Phoebe's Journey Part 4

Chapter 1: Nothing is as it Seems

All the way to Ryoko Owari, I wondered about the city. Would it be like some of the large Imperial cities I saw? Or had the Nipponese invented new methods of corruption and extortion, vice and self-destruction? I couldn't compare the viper's nest of a Nipponese court to that of an Imperial court, because this court was the first I'd been a part of.

I concluded that human nature is probably much the same wherever you go. With the caveat that it's in the details where the demons dwell.

Tony was willing to teach me better knife work, and he was surprisingly patient with me. On the other hand, I still knew nothing about the two scrolls I carried. By the time we finished with the actual crises, the aftermath left no one who wanted much of anything to with us. The Miyara that initially was willing to teach me their use was suddenly very busy. Iruko had also been "recalled" by Shinjo. Although there was no overt hostility, lady Miyara had made an enemy and there was no mistaking it.

Tony figured we were being sent to Ryoko Owari to solve problems. Mehli assumed we were the problem. I think they're both right. I don't think lady Miyara cares. She'll simply do whatever needs doing.

Mehli complained about the futility of spending weeks walking right next to a navigable river. I didn't mind at all. It reminded me of home, although the winter seems more temperate here.

We reached the city after an easy three or four weeks' journey. Lady Miyara said that the fields that surrounded the city for leagues were poppy fields, used to produce opium. The Nipponese have a somewhat ambivalent approach to the drug. It's an extremely useful medicine, but many ride it to their ruin. So some temples are licensed to sell it, in medicinal form. It's illegal for anyone else to sell it. It is not illegal to purchase or possess, but it is illegal to turn it into the various forms preferred by addicts.

Ryoko Owari, of course, attracts those who abuse the stuff. I also imagine Ryoko Owari ignores illegalities unless it causes a very public problem or unless someone can make money or power off it. So, extortion and blackmail are probably at least as common as opium addicts. I imagine the Nipponese might not agree with me, but I think the extortionists, blackmailers, and corrupt officials are a worse problem than the addicts. I will probably keep my opinion to myself.

The city itself is a strongly walled one, although districts have built up outside the walls, sort of clinging to them. We entered through the trade gate, and I saw my first large Nipponese city.

I don't think most Nipponese cities are like this one.

To my eyes, it was similar to Imperial cities. Oh, the architecture and embellishments are certainly different, and their gardens are configured differently and contain different plants. And the people look and dress nothing like Imperial people.

But it's still a city, and there's a certain sameness to all the cities I've seen. In a way, any large city is foreign to me. Buildings all crammed one on top of another, and streets winding around, narrow alleys going off in weird directions, and people everywhere. Part of me finds this exhilarating, part of me finds it claustrophobic.

What was surprising was the presence of other foreigners. Until this city, I had not seen a single other non-Nipponese person in Nippon besides us. They certainly weren't numerous even in this city, but they were here.

The Lady got us directions to the gate into the Noble Quarter, and then eventually to the magistrate's house. The Noble Quarter is walled off from the rest of the city. I could catch glimpses of the governor's palace as we wound along the streets. The buildings here were naturally larger than in the other section of the city we'd come through, and beautifully decorated. The gardens were numerous, bigger, and more sumptuous, and fewer people thronged the streets. They were also quieter and more polite.

Eventually, we stood before the magistrate's house, and someone knocked on the door. Repeatedly. This house was pretty large, although not the largest here. It was well-decorated in the Nipponese style. I wondered if perhaps this was a holiday and everyone was at a shrine somewhere before someone finally opened the door.

A very young woman, barely more than a girl, looked out at us mutely. The lady said merely she was here to speak with Bayushi Yojiro, and the girl waved us in. We walked through a short tunnel through the outer wall into a courtyard, where we were left alone to wait again.

I left management of the situation to Miyara Miwa, Tony, and my Mehli. The courtyard was paved with tiles and surrounded by the outer wall behind us and the inner walls on the other three sides. At least half of the courtyard was given over to a large garden with gravel paths. I could just see a bench to one side of the path as it wound out of sight. A balcony overlooked the garden from the second story, and that wall held windows and at least one door that led out to the balcony. Beneath the balcony was a large double door that led further into the house.

In this sheltered area, the garden was more lush than one might expect in mid-winter. By now, I recognized several of the plants, and wondered what the others were. I also wondered at the general state of the garden. So far, every Nipponese garden I'd seen was very carefully tended and ridiculously neat. They tend to like gardens that appear both natural and perfect. So even while the overall effect is that of nature, they are too perfectly groomed to be natural.

This garden was a little too natural and not groomed enough. In short, I would guess that nobody had really taken care of it for at least a month or two. It wouldn't take a great deal of work to restore it to order, I didn't think.

Eventually a door opened and an older gentleman who rather matched the state of the garden entered the courtyard and bowed to Lady Miyara. He was still tucking his clothes into place. It was mid-morning, and I wondered if Bayushi were this lax with his household staff -- and laxness was not so far a trait I'd seen in noble Nipponese -- or if he were actually off on holiday somewhere and the staff were taking advantage of it.

