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

Chapter 120: A Possible Hire

People forget, forget they're hiding. The news slows, people forget. The shares crash, hopes are dashed, people forget. Forget they're hiding. Behind an eminence front. An eminence front -- it's a put-on.

~ The Who,
"Eminence Front"

After lunch, I looked through the scrolls again, in the office. Sometime later, Toni appeared at the door, looking like he'd just changed clothes after sword-practice in the courtyard. Which was almost certainly the case. Kakita Kabe was here. I swiftly put the scrolls away. He asked who, if anyone, I wanted in this meeting, and I told him I wanted everyone here.

I took stock of the room and made a guess about Kabe. In general, Cranes tend to focus more on appearances and have the reputation of being highly skilled politicians. Nipponese courts are full of their ilk. Not that a generalization defines any particular person.

More importantly, this would be a business meeting. So I set up in the court area of the office. That made it clear that I was acting as the magistrate, and he came to me as a subordinate. If I decided I want to hire him, then we could move to either the office area or the more casual area.

I was seated when my horde arrived, and they settled themselves in place around me. Then Toni brought Kabe in and sat down himself, next to me.

Kabe entered, bowed appropriately, and stated his name by way of introduction. In turn, I introduced myself by name, and made it clear I was acting for the magistrate. "I understand you acted as Naritoki's head of household guards," I started the conversation.

"Yes, I had that honor."

For several minutes, I dueled with words, trying to gauge his attitude towards me, as well as attempting to weigh his worth for re-hiring. At the same time, I used my words and tones to convey to him that since Ashidaka Naritoki died without a clean hand-off, I was trying to bridge that gap between him and his replacement.

As I spoke with him, I kept in mind what Furedu told me about Kabe. He was currently working in the household in which Ashidaka Naritoki's widow was staying as a guest. One may conjecture that she influenced her host to hire Kakita Kabe. Quite a come-down, to be just a random hire somewhat imposed by someone else, from being the head of the Emerald Magistrate's household guards and the magistrate's advisor.

From his tones and postures more than his actual words, it seemed that he entered the magistrate's office regarding me in a very negative light. He apparently either thought the true Emerald Magistrate had asked for him and was annoyed to discover it was only me, or my request annoyed him from the start but he came anyway because it did come from the Emerald Magistrate's office, after all.

Regardless of how he entered the office, I managed to turn his attitude around. By the time we finished with the lengthy preliminaries, he viewed me as a competent and skillful assistant magistrate. I'm also certain that my being the daughter of the Phoenix Champion didn't hurt. I dislike trading on it -- I prefer simply being a Miyara samurai -- but relative status is everything.

I did finally get around to the two core questions I needed answers to. He confirmed that he did, indeed, collect information for Ashidaka Naritoki. On the other hand, he refused to hire on to do the same for us.

He said, "I cannot. That is, it would be an honor, but I'm afraid I must decline." He fumbled his answer a bit, and it was obviously neither as polite nor as politically polished as he intended.

His second answer surprised me for a moment. Toni asked me quietly, in Imperial, if I could ask him to act for the Emerald Magistrate on a temporary basis. I thought back to what I had asked exactly and what he meant by his refusal without a reason. I was certain he was interested, so I simply asked him his reason for refusing.

This question was easier for him to answer. While saying little directly, he made it clear that his main objections were that the actual Emerald Magistrate isn't even here, and that he's a Scorpion who is also unknown to him.

So, I had simply asked the wrong question, and I rephrased my initial offer to him. "Would you be willing, then, to serve in that capacity for me personally?" I was certain he would assent to this. In his current position, he's a nobody with no responsibilities and little to do. I offered him a higher, more visible position with real duties and responsibilities. A combat position instead of a desk job, in effect.

"Yes, if I can obtain release from my current lord."

Toni whispered to me in Imperial, "We might be able to influence that lord and the widow to release him." "Yes, we might," I answered him quietly.

That settled, Toni asked Kabe a few questions. While he did so I glanced at Fibi. She gave me a slight smile and nod. All was well, then. He wasn't misleading us.

