Jinshi thought that Rouran’s story was about what happened during the era of the previous emperor.
The dim-witted emperor had ruled as his mother’s puppet – she was loftily making a fool of the previous emperor with her speech, though Jinshi couldn’t get offended as he knew it to be the truth.
He never regarded the man said to be his sire to be frightening, rather, it was the man’s mother who stood behind him that he feared.
Jinshi looked back to his past. He couldn’t clearly remember the final moments of the woman who was known as the Empress Regnant. The only thing he could remember was how the previous emperor had passed away like he was chasing after her.
The Empress Regnant had grown impatient of her son who displayed no interest in women and had sent forth many beauties into the inner palace. And once, she had told the head of a certain clan in the north to send in his daughter. She had told him that she would officially appoint his daughter as her son’s high-ranked consort.
“…what are you talking about, Rouran?”
Shenmei, her mother, asked about her daughter’s incomprehensible story. It was a little different to what she knew from long ago.
Rouran giggled behind her sleeve.
“Is this your first-time hearing this, Mother? Grandfather had cursed it out while in his sickbed.”
It wasn’t historically unusual to have the daughters of high officials taken as hostages by making them consorts.
“Do you know why the inner palace became this large?”
Rouran asked Jinshi.
“I heard in a story that your father had prompted the Empress Regnant.”
That was the typical view of the imperial court. The man called Shishou had curried up to the infamous Empress Regnant who was known to be hard to please. The man was originally no more than a branch member of the Shi Clan, and it was due to his intelligence that he was adopted into the main family that was lacking an heir and received the name ‘Shishou’. Also, that main family was Shenmei’s family.
In other words, Shishou and Shenmei had been engaged before she was bestowed on him.
“Indeed. It seems he had proposed to have the inner palace expanded as a new public utility.”
Well put, Jinshi thought. The topic of reducing the size of the inner palace was avoided due to that.
“As a project that replaces the slave trade.”
Jinshi widened his eyes at Rouran’s words.
Shenmei, bewildered, also widened her eyes.
Shisui remained expressionless.
Rouran grinned at Jinshi. Then she looked at Shenmei.
“It looks like Mother doesn’t know anything. About what Grandfather did to have the Empress Regnant have her eyes on him, and about why she got him to send his daughter to the inner palace to keep an eye on him.”
In those days, slavery was going strong. There were even government-owned slaves in the imperial court.
However, Rouran said slave trade.
The treatment of slaves in the country of Rii was basically the same as the prostitutes of the brothels. They work befitting their selling price, otherwise, there are cases where they can also change from lowly people to law-abiding citizens at the end of their term of service.
However, that was limited to within the country. It was prohibited to export slaves to foreign countries.
“It seems slaves were profitable. Even prohibited, there was no end to people who get involved in it. In particular, young girls sold high in those days.”
The Shi Clan, who had their daughter taken as a hostage, had been compelled to curtail the slave trade. Even so, he was told that they borrowed the place known as the inner palace for the drain of slaves that wouldn’t go away. And it wasn’t only young girls who entered, there were men as well. After all, there were not few who get castrated and sold off when they become slaves.
Shishou had proposed to have the inner palace as a place of temporary refuge, gathering young girls who were expected to be sold to foreign countries. It coincided with the Empress Regnant’s motive. As the ruling administrator, and as a mother thinking of her son, it seems that she had seen it as a plan that killed two birds with one stone.
The parents who sold their daughters also felt guilt. If there was the choice of working as a palace lady over being sold as a slave, they should choose the former. If they gain some skill or training in those two years of service, the chance of them falling into slavery afterwards would also decrease. And best of all, serving in the inner palace in itself is treated as a form of privilege.
“Of course, just as the Empress Regnant didn’t have a single motive, Father didn’t only have just one consideration.”
That was to return trust to the Shi Clan by gaining the Empress Regnant’s confidence, and the time when it was still impossible was—.
“Mother had suffered too. If it turned out this way, why didn’t you escape in the first place? By using what Father had specially constructed for you.”
Was Rouran talking about the hidden passageway that she used to sneak out the inner palace?
Shenmei’s face was clouded.
“Were you unable to trust the man who told you cast aside your position and run away?”
