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

Chapter 123: Problems and Solutions

Oh, there's a lot of opportunities, if you know when to take them, you know? There's a lot of opportunities. If there aren't, you can make them, make or break them.

You can see I'm single-minded, I know what I could be. How'd you feel about it, come and take a walk with me? I'm looking for a partner, regardless of expense. Think about it seriously, you know, it makes sense.

~ Pet Shop Boys,

The day began poorly.

Sun came to me right after breakfast, looking worried. Not worried enough that I might expect soldiers at the door, but worried enough. He carried several rather elaborate-looking scrolls.

"The bill from the House of Foreign Stories has arrived, ma'am."

"And...?" I don't think he's ever called me "ma'am". And why on earth present me with a bill?

"It's for 33 koku, ma'am."

"And...?" It's ceratinly a large amount, but again I failed to see why he didn't simply take care of it.

"We don't have that much available."

"I thought we had more than that available." I was remembering something on the order of at least 100 koku. Although I'll admit I didn't pay that much attention.

"Um, no."

Sun managed a wealth of information in his "um, no". That money, whatever the sum, has to run the household for a year. Perhaps 33 koku was a very great deal after all.

Sun continued doggedly, "I take your point, ma'am, and we'll find a way to take care of it. But I don't think we can afford many such visits. Paying this bill will make it hard to hire and pay guards."

Ah, now that was serious. "Take care of it and I'll try not to rack up more bills like that."

"Thank you ma'am."

Meili wanted to go to the House of Foreign stories and "work it off". Unacceptable, of course. And it would take years anyway. She also expressed disappointment in the inability to return tonight.

We discussed the matter for a short time only. I had other ways I preferred to spend my time. Like sparring with Toni. And the meeting this afternoon with Ide Baranato.

I supposed the best way to raise money -- which might not be a bad idea aside from this bill -- would be to join in the Ryoko Owari way of life and find some craftsman or merchant to sponsor. I had little interest, but then I suppose interest isn't really necessary. It would be a perfectly acceptable way to bring in some cash. Shame the Red Bull Inn is so far away. Not that I would ever want anyone here to know I own part of an inn -- not just sponsor the owner, but actually own it myself. I'd never live down the shame of being an innkeeper!

The trick, then, is to find someone who's worth sponsoring and doesn't have a difficult patron (say, Bayushi Korechika) already. Furedu will probably be able to come up with a list that Naritoki sponsored. Then it's just a matter of selecting a few and taking them under my wing, carefully away from whoever has them now. Additional powerful enemies I do not need.

I hate the idea. It's an admission that I will be in this city for some time.

We arrived punctually for the social call on Baranato in the afternoon, and he served a delightful tea. As with most I've called on, he's a reasonably wealthy man. To all appearances, he was a wise, generous, older man. Nothing he did or said throughout the meeting changed my mind on that. It was something of a relief, in fact, to spend the afternoon with such a decent man.

I spoke with him carefully, nevertheless. I did not want him to believe I was there merely to pump him for information. So I talked around topics of interest, never asking a question outright, never taking a straight line to what I wanted to know. In this city, I'm quickly becoming nearly as skilled with words as I am with blades.

I began with Ashidaka Naritoki, a natural enough interest. Baranato was open and forthcoming in his opinions: Naritoki was an honorable man in a difficult situation. He was good for the city, and did good work in most areas. He wished Naritoki had more success against the opium cartels, but he understands that a man in his position was limited in what he could do.

Although Baranato said he certainly wasn't privy to his daily workings, he has some guesses what Naritoki was focusing on before his murder. Judging by Naritoki's actions, he seemed to be most concerned about the "ninja" problem and about Fade's bandits. Baranato didn't know exactly what he was doing about those two problems.

Baranato himself thinks the bandits are the least important matter. I didn't press the issue, or bring up the stolen arms. Baranato is curious, as am I, why Naritoki didn't bring in an Imperial Legion to take care of them.

