Part 2

Shuurei walked out of the royal councilors' chamber. She was still in a daze. She neither looked left nor right. She was walking straight towards a small pond. A hand grabbed her before she fell into the pond. She was pulled to one side five paces away from the pond. She blinked at her saviour. The announcement she'd heard in the royal councilor's chamber left her disoriented.

She had a hard time believing her turn of luck. When she discovered that the sakura bud had turned a fiery red just like the elder child in the dream informed her, all she could think of was that it was a miracle bestowed to her from the heavens. She looked at the hand that had pulled her aside. She had her back against a tree.

She glanced at the person who had prevented her from falling into the pond. She blew a relieved sigh and sank on the ground. Her back was against the tree. She was hugging her legs. She didn't know what to say or do. She stared at her surroundings trying to gather her wits. She shifted her gaze to the person who sat next to her. He was Vice Chamberlain Koryuu of the Civil Affairs and Administration Ministry.

"Are you alright?" Koryuu asked her with concern.

She nodded slowly, "Yes, I am."

"You gave me quite a fright."

"I'm sorry, I was in a shock." She tapped her cheeks, "I still am, I guess." She smiled sheepishly.

"I'm glad you were vouched for," Koryuu said, "by the merchant association, Senior Governor Zhou, Senior Councilor Tei and the people of Sa province. I'm also happy that you've been admitted as an imperial officer and was granted a new position. You'll be getting your identity token and seal next week after you've sworn in. But you'll be receiving a temporary pass to go about the imperial governmental premises."

The pathway to the Treasury and Finance Department…

Ko Houjo's head turned slightly to his left. He was eyeing the princess from the Kou clan and felt strange that his hand would form into a tight fist at his side when seeing Koryuu, his best friend's adopted son was holding her close to him before she walked right into the pond in her dazed position. He could not fathom the sudden surge of envy. No one knew what his facial expression was behind that exquisite custom made and thus, expensive mask.

"This is a first since your wife left you," Reishiin Kou whispered behind him, "that you'd show something so physical."

Of course, his best friend Kou Reishiin understood him well. They had been very close since they attended the same school of thought. He had wanted to snort lightly at Reishiin's remark but thought otherwise. It was unrefined of him to do such a displeasing sound. He resorted to clucking his tongue against his palate as a sign of disgust. He was in time to catch himself from balling his other hand. He flexed and relaxed both hands at his sides.

"Disgusted with yourself for feeling envious or feeling like tossing the poor lad into the pond, don't you?" Reishiin jibed lightly behind his opened fan, "Ahh, perhaps both?"

He stared at his friend, Reishiin. He sighed slightly annoyed at Reishiin. His best friend was having fun at his expense. The opened fan hid his friend's smirk made him want to snatch that fan from his friend's hand with one thought in mind. Destroy that damned tool of his. Reishiin would usually use the fan to either plan or execute his cunning ploys of either political or casual to no one's benefit but his. Not that his friend was bad in a negative way.

On the contrary, Reishiin was a patriot even though he rarely showed it. Reishiin was a great nationalist. He wasn't an extreme but was just when he needed to be although his brand of 'just' was to some people a horror. The 'horror' would grow larger until it was unbearable for those who had committed a wrongful deed. He would unleash an unfathomable punishment befitting the crime. He was actually supposed to be the Minister of Law Enforcement and National Security.

But he declined preferring instead the 'laid back' job of being Secretary of the Civil and Foreign Affairs division. Now as he looked at Reishiin, he thought of nothing else but to strangle his best friend to wipe off the smirk from his face. He cocked his head to the left and right. A sharp creaking sound could be heard as he moved his head to ease his tension. Reishiin smiled while tapping his fan close with his hand in an elegant swish.

"You do love rubbing it in, don't you?" Houjo's eyes glittered with irritation.

