Phoebe's Journey Part 3

Chapter 6: Only the Shadow Knows what Evil Lurks in the Heart of Men

After the captain left us alone again, Lady Miyara looked at nothing for a few moments. Then she, Tony, and Mehli quickly discussed the poem and the missing maid, Kakita Nantoko. She was missing at all the right times to be involved with all three murders.

Miyara Miwa said Shosuro Tage could certainly tell us what the note meant, if she was the one who wrote it. Both the killer and the note writer -- if they were different people as it seemed now -- were capable of appearing as other people. And so we marched off to speak with the actress.

A man in a mask and costume greeted the lady by name, and escorted us inside when she asked to speak with Shosuro Tage. Their suite was arranged much like ours, and he disappeared into an open room filled with costumes and props and people getting ready for a production. He and Shosuro Tage came out. He walked out onto the balcony, leaving the door open, and she sat by the fire, ignoring us completely. People walked all around, talking and preparing for the night's entertainment.

The lady sat beside Tage, and we all sat behind her. I watched the actress carefully. Was this really she? Did she speak the truth as she understood it to be? Did she mislead us? What was she thinking, under the mask she wore. Not a physical mask, like the young man wore, but her own mask, her own face.

We sat in silence, Tage looking at anything but us. Miwa produced the slip of paper with the poem on it and handed it to Tage. She glanced at it, read it impassively, and handed it back. Miwa sighed slightly and tucked it back away. I never took my eyes off Tage, and it was obvious she was purposely avoiding Miwa's eyes. She was working carefully to hide, or perhaps stifle, her real thoughts and feelings. She was hiding something, but I couldn't catch what. The spirits whispered in my ears, but their voices, as they are so often, were unintelligible. I hope someday I'll be able to understand better.

Miwa said, "Perhaps we can have a private conversation?"

Tage, still without looking at Miwa, explained that the whole troupe was in the middle of preparing for tonight's performance. She described the play briefly, and then said that anything Miwa needed to say, she could say in front of all here. I didn't think about it at the time, but later I wondered if she said that to discourage Miwa from speaking at all.

Miwa said, "Why did you give this note to the person you gave it to?"

Tage turned to look at Miwa, a slight shadow of surprise on her face, followed quickly by annoyance, I though -- maybe because Miwa didn't take her hint and give up and leave. A moment later, she waved to the actor on the balcony, and called, "Sake!" indicating we were all to be served.

Once the sake was served, she took a meaningful look out the open door to the balcony, and said, "Such a pleasant day for walking in the garden." She looked back at Miwa. "The imperial princess herself spent the morning among the willows. She has three maids, no? Three lovely assistants. But only two today -- only two." She looked at Miwa as if trying to read her mind.

"One wonders where the third has gone."

"There are children's stories that say that the Scorpion use Ninja to gather information. What they don't say is sometimes even the finest actors lose themselves in their roles. A pity." She said the last words with anger. The anger of a professional faced with the unprofessional, maybe.

"Perhaps she will find the third by this evening?" I was sure Miwa didn't really think the maid would reappear tonight, as if nothing had changed.

"What does Hiruma-sama think?"

Mehli said, "He thinks we can figure it out."

"What do you think?" Tage's gaze never shifted an iota from Miwa.

Miwa said, "I think that a weapon can be over-used."

I had no idea what she meant by that cryptic phrase, and Tage was also obviously surprised by Miwa's response. Her tone of voice changed from the actressy role she'd taken on to a very serious question, asked straight out to Miwa. "Will Hiruma-sama be presenting a case against Ryuden this evening?"

The easy answer to that was no, but the lady didn't go for the easy. Instead, she said, "When I spoke with him, I did not know what he intended for this evening."

Tage saw right through that, and leapt to her feet. Her sake dropped to the floor and shattered. A look of horrible shock on her face, she turned away from Miwa, and composed herself again. Having put herself back together, she turned to face Miwa again. Miwa stood up, and we all stood with her.

Tage smiled, and said in a serious tone, "I know who killed Miyara Himitsu and Hiruma Usigo, and I will tell you where they are hiding. But first," she spoke to Miwa but looked around at us as well. "You must be certain, friends, that you know whose name you must kill in order to save Ryuden's. I cannot help you with the decision, I can only tell you this. Ryuden's name can only be cleared at great cost. An innocent must be sacrificed. Are you prepared to pay that price?" Rather uncomfortably, I thought Miwa would sacrifice any number of non-Miyara innocents to save a Miyara. It seems to be the way here.

"Please tell me," Miwa answered.

