Phoebe's Journey Part 3

Chapter 7: A Stolen Gamepiece

We all lingered over the sake. Under other circumstances, it might have been a raucous night. Instead, it was subdued. The melted-looking form of the maid with that shadowbrand remained clear to me when I closed my eyes. I wondered if the brand would stay with the body, or if it would skulk off by itself when no one was looking. I couldn't bear the thought of going off to my dark room, alone. Yet I didn't really feel like having someone else in my dark room with me, either. I'd probably wake up in the middle of the night and assume it was the shadow coming after me.

The others had somewhat haunted looks on their faces, too, and I thought we might just all sit up together in the common room, drinking sake and pretending nothing was wrong. We were interrupted by a messenger calling us to Asako's court. No time wasted. Lady Miyara said we could all come with her to see a Nipponese court.

I wouldn't have believed it possible, but the gathering of Nipponese samurai for the court was more uncomfortable and on edge than we had been. People clumped together in small, silent groups, and the air was thick with tension. Asako entered soon after we did, and although he tried to set people more at ease by chatting with random groups, he failed. He was too tense himself. The Princess arrived shortly thereafter, the last to arrive. By that time, I'd noticed that none of the furtive glances people were exchanging ever reached us.

Asako convened his court. After a quick welcome, he announced that Lady Miyara found the killer, who was Kakita Nantoko, and that she was shadowbranded and dead at the Lady Miyara's hands. Gasps and murmurs finally broke the suffocating silence in that room. Lord Asako urged everyone to put the matter behind them and to continue enjoying the festivities of the Winter Court. The Princess marched out before he finished, followed by her two remaining maids and a couple of guards she brought with her.

We returned to our room, carefully ignored by everyone else. At least the black mood of earlier had been broken. Mehli, Tony, Iruko, and Lady Miyara set up a watch and we went to bed for the night.

It was still night when Sun knocked on my door. We'd been summoned to Lord Asako, again. Lady Miyara gathered me, Mehli, Tony, and Peter to go with her. Lord Asako didn't look like he'd gotten much sleep either. As soon as we entered, he said shortly to Lady Miyara, "The Princess has been kidnapped. I'd like your assistance in looking into this matter." She assented, of course, and he led us up to the third floor. His family's rooms, which the Princess was using as her own for Winter Court. The quick summary was that she disappeared and none of the maids or the copious guards noticed anything. The kidnapper left a note on the empty bed, which he handed to Lady Miyara. She read it quickly herself, then repeated it aloud to us.

I have the girl. She will be my bride. I will be the husband of a Hantei. I will be a samurai again.
~ Niban's mark.

She looked carefully at the note but made no other comment on it just then. Lord Asako didn't ask for the note's return, and she slipped it carefully into her sleeve.

The third floor reminded me of the top of the Tsume residence, although larger. The same nightingale floors, guards in much the same sort of places. More of them, of course. The ceiling in the princess' rooms were of a much more delicate tile, and someone said they, too, would sing if disturbed. The garden outside was pitch black.

There were a lot of people here looking around. I wouldn't be able to add anything of importance, but the spirits might. The Princess had been abducted: surely that made some sort of impression. So I immediately sat down in a corner, closed my eyes, and placed myself in the trance that made the veil accessible to me.

The room spoke to me in a multitude of quiet voices, all disturbed. It was like being in the forest during a windstorm and trying to listen to just the leaves of one tree rustling. I was surrounded by shock, fear, grief, loss, guilt. I homed in on the guilt, but found not the guilt of someone who did something, but the guilt of someone who failed to prevent something. I spent some time sorting through the threads of emotions.

I felt the emotions of all those here who had lost the Princess. What I did not feel was any sign of struggle, of murder, or of abduction against one's will.

I carefully extricated myself from the spirits' confusion and returned to this world. Mehli had disappeared, and Tony was quietly chatting with Lady Miyara. Isawa Uona was wandering around the room trying to talk to the spirits in her own strange way. I joined Tony and the lady and briefed them on the little I discovered. The salient point was that the Princess either went willingly or was unaware of being taken at all.

