Scroll 11: In Which Games are Played

Chapter 103: The Dangers of Poetry

I like a look of agony,
Because I know it's true;
Men do not sham convulsion,
Nor simulate a throe.

The eyes glaze once, and that is death.
Impossible to feign
The beads upon the forehead
By homely anguish strung.

~ Emily Dickinson

Four days after we arrived, Father left for the Emperor's Court. His parting words to me were to not let Miyara Ryuden get into too much trouble. I'm not too sure what I can do to prevent it if he's really determined to find trouble, but I'll keep my eye on him.

One day, I found myself sitting quietly in a parlor, listening to music. I turned to find Hiruma Usigo was next to me. We exchanged polite greetings, and then, to my surprise, he said, "I was impressed by your ability to convince the Elemental Masters to let Koan enter the tournament." I'd heard he'd lost much of his sight, but he was still sharp as a blade.

I thanked him for his regard, and told him just a little of how that happened. Nothing more than the simple argument I presented them with, of course. Then I turned the compliment back on him. I remembered an incident involving an Isawa family who was accused of a crime. Hiruma sorted it out and cleared him. I knew Father was particularly impressed by his handling of the situation.

He commended me on bringing Isawa's statue back from the west. I simply nodded. What could I say? There was no other option: either I returned the statue, or I didn't return myself. He expressed some interest in what I discovered and learned about foreign lands in my lengthy travels. I told him a few interesting points, and he listened.

Hiruma is very easy to talk to; he's a very good listener and asks just the right questions. He also seemed to be genuinely interested in my tales and opinions. He even gave a little advice here and there. It reminded me a little of talking with my father's uncle, Miyara Noriuki, when I was a girl.

He said, "I like your future. I believe you have great potential, and I would like to help you in any way I can." I wonder what future he sees for me. He intimated that if I have questions, I can ask, and that he will be approachable later.

He brought up the court game and the tokens. He was intrigued by the possibilities of the game. "And how is the game for you?" he asked.

"Well enough."

He shared a few interesting moves he'd seen, and mentioned a few tokens he'd spotted in people's hands. I was curious, but couldn't quite bring myself to ask him what token he had. I did ask if he'd seen the holder of Meili's carved tiger, but he had not. Whoever has it is hiding it well.

Somehow, he brought Akodo Rena into the conversation, though not in a prying manner. Needing information about him badly, I asked if he knew Akodo Rena. He shook his head and said he knew nothing more than I probably did, but he said Miyara Katsuda has actually dealt with him personally. I will have to find him and find a way to ask.

We left the topic of the court games, and he asked what I've been doing since I returned. I told him some about the Tsume affair, and some about the Festival; I was careful to say nothing I shouldn't, however.

Another afternoon, another parlor, another court game. I was lost in thought and not really paying attention to whatever games the Emperor's niece was playing. Miyara Himitsu sat beside me. He had obviously been looking for me, but he pretended it was a chance meeting. I did not let him think I saw through him.

After an inconsequential exchange, he worked around to the reason he wanted to talk to me. He asked me what I could tell him about Otomo Yoroshiku.

Surely I'm an odd person to ask about her, having been gone so long. But then I realized that, up until now, Himitsu's time had been mostly taken up by my father, while I had nothing better to do than to watch her, and even speak with her occasionally. I wondered; with Father gone now, was he taking the chance at being yet another suitor?

This was a little awkward: he's younger than I am, but I've been gone so long, and he's my father's right hand. I gently pointed out that Miyara Sanru is one of the two favorites currently, and I am supposed to support him in his suit.

He gave me a surprised look. "Oh yes, of course. My questions are purely out of curiosity." So courting her wasn't his intention after all, which relieved me. But something about it still didn't feel right.

I certainly know nothing about her that everyone else doesn't either already know, or could discover himself by watching her. The Emperor has only one son, and she is actually second in line. She is young, but she has that in her blood, and she is an expert at playing court games, as well as The Game. I didn't say it outright, but she is an expert manipulator, as well she should be. And needs to be.

