Hisho's Birds

Chapter 2

The Sekichou-shi stomped off in a huff.

Hisho waited until the footsteps disappeared into the distance before leaving himself, though not without feeling the bewildered eyes of the secretaries on his back. The summer sun hung low in the sky. He didn’t return to his own department. Instead he followed the main east-west thoroughfare straight through to the west quadrant of the Administrative Palace.

The Administrative Palace had a mostly southern exposure. In the center of its deepest recesses was a giant gate, carved into the slope of the mountain. This soaring structure was the Ro Gate, the only passageway within the Administrative Palace to the Imperial Court that covered the sprawling summit of the mountain above the clouds.

Only a select few could pass through the Ro Gate and set foot on the summit, no one except the ministers who served in the Imperial Court. The distance between the Administrative Palace and Gyouten was itself as vast as earth and sky. But a commoner might as well try to open the gates of Heaven as enter the Imperial Court.

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Hisho spared the Ro Gate a glance as he passed by and proceeded onto the Ministry of Winter. Numerous studios of numerous sizes surrounded the centrally located government offices. Hisho made his way through the winding maze of workspaces. However familiar the path, it did not accommodate foot traffic well.

The sounds and smells spilling over the high surrounding walls aroused in him old feelings of nostalgia. Noting the source of each ping of a hammer, every waft of the burnt odor of forged iron, he arrived at the far door and passed on through.

To be precise, the workshops were attached to the Ministry of Winter. The studios that constituted the core of a department consisted of four galleries surrounding a courtyard, with the daughter workshops attached to them variously scaled to function.

By and large, the workshops were significantly larger than the studios. As a result, departments in the Ministry of Winter were generally referred to by their associated workshops. Moreover, the studio Hisho was visiting didn’t even have a west gallery.

That quadrant of the courtyard dropped away as if neatly sliced away. Beyond the escarpment, a steep narrow valley nestled between two soaring peaks.

The faded gray peaks stood like a giant wall, blocking the view left and right. Between them peaked a sliver of sky. Beneath the sky, far off in the distance, the setting sun touched the faint ridgelines of the shrouded mountains.

Further below, the city of Gyouten should also be visible but was hidden behind a verdant curtain of green. Japanese pear trees covered the slope slanting away from the courtyard.

Shouran planted these mountain pears. Declaring that she had no desire to see the world below, again and again she had tossed pears from the courtyard. One fortunate seedling took root, grew tall and strong, and shed its fruit in turn. Over time, the flourishing pear trees took over the slopes of the ravine.

White flowers adorning the trees every spring like a snowy cloud that blanketed the ravine. It was a sight everyone made sure to see.

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Hisho conjured up the memory of Shouran narrowing her eyes and taking in the view. Strangely, somehow, she resembled that bird perched on the Sekichou-shi’s balcony. And yet the two shared nothing in common.

Lost in thought, a voice startled him out of his reverie.


A figure appeared from the north gallery, smiling as he ran over. “It’s been a while, Hisho-sama.”

“It has indeed. Are you doing well?”

The answer came in the form of a nod. A young man with a gentle demeanor who excelled at detailed design, his name was Seikou. He was a master craftsman, a specialist in ceramics. The workshops under his purview employed several dozen artisans. “Shishou,” they called him out of respect. As the master craftsman of the department, he was the Ra-jin who ran the studio.

“Please, please come in.”

Seikou all but grabbed Hisho by the hand. He seemed on the verge of tears. In fact, Hisho had not visited the department in close to a year. He’d once almost lived here. But lately, not only had he not visited, he’d barely left his own official residence. No sovereign on the throne meant the Rite of the Arrow would not be performed.

It was a good enough excuse for the Ra-shi’s departmental staff to stay holed up in their living quarters as well.

p. 25

That spring, Seikou sent a message inviting him to view the billowing clouds of pear blossoms. Hisho declined.

