Tales of the Sea Bitch (20)


    Late that evening, a message arrived inviting -- or rather directing -- us to appear at the Court of Asako.  We had already changed into Nipponese clothes, but had a few minutes to clean up before leaving.  Miwa invited us along, saying it would be educational.  We would be expected to shut up unless someone spoke to us, of course, which suited me.

    After arriving, there was a lot of standing around.  The quiet background conversations that would normally accompany such a wait were absent.  Hardly surprising under the circumstances.

    Asako Kagetsu arrived, starting by circulating among the gathered personalities, speaking quietly to each one.  He did not come over to Miwa, and no-one else was talking to us either.  That didn't stop everyone glancing over at us, notorious as we'd become, but trying not to be seen doing it.
    After about five minutes of this, Otomo Yorushiku was announced.  She was accompanied by her now two maids, and interestingly enough also by two Imperial Guards.  These were full house of Hantei guards, who would have accompanied her here from her castle, but would have stayed out of sight in deference to our host's guards.  This was a step outside etiquette.
    Asako then stepped onto the dais, welcomed us all formally and went into his official opening for the court.  He explained that Miyara Miwa had discovered that the murders of Miyara Himitsu, Hiruma Usigo, and Hiruma Arawa, were committed by Kakita Nantoko.  Miwa had further discovered, he said, that the maid was shadow branded.
    A gasp ran around the audience.
    Asako continued saying that Kakita Nantoko had died at Miyara Miwa's hands.  He thanked her for her service, and waffled on about putting this behind us and having a wonderful productive Winter Court.
    As soon as he changed gear there, the princess turned on her heels and marched out the door with her entourage.
    When Asako finished his speech, he closed the Court and asked everyone to leave.

    We returned to our rooms and retired for the night.  I suggested we set watches tonight, and Miwa agreed.  She said one person at a time in the common room would be enough, just so someone was awake.
    Tony wondered if the Princess was going to bolt tonight.
    Miwa said that not only would that be none of our business, but it would be a politcal disaster.  She wasn't going to do that.
    It was around eleven when we turned in after a good few carafes of sake.  Miwa set up our watches, four people: me first, then Tony, then Iruko, then Miwa herself.

    At about 2 a.m., Tony heard some commotion out in the hallway.  Several people, possibly a large number, moving around.  They weren't making noise, but moving around a lot, moving down the hallways.
    Tony sent Sun to wake Miwa, and checked outside the room.  Servants carrying boxes, and it was clear that someone was leaving.  The crest was a Lion, but he didn't know one personal crest from another and so didn't know who.
    Miwa soon joined him, and was able to tell Tony that she recognized the personal crest, but it wasn't anyone that had been significant.
    Tony sent Sun to the front gate to watch what happened.  Sun would come back to report that this was the only one who was leaving.  Apparently he lost a duel yesterday afternoon over who had the right to court some Crane woman.
    Tony returned to his watch, and Miwa to rest.

    At 4 a.m., Iruko woke Miwa and told her that there was a messenger her from Asako.  Miwa roused herself and went to see him.
    It was one of the house guards, who said that Asako Kagetsu required her immediate presence.
    Miwa quickly woke her entourage to accompany her.  The four allowed by her station were myself, Phoebe, Tony, and Peter.  Iruko was left here in charge.

    We were escorted to Asako's room.  He came right to the point.  The Princess had been kidnapped, and he requested Miwa's assistance in looking into this matter.
    At Miwa's question as to what was known, he took us to the Princess's room.
    The Princess had disappeared.  None of the people guarding or sleeping near her were awakened.  The guards saw nothing.  There was a note left on the Princess's bed.  No-one had arrived or left these rooms since the Princess came here from court.
    The note read: "I have the girl.  She will be my bride.  I will be the husband of a Hantei.  I will be a samurai again."  It was signed by Niban's stamp.  Miwa didn't say that she recognized it, but then everyone knew already that she'd dealt with him.
    The protections on this room were much like those on the Tsume room.  Nightingale floors, guards everywhere outside her rooms.
    It crossed my mind to go to Asako and tell him that she's not a Hantei, so did we care anymore?  But that wasn't going to happen, nor did I consider it seriously.  We did at least know it could not have been Niban, because he of all people knew she was not really Hantei.
    The balcony from her room lead to a bridge to the garden at the top of the cliff.  It was still walled in, part of the castle, but it was an obvious way out.
    Everyone in this suite was awake. The guards looked deathly serious, as if they might have to commit seppuku over this  The maids were very upset too.
    Isawa Uona was also here, doing magely things.
    Phoebe too drifted off.
    I asked Miwa how long she'd been gone, not sure myself who I could speak to here.
    She found that it had been about half an hour now at most since she'd been discovered missing.  The maid Yauta had discovered it.
    The gardens were not lit at night.  There was light on the wall, but it didn't shine down into the garden.
    I said to Miwa that I hated to leave Phoebe here, but I could go out and look around quietly.  Miwa nodded, "Do it," and so I did.

