t the center of the world was Mount Hou. The goddess Gyokuyou governed that holy place. Because of the respect and affection held for Gyokuyou, many girls were named after her.
In the northwest quadrant of the world, at the eastern reaches of the Kingdom of Hou, in the province of Kei and the shire of Han, was a girl named Gyokuyou.
The cry carried far on the autumn breeze. The girl lifted her head from the field of dry grass. She grimaced as she straightened her aching back, and she grimaced because she didn’t like the sound of the name.
She’d once had a beautiful name: Shoukei. Not some worn out, dime-a-dozen name like Gyokuyou.
Almost three years ago, stained with the blood of her mother and father, she’d been removed from the Imperial Palace and sent to the village of Shindou. Her once pearl-like skin was browned and freckled by the sun. Her chubby, peach-like cheeks had wasted away. The bones stood out in her fingers as did the sinews in her legs. The sun had bleached her dark blue hair an ashen gray. Even her violet eyes lost their brilliance, turning a muddy purple.
“Gyokuyou! Where are you! Answer me!”
Hearing the shrill voice, Shoukei stood up. “I’m over here.” She parted the stalks of maiden grass with her hands, showing herself.
She knew who that irritating voice belonged to in the moment she saw her face. It was Gobo.
“How long is it going to take you harvesting the maiden grass? The other children are already headed back.”
“I’m finishing up just now.”
Gobo pushed her way through the tall grass, took a look at the bundles of stalks Shoukei had gathered, and snorted. “Six bales, indeed. Pretty meager ones at that.”
“But . . . ”
Gobo jumped down her throat as soon as the first word came out of her mouth. “No back talk from you. Who do you think you are?” She lowered her voice. “This isn’t the palace, you know. You’re a lowly orphan and don’t you forget it.”
Shoukei bit her lip. No, she couldn’t forget it for an instant. Gobo wouldn’t let a day go by without casting an aspersion or two or three. She couldn’t forget it if she wanted to.
“How about you put in an honest day’s work for once? I shouldn’t need to remind you that if I let the cat out of the bag, the people of this village would have your head on a platter.”
Shoukei held her tongue. Any reply would be met at once with the retort of that grating voice. “Okay,” she said meekly.
“Thank you for all you’ve done for me.”
A sneer came to Gobo’s lips. “Another six bales. Work till dinnertime if you have to. If you’re late, you go hungry.”
The autumn sun was already low in the sky. Of course it would be impossible to gather six more bales of maiden grass before suppertime.
Gobo sniffed to herself and left, plowing back through the grass. Glancing briefly at Gobo’s back, Shoukei grasped the handle of the sickle at her feet. Her hands were liberally nicked and scratched by the maiden grass, her fingers caked with mud. Shoukei had been brought to Kei Province and placed on the census of this remote mountain village. The story was that her parents had died and she’d been sent to local rike, a foster home for orphans and the aged from several of the surrounding towns. Gobo was the headmistress of the facility.
Besides Gobo, there were nine children and one old man. At first, Gobo and the others had been nice to her. But children got to talking about how their parents died. Much bitterness was directed against the dead emperor. Shoukei could only hang her head and hold her tongue. When she was asked about her parents, she couldn’t think of a good way to answer.
Having been born to wealth and power, she knew nothing of rural life. She had no servants. She’d been thrown into an environment she had never seen before, where she had to till the earth by the sweat of her brow and sew her own clothes with her own hands. She hardly knew her left hand from her right. Having lived such a cocooned life, it was hard getting used to the life of the orphanage. She ended up estranged from the others. She was so dumb, they said, she didn’t even know how to use a hoe. She couldn’t explain that she had never seen a hoe before. She’d never touched a hoe before.
According to her current census records, Shoukei’s “parents” had lived alone in a mountain forest not far from Shindou. They were itinerants who’d quit their homesteads and were not attached to any township. Itinerants were often gamblers, criminals, or recluses like her “parents.” They had discreetly eked out a living in the mountains near Shindou as charcoal makers, drifters with no ties to the land or any landowner.
They’d been executed.
Shoukei’s real father, the Imperial Hou Chuutatsu, had promulgated countless laws and edicts ordering the itinerants to return to their lands of record. To reject their obligations to the law was to reject the sanctuary of the law. Crime and corruption festered amongst the itinerants. Their undisciplined lives undermined the upright citizenry and encouraged the criminal element. The emperor implored them again and again to return to their homesteads and resume their proper livelihoods. Those who did not could not expect to escape punishment.
Gekkei—the man who’d inflicted this plight on her—registered Shoukei on the census as the daughter of this couple. Their child, previously in the care of an orphanage in a faraway village, was supposedly transferred here just before their deaths.
