Dragon’s Whisker

Civil war erupts, and Seien returns. Drama with Angst, I-4

Seiran was playing catch, in the garden with Shuurei, when a roar went up from the streets nearby. He started to his feet, reaching out to catch Shuurei’s shoulder; he’d heard sounds like that before, from the throats of men charging with weapons in their hands.

“Seiran?” Shuurei’s eyes were wide, and he gathered her closer, tense.

“It’s all right, Shuurei-chan.” He would make it be all right. He had no wish to be the Whirlwind again, but to protect Shuurei…

“Yes, it’s all right.” They both relaxed as Shouka-sama stepped out from under the garden trees to join them. “I barred the gate behind me as I came in.”

“Shouka-sama, what’s happened?” Seiran asked quietly.

His foster-father looked more weary than Seiran ever remembered seeing him. “It’s a riot. Two of the city merchants got a tip from someone in Civil Affairs about a load of barley coming in, and they bought it all up.” His smile was worn. “Reishin is furious, of course, but the Department of the Military refuses to give him any support to repossess the food, and when the people saw what prices were being charged…” He looked toward the noise, which now had smoke starting to rise over it.

“What is Shou-taishi thinking?” Seien burst out. “Even if the Emperor is too ill to deal with this, his councilors aren’t!”

Shouka-sama’s mouth tightened. “I… am not sure what he’s thinking, anymore,” he said, voice low. “I have considered that it might be time to ask him.”

There were screams in the roar of voices, now, and Shuurei flinched from the sound, drawing closer against Seiran, looking up at them both with wide eyes. “Is it…” she had to stop and swallow, “is it really going to be all right?”

Seiran’s arm tightened around her shoulders, and he looked over her head at Shouka-sama. His foster-father’s brows lifted at whatever expression was on Seien’s face. “It will be all right.” Seien said, low and definite. “And when you go to see Shou-taishi, Shouka-sama… please take me with you.”

Seien stood in the shadows, in the snug, dark clothing Shouka-sama had given him for the swift, cautious trip to this office. It was a distastefully familiar kind of clothing, but it served its purpose; Shou-taishi had mostly ignored him as he listened to the two men speak. Seiran had listened, and now he was staring at Shou-taishi with disbelieving eyes.

“It is the Emperor’s command,” the man reiterated, hands folded calmly on his desk.

Shouka-sama sounded just as outraged as Seien felt. “But you must know what’s happening to the people!”

“If the country cannot cleanse itself, better it die.”

The evenness of Shou’s voice, set against the memory of the harsh crowd roar, was too much for Seien, and he stepped into the light. “How can it cleanse itself when no one leads it? When the people with strength won’t use it? How can he demand such an idiotic thing?!”

Shou’s brows lifted. “Shouka, you should teach your people bett—” He broke off, frowning, looking more closely at Seien.

Seien growled and pulled off the muffling scarf he had worn for the trip here. Shou-taishi sat back, slowly, eyes fixed on him.

“Seien-koushi.” A wintry smile was all the welcome he offered. “You’ve gained some awareness of politics, since you’ve been gone, I see.”

Seien slashed a hand down, as if to knock away the comment. It wasn’t politics he recognized, here and now. “I didn’t expect to see bandits in charge of this city, but what else do you call that?” He pointed out the window where fires were starting to glow in the dusk. It looked a whole lot like the work he’d seen from the murderous bastards who’d found him years ago, and now everyone he cared for in this world was in the middle of it. He glowered at Shou. “What do you call yourself for letting it happen?” he whispered.

“I call myself a servant of the Emperor.” Before Seien could snap at this, Shou pushed himself up from the desk, turning to look out the window. “Before sense or mercy or life itself, I am the servant of the Emperor.” He clasped his hands behind his back and snorted. “And just what do you think you can say about this, in any case? A prince exiled for treason, who has broken his exile and returned in secret from the throne and the ministers alike? How can you say you care for this Court?”

The words stung all the more for being indifferent, without malice. And true enough. Seien drew himself up. “I don’t give a damn how many times vipers bite each other,” he answered roughly. “I do care who else will be caught in their thrashing around. And if cutting off the snakes’ heads now will stop them, then I’ll do it.” Seien swallowed both distaste and some cold anticipation. It would not, after all, be the first time.

“Hmm.” Shou-taishi turned his head to glance back at Seien. Seien thought there might have been a shadow of a smile on his face, and he rocked back, wary. “Well, then.” Shou directed a rather sardonic smile at Shouka-sama. “Bring him along and meet me in the Emperor’s rooms.”

Shou-taishi and Shouka-sama knelt by the Emperor’s bedside. Seien did not. He had begun to, twelve years’ habit not worn away by a few years gone from court, but the light in his father’s eyes and the color of his skin had frozen him still.

“You’re not sick,” he whispered.

Shou looked up at him in an interested way, but Seiran hardly noticed. He know what illness and death looked like, now, knew them closely and well; he saw neither in his father’s face.

The Emperor met his eyes for a long moment before turning his head to gaze up at the ceiling. “I am not,” he agreed. “But the courts are.”

“So it’s true.” Seien pulled in a hard breath past his clenched teeth, a hiss of rage. “Why didn’t you just kill them yourself, then, and not set the entire country on fire to burn out a few?!”

“Some clans have tried that, you know,” his father remarked, conversationally. “It didn’t work. It only sets a bad precedent.”

“Well, you could do it now, surely!” Seien spread his hands, half pleading. He had thought to do it himself, after the Emperor’s death, but that was clearly a long way off and there was no more time left. “They’ve given you a reason now, haven’t they?”

“And who,” his father asked, softly, voice completely, dreadfully neutral, “will step into the place left empty, when they are gone?”

Abrupt fear struck through Seien like lightning. Time was entirely run out; he had to make his own move now, and make it blind. He was shaking, mouth dry, eyes fixed on the Emperor’s face. Completely unsure whether he was about to die for his answer, the death he had escaped five years ago, but entirely sure it was better for him to take this cup of poison than leave it for Ryuuki, he whispered, “I will.”

The Emperor looked down to meet his eyes and then, oddly, at Shou-taishi with a tiny, crooked smile. Shou met the Emperor’s eyes for a long breath and finally, slowly, nodded. The Emperor closed his eyes with a sigh.

Shou turned a calculating look on Seien. “Very well. I’ll see to stopping the chaos and putting down the princes. Go with Shouka, Seien-koushi. In a little while we’ll be able to announce your return.”

Seien nodded, silent, rather dizzy with the speed of this reverse. He knelt briefly to his father, fighting not to wobble as he stood again and followed Shouka-sama out.

They were back home, inside the gates, before either of them spoke.

“Are you all right?” Shouka-sama asked gently, resting a hand on Seien’s shoulder.

“I…” Seien swallowed, closing his eyes. “I…”

“Ah.” It was the understanding in Shouka-sama’s voice that broke Seiran down, and he didn’t resist when Shouka-sama tugged him closer—only shuddered, burying his harsh sobs in the black fabric of Shouka-sama’s shoulder.

They stood for a long time, that way, in the dimness under the half-stripped fruit trees.