Chapter 9: Hot Blood and Cold Vengeance
We had our assassin: Rika. We still didn't know why. For her own reasons, or someone else's? And I still wondered about the comb's part in all this. If she wasn't a geisha -- except that she had been at Kumiko's since she was a child -- then who was she?
No more theories: it was time to speak directly with Rika, which meant the Lady Miyara had to get us past the Lord Tsume. She opened the door, and we all walked to him at the other end, accompanied by the music of the nightengale floor. The Tsume waited for Lady Miyara to tell him who killed his father.
Instead, she said, "I am not sure yet who was ultimately responsible for your father's death. I have one more lead to follow, and I believe I will have an answer for you very soon."
"Do you know who the assassin is?" he asked her.
"I am not completely certain, no."
"But you suspect?"
"There are two possibilities. I think I can clear that matter up very quickly if you will let us on our way."
"What do you intend to do when you find the assassin?"
I wondered that myself. What was Nipponese justice like? The lady answered, "It somewhat depends on who the assassin is, but I suspect that I will need your help in ferreting out the one responsible behind it."
"When you discover who the assassin is, would you do me the honor of allowing me to know before you carry out justice?"
"Yes, I will do so."
With a clear goal, the Lady Miyara moved quickly. We stopped shortly at the Golden Peony, and she obviously begrudged every moment, even the necessary ones. She wanted everyone to be fully armed and armored. She didn't take the time to argue Mehli out of changing back into the plain clothes she was more confortable in. She looked askance at Tony for bringing her cook Donku along, but again didn't take the time to argue. Sun joined as well.
Before long, we found ourselves in front of the Pine. It was a small building, smaller than the Golden Peony. It appeared to have a similar design, though, with rooms arranged in a square around a central courtyard. I think it's a common theme.
The lady told Tony to form a guard around the outside, to be sure that no one escaped. Grieg, Donku, and Sun remained outside to help. Lady Miyara wanted Mehli to also stay outside, but she refused. She wanted to stay with me and make sure I was safe, and the lady wanted me with her to judge Rika's honesty. Their battle of will ended in a draw, I think, but Mehli won her point. I think I would be perfectly safe with the lady, but I was happy Mehli was there to watch over me. If there was danger inside, Mehli was right: the lady would want backup.
Besides, Mehli's concern warmed me all through.
Troop arrangement settled, the lady knocked on the door to the Pine. When no one answered, she tested the door and found it barred. Then she pounded loudly on the door, and shouted for someone to open the door. I thought she might put her fist through it, just on principal, but a deep male voice called out that he was coming. She ceased her pounding, and a large man opened the door.
He told the lady they were closed. She demanded Rika, but he said Rika wasn't there. Having little patience left, she told him to fetch Kumiko instead. He agreed, reluctantly I thought, and went inside on his mission. Lady Miyara thwarted his intentions of shutting the door on us, and we four -- Lady Miyara, Mehli, Peter, and me -- walked into the front room of the Pine.
The lady waited several minutes, far longer than I thought she had the patience for, before deciding to look for Kumiko herself. The Pine was indeed arranged like the Golden Peony, only it had just the rooms on the courtyard side and none on the outside of the hallway. The hall actually ringed the building on the outside. Mehli and I went to the left to open doors and look for Rika or Kumiko. Peter and the lady went to the right.
The rooms were all empty until we got to the back corner. Mehli opened the door to find an elderly woman sitting at breakfast, a scroll laying open for her to read. She was talking to the big man who had opened the door for us, though.
Mehli asked, "Where's Rika?"
"Who are you?" the old woman asked.
The woman said coldly, "We are not open. We're never open for you. Leave now."
"I'm here at the bidding of the magistrate of Miyara."
"She needs to speak with Rika."
"She went out this morning."
Mehli asked me if she was telling the truth. I hurriedly consulted the spirits, and they assured me she was lying. "No," I told Mehli, looking at the woman.
Mehli asked her, "Who are you?"
"Kumiko, proprietoress of the Pine House." She stood up to deal with us more firmly.
Mehli shouted back, "Lady Miyara, Kumiko is here!"
