Phoebe's Journey Part 3

Chapter 1: Winter Court

Lady Miyara seemed restless by the end of the week at her home. She'd been gone a long time, and she was probably discovering that she and home had grown apart. Besides that, I don't think she was used to not having a mission. A week of idleness, and she was eager to be off.

The trip to Castle Gisu wasn't long. Miyara Miwa's father, Miyara Ujimitsu, traveled with us, as did several other Miyaras. She and her father spent most of that short journey talking. Actually, he did more talking, and she did more listening. Apparently he was staying at the Winter Court for only a week or so, and then he was to move on to the Emperor's Court for the rest of the season.

The procession at the entrance was long, and the Asako lord would have to stand there and greet every guest all day long. He welcomed Miyara Miwa and the rest of us by name. The Miyaras and Shinjo Iruko he knew; for the rest of us, he needed a little prompting. He spoke our names with the usual, slightly musical cadence that most Nipponese did.

Even more interesting, he presented each one of us, save Kocho, with a beautifully wrapped box, all in Miyara and Phoenix colors. He said we must not open them until the banquet that night. He said, to all of us as a group, that he hoped we would enlighten them about our homeland. I don't know about enlightening, but I'm always happy to share tales of an evening.

A servant led us along a hall and slid open the door. He disappeared after that, I supposed to go lead someone else to his room. I walked in, wondering if all of us were really going to be sharing a single room.

Instead, I walked into a large, airy room, with opened sliding doors all around its sides. At the other end of the room, the door opened out onto a balcony. Each of us had a private room opening off of that one large central room. In mine, Lady Miyara's servants had already put everything away. I opened all the drawers of the chest, figuring out where all my stuff was.

The suite's central room was obviously a place to relax with my fellow travelers, and perhaps entertain guests. Short tables and cushions were scattered around mats, making this one of the most luxurious rooms I'd ever seen in Nippon. Say what you will about Nipponese nobility, they didn't match the decadence of western nobility at all. Everyone kneels on the floor, there's never more furniture than absolutely necessary, and even the scrolls and carvings and paintings on the walls were understated. I'd seen monasteries in the west that were less austere.

I wandered out onto our private balcony, and I found the missing decadence.

The sheer beauty of it all took my breath away. Castle Gisu was built into the side of a cliff, facing another cliff. Far below, a lake was cupped between the two cliffs. Water fell from the top of the facing cliff from edge to edge, hitting the lake in a spray of mist. The falls threw up mists at each edge it hit on the way down, too.

I learned later there was a garden around the spring that created the waterfall, and the only way to it was a bridge from a garden on the very roof of the castle. Every suite had a private balcony that looked out over the falls and the lake, and there were gardens, terraces, and other balconies everywhere.

We had only a short time to relax in that breathtaking setting before our servants started getting us ready for the formal welcoming feast that night. Mehli was more beautiful than ever. Her maid dressed her more simply than mine did me, and that simplicity of the fine silks suited her very well. She matched the austere beauty of the castle's interior.

I suppose Iruko also looked nice, but I had eyes only for Mehli that night.

The dining hall was huge. A single table on a dais was for the emperor's niece, her suitors, and the hosting family. The rest of us were all at large tables scattered around the room. Large tables: Lady Miyara, her entire retinue, as well as several other people, all fit at one of them.

My people don't go in much for all this formal stuff. A feast to us is a raucous gathering -- around the outside bonfire in good weather, and in the Assembly House in bad. Traveling through the Empire, I wasn't invited to nobles' gatherings much. Well, at all, really. I did attend a couple of formal feasts on the arm of a minor imperial nobleman who was invited and said he wanted something pretty to show off. It was a good bargain: I got some lovely dinners just when I'd run out of money to buy food, and he aroused the jealousy of the woman he wanted to court.

Every once in a while I realize who Lady Miyara is, besides the warrior we all follow. Iruko sat next to her and whispered in her ear now and again. Just like the one who whispered information to our host, Asako. And the one who similarly whispered to Lord Miyara, although not nearly as often.

