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

Chapter 122: Throwing the Dice

Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice doggie" until you can find a rock.

~ Will Rogers

Peter and I emerged from our rooms long before anyone else did. As careful as I was with the sake last night, I still awoke to a faint threat of one of my headaches, which can so completely wreck my day. It faded, though, and I wandered downstairs.

It was shortly before lunch, and Peter and I sipped tea while waiting for lunch to appear. Meili came down without Fibi, looking bright and cheerful. Toni appeared about half-way through lunch, glowering with his hangover.

Toni did tell us of his evening with Magda. Part-way through that, and long after lunch had been cleaned up, Fibi wandered down to join us. She still looked sleepy, but oddly content.

Toni said that Magda was "a very nice lady" and acted like she liked him, but "it was probably just that she wanted them back to spend more money". I think Toni somehow missed the real attraction I saw in her face and mannerisms when she spoke with him. He did manage to ask her some questions about Ashidaka Naritoki, and said she was happy to answer them for him.

She reported that there was nothing out of the ordinary the night Naritoki died. She denied that he had a favorite companion at her house, and said that he never talked about his work to her. True Word was not there that night, but that, too, was normal. Toni asked for her theory on who killed him, and she said nothing we hadn't heard before. She didn't admit to any ideas as to who or why, but did imply that it must have been one of the obvious big players. She said she didn't know which one had the nerve or desperation for the act.

So, one wonders which of the main players is, or was, in a desperate position -- one that was at least partially ameliorated by Naritoki's death. Which one did Naritoki back into a corner? Which one forced his hand, because I can't see him offering any of them a threat unless the situation got completely out of hand.

So far, I've focused on finding out what might have happened rather than what I might do about it. If, as it seems, one or more of those three -- Shosuro, Bayushi, Soshi -- had the Emerald Magistrate killed, what can I do about it? On the one hand, such an insult to the Emerald Champion and to the Emperor cannot be allowed to stand. On the other hand, I'm not in a strong enough position to effect any kind of meaningful vengeance. I can refer to the matter to the Emerald Champion ... but I find myself wondering about his place in this puzzle, too. Why assign a Bayushi as Emerald Magistrate to Ryoko Owari? And finally, why assign me as his assistant?

I wonder...

Having been told of the part I played at Asako's Winter Court, did the Emerald Champion select me as the dupe? Did he send me in to ferret out at whose feet to lay blame, and then to take the fall in clearing things up? It would be a neat solution: show that Emerald Magistrates cannot be murdered with impunity, yet have someone else -- me -- to collect the ire of the powerful, leaving the Emerald Champion untouched. I had to admit, in the abstract, it was all desirable. I ought to accept my role gladly, to lay down my life and my honor for the Emperor and the Emerald Champion, and for the higher powers they represent. But my time in the west has changed me, I'm afraid, and not for the better. There are people I'm willing to lose my honor for, or die for, but the number has become smaller than it once was.

We laid low that afternoon, looked up a few people in the scrolls -- like Ashidaka Michitaka, Shinjo Sanefusa, and Shinjo Yurifusa. Late in the afternoon, My first appointment for the day showed up, having walked here.

If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.

~ Will Rogers

I had Ashidaka Michitaka shown into the parlor, where I and my horde joined him. My cook provided an excellent late afternoon spread, which we all enjoyed, though none so much as my guest.

I was unimpressed with the man. He lived up, or down, to Furedu's polite but sneering description of him. Michitaka was a fat, ugly man with the manners to match. He was imperious and blustery to my horde, and craven and ingratiating towards me. His every move and word irritated me. He wore the paired blades of a bushi, but he didn't move like a warrior. He might surprise, I suppose, but somehow I doubted his skill. I nodded to Fibi, to cue her to pay close attention to this person, and she nodded in acknowledgment. Thankfully, she seemed to have recovered from last night.

We played through the usual opening lines. He did appear to be genuinely in mourning for his cousin, even eight months later. Genuine though his feelings might be, I disliked him so much I couldn't help but assume that at least some of his distress was because Naritoki's death left him without entry into the society he was desperate to be a part of but didn't have the position, personality, or presence to join on his own. Too, he crassly discussed how his financial situation had fallen drastically with his cousin's death, and he complained about having to look after his widow, which was only his duty to family.

