Phoebe's Journey Part 4

Chapter 2: Ancient Connections

Once Furede left on his errands, it was time for lunch. Donku did his best, but he had little to work with and he was still getting settled into the kitchens. So it was a cold lunch, and not much more for dinner later.

I was about to pick up my drum and spend the afternoon in the garden in the outer courtyard, when I heard Grieg arrange with Tony for some knife practice. They didn't mind including me, so I spent the afternoon playing with knives instead.

I just don't have the strength to push a knife in deeply and quickly enough to really hurt an attacker. But if I can become accurate enough, well a knife in the eye doesn't take a lot of strength to disable someone. Besides, I can always use the willing spirit to simply drain a man of all his strength, and then slit his throat.

Mehli wanted the company of some sake, and consulted with Tony. He decided it was better to send a servant out to buy some and bring it back than sending Mehli out to find a tavern. So she sat and sipped at the sake and watched us three practice in the courtyard.

Lady Miyara spent the day and the evening by herself, writing letters she said. I don't know where Peter was, although he joined us for our meals.

Mehli and I spent a pleasant evening together, and I slept well on the shared mat. It was thick and much more comfortable than the floor of my tent.

Breakfast was better: not many items to choose from, but good. While we ate, we talked about the situation we'd found ourselves in. The previous magistrate, Ashidaka, was killed when his carriage went up in flames, right on the city's streets. It was believed that his door was jammed so as to ensure he remained in the carriage while it burned.

So much more of a spectacle than a simple knife in the night. That argued for someone who was making a statement in addition to ridding himself of a problem. I shuddered: it takes an agonizingly long time to die in a fire. And nobody even attempted to put the fire out? Perhaps a question for later.

One of his deputies (apparently called True Word, either because he was unusually honest among people who see truth as malleable or because he wanted people to think he was -- or maybe pure irony, who knows?) was beaten and stabbed to death a few paces from the carriage. Was he killed trying to protect his master, or was he complicit and killed to tie up loose ends?

The death of an emerald magistrate is something that touches the emperor, so it should have been investigated by an emerald magistrate. Of course, his being the victim made that impossible, so one of the governor's magistrates investigated. What his conclusions are no one knows, since he reported to the governor. Again, the report should have gone to the emerald magistrate, had there been one. Lady Miyara looked thoughtful for a moment, and I have a feeling she'll ask the governor for the report, in her capacity as the person "acting for the new emerald magistrate".

Towards the end of breakfast, Doji Furede turned up with his report on how he's been doing on Lady Miayra's errands. Well, it turned out. The bookkeeper, Jorege, is here to speak with the lady at her convenience. She has a mid-morning call to make on one of the Phoenixes here in the city, Asako Kinto. And this afternoon she has an appointment with the city's governor.

Lady Miyara is living by the adage, "may as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb," hoping audacity and success will carry her through. So far, so good; she acts as though the unknown Bayushi Yojiro has in fact deputized her to do everything she needs to in his name, and so far everyone simply accepts her in that role.

She had Jorege brought up to see her -- and all of us -- in the magistrate's office. He entered, bowed low to her, and waited for her to tell him what she required.

Within a couple of minutes, she determined that Jorege had kept both the official magistrate's books as well as his personal books. I'm still not sure if "personal books" meant simply his personal accounts or a second set of books for avoiding taxes and keeping track of unofficial and probably illegal income.

I have no head for such things myself, but I traveled with a trader for a while who kept numerous books, almost a different one for each jurisdiction he traded in and traveled through, based on taxes and levies and road fees and such. He should have kept things simpler: I left him just before he got caught with the wrong book and dragged off to answer to the local tyrant of a lord who liked to live high and preferred to take it out of travelers instead of his own people.

Anyway, Bayushi's widow now has the other set of books. He did indeed have the key to the cabinet of accounts, and opened them for her. At her request, he spread them out on a table and proceeded to explain them to all of us, clustered around the table and peering down at the mysterious and meaningless (to all but lady Miyara) symbols on the scrolls.

I couldn't read anything, of course, and even if I could, I wouldn't have understood any of it. But I could understand the spirits, who told me that although Jorege said nothing that was untrue, he was doing his best to be as confusing as possible. I said as much, in Imperial, and Mehli muttered, "Either he wants to keep his job, or he has reasons to keep the accounts he handled obscure."

Before the lady said anything, he asked, all too casually, "Is it known when the new magistrate will be arriving? I am interested in continuing on under the new magistrate."

She gave him a somewhat chilly smile and replied, "I am acting for the magistrate, and I can keep you in this job. Of course, I am more inclined to do so if you can make me understand the accounts clearly." He took the hint and explained the state of the finances of the magistrate's office clearly and concisely. In Imperial, I reported that the spirits said this time he was both truthful and as clear as he knew how to be.

