Part One: The Young Blighter
What I say is, obviously a fellow takes responsibility for his own actions, like any sterling hero ought, but at the same time, suggesting it was all my respons is a bit heavy, isn’t it? Surely anyone can see it was as much the ill-favoured horseshoe, the darksome feline crossing the sward before me, as anything I might have done.
That very morning, unaware as I was of my impending doom, I was consulting with wise Higuchi-sensei as to what options lay before me.
“Dash it all, sensei, the girl’s got me hooked by the heart. You’ve got to help me.”
“Her Highness is a most charming young lady, sir. But I see you are wearing your father’s Silver Moon of Valour.”
I put a smug finger to the medal on my breast.
“And very sharp it looks, don’t you think?”
“I cannot recommend it, sir. The Silver Moon is given to–”
“Let not the problem of the Silver Moon occupy your thoughts, sensei. Consider instead the problem of my making a hit with Her Highness. How is it to be accomplished?”
Higuchi-sensei’s always the chap for a little brainy knocking about. Never at a loss for a bit of the clever. How he keeps his hair from singeing due to all the furious cranial combustion going on in that skullcase I’ll never know.
“Yes, sir. As I say, Her Highness is a most charming young lady, sir, and—”
“Charming? My dear fellow, she’s a vision! That upturned profile, that blonde cascade of curls, that withering look. Most especially that withering look.”
“Her Highness can be intemperate at times, sir. I wonder if you—”
“I’ve been well-withered on occasion, let me tell you. But we Isamotos are made of stern stuff, sensei. All I need is a scheme, a brain-fever of your to take the edge off her disdain, if you see what I mean. Now, put the squidgy bit between the ears to work and let’s come up with something really special.”
Higuchi-sensei studied the far wall of the dojo for a moment. It was scarcely my fashion to attend morning practice, but the idea of consulting the old fellow came to mind as I was just emerging from the dreamless, and I’d rushed over with urgency.
“Her Highness is fond of her young nephew.”
“That sour little egg? Fat little round thing, squinty-eyed and piggish?”
“His name, I believe, is Tomi. I am given to understand that Her Highness is quite fond of the child. It is possible that she would look with favour on any gentleman who did the boy a kindness.”
“Now, as regards to the Silver–”
“No more of that, sensei. I thank you for your assistance, but in this matter I remain firm.”
“Of course, sir.”
Well, that knock about the nephew gave me something, although I was blasted if I could imagine doing a kindness to the little blighter. A more thoroughly wretched child you could never find, who only stopped whining and whimpering long enough to have a really good howl every now and then. But there was no denying that the ache of my heart, Her Highness Princess Millicent Haoki, doted on the boy as though blind to his manifold defects.
Her Highness was herself the object of dotage from her plummy old sire, of course, Prince Mitsutachi, the chap in charge of things here at the old Touch-Moon Palace. But in the case of the dear old fellow, it was straightforward enough to understand his affection for the blonde and spirited fruit of his loins. The Princess was one of those effortlessly elegant sort of gals, with the long-fingered hands of a, well, someone who requires long fingers I suppose. Of course the old Prince doted on her. She was the darling of the clan. At the same time, there was no denying the sweet young thing possessed a certain temper, or as Higuchi had brainily put it, in-temper. More than one hopeful suitor had been wrecked in the howling storm of her intemperance.
But confidence is in the blood for us Isamotos.
Thinking of the boy, I took the precaution of stuffing my pockets with assorted sweets, and later that very day I was glad I did.
The Palace Festival is the big do hereabouts, and the boulevards turn over to carts and food stands and the like. It’s all very noisy and yet there’s a certain cheery charm to the whole thing, I must admit. Some talented coves pulled out those sorts of strummy instruments and within a moment or two, lads and lasses were grabbing each other and cutting up right there in the street.
We of the Touch-Moon Palace are not of typical the cutting up in the street crowd. Protecting a reputation for serious thinking and brainy doing requires stern effort, you know, and every one of us in the clan is expected to contribute to the group getting-it-done-i-ness. But the Palace Festival is one of those times we put up the old feet and let down the old hair.
