- The Eastern Land’s Regent?! both Ayame and Nomiya shouted.
They were in front of the Emperor, in one of the dining rooms. This was the smallest one and it was usually used for more intimate dinners. The Emperor always preferred to be closer to his people and to his granddaughter and he discarded the protocol whenever he could.
Ayame was so shocked because of the news he had just given them that she almost chocked on the rice. The Regent from the East was known to be a difficult character. Strong and upright, he wielded his sword with such force and honesty, that enemies would flee from his sight, people said. And now he was coming to visit the Palace. Of course, he couldn’t have declined a direct invitation from the Emperor, Ayame thought, but she still found it strange for such a person to come all the way here.
Ever since the war started, the capital slowly lost its power and influence and even the Emperor found it difficult to command respect outside the city. In fighting the Northern forces, only the East was powerful enough. They were the only force, strong enough, to face the mercenary armies of the North, while the South allied themselves with the traitors and the West retreated behind their mountains.
All the more reason to think it’s strange that such a strong leader would come all the way to the Palace, to meet and old and almost powerless Emperor. Knowing her grandfather, Ayame knew that he might have a plan but she couldn’t help but wonder what that might be and what exactly it involved.
Just as if Nomiya was reading her mind, he asked the Emperor:
- And why is he coming, your Highness?
- Because I invited him of course, answered the Emperor, still wearing the same smile as before.
- Does it have anything to do with the war, your Highness? Nomiya continued.
- Right to the point, as always, the Emperor laughed.
- I apologize, your Highness, Nomiya replied, with a small tilt of his head. I’m afraid it’s a warrior’s habit.
- Hm, a warrior you say. I’d say that it’s more like a spy’s habit, the Emperor teased him. But regardless, you are right.
- He is strong, powerful and he is winning, Ayame cut in rather violently. So, why is he coming here?
- Exactly because he is strong powerful and he is winning, answered the Emperor calmly.
There was a pause, in which everybody seemed focused on their own food, but in reality they were thinking of the unexpected situation. A visit like this was a very big deal, especially in a time like this. The war didn’t help anyone and even if they won a few battles, the Eastern Land was still far from obtaining victory. The South was providing the North with well-trained mercenaries and spies, while the West didn’t want to take part in this whole thing, their tall sharp mountains protecting them from any attacks. The Capital wasn’t in a good situation either. Without a constant army to support it, the regime was weakened. Even though they weren’t attacked because of its sacred status, the Imperial Palace and its surrounding complex were vulnerable. From this, it can be understood why the Emperor would wish to be on good terms with the Eastern Land. This way, at least, a small fraction of the past balance would be restored to the country. The East had always protected the country.
After a few minutes, voices could be heard outside of the dining room. The paper doors were too thin to block any noise so they could clearly hear a person announcing himself.
- Tell the Emperor that I bring him important news, said the voice to the guards and servants that were standing outside of the room.
A moment after, the door was slowly sliding to the side and a young servant girl kneeled on the floor, announcing the new comer.
- Tetsuo-sama is here, your Highness. He said he brings important news.
- So I’ve heard, said the Emperor pleased. Let him enter.
The servant girl bowed and stepped aside for the person to enter the room. He was a young man, not older than 20 years old. His clothes were that of a high ranking officer. His kimono was dark blue, tightened around the waist with a wide black belt. The entire costume was made out of a light but resistant fabric. On his feet he was wearing a pair of black ankle-high socks, with a separation between the big toe and the others.
Even though his attire was clean it was still visible that he had been riding. His breathing was also fast, which proved he hurried there. He now stood in front of the door, in a deep bow and waiting for the Emperor’s approval to come closer.
- Tetsuo-kun. I see you’ve returned, said the Emperor, putting away his eating sticks and inviting him closer with a gesture of his hand.
- Yes, your highness.
- And? the Emperor leaned forward, eager for the news.
- He has almost reached the Palace, your Highness. He entered the forest a couple of hours ago and he should be here any moment now.
