Recently, I have returned to playing tabletop RPGs with great enthusiasm – the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is a quite excellent game that improves upon the previous editions. In many ways, I enjoy running a game more than actually playing in one; being the DM/GM permits me to create societies and scenarios for other people to run up against, exercising greater planned creativity than improvised actions in response to someone else’s scenario within a ruleset (for this reason, collaborative games like Fiasco and Ribbon Drive are much more fun to play for me).
As part of my running games, I enjoy creating imagined worlds and traditions. Recently, I have been reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and its first-hand view of a period of history – much like the Letters of Pliny – has proved invaluable in helping me make worlds that feel alive and credible, while my love of fantasy fiction (particularly those pseudo-historical works of Guy Gavriel Kay) is rich inspiration for the fantastical.
Thus, I wrote this, as some idea possibly for a game I may run in the future – an excerpt, perhaps, from a fantastical Pillow Book or diary in its tone. It describes someone reflecting on the last minutes of preparation for some religious festival – the details of the culture or festival did not seem important when I wrote it, those details could be filled in if I returned to the setting.
Tables are being laid, in the hall and outside on the great terrace that looks down over the cliffs to the sea. Long, bowing tables of pale wood, silvery-white and dressed with cloths in royal sky-blue and gold, and atop them piles of wooden plates awaiting food and diners. Wooden plates out on the terrace, but as one goes indoors they become neatly-set places of silver, and then at one end of the hall gold, so much gold, the royal table. Bowls of fruit and loaves of bread – decorated with gilt-leaf and dried fruit and seeds and nuts – are already being placed out, those outside covered with cloths to keep the sun and the flies off.
If one sat at the end of one of those long outside tables, in the corner that is shadiest and coolest and also farthest from the crowds and that heaving interior, the long, dark green fronds of a fruit-tree would caress your shoulder if you wore the dresses that are in fashion, the ones that leave part of your arm bare. Vibrant, sunset-pink fruit would hang just behind your ear, scenting the air with the sweetness that invites leaning back and taking. Of course that is forbidden if you are not part of the royal family, or acting with their permission. The castle’s gates may be thrown open today but there are still rules to be obeyed. How would anyone know, you might wonder? One fruit from one tree of dozens all hanging heavily with treasures just out of reach, in a courtyard filled so breathlessly with people that one will barely be able to move once all have arrived? Someone would know. It is hard to explain how but when one walks these courts every day, when those trees are as close confidants to your life as your servants, one knows.
And one knows what one can and cannot do. To see someone reach up, as plain as day, and with a hand smooth with silk glove take fruit from the tree, perhaps not even to eat, perhaps just to rest upon the wall, is to see someone powerful. Little gestures tell us who is who.
Hanging vines trail down low under some of the arches by which one enters this courtyard, and it is amusing to watch how some theatrically duck, some hold them aside for ladies worried their hair would be upset by leaves, and some will not proceed until a servant provides that service. Of course, if one knows these courts and passages, one knows where to go to not be troubled by vines. There is one passage that is heavily overgrown, it is the one that right now servants in the royal family’s livery – maids in quartered smocks of ice-blue and gold, waiters and footmen and chefs in tunics and stockings the colour of the sea far below – are hauling great processions of things through. Barrels, a stout man carrying one under each arm. Two maids with between them a trunk full of forks and knives and cups, going one way and another. They bring the clean things up, and once the eating begins will bring the used ones back. One may watch this industry from up high; the windows of some of the towers look down over the warrens of stairs and slopes that lead from the kitchens.
One has to be a certain kind of person to enter this busy domain through the stairs and vine-shrouded passages of the outer buildings. Arriving by the steps up from the small dock beneath the cliff. There are many steps and when it is as warm as it is, one sees the stouter visitors and the most slender ladies cursing their misfortunes. It is the fashion to walk upon pointed, delicate shoes with high precarious soles, to perch oneself on crushed toes. Fashion does not account for the one-hundred steps from the royal dock to the fountain court. You may ask why one would travel by boat, if there is a perfectly good road? One cannot account for everyone’s reasons to do as they do. It is not anyone’s business but the visitor’s.
