Chapter 5: Losing Myself
I asked if everyone could wait another ten minutes or so for me to ask the spirits about Tsume Takashi's room, and they were all willing to wait for the possibility of more information.
With everyone watching me, I sat down on the floor again and closed my eyes. I forgot about the others in the room, and journeyed to the other side of the veil as I had in Tsume Retsu's room.
In Tsume's room, the sense of loneliness had immediately swamped me. The son's room was more hesitant. I waited patiently, listening and feeling.
I felt small, useless. I'm just never good enough. Never ...
I'm not living up to the standards that father sets for me.
Wow, that snuck up on me. Tsume Takashi slipped into my head so quietly I thought it was my thought, my emotion.
I never have, and I never will.
I'm not sure I want to live up to them.
Father does not appreciate me.
I floated back to myself. Still feeling his emotions, I thought Tsume Takashi was young and unsure of himself, overshadowed by a powerful and not-so-nice father.
I told the others that Tsume Takashi feels like he doesn't live up, or down, to his father's standards, and he's not sure he wants to. And he doesn't think his father appreciated him.
The general took us to the family's armory on the third floor. Wow. There were quality weapons displayed everywhere, and trunks filled with more weapons. It would take me forever to ask the spirits about each one in turn, until I found the murder weapon. If it was even in here. And in the meantime, since each one is a weapon after all and has no doubt killed numerous times, each one would overwhelm me with death and violence and horror. And would I even be able to tell one death-by-blade from another? It's easier to kill than to be struck with someone else's killing, and objects have entirely different perspectives on things than people do. I shuddered. No, I wouldn't delve into the past of any of the things in here.
Lady Miyara asked the general if Lord Tsume had a personal dagger and whether it was here or missing, but he said he didn't really have one particular one. And there were no empty places in the displays.
A dizzying array of blades, and no practical way to tell if any were the one that killed Tsume. It was late afternoon, and the lady told the general we were finished here for the day and we would resume the investigation in the morning. He walked us down to the entrance of the family's tower, where a guard took charge of us and escorted us to the castle gate.
Outside, the sun still shone with its late summer brilliance. Mehli tolerated one more walk, just to get to the inn for the night. I can't help but smile every time she complains about having to walk everywhere. She is a sea spirit and expects there to be boats to carry her where she wants to go. I have to admit that lazing away four months on a boat with Mehli to get from Tylea to Nippon was fast and pleasant and entirely unlike walking through all of Kislev and the Empire.
The hostess at the inn told us that they could provide baths for us three ladies, but the men would have to use one of the bathhouses in the town. She said either one was good: the Chysanthemum or the Pine. She beckoned one of her servant girls to guide them, and Peter, Tony, and Grieg all followed her.
I found my bath wonderfully relaxing. The spirits' voices dulled to a low murmur while the maid scrubbed my back. Reclining in the hot water in the tub after the scrubbing, the impressions of the two Tsume men finally faded so they weren't me anymore. I still had the general impressions of who they were, at least the bits the spirits in their rooms gave me, but I wasn't them anymore. Just Phoebe, and the ever-present background buzz of the spirit world, but quiet and almost ignorable. I almost fell asleep while the maid brushed out my hair, brown again away from the sun. Entirely unlike home, so far away. But nice.
Mehli and I had chosen two rooms next to each other and immediately taken down the wall that separated them. Ah, luxury. Two maids helped us dress for dinner. I watched Mehli as the clothes gradually encased her, and I all I could think was that all our clothes were going in entirely the wrong direction. Later that would have to be reversed. I caught a glance from Mehli and we exchanged slow, heated smiles. She was thinking the same thing.
Bathed, dressed, relaxed. And hungry. Mehli and I walked into the inn's restaurant. The Lady Miyara was already there, looking as clean and relaxed as I felt. She poured two mugs of tea for us, and I refilled hers. Donku had just brought out three small bowls of soup for us when the men arrived and sat down with us. Three more bowls appeared swiftly.