Hisho understood that, having not seen him around the studio and concerned about how he was faring, Seikou had invited him to the flower viewing. He also understood that the rejection might have hurt Seikou’s feelings. But Hisho simply couldn’t arouse in himself any desire to do so.

Despite the passage of time, the interior of the gallery was the same as he remembered. The benches and shelves all jammed together, the unending assortment of tools, the towering stacks of designs and blueprints. It’d been like this the year before. It’d been like this when Shouran was Ra-jin.

It was exactly like this when Hisho first set foot in here as Ra-shi. He glanced around, deeply impressed.

Seikou flushed. “It’s as messy as usual—”

“It is what it is. I doubt anybody remembers seeing it all neat and tidy.”

“Sorry,” Seikou muttered, scooping up an armful of tattered and worn papers and sketches. The tabletop was cluttered with what must be Seikou’s handiwork. They appeared to be old pieces of porcelain.

Noticing the objects of Hisho’s gaze, Seikou hung his head. “Um, I thought it might help to take another look at some of the older pieces.”

“I see.” With no guidance or direction coming from Hisho, Seikou would have been left to his own devices. “It looks like you’re doing some fine work here, but I’ll have to ask you to put it aside for a while.”

Seikou’s head popped up, an elated expression rising to his face. “To make new skeets?”

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“No choice but to. We’ve got an Archery Festival coming up soon.”

Hisho recounted the main points of his meeting with the Sekichou-shi to the startled Seikou.

Hearing more of the details, Seikou’s attitude just as quickly deflated. “There’s no time. Well, haste makes waste. I’ll leave it up to you to do the right thing.”

“And by the right thing—”

“Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the bird flies with a suitable amount of grace and breaks without ugly results. Everything starts with a little inspiration. Any ceremony that ends without incident is a success.”

“Except this will be the first Rite for our newly enthroned empress.” Hisho added with a wry smile, “One right after the other.”

“Hisho-sama,” Seikou said in a reproachful tone.

“Another empress, you see.”

He could well imagine what the reign of an empress was like. She’d daydream on the throne for so many years, tire of those dreams, abdicate and die. Empress Yo lasted all of six years. Before her, Empress Hi made it to twenty-three. And before her, Empress Haku was done in sixteen. Three generations of empresses had not outlived the reign of a single emperor.

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“Inspiration has its limits. Put on a show and leave everyone happy. That’s good enough for me.”

Seikou stared down at his feet with sad eyes. “Please don’t say such things. Give us another splendid Rite like the ones before.

“I am out of ideas. And out of time. Let’s pull out one of our old designs, add a few clever touches here and there, tweak things for the sake of variety.”

Seikou hung his head as if personally wounded. “I’ll go get the plans. Please wait here.”

Seikou cut a sad figure exiting the studio. Seikou was Shouran’s student. He’d been promoted from craftsman to Ra-jin when Shouran disappeared from the scene. That was around the same time Hisho stopped giving the porcelain birds much thought. They were only used in the Rite of the Arrow, but if the workmanship wasn’t given daily attention, a sudden deadline could catch them flat-footed.

And yet Hisho hadn’t made a single bird since Seikou was promoted to Ra-jin. Hisho knew that Seikou blamed himself, believing he lacked the skills to carry off Hisho’s vision.

Hisho sat in Seikou’s chair. A potpourri of old plans and prototypes were arrayed across the table. A blue bird sat atop an orderly pile of documents, perhaps in lieu of a paperweight. An old thing handed down from Ra-jin to Ra-jin.

In the center of the square slab of porcelain was a glazed etching of a long-tailed bird. The picture of a magpie.

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It seemed a trifling knickknack, until a crack in the porcelain caught his attention. Looking more closely, several fine fissures crisscrossed the magpie’s tail, marking where the broken pieces had been glued back together.

“This is good repair work.”

Seikou must have done it. He’d been tutored under Shouran’s watchful eye. There was no reason to question abilities like these.

