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Daniel Bird Daniel Bird
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The Ninja - A Murder Mystery CH 2 Into the Light

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She had a friend.

      Recognizing instantly the splendor of wealth with polished hardwood floors, porcelain statues, perfumed incense and fresh flowers, Kashi Yokiro entered the room very slowly, his hands to himself, careful not to disturb anything. Going on mere instinct alone, letting loose his tools of observation, his keen senses, taking in what he could The scent of a dainty spiced sake – which had burnt right onto the fine clay that held it – brought to mind something immediately: that the sake had burnt down, which could only mean that the couple had drank a good deal of it by the time they felt the need to place it back and reheat it, and died shortly thereafter. With a deep breath, savouring the moment – that free and simple moment where nothing was set in stone and no hard evidence had yet presented itself – Kashi Yokiro readied himself to serve the Emperor in his time of need and bring justice to the Tanaka name.

     A hardened figure with an imposing persona and keen calculating eyes Kashi Yokiro saw that the wood in the hearth had burned down to ash and coals. Instantly he was catching the things that most would miss; those little clues that were quite relevant to him if nobody else. For instance, the fire had burnt a long while during the night until the wood drew to mere blackened nubs at either end. A lot of wood meant the room was toasty; still a bit much for this time of year. Perhaps it was the simple act of a young man keeping the object of his affection comfortable against the cool autumn nights. To him that made the most sense. Also too, that the fire had burnt itself out meant that it had not been doused; that it was likely the couple was murdered somewhere between midnight and one o’ clock. He would have to question the guards as to the noise in the room – this side of the Palace.

     And that the bamboo floor mat was not placed perfectly in the center of the great room suggested movement – and a lot of it. Taking the liberty to assume that the young Heir – someone of such excellence and grace with impeccably high standards – was not in the habit of being disorganized or messy, he could only assume that last night’s indiscretions were entirely of a sexual nature. Not to mention that the sheets were ruffled only drew his conclusions to a fine point. It was very clear that the recent act of love-making was of utmost value and priority. With paint and brush revealing such wonton passion, lengths of paper scrolls – their poetic resonance – told the story of infatuation and perhaps too, true love. What he was looking at was sweet poetry of the heart and not some mindless sexual urge gone awry.  The writing spoke of sweet lagoons and tender embraces amongst daffodils and wild orchids with scarlet garments, of nudity and gentle play.

     In short, it was sheer burgeoning passion which stained the fresh sheets drawing his full attention, bringing him to his knees for a closer inspection, careful eyes missing nothing. With a long Katana, coupled with a shorter version at his waist, his drab grey uniform (commonly worn by Samurai Officials) Kashi Yokiro knelt close, sure to infect nothing. With dark narrow eyes combing the length of the mat, he let his curiosities roam free while a finely carved narrow stick lifted the sheets as to cause no contamination of the bedding. After a long and careful inspection pubic hairs were found – one rather long and thick while the other was rather short and very thin; a clear sign of youth. Without looking directly at the bodies a little ways off, he surmised the girl to be very young – perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age.

     East of the door thirty paces, beyond the square wicker walls of the young man’s quarters, he looked out onto a great stone veranda, upon which sat a large garden overflowing with vines, thick boughs and carefully planted trees. As careful as possible, fully minding where he walked, he crossed the hardwood floor and climbed up four stone steps onto a great terrace. Lining the entire stone veranda a great many flowers were specially arranged in their own little beds, overlooking a great forest peppered over in sharp reds, bright yellows and thick coppers. The veranda itself was situated high up in the Palace seven-floors above the ground with only two floors above it. Perched on the edge of a sheer cliff-edge, a ninety-foot drop directly beneath was the only recourse for any intruder; a daring feat in the light of last night’s full moon; a near impossible task. No…the killer is here, inside the Palace, he thought to himself, absolutely confident. Probably here in this room this very moment, watching me.

     He let it go for the moment, his eyes unable to help but to gaze over the perfectly manicured garden, leaning down for just a sniff while the young couple – only a few feet away – lay motionless; dead and grey in the early morning. The serene beauty of the veranda, the magic, the stillness, the serenity of such a place, the little garden’s sweet allure – the way it seemed to sing – held his curiosity. There was something about it that he could not discern as of yet; something that he was not seeing. A single great pine tree just beyond the terrace seemed to call out to him, and yet…with the little crowd huddled near the door looking on, he could not think on it too hard lest he become distracted.

