Chapter 109: Evening Excursions
Unknown, the unlit world of old. You're the sounds I never heard before. Off the map where the wild things grow. Another world outside my door. Here I stand -- I'm all alone. Drive me down the pitch black road.
~ Morphine, "The Night"
The day was a long one. We left at dawn and rode all day, after a short night's sleep -- actually two. By all the gods, Himitsu had been killed only the previous morning! It seemed weeks ago.
We still had two days to Nightingale. Not everyone in this force was an expert horseman, so we did not move especially fast. It also seemed a little disorganized, but I kept falling into an almost-nap all day long, only to be jarred awake again. The damned mare I rode had a rough gait, when she wanted. Which was every time I fell into a fitful doze on her back.
As soon as camp was set, I sat down with a bright lantern and carefully compared the two notes I had from Niban: the one one he sent to Himitsu, which I knew was his, and the one stating he'd stolen the Princess, which I wondered about. I inspected the note with an artist's eye: did the same hand form them? I know there are some who could tell a fake from just a few lines, but I can't. The writing styles of the two notes did seem a little different, but the difference could easily have been caused by differing emotional states or haste in writing as anything else. The chop, though, either was an excellent forgery or the same block was used to sign both notes.
Fibi asked if she could look at the notes and ask the spirits about them. I hadn't solved any great riddles with my inspection, so I handed them over. She might as well give her spirits a try: they can be very helpful sometimes.
She settled herself, holding one of the notes in her lap, and sent herself into her meditative state. Her breathing slowed, and she was utterly still and quiet for some time. I watched, interested. Usually I'm busy with other things when she does this. I ate the bowl of rice and vegetables Sun brought me from Donku. Sun had made sure that Donku traveled with us as our cook, rather than one of the other cooks from the kitchen.
Eventually, Fibi emerged from her trance, only to exchange the note she held for the other and to return to her meditations.
I was finished with my dinner and sipping a cup of tea when she was ready to speak. The first note, the one Niban wrote to Himitsu, held only fragments of emotions, nothing strong. A sense of duty, urgency, concern, and hopefulness. Emotions expressed in the note itself. I nodded, and she continued. The second note was written before the Princess was abducted. Less than ten days ago, but certainly more than one day before. That was interesting. She said that note had somewhat stronger emotions attached to it. A sense of deception, a tinge of exasperation.
Those emotions did not match the tone of the note, and if it was written in a hurry, why, if it had been written well in advance of the kidnapping? No real answers here, but strong indications that Niban was not, in fact, the one who took the Princess.
Grieg said thoughtfully that he'd been to the village before. It would be easy for him to do whatever it is that he does and appear instantly near the village, where he could see if she arrived as a prisoner, and if so, as whose. Meili smiled and said perhaps Grieg should take someone with him who could see in the dark. Herself, for example.
Grieg and Meili looked at me. I thought that was an excellent idea, and I nodded. They walked off and disappeared into the bushes in the dark. There might be some odd rumours around them tomorrow, but it wouldn't matter.
Fibi settled herself into another trance. She said something about trying to find Niban across the veil. I didn't understand what she was trying to do, but I wasn't about to stop her, either. Peter sat down in front of her to watch.
Meanwhile, Toni had been wandering around camp, and he came back to chat with me quietly, in Imperial. He could see no obvious leader of this force. There were a few casually vying for leadership, but not with much interest. This force was no more than several small groups of samurai loosely traveling together.
That's what I might have noticed, had I been coherent during the ride. I looked around myself, and Toni was absolutely right. I remembered that Asako hadn't said he was sending a force out, which would imply that he or his captain would pick out a leader who would then put together a cohesive force. No, he'd said someone needed to go, there were plenty of volunteers, and we were welcome to go along if we wanted.
We left so fast, we had nothing but war rations and such. I hadn't really noticed because rice and vegetables is all I looked for. And Donku grabbed tea for me. Nobody else had any.
Toni and I gauged the troops. He wanted me to just take charge, but I couldn't. I did get some guards posted, with gentle hints. During the day, I had noted the man I'd assumed was in charge, simply because he was the highest-ranking man here. He certainly outranked me by a wide margin. I could not take the leadership position from him, but he clearly didn't know what to do. There were a couple of others about my rank, but I outmaneuvered them and set myself up as his second. That done, it was easy to take charge in his name and get things done properly.
It was late, but I wasn't as tired as I might have been, with all the cat-napping on the horse during the day. Toni took first watch around our portion of the camp, and I took second.
Peter forcibly woke up Fibi, and explained to her that she seemed on the verge of death. She said she was tired and she could die, with her body separated from her spirit. I didn't realize that. Perhaps she does need looking after. She seemed worried that Meili and Grieg hadn't returned, and she sat up all night waiting for them.
Near dawn, Grieg and Meili emerged from the bushes. They were filthy, covered with scratches, and their clothes were equally filthy and torn. Grieg was wounded as well. With a small cry of relief and worry, Fibi sprang up, and Peter joined her almost immediately.
Meili muttered, out of breath, "Seven chaos beasts. Three arrows. Three eye shots. A hell of a lot of jungle. I'm going to sleep on the wagon." She staggered to Donku's wagon and nearly fell down into it. Peter helped Grieg to the wagon while Fibi looked after Meili, and then Grieg.
She healed them both of their obvious wounds, and noted Grieg had a raging fever. She and Peter both tried to heal him, but to no avail. Fibi said perhaps tomorrow, when she's stronger, and Peter agreed. By afternoon, Meili was in a similar state.
A few days later, back at Castle Gisu when there was little to do but talk, we heard the tale of Meili's and Grieg's travels. They'd gone much farther than planned. Considering how Grieg came to be a part of my horde, I suppose they're lucky they didn't end up in the middle of an ocean somewhere instead.
Initially, they went to the village, as planned, and Meili scouted around carefully. She found nothing out of the ordinary. Just a quiet village, everyone apparently asleep for the night. So they decided to "hop" around the tops of hills, looking for a camp where the kidnappers might be, still on their way to the village. They did this many times between the village and our camp. Again, they found nothing. Then they tried to go higher, to look down into the valleys from the mountain peaks. Nothing, again, until Grieg went somewhere he didn't intend.
I don't know how he does what he does. Fibi says he somehow travels through the spirit world physically, using it to move from one distant place to another because the spirit world doesn't correspond to this one. I suppose if that's true, then he could miscalculate and end up in the wrong place.
However it happened, they left one mountain top expecting to appear on the next one. Instead, they found themselves somewhere pitch black, hot, damp. Meili said it was a thick jungle, and there were demons nearby they disturbed. Grieg said when this sort of thing happens, he ends up with a severe headache and can't do his trick again for some time.
So they ended up with demons torturing Grieg until Meili helped him escape, then they ran through the jungle in the night, fleeing the following demons. Hence scratches, wounds, filth, and utter exhaustion. Their fevers came from the demons' weapons, or from the jungle plants, or from a temple they found in the middle of their flight that they carefully avoided, or maybe just from the jungle air they breathed.
Hours later, Grieg was able to start moving them again his way. It took them four "jumps" to get from wherever they were back to camp, where they emerged at dawn and collapsed.
I don't know where they were, and I'm certain I never want to go there myself.
Toni and I took care of what needed doing for the morning. Our "real" leader was doing a fine job, Toni and I agreed. He never once got in our way.