The carriage heaved, bumping precariously over the curved dirt road that lead to the outskirts of the village. It was enough to jostle Damiya out of his seat; outside, he could hear the horsemen make reassuring sounds to the horses--"Whoa, easy, easy,"--when the carriage took one hard lurch forward, his things and his scrolls tumbling inelegantly against the carriage floor.
"Sorry, sir," the horseman said, but Damiya said nothing. The journey earlier had been marked by the sudden storm, sheets of windy rain sweeping across the fields outside. Now the rain had lessened to a light mist, and through the window Damiya could see the dirty mud fracturing with afternoon light. Shin-Oh was a kingdom of convenience, but the Tai-Koh region was something different entirely: tall grasses shuddered with wind in the murky half-light, the wheels of the carriage sinking into the soft mud from the afternoon rain.
A few moments passed, and soon the bumpiness of the road lessened enough so that Damiya could unwrap the parcel in his bag: a perfect replica of the palace garden. His spies had found the man who did such miniatures, a half-blind old beggar who carved wooden statues for food. He did not even have to provide the man with schematics: the beggar knew enough of the palace grounds to fashion together a realistic replica.
"If you don't mind me saying, sir, that is an unusual gift," the horseman said, and Damiya would have killed him for his insolence, were it not for the fact that the horseman had no idea who he was. "Perhaps your lady friend would like something fancier? Maybe a necklace or jewels, perhaps?"
Damiya adjusted his cloak, tucking the parcel back into his bag.
"It is not of your concern."
It had been several years since Seimiya's mother, the former Queen and daughter of Queen Harumiyah, had died. She had suffered from a long sickness, and when she died, the Wajyaku refused to acknowledge her funeral. Damiya remembered it clearly, how on the night of the funeral procession, Holon subjects wept but the Wajyaku watched with indifferent eyes, the petals of the funeral flowers scattered on the trail. She was taken to the top of the furthest white hill, the darkness of the night punctuated by the soft glow of candles surrounding her, and while Holon wailed and gnashed their teeth, Damiya watched and noticed how the Wajyaku's eyes were entirely dry.
Looking back on it now, Damiya found it oddly fitting that he would meet Seimiya there, at that silent vigil stretched out around the forest surrounding the royal compound. She was only a child then, a mere wisp of a thing pressed protectively under Queen Harumiyah's arm.
Princess Seimiya of the Holon, goddess-borne and otherworldly: somehow those titles hung around her like an ill-fitting dress, something she would have to grow into. The next Queen and heir to the throne was barely fourteen, and Damiya couldn't shake the feeling that whatever foreknowledge of her legend seemed utterly beyond her reach. The hearts of men in war were difficult ones to catch, and Damiya watched as the heartless ones stood, reproachful in their silence as Queen Harumiya openly wept.
The child did not move. Damiya had watched, weirdly transfixed, as the child who would be queen stood with an unnerving stillness as the clergymen began to chant. Slowly, the smoke of incense wafted over the casket, then rose and curled and dissipated into the cold night air.
"I don't think I know you, Oji-sama?"
Damiya stopped, and at once he could see the same golden eyes he had seen at the funeral; he had taken a walk along the riverbank, breaking off from the rest of the crowd to mull over the kingdom's future. "Oji-sama?"
"I am Damiya," Damiya said, and the girl tilted her head--polite, inquisitive--and Damiya found himself unmoored. Piercing, golden eyes, edged with sadness and curiosity. He had been sixteen when his own mother died, when bitterness and disillusion had taken hold of him early. It was a poison that steeped and diffused into his very being, and he had left, journeying beyond the borders of the kingdom to find his own way, only chance and happenstance bringing him back home a decade later.
"I don't remember you," Seimiya said. "You are a relative?"
"Your mother's cousin," Damiya said, and Seimiya seemed to acknowledge this fact with a quiet steadiness that unnerved him. "I got word of my your mother's death, and took it upon myself to travel home."
She offered him a smile, curved like the edge of a scythe, and Damiya had never wanted someone as badly as this, this damaged, fragile creature who offered him greetings and comfort when inside her heart had caved in with grief. Stop this, he thought, and he checked himself, she is but a girl, and he watched as she pulled the thin cloak tighter around herself, looking out into the darkening waters of the riverbank and bravely trying not to cry.
The carriage stopped, and Damiya stepped outside, pulling on the hood of his cloak and tucking the parcel firmly at his side. Like this, the citizenry would not know who he was; the cloak was thick and black and the hood shaded his eyes and features, and when he stepped inside the tavern, the townsfolk did nothing; he sat at the furthest corner of the bar, pulling out a small satchel of coins and ordering a drink.
