|A World Without A Miko
"Emperor, an attack--"
"Kutou soldiers have penetrated the walls of the city."
Disbelief sharpened the words. "Inside the walls? How?"
"How?" he said again.
He waited for an answer, but it never came. The tense silence stretched out. And then a spattering whipped across the pale screen before his eyes. Hotohori stared at it in horror. It began to drip down the outside of the fixture, red and slow. Blood. He took a step back.
Kutou soldiers inside the city? How was it possible? Kutou had been repelled four months ago, and since that time its politics had altered radically. The shogun, Nakago, had seized control of Kutou Empire. And Nakago had assured Konan's diplomats that he had no larger designs. The people of Konan Empire were saying, proudly, 'We saved ourselves without Suzaku.'
Hotohori's pulse was racing, but there was no one coming into his rooms. No one breaking the silence that had settled back over corridor outside.
Inexorably he turned; it was as though there was a single, invisible line linking the scroll of the Four Gods with the slaughter, the freshly spilled blood. "The scroll itself is an incantation . . . in a time of danger, a kanji will appear on the neck of the crown prince . . . gather Suzaku's seven Seishi--Tamahome, Tesuki, Chiriko, Chichiri, Mitsukake, Nuriko and Hotohori--who can protect the Miko , and call forth Suzaku from the sky . . . "
He wasn't really thinking then, his hands were just slowly moving to his hair, which he bound up tightly. He didn't wear a sword in the palace, it wasn't custom, but when he emerged from the private area into the corridor he found he was presented with the macabre choice of several bloody, recently discarded weapons.
"Excuse me," he said simply, stepping over one of the bodies to prise a blade from a callused palm. A good weight (he nodded once in resolution as he clasped both hands around the hilt), and the scroll was a reassuring presence inside his robes. It would be difficult to part with, but if this was indeed an invasion , he would need to hide the text. Quickly, he thought, because surely only a foreign invasion force would have so foolishly killed a contingent of the inner guard, but missed the hidden entrance to the Emperor's quarters.
This section of the palace was eerily empty, the sounds of fighting only hollow echoes. The killing was no doubt taking place mostly in the main residences, and in certain strategic areas like the garrison and the throne room. Other brutalities would presumably be reserved for the women's quarters, the rooms that housed the courtesans, the ladies and the endless parade of women that imperial ministers offered Hotohori as prospective brides.
Hotohori steadfastly ignored the atrocities of his imagination. At this moment, they were not important. Neither was the feeling of emptiness in his chest. Suzaku. Suzaku. All my life I've waited, and now, in this time of danger, your Miko hasn't come.
The scroll of the Four Gods could be hidden in plain sight, with a thousand other scrolls collected for the inventory. There was the place. He slipped the scroll away. It disappeared into a rustle of obscure papers.
Hotohori spun, but recognised Chutetsu's voice, which was lucky for both of them.
"Emperor, there's--" Chutetsu broke off, his gaze catching on the length of Hotohori's blood stained sword. "You know already," he said.
"Yes," Hotohori replied, steering the elderly protector out of the scroll room. "Chutetsu--tell me what you can."
"No one's seen the shogun, but it's Nakago's attack. No doubt of it. I've recognised men who are loyal only to him. And women. Soi is in the palace, somewhere, and there's another woman with red--red--" Chutetsu gestured towards his helmet, but presumably meant 'hair'. He spoke gruffly. He had served under Hotohori's father and grandfather, and was a man who deeply respected Konan tradition. He clearly did not approve of the shogun's habit of allowing women--any women--to fight in his army.
"How?" Satisfied that the scroll was safe, Hotohori could now turn the steady force of his attention to the invasion . The most vital question remained. "How did they get in? There have been no reports. No activity on the border."
Chutetsu answered, reluctantly, "I've heard that the shogun is using magic. That he teleported this force to a position inside the city. And if he's a Seiryuu Seishi, as we've suspected for some time . . . he might well have that ability."
"A Seiryuu Seishi," said Hotohori, grimly.