     A great and special talent was needed to create such a wondrous little affair, complete with a small lawn area overflowing with small trees, carnation, orchids, lilac and lily; such spectacular beauty, enough to paint the early grey morning in colour and warmth despite the cool autumn air finding its way in. To the east, far beyond the walls of the Palace he saw the rise and dip of forested peaks and low valleys, enjoying for the moment to be away from the city and out in the countryside. He turned around avoiding all eye contact with the dozen or so onlookers – possible suspects who stood silently against the west wall. With a final good look, smell and feel of the little garden (adding its intricacies to memory) he stepped off the stone steps and onto the hardwood floor, enjoying the smooth feel beneath his socks before walking over and carefully examining the lock, seeing full well that it was in fine working order with no indication of forced intrusion.

     The sliding door, rather thick, made with the strongest reinforced oak was specially designed for security; to keep the young man safe under duress. With a silent emotionless expression, and after careful examination of the inner-latch, the locking mechanism and the outside keyhole, Kashi saw nothing by way of an intruder. No forced entry. No lock picked. Slowly he turned toward the young couple, taking it all in from a distance: the little lawn painted over in blood, the garden itself host to a grisly murder and the white stone tiles of the veranda speckled with blood spatter. The head of the girl, her face seemingly untroubled seemed to be staring directly over the wide ledge of the great veranda – and still there was something odd about the great tree just beyond, the almost unnatural way that it stood by like a guard rising up from the cliff edge far below. And even now in the early grey morning the air seemed to be filled with the ghosts of the young lovers with quick brushes of chilled air and eerie howls coming from the forest thick – haunting sounds that seemed to lament the young couple their premature ends.

    Simply ignoring those in attendance, those huddled near the door (kept at bay by Kenji’s top men) Kashi walked toward the great veranda ever so slowly, taking in the great room, its few things – those very things that sang of royalty: a large fire pit centered between four oak pillars in the middle of the room, fine parchment paintings that hung about the walls – paintings which told the rich history of his ancestors; their rise from simple fishing villages to great cities, from peasants to farmers to great Emperors, and of course a great shrine far opposite the bed which meditation and prayer would complete the silence. Also, along the north wall set next to the shrine stood Samurai Armor coloured over in black and red, complete with Katana and perfectly placed greaves, boots, chest-plates and mask; like a wild monster ready to dole out death with a single stroke of his blade.

     Where life met death, that final clash where the sweet air of the living turned to bloody death, a great crime scene looked out onto the world. The light of the full moon – its wondrously lit curiosities looking in on tender adventures of nakedness and bliss would have been a splendid engagement of the soul for any young woman seeking friendship in the arms of such a handsome young man, a powerful young man, a man who was to someday be Emperor. The girl was young, taut and only beginning her adventure in life when death took her up in gruesome form, stealing away her beauty and replacing it with a headless corpse, infecting the day with a disturbing aroma of what it was to die in such macabre fashion.

      The scene, bearing the scent of dried blood and restless love caught off guard was fraught with a heavy air and right this very moment the day seemed to tell the tale of a hard case; one that should have been passed on to someone else; someone who had not been so overworked, overtired and underpaid; someone who was not in dire need of a long needed rest. Stopping to the far side of the garden, just beneath the inner ceiling, absolutely sure to keep his own footprints from tainting the scene, Kashi studied the remains of the dead. Crouching low, in deep thought, looking about the bodies with his little stick he could discern one cold hard fact: that they had been cut with a great deal of precision, speed and strength. They had been caught completely off guard, unaware. The blood, dark and thick, with a layer of coagulated blood-skin all about it was completely dried and already showing signs of decay in some spots which could only mean that they had been dead between eight and nine hours.

     Leaning in, carefully examining the bodies, Kashi saw nothing about their skin that suggested signs of a struggle; no broken fingernails, no scratches, bruises or scrapes. He – the young man – was put straight through the heart with what appeared to be a very sharp blade, most likely a Katana, killing him instantly without struggle or noise. It was evident that he had no time to reach for his own blade which rested at his side, evidently removed only when his robes were; a clear sign of the discipline and dependability of a true Samurai. And like that, hit when he least expected – in the safety of his own quarters – it was as though he had just laid back and succumbed to his fate, which was most likely the case. The blood – a great deal of it – spattered a fair distance in a forward direction, staining the walls and the floor of the quarters before pooling at his sides. While one hand held firmly to hers still this very morning, his other hand clutched his heart. Quite natural for such a wound.

     She – the young girl – was put down with a swift clean stroke right between the vertebrae separating her head from her body; a blow completed with enough speed and skill to keep her from screaming, removing her head completely. The killer was deadly as he was skilled. Her belly, smooth and free of blemishes was now covered over with blood spatter, not enough however to hide the coming of age that a new baby would surely flaunt. It would appear that their relationship was one of secrecy and had been blooming for some time. The girl was in the first trimester of pregnancy and her belly – a small bum – had all the signs of a growing fetus. That the baby was not cut out or injured directly, stood out to him, as though the crime was not held in a deliberately cold fashion. No. This appeared not be done in malice or contempt, but rather came off as a smooth assassination intended to be done with the utmost secrecy and stealth. And the killer, most likely Samurai – by the very skill inflicted upon the young couple – was most likely right here in this very palace, perhaps here in this room. He looked back to those who watched him as he went over the crime scene like a hawk covering his terrain, missing nothing.    

