Phoebe's Journey Part 4

Chapter 11: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Before we left the house, Lady Miyara took out the scrolls and read about the Licensed Quarter and the geisha house we were going to. The Nipponese custom is to group all the vices in one area, where it can be contained. Since there was a large island conveniently in the middle of the river here, that's where they put it.

We'd have to give our weapons to someone before being allowed into the Licensed Quarter. A place called Swords Polished -- and Mehli snickered every time its name was mentioned -- served this purpose. Ostensibly, it was a service offered, but you didn't actually have the option of refusing. It was probably a good idea to keep samurai separated from their swords while they're busy getting drunk and stoned and sleeping around. Tempers flare easily, and people take offense at the silliest things when drink and sex are involved. Combine that with the prickliness of a samurai, and you've got trouble.

There's two major geisha houses there: The House of Foreign Stories, and the Morning Star. Mehli remembered that the latter was where Miyara Shonagon's friend, Ide Michikane was found dead from opium. The former was where we were going, and was apparently where the former Emerald Magistrate liked to go. Even more importantly, he'd been there the night he was killed.

Shonagon described Magda, the proprietor of the House of Foreign Stories, in detail. Tall and blonde with blue eyes. Curly hair. Shonagon marveled at her exotic appearance, in this land where everyone was small, had straight black hair, and brown eyes. I wondered where this Magda was from. The description of her clothing was nothing I'd ever seen before. Wide pants fastened at her ankle, and rings on the toes of her bare feet. A brief shirt that ended inches above the pants, showing off her stomach. Shonagon seemed pleasantly shocked. One expects the strange there, and Magda delivers.

Shigeko explained the politics behind everything, of course. Most establishments are beholden to the Scorpions. Magda is a Unicorn vassal. They tried to make some inroads into the Scorpion's territory, but failed until they did it in their own unique way. Apparently the Unicorn clan is known for its strangeness and foreignness. Showing it off proved a successful business plan.

Also, apparently foreigners can only stay if they have travel papers, which expire regularly and therefore must be renewed frequently by Emerald Magistrates. Shigeko said she did so because she didn't want to upset the delicate balance of power, although the Scorpions would love to see Magda disappear.

We walked out into a clear, cold winter night. The stars above were bright and everything looked brittle in their sharp light. The air was still, and only the many boats on the river disturbed its surface. Our little boat took us smoothly and swiftly to the dock at the island: its only dock, apparently, and a busy one. Deliveries, servants, guards, and visitors all vied for space. Our boat master apologized to Lady Miyara for the delay. When we finally stepped off the boat, the others made way for us. I suppose we are a pretty easy group to recognize. I wonder if her position as Assistant to the Emerald Magistrate caused the odd tenseness I felt.

The pier itself leads straight to a large and decorated gate into a building. A wall from the building blocks any other possible way to the island, except for a small door for servants and deliveries off to one side. The lady had eyes only for the door meant for her.

Inside, a large and imposing man welcomed us to his establishment, introducing himself as Gate. Several boys held out silk pillows for the warriors to place their weapons on. Lady Miyara laid her two swords on a pillow and stepped aside. Mehli did the same with her rapier, and although they eyed it curiously, no one said anything disparaging about it. Tony followed the lady's lead and put his swords on a couple of pillows, glowering.

Funny. Lady Miyara carries two strong and razor sharp swords as extensions of herself. Tony carries whatever is convenient for the moment, but prefers to carry an assortment of large swords plus a shield and who knows what else. My Mehli carries only her rapier, slender and graceful as she is. Each one's weapons reflect their bearers.

I thought suddenly about the knife up my sleeve. Should I lay it down on a pillow, too? Before my abduction, I would have, but now I didn't want to be without it. I had to admit that it would do me little good, probably. But it made me feel slightly less helpless. It was well hidden, and I didn't look like a person who would carry a weapon. Perhaps no one would notice... I moved forward, hoping nobody noticed my hesitation. We were ushered out the back door to the entrance to the island. I waited for someone to shout out to me, but I exited with nothing happening, still carrying my little knife.

We strolled down the main road, and I looked around and related what I saw to the map of the island. There's only one main road, and all the important places are on it. The gardens were first, on our left.

I'll have to come back during the day and walk through the Island Gardens. They looked wilder than anything I've seen so far in Nippon. My feet wanted to dance on the paths, my hands on my drum, and my heart and head with the spirits. I saw quite a number of Nipponese winding their way through the place. I can imagine many dark, secluded corners.

