Phoebe's Journey Part 2

Chapter 1: Confusions

We left the Golden Peony early the next morning, and walked the three days back to Lady Miyara's home, Shira Miyara. We made good time, and reached the castle mid-day. I wondered what was next. Would we stay here while Lady Miyara visited with friends and family she'd left long ago? Or would her father send her off again on some errand? I imagine if I return home again, my family and friends won't want to let me out of their sight for some time. I can imagine the feasts, the dancing and singing. Lady Miyara returns, and her father only lets her spend one night at home before sending her out to work. These Nipponese live and die for Duty, and that seems to be all they have. I wondered if half her family even knew she was home again.

And sure enough, she was sent out again first thing in the morning.

We were being sent to a festival, but not for fun, of course. No, it was all work. The Phoenix clan, which the family Miyara is part of, holds this festival every fall. Their sorcerers, shugenja they call them here, compete and at the end one wins. Besides bragging rights, he wins a collection of magical scrolls that have been collected throughout the year.

A caravan is sent to travel all around Nippon and gather valuable scrolls, valuable for their uniqueness or power or whatever, I guess. Each of the major daimyos provides an honor guard, and Miyara is the guard this year for the last leg. I suppose it means something that her father trusts her with such an important job.

Besides the shugenjas there for the all-important competition, lots of other people attend the festival. Politics had its place here, too. And one of the Emperor's nieces was going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. That's not what Lady Miyara said, of course. But only the highest ranking men even had a chance to meet her, let alone marry her. And those men wouldn't be courting her and hoping she fell in love with one of them. No, they would be courting her father, her family, and the Emperor. They'll pick the man they want, not the one she wants, and she'll get no choice in the matter. So, like I said, auctioned off to the highest bidder, poor thing.

We had a twenty-day journey to go meet the caravan and then another two weeks back in this general direction to the Shrine of the Ki-Rin, where the festival is, somewhere up in the mountains in Phoenix territory. We met the caravan in the City of the Rich Frog, a Unicorn town. I never saw any frogs there, rich or otherwise.

The road paralleled the river, as usual, and as usual Mehli was unhappy at not having a boat at her disposal. This time, though, we had horses. It turned out that none of us ever rode horses before, and this was a good occasion to try it out and learn. I like riding a horse, although it didn't always do what I wanted it to do. Mehli picked it up pretty well, and she thought riding a horse was better than walking, but still not as good as riding a boat.

The weather was lovely, though the trip was a fast one. We travelled light, just the one small wagon that Donku drove. We stayed at inns on the way, which made the trip faster: we could travel farther in a single day and rest well overnight.

We reached Shinjo Gidayu's castle at the end of twenty days, and we beat the caravan there. We were invited to make ourselves comfortable, but out host left early the next morning for the festival, leaving the castle pretty quiet.

There were rock gardens, which Mehli like a great deal. She spent quite a lot of time in one of them, communing with the spirit of her bow and the other spirits she calls on when she lets fly.

I found a maze. This man had grown a hedge maze, like some rich nobles do in the west. I'd only been in one once before; the middle was very private, and I smiled, remembering a certain lady who showed me the secrets of the maze. I closed my eyes and threaded my way to the center, guided by the spirits who were all around me. There in the heart of the maze, in the quiet and lonely place, they pressed around me closely. I danced for them, with them, and I was one, almost. The veil was close, and I moved between the two worlds easily, back and forth over the edge and through the fog.

Mehli said it was about two days before the caravan arrived. I'd lost count because they didn't really matter.

The previous samurai guards, Lions Lady Miyara said they were, stayed here. They were very serious and gave us some odd looks, like they weren't sure what exactly they were handing the precious scrolls off to.

The caravan looked like most caravans do, I suppose. Three wagons loaded with goods to sell at the festival by the five Unicorn merchants who drove the wagons. The ponies, two for each wagon, were small and sturdy and very shaggy-looking, unlike the sleeker horses we were riding. A shugenja, Iuchi Taiga, rode inside the middle wagon with a chest full of scrolls, hidden under a pile of trade goods. The caravan itself had 15 guards, some on horseback, the others on foot.

Lady Miyara and Tony got everything arranged how they wanted, and we set off. This time we camped near villages and bought food for Donku to cook for us. The first week was quiet. Lady Miyara had been riding her horse all around the wagons, and I thought that looked better than just following behind. I tried to get my horse to go faster, but she insisted on plodding along behind the whole train. Mehli often rode beside me, though. It was too bad I was too busy with spirits to show Mehli the maze.

After a week traveling through what was apparently no-man's-land, a patrol met us on the road. We were about to enter Dragonfly territory. I learned later that Dragonfly is one of many minor clans, and is considered a protectorate of the Dragon clan. This patrol was typical, in that it was led by a Dragonfly samurai but largely manned by Dragons. She and Lady Miyara spoke shortly, and the lady showed her the travel papers anyone moving around Nippon is required to carry, and then they escorted us to a castle, Kyuden Tonbo.

Our escort must have been related, because she was a Tonbo, and we were greeted at the castle by another one, Tonbo Sodan. He was the son of the Tonbo daimyo, who was gone, I'm sure at the festival. He was very welcoming, and we were made comfortable in his guest quarters.

Lady Miyara, Mehli, and Tony were not happy about leaving the caravan unguarded, even within the castle, and after a brief discussion I didn't really pay attention to, Tony elected to stay outside. Something about not liking enclosed areas, I think, was the excuse he gave so as not to insult our host. Strange folks, who can consider posting a guard on a priceless treasure to be a personal insult somehow. If I were Tonbo, I would be happy to share the responsibility of guarding the scrolls. After all, if anything did happen to them in his castle, it would certainly reflect very poorly on him.

Dinner was a much more lavish affair that I expected. Not only food and shared stories, but also a troupe of entertainers, sleight-of-hand magicians. I watched closely, but rarely caught them out. I'm sure the spirits would have shown me their secrets, but where would be the fun in that?

Sun burst into our room early in the morning, telling Mehli and me we had to get up and leave immediately. I'd been having a strange and disquieting dream, but it quickly shredded in the light of the waking world and I lost it. We didn't hear what happened until we threw on our clothes, gathered our things, and joined the turmoil in the courtyard. I could tell this was going to be a hard day: I woke with the spirits' voices buzzing loudly in my ears, and their agitation continued all day.

When Mehli and I entered the courtyard, the horses were saddled and waiting, the guards were all set to go, and the caravan was lined up and ready to leave. The merchants were still trying to organize themselves, and not moving quickly enough for everyone else. Tonbo and Lady Miyara, especially, just radiated impatience. An escort was ready. A couple of the Dragonfly guards dragged someone I didn't know and threw him at Lady Miyara's feet. She assigned two of the caravan guards to watch the man. Her face was expressionless, but it was obvious he'd done something to earn her anger. I wondered what, and I figured he would probably be joining the spirits soon, one way or another.

We left the castle quickly and quietly, and there was little conversation all day. Tony did fill in Mehli and me, so we finally learned what dragged us out of bed so rudely.

He said, "There was an intrusion by an overly curious mage," and he nodded to the prisoner, "that indicated a lack of observation on several parts." He glowered, indicating he implicated himself in that accusation. He pointed out to Lady Miyara, who had paused near us to listen to the summary, that for the captain of the guard to know it had happened, he had to let it happen. She nodded, saying the shugenja outranked him, and none of the guards, up to and incuding the captain, would have questioned him. The all-important question of rank here.

Mehli asked if anything was missing, worried about the scrolls. Tony said the scrolls were copied and read, but our mage, Iuchi, swore the originals were still there and that the copies would be useless. She then asked if anything was added, and Iuchi said there was not. Mehli said, "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." She muttered about the magicians who enetertained us at dinner: the sleight-of-hand tricks made her suspicious of anything that seemed open and shut.

Lady Miyara, too, looked worried over the matter. It was very much like the evening's entertainment. While our attention was on the flash, something else happened that we missed, and that something was what will amaze us when the flash goes away and our attention is redirected to what they want us to see. Who? What? Why? I looked at the prisoner, and wondered if he was the distraction by his own purpose or was used by the real one behind it all.

The escort left us at the end of the day, when we crossed out of Dragonfly land back into no-man's-land again. We traveled another hour or so, and made our camp just past a small village. I sat down and went elsewhere for a few minutes, clearing my mind and gathering spirits to me. When I came back, Sun and Donku were gone to the village to buy food for the night and morning, and Lady Miyara gathered us all to one side, where she questioned the prisoner at last. He'd been quiet all day and offered his guards no difficulty.

Lady Miyara asked him for his version of what happened.

He replied, "I snuck out to the wagon and into it. Your shugenja was alseep inside. Very quietly, I opened the chest and copied four scrolls before dawn and I left just before dawn, locking and replacing everything."

The spirits were clear: he spoke only the truth, and I nodded that fact to the lady.

She asked, "Is that all that you did?"

"Yes." Again I nodded confirmation.

"Why? What good did you think it would do you?"

"I believed I could, with some effort, if not cast the spells, then at least learn more about how their magic works." Truth again. In fact, I nodded to the lady for every statement he made to us: he believed the truth of all he said.

"Was this your own idea?"

"Yes, it was my own idea."

"How did you open the lock?"

"With a spell."

"How did you get past the guard?"

"I walked past them."