Perhaps that explains my day-dreamy wonder. I stood watching the dancers, entertaining the dizzying notion of wheeling Her Highness out for a round, an enthrallment that evaporated in a breathless rush as I saw her in the crowd.
And what do you know? She was remonstrating with the young sourpuss himself, dear Tomi-chan. My moment had, evidently, arrived.
“I don’t want to stay here! I want to come with!”
The little chap whimpered and clung. I savoured the moment, then stepped in like the bold hero ought.
“Your Highness, can I be of assistance?”
Very smooth, I thought. She turned those icy blue eyes on me, tossed back a portion of that blinding blonde cascade and although it was clear that she was speaking, well, a fellow fairly goes blank at such moments, doesn’t he? Isn’t that almost required?
At any rate, I certainly went blank, so embarrassingly I missed entirely what she’d said, and we stood staring at each other for a moment. She put her hands on her hips.
Startled out of reverential daze, I did as best I could.
“Are you mentally defective? Who are you?”
That was a nasty shock. We’d nearly been introduced at the Lord Chamberlain’s supper-party only three months earlier.
The lad took it in hand to interfere, blast him.
“He’s nobody. You can’t leave me with him.”
Leave him? The brain leapt in, moving the mouth before I’d even puzzled it out.
“Your Highness, I am Isamoto Koretaka, son of His Excellency Minister Isamoto Koretomo, who serves Lord Yanagisawa in the Department of Manufacturing, Trade and Commerce.”
Whew! One of those centipede things, you know, where I just had to stay out of the mouth’s way. The mouth kept going, too.
“My father would be horrified to hear that I refused to be of service to the daughter of our glorious Prince. Please allow me to place my humble abilities at Your Highness’ disposal.”
That was a bit thick, but I was scarcely in control at this point. It was as though I was sitting a few rows back, watching the whole affair and perhaps scarfing down a few bolts of the good stuff.
She studied me with renewed interest, which I can tell you was no end of bracing. When the girl you’ve set your cap at takes a steady look at you, well, it chuffs you right up, there’s no denying. The me sitting up in the bleachers gave a solid hip-hip-hooray just at that moment.
I saw her piercing gaze drop to the Silver Moon at my breast, and celebrated with the other me up in the stands.
At which point I saw young Tomi-chan opening his wet little mouth, the sinister leer on his face proclaiming the intention of cutting me off at the knees, and I came up with a wheeze I’m still pretty proud of.
Before the evil blighter could get his whine rolling, I stuck a hand in my pocket and produced a half-dozen wrapped sweets. The boy’s expression changed to a hideous lit-up grin that was frankly more terrifying than his sinister leer, but it put an end to whatever he was going to say. He snatched the candy and simpered at Her Highness.
“It’s okay. I’ll stay with him.”
My beloved sighed. Such a sigh! Her hands dropped from her hips and she bent over to kiss the foul little punk’s forehead, as though he were the very angel.
“You’ll be good? I shan’t be more than a few moments.”
I had to look away as the kid nodded in an ecstasy of pretended angel-i-ness.
“Very well then. Don’t move from this spot. And YOU–”
She affixed me with the withering look previously referred to. I felt cheerfully immune, as though shielded by the shimmering aura of my father’s Silver Moon.
“Don’t you let him out of your sight.”
And she was gone. Who knew where this moment might lead? I stared after her into the crowd for long, long moments, thinking of how deeply she’d be impressed by my demonstration of the very qualities for which the Silver Moon was awarded: steady watchfulness, attentive, er, attention, and a stern yet loving attitude towards all, even the ugly runt she’d entrusted me with. Something like that, I suppose.
A serene smile on my face, utter contentment and confidence in my heart, I turned to the young fellow who I had to admit, had just made my dreams come true.
“Now, young fellow, how about we–”
He was gone. The blighter had emptied my pockets and taken off into the crowd.