Tales of the Sea Bitch (19)


    The captain of the guard arrived about 15 minutes after Tony asked.  He told us that Usigo himself asked the same question, so he had already researched it.  He told us the names of the guards, and that the door was always guarded.  His assistant Arawa was the only person who came and left.  The captain did not know whether he was carrying anything.
    Tony pointed out to hte captain that the chest had Hiruma's crest, and wanted to know if Arawa or anyone brought it here.  If he did, he carried his own body.
    The captain said that it was clear that this was Hiruma Usigo's chest, and it is clear that Arawa did not carry his own body out of the room.
    Miwa said she wanted to know if Arawa carried this chest out of the room this morning.
    The captain said he would check.

    Three kittens then two?  Three maids then two?  I remembered that Nantoko had be out and about when she met Ryuden.  Why was she out and around in the middle of the night that Himitsu was killed?  She was also not with the princess about the time Arawa was being killed.
    Miwa just nodded.
    Tony asked if anyone had seen her after the murders, saying he didn't think anyone had.  Then there was also the possibility that this was done by an outside agent with very powerful players on the inside, meaning Niban and Koan.
    I asked about the first play, if all three of the maids were there then, but no-one remembered.
    Miwa said that at the second play, the princess left in the middle of it, but later Nantoko was there playing her musical instrument, so she came back.  She said that she wanted to talk to the actress.  She could certainly tell us what the note meant, if she was the one who wrote it.  Well, it was sure that both the killer and the note writer -- if different -- were capable of appearing as other people.

    So off we went to talk to Shosuro Tage.

    We were met at the door by a young Scorpion actor.  He was wearing a mask, dressed as if preparing to put on a play.  He greeted Miwa.
    Miwa said she would like to speak with Shosuro Tage.
    We were invited inside.

    The rooms were a suite much like our own.  A common area with a balcony, and a few rooms off that.  It appeared that the room Tage came from was full of costumes on racks, props, and the sound of several people talking quietly and moving around as if they were getting ready for a play.  Tage also seemed to be preparing.  She had makeup, and the beginnings of a costume.  She came in, sat down by the fire, but did not speak or even look at Miwa.
    Miwa also said nothing, but sat down next to her and passed her the paper with the cat poem.
    Tage read it and handed it back to her.  Miwa tucked it away.
    ((TOny looked around the room.  It sounded like three voices in the costume room.  The actor who opened the door for us had retired to the balcony, but left the door open and was watching us carefully.))
    It was clear that Tage was avoiding looking at Miwa, attempting to hide or perhaps stifle her emotions.
    Miwa said, "Perhaps we can have a private conversation?"
    Tage, still without looking at Miwa, that the whole troupe was in the middle of preparing for tonight's performance.  She described the play briefly, then said that anything Miwa needed to say, she could say in front of all here.
    Miwa said, "Why did you give htis note to the person you gave it to?"
    She turned to look at Miwa.  Phoebe noticed a slight hint of surprise on her face, perhaps frollowed quickly by annoyance.  A moment later, she waved to the actor on the balcony, and called, "Sake!", indicating all around.
    I accepted the drink, but didn't drink it until Peter did first.
    Once the sake was served, she took a meaningful look out hte open door to the balcony, and said, "Such a pleasant day for walking in the garden."  She looked back at Miwa.  "The imperial princess herself spent the morning among the willows.  She has three maids, no?  Three lovely assistants, but only two today, only two."  She looked at Miwa as if to read her mind.
    Miwa said, "One wonders where the third has gone."
    "There are children's stories that say that the Scorpion use Ninja to gather information.  What they don't say is sometimes even the finest actors lose themselves in their roles.  A pity."  She said the last phrase with anger.
    "Perhaps she will find the third by this evening?"
    "What does Haruma-sama think?"
    I said, "He thinks we can figure it out."
    "What do you think?"  Tage's gaze had not shifted from Miwa.
    Miwa said, "I think that a weapon can be over-used."
    Tage was very obviously surprised by that.  Her tone of voice changed from actress-world-is-a-beautiful-place converstational tone to a very serious question straight at Miwa.  She asked, "Will Hiruma-sama be presenting a case against Ryuden this evening?"
    Miwa said, "When I spoke with him, I did not know what he intended for this evening."
    Tage looked horribly shocked, dropped her sake, rose to her feet and turned away from Miwa.  A second later, she recomposed herself and turned back around, the actress again.  She smile and said in her serious voice, "I know who killed Himitsu and Usigo, and I will tell you where they are hiding.  But first,"  talking to Miwa but looking around at us all. "You must be certain, friends, that you know whose name you must kill in order to save Ryuden's.  I cannot help you wiht the decision, I can only tell you this.  Ryuden's name can only be cleared at great cost.  An innocent must be sacrificed.  Are you prepared to pay that price?"
    The question was not expecting an immediate answer, but Tage was waiting for Miwa to speak, still watching her.
    "Please tell me."  Miwa was standing now, as were we all when Tage stood herself and did not sit back down.
    She said this, in her serious tone: "There are anceint unused basements beneath the kitchens.  There,"  she said softly, "There you will find the true killer, but be wary it has many faces, and some of those may be your own."  She paused to stare a little longer, "If anyone asks, of course, I have not seen you today."  She turned and walked out onto the balcony past the actor there.
    Miwa bowed in the direciton of the balcony, as did we all, and we left.
    Phoebe told us that Tage did not lie in her presence, and that as far as she could tell was indeed herself.

