Go To Part 2
Thursday, November 10, 2011
“I hear you’re 10 years old today,” the kindly Queen said with a smile. Her husband, the King, stood by her side, but gave the child a stern stare.
“Yes Majesty,” the girl acknowledged with a beautifully deep curtsey. Her parents both grinned proudly as they stood behind her.
“Ambassador, you’ve been here for almost five years now,” the Queen addressed the girl’s father. He agreed by giving her a gallant bow in the style of this country.
“Yes, but we shall be going soon, Majesty.”
The stern King – the rightful ruler of this land – softened a bit upon hearing that. “Such a shame. Rarely have I met such an honorable man,” he admitted with a smile.
“Honor is important to the Empire,” the Ambassador demurred.
The Queen stroked the girl’s head. “What do you say, Chèri?” Chèri was a term that meant dear one, but was also what everyone called the girl because they couldn’t easily pronounce her real name, Shurin. “Should we give you a small party to celebrate your special day?”
Chèri looked to her parents. She was obviously bursting with excitement, and her parents chuckled in response. They smiled, and nodded their permission.
“Yes! Thank you, Majesty!” Chèri replied joyously. Birthdays were not considered important in the Empire where Chèri and her parents were born, so they had no special plans.
“Splendid!” The Queen cheered. “Good thing I anticipated this, come with me.” As of yet, the King and Queen did not have children of their own. They had only been married about a year, and the Queen just recently learned that she was with child.
Soon, the Royal couple was sitting around a smallish outdoor table in the sun. They beckoned to Chèri and her parents to take a seat. Chèri was almost too excited to sit, and bounced on her feet a bit before complying.
The King wore a rich outfit of velvet and silk, and the Queen wore layer upon layer of embroidered silk accented by an elaborate bodice. Her skirts belled out widely thanks to a specially designed skirt of hoops underneath everything else. Both monarchs were dripping in expensive jewelry, and obviously affected by the heat of the sun. In response to their suffering, a canopy was erected by some quick thinking servants in order to provide them with cool shade.
In contrast to the King and Queen, the Ambassador and his wife wore the traditional garments of their Empire. The people of this Kingdom found it strange that both wore robe-like outfits made of silk. Some often teased the Ambassador for wearing what looked vaguely like a dress, but he always smiled at them and explained the customs of his people.
This summer day may feel extremely hot to the people of this Kingdom, but it was nowhere near as hot as it got in the small Empire of Chèri’s birth. It was hot and humid there most of the year, diminishing only slightly for the cool dry season that was their winter. Only in the mountainous region was there ever snow that lasted more than a few days.
As a result, it was normal for people in the Empire to wear layers of their traditional robe-like garment – called a wafuku or houmongi – in order to keep cool. The main difference between the robes worn by men –wafuku – and those worn by women – houmongi – were color and decoration. Men generally wore darker colors with minimal decoration, and women wore brighter colors that were heavily decorated.
Today, even Chèri was wearing an adorable pink houmongi, with long trailing undersleeves, painted with a riot of tiny lavender colored blossoms. Her sash was also beautifully decorated, and tied in a way that looked like she had a giant butterfly on her back. She perched carefully on her seat in order to protect her sash from being crushed.
A maid carefully set a large covered platter on the table, and uncovered a decoratively frosted cake. Chèri inhaled in awe. Her eyes were nearly as round as saucers, and even the King had trouble suppressing a smile at her reaction.
Several Ladies found an excuse to come closer so they could see the cake. The Queen smiled at them and announced, “It’s young Chèri’s birthday.”
There was a collective cheer of “Aww, happy birthday!” Chèri had such a bright and unique personality that she was adored by most of the court Ladies.
One of the Ladies, Abigail, the woman in charge of running the palace, sat next to the Ambassador. “Tell me again about the differences in our two countries. I just love hearing about other cultures!”
“Certainly,” Sho, the Ambassador, replied. “Here, the country is ruled by the King and Queen, and they are helped out by the Lords and Ladies who oversee parts of the Kingdom. Furthermore, the Lords and Ladies are helped out by village or town elders. When things run smoothly, such as they are now, the average person is well cared for and guided by laws made by the King and Queen – with the help of their advisors – that are enforced by the nobility.
