3-5 The barn and small garden behind the orphanage were covered in snow. The interior of the barn, usually warmed somewhat by the breath of the animals, was quiet and cold. Shoukei stamped her frozen feet to take the chill from her toes.
The snow piled up deeper every day. The villagers had only recently gathered in the town from the outlying hamlets and the air was thick with the lively back and forth of the year's news. Come the new year, however, and by the end of January people would be getting fed up with each other's company. Spending the winter shut up together like this was one long trial. Pent-up feelings got out of hand and petty disputes started breaking out. About the time the bad blood really began to flow it'd be springtime, and everybody would happily return to the countryside, raring to go.
She doesn't have the slightest idea what it feels like.
As she hauled along the feed for the animals, Shoukei cursed the far-off empress of the eastern kingdom.
What it feels like to live the threadbare life of a country bumpkin, wearing clothes reeking with the stench of farm animals, hands so chapped and frostbitten that the skin cracks and bleeds. Sleeping under a freezing blanket in a drafty, clapboard house so cold that in the morning the frost was white on the walls.
I know. And what kind of life are you living?
Silk curtains, scented bedding, a warm room suffused with light, disturbed by not a single errant breeze. Silk hems trailing behind her as she walked along, the obidama jewels in her waistband and tiara sparkling so brightly. Servants at her beck and call, ministers prostrating themselves before her. Her throne resting on a floor paved with gems, the throne and screens carved with an unsurpassed and delicate craftsmanship, inlaid with precious stones and lined with golden bunting and silver rattan.
Ah, yes, those were her father's most sublime treasures. And now she had everything that Shoukei had lost. She was never hungry or cold and never would be. Worshiped by thousands, wielding authority over every official in the land . . . .
With every step Shoukei took, a hole opened wider in her soul. Her silent imprecations swirled into the maw. At some point, without really noticing it, she had come to believe that everything taken from her had been stolen by the newly-crowned empress of Kei.
The shrill, jeering voice brought her back to her senses. She blinked, her mind blank. Then she realized that her name was being called. She hurriedly glanced around.
Gobo was standing behind her, staring daggers at her. "How long you going to take divvying up this feed, huh? If you think dawdling around here's going to get you out of helping make breakfast, you've got another thing coming."
"I'm sorry. I just got distracted there for a moment."
"I don't want to hear your excuses!" Gobo grabbed a nearby stick and whacked Shoukei on the legs. "You should be working three or four times as hard as everybody else. You can't make anybody in this town feed you. You have to earn your keep with your own filthy hands."
"Sorry," Shoukei said in a small voice.
She had no choice but to put up with it. Humbly hang her head and it'd blow over sooner or later. She'd learned long ago that it was the only thing she could do. She was waiting for Gobo to spit out a nasty aside and leave when another swift blow with the stick caught her by surprise.
"How about for once you apologize like you really mean it!"
Shoukei fell to her knees and collapsed in the straw, suddenly aware of the fierce pain in her shoulders.
"You think you're getting picked on by some fussy old hag? You give me lip service like that and you think I'm going to let you get away with it?"
"I . . . . "
Gobo once again swung the stick at her. Shoukei curled into a ball as the fierce blows fell on her back.
"Why do I drag your dead weight around with me? Why is it up to us to put food in your mouth? Why did the children of this orphanage have to lose their parents? Huh? Do you even have the slightest idea?"
Shoukei bit her lip. No matter how she was struck she wouldn't say a word.
"Everything is that Chuutatsu's fault! Your father!"
But that has nothing to do with me, Shoukei cried to herself as she lay on the ground. Ah, but Her Highness, the Royal Kei, knows nothing of this life! Her teeth still clenched together, Shoukei heard a faint voice.
"Is it true?"
She lifted her head. Gobo as well looked back over her shoulder. One of the orphan girls was standing stock still in the doorway of the barn.
"What are you doing here . . . . "
"You mean, Gyokuyou's father was Chuutatsu? So that means Gyokuyou is the princess royal?" Her eyes crawled over Shoukei. "That means she's Princess Shoukei!"
Gobo was at a loss as to how to answer. Shoukei just stared at the girl. With a start, the girl spun around and ran to the back of the orphanage. "The princess royal is here!" she called out. "The daughter of those killers!"
The children came in a rush. They stared at the dumbstruck Shoukei in amazement. Several of them darted up to her. Shoukei's face went white. Children's voices rang out from the front yard. She soon heard a loud commotion and the sound of more footsteps approaching.
"She's the princess royal?"
The inflamed throng surrounded Shoukei, driving her into the corner of the shed.
"It's true! Gobo said so herself!"
"Is that right, Gobo?"