Dinner was a lovely affair, small dishes brought out as we finished the previous plates. The tea was hot and always present. We chatted about nothing of importance. The weather, the inn's decor, the food. Clothes, Nipponese customs. That night a month ago or so ago -- still on the boat -- we spent throwing dice with nothing but pieces of sushi riding on the outcome. I think Tony ended up the winner, but it was hard to tell because we kept eating the markers.
There had been sake on the ship, but never enough for more than a small taste at a time. Tonight, it flowed freely. Mehli had earlier confided in me that her one goal for the evening was to get Tony drunk enough so he'd talk about his past. We started out all sipping the sake after dinner.
Early on, Tony asked the Lady Miyara if the girls at the Pine bathhouse were geishas, and she said yes. Grieg blushed bright red and shortly retired to his room. Teen-aged boys are so shy, and Grieg is very Imperial: they're an uptight bunch, as I noticed many times during my journey through. And yet, there wasn't really anything to be shy about. Geisha are emphatically not whores, so nothing more than a bath and innocent entertainment could possibly have occured.
Mehli got down to business and downed a cup of sake for each cup Tony did, and since Mehli poured the sake for Tony and me, and I poured for her, that meant I was matching them, drink for drink for drink.
It tastes kind of like hot vinegar, but there was something pleasant about the warmth that spreads from the mouth, down the throat, in the gut, and then throughout. After a while, I kind of lost track of things. I remember Mehli asking questions and Tony answering them. I even remember some of his answers. But mostly I remember a warm haze over the evening.
The room had a golden glow, and everyone sort of looked soft. I remember staring at Mehli's hair, thinking how beautiful it was, blonde and with colors from the lanterns reflected in it, and how soft it felt, and how it just brushed her jawline, and how it fell away from her ears, exposing their points. I must have stared at her for an awfully long time.
After that, I guess I slowed down or stopped drinking, because I also remember everyone deciding the evening was over. The Lady was steady and not drunk. Peter and Tony reeled and crashed against each other. Mehli was solid as a rock, and she guided me back to our room, which was good because I wasn't entirely sure where it was exactly. I was actually walking under my own power, mostly, and the spirits kept me walking straight, I think. But I was grateful for her arm around me.
That wasn't quite the evening I had planned with Mehli. But I promised myself I won't touch the sake again tonight.
I was the last person up in the morning. Peter had a terrible hangover. I was pretty sure I would have, if I hadn't slept so long. Mehli was fine, of course. She can drink just about anybody under the table. I will have to be careful with sake. My people don't make anything near that strong: sort of a weak beer and a cider in the fall is as hard as our drinks get. I've gotten used to wine in my travels, but that doesn't lend itself as well to drinking yourself to oblivion. Sake chases you to oblivion at a dead run.
I remembered the box the tea-spirit had given me, and how I had planned on asking the spirits about it, and asking the Lady Miyara to read the scrolls to me last night. But no, I had completely forgotten about it in the sake haze.
Curiously, I also remember that the sake seemed to chase away the spirits. I couldn't hear their constant cryptic conversations, and I didn't felt them in my head.
I woke up to Mehli, watching me sleep. I smiled at her and pulled her down, and it was a while longer before we got around to getting dressed. It sort of made up for the night. It must have been near noon by the time we emerged and found everyone else in the restaurant, waiting for us.
Lady Miyara looked less impatient than I thought she might be. Thinking back to the beginning of the sake, she had not been matching the rest of us. Clearly, she knows what she's doing with the stuff. She'd been up early and had simply waited for the rest of us to show up, one by one, or two in our case. Donku provided a constant stream of breakfast, so even Mehli and I had hot food. I especially liked the biscuity-things with pork inside.
The night before, we had never gotten around to talking about anything involving Tsume's death. No, we'd enjoyed a quiet dinner and then hit the sake immediately. So this morning, the lady wanted to discuss everything before making a move. What did we think, what had we seen, what were our impressions, what are our next steps, that sort of thing.
