Dormitory Eight was a large room with a few beds and desks, unoccupied except for a child sitting on a bed in the far corner, hunched over a book. He didn't look up when Shuuei and the servants entered, and continued to ignore them as they unpacked.
When the servants had gone, Shuuei approached him. "Hello," he said in his friendliest manner. "It seems we're roommates."
The boy looked up – he couldn't have been more than 13 or 14 – and let his gaze slide slowly across the room. "Apparently," he agreed dryly, and looked back down.
Shuuei's smile tightened. "I'm Ran Shuuei," – emphasis on the Ran – "You know, I was sure I'd be the youngest sitting for exams. Are you a child prodigy or something?" he joked.
The boy gave him a look. You are too stupid for words, it said. Go away now. "Li Kouyuu," he said out loud. It was less an introduction and more a dismissal.
Any number of uncharitable thoughts ran through Shuuei's mind, none of which managed to dent his smile. "I saw some others in the main hall. Would you like to go with me to meet them?"
The boy just snorted and turned a page. Shuuei gave up and left.
In the main hall, a group of young men were exchanging names and hometowns. Shuuei joined the conversation easily, and managed to waste a few idle minutes before the topic of his roommate was broached.
"Prickly fellow, isn't he," he laughed.
"How old is he?" asked one of the exam candidates. "He looks about twelve."
"I heard he's eleven and can speak sixteen languages," one of the examinees put in.
"I heard he's sixteen and can speak eleven languages!"
"I heard that he used family connections to get past the qualifying exams," cut in another. The speaker was Sei Teishun, a tall youth with a pinched expression, who smiled humorlessly when his statement was met with disbelief.
"It's awfully difficult to cheat in exams," someone on Shuuei's left said doubtfully.
"It's even harder to pass them, wouldn't you say?" Sei countered airily. "Especially since he couldn't have been more than twelve when he started. Besides," he added, leaning forward, "Nothing's difficult for someone with good connections. I heard he's part of the Kou clan."
"But his name isn't Kou… Is he a relative?"
"He's adopted," recalled Shuuei, realizing who his roommate must be. The others looked at him, and encouraged, he continued, "Kou Reishin took him in a few years ago. He apparently didn't have any family, so –"
"Excuse me," a voice cut in, and Shuuei turned guiltily around to see Li, fists clenched and glaring poisonously at them.
Shuuei opened his mouth, maybe to apologize or maybe to incriminate Sei, but Li brushed past him and pushed through the crowd, stalking out the entryway and leaving an embarrassed silence in his wake.
Li was not present that afternoon for the Chief Examiner's speech about the format of the exam or the conduct expected of examinees. He was not present for the tour of the palace grounds, nor did he join the other examination candidates for dinner or the slightly-panicked study-session they held afterwards. In fact, it wasn't until after most of the examinees had gone to bed that Li returned.
Shuuei turned around for the umpteenth time in an hour. He wasn't nervous about the examination, of course. It was just – well, exams weren't his thing, exactly. He could negotiate and deceive, he spent his life living and breathing politics, and nobody was happier than he with a sword in his hand, but as for exams – Accounting? Political science? Ancient history? That sort of thing was for dusty scholars, for the Li Kouyuus of the world, but not for him.
At least it'll be no problem studying myself to sleep, he thought, and tried to list the Hundred Golden Scholars of Heki. It was then that the door opened silently, and a pair of footsteps entered. Someone else was standing outside.
"Shall I go, or will you have trouble finding your own bed?" the outside voice inquired sharply.
"I'm alright," the person inside answered dispiritedly.
"Good. I trust you won't repeat this display of incompetence." The door shut briskly.
"Good night, Reishin-sama," the person – Li – muttered, and bumped into Shuuei's bed and tripped over somebody's trunk before managing to get back to his own bed.
Kouyuu hadn't expected that the period of living in the palace compound before sitting the exam would be pleasant, but neither had he anticipated the sheer torture engendered in forced fraternization with the ignorant swarm of blue-blooded dunderheads that apparently comprised his cohort. Moreover, no one had seen fit to tell him the palace grounds were so bizarrely twisted and complex. It was like some sort of grotesque labyrinth, he should have brought string, or bread crumbs, or something. It was just like Reishin-sama to expect him to…
Kouyuu let that thought die without finishing. Reishin-sama was not particularly pleased with him at the moment. Kouyuu didn't remember much of him from the year he'd lived in Reishin's estate before being sent away to the Kou province, but he didn't recall him being so cold.
