Tales of the Sea Bitch (13)

Shore Leave

    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 around him.

    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 after her.

    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 worry about.

    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 herself.

        You challenge and win
        The dog, the pack, plus others --
        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 surprising really.
    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 to win.
    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 graciousness.
    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 follower too.
    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 into everything.

    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, and getting other people drunk.  Pretty much what I'd done in the Tylian ports, but with free wine.  I also placed several bets on "the Nightingale" with 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.