Hisho picked up the porcelain bird and examined it. It had heft and weight. A light skeet flew well and fast, too well and fast for the archers to hit. A certain degree of mass was necessary, but also with the base hollowed out a bit to increase the drag and time aloft.

This was the prototypical shape of a skeet in its initial stages.

From this point, the Ra-shi would revise and innovate. First was to adjust its weight and shape to fly as slowly as possible, for as long as possible, so it could be accurately struck. At the same time, all due attention must be paid to appearances.

What was once a round or square slab of porcelain took on various forms, not just the exquisite patterns glazed on the surface but including inlaid gold and gems. Finally (but perhaps most importantly) was engineering the flight characteristics while testing the raw materials and manufacturing processes to optimize the manner in which the skeet broke apart.

These days, a “porcelain bird” was not necessarily a clay skeet. The word was a holdover from older times and the name had stuck. In ancient times, accounts suggested that a variety of actual birds were targeted in the ceremony, beginning with the magpie.

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However, the Saiho (who was also the prime minister) detested the shedding of blood. So despite it being a long-held custom, it also became a custom for the Saiho not to attend. And so the custom ceased being one.

Whatever the origins, at some point in the history of every kingdom, porcelain became the universal substitute. Instead of being shot, live birds were released in the Imperial Gardens in quantities comparable to the number of struck skeets.

Nobody knew why the magpie had been singled out. Perhaps because the magpie’s song heralded good tidings for the future. Perhaps the point of the whole exercise all along hadn’t been shooting the bird but rather setting free that many magpies.

In other words, the more skeets that were shot, the more the courtyards were filled with the sound of these harbingers of joy.

To be sure, successive generations of Sekichou-shi and Ra-shi had innovated and engineered the shooting and the breaking of the skeets until the ultimate objective of the Rite of the Arrow became that of shooting an arrow at a porcelain bird.

Skeets that sang their own songs was Hisho’s greatest achievement. And certainly produced his most boisterous Rite. At the time, Soken was serving as Sekichou-shi. The event took place in final years of the Li Dynasty. Of course, nobody knew at the time that those were the final years.

Hisho’s skills were rewarded with promotion to Ra-shi. As Sekichou-shi, Soken was by then a wise old hand and shared with Hisho everything he needed to know. Soken led with a gentle touch and always with his mind open to new ideas. Producing the Rite of the Arrow together was a constant delight.

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Every design that worked gave birth to another. He and Soken conferred often with the Ra-jin, that by then included Shouran. The three of them slaved away night and day, perfecting their craft through trial and error.

Known as a Sekichou-shi among all Sekichou-shi, Soken often referred to Hisho as a Ra-shi among all Ra-shi.

Quite taken with the singing skeets, Emperor Li descended below the clouds and visited the offices of the Sekichou-shi to reward them personally. Those inhabiting the Administrative Palace had never known such an honor.

How much better their lives would have been if the world had continued on just the way it was at that moment. But the emperor betrayed such expectations.

The next time, they planned to design a skeet that associated a fragrance with every note that sang out when the skeet broke. While they worked to bring that idea to fruition, the reign of Emperor Li began to decay.

The next Archery Festival should have taken place three years hence, in order to commemorate the emperor’s sixtieth year on the throne. Except that Emperor Li was already sinking into despotism.

No one could say for certain what brought it about. Some suggested the assassination of the crown prince created deep fissures between the emperor and his closest associates. The identity of the assassin never came to light.

An aura of paranoia possessed the emperor. Rumors about his mistreatment of the ministers not only increased but circulated beneath the clouds and soon touched those close to Hisho.

The emperor seemed be testing his retinue in every possible respect, thrusting upon them impossible tasks, demanding excessive displays of loyalty. The Sekichou-shi was no exception. The word came down that the Rite performed to celebrate his sixtieth anniversary should outdo the last one.

There was no need to read between the lines to see the “or else” hovering there in the air.