"Emperor, you must escape. You can rejoin your troops in Jinchu. Retaking the palace will be easy from there, Nakago can't have brought more than a few thousand men with him. You have ten times that many willing to die for you, and that's in Jinchu alone. But we must leave, now--"
They rounded a corner in the hallway, and Chutetsu broke off, instantly drawing his sword.
Five guards dressed in the blue and brown of Kutou marched towards them, and standing point, in scandalous attire, was a woman. She was clearly not from Konan. Her long hair was a whiplash of red tied up in an extreme arrangement of thin plaits. She wore armour made from hardened leather and she carried--unbelievably--two blades. Feeling the prickling urge to respond, and to fight, Hotohori's hands tightened on the hilt of his sword. He was surprised at himself. The hum of adrenalin seemed disproportionate to his foe, a slender woman, and to the odds that were only slightly skewed in Kutou's favour. Three to one.
"Kill the man," the woman ordered, briefly. "Keep the boy alive."
Chutetsu was old, but the grey that touched his hair and moustache did not intrude on the grace of his movements; he was a youth in battle, a boy who happened to know the classical style as perfectly an old man. But the attack he faced was impossibly fast. Hotohori didn't know that the woman had struck until Chutetsu crumpled. He didn't realise that Chutetsu was dying until blood began to push between thick fingers as the old guard pressed down desperately on the wound to his stomach.
"Emperor . . . "
Five years ago, Hotohori had asked the old soldier a child's question. "Why does the man with the strongest ki always win?"
"It's the way this world works, Emperor."
"Well--what if the man with strong ki has no training?"
"A man without training cannot summon strong ki in battle. Just as a merchant without sense cannot summon ki during trade. Ki is not gifted--it must be earned. Or, if it is gifted, it must be learned before it can be utilized."
Hotohori had decided then. 'When I grow up I'm going to have strong ki--so that I can fight in battles and protect my country and the Miko .'
'The Miko ?' It played out like a dialogue in his head, though he had never spoken the words aloud, not to Chutetsu. Not to anyone.
'She's the girl who'll help my loneliness.'
Hotohori was trained to face multiple opponents; without thinking he blocked three slashing strokes in quick succession. But in the caesura after the third, he realised that all three cuts had come from one fighter, from the woman, and that he'd just countered the same attack that had killed Chutetsu.
The woman's eyes narrowed.
"Stay back," she said to the guards behind her. "This one's mine."
Hotohori settled, watching the woman over the horizontal line of his sword. He knew this style of twin blades. The chamberlain of the private office had been proficient in its use. It was aggressive, and relied on speed more than strength, it's purpose to simulate the actions of two fighters, forcing any opponent with a single sword to move awkwardly, constantly defensive, in double time. And it prompted errors, so that, in a manner of speaking, when you blundered you lost not to the blades, but to yourself.
But there was more to the memory. Because the chamberlain had been removed from the palace when a same sex love affair had caused many influential ministers--already hysterical over Hotohori's continuing refusal to marry--to make certain assumptions about his relationship with the Emperor.
She said, "Why not just give up?"
Hotohori thought of putting his weapon aside, demurring. You're right. I won't fight a woman. But it seemed insulting. Ludicrous. "I can't do that."
"No one will think the worse of you. You're just a boy. And you're alone. You don't have your guard to take care of you now."
He shook his head and said, "It's the guard that makes people believe I can't take care of myself."
They circled one another.
It was not an equal match. Hotohori's ki was such that when he focused on a task--be it political, scholarly or, as now, martial--he never gave it less than the whole of his heart. This caused a frequent switch from vainglorious to serious that his ministers had not yet learned to second guess. It flummoxed, and even frustrated them. Outside of politics, it had meant long hours in practice, and Hotohori had surprised his instructors with his focus and dedication, shedding his famous and almost effeminate physical vanity like an unwanted skin the moment he picked up a blade.
There was a single exchange, and when it was over Hotohori was standing, well balanced, and the woman was skewered on his sword with a wide-eyed expression on her face.
Hotohori withdrew his blade, blood-slicked, from her flesh. She doubled over, and choked, "Nakago-sama . . . I've failed you . . . I'm . . . "
Hotohori took an involuntary step back. He knew, as he looked up, that he'd be taken by the remaining guards. He knew because his sword had slipped from his fingers. He had started shaking.
