Almost Everything Under Heaven

By midnight, the palace kitchen had finally managed to cool down. The three remaining servants could relax without the bother of the oppressive, dry oven heat. The work day was almost done for the dinner and after-dinner staff, who had long-since served that night’s cuisine.

Konoe sighed.

 “I think it’s time to finish for the day,” he said as he put away the last plate from the drying area. His eyes were weighed down with indigo bags, still not accustomed to the late hours of the after-dinner kitchen shift. His white collared shirt smelled of dish soap and grease and he looked forward to nothing more than the simple joy of laying down in his small apartment on the outskirts of the palace grounds.

Michitaka yawned from across the kitchen as he dumped the ice bucket into the sink, now mostly crisp, clear water with a few unmelted cubes remaining. “Yeah. I’m exhausted.”

Noriko shook her head with disapproval as she continued down the row of wine bottles that were brought up from the cellar for the next day’s banquet. “I still need to finish the inventory on the wine and move the bottles to the banquet hall. Mistress Fujiwara told me if I didn’t get it done there would be consequences.”

Konoe groaned. “Well, I hope it doesn’t take you too long.”

Noriko scowled at him. “It won’t. And don’t you two leave without me. I’m on edge enough as it is. I really don’t want to walk back to the servant quarters in the pitch dark.”

“How much longer, Noriko? It’s past my bedtime at this point,” Mitchitaka complained.

“Thirty more minutes. Give or take. You’ll get your beauty sleep soon, just relax.”

“No way!” Konoe yelped. “I’m not sitting here for another half hour!”

Noriko stopped inspecting the label of the wine she was holding. 

“Does the Head of House that you were the one who dropped the China tableware? Because I think if you two left me here in the middle of the night without walking me home, I might just be so scared I’ll scamper right up to her quarters for company,” she shot back. “And if we get to talking, who knows where the conversation could go.”

Konoe’s face glowed red.

Michitaka raised his hands and gestured them both to calm down. “Easy, easy. No one needs to walk home alone, and no one needs to tell the Head of House anything.” He pulled his cigarette case out of his shirt pocket and walked over to Konoe by the door.

“Noriko, if we have a smoke outside will you come out and meet us on the porch when you’re done?” Michitaka asked in a ginger tone.

Noriko pursed her lips and looked at her list again, then at the wine table. “Fine,” she huffed, and turned back to her bottles. 

Konoe’s face was still puckered and his fists clenched at his sides.

Michitaka opened the door and the two men stepped out into the fresh palace garden air rolling up their long sleeves and unbuttoning their top buttons. Both were a break from the strict dress codes of the palace, but no one would be around at this late hour to see their casual appearance except the guards, who couldn’t care less.

Michitaka popped open the case in his palm and pulled two cigarettes out, handing one to Konoe, who took it in two fingers.

“Don’t let her get to you,” Michitaka said as he lit the cigarette in Konoe’s mouth and then his own. He took a great inhale and breathed out the delicious, dirty smoke. 

“She might just be a woman, and she might not outrank us, but she’s been here five years longer than either of us. She’s just flexing her muscles. She wouldn’t do something like that.”

“Psh, women,” Konoe jeered. “I can’t believe this nation has changed so much that I can be talked down to and threatened by a woman my own damn age. The only people that used to be able to tell me what to do were my parents and my boss.” 

Konoe smoked his cigarette and looked across the garden area sprawling out from the kitchen porch to the office of the Imperial Household. Beyond that office, he could glimpse the peaked roof of the building housing the Imperial Apartments. Not a single light shone in any building except the kitchen and the guards quarters some ways south.

Michitaka nodded and sat down with his back against the outside of the kitchen building. He heard Noriko’s clanking as she organized the bottles. Konoe pulled a stool up close and they smoked quietly together.

The two servants sat in silence for several minutes. When they had finished their first cigarette, they both agreed to have another. Time passed slowly without another word.

Finally, Konoe spoke, “Who tells the Head of House what to do?”

Michitaka’s forehead wrinkled. “You mean the head of the servants? Well, I guess the Imperial Household Agency. They oversee basically everything in this place. Finances, too.”

Konoe nodded, thinking. “And who tells them what to do?”

Michitaka racked his brain. “Oh damn, what do they call him?” He tapped his fingers on his knee.

In the nine years Michitaka had spent in the Imperial Palace, cooking and serving and learning the inner workings of the capital, he’d barely talked to anyone outside his own coworkers. Eventually, he took a guess, “I think they call him the ‘Grand Steward?’”

Konoe smiled. “And who tells him what to do?”

Michitaka groaned. “I don’t know, Konoe. Probably the Emperor himself.”

