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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cheri - Part 5

Part 5

“And so, I was hoping that you would view the blossoms of the cherry tree with me,” he stammered with a nervous blush. Blossom viewing was a popular pastime.
“That sounds like fun, Junior!” Chèri replied honestly, her nose stuck in a ledger. “When? I’m a bit busy right now. Since I haven’t worked on Kiki’s accounts in months, they are an absolute mess!”
Junior inspected the enormous pile of scrolls, books, and loose papers scattered across the table. There was no way she could finish all of that today. “Uh… tomorrow evening?”
Chèri shook her head. “No good, I’ve already got plans, but I could make lunch for us tomorrow, and we could do it then.”
“A picnic sounds wonderful, and it would give us a chance to talk,” Junior replied in relief.
“That’s if I’m done by then,” Chèri murmured absently, a frown creasing her brow as she hunted for a particular record to verify the problematic number.
“Right!” Junior was smarter than he let people think, and he immediately knew that it was in his best interest to help her out. He got as comfortable as possible, and started working on a separate ledger.
Kiki entered the room, and smiled at them without calling attention to herself. She whispered to the man standing right behind her, “I always get such wonderful free work out of my nephew when Chèri comes by.”
Louder, she announced, “Right this way!” and led the man into the room. “Here is the painting I told you about.”
The older gentleman ignored Chèri and Junior, and focused on the painting. “I see…” He inspected it very carefully, even brushing his finger across it, and peering at it so closely that it looked like he was licking the paint.
Kiki maintained a pleasantly smooth expression as she watched him.
“You’re right,” the man concluded. “This painting is a fake. A very good fake, but still.”
Kiki sighed. “I know I had the real thing, it was given to me by the artist a couple of years ago as a patron gift. So, the question is, when was it switched for the fake?”
“I couldn’t say for sure, but based on the feel of the paint, I’d say this one can’t be more than a couple of months old,” the man stated.
“Fairly recently then,” Kiki mumbled to herself, and then led her guest towards the door. “Thank you for your help.”
“Anytime,” he offered with a smile, and then left.
Chèri marked her place with the edge of the first paper she could grab, and then stood up. “A forgery to cover a stolen painting?”
Kiki smiled as Chèri walked to her. “Yes… I only realized it because one of my patrons complained about a similar occurrence on the same day as a report came in from… Well, it got me thinking, and I had a bad feeling about this one.”
Kiki turned to contemplate the painting again whispering to herself. “I’ll have to report this to the big boss.”
“Big boss?” Chèri wondered.
“Never mind about him,” Kiki hastily commanded. “Let’s just say that the majority of the crime in this city has to be approved of, especially something this big. This is … not.”
Chèri cast Kiki a probing look. “You are not doing anything illegal, so why are you associated with the ‘big boss?’”
Kiki knew that junior might have his suspicions, but she wasn’t about to confirm anything for him. So, she gave Chèri an unexpected hug.
“You are too curious for your own good, my friend! I’d much rather we were doing this,” Kiki purred, licking the side of Chèri’s neck that Junior couldn’t see from where he was sitting. “He pays me well to pass him information when I uncover some, among other things,” she whispered.
Chèri realized that Kiki was using the flirting as a cover for answering her question, so she smiled and played along. “Now now, if you keep kissing me, people are going to get the wrong idea.”
“Who says it’s the wrong idea?” Kiki laughed. “Ladies can be patrons too.”
Chèri had never even thought about this before, so she was caught off guard when Kiki kissed her. Kiki was very good at kissing, and Chèri found it enjoyable. Especially since her heart didn’t start pounding like it did when Reiki kissed her. She didn’t lose her mind, or long to be touched in intimate places.
The kiss lasted longer than Junior was comfortable with, and Kiki ended it when he started coughing on purpose. “Junior; leave us!”
Junior gaped at his aunt, but Chèri laughed. “Oh no! I could never afford your prices!”
“For you, darling,” Kiki stroked Chèri’s cheek with her hand, and then repeated the action with her face. “I need to talk to you,” she whispered.
Chèri acted like she was tempted but indecisive. Finally, she nodded. “Junior, could you please go brew me some tea?”
“And take your time!” Kiki insisted.
Junior wore an expression of utter astonishment mixed with something that Kiki assumed was a strong wish to be a fly on the wall. He set his work aside, and silently left the room. Chèri completely ignored him, and stroked Kiki’s back as if encouraging the madam to kiss her again.
