Phoebe's Journey

Chapter 4: Signs of Violence

After the tea ceremony with the Nipponese spirit, we walked along the road. It was a pleasant morning, as the whole trip was. The Nipponese build amazing roads: smooth and well-maintained. Certainly better than Imperial roads. We left the marsh behind us, and a light forest sprang up on either side of the road. The road itself was in the middle of a clear, grassy stripe, at least 80 yards wide, with low hills. The sun shone gently down on us, birds called to each other and flitted in and out of the trees. The air was warm and smelled of grass, and a light breeze brought the scent of the forest. I walked next to Mehli, just being.

They build gates that stretch over their roads at what seem to be random places. The Lady Miyara explained to us that they're prayer gates. Each gate is built to honor or memorialize one of their spirits. Although I didn't know these spirits, I whispered a quiet greeting to the guardian of each gate as I passed beneath it. It's just good manners to be polite to the local spirits.

About an hour after we left the tea-spirit behind us, we approached another gate. Under it stood a man in armor, bearing the usual two swords of a samurai, and some distance behind him were five other men, similarly armed. Lady Miyara walked right up to the man.

Tony placed himself just behind and to her left, and my Mehli mirrored him on the right. I stayed behind Lady Miyara, watching carefully. The rest arrayed themselves behind us. Mehli and Tony were obviously positioning themselves to react to a threat. Mehli was not entirely happy that first night at Shira Miyara, when Lady Miyara's father more or less ordered us all to serve her well. And yet, here she was, readying herself to defend and protect the lady without even a thought. The Lord Miyara saw well.

The man told her that he was collecting taxes to pay for increased patrols because their lord had been murdered. She took exception to that, and insisted that Cranes had no business taxing Miyara. I expected a civil argument centering around their respective warrants and comparitive status, and I thought the Lady Miyara, being the representative of her father, would win.

Instead, the man drew his sword on her.

This was the first time I had seen her in a true battle. Practice bouts on the ship are not the same thing as real combat at all. In practice, they started and stopped a lot, went through motions slowly over and over again, and discussed what they were doing. This was just a fast flurry of gleaming metal and armor that lasted but a few short seconds. Even I could tell the lady is skilled.

Although he drew first, she was faster and far smoother, and she struck first. She danced around his single blade, with both her blades whirling in a blur. Someone might need Arati's assistance shortly, but it wouldn't be the Lady Miyara.

When he attacked, his five men began running forward. It seemed to me, ignorant of war though I am, that they placed themselves poorly. They were so far away, the Lady would slaughter their leader before they reached her.

Tony moved up beside the lady, waiting for them, sword drawn and ready. Grieg moved himself through the veil behind the five opposing warriors, obviously intending to hit them from behind, but they ran faster than he. Still, he ran after them, trying to catch up. Even her cook Donku grabbed a large frying pan and moved up beside her, ready to defend his Lady.

After noting all that, I watched Mehli. She had readied her bow, and at the first sign of violence, drew and nocked an arrow. She aimed carefully, drawing on her own spirit to guide it well. She sent arrow after arrow into the approaching men, one after the other. None would arrive unhit.

Although admiring Mehli's smooth and graceful movements, I closed my eyes and prepared myself for what might come. I would want Pardu protecting me. And Mehli, armored and armed so much more lightly than the Nipponese warriors, might need Marlen's help, should the battle turn to hand-to-hand combat.

But before I spoke with either one, I heard a curse. I opened my eyes to see the man who fought Lady Miyara turn and try to run, only to be cut down by the lady. He knelt to her, she asked for his surrender, and he gave it. She shouted out a cease fire. When their leader had broken, so did his men, and they were running for the cover of the forest some yards distant. Mehli already had an arrow readied, her spirit tied to it, and she let fly. It sped true, and pierced her target's face. He fell to the ground screaming. Mehli unstrung her bow, and Tony walked over to the man who had fallen.

The Lady made it clear to the man that taxes were not to be discussed again, and then she called me forward to heal the man as he sank into oblivion.

I knelt beside him, and placed my hands on him. He was very near death. His blood spilled out from several exceedingly deep cuts, and his spirit was attached to his body by the thinnest of threads. I called on Arati, and she came. She drained me completely, placing my own strength into him, and I sank to the ground, dizzy and weak.

Peter had also approached with me. Dimly, I heard him call to his spirit Shallya. He gently took my hand, and I felt her energy flood into me. Arati was ready, and again took all that I had to heal the man on the ground before me. And Peter again asked Shallya to restore me, and she did. Arati used only a portion of my strength to finally complete the healing. Peter asked again if I needed Shallya's help.

But I could feel my Mehli next to me, and her hand on my shoulder. Arati and other spirits were loud in my head, buzzing and humming. I could almost feel them under my skin and I looked at Mehli through them, and they looked at Mehli through my eyes. But Mehli's touch was cool, and the spirits receded, leaving us alone. I thanked Peter, but said I'd rather lean on Mehli until I recovered completely. She gave me an arm to steady me as I stood. Just then, she was all I needed.

The other man, the one who Mehli had hit with her last arrow, would not need my help. Tony had given him grace and returned his spirit to the other side. He and the lady talked about something, but I wasn't really paying attention. My head was spinning and I leaned against Mehli heavily until the dizzy spell passed.

We walked onward, and Mehli's arm around me restored me in a way even Shallya cannot.

Towards late afternoon, we arrived. The castle loomed over the road from atop a hill. A small town was on one side and a river on the other. The castle was not nearly as large as Shira Miyara. There were a few short buildings and one somewhat taller one in the middle. Everything was built solidly, but without the grace I saw in Shira Miyara's buildings. The spirits of this place must be different, to give it so different a feel.