Kouyuu sighed, flipping the page and staring at the equations. There was no time to think about this sort of thing when he had an exam – the exam – coming up. There was no time to think of anything but studies. Besides, the Kou family had warned him about this. If he was going to prove himself worthy of Reishin-sama, he had to do it on his own.
Enough! The eight immortals are He Xiangu, Li Tieguai, Cao Guojiu--- It took him a moment to notice his book had been suddenly slammed shut, and he blinked uncertainly into the face of Sei, an older boy who always had an expression like he was eating ku gua.
"Studying hard?" Sei asked pleasantly.
"I was," Kouyuu muttered. "Why are you in here?" Sei, thankfully, had been assigned to a dormitory closer to the main hall.
Sei tapped his fingers against the cover of the book. "I came here to warn you not to take the exam."
Kouyuu stared at him. "What? Why?"
"Because I told you not to." Sei smiled – or maybe his stomach hurt. "I'm not going to let some smart-mouthed gutter vermin take my spot because his father wants to show him off."
Kouyuu's hackles began to rise. "I don't know what you're implying," he began angrily.
"That you're not fit to be among us," explained Sei, and reached out to grab Kouyuu's head and slam it hard into the desk. Before Kouyuu could react, Sei grasped his ear and twisted it sharply downwards.
"So what do you say? Do we have an agreement?"
Kouyuu let out a strangled cry.
"What's going on?" One of Kouyuu's roommates – Ran – stood in the doorway. Sei let go of Kouyuu, who fell back in his seat, and nodded at Ran.
"Nothing of concern, Ran-sama. Good day." He strolled out of the dormitory, leaving Kouyuu and Ran alone.
"Hold still, will you?" Shuuei had tilted Li's head back. Blood ran out his nostrils and down his cheeks. Li kept twitching unhappily and trying to sit up. Shuuei ran his fingers gently along the bridge of Li's nose.
"Well, it isn't broken." He gave Li his handkerchief, which the boy reluctantly accepted. "What happened, exactly?"
Li frowned. "Apparently, he resents my participation in the Kaishi examination."
"Well, I'm not surprised." Shuuei retreated to his own desk and selected a text. "You have a way of treating people like they're idiots. They don't appreciate that, especially from a child."
"What part of sixteen makes me a child?" Li muttered. "You're not that much older."
"The point," said Shuuei pedantically, "is that you are rude and uncultured. For one thing, you lit into those two who were trying to have a serious discussion of the cause of poverty—"
"They were misinterpreting the statistics," Li protested. "Not to mention they completely lacked any semblance of a holistic perspective."
"I don't understand that," Shuuei explained slowly, "nor do I care. You can't treat people so scornfully and expect them to be nice to you. Stop antagonizing everyone.'
"They aren't like that because I'm rude or antagonistic," Kouyuu argued. "They're like that because I used to be homeless. I'm hard proof that blood isn't a determiner of success, thus promoting social mobility, which threatens their power structure. They want me out of the way."
"Stop talking like a text-book," Shuuei moaned, covering his ears.
"If you had just minded your own business instead of running off at the mouth, this wouldn't be a problem!"
"They'd have figured it out eventually. They are not, in fact, stupid."
"Of course you'd think so," Li snapped.
Shuuei pinched the bridge of his nose. At least there was only one week left before the exam.
Shuuei dropped the book onto his desk with a thunk, and his head onto the book with a sigh. He was doomed. Doomed! Not to mention impossibly tired.
"If you're hoping the knowledge will seep through and find its way into your head, you've got a long wait," said Li, rising from his desk to stretch his limbs. "Your skull is too thick, for one thing."
Shuuei managed a half-hearted sneer. "Not all of us have such impressionable minds." He squinted at Li, who was rubbing at a discoloration under his neck as he inspected a pile of books. "A bruise? What's that from?"
Li scowled and turned his back to Shuuei, who sat reluctantly up and propped his head into his hand. He knew Li had been having some trouble with a few of the other Kaishi candidates, but Li was so insufferably knowledgeable sometimes. Shuuei himself wanted to strangle him whenever he mentioned some obscure theory or poet, and had the gall to look surprised when nobody else recognized it. It wasn't surprising that a frustrated examinee might take exception to Li's unthinking intelligence and scornful demeanor.
