Chapter 1: I
In the greater hall of the central pavilion a magnificent assembly had gathered, a spectacle of wealth and power concentrated at the heart of the empire. On the dais, elevated above the hundreds of guards, soldiers, councillors and noblemen sat Zeus, Regent of the Heavenly Kingdom, a hereditary monarchy that had survived for two centuries unbroken until now. Proud, powerful, and resolute, the regent had total command over his subjects. Though he may have styled himself as a wise benefactor to the people, Judas knew there was lingering unrest concerning his absolute authority over the state. Robed in white and gold Zeus was a resplendent and imperious figure. In his right hand he held the royal sceptre, ornately carved ivory with the emblem of the royal house at its tip—the wings of the vermillion bird. On his left hand was a jade ring bearing the same insignia, taken from the hand of the previous king upon his premature death. There was no one who seeing this figure on his throne surrounded by such regalia would be able to question the authority of the man.
Seated much lower to his right was the Crown Prince, the lawful heir to the throne, on whose behalf Zeus ruled the Heavenly Kingdom. Tranquil and poised, Suzaku no Rei was the jewel of the realm, unmatched for grace and beauty. Even without the layers of rich, red silk garments embroidered over in fine gold thread to boldly proclaim his royal pedigree, his preeminent status would have been immediately apparent from the way he carried himself: statuesque, dignified and impassive. Such delicate and effeminate features were so rare for a young man that Judas had been duly surprised the first time he had laid eyes on the prince. Yet for all his composure, there seemed a certain sadness surrounding the prince, hidden behind the royal mask, like a beautiful but slowly wilting flower. Though much speculation abounded as to whether the prince resented Zeus for his unlawful seizure of power and secretly plotted to regain his rightful throne, Judas, in all his time in the royal guard had never found any truth behind the rumours, nor certainly had Zeus himself. However, there were times he couldn't help but wonder what thoughts lay beneath the impassive face of the young monarch, and now was surely one of them.
Arrayed behind them in strict rows were two dozen members of the royal guard, as well as the personal bodyguards to the royal family. The only others on the dais were various attendants, bearing flags and other ceremonial items. The perimeter of the lower hall was surrounded by more of the palace guard, Judas' own handpicked men among whom he was the first. Clad in dark uniforms they were an imposing force, a silent symbol of the power and might of the Suzaku dynasty. In two lines on either side of the hall knelt the lesser aristocrats and councillors of the kingdom, their blue silk robes denoting their official capacity within the court.
It was amidst this splendour and display of authority that a solitary figure appeared at the end of the long walkway, clutching his plumed helmet at his side. With steady, even strides the man made his way up the centre of the grand hall, the sound of his heavy footsteps ringing throughout the near silent gallery. Upon reaching the foot of the dais, he swiftly fell down on one knee, eyes averted and head bowed before the regent in deference.
"The second division of General Lucifer and Commander Gabriel has been annihilated, your eminence."
"And the General?" Zeus asked.
"Neither the General nor the Commander were present at the battle. Members of our intelligence have received indication that they and a small army consisting of the remaining rogue first division are being sheltered within the territory of our satellite state, the Chikyuu Kingdom. However, our Chikyuu allies claim to know nothing of this and their ambassadors assure us that they will investigate these claims. Their branch of the forces has been an undeniable asset to our army."
"And yet still they think of turning on us," Zeus mused. "We must remind them why it is they became our tributary, and that they shall remain so as long as I safeguard this great kingdom. General Goh, bring two of your divisions to the Chikyuu border with my emissaries, who shall conduct a new treatise concerning the interests of our countries. If the Chikyuu do not bow to pressure and yield up to us those traitorous vermin they are hiding, they may see war once more."
"Sir," Goh said, lifting his head to meet the gaze of the monarch, "the Chikyuu Kingdom has yet failed to prove an unfaithful ally to our state. Moreover, the morale of the—"
"You have received your orders, General Goh. We must show them the iron fist of our empire. You are dismissed," Zeus said, waving his hand. The general's head dipped slightly in defeat, before he bowed once more, squared his shoulders, and swiftly strode out of the grand hall. Quiet murmurs followed him out this time, the court officials whispering amongst themselves in response to this turn of events.
Though the Crown Prince had not changed his expression throughout the entire scene, Judas thought his downcast eyes spoke volumes. To threaten the Chikyuu Kingdom like this was an unwarranted act of aggression toward their allies, and if the Chikyuu officials did not bend to Zeus' new demands, another costly war such as had happened shortly before their own time might arise. To jump so quickly to such a conclusion was dangerous. The hushed whispers gained increasing volume after General Goh fully retreated from the scene.
"Silence," Zeus commanded, rising to his feet. "On this I will not take any objections. We are adjourned," he said, and proceeded down the aisle where the general had just made his exit, followed by his retinue. As the rest of the assembly dispersed Judas signalled to the guards to fall out and return to their usual posts.
Stifled noises echoed through the quarters of the crown prince, empty of any attendants to hear them. Screened by intricately painted partitions that featured vibrant depictions of mythic events and pastoral tableaux, there was no one to witness the prince's closely guarded secret. Long strands of purple hair lay dishevelled against the layers of silk clothing he had been divested of, tangled and matted together. The graceful prince tried to hold back his cries, his hands clenching tighter with every passing moment, his eyes closed against the overpowering sensations.
A hand gripped his thigh firmly as the other man pounded into him again and again, nearing climax. Another stroked his erection, pushing him towards the edge and making it harder to suppress the overwhelming tension. The intensity was becoming unbearable as the other man thrust into him with increasing abandon until at last the prince suddenly attained his release, his paramour simultaneously finding completion.
He stopped himself from thinking at all for a moment, blindly holding on to the feeling of satiation. With a heavy-lidded, longing expression he looked up into his lover's crimson eyes.
"Kiss me, Luca."
His pale-haired lover happily obliged, drawing him into a sweet, heady embrace as both remained caught up in the dizzying ecstasy from before. Loving hands caressed Rei's face, light but reassuring in their touch. Gently Luca pulled away from the sweet embrace, settling next to the fair prince who wasted no time wrapping his arms tightly about his lover once more.
"Stay with me a while," Rei asked, resting his head against the other's chest.
"I can't for long, you know" Luca replied, lightly stroking Rei's violet locks.
"But a little while," Rei said quietly, "I feel better when you're here."
"Of course," Luca said, continuing his gentle ministrations as the prince slowly slipped into slumber.
"One, defend! Two, thrust! Three, parry! Four, retreat! Five, advance! Six, extend! One, defend…"
Shin repeated the cycle over and over again, moving his weapon through the air with as much finesse as he could. He tried not to focus overmuch on his footwork, which would only lead to him making a misstep anyways. He wasn't particularly graceful or smooth in his sword work, but he was determined to gain ground in the martial arts. Although his status among the lesser nobility guaranteed a certain degree of safety and a comfortable life, he felt that without more martial experience he was not only less likely to advance in court but also more susceptible to any threats should they arise.
Though the court was largely peaceful under Zeus' reign, it was in many ways a forced peace, and Shin was not blind to the potential for scheming that existed within such an atmosphere. Zeus himself was fond of creating rigid hierarchies that drew in the most ambitious and competitive among the aristocrats, and even among the common guards. His shrewdness generally prevented anyone too power-hungry from reaching the upper-echelons of the court but the potential always lingered there, and certainly the former General had been a testament to what this aggressive pursuit of power could lead to.
There was also his cousin to consider. He largely owed his current role in court life to his place as a companion to his distant relation, the Crown Prince. The prince had become fond of him, and Shin was reluctant to abandon him now. Though their blood connection was not particularly close, Shin had been invited to the court by Zeus to increase the prince's companionship with other nobles his age. A simple assessment of the others and himself made apparent that they were not among the powerful or those of the highest pedigree. Shin strongly suspected that Zeus saw each of them as the harmless sons of lesser lords, unlikely to foment rebellion or guide the prince to higher aspirations, but company enough to prevent the prince from becoming too restless in his gilded cage. Why else would Zeus, who so loved hierarchies, invite the undistinguished sons of the minor nobility to the court where prestige and ambition were the transcendent values? Shin pitied his cousin.
Though his ambition was primarily for knowledge, facing all of this Shin knew well enough that if he did not attempt to improve his social position he might well be sent away or else would quickly sink in the mire of intrigue. And so he dedicated himself to training at night, hours at a time, slowly working his way to becoming a better soldier instead of turning to his other, more favoured pursuits. He had very far to go, but was determined to improve himself, and with every repetition he made he was one step closer to his goal.
"Three, parry! Four, retreat! Five, advance…"
After a long watch duty at the north-western gate of the central citadel, Gai was burning with impatience to get back to the barracks. He had a longstanding debt to some fellow guards that he was certain he could win back tonight. Although it was frowned upon by the higher ups, the guard barracks were unsurprisingly a hotbed for gambling—one of the easiest forms of entertainment if you didn't bother leaving the palace grounds.
He walked briskly through the maze-like passages leading to the guard quarters, pausing briefly to pet some of the stray cats that always got into the palace no matter how well-guarded the premises were. "Give me all your luck, okay kitty?" he said, roughly scratching the nape of a black cat's neck. The cat simply meowed and moved on its way, leaving him standing there, too absorbed in thoughts of victory to watch its retreat. He had a good feeling about tonight!
Upon entering the barracks he was immediately hailed by his red-haired friend, who was busy watching an ongoing game in which the stakes were rising through the roof with each round.
"I've found some guys who will play with us! Think we can beat Erytheis and Tyche?" Maya said, guiding Gai to an empty table. He waved over the two others across the room and held out a die.
"You bet! Today I am coming out the winner," Gai said confidently, baring his teeth in a wide smile. Admittedly, he seldom had any lasting success, and Maya, who wore his heart on his sleeve and seemed positively incapable of hiding his feelings, also was a weak strategist when it came to gambling, but the one thing they both had on their side was sheer luck. Gai knew he led something of charmed life, and tonight he was going to put it to good use.
"What's on the table?" Tyche asked as everyone took turns rolling.
"Let's start with a day's wages and work up from there," said Gai.
"Are you sure? It could get seriously high the further we go on," Maya said with alarm, worrying about how his brother would criticise him for his recklessness if he found out.
"Come on, the higher the risk, the higher the pay off."
"Suits me fine," said Tyche.
"Me too," said Erytheis.
"Alright, alright," Maya said, regaining his enthusiastic expression and taking his turn rolling the die.
"Looks like first dealer is me," Erytheis said, handing the die back to Maya and gathering up tiles. He methodically distributed them amongst the four guards. "Read 'em and weep."
Gai grinned and winked at his friend. He knew he couldn't lose this time!
Chapter 2: II
Re: the instruments here, the only real useful thing to know is that Shin is basically reconstructing an ancient Chinese harp. :)
Shin lightly ran his hand against the wooden lattice as he walked through the long halls towards the garden terrace facing off of the prince's chambers. He knew that at this hour the prince would most likely be sitting on the portico, passing the time before midday one way or another. As he reached the end of the hall the pair of servants crouched by the entrance slid open the delicate paper doors, suffusing his vision with sunlight.
Rei sat to one side of the terrace, holding his erhu in his left hand, the bow resting in his right. He acknowledged Shin with a smile, tilting his head courteously. Shin bowed formally, dropping to his knees and bringing his hands to rest together on the ground in front of him. "Your highness," he replied, rising to his feet again.
"Please, join me," Rei said, smiling up at him as he brought his bow taut against the outer string. He nodded behind him to where a pipa, a guzheng and a dizi were resting next to the wall. "Your skill will surely improve my awkward strains."
"I'm sure you underestimate yourself," Shin said to be polite and moved to take the pipa. He took a place to the side of the prince and examined the strings, plucking them each at a time to check their tuning. He had both a practical and academic interest in music, particularly with stringed instruments.
"Lately, you know, I've been trying to reconstruct a unique instrument which I found mention of in some rather old histories. The reasons it died out aren't clear, but it seems to have been popular at the time." He stopped focusing on the tuning peg he was adjusting to look at Rei. Rei nodded his head in approval to go on.
"I think I have calculated the proportions of the shell of it correctly, but it is difficult to judge the tautness of the strings. I've worked out certain tones that it should encompass, but there isn't enough information to accurately construct the full tonal range of it. There's a lot of guesswork involved, although the records here have been most helpful."
"What is it, exactly?" Rei asked.
"It's called a konghou. It is held upright, with the strings suspended between a wooden frame that curves across the top and runs perpendicular at the bottom. You pluck it from the centre, where the strings are exposed."
"How strange," Rei replied, trying to imagine what it would look like. Where he sat the sun shone brightly against the parasol that blocked its direct rays, casting light and shadow on his face where the painted figures cut along the expanse of white. "How many strings does it have?"
"Fifteen," Shin responded, keen to share more about his latest passion.
"So many? But how does one carry it? It must be heavy."
"It is not as large as you imagine, and the frame itself is quite thin."
"You'll have to play it for me when you finish it," Rei said eagerly.
"Certainly," Shin replied, finishing the tuning of his last string. "Now, shall we begin?"
"Something simple to start with. 'The Field Where Lies My Home'?"
Shin nodded and waited for Rei to begin the first measures.
As they neared the finish of another song, Rei heard a knock to his right. He was disappointed to be interrupted. He was enjoying making music with Shin, especially since he had even got him to join in singing this time, which was quite rare. He brought his bow and instrument to rest and called the person in.
"The Regent wishes to see you in his stateroom," the servant announced briskly.
Rei turned to Shin, who had already began to place the pipa back against the wall. Rei sighed a little regretfully, before saying as brightly as he could manage, "Thank you, Shin. I'm sorry to have taken so much of your time."
"Think nothing of it," Shin said, bowing quickly. "I must return to my office now, but I hope to meet with you again soon." Rei waved him off and rose to his feet. His muscles were stiff from having been at rest so long, but the feeling would wear off before he reached Zeus' public quarters. He brushed the wrinkles out of his clothing before following the messenger who had already departed.
Rei was surprised by the summons since the Regent had always had as little to do with him as possible, beyond the necessary public appearances. Though Rei was of an age to take the throne, the affairs of the kingdom lay solely in the hands of Zeus, who ensured that Rei neither dealt with the running of the kingdom nor the interaction with his people outside of a purely decorative function as the last living member of the former royal house—an icon to the people but insignificant in all but name. Although he tried to be content with what he had, he couldn't help but feel powerless and caged at times when he considered his lot, especially when his heart spoke out against the Regent's decisions. Yesterday's decree against the Chikyuu kingdom still weighed heavily on his mind, and yet he had no power to argue with Zeus against this action, nor could he fully assess the situation because he was seldom informed about particulars of the state. Any shopkeeper on the streets of Tenkujyou probably knew as much as he did, if not more.
As he passed a series of guards wearing their grey and green uniforms his eyes couldn't help but search for white hair, for the one guard that had occupied his mind so fully of late, even though he knew he wouldn't be here. Despite his attempts to mask it, the wonderful feeling that simply thinking of his lover brought to him longed to make itself known. Before Luca appeared he was alone, without confidant or intimates in the palace, even amidst his companions. He longed for his willpower and his strength, the way in which he seemed able to achieve whatever he set out to do. It was something that should never have happened and yet it was what Rei was most grateful for in all his short life, that he had met this man and fell in love with him. What had he dreamed of, before this?
Rei's attention was brought back to the present as he stood before the central administration office. He entered and passed the rows of scribes copying and sealing various materials and headed in towards Zeus' office. The regent looked up from his writing as Rei came to a halt before him.
"Rei," Zeus said, setting down his quill and getting up from his desk, gesturing to the side room.
"Lord Zeus," Rei responded, following him into the tea room and taking a place at the low table. Zeus' two personal bodyguards also made to enter the room until Zeus wordlessly signalled that they remain outside. It was just as well, Rei thought. Though it was their duty, the way Pandora and Cassandra followed Zeus like preying hawks unsettled Rei, and he would prefer not to endure their presence if it weren't necessary.
Several attendants moved about, laying out various dishes before them. Rei moved to pour tea for Zeus, before filling his own cup, focusing on keeping the poise that he had been taught by his tutors as essential to the 'art' of hospitality. Zeus gazed at him with an unreadable expression. Despite his creased forehead, his eyes betrayed nothing of what he had called Rei here for, something which often disconcerted Rei, even when certainly there should be nothing to worry about.
"You have been practicing music this morning, no doubt," Zeus said nonchalantly.
Rei paused for a moment as he sipped his tea. "Yes, I have been, sir."
Zeus reached out at grabbed his left hand, catching Rei off guard. "It shows in the calluses," he said, running his thumb across the tips of Rei's fingers, before dropping his hand abruptly. Rei couldn't think of anything to say in response, and instead bit into a teacake, hoping it was a good enough excuse for silence.
"You've found many things to occupy your time of late, haven't you?" Zeus continued, with what seemed to Rei a hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth. Rei was puzzled over his meaning but simply gave his assent, waiting for him to elaborate.
"Unfortunately, with the recent situation in Chikyuu you'll be expected to appear more frequently at council sessions. I'm sure you understand the necessity of our actions and will support me to the best of your ability," Zeus said calmly, his eyes holding Rei's gaze as he spoke.
"I…I…haven't the Chikyuu kingdom been faithful allies until now? To so suddenly refuse to cooperate on such an important matter, is it certain that they are concealing General Lucifer and our men?" Rei blurted out, taking his chance to voice his concern.
"Rei, you spend your days studying music, studying calligraphy, dance, arrangement, you know much of literature and of art, you are cultured as any nobleman should be, but have you ever seriously studied the affairs of this country?"
"No, I—I…" Rei stammered.
"And that is why you are too quick to make judgments about this matter based on face value. You must trust me in this, Rei, someone who has made an exhaustive effort to know politics and its nuances. An ally is only an ally so long as they work in your best interest, and reasons to change that attitude are as many as the grains of rice you can hold within one hand. Knowing how and when your enemies are planning to harm you is part of the art of politics, one which takes a long time to learn. Now, as it stands, the Chikyuu have become a false ally to us. It is only a matter of time before they will seek to rise up against the Heavenly Kingdom under the influence of their own lust for power and the machinations of the insurgents they now harbour. They must be punished for their sins against our country if they do not yield up the former General and our men, and that is why this decree has been passed. They have the chance to prove their allegiance and if they do a long war against the rogue troops will be over. If they do not, we must respond appropriately to ensure the continued safety and liberty of our kingdom. All this you could, of course, not know because you do not follow these things, but that is why I am here to look after them and continue to uphold the security of our kingdom. This all would only be a burden to one such as yourself."
Rei looked at Zeus with beseeching eyes, feeling foolish and upset. "I…perhaps I could…" Rei began, unable to conjure up a strong opposition.
