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

Chapter 119: Official Business

City's breaking down on a camel's back. They'll just have to go 'cos they don't know whack. So all you fill the streets it's appealing to see. You won't undercounted, 'cause you're bad and free. You've got a new horizon, it's ephemeral style. In a melancholy town where we never smile. And all I wanna hear is the message beep. My dreams, they come a kissin', because I don't get sleep, no...

~ Gorillaz,
"Feel Good Inc."

Another night's sleep did nothing for me. I awoke, still frustrated, annoyed, angry ... and there was an icy knot in my gut that someone else might call fear. I think I shall call it worry.

The speculating began over breakfast, before I'd even decently finished my tea.

Toni and Meili are very interested in the so-called ninjas. I keep telling them that ninjas are nothing more than legend. Just something mothers use to scare their children into behaving, and adults use to scare each other. Tony wondered what they're getting out of this -- stealing, or extortion, or blackmail, or something else. He figured we needed to speak with the victims of these "ninjas".

Meili muttered another suggestion for heading to the Licensed Quarter.

That, actually, was not a bad idea. Toni and I eyed each other, and spoke in agreement. Meili was the perfect person, of all of us, to discover useful information in bars and other establishments located there. Fibi nodded, still quiet after her ordeal, but interested in getting out of the house. I'm sure it helped that she wouldn't be alone, but closely surrounded by the rest of us. She also obviously preferred a visit to the Licensed Quarter over looking for non-existent ninjas and all-too-real bandits.

As breakfast wound down, I asked Furedu to arrange a social call to Ide Baranato. Merely a social call, to pay respects, as I should, and as I have with others and will with more. At his earliest convenience, of course.

Toni asked Furedu from whom Ashidaka got his answers and information, but that wasn't something Furedu was involved with. He did mention that Ashidaka used a ronin named Ample to "collect" people who needed questioning.

So, I looked at the scrolls, and read about Ample. Shigeko described him as a large and grotesquely fat man. He worked for a gambler called Lean Meat, providing "threat services". He's had a few run-ins with both city magistrates as well as Shigeko, for snapping arms. In her entry on Ide Baranato, she mentioned that he was treating her for a dislocated arm she got from Ample. She said Ample is stupid and rough, but can be reasonable when he respects you. Which I imagine takes beating him. Finally, she said that he is an expert at the jiujutsu move called "Two Way Throw".

So then I read Shigeko's entry on Lean Meat. She called him a scoundrel, largely without honor, but charming still. He runs a floating dice game in the fisherman's harbor. Interestingly, she said that he'll refuse a bet if he thinks the person can't afford it. Although he said it was only good business to make sure his customers could actually pay their debts to him, she imagined it was at least partly through mercy. She said essentially that it was better he ran his game than someone less scrupulous.

Someone said something about ninjas, again, so I looked them up in the scrolls. Thankfully, Shigeko's notes made it clear that these were not the ninjas of tales, but simply a criminal gang. Burglary, arson, assault, extortion, murder. The list was long, but merely sordid criminality rather than supernatural exploits.

Fade and his bandits was the next obvious subject. Another long list of crimes, but an interesting one. Kaeru appeared between two and three years ago. He and a group of about six mounted bandits drew off the guards of a silk caravan, and then the bulk of his bandits moved in on foot and took the cargo. He has repeatedly and successfully taken a wide variety of goods from caravans using a different and clever scheme each time. He has even taken tax revenues. When caravans started to move more carefully and were better guarded, he moved into piracy on the river.

I noted three interesting points.

As my throat dried out, Furedu entered to announce a caller. A merchant who wanted his traveling papers signed. I considered for a moment and said I was available. Why not? I might as well accomplish something today.

I went to the office, shadowed by Toni, who took up watch outside. Furedu came in first, alone, and asked me hesitantly if I wanted him to stay. His question didn't surprise me, but his tone did. I looked sharply at him, and realized he wasn't sure if I wanted a witness to this meeting or not.