Tony repeated what the maids had told him. They found the note in the Princess' place about half an hour ago. The older maid, Yauta, simply woke up, as anyone might in the middle of the night. When she saw the screen to the Princess' room open, she went in to check if she needed something. They last saw the Princess when they retired for the evening after Asako's court, around 11 or so. Neither one were up again after that, until Yauta discovered her missing. Tony wondered if they were faking their distraught reactions.

I smiled and went over to the maids and commiserated with them on the terrible circumstances. I gently prodded them to talk through their ordeal, and simply listened. The younger maid obviously knew nothing, and her shock and fear and sadness were all genuine. Yauta found the note. She was equally upset, but her age and experience allowed her to think beyond her emotions. She expressed surprised at anyone's ability to sneak past her in the middle of the night and spirit the Princess away. Apparently she's a very light sleeper. Everything both of them said, and the emotions they projected, were all entirely truthful. I gave a quick nod to Tony and Lady Miyara and kindly took my leave from them.

By this time, Mehli came back inside, from prowling around the balcony and the gardens. She found nothing of interest out there at all.

Isawa Uona finished, and came over to us. Her voice held some frustration and some puzzlement. "Nothing. Nothing unusual happened here. None of the spirits here are disturbed, none of them noticed anything. They might have noticed a stranger, but didn't. They would have noticed a struggle but didn't."

In Imperial, Mehli asked, "Do you think she might have staged this to save face?" Lady Miyara emphatically said no.

Tony managed to make himself ask Uona, "Would they have noticed magic?"

"Yes, and yes they did. Some use of magic happened in both these rooms. Probably a sleep spell."

Lady Miyara eagerly asked her about the guards outside. Uona quickly checked them out and no, they weren't affected by any sleep spell. They all emphatically denied being asleep, and I could tell they were all telling the truth.

There were no signs of magic on the balcony or in the garden. No other magic was used besides the sleep spell. Uona explained that a group of Asako and Isawa shugenja set alarm spells, none of which were triggered. So whoever did this is really good.

Lady Miyara very carefully asked Uona if she could have done this. Not asking her if she did, just if it were possible for her do so. Uona considered the question carefully and answered, equally carefully, "Maybe." Miyara asked her what she thought happened here, and Uona replied, "I don't know. An extremely powerful shugenja came in and stole the princess."

Mehli and Lady Miyara both thought that if Isawa Uona could do this, so too could Koan. So that's where we went next.

Lady Miyara said bluntly, "It appears a mage has kidnapped the princess." Koan was surprised by this news, thought he tried to hide his surprise.

Mehli said, "Only someone of your abilities could do this. Who else could match you?" I smiled briefly. She had very carefully mimicked Lady Miyara's tones when she asked a similar question of Isawa Uona.

Koan failed to suppress his smile. With a laugh in his voice, he replied, "You gravely over-estimate my abilities."

Mehli answered with her own smile, "I saw the competition. You were the best one there."

Tony asked who his teacher was, and Koan named someone that meant nothing to me.

He turned to Lady Miyara and said forcefully, "I have no knowledge or involvement in any kidnapping of the princess." I nodded discreetly. That was certainly the truth.

She asked if he'd you help her find the one responsible, and he said rather too quickly and easily, "Of course". I slightly shrugged at Miyara. His statement wasn't an outright lie, but he was being misleading in some way.

Lady Miyara caught my meaning and quickly drew out the note and handed it to him. He read it and cursed. I could feel genuine shock, fear, and anger from him. The lady succeeded in surprising him again, and now he was off-balance. He said, "There's no way Niban could have done this."

"So you'll help me find out who really did this?"

"What can I do?" Koan replied.

Lady Miyara explained what we knew, and Koan said, in all truth, that he had no idea how it was done.

"I don't know what you can do," Miyara said. "Can you track the Princess, or the magic that stole her?"

Koan said doubtfully, "Isawa would be the most capable of that."