Junior reluctantly shut the door, and Chèri giggled softly. “I think he quite believes we’re serious.”
Kiki shrugged, but then turned to face the painting. “The big boss suspects that this unauthorized art theft scheme is bigger than it seems. It angers him someone would dare to pull something of this scale in his territory. He’s got us all keeping our eyes and ears open, but so far there’s nothing. I know he doesn’t care who catches the thief, so long as he is caught.”
Kiki pulled an expensive gold and bejeweled pin that looked like a chopstick from her hair, and handed it to Chèri. “Hold that for me a moment,” she ordered, and then rolled up the painting. It had been removed from its frame during the earlier inspection.
“Take this painting, and that hair pin, and –“ She gave Chèri directions to a specific outdoor food cart, and then told her what to do when she got there.
Chèri grinned. “Thank you!”
“Oh!” Kiki exclaimed as Chèri made her way to the door. “And don’t forget, if you ever do want to find out what happens next, there will never be a price for you!”
Chèri shifted the painting, and held one hand out to open the door. “I appreciate the offer, but no thanks,” she declined with a smile.
“I figured,” Kiki muttered.
Junior grumbled as he made tea, wondering why he even bothered. It was obvious that they didn’t actually want any, and would probably be busy until it grew cold anyway. He heard someone running, and Chèri call out.
“I’ll be back later to finish the accounts!”
“Don’t worry; they can wait as long as it takes!” Kiki assured her.
Junior frowned. They hadn’t had time to get fully undressed, much less finish. So… where was Chèri going? He mulled this over for a moment, and then grinned.
“They weren’t actually planning to do anything; they just wanted me out of the room!” This thought greatly relieved him, and gave him hope that he still had a chance after all.
Chèri had already worked on Kiki’s accounts for most of the morning, and it was approaching lunchtime, so she was happy that her next task was at a food stand. She rushed out of Kiki’s large pleasure house, through the well tended courtyard, and picked up speed as she neared the gate. It was wide open, and she crashed into some men on their way in.
“I’m sorry!” She cried out as she immediately bent to pick up the painting she dropped.
“Chèri?”
Chèri held the painting and the pin firmly as she straightened up. “Reiki?!”
“What are you doing here?” The Emperor asked curiously.
“Um…” Chèri blushed guiltily. “Business… Sorry, I have to be going now.”
“Wait,” Reiki insisted. “I’m not here for…”
Chèri smiled. “Then you can tell my why you are here the next time I see you. I really do have to go.”
Reiki watched her run away, and sighed in depression. “This was horribly bad timing!”
Ran grinned. “Not at all. It’s good to let her think she’s not the only woman on your mind. In fact, you shouldn’t have said anything.”
The three of them entered Kiki’s place. At this time of day, most of the girls were still asleep, so no one was in the entryway except for a man who kept an eye out for trouble. He recognized Ran as a regular, and waved them through.
“Junior! Where is that tea?!” Kiki demanded loudly from her office. She wasn’t afraid of waking her girls because the place was well insulated to prevent sound from carrying.
Junior didn’t notice anyone as he emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot and two cups across the entryway. “That was really mean of you, Auntie, pretending to offer Chèri your services. You know how I feel about her!” He entered the office, not noticing that he was being followed.
“Oh relax!” Kiki laughed. “You are the only one who thought we were serious!”
“Even so, will you please stop kissing her?!” Junior begged.
“Need I remind you, she’s a true blooded lady? You haven’t got a chance!”
“Thanks for your support,” Junior grumbled. “Chèri isn’t like the other self-important nobles. I think she’ll consider me. We do have plans tomorrow after all.”
“What did you say?!” Reiki growled, entering the room to confront Junior. He was dressed plainly like he was whenever he left the palace “unofficially.”
Junior scanned him dismissively. “Oh, you’re the man that Chèri dragged all over town a while back. I thought you had moved away or something.”
“General Sapphire!” Kiki greeted with genuine delight. “What brings you here at this time of day?”
“I’m just running an errand for my brother. He wants to host a party, but has absolutely no idea what’s involved in planning a party, and there are no women in the family who can plan it for him. So, he thought he’d hire you or one of your girls,” Ran explained. He had dragged Reiki and Ko with because it was obvious that the Emperor needed a break from his never ending duties.
