Tales of the Sea Bitch (5)

What Shall We Do with a Drunken Soldier?

    The title says this is the story where I find out about Tony.  That's exactly what it is.  Or rather, that's the center, the mainmast, amidships.  While finding out about Tony is the biggest personal achievement here, it's not really what the story is about.  It revolves around Tony and warm rice wine, but the story is in the wheel, not the axle.

    So once again, I'm starting with Phoebe.  I know she gets a lot of attention in these stories, but then she's really quite special.  She not only talks with spirits, but can even help break down the barriers between the world you think is real and the world you think is delusional but is just as real as ours.  Without her, in Castle Kyotei of the Tsume family of Crane clan and the village of Chizuken below, we would have learned so much less.
    Her spirits chose to tell us things through Phoebe that we could never have guessed, and while their message was cryptic and conveyed by feeling rather than words, it was so important to us.
    It's kind of fitting, actually.  Phoebe herself, to me at least, talks with feelings rather than words.  She was a stunning vision in those Nipponese clothes, the fine silk of the kimonos, her brown or green hair braided with beads and feathers, jewelry constantly catching the light as she moved, emphasizing her grace and beauty.  She smiles at me and it conveys a whole hour of romantic conversation.  She flips her hair over her shoulder and the way she does it tells me how she feels right now, whether she is tired, or hungry, or just wants us to sit a while together.  And when she brushes my hand with hers, the full depth of our feelings for each other flows both ways and lights our souls.

    But her focus isn't on me when this story starts.  When this story starts, she's sitting on the floor of Tsume Takashi's room talking with her spirits about the son of the murdered lord Tsume Retsu.

    When Phoebe drifted her consciousness back into our world, she told us about Tsume Takashi.  The young man, she said, felt he was not living up to the standards his father had set for him, and was not even sure he wanted to.  What he was sure of was that his father did not appreciate him.
    Small details, perhaps, for a ten minute trance.  Like everything Phoebe reveals, however, it's the details that make the difference, the feelings described, casting light on things we didn't know before.

    We'd examined a lot of the Tsume living area by now, but still had a few loose ends to tidy up.
    Tony kept insisting that the maid should be questioned.  Bearing in mind the unwillingness of the high ranking Nipponese to have much to do with servants, or even worse their despised lowest caste, I wondered aloud if our fat cook Donku could talk to her and get more than if one of us tried.  Sure, she didn't have to answers Donku's questioning whereas she would be required to answer Lady Miyara's, but for that very reason the answers might be more revealing.  Lady Miyara conceded that might have value, but would question the maid herself too.
    Tony also said we should talk to the people who prepared the body for burial, as he wanted to know about the injuries and whether it could have been self-inflicted and made to look like a murder, but that was wrong on so many levels in Nipponese culture that it was a good thing the General didn't hear him.
    Lady Miyara then asked General Shizuma something she'd obviously been holding back for some time, if anyone else was looking into Tzume Retsu's death.  The General said that no other special magistrates had been assigned.
    I had to wonder about that.  Why did only the Miyara family deem it necessary to investigate the death?  Perhaps they knew more about it that they were admitting.  Had Miyara Katsuda in fact been sent to assassinate Tsume Retsu, and we were here to ensure the job was covered up discreetly?  Certainly the orange obi bead -- remember that from the last story? -- pointed in that direction.  Still, while it was the Phoenix clan color, after all anyone could wear an orange bead, or even plant one in Retsu's rooms.  Evidence, sure, but easily deniable.
    At that we had no other questions, not about these rooms anyway.  The General asked where we wanted to see next, and Lady Miyara said the personal household armory would be a good place to start.

