5 Errands and Magics

Michinoku no

Shinobu moji-zuri

Tare yue ni

Midare some nishi

Ware naranaku ni

(Minamoto no Tru)

It was not until after noon the next day that the Twilight Prince felt well enough to make the promised visit to the infirmary. By the time he reached the gate of the Warlord's castle, two problems had become apparent.

First, it was clear that his new rank had been officially announced: everyone he passed immediately stopped whatever they were doing and performed a full obeisance as long as he was nearby. It was certainly very courteous of them, but also embarrassing, and being surrounded by bowed heads and averted eyes made it difficult to casually ask for directions or any other minor assistance he might need.

The second problem was caused by his newly divided vision. Seeing the world by ordinary vision on his left side and mage-sight on his right was mildly disorienting even when he sat or stood quietly, because the auras visible to mage-sight were more mobile and changeable than the objects visible to normal sight, and shaped differently as well. Moving through the divided field was dizzying.

The Twilight Prince decided that riding one of his horses to the infirmary, as he had originally intended, was not a very good idea: he doubted his ability to keep his balance that far off the ground. As he stood beside the gate, wondering what to do, a familiar voice asked, "Has the Most Noble and Revered Prince any task that this servant might perform?" The Prince turned and found the old Archivist, Lord Yamashiro, bowing deeply beside him.

"Yes, Thank you." The Archivist was still bowing, so the Prince added, a bit impatiently, "Please look at me. Talking to the top of someone's head is uncomfortable."


Yamashiro straightened with a small sigh of relief: holding such a deep bow was not easy for a man past seventy, and his back had begun to protest. "What does the Most Noble and Revered Prince require?"

"I had intended to ride to the infirmary, but find that my balance is impaired ... " The Prince gestured vaguely toward the right side of his face. "I dislike the idea of creating a major disturbance simply by walking down the street," he added ruefully.

"Understood." Yamashiro considered for a moment. "Has the Most Noble and Revered Prince considered the use of a closed palanquin?"

"No, I hadn't, but that is an excellent suggestion. Could you arrange one?"

"Of course, if the Most Noble and Revered Prince will kindly wait a few moments ... " Yamashiro hurried off.

The Twilight Prince stood quietly in the shadow of the gate, watching the passersby and trying to sort out the conflicting information he received from his two kinds of vision. He tried to decide what was causing the problem, the fact that auras lacked edges, or the fact that so many solid, opaque objects had no auras worth mentioning and were quite transparent to his mage-sight. The Prince found his dizziness increasing just thinking about such problems, though neither fact had bothered him in the past.


He was very relieved when the Archivist returned with the palanquin. He thought the armed guards that accompanied it were unnecessary, but did not have the energy to argue the matter. "Could you please give the bearers directions to the infirmary? I am not entirely sure how to get there from here. Isn't it near one of the city gates?"

Yamashiro bowed deeply again. "If the Most Noble and Revered Prince would permit this inadequate servant to accompany him? The infirmary is under this humble servant's direction, and has not yet received its daily inspection."

"Yes, thank you, I would appreciate your guidance ... and Yamashiro ... "

"Most Noble and Revered Prince?"


"I am aware that the formal modes of court speech are awkward for those that have not grown up with them. The modes of speech used when reporting to the Lord Commander will be acceptable."

"Thank you, Most Noble and Revered Prince," Yamashiro replied fervently.


The Twilight Prince entered the palanquin and sank back gratefully behind the privacy of the curtains. He closed his eyes and pressed his palms against his face with a sigh, then opened his eyes again as the bearers lifted the palanquin and moved off down the street. That was a mistake, and he immediately closed his eyes again: if moving under his own power had been dizzying, there was no word strong enough for the vertigo caused by being moved by others.

The Prince experimented carefully during the journey to the infirmary, and was relieved to find that with time and experience his new way of perceiving the world began to grow less disorienting. Using the mage-sight on his left side, along with the normal vision available to him there, improved matters greatly.

The army's infirmary was contained in a rambling collection of structures centered on a large building that had once been a mansion. More recently the complex had been the headquarters of a wealthy merchant, and some of the former workshops and warehouses still bore the trader's insignia. Some fragments of the mansion's garden remained: a few old trees and shrubs and a small stream that provided a cool, restful retreat for injured men recovering from the horrors of battling demons.


During a brief, preliminary inspection, the Prince found that all of the rooms were spotlessly clean, and the Healers and orderlies seemed attentive to their patients' needs. The buildings did not smell depressingly of sickness, but of fresh air, and, faintly, of fresh flowers and incense. The kitchens were impressively well equipped and stocked, given the current state of rationing in the capital: Archivist Yamashiro explained that Lord Commander Isanari had ordered that the sick and injured should have priority in the distributions of foods like meat and fish and fruits and vegetables, which were known to assist in the healing process.

An entire wing of the infirmary was filled with men injured in the battles during which the Twilight Prince himself had been captured and 'rescued'. He stopped first to visit with three men who had survived captivity along with him, who were all in the same small room overlooking the stream and pine trees.


The only surviving officer, a 'ronin' captain named Yokobashi Akira, was a worn looking man of about thirty-five with forked eyebrows, who had been forced asleep by the Healers to spare him the burning of the Healing Power added to the pain of his injuries.


