Phoebe's Journey Part 2

Chapter 4: Festival!

I looked out on a valley full of people, of tents, and flags and banners flying in the wind. Colors everywhere. It looked to be a magnificent festival. Even knowing the precious scrolls were missing, I still looked forward to this. I was sure Lady Miyara would find a way to fix it. The spirits watch over her.

We moved slowly through the throng, towards Shinjo Gidayu's tent. This festival was a feast for all the senses. Colorful streamers and tents going up caught the eye; the delicious smells of food caught the nose; people talking, chatting, gossipping, and jockeying for position caught the ears. A dragon trailed by, practicing for a later parade. There were several people involved: one held the giant head and waved it around. One was the tail, and the others were all in the middle. They snaked around, and danced and pranced.

The center was clear, where the competition would take place in a few more days. I could see the Shrine of the Ki-Rin, on a rocky outcropping of the surrounding mountains and a bit above the valley. It must give a lovely view of the entire valley. I discovered later that you can actually see the entire Phoenix province from it. Lady Miyara had said earlier to my questions that throughout the year, a small group of monks lived here and cared for the shrine itself. It was only at festival time that the valley filled with people like this. So many people, and they weren't even all here yet.

I peered all around, not wanting to miss anything. There was so much to see!

When we arrived at the Shinjo tent, a samurai-ko greeted Lady Miyara by name, expecting her arrival with the scrolls. She was quite lovely, but of course she can't match my spirit-lover. Mehli was obviously attracted to her as well; she kept looking her over, but didn't say anything.

The guards and the Nightengales remained outside with the caravan. Well, it quickly became just the one wagon plus Donku's little wagon, as the merchants took their other two wagons and their goods off to set themselves up for business. Tony and Grieg were initially going to stay with the wagon, and I wondered if we were all to stay out or not. The Lady Miyara immediately gathered us all with a glance, and we all -- Tony and Grieg included -- followed her and Shinjo Iruko, the samurai-ko, into the tent.

There were three men inside waiting for us: Shinjo Gidayu himself, a scribe, and another warrior. Shinjo was, of course, pleased to see Lady Miyara, and they exchanged greetings.

The lady had nothing but bad news for the man, yet she never faltered. She simply told him what happened, and he listened to her. She explained the Nightengale's immediate wishes, as well as their long-term goal to join the Phoenix clan.

Shinjo was greatly saddened by his shugenja's death. He praised the dead; his skills and his honor and his loyalty. I got more of a feel of the man in those few minutes than in three week of traveling with him. I will drum his spirit to rest tonight, now that I know his spirit.

He was not angry with Lady Miyara for allowing the scrolls to be stolen. He said, "The loss of the scrolls is a great dishonor which would taint the whole proceedings. If anyone discovers their loss, the scandal could ruin us all." He paused and looked at the lady. "But there could be a way out, if we can convince the Elemental Masters to invite the Nightingale shugenja into the competitions. How do you recommended we proceed?"

She replied, having had nothing else for the last couple of days to think about, "The first thing to do is to behave normally. We should all proceed to the Miyara tent to report there, as we would if the scrolls were here." He nodded at that rather obvious statement, and she continued. "The matter is entirely my responsibility, so I will have to make it right. I will put the matter to my father, and if he and you agree, I will then speak with the Elemental Masters and convince them to allow Koan to take part in the competition, without, of course, telling them the reason behind it. That must remain unknown to all but us." She bowed to him, and said, "With your permission, I will solve this as best I can."

Shinjo agreed, and seemed satisfied with her answer. Not knowing her, he had probably wondered if she would take the opportunity to dump it into his lap to solve. That's not her way, though; she seems to accept responsibility for everything around her. I suspect that's one reason we follow her.

And so Lady Miyara, we her retainers, Shinjo, Iruko, and Shinjo's other bushi all exited the tent, and we plus the wagon, the guards, Donku and Sun, and the Nightengales proceeded to the Miyara's tent.

He was also pleased to see her, and listened without apparent disapppointment to her second recitation of the circumstances. He, too, accepted her responsibility for the matter at hand, and he sent a messegner to the Elemental Masters to request an audience for her.

We did not wait long. Just long enough for Lady Miyara to tell us a little piece of history.

Once upon a time, as my people would begin a story, an uninvited shugenja from one of the major clans had actually come to the competition once. He somehow gained a position despite not having been invited. He had won. I imagine he also won the Elemental Masters' hatred, although the consequences of his winning were not mentioned. However, no shugenja from any but a major clan had ever taken part in the competition. The Nightengale clan were taking a very big risk with Miyara's honor.

Tony quietly asked Lady Miyara if he had to go with her to see the mages. He dreads mages. But she did not let him off the hook: he's her trusted second in command, and her retainers all must accompany her for this audience. He accepted the duty with a sigh. She said nothing about it, but it was obvious to us all that we all should keep silent during the discussion, unless one of the Masters addressed us. This was her matter; we merely stand with her.

The messenger returned. The Elemental Masters would see Miyara Miwa immediately. Perforce, we left immediately. She walked deep in thought, and I wondered how she would convince five immensely powerful men to do something they naturally had a very great interest in not doing. I placed my confidence in her and the spirits who guide her: they will find a way. I confess I asked a few spirits along the way to influence the Masters in the right direction. I don't know if they listened or not, but at least I tried.

We were escorted into the tent of the Elemental Masters, which was the most impressive tent here. Although it was lit adequately within, it was somehow dim at the same time, and the corners disappeared into blackness. Incense filled the tent with smoke and a rather cloying scent. It should have felt warm after the chill fall air outside, but it didn't. The tent was not beautiful, I didn't think. It was rich and impressive, but I didn't feel welcomed here. It was all about the power of these five men.

And the five men standing before us absolutely stank of power. Four of them appeared elderly while one seemed quite young still. Lady Miyara bowed very low to them, and we all bowed behind her, even lower. They bowed politely to her and greeted her very formally. Their formal speech was a little hard to follow.

Lady Miyara spoke clearly and well, I thought. She'd put a great deal of thought into what these men were interested in and how to make them want somehow to change so many years of custom and invite a shugenja of a minor clan into the competition. Well after all the participants had already been invited.

She spoke formally as well, so I only caught the gist of what she said. She believed it would enhance the glory of both Phoenix and Isawa to allow a minor clan shugenja to participate. She made no mention of a specific shugenja yet.

When she was done with her pitch, the young man, the Master of Air, replied to her in a poem. Showing off, I supposed. Proving that he was well-educated and intelligent. Putting Lady Miyara into her place as a mere warrior.

You challenge a dog --

No glory in victory.

No glory in loss.

To my surprise, and probably the young Master of Air's as well, Lady Miyara countered him with a poem of her own:

You challenge and win

The dog, the pack, plus others --

And you cannot lose.

If I lose a lot of information in the multi-layered conversation that is Nipponese, imagine how much more I must miss when they hold that conversation in poetry.

All I got from his was that he didn't see anything to gain in fighting Koan, and perhaps much to lose if Koan actually won. His acknowledgment of the possiblity of Koan's winning surprised me, though. I would have thought that an Isawa losing to a minor clan would have been considered so ridiculous that it need not even be mentioned.

Lady Miyara's poem said that allowing Koan to compete and lose would gain them the respect of not just Koan, and not just the minor clan they didn't care about, but also that of the other clans. And surely he didn't think that Koan could win! She played to his vanity with that one, and also made it seem a sure bet: nothing to lose, and allies to gain.

I think I caught a little of the unspoken stuff. Not all, I'm sure, by a mile. I think his poem referenced that one uninvited shugenja who was allowed to compete anyway, and then won the entire thing. Miayra reminded him that Koan is of a minor clan, and fear of that happening again was baseless.

I wondered if that was true: how likely is it that Koan is good enough to win?

The Master of Water asked her simply, "I assume you have someone in mind?" and he looked pointedly at the rest of us arrayed behind her. I'm not sure why, really, since we're technically Miyara. I think.

She answered him, "I do," looking straight at him. They all looked at her, awaiting her suggestion, and she gave it to them, "Koan of the Nightengale Clan." That's all she said, as though everyone knew the Nightengale clan, and surely any shugenja worth his salt would recognize Koan's name. I fought back a giggle.

The five masters looked thoughtfully at her and said not a word. One of their retainers standing silently to the side stepped forward and asked the question the masters could not without appearing ignorant. "I beg the pardon of Mistress Miyara, but I am unaware of the Nightengale clan."

"The Nightengale clan live west of here, in the mountains between Dragon and Phoenix, in lands claimed by neither. They are as yet a very small clan, but blessed with a worthy mage."

The masters paused for a moment, then told the lady that they would have an answer for her in a little while. They would send word when their answer was ready.

She bowed her thanks, and we returned to the Miyara's tent to await their decision. I felt she had succeeded as well as she possibly could. Whether they would give her what she wanted, I didn't know, but I knew she could do no better. Of course, I also supposed that her efforts meant nothing without the required results.

We waited for a very long hour, over tea and somewhat strained conversation. An Isawa messenger brought the word that the Masters demanded Lady Miyara's presence, and we all returned to their tent. I have to say that Lady Miyara appeared not to have a worry in the world, although I'm sure that was not actually the case.

