Suboshi spent a sleepless night, counting every breath his brother took, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest. He still couldn’t dispel the mind-shattering sensation of his ryuseisui – his own weapon -- slicing into his beloved aniki’s flesh. It had taken that much to bring him to his senses.
He still didn’t fully understand why the Suzaku shichiseishi hadn’t killed them on the spot. He had tried to kill their Miko, after all – and he knew that Nakago would have blown away any assassin who similarly tried to kill Yui-sama.
It was at that thought that his wandering mind began to sift through the events of the day – especially what Amiboshi had been trying to tell him, about Nakago. …the Suzaku seishi. . .they're not what Nakago said they are! aniki had tried to tell him.
It was true, Nakago’s means seemed cruel. He’d always thought that the blond shogun was being ruthless because it was the best means, the most expedient, of summoning Seiryuu quickly, and protecting Kutou.
He had thought it was the fastest track to end war.
Suboshi was beginning to realize that Nakago, and Kutou, had set plans into motion that, each time, only had war as a sole objective. Everything he’d done – everything his brother had done. . .he shuddered again, thinking of what he’d almost done, and put his finger once again on the faintly throbbing, but steady pulse at Amiboshi’s throat. He was alive.
It was a Suzaku shichiseishi who had healed him, a Suzaku who had assured him that Amiboshi would be all right in the morning. As aniki had said, there was more to these people than Nakago had told him. Perhaps more than Nakago himself knew.
He blinked, as bright yellow sunshine streamed through the high slitted windows to burn trackless over his skin. He didn’t think it had been that long. . .then he glanced over at Amiboshi and realized his brother had turned from sleeping on one side to sleeping on his back. He must have accidentally fallen asleep. . .
"Aniki?" Suboshi murmured hoarsely, hoisting himself up on one elbow. The pulse still beat steadily in his throat; his breathing was still even and regular. He relaxed.
Amiboshi opened his eyes, and blinked up at his brother’s anxious expression. "Shun-chan?" He looked around with a frown, realizing they were back in his room where the shichiseishi had confined him earlier.
"Aniki! You’re okay!" Suboshi hugged him fiercely to his chest, and Amiboshi recalled in a flash the events of the night before. The fake Tamahome, impaling him with a dagger – Shun-chan’s instant, heated response of violence – Miaka-sama, in the path of the whirling ryuseisui, and his own determination to end the viscous circle of violence.
Then blackness, followed by a warm glow of – something.
"Mitsukake, did he heal me?" Amiboshi asked, patting his brother’s shoulder soothingly. Suboshi’s breath was coming in little hitches against the cloth of his tunic. Amiboshi hugged him again. "Daijoubu, daijoubu. . .I’m okay. Ne, Shun-chan?"
"No thanks to me," Suboshi responded, pulling away. He averted his eyes, looking deeply sunk in guilt, circles standing out under his eyes. Amiboshi realized his brother must have spent a sleepless night.
"Miaka-sama told me something very important – she told me, ‘Just make up for it with your future actions, ne?’ I think it’s something we both should try. "
Suboshi opened his mouth to reply, when they both heard the bolt sliding from the door. They fell into a tense silence, watching the door crack open. Then. . .
"DAAA!" exclaimed a blue-haired, sunny-faced, winking young man.
"Aaugh!" Suboshi exclaimed, starting bolt upright. Amiboshi laughed at him and sat up, too.
"That’s just Chichiri! One of the shichiseishi," he told his wide-eyed brother.
"Amiboshi. . .would you and your brother come with me, please? Hotohori-sama would like to see you both now, na no da," the blue-haired monk requested politely.
Amiboshi nodded, setting his mouth resolutely as he got up. Suboshi followed suit, still regarding the smiling-mask face of the monk with an uncertain expression on his face. "Hai, Chichiri-san."
Chichiri waited until the twins had changed into the fresh clothing he’d thoughtfully brought for them and then chivvied them into the hallway.
