A World Without A Miko
Chapter three, by supacat
Hotohori shifted again and again on the sheets, at first finding sleep difficult. When his eyes finally closed, it seemed he opened them again a moment later on an arid plain. He could see the horizon, distant and heat-hazed. The late afternoon sun hung in the sky, dark, heavy and orange. The only shelter in any direction was a small cluster of trees, to his right. He started walking.
He approached the trees warily, but when he reached them he was unsurprised to see that there was a girl sitting under the largest tree in the shade. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her exposed knees were dusty. She wore unfamiliar clothing.
Hotohori's heart was behaving strangely. The girl looked at him calmly, as if she knew him. A wind rose, swirling dust around him, lifting his hair, blowing it into his face so that he had to raise a hand to push at it and keep it back. The short brown skirt of the girl's strange clothing was fluttering.
"If you die here," she said tonelessly, "you can't ever go back." A moment later the words, the swirling dust, and the arid plain itself were whipped away as though by the wind.
Hotohori woke with uneasiness twisting in his stomach. The morning was heralded by weak sun against his tired eyes. It was not long after dawn. He did not want to face the day--or to face Nakago--unrested, but he knew that a return to sleep was impossible. His mind was full of strange thoughts.
It was not only the dream. Nakago's visit to his room last night had made relaxing difficult. After Nakago left him, Hotohori had summoned his absent servants, and begun the ritualised preparations for sleep. Yet he had not been able to look at his bed, let alone lie in it, without remembering the strident purple of Nakago's cape. Later, lying awake, he had pressed the back of his hand to his burning cheeks and attributed the flush to anger. He had forced himself to control his emotions and his breathing. He did the same now. He needed to focus.
He rose and called for his servants to bring him his clothes and his sword.
Hotohori had learned the sword under a series of stern-faced instructors, as a display art. The line of the sword thus, the angle of the arm thus, the fall of the sleeve thus. It wasn't until after his father's death--long after, sixteen and commanding soldiers on a battlefield for the first time--that he had first learned to kill.
He was not on display now. At this hour, the training courtyard was deserted.
Hotohori began the simplest of the forms he knew. It was eight movements and perfectly symmetrical.
As the forms grew more complicated, they lengthened and their symmetry began to break down. The last that he knew was ninety-six movements, asymmetric and exhausting. As he finished each one, he began the next, and by the time he completed the last he was breathing hard and sweat was dampening the line of his hair.
The line of his sword was unwavering, a matter of fierce pride.
He started again, from the beginning.
The grey sky to the east lightened to deep red, then to pink and orange. Hotohori's shadow became visible on the ground. He practiced, deep in thought. It seemed that the only way to counter Nakago's military was with his own. He must begin to draw troops back from the border provinces like Jinchu. That way force could be met with force. That way he could bargain from a position of power.
Gradually, he was becoming aware that he was being watched.
Eyes narrowing, Hotohori sheathed his sword in one smooth movement. Stillness hung in the air. Hotohori turned and unerringly walked to the edge of the training courtyard where, behind a lacquered screen that he pushed sideways, a boy of about fifteen with faded green hair was hiding. He looked harmless enough, but he was wearing a Kutou military uniform.
"I was just watching," said the boy. "I haven't done anything wrong, I swear!"
Hotohori said flatly, "What are you doing here?"
"I was looking for the Emperor," said the boy. "But then I saw you and--"
A blush spread across the boy's cheeks. The boy's skin was fair and his eyes were wide. Hotohori noticed. Hotohori noticed that the boy's uniform was impeccably kept and that his nails were perfect ovals. His irritation at the boy's presence began to slip away.
"You saw me and . . . ?"
"It's just," mumbled the boy, "you're so beautiful."
"Yes, everybody says that," said Hotohori, thinking, it's a lovely day, the sun is shining, and even Nakago's soldiers are charming.
Daring a glance, the boy continued, "I didn't think that women were allowed to fight in Konan."
There was a long pause.
"Why don't you give me your message?" said Hotohori, finally.
The boy's eyes grew wider with sudden comprehension. "Emperor!" he said, prostrating himself.
The courtiers entered first. Then came Hotohori's retinue, then Hotohori, taking his place upon the throne. However unlikely it seemed, Nakago was keeping the promise he had made to Hotohori last night. They were gathered to witness Nakago's 'reparations' to the people of Konan, whatever that might mean.
The raised balcony on which the court had assembled looked out onto an enormous open square. Gathered in the square below were rank upon rank of soldiers, two hundred men in total, all in Kutou uniform. It was a chilling sight, reminding Hotohori of how many of Nakago's men were now inside the palace. Yet those where were gathered here were just a fraction of the soldiers who manned the walls and the inner rooms. The weak sunlight gleamed on the crests of their helmets and the worked hilts of their swords.