I considered my answer only a moment. "No, I can take care of this." Best to be able to deny if I needed to.

Furedu sent the merchant in and closed the door, remaining outside. The merchant entered and bowed, a bit extravagantly. He greeted me at great length, and finally finished with gratitude "for seeing me on such short notice."

"My papers, that the honorable Emerald Magistrate Ashidaka Naritoki signed for me so graciously, have expired recently." He handed me his paper. It was a very official-looking document stating that "Taro" had a 2-year travel pass for the roads and environs between Ryoko Owari and the capital, Otosan Uchi. He'd been so kind to write a new document, with dates that began a few days ago and ends two years hence.

He's either audacious, or he has serious pull. I asked his needs for such a lengthy travel permit, and who sponsored him.

"I have the great honor to have the honorable Shosuro Hyobu as my patron." Ah, the illustrious governor, of course. "I know your time is very valuable, and I wish to bother you as little as possible, in much the same way I bothered Naritoki as little as possible." Name-dropping. "Naritoki and I had come to an arrangement where I paid a little more in taxes every year in order to not have to bother the illustrious Emerald Magistrate quite so often. Your time, of course, is no less valuable than Naritoki's." Now bribery?

"What goods do you transport for such a distance?" I asked him, almost dreading his answer.

"Medical opium." Of course.

I considered this request carefully for a few moments. If he's misrepresenting himself, or even if everything he says is true but he's caught doing something illegal -- oh, say, smuggling opium -- while traveling on my authorization, it reflects poorly on me. On the other hand, if I refuse, Shosuro Hyobu might get quite annoyed, and rightfully so.

I gave him my answer at great length, stressing the importance of such papers -- incidentally hinting at his own personal importance to need such important papers -- and the value of making certain that such matters are handled with due diligence and gravity. Eventually, I took his paper and told him to come back in a week.

He bowed, thanked me for my time, and vowed to return in a week.

Toni brought Furedu in, after seeing the merchant out, and I explained what had just occurred and that I needed confirmation. I hoped that Furedu would either remember this merchant, or at least know what Naritoki had done in such situations. Instead, he looked at me blankly. I sighed. Not his job, then. Toni suggested asking Jorege for information on his claims about the taxes. That was a good idea, and Furedu left in search of him.

Downstairs in the courtyard, Meili was holding her bow, standing motionless, in the middle of the courtyard, watched by Fibi.

I had time for a pot of tea, then Toni and I went to speak with Jorege. As usual, I merely listened, and didn't understand anything they talked about. After Jorege rather stiffly disavowed knowing about any illegal acts performed by the previous magistrate.

The man seemed genuinely pleased in Toni's interest and understanding of taxes. About all I figured out is that Naritoki had an advisor: one Kakita Kabe.

We finished in time for lunch, and I asked Furedu to arrange for a meeting with Kakita Kabe. Toni suggested this afternoon, since we were going to the Licensed Quarter tonight. I nodded, and Furedu left.

After lunch, Sun pulled Toni and me aside for a quick conversation. He'd hired the household staff, including a few people to act as guards. Not a significant force, but only enough to open and close the gate. Although the house is built to be defended, we had no defenders. Sun said we had the money to retain a significant force.

Yes. I had two alternatives. Send to Shiba Miyara for Miyara bushi, or hire locally.

I preferred the former. They would be known and trusted. Local men would be hired, and would be taken into Miyara, but it would be easy in this Scorpion-infested city to hire someone that couldn't be trusted.

But sending to Miyara would take a couple of months.

I said I'd speak with Kakita Kabe and then decide. If I can better assess the threats ... No, I shouldn't fool myself. There's no way the threat level is so low that we can remain unguarded for two months, no matter what I might wish.

Perhaps I can hire temporarily and send for a more permanent solution from Shira Miyara. Or, perhaps in two months' time, I will have been either completely dishonored in an impossible situation or Bayushi Yojiro will have dismissed my services and I will be able to return home to serve Miyara again.



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