"You killed them," I repeated numbly. "Not just the Obsidian Prince, but the other Elders, too! Shizuru, how could you do that! After all you just said about not wanting me to burden my soul with murder, how could you do it yourself?"
"But I had to," she said as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world. "I had to do it to protect Natsuki."
"To...protect me?" I only seemed able to repeat her words; thought was beyond me.
"I had hoped to be able to work with Natsuki, to help her solve her problem by working together, but Natsuki did not ask for my help—and then after the Crosby case, the Obsidian Court started making attempts to kill Natsuki! I knew that Natsuki could protect herself in the short term, but did not know how long it would take her to solve the problem itself, so I knew that the only solution would be to cut off the head of the snake."
I continued to stare at her in shock, but this one galvanized rather than froze me.
"You...you knew all about the Obsidian Court and that I was involved with it? For how long?"
"How long?" I shouted.
She shuddered, and the too-bright smile vanished. Even the light in her eyes seemed to go out, some trick of the shadows as she moved making their unnatural crimson brilliance fade to a dull rust, like dried blood. When she spoke, her voice was halting, hesitant.
"Ever...ever since we went to Dartmoor."
"Dartmoor? You mean the Warburton case?" I exclaimed. "You mean—you did come along to snoop on me after all just like I thought! And you made me feel guilty over thinking it!"
"But I didn't!" she protested. "The Warburton matter was a legitimate case." She hung her head, then added, "But...I chose to take that case rather than two offers for work in London because you were going to Dartmoor for your own reasons."
You and your, I thought, not the constant stream of third-person references she'd been using. That, at least, was a relief.
"I was fascinated," she went on. "You were such an interesting and unusual person. You obviously possess intelligence and education, and you speak with a cultured voice. Yet you affect masculine dress, you have extensive contacts in the underworld, and know many disreputable albeit useful skills that no lady who speaks as you do would ordinarily possess. Moreover, from what I could tell you did not engage in criminal activities yourself—at least, not in the present. I could not help but be caught up in this enthralling mystery. So I...observed, and drew conclusions."
"You knew about me, and the Obsidian Court?" I said incredulously.
"Not then, of course, not until we went to Odessa and you were so fascinated by John Smith's cuff links. From that point it was elementary to trace the identity of that symbol. I'd learned whom you'd visited on Dartmoor already, and while I did not know what you spoke to Michael West concerning, I learned easily enough that he had once been a seaman and had suddenly given up his past as purser on the Friesland without warning. On the voyage before his retirement, one Saeko Kuga had fallen overboard to her death. Thus I had a working hypothesis—that the Obsidian Court was responsible in some way for your mother's death."
"And you never said anything?"
"How could I? Had you asked, I would have been elated to help you unearth whatever information I could, but you said nothing to me about any of it, not your feelings, not the facts, and not your ultimate purpose. At that point, it was a matter of satisfying my own curiosity about you, nothing more. I would not just intrude upon your life without your consent."
"Just snoop and spy behind my back? Is that what you call 'not intruding'? For God's sake, Shizuru, I trusted you, like I've never trusted anyone, and this is how you repay me?" I think some part of me knew even then that I wasn't being entirely fair to her, at least as far as it concerned things I'd actually done in front of her myself—she could hardly turn off her intellect and ignore my actions any more than I could expect a dog not to bark or a bird not to fly. But after all that had happened in the past three days, I wasn't in any state of mind to carefully parse her fairness or the lack of it on an act-by-act basis.
I shook my head sharply, and cut her off.
"Never mind trying to explain. Just tell me what changed, because that"—I pointed to the dead man—"is most definitely intruding upon my life!"
"They were trying to kill you! They were really, seriously trying to kill you, Natsuki! It was only blind luck that Duncan Crosby didn't murder you, only the intervention of a madwoman, a murderess who was intent on sacrificing everything for her daughter's sake. It was Nao's mother who saved your life, even if she only did it for Nao's sake...but from that point I knew that the Obsidian Court would be trying to kill my Natsuki, that you'd become enough of a threat to have to be silenced."
"So...what? You decided to start killing people?" I said incredulously. I knew that I had to seem like a babbling idiot, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it, the idea that Shizuru had killed people, destroyed the Obsidian Court's upper echelons. Even though I'd actually just seen her cut down the Obsidian Prince right in front of me I still couldn't process the information, couldn't accept it. This was Shizuru. She caught murderers, not was one.
"I had hoped to take the First District to court. There were threads, financial scandals and other crimes, which if unraveled would have broken the organization. But there was no time; it could take weeks or months to gather the necessary evidence, and by then you might be dead. I had to bring things to a head quickly...and you," she added, staring at me with those empty eyes, "would not turn to me so we could not work together."
