Phoebe's Journey Part 3
Chapter 9: Mind Over Matter
By the time we stopped for the evening, Mehli was also in the throes of the fever. I wasn't sure I could do much for them until the morning. Peter's Shalya cured both of them, that night. They fell into a deep, but healthy sleep.
I ate a quick meal, though it tasted remarkably awful. I felt pretty well grounded, and thought I'd take another trek across the veil, and perhaps see if I could find the Princess. I managed to make it across the veil, but I had no feeling for anything there at all. I might have simply been too tired, or perhaps the previous night's experience had drained my spirit more than I realized. I came back almost immediately and simply went to sleep, and slept deeply until morning. Mehli had to shake me awake, in fact.
Mehli and Grieg were physically recovered from their fevers, though they didn't feel their best yet. Grieg said he felt like he had the worst hangover he'd ever had, and Mehli said with disgust, "Is this what that feels like?"
We reached the village in late afternoon. I wondered what we'd find there, and what Lady Miyara would do with it.
The leader of the force, a rather pompous man whose name I cannot remember, planned on simply taking the whole force straight into the village to find and recover the Princess, killing whatever was in their way.
I might never have actually heard his name, now I think about it. I think he preferred that everyone call him "Lord" with a proper amount of respect and awe, and of course all the samurai already knew who he was anyway. He had no interest in Lady Miyara's entourage, although he seemed to trust her in some way, or at least used her to get all the real work done. But my thoughts wander.
The lady persuaded Lord Whatsis to remain just out of sight of the village and allow her to go talk to them by herself. She stressed the danger that the fighting would put the Princess into, and her own prior connections to Niban and to the village that might let her retrieve the Princess from them safely. It was a masterful job of persuasion, hitting all the important points, with just the right amount of flattery to his ego thrown in.
Of course, Mehli immediately volunteered to go into the village alone, her eyes shining with anticipation of facing an entire armed and hostile village by herself. Although I greatly appreciate her singular spirit, sometimes I just do not understand her at all.
Mind you, there was no chance that Lady Miyara would send Mehli down there while remaining behind. In fact, she wanted to walk in there alone. Iruko and Tony talked at least a little sense into her, and finally she and Iruko disappeared around the bend on the road to the village to chat with Niban and ask for the Princess back.
Grieg moved across the veil to a good vantage point. If he saw that either the Princess or Lady Miyara were in danger, he was to immediately return to camp and sound the alarm, at which the force would ride in to the rescue. I saw Mehli take her bow and arrows and walk off into the hills. I nodded, satisfied. There were as many people watching over the lady as possible, and Tony took her place here and made sure the force was on alert and ready to ride at the first alarm.
There was little I could add but to ask the spirits to watch over her as well, so that's what I did. I took out my drum, and sounded complex rhythms on it as I danced for the spirits, talking to them.
I don't know how long I did that, but a sudden commotion and Grieg's voice calling out, "He killed the Princess!" brought me back. Tony told Grieg to take him to the village immediately so he could stand by Lady Miyara, and I quickly shouted, "No! Take me!" I ran to Grieg, followed closely by Peter, who said, "If she hasn't been dead long, Phoebe might save her!"
Tony looked at me and nodded, and Grieg grabbed me and held on with both arms.
Before I could even draw a breath to ready myself for the journey, I was in the village. The Princess was on the dusty ground, her head split like a melon, and blood and brains falling out. Grieg let me go as I ran to her and dropped to the ground. Some part of me knew Lady Miyara, Iruko, and Niban were desperately fighting nearby, but I paid them no attention. The Princess had been dead for several seconds by that time. When I brought Mehli back, only a breath had passed.
I called Arati to me, and I gave her everything I had, and more, almost to the very edge. I had to keep just a little, because I might have to go after her spirit, if it had already wandered away and didn't snap back when I healed her body.
And that is, in fact, what happened. The Princess' body was whole, but her spirit was still absent. So with steel ringing in my ears, I cast myself into a trance and went searching for the Princess' spirit.
She was nearby, wandering off into the spirit world rather aimlessly. I called her name, "Otomo Yoroshiku!" Names are important. Her spirit stopped, turned, and looked at me. Her spirit didn't see why it should go back, and considering I'd almost stayed myself a couple of nights ago, I could understand. But I managed to convince her to return with me anyway.
I still wonder why she came back. I don't think it was my words, the words of an outland shaman, that she listened to. There must have been something here drawing her back. Something important. A great love, or a great hate, or simply unfinished business.