"No," Reishiin shook his head slowly, looking at the two figures near the pond, "she has many admirers. My concern is that one of them might be daring enough to whisk her away if you don't… hmm, how shall I put it," Reishiin scratched his chin. "Get her first… yes, that's right."

Houjo turned away from Reishiin.

"That swirly, shimmering, resplendent blue and vibrant green attire suits her well. Exquisite texture and excellent quality," Reishiin lightly tapped Houjo's shoulder with the end of his fan. "At a certain angle with a quick glance you can see another hidden colour," He smiled wider, "Such wondrous material can only be the product of one province."

Houjo placed both hands behind his back and glanced three inches away from his shoes.

Reishiin sighed as he moved in front of Houjo, "Your shallow wife left you because you were prettier than her."

"Leave her out of this," Houjo's voice hardened. He hated to be reminded of his ex-wife.

"Truly, there's nothing for you to defend her after how she'd offended you." Reishiin looked gravely at his friend.

"It's the past," Houjo sighed, "Let's leave it at that."

"How much longer do you intend to hide yourself behind that mask?" Reishiin tapped the side of Houjo's mask with a forefinger.

"Why can't you leave me alone?" Houjo sounded irritated.

Reishiin raised an elegant eyebrow at Houjo. "You know that I can't leave you alone because you're my best friend and practically like a brother to me."

Houjo made a tsk-ing sound indicating slight tension.

Upon seeing his friend's discomfort, Reishiin eased off. Then suddenly Reishiin clapped his hands, "Ahh, before I forget," He took out a small bundled in a powder blue cloth which was hooked on his silk bandana, "it's delicious, my angelic niece made for me for the two dresses I gave her."

Houjo swiftly turned his head to Reishiin.

"She was under the impression that I gave her both." Reishiin shrugged, "How could she not think so when there wasn't a note for that splendid attire?"

Houjo exhaled as his eyes shifted at the powder blue bundle in his hand, "Delicious?" He unwrap the bundle to look at the contents and saw to his pleasant surprise that it was a piece of yam cake.

"Isn't she thoughtful?" Reishiin said proudly.

"Hmm," Houjo replied still eyeing the yam cake.

"Well, anyway, I highly recommend that you grow yourself a beard and a moustache to cut the glare of the angelic beauty that you possess, if you decide to take off that mask for good." Then he chuckled aloud tapping Houjo's shoulder again in merriment and walked quickly away from a slightly vexed Houjo.

Houjo leant against the pillar, looking at his friend's back until Reishiin turned to the northwest corridor and disappeared into his own department. He moved his body slightly to the right while still leaning against the pillar. His eyes were trained on the Kou princess seated aground with her back against the tree. Koryuu was seen to be kneeling next to her.

Houjo looked at the Kou princess who was wearing his gift. She was dainty yet looked regal in that mesmerizing garment. It was a gift of congratulations that she had done an excellent job at the Sa (Brown) province that had made her the target of few jealous politicians into finding faults with her outrageous actions by obstructing her requests to have medical practitioners look into the terrible epidemic before it spread into other areas.

Even when she was bogged down with problems, she was unfazed and stood her ground until she was successful in her last task for that province. It was because of that and the fact she was a woman and she did a better job than they did, the few jealous imperial officials were on her case, demeaning and undermining her credibility and capabilities with minor errors she made.

While he could understand that the emperor must not take sides, he couldn't but help feel that it was unjust to have her suspended for doing things right as a responsible leader would at times of crises. Even though extreme, she did it for the sake of the citizen's of Sa province and for being a responsible leader had her status as an imperial officer frozen and stripped from her.

Reishiin had been lamenting that his niece was wallowing in self-pity at her decrepit mansion. He was worried because she was losing weight. His favourite niece was dejected and ate very little. She was seen staring sadly at the barren sakura trees from the window in her room. She didn't look sad three weeks ago when she accidentally met him by the creek where he was bathing.

