Kingdom of Shobu
Present: Late Autumn, 1471
Sitting high up on the roof ridge of the main castle keep of Shuto, the twenty-four year-old Second Prince of Shobu, Seiji, leaned back to gaze at the reddish moon. Even without the benefit of a naming ceremony, Seiji had taken his adult name a long time ago, and the child who had once been known as Pul, was now a man.
Snow had already fallen in Shobu, but it was a strangely clear night. Despite that, the colour of the moon was unnatural as if a bloody mist concealed its true face. It was eerie, hanging so large and low in the sky that it seemed to sit right in the cradle of the partially frozen lake, like a luminous red pearl.
An unnatural colour for an unnatural night.
Concealing his impatience, Seiji flicked his wrist and the shinobi who had seemed part of the landscape suddenly unmolded himself from the roof tiles and knelt to his Prince.
“The thing I told you to investigate…have you discovered anything?” Seiji asked quietly, his voice low and deep in the darkness of the night.
The shinobi was shaking his head.
“We are still searching, your Highness,” he said, not daring to look up.
Seiji’s jeweled blue eyes flashed in the darkness, but other than that he gave no other sign of his displeasure.
“Continue as I’ve commanded. I want to know for sure if she’s dead. Continue to monitor the activity on that side as well.”
“Yes, your Highness….ehm…”
“There’s something else?” Seiji asked, lips tilting slightly.
Kurenai’s being more cautious than usual tonight…is it because it’s almost time? I’m wearing the metal gauntlets so he shouldn’t be able to see anything…
His fingers flexed involuntarily, scrapping gouges into the stone tiles.
“The tribute envoy has arrived in Moutan.”
“The King chose Furusawa Ranmaru this time. I thought your Highness would want to know.”
“I see. Is there anything else?” he asked, sounding bored.
“No, your Highness. I take my leave,” said the shinobi, immediately melting back into the landscape as if he’d never existed.
A complicated mix of feelings rose up in Seiji’s chest, making his throat thick with bitterness.
“Furusawa Ranmaru. That’s a name I haven’t spoken aloud for a long time,” he mused.
Kingdom of Moutan
The Past: 5th Year of Tianji, mid-Summer, 1461
Although the assassination attempt had had Seiren’s retainers clamouring to return to Shobu, he had refused. The marriage alliance and its details were finalized at the end of the spring, and Seiren and Pul stayed in Moutan for a few more months as originally agreed with Xiao Jing Feng. While Seiren occupied himself by touring adjacent areas and learning about the governance in the palace, Pul was often left to his own devices.
By the time Seiren returned from his outing, it was already after the time for the evening meal, and the two princes finally had a chance to sit down to talk together in their guest palace.
“To withdraw to Shobu now, with our tail between our legs, that’s not my style,” snorted Seiren. “I’m not weak, and we had previously promised to stay for a few months to learn about Moutan while we are here. This is part of your education, Pul.”
“I want to go home!” griped the younger Prince. “Safety is one thing, but we’ve already accomplished what we sought to do. There is no purpose in lingering here!”
My dearest brother…even if you are worried for me, the only thing that awaits you at home is a cage. Stay out as long as you can…thought Seiren.
“You’re wrong Pul. Do you realize that if something happens to me that you will be required to step into my place to fulfill the marriage alliance requirements? You need to stay here, and learn all you can about our ally…”
“But Father does not intend to—!”
“Stop!” Seiren interrupted in a commanding tone, his blue eyes darkening with displeasure.
“You are the Second Prince of Shobu, Pul. Even if this turns out to be a farce for Father, you still have your own responsibilities. Do not waste this opportunity. The King of Moutan has offered for you to be tutored with the other noblemen’s sons in the Royal Academy while you are here. Even though your current identity is only a page of high birth, it is still an honour to be accepted.”
“They just mean it to mock us!” Pul retorted, gnashing his teeth.
