Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
Courtier * Imperial * Empress
The One Guided by Ancestors Not One’s Own
She is bored, restless. In mourning, even an Empress is restricted to her chambers.
“Where is Natsuki?” Hisahime demands of a servant one chilly morning, peering through the sheer silk of her funeral veil. “I command her to attend my presence.” The servant skitters away, bowing, flustered, returns with a white-faced Bayushi Natsuki.
Hisahime’s breath catches for a moment at the sight of her yojimbo, her love, resplendent in deep crimson kimono and hakma with black armour over it lacquered and polished until it reflects the lantern light in the Empress’s dressing chamber. “I am summoned, Daughter of Heaven?” Natsuki says with a deep, precise bow.
Hisahime dismisses her dressing woman with a wave, finds her words, says, “I notice you do not attend my chambers at night anymore.” Her eyes, burning behind the dark veil, seek Natsuki’s gaze, and find only the top of a head of thick black hair.
“Certainly my Empress knows that many ears are now pressed to even her private screens. A girl’s fantasies are snuffed out, knowing of those eager listeners.” Natsuki waits, tension in every line of her body.
Hisahime’s nostrils flare. “I COMMAND you, then! Must it be such? Please, Natsuki.”
Dropping to her knees, Natsuki bows low, removes her daisho. As Hisahime’s favoured yojimbo, she is one that the Empress explicitly commands to keep her daisho on even in the presence of Her Divine Holiness. “If it is your wish, my sama, command me to empty my life before you this moment; for your previous command, I cannot obey.” Whispering silence fills the room, the hiss of footsteps in the corridors, the intermittent birdsong outside the windows.
Hisahime turns from her guardian, her love, and is shamed to find that even in her new position, tears fill her eyes just as they would any peasant’s. Her voice remains strong, however, as she says, “No. I do not ask the Empire’s loyal servants to end their service before their time. Leave me.”
With confident movements, Natsuki rises and heads to the door, pausing only to murmur, “Would that it could be different.” The screen slides open and shut, and the Empress is briefly alone.
“Would that, indeed,” she says, her eyes already dry. With a casual motion, she pushes a small bottle of fragrance off her vanity table, grinding the broken glass into the floor with her bare feet.
She dreams of snow, the times before. Circling in the garden, laughing with a coterie of courtiers as bright as any bird, dining in the low tables in the Hantei’s court. In the gardens, snow falls from the sky and lanterns light the soft grounds. People dance by her, pausing only to smile before moving into nothingness, and she is dancing, dancing with Natsuki, clinging to the samurai’s sleeves like a drowning woman, but laughing madly and twirling, twirling, the light and the stars blurring together overhead. She wakes, sweating, stifles a scream before it leaves her lips, these lips that Heaven speaks through now. She always knows better upon waking.
She snaps her fan shut, grey eyes blazing behind her veil. “Please. If I am to serve this Empire, I must be about it! Already the whispers reach my ears, even sequestered as I am, saying that I am not fit to serve, that I tripped over my kimono at my coronation and will surely fail the Empire, that the blood must be very thin to see me on the throne. My ancestors will be more pleased if I shed my mourning and rule, I am certain.”
Otomo Kagato, one of her advisors, steps back, bowing, eyes wide. “My Empress,” he says breathily, “surely you know that your most esteemed ancestors would want nothing more of you than to mourn their loss and contemplate their lives. Raised in secret as you were, you still need time to commune with each ancestor’s spirit, as the Seppun say, and maintain tradition. Please, this humble one does not wish to displease his Empress, but I find it is my duty to advise you of our customs.” He bows lower, waiting.
Hisahime nearly snorted. Everyone waiting on her every word these days, and yet heeding none of them! Like a child. She composes herself, however, and says coolly, “Of course, Kagato-san. My…frivolous upbringing…does not well suit an Empress. Send the Seppun in, then.” The man is already bowed so low that she cannot see if her jab at the Otomo has the desired effect, but he simply nods and murmurs, “As my Empress commands,” before striding off.
She is left to content herself with the little ability she has to strike back at the moment, tapping her fan against her lips and staring into the middle distance. It is hard to mourn for a family she had never known, but she makes her best effort, loving the Hantei line as any good samurai would. These rumours will not do, however, but cloistered as she is, she will just have to wait.
She is trying to focus.
“…and Ever Lasting Most High, Most High, Esteemed, Loved, Revered, Known to His People, Beloved by the Common Folk would thou knowest this Hantei Fujiwa, thy esteemed Ancestor…”
The Seppun shugenja speaking was one in a rotation that taught her of her ancestors, day in and day out. Hisahime is not accustomed to listening to Old High Rokugani in long bursts, and it makes an ache bloom at her temples and spread to her eyes. She discreetly closes her eyes behind her veil, sitting on the floor across from the entranced Seppun girl, and tries to focus.
Outside, in the early Spring evening, there are sounds of revelry on the river, the crackling of fireshows and muted laughter. Occasionally, a cool breeze scented with rain and flowers makes its way through the window screens, and Hisahime must do her best to not lift her nose to it. “Focus,” she tells herself angrily. “You are not a courtier girl anymore; those things mean nothing. The Hantei line means everything!” She opens her eyes and stares at the Seppun shugenja almost furiously.
“…when thy Ancestor Yugozohime, a beautiful Empress like Thy Royal Self, reigned, he…ah…she…ah—!” The Seppun girl suddenly drops out of trance and bows low before Hisahime. “I have misspoken the Ritual of Ancestry. I now strike myself from my family’s scrolls.” With no further words, the girl withdraws her wakizashi and makes the three cuts, slumping forward with her eyes closed.
As the blood catches the glimmering lantern light from the city below, Hisahime studies it with a lidded, dispassionate gaze. Her first thought is that perhaps her lessons could now be avoided, but then a shuffle at the door announces a tight-lipped Natsuki shouldering another Seppun shugenja into the room. Hisahime sighs inwardly, motions for the man to sit some paces from where silent eta are already clearing the dead girl away, cleaning up the blood before it can ooze its way to the Empress. “Sit, Seppun-san. Perhaps your words will be clearer than this unfortunate one’s.” The man does, bowing low, and picks up from where the girl left off, speaking flawlessly of her most holy bloodline.
Hisahime knows in the back of her mind that her reaction to the girl’s death is wrong—-this is not who I am, her heart screams, that girl died before my eyes!—-but she can no longer care. She sees now the wisdom of preparing as she has been for this illustrious Throne; she is no longer Hisahime, but a Hantei.