Nagi stared at Shizuru in disbelief. In truth, we all did. She'd told us all about Nagi getting rid of Trepoff and why she'd deduced it, but in typical fashion she had held one surprise back for effect's sake.

The woman loves an audience, I thought, while still trying to catch up. She'd have been an extraordinary actress, if she'd chosen the stage over criminal investigation.

"He murdered Rena Searrs? I thought Smith did that?" Armitage found her voice first.

"No, Mr. Smith had Miss Searrs murdered. The motive was his and the instructions his as well. But it was not he who crept about in the stables, tampering with saddle-girths."

I had to admit that the picture of the well-fed Smith going about committing acts of sabotage was more comical than threatening. Nagi, on the other hand...

"You're right. A boy could spend all kinds of time in the stables and not be suspected."

"Very good, Natsuki. And cleverly damaged tack might not even give way at once, but wait until extreme stress was placed on it, from neck-or-nothing galloping or at a jump, which would not only maximize the chance of serious or fatal injury, but also separate the tampering from the death by days or even weeks."

Nagi found his voice at last.

"This is outrageous! I've tolerated these ridiculous speculations of yours this far, but this goes beyond the pale! Is this how you built your reputation, Miss Viola, on dramatic accusations that cannot be proven? Or have you forgotten that the inquest held Miss Searrs's death to be misadventure, a riding accident caused by a worn saddle girth?"

She nodded.

"Not at all, though I am impressed that you can recall it so easily yourself in offhand fashion. And I am quite sure that everyone in this room could think up a number of ways to weaken a strap of leather so that it appears to be a natural break due to wear. At no point did I accuse you of being the kind of idiot who would try simply cutting a girth."

"Even the dimmest constable would notice that," Armitage agreed.

"That tack has long been disposed of," Nagi snapped, "so that even if you could prove murder through some microscopic examination of the leather or whatever, you couldn't do it now."

Shizuru shook her head sadly.

"And I had such high hopes for you. Mr. Smith confessed his involvement in the crime to Mr. Trepoff. That would prove murder quite nicely to any juror, who would gladly accept the testimony of a self-confessed killer offering an utterly reasonable explanation of his crime. If you tell a man that someone has murdered his late fiancee's guardian, and that said guardian profited financially from the fiancee's death, then honestly he'll be quite convinced of what happened before you offer any evidence at all. You must always remember human nature in these matters."

"Even if that's true, you have nothing to tie me to Miss Searrs's death. Nothing!"

"How did you get the ledger in the first place? That was the question that most interested me once I realized you were the informer," she went on without acknowledging his comment. "It seemed absurd that someone could steal it from Mr. Smith's private files without him knowing—remembering, again, the time involved. An accomplice in his embezzlement scheme might have it, but the guests here are society and business leaders, not accountants or bookkeepers. I considered the notion of Father Greer, as a man who benefited financially from Mr. Smith's death and as a possible partner in the embezzlement, but ruled him out due to the evidence of how the ledger was delivered as previously noted."

"So how would I have it? Can you tell me that?" he challenged her.

"As insurance. The ledger could only have been obtained from Mr. Smith, and with his consent. You were well aware that a man who could murder once will murder again. Therefore you insisted on being given the ledger, so that if he tried to silence you, it could be delivered to the police and guarantee him a long prison term. Yet, he remained the one man who could prove you a killer. As you say, no hard evidence exists; only Mr. Smith's precise testimony could convict you. Even were he to, say, leave an affidavit with his solicitors to be delivered to the police in the event of his death, it would not be legally sufficient to convict you by itself. His death freed you from the specter of the noose."

"So you admit that there is no evidence against me, then try to use that to support your theory?" Nagi tried to make it sound like incredulous mockery, but the denial rang flat to all of us. Shizuru smiled brightly at him.

"Why, yes, that does sum it up, doesn't it?"

"This is ludicrous! We'll see what the courts think about your scandal-mongering!"

"I daresay we will," Armitage said. "Count Nagi dai Artai, I'm taking you into custody on the charge of being accessory to the murder of John Smith. You have the right to remain silent; any statement you make may be taken and used in evidence against you."

"You stupid cow! Do you realize who I am?"

"Sure. You're an arrogant, vicious, manipulative arsehole."

"It's 'assassin,' Lady Haruka."

