Social warfare and cutthroat politics, brought to you by the results of our 2011 Costume Contest winners, Kristin Markert and Lene Jakobsen.
Darlings of the Court
By Yoon Ha Lee
Edited by Fred Wan
The Imperial Governor’s Court
Shosuro Chiharu did not ordinarily pay a great deal of attention to the decor in the Imperial Governor’s court, although the grand stone vases of jungle flowers were a nice touch. Today she was not providing music for the delectation of the Governor and her guests, as usual, but mingling. It was nice to remember how to mingle once in a while. Her mother–thankfully safely ensconced in Scorpion lands–might even have approved.
“Now there’s a fashion choice you don’t see every day,” said her current hanger-on, Kuni Itsuki. Itsuki wasn’t a bad sort, for a shugenja, and especially for a Kuni. He could hold up his end of a conversation on harmonic tempo in Genji-era court compositions, which was more than Chiharu could say for most shugenja, even if she had had to teach him all of it herself.
“Which one?” Chiharu said, but she caught sight of the object of Itsuki’s interest before he answered. A Dragon woman with one shoulder bare, although that wasn’t surprising in the Colonies and it was even less surprising when the Dragon in question was showing off a particularly elaborate dragon tattoo on said shoulder. That wasn’t, however, what was causing the gathered officials and functionaries to murmur to each other.
The Dragon was wearing two fashion accessories that were odd even by the standards of the Colonies. The first was a belt made of, there was no other word for it, rope. But it was rope cunningly knotted and embellished, the kind of thing a Mantis sailor might make in their spare time to while away the time. The second was a poncho of sheerest oiled silk over the more usual modified kimono. When the Dragon turned to face one of her listeners, Chiharu even got a look at its hood, which folded becomingly over her back and was embellished with a border of embroidery in yellow and vivid green.
Chiharu had to admire the Dragon’s daring at coming so attired to court proper. Otomo Suikihime was something of an original thinker herself, but she could also be capricious, and her capriciousness had a distinct cruel streak. Still, the fact that she hadn’t already instructed one of her pet courtiers to ridicule the Dragon was a promising sign.
Besides, Chiharu had been bored with court lately, and the promise of something new and delicious made her smile. “Fetch her for me, will you, Itsuki-san?” she said. “There was this particular type of jaw-harp that I wanted to ask you about, but I simply must satisfy my curiosity about this woman first.”
To Chiharu’s surprise, the Kuni made no protest. It looked like he had questions of his own. He nodded to her and waded into the crowd. Chiharu was left admiring the flowers, and thinking that if the jungle weren’t so full of things that liked to sting, bite, and prickle, the Colonies would be much more popular. She had a few insect bites that were still bothering her despite the lotions she had applied in the morning.
Interesting: the Dragon had some story that she insisted on telling to a mixed group of Spider, Lion, and Unicorn. The two Spider looked thoughtful, the single Lion was clearly looking for a way to beat a retreat to friendly territory, and at least two of the three Unicorn were smitten with the Dragon’s winsome smile and easy laughter. Even a passing Crane was drawn into the story and spent a few minutes exchanging witticisms with her. The fact that the Dragon could play to such a diverse audience made her both intriguing and dangerous.
It’s just as well I’m only a musician, Chiharu thought, amused. Which wasn’t precisely true, but it was how Suikihime’s court thought of her. Chiharu did her best to foster this belief. After all, sometimes an eccentric Scorpion musician was just an eccentric Scorpion musician, not a spy for the Scorpion delegation’s head.
The Dragon eventually came their way. Kuni Itsuki was being unusually attentive to her remarks. He was also frowning, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign. It was more of an “I must bring her back to my laboratory” frown than a “This person is a waste of my time” frown, an important distinction to learn when dealing with Kuni. Thankfully, he subsided without being prompted when the Dragon came close by.
“I absolutely had to tell you how charmed I am by your attire,” Chiharu said. Her profession didn’t always give her the opportunity to be completely honest. She treasured such moments when they arose. “Might I be honored by your name, Tamori-san?”
The Dragon’s smile was becomingly shy. “The honor is mine, Shosuro-san. I have heard such wonderful things of your performances and hope to attend one someday. I am Tamori Sumire. There’s a story behind the clothes, if you care to hear it.”
