Hiromasa trudged along Nishiki Road East, placing his bare feet carefully. A light rain had fallen overnight, enough to dampen the surface of the roads to sliding mud. It made walking a dangerous affair, especially in cheap wooden and plaited straw sandals. Particularly when the straw had gone rotten. After he’d slipped over twice, Hiromasa had given up on the sandals and took to carrying them in one hand. It made him look more like a peasant than a nobleman, but following several unproductive and unpleasant meetings with members of his family over the last few days, Hiromasa had begun to wonder if he wouldn’t be happier living as a peasant rather than trying to claim his birthright.
But his mother had insisted upon it, and Hiromasa had made a promise, and now she was dead and here he was in the capital, not quite regretting the promise but uncertain as to how to fulfil it.
Ahead, an ox-cart waited at the junction with Madeno Road. Hiromasa glanced at the handler, who wore the same placid expression as the beast he tended. The cart itself was undecorated, the side panels and canvas left plain. Hiromasa wondered who owned it. Perhaps someone of limited means; or maybe someone of exalted rank who wished to be discreet about his movements.
There was no other traffic on the street and no obvious reason for the cart to wait at the junction. Hiromasa gave the handler a polite nod as he passed. He shifted his broken and muddy sandals to the other hand and readjusted the biwa strapped to his back. He’d been lucky not to break it when he’d slipped earlier, so now it hung loose, bouncing across his back with every step and no doubt leaving bruises.
He’d gone scarcely five steps past the junction when the ox-cart pulled out, wheels rumbling. It drew alongside him. Hiromasa gave the handler a curious look, but the man ignored him. The ox ambled along, keeping pace with Hiromasa. It went faster when he went faster, slowed when he slowed.
Self-conscious now, Hiromasa darted surreptitious glances at the ox-cart. The small window in the side of the carriage remained shut, but nevertheless Hiromasa was convinced that the person, or persons, inside were watching him. But why would anyone be interested in him? He looked terrible, the hems and one side of his hakama covered in mud, his faded blue hunting costume worn thin at the elbows and fastened with twine rather than an elegant length of ribbon, and his lacquered hat dented and speckled with dirt. He looked barely presentable, which was perhaps why his relatives had viewed him with alarm rather than pleasure when he’d called on them.
Hiromasa stopped. The cart stopped. Hiromasa set off again. The cart followed alongside him. Hiromasa imagined himself breaking into a run. Surely he’d be faster than an ox-cart. Then he remembered the muddy road and how running would only exacerbate the jolt of the biwa against his back, and besides, the whole thing would present such a ridiculous sight...
He sighed and came to a halt facing the ox-cart. “Can I help you?”
After a pause, the cart rolled on a few paces and stopped again. A curtain at the rear was pushed aside and held back by a closed fan, and a man looked out. “How kind of you to ask, but rather I wish to help you.”
Hiromasa looked behind him, then up and down the road, wondering if the stranger was addressing someone else. “You want to help me?”
“Indeed.” The man smiled. He looked like he smiled often, and Hiromasa felt a warmth towards him.
“Goodness me, a direct question—how unusual.” The smile disappeared, but it lingered in the stranger’s eyes. “You can’t have been in the capital for long, my lord. If you wish to make a name for yourself here, you must learn both a little tact and the ability to prevaricate at length.”
Hiromasa stared. “Why did you call me ‘my lord’?”
“Because although you’re dressed like a peasant, you carry your worth as easily as you carry your sandals. You are a nobleman.” The stranger leaned forward, face alight with interest. “Tell me I’m right. I am rarely wrong.”
Despite his surprise, Hiromasa laughed. “Then you don’t need me to tell you you’re right.”
The stranger wriggled like a contented cat. “I would still like to hear it.”
“Very well, you’re right. My name is Minamoto no Hiromasa. I am the son of His Excellency of War, the late Former Prince Katsuakira.” Hiromasa bowed as best he could, the biwa swinging around to thud against his ribs.
“Ah,” said the stranger. He looked at Hiromasa with greater interest, then pushed back the curtain properly and tapped his fan against the floor of the cart. The ox-handler appeared around the side of the vehicle and folded out a set of steps, then stood back, as blank-faced as before.
“Please,” said the stranger, beckoning with his fan. “Join me.”
“I...” Hiromasa wavered, tempted by the offer. “Thank you, my lord—” for a lord this man surely was, although he had not yet introduced himself, “but I fear our paths do not lead in the same direction.”
