Funako was fascinated by morning routines. To be fair, she rarely woke in the morning, but she knew that her lovers kept consistent morning routines. As for her family, her mother awakened three hours every day, starting her routine before dawn. Her mother, it was safe to say, was borderline insane. No one should be waking up before the sun, Funako thought, unless they had to sneak out of someone’s bed.
She knew that Asuka combed her own hair, cleaned her teeth, and gobbled down breakfast before taking the carriage to the shrine. When she occasionally saw Asuka in the morning, it was always the same.
She heard a thump from Asuka’s room.
So, Asuka was not following her routine. Again.
The servants peeled tiny citrus fruits before rubbing the oil in her hair. Funako gazed at her reflection in the silver mirror, narrowing her eyes.
One of the girls picked up a bowl of white powder. Funako raised her hand in objection. “No. Not for this.”
Funako pushed them away and got to her feet. She strode towards Asuka’s rooms. But, a servant waylaid her, frantically whispering about people at the door. With a huff, Funako turned on her heel, and went to the front door instead. “It better be the hiwau himself, on his knees, with an offer of marriage! And a solid gold robe.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” whispered the servant as she opened the door.
Funako stared out at Prince Bu, who was followed by a flock of brightly colored servants carrying boxes.
“Speechless, I see,’ he said. “Well, Lovely, I know when I have been beaten. Despite my very best efforts, you and your little protege performed admirably. I have it on good authority that he sent his poem to the new High Shaman… and it seems there is a new anthology in the works. If that is not a brilliant debut, I do not know what is.”
Funako grinned as the servants carried the boxes into the palace.
“I believe I owe you poem,” said Prince Bu, after a touch of hesitation.
Funako laughed. “What do you mean?”Fujibashi’s social life was like a little bird she had nursed to health, ready to fly away from her hands into the sky. She gave a contented sigh.
“Well, I am glad the goddess is happy at least.”
“You aren’t happy?” she teased.
He stared at her, a little dazed. Then, he said a little grumpily, “We’ll have to make another bet sometime.”
Funako took Prince Bu’s hand and kissed his palm. “Definitely,” she said. “However, you’ll never defeat me. I’m too good.”
He murmured a poem:
Like the close mountains
Reflected in the rice paddies
Words are just a mere echo
Sounding beloved mountains
“I love you,” said Prince Bu. “I’ll love you forever. Won’t you marry me?”
It was a surprise, and yet, it was not.
Funako just gave a smile. No, he would not love her forever. He was a simple man, with simple wants, and she was the shiniest gem at court. Her beauty would fade eventually—although it had a long shelf life, if her mother was any indication—and Prince Bu was the sort of man who would take another wife, another shiny gem that other men wanted. His love was not a sturdy thing—that night on the pavilion had confirmed it.
He would not love her if something bad happened to her. She looked around her gate, and she wondered who would stand by her if something bad happened.
She could not begin to imagine something so horrible that it would damage her social standing. But she felt a sinking feeling in her stomach at the realization that, yes, no one would here would stand by her.
“What’s wrong?” asked Prince Bu. “You have a strange face.”
“It’s nothing,” said Funako, smiling again. “I just remembered something. I have to go to my sister.”
She got to her feet, and she realized that she could not simply reject his marriage proposal, more formal than their numerous, tipsy conversations. She touched his arm.
I feel like mountains
Grounded, but wind-caught swaying
One day an earthquake
Or a ferocious red wave
Pulls me down to the valley
“Consider it,” he said.
She nodded, even more distracted and went inside as the last of the boxes entered the palace. She led the servants to Asuka’s room, entering unannounced. “I bring you… the library of Minister Fujibashi!”
She held up her arms as the parade of servants carried the boxes into the room. Asuka looked up from her writing table, bleary-eyed. “What.”
“I won a library for you,” said Funako. “Just like I said I would.”
Asuka look dazed, as if she was not processing what was happening. “How did you get this?”
“I won a bet.”
“What… what did you bet?”
“I bet myself,” declared Funako. “But I knew I would win.”
Asuka scrambled to her feet and tried to corral the servants in one corner of her room. “Please don’t touch my papers. Just keep them in the boxes. No, do not move my own chests. Funako, I am glad you did not lose.”
“Me too, honestly.”
“Just place them in this corner,” snapped Asuka.
Funako tried to ignore the disappointment she felt. “I thought you’d be happy.”
Rubbing exhaustion from her eyes, Asuka watched as they stacked the boxes. She tidied her own papers scattered about the deck. “I am grateful. I really am. These will allow me to visit so many more shrine libraries.”
“I’m glad,” said Funako, but she could not escape this sinking feeling. “Do you mind me asking…”
“I’ll tell you when I know enough to help you understand.”
“Oh,” said Funako stiffly. “I see. That’s how it is.”
“No, wait. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m tired. I meant—“
Funako held her hand. “No need, Asuka. I’ll leave you to your work.” She turned on her heel, and took a step towards the sliding screen when Asuka grabbed her hand, and she would not let go. Asuka practically dragged her back into the room.
She saw the fear, the strange desperation in her sister’s eyes. “What are you researching?”
“I don’t know,” said Asuka. “That’s what scare me.”
The full weight of the statement hit Funako. She shook her head. “It’s shamanism.”
“And you have to do this? It’s not just—“
“I have to do this. But it’s a secret. I can’t tell you, can’t tell anyone, even Mother and Father. I need you to trust me.”
“I trust you,” said Funako automatically. But I wish you would tell me.
There was something in the way she said Father, but like the strangeness of Shiho’s appearance, Funako let it go.