I'm not sure if I told Himitsu what he was looking for. We parted, and I wondered what he really wanted.

That same night, the Shosuro troupe put on a play for the court. It had been years since I could see anything like this, and I greatly looked forward to it. The play was "Death of the first Hantei". Shosuro Furuyari wrote it against the history, and it was somewhat infamous, though also a favorite in some circles. I'd seen it done poorly, and I'd seen it done well. I had high hopes for it that night, because Shosuro Tage, the greatest actress in our day, was the leader of this troupe.

The play opens with the war against the Shadowlands, the first defeat of Fu Leng, and the heroic deeds of his kami brothers. At the end, Hantei is wounded by Fu Leng, and brought back to the palace.

Of course, he really emerged from that last, great battle uninjured. He lived to a very old age, and had many sons.

But in the play, he is laid, dying, on the soft cushions in the Palace, surrounded by three of his fellow kami. Doji tends to his wounds, and Akodo and Bayushi stand ready to defend him.

Hantei turns to Doji and whispers, "Am I going to die?"

"No, no brother," she reassures him. "Your wounds are not so great. You will live a long time yet." I marveled; I'd seen a portrait of Doji in the palace, and this actress looked just like her. It was as though Doji had stepped out of that picture and knelt at Hantei's side.

He turns to Akodo One-Eye and whispers, "Am I going to die?"

"You will live, for a man with honor can never die." Words to live by, for death cannot end honor.

Finally, Hantei turns to the inky, black shadow that was Bayushi. "Am I going to die?" he whispers a third time.

Bayushi moves next to Hantei, dying on the cushions, and looks down at him from behind an elaborate mask. "Yes, Hantei-sama," he says, in a voice cold as death. "You are going to die, and you are going to be alone. But one day we will come after to you, to be by your side again."

Hantei trembles once, then dies.

Doji stands, and asks Bayushi, "What have you done?"

"Doji cared for his body, Akodo for his honor." He turns to the audience, and finishes the last speech to us. "I cared for his soul. The soul of Hantei, none other can have. The soul of Hantei is the center of the Empire, the soul of the Empire."

The play received polite applause, but no more. Not because it was only adequately presented -- it was, in fact, one of the better productions I've seen. But few appreciate it fully. It's apocryphal, and many have a hard time seeing the larger points made. The six actors bowed, and then became themselves again, discarding the faces of their roles and resuming their own. Otomo-sama clapped, rose to her feet, and retired for the evening.

I was amazed at Shosuro Tage's ability to so completely assume Doji's likeness. I stared at her, mentally comparing Shosuro-as-Doji and Shosuro herself. So I noticed she, in turn, was staring at Otomo-sama with great interest. As if she were expecting some sort of reaction from her. I glanced at the Emperor's niece, but I saw nothing. Shosuro simply smiled and bowed with the rest of the actors, and I couldn't tell if she got what she wanted or not. I didn't know what it meant, but I made note of it. Perhaps, before Winter Court was over, I would discover what this was about. But probably not.

The hour was late. Courtiers began leaving after Otomo-sama left. But for another hour at least, people talked and milled around, and the Shosuro actors mingled. Eventually, the crowd dwindled down to the sort who generally sleep very little.

The next day, lunch was informal; several parlors were set up with food, and one could come and go as one wished. The dynamics of who went into which room, and when, and with whom spoke volumes. I still preferred the informal meals to the formal ones.

I was in one room with my shadow, Iruko. She took care to position me in a quiet and deserted corner, and she whispered into my ear, in a surprisingly conspiratorial tone, that she had heard something amazing just that morning. "I was walking in the garden," and she pointed in the direction of the one she meant, "and I heard the voice of Otomo-sama from the other side of hedge. She didn't know I was there. She was speaking to Mirumoto Hansu."

A Dragon, and the primary competition for Miyara Sanru. One of them was almost certain to win her.

