the body. It was out of the question to carry it away and produce it in Ryuden's defense. No, I had to summon Asako Kagetsu here to look at it, and I added Isawa Tomo immediately to the list.
I sat down, rather gratefully, and carefully but quickly wrote two notes. They said the same: simply that I had important information to show the recipient relating to the morning's unfortunate events, and they needed to meet me down in the basements.
Toni eagerly asked to act as my messenger. Just to get out of the darkness, I think. The lanterns cast small circles of light which only served to further define the darkness beyond their reach.
For ten or fifteen minutes, we waited. Toni reappeared first. Peter and Fibi worked together, always on the point of exhaustion, to make sure we were all well. By the time Asako Kagetsu and Isawa Tomo, with Isawa Uona, arrived, I was as well as I was when we started this venture. Although my armor was somewhat worse for wear.
All three of them -- first Isawa Tomo, then Asako, and then Uona -- examined the body without touching it. The two men then stepped away while it was Uona's turn. They looked angry. I was beyond caring.
Uona was the only one to speak. She asked first if that was really Kakita Nantoko.
"Yes, it is," I answered steadily.
"And she killed Miyara Himitsu and Hiruma Usigo?"
"Yes, and Hiruma Arawa." May as well be complete. Asako was probably the only one who knew of Arawa's death.
All three looked at me, their faces devoid of expression. Uona said, in a voice that indicated I'd better think carefully about my answer, "Are you sure?"
They wanted me to keep quiet. To not cast blame and dishonor on the princess. To allow Ryuden to take the blame. To give Ryuden the opportunity -- which he would certainly take -- to accept the blame and kill himself, saving Miyara and Phoenix from a great deal of dishonor. To let this matter die away quickly and quietly.
I didn't hesitate a moment, and I said very firmly, "Yes."
First the two men, and then Uona turned to leave, all looked very disappointed.
Well, I guess that put an end to any political aspirations I might have had. Having none, and preferring the way of the blade, that didn't bother me one whit.
Meili said, "The rest of the story need never come up now."
I pointed out that depended greatly on what those three would do about this situation, and even more on what happened ultimately to the princess. For now, I knew it was very clear to those three what I would do. I figured one of them, probably Isawa Tomo, would make some formal announcement that it was the maid who killed all three men. He would be required to send a letter to the Emperor telling him what happened. There would be a whole lot of political fallout from this, and I couldn't even imagine how far it would go.
The princess's honor would take a hit. Maybe she would be completely shunned here for the remainder of the court, in which case she would simply leave. More likely is that the more honorable suitors would look somewhere else. I didn't think it was enough to make the problem of the false princess go away. I still had that promise on my honor to take care of that problem. But for now, I could let this matter settle down, and tackle her later.
I'm sure both Miyara Ryuden and Miyara Katsuda will write my father to tell him what has happened. I will have to do so as well, since I can tell him a great deal more than either of them can. Or would.
Toni said, at least that ensured there wouldn't be a Miyara tied to the princess -- since neither Miyara suitor should pursue her now -- so if "something" came up later the family wouldn't be involved. No great loss without some small gain, I suppose.
We trudged back up the stairs and through the halls to our suite. We had only a short time to rest, clean ourselves up, and make ourselves presentable for the feast tonight.
Peter and Fibi had just recovered themselves when someone knocked on the door. A message: the night's banquet was canceled. I felt a surge of relief that we could just stay here and rest, out of the Court's eyes. We sent for food, and Meili requested a generous amount of sake, seconded by the rest of us.
As we sat around the common room, surrounded by food and sake, I spoke seriously to my horde for a moment. Asako and Isawa have accepted what I insisted was the truth, but there will be a great number of people who will be seriously upset with me. I'm likely to be the most unpopular person here -- maybe excepting the princess, and maybe not. We are targets, all of us, and I made it clear that none of us can wander around at will, alone, as we have been doing. We need to watch each other's backs, and we need to not grant clear invitations to our hidden enemies.
With that, we hit the sake.
It couldn't numb me enough to stop thinking. Kakita Nantoko was a Scorpion plant on the princess. She was there to gather and pass information. All well enough. But, as Shosuro Tage said, she lost herself in her role. When Himitsu threatened the princess, she reacted as the maid might, but with the wiles of the spy she was. She killed the threat. When Hiruma-sama proved that he was digging deeper into the matter, she killed him, and Arawa to get to him.
Beyond that, others know Shinjo's secret. They must. That makes the princess a weapon pointed straight at the empire's heart. Whose hands would fight to wield her?
This story isn't over yet. Old sins cast long shadows, and Shinjo Gidayu has much to answer for.