The stranger smiled again, warm and charming. “The ox will take us wherever you wish to go.”
“You must have other, more pressing business to attend to.”
“Not at all.” The stranger’s smile became a chuckle. “I am quite at leisure.”
Unable to think of another excuse, Hiromasa unslung the biwa and climbed the three steps into the carriage. He put down the instrument and knelt on the wooden floor, concerned about transferring mud onto the colourful scatter of cushions. His sandals he tucked behind him out of sight.
The ox-handler stowed the steps and drew the curtains, enclosing them in a soft half-light. A moment later, the cart lurched and began to move forward.
The stranger tossed Hiromasa a cushion. “For your knees. I apologise for the poor trappings of my ox-cart. I have not yet devised a method of providing a smoother ride.”
Hiromasa took the cushion, fingering the embroidered design of silver thread, testing the quality of the silk. He slipped it beneath his knees and stifled a sigh of relief, immediately more comfortable. Sitting back on his heels, he took a proper look at his companion.
Sharp-featured, narrow-faced, the stranger had long eyes and a straight nose and a surprisingly full lower lip that hinted at sensuality as well as amusement. He was pale—remarkably so, even for a nobleman—and his skin seemed almost to glow faintly in the dim interior of the carriage. Hiromasa assumed this to be a trick of the filtered light reflecting off the stranger’s pristine white hunting costume. The stranger was far from conforming to the accepted ideals of beauty, but nevertheless there was something about him that Hiromasa found attractive.
Maybe it was the stranger’s smile, which showed itself again. “Do I please you?”
“Ah...” Hiromasa blushed, glad of the semi-darkness. He had no idea how to respond to the teasing question. Courtiers were supposed to be accomplished flirts, but he had little experience in the art. “You look interesting.”
“Interesting.” The stranger flicked his wrist and spread his fan, then lifted it to hide his amusement. “Thank you.” His eyes danced. “May I ask where you come from, Lord Hiromasa?”
“Musashi.” Hiromasa saw no point in hiding the truth. “My father was exiled to the province about thirty years ago.”
The stranger lowered his fan again. “You were born in Musashi? Yet you don’t behave like a provincial. Your parents raised you well.”
Hiromasa dropped his gaze. “They tried. Father died when I was still a child. After his death, Mother hoped we’d be able to return to the capital, but our circumstances were poor and although she applied to her family for assistance, no one was willing to help. But she never gave up hope.”
He smiled at the memory of her, surrounded by her women, sitting straight-backed and determined even when the illness had wasted her body. “I was lucky. Mother and her ladies were very educated. They made sure I could pass as a courtly gentleman... albeit a courtly gentleman of thirty years ago.”
“Fortunately court manners do not change as often as the colour combinations of ladies’ gowns,” the stranger said. “Apart from your propensity for speaking your mind, rest assured that your behaviour is quite correct.”
“Mother would be pleased.” Hiromasa’s smile faded.
The stranger hesitated. “She has passed into the Western Paradise?”
Hiromasa nodded, a stab of grief tightening his throat. He inhaled, then blew out his breath. “Before she died, Mother made me promise to return to the capital and regain our family honour. She said since I wasn’t born until seven years after the decree of exile, why should I suffer for my father’s errors of judgement?”
He looked at the stranger and saw quiet sympathy. “I am prepared to work hard to gain recognition at court. These last few days I’ve been calling on relatives from both sides of my family, but it seems none of them want to bear the taint of associating with me.”
“Goodness,” murmured the stranger. “I have heard your father’s name, but alas, I am ignorant of the facts surrounding his exile. What did he do to deserve such lingering disgrace?”
Hiromasa started to explain, only to stop when a thought struck him. His father had annoyed many nobles before his exile. Perhaps this gentleman was one of them, or at least related to one of them. Embarrassed, Hiromasa said, “I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.”
“Abe no Seimei.”
“Abe...” Hiromasa tried to place the family, but drew a blank.
“I doubt your father did my father any harm,” Seimei said softly.
Hiromasa started. “What—how—I mean...”
Seimei chuckled. “You really should learn to dissemble, Hiromasa. You have the most expressive face.”