In fact she looked energetic while trying to retrieve her pink handkerchief from him. His eyes glittered in slight mirth. Those were the only features that showed any expression since his face was covered with a mask. Of course, he knew every inch of her dainty contours that was why he could specify the exact measurements to his family's tailor for that custom made splendid garment.

The wondrous material as Reishiin had so pompously stated that only one province produced such exquisite texture and excellent quality. That province was the Yellow Province. It was his province. There was an area in the yellow province which was inhabited by special glowing silkworms that was not white but platinum in colour.

These silkworms could only be found under the rocks in a limestone cave in the yellow province. No one knew what these silkworms ate or how they came there or why they nested in that particular area and only in the yellow province. These silkworms were not easily captured for harvesting. They emitted a kind of putrid smell and that smell could cause nauseous dizziness.

The whole cave smelled and bats never rested there. But because they were special, that didn't deter unscrupulous collectors to catch them. They were caught not only for the wondrous silk cocoons they produced they were also caught to be made into food. As an exotic food they were a source of high protein twenty times more than the normal silkworms. These silkworms made the body of those who ate them warm and increased sexual desires in men.

As lord and master of the Ko clan, it was under his jurisdiction to see to the preservation of a species from extinction. Another thing about these silkworms that they seem to discharge a sort of glowing mucus and the Ko clan discovered that this mucus could be used as a marker to enhance the hidden Ko clan crest which glowed bright yellow in the dark in all their special token identifiers utilised for special missions.

And because of this the Ko clan had acquired the rights by the decree of the previous emperor to protect and harvest the silkworms. During her dangerous mission for Sa province, since the Ko clan was old money that dealt in trade and finance, Reishiin had approached him for that special token identifier that could open many closed doors, for instance the merchants' guild.

The limestone cave where the special silkworms dwelled was under tight security. Those who were caught stealing the silkworms would be brought to justice under the law of endangered species of beneficial insects' category. He glanced at the yam cake, and felt himself salivate. With a quick tap on the lower left side of the mask, the mouth piece slid open. He took a small bite of the yam cake while looking at her. It was delicious and he ended up finishing the rest of the yam cake.

Her new and elevated appointment as the deputy minister of education, arts and culture ministry was expected. Hadn't Tei Yuushun who was his and Reishiin's closest friend mentioned to them in passing that she'd make an exceptional leader in that ministry with the exposure, experience and knowledge gained from her tumultuous tenure in Sa province.

His lips etched slightly in a smile thinking that what was more interesting was that her department was situated opposite to his. He didn't throw away the blue coloured cloth away. He folded it and slipped it into his robe. He pushed himself from the pillar and started walking towards the east corridor for his own department. Then suddenly he made a detour to the southeast corridor.

The Imperial Library…

It had been quite a while since she was in the imperial library. This time she wasn't there to browse through the volumes of old records for research and work purposes. She was there to see her father but the only person she found was her father's assistant. He told her that her father had gone to the department of law enforcement and national security. Then that assistant left her to attend a meeting with the royal scribe.

She was a little disappointed because she had wanted to share her joy with him. He should be the first person with whom she had wanted to share her joyous news. The next person would be Seiren, but he wasn't seen around anywhere since morning. Still knowing Seiren, he might be doing some errands her father had sent him to do. Oh, well, might as well browse the library while she was waiting for her father.

The fiery red sakura bud was in her hand. Her instinct told her that something unexpected would spring out at her from nowhere. She felt odd that her luck had changed in a blink of an eye. It was unbelievable yet a pleasant and most needed surprise to perk her up from the slumps. She didn't know what to think of the whole thing. All she thought was how grateful she was to the heavens for bestowing their benevolence to her, thus erasing her predicament.

Her dream was coming true which to her was an unavoidable yet odd phenomenon and the odder she felt the more she was seized by trepidation. She slowly opened her hand and in her palm the fiery red sakura bud had turned into a shiny red pearl. Her eyes widened in shock. She gaped then gasped aloud, suddenly remembering what the eldest child in the dream told her.

