hen Shoukei opened her eyes, she was lying on a gorgeously-arrayed canopy bed. Ah, so it was all a dream after all. She breathed a sigh of relief. All a dream: the murder of her parents, being sent off to the orphanage, the slings and arrows of so much hate and malice, on the verge of being most cruelly executed.
"You awake?" a frosty voice said.
Shoukei sat up and looked around. The lady's maid sitting there next to the bed glared at her. Shoukei thought, What's this wench doing in my private chambers?
As she mulled it over, the lady's maid got up and left the room. Shoukei finally noticed the differences between her room at Youshun Palace and the room she was in. All she had on was a short-sleeved cotton singlet, its hem lengthened with a mismatched patchwork of fabrics.
Anxiety welled up in her heart. Glancing around the room, she saw folded on the table a plain jukun, a blouse and skirt made of stiff, rough wool, a cotton smock and a wool jacket.
"Where am I?"
Still wearing only the singlet, Shoukei stepped down from the bed stand and wandered around the room.
This isn't a dream. That guardsman came to my rescue and saved me.
Shoukei didn't know if that was something she should be grateful for or not. The bedroom door opened. A man was shown into the room by the lady's maid.
Shoukei froze on the spot. "Gekkei."
A sardonic smile came to the man's lips. "Get dressed."
Shoukei rushed back to the bed stand, mortified to have been seen in the threadbare singlet. She hastily donned the jukun, flushing with shame at the shabbiness of the blouse and skirt.
"Your thanks are in order to Gobo. She traveled all through the day and night to get to the castle to let us know what was going on."
Gekkei's voice filtered through the curtains of the big canopy bed. Shoukei arranged the outfit as best she could. Gobo? she grimaced. What was with that woman? She'd made her life hell and then turned around and kissed up to Gekkei like an angel. Be thankful to a creature like that?
With all the intestinal fortitude she could muster, she emerged from the canopy bed and stepped down from the bed stand, holding her head high. Gekkei leaned back against the big table, folded his arms and looked her over.
"I never thought we'd meet again, but unfortunately it became necessary."
"Satisfied are you? Happy to see me reduced to such a degenerate state?"
"You are quite the dreadful sight."
Shoukei felt the blood rush to her cheeks. Her impoverished appearance next to the silk-clad Gekkei. Her bony, sunburnt body. As it was winter, she hadn't bathed in ages.
"You did this to me." Shoukei said, her words suffused with anger.
"You mean, dressed you in rags and sent you to work?" Gekkei smirked. "How easy it must have been to adorn yourself with silk and jewels and be praised for your beauty. What girl would not think herself elegant with servants at her beck and call, and summers spent frolicking in the shade of the trees? But the great majority of the people wear what you call rags and work the land by the sweat of their brows. What is truly ugly is your contempt for their humble lives."
"And where are we now, Gekkei?" Shoukei spat back at him. "In your castle, with you dressed in silk, toying with the powers of the government, indulging your prurient little games. Is it fun playing king?"
Gekkei grinned. "I can hardly think of how to reply to such a question."
"You're the traitor who killed the king and stole the throne."
"That as well I see no need to deny. It is certainly correct on its face." He turned his gaze on her. "Evidently, allowing the princess royal to reside in Hou will only cause more senseless chaos. It's probably best that you left."
"You mean, banish me? You've already removed my name from the Registry of Wizards and forced me to live in rags in a shack in the sticks. Now you make me an exile?"
"Considering the weighty matters of state before us, do you really think that amounts to much?"
In the face of his clear contempt, Shoukei could do little more than wring her hands. "You can't be serious!"
"I know that the Kingdom of Hou faces certain decline. From this point forward, things will only get worse. What you call 'rags,' what you call the 'sticks,' they will seem like luxuries."
"You're the one who killed the king!"
"And that I do not apologize for," Gekkei continued coldly. "If Chuutatsu's despotism had been allowed to continue, the greater part of the people would have been lost as well. At any rate, he was fated to fall. But while we waited for Heaven to sanction him, things may well have become so chaotic as to prevent the kingdom from ever returning to its former glory. What we did was necessarily to keep the damage to a minimum."
"Then you ought to ascend the mountain and ascertain the Divine Will. Ask whether you, the regicide, should become king. The Divine Will was certainly not with you when you murdered the king. Were I you, I would take care not to be struck by a passing thunderbolt."
"Again, I see no need to contradict you." Gekkei smiled sardonically. "I have requested that you be taken to the Kingdom of Kyou. The Royal Kyou has kindly agreed to take the princess royal into custody."
He turned to leave. Shoukei shouted at him, "Why don't you kill me? Cut off my head with the same sword you killed my father with!"