"Your temperament is much better suited to lighter pursuits as it is," Zeus said with a smile. "Do not trouble yourself any more about this, and do not continue to listen to hearsay." Rei just stared at his hands fixedly. He always felt small when he talked with the regent, like he had no power to say the words he felt. "In fact," Zeus continued, "if you should hear any mutinous rumours, I would ask that you bring them to me, so that I may personally redress them myself."
"Of course, Lord Zeus," Rei responded in monotone. They continued in silence until they finished their tea, unbroken but for one comment.
"It has come to that time of year again. It seems likely that we will be leaving for the winter palace soon."
As Rei left he could barely focus on where he was stepping. He had been utterly defeated.
"Leucippe, Ianthe and Acaste, you are now assigned third-quarter night watch at the northeast gate of the Phoenix Pavilion. Anchiroe, Ithome and Rhanis, the central-west gate of the Amber Pavilion. Theisoa and Gai will be patrolling the length between these on the same watch for this week. Our Regent is concerned about the potential weakness of this section of the palace so we are stepping up the security during the time which potential intruders would find it easiest to infiltrate," Judas said, pacing back and forth before the guards he had called to receive orders. He paused for a moment before adding, "Of course, they certainly would not find it easy even now." A couple of the guards smirked at this, encouraged by the pride their leader took in them and their skill.
"Additionally," he continued, "I'm reassigning Iakhe to training, and Aethra will be taking his watch for the remainder of the week. Dismissed."
The watchmen saluted and promptly dispersed, leaving Judas on his own in the small room. Though he went about his business as usual, and tried to put on his best face for his men, he truthfully was much troubled by the events of yesterday. When he first began training to join the guard, hardly more than a child, he had total faith in the power of the Heavenly Kingdom. Under the just leadership of the Regent, it was reaching new heights of glory, shaking off the chaotic wars of the past, and to be in the Royal Guard for the central palace was something to feel pride in. But lately, the rose tint with which Judas had looked on the world was starting to wear thin, as their leader acted more ruthlessly, the ambitions of the state increasingly going beyond simple justice.
As he passed through the halls, pondering these things, he came to pause by a room currently occupied by the special corps, palace guards who had received most of their training in stealth and non-combat weaponry—in reality, assassins. Though they still reported to Judas as the head of all Royal Guard forces, he couldn't help but be wary of their leader, Amphitrite, who was quite competent but had a difficult attitude. He was about to move on before someone called to him from within.
"Captain Judas!" shouted Maya, running over to see him. His elder brother Kira lurked not far behind, as usual. This of course garnered the attention of the others in the room, apparently confused as to how they should act, half standing up at attention and the other half remaining as they were, or even ignoring his presence.
A purple haired youth cut in front of Maya, as though there were a competition for Judas' attention. "Have you come to visit us? Or is this an inspection! As you can see, we—"
"It's alright, Shiva, I was just passing by. No official business," Judas said, trying to reassure the anxious guard.
"Is that so?" came a cold voice, dripping with disdain. Looking past Shiva and Maya, Judas saw Amphitrite leaning against the frame of the door.
"I trust that there is no need for me to review your men at the moment, and that operations are going smoothly," Judas said levelly.
"No need at all. Now if you'll excuse us, my men and I were in the middle of planning and your aimless interruption isn't going to further our objective. Kira, Maya, Shiva!" he snapped.
Maya winced at hearing his name called, but quickly grabbed onto Judas' arm and said, "You'll come by again soon, right?" with a sincere grin before scampering off. Kira simply gave a sharp nod his way, so typical it made Judas smile. Shiva still stood unmoving in front of him, looking torn.
"Shiva!" Amphitrite yelled again.
"Please come! I'll be looking forward to it!" Shiva blurted out before turning quickly and going back to be reprimanded by Amphitrite. Judas decided he better move on before there were any further altercations.
He reached the courtyard at the end of the guard quarters, which was unsurprisingly quiet. The waxing moon shone brightly on the cobblestones, casting everything in a bluish hue. Judas came to rest against one of the cherry trees, leaning upon it for support as he scanned the night sky, returning to his thoughts.
In the current political climate, he was beginning to falter in his purpose, but at the same time, how could he act? He could not speak to Zeus frankly about his opinions, and the few times he'd voiced questions that he needed to hear the answers to, the regent was evasive and condescending, reminding him of his place as chief of the guard, both honourable, and yet irrelevant. A position far below Zeus and those bureaucrats that complacently adhered to Zeus' own principles—a court that was ready to eat itself alive with plotting and sycophantism.
He heard a quiet set of footsteps nearby, and turned to see a shadow moving toward the courtyard from within the hall. It was probably one of the guards heading out early for watch, or else into the city. Though the guards were encouraged to remain within the palace premises as much as possible, most went out to gamble, drink, and frequent brothels in their off-duty time. Judas had to admit it was preferable to the gambling that went on in the barracks, a never-ending problem and something he had consistently failed to put a stop to. As the shadow began to materialize into the real thing it appeared that it was the last person he expected it to be.
"Luca!" he called, watching as his friend stopped in his tracks.
"Judas," Luca said, smiling as he came over, "What are you doing out here and at this time of night?"
"Enjoying the peace and quiet, I think," Judas replied.
"The captain is unable to get a break from his charges, is it?" Luca said with a teasing tone.
"Truthfully, the captain is unable to get a break from his own mind."
"Is that so?" Luca said, moving to sit on a stone next to him. "What are these thoughts then, that are so troubling?"
"The former General, to start with," said Judas, looking down to his friend. Luca nodded in response, his expression sobered. "His actions, however wrong they were, I'm starting to find more sympathy for. When he took the first and second divisions of the army, it was a betrayal I couldn't fathom at first. And his motivations seemed only to be greed and pride, as far as I could guess—and maybe they are, but the further the Regent leads this empire down the path he does, I start to see other reasons. Who else would stop—"
"Judas!" Luca said, his attention fixed on the captain. "You should stop there, if you say anything more it becomes treason."
"Yes," Judas sighed, hanging his head, "you are right there."
Luca stood up and put his hand on Judas' shoulder. "I share your worries, but for now wait and see how things will turn out. Silence is the more prudent answer." Judas gave a small smile in acknowledgement.
"Were you going somewhere before I called you over?" he asked out of curiosity.
"Yes, actually," Luca said, dropping his hand to his side. "I should probably be on my way. Another time though."
"Certainly," Judas said, waving his friend off. He was undecided whether he should head back into the barracks for an early rest, or whether he should check up on a few of the guards that had been reported as causing some trouble lately. Nine times out of ten, all that was really necessary was a warning from their leader and they came around, but if there was one out of that ten that would be a problem, perhaps it would be better to deal with them tomorrow with a clearer head.
He looked at the sky again, almost reluctant to leave the courtyard on such a beautiful night. "The only thing it's missing is music," he mused aloud, watching the stars slowly turn across the sky in a slow, steady dance. After a few moments more, he finally turned back to the warmth and light of the guard quarters.
Luca slipped quietly from partition to partition, knowing the way into this section of the palace intimately. Rei looked up from the bed where he sat, before rising to his feet immediately. "Luca. You did come," he said, smiling up at his lover.
In spite of Rei's attempt at cheerfulness, Luca could instantly was tell it was a cover. "Of course I did," Luca said, running his hand across Rei's cheek gently. "Is there something wrong?"
"That, that is…" Rei mumbled, refusing to meet Luca's gaze.
"You don't need to hesitate when you talk to me, Rei. Just say whatever it is you are feeling and I will hear you out, always. I want to hear your thoughts."
Rei gave a quiet assent, but did not start talking immediately. Luca gently pulled Rei even closer to him, touching their foreheads together. After a long pause, Rei looked up into his eyes and asked him an unexpected question.
"What am I worth?"
"What…" Luca began before Rei cut him off.
"Just some shallow, naïve aristocrat whose thoughts and opinions are no more than air. All the things I know are useless to my kingdom, to the people who I am unfit to rule because I know nothing that I could even try to help these people. My family and my title, my lineage being descended from the very gods, meaningless because I am weak, pathetic, because the only things I know are literature, art, music, etiquette, all trivial things that amount to nothing outside of this palace. 'The things best suited to my temperament'. Am I only the sum of that? Even as a prince what can I be worth if that is what I am?"
Luca was stunned by how upset Rei was tonight. Although it wasn't the first time he had seen him like this, the things he was saying were shocking. "Rei, what are you talking about?" he said quietly, imbuing his words with as much sincerity as he could. "You have so many beautiful qualities, so many talents and strengths that others don't. You aren't weak, and if you don't think you could exist outside these walls it's because you have never been allowed to. Given the chance, you'd learn so quickly the Regent would be watching his back in fear. If he tries to tell you that you are anything but who you are, ignore him. Even him. With the right opportunity I know you could learn how to lead if you wanted to. And you have a beautiful heart, so why should you even ask such a thing, Rei? Don't think so badly of yourself, please."
Rei buried his face in Luca's shoulder, embracing him fiercely. "Thank you," he murmured as Luca soothingly stroked his hair, wrapping him in his strong embrace. "Can we just stay like this for a little while?" Forever.
"Of course," Luca whispered, "I'm always here."
"I'm afraid," Rei mumbled. "Zeus said the court will move to the winter palace soon. If you are not chosen, what will happen?"
"Don't think of the future, right now, Rei. Only think of me, holding you, at this moment. Now is what is important."
"I love you now," Rei whispered, "now, and in the future."
"Then have faith in that feeling, now and in the future, and we'll face the problems of the future when they come," Luca whispered back, drawing his lover into a delicate kiss.
Chapter 3: III
Useful notes to this one mainly are that a han is like a fiefdom and dapanji is something like chicken stir-fry cooked in beer. I'm not sure that's soldier rations but they have to eat something. ;) And just to prevent any possible confusion, the first part is a flashback, the rest obviously the present.
He had been lost, wandering through the palace in attempt to reach the barracks, having been sent off on his own. The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the cherry trees, a latticework of sun and shadow marked across the trail shifting with the stirring of the wind. A stream ran lightly through the garden and Luca paused as he crossed the low bridge that passed over it, resting his hand lightly against the brightly painted red railing. The beauty and quietude of the garden reinforced a feeling that this was not a place he should be wandering through. He knew that to deviate from the path he had been instructed to follow would only find him more astray, but being new to the Tenkujyou imperial palace it was unnerving to think he might be treading across grounds he shouldn't. He had little choice but to trust that he was headed the right direction and hope that if he was wrong anyone he may encounter would not jump to hasty conclusions about his presence and could set him the right way. Despite himself he couldn't help but take in the beauty of the place as he went—the lush greenery and peaceful air that permeated the garden, the soothing sounds of the song birds, the running brook. There was a profound harmony to it all, a balance of sun and sky and earth and water. As he reached the edge of a row of plum trees, Luca came to an utter standstill. Seated at the edge of the riverbank was a solitary figure.
He was looking at a living flower, more beautiful than all the rest in the garden. The young man was unmoving; his vermillion eyes locked on Luca's with a faintly surprised expression. Violet locks elaborately styled and woven together around a coronal of red and gold fell across his back, the longest strands brushing the ground on which he sat. Dressed in opulent silk, the poise the man held bespoke grace and dignity.
Could he have stumbled upon one of the palace courtesans? Surely it would be criminal if he were caught here, unsolicited, with one of the Regent's favourites. Luca's mind raced, unsure of the proper protocol. He was certain now that he shouldn't be here. He quickly bent down on one knee and dipped his head very low, trying to convey his sincerity through gesture. "I ask for your mercy and lenience," he spoke with his head bowed. "I have lost my way and wandered here unintentionally. Please forgive my unseemly intrusion." He heard rustling as the other man stood to his full height. Luca kept his eyes averted, waiting tensely for his response.
"You may stand," the young man said evenly. Luca didn't move. "Be at ease. For the present you have my permission to be here."
"I'm not sure my presence is appropriate here," Luca said, raising his eyes to meet the other's gaze.
"Perhaps not, but I have the power at least to say who can enter my garden."
"I thank you for your courtesy," Luca replied as he rose to stand, still caught in the light of those flame-red eyes.
"Where were you intending to wander?" the young man asked, his tone and expression completely neutral.
"I was heading for the barracks. I've arrived only recently from Yanagi to serve as a royal bodyguard in the palace."
"However did that lead you here?" the other man said, a perplexed look crossing his face. He finally adopted a warmer expression before continuing, "No matter. I will accompany you to the edge of this quarter and let you wend your way from there."
"That is most gracious of you," Luca said, falling into step with the violet haired man as he walked in the opposite direction from which Luca came. Although he made an effort not to stare at his companion, to catch even that wisp of a smile from the other man was strangely tempting.
It wasn't long before his guide picked up the thread of conversation again. "You mentioned Yanagi. I must admit I'm not terribly familiar. What were you doing there?"
"I am not surprised, it is a sleepy han and it is only having come here that I've started to realize how little news travels to or from the small prefectures in the East," Luca replied, "but that is where I've been raised since youth. I trained under the lord there, Master Reida—formerly among the King's Guard—for many years. He is ailing of late and despite my fear for how he will fare in my absence, he was determined that I enter into royal service. It is on his recommendation that I have been accepted here."
"He must be a venerable man. Usually these things are not so simple, I understand." The young man paused briefly and turned to smile half-heartedly at Luca as though concealing some secret thought. "I wonder if I might ever meet him."
"Is such a thing permissible?" Luca asked, perhaps too boldly. But for a courtesan of the Regent to meet with a former guard living far from the capital would be considered very strange to be sure.
The violet haired man gazed down at his tightly-knitted hands blankly. "It may not be," he replied. "Come, this way," he continued and they began to walk again.
Luca worried that he had offended him by his question and resolved to follow along in silence. However, it was only moments before the other man became animated once more. "How are you finding your initiation here, in a place so different from your home?"
"It is both pleasant and overwhelming," Luca replied honestly. Taking a moment to meet those fiery eyes he added, "Sometimes unexpectedly so." He was treated with a sweet smile in return.
"I have no doubt the unexpected will soon wash away into simple routine. The unexpected moments often become the most beautiful ones. I encourage you not to wish them away too quickly."
"I will keep that in mind," Luca replied, letting a small smile slip past his lips as well. This conversation was certainly treading onto thin ice if his suspicions were correct but it was hard when under the spell of the beautiful garden and bright eyes to focus on the disparity between the two of them.
They walked on for some time before arriving at a small gate. The young man came to a stop before the door. "From here, turn right and head straight until the wide bridge, then turn left at the fork after it. You'll be by the barracks soon enough."
"Thank you for you kindness," Luca replied. He hesitated a moment before deciding to ask the question he had yet to find any answer to: "May I ask whom I am addressing?"
"You didn't know? And yet you are so formal," the young man replied, surprised but with a hint of teasing in his tone.
"My apologies if I have behaved uncouthly, it is apparent from your bearing you are far above me," Luca immediately replied, dipping his head in deference to affirm his contrition. Although he had been lulled into a false feeling of affinity from their earlier chatter, his awareness of his status came back to him once more. He could not expect an answer now.
The violet haired man contemplated him for a moment before giving his reply. "I am Rei. Suzaku no Rei."
Luca looked up in pure shock. He wasn't speaking to some favoured courtesan, he was speaking to the Crown Prince. All this time he had just assumed based on no more than wild conjecture. How shameful to even think such a thing. As this knowledge set in Luca quickly dropped down to his knee. "Forgive me, your highness, for my ignorance and boldness. I had no intentions of disturbing you here or..."
"I know," Rei cut in, smiling gently, "you and I have been speaking for some time, if you have not already forgotten. You need not fret now."
Luca simply nodded in acquiescence, remaining in his humbled position on the ground.
"I am afraid that you must make haste though," Rei said, "you no doubt have lost much time in your detour through my gardens. Farewell."
"Farewell, your highness," Luca replied, watching the prince slowly retreat past the line of trees before finally rising to his feet. He rested his hand against the latch of the door for a moment before turning to look back at the path along which the prince had disappeared but amidst the falling plum blossoms there was no one to be seen—a vision on which the curtain had, no doubt, been forever closed. Luca stepped through the door and went on his way.
In spite of this assertion, it had not ended there.
Looking up from his food Gai turned to see Maya waving madly at him as he scurried across the mess hall. He waved briskly before turning back to his dapanji, eating with zeal.
"Is it true you were assigned to the winter palace entourage?" Maya asked as he dropped into the seat across from him.
Gai took a moment to swallow before replying, "Just my luck, eh? While you guys are stuck here frozen in the snow, I'll be basking in much warmer climes. " He grinned widely at his friend.
"But it'll be so long until we see each other again," Maya complained, getting right to the heart of the matter.
"It's not that long, you'll see," Gai replied, briefly losing his focus on his food to reassure his friend.
"Maybe," Maya replied gloomily.
"Cheer up!" Gai said, trying to raise his usually energetic friend's spirits, "Maybe I'll get the chance to pick up some neat trinkets when I'm there. Yugong is known for their wood handicrafts, right? And when I get back I'll give them to you and you can tell me all about the stuff that happened here while I was gone and then we can annoy Kira and we can beat everyone at dice!"
It took very little to restore Maya's spirits and quickly they had left behind the topic of separation and were plotting their odds of winning back some of their money from Daira and Phiale later that night.
Judas reviewed the list of guards who would be remaining at Central Palace for the winter months. With the absence of a royal presence the watches would have to be revised to match the smaller demand. It had been a very long night just sorting through the numerous units and omitting the individuals he had recommended for the winter palace escort in attempt to compile a roster of those remaining. His eyes were sure to become sore if he did this for much longer. On the other hand, it kept his mind from his restless thoughts.
The situation in Chikyuu still sat ill at ease with him. The Regent's threats were not idle and there was a possibility of outright war on that front as the discontent of the Chikyuu people grew at their government's quickness to appease Zeus' wrath. And despite the assurances that the Chikyuu intelligence were doing their utmost to track down the traitors Zeus believed to be in their midst, there was also the distant possibility that the former General really was being harboured somewhere within Chikyuu territory and would use the situation to his advantage. Judas' former idol was a formidable tactician.
In the thick of this turmoil, Judas was quite grateful that Luca would be remaining at the palace as well. Of all people to seek counsel from, Luca might be the only one he could truly trust with his thoughts that were so dangerous in this climate. To have an ally and a friend close at hand was indispensable.
Judas sighed as he once again pulled back from his restless meditation, trying to bury himself once more in the scrolls before him. For the moment he simply had to focus; there would be enough time to brood in the coming months.
Chapter 4: IV
Touched by a light layer of snow, Tenkujyou Palace became a mirror of its usual dark, rich world. As he gently slid the door open Luca was blinded by the glare of fresh, white snow; snow which had come far too early and promised a cold winter ahead. Standing against the great white canvas was Rei, stroking the feathers of a small, grey bird perched on his hand. Luca announced his presence quietly so as not to startle him. Rei smiled as he turned slowly, the pigeon ruffling its feathers slightly at the movement.