But Gobo had seen through the fabrication. The girl entrusted to her orphanage was none other than Chuutatsu’s supposedly dead daughter. One day she had said to Shoukei, “If this is indeed the case, then you must let me know all about it. This life must be so very difficult for you.”
Shoukei wept. A life spent growing food and raising animals was indeed a trying one.
“Just supposing that the princess herself was living way out here in the sticks, dressed in rags. She who was once known as the brightest gem in Hoso. The jewel in the crown.”
Shoukei buried her face in her hands and Gobo continued on in her soothing, coaxing voice. “An acquaintance of mine happens to be a wealthy merchant in the capital of Kei Province. He deeply mourns the passing of our late emperor.”
Shoukei was unable to hold back any longer. Her life could never be as it was before, but the promise of things improving even just a little, of being rescued from this grubby existence, enticed to her let down her guard.
“Oh, Gobo, please help me.” She collapsed in tears. “Gekkei, the marquis of Kei, he murdered my mother and father and abandoned me to this fate. He hates me.”
“Just as I thought.” Ice and steel stole into her voice. Shoukei raised her head in surprise. Gobo said, “You are that monster’s daughter.”
Shoukei could hear Gobo clenching her teeth and realized her mistake.
“He killed people like they were insects.”
It was because people broke the laws, Shoukei wanted to retort, but too intimidated to speak, she swallowed her words.
“He killed my son. All because he felt sorry for a child going to the block and threw a stone at the executioner. For that alone, he was condemned and sentenced to death by that jackal.”
“But . . . that was . . . ”
“So you think he should have been executed as well?”
Shoukei shook her head violently. “No, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about my father doing things like that.”
In fact, Shoukei was completely in the dark about what her mother and father had done. Sheltered within the heart of the palace, surrounded by wealth and fortune, she’d assumed that the rest of the world was the same way. It wasn’t until the soldiers gathered in the city below the palace and turmoil rent the air that it occurred to her that anyone might hate her father.
“You didn’t know? Do you expect me to believe the princess royal had no idea what was going on inside the Imperial Court? The whole kingdom fills to the brim with angry protests and laments for the dead and you don’t hear a word?”
“I honestly didn’t know.”
“You lived your shameless little life with no idea where the food came from to fill your dirty little mouth? From the people of this village, that’s where from! Who, despite all the burdens laid upon their backs, kept their shoulders to the wheel and put in one honest day’s work after another.”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t know about any of this!’
“To think, all that work to feed the likes of you!”
A sharp prick of pain brought Shoukei back to her senses. She’d nicked her finger on one of the teeth of the sickle. “Ow,” she said. There was pain in her heart as well as her finger. “I really didn’t know what was going on.”
Gobo made no bones about hating her. The other children in the orphanage and the people in the village disliked her as a matter of course. She had to work three times as hard as the other children, she was always the last one done, and everybody called her stupid.
“What did I ever do to them?”
She really hadn’t known. Her father and mother never granted her an audience at the Imperial Court. They never let her leave the palace. There’d been no way for her to find out what kind of place the kingdom was.
It took her three trips to haul the bales of maiden grass. By the time she was finally done, long shadows were falling across the road. Dinnertime at the orphanage was over.
“Where have you been, coming in at this hour?”
The snickers of the other girls at the orphanage fell upon her ears. Gobo looked at her with cold eyes. “Like I said, if you didn’t get back in time, there’s no dinner for you.”
Shoukei bit her lip. Three years had passed since coming to live here. She’d learned to endure her impoverished circumstances, her humble attire. But one thing she’d never do was beg for a bite to eat.
“That’s the way it goes for silly slowpokes like Gyokuyou.”
“Everybody knows what a freeloader she is.”
The slanders ringing in her ears, Shoukei dragged herself out of the dining hall.
The courtyard was bathed in the light of the harvest moon. The children were divided up among the rooms on either side of the courtyard, girls on one side, boys on the other. Shoukei lived with the rest of the girls in the rooms on the right side of the courtyard. This short period of time before the others returned to their rooms constituted one of the few moments of respite she had to herself.
Shoukei looked at the row of crude beds, the small tables and creaky chairs, and closed her eyes.
It’s all like a dream.
At the palace, she had the run of a building in one of the wings, albeit a small one. A big, luxurious bed. Many, many rooms. A garden bathed in sunlight where flowers bloomed and birds sang. Ladies-in-waiting, musicians and dancers at her disposal. Silk dresses and jewelry. Her playmates were the bright and graceful daughters of lords and ministers.
She slipped under the thin futon. The futon was damp and cool. The cold season was coming to the northern part of the country.
Her parents had been slaughtered, their heads separated from their bodies. That butcher Gekkei had done it. Rather than consign her to this miserable existence, why hadn’t he killed her as well? Because he wanted her to live in torment.
Shoukei closed her eyes.
It’d be fine with her if she never woke up again.