"They're only bothering you because you irritate them," he said to Li's back. "Not everyone was born with the entirety of the palace archives in their brains. Everyone's worried about the test, and you only make them feel bad when you show off like that. The capable falcon hides his talons," he added, feeling wise.
"Fine words from someone with kanji imprinted on his forehead," retorted Li, selecting Mou's Selections from Ontological Theory and retreating from his desk.
Shuuei turned back to his book and surreptitiously rubbed at his forehead. "Do what you want then," he muttered. "It's none of my concern."
Except that it rather was, when Li was getting increasingly worn as the Kaishi examination drew nearer. Li didn't say anything, but Shuuei wondered if Sei was renewing his threats. "There's nothing I can do," he told himself. "If he's going to keep shooting his mouth off, there's nothing I can do about it. And he deserves whatever he gets."
But it was one thing to say that, and another to come upon Sei and his groupies, backing Li against one of the palace walls and grinding his face against the stone. Sei had taken Li's hand and was pulling a finger gently backward, asking in polite tones if Li was quite sure he wanted to sit the exams. "After all," he said, "it'll be difficult if you can't write down any of the answers."
"At least it'll make us even," ground out Kouyuu, eyes watering. Shuuei cleared his throat.
"Li-san, there you are. I had a question to ask you about Liwen's Formula. Ah," he stopped as though just seeing Sei and the others. "Hello, Sei-san. Say, shouldn't you all be studying rather than hanging around in the gardens? The exams in just a few days, you know. Some of us have to study," he added significantly. The groupies backed away nervously, but Sei just dropped Li's hand and ruffled his hair in an overly friendly manner.
"So true, Ran-sama. Think on what I said, alright, Li-kun?"
Li grimaced, and tried to smooth his hair. Shuuei leant down to retrieve his books, but Li didn't appear to be particularly grateful for his assistance. His hands were shaking when he accepted the books from Shuuei, and his gaze didn't leave the ground.
"Are you alright?" Shuuei asked solicitously. Kouyuu started walking in the opposite direction than Sei had taken, and Shuuei hurried to catch up.
"What do you care?" Li snapped. "You people are all the same, all strength and no brains."
Shuuei's patience was starting to run thin. "We may not be eleven-year-olds who speak 16 languages, but everyone here was worthy enough to take the Kaishi exam." He grabbed Li's shoulder and steered him left towards the preparatory dorms.
Li shot Shuuei an expression of disbelief. "Have you met the other examinees? They may be capable of mindless violence, but they barely have a brain to share among them."
"Don't criticize other people's intelligence," said Shuuei harshly. "It just makes you look weak."
"Don't criticize others' weakness," countered Li. "It just makes you look unintelligent."
Shuuei stopped and grabbed Li by the shoulder. "Listen to yourself! It's that sort of antagonistic snobbery that makes everyone hate you!"
Li's eyes flashed and he drew away. "I'd rather be an antagonistic snob than an undereducated, over-privileged buffoon."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Here you are, getting so upset because for the first time in your life things aren't being served to you on a golden platter, and you actually have to use your mind instead of your family or your strength to achieve something. It's too bad it's atrophied from under-use." Evidently tired of arguing, Li turned and stomped away. Shouting or running after him was beneath Shuuei's dignity, so he angrily continued back to the dormitory. What an obnoxious, self-centered child! Knowing a thing or two about history didn't mean he automatically knew everything about a person.
He threw open the door and jumped onto the bed. Kei, one their roommates, glanced over at him. "Did the walk clear your head?" he asked. Shuuei covered his face with his hands and groaned. Kei laughed gently.
Shuuei sat up and turned to face him. "I swear, if Sei doesn't murder Li, I'll kill him myself."
Kei smiled nervously, probably thinking Shuuei was joking. "He can be…concerning, at times, but he's actually a very nice person. And so clever for such a young man."
Shuuei rolled his eyes. Somewhere outside, a bell called the examinees for dinner.
"About time," sighed Kei. "Oh, but where is Li-kun?"
Shuuei frowned. Li had been heading in the direction of the stables for some reason…
Why were there horses in the archives? Sometimes the palace was a very weird place, Kouyuu decided, exiting the stables. He looked around, seeing the military compound, a set of domestic structures…where was the main compound?
"What are you doing here?" asked a mechanical voice, and Kouyuu turned in surprise to see a mask hovering above him.