    Each garrison in Castle Kyotei would have its own armory, but of interest to Lady Miyara was the personal armory of the Tsume family, father and son, where we might run across Retsu's dagger, or pick out the weapon that might have killed him.
    When we actually entered the armory on the third floor, however, we had rather a shock.  The Tsumes had vastly more weapons and armor than would have been needed by their family of two, and picking out any individual item would be impossible.  Perhaps Retsu had been afraid of a revolt or mutiny, given how he was disliked, or perhaps he just liked the feeling of having all these instruments of violence stashed away.
    The room was small, about 12 by 12, and didn't contain any maintenance tools like an anvil.  It was simply a storage room for the Tsume tools of power.  Tony obviously approved, as he looking around with great interest, examining this weapon or that suit of armor with an appreciative eye.  Everything was of high quality, although there was nothing that stood out as exceptional.  It was all well organized, with nothing missing.
    Lady Miyara's interest, however, was in the chests stacked around the room.  After asking the General for permission to look in them, she went through them.  Several were empty, but many contained weapons of a little lesser quality than the ones on display, although still good.  Some of them were just packed full of weapons, but still there was no working class arms or armor in this room.
    There was no hope of identifying Tsume Retsu's dagger here without help, and in fact when Lady Miyara asked him, General Shizuma said that he didn't believe that the man had a specific personal dagger.
    We weren't going to find anything more here.  Lady Miyara thanked the General and said he'd shown us enough for the time being, and that we were ready to leave for the evening but would be back tomorrow.  He walked us to the end of the inner tower, then handed us over to a guard there to escort us the rest of the way out of Castle Kyotei.

    It as about 6 o'clock by then, and much to my surprise we were out of the castle while it was still light.  The late summer air was fresh and the breeze across the river brought the smell of water to us while we walked back to the village.  If we hadn't spent five days walking on roads, it would have been very pleasant.  If only the Nipponese used their waterways -- and built canals where there were none -- then we could have sailed to Castle Kyotei from Shira Miyara, and actually enjoyed the walk back to town that night a lot more.
    Still, any walk with Phoebe is a time to be enjoyed.  She moves with a grace and lightness that reveals how little she is bound to this earth, the jingling of her jewelry and swish of her light silk kimono reminding me of her when she's no longer wearing them.  She's a remarkable woman, this half-elf from the forest margin in far Kislev, and I was very glad that I could be so close to her when she was always only half in this world you call real.  I wondered, not for the first or last time, if she was right and that I was a spirit myself, and that was why we'd come together in such a sudden way, and found such physical and spiritual pleasure in each other.
    If someone had told me that I'd be lovers with a half-elf who talks to voices in her head and who thinks I'm a spirit in corporeal form, I'd never have believed them.  But then, I'd never have believed them if they'd have told me how great it would be, too.  And all from just making a pass at a crazy passenger on a ship in Tilea, not expecting her to respond or even to see her again after we hit the next port.  You had to wonder what force of nature made this come together.

    On the way back I resolved that this would be a good night to try to get Tony drunk, to find out why the boy had the look and habits of an old soldier.  He just seemed too young to have seen as many campaigns as it would have taken to get that look.  I also admit that while I did want him to loosen up and reveal something of himself, it was also well past time for some good old-fashioned shore leave release.  We'd been on the road for five days, so in my mind that counted like a month-long voyage, and we all deserved a chance to get drunk and rowdy.
    This being Nippon, however, the first order of business was a bath.  The hostess of the Golden Peony told us that us ladies would be provided a bath here, but the gentlemen would need to go to a bath house in the town.  There were two such bath houses, the Chrysanthemum House and the Pine House, both of which could offer their services to the men.  A young woman from the inn escorted Tony, Peter, and Grieg off into the village.  They all looked slightly nervous, Tony and Grieg in particular, although as you'll hear later I think it was for different reasons.

    I must say I approve of this Nipponese fascination with baths.  It's not just the being clean part, but the personal attention and relaxing in scented luxury.  And while I'd kind of rather it was Phoebe and I giving each other that attention, sitting back and letting the servants pamper me was definitely a good thing.  The effort of all that walking just washed away with the dust, leaving me refreshed and ready to drink Tony under the table that night.  The bath refreshed Phoebe too, and she almost glowed enough to light up our room as the servants dressed us in our silks for dinner.

