Miya Kiyokaizu sat and wrote by candlelight. Lanterns cast much more light, and would likely keep his eyesight from degenerating as his father’s had, but he had many memories of his father, the great Miya Shoin, writing in his study by candlelight, and it made Kiyokaizu feel closer to him by doing the same. The venerable Shoin had retired to a monastery and joined the Brotherhood some years ago, and Kiyokaizu missed him every day. It was just and proper for a samurai to retire to the Brotherhood, and Shoin was always a proper samurai, but it did not lessen his son’s loss, even though it filled his heart with pride that his father had led a life of duty and honor without thought of himself.
The whisper of the screen opening drew his attention from the scroll he was working on. He blinked several times and rubbed his left eye. Perhaps he should reconsider the lantern issue after all, he mused. He smiled at his wife as she entered. “Hello, dearest,” he said. “I thought you would already be asleep.”
“Perils of the job, husband,” she said with a smirk. “If you wanted a doting homebody, perhaps you should not have married one of your heralds.”
“I did not marry one of my heralds,” Kiyokaizu said with mock offense. “I married my finest herald.”
Sinjiko smiled. “Flattery is best served when delivered earlier in the evening, my lord,” she said, her eyebrows lifting playfully. “Sadly, it seems that work knows no rest, not even for the most pious of the Empress’s servants.” She lifted a small scroll and held it forward to him.
Kiyokaizu was surprised. “This came so late in the evening?”
“Carried by the Seppun guardsmen, bearing the seal of the Imperial Consort,” she confirmed. “I believe it may be the news you have been waiting on these latest weeks.”
The Miya daimyo took the scroll and unfurled it quickly, automatically confirming the chop that it bore with hardly a thought. He devoured the information within, his lips pursed in thought.
“Has the time come?” Sinjiko inquired.
“Iweko Setai sends word that his wife will emerge from her seclusion on the morrow,” Kiyokaizu offered. “How he comes by this knowledge I do not know, but there are many workings concerning the communication of the Empress’s needs that remain a mystery.” He shook his head. “In many ways, delivering her words to the remainder of the Empire is much simpler than the interpretation of her most holy wishes. In that I do not envy the Voice of the Emperor his duties.”
Sinjiko frowned slightly. “There is little that I would envy Kozan,” she said.
“Bear not ill will toward those whose station outranks our own,” Kiyokaizu chided, but his tone was one offered out of habit rather than genuine sentiment. “We will not rest tonight, I fear. We must prepare. Whatever the words of the Empress should be, we must have them to the Empire at large with as the Jade Sun moves toward the conclusion of its journey.”
“I shall gather the heralds,” Sinjiko said. “We shall make ready.”
Kiyokaizu smiled. “I could have none better at my side.”
* * * * *
The air in the Imperial Court chambers seemed to hold an electric charge, dancing among those assembled and giving their mannerisms and their speech more life and animation than normal. Toku Hikaru was not a priest of the kami, but he was of the understanding that it was the kami of the air who held the power of lightning, and given the importance of what was taking place, he was not altogether certain that there was not quite literally something in the air. Were the kami not servants of the Celestial Heavens? Would they not celebrate the return of the Empress to her people, and rejoice at the announcement of the next Emperor’s identity? He thought perhaps they would.
Hikaru had been awakened by a servant in the middle of the night. Others might have been angered by such a thing, he supposed, but he had never been a man quick to anger. His initial response had been confusion, then relief, followed shortly by a strange mixture of anxiety and excitement. He had not returned to sleep, and been mired in an unfortunate quagmire of bureaucracy ever since.
Despite his excitement, Hikaru wondered (and not for the first time) how he had ever come to be in the position of Imperial Chancellor. Save for a handful of specific occasions, he had never felt particularly suited to the role. It had benefited his family and his clan enormously, and for that he was very grateful, but he knew that his disposition was ill-suited to the job. Still, he had held it for many years now, and there had never been any scandal or significant disruption. He believed that others had attempted to manipulate him on many occasions but he had recognized the attempts, or so he hoped, and had managed to deflect, mitigate, or outright avoid them.
Perhaps, he reflected, that was why he had been chosen in the first place.
Yasuki Makoto entered the room, and a hush instantly fell over the crowd. The Imperial Advisor’s expression was, as always, inscrutable save for a hint of bemusement, which Hikaru suspected was genuine half the time and manufactured the remainder of the time. The only significant problem was that Hikaru could never tell which was which. Although if he could, he supposed, she would be ill suited to a position within the Imperial Court. He wondered idly if others extended him the same vestige of respect. After a moment’s consideration, he decided they most likely did not.
The Empress emerged from the private wing of the Imperial Palace, and there was a collective gasp from those assembled, followed by the rustling of cloth as the entire assemblage knelt in her presence. The Divine Child of the Heavens seemed to glide across the chamber, as she always did, the sound of her elaborate robes making no sound as they danced along the surface of the polished floor. Hikaru bowed deeply as opposed to kneeling, as was befitting of his station, but the urge to kneel was almost overwhelming. It felt… natural. Proper. Such was the personage of the Divine Empress. After waiting for her to take her seat, and her consort beside her, Hikaru saw her slight nod in his direction, and he rose. “All bear witness to the return of the Divine Empress from her seclusion, and attend as her Voice makes her wishes known to her beloved subjects, the people of Rokugan.”
