Tales of the Sea Bitch (6)

The Maid, the Samurai, and the Crane

    That's better.  Well fed and watered -- well, wined -- and I'll pick back up where I left off.  Let me remind you where that was.
    I was standing in my inn room, bow at the ready, looking out into the garden courtyard of the Golden Peony.  In plain sight, but out of earshot, Lady Miyara was sitting on the bench talking to Ojuno, who was Tsume Retsu's personal maid.  The princess was accompanied by my girl Phoebe, while Ojuno was accompanied by a young samurai escort.  Phoebe was there to ask her spirits whether Ojuno was telling the truth.

    They talked for a while, Lady Miyara asking and Ojuno answering with deference.  It was a pretty quick conversation, and soon the maid and her escort were dismissed to return to Castle Kyotei, where Tsume Takashi had now inherited his father's lordship.
    I was expecting Lady Miyara to come in and tell us what happened, but right away a servant from the inn approached her and with much bowing said something to her.  She nodded, and the servant went back inside.
    Immediately eleven samurai came out to her, bowed deeper to the princess than obviously she expected, and said something.  I was ready for trouble, of course, but it was clearthey were here to help and not to cause any.  Lady Miyara questioned them for quite some time, and eventually dismissed them too.
    Then, instead of coming in to tell us what happened, she sent Phoebe to bring us to her in the garden.  She must have liked the privacy that the garden seemed to provide.

    So, still seated on the bench, Lady Miyara told us about her visitors.

    Ojuno's conversation didn't seem to reveal much.  It had been, as I said, pretty quick.  The maid had found Tsume Retsu on his back in a pool of blood as she came in to do her morning duties.  The previous evening there'd been a party in conjunction with the Bon Festival, attended by the Tsume and the four other lords that Lady Miyara knew about.  The party went on until a few hours after dark.  Retsu left the party with Diadoji Uji, having a loud argument about something, then returned to his rooms alone.  Diadoji was a Crane clan samurai, not a powerful lord himself but generalluy just a messenger.  The maid didn't think anyone came or went to Retsu's room that night, but she didn't see so didn't really know.  The four lords left the next morning.
    Phoebe told us that her spirits said Ojuno had spoken the truth.

    The eleven samurai had been the personal guards of Tsume Retsu, and had been sent here on Takashi's orders to answer any questions Lady Miyara had immediately.  Lady Miyara had not wasted the opportunity.
    What was interesting about the answers, though, was not really what the men said, but what Phoebe's spirits told her.

    Yes, I can see that look on your faces.  I know everything I tell you comes back around to Phoebe, but you know, that's how it is.  By her existence she bends the world around her, so like a being in a hammock pulls down the middle so everything on it falls into you, Phoebe bending the world pulls everything around her.  The world really does revolve around her.  Get used to it.

    You see, what her spirits told her was that most of the time the samurai told Lady Miyara the truth, but in two places -- one of them critically important -- they lied.

    I'll come back to that in a minute.  First, the truth.  The gates to Retsu's rooms were guarded at all hours, but it was only at night when the doors in the hallway were guarded.  The guards saw him arrive alone that night, as did his son later.  They both stayed the whole night, and no-one heard anything from Retsu's room all that time.  They were positioned in pairs to cover the hall, with one pair right outside Retsu's door.  None of them were magic users.  There is a rotation of guards rather than the same eleven covering that duty every night.  They come on duty at the same time, waiting at the bottom of the stairs until Retsu retires.  They leave in the morning when Retsu either dismisses them or leaves his chamber.
    That means, of course, that they were there when Ojuno discovered him dead.  Two of them rushed into the room when they heard her scream, and they saw Retsu lying in his own blood face up on the floor.  He had been stabbed through the heart.  His katana and wakizashi were still in the rack, untouched.  They were quite clear that the maid would have had neither the time nor the motive to kill him herself, and nor did she have time to move anything.

    That shoots down Tony's suicide theory.  If that had been the case, the weapon would have still been in Retsu's chest.
    This has still left open that the killer could have been waiting -- for days if necessary -- in the false ceiling.  And on that thought, it suddenly occurred to me that when Grieg goes to his room, we couldn't assume he was there until he emerges.  Grieg has his own false ceiling that covers many miles.