The lady came at a run. She took in the situation with a glance, and said sternly to Kumiko, "I need Rika now."
Kumiko suddenly looked a little frightened, and no wonder. Even at rest, the lady cannot be mistaken for anything but a hardened warrior. When she tries to look threatening, she's downright scary.
But Kumiko was on her territory, and she only gave a little ground. She steeled herself and stood up to Lady Miyara, saying, "Rika went out this morning and I don't know where she is. But she will be back in time for opening tonight."
This time I was paying closer attention. When Miyara asked me if that was the truth, I consulted the spirits. This time, what she said was true. I'm not sure if a mischievous spirit lied to me the first time, or if he decided the partial truth just wasn't enough to be considered true to him.
Lady Miyara told Kumiko that when Rika returned that evening, she was not to be allowed to leave the Pine house. The lady would leave one of her men here to bring work to her immediately. And nobody was to leave the Pine all day, until the lady gave them leave. On the way out, Mehli and Lady Miyara exchanged a few words, but I was thinking about Rika and didn't listen to them over the spirits' buzzing in my head.
The lady spoke with Tony outside, and a young boy offered to take her directly to Rika. She gave hurried instructions to Tony, and we left quickly
Tony, Grieg, and Donku stayed behind to guard the Pine House. The rest of us jogged after Lady Miyara and the boy through the town. As we passed a few men palying dice and turned into an alley, Mehli and the lady said in unison, "This looks like a trap." Alerted, I looked around and got an uneasy feeling. Nevertheless, neither my Mehli nor Lady Miyara slowed their progress, and Peter, Sun, and I followed them into the dead-end alley. I trusted their instincts and their ability to handle the situation, whatever it might be. And there are spirits I can call on for assistance as well, for us all.
Halfway down, the boy pointed to one of the doors at the end and said Rika was in there. I thought he was telling the truth, but I didn't have time to consult the spirits. The alley was just a narrow street lined with the rude hovels of the poor. Something every town has, even our own. Although none of us have the rich castles of the nobility.
We stopped in front of the door, and the boy waited with us. I glanced up the alley to see the men had gotten up from their game and were slowly approaching us. They were armed and armored. We were cornered and outnumbered, their several to Mehli and lady Miyara.
The lady knocked loudly on the door. Several doors around us opened, and more armed and armored men came out. Oh, this was looking very bad. Still, Mehli and the lady did not seem worried in the least. Suddenly, the boy looked worried. I don't think he expected this at all: he was honest in his mission, for all he'd led us into an ambush.
The door before us had not opened at the lady's knock. She tested it, and said it was barred. She stepped back and delivered one well-placed kick. The door flew open, and we saw yet another armed and armored man inside.
The Lady did not attack him. Instead, she held a calm, measured discussion with the man. She told him she meant no harm to Rika, she wished only to speak with her. The man insisted on being told the subject of the conversation, which of course Lady Miyara refused to tell him. He drew his sword and attacked her while she was still trying to speak reasonably with him. I sent a nervous look at the men who were still slowly walking towards us. No escape, that was certain. Peter, Sun, and I put our backs to the wall, and I placed my confidence in Mehli and Lady Miyara. I felt for the spirits that are always nearby.
My Mehli yelled threats and insults at the men who had not yet attacked us, and stood ready to battle them. She was genuinely eager for the fight, and I could tell she was barely holding herself back from springing at them at once.
Within seconds, the lady stepped inside and told us to follow her in. She instructed Mehli to close and bar the door, then remembered she'd broken it. Instead, she told Mehli to guard the door.
Peter, Sun, and I leapt inside, and Mehli met the blows of the first attacker (after more insults yelled at them). I saw Lady Miyara's attacker on the ground inside the hut, still alive. Before I could make a move to take care of him, the lady neatly sliced his head off.
I drew back, and felt for Arati. She was quiet, but still ready to heal anyone I asked. She doesn't approve of Lady Miyara, but doesn't blame me for the deaths she causes.
Anyway, we were now being actively assaulted by a much larger force. I had other concerns. I summoned up Pardu and felt him form the invisble protective shield around me. Then I summoned a spirit I don't particuarly like. She is hungry, and she steals the vitality of mortals, if she is brought into this world. I don't like her, but she always answers me, and she has helped me greatly in the past.