"--what I wouldn't give to have the Grand Duke be king," someone said. Damiya lifted his head. Beside him, one of the Wajyaku leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. An endless maze of cities: this was how he spent his formative years, wandering amongst the anonymous locales, and everywhere he had only been met with hatred: the Wajyaku and the Holon, blood feuds festering beneath the veneer of allegiance and propriety.
His eyes were hooded, but beneath the hood of his cloak Damiya silently counted off the number of dissenters sitting around him, a drunkards and traveling merchants, laughing and drinking and the stench of their bodies rising like rotting garbage. Something clattered, and Damiya raised his head to see the crowd gathering around a table in the back: one man, red-faced and drunk, had jumped onto the table top, waving a fork like a sword and spouting treasonous words. "Someone just kill the bitch!" the drunkard said.
Damiya's eyes narrowed.
The carriage driver was waiting. Silently Damiya shook out a few coins and handed it to him, then stepped into the carriage, the body of the car sinking with his weight. The driver snapped his reins and the horses began to trot at a leisurely pace, the squat buildings of the tavern and the rest of the city disappearing into the horizon behind them.
"Oji-sama," Seimiya said, and Damiya emerged from the shadows, mouth quirked with interest as Seimiya stared at the package with a watchful intensity, as if she somehow knew it was for her: "You're back."
"Indeed," Damiya said, and he carefully tucked the parcel underneath his arm. Above him, the moon was a pale silver over the dark iron gates, and even in darkness he could see the soft swell of Seimiya's breasts beneath the thin material of her nightdress. "And what brings you here, in the middle of this garden, alone and at this late hour?"
Seimiya smiled, its sweetness like dewdrops on the petals of a flower. "I felt like going for a walk."
"A walk," Damiya said, and Seimiya nodded, a loose strand of hair falling over her face. Quietly Damiya stepped forward and allowed himself to brush that golden strand, letting his fingers linger over her cheek for just a moment, before tucking it securely behind her ear. "Surely the princess knows not to scare her uncle out of his wits, walking alone at this time of night."
"Oji-sama, you are being silly," Seimiya said.
"You would be wrong," Damiya said, and slowly the tips of his fingers traced a path down the line of her neck, a gesture he meant to be paternal and caring, but instead came across blatantly sexual. Golden eyes widened as she blushed, and that perfect, pretty mouth opened, a stammered protest, but Damiya smiled benignly. "There are many men who would harm you, Seimiya. I only want to keep you safe."
"I am safe," Seimiya said, and her voice was tremulous, uncertain; darkly, he thought of the man in the tavern and the traitorous words he said, and the ways in which Damiya would later destroy him. "Oji-sama?"
"You are the one pure light in Shin-Oh's nighttime sky," Damiya said. "Such goodness should only be protected. But for now, my dear, I shall see you off to bed," Damiya said, and he cupped her shoulders. "Even a princess needs her nightly rest."
"Oji-sama," Seimiya said, and Damiya smiled, and pressed a chaste kiss against her brow.
The legends went like this: that their goddess founding queen descended from the heavens, riding atop a winged beast while soaring above the clouds. In Queen Harumiyah, Damiya could see little of the legend that sustained them; senile old woman, blind to the threats surrounding her. It reminded Damiya of another figure, the Grand Duke's progenitor, dark-eyed and declaring his love for a kingdom that was then barely a coterie of nomadic tribes. Holon was light as Wajyaku was dark, but in old Queen Harumiyah there was none of the lightness that buoyed her people, just the flickering dimness of an old and dying star, a withering chrysalis that had begun to fissure and crack with decay.
He walked down the corridor, which was dark except for the orange torchlight mounted against the stone walls. His footsteps echoed with the sounds of water dripping from some leaky crack above him. His men knelt beside him, backlit by orange torchlight and shadows breaking across them like stained glass.
"I would like it done tonight," Damiya said. Quietly he unrolled the scroll of paper and showed them place of the tavern, marking with red ink the place where the dissenters would be. "I expect the utmost discretion. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Good," Damiya said. He handed his man the satchel, nodding. "Remember to bring them to me."
In his chambers, Damiya carefully set the garden figurine onto his desk, admiring it under the dim light. The old man truly was talented: it was as if he was god himself, looking down upon the palace garden. Seimiya deserved all of it and more, the birdseye sight of the divine. In a moment of weakness, he allowed himself to imagine it: hot breath and opened mouths, limbs strained and bodies curving into the invisible places he had only dreamed to reach. Her skin would be pale and unmarked, an unconquered territory prickling with a desperate blush, her isolation cocooned in an aching sweetness that was only his to give.
