Tales of the Sea Bitch (14)


    It turned out the Emperor wouldn't be at the Winter Court after all, but his niece was.  Apparently she had to choose a husband by spring.
    ((The Miyara told Lady Miyara that he would be going to Gisu Palace for several days, but then he would have to go on to the actual Imperial Court at Shien Shite Reigisaho (Violence Behind Courtliness City).  He ran down a list of people he knew would be there, that Lady Miyara should look up.  In particular, Miyara Sanru, one of the suitors, could call on her -- The Miyara doesn't think so, but she should support him as best she can.  Lady Miyara knew him when she was young.
    Also there would be Miyara Ryuden who also fancies himself a suitor.  The Miyara did not have the heart to forbid him, in part because he thought he had no chance and so wouldn't interfere with Sanru.  Ryuden is 15-20 years older than Lady Miyara, so not of her generation like Sanru.
    Miyara Himitsu will be there, travelling with Lady Miyara's father.  He's the one people whisper about beiung the next Phoenix champion.  He'd stay at the Winter Court while The Miyara went on to the Emperor.
    Shinjo Gidayu, the Unicorn daimyo, would also be there.))
    One of Iruko's duties was to know who all the people are, and be ready to prompt Lady Miyara whenever she needs information.  She was a good swordsman, could be really good but we couldn't tell yet.

    We did indeed get a week at Shira Miyara.  Tony of course went in search of excellent weapons, and had his armor repaired.

    Winter Court is a 3 month long festival, mostly used for political purposes.  Here of course the emperor's niece is to be married off, but even in normal years it's a major social event.  Gisu Palace rests on a high mountainside overlooking a clear lake.  Many balconies face the magnificent view, and watching the sunset is a major social occasion.  The source of the lake is a spring that rises from near Kirin Shrine, and that stream goes over Firebird Falls right next to the palace and into the lake.
    Inside it's Nipponese excess, mahogany and paper screens, and fireplaces carved into the walls.  Militarily it's useless, but it's well protected against the weather and great for winter parties.
    We arrived in a ridiculous procession while Asako Kagetsu, our host, greeted each guest individually, a ten hour process.  Even us samurai were guests, and we each received a small gift with strict instructions not to open it until the evening's feast.  He knew who each of us is by name, and while he had a prompter, he doesn't use it nearly as much as I would have expected.  He was friendly too, even to us barbarians, but I didn't put too much in that.  We all were to say "Thank you" and just move on.  Not only did he know who we were, but where we were exactly in the heirarchy.
    We were placed in a suite of rooms on the lowest floor of rooms, around our own common area.  The common area had a balcony that looked out over the lake.
    Balconies of daimyo's are above us, and above that the Imperial terrace.  The latter is close enough to Firebird Falls that a bridge of living vines connects it to a garden area on the top of the falls.
    There's nothing to do before dinner but sit on the balcony with drinks.  That and dress up in fancy stuff for tonight.  This is the first time we've seen Iruko in formal dress, and she looks pretty good.  I glanced over to see if Phoebe was checking her out too, and she was certainly not ignoring her.

    The hall was full of excellent sake and amazing food.  The high table was occupied by the top people.  We were at tables scattered through the hall for us -- our party seated together -- with other people.  The whole place seemed designed to mix us up and spur gossip fuel.
    The neice's suitors were almost all here, but Miyara Ryuden wasn't to be seen.  Isawa Tomo I pointed out to Tony with great glee.  Iruko said he would be spending the whole winter here, while the other Elemental Masters would be going on to the Emperor's Court.  Koan was here too, and nodded in our direction when he noticed us.
    Yoroshiku had three maids attending her, all samurai status because of the importance of their mistress.  Yauta is a tremendously large Crab woman, Nantoko and Saia were younger and giggling a lot.  I wondered if I could pull those two girls off for an evening, could have a good shot at it.
    Hiruma Usiga was apparently at his last Winter Court before retiring to the monastery, seemed the kind of guy who would love to give advice and stories.

