"This must be the first time we've seen you since that little visit to your brother's house. How have you been, Reishin?" Yuushun greeted pleasantly as he and Houju leisurely approached the sitting figure of his friend at the far end of the archive.
Houju gave a soft snort at the mention of that particular embarrassing (and painful) incident over two weeks ago where they, instigated by Reishin, fell out of a tree while spying on Shuurei.
Reishin turned from the spectacle by which he was obviously enraptured, and directed his glance lazily at his advancing friends.
"Hmm…I have been satisfactorily well." Reishin replied with an air of lingering contemplation. "I trust no unbearable ailment has befallen your leg from that fall?"
"Oh, no, not at all. I thought that little adventure was quite refreshing." Yuushun replied with a calm smile as he took a seat across from Reishin.
"My arm still hurts from having your entire body weight land on top of it." Houju cut in flatly with an accusatory glare directed at Reishin.
The young Kou clan leader swept a casual gaze over the ethereal beauty of Houju's countenance, and sighed with an innocuous smile, "Mmm…how amusing…I don't quite recall soliciting your opinion…"
"Who is that, Reishin?" Yuushun cut in before Reishin and Houju could launch a full-throttle, and very childish, argument.
Reishin halted the insult that he was about to throw at Houju and followed Yuushun's eyes, which rested on the object of his fascination for the last hour.
"Kouyuu," Reishin called out clearly, his voice saturated with a tinge of elegant maturity that Yuushun and Houju had never heard before.
Houju looked over. A boy, probably seven or eight of age with willful tufts of aquamarine hair, sat quietly in front of the end of a bookshelf, his face half obscured by the open book in his hand. Upon hearing Reishin's call, the boy looked up with an almost jerking motion. As soon as he realized that he had company besides Reishin, a swift, ephemeral expression of fear passed over his eyes, and Houju marveled at the fact that anything but adoration could dance in the boy's eyes after seeing the cursed but overpowering beauty of his countenance.
The boy hesitated, his eyes cautiously trained on the two strangers, but a quick glance at Reishin's waiting figure seemed sufficient to overcome that reluctance, and obediently, he stood up and strode toward them.
"This is Tei Yuushun and Kou Houju," Reishin waved his hand casually at his two friends. "we are colleagues."
The boy looked over at the two men with an almost empty wariness, and bowed respectfully. "It is my honor to meet you, Tei Yuushun-sama, Kou Houju-sama."
"Yuushun, Houju, this is my adopted son, Li Kouyuu."
An unnatural silence rang after Reishin's words.
Kouyuu's eyes were kept carefully fixed on the tiled floor.
"Adopted son?" Yuushun asked uncertainly. "I was not aware that you were…uh…when did this occur?"
"A week ago." Reishin replied airily.
"Uhh…it is a pleasure to meet you, Kouyuu. Would you mind playing outside for a moment while we discuss some things with your father?" Yuushun asked with a forcefully compiled smile.
Kouyuu did not move or look at Yuushun, instead, his gaze jerked almost involuntarily to Reishin, silently inquiring his order.
Reishin gave a nod. Kouyuu turned and went out of the archive.
"Reishin! Raising a son is not child's play!" Yuushun begun as soon as he thought Kouyuu was out of earshot.
Reishin, whose eyes had trailed after the diminishing figure of the boy, returned his glance at Yuushun, and for a moment, the older man was overtaken by the seriousness locked in those honeyed hazel orbs.
"I'm aware of that, Yuushun."
Houju, who had remained silent during the entire exchange, studied Reishin, and now, looking at the unprecedented gravity shining in his friend's eyes, asked, "If I tell you now that you are not yet fit to be a father, would your decision be swayed?"
Reishin switched his gaze sharply at Houju, and replied firmly, "No."
"Kouyuu doesn't ever mingle with the other children, have you noticed?" Yuushun asked as he was having afternoon tea with Reishin and Houju in the Western pavilion.
"Houju made no friends as a child, yet I daresay that he turned out quite decently. Any flaws he has, of which there are many, is purely by fault of his natural temperament and not of lack of friends." Reishin retorted.
Surprisingly, Houju did not yield to Reishin's obvious, and quite childish, efforts at annoying him. "That's different. Kouyuu and I are different."
"Of course. No one will ever accuse Kouyuu of being a two-face, with a beautiful countenance but a most unpleasant personality, which is more than I can say for you."
Reishin spared a glance at the darting figure of his son in the lily grove not far off above the rim of his porcelain cup. Kouyuu was wandering, seemingly aimlessly, with a book in his hand, his figure infinitely alone and fragile in the shadowed sunlight.
"He doesn't need them." Reishin replied casually as he set down his cup. "They are not worth his time."
Houju sighed and rolled his eyes. "The boy has no friends. It's not healthy."
Without taking his eyes off of Kouyuu, Reishin retorted, "He's fine with the way things are. I will not force anything upon him."
"Hello, Kouyuu." Yuushun greeted when he caught the passing figure of Reishin's son in the hallway.
The fleeting figure halted his steps and turned to him. Yuushun knitted his brows.
"How did you get that bruise on your temple?"