“I was hoping for nothing less,” Chiharu said. Itsuki was even doing a good job covering what had to be his boredom with the topic. The man was coming along nicely, no doubt about it.
“I have been listening to the most delightful stories of our brave warriors’ exploits in the unfamiliar wilderness,” Sumire said. “Just the other week, someone brought my attention to the daring of one Tsuruchi Kosoko. During a particular expedition into contested territory–”
This had to be a delicate way of saying “yet another spat between the Crane and the Mantis that neither is owning up to in public.” At least the unconventional Dragon had some minimal sense of discretion.
“–Kosoko found herself menaced by Ruhmalites. They had laid traps in the area, thinking to take advantage of the occasional high spirits that occur between the honorable samurai of our clans.” The twinkle in Sumire’s eyes was definitely mischief. “Kosoko felled three of the cultists with her magnificently accurate arrows, but fell into a pit while evading their daggers. Only by the greatest athleticism did she manage to avoid being spitted on snake-shaped spikes. Or possibly spike-shaped snakes.”
Sumire’s tale went on in this vein for some time. Chiharu was engrossed and even caught herself wondering if a musical composition might capture some of heart-thudding perils of the adventure. The governor might be in the mood for such a diversion in the near future, and if not, well, there were her other patrons.
“In any case,” Sumire was saying, “as a Mantis, our brave heroine had a rope at hand, and this allowed her to climb safely out of the crevasse.” She smiled suddenly. “I know that at occasions like this one, many samurai are thinking of fashion rather than practicality, but it occurred to me that the two could be combined.”
Before Chiharu could voice a protest, Sumire reached down and yanked on one of the knots. The entire rope belt came apart and landed in neat coils at her feet, rattling a little as some of the decorative beads chattered. Thankfully, Sumire wasn’t entirely stupid: she had a thin sash of raw silk underneath the rope belt, which remained safely tied.
“It’s a simple enough trick,” Sumire said at Chiharu’s raised eyebrows. “But surely, it could never hurt to have an easily accessed, out-of-the-way rope-belt for any jungle sojourns one might have in mind.”
“Yes, do demonstrate the trick, Sumire-san,” Itsuki said, with the air of a man who has already figured it out.
It turned out that the rope-belt was, indeed, simply secured with a particular series of knots. “Here, you try it,” Sumire said cajolingly, despite Chiharu’s attempts–admittedly not very strenuous–to demur. “First it goes like so, and then–”
The results were slightly lopsided, but Chiharu thought the rope-belt was surprisingly fetching. It would look even better dyed in red to match her kimono, but the Dragon could hardly have been expected to bring spares in other clans’ colors for demonstration purposes.
“This is all very well,” a dry voice said, “for children who think that this strange land is the seat of their hearts, but surely true Rokugani have no need to chase after such oddities.” The speaker was aPhoenixwoman, one that Chiharu had only seen occasionally at the Governor’s court. There was a small contingent ofPhoenixand Crane with her.
“Yes, Isawa-san,” Sumire said, in a tone of voice no one could have faulted, “I often lie awake wondering if the Empire will be undone by a bit of rope and a scrap of cloth. But surely Rokugani hearts are not so easily corrupted. My faith in the Empress is stronger than that, thankfully. I cannot question her wisdom in sending our people here.”
Itsuki, displaying more acumen than Chiharu would have credited him from, cut in so that his back blocked thePhoenix’s view of Sumire. The kind of thing one would expect a Crab to do. As Chiharu had learned, you sometimes had to watch out for the Crab in court. They weren’t so stupid as to be unaware of their reputation for boorishness, and some of them were happy to use that reputation offensively.
“Forgive me for monopolizing your attention,” Itsuki said, a little too loudly, “but I am overcome with curiosity about the uniqueness of your perfume.” Some of the listeners laughed quietly, behind their fans. “My interest is purely professional, I assure you. I trained with the Tamori during my youth, and I have the greatest respect for their alchemical abilities. I was wondering if the blend was one of your own?”
Chiharu blinked: Sumire was nodding wisely at the Kuni. “It’s not
mine,” she said, “but there’s a story behind that, too.”
“Might it have something to do with the fact that you are one of the few people at court who doesn’t have any visible insect bites?” Itsuki said.
I must learn to stop underestimating the Kuni, Chiharu noted.