Iruko continued, "She said,

You know I would choose you, but my father expects me to wed a man of many abilities. You're the bravest suitor, as all can see, but many of the courtiers don't know your other talents. If only they could be convinced.

"I didn't hear all of his reply, but I caught

...glad to show the strength of my steel...

"and something about his honor. The Princess was happy with whatever he said."

I thanked her for the information. So, the serious games were already starting. I thought an advance warning to Miyara Sanru might be of some help, so that afternoon, I met up with him, careful to make the meeting seem to be pure coincidence. I maneuvered him into an empty room, and we exchanged the usual small talk.

The niceties taken care of, I brought up the matter of what Iruko over-heard, and I repeated the pieces of the conversation she heard. My main purpose was simply to make him aware of her scheming, and that Mirumoto Hansu was almost certain to act on her prodding. Perhaps he would find the fore-knowledge of his rival's intentions useful.

He smiled broadly, and said "She had a similar conversation with me this morning. She implied that I hadn't done enough to celebrate her. I predict that there may be a poetry contest in the works."

I smiled in appreciation of this cousin of mine. Yes, she is a master manipulator, but it seemed Sanru was her match. If he wins her, she's not likely to be able to walk all over him.

Finished with those schemings, he grinned at me and changed the subject, "I have heard a rumour that Akodo Rena has shown some interest in you recently."

"Some rumours are true." Ah, yes, I remember Sanru's teasing well. But he was never mean about it, and he hasn't changed. I was also sure he would help me if I asked. "Do you know anything of the man?"

"Only by reputation. A typical Lion. Proud, loud, and much more attuned to the physical rather than the spiritual." He shot me an amused look. "More of earth than of air."

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that, I thought to myself. I returned the conversation back to Sanru and his pursuit of Otomo Yoroshiku. "Do you have a guess as to when this rumoured poetry contest might take place?"

"I would say that the princess will manage to wrangle it for tonight. Tomorrow night at the latest."

"I do enjoy a good poetry contest." At least, I thought this one in particular might be interesting.

"I look forward to hearing your entry."

"And I yours."

"Poetry is not exactly my forté, and the princess well knows it, but I will endeavour to do my best."

Of course, his best would be very good indeed, I was sure. He is Miyara, after all, and not an Akodo, "more earth than air" indeed.

Akodo Rena. He was playing the game in his own way. I would not seek him out: he was courting me, after all, not the other way around. I hoped I wouldn't see him for a few days at least. I knew too little about him.

Iruko had become my entirely capable shadow, and I decided to give her something harder to do than just feed me all the gossip and rumours of the court. I asked her to find what she could about Akodo Rena. Who he is. What people think of him. Yes, gossip and rumours, too.

I wanted to know his place in Akodo. I wanted to know what his friends think of him, and what his enemies think of him. I wanted to know who he might be allied with, both openly and secretly. I wanted to know what he really wanted from me. I couldn't ask all that from Iruko, but any information would put me ahead of where I am now.

I can't play the game without knowing my opponent, and I'm sure he's better armed right now than I am.

As we gathered for a formal dinner that night, a young Miyara walked up to me and bowed respectfully. He'd been a young boy when I left, but I recognized him all the same. He looked a great deal like his father now. Miyara Nessen, a very distant cousin.

He was a little nervous, and asked me if he could have a private talk with Meili. Meili was standing not but a few feet away. I wondered if he had the match to her tiger, and if he'd traded to get it, or had been unable to do so and finally figured he may as well meet her. I told him he could certainly speak with her. He bowed to her, asked her, and she agreed; they walked away.

She rejoined us long before dinner began, but said nothing.

During that night's dinner, one of the second-tier suitors, Doji Fusaya, approached the dais where Otomo-sama, the Asako family, and the first-tier suitors sat. He smiled at Otomo-sama, a satisfied smile, and held up a golden fan for everyone to see, but mostly for her to see. "I believe, my lady, that you have in your possession the matching object."

She smiled, and her maids giggled. "You are mistaken." She pulled forth her token to prove him wrong: a small porcelain doll. The courtiers smiled at her cleverness.

