7 Neighbors and Guests

 


Kore ya kono

Yuku mo kaeru mo

Wakarete wa

Shiru mo shiranu mo

saka no seki

(Semimaru)


On the first sunny morning after several days of high winds and driving rain, the Twilight Prince sat practicing his flute on the veranda of the building that contained the family quarters of his new estate. He was warmly dressed against the breeze that raised ripples on the garden pond in front of him, and charcoal glowed in a brazier beside him. The veranda of his personal quarters was surrounded by evergreen trees and water and would no doubt be very comfortable in the heat of summer, but now, little more than a month before the winter solstice, it was unpleasantly

damp and gloomy. His present location was much more comfortable.


From the building behind him, the Prince could occasionally hear raised voices and an assortment of bangs and thuds. The recent bad weather had made the poor condition of the estate's living quarters distressingly obvious, and Kagemitsu and the staff and servants were taking advantage of the good weather to make some urgently needed repairs.


The Prince had offered to help with the cleaning and repairs, but the offer had clearly embarrassed his Shirokura retainers and scandalized the rest of the servants. He wondered how Kagemitsu had convinced them that his help was acceptable: perhaps the Earth Mage's Power had simply been too useful to refuse.


It was depressing to think that the most acceptable contribution the Prince himself could make was to stay out of their way, and he felt a bit guilty at being the only adult on the estate who was not doing anything useful. Even the older Shirokura children were helping with the repairs and other chores. At the far corner of the veranda a tiny girl who might possibly have been as much as five years old was playing quietly with a doll and waiting for the Prince to give her errands to run.


A little after the Twilight Prince finished his noon meal a guest arrived, led through the grounds by Hato, a ten year old Shirokura boy who seemed ready to burst with pride at the important task that he had been given. The boy watched anxiously to see that the Prince approved of the newcomer's presence, then abandoned his dignity and went racing back to his post at the estate's main gate.


Senior Commander Tahata knelt on the ground before the Prince's veranda, set the parcel he was carrying down on the veranda, and bowed very low. He had been amused by the young gatekeeper's earnestness, but was shocked to be granted the privilege of a private audience with a Prince of the Blood. He had hoped, at most, to be permitted to hand his gift to one of the Prince's lesser attendants. "Most Noble and Revered Prince, graciously excuse the impertinence of this miserable servant in approaching so near to the august presence of the Most Noble and Revered Prince. Among the menial class to which this unworthy servant has the unmerited honor of belonging, it is customary to welcome a new neighbor with a gift of food. The unworthy inhabitants of the decrepit estate immediately to the west of the resplendent and illustrious estate now inhabited by your Most Noble, August, and Revered Self humbly entreat that the Most Noble and Revered Prince will accept this hideously inadequate offering."


The Prince smiled. "I accept your kind gift with great pleasure, Senior Commander. Please speak in the modes appropriate to your recent promotion, not your former class ... and come: join me here on the veranda. The ground must be very damp after all the rain we have had."

 

Tahata bowed again. "The courtesy and kindness of the Most Noble and Revered Prince are most humbly appreciated, but it would be most inappropriate for a commoner like this inadequate servant to sit on the same level as the Most Noble and Revered Prince." He straightened out of the bow, and settled himself a bit more comfortably, though still in a very respectful posture.


The Prince carefully opened the neat package. It contained a large covered earthenware crock, simple of form and exquisitely glazed. The crock was full of very fine gourd pickles, a dish the Prince had not seen since he left Amekudare no Miyako. "Senior Commander Tahata, your gift is wonderful. May I ask where you found these? I am very fond of gourd pickles, and I had been informed that there were none available in the city."


Tahata smiled and bowed again. "Well, Most Noble and Revered Prince, when your servants moved into the neighboring estate last spring, most of the garden was a wasteland and there appeared to be some risk that the city would be besieged ... it seemed prudent to fill the bare patches with edible plants." He paused a moment, then added hastily, "The plants were arranged in clusters, of course, like a proper garden, not in rows like a farm."


"An excellent idea, and very prudent given the likelihood of shortages. I may ask to buy some of your seed when planting season comes."


"The Most Noble and Revered Prince has but to ask, of course. His servants will be honored by the opportunity to be useful."