ThePhoenixwas saying something unflattering in a low voice. Chiharu caught the eye of a Crane who owed her a few favors: she had decided that she wanted to cultivate this Dragon after all, and it wouldn’t do to have a little nasty gossip spoil things from the start. The Crane gave her a rueful smile of acknowledgment, and began his own conversation with thePhoenix. Chiharu caught the word “curry” and hid a smile.
“Do share the story,” Itsuki said to Sumire.
“I had the great fortune of spending some time under the tutelage of Tamori Shimura-sama,” Sumire said. “When I wrote to him about the tormenting insect bites that so many of us are suffering from, he said that there might be an alchemical solution.” She grinned suddenly. “I was the one who suggested that the solution ought to take the form of a perfume. I am afraid that his response to this idea is frankly unrepeatable in such august company as this, but eventually I was able to persuade him that it might be worth a try.”
“I’m aware of Tamori-sama’s reputation,” Itsuki said, very dryly. “But then, I suppose it is no surprise that someone as charming as yourself would be able to get him to see that courtiers would be more likely to take interest in a perfume than a smoke-bomb.”
“I’m sure it depends on the courtier,” Chiharu said, and Sumire laughed. “All right, since Itsuki-san isn’t going to ask, I will. Was the poncho also your idea?”
“I can’t claim any such credit,” Sumire said. “Rather, some of the Mantis and Unicorn explorers had devised the garment. I’m honestly not sure who came up with it first. But if you make it out of cloth treated properly, it is very handy against sudden rainfalls.”
“I daresay I usually carry an umbrella,” Chiharu said, “but then out in the jungle that might be more of an encumbrance.” She didn’t mention the other uses to which one could put an umbrella, especially if one were a Scorpion. There was no need to be trite.
“We could add that to the ensemble,” Sumire said. “Call it your contribution.”
Chiharu’s mouth curved. “I think you’re going to turn this court on its head, Sumire-san. I have visions of legions of stalwart explorers going forth in ponchos and rope-belts.”
“Surely there are worse fates for us out here, Shosuro-san,” Sumire said, the corners of her eyes crinkling.
Susumu Toshiyuki kept telling himself that he was going to get used to the outlandish decorations that their Unicorn allies had festooned Shiro Ide with, but it was the second day of Winter Court and he suspected it was going to be a few days yet. It wasn’t precisely that he faulted the Unicorn shugenja. But he had made the mistake of delegating the matter to one of his younger cousins, Kineiko, on account of her eagerness, and she had apparently been easily swayed by the friendly, helpful, and eccentric Ide.
It had come as a both a surprise and a triumph to the Spider when the Empress had declared that this year’s Winter Court was to be hosted by their clan. Even the daimyo had not dared hope that this day would come so soon, for all her conniving. It wasn’t any secret that the Spider were a little short on suitable locations, and no one reasonably expected the Empress to travel to Spider holdings in the Colonies.
This had led directly to the current arrangement with the Unicorn. Thankfully Moto Naleesh was a more accommodating soul. Toshiyuki had not been present at the negotiations that led to the use of Shiro Ide, but he supposed there had been some good reason for it.
Of course, that had also led to the startling profusion of meishodo decorations: pinwheels that spun themselves in bright clusters of eight, lanterns that threw shadow-plays across beautifully wrought paper screens inked with tasteful cobweb designs, eight-petaled flowers that swayed in absent breezes. His cousin had, at least, prevented the Unicorn from including meishodo spiders. Some of the more delicate courtiers presents would probably have found that objectionable, especially if the spiders scuttled.
He had been in the middle of giving smiling assurances to an elderly Lion courtier when he saw the Crab. Again. Her name was Kuni Itsuko. She was dressed with a kind of understated elegance that you didn’t normally see in her family. That obi, for instance: Toshiyuki knew enough about embroidery to know that the cavorting carp motif had probably taken hours upon hours to render in such close, precise stitches. And her hair, which was cut just so. He was tempted to tell some of his cousins to take notes.
Itsuko was currently speaking to a pair of Scorpion, but it was no surprise to see a Crab getting along so well with them. Toshiyuki kept from gritting his teeth. He knew all too well the kinds of trouble that the Scorpion had been causing for the Spider in the Colonies: territorial claims contested, obfuscated reports, paperwork gone missing, every kind of annoying stinging trick. The reports from the Colonies claimed that the Scorpion had so far avoided leaving anything useful in the way of evidence, but sooner or later they would slip up and there would be a reckoning before the Empress herself. Until then, he could only watch for clues and needle the Scorpion in whatever small ways presented themselves.