I came back into myself and opened my eyes. I felt a little disconnected yet, and looked around me. Some time had passed. Niban was dead on the ground. Lady Miyara was on the ground as well, but I could see her breathing. Iruko stood guard over her, sword out, eyes flashing. The force had found its way into the village. Tony and Lord Whatsis (I rather like that name for him) were exchanging words and obviously not agreeing about something. The lord finally shouted something and most of the force split off and rode out into the hills. Those who remained, Tony started arranging around the village. Which I now realized was kind of empty looking.
And oh, I hurt. Suddenly I was solidly back, and I felt every bit of what I'd given to the Princess. Peter appeared out of nowhere, or maybe just seemed to because everything went black for a second. His Shalya gave me everything he had left. It was enough for me to go take a look at Lady Miyara and try to bring her back.
Peter and I used everything we had several times over, and it took us a couple of hours to fully restore the lady, Iruko, and ourselves.
In that time, most of Lord Whatsis' force came back, having missed the ronin of the village. They had all slipped out, abandoning this place. For just a moment, a view of the village of the future lay over top the village of the now. A man's dream eroded into dust.
Mehli came strolling into the village eventually. She joined Tony's forces without a word to anyone. The Princess was alive and well, but simply sitting with her eyes closed and ignoring the bustle around her. Tony tried to speak with her, and so did Peter, and she ignored them both. I tried to speak with her, gently, but she did not speak to me, either. Perhaps she was regretting following me back to her life.
The Lady Miyara finally walked over to her, and as soon as she came near, the Princess opened her eyes, stood up, and imperiously demanded that we leave immediately for Castle Gisu. The lady merely bowed deeply, said "Hai", and began arranging our departure.
It was early evening, and we couldn't go very far until we had to camp for the night anyway. But I guess when a Princess says jump, we don't ask any questions.
It was a strange ride back. Three days, and little talk. The Princess refused to remember anything about her ordeal. Very sweetly and politely, of course. Mehli was nearly silent, never saying anything unless absolutely necessary. I wonder if she feels she failed Lady Miyara because she didn't shoot Niban before he killed the Princess? I'm just guessing, and I'd never ask her, but it's all I can think of.
That first night, I went across the veil to speak with Niban. He was difficult to find, but I finally did so.
I bowed and said, "I'm sorry things turned out the way they did."
He nodded. "Me, too."
"I realize it doesn't matter on this side, but what really happened?"
"If there's one thing I've learned about the afterlife is that you don't get all the answers. I don't know what really happened." His spirit glowed with the truth of his words. It was not the first time I'd heard that.
"But you really didn't kidnap her?"
Niban asked me in patient tones, "Do you really have to ask?"
I smiled. "Not really." I wished him well in the afterlife, bowed, and left the spirit world.
I didn't bother telling anyone I'd spoken with Niban. I didn't discover anything we didn't already know.
At the castle, Lord Whatsis was the hero who saved the Princess. Tony glowered and all but begged Lady Miyara if he could challenge the glory-hog to a duel for the insult. She just smiled and said there was no insult. He was a Phoenix, and she seemed to think that the only important thing here was that a Phoenix saved the Princess. With a grim laugh, she also said that she was expecting repercussions from her actions in shaming the Princess over the matter of her maid, and that Lord Whatsis was acting in all propriety in glossing over her part in this.
Imagine that. Lady Miyara finds out that one of the Princess' maids was some sort of evil shadowbranded thing that murdered several people, corners it, and kills it, thus possibly saving the Princess' life and certainly saving many others' lives. And yet, she fully expects to be punished for not feeling like lying about the identity of the murderer. Somehow it was the Princess' fault for harboring a very clever being, and Lady Miyara's fault for exposing the Princess to that dishonor. These are a very strange people.
Lord Asako tried to get things going again for Winter Court. Plays, dances, musical events, all the social gatherings -- they all commenced again. But there was a pall over everyone. The spirit of the Winter Court had departed, and something darker had taken its place.
All of Court apparently was waiting for something to happen to Lady Miyara, and they collectively avoided her. I guess trying to make sure that her luck didn't rub off on them. So we spent most of the ensuing days in our own company. She was still adamant that nobody wander off by himself. This meant that we finally heard the story of Mehli and Grieg's adventures in the jungle.
Grieg and Mehli walked into the dark that night, and Grieg took them both across the veil to the village. Grieg remained outside the village safely, while Mehli carefully looked around the village. She saw no guards, and the entire village seemed quiet and sleeping. Everything looked normal to her.
She returned to Grieg, and they made small jumps, just a few miles, from hilltop to hilltop, back towards the camp, looking for a band of kidnappers camping in the hills. They saw nothing, and went back the other way, splitting the difference of their first line of jumps. Again, they saw nothing. For the return, they decided to travel between mountain peaks, which should give them a much better vantage point.
