Phoebe's Journey Part 4

Chapter 6: Gossip

By the time Eyebrows left, it was pretty late in the afternoon. We stayed in for the night. I spent a few hours losing myself in drumwork in the garden and felt much better by dinner.

We ate dinner, and spent the rest of the night going through the scrolls, especially Memoirs of an Opium Eater. This was an infamous book that was all the rage right now. It was a favorite topic of conversation at Asako's Winter Court. Mostly, making guesses at who the author was really talking about, because it contained no names.

Our copy had names. Including the author's, which was also otherwise unknown. Not just a Phoenix, but a Miyara -- Miyara Shonagon. Lady Miyara didn't react at all. Shonagon died just last winter, but she was several years younger than the lady is now. She couldn't have been more than a little girl when the lady left for the west.

She had dirt on just about everyone, all of it through a haze of opium and drink. No telling what was in her head and what was real. Still, if nothing else, it left no question as to what kind of city we were in, and what kind of people lived here. A complicated web of corruption, everyone connected to everyone else, poison threads running amongst the rest.

Between her observations, those of the governor previous to Ashidaka, and the sweetness-and-light history of the city, the scrolls were full of random information that was hard to piece together.

I listened carefully when opium was mentioned. The stoned spirits bothered and intrigued me. I wondered if opium would silence the spirits' whispering in my ears, or if it would make them easier to understand. Of course, any effects would only be temporary. Probably. I learned only that opium is legal as pills, but that's not what Shonagon and the others used. She started smoking it -- they call that dragon's breath -- and ended by drinking it -- they call that something else that I can't remember. If you don't have a doctor's order for it, in pill form, it's illegal.

Tony wondered, "Why would someone kill the Emerald Magistrate?"

The obvious answer is because he's the Emerald Magistrate, in charge of upholding the Emperor's Laws. So what laws specifically could have gotten him in trouble? We all looked around the table at each other. On one hand, there probably wasn't an Imperial Law left unbroken in Ryoko Owari. On the other hand, one certainly stood out from the rest: opium.

Tony half-heartedly offered up mistaken identity, but we all shook our heads, him included. Ashidaka was killed in his own carriage. Who else would you expect to kill in it?

And yet ... I closed my eyes and frowned. Ashidaka ... I brought the feel of him back to mind. Finely developed sense of appearances, mixed with a sense of stability and predictability and a healthy dose of realism. Would he care about stopping the opium trade, going against the leaders of the city? Or would he leave things be as long as they didn't rock the boat? The latter felt more like him.

Furedu came with appointments at breakfast the next morning. Jorege was already here, and Tony had a bunch of questions for him. Follow the money, he said, to the ones shipping the illegal opium. The day held appointments; first with Ashidaka's widow, and then with someone named Bayushi Korechika. Bayushi ...

Miyara Miwa asked immediately who he was, besides obviously related to Bayushi Yojiro, our missing magistrate.

Furedu answered, "He is the leader of the Bayushi family here in Ryoko Owari. A very powerful man in this city. It could be argued that Bayushi is the second most powerful man in the city, after the governor."

Lady Miyara went white. Bayushi, head of a major Scorpion family, and here she's been using a Buyshi's name rather freely throughout this Scorpion city. I wondered who set her up and how we were going to get through this. Even she and Tony together can kill only so many people. Still, she was clever and brash. I had confidence in her.

Tony mused, "So, if you're Bayushi, and you learn that it's rumoured that the next Magistrate will be a Bayushi, would you perhaps rush that along a little?" Lady Miyara said nothing. "It's also strange that the Emerald Champion would send a Bayushi here as magistrate."

He had a point there. I remembered what Asako Kinto said about scorpions and suddenly understood what he meant. Why would you send a Scorpion to police a Scorpion city and expect anything good of it? Answer, you don't expect good of it. You do it because of outside pressure, politics, bribery. Opium, perhaps, Tony hinted.

We moved on to the office, where Tony spoke with Jorege about the accounts, taxes, and opium distribution. First, after scaring Jorege into thinking he was accusing him of cooking the books, Tony ascertained that the accounts were in the correct order.

Then, Tony said, "I assume that the largest transporters of illegal opium have the largest stash of cash here." Figuring the way to trace them is through the tax records.

Jorege delicately replied, "The city's biggest export is legal Opium, and I wouldn't know anything about illegal exports." But the legal exporters are certainly well off.

"What about people who might be richer than they ought to be?"