"Come here," Rei said, taking Luca's hand gently. He guided him to lay his palm flat and picked up a handful of seeds, sprinkling it lightly across Luca's outstretched hand. The bird sitting on Rei's fingers quickly hopped over and began pecking away at the seeds. Luca felt caught off guard, but held back any reaction in order not to disturb the bird. He had never had any interaction with messenger birds before, nor was he familiar with the aviary of the palace, a concern that was weighing on the back of his mind at the moment lest they be caught in a place so often frequented. Rei assured him that the clearing behind the dovecote would almost certainly be abandoned at this time, but the unfamiliarity nagged at Luca.
Rei sprinkled more seeds on his hand. "I've taken care of him since he was born," Rei said, taking Luca's other hand and guiding it to gently stroke the bird's feathers, trying to get the bird to accept him. "He has been taken to the winter palace many times before, and can always find his way back home here," he said, taking his own hands away and leaving Luca to handle the small bird on his own. "And so long as I'm at the winter palace, he'll be able to find his way directly to me. We just need to convince him that when he comes back here, he needs to go to you."
Luca stroked the bird with care, fascinated at its ease with humans. "He's a beautiful creature. But how can you guarantee that he will find me?" he asked as he tried not to react as the bird suddenly hopped from his open palm to perch on one finger.
Rei whistled in a short pattern and suddenly the pigeon leaped from his perch on Luca's finger to Rei. "Try to mimic me exactly," Rei said, returning the bird to Luca and whistling once more. Immediately the bird flew away again. Rei started backing up to the edge of the courtyard, bringing the bird with him. He nodded at Luca to try the call.
He didn't get it the first time, but he knew what his mistakes were the almost the moment he formed them. With greater confidence he tried the call once more. The messenger pigeon reacted immediately, taking off from Rei's gloved hand and fluttering down quickly onto his own. Rei grinned at the success and called the bird back. Luca was fascinated by the process, how much trust the bird had in them both, and how much effort it must have taken to train it. Back and forth they whistled to the bird, now close, now far, until Rei seemed confident in their success.
They drew close once more as Rei looked deeply into Luca's eyes before speaking. "Should it somehow fail, perhaps this may help guide him," Rei said, reaching underneath swathes of clothing to produce a small carved jade case. Rei pressed it into Luca's free hand before whistling to the bird, convincing it to come back to his hand. Luca carefully removed the lid to reveal what Rei had enclosed there. Lying across the green stone were several strands of violet hair. It was as much a promise as anything else.
Luca slid the lid back before securing the box inside his uniform, resting it over his heart. Rei was surprised as Luca pulled out his short sword and unravelled the leather bonds that encased his own pale hair. He quickly cut through a piece of the thong before shearing off a long lock of his own and wrapping it within the binding.
"Such a kind gift deserves one in return," he said quietly, encasing Rei's hand in his own .
Rei smiled back at him. "Now he should always find us." He raised his right arm suddenly and sent the bird off in a flurry of feathers, watching as it took to the pale white sky.
"What's his name?" Luca asked, following the bird as far as he could see.
"He doesn't have one," Rei replied, matching Luca's gaze. "He seems more free that way."
Luca scanned the area briefly before backing Rei into an alcove. He kissed his lover passionately, a second promise passing his lips as he did so. "I promise you one day you will be free," he whispered.
"But for now..." Rei whispered back, wide eyes searching for any other answer than the one he knew.
"The months will pass sooner than we think," Luca replied, brushing his lips against Rei's cheek. Rei kissed him once more, imbuing it with all the hopes and fears that flurried about in his heart, like the newly fallen snow.
Shin gently rested his brush on the table, taking a moment to relax from the endless record keeping. In the absence of the court, he had been honoured with duties within the Ministry of Rites, a new appointment he was enjoying immensely. The freedom that came with the removal of the majority of the court was refreshing, and though formalities never disappeared entirely, it was easier to abandon the company of the other courtiers in favour of his own studies. With the completion of his konghou he had devoted almost all of his spare time to mastering the instrument, finding out its secrets that history left no record of. Truthfully he couldn't help but feel pride in his accomplishment, the challenge of constructing the instrument had pushed his skills further than he had expected, and the reward was clear enough in the beautiful tones that rang forth when struck.
Even in spite of his new preoccupations, he had not entirely abandoned his nightly training. He knew the respite from the decadence of the court would not last long, and the growing hostility from Chikyuu was almost certain to come to a head before the spring arrived. Under the rule of Zeus, the restless atmosphere would never lift, and the rule of Zeus was, at present, indisputable. Although the ambition of many nobles would see Zeus overthrown for their own selfish gain, there was no true base of power there, and the common people—those who had the time to turn from their daily work at all—saw their Regent as the leader steering the Heavenly Kingdom towards the glorious and righteous path as the first in the land. Certainly there was whispering in corners, but they were the kind of whispers that were never to become a shout.
And Shin could not rest even if that weren't the case. He might not entertain grand thoughts of rebellion, but for the wind to change when least expected—it would be a lie to say within the depths of his heart he didn't wish it would. Change was what the Heavenly Kingdom needed. But it was foolish to dwell on such a wish and again as so many times before he brought himself to let it lie fallow and focus on the present.
Shin readjusted his glasses before picking up his brush once more. In the dim light of the lantern the characters almost blended into one another, but he was determined to continue well into the night yet.
The entourage of the court stretched out for miles, winding beyond the distant hills before disappearing out of sight. Although he was trained to withstand long marches, after four days it had become admittedly wearying. He had to admit a certain relief when the whole procession came to a standstill, allowing his feet a brief rest.
"It seems we'll be stopped for a while," he called out, addressing the figure in the litter beside him.
"Is that so?"
"That's so," he replied cheekily, to the sound of a slight huff from behind the curtain.
At first the being the prince's escort seemed like a bit of a drag. Most of the other guards were too serious-faced to get through to and conversation tended to be mostly about their progress and the conditions of the road. Not that he wasn't serious about his task, but they could've lightened up a little. They weren't walking into a war zone or anything. Heck, they should be celebrating escaping the snows back in Tenkujyou!
It was by luck on the second night that the Prince became involved in a discussion with the guards when complications with the terrain and the baggage trains brought the encampment process to a grinding halt. While this would have been unremarkable, the long wait inevitably led to Gai trying to lighten up the atmosphere in the meantime and launch into stories of his attempted inventions. While he quickly found the overly stiff guards weren't much of an audience, he caught the prince snickering condescendingly in the background more than once. Feeling a little impugned, Gai (rather unwisely) confronted him about it, only to find out that he was equally good at riling the prince up, and moreover, he wasn't going to have him imprisoned for insolence even if he kept at it. Pestering Rei was fun, filled the hours quickly, and when they'd had enough of give and take, they could put aside their differences from time to time and find some common ground between them. Things were actually looking pretty up at the moment.
"How much longer, at this rate?" asked the prince.
"From what everyone else has said, the fourth dawn from now." Gai replied, searching through the wagon's packs for a water-flask.
"It's been slow progress this year," Rei said.
"Really? This is my first time going!"
"Are you looking forward to it?"
"To the taverns of Yugong anyway."
Gai looked over at the blind separating the prince from the rest of them, suspicious he was being laughed at again.
"What's your assignment on arrival? You might not have much chance to exercise that privilege," the prince said after a moment's pause.
"Sounds like I'm stuck with you, actually," Gai said. He heard nothing but a short hum from the prince, followed by a prolonged silence.
Gai decided to test the waters, "So what are my chances?"
Pandora could tell Zeus was in a poor mood. Although he travelled much more comfortably than any of the soldiers or servants, the long trip was frequently uncomfortable, and the move to the winter palace brought the monarch's mind closer and closer to the problem of Lucifer. The lingering anger at his second-in-command could be read in his countenance—what little could be read from the inscrutable monarch.
Truth be told Pandora didn't particularly care for the current actions of the former general either way. Lucifer was doomed to fail even if he did strike, so there wasn't any real threat to his lord. What was another war to him? As a result of the defection Pandora had moved up in the Regent's regard, so he had no particular reason to hate Lucifer now.
He adjusted the reins of his horse as the train slowed down to a crawl. They were arriving at last to the winter palace. From the crest of the cliff the view of the valley was stunning. Rice paddies decked the foothills, swaying green terraces interspersed with small groups of wooden buildings, little hamlets formed by a few hundred farmers who had gathered together. At the base of the eastern mountain was the garrison and town of Yugong, where he could see small people milling about their daily work amidst the smoke and straw and stone. At the centre of the dale stretched the great grey lake on which a sprawling complex of buildings stood, a defiance to nature. Through the lattice windows of the covered walkways the pale flickering of lanterns created a shifting illusion across the dusky water. The Lake Palace was one of the most stunning places in the Heavenly Kingdom, an architectural marvel safely nestled between the three great mountains, protected from attack on all fronts.
Pandora spared himself a moment to take it all in, but as Cassandra shifted in the corner of his eye he returned his attention back to the steep descent of the terrain they were traversing. Whatever the coming months held, he would continue to do his duty beyond reproach. As Zeus bids, he complies.
Chapter 5: V
"Something is troubling you," Luca said, sliding the door to a close behind him. Judas sat contemplatively at his desk, the dying candlelight casting fanciful shadows across the papers scattered in front of him.
"Can I speak freely?" Judas asked, stirring from his thoughts.
"Yes," Lucas replied, kneeling down to sit across from him.
Judas hesitated for a moment, before handing over a letter. "The situation in the south is worsening. The General doesn't say much but..."
"He can't, can he?" Luca said, carefully looking over the note. There were no great secrets contained within and yet it was undoubtedly written to convey more than what could be expressed in official post.
"The letter is half the message itself, I believe," Judas said, taking it back and shutting it carefully away in the desk drawer. "I don't know how much longer I can sit here, Luca. This isn't just. Three of the four Chikyuu diplomats living in our cities have been secured and questioned for information under threat of arrest and torture. The fourth..."
"The Tenkujyou ambassador?" Luca guessed.
"I have direct orders from Zeus to do the same with him. Tomorrow..." Judas trailed off.
"You don't have a choice right now," Luca said.
"I should. We all should."
"I share your feelings, but we have to look at matters practically. For now..."
"I've been telling myself that for too long," Judas said, cutting him off. Both fell into silence for a long moment, before Judas asked an unexpected question, "Do you remember the previous monarch?"
"No," said Luca. "I'd have thought you'd remember what Yanagi is like, even from your short time there. The matters of the capital were of concern to only a few. I know my master always felt loyalty for the Suzaku Emperor, but he didn't talk about his time in service very often after he returned. Everything was very far away then."
"Truthfully, I wouldn't have cared at that age, wherever I was. That's precisely why neither can I recall his great majesty. I remember youth as a golden time, the country untroubled by war and in-fighting, that was cut far too short by untimely death. I remember the empire as a paradise that has since been deeply shadowed," Judas said, sharing his own thoughts. "And yet somehow as the Regent leads us to more acquisitions, through more and more empty wars for land and ambition, the people of Tenkujyou celebrate their good fortune, the talents of their great leader. From their blood and the blood of others they are giving in hopes of fortune, because it is what Zeus has promised to them at any expense to increase his own power. Can they be wrong, Luca?"
"I'm not sure I follow," Luca replied.
"I'm going to do something," Judas said, his voice filled with conviction. For his part Luca did not show his surprise, but waited silently for Judas to continue. "I want to act in pursuit of justice, in the interests of the common good, to free us all from the fear that is becoming endemic to our lives, but it seems the hardest thing to confront is that it might not be what the people themselves want. But to love a tyrant as they do..." he trailed off, looking to his friend.
"Those silenced by Zeus, those kept underfoot and trampled, they are people too," Luca said, "and who knows who is next." He moved to rest his hand on Judas' shoulder. "You know what your intentions are, so don't falter. I am with you."
"Thank you, Luca," Judas said, smiling for the first time in a long while.
Needing to clear his mind Judas wandered to the outskirts of the central palace area. Although emboldened by his conversation with Luca earlier, he could not entirely rest his thoughts, filled with deep misgivings about the coming day. In spite of the wintry chill, when bathed in the brightness of the full moon the palace was tranquilly beautiful and seemed a much simpler place.
Passing the training grounds, he faintly picked up a lone voice calling out drills from further afield. Curious, he made his way towards the sound, passing through the weapons galleries to a small part of the arena obscured by the store houses surrounding it. Rather than a contrite recruit determined to improve his skill, at the edge there stood a willowy young man—noble by his attire—repeating basic drills with zeal if not with skill. It couldn't be someone of very high rank, or Judas would have recognised him, but he was clearly of some status among the royal court.
Although he knew it would be inappropriate to remain, Judas couldn't entirely pull himself away from the scene. In spite of his lack of technique, there was a gracefulness that the man carried and determination written on his face. After watching for but a little while, the man with green hair came to a complete stop as he finally caught a glimpse of his onlooker in the pale light.
"My apologies," Judas said, coming out into the open, quickly making the gesture of the Royal Guard. "I was passing by and heard someone practicing."
The other man seemed at a loss of what to say and simply nodded to acknowledge his words. Judas was about to make a hasty exit before he decided to try and engage the man once more.
"If I may say, your movements are very precise, but very formal." Again the man said nothing but Judas could see he had his attention. "In combat, rigidity can create an opening for your opponent. If you try it more like this..." Judas demonstrated, drawing his own sword and performing the same pattern, "you will have more freedom to react to an unexpected strike."
"Could you show me again?" the other man requested, stepping alongside Judas.
"Certainly," Judas said. He slowly executed the pattern, shadowed by his new pupil, whose movements were still stiff. "You need to drop your left shoulder more. Like that, keep it loose" Judas said, guiding the man through the steps again. "Now try to limit your reach. Don't over-extend your arm, keep it slightly bent. Use your feet to compensate the distance." Over and again they repeated the movements until they were in sync, each step flowing to the next with resolution and focus.
Breaking out of step, the green-haired man brought his sword to a resting stance. "Thank you for your instruction," he said, inclining his head in acknowledgement. "What is your name and rank?"
"I am the Captain of the Royal Guard, Kirin no Judas," Judas replied, bowing in the formal style of the military.
"So you are Judas."
"You've heard of me?" Judas inquired, surprised at the recognition he read in those deep yellow eyes.
"Many have, although I haven't looked too deeply into security matters here. You'll forgive me for not recognizing you," he stated.
"Yes, sir," Judas said, the awkwardness of not knowing in the slightest who he was talking to increasing.
"'Sir' is not necessary. I am Genbu no Shin. Genbu will do."
Judas nodded in response. Genbu was a branch of nobility indirectly related to the royal line of Suzaku. They were respectable but not among the central core of the Tenkujyou aristocracy, with greater holdings in the northern provinces. Very few of that family resided in the Tenkujyou Palace.
"It might be presumptuous of me, but might I ask why you train alone here at night?" Judas asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
"A simple wish to not draw attention," Shin said. As if hit by sudden self-consciousness he added, "I apologize if I have disturbed you."
"No, you didn't, haven't," Judas said quickly, unsure how to respond to the unnecessary apology. There was something about this unexpected meeting that was setting him off-kilter, surprised and charmed by the man before him.
"Do you often come by here at night?" Shin asked, bending to pick up the lantern sitting on the nearby ledge.
"Rarely," Judas said, "Only as my duty allows."
"Pity. You are a good teacher. I wish I could entreat you for further lessons."
Judas did not anticipate such a request. However, even knowing the difficulty of taking it on, he couldn't help but want to meet the young nobleman again. After a moment's hesitation, he gathered himself as best he could, bowed deeply and said, "If that is your sincere request, I would be honoured to instruct you."
He was rewarded by the smile on the other man's face, small but warm. "I practice here most evenings, if you care to come and find me," Shin said.
"Then until our next meeting, Genbu."
"If I am to be your student, perhaps you should simply call me Shin," the nobleman replied as he passed by Judas. "Farewell."
Judas stood there a moment more as he watched the figure retreat into the shadows before him, the light receding into a weak glow in the distance. Shaking his head, he sped his way back to the barracks, eager to see the next nightfall.
Goh walked around the camps, speaking with his men briefly to encourage them as he passed. The faces he saw seated at the roaring campfires were all engraved with the same expression. Weary of fighting, weary of facing former comrades in battle, reluctant to see another war as they sat camped but a few days march from the Chikyuu border, a warning and a threat to their allies, a tired but hungry beast waiting for war. The thought was the same on each face. When would it break? At dawn, the day after, at the turn of the season? The impatience wore on them all and the stinging winds of winter unsettled even the most hardy among them.
Entering his tent, he gazed at the general's helmet resting on its stand—what should be a symbol of pride now provoking endless questions. The first among them: when was this going to end?
Chapter 6: VI
The wind swept through the winter palace, rocking the waves of the lake it stretched across, the wood creaking softly as it passed. Rei sat quietly on the floor, practicing his calligraphy as his attendants scurried about to close the shutters of the windows before the papers were blown away.
“Leave it open,” he commanded as the last window was about to be shut, “it won’t be enough on its own.”
“Has his highness any other requests?”
“I will call for you if there are,” Rei said, implying that he wanted to be left alone. The attendants quietly removed themselves from the room, leaving him to his thoughts. As he painted, drawing the brush in careful shapes across the parchment, he couldn’t help but feel melancholy, as if the water beneath the palace were washing over his temperament as well. The cheerful presence of Gai usually brightened his days during his sojourn here but there were many times when his isolation hit him full-force and he felt trapped as though this palace were a rock in the middle of a shore-less sea.
His hand slipped on the paper as he heard the twittering of a bird passing by. Carelessly he dropped his brush and rushed to the window, looking to the grey sky where a very familiar bird swooped back and forth along the north wing of the winter palace, facing closed shutters at every turn. Rei whistled loudly, brimming with excitement, and the bird doubled back and dropped down immediately, perching roughly on his hand. He carefully detached the small satchel on its leg and made his way to his chambers, placing the bird gently in the large cage perched on his desk. As it began to pick away at some seeds, Rei eagerly opened the tiny scroll to read Luca’s message. It was short, by necessity, but the warmth it brought as Rei read the familiar words could have outstripped a fire in its heat. He rested back against the cushions as he read and reread the slip of paper in his hand, recalling distant memories as if they had been yesterday, as the wind ceased its howling, the waves becoming quieter and gentler.
Luca was becoming used to his role as a bodyguard in the palace. His charges changed quickly—assigned to protecting visiting nobles and prestigious diplomats and ensuring their safety during their time at the palace. He was especially fond of assignments that took him into the streets outside the Central Palace, often for festivals or religious events. Despite having to remain alert and attentive at all times, to be able to see Tenkujyou life when it was at its most animated was always enlivening even if he was not to participate himself. Tonight he would have another assignment of this sort as Tenkujyou was in the middle of a lantern festival, but he couldn’t think of it as business as usual considering the personage he would be escorting was the Crown Prince.
