Chapter 108: The Perfect Crime
My eyes are jaded and complicated, tired of the liars and the masqueraded who steal our innocence away, like a thief in the night. Who took away our faith in what we know to be right? That was another world, then that was another time.
You can never go back to the scene of a perfect crime.
~ Concrete Blonde,
"Scene of a Perfect Crime"
The fire in the fireplace, the lanterns, the sake: all failed to lift our spirits that night. It seemed we all felt reluctant to retire into our rooms for the night, each alone. So although it was late when the message arrived, we were still sitting around in our day clothes drinking.
The messenger said we were to appear at the court of Asako, right now. A few of my comrades shot me questioning looks, and one asked outright if the summons were just for me or all of us. Technically, only I had to go, but all of us could, and I thought it might be educational. I merely cautioned everyone to remember the single most important rule: don't speak unless spoken to. We all quickly adjusted our somewhat rumpled clothes and headed to court.
I also thought I didn't want to go to Asako's court tonight without my horde at my back. It's a sad state of affairs when the only people I trust implicitly are western barbarians. But they are my barbarians, and I have no real connections here after so many years gone. Those missing connections didn't matter when I was alone in the west. Here, they are everything.
We were not the first ones to arrive, nor were we the last. People clustered in groups of varying sizes, not talking. For a room full of people, it was quiet. No casual conversation, no gossip. Just an uncomfortable silence smothering everyone. This could be -- probably would be -- a rough court.
Asako arrived a few minutes after we did. He circulated around the room, speaking quietly to a few groups. They seemed to loosen up a little, and a still-too-quiet hum resulted. I can't say the hum filled the room: it sort of skulked underfoot like slime on river rocks.
Unsurprisingly, my group was not included in Asako's rounds. In fact, no one spoke to us at all, not even those few who were speaking. People were rather pointedly not looking our way, and emphatically not wandering our direction to strike up a hushed conversation.
Rumours move fast at court.
The last to appear was the Princess herself, with her two remaining maids plus two Imperial guards. No one quite looked at the guards. Their appearance was a direct insult to Asako, implying that she did not feel he could keep her safe. An insult he could not possibly respond to or acknowledge in any way. But it was certainly noticed by one and all, and would be remembered by all here. In light of what was about to happen, she might have been right, but then her own guards couldn't keep her safe, either.
Within moments of the Princess' arrival, Asako stepped to the dais and the almost-nonexistent hum died back into utter silence. He welcomed everyone to court in a business-like manner, and opened the proceedings. He explained that I discovered the killer of the three dead men, whom he named. A slight whisper waved through the court like a hot breeze through a stifling summer night: not everyone knew of all the killings. I saw a few surreptitious glances thrown my way.
Then he named the killer I had found: Kakita Nantoko. A louder whisper swept through the crowd like the brief wind before the stillness that heralds a summer storm. This time the Princess gathered more of the surreptitious glances, though I still got a few.
I had no time to wonder which information Asako would hand the court. He immediately said I had also discovered that the maid was shadowbranded, and that she died at my hands. Gasps, loud whispers, some shocked exclamations now echoed in the room. The storm had broken, entirely on my and the Princess' heads. With his simple statements, Asako carefully laid all credit -- and blame -- at my feet. It was the correct thing to do, of course.
He rather flatly thanked me for my services, and then tried to convince the court to get on with their winter festivities. The Princess pointedly turned on her heels and flounced out the door, followed by her rather grim entourage, before Asako spoke more than three words. He continued, and put a very good effort into it, but he knew there was no way Winter Court would continue as though nothing had happened. He closed the court and everyone filed out of the room, silent again. No one would look directly at me. Oh, the rest of the winter would be so much fun. I almost felt nostalgic for last winter, spent starving, marching, and freezing in the inhospitable mountains fighting the damned Crystal every step of the way. I winced at the memory of that winter's dead who are ever with me.
I and my horde returned to our rooms, having lost any possible effects from the earlier sake. We organized a guard for the night: like the Princess, we did not want to trust our lives to the Asako guards outside our suite's door. Meili volunteered for the first watch, Toni the second, I took last and placed Iruko in third.
A soft knock at my door woke me. It was still dark, and I was still tired. I peeked out to see Sun, sent by Toni, who was at the open door of our suite, looking into the hall. He gestured me over. I could hear some sort of commotion out there. Joining him, I saw servants carrying boxes marked with the symbol of the Lion clan, and the personal mon of a middle-rank Lion man I remembered speaking with a week or so ago.