A second man, the ronin unit's HorseMaster, was awake, sitting up and leaning on an armrest. The ronin squad-leader was a stocky man of about forty, with graying hair, and laugh wrinkles. The Prince recognized him, with surprised pleasure, as the man who had always managed to have a treat for the horses despite the rationing rules. When the Prince and Archivist Yamashiro entered the room, he turned away from watching the stream and bowed deeply.

"Most Noble Prince, you honor us too greatly by coming to this place. Won't such contact with illness and injury bar Your Lordship from performing rituals in the shrines of the Bright Powers?"

The Prince was surprised to hear such a sensible question from the noncommissioned samurai. Most of the commissioned officers, who were supposed to be better educated, had needed detailed explanations of all but the most elementary rules of religious propriety. Then they generally proceeded to ignore the explanations. "Well, yes, it would, but I've not yet done the purification rituals to remove the taint of my own injuries. You seem better informed about such matters than most, HorseMaster ... ?"

"Aoshiba Noboru, Most Noble Prince. Indeed, Most Noble Prince, my mother's people were priests at a small shrine -- a very small shrine: they were not counted as Highborn and barely counted as gentry. I know the rules for ritual purity, though, and my mage-sight is a bit better than usual for a commoner."

Yamashiro nodded. "That would also explain the speed of this man's recovery, Most Noble and Revered Prince: people with a bit of Power of their own impede the flow of the Healing less, and sometimes even enhance it."

HorseMaster Aoshiba blinked and bowed again, more deeply than before, "Please forgive the rudeness of my previous mode of address, Most Noble and Revered Prince," he said a little worriedly.

"Please don't trouble yourself about the matter," the Prince assured him, "my promotion is very recent ... As is another change in my status. When you are well, would you be willing to serve me as a vassal of Clan Kawachi?" He held out a hand toward the HorseMaster.


The HorseMaster bowed his forehead to the Prince's hand and swallowed hard. "It would be an honor past hoping for to serve a Lord again," he said hoarsely, "or to serve the Most Noble and Revered Prince in any capacity. To be the vassal of the Most Noble and Revered Prince would be trebly an honor." HorseMaster Aoshiba straightened, and the other men could see tears on his cheeks. "Most Noble and Revered Prince, with deep regret this unworthy servant must report that he is not likely to regain full use of his sword arm."


"I can hardly complain about the lasting effects of others' injuries," the Prince commented dryly, indicating his eyepatch. "And I am sure that I can find use for a man as good with horses as you are, even if you don't heal completely ... however ... " He paused, then offered hesitantly, "Being a Life Mage I have some skill as a Healer, and more Power than most: may I examine your wound?"

"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Aoshiba pushed back his right sleeve to reveal the remains of a long jagged gash on his right forearm, running from his elbow almost to the fading shackle marks on his wrist.

The Prince summoned full mage-sight to both sides of his visual field and steadied the HorseMaster's wrist with one hand while he examined the damage. "Hmm. Yes, I see. The nerves have been cut in two places ... but they have not yet withered enough to be beyond repair. By your leave ... " He braced himself, relaxed into a half-trance, and wakened the Power within him.

The immense surge of Power that responded to the Prince's summons shocked all three of the men. The Prince realized immediately that he was in danger of overwhelming the HorseMaster's system and tried frantically to restrain the flow and retain the excess in his own body. As he regained control, he closed his eyes and breathed slowly, trying to regain his composure as well: the Power he used always seemed to settle low in his belly and the resulting sensation suggested images of being caressed by an amorous lightning bolt.

Archivist Yamashiro was very glad that the Prince had closed his eyes. He had known that the Prince was a Life Mage, of course, and the erotic side-effects Life magic were familiar enough, since most Healers were Life Mages: though not with anywhere near this amount of Power. His body's response was embarrassing none the less, especially for a man engaged in the performance of his official duties. It was even more embarrassing to find himself half hoping that the Prince would demand a more personal sort of service of him, as he had never been particularly drawn to men as lovers, and would have little idea of how best to proceed. He quietly summoned a bit of his own Power to counter the effects of the Prince's Power flow, grateful that Water magic had no such embarrassing consequences.

HorseMaster Aoshiba blacked out for a moment under the impact of the Power flow. Even the sexual impact of the Prince's Power, intensified by the fact that Aoshiba was touching the Prince and at the focus of the initial Power flow, was eclipsed by the fire of the Healing that erupted in his various injuries, recent or otherwise. When the burning in his wounds subsided and HorseMaster was able to see and breathe again, he gasped, "Ah, thank you, Most Noble and Revered Prince."


The Twilight Prince sighed and opened his eyes. "Are you all right? ... Ah, sorry about that, but I suppose it's better than being healed by a Fire Mage." He reached a finger toward the HorseMaster's forehead, and Aoshiba's awareness of sexual need also faded to a bearable level.


The Prince glanced toward the Archivist, using the mage-sight on his right side, and nodded with satisfaction. Archivist Yamashiro found that experience even more unsettling than the erotic impulse that had accompanied the Prince's use of Power: he was quite sure that the Prince had looked at him, but only the eyepatch had been turned in his direction.