Their gaze all fell on Gobo. Shoukei gazed beseechingly up at her. They locked eyes for a second. Gobo turned to the assembled crowd.
"Yes, it is."
There followed a moment of silence, and then the jeering cries shook the barn.
Shoukei was dragged from the barn and thrown into the snow.
"Wait . . . please . . . . "
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, the blows rained down. She screamed and was sent sprawling.
The shrill voice rent the air. The realization sank into Shoukei's dazed mind that the voice belonged to Gobo.
"Why should we?"
"Think about it, what do you think she's doing here?"
"What do you mean, what she's doing here?"
"Somebody registered her on the census. And didn't have a bit of trouble doing it. Like I said, think about it! Who could pull off something like that?"
"Who could pull off something like that?" The throng all raised the same question, and then called out the same answer. "The Marquis of Kei!"
The Province Lord of Kei, the commander of the province lords, he who had killed the king.
"If it was him that done it, do you think he'd like it if we beat her to death? The Marquis rescued us from that black bastard. We don't fear the king's henchmen. We don't worry about being dragged off to the gallows. All those odious laws were repealed. The Marquis has given us lives of peace and safety."
"But . . . . "
"I hate the little princess as well. But if the Marquis chose to save her, I'm not taking it upon myself to do contrariwise. It'd be like spitting in his face. I know how you feel, but you've got to keep it in check."
Now she says so. Shoukei clawed at the snow. "You're telling me this now! When up till now you've done nothing but torment me for your own entertainment!"
A snowball hit her in the nose. Shoukei covered her face with her hands.
"What are you protecting her for, Gobo? You were the one beating on her!"
"That's right! We get to get even with her, too!"
"Listen, you all . . . . "
"While this bitch was lounging around the palace, my mom and dad was getting murdered!"
Shoukei screamed, "They got punished because they broke the law!" It had always been so. People were always criticizing her parents. But her father didn't execute people because he enjoyed it. "If things are ever going to get better, a kingdom has got to have laws. Otherwise you would all do as you damn well pleased! So of course you're going to get punished! You just resent the people that made the laws because you got caught! If nobody was afraid of being punished, nobody would obey the law in the first place!"
Another snowball came flying at her. Shoukei crouched down as the hard balls of ice pelted her one after another.
"So it's okay to kill people then?"
"Just because they get sick and can't work?"
"We had to leave the fields before the harvest to take care of my parents. That's reason enough to cut off their heads?"
"I don't know about any of this!" Shoukei yelled. "It's not my fault! I don't know what my father did! All I saw was what he let me to see!"
They grabbed her and bound her and threw her into the town jail and left her there. After sundown, Gobo came to see her.
"I brought charcoal," she said. "Don't want you to freeze to death."
Shoukei sat back against the cold wall. "I'd rather freeze to death."
"You will soon enough. Right now they're deciding what to do with you."
"Feeling sorry for me, are you? It really is too late in the day for that."
Gobo gave her a cold look. "I don't feel sorry for you. I just don't want to do wrong by the Marquis."
Shoukei snorted. "Gekkei! That jackal!"
"Enough!" Gobo said in a resolute voice.
Shoukei haughtily raised her head in turn. "Overthrowing the king and sitting yourself on the throne without the Mandate of Heaven, that is regicide. No matter how you try to pretty it up." The horrible images from that day welled up in her mind's eyes. "He killed my father. And even that wasn't enough. My mother, too. And Hourin! Gekkei is a traitor. He slaughtered the king and kirin and stole the throne."
"Really?" Gobo murmured to herself. "So the king and queen were executed in front of you?"
"He's a traitor! Don't you know anything?"
Even if she did, the hard expression on her face didn't change. "What I know is that you are rotten to the marrow of your bones."
"What are you . . . . "
"The Marquis can't take the throne for himself. He lives at the provincial capital. Just because you're a shameless little hussy doesn't mean that everybody else is as self-centered as you. But if that's what really happened to you, then curse all you want. You won't be able to after not too long."
"But of course, you're going to kill me no matter what I say." When Gobo turned her back to her, Shoukei continued to glare at her. Bring it on, then. I'm getting tired of you all.
Gobo said, "It looks like the townspeople aren't coming to their senses, no matter what I say. They're talking about having you drawn and quartered."
Shoukei rose to her feet. "Hold on. They're what?"
Gobo shut the door, abruptly cutting off the light. "Drawn and quartered, you mean?"
It meant tying her arms to a pair of stakes and her legs to two ox carts and then tearing her body in pieces. The most barbaric of all punishments.
Shoukei screamed, but there was no one to hear her. In the freezing darkness of the cell, the only light came from the red glow of the coals in the brazier.