Chapter 91: A Short But Not Uneventful Journey
Crane stands, still, in reeds --
Searching, Seeing, Measuring.
Crane flies, quiet, low.
~ Miyara Miwa
After parting from my barbarian horde for the evening, I wracked my brains, and those of a few relatives I could find, to remember what I could of the circumstances surrounding Kintani Valley and the visitors to Kyotei Castle. Kintani Valley is at the crossroads of Phoenix, Lion, and Crane.
Tsume Retsu. Him, I remembered. An aggressive and covetous daimyo. Ambitious, and all for personal prestige and glory. A man who prefers battle to the court; more, a man who prefers battle to peace, with no regard of the consequences to others. His castle has a commanding view of a busy road with a great deal of mercantile traffic, a wide, grassy plain, and a busy river.
Until twenty years ago, it had long been a Lion stronghold within that bubble of Crane territory. Tsume Retsu attacked, killed the entire family, and claimed the castle as his own. The Lion clan still seethes over the insult.
Tsume has an evil reputation as a cruel and aggressive man. Small raiding forces constantly violate Phoenix lands. He treated his son with contempt, insulting him before others. He cares little for his farmers and peasants, they who provide for all of us and who we are supposed to protect. He allows his men to tax them without regard for the crop yield, throwing many of them into unnecessary poverty.
It is well known, although never discussed aloud, that the honorable Crane clan only tolerates him for the sake of the Tsume family, who have a long and honorable history of loyalty to Crane. I doubt Crane mourns his death.
None of those I talked with knew anything about his widow, nor his son Takashi, now the lord of Kyotei.
Miyara Katsuda is the lord of the nearest Phoenix castle. It's his lands that Tsume's patrols are violating. He was at the Bon festival in part to persuade Tsume to cease his provocative moves. A skilled diplomat, he was even prepared to offer an alliance, using his daughter to cement it. I have never met Miyara Katsuda.
Father knew only a couple of other names who were there: Ikoma Ujiaki and Daidoji Uji. Ikoma Ujiaki is a visiting Lion ambassador. He apparently has a reputation for being hot-headed and obstinate, but that is all I learned. Daidoji Uji is there as a representative of Doji Satsumi, Daimyo of Crane. Nobody knows anything about him.
Without father's warrant, many of these men would never see me. They still may not be overly friendly, and the barbarian horde at my back will not make things easier. Still, it is better to travel there with a retinue than without. And there are those who will grant me status for being one who collects odd and interesting things.
Early in the morning, before sunrise, we were all awakened, dressed, and packed for the journey. A quick breakfast, and we were on our way. Many of my horde returned to their own western clothing, comfortable and used to it. It is fine for the journey, but they will have to dress appropriately when we arrive at Kyotei castle. The servants will have taken care to pack properly, I know.
The new addition to my staff, Donku, hired by Sun, met us at the gate. He is in charge of the kitchen and will drive the oxen himself. The other wagon carries our trunks and gear, and several of the servants will ride on it. We are travelling fairly light. Although this is the heart of Phoenix lands and there are inns along the way, we will camp. The roads are quite safe here, and the weather is pleasant now.
The second night out, I saw Meili take Grieg and Fibi away from the camp, but still in sight, for a conversation that started out rather tense. I let them handle it. The entire voyage, Meili has watched Grieg with concern and distrust. They needed to come to a mutual agreement of some sort. When they finished, Meili appeared satisfied, as did Grieg. If he could ease Meili's distrust, that was enough for me. I do not know why Fibi was included, as she trusts the kami implicitly and believes, as I do, that Grieg is here for a reason. Meili is besotted with her, but that has not clouded her vision, and I don't think it will affect her judgement.
Toni also came to me with a concern about his equipment. His armor, which is utterly unlike anything we make here, will eventually need care and repair. His weapons may also need the same. And so he asked how can he get repairs made, and how can he purchase new as he needs to? I assured him that as a Miyara samurai, whatever equipment he needs will be provided to him by Miyara. He nodded, satisfied.
As for me, I felt good to have armor again. And a bow, after so long, to practice with and perhaps re-gain lost skills. Miyara provides the best for its samurai. It is better to avoid battle, but once battle is inevitable, one should be properly equipped to win, and win well and quickly.
On the fifth and last morning of travelling, we walked into an old tale.
We came upon an elderly peasant wearing a blue sash, carrying a trunk on his back. He scrambled out of our way, slipped on the embankment, and tumbled into the river reeds. I would have thought nothing of it, but the cranes standing still in the water where he fell did not move.
Peter, Fibi, and Meili immediately went to help the man back up, and the cranes reacted to their appearance and flew off.
The old man was fine. And had not a drop of water on him, although the three who helped him up were soaked. Mesmerized, I watched him bow deeply to them and thank them profusely. He offered to perform a tea ceremony. I immediately bowed my head deeply to him and accepted. He was obviously no mere peasant.
He set down his chest and opened it as we all approached. He placed a small carpet from it upon the ground and knelt on it, and we all knelt around him. I caught the merest glimpse of the carpet before he obscured it. Sky blue, it smelled slightly musty, and it depicted the tale of a hero. I almost recognized the tale, but not quite.
He first asked Peter to retrieve the tea set for him out of the chest, and he did so. He then asked Meili to mix the powdered tea and to add water from the river to the pot. By the time she returned, the water was boiling of its own accord. I saw Peter reverently touch the old man's hand, and he got a surprised look on his face. The old man smiled at him benevolently and continued with the ceremony.
Again, I was proud of my horde. The tea ceremony is an intricate one, with many places to mis-step, and not one of them failed. At its conclusion, he looked at Fibi, the last of those who had helped him out of the river, and said to her, "There is a katana and a mahogany box in my chest. You may have either." I held my breath. Would she respond properly?
I breathed again as she responded perfectly, as if she were born here.
She reverently refused the man, naming him "spirit". He offered a second time, and she graciously refused again. His third offer she accepted, and then she responded by offering him a gift! Perfect! She offered to spirit-dance for him, and again negotiated the two refusals beautifully.
The intricate dance of offering and receiving gifts without insult completed, she then performed one of her twirling spirit-dances for him gravely, yet joyfully. And when finished, she picked the mahogany box. I was not surprised by her choice, but I wondered what sort of fine katana he must carry with him. I patted my own. It is a lovely blade, has its mate, and they are Miyara.
Finally, it was my turn, as the Miyara here. I offered him what I could: safe passage and an escort to where he wished to travel. He refused the third time as well, which also did not surprise me. The offer had to be made, but in these tales, the man never accepts. I did not look, but I suspect he disappeared behind us when we left.
His third refusal was my reward, "Our paths diverge, but they will cross again, I am sure." I too, am certain they will.
I stood, and my horde did as well. We prepared ourselves to continue our way, and when we were ready, I bowed to him and said my farewell, looking forward to meeting him again. He wished us farewell and bowed deeply. And I returned his bow, as deeply. He picked up his chest and stood out of our way.
And so, onward.