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Saturday, November 12, 2011
Cheri - Part 3
After the general announcement that women were now allowed to take the tests, Chèri ran all the way to the Inner Palace, and located Reiki. He was taking a momentary break, and was in the small private garden reserved for him alone. Ran and Ko recognized her, and let her burst into the area, completely surprising the Emperor.
Chèri flung her arms around Reiki, and squeezed him enthusiastically. “I can’t believe it! You actually got them to let me take the tests! I’m so happy I could cry!” She squealed.
Reiki mentally decided to make her truly happy at least once a week if this was how she planned to reward him. He held her close, and took advantage of her proximity by kissing her.
She growled in frustration and pushed him away. “Bah! Why do you always have to ruin a good thing?! No kissing!”
Reiki wasn’t about to let her walk away from him so soon, so he swept her off her feet before she could break completely free of his grasp. “I love kissing you, it brightens my whole day!”
Chèri was tempted to start yelling at him at the top of her lungs, but she inhaled to the count of three, and then exhaled just as slowly. She sighed. “Maybe so, but every time you kiss me, I can’t think straight, and that is not good!”
Reiki grinned. “Yes it is!” He kissed her again, and she forgot to struggle for at least a good minute. Suddenly, reality returned, and she jumped out of his arms. He tried to keep his hold on her, and they both fell to the ground.
Chèri landed on top of him. Unconcerned about his well-being, she scrambled to sit up – using him as a seat – and smacked him repeatedly. “I told you not to do that to me!”
Reiki wisely decided to change the subject before she remembered that she was sitting on the Emperor. “Would you like help studying for the tests? Both Ran and Ko passed them with high scores. I’m sure that between the three of us, we could have you ready to take the test in no time.”
Chèri looked to the sky as she thought this over. “Hmm… I’m not entirely sure that I need to study, but… yes. I would like to go over some things with you three. I want to make sure that I have everything straight in my mind.”
“Oh, so you’re one of those,” Ko muttered. He and Ran had come into the garden to investigate the noise, and overheard Reiki’s offer. Ran was torn between offering to help the Emperor up, and dragging Ko away so that they Emperor had the privacy necessary to take advantage of the fact that her body was intimately pressed against his.
Ko solved the problem by offering Chèri a hand. Chèri realized that she was using the Emperor as her own personal chair, and blushed. She accepted Ko’s offer, and got to her feet.
“One of what?” She asked curiously.
“One of those that learns easily and doesn’t need to study,” Ko clarified.
Chèri studied him carefully. He – like Ran and Reiki – appeared to be about 20 years old, and if palace gossip was to be believed, he had been appointed the Emperor’s personal bodyguard 2 years ago. That meant that he had to have taken the tests a couple of years before he turned 18, to give him time to rise in the ranks before being appointed. She cocked her head to the side curiously. “Well, aren’t you one too?”
“No!” Ko replied, his face reddening slightly. “I had to study for hours and hours each day!
“And even then, it’s amazing that he managed to pass the tests at all,” Ran teased, knowing full well that Ko had scored in the top 3 for the year they took the tests. Ran had also scored in the top three, and they had considered each other friendly rivals ever since.
Ran held out his hand to Reiki, who was subtly glaring at Ko. Reiki got to his feet, and Ran brushed the grass and wrinkles off Reiki’s wafuku. Ko instinctively felt bad intentions aimed at his back, and hastily dropped Chèri’s hand.
“Well, my father simply adores books,” Chèri replied to Ko’s statement. “He’s always borrowing books from the palace, and I read them whenever I have the chance. I guess you could say that I do study quite a bit, but I’ve always found it easy to remember what I read, so learning comes naturally to me. It’s understanding what I’ve read that I have trouble with. I used to have long scrolls stretched across my walls so that I could write out what I’d learned and try to connect things so that they made sense.”
Chèri looked around the garden, and noticed that while Reiki had a cup, there wasn’t a pot of tea to be found anywhere. “Here, let me go borrow a pot and make some tea, and then we can all sit down and go over the things that might be on the test.”
Reiki nodded agreement, and Chèri rushed off. Ran grinned, and lightly backhanded Ko across his chest. “This will work in our favor!”
Ko arched his eyebrows. “How?”
“After we go over things with her for a couple days, we’ll know exactly how likely she is to pass the test, and we’ll be able to bet on it in the pool! She might just make us each a small fortune!” Ran explained excitedly.
Ko rolled his eyes. “Which you will immediately go waste in the pleasure district!”