Toni first asked, "What was the complement of the house guard when you were on duty here?" The number was surprisingly large, or perhaps not so surprisingly, considering.

"Do you know of any qualified Phoenix samurai that we might approach to hire to our guard?"

"I know of a few," he admitted. "I can contact them on your behalf, or simply provide you with their names if you'd prefer."

I rather thought his endorsement in addition to my name might prove helpful, so I asked him to contact them for me.

Toni asked next, "Have you heard anything about the reputed ninja attacks in the past few months?" Ninjas again.

"I know nothing about ninja attacks," Kabe said rather drily.

Unphased, Toni continued, "Do you know where Ashidaka Naritoki was on the night he was killed?"

"Yes, he was returning from the Licensed Quarter." Confirming our theory.

"We were planning on looking into the Licensed Quarter. Is there a particular place that might be more likely to yield information pertaining to his murder? Can you suggest where we should look first?"

Kabe answered slowly, "I don't know if it will yield pertinent information, but I believe Ashidaka Naritoki preferred the House of Foreign Stories."

Meili laughed out loud at the name. "Sounds like my kind of place," she said in Imperial. Kabe looked uncomfortable at her laughter.

Toni said, "One last thing. We've heard lots of other theories. Do you have a personal theory on how and why Ashidaka Naritoki was murdered?"

Kabe was quiet for a few moments as he put his thoughts together. "No." He paused, and then said, "I cannot imagine anyone would have the ... foolish courage ... to kill the Emerald Magistrate. I wonder why the Emerald Cham..."

That was interesting. Meili grinned rather broadly at his surprising answer. For a Crane, that was remarkably impolitic. He stopped himself before he finished the rest of his obvious statement. Why hasn't the Emerald Champion done more about this serious matter and insult to him and the Emperor?

I said merely, "Thank you for your time." He bowed, thanked me for mine, and left. I think he was relieved that I didn't pursue the matter.

We remained in the office and Toni said, "The protection afforded by being an Emerald Magistrate only partially conveys to an acting Emerald Magistrate. Therefore, the risk and danger is probably greater to us than it would be to the actual Emerald Magistrate. A larger house staff should be arranged relatively soon."

I nodded vehemently. Perhaps there's a happy medium between immediate protection and Miyara protection later.

I called Furedu in. "Tell me about Ashidaka Michitaka, the lord whose house Naritoki's widow is staying in."

"He is an atypical Crane. He's large and boisterous and ... very plain-spoken." So, not so much a prototypical Crane courtier. It was clear from his words and tone that Furedu did not think highly of him. "Ashidaka Michitaka was a cousin to Ashidaka Naritoki. And he took great advantage of that position. After his cousin's death, he has diminished greatly in influence, if not in bluster."

"I intend to hire Kakita Kabe away from him." I knew if Furedu had a reason why I should not, he would say so.

Instead, he said delicately, "I always found Kakita Kabe to be an honorable man."

"I'd like to see Ashidaka Michitaka soonest."

He thought a moment and said, "You could ask him tonight, but you don't want to look desperate."

"No, and I have plans tonight anyway. Tomorrow afternoon."

"Should I tell him why?"

"A social call on Miyara Miwa." The dual prospects of a connection with the daughter of the Phoenix Champion -- in this case, I didn't mind playing the part at all -- and possibly through her to the new Emerald Magistrate, should ensure he's eager and happy to come here, and have him arrive in a good mood. And it gives some me latitude in the direction I need to take the conversation.

It was about time to bathe and begin preparing for the night's adventures. I told everyone we needed to dress well. No armor, but weapons are expected. Even if we must leave them at Swords Polished. Toni looked mulish, but didn't argue.

I dressed as an elegant Miyara samurai. Toni showed up in the leather he wears under his chainmail, but at least without the chain. It would do: it's so unfamiliar a cut that it will merely be taken for some outlandish barbarian fashion.

The rest looked acceptable: Fibi, Meili, and Peter. I hope Meili keeps an eye on Fibi.



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