He was shocked when he received the assignment; to be given a charge within the royal family while he was still green was beyond expectation. He had to admit an anxiety beyond the fact that there was too small a guard for so important a person. He had not forgotten their previous encounter and wasn’t sure the prince had either. Caught between excitement and a strange feeling of dread, he waited as patiently as he could at the gate of the royal quarters.
As the litter of the prince came out carried by six bearers, he once again couldn’t help but feel this escort would be entirely inadequate if any true threat came up. But then his experience had taught him that the areas directly outside the palace were not dangerous or prone to riot (unlike the lower levels of the city where many of the guards and soldiers frequented) and that they were in many ways a natural extension of the palace rather than entirely separate from it. There was a different atmosphere that set the upper districts apart, in spite of their hustle and bustle.
The litter came to a stop by Luca and a hand slipped from behind the screen to pull it back, revealing the familiar face. Sudden recognition crossed the prince’s face, and Luca thought it would be best to introduce himself first.
“I humbly request your consent to be your security escort for this evening, for as long as you shall require.”
“Very well,” the prince replied, smiling softly. “What shall I call you?”
If the litter-bearers thought anything strange about the prince’s manner, they didn’t show it. “I am Houou no Luca, your highness.”
The prince nodded slightly at this, and called out to the servants to proceed. Luca walked at the back of the retinue, falling quickly to his duty and keeping a close eye about the litter.
“Have you spent much time in the city before?” his charge asked from behind the curtain.
“I have some experience of it, your highness” Luca replied, trying to maintain an unfamiliar facade.
“I’m glad to have such a knowledgeable guide,” Rei said, a note of amusement in his voice. Luca smiled to himself. As they proceeded down the main road towards the massive outer gate, the prince continued to make meaningless inquiries for the sake of conversation that Luca was more than happy to answer. Exiting the gates, they were almost immediately thrown into the tumult of the festival, colourful banners and stalls spanning every street side, the city bright and energetic for this festive week. People drifted from merchant to merchant, buying silks, jade, and other finery. The scent of smoke and roasting meat drifted by, while another of spice and burnt grain took over. Hawkers called out from each side trying to win over wealthy and common patrons alike. It was so different from the austerity of guard life Luca couldn’t help but wish to be swept away into it at times, lost in the river of people.
Of course, wherever the litter went the crowd parted in waves, a strange break from the chaos of the pedestrian traffic. They travelled for some distance, halting now and again but steadily making their way to the temple that lay deeper in the city, often in silence but for the noise of the celebrations around them.
Approaching the temple, Luca looked to the litter, where the prince sat concealed, cut off from the outside world. “Does your highness always visit the shrine during the celebration?” he asked.
“It’s considered that ill luck will befall you if you fail to pay your respects at least once during this season. Are there not similar customs in Yanagi?”
Luca was unnerved for a moment. If anyone of their company noticed this slip up, they seemed to pay it no mind. Perhaps he needed to be less paranoid around allies, he reminded himself.
“We have similar rituals to honour our ancestors, but they aren’t on this scale,” Luca replied, taking in the imposing site of the temple. Bedecked with strings of lanterns, it seemed both colourful and severe—a quiet oasis in a vibrant storm.
“What do you think of it?” the prince asked, “our city?”
“It’s...refreshing. Tenkujyou is a beautiful city.”
“Is it?” said the prince.
Luca paused at this, unsure what could have warranted such a reply, but the conversation duly ceased as they came to a stop at the foot of the Tarim Temple. The bearers brought the litter to a rest on the ground, and the prince finally emerged from within. Standing there tall and dignified, Luca was brought back once more to their encounter in the garden. He was hit with sudden force to recollect that sadness concealed by the beauty that he had forgotten. Though barely perceptible, looking on him now, he wondered how it had been erased from the picture in his mind.
“You will rest here until I return,” Rei addressed the bearers, before looking to Luca. “You will accompany me.”
“Yes, your highness,” Luca said, bowing his head. It seemed stranger than ever to be here with the Crown Prince, confused by a familiarity that measured to almost nothing when compared with what he didn’t know and wasn’t his place to. Rei lead them silently up the stone steps and once again people parted to make way for the royal presence, stopping and bowing as the two of them made their way to the top.
Luca remained a silent companion all throughout the ritual, looking on with interest as the prince lay incense at various shrines, making silent prayers to each deity. It had been a long time since he had entered a temple to pray for himself and he felt strangely disconnected from it now for reasons he couldn’t truly explain. The last god they stood before was the figure of the centre, Huanglong. The idol was very powerfully made, stark and bold in contrast to many of the others enshrined at the temple. It was said the dragon’s eye would follow the viewer no matter where they stood and Luca could feel the weight of its gaze as the prince made his final prayers to the guardian animal. Finally the prince stirred and in silence they left the temple and began the long descent. Completely exposed on the stone steps, the wind suddenly gusted upon them, like a great powerful spirit leaving the sanctum for the next world, carrying with it a harvest of flower petals.
Freed from the still atmosphere Luca desired to say something, to reach out to his companion, but he held his tongue, waiting to see if the other would address him first, lest he speak out of turn. It wasn’t long before the prince turned his head to Luca, eyes filled with resolve but also tinged with bashfulness.
“How far would you be willing to go to grant me a request?” Rei asked, “Without me making it a direct order, that is.”
“What is the request?”
Without ceremony Rei said, “I want to see the festival. On foot, no litter, hidden. Only you and me.”
“You know that for your safety you shouldn’t—” Luca started to protest before being cut off.
“I shouldn’t, no, but there’s very little I can’t do if I say it, you know, especially out here. Still, I’d rather have your agreement, than your resentment for forcing you to do this,” Rei said sheepishly, a small blush appearing on his cheeks.
“It’s against my better judgment...” Luca said seriously, coming to a stop and turning to face the prince directly. This was not how this assignment should be going. Letting the royal heir put himself at risk deliberately was not the purpose of his post, although he couldn’t refuse him either.
“But you’ll do it,” the prince said, expecting an affirmative reply.
Luca looked into the prince’s eyes for a long moment, before turning away and continuing the descent. “I’ll follow whatever orders you give me.”
“I’m sorry,” Rei replied, falling quickly into step, keeping his gaze straight ahead. “I’ll take care of things from here.” Between them now there was only silence, tense and charged.
Upon returning to the others, Rei did not immediately send off his retainers but rather had the party continue back to the palace. The plan became clearer to Luca once they were back in the midst of the festival. The prince ordered them to a halt on the edge of a busy street, and beckoned one of the litter-bearers to come closer. He placed a coin purse in his hand, before indicating the clothing stall across the way and making some brief requests.
Luca fixed the prince with a look to which he simply stated, “We can’t go around as we are.” Through the neutral facade Luca could see the determination marked in the prince’s brow and he knew there was no getting out of this. Luca watched the man and the clothing merchant haggle over two robes until both seemed satisfied. Once the servant returned, Rei ordered them to turn into one of the side streets, getting away from the main thoroughfare. A further ways in they stopped next to a tavern and the prince emerged from the litter again, his outer robe now much less fine than before but still elegantly crafted. He had removed some of his hair adornments and jewellery, both simplifying and softening his appearance, no longer as regal as Luca was used to seeing him. He handed the plain brown robe to Luca before he began instructing the bearers to wait until their return, giving them a few coins from his purse. They were evidently uncomfortable with the new orders but they weren’t going to cross the Crown Prince anymore than Luca was.
Luca realised that what he thought to be a robe was merely a large mantle to conceal his guard uniform. He was relieved knowing he wouldn’t have restricted access to his weapon and was still intended to appear as a bodyguard. It was merely his rank that was obscured. By the time the prince finished with his orders, Luca had taken stock of the entire area and memorised several different points of arrival and departure should any trouble be waiting for them when they returned. The trick now would be ensuring they stayed out of trouble for the duration of the prince’s reckless adventure.
“Come, let’s go,” Rei said brusquely, walking back towards the main thoroughfare.
“Yes, your highness,” Luca said, masking his irritation as best he could. He wasn’t sure where he stood anymore with respect to the prince and he had a feeling things were only going to get more complicated.
“From now on you should address me as ‘my lord’ or ‘Lord Rei.’ I don’t want any undue attention drawn to us,” said Rei.
“Nor do I, my lord.”
The prince paused at that, fixing him with an apologetic but unwavering look. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this. I am. But I thought you might, well...it’s the not the first time I’ve ever thought of something like this. Of course I’ve always wanted to properly see a festival...but when I realized you would be accompanying me today, I thought you might be the first person who would understand enough to...to make it worthwhile. Can we make the best of it?”
Luca took in his expression, contrite and yet filled with eagerness and anticipation, and felt his mood soften. “I’ll try,” he said. "But if you decide do anything truly reckless, I reserve the right to put an end to this.” He had no business driving bargains with the prince, but he felt they had to set some boundaries.
“Thank you, Luca.”
It was probably the first time the prince had referred to him by name. This, if nothing else, made him a little more receptive to his efforts at peacemaking.
“Do try and stay close to me,” Luca said.
“Is it not your job to stay close to me?” Rei asked playfully. “But I won’t be running off, if that’s what you mean. You wouldn’t be with me right now if that was my plan.”
“On the contrary, I’d be chasing you down as if my life depended on it if you had.”
The prince laughed in response. “I have no intention of causing you that much trouble.”
“I feel quite reassured, my lord,” Luca said neutrally, the mirth on the prince’s face increasing even more. Luca was caught by that wisp of a smile, wondering what a full, real smile would look like on that handsome face, and if he smiled, genuinely smiled, very often at all.
Bringing his eyes back to their surroundings, he realized they were quickly approaching the throng. Although he felt apprehensive, he did his best to relax his guard without letting his attention waver too much. If he were too rigid now, they would only attract more attention, and being in disguise that was possibly worse than if they had been walking around openly.
The prince seemed to delight in the noise and energy of the crowds, passing close to each stand, stalling to take in the scents of grilled meats marinated in sweet and savoury sauces, puffed rice grilled with shrimp, candied fruits and a whirlwind of dozens of other aromas floating. He seemed content to simply drift, pausing now and again to look over the wares before moving on. The further they went, the more Rei guided them away from the thickest crowds, until they reached the streets that ran along the riverside, still lively but less hectic and congested. Luca felt more at ease for this, wondering whether the prince might have led them away for his benefit, although the riverside was so tranquil it was entirely possible it had never even entered his mind.
Upon passing a pair of musicians perched in a pavilion, they came to a complete halt. Although he kept his usual comportment, the prince was clearly keen on the performance, immersed in the musicians spinning tales of fairy lands and folk magic, resourceful children and shape-shifting animals. Stories of goldfish the size of whales and wives spinning rice stalks into silk. Although they seemed so familiar, Luca had trouble recalling whether he had heard these before in his childhood. He always remembered stories of wandering swordsmen and monks. It couldn’t be said that Reida liked to tell stories, but when he did they were always about living honourably, preserving peace rather than disrupting it. He wondered if these were the sorts of stories his mother might have told him, but memories like that were beyond recall now, even she was a dim figure of his past. It wasn’t worth dwelling on though, he thought, looking to the prince. He had enough to worry about in the present.
The longer they remained, the more Luca could feel the still strong sun beating down on them. He noticed for the first time that, unlike many of the other elite they had passed, Rei was completely exposed to the sun. If he brought the prince back sunburnt, it would only be more suspicious when he was supposed to have been in his litter the entire time. Unsure how best to command his attention, he leaned close to his ear and spoke under his breath. “Lord Rei,” he said, getting his attention immediately, making him step further back. Luca nodded his head to a nearby shop he had seen. “We should find you a parasol. You’ll catch the sun like this.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Rei replied reluctantly, taking his eyes off of the performers. “Well, let’s go,” he said, leaving some coins for the duo who were still singing tall tales. They walked across the street to where a cluster of brightly painted parasols were displayed. Rei started to reach for a fine yellow one before quickly recoiling his hand. Luca looked to him for a moment before understanding. “I guess that could give the game away a little,” Rei said with a sheepish smile, scanning for a less regal colour. After a moment he settled on a ruddy-orange parasol, black rushes painted all around its circumference. “This will do,” he said, handing over a few coins to the shop keeper.
Luca couldn’t help but catch himself as the prince turn to face him, looking as lovely and sublime as the first time they met in the garden. Shaking off the memory, Luca returned his attention to their surroundings. “Where next, my lord?”
Rei smiled and began walking away with graceful, measured strides. “I think we need food,” Rei replied, slowing to a halt as they passed a stall selling dumplings. “Which do you like?”
Luca waved his hand in answer, having trouble processing that the prince was inviting him to make a decision.
“Come now,” the prince said, fixing him with an amused gaze. “You’re not here solely as my bodyguard. Choose some.”
Deciding to just play along for now, soon the pair were walking down the promenade, partaking of the pork buns, savouring the pungent flavours of garlic and sesame. The prince kept stopping every few stalls to point to something new, seemingly wanting to try and taste everything. All the while he kept up a steady chatter with a liveliness Luca had not seen in him before, as if he were slowly forgetting himself, what they were doing, simply slipping into another self. It was captivating to hear that lightness in his tone, to see the excitement on his face.
“You really are hungry,” Luca said, bemused as Rei made yet another purchase, this time one of the bamboo sticks speared through candied fruits.
“I had expected to have been back at the palace at this hour,” he replied, nibbling on one of the confections as he spoke. Although the sun was still shining brightly, it was beginning to sink little by little, something both of them had taken note of.
“Here,” Rei said, sliding a piece of sugared fruit off and holding out it out to Luca, “you should try this. It’s Tarim fruit. You can’t grow it outside the prefecture.”
“I—” Luca tried to protest, but ended up giving into the prince’s insistence to avoid attention. Surely the informality would be glaring to others. But all these small gestures seemed to go unnoticed as the carefree prince lead them through the throng, flitting like a hummingbird from one place to the next.
“Look,” said Rei, pointing up the riverbank where a dock surrounded by empty boats was anchored, “that’s where all the boats were coming from.”
That Rei was watching people boating on the river was news to Luca, but he had no difficulty seeing where this was going.
“Shall we?” Rei asked, moving towards the dock as he spoke. Begrudgingly Luca admitted to himself that as long as they didn’t upturn the boat and drown, it might be a better idea than staying in the crowds.
While Rei settled the fees with the boatman, Luca waited next to the line of wooden watercraft drifting into each other in sluggish movements before floating away, only to be caught and tugged back by their ropes. The boat owner came and drew one of them alongside the dock. Luca reached out his hand to help Rei into the boat.
“Steady now,” he said, as the boat jerked beneath the prince’s feet. Rei simply smiled up at him from beneath his parasol, letting go of his hand as he was safely seated.
“Mind yourself as well,” the prince said as Luca stepped into the other side of the boat.
“Well then,” Luca said, manoeuvring the boat away from the dock, “where to?”
“Anywhere,” Rei replied unconcernedly as he gazed at the water on which the sinking red-hued sun was reflected, quiet and subdued. They fell to silence at last, gently following the current as it led them downstream, passing by rows of trees along the river bank, sleepy willows and fading cherry trees. The hum of activity on the shore seemed to dissipate, forgotten as they drifted along aimlessly. Even Luca began to forget his watchfulness, turning his mind only to the moment, the slow river, his quiet companion, the blossoms shaken by gentle wind from the trees. The tranquility dulled everything outside of the immediate, the sensory. After a time, Luca took up the oars again, wanting to regain his energy.
Rowing leisurely along the river thick with fallen cherry petals, he watched as Rei gently dipped his hand in the river beneath them, sending small waves to scatter the blossoms drifting lightly on the surface. “Left here to float vainly, until at last they should finally drown, alone on the water,” he mused, gently scooping up one of the petals in his hand. The melancholy and stillness of the moment struck Luca speechless, unable to trace the feelings that lead the prince to his despondent words.
“But some,” Luca began quietly, hesitantly, bringing the boat to a stop. The prince looked up sharply, even as a sudden breath of wind lifted the petal from his hand and carried it away. “Some,” Luca continued, “the wind and water will carry to the shore, thousands of them overlapping each other and coming to rest against the earth. Brought there to carpet the ground, and some to bear new fruit, and to transform into a second spring.”
Rei moved closer, the boat rocking strongly at the sudden movement. He met Luca’s eyes with a deep gaze, his expression still caught between yearning and trepidation. “Not so alone then?” he asked, his eyes unfaltering.
“No,” Luca said hoarsely, his voice scarcely louder than a whisper, and in that moment of silent intensity, captured the prince in a kiss.
Chapter 7: VII
The grip of winter was slowly taking leave of Tenkujyou, although the ground was still covered in frost. Luca made his way through the guard quarters, arriving before Judas’ office just as the first evening shifts were changing over. He slid the door open and let himself in. Judas sat at his desk, brush in hand.
“For the meeting tonight,” Luca said quietly, sitting down across from Judas, “how many have joined us?”
“I’ve recruited six men whom I trust personally to support our cause,” Judas murmured, setting his brush down and waving the paper lightly to help it dry, “and they have made their own contacts. In total there are thirty-five who are with us, with nine coming to the tavern tonight who will report back to their cells. It’s best that we don’t gather everyone together.”
Luca nodded, “At least those who are unknown to one another can still be protected in the event we are found out.”
“A sobering thought...but one we have to be prepared for,” Judas sighed heavily, leaving the paper to rest atop the pile of documents. He carefully removed a scroll that was concealed underneath the desk. “I’ll entrust this to you,” Judas said, handing it to his friend.
Luca took it and secured it inside his uniform. “Data concerning our arms and activity?” Luca asked.
Judas nodded in response and handed him a second scrap of paper with a short list of people on it. “These are the names of our fellow conspirators. I’d like it if you would arrive first and make sure to speak with those men casually as they enter the tavern. If you mention ‘the captain’ some way in conversation, they’ll be aware of your purpose. Invite them to come play cards upstairs later and they’ll drift to the meeting room individually. I will likely arrive last, as I still have to review one of our companies and discipline a few of the men.”
Luca memorized the list as Judas spoke. Some of the names were familiar to him but most he would have to hope he could draw out through conversation. It was unfortunate that he had to take on this particular task when he was not in contact with the regular palace guards very often. Finished, he held the paper above the flame of the lantern, letting it burn to ash.
“The uniform is there,” Judas said, nodding to the clothing sitting in the corner of the room. “No one should know any different outside the gates.”
“We’ll have to hope, anyways,” Luca replied, standing up and picking up the garb of the palace guard. He paused a moment at the door. “It’s a grim business,” he said, “but you’re doing the right thing.”