“Of course!” Ran agreed with a grin. Reiki laughed. Because he hated to spend his nights alone, he had often hired a woman or a man to come share his bed, but he had never actually gone out to the pleasure district. He suppressed a sigh of frustration because he had stopped doing even that when Chèri came into his life.
As Emperor, he was entitled to have as many wives and mistresses as he wanted, but he couldn’t think about anyone but Chèri at the moment. He turned his head to hide a dreamy expression as he remembered her enthusiastic embrace from earlier. That was definitely worth facing my Advisors for!
Chèri returned with a tray carrying a pot and three cups, and they all got comfortable around a table the servants had lugged out here earlier. “So… where should we begin?”
Chèri paced her room nervously. Today was the day the results of the tests were announced, and she was torn between going to see them and hiding here in her room until tonight when no one else would be around to witness her check the public announcement board in the Outer Palace. She even had to remind herself not to chew on her nails!
There were three tests. The first was the placement test, which was designed to weed out anyone who clearly could not pass either of the others. If one passed the placement test with a lower score, they were eligible to take the minor test.
This test was designed to allow those that passed to obtain employment as minor officials. They were generally clerks, and pretty much never got promoted. They also weren’t allowed to work in the palace, and were generally assigned to various regions. Therefore, the minor test was more often given in the regional offices rather than in the palace.
Lastly, there was the major test. If a person scored fairly highly on the placement test, they were allowed to take the major test. If they passed the major test, they were automatically eligible for positions in the various departments of the Outer Palace. These were the Officials who could work hard and rise to the top if they wanted.
After an hour of wallowing in self doubt, Chèri realized that she had already accomplished her goal! Even if she hadn’t passed the major test, she had scored high enough on the placement test to take it, which meant that she had officially passed the minor test, and could be assigned as an Official in a Regional Office!
This thought spurred her, and she dressed in practically no time at all. She gulped down her breakfast of miso soup with rice, and raced out the door.
“Good luck, Lady Chèri!” The workers fixing the wall called out to her.
“Thank you!” She responded happily. “Do a good job today, all right?!”
They called out something – probably, “Will do!” – but she was already too far away to hear them.
A half an hour later, she skidded to a stop at the back of a crowd. Everyone was examining the large announcement board for their name. Each person who passed was listed somewhere on the board, and the number listed before their name indicated how they ranked compared to each other score wise.
The test was designed so that each question built on the one before it and got progressively harder. There was also a time limit. The examinees generally had a good idea of how they might rank depending on how far they got on the test before they either gave up or ran out of time. It was a rare person who ever actually finished the entire thing.
Chèri was tempted to chew on her nails again as she searched for her name starting from the lowest rank. I didn’t finish the entire test. There was still at least a page or two I didn’t get to. There’s no way I could have gotten more than a rank of 50.
By this, she referred to how the people that passed compared to each other. Only 100 out of the 112 people who took the test passed, and the one with the lowest passing score was listed as 100 on the board. The person who passed with the highest score was listed as number 1, and everyone else fell somewhere in between. There were lines that connected several names together, and those indicated that the examinees had scored the same, and therefore technically held the same rank, but were given separate numbers.
Chèri scanned the board quickly, yet agonizingly slowly. As she passed the name next to 80, she wondered if it was a good or bad sign that she hadn’t found herself yet. As she passed the name next to 50, she wanted to cry. I must not have passed after all!
She lowered her eyes to the floor in disappointment, and waited for the tears to stop stinging and go away.
“Who is Shurin Ruby? Isn’t that the girl who took the test?” Someone wondered aloud.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” another muttered. “The bitch!”
Several others grumbled in agreement, but Chèri ignored them. If they were talking about her, she had to be on the list!
“Where?! Where does it say Shurin Ruby?!” She demanded unexpectedly loudly.
All eyes suddenly focused on her, and a narrow aisle formed through the crowd. The man closest to the board glared at her, and pointed. “Right there.”
Third place???!!! Chèri clutched her chest over her heart, and gaped at the board. She felt like she was hyperventilating, and breathed purposefully to calm her pounding heartbeat.
She realized that she was quietly laughing like a crazy person, and people were slowly backing away from her. She threw her arms in the air, and jumped as high as she could. “YES!!! I did it! I passed the test!”
No one could blame her for being so happy, and a few of the other examinees even clapped and congratulated her on a job well done. She finally stopped jumping up and down, and placed her hands on her cheeks in indecision. “Who should I tell first? Father? Or…”
She turned around, and raced back to her home – got about 10 feet away, and realized that he wasn’t home. “He’s working in the palace today!” She announced, changed direction, and raced through the gates to the Inner Palace. The guards recognized her as a member of the Ruby clan, and let her through without a moment’s hesitation.