A blush burned Hiromasa’s cheeks. He coughed and mumbled incoherently, gathering his thoughts. “About my father’s exile... I’m afraid I don’t know much. My parents refused to discuss it, and all I know is what I gathered from the servants. It’s something to do with a plot sponsored by the late Retired Emperor Uda—something involving Sugawara no Michizane, who—so my young and no doubt foolish father was led to believe—hadn’t died in Dazaifu but was preparing to make his triumphant return to the capital.”
“Ah.” Seimei’s eyes gleamed in the half-light. “A pretty tangle, indeed. I believe most of the records relating to that affair were destroyed on imperial orders. You would be hard pressed to find the truth now, after thirty years. Those who remember those days will certainly not speak of it.”
Hiromasa lifted his chin. “No matter what my father did, I am innocent of it. I don’t ask to be given a prince’s title and a prince’s pension. I just want to be given the opportunity to make my own way at court.”
“An opportunity the rest of your family would deny you,” Seimei said, his expression thoughtful.
“It appears so.” Hiromasa let his shoulders slump. “Without their support, I know it’ll be difficult to keep my promise to my mother. But I’m determined to find a way forward. Mother used to say out of the darkness came light. And even if my family have been slow to welcome me, other people in the capital have been very kind.”
Seimei smiled. “You are a man who inspires kindness.” He folded his fan and tapped it on the floor of the carriage. The ox-cart turned right and headed south. “Where are you staying?”
Hiromasa named an address in the fifth district in the western half of the city.
“No, no. That won’t do.” Seimei slipped the fan inside his sleeve. “A man of your rank shouldn’t sleep in such poor quarters.”
Hiromasa laughed. “I have no complaints. Besides, I can’t afford to take a house. What you see is all I possess, save for a few changes of clothes. These are my best garments—so out of date the design is almost fashionable again, or so I was informed by one of my great-aunts yesterday.”
“A man’s clothes do not matter half as much as a man’s spirit.” Seimei tilted his head, his gaze measuring and intent. “You have a flute.”
Startled, Hiromasa rocked back on his heels. “Yes.” He reached into his sleeve and took the flute from where it lay tucked inside his waist-sash. “A man gave it to me at Suzaku Gate this morning. I don’t know why. Perhaps he felt sorry for me.”
“A man.” A small smile curved Seimei’s lips. “May I?”
“Please.” Hiromasa handed over the flute and watched as Seimei studied it with the greatest of interest. “I tried a few tunes on it. The man insisted I play it before he gave it to me. It’s a fine instrument. A beautiful sound. A work of art.”
Seimei gave it back. “Its name is Ha Futatsu.”
Hiromasa frowned, puzzled. “It has a name? It... it wasn’t stolen, was it? Is that why the man gave it to me?” An unpleasant thought occurred. “Someone’s looking for it—now I’ll be suspected as a thief!”
“It is not stolen.” Seimei said, his voice soothing. “The gift was freely given.”
“How do you know?”
“I am acquainted with the... person who gave it to you.” A brief smile, the glitter of something unreadable in Seimei’s eyes. “The person at Suzaku Gate is very discerning. Keep the flute, Hiromasa. Keep it and play it and take joy in its music. Ha Futatsu only sings for truly good men.”
Hiromasa clutched the flute, admiring it anew. “Ha Futatsu.” He stroked it, glad that such a fine instrument with such a beautiful voice had a name. “I will treasure it the way I treasure Genjou. My biwa,” he added when he saw Seimei’s look of enquiry. Hiromasa returned the flute to his sash then drew the biwa from its wrappings and set it between them on the floor. “Genjou belonged to my father and before him to my great-grandfather, the Retired Emperor Uda.”
Seimei leaned forward, his hands graceful over the instrument. The cherry-wood and chestnut were rich with the gloss of ten thousand polishings, but still the biwa wore its antiquity in the dozens of fine scratches to its surface. Hiromasa had replaced the twisted silken strings himself, tuning the instrument to a sweeter sound than that favoured by his father.
“Beautiful,” Seimei murmured, fingers caressing rather than plucking the strings. Notes fell, soft as rain, almost inaudible. When he looked up, Seimei’s eyes were shining. “This is a remarkable instrument.”
“Yes.” Hiromasa touched the rounded belly of the biwa with fondness. “My father’s cousin Fujiwara no Tonaga advised me to sell Genjou. He said the price I got would be enough to set myself up in the style to which I was accustomed.” Hiromasa grimaced at the memory. “I think he didn’t realise Genjou’s worth. Not that I would ever sell Genjou, you understand. I suppose Lord Tonaga was trying to be clever.”
