The continuing saga of two magistrates, united and divided by duty.
Sins of the Father, Part 2
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
One evening, when Kinaro was twelve, he walked into his father’s study and found him unmoving on the floor. A middle-aged man wrapped in his evening yukata, he’d died with his eyes open. When the yoriki came, Kinaro had dragged the corpse to a corner window. He was fanning his father’s face, trying desperately to revive him.
The Magistrates asked many questions. When was the last time he’d seen his father alive? How long had he been with the body? Upon discovery, how was the body positioned? Had he been sick? Had his routine changed? Over the last several days, had there been anything, anything, out of the ordinary?
Did his father have any enemies?
These were questions any true Kitsuki could answer. With a mind unfettered by emotion or distraction, a Kitsuki’s eyes would paint a picture for the mind. Yet Kinaro could not answer. When he’d seen his father’s body, his emotions screamed and shut the world out.
That morning, a Tamori communed with his father’s ashes. The man’s spirit had slipped from his failing body, as all mortals were destined to do. It was the way of things. The Daimyo himself attended the funeral, releasing his honored servant from the service of the Kitsuki.
Yet for the rest of his life, Kinaro would wonder if his father’s death was truly due to natural causes. If he’d kept his mind clear of emotion, would he have seen something out of place? Had he, in the throes of his sorrow, overlooked some vital detail that would explain his father’s death? He’d been a great magistrate, and he did have enemies…
One cannot turn back the pages of history. Every breath takes one further from the past. A death, without cause or reason, seems senseless and empty. The uncertainty of that day haunted Kinaro. He knew that, on that day, he’d committed a sin in the eyes of the Dragon Clan. He’d allowed emotion to unbalance him and overwhelm his mindfulness. He’d believed, for a moment, that his Self was real.
Kinaro opened his eyes and the world poured in. He was in a room within the Magistrate Station of Shizuka Toshi. Tea boiled on a coal-bed in the corner. The window was open, the shoji was closed. The first and only draft of the late Kakita Hiro’s play sat on the table, brittle stacks of blood-stained papers. It’d been over a week since he’d come to possess them, although more accurately they belonged to his partner.
Although she’d been mostly cold to him, Kinaro was fascinated by his partner. He’d never seen how Doji conducted their investigations. The priorities were different; their purpose was to gather testimony, drawing conclusions from collected accounts. They ranked reliability based on strength of character, not proximity to the incident. And they trusted their gut, their haragei, to lead them. That was why he studied her so closely, to understand her ways. Or perhaps it was because Kakita Ichigiku was unlike anyone he’d ever met before.
Kinaro looked up from his work as padded steps approached the shoji door. It slid open, revealing a woman with youthful features and bleached-white hair, clad in kimono layers of ocean blues. Kinaro stood. “Ichigiku-san,” he greeted, “have you eaten today?” He turned towards a lacquered box that he’d brought with him.
She nodded informally, sitting on her knees before the table. “I have eaten, thank you,” was her quiet reply. Nonetheless he placed the opened box on the table, which contained an array of colored rice balls.
Kinaro poured them both some tea. “Were your efforts fruitful?”
Ichigiku watched him as she always did: silently, with an opaque face and winter eyes. “I’ve learned much,” she said.
Setting the teacups on the table, Kinaro sat across from her with an eager smile.
She talked as the tea cooled. “Everyone in town has heard of our playwright,” she said, “but not many knew details of his private life. I had to piece much together from varying testimonies.” She paused, pinching the cup wearily, testing its heat. “The testimony of Kakita Ochi, his apprentice, was the most helpful in uncovering his past.”
Kinaro nodded. His own teacup would go neglected.
“His first play caught the attention of many connoisseurs,” she continued. “As a result, he was swiftly adopted by an Otomo patron. As he progressed, his works grew more controversial, and his critics more vocal.”
“Potential enemies?” Kinaro asked. “Anyone offended?”
She shook her head. “He was controversial, yes, but he did not target anyone specific. Critics derive just as much pleasure from art as fans do.” She sipped from her cup. “He continued to publish acclaimed works for many years until late 1170, when he announced his retirement.”
“He retired?” Kinaro looked surprised. “For what reason?”
“According to his apprentice, Hiro had simply said everything he’d intended to say.” She sipped again. “In any case, it did not last. He abandoned retirement three years ago to begin work on a new play: ‘The Folly of Chagatai.’”