Little did he know the months would pass, and an attempt to shake the Queen's perceptions would result in the old woman's death: it would be only in her grief that Seimiya would come alive with him for the first time, horror and despair displaced with his mouth on hers.
The wajyaku from the tavern the day before screamed, the chains above him rattling as the guards seered the hot iron into the man's flesh, the smell of smoke and charred skin sickly sweet in Damiya's nostrils.
"Please," the man said. "Mercy!" Another stab; the man cried out again, agonized. Damiya stepped forward.
Blood and vomit trickled from the corners of the man's lips, which were cracked and peeling at the sides, and a thin sheen of sweat shone from the man's head. Slowly the man's mouth and face began to move, a paroxysm of pain and supplication, and his lips twisted into a grotesque parody of human speech. "My Lord," the wajyaku said. He sniveled. Wretched human being. "Please."
"Kill him," Damiya said, and the man's eyes widened.
"My Lord! Wait--"
The sword that cut, it sliced through him like a satchel of wine. Blood spattered onto the paving stones and dripped from the wounds in the wajyaku man's belly, the puddle of blood catching the light of the torch like a reflection on water.
Seimiya. His goddess queen. For her he would seat himself in darkness, would shroud his heart and make all of her burdens his own.
And then there was this: the sounds of laughter and sunshine splashed on the golden fields, a smile in her eyes that left him breathless. He watched as she ran barefoot across the grass, the banner of her hair catching streaks of sun like wavetips in a rushing stream, and all at once he was blinded by the brightness of the blue sky, and the bright white light that would someday be his queen. At nights he dreamed of swollen lips and tender flesh, the hard-cupped friction between them that would drown them both.
"There are children," the Queen said, and Seimiya gasped, Damiya looking back at her sharply. "Damiya! What is the meaning of this?"
They had showed up unexpectedly at the dungeons. Damiya motioned to his men, who had held the dissenter's children in tow. "It was to neutralize a growing threat," Damiya said. "Their father would have brought treason upon this throne. I only did what was necessary."
"And what will you do, now that you have them?" the Queen asked.
"I will execute them, as I have their father."
"You cannot!" Seimiya said, and her face was pale. "You cannot kill them," Seimiya said.
"Seimiya-sama," Damiya said. "Surely you cannot let a threat like this go unchecked. Your majesty would agree," he said, and he looked at the Queen, who nodded, quietly.
"But they're children," Seimiya said. She looked up at her grandmother, clasping her hands. "Obaa-san, you can't. They're too young to die."
"I will leave it in the hands of your uncle," the Queen said. Her face was pinched. She turned, motioning for her guards to follow her.
Seimiya's face was stricken. She fell to her knees, her mouth moving soundlessly, as if afraid to speak. Gently, Damiya knelt beside her, lifting her chin with his hand.
"Do not cry," Damiya said, softly. He brushed back a tear with his thumb, swallowing back the urge to kiss the bruises under her eyes. "Seimiya. You know how much it hurts me to see you like this."
The pad of his thumb traveled down the curve of her check, stopping to rest at the fullness of her lower lip; her lips parted then closed, a soundless almost-kiss against his thumb, when he heard her take a sharp, shuddery breath with a half-formed sob.
"Seimiya," Damiya said, and he searched her eyes. "Shall I let them go?"
And she looked up at him, golden eyes soft and pleading. "Oji-sama..."
"Do not," Damiya said, and he pressed his forehead against hers. "Do not look at me with those eyes. I cannot resist your tears."
"Then...then you'll let them go?"
She looked up at him with an earnest face, and Damiya nodded, curtly. They would grow, and their hatred for them would fester. One dissenting voice would merge into many, until the deafening roar of rebellion would flare out in taut hot bursts, the scent of blood and death permeating the air.
"Oji-sama!" She threw her arms around his neck. "Thank you," Seimiya said. "I love you so much."
Damiya said nothing. He watched, heart in his throat, as Seimiya bounded up the winding steps, the glow from the torchlight bobbing with each carefree movement. Silently he tried to commit to memory the look in her eyes, happiness and relief so strong it would smother him.
Wordlessly he motioned to the guards and they shared an understanding, waiting until the princess was out of earshot before smothering them with chloroform and slitting both of their small throats.
That night, Damiya couldn't sleep. He sat at his desk and turned over the miniature garden in his hands, the tips of his fingers trailing against the smooth wooden edges of the tiny garden wall.