I turned to the door, and realized Mehli blocked the entire doorway. If I sent Marlen towards Mehli's adversary, she was just as likely to attack Mehli instead. I concentrated another second, locking in the location of the one I wanted Marlen to take. I yelled to Mehli, "Duck," but of course she was too busy to heed me. Nevertheless, I loosed Marlen in the direction I had set so carefully, and she was true! The man kept his feet, but I could see he was suddenly weakened somewhat. Another, and he might very well collapse, unconscious.
But before I could call Marlen to me again, it was Mehli who collapsed instead, felled by a mighty swing of the samurai's sword. I cried out, but lady Miyara was faster than I. She sprang forward, dragged Mehli out of the door, and drew her swords on Mehli's attacker.
Peter and I pulled Mehli further from the door, and I felt for her spirit. Thankfully, she was still alive. I called Arati to me, and she responded gladly. She repaired the worst of the damage done to my Mehli, draining my own strength and feeding it into Mehli. Peter then gently held my hand and prayed for his spirit Shallia to restore me, and she did. I allowed Arati to drain me again, and Mehli opened her eyes. Peter restored me partially, enough for the time being, and sat to rest, tired himself.
Mehli grinned at me and gave me a quick pat on the head. I smiled at her, and she stood up, ready to back up the Lady Miyara. She shouted out to her opponents, "Haha! Takes more than that to take down the Sea Bitch!" But she turned for a heartbeat and said quietly to me, "Thanks, love."
Seeing her standing there -- brandishing her rapier, insulting her enemies, eager for more battle -- was all the thanks I needed. But her whispered words warmed my heart and sent shivers down my spine.
At that moment, I felt I would do anything for my Mehli.
Turning to the door, I saw the lady had landed several terrible blows on her adversary, who had yet to touch her. Mehli grinned ferociously, eager to get back into the fight. At once, the men outside drew back into a semi-circle. Lady Miyara's attacker only limped a few faltering steps before falling to the ground. The men outside and Mehli and the lady regarded each other silently for a moment.
My Mehli spoke first, assuming the win, "So now that's settled, where's Rika?"
Calmly, gently, Lady Miyara said, "I only want to speak with Rika."
They did not believe her, and apparently believed she and Mehli would take them all down, one by one. After seeing them both in action, I believed it too. They nodded to each other and retreated, leaving their wounded comrade behind. They were right to fear my spirit lover and the Nipponese samurai we served.
The two valiant warrior ladies cleaned and put their weapons away as the men who outnumbered them at least 3 to 1 now turned and ran.
The boy had disappeared, safely I hoped. Rika was certainly not here. Peter leaned against the hut's wall, eyes closed. He was ready to leave immediately if we needed to, but he was very tired.
Mehli and lady Miyara quickly searched the hut and the dead body. The lady picked up his sword, cleaned it, and gave it and its partner to Sun to carry. The lady had said something I missed, I guess, because Mehli asked to her explain what "ronin" are.
Samurai are beholden to their lord. A samurai without a lord is ronin. These that attacked us today were ronin. I think what makes any given samurai into a ronin is complicated, but essentially, a ronin is outside the bounds of society, an outcast. She said a ronin is a samurai who has lost his honor and whose lord has cast him out.
Mehli laughed, a little sadly. Lady Miyara looked questioningly at her, but Mehli didn't explain. I think she feels that ronin is a pretty good description of her.
I thought maybe, if Rika had been here, perhaps the spirits of the room might tell me. If her being here was somehow associated with a highly charged event. And if I could see beyond the fight and the death that just took place here.
Lady Miyara nodded her consent. I told Mehli I might need a rope, and she said she'd be here, as always. I sat down, and Mehli sat down with me. I closed my eyes and sent myself into the trance. I carefully anchored myself and then felt out the room. I called the spirits to me, and I asked for any spirits who had been affected by anything in the last ten days or so.
I received multiple reports of our activities, which I had buffered myself against, knowing what to expect. But nothing else. I opened my eyes to see Mehli watching me protectively. I smiled, but admitted, "I don't think anything important has happened here."