I was suddenly a little nervous. We were at one of the most important courts in Nippon, and Lady Miyara would be judged partly on the behavior of her retinue. I stayed fairly quiet that first night, watching and listening, and minding my chopsticks.

One of the Miyaras who'd traveled with us arrived late; the only late arrival. He made his way to the head table, nodding at Miyara Miwa on his way. She nodded back with a set face. If he was at that table, he had to be a suitor for the emperor's niece, and I didn't think coming late for the opening banquet of the Winter Court was the way to win her.

I saw Koan, at another table. And the Elemental Master of Earth at the head table. Lady Miyara's father, Miyara Ujimitsu, and Miyara Himitsu were at yet another table, one closer to the head table than ours.

They call Miyara Ujimitsu the Phoenix Champion. From the occasional bit of gossip I caught, at the festival and here, I gathered that Miyara Himitsu was next in line to become that champion, and also head of the Miyara family. He isn't that closely related, I don't think, so I suppose Lord Miyara had simply picked him. Why him and not one of his sons I didn't know. Miyara succession didn't really concern me, so I just listened and learned what I could.

I do wonder what happens to Miyara Miwa's position in the family when she is no longer the Champion's daughter. Perhaps this Winter Court is a good opportunity for her to make some alliances in her own name. If they do things like that here. I'm a little perplexed by the politics surrounding women. Some of them seem powerful and completely autonomous. Others seem like no more than pawns on a chess board. Lady Miyara seemed like one of the former, but would that change if her status did? Nipponese politics are like a wad of tangled fishing line, with sharp hooks hidden inside.

Somewhere in there, Asako stood and welcomed everyone. His warm voice carried throughout the hall with no effort, and everyone was instantly quiet and attentive. At the end of his welcoming speech, he held up a small box, wrapped in mauve, which I realized was his family color. He said,

"These gifts, my friends, have been prepared for you by my lovely sister Asako Nuriko." He bowed to her, seated near him, and she beamed shyly at the table's surface. "When you open them later, you will find inside a small object, which is but half of a pair. This is merely a setting for some small amusement. Find the one who carries your matching token. You may ask that person one question each day, which by honor must be answered truthfully. Of course, you are free to trade objects as you will. Keep your own hidden; make this a challenge. There are two final rules: You may only trade your token for another token, and you must keep it on your person at all times." His sister fluttered her fan, the Emperor's niece clapped, and the rest of the room followed suit.

Oh, what fun! I wondered what was in my box, and who had the match to it, and how I would find this person. And then, the fun of trading tokens, so I could find new people to meet and talk with all the time. I'd have a socially acceptable way of talking to anyone I wanted.

Dinner eventually ended, and we all returned to our suite. I went into my room and closed the door so I could open my box in private. I think the key to this game is to show without showing off. Inside was a scroll case that held a scroll. I couldn't read it, but I didn't think whatever was on it was important. Just the fact that there was a matching one out there somewhere. I thought for several minutes before I figured a way to hide it in plain sight. I tied a neat bundle of it and my other two, far more precious, scrolls. I've seen others wandering around with scrolls at their waists, so I figured that would work as well for me. I giggled: I would look like a very well-educated gaijin.

Out in the room with everyone else, Mehli was showing off her token: a very handsomely carved tiger with a poem on its side, which Lady Miyara read for her. She asked me if I could help her somehow pin it in her sleeve so its head just peeked out. That was a nifty idea, so I fixed it up for her.

Lady Miyara originally had a largish box, and Tony'd had a very small one. Yet now, Tony was holding a large fan, and I couldn't see that the lady had anything at all. I supposed they'd traded immediately. I understood that Lady Miyara probably didn't want to play the game openly, and Tony takes his responsibility as her second in command very seriously, always on the lookout for threats to her. Like the unknown person she was paired with for someone else's purposes.