Turning back to the HorseMaster, the Prince asked, "How are your injuries now? I hope all that excess filled some useful purpose."

HorseMaster Aoshiba examined his arm, experimentally moving his hand and fingers, then he turned his attention to his other arm. "I am very well indeed, Most Noble and Revered Prince," he said in an awed tone. "All of my injuries are healed, not just the one gash. Look, my Lords, even the bruises are gone from my wrists!" He paused, then bowed and asked very respectfully, "Would it be possible for the Most Noble and Revered Prince, in his great mercy, to examine this insignificant servant's companions, Captain Yokobashi and Shiro?"


The Prince replied, "Yes, of course. Though I fear I will have to ask you and Archivist Yamashiro for your indulgence ... " He blushed, enough to be visible against his pale skin despite his makeup, and said apologetically, "Both my main Power flow and the ... other effects ... seem much stronger than in the past, so the controls I use to avoid annoying people are no longer adequate." He turned to Captain Yokobashi.

Archivist Yamashiro used his own mage-sight on the Captain, and was amused to note that not even the Healers' sleep spell had completely prevented Yokobashi from responding to the Prince's Power flow.

The Prince damped the Captain's response as he had the HorseMaster's, then broke the sleep spell. Captain Yokobashi immediately began to moan and twist restlessly. The Prince touched him in the center of the forehead with one finger and a trickle of Power and called softly, "Captain Yokobashi, wake up."

Yokobashi gasped and opened his eyes, blinking and trying to orient himself. "Most Noble Prince? Where?" A panicky look came into his eyes.

"Shhh. It's all right. You're safe in the city. In the infirmary," the Prince soothed. "I'm going to try to speed the healing of your injuries. Try to brace yourself: this may be unpleasant, but it should also be quick."

"Understood." The Captain straightened himself in his quilts, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I am ready, Most Noble Prince."

The Prince tried to control the Power flow better this time and release some of the Power he had accumulated, but he found that instead of draining any of the Power he had gathered while healing the HorseMaster, he only accumulated more. He kept his eyes closed for several breaths after the flow of Power ceased, but finally opened them. He was glad to see that the Archivist had shielded himself and the HorseMaster from the Power flow.


"Are you all right, Captain Yokobashi?"


"Very well, Most Noble Prince," the Captain replied, meeting the Prince's gaze with a smile. "To be honest, Most Noble Prince, I do not think 'unpleasant' is the correct word to describe that experience. If there is any way in which this devoted servant may be of use to the Most Noble Prince, he has but to ask."


The Prince blushed very deeply and looked down at his hands. His voice sounded a bit stifled. "As I informed HorseMaster Aoshiba, I am now Lord of Clan Kawachi. I would be honored to have you as a vassal of my Clan."

The Captain gasped, but immediately got up from his bed to kneel before the Prince. "The Most Noble Prince honors this worthless servant far above the deserts of one who has already failed once to protect him from the enemy."

"You did your best with inadequate resources in a situation that you did not create." The Prince shifted uncomfortably. "If I'm going to do more healing, I should do it quickly. Where is your other companion?"

"Here, Most Noble and Revered Prince," HorseMaster Aoshiba said. He drew aside a folding screen that separated the third man's bed from the rest of the room.


The Twilight Prince knelt beside the bed of the injured warrior, examined him with mage-sight, and sighed sadly. The man was missing both eyes, an ear, his tongue and various other pieces of his flesh, including several fingers and a testicle, and the marks spoke of burning rather than the use of blades. "I fear there is little that anyone can do for him," the Prince said, rubbing his own eyepatch, "but perhaps I can at least ease his pain."

He broke the Healers' sleep spell, and blinked as the injured man's aura erupted in a fragmented blaze of colored streamers, which began to fray even as he watched. The Prince sighed again. "No, apparently not," he said sadly, and his face went very still as he fought the tears that threatened to leak from his good eye. His voice deepened and took on the resonance of ritual chant. "May the Noble Powers receive this faithful spirit into their company and grant it the peace and healing that we cannot, until such time as it may choose to be reborn in human flesh." The Prince took one of the mutilated hands in his, very gently, and summoned the tiniest thread of healing Power that he could manage. Even that small disruption was enough. The blaze of streamers frayed completely and disappeared from mage-sight, and he gently folded the hands on the dead man's chest, grateful that the empty eye sockets were already decently covered by a bandage.

The Prince turned to the Archivist, his face still hard and set against the threatening tears, and said, "While I am here I will heal those that I can. Show me your most seriously injured patients."

"As the Most Noble and Revered Prince commands." Yamashiro bowed deeply, hoping that the Prince's apparent anger was directed at the enemy rather than the infirmary staff.

The Prince turned to his two new vassals and said quietly. "Complete your recoveries, gentlemen, and report to me when you are well." He stood up. "Yamashiro?"

