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

Chapter 121: The Lotus-Eaters

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
"The Lotos-Eaters"

Everyone assembled for the evening out. It was early yet, so I pulled out the scrolls and scanned for useful entries. I briefly described the Licensed Quarter, which is entirely contained on Teardrop Island in the river. Weapons must be dropped off at Swords Polished before entering the quarter. Once past that, there are two major geisha houses, a host of minor ones, taverns, and other shops and houses, and the Island Garden.

The garden is described as a garden run riot rather than a proper garden. Everyone was most interested in our destination for the evening: The House of Foreign Stories. The other one, the Morning Star, is where Ide Michikane was found dead, as Meili remembered. The Morning Star is run by the Scorpions, but the House of Foreign Stories is a Unicorn establishment.

I read the entries on the place, one from the Memoirs and one from Shigeko. Shonagon was apparently much impressed with her first visit there. I imagine it was the first time she saw gaijin up close. She was impressed by Magda, the woman who runs it. Shonagon described her as exotic, with long, curly blond hair and large round eyes the color of the sky. She wears billowing trousers tied at the ankles and a short shirt that shows her stomach. She tells stories of far away places, with snow and ice and huge wolves and bears, and of traveling here across the Burning Sands. Shonagon said she found "it hard to imagine that even the Shadowlands could hold anyone with a more outrageous appearance". Only because she never saw my horde. Meili grinned, apparently thinking something similar.

Shigeko commented that the only way the Unicorns could muscle in on the standard Scorpion-run geisha houses was to play up their sheer strangeness. The house is run by gaijin, and most of her staff are gaijin. She serves food and drinks from all over the world, and also displays foreign art. Apparently she does a brisk business on the side in foreign art. I noted with interest her statement about Magda's papers. Of course, as a foreigner, she can only stay here as long as a magistrate renews her papers. Not doing so would certainly please the Scorpions, but anger the Unicorns. Shigeko said she always renewed her papers because she didn't want to unbalance the current situation. She also said that Magda runs her place well, and it's fairly safe.

"Slaying the dragon of delay is no sport for the short-winded."

~ A Wise Cookie

Armed with a little background, we set out on our night's adventures. I hoped Meili might dig up a little information, but I really had my hopes set on Toni. Of us all, I thought he'd have the best chance at getting information from geishas.

The river was busy with tiny boats ferrying people across to the island. We waited at the dock for a bit before there was room for our boat to tie up. The master apologized well for the delay, although it was certainly no fault of his. Supplies were being delivered in addition to the stream of visitors. I noted one boatful of men from the Thunder Guards, supposedly to help keep order.

Once we were able to leave the boat, the others made way for us. Everything looked normal, but there was a slightly tense air that I couldn't quite figure out. The pier led directly to the large, ornate door that was the entrance to Swords Polished, and that was where I led my little horde.

Inside, we were welcomed by a large man who called himself Gate, the proprietor of the place. Boys held out silk cushions for us to lay down our weapons on. An impressive place of its kind. Most are hovels, and I've on occasion been reluctant to leave my weapons in their care, although certainly none would dare "lose" a samurai's weapons. Here, I felt no trepidation at all. Meili's thin stick of a sword drew some odd looks, but no one was ill-mannered enough to say anything rude. I thought I saw Fibi hesitate a moment, but I can't think why, so I may have imagined it. Toni was loath to give up all his weapons and leave unarmed, but he followed my lead and did so anyway. Again, no one remarked on his reluctance.

"I understand all the words, and I accept that put together they make a sentence, but I am unable to put a meaning to the whole."

~ A Wise Man

Once bereft of our weapons, I did feel a small tang of apprehension. It's necessary from time to time, but I never like being without my two swords. I feel more naked without them than without clothes. Although I doubt anyone else would see it quite that way. And I had to admit that the two swords would do little to keep me warm on this cold winter night. We were guided out the back door, and we entered the main promenade on the island and sauntered down it.

I remembered the map I'd looked at earlier: the Island Garden and both houses were on this main street and so our destination would be easy to find. We passed the gardens first, on our left. They were as overgrown and wild-looking as the scrolls suggested. Fibi looked with appreciation, but all I could think was that it was very undisciplined and badly in need of a large crew of experienced gardeners.