    Tony checked that the guards on the walls were the same ones for the past hour, the shift change having been at midnight.  The guards had seen nothing.
    Miwa examined the note very carefully.  The chop -- woodcut signet -- did seem to be the real thing.
    The captain of the guard asked her if she recognized it.
    Miwa considered for a moment, then said she did.  She said it looked like Niban's.
    The guard said, in a shocked voice, "A ronin?"
    There was no answer to that.
    He continued emphatically, "There is no way a ronin could pull this off."
    Miwa said she would have to find out what really happened.
    The captain walked off angry and irritated.  He was insulted beyond belief, his honor smashed into little pieces.

    Nothing had been disturbed.  There was no sign of a struggle.
    Isawa Uona was probably trying to commune with spirits in the Nipponese fashion.  That involved a lot more active magic than Phoebe, who was half in the spirit world already.
    Tony also examined the room carefully, of course, but he didn't see anything obvious either.
    Eventually he worked he way over to the maid.  He asked why she had been checking up on the princess at that time of night.
    She said that she woke, saw the screen was open.  She checked to see if the princess needed anything, and she wasn't there.  The last time she'd seen her, or seen the door closed, was when they all retired at about 11.  The other maid hadn't been up after that either.
    There was a common room here like our suite, but the princess's maids slept in that area outside her room.  Any other servants would have left when everyone retired.
    Tony moved on and continued his circling of the room.
    He observed quietly to Miwa that whoever it was entered, past all the sleeping people, took the princess, went back out past the sleepers, sometime between 11 and 4.  Unless they magically pulled her through space and time.  The door was only opened to draw attention, he added.
    The ceilings had the same open area as the Tsume residence, but the tiles were lighter and squeaked when weight was put on them.  That ruled that out.  If the magic was available to handle that, it could have been used much more usefully for other purposes.

    Phoebe first opened herself up to the aura of the room.  Something emotionally charged happened here, but not what she had hoped for.  Shock, fear, grief, loss, the emotions of a bunch of people who realized that the princess, their one sole responsibility, had gone, and possibly their lives with her.  There was no feeling of an abduction or anything particularly terrifying.

    Tony came over to Miwa and quietly said, in Imperial without using his name, that Shinjo Gidayu was the only one to win on both counts.  That was a very astute observation.
    He then asked the maid if the doors to the balcony were not open, and confirmed that fact.  A cold blast of air would have come in and woken people up.  He then checked all the screens and walls for any slits or cuts or anything, but found nothing.

    Miwa asked one of the guards if anyone else was known to have left the castle during the night.  This guard didn't know, but the captain would, he said.

    Tony then asked Phoebe if the maids were faking this.  Her spirits hadn't told her already, so she walked around talking to everyone.  She talked gently and comfortingly to everyone, moving around and being soft and considerate, getting them to talk about the incident and how they felt about it.
    The younger maid had no information, waking up after the fact, but was genuine in her shock and fear.
    The older had only a little information, expressed some surprise at anyone's ability to sneak past her in the night as she was a light sleeper.  She was also being honest.
    Phoebe passed that on discreetly to Tony.

    I moved quietly out into the darkness.  I looked around the balcony first, then the bridge, and across to the garden.   Looking down, up, and around.
    The balcony itself looked over the like like all the others.  It was all the way to one side of hte building, and off that side was the bridge to another part of the cliff.  There was a garden around to the side and perhaps even the back of the castle.
    I was pretty sure there were no signs of anything out of the ordinary.  There wasn't anything that indicated an involuntary abduction.
    If anyone were to travel from this balcony, they could try to climb down -- a long way -- or across to another balcony -- where they would have to be almost magical to carry someone.  At this level there was no way to jump to another balcony from here.
    The bridge went over to another part of the cliff where there was a garden.  Ways out of there would be over the wall, which was guarded, or jump into the river and go over the waterfall, which was obviously unreasonable.
    I found nothing out of the ordinary in the garden either.  Not one single thing anywhere around, up, or down.
    I returned to the room and told them there was not one single sign of anything out there, and that I was pretty darned sure about that.