Kinaro winced. “Bad timing.”
Ichigiku almost smiled, a faint twitch of her mouth. “After Chagatai-no-kami arose to the status of Fortune, those closest to Hiro advised him to abandon this work. He refused, debuting it at a Winter Court inOyomesanProvince.” She looked at him pointedly. “It did not go over well. Shortly after he was appointed the honor of retainer within thecastleofShizuka Toshi.”
They both knew better. An appointment here ensured Hiro would not embarrass his lords again. Kinaro tapped his lips thoughtfully. “Perhaps he thought he could redeem himself with one last play.”
“How delusional.” Ichigiku finished her tea.
He refilled her cup. “Did you find anything else?”
“I looked into his family,” she replied, watching the coils of steam writhe from her cup.
“And?” he asked.
“He has none. No brother or sisters. His wife passed some time ago.” She paused. “He did have a daughter, but she is not around anymore.”
He absorbed this quietly, mind working. “What became of her?”
“She was sent to the colonies.” Banished. “I am not sure why.”
Kinaro stood and walked to the open window. Beyond unfolded the lazy stir of the city. He stared at nothing, laid his hands on the windowsill, and drummed his fingers.
Which meant he was thinking. Ichigiku set aside her tea. “What is it?” she asked.
“I am noticing a pattern.” After a moment, he turned from the window, beginning to pace. “You said that Hiro had a daughter, yes?”
“And his wife,” he continued, “was she, by chance, of higher station?”
“The apprentice did not say.” She shook her head. “What are you getting at, Kinaro-san?”
His eyes settled on the stacks of papers on the desk. He clapped his hands. “The character in Hiro’s last play,” he announced, “is Kakita Hiro himself!”
Kinaro cast a triumphant look. Ichigiku’s eyes said he was mad as his tattooed brethren.
“Have you not finished the play?” he asked.
“I couldn’t.” She frowned. “It is offensive to anyone with taste.”
Accepting this, Kinaro resumed his energetic pacing. “The character in this play has the same occupation and same sudden rise to fame. He is adopted by an Otomo patron, just as Hiro was. The character also has a daughter. In fact, the entire fourth act is devoted to her.”
“This is not uncommon,” Ichigiku countered patiently, “Authors subtly insert themselves into their works all the time.”
“There is nothing subtle about this,” Kinaro insisted. He stopped pacing and leaned over the table. “For his entire career, Hiro was a Jidaimono-ka; he took moments from history and presented them on the stage. At the end of his life, why would he create a work of pure fiction?”
Whatever reply she’d prepared was lost in a moment of introspection.
“What if the play isn’t a fantasy?” he said.
“I see.” She reached for her teacup once more. “You believe the play is an autobiography.”
“I believe it is a confession.” He spread the stacked papers over the table, nearly toppling his now-cold teacup. Ichigiku watched unconcerned.
Kinaro stood back, gesturing to different passages. “Consider the plot. The main character is a struggling playwright who falls in love with a woman above his station. One day he encounters a kodama-”
“-who gives him a play that he presents as his own,” Ichigiku finished. She cast him under a patient gaze, hovering the teacup before her lips. “So far, it sounds more like a fantasy.”
“That play launches him into his career,” Kinaro continued, tapping the papers with each point. “But in the second act, he is confronted by a man who knows his secret. The playwright is blackmailed, forced to produce plays that are fed to him.” He paused, hovering over the final page. “This play is a confession that Hiro never wrote any of his own plays.”
Ichigiku did not look convinced, but she did appear thoughtful, weighing Kinaro’s words.
“You do not believe me?”
She finally spoke, “It is not unheard of. A playwright often treats his final play as a samurai’s death poem. The purpose is to give one final insight into the author’s mind before it is lost.” It was neither a yes or no. She met his eyes. “Are you suggesting this is why he was killed?”
Kinaro shook his head. “I doubt the killer knew Hiro was working on this. I am still not sure why he was killed. Even so,” his eyes drifted to the papers once more, “it may lead us to that answer. I suspect, to uncover the truth, we must discover how the play was supposed to end.”
“How convenient.” Ichigiku set down her empty cup. Thoughtfully, she regarded the tattered pages. She seemed conflicted. “For the sake of argument,” she said carefully, “having made this conclusion, how would a Kitsuki magistrate proceed?”
