6-4 Shoukei was assigned to the Shousha, the superintendent in charge of the palace buildings in the Ministry of Heaven. To be precise, she was made a servant to his underlings.
Her day began before daybreak. She was awakened before she could see the first rays of dawn and started earning her daily keep by dusting all the furniture. She polished the windows, swept, mopped and polished the floors. Before the empress and ministers awoke, everything had to be washed and dried.
The gardens were groomed while the empress and ministers were in their meetings. Weeds were pulled, the cobblestones swept and scrubbed. By the time the high officials finished with their duties and returned to their ministries, everything had to be wiped down again. And then you had to rush back to the place they just left and straight it up. At the end of the day, you washed all the cleaning rags and went to bed right after dinner.
If she were mopping the floor or washing the cobblestones and the empress or a minister happened to pass by, she had to prostrate herself right there in the place she was cleaning. She stooped over or kowtowed until the person in question had gone by. Otherwise, she had to walk around with a big pile of rags in a hamper on her back. If anybody complained about a spot of dirt anywhere, she had to fly over, bow with her face to the floor, and wipe away the stain.
Her quarters were in a dorm in a corner of the Imperial Palace. She was given clothes to wear and was never hungry. Winters in Kyou were slightly more temperate than winters in Hou, and the world above the Sea of Clouds even more so compared to the world below. But life here was a lot worse than it was when she was living in that poor little village in Hou.
The other servants took pride in working at the palace, but pride was the farthest things from Shoukei's mind. Until three years ago, she had been the one walking on the polished floors, the one being kowtowed to. It was her own personal hell to have to scrape the floor with her forehead in a palace like it.
On top of that, the Royal Kyou Shushou assiduously avoided her. Since that first day, she had not spoken to her once. At best, as Shoukei crawled along the floor, she might spy a glimpse of the brilliant silk train of her dress, a whiff of fragrant perfume, the clear, lucid chiming of her swaying obidama as she sailed past her.
Once it had all been within her grasp.
Shoukei put down the cloth she was using to dust the furniture and picked up the ornamental hairpin in the shape of a flower. It was made from a kind of limpid ruby mined in the Kingdom of Tai. It was in the shape of a peony, carved from a single crystal of the transparent, scarlet gemstone, a gorgeous, blossoming flower, layered with petals so thin you imagined them bending at the touch of a fingertip.
"I used to have dozens. The ministers fell over each other presenting them to me."
She was in a room inside the imperial repository. The jewelry was neatly lined up on a shelf, wrapped in clothes.
So what's with all these things? Probably got stored here and long forgotten. Stored away, belonging to no one, put away for safekeeping, waiting for the next king, to decorate the hair of the queen or princess. And so the gifts just piled up in the repository.
Or the empress.
Shoukei was seized with the urge to dash the hairpin on the floor.
The Royal Kyou. Or the Royal Kei.
Right now, these were the kinds of accolades and glory raining down on them. And this was the cruel lot that she, the mere daughter of a king, had been left to.
"Sooner or later, everything comes to an end."
Every king, too, comes to an end. A day when the corpses roll on the floor.
She tried calming herself with these words but would not be pacified. Her life would end before that day came for the Royal Kyou and Royal Kei.
"You done in there?"
The sudden voice made Shoukei's heard skip a beat. The old woman who oversaw the Shousha's servants had caught sight of her.
"Um . . . yes, I am."
"Well, then, get onto your next job. If you don't hurry up and get it done, you won't be in time for dinner."
"I'm sorry," Shoukei apologized, rewrapping the hairpin.
The old woman laughed. "Allowing young women in here is always a mistake. I understand how you feel, but don't go around touching the fine merchandise. There'd be hell to pay if any of it got broke."
"Yes," she said, placing it back on the shelf.
"They all think, what would this look like in my hair? Oh, I'd be so beautiful. I did the same thing when I was your age."
Shoukei glanced back at the wrinkled old woman. The woman smiled. "It's always a disappointment. It don't look right on girls like us, just looks sad and funny, like decorating a scarecrow with flowers."
Shoukei picked up the cleaning cloth and clenched it tightly.