We shut the door and whispered a few moments. Someone leaving Winter Court was uncommon. Sneaking out in the middle of the night was just not done. I couldn't remember anything important or interesting about the man: it had been a short conversation about Asako's court game. He was looking for a token I didn't have -- as an easy excuse to address some girl, I was certain. He had that eager and desperate look about him.
We sent Sun out to gather what information he could, and Toni and I waited in the quiet room, with only a candle to fight away the dark as the rest of the group still slept. Sun returned shortly. The Lion was leaving, apparently having lost a duel yesterday afternoon over who had the right to court a Crane woman. He was the only one leaving, and it seemed to have nothing to do with the other activities. I returned to sleep, and Toni to his watch. It was probably a safe bet that the Crane's token was an embroidered square of light green silk.
Iruko woke me during her watch. Still dark, still tired. A messenger told me that Asako Kagetsu desired my immediate presence. Now what? I thought, but did not voice. I quickly gathered Toni, Meili, Fibi, and Peter. I left Iruko in charge of Sun and Kocho and the rooms.
Asako was agitated, and he wasted no time on pleasant greetings. The princess had been kidnapped, and he wanted my assistance in looking into it. Apparently the repercussions for our activities of a few hours ago hadn't filtered down yet. It was early.
I asked him what he knew so far, and he asked us to follow him to her rooms on the third floor. He gave us the summary on the way up. It was short: "She's disappeared. No one around her was wakened. The guards saw nothing. There was a note on her bed." He handed it to me, carefully not looking me in the eye.
"I have the girl. She will be my bride. I will be the husband of a Hantei. I will be a samurai again. ~ Niban"
Niban's chop block appeared to be the real thing, which greatly disturbed me. And yet, surely he would be the last person to call her a Hantei. His only desire seemed to be to unmask her as Shinjo Gidayu's daughter. Something was off.
The protections on the third-floor rooms were much like that on the previous room where Tsume Retsu died. Nightingale floors, guards (both public and private) were all around. The ceiling tiles were similar, although even thinner, and they would also make noise like the floors. The balcony led to the bridge to the garden on the cliff, which was still within the castle wall. The light on the wall was blocked and didn't shine into the garden, leaving it shrouded in black shadows.
Everyone was awake now, of course. The maids huddled together, whispering and even weeping a little. The Imperial guards stood stiffly and unsmiling, with that certain look about them that said they were wondering how much longer they would live. Isawa Uona was already here, doing magical things I never understand.
Fibi immediately sat down in a corner of the room and went to look for spirits in that other world. Meili and I asked how long the Princess had been gone: the older maid had discovered her missing about five minutes before we were summoned. Meili glanced at Fibi, looked at the room, back at Fibi, and then at me. Maybe she could look around in the dark garden, she said, with another glance at Fibi. I told her to do it. Fibi can look after herself.
I stood and watched Uona and glanced over the room while Toni spoke with the guard captain. The guards on the wall were the midnight-4am watch, and were still on.
There were no signs of struggle. The bed was slept on, but not really disturbed. Uona was communing with spirits in her own way, moving around the room and mumbling. Toni circled on the opposite side of the room from her. Neither he nor I saw anything odd. The maids slept in the common room, and would surely notice a stranger entering in the middle of the night. If anyone entered or exited through the balcony doors, the cold blast of wind howling through would certainly have alerted everyone.
The captain of the guard asked me if I recognized the chop on the note. "Yes," I said shortly. "And?" he asked. "It appears to be Niban's," I admitted.
He looked at me with shock. "A ronin?" he asked incredulously. "There is no way a ronin could pull this off."
"And yet..." I said. "I suppose I will have to find out what really happened."
He stalked away, red with anger, insulted beyond belief. If a ronin had done this, it was a serious blow to his honor.
Toni sauntered over to me when I was alone, and spoke to me quietly, in Imperial. He'd spoken with the older maid, Yauta. She woke in the night, saw the screen into the Princess' room was open, and checked to see if she needed something, only to discover the Princess was gone.
He said, "The Unicorn man" -- he meant Shinjo Gidayu but didn't say the name aloud -- "is the only one who wins on both counts." Except he doesn't benefit by her loss especially, whereas he might profit should she keep her position. Of course, he'd certainly want to destroy Niban, but would he sacrifice the Emperor's niece (even if false) and his own daughter (who might well become the emperor) for that? This was an elaborate setup: wouldn't simply having Niban killed quietly fix everything? What was I missing?
