Chapter 101: Manipulating Power
And if you accept what you have lost and you stand tall. You might just get it back and you can get it all
~ Blues Traveler, "Stand"
Were all as it should be, we would take the scrolls to Shinjo Gidayu, and then on to Miyara, who would keep the scrolls until it was time to hand them to the winner.
This was still what we would do. It was just my report would not be what was expected.
We wound our way through the throngs, all busy setting up for the Setsuban Festival. Under other circumstances, I would have enjoyed the entrance. In the last month, autumn had come into its own. The Shrine of the Ki-Rin was in a valley, and the mountains that rose around it were aflame with fall leaves. The valley itself was usually quiet and empty. Now, though, it was teeming with colors. Banners, pendants, and tents all waving in the cold breeze; people milling around in their bright festival clothes. It was a cold morning, and the colors of the festival filtered through the steam of peoples' breath, and that rising from the stream.
I've only been here in summer, when all is lush and green and all but deserted, except for the few monks who tend the shrine. The shrine itself is on an outcropping of rock that overlooks the valley. Although you can't tell it until you stand at the shrine, it also overlooks just about all of Phoenix territory.
I'd had little enough time to plan what to say, what to do. To decide what had to be done and ways to convince everyone else of what had to be done. This was the first moment of truth, and it wouldn't be the hardest one.
I still couldn't help but look all around as we made our way to the Shinjo tent. I noticed Miyara Himitsu wandering amongst the crowds. He paid no attention to where he was going or what he was doing, bumping into people and apologizing in a distracted manner.
He certainly didn't look like the next Miyara champion -- the next Phoenix champion -- which is what much of Nippon understands him to be. He is certainly important in both Miyara and Phoenix matters, more so than he appeared that day. I wondered what matter had so captured his thoughts.
Further on, I saw a group of Scorpions had surrounded several Lions and engaged them in a debate. About what, I couldn't hear. But the Lions were angry, and the Scorpions were walking a fine line. Ten Scorpions, most of those who came to the festival. Curious. What were there baiting the Lions about, and why?
Over to one side, I saw a Crane and a Phoenix already at work courting Okomu Yoroshiku, the latest of the Emperor's nieces who was eligible for marraige. They were only the first two: many others will join them. I idly wondered what the line was. The courting will likely go on all through the Winter Court. Plenty of time to learn where the odds were.
A dragon Isezumi -- one of the mysterious tattooed shugenja of the Dragons -- was talking to a Kuni witch hunter. That caught my eye. Men such as either of them rarely attend festivals like this. Here were two of them, together. Something odd, certainly.
And here was Shinjo's tent, with purple Unicorn banners, tied in the strange knots of the northern barbarians.
The merchants took the two wagons that didn't contain the scrolls to set themselves and their wares up. When the scrolls we didn't have were handed over, the merchants would reclaim that wagon, too. Tony told Grieg at least the two of them would stay out here, to keep an eye on our Nightengale guests, and the others wee eyeing me, wondering where their places were. I immediately countermanded Tony: I needed my entire horde at my back.
A fierce looking samurai-ko hailed me formally as we approached the tent. She expected me, of course. Shinjo Iruko was her name, and she led us into the tent, to Shinjo Gidayu.
He greeted me with a happy smile, glad to see me again, delivering the scrolls. A clerk and a bushi stood quietly behind him.
I bowed low to him, and told him the simple truth. I gave him a quick summary, including the odd occurrence at the Dragonfly castle through my meeting with the Nightengales and and our arrival here. He listened quietly, never interrupting me. Finished, I briefly wondered if he were the sort to blow up at the messenger before getting down to business.
It seemed not. He was disappointed and saddened at the loss of the Unicorn shugenja, Iuchi Taiga. He was very loyal, and an excellent shugenja, and he will be missed.
He moved on to wrap his head around the larger problem. Having already gone through the same thoughts myself, I listened to him with some sympathy.
"The loss of the scrolls, if known, mean a great loss of honor. The scandal could ruin us." He looked shrewdly at me. "You could bear the greatest burden of that. " As I expected I would, if I didn't solve the problem. It didn't take him long to reach the point where I was. "There may be a way out of this, if we can convince the Elemental Masters to let the Nightengale's shugenja into the competition." And so he convinced himself without my having said a word. I couldn't expect the same of the Elemental Masters, sad to say. "What next?" And I was on.
I covered the obvious first. "I recommend you go with me to Miyara, where I will present the case to him. If he's in agreement, then I will go to the Elemental Masters and try to convince them to invite the Nightengale shugenja into the competition. Without, of course, telling them why. With your permission, I will solve this problem. It's mine to solve."
He accepted, and he, the samurai-ko, and his bushi accompanied us to the Miyara tent.
Things largely played out the same way. Father, too, showed no disappointment in me. He asked much the same questions, and I gave the same answers. More polished, perhaps, for the practice. He agreed and immediately sent a messenger to the Elemental Masters to request an audience for me.