As Chichiri escorted the twins down the hall, Suboshi looked around – as if looking for escape routes. He glanced distrustfully at the monk, then looked at his brother; although his aniki was recovered, Suboshi still kept a protective arm around Amiboshi's waist. He was uneasy as to what would happen next; what Suzaku's people would do to punish them. His mind shuddered away from the thought.
The monk finally stopped and knocked on a door. A deep voice within invited them to enter. Chichiri opened the door and ushered the brothers in. To Suboshi's surprise, they were in the presence of Konan's Emperor, Saihetei – who, he suddenly realized, must also be the Suzaku shichiseishi – Hotohori.
All three bowed and then to the brothers' astonishment, the monk departed, leaving the two alone with the emperor. At Hotohori's gesture, both seated themselves in front of his desk. For a minute or so, there was silence and the emperor gazed at them, taking their measure. Finally, he spoke.
"I am Seishuku Saihetei, fourth Emperor of Konan-koku."
Amiboshi started at the identification. Then he realized the distinction that the man sitting before them had made – Saihetei, not Hotohori – and realized that for the moment, their seishi heritage was set aside and so he responded, "Heika-sama. I am Bo Kotoku and this is my younger twin, Shunkaku."
"I am grateful, Kotoku, that you saved the life of our miko and that the guards were only put to sleep and not killed."
At this, Shunkaku hung his head and flushed a bit in shame.
"We have been discussing your punishment but last night, your actions have shown that you are willing to atone for your previous actions. No punishment will be levied against you."
Bo Kotoku stared at the emperor in surprise and gratefulness. "Arigatou, heika-sama. I know you and your people will never fully forgive my actions but I will do all that I can to make up for what I did before, in pretending to be seishi Chiriko."
Emperor Saihetei nodded gravely to the elder twin then looked toward the younger, "What about your otouto-san?"
As Kotoku opened his mouth to reply, Shunkaku interrupted, "Gomen, aniki, but I think I need to. . .to. . ." he trailed off but then took a deep breath and continued.
"I--I thought my aniki was in danger. As twins, we are linked so I can feel what happens to my brother but distance between us does hinder and affect the link. I wanted to rescue my aniki, but I thought--I didn't want him to die!" he cried passionately, "I wanted to prove to Nakago-sama and our miko, Yui-sama," this was said sarcastically, "that I was as capable as my aniki. I wasn't thinking—"
"Even to the extent of killing others?" the emperor questioned.
Shunkaku looked at his aniki then back to the emperor and in a small, shame-filled voice, "Hai."
Kotoku looked troubled at his otouto-san and sighed, "Shun-chan."
"Hmm, " Emperor Saihetei studied the twins and could sense the strong bond between them. "You were telling the truth, weren't you, Kotoku? Back when we still thought you were Chiriko, when you said your village was attacked and you were the only survivor. But it was you and your otouto-san who survived."
Kotoku nodded in response, "We were so young and all we saw around us were our parents, our friends dying...being killed for no reason. We weren't rich...our village didn't make trouble...those soldiers just started killing and killing--"
Shunkaku continued, "Aniki raised me. He's always taken care of me."
"Have you ever considered that it was Kutou's own soldiers who destroyed your village?" Saihetei pointed out gently.
"We--we never---I don't think we really ever thought. All we knew was that we were alone, so alone," Kotoku trailed off. "I only wanted to stop all the fighting and. . .I suppose I let Nakago convince us that by summoning Seiryuu, that with the appearance of the miko, that we could stop all the wars. I—I just want peace." He buried his face in his hands.
Shunkaku hugged his brother tightly.
The emperor watched them for another long moment. "Very well. You two will have the freedom to move about the palace, but you will be watched. I have informed the shichiseishi that you are not to be touched."
The twins looked up at the emperor in surprise and wonder. Indeed, the people here in Konan-koku and especially Suzaku's seishi were different from all they knew. It only confirmed what Kotoku had discovered, and what Shunkaku was beginning to believe.
"Demo—" the emperor continued, and they both looked up, fearful despite his assurances. "The Suzaku shichiseishi are leaving for Hokkan-koku within a week or two. It will take some time to make the arrangements. It gives us some time to consider what to do with you on a more long-term basis."