"Actually, I meant that one, Yukino."

~X X X~

"I see they bound Nagi dai Artai over for trial at the Assizes," I remarked two weeks later in Baker Street. The countdown to the twentieth century was in its last year now, January 1 having come and gone with the usual pomp and circumstance, and a fair feast from Mrs. Hudson. The Scots, after all, put considerable stock in the New Year, as did the Japanese according to Shizuru, which immediately put that side of our heritage in better grace with our red-haired landlady than the European bits.

After 1898, I could scarcely imagine what the next year would bring. I'd already been entrusted with a new friend who'd quickly wormed her way into being the closest person in my life, and with the hope that at long last there might be some justice, or at the least vengeance, for my mother's death. Would I find some resolution? Or would I end up like Sergay Trepoff, blindly hurling myself down the path of revenge and finishing with nothing but ashes?

That's what he gets for being hotheaded and stupid, I thought. If—no, when—I chose to act, I'd make damn sure I wouldn't follow his example. I couldn't imagine my mother wanting me to dance on air for the sake of avenging her.

Not that Trepoff was likely to hang. When the story broke in the papers, the publicity was all on his side. I had a suspicion that word was being whispered in the ears of certain publishers as to what way the Searrs Foundation wanted the story presented, playing up the innocence of Rena Searrs, how she'd been victimized by Smith, and the moral if not legal righteousness of the man who loved her.

Alyssa Searrs, I decided, was one scary little girl.

"I suppose it's only to be expected. The coroner's jury found against him at the inquest," I continued.

Shizuru sipped green tea from a porcelain cup with soaring herons on it.

"Of course that's hardly surprising. The coroner let you smile at the jury and spin out all your deductions to them. I never realized what a great witness you make."

She smiled at me.

"I suspect it will be more difficult at trial. So many of my opinions are conclusions, not observations, and therefore barred by the strict rules of evidence. The Crown will have to qualify me as an expert witness in matters of criminology, and the defense will no doubt fight it tooth and nail. In practical terms, the case is tenuous and circumstantial."

She drank more tea.

"It's rather annoying, actually. I had to turn down that Dixon torpedo case because I was needed to testify; I've always wanted to try on an espionage matter."

"I liked how they tried appealing to your patriotism and you pointed out that a strong British naval defense wasn't likely to inspire patriotic fervor in a Japanese-Italian. I thought that Admiralty man was going to have a seizure on the spot."

"Ara, you really shouldn't be so gleeful that the defense of your nation is in the hands of imbeciles."

I snorted.

"Honestly, Shizuru, I'm convinced that the competence of politicians is one of those things that's universal among nations. Namely, that they're all idiots."

"Natsuki has such a kindly view of humanity."

"Natsuki is crabby because she hasn't had a smoke in more than two weeks."

"And very well-done of you it is, too," she responded without missing a beat.

I gave up and laughed.

"I can't win."

"Natsuki is learning wisdom." Shizuru grinned at me and sipped more tea. I folded the newspaper in half and tossed it onto the table. I'd had enough of Nagi dai Artai for one day.

"If you're still in a reading mood and done with the paper, a letter came for you in the morning post."

"Oh?"

I glanced at the salver Mrs. Hudson had brought in with the teapot and, sure enough, there was one letter left over with my name after Shizuru had extracted her correspondence. I didn't recognize the hand, or the seal pressed into the red wax on the back. Curious, I slit it open with an ivory-handled stiletto Shizuru used as a paper-knife.

My Dear Miss Kuga,

I am writing to you through the kind offices of my solicitors, who have obtained your direction. Your first instinct will be, no doubt, to show this letter to Miss Viola; I strongly urge you not to do so, until you have read it through and can judge for yourself.

A line like that immediately made me glance down to the signature. I should have guessed. Trying to suppress a scowl, I walked back to my seat.

Perhaps I err in setting this to paper, but no doubt you are aware of my present situation. It is a fundamental, guiding principle of British justice that one is innocent until proven guilty. Surely you recognize that, in all fairness, there is no proof that I have done anything at all, regardless of whether the actions alleged are or are not criminal. Rather, the case against me rests entirely on the following:

1. The prejudice of the British juryman against foreigners.

2. Political pressure—you know the source—which sets the popular press against me and, in the second place, whispers in the ears of the coroner, the magistrate, and no doubt the presiding judge.