“Rouran, what are you…”
Shenmei looked at her daughter, the wrinkles on her face deep. It wasn’t Rouran who was scared of her expression. It was Shisui.
As if Shenmei noticed that, she shifted her gaze towards Shisui, looking at her like she was seeing garbage.
“As if I could trust him. As if I could trust the man who succeeded the family headship as soon as Father died and married that woman’s mother afterwards!”
Shisui was trembling as she looked at Shenmei.
Rouran giggled as she approached Shisui. She took her half-sister’s hand and touched her collar. She pulled out the thing that was hanging from her neck.
Hanging from a cord was a handcraft that greatly resembled Jinshi’s silver kanzashi. Like how Jinshi’s was shaped like a Qilin, Shisui’s was shaped like a bird. A Phoenix(鳳凰, houou, fenghuang) – people who knew of it would understand.
Just like the Qilin, the people who can wear the Phoenix on their body are limited.
“It looks like the previous emperor had feelings of guilt. He had been worried about the baby he had banished from the inner palace and frequently showed himself with Father’s guidance.”
He was told that it was Shishou who had secretly sheltered the court physician and baby who had been banished.
And when the baby grew up and reached marriageable age, Shishou succeeded the family headship.
“Though the previous emperor had denied it once, it looked like he knew that she was his daughter. It seemed it went like this-”
Can I marry your daughter, Shishou had asked.
For the emperor, Shishou, who had the Empress Regnant’s deep confidence and treated him warmly, must have been the ideal son-in-law.
When Shishou pleaded that ‘I’ll grant any wish of yours’, how could the emperor have rejected him?
The previous family head whom the Empress Regnant had her eyes on was in his sickbed, and the head of the Shi Clan had transferred to the deeply trusted Shishou.
The need to have Shenmei as a hostage wasn’t as great as before.
Also, it was the emperor who had the greatest right to decide on what to do with the flowers of the inner palace. He had his daughter married. She birthed a child in the meantime. Her child was bestowed upon the name Shisui with the ‘Shi’ character. From that, the satisfied previous emperor finally gave the Flower of the Inner Palace to Shishou.
“And like so, Mother was bestowed.”
The previous emperor was a foolish man. He didn’t even know what kind of effect he gave his own daughter. After a short time, Shisui’s mother died a natural death, and Shisui was taken in by the former court physician of the inner palace.
About that time, the previous emperor reached the point where he was bedridden, and he left no instructions whatsoever in the ten-odd years later until he passed away. Shisui only had her name and a single silver handcraft, she had nothing besides those. She didn’t even know who she was, the granddaughter of the previous emperor, only treated as the child of a concubine after Rouran was born.
“L-lies. Don’t sprout nonsense!”
Shenmei shrank back from the reality that was thrust before her.
It should be a shocking story to Shisui as well, but she didn’t look that shaken. She was only watching Shenmei uneasily. She might have known from the start.
“Nonsense, you say? Father had always come around for Mother. Even though he had done it for his final moments where there was nothing left but destruction?”
Rouran laughed as she approached her own mother.
“And so, do you also know the reason why Jinshi-sama is here?”
Rouran looked at her mother scornfully, then shifted her gaze to Jinshi.
“How were Father’s final moments?”
“…he went laughing.”
He hadn’t known what kind of meaning that laugh had. Jinshi hadn’t known Shishou’s motive at all.
However, having heard Rouran’s story, he could see a somewhat different perspective.
From the start, he even felt that he had thought wrong about the Shi Clan’s uprising.
“…that man, he only desired power. Even getting me married, that was surely only just a display of his seat as the clan head.”
Shenmei’s face contorted.
And in response, Rouran’s face eased.
“But, in the end, the one who exercised her authority in the clan more than Father, would have to be Mother, right? Does Mother know, what kind of people are the clan members who flatter Mother?”
The fools who repeatedly bribed and embezzled were the ones who buttered up to Shenmei. As long as Shenmei was pleased with it, the clan head Shishou wouldn’t say anything. After all, he was the man who entered as a son-in-law. Compared to his influence in the imperial court, he didn’t have that much power within his own clan.
Shenmei steadily drove out the ones who proposed things that troubled her. And as a consequence, the pus steadily accumulated.
From there, the miscalculation of her warped perception became apparent.
