In the morning, the entire complex was in an uproar. Servants were running around talking loudly, cleaning the courtyards and all the rooms. In the kitchen there was an indescribable agitation, as the men and women were cooking and getting all the dishes ready for the banquet. Nothing and no one was speared from this uproar.
Ayame woke up and slowly slid the doors open. The noise made by all the women talking all at once and the flutter of colors while they were trying to get all her clothes ready, made Ayame take a step back, feeling dizzy.
- What is going on? she muttered to herself trying to hide back in her room, but the main lady in waiting saw her.
- I see you are awake, Princess, the old woman said. Perfect. Now come with me, we have to get you ready.
- Ready? Ready for what, Ayame protested.
- For the banquet of course. You wouldn’t want to appear looking like that, would you now?
In a moment of consciousness, Ayame looked down at her clothes. Her dress, though clean, was completely wrinkled. She remembered falling asleep on the floor. And her hair didn’t feel right either. All her braids were loose and wild strings stuck out from them.
- The Emperor orders were to have you ready for tonight, Princess. You must look your best, the maid continued, slightly puffing up, both for the pride of your grandfather, as well as for your own pride as a woman.
- Yes, you’re right, Ayame replied in a submissive tone. It’s not right for a Princess to look like this.
- Indeed, the woman huffed. Now come with me and let’s get you clean. And all of you, she turned yelling at the women gather there, you’d better finish cleaning here before I come back.
Everyone nodded and bowed in respect. Even though she was old, Chio demanded respect from all the servants in the Princess’s household. She was the oldest in the Emperor’s service and she was also the one who took care of the late Princess when she came into the Palace.
When Ayame’s mother, Princess Sumie, first entered the Palace, she was one year younger than Ayame was now. At barely sixteen years old, she was married to the Emperor’s only son and gave birth to her daughter one year later. Chio couldn’t forget that moment when she first saw the scared looking Sumie. She wasn’t tall, nor very beautiful, but something in her eyes made her look determined and unbending. Her daughter inherited that trait from her. No matter how scared she would get, Ayame, just like her mother, would send sparks through her eyes.
Now, having to take care of her daughter, made Chio feel very old. Many years had passed since the Crown Prince and Princess died but their memory was still alive. In order to shake off the shadows of the past and stay in the present, old Chio shook her head and tried to focus on young Ayame. She took the young Princess into the bath house, which was situated in the North-East corner of the complex. There she made her soak in hot perfumed water. The servant girls then washed and scrubbed her skin until it was shiny and pink. Only then Ayame was allowed to step out of the bath.
- You are as ruthless as a general, Chio-san, Ayame complained while the servants dried her newly washed body.
- I am just following the Emperor’s orders, Chio huffed. You remind me of your mother whenever you complain like this.
- My mother? Tell me more about her, Chio-san, Ayame pleaded.
- Oh, why did I have to open my mouth. I didn’t want to bring up the past, Chio scolded herself.
- My grandfather refuses to tell me anything about her or about my father, Ayame continued as if she didn’t hear what Chio said. Sometimes I believe he hated her…
- Oh, nonsense child. He didn’t hate her.
Chio took a deep breath and sat down on the floor. She was tired. Tired of the memories and of all the years she had witnessed.
- The Emperor loved your mother, she eventually said. Soon after she came into the Palace it was obvious to anyone who had eyes to see how much he loved her. Some say that he loved her even more than his own son. Foolish of course, but people like to talk.
She took another break as if trying to recollect something, then continued.
- Sometimes he would have to come between your mother and father.
- Come between them? But why?
- They loved each other very much, but sometimes they would get into an argument. Your mother advised your father to try and be closer to the people, while your father thought it was better to study and learn how to govern from the great minds of the past. In these moments, your grandfather would step in. Calmly trying to reason with them both, he would show them how balance was the better choice in governing. A ruler who doesn’t know his people will never know how to govern and one who doesn’t know how to write will never be able to write good laws for his people, he used to tell them. And every time they would see the reason in his words.
- So mother and father quarreled…
- They were minor debates and every time they ended up agreeing with each other’s point of view. They realized that they were both right, just the perspective was always different. Your father lived in the Capital and never traveled, while your mother was not from here. She had the opportunity to see more of the world than he did. Sometimes I think this is the reason why your grandfather didn’t want your father to marry any other noblemen’s daughter. Having someone with a different perspective by your side, can make you grow and mature as a leader. But this is just an old woman talking. What do I know about these things.
Chio sighed deeply and stood up. Ayame was being dressed with a pure white kimono, tied loosely around the waist with a white belt. It was custom for the Princess to visit the Dragon King’s shrine in the eve of a great event.
As soon as the preparations were done, Ayame and her escort of servants went to the shrine. This was placed in the North, surrounded by a small pond with only one way of access. A small wooden bridge crossed the water and ended right in front of a line of steps. The shrine had only one level but it was tall and its surface quite big. Everything was made out of wood, from the steps to the roof. Beautiful carvings decorated each wall. One big golden dragon went across the roof and another pair stood guard at the entrance, one on each side of the stairs.
Inside the shrine there were two rooms. The first was the main hall. This section held ceremonies and it was the only space in which people outside of the imperial family were allowed to enter. It contained just one small altar, where priests would burn incenses during official ceremonies. Behind this stood the second room. This is where the sanctuary of the Dragon King was. Hidden behind large wooden doors, this space was smaller than the front hall and held only one golden statue, one of a soaring reptile-like dragon. Its rear feet and tail stood on the floor, while its body stretched up to the ceiling. There, its head and front legs turned to the ground in an arch. The head looked menacing, with big round eyes, bared fangs and two long strands coming down from under its nose.
