Scroll 9: In Which I Return Home

Chapter 97: Tales of Love and Vengeance

Nothing is more costly, nothing is more sterile, than vengeance.

~ Winston Churchill

Before we left, I asked if anyone had anything else to do here, any other ideas. There were none. Even Meili had no more theories.

I opened the door, and Tsume Takashi was waiting for us at the top of the stairs at the other end of the hall. I walked to him, followed by my horde. He looked at me expectantly.

I told him the truth. "I am not sure yet who was ultimately responsible for your father's death. I have one more lead to follow, and I believe I will have an answer for you very soon."

He asked me, "Do you know who the assassin is?"

I thought about how best to answer that one. I was pretty damn certain I knew who the assassin was. But not completely. It still might have been someone pretending to be her, after all. So I said merely, "I am not completely certain, no."

"But you suspect?"

Oh, yes, we suspect. "There are two possibilities. I think I can clear that matter up very quickly if you will let us on our way."

"What do you intend to do when you find the assassin?"

That was the question, wasn't it? I had no idea what to do. "It somewhat depends on who the assassin is, but I suspect that I will need your help in ferreting out the one responsible behind it."

"When you discover who the assassin is, would you do me the honor of allowing me to know before you carry out justice?"

He suspected Rika, too, then. And he didn't want me to just kill her. Well, that was a reasonable request. If it were her, the matter would be unlikely to be any of Miyara's concern. Even if, somehow, it were our concern, giving her to the Tsume would be more politically advantageous. So I agreed and thanked him for his assistance. He stood aside and allowed us to leave. One does get farther with honey rather than vinegar, something the late Tsume apparently never learned.

Meili and Toni wanted to stop at the Golden Peony on the way to the Pine to pick up additional weapons and armor, and Meili wished to change into her western clothing because it was more comfortable for her if she was to go into a battle. Toni, oddly, also picked up my cook, Donku, to take along for extra eyes. Or something. I wasn't too clear on it, but I didn't want to waste time discussing the matter. Sun also tagged along after me.

Once there, I took a quick look at the building: it was small, and the only door was the front one. Still, it would be easy for someone to escape through a window. I put Toni in charge of covering the building's exterior: no one was to escape. He posted himself, Sun, and Grieg in the front, watching the front and the sides; Donku he placed in the back of the building with instructions to tackle whoever might escape and yell a warning to Toni.

I wanted Meili outside as well, with her bow. She's the only one who can bring someone down at a distance. But I had to have Fibi with me to question Rika, and Meili flatly refused to leave Fibi.

She said she needed to be there to protect Fibi from any sword-wielding geishas. I asked her if she doubted my ability to protect Fibi, giving her a clear warning with my voice. She backed down a little, instead insisting that I might want someone to watch our backs. I knew she didn't mean the insult she gave: she's just a westerner. And yes, sometimes Fibi clouds her judgement.

Fine. Again, I had no time to argue. Meili came in with us so she could protect her beloved Fibi from a geisha. While I stood idly by twiddling my thumbs I suppose.

At any rate, I knocked at the door and waited a few heartbeats. No answer. I tried the door and it was barred shut. It was early for a geisha house, so I pounded harder and demanded to be let in. Eventually, but quickly enough so that I didn't break the door down, a deep voice bellowed that he was coming. I ceased my pounding and waited for him to open the door.

A beefy man opened the door and scowled at me. "We're closed." Obviously Madam Kumiko's muscle.

"I don't care. I need to speak with Rika right now."

"She's not here and I don't know where she is."

"Then I want to speak to Mistress Kumiko immediately. Fetch her now."

He stepped back and made a move to close the door. I was in the way, and I stepped into the entrance after him, forcing him to continue backing away. He gave me a sour look, but vanished to the back. I imagined she was asleep, so I gave him five minutes to go to her, explain the emergency waiting for her in the Pine House's entrance, and for her to wake up and at least throw a robe on.