    After the dinner began, Miyara Ryuden came bustling in late, walked up to the head table and sat down.  He caught Lady Miyara's eye as he came in and nodded to her.  Poor guy doesn't stand a chance, The Miyara was right.  Tony asked Lady Miyara about him, and she told us some more.  He was an outgoing but not very tactful daimyo, more suited to Crab or Lion than Phoenix.  He was on the other hand a good warrior, even if he was a total boob in court.
    This was a great opportunity to ply Tony with drink, who seemed to be trying to get a handle on politics.  I told him all sorts of things, pointing out political things that were totally off the top of my head, trying to get him to drink in the process.  It worked a bit, got him a bit tipsy, and he relaxed and lightened up the whole table.
    Towards the end, Kagetsu got up to speak.  He was a young guy, in a fine robe with an enamelled pair of wakazashi.
    He looked down and greeted the Winter Court.  He then held up his small gift, and told us that they had been prepared for us by his lovely sister Asako Nuriko.  There was a small tokenin there, an object that had a pair elsewhere.
    Whispering spread through the hall.
    He said that the object of hte game was to find the one that matched, and once we did, we could ask the other person one question a day which on their honor must require the truth.  We could also trade objects, and so shuffle the game.  The object could only be traded for another object in the game, and we had to keep it on us at all times.  He suggested we should keep it hidden.
    Light applause started and grew.
    Phoebe clearly thought this was fun.  I must say I agreed with her, although I could think of a few more interesting rules to add.  Phoebe pointed out he didn't say we couldn't make up new ones, just had to follow his.

    Dinner was over.  I opened my gift on the balcony.  My item was difficult to conceal, but I could do it with a little difficulty.  It wouldn't be too hard to carry hidden, although I didn't care who in here saw it.
    It was a wooden tiger, about four inches long, with some Nipponese characters on the side.  It's a haiku, which Lady Miyara read for me.

Tiger, are you there?
I am, for I cannot lie.
But I can eat you.

    The boxes they came in were targetted, with the correct colors of the family.  Specific boxes were handed to us.  But once we opened the boxes, if there was significance, it wasn't clear.
    Tony pointed out that since they were targetted to give the most fun over the next three months, he offered to trade with Lady Miyara right now, before he opened his.  Lady Miyara's gift was a large fan, impossible to hide.  Tony's was small, so he offered to swap.  She agreed, and traded.
    Tony had a fan now, a very attractive one.  A fan you wave, not like Grieg, that is.  Everyone else kept their gifts private.

    Late in the evening, a knock came on the door to the suite.  A servant answered it, and told Lady Miyara that there was a messenger from Miyara Ryuden.  She let him in.
    The messenger said just that Miyara Ryuden sent his compliments and requested her presence.  She left alone to meet with him.

    Tony tried to get Iruko to teach him Go, but she went straight for Peter to teach him.  Tony and I shared a glance that said, "Why him?"

    When Lady Miyara came back a little under an hour later, she said that was an interesting conversation.  At first, Ryuden just wanted her opinion on how to court the Emperor's niece, but then he had a lot of questions about Koan and Niban and the Nightingale clan.  For the most part she was as non-commital as she could be, but he had her pinpoint the village on a map.  He knew the area very well, so she couldn't really hide it.  He did ask her if she thought they were just pretending to be a clan to make it easier to prey on the area, or if they were taking it seriously.  She said she didn't know what she expected the conversation to be, but that wasn't it.
    I asked her if he had a wooden tiger, but she said she didn't ask.
    As an aside, she added that deliberately hiding a large object would be not done.  Openly displaying a small object, not hiding it but not pointing it out, would be the ultimate in the game -- for example, a comb in one's hair.  Phoebe loved the game, and played it to the full.
    A comb in Phoebe's hair would fit perfectly, of course, but she had so many knick-knacks I wouldn't be able to tell.  She'd probably trade for something like that even if she started with a token she couldn't wear.  At this court, the servants don't advise her against  wearing stuff in her hair, as long as it's appropriate: ribbons, nice beads (not enough of them), sparkly combs, but not cheap things like feathers.