They were busy, though, with people sneaking in to find privacy, for a wide variety of activities I'm sure. Why they felt it necessary to sneak here I don't know -- part of the fun, perhaps. Some were there merely to enjoy the solitude. Both would be easy to find in dark, overgrown corners.

We walked on, approaching a very large building on the right. When we were close enough, its sign proclaimed that it was what we were looking for. Instead of the simple script most signs are written in, The House of Foreign Stories was written in strangely flowing, sinuous characters. The strokes were thin and sharp. Meili mentioned the general appearance was similar to the script they write in in the Desert Lands.

"These words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean."

~ A Determined Man

We walked through the door into a huge, open room that was apparently the bulk of the ground floor of the building. It was filled with people, enough to feel that this was the place to be, but not overflowing. In fact, we were immediately led to a proper Nipponese table -- fine dark wood, beautifully constructed -- with cushions scattered around it. I supposed that was another foreign custom from somewhere. The center of the room was clear of tables, and a woman sat there playing some stringed instrument I'd never seen or heard. Her tunes were not Nipponese and sounded, as always, out of tune to me. Others seemed to be enjoying it more.

The walls were covered with foreign artwork, and the room was full of beautiful foreign women. I carefully arranged myself on a squishy pillow. It was hard to kneel comfortably and not lounge on it. Perhaps that was the point.

Within moments, several women came to us and asked what we wanted to eat and drink. I ordered sake: I know how to drink that. Besides, I drank enough foreign muck in the last few years. Meili at first ordered sake as well, but she brightened when a serving woman asked if she'd like something else. I think it was some faerie drink. When it came, it was a deep gold colour with silver flakes floating in it. I stuck to the familiar sake. The bottle they brought me was very fine, some of the best I'd had in a long time.

I also ordered a large platter of assorted finger food. Something easy and interesting to eat to sop up some of the alcohol.

For a while, we nibbled and enjoyed our drinks, chatted about nothing in particular, and watched. It was a busy place, with a constant stream of people entering, leaving, and going and returning from upstairs. There was always someone right at our elbow, to bring more food, to refresh our drinks, and to answer any questions we might have.

"But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me"

~ A Roman Assassin

Feeling a bit mellower after a while, I expressed interest in a sampler of sake that the serving woman suggested. She brought out a little rack holding six small cups, each with a different sake in it. Each was labeled, which was good because I couldn't remember her descriptions after a while. All were high quality, but there were two of especial note.

One was flavored with lychee, and one with raspberry. Raspberries are a small western fruit with seeds all over them. I thought that flavor wouldn't go very well with sake, and I expected to enjoy the lychee sake more. To my surprise, I preferred the raspberry. I found the lychee too strongly flavored. Although the first few sips were enjoyable, the flowery scent and the strong sweetness became overwhelming quickly. On the other hand, the raspberry was a very delicate flavoring. I didn't detect anything that made me think particularly of the taste of a raspberry. Instead, there was just sort of a general smoothness and slight sweetness that enhanced the sake, instead of hiding it.

While I was savoring the many cups of sake, I almost missed Magda's entrance. Toni elbowed me, and I looked up.

A tall and beautiful woman descended the stairs gracefully, aware that most eyes were on her and she played to the room. Shonagon had described her very accurately, and she was immediately recognizable. She held the room's attention until she reached the floor. As if that were a signal, everyone returned to their previous business, although there was always someone gazing at her.

She worked the crowd, stopping to chat briefly and warmly at tables. Although her progress appeared meaningless, I saw she was gradually and purposely working her way to our table.

She welcomed me by my full name and by my position here in the city. She very prettily managed to put more emphasis on the Emerald Magistrate portion and less on the Assistant. She introduced herself simply as Magda, the proprietor of the House of Foreign Stories.

I nodded and returned her greetings in the same vein. I said something about her living up to her reputation, and she thanked me and turned the compliment around to me. I kept the ironic smile off my face with a great deal of effort, as she said, "I have heard tales of your great beauty and intelligence, and I am not disappointed." I very much doubt tales of my beauty are spread anywhere, and it was rich that she of all people -- truly beautiful and possessing an incredible collection of true beauty -- should praise my scarred wreck of a face.

