Due to its position on the west side of the country of Tenkou, Hakurou had always had a thriving exchange with the countries in the west. While receiving influence from the various cultures of the west, they also valued their eastern culture, leading to a spirit of appreciation towards tolerance, coexistence, and variety.
There was something called 'The Spring of Meeting' in all the new cultures born from the mixing of old traditions and new customs.
The meeting in spring, the deepening of bonds in summer, the marriage in fall, the blessings of love in the form of children in winter.
This culture took root, and thus one could frequently see young men and women innocently walking through the street in spring.
* * *
"—I'd like to you to stand in for the practice partner of a marriage meeting tomorrow."
Matsurika had been worried about what kind of lecture she would receive from the Chief of Female Officers. Thus she was caught off guard when it turned out to be a request to act as a practice partner substitute for a marriage meeting held for someone from a distinguished family.
It seemed like she had originally asked another female officer called En Kourin. However she collapsed from a cold, and so this task came to Matsurika who was close to her in age.
(His parents was worried that he'd fail if he had a real marriage meeting first, so they asked the Chief for a practice partner… or so I heard.)
It seemed to be a son from quite an outrageous family.
Perhaps that was why Kourin, who was from a good family herself, had been selected as his partner.
As she admired his parents' overprotectiveness, the Chief asked her for her reply.
It was fine to refuse. But she accepted out of curiosity for 'The Spring of Meeting' that every girl around her age would go through.
—I'd like to enjoy a marriage meeting once, even if it's not a real one.
After receiving the clothes Kourin had planned to wear, Matsurika silently exited.
The day went by in a flash as she hastily prepared for the meeting in between her tasks.
* * *
The meeting place, where she would also meet Kourin's parents, was a famous restaurant. Parents from both sides were amicably chatting away with a table between them.
"Kourin is working at the Inner Palace as a female officer…"
Indeed, Matsurika was to act as Kourin from the En family for the practice meeting.
And the one that requested for this practice was the Rei family that anyone from Hakurou would know about.
The Reis was a military family that had produced many generals of the Imperial guard— the apex of distinguished families. And the heir of the family who had passed the military exam, the young military officer Rei Tenga, was someone that even Matsurika knew about.
For them to know that Rei Tenga's practice partner wasn't Kourin and was instead a substitute, was to be avoided at all cost. Kourin's parents had asked her to behave like Kourin, and Matsurika was worried if she could do it. But then she relaxed, thinking this was a one time thing anyway. Matsurika and Kourin who lived in the Inner Palace should not be able to meet Rei Tenga after this.
Even so, as she introduced herself as Kourin, she felt so uneasy that her heart kept beating fast.
"Uuhm, Tengdono, he's……"
The ones here now, were only Kourin's parents, Matsurika, and his parents.
Rei Tenga, the main character for this practise, was nowhere to be found, and as they puzzled over what to do……
"I'm sorry for my tardiness. Nice to meet you, I'm Rei Tenga."
Someone appeared from behind the partition, and he was a youth so beautiful that any girl would blush upon seeing him.
Silver hair and golden eyes. These colours were perhaps quite rare in other countries, but not so much in Hakurou. Even the emperor now……
(……No, no, it's not about whether they're rare or not!)
This was where Matsurika ought to introduce herself as Kourin, but her head went blank from this shocking turn. She couldn't even close her half agape mouth.
—The partner for this practice marriage meeting is the heir of the Rei family, Rei Tenga, who passed the military examination.
That was what she heard, and that was what his parents explained just now……
(Okay, time out?! This person is…… !)
As she was worrying if she had gone mad, both parents from Rei and En families stood up and quickly started to excuse themselves. It was perhaps not her imagination that the Reis were really eager to leave.
Matsurika panicked and wanted to seek help, at which point she met eyes with 'Rei Tenga'.
He smiled really sweetly at her and her heart jumped, but in a bad way.
"The young ones should enjoy themselves."
Saying that scripted line, they urged Matsurika to leave the shop.
Unable to keep up with the situation, she broke into a cold sweat, and at that time someone tapped her shoulder.
……No, not someone. There's no one but him.
"Kourin-san, should we go for some tea?"
'Rei Tenga' was standing near her and smiling gently.
Her stomach went cold. She felt a pressure that gave her no choice in the matter, perhaps due to her realizing his true identity.
As he pushed her along, she had no choice but to walk.
She constantly looked back to both parents for help, but they didn't notice her.
And of course, walking without looking at her front would make her bump into people. However, 'Rei Tenga' held her waist and prevented her from falling down, so she got away without dirtying the beautiful clothes lent to her. Relieved, she looked up to thank him, and froze as she remembered.
"……Let's see, 'Matsurika'-chan, right? A female officer at the Inner Palace?"