“In the Empire, which is a journey of months from here over land and sea, the Emperor shares all law making authority with a council of Imperial Advisors. It is a rare edict that he can pass without any input from the council. In many ways, his feelings on any given subject must be set aside, and the laws must be voted on by the council. However, no law may be enacted without his approval, which means that the council may not act without him, and he has the power to change parts of laws that have been passed as necessary. He is very important, and speaks with divine wisdom.”
Sho paused to take a sip of the tea that was served with the cake. “Our Empire is cared for by the noble born Lords and their wives, ideally, but it is guided by the regional officials appointed by the Emperor. They are the ones who enforce the laws passed by the Emperor and the Council.”
“Then what you are saying,” Lady Abigail stated with a thoughtful crease in her brow. “Is that the regional officials are even more powerful than the Lords and Ladies?”
“Yes,” Sho responded with a smile. “It’s a fact that a true blooded Lord can be appointed as the regional official, but before a man is eligible for appointment to a regional or central office, he must pass extensive examinations. Therefore, any man that can pass the examinations is eligible for appointment to office – even commoners. That is a big difference between our countries.”
The Queen – who had married into her title from a high-ranking family – found this strange. “Commoners? As governmental officials? How unusual!”
Sho merely smiled.
“I noticed that you keep excluding women,” Lady Abigail pointed out.
Sho nodded. “Women are not allowed to hold any official rank or title of power in the Empire.”
Several of the gathered Ladies gasped. While it was true that the duties of a Lady were generally different than that of a Lord, in this Kingdom, women had as much right as men to inherit titles, and the duties that went with them. It seemed barbaric to them that the women from his country did not have such a basic right!
Sheeswee, Chèri’s mother, laughed softly. She was considered a great beauty by almost everyone, and the Ladies of the court didn’t know whether to befriend her or be jealous of her. “It’s not so bad. We women are often able to sway our men with a soft word of reason here and there.”
Sho nodded in agreement. “Though, ever since we came here, I have often wondered why my country doesn’t allow women to hold office. Isn’t the purpose of testing potential officials to find those that are smart enough to hold an office? What difference does a person’s gender make if they can pass the tests?”
“You make an excellent point, my friend,” the King replied agreeably, ignoring the glares from the Ladies. He was fairly certain that they would mentally cause him a great deal of harm if he ever even considered revoking their right to hold an official rank.
Lady Abigail decided to direct the conversation back into safer waters. “Is there a minimum age a man must be before he can take the test?”
“Strangely, no,” Sho remarked, stroking his chin as he realized that this was a bit odd. In this Kingdom, if a person was unfortunate enough to inherit a title before the age of 18, they had to wait while someone else temporarily held the title in trust for them. “In fact, the youngest one to ever pass the tests was only 13 years old, but it’s pretty uncommon for someone quite so young to even take the test. Every couple of years, someone as young as 16 may decide to take the test, but generally men don’t realize they want to take the test until they’re 18 and have to decide how best to live their life, and I must say, it’s not an easy test. It usually takes years of studying just to receive the lowest passing grade.”
Even the King was fascinated by this. “What about the boy? Did he make a good official?”
“Oh yes!” Sheeswee answered with a small grin. “He was a prodigy, a real genius. He was promoted over and over until he became the Grand Advisor. He held that position until his death more than a decade ago.”
“I can’t imagine that it was easy for someone so young to carry out official duties,” Lady Abigail remarked.
“Why not?” Chèri wondered, staring a bit forlornly at her now empty plate. “If he started out in the Ministry of Finance, I’m sure he had no problems at all.”
Lady Abigail was not the only court Lady covering an expression of horror. “The Ministry of Finance! Is that anything like the Royal Treasury? The Lord or Lady in charge of that has to keep track of practically all the money in the country!”
“See? No problem!” Chèri grinned. “With a good abacus, keeping track of money is easy.”
Everyone, including the King and Queen, cast her parents a look that plainly asked, is she serious?!
Chèri babbled on for a few minutes about how – for example – if each of the uniforms worn by servants in the palace cost a certain amount, and they had at least two spare uniforms, all of which were probably replaced at least once each succeeding year, then the Ministry of Finance would be wise to keep so much in reserve for uniforms. She then gave another example using rice or wheat used to feed the residents of the palace. The way she quickly calculated the numbers using the weight and probable cost of the respective grains gave most people a headache. Only the King stared at her with cold calculation in his eyes.
