Phoebe's Journey Part 4

Chapter 12: Descending from Dreams

I was everywhere, and nowhere. I was a spirit, free, and then I was sort of sucked into some sort of container. A body. My body? Fabric slid softly against what seemed to be my skin as I stretched, feeling out this new place. Opening my eyes, I blinked in the bright light, and wondered where I was, and who. Some little voice in my head whispered, "Phoebe."

Phoebe. Yes, that felt right. And now this body felt right, too.

Things came into focus around me, little by little. Then it all made sense, all at once. I was Phoebe, and oddly enough, I was in Nippon.

Mehli? Long gone, I was sure. The morning sun shines right through the window, and it was now far higher than that. I felt a smile on my lips as portions of last night floated through my mind. Mehli, Magda, Pathik, horses and castles and flying...

Dreams. Dreams drawn out from the smoke of the opium pipe, dreams I was a part of, and dreams that were a part of me. Dreams that followed me home, and still haunted the back of my mind.

They were still there, somewhere. Across the veil in my own head, or perhaps across the veil waiting for me to discover them, or...

I smelled food, and my stomach growled, reminding me how very long it was since I paid any attention to it. There were so many other distractions last night.

I could still feel the wisps of opium fog, and it still wreathed the spirits and blocked them. Not entirely. As with most fog, except the really thick stuff, you can see shadows and movements. They were there, and I could almost feel them, almost hear them.

It was the quietest morning I remembered up to then. I could think, could see and hear things in my head, across the veil. Like just the edges of those dreams that I've never seen that way before.

It wouldn't last much longer. I could feel the fog receding, and knew the spirits' voices would be full tilt in my ears again, but not until after lunch at least, I thought.

And speaking of lunch, it was high time I had some. I waved a scandalized Tsukimi off, untangled my hair with my fingers and swiftly wove it into a single plait down my back, splashed water on my face, and pulled on a fresh house kimono. I could bathe and dress decently after I ate. I was famished and just couldn't wait any longer.

Downstairs, everyone had moved to the parlor and was listening to Toni. Lunch was already picked up! I begged a maid to scrounge something for me and bring it to me in the parlor, and I slipped in.

Lady Miyara's back was straight as a tree, and she looked as well put together as she usually did. Peter looked his normal self, and Mehli shot a pleased smile at me. I went to sit beside her. Only Toni looked like last night had trampled all over him. He was obviously hungover and in a foul mood.

Still, he was telling them about Magda, I'm sure at Lady Miyara's request. I listened to him, and Mehli filled me in later on the little I'd missed.

Magda definitely had a thing for Tony, although he seemed not to realize it. Good for him, and I hope next time she gets him alone for an hour or three. Of course, he never forgot we were at the House of Foreign Stories for a purpose, and he grilled the lovely Magda.

She told him everything was the same as usual the night Naritoki died. He acted the same as he always did. True Word wasn't there, but he usually wasn't, anyway. She said he didn't have a "favorite companion" he visited, and he never spoke to her about his work. She didn't know who killed him, but she assumed it was one of the obvious. Only the leaders of this city would dare.

Mehli asked me quietly how I was. I explained everything. Her only concern was whether the spirits would come back to me. She didn't understand they never leave: it's just a matter of finding a way not to listen to them sometimes. A lot of sake dulls them, but that presents other problems. Well, opium has its problems, too, but at least I felt wonderful this morning ... this afternoon, instead of like I wanted to die. Like Toni.

We spent the early afternoon in the front parlor. I filled the empty pit in my gut and Lady Miyara read about a few people from the scrolls. I went and found that bath, which became much more important after my stomach stopped yelling at me.

By the time Ashidaka Michitaka arrived -- I'd honestly forgotten all about him -- the effects of the opium were completely gone. The spirits' voices were at full tilt in my head. So it seems I can either not think clearly because of sake or opium, or I can not think clearly because of the constant buzz of voices I can't quite comprehend.

I don't want to sound like I want the spirits to leave me: I don't. They are a vital part of who and what I am. It's just that sometimes, it's nice if I can temporarily pretend to be alone in my head.