“He would test it,” Kinaro replied. “In this case, I would want to analyze one of Hiro’s earlier plays. My goal would be to compare, to determine if they were actually written by the same person.”
As if anticipating this answer, Ichigiku sighed and reached within the sleeve of her kimono. She produced a small document, which she laid on the table. An invitation.
“Kakita Ochi is honoring her late master by presenting one of his most acclaimed works, ‘The Dangerous Popinjay.’ It is being presented among other plays at the theatre tomorrow evening.” She grimaced. “I received this invitation from Ochi herself yesterday. I was going to decline. But perhaps I should humor you instead.”
Kinaro clapped his hands. “This is good fortune!” he said happily. “Fundamental narrative differences could be evidence supporting my theory.”
“I will never understand,” she said suddenly. Kinaro’s smile faded. She looked at him questioningly. “If you are certain, why do you require evidence?”
He paused. “I am certain,” he finally said, “but perhaps that is not enough.”
“Do the Dragon not practice haragei?” Ichigiku almost looked amused. “If you have certainty, what else is required? You do not trust yourself?”
“Why would I trust my Self?” he replied cryptically. “It isn’t real.”
* * * * *
The playhouse glowed on the distant hillside, cast in gentle burning of the opposing horizon. It’d been occupied all day, one performance after the next, since the dawn broke that morning. Kinaro knew they would continue long after dusk.
He spotted Ichigiku before long. From within a wall of brown-clad heimin, she emerged in a vibrant furisode of white floral patterns, rich blue and stark black, her hands bare and hanging from the swinging sleeves of an unmarried woman. An impressive butterfly knot protruded from the back of her obi. It was the first time he’d seen her without a sword. Even though it was improper to carry one into the theater, he’d somehow thought she might bring it. To see her without one was an oddity.
They nodded to one-another informally, each offering a simple greeting. The wind carried a tasteful scent; Ichigiku was wearing perfume. Kinaro could not help but smile. Wearing only his green yukata, black hakama, yellow obi, and green magistrate’s jacket, he was the plain leaf of the pansy beside its flower.
He lingered a little too long on her outfit, noting that it matched the ice-blue of her eyes before realizing that she was staring at him. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen you in this,” he said, deciding honesty was best.
She looked down at herself, as if noticing for the first time. She shrugged, a gesture unbefitting to the ensemble. “I thought perhaps it was too little.”
Kinaro smirked. That a daughter of Kakita thought this outfit unworthy of a mere Kabuki showing was just too fitting. A chuckle escaped him, and she glared.
“Do not make fun of me,” she warned coldly.
He shook his head. “You misunderstand! I think it is beautiful.”
She maintained her angry glare above a reddening face. “We will miss the start,” she nearly hissed, brushing past him towards the playhouse and its kaleidoscopic horizon. He followed, maintaining a tight-lipped grin.
The theater’s path wound through gardens and wooden pagodas, populated sparsely with wandering samurai. Small acting troupes peppered the path, performing simple plays along the way. These minor performances were held all day, repeating as the day wore on. Historic figures re-lived fragments of their former lives amidst a sea of unnoticed onlookers. These were the phantom worlds of the kabuki plays, gardens of the past existing as living portals into time. As they navigated this river of bodies, Kinaro witnessed the final moments of Hantei’s life in a glimpse before passing into his own world again. If he lingered by any performance, it was only briefly. It was unwise to dwell upon the past.
They reached the playhouse as a performance ended. Outside, courtly samurai awaited the next play. These were the true connoisseurs. To them, this was no occasion to flit between moving gardens of unfolding lives. They spent their entire day at the playhouse, escaping their own world to immerse themselves in the phantom realm of kabuki.
The Cranes surrounding Kinaro were donned in vibrant finery. The men wore flowing silk fashions around their thin bodies. The women wore three or more layers, every obi-knot spotted more elaborate than the last. Compared to them, Ichigiku was subdued and underdressed. Kinaro looked from one formal outfit to the next, growing more self-aware of his plain yukata. This was only a kabuki play! Did the Crane not know how to relax?
