0-2 Amongst the lands of the Twelve Kingdoms, the one in the far northwest was known as Hou. More specifically, the Outland Kingdom of Hou.
The Kingdom of Hou was ruled by the Imperial Hou Chuutatsu. His family name was Son. His uji, the surname he’d selected at adulthood, was Ken. Ken Chuutatsu had served as a minister in the Imperial Cabinet (the Rikkan) and a commanding general in the Imperial Army.
After the passing of the previous emperor, he was chosen by Hourin and ascended to the throne as the Imperial Hou.
In the Sixth year of Eiwa, the reign of Chuutatsu had reached only thirty years. That year, Youshun Palace, the Imperial Seat, was stormed by a force of 100,000 soldiers. Unable to bear his tyrannical rule any longer, the armies of the eight province lords had risen up against him.
The like-minded citizens of the city opened the gates of Hoso, the capital city of Hou, and let them in. Almost immediately, they breached the palace perimeter to the inner sanctum where the soldiers of the eight provinces battled undauntedly with some three hundred of the emperor’s bodyguards.
In the end, the Imperial Hou Chuutatsu was dead.
“What’s the cause of all this commotion?”
Her mother’s arms wrapped around her, Shoukei heard the bloodcurdling war cries. Shoukei was the daughter of Kaka, Chuutatsu’s wife. The plaintive query came from the prone and ailing Hourin, the kirin of Hou. The three of them were hiding in the depths of the palace.
“It came from outside. Mom, whose voice was that?”
Shoukei was thirteen years old. She was doted upon by her parents, the very apple of their eye. This young girl, bright and clever, beautiful and graceful, and praised as the veritable jewel of the crown—she twisted her face with dread.
“No . . . it can’t be.”
The people of Hou, provoked to revolt by the province lords, surrounded Hoso on all sides. The clanging of weapons echoed inside the palace walls, as did the curses they sang out against the emperor.
A surging tide of ashen blue armor. And those ferocious screams.
“It can’t be! Father . . . ”
“No!” Kaka held Shoukei tightly in her arms. “This is not happening!”
Kaka railed against the inconceivable. Overcome by the stench of blood, Hourin cried out disconsolately.
Hourin’s pale face went white. “The emperor . . . the emperor is no longer with us.”
In that same moment, in the heart of the palace, came the sound of a door opening.
The soldiers tread into the room, their armor smeared with blood. The design of the insignia worn by the young man at their lead was that of a constellation of stars, the coat of arms of the province lords.
“Such impudence!” Kaka shouted at him. “Where do you think you are? Heaven forbid you should be allowed for an instant in the presence of the empress consort and Taiho!”
The man’s fearless young face hardly wavered. Without a word, he cast down before Kaka the thing he was carrying in his right hand. It struck the floor with a heavy thud and a splatter of blood and rolled next to Shoukei’s feet. Bitter eyes stared into space.
All emperors were promised immortality, but even an immortal emperor could not live once his head had been separated from his body. Shoukei and her mother screamed. They cast themselves upon the divan where Hourin lay.
The man laughed. “Do you find your father’s—your husband’s—visage so frightening?” he asked darkly.
Kaka stared him in the face. “Marquis Kei!” She corrected herself, addressing him more rudely by his name. “Gekkei! You bastard!”
Gekkei, province lord of Kei, lowered his voice and said coldly, “The Imperial Hou has been deposed. The time has come for the empress consort and the princess royal to part company.”
“What are you saying!” Kaka implored. Clinging to her mother’s arm, Shoukei trembled violently.
“The emperor who enacted cruel laws and oppressed his people and the empress consort who executed the blameless citizens who criticized him. They should both taste something of that suffering for themselves.”
“The emperor—the emperor did nothing but what was good for his subjects.”
“What good are laws that reward a child with death for stealing a loaf of bread? A child gasping beneath the weight of poverty, having no place else to turn? Or laws that treat a missed tax payment as a capital crime? Or laws that enslave a man and condemn him to death when he falls ill and cannot pull his load? Whatever you are feeling now is nothing compared to the horrors experienced by the people.”
