12 Gossip and Opinions


Urami wabi

Hosanu sode da ni

Aru mono wo

Koi ni kuchinan

Na koso oshikere


(Sagami)

 


"The Most Noble Eminence looks well," Magistrate Suewari commented softly to the Chancellor as they entered the Council chamber together.


Chancellor Tajima agreed. He thought that the Twilight Prince looked better than at any time since the Highborn noble had come to the mundane court: relaxed and confident instead of strained and nervous as he had been when he arrived from the Imperial capital. Perhaps the Prince had even gained back a little more of the weight he had lost during his illness. Since the Prince's expedition to the battle lines had obviously gone well, Tajima wondered why Warlord Isanari looked so worried.


Warlord Isanari had not had time to read Senior Commander Yanagi's full report yet, but the careful wording of her cover letter had filled him with disquiet. He surveyed the Council chamber unhappily as he waited for the rest of the Domain lords to arrive: they seemed to be taking forever. Without actually coming out and saying so, the Noble Lord Miyabe Kagemitsu had made it delicately clear that by the Noble's standards, the mundane court's treatment of the Imperial Prince had been disrespectful to the point of barbarism, so Isanari had been careful to insist that all the lords come in person to hear the Twilight Prince's account of the events at Shimonaga, instead of sending proxies, and he had summoned the senior military officers stationed in the city as well. The Warlord was thoroughly impressed by the Most Noble Eminence, and wished to make that clear. To be perfectly honest, he was also intimidated by the courtier Kagemitsu's flawless good looks and exquisite precision in matters of decorum.

 

Now, Isanari waited as they slowly gathered: Prince, Chancellor, Ministers, Archivist and Magistrate, General and two of the Senior Commanders, the Ladies of Takekura and Saneatsu, Lord Hanemae (decently clad now out of his sister's dower holdings), and the rest: Mikawa, Shimoya, Tominari, Matashige, Koshimae, Toshikawa, Isamame, Yorihata, and Dekumo. The Warlord grimaced slightly as Yoshiatsu and old lord Katafuse came in together. The renewal of Kawachi, Takekura and Saneatsu had shifted the balance within the council enough that now the moderates dominated instead of the reactionaries, but those two remained vehemently unwilling or unable to accept their new lack of power, and seemed viciously intent on disrupting any action by the council that they perceived as a threat.


The most annoyingly unfair thing about the whole situation was the skill with which Tajima handled the intransigents. The Chancellor had somehow become the center and spokesman of the newly dominant moderate faction just as he had previously been the spokesman of the conservatives. Now that they were often arguing the same side of questions in council the Warlord had reluctantly begun to recognize Tajima's patience and subtlety in dealing with the less rational councilors. Warlord Isanari himself simply tended to lose his temper.

 

The Twilight Prince began his report by briefly describing the journey to Shimonaga, and the conditions of the battlefield when he arrived there. The Imperial Mage stated his displeasure with the wastefulness of the battle in such blunt language that General Hanenori turned pale, but Warlord Isanari felt a trickle of hope: wasteful tactics would not concern the Heavenborn Monarch as long as they ended in victory, and the Most Noble Eminence was not an unreasonable man. Perhaps this criticism was all that had led to Yanagi's discreet warning?

 

Isanari's faint moment of hope faded as the Twilight Prince described the events of the battle. Though he sat quite still and did not close his eyes, the Warlord's vision went black momentarily and a great hard lump of pressure filled his chest.

 

He charged the Enemy! Powers and Ancestors, the Most Noble Eminence led a charge directly into the midst of an Enemy force!! -- the Warlord's thoughts yammered. He was quite certain that if the Twilight Prince had suffered so much as a scratch, the Most Revered Heavenborn Monarch would have the all of the Domain Lords executed in ways that would give them cause to envy those unfortunates who fell living into Enemy hands. As his vision cleared, the Warlord saw that certainty reflected on the faces of most of his colleagues. Isanari wondered if even the Chancellor's politic cleverness could find a safe way to phrase their report to the Imperial capital -- he did not really pay attention to the Prince's description of the reconsecration of Shimonaga Shrine.