Meili joined our quiet conversation. The balcony looked out over the lake. Off to the side was the bridge leading from the garden to the other cliff to one side of the back of the castle. She was sure there was nothing out of the ordinary out there. In theory, someone could climb down the cliff or climb to another balcony. This would be difficult, and nearly impossible while carrying another person. She and Toni confirmed that the balcony doors were shut.
Fibi woke to herself, and told us what she'd found "on the other side." Mostly nothing we didn't already know, but she did add that there was no sign of struggle, murder, or abduction against one's will. So she either went willingly, or she was drugged or spelled asleep. The latter was the more likely, I thought.
Toni wondered if the maids were faking their reactions, and Fibi wandered over to them. She skillfully spoke with them, drew them out, and gauged their emotions. After a few minutes, she gave us a discreet nod. So they were not being deceitful.
Isawa Uona finished. She announced to the room, "Nothing. Nothing unusual happened here. None of the spirits here are disturbed, none of them noticed anything. They might have noticed a stranger, but they didn't. They would have noticed a struggle but didn't."
In Imperial, Meili quietly asked, "Do you think the Princess might have staged this to save face?"
I emphatically denied that. This could not benefit her in any way, and could easily ruin her completely. Unless ... but no, that was simply not to be thought of.
Toni rather bravely asked Uona if the spirits would have noticed magic. She replied, "Yes, and yes they did. Some use of magic happened in both these rooms. Probably a sleep spell."
The guards outside the room were not affected by the sleep spell. They strongly denied having falling asleep at any time, and Fibi nodded that they were not lying. They might not have noticed falling asleep, but they certainly would have noticed waking up.
Uona said that there was no magic on the balcony or in the garden. No other magic was used besides the sleep spell. Asako and Isawa mages all set alarm spells, none of which were triggered. Whoever did this is impressive.
I quietly and carefully asked her if she could do this, taking care to allow no accusation in my tone. Truly, I was not accusing her, but simply wanted some level of power to compare.
"Maybe," she allowed after a moment of thought, taking my question at face value.
"What do you think happened here?"
"I don't know. An extremely powerful mage came in and stole the Princess." She shrugged.
Meili muttered, "Koan," and I answered her in Imperial, "absolutely." If Uona could do this, I thought Koan probably could as well. What his motive might be I couldn't fathom, but first, follow ability. We were finished here anyway, and we went to his rooms next. He was still there, and not arrested. After his servant woke him, he invited us inside.
"It appears a mage has kidnapped the Princess," I stated boldly. He tried hard to hide his surprise, but he was, in fact, surprised.
Meili said, "Only someone of your abilities could do this. Who else is there?" I was impressed with her: she successfully kept any hint of accusation from her question.
Koan did not even try to hide his smile, and he said with a laugh in his voice, "You gravely overestimate my abilities."
Meili said with an answering smile, "I saw the competition. You were the best one there."
Toni asked who his teacher was, and he mentioned the name of a standard mage school.
Koan turned to me and said, with a hint of insult in his voice, "I have no knowledge or involvement in any kidnapping of the Princess." Fibi nodded slightly. He spoke the truth, but I still didn't trust him.
I asked him in all politeness, ignoring his insult for the moment, "Would you help me find out who's responsible for this?"
"Of course." Fibi shrugged slightly: a bit of a lie.
It was time to bother him, and I handed him the note from Niban. Koan cursed. His shock, his fear, and his anger were as honest as they were obvious. He handed the note back to me, and said, "There's no way Niban could have done this."
"So you'll help me find out who really did this?" I asked him again.
"What can I do?"
I explained what we knew of the circumstances, and asked him to tell me how it was done. Unfortunately, he truly had no idea.
"I don't know what you can do. Can you track her, or the magic used on her?"
Koan shook his head and said, "Isawa mages would be the most capable."
I wished I could get Koan up to the Princess' rooms, but they'd never let him up there. Toni wanted to get Uona to check for any magic on the wall and the wall guards, especially the part at the back, at the top of cliff that overlooked the garden and the part that overlooked the balconies and whole cliff face.
He figured someone climbed down the cliff or over the wall carrying the body. To be unseen would take magic to hide him. "I met a guy once who could just pop to somewhere else. No spells or anything. Have you seen anything like that, or could you detect that?" Is there someone else here like Grieg? Gods, I hoped not.
Koan looked puzzled and asked, "How is that not magic? I never met anyone who could do that, in any case."
