Prince Bu was the heir to a king of a western island famous for horse ranches. Every year his father sent shiploads of beautiful horses as tribute to the hiwau, and his family was rewarded handsomely. Many princes were also the sons of lords. Some princes were the sons of foreign kings, like Prince Bu. Honestly, it could be confusing. They should have probably come up with a better system, Funako thought. But that was what history had dumped in their laps. All princes.
Funako was technically a princess too, and just the daughter of a foreign lord, just the niece of a foreign king, so she did not actually question the system aloud. Besides, questioning the rank system just made people uncomfortable.
Umiguni, where Shinrusu Province was located, actually produced better horses. But Umiguni would not lessen itself by sending tribute to the hiwau like Prince Bu’s little island. In return, the hiwau promised spiritual and material protection. Umiguni, who’s kings and queens claimed connections to the Ocean gods, viewed themselves as superiors, if not equals to the hiwau and his Sun Goddess.
To Asuka, these things were magic. To Funako, they were politics.
And so were the dresses, the poems, and the slight bow she gave to Prince Bu as she strode out onto his veranda. He sputtered over his wine cup with delight, abandoning conversation with the minister beside him.
Funako gave the minister an apologetic glance, a flash of a smile. He flushed. One future interaction made easier, she thought as she turned her focus on Prince Bu. He was a tall, mildly attractive man who had been slowly growing a mustache for as long as Funako had known him. He wore too much gold cloth, which was an overcompensation because he was from a tiny country. He was technically a crown prince. Funako had stayed over at his place a few times. She tried to not make a big deal out of it.
Prince Bu still sent her poems occasionally, and she always got invitations to his parties, although she turned down enough to signal her level of interest. But in Prince Bu’s defense, he threw good parties, and tonight’s affair was no exception.
Besides, she needed to get scrolls for her little sister.
She gave a slight nod, knowing how splendid the shadows played over her skin and the folds in her many layered robe. Prince Bu placed his hand on her arm, momentarily disarmed. Speechless.
Just how Funako liked her men.
“Hey, Prince Bu,” she said in her low voice. It was her intimate voice, that she used one-on-one, especially at dawn when she had to slip away. It was probably the last voice she had used with him.
“I didn’t know you were coming.” He gave a distracted gesture towards the inside of the palace. Like all palaces in the Capital, Prince Bu’s was a one story affair with sliding doors and walls that opened onto a veranda overlooking a garden. Most of the nobles were still drinking inside, but a few had ventured into the garden. “I would have done more.”
She gave a coy smile, another slight bow. “Don’t say that,” she said in a teasing tone. “If you had done more, I would have to spend twice as long getting ready, and then I would really resent you for it. No one would have a good time.”
A few nobles inside had noticed her presence and gravitated towards the veranda. Prince Bu kept his hand on her arm, deflated at not keeping Funako all to himself for a little longer.
“Do you know how many bleached seashells I had to crush,” she pointed to her face, “to achieve this?”
“I’m sure you didn’t powder the shells with those hands,” joked a minister. He handed her a cup of rice wine.
“True,” she said with a shrug. “They’re hands only good for a few things.”
She met each person of consequence at the party, greeting them all by name. The nobility of the Capital was a relatively small group, but the conversations among them were a complex art form. If nobles were not trading poems, they were at least referring to the seasons or classical works, making puns, or double entendres—all the while carefully balancing and referring to rank.
However, the drunker everyone became, the looser the expectations.
Funako had referred to all the little seashells that had washed up on the bay’s beach. It happened in late spring of every year. And she had made a double entendre. She scratched the shell reference off the mental list she had prepared for this party. It would not do to say it twice.
She spotted Master Shiho through the layers of multicolored robes and painted faces. He was a walking hazard, if her instincts were right—and they were always right. She fanned herself.
It had not helped her opinion of him that he had slipped out of his bedroom in the middle of the night and left her alone when she woke.
She was very unaccustomed to being abandoned, especially by a man in his own damned room.
Funako was self-absorbed, a fact that she was very aware, but that vanity was coupled with a high self-awareness. Shiho was surrounded by two nobles: Lady Muishō, who no doubt wished to be his lover, and Minister Fujibashi. Who might also want that.
Funako had once made a bet with Prince Bu over her ability to remake Minister Fujibashi into a court favorite. She had jokingly bet her hand in marriage. Prince Bu had staked “everything.” They had been pretty drunk at the time, it must be said.
Funako guessed that Minister Fujibashi would not abandon a lady in his room the morning after.
All that aside, Funako had gotten distracted and abandoned the bet with Prince Bu, never speaking of it again. But at that moment, she remembered her bet. She remember Asuka and her scrolls.