“Must be nice,” a few of the commoners muttered. Even if they rose pretty high, the chances of them being allowed in the Inner Palace were still pretty slim.
Chèri stopped short the moment she entered the silent library. Her father was pouring tea for the Emperor and his 2 bodyguards. She blushed when she realized that she must look like a total mess after running around town and through the palace.
“Chèri…” Reiki murmured when he noticed her standing just inside the entrance.
Sho turned to grin at his daughter. “Was that you I heard shouting a few moments ago?” He asked.
Chèri laughed in mild embarrassment that apparently she was heard all the way in the library. She returned her father’s grin. “I passed!”
Sho set the teapot aside, and opened his arms. Chèri lightly ran to him, and flung her arms around his neck. “I passed!”
“I knew you would,” Sho murmured in her ear as he held her tight. “I think we should go out to dinner tonight to celebrate.”
Chèri gasped. “Go out?! Do you have any idea how much money that’ll cost? We still have to come up with a bit more to pay for the wall, and –”
Sho laughed. “Can’t you let yourself celebrate just this once?”
“I am celebrating, and I don’t need to spend any money to do it,” Chèri stated with a grin.
“You could always have dinner here in the palace with me,” Reiki offered.
Chèri pulled out of her father’s embrace, and grinned at the Emperor. “That’s not a bad idea. After all, your food is partially paid for by the taxes I pay, so it’s only right that I eat some of it every now and then.”
“Congratulations on scoring third place,” Reiki told her softly. He had known that bit of information since almost the moment the scores were tallied. Ran and Ko also knew since the ranking list had already been leaked to those betting in the pool.
“You earned us quite a bit of money,” Ran informed her with a wide grin as he tapped the back of his hand on Ko’s chest. “We both bet you’d be in the top three, and the odds were nearly astronomical! I really feel that we should give our thanks by treating you to a nice dinner somewhere.”
“There was betting on whether I’d pass the test?” Chèri asked in astonishment. “I wish I had known that; I’d have wagered a couple gold pieces, and we’d have no problem fixing that roof!”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Sho replied. “That means that you won’t get mad at me for risking our money.”
“You bet our money!” Chèri roared angrily. “What if you had lost?!”
Sho sighed. “I guess I was wrong. I knew I’d win; it was a sure thing!” He defended himself. “There was no way that you’d fail the test.”
Chèri inhaled to the count of three, and then exhaled. She really didn’t want to argue the point considering how much faith he showed in her. Besides, he’d won.
“So, how much did you win?” She asked curiously.
“Enough to fix the roof and finish paying for the repairs on the wall,” Sho informed her.
“That’s great!” Chèri cheered, and then turned to speak to Ran. “As for you, if you really want to waste money on expensive food for me, then donate it to those who have nothing to eat. The amount you would spend on my meal would feed a whole family for dinner!”
“Spoilsport,” Ran muttered.
“You are so strange!” Ko blurted out. “I was one of those starving kids on the streets once upon a time ago, so I know what it’s like, but you… you were born into one of the 8 great clans! Why do you care so much about the poor?”
Chèri sighed in frustration. She felt like she would only be repeating herself if she said anything, so she simply turned her back on him. “I’m going home. I think I’ll make some tempura for dinner.”
“See you later,” Sho called out to his daughter as she left.
Reiki glared at Ko, who responded by leaning away slightly. “What?”
Reiki grumbled, but didn’t say what was on his mind. Sho decided to fill the silence by talking about what had happened three years ago, and by the time he was finished, Ko had a new respect for his cousin.
Chèri was lost in thought as she wandered back to her house. She didn’t notice as people pointed at her and whispered. She didn’t notice that the town was louder than usual.
“Lady Chèri!” The 8 year old boy from the temple gained her attention as she was about halfway home. He tugged on her hand, and dragged her after him.
Chèri laughed. “Where are we going?”
He grinned at her, but refused to answer. A couple minutes later, she was in a clear area reserved for gatherings. She looked around in surprised awe at all the food and decorations.
“Congratulations Lady Chèri!” The people all cheered. She was well known in Nortown, and everyone loved her. She was always trying to help the people, and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She had worked for almost everyone at one time or another.
“Oh wow!” Chèri held her hands to her cheeks to cover the deep red blush. “What did I do to deserve this?”