Judas tried to muster a smile in return although his brow seemed marked with much care. Luca walked over to him and placed his hand on Judas’ shoulder. “It’s okay to have doubts, but tonight you’ll have to be a leader. You must show them strength and purpose, so that the cause won’t crumble before it even has a chance to take form.”
“Thank you, Luca” Judas replied with a still-troubled expression, saying nothing more as he watched his friend go.
Judas crossed the busy streets of Tenkujyou with a restless heart. He walked further into the lower town, turning down an alley lit dimly by lantern light to the tavern they had appointed for the meeting. It was less conspicuous for the group to meet outside the palace with their number, and there would be little suspicion over a handful of guardsmen congregating in a bar to drink and gamble in their time off. It had taken some work to adjust the guard schedules to make it possible, but the primary contacts would all be there tonight.
Stepping into the tavern, he spotted Luca in the corner, taking a draught of rice wine and speaking with one of their co-conspirators, Lysithea. It was strange to see his normally reserved friend playing the part of a social butterfly. Luca caught Judas’ eye and quickly said something to Lysithea, who stood up from their table with a nod and walked towards the stairs. The aging hostess came to Judas to lead him to a table, but he waved her off. “I’ve spotted my friend,” he said kindly.
“Is he the popular fellow over there?” she asked curiously. “I haven’t seen him around before but he seems to be friendly with everyone one of you that’s come through.”
Judas laughed lightly to put her at ease and took his leave. Perhaps they weren’t inconspicuous as he’d hoped if she had taken notice.
“Hail friend!” Luca said as Judas approached his table, “sit down and have a draught before the game begins.”
“I hope I haven’t kept you,” Judas said, taking a seat across from him.
“Our man Clio hasn’t arrived yet, so far as I know, but everyone else is quite ahead of you. Even found some extra chaps who will play with us. We should have a full table for our game tonight.”
“Excellent. I look forward to having the victory tonight,” Judas said lightly as he looked around the room. It was a disadvantage that Luca was unfamiliar with most of the palace guardsmen. There were a few other men in uniform in the tavern but he wanted to avoid their attention at all costs and was careful not to glance at them too long. His eyes finally spied upon the face he was looking for, hidden in the half-shadows of an alcove, a man with an austere and rigid visage watching carefully from the most concealed place he could find.
“Why don’t you round up the others and I’ll wait for him,” Judas said, clapping Luca on the shoulder and casually walking across the room, pausing on his way to greet one of the other guardsmen who hailed him but avoiding conversation. Coming to stand before Clio, he nodded respectfully at the older man. “Good evening,” he said.
“Good evening,” Clio returned politely, matching the captain with his stern gaze. Judas counted recruiting the man, who had long experience with the guard and much clout with his subordinates, as one of the most fortunate things he had managed.
Judas nodded his head towards the stairs and began walking away. As he reached the second floor, he saw two of his men, Rhode and Eidyia standing just outside the room they had appointed to meet in. Rhode beckoned towards the door, silently trying to confirm that there was no mistake. Judas nodded reassuringly and they all entered the private games room that would serve as the walls to enclose their conspiracy. Most of the men were already seated around the table as Judas moved to stand at the head.
“Welcome, my comrades,” Judas began, unsure just how to begin the meeting. Luca gave him a look of encouragement, spurring him on to speak. “All who are present tonight are aware of this meeting’s purpose, and are equally aware of the weight that words will carry here, and the precarious sword that hangs above our heads for daring to speak them. Because every man here has my trust, I won’t waste words in attempt to inspire fear or courage, for you have come with strong purpose, but rather, let us dive into the heart of the matter, one that is burdensome to us all. Our aim is to depose the Regent, Lord Zeus, who leads our kingdom under the yoke of tyranny.”
“Hear, hear,” Lysithea said, his voice quiet and serious.
“Are we all who will be attending, then?” asked Rhode.
“Yes,” Judas replied, “although our numbers are somewhat greater as most of you know, your cells will remain under your jurisdiction. Only you will I speak with directly and only you shall know of each other.”
“I’m not sure I know that much to begin with,” Theisoa said, his tone somewhat lighter than the rest. “Some of you are only passing familiar, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen you about,” he said, gesturing at Luca.
“Indeed,” Eudore said. “A few of you I know well enough, but if we are to be comrades in this cause, I would like to know each of you better. We fight for a righteous cause, and so I hope to place my faith in my brethren here.”
Peitho raised his hands in wary protest, “Perhaps it’s safer if we don’t know more than we already do,” he said. “We risk the safety of our members should we come under scrutiny.”
Looking at the men seated around the table, there seemed to be division among them between the two sides. Judas brushed a finger against his lip, unsure of his own answer. The men eyed each other carefully, appraising their fellow conspirators and forming fast opinions on their trustworthiness. This wouldn’t do for a beginning at all.
Finally, Clio spoke up. “I should prefer it if we knew each other’s names and ranks,” he said, “As a sign of trust and devotion to the cause, and to understand better what it is we all seek.”
Judas nodded his head in agreement, accepting his point which, judging by the others’ expressions, seemed to tentatively hold a majority among them. “Alright,” Judas said, meeting each of the members’ gazes in turn, “But our own names shall not leave this room, just as neither shall we in any circumstance hear those of the members in your cells.” Judas snapped his feet together and made the gesture of the guard. “Captain Judas of the Royal Guard of Tenkujyou,” he spoke, as a formality. A couple of the men grinned, his being the one introduction no one needed.
“Luca, of the Imperial Bodyguard,” said Luca, moving to stand beside him.
The next person to stand was a strong-looking man with bright eyes. “Phaino, training chief of the Royal Guard,” he said.
The man with the convivial and breezy attitude stood next. “Theisoa, Royal Guard. Co-leader of Phaino’s cell.”
Following him was the dark-eyed man whose words radiated with idealism. “Eudore, lieutenant of the Royal Guard.”
“Xanthe, guardsman. Support and contact for Eudore’s cell,” his companion said.
Each man continued to rise around the table in turn.
“Lysithea, second chief-of-training.”
“Eidyia, guardsman. Co-leading Rhode’s cell.”
“Clio, proctor of the Royal Guard.”
“Rhode,” the last man said as he came to his feet, “lieutenant of the Royal Guard.”
Judas gestured everyone to take a seat, the introductions made. “Let us begin with a review of our circumstances. In addition to those present there are an additional twenty four members of the Royal Guard, as well as two palace servants who have joined the cause, if I understand correctly.”
“What about your fellows?” Rhode asked, meeting Luca’s eyes. “Were there no more that could be trusted?”
“That is very difficult to judge among our ranks,” Luca replied. “Our leader, Leto, may be sympathetic and would be an undeniable asset, but I’m not fully confident of his allegiances. Many in the bodyguard are serving out of personal devotion or debt to the aristocracy of Tenkujyou. There may be a few who would benefit from a shift in political power, but determining which family or personage they serve, however...it seemed to me that drawing out sympathetic elements was too risky under the circumstances. There was no one I could have complete trust in for support, and far more I could not ensure the silence of.”
“It is a pity,” Judas conceded, “but the most important contacts are secured. With the Royal Guard’s intelligence and responsibility for maintaining the security of the palace plus assistance from the household staff, we have the resources we need to set the stage, and I’ve received contact from the army that seems favourable.” Several of the men leaned forward in their seats at this.
“You’ve received a promise of support?” Clio asked, his tone surprised.
Judas shook his head, not wanting to promise something that as of yet had no substance. “Rather,” he began, “correspondence suggested to me that if we should succeed in our objective, sympathy could be found among the upper echelons of the army. The main hold of Tenkujyou’s armed forces have been fighting away from the capital for years now and have wavering feelings regarding the Regent. More importantly, if the Regent is removed they will be looking for a new lord or cause to throw in their support with and will guarantee the victory of whoever they side with. I have no assurances for you, but our chance to win their bid when the time comes is equal to that of any contender that could be raised in such a short time.”
“We can also expect that, in the event of success, a very great number of our fellow guards will support us out of loyalty to the Captain and the force,” Lysithea said, nodding at Judas.
“There will also be members of the guard as our opponents,” Clio said staunchly. “It is important to be aware of that. You must all be ready to face your fellow guardsmen at the end of a blade if we are to overthrow this tyrant.”
“That is true,” Judas said, sighing heavily. “For those unprepared to face their comrades in the service of the cause, they must not join in this pursuit. It is not our aim to bring harm to anyone outside the scope of our objective, but we will be met with resistance, for this is treasonous work.”
“But who is within the scope of our objective?” Peitho asked, looking from person to person as he spoke. “This is what seems to me poorly planned. We speak of necessary violence serving our goal of justified revolt, but I don’t doubt that each among us has different idea of what that is.”
“Then let us start by speaking of that,” said Rhode. “Who comprises our list of targets among the aristocracy?”
Judas seemed surprised at this. “Only those who fight in the wake of the attack,” he said. “Our target is the Regent, not the nobility as a whole.”
“That seems foolish. We are not overthrowing one man, we are overthrowing a regime. We must account for all elements that are indeed accountable, or else we hover in uncertainty,” Rhode argued.
Judas was uncomfortable with that, but did not voice his feelings. As much as he wanted to avoid bloodshed, he was leading them all into a bloody affair and would have to make peace with the fact before the time came to stain his own hands.
“Who at least can we determine we will meet with when we launch our attack?” Eidyia said, fielding the question in attempt to make up for Judas’ lack of response.
“Pandora and Cassandra will both fight to the death for the Regent,” Luca said. “We have to count on that.”
“Zeus, Pandora, Cassandra,” Phaino said. “Who else shall we add?”
“I don’t know much about that matter, but for the list of targets Rhode proposes, I name the Ministers of the Right and Left,” Xanthe said, leading the conversation back to hard matters. “Either minister would be keen to snap up his power. Both would bear arms in the wake of a coup, seeking to legitimize their claim, and both would sue the army for help. We are not here to depose a tyrant for another to take his place. To ensure the kingdom does not fall further both ministers must be removed.”
“I would name the Minister of Justice. Since he replaced the former minister we have seen very little of justice indeed. He is an equal threat to our future,” Eudore said, earning nods of acknowledgement from many around the table.
“His Chief Secretary as well,” Theisoa added.
Judas tried to quell his queasiness at the cold naming of so many men. Although every person spoke out of serious devotion to the cause, the magnitude of what they would be undertaking was staggering. The names did not seem to stop coming.
“The Chief Censor,” Clio said, “and the Crown Prince.”
This last was met with silence.
“Surely there’s no need to go that far,” Luca abruptly spoke. “In the current climate, the prince is politically insignificant in comparison to the members of the ministries.”
“His current insignificance in political affairs does not undermine his status. He sits above all other ranks and has the strongest claim to control of the kingdom,” Clio said.
“However, it’s possible in the circumstances he may even be supportive of the coup,” Luca argued. “He could very well turn into a powerful ally.”
“He has been under the tutelage of the Regent for most of his life,” Clio said. “I would sooner count his support for the existing government than for the people’s good. And whereas he has very little power to offer us, to any other noble seeking to profit from regime change his allegiance would be very tempting. We could easily have ourselves another puppet regime in the hands of the remaining ministers, using the Suzaku heritage to legitimize their rule.”
“They would seek to do so because his very bloodline favoured by the gods,” said Lysithea with a nervous look in his eye.
“I cannot believe that he has any better blood than us. If you give wish to give any credence to the will of the gods, they are the ones who removed the Suzaku line from its power and handed it to the very person we aim to depose,” said Rhode.
“It is only a fool who makes light of the will of the gods,” Lysithea said.
Rhode shook his head. “We must in all things strive to be rational. If we are agreed that Crown Prince has a strategically significant role for any of our opponents, we must consider his existence a threat.”
“But we could benefit as much as any other if it came to it,” said Luca, still impassioned.
“Only if we look to restore the monarchy, which I, for one, am not here to do,” Clio said. “I respect the pride of the Suzaku dynasty, and once swore to serve its king, but we must face the fact that it came to its end twelve years ago and that glory can never be recovered. The monarchy must be put down for the good of the country, so that we will never face tyranny again.”
“Our aim is to undertake this task for the good of the people,” Eudore said. “He is right. Whatever should come after, we cannot allow power to fall into the hands of a puppet government. Let it—”
“We haven’t even agreed on what we aim for,” Peitho cut in with frustration. “How much concrete thought have you given to the outcome of our actions?” He looked at each of them with his piercing gaze. “Planning a coup without having agreed upon the end result is foolish and without meaning. Would you put yourselves in the place of the ministers, or the feudal lords? Would you see an emperor rule or give all power to a band of jesters? The military may side with us, but its commanders may also suppress us using the might of the army to gain power for themselves. We cannot proceed with our goals in disarray as they are.”
Eudore and Rhode responded strongly to this, talking over each other before Judas stood up and spoke out in a firm, unwavering voice. “I admit,” Judas began, waiting for the occupants in the room to calm themselves once more, “that our goals are not as unified as our conviction, and so that must be the first thing we discuss. But it must be done in order and not out of the passion of the moment. Therefore, returning to earlier matters, all the names that have been given tonight as threats to our future security shall certainly be considered, the Crown Prince among them, to be decided closer to the time of the execution of our plot. But I wish to remind you that it is not bloodlust that drives me in this task. I will not spill unnecessary blood and it rankles to think of taking on unarmed opponents. Our purpose compels us to take the lives of the guilty, and the lives that are necessary as we meet our objective, but our targets should only be elements that cannot be left as they are. We all envisage the freedom of the Heavenly Kingdom from tyranny, but as Peitho says, we must first understand the outcome of what our actions will be before we undertake them. So let us each in turn speak of these visions, until we come to a path that we can share, and let our convictions drive us to that end.”
As he glanced around the table, it seemed his words were met with general approval. Judas was troubled, however, to see the darkness in Luca’s eyes as he looked to his oldest friend for reassurance, but he dismissed it and continued to speak as their meeting went long into the night.
Kira walked towards the barracks, unable to settle his nerves. He didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh or lash out at something, too mixed up by the knowledge he had finally, finally uncovered after years of secretly searching. Too anxious to be with others, he stayed outside the rooms, leaning back against the wall with an audible thud, and closing his eyes as he tried to quieten his mind.
“To think we’re his bastards,” he sighed under his breath, half mockery and half disbelief. After searching so long, he truly couldn’t say that he was filled with satisfaction or relief. Rather, knowing was an empty feeling. What was there to do now that he finally knew?
He opened his eyes again and stared at the sky, seeing the occasional bat wing its way across the rooftop, barely perceptible black shadows on a dark canvas. In many ways, the ideal of what they were all supposed to be. Imperceptible. Blind. Silent. That was his duty from the time he was taken in at the palace until now, and his little brother was dragged into this dirty business with him. And now he knew who had led them here. As Kira stood there, staring listlessly, someone emerged from the residence.
Of course his little brother would find him, he thought, guided by some sixth sense, no doubt.
“Brother, is something wrong?” Maya asked, clinging to his arm.
“It’s nothing to trouble yourself over,” Kira said, trying to prevent Maya from growing uneasy.
“I don’t believe you,” Maya said, stubbornness written all over his face. “You were out gathering information again. Did you find something? An important clue?”
Kira remained silent, looking away from those imploring eyes.
“We’ve been searching for so long. You have to tell me! What did you find out? Did you learn something about our parents?”
Kira looked into his brother’s wide eyes and finally caved. He grabbed him by the arm to drag him away, not wanting to risk being overheard by anyone. Finally he came to a halt in the middle of the courtyard, silent and empty in the midnight hour. He put his hands on his brother’s shoulders and spoke quietly.
“I know the name of our father.”
Shin felt boredom overcome him as he dined with the chairman of the Ministry of Works and a pair of visiting nobles, two liege-lords of adjacent territories to the east of the capital. The matter concerning the roadways used in their joint mid-winter procession and festival had already been resolved through much debate earlier and now they could move on to more frivolous matters, but Shin was not really engaged with their ill-informed gossip. He carefully rested his chopsticks against his bowl and pretended to listen while his mind drifted elsewhere.
He found more and more his thoughts wandering not to his books or his projects as before, but to his nocturnal training sessions now frequently graced with the aid of the Captain of the Guard. Although it was in many ways inappropriate for Shin to be forming a friendship with someone beneath his class and involved in the daily labour of the palace, nonetheless he desired to learn more about the young captain. Shin was drawn in not only by the martial prowess that he demonstrated, but also by his strength of mind. It was understandable how Judas was able to rise to such a prominent position in Tenkujyou despite his age and birth. He was a natural-born leader and an excellent teacher.
Although they hadn’t spoke very much about matters outside of swordsmanship at first, as their interaction over time became more comfortable their conversation had drifted to all manner of things. Shin found himself tarrying longer than he intended just to speak with Judas and to ask for his opinions on things that had struck Shin in something he had read. Judas seemed to enjoy listening to Shin’s philosophical puzzles and frequently offered examples from experience to help couch these questions in more concrete terms. These stories largely revolved around training in the guard as a youth or experiences as a leader and Shin welcomed the new perspective. Privately, Shin wished to hear still more about his life from before but it seemed Judas rarely spoke about things from his past, and Shin wondered how much of his life he had spent outside of the guard, whether he was one of the orphans who were accepted to train from a young age or whether he had joined up as a young man. There were still many incomplete pieces in the picture he was forming of his instructor.
He couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, however. His instruction was practical and honest but also encouraging, and under his guidance Shin found himself making progress far more swiftly than he had managed to on his own. Judas always caught the mistakes in his form and technique that he was unable to see, and over time his movements had become much faster and more fluid. Moreover, there was such precision and beauty in the movements that Judas executed when he demonstrated something for Shin that made them captivating to watch and gave Shin a goal to strive for.
Most recently they had begun practicing a fighting style incorporating a long shield, which Judas thought might be more suited to Shin’s stature. Although the tall oval shield was heavy and strained his arm beyond what he thought he could manage at times, Shin found that the combination of sword and shield made for a mix of defensive and offensive elements that complemented his natural ability. The shield compensated for his relative lack of speed, allowing him to deflect blows rather than relying on his evasive skills, and he was starting to hold his own more frequently in spars with Judas, although he knew he would likely never win. The winter nights were often chilly, but so long as the frost did not fall he almost always found the energy to come out at night and train, invigorated by the practice and his interactions with the Captain.
“But I can’t approve of this business in the south!”
Shin was suddenly thrown from his thoughts as the conversation between the nobles around him inevitably turned to the trouble in the south, their voices becoming more fervent as they spoke. Shin lifted the cup of rice wine to his mouth as Lord Syme complained of the effect the presence of the army along the border had on the trade he was conducting with one of the neighbouring Chikyuu lords. The economic effect of their sustained presence was far-reaching to be sure, but Shin suspected it would not only be that they had to complain of before long. It was all a timely reminder of why he must keep pushing himself more than ever before.
