Tales of the Sea Bitch (10)


    It was after dinner on the day we arrived that The Miyara sent for our princess.  Of course we had barely been in the place a few hours, so it was surely time to send her off again.

    There would be a festival hosted by Phoenix at the shrine of the Ki-rin, and Miyara has the honor of guarding the scrolls on the last leg of their journey.  It's a wizards festival in fall.  They gather above the shrine to eat, drink, and show off.  The winner receives a cache of scrolls from all over the empire.  traditionally Isawa (a Phoenix family) wins, but not always, so it isn't predictable and stays interesting.  It's also an excuse to politic.  Emperor's family and daimyo from seven major and some minor clans attend.  This time, the emperor's niece Okomo Yoroshiku will be there, and her uncle the emperor has just announced her eligibility for marriage.  Suitors from every clan will be there to win her heart and hand... or at least her hand.
    The head of Isawa sends out a caravan to very major school, to get one unique scroll spell from each.  The winner takes all of them.  It takes the caravan several months, and each daimyo provides guards for certain legs of the journey.
    Guess who gets to be the guards for the last leg...

    We were to meet the caravan near the City of the Rich Frog, at a Unicorn clan castle at the edge of their lands.  We were to escort it from Unicorn to the Ki-rin shrine.
    The caravan itself would have a set of guards, and Lady Miyara would take command of them as well as bringing us.  It looked just like a merchant caravan, not saying what its precious cargo is.  It wouldn't have the number of guards such a cache of valuable scrolls justified.  We are there to protect the scrolls, nothing else matters.
    The road would parallel the river.  With a perfectly good river there, we would have the honor of walking.
    We of course would not be awarded Yorushiku's hand, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't give it a shot, right?  But the priority would be for a boy from Miyara to win it.

    The journey there is uneventful.  This time we didn't have to walk, but could ride horses.  Donku rode on the wagon, of course.  The trip was long enough to learn to ride.  Can't say I liked it much, but it beat walking.
    We approached Shinjo Gidayu's castle after about twenty days.
    We beat the caravan there, and would stay as guests until it arrived.  Our host was to be leaving the next day, but we were welcome to remain here and take advantage of his castle.  The castle was small, but contained a couple of rock gardens and a hedge maze in the gaijin style.
    Phoebe dances around the hedge mazes.
    I like the rock gardens and find them a fine place to practice my bow.  I do well.

    Two days after we arrived, so did the caravan.  They paused to water the horses and take us on, and then it was back on the road.  The previous guards, Lion clan, handed it over to us and stayed on at the castle after we left.  There were six of them, looking obviously samurai Lions, making no attempt to avoid ostentation.
    Three wagons with silks, spices and other wares to be sold at the festival, drawn by 6 shaggy ponies.  Five Unicorn merchants are there to disguise its true purpose.  15 bushi guards, the most that can be taken without drawing attention, are with us.  7 are mounted on horses.  The scrolls are in a large cedar chest of 36 boards, locked with three bands of steel.  It sits at the bottom of the second wagon under a pile of 40 fur-lined cloaks and 13 leather goods.  A shugenja (wizard) from the Iuchi school has been assigned to watch over the scrolls at all times, eating and sleeping there, sworn to defend them to the death.  The guards were most recently covering the front and rear, four horses in the rear and three in front, the walking guards in and out and between the wagons, taking turns on guard or resting on the wagons.
    Tony volunteers to take up position at the head of the caravan, under his breath saying something about magic users.  He was wearing his chain under his Miyara silks.  He was keeping a very careful eye on everything while not appearing to do so.  He tried to blend in by carrying his Nipponese weapons, although his shield hung ready to hand.
    Phoebe of course was also dressed in the silks, blowing in the wind as she rode.  I stayed alongside her whenever the terrain and guard duties permitted.
    Me, I stuck with my elven leather.  I looked odd anyway, just as well stay prepared.
    Miyara rode a pattern around the whole caravan, looking like she was just enjoying the ride, but actually covering a precise path to keep watch in all directions.
    Donku's wagon fell in behind the third merchant wagon.  Phoebe's horse seemed to have a mind of its own and followed that wagon.
    Peter rode in the second wagon, with the single merchant.  They had assumed that the wizard would have wanted that seat, but of course he stayed below decks with the cargo leaving that seat free.
    The road was just wide enough for a wagon, although the countryside was grasslands so we could ride alongside most of the way.  The land was hilly, but we paralleled the river most of the time so at least I could see water.