 

When the Prince's quiet voice stopped, the shaken Warlord bowed very low, along with all the other Councilors, and formally thanked the Most Noble Eminence for his efforts. He apologized profusely for the trouble the Most Revered Imperial Mage had been put to in dealing with matters that should have been dealt with by the Samurai, and could almost see those same words written by an Imperial scribe on the order for his own execution. Isanari shivered at the thought. "Has the Most Noble and Revered Eminence anything further to impart to these wretchedly unworthy servants?" the Warlord finished politely, praying fervently that there would be nothing more.

 

The Twilight Prince looked down at his hands, and said, "Well, actually, there are a few more matters ... " in a very soft voice.

 

Isanari sighed and composed himself to listen, wondering whether they had already heard the worst of it, or if there could possibly be more to come.


"Well, to begin with, one of the Enemy officers returned my stolen horse to me," the Most Noble Eminence said, with a slight edge of hesitation or wariness in his tone.


"Please accept the congratulations of the unworthy servants at the restoration of the Most Noble Eminence property," the Warlord answered promptly. He wondered desperately why the Imperial Prince should be wary about the matter, then remembered their previous conflict about penalizing Clan Tajima. "Does the Most Noble and Revered Eminence desire that the fines assessed against Clan Tajima and the others should be reduced?" he offered.


"Yes," the Prince replied. "At least in the matter of the shrine-building funds. Otherwise, I'll feel obligated to give Lord Tajima the mare that he's paid for, and I really don't want to do that: she's one of my favorites."


"So ordered," the Warlord replied, with a gesture to one of the scribes. The Twilight Prince's tone had been clearly relieved, to Isanari's horror: their previous discussion about Tajima must have convinced the Eminence that his Warlord was so stubbornly vindictive and rude that the Prince had been braced to deal with public insubordination. "Is there any other matter in which these unworthy wretches may serve the Most Noble and Revered Eminence?"

 

"Mmm. I acquired a remarkable naginata -- it appears to be named 'Truth Defender' -- on the battlefield," the Prince began, politely ignoring the way all of the Domain lords flinched at the reminder that he had taken part in the battle. "It is an unusually strong focus for Heavenly Power, but was not looted from any of the shrines on the Imperial register. Please announce its recovery, so that if it was looted from someone's family shrine, they will know where to come to retrieve it ... I plan to use it myself until other owners appear to claim it."


"So ordered," the Warlord said promptly, privately resolving that the Prince would NOT have another opportunity to use the weapon in battle. "Is there anything else, Most Noble and Revered Eminence?"


"Yes, well ... "

 

The Prince hesitated again, longer than he had before mentioning the horse, though he seemed even more pleased about whatever it was. Warlord Isanari swallowed hard, since he was in no mood for surprises, but prompted nervously, "Most Noble Eminence?"

 

The Prince seemed almost reluctant to speak. "Captain Moeri, the son of Senior Commander Tahata is ... under my protection," he said finally, blushing visibly despite the formal makeup he was wearing. He added rather dryly, "I suppose you'd better include that information in your report to the Throne, along with the rest."

 

"As the Most Noble Eminence directs." The Warlord hoped fervently that he managed to keep his face expressionless as he bowed in acknowledgment and the Twilight Prince gracefully made his exit. A part of him wondered frantically what the Heavenborn would think of this response to His instructions to find someone to warm the Prince's bed.

 

The silence following the Prince's exit and the formal ending of the meeting was broken almost immediately by a buzz of conversation as those Lords who did not know what the phrase 'under protection' meant in Noble households were speedily enlightened by those who thought they did.

 

Magistrate Suewari said softly to the Chancellor, "Well, the Eminence's aesthetic sense certainly can't be faulted: first Noble Lord Miyabe, and now the handsome young Captain added to his entourage."


"Mmm," Chancellor Tajima agreed. "And I've heard rumors that the Most Noble Eminence's late wife was a viciously domineering woman. It makes perfect sense that someone recovering from a union with a harridan should be attracted to a very quiet young man.
Especially one who is so ... uh ... "


"Decorative?" suggested the Magistrate with a smile.