Rei drew his brush across the canvas, imitating the curve of the rice terraces along the mountain before him. He blotted his brush carefully, trying to create thinner lines. He couldn’t be content with the painting before him, however. No matter how well he may have understood and followed the technical principles, his drawings always seemed to lack inspiration. Staring listlessly at the painting, he tuned back in to the ramblings of the too-familiar guardsman.
“The garrison soldiers are so grim in comparison to the guards of Tenkujyou. No sense of humour. Back home it’s only the superiors who are stodgy and serious like that, or those who get assigned special roles. Us ordinary guardsmen know how to enjoy ourselves,” Gai said spiritedly as he stood by the end of the promenade.
“You have been assigned a special role, have you not?” Rei asked, the corner of his mouth tugging upward into a half smile. Although Gai was not specifically a bodyguard to the prince, his assignment at the palace was to watch over the rooms where he most often stayed, unless the prince summoned him elsewhere, such as now.
“And you wouldn’t believe what terrible company everyone is. At first I thought it was just my natural luck when I got this assignment but now it seems to be the opposite.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t your natural tact,” said Rei as he tried to detail the little houses in his view. Rei had decided to paint in the pavilion which held the most beautiful view to the mountains surrounding Yugong, summoning Gai with him solely to provide company, as reluctant as he was to admit it. The guard’s openness was refreshing even as it was frustrating and helped to pass the days in this quiet, grey place. Rei found it hard to appreciate the beauty of a scene like this alone. The image seemed so empty when he came here on his own to stand and think, and even the frequent company of the other nobility who came here to gaze and gossip did nothing to ease the emptiness.
Gai bristled at his comment but couldn’t find a good return and so stayed silent for the moment. It didn’t last for long, however, and Gai started chattering again, this time about the complicated woodwork toys and puzzles he had seen at one of the vendor’s stalls in the main square.
“The lion could even move its jaw if you handled it right. And one of the customers kept trying to slot these differently shaped puzzle pieces together in a square frame but couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.”
“It’s harder than it looks,” Rei said. “Did you give it a try?”
“Got it in one,” Gai said cheerfully.
Rei’s hand almost slipped at that. As a child he put a lot of effort into solving such toys, and even as an adult it should be a little difficult to get the hang of the first time. Perhaps there were hidden depths to the young guardsman. “I gather you’ve been enjoying the town then.”
Gai grinned at that. “You bet. I’ve got lots of stuff to tell Maya. He’s going to be so envious.”
“You mention him so often I wonder if you’re not a bit envious yourself,” Rei said as he lifted his brush once more.
Gai seemed to shrink a little at that. “Well, you’d miss your friends too if they didn’t pack up and follow you wherever you went.”
The prince went very quiet, his hand hovering over the canvas. In the end the only thing he said was, “I don’t think I have friends.”
Gai uncomfortably spluttered as he tried to find something less tactless to say than “I’d noticed.”
“Well, that’s...” Gai began before being cut off by the sound of a gong resounding faintly across the water from the watchtower of the town fort.
“An arrival?” Gai asked, moving towards the railing of the pavilion.
“It must be. But who?” Rei said, putting down his tools and moving to lean against the railing as well. The gong would not be rung for just any insignificant civilian or band of travellers. They watched the town carefully from the vantage point of the pavilion, although the distance made it difficult to see anything in detail. Eventually a small squad of men on horses could be seen, making their way down the thoroughfare towards the palace.
“An army contingent, I think,” Gai said, squinting his eyes as they approached.
“The colours of that plumed helmet,” Rei said, equally struggling to see at a distance, “they’re the colours of the General.”
“Goh!” Gai exclaimed excitedly. “What’s he doing here?”
“I wonder,” Rei said with furrowed brow, before turning to Gai. “You sound like you know him well.”
“He’s my oldest friend. We grew up together,” Gai said brightly. His enthusiasm deflated a moment later. “I don’t suppose I’ll actually get to see him while he’s here.”
Rei watched as the soldiers dismounted and let their horses be led to the stables before crossing the wide foot bridge that led to the entrance of the Lake Palace. He turned back to Gai and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Really?” Gai said, wide-eyed. “You would do that?”
“I can try,” Rei said. “Whether the Regent likes it or not, if I wish an audience, few can refuse me.”
Goh dipped his hands in the bronze basin, letting the water pool within them before splashing it over his face, enjoying the cool of it. He and a small contingent of officers had ridden hard for over a day and a half from the border to the Yugong valley, and sat in long counsel with Lord Zeus over the mounting tensions with Chikyuu, which were ready to erupt into something greater at any time. In spite of his efforts to persuade the Regent of a tactical retreat, for the sake of the men as much as the ease of their wary allies, he was overruled by Lord Zeus’ firm belief that they must continue to put pressure on the Chikyuu Kingdom until Lucifer and his men were found. Although he was still young to hold the rank of general, his mettle tested only by the two years following the desertion of the former first and second divisions, to him the Regent’s conviction seemed irrational and overconfident even if it won the approval of the ministers. The forces were weary and although they were prepared to withstand even a war if they must, it would be a dangerous thing to undertake with the morale of the troops in such a state, especially facing their former comrades of the first division. Moreover, the two auxiliary troops of Chikyuu soldiers currently fighting alongside his divisions ran risk of desertion or outright betrayal should they be compelled to engage in hostilities with their home country. Arrangements had been made to send them to the North-east to join with the third division and training corps when spring came, but until then they were as much a liability as an asset.
Nor were these the only risks the Regent ran. Goh himself had found his loyalty wavering in the past year. He continued to perform his duty to his utmost and guard the welfare of his troops even in service to a tyrant such as Zeus, but he no longer had the faith in his leader that he used to, and if the intentions of his friend in the north could be trusted, he was ready to bear arms against the current regime should a coup truly come to pass. It felt even more dangerous, then, to be here in the Lake Palace, current stronghold of the imperial court, even if he had given no one anything to be suspicious of, carefully guarding his private thoughts. Soon enough though, if the plot came nearer to fruition, he would have to take more open action, reaching out to those around him and growing a further network of support and information.
He sighed to himself, wringing out the towel he had used to wash off the dust and grime from his skin, and donned the clothing provided for him, leaving his armour aside. The Regent had insisted on him and his men joining him for dinner in the grand hall. Although Goh was reluctant to prolong his stay, there were still further matters he wished to discuss and so he obediently accepted. As he took a moment’s rest in the temporary room prepared for him a knock came from outside the door. As it was slid open a young attendant entered and nodded to him, before saying, “His highness the Crown Prince wishes to receive you for tea in the Lotus Room, if you feel fit for company.”
Goh’s surprise was undoubtedly written all over his face, for it was a very strange request, but he schooled himself and simply asked for her to lead the way. As the doors to the quaint little tea room were slid aside Goh was surprised to register not only his host the prince, but the all too familiar face of Gai standing behind him, grinning widely as ever.
“Welcome,” the prince said and gestured to one of the cushions opposite the low table. “I do not wish to spoil your appetite, but I thought you might benefit from some refreshments after a long journey.”
“I am humbled by your consideration, your highness,” Goh said as he seated himself, trying not to appear distracted.
As he spoke, the attendants brought in various dishes, arranging them gracefully on the table before shutting the doors behind them.
“‘I’m so humbled,’” Gai said mockingly as he moved around the table to sit beside Goh. “You come off so important-sounding now that you’ve become general.”
Goh looked from his friend, who seemed to lack all propriety, to the prince, who smiled conspiratorially before saying, “I admit it was not for my benefit that I called this audience.”
“Ah,” Goh said, before looking back at Gai and grinding his fist into his head like always. “And you still haven’t learned to respect your betters. He hasn’t been giving you trouble, your highness, has he?” he said, turning back to the prince.
“I think he lives for it,” Rei replied as he carefully brewed the tea to be served. Goh laughed lightly as Gai shook off his hand and glared at him.
“One of these days I will get you back for making fun of me all the time,” he complained.
“I’m not teasing you. I’m simply in awe of your audacity in roping even the people you are supposed to be serving into your schemes,” Goh replied.
“You’re definitely teasing me,” Gai said with a furrowed brow.
Goh caught the prince hiding a smile behind his sleeve before he moved to pour each of them a cup of tea.
“Do help yourself to the food,” Rei said, resting the teapot back on the table. “That part of this meeting is no pretence, at least.”
Although he had to maintain some level of decorum in the presence of the Crown Prince, Goh was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Gai and found himself relaxing as he partook of the food and drink before him while Gai went on at length about the goings-on both here and at home, which Goh had not seen for a very long time.
“Is Maya keeping well?” Goh asked, knowing that Gai’s seeming twin had always had a hard time from some of the other guards.
“Couldn’t be better!” Gai said, “although he’s stuck there for the winter. It’s his own fault for choosing to join such a shady branch.”
Goh cuffed Gai again before asking, “And that troublesome brother of his?”
“Still troublesome,” Gai replied, wolfing down one rice cake after the next. “Away whenever he can be, and spoils the fun when he returns. I try to get him to play with us sometimes but he’s always overprotective and drags Maya away.”
“I suppose he has his reasons,” Goh said, “and besides, I thought gambling wasn’t permitted?”
“Does it matter if it isn’t?” Gai said nonchalantly as he devoured the last skewer of dango.
The prince watched with wide eyes at how quickly all of the food had been demolished.
“I apologize on his behalf,” Goh said.
“Should I call for more?” Rei asked sincerely.
Gai looked ready to say yes and so Goh applied his fist to his head once more. “That won’t be necessary,” he said, glaring at Gai. “It’s not long before the evening meal, I’m certain.”
“Very well,” Rei said. He looked hesitant for a moment, before speaking again. “If I might ask, General Goh, well, I was wondering a little about where you are currently stationed. About the general affairs, I mean.”
“Yeah, Goh,” Gai chimed in, “you haven’t talked at all about what you’ve been up to.”
“You know what I’ve been up to is not a matter for idle chatter,” Goh said. Gai rolled his eyes whereas the prince looked somewhat abashed. “That’s not to say I do not wish to answer your question,” Goh said, focussing on the prince once more. “Was there something in particular you wished to know?”
“The troops are stationed along the border shared with the Chikyuu Kingdom at the moment, is that not so?” Rei asked. Goh nodded in assent. “How...how do the current relations between us and them look right now, from a military perspective, that is?”
Answering honestly but carefully, Goh replied, “The current state is very tense. The Chikyuu have been cooperating with our terms up until now, however, by the wisdom of Lord Zeus’ new treaty. It simply remains to be seen whether our prolonged presence in the area will be necessary as we try to determine the location of the lost division.”
“Do you think the situation will stabilize?” Rei asked.
Goh hesitated to respond, unsure how to frame his answer.
“Goh?” Gai said after a long pause, clearly concerned by his silence.
Before he could open his mouth to speak a faint ringing was heard from far off.
“The arrival signal again?” Rei said, his expression puzzled.
At this pronouncement, Goh stood up immediately. “I think it is time I excuse myself,” he said, bowing formally to the Crown Prince. “Thank you for your hospitality, your highness. It was sincerely appreciated.”
“It was no trouble,” Rei replied nonplussed.
Goh reached down and ruffled Gai’s hair. “Look after yourself,” he said over Gai’s protests as he tried to pry Goh’s fingers away, eventually getting his way.
“Your highness,” Goh said, nodding once more to Rei before swiftly exiting the tea room, leaving the Crown Prince and his oldest friend unsettled in his wake.
Gai stood watch anxiously as a messenger came to the chambers of the prince to inform Rei of an audience with the Regent. Not an hour ago the two of them had watched from the windows of one of the covered walkways as Goh and his men mounted their horses and rode off into the night. Aristocrats and servants alike whispered among themselves, suspicious of the meaning behind the second ringing of the gong and sudden departure of the newly arrived men.
Rei emerged from his room, a carefully expressionless look on his face that nonetheless seemed ready to waver at any moment. “Escort me,” he ordered Gai, clearly as yet another favour. Gai was all too grateful for it and followed his footsteps as they made their way to the chambers of the Regent. As they drew closer, servants seemed to be coming and going in a flurry of movement, shifting various items and furniture around from one room to another, some carrying linens and others securing decorative objects, moving them from the hallways and outer pavilions towards the central rooms, while still others drew back all the window shutters although it was only just nightfall.
They were admitted into Zeus’ office immediately, but upon reaching the entrance to one of the small rooms off of the central area, Rei bade him stay outside the doorway and entered alone.
Gai looked at his company, the forever sour-looking Cassandra and the smiling snake-in-the-grass Pandora, and stood well apart from them. He tried to look as official and formal as possible in the hopes he could mask that he simply wished to listen in on the conversation between the Regent and the Crown Prince. Overall it was as uncomfortable an atmosphere as he could imagine.
“You have had a busy day, from what I hear,” Zeus said from within the room.
“Yes,” Rei replied.
“I understand you sought an audience with the General upon his arrival today. How unusual of you to take an interest.”
“The current situation at the kingdom’s border is of everyone’s interest,” Rei said.
“And yet such accounts would only mislead someone who is uninformed about the general affairs of the military,” Zeus replied.
Gai craned his neck slightly, catching the prince and part of the regent in view as they spoke. They sat at equal height and yet somehow the prince seemed smaller, whether by his posture or the mere authoritative presence the Regent held. However, the prince seemed to buck himself up as he spoke his next words.
“Then is inquiry with those most knowledgeable of such things not the natural remedy to such misconceptions?” Rei said.
“And what do you seek to gain by it?” Zeus said.
Gai eyes widened as he saw the Regent’s hand reach out and firmly grasp the prince by the chin.
“After abstaining so long from the concerns of the kingdom,” Zeus continued, emphasizing the last word, “it is peculiar that of late you have taken such an active interest in its affairs. And yet you do not seek consultation with me, your guardian since childhood, who would be most able to guide you. Instead you meddle directly in the affairs of those who can scarcely afford to divert their attention to a novice like yourself, over matters that are beyond the comprehension of someone inexperienced in the nuances of the politics between states. I do have to wonder what you are hoping to achieve by this misguided interference.”
Gai grit his teeth as the regent spoke. He had not yet let the prince free from his grasp. Not only did Gai feel guilty for his own responsibility in the origin of the conflict, but he thought the behaviour of the regent to be completely unwarranted considering the matter at hand. Around him neither Pandora nor Cassandra made any change of expression, and yet their cruel smugness could be felt and it put Gai even more on edge.
“I was only,” Rei began, his gaze briefly dropping away from the Regent’s. Gai quietly wished that he wouldn’t give into him, but his thoughts did not seem to reach the prince. Instead Rei timidly met the eyes of the regent once more, “I was only doing a favour for someone. It was not of my own desire. I had no intention of causing trouble...to you or the general.”
The silence stretched out a moment before the Regent withdrew his hand, once again leaving Gai’s sightline.
“I can believe you had good intentions,” Zeus said, “but you should avoid such thoughtless behaviour in the future. There are many more pressing matters than satisfying your own whims. And if you are of such a mind to grant favours to those around you, you should perhaps more carefully evaluate the company you keep, that you do not unfittingly waste them, or let yourself be taken advantage of. As for why I called you to—.”
As he spoke, the palace bell began to ring out repeatedly, the loud sound clamouring throughout the halls and chambers of the wide palace. Gai’s heart seemed to come to a stop for a brief moment.
“Yes, well,” the Regent finished, leaving the final words unsaid. The prince looked around startled by the noise, catching Gai’s eye with an apprehensive expression.
“We look forward to a cold spring,” Zeus said. “Prepare for an immediate withdrawal to Tenkujyou. Chikyuu has declared war.”
Chapter 8: VIII
Judas rolled up the last scroll he had to review, preparing for the imminent reorganization of the Guard. In a tragic play of fortune, the Chikyuu kingdom had finally broken under pressure not to submit, but to wage war. Not only was this a sour turn of fate for both the army and the populace in the south, but it had also caused the early return of the court to Tenkujyou, hoping to remove to a more secure northern location before the Chikyuu troops could mobilize. The army was no longer fit to come to the succour of the rebellion should the plot be executed, and the movements of the conspirators would face more scrutiny upon the return of the Regent and primary governors. Judas had been counting on time to build their plans discreetly while the court was absent, but the early return had stolen any such time away. They would have to be even more cautious now, and Judas’ workload had naturally increased with the return of the full palace guard.
Putting away the scroll on one of shelves, Judas hesitated over whether he should let things be for the night or try to seek out his pupil. The hour was late and it was possible that Shin had already finished his practice—if he had come out at all, for no doubt he too was busy preparing for the return of the court.
Thinking that it would ease his mind to see him, Judas decided to visit their usual meeting place on the chance that Shin might still be there. He took a lantern with him as he walked, for it was a moonless night. He watched as it drove away shadows from the wooden buildings and stone walkways he passed, the light flickering delicately as it moved. Many of the halls were dark at this hour, although a few were still illuminated from within, casting vague silhouettes through the windows covered by thick rice paper. As he passed one of the complexes of the palace servants another light appeared ahead, moving towards him. Upon drawing closer he saw a familiar face cast in the twinned light of the lanterns.
“Judas?” Shin said, coming to a stop before him. “I thought you would not come tonight.”
“I apologize,” Judas said. “My work has kept me.”
“No need to apologize,” Shin said. “No doubt there is much work left to you at the moment. I’m sorry that I’m only just retiring now.”
“Now it is you who has no call to apologize,” Judas replied, smiling.
“Yes, well,” Shin replied, his gaze flickering briefly to the ground before looking back up again, “still I’m...”
Sensing he wasn’t going to finish his thought, Judas cut in. “Truth be told, I was uncertain you would practice tonight at all. You are undoubtedly one of the hardiest people I know to practice even in such cold.”
“It is chilly enough, to be sure, but here it is not bitterly cold in the way that my home is,” Shin answered, deferring the praise. “But perhaps you’d like to accompany me to my rooms? I could offer you something to drink, at least, to escape the chill.”
“I’d be happy to,” Judas said, genuinely heartened by the thought. This was the first time since he had met the nobleman that they’d shared an encounter beyond the training ground, and he felt a keen desire to speak with Shin in a less ascetic environment.
Shin smiled and began to lead the way to his quarters. After a little while they entered the main complex of buildings and Judas followed Shin throughout the winding ways of the palace, almost unnavigable for those unfamiliar with it. On the way Shin stopped one of the palace attendants, asking that a kettle of water be sent to his rooms.
A little ways on Shin finally came to a halt and opened a door upon the left of the long hallway, entering in. Shin took Judas’ lantern from him and rested both of them beside the door. Taking up a long match, he used the still burning flame of one of the lanterns to light the rest of the room, chasing away the darkness.
Judas studied the main room, which was not very grand, but well-appointed and comfortable. There were scrolls scattered on every surface, which Shin seemed to have some embarrassment about as he hastily cleared off his working table, moving the table out to the centre of the room and offering Judas a seat.