“You passed the test and scored in the top three!” They roared happily. Her success felt like a success for all of them.
She gave in without a protest, and bowed respectfully in all directions. “Thank you!”
A few people started playing music, and Junior invited Chèri to dance. She accepted with a grin, and was soon stepping in time to the beat. It wasn’t often that there was cause to celebrate, and the people took advantage of it joyously.
The people of the Empire were not prone to touching each other unnecessarily, so their dances reflected this. Instead of the waltzes she had learned in the faraway country, the traditional dances of the empire tended to be large winding circles of people dancing side by side. Praise would be heaped on those who could not only perform all the steps, but do so quickly, and without error. After all, their robes were not made for dancing, and it took skill to do so in them. Those that had trouble still had lots of fun.
Sho led his guests towards his house for dinner. “Hmm, I wonder what’s going on over there?” He murmured. They walked towards the raucous cheers and clapping. The music was lively, and drew attention. There was a massive crowd surrounding the commotion.
Reiki wore an extremely plain wafuku, and had nothing adorning him. As a result, no one would ever know he was the Emperor unless they already knew him well. However, a few recognized him from when he helped Chèri do a few jobs around town. Salya came up to him.
“Hello again, mister. Isn’t Lady Chèri something? She passed the major test in the top three! We are all so proud of her… Would you like to dance?” Salya asked as she waved at Sho. He returned her wave, and joined the circling dancers as they passed him.
Reiki looked to his bodyguards before answering the invitation. “Um… I never learned how to dance.” He declined, neglecting to finish his sentence. The traditional dances of the commoners, anyway.
“Ah, it’s easy!” Ran insisted, and pulled Reiki into the circle followed by Salya. He and Ko were also dressed a bit plainly, and blended into the crowd fairly well.
Chèri danced and ate until she was stuffed and exhausted. Finally, she indicated that she wanted to leave, but people protested. Their guest of honor couldn’t leave so soon! They begged her to stay a bit longer and play something for them.
Chèri bit her lip in indecision. While she could play any of the instruments they had on hand to lend her, her favorite was a small foreign thing called a fiddle. It had been a gift to her from the Queen on her birthday.
“Chèri! Chèri! Chèri!” The people chanted encouragingly. She caved in with a smile, and approached the place where the musicians waited for her. A man from the crowd tugged on her sleeve.
“When word spread through town earlier, I thought you might like to have this on hand,” he informed her as he handed her the case containing her fiddle. He was one of the workers fixing the wall around her house, and she knew he was a trustworthy fellow. She smiled, and accepted her fiddle with a courteous bow.
She stepped up on the small crate one of the musicians vacated for her, and readied her fiddle. She played a few test notes to make sure that it didn’t need to be tuned, and then lightly played a slow, beautiful piece. After a while, someone decided that she wasn’t properly elevated enough for people to see her, and surprised her by lifting her onto a table.
She gasped slightly, and then grinned at the crowd. With room to move around as she played, she decided to play something a bit more lively. Bouncing lightly, she played a jig from the foreign country. The crowd resumed their dancing.
When the first one ended, she began another, only this time, she sang the lyrics that went with it. It was in the foreign language, and everyone paused to cast her a surprised glance. Not only did she have a wonderful voice, but the language she sang in sounded like it was created specifically for singing! They honored her by having a contest to see who could dance the best.
Junior was surprisingly in the lead, and called out, “I think the winner deserves a kiss from Lady Chèri!”
“Ha!” Chèri snorted. “As if you could win Junior!”
“That’s not a no!” Junior pointed out with a grin.
“It’s not a yes!” Chèri countered. The crowd cleared, and a couple handfuls of men and women remained in the center of the dance contest. “I tell you what, I’ll kiss the winner if it’s a girl, but I’ll reward the winner with some wontons if it’s a boy!”
Junior groaned slightly, but nodded in acceptance.
“In that case!” Kiki announced, entering the clearing to join the contest. She was wearing a gorgeously expensive houmongi as usual. “You had better play something worthy, because I am going to win this!”
Chèri grinned at her friend. “You hear that boys? My friend Kiki is going to win, so you better just give up now!”
Chèri did her best to play something both lively and elegant, perfect for Kiki to dance to. The rest of the musicians recognized the tune, and joined in. The music soon had Chèri dancing as well – she simply couldn’t help it!
The table creaked and groaned under her dancing, but she paid it no attention. It was far too sturdy to break. So much for being overly full and exhausted!