Tage said, "There are ancient, unused basements beneath the kitchens. There," she said softly, "there you will find the true killer. Be wary, as it has many faces, and some of those may be your own." She paused to stare a little longer, "If anyone asks, of course, I have not seen you today." She turned and walked out onto the balcony past the actor there.

Miwa bowed in the direction of the balcony and turned to leave. We followed her lead, bowing and leaving with her.

In the hall, I whispered that as far as I could tell, Shosuro Tage was herself, and she said nothing that she didn't believe. I almost didn't bring up what I couldn't tell her, but perhaps just knowing something was hidden would give her advance warning when she needs it. I told Miwa that Tage had been hiding something, but I couldn't tell what. She nodded shortly, unsurprised, and probably thinking mostly about the hunt before her.

Tony said, in Imperial, "What do we say to who, Lady?"

Mehli said, "We say nothing. She does," pointing to Miwa.

Miwa said, "Nothing yet, because rumors don't get us anywhere. We're going to have to go down and confront the killer." She sounded rather eager to do so.

In our rooms for just a few minutes, Tony grabbed two lanterns and extra oil. Mehli, Tony, Iruko, and Miwa all made sure of their armor and weapons, readying for whatever might come. Basements. Dark. I would be of little use to anyone if I were completely blind. I asked Tony if I could carry one of his lanterns, and he was happy to loan me one. I checked the knife hidden up my sleeve, and Tony said, "You know, I can teach you to use that thing effectively."

I think I surprised him when I answered that I would welcome that chance. If I have to defend myself with a knife, I'm in very deep trouble, probably unsalvageable. It would be nice to have at least a slim chance to bring an honor guard with me across the veil.

As we walked through the halls, down the stairs, to the kitchens, Mehli said seriously, "Remember this -- I can see in the dark. Someone who looks like me and can't, isn't me. What about the rest of you?" I shuddered at that thought. I believed I could tell a mimic from the real person, but it would take precious moments we might not have to spare. Life and death hang in seconds, not minutes.

I breathed easier when Miwa pointed out the obvious, that it was very likely whoever was down there did not speak Imperial. Mehli laughed delightedly at that, and shot an admiring look at Miwa.

"But just in case," Miwa continued, "Is there anything else?" Iruko of course did not speak Imperial, so that wouldn't work for her. Miwa asked Iruko if there was a way to tell her from a fake.

Iruko thought a while, then said, "Teach me four words in their language."

And so Mehli taught her to swear in Imperial, "You son of a bitch."

As we passed through the kitchens, Tony asked for more lamp oil. They had none. He did grab Donku, telling him to bring his heavy iron frying pan. I spoke with Donku as we moved through the kitchens and down the stairs into the old basement level. I gave him a swift explanation of ghosts down here who might look just like us. Mehli gave him another phrase to use, so we could tell the real him from a fake. And we picked out a pass phrase for both him and Iruko, so they could be certain we were us. "Who goes there?" To be answered with "King Friday."

Done with Donku, I whispered in my own language to ask Pardu to protect me, and I felt him form his shell around me. Peter asked his Shallya for protection, not just for himself, but for me as well, and I felt a second shell outside Pardu's.

Once down in the large room, Miwa said clearly that we were not to split up and give the thing an easy way to infiltrate us. Mehli and Tony both looked at the unguarded door at our backs, but it couldn't be helped. Miwa was right.

We searched the room carefully but quickly, and found an old, dried blood trail leading up one of the halls of the main kitchen. Its end opened into an auxiliary kitchen with a large oven in the wall.

Mehli, Tony right behind her, poked her head in the oven. She swiftly backed out and set herself, sword out, and something just ran right over her, shrieking and shredding as it went. Mehli hit the ground hard, in a spray of blood.

I ran to her, pleading with Arati, and whoever else was out there, to not let her die. I fell at her side, and I could feel her spirit sliding away, leaving her body -- grey and still and horribly lifeless -- for the veil. I fed every ounce of myself I could into Arati, who snatched at Mehli's spirit and all but stuffed it back into Mehli's body. I and Arati, together, as one, knit her soul back into place, using my energy to hold it where it belongs.

Peter held my hand, whispered a few words, and gave me his strength. I poured every bit of it into my dear Mehli, feeling her breathe again beneath me, feeling her come to life again under my hands.

I sagged against Peter. Mehli was well, but the two of us were entirely spent. Through a grey haze, I felt Mehli touch my head softly as she stood back up and waded into the horrendous fight that I hadn't even noticed until that moment.

Lady Miyara, Tony, Donku, and Mehli were fighting ... the Lady Miyara ... with everything they had. Even weak and light-headed, I could easily tell who was the real Miyara Miwa, and who was the fake. Tony, Mehli, and Donku certainly had no difficulty. The real lady fought with skill and determination, but silently and grimly. The false lady screamed and gibbered, swore and spat. It also fought well, and concentrated entirely on the real Lady Miyara.