    Dinner was prepared by our own cook, Donku, and by the time Phoebe and I reached the restaurant, hand in hand and sharing smiles, it was ready.  Lady Miyara was already there, and as we tucked in, the men arrived from their trip to town -- I hadn't realized just how long Phoebe and I had taken to bathe and dress.
    And with the dinner came the drink.  The Nipponese have a rice wine that's served warm, that they call sake.  Now I had heard that it's warm is to hide the flavor of the barrels in which it's matured, so opposite from our maturing drinks in barrels to absorb the flavor, but whatever the reason it slides into you so easily you wouldn't notice it until you fell over.  That's my kind of drink, and just what I wanted to loosen up Tony.
    That's when we heard a little about what happened in town, in a kind of sideways conversation.  Tony asked if the bath houses were "geisha," a word he'd heard but wasn't sure about.  Is that what they'd been entertained by?
    Lady Miyara said yes, that's what they were.
    Tony was most concerned about paying for it.  The ladies in white makeup, bringing them food and drink, reciting poetry and singing to them, well it was all a very nice experience.  You could tell from the look in his eyes, though, that he also expected it to be a very expensive experience too.  Obviously he was not accustomed to the Nipponese noble way yet, where we do pretty much what we want and have servants to pay for it all.  The soldier in him was showing again, which meant he was exactly where I wanted him.
    Suddenly Grieg blushed heavily, made his excuses, and went off quickly to his room.  That was the last we saw of him all night.  I got the impression that being given the full attention of an elegant women wasn't what he'd expected or wanted.  I mean, I might expect an isolated Empire boy of his age to be embarrassed to talk about it, but that wasn't how I saw his reaction.  From where he was looking on the way out of the inn, and from how he reacted to the topic afterwards, there was something else.  I was beginning to wonder if Tony was his Alathea, if you get my drift, and if so Tony was certainly as oblivious of it as Alathea had been before the... uh... incident.  I could have fun with that another time, although I had no intention of teasing him to the point of upsetting him.
    Getting Tony drunk was no problem at all.  He was obviously trying to pace himself, as if he had to get up in the morning or be chewed out by a drill sergeant, but like I said the warm sake creeps up and hits you sideways.  I was pushing the pace too, kept pouring us drinks so he'd match me like a good fellow soldier.  The poor boy never stood a chance.  I'd many a time drank with Tilean sailors from Araby to Tilea itself, knew their drinking rituals and habits, and this young Tilean soldier held his booze like a broken barrel.
   If you want to dig information from a drunk, make it sound like a compliment.  So I prodded him by saying I noticed he fought like a veteran.
   Tony replied by saying he was the senior member of the company.
   "A company?" I said.
   "The Company," he said, pronouncing the capital letters.  Said he was the last survivor of a mercenary company in the Border Princes.
   "Last survivor," I said with a grin, "You got into a fight over pay?"
   "No," Tony said, and then the floodgates let loose.  City officials ordered The Company into the underground tunnels, and they ran into a heck of a lot more trouble than anyone had imagined.  Skaven, hundreds of them, maybe more.  He was the last survivor literally, being the only soldier to come back out with the lady mage who'd been put in charge of them.  Everyone else fell to the Skaven.  Guess that would change a man pretty fast.  He'd have gone in a fresh-faced young mercenary, and come out looking and talking twenty years older.
    While that pretty much answered my questions right there, I couldn't help poking a little more into his background.  He was still bravely matching me drink for drink, as was Phoebe too.
    Well, after that mess with the Skaven, with The Company gone, Tony did a few little jobs here and there.  He then spent a year with The Grump training.  Loves his capital letters, does Tony.  Anyway, The Grump was some veteran that knew every weapon, Tony trained in them all but never could beat him.  I get the feeling he looks at every new weapon wondering if this'd be the one that let him beat The Grump.
    Tony was started to slur his words hard by now, and by the time I mentioned that look in his eye he finally went down for the third time and gave in to the pull of the sake.  He said, "You don't see a fellow hundred soldiers die and not get a look like that.  Like geishas better, talk about those, prettier. Didn't have any girls like you in my company.  Good thing."
    I laughed that off, not knowing exactly what he meant but knowing it was certainly true.
    Phoebe did too.  She grinned widely and said that there were no girls like me.  That's true of her too, of course, and I returned the grin and told her so.
    I told Tony I'd served on a lot of Tilean ships, and asked if he'd ever done that.
    Boot soldier, Tony called himself.  He could march anywhere -- as I'd noticed -- and knew how to march.  Stay in front, he said, less dust and mud spatter.
    I calmly observed that it was much better to travel by boat, and he couldn't deny that.  No mud, he said, like he was the first person to notice it and was sharing the secret.
    That's when something interesting came out.  I asked him if he was an expert in fighting Skaven, and he said, "I killed enough, but that's just because they got in the way of my sword.  They didn't kill me.  They tried."  He wagged a finger at me then, almost knocking over the sake, and said in a very serious tone, "Don't go out in the dark without a light."
    I didn't need a light, I said, I can see just fine.  I did a lot of night watches for that reason.
    Tony looked down into his drink and mumbled incoherently.  He looked up and said, "I don't like night watches, too dark."