As for the "ninjas", Baranato thinks they wouldn't even rate the attention of an Emerald Magistrate, except that the legend of the ninja has grown into a kind of a black joke in the city. He's of the opinion that the "ninjas" are just common criminals pretending to be, or simply attributed to be, ninjas. So now every crime is said to be committed by "ninjas".

Baranato was sincerely sad over Naritoki's death, and said the fact that he was assassinated makes it even sadder. He's heard two theories:

  1. Korechika believed that Naritoki had allied with Hyobu against him, and took him out.
  2. Naritoki's own cousin Michitaka was tired of playing second fiddle and killed him in a fit of jealousy.

He and I agreed that the first theory is by far the more likely. As he said, Korechika has the power, the resources, and the sheer audacity. Baranato shook his head sadly and said, "Of course, I have no evidence against him, and I'm sorry for that."

Our mutual dislike of Korechika was the perfect segue into sounding him out on the leaders of the three cartels. He had nothing but bitter invective against them. He's self-righteous and intense, almost fanatical in his loathing of them and the effects of opium on the city, the country, the people, the economy. There is nothing good about those who grow it, sell it, distribute it, use it. Fanatics can be useful.

And, in fact, he said clearly that he will help me all he can should I crusade against opium. I asked him if the cartels worked together seamlessly, or if there's strife between them. They argue between each other, of course. He said it would be a silly question to ask if they work against each other, stabbing each in the back. They're scorpions! Scorpions! Rats! Vultures!

He wouldn't say the three cartels are at the top of this city. Not because there are hidden powers, but because the forces of good and honor haven't been defeated in the city. They still exist, and they still struggle against corruption and perfidy that is the cartels.

I gently moved him off the subject of the opium cartels in general and on to the specifics of each of the three leaders of the cartels.

I began carefully with Shosuro Hyobu, asking him about her as governor rather than as the head of one of the cartels. He said nothing I didn't already know or suspect. She's capable and powerful. Powerful because she's the governor of the city. Everybody across the empire depends on the continued existence of this city. So, she can call on favors and help from even people who might otherwise hate or oppose her. But they need the city to exist, to operate, not to fall apart. She is the most powerful of the cartels, but she doesn't dominate the others.

So, perhaps use her to take down one of the others? Can we make a deal with her if we can offer her something for the city? Take down the ninjas, perhaps, or Fade. Or ... can that theory be used as a prybar between them? The whole city believes that you and Naritoki were conspiring against Korechika, and he killed Naritoki. Perhaps it can be hinted that it's the truth and she's next. Or that since everyone believes he did it, it's in everyone's best interest to make it a fact. Or simply that this rumour in the city is damaging her reputation, and removing Korechika solves the problem.

Bayushi Korechika was the next topic, and I asked his personal opinion of the man. Baranato said, "Don't let his polite sophistication fool you. He is the most violent man in their city, and possibly in all of Nippon. While he is not prone to acts of personal violence -- although he's certainly capable of it -- his style is more to slowly take your family, clan, and house apart while you watch it crumble and let you die of grief and loneliness." I shuddered at his corroboration of my own opinion. But I saw some hope ... here's a man who must leave a trail of desperate, broken men behind him. And enemies -- potential allies for me -- who would hate him for that trail. Family, friends. Unfortunately, although Baranato knew a number of men he'd taken out, none had local connections. I suppose he's smart and careful enough not to muddy the water he must live in.

If we decide Bayushi Korechika must be the culprit, can Hyobu be enlisted to take him down? Will Ide help out?

I moved on to his personal opinion of Soshi. I've not met her, nor have I heard much of anything about her. Shigeko's note on her is pretty much it. Baranato said slowly, "Where Bayushi Korechika cares very intensely about his family and loves them very much, Soshi Seryoku cares about nothing and no one. She would kill you without caring and would burn down the city and her own empire if it suited her whim. She's a sociopath of the first water. Given that she cares about nothing, it's impossible to say what drives her."