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Even now, recalling those times, Hisho felt his chest tightening up. There was no joy in the work he and his fellow artisans did, only the weight of a heavy duty imposed on them. The Sekichou-shi’s superiors couldn’t stop butting in, telling them to do this and do that and get it done faster.

The expectation that they must put on a performance for the ages weighed on their shoulders. The constant interference from above without any regard for the circumstances turned the preparatory work for the next Rite of the Arrow into a long slog in ball and chains.

Nevertheless, the Rite itself proved a success. The delighted Emperor Li declared they had indeed outdone themselves. Soken and Hisho were not pleased with the results. Despite the splendor with which the porcelain birds broke, Hisho didn’t hear the sound of good tidings.

At the Rite, the ranks of the government officials Hisho had known for ages had thinned out like a tattered carpet.

Before an emperor so lacking in confidence, the struck skeets fell like icy shards. No matter how splendidly the shattered flowers bloomed, or how richly the fragrances that sprang forth accompanied the songs they sang, it was a hollow performance.

Despite that—or precisely because of it—Soken only looked forward with new plans in mind.

“This time, we should strive to set the emperor’s mind at ease. What do you think?”

Looking like a mischievous child plotting a clever prank, Soken directed his question to Hisho, who sat sprawled across a chair in the courtyard.

“Fine with me. How do you propose to do that?”

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Soken gazed up at the heavens. “Hmm,” he said. “Lively and florid alone will not suffice if it does not elevate the spirits. Neither will good feelings, not without softening the heart, naturally bringing a smile to the face. That’s how. The smile comes, he glances around and sees the same smile on the faces of his ministers. The confirmation of that mutual good humor, those shared emotions, quiets the heart. What do you think?”

Hisho responded with a wry smile. “Again you ask me to comprehend the incomprehensible.”

“Incomprehensible? Look, it’s what you feel gazing at a sublime scene. You find yourself smiling and sense that something ineffable is being communicated.”

“Oh, I understand feelings just fine. The problem is giving them a physical form.”

“Physical form, eh?” Soken tilted his head to the side. “Physical form?” he muttered, tilting his head in the opposite direction. “In any case, I don’t think we’re talking about traditional court music.”

“Court music,” or as the official documents phrased it, “music of a refined nature,” referred to classical music that “dignified” imperial rituals and festivals. The authorized instruments must be “classical” and any lyrics accompanying the melody closer to that of a liturgy than a popular song.

Such compositions favored didacticism over the artfulness of the tune. The arrangements were less concerned with the power of “music” than that of the incantation—certainly suffused with solemnity but lacking any of the joy of actual music.

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“What about folk music?”

“That’s it!” Soken exclaimed, leaping to his feet. “Folk music would literally strike the right chord. I don’t mean the vulgar sort of tunes that spring up at social soirees. Something lighter—”

“Like a nursery rhyme?”

“A nursery rhyme. Not bad. Or a working song. The maids down at the river doing the washing, their voices flowing together as one. One melody from this side and another from the other. How about that?”

Hisho regarded Soken, his eyes gleaming, with a droll expression and then turned his attention to Shouran. Sitting on a stone at the edge of the courtyard, she was tossing pears and listening to the back and forth between Hisho and Soken. The smile on her face suggested getting stuck supervising a room full of young whelps.

“Give it a try. See what happens. It’s all the same to me.” Shouran threw away the last pear. Thanks to her persistence, a forest of pear trees was spreading across the ravine below. “But there’s a big difference between a folk song and court music. The melody and rhythm of the latter is logical and mechanical, the opposite of the former.”

“Oh, you could pull it off, Shouran.”

The old man took hold of Shouran’s hand in supplication. Shouran arched her brows and cast Hisho a sideways glance. Hisho managed not to laugh and sighed instead.

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“Deriving the notes would require breaking single skeets and arranging the notes one by one, trusting the ear to keep everything in tune and on time. Then following the music and sending more skeets flying. We’ll need a contraption to launch them.”