Doji bowed and stepped away, his smile lost. My so-young cousin Nessen stood and addressed her. Somehow he sounded less nervous addressing Princess Otomo than he did Meili and me. He held out the matching porcelain doll.

Ever fickle, or at least appreciative of a turn-about in fortune, the courtiers applauded at the trap she was now caught in. Of course, she had little to fear from Nessen. She smiled at him and said "One question, my friend."

"My lady, only one thing." A hush fell over the room, although I heard a few barely whispered bets on what he might ask. "What, above all else, would make you happiest at this moment?" The muffled chink of exchanged coins were all I heard over the quiet room.

She answered him, "The good health of my uncle Hantei, and a poetry contest by the fine members of this court."

Approving applause rang through the room. And so the poetry contest was set up. I wondered how accidental all that really was, not that it mattered. She didn't ask him a question, of course. I heard a few whispered favorable comments. He was a youth, and in way over his head; he handled himself well. Of course, he's Miyara.

Asako Kagetsu stood and announced the event. "There will be a poetry contest in the Princess's honor two hours from now in the Sakura room. Your poems must, of course, be in Otomo-sama's honor, and the topic is the Princess."

As I told Miyara Sanru, I wouldn't miss this. I was certain that in the two hours until the contest I could write a respectable poem in Otomo-sama's honor. To my surprise, Meili said she wanted to attend and present a poem. Well, that should be interesting. Nobody else in my retinue wished to write a poem, but Fibi asked if she could come and listen without having to write a poem herself. I assured her she could, as could anyone else, but it was only going to be the three of us.

As we left dinner, Miyara Ryuden headed us off and said he needed to speak with me, immediately and privately. I was certain I knew what he wanted, and I knew there was no way out of it. I led him to my suite, which was nearer, and spoke with him quietly in my room.

As I expected, he said rather desperately, "I need a poem. One to woo Otomo-sama. Only this afternoon, she spoke to me. She's all but chosen me!" He beamed, certain she meant what she said to him, poor man. "I just have to prove myself to her, off of the battlefield. She's certain I'm brave and honorable and skilled with the swords, but I have to prove my worth to her in other ways, so she can marry me." He was ecstatic, certain of his win. "I have her. Get me a poem. Just make sure it's the best one. I must win! The honor of our house and of the lady's heart rely on it!"

I couldn't refuse, so I somewhat flatly promised him a poem. I could not promise him it would be better than everyone else's, but I did promise him I would write him the best poem I could. He was satisfied, and left. I would hand it to him outside the Sakura room.

Now I had to write two poems. I wrote his first. It was a sticky situation: I had to make him happy and make sure he didn't embarrass himself, but I also didn't want to undermine Sanru. In the end, I just had to hope that Sanru found some inspiration. Ryuden's poem wouldn't be the best there, but it was a good, solid poem.

His finished, I wrote my own. A poorer attempt, because I was rushed and off-balance, after having to write a romantic poem courting Otomo-sama for Miyara Ryuden to present. But it would be enough not to embarrass myself, and that would do.

I saw Miyara Ryuden haunting the door to the Sakura room, and I slipped him the scroll with "his" poem on it. Inside were about 50 out of the 200 or so visitors to the Winter Court.

The fire was lit, lending warmth and flickering light to the room. Almost romantic, if you ignored the large number of people in it. The judges were Asako Kagetsu, Hiruma Usigo, and Otomo Yoroshiku, of course. I looked around, and picked out all of her suitors who were considered to have any chance at all. Plus Ryuden.

Himitsu was there. He looked very angry, but I couldn't get close enough to ask him what was wrong. Koan and his right-hand were there, and so was Shosuro Tage.

I looked carefully for Akodo Rena, but I didn't expect to find him at a poetry contest, and he didn't disappoint me.

Meili said she didn't want to interfere with Sanru, and wasn't sure when she should present her poem. I explained that the non-contenders are just an introduction, a backdrop, and take their turns early. Later, the serious suitors will take their turns.