She took a wine cup from whoever was handing her one, eyes narrowed at Master Shiho. Speaking of things that had been abandoned and would never be spoken of again.
What a shame. She tipped the rice wine into her mouth.
He was so well put together. There were a lot of things a man could overcome with the right shade of fabric, the right cut, and sheer cleverness. Shiho was not overcoming anything. His skin was a touch too dark to be fashionable, but he was not wearing makeup… He was tall and slender, and his hair had been delightfully short enough for Funako to run her hands through it. His eyes were beautifully light.
The robes Shiho chose were charcoal gray with silver smoke, severe in simplicity, but the most fastidious dandy would not find issue with his outfit. Minister Fujibashi was a pretty fastidious dandy, and Funako would not be surprised if he came outfitted in charcoal and silver at the next gathering.
Funako suspected that Shiho did not want to distract viewers from his face. Good call. Nice face with those cheekbones and big cedar tree eyes. He had full lips. Funako had not known she liked that on a man.
The longer Funako stared at him, the more unsettled she became at Master Shiho’s appearance. He was so well put together. If Funako could paint, and someone told her to paint a handsome man, the lines of that man would look like Shiho. But the mysterious noble from the Frontier had enough variations to be more interesting than a perfectly symmetrical, well-formed model. She could sense something in her gut about his appearance, but she could not place it. Something unnatural about his look.
Then, Funako’s self-awareness kicked in, and she realized that she was miffed about being abandoned so she was probably projecting. So, she let that go.
When the moon reached its peak, all the nobles left the inner palace for the veranda to do the moon-viewing. The night of the party had been chosen because of the full moon. It was late spring, and the mists in the air obscured the moon slightly, but it might make for some unique poetry dedicated to the occasion. Funako sat on the edge of the veranda, her feet dangling. She was just recalling the poems she prepared, and judging by the silence that had fallen over the group, so was everyone else.
A terrible poem at such a gathering would make someone a laughing stock, ruining reputations for years.
According to etiquette, Prince Bu as the host was supposed to start the poetry contest. But instead, he re-appeared in the garden with something hidden on his arm beneath a cloth. As Funako maneuvered her way to the front of the group, Prince Bu yanked the cloth away with a flourish.
It was a pair of yellow kickballs. The men all cheered.
As the cheering subsided, Minister Fujibashi’s voice rose above the crowd. “But none of brought our playing clothes. You expect us to do this in—“
“It’s a challenge,” interrupted Prince Bu. “I’m going to call it…” He trailed off.
Funako gave a little huff. Prince Bu was not the imaginative type, not a brainy sort usually, and she did not want to wait all night for him to come up with something suitably poetic. “Spring Moon Style,” she deadpanned, pointing up at the reason for their gathering in the sky.
Prince Bu threw the kickball with unnecessary force at Minister Fujibashi. “Exactly.”
Chirikai smoothed back his hair. Clearly distressed, Minister Fujibashi clutched the kickball, threatening to crumple the paper mache.
As Prince Bu chose his first two players and directed them to the most open, flat part of the garden where they could be easily seen by the group, a servant carried out a large wooden tablet to record the players and winners, arranging them in a little tournament. The servant leaned the tablet against the tree, and a court scribe gamely volunteered to help him write the names. Probably because he wanted an excuse not to compete.
“Master Shiho,” called the scribe, “what characters do I use for your name?”
“My name?” He walked up to stand beside Funako, momentarily disarmed by the question. Funako raised her eyebrow at him. “It’s the character for purple, followed by fire.”
“Ah,” said Chirikai to Funako. “He’s writing my name on the board.”
Funako pursed her lips, analyzing the men who volunteered.
“You’re displeased with me,” Chirikai continued, in undertone. He had leaned towards her ear, and Funako was terribly pleased with herself for not letting his nearness bother her.
“Did you know that the court scribe,” she said with a wave, “is paid to write down obvious things all day long?”
“Do you want to know another obvious thing?” Funako whispered in his ear in a mockery of secrecy.
“I don’t know how to play this game?” he whispered back.
Funako drew back. “You’re not serious.”
Chirikai stared back at her.
“It’s simple,” she sighed. “The player who keep the ball in the air longest wins. They count the number of kicks.”
She left out useful advice, such as to keep the ball low and within your control, deciding to let him figure that out as he sauntered over to play. But Chirikai, it turned out, was a natural athlete. Funako had remembered his muscles from their night together, unusual for a noble. His control in bed did not seem to translate to kickball.
Other party guests gamely—drunkenly—decided to play with flailing limbs, torn fabric. Everyone laughed loudly at the minister who tumbled into an azalea bush, as overloud sports commentary mingled with bad poetry.
As one prince bet the ivory dice from his sleeve against the mother-of-pearl medicine case of a lady in favor of Shiho, Funako tactfully ignored them. She kept her eyes on Minister Fujibashi and Chirikai.