"We've got the arms and legs of people who work for a living. Strong physiques and even dispositions. Got no rank or fine jewelry to wear, but you don't need those to have pride in a sound body and mind. Don't need to care about doodads like that."
But I'm different. The words stuck in her throat. She painfully swallowed the retort.
With no idea what Shoukei was thinking, the lady laughed. "Only makes it worse, you still being young and all. And kinda cute as well. But you got to treasure what's been given you. You don't want to go lusting after baubles and ignoring your hard-won talents. Well, when you're done here, go to the room in the back."
Her head bowed, Shoukei hurried out of the room and went to a room deeper in the building. She closed the door and took several deep breaths.
The jewel of Youshun Palace. Skin like pearl, dark blue hair like the sky before daybreak. Eyes the color of amethyst. Waves of praise and adoration falling on her as ceaselessly as the waves breaking upon the shore. She'd lost all of it, and for no reason of her own.
"I used to have tons of these," she said to herself, approaching the shelf.
It was the room where the ceremonial fineries were kept, used to dress up the empress, queen or princess for religious festivals. Robes entwined with the feathers of a phoenix, strings of black pearls like so many poppy seeds woven into a fretwork, a diadem displaying a phoenix perched on the branch of a Chinese parasol tree.
The jewels could be plucked by the handful from the gemstone fountains in the Kingdom of Tai. She knew for a fact that of most value were the pearls, harvested in the southern waters of the Red Sea.
All gone. All those beautiful things that had once been hers, locked away in the imperial repository in Hou, waiting for the next king to be crowned.
"But they were all mine."
They had been made for her, tailored to her specifications, presented to her by her retainers. Why must they pass right under her nose to the next empress? Shoukei found herself possessed of the conviction that she must be the next empress of Hou.
I am the Empress. Just like that girl the same age as me. The Royal Kei.
That girl got lucky and robbed her of everything that had once been rightfully her own. Here she was, crawling and groveling, being worked to death, growing old and decrepit without a speck of joy or happiness, while she was adorning herself with all these treasures.
The Royal Kei had taken everything Shoukei had lost. A girl who had been a big fat nothing until the kirin chose her, and then she went and grabbed everything Shoukei had lost. A peon like her didn't deserve a thing.
Right now she'd be in the imperial palace in Kei, living it up on cloud nine. Like Shoukei, she'd never dream that one day she'd lose it all. She'd be too busy dressing herself up in all her countless gowns and adorning herself with ruby hairpins.
I'll steal it all back. Shoukei would take from that girl everything that had been taken from her. She casually placed the phoenix diadem on her head. There was a mirror in the corner of the room. She removed the dust cover and gazed into the glass.
Still fits me like a charm.
She quickly straightened her clothes and prettied up her hair.
Let's say I take this from the Royal Kei.
And the throne as well.
If it was okay for Gekkei, that monster who'd killed her father and cast her into these miserable circumstances, then it'd be okay for her, too. Shoukei glanced in the direction of the Royal Kyou's living quarters. I'll take it from her, she thought momentarily. But it would never fill the void in her soul the same way taking it from the Royal Kei would.
She said aloud, "I'll usurp the throne of the Royal Kei."
And when she did, she'd cheerfully tell the Royal Kyou to put up or shut up. The license you gave to Gekkei, now you give to me. Then at last she would be at peace.
Shoukei put down the diadem. She carefully wrapped it in its cloth and placed it back on the shelf. Instead, after perusing all the objects, she chose several smaller baubles and ornamented belts, and hid them inside a pile of rags in her cleaning hamper. If she broke them apart and sold the gems, she had enough to cover her travel expenses to Kei.
Of course, she'd be found out. Everything in here was under the purview of a conservator, and his underlings came by every day, dusting off and polishing the merchandise. But that a concern for tomorrow. They had all completed their work for the day.
She inspected the position of everything on the shelf, filling in the spaces left behind. With an innocent look plastered on her face, she did her cleaning and then hid the bounty in the undergrowth in the garden. Wearing a guileless expression, she washed her rags and ate dinner. She returned to her room with four other servants and pretended to sleep while she waited for night to fall.
