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The Comparison Game

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The palace chambers were overcrowded and hot, lit by standing candles and braziers. Hiromasa knelt in the second row of noblemen facing the centre of the room and tried to pay attention to the fifth—or was it the sixth?—comparison game of the evening. Two ladies-in-waiting held up bolts of double-dyed silk, soliciting opinions from the assembled guests as to which showed the truest shade of lavender.

Hiromasa blinked, the candlelight blurring. The warmth of the wine he'd consumed earlier edged him closer to sleep. Perhaps if he closed his eyes for a few moments, he'd feel better. He took a deep breath, inhaling the aloeswood and cloves of the incense and the sharper stink of sweat from his neighbours. Still, the smell was not unpleasant, and Hiromasa settled his chin against his chest and drifted, the chatter of conversation washing over him.

What felt like a heartbeat later, Lord Kinsue elbowed him in the ribs, bouncing Hiromasa awake. With a start and a snort, Hiromasa righted himself. He overcompensated, tipping in the opposite direction before he caught himself. His court cap slid forward and he put up both hands to shove it back onto the top of his head.

A chorus of stifled feminine giggles broke out from behind the screens to his right. His face hot, a blush burning across his cheeks, Hiromasa hunched down in his formal cloak of stiff black brocade. A second glance at the screen showed the trailing hem of a gown patterned with embroidered red maple leaves on a black and silver background. A closed fan tapped on the cloth then lifted, an unseen hand opening the fan halfway.

Hiromasa smiled at the shadowy forms of the ladies behind the screen, grateful for the gentle flirtation. Even if he had no intention of following through, at least it would keep him diverted for the rest of the evening—as long as he could keep himself awake.

He couldn't remember the reason for this party. The host, the Minister of the Left, was drinking steadily and wore a glazed expression as another two gentlewomen displayed another two bolts of cloth, this time dyed deep blue. When Hiromasa looked around the room, he was unsurprised to see several other noblemen nodding off or conducting whispered conversations with their neighbours. Few of the men seemed to be following the game with any sort of interest, though from the eager murmurs behind the screens, the ladies were discussing the quality of the silk and the dyes.

Seimei knelt on the other side of the room, closest to the blinds rolled down to shield the party from the sight of the garden in darkness. Occasionally a breeze would send the blind rattling and tapping across the floor by a hand's breadth, and Hiromasa wondered if Seimei felt the draught.

He didn't appear to notice anything, though his gaze was fixed to the bolts of dyed silk. Seimei sat so still that Hiromasa wondered if he was meditating. That was similar to sleeping, or so he thought. He would have to ask Seimei for tips on meditation. Since Hiromasa had a habit of dozing through official meetings, it would sound better for his excuse to be 'I was meditating' rather than 'I was asleep'.

The ladies-in-waiting seemed to sense the lack of interest in their blue silk and took to addressing the gentlemen by name, requesting their opinions. Startled into paying attention, the men bleated platitudes and praise.

"Lord Seimei," one of the ladies said with a practised smile, "you stare so intensely at the silk it's as if you're an expert with dye. Perhaps you could decide for us which cloth has the truest colour?"

A stir ran around the room as people registered the lady's barbed remark. Drawing in his breath, Hiromasa squirmed with sympathetic embarrassment.

Seimei raised his eyebrows, his expression mild. "Why do you need my poor opinion? I am no arbiter of taste."

"Oh, Lord Seimei, how can you say such a thing!" The lady-in-waiting stepped back, playing to her audience. "Your relationship with Lord Hiromasa is widely known, and he is acknowledged to have exquisite taste and discernment—at least in most things. Given the closeness of your special friendship, Lord Seimei, one would have expected some of his discernment to... rub off on you."

The guests all hissed in admiration, and the lady flushed pink with triumph.

A smile curving his lips, Seimei said, "I regret, ladies, I cannot judge between your fabrics because the light in here is so poor. Surely everyone knows the true test of a dye should be undertaken at midday under bright sunlight—not at night by candlelight. Darkness and half-light makes fools of us all."

His response caused a delicious, scandalised sense of shock. Hiromasa wasn't the only one to muffle his laughter, and the lady turned pale with humiliation.

Apparently aware that something had happened, the Minister of the Left grunted out of his doze and waved his empty wine-cup. "Is it over? Is it finished?"

The ladies-in-waiting both looked annoyed. "No, Excellency, it's—"

"Ah, good. Looking at cloth is so tedious." The Minister of the Left gazed at his guests, a drunken, beatific smile on his face. "Another game! Not cloth, though. Anything but cloth. How about some singing?"

A groan rumbled through the room. The Minister of the Left was as notorious for his dreadful singing voice as he was for his fondness for alcohol. Resignation set glum lines into the faces of the guests. None of them could make their excuses and leave just yet—it was scarcely the hour of the Rat, and these gatherings usually dragged on until daylight.

Anxious to stave off a vocal contest, Hiromasa knelt up. "Excellency, why not listen to the song of crickets? It's a pleasing sound and one we will all enjoy. Many of the good people present have pet crickets in their rooms. If they brought their pets here, we could delight in a full chorus of crickets."