As Minister Fujibashi continued to calmly bob the kickball back and forth between his feet, never sending it above his waist, Chirikai knocked his ball higher and higher into the air, to the delight of the onlookers.
Basking in the cheers and attention, Chirikai grinned and kicked it even higher. Funako covered her face, staring through her splayed fingers. Any second now.
Chirikai whacked the ball with the end of his foot, and the delicate paper mache crumpled.
“Oh, crap,” said Chirikai. Lady Muishō gasped at his language, dropping her wine cup.
The malformed lump whizzed away from its player, and Chirikai lunged to rescue it. But he misjudged and landed with a stomp, crunching the ball under his foot.
Lady Muishō gasped again.
There was a fair amount of control required in aristocratic kickball. The balls were not supposed to be onetime use. Chirikai bent over and picked up the muddy, crashed mass of paper, dismayed. Funako pursed her lips, trying to decide whether to risk helping him or to let him suffer.
Then, Lady Muishō’s musical laughter broke the silence. She swooped over to Chirikai and poked the ball. “It looks like my present to you, Prince Bu has been decided for me! You need a new kickball set.”
Everyone laughed, and Chirikai followed Lady Muishō off the playing area into the crowd.
“Minister Fujibashi is to face off against Prince Bu, the host of the inaugural Spring Moon Kickball,” muttered the court scribe, and he scrawled this on a little notebook he kept in his sleeve. “We have to send a servant to fetch a fresh ball…”
A servant returned from the neighboring mansion with a new ball to replace the one Chirikai crushed. As Funako listened to his easy laughter, she decided that Chirikai had a lifetime of other people dealing with his crushed kickballs and that she was lucky to be done with him.
In preparation for the final round, Minister Fujibashi took off his hat and turned to hand it to someone. Funako stepped in front of the servant to take his hat, careful to make passing eye-contact but not enough to distract him from the game. She fluttered her eyelashes—he stumbled.
So, she failed on the not-too-distracting. She couldn’t help that the lighting was particularly flattering and she had not stepped in front of a butterfly bush on purpose.
Prince Bu evenly bounced the ball between both his feet, moving around the garden. Minister Fujibashi balanced it in the crook of his ankle, lobbing it into the air when he felt steady. He almost lost the ball at first, still recovering from Funako, but he came back to his senses when she rolled her eyes at him.
She folded her arms with satisfaction, pointedly ignoring the increasingly amorous comments from Chirikai and Lady Muishō behind her. She tipped up her chin and sniffed.
They had been friends as girls, her and Lady Muishō, a friendship that had long since burned down because of their court ambitions.
As the kickball match progressed, Funako realized a problem. Like Chirikai, Prince Bu was being increasingly flashy with his kicks and catches. He made conversations with the party-goers and roamed his garden. He was a million times more entertaining than Minister Fujibashi, who stood there quietly bobbing his ball.
Minister Fujibashi was going to win. But Funako could imagine Prince Bu’s disappointment at losing, and that would throw a cloud over the party. Minister Fujibashi would not gloat, but probably silently accept his victory, and that wouldn’t be fun at all. Also, it was Prince Bu’s party, and he had been excitedly hosting this tournament. It was obvious he expected to win.
Also, Prince Bu was more popular.
If the final match had been between Chirikai and Minister Fujibashi, it would not have mattered socially who won.
But in this match, Prince Bu ought to win. For the sake of the gathering. It would even be better for Minister Fujibashi if he lost gracefully, she thought, as people would respect him even more.
It was a courtly calculation that Funako spent her days doing. How to keep the most people happy while gradually creeping up the social hierarchy.
Funako remember Prince Bu’s bet, and she mentally made this a test for Minister Fujibashi. He could be the path to Asuka’s scrolls.
Like magic, Minister Fujibashi looked up from his kickball and met Funako’s stare. It was pointless, but she willed her thoughts at him. She gave side-eye to the crowd on either side of her. She pantomimed kicking feet with her middle and pointer finger. She looked at Prince Bu. Then back to the crowd. Then at him.
Minister Fujibashi gave a slow nod.
He started kicking the ball higher and higher into the air. Some of the women gasped, and they started watching him too. Then with a grunt, Minister Fujibashi sent it flying.
He jumped to catch it, but the ball landed at the top of a tree.
“No,” cried the neighbor, who had lent the kickball and was watching the party through the fence. “That was my last ball!”
“Prince Bu wins!” shouted the scribe. Everyone cheered, except for the poor neighbor. The servants ran for sticks and ladders to poke the ball out of the tree.
“What happened, Minister Fujibashi?” asked a lady, and the scribe, waited eagerly, his brush poised.
