The Imperial Palace was in an uproar following the attempt on the Crown Prince’s life by the treasonous Captain of the Royal Guard and his comrades. Not only had all guardsmen become tainted by association for the betrayal and placed under increased scrutiny by those proctors that Zeus held most trustworthy, and no small few subject to brutal questioning by the special corps, but there was also endless confusion created by instabilities in the new chain of command and constant changes to the patrols. The Royal Guard was the largest trained fighting force in the city and the palace could not be secure without it, but the quest to learn whether the men’s loyalty lay with him or with the former Captain seemed to possess Lord Zeus.
The Imperial Bodyguard had been dismantled entirely, reformed only with candidates Zeus himself had vetted as deeply loyal to him personally and of suiting strength (and, some said, of beauty). Many of the oldest members of the bodyguard were sent away back to their homes, including their leader, Leto, who, from the barracks gossip, was unjustly retired from his position after over twenty years of dedicated service, having once served the former King himself. It seemed all the more strange to Gai that the only bodyguard involved in the assassination attempt, by contrast, was known to be a young man. Although he kept his notice to himself, Gai perceived that Zeus seemed invested in securing the loyalty of those who had no other lord to be loyal to. The bodyguard, so greatly composed of retainers of the various noble houses and lesser feudal lords, was therefore dissembled with speed and swiftness, reformed in a different mould with that rotten Pandora as their new chief.
In the reorganization, Gai had been moved from the outer patrols deeper inside to the Fire Pavilion. It was the pavilion that housed some of the most powerful elite living in Tenkujyou palace, including, most importantly the quarters of the Crown Prince and his extensive gardens. The rotation of guards meant that Gai spent time posted both inside the pavilion and along its outside walls, but as of yet, he had only once nearly come in contact with Rei, and there was no opportunity for speaking. He did not look well, however, and Gai found his heart strangely squeezed as though by a vice at seeing the haunted look in his eyes.
The truth was Gai could not really understand the betrayal of their captain, for Judas had always been so great and compassionate a leader and had a long history with Goh and him both, and moreover, although Gai was angered at the thought that Judas would see Rei killed, he also failed to understand the purpose of such a thing, and how the measures Zeus had taken matched what had actually transpired. Gai had seen the regent around his ward, and he’d seen more of Rei’s position than he’d let Rei think him capable of perceiving. Killing Rei only did not line up with the group’s purported goals or the response that Zeus had given by strengthening his own protection above all others. Moreover, although the one to actually carry out the attack (only to be struck down in the attempt by the prince himself) was one of the special corps, their division seemed to face the least scrutiny. If he considered it carefully, the order of those most affected under Zeus’ reorganization, was the Imperial Bodyguard first, then the Royal Guard whose own leader hatched the plot, and only then the special corps whose member had attempted to carry out the plot. But while the pieces didn’t fit together as far as Gai could figure, he had no idea where the missing piece might lay.
It was no time to be careless, he thought as he washed his face, ready to settle in for the night after returning from a long day of patrol. As he left the washing area and returned towards the barracks, he came to a sudden halt as he saw one of the higher ups approaching him directly, his gaze clear that he had come for no other. When he finally arrived before Gai, his superior had only these uncomfortable words to offer:
“The council of proctors has summoned you,” he said, “you are to immediately report to Clio.”
Gai’s eyes went wide with alarm. Although answering to the proctors was far, far kinder than being summoned to face the special corps, being implicated in any of the present troubles was rightfully frightening, and Gai had no clue on what basis he could possibly be called forth. Nonetheless, he had no choice but to let his brusque superior lead him to the current chief proctor so he kept his mouth firmly shut, despite the instinctual desire to protest.
As he approached the offices of the proctors he saw Amphitrite exiting with clear venom in his gestures. He glanced upon Gai and gave him an unexpectedly hostile glare before continuing on his way, as though he had passed by nothing more substantial than a fly on his path. Amphitrite was known to be a piece of work, but Gai had rarely seen him up close and had never entertained his attention before. The tension Gai felt only increased now. Entering the office of the proctors, he was taken behind a screened partition and made to sit down opposite a low desk. Seated before him was Clio, an intimidating presence which made Gai involuntarily swallow. When their fellow guardsman had left them, Clio began to speak.
“You have been summoned for official questioning by the council. I shall be the judge in your case. Do you know the reason for your summoning?”
Gai didn’t see much else for it but to be honest at this stage. “…No?” he said sheepishly.
The proctor raised one eyebrow at that, as if neither convinced of the truth or the lie of it, trying to gauge Gai’s character from his bearing and determine his belief. However, Gai did not have to wait long to hear the proctor’s explanation.