Shigeko wrote that she tried to get a Phoenix interrogator here to go after Soshi -- to no avail -- who appears to be an utterly evil shugenja. I wonder if I might succeed? However, that would be a slow game to play.

I need to let these things float around in my head for a while, so I slowly brought the conversation around to Ryoko Owari's new Emerald Magistrate, Bayushi Yojiro. Baranato knew little enough about him, though he had at least heard of the man. He believes that the Emerald Champion puts great stock in Yojiro. Baranato continued, in an all-too-careful tone of voice that caught my attention, "It's too bad for our city that the Emerald Champion saw fit to assign Bayushi Yojiro with ... a special project." He hinted that since he's been so helpful to me, perhaps I might be of some help to him. "Do you know when he'll be taking up his regular duties?"

Special project? I managed to imply that I knew about this special project, but didn't know any details. And perhaps, if I did, I might be able to give him an estimated time of arrival.

He didn't know any details of the special project. In fact, I'm pretty certain that his knowledge of the existence of the special project wasn't nearly as great as he implied. He was trying to confirm something he'd heard. So all I managed to do was confirm a rumour that might well be false.

But that led me to wonder about the rumour I had. Very carefully, so as not to connect one with the other, I so casually wondered how Yojiro's mother was doing. He'd heard nothing of any health issues the woman might have. He also appeared not to have noticed that I completely by-passed his question about when Yojiro might make his appearance.

He asked, "Is there anything you can tell me about how the investigation into Naritoki's assassination is going? Do you have any suspects? Any lines of thought?" He asked me as if I were in truth an Emerald Magistrate. I suppose for the moment, absent Yojiro, I may as well be.

I have hopes that this man might be able to help untangle things. Also, I confess I like him. He's a completely normal Nipponese gentleman, and that's a relief in this city. I told him everything I know, which wasn't much. I added, "Ashidaka Naritoki did something, or was about to do something, that was a direct threat against one of the three cartels, who then took him out. I do not know who, or what Naritoki was up to, yet."

He nodded agreement with everything I said. "If there's anything I can do to help bring down one or more of them, please do not fail to call me in."

"I'll be happy do so." He has no idea how happy I am to find one ally in this poisonous city.

"After Naritoki's death, there's been a continuance, or even an increase perhaps, in the activity of the 'ninja'. Have you made any progress on that front?"

"None," I had to admit.

"They've become an annoyance to the legitimate merchants of Ryoko Owari." He'd also be happy to help me out with that. In fact, he'd consider it a personal favor if I stepped up my efforts in that regard. "Fade and his bandits continue to be an annoyance to Unicorn caravans." Again, he'd be glad to help, and my efforts in that direction would also be a favor to him.

That's a lot of directions he wants me to concentrate on all at once. I suppressed an amusing thought of a compass needle spinning madly around.

With that, he and I brought the social call to a close, and my horde and I left about half an hour later.

I wasn't home but barely enough to walk upstairs when I was informed that Jorege was here to speak with me. I groaned. More talk of numbers and money, I supposed. I grabbed Toni, who can talk with the man, and we met him in the office.

He spoke very plainly, making sure I understood him perfectly. If the matter was that important to him, it filled me with dread.

"I understand that you would like to put off paying a particular bill to the House of Foreign Stories ... I feel that this might put you in a dangerous position with regard to tax collection. If the owner of the House were to let it be known that you were in arrears ... I mean hadn't yet paid a particularly large bill to the House -- or any bill -- it would be much more difficult to convince merchants to pay their taxes, making it more difficult for you to pay the bill. Plus, it gives the proprietor a hold over you." With that, he realized he overstepped his advice-giving purview. He bowed, somewhere between apology and confusion.

Of course, it was obvious from her bill why she was so willing last night to turn over the journal this early on her side of the bargain. And perhaps why she was so helpful. But she's not the only one with hold: she still must have me sign the papers she desires so strongly.