"I didn't want you involved!" I screamed back at her. "I told you again and again! I didn't want you to be at risk from the Obsidian Court! I didn't want you to have to decide between our friendship and your beliefs that drove you to become a detective. I didn't want to throw my personal problems at you all at once and make you have to cope with them all. I didn't want you involved!" I almost wept.
She smiled at me, the ghost of her usual grin, but her eyes did not change and that stole all the humor, even the bitterly ironic kind, from the expression.
"But Natsuki, if it concerned you, then I could not help but be involved."
"Why did Julia throw everything away to protect Nao?" she answered one question for another, and the choice made me want to scream.
"No more!" I cried. "No. More. Games. Shizuru! Why couldn't you just stand back and leave it alone? Why did you have to make yourself into...into this?" I waved a hand, encompassing the bloodied, tattered shell of her usual self that she had become.
"Does Natsuki even now not understand?" she whispered. "Or is it that Natsuki will not understand? Very well," Shizuru said, straightening slightly, even squaring her shoulders, "I shall say it plainly: I love you, Natsuki."
"I—" I stammered, but I had no chance to reply; the floodgates had been opened and there was nothing I could do but to endure the torrent of truths as they rushed out of her, battering, hammering at me, threatening to carry me away in their sheer force.
"I love you, Natsuki. I am in love with you. I was attracted to you from the moment that we met, with the feminine beauty you hide under those masculine clothes of yours and the way they served only to emphasize your womanhood instead of hide it. Later, I came to know you for who you are, your strength of character, the kind and gentle side you try so hard to conceal, your dedication, your loyalty to those whom you care for, and mere attraction and interest turned fully to love. I ached to hold you, to touch you. It burned inside me like a flame...and yet I kept that fire banked as best I could. The time we spent together as friends and companions, the way you came to feel for me, if not how I wanted it was nonetheless more precious than I could have dreamed. I...I couldn't always resist; I was never so controlled as I think you may have believed. I flirted with you now and again, though I do not believe you noticed." Her smile grew wan. "Perhaps you could not imagine such advances coming from a woman. We train ourselves not to see things like that, to believe that they aren't possible even when we know that they can be."
Of course she was right.
Had I ever seen it?
Ever imagined that her feelings were more than friendship?
I was aware of lesbianism; I wasn't a complete naif. Whether it was girls at the seminary whose friendship went beyond "friendly" or ladies in the East End whose business catered to their own sex or Bohemians in Soho who more-or-less openly pursued such a lifestyle, I had seen other women whose natures ran in that direction.
Had I ever seen her casual remarks as testing the borders of my awareness?
Seen that her eyes on me held the gaze of desire as well as affection?
Felt that her touch was the caress of a lover?
"You said that I had a powerful reason of my own that was driving me to pursue this case, and this was it. Feeling as I do, how could I abandon Natsuki in the face of such danger? I wanted so much for you to come to me, to ask for my help..."
"...But I didn't."
"You didn't! You were facing death, and yet you insisted on being worried about me! So I did the only thing I could do. I did not know the identity of the Obsidian Prince, so I strove to inflict as much critical damage on the society as I could while at the same time stirring up chaos that might expose further vulnerabilities."
She had slid right into the narrative of the case, like one of her usual summations as she revealed her deductions and exposed the perpetrators. Only this time it was her own crimes she was explaining, crimes she was committing for my sake.
"I began with Mrs. Abernetty. She had the fewest ties to public life or business and could most easily go to ground. Perhaps I was stereotyping myself with the use of poison; it is so often associated with Italians and women both, but I hoped to conceal that a crime had been committed at all, so that I would have a free hand. I believe it worked; had an astute investigator noticed the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter when the doctor was first called, then attention might have been drawn to a housemaid who should not have been there, and doubt cast on the apparent suicide."
"No crime is perfect, Natsuki. Everything we do leaves traces."
I continued to stare at her. My senses seemed hyper-acute from the stress of everything: the disarray of her hair and kimono, the reddening of her face, the bloodstains, the way her sleeves hung to reveal that they were weighted by more than just her stiletto, even the curls of smoke from the fire that tickled my nose seemed to be made plain to my sight.
"When you came back from your encounter in Whitechapel, when you were injured," she continued, "I knew that I could not stop. I resolved to deal with Baron Maupertuis; he was more arrogant and, by virtue of his public and social persona, more exposed than Mr. Merridew. I considered putting a sleeping draught in your tea, but I could not bring myself to do that to you, and so had to trust that you would not wake while I was out. There was no point in attempting to conceal that the killing was a killing; two Elders dead so close together would produce such an assumption regardless. I attended to the matter and was home well before you awoke."