"Decorative," the Chancellor agreed. "Yes, Moeri is definitely decorative ... and not being a Noble, he carries relatively little political baggage from the Prince's point of view."


"And, of course," the Magistrate added cheerfully, as they reached the door of the council chamber and turned to go their separate ways, "It's definitely handy that Tahata's family inhabits the estate next door to the Eminence's."


The Chancellor smiled after the younger official, then sighed as he was engulfed by a group of Councilors that included Minister Yoshiatsu, Lord Katafuse, and Senior Commander Mikawa.

 

As they joined Tajima, old Lord Katafuse, his mustache even more frayed looking than usual, was in the midst of a tirade on the shocking deterioration of modern morality, " ... never thought I'd live to see the day when a peasant would dare to look at a Prince of the Imperial Blood, much less have the gall to touch one ... " Several other lords in the group murmured their agreement, and Katafuse continued, speaking louder, "As for the idea of a common peasant having the ... the ... effrontery to sully the Most Noble Eminence's Heaven-descended person with his vulgar, lowborn embrace ... " At a loss for words, Katafuse was reduced to wreaking further havoc on his mustache.

 

Chancellor Tajima carefully kept his expression noncommittal, but it occurred to him that the Most Noble Eminence had hardly acted as though he felt sullied.

 

"It's a great pity that the Eminence's attention should be caught by a worthless nobody," Minister Yoshiatsu agreed avidly, "instead of a young person of appropriate status ... Though of course, Captain Moeri looks a good deal younger than his true age," the Minister added, in a gloating, suggestive tone, "and it's common knowledge that most of the Eminence's personal attendants are very young children ... "


"Brother-in-law ... " Senior Commander Mikawa's horrified plea was almost a moan, and he eyed his kinsman nervously. Even Yoshiatsu's crony Lord Katafuse looked shocked by this implied accusation of perversion in the Prince's household.


"That's quite enough of that sort of talk," Chancellor Tajima said firmly, "You are forgetting yourself, my Lord." When Yoshiatsu stiffened angrily at the rebuke and seemed disposed to argue, the Chancellor added, in a tone of innocent curiosity, "Do you know the penalty for slandering royalty, my lord? Is it counted a worse or a lesser crime than ordinary blasphemy?"

 

Yoshiatsu subsided, but continued to mutter under his breath.

 

Minister Ninori and Archivist Yamashiro walked home with Senior Commander Tahata in order to offer Moeri their congratulations on his good fortune in winning the Prince's favor. The young cavalry Captain, busy arranging to resupply his company and recruiting men to replace their losses, seemed startled by the news that the Twilight Prince had bothered to make public a liaison with a comparative nobody like himself. His pleasure at this evidence of the Most Noble Eminence's regard for him was almost equaled by his embarrassment at being the center of attention.


Moeri became thoroughly annoyed when the conversation turned to the advantages that his family could gain from his union with the Prince. The only advantage he was interested in was the continued opportunity to offer the Most Noble Eminence his devotion. Preferably without harm to his family, of course, but he had no intention of begging the Most Noble Eminence for any favor but that of the Eminence's company. The young Captain gazed at his father pleadingly, and received a reassuring nod in reply.

 

Tahata chuckled and poured more sake for his guests. "Oh as to that, I'm just glad that my son has finally found someone who makes him happy," the stocky ex-peasant said cheerfully. "I wouldn't think of jeopardizing that by asking the Most Noble Eminence for any additional favors. I already owe him my promotion, after all."


Archivist Yamashiro choked on a sip of sake, and Minister Ninori exclaimed, "Don't intend to ask favors of an Imperial son- in-law?!" Both stared at Tahata in disbelief, and Moeri was relieved to escape the focus of their attention.

 

"Not having to worry about an unavoidable summons from a piece of walking slime like Yoshiatsu or Kanehide for Moeri or any of my daughters will be favor enough," Tahata said calmly, "the demands have been getting more explicit, lately, and harder to deliberately misunderstand."