The unease of the ministers was apparent. Hotohori was uneasy too, but better trained in not showing it. His public face was smooth and calm. He sat on the throne, the red silk of his robes settled and still around him.
He wished he knew what Nakago had planned. The uncertainty made him feel edgy and apprehensive; he did not relish the prospect of an unfolding public spectacle over which he had no control.
Nakago entered last of all, his wine-coloured cape flaring out behind him as he strode towards the throne. He had no entourage. He didn't need one. The power of his physical presence blazed around him. Left and right, Hotohori's courtiers were falling silent and stepping back, and moments later a direct path was cleared from Nakago to Hotohori.
Hotohori had noticed that for more formal occasions Nakago tended to dress in armour. Today he had left the armour behind and instead wore a version of his foreign garments. Was this in itself a gesture of conciliation? Nakago looked no less physically imposing.
Nakago stood before him. Hotohori was expecting a greeting. Instead, Nakago dropped to one knee unhesitatingly, and bowed his head.
Shocked murmurs and cries came from the ministers and courtiers.
Hotohori was unprepared for the effect that this sight was having on him. For here was a picture of perfect compliance and loyalty. Until the moment of betrayal, Hotohori reminded himself. The Emperor of Kutou had gazed down at Nakago's submissively bowed head countless times. Nakago was not, as his trappings might imply, a military leader bound by conventional honour. If Nakago had any honour code at all, it was as twisty as the dragon god he served, and highly personal.
"I humbly submit to your order," said Nakago, calmly. "Before our nations can be united formally, Kutou must repay the damage done to Konan."
There was a second outbreak of murmured shock from the gathered courtiers and court officials.
As he made his fantastic pronouncement, Nakago's face showed nothing; his blue eyes were obscured beneath his lowered lashes.
"What can repay a loss of life?" said Hotohori, suddenly wary. In fact, his heart was thundering.
"Nothing--" said Nakago, "--less than the lives of those who committed the offense."
An instant before Nakago gave the order, Hotohori realized what was about to happen.
"For the Emperor!" came the call, and the two hundred gathered soldiers, in a demonstration of loyalty and discipline, fell upon their swords.
Hotohori stood, an impotent reflex. He looked about himself for some way to stop or deny what was happening. What he saw shocked him. Nakago's face showed nothing, wiped clean of all expression, it had never looked so coldly beautiful. But it was the faces of his own ministers that chilled him. In the set of their mouths, he saw satisfaction. In their eyes, he saw approval. Approval of him, and of this order. Even on the battlefield, victorious in war, he had never won this kind of approval from them before.
In the square below, blood began to swell out over the pale stone.
"Any insult to Konan is an insult to Kutou," said Nakago, echoing Hotohori's words to his council. "The Emperor Saihitei has spoken."
Last night Hotohori had said, There are too many of your soldiers in the palace. Get rid of them. And Nakago had said, All right.
Bile rose in Hotohori's throat. He would never have asked for this--this blood-soaked hypocrisy, as two hundred soldiers died for broken vases while their commander closed his grip around a second throne. He understood the purpose of it clearly: the support of his own ministers now came as a gift in blood from Nakago's hand. Nakago, who was so secure in his own power that he offered Hotohori this horrific private chastisement, while simultaneously he generously increased Hotohori's public stature.
Hotohori stood at the edge of the raised dais, all eyes on him. "Emperor!" The approving cry went up from the gathered ministers and courtiers.
On the dais beside him, Nakago smiled.
"Accompany me to the northeast courtyard," Hotohori said to Nakago. "I would like to speak privately."
Nakago indicated his assent with the briefest nod.
"Leave us," said Hotohori to the few members of his court who were lingering. He saw Nan begin to move towards him, as though to say something, but Shurakan was shaking his head and drawing him off.
The northeast courtyard was hidden deep inside the palace. It was small, tranquil and solitary, rarely frequented by members of the court; its size and its inaccessibility made it an unappealing destination, especially when compared with the various elegant and much larger gardens scattered throughout the palace. Wooden walkways enclosed the courtyard and crossed diagonally over its centre, offering a path over a quiet trickle of running water. On one of these, Hotohori halted.
"You're trembling," said Nakago, his face dead of all expression. "Perhaps you are not well rested."
"They were your own men," said Hotohori. He had held everything contained until now. "How could you?" Emotion drove him to ask useless questions.
"The penalty for disobedience is the same as that for treason: death."
"Treason?" A disbelieving sound broke from Hotohori's lips. "You killed your own Emperor."