The Minister of the Left gave Hiromasa a bleary look. "Crickets, you say? Good idea, Lord Hiromasa!" He rocked back on his cushion and clapped his hands. "Yes, yes—everyone whose rooms are nearby, go and fetch your crickets. We'll hold an insect singing contest!"

More than half of the guests stood up, murmuring that they'd be back soon. Hiromasa received several grateful looks as people shuffled past him on the way to the corridor, and he felt certain that many of the guests wouldn't return. Not that the Minister of the Left would notice—he was more interested in calling for more wine.

Hiromasa sighed. He wished he kept a pet cricket in his palace rooms so he, too, could avoid the rest of this tedious party, but his crickets resided in delicate bronze filigree cages in his house in the south-east quarter of Heian-Kyo. A shame, as his crickets had a lovely, soothing song, one that always sent Hiromasa to sleep no matter how heavy his cares and worries.

He glanced across at Seimei, who smiled in that infuriating, irresistible way. Hiromasa blushed and busied himself running his forefinger over the pattern of his brocades. Servants poured fresh wine and offered around a selection of snacks as the guests began to rejoin the party with their crickets.

The room was filled with the trilling, whirring, and chirping of the crickets. The Minister of the Left seemed delighted and called for each courtier to show off their pet. A dozen noblemen and gentlewomen lined up, holding their cricket cages aloft, and the sound of the guests' admiration momentarily rose above the song of the insects.

Hiromasa studied the cages with interest. Many of the courtiers housed their crickets in bronze, as he did, but others preferred copper. One nobleman held a bamboo cage, his greenish-brown pine cricket visible behind the tiny bars.

"Simplicity," the nobleman claimed, "the cricket desires simplicity in its surroundings so it may better focus on the purity of its tone!"

It sounded like a strange idea to Hiromasa, but everyone else nodded and murmured in approval.

Everyone but Seimei, of course, but no one paid him any attention until, with a deep sigh, he stood and went over to the assembled nobles and cages. Ignoring the indignant stares of the courtiers, he walked along the line opening the cage doors. After a moment, the crickets emerged from their captivity, their antennae quivering before they launched themselves from their cages onto the floor.

Hiromasa hid a smile as the insects began to leap around the room. Their owners squawked in protest and all but fell over each other as they tried to retrieve their pets. The Minister of the Left applauded and shouted with laughter, especially when two gentlemen tried to claim the same cricket and the insect bounced away from them.

Seimei stood in the midst of the chaos he'd created. He held out his hand and a dark brown bell cricket jumped onto his palm, its light-coloured antennae waving.

"In China," Seimei said, his voice silencing the other guests, "courtiers place bets on their crickets and make them fight."

"How vulgar!" a lady cried from behind the screens.

Seimei smiled. "Indeed." He lowered his hand and the cricket dropped to the floor. It sat motionless for a heartbeat, then flung itself at one of the other crickets and began to grapple with it.

The Minister of the Left stumbled down from his dais, keen to watch this new sport. The courtiers, men and women both, crowded round. Hiromasa stood looking over their shoulders, his attention not on the fighting insects but on Seimei, who watched sharp-eyed and silent as the bell cricket defeated its first opponent and turned on the next. Seimei's stillness reminded Hiromasa of his fox nature, and he shivered.

At length only the bell cricket remained standing, though it had lost a leg and damaged an antenna during its battles. The floor was strewn with the corpses of dead crickets, and the excited mood of the courtiers drained away leaving a pall of sorrow. No one spoke. The good people sat slumped on the floor, their features flat.

"Seimei." Hiromasa looked up, horrified. "The bell cricket killed them all!"

"That is their nature." Seimei made a gesture and the cricket came to him, leaping onto his hand.

Hiromasa stared as Seimei smiled at the insect. "What will you do with it?"

Before Seimei could reply, the noblemen shook off their sorrow and all began speaking at once. The victorious cricket should be returned to its cage—no, to the most expensive cage—or perhaps to the bamboo cage. It should be fed on delicacies to encourage its fighting spirit. It should be given drops of wine to drink. And next week, when it had rested, it would be pitted against new rivals. Every gentleman claimed they had an insect at home that would best the bell cricket.

Wagers were made, the bets increasing in size. The Minister of the Left offered one of his properties in the east of the city. Another lord wagered his younger sister's virtue. Hiromasa ignored the rising excitement and went over to Seimei, who still held the bell cricket. "What will you do with it?" he asked again, quietly.

Seimei looked at him. "Set it free so it may find a mate. That's the only reason it fought so hard."

Hiromasa nodded. "And then what will become of it?"

"It will die." For a moment, Seimei held his gaze. When the cricket trilled its pure note, he smiled at it. "Who knows, Hiromasa—next year, you may be listening to the song of its children."

Seimei carried the bell cricket towards the veranda. He paused to lift the blinds then ducked beneath them, the song of the cricket fading as he walked away.

Hiromasa watched him go into the night. It seemed the party was over.