Phoebe's Journey Part 3

Chapter 2: When Games Turn Into Murder

Not long after Miyara Ujimitsu departed for the Emperor's Court, a troupe of entertainers gave us a play. The lady told us ahead of time that it was about the first emperor, and that he, all the founders of the original families, and the evil they fought were all kami, spirits. That accounts for the feelings I got from some of these Nipponese: they all have a bit of the spirits within them. She said in reality, that first emperor lived to an old age, but this play had him dying, killed by the evil kami Fu Leng, the emperor Hantei's brother.

I do love plays, and I settled down to enjoy it. It was called "Death of the first Hantei".

In the beginning, it reminded me just a little of the stories of the founding of our villages. In the play, Hantei and his brothers and sisters fought a wave of evil from the Shadowlands that was led by their brother Fu Leng. Hantei, of course, was the first emperor. The kami who founded the first families all bore those family names. Watching, I thought I could probably guess the tendencies of the modern families from the way their founding kamis are portrayed in their traditions. Even in this unorthodox tradition.

I watched the heroic struggles of Hantei and the other kami. In the end, Hantei was gravely wounded by Fu Leng, and brought back to the palace. Three kami took care of him: Doji, Akodo, and Bayushi. I knew Doji was Crane, Akodo was Lion, and I found out that Bayushi is Scorpion.

Doji tended to his wounds as he lay on the soft cushions in the palace. Akodo stood ready to guard and defend him. Bayushi also stood ready to defend him, but not openly like Akodo. Instead, he watched from the shadows.

Hantei turned to Doji and whispered, "Am I going to die?"

"No, no brother," she reassured him. "Your wounds are not great; you will live."

He turned to Akodo One-Eye and repeated his question. "Am I going to die?"

"You will live, for a man with honor can never die."

To Bayushi, in the shadows, he asked again, "Am I going to die?"

Bayushi emerged from his shadows, but wore an elaborate mask. He looked down on Hantei and answered, "Yes, Hantei-sama, you are going to die, and you are going to be alone. But one day, your brothers and sisters will come after you, to be at your side again." His voice was cold as death.

Hantei trembled once and died.

"What have you done?" cried Doji.

Bayushi answered, "Doji cared for his body, Akodo for his honor," and he turned to the audience and finished his speech to us. "I cared for his soul. The soul of Hantei, none other can have. His soul is the center of the empire, the empire's soul."

I was certain there was some great meaning in there somewhere, but it was lost to me. There was polite applause, and I figured it was only that because Nipponese are nothing if not traditional, and this play purposely flies in the face of what they accept as the truth of their history, of their roots, perhaps even their souls in some way.

The six actors bowed, and relaxed out of the roles they were playing. Lady Miyara had said something of the sort, but I hadn't realized how perfectly their magic changed their faces to match who they played. They were completely different people.

The night was late, and the Princess left with her maids. The gathering lightened, and we when we left, only those who usually stay up all night anyway remained.

To my joy, Mehli joined me in my room that night. We spent some time just chatting about the Winter Court. While I was busy one morning, she told me that the elderly, retired magistrate -- Hiruma Usigo -- sat down next to Miyara Miwa and spoke with her at some length. My Mehli was there, listening to some of their weird music, I think, so she heard the conversation.

Mehli said this Hiruma seemed to be favourably impressed by the lady, who was somewhat in awe of him. He complimented her on the Nightingale affair at the Festival. They talked about past experiences, and Hiruma was very interested in what she's seen and done in her travels. Few Nipponese seem to leave Nippon. He praised her for returning with the statue, and Mehli said she seemed a little uncomfortable at that.

He thought she showed great potential, and he seemed to be interested in helping her achieve it. Mehli grinned and said that when Hiruma brought up the court game with the tokens, Miyara Miwa asked him about Akodo Rena. She'd been very close-mouthed about the matter, but it was obvious to us that something was going on between the two.

Chat eventually gave way to other matters, and it was lovely to wake in the morning with Mehli's arms around me.

I found the perfect place to spend my mornings. There's this garden that few people ever visit. I'm not sure why. There's a corner that looks out over the falls and is also completely blocked from the castle itself. I mean, you can't even see a hint of the castle. You're just sitting there, on a rock balcony with wild-looking plants everywhere, and it feels like you're floating in the clouds over the falls and the lake.

Here was a place I could drum with abandon, not worrying about disturbing anyone with its tones. I could dance on the stone floor. I could sit in complete silence and listen to the voices of the spirits. The spirits of Firebird Falls were wild things, speaking only of the joy of constant change.

Here was a place I felt at home.