They swiftly moved into the circular theatre. The stage was frozen in an empty depiction of an elegant courtroom. Silk-curtained balconies offered the best view, but Ichigiku opted to sit on the lowest level of the audience chamber, selecting a seat along the outside of the hanamichi walkway that isolated a quarter of the room. The walkway was for the entrance and exits of actors, and the barrier it formed separated the lower-ranked bugei from the honored kuge class. As they took their seats, Kinaro spotted occasional glances of several Cranes. At first, he believed he was drawing attention with his Dragon colors, but then he realized they were staring at Ichigiku. They hid their mouths behind open fans. She sat and stared at the floor until the room filled with patrons, the lights dimmed, and the show began.
In spite of himself, Kinaro nearly fell into the performance. Although The Dangerous Popinjay was classified as a historical Jidaimono play, a genre that bored him in his youth, there was lively music throughout the entire first act, announcing that the performance would be a comedy. The play itself was a farce; it centered around a brash samurai named Kakita Kichiro who succeeded in spite of ineptness. When the lead actor took the stage, freezing in the iconic pose that would define his character, someone in the audience honored him by shouting his name.
Kinaro remained mindful, paying close attention to the sparse dialog in particular. By the second act, he was convinced that he would need to study a written copy, because it did not seem that a play as tight and well-paced as this could have been written by the same person. A few times he cast a glance at his partner to see if she had come to the same conclusion. She never returned his gaze, always watching the stage in a motionless seiza.
Until the third act. The plot had worked itself into the scene of a seppuku. A samurai sat, center stage and sword in hand, face painted into a pained grimace. Masks watched impassive from either side as the actor aimed the sword-point to his belly. Kinaro felt a tug and met the tail-end of Ichigiku’s glance. “Look,” she whispered. The prop-sword collapsed into the belly of the actor, and a red splash fell onto the stage. The lights went out, and the room filled with a collective gasp. When the lights returned, the stage was empty. Subdued applause marked the start of an intermission. Ichigiku met Kinaro’s eyes. The seppuku had inaccurately depicted three cuts.
Kinaro stood, stretching his aching legs. He hadn’t sat in seiza that long since he was a student. In the lands of the Dragon, he would have relaxed partway through the second act, but he hadn’t felt comfortable doing that in a sea of attentive Cranes.
“I think I’ll take advantage of the intermission,” he said, “can I bring you anything?”
“Thank you, but no.” Ichigiku looked back to the stage, thoughtfully. She seemed preoccupied, but Kinaro would not pry. He excused himself, proceeding out of the back and into the hallway.
The hall was wide and followed the circumference of the theater, periodically opening into balconies on the outermost wall. Kinaro passed one that overlooked a view of the surrounding gardens. Beyond, the sun had just vanished on the asymmetrical horizon of Shizuka Toshi. As he walked, Kinaro overheard fragments of idle conversations. He saw a few men selling scrolls of white cloth; these were for the creation of oshiguma, where patrons approached actors after a performance and obtained imprints of their painted faces. Samples of these hung from the innermost wall, faded blank-eyed faces of actors long dead, staring mutely as guests past them.
At last, Kinaro spotted a refreshment stand set into the innermost wall. As he approached, a bright-faced young Crane slid to the counter. “Perhaps you’d like something?” she asked cheerily.
He eyed rows of bottles and teakettles. “What do you suggest?”
“The shochu,” she said, gesturing to a ceramic bottle. “The sharp taste is perfect for sunsets. It should make the play a little more… vibrant.”
“An excellent suggestion.” He smiled, “However, I will try your silver nettle tea.”
She feigned a pout. “I should have guessed.” She poured his selection into a featureless white cup. “My suggestion was not excellent enough, it seems.” She winked.
“I will have to try it soon,” he said, bowing as he accepted the cup, “but not tonight.”
“You’re on duty?” Her eyes flashed to the Mon on his shoulder.
“You might say that,” he replied.
Kinaro carried the cup to the opposing balcony. The sky was dark, and the forest beyond was dotted with the brief flashes of fireflies. He took a quiet whiff of his tea, and sipped.
Nose wrinkling, he set it on the banister, coughing into a balled fist. The tea had steeped for too long, the delicacy ruined. But then the people of this town seemed to prefer their tea stronger.
At once, he realized someone had joined him. Turning, he spotted a graceful woman in long kimonos. She was as a snowflake with her white hair and pale skin, which made her blue eyes seem rich with color. Her mouth twitched into a gentle smile, and she spoke in a voice reminding Kinaro of fall junipers.