"I…are you wearing a mask?" he asked in confusion. The eyes behind the mask narrowed.
"If you are looking for the preparatory dorms, I'm going that way," it said, and began walking away.
"Oh, um, yes!" Kouyuu ran to catch up to the person. The palace was certainly a very weird place.
"Recent ones. They know more about him than one might wish."
"The fourth son of the Ran clan seems to have spread it around."
"Is that so? He'll wish he hadn't."
With the exam finally done, Kouyuu had gone back to living with Reishin-sama at his estate, although "with" generally implied the presence of either or both parties participating concurrently, which was not usually the case. Kouyuu did see his benefactor at dinner (when Reishin bothered to come home) and at breakfast (when Kouyuu remembered to have it).
For his part, Reishin-sama seemed no more thrilled with Kouyuu now than he had when Kouyuu was staying at the palace compound. Kouyuu supposed that keeping a child who wasn't yours was all very well when they were little and cute and in need of saving, but a nearly-grown man was another thing entirely.
Ah, well. He could still have his fun. He stirred his breakfast of porridge around and took a bite. "The porridge is very good today," he remarked.
Reishin didn't look up from the report he was reading. "It was far too runny."
Kouyuu nodded meditatively. "The weather is getting cooler."
"There are still several weeks of summer left," countered Reishin.
Kouyuu had discovered that there was nothing he could say that his guardian couldn't find some way to disagree with. He had invented a game, therefore, that consisted of him attempting to say something with which Reishin couldn't argue. Kouyuu had yet to win.
A servant entered the dining hall, carrying a small package. He was smiling. "My lord, a delivery has just arrived for Kouyuu-sama."
Reishin looked expectantly at Kouyuu, who was chewing his porridge and trying to think of his next innocuous remark. He looked from Reishin to the servant and realized he was expected to do something. "Excuse me?" he asked, swallowing.
Reishin smirked and reached for his ever-present fan. "It seems my son is not interested in learning whether or not he passed the Kaishi examination," he said to the servant. "You may dispose of it."
The servant bowed and turned to leave, and was nearly bowled over when Kouyuu sprang from the table and grabbed for the package. He fumbled with the lid, pulled it open, and stopped dead.
Not…not possible. No.
"Well?" asked Reishin, betraying some impatience.
He definitely must have read it incorrectly. There was another number somewhere. It was 11, or 21, or maybe 101? There was no way it was what it looked like. Or maybe somebody had made a mistake?
"What is it? Did you pass? Did you fail?" demanded Reishin, waving his fan irritably.
"I…" Kouyuu held up the ticket in amazement. Reishin's fanning slowed momentarily. A pleased grin began to spread across his face before it was covered with a snap of his fan.
"Hm! Well done."
Kouyuu had barely a moment to bask in Reishin's approval before his father was shooing him out of the room. "Go now, I have to see the Secretary of Financial Affairs about a very important matter. I'm sure you must have studying to do."
Kouyuu allowed himself to be hustled out of the room and wandered in (what he thought was) the direction of the library, a dazed smile on his face.
"Bougen," reported Shuuei, tossing the tablet to one of his brothers. Another grinned, and the third glanced up at Shuuei long enough to give him a nod of approval.
Someone was biting his elbow. He looked down to see Ryuuren staring up at him. "You couldn't get first place?" the ten-year old asked scornfully. Shuuei grinned and pinched his brother's cheek.
"Anyone can get first," he told him, making it up on the spot. "It takes a real genius to place in a particular spot. And Bougen has all of the benefits of Jougen, with none of the expectations."
Ryuuren put his flute to his lips and blasted a shrieking, thoughtful melody. "I see. Bougen is the best spot," he decided, and marched away to chew at the curtains.
Kouyuu wiped his face with his sleeve and returned back to scrubbing the stone floor. If a person scored top on an exam at an extremely young age, the logical conclusion was that they were a genius and a hard worker and should be set to work ridding the nation of its ills, or at least assisting the Secretary of Civil Affairs. But no, apparently they were set to the most menial frivolities Rou-kanri's twisted mind could devise. That, or Saiunkoku was desperately in need of a highly-efficient new method of lavatory cleaning.
A shadow fell over him. It was Reishin-sama, looking around the lavatory with a look of pure disgust.
"Good morning, Reishin-sama," said Kouyuu meekly.