The assembled courtiers rose, but no one spoke. The silence seemed more profound than usual, the charge in the air seemed only to grow, and the profound gravity of the situation seemed to make it difficult to breathe despite the cool winter air that permeated the entire palace.
Hida Kozan, Voice of the Emperor, stood on the dais and surveyed the room, as he had done so many times in the past, and with the same thin veneer of civility masking a barely visible hint of exasperated contempt. Somehow, though, it seemed false to Hikaru, at least today. If it was a solemn enough occasion for the normally wretched Kozan to behave himself, then it was even more serious than the Chancellor realized.
“The Divine Empress is grateful to her friends and allies for conducting the season’s Winter Court in her absence, and especially to the blessed personage of Utaku Zo Sia, for serving as the intermediary of the Heavens during her time of introspection.”
Here the Empress smiled toward the Unicorn delegation, where the otherwise inexplicable presence of a young child was offset by the child’s preternatural calm. As one, the Unicorn bowed. “Thank you, my Empress,” Zo Sia said softly, her tone musical and innocent.
The Voice nodded perfunctorily. “As is well known by this point, there has been a tragic and unwanted degree of conflict within the Colonies of the Empire, conducted largely between the forces loyal to the two sons of the Empress. This has been a source of great sorrow for the Empress, and it was the impetus for her withdrawal from the public eye. In matters of such great importance, it is her wish to always follow the path of the Heavens, and lengthy communion was necessary to ensure that all was as it should be.” Here, Kozan turned and offered a nod to the cadre of Seppun shugenja that accompanied the Empress in the background everywhere she went. The lead priest, a very nondescript man whose name Hikaru could never remember, bowed slightly in return. Save for that movement, he could very well be an elaborate sculpture.
“The Empress has made her decision, her hand guided by the Celestial Heavens themselves. The guidance of Tengoku, as ever, ensures the ongoing prosperity and security of the people of Rokugan, which has ever been and shall always be the primary interest of the Iweko Dynasty.”
“Given review of her sons, the Empress has no choice but to conclude that both of her sons are good and honorable men, serving their mother and their Empire in the manner they are best suited. Both are worthy to sit upon the throne, and both would bring tremendous, albeit different gifts to the position. In the absence of a failing that would result in the lack of the blessings by the Heavens, there is no reason not to adhere to the tradition of primogeniture, something that is sacred to many of the Great Clans who serve the Emerald Throne.” Here Kozan paused again. “The elder son of the Divine Empress, Iweko Seiken, shall be the next Emperor of Rokugan.”
* * * * *
Daigotsu Machiko woke with the first rays of sun, as she always did. Despite her new position in life, despite the status she had accumulated through marriage, she could not break the habits from her youth, when she had occasion to rise with the dawn in the performance of her duties for one of a series of master, most more unpleasant than the preceding one. There was much to be said of the negative stereotypes that were associated with the Otomo family into which she had been born, but that they were all false was not among them.
Once she had washed and dressed, Machiko went to the small side chamber where she and her husband often conducted their affairs when such was required. She was of a mind to send a letter to her family remaining within the Empire. She had little affection for them, but it was a proper thing to do, and if it caused them some discomfort to be reminded of her new station in life, well that was of no concern to her save for a moment of private amusement now and again. Her mind on the composition of her letter, she lit a lantern and then gasped, nearly dropping it in surprise at what the light revealed within the chamber. “Husband?”
Daigotsu Kanpeki sat in the darkness, two empty bottles of sake sitting cast aside, but his eyes still bright and alert. “Good morning, wife.”
She stared at him for a moment, sensing the storm within him. “I thought you away at the Mantis stronghold, overseeing the forces fighting on behalf of the heir.”
“The battle is at an end,” Kanpeki said. His voice was flat and empty. “Permanently.”
Machiko’s heart leapt in her chest. “Your demeanor suggests that defeat was the outcome, but how could that be?”
“Without great difficulty,” Kanpeki said. “Our defeat came not from the battlefield, but from proclamation.”
“Oh,” she said simply. She could think of little else. “Seiken will sit upon the throne?”
“He will,” Kanpeki answered.
Machiko waited for several moments. “What does this mean for us?”
Finally Kanpeki’s eyes met hers. “What do you imagine, wife? You know better than any what contempt he holds for us. What do you believe Seiken’s first months of governance over the Empire and its Colonies will bring?”
Machiko considered for only a moment. “He will doubtless revoke his mother’s sacred agreement, and see the charter of the Spider Clan undone. His hatred of us is… considerable.”
“Agreed,” Kanpeki said. “His revocation will likely precede the autumn, if he tarries even that long.”
“What will our response be, husband?”
Kanpeki rose. “The Heavens themselves shall suffer for the offense.”