As for Itsuko, she had been both extremely busy and extremely popular the entire first day. It was amazing that she hadn’t fallen down from exhaustion halfway through. But she seemed to know a great deal about what was going on in the Colonies, and almost every conversation the other Susumu reported to him from that quarter involved the distressing implication that the Colonies existed as primarily as a resource for the Empire proper.
Interesting: a Unicorn courtier had attempted to catch the Crab’s attention–judging by her gestures, she was complimenting Itsuko on one of her jade netsuke–but Itsuko made a graceful demurral and headed for Toshiyuki himself. Oh, she didn’t take a straight path by any means. She availed herself of some sesame cookies on the way, and paused to flirt outrageously with some Crane. Toshiyuki had mixed feelings about the cookies. Almost everyone loved them and had been complimenting both the Unicorn and the Spider about them; they were a Unicorn treat, not a Spider one, but the co-hosting business meant people were playing it safe. However, the cookies were made with honey and had an unfortunate tendency to stick to your teeth. He had only had one before deciding to avoid them.
Toshiyuki could have made himself hard to reach. It wouldn’t have been difficult to duck into the conversation going on just behind him. If he was understanding the participants correctly, it was a discussion of the way the engagement between the Unicorn and Dragon champions had ended, except they had coded it as a debate on the merits of different styles of landscaping. The real topic was a very risky one to venture near in Unicorn lands now of all times, but by the same token maybe the Crab would hesitate to involve herself.
Instead, Toshiyuki turned and gave Kuni Itsuko a warm smile as she approached him. “Kuni-san,” he said. “Is anything amiss? I assure you that I will do my best to remedy any deficiencies of hospitality.”
“Susumu-san, I could hardly accuse such a gracious host of such a thing,” Itsuko said.
She was exactly as well-spoken as his earlier eavesdropping had suggested. Someone had mentioned that she was the daughter of a man with Scorpion blood; perhaps that explained her adroitness in court.
“I have been telling every Unicorn I can find that everyone should be so lucky as to co-host an event like this with them,” she went on. “Of course, the Spider are the luckiest of all, are they not? Opportunities to work with them must abound in the Colonies.”
There was no way this conversation was going in a good direction. Still, best to let this play out and see where it went. “We are all bound by the Empress’s will,” Toshiyuki said in his best humble voice, which wasn’t very. “I understand you have a particular interest in the Colonies?”
“Naturally,” Itsuko said. “How could one but fail to have an interest in something of such pressing concern to the Empire? It’s already clear that the idea of having access to such extensive resources far from the homeland will require a great deal of adjustment on the part of many people here.”
“Have you had the opportunity to visit the Colonies yourself, Kuni-san?” Too bad he couldn’t have her shipped off, but he already had the feeling that his kinsmen in theSecondCitywouldn’t thank him for it.
“I hope to go one of these days,” Itsuko said, lowering her eyelashes demurely, “but my parents are anxious for my safety.”
Because Winter Court is so much safer? Toshiyuki couldn’t help thinking. Time to push a little, except they were interrupted by a Kitsu. He recognized her as the magically gifted daughter of a minor daimyo. Not really a prestigious friend to have, but maybe the Crab believed in taking allies where she could find them.
“There you are, Itsuko-san,” the Kitsu said with a quick and blindingly sincere smile at Toshiyuki. “I am so sorry to interrupt, but I needed to beg a favor.”
“Do tell, Nagaia-san,” Itsuko said. “It is always pleasant to help one’s friends.”
“I am having the most dreadful time convincing my brother to come talk to a very nice Ide woman I have met,” the Kitsu said. “I think they would get along very well, and then we could talk to our parents about whether the match would be suitable. They have been tearing their hair out about the matter.”
“What a refreshingly direct approach to courtship, Kitsu-san,” Toshiyuki said. “By all means, I can wait until later to finish my conversation with Itsuko-san.” Almost certainly not what she wanted, since she had sought him out herself. How would she respond?