     To the far side, packed near the door, stood a dozen people, ranging from lady Katsumoto, the Daimyo’s first wife and Lady Ketsituko – his second wife. Also in attendance was the young maid who had found the young couple and several other relative orderly’s. Looking them over, it was no surprise that the atmosphere was thick with a sense of unease and trepidation, as surely someone – one of those in attendance, was responsible for the young Heirs murder. Surely Kashi Yokiro knew it just as the Emperor himself knew it. The room was rather spacious with little trouble containing the dozen or so employees of the Palace adorned with paper lanterns, smooth shiny floors fitted with perfectly placed slabs of oak. With a single mat set neatly before a stone fire pit, it was evident of the things that had been going on very recently in the room with the blankets messed and tousled, the candles burned only half way (*sign of making it dark, so that one can perhaps make love by moonlight)

: two of his wives, three servants – one who had found the bodies – two maids, the cook, the kitchen duty (four men and two women) the gardener and the stableman.

     The interrogation room, fashioned with hard smooth floors and rice paper walls was rather bare save for a single wicker floor mat, a wooden bowl of incense, a small fire rock which to light a small tuft of tinder and a single silk banner which read: like the water that holds no ripple, so too becomes the mind when the heart and soul are one and the same; a fitting piece of wisdom to hold at bay a swath of emotions. Despite the dreadful air sweeping through the palace, the gloom on the day and the early morning tension, the young servant kept her angst inward, hidden from view with a rather calm way of kneeling, as though she held within her being a feeling of supreme comfort. Waiting for the detective she took up the flint rocks and lit the tinder, setting flame to the incense. Hearing his approach – the door behind her sliding open, footsteps coming up behind – she inhaled slowly, deeply, exhaling through her nose, removing the fan at her waist, flooding the room with a soft fresh scent. Rising to her feet she readied herself to answer some very tough questions.

     Standing silently before him, hair wound to a bun about her head, donned in drab grey servant wear she looked barely out of her teens. A pretty little thing with bright narrow eyes, a sweet feminine nose and full lips, she wore about her an air of servitude. That coupled with impeccable manners, gave her a meek and timid quality, and whether she knew it or not, the very simple action of lighting the incense before he entered the room showed him a kind of servitude borne to the lower class; those who came from poor families. She lowered her eyes and bowed, “I bid you welcome Detective Yokiro-san.” And like that, a simple air about her shone through without tension and unease, filling the air with a simple and refined mood. With her head down, she did not look him in the eyes. And from what he could tell, the small frame beneath her clothes, the impish tell beneath soft yellow skin, a cute harmless face and long black hair, complete with the hands of a servant class woman, she was not made for killing or perhaps would crumple before ever committing murder.

     Setting aside his first impression, he remembered what Master Shingukotomo once said, “Deceit is often the first and loveliest kiss when searching for the truth, and even Devils wear pretty smiles.” But something deep in his heart – those most instinctive parts of his personality, told him that there was very little by way of deceit here in this young girl. Perhaps she would be a great ally in uncovering the truth, and from what he could gather she could be a most useful spy if manipulated in the right manner for the right purpose. Hmm…but of course it would have to be done without upsetting the balance of her fellow employees, or causing them any suspicion, and especially without upsetting Master Jido-san himself. That is a task in itself; worthy of my best efforts. With an air of congeniality he bowed graciously, offering himself as a friend and not some brute who had been sent in to badger her with questions and muscle the truth from her.

     She bowed lower.

     “So…Tetsuka, is it?”

     “Yes,” she said. “That is correct.”

     A silent but thoughtful expression lit up just beneath his natural steely eyes, as though a vast reservoir of experience, wisdom, technique and intuition would allow him to close another case soon and be in the Emperor’s favor. He began lightly, pouring it on thick, garnering her sweetest side, hoping to gain her trust and win her over, “When Jido-san told me how you found the bodies – told me how well you handled it, I knew you were of special importance.” He walked back and forth a few moments in silence before continuing, “It takes a special quality to not lose your head about such a thing as death, blood and murder. Seeing such a thing for yourself is…not something you can ever get used to. May I ask how you’re feeling now?”

    With a low gasp through a deeply wounded expression she raised her head, looking directly into his eyes, an impish voice coming through, “Yokiro-san…the image…” she made a slight whimper, a certain shock in her eyes, “it’s still so fresh in my mind.” She lowered her head, averting his eyes, a whip of angst taking her where she stood, “It is something I wish to never see again. Something I will never forget for as long as I live.”

