inba Palace was kept in a constant buzz of activity welcoming guests of honor. Ministers and lowly bureaucrats scurried about both tending to the guests and making preparations for the upcoming Festival of the Winter Solstice a month hence. The ladies of the court responsible for the royal wardrobe were likewise busily occupied.
Observing all this, Youko couldn't help rolling her eyes.
"And how does Her Highness wish her hair done today?"
The question was posed by the coterie who tended to her personal appearance. "Oh, just tie it back," she answered.
Her ladies-in-waiting all frowned. "Your Highness, you can't greet your guests looking like that!"
"Indeed. If Her Highness has no particular preference in mind, she should leave it to us."
When they weren't chattering at her in this scolding manner, they went right on arranging her wardrobe pretty much as if she weren't there.
"How would that emerald tiara look?"
"Would it go with the red hairpin?"
"Look, the comb is red as well. Pearl would be better than ruby."
"Well, then let's made the obidama pearl as well."
Youko groaned to herself. It's not that she disliked being dolled up like this, but wearing her hair up and having it festooned with jewelry and doodads made her feel top-heavy. And when the whole shebang didn't feel like it was about to topple over, the long hems of her robes gave her the mobility of a turtle. It was driving her crazy.
"Go ahead and tie it back. And I'll be fine with the jacket."
They all glared at her. "Oh, you cannot be serious!"
Youko surrendered with another groan. In any case, for someone like her, raised in what was to them a foreign country, these were definitely not clothes made for walking. Her life before her coronation had approximated that of a vagabond. At the time, the best she could hope for was a tunic and short hakama made of coarse fabric. Pretty much bargain-basement fashion. Having gotten accustomed to it, though, she couldn't get used to these outfits that had the hems of her robes dragging along the ground behind her.
Even a Japanese long-sleeved kimono wasn't this bad.
In basic terms, men's clothing was based on the houkin, women's on the jukun. The houkin consisted of a light kimono (kin) worn under a jacket or tunic (hou). You never went out just wearing the kin, always the hou over it. The jukun was a more traditional dress, something like a blouse and wraparound skirt. The ju was the blouse and the kun was the skirt. But a woman was not considered presentable wearing only the blouse and skirt. She would never leave the house without donning an outer garment, such as a vest or robe.
All clothing came in a variety of styles with different names. In a nutshell, the wealthier the person, the longer the hem and sleeve, and the more generous the fit. The fabric was always of the highest grade. The clothing wore by the poor was shorter in length and tighter in fit simply in order to economize. Having grown up in a much different environment, Youko found it disturbing that you could tell at a glance a person's economic status.
There was a class system very much at work here. The presence (or absence) of a particular status symbol made all the difference in lifestyle. Government ministers and administrators set themselves apart with the long, wide-sleeved tunics the commoners called chouhou, or "long coats." They referred to their own garb simply as "togs" (hou), while the elite termed it houshi, or "tad togs." Thus were the distances between the classes demarcated.
The clothing Youko wore signified the authority of her office. Her hems must be long, her robes exceedingly so, such that they dragged on the floor. Her sleeves as well must be both wide and long. On top of everything else was layer after layer of kimono. The layers also indicated her status. That alone made for quite an unbearable mass, not to mention the cloth talisman she had to hold on to, the obidama and necklaces and other baubles, and in her hair, a mountain of combs and hairpins pressing down on her head.
If that wasn't enough, they tried to get her to pierce her ears so she could wear earrings. She lied and said that back in Japan getting your ears pierced was the custom of criminals. They bought it.
"Simple is better," she stated. "After all, the Royal En is one of our guests."
Her lady's maid scowled. "Precisely because the Royal En is present, you should not want to be seen so. You don't want to look all dowdy compared to the monarch of such a splendid kingdom, now, would you?"
"And besides, the Royal En is a warrior king."
A pained smile came to Youko's lips. "I just find it hard to get excited about this frilly getup. I'm afraid it's so over the top it's going to put him off."
At least, that's the opinion I'll be sure to leave him with.
Her ladies-in-waiting were still trying to find a comb that went with her hair, and this statement left them looking so despondent that Youko had to laugh. "Look," she said, "I'm not talking about putting on togs, but couldn't we pare things down a bit?"
When she told the Royal En Shouryuu about it later, he roared with laughter. "It's a hard life, isn't it, Youko?"
"I preferred Gen'ei Palace. They understood."
When you became a king, even a man wasn't supposed to run around in togs. Still, for the most part, Shouryuu's appearance was plainer than the average minister of Kei.
Rokuta leaned against the railing of the gazebo and scowled. "Oh, live with it," he said. "He's been fighting it for three hundred years. What you're seeing now are the hard-won fruits of compromise."