3. The testimony of your friend, Miss Viola.

Surely you must agree that there is no physical evidence against me, no eyewitness testimony, only supposition and theory that Miss Viola has strung together into a coherent narrative painting me as the guilty party. Her winning manner and clever ways transform things in this way from mere guesswork into a compelling story. Of course my lawyers will seek to have this testimony excluded, but owing to the situation noted above, they may not succeed, and I will end in spending a number of years at hard labor for a crime which all justice cries out cannot be brought home to me.

While I couldn't deny the truth of any of that, I found myself curiously devoid of sympathy. The letter-writer, it appeared, anticipated this reaction:

I recognize that on a personal basis, you may have no interest in my plight. Perhaps you even believe your associate's story and therefore feel that it is better for the letter of the law to yield to what you consider a just result. It is a matter on which we can hardly be expected to find grounds for agreement.

Nonetheless, I must turn to you as the one person who can aid me. You are, I daresay, the only one who can convince Miss Viola that she is promoting a dreadful miscarriage of justice. You alone can convince her to withhold her speculative accusations. Without her, there is no case—the "story" of the "crime" is her creation, and only to her do the diverse circumstances of the case add together to make an accusation against me.

I would hope that your sense of justice and common decency would lead you to act. Nonetheless, if this is not the case, other concerns may urge your intervention.

Ah, now we were getting to the heart of the business. I'd wondered how long it would take before we got to the bribery and threats.

In the future, when searching a room for whatever reason, I would advise you that it would be more sensible to take notes in your own notebook rather than using stationery found on-scene. Particularly, it would be wise to write in pencil, rather than using ink and then leaving the blotter behind, with words in handwriting distinct from that of the room's regular occupant left to tell anyone curious about your activities where your interest lay.

I could feel my left eye twitch reflexively. That little sneak had pawed through Smith's study after I'd left, figuring out what I'd been up to! I'd gone and played right into his hands.

This time, however, your carelessness has actually worked to your benefit. Seeing the subject of your interest, it was easy for me to realize that this was a matter of private concern, wholly unrelated to Miss Viola's investigation of the murder. I can therefore only deduce that your interest in the Illuminated Order of the Obsidian Court is not hers but your own. Moreover, it is clearly a matter of grave import to you, if you are willing to indulge it rather than act on Miss Viola's behalf.

The name hit me like a thunderbolt. The Illuminated Order of the Obsidian Court. O was for Obsidian, and those six people named were his contacts, associates, or whatever within the group! More than that, it established a definite link at last between my mother's killing and this group. "Obsidian" was often used as a synonym for black, poetically, like "ebon," but just as ebony was itself a real-world thing, so was obsidian, a black-colored volcanic glass. That was what the cuff links were made of! They were the badge, perhaps, of a fraternal or so-called secret society like the Freemasons or the Order of the Golden Dawn.

The question was, was the murder Order business, or was it merely that the killers were fellow members? If it had been something like the Masons, which served as a social club for half the upper crust, it would almost certainly be the latter. For a smaller group, though, who could say? The Obsidian Court might have specific political and financial goals that crossed over into criminal dealings (one only had to look at their late member John Smith to see how that could happen!). Even if not, though, it offered a possible way to trace the identities of the two men who'd pushed my mother overboard from the Friesland and stolen her bag from the purser's office.

My hands were trembling a little as I finished the letter.

I would be more than willing to discuss these matters with you at some convenient time. Of course, it is possible that I shall be forced to spend the next several years attending Her Majesty's convenience rather than being available to yours. Offering you this for consideration, I remain,

Yours,

Nagi, Conte dai Artai

(his seal)

There it was. A simple, straightforward business proposal. If I convinced Shizuru not to testify against Nagi—or, I supposed, to present her testimony in such a way as it didn't end up convicting him—he'd tell me whatever he knew about the Obsidian Court. Something for me, something for him. Had he read in my face how important this was to me? Or was this just a last-ditch effort by a desperate man, concealed behind fancy language and a smug manner?

And did I care?

His motives didn't matter. Only mine. Did I deal with a conniving, smirking devil? How much did he know, anyway? More than me, certainly. But enough more? Something valuable?

How could I tell?