“Certainly!” Kiki agreed with a grin. Entertaining guests was all part of her job, and most of her entertainment was fit for the most discerning taste. This meant that she was a good person to go to when needing help with a society event. “Let’s discuss the details in the parlor over tea.”
She turned to Junior. “I don’t know how long her errand will take, but knowing Chèri, she’ll return to finish working on that, even if it takes her all night. Would you please make sure that she doesn’t? I want her out of here by 8PM, understand?”
“No problem!” Junior agreed, happy to have an excuse to wait around for her. If he was lucky, he might even get to walk her home. Even better, if he worked on the accounts during her absence, he might be able to get most of the work done so that he could spend even more time picnicking with her tomorrow.
Kiki smiled, and then escorted her guests to the parlor. Reiki glared at Junior before following the others. She can’t really have plans with him tomorrow; she has plans with me! He must be mistaken…

㆝㆝㆝㆝㆝㆝㆝

Chèri bowed respectfully as she held out the ornate hair pin. The rolled up painting made her action awkward, but she managed not to drop it. A man in his 30’s raised one eyebrow curiously, and then returned Chèri’s bow. He was dressed like a man belonging to the middle class – such as a merchant or shop owner might be.
“How can I help you?” He asked.
“My name is Shurin Ruby. I’m an Official working in the Outer Palace, and something was brought to my attention earlier. I wonder if you would mind speaking with me for a few moments,” Chèri explained.
“Certainly. Have a seat,” the man invited.
“Thank you,” Chèri accepted with a smile, and then added. “And you can call me Chèri.”
She paused to wave at the man working behind the food cart. “I’ll take an order of whatever your special of the day is, please.”
He nodded, and promised to bring it out to her as soon as he could.
Now seated across from the man she’d come to see, Chèri placed the rolled up painting on the table. “My friend showed me this earlier, and I can’t resist a good mystery. She thinks that I can be of some use.”
The man didn’t even need to look at the painting to know what it was; a fake. He stroked his chin in thought, watching as Chèri used the long bejeweled pin to twirl her hair up with no concern about how she looked. Her hair looked a bit messy when she was done, but it was messy in a way that looked good on her.
Chèri made sure the pin was secure so that she wouldn’t lose it, and enthusiastically thanked the food vendor when he served her a bowl of noodle soup. She offered a quick prayer of thanks to her chosen deity, and began to devour her meal.
“Hot!” She gasped, and fanned her mouth with one hand.
Her companion laughed. “But tasty, right?”
She nodded with a grin.
“Just supposing I could use your help solving this mystery. Exactly what do you plan to do?” He asked.
“I simply planned to gather as much information as I could, and then hand it over to the Department of Investigations to find the culprit and bring him in,” Chèri informed him.
“Ah… See, that could be problematic for me. I don’t get along well with the Department of Investigations,” he explained with a shameless grin.
Chèri looked mildly depressed. “Oh. I’m sorry to have wasted your time then.”
“Not so fast! I didn’t say I wouldn’t help. I’ll give you all of these,” he tapped the painting, “that I’ve found. In exchange, I hope that you’ll leave my name out of your report.”
“That’s easy, I don’t even know your name,” Chèri stated honestly.
“Ah… So Kiki didn’t tell you who she’d sent you to see,” he guessed correctly.
“Nope, just someone who also had an interest in this. I rather guess from the context that you might be the so-called big boss, but I have no idea who you actually are,” Chèri replied, decided that honesty was the best policy in this situation.
“Yes. I’m the big boss, but if I am entered into your report at all, it had better be as ‘unknown informant,’ understand?”
Chèri nodded.
“Good. You can call me Bo,” he told her. “Only my friends call me that, so almost no one would know who you’re talking about anyway.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Bo!” Chèri grinned.
Bo tapped the painting again. “I’ve found three other fakes so far. Well, three that were switched with real ones located on display in businesses. There were a couple more for sale in shops around town. Whoever painted them is good, and he doesn’t seem to have a favorite artist. So far, the paintings have nothing in common with each other, and none of the originals have shown up… underground.”
“For sale, huh?” Chèri murmured, referring to the fakes located in shops. “I think it might be worth going around town to see if there are any others that haven’t been discovered yet. I’m confused though. Each artist has his own unique style, right? So, someone who could credibly forge paintings from a lot of different artists would have to be very skilled. There can’t be too many people with that level of talent,” Chèri voiced her thoughts aloud.