Regardless of the matter of the bill, I still wanted to see about entering into the patronage system. I might want for some "mad money", as one of my sister-in-laws puts it. So I asked Jorege. He, of course, knew exactly what I was looking for and gave me a nice list to work with. Naritoki didn't have extensive sponsorships, but he did have some. Jorege marked by each who took over the patronage where he knew it, and pledged to discover the rest. It shouldn't be hard to cull those who are not worth the trouble and those whose new patrons would cause too much trouble to me, and then take over the rest.

Between feeling like a merchant and wondering how long I'm going to be stuck here, I felt a hard point of pain deep inside my skull, behind the missing eye.

I turned to Toni and spoke to him in Imperial. "Jorege is obviously skilled with numbers and figures and bills and such, and you're good at understanding him and asking the right questions and such. Find out from him if he can figure out a creative way to pay the bill." He nodded and went to work. I closed my eye and tried to pretend the pain away, and mostly succeeded.

In the end, there were three alternatives, or some combination of them:

We could, in fact, pay the entire bill now. However, we couldn't hire anyone else, and we can't pay those we have now. "They might leave, or might not," Toni said. "We can feed and house them."

I immediately shook my head. "Not paying those we've already agreed to hire is not an option. And we must hire more guards." I caught Toni's relief at that.

Jorege couldn't tell me how long it might take to collect the money to pay the bill.

Well, there was only one real answer. "For now, we will simply ignore the bill."In the meantime, Jorege can hunt for the correct targets, and my people will re-establish Naritoki's networks.

Jorege asked me what targets he should look for: a large number of small merchants, or a small number of large merchants? The first is easy but will make it obvious that I need money. The second is both harder and easier, but may make me a powerful enemy.

He can get in line. I told Jorege to look for a small number of large merchants, and let's shake things up a little.

Jorege left, and Toni and I returned to talk over the matter with the others. He said, "It's unlikely Magda will say anything. She's interested in the papers you must sign for her. And once she has them, she's leaving. Why would she care then? You may never have to pay the bill." I think he's probably right.

Meili, at least, seems to think the problem is not so hard a one.

"All right. You've been thinking about this the wrong way. You have a band of gaijin here, think gaijin solutions. And I've got one. Yeah, I'll keep it simple so even our friends from the Empire can understand."

"OK, you know about pirates, right? Pirates steal treasure. Gold, money, stuff. I was the daughter of a noble family, and we were pretty rich. Well, stinking rich by most of your standards. We had gold, money and stuff. Know what Sea Elves do? We perform the public service of removing pirates. Remove the pirates and what's left over? Their gold, money, and stuff."

"Let's be Sea Elves. We'll take out Fade and his bandits and get rich and popular at the same time."

It was hard not to like that idea. If only life were that simple! So, I told her the project's all hers: come up with a workable plan, and we'll put it into effect. Taking out Fade would be a triumph.

So far, taking out the bandits at a distance, one arrow at a time, is her plan. I can't say it's a bad one. Assuming she can find them.

Later that night, a messenger delivered Naritoki's journal. We retired to the lounge with plenty of sake, and I read it to them. We discussed it far into the night. Now we know why he was killed, and we know who may be blamed for it.

It's late, or rather early next morning. I've read through Naritoki's journal, and my own from the time I've been in Ryoko Owari.

I need three people of at least his social standing to support what I say to take down Korechika. Or, I can draw him into a duel and defeat him. Only if I were looking for a hard way to die. I believe I am close to his standing, but still not his equal. Hyobu is certainly at least his equal, if I could persuade her to support me. Ide Baranato is quite close, but like me, not his equal. We three just won't do, and there's nobody else here who will do. Someone outside the city? Who? And how? An Emerald Magistrate would help. Of course, this city's Emerald Magistrate, should he ever deign to show up, is a damned Scorpion. Why would he want to take a chance on destabilizing the city instead of simply holding up the status quo?



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