During the rest of the afternoon the Twilight Prince used his healing Power on all of the patients in the infirmary whose injuries were severe or recent. The Prince was dismayed to find that the healings all served to increase his Power levels: a few of the injured men drank Power from him to support their own self-healing, but never as much as the Prince himself gained from healing them. He was even more dismayed to find that his control over the aphrodisiac side-effects of his power, which he had learned with such difficulty, had apparently vanished completely. By the time he ran out of patients to heal the Prince's discomfort and that of the people around him had become acute and the flow of Power was no longer necessary to produce the effect: being near the Prince was enough.


Rather than create a public scandal by traveling through the streets in his present state, the Prince went out into the garden and knelt beside the stream. He quietly recited a ritual that allowed him to shape and retune the Power he held into a form that could drain safely into the earth, air and water around him. The ritual worked, but the Prince collapsed due to the shock of the sudden discharge of so much Power.

The Twilight Prince awakened to find himself lying in one of the infirmary beds, with the Archivist watching over him anxiously. As soon as he noticed that the Prince's eye was open, Yamashiro bowed deeply and asked in a respectful, almost awed, tone "Is there any way that these insignificant servants may assist the Most Noble and Revered Prince?"

The Prince sat up and winced. He ached in every bone, muscle and joint as though he had been beaten, although the stiffness was passing quickly. He reflected wryly that he would not have believed that it was possible to hurt in more places than he had after his return from captivity. "Help me up, please. And summon that palanquin for the journey back to the castle." He added ruefully, more to himself than to the Archivist, "Kagemitsu won't let me hear the end of it if I've made myself sick working magic."


** *


Since his Lord would be busy at the infirmary that afternoon, Miyabe no Kagemitsu had decided to inspect the estate that had been acquired from Kanehide's holdings. He had not met the men that his Lord planned to visit, and had no great skill at healing people who lacked talent as mages. As an Earth Mage, he found his Power better suited to more domestic tasks.


He applied his makeup and selected his clothing with care, since he would be representing his lord at the newly acquired estate: kimono and hakama in shades of yellow and burnt orange, and a deep pine green overrobe in the informal style the Nobles called a hunting-coat, along with the tall cap appropriate to his rank.

Kagemitsu decided against wearing the dress sword that was part of formal attire for male Nobles: he was not entirely ignorant of blade-work, but the sword was not one of his preferred weapons, and implying otherwise in a city full of Samurai seemed unnecessarily arrogant. Besides, swords tended to bump into things if you weren't used to wearing them. Instead, he took his favorite fan, with the steel-reinforced frame, and tucked the baton that marked him as a Noble and a Mage into his sash.

The young courtier was careful to get detailed directions before he left the Warlord's castle. Unlike Amekudare no Miyako, which had a formal, rectangular plan divided by broad, numbered avenues, the mundane capital was a maze of narrow streets and lanes that had sprouted in an area roughly bounded by the harbor, a couple of major rivers, and the Warlord's castle. Kagemitsu strongly suspected that even the position of the main city wall had originally been an afterthought rather than the result of planning.

Despite the assurances of his informants that the Garden House was not far from the castle and would be easy to find, Kagemitsu soon found that he had made a wrong turn. Or perhaps missed a turn that he should have made. In either case, he was quite sure that no mention had been made of an inn or a marketplace in the list of landmarks he should expect to pass. He shook his head ruefully and entered the inn to ask for additional directions.


As Kagemitsu stood quietly waiting for the attention of the innkeeper, a coarse voice behind him suddenly exclaimed, "Oh Ho! What have we here?"

Brusque hands grasped the courtier's long hair and the trailing sleeves of his robe, and Kagemitsu was pulled roughly around to face a pair of very drunk samurai wearing the crest of Clan Yoshiatsu. The uglier of the two transferred his grasp to the young Noble's shoulders and leaned toward him, exhaling the fumes of cheap liquor. "What are you doing so far from the licensed quarter, Pretty Boy?"

Kagemitsu sighed and began to summon Power. With his looks, and having been raised as a servant, this was hardly the first time he had needed to fend off an amorous drunk, but he was somewhat out of practice since he had become a Noble in his own right. At least, now that he was Noble, he need not fear repercussions if he dealt firmly with the idiots. Kagemitsu summoned a little more Power.


The gate of the inn's courtyard opened again and a voice called out, "Hey! You! Let the Noble Lord go!" Two sets of footsteps approached.

Kagemitsu had locked his captor's stare with his own, and did not bother to look toward the voice. Kagemitsu's assailant, of course, was not able to look: he was too busy going into stasis. The other drunk turned to face the newcomers. "Back off, ronin bastards!" he blustered. "What business is it of yours if we want to play with this long-sleeved beauty?"


"No business at all of course!" the first voice retorted, "If you want to get your ass fried for bothering a wizard, that's your problem!"

His companion added cheerfully, as he slid around to the other side of Kagemitsu and his 'captor', "We just wanted to be sure you knew what you were doing, that's all."

"W-wizard?" stammered the drunk. He tried to assume a tone of scorn. "That fancy boy isn't a wizard!"

Kagemitsu suppressed a snicker and almost broke the lock stare: he suspected that the expression on the fool's face might be worth it.

"No mage-sight, eh? Tsk, tsk, tsk," the first ronin commented. "It's a wonder you've lasted this long against the enemy."