"Because I choose not to," said Gekkei, heading for the door.
"It's all because you wanted to be king!" Shoukei fumed. "Because you were jealous of him! And now everybody, including you, you all hate me because you're envious of me! Because I'm the princess royal! Isn't that right?"
Gekkei didn't answer. He left without a look back. The door shut behind him. Shoukei stared at the closed door, and then buried her face in her hands.
Gekkei returned to the Gaiden from the inner palace. Shoukei was hidden away in the depths of the palace. He knew that even amongst the ministers there were still those who deeply resented her existence and would try to kill her if they had the chance.
You ought to ascend the mountain and ascertain the Divine Will.
Her words stabbed him to the core. He knew well enough that he had rejected the Divine Will, but there was no regretting it now. He stopped at a window just outside the Gaiden and looked southeast over the Sea of Clouds, toward the Five Sacred Mountains at the center of the world. There, the kirin who would choose the next king was being born.
In two or three years, the word would come from Mt. Hou and the yellow standards would be raised over every Rishi in the country. There was a kirin on Mt. Hou and the king would be chosen. Those so possessed would ascend the mountain and express their desire for the throne. Gekkei knew he would not be one of them.
The cruel laws had been followed by slaughter after slaughter. News spread of the failing health of the kirin. Despite the likelihood of it being the shitsudou, the desperate Chuutatsu set about enacting even harsher statutes. If it was the shitsudou and the kirin was destroyed by it, it would take several months to a year for the kirin to die. And even after the kirin died, it would again take several months to a year for the king to be overcome as well. In that space of time, who knew what horrors he would wreak upon the people. Gekkei had no choice but expedite matters. Doing so must to some degree be in keeping with the Divine Will.
He would deliver a worthy kingdom to the next king. Until that day, the Mandate of Heaven had fallen upon his shoulders, and that was to fight against the inevitable ruin of the kingdom.
He turned to the southeast, toward Mt. Hou, and bowed his head.
Gobo heard the lady's maid approaching the room and raised her head.
She'd borrowed a horse from the stables at the town hall and galloped day and night through the snow. She'd made it in time. The provincial guard was sent to rescue Shoukei. As she rested at the castle, Gobo waited for the judgement that was sure to come. She had confessed to figuring out that the girl entrusted to her was the princess royal, confessed to torturing her with this knowledge. As a consequence, she had betrayed Shoukei's identity to the townspeople.
Gekkei stepped into the room. Gobo knelt and bowed low before him.
"Please, as you were."
Gobo looked up at Gekkei's serene face. Gekkei said, "The princess royal will be leaving Hou. I cannot tell you where, but she will never return to Hou again."
Of course, Gobo nodded, staring down at the ground. Of course he'd let the girl off with a slap on the wrists. She'd been hoping for Gekkei to regret the fact that he hadn't punished Shoukei severely enough and would be thrashing her on her behalf.
"You'll be dismissed from your position as headmistress and superintendent."
"I know that."
"For the time being, the townspeople will not be well disposed toward you. I've arranged for you to be relocated."
"Thank you, but I do not think that necessary."
Gekkei examined Gobo's upturned face. "You demonstrated a remarkable concern for the girl's fate. So why did you persecute her so severely?"
"I couldn't forgive her." Gobo averted her gaze. "Chuutatsu murdered my son. I knew that it could never make up for everything I felt, but whenever I saw her, I couldn't help but take it out on her. I'd get so angry I'd lose control of myself. But it was she who told me. She said she was the princess royal, said she didn't know anything of what her father did. I couldn't forgive that."
"I see," said Gekkei.
"The princess royal has responsibilities of her own to own up to, to live up to. To simply cast the past aside and beg shamelessly for mercy, that is unforgivable. She never did what she was supposed to. Around here, you forget to tend to the livestock and people go hungry. She never pulled her own weight. She'd come right out and tell you she hadn't done her part and expect you to feel all sorry for her because of how hard it was. I thought to myself, why should I let her get away with this?"
"That girl doesn't understand her guilt in all this. She still doesn't think she has anything to apologize for. Even seeing her parents killed in front of her, she still thinks it's all about her, about her suffering, about her pain. A lot of people suffered the same, but she won't admit that any of it came about because she didn't do the right thing when she was supposed to."
"I understand how you feel, but you can't make another person feel your pain. I think we'd all be better off forgetting about Chuutatsu. Leave the past in the past. Don't you agree?"
"I'm pleased you had the presence of mind to let me know what was going on. What you did constituted no crime against the townspeople. For now, though, they will bear you no little malice. So in their stead, let me offer you my sincere thanks."
Gobo bowed her head. The tears that had run dry the day her child had died welled up and spilled onto the floor.