He spoke strongly of his cousin's murder, and how he'd do anything to track down his killer, and how he desperately wanted revenge. Strange, that his perfectly normal desire to discover and kill his cousin's murderer should seem so pitiful.

Still, I smiled, offered him more tea, and plowed ahead. It proved ridiculously simply to manipulate this pretentious social climber. I shamelessly pumped him for any information he might have at all.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, he knew nothing. I'd hoped he might at least have some insight into his cousin, but no. He was fulsome in his praises of Naritoki. No-one hated his cousin, no-one could hate him. He was the most honorable, glorious, upstanding man to walk the face of the earth. Not even his enemies would have killed him in such a cowardly way. It could only have been done by the very scum of the earth. (He seemed not to notice how he insulted Naritoki by assuming that he could be so easily killed by the lowest of the low.)

He had no idea what Naritoki was working on; he had no idea who really killed him. I learned that Naritoki was dealing with ninjas, Fade, and that he was in some kind of power struggle with three of the four leaders of Ryoko Owari: the governor, Shosuro Hyobu; the local leader of Bayushi, Bayushi Korichika; and the local leader of Soshi, Soshi Seryoku. The three leaders of the opium cartels. Ide Baranato, the other premier power here, was not mentioned.

I used his invectives against Naritoki's killers to lead him into the subject of Kakita Kabe. He was happy to help me in any way possible to track down the murderers. He gladly turned Kabe over to me, and offered me several other guards in addition. He was obviously happy to divest himself of any additional retainers -- and their expenses -- so I vowed silently to run any possible guards from Michitaka's household by Kabe first. I didn't want this man to fob off the useless and untrustworthy, and I didn't trust him not to do so. But I did react favorably to his offer, and told him that I would certainly consider accepting it after careful consideration of my requirements here.

Michitaka stuffed his fat face on my cook's trifles, and praised them excessively. He hinted -- not subtly -- that we should work together to track down Naritoki's killers; that we should have another meeting soon to share information; and that this meeting should certainly take place over dinner. Here, of course.

I nodded and smiled, said nothing definite, though I left him with some hope. I might need him, after all.

And then he said the first truly interesting thing he said all day (and the last). When I identify Naritoki's killer, could he please have first crack at him?

Well, that's an idea. It was almost certain that whoever killed Naritoki was a high-ranking and very powerful person. What exactly I could do about it I wasn't certain. I could try to bring him or her down, but the chances of success were doubtful. For myself, I didn't care, but failure would bring dishonor to my family as well.

But if I were to identify the killer to this fool, he would certainly challenge the killer to a duel. He might very well lose, but that very challenge would open up other possibilities. The three powerhouses have a lot of enemies, I'm sure: one challenge was likely to lead to others. And so I might very neatly be able to avenge the murder of an Emerald Magistrate with no danger of dishonoring Miyara.

Of course, I didn't commit myself, but I left him with the distinct impression that I would consider his request in a favorable light. After that, I subtly brought the meeting to an end and shooed him away. I wanted him well away before Magda appeared. I had a strange desire to take a scalding hot bath after he left.

Toni asked Furede if Michitaka was as poor as he made himself out to be. Fibi said the man told no lies, but was dishonest by nature. In part he avoided lies by never actually saying anything. Even she seemed to dislike the man.

Furedu also told me that he arranged for a meeting with Ide Baranato tomorrow. I look forward to speaking with him. I hope to get his opinion not only on Naritoki, but also of the Shosuro-Bayushi-Soshi triumvirate.

It's not what you pay a man, but what he costs you that counts.

~ Will Rogers

Early in the evening, before dinner and long before her house would be busy, Magda arrived. This was all business, so I had her brought to me in the office. I also brought Toni with me. It's always acceptable to have one's second with one, and I thought his presence might be an advantage, since she apparently was interested in him.