In the dead of night, she strapped the hamper to her back and approached the main gates to palace complex. She called out to the night-watchman there, saying that as a punishment for her carelessness, she had been ordered by the empress to clean her riding tack.
With a doubtful look on his face, the night-watchman let her pass.
If there were no mounts there to fly her away from the gates, she'd never get out. The pegasi were kept in the royal stables outside the gate, but they couldn't be ridden by ordinary servants.
But I'm no ordinary servant.
Entering the stables, her eyes fell upon a flying horse called a kitsuryou. She quickly saddled him up.
"I used to have a kitsuryou of my own."
She grinned, flung open the stable doors, laughed in the face of the night-watchman running toward her, and launched herself into the sky.
Shushou sat her flabbergasted self down in the chair. According to the night-watchman, a servant had commandeered a pegasus and, ignoring his commands to halt, had flown away from the palace gates. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be Shoukei, the princess from Hou given over to her custody. And not only that, several valuables had vanished from the imperial repository.
"She certainly surprised me."
"Then, you have done all you can for her," the kirin answered in a perplexed voice. More than one of grace or refinement, this kirin left an impression of profound naivite.
Shushou smiled sweetly at her retainer. "I've done what? No matter what the circumstances, breaking the law is still a bad thing. Right?"
"And who drove her to do such a bad thing? Please consider that as well."
"But, of course," Shushou laughed. "C'mere, Kyouki."
She beckoned him with her smiling countenance to come up next to her and squat down. Kyouki obediently knelt down and looked up at his eternally young liege. Then the palm of her hand across the side of his face. The sound alone made the assembled ministers flinch.
The hand she raised against the Saiho of the kingdom didn't even leave a mark. Shushou shook the stinging sensation out of hand. "I would have preferred a kirin smaller than me, like the En Taiho. I want to give somebody a walloping and my arm won't even reach. It is really annoying."
Shushou said with a grin, "That Shoukei was really annoying, too. Such a stuck-up brat, she had nothing but contempt for the life of a servant, didn't she? Otherwise, what would be the point? I wanted to needle her a bit."
"The princess royal becomes a mere servant, working from dawn till dusk, kowtowing to people. So she steals some things and runs away and that's the end of it? Times like this, a kirin's compassion makes me laugh."
With a hmph, Shushou raised her head and gazed down at her retainer, cowering there with downcast eyes. "What is with you kirin? Don't you realize that this so-called compassion is like spitting in the face of all the other honest, hard-working servants?"
Shushou looked down at the disheartened man. "Nobody lives better than the royalty of a kingdom. I live a better, more blessed life than any servant, but I bear far more responsibilities than any servant. That's why, though I live a life clothed in silk, the servants forgive me that and bow their heads. Were that not the case, I'd pretty soon lose my head like the Royal Hou. No?"
"Ah . . . yes."
"Shoukei didn't have a clue about those responsibilities. She didn't live up to those responsibilities. The godforsaken work is too hard, cleaning is too hard. She whines and complains and carries on like the spoilt child she is. If we look the other way now, we're insulting all the people who do those jobs and do them well. If we treat her the same as everybody else who puts in a full day's work, who doesn't steal, who doesn't run away, how are we keeping faith with those good people?"
Shushou sighed and glanced down at her hangdog kirin. "I understand people like her, but she is unworthy of anybody's pity. With all these gushings of misplaced compassion, you ought to be a mortician. You're exactly the right person to bring to a funeral. Stand there weeping with a kirin by your side, I'm sure it'd be very consoling to the bereaved family."
"Please forgive me."
Shushou called to the assembled ministers. "Dispatch the Imperial Army and capture Shoukei. Contact Han and Ryuu and ask them to extradite her if the criminal falls into their grasp."
"As you wish, Your Highness."
The servant from the imperial repository still lay prostrated before her. Shushou gave her a long look. "Raise your head, please. I know that you are surrounded by many temptations in the course of your duties. You have done well to resist them."
"But I failed to supervise her properly."
"That was not your fault in the least. You have served well. Keep up the good work, okay?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
At the sight of the overwhelmed old lady, Kyouki touched his cheek and sighed.