“That’s true. Which makes me wonder why someone with that kind of skill would resort to crime when he could easily get high-paying commissions,” Bo was stroking his chin again.
“I suppose that he could be doing it against his will. Or he could think of it as a challenge. He could even be doing someone else a favor,” Chèri theorized.
“I’d place my money on him doing it against his will,” Bo remarked.
“Personally, I hope not, because if that’s the case, then we have to find out who is forcing him,” Chèri reasoned. “It would be far easier from an Official’s point of view if he was simply bored, and wanted see what he could get away with.”
“Perhaps,” Bo smirked. “But when is life ever easy?” He tossed enough money on the table to pay for both their meals.
Chèri was caught between protesting that she could pay for her own food, and accepting his generosity. Practicality won out, and she smiled and gave him a quick bow of thanks. Never turn down a free meal!
“Meet me back here tomorrow, and I’ll give you what I have,” Bo instructed, taking Kiki’s painting with him, for now.
“Until then,” Chèri agreed.
She decided to return to Kiki’s to give back the pin and finish her work so that she could devote all day tomorrow to her mystery. She and Junior finished just as the clock struck 8PM, and he walked her home.
“I’m sorry, Junior, I can’t picnic with you tomorrow, but I’ll make it up to you by making dinner tonight,” Chèri offered.
Junior sighed, and accepted her offer. He was too nervous to say what was on his mind with Sho sitting right next to him, so he returned home after dinner mildly depressed.
The next morning – after her chores, nearing lunchtime – Chèri wrote a note, and hired a runner to deliver it to General Ruby. She figured that the runner would be allowed to deliver a message from Lady Ruby to her cousin the General without question. Any message intended for the Emperor was filtered through palace security first; therefore, it would probably never get to him in time to cancel their plans.
Figuring that it would be better for her to visit the art dealers as Lady Ruby – as opposed to Official Ruby – she dressed in the least expensive of her best houmongis, applied a light layer of make-up, and styled her hair with a couple of silk flowers. Determining that she was ready, she left her house. There’ll be no running for me today.
Bo was waiting for her even though she was early. He grinned and gave her a deeply respectful bow. “My Lady.”
His greeting was that due from a member of the commoners to a member of the highest nobility, so she merely nodded at him graciously.  Her station was such that she technically wasn’t supposed to bow to anyone but the head of her clan, the leaders of the other 8 great clans, the higher Officials, and the Emperor.
“It seems like soup probably isn’t the best lunch for you today,” Bo guessed referring to her lovely dress. “So why don’t we get some taiyaki as we walk.”
“I’d love that,” Chèri consented.
Bo lifted a large, mostly empty sack onto his back, and then gestured for Chèri walk beside him. They headed for the nearest shop that offered art, and stopped at a street food vendor to buy two orders of the large sweet bean filled fish shaped bun on the way. It was a popular snack food all across the Empire.
Hours later, the sun began to set, and Bo hired a small rickshaw to carry them to her house. Upon their arrival at her front gate, he helped her out of the cart, and lifted the completely packed sack full of fake paintings, and offered to carry it inside for her.
“Thank you, but no,” Chèri declined.
“Surprisingly, I had fun today,” Bo informed her.
Chèri laughed. “I did too.”
Bo pulled a long hair pin from the pocket in the sleeve of his wafuku. It exactly matched the one that Kiki had borrowed her yesterday. “May I?” He asked.
Chèri nodded, and turned her back on him to allow him to undo her hair so that he could twirl her hair up with the pin. He placed a hand on each of her shoulders, and whispered in her ear. “This pin indicates that you are trustworthy. If you ever need my help, just present your pin to the food vendor where we first met, and he’ll send for me.”
Chèri turned to face him again, accepted her silk flowers back, and smiled. “I don’t know how to thank you.” She was shocked when he kissed her. It was a brief kiss, but held the promise of so much more.
He whispered in her ear, holding her closer than necessary. She knew that he was simply trying to give anyone that saw them the wrong impression. “Remember, tell no one that you know the big boss. It’s safer for you,” he whispered.
“I will,” Chèri agreed softly, her cheeks flushed with the thought of the danger she could be in if anyone thought she was somehow connected to the leader of all organized crime in Capitol City.
Chèri watched him leave, then turned to drag the heavy sack through the gate to her house.