“I’m sorry for the state of my humble quarters,” Shin said, his cheeks slightly flushed. “I hadn’t had it in mind when I invited you here.”
“You forget I live in the barracks; there is nothing offensive about your quarters at all,” Judas said with a smile. Looking about, he spoke again, “This clearly is a scholar’s room. I’ve never seen so many scrolls gathered in one place. Are they all literature?”
“Many are, yes,” Shin said, “but a good number concern laws, decrees, and census data as well as registries related to my work. The Ministry of Rites requires thorough record-keeping to help keep to tradition and understand the changing yields of each year.”
“Is that so?” Judas asked, waiting for Shin to explain further.
“We need to know what each han and domain is able to render in tribute to the capital, from which we take portions to dedicate to the gods during the important ritual days, in order to make sure we do no less service to them during the subsequent years. It also enables us to understand the distribution of the supplies that pass through the provinces,” Shin said as he tried to stack a collapsing pile of scrolls more securely. Judas moved to help, but Shin waved him at him to sit down again. “I can manage,” he said, redistributing the pile before moving to take a seat opposite Judas.
As he sat a knock sounded at the door. “Enter,” Shin called out. The servant whom he had spoken with earlier brought in a four-legged tray, resting it upon the desk that now served as a table. Upon it sat a kettle of hot water as well as a few brewing utensils. Receiving no other indication from Shin, she bowed her head and left.
Shin stood up and rummaged around his shelves, moving scrolls around as he searched, upsetting the pile he had just restacked. From the disarray he managed to produce two porcelain drinking cups and a teapot with considerable ease, but then seemed quite unable to find what else he was looking for. At last he recovered a brick of tea from a small box underneath a pile of ink brushes. Setting down the leaves next to the tray, he picked up the kettle with his bare hands, neglecting to use the cloth to hold it, and nearly dropped it as it burned his hands.
“Are you alright?” Judas said, leaping up as Shin cradled the hand that had gripped the hot iron.
“It’s fine,” Shin said, laughing in embarrassment, “it’s fading quickly. I’m always too mindless when it comes to making things. My head was elsewhere.”
“Would you mind if I prepared the tea instead?” Judas said as Shin continued to hold his injured hand tightly against his chest.
“It doesn’t seem quite right as the host,” Shin said, trailing off at the end.
“Do not worry,” Judas said, picking up the kettle with care and pouring its contents over the pot and cups, letting the water carefully drip over the sides to the tray underneath, warming the vessels. “A guest should show gratitude to the host as well.”
Judas rarely had the opportunity to prepare his own meals, but he remembered from boyhood how he found the process relaxing, and although he could not serve tea as formally as one with long practice, he still had observed the ritual many times and could remember the steps and the manner of pouring. After preparing the pot and drinking cups, he cut the tea leaves into the teapot and began carefully pouring the hot water once more. The leaves danced within the teapot, cycling to the top before settling down again at the bottom. Judas picked up the spoon and carefully removed the bubbles from the surface before placing the lid on the pot and pouring the first brew.
Shin watched quietly in appraisal as he completed the initial steps. After discarding the first brew, Judas poured the tea for the second time, the greenish-brown colour deeper now in hue. When the pot had been set down, at last they both moved to take up their cups and enjoy the warmth the tea brought.
“You have many unexpected talents,” Shin said as he put his cup down to rest on the table. “How did you come to choose the Royal Guard?”
Judas paused for a moment, unsure where to start the tale.
“I apologize if I’m being too intrusive,” Shin said suddenly, his face becoming flushed. “Forget my indecorousness, please.”
“No,” Judas said, surprised. “No, you’ve nothing to worry about. I was just collecting my thoughts. It’s a roundabout story, that’s all.” Shin looked reassured but still flustered and so Judas kept talking. “My father was a soldier. He and my mother passed away from illness when I was still very young, from that sickness that swept through the imperial city almost twenty years ago now.”
Shin nodded at this. It had been recorded as one of the greatest times of loss of life in Tenkujyou’s recent history.
“I was taken in by different relatives over the years, but it was difficult for them to afford keeping me as my parents’ legacy ran out, and so I changed households frequently. Eventually my great uncle made contact with me, and had it in mind to adopt me as his heir. He was a successful merchant, and traveled for long periods, so I got to see much of the surrounding lands of Tenkujyou during that time. However, may his spirit find rest, he passed away when I was twelve years old—too young to properly inherit and not legally entitled to his property, and none of my relatives saw fit to take me in any longer. A friend of his arranged that I should be taken into the palace on his recommendation, to train towards some useful end among the staff. I worked for a while as apprentice to one of the butchers but then chance struck when...” Judas paused, reaching a somewhat delicate topic.
“When?” Shin asked.
“When the former General,” Judas continued, leaving Lucifer’s name unspoken, “happened to cross my path one day. Apparently I resemble my father quite strongly, and he had enough memory of the men whom he had served with, even after so long a time had passed, to know me on sight. Although I was young, he had it in mind to recommend me to train for the palace guard instead. I don’t know if his hope was that someday I too would enlist in the army, but I found considerable success training among the guard, and eventually Lord Zeus himself took notice of me. And so I arrived here, with no small amount of good fortune.”
Shin was silent for a moment, his eyes fixed on his hands around his teacup. “You are truly admirable,” he said at last, looking up with a warm smile.
Judas wasn’t quite sure how to respond to the compliment so instead he tried to shift the conversation away from himself. “I must say, looking at all these scrolls, I am impressed by the extent of your learning.”
“I am fortunate that the records and resources here in the palace are so extensive. Being able to access them has helped me on many projects. My family’s libraries can’t compare.”
“What sorts of projects?” Judas asked with curiosity.
“Ah, well, various things,” Shin said. “Mostly theoretical endeavours. Mathematical formulae. Ancient music. That sort of thing.”
“Music?” Judas said as he reached for the teapot to pour them both another draught.
“Well, that one is partly practical too. Recently I was attempting to reconstruct an instrument I read about in a treatise on acoustics and the properties of different instrumental materials.”
“That’s incredible,” Judas said. “Were you successful?”
“I think so, although it’s impossible to be certain. Aside from a few paintings of the instrument to guide me and what description can be gleaned from the treatise, there wasn’t much information to sustain the project. Moreover, the original material I was using achieved a poor resonance and I had to make some modifications that may have falsely amplified the sound. And while I managed to recreate the four basic tonal ratios given in the treatise, the rest are conjectural and...” realizing he had lost Judas in the scientific description, he stopped himself.
“Would you like to see it?” Shin said, instead.
“I’d love to,” Judas replied.
Shin stood and slid open the door to one of the chambers further in. Not long after, he emerged holding an instrument unlike anything Judas had ever seen. It was tall, reaching as tall as Shin when held at the waist, and its curved shape was unusual. The silk strings appeared to have been threaded through the top of the instrument, folding back in double courses, creating a thin web across the frame.
Judas seemed somewhat awestruck by the instrument.
“Would you like to hear it?” Shin asked.
Shin smiled and took his seat once more, carefully balancing the konghou in his lap, directing the strings away from his body. Judas watched as Shin’s fingers, practiced and precise, moved across the strings, plucking them to produce a song that seemed to cast a spell upon him. Enchanted by the music, the dimness of the room, the scent of the tea and the graceful movement of his pupil’s hands upon the strings, Judas forgot his cares for the first time in a very long time, however short-lived that peace was to be.
The great hall was brilliantly lit with yellow and red lanterns, while paper garlands decorated the room in long chains hung across the ceiling. The return of the court was being celebrated by a large feast given by the Regent, who had invited every courtier and official within the city to attend the lavish banquet. Shin sat at one of the sidelong tables among many of the other young courtiers as the dishes were cleared to make way for further courses.
Lord Zeus sat at the head of the room as was custom, his commanding aura not diminished in the festive atmosphere. Although the war with Chikyuu was a cause of worry to many, Zeus would never show any weakness in front of the whole host of the Tenkujyou nobility, and Shin was certain war had been Zeus’ aim to begin with. He provoked matters into such a state and while it had once again rallied the common people behind the empire’s cause, the suffering undergone by the citizens living along the border of both kingdoms would surely be terrible.
Shin tried to quell these thoughts for the moment and remain impassive. Now that he could not breathe as freely as he had before in absence of the court, he especially needed to maintain the mask of neutrality. Tensions were rising quietly among the nobility, and the war provided a convenient excuse for Zeus to weed out any who might cause trouble.
Shin was distracted from his thoughts by the servants bringing out yet more delicacies to feast on. He picked up one of the boiled quail eggs with his chopsticks and lifted it to his mouth, enjoying the savoury flavour imparted by the dressing. Around the hall the conversation came to a low lull as the music died.
A group of dancers decked in white patterned garments, each with one of the long sleeves dyed the colour of bellflowers, had entered the room and stood in the centre of the hall. Rei, who had left the head table earlier, stood in front of them. It wasn’t unusual for his cousin to be asked to perform during celebrations, but Shin wondered if this display wasn’t a further attempt on Zeus’ part to show solidarity between his governance and the last living member of the Suzaku house during a tumultuous time. Before the court left for the winter, his cousin had increasingly been in attendance of state functions, although his presence seemed more ornamental than participatory. It might also be that the regent was trying to keep a closer eye on his charge, to whom he had previously paid little heed. Doubtless as his cousin grew older he seemed a greater threat to Zeus’ authority, simply for being still alive, even if he held no designs for the state.
Whatever the reason, his cousin now stood at the centre of the hall, and spoke with a ringing voice. “To honour the guests of this feast, I, the Crown Prince, Suzaku no Rei have prepared this humble entertainment for you as you dine. May your hearts delight in the dance and the song; may your eyes and ears have their fill of contentment; may it warm you against the receding winter, as the spring awakens.”
The dancers fell into position, forming a square column, while Rei gestured to the court musicians who struck two knocks against a wooden block, signalling their readiness before beginning their song. The dancers moved into two sections, slowly breaking away from each other to form two diagonal columns. In a sudden motion they extended their arms above their heads, the flowing sleeves creating a burst of purple, soaring upward before falling gracefully down. The columns of dancers circled around each other, once again becoming a single unit. They spun around, the stomp of their sandals matching the percussion as they struck the ground in precise rhythms. As they turned, the flowing sleeves trailed their movements, shifting colours of purple and white rising and falling.
Although Shin himself found little pleasure in dancing and counted himself fortunate to seldom be called upon to perform, he could appreciate the art of it. Certainly his cousin was nimble enough after long training. Shin watched as he leaned gracefully in time with the others, shifting his weight deeply to the left and holding perfectly still before shifting back in a single movement and mimicking the motion on the right, all the rows of dancers in almost perfect tandem.
Looking back to the Regent, Shin observed as he and the Minister of the Left spoke to each other in hushed conversation. Curiosity waged war with his better sense, wishing to know the words that passed among the higher ministries and yet aware of the danger of getting in too close. His position in the Ministry of Rites was safe at the moment—given in recognition of his talent, but nothing that could be considered undue, nor politically significant. Trying to aim for anything higher at such as time as this could be disastrous. Assignment to some military appointment in the south was a prospect Shin dearly wished to avoid.
His attention came back to the performance as the dancers came to a standstill before suddenly scattering in all directions, resuming their striking of the floor as they spun, creating a dynamic wave of colour that seemed both vivid and illusory. The music, a variation on a poem by a famous general nearly a hundred years past, was haunting in its escalation, the sad melody becoming more forceful and sweeping as the song progressed, the musicians performing their part no less diligently than those who danced.
The dancers moved in circles, passing each other once before sweeping by again from a different angle, the two lines increasingly becoming entangled in the speed and closeness with which they crossed. Once again they formed a single unit, the left sleeves held high and level above the dancers’ heads, forming a tall wall of white, while the footsteps of the dancers crept first one way, then another, the white curtain looming as it moved in each direction. Returning to face the centre, the wall was suddenly broken in a wave as the dancers circled their arms downwards, extending their purple-sleeved arms in a similar motion, chasing one colour away with the next. The insistence of the rhythm which they tapped with their sandals increased, and the music began to reach its dramatic peak.
Having dispersed outwards in one great burst of colour, the dancers now walked backwards towards each other, slowly coming into a tight formation, their torsos bent to make them seem as small and closely knit as possible. Finally, as the music became quieter still, they held their right arms before their chests in a bow, the long purple sleeves hanging to their feet against a backdrop of pure white, the flurry of colour finally hushed as the dancers came to a complete standstill and the music trailed off.
Having finished with their performance, the dancers prepared to disperse, until the Regent signalled for them to stay. Shin watched as Zeus beckoned Rei to come back to high table, and the conversation which had picked up once again died down a little so that the Regent might be heard.
“We have been deeply honoured by this excellent performance. As a token of recognition, I, Lord Zeus, would that you take a draught from this cup in honour of your talent.”
Shin suppressed any reaction, but could have shaken his head at the temerity. While it was certainly a very high honour, and customary for the ruler to bestow upon entertainers, he had never before bestowed it upon Rei in this manner. Whatever Zeus’ power and authority, sharing his cup with the Crown Prince, whose pedigree was above his, was in questionable taste. Shin had no doubt this was part of the changing face of Zeus’ politics, becoming more determined to connect his cousin to his regime while still subordinating Rei in order to preserve his authority.
Observing Rei, however, his cousin seemed little bothered by this act, perhaps simply happy to be receiving such praise, or perhaps his mind was elsewhere, not caught up with these careful shows of power. Shin knew he had a tendency to over-think matters, but there was hardly any alternative for him. Knowledge would be power in this climate, and Shin refused to sink within it.
Maya carefully slid out of the barracks of the guards, carrying with him only a small pack, one carefully arranged and checked over many times. His brother had chastised him harshly earlier for wanting to bring too many unnecessary things. Nonetheless, he refused to listen entirely, some of his most precious possessions packed securely amongst the more needful items.
He stealthily made his way across the mazelike roads in the palace complex, carefully avoiding meeting anyone on the path, occasionally doubling back and taking a different route in order to not been seen. He couldn’t help but feel extremely wistful every time he caught sight of the uniformed guards patrolling past him as he carefully stayed out of their line of vision. The full guard had only just recently returned to the palace, and he had been able to meet with Gai only a few times since. Reuniting with his friend was perhaps the happiest moment he had felt in a long time, but he also felt guilty knowing there were so many secrets now standing in between them, and he didn’t know how to mask his feelings properly in front of him. Gai too, in spite of his usual high-spirited and talkative behaviour, had seemed a little different, and Maya was afraid his own face had given away something was wrong. Nonetheless, Gai had regaled him with stories of Yugong, and given him a precious gift that was now safely stored among his things.
Watching from atop the tiles of the low roof as the pair of guards passed close by, Maya turned his focus back to the present. The long, hard training of the special corps of the Guard had honed his skills such that he, like his comrades, was almost undetectable unless pure chance should conspire against him. Fortunately, everything was in his favour tonight, and he quickly made his way over the outer wall of the palace, not far from one of the minor gateways that exited the grounds, just out of sight of the guards stationed on that section of the palace.
“Are you ready, brother?” Maya whispered as quietly as he could.
Kira, only just visible in the light thrown from the lamps of the gateway, silenced him with a gesture. Maya wanted to ask him a million things: how long he had been waiting, whether he had any trouble. He wanted to rest his head on his shoulder like he did when they were younger and let himself cry as he felt his heart sinking as they left the Imperial Palace, their home since childhood, behind without a word to any of their friends. He bore himself up however, for they both were resolved on their decision to leave the capital and strike out on their own. When Kira had told him the plan at first, he had railed against it, but he trusted his brother’s judgement in the end. Although he never explained why, Kira had said that the palace had become a toxic and dangerous environment, and that they needed to leave while they were still the only ones who knew their secret. Because he trusted his brother, Maya was able to steel himself. If Kira said they had to go, then they should go. And now that they had finally made a breakthrough concerning their parentage, Maya too needed to confront the man who had abandoned them when they were young. Therefore, he followed Kira without a word, and without leaning on his brother’s strength as he was in the habit of. The dark of the night swallowed them in silence as they made their way southwards through the imperial district, leaving the lights of the city behind them.
Luca moved his fingers lightly through Rei’s unbound hair, brushing it back from his still-flushed cheek. The bliss of reunion was written on both of their faces, their tired limbs tangled in fond embrace. Still, a shadow hung over Luca’s heart, one that could not simply be quelled by the echoing beat of his lover’s heart against his breast.
“I’ve worried for you,” he murmured softly, his lips brushing against Rei’s cheek, tracing his skin with a feathery touch.
“There’s no need to worry now,” Rei said, his eyelids fluttering open to meet Luca’s worried gaze with a reassuring look. “The trouble in the south is far away from here.”
“I...” Luca trailed off, hesitating to answer with the nagging thought that that wasn’t truly what he was afraid of. He watched as the bright eyes before him dimmed in the held silence.
“Things will be fine for now, I think,” Rei said. “I’m just glad that we’re both here. That’s enough, for the moment.”
Too many apprehensions besieged Luca’s mind, thoughts which he couldn’t unveil to anyone. Luca tried to suppress the great well of trepidation inside him that his involvement with the rebellion had provoked. The knowledge of the intended execution of their plans gnawed at him, and yet everything was held in such a precarious balance he could see no way to reconcile the pieces. He wanted to unburden his mind and share his cares, but he was all too aware of the danger waiting in every action and word. There was no place in the capital that was truly safe for the son of the former emperor, and there was little he could do to prevent or protect anything as it was.
Rei reached up to stroke Luca’s cheek, cutting in to the waste of Luca’s thoughts. “Did you know it’s nearly been a year since first we met?”
“It’s not easily forgotten,” Luca said, reaching up to cup Rei’s hand in his own, brushing his thumb against his palm and kissing it lightly before moving their clasped hands to rest at his chest. “Although at times it seemed almost like it had to be an illusion.”
“Or a dream,” Rei said. “I never thought to see you again, after I woke up from it.”
“I would have come back here before long whether in dreams or in the waking world,” Luca said, tender affection written upon his face. “Such is the spell you cast.”
“What kind of spell?” Rei said laughing.
“With your eyes, with your lips, with your words and your heart,” Luca said, brushing a line of kisses from the tip of Rei’s ear down to his chin as he spoke.
“You cast the very same spell on me,” Rei said, tipping up Luca’s chin so that their foreheads brushed together, their eyes taking in their fill of each other.
“Then I’m happy to share in the blame,” Luca said, smiling in spite of his cares. He leaned forward and captured Rei’s lips with his own, kissing him as his lover’s arms tightened around him, pulling him deeply down into his embrace. There was no hurry in their lovemaking tonight, but Luca could not fully escape his fears even in the throes of passion. His world should be no more than the simple pleasure of skin against skin, the building tension of arousal and ardour, the way their bodies moved against each other, familiar, loving, keen to share in affection in the short time they had, but even as they came together after so long apart Luca couldn’t chase away his disquiet.