No wonder she'd started to eat a hearty breakfast. She'd had a busy night behind her.
"Of course, by a supreme irony, I was the very next morning engaged to investigate that selfsame crime. It was pure coincidence that initially terrified me, but I knew that I had to take the case when Miss Gartner said that her mistress stood accused of the crime." Nervously, in a gesture unnatural to her, she bit at her knuckle. "Although I had acted to protect Natsuki, I could not let a third party, purely an innocent person, be punished in my place."
"So you accepted the case and went to investigate a crime you yourself had committed." The idea of it made me feel faintly sick, how she had stood there in that study over the body of her victim and coolly 'deduced' the facts about his death. The kind of control it would take to do that, I'd almost have to call it inhuman. Not just to conceal her own involvement by not reacting and not knowing too much, but to banter with Kanzaki, to tease me while we stood over the corpse...In the past, I'd always admired Shizuru's ability to set aside the horror and the human tragedy of her cases so as to do her job professionally, but this went beyond that. This was...monstrous.
"I was able, at least, to free the Baroness's name from suspicion, so that my presence was not wasted."
"And then, that night, when I was at Mai's meeting Porlock, you killed Merridew."
"That was a more difficult matter to arrange. He was frightened and on his guard, and unlikely to allow me access."
"You managed it, though."
"By taking Natsuki's name in vain. I told you that I'd sent him a letter by the evening post and that was the case, but the letter we found was not the one I'd sent. Rather, I wrote to him in the guise of a concerned person, who by virtue of sharing rooms with you came across certain evidence implicating you in the murders of Mrs. Abernetty and Baron Maupertuis, and imploring him to meet secretly with me so that he and I could talk without you learning of it. Of course, I was fully familiar with his household routine, and so knew that Mr. Hartwell would be out on his half-day when the evening post arrived, insuring that only Mr. Merridew would read my letter."
In its way, it was brilliant. I knew from Kanzaki that Merridew suspected Shizuru was my ally, but her direct approach forced him to confront that fear—and Kanzaki had already reported to the Elders that Shizuru was not my accomplice, so in that sense her letter merely reinforced the Herald's information. He'd be forced to recast the players in his head, frightened and unnerved by the shadow of two killings, and have a hand of rescue extended to him, all at once.
No doubt Shizuru was as charming and persuasive in her letter as she was in real life. Merridew had opened the gate to her like a lamb inviting in the wolf.
"When it was done," she said, "I replaced the actual letter with the one we, and the police, later found. I burned the real letter to ash, searched his files for any clue to the Obsidian Prince's identity—unfortunately finding nothing, just as I had in Baron Maupertuis's study—and made certain that he had not entered my name in his appointment calendar or something equally incriminating. And then...and then it all began to fall apart! You arrived home in a shocking state—and Reito tried to arrest you!—and I had no clue to the identity of the Obsidian Prince!"
"And then," I said sourly, "then I learned the truth and left Kanzaki's plan with the man's name and address on it sitting in my pocket out in the sitting-room while I went to take a damned nap."
She beamed at me, a smile that no one should show when discussing murder, a smile that was almost joyful.
"I was so happy, then! First Natsuki had chosen to trust me, and then, then I had the last piece..."
Shizuru stopped then and shook her head, taking a long, ragged breath. When she looked up at me, there was a kind of color in her gaze again, of the old brightness I knew so well.
"I didn't think you would need my help, not really. I knew you'd be more than capable of dealing with the Obsidian Prince's defenses, especially now that you've come so far, but...I didn't want you to have to kill him in cold blood. I knew he had to die, in order for you to be safe and to get your revenge at last, but I didn't want you to have to pay that cost. You like to present yourself as cold and uncaring, but you're not that way at all, you know. Natsuki is a warm and kind girl who has hidden away that side of herself for so long that she does not believe it is there, but I know at heart she is a good person. You proved it again this morning when you let those arsonists go free despite what they had tried to do to us. If you were anywhere near as cold as you think you are, you'd have slit their throats last night after they told you where to meet Reito. You're proving it right now, with the horror in your eyes as you look at me." She smiled sadly as she said that, and then the smile softened. "I'm glad that, at least, you won't have to look at yourself that way."
And what am I supposed to say to that? I thought. I didn't even know what to feel: anger, horror, regret, confusion—hell, even gratitude were warring within me. The best friend I'd ever had had confessed that she loved me in a romantic sense. The kindest, most just woman I knew had confessed to committing at least four murders (and probably more, judging by her disheveled state that spoke of several vicious fights to reach this point) for the sake of that love.