    So our Tony doesn't like the dark, does he?  You know, that made sense.  When I thought about it I remembered that back on the voyage, and in our camps on the walk here, he was never out in the dark, always had to have at least a little light by him.  That could be trouble at some point, and it was good to know it now before it caught us out.

    While Tony had trained to fight in the company -- sorry, The Company -- as a unit, The Grump taught him solo combat.  Apparently The Grump had even made him fight in a blindfold, which still annoyed Tony to that day.
    I mentioned Brathien's deer kill while blindfolded, but Tony didn't really get the point.  I didn't bother to try to explain the philosophy of Wood Elf archery to this drunken Tilean.  Not even I liked the sound of my own voice enough to beat my head against that wall.
    Anyway, Tony was well under the table by then.  Well, figuratively speaking anyway.  He'd have fallen off his chair any moment if we weren't sitting on the floor.  He started off about how fighting in Empire style was the real way to do it, babbling about two-handed techniques and why shields are better than main-gauches and stuff like that.  Any conversation Tony tried to have for the rest of the evening would be doomed before it started.  Instead of that old soldier look, his eyes just glazed over.  I took pity on the guy, poured him jsut one more sake, and left him to his thoughts.

    So then I turned my attention entirely to Phoebe.  She was a bit incoherent too by then, having matched us for most of the evening.  Apparently the famous "Kislev Spirit," the booze you can even burn in your lamp if you don't mind it blowing up in your face, wasn't well known on the forest edge.  My girl had kept the early pace bravely, but wasn't used to a sailor's capacity to down anything and the sake had got the better of her.  Still, I was there and I'd make sure she got to bed safely.  Everyone else would have to fend for themselves.
    Grieg had left early, of course, but Peter was happily getting drunk with the rest of them.  Seems the tales I'd heard of how scholars spend their nights drinking and their days sleeping it off in lectures and seminars might not have been far off the mark.  Lady Miyara was the only one taking it easy, just sitting by and listening and sipping slowly.  She did look a little more mellow than usual, though, I'll give her that.
    Getting Phoebe up to our room was no trouble.  She seemed a little more grounded in our world than usual, though, a little heavier, as if her spirits were sitting back and watching her with amusement rather than lightening her step.

    At the crack of dawn I felt great.  I was pretty sure I was probably the only one who felt that way, and no-one else would be getting up for some time.  It wasn't because I didn't feel good that I didn't get up early, but quite the opposite.  I'd stay there until it was unavoidable, or until Phoebe wanted to get up, whichever came first.  She stirred in my arms occasionally, perhaps because Donku was singing loudly in the kitchen, but I stayed right there with her until she woke and for quite a while after.