I recalled that once, an uninvited shugenja had pushed his way into the competition. And won, much to the annoyance of the Elemental Masters at the time. He had at least been from one of the major clans, not a group of ronin trying to claim the status of a minor clan. And it has never happened since.
I had little time to come up with an approach. I knew of them, and a knew a little about them. There were several handles I could think of. Which one, if any, would get me what I needed? Tony interrupted my thoughts, asking me if he really needed to go with me. I knew he hated mages, but I told him that yes, he had to go. I needed my entire horde with me. It would not look good if some of my retinue didn't back me up.
The messenger appeared with the answer quickly. They would see me immediately. I continued my thoughts on the short walk to their tent. By the time we arrived, I knew what I would say. I did not know if it would work.
Their tent was impressive, of course. They are the most powerful shugenja in all of Nippon. I felt a stab of pride; they are Phoenix. The interior was lit well enough, but the corners were shrouded in darkness and the smoke of incense. The five of them stood, waiting for me, with a few retainers almost hidden behind them.
We bowed to each other, and the Master of Earth greeted me formally. I returned his formal greetings, and he asked what I had for them.
I was so nervous, I can't even remember now exactly what I said. I tried to convince them that allowing a shugneja from a minor clan into the competition could only enhance the glory of Phoenix and Isawa. I may have mentioned the generosity that would have impressed the rest of the clans. The prestige that comes with giving any truly talented shugenja a chance at the honor and glory of the competition. But I'm really not sure. It's all a blur.
The youngest master, of Air, addressed me when I was finished. He spoke a simple haiku that was, like the best, not simple at all.
You challenge a dog,
No glory in victory.
No glory in loss.
On the spur of the moment, I answered him in haiku. I don't know where it came from. I have wondered if one of Phoebe's spirits inspired me during that odd interview.
You challenge and win
The dog, the pack, plus others --
And you cannot lose.
The Master of Water asked me, quite plainly with no poetry, "I assume you have someone in mind?" He offered insult, by looking pointedly at my horde behind me. Even though there were, one and all, barbarians, he had no right to intimate that one of them might be no more than a shugenja from a minor clan. They were Miyara.
"I do." I said simply. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for my answer.
"Koan of the Nightengale clan." All five of the Masters looked thoughtful. They could not admit they had no idea what Nightengale was, or who Koan was.
One of their retainers stepped forward respectfully and begged my pardon. "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." I answered the retainer, but pitched my answer to the five Masters. I tried to imply that Nightengale is a recognized minor clan without making them feel stupid for not knowing of them. Niban would be pleased: I had just accorded them formal recognition. Before the men who head Phoenix, no less. I also put Nightengale into play: they might ally with Dragon, or they might ally with Phoenix. Allow them into the competition, show them how powerful you are, and you may win them to Phoenix.
They all paused for a moment to think. The Master of Earth looked at each one of his fellows, and then at me. "We will have an answer for you shortly. We will send word when we're ready." I bowed my acceptance, and we returned to the Miyara tent. Shinjo was still there, waiting to learn the fate of the scrolls.
The following hour was a tense one. I knelt down and drank tea and tried to empty my mind. I can't say I succeeded completely. Finally, an Isawa messenger appeared, and told me the Elemental Masters demanded my presence.
All at once I felt calm. The waiting and wondering was over: whichever way the winds blew, I knew what was expected and I could play my part as needed.
The audience was no longer than necessary. The Master of Earth simply said, "The worthy mage from the Nightengale clan will be allowed to participate in the competition." He paused for a breath. "If he agrees not to win."
I bowed and thanked him, and we returned to the Miyara tent again. I reported the master's exact words, which made for two official acknowledgments of the Nightengale clan -- first me, then the masters. Niban beamed, and accepted. Koan's smile looked a little forced at the thought of agreeing beforehand to lose, but he made no complaint. How could he?
I did not push, but let Niban fulfill his bargain. Which he did within a moment, after taking in the victory. "The scrolls will be here tomorrow."
And they were, delivered discreetly to the Miyara tent. Father arranged for a replacement scroll box, and the matter was finished.
The festival began as usual, and our part in it was already finished. I had Sun give everyone enough coins to enjoy themselves, and I saw little of my horde until the competitions began.
Shinjo thanked me for solving the problem quietly and without staining his name. It was no more than my duty, but he offered the services of his samurai-ko, Shinjo Iruko, for as long as I wish. I do not know her, but I accepted graciously.
Iruko asked what role I expect her to play in my company. Traditionally, I should assign her as my right-hand, but she was afraid Toni already had that role. I explained that Toni is my second, and I expected her to take her traditional role -- to be at my side at all times, to have my back in a battle, to act as my messenger, to do what needs doing. By the end of the festival, it was obvious she was interested in Peter. Unicorns are more accepting of barbarians than the rest of the clans usually are. I couldn't tell yet if Peter was likewise interested in her.
Niban was also very grateful for my efforts on his behalf. I was still torn between admiration of his audacity and resentment at having to clean up the mess he made. He offered me the services of his ward -- a ten-year-old boy -- as my squire. This offer had more than gratitude behind it, of course. Niban is nothing if not an astute political gamesman. I wondered who he was before he became ronin, and what made him ronin; it was not something I could ask.
It would be perfectly reasonable to accept his services for a few days and return him by the end of the Festival. I should, in fact, do precisely that, since his purpose in giving me Kocho is to form an official tie with Miyara: one more step to his ultimate goal of joining Phoenix. Whether it's in the best interest of Miyara is another question.
He told me the boy was good at following people secretly, and was a good advance scout. He implied that Kocho had been watching us since the battle. For the next few days, I tested Kocho, to see what he might be useful for. He was certainly willing, but had no experience and hdsn't been taught to do much of anything. He is good at what Niban said: primarily scouting. He spent a great deal of time on his own in the hills around the Nightengale village, watching the road, watching for strangers. He told me that he followed us for four days, and began to boast that we didn't notice, but stopped himself with a wary look in his eye. Perhaps we had noticed him and simply hadn't let on. I thought more highly of him for that, although in truth we hadn't spotted him.
I also asked him more about himself and his family. I wondered why he was Niban's ward. His parents followed Niban before he formed Nightengale, traveling as Ronin. His mother died of some sickness when he was very young, and he had no memories of her. His father died in battle, and he had only limited memories of him. Niban took him on and has taken care of him since his father died. It seems he's now my responsibility, and I am loath to release him until he is properly trained. So it seems again that Niban acquires what he wants: a formal relationship with Miyara. Father didn't order otherwise, so I suppose he doesn't mind. After all, it does no harm for Miyara to have another ally, either, even if so small a clan. Small clans grow larger, and I have some faith in Niban's abilities to improve the lot of his new clan. These small alliances can make a difference sometimes.
Fibi reminded me of my promise to find a Miyara shugenja to teach her to use her scrolls. I found out which Miyara shugenja were here for the competition, and discovered one I knew. A cousin, Toro. I asked him, and he said he would talk to the girl.
I later found out that he did not have time here, but would be at the Winter Court and would be happy to work with her there. I don't know if we will be there, but I'll try to arrange for at least time enough for Fibi to work with Toro. Apparently Toro believes he can teach her to read the scrolls, but not necessarily to use them, as she is not truly shugenja, but a priest. He does believe that she may be able to find a spirit who will help.
And how did I spend my time at the Festival? As any samurai would. A few wagers, sake and tale-telling, and some shopping, as Sun also gave me some coins to play with, and I about broke even with my wagering.
The competitions began on the seventh day. The initial field was 65; one more than the usual 64, and I spied Koan in the middle. The first round took the entire first day, and it was a long one. One at a time, each shugenja cast four spells, one based in each of the elements save Void. At the end, eight only were passed to the second round. Four were the shugenja who cast the best single spell in each element. The other four cast the best spells in all the elements. The final eight were an Agasha alchemist, a couple of Asahina shugenja, four Isawa, and Koan.
These eight each cast one spell. With only one spell to be judged on, these spells were daring and spectacular. The judges awarded bonus points if they produced a new effect, and there were a few bonus points awarded. Even Tony, as much as he despises shugenja, was impressed. At the end, two of the Isawa, and Asahina, and Koan were left.
Koan. He was truly talented, and I thought he might have been able to win it all. For a moment, I wondered if ... but no, he would keep to his bargain. He must.
Koan and Asahina Akie faced off. Koan bowed out. To the spectators, it appeared he acknowledged her as his superior. I believe he would have bested her, based on what I had seen so far. I watched as he left; a fleeting look on his face told me he loathed his role. He certainly believed he would have won it all.
By walking away, he assured Nightengale of a position as a recognized minor clan, and a chance at someday joining Phoenix.
The two Isawa faced off, and the younger Isawa Uona won. So it would be two female shugenja in the final round. Isawa won, of course, but Asahina made her fight for it for a couple of hours.
The scrolls were awarded, and I breathed free. The fireworks commenced in the clear and cold night.
The next day, we left, along with many others. The journey home was uneventful, although slow with all the traffic along the road. Fall was quickly giving way to winter, and the nights were becoming bitterly cold up in the mountains. The warmer and more humid air of the lowlands was welcome.
For a week, I had nothing to do but visit with relatives. Finally, after years, I was able to relax at Shira Miyara. Home.
But by the end of the week, I was unaccountably restless. I think Father sees me for who I am now, but everyone else still sees me as the young girl who left, untried, escorting Isawa Godanji. One would think that the face that makes everyone wince might clue them in. Home is the same, but I have changed. Hardly a startling observation; every person who manages to outlive their childhood feels the same thing. Still, that disjointedness hurt. Where do I belong, if not at home?
Thus it was with some relief when the Miyara called me in to his office and I learned I was to go to Castle Gisu. Asako, a Phoenix family, are hosting the Winter Court there.