The lady shrugged, not expecting anything different. I was about to get up when Mehli asked, "What about the dead ronin? Could you find and speak with his spirit, like you did with Tsume Retsu's?"
Hm. That was a good question. I had never tried to reach the spirit of someone so recently dead. His spirit might be awfully hard to find. But the lady was willing to wait for while longer. I asked what I should ask him. Lady Miyara offered, "Who hired him? Where's Rika?" Mehli said "We really want to know who ordered the death of Tsume Retsu. Rika can go free. If he can gives us what we need, then we don't even need Rika and he's protected her."
I fixed those questions in my mind, cast myself into the spirit world, and went searching. Fruitlessly. I could not find him. Either he wasn't here, or he refused to answer me. He was so recently dead, I wondered if his spirit had even found the other side of the veil yet.
Defeated, I returned and reported my failure. Again, I received philosophical shrugs. It had been worth a try. We hadn't lost much time, and Peter was nearly recovered now.
The lady swung the wounded man onto her shoulder, and we left. I'd already felt for him, but he was still alive and not about to die. Unconscious, he felt no pain. Peter and Mehli looked into each hut as we passed it. Most were empty. A few had people inside, huddling in fright and misery, wondering if we were going to kill them. We asked them all if anyone knew Rika or the boy who led us here. They denied knowledge, and it was obvious they spoke the truth.
We returned to the Pine House, where Lady Miyara told Tony what had happened. Sun made himself available to Tony, who rearranged everyone a little. He said something about guarding now against an assault from outside rather than escape from within.
Mehli, Peter, the lady, and I went inside with the wounded man. Lady Miyara picked a room and lay the man on the floor. She asked me to heal him just enough to answer questions. I ignored her: Arati and I gave the man everything I had, and Peter restored me as necessary. The man was nearly dead, and everything I had wasn't quiet enough to restore him to full health, and still Peter and I were left fatigued. But Arati and I were satisfied, and the man was well enough he would continue to recover on his own easily, and he would not be in pain and helpless in the meantime.
His eyes opened and stared, uncomprehendingly, into mine before I moved away. He blinked and found Lady Miyara standing over him. An intimidating sight, I imagine. He rolled over onto his stomach and stayed there until the lady told him to sit up. Then he got onto his knees and bowed to her, remaining in that back-breaking posture while the lady questioned him.
I was a little tired, but I paid attention. It was important to know whether he told us the truth or not. I nodded to the lady at her glance. I was ready.
"Do you know where Rika is?"
"No." She looked over at me and I nodded. That was the truth.
"Why are you guarding her?"
"I am not."
"Who do you currently work for?"
"I'm not currently working for anyone." She glanced my way and I told her that was also true.
"What then were you doing?"
"Ito requested we help him deal with you."
"Who is Ito?"
"Ito was the man you spoke with in the house."
"Who was Ito working for?"
"I don't know." The spirits told me that wasn't quite the truth, and I told the lady so.
"Tell me what you do know."
"Ito was well-liked around here. He helped out a lot. He was a good man, and a good leader. I don't believe he was working for anyone." That was the truth, and I said so.
"Why do you think he set himself against us? We've offered no harm to anyone."
"He didn't tell me." Truth again.
"Tell me what you know about Rika."
Before he spoke, Kumiko threw open the door and demanded, "What are you doing in my house?"
Mehli threatened her, "Not killing you, which would be our right.". I don't think she had completely removed herself from the fight that ended so quickly.
Lady Miyara turned and said in an ice-cold voice, "Renting a room."
Kumiko, entirely deflated by that answer, muttered, "Oh, OK." She left, closing the door behind her.
"Now, Rika." The lady turned back to the ronin on the floor.
"She's a geisha in the Pine house. She's rumoured to be seeing Tsume Takashi. She is friends with Ito."
"Do you know Rika?"
"I have met her."
Mehli moved in for a few questions next. "Who trained her in the sword?"
He looked up from the carpet, with a look of unmistakable surprise on his face, which turned into disbelief. A geisha, trained to the sword! Anyone could see he had no idea that Rika knew the sword.