- Perfect, said the Emperor, smiling widely. Then go and make sure everything is ready for him and his escort. Take him to the side of the Palace I have reserved for him and inform him that tomorrow we will have a banquet in his honor. His staying here must be as pleasant as possible.
Tetsuo nodded and bowed deeply.
- It shall be done, your Highness, and then he left the room, sliding the doors shut behind him.
The Emperor seemed to be in a very good mood, while Ayame and Nomiya didn’t know what to think of the situation and kept starring at each other.
- You’ve heard, said the Emperor, turning to them with a more serious look and tone. There will be a banquet tomorrow in the honor of our guest. I have also ordered other activities such as riding, sword fighting and archery competitions. We need to do our best and impress the Regent. You understand, Ayame-chan?
- I understand, grandfather.
- Good, the Emperor continued, nodding. Then eat and then go rest. I need a moment alone with Nomiya-san.
Normally she would have asked for more details but somehow, this time, her grandfather’s look and voice imposed obedience so she decided not to ask anything else. She would find out everything later, anyway, from her sensei. She got up after finishing her food, bowed and slowly walked out of the dining room.
She reached her bedchambers without encountering Tetsuo or any other servant she might have questioned about the visitor so she resigned. It was best to wait for tomorrow and meet the guy in person. She was helped by her servants to change the kimono she was wearing and to dress the night one. The fabric was so soft and warm that even the coldest of nights couldn’t have bothered her. As she always had problems with cold, she preferred warm weather and warm clothes.
After pacing the room for a while, being distracted by the events of the day, she decided to get into her warm quilted mattress that was waiting for her on the floor. But she still couldn’t sleep. The memory of the song and the unknown image of the Regent kept her mind occupied half of the night. Questions like who was responsible for the song, how the Regent looks like or why he actually came to the Palace. These kept spinning and spinning inside her head, until she eventually fell asleep exhausted.
Meanwhile, in the dining room, the Emperor and Nomiya were immersed in a deep conversation.
- I am counting on you with the security of the Palace during this time, said the Emperor.
His tone of voice had nothing from the joyousness from before. He was serious and his eyes had a strange glow. It was like he was planning a war strategy.
- Of course, your Highness, Nomiya answered with a bow.
- Nothing can go wrong. It’s our only chance to try and make peace with the Eastern Lands.
- Last chance? Nomiya asked confused.
- Yes, the Emperor sighed. I cannot be expected to live forever and I am afraid of what will happen after I am gone. Also, Ayame is not yet strong enough.
- She is getting stronger by the day your Highness…
- Perhaps at climbing trees but when it comes to spiritual matters…
The Emperor shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment. He was tired.
- She is still weak but luckily we still have time. And if the visit goes as I wish, more than one thing may be resolved.
Nomiya didn’t ask for more. He just waited in silence for the Emperor to continue. It wasn’t difficult for him to imagine what else this old man had in mind. He was getting old and his only heir was Ayame. At seventeen she was still young and she might not have been acknowledged as the next Empress by the Four Great Lands. Logically, he would think to marry her with a powerful Shogun’s heir. What is strange, Nomiya thought, is that he is thinking of the heir of the Eastern Land instead of the Northern one, who was now waging war on the country.
- Then we can end this conversation and go rest, the Emperor concluded getting up.
Nomiya stood up as well and took a deep bow before retreating from the room. In his ten years since he’s been living in the Palace, he learnt that it’s best not to question things. Especially when the Emperor is involved. Everything usually gets revealed sooner or later. So he went to his own chambers and decided to rest. Tomorrow would surely be a challenge for everyone.
The next morning, the entire Palace was filled with bustle. Servants, soldiers, ministers and courtiers, they were all running around, going about their business. The news of the Regent’s visit spread like wild fire. By the time it was breakfast, everyone knew about it and about the Ceremonies planned by the Emperor for this occasion.
Everyone was excited, everyone but the man whom they were planned for. The Regent seemed not the bit interested in all the fuss made around him. He woke up, ordered his servants to dress him properly for meeting the Emperor and, after eating his breakfast, he left for the Hall of Ceremonies.