I thought at first that I was starting to feel faint, that my vision was going hazy with how my brain was whirling. But that was not the case, I soon realized. There was a haze growing in the room, instead—a haze of smoke that was curling under the door! It hadn't been my senses playing tricks at all earlier when I'd smelled it, but the smell of real smoke—because the house was on fire!
"Shizuru!" I yelped. "Did you do this?"
She looked confused at first, then realized what I must mean by it.
"Oh, the fire? Yes, I did. I told you that I burned the contents of the vault, did I not?"
"The vault, yes, but the whole house?"
"It is the best way. Burn it all to ash, and so conceal the evidence of all that has happened here. A skilled investigator will determine that it was arson, but will such skill be brought to bear? Will a blackened skeleton reveal that it has been shot or stabbed to any but the most exacting medical eye—and would that eye even be consulted? Any remaining First District members who know their master's identity would be scrambling to bury their association, not encourage it, and to that end would seek also to bury such matters thoroughly. Meanwhile, anyone not aware of the Obsidian Court will see only another tragedy, with no need to press further. It will all be over for you at last, and you can begin living your life."
Temper rose up in me at that last remark of hers, momentarily drowning the other emotions.
"Over? Begin living my life? Like the past is all dead and buried and I can go frolicking gaily into the future? After all this?" I swept my hand in an arc, indicating the smoke, the dead man, Shizuru, everything. "How can you say things are over? What about us? You've turned everything on its ear between us, everything I thought I knew or believed. That is not an end, Shizuru, it's a bloody beginning."
"Is it?" she asked in an offhanded manner, then started to walk towards me, crossing the distance in smooth, even steps. My hackles rose, I even shuddered, as I had no idea what this strange, new Shizuru meant to do. I seemed to freeze in place as her left hand raised, reaching for me. She cupped my face, her fingers and palm searingly warm, like a brand marking my flesh. She leaned in, so close that the loose folds of her kimono brushed my shirt, and her breath tickled my lips as she whispered, "You're trembling, Natsuki."
I was; I couldn't deny it, I was mesmerized by the clouded scarlet of her eyes, terror and anticipation and something else, something primal and unnamable all melding together. My fear-struck imagination conjured up the image of her knife piercing me, claiming me, so strongly that I could feel the pain below my sternum, and yet I could not move to push her away. Was that to be the ultimate proof of her statement that this was the end?
And then her lips were on mine, soft and warm, urging my mouth open with gentle pressure so that I could taste the sweetness. I felt...something...seem to uncoil deep within me, a twisting feeling in my belly that I neither knew nor understood. My senses swam from the flood of unfamiliar sensations, but at the same time the focus on the physical shattered my temporary paralysis.
My hands shot up, grabbed Shizuru's wrists, and pushed her back. The sudden parting sent a sting of cold through my lips and I licked them reflexively, tasting the sheen of saliva she'd left behind.
"Shizuru, what are you doing?"
She smiled sadly at me.
"Proving a point." With a sigh, she added, "But there's still one more thing left for me to do."
Point? What point? What the hell was she talking about, anyway? Why couldn't she just come out and say what she meant? And this talk about having something else to do—that, too, sent cold fingers walking up and down my spine with the certainty I wouldn't like it.
That was when she turned towards the far door.
She had her hand on the knob by the time I was galvanized into motion. I felt like I was moving through water, only the resistance wasn't physical but the hesitation caused by my own fears, my own rapidly shifting emotions. Smoke billowed into the room in a choking, stifling cloud. There was no fireball, but what I could see through the haze of the hallway beyond was lit a ghastly orange, like a vision of Hell, and flames licked along the molding where the wall and ceiling met.
"Goodbye, Natsuki," she said as I doubled up, coughing from the lungfuls of smoke I had gotten by not being prepared, and then she stepped through the door, closing it behind her. I flung myself at it, twisting the knob, only to find it locked—the key must have been in place on the other side for her to turn it at once.
"Shizuru!" I shouted again, hoarsely. "Shizuru!" I hammered on the door, but if she even heard me, she did not relent. The door was too heavy, too solid for me to charge down, and by the time I got the Yale lock picked I'd be walking into an inferno. As with everything else, her timing and awareness in this matter had been both precise and accurate.
There was nothing I could do.
She'd made sure that the ending really was an ending. She'd destroyed the haunters of my past, the bastards who'd destroyed my family for the sake of their endless greed and fear of exposure. She'd made sure that the Obsidian Court couldn't be resurrected—or if it was, it would be in name and spirit but not with a practical link to myself or my past, for them or for me. She'd left me walking away from it all, not clean, exactly, but at least without having to scream "Out, damned spot!" some night in the future. And she'd taken the last step, to make sure that I didn't have to fight my way through how I felt about it all but could just sweep it into the past as irrelevant.