The drunk tugged at his friend's sleeve, then backed away as he realized how unnatural the other man's silence and immobility were. "A thousand apologies, Lord Wizard," he gasped. "No offense intended, Most Noble Reverence!" He turned and fled, stumbling in his haste.


Both ronin chuckled. The second ronin said quietly, "Most Noble Reverence, if you will do us the honor of allowing us to assist ... if you break the stasis, we'll dispose of this idiot."

"Yes, thank you," Kagemitsu replied. He deliberately closed his eyes and turned his face aside, allowing the Power he had summoned to drain back into the Earth. His assailant's grasp tightened on his arms for a moment, then there was a dull thunk and the grasp disappeared.

The courtier opened his eyes and saw a pair of young warriors dragging the drunk away to prop him against a wall. He wondered vaguely what they had hit the fool with, but did not really care enough to ask.

The innkeeper, who had arrived in the courtyard just after the latest pair of guests, had been watching the encounter with horror. Now that the situation had been resolved, he hurried forward with an offer of free drinks for all three of his remaining guests. The younger samurai looked at Kagemitsu hopefully, and the courtier decided to accept the offer.

"I'm in no great hurry," he acquiesced, "and I would be glad to share a drink with the two of you. Let's find a comfortable place to sit."

When the three were settled at a table with a flask and cups, Kagemitsu spent a few minutes studying the young men who had come to his assistance. He guessed from their similar looks and the connection patterns in their auras that they were kin, perhaps brothers, one about his own age and the other a bit older, perhaps in his mid-twenties. Their clothes were clean but worn, old Clan uniforms still showing dark patches where the embroidered Clan crests had been neatly picked out. Kagemitsu decided that he liked what he saw, both in their faces and in their auras.


"I am Miyabe no Tsuchi no Kagemitsu," he said finally. "A Noble, but of the Fourth Rank, not the Third: my proper title is Noble Lord, not Noble Reverence. May I know your names? And am I correct in assuming that you were previously vassals of a Clan that is now Vacant?"

The elder of the two replied, "We are Shirokura Tadaharu and Shirokura Motoharu, brothers, and you are quite correct: we served Clan Iwamura, whose council seat is now Vacant."

Motoharu added, "And not likely to be refilled any time soon, unlike some of our neighbors whose Lords had married daughters. We saw the last of the Lord's Clan fall to the enemy, and the Domain has some powerful and greedy neighbors."

"Then you would not be insulted by an offer from the Lord of another Clan?" Kagemitsu asked.


"Why ... no. Of course not," the elder brother answered. "Do you know of one that is recruiting?"

"I serve the Most Noble and Revered Prince of the Shrine of the Evening Shadows, who has been granted half the holdings of the late Kanehide and will shortly recruit vassals to restore the Lost Clan of Kawachi. I will gladly recommend you to him, if you desire."


The older ronin, Tadaharu, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "If we desire?" he asked slowly, then continued quietly, but emphatically. "Oh yes, Noble Lord, we do indeed desire it." His shoulders straightened, as if relieved of some heavy burden.

At Kagemitsu's curious glance, the younger man, Motoharu, explained, "We are the last men of fighting age in our family, Noble Lord. Yet our family is luckier than many, since some of the women and children and old people also survive. They depend on us, and it would mean much to have them safely supplied and settled."


"I see. Well, I cannot absolutely guarantee that you will be taken on, but I know of nothing that would prevent it: the Most Noble and Revered Prince will need quite a few samurai and has mentioned only three that he was tentatively considering. And he wants people with mage-sight around him. I will do all I can for you."

"Thank you very much, Noble Lord," Shirokura Tadaharu said earnestly.

His younger brother poured another round of sake and asked, "Is there any other way we can assist you now, Noble Lord?"

"Yes, there is, actually," Kagemitsu replied ruefully. "I was on my way to inspect a house that had been Kanehide's when I became lost and stepped in here to ask for directions. Do you by any chance know where the house is located?"

"Oh yes, of course. It's just a few blocks from here. Would the Noble Lord permit us to escort him?"

"Very well, I would appreciate the company."

The Prince's new house proved to be located three blocks diagonally northwest of the marketplace. Far enough for quiet, Kagemitsu decided, but close enough for convenient shopping. Shopping had sometimes been a problem at the Shrine of Evening Shadows, located as it was on the outskirts of Amekudare no Miyako.

The estate itself filled half the long rectangular block where it was located and was surrounded on three sides by other estates of similar size: the block immediately to the east was empty, the estate there long ago burned out and never rebuilt -- no doubt it had been the property of one of the Lost Clans. From the bits that could be seen through their gates and over their walls, the other estates seemed to be in good repair except the one filling the west half of the same block as the Prince's estate, which displayed a mixture of badly dilapidated and freshly rethatched roofs along with signs of recent repairs to its walls and gates. The courtier reflected that recent repairs were preferable to evidence of recent neglect, and turned to examine the Prince's property more closely.

Kagemitsu knocked politely at the outer gate of the estate and waited for a few moments, but there was no response from inside.

"Allow me, Noble Lord," said Tadaharu, and he pounded on the gate so hard that it shook in its frame.

