- Thank you for accepting my invitation, Kenji-dono.
- The honor is mine, your Highness.
The welcoming ceremony was now over. The Emperor and the Regent were taking a walk around the Outer Palace Park. They were followed by Ayame and Kenji’s lieutenant, who were walking a few meters behind, side by side in silence. The weather was still beautiful and, even though breezy, it didn’t feel too cold.
- I must admit, though, that your invitation surprised me a lot, your Highness.
- Oh, I imagined that you must be feeling so, replied the Emperor, nodding slowly.
- And to what do I owe this honor? Kenji continued.
- Now, now, the Emperor smiled at him, you surely must know that I only want to help bring peace to the country. Ever since your grandfather’s rule as Shogun, your Land and the Capital have been good friends. I only want to strengthen that bound.
- Strengthen the bond?
- Why yes. Friends can easily be made but keeping them, that’s difficult. I believe that, even in this time of war, we can be allies and friends.
The Emperor stopped and was seemingly watching a pair of koi fish swimming in the pond. After a moment of silence he turned to Kenji.
- I am sure you will not disapprove of my intentions.
In the meantime, Ayame and her companion were having a more relaxed conversation.
- It’s beautiful here, the lieutenant said, admiring the scenery.
- It is indeed, Ayame agreed, this scenery almost makes you forget about the chaos outside of these walls.
- In the same time, I believe that everyone should be happy about the land they live in and try their best to make it better. And all the people I met so far seemed happy about their homes. Everyone… except you, Princess.
- You are a very good observer I see, she laughed. Caught me red handed.
- I am sorry it is so then. Life in the Palace would be, for most people, like heaven.
- Yes, unfortunately for most people it might seem that way, she sighed.
- But not for you?
- Not for me.
- And may I ask why? The lieutenant stopped and looked at her attentively.
- Because, she replied looking him in the eye, here there is no freedom of movement, freedom of speech and, sometimes, there isn’t even freedom of thought. This heaven-like life can become a prison.
The lieutenant continued to walk and after a moment of silence he said:
- That must be tough, Princess.
- It can be but, she shook her head, I don’t have the right to complain. We each are born with a destiny.
Then she continued smiling:
- And you can call me Ayame, sir. Now that we are friends, she made a gesture with her head in the direction of the Emperor and Kenji, we can be on first name basis.
- Then you can call me Shin, he said making a small bow in her direction. Being called sir makes me feel so… old.
- And you are not? she laughed.
- Gods forbid no! I’ve only been on this earth for twenty years.
She didn’t reply and looked at him as if trying to see past his joking tone. But indeed, he didn’t seem older than twenty. His face was young and his features rather beautiful. His brown eyes had a playful spark, but something made her think that this is not all there is to him. By his stature he seemed well built but without being fat. His gestures and the way of walking made her think of a well-trained feline. No energy was wasted and his muscles were under his total control. This was Oburo Shin, lieutenant of Regent Ryuunosuke Kenji.
By this time, they had already caught up with Kenji and the Emperor. The path was narrow and more than two people couldn’t walk on it side by side. Thus, Ayame and Shin had to closely follow the two from behind. Without really meaning to, Ayame caught a bit of their conversation.
- I hope the banquet will be to your pleasing, said the Emperor.
- I am sure that we will enjoy everything that your Highness has prepared for us, replied Kenji politely, slightly tilting his head in a bow.
‘Oh he sure does know how to impress, Ayame couldn’t help but think. This guys is more cunning than I thought.’
But her thoughts were abruptly interrupted when the two stopped in front of her and turned around. Noticing that Ayame and Shin were standing right behind them, the Emperor smiled and addressed the whole party.
- How do you youngsters feel about some tea? I don’t know about you, but I am thirsty and I could use a bit of rest.
- If your Highness is tired we should leave you to rest, Kenji intervened.
- Oh nonsense. I only need to sit down a bit, the Emperor said waving his hands joyfully. We shall head back to the Palace and enjoy a cup of warm tea.
- If that is your wish, Kenji finally resigned.
Facing the overflowing joyousness of the Emperor was not an easy task. It was almost contagious. Despite his old age, the Emperor seemed now rejuvenated. His long grey beard was blowing in the pleasant breeze and his eyes were glowing. He almost looked like a kid who received a present that he longed for.