The expansion of the inner palace and the embezzlement of the national treasury. What kind of purpose did those two serve?
Rouran grinned, seeing Jinshi’s face. She must have realised what Jinshi wanted to say.
The slave trade was abolished when the current emperor came into power. Though it remained behind the scenes even now, it progressed relatively smoothly owing to the inner palace project carried out by Shishou and the Empress Regnant.
Jinshi was still exploring for another project to take over with the downscale of the inner palace. Even concerning that point, there was an incident where it was obstructed by the connection to the Shi Clan.
“Father is a tanuki, though he is called a tanuki, a tanuki is actually a cowardly creature. Precisely because he knew he was actually weak and small, he tried his best to delude his opponent.”
Tried to delude. Jinshi reached an understanding with those words.
About the reason Shishou had died laughing.
“Did Father properly finish playing the role of the villain?”
Rouran smiled faintly.
At her sentence, Jinshi finally understood Shishou’s motive.
He clenched his fist. His nails sank into his palm, drawing blood.
“Is there evidence that states that that is true?”
“It depends on you whether you believe there is evidence or not.”
“Is there evidence that will do the trick?”
“If it doesn’t do the trick, it would be better if the country takes it. If the country is going to fall from that, it would much better if there isn’t any.”
Rouran said in a tone that could even be heard as careless.
“W-were you always doing such a thing!”
Shenmei’s voice quivered.
“Have you always been deceiving me with that man?!”
“What deceiving, I have just been doing as Mother says. Didn’t you say that this kind of country should just fall? You chased out the clan members who opposed you, and encircled yourself with the morons who flatter you. Did you think you can win against the government forces with that crowd full of misfits like them ?”
Shenmei raised her eyes at her daughter’s cold words. She then sprang upon Rouran. She scratched her nail guard covered fingers on Rouran’s cheeks, drawing two red lines.
“Didn’t we have this made for that reason?”
In Shenmei’s hand was the hand cannon she seized.
“This is too much for Mother’s hands. Please give it back.”
She hooked her finger on the trigger of the new model hand cannon. And pulled.
Jinshi dropped down.
With a booming sound, something splattered.
“I told Father that I would take responsibility, but it really was impossible for me.”
There was blood on Rouran’s face.
Before her, was Shenmei who was covered in pure red. In her hands were the remains of the hand cannon that had misfired.
“The structure of the new model is complex. Since it’s a prototype.”
She had carried it to threaten Jinshi from the start. Perhaps, it might have packing inside from the start.
“Didn’t Jinshi-sama think of snatching this away? If you looked for a chance, you could’ve taken it many times.”
“You must have wanted to tell me something.”
“Fufu, it would truly be good if you are a fool with only looks to speak of.”
Rouran, smiling as she said something rude, took the hand cannon from the blood covered Shenmei and flung it away. Then she laid the woman down slowly and grasped her trembling hand.
“Father is dead. Please shed one tear at least.”
Shenmei didn’t speak, couldn’t speak. Due to the misfire, the woman’s face had a piece of shrapnel lodged into it. There was no shadow of the face that should have once been beautiful, it was just drenched in red.
Shisui only trembled as she looked at that appearance.
“Isn’t there a different method?”
Jinshi asked Rouran who got to her feet.
“There might have been. But, it is difficult to grant everything everyone wanted to do. We are not that smart.”
Shenmei had only loathed. She had wanted to overthrow the country that continued to make a fool of her.
Shishou had always worked for Shenmei’s sake. Even if it was going to backfire, he was thinking about her. And, at the same time, he was the loyal subject who was unable to abandon his country. To the point of continuing to act for several decades as the villain for their sakes.
Jinshi didn’t know what Shisui was thinking. Only that, was it his imagination that he could see relief reflected in her hollow eyes when she looked at the feebly breathing Shenmei.
And lastly, speaking of Rouran—.
“It seems extravagant, but can I ask you two requests?”
“What is it?”
As if she understood that she originally wouldn’t get him to listen, Rouran bowed her head deeply.
Then she took out some paper from her bosom. She handed that to Jinshi.
Jinshi looked over that. Something unexpected to Jinshi was written on it.
“This is merely an empty theory at the utmost, but I think this will be useful. For the probability of this happening in a couple of years hereafter is high.”