There was a sound of slow footsteps from inside and a long pause, then a voice snarled, "Who are you and what do you want?"

"The Noble Lord Miyabe no Kagemitsu has arrived to inspect the holdings of his master, the Most Noble and Revered Prince," the elder Shirokura brother replied, firmly. "Open up at once unless you wish to stand in defiance to your new master's will and the decree of the Lord Commander."

The gatekeeper opened the gate, grumbling, and Tadaharu stalked through the gate, resting one hand lightly on his sword hilt and peering about suspiciously. His younger brother dropped into bodyguard position a few steps behind Kagemitsu and murmured without moving his lips, "After you, Noble Lord."


Kagemitsu was somewhat amused by his two newly acquired guardians, but not ungrateful for their presence given the apparent attitude of at least part of the household staff. He nodded abruptly, strolled inside the gate, and proceeded to make a very, very thorough inspection of the premises.

The gardens, as advertised, were exquisite even this late in the season: midway between autumn equinox and winter solstice. They filled most of the southwest half of the block, and extended smaller tendrils of beauty in among the buildings that formed the mansion itself. There were two ponds: a small one that emptied over a low, quietly murmuring waterfall, and a much larger one with two large islands reached by elegant bridges. All the trees and other plantings also seemed well chosen and propitiously placed. The Lord's personal quarters in the northeast corner of the estate were separated from the rest of the buildings by a hallway-bridge that crossed the stream. They looked out over the waterfall and were surrounded by ancient pine trees that gave privacy and quiet and scented the air with tangy resin.

Unfortunately, in Kagemitsu's opinion the state of disrepair of those quarters left much to be desired. The other buildings were as bad or worse: left unrepaired far too long, or else renovated by someone with appallingly bad taste. By the time he was finished exploring the various outbuildings and storehouses the courtier was thoroughly annoyed and not inclined to be hesitant about expressing his opinion. He summoned the servants together.

"I trust the Noble Lord is satisfied with what he has seen," the steward who had been his guide said obsequiously. He was an unpleasantly oily fellow in his early thirties, a bit too well dressed for his position and purported income.

For a moment Kagemitsu just looked at the man, who had not bothered to try to hide or distract him from the estate's faults: apparently what he had hoped was honesty was really an arrogant belief that the courtier would not understand what he saw. "No, I am not satisfied with what I have seen," the young Noble replied at last. "The main reception hall and other public areas are in good repair, but far too crude in their ornamentation to be elegant, or even acceptable to civilized tastes. The less public areas of the estate, even the Master's quarters, have clearly had their maintenance skimped for several years at least. Many of the covered corridors connecting the various buildings show signs of roof leaks. The Samurai's quarters are an embarrassment, the kitchens, storehouses and stables are a disgrace, and the entire estate is understaffed."


Several of the older servants nodded agreement when Kagemitsu announced his findings, but the steward tried to fight back. "What does a ... decorative ... young fellow like you know about running a Lord's household, anyway?" he asked with a sneer.

Kagemitsu's new bodyguards tightened their grasp on their swords, but he gestured for them to wait: if he was going to manage this household for his Lord he needed to establish his own authority here. He favored the steward with a condescending smile and played idly with his fan as he answered, "As it happens, I was raised as a servant in the household of the Late Retired Fire Emperor, before I acquired Noble rank in my own right and became the Most Noble and Revered Prince's attendant. There is very little that needs to be done in this miserable hovel that I could not do with my own hands ... in the unlikely event that such should be necessary." He gestured with his fan toward the crumbling plaster wall of one of the storehouses and reached out with a surge of Power, and the wall stood as firm as if it were newly built.

There was a long sigh from the assembled servants, and Kagemitsu continued just as calmly, "I am competent to serve, temporarily, as steward for the Most Noble and Revered Prince, and you, obviously, are not. I believe that we will dispense with your services. And with those of the discourteous fool who was not acting as gatekeeper when I arrived, and that so-called stable-master. You all have half an hour to gather your possessions and leave ... and I advise you to be very certain that your own possessions are all you take with you."


The three servants Kagemitsu had mentioned scowled, but bowed properly after a sharp glance from the elder Shirokura.

The older servants looked intensely gratified at this change of management. One very old woman, slightly better dressed than the others, asked anxiously, "Noble Lord, do you think we can make this a fit place for the Most Noble and Revered Prince to come?"


Kagemitsu smiled at her. "To be honest, Granny, Our Most Noble and Revered Prince seldom complains even when he has a perfect right to do so. If we can restock and reequip the kitchens properly, I think that with my Power and your work we can repair enough of the deficiencies of the master's quarters to permit our Lord to rest here in his own home in a few days, more peacefully than he would in the Warlord's guest quarters."

"I'd like nothing better, Noble Lord," said the chief cook promptly, "but where are we to get the money for these supplies and repairs?"

"Send the bills to Minister of Finance Ninori's office. He will pass most of them on to Clan Tajima, I expect." Kagemitsu paused, then added, "And keep in mind that I will review the accounts and deal with any gouging personally." He waved a hand in dismissal and the servants hurried away to their various duties.


Kagemitsu turned to the Shirokura brothers. "I would be grateful if you could arrange freedom from your regular duties in order to serve as watchmen and gatekeepers here, until better arrangements can be made."