"You have a habit of objecting to my actions only after you have benefited from them." Nakago gazed at him impassively. "It was you who made this necessary. You were losing the support of your own ministers. This alliance would soon have been threatened with insurgence, by your own admission."
It felt like being struck. A double blow. Too much to absorb. It was true that he had benefited from Nakago's actions before as he had--benefited--unwillingly today. In those last days of the battle, with his troops dying around him, Hotohori had not even been able to remember a time of peace. He had known then that he would never survive, as he had dreamed, through faith, with the aid of Suzaku and the Miko, but only through his own ability to command and to kill. When the word had come that Nakago had murdered the Emperor in the palace and was offering truce, Hotohori had praised all four of the gods, light-headed with relief and sheer gratitude. In thanks, at that moment, he would have given Nakago anything.
Today's second gift of blood was small-scale by comparison. And it was nothing compared to the bloody homage that Nakago had performed for the Emperor of Kutou, in the days before he had seized the throne. There was a dark truth somewhere in all of this; Hotohori spoke before he had grasped more than the edge of it.
"Is this how you endeared yourself to the Emperor of Kutou? With butchery and bloodshed?" Nakago's expression changed. Hotohori had hit--something. He knew it as the words left his mouth. "I told you, I do not share his perversions. That kind of power revolts me. The price of it is too high."
"And yet, you have paid it," said Nakago. "This show of regret is very affecting. The flushed cheeks. The wet eyes. It suits you, which you know perfectly well."
"Let go," said Hotohori. Nakago had taken him by the wrist, a painful grip. "I said let go."
"But you're not that innocent of the price of power. No man is," said Nakago. "No Emperor." His voice was cold, and the expression in his eyes was once more unreadable. "Too dignified to struggle?" he said, dragging Hotohori inexorably closer, the steel grip to all intents effortless.
It was humiliatingly close to the truth. If he had a sword--
He wasn't wearing a sword. But Nakago was.
They were very close now. Hotohori's breathing was shallow. He forced himself to reach out with his free hand. His fingertips brushed the material of Nakago's shirt, first at his shoulder then sliding down over the planes of his chest. When he looked up into Nakago's face, he saw the familiar cold blue eyes gazing down at him. Fighting the tension in his body, part fear, part repulsion, Hotohori forced himself to move. His hand slid down to Nakago's waist. Beneath Nakago's shirt, he could feel the warmth of Nakago's hard body, the rise and fall of his breath.
Minutely, Nakago's grip on his wrist loosened.
In an economy of motion Hotohori's instructors would have commended, the sword was between them, deadly steel level with Nakago's neck.
"How dare you," Hotohori said, steadily.
Nakago's unwavering gaze held his own over the line of the blade.
"You're almost wasted on the throne," said Nakago. "You should have been a soldier."
Hotohori felt the blinding pain in his wrist a moment before he registered that it was the return of Nakago's fingers manacling it that was causing the pain there. The sword he held was twisted from his grasp and clattered over the wood of the walkway to lie six paces from where he stood.
His eyes followed its path helplessly, stupidly.
"Or a woman. You can make a man hard without even trying."
"Suzaku," gasped Hotohori as Nakago jerked him forward and caught his mouth in a crushing kiss.
Hard and dominating, it was like no kiss he had ever known. He made a desperate sound of protest and surged in Nakago's grasp, but the shogun had pinned Hotohori's wrists behind his back, and held all his movement contained.
Another helpless sound as the kiss razed him of thought. Somehow, his lips had parted and Nakago's tongue was inside his mouth. Nakago kissed like he was conquering territory. Hotohori's hands were released and they pressed at Nakago's chest. His only thought was one of resistance, but somehow his hands weren't striking Nakago or pushing him away. The kiss was undoing his reason. This was Nakago, Kutou's implacable general to whom he had sworn he would never surrender, the servant of the dragon god Seiyuu who only moments before had given the order for two hundred men to--to--
And in the next instant he was free of it, panting, the back of his hand pressed to his mouth. The courtyard was awash in a strong red light. It took Hotohori a moment to realize that the light was coming from the kanji on his own neck.
Nakago, who had been thrown back forcefully, was regarding him from several paces away with what looked like genuine surprise. "So," he said. "You can summon that kind of power."
"But that's enough," said Nakago, and briefly the kanji on his forehead glittered ice blue. Hotohori was close enough to recognize it this time: kokoro. Heart. Everything stopped. Suzaku's power was cut at the source, a feeling inside Hotohori like a candle had been snuffed out.
"Emperor!" called a voice before Nakago could say anything further. Hotohori turned, dazed and unready.