“A Dragon Clan samurai, sipping silver nettle tea on a balcony alone, awaiting the rise of the moon.” She sighed, maintaining her smile. “Sadly predictable.”
He returned the smile cooly. “Am I not enigmatic enough for you, honored lady?”
She stood beside him, tilting her head and making a point to gently rake him with her eyes. “Well,” she finally said, “you are a Dragon in Shizuka Toshi. I suppose that makes you enigmatic enough.” Her smile grew warmer. “You are Kitsuki Kinaro, yes?”
Kinaro heard giggling within the hallway. Two younger women were watching the exchange glitter-eyed, mouths obscured by bright fans.
“I suppose I am risking much speaking to you,” she said, eyes tilting gracefully beyond the balcony, “Kakita Ryoku’s ‘Winter’ warned me never to speak with a Kitsuki.”
He was grinning. She was catching him off-guard, and he found it charming. “Have we met?” he asked, trying to gather his wits around the scent of her perfume.
She bowed. “Kakita Kae.”
“Ah,” he said, taking the cup so as to busy his hand, “So you’ve merely heard of me, then.”
“You are difficult to miss,” she said smoothly, “a lone green yukata in a sea of blue. Visitors are rare here, and so they attract attention.” She looked at him again and made that slight smile. He felt heat in his face, realizing he was outclassed. Resisting her, in that case, would be unwise.
Her head turned curiously. “It must be very lonely,” she nearly whispered, “far from home.”
“I find myself at home wherever I am,” he replied.
“Moreso here, I suspect.” She raised an eyebrow, her smile widening. On one less-graceful, it would have been a mischievous expression.
He paused. “I’m afraid I don’t follow,” he finally admitted. He wouldn’t be able to hide this, anyways.
Her eyes widened slightly, as if she’d spotted something. “I recall hearing that Ichigiku-chan would not be attending this event,” she explained, “but perhaps it was just that she hadn’t found a handsome enough suitor to attend with her.”
Realization came swiftly. “Ah… I think you may have the wrong impression,” he said with a chuckle, “we are merely working on a project together.”
“You should be wary of her,” Kae said. The abrupt warning came nonetheless smoothly. His smile faded. Kae looked back to the forest, where the fireflies blinked in and out of a nightshade existence. “I am reluctant to speak ill of my kin,” she spoke softly, “but I feel it only fair to warn you. Ichigiku-chan has a reputation here… and elsewhere.”
Kinaro narrowed his eyes.
“She used to be stationed on the coast. That was until the incident.” There was a sudden snap as she flicked open a fan, hiding her mouth as she turned back to him. “Ah, but it is not for me to say. You must think I am a terrible gossip.”
After a prolonged moment, Kinaro recovered his smile, lowering into a bow. “I would remain longer, Kae-san, but I think the play will begin again soon.”
She nodded, and he excused himself, wordlessly returning to the hall. As he did, the two courtiers that were watching immediately darted to their lady’s side, eyes wide and curious.
“What did he say?” one asked excitedly, “Did you ask?”
Kae smiled in the Kitsuki’s wake. “Interesting,” she mused. “I don’t think he knows.”
Kinaro retuned to his seat. Ichigiku watched him blankly. “Is everything alright?” She was looking at his eyes.
He met her gaze and forced a smile. “Everything is fine.” He offered her the white cup. “Here, I brought you some tea.”
* * * * *
When the play finished, they went to a teahouse crossroading the merchant and artisan districts. Kuge already occupied the private rooms within the sliding walls, so they selected a corner table where they could speak in hushed tones. Kinaro ordered silver nettle, but gave specific instructions not to steep for too long. The servant took this order and vanished into the noisy kitchen.
Ichigiku produced a bound scroll from her sleeve and offered it to Kinaro. “It’s a transcript of the play,” she explained. “During the intermission, Ochi-san offered it at my request. I thought you may wish to study it.”
Kinaro smiled, accepting the scroll. “Am I truly so predictable?”
They sat quietly for a moment before Kinaro spoke again. “Ichigiku-san, you are better versed in kabuki than I am. What is your opinion?”
There was no hesitation in her voice. “I am confident that the two plays could not have been written by the same author.”
Kinaro nodded slowly, surprising himself when he realized that he trusted her judgement. “What is our next move, then?”
Ichigiku gave this some thought. “We gather testimony,” she finally said. “While I am not fully convinced that Hiro’s final play was meant to be a confession, the possibility that he did not write his other plays is a matter of concern. It is reason enough to seek the testimony of one who was close to him.”