"Eh?" The brothers blinked. They hadn’t considered anything beyond surviving whatever punishment the emperor had devised.
"Whether or not you wish to remain in Konan-koku as our guests," Hotohori elaborated. "And there is the fact that you are still Seiryuu shichiseishi. Nakago is unlikely to just relinquish you, and Seiryuu no Miko’s chances of summoning Seiryuu, without a fight."
Both brothers shuddered at the mention of the blond shogun’s name.
"That’s true," Kotoku replied slowly. "Ne, heika-sama – perhaps you should send us away. Nakago-sama – he’ll probably try sending more assassins, or operatives to forcibly return us to Kutou-koku, once he learns of our defection—"
The emperor frowned, fitting his fingertips together. "We’ll have to deal with that problem as we reach it. Miaka-sama is under constant protection at all times, but I’ll suggest to Tamahome that he watch her even more closely." He frowned a little, as if the thought pained him.
Kotoku regarded him sympathetically. He’d come to realize the emperor’s feelings towards his miko shortly after they had returned to the palace. He also knew enough of Miaka that, although she was friendly and affectionate towards all the seishi, only Tamahome had managed to capture her heart.
They all blinked in startlement as a rumbling gurgle filled the room, joined by a similar sound from Shunkaku’s stomach.
"Eh?" Saihetei chuckled softly, a gentle sound of mirth. "Even in your appetite you’re identical. Pardon my bad manners, you two are obviously hungry – I will have Chichiri show you to the dining room."
As the Bo twins looked down, embarrassed, there was a knock at the door and Chichiri entered, as if the mention of his name summoned him.
"Chichiri, this is Bo Kotoku and Bo Shunkaku. Please, if you would, escort them to the dining area. I think we forgot about breakfast." Emperor Saihetei's eyes twinkled as he spoke.
"Hai, heika," the smiling monk nodded, seeming unsurprised at the "introduction" of the twins. "Will you be joining us?"
"In a little while; I still have matters to settle before morning court."
As they walked down the hallway, Shunkaku glanced at his brother and noticed/sensed with some relief that Kotoku seemed to believe the emperor; they weren't really headed for the dungeon then. He glanced over at the monk, walking with long-loose strides, wondering at the constantly smiling face.
However, his mind was mostly on the interview that just ended. How could anyone, especially the emperor, allow himself to be alone in a room with two of his enemies? Kutou's emperor was never without his guards and servants. Yet Konan's emperor had just dismissed a fellow seishi, undoubtedly a protector, and just talked to the
two of them. He was so kind and forgiving. Shunkaku couldn't believe it. Foolish, his Seiryuu seishi side whispered in his mind. Shunkaku winced at the thought, resolutely stuffing his seishi side down.
"Ne?" Shunkaku looked up startled and saw that it was the seishi, Chichiri, who spoke to him.
"Daijoubu no da?"
"Hai, just relieved, Chichiri-san," he spoke a little hesitantly.
"Believe me, if Hotohori-sama said that no actions are to be taken against you, he means it no da." Chichiri spoke firmly.
"But what of the other Suzaku seishi?" Kotoku asked, "I did pretend to be Chiriko and did prevent you from summoning your god."
"The other seishi will respect Hotohori-sama in this regard no da. Whether they trust you to behave will be up to you and how you act from now on. We all believe that even if you do wrong, you should have a second chance, but you will have to prove it na no da."
Kotoku thought about this and could feel Shunkaku puzzling it over, still incredulous. Hotohori-sama, Miaka, Chichiri and Mitsukake seemed to have forgiven him but what about Tamahome, Nuriko, Chiriko and Tasuki? The latter, that fiery-haired quick-tempered seishi, seemed especially really mad, if his attitude by the riverside and last night was any indication. He sighed. They were approaching the dining room. It was time to face the consequences.
The door opened and everyone turned to see Chichiri escorting Amiboshi and Suboshi in. The Seiryuu seishi seemed subdued and Chichiri, as usual, had his smiling mask on.