     And then and there he knew that were she alone in her own private quarters, she may just crumple into her bed and sob herself to sleep, praying the nightmares do not come. “Yes. I know the feeling.” He looked deep into her eyes, playing into her most troubled heart, inviting himself in, a touch of charm ringing on the air. “I was about your age when I saw death for the first time.” His eyes looked further than the walls, somewhere beyond the palace itself, beyond the forest, a place where steel met steel, blood slicked the ground and bodies fell one last time, never to rise again. And even then the girl handled her ordeal with a great deal of courage and toughness. A trait he admired. And despite her obvious weakness – being very young, delicate and naïve, she was handling the whole thing with a maturity far beyond her years.

      And then he thought of the villages on fire, the smoke in the night, the sudden screams, the blood, the shock and the terror, but most of all he thought of the Ninjas. How they were cunning, ferocious, skilled and deadly. And then he thought of the deep wound of the young Highness; right through the heart. And then he thought of the other…the young girl. He thought of the killer – a most skilled adversary; the perfect stroke it would have taken to take her head clean off. And then he thought of his father, his mother, the way they had been cut straight through. “Ah…death and blood…the emptiness behind the eyes…it is enough to make you sick to the stomach; enough to wake you screaming in the middle of the night from horrible nightmares. The best we can do is to remember that we are designed by the gods to withstand such horrors, to drive them from our minds, to focus and conquer such fears in the most trying times.”

     “I’m afraid that will not be an easy thing to accomplish Detective.” In her eyes, somewhere deep down in her brain, just waiting for her, was a haunting image of gruesome proportions. “The girl…Miko…she was my own age; younger perhaps.”

     “How old are you?”

     “I will be eighteen next month.” She shivered despite the warmth of the building.

     He looked directly into her eyes ever searching for weakness, those little hints that might give him an inkling of what it was that was going through her mind this very moment. For a very brief moment in time he felt a certain pity for her, poor thing. She was obviously shaken; for the images of such a thing where a body is relieved of its head – its most defining grace – is something that does not leave one unaffected but for a great length of time, and sometimes not at all. For the trauma that follows is defined by a deeply haunting nature, relentless in the darkest moments before sleep, transforming those sunrises of the dreamscape to horrible nights where screams and terrible shadow creatures thrive.

     “A fantastic age, eighteen. It is the beginning of the rest of your life, so make it a good one.” He winked at her with a smile, trying to calm her, trying to put her at ease. He motioned to the mat, “please…sit. Let us talk of last night’s tragedy.” She knelt on the floor beside the mat, careful to remember her place, allowing him the more comfortable spot. “Please…I insist,” he urged.

     She bowed where she knelt, “forgive me Detective, but I must refuse.” And with a careful manipulating turn of her own, which came quite naturally, she said with a smile, “I am quite comfortable Yokiro-san.  I would only ask that you take it for yourself, you have come a long way with much to do and little time which to do it.”

     Her statement caught him off guard, “Little time? What makes you think I have little time?”

     “I know the Emperor is a wise and considerate man, but even he has his limits. I only hope that you catch the killer.” Her answer surprised him as well, changing his mind about her being awkward and naïve, giving her a most womanly air that he never noticed before, catching him in that spot where any man might be caught and tickled while looking at one so lovely, dainty and utterly beautiful. And despite her servant clothes, behind her bland ashen appearance, she truly was lovely to look upon, shivering, a helpless, pitiful air about her.      

     To the servant outside the door, he said, “Servant, bring us some tea right away!”

     After a few moments the young servant – who she did not recognize – returned with a small table upon which sat hot tea and two small cups. He poured her a cup and began, “I’m going to ask you some questions Tetsuka. Questions – in the light of last night’s tragedy – may upset you a great deal, but you must understand the importance behind them, for I too wish to catch the killer.”

     “I understand Detective.” She sipped her tea and truly it was delicious and fresh, stealing her away to a more comfortable air. “I’ll help in any way I can.”

     “Good. So…I will begin by asking you what your last name is?”

     “Onimura. Tetsuka Onimura.”

     “Where were you last night – at the time of the incident, between the hours of midnight and two in the morning?”

     “I was in my quarters.”

     “Where are your quarters located?”

     “In the second lower level.”

     “Were you there all night?”

     “Yes I was.”

     Did you leave at any time?”

     “No, Detective. Running the halls of the palace after dark is strictly forbidden for someone of my low stature.”

     Hmm… “Can anyone vouch for your whereabouts?”

     “Akira Toyotomo, the Captain of the guards for the lower levels can. It was he who locked me in.” She gave simple, straightforward answers with no sign of deceit.