Seimei snorted. “Lord Tonaga is an idiot.”
Hiromasa suppressed his laughter, gleefully shocked at the bluntness of the statement. “He holds a high position in the Ministry of War. Not as high as my father’s former position, but high enough.”
“Perhaps it passed you by in the provincial backwaters of Musashi,” Seimei said, his expression droll, “but the country has had at least half a dozen uprisings, two rebellions, and a falsely declared emperor in the past ten years. Does this strike you as an example of wise strategy and good management on the part of the Ministry of War?”
“When you put it in those terms...” Hiromasa chuckled, glad of this fresh perspective on his self-important cousin. “But I cannot be too harsh. Perhaps he is skilled at other things.”
“Lord Tonaga is skilled at drinking to excess and making a fool of himself by pawing at court ladies.”
Hiromasa hid appreciative laughter. “You seem to be well-informed.”
Seimei’s smile was gentle. “It is my business to be so.” He knocked on the floor of the ox-cart, and the vehicle swung left.
Sounds began to filter through the walls of the carriage: the rumble of wheels, the lowing of oxen, the clatter of horses’ hooves, and the hum of conversation. The smell of spiced soup mingled oddly with the scent of sweet rice cakes as hawkers moved past the ox-cart crying their wares. Dogs barked and children shrieked with laughter. Someone was playing a tune on a flute, accompanied by the pounding of a drum. Cheers and catcalls suggested that a girl was dancing along to the music.
“East market,” Seimei said. He knocked on the floor again, two sharp raps, and the ox-cart shuddered to a halt. The silent, blank-faced ox-handler pushed open the curtains and unfolded the steps. Seimei indicated that Hiromasa should rise. “We have reached our destination. Leave Genjou here.”
“East market?” Hiromasa echoed. He pushed his biwa to a corner of the carriage and fumbled with his muddy sandals. “Do you have business here?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Seimei hopped down from the ox-cart and smiled up at Hiromasa. “Please don’t concern yourself with those sandals. Ogita the silk merchant is very particular about his floors and his clientele. It wouldn’t do for you to make a bad impression.”
Puzzled, Hiromasa abandoned his sandals and followed Seimei barefoot. “Surely I will make a bad impression by wearing no shoes at all. And besides, why would I need the good opinion of a silk merchant?”
Seimei gave him a patient look. “Ogita serves only the highest and richest of the nobility. He may only be a merchant, but you should never underestimate what a merchant can do for you—and your reputation.”
Hiromasa pondered this wisdom as they entered the shop. Ogita hurried forward uttering cries of delighted welcome. It seemed that Seimei was a frequent visitor here. Hiromasa gazed around at bolts of silk of every type and colour, some plain, some embroidered, some printed with designs. He examined a piece of fabric patterned with dragonflies, only half listening to Seimei’s conversation.
“For my dear friend Lord Minamoto no Hiromasa,” Seimei was saying, “I think this dark green for a lined cloak. And perhaps this blue-grey figured silk, since he is still in mourning. Brighter colours, too—we will need those for later. A particular shade of lavender, more purple than red... yes, in glossed silk. Perfect. We’ll take it in damask, too. And black, of course, for formal court wear.”
Too stunned to protest, Hiromasa turned and stared at Seimei.
Ogita bowed, an unctuous smile splitting his face. He indicated a bolt of cloth. “If I may be so bold, this orange silk would suit Lord Hiromasa’s complexion.”
Seimei scarcely looked at it. “Marvellous. Wrap it. Wrap all of it and deliver it to my estate.”
Hiromasa managed a strangled squeak. “What are you doing?”
“Shopping.” Seimei seemed pleased by the prospect. “You will need court hats and caps. Boots. Shoes. Undergarments. Sashes. Fans. Ogita, my thanks for your help! Hurry, Hiromasa. We have much to do.”
“But...!” Hiromasa trailed after him, shocked and embarrassed by the promise of such extravagance. “You’re too kind to this humble person. Much too kind. Please, Lord Seimei, you must know I can’t possibly repay you!”
Seimei paused, gave him a gleaming look. “Not now, perhaps. Later you will find a way.”
Hiromasa blinked, uncertain, wondering what that could possibly mean.
“Shoes!” shouted Seimei as he crossed the busy street. “Hurry, Lord Hiromasa—you need shoes!”
Shoving aside the moment of disquiet, Hiromasa ran after Seimei.