Rouran stroked her own mother. Shenmei’s breaths were on the verge of dying out.
“The ones who had upright thoughts in the clan had already discarded their name. My older sister is also the same. Can you overlook the ones who have died once?”
“Well then, you’ll overlook the ones who have died once, right?”
Rouran said like she was making sure.
Shisui, as long as she had ties to the previous emperor, he couldn’t flatly refuse.
Rouran bowed her head again, and then she took Shenmei’s hand. The twisted nail guards were barely on her crushed fingers.
Rouran wore that on her own fingers.
At the same time, Jinshi sensed a presence.
They must have finally noticed the hidden passage. Had Rouran realised it?
“Well then, the one other request-”
Rouran extended her hand towards Jinshi. She extended her hand that had the long nail decorations.
It looked like Rouran moved slowly.
He could have avoided it if he thought of doing so. However, he didn’t move, and took it.
The tips of the twisted nail guards sank into Jinshi’s cheek. It sliced into his skin and flesh.
He saw blood flying. Jinshi looked at Rouran with one eye closed.
Rouran thanked him for the third time.
“Have I become an actress like Father too?”
Rouran, saying it in a joking tone, looked at Shenmei.
“Mother, this is the best I could do.”
With a smile, Rouran opened the door.
As expected, in the narrow passage, Basen and the other had been there peeking through the gap.
Rouran, confirming that, raised the nails on her fingers up high. Even in the dim lighting, they could see that there was blood on it.
And behind her was Jinshi with an injury on his face.
Rouran suddenly laughed.
Her voice echoed loudly down the narrow passageway.
Basen and the other’s expression changed to anger.
There was no longer any light in Shenmei’s eyes.
Shisui reached out as she trembled, but she couldn’t get to Rouran.
Jinshi could only oversee her final moments as he clutched the document she had handed over to him.
A determined body was heavy.
It seems all his fatigue from this past couple of days had finally caught up with him.
As soon as he left the fortress, they had adjoined with the late arriving unit, and the court physician stitched his face. It was Jinshi who was getting stitched up, so he couldn’t understand why the people around him were making pained faces.
The one who told him to sleep immediately was Gaoshun who finally adjoined. Since it was decided that Jinshi was in the late arriving unit, Gaoshun naturally was obliged to stay behind.
Speaking of that, he finally realised that he hadn’t slept properly for this past couple of days.
“How is that girl?”
“She’s fine so please sleep.”
Am I making such a sleepy face, Jinshi thought, but he didn’t feel like doing that. As if he lost patience with Jinshi who wasn’t listening to him, Gaoshun secretly pointed to the horse carriage in the interior.
“I believe it’s better if you don’t get too close.”
Ignoring Gaoshun’s words, he entered the horse carriage, and lying inside was a thin girl covered in soot with bloodstains in several places.
She was sleeping on top of several layers of furs. Her sleeping form, curled like a baby, made her look smaller than usual.
There were somethings bundled in white cloths around her.
“Those are the dead Shi Clan children.”
“Why, is she sleeping in such a place?”
“Even if you ask her why, it’s not like she would say anything.”
This girl, Maomao had a strangely stubborn side of her.
Does she have something she was expecting?
“She looks, considerably awful.”
With a bitter look, Gaoshun looked at Jinshi. His heart pained, recalling how as soon as he returned, Gaoshun had sent Basen flying.
“I’m good. At any rate, not letting the Tactician see her was the correct answer.”
According to the story, he was told that after forcibly setting out to march, the man was stopped by everyone, and yet, as he tried to leave when he saw the chance, he overexerted himself and strained his back. It seems he was in the condition where he couldn’t move an inch.
Jinshi went up the horse carriage.
Gaoshun nodded slowly, not going up.
Jinshi studied Maomao’s face. There was blood on her face that still had rashes. There was a small triangular notch on her left ear, which was thickly smeared with ointment.
If Maomao didn’t have anything to do with Jinshi, she might not have to go through this kind of thing. When he thought that, his heart pained.
Aside from her ear, there didn’t seem to be any injury on her face. Though, he could see a red line on her neck.
Could that be a knife wound?
Jinshi slowly extended his hand.
“What are you doing, Jinshi-sama?”
Maomao was looking at him like she was infuriatingly chasing away a fly.