That time passed quietly, and at its end, I said, "Time to secure the building." I directed Meili and Fibi to the left, and Peter and I went to the right.

The Pine was laid out similarly to the Golden Peony: a square around an inner courtyard. The Pine was much smaller, however. Instead of a hallway with rooms on both sides, one side looking into the courtyard and the other outside, the hallway was on the outside of the building, and all the rooms looked over the courtyard. It would take only a few minute to open all the doors.

The front and side rooms were all empty. The first room in the back Peter and I looked into was full, however: five geishas all relaxing comfortably enough, reading and talking. All activity ceased when we slammed the door open and looked in on them. They stared at us, frightened. Peter said none of them was Rika, and I demanded to know where she was. One of the girls managed to stammer out that she didn't know, and the others nodded in agreement. I commanded them not to leave their room.

As I drew the door shut, I heard Meili from the other end of the hall shout that she had Kumiko. I told Peter to check the rest of the rooms on his way, and I sprinted for the open door at the end of the hall.

Inside, I found the guard whom I'd spoken to at the door, Meili and Fibi, and an older woman, just standing from her breakfast.

I glared at her and said, "I need Rika now".

She paled and took a half step back. Apparently my appearance is enough to scare geishas and old women, but not guards. I'll have to work on that.

Kumiko took only that half step backwards, and then she steeled herself and gave me an answer she knew would not please me. "Rika went out this morning, and I don't know where she is. But she will be back in time for opening tonight."

Without taking my eyes off her, I asked Fibi if she told the truth, and Fibi confirmed she did. I told her not to let anyone else here to leave for the day. If Rika returned, I told Kumiko to keep her here and not let her leave. Finally, I told her I would leave one of my people here to bring me word when Rika arrives. She nodded her acceptance and sat back down in her chair.

As the four of us walked out of the Pine, Meili said, "Might I suggest Toni and Grieg?" I nodded. Meili had a fine eye. Grieg's ability to instantly disappear in one place and appear in another was ideal for bringing a fast message. I trusted Toni to be in charge and to remain in charge when Grieg left.

I called all our forces to the front door and quickly explained the situation. As I turned, a boy, perhaps ten years old or so, walked up to me and asked if we were looking for Rika, and if so, he knew where she was.

I told the boy to take us to her. I left Toni, Grieg, and Donku at the Pine with orders to allow no one out of it, and no one in but Rika. And once Rika was in, don't let her leave. The rest of us turned and followed the boy at a fast jog.

He led us through the village, and rounded a corner into a small alley. Meili and I said in unison, "This looks like a trap." Still, I followed the boy: I had to find Rika, and even if this were a trap, perhaps she would be at the other end.

We passed several men playing at dice, who studiously ignored us. Definitely a trap: were it not, they would certainly have stared at us. I carefully changed my trajectory so that, as I followed the boy still, I also kept the men behind us in my sight, and I looked for good places to position myself when they attacked.

I also told Meili not to let the boy get away, should this become the ambush we expected. She gave me a short nod: she was on the same page as I.

The alley was lined with small huts, and a wall ended the alley: a dead end. Perfect for an ambush. About halfway down the alley, the boy pointed at one of the doors at the end and said, "She's in there." He continued to lead us, and we followed him right up to the door. The dice-players stood up and sauntered in our direction.

As we stopped before the door, there had still been no moves made on us. The men continued slowly moving towards us. The boy stopped and waited. I had expected him to run for cover before now. Perhaps the situation was salvageable.

I knocked loudly on the door. Several doors of the nearby huts opened, a man emerging out of each one. I spared them a glance. Armed, armored, no colors or badges. Ronin, of course.

The door I pounded on had not been opened, and I tested it: barred, but flimsy. I set myself, and kicked the door open. For just a moment, I spared a thought for Kyosuke: shouting and breaking down doors always amused him. There had been no shouting this time, though. And I had to kick the door open instead of the White Faerie splintering it with his maul. Still, it opened.