We first went into town to arrange for an inn for the night. No more camping, now we are here. The low building displayed a lovely hanging of a golden flower, and the Lady Miyara said this inn was called the Golden Peony. Peter gave a sideways glance at Mehli and said with a laugh that a nickname for the golden peony was "Molly the Witch". I giggled over that, and Mehli looked at him in disbelief. But Peter said it was true, and we had to believe him.

Tony glanced inside the inn before we entered, acting almost as a bodyguard for the Lady Miyara. He nodded, and we all followed him in. Sun negotiated for rooms for us all, and they quickly rearranged their paper walls to make rooms for us all. Mehli quickly changed clothes before going up to the castle. I helped her arranged everything properly, as she hadn't quite figured out how it all fit together. She looked just stunning and I looked forward to the privacy we'd have that night.

A few minutes later we were on our way to Castle Kyotei. The servants all stayed behind, so it was only the Lady Miyara, Mehli and me, Peter, Tony, and Grieg.

The lady exchanged words with and showed her warrant to the guards at the gate, who accepted her status much more gracefully than the man on the road had done. We were led into the gate, and they waited while we all removed our shoes and neatly lined them up, and placed the indoor sandals on our feet. This castle is more straightforward than Shira Miyara. There seemed to be just the one path, through courtyards and buildings. It wound in a spiral inwards, and every step of the way was well-guarded.

We stopped in the building after the second courtyard, where General Shizuma, an eldery man, was waiting for us.

He also accepted Lady Miyara's status without question, and asked politely what he could do for her. Actually, I think the way he asked it, he was asking what he could do for her father, since she sort of is him here. Their language is complex, and it contains a lot of information that's never said out loud. I think two people could have a wholly ordinary conversation in words about the weather while the inflections and tone of voice they used conveyed a totally separate conversation on a more abstract topic.

After a brief conversation, the general led us upstairs to look around where the man had been killed.

He had lived in the inner tower. The family's private rooms were at the top. The floor was fascinating. The Lady Miyara called it a nightengale floor, because it sang. And it did! Every step each one of us took caused the floor to sound off. How lovely!

Then I considered the purpose, and it didn't seem so lovely anymore. How hard it must be to live, expecting death at any moment. And this floor had done the man no good, none at all. There was also not a single window on this level. No sunlight, no moonlight, no starlight, no flower-scented breezes reached these rooms. A feeling of isolation came over me.

There were several rooms at the top, but we looked in the dead man's room first. The man's blood still lightly stained the floor, although it looked like it had been well-scrubbed. There was little in the room. No bed, not even the bed roll the Nipponese use instead of real beds. Just a chest with intricate carvings and an empty stand that someone mentioned was supposed to hold swords. I could see how the Lady Miyara's swords would fit onto it. The walls were blank except for a single scroll. The ceiling was wooden tiles. An adjoining room was his dressing room, and there were small chests stacked everywhere to hold his clothing and stuff. I wondered if all Nipponese lived this frugally: I had not seen anything but the guest rooms at Shira Miyara.

Everyone was looking around, and I decided my best contribution would be to talk to the spirits and ask them about this place and its former occupant. So I sat down sort of in the middle of the room, closed my eyes, and cast myself into a deep meditation.

At first, I just breathed and emptied my mind of all thoughts, all feelings. Then, isolated, I reconnected myself to this place, but on the other side of the veil. I carefully felt around me, and called to the spirits of this place.

All places have small spirits tied closely to them, and they can tell you a lot, if you listen closely. I listened, and I felt, and they gave me their impressions of the room, and of the man.

Alone. Loneliness. Nothing. Emptiness.

Death. Just a footnote.

Whoever else Tsume Retsu was, he was a very lonely man. Even his death made only a small impression. Death was there, a light thread inlaid in the vast emptiness. It was not a peaceful death, but neither was it extremely violent.

The spirits gave me what they had, and I thanked them and let go. I emptied myself again, and then found my body, still sitting on the floor waiting for me. I breathed deeply, and returned to myself.

I opened my eyes and looked around. The general was outside the room, letting everyone look around at will. Tony stood to one side, Peter near him, Grieg near the bloodstain, and Lady Miyara stood near the dressing room's doorway. Where was Mehli?

As I stood up, she emerged from the ceiling, stepping down on to Tony's shoulders. Apparently the ceiling tiles are suspended a little below the roof's interior, and there's a small space between the two. Very small, but my Mehli is thin and crawled around looking for hints. A small person could get into any of the rooms on this level from up there, silent and unseen.

There were only a few other rooms on this level. The family is very small. Tsume Retsu had only the one son, and the general confirmed to Lady Miyara that his wife had died several years ago of a plague.

And so there were two rooms that mirrored Tsume Retsu's, and they were his son's. I didn't have time to feel out his room just then, but perhaps a little later I will. His was not as neat and orderly as his father's rooms, nor were they as austere. I suspect he was not as lonely as his father, either, since Mehli found a lady's haircomb on the floor behind the bed.

There were only two other rooms: one was utterly empty and unused, the other was the family's shrine.

Tony and the Lady Miyara asked a few questions of the general. We learned that his maid, who had been his maid since he was born, had found him dead in the morning. Killed by a single blow from a knife or sword. His missing weapons were now his son's. Again, I caught through the general's inflections something he never said. Tsume Takashi is young, and inexperienced.

I really wanted to consult Tsume Takashi's room's spirits to discover what they might have to say about him.