Clio unrolled one of the scrolls sitting to his right. “Your summons is on account of the investigation into the matter of former guardsmen and special corps members, Fuuga no Maya and Ryusei no Kira.”
“Maya and Kira!” Gai exclaimed suddenly. It was clear that this investigation was entirely different to his expectation, but it also set his guard up as this was a subject he could not entirely claim to know nothing of.
“You were in their acquaintance, then,” Clio said. “We’ve received information from others that has indicated you were close friends.”
“But what do you mean ‘former’?” Gai said, not really listening as Clio’s earlier words dawned on him more fully. “Do you know what happened to them?” There had been rumours floating around that the brothers had disappeared from duty altogether, and Gai was crushed to have received the news, but this was more substantial than he had yet heard.
“That is what we are trying to ascertain, and I advise you be honest with me on every aspect as a result. Did you not know they had abandoned their posts some weeks ago?”
“I heard talk,” Gai admitted. “But then, what is it you think I have to say for your investigation, and why interrogate me only now?”
“Amphitrite was handling it internally and seemed to have considered it not so great a loss as to have merited much effort until present events passed. He wished to have you interrogated by his corps as the only known person connected to the brothers still in the palace. The council of proctors have interfered on your behalf. Should you not pass muster, I will turn you over to him to obtain the information required. Matters of the ordinary guard should be settled by its overseers first and foremost, however. You must be prepared to give me the entire truth.”
Gai shuddered, but even as the proctor spoke he knew he had to be careful in what truths he revealed, for as out of the loop as he suddenly felt on the matter, he had no doubt that the power to further condemn Kira, Maya and himself lay only in his hands at the moment with no others under investigation. The only other people the brothers had been close to that he knew of were Goh, who was away, and the Captain.
It suddenly dawned on Gai why the investigation had only seemed now to be of any import. Their connection with Judas suggested a possible treasonous motive for their desertion, and Gai could not honestly know if there was any truth behind it, for this was the first time he had even contemplated such a connection.
The proctor looked at Gai as though appraising whether he had finally come to the right conclusion or not, before continuing. “How would you describe your connection to the brothers?”
“Friends. With Maya at least,” Gai said honestly. That would be difficult one to wrangle out of if he tried to cover it up. The palace intelligence clearly already knew that much.
“And your relationship with Kira?”
“Kira was often absent, and is haughty with others. I’ve tried to be friendly, but I couldn’t say we get along exactly.”
Clio nodded, and said, “And what were the purposes of his absences?”
“I don’t know,” Gai said. “He wasn’t an open guy.” Maya, by contrast, was, but Gai had long had the impression that there were matters that the brothers held between themselves that were secret to all outside their world of two. It hadn’t truly bothered him until he had suddenly disappeared without a word, leaving Gai feeling very alone and out of the loop.
“Do you know anything of the connection between the brothers and one of their fellow corps members, Kagero no Shiva?” Clio said.
There was yet another peculiarity of the case, thought Gai, that the dead assassin was not the only special corps member seemingly involved in the murder plot.
“Shiva is a little worm and he hated them both,” Gai said, not bothering to hide his feelings on that subject.
“Please avoid colour, and inform me why you think that is,” Clio said.
This was a trickier one to negotiate. “They didn’t have many friends or supporters, but from what I saw and heard tell of Shiva, he had fewer and envied the attention they received from the higher ups.”
“Hm. The antagonism matches my understanding of the situation at least. How often were you in the company of Maya?” Clio asked.
“Rarely,” Gai said, offering something that wasn’t untrue, but downplayed the connection a little. “After returning from the Winter Palace, I saw him only a few times before his disappearance.”
“You were part of the entourage at the Winter Palace,” Clio said, laying out another piece of paper before him, “guarding the chambers of the Crown Prince, it says.”
“Yes,” Gai said, trying to hide his alarm. He wasn’t certain whether that was meant to implicate him in the whole affair that now seemed to be unfolding in a new light.
“Notes from your commanding officer seem to suggest you served well, if occasionally appearing somewhat insubordinate with his highness. Did you have any contact with him after your return?”
“None. It is only following recent events I was moved to a post near him. It’s coincidence, that’s all.”
“What is?” Clio asked, before continuing, “The notes here suggest you were moved because your previous good service at the Winter Palace suited you to protecting one of the most important pavilions in Tenkujyou Palace, and no previous connection was established between the rebels and you. Having questioned you, I am inclined to think that there is no connection in this matter either, although this does not mean your interrogation is over. Your absence in the Winter Palace excuses you of any plot that was grown here during that time, and the reports I do have don’t seem to indicate much time spent with the brothers following your return—although I did receive tell that much of that time spent seemed to involve gambling on the palace premises,” Clio said with emphasis.
