For Juuni Kokki 20+ themes #12: Sneaking around.
The first time they went to a street market in Kouki, he saw an aproned woman slit the throat of a duck. It stopped him in his tracks: the shock, the bloom of blood-smell through the dank midsummer air that hung like miasma in the alleys of the capital. They were far from the butchers' quarter--Gyousou had seen to that--but this woman had bought a bird, for her family's supper, Taiki supposed, and was preparing it as she manned her vegetable stall. There had been no warning, not even a squawk. Taiki stood mute with nausea, anchored only by the hand on his inner arm.
"Come away, now."
The woman hung the duck head-down above a cup to let it bleed. The blood made a small prattling sound on the cup's sides, like poured water. With a wet rag the woman swiped her chopping block to wash it clean. She paid no heed to Taiki's stare.
"Kouri, come away."
His master's voice was forceful-soft. He let himself be drawn, taking shuffling steps that grew faster and shakier as Gyousou guided him into better air, toward the fringes of the flower market where osmanthus and orchids smothered the scent of death. Taiki lowered his head so his mane fell across his eyes. "I'm all right," he said.
Gyousou slowed. He led Taiki out of the sun's glare into the shade of an awning, studied his face.
"I've seen worse," murmured Taiki, looking down. He had seen worse, had eaten flesh himself, besides, in that other world when he had known no better and his human father had insisted. The memory stuck in his throat like a swallowed bone.
"No hurry to go home, then?" said the king.
Taiki blinked. "Not already!"
The whole market was new to Taiki, if not to his master. He clutched the sleeve of the arm that still steadied him, surprised anew to find the fabric so plain. Gyousou seemed as much at ease in street clothes as he did in silk stitched with five-clawed dragons. No matter what he wore the way he moved was unchanged.
They walked on. The street began to narrow even as the crowd thinned. Gyousou laid a hand between his shoulders to nudge him a step ahead, as if to keep him always in sight. Pots of lucky bamboo surrounded them, then orchids that frothed with color from rusty pails. There were cattleyas shaped like red starbursts, moth orchids with leopard-spot petals and faces both delicate and fierce. From hanging baskets reached sprays of maiden-slippers that caught at Taiki's mane. He had not covered his head, as other kirin did when they left the heights to go among people in the world beneath. There was no need to, though his black hair was so lustrous it lured glances from passersby, from the old women who sat smoking clove tobacco among their flowers. Taiki crept forward as if through a jungle, baffled by the tangle of perfumes.
"Do all these grow in Tai?" he asked, disbelieving.
"In glasshouses," said Gyousou. "You remember the time you wanted flowers for Risai?"
His master was smiling, fingering a bundle of dried yellow flowers wrapped in gauzy cloth. "Here. Smell these."
Taiki bent. The curled dry petals meant nothing to him on sight, but a whiff of beatific fragrance made him start in recognition. "We have these at the--" He stopped himself before the word palace could slip.
"Wintersweet. It grows wild in Tai." His master's voice clouded with something like nostalgia. "It suits you."
He lowered his eyes and mumbled denial, but leaned at the same time into Gyousou's side. Gyousou held up the sachet and raised his eyebrows at the seller. It took Taiki a second to realize that he was asking the price.
"Oh, don't--my lord--" he said, since he could not say Master Gyousou here, however much he longed to, and certainly not Your Majesty.
Seeing Taiki shake his head, Gyousou begged the seller's pardon. She bared smoke-stained teeth in a semblance of a grin and flapped her hands as if to shoo them off. Bashful, Taiki shied and tugged away. Gyousou caught up in two long strides and fell in to walk beside him.
"This is a market, you realize," he said. "It's very dull for me if you ask for nothing."
Taiki hemmed. He wasn't altogether sure what had made him bolt. "We could get souvenirs for the ministers and generals. And the secretaries--and the maids--"
But the king was laughing. The ease of that laughter always unbraced Taiki's shyness. Still flushing, he scanned the street and saw a bare-kneed girl who held a twist of fried dough in one hand. It was a pastry he had never seen served at the palace. He pointed. "May I have one of those?" He glanced from side to side and added, too quietly for anyone to overhear, "Master."
Gyousou eyed him narrowly, smiling in a way that threatened more laughter. "Yes, you may."
At the corner of the next cross-street they found the vendors: a young couple, the woman mixing the dough and kneading it nimbly into strands which she braided, the man dipping the twists in hot oil and dusting them with a glitter of sugar once they were fried. The couple was doing a brisker business than the florists had been. Gyousou bought two twists and handed one to Taiki, who said thank you and shifted it skittishly between his fingers until it cooled enough to be nibbled.
The dough was crisp and melted on his tongue. He nibbled another bite, happy beyond reason that the king had bought one, too--that they were eating together. "It's good," he said.