I learned something new: the lady had found a bead on the floor of the Tsume Retsu's dressing room while I was lost in the spirit world. It was ceramic, and orange: a Phoenix color. Was a Phoenix -- and the only one here was Miyara Katsuda -- responsible for the murder, or had he been framed by someone else? The lady pointed out that, although the bead was similar to one she and most Phoenixes wore, there was no law that prevented anyone else from wearing an orange bead. There was nothing about it that was special. It could have belonged to just about anyone. I had a couple of orange beads that weren't too far different braided in my hair, in fact.
The comb, now, she said was almost certainly a geisha's: it was gaudier than anything a lady would wear. I thought it was quite pretty, myself.
I thought about asking the spirits about the two items, but I wasn't sure I could get any useful information about the murder from them. Neither would have been involved in the murder directly. Grieg wished we could find the weapon used, and so did I. He looked at me hopefully, but of course I have no way of finding it. The spirits don't see things the same way we do. If we had it, though, it would probably tell me a lot.
In the end, Mehli suggested I ask the spirits about the bead, and someone else added the comb, too. It was obvious they all wanted me to try. I told them I wasn't sure I'd get anything useful, but I supposed it was worth a shot anyway.
So I sat down on the ground and held the bead in my hands. I closed my eyes, and I concentrated on the bead. Centering, emptying, across the veil. The spirits were eager to show me the story of the bead. I shrank, the world grew. I was hard, and round.
I was the bead.
A master craftsman made me. He carefully shaped me, colored me, fired me, lovingly crafted me into the bead I am today. He smiled at me as he made me, talked to me and told me how beautiful I was, how much a lord or lady would want me, what a wonderful gift I would make. When he was done, he placed me carefully on a small padded cushion, blue to show off my brilliant orange color to best effect. He showed me to people occasionally, but none bought me. He was careful about who he was going to sell me to: I was worth only the best. No simple geisha would buy me, he promised. Only the best.
One day, he was not smiling. He sat down in his workshop, and he talked, weeping. His son had been born just the day before, and died the same day. Later, I was picked up and inspected. My maker still had tears in his eyes when he finally sold me.
I was a bead. Time passed.
Sudden, sharp death! Ripping, tearing ... flying across the floor, rolling into the corner.
Now I was a bead on the floor. A hand picked me up, a woman looked at me, and everything went dark.
Slowly, I stopped being a bead. I wasn't sure who I was, but I wasn't a bead. I was surrounded by a loud buzzing. Almost I could hear words, but not quite. There was some sort of fog, no a barrier, and I could see things on the other side, although I wasn't quite sure what they were.
People. They were people. And I almost knew who they were. Something was pulling me. I somehow flowed through the filmy barrier, which was both more solid and less of a barrier than it had seemed.
Everything was clearer on this side. I did know these people. And I knew myself.
I am Phoebe.
I was sitting on the floor, and everyone looked at me expectantly. Mehli was the closest, and she watched me intently. My ears hummed, and the spirits were still looking through me into my world. I sat quietly, getting used to this world, getting used to being Phoebe, putting the bead behind me.
I am Phoebe.
But I wanted to tell everyone what I had seen while it was still vivid, so I spoke before I moved. I told them my impressions, reminding myself that I was not the bead.
So there had been a brief struggle as one had stabbed the other. Enough to send a bead flying, but not enough to alert 10 guards watching and listening for any threats to their lord?
I couldn't bear the thought of becoming a haircomb immediately. I needed to be Phoebe for a bit. I sat at the table again and Mehli poured me some tea. I cupped shaking hands around the hot mug, and Mehli sat beside me, her arm around me. As always, that helped more than anything. She's a spirit, but somehow she anchors me to this side. I breathed the jasmine-scented steam and drank the hot tea. The spirits receded, and I was fully Phoebe again.
And it was time to do the whole thing again, this time for the haircomb. It didn't always take me like that, and I hoped the comb was more gentle than the bead.
Nothing. The comb felt nothing.
Then a sense of elegance, but dressed in tawdry clothes.
I came back quickly, and never really lost myself. I told everyone quickly what I had seen. That I couldn't tell if the brief feeling was from the comb itself or from its wearer. I received blank looks when I said the bead had a much stronger sense of self than the haircomb did.