The eldest child in her dream said, "The other bud will change twice. First, when the colour of this bud turns red it means your luck has changed for the better. Second, when it changes to a pearl you'll come face to face with the destined one that's in your heart. Red of the pearl means happiness shall be attained."

Her hands trembled. What did the boy in the dream mean when he said that she would meet with her destined one who was in her heart? Who could that person be? She thought of Shi Ryuuki then she mentally shoved the image of the young emperor from her mind. It couldn't be him. Ryuuki knew of her feelings for him. Although, he had confessed of his love for her but she wasn't ready for such huge responsibility as empress.

She wasn't the type to be type casted as an empress. She wanted something more in life. She wanted to contribute using her mind and hands to help shape the nation into a prosperous country. Such were her ambition and desire. Her job as a politician was sufficient without her being an empress. She thought about Sa Sakujun. He was a gentleman even though he was evil. But Sakujun wasn't evil to begin with. He turned into one due to his unforgiving miserable background.

Sakujun showed her his vulnerability by dropping his impenetrable walls and evil mask revealing a truly gentle person. It was a great shock to her to discover that he wasn't lying when he said he'd taken poison in a game with a friend and the only anti-dote was that she made him that special tea she'd normally brew for her father and Seiren. If only she'd made him that tea, he'd be alive. Instead she had thought of him being subdued by alcohol and insisted that he drank water.

Sakujun looked at her then he blinked sleepily, "Please brew me that special tea of yours. It'll keep me alive."

"Look at you, you're sleepy," She thought he was joking around in his drunkenness. "No tea for you," she shook her head, "I'll bring you some water. It's best for you."

"Water," Sakujun smiled sadly at her one she thought of as one of his drunken woeful smiles that she shouldn't worry about. "May not be the best for me right now only your tea. Would you be so kind as to make me a cup?"

"Waka-sama," she scolded him.

"As you please," and he smiled at her.

No, it couldn't be Sakujun. He was no longer in the land of the living. What about Ri Koryuu? She had overhead from her father's youngest brother talking about Uncle Reishiin's adopted son's future, then her future, and the future of the Kou clan in riddles. Definitely not Koryuu, she thought of him like what she thought of Seiren. She thought of Koryuu as a brother.

Koryuu would feel awkward being pitted in a marriage of convenience. If he refused the head of the Kou clan's wishes it would mean that he as the adopted son to Kou Reishiin was ungrateful to the Kou clan and his adopted father. But it was unfair for the clan to put him in a stressful bind. No, Koryuu had only shown kindness as a brother to a sister. That was all to their relationship. She wished it to stay that way between them.

It couldn't be Ryuuren Ran, the unusual and genius youngest brother to General Shuuei Ran. He made her his best friend because she was the only one who could understand and tolerate him. She loved Ryuuren as a best friend and nothing more. How could she think of the eclectic and eccentric Ryuuren as someone more than a best friend? A lover… Ryuuren? She shook her head while shaking her hand. Then she stopped, she looked at her hand.

Her hand was empty. There was no shiny red pearl in her palm. Her eyes widened in horror. Oh, good heavens! She put both hands on her cheeks, looking frantically around for one tiny red pearl in the immense library. It could be anywhere. It could be under one of the bookshelves. It could have bounced onto one of the lowest shelves of many bookshelves. It could be located at one of the many corners in the library. It could even have bounced onto one of the books of one of the lowest shelves.

She searched high and low for it. She was on all fours looking under the shelves, under the bookcases, in between books of the lowest shelves, at all dim or dark corners, next the foot of all nine pillars supporting the roof of the huge imperial library. She plopped on the floor, thinking miserably. Where was it? She glanced at her hands. They were dirty and she hadn't a doubt that her face was no better.

