XXVIII. The Magic Lesson in the Paulownia Pavilion

The Paulownia Pavilion was named after the purple flowers that bloomed in the trees surrounding the building. It was tucked away in the corner of Prince Bu’s garden, hidden by the heart-shaped leaves and towering wisteria that had been tamed to conceal it. It was where Prince Bu took his lovers, and it was one of Funako’s favorite places in the Capital. 

He had shipped in the mahogany for the pavilion from far southern islands, just enough for the roof, columns, and smooth floors, but the plants served as the walls and screens. The wisteria vine climbed along the ceiling, dropping flowers on the floor that had to be swept away. He had scattered plush pillows to allow guests to relax. Low tables held drinks and soft-burning oil lamps. 

It was the seventh night of the salon. She had passed a grand total of fifteen scrolls onto Asuka, but by the time she left them in her sister’s rooms, Asuka was already gone. Funako vowed that the next day, always tomorrow, she would confront her about her ridiculous schedule. She wanted to talk about her grand scheme with someone.

Fujibashi was a fast learner, but the intimate setting of the salon was intense. He had trouble learning when to insert himself in a conversation and when to remain quiet. Funako had always broken it down to speaking patterns, waiting for the perfect pause. A breath. That was a hard thing to teach, and it was the difference between social awkwardness—failure—and ease. 

Fujibashi had begun to find his own rhythm over the last two days. He made small talk with the ministers he knew at first, but now he had branched into talking about diaries with the twin princesses. 

Funako was so proud of him. He wielded her advice like a brush making strokes over a page. He was not a natural courtier. But he was a poet, and a poet could handle anything. 

She planned to talk about poetry today and keep the discussion focused on that. It would be easy for him to show off his prowess, preferably at the end of the night. 

She leaned over her table, matching seashells. Clam shells had been decorated with gold, and their insides had been painted with matching images. She flipped the seashells over, then tried to match them as she sipped wine in the low light, watching the night’s salon visitors give the password to the servant and step up from the garden into the pavilion. 

She was magnificent, purposefully so. When she left with Minister Fujibashi on her arm, she did not want a soul in the Capital to be unaware. She had invited a chronic gossip—the wife of the court scribe—whom she liked, but doing anything around her was a more reliable way to spread information than a postal letter or setting up a billboard in the market. 

With a wide smile, Funako leaned over the floor to pour wine into Prince Bu’s cup. Her multicolored robes, all shades of red, splayed over the floor. She had pinned a cream sash over her shoulder and lined her eyes in scarlet paint—she intended to make it a look. 

“Prince Bu, do you remember a bet we made months ago?”

He laughed, but looked at her warily. “Which one, lovely?”

“Lovely,” she said, “the marriage one?”

Prince Bu looked across the pavilion at Minister Fujibashi as he chatted easily with the scribe’s wife. He froze.

“You aren’t,” he stated. 

“I am,” she said with a cheerful nod. It was stupid to tell him. Asuka would have told her that. But Funako didn’t see the point of reviving the bet if Prince Bu didn’t even know a game was on. 

Funako liked people to think her a simpleton. Even when her father had told her she couldn’t be a shaman, she had never thought herself a simpleton. She was not Asuka, that was true. But if people wanted to believe that she was only concerned with fripperies, she would let them. 

Prince Bu was a simpleton, but she had never witnesses the depths of it until that moment when he turned condescending. He gazed at her with pity. 

“Lovely, why would you tell me? Now there’s no way I’ll let you win.” 

He was so confidant, and Funako did not know why. He should be worried. She was going to launch a discussion on poetry, with one of the best poets in the Capital—Fujibashi had edited two anthologies of court poetry—and then she was going to leave with him. Over the next few days, the court would fall over themselves to “discover” him, and he was going to respond with her days of teaching. She was going to win. 

She laughed because that distracted him, and it gave her a minute to compose herself. She imagined stomping her nerves, like an insect under her dainty shoe. She matched the last few golden seashells with their partners, and then she reached over to touch Prince Bu’s hand. 

He patted her hand, pityingly. 

Rising to begin the salon, she clapped two pieces of wood together, letting the noise reverberate in the intimate pavilion. Crickets chirped in the bushes, filling the silence until Funako spoke. 

“This evening, if you will indulge me, I wanted to begin with a poem I composed on the way here…” 

She was just about to recite the opening line, when the bushes at at the entrance to the pavilion shook, and they heard voices speaking with the servant. She glanced at Prince Bu, who was poorly hiding his smile. 