"Senior Commander, you must at least promise to accept a gift from my own garden in return for the seed ... I don't suppose you need any pickled plums? I am told that we are extremely well supplied with them."


Tahata nodded respectfully, "Indeed, Most Noble and Revered Prince, plum pickles would be much appreciated. The plum harvest in this estate was remarkably good, while the plum trees to the west did very poorly last year and seem unlikely to improve in the coming season."


"How unfortunate ... as a Life Mage I have some small skill at healing plants, but the buds that will bear the new crop have already formed and cannot be multiplied." The Prince turned and beckoned to the little girl playing with the doll. "Niwa, child, I am sorry to interrupt your game ... "

 

The little girl looked up and bowed. "Revered Master?"

 

The prince indicated the crock. "Find someone to take this to the kitchen: I think it is much too large and heavy for you to carry safely. And ask the gardener if he could spare me a few minutes for a consultation."


"At once, Revered Master." She carefully set down the doll and bowed again, then jumped up and hurried away down the veranda.


The Prince turned back to Tahata. "I am pleased to have your family as neighbors, Senior Commander, but I must admit some surprise that you were able to obtain and keep a place to live in a neighborhood so close to the castle. Considering the attitudes of some of the Samurai toward you and your children, I would have expected one of them to claim the place, even if only to keep you out."


"As to that, Most Noble and Revered Prince, it seems that the estate was formerly the property of the Clan of Isashige, which did not exactly become Lost by chance. Understandably annoyed at being murdered in their beds, the previous owners have continued to take an interest in the place ... to an extent that rendered it uninhabitable for many years. Being enshrined as guardian spirits for the household instead of attacked by exorcists seemed to gratify them, and they appear to find the current inhabitants acceptable as long as things are kept in good repair."


"I fear this estate could have profited by possessing similar guardians." The Twilight Prince commented a bit wearily. "Could you give me the name of your thatcher? Some of your roofs appear to be recently rethatched, and several of ours are in desperate shape."

 

"Your servant himself did much of the work in question, Most Noble and Revered Prince, with the aid of some men currently out on patrol. If the Most Noble and Revered Prince will permit an observation, however, this estate does not appear to be in poor condition."


"And it seems that appearance was all that Kanehide concerned himself with," the Prince replied in a resigned tone. "The front facades and reception rooms are in good condition, but I am informed that the rear half of the Samurai's quarters leaks so badly that it might as well not have a roof, and the family quarters are not much better. My own quarters are reasonably weatherproof, thanks to Kagemitsu's Power, but otherwise in rather poor repair."


The Senior Commander looked startled. "Your servant is shocked to hear this, Most Noble and Revered Prince. The thatchers will be sent over as soon as they return and materials can be gathered."


"And they have had time to eat and rest, of course."


"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Tahata was agreeably surprised by the Prince's consideration for the workmen. It was ironic that a Highborn Manifest Power should be so much more courteous to peasants and artisans than the Samurai who had previously owned the estate. He hoped that the Prince would be content to settle in the neighborhood once the repairs were completed. A thought struck him suddenly. "It is sincerely hoped that the Most Noble and Revered Prince is not distressed by the proximity of the Isashige ghosts," he said fervently.

 

"Ah, no." The Prince chuckled. "To be honest, I tend to find places inhabited only by the living rather boring: the Shrine of the Evening Shadows might be described as the official haunted house of Amekudare no Miyako, and I lived there constantly from the age of two to fourteen, and much of the time thereafter, until last month."


Tahata relaxed. "That is very good to hear, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Kanehide used to have the exorcists in every sixty days, regular as the tides, and it never seemed to do him a bit of good. It was never even determined whether his problems were due to the Isashige ghosts having a bit of fun away from home, or whether this estate has its own ghosts."


"Well in either case the spirits are welcome here now."


"These humble servants are most grateful for the courtesy of the Most Noble and Revered Prince," said an unnaturally clear voice out of the air, and suddenly a handful of personages dressed formally as Samurai aristocrats were standing on the gravel near Tahata. The gravel crunched as they knelt and bowed, but Tahata noticed with a shiver that their forms did not block the sunshine to cast ordinary shadows, but filtered it as if they were made of colored glass or paper.


