It does seem that when we enjoy some success we must be rewarded with some sort of social function. I think this may be the Fortunes’ way of keeping our karma even. It has been a hell of a day and we didn’t even fight anyone. Such is the way of a festival day spent in the Imperial presence.
Last night, the entire city went on alert after something happened in the Imperial Palace. Rumors have flown fast and thick regarding what it was precisely but the most popular ones involve the Imperial Chancellor and a poisoning. Most people were relegated to their homes while the Emerald Magistrates combed the streets. I liberally interpreted an instruction from one such magistrate to keep our squad on the street and we were rewarded by capturing one man hiding in a family’s shed. We turned him over to the magistrates as the highlight of a long, tense evening.
Today has, however, been mired up to the neck in politics. It started with family although, happily, it did not start with my family. During morning exercises, Bayushi Ittoku, elder cousin to our own Bayushi Tetsuo-sama, dropped in for a brief conversation with his kinsman. My etiquette lessons with Kiminori-sensei must be paying off at some level because I noted something I never would have before: a battle of bows. The two Scorpion leaned towards one another, each trying to get the other to go just a sukoshi lower than themselves. Her lessons also have paid off in that, when I realized this, I did not burst out laughing.
Our Patrol was uneventful, save for the standard gossip – though I must admit I did not expect Kiminori or her background to be a topic of peasant chatter. The street vendors were getting prepared for the evening and everyone seemed quite ready for a party after being confined to their homes overnight. We returned home to get dressed and I realized that Mayu-san likely had no hair ornaments, given the last time we were gussied up, the Otomo had provided some. I sent Katagi-san to ask at the house, hoping that, for all his sword skills, he might have some of the Crane charm with the lady of the house. He managed to procure them and we all made ourselves into pretty samurai – or some reasonable facsimile thereof in my and Taifuu-san’s case.
The walk to the palace was an odd mixture of happiness and fear. I like street festivals. I seem to have sworn off sake at some point (I’ve refused every offer in the past several weeks), but the atmosphere is looser with or without alcohol. The relaxed environment is a great balm to stumbling barbarians like me. This was the first time we had ever gone out as an entire squad and I am sure we made an impressive sight, with our kimono in so many different colors. Taifuu-san and I were into the festival atmosphere and I noted that first patrol was determined to remain dignified as they walked. It’s the strangest thing – I have always found acting dignified difficult but that’s probably just me. I have also found it incredibly stressful as I am forever worrying about saying the wrong thing, making gestures that are too big, or speaking too loud. Bayushi-sama and Doji-san always look comported but I wonder if they ever relax.
To be fair, the happiness I was feeling was replaced more and more with dread as we approached the gate to the Imperial Palace grounds. When we arrived at the south gate, I stopped to look at it for a moment. My patrol area in the Mantis district did not connect to the palace and our small patch of the Dragon district is about as far as one can get from the home of the Emperor and still be in the capital. Festival or not, an error here gets people consigned to oblivion, often literally. Until recently, I had not considered the possibility that I would ever cross this threshold and I hesitated at the thought of it. My self-doubts are quieter than they have been in a long time, my success rate at parties notwithstanding. All the same, I knew that I could not screw up nor turn back now – I was the patrol leader and I needed to make a good showing of it.
The Imperial Palace structure takes up a relatively small patch inside the walls of the Forbidden City with the rest of the area covered by gardens and fields, including the large open one we were led to. Bonfires burned everywhere, with firemen present to tend them constantly. A part of my mind twitched at the wide open space – there were people in the city living six or seven to a four-tatami room and the Emperor had space for hundreds to gather that was used only for party functions. The smell of perfume, fire, and sake mingled in a way that let you know you had entered the part of the festival where samurai gather. It smelled a bit to me like the floating world neighborhoods I’ve patrolled. Samurai of every imaginable color swirled around me and we found a spot where we laid out blankets and took our seats with our company – apparently, we were being joined by ninth squad, who work in the Murakami neighborhood of the Dragon district.
Shallow thing that I am, I had not considered the lots of the other Kanshigumi squads. As low in the social order as we are, First Squad has a number of advantages: The Dragon bristle at our presence but do not actively hamper us. There is also the matter of us being the First Squad. Intentionally or no, that puts us ahead of the other squads in simple minds that do not evaluate deeper (minds like mine, for example). When Bayushi-sama introduced the squad, including his cousin, at least part of the rivalry came to light: Bayushi Ittoku is a member of ninth squad, which is led by the most misanthropic Matsu I have ever seen. Bayushi Tatsuo, his younger cousin, is the leader of first squad. I sympathized slightly with Ittoku: I would not want to see Jiro or Kenji outstrip me in position. On the other hand, the bowing games they play seemed to me to be dragging rivalry down to pettiness – not a long trip by any measure.
The other members of the squad were very much like us: a motley assortment of samurai. That Matsu was Matsu Haketa, who saved his words as though he was only issued so many of them a day by the quartermaster. Katagi-san told me later that Daidoji Kazuo was the squad’s expert on carousing. Shiba Yoshihiro was an endless travelogue of his homeland, which he clearly misses terribly. Ikoma Sayuri was most interesting in her efforts to be as taciturn as her Matsu commander, with varying degrees of success. Then there was the Utaku, who Ittoku-san introduced as “Mei-chan” to the giggles of her companions. It turned out her name was Utaku Meixiang, one of those odd names the Unicorn brought back from their wanderings. The mispronunciation was one thing (and I intend to master how to say it properly), but the laughter was a strike against Matsu-sama in my own mind – I would never tolerate, nor would Bayushi-sama (I think), the belittling of a teammate.