On default, Funako also smiled, and with an apologetic bow, she walked over to investigate. The moment she reached the edge, the hiwau stepped up into the Paulownia Pavilion. 

Funako’s heart dropped to her stomach. 

The hiwau was traveling incognito. He wore jade robes and a purple cloth over his head like a veil, hiding his lack of a crown. But Funako would recognize that face anywhere. His lack of a crown and official garb marked this as an unofficial, practically secret visit. 

She gave a low bow, but didn’t trust herself to speak. 

The hiwau gave an awkward bow of his own. “I left a scroll with the servant,” he said cheerfully. “We’ll just sit in the back, if that’s fine?”

Funako had never wanted protocol more in her life. “Whatever you like,” she said as the hiwau gestured for his companion to enter the pavilion. “We’re not too formal.” 

“Excellent,” said the hiwau. 

Behind him, his companion entered, and he was, without a doubt, the prettiest man she had ever seen. Moonstones glinted in his long hair, his eyes as black as the night behind him. He wore black robes, which were exquisitely made, but no attempt at fashion. His natural beauty had been blunted by his gauntness, unusually thin like a peasant she might see by the roadside. It was unappealing. 

His eyes were rimmed red by crying or makeup; she could not tell, and it would be rude to stare. 

The hiwau reached over to help his companion into the pavilion. The man had stained hands looked as if they had been dipped in indigo dye.   

He was clearly foreign. Yet, the way he stepped from his simple straw sandals and leaned towards the hiwau for a murmur marked him as high nobility of some sort. Funako noticed that he wore a string of black bells around his ankle. Which meant he was from the northern empire of Gekkōguni? Perhaps. Asuka would know. It was unusual for a person to practice such a foreign custom in the hiwau’s Capital. 

He looked depressed, which would terrible for her gathering. But he was the hiwau’s companion—the hiwau—so she couldn’t turn him away. The hiwau made no effort to introduce himself, which would be pretty stupid, Funako thought, because everyone there knew who he was. This was going to be an open secret. 

Or it would be, if the scribe’s wife wasn’t here. No secret. The whole Capital was going to know. In detail. 

Prince Bu gave her a toothy grin. He knew. 

He had known the hiwau was coming. 

Funako resisted the urge to panic. All her careful conversation plans had been calibrated on being between people of near equal social standing. There were jokes she could make with her salon, but she would never make them with the hiwau even though they were the same age. 

She watched as everyone drew fans from their sleeves and breast pockets, nervously fluttering in the warm spring air. 

“I’m Kouji,” said the depressed young man. He gave a slow bow, then followed the hiwau to a corner where he gazed off in the distance as if he did not want to be there.

Funako still did not know who in the world he was. Which made this all a million times harder. 

Fujibashi, bless his heart, was staring at Funako and blazing with determination. We can do this, his eyes said. We have got this. 

In the same way she imagined Asuka balancing the interests of nature spirits, she quickly calculated the changes she could make. Some things she abandoned. Some remarks, she would not know if they worked until she made them, and Funako hated damage control, but she would rather it be in her capable hands. 

Everyone was obsessed with rank. Funako followed the protocol rules, but handling everyone’s nerves about the most powerful man in the country present was going to be a feat. They would be worried about their rank, if they said something out of line. 

Which meant that Funako was going to be talking a lot. With her own rank and reputation on the line instead. 

Prince Bu winked at her. And her marriage to a sport-obsessed simpleton was on the line. She could not seem to forget that. 

She took a deep breath and managed a self-deprecating grin. 

“I believe I promised you a poem,” said Funako. “I always fulfill my promises.” 

 

Paulownia branch

Dipping in the late spring air

Full of baby birds

Now, where is the mother bird? 

 

The members of the audience mulled the poem over in silence. Then, Prince Bu leaned over, that competitive look in his eyes. 

“Is that all?” he asked. 

He knew her just a little too well. She liked longer poems. The original version had been suggestive. Of course. Funako dodged. “I was hoping the members would propose a connecting line.” 

“A poetry game,” said Minister Fujibashi, coming to her rescue. 

“Why don’t you continue the poem a little further,” Prince Bu suggested. He pinned her with a look, took a sip of wine. “We need a better feel for the rhythm.” 

If they had been alone, Funako would have slapped him and tied him to a pillar in his own bedroom. Instead she sank to her feet, lounging on the pillows. High risk for total victory, or there is no victory at all. 

She stared at the hiwau, her lips teasing a smile. If he wanted casual, she would give him casual. 

