Phoebe's Journey Part 3

Chapter 4: Button, Button, Who's got the Button?

It was a long wait. Tony was obviously wondering why he'd let Lady Miyara go alone into an ambush. I listened to the spirits. I tried to ask them what they might see down at the lake, but I couldn't make any of them understand what I wanted.

The sky was showing the beginnings of dawn by the time they reappeared. Silently, suddenly, Grieg and Miyara Miwa were standing in the middle of the room, exactly where they had disappeared earlier. Grieg sat down, and the lady looked around the room at all of us.

After a moment, she spoke in Imperial, which surprised me, since that left Iruko out. Until she got to the end, and then it made sense.

"I met Niban down on the lake, along with Koan's assistant Yisako. Koan sent her to him with news of Himitsu's announcement at the poetry contest and the duel, but she left before the murder."

"He and Himitsu had started talking at the festival, but Himitsu didn't really know anything more than we already did. I had to agree to support him and his testimony to hear what he had to say."

Years ago, I was Shinjo Gidayu's second in command. I was at the palace on business for him, and the emperor's brother's wife was dying. She had just given birth to a girl. I visited her, and she mistook me for Shinjo Gidayu. She was dying, so I let her think I was him, to comfort her.

She confessed that her daughter was Shinjo's, not her husband's. I said nothing at the time, but when I returned to Shinjo's castle, I told him what she said. He said, "All who know must die to protect that secret." He ordered me to fall on my sword.

I refused. I told him he couldn't let this stand. He couldn't let everyone believe this girl was the emperor's niece by blood when she wasn't. He again ordered me to fall on my sword. Again, I refused. He ordered my men to kill me. I killed several of them and made my escape.

For years, I simply lived as ronin, but as I've gotten older, my goals have changed. I wish to settle in the village we've founded, and lead my men into an honorable clan, as they deserve.

At the festival, I saw her again. I've tried to put it behind me, but seeing her brought it all back. I cannot allow her to remain in place, on my honor.

I couldn't help my quick glance at Shinjo Iruko. What did she already know? Was she already betraying us to Shinjo Gidayu? I also realized with some surprise that Miyara Miwa was going to bring down the princess. She would need us now more than ever. To keep her alive through assassination attempts like the one that brought down Himitsu, and to simply support her after all hell breaks loose. Would she be exiled? Expected to kill herself?

The lady looked at us all, expecting some sort of response. For once, she was met with complete silence: no one knew what to say.

"At least," she said, "we may as well pursue the matter of Himitsu's murder." She decided to speak with the guards on duty last night before tackling his neighbor-lady with the peephole into his room.

We were taken to the captain of the guard, who listened to lady Miyara's request, in which she mentioned Hiruma Usigo more than once. The captain said we needed to speak with a guard named Asako Hensuko, as she was on duty at the wall overlooking Himitsu's room during the time of his murder. He sent someone to wake her up bring her to us.

She said she was indeed on the wall, and told us what she saw. "I saw a large man smash out of Himitsu's balcony door and climb down to the ground, balcony by balcony, and then down the cliff face." That wasn't impossible, but required strength and skill.

"When?" Tony asked. Late in the 2 o'clock hour, closer to 3. It was already snowing. Ryuden and Niban are both large men. But Niban wasn't here, and Ryuden was to drunk to manage that kind of climb.

The guard told us exactly what happened and wasn't hiding anything. She said she didn't recognize him, but would if she saw him again. But we were all certain that recognition wouldn't mean anything, since we were looking for someone specifically who could mimic other people.

Her shift began at midnight, before Ryuden hopped over one balcony to go find the princess. But that was one short, quick hop. Easily done even for a drunk man, and not noticeable unless the guard was looking at the balcony during the minute or less it would have taken him.

Someone asked the captain if anyone else reported anything even vaguely odd. He said there was only one other incident mentioned. In the four hours before midnight, the guard outside Ryuden's room was Asako Innasai. After midnight, Asako Budo was on duty. Innasai reported that he accompanied Ryuden to Himitsu's room. They argued, and Ryuden was very drunk and very angry. Their talk almost came to blows, but Himitsu refused to be provoked that far. Ryuden returned to his room. Neither Innasai nor Budo saw him after that.

That finished, we went to speak with Himitsu's lady neighbor. She was an elderly Dragonfly named Tombo Jehenko. Same family as that odd occurrence with the scrolls before Niban and Koan took them anyway.

She was obviously timid and shaken up by last night's events. Tony hung back out of the way where he couldn't frighten her into silence. Miwa spoke very gently and courteously to her, praising her for her courage in coming forward with her testimony.

She said Himitsu had three visitors last night. Ryuden first, angry and drunk. She heard a lot of shouting, and thought someone knocked over the sake table. The second visitor was "that ronin" Koan. His visit was much quieter, and she fell asleep again. She didn't know when he left. At last, she was awakened again, sometime before 3, by more shouting. She peered through the tear in the wall, and saw a small woman she didn't recognize fighting with Himitsu. The fight shifted out of her sight, and when they moved back into her view, Ryuden was fighting Himitsu. The fight terrified her: bloody, violent, loud. She hid in terror for several minutes, and then found her courage somewhere and told the guard what was happening next door. The guard reported, the information worked its way up, and Asako came to the room to discover the body.

Miwa thanked her and took her leave politely, and then we returned to our suite for a quick strategy meeting.

There was a lot talking back and forth, wondering who did what to whom, why, and what we were supposed to do about it exactly. I don't remember who said what or in what order, so here's a quick summary.

The obvious reason to kill Himitsu is to stop his testimony. We know Shinjo Gidayu knows, and we believe Hida Yauta, the princess' elderly maid, knows. If the murderer is someone else, he knows. Who else knows and who else cares?

The actors -- who can pass themselves as other people -- which side are they playing? Are they working for themselves, or someone else?

Either Miyara Katsuda or Miyara Sanru might become the new heir to the Phoenix champion. Which I suppose might give one or the other a motive for killing.

Himitsu's murder, at Winter Court held by the Phoenix clan, reflects very badly on Phoenix and must be solved as fast as possible. Solving to these people has little to do with actually finding who did it, and everything to do with simply ending it. Throwing Ryuden to the wolves would suit them fine.

But Hiruma asked Miyara Miwa to look more deeply. For some reason, he wants more than just a quick end. We have limited time to bring any information to him, though.

We needed to talk to Yauta and the younger maid, Kakita Nantoko -- she spoke to Ryuden and guided him away from the princess.

But Miwa said it was time to speak with Hiruma now.

We no longer needed an escort: Asako was allowing all his guests to move around at will again. Miwa frowned. Ryuden's life wasn't worth much now, I thought. Winter Court was definitely not restored to its former gaiety. Few people walked the halls, and those spoke quietly.

Miwa sent a message to Hiruma at the stairs to request an audience, but he sent back that we should join him for lunch in his rooms. So we returned to our suite to clean up and relax a little. It had been a long morning following a very short night.