    The samurai would not say whether either of the Tsume's had visitors to their rooms in the evening over the course of the festival.  On that night, Takashi went up to his room about an hour after his father had retired, and went straight to his room.  They also didn't keep track of any visitors to the castle shortly before the festival.
    That was where Lady Miyara ran out of questions, and I must say she covered everything I would have thought of too.  But when she said she might call them back later to ask more, that turned out not to be an option.  Tsume Takashi had given the disgraced guards permission to repair their families' honor.  They would not live to see the next dawn.

    And now what you've been waiting for, the lies.  One was a mere evasion on something unimportant -- that they denied there was any provision for watching out for magic on the Tsume's floor or anywhere in the building.
    The other was much more telling.  Miyara asked them directly, "Did anyone come up to that hallway, that floor, later on that evening?"  Their "No" was a complete and total lie.

    So we had ruled out suicide, and someone else did go up to the rooms later that evening.  How long did the guards stay in position after the body was found?  Who was up there when the body was found?  Who left afterwards?  Someone could have hidden in the ceiling for days before and after.  And as Lady Miyara pointed out, a killer would just need things to settle and it would have been easy to leave if it was someone who was expected to be seen there.
    That lead back to "No-one can come in this way," and I was quick to point that out.  People who are expected to come and go don't count, especially if their presence was personal and could be embarrassing if revealed.  So the big question was who came in, and when did they leave?  And by who, I meant in the sense that Lady Miyara first asked Grieg when he fell from the sky -- not what their name was, but who they were.
    Lady Miyara which room the visitor went into, and if it was Takashi's room, then did they wait until he was asleep, or was Takashi himself in on it?
    I asked her if there was any reason Takashi might have been in a hurry to replace his father rather than wait for natural or accidental causes, but she said that aside from his own frustration -- as Phoebe had told us when she spoke with the spirits in his room -- she didn't know of anything that the other families might have been planning.  Then again, she added, she had been gone for a few years.
     Another pause, and then Lady Miyara said that the murderer might have hidden in the ceiling, but surely didn't enter that way.  Retsu was killed by someone standing right next to them as if he expected them to be there.  Otherwise he might have said something to the guards if someone had just dropped down... unless that person had been invisible, of course.
    Invisible, huh?  Yeah, I thought so too, so I asked her.
    She said it wasn't common for political killers to use invisibility, and it wasn't necessary anyway.  If you were going to use magic to kill, you'd do just that, not use it as a trick like invisibility.  There was also the hint that there was some sort of protection against magic, from the lie that the guard told.  Likewise if it was some creature, some magical creature even, it hardly would have stabbed him.  And he would have yelled out if something like that had appeared.
    Of course, I'd heard the stories of wizards and magical creatures.  You don't grow up among the Elves, any Elves, without a healthy dose of cautionary tales to keep you in line.  My first thought, which I said aloud, was that he wouldn't have yelled if he'd summoned the creature himself.  And we didn't know he was stabbed with a dagger or katana, it could have been a sharp claw.  We wouldn't know that until we find out about the body, although of course it's a shame we couldn't examine it ourselves.
    But then reality kicked in.  A magical creature wouldn't have been wearing a kimono and had an orange obi bead ripped off.  The killer had to be that close.
    We had to be very careful we didn't invent our own facts to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

    That's when another samurai strode briskly into the garden, walked up to Lady Miyara and respectfully bowed, and introduced himself.  He said that Lord Tsume sent his compliments and wished to invite us to dinner.  Of course she accepted.  The invitation was clear that we would be invited too, and from what Lady Miyara said afterwards we could even speak to him ourselves if we showed the appropriate politeness.  We would be expected to bring our weapons too, since we were samurai, although I suspected that meant my rapier and not my longbow.