“It occurs to me that I will have a Prince in need of a bride one day,” he mused aloud.
The Queen was greatly amused by his statement, and shook her head. “Even if I am carrying a son, he would be more than 10 years younger than Chèri. She would either be married already, or firmly a spinster by the time he was ready to marry!”
“True…” the King admitted.
One extremely shrewd and ambitious lady stepped closer. “If you wish it, Majesty, I have a son who is currently 15 years of age. By the time this girl was ready for marriage, he would be the perfect age. They could be betrothed at once!”
Sho smiled and held up his hands to indicate that he was against the idea. “As much as I am honored by the offer, I cannot make any decisions regarding my daughter’s marriage alone. My father, the head of our family, reserves the right to approve or deny any potential matches, and I am certain he has someone else in mind for her already.” This was mostly true.
There was simply nothing left to say, so the King merely nodded in acceptance.
Chèri slammed the scroll on her desk in frustration. “Bah! We simply do not have the money to repair the damn thing!”
The stone outer wall surrounding her home was crumbling in one spot, and hiring someone to repair it properly was expensive. If she was lucky, she might be able to find someone who could patch it up cheap, but that would only be a temporary measure, and ultimately a waste of money. It was times like this that she almost wished they didn’t live in such a large house.
Her father was a minor – and therefore not well paid – Court Official. He was in charge of caring for one of the many libraries in the Imperial Palace. It was a job he simply adored even though he made next to nothing monetarily.
Chèri rubbed her temples in an attempt to ward off a headache. My job teaching the children of the town doesn’t really pay enough to fix it either. I suppose I could pick up a few odd jobs to earn a bit extra.
“Shurin, are you home?” Her father called out. He had obviously just returned from work.
“I’m in here!” She yelled so that he could hear her.
“Shurin, I have some… news,” Sho informed his daughter.
Chèri looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. The way he hesitated meant that it wasn’t necessarily good news. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to hear bad news.
“As you know, because my father died while we were abroad five years ago -”
“Six!” Chèri interrupted him cheerfully. She loved remembering their time abroad, and also felt the need to remind him that she was older than he liked to admit.
“Six years ago,” he agreed with a sigh. “My younger brother took over as head of the family until I decide to reclaim my position.”
“Yes,” Chèri said slowly, wondering where he was going with his explanation.
“Well, for various reasons after our return, I have never wanted to be the head of the family.”
“Yes,” Chèri prompted. He was being so serious that she was starting to fear what he was about to say.
“Therefore, my brother has made a … suggestion that I can’t refuse. He thinks I should send you to the Imperial Palace to stay among the Court Ladies for a short time so that you can try to,” he paused to give a tiny ironic smile. “Coerce – as he put it – the young Emperor into marriage.”
“I … see…” Chèri murmured. She had long known that she was fated to be married to a powerful man, and that she was now officially old enough to get married. This really shouldn’t be such a surprise!
“Shurin… I want you to remember that nothing is official yet. The Emperor is refusing all offers of marriage, and not even my brother can force his hand in the matter. Think of this as an opportunity to meet the Emperor and give him that piece of your mind you’ve been wanting to share.”
Chèri harrumphed and squared her shoulders. That’s right! I have been dying to tell the Emperor what I think of his irresponsibility! Now that she felt a bit better, she remembered that while her uncle – as head of the family – had some say in the matter of her marriage, the final decision still rested with her father, and he depended on her too much to let her go so soon.
“Fine,” she replied at last. “I plan to look around town a bit tomorrow to see if there are any jobs I could do to bring in enough money to repair the wall. After that, I’ll pack up my best houmongis. You had probably better arrange for uncle to send his carriage over, um, two mornings from now.”
Sho grinned with parental pride as he watched his daughter plan things out, muttering to herself.
“I’ll need to let the temple know that I won’t be teaching for a while. I wonder how long? A week? Two? Surely not more than that! We’d have no money for food if I went more than two weeks without working!”
“I wouldn’t go that far!” Sho protested. “My salary is more than adequate to feed us.”
“Not when you taking into account the fact that we also need to repair the roof, and -”
Sho hung his head. “Yes yes.” He knew she was right about all the repairs needed to their home, but unlike her, he felt that so long as they had shelter and food, the rest could wait until they had more money.
Chèri inhaled to the count of three, and then exhaled. “Anyway, I made dinner. Let’s eat!”