"How may I help you?"

The lady repeated what she had told the girl, and I could hear a little irritation in her voice. "I am here to speak with Bayushi Yojiro."

"I am very sorry, you have the wrong household. This is the magistrate's house."

"Where is the magistrate, then?"

"I am so sorry. The magistrate Ashidaka Naritoki has been dead for several months now."

"Is there an acting magistrate currently?"

Very politely and long-windedly, he apologized for being only the person who takes care of the house and not knowing anything useful.

This obviously took Lady Miyara aback for a moment. She asked him if he knew of Bayushi Yojiro, but he'd never heard of him.

She led us out of the strange situation and returned to the guard at the Noble gate. A short conversation revealed that apparently no one knew of Bayushi Yojiro or any replacement for the dead magistrate at all. In fact, the guard said this city is a very quiet and well-mannered one and no magistrate is really needed here. It's an honor to have one, of course, but it's really a very quiet position with little to do.

He was lying, of course.

A quick discussion was held, in Imperial and away from the gate, to answer the question, "What now?" Tony and Mehli said it was time to find an inn. Tony suggested asking for the Red Dragon because there was always an inn called the Red Dragon. Mehli said The Mermaid was usually a good bet, although I don't think they're as common this far inland. "Or maybe there might be another Golden Peony," she said.

"Or", Mehli continued, "maybe we just take over the magistrate's house. "

Lady Miyara half-smiled at the barrage of suggestions, and mentioned another possibility: ask one of the Phoenix clan who lived here for a place to stay. But she didn't really like any of the suggestions, except perhaps for Mehli's last one. She decided since she is the magistrate's assistant, she may as well stay there. If he disapproves when he gets here -- if he does -- she can make other arrangements then.

Again we found ourselves in front of the magistrate's house, and this time the properly clothed older gentleman answered the door himself, with much greater speed. He bowed us in, and lady Miyara said, "I am the assistant to the magistrate, who has apparently not yet arrived, and I and my entourage are moving in and setting up in advance of Bayushi Yojiro's arrival."

He bowed again, said, "One moment, please," and left us in the outer courtyard. Again. There was more activity this time: servants came and went on their own business, ignoring us. It was another longish wait, and I could feel waves of impatience from just about the whole group. I looked at the garden, wishing I could go wandering into it. There was something that looked familiar, just peeking out from behind a larger shrub, and I wanted to see if it was what it looked like.

Finally, someone flung the double doors open and stood in the middle of the doorway. A young man, samurai and warrior, and I'm getting good at picking out clans: he's Crane.

He nodded his head -- I thought that was barely polite, if it wasn't an insult -- and announced his name. No how can I help you, no welcome, just his bare name.

The lady said with quiet authority, "I am Miyara Miwa, and I am the magistrate's assistant."

I caught surprise and uncertainty from him, but he replied smoothly enough. "Ashidaka Naritoki has been dead for two months, and it is unlikely you are his assistant."

I winced and started preparing myself to heal him from near death in another 10 seconds or so. It was really very impolitic of him to accuse a Miyara of lying. She stood still, though, and it was Tony who reacted to the insult, and even then, not completely. He started forward, his hand ready to draw his sword, but stopped before he'd taken more than half a step. Mehli was immediately ready to act, but wasn't going to start anything herself. The Crane, too, reacted to the obvious threat, but also didn't start anything when Tony ceased his action.

Lady Miyara replied in a very quiet voice, as though nothing had happened, "I have been appointed to the new magistrate, who apparently has not yet arrived." I'm pretty sure everything about her told the Crane that he'd better watch his step because he was within an inch of getting skewered.

He considered that for a few silent moments, then he bowed to her and said, "Please tell me the name of the new magistrate."

"Bayushi Yojiro."

He bowed to her again and apologized. His words were short but polite. "I was unaware that a new magistrate was assigned, and was standing on the memory of Ashidaka. I was an assistant to Ashidaka for several years." He gave orders to servants behind him, and asked Lady Miyara if she'd like him to show her to her room. He didn't mention her entourage, but of course where she goes, we go. It was a large house: there had to be room somewhere for us. I suppose it would just not be done to pitch my tent and sleep in the garden, although I'd be perfectly happy to do so.

We all tramped up through some hallways and up some stairs to the room he gave the lady. It was not a large room, but it looked opulent to my eyes. The young Crane seemed unsure of what to do with the rest of us, and tried to ignore our presence even while darting uncertain looks at us.

My Mehli helped him along. "Phoebe and I can share a room, and so can Tony and Grieg." I smiled to myself. Grieg might be eager for that opportunity, but I was pretty certain Tony had other interests. Still, sooner or later, they had to work something out, and perhaps throwing them together would accomplish that at least. There were three other rooms in the same area of the house, so that worked out well. Sun and the other servants brought our things up, Donku settled himself into the kitchen, and whatever we didn't need upstairs was stored down with the cart.