I happened to be looking out of a window after dressing, and saw Ashidaka Michitaka arrive. He rode neither on a horse nor in a carriage, but walked. He was terrifically fat, and his features were unappealing. I hurried downstairs to the parlor, where I was informed we were going to meet with him.

We settled ourselves around Lady Miyara, and Michitaka was ushered in. I watched him, and felt out his spirit, and decided his interior was no more appealing than his exterior. You might say he was in complete harmony with himself: his appearance, his manners, and his thoughts were all of a sameness.

Lady Miyara shot me one of her piercing gazes, and I nodded. As if she needs to tell me to pay attention to people she interviews.

I usually try to remain objective, but honestly, nothing about this man was remotely agreeable. He treated the maids, the man who acted as whatever you call a Nipponese butler, and every one of us besides Lady Miyara with utter disdain. He made it very clear we were all not worthy to be the dirt beneath his feet, no doubt because he deemed us all unimportant. Lady Miyara he saw as important, and he flattered her unceasingly and treated her in every way as his superior. Which she was in any way that really mattered, but he went overboard. Bootlicker is what we call it back home.

I could tell she disliked him. The problem with behaving in so craven a manner is that you're likely to be taken at face value.

Anyway, the maids brought in tea and a platter of delicacies from Donku's kitchen. Michitaka then proved himself a glutton in addition to his other fine qualities. Really, had the man not a single decent quality? I mentally shook my head. I needed to stop paying attention to him and start paying attention to his spirit and the spirits around him.

He and Lady Miyara went through the usual welcomings and greetings, then got to business. He still very much mourned his cousin, and here was finally something positive about the man. Of course, only part of it was his feelings for his kinsman: the rest concern for the reduced circumstances Naritoki's death left him in. He wore a samurai's swords, and he talked a lot about wanting to kill Naritoki's murderer. He was sincere in that.

I was amazed at Lady Miyara, who was all graciousness towards him. She played him up one side and down the other, and got out of him everything he knew. Which turned out not to be much.

"Since you knew him so well," she asked him, "who hated him enough to kill him?"

"No-one! He was the most glorious, honorable, upstanding man to walk the face of this earth!" He was sincere in his ridiculous statements. "Not even his enemies would have killed him in such a cowardly, treachourous, despicable manner. Such a dastardly crime could only have been done by the very scum of the earth! Only non-people could do something so awful."

He continued in that vein, and Lady Miyara was able only to get the same opinions from him as with everyone else. Naritoki was combating the bandit Fade, the Ninja Crimes, and he was in some sort of power struggle with the three names that constantly crop up: Hyobu, Bayushi, and Soshi, though he didn't know the details.

He made it clear that his cousin's death had left him in a bad situation, plus he was now having to take care of his widow, too.

Once she determined he had no useful information for her, she started getting around to Kakita Kabe. It took her a while, carefully insinuating that she had a lot to deal with, and perhaps he would be so kind to aid her in her search for Naritkoi's murderer, and one way he could do that would be to allow her to hire help from him, perhaps one Kakita Kabe. She took longer than that to get to the point, and much more sneakily. By the time she was done, I think he thought it was all his idea.

At any rate, he was more than happy to help him in any way she wanted. In fact, looking eagerly at the ravaged platter of food, he suggested that he and she needed to get together again soon, for a planning meeting, to discuss how to proceed further against Naritoki's murderer. He wanted that meeting to be here again, preferable at dinner.

He offered her Kabe and more -- he'd be happy to send over several bushi to her. She managed to politely wave that off: just Kabe for now. And she carefully glossed over his inviting himself into her household and investigations.

They blathered on for a bit, and then he said, "Would it be possible, once you identify and capture his murderer, that I be allowed a chance to speak with him?"

Lady Miyara paused, almost infinitesimally, before answering him. I don't think he noticed her slight hesitation. Somehow, this was a question she didn't expect, and it must have meant more to her than it did to me. Her answer beat around the bush a good deal, and she didn't say anything very clearly, but she did give him the impression of a favorable answer, and he beamed at her.