“A stanza from this side, a stanza from the other,” Soken chimed in, this being his baby, after all.

Hisho nodded. “Several launchers would be necessary. One for each measure of music. Set up the sites and lay down markers where the archers will shoot the porcelain birds. Nail everything down in advance.”

“You’re talking about mobilizing the whole Ministry of Winter.”

Shouran groaned but there was a smile in her eyes. Engineering the raw materials, designing the launchers, producing the skeets—at the end of the day, it always came down to borrowing more craftsmen from the Ministry of Winter and throwing the whole department into disarray.

Strangely enough, their fellow artisans weren’t the least put out. Neither was Shouran. Being asked to do the impossible put a fire in the bellies of the artisans. They griped that every proposal Soken and Hisho brought them made unprecedented and unreasonable demands. Yet they pitched in with as much enthusiasm as they cursed and complained.

Hisho was no different. However trying it was having these goals forced upon him—being tasked to fashion porcelain magpies that had never been made before—he took great pleasure in pressing forward and accomplishing the impossible mission before him.

The higher the hurdles the last time, the greater the reward the next.

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During this period, Seikou came to the department as an apprentice craftsman. Although untested and untrained, he threw himself into the work with great enthusiasm.

Then came the day when a platoon of soldiers burst into the workshop and hauled Soken away.

Even today, Hisho didn’t understand the chain of events that led the Soken’s arrest. He knew the charge was that of treason, except Soken didn’t harbor a speck of hostility toward the emperor.

Some sort of mistake must have led to him being falsely charged with the crime. But so tangled was the web of intrigue that Hisho couldn’t wrap his head around the details. His protests that Soken couldn’t possibly be involved in a rebellion fell on deaf ears.

To start with, he had no idea where to direct his complaints. Fearing guilt by association, their superiors shunned them. And their superiors, up to and including the minister himself, lived above the clouds, out of reach.

Hisho resolved to contest the charges on Soken’s behalf, but the means did not exist to arrange a meeting with the prosecutors. He tried his hand at writing an amicus brief and received no reply. He couldn’t even be sure it’d been passed to anybody in authority.

In any event, the wheels of justice turned only in heaven, or somebody told him in a consoling manner. At least Hisho and Shouran could rest assured they had escaped the dragnet, or so their colleagues also told them. Soken had probably offered himself up as the guilty party and covered for everybody else.

In the end, though once suspected as co-conspirators, the investigation into Hisho and Shouran got dropped. That only made the consequences harder to bear.

The only time Hisho was given reason to believe that one of his requests had been answered, it turned out to be for the worst reason imaginable. As Soken had no living relatives, when Hisho showed up for the meeting, he was given charge of Soken’s remains.

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Exhausted of rage and tears, Hisho did as he was told. On his way back from the prison, Soken’s head in his hands, Hisho arrived at a certain conviction—that the song of the magpie was a harbinger of joy. And that shooting the magpie should in no way be taken as a good omen.

Audience should not delight in a porcelain magpie being shot and broken. The skeets should never have been the targets in the first place. Not to be shot and not to be broken. But the Rite of the Arrow was all about shooting a porcelain bird. It never should have been, except that it was from such rituals that the emperor established his imperial authority.

These were not glad tiding. This was an evil omen. An emperor who abused his power brought about only calamity. The Rite of the Arrow was all the proof Hisho needed.

Several days after Soken’s funeral, Hisho stopped by the workshop. “Let’s do away with the aromas,” he told Shouran.

Shouran started a bit and looked down at her hands. “Fine by me. But considering all the work we’ve put in so far—”

A number of silver pellets rolled around a small tray. Inside each was a drop of fragrant oil. This is what Soken had been aiming for. He’d obsessed over these fragrances. He wanted something that not only appealed to the senses but also raised the spirits. Exhilarating but also satisfying.

