Part 12: In Which We Are Posted to the Back of Beyond

Chapter 117: Bloodless Battles that Sting

They talk you up and then they talk you down, and you begin to doubt. Sometimes the reasons seem so very far away. But I'd stop breathing today, 'cause if I can't walk proud, I'd rather walk away. I do all I can and it's all I can do -- but I'm true.

~ Concrete Blonde,

Our meeting with Ashidaka's widow finished before morning did. We returned to the Emerald Magistrate's house, where we could relax a little, have lunch, and get ready for the afternoon's meeting with Bayushi Korechika.

As we approached the house, I saw Furedu standing outside, obviously waiting for us. Had Bayushi Yojiro finally arrived? If so, what would that mean? My honor was walking a knife's edge here.

We halted our horses in front of him. His first look was to me, but then he immediately addressed Toni. There were apparently five monks from some minor school I'd never heard of to see him. Everyone looked at Toni askance. In Imperial, he wondered if this had something to do with his duel yesterday. He asked me for suggestions.

Toni behaved completely appropriately yesterday, and of course they weren't here for legalities anyway. Their man picked the fight. Although that didn't mean they weren't here for revenge, that's not what I thought they wanted. They were here without invitation or notice, so Toni was under no obligation to see them at all. But I saw no purpose to ignoring them. They were here openly.

So I merely smiled and shook my head. This one was his game, not mine. We dismounted and gave our horses into the care of the servants, and followed Toni into the courtyard. I trailed him slightly and watched sharply. This was Toni's game, but he's still my second and I wouldn't allow things to get out of hand. I can't afford to lose him to something stupid.

Within, five monks in brown sat on the ground silently. As Toni approached, the middle one rose and greeted him, repeating Furedu's introduction. I did not recognize the mon they wore, any more than I had recognized the name of their school. I glanced all around, making sure they were the only representatives. The balcony, the courtyard, the gardens: all seemed clear, though I kept watch all around.

Greetings and bows finished, the middle monk said to Toni, "The samurai you killed yesterday was a member of our school. Our master has bid us to come here and test you."

"Test me or us?" Toni asked, getting the inflection just right so they knew he was asking if the master was testing his monks as much as Toni.

"You," he answered, as the monk seated on the far right answered the question in his own way. He fluidly rose and aimed a running kick at Toni, who ducked under it and drew his sheathed katana out of his sash in response.

Interesting. Bladeless combat is not the samurai way, yet I had a completely different view of it now, after having watched Kyosuke fight without weapons both effectively and honorably. Toni was handling it in his own way, apparently having decided that since they were unarmed, he wouldn't fight to kill with blades. But he's smart enough to know he had to use something against them, since he does not know their tactics or capabilities. Yet. I stepped back a pace farther, sharply watching that the rest of my horde kept out of the affair.

It was a silent duel, and it was also very clearly a test. They attacked him one-by-one, and they pulled their hits on him. Toni merely used his sheathed katana to knock them aside. One blow was enough. After that one blow from Toni, each one sank to the ground and remained there, although only two of them were knocked unconscious. Toni showed an interesting technique.

The third one managed to force Toni to drop his katana, but he just as quickly drew his sheathed wakizashi and continued, with no appreciable ill effects to his battle.

The monks' spokesman was the last, and he did not pull his hits. Still, Toni held his own against this more skilled man, who withdrew from the fight, calling it off. He bowed to Toni, who put away his sword and bowed back.

Fibi walked forward as they spoke to each other, and healed Toni. Then she and Peter took care of the two who still lay injured on the ground, as the other two stood up and exited with their leader. The two Fibi and Peter took care of thanked Fibi and caught up with their mates.

Toni asked, "I would like to visit your school to talk with your master. Ask your master if that is possible." Toni is skilled with more weapons and types of combat than anyone I had ever met. But this style was new to him, and he obviously wanted to add it to his repertoire. It's as though he's certain that the one fighting style in the world that he does not know will be his downfall, and so he tries to learn them all to prevent that.

"Hai." And they left.

I said, "Certain small schools use this technique as a recruiting tool. Major schools do not need to." Not that I thought my opinion would deter Toni. But at least he'd know what he was doing.

Toni picked up his katana with a rueful look at the somewhat battered sheath. They are not meant for such abuse. Sun arrived immediately and took charge of them, promising to get them repaired quickly. Still, they wouldn't be available for this afternoon's visit. Suddenly I didn't mind. Toni as a gaijin warrior might serve my purposes better after all.

Over lunch, I read what there was about Bayushi Korechika. There was little, really just Shigeko's view of him. It did not endear me to the man.