“You are referring to his daughter.” Kinaro nodded. “She is more than mentioned in his final play. We must speak with her. It is the only lead we have.”
“Her name is Kakita Maratai,” Ichigiku said. “If she is still living in the colonies…”
“Then that is where we must go,” Kinaro affirmed.
A servant returned carrying two cups of steaming tea. She set these before the magistrates, bowed, and returned to the kitchen. Kinaro raised his cup, and as Ichigiku mirrored his movements, it occurred to him that the servant was not the same young lady who had taken their order. Shrugging this away, he closed his eyes and inhaled, savoring the aroma.
There was something in that smell that he did not recognize. Something acrid. Even over-steeped silver nettle would not have this scent.
Suddenly, Kinaro understood why Doji magistrates trusted their haragei.
Just as Ichigiku moved the cup to her lips, Kinaro darted out his hand and slammed the cup against the table. Eyes turned. Surprise washed Ichigiku’s face. Without explaining, Kinaro drew his small drawstring bag, tossing a pinch of powder onto the surface of Ichigiku’s cup. Where it dusted the surface of the tea, it foamed and hissed, just as it had on the poisoned cup they’d discovered in Hiro’s room nights before.
At once Ichigiku’s eyes darted beyond Kinaro’s shoulder. He followed her gaze: a man seated in the opposite corner stood the moment Kinaro foiled the poisoning, pulling his bamboo hat over his face as he made towards the exit. Ichigiku called out to him in the crowded room. The man bolted into the night.
Kinaro was out of his seat in the space of two heartbeats. Crossing the threshold, he spotted the figure running down a lantern-lit road into the beating heart of the night-cast merchant’s district. He followed. Behind, he did not see Ichigiku calmly walk to the door, retrieve and don her sandals, and then slip into a shadowed alley.
They burst into the merchant’s district. It was a busy night; recent theatergoers were swamping the evening food carts. Kinaro had to duck around them, desperately pressing through the crowd to keep the retreating man in his sights. Having nearly lost sight of the man twice, he caught a glimpse of him turning a sharp corner further into the district. Remembering himself, Kinaro shouted, invoking his authority. The crowd thinned, and he dashed around the corner, hellbent on catching up.
His eyes took immediate notice of a merchant laying roughly on the ground, as if shoved, and an overturned food cart. In mid-air, a red-bottomed wok trailed a glistening swath of steaming cooking oil against the night sky. Kinaro had only enough time to hurl himself sideways into a hawking stand to avoid a face full of burning oil. Sprawled amongst the wares of a distressed merchant, Kinaro looked up to see a triumphant grin on the suspect’s face before he dashed away. Knowing that he would never catch him now, Kinaro slammed his fist on the cobbled road.
As he watched, impossibly, Ichigiku stepped from the alley just beyond the retreating man. The man didn’t stop; he pulled something from his garb that caught a glint of light from the lanterns above. Ichigiku held her ground, and as they were about to collide, she snaked out her leg, took him roughly by the shoulder, and slammed him into the street with a resounding crack. The violence lasted only a moment. Kinaro stared awestruck at the crumpled figure laying at Ichigiku’s feet. Never had he seen a man stopped so abruptly. It was as if a great wave had risen suddenly from the street and smote him before falling still.
Kinaro pulled himself from the pile of wares and cast a look at the troubled owner. “Alert the yoriki,” he said, and limped his way to his partner. “How did you manage to overtake him?” he asked.
“Shortcut,” she replied. “He led you the long way around the district. I know this city well.”
The man was crawling, broken-legged, towards the object he’d dropped in the fall; a small dagger. Ichigiku slammed her sandaled foot on his hand before it could reach its destination. His fingers bowed back against their joints, snapping loudly. He released an anguished cry.
Kinaro retrieved the dagger and tucked it into his obi. “You were at the theatre this evening, weren’t you?”
The man rolled onto his back and pressed himself against the wall of a nearby building. The magistrates closed in, looming above him, shutting out the slowly gathering crowd.
“If I were to guess,” Kinaro continued, “I’d say the poison in our cups was the same you used to poison Kakita Hiro. Am I right?”
The man lowered his head, obscuring his face beneath the rim of the coned bamboo hat. Ichigiku tore it from his head. The man was laughing. Kinaro did not recognize his features. He did not look at all like a Crane.