The living warrior bowed deeply and closed his eyes. He wished that he could close his ears as well: hearing the voices of the Dead was notoriously unlucky for any except the individual or individuals addressed.


The voice spoke again, sounding amused, "Please do not worry, Senior Commander, we have no cause to wish you anything but good fortune." It resembled the tones of some deep-pitched woodwind modulated into human speech more than it did a human voice. "We would not have materialized in your presence, except that it gave us the opportunity to congratulate you on your promotion as well as greet the Most Noble and Revered Prince."


Tahata opened his eyes and exhaled the breath he had been holding in a sigh of relief.

 

The Twilight Prince calmly asked, "Am I correct in assuming that your excellencies are deceased members of Clan Isashige?"

 

The speaker, who had the appearance of a middle-aged man, nodded respectfully. "Yes, Most Noble and Revered Prince. I was the last Lord of Isashige, and these were my wife and son and daughter." He gestured toward what appeared to be a middle-aged woman, and a man and woman in their late teens. "This, however, is our cousin Fujikawa Shiro, who dwells in what is now the estate of the Most Noble and Revered Prince." The spirit indicated the fifth ghost, who looked about nine years old and wore a different crest from the others: wisteria rather than plum blossoms.

 

"You are welcome, Lord Fujikawa," the Prince replied with a bow. "You are an ancestor of Fujikawa Kakemono?"


The child ghost bowed nervously, "Her elder brother, Most Noble and Revered Prince. I promised our mother when she died that I would take good care of her, but I haven't been very good at it ... please, Most Noble and Revered Prince, do not tell Kakemono that I am here."

 

"Of course not," the Twilight Prince assured him gently, "not if you don't wish it, and I'm sure that you can trust the Senior Commander as well." Tahata nodded vigorously: offending a ghost was the last thing he wanted to do.


The Prince looked around at the other spirits. "I am very honored to meet all of you." The Prince and Tahata both looked toward footsteps that tapped on the veranda, and the spirits faded away.


The little girl had returned with Fujikawa Kakemono herself. The young woman had her hair covered by a scarf and her sleeves tied back, and was carrying a covered jar. At the same time, the gardener, dressed in spotlessly clean clothes, hurried around the corner of the house, knelt on the ground beside Tahata, and bowed deeply. Kakemono knelt and set down the jar. She bowed deeply to the Prince without looking at him and then, less deeply, bowed to Tahata. "The Most Noble and Revered Prince wished to give the respected Senior Commander some plum pickles?"

 

"Yes, thank you," the Prince replied. He smiled at the child, who had returned to her corner, and she blushed and bowed. "It is a pleasure to be so well served ... and I think such service deserves a reward. That doll seems rather inadequately clad, considering the weather, don't you agree?"

 

"Doll?" Kakemono looked at the child and said nervously, "Most Noble and Revered Prince, that doll is from the estate storehouses, not the property of servants. The discourtesy of appropriating it is deeply regretted."


"Don't scold her!" the Prince exclaimed hastily. "Surely, if there are toys in the storehouses and children living on the estate the two groups should properly be united. Arrange for the new doll clothes as her reward, as instructed. And please see that any child who has not yet 'appropriated' a suitable gift receives something from the storehouses."


Kakemono flinched and bowed again, saying softly, "The Most Noble and Revered Prince is most generous."


The Prince was getting a little annoyed by the rejections of his attempts at friendliness. "The prosperity of a Lord should be demonstrated by the prosperity of his servants. See to it," he snapped. He waved curtly in dismissal, and the woman bowed again and left hastily, taking the container of gourd pickles with her.

 

Turning back to Tahata and the gardener, the Prince bowed slightly to the servant and said gently, "Please forgive my discourtesy in keeping you waiting."


The old man's eyes widened and he prostrated himself. "This inadequate servant is completely at the service of the Most Noble and Revered Prince," he stammered, "The Most Noble and Revered Prince is humbly entreated to overlook the delay caused while this worthless wretch sought garments suitable for such an audience."


The Twilight Prince sighed and wondered why the man was so frightened. "I just wanted to ask you a few questions," he said gently. "To begin with, do you have any idea why the plums failed last year in the estate next door? Is the problem likely to extend to our trees?"