"How did you know the scrolls were here and in that wagon?"

"Any shugenja can 'see' them."

"Did you do anything to 'help' the shugenja inside the wagon sleep?"

"No, that is not one of my skills."

Mehli asked, "You are a Dragon, and not a Dragonfly?"

The man said he was.

Lady Miyara asked, "How long have you been here at this castle?"

"Four years." So he wasn't put in place just for this. It seemed more likely that he was simply convenient for whoever was behind this.

"And where were you before?"

"At the school." Some Mirumoto shugenja school, I guessed.

"Why come here?"

"I needed a job, and this was it."

"Do you know how many people you've insulted with your honorless actions?" I knew where this was going to lead.

He looked her straight in the eye and told her the worst thing he could have. "I'm sorry but no, I don't." She glanced at me, and I nodded. Her anger, hot and deep, struck me before she turned back to the man held prisoner before her. Her hand went to her sword, and I was certain she about to kill him. But no, she kept her control, and with some effort, she removed her hand from the sword.

In a voice that was too smooth and tight, she told the guards to watch him very carefully.

"Lady, may I be permitted to restore my family's honor?" He asked it with no emotion, and I wondered why he did so, since he had no idea what he'd done.

"Soon." She promised him that with eagerness.

Just the five us, and Mehli said, "We've been misdirected. We've been rushed out and haven't checked out anything else. This was a distraction from what else has changed, what really happened The other wagons, their loads, we have the same personnel?" Tony and Lady Miyara agreed: everyone in the caravan was the same person we left the Unicorn castle with. She continued, "Perhaps there's a duplicate chest in another wagon? Perhaps something has been added somewhere in the caravan to enable a spell?"

And so we spent the next hour or more searching the wagons thoroughly. Iuchi confirmed that the only other magic here was the scrolls I have. Nothing seemed different: nothing added, nothing subtracted, nothing changed.

Mehli said, "The less we find, the more worried I am."

Lady Miyara agreed, but said we had a schedule to keep and couldn't pause. At least we still had the scrolls, but she said that as if she was certain they would mysteriously disappear or become something else entirely at exactly the wrong moment. I think we all thought something like that, actually.

The Mirumoto shugenja was brought to us again on Lady Miyara's command. Her anger had not lessened, but now it was cold and completely controlled. Mehli asked the man what happened to his copies of the scrolls.

"Tonbo Sodan destroyed them. I saw him destroy them." I nodded to the lady; he never said anything but the truth as he knew it.

Mehli asked, "How did Tonbo Soban find out about the copies?"

"I told him."

The lady frowned, and asked me if I was certain that was the truth, and I said, "Yes, he definitely believes what he said."

Mehli said again that the scroll-copying was not important. "It was not the danger. But we haven't found anything else. I agree with Lady Miyara that Mirumoto doesn't know anything else. He's not important. Maybe we're being too paranoid, but that's our job. We were all focused 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..."

Lady Miyara finished her sentence, "...until it's too late."

All was silent for a moment while she considered everything, then she gave Mirumoto permission to "restore his family's honor." I knew what that meant, and I left. I wanted no part of his agonizing suicide, and I also didn't want to have to listen to Arati's complaints about letting him die.

Donku's dinner was as good as it usually is, but I wasn't very hungry. I felt somewhat detached from the world, surrounded by agitated spirits swirling around me, talking in my head at me and at each other. Their voices were incomprehensible, just noise that blocked out the quiet conversations by the fire. Finally, I lay down to sleep, wrapping myself in my blanket to keep warm. It was not a cold night, but I felt chilled nevertheless.

The next thing I knew, I was standing up, staring out into the great blackness at the camp's edge. I could hear nothing but loud humming, like a lot of people all talking at once, but there was no one there. I couldn't put a single coherent thought together. I was somewhere, someone, but where? And who? I was alone in the dark, yet not alone either.

I felt an arm around my shoulders, and it led me gently back into the light, into the camp. I walked where the arm guided, mutely. Wagons. A banked fire. Bedrolls. And the voices in my head that were never quiet and that I could never understand. The voices whirled around me, and I felt like I was in the heart of a tornado, about to be picked up and swirled into the sky.

I stood in confusion, that single arm my only anchor. Then, a single voice cut through the deafening noise. A single, clear voice spoke, and the others receded like waves from the shore. That one voice became clearer, a bell striking through my fuzzy head.

She said gently that the spirits had walked away with me again. All was well, and I should go back to sleep. Her kind hands guided me to the bedroll, soothed my head, and wrapped the blanket around me. She did everything she could to make me comfortable, and finally walked away, looking back at me with some concern. That concern felt familiar somehow.

And I remembered: the spirit's name is Mehli. I fell back into sleep with a smile on my face.