"Sir, you have been misinformed. There are three legal exporters. Shosuro Hyobu, Bayushi Korechika, and Soshi Seryoku." One representative of each of the three families that head Scorpion. The governor of the city and the powerful Bayushi. Lady Miyara's face froze.

Jorege continued, "They have split up Nippon into three sectors, and each supplies his or her assigned sector with legal medicinal opium."

"Who supplies the Capital?" Tony asked.


In Imperial, Tony asked Lady Miyara where the Emerald Champion lives. She explained that he spends a lot of time at the capital, but he also travels a great deal.

He turned back to Jorege and asked him, "Is there any family in particular who's been reluctant to pay their taxes?"

"No. It's small merchants mostly who are in arrears. Nothing particularly unusual."

"Are any of them of social or political importance?"

Jorege flicked his eyes at Lady Miyara, like he couldn't quite believe that question. But he explained to Tony, "Merchants have no social or political importance." Then he conceded, "Most are sponsored by samurai and many of them have influence. But none of them stand out as far as the ones who are in arrears. "

Tony finally ran out of questions for Jorege, and we all dressed for the first meeting. Formally, but businesslike. Not like for the governor. Lady Miyara said we were to be all business today. Offer condolences to the widow, then move into simple questioning to learn more about Ashidaka. She had nothing to say yet about the later meeting with Bayushi.

The widow was still in mourning, but was as emotionless as most Nipponese seem to strive for. She greeted us, invited us in, pleasantries and introductions and condolences flowed back and forth, and then finally Lady Miyara got to business. I settled myself and watched Ashidaka's widow carefully, listened to her, and felt out the spirits around her for their reactions to what she said.

Lady Miyara asked about concerns, enemies, and what kept him busy most recently.

The widow answered, "He was an honorable and pragmatic man--" yes, exactly, "-- and his only enemies were--" here she paused and put together the words she wanted, "-- he was very careful not to make an enemy of someone he couldn't beat." Lady Miyara nodded as if she agreed with that strategy. Not that she doesn't pretty much live the exact opposite.

She continued speaking in a round-about, inexact manner, but giving us some pretty clear impressions. Like, the Emerald Champion believed that Ashidaka was efficiently and appropriately carrying out the business of the Magistrate. And that the local opium cartels believed he was honorable and pragmatic. Honestly, if they did that sort of thing here, the word pragmatic would have featured heavily on the man's headstone. That he believed in order over than the strict law. As long as things didn't get out of hand, as long as everything looked fine on the surface, there were no problems. As long as prominent people didn't get into trouble that couldn't be ignored, there were no problems.

So, then, how did he get himself killed? Did something not ignorable happen, causing him to have to do something, which got him into trouble with the opium cartel? If so, Lady Miyara was damned either way. Or maybe not ... if she can just walk the thin line until Bayushi Yojiro shows up, then it's his ass on the line. Except, as I noted before, that's not really how Lady Miyara operates.

I dragged my attention back to Ashidaka's widow. "Certainly the governor, Bayushi Korechika, and Ide held no grudges against him. As to what he was working on ... A ronin gang led by the ronin Fade. Stories and reports of a gang of ninja operating in this city. He, as I'm sure you all do, doesn't believe they are actual ninja, just people acting like ninja, or perhaps it's the overactive imaginations of the populace attributing actions to ninjas that are taken by others."

Lady Miyara said, "I'm new to the city, as you know, and I'm afraid I don't know many people here. Who is this Ide you mentioned?"

"The leader of the Unicorn clan in Ryoko Owari is very elderly, and Ide Baranato acts as clan head here."

Sounding like a well-rehearsed temple chorus, Tony and Lady Miyara asked her, "Who in particular did Ashidaka carefully not make enemies of?"

"Shosuro Hyobu, Bayushi Korechika, Soshi Seryoku, Ide Baranato." Nothing but the obvious.

Throughout the conversation, she spoke reservedly and carefully, but never said anything untruthful. It seemed to me that Ashidaka had was killed for his activities as an Emerald Magistrate, he would have known when he crossed the line. He would have known exactly what enemies he'd just made. He'd have known what he was in for.

So I asked her, "Did Ashidaka seem worried in any way shortly before he was killed?"


"He behaved exactly in the same manner as he always did?"


She spoke the truth, but I couldn't make sense of it just then. I subsided and stepped back into my place, but I continued wondering. I couldn't imagine that Ashidaka wouldn't have understood precisely what he'd done. Were he and his wife so distant from each other that she didn't notice his worrying? Was he that good an actor, to deceive his wife so deeply? Was he that clueless?