[December 2008] [1500 Words or more] [Hope]
Title: Convenient Legends
Genre: Dark Gen
Word count: 2181
Rating: PG13 for dark themes
Warnings: Child abuse, death, anger, sadness.
Disclaimer: I do not own Saiunkoku Monogatari. It belongs to its creator, Sai Yukino. I make no profit nor seek to make profit.
"Nobody wants you!" the elder boy taunted. "You should never have been born!"
Ryuuki instinctively covered his head with his arms when the older boy punched him in the stomach. The others gathered around and cheered, clearly approving of the impromptu show. The world went black.
"Ryuuki-chan..." Seien's voice was far away. "Ryuuki-chan, wake up."
The child's eyes opened slowly. "Aniuie, is that you?"
"Yes little brother." Seien did not need to ask what happened. Anger turned to bile yet again when his little brother smiled brightly, content just to be beside his Aniue. Ryuuki was too gentle for hatred. Seien decided he would have enough hatred for the both of them. A dark look momentarily flashed across his face and he gathered the underweight child in his arms.
"Aniue? Is there really a ghost?"
"Of course." It was mostly true. He knew that the palace ghosts existed in the minds of those who did not recognize the voice behind the piercing screams. There could be a ghost; it just certainly wasn't the one Ryuuki was asking about.
"Don't worry about the ghost, Ryuuki-chan. It won't hurt you."
The prince's eyes grew wide with wonder. "How do you know?"
"I know him." Seien chuckled at the boy's startled gasp. "I know him very well."
Ryuuki smiled and fell asleep, safe in Seien's arms.
Everyone knew the Imperial household was haunted. For years servants and officials alike accepted that specters lurked in the archives, in the courtyard, in the gardens, and yes, even in the Emperor's bedchambers. Haunting screams echoing across the courtyard in the dead of night chilled the servants and guards to the bone, but they knew that searching for the mournful ghosts would do no good. There was nothing the living could do for the dead. Those lost souls would only assure madness for those who sought them out. Yes, it was best to allow them free reign of the night.
Saiunkoku was a country of mystery. Paranormal events, wandering souls, and vengeful demons were an every day reality. The palace was the center of power. It was only natural that the spirits would flock to Kiyou. The Immortals themselves were said to appear when an emperor earned their approval. The nightly screams bore no resemblance to what was expected of the immortals, so the commoners were deeply concerned. Their emperor, their sole source of stability, had somehow fallen into a raging demon's disfavor. Hopefully things would improve and the spirit would rest. All that was left to do was wait.
High pitched screams echoed through the archives, and Shouka held the boy closer, unable to do more than prevent him from falling to the floor. His tiny fingernails clawed his hollow cheeks, and hot tears soaked the official's robes. The older man caught the boy's hands so he would not injure himself further. Screams subsided into sobs as the older man rocked the young prince and hummed a gentle lullaby.
"Anuie," the child mumbled in his sleep, "why do they hurt me Anuei? I try to be good..."
Heavy footsteps approached the archives. Shouka lay the child back on the small pallet concealed behind dusty bookshelves and hurried to greet the night guard before the sharp knocks woke the young master. The burly man was not at all surprised to find the quiet court official still toiling away in the forgotten corner of the complex.
"Shoka-sama, did you hear that scream?" The guard's eyes scanned across the dark room, searching.
"I did." The quiet court official answered quietly.
"Where did it come from? Who was it? Are you in danger, sir?"
"Don't worry yourself," Shouka shook his head slightly. "You're new here, aren't you?"
"Yes," the guard answered. "Why?"
"Apparently no one has told you the Imperial complex is haunted."
Servants debated the cause of the haunting, adding color to their mundane routines. Some speculated that it was a a curse upon the Imperial family. Others mused that emperor Senka called upon frightening spirits to control his domineering wives. Others still mused that it was a demon foretelling dismal days to come. All theories shared one constant: the spirits only roamed the grounds at night. The piercing screams worried even the most seasoned warriors. Guards were wary of the night duty. Cooks did their best to clean up before the sun went down. Laundry attendants were careful to not report to their stations in the wee morning hours alone. Those living on the grounds closed their shudders tightly against the wild demons that randomly disturbed their sleep.
The haunting was viewed differently by the royal family. The concubines cared little about the ghost's wailing. The screams and cries were of no consequence to the women. Anguished howls on the grounds seemed appropriate. None of them expected happiness in the palace, after all, so it seemed logical that those poor souls trapped for an eternity within the dismal walls would be tortured as well. Senka, on the other hand, cared deeply about the possibility of demons roaming freely within the complex. He was no stranger to curses and evil spirits. The Hoyou clansmen were masters of the paranormal and unfortunately the biggest threat to the throne. An elite secret section of the military suppressed all supernatural powers within the city. If the mystical clan did find a weakness, it could be the end of Senka's reign.
"Your majesty." Shouka bowed respectfully when Senka paid an unexpected visit to the archives.
Senka glanced over the dusty books and scrolls disapprovingly. "I trust you know why we're here."
The archivist nodded. "You wish to know if I know anything about the demons roaming the Imperial grounds."
Silence hung between the men. Senka quietly waited for his subject to respond, watching the quiet man's body language for any signs of deception. A gust of wind rustled the sakura and Shouka spoke. "The spirit is not a threat to Your Majesty."
Senka's eyes narrowed angrily at the vague answer, but a splash from the garden pond caught his attention.