TINK! TINK! TINK! TINK! TINK! TINK …

Her head rose, her body alert, her ears perked. She blinked, at the red pearl which was in front of her bouncing up and down, moving away from her. She immediately sprang to her feet and ran after the shiny red pearl before it bounced for the exit. She had her eyes focused on the tiny red pearl and was too late to notice an approaching official.

Her eyes were wide with apprehension. Her voice shook as she yelled at the official, "Watch out!"

The imperial official was too late to react and was stunned as a whirl of red bashed into him. The impact sent him off balance and both of them fell on the hard floor. A shiny oval thing flew above their heads. The flurry in red sprawled on top of the unfortunate official's body. The official had his back on the hard ground. The figure in red raised its head to look at the surrounding in a disoriented manner. The official had his arm on the figure in red's back and noticed that it was small and thought that it was a child.

The official grunted in pain with his eyes closed, "Whose child are you?"

He held the small figure's back with his able arm. It was a reflex action to protect the weak. The figure in red had its head on his chest again. The small figure had his other hand in its hand. He began thinking that it wasn't a thing. It was human. Was this person hurt? He quickly opened his eyes only to discover that it was a girl. No, this girl was a young woman of seventeen or eighteen. He couldn't see her face because she'd buried it on his chest.

"Are you alright?" He asked her gently, "Are you hurt anywhere?" Somehow this small sized woman felt familiar. He released her back.

The figure in red blinked several times, "What about you?" and shook her head to clear her grogginess away. "I'm f-fi-fine. Thank …," She looked at the one man she thought she would never again meet. The man who had been soaking himself in that creek and didn't give back her handkerchief received as a gift from Kourin. He was the man she thought was an angel. He was the one that made her heart beat wildly for no reason.

Suddenly her face was flushed, her breath hitched, her eyes round as well as her mouth, "You!"

He narrowed his eyes at her, such vehemence, he thought. Then he touched his face and discovered that his mask was off his face. His eyes darted at the shiny oval thing lying on the ground at about twenty paces where they lay currently sprawled. She jerked and tried to immediately roll her small frame off his body. He had his arm on her back again. She was trapped on top of his body. Her hand was still clasping his hand.

"You can let go of my back, sir," She said feeling embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. "I'm fine now."

He released her back again. No wonder her body felt familiar, he had twice held her to him prior to this incident. He knew every inch of that small frame of hers anytime. It was embedded into his memory for an eternity since the first time he had spent a night out with her watching the swaying of sakura blossoms in silence. Just like before when they met unexpectedly, his mask would not be on his face. Did that mean it was time for him to remove it for good?

"You're really sturdy for someone small," He grunted again.

She frowned at him, "Let me up before people see what a mess we're in."

He made no move to sit up on the floor in an obscure corner of the huge library. He drawled, "Ladies' first."

She tried to move, but her movements were intimate. She felt his body tensed and his hand on hers tightened a little. That action increased her heartbeat rate. She lifted her head to meet his glittering dark eyes. He was staring at her with those intense dark eyes of his making her swallow her irritation but did little to ease the consternation which was building inside her. Her eyes went to his lips. It was just as sensuous as the first time she met him that one night looking at the swaying sakura blossoms.

He looked like a merchant. A very successful one by the looks of him, his clothes were of luxurious texture and quality. She glanced at him, "Aren't you supposed to be in the blue area?"

He raised an eyebrow at her, "Blue area?" The blue area was usually a meeting place for the executives from the merchants associate with the Treasury, Trade and Finance Department's top personnel to discuss trading routes, issues and procedures. She thought he was a merchant. "I'm not a merchant. I work for the imperial government."

"Y-you work here?" She stared at him in disbelieve. "You're an imperial officer!"

"Looks can be," He chucked her chin gently, "deceiving."

She wanted to ask him right out for Kourin's hanky but held her tongue. It would be too risky. Then she realised that she was still on top of him. She had to move from that intimate position before another scandal which she didn't intend to happen would have those waiting to bury her alive again would be having a field day tarnishing her reputation.