Tony said, "I met a guy once who could just pop to somewhere else. No spells or anything. Have you seen anything like that, or could you detect that?" Someone like Grieg, he meant. Grieg's the only non-spirit I've ever met who can actually transport himself physically through the spirit's world. But if one can, surely there must be others?

Koan asked in confusion, "How is that not magic? I never met anyone who can do that anyway."

Tony continued, "Would someone have to be there physically to do all that, or could he do it from a distance?"

"It's theoretically possible to do this from a distance, but very unlikely. It would be hard to predict what wards would be there, intentionally. So you'd really need to be there to get around them."

"If not Niban, then who?" That was the crux of it. I could see Lady Miyara didn't think Niban was responsible, note or no.

"I don't know of anyone who could do this." I gave a quick nod, as that was complete truth. "Nor doe I know who would. Who would want to bring down on himself the Emperor's wrath, Phoenix's wrath, Isawa's wrath?"

Tony asked, "Who would want to frame Niban? Who would want to damage the Princess?

Koan shrugged and said, "The only people who seem to care very much about Niban are the other people in the village. They all love him. Obviously Phoenix knows who he is and that he's there, but if they wanted to get rid of him, they would have done so directly, not this way." I could see Miyara nodding agreement to that. She'd said something similar once.

She mused, "If Niban didn't write this, someone close to him did. That's his chop block."

Koan said dryly, "It looks that way to me too. But if we're theorizing a mage that can sneak into this castle through Isawa and Asako wards and steal the heir to the Hantei throne, then stealing the chop block seem a minor issue."

Tony pointed out that Koan himself had gotten the scrolls out of the chest, from a distance, before the fire started. Koan acknowledge that was true. He said sadly that the fire was unintentional and he never meant to kill his counterpart. Tony said, "The point is, where would someone detect your spell?"

"I was actually right there. I was invisible, and I cast a sleep spell on the area. Everyone else was asleep, but neither spell worked on the other shugenja. We ended up in combat against each other. The magic spilled out onto the stuff on the floor of the wagon, and caught fire." He spoke with real regret.

Mehli said thoughtfully, "Wards. Invisible. Sleep." And looked at him meaningfully.

Koan finally admitted, "Except for the wards, I could have done this." Everyone was silent for a moment. Except for the wards...

Mehli said, "So if someone else disabled the wards, then it was easy." And Koan shook his head and said , "But the spells I used would have been detected by Uona. Someone moving around invisibly is still noticed as a trail -- the spirits notice and record the passing."

Someone from the inside had to disable the wards. Someone asked whose rooms were below the Princess', and I learned something I missed in the few hours of sleep I managed. Before the Princess was discovered to be missing, a young man from the Lion clan had left Winter Court. In the middle of the night during which the Princess was kidnapped. With all his chests and belongings. He was on the first floor. And on the second floor, between the Princess' room and the mysterious disappearing Lion? Miyara Himitsu's.

After a moment's stunned silence, we left to find Isawa Uona and Asako, leaving Koan to wait for us. At Lord Asako's offices, we discovered a force was getting ready to descend on Nightingale village to rescue the Princess from Niban's clutches. Asako expressed the opinion that a ronin couldn't have done this, but the expedition was something to do.

Lady Miyara explained briefly our conjecture on how they might have taken the Princess out of the castle, and we went to check out both sets of rooms. Isawa Uona tested for magic, and the others searched around the physical rooms. It was all too quick for me to inquire of the spirits, but I thought Uona was capable enough. The ceilings were plain, and the floors solid. Uona said she didn't find any traces of magic, and no one in Himitsu's room at all in the last day. Her statements were entirely truthful.

As we returned to Asako's office, Uona said, "I did think about this possibility. I ruled it out because I knew that the Lion genuinely left because of his loss of face in the matter of the duel."

Tony asked about the wards in the Princess' rooms again. They detect any magical activity in that room at all. And to some extent even prevent some. If all the mages were also asleep magically, the wards would know and would record that fact. They didn't.

And so I found myself at dawn sitting on a horse after less then half a night's sleep, ready to spend the next three days riding with a large group of rather eager-looking samurai to assault Nightingale village.