 

The two Samurai Lords exchanged uncomfortable glances, unsettled by the stocky officer's implication. Of course that sort of thing, though officially forbidden, was not terribly uncommon, but they had seldom looked at it from the point of view of the lower classes before. They were relieved when Taka, Moeri's twin, returned to the original subject.

 

"Besides, we need to be careful in dealing with the Most Noble Eminence's household," she said. "We've had enough problems due to the differences between peasant and Samurai customs. Nobles have a still different set of customs, and huge amounts of magical and political Power. Giving offense could get us killed ... or worse."

 

"It's especially confusing that the Most Noble Eminence has invited Moeri to visit him, instead of commanding his attendance," Tahata agreed. "Of course we treat the request as a command, but it still seems odd ... "


"It certainly does!" Yamashiro agreed. "I don't blame you for being cautious."

 

"There is also Noble Lord Miyabe to consider," Taka pointed out. "How do you think the Most Noble Eminence's 'companion' is going to react to this news?"


** *


Kagemitsu had been growing worried about the way the Prince flinched from any suggestion that he should take a lover after his wife's death. Aside from the need for heirs for the line of the Heavenborn -- and now for the clan of Kawachi -- he did not consider celibacy a healthy way of life for an adult human being, Life Mage or otherwise ... though to be honest, he had never tried it himself for any great length of time. The fact that the Twilight Prince had taken Captain Moeri under his protection was a welcome sign of a break in the Prince's isolation. The question of a mother for the Prince's heirs could be left for the future since, in any case, there were no women of suitable rank within several days' journey of Hinamachi.

 

The courtier reacted to the news by teasing his Lord unmercifully, writing a letter to his parents in which he spoke highly of Moeri's good looks and heroism, and rescheduling the renovation of the Twilight Prince's private quarters, which had originally been last on the list. It was all very well for the Eminence to claim that he did not mind their current state: no Imperial Prince was going to entertain a guest surrounded by battered woodwork, frayed tatami mats and dingy wall panels ... not in a household that Kagemitsu was in charge of! Fortunately, tatami mats and shoji paper were easy to replace, and once the fixed walls had received fresh coats of plaster and the sliding panels were recovered with clean paper, the apartments achieved a rustic simplicity of style that made the battered woodwork less objectionable.

 

To his annoyance, the courtier also found it necessary to deal with the reactions of the rest of the household. Most were properly accepting of the Prince's decision to add Captain Moeri to his entourage, but some Kawachi vassals were horrified that the young cavalryman had ever been allowed to approach the Most Noble Eminence. While searching for old Shirokura Nobuharu, the screen painter, to discuss what should be done about the sliding panels in the Prince's quarters, Kagemitsu happened to overhear some bodyguards mention the Most Noble Eminence, and paused on the veranda outside the guardroom.

 

"But Divine Power or no, he's still a Life Mage," one man said angrily, "and everyone knows Life Mages are easy prey in sexual matters."


A quieter voice protested, quite properly, that their Lord had made his own decision.


"You men on duty should have protected the Eminence from being approached by that uppity, peasant-born seducer," the first voice insisted loudly. "Too much to expect a sense of decency from ronin trash ... "


At the sound of swords being loosened in their scabbards, Kagemitsu used his Power to immobilize all of the weapons and stalked into the room. He found HorseMaster Aoshiba and Shirokura Motoharu facing a half dozen men. Seven of the men fell to their knees and bowed deeply as soon as the Mage entered; the eighth was too busy at first, still trying to separate his sword from its scabbard. Kagemitsu recognized TroopMaster Kusano, whom Ninori Kiyoie had beaten at arms practice.

 

"I see that your manners have not improved, TroopMaster," the courtier said coldly, and Kusano flushed deeply and hastily knelt and bowed. "As for the rest of you," Kagemitsu continued, "gossiping about your betters is only to be expected, I suppose ... but the suggestion that a mere Samurai should have the temerity to presume to dictate the private behavior of any Noble, much less an Imperial Prince, is both unacceptable and ludicrous." He paused again, and gently used his Power to stop six sets of ribs from moving for just long enough for the lack of breath to be uncomfortable, then concluded even more gently, "And I can assure you that Aoshiba and Shirokura, at least, are not in danger of becoming ronin at any time in the foreseeable future. As for the rest of you ... " The courtier let his voice trail off, then turned and walked away.