The House of Foreign Stories was on the right, and it was a large building. Lady Miyara read the sign for us. The script looked very different from the usual Nipponese script. Very fluid and sinuous. Mehli said it reminded her strongly of the writing of the desert people.

We entered, and it took my breath away. The downstairs was mostly one, huge, open room. There were the low Nipponese tables scattered everywhere, surrounded by sumptuous-looking cushions and pillows to lounge on. The walls were covered in artwork from every conceivable corner of the world -- carvings and tapestries and pottery and ... And the people! Again, from every corner of the world.

We were led to our own table, and beautiful women asked us what we wanted to drink and eat. I was overwhelmed and didn't even know where to start. Who knew what they could provide? Probably most of it I'd never heard of, so how could I possibly order something? A huge drum hanging on the wall caught my eye. Then, I noticed the woman in the center of the room, playing an unfamiliar instrument with strings and singing quietly.

I heard Mehli's voice, and looked at her. She smiled at me encouragingly and finished her order of something she called Goldenleaf. When it arrived, it was just the color of the amber I remember from the forests at the edge of the water. And it had sparkling silvery flakes floating in it! Mehli shared it with me, and it had a warm and wild flavor to it. I could almost taste the forest behind it: trees, earth, cold water, spring flowers, the summer heat, autumn leaves, winter fir. Just the taste of it was enough to bring me back to the ground again.

A large platter of finger food arrived. I ate, and drank, and filled my eyes. What a world this was! Everything and everyone was beautiful.

Eventually, Magda herself appeared. Shonagon had described her so fully and accurately, there was no mistaking her, posing at the top of the stairs and then flowing down it, all eyes on her. Conversation returned when she reached the floor. She floated between tables, stopping to greet her guests and speak with them briefly. When she reached our table, she first welcomed Lady Miyara gracefully.

Lady Miyara replied smoothly, "I've heard you run the most interesting establishment on the island, and I am not disappointed."

Magda bowed her head, thanked her for the compliment, and said, "I have heard tales of your great beauty and intelligence, and I am not disappointed."

They continued to speak for several minutes, then she moved on to Tony. She actually flirted with him, pretty strongly. With Peter, too, though not as much. She seemed interested in Shallya. In that way, she spent several minutes speaking to each of us at the table. Mehli looked at her with great appreciation. When she was done with us, she moved to the center of the room, easily captured everyone's attention, and told a story.

It was a wonderful story. Three men came to a king with gifts, and they were so amazing, the king promised them anything they wanted in return. Each man wanted to marry one of his three daughters, and he gladly assented. The youngest girl was to marry the man who gave the her father a black statue of a horse, that flew if you knew how to control it. But he was very old and ugly, and she wept. Her brother the prince found out her problem and stole the horse. But the man had purposely only told the prince how to start the horse, not to stop it, and he flew far, far away. He figured out how to stop the horse, though, and landed it and found a princess and they fell in love. After many adventures, he finally managed to return home with her.

She bowed at the applause, and returned to her rounds between tables. We continued enjoying ourselves. Very briefly, I remembered we were here for some purpose, but I let it go. Tonight was for just being.

After a short a while, a Nipponese man, quite nice-looking, appeared and introduced himself to Lady Miyara. I wondered if Magda sent him over, and wistfully wondered if she'd send us all someone. In the usual indirect way, he invited himself to join the lady, and she invited him to sit down next to her.

Mehli's someone appeared next. My eyes opened wide to see a woman with silky smooth skin black as ebony sit gracefully down. Her black hair was all in teeny braids looped all around her head, and she wore a riot of yellow, red, and indigo cloth. Of course, she and Mehli hit it off immediately. Mehli glanced at me, as if wondering if I'd mind somehow. Why would I? Indeed, I was hoping to find someone interesting myself. I gave her an encouraging smile, and she was off. It wasn't long before they disappeared upstairs, and I didn't see Mehli until we left. But that was many hours later.

Peter found himself in a small group of people, talking about herbs and medicines and stuff. Then he went for a walk with a woman from Kislev, of all places. I recognized her accent, and her stories of wolves and ice.

Before long, though, I found myself surrounded by a bevy of attractive men and women from all over. We shared stories back and forth. I heard tales of Araby, of Albion, of the steppes, and of Ind, and I shared my own. I told the tale of the Snow Queen, of Kai and the troll's mirror and Gerda who saved him. It seemed to be a success, because they urged me to stand in the center of the room to relate a tale for everyone. So I did.

Magda's story reminded me of a story from Kislev, usually told told in verse. So I recited the Little Magic Horse. I briefly wished for a hand-drum, because among my people, we tell it to a drum's rhythms. But then, there's other instruments, too, usually one to represent each major character. Back at home, story-telling tends to be a full participation activity. So I closed my eyes a moment, set the rhythm in my head, connected the threads between Old Kislevite and Nipponese, and began. A small, humpbacked horse helps Ivan, a peasant’s son, fulfill the unreasonable demands of the Tzar, one after another. During his many adventures, Ivan captures the beautiful magic Firebird for the Tzar and finds his love in the Tzarina Yelena the Beautiful, all with his little horse's aid. In the end, the Tzarina and the peasant’s son, now the Tzar himself, live happily for many years after.

I briefly wondered what a Nipponese audience would make of a peasant's son becoming an emperor, but it seemed to be well received. I suppose they expect that sort of thing from foreigners.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

I glanced at our table. Tony was still there, with no particular company. I wondered about that, because he certainly is an attractive man. Lady Miyara still sat and conversed quietly with her companion. Peter was gone, and Mehli, too. Then I felt a caressing hand on mine and I turned back to the group I'd been sharing tales with. It didn't take long for the Ind man -- Pathik -- and I to break off from the others, and we went upstairs together. He had lovely green eyes, and strong hands.

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

The second floor had a balcony all around it, and lots of rooms. Some big, some small. He led me into a small room and closed the door behind us. Colorful silks draped the walls and the ceiling, and a thick layer of pillows completely hid the floor. A small chest against one wall had a tray on top of it with a bottle and two cups. I've no idea what we were drinking, but it was strong and went straight to my head.

Are melted into air, into thin air:

Pathik and I enjoyed each other for an utterly timeless interlude. After a while, I was reclining against the pillows, wishing the spirits' voices would stop. It was very distracting because I could almost understand them, but not quite, and that constant working of my brain to make sense of the sounds disturbed the languor I very much wished to enjoy. Pathik said something, and I opened my eyes to see him standing by the chest, one of its drawers open. He asked me if I'd like to share some tobacco with him, or perhaps opium instead. Well, here was my chance to test the stuff. Would it drown out the spirits? Or bring me closer to the veil so I could understand them?

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

Sorry to say, I don't remember much of the rest of the night. He prepared the opium pipe, and we reclined together. I drew the smoke deeply into my lungs, held it as long as I could, and felt my head float off by itself.

The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,

That floaty feeling is mostly what I recall. Time stretched out endlessly before and behind me, and I floated along, as if time and place meant nothing. I felt Pathik's bare front pressed against my bare back, and his arm draped across my body, and it was both mine and somebody else's.

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

I guess to a large extent, it was like hours -- days, or even years -- spent in that meaningless space just at the edge of sleep. You know what those few seconds are like, either just before you drift away completely, or just when you come out of sleep but haven't emerged into full consciousness yet, still riding your dreams. It was glorious.

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

Eventually my head sort of reattached itself, at least a little. Of a sudden, I felt the room was too close. Cloying smoke hung in the air, and I felt like I couldn't quite breathe. I mumbled something about fresh air, and Pathik and I stood up, leaning against each other. My body still felt far away, and I was sort of numb. Still, we walked into the hall, and the clean, cold air that eased its way into the hall from people wandering out to the balcony and back cleared my head a little. A very little.

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

I felt a strong pull back to the room and the opium, but even as muddle-headed as I was, I knew if I went back, I wouldn't leave without being carried out. So Pathik and I returned downstairs. I remember the stairs, but then I lose some more of the evening. Just flashes, here and there, and all from the table downstairs and returning home.

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

Lady Miyara and her companion, talking together. Tony and Magda, laughing. One clear song, though I can't now recall a single word or note. Mehli's arm around me, steadying me as we walked from the pier to the boat. And once more, as she laid me down on a sleeping mat.

As dreams are made on; and our little life

I slept a long time. No spirits' voices intruded, but dreams came and went, continuations, or maybe retellings of what I saw in that small room swirling in the smoke.

Is rounded with a sleep.

I'm sure I can get those dreams back, and I'm sure they showed me something important. I can't quite remember ... but I know there was something ...