    We milled around for the next few days.  Some of us might have swapped items, but I didn't.
    Yoroshiku handled her suitors well, playing it for all it was worth.  Once while we were sitting around in the garden, she closed her eyes and whispered,

Winter's friend?  Not I.
I would trade my fan for this,
A simple blossom.

    She looked at Tony with a challenge in her eye.  She did not, however, have a fan like Tony's -- it would have been obvious.  One of the other suitors caught her eye, and she said, but where could a blossom be found?  The other suitors rushed out quickly back into the palace.
    Tony smiled, and stood up, apparently to take on the challenge himself.
    Miyara walked over to Sanru, further away on the terrace, and had a quiet conversation with him.  The two of them left the terrace.
    A short while later, the two of them walked back onto the terrace and over to Yorushiku.  Sanru formally introduced Lady Miyara to her, and said that Lady Miyara had found a blossom.
    Lady Miyara handed over a perfectly folded blue paper flower.
    Yoruskiku thanked her, and everyone around clapped politely.  She then asked Lady Miyara to introduce her to her retainers.

    I had asked the group how to display my tiger, and said that I'd thought about pinning it in my sleeve with its head sticking out.  Phoebe thought she could do that, if it was done right, and so she did at my request.
    Lady Miyara called us over and introduced us.
    Yorushiku signalled to us to sit down, and others moved out of the way so we could do so.  Again Yorushiku turned to Tony, and asked him to enlighten her how women of his land found their husbands.
    He said that it was his experience, that as a young man, he still had no idea.
    I said that I'd heard that if a woman kisses an elf lady passionately, she would dream of her husband that night.  Polite murmers ran around the circle.  Yorushiku herself was embarrassed, but hid it behind an all-knowing gaze.
    I was satisfied.  Not many ladies get to make a pass at the Emperor's niece.  We moved on soon, and I could safely break into a grin.

    The suitors kept going over the next few days.  Sanru seemed to do ok, but Ryuden wasn't.  Whenever he had a chance to speak, he turned it to war, and the niece always left soon after.
    Iruko was always at Lady Miyara's side, good at her chosen task, knowing when to fall back and step up.
    Tony was keeping an eye on all sorts of things, most of which were beyond me and I didn't care.
    Kocho was set to keeping an eye on Koan and who was watching him, at Tony's suggestion, and also to look for objects that matched ours.  Koan mostly stuck with the one retainer he'd brought, and the two of them were often alone.  Koan was occasionally in conversation with one person or another, but there was no pattern to it.

    The matching fan to Tony's was held by a middle-aged lady, not very attractive.  She wasn't carrying a weapon, and didn't seem to be shugenja either.  She was Lion clan.
    She walked up to him, showed him the fan, and asked him in a stern tone what his intentions were towards the Hantei family's Emperor's niece.
    He said that he wanted to serve the families of the empire as well as he could, and eventually take his leave and return to his homelands.
    The woman liked the answer, but hid her reaction quite well.
    Tony asked his question: "Is there someone particular you would like me to trade my fan to?"
    She gave him a name that he'd never heard before, and walked away.

    Peter saw Iruko clearly trying to persuade someone to trade her an object, and was not in time to find his object before she obtained it.

    The banquet was a daily affair.  We were expected to sit in the same seats every night, but if done right it would be ok to sit somewhere else.  It would be hard to do without insulting someone, of course.

    ((One evening, a young gentleman -- quite young, probably 17 or so -- came up to Phoebe with a nervous smile, fiddling with the match to her comb  She hadn't seen him around before that night, but she could tell he was of Crane clan, family Doji.  He seemed to be bushi, a warrior.
    Instead of saying he had a match, he asked her if she knew who had a match to it.
    She smiled at him, and said sweetly, "Why, yes I do."
    "So then," he continued, "Let me ask you my one question, which you must answer truthfully, on your honor.  Would you enjoy accompanying me as we watch the sunset over the lake?"
    Phoebe said, "Yes."  She didn't take up her question then.
    "Then, my lady, please come with me."  The young man lead her off to a quiet corner of the balcony.  While they watched the sun set, he composed a poem that compared her to the beauty of the sunset, which paled in comparison to her.  It was good, as poems go.
    Phoebe had a question for him: "Would you allow me to tell your fortune?"
    "I would be honored," he said.  "Where would be a good place?"
    She said this was a fine place.  She looked out at the sunset, the birds flying, and the world around her, asking her spirits to tell her something about this young man.  She discovered that he would soon embark upon a long and famous romance, or perhaps infamous.  She told him that.
    He liked that fortune a lot, in fact exactliy what he was thinking about.))