When he received word that Captain Taka had requested an audience, Kagemitsu assumed that she wanted to request some favor for her family. Considering the hostility so many Samurai showed toward Tahata and his household, the courtier did not blame them for taking advantage of their new Imperial alliance. Waiting until a few days after the announcement, and approaching Kagemitsu rather than troubling the Eminence directly, showed a graceful reticence that was more than welcome in his Lord's new connections.

 

The courtier changed into his best semiformal robes for the meeting, to honor Moeri's family, checked hastily to make certain that his makeup was flawless, and received Taka in the room in the family quarters that he was using as his study. Captain Taka herself was wearing formal women's clothing, which was very unusual for her, and when he saw how nervous she was Kagemitsu thought that his best informal robes might have been a wiser choice than the semiformal ones.

 

"How may this insignificant one serve the honorable Captain?" Kagemitsu asked, bowing, and saw the young woman's eyes widen at the formal courtesy.

 

"I ... we ... " Taka stopped, swallowed, took a deep breath, and began again. "It is respectfully hoped that the Most Noble Lord will graciously deign to accept this inadequate token of respect, and will condescend to look upon this unworthy servant's insignificant brother without animosity."

 

She bowed gracefully, and placed a small package on the tatami between them. It proved to contain a quantity of the incense Kagemitsu preferred to use for perfuming his robes, which was not particularly expensive, but unusual and sometimes hard to find. The courtier was impressed. The speech, though clearly rote-learned, had been elegant, and gracefully spoken despite her northern accent; and the gift gave evidence of care and thoughtfulness in its selection.

 

"The Captain seeks assistance from this negligible person for her honored brother?" he said curiously.


Taka bowed again, and said in an urgent, pleading tone, "There was never any intent to encroach upon the Most Noble Lord's position."


"Encroach ... ?" Kagemitsu repeated, blankly. Then he realized that she thought he was the Eminence's lover and feared his jealousy toward her brother. "Oh. You think ... ? No, Captain, I have not been privileged to know the Most Noble Eminence's embrace ... And I am certainly not unhappy that my Lord has finally chosen to take a lover here in Hinamachi," he added feelingly. "Celibate Life Mages are not quite a contradiction in terms, but they ought to be."


"This servant has mage-sight, Most Noble Lord," Taka protested politely, "Enough to see how closely the Most Noble Lord and the Most Noble and Revered Eminence are linked."


"My mother was privileged to serve as wet-nurse to the Most Noble Eminence," Kagemitsu explained, "and I was raised to be his attendant and companion -- almost a foster-brother. We are also some sort of cousins, of course ... most Nobles are some sort of cousins of each other."


Taka offered hesitantly, "The General once said that the family tree of the Most Noble Eminence looked more like a family fishnet," and was relieved when the forbiddingly formal courtier laughed delightedly.

 

"Oh, it's much worse than that," Kagemitsu said cheerfully. "After all, you can draw a fishnet on a single sheet of paper without the threads looking tangled ... Come, my dear, since it seems that we are now both connected to that same fishnet, let's have a cup of tea and do some serious gossiping about this situation."

 

"As the Noble Lord wishes." Taka made sure the tea implements were between her and Kagemitsu when she sat down. Clearly she had heard that particular, inviting tone of voice before, and he was, after all, a Noble, and living in the same house as an active Life Mage. The courtier smiled to himself: at least she was reacting to him as a man, now, not as a demon of some sort.


"Exactly what is it you wish to know, dear Captain?" the courtier asked when they had both been served.


"May one ask what is the Eminence's intent toward my brother?" Taka answered quietly.


"Shared pleasure, of course, so long as both are willing," the courtier replied, "and shared friendship, or at least the promise of the Eminence's support, even if passion should fade." He paused as a thought struck him, and added, "If you're worried about the future of your family's line, you needn't be. The Most Noble Eminence would not think of stopping Tahata's heir from fathering heirs of his own. Though he would be hurt if your brother tried to do so surreptitiously."