About twenty minutes in, Meili found the poem she wanted to follow. It was a particularly sickeningly sweet poem. Nobody else seemed too eager to follow it, and Meili stepped forward. She'd been busy for two hours madly writing this poem, and I wondered what she'd come up with. I was certain it would be different, and it certainly was.

Her poem was in the epic style, rather than the short haikus and other short forms that everyone else used. Her poem told the story of two pirates on the high seas, who heard of the extraordinary beauty of the Emperor's Niece from an old man with a delicate tea set. They each declared their love for her, and continually fought each other on a long voyage to her home.

They found her at the top of a tall tower, and fought a duel across the deck for the Princess. At the end, they killed each other with simultaneous blows, each one dedicating their love for her with his last breath. The old man stood behind the Princess, waved his hands over the harbor, and their spirits rose as two white seabirds, who fly over the harbor in her honor.

No one quite knew what to make of her epic poem. I thought she told it quite well, even if it didn't translate well. I wondered if it could be re-written in a true Nipponese epic style. I missed the next poem, considering the possibilities, because the story she told was a strong one.

I slipped my own attempt in a bit later, and it was received well enough. I obtained my objective: good enough, but not too good.

There were a few more unimportant offerings after mine, and then the suitors began. After a few of the least of the suitors, Miyara Ryuden stood to present "his" poem. I hoped it would be well-received.

He spoke only the first few syllables when Miyara Himitsu stood up and interrupted him, to the surprised gasps of the audience. His face was red, he'd obviously been drinking. He was angry and bitter. In pleasant tones, he gave his poisonous poem to Otomo-sama, while Miyara Ryuden stood fuming behind him. I listened in increasing horror.

A blighted flower ~

A dandelion among chrysanthemums ~

A weed knows a weed.

~ Miyara Himitsu

The room became deadly silent, and my neck prickled. A few gasps, and a few others stood, katana drawn. Was I about to witness a slaughter? I stood myself, and placed my hand on my own katana's hilt, thought I did not yet draw.

Asako Kagetsu stood, and in his clear voice, he brought order back to the room, and katanas whispered back into their sheaths. I took my hand off my own. "What is meaning of this?" he asked.

Miyara Himitsu spoke in short, angry tones, "See for yourself tomorrow at sunset!"

Miyara Ryuden, enraged, stepped between him and Otomo Yoroshiku. I groaned. Now that everything was under control, now he was going to act the fool. And there was no way I could stop him without flying at him myself. I was pretty sure that's not how Father meant I should keep him out of trouble. He challenged Miyara Himitsu to a duel.

Himitsu accepted, "Tomorrow at dawn. The testimony will be given at dawn instead of sunset." He gave a curt bow to his audience and strode out of the room.

The competition was certainly over, and Asako-san ended it officially. Trying to transform the black mood, he announced that the Shosuro actors agreed to perform a comic skit here and now. They set themselves up quickly, and we watched an old favourite.

I was watching, my mind still in a whirl, and I suddenly noticed there were only five actors, not six. I wasn't sure who was missing, because of their skill, but I rather thought it was Tage herself who was gone.

A rather pale Otomo-sama and her maids retired about half-way through the skit, without disturbing anyone. The whispers said she had a difficult evening, and tomorrow will be even more difficult. The three of us stayed until the end. When they took their bows and returned to themselves, I found I was correct: Shosuro Tage was not here. She'd been here earlier, and presented her own poem, yet now when her troupe performed, she was missing. What did that mean?

The room emptied out quickly after that. A few stayed to listen to one of Otomo-sama's maids who came back, Kakita Nantoko, playing a Biwa by the fire. I wanted to speak with Miyara Himitsu and find out what he thinks he's playing at. He implied he had some information against Otomo-sama, something bad. His actions tonight were not even remotely a proper way to address it.