Ayame entered the first room and kneeled before the altar. All the other women remained at the entrance, kneeled and with their heads bowed. The atmosphere was quiet and almost relaxed. Ayame was very used to this temple. Ever since she was a child she had used this place as a hideout when she wanted to escape her teachers. The only one who knew where to find her was her grandfather. Somehow, he always knew where she was. One day she even fell asleep in the second room, right under the statue. Her grandfather found her as usual but didn’t wake her up. When she opened her eyes, he was sitting right next to her, reading a book. She smiled at the memories. Even without her parents. she didn’t have a bad childhood and she was grateful for it. She placed both her hands on the floor and bended over until her forehead touched the floor.
- Thank you Dragon King, she said in a low voice. Thank you for taking care of my grandfather and for protecting me. Please give us strength from now on as well.
She then raised her head and took a deep breath.
- It’s time to go Chio-san. I need to get ready for this evening.
- Yes, Princess, Chio nodded.
Everyone got to their feet and bowed one more time before leaving the shrine. The weather was sunny but rather cold. It was still January and the sun didn’t have enough strength. Luckily there was no wind and that made the temperature more bearable. But as she was wearing only a thin kimono, Ayame soon got cold, so she increased the pace until she reached her chambers.
There, in the comforts of her room she was taken care of by her servants, led by the rigorous Chio. Her body was first perfumed with cherry blossoms fragrance and then attentively dressed, each layer of clothing carefully placed one on top of each other. Her long black hair was brushed and oiled, then braided and tied up in a round shape. Ornaments and hair pins where used to decorate that hairstyle. When everything was done Chio sent the servants away and remained alone with Ayame.
- You look beautiful, Princess.
In the meantime, the ceremonial hall was ready for the banquet. Small wooden tables were placed across the walls and each one had a pillow behind it. Servants were standing outside, waiting for orders and beautifully dressed women were sitting on the floor inside the hall, ready to serve the drinks. The Emperor was sitting on his high podium at the far end of the room. To his left, there was an empty space and then came Nomiya. Bellow, all his ministers and courtiers were placed face to face, in two lines across the hall. When Kenji and Shin entered, the Emperor smiled and invited them to sit to his right. In order to reach the podium, they had to cross the entire hall, right between all the people gathered there.
As Regent, Kenji stepped first, followed closely by Shin. As it was expected, everyone stopped whatever they were doing and watched them curiously. Without being intimidated, Kenji continued to walk slowly, thus showing his respects to the gathering and to the Emperor. For this special occasion he chose a dark blue kimono, with a white belt. Small silver flowers were portrait on the fabric, making it look like a starry sky. The sleeves were large and so long that they slightly covered his fingers. Both of them, as well as the bottom of the kimono, ended in silver white streaks. His hair was pulled up in the middle of the head and was simply tied up with a silver ornament, representing a dragon having a pin going through his front claws. Shin chose a black kimono with white belt and endings. His hair was tied up in the same way as Shin’s but with a black dragon instead of a silver one. When reaching the Emperor, they bowed and waited for the Emperor’s permission to sit down.
- Please, sit down, he told them gesturing to his right. We were all waiting for you.
They bowed their heads once more before taking their place. Kenji sat on the podium beside the Emperor, with Shin to his right. The ministers were once more engaged in their own conversations and a soft noise was slowly rising. Through this, Kenji heard Shin asking the Emperor:
- I see Ayame-san is missing. Will she not join us?
- Oh, I see you noticed, the Emperor smiled. She will be here with us shortly.
Kenji looked around the room and saw that Shin was right. Ayame was indeed missing from the gathering. Before he was able to give this too much thought, the Emperor gave an order and the music started. Curious as to where the sound came from, Kenji looked around the room. Surprised, he saw two groups of women holding musical instruments, sitting on each side of the entrance. He didn’t notice they were there when he entered the room.
They were identically dressed, in white shirts and red wrap-around long skirts. Each one was holding a different type of instrument. There was a four-stringed lute shaped as a pear, a long necked lute with three strings, a round shaped lute, a two-stringed fiddle, a seven-stringed zither without bridges and a bamboo flute. The music they made was soft and calming. Everyone listened quietly to the artists and after the first song they were quick to show their appreciation by applauses and compliments made in loud voices. The band performed another two pieces of music before the Emperor asked for silence.
- Now that we are all gathered here, he said to the crowed, I have a surprise for you all. In honor of our esteemed guest I have prepared a special performance.
He then turned to Kenji and tilted his head in a small bow, at which Kenji replied in the same way. At the Emperor’s sign, the doors were opened and inside entered five dancers, holding a fan in each hand. They all looked like an effusion of pink with a golden core. Their long airy dresses fluttered around their legs, making them seem like they were floating and the fans made the impression of delicate wings. Surrounded by four of the dancers, stood another one wearing a bright yellow dress. She looked like a beautiful radiant sun, with the lantern light falling onto the jewels decorating her hands and hair.
Everyone looked in awe, unable to talk or do anything except from starring at the beautiful dancers. Even Kenji was absorbed by the colorful spectacle, his eyes following the golden dancer. She moved gracefully on the floor, making the dress float around her legs. The golden fans she was holding covered her face, which made Kenji feel slightly frustrated, as he really wanted to see her face.
In a finishing move, the dancers fell to the floor like butterflies landing on a flower, lowering the fans and slowly uncovering their faces. Without being able to control himself, Kenji let out a soft gasp, gaping at the woman dressed in yellow. It was Ayame.