Tales of the Sea Bitch (13)
We're now at the last chapter of this story, a tale
of a festival, competition, and more than a little deception.
Well, a small deception, but an important one. You can probably
already guess what it is.
We had reached the outskirts of the festival.
Lady Miyara had been in contemplative mood most of the way here, no
doubt trying to figure out a way to come out of this with both her
honor and her head.
The festival site was certainly busy.
Streamers and the smell of cooking wafted towards us in the wind, while
tents were being erected all around. In the center was the site
of the great shugenja competition, near the Shrine of Ki-Rin
itself. The shrine was an enormous figure of Ki-Rin facing north,
gleaming in the bright light. It offered a great view of the
lands around, including all the Phoenix lands.
Among the crowd I recognized a Miyara lord, Miyara
Himitsu, who was generally assumed to be next in line for the Phoenix
Champion, who would become lord of Miyara. Tony too picked him
out, I noticed. The noble was wondering around looking distracted
-- or drunk -- bumping into people and apologizing, with a worried
frown on his face. He was quite a contrast to the the people
And into this, we came without the scrolls.
First thing Lady Miyara did was to head for the
Unicorn encampment and look for Shinjo Gidayu. It was easy enough
to find his tent, sitting among banners tied in strange barbarian
patterns. A fierce-looking samurai girl hailed us. Warrior
she may be, but she was certainly cute. She greeted Lady Miyara
by name, and indicated she was to escort her into the tent.
The guards stayed with the caravan of course.
Tony and Grieg were planning to do that too, keeping a close eye on our
guests. Our merchants were already leaving to do their stuff,
leaving the one wagon here with the supposed scrolls.
I looked over at Lady Miyara to see if she wanted me
to accompany her. If not, I might just try to chat up that
samurai girl, but that wasn't my highest priority. The Lady
gestured to us all, however, so all us princess's samurai trooped in
Shinjo Gidayu was pleased to see the Lady Miyara,
and they greeted each other appropriately. There weren't many
people in here besides us: a scribe, a warrior retainer, and the cute
samurai, who had introduced herself as Shinjo Iruko.
Once the formalities were over, Lady Miyara took
charge of the conversation. She told Shinjo exactly what had
happened, at least in summary, that we were ambushed and the scrolls
were taken. We had tracked them down and found the people who had
taken them and why. The long term goal of the Nightingales was to
petition to join Phoenix, but they wanted to do that on their own terms
and be a recognized clan. If their mage was allowed to
participate and make a somewhat decent showing, that was a step towards
it. The princess also told him about the death of the mage, and
the strange affair at the Dragonfly castle.
Shinjo was clearly disappointed and saddened at the
loss of his shugenja, and went on at length in his praise. Then
he went into another speech that the loss of the scrolls was a great
dishonor which would taint the whole proceedings. If anyone found
out, the scandal could ruin us all.
Well, could ruin them all. Not my problem, was
it? Sure, I was acting as samurai to the princess of the Miyara
family of the Phoenix clan, but down under all that I was still Molly
the Sea Bitch. While I wear that title with pride -- the Sea
Bitch one -- it doesn't exactly carry a lot of honor with it.
Still, I liked our Lady Miyara, admired her brash courage, and didn't
really want her ruined.
But there could be a way out, Shinjo Gidayu said, if
we could convince the Elemental Masters, the wizard council who ran
this whole show, to allow the Nightingale to take part. He asked
Lady Miyara how she recommended they proceed.
Lady Miyara said that the first thing to do would be
to behave normally, and so go to the Miyara tent to report there.
She emphasized that it was entirely her responsibility, so she would
have to make it right. I must say I had expected no less from
her. She suggested Shinjo accompany her to her father, and if the
three of them agreed, she would go to the Elemental Masters and
convince them to allow Koan the Nightingale to take part without
revealing why. With Shinjo's permission, she would solve this as
best she could.
Shinjo agreed. He and Iruko, and his other
warrior samurai, stepped forward to come with us. The samurai-ko,
what they called lady samurai, was the lower of the samurai in rank
obviously, but still high enough to accompany him.
So we all left the tent and walked over to the
Miyara encampment, looking for our princess's father. The caravan
with -- or rather without -- the scrolls came with us, of course.
We had to keep up the deception.
The Miyara himself showed no disappointment.