"What the f@#% are they doing here!" the bandit yelled, weapon practically leaping into his hand as he pointed his ever-present tessen at the twins.
"They are our guests," Chichiri reminded him, "It is Hotohori-sama's decision no da."
"Minna, these are the Bo twins, Kotoku and Shunkaku," Chichiri indicated each brother as he spoke.
There was a slight pause as everyone absorbed the distinction. Then Miaka spoke up.
"Ne. . .first he’s not Chiriko, now he’s not Amiboshi. . .I’m so confused. . ."
"Baka yaro!" Nuriko exclaimed, bonking her on the head lightly. "Bo Kotoku is his real name. Amiboshi is his seishi name."
"Itai!" Miaka whined. "You don’t have to hit so hard, Nuriko!"
"Bah! Amiboshi, Kotoku...who the %@#* cares what he’s called!?" Tasuki yelled.
"I believe heika-sama is trying to say that Bo Kotoku and Shunkaku are welcome as our guests, apart from seishi considerations," Chiriko piped up brightly.
Tamahome and Mitsukake were nodding, slowly. Tasuki was still grumbling and eyeing the twins suspiciously. Then he grinned, flashing fang.
"Ne. . .you put your seishi caps on, and I’ll take you apart from seishi considerations!" Tasuki offered, tapping the tessen against the flat of one palm.
Shunkaku opened his mouth to reply heatedly and Kotoku clamped a firm hand over his twin’s mouth. "Ah—no, Tasuki-san, I don’t think we’ll take you up on that offer," he replied wisely.
"Sit down, sit down," Nuriko waved a careless hand at the table. "You must be hungry."
"Food!" Miaka brightened, grabbing the nearest bowl that wasn’t empty. "Itadekimasu!"
"Demo. . .Miaka, you just ate ten platefuls!" Chiriko reminded her, wide-eyed.
"Mmp mm mmggee," the miko responded around a mouthful of dumpling.
"Hunger’s no excuse!" Tamahome responded. "You won’t be able to eat this much on the ship, you know!"
The Bo twins seated themselves, and Nuriko handed them a few platefuls of food he’d managed to stash away with the air of a conspirator. Suboshi was staring at the gluttonous miko.
"Ne, Amib--Kotoku-kun, you look better." Miaka smiled at him, once she’d managed to put down another plateful.
"Hai, Miaka-sama." Kotoku smiled back at Suzaku no Miko, then turned to his healer and bowed, "Mitsukake-san, arigatou."
"It was my pleasure," the big healer responded, inclining his head.
"Nyaao!" Tama-neko added, looking as pleased as if he’d been responsible for Kotoku’s well-being and not Mitsukake.
"Oi, oi, eat!" Nuriko urged, waving his hands impatiently at the twins. "Follow her example." They all eyed the furiously-eating Miko and sweatdropped. "On the other hand. . ."
"Oi, yo-yo boy, just you make sure you keep your little toy--"
"Yo-yo boy!?" Shunkaku repeated and stiffened up at the insult. Kotoku elbowed him sharply in the ribs and he subsided.
Breakfast resumed, with most of the seishi making an obvious if somewhat strained effort to be polite to the twins. Except, of course, for the irrepressible fiery-haired bandit. Kotoku watched his twin and Tasuki sniping back and forth at each other with wry amusement; the others watched in varying stages of bemusement. Ever since they’d seated themselves the bandit seishi had been trying to provoke them into fighting.
The bandit, with his wide command of choice insults, seemed to have the advantage.
"At least I don’t wave around a big iron fan in a blatant attempt to overcompensate for lacking -- something!" Shunkaku finally snapped out.
Tasuki choked. "N-NANI!?" he sputtered, outraged.
Tamahome started laughing. "Tasuki, maybe Su-er, Shunkaku has a point! Maybe all that bluster is actually trying to hide something!"
Tasuki turned an unflattering shade of red that clashed with his orange hair. He surged up from the table and threw himself at the gray-eyed, smirking seishi.
Shunkaku settled back to eat, satisfied now that he had set off the sparring boys and could finish his breakfast in peace.
