Chapter 110: Pawns
Then you walk to the window and stare at the moon, riding high and lonesome through a starlit sky. And it comes to you how it all slips away: youth and beauty are gone one day. No matter what you dream or feel or say, it ends in dust and disarray.
Like wind on the plains, sand through the glass, waves rolling in with the tide. Dreams die hard and we watch them erode, but we cannot be denied --
The fire inside.
~ Bob Seger, "The Fire Inside"
I'd been trying to gauge skills and experience in this random group of samurai, but hadn't really been able to tell much. I asked for volunteers to act as scouts, hoping the incompetent wouldn't bother. I wanted four, and got eight. Well enough. I picked out four for this second day and four for the final day tomorrow. I instructed them to spread out, get away from the road, and look for the band of kidnappers. Should anyone find them, he was to note their location, direction of travel, and their rate of travel and return here and tell me. Don't alert them, whatever else they might do.
The day was a typical travel day. Nothing of interest happened, and the scouts returned that evening, having found nothing. I spent the day wondering if the Princess were still alive, if we could rescue her and keep her alive, and what to do if we failed. Everything I'd seen so far told me that Niban wasn't at fault here, but was targeted as the scapegoat. What could I do? Unless I could figure out who was doing what, and get enough others to see that as well, and get them to decide that a ronin's honor was more important than that of a powerful samurai, I would have to kill Niban. I didn't want to, but I just couldn't see any way to avoid it.
And why should I care? Why shouldn't I just cut him down without a thought?
Peter was able to cure both Meili's and Grieg's fevers that night. They were exhausted after their problems from last night and the fevered restlessness of the day. They immediately fell asleep and slept soundly until morning, at which time they were mostly recovered, although still looking a little worse for wear.
I'm sure I must have eaten something for dinner. Sun always makes sure I do. But I can't say I remember it particularly. I was still trying to figure out how to untie the knot, and finding that I might not be able to without cutting through more than I intended.
Next morning, I estimated from our rate of travel that we would arrive at the village late afternoon. I told the four scouts for today to just scout up to the village's vicinity if they didn't find the kidnapper, not to enter the village and to remain hidden from the village. I didn't believe they would find anything, but it couldn't hurt.
By the time we neared the village, only two of the scouts had returned. The other two never did reappear, and it was clear they'd warned the village. Who they were and why they did so remains a mystery. The village seemed riled up to the two who reported back, but no one appeared to be putting together a defense of the village. Mostly the rabble were milling around in the village square instead of doing their duties to gods and emperor, I was told with the utter disdain of samurai for ronin.
Meili volunteered to go talk to the villagers. I said no, that was my responsibility. Our leader, meanwhile, intended to march his entire force right down into the village and look for the Princess, killing anyone who got in the way, or anyone they felt like killing. I thought that was both unnecessary and a fine way to ensure the Princess' death beside.
I managed to convince him to stop the force shortly before we reached the village, just ahead of a slight turn in the road that kept us out of sight, so I could go to the village alone and talk with them. I stressed the dangers of certain battle, where the Princess' life would be in serious danger. And perhaps my personal contact with Niban and the village might head off that battle, keeping the Princess well.
Immediately, Iruko, Toni, a handful of other samurai, plus my entire horde all wanted to go with me. I wanted to avoid looking like a large, dangerous force. I tried to take only Iruko, and I wanted her to stay back and simply bring in the larger force if my negotiations at the village turned violent. I didn't think that was likely.
But then Toni argued with me some more. He pointed out, truthfully, that if something did happen, Iruko would be honor-bound to kill herself for having failed in her single duty, to protect me. Which meant, of course, that she would sound the alarm as I asked, and then rush forward into battle fruitlessly and die that way, keeping her honor intact. I still didn't believe that would happen, but it was wrong of me to let Iruko think I would put her into that impossible position.
So I changed the plan. Iruko was to come with me and stay with me, so she could perform her duties properly. Grieg placed himself where he could watch the proceedings in the village while remaining well-hidden. In case of danger to the Princess (or me), he could move himself immediately and sound the warning, which would be more useful anyway.
Of course, by the time all that was worked out, I could have already been in the village. It seems my own people aren't much different from the western barbarians in this way after all. At least there were no doors to shout at and kick down.
And so Iruko and I walked down the road to the village.