 

Taka looked skeptical, and the courtier hastened to add, "I assure you, my dear, it is considered quite crass and inelegant to prevent one's same sex consorts from continuing their lines. The fertility of one's consorts is generally considered to reflect the ... potency? ... of the head of the household. My own parents were the Mirror Consort and a Lady of the Chamber of the Late Retired Fire Emperor."

 

Taka, looking a bit shocked, took a breath to speak, but the courtier raised a warning hand. "I should, perhaps, point out that I am related to the Late Retired Fire Emperor, the Most Noble Eminence's Great-grandfather, in exactly the way that the present Most Noble and Revered Heavenborn Monarch is related to the Late Air Emperor, the Most Noble Eminence's Grandfather. My mother is a merchant's daughter, however, and the Most Honored Mother of the Most Noble and Revered Heavenborn Monarch was a Princess."


"Oh," Taka said thoughtfully. "Thank you for the warning, Noble Lord ... I assume that being 'under protection' counts lower than being a consort or a ... "


"A chamberlain," Kagemitsu finished for her. "Yes. Consorts and chamberlains are part of the household. When a commoner is publicly 'under the protection' of a Noble it means just that, which can be important when the Nobles in Amekudare no Miyako are feuding. Commoners without acknowledged protectors can be very ... vulnerable targets." Kagemitsu's eyes and voice had become distant and he shivered slightly as he spoke the last words.

 

The beautiful Noble shook his head as if to dispel an unpleasant vision, then continued calmly, "Here in Hinamachi, where there are only a few Nobles, that's less of a consideration."

 

Taka sipped at her tea thoughtfully. "I see." After a few minutes of thought, she added doubtfully, "Do Highborn really bother to marry people of their own sex? No one but the strictest monastic orders worries much about some shared pleasure between friends ... but marriage?"

 

"The most Powerful ones do," Kagemitsu assured her, "and lesser Nobles try to imitate them, if they can afford such a large household. From ancient times it has been considered appropriate for the inner household of a great mage to include representatives of all of the five lines of Power: Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Life; but it is also considered ... imprudent ... to risk conceiving a child with a consort whose line is the same as either of one's own parents, so Great Consorts of those lines are usually the same sex as the head of the household. Though since all of the marriages are political, the actual relations between the head of household and any of the Great Consorts may be purely social and magical, not sexual."

 

Captain Taka shook her head in wonder. "It sounds complicated."

 

"Oh, it gets worse," Kagemitsu assured her cheerfully. "One's official line of Power is inherited from one's mother, but doesn't always match the type of Mage one is, so some households look balanced on paper, but are not in reality. My father is a Life Mage, like the Most Noble Eminence, but born of the line of Fire, and thus was accounted a suitable Mirror-Consort for the Late Retired Fire Emperor."


"Stop, please. I think I'm getting a headache," Taka protested, laughing. "It's no wonder the family tree of the Most Noble Eminence is so tangled."


Kagemitsu joined her laughter, and poured them both some more tea. "The basic rule for a commoner dealing with Nobles is: don't inconvenience the Lord. The ramifications depend on the Lord, but the Most Noble Eminence has a horror of taking advantage of people, and a great respect for honesty, so as long as Moeri doesn't do anything blatantly, deliberately insulting, things should be all right. Also, your brother should definitely give his responsibilities as an officer priority above the Eminence's invitations."

 

"The Noble Lord is certain?" Taka's tone mixed surprise and relief. Perhaps she had been troubled by visions of her brother being turned into some useless harem ornament.


"Oh, yes," the courtier replied emphatically. "The Most Noble Eminence takes duty, and the need to deal with this invasion, very seriously."


A day or two later, Moeri finished refitting his company and went back to the battle lines, causing great confusion and enormous amounts of speculation. Some believed that the Prince must have already tired of his whim in choosing Moeri, others that the peasant-born officer must have given offense in some way. A few actually believed that the Twilight Prince considered the progress of the war and Moeri's duties in the army to be more important that his own convenience, and that he had watched his lover leave with regret. Somewhat to his surprise, Chancellor Tajima found himself in the third group.

 

 

Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso