A World Without A Miko
Chapter two, by !Super Cat
"--restrained in a servant's quarters while they ransacked my rooms--"
The governor of Nan province was a large man with a large voice. The gruff ring of his words seemed better suited to a soldier barking orders on a battlefield than a politician listing petty grievances, but he had fixated on his own, personal mistreatment early in this council session, and was pursuing the subject with determination.
Hotohori blinked at him delicately, once, twice. He was listening to Nan with a polite, slightly enquiring expression on his face. It was the same expression that he had been wearing for the last two hours. He was carefully arranged on the throne, clothed in stiff silks and an ornate headdress, his feet encased in embroidered slippers. There was little to nothing he could do to stop Nan's recitation. He was ceremonial in function, above the petty to-and-fro of debate. His word was the final word only.
The nine men who formed the imperial council had been Hotohori's closest advisors before the war. During the campaign, Hotohori had encouraged them to discuss strategy as a group and in his presence. He had tried to foster an atmosphere in which each of them felt he could speak his thoughts freely, and the habit had held even after the battle. Hotohori understood that the ideas that emerged during these sessions, argued into shape by a group, might never spring from the mind of a single man. He valued his council and he respected his councillors, the youngest of whom was still more than twice his own age.
"--several valuable screens, ruined, one vase, a gift from the Emperor's esteemed family, destroyed, my daughter's favourite--"
Today he felt trapped by his customary silence. The arguments of his ministers were like the buzzings of a hundred flies, and he was locked up in a hot, stuffy room with them. He wished he could rise to his feet and put an end to the discussion with the strident force of a single command.
That was what Nakago would have done; the thought insinuated itself.
"The point Nan is circling," Shurakan interrupted; he was a scholar, with sleepy eyes and a smooth, persuasive voice, "is that it is difficult to believe in any alliance that begins with the loss of property and the loss of life." He glanced sideways as he spoke, at the man sitting silent at his left, Kojirou, whose youngest sister had been killed during Nakago's occupation of the palace. The shogun's conquest had been swift and bloody. Hotohori's mind flashed to the shocking speed of it; the scattered bodies, the attack on his own person. He wondered if Nakago's men had given the girl a clean death. He wondered if they would have given him one, there in that corridor, once they'd torn off his clothes and discovered that he was not a woman.
Kojirou's sister had been sweet-faced, with long, pale green hair and large brown eyes. Hotohori had known her. Known of her. She had arrived at the palace three years ago, her manners shy and awkward. She'd been one of the prettier ladies that his ministers had used to tempt him to wed. Hotohori had been fifteen then, and she, at the oldest, twelve.
"We've all lost family to Kutou," called a voice from the far end of the table. There were rumbles of assent. "Every man at this table."
"Do not dwell on the past. Nakago is not Kutou." Another voice, gravelly with age. Hotohori hid his surprise. General Haran was an unexpected man to rise to the defence of Nakago.
"Nakago has certainly been more successful than Kutou," said Shurakan, his mildness deceptive. "And in a shorter time."
Haran said, "It's true that every man here has lost family to Kutou. My own son died at Chou village, and five thousand soldiers with him. Chou is a gutted ruin now, and it stands on Kutou's side of the border. But there are other villages and I have another son and two daughters, and I will not throw away what's left when we now have a chance of peace."
"Who says we have peace?" Nan challenged him, still nursing his own minor grievances. In his voice you could practically hear the affronted words torn screens, broken vases, ransacked rooms.
"The Emperor." Haran's aged voice never wavered.
"Both of them," came Shurakan's polite reminder. Lashes lowered over his sleepy eyes. "Let's not forget. The phoenix now flies with the dragon."
Hotohori felt his expression changing.