I heard Mehli muttering something about canals and gondolas and pomp and circumstance on the way.

Within the tent, we stood silently after the formal greetings were exchanged. The Master of Earth spoke for them all. "The worthy mage from Nightengale will be allowed to participate in the competition. If he agrees not to win."

Victory, then. Lady Miyara bowed her thanks and we returned with the news to the Miyara tent. It was interesting that the Masters were so concerned over this one shugenja from a minor clan that they insisted he throw the victory if it were in his grasp. Power is a strange thing.

Niban was pleased with the decision and a smile lit his face. Koan did not look quite as pleased, obviously at the command for him to lose. Niban said simply, "We accept."

I wondered if someone would mention the minor matter of the missing scrolls. After a few breaths of silence, Niban spoke again. "The scrolls will be here tomorrow."

And they were, with no one the wiser.

The Miyara arranged for a replacement box that looked exactly like the ruined original. The Shinjo thanked Lady Miyara for solving the sticky matter so quietly and effectively, and keeping his name clean. He seemed impressed with her. In fact, he offered her the services of the samurai-ko, Shinjo Iruko, to act as her retainer for as long as Lady Miyara wished. She accepted graciously. The lady now has Tony to act as her second-in-command and Iruko to act as her right hand.

I spent a while with a nobleman, Marco something, from somewhere in Tilea. We were both strangers in the Empire city where we found each other. He told me once that he was his father's "left hand". Apparently it was custom for a Tilean noble to have a right hand -- usually but not always his heir -- and a left hand. The man acting as his right hand could speak for him; could act as him, for example in a dual; could sign for him.

The left hand was something else again. The left hand was not acknowledged publicly. The left hand did the things the noble required done secretly and not traceable to him. Up to and including killing, which was actually why Marco was there. He'd followed someone his father needed killed quietly.

I wondered if the Nipponese had that kind of official designation of someone to do the dirty work. It wasn't something you just ask outright, though. Not even a gaijin like me. Considering how secretive they are anyway, a "left hand" was probably redundant. Lady Miyara had already acted as her father's right hand, while investigating the Tsume's murder. I was pretty sure she would not hesitate to quietly kill someone if her father needed her to. And anyway, Iruko was obviously not that kind of right hand to Lady Miyara. I didn't think.

Niban was very grateful; he'd taken a huge risk and won it all by betting on Lady Miyara, sight unseen. He, too, offered her a retainer. A boy, maybe around ten, to act as her squire. She also accepted him into her service.

Since the matter was cleaned up within a day, we could completely enjoy the entire festival. The competitions didn't even begin until the seventh day, so the first six were pure spectacle. The Lady ensured that Sun gave us all some coins to enjoy ourselves with.

I spent most of those days wandering around the tents, the tables, the displays, and the drums.

Ah, the drums. These people understand drums even if their music is dreadfully out of tune. Wonderful, deep, tones that you can feel at your very core. Their rhythms, both simple and complex, surely must delight the spirits of their ancestors.

There were plenty of pretty things for sale, and I purchased some beads and some bells and other trinkets. One old woman sold me a flat clay disc with a phoenix carved on one side and a tiger on the other. She said it was a ward and would ware off unfriendly spirits. I found some lovely ribbons to braid through my hair, and I wound the little ward into them, and tied a bell in, too.

I tried to flirt, just for diversion, here and there with whoever caught my eye, but they were one and all uninterested in me. Since I hadn't any intentions of going further than flirtation, my disappointment was slight.

I did ask Lady Miyara if there were possibly a Miyara shugenja here who was not too busy to teach me to use the scrolls. She looked thoughtful for a moment, and then led me to a tent and introduced me to one, Miyara Toro.

He was very interested in my scrolls after I told him how I had acquired them. He wanted to be sure that I understood how blessed I was to receive those scrolls from the gentleman. I assured him I was well aware.

He asked me first how well I had done at my school. I knew there were schools in cities, but my people don't have any such thing. Everyone teaches the young, and as they grow older, they are trained according to their interests. I told him I had never been to any school, and I wondered what that had to do with learning how to use a scroll.

He then asked me if I were shugenja. I told him I was shaman, but that of course meant nothing to him. I said, "The Lady Miyara usually calls me a priest. I speak with the spirits."

"Can you cast spells?" he asked me.

I explained that I can do nothing extraordinary myself. "I ask the spirits, and often they act on my behalf."

He told me that he would teach me to read the words on the scrolls, but he could not teach me to use the scrolls to cast the spells on them. In fact, he said, "I do not believe anyone can teach you to use them. You will need to ask the spirits to teach you to use the scrolls."

I thanked him and said I would do that. I am certain that with time I can find a spirit who is able and willing to help me.

He was going to be in the competitions here, so he said he would be at the Imperial Winter Court, hosted by Phoenix. There he would have time to teach me to read the scrolls.

I did not know what our plans were to be, but surely we would at least have a small amount of time to ourselves, and maybe I could visit the Winter Court and learn from him. He did tell me what the scrolls would do, confirming Lady Miyara's guesses.

Mehli spent the time as she wished; drinking, singing, telling outrageous stories, and getting other people drunk. I joined her a couple of nights, although I took it easy on the sake, and she was very entertaining. Most of the rest of the time I spent wandering the festival grounds. I visited the shrine a few times. The air was quiet and clear there, and it was tranquil. The monks and other visitors to the shrine didn't mind my drumming and dancing and speaking with the spirits. I did all that off to one side, so I didn't disturb the visitors of course. In fact, I wasn't the only one there speaking to spirits. I just had my own way of doing so.

Finally, the competitions began, and we all watched. Even Tony. At the start, 65 shugenja took the field. So they just added Koan and didn't uninvite someone else. One at a time, each cast four spells, one for each of four of their elements. When they were done, the judges passed on merely eight. Four were judged the best in each of one of the elements. The other four were the four who were best all-around shugenja, who cast the four best spells. The eight included Koan, an Agasha, two Asahina, and four Isawa.

Mehli had placed a few discreet bets on Koan. She knew he would lose, but figured bets on his behalf could only enhance his and Nightengale's standing. I shook my head in wonder. She makes a bg show of being uninterested in noble life and politics and all that, but she understands it well and can't help but act on it.

These eight each cast one spell. These were truly spectacular, amazing all us spectators. Even Tony was impressed. The judges passed four of them through: Koan again, one Asahina, and two Isawa.

For this round, the two Isawa were paired and Koan and the Asahina were paired. They were not to cast spells at each other, but in competition with each other. The winner of each pair would then compete for the final win.

Koan bowed to his opponent, and forfeited. I caught a rather sour look on his face as he left the competition. I think he thought he might have won, and he did not like to be forced to lose. But it was better for his clan, and so he left. The whispers around us assured us that his bowing out was assumed to be a concession to a superior mage.

And so the Nightengale clan gained exactly what they wanted, and Lady Miyara ensured that no one knew how that had happened. The only tie between Miyara and Nightengale is her young squire.

The two Isawa faced off against each other, and the young Isawa Uona -- a prodigy in the element of Air -- won the round.

In the final round, Isawa Uona defeated Asahina Akie, in two hours of furious competition. Once again, an Isawa won the competition. I wondered if Koan could have won. I wondered if the Elemental Masters would ever again invite a shugenja from a minor clan to compete. I was certain they would never allow one to win.

The festival itself ended in a fireworks display that took my breath away, and the awards ceremony. The scrolls were safely handed off to the Isawa winner, and that was that.

Mehli and I both found the samurai-ko an attractive addition to Lady Miyara's retinue, but I was pretty sure she didn't see us in the same way. Her immediate interest in Peter confirmed my feelings. I hid my amusement at Mehli's annoyance at being dismissed out of hand. I think she prefers to make her pitch and then be rejected.

Mehli, being a spirit, is far different than any lover I've ever had before. She makes the spirits' never-ending whisperings quieter and easier to ignore. No mortal lover has ever had that effect. I wonder if it's something special about Mehli, or if any corporeal spirit would do the same?

Kocho slipped into his role as Lady Miyara's squire. He had no idea what he was supposed to do, but he seemed eager to learn so she began training him properly. He'd had a different role for Niban -- scouting, living off the land for days while watching the road, or following people. Kocho was very proud that he'd followed us for four days. Lady Miyara warned Mehli to leave the boy alone. For some unaccountable reason, she wanted to get him drunk.

We learned a little about him personally, too. Kocho's parents had followed Niban as ronin before he formed the Nightengale village. His mother died of some sickness when he was very young, and he didn't remember her at all. His father died in battle, and Kocho had few memories of him. Niban took him on, and had taken care of him since his father died.

I didn't know how permanent Niban expected this arrangement to be, but it was very clear that Lady Miyara now considered the boy as her responsibility. She would likely not let him go until she considered him ready.

After the festival, we returned to Shira Miyara, and relaxed for a week. Then we were told Lady Miyara was expected to travel to the nearby Castle Gisu, where the Asako family, a Phoenix family, were hosting the Winter Court of the Emperor. Ah, some kindly spirit somewhere had no doubt arranged things without my having to lift a finger. A good omen, I think.