Once the twins were halfway done with their meal, Hotohori walked in. "Good morning, minna." While his voice was cheerful, the seishi noticed with some concern that his eyes were shadowed.
"Daijoubu, Hotohori-sama?" Nuriko asked.
Hotohori glanced over at Chichiri and the monk nodded, as if in reply to some silent question. "Please finish your meal. We can talk afterwards."
"Then you should eat, too." With that, Nuriko brought out another plate he had somehow hidden from Miaka's sight and stomach.
After breakfast, everyone headed toward the meeting room. To their great surprise, Hotohori invited Kotoku and Shunkaku to accompany them – to sit on the inner council of the Suzaku seishi! Uncertainly, they followed. Shunkaku was still staggered by display after display of trust that these amazing people showed. When they were all settled around the table, the emperor spoke.
"I received a report this morning that Kotou has sent people into Hokkan. Given our situation at the moment, I can only conclude that they also know about the Shinzaho and are after the treasure."
Stunned by the news, everyone spoke at once.
Hotohori lifted his hand for silence. "Onegai. . ."
At the quiet entreaty, everyone assembled stopped talking one by one. Tasuki, of course, was the last.
"I have managed to hasten the travel arrangements by several days. We will travel by ship – faster, perhaps, than the Seiryuu seishi who must travel overland. Only a few matters remain to be resolved."
Kotoku and Shunkaku blinked in unison at this, and hung their heads.
"There is the matter of Tamahome’s family. . ." the deep, smooth voice of the emperor continued.
The twins’ heads snapped up, surprise scrawled over their faces.
"They have been targets before. I suggest, in your absence from Konan, that you bring them to the safety of the palace, Tamahome."
The Suzaku seishi’s face lit up. "H-honto!? Hotohori-sama – thank you! I. . .this is so. . .you. . ." At a loss for words, he began to bow.
Miaka clapped her hands together. "What a wonderful idea!" she cheered.
Then the emperor turned his compassionate gaze on the twins. "There is also the question of the Bo twins."
Tasuki grinned widely. "Maybe if we take ’em with we can use ’em as hostages!" he suggested slyly.
"Baka!" Nuriko exclaimed, horrified, casually backhanding him into a wall. "Suzaku seishi are more honorable than that!" Slowly, SD Tasuki slid down the wall, eyes spinning.
"Nakago will undoubtedly make an attempt to reclaim the twins no da, for it would mean they would have no need for the Shinzaho!" Chichiri put forth. "Daa. . ." He managed to look pensive.
"I am unable to go with you, Miaka, because of my duties here as Emperor," Hotohori said quietly. "However. . .If I may request of the Bo twins that they take my place at your side, as your protectors?"
The question hung in the air.
The body thudded to the floor with a sickening sound, after the sharp crack of the neck indicated Nakago was through with him.
It flared up in ki-flames then turned to ashes that disappeared in an unseen breeze.
Nakago scowled. "Leave," he commanded. And in silence, the black-cloaked gathering knelt, disappearing with a ripple. They knew the price of failure and disobedience.
"Fools," the shogun muttered. "Now it’s both of them. Well, they will find it’s not that easy." He concentrated briefly, then Soi and Tomo entered the door to his strategic planning room.
"Hai, Nakago-sama?" Soi purred.
"By your command," Tomo said at the same time in that annoyingly servile tone.
They glared at each other.
"Amiboshi has defected to the Suzaku side, and Suboshi has followed his lead," Nakago informed them tersely. "You will go to Konan and retrieve our errant companions."
"Teme—!" Tomo seethed.
Soi raised an elegant eyebrow at Tomo and turned to the shogun. "By any means necessary, Nakago-sama?"
Nakago nodded sharply. "Just as long as they are in one piece."
Soi and Tomo bowed briefly and left. Nakago then turned toward the shadows and spoke, "Are the distractions ready?"
A sibilant whirring could be heard briefly. "Hai, Nakago. All is in readiness," the malevolent whisper echoed.
"Very well. You know what to do." With that, the shogun turned on his heel and left the room.
The silence was deafening.
Kotoku and Shukaku couldn’t believe what they’d just heard. They, Seiryuu seishi, were being asked to protect Suzaku no Miko and assist them in obtaining the Genbu shinzaho!? Questions, doubts, and uncertainty echoed through the link between the twins. Shunkaku was torn, fearing that this was a trick, that they were being sentence to death. Kotoku could feel his otouto’s fear, but he also believed in the emperor’s sincerity. He also remembered his vow to atone for his mistakes.
"Hai, Hotohori-sama. I would be honored," Kotoku replied slowly. He then turned toward his twin, the question and hope shimmering in his eyes.
"If aniki goes, then so do I!" Shunkaku blurted finally.
The emperor smiled gratefully at the twins. "Arigato. Very well, minna. The ship will be ready and you should depart within three days. Tamahome, will that be enough time for you to bring your family back to the capital?"
"Hai, Hotohori-sama. I’ll leave right away. I’m sure oyaji will be happy; he’ll probably feel as relieved as I am that my younger siblings will be safe!" Tamahome said enthusiastically.
"Ne...Tamahome, I want to go too!" Miaka added gleefully.
"Oi, Miaka! Yuiren-chan will be happy to see her oniisan’s wife, ne?" Nuriko inserted slyly.
"Nuriiiiiikkooooo!" Miaka and Tamahome chorused, red-faced.
"Nuriko," Hotohori turned to the purple-haired seishi, who nodded eagerly, "will you please accompany them?"
"Yeah, Nuriko...you’ll be great as a pack animal!" Tasuki added generously, slapping Nuriko on the back.
Everyone sweatdropped at the resulting hole in the wall.
"If there are no other seishi matters, I must begin morning court." Hotohori looked at his fellow seishi and when everyone shook their heads, said his goodbyes and left for the court.
Everyone dispersed slowly, going their separate ways. Miaka and Tamahome dragged Nuriko off before he could do more harm to Tasuki. Mitsukake headed for the herb room and Chiriko announced brightly that he would spend his time perusing the palace’s extensive library.
"Ne, Shunkaku-kun. Would you like a tour of the palace no da?" Chichiri offered cheerfully, lifting a finger.
"Go, Shun-chan," Kotoku urged his twin, who had looked almost automatically to him for direction. At Shunkaku’s doubtful glance, he replied, "I already know my way around!"
"Hai, aniki," Shunkaku agreed reluctantly, turning to the smiley-faced monk.
Kotoku watched his otouto go quietly with the monk, glad for some peace and quiet from Shukaku’s constant doubts and hovering, anxiously worrying over his physical condition and of course, the lingering traces of guilt. Then he turned around to see Tasuki perched on the railing behind him. He blinked at the bandit. "Nani, Tasuki-san?"
The orange-haired seishi was eyeing him seriously, bluff demeanor put aside for once. He was frowning slightly, arms folded as he leaned up against a pillar. Finally he spoke, in reflective, measuring tones that put Kotoku totally off-balance. "I underestimated you, Am--Kotoku-kun. I never thought for an instant you would risk your life to save Miaka-san...especially after you tried to kill her."
"About that..." Kotoku began uncomfortably, red-faced and embarrassed.
"Iie," Tasuki responded, scowling fiercely. "You made up for that, when you put yourself against your own brother’s weapon to save Miaka. Just...your actions speak for you. And you’re doing okay in my book."
Suddenly he pushed himself away from the pillar and Kotoku twitched, expecting some sort of...he didn’t know what. Instead of hitting him, however, Tasuki clapped him on the shoulder and moved down the hall.
Kotoku stared after him in surprise.
Well...that solves one of my problems, at least, he thought with relief, but was still very confused by Tasuki's unexpected reaction. Then he sighed and started off in the direction of the library, and Chiriko.
Shunkaku walked beside the smiling-masked monk, suspicion welling up in his breast despite the constant reassurances of aniki and the reasonably civil conduct of Suzaku’s people...so far. He couldn’t help the automatic reflex, as he went along, of analyzing for escape routes, cataloguing possible weaknesses, and points of penetration.
"Shunkaku-kun," Chichiri said suddenly, pausing in mid-stride to face him.
His heart skipped a little and he felt himself tense. "Hai?" he replied cautiously. He didn’t like being separated from Kotoku, and even worse, alone with a Suzaku seishi whom he didn’t know, and was supposed to trust.
Chichiri’s face beamed at him, eyes winking jovially. He couldn’t hold back the involuntary smile that tugged his lips.
"You still don’t believe us, but we’re not going to hurt you no da! Even Tasuki. He talks big but it’s mostly hot air na no da!"
Shunkaku cracked another unwilling smile. "Maybe he jams his tessen into his mouth, instead of his foot," he couldn’t resist.
"I don’t know what you expect of me," he muttered, after they had resumed the tour.
"What do you expect of yourself, na no da? What do you think we expect?"
"Huh? It’s just...it’s like you Suzaku people, and even aniki, expect me to just stop being a Seiryuu seishi! You seem to think I can just turn away; well I can’t! I can’t avoid my destiny! I was born to be a Seiryuu seishi!" Shunkaku burst out heatedly.
Shunkaku tried to re-swallow his heart. Now I’ve done it...
Chichiri sighed, a long exhalation filled with untold regrets. He turned to Shunkaku, lifting a hand to his face and...removed the mask.
Shunkaku gasped at the puckered, clawing scar that raked over one eye and part of his brow and nose, the jagged mark sealing his left eye shut. He realized without being told that Chichiri was showing him the more serious side of his personality, and for an instant he feared the monk. Then he dismissed the squirming suspicious flicker and waited for Chichiri to speak.
"Shun-kun...I was around your age, a little older, when I received this scar, when I lost my eye...and everything that meant anything to me. Back then, I carried the blame for that. I was convinced I was the most evil person in the world, no da."
"But you’re a Suzaku seishi!" he blurted, astonished.
Chichiri smiled briefly. "Just as no person is predetermined good or evil, neither is the fate of a shichiseishi bound up in good or bad. It is our actions, our intentions that make up these things, na no da."
"So Nakago..." Shunkaku frowned.
"His evil, done in the name of Seiryuu, does not make it any less evil. His actions, his intentions are what twist his role as a seishi. It is the path you take with it. Not the position you fill, na no da!"
"I can be Seiryuu and still...not have to be your enemies?" Shunkaku was still trying to puzzle through this foreign concept.
Chichiri put his mask back on. "DAAA!" he agreed effusively.
Shunkaku couldn’t help it. He laughed.
"Shall we continue our tour no da?"
Kotoku arrived at the library and paused outside. He felt the need to talk to the youngest of the Suzaku seishi, but was also reluctant to face him. He gave himself a mental slap. What was he thinking or worried about anyway? He wanted only to apologize to Chiriko. And given the other seishi's reaction to him so far, Chiriko would hardly react like Tasuki did.
With a little sigh, he pushed open the door and walked in.
He found Chiriko at a table in the middle of the library. He spend a moment marvelling at the huge collection Hotohori-sama and his ancestors had accumulated. Chiriko was avidly reading a scroll...and a pretty ancient one at that given the reverent care the child prodigy was taking.
At the approaching footsteps, the youngster looked up and smiled at his visitor. "Kotoku-san, how are you? Mitsukake-san said you were healed but we were pretty worried last night."
Was it only last night? he wondered. "Hai. I'm well, thanks to Mitsukake-san. Ne, Chiriko-kun...I came to apologize..."
"For what?" Chiriko blinked in surprise.
"Masquerading as you," was the succinct reply.
"Oh, but what is there to apologize for? You didn't harm me."
Kotoku winced at that. "Hai. But I did ruin the ceremony..."
"We've forgiven you...well, most of us have...I'm sorry about Tasuki-san..."
"Oh, daijoubu. I think Tasuki and I have settled that between us."
Chiriko beamed. "That's good to hear."
Kotoku looked at Chiriko's smile and was suddenly struck by memories...years ago Shunkaku had smiled like that, full of life and cheer. He found himself saying, "You know, Chiriko-kun, you remind me of Shun-chan when we were little."
Chiriko blinked in surprise and smiled at Kotoku. "You love your brother very much, ne, Kotoku-san?"
"Hai. He's the only family I have left...and he's my best friend." Unknowingly, his voice was sad.
"Hn...family is very important, but he's with you right now, ne?"
"Yes, it is. He is my family." Kotoku smiled softly. Then looking at the smiling youngster, he realized something.
Out of all the seishi he knew, he was the only one with a family member who was also a seishi. All the others had to leave their loved ones behind while they went to fulfill their destinies. And of all the seishi, Chiriko was the youngest. Kotoku's heart ached a bit at how unfair life was...how unfair that someone so young was pulled away from his family.
Chiriko beamed again.
Companionably, Kotoku settled down beside Chiriko. "Ne, what are you reading?" he gestured to the ancient scroll in front of them.
"It's a collection of folk tales. Most scholars believed it to be lost, but Hotohori-sama had a copy here in the library. It's wonderful."
And for the next hour, the two happily read and laughed over the tales. Eventually, the door opened again and Chichiri and Shunkaku joined them. After greetings, the monk left, saying he would join the emperor at court.
Shunkaku was pensive and Kotoku looked at his otouto in some concern.
"Ne, Shun-chan. Daijoubu?"
"Hai, aniki. I just have some things to think over." Shun-chan tried to smile reassuringly at his twin then settled next to his brother, leaning against his shoulder for comfort.
Chiriko looked at the brothers, a little smile playing over his lips, then continued to read aloud to his company. There the three remained for hours.
The next two days passed swiftly. Shunkaku was still trying to absorb all that was going on and if asked, could hardly remember everything that went on. Only a few events stood out in his memory and above them all was the quiet times spent with aniki...the quiet times that had been lost along with their childhood.
That evening, they gathered in Hotohori's chambers, relaxing. Shunkaku sat on the floor besides his brother's chair as he watched the others. He turned around as the emperor came out of his bedchamber. Hotohori was now wearing loose robes and his hair was down, tied loosely with a ribbon. Shunkaku observed that the young emperor looked tired; he had been busy all day, preparing a place for the Sou family and the trip to Hokkan in addition to his court duties. Beside him, Kotoku stirred, apparently also looking toward Hotohori. The emperor settled down and joined the conversation between Chichiri and Mitsukake.
Kotoku lifted his flute to his lips, and began to play. At first the melody was random, aimless, without the infusion of his ki intended to focus its power. Chiriko smiled and lifted his leaf whistle to his lips, the thin strands of melody weaving counterpoint to the sweet tones of the flute.
But the lines on Hotohori’s face did not smooth away, as the young emperor continued to look tense and strained. Over the past two days the emperor had been constantly busy, the responsibility of travel arrangements piled on top of preparing a place for the Sou family in addition to the weight of his normal obligations. Being the ruler of such a large country, on the brink of war, was not easy – but he had seen Hotohori shoulder his burdens without complaint. Yet the young emperor of Konan was getting ragged around the edges.
He added a thread of soothing ki, and Hotohori’s tense posture began to ease into something softer, more relaxed. Hotohori looked over at Kotoku and smiled faintly as the taut muscles of his shoulders began to unknot as he gradually unwound
During those days the twins had become better acquainted with the Suzaku shichiseishi. Tasuki remained wary with Shun, but had begun to treat Kotoku with the same brand of rough affection and teasing he used on his fellow seishi. And Shunkaku had disappeared a few more times to converse with Chichiri, and always returned with a thoughtful frown centered between his brows. Kotoku knew what was bothering him, but Shun-kun still wasn’t ready to talk with him about it.
Kotoku continued to play soothing rhythms with the barest whisper of ki infused into the melody, when all of a sudden Hotohori crumpled.
Everyone got up at once, hurrying to the side of the collapsed emperor. The flute fell from Kotoku’s lips and he stared in horror. No...he’d barely...