    Next into the garden was Donku the cook, still dressed in his clothes from the kitchen.  He bowed low to all of us, and offered what he had found out from the staff around here.
    Apparently his mission to pump Ojuno for information had started to draw him into this inner circle of ours, or at least so he thought.  That was fine by me, of course, but I didn't know how that would stand with Lady Miyara's sense of social superiority.
    He told us that all the staff here have an idea who killed Tsume Retsu.  Rather more accurate, however, would be that they each had an idea.
    First was that there was a coven of uba -- local witches -- bedevilling local farmers, and the farmers complained to Retsu.  He started looking into it, and the ubas killed him.
    Several farmers had seen an evil manifestation of magic make its way to the castle across the lands, and they believe it was a spell sent by the Phoenix clan, in particular Miyara Katsuda, to kill Retsu because the two of them had disagreed about Retsu raiding Katsuda's lands.
    Then again, Retsu owed a great deal to the Scorpion clan in gambling debts.  The Scorpions got tired of not being paid and killed him.
    According to yet another person he was killed by ninja, as if that was a complete explanation.
    One thing Donku was certain about was that pretty much everyone had a reason to kill Retsu.  The Lions wanted him dead because he took their lands.  Phoenix was worried that he would attack them next.  Crane was embarrassed by his aggressive barbaric ways, a nail that stuck out to far and had to be hammered back down.

    The final gossip our cook had come across wasn't about Retsu's death.  Apparently it was all the rage to talk about Takashi.  Turns out (according to the rumor) he had a lover, a geisha called Rika, who works at the Pine House.
    Tony blushed solidly at that, saying he knows her.  I bet he does, and I'm sure if he has any say in the matter he'll be off to get to know her better at the first opportunity.  Much to Grieg's disappointment, I'm sure.
    Lady Miyara said that someone could have come in disguised at Rika.  The geisha herself wouldn't have a motive, not unless Retsu disapproved strongly, which would have been unusual under this culture.  Well, unusual unless Takashi was a lot more serious about it that he should be.
    As for Retsu, his marriage was clearly much more than political himself, so he might not believe in the arranged political marriage without any relationship between the spouses.

    And that was it.  No more people arrived suddenly to tell us what they thought.  No magical talking horse came into the courtyard to speak urgently with Lady Miyara before committing ritual suicide.

    But we had some time before going to dinner at Castle Kyotei.  Phoebe decided to take some time with the box she was given by the Old Man on the causeway across the swamp.
    First she sat down to ask her spirits about it.  I half-jokingly suggest she tie a rope around her waist so she doesn't get lost, but in all seriousness she says, "You're going to be there, right?"  Of course I am, and I'm all the lifeline she needs.
    It was an unfounded fear, though, as she quickly announced that it had seen no emotionally charged events in the past ten days or so.
    Phoebe then moved on to the contents of the box.  Being in Nipponese, of course, she couldn't read them yet.  So she asked Lady Miyara to take a look and them and tell me what they were.
    The princess said they were spells.  Either that, or an extremely elaborate poem -- and she knew her poetry, she said.  Given where they came from, it was no stretch to assume that they were in fact spells.  If she could teach Phoebe to read them, she could cast them, she said.
    The first was called Bo Of Water.  She said a bo was a stick about six feet long, like a quarterstaff, although what that meant exactly was not really clear.
    The second was By The Light Of The Lord Of The Moon, and it would show her things that were hidden.  Personally I imagined that what it really did was call on a spirit who could see such things, but perhaps I'd taken too thoroughly to Phoebe's view of the world.
    Now Lady Miyara of course knew plenty of people who understood magic, and considered that it might be better if someone who understood it could teach Phoebe what to do with them.