Within stood another ronin. The boy suddenly looked worried. I don't think he expected this after all. I had no time for thinking, however.

"What do you want with Rika?" He asked gruffly. He was an older man, but stood there strongly, blocking me.

"I need to speak with her."

"She's not available. Why do you need to speak with her?"

"Make her available." I am not answerable to ronin.

In response, he threatened me. "Rika is well-liked around here. You will not get any help in attacking her."

"I have no intention of attacking her. I merely wish to speak with her." I hoped he believed me: it was true. I meant her no harm.

"What about?"

"The matter is none of your concern."

"I'm afraid I'm forced to make it my concern." Damn, he was going to press the issue.

I started to answer, "I'm afraid that's not an option." But before I spoke more than a few words, he drew his sword on me and attacked. He was smooth, but so was I, and I was prepared for an attack. I swiftly drew my own two swords, dodged his strike, and sliced him deeply with each of my blades.

Behind me, Meili shouted at the ronin outside, "Come on, you dogs, show us what you've got! I got a rapier here says you got nothing!" and took up rear guard. I concentrated on the one in front of me, already bleeding heavily. Still, he pressed his attack. He was skilled, but old, and again I easily evaded his single blade and again I struck him two more solid blows.

I heard Meili shout behind me, "Bring it on! Davy Jones take the last one!"

The ronin I struck sank to the ground before me. I stepped deeper into the hut and urged the others to come in and shut the door. Of course, I had broken it, and I quickly countermanded that. Instead, I said, "Hold the door!"

Peter, Fibi, and Sun slipped into the hut, and Meili stood blocking the door, brandishing her rapier and spurring them to action. "Come on, who's going to be first!" Only one could attack her at a time, at least, and I took a swift glance around the hut as I heard the sound of blades in the door. Except for one bleeding and unconscious ronin and us, it was empty. There was no back door. And no Rika.

I knelt at the ronin's side: he was still alive. I would have preferred to keep him alive for later questioning, but I couldn't afford to have an enemy at our back while Meili and I battled a handful and a half of ronin. Regretfully, I removed his head.

I heard Fibi yell, "Duck!" and I stood up and swung around, ready to fight at Meili's back. She was still holding her own, and I placed myself where I could step in if needed.

The ronin in the door swung at Meili. She moved her rapier in the sword's way, but he changed direction and sliced through her. She dropped like a rock.

In a step, I dragged Meili out of the way, trusting Fibi and Peter to take care of her, and I placed myself in the doorway, ready to continue the fight. I wished I had Toni with me as well. But I didn't: Meili and I would have to do. I thought we had a decent shot, since we could hold the door against one at a time, and we had Peter and Fibi behind us.

This one was not as skilled as the one I already defeated, but he was younger, strong and quick. I swiftly sliced him twice, and he utterly failed to strike back at me.

Instead, he stepped back. The others behind him also stepped backwards, forming a semi-circle. The one in the door only made a few limping steps, then he collapsed.

I heard Meili behind me, already back up, "Ha ha! Takes more than that to take down the Sea Bitch!" She stood beside me, and we looked out at our opponents. We agreed that this looked like it was either a retreat or an attempt to draw us out. We stayed put and watched and waited. This door was our best weapon against them.

Meili asked them, "So now that's settled, where's Rika?" I suppressed a grin. Foreigner or no, I liked the way she fought: with all her heart and soul, nothing held back. I could get used to her at my back. They did not answer.

"I only want to speak with Rika," I told them. Would no one believe me?

The answer was no. They all looked at each other silently and came to a decision. They began a guarded retreat, leaving their wounded man behind. They walked backwards, slowly. Meili and I put away our weapons. When they felt safe enough, they turned and ran.

We were alone: no Rika, no boy. Failure. Meili cheered me up: she thought it was a grand fight, which we won, after all. I grinned openly this time. She was right. And I liked fighting beside Meili. Fate once again provided. I doubt Meili would have come with me had Fibi not already decided to do so. The pair of them are useful, and I'm glad to have them both.

Not to mention Peter. Fibi had quickly healed Meili so she was ready to fight by my side. She heals much as Ravenna had, for all that it's the spirits that do it on her behalf. Like Ravenna, she's completely drained each time. Peter restored her energy, so that Fibi could heal Meili completely instead of partially, and so that she was ready for whatever was needed again.

It took only a moment or two to search the place. There was only us, and a body, and the belongings of whatever person lived here. No one else. Meili quickly and thoroughly searched the ronin's body while I picked up his swords. I had already cleaned and put away my own, and I did the same with his, and gave them to Sun for safe-keeping. The swords were fine enough, though not to Miyara standards.

Meili found nothing on the body to identify him. She asked me about ronin. That's a hard question to answer, as there are many reasons some become ronin. I told her simply that many ronin are samurai who have lost their honor, and no longer have lords. There are many reasons that might be, but I left it at that. She laughed shortly, but said nothing.

Fibi asked if we could wait for a short while, while she "felt out" the room. Perhaps she could discover something useful here, as she had in the Tsume's rooms. I nodded, and she sat down and made herself comfortable. Meili sat down with her. Peter was tired, and he rested. No bad thing, there. I stood in the door, watching for another attack that didn't happen.

Fibi awoke and said that beyond the immediate slaying, nothing of interest had happened here in the last ten days. I was not surprised, but it had been worth a try. Meili asked me, "Could this band of ronin be hired by someone, or do ronin not get hired?" I told them anyone might hire ronin.

Meili asked Fibi if she could talk to the spirit of the dead ronin, and ask him questions like she had Tsume Retsu.

Fibi looked doubtful, but she agreed to try. She'd never tried to contact someone so recently dead before, she said. We worked out a few questions: Who hired him? Where's Rika? Meili said, "We really want to know who ordered the death of Tsume Retsu. Rika can go free."

I replied, "The ronin is unlikely to know who ordered the hit, but he might know where Rika is."

"Well, it's a chance. If he can give us what we need, then we don't even need Rika and he's done his job and protected her."

"Now the ronin is dead, his contract is over," I said, mostly to myself.

Again, I watched the street while Fibi placed herself in a trance, and Meili watched her. She wasn't gone long. She said, "I couldn't find him." He was just dead. She thought maybe his spirit hadn't found its way to the other side yet. I've heard similar stories from the priests, about how the newly dead tend to remain a while before finding their way to the ancestors. I suppose it's no easier for the dead to admit he is dead than it is for the living left behind to accept his death.

No other threats had materialized, and Peter looked much better. Outside the hut, I checked up on the body lying in the street. Although bleeding sluggishly from several deep wounds, he was still alive. I heaved him over my shoulder and we returned to the Pine. It was the best place I could think of to question him. I didn't want to be out in the open, even in a secluded spot well outside of town. I also didn't want to use the Golden Peony that way.

On our way out of the alley, I had Peter and Meili open all the doors. Most of the huts were empty, and a few had peasants huddling inside in fear. When questioned, they knew nothing.

At the Pine, I quickly caught Toni up on the situation, and he restructured his forces to guard against an outside attack as well. I nodded, and Meili, Fibi, Peter, and I went inside. Sun remained outside, to assist Toni's forces.

Inside, I picked one of the empty front rooms, and I laid the man down on the floor carefully while Meili shut the door behind us. He was still alive, although barely. I asked Fibi to heal the man just enough to bring him to his senses.

She healed him as much as she could, Peter restored her, and then she did so again, healing him until he was nearly completely well. Annoying, but I suppose she cannot control precisely what the spirits do.

At any rate, she sat back, Peter partially restored her, and they both rested against the wall. I stood over the man, hands on my swords.