But Grieg lost his way in the veil between two mountain peaks. Maybe some spirits misled him for mischief or worse. All they know is they left one peak and found themselves somewhere pitch black, hot and humid, and soft underfoot.
Grieg, of course, was totally blinded, but Mehli could see. Grieg stood in the darkness, his head pounding with the splitting headache he said these misadventures through the veil always give him, totally lost.
Mehli saw a demon thing snoring only a few yards away. She grabbed his arm and they tried to walk away silently, but they made more noise in the jungle than they wanted, and the demon woke up. And woke its several demon partners up as well.
They ran. Mehli ran swiftly and got herself out of the reach of the demons. Grieg, blind in the dark, did not. Once she knew she was away from them, she climbed a tree and looked for Grieg. She heard a disturbing giggling -- an inhuman mockery of a giggle, she said -- from a small distance. Grieg was there, still alive, stumbling in the dark. Seven demons surrounded him, laughing and pushing and poking at him. Playing with him.
Mehli went back, and got close enough to take at least one good shot. She carefully selected a target, aimed and hit it, and turned and ran like hell, shouting to Grieg, "Run! Run!" Grieg tried, but was poked and tripped.
Mehli turned around and saw that the one she felled seemed dead, but the other demons didn't seem to care. They were still at their game with Grieg.
She did this two more times. Her third shot caused the demon to scream in agony instead of simply fall back dead, and then the other demons all looked at her. She ran, and they ran after her, leaving Grieg alone in the dark. She led them around and out of the way, then returned silently to Grieg. The demons were not far away.
She took him by the hand, and tried to pick a path through the jungle for them that wouldn't trip Grieg up. And they spent hours slipping through the jungle in the night, just ahead of the pursuing demons.
It took that long for Grieg's power to return to him. At one point, Mehli said they reached a cliff with an overgrown temple that did not feel like a happy place at all. They turned down the place to hide from the demons, and carefully fled around it, trying not to approach it too closely.
Eventually, they left the demons far behind, and Grieg's power returned to him. It took them several jumps, but they finally returned to our camp. Days later, when she and Grieg told us the story, her eyes still looked hollow, and Grieg was pale.
The Lady's preference that we more or less stick together, or at least move around in groups of no less than three, ensured that we probably discovered more about her than she would have liked. Because one man didn't shun her.
Back before all hell broke loose, I'd noticed one late morning when she returned to our rooms with an odd look on her face, and that night she spent out by herself and never said what she was doing. Turns out another samurai was courting her, and her current state of persona non grata didn't seem to put him off. From the one night I got to hear him speaking with her, he didn't seem to have a very high opinion of the court in general.
For a week, all was pretty quiet, and the Lady spent several evenings with him and whatever escort who won the draw and got to accompany her. Relax, dear reader. She had no idea we were drawing straws for the privilege of watching Akoda Rena court her. We were well and truly bored. I got to go one night, and all they talked about was fighting and killing. It didn't seem very romantic to me, but I guess whatever floats your boat...
But we only had a week. And except for the matter of Akodo Rena, it's probably for the best. Winter Court was mighty tense, and without being welcome at all the social goings-on, there really wasn't anything interesting to do. Because what else is there, at Winter Court?
I wasn't sure I could stand to watch Iruko, Peter, and Tony play Go one more night, and the large bottles of sake were looking more and more enticing. The tension was so thick, I had a hard time reaching the spirits when I tried. It didn't help knowing at least two of my friends were in the frigid garden watching me, bored out of their skulls. And yet, lying in the dark on my mat every night, the spirits wouldn't leave me alone, howling and shrieking incoherently all around me.
Lady Miyara got a message from her father. Someone higher up than him told him to send her out to report to the magistrate of some distant city as his assistant, right now. There's all kinds of insults in there: assistant, hateful city, banished from Winter Court, and more I'm sure I didn't catch just then.
We'll find out more about where we're going on the way. For now, I know Ryoko Owari is a fair distance away, in Scorpion territory. It's apparently a crime- and drug-ridden city, full of opium, violence, and corruption. It's apparently not a desirable posting. I think I will ask Tony again if he will teach me how to better use this knife I carry. Otherwise, I won't want to wander around without an armed escort, and I've gotten very tired of that here at court.
The lady doesn't seem to mind greatly. I don't think she likes it here in Winter Court herself, especially now. Besides, there's always a great relief in knowing what's gone wrong, instead of guessing. Our guesses are usually much more dire than the real thing. I also suspect that she'd found Winter Court awfully dull. She spent the last several years, from what I've heard, wandering the breadth of the western world, in constant struggle against evil and chaos. How different it must be to be stuck watching a bunch of courtiers battle with words and not much else. Shadowbranded maids notwithstanding.
I think the life of anyone in Lady Miyara's vicinity will never be dull.