     He wrote on a fresh page in his little notebook, looking her up and down for signs of body-language; anything that might cause his disbelief. There were none. Either she was a gifted and talented actress or she was telling the truth. And he knew well enough that the female actresses – those veteran actresses in charge (those who set up the plays) only chose the most alluring beauties, those with more womanly attributes, those with gracious parts: splendid breasts, hips and shapely legs. For even the little parts on stage one had to be in league with veteran actors and actresses, and that was especially true for the women, and it was often those elder, more refined characters whose feminine appeal boasted more elegance and maturity that were chosen, those sultry beauties with more than mere mounds of flesh to show off. At the very top were those astute elders passing on their knowledge of the craft, teaching the most gifted all the skills of acting, those little nuances of a shifting body, the placement of a hand, a sighed expression – elements from deep emotions to breathtaking tickles of the heart to terror and shock.

     He continued, satisfied that she was certainly no actress, “And…did you hear anything out of place? See anything strange? Anything out of the ordinary? Anything at all?”

     “No, Detective. I saw nothing that struck me as out of place. And it is rather quiet after dark in the palace, especially in the lower levels.” She was forthright and very accommodating. “No, Detective…I did not notice anything that seemed out of place, nor did I hear anything, I’m sorry I cannot help you.”

     “So…tell me Tetsuka, what do you do here in the palace?”

     “That one is quite a difficult thing to answer as I do everything from simple housecleaning to helping in the kitchen with dishes, sweeping and mopping. I also do minimal yard work, gather water, rice and corn from the fields, do laundry, tend to the fireplaces and help out anywhere I can. My day is long and tiring, but I am learning a lot. I am not afraid of hard work Detective. I want to earn my place. My ardent wish is to pour the tea and tend to the men, but Kaisha, the head woman of the house says I do not possess the grace, fluidity or the talent to perform such duties.”    

      “I see,” again he wrote in his little notebook; his mind, like a razor sharp Katana, readying for its most arduous task of slicing through the bodies of lies, cutting through to the truth. “How long have you worked here in the palace?”

     With a slight tweak of her neck, eyes narrowing, her mind racing back to last winter – remembering her wounds, the pain still fresh in her mind, she said, “Master Jido-san found me in a bad way, only last winter.” Her eyes became wells of torture and pain, the flame in them seeming to dim to pure agony and shame – that same impish voice coming across like a helpless child exhibiting its most basic emotion: fear, “I was raped, beaten, cut deep and left for dead.” She showed a great deal of agony despite her wounds having been healed, and like a turtle – slow and reluctant, she lowered the neck of her servant robe, revealing her shoulder just enough that the very beginning of the small mound of her breast appeared, the sight of it overshadowed by a great scar across her chest, stealing away any sensual impression in the air. “He found me, rescued me and took care of me, eventually bringing me back to health.” She pulled her robe back over her shoulder. “I have been here since.”

    “How do you like living here?”

     She lowered her head, her eyes lighting up, “I love it here. There’s no other place I would rather be. Here I’m safe.” And instantly she thought of the bodies – the young lovers, so high up in the palace…dead. Murdered. “Well…mostly safe. I mean…well, death can strike from anywhere, at any time.”

     “Does that scare you – make you feel…unsafe? Does it make you nervous?

     “I can tell you that if I felt ill at ease, I would go straight to the Master of the house, for I belong to him, and certainly he has a responsibility to keep me safe, no? After all, he saved me.”

     “Yes. I suppose he does have a responsibility in you. He did save you.” She was fast becoming more than just a young naïve servant girl, surprising him with her candor and her ability to strike in him a certain chord that had not been struck in some time, pleasing him down to his bones, reminding him of his wife but a single moment, catching him off guard. Fighting from becoming distracted, from gazing deeply into her, he brought himself back, though it required a great deal of effort, “So, Tetsuka…where are you from?”

      “I was born in Shimoda village…” her eyes went back to a distant place – some memory perhaps too unbearable to bring back, somehow leaving her wounded. “I was orphaned very young.” In her expression was a series of subtle winces and a seeming pain that she disliked recounting, “My parents…they were…” She was on the verge of tears; a great ordeal remembering something she did not care to share, “it was a band of Ninjas.” She sipped her tea and turned away, her mind leaving the confines of the room, travelling far off over forested hills, beyond trodden paths, lost gully’s, rippling creeks and stone ridges, to a place where her troubles began. “I never saw them again. My two brothers…they…” she lowered her head, the pain still obvious, “They were killed as well. I was five.”

     “How did you survive?”