    We arrived for dinner dressed well, in our silks and Phoebe standing out with her jewelry and braids and feathers.  As we had been instructed by Lady Miyara, I brought my rapier, although not my bow.
    Dinner started with quite a shock for us, because the first thing we noticed was that the obivous lord of the manor, Tsume Takashi, was the same samurai who escorted Ojuno that afternoon.  Etiquette clearly dictated we didn't mention it.  I certainly wasn't going to, although it pushed Takashi up a notch or two in my opinion of him.  Obviously everyone who was at the inn must also have known, but since he wasn't acting his actual role everyone just played along.
    Etiquette again next, with the bowing and (on our part) kneeling.  Miyara is one of the great families, whereas Tsume is not, and so Takashi bowed lower to our leader than she did to him.  Then there's the matter of Lady Miyara's official role: if she was coming to dinner as The Miyara, then that would be different from her coming to dinner as herself.  She could also change roles at any time, switch between the two, as long as it was always clear which hat she had on.
    The invitation did not mention the magistrate status, however, addressed to Miyara Miwa herself rather than The Miyara.  But if she came as herself, how many samurai would she rate?  Still, since it was an invitation to dinner rather than an appearance at his court, and the invitation was to all of us, the samurai with her, we figured we were covered.
    For the time at least, it seemed Lady Miyara was merely the princess, not the agent of the Phoenix clan.  I guessed she'd switch to her official capacity after the dinner was over.
    As for me, this dinner gave the opportunity to find out whether I liked Takashi or hated him.  Was he the the honest samurai who cared enough about an old woman to escort her personally, or was he the scheming nasty lord who wanted to be along to make sure she didn't say anything inappropriate?  I was leaning to the former, hoping I could like this guy, but I really wanted some more clues.  I was tempted to tell him that if the samurai who accompanied Ojuno would like to join us for a drink sometime, he'd be more than welcome, but I wasn't sure how that would go over.
    Unfortunately Takashi seemed to take an instant dislike to both me and Phoebe.  Perhaps it was the ears, adding to the Nipponese mistrust of strangers that I'd heard about but not seen yet.  I'd been getting on so well with humans recently I'd forgotten what it was like.  Still, he presented himself as friendly, and told a good story, but I couldn't say I liked him that much.  I decided to hold off on that drinks invitation.
    Lady Miyara joined in the stories, but I got the impression that she was doing some Nipponese courtly dance, he and her probing each other to figure out political alignments and alliances for the future.  Takashi seemed a little out of his depth at this compared with Lady Miyara, but then he was young -- just in his 20s, young even for a human -- and inexperienced, as General Shizuma had said.
    To everyone outside that dance, he was polite but didn't really care we were there.  It was pretty clear that foreigners were beneath his attention, and elves more so.  He'd acknowledge something we said with a cursory phrase, and turn his attention right back on the Nipponese princess.  Just like any blasted court in the world, nobles posturing and playing their pointless games.  The Nipponese were no better than the High Elves even.
    It did get interesting at one point, though.  Takashi actually asked Lady Miyara why she was here.  He must have known the official reason, so what he really meant was either "Why you?" or "What's your real reason?"
    Lady Miyara didn't miss a beat.  She just answered his question straight, saying she was simply there to investigate his father's death.
    Takashi kind of lost his careful poise then, and asked directly if his father was too much of an annoyance to Phoenix.  Good thing Lady Miyara had her princess hat on at dinner instead of her magistrate one, or that would have been a real insult.  Even so, it was as direct a way of saying "Did your lot kill my father?" as politeness could manage.
    To Lady Miyara's credit, she took it seriously.  She considered for a while, and then said something vague which was totally beyond my knowledge of the hidden meanings in Nipponese language formality.  I think she said she'd eventually, when she was ready, tell him what she found out.
    Takashi finished out the dinner conversation with some stories about his father and himself.  I'd say they were scripted by his advisors, because they were just too clever, if you know what I mean.  "Clever" is not a nice word there, the way us elves use it, not the way the humans do.  They were crafted to show that while his father was an aggressive warmongerer, more like a Lion than Crane, Takashi himself was a true Crane and not like that at all.  Forced into his responsibilities early, he found this an unexpected burden.  Or so his (advisors') stories said.
    After that he left us no room to question him -- another sign of a script -- but suggested we retire to another room where he would be at the disposal of The Miyara.  Dinner was over.

    So how did I feel about Tsume Takashi after this?  I didn't like the man, steeped in court shenanigans and mistrust of foreigners, but I do have to say that at that point I didn't think he was involved in his father's death.  I think he didn't know much more about it that I did, although of course there's the matter of the guest that no-one admitted to seeing.

    So there you go.  Tsume Takashi, some lying samurai, and an old lady.  All part of the canvas that was weaving itself together in front of us, and in front of you now as I tell you in turn.  And that's where I'll leave it right now.  More will become clear in my next story, quite a bit more clear in fact.  You really won't want to miss that one.