When reaching the Emperor’s Inner Palace, he gave the order to have the tea served on the large veranda that went across the back side of the building. That spot had the best view, right over the pond. They all took a sit on small pillows that were already prepared on the wooden floor. Ayame stood to the right of the Emperor and was facing Shin. At first, the conversation was light and it only concerned the weather, the beauty of the garden and remarks about the graciousness of the court. Even though she tried not to get involved, Ayame’s curiosity got the better of her. She wanted so much to know how other people lived and how life in another place was, that to anyone who knew her, the question wouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
- I am sure that in your Land, people also like to gather around like this, isn’t that right, Kenji-dono?
- Lately we haven’t had much time for leisure, Kenji replied, rather stiffly she thought.
- You must forgive my granddaughter, the Emperor intervened, smiling indulgently. I am afraid she is very curious about the outside world. She has never been outside of the Imperial Complex.
At this comment Ayame huffed slightly, making Shin smile over his cup.
- There is nothing to forgive, your Highness, Kenji replied with a small bow.
‘Oh the arrogance, Ayame thought, how can he live with himself.’
- I am afraid that the Princess would find the Eastern Land quite boring, Shin continued the conversation.
- Why can that be? the Emperor turned to him, quite surprised. I heard only good things about the people of the Eastern Land.
- Oh, the people are wonderful, your Highness. They are very dedicated to their land and homes.
- Then? What can be the reason of your statement? the Emperor demanded to know.
- Well, you see your Highness, replied Shin, putting down his cup. I am afraid the Palace might seem too boring to the Princess here. He smiled at her and made a discreet gesture towards Kenji. With a master like him one can imagine why that might be so, right?
Hearing that, Kenji made a grimace into his cup but didn’t reply. Ayame, on the other hand, let out a small laughter and even the Emperor smiled widely.
- So you see, your Highness, Shin continued, obviously pleased with the reaction his words had, the Princess might end up having a hard time if she were ever to visit the Eastern Palace.
- Oh, I am sure that it is not entirely true, the Emperor said, still smiling. Besides, the Spring Festival is coming up soon and there will be a grand festivity in the Eastern Land, isn’t that right, Kenji-dono.
Kenji slowly put the cup down and replied in the same serious tone as before.
- The Haru Matsuri (Spring Festival) will take place at the beginning of next month, on the 3rd of February. The official ceremony will be held in the Blue Dragon’s shrine. The festivities will continue until the 5th of the month.
Ayame was again caught up in curiosity. She let out a small sigh, hoping to hear more details. She still didn’t understand why the seasonal festivities and ceremonies were held only in certain Lands and not in others as well. As if guessing her mind, the Emperor encouraged Kenji to continue talking about the nature of this festivity.
- My granddaughter is still lacking in knowledge, so please be kind to her. I’m afraid she is more experienced in climbing trees than in history.
- Grandfather, Ayame cried out. I do know the history but…, she timidly looked at Kenji, I never knew this name for the Spring Festival.
Kenji returned her gaze. Surprisingly, the look in his eyes was not that serious anymore. He looked as if he was indulging a child by satisfying her curiosity. It pissed her off terribly, but at least she was going to get some answers. At that moment, she decided that the best way to approach this guy was to keep quiet and let him feel knowledgeable. His ego would to the rest. Just as she expected, he took another sip of tea and continued.
- Indeed, not many people know that name. The Haru Matsuri is the old name for our Spring Festival. Since long ago, Haru meant spring and Matsuri meant Festival.
- Indeed, the Emperor approved. Another name for it, and how the Imperial court records it as, is Lichun.
Ayame nodded. She remembered reading the name in the old records that her teachers made her study. What she couldn’t remember, though, where the names of the other three seasonal festivals. At the time when she read them, the names seemed too complicated for her memory. Now, she wished she had remembered them.
To her great frustration, the Emperor put down his cup and declared the conversation closed.
- Now, enough with the history lesson, he said smiling. I am sure that you youngsters would like to talk about something more interesting that old history records.
- Indeed, Shin approved, finishing his tea. I heard that your Highness has prepared a banquet for us…
- Shin, that’s enough, Kenji interrupted him reprovingly.
- That’s quite alright, Kenji-dono, the Emperor said calmly and then turned to Shin. Indeed I have. The banquet will be held tomorrow evening and starting the day after that, the sword fighting and archery competitions will begin.