Mehli seemed as eager for this game as I was, and I wistfully wondered how many nights I might spend with her here. Still, she wasn't the only one looking for fun. It's just that she gives me more peace than anyone else, and after the fun was over, peace was what I would need. I could think of little that special that I could give her, except perhaps for a closer connection to the spirit world. I wasn't sure she really needed or even wanted that, though. She walked this side of the veil for a reason.

All in all, I was both excited about what I might find at court and a little saddened by what I might lose.

By that time we'd all, mostly secretly, opened our boxes and returned to the common room. Tony asked about Miyara Ryuden, the one who had entered dinner so late. He was there as one of two Miyaras to court the emperor's niece. The lady said, "I am to support Miyara Sanru's suit. Miyara Ryuden is an outgoing, but not particularly tactful man. More Crab than Phoenix. He's known as a good warrior, but not so much as a great courtier. His status in the clan puts him on the floor above us."

So Miyara Sanru was the real Miyara suitor, and Miyara Ryuden was ... I wasn't sure. He didn't seem likely to win her, so why did Lord Miyara let him court her? I supposed it was some family politics somewhere, and I was afraid it would probably make Miyara Miwa's life harder here in some way.

Before long, someone knocked at the door. A servant glanced at Lady Miyara, who nodded. He opened the door, listened a moment, and then told the lady that a messenger from Miyara Ryuden was here for her. She nodded, and he was let in to give her the message, "Miyara Ryuden sends his compliments and requests your presence." Ah, yes, trouble already.

A little reluctantly I thought, lady Miyara said she would go, and go alone. Tony and Iruko both looked displeased at that.

The weather had turned warm, what we always called a false summer at home. I inquired, and the spirits told me it would turn cold again almost immediately. But this evening was a fine one, and we left the door to the balcony open. Mehli poured herself some sake, and she and I enjoyed a few private moments in a dark corner of the balcony until Tony, Iruko, and Peter came out. They spread a Go mat on a table, and Iruko proceeded to teach Peter to play by beating Tony soundly. Tony accepted the lessons, and I think he probably learned almost as much as Peter did. About Go, anyway: I think he wondered why Iruko was so interested in Peter rather than him.

I watched them play Go, and Mehli disappeared inside with the sake. Eventually, Lady Miyara returned, about the same time they picked up the Go pieces and we went back in.

She looked faintly disturbed, and at Mehli's question, she said she'd had an interesting conversation with Miyara Ryuden. She said it started out as she expected: he wanted her advice on courting the emperor's niece. But then he asked her a lot of questions about Koan, Niban, and the Nightingale clan. He wanted to know where their village was exactly, what she thought of them, whether they were samurai or bandits or ronin, how many bushi there were. Tony looked alert, and wondered if Miyara Ryuden was planning to either attack them or hire them for some secret attacks on someone else. Lady Miyara nodded and said she wondered the same thing. It had her worried, I could see.

Tsukimi, the maid assigned to me, wasn't opposed to decorating me, but she refused to braid feathers into my hair. Apparently feathers just are not acceptable here. I don't know why; these Nipponese have a fine appreciation of the natural world, but they don't seem to bring it inside much. And she wasn't enthusiastic about most of my little beads and baubles, either. She said they were cheap and I should wear better quality. Well.

She helped me out, though. She sorted through my things and picked out a few pretty beads and ribbons that were acceptable to her, and she scrounged around and found more to add, too. And she actually liked that little ward I bought at the festival, and skillfully wound it into the pile of hair balanced on my head. With a couple of small tinkling bells, even. So I ended up "done" completely in the Nipponese style, yet I was myself at the same time. After that, I put my outfit entirely in her hands and quit arguing.

I wandered around the court, looking for the matching scroll case, and hoping the matching case was attached to someone attractive or interesting, but I had no luck. I also didn't really like carrying those two other scrolls around with me like that. Perhaps I'd have better luck with a different token.

So I started looking for someone to trade with. One afternoon, I spied an older gentleman, simply holding a comb in his hand. It was very pretty, and he seemed to either want to find its partner quickly, or get rid of it. I was willing to help him with that last, so I floated up to him, bowed as prettily as I could manage, and introduced myself. He bowed and looked for the comb I might be wearing, but wasn't.

"Perhaps you would like to make a trade?" I asked him, and fluttered my hand near the scroll cases.

His eyes lit at that, and he agreed at once. We performed the trade quickly, and I stuck the comb in my hair. I'm sure Tsukimi would do a better job with it later, but for now, I had a pretty, sparkly comb sticking out of the top of the hair all piled up on my head.

The emperor's niece, Otomo Yoroshiku, was highly visible, playing with her suitors. One morning, all of us were sitting in one of the many gardens with her, her suitors, and other courtiers. The air was bitterly cold, and the spirits told me that snow was going to fall later that day.

The low buzz of conversation warred with the low buzz in my head, and I almost missed the girl's poem, said quietly while looking at Tony rather intently.

Winter's friend? not I --

I would trade my fan for this --

A simple blossom.

Still looking at Tony, she challenged him, "If only a blossom could be found..." Suddenly four gentlemen stood up and rushed out. So she was using Tony to make her suitors go find something that would stand in for a flower, because they certainly weren't going to find an actual flower.

Tony was cooler than they. Of course, he wasn't courting her. He did stand after several breaths and sauntered out, a faint smile on his lips. I noticed that Lady Miyara's kinsman, Miyara Sanru, didn't even bother. He stood off to one side. He wasn't going to let the girl play him, and I figured that gave him a leg up on the others.

Lady Miyara walked over to him, they whispered a little, and they left. Intriguing ... what was she up to?

Several minutes later, Tony had returned, but the other men were still out somewhere, desperately hunting for non-existent flowers. The two Miyaras strolled into the garden, and Miyara Sanru formally introduced Miyara Miwa to the Emperor's niece. Then he said, "Miyara Miwa has found a blossom."

She produced a flower from somewhere inside her sleeve, with a graceful flick of her wrist, and presented it to the girl. I realized it was folded from paper, as I'd seen her doing in odd moments when she was bored or particularly thoughtful. Otomo Yoroshiku complimented its beauty, with a glance at Miyara Sanru, and thanked her for it. Everyone clapped politely, and she asked Lady Miyara to introduce her retinue.

We were introduced, with bows all around, and space magically appeared for us to kneel near Otomo Yoroshiku. Again, she chose Tony to speak with.

"Would you enlighten me on how women of your land find their husbands?"

He replied, "It has been my experience that as a young man I still have no idea." His answer, both gallant and humorous, was well-received with smiles and a few polite, quiet laughs.

Mehli has been eyeing Otomo Yoroshiku since the festival, and finally found her chance. She said, "If a woman kisses an elf lady passionately, she will dream of her husband that night!

That embarrassed the girl, although she hid it well, and she deflected Mehli's statement with skill. I thought, well I haven't dreamed of any future husbands with all the passionate kisses I've given a certain spirit lady. But I didn't say that out loud, of course. I would never undermine Mehli like that. You never know; she might have gotten a kiss out of it.

We visited with the emperor's niece for the allotted time, and then she subtly signaled we were over. We each moved on in our own way. I wandered off, to see if I could find the other comb. Or something else interesting. I'd been enjoying just watching everything going on around me. These Nipponese court games are fascinating.

One day, I returned to our suite for a snack around mid-day, and discovered most of the rest of us were there, too, also hungry. Lady Miyara walked in, with a rather strange look on her face. Seeing everyone else there, she masked it immediately, but I wondered what had happened that morning that made her look like that.

Tony said the holder of the match to his fan had found him. He said she was a middle-aged Lion woman. He figured she was the wife or relative of someone here, because she didn't wear a bushi's swords, nor did she seem to be shugenja -- and with his dread of them, he's pretty good at sniffing them out. He said she walked up to him and asked him sternly, "What are your intentions towards the Hantei Emperor's niece?"

He answered her, "To serve the families of the empire as well I can, and eventually take my leave and return to my homeland." He laughed and said she seemed to appreciate that last part, about his leaving.

For his question, he asked, "Is there someone in particular you would like me to trade my fan to?"

She gave him a name that he repeated, and he looked at Lady Miyara and at Iruko. They both shook their heads, though. Neither one recognized the name, and Iruko said she'd find out for him.

Tony asked Lady Miyara if there was anything she'd like him to ask his partner before he traded away the right to ask her questions. She said no, but then looked thoughtful. Within a few breaths, she changed her mind, and told Tony that she was interested in knowing more about a certain gentleman, also a Lion. She asked him to ask the holder of the fan what she knew about an Akodo Rena.

Well. That piqued my interest. Who was he, and why was she interested in him? I was sure it had something to do with that odd look on her face. She'd encountered him in some way that morning. I'd have to watch this. A bit later, with a very set face, she announced she had a dinner engagement for the evening. Now I was really curious. It had to be more than mere politics, but she was not going to admit to anything that night.

I'd been wearing the pretty comb in my hair for a couple of days, right up where it could be easily seen. So far, I hadn't found the match, and the match hadn't found me. That same evening, that finally changed.

I found myself alone on one of the public balconies, looking out on the snow-covered ground. Mehli was busy elsewhere, and the spirits in my head were especially loud. I found it hard to concentrate on anything, and I felt restless. I was thinking back to that night at the Golden Peony when I discovered that enough sake dulled the spirits' voices, and I was about to go find a large bottle. Without either Mehli or the sake, I didn't think I'd be able to sleep that night. My head ached with the unceasing chattering.

Behind me, a polite throat-clearing cut through the din. I turned to see a young man standing there with a nervous smile on his face. In his hand was the comb that matched mine. He wasn't really what I'd hoped for, but I needed some sort of diversion badly.

"Do you know who has the match to this comb?"

That was a pretty poor attempt at the game, but he was young. I gave him a flirty smile and said, "Why yes I do".

"Let me ask you my one question, which you must answer truthfully and honestly, on your honor: Would you enjoy accompanying me to enjoy the sunset on the lake?"

I could see he needed some help. At this rate, he'd be celibate the rest of his life. Since he carried those two ubiquitous swords, I assumed he didn't intend to join a monastery.

I said, "Yes," and I even meant that honestly. Watching the sunset with someone was a thousand times better than downing a bottle of sake by myself.

"Then, my lady, please come with me." That was a better attempt, and I willingly followed him to a quiet corner of the balcony. The air was cold, but the last of the sunlight still warmed the balcony. I surreptitiously studied the young man while we chatted.

He was of the Crane clan, the Doji family. I didn't know what that meant, but I thought Crane was known more or less for its courtiers. We watched the sun set, and it was a lovely sight. Golden light reached out from the mists, and the waterfall turned into molten gold pouring down the cliff.

His voice, whispered into my ear, broke through the murmuring spirits.

Golden sunlight shines

But for a moment. Then, dark.

You shine, day and night.

I'm no judge of Nipponese poetry, but I thought it was a fair attempt. He was beginning to interest me. I still had my question for the evening, unasked. I asked him, "Would you allow me to tell your fortune?"

"I would be honored," and he did indeed seem interested.

I looked out into the night, which was quickly turning velvet black to my sight. A stray glint of sun on ice near the waterfall caught me; the spirits' whispers turned into words. I found myself looking into his almost-black eyes, telling him, "You will soon embark upon a long and famous, or perhaps infamous, romance."

His delighted smile told me the answer pleased him, and the spirits' voices quieted again. He could not replace Mehli by any stretch of the imagination, but for tonight, he might be enough.