Such an aroma, Soken insisted, would be the best. To that end, he consulted with arborists in the Ministry of Winter, haunted the workshops, blended fragrant oils, and engineered the size of the tiny spheres to best release their scents.

Now, after Soken’s death, they’d just about got it right.

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“It’ll be better without it. And change the sound the skeets make when they break. There should be shadows in the sound, hints of darkness. And the composition should be anything but upbeat. Something approaching the somber court music played at imperial funerals.”

Shouran restrained herself to a thin smile and sighed. “In other words, back to where we started.” She again stared down at the tray, her eyes tinged by regret, or rather, grief. “But we can’t very well be performing a funeral dirge. That would hardly inspire hope for the future.”

“Folk music will be fine. But nothing bright and cheering. Make the music more melancholy.”

“Oh,” Shouran muttered in an emotionally opaque voice.

She didn’t raise any other objections. The fragrances were removed, the music made more melancholy. But on no occasion would Emperor Li see or hear any of it. He died in the sixty-eighth year of his reign.

In the intervening years, when the throne sat vacant, Hisho continued to make the porcelain magpies. Somewhere along the way, a question posed by Seikou prompted him to see the porcelain magpie as representing the people themselves.

“Why a magpie?”

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Seikou had exemplary skills and a good head on his shoulders. Since losing Soken, as if to fill that hole, Shouran had taken him under her wing and given him her full attention.

“Well,” Hisho explained, “they say the song of the magpie is a harbinger of better times to come.”

Seikou tilted his head to the side. “When it comes to good omens, aren’t other birds better qualified to fill that role? Prettier and more unique birds? It’s strange.”

“It is strange,” Shouran agreed, pausing in the midst of the delicate craftsmanship she was engaged in. Her eyes glowed with curiosity. “When you put it that way, it’s hard to disagree with. Why not the phoenix or the peacock?”

Because we can’t go around shooting phoenix and peacock, Hisho thought with a wry grin. Yet he couldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. It was strange.

There was nothing unique about a magpie, a commonplace sort of bird, widely observed in villages and fields. A black head and feathers like a raven, white only along the scapulars and belly, and similar coloring along tail as long as its body.

The slender wings and long tail possessed a certain grace. But neither the hues nor the pattern of the coloring particularly caught the eye, and the magpie’s song did not resonate in the ear. Like the sparrow and other commonplace birds, it pecked at the ground in the spring. In the fall it scavenged among fallen nuts and berries. It was more likely to be seen walking or hopping along the ground than soaring in flight.

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A humble peasant of a bird, Hisho suddenly thought. Like a humble peasant.

An ordinary person found anywhere, wearing simple clothing and spending his life tilling the ground. No smarter than his neighbors, an appearance that attracted no one’s attention. He had no special skills to polish, no books to bury his nose in. At best, like Hisho, he might achieve the rank of a minor bureaucrat, never aspiring to rise above the clouds.

Putting in one honest day after the other, neither would he envy those who did. Without a doubt, the magpie was a peasant bird.

A peasant satisfied with his lot in life, who could laugh heartily and sing with joy—that should be taken as a good omen. The happiness of his subjects was evidence that the rule of an emperor was just and right. The longer the people sang, the longer his dynasty would last.

Hisho’s gut told him that delighting in the shooting of the porcelain magpies was wrong. In this he knew he was not mistaken. It was imperial authority that let those same arrows fly at the emperor’s subjects, ordinary people who fell broken by the wayside. Nobody should rejoice as the arrows hit their mark.

That error only served to confirm the dreadful reach of imperial power. It must serve no other purpose.

Hisho wished to make a porcelain magpie that aroused in the archer feelings of guilt, that equally stung the hearts of the onlookers.


“Well, here’s what I’ve been able to turn up.”

p. 40

Hisho turned around, Seikou’s voice abruptly bringing him back to the here and now. Seikou came in carrying an armful of papers and documents.

“Fortunately, all of your plans have been preserved.”

“You don’t say,” said Hisho, letting out a breath. “Sort through them and choose one that best fits the occasion.”