Gekkei motioned with his hand. From the rear of the phalanx, a soldier ran up to Kaka and tore Shoukei from her arms. Shoukei wailed. Her mother cried bitterly.
“You envied other women their beauty and their wisdom. Or rather, feared that their daughters might prove more talented than your own. You slandered them with imaginary crimes. And now the earth resounds with their funeral dirges. Can you begin to comprehend the grief of these families as the corpses of their loved ones were cast before them?”
“You bastard!” Kaka spat at him.
Gekkei paid the insult no mind. He turned to Shoukei, wriggling in the grip of the soldier. “You pay attention as well, young lady. Your miserable family always distanced itself from the scene of the crime. Have you the slightest idea what an execution is really like?”
“Stop it! Please . . . Mother!”
Shoukei’s shrieks stirred not a soul, moved not heart in that place. Gasping, her eyes wide, she watched as Gekkei brandished the sword. Unable to look away even at the instant of impact, Shoukei witnessed the very moment when her mother’s life left its body.
A scream frozen on its face, its mouth gasping a wordless cry into empty air, the severed head of her mother rolled against the head of the Imperial Hou Chuutatsu.
In that moment, Shoukei could not blink, could not speak. Gekkei cast her a disinterested glance and walked over to the divan where Hourin was resting. Hourin looked up at him with blank eyes.
“I wish you to understand as well the two generations of despair suffered by the people because of this black prince whom you chose.”
Hourin stared at him hard, and quietly nodded. Gekkei bowed low in respect. Then he raised the sword above his head.
The Imperial Hou and Hourin Touka. Thus did the dynasty of the Kingdom of Hou draw a close.
Shoukei watched dumbfounded as the bodies were born away. No, to say she watched perhaps means only that the images continued to impinge upon her sight. She understood nothing of what she was seeing.
She sat listlessly on the floor. Gekkei stood before her. She raised her eyes, from the tip of his toes to the top of his head.
“Son Shou, daughter of the Imperial Hou, your name shall be deleted from the Registry of Wizards.”
Shoukei looked up at Gekkei’s face. The reality of her mother’s death hadn’t sunk in. Now, on top of everything else, she’d lose her place in the Registry of Wizards. That meant that her body would once again begin to age normally. The thought terrified her. Her name had been listed in the Registry for at least thirty years. Where was she supposed to live now?
“No, please. Not that.”
Gekkei glanced at her with a pitying expression. “If I leave you here like this, the people will surely tear you apart in revenge. I will list you on the census of a small province. You will be stripped of your social standing and your place in the Registry of Wizards. You name will be changed. You will henceforth mingle with ordinary folk like everybody else.”
With that, Gekkei turned to leave. Shoukei called after him, “Kill me also!” Her fingernails dug into the floor. “How am I supposed to go on living?” Gekkei did not turn around. Shoukei grasped the arm of the soldier. “This is too cruel!”
In one corner of the Youshun Palace complex was Godou palace. The lord of this palace was Hakuchi. The “White Pheasant.” Because Hakuchi sang only twice in its entire life, the bird was also called “the two utterances.” The first was, “The emperor is enthroned.” The second was, “The emperor is dead.” For that reason, it was also known as “the last word.”
When Hakuchi of Godou palace uttered the last word, it fell dead. Gekkei cut off his feet.
The Imperial Seal itself contained a powerful charm. As one of the Imperial Regalia, only the emperor could use it. When the emperor died, the engravings on the seal turned smooth as glass, guaranteeing its silence until a new ruler sat upon the throne. Without the Imperial Seal, no laws or proclamations could be issued with any authority. In its place, one of Hakuchi’s feet would be used instead.
During the regency of the eight province lords, a single document was sealed with the print of Hakuchi’s foot. To wit, that the name of the Princess Royal Son Shou be removed from the Registry of Wizards.
Some three years passed.