     “I was taken in by a man and his two sons.” At the very mention of those words something drew up behind her sweet façade; something dark and dangerous, producing even today, those deepest, harshest emotions she could not hold back, “They…” her eyes drew heavy tears, like a nightmare resurfacing with malicious intent, “They raped me for many years. They starved me and put me in a cellar to be used as their sex slave.” Her breath became heavy, and as though a dam had crumbled deep beneath her skin, somewhere deep down in her soul, she began to sob. “They did horrible things to me. Things I shall never forget. Things I will never ever forget.”

     Instantly something deep inside him drew to life. Like a long lost cadaver returning from the grave with new vigour – more handsome than ever. Stronger, more ferocious, “Who are they?”

     Her eyes went away for a moment, somewhere amidst deep shadows and darkness where death and foul creatures lurk, “Their names were Kimutso Momoto and his two sons Aguwan and Dakuwan – twins three years my elder.” He began writing it all down in his little notebook when she stopped him, “No, Detective…you must not trouble yourself with this. Just know that they are dead. Cut down by Koga Ninja. I escaped, only to find myself the victim yet another time soon after.” She closed her hands over her chest, and immediately he knew. She should have been dead with a wound like that. To have been raped once more while trying to escape her long time captors was – he imagined – a gravely humiliating thing to hold in ones possession. He could see it clearly in her eyes. She could not look him in the eyes. She merely sipped her tea, long and deep as though in this very moment it was the one true thing she had in her life that made any sense.

     “Did you tell Jido-san? I mean about the rapes – of your captor Kimutso?”

     She hung her head in shame, “No, I did not. How could I? How could I bring shame into this household?” A simple and silent plea entered her eyes as her head fell to the side ever so slightly, and she could barely muster the words, “Please Detective…you must keep this one thing to yourself. Please. I shall surely take my own life if ever he should find out.”

     “It will be our secret.” He said it like the words of a stranger forced itself out into the world through his mouth. And certainly this was not the actions of the hardened Detective of minutes ago. And that he spoke the words so eagerly and so very simply astonished him right down to his soul, seeming to strike him like never before. On the one hand he had given into her whims; something he had never done in all his life – disgracing the very ethics that had carried him along making him the man he was, the man he was meant to be. And on the second hand he now had a way to plant his eyes and ears right here in the palace. And something about what she had said struck him in that place reserved for only those most important people in his life. And he knew right then and there she knew she meant what she had said about killing herself were he to tell anyone of her deepest secrets. Certainly he would never let that happen.

     Sipping his tea, avoiding eye contact, he could sense in her something deep and untold, something he could not see. But he could feel it. Something vast perhaps. There was something about this young girl, something so very powerful, something so deeply embedded in her personality, and though he was a master of reading people, a master of deciphering the little things from the depths of one’s personality merely by engaging in conversation with them, he could only fathom that this young pretty little thing had been made to survive – had been designed by the hardest steel, in order to withstand all of life’s hardships, becoming sharper with every beat of her heart, every attempt at stealing away her pride and ending her life. And he could only admire her strength, her will to survive, to prosper and beat all oncomers.

     After a long moment of silence, he said to her, going against his very own beliefs – his very own ethics of which he had never done in his life. And though it would mar his perfect record, nobody should know but himself, and therefore…nobody could judge, and instead of seeing it as not keeping true to himself, he merely thought of it as saving her life, which was surely just as important as the next person’s. For there was something in her that he could not let go of now. Something underneath, so far down perhaps that the only way through it was to obtain the key – if such a key indeed did exist. And he would hold this secret for her close to his heart forever and ever, and right then and there he knew he would die for it.

     And like that his heart bled out for her – the fact that she was a victim all her life, that the gods spared no expense in trying to topple her, that deep beneath those lovely eyes, those pout lips, far beneath that ashen pallor, there was a very beautiful little girl only wanting to be loved, to be accepted, to be needed and shown her worth. To matter. And in that moment, he would protect that very thing with a keen mind, a quick fearless wit and a sharp blade. He sipped his tea, allowing her to fill both their cups – a certain unspoken alliance set forth, ready to go to work on a mystery, ready to become more than just a young girl and an middle-aged Detective, ready to become a single, fully functional, operating unit. And in that moment, she spoke words that made his heart sing, “Thank you Detective, for simply hearing my story, I have been holding that deep inside for so very long. I have never told anybody.”

     Her head and eyes fell low, averting his eyes altogether, a palled expression about her face, her eyes withdrawn, mouth pursed, as if to say, ‘I never told anybody that in my whole life and now I go off like a little girl with a big mouth, only to tell it to a Detective who should only want to use me or think me a murderer.’ “I am sorry for burdening you with horrible tales of an old life I once lived Detective. I am ready once again to answer any questions you may have regarding last night’s tragedy.” And indeed she had composed herself, sitting up straight, perfectly kneeled just off the mat. And in her eyes was a note of strength, as though she had just bested the ocean itself and lived to tell the tale. And for a very brief moment, he imagined her naked, beneath him, squirming, moaning – very unprofessional, very…human. Again he had to fight to bring himself back, back to the interrogation room, back to the matter at hand, back to the investigation.