His attitude seemed to be that this kind of thing happens, and our lady
was dealing with it with honor. He too asked her how to proceed,
and to him she gave the same answer. It was unanimous. We
were the fall guys.
If we actually had the box, we'd have been leaving
it with The Miyara, so from now on we didn't need to worry about
keeping up that part of the pretense. Everyone would assume
everything was fine until it was proven otherwise.
The Miyara then dispatched a messenger to ask the
Elemental Masters for an audience for the princess. Now all we
could do was wait.
Tony quietly asked Lady Miyara if he had to see the
mages, clearly very uncomfortable at the prospect. She told him
he did. She did not need to tell him, or any of us for that
matter, to keep our mouths shut at the audience.
Tony did have his strange sides. Almost a boy
but with the eyes of a veteran, afraid of the dark, and afraid of
mages. One day that might be a problem, but right now all he had
to do was tag along and keep his mouth shut. It's not like the
wizards would be talking to this gaijin barbarian anyway. Heck,
they'd hardly acknowledge his presence. Surely he had nothing to
After about a quarter of an hour, the messenger came
back and said the elemental masters would see Lady Miyara
immediately. Immediately, therefore, we went.
Our lady had given us a little background while we
were waiting. Apparently once upon a time an uninvited wizard had
turned up and taken part, and had actually won, but no-one from outside
a major clan had ever taken part. Lady Miyara would have to come
up with a reason why they would let him participate.
Now Lady Miyara did know who these guys were, all
Isawa family, top dogs in the Phoenix Clan, and knew which buttons to
push for each of them. Good thing too, she needed every edge she
could get. I just hoped she knew what she was doing.
We were escorted into the tent of the Elemental
Masters. It was certainly a beautiful and impressive tent, and
carefully designed to intimidate. It was dark in here, dark
enough that the corners and back of the tent were shrouded. There
was a lot of smoke from burning incense. They didn't want anyone
to be in doubt that they were Mysterious and Powerful.
Five men stood there, looking very impressive if
you're impressed by people like that. Most of them were old, but
one was surprisingly young.
After all the bowing was done, the center mage --
the Master of Earth -- greeted Miyara Miwa formally and asked her what
she had for them.
Lady Miyara launched into her speech. She said
she believed it would enhance the glory of Phoenix and Isawa if they
were to allow a minor clan mage to participate this year.
The Master of Air, the young guy, gave her a haiku,
a Nipponese poem, in reply:
You challenge a dog,
No glory in victory.
No glory in loss.
Lady Miyara quickly countered him with a haiku
You challenge and win
The dog, the pack, plus
And you cannot lose.
Clever lady, our princess. Sharp as a
nail. I swear, the longer I knew her, the more I liked her.
I think I shot her a look of real admiration, but I am sure no-one
noticed. This got my attention at least as much as her fighting
spirit and skill.
The Elemental Masters quickly gave up that
affectation. They obviously had expected to have proved
themselves vastly superior in intellect by speaking in poetry, and with
their egos rather bruised they fell back on their genuine authority.
The oldest, Master of Water, said, "I assume you had
someone in mind?" and looked pointedly at us. Us.
Gaijin. Barbarians. An elf, a weird half-elf shaman, a
couple of boys, and some doctor guy. Like we were going to battle
the mightly shugenja of the great clans of Nippon.
Lady Miyara simply replied, "I do." She looked
straight at him.
The Elemental Masters all looked at her now.
She said, "Koan of the Nightingale Clan."
The five Masters looked thoughtful. Hardly
One of their retainers who had been standing quietly
to the side begged the pardon of Mistress Miyara, but he was unaware of
the Nightingale Clan.
You had to give it to these Masters. They
couldn't lose face themselves by admitting they hadn't heard of the
clan if it was real, yet they had to ask somehow. They run a good
sideshow here, it'd make a mint if they took it on the road in Tilea.
Lady Miyara told them that they were west of here,
in the mountains between Dragon and Phoenix, in lands claimed by
neither. She said while they were a very small clan, they were
blessed with a worthy mage.
The masters paused for a moment. The Master of
Earth looked at each in turn, then looked at Lady Miyara and said they
would have an answer for her in a while. They would send word.
We returned to The Miyara's tent. An hour
passed, and then an Isawa messenger arrived saying that the Elemental
Masters demanded her presence.
