Tales of the Sea Bitch (3)
She is Phoebe. She is Paradox, and in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
inspire me, sustain me so that I would not notice the effort of the
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
I then asked Grieg what had caused him to run, what
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 --
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.