    At about halfway, a week into the journey, we approached Dragonfly castle.  Dragonfly was one of the minor clans.
    Before we reached it, we were met with a Dragon patrol.  The Dragon Mirumoto family recognized the Dragonfly province as a protectorate and sent patrols for their borders.  It was lead by a Dragonfly but with Dragon troops.
    They asked us for our travelling papers.  The Dragonfly Samurai-ko (lady samurai) asked for our papers and our purpose in travelling through Dragonfly lands.  Lady Miyara told her the truth about our journey.
    The lady pointedly asked Lady Miyara if there was any business with or news to pass on to the Dragon.  When Lady Miyara said there was not, she escorted us to Kyuden Tonbo, the castle of her Tonbo family.
    We were met by Tonbo Sodan, son of the daimyo, a pleasant faced man who seemed to take an instant liking to us.  He welcomed us in.  Tonight we would be sleeping in the castle.
    Lady Miyara wanted set up a guard at all hours on the caravan, even though -- or because -- it was inside the castle walls, but that could be taken as an insult to our host.  The shugenja of course was not leaving his wagon.
    The wagons remained in a courtyard in the corner, while the horses were moved to a stable.
    Tony suggested the gaijin be described as sleeping in the open so we could guard the wagons.  I countered with us staying up all night drinking -- or pretending to drink -- with the partygoers rotating in and out to guard.  Tony didn't like the idea of being drunk, and said he wasn't that good pretending.  I said he was amusing when he was drunk.  Tony let that pass, but allowed that he was not effective when drunk.
    The castle set a guard.  Tony told them that after his experience with skaven he didn't like to sleep inside, so if it was ok with them he'd sleep in the corner out here.  Lady Miyara backed him up, and they accepted it.
    The servants, Donku and Sun, were taken to the bachelor servant quarters and would sleep there.  Sun was told to keep an ear out for any gossip, and passed that along to Donku in turn.

    Over dinner, our host told tales of Dragon cousins, and we were entertained by slight-of-hand magicians.

    Overnight Tony tried hard to look like he was sleeping while actually keeping guard.  He was helped in this by Peter, who produced a herbal concoction to keep him awake all night.
    The night passed uneventfully.
    In the morning, soon after sunrise, Tony became aware that the shugenja (Iuchi Taiga) was yelling in an angry voice.  Tony met him as he came out of the wagon, and the shugenja told him that someone messed with the scroll box last night.  He marched straight past the boy and complained to the head of the guards about it.
    Tony waved to a servant and told him to tell Sun about it, quickly.  He himself saw nothing out of place with the chest, still under its pile of goods.
    The guard apologized profusely, as Taiga continued to lay into him about his failure.  After a few minutes of that, while the guard took the tirade appropriately.
    Lady Miyara arrived at the same time as Tonbo Sodan.  As soon as the son of the lord arrived, Taiga began laying into him instead.  Tonbo took it with humility too.
    While all this was going on, Tony slipped into the wagon and checked on the chest itself.  It looked completely untouched, exactly like it was before.
    The head of the guard, when there was a lull in the tirade, spoke quietly to Tonbo.  None of us could hear it, but the host looked even more embarrassed.
    Miyara now walked up to the shugenja and asked him what happened.  He said that somebody opened the box of scrolls last night.  She asked if anything was missing or harmed in any way, and he said it was not.  Except the honor of these guards and himself, of course.  He saw no-one.
    At this point, Tonbo turned to Miyara and said that it had come to his attention that one of his shugenja -- dishonorable cur - had taken upon himself to sneak into the caravan and copy some of the scrolls.  Taiga said that was stupid, as copying them would do no good, as the scrolls themselves have the magic, not the writing.  Nevertheless, Taiga turned up his tirade another notch about how our host had failed to guard this most important set of scrolls ever.
    Miyara asked Taiga if he was completely certain it was the original scrolls in the chest and not the copies.  He said he was certain.
    Taiga finally crossed some line, and Tonbo turned from unhappy humility to anger at the insults, and both men were getting more and more angry at each other.
    Tony walked over to our mage and asked him to show him the scrolls.  He said that he thought the chest had been opened more than once (a lie) and to show him right now!
    Taiga said what do you mean?  what are you talking about?
    Show them to me!  Prove that my honor is still intact.
    Tony had broken up the argument successfully, as Taiga left Tonbo to show him.  He shows the tricks that he used to detect tampering.  There was a small piece of leather behind hte lock, and another inside, that showed that they had been moved.  He showed Tony the scrolls.  "See? See?  See?"
    Tony apologized.  He didn't care if he lost face, as long as it protected Miyara.  He had pretty much ordered Taiga into the wagon, and now his military attitude carried it off too.  He said he'd make sure that one of their bushi was with him for the rest of the day, right outside the wagon.
    Meanwhile Miyara tried to calm down Tonbo.  The lord apologized for losing his temper, and accepted Miyara's statements.  He suggested that the caravan move on as quickly as possible, and that he would supply us with an escort to the end of Dragonfly lands, and that he would deal with the offending shugenja.
    Miyara asked what "deal with" would mean.
    Tonbo said that he would be dismissed.
    Miyara said in a steel but casual voice that this matter touched on the honor of Miyara as well.
    Tonbo said, "He is yours to do as you wish."
    Miyara told him to deliver him to her at his convenience.
    Tonbo snapped orders to bring him, and the guards to mount up as the caravan would be leaving immediately.

    Lady Miyara told Sun to gather everyone, and with typical barbarian alacrity woke us up and got us moving.  He even burst into our room without knocking, considering it more important to fetch us than be appropriate to a non-Nipponese.
    Tony stationed one of the guards at the back of the wagon, saying that there had been a breach.  All of them had been watching the argument, and when it was clear they would be leaving, they were packed and ready to leave in seconds.

    By the time Phoebe and I came down, ready to leave, the horses were all saddled and the caravan ready.  The merchants were last to be ready.
    The offending shugenja was delivered by the captain of the guard and thrown at Miyara's feet.  She told a couple of the guards that he was their responsibility and that she would deal with him later when we were moving.
    By now Tony had posted a guard behind all the wagons, so it didn't single out the scroll wagon.  As we walked on, though, they simply moved around as before.  Posting them behind was to calm our shugenja and get him out of the argument.
    We all moved out.

    As we moved out, Tony told us that there was an intrusion by an overly curious mage that indicated a lack of observation on several parts.  He points out to Miyara that for hte captain of the guard to know it had happened, he had ot let it happen.  The shugenja, however, would have outranked him and it wouldn't be their place to question them.
    I asked if anythign was missing.  Tony said hte scrolls were copied and read, but our mage says the original was still there and the copies would be useless.  I then asked if anything was added, and our shugenja says there was not.
    I am concerned that we were rushed out before we could find out what really happened.  I don't think it was what appeared to happen.  The magic tricks of the night before made me suspicious of anything that seemed open and shut.

    Towards the end of the day we neared the end of Dragonfly lands.  Our escort from the castle wished Lady Miyara a safe journey and left.
    We continued another hour or so, and then came to a small village.  Sun and Donku and a guard fetched food while we set up camp.
    I asked our mage to check the chest again, making sure it was exactly as it was before we arrived, the same chest and everything.  He reported it was.  Peter agreed that it was the same chest, but noticed that there were no complicated markings -- it was a new chest, and so would be easy to copy.  (Phoebe nodded to Lady Miyara that our mage was telling the truth.)
    I tell the mage that I am sure theat something is wrong.  I don't know what, but it was poistnless to abreak ot make a copy.  So something else happened.  The copy is a distraction.  I don't believe that the other mage is just an idiot.  I asked him to be careful, keep an eye on everything, don't make any normal assumption.  I don't know what's worng, but I have a fleeling that something is terribly wrong and we can't see it.  The mage takes me seriously and says he will stay aware.  I ask that if he notices anything -- a slight discoloration, anything however unimportant it may seem, that he brings it to Lady Miyara's attention.
    Lady Miyara shares my concern, but unlike me she thinks there is a slight chance of finding out what. I believe the best we can do is confirm that something is wrong, but it's too deep to find out what yet.

    As soon as we were settled, Lady Miyara set about interviewing the offending mage.  All of us samurai were in attendance.  Two guards held the mage firmly.
    M: Tell me exactly whaqt you did last night.
    I snuck out ot hte wagon.  I sniuck inot hte wagon.  The mage was asleep inside.  I was very quiet, and I opened the chest.  I managed to copy four scrolls before dawn, and I left just before dawn, locking and putting back hte scroll box as I had found it.
    (he is telling the truth)
    Is that all that you did?
    (he is telling hte truth)
    ((I realized that it was a distraction.  Somehtintg else was the real purpose.  I said nothing yet.))
    why did you copy the scrolls? What good did oyu think it owuld do?
    I beleived that with some effort I coud... if not actualy be able to cast the spells, I would learn a bit more about how their magic works.
    (he is telling the truth)
    was this strictly your own idea?
    (that is the truth)
    how did you open the lock?
    I have a spell.
    How did you get past the guards?
    I simply walked past them.
    (both those are true)
    I ask, how did you know the scrolls were there, and there in that wagon?
    any magic user can see them.
    M: did you do anything to help the shugenja inside the wagon sleep?
    No, that is not one of my skills.
    (This mage is Mirumoto Ekai.  He's young.)
    I ask, so you are a Dragon and not a Dragonfly?
    M: how long have you been here at this castle?
    Four years.
    and where were you before?
    A school.  He gave the name of a mirumoto magic school.
    why did you come here?
    I needed a job and this is where I was accepted.  There was no particular reason beyond that.
    Miyara looked at me.  I had no other questions.  I didn't think this was important.
    M: do you know how many people you have insulted with your honorless actions?
    He looked down and said that he was sorry, but no, he did not know.
    (everything has been the truth)
    I said I had no questions for him.  I had further discussion, but not for him.
    For now, Miyara told the guards to continue watching over this person very carefully.
    Ekai addressed her, "Lady, may I be permitted to restore my family's honor?"
    Miyara told him, "Soon."