 

Now, where is the mother bird? 

She’s in the oak tree

with a strapping jay

in the hopes that the next nest

baby birds will actually fly 

 

Funako gave a long whistle and poured the hiwau some wine as if he were a normal courtier. “Who’s going to fly for me tonight?” she asked the group. 

“Oh my, what is that supposed to mean?” asked one of the twins with an unsure glance at the hiwau. Funako rolled her eyes. 

The hiwau nudged Kouji, who was sitting with his arms crossed and utterly humorless. 

Funako swallowed and took a moment to recover as the other twin continued the poem. Her terrible mother bird went on a journey around the room as each noble added to the tale. The bird went to an orchard pull of peach blossoms (seasonal), then was captured alongside her new lover the Nightingale (from Fujibashi, classical reference), and they escaped into the mountains but got lost in the spring mists (seasonal). By the time the mother bird returned to the Capital, many episodes later, everyone had begun to loosen up, and it was Prince Bu’s turn. 

 

She flew down a road

Distracted by old birdsong

Sundial perched birds

The babies she left behind!

Then an ox cart hit her! 

 The mother bird died. 

 

Prince Bu stopped, terribly pleased with himself. He folded his arms. There was no way anyone could continue that poem. 

“The end?” she asked him nicely, but her voice heavy with venom. 

“The end.”

Even the hiwau seemed unsettled at the ending being death, and Funako noticed him glancing at his friend. Something was off, and she knew they could not leave it there. A laugh and a gesture would not fix the moment. The hiwau’s foreign companion had been dragged here because he was depressed, and while she did not expect she could make him laugh, she could make it better. 

“I’ll take it back,” she said. She thought quickly, adding up the syllables as easily as breathing. 

 

What a disaster!

The ox crashed into a house

But the nightingale

distracts as he carries her

in his brave rescue

She is alive, so alive

magically living

in the telling

 

It was not Funako’s best, but she saved the atmosphere from falling morose. She flashed everyone a smile, flicking her long hair over her shoulder. 

“What a poet,” said Prince Bu as she refilled the hiwau’s glass. He glanced at the hiwau. “Magically living… But you know about magic, don’t you, Funako?”

Funako paused, just barely, before placing the bottle on the shallow table. It was as if her mind had frozen.

“It’s a different magic, I’m sure,” said Fujibashi. “I’ve never seen a Shinrusu revive a bird.”

One of the twins laughed. 

“But either way,” Fujibashi continued easily, “that is in poor taste.”

Prince Bu deflected with a wave of his arm, his face pink from the wine. “But, Funako, you were trained as a shaman, right?”

She gave the hiwau an embarrassed smile, feeling cornered. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss magic with the High Shaman to the Sun Goddess, four cups in. How many cups had the hiwau had? she wondered. Not enough. Definitely not enough. 

But she could still feel that anxiety that tied up her mind, like wrapping a runner’s ankles in ropes, because normally she could handle this kind of thing, this was at Lady Muishō’s level, hardly worth a pause. 

And yet, she was pausing. 

She remembered her father telling her no, ever so gently. Her mother smacking her, climbing into the carriage that first time. They had struck her name from the plaque at the Umiguni Grand Shrine—they did it with a chisel, ripping out the wood—and her powers had vanished as her contract with the gods. No magic. Not good enough. 

She could see the white of her makeup shimmering on the watery surface of the black lacquer table where she had placed the rice wine vessel. Funako reached over, taking it, the rough pottery a comforting weight in her hand. Something in the familiarity of the vessel brought her back. She knew this. She knew how to do this. 

She smiled, tilting her head so that the silver specs in her hair would catch the light as she lowered her eyes. She gave Prince Bu a sly smile—she did not feel the smile, but she knew how to do it without feeling it. “I do not believe I am the most qualified person here to explain shamanism to you, Prince Bu.” 

“I know the basic ideas,” said Prince Bu, and the dismissive wave did not look so sharp the second time. “What about the water magic?”

“Oh, what would you like to know about Shinrusu magic?”

“How were you trained? You must have such a unique perspective on the whole process.”

Funako laughed, covering her mouth. “As a shaman who’s training was never completed?”

“I would be interested in what you think?” said the hiwau. “When you live something, you do not have so much perspective on it.” 

“E-exactly,” Prince Bu said. “Asuka cannot talk about it, right? Because she’s actually in training.” 

Funako raised her eyebrows at him, but leaned back in a performance of being relaxed. “Well, I guess—“

“You guess?” 