She was driven up in an elegant but not ostentatious carriage, and had two guards in addition to her driver. All Unicorn. She herself was dressed in normal Nipponese attire, good quality, but again not flashy. Quite a contrast from last night, and I imagined later tonight as well. She exchanged a smile with Toni, but otherwise was the perfect Nipponese lady in every way. She began the conversation with the usual gracious small-talk, enquiring after our health and expressing the hope that we enjoyed our visit to her house last night.

In the same tone, I replied that we very much enjoyed the evening, and that she was the perfect hostess in every way.

Magda then expressed her interest in whether we'd made any progress in finding Naritoki's killer. I thought that was an interesting way to start working her way to the reason for her visit. I was carefully positive, but said nothing specific. Her question reminded me of how very little progress we'd made, in fact. I was curious why she was concerned with the investigation, and I so very carefully prompted her to tell me.

She answered obliquely that her residency papers had expired, and because of Naritoki's death have not been renewed. She implied that as the representative of the Emerald Magistrate's office, I would be well within my rights to kick her out of the country, or even worse. She paused a moment

Well, that was only the truth, but it was an interesting way to begin negotiations. She voluntarily just placed herself completely in my power. This could only mean she wanted something much more than merely renewing her ability to stay. I was pleasantly noncommittal, and I tried to draw her out more. For now, I ignored the side issue. She explained why she was concerned that he was dead, but not why she was interested in the investigation into his death. It's not a matter that concerns her at all, unless there's a more personal reason.

She finally admitted what she wanted from me. "What I would really like to have is permission to travel around Nippon." She smiled after that pronouncement, then continued earnestly, "I have wanderlust by nature, and although I have very much enjoyed my time in this city, I want to see the rest of Nippon."

That was a huge request. Highly unusual. Very few Nipponese have papers that simply permit open wandering wherever they wish to go, let alone a gaijin. Travel papers are normally explicit. Like the ones my horde and I traveled here on: they permitted us to travel from Castle Gisu to Ryoko Owari. We'll need other papers to leave Ryoko Owari for another specific place. She knew her request was a hard one, and she must have seen the surprise and doubt I felt. "I have something that might be helpful to you in solving Naritoki's murder. Perhaps I might exchange that for travel papers that permit me to move about in Nippon freely for one year."

She knows how to bargain. I thought fast. There could be several drawbacks to giving her the authorization she wants. If Magda did anything questionable while traveling on my approval, it would reflect very badly on me, and by extension Miyara. It likely would also upset her sponsors, the head of the Unicorn clan here. Or ... while Shinjo Yoshifusa was the titular head of Unicorn and his son Shinjo Sanefusa was Magda's sponsors, Ide Baranato really ran things. Perhaps he might not look so poorly on something that lessened their power even more.

I quickly asked her where she wanted to travel, thinking that maybe I could limit her travel papers somewhat. But no, she listed many places, all over Nippon. It was obvious that she's been thinking about this, and planning, for a long time.

I could feel myself losing this battle. I asked what sort of information she had that she thought would be worth so much. Not in so many words, of course, but whatever she had better be good.

It was. She offered me Naritoki's personal journal.

Perhaps now I understood why she was interested in the investigation. More importantly, I wondered what else might be behind her desire to travel. I also wondered how she thought she might accomplish it safely. After all, a foreign woman traveling alone through Nippon would likely not remain unchallenged and free for very long. So I asked her if she planned on traveling alone.

Magda struggled to answer my question, looking back and forth between Toni and me. She finally admitted that she would be traveling alone in the Nipponese sense. She certainly intended to take guards and retainers, but no "real people". She delicately said that she'd made the Unicorns of this city very wealthy, and had managed to put away some money for herself, so she could make this trip.

I felt she had somewhat missed the point of my question, but upon thinking it over decided she actually did answer my question, but buried skillfully. She either already had, or would soon have, the support of one or more important Unicorns for her travel plans.

It was a gamble, but a good one, I think. I accepted her deal.

Magda thanked me and said she needed a few weeks to make her arrangements. "I would appreciate it if you did not mention this to anyone during that time, and I'll contact you when the time is right."

I was wildly curious what was going on beneath everything. I absolutely couldn't wait two or three or more weeks for the journal, so I asked her very politely when I would be able to see it.