As is, apparently, my custom at social functions, I took up chatting with the Unicorn, happy to find someone who might not stand on ceremony as much as the other samurai present. It took some convincing that I was not talking to her just in the hopes of untying her obi later but we found common ground in the strangeness of city life. She missed riding as much (if not, in truth, much more) than I missed the sea. She also talked of her love of falconry, a practice I had only really come across in books. Most of the rest of my patrol also found themselves drawn into discussions: Mayu-san was being plied to drink the sake by Yogo-san, who seemed to be hunting for a friend. Daidoji Kazuo was extolling the virtues of various tea houses to Katagi-san. Taifuu-san, may the Fortunes keep him and other dumb animals safe, was willing to engage anyone in conversation, said conversation becoming more and more vigorous with each passing sake bottle. First patrol remained locked in politics – Doji-san was carefully watching the rivalry between the two Bayushi cousins and Kiminori-sensei was pleasantly chatting…with Otomo and Seppun samurai. If what I heard about her background is true, she is a truly impressive person.
The Obon dance itself was quite the spectacle. The Imperial Court joined the crowd – as much as such dignitaries join any crowd, that is, from a dais. The Emperor and Empress presumably were brought out in a palanquin and seated behind a screen. The Imperial Chancellor was nowhere to be seen, so that began to narrow my list of suspected victims of the prior night’s activities. The practices with the Imperial Presence always make me wonder, though: if the Emperor and Empress were not there, how would anyone know? A group of a few hundred selected dancers began the dance for the Emperor, with the ruck and run of the nobility joining in a little later. Most of our squad and ninth squad went to join the dance. As successful as I was feeling, my confidence did not reach so far as to stick my neck out like that and I remained on the blanket with Matsu-sama.
While sitting out, I had a rather unique encounter – I was approached by two of my fellow Mantis. Yoritomo Kotau-sama and Tsuruchi Okitane-sama introduced themselves and we talked a bit about the Kanshigumi. I brought up the events of the night prior and Kotau-sama let slip that he had heard of the man hiding in the shed that we had nabbed. Tsuruchi-sama quieted him but the fact that the Emerald Magistrates had heard about the man sent a small shiver up my spine. They finished with an invitation to a party in the Mantis district.
It is at this point that part of me wants to say things took a turn for the worse and part of me does not – I suppose it remains to be seen. A small armada of gossiping women moved through the party like a school of sharks. At the head of them was a shark I knew well: Yoritomo Haruko. As is our custom, we spent a few minutes sniping at each other and moved on. Then I saw her chatting up Seppun Denjiro in the dance area. Denjiro is neither particularly handsome nor physically imposing and Haruko is a pretty enough girl, for one with the soul of a Bloodspeaker. This could not be good. It was time to gather some information.
The samurai who had not joined the dance had begun to gather by clan and I found the largest concentration of Mantis that I could. I finally accosted a younger courtier who looked just the sort that Haruko would chat up for future use and disposal. I began by trying to make his acquaintance and lead the conversation somewhere but the sight of her talking with Seppun-dono was twitching in my brain and I went for my more customary interview method.
“Tell me what stories she has been spreading or I will smear you across the Emperor’s fine lawn.” Apparently, Haruko had been using the story of the Otomo’s party to make me appear to be a uncouth brute – a fair accusation that I could never refute without betraying Isawa-san. Then came the other part…
“S..she said th…that you forced yourself on Moshi Hanako just before you left the isles.”
My stomach lurched and my heart exulted at the same time. I could see where the story would be plausible to people who had heard of me – a drunkard and a brute is certainly a prime candidate for a rapist, especially with such shy flowers as Moshi Hanako; however, anyone who really knew me would know that I could never countenance forcing myself on another person. It’s a violation of every personal principle I keep. But the bitch couldn’t resist: I had to be more than a boor, especially if it ever came to comparing our relative sins. I had to be a villain and to make me a villain she had to lie.
I thanked the poor courtier and turned back to the dance. As if on cue, Taifuu-san let me know, albeit unknowingly, that it was time for him to go home as his hands were spending less and less time making dance gestures and more and more time exploring the posteriors of the samurai-ko nearest him. As I informed him that it was time to go home, he protested. His resistance was cut short when his body decided to agree with me that the night was over and he passed out. Summoning Katagi to assist me, we walked our Crab friend home. Katagi-san shared some rather salacious gossip regarding the Emerald Champion and we worked on trying to get to know one another a bit better.
Before I went to bed, I wrote two letters to send out in the morning.
My honor and reputation have been slandered and I must forward a petition for a Challenge of Accomplishment against the slanderer, Yoritomo Haruko-sama. Yoritomo Haruko-sama has spread a false story regarding my conduct towards one Moshi Hanako and I cannot let such statements go unanswered. To avoid bloodshed and to bring fame and glory to my clan, I ask to restore my reputation by adding to it as much as my poor efforts may in that the Mantis may grow stronger for my efforts. I humbly ask you to forward this petition to our noble lords that they may establish the beginning of said challenge, should Yoritomo Haruko-sama accept it.
With Deepest Respect,
The second letter was to Yoritomo Kotau, letting him know my actions in case he wanted to retract his invitation to someone challenging the governor’s niece.
If nothing else, the next year should prove exciting.