He rolled over onto his stomach and lay there. I told him to sit up. He raised himself to his knees, bowing over them deeply, his head nearly on the ground, facing me. That would do. I looked at Fibi and nodded towards the man. She nodded to me in agreement: she would pay attention and alert me if he lied. I began the questioning.

"Do you know where Rika is?"

"No." I glanced at Fibi, and she said merely, "Truth."

"Why are you guarding her?"

"I am not."

"Who do you currently work for?"

"I'm not currently working for anyone." Again, Fibi nodded: truth.

"What, then, were you doing?"

"Ito requested we help him deal with you."

"Who is Ito?"

"Ito was the man you spoke with in the house." Ah, the one I killed.

"Who was Ito working for?"

"I don't know."

Fibi said, "That's not really the truth."

I commanded him, "Tell me what you do know."

"Ito was well-liked around here. He helped out a lot. He was a good man, and a good leader. I don't believe he was working for anyone." Fibi confirmed, "That's the truth." Meili laughed shortly.

I asked him, "Why do you think he set himself against us? We've offered no harm to anyone."

"He didn't tell me." Fibi nodded. Truth again.

"Tell me what you know about Rika."

Before he answered me, the door opened and Kumiko enterd. She'd found more courage, because she demanded of me, "What are you doing in my house?"

Meili growled, "Not killing you, which would be our right."

I turned to her and glared. "Renting a room." I put ice into my voice.

Deflated, she said, "Oh, OK." She left and closed the door behind her.

I turned back to the ronin on the floor. "Now, Rika."

"She is a geisha in the Pine house. She is rumoured to be seeing Tsume Takashi. She is friends with Ito."

Meili stepped up and looked questioningly at me. I gestured for her to wait a moment, and asked him, "Do you know Rika?"

"I have met her."

I nodded to Meili, who asked several questions of her own. "Who trained her in the sword?" I nodded. That was a good question.

The ronin sat up, looking at us in surprise. His expression of surprise changed to disbelief. He was obviously, genuinely surprised. He had no idea she was trained in the sword.

Meili continued, "Who killed Tsume Retsu?" He wouldn't know that.

"I heard it was witches."

"I didn't ask you what you heard."

"That's all I know." I glanced at Fibi, but she shrugged. The spirits were apparently silent on that matter.

Meili asked one more question, "Do you know anyone who was plotting against Tsume Retsu?"

"No." Fibi again shrugged. She was still tired, and perhaps had lost her spirits for the time being.

As Meili and I were looking at Fibi, he took the opportunity. He sprang to his feet and bolted for the window.

Meili and I acted quickly. I threw myself at him, and brought him down in a tackle. Unfortunately, Meili drew her rapier in a motion smooth and fast as lightning, and speared him with it. Except that in bringing him down, I shielded him with myself, and Meili's thin sword pricked me instead. My armor must have deflected it, because I received only a scratch on my arm, quickly forgotten.

As I sprawled on top of him, I told him, "Wait! I'm going to let you go. I just want you to know that I intend no harm to Rika, I just want to talk to her. You can tell that to anyone else, inclding her if you see her."

I stood up, and stepped away from him. He looked at me, and I spread my arms away from my swords's hilts. I offered him no harm. I wanted him to spread word that I merely wished to speak with Rika, that I bore her no ill will, and that I intended her no harm.

Determining that I meant what I said, at least about letting him go unharmed, he slowly walked towards and out the door. I followed him, at a non-threatening distance, to ensure Toni and his group didn't kill him on his way out.

Meili said, "A cask of sake says this was a peasant's revolt and not high-class politics."

I laughed, "I knew you had another theory in you!" But I still thought she was wrong. This was no peasant revolt, and I felt high-class politics everywhere.

We all gathered outside the Pine house to discus the situation. There was no way Rika was going to show up for work that night. My clumsy handling of everything had ensured that the entire village knew we were searching for Rika.

Rika was the assassin. I think she was acting on her own. Why? The comb nagged at me. Who was Rika, really?