The next morning, Chèri stopped by the temple to notify them that she wouldn’t be able to teach for a few weeks, and then caved into the children’s demands to at least tell them a couple of stories before she left. After that, she wandered through town lightly biting on her bottom lip in thought.
“I know!” She announced to no one in particular, and then raced to her destination.
“Chèri!” A simply gorgeous woman greeted her as she burst through the door.
“Kiki,” Chèri returned the happy greeting with a grin. “I’m surprised to see you awake this early!” It was a well known fact that the women who worked in this expensive pleasure house tended to avoid starting their day before the sun was high in the sky.
“Believe me, I don’t want to be awake, but something woke me. Luckily my patron last night was called away early, and I was able to go to sleep far sooner than normal,” Kiki explained delicately.
Chèri nodded knowing that as the woman in charge of this place, Kiki had no need to search out a second companion if the first one abandoned her. In fact, it was rare for Kiki to take a companion since she was usually so busy running the business. He must have been someone special.
Kiki had a faraway, mildly frustrated look in her eyes for a moment, but then suddenly she hugged Chèri tight. “Chèri! You are exactly what I needed! Can you work on balancing my accounts for me so that I can take care of this little problem I have?”
Chèri was so relieved that she returned the tight squeeze without a second thought. “Thank you! That’s exactly why I came here today!”
“Ahh…” Kiki acknowledged with a knowing nod. “You’re low on money again and something needs to be repaired.”
Chèri laughed. “Of course!”
Three years ago, a series of terrible events had left Chèri desperate for money. She wasn’t the only one in dire need, and there was absolutely no work to be had because no one had money to pay workers with. It seemed that the only place in town with no shortage of work, and therefore money, was the pleasure houses. So, Chèri had come here to do whatever she had to.
It had been a cold and gray day, which reflected Chèri’s mood perfectly. “Please, I’ve come to work. I know I’m young, but I am a hard worker, and surely there’s at least one patron who would pay for the privilege of bedding the only daughter of the Ruby clan.”
The Ruby clan was one of the 8 highest noble families in the land. It was nearly unthinkable that a girl from any of those clans would need to work, let alone work here. However, times were such that even the 8 clans could fall.
Kiki admired the girl’s courage and determination, but decided to be harsh. “Do you even know what it is that we do here?”
Chèri blushed. “In theory. I know that the ladies must share their bed and body with a patron, but beyond that…”
Kiki couldn’t help but be impressed. It was a rare person who offered to do something without fully understanding what was involved. She allowed her expression to soften.
“Well, I suppose we could use another maid. Do you know how to clean?”
“Actually yes. I can clean, wash laundry, and cook. I can even balance your accounts!” Chèri announced, obviously relieved that there was another option.
“Balance my accounts!!!” Kiki cheered joyfully. She immediately began to cackle, causing her door guard to shiver nervously. “Ohhh! You’re going to regret telling me that!”
Ever since that day, Chèri found herself untangling a near mind boggling amount of money whenever she was short on funds. Kiki was a decent bookkeeper, but there were just so many ladies and other things to keep track of that it often got to be too much. She dreaded doing it, and not so secretly loved that she could occasionally slack off and let Chèri handle it.
This morning, Kiki patted Chèri on the cheek, and happily left her to handle the accounts. She hummed lightly to herself as she walked away, and called over her shoulder, “Oh! If that nephew of mine happens to come by, feel free to kick him between the legs and send him packing!”
Chèri rolled her eyes at that. It was a long standing joke that Kiki’s nephew was a typical 17 year old boy who also happened to be related to the madam of a pleasure house and felt that he should get special treatment. Kiki didn’t actually kick him, but she did make it clear that he wasn’t getting anything from her girls even if he could pay for it.
Chèri didn’t mind when Junior visited. He tended to talk to her about anything that crossed his mind, and actually seemed interested in helping her with the accounts. It was all bookwork, so she didn’t have to worry about him being tempted to pocket any of the money she kept track of.
Thinking of Junior must have set off one of his mental alarms, because he walked through the door a moment later. “Hi Chèri!”
Chèri smiled, and set a ledger aside for him to work on.
It really irked Chèri that she had to wear her absolute best houmongi. If I so much as spill a drop of tea on it, I will personally thrash my uncle for suggesting this idea!