One night at one of the formal dinners, Doji Fusaya approached the Emperor's niece, smiled a rather self-satisfied smile at her, showily waved a golden fan at her. "I believe, my lady, that you have in your possession the matching object."

She smiled too sweetly, and her maids giggled. "You are mistaken, sir." She produced a small porcelain doll, and everyone smiled at her cleverness.

Doji bowed and stepped away. A youth wearing Miyara colors stepped up, looking kind of nervous and holding the matching doll. To applause, she smiled and said, "One question, friend."

"My lady, only one thing." The room hushed. "What, above all, else would make you happiest at this moment?"

"The good health of my uncle Hantei and a poetry contest by the fine members of this court." More applause at her answer. She didn't even ask him a question.

Asako Kagetsu stood and announced, "There will be a poetry contest in the Princess's honor. It will be two hours from now in the Sakura parlor. The poems must be in Princess's honor, of course, and she is the topic."

The rest of dinner conversation concerned the poetry contest. Lady Miyara said she would write a poem for it. To my surprise, Mehli also wanted to write a poem. Nobody else in our group was interested in either writing or listening to poems. I thought the evening would be interesting, and the lady said I could attend and watch without having to provide one.

After dinner, Miyara Ryuden met us in the hall on our way to our suite. He bowed politely and asked to speak with Miyara Miwa. She graciously agreed, and brought him to our suite, which was the closest place they could have a private conversation.

They spoke for only a few minutes, then Miyara Ryuden left, with a smile on his face. The lady was not smiling: she said he wanted her to write a romantic poem to the princess for him. She was not enthusiastic about it, but set herself up at her desk immediately and spent a while writing two poems: one for him and one for herself. She took longest on the first one. It was probably harder to write a romantic poem on someone else's behalf than just to write a poem in praise of a princess for oneself. I'm sure Miyara Ryuden asked for a poem that would beat everyone else's.

A couple hours later, the three of us walked to the Sakura room which a room large enough to hold some fifty people comfortably, and yet still managed to feel romantic and intimate. A fire blazed in a fireplace against one wall, warming the room and casting a lovely golden glow across it. Lady Miyara slipped Miyara Ryuden the poem as we entered. The judges were Asako Kagetsu, our host; Hiruma Usigo, the retired magistrate; and Otomo Yoroshiku, the Emperor's niece and second in line for the throne, or whatever they call it here.

Without having to worry about presenting a poem, I watched the room. Any suitor that had the remotest chance was here. I noticed Miyara Himitsu on one side. He stood apart with a scowl on his face and didn't speak with anyone. He glared around him, and sent several hostile glances towards the princess. I didn't need the spirits to tell me he was angry at something, and that something concerned the princess.

Koan, the shugenja from the Nightingale clan, and his shadow -- Yisako -- were in attendance. The actress who played Doji in the play was there, too.

Lady Miyara said that each person would stand and present his poem when he felt the time was appropriate. At Mehli's question of when is appropriate, because she didn't want to interfere with Miyara Sanru's poem, she explained that the suitors would go last. All the "unimportant" poems are presented first.

The poems began. They were all very short, just a few quick words. They seemed simple, but as with most things Nipponese, there was probably a wealth of hidden meanings. Since they were for and about the Princess, they all tended to mention flowers and butterflies and other points of natural beauty. One was just incredibly sweet, sickeningly so. No one immediately stood to follow it, and Mehli chose that moment to present her own.

I listened avidly, certain hers would be far different than everyone else's, and I was not disappointed in that. She didn't keep to the short form everyone else followed, but instead told a story, based on the sea, of course.

Two pirates on the high seas~

An old man at tea~

And a tale of the beauty of

A far-away Princess.


Through danger, through storms,

Through constant battles with each other~

"For Princess Yoroshiku!"

Each cries for her,

Swords crossed,

Blood flying.


In a port far away,

Two pirates at last enter,

The fight between them never ceasing.

A princess in a tower,

Her beauty cascading down the tower

Through the harbor.


"For Princess Yoroshiku!"

The fight raged from deck to deck,

"For Princess Yoroshiku!"

Each cries for her,

Swords crossed,

Blood flying.


Pierced through the heart,

Both sink to the deck,

Breathing their last.

"For Princess Yoroshiku!"


Their eyes on her,

The old man stands behind her.

He waves his hand at their last breaths.


Two snow-white seabirds fly from the deck,

Forever to circle and

Admire the Princess

From on high.

There was a long pause after she sat down, beaming. No one else appreciated it, but I thought it was a lovely story, and it even seemed like a story a Nipponese might like. But it wasn't just a few words, it wasn't all mysterious and multi-layered, and it wasn't what they expected. I'll have to ask Mehli to speak it in her language: I've a feeling it sounds much better that way.

Finally someone stood up and presented his poem, then a few more. Lady Miyara presented hers, and it was received well enough, though not one of the favorites. Still, she got a smile from the princess. There were only five more or so, and then the fun part started: the romantic poems.

Miyara Ryuden stood and said the first couple of words of his. But before he got any further, Miyara Himitsu stood and interrupted him. Everyone just watched in shock.

He was drunk and anger and bitter. Still, he managed to say his poem to the princess in a pleasant tone of voice that entirely belied its meaning.

A blighted flower

A dandelion among chrysanthemums

A weed knows a weed

The tension in the room rose rapidly while he spoke. I could feel it like the air before a storm, before the lightning hits. There were muffled gasps, and by the time he finished, several people had sprung to their feet and actually drawn the swords. Would people really kill each other over a poem? Even the lady was standing, her hand on her own sword, but she wasn't drawing yet. I've seen her draw: it's possible she just figured if the swords started flashing, she could draw and strike so swiftly that she didn't need to draw in advance.

Lord Asako stood up, and in that voice that cut through the air like his own sword, commanded order and asked Miyara Himitsu, "What is the meaning of this?"

Miyara Himitsu answered shortly, angrily, "See for yourself tomorrow at sunset!"

Miyara Ryuden was furious himself, and he stepped forward, placing himself between Miyara Himitsu and the princess. He challenged Himitsu to a duel, and Himitsu accepted.

He said, "Tomorrow, at dawn. The testimony will be produced at dawn instead of sunset." He gave the court a very curt bow and left.

The room was in silence. Again, I thought of the storm. The first lightning strike had hit, the thunder had rolled, long and deep. The air was now still, and a chill had settled in mysteriously, from nowhere. The storm was very near.

Asako announced the end of the competition, and he tried to change the mood. He said that Shosuro Tage's troupe agreed to perform a short, comic play for us, here and now. Comic. I was about to see what Nipponese comedy was like. It was short, and it was very funny. Although I'm sure there was stuff I missed, the surface humour was enough.

Otomo Yoroshiku and her maids retired quietly after the play started, carefully not disturbing anyone. She was still pale. I heard whispers that today had been difficult for her, and tomorrow at dawn would be harder still.

After the play was over, one of Otomo's maids had returned and started playing some of their weird music by the fire. Quite a few people settled in to listen in enjoyment, but I have yet to find anything pleasant in Nipponese music. Now if she only played a drum instead.

Mehli wasn't interested in the music either, and Lady Miyara was obviously still thinking about Ryuden and Himitsu. Mehli and I followed her out, but she didn't go to our suite. Instead, she led us to the stairs. She pulled out a slip of paper, a brush, and a little jar of ink and wrote a message. She passed it to the guards, one of whom took it up to Miyara Himitsu. She was asking him for an audience immediately. We waited for a while, but when the guard reappeared, he said he was given no reply. I could feel waves of frustration from Lady Miyara, but she said nothing.

Silently, she led us at a fast walk to the our suite, where she shared several pieces of information, and Mehli added some as well. Miyara Himitsu had implied he had something shameful against the princess, and he wouldn't have done so if he didn't. What he did, though, was not even remotely the right way to handle it. The lady paused a moment, then said she had heard rumours that a really good actor might be able to make himself look like a real person, not just an historical person. And although Shosuro Tage was at the poetry contest, and had told told Asako her troupe would perform the comic skit, she was missing from the skit itself.

Mehli looked thoughtful and added something she noticed. During the exchange between Ryuden and Himitsu, Koan seemed very uncomfortable when Himitsu spoke his piece. He became nervous when dawn tomorrow was mentioned. Then, she heard his assistant say, "He's giving us away. Can we stop him?" Koan shook his head, and they left.

Lady Miyara said she wanted to speak with Koan, now, and she wanted me with her. Mehli was obviously eager to come, too, and she let her. So the three of us went out for the second time that night.

His assistant Yisako answered the door. At Miyara Miwa's polite but insistent request to speak with Koan, she replied that he was already asleep. Again, I could feel the frustration from her, but she simply asked Yisako to inform her that she had come by and wanted to speak with him as soon as he was available.

Our second return to the room last night, where a message waited for Lady Miyara: Miyara Ryuden wanted to see her. And again, the three of us went out.

We found Miyara Ryuden drinking heavily and rambling. Does Miyara Himitsu have something true against the Emperor's niece after all? If so, after he, Miyara Ryuden, marries her, it could bring shame on him and Miyara. He ranted about his untenable situation, and gave his anger free reign. Once in a while, he settled a detail for the duel with Lady Miyara, who apparently was to be in charge of the formalities.