Mehli asked him, "Who killed Tsume Retsu?"
"I heard it was witches."
"I didn't ask you what you heard."
"That's all I know."
Mehli turned to me, but I was tired and had lost the spirits. I shook my head and tried to contact them again. She asked next, "Do you know anyone who was plotting against Tsume Retsu?"
Again she turned to me and again I had to let her down with a shrug.
The lady Miyara turned to me as well. While they both had their attention on me, the ronin they interrogated took the slim chance and sprang to his feet, intending to leap for safety out the window.
He only made a few steps. The lady launched herself at him and brought him down in a tackle. My Mehli drew her rapier and struck at him, but she pinked the lady in the arm instead. Only because of her armor, which turned the blade aside. Otherwise, I think Mehli would have stuck her rapier right through the lady.
Still pinning him to the floor, Lady Miyara spoke quietly to him. "Wait, I'm going to let you go. I just want you to know that I intend no harm to Rika. I just want to talk to her. You can tell that to anyone else, inclding her if you see her." She stood up and away from him, holding her hands visibly away from her weapons. Mehli took her cue and stood away as well, sheathing her rapier. The man cautiously stood up, watching for any threatening moves. He walked through the door, and the lady followed him, as did the rest of us. Outside, she told Tony to let the man leave peacefully, and he did.
My Mehli said, "A cask of sake says this was a peasant's revolt and not high-class politics." We all laughed, but I don't think any of us believed it.
After more thinking and talking, we asked people around town who Ito was. They were all happy to disuss Ito: he was popular with them. Nobody knew who he was beyond Ito the ronin. He lived a little out of town, and simply helped people. He did odd jobs for them, he fixed their houses, he protected the town from bandits and chased thieves away. He was friendly with Rika, and they spent a lot of time together. Mistress Kumiko didn't approve of Ito. He was merely a ronin and Rika was worth more than that. She greatly preferred Tsume Takashi for her lover.
Perhaps Rika was at Ito's house, then? We received directions and found a tiny hut near a small shrine. It felt neglected, and I whispered a quick prayer of encouragement to its spirit. I felt a tiny whisper of thanks.
Ito's house was smaller even than the poor huts in the alley, but it was scrupulously neat and clean. Lady Miyara looked in, and Peter peeked around, too. He said, "That's Rika." I heard a woman's voice say, "Come in." The lady did so and beckoned me to follow. Mehli followed me.
Inside was as neat and clean as the outside. In the back of the tiny room was a small family shrine. Rika, dressed as a peasant girl rather than as a geisha, sat by the fire making tea and cooking fish. She offered to perform the tea ceremony for us, and the lady accepted.
The three of us knelt on the clean, wooden floor. The men remained outside: the four of us filled the tiny hut. THe lady watched Rika carefully, and we all followed along in the ceremony. At the end of it, she offered us some of the fish to eat.
Finished, Rika sat silent for a moment. She had no more activity to hide behind. She looked at Lady Miyara, calm and unafraid, and asked, "Are you going to kill me here?"
"No I'm not," the lady answered her peacefully. "Will you tell me why you killed him?"
"Yes." She paused a moment before entering into her story.
"This is my confession. Two decades ago, Tsume Retsu defeated my father and took the castle as his own."
Oh. That's who Rika is. That explains the comb: Rika was the high-born lady masquerading as a geisha, for all that she actually was a geisha. And of course, her motive for killing the man was the strongest of all. Personal, not merely political.
Her father and brothers were killed. Her mother and her brothers' wives killed themselves to avoid capture and dishonor. Most of the family samurai were killed in battle or killed themselves afterward. She was sold into slavery, to Kumiko.
Horrific. An entire family, wiped out in an afternoon. For nothing but personal gain. A small child, sold to another to be used in whatever way the buyer desired. I fought those emotions down: the fear, anger, pain. The terror of a small child, death all around her. Mehli, intent on Rika's story, nevertheless felt me shivering and put her arm around my shoulders. Her strength helped me fight off those feelings that didn't belong to me.
Ito was one of the family samurai. A few of them didn't actually die, but escaped to become ronin, Ito among them. Instead of making a place for himself among the landless ronin, he remained in the town, watching over the townspeople and Rika.