“You should have left this alone,” he said. “You cannot handle what is coming.”
Ichigiku pinned her foot into the man’s stomach. Through the pain, he maintained a defiant smile. But even so, he could not pull away from her cold, granitic eyes.
“Answer our questions, filth!” she spat. She pulled her foot back, preparing to kick him again.
Noticing the size of the crowd, Kinaro laid a hand on her shoulder. “Not here-”
She spun at his touch. Her eyes smoldered, her lips curled back in mid-snarl. The moment passed quickly and her face faded to that calm neutral he recognized.
The man laughed again. “I won’t tell you anything,” he said. “Do your worst. It won’t matter. Make the most of your last days,” he advised, straightening his back and rising in his seat, “knowing that you brought-”
He stopped, eyes wide, a finger-sized dart protruding from just below his adam’s apple.
Someone released a panicked scream. They pushed back, merchants ducking under their carts, crowd thinning into the street. Kinaro searched the rooftops, but the gleam of the lanterns obscured his vision. Ichigiku spun, disregarding the danger, voice echoing through the district. “Show yourself!” she challenged. She readied for another attack, but none came. Her challenge went without reply, even long after the doshin arrived to clean up the body.
* * * * *
The night’s candle was almost burned to the wick. Kinaro’d given their account to the presiding magistrate, who’d glared at Ichigiku the entire time. The written report would have to come next, and within days the merchants would submit their complaints and humbly ask for compensation. If Ichigiku was concerned over this, she did not show it. When Kinaro looked upon her candle-cast face in the dark of the magistrate’s quarters, he could not dismiss his memory of her curled, snarling lips or her intense eyes. She’d looked like an angry tiger.
They sat in silence as tea brewed in the corner. Kinaro spoke first in a displeased whisper.
“Our server at the teahouse,” he said. Ichigiku darkened and looked away. He shook his head. “None of the others recognized her. Not even the owner.” He absently drummed his fingers. “They must have been shadowing us all day.”
Ichigiku hovered her hand, fingers unfurled, grasping. “She was right there,” she whispered, oddly distant, “right in front of us. She even poured us tea.” Her fingers retracted into a frustrated fist. “It is shameful!” she said. “This is a colossal failure!”
“I prefer to think of it as a lesson,” he replied softly. He managed a smile. “I remember her face. She will show herself again, soon enough.”
Ichigiku paused, finally nodding and pulling her hands back into her lap. “You’re right,” she said, “she will. Our investigation… whatever it’s leading us to… it’s forcing her out in the open. She will make another attempt.” As she spoke, her voice grew colder. “Next time will be different.”
The quiet returned to the room for a short while. Ichigiku sighed, gaze rocklike on the nearby stack of papers. “Kazan-sama will want my report in two days,” she said. “We must speak with Hiro’s daughter, but I cannot travel to the colonies without his blessing. Once he knows what happened tonight, he is unlikely to give it.”
“Unfortunate,” Kinaro said. “Of course, I am not so bound, am I?”
She regarded him questioningly. “You would go alone?”
“If you wish it.” He smiled again. “I can retrieve her testimony and deliver it to you.”
“Leaving me to handle the killer when she strikes again,” she said plainly.
He recalled the crumpled body laying at her feet. “I trust you can handle it.”
She watched him silently in the flickering light. “Alright,” she said, and immediately returned her attention to the papers.
Kinaro blinked. “Alright?” he said.
She nodded, casting him no pointed attention. “Yes. You gather the testimony of Kakita Maratai. I will handle the paperwork. And the killer. It will be some time before we meet again.” She glanced up. “You seem surprised.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d agree so swiftly,” he confessed.
“You saved my life,” she said. She was staring at him again.
Kinaro’s reply was automatic. “Are we not partners, Ichigiku-san?”
She nodded. “Hai.” Her eyes returned to her papers. “I trust you,” she said.
In the moments that followed, Kinaro felt an ember within his heart, as though he’d awaited a long, cold night and finally caught the first glimpse of a dawning sunrise. She made no acknowledgement of her comment, but already he sensed that something had changed between them.
As he lifted the teakettle from the bed of coals, he looked out the window into the nighttime stir of the city. “You are certain, then?” he asked softly.
She did not look up. “Is that not enough?” she replied.
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