The question seemed to alarm Kouyuu, as he quickly backed away from Yuushun and averted his eyes. "It will go away in a few days."
"That's not what I asked, Kouyuu." Yuushun asked, louder this time, unaware that doing so was enough to shake Kouyuu's fragile composure because of his mere association with Reishin. "How did you get that bruise?"
"Just some son of a courtier who happened to pass by the garden."
"Relocations of four civil officials to the periphery provinces, and dismissal of two officials of the lower gentry—even as the leader of the Kou clan, don't you think you have advanced well beyond the limitations of your power?" Houju questioned evenly as Reishin sipped his tea across the table.
Reishin played with the china cup absently, gazing with willful contemplation at the falling snow outside the bamboo embroidered window.
It wasn't as though he did not see the dark purple bruise on Kouyuu's wrist every time the boy extended his hand; it wasn't as though he didn't notice that Kouyuu had trouble putting weight on his left leg because of the bruise on his ankle; it wasn't as though Reishin knew these things and did not see the strangeness in them—that Kouyuu was eerily fine with it all.
Indeed, one would have to be a fool to think that the bruises that seemed to appear one after another magically on Kouyuu's body had escaped Reishin's notice, despite the fact that he never questioned the boy about them. After all, what were spies for…
"Only impotents could raise such vulgar children. It is only a matter of time before they are weeded out of the imperial power struggle. I'm merely doing the court a favor by expediting that process." He replied with a touch of impatient cruelty in his tone.
"And I suppose bullying your son constitutes vulgarity?" Houju pressed on.
"I'm already elevating their intelligence unjustly by calling it vulgarity, when toying with Kouyuu is nothing short of suicidal ignorance." Reishin huffed haughtily as he redirected his gaze sharply at Houju.
The latter sighed softly and looked away.
Despite the fact that Reishin was still a relatively low ranking official, despite the fact that he still lacked any solid support at court, he was still the head of the Kou clan, and only an idiot would think light of the consequences of touching his precious son.
"You know it is your fault that the other children make a sport of Kouyuu." Houju said quietly. "You throw him in a pack of infantile wolves that were bred in the suffocating environment of court politics, yet you do not give him the status backings necessary to defend against them! It is because you act as though he is but the product of a fleeting fancy that they toy with him like a prey, and it is for that reason that he does not fight back!"
Reishin held Houju's gaze for a moment, noting with a mild sense of curiosity the anger in the latter's eyes, and then said very quietly, "He does not fight back, Houju, because he chooses not to."
He may choose not to fight, that is a choice I will allow, because I will fight for him, until such times come when he is ready to fight on his own.
Reishin dipped his brush in the ink well, feigning unawareness of his son's persistent, mystified eyes on the pale jade seal sitting on his desk.
At least the boy had taste, Reishin thought with a mental smile, even he thought that seal was something of exceptional craftsmanship, beautiful, even, as things rarely were after having acclimated oneself to Houju's face.
He finished the document with one last elegant stroke of his brush and put it aside, his eyes resting calmly and nonchalantly on the boy. Kouyuu's eyes had long since detached from the jade seal, as Reishin knew they would. Like him, Kouyuu did not like to display his likes and dislikes, although Reishin was sure that their reluctance stemmed from completely different sources.
"Have another seal made and delivered in two days." Reishin said casually to his steward in the master study after dinner.
Kouyuu studied the jade seal, peering at it meticulously, with his chin resting at an uncomfortable stoop on the desk, as though something extraordinary might spring from it. He had woken up to it sitting quietly beside his pillow that morning, since then it had sat on his great pine wood desk, with his gaze fastened unblinkingly on it.
The glitter of the midday sun tumbled into the room gracefully through the open window, from which a faintly cool draft occasionally wafted through, and when its light fell on the intricate carvings on the seal, the pale jade seemed to emit a most aloof but majestic glow.
Gingerly, Kouyuu picked it up and overturned it. At the bottom, enclosed in a circle, were three characters, the elegance of which, like the person to which they belonged, was peerless.
A small, tentative smile fluttered on Kouyuu's lips. Momentary. Ephemeral.
He put down the jade seal gently back on the pine desk, his motion slow and filled with an almost ritualistic reverence, and then removed the round porcelain cover of the ink well, revealing the thick, expensive vermilion in the ink well. Vermilion ink, the rich magenta hue of which none can rival, can only be used by the most powerful members of the Kou clan.
Kouyuu dipped the seal carefully but firmly into the ink well, and, loosening his robe so that his chest was exposed, pressed the seal hard against the place where his heart lay beating furiously beneath.
After a moment he withdrew the seal. A soft breeze passed over him, leaving a refreshingly cool sensation where the wet ink had pressed against his skin. He walked over to the wash basin. Reflected in the calm surface of the water was his snow white robe and naked torso, where upon the flawless stretch of porcelain-like skin was a single scarlet circle.
Red, like Reishin's name. Red like blood, as though compensating for what they did not share.
Kouyuu stared, seemingly mystified, at his reflection, the awe in his eyes saturated with childish innocence and some deeper, intense emotion that should never appear in the gaze of a child.