     Convinced she had nothing to do with any crime, getting back to the question at hand, he said simply, “It is I who must apologize. I meant not to bring back those old terrors, for I did not know. I am simply doing my job, and as you know time is of the essence.”

     “Of course.” And with a coy smile – one that seemed to harken to those manly nuances he was unaware of: the ones she could feel instead of see – she said, “please, continue. No harm, no foul Detective. How could you have known? I’m fine. That was long ago and I no longer live in fear.”

    “Where are your quarters?”

     “They are in the lower basement just above the food stores.”

     “Show me.”

     “This way Detective,” she led them out of the room and down a great corridor which held on both sides wide sitting areas fashioned in fine hardwood floors, finely polished oak pillars and stone walls. The areas, rather airy, held great clay pots with trees and plants rising up enough to touch the ceiling in some places. At their centers stood clay fire pits and an arrangement of tea and sake, rice and vegetables surrounded by rows of floor mats and pillows. Some rooms held great stores of weapons and armour while others were specifically designed for training. Others too, those on this seventh floor, held many sleeping mats with each a long narrow wicker basket; the sleeping quarters of large numbers of Samurai. Very well protected was this man Jido-san.

     Down several floors, past a great sitting room on the sixth, war hall on the fifth, gathering quarters on the fourth, sleeping quarters of those highest of class on the third and altar room on the second, the air of the palace held an eerie tone as the halls were quiet with little movement save for roving Samurai and those most trusted servants. Passing by another great veranda Kashi saw that the great gates far beyond the stables and yard, were closed and well guarded; a clear sign that the Palace had been shut down. Good, he thought. The killer is trapped right here inside these walls. And I’ll find him if it’s the last thing I do. And like that, just beyond a great kitche, past another wide area, beyond paintings, small trees, plants, flowers and a stone waterfall built right into the center of the great foyer, they headed down another great staircase near the back of the palace, coming to a series of rooms which had great doors and great locks, intended to keep the servants of the palace still and locked in after dark.

Many Samurai – knowing exactly who he was – let him pass, giving him a wide berth. It was down into the second basement, which was well lit and quite warm and comfortable that he began noticing just how the Emperor treated his people, down to the lowliest of servants: with a great deal of worth, as though he wanted to spoil them – let them know he truly cared, that they were well to do their best every minute of every day. A series of large rooms, great oak pillars, stone walls, the sitting and gathering areas were filled with bowls of fruit, fresh water, clean clothes and a great deal of security. He ran his finger against the walls, and instantly she bowed, “I must apologize for the state of the Palace. For this terrible crime has put a stop to the goings on, and even the walls seem to feel it. Do please forgive the dust, it is not usually so. For the maids do a wonderful job and the Emperor himself is very meticulous.”

     He smiled to her, “Please, you must not ask forgiveness. Like a day in the sun, no one can truly tell when the clouds and the rain will come and stop the butterflies from dancing.”

     Coming to a last door on her left a slight draft swept by as she opened the door. “Please forgive my quarters Detective. I too, have been too busy to clean up quite to my own standards.”

     “No, no,” he said jokingly, “You should see my place after a night of hot Sake.”

     She giggled shyly, lighting the candles. The room came to life with every candle lit until a dozen relinquished any trouble on the eyes.

     With a small fire pit to the far wall, the quarters were quite drafty. “If you don’t mind detective…” she headed directly to the fire pit, “I must not let the fire die out. For I am right next to an underground stream and the cold makes this part of the palace quite unbearable.”

     “No, please,” he said. “I would not deprive you of such warmth this time of year.”

     And she noticed for the first time that he was staring. It was one of those things that men often did, but this was different. This was something more complete and perhaps more intimate, like a simple man, and not a Detective sent in to find a murderer – just an ordinary man remembering a long lost love, somehow being reminded of another’s beauty through a stranger who merely resembled her. She opened the clay panel and began placing the firewood in place, blowing the tinder, stoking the coals back to life. “Should be a minute or two Detective.” Looking about he saw immediately a series of large paintings hung about the walls next to the fire pit. “Ah…so you are a poet?”

     She became bashful, standing straight up, hands clasped together, “There are many nights Detective which I cannot sleep, when bad dreams wake me and memories keep me from restful sleep.” She looked to paintings, casually pointing to all those hung about her walls, pointing to one directly behind him next to the door, “That one is my latest. I call it “A Black Swan Sings in the Darkness.” A single hand went up to her chest, her fingers seeming to run the length of the great scars just above her breasts, “It is of the night that the Emperor found me. The night he saved me from the Ninja.”

