Hisho's Birds

Chapter 1

The obelisk-like mountain traversed the earth and the sky, rising almost straight up without end. The summit thrust through the clouds above like a calligraphy brush standing on end. The enormous mass of the mountain below resembled a bundle of brushes bundled tightly together.

Below the clouds, craggy clusters of ridges traced small undulations against the sky as they spiraled down to the broad slopes at the foot of the mountain. There, the city of Gyouten, the capital of the eastern Kingdom of Kei, spread out along the terraced steps.

The mountain in its entirety constituted the Imperial Palace, the summit housing the Imperial Court and the living quarters for the empress and her most august retainers.

The mountain peak and the city of Gyouten were literally worlds apart. The sheer distance aside, a transparent ocean separated the one from the other. Looking up from the ground, this ocean was invisible to the naked eye. The waves crashing against the shore appeared as a ring of white clouds.

Beneath the clouds, the Administrative Palace complex for the lower-ranked bureaucrats spilled across the multitude of ridges and promontories. The winding rows of the countless offices and residences clung to the ledges of the great gray mountainside.

Encompassing the southwest quadrant was the Ministry of Summer.

The jagged rectangular roofs of varying heights joined together to form an enclosed courtyard, defining the width and breadth of the expansive department. In one corner was the office of the Sekichou-shi.

p. 11

Hisho was summoned to the office of the newly appointed Sekichou-shi in the seventh year and seventh month of Yosei, according to the Kei Imperial Calendar.

One of the secretaries bustling back and forth showed him to an office at the far end of the department. The room faced a broad balcony that jutted out over empty air. Beyond the stone-carved handrails was a bottomless ravine.

In one corner of the balcony stood an old willow tree. The willow’s branches brushed against the banisters like a woman’s long tresses. Squatting on the railing beneath the willow was a bird Hisho took to be a heron. It perched there perfectly still, as if in a meditative pose, its long, slender neck craned toward the ravine.

Hisho thought, I wonder what it’s looking at.

The bird didn’t seem to be asleep. Perhaps it was staring down at the world below. Standing there idly, Hisho did not share the bird’s view. The bird could surely see the sights unfolding beneath them—the city of Gyouten, blanketed in the stifling heat and surrounded by the devastated countryside.

Nothing there to see there but rack and ruin. And yet for some reason, rack and ruin was precisely what the bird seemed interested in, even to the point of grieving.

p. 12

Strangely enough, at that moment Hisho thought of a woman. Not that she at all resembled the heron. She too gazed out at a ravine. Yet with not a speck of sorrow on her face, not sparing a single glance for the world below.

“What good will come from looking at all that devastation?” She smiled and tossed a pear over the precipice. She had no interest in ruins or in the world below. “No need to see such depressing things,” she said with a toss of her head.

Then why did she crowd into his thoughts along with the bird? Staring at the bird, turning the question over in his mind, he heard quick footsteps behind him. Startled out of its reverie, the bird flew off.

Hisho turned as a gaunt man entered the room. Though they’d never met before, the man must be Suiryou, the new Sekichou-shi. With that assumption in mind, Hisho knelt and bowed.

“Oh, I’ve kept you waiting. Thanks for coming.” The man spread his hand wide in a welcoming gesture. He looked to be in his fifties. A broad smile filled his thin gray face. “You’re the Ra-shi, right? Name of Hisho. No, no, enough with the formalities. Get up. Over here.”

He indicated a nearby desk, sat down and urged Hisho to do the same.

This is all rather strange, Hisho mused to himself. These two chairs separated by the desk were intended for the director and an honored guest. Hisho was obviously not an honored guest.

p. 13

“Please, please. Sit down. I meant to see you straight off but this and that came up and before I knew it there went the time. I was going to stop by your place but couldn’t find room in my schedule. That’s why I called you here. So glad you could make it on the spur of the moment.”

