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Chapter 4: Imperial Court

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I kept glancing back toward Yamagata’s dwelling as we carried our lanterns. Everything seemed so simple when I’d made the plan to bring Shimoko to Kyoto. Now, every potential error in my plan played over in my head. At least my daimyou wasn’t in the house if anything went wrong. Shimoko was a powerful yokai.

“Your wife will be cared for and well guarded.” Yamagata-sama hung back for a moment to share that tidbit with me before returning to lead our procession.

Had I been so obvious in my concern? Would his guards be able to hold back a dangerous yuki onna or keep her safe from an angry mob? I shook my head. This round and round was getting me nowhere. I had to believe in her and in myself. She came here for me, so I could have this opportunity to play for the Emperor. 

Taking a deep breath, I mentally rehearsed the songs I'd play.

We approached the southern gate of the massive, walled-in palace compound. Yamagata strode up to the gate as if it was an everyday occurrence. The guards took my weapons and carefully checked my shakuhachi.

Finally, they allowed us in to stroll past the most breathtaking gardens I’d ever seen. Buildings were lacquered red on white or dark wood covered in brass. With all the vegetation and the compound wall, it was hard to tell we were in the bustling city. A giant yellow ginkgo towered among the fiery red maples and manicured pines which graced a pond that reflected the full moon.

Ahead of us, the plucking of a koto paired with a perfect voice poured out a heartrendingly beautiful melody. I almost wept for the experience.

Then my heart sank. This was what the Imperial Court was used to hearing. How could I dream of competing with such talent?

Shimoko’s lovely face and the warmth she radiated when I played for her overlaid on my surroundings before disappearing. My magic in my music. This was why I was here.

We joined the throng gathered at the base of an immaculate porch, listening to the last strains of the song that had both captivated and intimidated me. The barest sliver of the colorful, many-layered kimono of a high-born lady peeked out from behind a set of screens. Only when the lady read a stirring poem did I recognize who she was—Odo no Kae. When she was a much lower rank, we had been lovers ever so briefly. 

After that, an official announced Yamagata and me before a set of ornate panels. Whispering floated out from behind the plainer screens. Did Kae-san remember me?

It added a bit of much needed swagger to my wobbly steps as I approached the dais, and Yamagata explained my delayed arrival.

The song I would perform centered me. I took a few deep, slow breaths and focused on when I first came to care for Shimoko.

Putting my ki into my emotion, I closed my eyes and played the haunting opening notes of the song I’d written for my dear wife. The melody took over. Wind swirled, rustling my hair and hakama. Gasps came from all around. When my eyes opened again, even the faces from behind the screens peeked out for a heartbeat to witness the multitude of golden lights that filled the courtyard, bobbing on the breeze as if dancing to the music.

I, the son of a farmer, had seen the face of the Emperor! But I dared not take more than a passing glance to keep from missing a beat.

When the song was done, Kae’s wide eyes met mine before she hid again behind her fan and retreated from view as servants carried the large instrument and helped her retreat off the dais to a less prominent location. 

I played several more songs that night, but the highlight was the first and the delight of those who witnessed my magic. By the time I finished, my lips were numb, my fingers cramped, and my magic spent.

Yamagata clapped me on the back as we headed for the gate. “You really outdid yourself. That performance was worth the extra wait. Will you be in Kyoto long? If you would play for my much smaller court and family, I’d consider it a favor.”

Before I could answer, a servant approached. “Usami-san, my mistress, Lady Kae, would have a word with you.”

Kae was officially a lady of the court now. The thought made me smile.

“I’ll take a walk to view the full moon in the pond outside of the palace walls to the southeast. It’s the perfect night for it,” Yamagata said with the grace of a poet. A gentleman never passed up the chance to appreciate the view of a full moon. Perhaps he’d write a haiku or tanka about it. 

The servant led me to quarters near the palace, which were in view of the garden Yamagata would visit. We shed our sandals at the entrance and the servant knelt to open the shoji lattice door, revealing a room overlooking a well-tended rock garden surrounded by pines and maples.

Lady Kae knelt to take in the view and hid her face behind her fan when I took the cushion beside her. There was no screen between us for propriety, assuring an usually intimate meeting.

She served tea, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “Usami-san, what a pleasure it was to hear you tonight.” Her words were lilting and light.

Tread carefully. “I could say the same for you. How long have you played the koto? You didn’t play an instrument when we last met. And now? You’re a master.”

She used her sleeve to hide her smile. “And Usami-san learned to infuse his music with magic. I’ve never seen the Emperor so excited before.”

“I never expected to play for the Imperial Court.”

“And because of the mutual opportunity, we meet again.” Her eyes met mine and dropped coyly to the floor.

The hint of our past as lovers practically screamed at me. My throat went dry as my hands fiddled with the shakuhachi in my lap. 

“Would you play for me? Maybe teach me how you use magic with your music? We have the rest of the night,” she suggested.

No way to exit politely. “I apologize, I can’t stay. My wife is ill, and my magic and music are the only things that help her. Forgive me.” I bowed and stood.

Her fan folded, and her hands fell gracefully to her lap. “But surely just a little while won’t hurt. You never minded before that I was married. Besides, wives are for bearing children. Other pleasures may be found, if discreet.”

“Again, forgive me.” I bowed once more, making my way to the shoji screen.

Her voice was tight as she spoke. “She will not be expecting you. I directed my servant to inform Yamagata-sama you’d be delayed. His physician can attend her.”

My heart froze. What the hell did she do that for? She had no right making such presumptions. “Lady Kae, I was nothing but a distraction from your unhappy marriage. That’s all I would be again, if I stayed. But now, I have a purpose and dedication to the one who helped me discover the most powerful magic for my music. I bid you good night.”

Her lips pursed, and her eyes burned through me. Twin blue fires appeared behind her, swishing back and forth. I didn’t bother to kneel as I opened the shoji, though I should have shown at least a modicum of respect for the former lover I’d just spurned.

If she’d let Yamagata know I wasn’t coming back that night, there could be trouble. I slipped on my sandals and stopped by the garden southeast of the palace grounds. Yamagata wasn’t there.

How could I have been so stupid? Shimoko wouldn’t take the news of my supposed tryst well. My daimyou might be in danger.

I sprinted all the way to Yamagata’s house. Decorum be damned.

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