She'd liked him less than any other Scorpion in this city, she wrote, but felt surprisingly comfortable around him. He seemed so much the typical scorpion: venal, slippery, dishonest, selfish. When he took power here, he built up the current Bayushi network of merchants, adding new ones, and taxing them all until they begged to be able to leave his network.

He constantly jockeyed for position among the merchants of the city -- merchants, really -- and had become a significant force in a short period of time. He seemed to have little time for personal concerns except that he collected rare foreign birds. As far as she could tell, he didn't even waste time with a mistress. She suspected that his only real concern was opium, which we knew for a fact.

She included an interesting little anecdote that said a great deal about the man. She was arresting a Bayushi-beholden craftsman for possession of liquid opium. Bayushi Korechika stopped her with a writ from the governor and the personal support of Shosuro Hyobu's chief magistrate Yogo Osako, claiming that since the craftsman was only going to distribute it locally, it fell under their jurisdiction for questioning. Therefore, not a matter for the Emerald Magistrate to concern herself with.

That portion was unsurprising. Merely the game. But her story continued down a darker path. "They took him away," she wrote, "and of course he did not live to see the next morning. I believe that he was executed not for being a criminal, but for being an incompetent one."

She may have missed the rest of reason: not just for being an incompetent criminal, but to point out very clearly to anyone else what treatment they could expect if they let Bayushi Korechika down. A very pointed message.

I thought back to the poem about rats that Asako Kinto had recited, turning rats into scorpions. A cornered rat is dangerous, fighting tooth and nail for survival. How much more deadly, then, is a cornered Scorpion, fighting not just for survival, but for supremacy?

Enough to have an Emerald Magistrate killed? And replaced with one of his own? He could have been killed in a quiet way that mimicked an accident and then replaced by a Bayushi, assuming the connections he needed and obviously had. Ashidaka's death looked like another very pointed message, not merely the removal of an obstacle.

I thought it best if I went to Bayushi Korechika as Miyara Miwa rather than the (unofficial) assistant of an (absent) Emerald Magistrate (who happened to be a Bayushi). I told Toni to be as imposing as he'd like, and he delivered. He one-upped most bushi by carrying three swords instead of two. His armor glittered and clanked, and he carried a shield beside. Yes, my second was very much an intimidating warrior. Just what I needed.

There would be no introductions of individual members of our respective retinues, so Peter, Grieg, and Fibi would probably be assumed to be Shugenja. Meili appeared to be a little of both, which was sort of expected from a faerie but might nevertheless be slightly unsettling.

I was clutching at straws, I suppose.

At the Bayushi house, we were led into a room. It wasn't as out of the way as the one we used at the governor's palace, but then Bayushi Korechika is not the governor and shouldn't pretend he's her equal. It was a small room to be used for a formal social call, since he his retinue would almost certainly match mine. The room was not anything he would use for real audiences, so the subtle insults started quickly, continued by a wait that was too long, but not quite long enough to make a fuss over.

He entered, followed by four bushi and a shugenja. I glanced over them all, then turned my entire attention to Bayushi Korechika. My horde could take care of anything else.

He hadn't even opened his mouth yet, and I felt the truth of what Shigeko said about him: venal, slippery, dishonest, selfish. Yes, she had the right of that, and his five men personified those traits as well. A right nest of vipers we were in, then.

And the game began.

Bayushi Korechika went on at great length. Slippery was the word. His words -- and there were many of them -- couldn't have been more polite, kinder, or more welcoming. Underneath, though, the venom was unmistakable. I could not fault him in any way for what he said and how he said it, and yet he was very clear that I was only wasting his time with this silly meeting.

His men were utterly silent, of course. I felt their eagerness, and that of their master, for any one of us to make the slightest slip. My horde remained equally silent, leaving any slipping entirely to me.

He finished his sweetly poisonous speech by asking me (in effect, if not in words), what I wanted, clearly implying I couldn't be more unimportant or more of a nuisance to his important personage.

On the good side, he'd immediately greeted me as Daughter of Phoenix, and so I played Miyara to the hilt. I gave him his answers in exactly the way he gave me his questions, and he took notice.

I managed to be equally as cool and polite and friendly on the surface, while implying this meeting was no less a waste of my time. I even managed a so-gentle slap at him, reminding him that social calls like this are no more than expected between samurai of a certain rank.

I think I surprised him. I imagine he expected a blunt bushi, full of righteous indignation at perceived insults.

The conversation continued in the same vein on the surface, but underneath, I could hear his sneer, "so, this is the game you want to play with me," disregarding that he was the one who set the rules at the beginning. I braced myself for whatever blow he was going to try to snake in.