He'd never killed a woman before.
Hands gripped him, and forced him to face the largest of the Kutou soldiers. This man was heavily moustached, in Kutou style, and his chin had a sharp cleft, as though someone had driven a nail in. Kugiuchi, Hotohori dubbed him, in a moment of odd light-headedness.
"Kill him," a soldier said.
(The will to resist began to grow stronger at those words.)
Another voice answered, "Akiko-san wanted him taken alive."
"That was before he murdered her in cold blood."
Kugiuchi drew in close, his breath rank; Hotohori flinched away as best he could, confined as he was in the hold of a much larger man. Kugiuchi said, into Hotohori's face, "I'm going to kill you with your own sword, you worthless son of a bitch."
Another blur of movement. Head bowed, body restrained, Hotohori was thrown down onto the ground, a soldier's knee jammed against his spine. He could barely move, let alone break free of the hold. It occured to him that, after all, he wasn't going to be able to protect anyone. Not his country, not his people, and not the Miko .
Hotohori felt his hair tie slipping, and as Kugiuchi raised his sword, there was a soft hiss. Silk against silk. It was the weight of Hotohori's long, dark hair freed to fall about his face.
A final vanity, he thought, and closed his eyes.
But there was no death stroke. The blade clattered, hitting the floor.
A fantasy played itself out briefly in Hotohori's mind, in which Kugiuchi had taken an arrow in the chest, killed by a loyalist at the final moment. But when he looked up, Hotohori saw that his imagination had led him far from the truth.
Kugiuchi had thrown his sword to the ground in disgust.
"It's a woman," he said, briefly.
"She's beautiful," said another, fisting a hand in Hotohori's hair near the scalp and dragging him up by it awkwardly; he stumbled to his feet again, tugged like a bull by the ring.
"I'm not--" he began, but was back fisted across the face before he could finish the objection.
"Hold her still," said Kugiuchi, when Hotohori shoved backwards in retaliation.
("Stand still, you little bitch," said the man who gripped him, tightening his hold.)
Kugiuchi took Hotohori's face in his hands, roughly. He sneered, "You thought you could pass yourself off as a man?"
"Can't you tell the one from the other?" Hotohori returned angrily, under his breath, aware that while, yes, he was still alive, his trouble had deepened. There were more things than life and death to worry about now.
"Konan slut," said Kugiuchi.
Hotohori tried to wrench away, feeling a roil of real sickness. The soldier who held Hotohori had lifted his shirt and was rubbing a hand over his belly.
Kugiuchi laughed. "We'll soon see what you've got under that soldier's costume."
The hand on his belly began to slide downwards. Hotohori thought, desperately, No--
A deep voice rang out clearly over the passage, like the sounding of a resonant bell.
"Fools," it said. "The Emperor of Konan is a man."
Kugiuchi withdrew instantly, whirling to face the newcomer; he and the other Kutou soldiers turned slack-faced with surprise.
Hotohori gathered himself together. He swallowed his discomfort, and shrugged off the last of the hands, finding his balance and something of his dignity. Standing braced, firm, he watched the five men who had restrained him fall to their knees, and begin kowtowing.
But not to him.
The man before whom they debased themselves blocked the torch light, and the passage. His armour was massive, spiked and imposing, his purple cape swirled around him majestically. Beneath his helm were coldly handsome features, blue eyes and a tumble of golden hair. It was a startling combination. Rare, too. Blond hair and blue eyes were the markers of the Hin race, of which, rumour had it, there was only one surviving member.
"You," Hotohori said, with a shred of angry pride, "are Nakago, the shogun who rules in Kutou."
"And you are Saihitei, the fifth Emperor of Konan . . . or should I address you as the Suzaku Seishi, Hotohori?"
Hotohori was left speechless.
Nakago glanced away, a minimal but purposeful movement. He fixed his gaze on Kugiuchi. "I ordered the Emperor brought to me unharmed."
"Shogun, my apologies--uh--"
"Don't try to excuse yourself," Nakago said.
Kugiuchi made an incoherent sound, his eyes wide. A blue kanji had appeared on Nakago's forehead. Like the shogun's eyes, it was filled with icy light, and looked deadly.