“Yes,” Gai said, shrinking visibly, secretly relieved but somewhat chastened by the proctor’s words. It was beginning to look like he’d steered suspicion away from himself at the least, without compromising too much on Maya and Kira’s behalf.
“I want you to give me the full testimony on the last times at which you saw the brothers, and of any connection you know to exist between them and the former Captain of the Guard. If you continue to answer without deceit, I will let you go as soon as we’ve finished.”
“Yes,” Gai replied, facing Clio head on.
Shin hesitated for a moment, pausing just before the turn of the corridor that led to his cousin’s chambers. He didn’t wish to face his cousin without catching his balance, and balance was something he had been often without since news of the plotted assassination reached his ears. Learning of Judas’ hand in the attempt against Rei’s life had beset his heart with conflict, unable to reconcile his feelings between the two of them. He didn’t want to believe it of Judas, and yet, he even believed he might be able to defend his actions as part of a greater purpose if only at the other end of this affair was not someone he cared for. To feel sympathy for Judas was to betray Rei, and yet he could not turn his thought away from his former tutor, who had endlessly appeared as a man leaderly and great. Unable to appear composed when he dwelled on these thoughts, he purposefully remained away from Rei for some time, throwing himself into other pursuits. Even now, he was not sure how he could bring himself to face his cousin when his thoughts were too often with the absent Judas, wondering at his intentions and his safety.
He took a moment to breathe, before quashing all these complicated thoughts and turning the corner, walking up to the doors of Rei’s chambers. There were now two guards posted directly outside his doors, when there had only been passing patrollers before, and upon announcement and assent from within he was admitted into Rei’s rooms.
Rei was sitting there with an unrolled scroll before him on a low table, looking up at Shin with eyes that no longer seemed warm. Shin felt a pang of guilt, as though afraid such a gaze might see right through him. Behind Rei, once again returned to its mount on the wall, was the ceremonial sword of the Suzaku, a sword never intended draw blood as it had hardly a fortnight ago. How strange to think that in the moment of utmost peril his cousin had drawn it and managed to strike down a trained assassin alone. Some whispered, very quietly that it might not reach the ears of Zeus, that it was the power of the Suzaku line that had manifested in the sword, the gods themselves protecting the heir of that lineage from harm. Shin wondered if the change in his cousin’s countenance owed in part to his spilling of blood for the first time and finding it a horror rather a testament of his divine right.
Shin made his greeting, one that sounded rote even to him, and his cousin graced him with something Shin could not call a smile even as the corners of his lips lifted half-heartedly. Shin felt very aware of how overdue this visit was, and cast about for a moment as to how to apologize.
“I’m relieved to see you are well,” Shin began, knowing his words rang hollow. “I have been worrying about you. I’m sorry I was not able to visit before.”
“It is no matter,” Rei said, his spirit equally not in it.
“I can’t imagine the suffering you’ve gone through. But it is a relief to know the threat has been overcome for the moment,” Shin said soldiering on through the next part. “Those who plotted against you have been declared traitors and exiles. Surely they will not return.”
These words held no comfort to Rei, he could tell, and as Shin sat with him longer he began to realize the lack of light in Rei’s eyes was neither fire-forged maturity, nor dismissal. Instead what lay underneath seemed to be terror. It startled Shin, and distracted him finally from his thoughts of Judas. “You have nothing to fear,” he said, trying his best to sound genuine in his comfort. “You are better guarded now, your enemies away, and every effort will be made to keep you safe.”
Whatever Rei said in response was as unimportant to him as it was to Shin. It was clear that it held no weight. Shin felt a great gulf between them, and worried that it was one of his own making through his own conflicted feelings and distance these past weeks. Even before, now that he thought of it, he had not been in Rei’s company often, self-preservation keeping him away to avoid being caught in any kind of court intrigues. Perhaps his self-interest had authored this deep rift.
After a moment, Rei stood and invited him to take a walk through the gardens together, dreary but for the plum blossoms that had begun to appear. Rei did not even bother to look him in the eye as he spoke, and Shin felt his own gaze going elsewhere to keep from confronting him head on, talking idly about the things that had passed.
Unable to keep his words from straying entirely away from his former tutor who so occupied his thoughts, Shin said as neutrally as he could, looking at the blossoms appearing upon one lonely tree, “I suppose the men who plotted your assassination will be caught eventually.” He continued despite the sinking feeling of his heart, “I suppose they will be executed.”