Her houmongi consisted of three layers and a sash. The first layer was a plain white cotton robe. The second layer was a vibrant ruby colored satin that indicated her clan, and finally, the third layer was a soft pink silk covered with a bud and vine pattern. It had long undersleeves and her sash was the same color as her second layer.
She also had golden ornaments in her hair along with a bit of jewelry around her neck that her uncle had insisted that she wear. She had protested, but he was adamant. He told her that since he only had sons, she had every right to wear the clan jewelry.
He paused to think this over carefully. “However, you may not sell any of it!”
Chèri giggled at the memory. At the time she had sighed in frustration, but now it was funny to think about. He had been wise to tell her that, because – in her opinion – the jewelry would be put to far better use if she could sell it and use the money to feed the less fortunate town children.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” a young man informed her. He wore rather plain clothes considering that he was in the Inner Palace which was restricted to only the Imperial family, the Court Ladies – young women whose parents wanted them to attract advantageous marriages – and members of the highest nobility who had come to visit the Emperor for whatever reason. Palace security was tight, so it was highly unlikely that someone inappropriate had wandered in here.
Chèri smiled demurely. Maybe his branch of his family has also fallen on hard times. “Yes, I have come to stay with the Court Ladies for a short while.”
“I see,” he replied with a hint of depression.
“Care to join me for some tea?” Chèri offered. He nodded acceptance, and settled himself in the chair across from her. She poured him a cup of tea from the fine porcelain pot she had prepared.
“Thank you,” he murmured politely.
With nothing to talk about but the weather or the current state of things, Chèri decided to skip past the small talk, and introduce herself. “I’m Shurin of the Ruby Clan, but you can call me Chèri.”
“Chèri?” The man wondered curiously.
“Yes,” Chèri replied with a dazzling smile. “When I was little, my parents brought me to a far away Kingdom for a few years, and while I was there, people had a difficult time saying my name, so they started to call me Chèri. I’ve loved that name ever since.”
“Why were you traveling so far away?”
“Hmm,” Chèri hummed softly as she wondered how much to say. “Well, I guess you could say that there was a bit of trouble in the family, and it was best if my father was elsewhere for a while.”
The man looked to the sky, and muttered under his breath. “Ruby clan… Sho Ruby… oh…”
“That’s right,” Chèri grinned proudly. “My father is Sho Ruby.”
“I hope you didn’t think me rude,” the man apologized. “I’ve met Sho, and he’s very kind.”
“That he is!” Chèri agreed.
He inhaled as if preparing himself for an arduous ordeal. “You can call me Kyo.”
Chèri laughed softly, wondering why just telling her his name was such a hard thing to do. “Pleasure to meet you, Kyo.”
A moment passed in awkward silence. Chèri had all the manners of the well-bred Lady that she was, but she sometimes lacked the all-enduring patience she was supposed to have. She refilled her cup, and then set the pot down with a sigh.
“As lovely as it is to be sitting here drinking tea with you, I can help but feel a bit guilty,” Chèri stated.
“Why?” Kyo wondered.
“I should be doing something!” Chèri cried animatedly. “It’s almost sinful to be doing nothing when there’s so much I have to do!”
“Like what?” Kyo asked; his interest piqued.
“Ohhh there’s plenty to do in town,” Chèri laughed. “I call it a town, but it’s not. The city surrounding the palace is fairly big, but you might be surprised at home many cities I’ve seen that were even bigger.”
“Here in the Empire?” Kyo asked in confusion.
“No, while we were abroad.”
“If there’s so much you’d rather be doing, then why are you here?” Kyo inquired.
“I supposed to entice the Emperor into marriage, but I honestly hope I don’t even meet him!” Chèri told him honestly with a light hearted laugh.
“Why not? Everyone wants to meet Emperor Reiki.” Kyo scratched his head.
Chèri tapped one finger against her chin for a moment as she thought this through. “If I married the Emperor – at best – I could hope to advise and influence him to care for his people. I could urge him to set up programs to feed the people in times of crisis and give them better access to doctors and healers. However, I would rather do those things myself.”
Chèri sipped her tea, and then gifted Kyo with a joyous smile. “It’s my most cherished dream to be able to take the Imperial tests and become an Official.”
Kyo snorted a small laugh.