Blood began to well from the gaps in Kugiuchi's armour.
Hotohori turned his head away, tried not to hear the sickening sounds of flesh and pain. When he finally forced himself to look, Kugiuchi was slumped on the ground, and the wall behind him was stained, dark red.
"You killed him," Hotohori said, in a kind of protest, unsure what had disturbed him the most, Nakago's magic, or his casual brutality.
"He disobeyed my order," said Nakago. To his white-faced soldiers, "Take the Emperor to the prepared area in the north-east section of the palace. When he is rested and restored, I want him brought to my rooms." Nakago looked Hotohori right in the eyes. "You and I have something to discuss," he said.
And before Hotohori could think to respond, he was gone.
The palace was quiet.
The court members were detained, and there was a hush over the newly stationed Kutou soldiers. The old Konan guard were dead. Hotohori was given a set of rooms, and told, quite respectfully, to ready himself for negotiations. The man who gave the order, one of the soldiers who had held him earlier, refused to look into his eyes.
These rooms were delicately furnished and meant for a woman, but the clothing that was brought to him was his own, and he was dressed by his own servants, who were doing their best to remain calm. Hotohori murmured a reassurance to them, and felt a returned sense of composure. He was dressed in his full court costume, the inner robe snug and tastefully decorated, the outer, made from expensive orange silk, was heavily embroidered over with red designs. The sleeves were wide in the traditional style; the obi was extravagant and stiff-bowed at the back.
Hotohori stood before the full-length mirror and, while contemplating his reflection, he began to think.
The empires of Konan and Kutou were traditional enemies; for as long as Hotohori could remember, Kutou had gazed hungrily across the border, desiring to add mighty Konan to the growing list of provinces and smaller, independent nations it had swallowed up over the years.
Four months ago, out numbered, and fighting with weaponry against magic, Hotohori's army had teetered on the edge of defeat--but before it was crushed completely, Kutou's greatest shogun, Nakago, had seized control of fully one hundred thousand Kutou troops and turned them away from the battle. Hotohori's men, given new hope, had fought off the few Kutou soldiers remaining in the field. And Nakago had taken his hundred thousand, and with them he had invaded Kutou's Imperial City, killing Kutou's Emperor and claiming Kutou's throne as his own.
Camped with his men on the battlefield, exhausted but undefeated, Hotohori had received ambassadors from Nakago who had told him that the new ruler in Kutou City desired an end to the hostilities with Konan.
A miraculous turn of events, though after today, the ambassadorial declaration had lost much of its credibility. It now looked a long-reaching coup that included this later, underhanded invasion of Konan.
Hotohori turned his head to view his profile. His hair was loose. Pretty, but a blatant snub to protocol. He was never seen in an incomplete costume, unless it was in his own rooms, by the very servants who were dressing him. Without a headdress, he felt curiously exposed. And yet, one had not been provided for him. Was the lack supposed to humiliate him, he wondered? If so, it was destined to fail. Miserably. He was too well aware of his own grace, and composure. His authority was in-built, it resided in the very air he breathed, not the trappings, the curlicues of wealth and power. He was a prisoner, but he would not give in to Nakago. Take away the clothing, the jewellery, the palace; he would never be less than the Emperor.
Hotohori turned, a little reluctantly, away from the mirror.
"Take me to the shogun," Hotohori said to the guard who attended him. "I will see him now."
Nakago looked surprisingly relaxed, stripped down to shirt and pants; his bulky armour with all its spiked, dangerous features was gone. He sat, legs crossed, one arm draped over the back of his chair. His cold blue eyes, subtly approving, fixed immediately on Hotohori. "I can see why he made his fatal mistake," he murmured, and gestured for Hotohori to enter.
Hotohori hesitated. Nakago's words triggered an uneasy recollection of the fight, of the blade that had rested in his hand, of Akiko's choked out death and of the men who would have raped him, if he'd been a woman. The comfort of the stiff, embroidered silk that he now wore did nothing to wipe away the memory; it lay like a greasy sheen over the clean civility of this meeting.
Slowly, he came forward.
"People underestimate you, don't they," said Nakago.