“Do they?” Seiren smiled with his eyes tilting craftily. “I don’t think Xiao Jing Feng is actually that petty, but his nobles may think otherwise. Prove them wrong, Pul. You are exceptional with your studies at home. Why can you not be so while we are here?”
Pul wanted to punch his older brother, but he lowered his eyes. Relaxing the fists in his lap, he said:
“That is more easily said than done…” he said quietly.
“Have you not been studying under Lord Bai? I’m sure you know the old Moutan language very well. Just because you don’t have as many tutors as Keizo…”
“Don’t compare me to Keizo!” Pul flashed.
“I’m not trying to compare you to Keizo, and I’m sorry if you thought that. When we get back, I will ask Father for permission to assign me more…”
“You’d be wasting your time. You know that Father prizes fighting skills over books…and he can’t be bothered with me.”
“It won’t matter if he doesn’t know…” Seiren sighed.
He could see that he had hit a sore spot with his beloved younger brother. Of the three of them, Pul’s mother had been a concubine from Kazarus. Although she had been born a Princess, their father had not seen fit to make her a consort, instead giving that title to Keizo’s mother, Lady Sakurako who came from a powerful family from the east of Shobu. When Pul’s mother had died in childbirth, the Queen had refused to bring him into her household and as such Pul had been raised in the palace’s annex. Seiren, being the son of the Queen had never had to scrounge for resources the same way that Pul had.
“Perhaps, but I’m still willing to see it through. As you should. I’m not trying to be harsh, but I know you’re capable and I want you to learn while you can. You’re not that far in age from their Crown Prince. If you can develop a friendship while you are here, then it will be to our advantage later. I’m not just asking this as your brother. I’m asking this as your Crown Prince,” Seiren said, placing his hands on his brother’s small shoulders. He felt a pang feeling how small they were...it was obvious that Pul had had a tough time because he was hardly bigger than a twelve year old when he was actually two years older than that.
Seiren dipped his head down peering at the blue eyes that were the same as his own. He did his best to look encouraging instead of worried.
Pul groaned, trying not to sound as petulant as he felt.
“Then I will do what you ask, brother.”
“Good,” Seiren grinned. “Now that that’s settled, I brought you something!” he said, rummaging in a satchel on a table. “Here!”
Pul caught the roundish object that his brother threw at him.
“I stole it from the garden this morning. Try it. It’s sweet.”
Pul tried not to groan, this time for a different reason. The thing that he held in his hand was a golden star pear from the King’s private garden…a garden that even the Queen of Moutan had to obtain permission to enter.
“Eat. Getting that thing caused me some trouble,” Seiren grinned.
Pul rolled his eyes, but he could see his brother’s satisfied smile when he bit into the still firm flesh and tasted the honeyed sweetness of the pale, yellow fruit. Following its name, the outer interior of the fruit had areas of slightly darker flesh such that when it was cut into cross sections, the slices appeared to have star shaped centers. Thus, it was also called a shuriken* pear.
Seiren ruffled his brother’s hair.
“I’m sorry Pul. I wish we could be more carefree than this,” he sighed regretfully. The look in Seiren’s eyes became far away, as if he was thinking about something deeply unpleasant.
Pul lowered his own eyes, biting into the fruit again, and chewing mechanically. Although he said nothing, he knew that Seiren had bought this time for him at great cost. In truth, Seiren had snuck him out of the palace of Shobu to play the part of his page for this tour of Moutan.
Pul had grown up in the palace annex. For whatever reason, his Father could not stand the sight of him, and he could never understand what his mother had done to cause him to fall so low in his father’s eyes. The only person who had ever cared for him was Seiren, and a summer away from the palace of Shobu was probably the most wonderful thing that Pul would ever experience in is lifetime before he was once again locked away in the annex. What things Pul had, Seiren had taken from his own resources and allocated them to him. Whether the King of Shobu was actually aware of this or not, wasn’t clear.
Pul didn’t want to feel any self-pity, but the more kindness Seiren bestowed, the more likely he was to resent it, which he knew was wrong, but he occassionally couldn’t help it. He was very young and his anger at his situation had not yet found its outlet.
