Phoebe's Journey Part 4
Chapter 4: Up in Flames
Dinner over, you might expect the mood to turn relaxed. Mehli did her level best, pushing sake on everyone, but especially Tony and Grieg. You wouldn't expect Mehli of being such a romantic, but there you are. Lady Miyara left the table almost immediately, and the upright lady who is so careful of her honor came back later, having opened and read the letter meant for the magistrate.
And so, an evening of contradictions.
Me? I simply enjoyed the evening, sipping sake and watching the others.
The Lady tried to interest the group in her packet. She said it held an old history of Ryoko Owari, an infamous book called "Memoirs of an opium eater", and a visitor guide written fifty years ago that described the city in glowing terms. There were notes on customs, people, groups of people, places, and a map. I sighed quietly. I'd have loved to have been able to read through it. Their writing is very pretty. More like intricate little symbolic pictures than writing like I was used to. But Lady Miyara didn't teach it to any of us.
Tony asked the lady "who we should shake down for money". He was pretty well in his cups by that time, but not as merry as Mehli was hoping for. The lady said whoever owed back taxes would be listed in the records.
Then she suggested that Peter should speak with Eyebrows, the fellow who examined the dead bodies, tomorrow if possible. She summarized from the notes in her packet of scrolls. He was an herbalist and surgeon, and good at determining how someone died. He could tell what type of weapon caused a wound, how long ago, and from what direction, just by looking.
She looked up expectantly, but no one seemed very interested, not in Eyebrows, not in the information on Ryoko Owari and its people, not in the map of the city, not even in the gossip that was surely in there somewhere. Mehli was drinking and watching for some sort of entertainment that was not forthcoming from Grieg and Tony. Peter was mildly interested in Eyebrows, but little else. I was interested, but I'd had enough sake to insulate me from the world, and the spirits. I was enjoying the numbness and the silence.
She said nothing, and didn't show disappointment, if she felt any, and took her packet of scrolls to bed with her. Peter left soon after. Tony finally stumbled off, with Grieg following not too far behind. That left just Mehli and me, but not for long.
I opened my eyes to bright sunlight streaming in through the window. The sake had prompted a good night's sleep, and I felt full of energy. Donku's breakfast was excellent, of course. Tony was very grumpy, stomping around slamming stuff, and I could tell his head was pounding. He had that careful look. Grieg looked a bit concerned over his well-being. Sometime after breakfast, he talked with Peter, who talked Shalya into curing his hangover.
While we were still eating, Furedu reported that the city magistrate was here, ready to take us to the place where Ashidaka and True Word were killed. Lady Miyara said he could wait until we were finished, and she did not hurry her meal. The rest of us took our cue from her, and finished our meal at a reasonable rate instead of gulping it down.
We reconvened in the courtyard. Mehli, Tony, and Lady Miyara wore their everyday armor and their swords. Tony had reclaimed his katana and wakizashi. The rest of us dressed as usual as well. No fancy stuff today: back in our work clothes.
Sun had everything ready for us: horses and even the strange man-drawn contraption they call a rickshah here. It was for Peter, who preferred to ride in the wagons when the rest of us rode horses. The rickshah looked like it would be comfortable for Peter, but too crowded for more than one person. Unless the two was me and Mehli. Yes, that might be nice. Mehli gave Peter an evil little grin and said, "You know, the nice thing about horses, as opposed to carriages, is you can't be jammed inside one when it's set on fire". Peter didn't seem to care, especially since the rickshah was open.
We rode through the streets of the Noble Quarter, through the gate into the other part of the city, and then just a little ways further. We weren't terribly far from the Noble Quarter. There were plenty of people around, but we were on a side street and it wasn't very busy. The people steered clear of us. Respect, I think, since I felt no fear from them.
The city magistrate stopped and gestured, "This is it." I looked around: the street was fairly wide and there were genteel-looking shops around. They probably sold pretty things for ladies, but I had work to do. The general area was about the size of a tavern's public room, and there weren't scorch marks or anything, four months later. So I walked into the middle of the street where the city magistrate pointed, and sat down. Mehli stood right next to me, watching over me, and I felt safe as I slipped into a trance.
I didn't see the veil. At first, I just saw the street and thought I had missed somehow and was still on this side. Then I saw that the street and the shops were all empty. I stood alone, without Mehli, Tony, or anyone else alive. And everywhere I looked, the dead lay around me.
I've never seen anything like that. I usually see either no one or I see spirits of the dead. Spirits are spirits, not dead bodies. And I knew there were no dead bodies on the streets anyway.
So these were spirits of some sort. I looked around. I could see about fifty feet worth of road before it curved out of sight, and I counted twenty of the strange dead spirits, leaning against buildings, some sitting, some fallen. I walked out a bit, and they continued to line the streets in the same numbers.
I couldn't rouse any of them, but I did finally get some sort of feeling from them. They weren't dead, they were spirits. Just different from the ones I usually see.
They were very groggy or sick. Pale, washed out, emaciated, sickly. There was an unfamiliar odor, not death, nothing I recognized. Of course senses aren't the same on the other side, and the unknown often makes itself felt through the ordinary senses. Perhaps colors the eyes can't see become a slippery touch along one's arm. Or sounds beyond a human's ears become surges of unexpected emotions. Nobody stirred at my touch.
A fleeting thought ... it was as if they were drugged ... and it all came together.
Opium. That had to be the answer.
But how and why? Once you're dead, you're a spirit. You don't continue suffering from what killed you. How could the opium continue to affect the spirits of people already dead?
A puzzle, but not the one I was here for, and not one I was going to solve at that moment anyway. There were no other spirits here at all. Surely every resident of Ryoko Owari doesn't die from opium. Could the presence of the opium somehow affect the whole city, living and dead, like a miasma of a spiritual marsh gas?
Lost for answers, I returned to my body. Mehli still stood over me, protectively. I looked around for a moment before getting up, comparing the street of this side with the street of the other. This street was clean, vibrant, and alive. The other was dim and sleepy.
Tony walked over from a shop, and everyone looked expectantly at me. I wished I had something useful to tell them, but I did explain what I saw.
Tony pointed to another spot in the street, "There. That's where the carriage burned. You were sitting about where True Word was killed." Not that I found him.
I walked to exactly the point Tony indicated and sat down again, Mehli taking up guard over me. I made myself comfortable and closed my eyes. I wasn't really anxious to go back over. Would I just see more opium-addled spirits? Ashidaka had been dead four months. His spirit might very well have moved on elsewhere by now.
Enough. I cast myself across.
Orange. White. Licks of blue.
I drew in breath, and heat, unbearable heat, spread through me.
I was flame and fire, heat and light.
Flames! Heat! Fire! Burning!
One thought remained, and I tried to move, but I couldn't. Something held me in place.
Eyes and lungs, filled with flames. Skin, blackened and crumbled. Bones, cracking. Blood, boiling
All I was was fire.
Something cool in the middle of my head was still left, and it pulled me back into my body.
I woke up lying on the ground, with Peter's arms holding me and Mehli crouching right there, her eyes full of concern, and then welcome as she realized I was back.
Nothing hurt. The air was cold, and felt wonderful deep in my lungs. The cool presence at the core of my being must have been Mehli, of course. She pulled me back across the veil before the fire killed me.
For a moment, I simply lay there, enjoying the cold, crisp winter day and not going up in flames, and my Mehli smiling at me.
I explained the little I'd seen. This was certainly the exact place the Emerald Magistrate had died. I had felt what he felt as he died, horribly, in the flames. Tony asked why I didn't just move out of the way, and I explained because I'd been trapped, just as Ashidaka had been. I cast a grateful glance at Mehli, my saving grace.
He said thoughtfully, "So he's still trapped?"
"No, I don't think so. I didn't feel his presence, I just felt what he felt."
Perhaps, if I went across the veil nearby, but not quite on the spot exactly, I could find the spirit of the Emerald Magistrate himself. I felt no enthusiasm for the task, but it is what I am here for, after all.
Peter's spirit Shalya had only leant me strength, not cured whatever damage of the spirit had occurred. I looked deep within myself, found Arati, and she finished the healing. Then, it was time to visit the spirit world again.
Perhaps the spirits felt my reluctance: I did not find the one I needed. Or perhaps, he simply let go and is elsewhere. Four months is a long time. Although that burning would have been a powerful anchor. I shuddered. I may never feel the same about a fire -- not a campfire, nor a fire in a fireplace -- ever again. I can't forget the feeling of burning to death.