"It's almost noon," Reishin replied severely. "So Rou-kanri has set you to doing—doing—" He made a gesture that seemed to encompass the entire room, the disgust he found with the task, and insult that he, Kou Reishin, had to bear witness to his only son scrubbing the lavatory floors. He was apparently oblivious to the ingenious method Kouyuu had invented that used half as much lye and shortened the chore by a good twenty minutes.
"It could be worse," Kouyuu ventured. "Ran Shuuei has to polish the shoes of anyone who asks him to."
"I would hardly call that worse. See that you don't make a disgrace of yourself." Reishin regarded his son disdainfully and swept regally from the room.
At first, Shuuei had been convinced he would drop dead of boredom if he really had to sweep the entirety of the main building's front porch. He had discovered, though, that it was actually very interesting. In the course of the day, he saw Li cross the compound six different times, always from a different direction. A tall man in a mask and yellow robe would take the same path two minutes later.
"See something interesting?" asked a voice behind him. Shuuei started. Behind him was a tall, refined man in red robes. A Secretary of something…
"Ah, no," Shuuei said politely, realizing he was looking at Li Kouyuu's adoptive father.
At that moment, Li was dragged across the yard by the man dressed in yellow, loudly protesting that he knew exactly where he was going.
Shuuei did his best to keep a straight face, but judging by Kou Reishin's expression, he failed miserably.
Kouyuu rubbed his hands across his face. He didn't mind accounting, but that was when there was an end somewhere in sight. He almost preferred the menial labor to the evening book-keeping sessions Rou-kanri had started assigning them. It was true that with this, he might actually have a chance to prove his capability. But on the other hand…
"Good evening, Kouyuu!"
Kouyuu twitched. "Who said you could call me that?!" he demanded. That person just laughed and sat across from him.
"You managed to find the archives, I see. Good for you! I'll also have to try my best!"
Kouyuu bristled. That person, apparently in response to Kouyuu's "antagonism," had not only not left him alone, but had gotten so friendly and patronizing Kouyuu couldn't stand it.
"Maybe you could try your best somewhere further away," he suggested coldly. Ran gave him a fond look and opened the top of an overflowing stack of ledgers.
They usually worked mostly in silence. Ran was apparently in a good mood tonight, though, because somewhere around midnight he started humming. He didn't seem to realize he was doing it, so Kouyuu waited for a few minutes. When Ran still didn't stop, Kouyuu picked up one of the ledgers and hurled it at Ran's down-turned head. Without looking up, Ran caught the book one-handed. He raised an eyebrow at Kouyuu.
"So violent," he sighed regretfully. "Am I such a poor singer?"
"No, you're just annoying," griped Kouyuu. Ran looked absurdly pleased.
"It wasn't a compliment!" Kouyuu hissed. "Some of us need to concentrate on work! It's bad enough I do nothing but trivial, demeaning busy-work all day, but then you have to come along and ruin the only real work I get!"
Ran's eyebrows went up in amazement and amusement. "Spoken like a true jougen." He flipped open Kouyuu's ledger. "As for me, if I have to read another rural transportation report, my eyes are going to start bleeding."
"It's preferable to cleaning the lavatories," Kouyuu grumbled. "Or cleaning dead insects from the window sills. Or polishing the emperor's silver tea sets."
Ran grinned. "I had to sweep away the flower petals that blew onto the porch. And pick off all of the snails on the shady side of the stables."
"I had to transcribe the entire session of an Accounting policy meeting."
"I won't be held accountable if I have to polish Kou Reishin's shoes one more time."
"Eh? Kou Reishin's?" As far as Kouyuu was aware, Reishin never bothered with that sort of trivial aspect.
"He shows up at least five times a day. I'm positive he takes walks in the garden just so I'll have to repolish them." Kouyuu privately thought it very likely, although why Reishin-sama would have anything against Ran was beyond him. Ran was distracted, however, by something outside the door.
"Snack time!" Ran announced cheerily, and stood up to fetch the tea service and tray of manjuu that had begun mysteriously appearing outside the archives each night. "I wonder who's doing it?" He set the tray down. Kouyuu dove into the steamed buns as if they would disappear. "Maybe it's Kou Shouka? He's very fond of you.'
"Prob'ly not," Kouyuu mumbled around a mouthful of steamed bun. "He has a family, so he wouldn't be here this late."