We eventually all gathered together again, and learned a few things from the somewhat chatty Crane, who still seemed a little nervous. We learned that the prior magistrate, Ashidaka Naritoki, had been murdered a few months ago. His widow had packed up all their belongings and moved into another house. Without a magistrate to collect taxes -- and I'm sure other sources of income he didn't mention -- the household was running low on funds. So most of the servants and other assistants had left. Which explained, of course, the general sense of disuse. Probably no one had knocked on the door in weeks.

Tony, still stinging from the insult to his lady, insulted the Crane right back, who simply took it. Tony said he assumed the Crane had "taken care" of his master's murderer, and expressed surprise when he hadn't. The Crane explained that he was a lowly assistant, that he didn't have the authority to do anything about the matter, and that if he tried, he'd surely be killed out of hand. He was right, but Tony obviously still believed the boy was a coward. None of that would have stopped Tony in a similar situation, I'm quite certain. Although I had sympathy for the man, I understood Tony's position. Just because the path the spirits hand you isn't the one you want doesn't negate your obligations. Some might say it makes those obligations all the more important to meet.

In fact Tony quietly said, in Imperial, that he wished it was above his station to investigate the magistrate's death. So Tony felt more of an obligation to "take care" of the former magistrate's killers than did the dead man's assistant. Mehli frowned and shook her head slightly. Grieg asked her if she cared, and she said honestly, no she didn't.

Grieg asked her, "Do you want him wandering around to perhaps kill another assistant, or his staff?"

"We aren't the old magistrate, and it isn't our job to make the same mistakes or the same enemies." I saw her point, but I think she's wrong. The magistrate's enemy might be a personal one, but it seemed likely to me the enemy came from his actions as magistrate, which meant we would naturally become his enemy as well. Funny. We just arrived here and know not a soul in the city, but we already have an enemy. Nothing personal, of course, just business.

Sometimes I miss home. But not a lot. The rest of the world is much more interesting.

Tony mused, "Surely the murder of a magistrate is just shy of murder of the Emperor, and therefore our business." This was a legal argument, because the responsibilities of a magistrate were narrow: local matters were purely local and none of his business. Matters that attached to the emperor in some way were his business. It's all in how you define the overlap and the grey areas.

While I considered the niceties of the Nipponese legal system, Tony and Lady Miyara had gotten into a conversation about sending messages. I only heard the outcome. She was going to write a message to the Emerald Magistrate with a report of the situation. She was also going to write a message to her father with more details in it, and in the Miyara code. She would seal the first scroll and wrap up it in the second scroll, which also asked her father to be sure it got to the Magistrate. She thought that would be safe enough to send by an official courier.

Mehli figured one job we did have was to put back in place the dealings of the former magistrate. She assumed that at least some of it would be "formal crime", and she was ready and willing to do what needed doing, especially down on the docks, her area of expertise. I shook my head and smiled. I won't be of much use in running a crime syndicate, I don't think. But it certainly will be a new experience.

Finally, the Phoenix asked the Crane to take her to the late magistrate's office. He seemed reluctant and frankly uncomfortable to do so, but he did anyway. The office was spare and neat. A desk, a couple of sitting areas carefully arranged, and a few cabinets against the inner wall. Locked, of course. Nothing on the desk but pens and brushes, ink, and blank paper.

It seems another man had actually taken care of whatever accounts of the magistrate's dealings there were, and he apparently still had the key even though he'd left with the rest once the money dried up.

I asked, and was told that the magistrate had been here quite a few years, which meant he must surely have left some sort of impression on the place. His desk seemed like a good place to start. He'd probably spent a lot of time sitting there at his work.

I sat at the desk, turned inward, and sent myself into a trance. I felt for the spirit of the place, the residue of his, and any spirits who were here who would tell me about him.

Quiet. Routine. A certain sameness, day in and day out. Nothing stood out, no particularly strong emotions or thoughts.

I couldn't sense anything with any emotional charge happening here in the last few years. So he probably had not died at his desk. I waited, not thinking, just feeling, just letting the man's spirit come to me.

Appearance matters. Clothes, demeanor. Household. It's how people judge your worth. Appearance defines you, to others and to yourself.

Routine. Stability. We are as we have always been, and that makes us strong.

One deals with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

I resurfaced after a while. The feelings had come quietly. I thought I had a measure of who the man was. I sat silently while the others discussed matters.

Finally, Lady Miyara sent the former magistrate's assistant out on errands, to find people and set up appointments and such for her. When he was gone, I summarized what I discovered about the dead man.

I said simply, "The spirits said nothing with emotional significance has happened at this desk in at least the last few years. As I sat there, in the same place as the man who used that desk often for many years, I felt a bit of his spirit." I closed my eyes, so I could concentrate on him again. "He was a man with a finely developed sense of appearances, mixed with a sense of stability and predictability and a healthy dose of realism."

So here we are, in a city with the reputation of a den of iniquity: an assistant to a missing magistrate, a murder in our laps, and a crime network to re-establish. I've been in some strange situations, but this may be the strangest yet.