Seitaku filled the bucket with red kashou and they made their way out of the orchard. A little further on they came across on a pond enclosed within beautiful, stone-lined banks. Here and there bridges decorated with intricate geometric designs arced over the pond. The patios and gazebos surrounding the pond almost seemed to have been drawn there like grazing animals seeking out water.
Seitaku headed for one of the gazebos and waved to them from the water's edge. "Taiho, have a seat. That formal clothing must be hot. How about you at least remove your top coat?"
"Um, okay. But—" He looked at Seirai.
A thin smile came to Seirai's lips. "Well, if he insists—"
"You as well."
"Oh, there's no need to worry about a petty official such as myself."
"But it must be uncomfortable."
"Ah, true, yes, it is. Well, then, no harm in taking you up on that offer—"
Observing the vacillating Seirai with bright eyes, Seitaku washed his hands in the pond and then rinsed off the rest of the fruit in the bucket. He lined them up on a stone table facing the water.
"I'm in an awfully rude state, what with the Taiho having gone to such trouble to dress up for the occasion. The word I got was that this was a personal visit, not official business."
"Yes, um, sorry about that."
Seitaku laughed. "Nothing the Taiho needs to apologize for. I tend to be rather careless about such things. It not being about business or politics, I figured we could treat it like the neighbors stopping by for a spot of tea. The Taiho will surely have a few heated words to say on that account."
"No, no," Seitaku said with a grin. "My Taiho. It's funny. From the start, Renrin hasn't given me a moment's peace about me being the way I am." He laughed again. "I got a bit caught up with my red kashou, so without giving it any thought, I just said to send you on through. Of course, I should have done as Renrin instructed and donned more formal attire and waited in the Gaiden."
"What were you doing when we came in?"
"Pruning the trees. By cutting back the branches that don't bear the best fruit, the rest will grow much bigger."
"That's something you seem to know a lot about."
"Because I'm a farmer. It's what farmers do."
"Isn't your job being king?" Taiki in a surprised voice.
Seitaku reacted as if this question was entirely unexpected. He tilted his head to the side. "My duty, perhaps, but not my job. Being king won't put food on the table, after all."
Taiki blinked, not grasping the subtleties of the distinction. Seitaku smiled. "Wouldn't you say the job of a farmer is growing crops and raising animals?"
"Yeah—I guess so." Taiki nodded. "But isn't fulfilling your duty the same as a job?"
"I don't really think so."
"Your duty is different from your job?"
Seitaku smiled. "A job is that which I do at my own choosing. My duty was bestowed on me by Heaven."
Taiki was puzzling this over when a familiar voice rang in his ears. Spinning around, he saw Seirai standing there mutely and another figure coming up behind him. "Sougen," he called out.
At the same time, a woman said, feigned surprise in her voice, "What in the world are you doing meeting the Taiho dressed like that for?" Her brilliant golden hair glowed like sunlight. "And to make matters worse, in a place like this! I don't care how personal a visit it is, there are limits to such things!"
"Of course, of course. She's right, of course. You must all pardon my manners."
"And on top of that, leaving his escorts at the gate completely at loose ends!"
Seitaku apologized like an unruly child, though the sparkle remained in his eyes. The woman must have taken note of it as well. With a half-piqued, half-amused expression, she knelt down in front of Taiki so they were approximately eye-to-eye.
"You must be the Tai Taiho. I'm pleased to welcome you to Ren. Please don't take any offense."
"Are you the Ren Taiho?"
"Yes. I am very please to meet you."
"Me too. Um, thank you very much."
"Gyoukuyou-sama on Mt. Hou told me that the Ren Taiho lent Senshi something very valuable when she came to get me."
"Ah," Renrin smiled. "The Gogoukanda, you mean? His Highness let me borrow it. It is he you should thank. Though I think His Highness should get changed first."
Catching another amused expression, Seitaku muttered, "Yeah, I suppose." He announced, "I shall go and mend my ways. If you all wouldn't mind waiting here—"
Laughing cheerily, Seitaku returned to the Imperial living quarters. Taiki and the others were escorted back to the Gaiden. Then they all started over from square one, albeit doing everything by the book this time.