Konoe jumped to his feet. “And nobody gets to tell the Emperor what to do!”

Michitaka shrugged. “Yeah, I mean, you’re right.”

Konoe rested his hands on the top of his head and gazed at the tiny shred of the Imperial Apartments visible from where he stood. “The Emperor can do whatever he wants.”

Michitaka smiled, “Yeah, probably. It’s a lot of power when you think about it.”

Konoe nodded, grinning. “He could buy a thousand cats and let them run wild around the castle.”

Michitaka chuckled. “He could buy a million if he wanted. A billion. This palace’s land is worth as much as the rest of the city combined.”

Konoe nodded more vigorously, his smile growing and growing. “He could raise up the Japanese military and tell them to invade Taiwan and bring him back a bowl of noodles!”

Michitaka laughed and played along, happy to see Konoe back in good spirits. 

“He could decree tomorrow National Nudity Day, and tell everyone they have to walk around with no clothes on!” he snorted.

“The Emperor could- could- He could tell every woman in Japan to line up, drop their pants, and bend over for him!” The two servants nearly collapsed in laughing fits, their hands covering their mouths to muzzle themselves in the empty, echoing gardens.

As they tried to catch their breath and compose themselves, a pair of heavy footsteps came out to the doorway and stopped.

“Noriko, it’s about damn ti-” Konoe said as he looked up, cutting himself off.

In the kitchen doorway stood His Highness Emperor Tenhito — wrapped in a thin summer robe, his hair uncombed and mustache disheveled. His feet were nestled in a pair of indoor slippers. He held a bottle of sake in one hand, a drinking glass from the drying area of the kitchen in the other.

“Y-YOUR HIGHNESS!” Konoe choked out.

“YOUR HIGHNESS,” he dittoed. “Pl-please excuse us, you highness. I apologize from the depths of my heart, your highness. Your highness, please forgive us, your highness.” 

Both men began bowing again and again, their torsos bending and straightening like drinking birds, minds buzzing with panic.

His Highness didn’t respond, instead striding past them onto the edge of the porch. Konoe joined with Michitaka in the gush of regrets and apologies. They both got down on their knees and pressed their foreheads to the porch floor. “We are so sorry, your highness. We have shamed you and brought shame upon ourselves. We have –”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up! Shut the hell up, you idiots,” the Emperor snapped back in a hushed tone. 

Michitaka and Konoe’s mouths clamped shut, their foreheads still to the ground in apology.

The bottle of sake tucked under his arm, His Highness looked back and forth across the garden grounds, then held his ear to the air. Not a single sound carried through the night air. He turned to the two servants. “Stand up, stand up, hurry.” 

They both scrambled to attention.

“Your highness, we –”

“Shhhhh!” The Emperor held his finger to his mouth. “Be quiet!” he whisper-yelled. Opening the sake, he poured it into the drinking glass, all the way up to the brim.

Michitaka and Konoe, thoroughly confused, stood  at silent attention with their chests puffed and their lips sealed. His Highness began guzzling the glass of clear booze, chugging the rice wine with loud gulps. When he finished, he poured another, and similarly glugged it down.

“Ahhhhhhhh,” the His Highness exhaled in a crisp breath. He locked eyes with Konoe and Michitaka and felt his face begin to run red. “Boys, please. You never saw me, okay? This never happened.”

Looking around again, his mustache wet with drink, he explained — “My wife told the entire palace staff not to let me drink, and I haven’t had a glass of sake in weeks. She won’t let me have a damn drop!”

He thrust the bottle into Michitaka’s arms and the drinking glass into Konoe’s hands. “If my wife finds out, she’ll slaughter me. Keep this to yourselves. You can have the bottle. Consider it a gift.”

And without another word, the Emperor began speed-walking across the garden, hunched in the shadows, and made his way back towards the Imperial Apartments, fading into the night.

Neither Konoe nor Michitaka moved, spoke, or even breathed for what seemed like hours. Eventually, Konoe opened his mouth, but no syllables came out, only slurred, incoherent babbling. 

“I-I-I- Wh- We j-ju- Wha–” Konoe looked at the wet glass in his hand where the sovereign of the nation had just touched his sacred lips. Michitaka looked at the bottle in his arms that the national ruled had just “gifted” to him.

A cry pierced from inside. “Konoe! Michitaka!”

Noriko stood at the kitchen door, her fists clenched and eyes fiery. “You stole liquor from the kitchen!? You idiots! Wait until the Head of House hears about this!”

Noriko kicked off her indoor shoes and without picking them up, slid on her outdoor slippers and stamped off towards the Head of House’s apartment, her shoulders tight and hips stiff in the posture of a woman in charge.

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