"I hope not," said Hotohori.
"I underestimated you. I should have known you'd have a head for battle. When Konan went to war four months ago, you did more damage to my army than I thought was possible."
"The men under my command were fighting courageously for their lives, and their homes," Hotohori said.
"They were effective because their leader was a great fighter, and an excellent strategist," said Nakago, and Hotohori was startled to feel heat prickle its way across his cheeks. He was accustomed to flattery, but not of this kind. Praise he garnered tended to centre around his youth, his good looks. Rarely was he complimented for such a thing as strategy, or prowess in battle.
He guessed I'd be susceptible to this, thought Hotohori, forcing his mind to caution. He understood why he was here.
Nakago said, "You killed Akiko, didn't you."
Nakago pushed himself from the chair and advanced, a casual strolling that seemed incidental, though it focused intently on Hotohori. "I should congratulate you," he said. "Except to me, she's never lost a fight to a man before."
He was more imposing close up. His ki was palpable. It sharpened the air. And he was--at least superficially--attractive. That made the proximity easier on Hotohori, who possessed a lingering and rather childish aversion to physical ugliness.
But there was tension nonetheless, sourced in Nakago's power, and in his slow, speculative appraisal.
Was this how the Emperor of Kutou had felt? Nakago's betrayal must have taken him equally by surprise. But Nakago had killed Kutou within moments of entering the city. He hadn't taken off his armour and invited Kutou to dress in robes and face him privately. That was unthinkable. Nakago was a soldier. And a soldier who removed his armour was a man hinting at a different self. A man of the world , and of worldly indulgences. Food, drink, intimacy.
"I regret her death," said Hotohori.
Nakago's gaze was heavy and indulgent. "So Konan's Emperor is charitable as well as dangerous," he said.
Hotohori's cheeks grew hotter.
"I'd heard a lot of stories about you," Nakago said. "Pretty Hotohori-sama--the girl-faced boy Emperor. I thought I'd find you at worst a weakling, painted and ridiculous. At best, a boy with no more than the good sense to listen to his advisers."
Nakago tightened the orbit of their bodies. Unnerved, Hotohori clasped his hands tightly in front of himself. He tried not to twist his head to follow Nakago's progress. He tried to stand firm.
"Instead, you're last thing I expected." Nakago dropped the murmur almost over Hotohori's shoulder, his voice rich with praise. "You're a man," he said, and Hotohori felt the words drive themselves deep into his flesh, unlocking something gratified and primal. It was inevitable, really, that Nakago's hands slide in beneath his expensive robes, like a lover caressing breasts that weren't there--instead the tightly muscled torso of a young fighter. "Or is there something of a woman in you after all . . . ?"
Hotohori pulled sharply away, too clever not to realise that the warlord, who had gained renown as a brilliant tactician, was also a consummate manipulator. And that this seduction--for seduction it was, undoubtedly, though its true nature had yet to be revealed as sexual or political--was more dangerous than any encounter that might take place on the field.
"I don't share the perversion of the former Emperor of Kutou," Hotohori said, coldly.
A soft laugh was the unexpected response. "You're lying," said Nakago.
"I'm not a--"
"You're lucky I killed Kutou," Nakago continued in that same, slightly amused tone, without apparent interest in Hotohori's denial. "I think he would have sold his entire family into slavery for an hour alone in a room with you. He dreamed of breaking your country. But I'll tell you something you didn't know--" A smile appeared on Nakago's face, but it was a deadened, smug expression. It didn't reach his heavy lidded eyes. "Four years ago, when you were propped up on Konan's throne, your major support came from across the border. Without the assistance you received from Kutou, you would have lost your inheretance before you claimed it, to the general, Korechiko."
Hotohori ignored his discomfort, and tried to take the information in stride. It was, after all, a tactic similar to the caress, geared to unease him. But it attacked unexpectedly, and on a crucially different front. How many years has he been planning for this? Hotohori wondered, only now becoming aware of the might of the opponent he was facing. How much does he know? Taking Nakago's true measure was frightening. Hotohori weighed the triumphs of a boy gifted with a throne against those of a man who had begun with nothing, and through the force of his will alone now held the fate of two empires in his hands.