The Imperial Complex was made out of many buildings, shrines and parks. There was an Outer Palace, containing six separate buildings situated around a main hall. Here is where the official ceremonies were held and envois or important guests were received by the Emperor and his court. For this reason, it was known by the name of Ceremonial Hall. The six buildings belonged to the Ministers of Personnel, War, Civil matters, Education, Rites and Justice. In these buildings the scholars and officials under the Ministers worked, in order to keep the country prosperous. In this part of the complex there was also a shrine, belonging to the Four Gods which protected the country and its Lands. Apart from this, a large park spread between the Ministers’ offices and the entrance towards the next section of the complex.
The Inner Palace was destined only for the Imperial family’s use. It contained two main buildings, one for the Emperor and the other one for Ayame, and several other smaller ones, for the palace servants. Between the two buildings there was a beautiful pond, surrounded by trees and flowers. This was filled with different colored koi fish and the only way to cross it was over a small wooden bridge. On the other side of the pond there was another shrine, bigger than the other one, belonging to the protector of the country, the Dragon King.
Out of imperial command, the Regent had his chambers prepared in a small building, right next to the Emperor’s. This may have been considered unusual, as guests were not allowed into the Inner Palace but, in this case, it merely pointed out the importance of the visitor. The Emperor wanted to have the Regent close to him and to make him feel welcomed. For this reason, out of respect for the old Emperor, the young Regent acted with grace by accepting the chambers and prepared to face the welcoming ceremony with dignity.
As it was custom when visiting the Imperial Palace, he brought gifts from the Eastern Land. They were in the form of rice, wheat and, a delicacy of the place, rice wine. Before reaching the Ceremonial Hall he ordered his servants to have them ready, as to present them as soon as he kneeled on the floor before the Emperor.
By the time he reached the hall, the entire court was already there. Everyone was waiting anxiously for the moment when the Regent will enter the room. The Emperor was sitting on his golden throne, situated higher than the rest. He seemed pleased and had a smile on his face throughout the whole waiting time. To his right he had the three most important men in the Capital, after himself: the Main Secretary, the Chancellor and the leader of the Department of State Affairs. These were middle aged men, who helped the Emperor govern with wisdom and strength.
To his left, he had Ayame. She was beautifully dressed in a bright pink kimono, with a soft green belt tightening her waist. Her long black hair was shiny and held delicately in a large bun. As a decoration, just as if she wanted to rebel against this beautiful harmony of colors, she chose a vivid green hair pin, with two red stones, representing a dragon with eyes like two blood drops. At her side, just a bit behind, she had Nomiya. He was also dressed for the occasion, wearing a dark green kimono, tightened with a black belt. The apparel made a beautiful contrast with his reddish hair.
The moment when the Regent entered, is when all the eyes swiftly turned from the Emperor to him. Everyone was curious to see him, to analyze his dressing or criticizing his manners. He walked slowly, allowing each one of them a chance to see his long, beautiful bright blue kimono and the pure white belt around his waist. Starting from the back, he had a dragon design that seemed to swirl around his body. The fabric of the dress was so fine and silky that, when he moved his legs, ripples seemed to form around his feet, as if he was walking on water. His black, shoulder long hair was tied up in a pony-tail and was without decoration. As he reached the podium on which the Emperor’s throne was, he stopped, bowed deeply and then kneeled on the floor. His movements were those of a man who wasn’t just a warrior but also a courtier. He wasn’t lacking in manners and his gestures were simple and honest, but in the same time determined.
Behind the Regent came his most loyal lieutenant and trusted friend, also dressed for the occasion, in dark blue and black to match his master. He kneeled on the floor as well, stopping a few centimeters from the Regent, keeping his head in a bow, in sign of respect. At a sign, the rest of the servants advanced until the base of the podium, where they deposited the gifts, and then proceeded to kneel at the end of the suite.
- So this is the Eastern Land’s Regent, Ryuunosuke Kenji, the Emperor spoke after the gift offering was finished.