Tales of the Sea Bitch (1)


    She's a whirlwind of calm.  A thunderstorm of serenity.  Her dancing brings stillness.  Her drumming brings silence.  Just when I am sure her hair is green, it is brown; when I know for sure it is after all indeed brown, it becomes green again in the morning sunshine.  She's half human and half Elf, and yet she is neither and more.  She is mine, as when I watch a sunset it is mine.  I am hers, like when I raise my face into a rain shower on a hot day, I belong to the rain shower.  She is warm and soft and real in my arms, and yet so light of spirit she could vanish at any moment.  And if she did vanish without warning, it would be with a wave and a smile and a shift of the universe and she would still be with me somehow.
    She says I am a spirit, and who am I to contradict that?  I don't believe I am, just a Sea Elf, but she is so sure, and how can I say I am not when even I believe I put my astral energy into each draw of my longbow?  We have been together for months, and yet it feels both an eternity and an instant.  She listens to voices in her head that no-one else can hear, says they are spirits, and yet I must believe her.
    She is Phoebe.  She is Paradox, and in every living moment she recreates the universe around her in her image.

    You expected this tale to start in Miragliano, didn't you?  You expected something about the town, the countryside, the boat, the voyage, some astute observation or something.  But I am not the main focus this time, even though it is my story.  Phoebe blew into my life and changed everything, just like Brathien changed everything once before, only more so.  Brathien and Alathea all rolled into one, if you like, although I'd take Phoebe over even that very attractive amalgamation.  This particular tale is of Phoebe, no matter that in the meantime I finished my westward voyage and came all the way back east again and further, which at any other time would be a most momentous event.

    I do tend to get ahead of myself, I know, and I'll try to keep it under control or you'll never follow this story.  Which would actually be appropriate, because Phoebe has that effect.  Around her, you no longer know what is real and what isn't, and yet it doesn't matter.

    And when this story begins, I haven't even met her.

    I spent a few days out in the countryside here in northern Tilea, and it was really pleasant.  By now, however, it was starting to feel normal, and it reinforced my earlier decision that it really was time to start east again.  I returned to Multo Bene a couple of days before it was due to leave, spent most of those days in the Inn, and prepared to work my way around the coast of the middle sea.
    This time I'd be hitting familiar ports.  There'd be inns and girls to look up again, there'd be inns and men (and other girls) to avoid, familiar wine to be drunk, and the same food to be eaten.  Woods would be hunted, dances danced, and I'd kick back and relax until I could make my way across to the southern seas.

    We left Miragliano on the afternoon's tide, bound for the major port of Luccini.  I was headed east again.  It had taken me five years to get here from Ind.  I wondered how long it would be before I reached the far end and headed back west again, whether I'd see Cathay and Nippon before turning around.
    A group of four landlubbers were on board, getting in the way.  They were particularly weird, but there'd be a chance to stare at them later.  Two very exotic women, though, one of them a half elf with green hair, which looked surprisingly pretty.  Still, for the time I was busy, and everything had to take second place to that.  Well, that's what I told myself, but I kept glancing over at the half elf despite myself.  It had been so long since I'd seen anyone but humans.
    After a couple of hours, the ship was out to sea and we had some time to relax.  The shore was still in sight, but receding as the sun set.  I hung out with the crew for a while, trying to figure out whether the passengers were out of bounds, but taking a good look at them quite openly.
    There was a man and a boy, looking almost normal.  I ignored them mostly.
    The human woman looked and dressed Nipponese, which probably meant unfriendly, if the trip on the silk trader had been anything to go by.  To emphasize that, she was clearly a warrior, and had an evil scar down one side of her face, slicing through an empty eye socket.  Not someone to be messed with, or even approached unless she was already in a good mood and drinking.
    The half elf was just plain weird.  She wasn't quite as tall as me, but taller than a human woman.  She had no trouble keeping her footing on the deck, although she didn't have her sea legs yet and had probably never been on a boat.  She was definitely attractive, dressed in rough woven clothing with a long flowing skirt decorated with beads.  Feathers were braided through her hair.  She jingled when she walked, all bracelets and jewelry, but with the light step of a dancer.  I'd be lying if I said she didn't stir me inside pretty much the instant I got a good look at her.  As long as that man wasn't her husband or boyfriend she had to be fair game.
    The crew say they should be out of bounds, but I know the captain on this boat is pretty slack about it as long as it doesn't cost him money.  In fact, after the passengers did a quick trip down to the interior cabins which they obviously found disgusting, he'd set up a tent with hammocks on deck for them.  He can't have been too worried.

    The captain went below eventually, and I decided I had to try my luck.  I didn't know how the crew would react, but I didn't care.  They probably wouldn't throw me overboard, at least, and I wasn't planning to come back this side of Luccini for a few years anyway.  They were arguing about whether she was an elf or not, so I stood up and told them I'd find out.  They were happy to let me approach the passengers first, and Mario even cheered me on, he alone knowing what I really had in mind.  Why do you think he was so amused by encouraging the local men to hit on me in every port?
    The Nipponese woman was writing scrolls in a corner, and the man and boy were just idly hanging about.  The half elf was dancing, eyes partly closed and lips moving, very intent on what she was doing.  I watched her appreciatively while casually working my way over there.
    As she stopped her dance, I made sure I was right there without getting in the way.  I said hi, and tried to start a conversation.  Barely had I managed to get a word out, however, when she sat down immediately at my feet, stared up at me, and said, "Hello, O Spirit!"
    "What?" I said.
    "Do you wish to speak with me?" she said.
    I think I just kind of stood there, stunned.  I mean, what else could I do?
    She asked me if her dances pleased me.  Of course I said they did, which was certainly the truth.  Goodness knows I was too caught off guard to make anything up.  I think I asked her if she knew the Tilean dances, and called to the sailors to start playing, because the next thing I knew we were dancing around the deck in the Tilean fashion.  She fumbled a little initially, but that was only from unfamiliarity with the dance, as she very quickly picked it up.
    She's a real dancer.  Later of course I'd come to understand that it's part of the way she communicates with the spirits, but just then all I knew was she was a natural, and we floated across to the deck to the music from the forecastle.
    She kept calling me "spirit," but soon asked my real name.  I told her.  She told me she was called Phoebe, which is the name her spirit father chose for her.
    She was definitely a strange one, but fascinating.  I managed to get my mind back from wherever she'd dragged me and start a light conversation with her, to try to find out more about this dancing mystery.
    She said she was from a village call Abaytu, on the far side of Kislev.  I'd never been to Kislev, I said, since this was as far north as I'd ever been.  The more we talked, the more flaky she seemed.  Totally out there.  But she was so sure, you had to have doubts.

    Look, this isn't a romance story.  You can always tell a romance story, because you can steal the purse of someone who's telling it and they won't notice.  Try that on me, and my rapier will have your hand pinned to your leg before you get halfway.
    Yes, there's no swashbuckling, no mysteries, very little philosophy, but that's because there wasn't any, not because I'm leaving any out.  This story ranges all the way from northern Tilea to the shores of Nippon, and pretty much all that happened on the way was Phoebe.
    So this story is about Phoebe, but it's really about how I stopped going west, turned east, and made my way all the way across the world.  And it's about how things changed for me on the way.  Which takes me back to Phoebe.

    Just to cement my advantage, I warned her off the crew -- you know how men can be, I said -- and she thanked me "O spirit" for the advice.  It turns out she was daughter to one of the spirits that lived deep in the forest, which to me pretty much indicated she was half Wood Elf, which would kind of explain some of her flakiness.  I told her that I'd met a wood elf who taught me the longbow, and I offered to teach her that.  While she might have been interested in the philosophy, it was obvious she wasn't interested in the weapon itself.
    Well, here goes, I thought to myself, and called to the sailors for a slow dance.  They obliged.  I showed Phoebe how to hold me close for this dance, and we floated and swayed for a while.  I was intending to wait until the passengers had dispersed to really make my move, but I kind of started to lose track of what was around me.  The Nipponese woman had gone into the tent, while the boy had settled down on a pile of rope nearby to sleep.  The man continued to watch us in fascination, while I expect the sailors were probably watching with an attitude best described as excited horror.
    I steered the dance around so that the tent was between us and the sailors, and that was where I tried to kiss her.  I was totally taken aback when she responded right back.  I had no choice but to let myself go and follow wherever it lead.

    What seemed like all too short a time later, it was my watch.  I apologized to her for having to leave her then, got up, and fetched my rapier and bow while Phoebe meditated.  Eventually she went off to sleep in the tent.
    I guess my attention really wasn't on the watch.  I was at a loss, having no idea what to do with someone so willing.  So pretty, with a lovely point to her ears as well.  This had never really happened before, and the last place I expected to run into it was on board a ship.  I could get dangerously used to this, though.  She was flaky, sure, but nice flaky.  Perhaps that added to the attraction, I don't know.

    It took just 24 hours to approach Luccini, but we had to wait until the next night and morning to enter on the tide.  By then Phoebe and I were fully involved, and there had to be no-one on board who had the slightest doubt as to the extent of our relationship.

    Phoebe was going ashore here, so I figured this was as good a time as any to leave this ship.  As I approached the captain, however, it was no longer a question: he coldly fired me.  I'd stretched his tolerance way too far, but it had been so worth it.  Fired beats being run out of town, too.  Not bad at all, considering.
    I didn't even have to hurry to catch up to and disembark with Phoebe, and ask her where she was going.  She told me she was heading for Nippon with the Lady Miyara, the Nipponese woman.  Since I'd been intending to go that way myself, this seemed like the perfect coincidence.  (See already how Phoebe shifts the universe around her into a slightly crazy confluence of events.  I've really started to think she -- or her spirits - can maybe do that.)  I asked if she would approach the Lady for me, but she demurely said it would be best if I did so myself.
    Lady Miyara was on the dock, speaking Imperial to everyone, which everyone was refusing to understand.  I'm sure it was because she was a foreigner, and an intimidating one at that, with scar and sword and a commanding air.  I hurried up to her and told her in Nipponese that I spoke Tilean, and she gratefully allowed me to interpret between Imperial and Tilean for her.  The locals could not pretend not to speak Tilean, after all.
    The Lady was looking for a Nipponese ship, which surely couldn't be hard to find in a Tilean port.  I hadn't seen one since southern Araby, and there could only be one here.  That turned out to be the case, tied up at the cheapest end of the dock apparently waiting there a long time for the Lady's arrival.
    I asked Lady Miyara if I could go along.  As I said, I could work passage.  If she wanted crew I could do that, and with my bow I could drop a sailor from a crow's nest at a distance and avoid a fight.  We talked briefly about archery; she said she'd lost her own longbow, so I offered to make her another.  She declined, saying her trip was too fast to stop on the way.  I kept talking, saying I could stand the night watch.  Eventually something softened in her eye and she agreed to take me along.
    I quickly mentioned I wouldn't take up much space as Phoebe and I could share a room, and she said she'd bear that in mind.  She had to know what that meant, and so there was a pretty good chance I wouldn't get kicked off this ship, not if she had any influence anyway.

    It was very soon clear she not only had influence, but was in charge.  Six samurai rushed from the Nipponese ship and greeted her with typical Nipponese embarrassment and formality.  They had a fast chattering conversation which I couldn't follow.  I think the Lady lost something, didn't have it with her as they expected, but that it was all right after all.  She then said she was ready to leave, and lead us all -- Phoebe, myself, the man, and the boy -- on board to be followed by the samurai.
    Another six samurai waited for inspection aboard.  This was not at all what I had expected, and completely different from the Nipponese silk trader I had travelled on before.  Heck, this was a whole other world, perhaps even a warship rather than a merchant.
    I hoped Lady Miyara would make sure that everyone else on board wouldn't overreact to me, although if I had to swim ashore in a week or two it would be worth the time spent with the flaky woman from the forest village on the far side of Kislev.
    The captain of this ship then had a stilted formal conversation with Miyara which lost me totally.  I didn't bother to try to understand any of it, although it seemed clear that he was deferring to her.  That was a good sign.
    Once that was done, the Lady came back over to us.  A servant soon arrived and asked her what our accommodations were to be.  She replied that Sun was her servant (presumably the boy), Peter was a priest, I was a warrior, and Phoebe was... (long pause) ... a priest.  The servant walked out backwards, surprisingly subservient even for a Nipponese.  This Lady Miyara must be quite something in her home country.
    As for me, I'm a warrior, eh?  Big step up from crew, and when I found out I was mostly a guest rather than being expected to do much, I'd have to say that things were looking up.
    The crew hurriedly built two more rooms into the ship to handle the Lady's unexpected guests -- one specifically for Phoebe and me -- and by then it was obvious I'd be in for quite a pleasant trip.
    When we finally introduced ourselves properly, it turned out that Peter called himself a doctor.  The servant, Sun -- seemed a nice boy when I said hi to him -- seemed to be very well trusted.

    We sailed that evening.  As we left the port, we passed a huge Imperial trader on its way in, yelling rudely at us, insulting the ship's Nipponness and the lack of seamanship of the crew.  While it is true that we may have cut them off rather unusually, I'd have to say that they obviously deserved it and that I didn't care in the slightest.

    It was a long voyage, a voyage of delight.  I barely left the ship the whole time, unusually for me, preferring to spend my time with Phoebe.  We got to know each other a lot more on the way.  Days on the deck, me watching her drumming and dancing as she talked with the spirits, or her watching me as I practiced the longbow (surprising the crew who expected target practice, when all I did was movements with an unstrung bow, sometimes even just standing still for minutes on end).  We danced, we talked and I became accustomed to Phoebe's own strange ways of talking, we lay in a hammock in the evening breeze, we spent intimate nights in our cabin.
    I told her of the philosophy of the longbow.  She told me that she believes that elves -- including her father -- are spirits.  She is a shaman, and her purpose is to communicate with spirits and intercede with them on behalf of people.  She has spirits that talk to her in her head -- she sees me as no different, and is immensely flattered that a corporeal spirit like me would take an interest in her.
    After a while that didn't even bother me, being thought of and addressed as a spirit.  Everyone else thought she was flaky, way out there, harmlessly insane, but while I admit she seemed that way, I've come to question that first impression.  There's no denying that she lives half in this world and half in some other one.  The only question is whether that other world is real or not.  I believe my arrows are speeded and guided by the collective elvish spirit energy, and how is that so different from what she believes?  Instead of questioning her beliefs, Phoebe made me question mine.  So who's the flake now?

    Like I said at the very beginning, she is Paradox, and in every living moment she recreates the universe around her in her image.

    But the voyage did come to an end, as we approached the shores of Nippon where Lady Miyara called home.  It was really uneventful -- I have left out no pirates, no fights, no mysteries, no running from enemies, because there were none of those things.  I stayed out of the way of the sea elves who organized and escorted the convoy from Araby to Ind, of course, but they were mostly on their own ship and that was not really an issue.
    The crew ignored the issue of Phoebe and me, which considering they'd probably chop my head off rather than just put me ashore seemed like a good thing.  I'll be curious to find out if that's Nipponese tolerance, Nipponese ignorance (of elves who they think have their own ways), or just Lady Miyara's influence.

    To be honest, when it came down to it, we sailed from northern Tilea to the shores of Nippon and that was pretty much it.  Without Phoebe there wouldn't be a story.  So Phoebe is this story.