"Don't talk with your mouth full," Ran said disapprovingly. "Is it that masked person who keeps following you around? Or Kou Reishin?" he amended at Kouyuu's bewildered look.
"Doubtful," replied Kouyuu, reaching for a cup of tea. "If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably Rou-kanri."
Ran gave him a dubious look. "He's not exactly the tea-and-manchu sort, Kouyuu."
"Li," Kouyuu growled. "Rou-kanri is a scary person who acts more like a heartless slave-driver than anything else, but with practice it's possible to distinguish kind-hearted people from others. For some of us, anyway," he added airily.
"A kind hearted-person is making you muck out stables?" Ran was skeptical. "I heard he even made you clean up your own blood after that…incident." He'd heard it from those responsible for the shedding of said blood, as they gloated over Rou-kanri's apparent dislike for Kouyuu.
Kouyuu's shoulders tensed. "My uncle once dropped me in a river to teach me how to swim," he answered stiffly. "It seems harsh, but I learned, and if I'd been in danger of drowning, there's no doubt he'd have rescued me."
"Ah," Shuuei sipped at his tea. "The Kou clan…sounds pretty scary."
Kouyuu rubbed his arm. He didn't think it was broken – the 6-foot fall from the courtyard wall he'd been cleaning couldn't do that – but it really hurt.
He limped into a hall – he wasn't sure which building – and leaned heavily against the wall. He heard rapid footsteps and looked up to see a flash of red cloth disappear around the corner.
Who… He jumped when someone behind him cleared his throat. It was that bizarre mask again.
"Ah, oh, I'm sorry," babbled Kouyuu, and tried to move out of its way. The mask grabbed Kouyuu's injured arm, making him wince.
"Go to the infirmary," the mask commanded in its strange, monotone voice. "That's an order."
"H-hai," Kouyuu stuttered, and started to rush away.
Kouyuu stopped dead in his tracks.
"It's that way." The mask pointed in the opposite direction. Kouyuu bowed and trotted briskly in that direction.
"You can come out now."
"What a ridiculous child."
"Really? But no matter how you look at it, you're sort of pathetic."
"I have no idea what you're referring to."
"Uh-huh. I suppose now you want me to go to the infirmary and check on him?"
"I'm not asking you to do anything."
"Then I'll go back to my office."
Sigh. "Very well…"
It was bad enough that they'd pushed him into the fish pond, Kouyuu thought disheartenedly, limping up the stairs to his dormitory, but did they have to take his shoes?
His robes left small puddles in his trail –at least he could find his way back if he got lost again. His shoes were still somewhere at the bottom of the pond.
"My, my," Sei had said. "A person like you isn't used to regular baths, right? How does it feel to be clean for a change?"
"I really can't stand that guy," Kouyuu muttered, wiping strands of clinging hair from his forehead. He had spare shinshi robes, but where was he going to get another pair of shoes? He sloshed into Dormitory Eight, pulling off his robes as he went. There, in front of his bed, sat a pair of shoes. Nice ones. Dry ones. Kouyuu bent down to inspect them.
They were of excellent quality, but too big to belong to Kei. Were they Shuuei's? But they were in front of his bed—Shuuei's was on the other side of the room. Kouyuu twisted his mouth to one side and slipped them on. They were a little small. Shuuei might not like him, but he wouldn't care if Kouyuu borrowed them for a while, right?
By the time Kouyuu managed to locate the archives, Shuuei was already far into his workload. He arched an eyebrow at Kouyuu. "Uniform shoes not fashionable enough for you suddenly?"
"Uniform shoes are a fish's dinner by now," retorted Kouyuu, picking a ledger from the stacks and sorting through it. "Are these ones yours?"
Shuuei peered over the table. "No, they're not mine," he said, frowning, "but…I've definitely seen them before."
"Well, don't waste your brain power thinking about it," advised Kouyuu, picking up the abacus. "Scarce resources need to be conserved."
The moon was full, and Kouyuu was struggling not to drown. It was difficult with so many people holding him under.
"What's going on here?!" At the sound of that terrible, enraged voice, the young men scattered. Kou Reishin waded through the koi pond and pulled his son into a sitting position. Kouyuu coughed and began to wretch. Reishin said nothing.
"I'm sorry, Reishin-sama," said Kouyuu thickly, when he could breathe again. His throat was tight. Why did Reishin-sama, of all people, have to see?