He called her with her real name. She thought it was weird that this person would recognize her face and name.
Even as she felt impressed by his memory power, she hurriedly took two steps back and lowered her head.
"Please forgive me, Your Majesty!"
Yes, the one who came to the meeting as 'Rei Tenga' was the emperor of Hakurou, Hakuyou.
It was a wonder why this perfect emperor, who should have been in the palace working hard at his tasks, came to a practice marriage meeting as Rei Tenga.
(What exactly happened with Rei Tengsama!?)
She could guess, somehow. Rei Tenga took first place at the military exam. Emperor Hakuyou recognized his ability and granted him a purple accessory—purple, the forbidden colour that no one but the Emperor was allowed to wear. This meant that his promotion until general rank was already guaranteed, making him one of the closest aide among the emperor's aides.
Therefore, the reason why Hakuyou appeared at the marriage meeting should be similar to Matsurika. In other words……
"Matsurikchan, you also realized it's me, huh. Maybe you're here for the same reason as me?"
"I beg your forgiveness."
One was not allowed to lift their heads before the emperor without permission. The lower one's rank, the lower the chance to see the emperor's face, except if they took a peek secretly.
It was normal to not realize Hakuyou's status even after meeting him, like how Kourin's parents reacted.
(But working at the Inner Palace, I had many chance to see him, so……)
She was really glad as she fearfully realized something. If she hadn't recognized him and did something rude, the Ens and the chief would have been in trouble together with her, leading to something terrible.
As she desperately lowered her head, Hakuyou told her to lift her head because she was being too conspicuous.
"Tenga was too busy and couldn't come, so I came as his replacement. Because I was thinking, due to my position I have no connection with any marriage meetings, so I'd like to try it once. How about you, Matsurikchan?"
Hakuyou had the Inner Palace, where the consorts competing for his favour lived. He had no need for something like a marriage meeting.
They were the same in terms of 'being a stand-in out of curiosity', but for completely opposite reasons.
"Kourin-sama collapsed from a cold, and I am to replace her. Unlike Kourin-sama, I am of humble birth. If we honestly informed them that I would take her place, it would perhaps upset the Reis, and so… I am truly sorry for lying!"
Her third apology, and Hakuyou laughed it off with, "It's fine, it's fine."
"That's my line, because although the Rei family was the one asking for the favour, the person in question can't come due to work. I'll wrap it up appropriately after returning to the palace."
It seemed like Hakuyou forgave them for deceiving the Rei family.
I'm saved, Matsurika thought so as she bowed down deeply.
"Um, then, let's go back……"
Seeing Hakuyou so sincerely bewildered, Matsurika became confused.
"……Since we're both substitutes, I'm thinking that perhaps there's no need to continue……"
The marriage meeting practice today was held for Rei Tenga's sake. Rei Tenga would invite En Kourin for tea, then they would converse and deepen their understanding of each other, after which he would send Kourin back to the palace at dusk.
Matsurika was the replacement for his practice partner, and Hakuyou too, came as Rei Tenga's replacement because he couldn't come due to work even though he was the one asking. There was no need to continue the practice since they were fellow substitutes.
"Ah, but my goal isn't just to cover for Tenga. Since I wanted to experience a marriage meeting, I made an unreasonable request to Tenga's parents. Matsurikchan, I'll properly send you back to the palace, so let's have a marriage meeting between Matsurika and Hakuyou."
After understanding the situation, Hakuyou threw away all notions of substitutes or practice, and made it a normal marriage meeting.
"That's troubling! As expected, our standings are……"
"Well, I don't mind. Ah, turn left at that signboard."
Matsurika fervently prayed for him to change his mind.
(The other party is that emperor! Up till now, he's someone I can only steal a glance at from faraway, someone whose affection the consorts are vying for. It’s that emperor!!)
It was a dream-like situation in which the person one had always admired was right beside them. But this was no dream, it was reality.
This definitely seemed like a common sight for the people around them. Yet Matsurika's heart was near bursting even now. If she offended this person, she would lose her job. No, lose her head, even .
(For a mere female officer to be able to chat with an emperor… it’s totally fine to limit that to fairy tales!)
Contrary to her wishes, Hakuyou excitedly entered a teahouse and calmly gave the name 'Rei Tenga'.
After they were guided to a sunlit seat outside, the tea was immediately served.
"Both the Reis and Ens were afraid the matter with substitutes would be discovered… and ended up quickly retreating, huh. So it's a bit late, but let's introduce ourselves."
Hakuyou received a plate of mooncakes from an employee and served it to her.