Knowing that this was the case, Seiren was always careful to avoid highlighting the contrast in their positions.
“Tell me about Moutan’s Royal Academy,” said Pul, trying to distract his brother and himself from useless thoughts.
Seiren’s face cleared and he smiled again.
“Moutan’s academy is far more advanced than that of Shobu. Although our Lord Bai has changed much about Shobu’s education system, I believe that Moutan is still ahead of us in terms of artistic pursuits, philosophy, political thought, and the sciences. Stuck in the superstitions of the past…we still can’t escape the grasp of demons and witchcraft…”
“That’s more likely due to geography than anything else,” Pul snorted. “With Shobu to the north, Keungang to the south, and Kazarus to the west, Moutan is at the centre of it all. If it was easy to travel the mountain passes at the border and to grow crops in our fields, Shobu would have more commerce and more information coming into it from the west as well...it’s no wonder that Father covets this land.”
Seiren smiled at how quickly his brother understood this.
“That’s right. Moutan’s strategic significance can’t be underestimated. However, an exchange of ideas and learning can’t happen without the correct environment. If Moutan was as closed to foreigners as Shobu, or Keungang for example, do you think it would be the same as it is now? No, Xiao Jing Feng is an enlightened person. He values new and different ideas because he knows that they can be used for the good of the kingdom. That is something that needs to be more widely encouraged in Shobu. We need to change from our old ways of thinking.”
“Are you cautioning me, brother? I admit that my rigidity is an unattractive quality…” he huffed.
Seiren laughed, bright and loud. In truth, he had not actually been referring to his brother’s personality, but rather to the political situation at home and the fact that the court was heavily divided between his mother’s family who supported the onmyoji* and Lady Sakurako who came from a long line of demonic practitioners favoured by his father…and then of course there was Lord Bai who was a powerful sorcerer…but who managed to stay outside of everything…but instead of saying this, Seiren only responded to his brother’s endearing self-consciousness.
“Yes indeed! Learn what you can from Moutan…that is my command,” he smirked. “And Pul?”
“Yes brother?” Pul asked cautiously.
Seiren’s expression softened momentarily.
“Enjoy yourself. It will be the first time that you will take classes with young nobles your age. Make friends if you can,” he grinned.
“Don’t look so dismayed!” Seiren chuckled.
Pul only grunted sheepishly in response.
“Oh! I almost forgot to tell you: There’ll be both girls and boys in your class,” said Seiren, waving a hand in excitement.
“They allow women to be schooled in Moutan?” blinked Pul in surprise.
“Not only do they allow it, but students also aren’t separated by sex or rank…It’s fascinating!” grinned Seiren.
“Huh…wouldn’t it be…distracting?” Pul muttered.
For a moment, Seiren’s face went blank, and then he threw his head back and roared with laughter.
“Oh Pul!” he chuckled, feeling his chest warm with a surge of affection.
Pul bushed furiously.
“That’s not what I meant!” he protested hotly, face sizzling.
“Really? Isn’t it a little bit early to be distracted by women, my dearest little brother?” Seiren snickered, slapping his thigh.
“I only meant that girls tend to chatter and giggle…it would be annoying to take classes with them,” grumbled Pul, his cheeks still red.
Seiren was still laughing and wiped at the corner of his sparkling blue eyes.
“I see,” he said, trying not to laugh anymore as he could see Pul’s expression become murderous.
“Go rest now. You’ll have to be up early for classes tomorrow.”
“Mnnn. Good night brother,” Pul nodded, giving his older brother a small bow before he departed for his bed.
“Good night,” said Seiren.
Pul…there’s so much I want to tell you. You’re so precious to me…and it’s a race against time to keep our wily Father at bay…if I can become King, wouldn’t the world be that much safer for you? Pul…please keep trusting me until then…
* A Japanese concealed throwing weapon, commonly in the shape of stars.
* Ancient class of Japanese civil servants who were magic and divination practitioners.