"Thirsty work," said Gyousou.
"Would my lord care for some tea?"
"Is there a likely spot?"
There was, although they had to wait for a table in the cramped, wood-paneled tearoom that Taiki thought too tiny and low-ceilinged for his master to stand upright in. It turned out Gyousou did fit, after all, so they stood by the open doorway, out of the midday sun, near to one another. The tearoom was steeped in smells of bergamot and loose leaves. When his master asked him what he thought of the market, Taiki paused.
"I guess I thought it would be busier," he said. "Too crowded to walk in, even."
"It's too soon for that, I'm afraid. People have no money to spare."
Taiki thought of the old woman and the wintersweet, and began to wonder whether anyone else would buy flowers at her stall today--whether he had refused the only sale she might have made. The king, at least, could spend money. It hadn't been right to stop him buying the sachet. They could go back--but he'd feel so silly asking now--but more important than that, the woman's livelihood--
Fretfully he shifted from foot to foot. He was about to speak when a whiskered man in plum-colored silks sidled toward them. The man's clothes were sumptuous, but his shoes were scuffed and dull. His whiskers trailed far past his chin, almost to his chest. He looked like a hungry catfish. He bowed to Gyousou even as his gaze skittered over Taiki, too bright.
"Honored sir, if I might have a word with you. Only for a moment, sir."
"Go ahead," said Gyousou, unmoving. The whiskered man pressed his palms together and gave an obsequious wheeze.
"My inquiry is delicate in nature, I'm afraid it cannot be suitable for the young sir's ears...."
At that moment a table opened. Taiki looked to his master, who nodded for him to sit down. "I won't be long," Gyousou said, and he gestured for the whiskered man to step out into the street. They went only a few paces, but from where Taiki sat in the tearoom, they were beyond earshot.
Unable to contain himself, Taiki peeked through the doorway. Gyousou looked so stern that Taiki wondered if the whiskery man had recognized him as the king--but if that were so the man would kneel down, wouldn't he, prostrate on the ground? And then there'd be a fuss, and they'd have to go back to the palace. A waitress had brought their tea. Taiki thanked her, then craned his neck again. The waitress swayed aside just in time for him to see Gyousou's fist swing.
The punch landed squarely on the catfish man's jaw. Wide-eyed, Taiki jumped to his feet and burst out of the tearoom. The whiskered man had keeled over in a purple heap, groaning; he seemed in no hurry to get up. Gyousou stared down at him as if considering whether to kick him in the ribs.
"Master Gyo--!" Taiki blurted, and then, clapping a hand over his mouth, "My lord!"
Gyousou straightened; his fist uncurled slowly at his side. "Count yourself lucky," he told the whiskered man, in a voice like the one he used from the throne. Hearing it here made Taiki shiver. "Get out of my sight."
The whiskered man only groaned again. Gyousou turned to shepherd Taiki toward the teashop. He drew a coin from his pocket, pressed it into Taiki's palm. "Take this and leave it on the table," he said. "We'll have our tea somewhere else."
Bewildered except for a fuzzy sense that they mustn't linger, Taiki delivered the coin and ran back to Gyousou's side. People in the street had stopped what they were doing to gawk at catfish man, who lurched upright, sleeves flopping like limp fins, and staggered away. Gyousou and Taiki set off in the opposite direction, neither hurrying nor dawdling, retracing their path toward the scent of flowers. Taiki felt ill at ease until his master's hand fell to rest on his nape. He looked up; Gyousou was frowning.
"I ought to have him flogged. But you'd rather I err on the side of mercy, wouldn't you."
"Did he recognize my lord? What did he say?" It must have been something awful, Taiki thought, something really abominable to make Gyousou so angry, although the king put stock in precepts of etiquette that were sometimes lost on Taiki himself.
"No, he didn't know me." For a time Gyousou did not continue. At last he said, in a peculiar flat tone, "He asked whether I was willing to sell."
Sell? wondered Taiki, but then Gyousou began to laugh, crookedly, as if helpless to do otherwise. Since he hated to admit being left out of the joke, Taiki smiled along. They were meandering down the flower-jungle street: suddenly he remembered the wintersweet sachet. "Master Gyousou? If we're going back this way, I was wondering--at that one shop--"
"Oh, you've changed your mind?"
Taiki reddened. "I'm sorry, it's--um--"
"You can have whatever you like. Barring souvenirs for the entire court, since I didn't bring that much money." Gyousou's hand lifted to smooth his hair, just once, before settling on his nape again. Taiki was glad it had not let go. "I don't know about you, but I still want tea."
"Mm. Keep your eyes open."
Taiki did, and when he saw a sign half-hidden among hanging trumpet vines, he tugged softly on his master's sleeve.