I wrote a quick note, asking to speak with him tonight, and sent it up to him. I waited, but when the guard returned, he said he was given no reply. That was rude; he should have at least sent a message refusing my request. But I couldn't go up to his floor and wander around: it was well-guarded, and Himitsu obviously didn't wish to talk.

We returned for the evening to our rooms. Once there, Meili quickly told me something she overheard after the disaster that was the poetry contest. Glancing around, she noticed that Koan seemed very uncomfortable when Miyara Himitsu spoke. He became nervous when "tomorrow at dawn" was mentioned. Meili heard Koan's apprentice say "He's giving us away; can we stop him?" Koan shook his head, and they moved away.

My head was whirling: what did Koan have to do with this matter? I had to speak with him. I wanted Fibi with me, so I could know if he told me the truth, and Meili also wanted to come. So the three of us went to his rooms. His assistant, Yisako, answered the door, but she said Koan was already asleep. I wanted to push in past her and wake Koan up and make him talk to me. But I didn't. I told her to please let him know I dropped by, in hopes that he might speak with me before the duel in the morning, although I doubted that would happen.

It was late now. We returned to our rooms to find a message from Miyara Ryuden, who wanted to see me. He didn't have the answers I needed, but maybe I could talk some sense into him and get him to end this silly duel. Again, Fibi and Meili accompanied me.

As soon as we entered, I saw that convincing him to call off the duel would be unlikely. He was drinking heavily, and he raged about the situation he'd found himself in. Did Miyara Himitsu actually have something against the Emperor's niece? If so, after he, Miyara Ryuden, marries her, that could reflect badly on him and on Miyara. Even now, he believed he would be the one to marry her.

Now and again and he actually mentioned the duel itself, and he arranged with me to take care of the formalities.

When he mentioned the possibility of bringing shame to Miyara, if Himitsu really had something, I softly suggested that he speak with Himitsu and find out.

Of course, angry and drunk as he was, he merely blew up and shouted that he will not talk to that "impudent cur".

Well, I had to try. I listened to another ten minutes of mostly bile, mixed with a few sentences about the mechanics of the morning's duel, and he finally dismissed me. His parting words were "No matter what he might have on her, I'll behead him anyway."

There was no way to put a stop to this: Ryuden wouldn't listen, and Himitsu wouldn't even see me. I was left with the duty to administer a duel I had every reason to want to stop. There was no good way for this to end. I've certainly failed in my father's instructions to not allow Ryuden to get into trouble. He was either going to kill Father's right hand -- and we'd never discover what information Himitsu had-- or he was going to get himself killed.

I lay in my dark room, unable to sleep.

Sometime before dawn, an alarm sounded in the peaceful silence, and the shouting of guards joined it. Still awake, I hurried into the common room, where the rest of my horde joined me. On the balcony, we saw the wall fires were lit and guards were at their posts. The doors were bolted. I opened the door into the hall and looked out.

Guards were busily lighting fires, candles, and torches. I asked one what was happening, and he replied distractedly but politely, "Asako has asked that his guests remain in their rooms." Which told me nothing.

Meili stood out on the balcony. She called out that guards were on all the walls at the guard posts, and fires were lit everywhere. There was no army attacking that she could see, but the guards were out in force.

Before I quite shut the door all the way, I heard a voice I recognized: Isawa Tomo, the Elemental Master of Earth. I peeked out. He was too far away to try to talk to, and the guards were all over the place. They didn't seem to care if I poked my head out for a look around, but they would certainly stop me if I set a foot in the hall. Isawa Tomo was looking away from me and speaking to a guard. I closed my eye and tried to catch what I could. I heard, "...dead you say. Damn the boy and his recklessness. Any testimony to prove who has done this?"

The guard replied "Yes, the last person to enter was Miyara Ryuden."

Isawa Tomo nodded. "That would make sense. Ask all the guests remain in their rooms, to be sure there is no general danger. Keep Miyara Ryuden in his chambers." Isawa Tomo disappeared up the stairs to his second floor chambers.