"I did prepare a 'Rei Tenga' self-intro, but the cat's out of the bag anyway. Let's stop doing troublesome things. I'm Hakuyou, the reigning emperor in this country. I have too many special skills, so let's wrap it up with 'I can do anything'. My hobbies are completing my jobs perfectly, and taking a walk around town aimlessly while snacking on sweets and watching how the citizens are doing."
If he had been a normal man, she would have laughed and retorted at a few things he said.
But this man was Emperor Hakuyou. And even when he said, "I can do anything," she ended up agreeing to it, because he was a true genius who passed both the civil and military examinations.
"Eh? You don't find that introduction funny? I purposely added in something laughable here and there since you're so nervous though… how difficult. And, what about you, Matsurikchan?"
"…… My name is Kou Matsurika. My special skill is a somewhat good memory, and my hobbies are… reading and drinking tea."
Matsurika made up an introduction as 'Kou Matsurika' on the spot, but it ended up being too boring. There was nothing to laugh about. She felt bad that she couldn't even muster up the feeling to make a joke.
Even so, Hakuyou, who was blessed by the heavens with numerous talents, smiled and kept the conversation going by introducing some spring limited-edition cherry blossom tea to Matsurika who liked tea.
He was an able man. But that was also why she wanted to hurry and go home. Having him go along with someone too normal like her was just too disrespectful.
"Matsurikchan, you came to the palace right around my enthronement, so it's been about one and a half year since you became a female officer, huh…… Oh, that's not right, you came in one and a half year ago as a palace maid, and was promoted to female officer half a year ago. Many thanks for supporting the Inner Palace during the hectic succession period."
"…… Thank you very much. For someone incompetent like me, there is still so much to learn."
Matsurika's rank was primary eighth grade, which was the lowest rank . Yet Hakuyou not only remembered her name and face, he even thanked her.
(I think, I can understand now why this person was chosen to be the emperor…)
The consorts in the Inner Palace competed for Hakuyou's love for the sake of their families. Yet perhaps, above all else, it was because Hakuyou was such a wonderful person, and so they yearned to be loved by him.
"If I'm not mistaken, you made a great achievement at the Autumn Banquet and then got promoted, didn't you? I think the recommendation letter by the Chief of Female Officers didn't exactly state what you did. But I heard you covered up for someone's mistake, which was so serious a mistake that it couldn't be publicly explained."
Half a year ago, a traditional event called the Autumn Banquet was to be held at the Inner Palace. But a female officer mistakenly burned the book that recorded the preparation methods.
The banquet's procedure and dish, the accessories to be put around the Inner Palace and many other things were detailedly determined due to its traditional nature. But even after all female officers desperately tried to recall them, there were still too many vague points.
This discussion then reached the palace maids and they were asked if they remembered anything. Since Matsurika had experienced the previous Autumn Banquet, she then wrote what she remembered about the preparations and handed it to a female officer. Apparently that really helped them out and afterwards the Chief came personally to praise her. And later on she was even asked if she would like to become a female officer.
"I didn't do much, but I'll work hard to be even more useful to Your Majesty in the future…"
Since she couldn't affirm that someone made a mistake, Matsurika tried to respond sensibly. But then Hakuyou suddenly came close with a serious face.
"Let's stop with 'Your Majesty'. If I'm found out, I'll be scolded."
Contrary to his expression, what he said was really childish. But his face was just too beautiful and bad for the heart that she very nearly shoved him away.
"Just call me 'Hakuyou' for now."
She did tack on honorifics, but even using his name was too much for Matsurika and she felt she was being overly familiar. The person in question did say she could call him that, yet she couldn't help but be mindful of the gazes around them.
"Let's get back on topic. You said you had 'a somewhat good memory', but how good is that somewhat?"
"It's really nothing much. I couldn't think of anything else as my special skill, so……"
She suddenly felt embarrassed and looked down.
She wondered if it had been better to say she didn't have any special skill. In front of Hakuyou, who had many talents yet could still master them all, her skill was nothing to boast about.
"Then after this…… Sorry, wait here."
Hakuyou's voice became sharp halfway through his sentence. Then for some reason he stood up and headed towards the main street with a fast yet natural movement.
Wondering what had happened, Matsurika followed Hakuyou with her gaze.
Where Hakuyou was heading were a man holding a package really dearly, and another man who closed in on him really quickly……
"Look out! A snatcher!"
With those words, Matsurika at last understood what Hakuyou was trying to do.
to be continued
1. ↑ In Japanese, one way to say ‘getting fired’ is ‘having one's head fly’ (首が飛ぶ, kubi ga tobu). So in the original Matsurika said, her head would fly, not metaphorically (get fired) but literally (get beheaded).
By the by, a quite funny clip with this saying in the anime Demi-chan wa Kataritai (the head joke is around 2:03), for those interested…
2. ↑ So… she had the lowest rank, according to the author. I stand corrected.