“Well, I guess,” she repeated sweetly, “it all starts with the god. Don’t interrupt me, Prince Bu. You’re asking a woman who didn’t finish her training. There’s going to be a lot of guesses.”

The hiwau leaned back to nudge his companion, Kouji, who raised his eyes to her.

“The first thing, is to make sure that the God of Water likes you. If he doesn’t approve of you, then the Ocean Gods will not listen to you, and, like, the river deities, you have to win them over one-by-one. The God of Water approved of me, but he didn’t say much. ‘Are you sure? Okay.’ That sort of thing. That should have been a sign. Anyway, it’s sort of like Court, you know. If no one likes you, what power do you have?” She forced a laugh. “I was never good at the technical stuff. Asuka is amazing at that.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” began Funako, really wishing that the hiwau was not there. In fact, she was wishing with all her heart that no shaman would ever hear her ham-fisted outlook on her family’s High Shamanism. “Basically, you can think of shamanism in two parts. There’s the technical and the diplomatic.” 

“Okay,” said one of the twins as Kouji morosely poured her some more wine. “So, the diplomatic is just getting along?”

“Yes, exactly!” Funako grinned. “Like, let’s pretend there was a shaman and a goddess. And the shaman and the goddess traded poetry, because the goddess just wanted to have a fun night hanging out with the shaman, and maybe her other godly buddies didn’t like poetry. And, the shaman just ends his part of the poetry game with a dead bird. Ruining the goddess’s evening.”

Funako glared at Prince Bu, and Fujibashi and the other’s laughed. 

“So, are you the goddess in this scenario?” asked the twin. 

“Why not?” said Funako haughtily. “When was the last time you saw cheekbones like these? Never, I bet.” 

This earned her some more laughs, a smile from the hiwau, and she felt her rhythm. 

“So?”

“So, what?” Funako prompted. 

Fujibashi picked up the question. “So, the goddess is upset with her shaman. What then?”

“What might happen, let’s pretend that the shaman is walking in the woods. He comes across a bear, so he does a bit of magic to protect himself. But when he does the spell, nothing happens.”

“Because the goddess is angry with him?” said the twin princess.

“Because the goddess is furious with him. And let’s pretend the shaman only gets, like, a little mauled by the bear.”

Prince Bu crossed his arms. “A little mauled? What does that even mean?”

“Hush. Details. Anyway, he goes back to his shrine, and maybe she’ll let him do a little magic here and there, purifications and boring stuff.”

The hiwau actually laughed at that. Kouji hit him with his dyed hand, and Funako just kept talking. 

“So, maybe the goddess forgives him if he is very nice, and maybe he sends her a makeup poem. Or, maybe they don’t repair their relationship and he never gets to use big magic ever again.” 

“That’s a little harsh,” said Prince Bu.

“I don’t think so,” said Minister Fujibashi. 

“You can’t upset the goddess you’re connected to through your shrine. If you make the god or spirit angry, they won’t give you the powers you need to perform magic in the first place.” 

The twin tapped her lip. “So, you can only do what the goddess allows you to do?”

“Yeah. And, actually, you can have relationships with lots of different deities, and they can give you powers. You can have contracts with them, and that way, when you’re in their domain, they can give you magic to use.” 

“If you’re from a shaman family.”

“Actually,” said Funako delicately, not wanting to offend anyone—the hiwau. “Actually, that’s a common misconception.”

“Hmm?” said the hiwau.

Funako paused for a moment, remembering her father’s careful words for once. “Anyone can form a relationship with a god and become a shaman,” she began. “You do not have to be from a shaman’s family.”

“But, I thought shamans were descended from gods.”

“They often are. Gods like their descendants, so… but actually, the Shinrusu are not descended from the Water God. Or the Ocean Goddess. On paper we are descended from some obscure deity of a coast, very lame. But actually,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “we’re not even sure the god exists. Someone might have made him up.” 

There were gasps. Even the hiwau was staring at her as if she was not serious or not. 

“I know. But you’ve got to remember that there are cases of hermits and random mountain men using magic. They have relationships with gods.”

No one wanted to argue that point, so Funako quickly moved away from the topic. The last thing she wanted to call into question was anyone’s right to rule, do magic, or collect taxes because she had too much to drink. 