“Rei,” Luca gasped out against his lover’s hair, the tension breaking as he reached his climax, held fast between his lover’s thighs. His voice was joined by Rei’s own as he too reached his peak. The tired haze of satiation took over them, and looking into the bright eyes of his lover Luca could think of few times in his life that he had ever felt so vulnerable. “I love you,” Luca said, so quietly it was almost a whisper. “Always remember that I love you.”
“What was it...‘It’s not easily forgotten,’” Rei said, smiling. “By either of us.”
They both knew that time was slipping away, but for just one moment more Luca wished to rest in the arms of his lover, and savour their reunion.
Chapter 9: IX
Kira and his brother made their way along the rocky path of the sloping foothills, the moon so bright the passage could be clearly seen even in the very dead of night. Although the training of the special corps had honed their abilities to move carefully even with little light, now navigating unfamiliar territory Kira was grateful for the moon’s radiance. He and his brother had cautiously but swiftly made their way out of the capital, heading east first, before striking south and west again to the border of Chikyuu, carefully avoiding both the Yugong garrison to the east and the army encampment to the west, a bottleneck which might trouble a larger force, but permitted room for two travellers who kept wary eyes open to pass through unnoticed.
Although determined to meet with their father, Kira found they were confronted by many difficulties. Covert inquiries of the locals in the villages nearer the border yielded nothing substantial. If the former general was hiding within the borders of Chikyuu, no more than a rumour of such a thing was known in the Heavenly Kingdom. If he yet hid in the Heavenly Kingdom it would be a greater wonder still, but Kira held the strong conviction that their father must have left their borders long ago, and so the brothers travelled southward in hopes that the rumour proved to have a kernel of truth.
Kira came to a halt as he noticed that Maya had fallen behind, staring at the plains behind them in the moonlight.
“What is it?” Kira asked impatiently, unhappy about stalling upon the crest of the path. It would be almost impossible for anyone to spot them in these conditions, but remaining at a high position in plain sight still chafed at his ingrained desire to remain as hidden as possible.
“Goh is just over there, isn’t he?” Maya said. “Two days at most. One on horse if we—”
“We can’t go there,” Kira said firmly. “Come on.”
“You can’t think the army would allow two renegade special corps members to enter their field of war without consequence. Whatever Goh might do would not save us from our fate if we happened to be caught by anyone in the attempt. You cannot rely on those of the Heavenly Kingdom any longer.”
“But we don’t even know if our father is hiding in Chikyuu. And the things we’ve learned from the locals are too limited. What if we’re walking straight into a Chikyuu border garrison?”
“Unless it’s recent you know as well as I do where the major garrisons are stationed in Chikyuu, never mind that most of their troops will be bled over to where the enemy threatens incursion, which is exactly where you want to go,” Kira said in a hard voice, although he softened seeing his brother’s chastised expression, still marked with a longing to reach out to the world with which he was familiar. Maya had to understand those times were over now. Kira continued, less sharply, “Ahead is our best chance, and once we’re safely in Chikyuu we just have to keep our heads down until we finally find him.”
“I’m nervous,” Maya said, casting his eyes to the ground.
“Come on,” Kira said, reaching out his hand to grab his little brother by the shoulder and move him along. A gloomy atmosphere fell upon them after their exchange, and as they navigated the foothills Kira brooded about the meaning behind what they were doing. They had searched for knowledge of their parents for so long only to find out that their father was someone who had been so close to them the entire time and yet never once acknowledged them as his own sons. But Kira could remember moments of encouragement, when the lord Lucifer, returned victorious from battle, would look in on the young trainees of the guard. Many times he acknowledged the skills of both Kira and Maya, even when it provoked jealousy in some of the other trainees who were galled by seeing orphans such as the two brothers receive recognition. Knowledge of their true kinship had caused those memories to take on new light for Kira, however, he could not say whether it cast a shadow or a gleam upon such times.
Not a few hours passed before the brothers finally halted to rest. There was something uncomfortable about the place they were stopping, but Maya was becoming a handful and it seemed to Kira that if they rested now at least they might have the strength and endurance to cover more ground even into the dawn. They were frugal in their provisions, but their training meant that they could turn around many things in their environment to their favour, so they brought only enough to ensure they could make it a few days past the border before running out of sustenance.
As he drank from his flask, Kira heard the noise of stone scratching against stone, as though a foot had stepped on loose pebbles. He put the flask down immediately as a small stone skipped down the rock face behind them to land on the path at their feet. Maya had seen it too and immediately both brothers stood and grabbed for their hidden daggers, turning and looking up the small cliff side to see a man looming on the edge of the pathway above, hefting his own spear in response to the drawing of their weapons.
There was a tense silence while Kira calculated carefully all the different ways it would be possible to kill this man, but the odds that they could escape unscathed were not in their favour. The man had the higher ground, and was not some shepherd of the hills. He was built for combat and held his spear as though it were no more than an extension of his arm. Before Kira could enact any of the scenarios cycling through his mind, however, the man broke the silence first.
“Who are you, and what are you doing on my mountain?” he asked, his voice echoing in the space around them, giving it an eerie power.
“Travellers only, passing onwards,” Kira said immediately, despite knowing it would likely not diffuse the situation.
“Travellers from the Heavenly Kingdom? Go back where you came from while I let you live and keep forever clear of this place, as well may your lord if he does not wish to find my spear at his throat.”
“We have renounced our claim to the citizenship of that kingdom. We head now to Chikyuu, and will have no words with any lord,” Kira said, trying to delay any action as much as possible.
“A fine tale for spies who travel with knives concealed within their clothes. You are no ordinary travellers or you would not have come so far. The Lord Zeus has sent men before into my territory to destroy me. You shall not be the first to die if you press your cause,” the man spoke, his golden eye glinting with a fierce remorselessness.
“You are right that we are not common,” Kira continued, stalling as he tried to think of some way to defeat him, “but we are deserters not followers. We seek for the Lord Lucifer for refuge from our former lord, and it has brought us unwitting into your lands.”
“And what proof can you give me,” the man asked, “that you speak the truth? And should you find Lord Lucifer—where he is, who can say?—what gives you such confidence he would accept spies such as yourselves.”
“Because we are his sons,” Maya spoke for the first time, his chin held high. Kira sighed, having wished to conceal that at least, but they had little enough excuses or proofs to offer the guardian of this place, and Kira had still not arrived at a satisfying solution to kill this man without risking injury to him and his brother.
“That is a bold claim,” the man said, speaking to Maya directly. Kira saw a change in his countenance as the man spoke to his little brother. It was not something Kira could call softer, but it might have been less wild. “Bold,” the man continued, “but perhaps, fortunately, one even I can understand, and more importantly one I can prove with my own eyes. Put down your weapons. You have my word you will be unharmed while your words prove true. You will have no hope of life if they don’t. You are now in the custody of Kamui of the Mountain.”
Sitting in front of his mirror, Rei picked up his fine-toothed jade comb. He began brushing through his hair absently, humming to himself. He had dismissed his servants, for Luca had promised to come to him this evening if he could. Being able to see him again after months of separation was like feeling the rush of falling in love all over again. It was hard to focus when he knew he would be soon enfolded in that dear embrace. He shook his head, trying to clear his effervescent thoughts as he stared at the reflection in the mirror. Although the bronze mirror was dark and bent the world in cloudy shapes, he was always delighted to take in the way it caught light and shadows, reflecting a second world in its depths. Seeing a dark shape appear at the edge the surface, he smiled brightly and turned to greet Luca.
He stopped dead in that moment, his eyes widening as he locked eyes with the stranger wearing the dark uniform of the guard, blade drawn in hand. In the man’s eyes was the look of a predator that hadn’t anticipated his prey perceiving him before the strike. The moment passed instantly, and both men sprang to action. Rei jumped to his feet and dodged as the assassin ran towards him, sword aimed for where his neck had been not seconds ago. Rei tried to run towards the hall, knocking over various furnishings in his struggle to reach it quickly. To his great fortune the long train of his robes caused him to stumble and fall to the ground as the assassin once again sliced his sword through the air, missing Rei by a hair. Rei threw his weight against the other’s legs to knock the assassin to the floor and tried to regain his own footing. The assassin’s sword was flung away out of both of their immediate reaches. Remembering the ornamental sword that was kept on display against the far wall, Rei moved towards it, but failed to get away as the assassin scuffled with him.
Desperate, Rei managed to squirm out of his outer robe which the assassin had caught hold of. He stumbled to his feet, only to find himself back where he started, with the assassin blocking off the exit and having regained his weapon. Rei instinctively grabbed the nearest thing he could find, the mirror, to defend himself. They circled each other for a moment before the other man lunged. Rei barely managed to turn the blade, being knocked to the ground by the force of the thrust, the mirror falling out of his grasp. His opponent hovered over him, about to strike the final blow until a strange cry escaped his throat. Blood trickled down his chest, which had been pierced through by another’s sword. The assassin crumbled to his knees as Luca drew the ceremonial blade of the house of Suzaku from the man’s chest.
Their eyes met with trepidation, neither able to truly comprehend the unfolding events, unable to even breathe. At last, Luca dropped the blade and reached out to help Rei to his feet. As their hands met, Rei could feel that Luca was trembling too, no less terrified in that moment than he.
“Wha—, what...” Rei began.
Luca dragged him closer into an embrace, shaking hands stroking Rei’s hair, seeking comfort and security. He allowed himself only a moment before speaking. “Rei, I...I have to go,” he said, pulling away to look Rei in the eyes. Rei renewed his grip on Luca’s arms, not wanting to be alone. “I can’t be caught here,” Luca said, a tormented expression overcoming his pale face. He drew his hands away and picked up the ceremonial sword, hefting it into Rei’s palms. “The second I leave, yell for help. Yell so that everyone can hear you. Say he stumbled and you managed to strike him,” Luca said, so quickly he seemed to trip over his own words. “They might...Rei, don’t eat anything, don’t drink anything, whoever is behind this...”
“They might come after me again,” Rei finished for him, clutching the sword in his hands tightly, a false calm settling upon him as he tried to soothe Luca’s anxiety. Luca nodded in response, looking far more unsettled than Rei had ever seen him.
“I’ll meet you as soon as possible but I don’t think...it won’t be for...”
“Shhhh,” Rei said, resting his head against Luca’s neck, breathing in the scent of his skin although the air was polluted by the smell of blood, vainly trying to draw comfort from the familiar. “I’ll contact you when it’s safe again. Go. Quickly.”
“Yes,” Luca replied, barely above a whisper. He pressed his lips against Rei’s forehead briefly, his hands clasping Rei’s arms with a desperate, beseeching grip, before turning away and slipping behind the partitions to make his way out of that quarter of the palace. Rei counted to twelve in his head as he watched the spot where Luca disappeared, and finally let all of his anger and fear out as he began to yell for help.
“Have you sought my audience for any pressing reason?” Lord Zeus asked coldly. “The hour is inopportune.”
“I did not come here carelessly, my lord,” Amphitrite replied. “Rather I have received information that may be very unsettling, but quite suitable to this hour. Otherwise I would not have come.”
The shuffling of their feet across the floorboards was the only sound to be heard as the pair removed further into the chambers of the Regent.
“Of what nature is this information?” Lord Zeus asked.
“I have been trying to pursue rumours of any dissident activities within the capital, as you are aware. I have received new intelligence from a suspect within the Royal Guard whom I have personally interrogated. It appears there has been a revolt brewing in their ranks,” said Amphitrite.
“Unsettling, but auspiciously timed indeed,” the regent mused. “How much of the conspiracy have you uncovered?”
“Very little, unfortunately. The guardsman was unwilling to yield up their number, nor to name other members despite coercive techniques. He did, however, reveal the ringleader of the conspiracy as Captain Judas.”
Shiva involuntarily curled his hands into fists against the wall at that. Judas was leading the Guard to rebel against Lord Zeus? How could he think to betray their leader? The reaction of the regent himself Shiva could only guess at. Careful not to slip up and risk being discovered, he relaxed again and held himself very still as he gathered his thoughts, continuing to eavesdrop on the conversation on the other side of the panel.
It was a long moment before anyone spoke. It seemed Lord Zeus was taking in the information no less gravely than Shiva was. Amphitrite eventually continued in the face of his silence, “He also mentioned an associate of Judas’ who is of the Imperial Bodyguard, a man with pale hair and red eyes. Corroborating this with other intelligence I’ve received about unusual movements of a member among the bodyguard, it indicates that Captain Judas’ primary accomplice is Luca, of Yanagi.”
“Of Yanagi? Now that is interesting,” Lord Zeus spoke at last, his voice giving away very little to Shiva’s ears.
“Do you suspect its lord of treason?” Amphitrite said, a note of confusion in his voice. “I admit I had heard little of the han previously, but investigation did reveal that Lord Reida was a member of the bodyguard himself once, and recommended this traitor to the service.”
Although Shiva had never met Luca, it didn’t take much to connect the description of the man with a picture in his mind. In the past year Shiva had often spied Judas in company with a man in the uniform of the bodyguard, distinct in appearance even in the capital with such red eyes and white hair. Shiva had been suspicious of the connection between Judas and Luca from the start, but eventually grew accustomed to it. If Judas was leading a revolt, it was no surprise that that man would follow him (though it stung Shiva to think that Judas did not come to him for support too), but, like Amphitrite, the significance of Yanagi in the Regent’s mind was also lost to Shiva, a place hardly worth mention in all the fiefdoms of the kingdom.
Lord Zeus’ words cut into Shiva’s reflection. “Reida has his schemes, doubtless, but I think this was not of his engineering. He wishes to be forgotten in his seclusion, and he holds no connection to my treacherous Captain. The execution of his ward for plotting the assassination of the last living Suzaku will be a fitting enough repayment for his service, I think. Let him be forgotten. He will find no comfort in the solitude of his domain.”
Shiva’s eyes widened further. The strange turns of the conversation between his superior and the Regent were beginning to unfold in his mind. The hour was inopportune, they had said. Shiva had followed Amphitrite to such a risky place, overwhelmingly curious of his movements of late, and suspicious of all the secrets among the special corps. With the disappearance of the two eyesores, Kira and Maya, Shiva saw that it was his chance to move up in the ranks, but instead the instability left him feeling insecure about his position. While he knew his skills were valuable to Lord Zeus, Amphitrite increasingly isolated him and Shiva wanted to discover anything he might be able to hold over his leader. However, the assassination of the prince was far more dangerous knowledge than he wished to have in his possession, and moreover, Captain Judas would become the scapegoat for it. Shiva bit his thumb nervously, trying to restrain his anxiousness.
“The task will be shortly completed,” Amphitrite said. “Should I engage in preparations for this turn of events?”
“We mustn’t appear unduly hasty, but you will act swiftly when the news breaks,” Lord Zeus commanded. “Both of the culprits will be apprehended, publicly decried, interrogated, and then executed as swiftly as possible in front of the nobility of Tenkujyou. It will be fitting resolution to our affairs, and tidier than we could have thought to manage on our own.”
“I will arrange it so,” Amphitrite said. “Regarding the remaining conspirators who are as yet unknown…” As he spoke, a clamour arose outside of Zeus’ chambers.
Shiva took advantage of the noise to quickly make his escape, barely catching the words of the messenger who came to reveal the attempt on the life of the Crown Prince. The whole of the guard would soon be on alert and much of the palace would be astir in the wake of these events. He had precious little time to waste.
He could not understand why Judas would turn against the power of the Regent, who had led the empire to such heights, even if his means were not always admirable. But Shiva firmly believed Judas was not only a righteous and noble person, far above the more common people around him, but also someone whom Shiva wished to follow more than anything. Judas must have his reasons, and if he were arrested now, he would be executed before Shiva could ever hear him explain. If Shiva could save him, on the other hand, Judas would surely look at him in a new way, with gratitude and regard. Holding that thought firmly in mind, he hastened on his way to the headquarters of the guards.
Judas was searching through various scrolls trying to find the document he needed to review when he was interrupted by Luca’s unexpected appearance as the door to his office was hastily opened and slid shut. He began to greet him only to notice the distress his usually calm friend was in. It was not so much the actions as the intensity of Luca’s gaze that indicated something was wrong with his oldest friend.
“Luca, what brings you here?” he asked with concern.
“Our plans,” Luca said abruptly. “We have to move them ahead soon. We need to move quickly.” Although Luca’s voice was steady, Judas could still pick up the urgency in his tone, as if he were trying to conceal a great anxiety. It wasn’t like him at all.
“Why?” Judas asked, placing his hand on Luca’s shoulder. “What’s got you—”
Before his question was even finished, Judas was distracted by the sound of the door roughly being forced open as another unanticipated visitor arrived.
“We have to leave now!” Shiva said, taking Judas’ free hand. He was breathing hard, appearing to have run some distance, and was already trying to drag Judas away. Judas looked at Luca in bewilderment, but instead of an answering gaze, Luca seized Shiva’s other wrist very tightly, a look of suspicion in his eyes.
“Could one of you please explain what is going on?” Judas asked, gently but firmly removing Shiva’s hand from his own, trying to calm the mood.
Before Luca could speak his piece, Shiva jerked his other arm free of Luca’s grasp and began talking rapidly, “The Regent has discovered your plot against him. I overheard him discussing it with Amphitrite. They’re going to assassinate the Crown Prince and they’ll claim you’re behind it. They’re coming to arrest you both for it now! We have to leave at once, or else you’ll be executed,” he said, grabbing Judas and dragging him towards the back of the room in spite of his resistance. Judas pulled his arm free once again.
“What about our men?”
Judas and Luca spoke at the same time.
Shiva jumped in once more. “They know only your names. I overheard it all. They have no proof about the others, and they won’t get any if you leave now. We have to go!” he insisted, his voice fervent.
Judas licked his lips, mind racing to comprehend all the consequences of his decision. This was too sudden, too disastrous to contemplate, and yet he could not doubt the truth of Shiva’s words. Their plans were crumbling into ruins, but to stay endangered not only the cause, but the other men who were currently unknown to the Regent. He couldn’t let them become further sacrifices. Far more calmly than he felt, he nodded in assent. “Then we must,” he said, turning to Luca.
“I can’t,” Luca insisted, the anxiety in his voice growing stronger.
“What is going on, Luca?” Judas asked again. The onslaught of this news was disturbing to them both no doubt, but it wasn’t like his friend to act without clarity.
“If you stay, you’re dead. That’s all there is to it,” Shiva said at the same time, his frustration evident.
Luca stayed silent for a moment, conflicting thoughts written across his face, until finally his expression crumpled and he swore under his breath. Before Judas could intercede, Luca at last spoke. “Lead the way, Shiva.”
Chapter 10: X
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.