“Who was that?” Reiki demanded jealously.
“Reiki!” Chèri gasped in astonishment. “What are you doing here?”
“You cancelled our dinner plans, so I thought I’d come ask why. I’ve been waiting for hours, only to find that you were out on a date with another man!”
Chèri rolled her eyes, and gestured for Ko to carry the sack into the house for her. She didn’t even bother to respond to the accusation. A few moments later, she directed Ko to set the sack on the large table in the formal dining room.
“Good evening, father,” she greeted Sho with a hug. “I had an interesting day.” She rummaged through the sack.
Locating the painting Kiki gave her, she rolled it out on the table. “Kiki gave me this yesterday.” Next, she rolled out several more of the other paintings. “And I picked these up today all around the city.”
Sho gaped at the paintings, a hand over his heart. “You bought all this?! With what money?!”
“Oh no!” Chèri laughed as if he was being silly. “They gave them to me.”
“But…” Sho protested in confusion. “These are all famous! They’re expensive! Why would the shops just give them to you?”
Chèri grinned mysteriously. “Because… they’re all fake.”
“Fake?!!!” Sho gasped in astonishment, and bent to inspect them closely.
“Yes, a friend helped me figure out which ones were the fakes, and the art shops gave them to me as part of my investigation. I have a scroll here listing where each painting came from, and signed by the shop owners swearing that they had no idea they were fakes when they acquired them.”
Reiki couldn’t decide whether to be impressed or remain angry with her. He focused on the paintings. A frown slowly covered his face. He looked to Ran and Ko for confirmation.
Ran shrugged, but Ko nodded.
“Most of these are supposed to be in the Department of Treasure and Royal Artifacts,” he stated.
“Are you sure?” Chèri asked intently.
“Absolutely,” Reiki nodded.
“Yes! That narrows things down for me!” Chèri cheered happily. ‘In fact, I can write my report tonight and submit it tomorrow for further investigation.”
Reiki sighed in an indefinable mix of emotions. “Before you do, may I talk to you?”
Chèri paused – she had been rolling the paintings back up – and looked up at him. “I suppose.”
He took her by the hand, and led her out into the garden where they could have some privacy without being too private – in case Sho was worried something inappropriate might happen.
Ran and Ko both shook their heads. Ko muttered, “I think he needs to just give up on her.”
Ran agreed. “Yeah. He should accept one of the many offers of marriage, and just forget about her until she’s ready.”
Sho smiled sadly. “You are both thinking of what is best for the Emperor, but neither of you have considered that maybe he needs her as Reiki the individual. Before I left the Empire for a few years, I was one of the tutors for the Imperial Princes. You don’t know anything about what it was like for him back then. He was bullied and persecuted… and blamed for all their troubles. His mother didn’t even love him, and screamed at him for being born. She poisoned herself rather than remain the previous Emperor’s newest and least liked Queen.”
Sho paused to sigh. “Maybe he simply craves one person who will be there for him. Someone who will call him by name, and talk to him like he’s no different than any other person.”
Ran and Ko exchanged concerned looks. They honestly had no idea since they never visited the Palace before taking the tests, and their parents had never mentioned anything about the youngest Prince except that he was weak. Reiki himself never opened up about his past, so they never thought he was anything other than a spoiled Prince who happened to outlive all his older brothers.
In the garden, Reiki paced in frustration. “We had plans… but then you cancelled. I’d overheard someone named Junior mention that he also had plans with you today, and I thought you had cancelled our plans in order to spend time with him. I wanted to immediately issue an order to have him brought in and possibly executed, but I resisted. Instead, I came here to find out for myself…
“Then, after staying out late, you finally show up with an unknown man, and then let him kiss you! The two of you looked like you had been on a date, and Ran and Ko had to restrain me from stealing one of their swords and running him through! Can you imagine how I felt?”
Chèri realized that he wanted to have a deeply serious conversation, so she suppressed her natural instinct to make a joke, and play his fears off as silly. “Reiki…”
Reiki knew what she was going to say before she said it, and he narrowed his eyes in anticipation.
“I hoped you would trust me,” Chèri whispered.
“How can I? You push me away, and refuse to answer me when I ask you to marry me. You didn’t even seem to care when you caught me going into a pleasure house!” Reiki blurted out.
“I didn’t care because I knew that there was an explanation,” Chèri stated. “If you wanted that, you’d have gone at night or summoned someone to you at the palace.”
“So…” Reiki thought this through. “You’re saying that you trust me?”
“Of course,” Chèri smiled, and then shrugged. “Besides, you’re the Emperor. You can have as many women as you want, and there’s nothing I could say about it even if I were your wife.”
Reiki was silent for several long moments. “It doesn’t matter when… months from now, a year from now, two years from now… If you just promise to marry me someday, then I promise that I will trust you no matter what.”
Chèri felt like crying. She didn’t want to make any promises that she couldn’t keep, and while she did admit – to herself, in her head when she was completely alone – that she had feelings for him, she wasn’t ready to figure out exactly what they were. Quite honestly, she didn’t like him pushing her like this all the time.
She took a deep breath. “What if I promise, but set the time at 10 years from now? Could you really accept that? I don’t know when I’ll be ready to get married, and it’s not fair to either of us for me to make a promise I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to keep.”
“Why not? What is it about me that you –?”
“No! It not you!” Chèri interrupted him fervently. She tugged on his wafuku, and stared him in the eyes so he could see how serious she was. “You are always so wonderful to me! No one else makes me – anyway! It’s not that I don’t want to marry you; it’s that I don’t want to get married at all. I don’t want to be the good woman behind a great man!”
Reiki was confused again. “You say that it’s not me you are against marrying, but I’m the only one you won’t let kiss you. It seems that every time I come into town to see you, someone else is kissing you, and you just let them.”
Chèri was still holding his wafuku, and she used this to hide her face by looking down. “That’s because those kisses meant nothing to me,” she mumbled.
“But my kisses do?” Reiki asked, feeling hopeful again.
Chèri pressed her face into his wafuku and hid the deep red blush that burned her entire face. I can’t say that out loud!
Reiki smiled, and decided to test his theory. He wrapped one arm around her back, and used his other hand to lift her chin. She closed her eyes in response, already knowing what he had in mind.
Each time, it gets harder to remember why I mustn’t let him carry me away! Just one kiss from him, and she couldn’t stop imagining him for days! Her body would ache and burn, and the reason she usually pushed him away was because she didn’t know what to do to stop this feeling!
Chèri untangled her fingers from his wafuku, and wrapped her arms around his neck. She opened her mouth, and gave him permission to kiss her like Kiki did. All thoughts left her mind for a long time, and then, one thought echoed repeatedly; I love him!
She gasped, and struggled to be free from his tight grasp. “Let me go!” She demanded in a whisper. “I can’t!” She insisted vaguely. Why? Why can’t I?
Reiki was far too frustrated by her conflicting actions to think clearly. He let go of her so abruptly that she fell to the ground, then spun around, and strode around to the front of the house.
“Ran, Ko! We’re leaving!”
“Yes Majesty!”
Chèri listened to them leave, perfectly comfortable crumpled up on the ground. She was so confused, and tears streamed silently down her face. Sho noticed her, and ran to see what was wrong.
“Shurin?! What happened? Are you hurt?” He asked, pulling her into his arms.
“I’m not hurt… I just don’t know what to do. Why does he make it so damn hard for me to think straight?” Chèri asked, snuggling into her father’s warmth.
Sho simply stroked her hair for a few moments, then very quietly, he murmured, “Is marriage really such a horrible idea? There are worse fates than being married to the one you love.”
Chèri sat up, dried her eyes, and mumbled, “I have a report to write.”
The next day, she entered the Department of Investigations just before Minister Hong took his lunch break. She carried a basket full of food, and had the large sack strapped to her back. “Care for a bite to eat?”
The Minister’s eyes narrowed as he regarded her warily. “Official Ruby… What brings you here?” It had only been two weeks since her last unexpected visit.
Chèri ignored him for a moment as she removed a pot from her basket, and poured some tea into his empty and waiting cup. Then, she pulled a plate out of the basket, and set it in front of him. Lastly, she filled the plate full of food she had cooked earlier specifically for this meeting.
“You don’t have to bribe me, you know,” the Minister remarked as he eagerly dug into the food on the plate. Chèri took the opportunity set her report down on his desk so that he could read it at any time. He took a sip of tea, and opened the scroll.
A minute later, he nearly spit his tea out, but hastily swallowed it instead. “Is this true?!”
Chèri nodded, and slid the large sack off her shoulders. “I have all the fakes I could find right here.”