    Tony had moved over to Isawa Uona to see what she'd found out.  The mage was finishing up.  She told him there was nothing here.  Nothing phsycially unusual happened here.  None of the spirits were particularly disturbed, and none of them noticed anything.  They might have noticed a stranger, but they didn't.  They would have noticed a struggle or any kind of violence, she said.
    In Imperial I said to Miwa, "Do you think she might have staged this to save face?"
    Miwa said, "Heck no."
    "She still could have staged it herself, but why I don't know."
    Miwa said that was really, really unlikely.
    Tony asked the mage if they would have noticed magic.
    Uona said that yes, they did, and yes there was some use of magic in both rooms.  It was probably a sleep spell.  There had been no magic on the balcony or in the garden.
    "Duh," I said to myself, "Easier than to be invisible is to go past sleeping people."
    Miwa asked about the guards outside, but Uona said that they had not been magically slept, and the guards of course insisted they were awake and alert the whole time.  Phoebe nodded at their truth.
    At Miwa's prompting, Uona said that there would have been magic cast on the room by Asako mages to protect and alarm against such things, and those did not go off.  So whoever did this was really, really good at what they were doing.
    Miwa asked, with no accusation, if Uona could do this.
    "Maybe," she said.
     Koan, I muttered.  Absolutely, muttered Miwa.
    Miwa asked Uona what she thought had happened here, but she did not know.  An extremely powerful mage came in and kidnapped the princess.  That was the only conclusion.
    Or the person who messed with the scrolls.

    We were done there for the time.  Miwa lead us down immediately to Koan's rooms, tucking the note away.
    The Nightingale shugenja was there, sleeping until our call.  He invited us room.
    "It appears that a mage has kidnapped the Princess," said Miwa plainly.  She could tell that Koan was surprised but trying to hide that he was.
    I said, "Only someone of your abilities could do this?  Who else is there?"  It was not an accusation, just an observation and question.
    He smiled and laughed that I greatly overestimated his abilities.
    "I saw the competition," I said with a smile.  "You were the best one there."  Again, a simple statement of fact.
    Koan turned to Miwa and very empatically and with a hint of insult in his voice, said, "I have no knowledge or involvement in any kindnapping of the princess."  That was true, Phoebe indicated.
    "We know.  No Nightingale did this," I said.
    Miwa said, "Would you help me find out who was responsible for this?"
    "Of course," he said.  Phoebe indicated that was a bit of a lie.
    Miwa handed him the note.
    He cursed.  His curse, shock, fear, anger was all genuine.  He handed back the note, saying, "There is no way Niban could have done this."
    "Absolutely," I said.
    Miwa asked again, "So you will help me find out who really did this?"
    "What can I do?" he said.
    "Isawa Uona said that up in the Princess's rooms a sleep spell was used, plus whoever did this got past the alarms and wards.  The guards were never asleep.  So you tell me how this was done."
    "I have no idea," he said truthfully.
    "I don't know what you can do.  Do you have a way to find her, track the magic used to spirit her away?"
    "If it was magic, but Isawa mages would be better at that than I."
    Tony wondered if there had been spells cast on the guards on the wall from the garden.  Uona had said there was no magic in the garden, but she hadn't checked the wall.  While the garden could only be reached from that suite, the walls could be reached by other ways.  We could take Koan to check that, Tony suggested.
    Tony asked Koan. "I met a guy once who could just pop and be somewhere else.  He didn't do magic like you guys do.  Could you detect that?"
    "How is that not magic?"
    "Have you ever met anyone who hadn't studied magic who could do those things?"
    "I've never met anybody who could do that."
    "That guy I knew... if it doesn't detect as magic, then..."  He then asked if disabling the protections would require a mage to be present.
    Theoretically it was possible, replied Koan, but it would be hard to predict what wards might be there, so you'd need to be there to cast the right magic to avoid or disable the wards.
    "So it would have to be a mage."
    Koan seriously said that gods didn't have to cast magic, they could just do whatever they wanted.  It didn't have to be a mage, he said.
    I was thinking this was starting to sound a lot like an inside job.
    Miwa said, "If not Niban, then who?"
    Koan said, "I don't know.  I don't know of anyone who could do this."  He clearly didn't know anyone who had the skills for it.
    Miwa clarified that she wondered who would do this.
    The answer was the same.  Who would want to bring the wrath of the Emperor, of Phoenix, of everyone?  Only a man with a death wish would do this.
    Tony said that only we knew it was not Niban.  He asked who would want to set Niban up and get rid of the princess.
    We looked at each other.  "Shinjo Gedayu" was on all our minds, but we didn't say anything.
    Koan didn't know that story, of course.  He said that the only people who seemed to care much about Niban were the other people in the Nightingale village, and they all loved him.  Phoenix knew he was there, but if they wanted to get rid of him they wouldn't have done it this way. They'd have just moved their army against him.
    Tony said in Imperial, "Should we tell the Nightingale leader?"
    Miwa just said, "If Niban did not write this note, someone very close to him did.  That is his chop block."
    Koan agreed.  It looked that way to him too.  He added, "But if we're hypothesizing a mage who could sneak into a Phoenix castle with Isawa guards and spirit away the Princess, it seems simple to add stealing someone's chop block."
    Tony asked about the stealing of the scrolls, and the fire.
    Koan said the fire was an accident.  It was never the intention to kill that mage or set the wagon on fire.
    Tony clarified what he meant, where would the spell show up?  Where the spell was cast, or on the box?
    On the box, he said, or perhaps where he cast it, but it was right next to the box.  Invisible and sleep, but it didn't work on the mage.  They got into a fight, and the magic spilled onto the floor and it caught fire.
    So aside from the wards and alarms, sleep and invisible would have covered this?
    Yes, he said, he could have done it himself.  There were also spells to walk through walls, or as Tony said perhaps pop.  All these spells would trigger wards, would leave signs behind.
    Phoebe said, unless you're travelling in the spirit world.
    What if someone had disabled the wards first, I asked.  My question is if the wards had been disabled beforehand by someone other than the person who stole the princess, what would it take?
    "It would be much easier, but it would still show up to someone of Uona's level of skill," Koan said.
    Tony asked if you walk around invisible, will it show up as a trail or only where you cast it?
    Koan said it would show as a trail, the spirits would see it.  He added if someone had cast a spell to fly over the wall or anything like that, Uona would have detected that.
    Of course what Uona didn't look for was anything cast on the guards or guard stations.