The old gardener decreased the depth of his bow slightly. "Oh, no, Most Noble and Revered Prince, there is no danger to the plums here. It's just that the Isashige plum trees have gone so many years without being properly pruned that they are choking themselves."


"You were not aware of that, Senior Commander?"


"No, Most Noble and Revered Prince, the household presently includes farmers and foresters, but no one with much knowledge of fruit trees."


"If the Most Noble and Revered Prince will graciously permit?" the gardener ventured timidly.


"Yes?"


"If the Most Noble and Revered Prince approves, this inadequate wretch might assist the respected Senior Commander with the needed information when pruning time comes."


"Yes," the Twilight Prince agreed warmly, "That sounds like an excellent idea." He was a little surprised that someone was actually offering to do something sensible without putting up an argument against it. "The other matter I wished to discuss with you is the idea of growing edible plants on this estate in places where they will not interfere with the permanent plantings."


"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince. This estate always had a small kitchen garden when the Fujikawas owned it, but Kanehide ordered it cleared for other uses. If the Most Noble and Revered Prince desires, it can easily be reconstructed and expanded."


"Excellent. I do indeed desire it. The danger of siege has passed, I hope, but there will still be shortages during the coming year. Also, being both a Twilight priest and a Life Mage, I do not eat meat, so the variety of plant foods available is a matter of some importance to me." The Prince noted that the gardener looked suddenly very worried, and added softly, "Senior Commander Tahata has offered to assist us in the matter of seeds."


The gardener looked relieved. He asked timidly, "Does the Most Noble and Revered Prince have any other commands?"


"Not at the moment," the Prince said gently. "You may return to your work." He watched as the old man prostrated himself again, then rose and hurried off. Turning to Tahata, the Prince asked, "Senior Commander, do you have any idea why he was so frightened? He seemed convinced that I was angry with him."


Tahata blinked. "The Most Noble and Revered Prince bowed and apologized to a servant and did not intend it as a rebuke?"


The Twilight Prince sighed and shook his head. "No, I did not intend it as a rebuke." He paused, then asked with a smile, "Senior Commander, why were you so uneasy in the presence of the spirits, earlier? I would expect a man with Dead landlords to be more sensible about such things."

 

Tahata shifted uncomfortably. "Everyone knows that it is dangerous to overhear the Dead, Most Noble and Revered Prince," he protested politely, "Sense means one thing for a priest of the Twilight Powers, and another thing for common folk."

 

"Common folk?" The Prince repeated with a smile. "That's an odd term to be used by a man with an aura like yours ... " Tahata surreptitiously checked the shape of his shadow, and was relieved to find that it remained human.

 

The Prince continued, "And even if you were really 'common folk', the mere sound of ghostly voices is not dangerous -- not even to those the spirits hold as enemies."


"If the Most Noble and Revered Prince says so." Tahata assented, but his tone was doubtful and he still looked unhappy.


"I'm not saying the Dead are harmless," the Prince assured him, "The Dead have plenty of ways of harming those they dislike, and deliberate rudeness like eavesdropping is certainly not wise if one wants to remain healthy. But those who become ghosts generally do so for specific reasons and tend not to spend their Power on side matters unless provoked, and death in and of itself is not nearly as contagious as most people seem to think. In any case, the Isashige Spirits, being enshrined as guardian Powers, don't really count as ghosts any more, so the rules are different, and Lord Fujikawa is my problem, not yours."


Tahata still looked so uncomfortable that the Twilight Prince decided it was time to change the subject, so he asked about Tahata's children, and the two men chatted for a while. Or rather, the Prince tried to chat. Tahata made very polite responses to the Prince's comments about the weather and questions about his household and family. The Prince wondered rather guiltily whether he was keeping the officer from some important task or other, but he suspected that any question would be taken as a dismissal. He hoped that if the matter was truly urgent, Tahata would have the sense to excuse himself and attend to it.


After a time, the young gatekeeper, Hato, appeared again. This time he escorted Minister of Finance Ninori, who bowed very deeply to the Prince, and, less deeply but just as politely, to Senior Commander Tahata.


Minister Ninori placed a small, elegant jar on the veranda before the Prince, knelt beside Tahata, and bowed deeply again. "If the Most Noble and Revered Prince pleases, it is humbly hoped that the Most Noble and Revered Prince will accept this worthless gift as an inadequate token of the respect in which the Most Noble and Revered Prince is held by the unworthy inhabitants of the estate just to the north of that of the Most Noble and Revered Prince."