“I’ll have to send someone out to talk to the merchant guild. According to your report, most of these were legitimately bought by the various shops from different merchants. It’s a safe bet that none of the merchants knew the paintings were fake when they bought them.” The Minister stroked his chin in thought.
“Hmm, Official Ruby… Would you do me a favor? I’ll give you a pass to get into the Department of Treasure and Royal Artifacts. Tell them you’ve been ordered to bring me… something small, like a vase or anything really. Tell them I need to verify something, but use the excuse to take a look around to see if any of these paintings are still there.”
“Yes Minister,” Chèri accepted with a respectful bow. She turned to leave.
“This is excellent! Do you mind if I help myself to more while you’re gone?” The Minister asked.
“Not at all,” Chèri replied, tossing a grin over her shoulder. She ran to the Department of Treasure and Royal Artifacts, reviewing her time working there as she did so. She’d had to dust – of course – but she didn’t really pay attention to the art. As a result, she had no idea what was there at the time.
She presented the Minister in charge with her pass. “I’m supposed to bring a particular artifact for verification.”
The Minister remembered her fondly, and returned her warm smile. “Good to see you again. Good luck finding anything in this mess! We’re currently reorganizing everything to make more room, and I have no idea where things are because of it. I don’t suppose you would like to help out?”
Chèri bowed. “After I find what I am looking for, if I am no longer needed in the Department of Investigations, I would love to come help out here for a bit.”
“Excellent!” The Minister gushed happily, and waved her permission to look for whatever she needed.
Hmm, he must not be part of this. He’s not trying to hide anything or impede my random search, despite knowing that I’m here on behalf of the Department of Investigations.
A half an hour later, Chèri selected a pretty tea pot. “Found it!” She announced with a happy grin. “I’ll be on my way now, and I’ll return if I can!”
The Department of Investigations was in an uproar when she returned. Minor Officials were inspecting the paintings in astonishment, wondering how anyone could tell if the paintings were actually fake. Chèri ignored them, and stood as close to Minister Hong as she could without looking like she was trying to offer anything inappropriate.
“I saw about half of them, and from what I remember off the top of my head, they were the ones that had been on the market the longest. This suggests that they were taken and returned at some point,” she whispered discretely, and then set the tea pot on the table in front of the Minister.
He examined it, and then paled. “Do you know what this is?” He asked softly.
“A royal treasure,” Chèri shrugged.
“I’ll say!” He carefully handed the pot back to her. “Consider this verified, and bring it back!”
Chèri bowed, gathered up her basket, and left. Looks like I’ll get to help out after all! She was glad she had a list of the fakes in her basket, because she’d be able to mark down when she came across the real ones.
She helped the department reorganize for a week, before they were finally finished. During that time, one more original painting appeared, but she had no idea how it got there. It strongly suggested that at least one person involved had regular access to the Department of Treasure and Royal Artifacts. She reported this to the Minister of Investigations, and he sighed.
“This means that I’ll have to work with the Minister of Civil Affairs… again…”
Chèri smiled, and offered to bring the request to her uncle.
“No… you’ve done enough,” Minister Hong smiled. “I think you should go home for now. I’ll send word when we solve this case, or if we need your help.”
Chèri suppressed a frown, bowed, and then left.
A week later, the man working in the Department of Treasure and Royal Artifacts responsible for taking and returning the authentic paintings was caught, and cut a deal to avoid an excessively long stay in prison by telling them who the artist was. The Minister of Investigations sent a team out to arrest him, but the artist was gone by the time they got there.
“At least we apprehended the Official supplying him with the originals,” Minister Ruby, Chèri’s uncle, said in an attempt to comfort the Minister of Investigations.
“There is that,” he replied. “Here; I’ve written up a commendation for Official Ruby. She deserves an award for discovering this case.”
Shurin???” Minister Ruby was baffled.
“Yes,” Minister Hong confirmed.
Her uncle rubbed the back of his neck, and sighed heavily. “I can add the commendation to her file, but I can’t act on it.”
It was the Minister of Investigations turn to sigh. “Just as I cannot hire her into my department though she is clearly suited to this work.”
“I have a whole file of glowing reports on her, but I can’t do a thing about it,” the Minister of Civil Affairs shook his head sadly.
            With nothing more to say, the two Ministers remembered that they disliked one another, and went their separate ways.

Go To Part 6 

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