"The boy and his recklessness" had to be Miyara Himitsu, and he was apparently dead. And Miyara Ryuden was on the hook for it. I groaned. As if there wasn't enough trouble in Miyara Himitsu accusing Otomo-sama of unspecified deceit and the ensuing duel.

I was just shutting the door, when I glimpsed Hiruma Usigo coming down the hall. He saw me, and addressed me, "Child, perhaps you could help me?"

"I would be happy if I could." I was hoping that meant he was going to help me find out what the hell was going on.

"I seem to have lost my assistant. I need some help to keep from bumping into things."

"I would be honored to help you."

As I stepped outside, Meili said quickly, in Imperial, that Miyara Himitsu was already dead before the scene at the contest. I nodded to her: I, too, thought that one of the actors might have impersonated him.

Hiruma took my arm, and I began to lead him down the hall. After a few steps, he stopped and said quietly, "Perhaps you would feel better with a few of your retainers?"

"Yes, I would feel safer." Ah, he was giving me an excuse to bring whoever I wished with us.

"Perhaps you should ask them to accompany us."

I stuck my head back in the door and asked my entire horde to come along, save Kocho, whom I asked to remain and field any messages that might come.

I led Hiruma, and my retinue stepped into their places. Tony took the rear guard position, since there was no question of dust, and Iruko positioned herself in the middle. The guards parted before us, like water before a boat. He guided me in guiding him where he needed to go.

We started climbing the stairs, and he asked me quietly, "So, have you figured out what's going on?"

"I have some guesses, but I have no actual knowledge." Sad to say, I had not divined all that happened while in my room last night.

"I'm curious what your guesses are."

"I'm wondering if Miyara Himitsu was himself, and I don't think Miyara Ryuden killed him." Behind me, I heard Meili ask Fibi if Hiruma was really Hiruma. I hadn't even considered that possibility. Luckily for my peace of mind, Fibi answered in the affirmative.

"Why?" Hiruma asked me.

"I believe Miyara Ryuden didn't kill him because I talked to him last night and he was adamant about neither seeing or speaking with Miyara Himitsu before the duel in the morning. As for Miyara Himitsu, I wonder if one of the actors was pretending to be him at the poetry contest, with him already dead in his room."

He asked me, "Do you know what testimony he was going to present?"

"No, I wish I did. His outburst was the first I heard about it."

Meili reminded me, in Imperial, about Nightingale. I nodded and replied, "Yes, I know." But I wasn't prepared to discuss that here. I did mention, in support of my thought that he was dead already, that Miyara Himitsu refused to even give me an answer to my request for a meeting.

As we approached Miyara Himitsu's suite, many guards were milling around, plus guards were posted at the door. Quickly, before we were within hearing range, I told him there was another matter I'd like to discuss with him, but later and in private. He nodded.

We reached the door, and he said, "Remember not to touch anything until the shugenja can arrive and interview the spirits."

Two bodies were covered by blankets in the hall, in front of the door, which stood open. Guards were also milling around inside the suite's common room. Inside Himitsu's room were Asako, Isawa Tomo, and two other Isawa shugenja. One was the winner of the festival, Uona. Hiruma simply walked in. It was too small and full of people for all of us to enter. I gestured Fibi forwards first: if there were spirits here, I wanted her to speak with them. Meili pushed into the room as well, and we three, plus Hiruma, plus the other five who were already in here, were enough to fill it.

Hiruma announced quietly, "These magistrates," and he included all of us, "are acting as my assistants in this matter. As we entered, he whispered to me, "I'll be fine. Look around, but don't touch." He stepped away and towards Asako and Isawa Tomo. They all began talking about what was going on.

Miyara Himitsu's body sprawled on the floor, blood splattered everywhere, and his head a few feet away. His body had several wounds, but none too deep. The door and window onto the balcony were shattered, and snow drifted in, covering one outstretched arm. His swords were still in their stand, untouched. On a nearby table, a sake set was overturned and smashed, and the sake mixed with the blood.