"Of course, Noble Lord. Motoharu, go see to it, while I remain here," the elder brother instructed. As the younger ronin hurried off, he continued hopefully, "My Lord, one of my great-uncles is a screen painter of some reputation in our home province, and my aunts are excellent seamstresses and embroiderers ... "


Kagemitsu laughed. "And all eager to be of assistance to a new lord. Getting lost may prove to be one of the luckier things that has happened to me! Well, send a messenger for them, and any of your other relatives you think might be useful - - I'd invite your whole family but such a step needs to be approved by the Most Noble and Revered Prince."

"Of course, Noble Lord. The Noble Lord has been more than generous." Tadaharu bowed very low, then turned and went out to watch the gate.

Kagemitsu wandered back through the public and residential buildings of the estate, making mental notes of the changes that would be needed. He gradually became aware, more by mage-sight than by sight or sound, of a human presence hovering nearby. He turned toward the shy presence and called softly, "Who is there? Please, come out where I can see you."


Kagemitsu was rewarded by the appearance of one of the most beautiful young women he had ever seen -- and growing up in the household of the Retired Fire Emperor, a notorious connoisseur of beauty, had given him very high standards for comparison. Her presence seemed quite mysterious to the courtier, since he had been informed that all of Kanehide's ladies had left. In any case, she was not dressed quite well enough to be one of the late master's ladies, though her bearing and dress were both too elegant for an ordinary servant.

Kagemitsu suddenly realized that he was staring and averted his gaze a little, blushing slightly at his own rudeness. "May I ask who you are, Lady?" he asked politely.

"Your servant's name is Fujikawa Kakemono," she replied quietly.

"Kakemono?" Kagemitsu repeated, startled. "An unusual name for a woman."

"Your servant's father won a large amount of money at her birth by wagering on her sex, and chose the name 'Wager' to commemorate the fact ... The previous master, Kanehide, later demanded this house and your servant from your servant's father in payment of a gambling debt."

"He married you?"

"Such was the original agreement with your servant's father, but the late master never found it convenient to make the marriage official, due to the need to provide ... entertainment ... for his friends. Being an appurtenance of the estate, your servant assumed that she would pass to the new owner with the house."


Everything Kagemitsu learned about the late Kanehide made him dislike the man more. "I am not the new owner," he explained, "only his attendant. But I can assure you that you are quite safe under the protection of the Most Noble and Revered Prince. As a Twilight Priest, the Most Noble and Revered Prince observes all of the ritual prohibitions and taboos very strictly, and because he is a Life Mage he is especially careful that the ban on sex with unwilling partners should be fully observed within his household. If there is someone you wish to marry, I am sure that can also be arranged."


"No," Kakemono replied, "There is no one."

Kagemitsu found that he was very relieved to learn that she had no favored suitor. "Since the Most Noble and Revered Prince has no consorts at present, I would appreciate it if you would reside in the ladies' quarters and see to it that they are properly cared for."


"Very well, my lord," Kakemono answered softly. She bowed deeply and left him.

Kagemitsu stood looking after her for a few moments, then recovered himself with a start and returned to what he had been doing. This was turning into a very unusual household.


When the changes he had ordered were well under way, Kagemitsu returned to the castle. He was dismayed to find the Twilight Prince asleep in the guest quarters looking terribly pale and drained. The courtier immediately ordered food and tea, and examined his Lord worriedly while he waited for them to arrive.


When the meal arrived, the Prince awakened immediately and attacked it ravenously, to Kagemitsu's considerable relief. "What did you do, Most Noble and Revered Prince?" he scolded gently, "Try to heal half the city?"

"Ummm ... well, yes, actually ... " the Prince blushed a bit, but answered cheerfully.

"So soon after your own injuries? You really should be more cautious, Most Noble and Revered Prince."

"I only set out to help the men who were captured with me. But the Power levels I found myself working at were immense: fifty or a hundred times what I've been used to. It seemed a pity to waste the Power when it could be helpful. For those that could
be helped at all."

Kagemitsu blinked. Fifty or a hundred times the Prince's already considerable Power levels? "Releasing that much Power must have been ... interesting."

The Prince nodded. "The garden was too small, and too dormant, to be useful ... I used the lesser purification of earth, wind and water."


"Powers! No wonder my Noble and Revered Prince looks so drained! Did those idiot Samurai refuse to assist the Most Noble and Revered Prince?" asked Kagemitsu indignantly.


The Prince blushed and looked away. "I ... no ... "


The courtier sighed, "The strain of using purification rituals to release Power can be very damaging," he reminded gently, "Please, Most Noble and Revered Prince, if the occasion arises again, and my Noble and Revered Prince is reluctant to deal with a stranger, send for me."


The Twilight Prince looked up, startled. "But Kagemitsu ... you don't like sex with men," he protested.

"I don't see that releasing Power should count as sex when you do it, my Lord, any more than when I do it. Despite the difference in the way things may feel. Entertainment is one thing, allowing my dear Lord to endanger his health is quite another."