     With his eyes weaving across a tea tray, a vase filled with fresh lilac, scrolls of empty parchment, quill and ink, a floor mat and bedding – nothing out of the ordinary – he read a single line: ‘And like that, they vanished into the darkness, never to be seen again, a wave of terror over the lands, no noise, no trace, only shadow.’ And he thought of the killer. Perhaps he was a Ninja. But how could that be?  It was an impossible task to infiltrate the Emperor’s palace. Not with ten thousand Ninja at the gates could this be done. No…it had to be someone in the service of the palace. And again, he was confident that she would make a good spy. And how she would be rewarded! I could write a letter on her behalf. His mind took off. Perhaps I could tell my Lord just how valuable she is, how she could be sent out into the cities as a spy. I could train her myself. And after a great moment lost in her eyes which she let fall to the floor, he read another line: “Like the simple Banzai alive and flourishing in the sunlight, so too is the delicate art of shadow, flourishing in stealth.’ “Very good.” He was impressed!

     Her eyes, like tormented windows, looked deep into his, “It helps me forgive them their trespasses against me, for they will return back to the shadows in death. It is their fate.” Her eyes seemed to go back yet again to a place far away – a time once lived in terror, a time long gone but never to be forgotten. He looked at her, seeing in her a great strength, a gift of courage, and somehow he felt her pain, her anguish, somehow hating those who had hurt her – wanting revenge deep down. And then and there, her features, so very familiar, touching him in a way that no words might describe rose up against his very will like an unstoppable torrent, invading his good senses, easing back his strong ethics like a gentle hand. And like that, unable to help it, a multitude of images crashed against his better judgement bringing to him a slew of sweet memories, and it was then that he remembered his lovely wife Tai Lin, bleeding, dying in his arms – a Ninja arrow through the heart. How he hated them, vile dogs!

     Then and there, her beauty so captivating this young thing, her very air so thrilling, and at once he knew he must withdraw from the room, remove himself from her very presence lest he be weakened further and stolen from his objective – lest he be consumed by memories of a lost love; a time when the world was a beautiful creature, back when her very songs stole him away to bliss and light and endless possibilities. The fire drew to life yet again, quickly filling the air with warmth. Wanting never to leave her side, wanting to rescue her to a life more defined by colour and richness, beauty and freedom, he simply said, “Tetsuka, I must be leaving now, for there is much I must do in very little time.” A solid stance brought him back to himself, “have you given thought about what I said, about aiding me in my case?”

     “Yes Detective, I have. I would like to help you catch this killer. Very much so.”

     “You understand that this is entirely between you and I? That no one – not even the Emperor must find out? Things could get very dangerous for you were anyone to find out.”

     “I fear I cannot betray my Emperor Detective. I am not afraid of death Detective.” So brave she was, so delicate in her slim frame, so beautiful with such a lovely face and youthful tender. Yes, she did remind him of Tai Lin. So very much.

     “Does the wind betray the forest when it howls through? The sun, the moon when both are in the sky looking down upon the earth?” His eyes became very sweet and kind, “I promise you that he will find merit in your actions, and he too will see the wisdom of your actions once the killer has been brought to justice. I shall give you a full recommendation myself. I am certain that the Emperor himself will give you all that you require to see you through to a better life.”

     And like that, the deal was settled, “you are very convincing Detective, and very wise.” Her eyes lit up, “Let’s catch a killer!” She was smiling now, happy to be on the winning side, thrilled to be one step closer to rising up from the bottom of palace society.

     With one quick look back to the simple room, his eyes taking in the wicker basket, which was filled with drab servant clothes, stone floor covered over in rugs, a crack in the stone wall, just behind the fire pit, hidden by a great painting of a white Swan drew his attention. She saw it immediately, lifting the painting slightly, “Perhaps one day I might be moved from this room to another one – perhaps a more charming one.” She shivered, releasing the painting to its rightful place back against the wall. “The crack is thick in some places and lets in a lot of cold air during the winter. I can hear the creek flowing just beyond.” Her eyes went away once again, “Please Detective, catch this killer. I must be given the chance to prove my worth somehow that has naught to do with hauling water or fetching fire wood.”

     “I’ll do all that I can but you must be my ears and my eyes in this place. I am counting on you Tetsuka.”

     “You have the right person for this task Detective. I shall not let you down.”

     “Together we will bring a killer to justice. And then you shall prosper beyond your dreams.” With a rigid nod, he left.

     Alone in her room she took up her quill and ink and began to write a simple poem:

‘Together oh great prince shall we dance the night away

falling madly like blood and water

turning white Carnations to pink

before tumbling off and growing wings

that we might soar above all else before the dawn

never to be seen again

vanishing into the light.’

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