Seikou’s head slumped to his chest. “So that’s how little you think of my abilities?”

“I believe I’m saying the exact opposite.”

No. Seikou silently shook his head. Hisho murmured to himself, Yes. Feeling the weight in his hand, he looked down. He was still holding onto that porcelain magpie.

They intended to select one of the old plans and start making it. This proved a more difficult process than Hisho had imagined. Even with the plans on hand, it was Shouran who’d made them. The manufacturing process started with Shouran and was largely borne by the workshop artisans, making generous allowances for all their peculiarities and eccentricities.

The craftsmen from the Ministry of Winter figured out every last detail through laborious trial and error, down to the materials and the finishing processes. Without taking into consideration their eyes and hands, no one would know where to begin.

In actuality, the production workers made the final product, but always with a master craftsmen there on the production floor telling and showing them, hands-on, how to get the job done. In short, without the whole crew available, they would have to start from scratch.

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Moreover, since the end of the Li dynasty, the Kingdom of Kei had been gripped by waves of unrest. Just as Shouran was no longer with them, many of the artisans were nowhere to be found and few remembered the lessons taught by their master craftsmen.

Resurrecting the past and building a porcelain magpie the same as before was impossible. Most of the work would have to commence from the trial-and-error stage. Building brand new wouldn’t take any less time or effort.

On the other hand, the less they were constrained by the past, the faster things might move along.

They could go fishing through the old designs until the sun went down. In the meantime, the new empress would be formally invested. In accordance with established custom, when the new empress entered the Imperial Palace, every minister with sufficient standing would greet her above the clouds.

Nobody in Hisho’s position ever saw the new sovereign. He wouldn’t recognize her face or be familiar with her personality. Word had come down from above the clouds that she was from a foreign country. A little girl out of her element, with barely an ounce of common sense and scared of her own shadow.

Not again, Hisho thought, the will to make the porcelain birds waning further.

Empress Haku indulged in luxury, not in self-reflection. Rising to a station higher than she ever could have imagined, and being showered by riches beyond belief, she never again descended among the hoi polloi.

Empress Hi, on the other hand, reveled in power for its own sake. With the wag of her finger, she jerked the bureaucracy and her subjects one way and then the other as the mood struck her.

Empress Yo couldn’t care less about either. She secluded herself in the recesses of the palace, refused her own authority, rejected the kingdom and her own people. When at last she appeared in the Imperial Court, she had already strayed far from the Way, little better than a despot.

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And now her successor had entered the Imperial Palace. It wasn’t long before Sekichou-shi summoned Hisho back to his office and once again gave him the white-glove treatment, all smiles and good humor.

“So, how are things going? Got a great plan in the works?”

“No,” Hisho said bluntly.

Suiryou furrowed his brows in consternation. He quickly regained his composure. “Call it good luck or bad, but it seems the Rite of the Arrow is going to be delayed more than I expected. The enthronement ceremony will be giving the Rite a pass this time around.”

“A pass?” Hisho queried with a perplexed expression of his own.

Suiryou frowned. “Don’t ask why. I haven’t the slightest idea. Whether a whim of the empress or something her lofty advisors came up with, they haven’t bothered to spare us the hint of an explanation.”

“Understood.” Hisho nodded.

“In any case, the first Archery Festival will be held during the winter solstice. It’s regrettable that we won’t be able to perform the rite at the enthronement, but then again, this will give you plenty of time to get ready.”

The ceremony to entreat Heaven for divine protection always took place on the winter solstice. The first winter solstice after the enthronement was particularly important to both king and kingdom. It was only natural that the Archery Festival should play a part.

It was two months until the winter solstice and there’d be no delaying that date. Even starting fresh, unencumbered by the past, they’d be lucky to make the deadline.

“The future of the Ministry of Winter depends on this. Everything is riding on your shoulders. Your job is create something that will do the Ministry proud.”

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