She couldn't face the high imperial officers like Senior Councilor and Prime Minister Tei, Senior Councilor and Senior Governor Zhou, Minister Ko who had vouched for her and stood in her defense would be wasted. She couldn't do that to them. She couldn't destroy her future because of this awkward position that would place them both in a complicated predicament.

"I better get off you," She huffed in concern. "This isn't good for both of us, being entangled like this."

"Really," His lips twitched slightly, "I find this entangled position gratifying."

She furrowed her eyebrows in frustration, "Not only do you keep my hanky which was a precious gift from a dear friend. You find this awkward position and predicament amusing. You're the most maddening creature I've ever met apart from Ryuuren …"

He pulled her down, her lips touching his and he gave her a light kiss. Then he traced her lower lip with his thumb, "Nice, very nice."

She was stunned beyond words. She could only stare at him. Well… this was the most exasperating thing that she'd ever … yet it was also … her heart was beating hard. She could hardly breathe. She was lightheaded. She gulped and licked her lips. Then he took out a pink coloured hanky from the tight V of his robe while she was still on him. He held her face with one hand and wiped the dirt from her forehead, nose, cheeks and chin with the hanky in another.

She was startled by his action. She felt awkward and a blush began spreading on her nape to her cheeks. Upon seeing her discomfort, he stopped than passed the hanky to her. She took the hanky from him to wipe her soiled hands. She spread the hanky open and found that it was her hanky. It was Kourin's gift to her. He glanced at her bedazzled look with mirth.

He helped her as she rolled off his body and was on her knees. He slowly rose to a sitting position with one leg up and rested an arm on the knee of said leg. He took his official's headgear on the floor next to him with one hand. She eyed his headgear with wide eyes. He had the oval shaped green jade pinned at the sides of his official's headgear. He slid the imperial headgear on with one hand.

"I presume this," He opened his palm which had clasped her hand earlier, "belongs to you."

Her eyes darted at his palm. Her eyes went round, she pointed with a weak forefinger, "It's," The shiny red pearl was in his palm, "this," She grabbed the tiny pearl with two fingers, "was what I was looking for."

"I thought so," He said then rose to his feet while extending his hand to her.

She took his hand shyly, "Thank you."

He placed a hand on her waist, "You already did," He whispered into her ear.

She looked at him questioningly. He smiled at her.

"You look elegant in this attire. The two colours really complement your complexion. But the third hidden colour suits you the best." He walked twenty paces forward, bent slightly to retrieve a shiny oval thing on the floor.

How did he know that the third colour was yellow? She gaped… This amazing attire was a gift from … She gasped in recognition as he slipped on the mask. He was Ko Houjo, the Minister for the Treasury and Finance Department. He was also at one time her superior.

"Minister Ko!" Then she clamped her mouth in shock.

She looked at the glaring red pearl in her right hand. He was the destined one in her heart …? Ko Houjo? She felt her cheeks grow hot. He had kissed her! She had been kissed by Ko Houjo. She slowly touched her lower lip with the tips of her second and third fingers. She gulped, while placing her left palm on her left cheek, Ko Houjo was the one… she stared disbelievingly at the pearl than shifted her shocked gaze at him.

His eyes glittered a tad bit wickedly at her, "We'll be working and meeting a lot more from now onwards, Officer Kou." He inclined his head, "Or shall I say, Deputy Minister Kou." And left her staring at his back in utter disbelieve.

THE END

A/N: Alright, I know you want more out of Red Pearl especially interactions between Kijin and Shuurei. You may find their characters a bit OOC. But I must tell you that it was meant as a two-parter. Why? Because this incident was supposed to happen within one day as what the eldest child of the three children (considered as tree spirits) in Shuurei's dream had told her. I may write a continuing story to this fic. Not so soon though. It depends on my crazy Muses. If they approve of the plots, then it'll be published in FF. Lastly, I wish all of you a

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!