    ((Lady Miyara, late one morning, a good looking Lion gentleman, middle aged, Akodo Rena approached her out of nowhere and introduced himself.  She instinctively introduced herself in return, and at that moment he showed her a small obi bead, an exact match to the one hanging from her belt.
    He asked if she would like to ask her question first?
    She knew that Akodo was the lead family in the Lion clan.  He was clearly a warrior, bushi, well dressed and good looking.  He was very direct, certainly.  She says he found her first, so he could ask his question first.
    He smiled a little mischievously, and asked, "Who killed Tsume Retsu?"
    She considered, and said, "A member of the family whom he displaced was responsible."
    He seemed surprised by that answer, and said, "Are you saying the Demasu family was not eliminated?"
    Lady Miyara said, "Ah, sir, you only get one question a night!"
    He bowed, perhaps lower than he should.
    She then asked, "How does this matter concern you?"
    He got a very mischievous smile across his face, and said, "I wish you court you, Miyara Miwa, and it was as good a question as I could come up with."
    She simply bowed, and said, "Very well."
    He would like to invite her to a private dinner in his rooms tonight.))

    Tony asked Lady Miyara and Iruko about the person the owner of the fan wanted him to trade with, but neither knew.  He also asked Lady Miyara if she had a question for the Lion woman, if he should delay a day, and she said she might take him up on it.  She said to ask her what she knew of Akodo Rena.

    It was very obvious to Peter that Iruko was trying to court him.  As a priest, he would have to be guided by his god on that matter, but there was nothing in his order to forbid it.  He was receptive to her advances.

    ((Lady Miyara went to the dinner party.  It was indeed a private dinner.  The servants were discreet and only present when needed.
    Rena was a charming gentleman, and kept the conversation interesting but pointedly stayed away from anything political, anything to do with his relationship or intentions with Lady Miyara, so the topics were other things.  He started to tell her a story about some of the battles he had been involved in, and was ready to change the topic, but Lady Miyara of course countered with battle stories of her own.
    While staying away from the whys, he was also interested in Lady Miyara's experiences abroad.  She had stories for him without getting into anything specific.
    She too had her own questions and topics.  The most interesting thing was that he'd spent some time at The Wall, a fortress at the edge of the Shadowlands.  That's an area south of Nippon which was the source of evil as far as they were concerned.  The Wall was a particularly nasty place to spend time, next to the greenskins' land.  He in fact volunteered to spend the first few years of his career there for the honor and glory and the experience.
    Lady Miyara would be a signifcant catch for anyone.  She was the daughter of the Phoenix Champion, after all.

Glossary of people who might be important at the Winter Court.

Otomo Yoroshiku - Emperor's Neice
Hida Yauta - Yoroshiku's maid servant
Kitsu Saia - Yoroshiku's maid servant
Kakita Nantoko - Yoroshiku's maid servant

Mirumoto Hansu - Yoroshiku suitor, Dragon Clan
Miyara Sanru - Yoroshiku suitor, Phoenix Clan

Miyara Ryuden - Yoroshiku suitor (sorta), Phoenix Clan

Miyara Ujimitsu - Phoenix Champion, Miwa's father
Miyara Himitsu - Young man traveling with Ujimitsu
(wispers are he'll be the next Phoenix Champion)

Shinjo Gidayu - Unicorn daimyo who started your previous journey

Isawa Tomo - Elemental master (of Earth ?)

Asako Kagetsu - Your host at Gisu Palace

Koan - Shugenga from the village of Nightengale

Shosuro Tage - formost actree of the Imperial troupe

Hiruma Usiga - ranking Emerald Magistrate, just retired, headed for
monastery in spring