Tales of the Sea Bitch (3)

Phoebe's World

    She is Phoebe.  She is Paradox, and in every living moment she recreates the universe around her in her image.

    I'm starting with something I said in my first story because, you see, here is where it really happens.  This story is where everything turns upside down.  This is the one where you stare at me like I'm inventing it as I go along.  But you know I'm not, because I know already where this story ends up, and I'm telling it like it happened.
    Phoebe has that effect on people, as I've said.  Now you're starting to get affected by it too, even though all you're doing is sitting there watching me empty a bottle of wine.
    There's a turn of phrase for when a larger than life hero shows up, saves the day, defeats the army, performs the impossible quest, and it's not a fictional event but a historical retelling: it's like they stepped out of the pages of a story.  Well, in this story, I stepped into the pages of one.  I recognized what was happening because it was something that only happened in stories.  Of course it is in a story now, this one, but at the time it was real, however unlikely that seems.  And I'm saying all this after I've already told you about a boy falling from the sky.
    You know how Phoebe is, when you first meet her she's this flaky half-elf who is just totally off the wall out there.  After a while, you get to know her, and she is not only so darned confident about it, she has the abilities to back it up, and you start questioning whether it's she who's crazy or whether it's actually you who's the crazy one.  The Sagas, the Epics, the ballads and the plays, they all tell of strange events and ask you to suspend disbelief.  But you can go home and take comfort in your knowledge that it was just a story, what is real is you and the rain on your face and the impeding hangover the next morning, those things will assure you that the story was just that, a story.
    Back in my first story again, I said this:

    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.

    By the time I'm done with this story, and maybe one or two more if the wine keeps flowing, you'll be wondering whether you're really sitting there listening to a fictional tale or whether it's actually you, sitting there keeping my wineglass full as I tell it, who is fictional.  The story itself is real.  That I promise you.  If you chose not to believe that, then maybe it is you who isn't real after all.  Or just maybe, like Phoebe's half worlds, they are both real.  Just don't think about that too hard or you won't like where it takes you.

    She is Paradox, and in every living moment she recreates the universe around her in her image.

    Welcome to Phoebe's world.

    In Shira Miyara we'd finished dinner, I'd settled the question of the sleeping arrangements for Phoebe and myself, and we'd returned to our rooms.  Not long after that we were summoned to a meeting about the upcoming mission.  I'd kind of expected Lady Miyara to handle it all herself on a need to know basis, since it was all politics, but the way she told us it was clear that all those in her service were to attend.  I still hadn't got used to my new role as samurai to the princess, but I'd certainly go along with it in the meantime.  She'd given me nothing to object to, really, except dragging me back into high society -- albeit a very different one from the Sea Elves.

    The Miyara, Lord Miyara himself, conducted the meeting as if it was a military briefing.  He laid out the simple facts and told us to get on with it.  We were expected to leave at first light the next morning.
    We would be going to Kin Tani Valley, where a Crane lord called Tsume Retsu had been murdered in his Castle Kyotei.  It had occurred at a festival, so several other lords were there including the Phoenix lord who was Miyara-san's concern.  No word of anyone being accused had reached here yet.  The Phoenix lord was Miyara Katsuda, although he was not in fact the princess's uncle.  I guess I heard it wrong over dinner.  Lady Miyara was delegated a magistrate of the court of the Miyara, so her word would be as the word of Lord Miyara, and she was authorized to ask anyone questions as if she were him.
    Although no-one had said it, I'd figured out that all this Crane and Phoenix stuff was about clans of families.  It seems that the Miyara family was a family of samurai, sent to do the dirty work for clan Phoenix.  So that made me a samurai to a samurai princess, which I guessed in Nipponese terms was a pretty high status thing if I bothered to think about it.  Sounds as good a way to travel Nippon as any.
    So Lord Miyara stopped talking after the brief summary and looked at Miyara.  We all looked at her too.  She simply said, "Yes," and we retired for the night.

    What a night that was, I must say.  Fresh and bathed, beautiful clothes, good food, comfortable rooms, servants, all good stuff.  But best of all, of course, was Phoebe...

    Morning came all too soon, woken out of our embrace well before sunrise by a discreet servant.  We were dressed for travel and served breakfast in our rooms.  I chose to wear my normal travelling clothes, since I could not -- at least yet -- imagine travelling in these light Nipponese fabrics.  I was, I must admit, very happy that Phoebe had taken a liking to the local dress and chose to travel in that.  Her sheer beauty would accompany me along the way, inspire me, sustain me so that I would not notice the effort of the journey.
    Phoebe did look disappointed that I did not choose to wear the lovely clothes of Nippon, but I was able to assure her that I would bring something nice to wear when we were no longer travelling.  In fact, our servants had packed a light wardrobe of good clothes for all of us, as I'm sure we would be expected to wear at Castle Kyotei.
    Lady Miyara's retinue no longer had the samurai from the ship -- we would now be her protectors, I imagine -- but had added about ten or so servants.  Her trusted servant Sun was now able properly to assume his role as head of her household servants, and had hired on more to make sure her needs were met.  These new servants included Donku, the cook from the ship, who stood out by his sheer size and who had befriended Grieg before the unpleasantness on board.  He, and the rest of the servants who could find space, climbed on the two wagons so they could rest and gossip while we travelled.  We walked at the pace of the oxen that drew our baggage, which would drag out our journey to about five days.
    As for the higher class, we were expected to walk.  It's an interesting reversal from the western humans, where the higher class ride while the servants walk.  You might even consider this a foreshadowing for the world turning upside down in this story, if you like, although of course at the time I had no idea what was in store.
    Grieg would probably be pleased that his friend Donku was coming along, although it would be hard for the supposed-samurai to socialize with a servant.  Perhaps as a result of this, he seemed to want to spend all his time with his other friend, Tony the young Tilean.
    Tony himself showed up as a real warrior despite his young years.  He wore chain and leather, with a rather comical conical leather helmet.  He carried broadsword, short sword, and shield with the manner of a man twice his years, someone who had seen battle and all that followed.  Stowed on the wagon he had a composite bow and a couple of bundles of short sticks, one of them having a spear point but being too short to be useful.  I noticed he had directed his servant to make sure that all were accessible at a moments notice, and in fact that servant was starting to take on the role of a squire to a knight.  Tony may be a commoner and a boy, but he has the air of a professional soldier and a good one at that, a survivor of more campaigns than his age would allow.
    All our personal gear was stowed on one wagon, while the other held the supplies.  Although we passed by inns on the way, each night we camped by the side of the road.  With farmland around us rather than wilderness, the camps were a civilized affair, with jaunty Phoenix flags and cheerful laughter.  It was more in common with a ship in port than a camp alongside a trail, and I felt at home despite the solid ground instead of the comfortable motion of the deck.

    Once we'd spent the first night on the road and the light tone of our journey was clear, I decided that it was time to deal with our albatross.  I casually mentioned to Phoebe that I'd have to have a serious talk with Grieg, and that I wished I could tell whether he was lying or not.  She said that one of her spirits would sometimes tell her such things.  She continues to amaze me as well as delight me, so skilled at her spirit talking as well as so graceful and lovely.
    So that night, after dinner, I approached Grieg and said we needed to talk.  He seemed puzzled at first and somewhat reluctant, but I said it was important and he came along.  We found a quiet spot where we would not be overheard.
    Grieg was impatient and irritable.  I nevertheless explained that I needed a couple of answers, and that Phoebe could tell whether either of us were lying or not.
    "About what?" he replied sharply.
    First I told him what I was not going to ask: his name, what lead up to the samurai fight, what he'd done or what crimes he'd committed back home.  Those didn't interest me, I said.  But I did need some answers, because we need to work together here.  I said flat out that I didn't like him and didn't trust him, and that everything he'd said so far was so inconsistent as to be plainly lies.
    I said there were a couple of things I needed to know before I could trust him enough to work with him.  I said that I needed the whole truth, not some truthful statement wrapped up to mislead.  I added that in return, he could ask me questions and I would respond truthfully under the same conditions, and that Phoebe would confirm that I was telling the truth in my answers too.
    Grieg was starting to get annoyed.  In addition to the impatience of youth, he seemed to have a bad temper, and it was clear I'd better get on with it rather than approach it as if I were talking to another elf.  These humans are so impatient with their short lives.
    I dropped my plan to give an example from my own life of something that I could say that was truthful but misleading -- "When I left the Sea Elves, I avoided an arranged marriage" -- and then explain what really happened.  Between elves, I'd be establishing trust and giving something from myself, to show I was genuine and fair, but this young human would probably not trust an elf like myself anyway and his attention span was rapidly running out.  So I went directly into my questions.
    My first question was what had been his role in criminal organizations.  To his great credit, he accepted my clear statement that he had worked with criminals without any malice on his part, and simply acknowledged it with his answer.  That fact alone, no matter what he had said in his answer, changed my opinion about this boy.  Gone were the evasions and clumsy misdirections that had driven me to distrust him in the first place.
    He said he moved goods from one person to another, small stuff that he was paid well to transport.  When I asked, he was most emphatic that it was goods, not people, that he transported.
    I asked then if he was just a glorified errand boy with a talent.
    He said he looked for customers among the criminal element, but this was only a short term job to him anyway.  By that he implied he was more of a freelance than a bound gang member, which again also eased my mind.  He went on to say something about saving enough to start up a business like his father had and his uncle took from him, but I cut that off with what I hoped was a polite enough gesture because I really did not want to hear all that stuff.  Justifications I don't care about in this case, his own actions would speak for him if he described them truthfully.
    And he did describe them truthfully, according to my dear Phoebe.  I hated that I had to drag her into this, especially because she of course came gladly and willingly when I asked, so eager to please me.
    I then asked Grieg what had caused him to run, what had run him out of town.  Again, he accepted that as it was stated, a fact without judgment.  Perhaps I had been wrong about the boy after all.
    He told me about the night he poited from the Empire, which ended up with the mistake that brought him over the sea in our ship's path.
    He had been transporting an illegal substance, a routine business with a familiar client.  Unfortunately for him, his client had died the night before while writing in his journal.  It turned out that not only did the client document all his illegal dealings in this journal, but he also named names.  When the body was discovered, the town magistrate and guard found the journal.  It had a record of when Grieg -- under his alias in that town -- was due to arrive and what he was to be carrying.
    So when Grieg made his delivery, they were waiting for him.  As luck would have it, they only knew when and where he was expected, not how he would make his entrance.  When he poited in to the house, he immediately realized it was full of guardsmen.  He panicked and poited back out as far away as he could get, but in his hurry made a mistake and ended up over the sea.
    Phoebe confirmed the truth of his statements.
    He'd spoken plainly and clearly without ambiguity, which was exactly what I'd asked of him.  I told him so and thanked him.  Now I knew who he was, I said, and we could work together.
    Ever fair -- in actions as well as in looks, you could say -- Phoebe then spoke up.  She reminded us both that I had said he could ask questions of me too.
    Grieg had no questions, however, so I told him he has those questions in hand.  If the time came when he had questions to ask, I said sincerely, I would give him the answers he was owed.  I added that after our talk, I was willing to trust him and kind of start over, if he was willing to forgive me not liking and not trusting him earlier.
    He was understandably non-committal about it, but the albatross had been cut free from our necks.  He had acted tonight as I hoped he would when I first met him, and this was good enough for me.  I now respected him in his own way, and hoped he would do the same for me.
    In fact, as we walked back to the camp, I turned to Phoebe and told her that it went better than I had expected, and thanked her.  She brushed that off with a humble, "It's what I do," and I told her that she does it so well.  Silently I hoped she realized how much I appreciated and respected her in every way.

    The journey continued the next day.  My step was lighter, the weather seemed better, and a great burden had been lifted.  We were no longer being dragged down by the albatross.  Grieg may be a low class criminal, but he was a conscientious one and could be trusted to complete the missions he was assigned.  The only issue now would be cultural, Empire clashing with Nippon, and that was Lady Miyara's headache, not mine.  Since she was a magistrate of Miyara, she could deal with it by absolute word if necessary.

    Yes, I know this all sounds reasonable so far.  I'm clearly well into this story, and as yet I've told you nothing to strain your imagination.  But that's about to change.  You, my audience, must now step into Phoebe's World and remember that perhaps we all walk half in this one, which we call real, and another, which you will call flights of fancy but is every word the truth.  Bear with me, accept what I tell you, and realize that the most fantastic stories all start from real events.

    It happened on mid-morning of the last day of our journey.  We were travelling a road across wetlands, pools and islands of grass to either side, not quite a lake but not quite a swamp either.
    Our caravan came up on an old man on the road ahead.  He was in old clothes, a peasant, bearing a chest on his back with obvious effort.  Contrasting his dull clothes was a brilliant blue scarf, quite out of place.  He tried to get out of our way, being that we were of much higher station according to the rules of Nippon, but slipped and fell off the causeway into a pool.
    He was slow to bring his face up out of the water.  Immediately without a second thought, the familiar trio of Phoebe, Peter, and I, rushed to his aid.   We pulled him up out of the water and helped him back onto the road.

    I did not notice this at the time, but others did -- as he fell into the water, the cranes feeding in that area were not disturbed.  Only when we went down to help him did the birds fly off in a burst of spray and sound.  Interpret that as you will, I'm not going to explain it for you.  No, really, I'm not, and no bribe will change my mind.  But I'll take that bottle of wine you're offering anyway.

    So, we pulled the old man out of the water.  He was unhurt, fortunately.  Up close he looked much the same as he had from a distance, the scarf contrasting with his peasant clothes, his long white hair tied in a queue down his back.  He bowed copiously to us, and I took care to bow slightly in acknowledgment, hopefully in keeping with what would be my station in Nippon.  He thanked us profusely and offered to perform a tea ceremony for us.
    Lady Miyara was the first to speak up.  She accepted on our behalf.
    The old man set down his chest.  He opened the lid and drew out a sky blue carpet.  As he lay it down in front of him and smoothing it out, we could see that it was embroidered with scenes showing the life of a heroic man.  As he did so, he asked Peter to get the tea set from the box.
    That was when I noticed that his clothes were perfectly dry, whereas ours were still soaked from the water.

    I think that's when it hit me.  I'd stepped onto the pages of a story.  The old man, the wise man who plays some significant but cryptic part in the story as it unfolds.  I'm sure you recognize the motif too.  He slips and falls in our sight as a test, to see if we would help him or if we would pass on by leaving the peasant discarded by the roadside.  He then continues the test, or by then perhaps it's no longer a test but the beginnings of a teaching.  If we're unlucky, he's a demon who will curse us in the guise of rewarding us, but that's a less common theme and generally reserved for those already with a clear destiny.  If this went true to the stories, he'd reveal something to us that we wouldn't understand yet, but would desperately need later.  So let me go back to the story and continue, while you wonder if I have really left off the tale to speak to you here in this inn, or whether you too are part of this story already.

    Peter found the tea set and brought it.  Later he'd tell us that also in the chest were a katana bound with a ribbon, and a small mahogany box of a size to contain a pair of town shoes.
    The man laid out the tea set, then asked me to mix the powdered contents of two bags into the teapot, along with water from the slow river that flowed alongside the causeway.  I did that, and soon after I placed it down it began to boil with no apparent source of heat.
    I simply accepted the strangeness without surprise.  I was grateful to Phoebe for being in my life, as she walks in this world and another, I could accept that her mere presence could open up the connection here today.  All of us walked in two worlds then, on the causeway of the world we recognized, yet also in the world of this old man, where water did not wet him and cranes did not shy from him, where tea boiled in a pot without heat.
    Now those around us joined the ceremony and sat down around the carpet.  The three of us who had pulled him out of the water, and Lady Miyara who was already here, were joined by Tony and Grieg.

    I won't go into details about the tea ceremony.  It's a Nipponese thing, and you can hear about that from any traveller to that region.  I could tell you myself, but it's a distraction to this story and doesn't add to it.  I'll skip over it.

    With the ceremony over, the old man looked up at Phoebe.  He told her that there was a katana and a mahogany box in his chest, and that she might have either.
    Phoebe explained afterwards that a long time ago Lady Miyara had told her that the correct way to accept a gift was to refuse it twice.  In addition, a gift accepted must also be balanced by a gift given, a gift of similar value.  She spoke to the old man, saying that she did not need to be granted anything more than he had already given her.
    The old man said he wanted her to have it.
    She politely and graciously said that the tea ceremony itself was plenty.
    He pressed again, and having declined twice Phoebe now said, "Thank you, spirit.  I accept the choice of a gift, and I would like to offer you a dance in return."

    Yes, I'm interrupting my story again, but this is important.  This is not just the "I will dance for you!" kind of dance, a passing fancy and a pretty sight for an idle day.  You might not realize just what Phoebe is offering here.  She dances between the worlds, builds a connection with the spirits and can bring the spirit world and this world together in her motion and rhythms.  What she was offering was an acknowledgment that the world of the spirit in the form of the old man and the world we knew were close here, and offering to bring them closer so that sharing between the two was smooth and natural. That positive energy could flow, that we could all be enlightened. That was the dance she offered.  She is a most amazing woman, this half-elf from the forests of Kislev.

    The spirit said he was a very old man, and would not be able to appreciate the beauty of her dance.
    She said he need only watch and accept her spirit dancing in his honor.
    The old man said that such as herself should dance for the gods, not for old men.
    Phoebe said with absolute conviction that was who she would dance for, and the old man accepted.
    Her dance was beautiful and spiritual, as only Phoebe can dance.  The kimono emphasized the grace, her jewelry defining her motion in sound as well as light, her green hair swirled around her as she performed the intricate motions.  I sat entranced on the threshold between this world and the spirit world as she brought them together with her beauty and grace.
    I don't know how long she danced.  Perhaps fifteen minutes, perhaps a lifetime.  But when it was over, she walked lightly over to the chest and picked the mahogany box.
    The old man expressed his appreciation for the dance, and thanked her for her gift.
    Phoebe thanked him too: "Thank you, spirit, for this lovely box and your presence."
    We too thanked him.  He sat there as a peasant, although it was now clear he was no such thing.
    We waited for Lady Miyara's cue.  She bowed her head slightly, and three times offered him an escort to his destination.  But three times he declined, saying that the roads of Nippon were always safe when the likes of us were around.  He said that our paths diverged from here, but that he was sure they would cross again.
    Lady Miyara stood up, and we followed suit.  When we were ready to go, she turned to him again, bid him farewell, and said she looked forward to meeting him again.
    He bowed very deeply and said farewell himself.
    We bowed very deeply to him, as fitting to one who was clearly not the peasant he appeared.
    The old man stood by the road as we resumed our journey.

    You see, that is the seed of the Old Man in the sagas and epics.  Real events like that, that happen to real people such as myself, those get incorporated into the fiction because they are so vivid.  Do you really think there could be a hermit in the tales of the kings of Albion if there had not been hermits in the real world?  Could there be magic in the tales if there was no magic in the real world?  These things happen, and I've described this one to you as it happened to me on the road in Nippon.  Scoff if you want, deny its truth, but do so at your own peril.  It will come back to haunt you, and you'll be left wondering which was real and which the story.  Accept it, believe my story, and you will build a story of your own, knowing that you are indeed, like Phoebe -- like all of us -- walking in both this world and another.  But Phoebe, still, is the only one who can open that door and speak to the spirits beyond it.

    The box?  Yes, of course Phoebe opened it.  It was a lacquered mahogany with no decoration.  Inside were two scrolls of rice paper.  Knowing that she could not read Nipponese yet, she left them untouched, closed the box, and put it on a safe place on the wagon.

    As for the old man and his ceremony, you'll have to wait for another story to see where that leads.