Toni asked, "Who was Ito, really?" Ah, yes; we had another lead to follow.

The village was still quiet. We asked around about Ito. They were all happy to tell us about him, and we got more or less the same information from any we asked. Ito was a ronin who simply stayed here, for no known reason. He did odd jobs for people; fixing their houses, taking care of bandits and thieves, and the like. Ito was old for a ronin: near 50 I'd guess. A ronin's life tended to be a short one.

And he acted as though he bore some responsibility for these people. Interesting.

He was friends with Rika, and spent a lot of time with her. Kumiko was not happy about it, believing a ronin was not a good man for her. She felt Tsume Takashi was a much better match. No doubt true, from her perspective.

And perhaps that would be a good place to find Rika: at Ito's house. It was not hard to find: everyone directed us to his place.

He lived just outside of town, off a path to a little-visited shrine. It was a tiny, poor building, smaller even than the huts we'd seen in the alley. But it was well-kept, neat and clean.

I opened the door, and there was a girl at the fire, boiling water for tea and cooking some fish. Peter, peering around me, whispered, "That's Rika."

She greeted me and invited me in, asking me to tea. I accepted, gestured Fibi to follow me in, and of course Meili followed her. We knelt on the clean wooden floor, while the rest remained outside the tiny hut.

She was a well-trained geisha, and she performed the tea ceremony flawlessly and gracefully. At the end, we nibbled on the fish she served us. I put thoughts of the drugged wine behind me: she drank and ate as we did, serving us all alike.

At last, the ceremony finished, she settled herself and asked me, "Are you going to kill me here?"

She was calm, and I felt some small admiration for her. Here was a woman who did not flinch, who felt no fear. Who believed in who she was and what she did.

"No I'm not," I told her. "Will you tell me why you killed him?"


I silently waited while she set her story. "This is my confession," she began.

"Two decades ago, Tsume Retsu defeated my father and took the castle."

I hardly needed to hear the rest. Now I knew who she was; I knew what she did and why. I said nothing and allowed her to tell her story to us.

It was all as I guessed. Her family was killed or killed themselves honorably, most of the family samurai were killed as well. She was sold to Kumiko. Ito was a young samurai. He escaped, but remained nearby to watch over her as she grew. He told her the stories of her family and their downfall. He trained her in the use of the sword.

Eventually, she met Tsume Takashi and did her best to make him fall in love with her. He did so, although she felt nothing for him in return. She merely used him to set up her final revenge. Despite everything that had happened to her, she had the heart of a true Nipponese samurai. She picked her time carefully, slipped into the castle, and gave her lover drugged wine. When he fell asleep, she crept through the ceiling into Tsume Retsu's room and killed him, just as she'd been dreaming of and practicing for years.

At the end of her story, Meili said, "That sounds pretty darn honorable." Her voice held all the admiration for Rika that I felt.

I asked her, "What are your intentions now?"

"Ito and I have plans to leave here and get as far away from here as we can."

"So you intend to live out your life as ronin?"

"Yes. Well, no. At least initially."

"I'm afraid Ito is dead." She deserved the raw truth. The news upset her, but she recovered herself quickly. Yes, the heart of a samurai.

I asked her, "Knowing that, are your plans different or the same?"

"The same." She didn't disappoint me.

I wished her good luck, and she thanked me. I gave her Ito's swords, bid her farewell, and we left.

It was late, near dark. A lovely, late summer night. Lightning bugs flashed in and out all around us, crickets were chirping their last songs, and the last of the cicadas buzzed desperately in the trees.

It was too late for a social call, but I was certain Tsume Takashi would welcome us in to tell him finally who was responsible for his father's death. We all walked up to the castle.

I wondered what his reaction might be. I thought, I hoped, that he would also rise to the occasion. I had no reason, as Miyara, to withhold anything from him. This simply wasn't a Miyara concern. He deserved the truth.