"Would someone have to be in the room physically to do all that, or could he do it from a distance?"
"It's theoretically possible to set a sleep spell on the Princess and steal her from a distance, but it's very unlikely. It would be hard to predict what wards would be there, intentionally so. You'd really need to be there to get around them."
I asked, "If not Niban, then who?"
"I don't know of anyone who could do this." Fibi nodded emphatically. "Nor do I know who would. Who would want to bring down on himself the wrath of the Emperor, of Phoenix, of Isawa, of Asako?"
That wasn't quite the right question. All wrath would fall on Niban.
Toni mused, "Who would want to frame Niban? Who would want to damage the Princess?"
"The only people who seem to care much at all about Niban are the other people in the village. They all love him. Obviously Phoenix knows who he is and that he's there, but if they wanted to get rid of him, they would have done so directly, not this way." True enough.
"If Niban didn't write this," I said, "someone close to him did. That's his chop block."
Koan nodded and said dryly. "It looks that way to me, too. But if we're hypothesizing a mage that can sneak into this castle with Isawa mages guarding it and steal the heir to the Hantei throne, then stealing the chop block seem a minor issue."
Toni said, "You did get the scrolls out of the chest from afar, before the fire."
"True. The fire was unintended. It was a terrible accident on my part, and I didn't mean to kill the mage there." Unmistakable regret was in Koan's voice.
"My point is, where would someone detect your spell?"
"I was right there, invisible and sleep. But that didn't work on the mage, who saw me anyway, and we ended up in combat. Magic spilled over, and the stuff on the floor of the wagon caught fire."
Meili said thoughtfully, "Wards, invisible, asleep..."
Koan finally admitted, "Except for the wards, I could have done this."
We were all silent for a moment.
Meili pointed out if someone else disable the wards, then it was an easy job. Left unstated, but obvious, was that this seemed to be an inside job. Koan shook his head again. The spells he would have used would have ben detected by Uona. She detected a sleep spell, but not an invisibility spell. The spirits notice the person's trail and record the passing. Uona didn't check for spells on the guards or the guard posts.
"A large group of people left last night," I mused out loud.
Toni wondered whose rooms are below the Princess', and I asked the guard outside Koan's rooms. He thought a moment and said the man who left last night was beneath her on this floor, and Miyara Himitsu's between them on the second floor. That floored us. Peter said, "Perhaps Himitsu was killed just to clear the room."
What might we find in Himitsu's rooms? Koan said he'd wait here while we gathered Asako, his captain of the guard, and Isawa Uona and saw what there was to see.
In Asako's office, we learned we was mounting a military force to send to Nightingale village. Uona insisted that a bunch of ronin couldn't have done this. Asako seemed to agree, but it was something to do. He couldn't afford to look as though he were doing nothing. We briefly explained our conjecture on how the princess might have been gotten out, and we proceeded to first Himitsu's rooms and then the lion's rooms.
The floors were solid. Uona said no one had been in Himitsu's rooms for at least a day, and there was no sign of magic, either. Nothing different in the lion's room. Uona said, "I did think about this possibility. I ruled it out because I knew that the Lion genuinely left because of his loss of face."
Toni asked about the wards. They would have detected any magical activity in that room, and even prevented small magics to some extent. The wards would have known and recorded if the mages themselves had been magicked asleep, and they hadn't.
In Imperial, Meili said that whoever took her, she could already be in the village. Perhaps we could send a friend to check. She meant Grieg, of course, and it wasn't a bad idea. But if she's there, the Princess will not be lounging around in the village square. She'll be carefully hidden away. Simply having Grieg, or even Grieg and me, show up in the village and look around is unlikely to locate her. If she weren't spirited there by magic, which seems to be a difficult and tricky thing, then they're still in the process of transporting her now. Meili said, and I agreed whole-heartedly, that if Asako's force gets to the village and the Princess is there, she will quickly become dead. That would be a disaster for us all.
There were no other leads, and there was the danger to the Princess. Our immediate role was clear: to accompany the force traveling to Nightingale village and try to rescue the Princess before the force can cause her death.
So we returned to our suite and hurriedly readied ourselves for the journey. I thought perhaps Koan might join us, but his assistant said he had left and she didn't know where he'd gone. She said he ought to return soon and would give him my message that we were on our way to the village. My suspicions of him flared up again, although his surprise at the situation had seemed true. Perhaps he's merely warning Niban? Regardless, there was nothing I could do about it.