The first bird was the color of clear blue water.
It flew from the west watchtower toward Shouten Palace, where the empress and her ministers sat in orderly rows behind bamboo screens.
The long wings and tail appeared like a fragment of the frozen winter sky. After a slow turn around the spires surrounding the Imperial Gardens, it abruptly changed direction. Glittering like a diamond, the bird climbed higher and higher in altitude.
One of the archers arrayed in the palace below pulled back his bow and released an arrow. The arrow chased the bird across the heavens. And struck home.
The bird broke apart with a crystalline chime.
A brilliant blue chick burst forth from within. Gleaming like cut glass, it traced a glimmering arc through the azure air, weaving left and right as it fell almost as if flapping its glass wings.
The color slowly faded. In syncopation with the fluttering, dancing movements, the wingtips at first grew transparent, then disintegrated along the inward-coursing cracks. Transparent blue shards rained down like falling blossoms.
Pinging with almost silent sounds upon striking the earth, the icy-clear pieces scattered across the ground.
Next came two birds, transparent gold like the rays of the sun. After circling the plaza, winding about each other in flight, the two large birds rose into the heavens together as one.
This time two archers shot their arrows.
As soon as the arrows hit the golden birds, they transformed into a flock of smaller birds. They tumbled from the heights, lustrous wings glistening, as first the tips of their wings and tails grew transparent and shattered, before the rest disintegrated and dissolved into golden blossoms.
Lavender birds flew up amongst the fluttering, dancing petals—three this time, transforming to brilliant dark purple when struck by the arrows. Four crimson birds soared forth. The flock of small red birds danced high in the air as they came apart, floating down like translucent red petals and covering the plaza.
Birds of every color swooped and swirled. Struck by the arrows they turned into bright small birds that flocked together and spiraled downwards, breaking apart like brittle flowers. The whispers of the splintering petals twining together filled the air with a sound like falling sleet.
At the very end came thirty silver birds. When the arrows reached them and they broke apart, a flock of small birds with pure white wings emerged. The white birds descended. Reflecting the brilliant light of the sun, their beating wings fragmenting inwards, they transformed into milky white flowers.
A myriad of delicate petals rained down, as if all the pears trees had shed their blossoms at once.
Hisho watched as the final piece fissured and fractured with a sigh like a dying breath.
Silence overtook the gardens surrounding Shouten Palace. Someone exhaled. A ripple of audible breaths followed. Before their voices crescendoed into a roar of acclamation, Hisho silently stole away.
He left the watchtower where he’d observed the Rite of the Arrow and exited the west gardens. He felt a sense of satisfaction rare for him. Though a simple and beautiful spectacle, it reflected what he felt. He made real what was in his heart. He had nothing more to say.
He passed alone through the Ro Gate, descended below the clouds, and headed for the offices of the Ra-jin. There he found Seikou pacing the courtyard, awaiting news about the Rite.
“It was magnificent!” Hisho called out. “Went off without a hitch.”
Seikou ran up to him, his face pale. He looked on the verge of tears.
Going all out to finish a complete set of skeets by the deadline had left them short on time. They couldn’t put in the rehearsals deserving of an Archery Festival. Despite repeated target practice with the porcelain magpies, making sure skeets launched from below did not collide with the small birds circling above was a recurring problem.
After a simple fashion, the fragments represented the smaller birds. Based on the shape and form, the fragments glided downwards, fluttering like beating wings. There was no way to control the path of the flight. Colliding with a rising skeet would alter its trajectory, increasing the chances that an archer would miss.
“The height and position of the fragments ensured that all of the arrows were on target. Not a single miss.”
“Oh, good,” Seikou said, collapsing to his knees. “I was so worried that a shot would go astray. Or worse, that a skeet wouldn’t launch high enough—”
“I was a bundle of nerves at first. Pretty soon I could see that everything was going to work out as planned. I even managed to enjoy the show. It was so terribly beautiful. I wish you could have been there.”
Seikou nodded with a broken smile.
Hisho regretted Seikou couldn’t see what they’d worked so hard to create. The lower rank of a Ra-jin forbade him from participating in the ceremonial rites held above the clouds.
“I’m glad we went with white in the grand finale like you said.”
Hisho gazed out from the courtyard. The winter sun was setting into the plunging ravine. On this day, the shortest of the year, the city having ushered in a new empress, he might catch a glimpse of Gyouten before the sun slipped away.