So we walked back to the Isawa encampment. I
idly contemplated a series of small canals, with punts for normal
people and elaborate gondolas for the various lords. It would add
to the pomp and ceremony as well as improve the feel greatly. I'd
even started working out the engineering involved by the time we
reached the Masters' tent.
The Master of Earth spoke for them all. He
said simply that the worthy mage from the Nightingale would be allowed
to participate in the competition, on the condition that he agreed not
Lady Miyara bowed appropriately, and thanked him.
On our return, Lady Miyara made her report.
She told everyone -- Miyara, Shinjo, and Niban the Nightingale -- what
the Elemental Master of Earth had said. Niban's reaction clearly
indicated that he appreciated the implied recognition of his clan, and
broke into a relieved smile. Koan was not quite as keen, but
Niban was the one to answer -- he said simply, "We accept."
A moment or two passed, then Niban spoke
again. He said, "The scrolls will be here tomorrow."
The scrolls were indeed delivered as promised, and
no-one was the wiser. Lady Miyara reported their arrival to
Shinjo as well, and that The Miyara had arranged a new scroll box that
looked exactly like the old one. Once again, our princess had
pulled it off.
Gidayu was very thankful that she had solved it so
quietly and without staining his name. He said so, and that he
was impressed with her abilities. He offered her the services of
Shinjo Ikuro to be one of her retainers for as long as she
wished. Lady Miyara of course accepted with appropriate
Now things were definitely looking up. The
attractiveness of our little group just went up a whole lot. Lot
of potential for flirting and teasing there, and amusement at watching
the Imperial boys fight over her, as they surely would.
Niban was also very grateful, and wished to offer
the services of his ward, a young boy called Kocho, as a squire.
The boy had become very good at following people, and at being a
lookout and advance scout. Niban implied that Kocho had been
keeping an eye on all of use since the battle, but whether that was
true or not I had no idea. Lady Miyara of course accepted this
Because of Kocho's age, she could accept his
services for the next day or two, or just for the festival, and no-one
would take offence. For Iruko, that would be seen as a
rebuff. The real question was of course how long she wanted to
keep the assocation with Nightingale. Nipponese politics gets
These next seven days were just a huge party.
No doubt there was a lot of politics to go on too, but I didn't exactly
care about that.
The competing mages just rested and hung out, not
really taking full part in the festivities. There were plenty of
other mages around too, including a Miyara mage who she suggested show
Phoebe about her scrolls. He wasn't expected to progress far in
the competition, so he would be ideal. He accepted Lady Miyara's
request, and was intrigued at where the scrolls came from.
Phoebe told me later that he'd promised to teach her
at the Imperial Winter Court, which would hosted by Phoenix this
year. She seemed quite happy with the arrangement, but I could
already sense that I'd be doing samurai duty for that too. Nippon
was certainly keeping me busy.
Phoebe also wanted to go shopping, but had no money
to do it with. Miyara supplied her with money for trinkets, which
made her very happy. Jewelry, charms, magical doodads, all those
entertained her to distraction.
I spent the week drinking, singing, telling stories,
other people drunk. Pretty much what I'd done in the Tylian
with free wine. I also placed several bets on "the Nightingale"
various bookies for the competition to come. I figured they'd be
money thrown away, but it was samurai money and so didn't really
count. It certainly had the desired effect of getting people
talking. And who knows? Maybe Koan couldn't resist actually
winning it, and I'd get a massive payback on the odds I was getting.
Tony wanted to buy some sort of magical weapon too,
but he said he hated mages -- and left no doubt about that -- and
really didn't want to deal with them. He asked around for any
merchants that might be selling them. None of them, however,
approached the power of anything that he was looking for. Kind of
hard to get legendary magic weapons when you can't get near the people
who sell them or make them. At least there were enough lights at
the festival that he didn't have to worry about the dark.
As for the attitude of the Nipponese at the
festival, they weren't really friendly to us barbarians. Nothing
knew there, but it didn't bother us. Too much going on, and too
many drunks, for most of us to care. Phoebe barely noticed at all.
The competition itself was pretty predictable.
Lots of explosions and lights and illusions. All spectacular
stuff, but nothing the Arabians couldn't do with fireworks. Can't
say I was much impressed. But the festival around it, the
drinking, the betting, all that was very fine indeed. And by
"fine" I mean "If you say you remember you weren't there."