As it came into view, it seemed that everyone was, in fact, in the square. They had divided into two distinct groups, one with Niban at its front and the other with his second. They were arguing, and both seemed very angry.
When we came into sight, the argument slowed a bit but didn't stop. The Princess was here, then. Did Niban take her, or did his second simply assume so, him having been so excellently framed? Or was she part of the conspiracy against him?
We eventually got close enough to hear their words. Niban said, "There is no reason for it -- no reason at all."
"What reason do they need?" His second, a woman named Tobuko I remembered from the brief introduction last fall, asked angrily. "We're ronin and they're samurai. That's all the reason they need."
"I don't believe it. I don't believe it. I won't believe it." Niban stubbornly tried to convince himself the force behind me wouldn't attack him, but he knew, deep down, they would. It was as Tobuko said.
"I don't care what you say. When their steel hits your flesh, then you'll believe."
I glanced around the village as we continued our approach. Except for the argument that had drawn so many out into the square, they had set up defenses. There were at least a dozen archers still on the rooftops, trying to remain hidden. They had fooled the scouts.
At last, we reached the edge of the village square and the argument stopped. Everyone turned to look at me. No one had their weapons out yet, but their hands were close and ready. I kept my own hands away from my swords, showing them that I was not here to attack them. Iruko followed my lead.
Niban was livid, his face red, eyes glaring. I greeted him with all politeness and asked to speak with him. He did not return my politeness, but growled, "Why are you here?"
"We're looking for the Princess." With Niban, I thought directness was the best approach.
"What princ ..." he began, then accepted that sort of pointless attempt at innocence -- as if he'd never heard of the existance of any princess before now in his life -- would be of no use. "Why here?" he finished angrily.
Tobuko said to him, so far ignoring me, "They're stalling. Don't listen to her." She looked around as if expecting an imminent attack, and others did as well.
I addressed Niban calmly and quietly, "Because we found a note apparently from you that said you had her."
"What?" His surprise seemed sincere.
Tobuko shouted, "I knew! I knew you were crazy!" Was she involved, or merely accepting appearances? The latter, I thought, although I had nothing to go on. "He talked of taking her, but I never thought he'd actually do it," she said with a sideways glace at me. She commanded three men behind her to search the village for the Princess. Her anger and horror at what she thought Niban's actions to be were clear. The latter, then.
Niban became speechless with rage at his second's quick acceptance of his guilt. I tried to assess the two of them. Niban appeared flat out crazy, and I couldn't tell anything about Tobuko. Insane or not, he'd completely lost his composure. He was starting to unravel a bit when I spoke with him back at the bridge. His followers who were still lined up behind him looked less certain than they had before I mentioned the Princess, and those behind Tobuko more certain.
I asked her quietly, "When did Niban return to the village?" I was partly stalling for time to allow her men to search the village and partly looking for an in.
She said nothing for a few moments, her eyes darting between me, Niban, and the general direction of the village. "We'll wait to see what the search turns up." Her eyes darted madly around some more. "We wouldn't want to jump to conclusions."
"It appeared you already jumped."
Before she could reply to my dry comment, her men appeared, walking back to us with the Princess between them. I'd hoped she wasn't here, even knowing that hope was no use, but here she was.
Niban completely lost his tenuous hold on himself. Before anyone else could move, he leapt forward, grabbed the Princess roughly, and backed away from us all, eyes glaring and a knife at the girl's throat. She was either cooler than anyone in her position had any right to be, or she was simply in shock. She stood there, unmoving, staring blindly in front of her.
Tobuko rapped out orders to whoever was nearest to back away and they did so. She and the rest of the ronin left the matter to me and Niban. No one stood behind him now. Now it didn't matter. Niban was taking the blame for this, and he was going to die, almost certainly by my hand in a few moments. I hoped I could save the Princess, or I would die very shortly thereafter, likewise by my own hand. I wondered, even now, if I could still find out who was truly behind this and why. Was this solely the matter of Niban, Shinjo Gidayu, and the Princess? Or was there something more?
Niban snapped. He swore roundly at Shinjo Gidayu, blaming him for everything, spluttering almost incoherently. "I tried ... I tried so hard but it's a lie .. It's all a lie!" And more.
I don't remember anything I said. I just spoke to him as quietly and calmly as I could, and approached him step by step, slowly. I had 20 yards to cover and I had to do it without him killing the Princess before I reached them. I held my hands out, far from my weapons.
My vision narrowed to the two in front of me. The village disappeared, Tobuko disappeared, the ronin disappeared, Iruko disappeared. A few more steps. Niban towered over the Princess. Could I get a clear shot at his neck? I thought I could. My vision narrowed further. There was just Niban, just his throat, the quick pulse in it of his rapidly beating heart.
My katana, ready for me. My hands and arms, positioned just so, to draw the katana and sweep it across his throat in one smooth motion. Another step. Visualize my blade slicing through that jumping pulse. Another step. One clean blow. One smooth motion.
Niban slumped ever so slightly. He'd given up, I was sure.
I stopped, about ten feet from him, just another few steps and I'd've had him. But that attack still endangered the Princess. If he would simply give her up to me, that would be much safer for her.
He took the opportunity I gave him. He threw his knife to the ground and pushed the Princess at me. She stumbled and fell and didn't bother getting up. I didn't think she was hurt, just so completely shocked she could do nothing. She lay on the ground between us, and I felt a great deal of relief.
"Go on then," Niban said roughly to me. "Serve your lord. Do your duty and kill me. I'm only a ronin after all." His last sentence was bitter as winter, and it bit at me as well. Did I want to be no more than the tool of whoever had orchestrated this?
I didn't, but had no other choice. Niban laid his hands on the Princess, and that's death anyway. I would kill him. But perhaps I could glean solid information from Niban first. I did not appreciate being another's pawn. I had ideas, but nothing clear, nothing I could act on yet.
I first asked the Princess, "Are you unharmed," not taking my gaze from Niban. She didn't answer, or even move. I risked a quick glance and saw no obvious injuries to her.
Perhaps Niban would understand what I was about to ask him and why, and what I would do with it. If he wasn't too far gone. I thought it was a good sign that he'd given up without a fight, without harming Otomo-sama. I asked him, quietly, calmly, willing him to know what I needed, "Did you take her from Castle Gisu yourself?"
Instead of answering, he stepped to the Princess, and used the one smooth move I had planned to use on him to split her skull with his katana. "Of course not," he spat. I knew that. I was hoping for something else from him. But it didn't matter now. The Princess was dead. I would kill Niban, and then myself.
I drew both swords and attacked. Iruko came up by my side. An arrow knocked against his armor, from out of nowhere. The three of us battled each other, and finally he fell. He was every bit as skilled as I thought he would be, and I held onto consciousness by my fingernails at the end, pain slicing through me and blood soaking my clothes and armor. I turned, and saw Fibi on the ground at the Princess' side. She was hard at work, which told me there was hope for her. Could Fibi bring her back from the dead? She had to be dead, didn't she?
Knowing there was some hope of life for her meant I didn't have to kill myself that moment. I let go and spiraled into the darkness.
I awoke some time later, Iruko standing guard over me with her sword out, Fibi bending over me and smiling wearily, Peter hovering near Fibi, equally exhausted.
I sat up, fully recovered, and looked for the Princess. She, too, was sitting on the ground, not far from me, and obviously alive. Praise all the gods and whatever kami Fibi speaks with.
Toni caught me up. Grieg had popped into camp, saying all hell had broken loose and Niban had killed the Princess. The force began to move, and Toni told Grieg to jump him into the village immediately. Fibi and Peter loudly overruled him, saying maybe Fibi could still save the Princess, if it truly had been only a few seconds since she'd gone down. So Grieg jumped with Fibi, who immediately went to work saving the Princess.
The village was largely empty now. At the Princess' death, the ronin began leaving, melting away into the hills in small groups. Toni suggested that the force stay here. Our leader forcefully rejected that suggestion, and they'd ridden out in small groups to hunt down ronin. As Toni and I expected, they filtered back into the village, never finding any ronin to attack. Some didn't return: they must have found ronin and regretted it.
My horde was smarter than that, plus they had no particular animosity to the ronin anyway. I rested and Toni set up a perimeter guard. Eventually, Donku's wagon arrived, and Meili came walking in around the rice paddies. It was her arrow, then. She'd set herself up on a hill to watch, ready to send an arrow into Niban's eye when needed. Against my orders, of course, but she'd been right in doing so. I should have given better orders. She, too, had stood down when Niban gave up the Princess. She stared at me rather fixedly for a few moments, then made herself part of Toni's perimeter guard and watched the samurai straggle back into the now-deserted village. Meili was quiet for days, barely even speaking with Fibi.
I'd messed up everything and essentially caused the Princess' death, for all that Fibi dragged her back from the world of the dead. All for the sake of wanting to know what happened. And, I had to admit, because I hated feeling like my actions were dictated by someone else.
Toni spoke to the Princess, asking her questions about her ordeal. She ignored him. Peter tried to speak to her as well, and determined she was fine but simply sat unmoving, refusing to speak, with her eyes closed. Fibi gently tried to speak with her, and again received no response. I sighed.
I walked to the Princess and she immediately stood up when I reached her. She imperiously demanded that I take her back to Castle Gisu immediately. I bowed and said, "Hai."
It was evening, and it would have made more sense to remain here for the night. But It wouldn't be that hard to move along for a little while, making her feel we made some progress. Besides, that was a very clear order. We'd have marched out if every one of us were bleeding heavily, if it were two in the morning, and if it were blizzarding beside.
We returned to Castle Gisu three days later. The Princess refused to say anything about what happened. Her truth was that she had no idea who took her, and that's all I or anyone else would ever get from her.
The leader of our force was hailed as a great hero, of course. Toni was angered that he kept all the credit to himself. As far as anyone else knew, we had merely been part of the force and did nothing noteworthy. Toni wanted an excuse to challenge him to a duel over it. I shook my head: it truly didn't matter. The larger point is that a Phoenix saved the Princess, thus saving much honor for having allowed her to be kidnapped. I was still certain that some sort of retribution was on its way to me, for having brought dishonor to the Princess over the matter of her maid. His total non-acknowledgement of me convinced me that something was brewing, and he knew it. Giving me honor for this would reflect poorly on him.
At any rate, Toni agreed not to say -- or do -- anything and walked away muttering.
And here we are, at a much-subdued Winter Court. I can't denounce the false Princess. I have no one to stand with me, so it would accomplish nothing. Although I'm sure this will become a much larger problem later, I don't think anything can be done about it now. Somehow, I must discover for certain if it's Shinjo Gidayu I owe, or someone else after all. Someone out there needs to be taught that a Miyara is no man's pawn, to be used as needed and then discarded for greater gain.
The activities at Winter Court proceeded as they had before, but the castle seemed blanketed in a mental fog. Speech and songs were quieter, dancing not as joyful. Tempers frayed and several more duels took place. My horde and I were mostly ignored. I couldn't help feeling that someone's steel was pointing at my back.
To my surprise, the general drawing away from me did not extend to Akodo Rena. He continued to court me, and we spent several pleasant evenings simply talking about what warriors most enjoy talking about. I don't know why hashing over that fine dance between life and death is pleasant, but it is. Perhaps we're just reminding ourselves that we are still alive, after all. Perhaps there's little difference between two artisans discussing the finer points of wood-carving and two bushi discussing the finer points of killing. It was at least a distraction from the tension that otherwise surrounded us.
Perhaps that was simply a safe topic of conversation, since we never had a moment alone. I was adamant that nobody leave our suite unescorted by at least two others, and that included me. I didn't let on that I knew my horde drew straws to select each evening's two escorts. I was sad for them that I was the best entertainment available.
A week later, a messenger delivered a note from my father. Someone high up is ordering me to report to the magistrate of Ryoko Owari, immediately. Nobody ever leaves in the middle of Winter Court for a posting like this, and this was obviously the payback for my earlier activities. I know the city only by its evil reputation. The city is in the middle of Scorpion territory, and it's the center of the opium trade, utterly crime-ridden and known for its general and high level of corruption. Not to mention a political dead-end. I didn't have political ambitions, but it was easy to be forgotten once you were sent to Ryoko Owari. How long would I be stuck there? I was not even assigned as the magistrate -- as bad as that would be -- but merely as his assistant. Her? I could not for the life of me remember who the magistrate was. Had I ever known? Had the post changed in the years I'd been gone? What did he, or she, need an assistant for so suddenly?
Despite this being a very clear message of ire from someone I shouldn't annoy -- despite this being a blow to my personal honor and certainly my status and despite this being a posting to the least desirable city in the Empire -- somehow my heart feels just a little lighter to be leaving the oppressive air of Winter Court. No one in Ryoko Owari knows me, so I have no specific enemies there yet. That probably won't last long, I must admit. But still. Open corruption somehow seems freer than the hidden agendas of court.
Although I'll miss Rena-san.