Dreaming of Paradise

Part Two

Despite Shuka's concerns, most of the ministers adopted Shishou's sense of conviction as their own and cast their doubts aside. Any diagnosis of Sairin's illness as the shitsudou must be mistaken. And even if it wasn't, if they all put their shoulders to the wheel, her condition was sure to improve.

An optimistic atmosphere suffused the Imperial Court. But the liveliness that had returned to government affairs pained Shuka all the more.

Shishou took to the administration of the kingdom with greater vigor. But for all this enthusiasm, his governance was as chaotic as ever. Shishou's words and actions never matched the clarity of his faith and vision. Confusion blossomed like dandelions. What was stated as a fact at noon would be contradicted by sunset, the cycle repeating itself several more times for good measure before the day was done.

From Shuka's perspective, this was proof that, rattled by Sairin's illness, Shishou was wildly changing course. Whether intentionally oblivious to what he was doing or not, he drove himself into one corner after another, just as he had before.

Anybody pointing this out to him would be severely censured. With the rule of law becoming as certain as a drunken man's walk, the Daishikou also remonstrated with Shishou. The exasperated Shishou lashed back, shaking up the Imperial Court once again. Those ministers who had turned their eyes from the possibility before were forced to consider that he had indeed strayed from the Way.

p. 218

The Privy Council sank into a collective depression. And then in the midst of all this, early one morning Shuka was shaken awake.


"I'm sorry for disturbing your sleep, but something had come up. The Shousai is here."

Shuka leapt out of bed. That the vice-minister of the Ministry of Heaven should be visiting the manse at this hour—

"Did he say why?"

"Something of a confidential nature. He appears very distraught. I've been trying to get him to calm down. The sooner the better, if you don't mind. I've shown him into the parlor."

"What about Eishuku?"

"He arrived home after you went to bed, dead on his feet. He's asleep in the study. It'll take you a few minutes to get dressed, so I guess now would be a good time to wake him up. He's bound to be in a bad mood, though."

Shuka nodded. She changed quickly. Straightening her clothing she noticed that her hands were shaking. She couldn't dismiss from her mind the thought that something bad had happened to Sairin.

p. 219

She left the bedroom, her head spinning, and hurried down the hall to the parlor. The pale face of the Shousai came into view. Before the question could leave her mouth, Eishuku rushed in after her.

"Something's happened—"

The Shousai bowed. He was trembling noticeably. "The Chousai requests that you come at once to the Left Palace Annex."

"The Taiho—" The same question had obviously been on Eishuku's mind.

The Shousai shook his head. "Not the Taiho. The Taishi. The Taishi is dead."

Shuka started and looked at Eishuku. When he acceded to the throne, Shishou had listed his parents and siblings on the Registry of Wizards, bestowing royal titles on them, and set them up in the Imperial Palace.

Daishou, his father, had made a name for himself as a great man of character, as had Daishou's younger brothers and sister, Shinshi foremost among them. Shishou's younger brother, Junkou, had backed him since the founding of Kouto.

All of his immediate family members had been given high positions in the government. Shishou made Daishou Taishi (Lord Privy Seal) and head of the Sankou. Shinshi was the Taifu (Minister of the Left), his second-in-command. And Junkou filled the final seat as the Taiho (Minister of the Right).

According to long-established precedent, his family members were given manors in the East Palace complex, including Daishou. There was no reason for bad fortune to befall him. And as he was listed on the Registry of Wizards, no reason for any unexpected disease to strike him down.

"That's unbelievable."

p. 220

"It seems that—that someone took his head—"

Shuka cried out in alarm. Eishuku advanced on the man like a shot. "Such a thing is not possible! Are you saying that the Taishi was murdered?"

"Y-yes," said the Shousai, bowing even lower.

It had happened as dawn was breaking. In Choumei Palace at the heart of the Imperial Palace, Shinshi had come running to the nightwatchmen's station in a high state of distress. Something strange was going on in the Seiden.

Shinshi lived in Choumei Palace with Daishou. Daishou had rooms in the Seiden, while Shinshi lived in a nearby manor. She said she'd been woken up by a strange feeling. An unexpected sound, a sense of foreboding. Unable to get back to sleep, her attention was drawn to the Seiden where Daishou was staying. She went to his room in Choumei Palace.

The servants who trailed after her were equally shocked by what they found there. The furniture was upended and thrown about. Blood covered the walls and pooled on the floor. And in the middle of the pool was Daishou's practically headless body.

"Shishou's mother? What about her?"

"She appears shaken, but in one piece."

p. 221

The servants woke the rest of the staff and left Shinshi in their care. They were about to fetch somebody from the Ministry of Summer stationed at the East Palace guard tower. Yet upon opening the gate, they discovered the two nightwatchmen stationed there were in the same sad state as Daishou.

"Nobody knows who penetrated the perimeter? What about the other residents of the East Palace?"

"They are all in their residences. Except for the Taiho."

"The Taiho—you mean, Junkou?"

"Yes," the Shousai nodded, raising his white face. "We're searching for him, but he seems to have disappeared. We've questioned his servants in Kaei Palace. They say he left to visit the Taishi and never returned."

A profound silence followed. The death of the King's father and the King's brother apparently absconding—what did it all mean?

"I can't believe it—" Shuka gasped, looking at Eishuku.

He shook his head. It wasn't possible. Junkou was the polar opposite from his brother, trusting and straightforward, yet discrete. He wouldn't hurt a fly. Not to mention that Daishou was his natural father. Patricide was out of the question.

p. 222

Eishuku must have thinking the same thoughts. He nodded. "In any case, keep looking for him. What about His Highness?"

"He's been informed. Things being what they are, for the time being His Highness asked that only the Rikkan be informed, and privately. He will be waiting for the Chousai in the Left Palace Annex along with the Taifu and Taisai. He would like to confer with you as soon as possible."

"I'll leave at once," Eishuku replied.

He quickly got ready and left for the Naiden Annex. After seeing him off, Shuka sat down on the floor of the manse in stupefied amazement.

What was going on?

The dynasty was faltering, the ministers were in a constant state of consternation, and then this abomination. The murder of the king's father, of all things, and the disappearance of the king's brother. The East Palace where they lived was located deep within the heavily-protected Imperial Palace. Access to the king and those who lived with him was forbidden to all but a select number of servants from the Ministry of Heaven.

Shinshi was Eishuku's natural mother, but even Eishuku hadn't once visited his mother in the East Palace. Guards from the Ministry of Summer watched the gate and did not venture into the palace grounds. Only in the deepest part of the Imperial Palace would the guards be content to guard the gates alone.


Shuka knelt on the cold floor. Accompanied by the scent of herbs, a cup of tea was placed in front of her.

p. 223

"You've certainly been in low spirits all night."


"You may feel that way, but there's no sense in making yourself physically low. You're going to catch cold." Seiki grinned as he helped her to her feet and sat her down in a chair. "Now sit there and calm down. It doesn't look like any kind of revolt is in the works."

"Not a revolt," Shuka repeated.

"What kind of revolt would target the Taishi?"

"You do have a point there," Shuka said to herself, picking up the teacup. The smooth porcelain warmed her palm. "Yes, it cannot be a revolt. Perhaps a grudge or vendetta. But by whom?"

"Who knows. But basically speaking, aside from the people who live there, only officials from the Ministry of Heaven and the Ministry of Summer and the guards have access to the East Palace."

"Someone among them?"

p. 224

"By process of elimination, but I still have to wonder. The Taishi was not a person who gave people any reason to hate him. Not to mention that carrying weapons into the East Palace is strictly prohibited. The guards at the gate are armed, but they must take off their swords before venturing inside. Not even the King is exempt. Other than the people living there—"

Shuka almost dropped the teacup, catching herself at the last second. "Seiki—you're not suggesting—!"

"But we've ruled out any of the residents of the East Palace. We've got to follow this logic through to the bitter end."

"Y-yes, you are right—"

"The guards at Choumei Palace were probably not killed by a visitor to the palace. It was the nightwatchmen who were on duty, you see. If we rule out those living in the East Palace, then before getting to Choumei Palace, they must have first passed through the East Palace. If the East Palace guards had spied anybody, then they surely would have warned the Choumei Palace guards."

"Seiki, if that's true, then that can only mean somebody in the East Palace—"

p. 225

Seiki smiled patiently. "That's why I said to wait till I was through. If it was someone from outside the East Palace, they would've had to pass through the East Palace gates. There are guards posted there, so they couldn't have done so unnoticed. It was the dead of night, to begin with, and the guards wouldn't just take somebody's word for it and open the gates. This does seem to point to an occupant in the East Palace. However, there are a number of manors in the palace complex, and walls between them, and guards posted at the gates. The gates are secured at night when the nightwatchmen take over. Wouldn't somebody in the East Palace wishing to visit somebody in Choumei Palace first have to exit the gates of his own residence?"

"That would be the case."

"How would this madman keep the guards of his own residence from talking?"

"Well, the same way as the guards at Choumei Palace—"

"I'm afraid that would only make the situation worse. True, it would keep them from talking, but killing one's own guards would be a dead giveaway. So much for your alibi."

Shuka nodded in agreement. "Then who? If not someone inside the East Palace, and not someone outside the East Palace—?"

"Thinking this through logically, then the most suspicion would fall on Junkou-sama, especially with him not being around to defend himself. But I don't think so."

Seiki tilted his head to the side, a strange expression rising to his face.

p. 226


"Oh, nothing. Just that I was suddenly struck by a curious thought. I'm sure it has nothing to do with this."

"What has nothing to do with this?"

Seiki hesitated. "No, really," he insisted. But then he wasn't so certain. "Well, it occurred to me that there might be another gate."

"Another gate?"

"Yes, a gate inside the East Palace."

Shuka's eyes widened with surprise. Yes, there definitely was. A gate leading from the Koukyuu to the East Palace. It would allow someone to enter the East Palace without passing through the palace gates.


Only Shishou had access to it. Shishou had been sleeping that night in the Imperial Residence in the Seishin. The Koukyuu ("the palace at the back") was immediately behind the Seishin, and there was that passageway to the East Palace.

p. 227

The Koukyuu wasn't in use and had been shuttered and locked, as were the gates leading to it. No guards were posted there. In short, somebody in the Seishin could make his way undetected into the East Palace simply by removing a lock and a bolt.

"No, no, this is no time to be harboring such vile thoughts. Not when everything is still up in the air."


A thought flitted through her mind. Enraged by the Daishikou's remonstrations, Shishou had rebuked and then sacked him. Shishou of late, despite his spirited behavior, had clearly lost it. If Daishou had found fault with Shishou, and in the end they had come to blows—

"No, no. Aren't the East Palace and the Koukyuu separated by walls? Kijuu can't be ridden inside the Imperial Palace, but only because of custom and protocol, not because kijuu aren't incapable of it. That means someone with a flying kijuu could skirt that obstacle quite easily. It'd be possible to approach the Imperial Palace above the Sea of Clouds and make your way into the East Palace. Even a foreign spy could pull off something like that. The walls and gates are more feel-good measures and ways of preserving people's privacy, not guaranteed no-trespassing measures."

p. 228

"Yes, that is true," Seiki said with an emphatic nod. Then his face grew grayer. "In any case, Taiho Sairin is an equal concern. We don't want something like this making her condition any worse."

previous Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved. next