The lady took a lull while he drank more to gently suggest that he should speak with Miyara Himitsu and discover what information, if anything, he did have on the Emperor's niece. He slammed down the sake cup, splattering the liquid everywhere, and almost shouted in anger, "I will not talk to that impudent..."

He spluttered to a halt, apparently not able to find a word bad enough for what he wanted. Mehli helpfully offered, "cur" and he seized on that as acceptable and spat out "impudent cur!".

Lady Miyara quietly listened to his rants and settled details that needed settling. He dismissed her shortly, saying, "I don't care what he might have on Otomo-sama, I will behead him anyway." If I were the betting sort, I would put money on Miyara Himitsu, no matter how good Miyara Ryuden was supposed to be with a sword.

I slept poorly, alone in my room but for the spirits whirling through and around and in my head. The night was a long one, and before it was over, alarms cut through the deadly quiet night.

Mehli looked out on the balcony, and Lady Miyara out the door. Guards were everywhere, manning all the posts outside, filling the halls. Mehli saw no approaching army outside. Fires, torches, candles were lit. A guard told Lady Miyara that Asako asked that all guests remain in their rooms.

Lady Miyara and I heard a voice we recognized out in the hall, and she poked her head out again. Isawa Tomo was speaking with a guard. She later told us all the conversation.

Isawa Tomo was saying, "...dead you say. Damn the boy and his recklessness. Any testimony to prove who has done this?"

The guard told him, "Yes, the last person to enter was Miyara Ryuden."

"That would make sense. Ask all the guests to remain in their rooms, to be sure there's no other danger. Keep Miyara Ryuden in his chambers." Isawa Tomo disappeared up the stairs to his chambers.

Before she closed the door, Hiruma Usigo came down the hall. He asked Lady Miyara to help, as he'd gotten separated from whoever usually guided the nearly blind man. She agreed, and began to walk off with him. Before I closed the door behind her, they came back for us. Hiruma thought they might be "safer" with company. We could all read between those lines: it looked like another investigation into a mysterious murder, this one much closer to home than the matter of Tsume's.

As we eagerly joined Lady Miyara and Hiruma, Mehli whispered, in Imperial, "Miyara Himitsu was already dead before the scene at the contest." Miyara Miwa nodded, but said nothing then. My mind raced: had someone else impersonating him caused that scene, then? As we walked through guards that parted for Hiruma and his entourage, I wondered. The spirits can tell me when a person speaks something that's not true. Impersonating someone is a very large lie: everything you say, everything you do, is false. You are false. If I asked, in just the right way, would the spirits tell me if a person was really himself or someone pretending to be him?

I came back to myself, after nearly tripping on a step. I heard Hiruma say, "... curious what your guesses are."

"I'm wondering if Miyara Himitsu was himself, and I don't think Miyara Ryuden killed him."

Mehli was thinking the same way I was, and she asked me quietly, in Imperial, if Hiruma was really himself. I asked the spirits nearby, and they said he was. I said, "yes" out loud, in Imperial in case the lady was wondering too.

"Why?" Hiruma asked her.

"I believe Miyara Ryuden didn't kill him because I talked to him last night and he was adamant about neither seeing or speaking with Miyara Himitsu before the duel in the morning. As for Miyara Himitsu, I wonder if one of the actors was pretending to be him at the poetry contest, with him already dead in his room."

"Do you know what testimony he was going to present?"

"No, I wish I did. His outburst was the first I heard about it."

Mehli, in Imperial again, asked the lady quickly, "What about Nightingale?"

"I know," she replied quietly, in Imperial. But she was apparently not ready to discuss that matter with Hiruma. Instead, she told him how she had sent a message to Miyara Himitsu asking to speak with him and how he hadn't even bothered sending a message back to her.

As got close to wherever it was we were going, the empty hall filled with people. Guards stood outside the room, which turned out to Miyara Himitsu's, of course. Two bodies were covered with blankets, and I didn't need the disappointed Arati to tell me they were dead. Just before we entered, Hiruma said to us all, "Remember not to touch anything until the shugenja can arrive and interview the spirits."

Inside, there were more guards in the suite's common room. No body: he'd been killed in his own private room. It was clear that Hiruma intended to walk into the room with at least some of us. The room was small and crowded with people. We couldn't all fit in there. Lady Miyara gestured me forwards, and Mehli pushed in ahead of Tony. I don't think he tried very hard, despite his usual dedication to watch after Lady Miyara. There would be no threat to her here, and there were several shugenja inside.