 

The Prince picked up the jar, the better to admire the garden scene that decorated it. "Your gift pleases me greatly, Minister. This jar is beautiful. May I ask what is in it?"


Ninori bowed yet again. "If the Most Noble and Revered Prince pleases, this abject and unworthy servant of the Most Noble and Revered Prince has somehow acquired a totally unwarranted reputation as a connoisseur of tea, and has presumed to present the Most Noble and Revered Prince with a wretched sample of the incompetent blending of teas performed by this inadequate servant of the Most Noble and Revered Prince."

 

The Twilight Prince found himself counting silently to see how many honorifics Ninori would manage to include in a single sentence. Somehow the formal phrases were more noticeable in the speech of commoners, who used them very self-consciously. Among the Nobles at the Imperial court their use was so automatic that they faded into the background of awareness for both speaker and listener, lacking any real force. "Will you join me on the veranda, Minister?"


"Oh no, Most Noble and Revered Prince, this wretched and incompetent servant will not presume so." Ninori bowed yet again and settled himself on one of the wide stones that paved the path bordering the veranda.


The Prince sighed. He had been hoping to avoid the main reception rooms until they were redecorated, but it really was not proper to keep high officials of the government sitting on the damp ground, and in any case, these commoners seemed to have very strict ideas about protocol, almost as strict as Kagemitsu's. If the rooms of the family quarters had been a little less shabby, he would have used one of those, but he knew Kagemitsu would be hurt if he exposed the building's interior to outsiders in its present state. The main reception room, with its multiple floor levels, would have to do.

 

He turned to his young messenger. "Niwa, please ask someone to open the main room of the reception hall, and tell them that I would like to sample the tea that Minister Ninori has presented to me." The little girl bowed, set down her doll, and hurried away. The Prince stood up, carefully. "Senior Commander Tahata, may I lean on your shoulder, please?"


"Of course, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Tahata seemed a bit flustered by the request, but the stocky little soldier got himself up onto the veranda and stood near the Prince.

 

The Twilight Prince rested his right hand lightly on Tahata's left shoulder. "Minister Ninori?" The Minister hastily joined the other two men, following at a respectful distance as the Prince steered Tahata toward the entrance to the main reception room of the mansion.


"Is the Most Noble and Revered Prince still feeling ill from his most regrettable experiences?" Ninori asked worriedly. "The inadequate servants of the Most Noble and Revered Prince had heard that the healing had ended."


"Physically, yes, the healing ended days ago," the Prince replied, "although my memories of my captivity remain blocked, so the healing is not yet really complete. My problem is not weakness, but dizziness: the vision on my blind side has been replaced by permanent mage-sight, and the conflicting views are disorienting."


"Understood, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Ninori's tone contained more than a little awe: permanent mage-sight was an attribute ascribed only to the most exalted of the Divine Powers. He was not presuming to use his own mage-sight on the Most Noble and Revered Prince, but could sense the aura of the Manifest Power anyway. It was present as a faint troubling at the edge of his awareness, like distant thunder more felt than heard, wrapping the Most Noble and Revered Prince in a veil of splendor, and adding an additional sheen to the Twilight Prince's clothing.


Inside the reception hall, the Prince paused for a moment next to the dais that made up the northern third of the room. He pointed to the ornate zabuton that was located in the exact center of the dais, then pointed to a location much closer to the edge of the dais. The cushion obediently relocated itself, though he had used no spell or other means of summoning magic. Tahata caught his breath at such casual use of Power, and Ninori stumbled.


The Prince steered Tahata to a zabuton very close to the dais on what would be the right hand side of the room when viewed from the dais. He waved Ninori to the corresponding cushion on the more prestigious left side of the room, then pressed down on Tahata's shoulder. The Prince said firmly, "Senior Commander Tahata will sit here, mmm?"


Tahata sank into the place the Prince had selected for him, and bowed deeply. "As the Most Noble and Revered Prince commands." He glanced worriedly at Minister Ninori, who nodded calmly: Senior Commander of the Armies or not, a peasant did not refuse a direct command from an incarnate deity.


