To Minister Fujibashi’s credit, he did not show up in a state of dress to her apartments, already planning for an assignation under the guise of kickball. She greeted him at the door in brown and white striped hunting trousers. Then she gamely led him into the yard, armed with rice wine and two kickballs.
She threw the silver ball at him.
“This looks a little…sodden,” said Fujibashi.
“Hush,” Funako said. She poured the wine. As she handed him his cup, “I am hosting a salon at Prince Bu’s palace this evening. I would like you to come.”
He sipped his wine. “Thank you,” he said carefully.
“It will be a small gathering, only the choicest members at court. Do you understand?”
“I’m not?” asked Fujibashi with a frown.
“You’re not,” admitted Funako. “However, as the flower blooms and falls, only to bloom again, I will be here to nurture your blossom.”
“I’m not sure that’s the most apt metaphor.”
“Hush. Simile.” She put down her cup and began bouncing her golden ball on her foot. “We are going to start with all the things you did right last night.”
“Actually, let’s not. The poem was a nice bit of inspiration, and if you had not said it, you would not be here. Let’s go over all the things you did wrong.”
“I did not do anything wrong!”
“See, it’s that kind of rule-bound, bureaucratic thinking that’s retarded your progress.”
“Well, I am a bureaucrat,” he said. “And I have my pride, so I am not going to stay here to be insulted if that’s what this is.” He put down his cup and thrust the ball at Funako.
She gently pushed the ball back to him. “That’s not what this is.” She let her own ball roll over the grass, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Stay, please.”
Men generally loved it when Funako said “please,” and Fujibashi did not appear to be an exception. He paused. “Then what is this?”
“I want to make you my protege. I am sick of being surrounded by stupid men at parties, and I would rather take a brilliant man and make him the idol. Maybe it will inspire the stupid ones to improve and really see what it means to be a shining prince.”
“Or minister,” she agreed.
Minister Fujibashi paused, considering her. Funako wondered if he could sense that there was something else, unsaid. She glimpsed Asuka through the blinds, running through the house. Her face was pinched with worry. She should have left to meet with their father by now.
“All right, Princess Funako,” said Fujibashi finally. “I accept your generous offer. As the shining gem of the court, you are no doubt the best person to instruct me.”
When Asuka passed by the next cluster of open blinds, her face was a mask of deep thought.
“The salon is going to meet this evening, late. There is a password to enter Prince Bu’s Paulownia Pavilion, and you must trade a scroll to enter.”
“A scroll? That’s a high fee.”
“That’s the cost,” said Funako with a dismissive wave. “The salon is secret. The password will be ‘evening faces.’ Right now, I am going to tell you what I am going to say tonight, how you should act in response. Tomorrow we will meet again. We will do the same thing for three days and three nights. Then I’m going to meet you at other parties, and I want you to follow my teachings. You are smart, so I have high hopes for you. By the end of the week, if you’ve made an impression, I will take you home with me after the salon. We will be in a relationship for another week, and if you embarrass me, I will…”
“I do not want to know,” interrupted Fujibashi. “Really? We will…”
“Do you find me unattractive?”
“I find you very attractive,” he said honestly.
“Good, that will make things much easier. I can’t just have you making eyes at Master Shiho all night long—“
“I was not making eyes!”
“Hush. You totally were.” She raised her hand as if to stop him from speaking. “Don’t interrupt or correct a lady. It will not endear you to her, no matter how clever you think you are. If you must respond to something absurdly wrong, just smile.”
He looked at her, wary. “Isn’t that condescending?”
“Only if you’re alone,” said Funako, patient. “But if you’re alone, you can say you agree with her absurdly wrong statement. In fact, if you’re alone, I highly recommend agreeing. But if you’re around others, you don’t want them to think you’re an absurd idiot, right? So, smiling gives her a response, and a smile to the others might seem a little joke. Like, I can’t believe you just said that. That sort of thing.”
She paused. “What I need you to understand is this; the written rules of etiquette are the minimum. You know those rules. Everyone worth knowing knows those rules. How deep to bow. What flowers to refer to in a poem at the right time of year… But beyond the rules, you have to learn to please the people that matter, make them happy, make them so caught up in what you do that when you are brilliant, they will love you for it instead of resent you. They will give you jobs and presents and rank beyond measure because they love you. Translating personality into the material. That’s the game.”
Fujibashi sat down on the ground, his kickball long forgotten. Funako glanced back at the house, but Asuka was gone.
She sat down across from Fujibashi and she painstakingly went through each interaction she observed him in the night before. The neutral. The bad. Then she stood and stretched, like a cat before, launching into a description of what he could expect the next night.