"Fighting . . . oh, I see. The fashion police." Youko grinned.
"It's nice in Yamato. You know 'western dress'? The kind of clothes that are real easy to move around in."
"You certainly seem to know it well. You go to Japan a lot?"
"Now and then," Rokuta said with a knowing smile. "One of the few perks of being a kirin. Once a year or so I take a little trip." He folded his arms across his chest. "That said, there's no way I'm going shopping for you or becoming your tailor. What I prefer is no better than beggar's rags, I'm telling you."
"Well, I really don't need anything like that from over there." She glanced at Rokuta. "But exactly how do you go shopping for clothes? The money is completely different."
"Oh, there are ways," Rokuta said with a laugh.
Youko gave him a surprised look. "I thought kirin were supposed to act only with the purest of intentions at heart."
"Let's not go there." Rokuta jumped down into the garden. "Hey, Rakushun, what's up?"
Rakushun was standing at the edge of a lake not far from the portico looking out at the water. Rokuta ran over to him.
They were in Hari Palace, located to the south of Kinpa Palace. Hari Palace was a greenhouse build by a king many generations before. The walls and transoms were made of glass, as was the steeply steepled roof, supported by a row of white stone pillars. Light streamed down on the garden. In the midst of the grove, the clear, brimming water of a lake spilled off into a marshy stream. The lake was stocked with fish. Brightly-feathered birds flew about. The portico enclosed a large garden. Several small gazebos were set amidst the blossoming flowers.
Shouryuu said, "Nice place to take a nap."
Youko smiled. "When do you ever have time to take a nap?"
"Oh, the bureaucrats do most of the heavy lifting in En these days. There's not much left for me to do."
"But of course."
He said, lowering his voice, "It's tough going until you can find the kind of people you can trust the government with." Youko looked at him and he smiled bitterly. "The early days of a dynasty are not about thought and reason. For the time being, your kirin won't be of much use to you. What it comes down to is how long it will take you to gather a band of trusted and loyal retainers."
"And what became of the Marquis of Baku?"
Youko shook her head with an exclamation of exasperation. The man's name was Koukan. Koukan had once been province lord of a Baku, on the western coast of Kei facing the Blue Sea. After Kei fell into chaos under the rule of the pretender, Baku continued to resist.
When Youko asked for Shouryuu's assistance in overthrowing the pretender, the first thing he encouraged her to do was contact Koukan and obtain the support of the provincial guard of Baku. But before this communique could be delivered, the Marquis was captured by the pretender's forces.
"It seems that the Marquis of Baku had designs on the throne as well."
With Youko's arrival, those not actually residing at the palace had difficulty deciding whether she was the true king or not. Many of the province lords far from the capital flocked to the pretender's side, but Koukan did not. He carried on the fight.
What in the world was he up to, wondered the government functionaries. Far more than the province lords who had sided with the pretender, they focused their criticism on Koukan.
He dared to seek the throne for himself and refused to bow to the pretender, that's what some said of Koukan. Others rose to his defense, and so the Imperial Court was split in two. In the end, the weight of evidence tipped the scales in favor of his critics. Koukan was relieved on his authority, taken into custody and was now awaiting sentencing.
Shouryuu listened to Youko explanation and shook his head. "So that's what it's come to."
"The court officials are sticking to their guns. Keiki has repudiated their handling of the case. And so everything is up in the air. The word is they'll give him a sinecure and put him out to pasture and sweep the whole affair under the rug."
"You speak of it as if it were somebody's else's problem."
Youko managed a thin smile and didn't answer.
Shouryuu said, "Getting a handle on the Imperial Court is always a challenge for a new king. But you've got to know when to take it easy, too. You ride everybody hard all the time and your fair-weather friends will start thinking up with ways to bite back. Backbiting is always the easy first step."
"So it is."
"If they're the type who will back down when the king turns up the heat, then don't make a big deal out of it. In any case, you want to keep things in proportion."
"Was it hard for you starting out?"
"You might say. There's no need try and hurry things along. With a king on the throne, the natural disasters and calamities will abate. By that alone, you are performing a great service."
"But that alone won't do."
"Why do you think kings are given such long lives? Because what needs to be done can't be done in fifty years or so. You're not working against a deadline, so pace yourself."
Youko nodded. "But you must have things that weigh on your mind."
"You mean the things that make your head hurt just thinking about? There's no end to them."
"If you didn't have any problems, you wouldn't have anything to do. It'd get boring." So said this king, who had ruled his kingdom for five hundred years. With a tone of voice somewhere between sarcasm and self-mockery, he added, "And if it did, I'd probably destroy En just to see what happened next."