Phoebe's Journey Part 2
Chapter 3: The Stakes
Lady Miyara spent some time staring into the fire, then discussed alternatives with the others. Most led into dead ends, but she seemed to think splitting our forces would be the right thing to do. Finally, she put an end to the debate. "We need to talk to the prisoners," she said, and people scrambled to bring them to her.
The guards put them down on the ground, none too gently, and Lady Miyara told me to heal them. Just a little, she said, just enough to wake them up and let them answer questions. That's not really an option, though, with Arati, and of course she healed them completely. Peter restored me as much he could. I would have liked to sit somewhere quiet and relax, but Lady Miyara wanted me to listen to the spirits' assessment of their words.
"Who hired you?"
They looked at each other and came to some sort of agreement. The one on the left spoke, "We have not been hired by anyone, and we are no longer for hire."
"Truth," I said. Lady Miyara paused a moment, as if surprised.
"Who do you belong to now?"
"We have sworn to each other, and formed a clan. We are Clan Nightengale."
"Truth," I said again.
"Who is the Nightengale lord?"
"Truth." In fact, he never lied.
"Tell me the reason for your ambush."
"We can't. You'll have to speak with Niban."
"Where is he?" Tony asked.
"We can take you there. He's with our soldiers."
"So Niban is a shugenja?" Tony asked.
"No, he is bushi."
"Where are they headed?" Lady Miyara asked him.
"We have a village. They are returning to our village."
"How far away is it?"
"From here, about six hours' travel."
The up-to-now-silent partner cleared his throat. The one who was doing all the talking glanced at his partner and amended his statement, "If they haven't cut the bridge."
Behind me, Grieg muttered something, but I couldn't hear through the spirits and for listening closely to the two captured men and those who asked them questions.
Lady Miyara asked, "What is the Nightengale clan hoping to accomplish?"
"You'll have to talk to Niban."
Tony asked, "When are you planning to go to the festival?"
The one who had done all the talking so far ignored Tony and looked at the Lady Miyara as he answered. "As this honored Phoenix will know, only shugenja from major clans are allowed to participate in the Setsuban Festvial."
Tony muttered something and Lady Miyara asked her captive, "Does the Nightengale clan have many shugenja?"
"No. But, if I might be permitted to say," she nodded at him, "he is as worthy as any shugenja in Nippon."
Tony asked in what direction their village was. East, then north, which was where we were going. Tony said clearly, but in Imperial, "I think their shugenja is related to Niban, or has something on him to get him to do this." Lady Miyara smiled, but shook her head.
He continued, in Imperial, "We have two mostly worthless prisoners. We could go with them, see the village and its defenses, and continue on, promising to take their message. Let these guys go for a token of good will. 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 dug into defenses in their village." Lady Miyara nodded at that plan.
Tony asked the prisoner if our wagons could follow the road to the village.
He shook his head. "It's a bad road. It would take a wagon much longer than six hours."
Lady Miyara asked, "How far ahead does the road to your village diverge from the main road?"
"Actually, it's not ahead, it's behind us. But that's not usually the way we go. We can go cross-country straight from here."
Lady Miyara considered for a moment, then she nodded. "We'll have dinner, all of us," and she nodded at her prisoners to tell them they got dinner too. "We'll rest a little and then leave for the village tonight.
"OK. It will be slow going in the dark. It'll take more than six hours."
The leader of the caravan guards asked Lady Miyara, "Do I understand correctly that all of us are going?"
She told some of the guards to take the prisoners to the fire. Then she laid out the plan. It's a risk, but without the scrolls, the caravan isn't much of a target. The caravan, its guards, Donku, and Sun will move ahead along on the road while we visit the village. We ought to catch up with them tomorrow, she gauged, but they're to continue on to Ki-Rin if we don't. She wrote a note for them to deliver in that case.
We ate dinner, and I caught a nap. We left finally, and it was dark despite the clear skies and half moon. I walked closely by Mehli, a hand lightly touching her. I still stumbled on the uneven ground, but the spirits were all around me and kept me from falling.
Grieg stumbled, and sat down in pain. I checked him, and he'd sprained his ankle. It cost Arati little of my strength to fix it. The hike, through bad terrain and in the blackness of night, was tiring though.
I couldn't really see much of what we moved through, but we eventually reached the bridge. They hadn't taken it down. It was the easiest part of that long hike, a nice sturdy rope and wooden slat bridge. Tony insisted on taking one of the prisoners across first, to be sure it wasn't sabotaged.
Finally, we came to a track that was much easier to walk along. We walked and walked, past sunrise.
The village was ahead of us, in a hollow in the mountains. It looked reasonably large. We walked through rice fields first, where people were already hard at work. They stood as we passed through, and followed us into the village. There were no walls.
No walls at all.
I'm not sure how they live, exactly, but the village couldn't possibly hold more than four or five hundred people. Probably less.
We entered the gateless village. A pair of banners with a nightengale on them stood in for the gate. Inside, in the village square, the villagers gathered, and more banners waved cheerfully. Everyone in the village looked to be there: children, mothers, fathers. All the men were armed.
A man stood in front, the only one with armor and a nightengale badge. He greeted us, "Good morning." And he bowed, pretty respectfully I thought. "The village of Nightengale is honored by your presence, Miyara Miwa."
She bowed to him, a little less deeply, and answered, "Good Morning." The rest of us followed her lead and matched her bow, and took it just a little deeper, since we were in service to her. She returned his men to him, and Tony returned their weapons. They bowed low to her, thanked her, and scuttled off to their families in the crowd. Niban also thanked her. And I was not responsible for their deaths after all.
Lady Miyara got down to business immediately. "I believe you have a message you would like passed on?" Tired as I was, I braced myself and opened up to the spirits. I couldn't shield myself from them, and they shrieked around me. I rode the noise, and made my peace with it. I listened carefully to Niban, through the din.
He said, simply and honestly, "Our shugenja," and he pointed to a young man standing off a little ways, dressed simply, carrying a hammer, and covered with sawdust, "is a worthy and honorable mage and 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 everything. If your question is more what are we wiling to give beside the scrolls, what else would you want?"
Tony said, "May I ask," He glanced at Lady Miyara, who nodded to him, "what exactly do you want to gain aside from entrance into the competition?"
Niban looked down and considered his answer. After a few moments, he answered Tony, "It is our wish to petition Phoenix for membership in Phoenix." Then he spoke to Lady Miyara, "But we will not do so as beggars and thieves, but as a recognized clan."
"You've already proven your shugenjas' skill again the Unicorn's mage." Tony said that with a little bow.
Lady Miyara said, "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."
"I will take you to Miyara, but we must leave immediately if you are to make your point usefully." I supposed once the festival ended, the absence of the scrolls would be known, and his bargaining chip would be gone.
He turned and gave orders to some of his men. The shugenja walked off with him, as did two other bushi. We were given a quick breakfast, and they arrived, ready to go with us, as we finished.
Tired as we were, we left immediately. They led us along a faster way, straight from the village to the road ahead. In fact, we reached the road ahead of the caravan. I gratefully sank down to the ground to wait. It arrived quickly enough, and we traveled with it the rest of the way to Ki-Rin.
Ki-Rin was laid out in a large plain in a wide valley, and the festival had completely overtaken whatever village was usually there.
Looking down, I wondered what was next. Tony asked Lady Miyara, "Do we send Grieg ahead with a message?"