"We will speak of this," he stated flatly, then left the archives to investigate the commotion. He found his youngest son face down in the cold waters. That evening Senka took the dark pain tinging up his arm as a warning and never spoke of the spirit again.
Palace servants delighted in the drama of the princes unfolding before them. The first prince was the positional heir to the throne, but the second prince effortlessly outshone his elder half brother. The younger prince's natural beauty, bright intelligent eyes, and natural swordsmanship cast a shadow over the first concubine's capable but unremarkable son. It was common knowledge that the half brothers had been good friends in early childhood. The elder boy's mother recognized her son's natural competitor and saw to it that the boys were separated. She also instilled in her child a hatred for his former friend.
Many in the palace pitied the beautiful younger prince, but no one dared speak it openly. The concubines were collectively dangerous, and showing the slightest hint of support for any of the children endangered jobs and lives. Even Seien's mother, who was too sickly to cause anyone physical harm, was known to be a master of manipulation. Knowing looks, approving nods, and well placed silences were all that spoke of the servants' preference for the second prince. One fateful tournament, the brazen teen fell to pride. No one was surprised when he defeated the fourth Ran son easily. The real scandal was his arrogance, calling the Ran "useless" in the arena before all in power, including Setsuna, head of the Ran clan. Seien's prideful words sealed his doom. It was only a matter of time.
Senka was not surprised when the sixth concubine's body was found. The emperor sighed inwardly. Ou Ki's eyes did not quite meet the emperor's as relayed the grim details of the sixth concubine's disfigurement and the damning evidence of the poisonous cosmetic bottle found in her room. Senka listened, wondering briefly if the little rice cake he rescued from the pond was the same small boy who discovered her body. He rubbed his aching rotting arm absently.
"There is no need to make the real cause of the young woman's death public, your Majesty. No one will question the explanation of 'natural causes.' All evidence of foul play has been destroyed."
The emperor's childhood friend had certainly covered all angles. Except one.
"What of the boy who found the body?"
Ou Ki's voice turned hard. "He is of no consequence. He remembers nothing."
Uneasy quiet settled in the palace. The crying ghost now termed "the screaming demon" appeared to finally be at rest. The woeful cries were no longer part of the night at the complex and the staff finally began to relax. Guards did not mind the night shift, kitchen staff did not worry too much about staying late to scrub the pots and utensils, and laundry women felt safe enough to report to their work stations alone. The vengeful spirit was sated. The reason behind its disappearance was a topic of great debate. Some believed that the specter had only come to claim the sixth concubine. She was the most troublesome, after all, and vain to a fault. Others swore that the demon was showing favor to the controversial second prince, citing that there had not been an appearance after the tournament that damned him in the eyes of so many. All desperately hoped that the spirit's peace was a reflection of the country's stability. The power struggles within the palace were taking their toll on the country and the economy continued to decline. Maybe the screaming demon's absence indicated better days were finally on their way.
"Exile!" Ou Ki roared, "This is treason your majesty! Nothing short of execution will be accepted."
Senka's face remained impassive. "We are emperor, and we order exile to Suzuran and her son."
"This is unacceptable. I demand execution." the official's voice raised in outrage.
"Suzuran is sickly. Her son is a child. They are exiled."
"Either order their execution yourself," Ou Ki demanded, then lowered his voice menacingly, "or weaken your position on the throne when someone else executes them for you."
"Our decision is final." Senka rubbed his diseased arm and frowned. He had hoped that Kanshou and Bakuya would buy the second prince and his mother more time than it had. It was unfortunate. The boy had shown much promise. "Prepare a carriage. Send them away in the morning."
"Do we know anything more of the demons haunting the complex?" Senka changed the topic unexpectedly.
Ou Ki looked surprised for a moment. "No your majesty. The demon appears to be at rest."
"Hn." Senka rubbed his arm again. The bitter cold only worsened the pain. He absently wondered how long he would live. "Show us to Seien's cell," he ordered, "We will deliver our sentence personally."
News of the exile spread through Kiyou with lightning speed. The beautiful silver haired prince had fallen. No one doubted his death was imminent. The court officials all showed their alarm and disdain for the lessened sentence. The emperor's supporters scattered as faith in their leader evaporated. The truth of the emperor's cursed arm was soon exposed. As Senka's health failed under the weight of the black curse, Ou Ki's ploys for power became more frequent and intense. Poison flowed freely through the palace water, and no one within the walls of Kiyou were safe.
Malevolent spirits ran rampant, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The screaming demon returned to the palace in full force, wailing its protest nightly. Whispers in the palace suggested the emperor had been making deals with the dark forces after all, and the evil spirits of the earth were exacting their toll. Those who opposed him nodded knowingly to each other, believing Senka was reaping the harvest of his dark conquests. Others insisted that it was the soul of the lost Prince Seien crying for his body to be discovered hidden on the grounds. Suzuran's body had been discovered, but the young prince's was never found.
When the emperor died and civil war forced the country into poverty and unrest, the legend of the screaming demon of the palace had become a permanent fixture in tales told to children. All within Kiyou's walls hoped for the day the mournful cries would end. Little did they know that the child responsible for the demon's voice would be the one to lead the country into prosperity.
A young emperor slumbered peacefully as Kou Shuurei drew her bow over the taut strings on her ehru.
"This man is incorrigible," she thought, "but at least he's finally taking his position of emperor seriously and the screaming demon is content." The last strains of the tune faded into the night and the emperor stirred slightly, only to settle deeper into the pallet with a contented smile.
For tonight, the ghost finally found peace.