    It had to be almost noon when Phoebe and I emerged to the public rooms, grinning like idiots at each other.  Everyone else was already there, some looking in better shape than others, and Lady Miyara seemed almost amused rather than impatient.  Peter was still showing definite signs of a serious hangover, and oddly enough Grieg was kind of stiff and quiet.
    Donku had been keeping up a constant stream of food the entire morning, it seemed, and Phoebe and I were greated by bowls of steamed pork dumplings and an unending supply of tea.  While we all picked at the food, Lady Miyara brought us back to the matter at hand.
    Our princess said that we didn't really talk business last night -- Tony broke in to say that he didn't remember whether we did or not -- so before we got moving, she wanted to get everyone's impression.
    My first question was what exactly we were there to do, being careful not to imply what I'd been thinking about Miyara Katsuda being an assassin.  Suddenly then, I think we all looked around and realized this was a rather public place.
    "We don't have to speak in Nipponese," said Lady Miyara in Imperial, smiling, and then answered me.  She said we were here to investigate and find out what happened.  Once we found out, then she could figure out what to do with that, if anything.
    Grieg said he wished we could find the knife, as Phoebe could tell a lot from it.
    Phoebe said that only if the spirits chose to tell her could she tell us, but from the way she looked and spoke I think she didn't really want to get into the feelings she'd get from a murder weapon.
    Tony had a definitely theory.  He said that he thought Tsume Retsu's exact manner of death was being covered up by the few who knew the truth.  He was sure that the man either committed suicide (as opposed to the ritual suicide that restores honor), or had been killed by someone unworthy and that had been covered up to avoid the dishonor.  Being killed by an assassin wouldn't be dishonrable, he said, but being killed by a geisha for example would be.
    I spoke up and pointed out what we had.  First was how the killer got in.  There were three ways: from the ceiling, past the guards without them noticing, or past the guards with them noticing but not thinking it was unusual.  Like I told you in the last story, when someone says "No-one can come in this way," it's always either wrong or irrelevant.  In addition, someone has made it look like a Miyara came through the ceiling.  That's either a Miyara coming through the ceiling, or someone deliberately leaving evidence of it.
    Grieg said we should talk to the guards to see if Retsu had any visitors, like someone who came and went while the guards thought he was still alive.  Like the new Tsume, for example.
    Tony wondered why the death wasn't heard.  Most deaths are not quiet, he added, and I could tell that he was thinking about his suicide idea.
    Grieg said Tsume Takashi could have been talking loudly to cover it up.
    Lady Miyara brought it back to facts again rather than the boys' pet theories.  She stated that Retsu was stabbed in the chest from the front, at close range, he was not asleep, therefore it had to be someone he knew.
    Tony brought up the comb and wondered if it had some kind of unique mark.  He didn't know, he said, because he hadn't seen many geisha.
    "Not as many as you'd like," I quipped.
    Grieg interrupted, and said "They're not that special."  Definitely something going on with that boy, and based on the night before he'd be harder to get drunk and loosened up.
    Lady Miyara did know about geisha, however, and said that the comb was definitely in that style.  Perhaps Tony could memorize it and see if he could find out, without asking, if it matched anything in the Pine House bath house they went to yesterday.
    Tony smiled and said he'd plan to go back there tonight.
    Grieg then said that someone like him could have done it.  It didn't have to be someone on the top floor if they could poit in like he could, or fly in like a witch.
    I said his talent was rare, and as for flying in, well there weren't any windows.  And the guards could be too discreet to tell us who was there, under any authority of the questioner.
    Phoebe quietly pointed out that her spirits may tell her if the guards were telling the truth.  I kicked myself for not considering that, especially since she'd done exactly that when I had my talk with Grieg a few days ago.
    Lady Miyara again brought us back: we want to talk to the guards, the maid, and the low servants who cleaned up.  I hope I didn't look too surprised to hear her say the last of those.  Anyway, she continued.  We'd be able to find them all by asking at the castle, although to find the ones who cleared the body we might have to go from one to another, since no-one would have talked to them or cared who they were.
    Then I asked the princess what she thought, how she'd interpret what we'd found.
    She said that there was not a lot to interpret yet.  We'd need to talk, and take into consideration the bead and the comb.  Pretty much what I'd have expected her to say if she too thought it might have been a Miyara who arranged the hit, but she might just have been stalling.
    Vowing not to repeat my gaffe about Phoebe's truth-seeing spirits, I suggested that my girl could try asking her spirits about the bead.  Grieg quickly jumped in and suggested the comb too.
    Phoebe patiently explained that the spirits wouldn't give us a name.  They didn't see us that way, but she could get an impression and if something particularly important happened in the object's presence, her spirits might tell her that.