The retired magistrate, who suddenly seemed much less retired, simply said we were acting as his assistants, and we were let in without a second thought. Miyara Himitsu was dead. His head was a few feet away, and I shuddered. I wondered if there would be any spirits here to speak with. This violence was still very recent, and most spirits would be repulsed and leave. Any who would remain ... might not be pleasant to speak with.

The shugenja were wandering around, trying to find and speak with spirits in their own way. I wondered if they ever had any luck at all.

Miyara Himitsu had several wounds and lay in a pool of blood. The door and window out to the balcony were shattered, and a sake set was in shards on a low table. Snow was drifting in and settling on his outstretched arm. I haven't seen blood-soaked snow in a long time.

I sat myself in a corner of the room, out of the way. I couldn't get away from the blood and the unmistakable energy of violence. Mehli and Lady Miyara were both looking around the room and at the body.

I closed my eyes, and searched for the veil. The shock of the killing was still echoing through the spirit world, and the veil was hard to cross. Once on the other side, I searched for spirits, half afraid of what I might find. But there were no spirits here. They'd fled.

It's hard to explain what the other side was like in such close proximity to something like this. It shifts, vibrates, roils. All is insubstantial, but you can still feel it, still get pushed around by it. I was buffeted and spun around. If it was hard to find and cross the veil in this direction, it was even harder the other way.

I don't think even the anchor of Mehli would have made a difference, because I simply couldn't find the veil at first. It was hard just to move, and my senses were all blocked. When you want to return, you have to return to where you left your body. Otherwise, you're wandering as a spirit, and your body dies if you can't get to it quickly enough. The other side doesn't conform to this side, so you go could cross the veil a short distance from where you came in, but be miles away from your body.

I couldn't find myself, and I couldn't find Mehli.

I finally made myself stop and think for a moment, which is kind of hard on the other side. I realized that the easiest way to find myself was to look for the origination of the echoes of the violence. That worked, and I followed the blood trail back to my side, and found myself.

I opened my eyes, and just sat quietly. That had been difficult, and I still felt off-balance from the spiritual turbulence. Mehli and the lady were still looking through the room, the magistrate was still speaking quietly with Asako Kagetsu and Isawa Tomo, and the shugenja were still wandering around trying to catch spirits like fireflies.

I looked out the shattered door, into the blizzard that raged outside. And there, I found a little firefly of a spirit; a snow spirit, blowing and spiraling joyfully with the snowflakes. I asked her quietly when the snow had started here, and she told me; not long, about an hour and half ago.

When I felt anchored again, I enjoyed several deep breaths and stood up. The two shugenja gave up at the same time, and Isawa Uona reported that there were no spirits here: they were scared or sent away. I saw no reason they would care for my corroboration, so I kept quiet.

Isawa Tomo dismissed his shugenja and exchanged looks with Hiruma Usigo and Asako Kagetsu. They had little to say, and left. Magistrate Hiruma said something quietly to Lady Miyara. She bowed her head shortly and said "hai".

We had the room to ourselves, and the rest of our little group came in and started looking around as well. The guards stayed outside the room, and we had some amount of privacy.

Tony found a slip of paper hidden inside the sword rack and handed it to Lady Miyara. She read it and paled slightly. She glanced at the door and apparently decided the guards might hear if she spoke, so she nodded her thanks to Tony and slipped the note into her sleeve.

We did quickly discuss what was found, so I heard everything. There were a few cuts on his body, but not deep; it was the beheading that killed him. The body hadn't been moved after it fell, which meant Miyara Himitsu had his back to the balcony when the final blow took him. There were no footprints in the snow, which meant he was killed before it started to snow. I told everyone when that began; around 2:30, and it was now a bit after 4. The body had been discovered within an hour of the murder. By whom, I wondered.

Both the window and the door to the balcony were broken out, not in, so that was the exit. The door was completely shattered, with shards of the frame hanging here and there. The window looked like it was taken out by a chance blow.

It was not an inviting exit. It was a sheer drop of hundreds of feet from the balcony. I suppose someone might have climbed over to another balcony, but it would have been a tough climb.

The two Asako guards outside were both killed unawares: no cuts on them, and only one of them managed so much as to pull his blade halfway from its scabbard. They were facing each other on guard at the entrance to the suite in the hall, and they fell away from each other. Deep cuts felled them both, but their heads were still attached to their bodies. The hall here curved, and there were no other doors, or guards, in sight. Still, the slightest noise should have alerted them.

Lady Miyara said she looked for the message she sent to him earlier, but it was nowhere to be found.

That note she hid in her sleeve must be important. I hope it weaves the loose ends in: Koan, the missing actor, Miyara Himitsu's strange behaviour. The lady looked worried.