A knock interrupted the smooth flow of Reishin's brush across the parchment. He looked up and granted entry with a voice laced with just a barely detectable trace of fatigue.
A maid entered and gave a bow. Reishin saw a white under robe hanging on her arm.
"Good evening, danna-sama. I found a blood stain on the under robe Kouyuu-sama wore yesterday." The maid informed respectfully and offered up the white robe on her arm.
A slither of worry entered his mind. Reishin took the fabric from her and, letting it drape to the ground in a hang, found the bright round stain where the cloth would cover the chest. Relief flooded him. The hue of the stain was too bright, too fresh to be from blood, which would have turned a brownish color in mere hours.
"Shall I fetch a physician?" The main inquired when Reishin said nothing.
Kouyuu's chief attendants have all been informed to watch the boy carefully for any signs of injury, but to never confront him about them. They were to report to Reishin, who then would tactfully present the remedy, or in some cases, the physician, at an opportune moment.
Reishin held the robe close to his nose and took a quick whiff. The slightly pungent scent of vermillion swirled faintly in the air.
"That won't be necessary." Reishin replied after a short pause. "You are dismissed."
Reishin leaned back in his chair, the robe flung unceremoniously atop the parchments on his desk. If one examined the stain close enough under the bright candle flame, one could discern the faint characters impressed on the fabric.
What a foolish boy… Reishin thought as a soft sigh escaped his lips.
Kouyuu looked up from the book on the table at the sound of the steady tapping of a cane. Moments later, Yuushun, seeming to be pleasantly surprised at finding him in the archive, stood smiling at him.
"Good afternoon, Kouyuu."
"Good afternoon, Yuushun-sama." The tone with which Kouyuu greeted him was still rather flat, but the guardedness he usually employed against adults had dissipated.
"What are you reading?" Yuushun asked as he took a seat across from the boy.
Kouyuu held out the book as he answered, "The Imperial Collection of History, volume III."
But Yuushun was not looking at the thick, slightly dusty volume, instead, his attention was transfixed on the dark bruise on Kouyuu's extended arm.
Kouyuu, puzzled by the strange expression of worry in Yuushun's suddenly frowning face, soon realized that the he had forgotten about the new bruise on his right arm. Quickly, he retracted his hands, hiding the blaring purple under the sleeve of his silk robe, and lowered his gaze.
"How did you get that?" Yuushun asked, his tone mixed with concern and anger.
Kouyuu slid his eyes to a point on the floor somewhere to his right. "I fell."
He heard Yuushun's constrained breaths, as though trying to control a fury the origin of which Kouyuu only vaguely grasped. Then, Yuushun sighed, heavy and poignant.
Reishin, who had waltzed from the department of Civil Affairs to the archive with hopes of having tea with his beloved elder brother, stopped abruptly in front of the archive entrance as the sound of Yuushun's voice drifted through the doorway.
"Why don't you fight back, Kouyuu?"
Reishin quickly hid himself behind one of the columns at the mention of his son's name, and listened.
"Why would I?" He heard Kouyuu's voice at length, his voice soft but tinged with a trace of annoyed defiance.
"Because if you don't they will never stop. Even if you think you might not win, you should still fight. That way they will know not to do it again."
There was a long moment of silence. Reishin wanted to interrupt; he knew without having to look that the conversation agitated Kouyuu.
Kouyuu looked at Yuushun for a second. Then averted his eyes again as he replied softly, "Whether I fight or not, whether I win or not, has no consequence."
[Insolent child! This'll teach you! How dare a homeless brat like you strike my son!
[What a disgrace! Loitering around like freeloader! Ahh…you confer misfortune to my child through your dirty hands! Never seen such a shameless child!
Kouyuu took a deep, shuddering breath, and explained slowly, "If I fought back and lost, they would just hit harder. If I won, they would go home and tell their parents, and then either their father would come and beat me, or their mother would come and scold me. It's always like that."
Yuushun peered contemplatively at Kouyuu, at the boy's carefully averted eyes in which the reflected detachment seemed to hide something childlike and infinitely vulnerable.
What wounded Kouyuu were not fists; it was something much more basic.
At length, he asked slowly, "Do you not think that…Reishin would scold the other children for hitting you, just as the fathers of those children who lost against you?"
Behind the column, Reishin pricked his ears and listened hard.
Kouyuu looked at Yuushun for an instant, but turned his eyes to the floor immediately. Yet the fear that passed briefly over his eyes had not escaped Yuushun's watchful glance.
"Reishin-sama…has done enough for me. I do not wish to trouble him with something so trivial."
The expensive silk of Reishin's maroon court robe twisted fiercely in his grasp. An inexplicable fury, the origin of which he couldn't fully decipher, overtook him.
Yuushun studied Kouyuu carefully. The boy had lied. The fear that had crossed his countenance, it was the fear of being disappointed, fear of upsetting the delicate balance in his relationship with the only parental figure he had, fear of facing the truth of the precious reality he had so carefully constructed,
Reishin turned away angrily from behind the column to leave. The unexpected countenance of Shouka greeted him.
With unusual gravity in his gaze, Shouka whispered, "Children, no matter how intelligent, must be told that they are loved, Reishin."