The Prince bowed his head and closed his eyes. "I will ... consider your offer. If the occasion should arise ... " He added wistfully, "It must be nice to have Power that you can use without bothering the people around you, and mage sight that shows you solid objects." He looked up again and shook his head slightly. "Enough of me, how was your own day?"

Kagemitsu thought for a moment, and chuckled. "Well, Most Noble and Revered Prince, your servant is beginning to suspect that the local ... uh ... residents of the licensed quarter? ... affect styles of dress resembling those that are currently fashionable in Amekudare no Miyako."


The Prince opened his eyes and stared at his friend, "Powers! Nothing you couldn't handle, I presume?"

"Of course not, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Your servant received some unexpected help, besides. Though for a while your servant was wondering whether he was developing Life Magic of his own." Kagemitsu was very relieved to hear the Prince's tired chuckle. The young courtier quickly described the events at the inn and his meeting with the two ronin, emphasizing the more humorous aspects of the situation.

The Prince chuckled again -- it was not quite a snicker. "I almost feel sorry for those poor fools: after all, everyone knows proper Highborn never go anywhere unattended ... and it's not every day that the most beautiful man in a generation comes wandering into a local tavern."

"The most ... ?! I'm NOT!" Kagemitsu blushed fiercely and looked down at his hands.

"Half the population of the Imperial capital would disagree," the Prince teased, "and the other half have never seen you." He was amused to see his usually imperturbable friend so flustered, but decided it was time to change the subject. "If you find the two young samurai congenial, please enlist them in my service ... or your own, if you prefer. You know, your present rank does entitle you to a household and staff of your own, if you want them."

"The Shirokuras were promised the chance to serve the Most Noble and Revered Prince, if he would have them," Kagemitsu replied quickly.

"Very well, my need for staff is certainly more immediate. Did you ever find the Garden House?"

"Oh yes, Most Noble and Revered Prince, the Shirokuras began making themselves useful immediately." Kagemitsu recounted the events of his arrival at the estate and his meeting with the household servants, and added when he had finished, "The master's quarters need minor improvements, but will soon be quite habitable. And my Lord would recover from the effects of the purification more quickly in that garden than shut up here on the third floor of this fortress. The horses should remain in the Warlord's stables until more repairs have been made."


"It might be wise to replace the thatch of the stable roof with tiles, while we're at it," the Twilight Prince commented. "Horses can be so foolish about fires."

"Mmm, that was your servant's thought," Kagemitsu agreed, "And perhaps the kitchens as well, for safety's sake. But there is nothing to prevent the Most Noble and Revered Prince from moving tomorrow."

The Prince assented, after a moment's thought. The garden sounded very inviting, and living in a house where he was not master made him more than a little nervous.

Kagemitsu left the suite to arrange for a palanquin for the Prince and bearers for their luggage, to be ready the next day at the Prince's convenience. Since they had journeyed to the mundane capital with only a few pack horses, -- the Warlord's servants had been scandalized -- shifting to new quarters would not be a burdensome task.

When he returned, he brought another light meal with him, and was surprised and relieved to find the Prince still awake and waiting for him. And hungry. Perhaps his Lord had not been seriously harmed by the day's expedition, after all.

"Most Noble and Revered Prince," Kagemitsu said hesitantly, when his Lord had finished eating. "There is another matter pertaining to the Garden House estate that your servant neglected to mention earlier. It seems there is a young woman attached to the estate -- not a servant, exactly -- a daughter of the former owner who passed with it into Kanehide's ... possession."


"She is welcome to remain as part of the household, if she wishes," the Prince replied sleepily. "Is she pretty?"

Kagemitsu swallowed hard, but did his best to keep his tone indifferent. "Very beautiful, Most Noble and Revered Prince." He swallowed hard again. "Fit to grace the chamber of an Imperial prince." With guilty relief, the courtier saw the Prince's aura shift from sleepy curiosity, not to interest, but to taut wariness.


"Or the chamber of the most beautiful man in a generation?" The Prince recognized both the tone of voice and the patterns in his friend's aura: he had encountered both often enough since Kagemitsu reached an age to view girls as more than a necessary nuisance.


"The Most Noble and Revered Prince lacks children," the courtier pointed out, duty battling with relief.

"So does the Noble Lord Miyabe no Kagemitsu," The Prince retorted. "You are just as old as I am, and have no more heirs ... or at least none that you've acknowledged. Just be very sure the girl is willing, Kage-san, not merely compliant. Remember how far you outrank her." He returned to his bed and wrapped himself in his quilts.

"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince," the courtier assured him, a little hurt that his friend should bother to warn him against such clumsiness. Kagemitsu added indignantly, "I think that walking slime Kanehide was using her as a whore to entertain his friends. "


"Powers!" The Prince sat up again and stared at his friend. "We'll both have to be very polite and formal, then, until she learns to trust that she's safe in my household." He sighed and lay back down, "Most of these Samurai seem to be decent, honest men ... Kanehide seems to have been an exception. Blow out the lamp, will you, please."


"Yes, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Kagemitsu did so and retired to his own bed in the outer room of the suite.

The Prince called after him sleepily, "I hope you didn't arrange our move for early morning."


"Of course not, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Sleep well, my Prince."



Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso