after the beginning, before the end

The gardens of the Imperial palace are always serene. No matter how great the turmoil outside the palace walls, Youko can retreat to the gardens in the sure knowledge that they will be silent and peaceful, just as they have been for as long as the palace has stood, and will be until the day it crumbles into dust.

It is a false comfort. As the years pass, as mortals are born, live long and full lifetimes and fade away as if they had never been, it is all too easy to retreat into her silent, unchanging gardens, disturbed only by the flutter of wings as an egret takes flight. There are paintings made of her sitting there by the pond, under a spray of green willow leaves, and they add to her legend. The immortal child-Empress of Kei, forever sixteen, as beautiful and remote as the mountain she lives on.

It would be all too easy to remain here, noticing only the change of seasons and forgetting the passing of mortal years, until she was Empress in name only, and then not at all.

A hand on Youko's shoulder startles her out of her contemplations. She glances up to see Rakushun waiting patiently, in human form for once, and dressed in his formal scholar's robes. He raises an eyebrow, and she responds with a wry smile, years of companionship making words unnecessary.

It is not always Rakushun who comes to fetch Youko when she sits here for too long. Often it is Keiki, sometimes Suzu or Shoukei. Once Shouryuu and Rokuta had arrived unexpectedly and found her here. Youko has many people who care for her.

"The petitioners await your presence, my lady," Rakushun says, and she accepts the silent rebuke gracefully, taking his offered arm. "I believe an invitation to a solstice celebration arrived today from En, as well."

Youko glances at him, smiling. "Oh? How fortunate."

The edge of his mouth curls upwards, a smile repressed. "Even Keiki didn't grumble too loudly when he saw it." They have been worried about her, her friends, Youko knows. It has been a hard few years, and Youko is beginning to feel her age.

"Thank you," she says impulsively, patting Rakushun's arm. He turns to her and smiles properly. It lights up his eyes, and as she bends her mind to the duties awaiting her, she takes strength from both the serenity of her lonely garden and the steady warmth of her friend's love.