“Anyway, this brings us to the technical part of magic. Gods have domains, right? Like, the god of a river control that particular river. The vast majority of gods are based in geography, like a specific place. So, often shamans can only use magic when they’re within the domain of the god. It gets messy and super complicated when there are multiple gods or spirits…” She leaned over and took the hiwau’s cup. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” 

She pulled the little lacquer table over so that everyone could see. She put her and the hiwau’s cup on the table next to the sake bottle. She picked some purple flowers and dropped them on the table too. “Okay, let’s pretend this domain is a mountain, and it’s the domain of the god of that mountain, right? Well, there’s a pond on the mountain.” She picked up the sake bottle. “So, there’s a spirit for that pond. Let’s pretend it’s a sake pond… that sounds fun.” She hummed as she arranged the things on the tray. “And the flowers, let’s say it’s nighttime and there’s an old moonflower bush. So, at nighttime when the flowers bloom, the spirit of the old bush have peak powers… What else?”

The hiwau pointed to his cup. “Is there moonlight? If so, that’s reflected sunlight, so the sun goddess has minor domain there as well.” 

“Minor domain?” asked Fujibashi. “Does that mean there’s a major domain too?”

“Yes,” said the hiwau, “in this case, it would likely be the Moon God, or the god of the mountain. They’re going to have the most power.”

Kouji sighed and held out his empty cup. “You’d better add this to the tray…”

“Thank you!” Funako placed it on the tray. “Moving gods, or gods and spirits that change based on time complicate things. I wasn’t even going to get into major and minor. Like…” She placed her fan on the tray. “The Wind Goddess would be here too, right?” 

Kouji gazed at the tray, as if the layout was of the utmost importance. The hiwau nodded. “If there’s wind.” 

“Anyway, you have to calculate all this when you perform spells. I was never good at this, actually.” She picked up the bottle, filling the hiwau, Kouji, and her glass with wine before handing them back to their owners.

“To the better teachers,” said Minister Fujibashi. “To the mothers and fathers that teach us our crafts.”

Everyone drank. Funako looked to Fujibashi, sensing something in the weight of his words. His gaze but flickered for a moment. In the corner of her eye, she saw Kouji. The foreign mourning clothes. He was the hiwau’s companion. She remembered him handing her his cup when she mentioned the Moon God, right after the hiwau had given her his to stand in for the Sun Goddess. 

She had simultaneously never felt like such an idiot. Oh well, there is no point in dwelling on it. She rolled her eyes at herself, then raised her cup in a second toast. “To the current and future, properly trained shamans!”

Everyone drank. 

As they drained their cups, Fujibashi said: 

 

Moonlight on purple flowers

Warmth on my hand

From that time we passed the mountains

A lone bird singing

Echoing from those nights

When we thought we had lifetimes 

 

They all sat in silence, listening to the night sounds around the pavilion through the veils of flowers. Kouji, ever so perceptibly, bowed his head to Fujibashi. 

“You will have to forgive me,” Kouji said, his voice tight. “I am not very good at your poetry. But if I would continue it…”

We do have lifetimes.

He swallowed, staring at some corner of the pavilion. 

Just not together.  

The words hung in the air like flowers for minutes after they were said. The hiwau was the one to finally break the silence. “Fujibashi, you will have to do another royal poetry anthology, just to include that poem.” He wiped at his eyes. “I have never been so pleased to have found myself in an informal gathering before.” 

Kouji said to Fujibashi, “Perhaps you need not go through so much trouble as that. But send me it written out, when you have a moment.”

“Of course,” said Minister Fujibashi with a bow. Funako could not believe her eyes, as she felt herself swelling with victory. “I am embarrassed to ask, but where shall I send it?”

“It seems our incognito rouse is up,” said the hiwau jokingly. 

Kouji did not seem amused, but his mouth did move in something resembling a sardonic smile. “I am Kouji of the Yumewara, heir to the—no,” he caught himself, like a man stumbling. Funako understood. She could not imagine breaking such a habit as ingrained as her title. “Excuse me. My father has passed onto the mountains. Kouji of the Yumewara, Prince of Gekkōguni, and High Shaman of the Moon God. You may send it to the Gekkōguni Palace.”

His father has died, making him the new high shaman, Funako thought. His mother is the Empress. 

By the next day, everyone would know that Kouji was the new High Shaman of the Moon God, the most powerful shaman of their neighboring empire to the north: Gekkōguni. By the next day, everyone would know that Minister Fujibashi had moved them to tears and saved a secret evening, hidden in the flowers. It was the stuff of novels. Funako wrote stories, and even she could not have imagined something like this. 

There was a whirl of wine, sake, more poems, and farewells. Funako left the pavilion with Fujibashi on her arm, the winds of victory at her heels.