    Tony stated what we had.  They could not have been invisible or there would be a trail.  The outside guards maybe didn't pay attention to someone who they knew had every right to be there.
    Miwa added that a large group of people left the castle last night.
    I said, "But they still needed to get her out of the room."
    Tony said we needed to know whose rooms were directly below.
    Miwa asked the guard outside the door.
    The guard thought for a while, then said it was the Lion who left last night whose room was on the bottom level.  Between them was Himitsu's room, which was of course now empty.
    Perhaps Himitsu had been killed just to clear the room, said Peter.

    Tony and Miwa agreed, we should check Himitsu's room.
    We would have to ask Uona to do the check, as we couldn't get Koan to that area, and Uona would be the right official person anyway.

    Uona was with Asako and the captain of the guard.  When we reached Asako's rooms, we learned that he was mounting a military force to go to the Nightingale village.  Uona still insisted that a bunch of ronin could not have done this, but Asako was clearly adamant that something must be done anyway.
    Asako asked Miwa if she wanted to accompany them.  The force would be leaving in about half an hour.
    Miwa told him that we had connected the room arrangement of the Lion and the empty room between.  The Princess wasn't taken out the door or the balcony, and there was nowhere to go up, and it wasn't until later that we found out that the recently slain Himitsu's room was underneath, and the Lion who left under that.

    Uona checked Himitsu's room and the balcony while we checked for physical signs.  The floors were solid, so there would have been a hole, and there wasn't.
    Uona did not believe that anyone had been in Himitsu's room for at least a day, and no magic.

    We went down another floor and checked again.  No physical damage, and no magic.  The spirits did not notice anything out of the ordinary, and no magic was done here.  Phoebe indicated that was the truth.
    Uona said that she did think about this possibility, and ruled it out because she happened to know that the Lion genuinely left because of his loss of face.
    Tony asked about the wards, if they covered around the room.
    Uona said that the wards detected any magical activity in that room, and to some extent prevent it.
    I asked if there was any way to tell when the wards were disabled.
    Uona said the wards were not disabled, they were avoided.  Any magic user in the area would notice if they went off, and in particular she herself would be the one to respond.  Even if the princess had asked a mage of her own to cast a sleep spell on her for her own purposes, Uona would know that it had happened.  She said it would require a mage of very high skill.
    Tony said everyone else was put to sleep, what about the mages who could have know?
    Uona was clearly annoyed.  She said that she and the wards would have known it and they would have recorded it.  The wards did not notice.  The magic was hidden from them, the wards were blinded.
    I said in Imperial that regardless of who took her, she could be in the village anyway.  We could send a friend of ours to check.
    Miwa said that he could get there quickly, but finding her would be hard.
    I think that if this force reaches the village and she is there, she will be dead.
    Tony said that earlier we had said that we should be notifying someone, and added that as soon as we walked out the door word would have been sent to Niban.

    We returned our rooms to get ready to leave with the force.  Everyone was still there.  Neither Kocho or Iruko had left to warn Niban, much to Tony's surprise.
    Sun had everything ready to go in short order.
    It would take about three days to travel to the village.  That's how long we had to find the real answer.
    Miwa went to ask Koan to join us, but his assistant said he had left and didn't know where he had gone.  He should be back soon, and he would pass a message to Koan if she wanted.

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