Shin seemed satisfied with the information. He smiled and nodded approvingly and even winked to Ayame, making her smile into her cup. She felt quite happy herself. It was like all her worries about the Regent’s visit were for nothing. Except for the fact that she couldn’t stand his attitude, she was sure that, at the banquet at least, she will have fun. Having Shin around made her feel confident about that. It was the first time, since she could remember, that Palace life was so entertaining.
As soon as they all had finished their tea, the Emperor decided it was time to rest. The two guests went to spend the rest of the afternoon into their chambers. Ayame on the other hand couldn’t rest. She went into the inner park and circled around the pond several times. She then realized something. Nomiya wasn’t around when they had tea. All that time she was so preoccupied with the conversation that she didn’t realize her sensei was not there.
‘Where could he be? she thought. Well…it’s not like this is the first time, but…’
Now, that she was thinking about it, he had gone missing before, sometimes even for days. So his absence was not that unusual. She decided not to think about it anymore and instead went into her chambers to think of what to wear at the banquet. It wasn’t often that she had the opportunity to dress for such an occasion as the Regent’s visit. She wanted to look her best.
In the meantime, in his private room, the Emperor was sitting on a pillow, with his feet crossed. In front of him there was a small wooden table. He was holding a brush over a piece of paper, the tip barely touching it. After taking a deep breath, he started moving his hand slowly, so that black lines appeared on the white surface. The movements of the brush were gracious, but determined. In each stroke there was harmony, as if the brush was dancing on the piece of paper.
The Emperor continued this activity for a few minutes longer, when suddenly he stopped. To his left, the door was opened and he could see the garden. Small rays of light danced on the floor, surrounding half the room in shadows. As he looked around, he saw a tall shadow moving silently in the far end of the room. Without reacting, he put the brush down on the table and picked up the paper in order to analyze the result of his work. On the piece of paper there was only one symbol: 眞 .
- Well? he asked, as if he was sure someone else was there with him.
- It is done, your Highness, replied a voice.
- And everything is in order, correct?
- Yes, your Highness. Everything is as you ordered.
- Perfect, the Emperor nodded satisfied. Now come here. I want to show you something.
The shadowy figure moved and approached the table. As he reached the Emperor the shadows surrounding him lifted and his face could be seen. It was Nomiya. He was wearing a black robe, tightened at the waist. Tied to his back there was a short sword with a square guard, a ninja sword.
He circled the table and kneeled behind the Emperor. Looking at the piece of paper, he let out a small sound of surprise. The symbol was still shinning on the surface. It represented a word, a notion, a concept. For some, it was so elusive that they would rather give it up than spend their whole lives searching for it. It was something that others would have gladly died for. Truth.
- Why did you write this, your Highness? Nomiya asked.
- Because whenever I think of the past, this word comes to mind, the Emperor sighed.
- What importance does the past have when people are fighting each other? Isn’t the present more important?
- War doesn’t happen because people hate each other, Nomiya-san, but because they want different things. This is what history teaches us. If we don’t learn from the past, history will just keep repeating itself.
- But there are things we cannot change or even influence.
- Sadly that is true. But as humans, we can strive to be better, to achieve that state which will allow us to be the best selves we can be. This is why I have written this. Because it represents a man’s wish to reach the heavens by transforming himself.
The Emperor’s declaration was followed by a short silence. The only sounds were soft rustles of the leaves outside. Night was falling and the garden was quickly swept into darkness. The room became darker and neither the Emperor’s, not Nomiya’s face could be seen.
- It’s time for you to return to Ayame, the Emperor said and put the paper away. I’ve kept you long enough and I am sure she is worried about your absence.
- As you wish, your Highness.
Nomiya got up and bowed deeply, then walked out through the open door. Stepping right into the garden, he took the shortest path to Ayame’s chambers. The conversation with the Emperor made him feel a bit uneasy. But as it wasn’t the first time it happened, he decided not to think too much about it. As he already knew, it was better to wait than to stress.
By the time he reached her, Ayame was sleeping on the floor with robes and kimonos scattered around like colorful petals. He smiled as he watched her. She looked just like a child, surrounded by clothes, garments and jewelries, while sleeping peacefully. The servants had already prepared the quilted mattress so he carried her into the bedroom. Except for her weight and height, she hadn’t changed much since he first saw her. She had the same habit of falling asleep on the wooden floor, being too tired and lazy to go onto the mattress. After he made sure she was sound asleep, he went into his room and lied down to rest.
‘Things will start moving soon and I hope that the Emperor knows what he’s doing’, he said to himself and then fell asleep.