    We had six more days of travel.  We were currently in unowned land, and would remain so as Ki-rin shrine was in that too.

    The rest of us went out of earshot.  M asked what I wasnted to say.
    Yes, I thjink we've been misdirected.  We were rushed out, and we haven't checked anythjing erlse.  The chest was distraction from what else has changed.  The other wagons, their loads.  Perhaps there's a duplicate chest in one of hte other wagons.   Perhaps something has been aded to anable a spell.  Perhaps they dyuplicated one of hte the wagons.  We should check absolutely everything in very fine detail.  Even a hidden compartment in something.
    Lady Miyara agreed, but we had ot do it overnight because we ere on a strict schedule.
    If our mage can do it, I suggest he shoudl check for any other magic around.  He says there is none, except for Phoebe's scrolls.  So we're looking for something mundane.
    We go over the caravan in excruciating detail.  Tony is best at searching for hidden things, and Miyara too,and I look as well.  Peter even chips in to help.
    No-one found anything remotely of interest.
    "The less we find, the more worried I am," I said.
    But as Lady Miyara pointed out, we simply had no choice but to go on.  We had a schedule to meet.

    ((Dragonfly is perhaps the most important of the minor clans, not because of any cultrual reason, but because they are the only ones who mediate between the restof the world and Dragon.  no-one talks to the Dragon without going through Dragonfly.  Only through Dragonfly is there any access at all to Dragon.))

    The festival is held in the same place every year, and always hosted by Phoenix.  A Phoenix won last year.

    Lady Miyara went to her captive and allowed him to restore his family's honor properly.  But before he was allowed to do so, one more question from me: what did he do with the copies?
    He said that Tonbo Soban destroyed them.
    M: did he see Tonbo destroy them?
    (both were the truth)
    I asked how Tonbo Soban found out about the copies.
    I told him.
    When he came to me this morning.
    What did he say to you?
    He asked what I had done in the wagon, and I told him that I had made copies of the scrolls.  He asked for them, I gave them to him, and he tore them up.

    We noted that Tonbo knew there were copies before this guy told him.  This guy is, however, speaking the truth.  It is possible the guards knew what he was doing because he was there for several hours.  Even so, it still worries me.
    I insisted that the scroll copying was not important.  It was not the danger.  But we haven't found anything else.  I agreed withj Lady Miyara that this guy doesn't know anything else.  He's not important.
    I said, maybe we're being too paranoid, but that's our job.  We were all focussed on the scroll wagon, and ignored everything else for some time, and that's what worries me.  We'll know where it happened, but not what, not yet...
    Miyara finished, "...until it's too late."
    The man asked for a knife, and asked one of the other guards to be second.  The guard looked to Lady Miyara for approval.  She nodded slightly.
    The man got down on his knees, and stuck the knife into his belly.  The second stared for a little while, then took out his sword and cut at his neck, taking his head off cleanly.
    ((The spokesman of the guard came to Lady Miyara later and said that the shugenja needed to be disposed of, and no-one here could actually do it.  The right thing to do would be to walk back to the village and hire a peasant to do it, except that he came to her for the money to do it.  Lady Miyara called for Sun, and told the guard to arrange it with him.  The guard was gone for about an hour, and the matter would be settled tomorrow.))

    With nothing else to do, we slept for the night.  Apparently Phoebe wandered off sleepwalking, and I was on guard on the other side.
    ((The other guards at first called to her, asking if she was all right and what she was doing.  Then they raised their voices at her, louder.))
    I heard the guards, calling on the other side.  "ma'am, ma'am.  where are you going?  are you all right?  ma'am?"  I went to investigate.
    Phoebe woke up suddenly, standing there staring into space.  I gently lead her back to where she had been sleeping, and she woke up on the way.  She was in a somewhat stunned and surprised state.
    I told her the spirits walked her off and everything's fine and she can go back to sleep.  I made sure she was settled and then went back on guard.
    I wondered to myself why the spirits chose to walk her away tonight, just reinforcing my paranoia.  Of course it was possible everything was exactly as it seemed, but last time I said that Lady Miyara agreed that it was unlikely.
    But the rest of the night passed peacefully, and morning came.