As if I could.
I could feel the heat swelling from behind the door. The library would go up like a tinderbox when the flames reached it. If I didn't want the end of my past to be the end of my future, too, I had to get out. I rushed to the door I'd entered by and, finding it still cool, flung it open. The back hall was smoky, and although not yet aflame that condition wasn't going to prevail for long: I could see the telltale flicker of orange from both ends. Accordingly, I moved fast, stepping over the dead man on my way back to the morning room, keeping my body as low as I could where the air was clearest. the fire was licking along the ceiling there, having obviously worked its way down from above—apparently Shizuru was as thorough an arsonist as she is as anything else—but I got across the room to one of the windows. Sweat poured down my face, but I got the lock open and the sash raised, only to be stopped by the metal shutters. Thankful that the heat wasn't enough yet to bake them red-hot, I fumbled uselessly with the bolts for twenty or thirty seconds that seemed like hours. I was convinced the whole time that the ceiling was about to fall in on me in a rage of flaming debris, but somehow it held until the bolts snapped back, I flung the shutters open, and dove out into the yard.
The rain hit my overheated body with a sudden shock; it was still pouring and the difference between the ovenlike room and the cold spring night was striking. I crossed the long, heading not for the gate but the wall; I could already hear the shouts of concerned neighbors and passerby and the clangor of bells from the fire brigade's wagons. There was no sign of the guard, which I put down to Shizuru's work.
It was entirely possible that the only survivors of the Obsidian Prince's palace would be the mastiffs. Drugged by me, they were out in the wet grass well away from the inferno.
I shrank back into the shadows of the wall and waited for the yard to fill with that mix of well-meaning rescuers and morbid curiosity-seekers that was always present at any disaster. Then I simply joined the crowd, watching the flames eat the building from within even as the rain fought back, keeping the fire from extending to lawn, trees, and neighboring houses.
At last, the shell of the house was unable to stand under its own weight, and with a thunderous crash that elicited many gasps and screams from the onlookers, the roof and walls fell in atop the blaze. The fire continued to rage, tearing at this fresh fuel, but without shelter from the driving rain it was impossible to keep itself going forever and, at last, nature's fury won out over the manmade one, leaving the Obsidian Prince and his works a pile of smoldering ashes and charred timber.
The metaphor for my life and my past couldn't have been more explicit, and I couldn't help but think that Shizuru had deliberately sent me that message. Only, I thought to myself as I slipped off into the night, another anonymous face in the rain-soaked crown, this was one part of the affair she'd gotten wrong.
My mother's death had ruled my existence for nearly fifteen years.
I was certain that I would carry the mark of my time with Shizuru Viola for much longer than that.
~X X X~
A/N: When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes at the end of "The Final Problem" in 1893, it took eight years for Holmes to return in print in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a prequel novel, and another two years for him to actually return to "life" in "The Adventure of the Empty House."
I don't think I'll wait that long. ^_^ Among other things, I think my readers wouldn't be content to wear black armbands of mourning like Conan Doyle's did. They're more likely to form lynch mobs. ^_- Seriously, though, this story is Part 5 of the braided novel, and I really don't want to leave things any longer than I have to. You already had to wait six or so months between the end of "Deep Waters, Natsuki" and the beginning of The Final Problem, a delay that was made all the worse by my needing to skip over "You Know My Methods, Natsuki" due to writer's block.
So, instead, I'll see you in two weeks (presumably that you haven't all given up in disgust by now...) for the start of "The Empty House"!
Inspiration for this story came from several different "unwritten cases" in the Holmes canon. Baron Maupertuis and the scandal of the Netherland-Sumatra Company came from a reference in "The Reigate Puzzle." Merridew "of abominable memory" was from a reference in, ironically enough, "The Adventure of the Empty House." And the Abernetty case, solved by observing how far the parsley had sunk into the butter, was a reference to the importance of trifles in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."
Some of you may object to my transferring Shizuru's destruction of the First District in My-HiME to the Sherlock Holmes character. I can only defend myself by referring you to various incidents in the Holmes canon where Holmes chooses the cause of justice above the cause of law and order: in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," he makes the deliberate decision to let the murderer go. Most of all, though, I refer you to "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs," where the crook "Killer" Evans shoots and wounds Watson. Holmes's reaction, upon finding that it is only a minor wound is: "'By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.'" I think the combination not unfitting, when we merge the two characters, to lead to Shizuru's course of action.