The two shugenja moved around room attempting to commune with spirits. Fibi, after one quick look around, settled herself in a corner and disappeared into her head. I hoped she would find a spirit to talk to.

Meili carefully inspected everything. I looked at the desk: blank writing paper, brush and ink. No letters, nothing he was in the middle of using. And my message to him earlier this evening was nowhere to be found.

Himitsu lay face up, and he was facing into the room, his back to the balcony, when the final blow fell. The blood was undisturbed, which meant he lay where he fell and hadn't been moved. The snow was undisturbed, which meant it began snowing after the murderer left. It looked like the balcony was the exit, although it was an uninviting one. A very long, sheer drop meant the only useful escape was by climbing to another balcony. It would take great skill to make it. Himitsu was still dressed in the clothes he wore to the poetry reading, and his clothes looked untouched. No one had rummaged through his body looking for something.

Every room on this level has two Asako guards at the door. This room was not in the direct sight of any other guards, but was still close enough so that a loud voice would have brought guards.

As I looked around, I listened in on the conversation between Hiruma, Asako, and Isawa. I caught that Asako respects Hiruma's advice and wisdom, while Isawa relied on his own spells and his shugenja assistants.

The two shugenja finally gave their report to the three men who seemed to be in charge. Uona said there appeared to be no spirits currently here who were here last night. I glanced at Fibi, who was standing again, and who nodded in confirmation. Uona said they were either scared or sent away.

Isawa Tomo dismissed them. The three men exchanged looks, but there wasn't much to say. After one last glance, they began to leave the room. Hiruma walked near me, and said quietly, "Look around the room and find me later."

"Hai," I replied.

We now had the room to ourselves, and the others came in. Fibi said she hadn't found any spirits to talk to about the murder, but she did find one who said the snow started falling not quite an hour ago.

Toni said that the two dead men at the door were the Asako guards on duty last night. They were both killed by sword cuts, but still had their heads attached and the scene was much less messy. They must have been facing each other, flanking the door, and they fell away from each other. Neither had drawn their swords; one was still completely sheathed and the other was only part way drawn.

Toni carefully searched through the room, opening things, pushing and sorting. He finally found it: a secret compartment in the sword rack that held a scroll. He handed it to me, and I read it silently. It was addressed to Miyara Himitsu-sama.

Your words are kind, and I was glad to have them. I hope we can become friends, and in time even become part of your proud clan. However, there is something I must first finish.

I have discovered that Otomo Yoroshiku is not what she seems, and I must bring this to a formal court. But I can't do it. This requires three testaments. I suggest you talk to her maids. One, at least, knows more than she offers. She may help for honor. Years ago, she was willing to speak. Perhaps others may be able to provide the necessary testimony.

I will be waiting for you at the lake at the hour of the rooster.

It was signed with a chop block that I recognized without surprise. It's the same symbol that Niban wore, his personal symbol. It's a particularly intricate one that caught my eye at the time.

There were still guards just outside in the common room, so I didn't want to read it aloud. I mouthed "later" to everyone and tucked the scroll into my sleeve.

The hour of the rooster is after dawn, just before breakfast. Himitsu was going to meet with Niban at that time and perhaps discover what terrible secret Niban knew. But the fool couldn't keep his mouth shut and got himself killed.

What's Niban's role here? How is he connected to the princess? How does he know who, or what, she truly is, and how does he know her maids? He's been corresponding with Himitsu, and was open about his desire for Nightingale to join Phoenix, and he seemed to think Himitsu was open to that. It's obvious this matter is what Koan and his assistant were talking about, so Koan almost certainly also knows what is happening.

I let Miyara Ryuden get into trouble, and Himitsu into even greater trouble. And I'm the one who let this connection between us and Niban take place. Oh, how the fates love to play with us.

Will Koan talk with me? Can I somehow sneak down to the meeting with Niban and sneak back in again? Apparently it's up to me to take Himitsu's place in gathering the necessary testimony, if I decide it's necessary at all.

What role is Hiruma playing? How honest should I be with him?