Chèri sighed. “I know, I’m just a woman and not eligible to take the tests.” She let an uncomfortable silence hover for a few moments, and the stood abruptly.
“That’s it!” She announced, fed up with her inactivity. “Let’s go!”
“Go where?!” Kyo demanded in astonishment.
“Well first, I’m going to go change, and then we’re going to go do something useful in town. My uncle doesn’t have to know that I’m not hunting down that irresponsible fool and beating him into submission!”
Kyo paled. “Are you still referring to the Emperor?”
“Of course!” Chèri stated emphatically as she walked back to the room she was staying in. Kyo followed her out of fascination. “I know he’s still young and hasn’t even been Emperor for a full year, but still! It’s shameful how little he seems to care for his people! When I think about it, I just get so angry! Does he have any idea what we all went through three years ago?!”
Chèri gestured for Kyo to wait in the main area of her assigned room while she disappeared into the changing area. She didn’t need help from a maid to change into her sturdier work houmongi like she did to get into this fragile one. The hardest part was taking off all the jewelry and hair adornments, but soon she had her hair up in a basic ponytail and wore clothes she wasn’t afraid of getting dirty.
As she was changing, she kept up the constant stream of complaints. “While the 7 Imperial Princes were fighting over the throne and killing each other off, they all completely ignored the people. As a result, the 8 great noble houses started to fight, and no one noticed until it was too late that there wasn’t enough food to go around. There had been a drought, and poor crops. With no food, the people began to starve!”
Kyo was so quiet that she thought he might have left, but she kept going in case he was there. “Of course I don’t have to tell you all of this. By your poor clothing, I’m sure you are well aware of what happened. Did your family also try to care for the people? My parents spent every cent they had buying what little food they could in order to feed the endless sea of people that came to us. My own mother secretly went without food at all until she died. I still wish we had noticed before it was too late…”
Chèri was finally ready to emerge from the changing room, but she lingered a moment to dry her watery eyes. She stepped out and inspected the sullen man waiting for her. An encouraging smile curved her lips.
“I bet you don’t like to remember those times either. Come on; let’s go find something to do.”
Kyo nodded, and cast his melancholy aside. Chèri led him out of the Imperial Palace, and into her part of the city. The palace was in the center of the city, so the part of the city that lay along each side of the massive rectangular wall that surrounded the palace was considered separate from each other. Collectively, it was all the capitol city, but individually, each section was named after a direction. Chèri lived in the north side, called Nortown by the residents.
They hadn’t gone too far when they passed the temple. “Lady Chèri!” A boy called out happily. He flung his arms around her, and squeezed her tight. Chèri stroked his hair, and returned the 8 year old’s hug.
“I’m happy to see you too.”
“I thought you weren’t coming to teach at the temple today,” the boy stated, obviously hoping that she would.
“I’m not,” Chèri confirmed. “I’m just looking for something to do.”
“Oh… In that case, you should know that Salya’s mother is sick today, and she could use a hand.”
Chèri grinned, and kissed the boy on the cheek. “That sounds perfect!” She led Kyo to a small outdoor shop in the market.
“Lady Chèri!” A girl about 12 years old greeted.
“We’ve come to help,” Chèri informed her.
“I can’t offer more than 10 percent of the profits as your wage,” Salya stated.
“Sounds fair to me,” Chèri agreed with a grin. She immediately started calling out to attract attention.
Salya and her mother worked every spare moment making jewelry out of sturdy string and glass beads to sell. Sometimes they even made custom orders out of fine wires and gems. The jewelry was mostly designed to give women from middle class families something to wear that felt expensive but was actually pretty cheap to buy.
Chèri had no problem attracting attention from potential buyers, but it was Kyo who made them decide to part with their money. He was considered very handsome, and every woman wanted him to place the necklaces, bracelets, and hair ornaments on them just so they could say they were touched by such a handsome man. Once he smiled and told them they looked good, they tittered happily, and paid for the item before rushing off to brag to their friends. As a result, the shop sold quite a bit.
Salya sat in the back of the shop working on new pieces as fast as she could. “Whoa! If only we could have you two sell for us every day!”
Chèri placed her right fist in her left palm, and bowed respectfully. Salya handed her their wages, and then returned the respectful bow. Chèri elbowed Kyo when he forgot his manners. He looked at her in curious surprise, cocking his head slightly to the side as she put her fist in her palm suggestively.