The battle was short, but took a terrible toll on the lady. In the end, the four of them brought the thing down, and a bloody Miyara Miwa stood swaying over something that looked just like herself, dead on the floor.

Peter sighed, and gave me strength from seemingly nowhere. He took it from his own life force, and I would have to give it back to him a little later. But for now, it was important that the lady not pass out or die. I brought her to the point she could stand on her own two feet and think clearly, still obviously wounded. But it was all Peter and I and Arati, together, could give.

I sank to the floor, and Mehli came and sat next to me. I leaned against her gratefully, and she held me close. I was so grateful she was still here to hold me, and not dead.

Everyone caught their breath in a short silence. Then Miwa said, "if it becomes widely known that the maid was this creature, it will reflect badly on the princess and be a dishonor to her. People would either believe she knew a Scorpion spy was working for her, or that she didn't know, but that she or her family should have known."

Mehli, her arms still encircling me, said "Nice to know the innocent whose name must be killed wasn't so innocent after all."

Miwa said, "The princess herself is innocent. Her false position isn't her fault at all, and she has been as poorly used as anyone in this farce."

She looked down at the body, sighed, and then sat stiffly down on a bare spot on the floor, away from all the blood. She wrote a message to Asako Kagetsu and to Isawa Tomo, to bring them here to witness the killer. Tony was more than happy to vacate the dark basement to act as messenger for her.

In the next quarter hour or so before everyone showed up, Peter shared more of his strength, more quickly restored than my own, and I finished healing Miwa. I would have to heal Peter later, but we will both recover in the next hour or so. In plenty of time for the banquet my stomach was completely uninterested in right now.

But it was important that Miwa be strong and quick-thinking for the three who arrived after Tony: Asako Kagetsu, Isawa Tomo, and Isawa Uona. The three of them examined the body, not touching it. I wouldn't have wanted to touch it either. I looked at it before they arrived. Grey with death, it held only the vague form of the maid it had pretended be. Its face was almost blank, with just indentations for eyes. Black smoke drifted between its lips, frozen forever in a silent scream. A shadow brand writhed across her back and neck. I shuddered and stepped away quickly.

The two men looked angry, though I couldn't tell at what. The false maid who murdered three men? Miwa for discovering it and putting a stop to their quick blame of Ryuden?

Uona was the only one who spoke of the three. She asked Miwa if this was, indeed Kakita Nantoko.

"Yes," Miwa answered, strong and firm and certain. No one could doubt her word.

"And she killed Miyara Himitsu and Hiruma Usigo?"

"Yes, and Hiruma Arawa."

There was silence a moment as all three looked intently at Miwa. Uona asked, "Are you sure?" Her tone of voice told Miwa she better think long and hard about her answer and the consequences it might bring. Perhaps a little uncertainty, her tone suggested, might be better.

But Miwa didn't hesitate a moment, and simply said, "Yes" in a very firm voice that put an end to the matter, as far as she was concerned. Whatever they might decide to do with this information, it was very clear what Miwa would do. She wasn't letting this go, and she wasn't letting Ryuden take the fall without a fight.

The two men turned to leave and Uona stared a moment at Miwa before she joined them. They looked disappointed, somehow. In Miwa, I suppose, for not toeing their line.

Mehli said, "The rest of the story need never come up now."

Miwa answered that it depended on a great many things. Although this would certainly bring dishonor to the princess, it would still leave her in place as the princess, falsely. And Miwa pledged her honor to Niban to fix that situation somehow. For the moment, though, at least her suitors would step back, and she might even be shunned at court, which would send her home.

Tony said at least that meant that whatever might happen in the future to the princess, the Miyara name wouldn't be tied to it.

We gathered ourselves up and returned to our suite. Peter and I worked on each other, taking turns, until we were fully recovered from the ordeal. Next was to quickly wash and dress for a dinner I was still not interested in. My stomach was hollow, but I quailed at the thought of a public feast.

Before we did so, though, a message came saying that the banquet had been canceled. I think we all felt vast relief, and we sent down for food. And a great quantity of sake. Miwa explained that she, and therefore we, would definitely not be popular now, for bringing dishonor to the princess. It would be best for us to travel in groups rather than alone. No sense in inviting trouble. So this wasn't over yet.

Mehli hit the sake not playfully, like she usually does, but with some desperation. For all the good it does her: I don't think she can get drunk for trying. And she tried. I drank sparingly, in case Mehli might need me later.