He saw a palace messenger emerge onto the walkway and begin making obeisances. He tried to gather himself together. But the feelings that Nakago had roused in his body wouldn't quiet. And he could feel Nakago's eyes on him; Nakago was watching him the way a slightly interested cat might watch a mouse.
"Forgive my intrusion," said the messenger.
"Forgiven," said Hotohori.
"The governor of Nan province humbly informs you that the lady Kourin and her retinue await your pleasure, Emperor."
Kourin? he thought, in the confusion forgetting his promise of the evening before. Then he remembered. Nan's candidate. The most beautiful woman in the four kingdoms, and his prospective bride. A kind of hysteria threatened.
"In a moment," he said. "A moment, and I'll see her."
"Those," said Shurakan, "who doubted your power over the shogun were proven wrong today."
Hotohori's foot missed a step on the wide, shallow stairs.
"Emperor," said Nan, "I hope you're well? You look a little flushed."
"I woke early this morning to train in the practice courtyard. Perhaps I overexerted myself."
Neither of the men would ever disagree openly with the Emperor, but there was a minute pause. Hotohori stopped and allowed his eyes to grow wide. "Is it unbecoming?"
"No, it's uh," said Nan. "It's--I mean, you always look, uh." It was Nan's turn to flush. "You're--extremely--"
"It's very attractive," said Shurakan, smoothly. "Ah. Here we are."
The lady's retinue began to file into the hall. Hotohori watched them, picking out the faces he knew, attempting to concentrate on the courtiers who made up this lady's faction.
Hotohori knew that in the search for candidates to present to their Emperor, the more powerful members of his court had thrown out a wide net, presenting Hotohori with ladies from within their own families first, then, when that failed, sponsoring ladies of lesser nobility who were low in birth but possessed of other more obvious charms. In the confusion of the last several days, he had not ascertained the identity of Kourin's supporters. He did not even know anything of her family. He felt unready. It was not only Nakago's--actions--that were unsettling him. This was premature. He wasn't ready to--
"The Lady Kourin," said Nan, and they brought her forward.
Then he saw her, and for a single moment he forgot everything, even Nakago.
Her skin was very pale, he noticed that first. Then her hair, which spilled down her back like perfumed silk, a hundred different shades of blue and violet. Beneath the material of her robes was the hint of a delicate figure. A beauty mark high on her left cheek drew the gaze to her demurely lowered lashes. Her eyes, like her hair, were multi-hued.
It wasn't desire, it was--surprise--and, following that, interest. Curiosity. For all Nan and Shurakan's posturing, he hadn't expected her to be this beautiful.
Ignoring the flurry of looks exchanged by the various members of her retinue behind their large sleeves, Hotohori said, "A little more privacy."
The offending courtiers and lesser retinue melted away; probably not far, but far enough to be invisible. Kourin sank to the ground in a practiced show of respect.
He gazed down at her. Her beauty produced a familiar reverie in him, as though he was gazing at his own reflection in a mirror.
He touched her sleeve and drew her back up. Startled at the intimacy, she jerked a little and her bare hand brushed his.
The sudden sense memory of Nakago's hands in his hair was so strong that Hotohori bit at the inside of his lip to keep from striking her. He found when he recovered from it that she had gone very still: his hand had risen to touch her face. His heart was beating faster. Nakago could do this to him effortlessly, it seemed. Nakago, it seemed, did not even have to be in the same room.
Kourin was shaking like a leaf in the wind. It was gratifying that he was more in control than she; it focused him, and gave him power. "You're trembling," he murmured, his eyes traveling over her face, taking in every sign of her nerves, of her helplessness.
Was this what it felt like to be Nakago?
"It's just . . . you're so beautiful, Emperor."
"Yes, everyone says that," said Hotohori.
He let her go; she slipped from his grasp and moved a few steps away, one of her hands resting on the carved stone balustrade of the stairs as if for support. She looked flustered and unsteady, her cheeks pink and her eyes on the floor.
"It is the wish of my closest advisors that we marry," said Hotohori.
The stone under Kourin's hand shattered into a hundred pieces.
"You are unexpectedly strong," remarked Hotohori, after a surprised moment.
"Um," said Kourin.
"Obviously, it was very old stone, ready to crumble at a touch," said Shurakan, appearing from out of nowhere, and Nan was there also, and Kourin was being led away, an older lady was steering her by the elbow.
Left alone, Hotohori lifted his hand absently to rub his neck. It was only then that he remembered the words he had read--was it only four days ago? It seemed like a lifetime.
An omen, to make his blood run cold.
In a time of danger, a kanji will appear on the neck of the crown prince. Then must you 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.