“Please don’t speak of it.” Rei said, quietly but forcefully.
Shin was surprised at his vehemence, turning to look at Rei’s profile, seeing his hand clenched at his side. “Then,” Shin said, his desire to protect Judas overcoming his better judgement, “What would you do?” He needed to know Rei’s answer.
“Let them run,” Rei replied, “far, far away from here, and never look back.”
“Very just of you,” Shin said, keeping his words reserved, even as his heart felt reassured.
“There is no point in holding onto bitterness, especially when you live knowing your hours have reached their limit.”
This, more than anything that he had heard from his cousin yet, shocked Shin to hear. “Surely you have nothing to fear now that they’ve gone,” he said.
Shin watched as his cousin let his head stoop, gazing at the crumpled flower petal caught in his now uncurled palm, before he spoke “You know well enough, Shin, that the court of Tenkujyou is not a place I can survive in for much longer. And it has only been through birth, luck, and the grace of others I have lasted so long. It troubles me.” His cousin turned completely away as he continued to speak, his meaning vague, “But even now the greatest part of my fears rests not on myself. I wish I had never been born a prince.”
There was much in what Rei expressed that Shin couldn’t understand or explain, but this last he understood intimately. “Maybe we would have been happier being brought into a different time,” Shin said, commiserating more deeply then he could ever say. “Maybe the next life will see us kings and not pawns.”
“I don’t want to be a king,” Rei said, clutching the flower petal close to his chest. “I once thought I should be, that it would be only right to rule my people, that I could surely be more just to them, more wise and fair. But I’ve realized I have no desire to lead like I should. I only want to be like the bird who flies free over the meadow. Content with nothing more than a simple nest to call home and a family to protect as the seasons weather. No more of these plots and limitations and struggles for power. ”
“You take me too literally,” Shin said kindly, “for I too dream of a life free of kingdom and country. To be with my books and my music,” he said, and with a touch of melancholy added, “surrounded by dear companions, and days passed in peace.” He smiled bitterly. “Should desires such as these be closed to us?”
“I pray not,” was Rei’s only reply, as they continued their slow walk, and no more words passed between them until Shin’s leave-taking.
As Goh entered his tent, immediately he sensed that something was not right although looking around warily he could see nothing amiss. He rested his hand cautiously upon the hilt of his sword, nonetheless, and walked carefully further inside. His instinct was proven right when he heard a voice come from behind him.
“Make this easier and stay your hand, Goh. I am not here as your foe and if I were it’d be too late for you already.”
Goh turned to see perfect shadows suddenly broken by the emerging figure with a familiar (if not fond) face, having grown up together as trainees among the palace orphans.
“I’d give you more trouble than that, Shiva. Why should you choose to appear here now?” Goh said none-too-kindly. “This is not a wise place for a traitor to be.”
“And so I have cause for stealth, but if you know I am a traitor you already know who I travel with,” said Shiva. “He said you could be trusted or else I would not have come here on his behalf.”
“Are they well?” Goh asked.
“We are doing the best we can, but if a true end is to be put to all this, we need your support,” Shiva said with a scowl. “Judas said you were sympathetic. It’s time you proved it.”
“What was his message?” Goh said, having little patience for Shiva’s attitude.
Shiva handed him a scrap of paper in a hand he recognized well. Reading it over, Goh was unsure of the best course, for his hands remained dangerously tied where he was. At last, he turned the paper over and picked up a brush, blotting it carefully before writing a hasty message upon the back.
“I cannot guarantee the success or safety of it, but I advise you aim south along the foothills at the border between this encampment and Yugong and tread very carefully. You may find some familiar faces upon that road. Bear in mind any future messages need come to me or Lieutenant General Saki directly, as I think they know, despite the risk. At present, this is the most I can offer. They’ll learn more elsewhere.”
Shiva’s expression was displeased, but he listened to Goh’s words intently and tucked the missive away. “Then until next time,” he said before disappearing into the shadows once more in that eerie way of his.
At last, Goh let the tension in his limbs go and sighed wearily. The dangers of their plot had only increased, and discovery could mean the utter ruin of all the threads that had been assembled for this rebellion. Meanwhile he was fighting another war amidst a sea of wars that weighed heavily on the veterans who only wanted to see home for a time, while the newer recruits tested their mettle and learned the weight of their empire in bronze and blood. He thought warily back to a troubling encounter he had had a few weeks past as the troops performed reconnaissance across the border at night. He could only hope he wasn’t sending his friends into a greater danger than they were prepared for, but in the aftermath of that encounter, he could only bet on this chance.