"Idiot boy." Reishin scolded softly. "There's nothing to apologize to me for."
Kouyuu despaired of ever saying something Reishin couldn't contradict.
"Ran-kun," Sei greeted Shuuei, who had taken a moment's break to rub the grass from his robes. "Might I speak with you for a moment?"
"Are you sure the Department of Protocol can spare you?" Shuuei asked, with no trace of bitterness whatsoever.
Sei smiled. "You should come by the gardens at sundown tonight. Something fun is going to happen."
"The gardens? That's where Li—" He stopped and looked at Sei, who smiled. "How fun, exactly?"
Sei grinned. "It'll be worth your time," he promised. Shuuei grinned back, but it turned sour as Sei walked away.
"Shuuei! Come quickly!"
Shuuei looked up in surprise from the window sill he'd been dusting. Kei was running towards him with panic written over his usually calm features. "What…"
"The Preserved Documents room!" Kei grabbed his arm and started running. Shuuei ran along, unable to coax an intelligible sentence from Kei. They met Li at the entrance to the Preserved Documents section, a sealed, dry underground room at the bottom of a dark flight of stone stairs.
Shuuei started down the stairs and halted dead in his tracks. The door to the Preserved Documents room was wide open, and a sea of murky green water was flowing out, immersing the bottom steps. It looked to be almost knee-high.
"The bottom shelves are completely submerged!" Kei was distraught. "And the water is still rising!"
"The underground water source must have flooded," guessed Li.
"We have to tell an official," said Shuuei, mind racing. "Kou Shouka is in charge of this section, right?" The Preserved Documents room was where the very fragile, ancient documents were kept. Some were centuries old and invaluable.
"I can't find him!" wailed Kei. "And the officials of this building are in a meeting, and the guards wouldn't let me in to see them!"
"Military," said Li scornfully, and shot Shuuei a meaningful look. He had squatted down and was rolling up the cuffs of his pants.
"You can't go down there," Kei gasped. "It's not safe! Didn't you see the snakes?"
"Do you have a better suggestion?" Li hiked his robes around his waist and started down the steps.
"We have to go find someone," Shuuei repeated. "Just wait, Li."
Li ignored him and stepped into the water, continuing down the stairs and disappearing into the dark room. Kei, looking ready to tear out his hair, ran back to persuade the guard.
Shuuei descended the stairs and stopped a little past the waterline. Li returned after a moment, carrying a stack of slightly damp scrolls that he handed to him.
"It won't make much difference, Kouyuu. Even if you manage to save a few things, they'll mostly be destroyed. There's nothing we can do."
Li turned away. "There's never nothing you can do," he said, and waded back into the flooded archives.
"It was an unnecessary risk."
"Oh? Would your elder brother agree, I wonder?"
"Old pieces of paper aren't worth his life. It's only the ideas they introduced that matter."
"I wonder if that's true. But he's gained some attention, now."
"He had their attention."
"Nevertheless. Shou Taishi seems to have taken quite an interest in him…"
Shuuei felt cheerier than he'd been since coming to Kiyou. His blood was still rushing from the frantic effort to save the books, or maybe it had been the opportunity to expend some energy. Who would have thought that little bookworm could be so tough? he wondered, grinning. Kou Reishin hadn't come by to get his shoes polished lately, either. Things were certainly looking up.
His grin faltered when he saw Sei coming toward him, mouth pinched into a smirk and cold eyes lit with glee. Shuuei had completely forgotten about the ambush Sei was planning.
"You're going in the wrong direction," Sei informed him.
"Just going for a change of clothes," Shuuei lied, indicating his damp robes. Once he got away, he'd go back and warn Li.
Sei sneered. "Don't tell me you were helping Li. That rat only did it to get on the officials' good sides."
"Li isn't quite as bad as all that," Shuuei said placatingly. "You two really just got off on the wrong foot. He works hard and is very clever."
Sei snarled. "That sort of person needs to realize that scoring well on a test doesn't make him better than those above him. He needs to be taught to respect men of higher stations."
Shuuei nodded. It seemed Sei would bully Li no matter what Shuuei said or did. There was nothing he could do about it. He thought of Li, kilting his robe and wading determinedly into the flooded basement. "There's never nothing you can do."
"You know," Shuuei said slowly, "you're absolutely right. A person like that has no business being around our kind. In fact," he continued, "that gives me an excellent idea. Come with me." He wrapped an arm around Sei and started to lead him away.