Suiryou was being courteous to a fault. On the organizational chart, the Ra-shi answered to the Sekichou-shi. It was only natural for Hisho to show up if summoned. He was hardly in the position to refuse. There should be no need to be grateful or apologize for his being there.

“Go on. Have a seat. Here—”

Suiryou turned to a secretary behind him and called him over. Bearing a carafe and glass, the secretary approached and set the items on table. Being treated with kid gloves like this was quite out of the norm for Hisho.

Leaning forward, Suiryou once again urged him to sit and pushed a wineglass toward him. “You’ve been the Ra-shi for a pretty long time. Since the reign of Emperor Li, I’ve been told. Is that true?”

Hisho answered with a nod.

“You don’t say,” Suiryou murmured. He gave Hisho a long look. “You look younger than me but I suppose you’re a good deal older. You see, I became a government official only last year and was listed on the Register of Wizards. Everybody knows you stop aging once you’re registered but it’s a hard thing getting used to. So how old are you really?”

p. 14

“Frankly, I don’t remember myself.”

That was the truth. Hisho had been promoted to his post and listed on the Registry of Wizards during the reign of Emperor Li. As best he could recall, ten years or so after the emperor’s enthronement. Since his promotion, over a hundred some-odd years had passed.

“Long enough to forget how long, huh. That’s quite an accomplishment. That’s why you’re known as the Ra-shi’s Ra-shi. I’ve heard the stories, you know. After the Rite of the Arrow held when Empress Yo was enthroned, she personally thanked you herself.”

Hisho allowed himself a thin smile. The nicest thing he could say when it came to such rumors was that they didn’t exactly align with reality.

Apparently misinterpreting that smile, Suiryou clapped his hands together. “I see, I see,” he said, with a big grin. “Well, it’s time to put those skills back to work again.”

He leaned even closer and said in a furtive whisper, “Pretty soon now, we’re going to see the ascension of a new empress.” This time Hisho looked him square in the eyes. Suiryou nodded. “Word is, the Pretender has already been deposed.”

p. 15

“So she was a Pretender. Figures.”

The Kingdom of Kei in which Hisho had been born and raised had no sitting sovereign. The previous empress was barely enthroned before she abdicated. Her sister, Joei, took the throne in her stead. The scuttlebutt said she was a Pretender.

In any case, a kingdom’s ruler was chosen by the Saiho, who was also the Prime Minister. The true nature of the Saiho was that of a kirin, the sacred unicorn. Paying heed to Divine Providence, the Saiho chose the person whom the Heavens willed.

It did not matter who the person was, no one assumed the throne without the approval of the kirin. Any emperor or empress whom the Heavens did not smile upon must be deemed a Pretender.

Only the kirin could declare whether Joei was a Pretender or the real thing. Except the Saiho had not shown up to say one way or the other.

Prior to her abdication, Empress Yo’s health had failed. Following her death, the kirin traveled to Mt. Hou, the kingdom of its birth. Before he could return, Joei had claimed the throne and sought to occupy the Imperial Palace.

There being no way to ascertain whether she was the new empress, the ministers convened a quorum to debate the matter. In the end they refused her entry.

The fact was, Hisho had no way to determine the truth of the situation for himself. Though an imperial minister, his post placed him from the centers of power. A minister like Hisho contributed little of importance to the administration of the government in any case.

The duties of the Ra-shi were far removed from politics. Though his office was formally attached to the Minister of Summer, which was responsible for military matters, his portfolio revolved around the Rite of the Arrow, which had nothing to do with the army or waging wars.

p. 16

On the occasion of religious festivals and official visits by guests of honor, he produced ceremonies that celebrated the tools and skills of archery. Specifically, under the direction of the Sekichou-shi, his job was to create the porcelain magpies used as targets in the Rite.

Such was his rank and his duties that no grave matter concerning the kingdom ever reached his ears. That was the business of those higher up in the Imperial Palace, who literally lived above the clouds. The sum total of his knowledge came down to whispers and rumors.