And another thing—just how was I supposed to convince Shizuru to go along with this plan? I couldn't even tell her why I might want it. What on earth gave Nagi the idea that I had that kind of power over my friend? To make her throw away her principles, not only of justice for a criminal but the genuine sympathy she showed towards Trepoff at losing his love to the greed of those two men. I had to say that I was more concerned with my own problems, but something about Trepoff's plight had touched Shizuru, just as had the case of the vengeful lover of Warburton Grange this past November.

I wondered if, perhaps, Shizuru had a lost love of her own in her past. She'd never shown any particular interest in men or romance, but perhaps a tragedy or a broken heart explained that. Or it could be a lesson learned from her parents' experience, the scandal Nagi had twice alluded to, that aroused her sympathy towards loves lost.

I glanced up over the top of the paper at her; she placidly lifted her cup to her lips and drained the last of it.

It wasn't right.

Dammit! I wanted to know every bloody thing Nagi had to say. Something, anything of what he knew could be the key to my past. Vengeance not for a dead lover but a dead parent—no, more, for a dead childhood. The single most important thing in my life, towards which I'd spent time, money, hard work, and pain.

But I couldn't do it. I couldn't look at Shizuru and ask her to abandon her principles, her professional honor. I just couldn't try to manipulate her for what I wanted. Bloody hell, I wasn't even sure if I could have asked her right out honestly (if she'd had any idea what I was asking for, which was a wholly different problem).

And now you know why you've always avoided making close friends, Natsuki, I told myself. Just when had that line been crossed, I wondered, the point at which I'd make sacrifices for her sake?

I crumpled the letter in my fist and threw the rolled paper into the fire. I watched it blacken, twist, and crumble to ash with a sour look on my face.

"Natsuki, is it bad news?" Shizuru asked sympathetically.

I shook my head.

"No, just a begging-letter. It took forever to get to the point, that's all."

"Natsuki is annoyed by charitable solicitations?"

"When they ask me for more than I'm able to give, yeah."

"Ara, that would not be a sensible approach."

Forget it, Nagi, I thought. I've come this far on my own, and I'll see it through that way. I had six named to work with, six names and the identity of the organization. Confirmation that the cuff links meant something instead of being a random, pointless fact. I was a lot farther along than I'd been before my visit to Odessa.

"You know how it goes," I said. "There's different things in my life which I have to spread my interest out among. The people who write those letters, only one thing matters to them, so it colors their perception."

"That...is very well put, Natsuki," she said thoughtfully, and got up to pour herself another cup of tea.

~X X X~

A/N: I admit, Natsuki's comment about Shizuru's potential as an actress was spawned by the many similar remarks various characters have made about Holmes.

The bit about an affidavit "not being legally sufficient to convict" is the kind of thing where solid research would help. While I'm reasonably (only reasonably, as I don't practice in criminal law!) certain that it's an accurate enough statement for the present day in the U.S., I have no idea if it would be true or not under British law in 1898.

Haruka's final line from the first scene of this chapter is, I have to admit, my favorite line in the story!

The reference to the Dixon torpedo case Shizuru turned down is not to a Sherlock Holmes case (either actual or a Watsonian reference)--after all, it was taken by somebody else! It's a Martin Hewitt case, from the Victorian detective series written by Arthur Morrison.

The events of this story, on the other hand, are as usual drawn from an oblique reference in a Sherlock Holmes story, specifically the mention in "A Scandal in Bohemia" of how Holmes was called to Odessa in the matter of the Trepoff murder.

And while I'm on that topic, I'd like to mention something else. In several reviews for this series, some of you have noted that while you came to these stories because you were My-HiME fans generally or ShizNat fans specifically, you were inspired by reading them to check out (or reread) the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I've tried to mention it in my review responses to you, but it bears repeating: I honestly can think of no higher praise than that you'd consider my stories to be your "gateway drug" to the Holmes canon. To each of you in that category, thank you very, very much.

Well! We're now halfway through the braided novel (at least in terms of story count...) and things are starting to pick up a little. I hope I'll see all of you in a few months when Natsuki's investigations cross paths with an apparent serial murderer, and another familiar face from My-HiME appears to be at the center of a web of intrigue and violence in what for lack of a snappier title I'm currently calling, "You Know My Methods, Natsuki"!