Mehli asked if the son had maybe smuggled in a noblewoman, dressed as a geisha. Or perhaps someone lesser dressed as a geisha, if it was the haircomb's feelings. I couldn't tell where the faint emotion had come from.
While I was gone, plans had been formed. We needed to speak to the guards. We needed to speak to the maid. We needed to speak to the eta who had cleaned the body and the room, and who had maybe taken the weapon used.
We wanted to speak with the maid on two levels. Lady Miyara would do the official interview, but we wondered if maybe chatting with a fellow servant, she might say something different, or speak of things in a different manner, give different hints.
Mehli suggested that the Lady Miyara could be "indisposed" today and send a servant to bring the maid here for the interview. The lady laughed, saying she did sometime have terrible headaches. But actually that wasn't even necessary. A noble lady didn't really need a reason to stay at the inn and have a maid brought to her.
So she summoned Donku and her maid, and she gave careful instructions on how to ask for the maid, how to engage her conversation. Donku and Kyoko left. The lady said the castle might refuse her request, but it was worth a try.
Lady Miyara considered where to conduct her interview. She didn't want to use her room. Even in a public house, she guards her privacy carefully and doesn't like strangers in her space. The inn's restaurant was too public; we would not be able to keep other people out of it. Well, actually I suppose she could, but the lady is also considerate. The inn has a small room and a hall that might be used for sort-of private meetings, but she didn't seem happy with them either.
Mehli disappeared into another bath. I think she hoped I might join her, but I had still not entirely put aside the bead, and both Tsume men and the haircomb were crowding me again, too. All it takes is a thin connection to the other side and spirits follow it to our side. Another pot of jasmine tea. Mehli came back out after a bit and sipped tea with me silently. I wonder if she knows how much I appreciate her quiet, yet vibrant presence?
Lady Miyara decided on the garden. The Golden Peony is a square building, and it is hollow in the middle. The interior courtyard is a garden. The Nipponese in general seem to be very fond of gardens. I saw many in Shira Miyara. This one was small, but its plants and pond and walkways were arranged so as to provide a few small private areas, each with one or two benches.
Of course, people inside the rooms that ringed the garden might be able to overhear. So Lady Miyara chose the bench in the center of the garden, where she was least likely to be overheard. She invited me to sit in on the interview, so I could listen and ask the spirits if the maid spoke truth. Tony was to keep other people out of the garden while the lady was in it.
The room Mehli and I had looked out onto the garden, and she set herself up in there, bow ready just in case. I hadn't thought of it, but of course anyone from the rooms could fire an arrow at us in the garden. She was going to listen in as well, although we kind of hoped she wouldn't really be able to hear anything.
I stood behind Lady Miyara, who sat on the bench. Not that that made me any less obvious, since I towered over her. A tall foreigner with green hair stands out here. Donku brought the maid to us in the garden, and a samurai from the castle escorted her in. He stood a few steps behind, but it was obvious he wasn't going anywhere. The lady didn't even bother to press the issue. There was nothing she was going to ask that wasn't her right, as a magistrate tasked with investigating an assassination.
The maid, Ojuno, bowed deeply to her, and the samurai less deeply. Lady Miyara asked her questions, and she answered. I listened to her statements and watched her, and tried to catch the spirits. But there were still too many in my head, and it was hard to hear what the maid's quiet spirits told me.
The maid said she had found him in the morning, lying on his back in a pool of blood, dead. The evening before had been a party, the last for the Bon Festival. She had little to do with the parties, and knew for sure only the four men Lord Miyara had told us about already were there.
She had seen Tsume Retsu and Daidoji Uji -- the Crane -- leave the party, many hours after sunset, and arguing. She did not hear what they argued about. She didn't see where Daidoji went, but Tsume went to his room. No one else, to her knowledge, visited him later, and he didn't leave his room, again as far as she knew. All the guests left the next day.
I was sure most of what she said was true, but I just couldn't tell about the first part. I was too fuzzy. Too much sake the night before maybe, and definitely too many strong spirits in me today.