As she grew up, he told her the stories of her family and their downfall. He trained her in the use of the sword. And one day she met Tsume Takashi. She used all her training as a geisha to make him fall in love with her, although she felt nothing for him in return. She and Ito planned the murder carefully. She slipped into the castle past a guard who she always bribed to let her in. She gave her Tsume lover drugged wine to put him asleep. Then she climbed up into the ceiling with her hidden sword and emerged in the Tsume's room. Taken unawares by his son's lover, he allowed her close enough to finally the use the moves she'd practiced so long under Ito's eyes. Then she climbed back to Tsume Takashi's room, spent the usual amount of time there, and left, all as usual. Past the guards who were used to seeing her, and who would of course never admit to her presence to others.
With admiration in her voice, Mehli said, "That sounds pretty darn honorable."
Honorable? Where was honor in all this? I saw only death, destruction, deceit, and vengeance. As much as Mehli disdains nobility, she still thinks that way herself.
So much, wasted. And I wondered what Lady Miyara would do with Rika. Kill her? She had promised to give the information to Tsume Takashi first, and I thought perhaps that he knew, or guessed, by that time. Would she drag Rika to Tsume Takashi, and throw her at his feet? This is your father's murderer. The woman you love. I shuddered again, and Mehli's arm tightened briefly across my shoulders.
Lady Miyara asked Rika, "What are your intentions now?"
"Ito and I have plans to leave here and get as far away from here as we can."
"So you intend to live out your life as ronin?"
"Yes. Well, no. At least initially." I wondered how carefully she had thought about what happens to a life devoted to vengeance when that vengeance is over.
"I'm afraid Ito is dead."
I felt a wave of sadness from her, but she steadied herself rapidly, accepting one more death.
Lady Miyara asked her, "Knowing that are you plans different or the same?"
Lady Miyara stood up, and we all stood with her. She gave Rika Ito's swords, and she accepted them, dry-eyed. They bid each other farewell, and we left.
It was near dark, the still-warm air perfumed by late summer flowers. The light of the two moons and the sounds of a summer evening followed us to the castle. For that is where Lady Miyara led us, with no delay.
We were greeted at the gate by guards who expected us and quickly led us through the spiral into the castle at its heart. Donku and Sun, as "mere" servants, were told to wait in an empty room while the rest of us "samurai" were taken into the room where Tsume Takashi awaited us.
He stood at an easel that held a scroll vertical, holding small jars of ink and a brush. He welcomed us warmly, bade us make ourselves comfortable, and had his servants pour sake for us. He finished a few more strokes, put his things down, and joined us.
The Lady Miyara, acting for all the world as though this were an ordinary social call, which seemed to be how Tsume Takashi was also treating it, told him she had a fable to tell him.
Told as a traditional Nipponese tale that placed it in another time, another place, and removed it from Rika herself, I suddenly saw the tragedy of honor it was. I silently asked the spirits to watch over Rika, and wiped tears from my eyes.
Tsume Takashi didn't seem completely surprised by the story. He asked the lady, "What happened to the heroine?"
"She slipped quietly into the dark night, never to be seen again."
He filled everyone's cups again, and announced his own fable. He told a story about a young man who didn't get along with his father, a hard man. He fell in love with a geisha. His father was so angry, he was going to send his son far away to school to remove him from the geisha's influence.
The young man had a difficult decision to make: defy his father and risk everything for his geisha, or bow to his father's wishes and lose his love. His lover visited him that night. The decision he had to make weighed so heavily on him, he fell asleep early and slept deeply until morning. He woke to discover his father was murdered in the night. The decision was lifted from his shoulders; he could keep his love.
But he shortly discovered his love had merely used him so she could kill his father. And so he lost her anyway, and his father.
These Nipponese live sad lives, all of them. I leaned against Mehli, taking comfort in what we had.
The room was silent for several minutes, and then Tsume Takashi asked the lady if she would be willing to carry a letter to her father. Of course she would.
It was all over. We took our leave from the Tsume and returned to spend a final night at the Golden Peony. I was never so glad to spend a night sheltered in another's arms.