We exchanged meaningless, polite fluff for a few minutes. Enough to get a feel for each other. Then she moved on and did the same with each of my horde. She flirted a bit with the men, perhaps a little more heavily with Toni than with Peter, and it was obvious that Meili wished Magda would flirt with her, too. It would be interesting to see what sort of entertainment she sent to each of us, based on her short interactions with us. She eventually finished feeling everyone at my table out and moved to the center of the room, shooing the musician away. There she stood and told a story.

She related a tale centered around a magical black statue of a horse, which was used by an old, ugly man to try to buy himself a young, pretty princess. His machinations came to nothing, as the princess' brother took the horse, had several adventures of his own on it, and finally won his own princess to marry.

She's a fine story-teller, and held the room's attention. Once done, she continued circulating around the room, and the fruits of her labor with us began showing up at our table.

First, a Nipponese gentleman arrived, politely introducing himself to me. I recognized his family name, that of a minor family of Scorpion, distantly related to the governor of the city. I had no intentions of entering into any assignation that could come back to haunt me later. I did not need to hand someone a lever -- or a club -- to be used against me. Still, when he asked to join us, I invited him to do so. Toni scooted over, and the man sat beside me.

Without any romantic possibilities, one may still be friendly with the governor's family, after all. Although I had nothing in particular in mind, I did think that I might learn something by spending the evening in his company. If nothing else, a friendly connection might be useful in the future, even one so minor as this.

He started out well, asking how I was enjoying Ryoko Owari so far, and how my position as Assistant to the Emerald Magistrate was working out. He was easy to talk with, and I spent most of the rest of the night in his company. I did indeed pick up a few interesting nuggets of information. Whether they would be of use sometime, I didn't know, but knowledge is never wasted.

The man was handsome, well-spoken, and intelligent. By the evening's end, he had subtly made it clear he was attracted to me. Equally as subtly, I had let him know I was not especially attracted to him, but did enjoy his company. Which I did.

I still kept watch on my horde, as the two of us remained at the table for a long time. Meili was the next: a woman black as Jeisan Featherhand sat down next to her, and she was immediately enchanted. Meili shot a glance at Fibi, who looked entirely unconcerned about the matter, and threw herself into a serious flirtation with the woman. It wasn't long before they disappeared together, upstairs, and she didn't return for a very long time. Fibi's a strange one, but I was relieved that she didn't seem to care one way or another, for all that she seems to be so wrapped up in Meili.

Fibi found herself in the middle of a group of men and women, talking up a storm. Telling stories, I supposed, because eventually they asked her to tell one to the room, and she did, gladly. She held the room's attention almost as well as Magda had with her own tale of a horse. This one was a magical horse, small and humpbacked, that guided his master, a peasant, through many adventures. His acquisition of a Firebird for the tsar, which seemed to be the equivalent of the Emperor, interested me. It seems Fibi's people are familiar with the phoenix, although their version is a little different. It was most foreign, with the peasant becoming the tsar, but then what can one expect from the western barbarians? At any rate, she told it well, and the room applauded with appreciation.

Not long after that, Fibi retired upstairs, escorted by one of the men around her. I just never know what to expect from the girl. But then, that is the mark of those close to the kami.

Peter spent the evening in simple conversation with people, never straying from the main room.

I did go upstairs with my new friend, but not to any of the private rooms. Instead, we strolled around the balcony on the second floor, and he pointed out things of interest on the island and on both shores. Aside from my hopes of mining him for information, he was truly interesting and well worth spending time with for his own sake.

When we came back downstairs, Meili and Fibi were both still gone, Peter was deep in conversation with another man and a woman, and Toni was talking with Magda. He'd sat alone at the table, although well-taken care of, for quite a long time, and apparently Magda had saved him for herself. I hid a smile: I couldn't have hoped for better. She and he talked for a long while, sipping wine, and I stayed away. She appeared to be somewhat taken with him, judging by her attitude and their intimate laughter, and I hoped he milked the situation for all it was worth. I was disappointed that they never left the main room, but it was a lengthy conversation, and I looked forward to hearing about it from Toni later. Or perhaps the next day, since it was getting rather late.

Eventually, I could tell that their conversation was winding down, and I and my evening's escort returned to the table. Peter joined us, and a few minutes later, Fibi returned from upstairs, leaning on the man she'd gone with and looking somewhat the worse for wear. She'd clearly not confined herself to alcohol, and she had a rather dazed and bemused look on her face, and her eyes were far away. She sat down and said little for the rest of the night, just looking around from time to time with wonder.