"Good." The Prince stepped onto the dais, carefully turned to face the other two men, and sat on his relocated zabuton. The Prince looked past Tahata, to the open shoji panel that allowed access to the veranda. "Is something wrong, Niwa?" he asked.


The little girl entered the room, carefully holding the Prince's flute in both hands. "The Revered Master's flute was left on the veranda," she said reproachfully.


"So it was. That was very careless of me. Thank you for bringing it." The Prince held out his hand, and the tiny girl carried the flute to him. As she rose from her bow, her eyes focused on the painted walls and panels behind the Prince, who chuckled at the expression on her face. "Awful, isn't it?" he asked cheerfully.


Niwa looked uncertain. "The blue and red and purple bits are all pretty colors by themselves, Revered Master," she finally said politely, "but I don't think they belong next to each other."

 

The Prince nodded. "I agree, and it will be repainted soon, but we need to fix the rooms where people sleep before we worry about changing things here."

 

She nodded vigorously, looking around at the other walls. "I'm sure glad I don't have to sleep here ... all these pictures of fighting and killing would give me bad dreams!"


"Niwa! What are you doing bothering these gentlemen?" An eleven or twelve year old girl paused in the doorway, then hurried to place a tray of tea-making implements beside the Prince. She bowed deeply. "It is sincerely hoped that the Most Noble and Revered Prince is not offended by the child's talking ... "

 

"No, of course not ... " The Prince smiled at her. "Actually I find the smaller children very interesting to talk to, as their comments are not choked by a rampant underbrush of honorifics. They actually use words that talk about things."


"As the Most Noble and Revered Prince ... pleases ... " the older girl's voice trailed off as she realized what she was saying, and she bowed again to hide her blush, then became very busy with the preparation of the tea.

 

When the tea had been served and both girls had left the room, Minister Ninori commented tentatively, "The servants of the Most Noble and Revered Prince seem very young."


The Twilight Prince smiled. "Yes. Well, Kagemitsu happened to encounter the remnants of a clan who had been household attendants to one of the Vacant Clans and recruited them to serve here: two young samurai and about twenty noncombatants of various ages and both sexes. They are working out very well: even the children are very good and helpful, as you have seen ... At the moment all the adults of the household, except myself, are engaged in making some urgently needed repairs to the living quarters, and the older children are helping by running errands and watching the gate and such." He sighed. "I'm afraid the Shirokuras must have had a very hard time after their old Lords died: they all seem terrified of offending me, and even the smallest children are amazingly careful of the things they handle."

 

"Understood, Most Noble and Revered Prince. Unfortunately, the Shirokura clan are not the only ones suffering in the dislocations caused by the plague and invasion. The civil authorities do what we can, but the available resources have limits. It is a relief to learn of a family that has acquired a new lord and a safe haven." Since the Prince had made it clear that he was in a mood for conversation rather than formal protocol, Ninori saw no reason not to oblige him. "May the Most Noble and Revered Prince's servant ask whether this estate has proved completely unsatisfactory?"

 

"Yes, you may ask. And no, it is most certainly not unsatisfactory, not at all. There is nothing wrong here that some repairs and redecoration can't cure, and this way I can change things to suit myself without feeling guilty about marring some exquisite architectural treasure. My great-grandfather, the Late Retired Fire Emperor, did a marvelous job of renovating the Shrine of the Evening Shadows, but even after his death I always felt that I was living in his house, not my own. This place here, six months or a year from now, will be truly mine."


Ninori admired the way the Prince was making the best of the situation, but he thought that the young Noble was being too generous. "Most Noble and Revered Prince, the changes mentioned as desirable seem rather extensive," he suggested worriedly.

 

The Twilight Prince shrugged. "Extensive, but not major, if you catch my meaning: there are no structural problems. The private areas of the house need some repairs to the roofs and shutters, and the bathhouses and outhouses are extremely well equipped with slugs and beetles and centipedes." He shuddered and added quietly, "It's embarrassing: bugs never bothered me before, but I find that I have become quite squeamish about them."


Tahata nodded. "No doubt an effect of the experiences of the Most Noble and Revered Prince in the hands of the enemy," he said comfortingly. "Captain Yokobashi and HorseMaster Aoshiba mentioned similar qualms."


