Chapter 102: Courting the Court
Soft, white snow
Sharp, green leaves
~ Miyara Miwa
Father traveled with us to Castle Gisu, and he filled me in a little on this year's players. He would stay there a few days, then move on to the Emperor's Court for the winter, at Shien Shite Reigisaho -- "Violence Behind Courtliness". That name pretty much says it all. Miyara Himitsu was also with us, and would remain at the Winter Court at Gisu as the head of the Miyara delegation.
Father and I shared a smile at that. Outside Miyara, people whisper that Himitsu has been rising all too quickly. Gossip is always looking for fresh blood. Others simply assume he's being groomed by Father as the next Phoenix champion.
Rumours can be useful.
Of course, Otomo Yoroshiku, the Emperor's Niece, will be there, receiving suitors. Two of the major players are Mirumoto Hansu, of the Dragon Clan, and our own Miyara Sanru. I remembered Sanru-san from my childhood; he was one of the innumerable cousins. He joined with my brothers and me at playing war sometimes, chasing each other through the maze that's Shira Miyara. He'd grown into a capable man; if he won Otomo-sama, he would certainly bring extra prestige to Miyara and to Phoenix both. If possible, Father said, I should aid him. If he needs me, which seems unlikely, and if there were any way I could help, which also seems unlikely.
Directly at least. Indirectly, now: there are many ways I might either help him or hinder his rivals, all unseen.
Miyara Ryuden will also be there. Father said he fancies himself a suitor, which surprised me. I don't know him very well, he's of my father's generation -- one of his innumerable cousins, no doubt. While he's known as a worthy warrior, his political acumen is sadly lacking. Father smiled wryly and admitted that he just didn't have the heart to forbid him trying for the Emperor's niece. He can't really cause any harm, and he certainly won't hurt Sanru's chances.
Shinjo Gidayu will also be there. Koan has been invited, which surprised me, and undoubtedly delighted Niban. At this rate, it may be his son who leads Nightingale into Phoenix, rather than his grandson. Father also mentioned Hiruma Usigo. He's been the ranking Emerald Magistrate for as long as I can remember, and he's just retired. He's retiring to a quiet, contemplative life in a monastery in the spring and is spending one more winter at court. If he's friendly enough, I will have to find a way to meet him. As the saying goes, he's forgotten more than anyone else ever knew.
When we arrived back at Shira Miyara after the festival, Tony reminded me again about his armor, and I brought him to our armorer, who made the necessary repairs. He also asked if he might acquire a higher quality sword. That was easy: I took him to the armory and allowed him to choose a fine pair of blades. He chose carefully and well, and selected a set that was neither very old nor very new. His hand settled around the grips perfectly. He smiled when he felt their razor edges. Nipponese swords are the best in the world, of course.
We arrived at Castle Gisu mid-day, and waited in line in the procession. The Asako lord stood at the entrance, greeting everyone personally. He would be at that task all day, and I did not envy him his duty, or his sore feet at the end of the day. When I and my retinue approached, he welcomed me by name and handed me a box as a gift. His right-hand bushi prompted him with the names of most of my retinue, and he did not mangle their names any worse than anyone else does. Each was given a box. All our boxes were varying sizes, but all beautifully wrapped in Phoenix and Miyara colors. He greeted all of us cordially and even mentioned to my barbarians that he hoped they would enlighten us as to their homeland. I suspect no one else here will be as polite to my gaijin followers as he was. As for the boxes, we were instructed not to open them until this evening's feast.
The servants had already settled everything into our suite of rooms, on the lowest of the residential floors. The Emperor's niece was at the top, two floors above us.
Castle Gisu was built in a spectacular setting against the steep cliffs. There was a spring at the top of the mountain, and Firebird Falls cascaded magnificently down several levels, to a lake nestled at the root of the mountain. The castle looks out over the falls and the lake, to the west. All the suites had private balconies that gave perfect views of the golden sunsets glinting off the water and the mists.
A terraced garden had been cultivated at the top of the mountain around the spring and the falls' mouth. Getting to it by climbing the mountain was very nearly impossible. Instead, at the very top of the castle, a bridge linked the garden on the roof with the garden on the mountain.
Asako was rightly proud of this gem of Phoenix, and even when he wasn't hosting the court he had a constant stream of guests and visitors.
Each of us had our own private room, all opening from a central, common room. The sliding door opposite from the entrance opened onto the balcony, with its breathtaking view. The balcony itself was roomy, as was the central room. The rooms were all luxurious. The central room held tables, mats, and cushions. Our private rooms each contained a sleeping mat, a step tansu, and a desk. The walls held scrolls, paintings, and carvings.
We had a few hours to relax and make ourselves ready for the formal opening feast of the Winter Court. The servants dressed and coifed everyone to perfection, even Fibi, and I was quite proud of my barbarian horde behind me. Not entirely barbarian anymore, with the addition of Shinjo Iruko and Kocho. For a simple samurai-ko, I have a rather large retinue.
Otomo Yoroshiku, her suitors, and our host and his family all sat at a raised table in the center. Everyone else was assigned to tables all around the hall. This was a formal gathering, and the eyes of the court are sharp. I have not been at anything resembling a formal court in many years. In fact, when I took a moment to count up the years I've been away, the number was an alarmingly large one. At any rate, we all managed the necessary small talk with our dinner companions well enough.
I spotted Isawa Tomo at the central table, and Iruko seamlessly slipped into her role. She whispered into my ear that he was staying here for Winter Court while the other Elemental Masters were continuing on with my father to the Emperor's Court. I suddenly realized there was an empty place at the table, and Miyara Ryuden was missing.
While I wondered what that meant, Meili teased Toni about the Elemental Masters, which he took in stride. Well after dinner began, Ryuden entered the hall and bumbled his way to his place. As everyone watched while pretending not to notice him, he saw me and nodded a greeting. Trying not to wince, I returned his nod. I don't think Father did him a favor by letting him proceed with Otomo-sama.
At the usual point in the feast, Asako stood up and the room became utterly quiet. He welcomed everyone to the Winter Court in his warm, booming voice. He held up a small box, covered in mauve paper -- the Asako color. "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."
Oh ye gods and little fishes, I knew where this was going.
"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.
I hate these stupid court games. They are the root of more mischief than can be imagined. But I will play my part as required, and will even try to find a way to twist it to my own ends. Just as every single person here will be doing.
Silken knives in the back.
The rest of the feast proceeded, and we all ended up back in our suite. Fibi, Grieg, Iruko, and Peter all went into their rooms to open their boxes privately. Meili opened hers on the balcony, and showed us all what she had: a four-inch carved tiger, with a haiku carved into its side. I read it for her, and she seemed pleased. She elicited Fibi's aid in pinning it somehow within her sleeve so its head just peeked out.
My box was the largest of any here, though not heavy, and I wondered how annoying it would be to cart around whatever was inside it. I was about to go into my own room to open it, when Tony asked me if I would like to trade. His own box was small.
Tony is surprisingly shrewd. We had each been given a particular box, with a particular item. Who had my matching piece, and why? And might it be better to find out crosswise?
Yes, I traded boxes. Poor Tony; my assigned token had been a rather large fan, which he was now stuck carrying around with him. No way to hide it, either. Tony's small box hid a lovely obi bead, carved into an exquisite flower. I tied it onto my pouch, thus wearing it openly and yet not obviously. Perfect. I asked Tony to please tell me who he finds for his fan. I wanted to know who I was supposed to have been paired with.
Tony asked about Miyara Ryuden, having noted that he arrived late to dinner. I explained to everyone who he was and his role here, and that I am to support Miyara Sanru's suit. I said Ryuden is an outgoing, but not particularly tactful man. More Crab than Phoenix, although I doubted any but Iruko and Kocho caught my entire meaning. He's known as a good warrior, but not so much as a great courtier. More uncharitable thoughts were in my head, but I let them stay there. His status in the clan puts him on the floor above us.
A bit later, someone knocked at the door. The servant came to me and said there was a messenger from Miyara Ryuden. I wondered what he could possibly want from me now. I let him in, and he said, "Miyara Ryuden sends his compliments and requests your presence."
It wasn't so terribly late as to be an unacceptable time to request a visit, but it was still late, well after dinner. But not late enough for me to put him off. Oh, I could have begged illness or weariness, but that seemed entirely un-Miyara-like. Besides, how bad could this visit be?
Mostly likely, he wanted my help in courting the Emperor's niece. An unwelcome thought bubbled up; has he given up on her already? Has he set his sights on me?
I shook my head. That was just silly, though I couldn't entirely cast away the unease. I accepted the invitation and went alone. This was just a friendly visit between two Miyaras and a retinue was unnecessary. Let them relax; it's been a long day. Tony and Iruko both cast unhappy glances my way -- neither wanted me to go anywhere without an escort. Neither said a word, and I didn't address their concerns.
He offered me polite greetings, which I returned, and we knelt at a table. He poured sake for us, made a couple of half-hearted attempts at small talk, and then came in straight for the kill. As I said, he's just not all that when it comes to social niceties. To my relief, he asked me for my advice on courting Otomo Yoroshiku. I silently laughed at myself. Why had I considered even for a moment that he might be interested in me?
This could be a little sticky, but he really couldn't undermine Sanru simply because he doesn't stand a chance. All the advice in the world wasn't going to win him the Emperor's niece. Looking at his rather earnest face, I understood why Father didn't dash his hopes. Poor, clueless man. But he's a decent man as well, and I could trust him not to purposely sabotage Sanru.
Of course, it was just another sign of his poor judgement that he would ask me, of all people, for advice on courting the Emperor's niece. I cast back to my memories of my older brothers courting their wives, and I gave him basic platitudes. Maybe my advice would at least help him not appear so bumbling.
He listened to me carefully, nodding at each gem of wisdom. He asked questions, and I answered as best as I could. Eventually, the conversation faded; one can only think of so many pieces of advice on courting when one has no experience at either end.
I was tired and I'm afraid I didn't really hold up my end once I ran out of tropes. We sipped sake silently and a little desperately, and I was about to extricate myself and return to my suite.
But then he put forth an effort and asked me how I came to know Koan and Niban and the village of Nightingale.
I told him simply that we'd met along the road to Ki-Rin. True enough. He persisted and asked what convinced me to plead his case before the Elemental Masters?
All at once I was awake again. Anyone might have guessed that part, since I arrived publicly with Koan and Niban, I publicly spoke with the Elemental Masters not once but twice, and then Koan was admitted into the competitions. Still, why did he care? And there was much I could not tell him.
I gave him a watered-down version of the argument I put to the Elemental Masters, and he accepted it. Then he asked, "But why him? Why Koan?"
That, I could not truthfully answer. I simply replied, "Why not?"
He asked me if I knew where the village was, and I foolishly said yes. He wanted me to draw him a map. Now I was trapped. I drew him an accurate but very vague map, hoping that would put him off. But no, he knew the area very well and kept asking questions and finally got me to pinpoint exactly where the damned place was.
Then he asked, "So, what's your impression of Koan?"
I was thoroughly uneasy by this time. I said, "I know little of him, but I do know he is a talented shugenja." I certainly didn't say that I thought he might have won the competition if he hadn't walked away in the third round.
This I answered very carefully, "Although I have spent little time with him, I believe him to be an astute and worthy leader of the Nightingale clan."
"How many bushi does the village have?"
Now I was alarmed. Was he planning on attacking and wiping them out? Hiring them for some mysterious and personal war? Nothing I could ask outright. So I dissembled. "I've never been to the village, so I don't know."
He accepted my lie and asked, "Do you think they're just using the Nightingale clan business as a pretense for preying on the land around them, or are they taking their role seriously?"
I might have to change my mind on his social skills. He managed to ask me if they were bandits or ronin or if they were true samurai without saying so explicitly. I answered at once, confident of this answer at least, "They take their roles as samurai seriously." I almost told him of their wish to join Phoenix someday, but decided not to bring that up just yet. I still didn't know what game we were playing. And he abruptly changed the topic.
"What do you think of the game?"
"It's a worthy diversion for the Winter Court." And I meant that.
"And what are your goals for this winter?"
"I'm just here to enjoy the Winter Court and being home once again."
"How was your time away from Nippon?"
At last we were on a safe subject, and I told him the story of our battle on the river on behalf of the San Jiovisis. I told it well, and he enjoyed the tale.
And finally, after a polite pause, he brought the evening to an end.
I returned to our rooms. Tony, Peter, and Iruko were playing Go out on the balcony, and the rest were in the central room sipping sake and wine. The weather had briefly turned warm, and the evening was a pleasant one.
Meili looked at me expectantly, and I said that was an interesting conversation. I reported the gist of it, and Tony shared my suspicions of Ryuden's motives. I just don't know what he was up to.
The next several days were typical days and nights at court. A banquet every night, and politics all day, every day. And into the night. I could see reputations being made and ruined.
Fibi, at least, seemed to relish the silly court game. She walked around for a couple of days with three scroll cases tied at her waist. Then she came back one evening with only two cases, which she placed carefully into the tansu in her room, and began wearing a rather showy comb in her hair.
The Emperor's niece was highly visible, playing with her suitors and pitching them against one another. She may as well enjoy this now, because the Emperor expects her to marry in the spring, and her role will change drastically.
One morning, I was invited to sit in one of the gardens with her and others, to enjoy the bitter winter air with its taste of snow on the wind. I brought everyone with me, of course, and we mingled.
She whispered a supposedly spontaneous haiku. I had my doubts on that, but it did sound like something she'd write.
Winter's friend? not I --
I would trade my fan for this --
A simple blossom.
~ Otomo Yoroshiku
She looked directly at Tony, with a faint challenge in her eyes, and I wondered what she was up to. "If only a blossom could be found," she whispered tragically. Four men stood up rather suddenly and rushed out, no doubt to try to find a flower out there somewhere, where none was to be found. I noted that Miyara Sanru was not so foolish and stayed put.
Tony, realizing he's just bait for her real suitors, likewise sauntered out after a few moments, slowly and easily.
I smiled to myself. I have an obi bead carved into a flower. I wondered, and I quickly looked to see if she had the match. I didn't see it, but I realized that I might be able to confound her and help Sanru after all.
I walked over to him and in a slight whisper I asked him if he would speak with me privately. He agreed and led me to a corner of the garden, but that was not as private as I wished. He willingly followed me to a private room where I could speak to him alone.
I said, "I don't know what game she's playing, but perhaps I can help you." I pulled out one of my origami papers, in the crimson and yellow of Phoenix and Miyara, and folded up an intricate chrysanthemum. I offered it to him, and he smiled as he accepted it.
He asked, "Have you been introduced to Otomo Yoroshiku?"
"No, I have not."
"Might I do the honor?"
I smiled back and accepted. He knows this game very well indeed.
"Could you present this flower to her?"
"Certainly." I took the flower back from him and hid it in my sleeve, and we returned to the terrace. Sanru walked up to Otomo-sama and formally introduced me to her. I bowed, she bowed.
Sanru said, "Miyara Miwa has found a blossom."
I pulled it out of my sleeve with a low-key flourish and presented it to her on my cue.
She graciously complimented its beauty, and thanked me for it. Everyone clapped politely. A point for Sanru.
Otomo-sama asked me to introduce my retinue to her, and I did so. That might just raise us a tiny bit in everyone's esteem here. She invited us to sit near her, and those who were there already made way for us.
Intent on her game, she turned to Tony again, "Would you enlighten me as to how women of your land find their husbands?"
"It has been my experience that as a young man I still have no idea."
There were appreciative smiles all around at that most diplomatic answer from a gaijin bushi.
Then Meili spoke her own piece, "If a woman kisses an elf lady passionately, she will dream of her husband that night!"
I heard a few whispered bets behind me, and polite murmurs all around. That was far too forward, but perhaps because she is twice a stranger, it wouldn't go so badly.
Otomo-sama's neck turned a little pink, but she laughed politely and turned the bawdy suggestion aside skillfully. I heard coins change hands behind me.
We spent perhaps a quarter hour more exchanging idle chat, and we moved on when she indicated that our time with her was over.
Miyara Sanru was doing well with her, I thought. Miyara Ryuden was not. The only thing he ever wanted to talk about was battles and war, which completely bored Otomo-sama, who always immediately found someone else to talk with. Ryuden hadn't yet put it together and he kept trying.
Throughout those days, Iruko was always at my side. She was very good at her role, and I never missed a name or the one piece of crucial information I needed in any conversation, no matter how chance it was.
So many little details all around. One I saw without Iruko drawing it to my attention. She apparently found whoever had Peter's matching token and traded for it. She is courting him more or less openly, and so far he seems receptive.
One morning, it was my turn. A member of a minor family from the Crane clan politely greeted me as I walked along one of the public balconies, looking at the snow that had so silently covered the holly trees and everything else. He was young, did not wear the paired blades, and seemed to regard me with some dread. I wondered if he had friends making bets on his bravery in accosting the frightening Miyara Miwa. I spoke to him quietly and politely and tried not to startle him. When he relaxed just a little, I gave him the haiku the snow had inspired in me, and that put him entirely at ease. It seemed he was something of a poet and was more than happy to offer his critique, and an answering poem.
In snow, from sharp leaves
Drops of blood
After a few minutes, he bowed and took his leave happily. I supposed that counted as something of a success. I laughed internally at the boy-poet and turned back to the snow, which had begun falling again.
I suddenly became aware of someone standing beside me. It was an effort not to place my hand on my katana as I turned to face him, but this was Castle Gisu and the Winter Court. And I am just Miyara Miwa, and surely there are no assassins looking for me here. And if there were, it certainly wouldn't be this well-dressed Lion standing in front me with a slight smile. Older than I, younger than Father. A good age for a man. He wore his swords with the ease of an experienced bushi.
He introduced himself as Akodo Rena, and I introduced myself, although he obviously already knew who I was. He opened his hand, and he was holding the match to my bead. Oh.
He asked if I'd like to ask my question of him first, which was a rather courtly grace I didn't expect of him. I answered politely, "You found me first, sir, so ask your question first." He'd taken me by surprise and I had nothing. I hadn't even thought about the silly game that morning. I would probably ask him nothing more startling than if he were the original holder of that bead or if he'd traded someone for it.
He smiled, and that smile was intriguing. Was there a hint of mischief in it? "Who killed Tsume Retsu?"
Oh, hell. I had given that answer to Tsume Takashi and the Miyara, and my father was the only one due it from me. What was Akodo's motive? What did he really want? Why had he sought me out, because I now suspected he'd traded for my matching bead just to ask me this question. I came up with a quick answer that was truthful and I hoped not too revealing.
"A member of the family whom he displaced was responsible."
He dropped his smile, startled, and asked, "Are you saying the Demasu family was not completely annihilated?"
"Ah, sir, you only get one question per day. And now it is my turn." He acknowledged my point, and I asked him, "How does this matter concern you?" Something I very much wanted to know now.
His smile returned, broader, and yes, definitely a mischievous smile. What manner of Lion had I found here and what did he want of me?
"I wish to court you, Miyara Miwa, and that was as good a question as I could come up with."
That floored me. He wanted to court me? Really? Me? Flustered, I hid it as best I could. I bowed and said, "Very well".
He was a Lion, all right. He immediately invited me to a private dinner tonight, in his room. I considered putting him off, telling him I had other plans -- and then immediately going to make those other plans. But I was fairly caught, so I accepted. I wondered what Father would make of this. The Akodo family heads the Lion clan, and it could very well be a good alliance for Miyara.
Back at the room, I was a little dazed. Tony said the holder of the match to his fan had found him: a middle-aged Lion woman whose name he forgot to ask. She'd asked him his intentions to the Emperor's niece, and he gave a pretty answer that pleased her, "To serve the families of the empire as well as I can and eventually take my leave and return to my homeland." He thought she particularly liked the leaving portion.
In turn, he asked her who she would like him to trade his fan to. An astute question from this young gaijin. Tony has hidden talents. She gave him a name, which I didn't recognize, and for a wonder, Iruko didn't either. But she promised to ferret it out for him.
Tony asked me if there were any questions I'd like him to ask of his Lion partner before sending her off to someone else. I said no, but then thought better of it. I told him I'm interested in knowing more about a certain Lion. I told him to ask her what she knew of Akodo Rena. He committed the name to memory and promised to ask her the next day.
In the meantime, I had to admit I had another engagement that evening, though I didn't mention what kind. I was rather uncomfortable about the whole thing. I couldn't believe I'd let the man ambush me.
Nothing else of interest happened that day. Kyoko seemed to magically divine what I was up to, although I certainly told her nothing. She outdid herself with my outfit for the evening. Gilding a rough-used sword doesn't hide the imperfections in its edge, of course.
The private dinner was just that. Akodo Rena's servants couldn't have been more invisible. Again, he surprised me. He was a charming gentleman, and he took pains to keep the conversation on comfortable topics. Nothing overtly political, no hints of actual courting or his intentions towards me, nothing very personal at all.
Instead, we compared battles.
He welcomed me warmly, and we watched the moons rise over the falls on the balcony, sipping sake. He briefly mentioned a border skirmish he'd been involved with. He was testing the waters, and he would have quickly offered another topic if I hadn't been interested in that one. Of course, it's a pretty safe bet that a fellow bushi is interested in discussing his adventures. I asked him to elaborate.
He told his story well, and I countered with my own, which pleased him greatly. He was genuinely interested in what I had to say.
The temperature outside was dropping rapidly, and we returned inside. We knelt at the table, and his servants briefly appeared to set food down before vanishing again. He asked about my travels in the west, without prying into my reasons for going there. I gave him several stories about my experiences there, and I asked about his history.
Much to my interest, he had volunteered for duty at the Wall when he was young. He'd spent several years in that most dangerous place, the wall and fortress that stand between Nippon and unspeakable evil. I shared my similar experiences in the mountains in the west, which greatly interested him. Although we did not delve into personal matters, it appeared we had some hard fighting in nasty circumstances in common. I wondered what he would make of some of my blacker tales, but this was not the occasion to trot them out.
When I first walked into his suite, I wondered what was behind all this. What did Rena-san really want? By the end of the evening, he'd put me at ease. He didn't seem to be after anything else. Or at least he's not playing that card yet -- time will tell. In the meantime, he is interesting, warm, and courteous, and reasonably easy on the eyes. I could find worse ways to spend my time here.
I suppose I would be a significant catch for him as well. I am the daughter of the Phoenix champion. The advantages of an alliance run both directions.
Whether I let him catch me is another story.