Kitsu Nagaia blushed prettily. “Oh, I couldn’t do any such thing, Susumu-san! My brother is holed up in his accommodations. But Itsuko-san, if you could stop by later today–say after dinner–he is certain to take what you say about the matter very seriously.”
“Is this Ide woman so very suitable?” Itsuko said teasingly.
“They have identical taste in meditation bowls,” Nagaia said. “If that isn’t a sign from the blessed ancestors by this point, I don’t know what it is.”
“I’ll stop by for certain, Nagaia-san,” Itsuko said.
“I am in your debt,” Nagaia said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Itsuko said, and turned back to Toshiyuki as the Kitsu stepped away through the crowd. “I have not have the opportunity to speak to many of your clansmen about the situation in the Colonies. But I understand that, as with the Lion and thePhoenix, a certain territoriality is informing your approach?”
Toshiyuki considered this. It wasn’t often that he heard his clan compared to either the Lion orPhoenix, and he hoped she hadn’t been overheard by anyone who took offense easily. “How so, Kuni-san?”
Her eyes were innocent in that way that meant she wasn’t innocent in the slightest. “I’ve heard some distressing reports that the Spider are having difficulty laying claim to the lands that are theirs by right.”
“‘Territoriality’?” Toshiyuki said, trying to figure out what she was getting at.
“Well,” Itsuko said with a shrug, “none of us expects to keep those lands in the long term, do we? After all, they are really gaijin lands and we are no gaijin. That means it’s necessary to get what benefit we can from them in the moving present, and that in turn means that all of us have claims that are correctly recognized by all the others.”
It didn’t please him that an upstart Crab courtier was so determined to pry into the Spider’s difficulties with what amounted to bureaucracy. “You’re not saying anything that’s any secret to any of us,” Toshiyuki said deprecatingly.
“I must confess that this wouldn’t even have reached my attention if not for a few discreet words I had with some of the Unicorn,” Itsuko said.
Wonderful. Well, no one ever said that discretion was one of the Unicorn Clan’s known traits. After all, everyone remembered the old story of that Unicorn who had committed seppuku after the Scorpion tricked the clan into revealing a secret spell. He bet that if he dug a little, he would even find out that she had, in fact, had that conversation with certain Unicorn.
“Trifles of paperwork,” Toshiyuki said. “Nothing for you to concern yourself about.”
Itsuko smiled with the side of her mouth. It was unexpectedly appealing. “Oh,” she said, in a voice that was neither too loud nor too low, “it’s hardly nothing, Susumu-san. The Crab have had certain difficulties with ‘trifles of paperwork’ ourselves. Surely we could assist each other in this matter?”
He gave her a long look. ”I find it difficult to believe that your people, who are not exactly known for their affection for my people, would be interested in such an arrangement.” Besides, the whole thing had to be a trap.
On the other hand, it was true that every third sentence in the Spider reports from the Colonies seemed to curse at the paperwork problems. He would gain much favor with his daimyo if he could resolve the matter.
“Let me be frank, Susumu-san,” Itsuko said. Always a terrifying statement when coming from a Crab. “We are not friends and we will never be friends, but the Crab need everything we can pull from the Colonies and you are, shall we say, not our current target.”
“Good to know,” Toshiyuki murmured.
“While you are busy hacking at Ruhmalites in the former Ivory Kingdoms,” she said, “we have not one but two Walls to maintain. It would be best if we didn’t get in each other’s way, wouldn’t you say?”
“There is a certain logic to your position,” he said. “All right. Let’s talk later, say after you have dealt with that small but charming matter of a bashful Kitsu.”
She smiled brightly at him and gave him a small bow before heading away.
Not long afterwards, his cousin Kineiko came up to him. “I think you should be more careful with that Kuni, Toshiyuki-kun,” she said, looking anxiously around as if Kuni Itsuko would materialize out of a paper screen and hit her on the head with a tetsubo. “They said she had a falling out of some sort with Kuni Renyu-sama, you know, and that she is trying to get back in his good graces.”
“Really,” Toshiyuki said. It was possible that this was Itsuko’s cover story and that she was trying to play the Spider on Renyu’s behalf, except was Renyu capable of that level of subtlety? The man had never struck Toshiyuki as one with much patience for political games. “Don’t fret yourself about it, Kineiko-chan. I have the matter well in hand.”
Discuss the events of this fiction in our Story Forum!