Chapter 112: Thorns in the Garden
It was pretty big year for predators. The marketplace was on a roll, and the land of opportunity spawned a whole new breed of men without souls. This year notoriety got all confused with fame, and the devil is downhearted babe, 'cause there's nothing left for him to claim.
He said, "It's just like home, it's so low-down I can't stand it. I guess my work around here has all been done."
And the fruit is rotten, the serpent's eyes shine as he wraps around the vine in the Garden of Allah.
~ Don Henley,
"In the Garden of Allah"
We had a cold lunch, and then spent the rest of the day in our own personal pursuits. Followed by something of a pick-up dinner. I hoped my cook would whip the kitchen into shape quickly.
I spent the afternoon very carefully writing two scrolls. I need to report to Doji Satsume, the Emerald Champion, and tell him exactly so much and no more. Then, I needed to inform The Miyara more fully of the situation and write the whole thing in code, so that it appeared to be no more than a daughter's personal letter to her father. I needed to refer to the enclosed scroll as something banal that a courier wouldn't believe significant, but also within the code tell my father exactly what it was and where it needed to go. And so it took me all afternoon to write two fairly short scrolls. I was happy with the results, in the end.
The bundle was ready for the courier that I requested when he arrived at the magistrate's house. I gave him his instructions and sent him off. It will be many weeks before I see a reply, and by that time, the situation is likely to have resolved itself one way or another.
The evening I spent alone. After being on the road for the last month, simply soaking in a hot tub was delightful.
Donku managed a small, though entirely acceptable breakfast. We discussed Doji Furede's report on how Ashidaka died.
Four months ago, Ashidaka burned to death in his carriage. One of his deputies (a ronin called True Word) died at the scene, beaten and stabbed to death a few paces outside the carriage. It's believed that someone jammed the door shut to trap him. To Toni's question, Furede said the investigation was handled by one of the governor's magistrates.
An Emerald Magistrate's death should be investigated by an Emerald Magistrate. Of course, he was dead and couldn't investigate his own murder. Again, the report by the governor's magistrate should have been presented to the Emerald Magistrate. Who, as mentioned already, was dead.
Depending on how my initial interview with the governor goes, perhaps I will ask for the report, since I am acting for the new magistrate. I need to step carefully: I must act boldly enough that no one will question my status, but not so boldly that someone will question my status.
Towards the end of breakfast, Doji Furede reported to me. The bookkeeper, Jorege, was here and awaiting my convenience. Later this morning, around 10:30, I have a meeting with Asako Kinto, the leading Phoenix in this city. Furede said he'd probably show off his gardens, and that sounded pleasant enough. At 3 this afternoon, I have an appointment with the governor, Shosuro Hyobu.
We finished breakfast, and then convened to the magistrate's office, where I had Jorege brought up. He bowed low and looked at me expectantly.
"I am Miyara Miwa, and I am acting for new magistrate, who has not yet arrived. I need to put everything in order for him." I told him he needed to tell me what I needed to know about the former magistrate's dealings.
He again bowed. "I had the great honor and fortune to be Ashidaka's bookkeeper."
"I would like to see the accounts you kept."
"All of the official books are kept in that cabinet."
"And what of the unofficial books?"
"I also had the honor of keeping Ashidaka's personal books. They now reside with his widow."
"Do you still have a key to this cabinet?"
"I need the key."
"I would be honored to show your ladyship the books and give you a rundown on the tax collection."
"That's acceptable. Please do so now."
He unlocked the cabinet, took out several bundles of scrolls, and spread them out on a table. I was glad he did, in fact, have the key. I took a close look at the cabinet last night. It's very well-built and solid. We could certainly have broken into it, but it would have taken a great deal of effort and resulted in the complete destruction of it. Not a good way to begin, I didn't think.
We all crowded around him and he explained the accounts for the next several minutes. I hoped Grieg, with his background, or someone -- anyone -- else understood what he said, because he might as well have been speaking Chin to me. Oh, many of the words made sense. Just not all put together.
And then Fibi observed quietly, in Imperial, "He's being intentionally obscure, although not precisely deceitful. He's making this a lot more complicated than it really is, I think."
Meili responded in Imperial, "Either he wants to keep his job, or he has reasons to keep the accounts he handled obscure."
Jorege asked, trying to be casual, "Is it known when the new magistrate will be arriving? I am interested in continuing on under the new magistrate."
That gave me the handle I needed for him. I smiled and replied, "I am acting for the magistrate, and I can keep you in this job. Of course, I am more inclined to do so if you can make me understand the accounts clearly."
He quickly changed his strategy and explained things in very clear numbers. There was so much cash -- tens of thousands of koku in taxes due the emperor. There was a hefty sum that various people owe and are behind on. He showed how much we will be collecting next tax month (come spring). He pointed out the magistrate's yearly stipend of 500 koku, which is solely for paying for the magistrate's household and office needs. Of course, the new magistrate has not used any of it, since he hasn't arrived.
Fibi said in Imperial that he was entirely truthful and as clear as he knew how to be. Indeed, he was very clear, and I had no difficulty understanding where we stood.
I had Sun brought up to take over running the household. In Imperial, he said he believed it better if I formally hired Jorege, and I offered Jorege the job.
Carefully, he replied, "I was honored to keep both the imperial books and Ashidaka's personal books. Will the magistrate require both services?"
Hm, that was a poser. Needless to say, I had no idea whatsoever what the magistrate might want. And so I told him that for now I was hiring him to take care of the Imperial accounts, and when the magistrate arrives, he can make the final decision based on whether he's pleased.
He thanked me very much, packed up the scrolls, and placed them back into the cabinet. He took the extra key from the cabinet and said "This is the magistrate's key to this cabinet. Would you like it, or would you like me to leave it in the cabinet?"
Jorege had his own, and would be here taking care of the accounts. I saw no reason I had to carry around a key myself, plus I have a mighty fine line to walk between taking too many liberties and doing what needed doing. I told him to lock it back into the cabinet. Meili's words in Imperial, "plausible deniability," echoed my feelings precisely.
He nodded and placed the key back on the shelf. "There's also a letter here from Doji Satsume, the Emerald Champion, to the new magistrate. Would you like to forward it to him or leave it in the cabinet?"
"No, leave it where it is: he is coming here." I hoped, or at least thought I hoped. This time, I ignored Meili's suggestion of steaming the letter open to read it. Tempting though it was: it may hold exactly the answers I needed. Like, was I really the magistrate's assistant and why?
Next he pointed to a box in the cabinet. It was the strongbox, which held 142 koku for the new magistrate's household expenses. I figured he and Sun could work things out. Sun immediately asked for 10 koku, to get things moving, and added to me in Imperial, "It might be convenient if we had a key to this cabinet."
Well, he was right, since this is apparently where the household funds are. Applying to Jorege for access to household petty cash would be inconvenient and hardly conducive to convincing everyone that I am acting for the magistrate. So I told Jorege to give me the magistrate's key after all, and then I dismissed him.
We set out in the late morning sun to visit Asako Kinto. He lived in one of the larger strictly residential houses. I knew he was an elderly gentleman, but I was not prepared for just how elderly he was. His skin was like paper, and he looked like he might blow away in a stiff wind. His voice was the cracked, gravely voice of the very old. He spoke hesitantly, and seemed to be a little hard of hearing. We exchanged all the necessary pleasantries, and he did indeed invite us to view his gardens, which were somewhat wild-looking.
He asked after my mother, and I told him she was well. He nodded and was obviously pleased to hear that. "That is good to know. I knew your mother when she was a child."
"I will tell her next I see her that I met with you and that you asked after her." I was sure she'd be glad to hear of him. She probably assumed he was long dead.
"Thank you." We walked along the path for a moment, and he asked, "How can I be of service to the daughter of Miyara Ujimitsu?" Although he used my father's personal name, it was obvious that he also meant the daughter of the Phoenix Champion, which carried additional implications.
I replied, somewhat obliquely, "I am here in Ryoko Owari as the assistant to the new Emerald Magistrate, who hasn't yet arrived. I have never been here before, and I know no-one. Nor do I know anything about the city itself aside from the rumours everyone hears."
He said nothing for some minutes, and we walked slowly through the garden. It was obvious that he very much wanted to return to tending it, as now and then he would begin to turn towards a plant, and then remember suddenly he was acting host to visitors.
His silence grew uncomfortable, until he finally said, more haltingly even that he had spoken thus far, "Ashidaka was an intelligent and honorable man in a city of fools and charlatans. You and your new master will not find your way here an easy one. Who is to be the new magistrate?"
Rats swarming outside;
Would you throw another out,
To drive them away?
~ Doji Naruko
"A Bayushi," he repeated with raised eyebrows. I nodded. He quoted a popular haiku by Doji Naruko on the futility of putting another rat amongst rats, but he substituted the word scorpion for the word rat. Then he continued, slowly and carefully, "I'm sorry that I will be unable to provide you with much useful advice. I am less active now than I used to be, and I concentrate on my personal studies."
Meili whispered to herself in Imperial, "This starts to make sense. I'm not sure I like the sense it's making, but it does make sense." I only heard her because she had pulled in close to me to avoid walking into the bough of something thorny that overhung the path. And yes, I saw my possible path forward suddenly become much narrower.
"If I can be of any service to you, please let me know," I said to him. I hoped he knew it was more than mere formality.
"You are more than kind," he nodded solemnly, "and I to you."
Looking around rather vaguely, he noticed Fibi, who had stopped to stare at some plant I didn't recognize. Beaming, he walked to her side and launched into a lengthy and detailed description of the plant: where it was from, the care it needed, some folk tale about it, and Fibi listened and nodded, while never taking her eyes off the plant.
As this speech trailed off, another plant caught his attention and he began rambling on about it. I was pretty sure I'd found out all I was going to. I didn't want to tire the old man, and I knew he wanted to return to working in his beloved garden. So I listened and waited for him to get to a good stopping point so I could politely bring the meeting to a close.
However, just as I had an opening, I noticed Fibi had sat down in front of "her" plant and had gone off into one of her trances. I did not want to try to interrupt her, and I couldn't leave her here. So I listened again to more than I ever wanted to know about yet another plant.
At last, he began to lose steam. Fibi was still away. After a moment of uncomfortable silence in which I could think of nothing to say, he asked if he'd told me if he knew my mother. I nodded, and he was off into telling me a story about her.
It wasn't a significant story, although I remember mother saying something about it. It happened not too long before she married my father, as I recalled. I wondered if that meant Asako Kinto saw little difference between a young girl and a young woman about to be married -- not unusual for someone of his age -- or if he'd known her for most of her young life, from girlhood to her marriage, when she moved away to her new home.
I was going to ask, but somehow the story of my mother reminded him of another story, which he began telling. To my great interest, this was an old tale, a bit of clan history. I'd heard a few pieces of it, but never in whole, and never the way he told it. I realized he knew more about this tale than anyone I knew, which is saying something. Phoenix is a clan full of historians who like to repeat the stories to anyone who will listen. I've spent many evenings listening to histories with my brothers and cousins.
I listened avidly, asking questions he was only too happy to answer, and we moved through several related histories in that way. Finally, I noticed Fibi was standing up again, and Asako Kinto was beginning to look a little weary. I will call on him again, that is certain. But for now, I drew the meeting to a close, and we returned to the house for lunch.