"Peace!" The rhythm of debate was broken. Kojirou, who had been silent all this while, rose to his feet, an unthinkable act that threw shock onto the faces of the other councillors. He was trembling with suppressed emotion. There were a few gasps from the oldest councillors, including Haran, and one or two of them--those who remembered the hard days of Konan's third emperor--even turned nervously to look at the soldiers by the door. "They slit her throat in the hallway outside the rooms that our family has occupied for a hundred years--you call that an act of peace? Four months ago, Konan was a proud nation that spilled it's blood on the battlefield, fighting for independence. We resisted any attempt at conquest by Kutou! Now the entire country spreads it's legs because Nakago makes love to the capital? This is no alliance. This is Konan silent and submissive while Kutou holds a sword to its throat!"
"Enough!" Hotohori's command rang out over the hall. His heart was pounding. This had gone too far. As he spoke, he stood, one smooth motion.
The reaction was instantaneous. Eight of the nine men pushed away from the table, and prostrated themselves on the floor.
Kojirou, shaking from the force of his own words, remained standing. He stared defiantly down the length of the table at Hotohori.
It was madness. Kojirou seemed to realize it. When he heard a sound, metal against metal, he whirled, desperately, too late. The two guards who had detached themselves from the wall were already upon him. Impervious to his struggles, they pushed Kojirou down onto the ground. Hotohori watched with a hammering heart and an impassive countenance as Kojirou was forced to kneel, his forehead pushed roughly down to touch the floor. He didn't go easy. Resistant tension bunched in his muscles, and there was black anger in his eyes.
"From this moment," said Hotohori, "the Empires of Konan and Kutou are one. Any insult to that country is an insult to this one."
Immediate assent rang out from every voice in the room. But Hotohori was gazing out at the bowed heads of his ministers with his thoughts swimming. He was already thinking, No. Stupid. He had reacted wrongly. With anger instead of clear-headed calm. The ceremony uniting Konan and Kutou wasn't scheduled for another nine days, grace time, but the pronouncement he had just made was immutable. Beneath his ornate and concealing robes, Hotohori was trembling.
"The guards will remain. The rest of you may leave. We will resume this discussion another time."
Too brusque. He'd been too close to snapping, Get out. Go.
It was three days since Nakago's troops had taken the palace, and the so-called peace was as fragile as thin, new-formed ice; the cold, black water of internal dissent that lay beneath was already threatening them all. Hotohori stayed with the guards and their unlikely prisoner, waiting for the room to empty and his thoughts to settle a little. His actions now would set a clear precedent. He knew he could not ignore these first cracks in the ice. But how could he possibly punish the Konan loyalists? Doing so would mean alienating his strongest allies and surrounding himself with men who were loyal only to Nakago.
For a long moment, Hotohori studied the man before him. Kojirou was a dark-haired noble whose solid bulk, now twisted in the restraining hands of Hotohori's guards, was very different to the slender grace of his sister. Kojirou had always been strong, and in the final days of the war, his simple advice had been invaluable.
Hotohori submitted to instinct. Ignoring both imperial protocol and the imperial guards, he knelt before the man who--had he taken his minister's long-ago advice--might have been his brother-in-law. The red silk of his robes settled like bright water over the polished floor. One of the guards maintained his facade. The other was staring at Hotohori in open astonishment.
"You may look up," said Hotohori softly to Kojirou.
The look he received in thanks for this leniency was venomous.
Hotohori said, "I am not going to have you executed, nor stripped of your rank and title. You are loyal: to your family's memory and to Konan Empire, if not, at this moment, to your Emperor."
A flash of confusion in Kojirou's eyes. Surprise. But he spat out, "A man should never have to choose between his country and his Emperor," and the venom was still there, riding on churning anger and the grief of a sister's death.
"I agree," said Hotohori.
The confusion deepened.
Still ignoring the guards, Hotohori placed his hand on Kojirou's cheek, feeling heat blossom beneath his touch. A strange moment: it was the kind of caress that a father might use to reassure a child, and yet, young, beautiful Hotohori was still considered a boy by so many, while Kojirou was a man grown past his prime. It was obvious that Kojirou was struggling with something.
When he had first claimed the throne, Hotohori had done it like this, winning the various nobles over to him one by one. It was a different kind of power he was using now, the temptation to explore it like the drag of a constant undertow.
"Say it," Hotohori encouraged Kojirou, steadily.
"Why have you surrendered us to such a man!" It was a burst of the confusion in Kojirou's eyes. The venom was almost gone.
Hotohori surprised himself with his own vehemence. "You're wrong. As long as I am alive, there will never be a surrender of Konan to Kutou."
Hotohori said, "I can only ask for your trust. The dragon has always been strong. Now it is closer than ever before. It must be respected, even feared. But the dragon will respect our dignity only if we preserve it. Kojirou . . . "
He was so tired of ruling a nation constantly under siege, he longed for the kind of peace that Nakago had promised, which now seemed like the kind of peace that only a fool would believe in. He wanted to say, Suzaku was never meant to be a god of fighting.
Instead, he said, "I am so sorry to have lost your sister."
That, in the end, was all it took. Kojirou, emotion welling in his eyes, prostrated himself as deeply as was possible, his forehead to the floor.
Hotohori thought, I have won him back.
But for how long?
A pagoda overlooked the series of small lakes that decorated Konan's palace grounds. The view in the early evening was one of water turned to fire by the orange light of the setting sun. At night, the lakes were shadows mediated by the distant lights from the palace, and the moon tracing a silver path over the water. Inside the pagoda, lanterns illuminated long curves of red painted wood. It was peaceful and elegant, the perfect place for lovers, or outside court for a lady and her maids.
But the pagoda was always left deserted, because the entire court, including the guards positioned discreetly along the end of the walkway, knew that it was the place where the Emperor went to be alone.
As alone as he could be, considering the guards, and the proximity of the palace, and the fact that he was after all still inside the walls of the Imperial City.
Hotohori reached the railing and looked out over the water. It was silent as always. In the past, the view had made him feel a little sad, but at the same time calm and peaceful. Tonight, he felt only a subtle and pervasive disquiet. It was the same view, the same lake and the same water. But something had changed. The palace buildings were a series of shining lights in the distance, the centre of Konan, the thousand year empire. But inside the palace, the dragon banner flew beside the phoenix, and Kutou soldiers had replaced Konan guards.
The words spoken in council rang in Hotohori's ears. More successful than Kutou, and in a shorter time.
Hotohori clenched his fists under the long sleeves of his robe. All that had seemed so certain in Nakago's presence was fading to doubt and suspicion. Hotohori's lords had been released and the imperial council had reconvened, but the imperial city had not regained it's autonomy. Nakago's military grip on the capital had, if anything, tightened. Hotohori's growing fear was that he had, after all, been duped. Seduced in all but the most literal way. And even that Nakago had--
No. No. To that, at least, Hotohori had made his objection clear.
He was no innocent. He heard the whisperings and suspicions of his ministers. He knew that his looks left people with a certain impression. Across the border, the former Emperor of Kutou had married only to scorn his wife and indulge a taste for young boys. But Hotohori had always ignored the rumours, using ingenuousness to rise above all that was said about him. He used the same tactic to avoid the constant traps, subtle and otherwise, that his ministers laid to get him to marry. I'll only marry a woman more beautiful than I am, he'd sighed extravagantly, and that had given him a little peace, bought him a little time. While his ministers had tied themselves into knots trying to find a candidate who would not insult the Emperor's beauty, Hotohori had been free to remain faithful to his almost religious ideal: the girl from another world.
But the insinuation had always been there. And now . . .
Now the entire country spreads it's legs because Nakago makes love to the capital.
Hotohori's mind, which should have been focused on the intricacies of his empire's new situation, was returning again and again to the unsettling emotions of that night. He recoiled from the seduction. But what also remained with him was a sense of very personal power; to be the object of desire meant power. He had experienced the same feeling tonight, wooing loyalty from Kojirou. He felt a shadow of it whenever someone flattered his vanity.
But Nakago hadn't done that, exactly. He hadn't commented on Hotohori's looks except in the most matter-of-fact way. He had looked Hotohori in the eye and talked to him like a man. His seduction attempt hadn't been oblique, cautious or obsequious, as others had been. It had been dangerous and confronting.
You're a man. Rule with me. Or is there something of a woman in you after all?
Stop it, Hotohori told himself, trying to force it out of his mind.
Because the most important questions were still unanswered. If Nakago truly desired equal rule, why had he invaded the palace with soldiers and weapons? Kojirou had been correct to suggest that a forced alliance was no alliance: it was closer to vassalry. So why had the shogun done it this way? What were his long term thoughts and ambitions? Unconsciously, Hotohori placed his hand on the railing, smoothing it along the length of the wood. He let the breeze touch his face, and closed his eyes.
What was Nakago thinking about right now?
Hotohori started at the sound of footsteps, and turned with his heart suddenly in his throat, half expecting that his thoughts of Nakago had conjured him out of the air. But instead of Nakago's unmistakable silhouette, he saw two less inspiring figures bowing and approaching him from the entrance of the pagoda. It was the stocky governor of Nan provence and the scholar, Shurakan, two men who were different in everything from appearance to manner to politics. Nan's bulk blocked the entryway, while Shurakan's curved nose threw a shadow that lengthened and shortened in flickering spurts, with the lantern flame.
Nan cleared his throat roughly. "Emperor, we must speak with you."
At the same moment, Shurakan began, "Emperor, forgive us for interrupting your solitude, and approaching you on such a personal matter--"
"It's not that personal." Nan frowned at Shurakan, who frowned back. Each evidently believed that the other was going about this the wrong way.
"Please, continue," said Hotohori, carefully smoothing his face and looking from one to the other.
Shurakan only got as far as whetting his lips before Nan said bluntly, "You're eighteen, Emperor. It's past time you were married."
For a moment Hotohori could only stare at them in shock. This, even now? He blinked once, and cast around himself helplessly for some way to respond.
"An imperial wedding has been the fondest wish of your people since you ascended heaven's throne," said Shurakan. "There has never been a lady equal to your famous--requirements--but there has never been a lovelier candidate than we wish to present to you now. She is more beautiful than any woman in the four lands." Shurakan, glaring at Nan, unwittingly gave Hotohori a moment to recover from the ambush.
"Is she more beautiful than I am?" Hotohori asked innocently, his robes sliding a little from his shoulders. Nan began to stutter. But Shurakan's smooth voice overrode him as easily as it had in the council room. He had obviously prepared for the famous question.
"Emperor, is the sea more beautiful than the sky? Such different beauties as yours were not made to be placed in competition. Rather, they were made to complement one another."
"Were they? I prefer the sky," murmured Hotohori, his gaze returning to the nightview. The sky was Suzaku's province, and his own. The mark on his neck that had flared to life only once, in his childhood, was the kanji for hoshi: stars. The heavens were familiar. His sheltered life in the Imperial City meant that he'd never seen the sea.
"What's this one's name?" asked Hotohori.
"Her name is Kourin, Emperor." Nan, hurriedly. "The Lady Kourin. And she is--"
"Why is this so important now?"
Nan hit a wall of silence. Most ministers would have. Unfortunately, Shurakan's superior wits made him surprisingly bold. He drew closer, and murmured almost in Hotohori's ear. "To stand beside Nakago," he said, "you will need not only independent strength, but also the appearance of independent strength, which a marriage will provide."
"You are saying that I do not appear independent now." Frowning.
"Emperor, forgive us. We know your ability. But as long as you are unmarried, there will be those who see Nakago as a man of power, and you as merely . . . "
The words trailed off, and then there was only the distant sounds of night time and water. It was not a new argument. Hotohori had heard it time and time again, in the days when his opponent had been, not Nakago, but Kutou. He had proved himself a man by other means. Or thought he had.
"Emperor, at least meet with her," said Nan, quickly.
Hotohori wasn't really listening. "Do you know why I never wished to marry?" he said softly. He was distantly aware of Nan and Shurakan exchanging looks.
"It was because I thought . . . " Hotohori said, the night breeze cool against his face. "I always thought . . . " As a very young boy he had been raised on tales of the Miko, the strange-clothed girl from another world. She had grown in his mind until she had become the dream of all he lacked, a playmate when he had none, a confidante when he could turn to no one. Hotohori was beautiful and he was the Emperor, but as much as he took a naive pleasure in his looks, he had always longed for someone to see something more in him. Who could show him there was something more, and to whom he could give that little he presumed he had. His heart, over and above his face and his throne.
He had been in love with the Miko for as long as he could remember, but what he had loved was a child's wish, no more real than the dreams he sometimes remembered upon waking.
And that's what he was doing now, wasn't it? He was waking up.
"It doesn't matter," he said, just as softly. "I'll meet with lady Kourin tomorrow, as you wish."
Nan and Shurakan were bowing and retreating, and Hotohori turned his gaze back to the water. His councillors were right. It was past time to put aside boyhood fantasy. To become a man. To face Nakago as one. Tomorrow he would meet with Kourin.
And tomorrow I will meet with Nakago, he thought, and I will have cast aside my Miko for the second time.
In fact, Nakago was waiting for him when he returned to his rooms.
Hotohori later told himself that he should have noticed the absence of servants, but his solitary mood had dulled his awareness of other people a little. It was only when he pushed his outer garments from his shoulders and stood unattended in the flimsiest of coverings that he became aware that his rooms were far quieter than usual. He turned, feeling his shoulders prickling with the sensation of another ki, one that was by now familiar and unmistakable.
He flushed when Nakago's gaze ran the length of his body. Flushed with indignation. Nakago did not have permission to be here. But of course no one would have dared stop him entering, especially not after Hotohori's pronouncement this afternoon. Dismissed by Nakago, Hotohori's servants would have scuttled away into their holes like mice fleeing a cat. And as simply as that, he and Nakago were alone together, a circumstance that Hotohori had spent the last three days trying to avoid.
"What do you want?" Hotohori asked, coolly. "And can it wait until morning? In Konan, when the Emperor retires to his rooms, it's a sign to the palace that he isn't to be disturbed."
"In Kutou, the Emperor doesn't wait until morning for anybody."
"You're not in Kutou," said Hotohori.
"That's no longer strictly true."
Hotohori felt a surge of anger at those words, and it left him at a loss for what to do. He knew it was irrational to object to Nakago when he had already agreed to the alliance, and more than that, believed in it, or so he told himself. And yet, there was this feeling, overwhelming, a mixture of frustration, impotence and outrage.
He waited a moment for calm to return to him, and when it came, he met Nakago with a smooth, practised expression on his face. "You're right. Our nations are to be united formally. One obstacle to our alliance remains, however, as my council went to some lengths to demonstrate today."
"Obstacle?" said Nakago, dangerously.
"You," said Hotohori. "The manner of your occupation is straining courtesy. Now seems as good a time as any to discuss this, since you're here."
Nakago remained impassive. "Is this how you normally open discussions?" Nakago's eyelids barely flickered, but he meant the clothes, that much was clear.
Hotohori blinked, delicately. "Oh--do you mind?" His tone was innocent, as if it hadn't occurred to him that anyone would mind, or why they would mind. At the same time, he was perfectly well aware of what he looked like; a boy barely clad in a wisp of a tunic that threatened at any moment to slip from his body, eyes grey-hazel and guilelessly amenable, long, dark hair spilling over his shoulders.
The combination of charm and bland delivery was powerful. He'd watched it confound his ministers, rendering them speechless, time after time.
"Not really." Nakago whirled off his cape, pitching it without preamble onto the bed. Hotohori stared, helplessly. Nakago's actions were distressingly casual. The cape was a purple splash on the coverings, like a stain of spilled wine. Hotohori stared at it. Then he stared at Nakago. The shogun was once again dressed only in pants and a shirt, the top laces of which were coming a little untied now that he had removed his cape. His extraordinary golden hair gave the impression of youthful delicacy where there was none to be found . . . or was there? Hotohori realized with a shock that Nakago, the most powerful military general in the four lands, could not be ten years his senior. Half of that, perhaps. Five years.
Only five years?
It should have made Nakago seem less imposing. It didn't. If a lion had padded into Hotohori's rooms and settled itself on his bed, fixing him with it's gaze, he would have felt more comfortable remaining alone with it. The look of cold calculation never truly left Nakago's eyes. A lion would have been less dangerous. It would have been distinctly less threatening.
"Since I'm here." Lips twisting slightly, Nakago nevertheless prompted him without a pause.
"I--" Hotohori seemed to have lost his advantage somewhere.
"Your council." A second prompt.
Hotohori narrowed his eyes. "No one can believe that this is an alliance when you have installed what appears to be Kutou's entire military force in the palace. So tell me--what is it?"
"You are very direct tonight." Nakago was giving the sleepy-eyed impression of someone who had ample opportunity to attack, but was now rather amused and choosing not to. "It's charming."
The frustration returned tenfold. "You--" began Hotohori, but was interrupted by a simple yet unbelievable question from Nakago.
"What do you want me to do, Hotohori?"
Hotohori's lips parted in surprise. Don't use my name, he wanted to say suddenly, because pitched in that soft, deep voice it was somehow far too personal. There hadn't been anyone in the palace for years who had called him by name. "Undo the damage you caused when you invaded this city. Offer an apology to those you've abused. Provide a gesture of good faith. And there are too many of your soldiers in the palace. Get rid of them."
After a moment, unbelievably, Nakago said, "All right."
"In exchange for," said Hotohori, thinking only to pre-empt. Then Nakago smiled, slowly, and Hotohori felt a strange flutter deep in his stomach, like the beginning of panic.
Nakago said, "When you came in, you asked what I want."
The panic burst hotly in his cheeks. Hotohori's eyes widened in surprise and he took an involuntary step backwards, but then cursed himself for a fool when he heard Nakago's soft laugh.
"You blush because you imagine that I want you," Nakago said, his gaze roaming slowly over Hotohori's body. Hotohori fought the impulse to try and make the scant material he was wearing stretch to cover himself further. "You are charming and perceptive."
Instead, he said, "I will not tolerate this assumption that--"
Nakago remarked, "The last time Suzaku and Seiryuu's Mikos appeared together was at the beginning of this war--do you know your history? At that time, one of your ancestors was a Seishi. Seiryuu also chose a man with imperial blood in his veins--the ancestor of Kutou. Two such powerful men, already in opposition, granted not only the privilege of birth but also an influence over the gods . . . and they started a war that lasted more than a hundred years. An interesting precedent, don't you think?"
Hotohori shot back, "Our nations were at peace. The fight you speak of was rekindled by your Emperor."
Ice blue eyes and sun-gold hair. "He was never my Emperor."
"You served him for ten years."
"Longer than that," said Nakago. "In fact what I wanted tonight was simply to voice my surprise over your pronouncement. An order issued this quickly is hardly going to win you the support of your nation."
"I don't need you to remind me of that." He almost snapped it.
"Don't you?" Calmly. "Good. I'll have what you asked
for prepared tomorrow." Nakago made to approach, and Hotohori took
another involuntary step back. But Nakago was merely moving to snag
up his cape. When he saw Hotohori's movement he paused, his gaze lingering. "It's always a pleasure, Hotohori."