Dreaming of Paradise

Chapter 2

1-2 Sairin said, "So there's nothing to worry about. Is there, Shuka?"

Shuka managed a reassuring smile. She was in an opulent bedroom. Buried beneath the embroidered futon, the young girl turned her white, sickly-looking face toward her. Her unblinking eyes seemed to cling to Shuka. Her sunken cheeks bore the scratches from the withered tree branch.

"Yes, that's right, Taiho."

The girl seemed relieved. She again pressed the branch against her cheek. Another welt appeared along with the others. Shuka had never seen it before, this dried-out old branch that was wounding her so.

The bejeweled Imperial Regalia was obviously not this dried-out old branch. Sairin had given that one to the king's brother, Junkou. He had entreated her, she had relented, and he had presented it to his brother, who like the Yellow Emperor was befuddled as to the management of the Kingdom.

Even that seems to have slipped everybody's mind— Shuka glanced down. Her tightly-clasped hands trembled slightly. She'd heard Sairin was not well. At least that was the reason given for her fewer and fewer public appearances. Two weeks ago they had stopped altogether. For her to be confined to her bed this long pointed to only one conclusion.

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The kirin chose the king. When the king strayed from the Way, persecuted the people, and laid waste to the land, the kirin bore the weight of that failure. Heaven made its choice known through the kirin, and took the throne away from a failed king by taking the life of the kirin.

Hence, the sickness brought on when the king strayed from the Way was called the shitsudou, meaning literally, "the loss of the Way."

For the Saiho to be struck down by the shitsudou meant the dynasty's demise. The ministers were all scrambling about trying to discover the truth of Sairin's condition. But none of them had the means to ascertain her actual condition, for she had secluded herself in her manor. Permission to visit had not been granted. Her personal physician, the Royal Surgeon, wouldn't divulge anything.

The Chousai convened the Rikkan and together they converged upon Jinjuu Manor. Finally, Shuka alone was granted an audience.

Shuka wondered why the Chousai, the head of the Rikkan, had not himself sought an audience. But now it was obvious that Sairin could no longer leave her sickbed. Hence Shuka, the sole woman in the Rikkan, had been allowed to see her.

She is ill. The downfall of the Shishou Dynasty had begun. Seeing Sairin's condition made it clear.

"Daishito—" said the lady in waiting. Her unspoken message was that it was time to leave.

Shuka stood there wordlessly, head bowed. The weeping Sairin still clung to the withered branch. Shuka nodded. She touched Sairin's hand.

"Taiho, I have to leave now. Please rest and be well."

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Sairin looked up at her, horror in her eyes. "Shuka, you're not going to abandon me as well?"

"There is nobody in Sai that could abandon the Taiho."

"But His Highness has. Sai and me and everybody."

"Oh, that can't be true. They wouldn't do that. It's just that everybody is as such loose ends and all. It won't be long until His Highness is back to his old self."

She forced a painful smile to her lips. But Sairin shook her head forcefully. "That's not true. Not in the slightest. He said he would show me his dreams."

"And I'm sure he will. But there are bound to be setbacks while building for a long dynasty. That's all this is."

"You're lying!" Sairin cried out. The only vibrant thing in her drawn, enervated face was the color of her eyes, eyes that relentlessly followed her. And even they seemed colored by animosity. Shuka could not believe that this young girl, the incarnation of benevolence, could be capable of such an expression.

"A vision of paradise—" Her hoarse voice made it sound like a curse. She tightly clasped the branch to her chest, as if clinging to her last hope.

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"Taiho, you need to rest."

"From the start, it was nothing but a dream. And drifting farther and farther away." She grabbed Shuka's arm as if to prevent her from leaving. "Help me. It is too unbearable. I feel as if I'm being torn limb from limb."

Shuka couldn't think of anything to say. The thin fingers dug into her flesh.

"Taiho, please—"

The lady in waiting intervened between them. With a look she urged her to withdraw. "Daishito, you should take your leave as well."

Shuka bowed and turned toward the door. Behind her she heard a thin, high scream. "You're lying! You're lying! Not once have these dreams ever come true in Sai!"

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