She finally brought the meeting to a close, getting rid of him most politely. She turned to me, once he was completely out of the house, and I told her what the spirits said of him. He told no lies, but Ashidaka Michitaka is utterly dishonest by nature. Mostly, he avoids telling lies by simply not saying anything. She nodded, satisfied.

We weren't done with the day's visitors. Mehli warned me ahead of time, that Magda made an appointment with Lady Miyara last night, though she didn't know what for. And sure enough, early in the evening, before dinner, she arrived. Unlike Michitaka, she arrived driven in a carriage and attended by two guards in addition to the driver. Unicorn retainers, all. Made sense that they would safeguard her: she must make them a lot of money.

She was dressed completely unlike last night, wearing simple but fine Nipponese clothing. This was a business meeting, between her and the office of the Emerald Magistrate. Lady Miyara nodded to Tony, and they went to the office.

Over dinner, we heard at least some of what happened. Magda's travel papers have expired and there hasn't been an Emerald Magistrate to draw her up new ones, which meant technically she was here illegally and could be thrown out of Nippon, or worse. However, she wants a great deal more than simply papers that allowed her to stay here in Ryoko Owari. She wants unlimited travel papers for all of Nippon, which is apparently practically unheard of.

Impossible. There was no way Lady Miyara would go out on such a slender limb and provide such papers for a foreigner with her name on them.

My jaw dropped as she said actually, she was. Magda sweetened the pot a great deal: she offered Ashidaka Naritoki's personal journal.

How the hell did she get that? Oh, the usual way. I guess he kept it at her place, figuring it was more private than at home.

If Lady Miyara were someone else, she might nod and smile and make the deal with Magda, then go and raid the place tonight and get the journal anyway. But she won't do such a thing, and apparently Magda figured that out. In fact, Lady Miyara related with a satisfied smile, the journal would be delivered tomorrow evening, while Magda won't ask for the travel papers for some weeks.

Tony said that although signing those papers might anger her patrons, her patrons only command the Unicorn clan here in name. Ide Baranato, the real power here, might not be so annoyed to see the Shinjo's power base wane a bit more.

Lady Miyara said firmly that no mention of this was to be made, to anyone, at all. Which was why the entire discussion occurred in Imperial instead of Nipponese.

And yet, one more visitor -- well, six, though Lady Miyara herself only spoke with one -- to the busy house of the Emerald Magistrate. We were still eating a rather late dinner when Sun entered and spoke briefly to Lady Miyara. Kakita Kabe had arrived, and had five bushi with him. She looked a trifle annoyed: I guess it was late for this sort of thing, and she didn't want Michitaka's leftovers, either.

She told Sun to leave the five unexpected bushi in the courtyard, and she and Tony went to the office to meet with Kabe.

Lady Miyara returned a short while later to finish her dinner. Tony finished his much later, because he was busy getting the men settled into their quarters. Kabe vouched for the men: they were his, here, before he followed Naritoki's widow to Michitaka's house. She seemed pleased with the beginnings of her guard contingent.

Tomorrow, we will pay Ide Baranato a visit.

Mehli is asleep, and I've come down into the parlor to write by the fireplace. I can't quite fall asleep. There's a pattern emerging, although it writhes just out of reach. Naritoki's journal just might give us the key to what happened.

But, what then? What, precisely, is Lady Miyara supposed to do? If I've figured out anything about Nippon, it's that truth and justice are meaningless concepts. Honor and position are what's important. I just can't see what Lady Miyara can do if, say, Bayushi Korechika -- the one of the two of the three I've met so far who I disliked the most -- is responsible for murdering Naritoki, she can't just produce evidence and arrest him. Evidence is worthless here. He -- and this goes for all of them -- is far more powerful than she is, and it's power that matters.

So tonight, power and death run through my head, inlaid with the voices of the spirits and bound by the dreams of last night -- or this morning, I guess -- that almost pull everything together.

But not quite.