    I myself was kind of glad it wasn't Tage.
    Tony said, in Imperial, "What do we say to who, Lady?"
    I said, "We say nothing.  She does."
    Miwa said, "Nothing yet, because rumors don't get us anywhere.  We're going to have to go down and confront the killer."
    As we passed our rooms, Tony rushed in and came back with two lanterns and extra oil.
    I said, "Remember this, I can see in the dark.  Someone who looks like me and can't,l isn't me.  What about the rest of you?"
    Miwa said that is was very likely whoever was down there did not speak Imperial.
    I laughed loudly at that, she was right.  Damn, but she's good.
    "But just in case," she continued, "Is there anything else?"  Iruko of course did not speak Imperial, so that wouldn't work for her.  She asked Iruko if there was a way to tell her from a fake.
    Iruko thought a while, then said, "Teach me four words in their language."
    I said immediately, "You son of a bitch."
    Iruko looked and said, is that four words or one?"
    "In meaning, it's kind of one, but barbarians have very short words."  Miwa told her how many words it was and made sure she could say it.

    The rest of us, not just Tony, dressed for battle.  Of us all, Peter carried no weapon because of the wishes of his god.
    On the way down, we picked up Donku.  He told us that the basements were crumbling and the walls weak, and the other kitchen staff said there were ghosts down there.  We taught Donku, "Avast, me hearties!"  Miwa explained that there were ghosts down there and some of them looked like us.
    One of the kitchen came to Tony, who had asked for more lamp oil, and said there was none.  They did have torches, however.
    One more passphrase -- when Donku asks "Who goes there?" we say "King Friday."
    Phoebe was speaking quietly in her own language, probably summoning her spirits to protect her.
    I asked Miwa if we wanted to take him alive.  She said she wasn't sure yet.  I said she needed to be sure now, because I wasn't going to stop in the middle of a fight to ask.  Miwa said it didn't really matter.  Good enough for me.

    At the lower level, it was like the kitchen above in that it was a large open space.  I was regretting not bringing my bow, since Miwa had decided that we shouldn't split up and so didn't have someone guarding the exit.  Rooms and hallways led off this main room.
    After some cautious searching, we came across an old dried blood trail.  It lead to a pair of ovens, a large tunnel at waist level that went about 20 feet into the wall.  I could see someone at the end.
    It came at us fast, very fast, at astonishing speed.  It was at least humaniod, and made a flying leap out of the tunnel, smashing straight into me.
    Without thinking I did a stop-thrust.  It connected but the guy slammed into me.  I was knocked over, knocked out, and was sure I was going to die.

    Our people surrounded it, but it was up and ready to attack.  It looked like Miwa.
    Phoebe rushed over to me and touched me, her spirits pouring life into me, finding my spirit loose and shoving it back into my body.  She collapsed immediately from exhaustion.
    Miwa, Tony, and Donku thrust forward to attack.  Taking it alive was clearly no longer an option.  A dead demon would work just as well.  They pounded it hard, while it screamed and spat and while looking like Miwa -- complete with the two swords -- sure didn't act like her.
    I stood up carefully, patting her gently knowing she was going to be ok if we killed this thing.
    Again the three attacked strongly, although it dodged all their moves.
    I moved forward and charged in to join the attack.  Tony had dropped his shield for another sword and struck four times, landing two of them.  It kept dodging, but I stabbed into the vitals and clearly hurt it.
    The demon struck Miwa hard in response, but she stayed up.
    We kept at it, Tony and Miwa slicing with their two weapons and getting a couple of blows in.  Donku whacked it a solid blow with his frying pan.  My strike to the vitals was dodged.
    In the background, Peter had restored Phoebe's strength.  She was ready to heal again.
    Miwa had not yet folded under the rain of blows, but I had no idea how.
    Tony again landed a couple of strikes, but Miwa's and Donku's were dodged, as was mine.
    The demon struck one more devastating blow on Miwa, who stood there swaying as her double finally went down dead.