Shouran’s pear trees shed their leaves in the fall and now slept, awaiting the spring.
“Was it like that?”
Seikou spoke in a small voice, almost a mutter. Hisho didn’t quite hear what he’d said, and yet understood him perfectly. Was it like that? The signs of spring Shouran so eagerly awaited, the pure white cloud of pear blossoms covering the floor of the ravine.
When the wind blew the petals all danced together. As if bringing the memory alive in his thoughts, Seikou turned his eyes on the valley below.
“Ah,” Hisho said with a nod.
That evening, Hisho and Seikou, the artisans and engineers, held their own celebratory party.
The Sekichou-shi ran in, his face red from the sudden exertion. The agitated Suiryou announced that Hisho had been summoned by the empress.
Hisho wasn’t in the mood for praise or censure. He was satisfied with what he had done and what they had created. The opinions of outsiders were nothing but noise. Except there were some offers he couldn’t refuse. So he let Suiryou drag him for the second time that day above the clouds.
They passed through the Ro Gate. Suiryou handed Hisho over to the Minister of Protocol. They headed for the Outer Palace. Hisho’s spirits weighed heavily on his shoulders. He’d been to the Outer Palace once before. The dreadful significance of that occasion had ebbed over time. It now welled up painfully in his heart.
The Outer Palace was a large structure that housed the Privy Council. In the center of the building was the soaring imperial throne, closed off on all side by bamboo screens. Urged on by the minister, Hisho approached the platform, knelt down, and bowed to the floor.
“Please raise your head,” came a voice from within the bamboo screen. A man’s voice so it should not belong to the empress. Hisho raised his head. The same voice asked the minister to withdraw, then instructed Hisho to stand and draw closer to the throne.
Confused, Hisho came to his feet. At that moment, he seemed to be all alone inside this enormous edifice. Only the torches around the throne were lit. Hisho could not see from the one far wall to the other. He imagined himself standing in an enormous cave, with not another living soul to depend upon.
He timorously drew closer to the throne, knelt down and bowed.
“Are you the Ra-shi?”
This time the voice was that of a young woman. Though the voice was nearby, the screen made even her outlines indiscernible.
“That is correct.”
“I was told that you were the man responsible for the Rite this afternoon, described as a Ra-shi among all Ra-shi.
“I have no comment about such opinions, except to say that I created the porcelain magpies together with the Ra-jin.”
“I see,” the young empress murmured to herself. She faltered for a moment, as if searching for the right words. “I apologize. I had you come all this way without really thinking out what I wanted to say.”
Hisho swallowed hard.
The empress began again. “That performance was so beautiful it honestly hurt.”
Hisho couldn’t help starting. Leaning forward to catch every word, he heard a small heartfelt sigh.
“You have showed me something I won’t ever forget. For that I am very thankful.”
The moment he heard her words, for no reason he could have articulated, Hisho felt he had gotten through to her. This time he hadn’t tried to deliver a message with his porcelain birds. And yet the empress somehow understood the emotions he —and Shouran and Seikou—had imparted them with.
“Your words alone are more than I deserve.”
He bowed. This is enough, he thought. It was time for him to retire. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do. He could leave the rest in Seikou’s capable hands.
But then the empress spoke again. “I’m looking forward to the next time.”
No, I— Hisho was about to say when she continued. “If possible, I’d prefer a private showing. With these dreary screens out of the way. Something on a smaller scale would be nice. Just the two of us.”
She spoke directly, no pretentious lilt to her voice. No sooner had he heard her request but Hisho saw the scene clearly in his mind—
The evening courtyard, lit up by moonlight or bonfires, empty except for himself and the empress. Even the archers would be hidden away. Without words, without cheers and applause—porcelain magpies would beautifully break apart in the quiet courtyard.
Hisho spoke through his birds. The empress listened. Let us converse, that is what he heard her saying.
The birds would be white, glowing in the darkness. When they shattered, the shards would reflect the flames of the bonfires, reflect moonlight as they twirled out of the sea of the night—
And the sound—a sound like the roar of the sea. But quieter, as if lulling them into a restful sleep.
Hisho bowed deeply. In his mind’s eye he saw a white bird. The last bird flew forth from the distant roar of the sea. The archers missed. The bird swooped down and landed right next to the empress.
This empress would surely not reject such a bird as a bad omen.
“As you wish,” said Hisho.
In the Kingdom of Kei, a new dynasty had begun.