It was said that, were the Heavens to smile upon an empress who was then properly chosen by the kirin, many auspicious omens should manifest themselves throughout the Imperial Palace. And yet none had occurred. So Joei must be a Pretender.

The people above the clouds came to the same conclusion and sealed the gates. Enraged, Joei established armed camps across Kei’s northern provinces. Soon the cry arose that the ministers were treating the Imperial Palace as their personal domain and refused to allow the empress to enter.

“And then came word that she had the Taiho with her.”

Impossible as it seemed, rumors circulated that Joei had the Taiho in her coterie. The Imperial Palace fell into fear and confusion. If Joei were the true and rightful sovereign, the minister who closed their doors to her would have to answer for it when she was formally crowned.

Ministers already on the fence fled the palace and defected to Joei’s faction. The Sekichou-shi before Suiryou did so and was never seen again.

“That’s how it happened. When word got around, the provinces fell like dominoes under Joei’s domination. But she still hadn’t quelled the suspicions she was a Pretender and they were all making a huge mistake. Trust in the Heavens and stand our ground and our efforts would be rewarded in the end—that’s what we firmly believed.”

p. 17

However Suiryou said it like he meant it, there was no telling how much he’d hedged his bets as well.

Despite the rumors that Joei was a Pretender and the rumors that the true empress had arisen and had engaged her in battle, the ministers who remained barricaded inside the palace had to be always cognizant of their perilous state if Joei turned out to have legitimate claim on the throne.

“An empress, to boot.” Suiryou’s mouth formed a thin line.

“An empress—again?”

“Again,” Suiryou answered with unmasked scorn.

Did anybody not see this coming? The kingdom had a bad record with empresses. Now three dynasties in a row, the incompetent reign of empresses continued.

“Well, empress or no, there’s no doubt that she is the one that Heaven smiled upon. Our new empress will soon arrive at the Imperial Palace along with the Saiho. The enthronement will follow shortly after. You’ll need to begin preparations for the Archery Ceremony with all due haste.”

The Archery Ceremony was one of the kingdom’s most important annual religious festivals, with the Rite of the Arrow constituting the main event. The Rite revolved around the ritualistic shooting of an arrow at a porcelain skeet that resembled a bird.

A frivolous version enacted during banquets called Shooting the Swallow was a simple competition that entertained the guests counting the hits and misses.

p. 18

The Archery Ceremony took place on a larger scale and with an entirely different objective. The hits and misses were interpreted as harbingers of good or bad fortune, so there was no giving misses a sporting second chance. The archer must be highly skilled and the skeet easy to hit.

Not only that, the porcelain targets should be works of art in their own right, exquisitely crafted to fly gracefully through the air, ring with a pleasant sound when struck by an arrow, and shatter on the ground with a burst of beauty. The sounds made as they broke apart themselves played a melody.

Hisho had made these “singing skeets” in the past. Working out the mechanics of precisely throwing these porcelain birds into the air required a small mountain of skeets. He recruited the best archers. When the skeets were launched and targeted one after the other, the sounds of shattering ceramic ran together to form a tune.

To equal the performance of a concerto composed for court musicians, he once arranged a row of three hundred marksmen. The multicolored birds danced through the air above the courtyard. And when struck by the arrows, broke apart like blossoming flowers. With a timber like ringing bells or chimes, from instruments made of diamond and stone, a luxurious tune flowed forth.

With the emphasis on sound, there was little that appealed to the sense of smell. To compensate for the lack of fragrance, Hisho prepared six thousand bowls of Chinese bitter orange and placed them around the courtyard.

But that was a long time ago.

“Another Rite of the Arrow to go down in the history books, eh?” Suiryou looked at Hisho like a basset hound eager to lick its master’s face. “I’m sure you can’t wait to show them what you can do”

“Well, I guess so.”

p. 19

“No need to be so self-deprecating in front of me. We’re talking about the first Rite on the occasion of the accession of the new empress. A splendid show is sure to leave her happy. A happy empress means a happy Ministry of Summer. Not only kind words. Other rewards are sure to follow. Everyone in the Ministry will be grateful to you and hold you in even higher esteem.”