A number of small river-boats are nestled in the dock at the moment, long and narrow and lined with shields and banners proclaiming their owners’ families. Two interlocking flowers growing around each other in red and green, a half-circle sunrise in deep golden orange, a blue spiral meant to represent waves. There are others, people of less importance. A little way around from there is a smaller, meaner dock where long barges are unloading even more for the events this afternoon.
The entire scene waits. Riches are being laid out on display, the riches of farm and sea and more. Enough to sate any appetite, just awaiting someone to eat. Like the fruit that brushes the back of the neck, it may not be touched yet.
All eyes – save of course for those serving and preparing and cleaning – are on the great assembly chamber. Visitors are brushed up the stairs and down the halls of the castle towards it, and stop just short, milling about as they wait for the doors to open. Trays piled high with glasses are passed around with an eye to who is where; there are perhaps four courts where guests are carefully funnelled, and it would not do for the wrong guests to be offered things they would not like. Most interesting is the high gallery, where only the luckiest guests await the order to enter. Picture a sea of bright colours, women strangely tall in their precarious shoes, men at liberty to wear, for once, bright clothing rich with embroidered scenes. Some drink strong wine from low saucer-like cups, others delicate warm herbal drinks or even just the nectar of fruit crushed with a grindstone. Read the expressions across the room; the older faces are mostly full of anticipation, the excitement of familiarity, of seeing old friends and of what is to come. There is curiosity and nervousness in the faces of daughters orbiting their mothers’ gown-trains, or sons bold in their adult robes near admiring fathers. Those children whose first such day this is. In some of the children – and some of the adults, too, those heirs and heiresses on the edge of not simply majority but that time of life when one is really an adult, there is resignedness, a longing for this to be over and the feasting to begin. One has to be in the right mind for this. Few are in it at that age.
A young boy, out on his first formal outing, is talking excitedly with a young man, all flowing hair and white-on-black silk, about war. One only has to listen to know neither knows anything, they are talking of war as only someone who has never seen it does. It is so obvious from how the boy’s father, tall but standing below his height with one crooked leg, is so disinterested. He is a man who is clearly a hero, and here he remains silent. Then, with a swirl of gowns, the young would-be hero is swept off by a woman in pale pink and the father turns to the son and says something which invites rapt admiration tinged with mild disappointment. The truth always comes out. A girl, clearly sheltered, is unused to drinking from a shallow cup and horror fills her eyes as fine tea-coloured wine traces dark lines down her white dress, spilling out from the sides of the cup and washing away her makeup. Nothing can be done. It cannot be helped. Stone benches line the edges of the gallery, and on one a man has clearly already drunk too much, he has acquired a crowd of watchers as he regales passers-by with bizarre, rambling stories like some false priest. He is harmless but at the same time slightly depressing to see, inelegant and too loud for today. But this is the day when the castle is open to everyone and so one must accept that outsiders may not understand what this means.
With the sound of a bell, the doors to the assembly chamber open and people file in, placing cups they may not take inside down behind them on the chairs and tables. Inside, the galleries and the great open floor-space slowly become a flower-garden of formal clothes, at the very back even the plainest, meanest folk still wearing what finery they can bring. There is no conversation. The presence, in black-and-blue-and-gold, of the stern-faced magician and her two clerks – one tall with gently waved hair and the other shorter with hair cut in boyish fashion, both wearing blue skullcaps – and the imminence of the true centre of attention means one dares not speak.
Her Majesty enters the hall. Slowly, walking on shoes impossibly high beneath a dress so long it trails like a carpet of blossoms in her wake. Head straight and tall to balance her headdress which hangs with ribbons and jewels suspended from golden sun-rays she proceeds, one minute step at a time, serene and beautiful. The magician claps her wooden prayer-boards together and a voice, loud and wavering, begins the rituals. The hours of prayer and observance – the seeking of forgiveness for the past year’s failings and the wishing of a nation for a good future – have begun. And, later, once the sun is past noon and all the songs have been sung, we will feast, and the work of all those servants will finally be rewarded.