We were welcomed at the gate by the guards, who clearly expected us. They led us in, and we were admitted gate-by-gate to the inner castle, where we paused within an interior room. The guard asked my servants Sun and Donku to wait here, and he led the rest of us into the room beyond.

Tsume Takashi was inside, painting. He welcomed us warmly, bid us to be at our ease, and offered sake. We settled in, he finished a few more brush strokes, and then he knelt with us. So, this was to be a social gathering after all. At least to outer appearances.

I told him I had a fable to tell him, and I spun him Rika's story. He listened in silence, unsurprised. He'd guessed at least some of it, then, and I thought more highly of him.

At the end, he asked what became of the heroine of the story. I told him, "She slipped away, silently into the darkness." Not to be seen again, I sincerely hoped.

He bowed his head in appreciation of a fine tale, and our cups were re-filled.

He told me his own tale, then. He told a fable of a young man who didn't get along with his father at all. He fell in love with a geisha. In the end, relations had deteriorated between him and his father so far, that the father was going to send him far away to school, to separate him from the geisha who had his heart. He faced that night with a difficult decision: obey his father as he should, or defy him. I stirred, but remained silent. This was his story, but there was no actual choice. There was only one honorable action.

The geisha visited him that night, and the unmade decision weighed so heavily on him that he fell asleep and slept deeply all night. When he awoke in the morning, his father was dead, and the awful decision did not have to be made after all. And so he remained honorable by default.

But he learned that it was his lover who had, in fact, killed his father. And so, despite not having been forced to make an untenable decision, he still lost his love.

I nodded. Yes, that is the role love was made for: to be lost.

Putting the two stories together, it was Rika who made all the decisions, who drove the story from first to last. Tsume Takashi was nothing but her dupe. And yet, Rika was born noble, and her actions against the Tsume were worthy of a samurai. Tsume Takashi, not knowing, still might have been drawn who she really was at her core.

We all sipped in silence for a few minutes more, and then he asked me, "Would you be willing to carry a letter to your father?"

"Of course I would," I told him.

As we finished our sake and prepared to leave, the Tsume swiftly wrote a scroll, rolled it up, and handed it to me. He did not bother sealing it, no doubt realizing I would not dream of reading it. In return I left him a remembrance of Miyara: an origami phoenix.

We returned to the Golden Peony for one more night, and we left early the next morning for Shira Miyara. Home.

The trip back home was entirely uneventful. The late summer weather still held, pleasantly warm and sunny. The evenings were beginning to have a slight chill, but it was only enough to make the evening's fire enjoyable.

We arrived back home in the afternoon. I bathed and relaxed before dinner, which was a pleasant one with my family and my horde. My cousin Jiro was visiting and had some funny stories to share. As everyone made their goodnights after dinner, father nodded to me. A few minutes later, I met him in his office for a private audience.

I first told him everything that had happened. Everything that went right, everything right my horde did, the mis-steps I made. I related to him Rika's confession, my re-telling of her tale, and Tsume's own tale from the other side. He listened silently. At the end I gave him Tsume's scroll. He read it first, then read it aloud to me.

It was a heartfelt thanks, and glowing praise of my handling of the question of who killed his father.

I bowed and smiled to myself. Father and I discussed my estimation of Tsume. He is young, and inexperienced. His story about himself and Rika made him sound weak: he dithered between honor and duty and love of a geisha; he couldn't make a decision, and he was relieved when it was taken out of his hands. At the same time, he seemed decisive in other matters. For example, the matter of the bandits masquerading as magistrates. So, perhaps a young man maturing?

He is determined to be as different from his father as possible. He also has General Shizuma, a considerable advantage. The general is definitely not young, not inexperienced, not naive, and not weak.

Father agreed with my assessment of the situation. If he can be strong enough to keep his head on his shoulders, he will be strong enough to keep peace. If not, then he will be weak enough for us to handle, if necessary. At least we should have no worries of war from him in the immediate future. If he grows up quickly, all the better.