"Really?" The Prince looked down at his hands. "I have not yet read your report, I fear. It seemed wisest to wait until I began remembering on my own. Though it is good to know that I am not being totally foolish."


"Of course not, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Tahata was not sure that it had been wise to mention the Prince's captivity. He asked hastily, "Does the estate lack furnishings or equipment, Most Noble and Revered Prince?"


"No." The Prince chuckled. "Actually, we are very well equipped: Kanehide provided furnishings and decorations for the public areas to suit his own tastes, but he left the private areas of the house alone, and the furnishings of the previous owners were not sold or destroyed, merely stored away. There was quite a bit of good furniture and such in the storehouses. Once the leaks are repaired it will be easy to return the more private areas of the house to their original state of elegance and comfort."


He paused, then added, "I plan to sell or discard most of Kanehide's choices in furnishings. If you know anyone with a taste for polychrome lacquered clothing chests, you might send them around: my tastes in decoration do NOT match those of Kanehide, and I do not want to waste storage space on furniture I think looks vulgar."

 

Ninori and Tahata both chuckled. The Minister looked around, "Well, Most Noble and Revered Prince, if Kanehide's taste in furnishings matches his taste in wall decorations, it may be difficult to find a buyer ... do you suppose he was color-blind?"


"I doubt it," the Twilight Prince replied. "Color-blindness runs in a few Highborn families, and in my experience people afflicted by it generally seek the advice of others so as to avoid accidental vulgarity. In any case, color-blindness would not explain the poor execution of the paintings here. I will have no cause for remorse at having them covered over or removed."


"Most understandable, Most Noble and Revered Prince." Ninori agreed.

 

Tahata asked hesitantly, "Most Noble and Revered Prince, do all of the wall paintings have similar subject matter?"


"Most public rooms in the main reception areas follow the same theme, but the decorations in the inner room off the dais are ... different." The Prince gestured to his left toward the ornate sliding doors of a small inner parlor intended for confidential matters unsuited to the larger audience hall.

 

Ninori's gaze followed the direction of the Prince's gesture thoughtfully. He had heard rumors about those paintings.


"May one inquire as to the subject matter, Most Noble and Revered Prince?" Tahata asked innocently.


The Prince blushed and looked down at his hands again, then waved a hand toward the doors. "See for yourselves. Just make sure none of the children are around ... " As the other two men moved to obey his invitation he added, "And don't ignore the inner side of the sliding doors."


When they returned to their seats, Minister Ninori looked amused and Senior Commander Tahata was actually blushing. The Minister said, "The execution of the paintings in the parlor seems better than that in the battle paintings out here, Most Noble and Revered Prince. It might be possible to sell them to an establishment in the licensed quarter."


"Provided you find one whose proprietor has a taste for fantasy," Tahata added. "I don't think some of those positions are physically possible."


The Prince blushed again, but laughed. "Actually, the guests at some of my late wife's parties managed most of them, but real people look much less dignified doing them than they do in the paintings, especially when they are drunk."

 

Ninori chuckled. Tahata just looked at the Prince for a long moment. "Most Noble and Revered Prince, 'Dignified' is not a term that leaps to mind with respect to those paintings," he said flatly.


The Twilight Prince snickered. "I didn't say the paintings were dignified," he corrected, assuming a very demure tone and expression. "I said that people trying those postures in real life were even less dignified than the paintings."


Tahata and Ninori both chuckled, and accepted more tea, and the conversation turned to the question of what subjects should replace the illustrations of lust and violence that currently filled the rooms of the estate's reception areas. They were interrupted by the reappearance of Hato, the Prince's young gatekeeper.

 

The boy walked carefully to the center of the lower part of the room, knelt, and bowed very low. "The Lord of Clan Tajima has arrived, escorted by Commander Kashimori of the forces of Clan Kawachi," the boy said carefully. "The Lord of Clan Tajima very humbly entreats the Most Noble and Revered Prince to grant him the gracious favor of an audience." Hato stumbled a few times over the phrasing, and it was clear that he had been coached by the new guests.


The Prince turned to Tahata and Ninori. "This sounds serious. If you will excuse me, gentlemen?" The other two men bowed, and hastily took their leave.

 

 

Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso