Chapter 100: The Game's Afoot
'Cause every hand's a winner, and every hand's a loser.
~ Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"
Dinner was over, time was tight. I had a plan, one that I wasn't overly fond of, but I thought it might be workable. I had almost completely forgotten about the two wounded archers who had been captured and were still unconscious. Perhaps I could find out enough from them to make a better plan.
So I had the prisoners brought over, and asked Fibi to heal them, just enough to answer our questions. I should just give up on that request. She, or perhaps her spirit, never listens to me. Within a few moments I had two prisoners as hale as the rest of us. Peter restored her mostly. She still looked a little peaked, but was ready to listen and have her spirits judge the truthfulness of our prisoners' answers.
As she worked on them, I considered them carefully. They were certainly not regular soldiers, but far better equipped than bandits. And far more organized than bandits. Tony had marked them as a well-disciplined force, with planning and organization. The arms and armor they have is well-cared for. I idly wondered who we had captured, but they looked pretty ordinary. For ronin.
As I asked my first question, the two looked at each other a moment and one was elected to answer all the questions. The other one never said a word. Fibi corroborated everything he said as the truth.
We learned quickly that they no longer considered themselves for hire; they have banded together and call themselves the Nightengale clan. They can call themselves whatever they want, but it will take other clans recognizing them as such before they are truly more than ronin.
Niban is their leader, and apparently these prisoners will answer nothing. I must speak with Niban himself. Their village is about six hours' travel through the rough country around here. Six hours if they didn't cut the bridge behind them. We've passed the split, so we will have to hike cross-country for a while first. Across land definitely not suitable for either wagons or horse.
Yes, I was going to take time out of the precious little I had left to speak with a ronin who styles himself as a clan leader. He has the scrolls: what choice have I got? I could certainly stick with my first plan, but if I can find a clever way to fix this problem, that would be better.
Tony asked when they were planning on going to the festival.
The appointed spokesman answered Tony's question, but directed his answer to me. "As this honored Phoenix will know, only shugenja from major clans are allowed to participate in the Setsuban Festival."
So that was what they wanted. If they thought I could wrangle their shugenja an invitation, they were sorely mistaken. The Elemental Masters do not dance to Miyara's bidding, more's the pity sometimes: shugenja do not always have the common sense granted a grasshopper. I asked, "Does the Nightengale clan have many shugenja?"
"No. But if I might be permitted to say," I nodded at his slight request, "he is as worthy as any shugenja in Nippon."
Isawa would not fall to blackmail. They would simply direct Miyara to go get the scrolls. We would do so, but the scrolls would be lost, along with a great deal of honor, theirs and ours both. As I said, it's sometimes a question of common sense. Nevertheless, Miyara may counsel and influence the Isawa, but what Isawa commands, we carry out.
Tony gave voice, in Imperial, to my quickly forming plan. "We have two mostly worthless prisoners. We could go with them, see the village and its defenses, and continue on with that knowledge, promising to take their message. Let these guys go for a token of good will. We can scout the village out and then report to the Miyara. It's his decision whether a diplomatic or military solution is best. We certainly cannot beat them ourselves: we're way out-numbered and they'll be well dug into defenses at their village."
We can't take the caravan with us. But it no longer houses the scrolls, and this area gets little to no traffic, especially this late in fall. Almost all the traffic to Ki-Rin goes by the longer but wider and better-maintained road. The caravan should be safe.
So I had a new plan, and I liked it a great deal better. I knew where the scrolls were, and I knew why they had been taken. Getting them returned was going to be much more challenging than simply destroying their village, but I had some hope now.
We rested and fed the prisoners. The caravan was to stay here the night and then continue to Ki-Rin. We should catch up to them before they arrive, but if we don't, I wrote a note for them to deliver to my father. The guards, Sun, and Donku would go with the caravan. The rest of us would travel with the prisoners to their village through the night. It will take longer than traveling in daylight, but we don't have time to waste.
The ground was rough, and we walked carefully through the dark night. Amazingly, only Grieg fell and hurt himself, and Fibi took care of him immediately. The rest of the night was long and tiring, but uneventful. The bridge had not, in fact, been cut down. It was a good sturdy bridge. Tony insisted on testing it first, with one of the prisoners.
We arrived at the village about an hour after sunrise. I was tired, but I held myself upright. I am Miyara of the Phoenix, and they were nothing but ronin trying to turn themselves into a minor clan. By stealing Miyara honor.
The village nestled in a valley, and there was only one way in. It was a reasonably large village, surrounded by rice paddies. No fortress, no stronghold, no castle, no walls, no defenses other than the rice paddies and its one entrance. People were out working in the fields. As we approached, they laid their work down and followed us into the village.
There was no sign of the large force that had ambushed us. There had been at least 40-60 archers, and who knew what else besides. This village looked to house maybe 150-300 people. I told the prisoners I wished to speak diectly with Niban, and they led us into the village square. We walked past banners sporting a nightengale at the village entrance.
And here was everyone. Niban stood waiting for us, and the villagers arrayed themselves behind him. The men were dressed in the daily work clothes, but had picked up their weapons. Their families stood with them.
We stopped before them, and Niban greeted me and bowed respectfully. He certainly offered no insult. I greeted him in return and bowed as a Miyara to the leader of a minor clan, offering him that little. He had the scrolls, after all. A little courtesy couldn't hurt.
I returned his men to him, and Tony gave them their weapons back. They bowed and thanked me, and joined their families, who looked relieved. Niban also bowed and thanked me.
Seeing no reason to dissemble -- we both knew why I was here, after all -- I asked him, "I believe you have a message you would like passed on?"
He answered me politely, but as straight as an arrow. Here was a man uninterested in the polished and flowery phrases of diplomats and courtiers. "Our shugenja," and he pointed to a man who appeared to be a carpenter, "is a worthy and honorable mage. Yet he has been refused entrance to the Setsuban Festival. We regret being forced to take the scrolls, but we felt it was necessary to make our point."
"What is making your point worth to you?"
"We are obviously risking it all. If your question is more what are we willing to give beside the scrolls, what else would you want?"
That wasn't what I meant at all, but Tony asked, before I could clarify, "May I ask," and I nodded to him to continue, "what exactly do you want to gain aside from entrance into the competition?
I knew what Niban was looking for. If the mage were allowed to participate and made at least a good showing, that would be enough make a name for Nightengale. They would be accepted as a minor clan. Particularly by Phoenix, who prides themselves on their prowess with magic. If he actually won by some miracle, it would likely have a negative effect, because the Isawa would take it badly.
But I let Niban answer the question. He looked down and thought about it for a moment, then spoke to Tony, almost avoiding me. "It is our wish to petition Phoenix for membership in Phoenix." Ah. That surprised me. Then he turned to look directly at me and said with strong feeling, "But we will not do so as beggars and thieves, but rather as a recognized clan."
They're far too small for Phoenix to take them seriously, of course. This is a long-term goal. Niban is setting things up for the future. Perhaps his grandson would be the one to lead Nightengale into Phoenix. Gaining a reputation at the Setsuma festival would also attract people and help them grow more quickly.
This Niban was smart, and more politcally astute than he let on. I rather liked him and his daring plans, even if Miyara were the victim of it. The way forward would not be easy, but there was a solution here. I was a little resentful at having so little choice in the matter, but truthfully, there was no other way he could have made his point.
I asked him, "Perhaps you and your shugenja would like to negotiate your point in person?"
"I would be honored to put my case before Miyara, but it would be pointless to put my case before Isawa."
He was right there. He's counting on Miyara to make this happen for him. He has a hold over Miyara, but he doesn't believe -- correctly -- that he has a hold over Isawa. Isawa would simply direct Miyara to destroy Nightengale, and we would do so.
I told him, "I will take you to Miyara, but we must leave immediately if you are to make your point usefully."
He gave his orders, and we were given a quick breakfast while he, his shugenja, and a couple of warriors prepared to leave with us.
They led us a different way to the road, faster. In fact, we joined the main road ahead of the caravan, and rested a little until it appeared around a corner. We reached Ki-Rin the next morning.
We looked down into the valley, teeming with people setting up tents and preparing everything for the festival itself. Tony ask me, "Do we send Grieg ahead with a message?"
I answered with a short No. I must make this report myself, directly.