She paused for a very long time, and I quietly waited for her answer. She had little choice, really. She would not want to insult my honor by telling me I'd have to wait until I gave her the papers before receiving the journal. But she had to have doubts and wonder if I would, in fact, follow through. This was her gamble to make. Finally, she made her decision, and said, "I will have it delivered to you tomorrow evening."

"Thank you for your assistance in this important matter. I will be available whenever you need me to sign your travel papers." So I think maybe our little battle came out to a draw.

Since the business was finished, Toni asked politely, "How did you come into possession of Naritoki's journal?"

Magda looked at me with some surprise. After all, how else would she have a man's personal journal? When it was obvious that Toni truly hadn't caught on, she turned to him and explained, "Naritoki and I were lovers for several years."

He managed not to look shocked. We closed our meeting in the usual formal way, and again Magda was letter-perfect. She stood to leave, and we stood with her.

Then, she became suddenly utterly foreign. She looked back at Toni over her shoulder with that certain look and said, "I still would like to see you again." Then she left, having reverted back to the perfect imitation of a Nipponese lady.

Toni and I returned to the lounge area where everyone else was, and discussed the meeting in detail. In Imperial, of course, because of its sensitive nature. I confess I couldn't resist teasing him a little, though, As we left the office, I demurely said, "You must have charmed her last night." He stammered, "Um, yeah, I guess."

The best way out of a difficulty is through it.

~ Will Rogers

We had dinner a little later tonight, because of the afternoon snack. We were none of us moving all that quickly, anyway. The kitchen provided an excellent dinner under my cook's direction, and I started considering hosting a social gathering sometime. I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to a dreary, social-climbers' event. Yet, highlighting the re-emergence of the Emerald Magistrate's office might be of some benefit. I'll have to think about it.

I had just poured a new cup of steaming tea and added another dumpling to my plate when Sun came in and quietly told me that Kakita Kabe and five bushi -- all from Ashidaka Michitaka's household guards -- had arrived and were at the front gate.

Sun knew I was not expecting Kabe tonight, and certainly not additional and un-asked-for men from a man I didn't trust to send me useful guards. And so late: we were at dinner, and it was a late one. Sun asked if he should send the other five away, put them in rooms for the night, or make them all wait in the courtyard until I saw fit to see them.

"I kind of like that last idea. Make 'em wait," said Meili in Imperial. Sun ignored her and waited for my decision.

"Leave the five in the courtyard for now, but bring Kakita Kabe to the office immediately." I considered finishing my dinner first, but I did want to speak with him. I beckoned Toni to come with me, but he anticipated me, of course, and was already getting up. We went to the office, I knelt at the desk, and Toni stood nearby to receive Kabe.

Since Kabe was here, it meant that he was now officially mine. So the conversation began with that assumption, and with the standard greetings between lord and retainer. That out of the way, I proceeded to the important question. I asked Kabe, wording things most delicately but still plainly, if the five bushi he brought with him were merely Michitaka's castoffs, conveniently fobbed off on me.

Kabe smiled slightly and said Michitaka was indeed simply pawning them off on me. He added that they were, however, all good men and he believed I would be pleased with their performance. He finally explained that they were his men here, when he worked for Naritoki.

I nodded, satisfied. That was all to the good. So Naritoki's widow had taken Kabe and these five and forced Michitaka into taking them on. He would not have wanted the additional men, would not have a place for them, and certainly would not have wanted to have to maintain them.

I welcomed him and his men to my service. Before I could dismiss him, Toni spoke, "Is Michitaka really as poor as he implied?" It was a crude question, but one a foreigner could get away with.

Kabe didn't know, but he implied -- very politely -- that either he was running out of money in truth or that he was a horrible skinflint. He paused a moment, looked at Toni and me in turn, and asked me, "Can I speak freely?" I nodded.

"I believe Michitaka is living off Naritoki's widow's money." I wonder how long that will last, or if she might return to wherever her family was and take what's left of her money with her.

Toni nodded. That was all he wanted to know. He said in a friendly manner to Kabe, "Let's get you and your men settled." They left together, and I returned to my dinner.



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