Sei looked intrigued. "What's your idea?'
"Oh, it'll be worth your time," Shuuei promised. "We'll teach Li a thing or two about how to act towards those above him."
Kouyuu made his way along the edge of the palace compound, tired but pleased with his day's work. He wondered what Reishin-sama would say. Would he be pleased? Would he say it wasn't worth it? Yell at him for neglecting his assigned duties?
Something hit him hard in the back of the head. "Hey!" he yelped, turning around. Nobody was in sight.
He looked around wildly. There was no one there. Who would throw a shoe – a shinshi shoe? – without coming forward to brag about it?
"Li! Oy, Kouyuu!" The voice was coming from…above him?
He looked up to see Sei, arms waving wildly as Ran dangled him upside-down over the precipice of the palace wall.
Kouyuu's amazement must have shown, because Ran released one of Sei's ankles in order to wave, prompting a scream of panic.
"Good evening, Li-kun!" Ran yelled.
Bewildered, Kouyuu managed a feeble wave.
"I was just having a talk with Sei," Ran continued. "It seems there's something he'd like to tell you."
Sei screamed something about a raving lunatic, but Kouyuu didn't quite catch all of it. Ran frowned and shook Sei's ankles a bit, as if to jog his memory.
"Sorry!" screamed Sei, twisting about.
"Sort of pathetic, wasn't it?" asked Ran, and pretended to drop him.
"I'm sorry!!" Sei shrieked. "I apologize! Please, please forgive me!"
Ran readjusted his grip on Sei's ankles. "Well?" he called down to Kouyuu, who goggled at him, books clasped to his chest. "What do you think?"
"I…what do you think you're doing?!" shouted Kouyuu, finally finding his wits. "Are you insane?!"
"Do you forgive him?" Ran called back. Kouyuu shook his head.
"Just put him down!"
"Li! Li, help me! He's mad! He's completely insane!"
Ran grinned. "If you don't forgive him, I'll drop him. What do you say, Li?" Sei began to wail. From the corner of his eye, Kouyuu saw members of the palace guard running along the wall, but they were still a long way off. Ran had probably seen them too, because he grinned and loosened his grip and Sei slid down a few more inches.
"Fine!" Kouyuu yelled. "I forgive him! Just let him go!"
Ran arched a brow. "If you say so…"
"RAN!" yelled Kouyuu, starting to get really angry. "Just put –"
"Do you forgive me?"
Kouyuu stared at him incredulously.
"Or I'll drop him," Ran added smugly. The guards were mere yards away. Ran was looking at something behind Kouyuu, and his grin tightened.
"Last chance, Li! This is my apology. Do you forgive me?"
"Yes!" shrieked Kouyuu. "Yes! Stop it!" And then the guards were upon him.
"The Ran have always been strange, but this is…unusual."
"And in the end, it seems young Sei got caught up in the tussle and wound up falling from the walls anyway."
"Oh, really? Dreadful."
"Indeed. And furthermore, it seems the anesthesia had been replaced with a similarly colored potion that had no effect whatsoever. They didn't realize until after they tried to set his leg. I'm told he was in a great deal of pain."
"Ah? How terrible."
"Come to think, didn't you complain of a headache and spend some time in the infirmary around that time? Surely you know more than I."
"Funny…" Reishin snapped open his fan. "I don't recall."
Shuuei slipped into Dormitory Eight. It was well past midnight and Kei, at least, was sound asleep. Li was perched at his desk with a single candle lit, poring over some absurdly thick text. He looked up when Shuuei entered and opened his mouth to speak.
Shuuei cut him off with a quick gesture. "I have just spent three hours being lectured by your kind-hearted Rou-kanri, another two by the Secretary of Protocol, and another by the emperor's advisors, who I might add are very frightening. I spent an additional ten minutes being interrogated by your father, which was possibly the most terrifying experience of my life. I am not criminally insane. I am not acting on my clan's orders to carry out an assassination. I do not have any sort of bizarre obsession with you. I was just trying to be nice."
There was a pause.
"I was just going to say 'thank you,'" Li said at last, with a twist of his lips.
Shuuei let out a long breath. "You're welcome!" he declared with finality. After a moment, he grinned. "So, does this make us friends?"
Li gave him a sidelong look. "Don't be ridiculous," he answered incredulously, and blew out the candle.