Since the tune was one of the Empire’s most beloved songs, Chèri wasn’t the only one to sing it. People who weren’t dancing or playing an instrument clapped in time to the music, and it was soon clear that Kiki was the undisputed winner.
Candles had been lit and placed in lanterns as it got darker, and now the place looked simply magical! Chèri carefully handed her fiddle to the man holding her case, and clapped to congratulate Kiki on winning. The madam bowed respectfully in every direction.
“Are you really going to kiss her?” Junior asked as the clapping died down.
“Why not?” Chèri asked with a laugh. “She’s a good friend, and I did promise after all.”
Kiki elegantly held her hand out to Chèri, and smiled flirtatiously. “Will my Lady come down from there so that I may claim my prize?”
“Certainly!” Chèri giggled as she placed her hand in Kiki’s and allowed someone to set her on the ground.
Kiki chuckled deviously, and stroked Chèri’s face. “Men normally pay small fortunes for this privilege. I hope you know how lucky you are.”
Chèri didn’t know whether to hold still or do the kissing since she was supposed to kiss the winner, but Kiki made it sound like she was going to do the kissing. Chèri decided to compromise by meeting her halfway.
She expected a light smooch, but Kiki placed a hand on the back of Chèri’s neck, and showed her what a real kiss was. The crowd erupted noisily when it became obvious that this kiss was going to last a while. Some cheered, some jeered, but most of them called out suggestions of what could be done next.
Reiki stood with Ran and Ko at the very back of the crowd, and covered his mouth with one hand. He desperately wanted to protest, but as long as Chèri wasn’t kissing another man, he was willing to overlook her indiscretion. Even so, he was jealous as hell! She never lets me kiss her like that!
Ran was mentally promising himself to visit Kiki later on. He hadn’t seen her since he was called away from her arms a while back, and seeing her like this made her seem irresistible. I’ve even got a large amount of money to spend thanks to Chèri!
Ko looked mildly repulsed, and looked around the crowd for Sho. Sho was already on his way to them, an amused look on his face. He whispered to Ko confidentially. “I’m a tiny bit glad that she’s not kissing a man over there. Kiki’s a good friend, and they’re just playing it up for the crowd,” he added to reassure Reiki.
The moment the kiss was over, Chèri blushed, and covered her cheeks with her hands. “Wow!” She exhaled reverently.
Kiki laughed. “I know, right?” Then she held up her hands and addressed the crowd. “Lady Chèri, the pride and joy of Nortown, has lots to do tomorrow to prepare for her entrance ceremony the next day. I think it’s time that we let her go home and get some sleep.”
Reiki smirked. “The parties in the palace are never like this! Ran, Ko… you two go mingle with the crowd or whatever you want. I’m going to take a walk with Sho.”
Ran nodded with a huge knowing grin. He took Ko’s hand, and dragged him away. Aside from the fact that no one would recognize the Emperor, Reiki was a pretty skilled fighter, so they didn’t have to worry about him as much as one might think. It was only when he was in full regalia that they had to be vigilant. No one had anything to gain by assassinating him, so he was pretty much safe all around.
Sho led the Emperor to his house. The two of them had talked often in the library long before Chèri had stayed in the palace, so it wasn’t awkward for them to suddenly be alone together. Sho maintained a respectful formality, but also respected and sympathized with Reiki as a person.
Sho went inside to light a few candles while Reiki waited for Chèri to return. She didn’t see him there, and walked right into his arms, gasping in surprise.
“Reiki! What are you doing here?” She wondered, noticing that his arms felt wonderful around her.
“I originally came to have dinner, but I got full at the party. Now, I’m jealous, and I’ve come to erase that kiss from your lips,” Reiki informed her.
“You saw that?” Chèri whispered guiltily.
Reiki nodded, and captured her lips with his own. Chèri protested softly, but gave in to his demanding kiss. She vividly remembered her earlier kiss, and parted her lips slightly.
This kiss was different from Kiki’s, but in a good way. Chèri felt a strange fire race along her nerves, and she almost swooned. She found her fingers tangled in his wafuku, and suddenly remembered that being with him was against her current plans.
She pushed him away, and for once he didn’t fight to keep her in his arms. For one, he had what he wanted, and for two, he realized that he would demand a whole lot more if she didn’t put some distance between them. He was panting heavily, and decided that it would be wise to leave now.
“Pleasant dreams,” he murmured as he walked away.
Chèri was also finding it hard to breathe calmly, and nodded. “You too. Sleep well.”
Go To Part 4
Go To Part 4