He very blandly asked how my father was, and I gave him an equally bland answer. His next question was the poisoned one, coming in under the feint from his first. How was my mother?

A simple enough question, but he implied so much more -- "Of course, I know your mother is in a great deal of trouble, but besides that, how is she?" I was ready for something, but not that. A chill encased my spine. Was this a threat? A test? Spiteful spreading of knowledge -- of what?

I ignored my frozen gut, set aside my sudden and deep worry, and endeavoured to give the same sort of answer I had given him for my father. I must have succeeded, because he went on with no apparent reaction.

It required little concentration. He asked about Winter Court, discussed people he know -- none of whom I'd spent any time with -- and never asked a question about the drama we saw. We shared a completely banal conversation. Meanwhile, I wondered if he was playing for time while he thought up another barb to stick into me. And I wished I could think of something to oh-so-politely irritate him right back.

Then, the sound of a woman's wailing changed everything. Somewhere in the house, it sounded like a couple of floors away and over a little, a woman's heart-breaking weeping sounded. For just a moment, Lord Bayushi's attention wavered. For just a moment, he was disturbed. But he very quickly recovered and continued with the dull, polite small talk.

That, perhaps was something I might use against him, though I didn't know how yet. So I kept my composure, as though none of us heard a thing, and continued smoothly. One point for me, I thought. Not that anyone was keeping score. Besides me.

But that small hesitation on Bayushi's part wasn't the only effect, although the second one lagged a bit. I stood in front of my horde, so I didn't see what happened behind me. But I saw the response in Bayushi's men. The shugenja's attention was suddenly riveted to one of mine. I saw lips moving silently. No one moved behind me or in front of me, but I was certain Toni at least reacted to the shugenja, much as he hates them.

I tried to remember where everyone was, and I rather thought it was Fibi he watched with such care. Which meant Meili had certainly tensed up as well. Regardless, all Bayushi's men were ready for violence in a moment, and I knew my horde was as well.

Bayushi Korechika and I acted as though nothing had changed. We exchanged nothing, at length, cooly. But neither of us fooled the other, or anyone else: we were as ready as anyone.

Something happened behind me to ease things. The shugenja first stopped his whispering, then to my surprise smiled. It wasn't a nice smile, more like a cat smiling at a mouse. But then everyone relaxed, so whatever the crisis was, it subsided without bloodshed.

Out of the blue, Bayushi Korechika said, "I understand your birthday is in a few days." And he continued with warm wishes.

My birthday is in spring. If he was in the least interested in my birthday, he could have known when it was really. So why did he think it's my birthday -- if in fact he did -- and why was he pretending to care? I could only make a guess. Perhaps he was trying to find out how I would react to and deal with this sort of serious gaffe.

He wound to a stop, looking satisfied somehow. Perhaps this was the moment I could use to irritate him as much as he irritated me. I oh-so-very-politely corrected him as to when my birthday really is. That part was easy. The next required some delicate work. I wondered, in an idle manner, how he could make a mistake like that. If my "wondering" was clear in the least, it would be a serious insult. I managed to just skirt the edge, thus giving him a very clear message, I hoped. Letting him know that I wouldn't take any crap off him.

My eye caught a movement to the right, though I didn't look. Bayushi did. I learned later it was a nod by Meili to her opposite number in response to the lessening tensions between them.

Bayushi used the moment to shift the conversation from insulting me in strange ways. He turned to food. Finally, he asked if I liked umeboshi. The truthful answer would have been, "not particularly". But that wasn't really his question.

Underneath, he was asking how I might receive an invitation to dinner, if he happened to send one sometime. I had time to decide, considering the long-winded nature of our conversation. I decided that although I strongly disliked the man, I might be able to learn something further from him. I informed him that although it was not my favorite, I did find the dried, pickled fruit interesting. I may have called their flavor unusual. What I really told him was that I would not regard a hypothetical dinner invitation from him with complete disdain.

We trailed on for a while, but only to close the visit. He did say, "If my house can be of any help to the Emerald Magistrate, please don't hesitate to contact me." It was the only mention of my position here that he mentioned, and he seemed to simply accept it. On the surface, at least. I thanked him, and we continued finishing the visit. Finally, he took his leave, and his men followed him. Servants led us through the house back to the front again, and we returned to the house of the Emerald Magistrate.

There was some chatter on the way way back, but I thought only of my mother. Had something happened? What sort of trouble could she possibly have? How could he know before me? Did father know? Was it nothing but a dig at me without foundation?

No, I couldn't possibly refuse an invitation from that Scorpion.

Besides, I'm not one to avoid a challenge.



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