There were tens of thousands of koku in taxes that belonged to the emperor. He showed the accounts of how much certain people still owed in taxes and which needed to be collected. He pointed out how much the magistrate should collect next tax month, which is in spring, Lady Miyara said in a quick aside. The magistrate's yearly stipend is 500 koku. That amount is expressly for his use for his household and office needs. I suppose we can use some of that money to get things going again.

In fact, that is precisely what Lady Miyara did: she called up Sun and put him in charge of putting the household back in order again. He asked for 10 koku to begin with.

Jorege asked in careful tones, "I was honored to keep both the imperial books and Ashidaka's personal books. Will the magistrate require both services?"

Lady Miyara answered smoothly, "For now I am hiring you to take care of the Imperial accounts. When the magistrate arrives, he can make the final decision based on whether he's pleased with your services."

That seemed to satisfy him and he left. At first, Lady Miyara, probably trying to minimize the chances of her being accused of embezzlement later, told Jorege to lock the magistrate's key in the cabinet. When it became obvious that would make it too difficult to use the magistrate's stipend to fund the household, she changed her mind and took it into her keeping after all. The letter addressed to the new magistrate from Asako Anjo, the Imperial Champion, she left unopened in the cabinet, however. Mehli wanted to steam it open, but Lady Miyara was not in favor of that.

By the time all that was settled, it was time to go visit Asako Kinto. Doji Furede said that he was likely to want to show us his gardens, and that is exactly what he did.

Asako Kinto would be a village elder, and then some, back home. I don't think he has any official status here, other than wherever he falls in his family and clan Phoenix. His house isn't as big as the one we're staying in, but it was obviously a very nice house by Noble Quarter standards. The polite greetings between him and Lady Miyara went on a bit, but we trickled into his gardens eventually.

Ah, the gardens. He obviously has a somewhat different approach to gardening than others here. They were still carefully laid out and meticulously cared for, don't get me wrong. But he grew his plants larger and wilder-looking than the spare and prim Nipponese garden that seemed the norm. He had a wild profusion of plants, more varieties than you usually see in a single Nipponese garden, too. My attention was mostly taken up in looking around. Once we were well within the gardens on the paths, it felt like the city around us just melted away. I recognized a few plants I've seen before.

I did hear that Asako Kinto knew Lady Miyara's mother. And something about not being able to share much information, and some poem about scorpions, which I took to apply somehow to the Scorpions running this city.

Then I found it.

A plant I've never seen before, anywhere. That wasn't the reason it stood out, of course, because most of the plants were unfamiliar to me.

No, the reason it called out to me was because there seemed to be a spirit within. I stopped, forgetting the others with me entirely, and stared at the plant, trying to see the spirit. There was a feeling of waiting, of potential, of almost ... I was sure the spirit was about to emerge, and I eagerly waited for it.

Asako Kinto appeared next to me, and quietly and enthusiastically told me about the plant. Where it came from, how he cared for it, when it needed fertilizer and what kind, how it flowered. I listened with interest, never taking my eyes from the plant. Somehow his speech blended in with the general air of anticipation.

He paused, and then moved on to speak of another nearby plant, but I stayed where I was, waiting. I spoke quietly, carefully to the plant's spirit, but it didn't answer.

Finally, I sat down on the path and cast myself into a trance, intending on crossing the veil and speaking with the spirit there.

I sat for some time, and couldn't reach the trance. Something about the place kept me anchored to this side. I remained, waiting patiently, keeping my mind empty, certain I would eventually find my way.

Finally, it happened, and I looked upon the garden from the other side, through the veil.

At first, I saw snakes winding everywhere through the garden. Their bodies writhed and slithered up and around and through the plants and paths. With a snap, the forms came together and I realized instead I was looking at one huge, long snake twining through the garden.

The snake's body was far too large to be held up by the plants: it should have been crushing them.

Ancientness. Power. Intelligence.

Somehow when the vision of multiple snakes became a vision of one, great snake, I was thrown back across the veil and out of my trance. But the feelings remained.

The sheer age I felt was overwhelming, as was the power that went along with it. And the intelligence I felt from the snake was far beyond human comprehension as well.

What was this place? I gazed at Asako Kinto in wonder: Who, or what, was he?

Apparently our visit was over, because people were bowing and saying things and then leaving. I heard nothing, just a faint buzz of their conversation. Even the spirits were silent in my head, awed, I think, by what was there.

I gradually became aware of things again, and found myself sitting silently at lunch back at the magistrate's house. Lunch was about over, and I had eaten most of mine without knowing what I was doing. Mehli sat next to me. Comparing notes later, I discovered she had simply taken charge of me and moved me along with the rest of the group. My body was cooperative and walked along with her. My spirit had certainly been elsewhere. No, not really elsewhere, but ... I guess separate somehow from this world.

The sense of wonder still hasn't left me.