"Korechiko died in a skirmish in one of the villages." It was a cautious claim.
"Yes, I know. I killed him," said Nakago.
"Do you want to know why?"
"Yes," said Hotohori, holding Nakago's gaze.
"A weak Emperor in Konan was an advantage to Kutou. I disposed of the man so that Kutou could install the boy he wanted on the throne. " Nakago's eyes showed some amusement. "He wanted you."
"You say this to insult me," said Hotohori, hotly, but uncertain now. Uncertain. He'd thought he'd known why Nakago had brought him here.
"No. You must know how you triumphed, in those first months. You surprised everyone."
Hotohori opened his mouth to speak, but was left, frowning, with no objections, only the strong sense that he was being outmanoeuvred somehow. The pattern of revelation and flattery was applying terrible pressure to the cracks in his self control. And he was acutely conscious that he was alone with a powerful soldier who seemed to have assumed as a matter of course that he desired men, and not women. His skin still prickled where Nakago had touched him.
He wished his hair was not loose, and that Nakago was not facing him so casually.
"Why tell me this now?" he demanded, finally, awkwardly.
Nakago drew closer, and the impression intensified, charged with cold authority. His eyes were two chips of ice over which his lids hung, almost lazily. There was no disguising the breadth and power of his shoulders, which in turn was nothing to the force of his ki. Nakago was overwhelming. It was difficult to be alone like this with him.
His ki is strong because of Seiryuu, Hotohori thought, trying to censure his reaction as Nakago came closer still. Hotohori said, "You have control of the palace, but there are still many troops in Konan who will resist your conquest, forcefully."
"You are probably trying to coerce me into some kind of surrender--if I am killed, you will face opposition. If I give in to you, this country's remaining loyalists will be left with no cause to fight for."
Nakago fitted his body into the space opposite Hotohori's. "Am I treating you like a deposed Emperor?"
It was too intimate. Hotohori spoke, for the first time, a little roughly. "No, you treat me more like an Emperor's wife, someone to be impressed and intimidated by--"
He broke off, with a sharp intake of breath.
Nakago had reached out to stroke Hotohori's cheek, a caress that was at violent odds with the power of his ki. "If you were the Emperor's wife," he said softly, "I would not have wasted my breath. I would simply have killed your husband and taken you to my bed. What better way to seal a claim to Konan's throne than to get my heir on the Emperor's widow . . . pity you're not a woman."
"You go too far," said Hotohori, almost sick with distaste. But he was flushed, too, and his revulsion did not annihilate his other emotions, it mingled with them, one more thread in a weave of confusion and burgeoning new anxiety.
"Do I?" said Nakago. Hotohori felt his heartbeat rise to become painful in his chest, but as his panic crested, Nakago turned away, looking nothing more than bored by proximity. "This is amusing, but pointless. I'm not here to bring about your overthrow."
Hotohori's breath was unsteady. He took a moment to recover. "I don't believe it."
"I can assure you. I haven't kept you alive out of generosity."
"I'm here to make you an offer."
"Offer?" Hotohori spoke derisively into the silence. "You have deceived me with false promises of peace, and have used magic to invade my city. What possible offer could you make that I would be willing to accept?"
Nakago was watching Hotohori with detached interest.
"Rule with me," he said, after a moment.
"I want Konan. But I'm not acquisitive enough to destroy you in order to simply take it--at least not yet."
Hotohori was stunned, and somewhere in his head a concern whispered that he'd been shocked, manipulated and unbalanced to the point where he might actually accept such a crazy suggestion. But the sensible parts of his mind must still have been functioning, because he managed to object, quite rationally, "Why not? You destroyed the Emperor of Kutou."
Nakago paused. "That was a necessity. But you, I would regret killing. After all, our purposes are not so different, and with our countries united, and our wills bent to the same task--"
"I--I need time to think," Hotohori began, overwhelmed.
"You don't have it. I require that you choose now. Tonight."
"Because I'm not in the mood to indulge your whim to stall, or escape."
"And if I refuse?"
"I will overcome regret, and kill you."
Nakago's solid dispassion made the words into a flat statement of fact. A cold pause ensued. Hotohori lifted his chin.