I sighed. I had hoped that Meili would watch out for her and keep her out of trouble.

It was getting deep into the night, and everyone was together at the table, except for Meili. We were all intoxicated to varying degrees, but only Toni was mad drunk. Of course, Fibi seemed still to be wreathed in opium dreams, but she was at least technically conscious, so I supposed I could be grateful to her companion for not letting her get completely wasted on opium.

In the usual round-about way, I indicated that perhaps, if Meili were to return to the table as well, we might leave. Magda nodded, and a serving woman wandered upstairs. A few minutes later she returned, and related Meili's message as politely as she could, "I am enjoying my shore leave."

I bit back laughter. At least I knew the message was genuinely from her, and that she wasn't being held back forcibly. No one else would ever send me a message like that. I wasn't in that much of a hurry, so we remained for a few more hours. I switched to tea, and my head cleared quickly.

Eventually, it really was time to go, and I made my desire to leave clear. And Meili appeared not more than half an hour later. She must have been either ready to go anyway, or her summons was gently put, because she didn't seem annoyed. Also, she appeared. Had she not been ready, it would have taken more force to get her downstairs, probably.

Magda herself escorted us to the door, and very carefully maneuvered me into a short, private conversation. She had a very important matter she needed to discuss with me, she said. Would it be possible for her to meet me at my office this evening?

I could guess what was so important to her: papers I had to sign to allow her to stay. I thought quickly: it was almost morning, so I doubted I would be up and around until after lunch. What appointments did I have today? Only the one with Ashidaka Michitaka, and I asked Furedu to make it in the afternoon. So I was clear for the evening. I nodded and told her I would be available.

Perhaps her need for my signature can be played into something useful. I dislike these power games. Before I left for the west, I never planned on being anything more than a simple bushi. The song of steel was all I cared for. Several hard years later, here I am, playing politics at a rather high level. And I'd better get good at it: it's a vicious game in which no prisoners are taken and collateral damage is high.

Our weapons were returned to us, nicely polished, and we reached the house with no difficulties. The walk in the cold, crisp air chased away the remaining effects of the alcohol, though Toni was stumbling and muzzy-headed. Fibi was still high as a kite, and Meili carefully guided her back to their room.

It's about the hour of the Hare now, and I'm exhausted and sober. I'll find out what Toni discovered tomorrow -- no, later today -- and perhaps I'll learn something from Magda myself in the evening. Magda -- she has a true talent. In the short time she spent with us, she quickly discerned our individual interests, and sent what she determined we wanted. Very successfully, I think.

I wonder about the man she sent to me. He's certainly no employee of hers, to be directed to go please a woman Magda pointed out. So, does she have some sort of hold over him, so that he entertained me as a favor to her? Or is she simply a woman who can read hearts and minds and easily set compatible people together? Did she plan for me to compromise myself with him? Or was she merely try to make sure I enjoyed myself, and that he enjoyed himself? Did she figure he would be attracted to me while I wanted information on the governor?

I wonder if this spent this much effort for all her guests, or if she put more into to make us happy so I'll regard her request tomorrow more positively? Did she even hope at least one of us would compromise ourselves in some way so she'll have an extra hold? That thought makes me uneasy. Will Fibi's actions tonight cause me problems in this twisted city?

Enough. I can't stop my thoughts from going around in tight spirals, uselessly so. I'm trying way too hard to find conspiracies. I will endeavour to accept, and move on, and worry at things less like a wolf worrying a bone.

My new friend said he didn't know the former Emerald Magistrate that well. "I believe that Ashidaka Naritoki was a fine and honorable man. Possibly the best Emerald Magistrate the city has had in many years. It was a great tragedy that he died." He admitted that Naritoki seemed more stressed recently, and that perhaps he wearied of the constant demands of his position. "He started making some mistakes, and he didn't seem to have his heart and mind in the right place towards the end of his life."

I gently asked for specifics. He gently admitted to knowing none. Or at least, none he could or would share with me. "I do know that the relationship between Ashidaka Naritoki and Shosuro Hyobu was always excellent. But towards the end, I did hear some rumours of differences between them. Nothing that would lead to his death, of course," he said rather quickly. "Simply disagreements about how to care for the city and such."

There were more little nuggets like that that I will consider later. In the meantime, I can feel sleep catching up with me and I doubt I'll last more than a breath after I lay down.



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