    I was so not ready for that opponent.  Greenskins were large straw targets compared with this.

    As it died, over a few seconds its shape shifted.  The body looked roughly like Nantoko's, except the face turned blank and featureless, mere indentations for eyes, and black smoke escaped from its silently screaming mouth.  She had a very large shadow brand on her back and neck, a mark associated with dark ritual of the Scorpion clan.

    And to think that I contemplated hitting on the two young maids.  I felt kind of sick.

    Phoebe and Peter cooperated to heal everyone, Peter restoring what the spirits took out of my girl, and Phoebe's spirits healing his body from the strain.  Peter and Phoebe were exhausted by the effort, however.  Phoebe rested against me, and I was very glad I could feel her touch after that battle.

    Miwa knew that if it became widely known that the maid was this creature, or had been infected in this way, it would reflect badly on the princess and be a dishonor to her.  How convenient!  People would either believe she knew a Scorpion spy was working for her, or she didn't know and her family should have known.   Nice to know the innocent whose name must be killed wasn't so innocent after all.  She herself was innocent, but her position by supposed ancestry wasn't.

    Of course we couldn't carry the body away itself.  As Miwa said, we had to bring Asako down here.  Since she also wanted to blame everything on Nantoko, she'd have to fetch Isawa Tomo too.  She dispatched Tony with the message to Asako and then Isawa, who was obviously very glad to get out of the dark.  The message said she had important information to show them relating to this morning's unfortunate events.

    About ten or fifteen minutes later, they arrived.  Asako, Tomo, and Isawa Uona (winner of the contest, if you remember that from a previous story).
    The three of them, first Isawa Tomo and then Asako, and then Uona examined the body without touching it.  The two men then stepped away while it was Uona's turn.  They looked angry.
    Uona asked the questions.
    First, if this was Kakita Nantoko.  Miwa said it was.
    "And she killed Miyara Himitsu and Hiruma Usigo?"
    "Yes, and Hiruma Arawa."
    All three looked at Miwa. Uona said, in a voice that indicated Miwa should think about the answer, "Are you sure?"
    Miwa did not hesitate.  In a very firm voice, she said, "Yes."
    First the two men and then Uona turned and leave.  They looked very disappointed.

    I said that the rest of the story need never come up now.
    Miwa said that would depend on what they did to us.  But it would be very clear to them what Miwa would do.  She believed that one of them, probably Tomo, would make some formal announcement that it was the maid who killed all three.  He would be required to send a letter to the Emperor telling him what happened.  There would be a whole lot of political fallout from this, and she couldn't even imagine how far it would go.
    The princess's honor would take a hit.  Maybe she would be completely shunned here for the remainder of the court, in which case she would simply leave.  More likely is that the more honorable suitors would look somewhere else.
    As Tony pointed out, that ensured there wouldn't be a Miyara tied to the princess ever, so if "something" came up later the family wouldn't be involved.

    We went back to our rooms.  We'd have a dinner to attend later, of course, so we managed to get some rest and clean up.  Our designated servant from Miwa's entourage took our armor to be repaired.

    Later, though, a message arrived saying that the night's banquet would be cancelled.
    I sent out for food to eat in the rooms, like the others did too, but in my case to be washed down with about as much sake as I could pour down my throat.  I actually tried to drink enough to get smashed drunk, but had to settle for getting as many other of us drunk as I could.
    Knowing that there would be a lot of people seriously upset with her, Miwa told us that none of us could walk around safely alone.  Any of her samurai, meaning us, could be a target.  Now it might be unlikely, since Asako and Isawa's seemed to accept it, but it was better to play it safe.

Glossary of people who might be important at the Winter Court.

Otomo Yoroshiku - Emperor's Niece, second in line to the throne behind the Emperor's son.
Hida Yauta - Yoroshiku's maid servant, the big one.
Kitsu Saia - Yoroshiku's maid servant
Kakita Nantoko - Yoroshiku's maid servant

Mirumoto Hansu - Yoroshiku suitor, Dragon Clan
Miyara Sanru - Yoroshiku suitor, Phoenix Clan

Miyara Ryuden - Yoroshiku suitor (sorta), Phoenix Clan

Miyara Ujimitsu - Phoenix Champion, Miwa's father
Miyara Himitsu - Young man traveling with Ujimitsu
(wispers are he'll be the next Phoenix Champion)

Shinjo Gidayu - Unicorn daimyo who started your previous journey

Isawa Tomo - Elemental master (of Earth ?)

Asako Kagetsu - Your host at Gisu Palace

Koan - Shugenga from the village of Nightengale

Shosuro Tage - formost actree of the Imperial troupe

Hiruma Usigo - ranking Emerald Magistrate, just retired, headed for
monastery in spring