It was a chore to invite the pair from Han, but his debt for their help to Taiki had long ago resigned Gyousou to the tribulation. First there was the performance they insisted on directing--/class talent show,/ said the queen of Kei, inscrutably--though for a night's frivolity it possessed some charms. Taiki playing the lute, for instance. That alone redeemed the rest as far as Gyousou was concerned, and he could feign deafness to the barrage of slurs unmitigated by mauve sleeves. Is this a palace or a barracks? and The wine has no bouquet and, with theatrical shivers, Always such dreadful weather in this place.
Those affronts he was prepared to tolerate. On the whole he considered himself a tolerant man. But when, after a day of staid endurance, he waited alone over cooling tea only to be told that the Taiho had been "detained" at the guest hall where the Han party was ensconced, the cord of Gyousou's patience snapped. Detained--detained--what was the little fox thinking? But it couldn't be his fault, he was only indulging the whims of eccentric old friends. It was the interlopers who had no sense of propriety. Flaring his nostrils, Gyousou set out from Seishin to collect what was his.
On the ground floor of the guest hall he heard laughter well before his quarry came in view. The golden peals belonged to Hanrin, the smoky purl to her king. Then Queen Kei was expounding--something about a window in a tower with no door--and beneath all the other noise a supple tenor lifted in protest.
"Please, I really can't--not in front of Master Gyousou."
"You don't think he'd be pleased?"
"A surprise now and then helps to keep things lively."
"My dear boy, hasn't he seen you wearing much less?'
That was Han. Kei produced an unladylike gurgle, which was drowned out by the roar in Gyousou's head. He stalked into the room and said, very low, "Excuse my rudeness."
Hanrin meeped. Someone else swallowed; it might have been the kirin of Kei standing mute and frozen, an unwilling statuette several paces from his startled queen. Of En and Enki there was no sign, nor of Ren and Renrin. Behind a silk fan Han's smile was skulking, but Gyousou's stare fixed on Taiki, who gazed back blankly like a snared gazelle.
The gown poured silken to the floor. It was the color of the mouths of certain seashells, or the innermost petals of a peony in June. The sleeves were as long as swallows' tails, the sash a streak of rose privy to the precise shape of Taiki's hips. A gauze shawl drooped around his back, limp and limpid as butterfly wings. In the center of his lower lip shone a red stain, as if he had been eating cherries and one lone drop of juice had soaked in. On his brow gleamed another, likewise, just below where the horn would be. Kohl and carmine smudged his eyelids, though the flush in his cheeks did not seem to be rouge. Only his mane had escaped adornment: it shimmered, sleek as ever, untrammeled to his knees.
Taiki's lips parted. No sound emerged. It was the queen of Kei who at last cleared her throat.
"We were thinking of, ah, putting on a play--"
"Yes yes." Hanrin clapped her palms and smiled like a porcelain doll. "With dear Taiki in the role of--who is it, Youko? With the hair?"
"And of course King Tai should be the prince, although I suppose it was Youko who did the rescuing last time, and besides she's an experienced actress--"
"No, I was only the instigator--King En was the one--"
"Or perhaps Lady Risai? Without whom none of these happy occasions, oh!"
Hanrin swayed, caught up in the crescendo of her own emotion, but silence fell again. The king of Han snapped his fan shut.
"I fear we've offended our host with these amusements," he said. "We must beg Tai Taiho to intercede on our behalf."
"Do tell him it's all in fun," whispered Hanrin, with a sisterly tap at Taiki's arm. The pat seemed to galvanize; Taiki dared a step forward, then another. When he licked his lips the red stain did not fade.
"Master," he said, beseeching--toward what end was not quite clear--and stopped.
The audience kept quiet, though Han's shoulders might have twitched.
His eyes on no one but Taiki, Gyousou extended an arm. "It's late," he said, in a placid tone as if nothing were amiss. Exhaling loud, Taiki beelined toward him amid a shush of pink skirts. On close inspection Gyousou saw that the mane had not eluded attention, after all: glitter like confetti spangled it from crown to mid-back. The effect was entrancing. He supposed he would be finding flecks among the bedsheets for days.
To the rest of the company he spared a glance. "You're welcome to continue, but I'm afraid you must do without one of your cast. Good night."
As he guided Taiki out of the hall there came a whoosh from behind, as if a chorus of held breaths had been released. Still the scariest, said someone in falsetto, while Hanrin's laughter pealed anew. And these affronts, too, seemed tolerable to Gyousou. He had other concerns: on the path to the residence he discovered that his kirin was jingling. He surveyed the Han costume again by moonlight--all said and done, it was not a sight he cared to forget--but could detect no obvious bells.
"That noise," he said.
"Ah--" Taiki halted, flustered, tugged up the skirts to show his leg. A silver anklet circled his bare calf. "Han Taiho thought I should try it on--to check the fit, she said. I'll take it off--I'll stop at Hakubaiden and change."
"No, I think not."
The gauze shawl was like cloud to the touch, yielding and fine. Gyousou slid his hand beneath it to nudge Taiki onward, still as if nothing were amiss. Nothing was amiss, he thought, only mildly exceptional. Lively, as the kirin of Han had said.
"This play of yours," he murmured, and Taiki looked up at him with kohl-black eyes. "Tell me how it goes."
The next day he avoided his guests for as long as etiquette would allow. A chance encounter with Ren and Renrin in the garden surprised him--/Your Majesty mustn't wander about in someone else's palace like this,/ said Renrin to Ren, who rubbed the back of his neck and exclaimed /Of course you're right, but these wintersweet trees are something!/--yet this left Gyousou's mood unruffled, and it remained so until he was required to dine with the entire party at noon. Over the first course Han kept catching his eye, which in itself was disturbing, and then the soup arrived. Feigning close inspection of a spoon, Han glanced again at Gyousou and tapped a languid finger to his own cheek.
Glitter, he mouthed. From the seat beside him Hanrin beamed.
As subtly as he could, Gyousou raised a napkin and wiped his face.
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