Minister Fujibashi gave a little laugh, self-conscious. Funako knew it was calculated, but it sounded natural—there was hope for him yet.
“I was too busy thinking about the poetry after the match,” he admitted. “I got distracted on that last kick.” Then, he said:
What a lovely evening,
Poems over the kickballs
Spring moon overhead
Oh, bravo, thought Funako. It really was a perfect poem for the moment, and a few people even clapped.
“Poems over the kickballs,” repeated Prince Bu with a moan.
“Dumplings over flowers,” said Lady Muishō, quoting the maxim.
“Only fat people want dumplings over flowers,” said Funako. “When I am married and more obscenely wealthy, only then will I enjoy the dumplings.”
They all laughed. Most humor is cruel, and nice girls did not climb to the top of that particular pile. There was a thin line to walk, because straight-up cruelty was only popular in witty, powerful men. Funako tapped her lip, as if thinking. “But perhaps dumplings are better than poems.”
“Why?” wondered Chirikai.
Funako gave him a winning smile and glided over to Minister Fujibashi’s side. She placed her hand on his arm. “Because despite its humble appearance, we love the dumpling anyway. We need the dumplings, don’t we? A dumpling is food, which we die without.”
Minister Fujibashi stared at her, trying to read her meaning. He looked conflicted, unsure if Funako was labeling him a dumpling. Funako held her smile.
Then her smile grew, lighting up her face as an idea lit up her mind. Yes, Minister Fujibashi would be her key to Asuka’s needed scrolls.
“And poems beat kickballs,” finished Prince Bu, breaking the silence. “I feel like we should design some kind of game out of this, since they all trump the other… Maybe something with hand gestures…”
“Why don’t you play against Prince Bu, Princess Funako?” interrupted Lady Muishō, far too loudly. “You’re supposed to be a fabulous player.”
Funako stilled, but she kept her smile on her face. Never drop your smile, her mother would say. She merely laughed, as if Lady Muishō was being ridiculous.
“Seriously,” Lady Muisho said with a pleasant smile. “You practice in secret, right? I’m sure you would be a challenge for him.”
It was a distinctly masculine game. Funako would never, ever play it in public, especially when the likelihood of losing was so high. She felt her robes heavy on her shoulders; she could barely move in her multilayered robe, much less kick.
Funako kept her witticisms and poetry, where she could win. Lady Muishō wanted to make a fool of her.
“Oh, Lady Muishō, you must have misheard me earlier.” Even the suggestion of Funako playing sent an interested ripple through the crowd, and Funako needed to end that interest fast. “I was talking about a different sort of ball. You know, in secret. That, I am very skilled at, but it’s quite different. I’m not sure it translates to this game…”
Everyone laughed, and Funako flashed Lady Muishō an facetious, apologetic smile as she glided back to the palace. She let Prince Bu pour her wine.
“Do you think it would be a good idea for me to host a salon?” wondered Funako aloud. “It’s been on my mind lately.”
A salon was a gathering of aristocratic artists and writers, usually a very private gathering.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Prince Bu said. “You always lead the most interesting conversations.”
“Really?” She pretended to consider this for a moment. “I’ll have to wait until the end of the summer. Our gardens are just not at their height…”
“Have the salon here,” he said, with a feigned careless wave.
He would love to host her salon. Funako could tell.
“Hmm… I don’t think I could accept that.” She demurred. It would be bad form to accept directly. She had hoped he would offer, and she would send him a note accepting the offer with details later.
“You should,” he said.
“I’ll think on it.” She gave him a shallow bow and walked away to another conversation.
Prince Bu was an athletic sort, who had grown up riding and training royal horses sent from his family’s island. Minister Fujibashi could ride and shoot a bow, no doubt as well as the next nobleman, but that didn’t explain his kickball skill. Funako asked him about it as they refilled their wine cups and listened to the murmur of poetry in the garden.
“It’s the books,” said Minister Fujibashi, pleased with himself. “I have to balance and carry them around all day for work.”
“You practice too,” said Funako dryly.
“I practice too,” he admitted. “But only once I’ve had something to drink.”
“No man plays kickball sober,” said Funako with the same emphasis as a proverb. “Would you like to come over and play with me sometime?”
“I thought you did not play. Are you asking me something else, Princess Funako?”
“No,” whispered Funako, “I’m really asking you to play kickball.”
Maybe he was not only interested in men, she thought, as he gazed at her mouth. She was going to make him one of the most popular men of the summer, and Prince Bu was going to answer that forgotten bet and give her a library. Which Asuka would trade for her little research project as she roamed around the city.
Prince Bu had promised her “anything.”
It was going to be Funako’s greatest victory, and no one would ever know it happened. Somehow, that made it even better.