    So she carefully arranged herself seated on the floor, and holding the bead started to address the spirits in her native language.  She drifted off into her trance, and I could tell she was further into the other world than this one.  I just admired her calm beauty as she spoke in worlds other than ours, and waited patiently for her to come back.
    When she did, she described what the spirits had shown her.  The ceramic bead had been made by a craftsman whose son had died an hour after childbirth.  He had tears in his eyes when he sold the bead.  Many years went by and the bead felt -- she barely caught herself starting to say "I felt" -- nothing.  Then there was flashing sharp sudden death, ripping, tearing, flying across the floor and rolling into a corner.
    She took a break and a cup or two of tea before the next one.  It wasn't that she was tired, she just had a strange look in her eyes; it had affected her in other ways than physical.  I knew what she wanted most by now, and held her lightly and reassuringly while she gathered her strength to feel what the comb had felt.
    Phoebe then sat down with the comb.
    She told us that the comb did not have as much of a sense of self as the bead, and while everyone else stared as if she was crazy, I knew what she meant and why this time had been easier on her, to my relief.  If you think Phoebe's crazy, then it's your own view that's not right.  Sometimes I think she's the only one who sees things as they really are.
    The comb, though.  The comb had no strong emotions attached, just a sense of elegance dressed in tawdry clothes.  To me that suggested perhaps a noblewoman dressed as a geisha to get into Takashi's room, then through the ceiling to kill Retsu.  But we'd just found another piece in the puzzle, not the picture itself, and like Lady Miyara had said we didn't have enough to put it together yet.

    The plan came together, as soon as Lady Miyara came up with a way to give Donku the opportunity to talk with the maid.  She would summon the maid to come here to the inn, and send Donku as her escort.  If Tsume or the General found out about it, they might attach some meaning to her summoning rather than going to talk to the maid, but Lady Miyara was a magistrate for her father and so didn't have to answer to them unless she felt like it.
    I suggested she could do so under the pretext of being indisposed, but Lady Miyara said that while she did get migranes occasionally, she didn't need a reason.
    That would be the first thing to do, talk to the maid, and after that Tony could find the servants who dealt with the body if he wanted.  Right away she called for Sun, and asked him to bring Donku and one of the woman servants.  She added to us that she would want Phoebe with her when she talked to the maid, and later when she questioned the guards.
    When Donku came in, Lady Miyara gave him precise instructions.  He was to fetch the maid, whose name was Ojuno.  It was important she was brought here, but he was not to use force.  If he could not convince her and she refused completely, then he should just come back.  She told Donku to walk back slowly and engage her in conversation, to try to get here to talk a little about the night Tsume Retsu died and what she found.  He was not to ask directly, just talk about how bad the situation was, and so on.

    While Donku and the woman went on their task, we would be able to relax some more here at the Golden Peony.  That would be excellent.  I took another bath.  After that I joined Phoebe where she was just drinking tea and listening to the voices in her head.  I sat quietly beside her, admiring her and drinking tea with her.

    All too soon Donku and the servant returned with Ojuno.  She turned out to be an old woman of about 80, and arrived with a young samurai escort.  As we'd hear later, our cook didn't find out much.  Tsume Retsu's death had been messy, his blood in a pool around his body.  He didn't have any guests that evening.  Since his wife's death, Tsume Retsu had been a very lonely man and never had company.
    Lady Miyara had arranged where she would talk with Ojuno.  The inn had a front room and wide hallway in addition to the restaurant, but there were no private rooms aside from our own.  It did have a center courtyard, however, with a small garden that offered some privacy.  At a bench in the center was where Lady Miyara and Phoebe would sit and question the maid.
    Several of our rooms overlooked the garden.  That included mine and Phoebe's room, so I stationed myself at the window, bow ready in case there should be some threat.  I watched them talk, but unfortunately they were just out of even my hearing.

    I watched the two visitors walk respectfully up to Lady Miyara.  Ojuno bowed deeply, while her samurai escort bowed appropriately.  They talked for a while.

    As for what they said, you'll have to find out like I did, sometime later.  Thanks to Phoebe, we'd already learned a lot more about Tsume Retsu's death, and I'll let you reflect on that while I concentrate on my meal here.  This is a good stew, and I won't let it get cold while I tell you more.
    So pass the wine, and enjoy some yourself while I eat.  I'll pick up the story soon enough.