"I'm not afraid of death," he said.
Nakago held his gaze. "No, I know you are not. Your greatest concern has always been for your people. You are, after all, a Seishi. Your desire to protect others is very strong."
"Then you'll also know that, if I am to agree to this alliance, you will have to convince me of its value, and not attempt to coerce me with ineffective threats."
The amusement in Nakago's eyes deepened. "I don't make ineffective threats. You may not fear death, but you do fear the unknown . . . particularly the thought of what I will do to your country, when you are no longer alive to stop me. Ah," he said, the word heavy with satisfaction, "at last you have begun to think this through."
"You already control my city," said Hotohori. "Why would you be willing to give up any of that power? What guarantee do I have that you won't make me merely a figurehead? A puppet-Emperor?"
"You were fourteen when you climbed onto that throne. Your ministers were corrupt, and your country was under threat. You carved a place for yourself. Alone. Against all expectations. Against all odds. Do you think I don't understand that kind of ambition? I respect your talents too much to keep you like a bird in a cage. Take my offer. You will retain the full measure of your authority."
The words were spoken without emotion, but they filled Hotohori with a powerful sense of possibility. And all this time, Nakago had been addressing Hotohori respectfully, but as a Seishi, not as the Emperor. A tactic, another tactic, yet despite stern self-admonition, Hotohori found his loneliness responding to it. Friendship between equals was something he had never experienced before. Friendship? Is that what you think he's offering you?
"I can't trust you," Hotohori said. "You gave Kutou's Emperor your loyalty, but betrayed him the moment it suited your purposes."
"Kutou was a fool. You demean yourself with a comparison to him."
Hotohori was almost dizzy. He was running out of objections. He tried to think.
Was this alliance something he would agree to under normal circumstances? Possibly. Possibly, if the terms were beneficial to Konan, and the motives behind the alliance were pure.
These were not normal circumstances.
What did Nakago want?
"I--there is a conflict. My responsibility is to the Suzaku no Miko --"
"Look at me," said Nakago. "I waited a long time in Kutou's palace for the girl with the power to summon Seiryuu--just as you wait for the Miko to summon Suzaku. But she never came, and I made a choice. Now the time has come for you to choose. Are you going to wait for her forever? To jeopardize everything we could have, for a Miko that your people no longer want--or need?"
Battered by the cold strength of Nakago's gaze, Hotohori had the sudden sense that this man's whim could destroy the world .
"I'm a Suzaku Seishi," he said, feeling a chill run the length of his spine.
"Then tell me, where is she?" Nakago asked, flatly. "Your enemy has his hand around the throat of your nation. Where is your Miko , Hotohori?" Silence, then after a moment, Nakago glanced away, saying, "I'm losing patience with this. Choose. Believe that the animal gods still care about their people--if you must. Believe that you haven't been abandoned by Suzaku. It doesn't change your position. Choose. You have the power to make us enemies, or friends."
Later, Hotohori would rationalise it this way: He wanted to protect Konan. Nakago was not proven to be entirely untrustworthy. And Nakago's offer was one which would benefit two countries, both weaker than they should be, recovering from the war.
But the truth of it lay elsewhere. Nakago's manner had worked on an unexpected part of Hotohori. A human part, a part that longed for the Miko because of an old, stupidly whimsical wish.
He was going to say yes.
He had, for just a moment, a strange and profound sense of the decision. With this alliance, he would be stepping into the unknown, into a new era, one--he hoped--of prosperity and peace. He felt the excitement of uncertainty and new challenge, but also a hint of nostalgia--for Suzaku, and for the Miko , and the way he'd dreamed it might have been.
"What's a Seishi without a Miko ?" Hotohori found himself asking; a sad, rhetorical question to dispell the feeling from his chest.
And Nakago answered him, "He is a man who must create his own destiny."
Hotohori looked into Nakago's eyes, and feeling that blaze of strength he was left without words, without breath.
Nakago must have seen the decision in his face, because he smiled with the preremptory satisfaction of one who has known, all along, what the reply to his offer would be.
"Here," he said, close to Hotohori's ear. "You're not fully dressed.
Let me call a servant to bind up your hair . . . "