There was a field of 65 mages. That was
narrowed very quickly in one day to eight, the best individual in each
of Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Water and the best four overall
combined. These included Koan, Agasha (an alchemist), two
Asahina, and four Isawa.
The eight remaining then each cast one spell to be
judged. Spectacular was the rule here, the more unusual and
larger the effect, the more points. Bonus for blowing off your
own testicles with the effort, I imagine. That kind of
stuff. Two Isawa, Koan, and one Asahina came through. Koan
was holding his own, not looking shabby at all.
Even Tony was impressed by this round. He was
scared as hell of mages, but he was so caught up in the effects that he
didn't care. I just took every new flash and blast as an excuse
to toast it in sake.
At the beginning of the semi-final round, Koan was
paired up against the Crane, Asahina Akie. The two Isawa faced
off against each other. Koan simply bowed out, with a really bad
expression as he clearly loathed it, but it was an acceptable move
apparently. It had to be taken that he felt he was not worthy to
compete with Asahina, that he conceded to a superior mage. Bet he
gets shorter odds next time.
The two Isawa faced off, and the young Isawa Uona --
a prodigy in the element of Air, the drunk Nipponese lady next to me
said -- emerged victorious.
In the final round, Uona defeated Akie, in two hours
of furious competition. Akie bowed in acknowledgement, leaving
Uona to bask in the glory for Phoenix.
Fireworks again, then, and an awards ceremony that
was the embodiment of Isawa self-importance and stuffiness. And
sake. Lots of sake. Worked for me, anyway.
During the festival, our new retainer Iruko wanted
to know what role Lady Miyara expected her to play in her
company. It would be traditional to assign her the role of being
at her side at all times, have her back in a battle, her personal
messenger, and take care of her.
Tony already had taken that slot, though, but Lady
Miyara had a compromise in mind. Iruko would be her personal
samurai, while Tony would be her second in command. In a way,
that gave Tony more of a jump in status than if he'd just stayed in the
same place. By doing this with Iruko, it defined Tony's position,
solidified it in the eyes of the Nipponese.
It was also clear that Iruko had an irrational
interest in Peter. I found that disturbingly annoying. I
hoped Phoebe wouldn't notice. I'd take my lovely half elf spirit
walker over this cute lithe warrior girl with... um... Yeah. I'd
take Phoebe any day. The universe didn't shift in strange ways
around Iruko anyway, not like it did around Phoebe. Hard to give
that weird trip up once you've lived it, you know. But it would
be fun to give Iruko a shot, see how far I could get.
Kocho slipped right into his role as Lady Miyara's
squire. She took to training him in that, while finding out what
he considered his strong points. He said he was good at scouting,
living off the land for days while watching the road, or following
people. He was very proud that he'd followed us for four
days. The boy was maybe ten, perhaps a little older. Miyara
gave me warning looks whenever I considered getting him drunk like he
was a cabin boy. She can't watch him forever, though, and no
cabin boy is truly part of the ship until he'd thrown up over the side
all morning after his first night of unwatered rum.
It turns out that Kocho's parents had been with
Niban as ronin before the Nightingale village was formed, travelling
with him. His mother died of a sickness, and his father in
battle. Niban took him on, and had taken care of him since his
father died. He didn't remember his mother at all, and only had
limited memories of his father. Whatever, he was one of Lady
Miyara's group now, and from what I've gathered she has a habit of
collecting people around her. Can't argue with that -- she
collected the Sea Bitch, after all, and I never saw that coming.
And that was the festival. We'd pulled honor
out of our collective ass with the scrolls, and had a good let loose
and blow off steam at the same time. With that, this story ends.
But there's more, of course. We would be
headed back to Shira Miyara, and have a whole week there -- amazing,
huh? -- before our princess would be sent on her next task. This
was to be at the nearby Castly Gisu of the Asako family, also of the
Phoenix clan, where the Imperial Winter Court would be hosted.
With the Emperor himself present -- and his most eligible niece -- you
can be sure there would be trouble to come.
That trouble will come next time, though.
Right now, I'm going to give you my impression of me at the Festival,
and see if I can drink the tavern out of wine. You all join me
now, and if you occasionally make explosion noises and bow at each
other it'll be just like we were at the Shrine of Ki-Rin.