Blushing lightly, Kyo copied her action, and bowed to Salya. Salya smiled, and returned his bow. “Thank you for all your hard work!”
Chèri tugged on Kyo’s sleeve, and lightly dragged him after her. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry now.”
Kyo had nothing better to do, so he followed her. She led him to her house, waving goodbye to Salya as they walked. She inspected the wall surrounding her house with a sigh.
“It’s getting worse,” she muttered as she led him through the front gate. There was a light coming through several windows, which angered Chèri. She tossed the sliding door aside with a slightly forceful slam.
She took care of pleasantries first. “Father! I’m home, and I brought a friend named Kyo. How many times have I told you not to waste our candles?!”
Sho’s voice grew closer, even though she walked away from him towards the kitchen. “I’m sorry, I forgot. Kyo huh? Wait! What are you even doing here?”
“I’m here to make dinner,” Chèri stated.
“What happened to staying in the palace?” Sho was still a room or two away.
“I am, but we were bored so Kyo and I decided to come into town to find something to do today,” Chèri explained as she gestured for Kyo to sit in an out of the way chair, and began to attack the vegetables that needed slicing before she made dinner. Kyo looked nervous, as if he expected her father to accost him for coming home with his daughter.
Sho finally entered the kitchen. “Nice to meet you… Kyo?” He scratched his head in confusion.
“Yes,” Kyo replied firmly. “You must be Sho Ruby. It’s a pleasure to meet you as well.”
Sho shook his head slightly, and then smiled. “Welcome to our home. Would you like some tea?”
“Tea would be wonderful,” Kyo agreed with a relieved grin.
Sho set a pot of water to boil as his daughter steadily filled the air with the steady taptaptap of chopping vegetables. “Shall I start cooking some rice?”
Chèri shook her head. “We’re out of rice, and I didn’t think to buy any on the way home. I even got paid too!” She then told her father all about her day.
Sho mentally pictured Kyo helping Chèri sell jewelry, and chuckled. “It sounds like you’re quite the ladies man!”
Kyo blushed, and then shifted uncomfortably. The sight of her cooking reminded him of her earlier statement. “Um… Chèri? … Did your mother really let herself starve to death?”
This question coincided with the moment she finished chopping her vegetables. The silence was nearly deafening for a moment. Sho placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Yes…” Chèri admitted. “She noticed that I’d get so busy playing my instruments and singing to calm the people that I’d forget to eat. She’d come over to me after everyone else had eaten every scrap of food we had to offer, and hand me a small bowl, saying, ‘I saved you some.’ I would eat it without realizing that it was hers, not mine. Why didn’t she just share it with me? We could have both survived…”
Sho pulled his daughter into a comforting embrace. “You have to stop blaming yourself.”
“I know,” Chèri admitted with a sigh.
Kyo wished he knew how to help her fry up their dinner, but she was so quick and skilled at it that he was fascinated. Sho and Chèri joked lightly as the three of them ate dinner, and Kyo was surprised to find himself laughing. It’s been a long time since I smiled much less laughed!
All too soon, it was time to return to the palace. Chèri made small talk and chitchat all the way to her assigned room, and then stopped to smile at Kyo pointedly. It took a moment for Kyo to realize that she wasn’t going to invite him into her room again, and then he blushed when it occurred to him what she probably thought he wanted.
“Uh…” He stammered, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand as he tried to think of a good way to cover his momentary lack of grace. “I had an interesting day. Thank you for making me dinner.”
“We can do it again tomorrow… If you want,” Chèri offered with a smile.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’d like to if I can,” Kyo replied with a faint but honest smile.
Chèri nodded, and turned to enter her room. Kyo stopped her by grabbing hold of her hand. “Chèri…”
“Yes?” She asked, turning to face him.
He surprised her with a soft kiss. He held her neck with one hand, and stepped closer so that he could deepen the kiss. She was so caught off guard that she didn’t respond at all for several long moments, but finally she pushed him away ever so slightly. He honored her signal, and separated their lips.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “For everything… pleasant dreams.” He wished her as he stepped back and turned to leave.
“I hope you have pleasant dreams too,” she whispered as she watched him walk away, her lips tingling strangely. Once he was out of sight, she stroked her mouth with a couple finger in confusion, and then firmly told herself to go to bed.
Go To Part 2
Go To Part 2