Hisho managed not to laugh out loud. So that’s what it comes down to. If the new empress spared a few kind words for him (as Suiryou imagined Empress Yo had done), a bright future awaited all those who participated in the Rite. That explained the royal reception he was being given.

“With such expectations in mind, I supposed there is a plan in place to win her approval?”

Suiryou drew his brows together. His mouth closed into a thin line. With an inquiring look he echoed, “A plan?”

“Well, what might be the best sort of skeet to make? I’ve yet to receive any guidance on the matter. Though they’re actually made by the Ministry of Winter.

According to the organizational chart, the Sekichou-shi planned and produced the Rite of the Arrow. Having given it all due consideration, he informed the Ra-shi and had him make the preparations. The Ra-shi then tasked the Ra-jin to do the actual work. The Ra-jin were the supervising engineers and master potters attached to the Ministry of Winter.

“I heard that you handled everything, from planning to execution.”

p. 20

“Oh, I would not deign to make such a claim.”

“I would. I’ve been told the last Sekichou-shi didn’t know the different between Shooting the Swallow and the Rite of the Arrow.”

He wasn’t wrong. And not only the last one. Aside from the first Sekichou-shi Hisho served under, his superiors had been hands-off to the point of remaining completely uninformed. With this “Ra-shi among Ra-shi” doing everything himself, all his bosses had to do was sit back and enjoy the perks of the position.

A hardly glamorous but undemanding job—no doubt that’s how it’d been pitched to Suiryou as well.

There were bureaucrats who worked their way up from the bottom, building a record of good work. And there were bureaucrats who, enjoying the patronage of high officials, started at the top and settled comfortably into a lower rung on the career ladder. Suiryou definitely belonged in the latter category.

“Should the Sekichou-shi feel out of his depth, I would have no choice but to lend a hand. I cannot say it has never before happened.”

Hisho’s overt show of scorn aroused a brief look of displeasure on Suiryou’s face. But the perfunctory smile soon returned. “I haven’t been on the job that long, you see. Of course I understand the scope of my responsibilities and have been learning the ins and outs as quickly as I can. Still, hardly in time for the upcoming ceremonies. I apologize for putting you in a tight spot, for not being my usual tactful self. This time, you see, it would be best left in your capable hands.”

“I certainly have every intention to help out anyway I can. And yet, I’ve been at this job for a long time and have run short of ideas of late. Truth be told, I have been thinking of asking for a transfer or a leave of absence.”

p. 21

“Well, ah, no—” muttered the flustered Suiryou. He slapped his knees and leaned forward. “What about the same sort of skeet that won the praise of Empress Yo? Gussy it up a bit, add some more sparkle and flash.”

That prompted a wry smile from Hisho. “Surely you jest.”

Suiryou was fixated on the precedent he imagined had been set by that particular porcelain bird. But if the new empress shared with them the same “praise” as Empress Yo, Suiryou might find himself fired from the position he had so recently acquired.

Lucky for Hisho, his boss didn’t know the whole story.

“Why’s that? Make a bunch more of them, vary the color—”

Hisho gave his head an emphatic shake. “The potters from the Ministry of Winter who made those skeets aren’t there anymore.”

“So just tell them to do what they did before. They must have the pictures and plans.”

“Even if they still have the pictures and plans, I have no confidence they could get the job done. More than anything else, time is of the essence.”

Based on past events, the Rite of the Arrow was held approximately a month after the new sovereign accepted the Mandate of Heaven on Mt. Hou and was formally invested.

p. 22

“Well, the job of the Ra-shi is to show them the way and make sure they get the job done.” Suiryou’s displeasure at last began to show. “I will not tolerate some half-assed Rite performed for an empress who has just ascended to the throne! The porcelain bird you make will leave her delighted. Nothing else but!”

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.