Go To Epilogue
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Cheri - Chapter 14
This is the last chapter. Cheri's story ends here, however... I am omitting the Epilogue because I decided that it sounded a lot like I was setting up for a book two. I'm not, and yet a few things came up in the epilogue that I want to fully address in a short story. Therefore, if enough people want to find out what happens after this, I'll work on that short story and eventually post it when it's ready :-)
Chèri took careful aim, exhaled slowly, and then released the arrow. She watched as it sped to its target, and then smiled as it hit right where she wanted it to.
“Your aim is true,” the Guildmaster praised her. Then he smirked. “For a target that does not move. Let's see how you fare with a target that leaps out of your way as you try to shoot it!” He gestured for apprentice assassins to run around while carrying bales of straw painted with bullseyes.
Chèri took a deep breath and focused on her aim. She was disappointed that her first arrow barely hit the bale. She continued to try over and over until she finally managed to hit one on the outer circle of the target area.
“Why can't I do this?” She asked herself in frustration.
“No one gets it on their first try. It takes practice,” Rin assured her.
Chèri growled and threw her bow to the ground. “I don't know why I am trying so hard for anyway! I don't want to kill anyone!” She stomped away angrily.
The Guildmaster laughed and gestured for Rin to give the Lady some time alone.
The next day, Chèri was amazed when she managed to defend herself fairly well. Granted, the assassins were taking it very easy on her because of her heavily pregnant belly, but she had practiced the basic moves enough times by now to react instinctively when someone swung a sword, a knife, or a fist at her while she was unarmed. When she began to look worn out, they let her rest for a while and then had her practice using a knife on a straw-filled practice dummy.
As much as she really didn't want to – arguing and pleading the whole time – she had eventually accepted the terms the Guildmaster had set, and now he was making sure that she had the skills to actually do the job without getting killed in the process. The strangest part of all was that she really enjoyed learning and practicing these skills. She grieved every time she remembered why she was learning them, but the skills themselves were actually fun!
When she decided that she'd had enough for the day, Chèri returned to the room she shared with Rin to carefully review the documents yet again. They were detailed and proved that Meng's son really was the man behind the counterfeiting, forgery, and the salt debacle. The last document was written in Meng's own hand – or so the signature would suggest – and it was a contract for Chèri's death.
No matter how many times Chèri read these documents, they always gave her the same information; the answer to the many mysteries she'd encountered. Still... she wanted them to be wrong. She wanted the whole series of events to be mere coincidences. She didn't want anyone to be so... evil...
With a deep sigh, she set the papers aside to think them over for a while before picking them up and reading through them again. Why Meng? He's the one Reiki trusts the most. This is going to devastate him!
Rin entered the room, and then laughed. “No matter how many times you read those, the information isn't going to change!”
“I know!” Chèri yelled, slamming the documents on the table. She sighed at herself impatiently, and then forced herself to carefully put them back in the protective leather cover. It was lightweight and waterproof, which meant that it should be easy to carry and not susceptible to damage if it rained.
A sharp gasp escaped Chèri as her hands flew to her belly. “I think it's time!”
Rin rushed to help her undress and prepare for the ordeal to come. Once naked, Chèri paced the room that Rin made sure was locked. It felt like days passed as the contractions got ever stronger and more frequent. Chèri seriously wished that her labor was more like her first, but this one seemed to be coming faster and much more painfully. Maybe the situation the first time around forced me to focus on other things rather than my pain...
Rin bit her lip as she wondered if Chèri was suffering the worst labor she had ever seen, or if Chèri was just being a baby about the pain. She shrugged, figuring that it was also probably partially due to the fact that Chèri had been really depressed the last few weeks. Depressed and temperamental.
“Oh Ando! Where are you when I need you?” Chèri wailed miserably. “Reiki! What I wouldn't give to have you by my side right now!”
Finally, it was time for Rin to catch the baby, which she did with tears of joy streaming down her cheeks. “Oh! He's beautiful!”
Weary, but unable to stop just yet, Chèri continued pacing until the afterbirth passed. Once it was out, she sobbed in relief. She watched Rin tend to her baby with a smile, glad to know that Reiki had another son.
Chèri settled into bed, careful to sit on the thick layer of linens spread out to catch the blood. She was exhausted, but held out her hands expectantly. Rin laughed as she climbed into bed next to Chèri.
“He looks just like you!” Rin exclaimed, kissing Chèri. The two had grown quite attached to each other over the past few months, and Rin took any opportunity she could to kiss Chèri.
“I think he looks like his father,” Chèri murmured with a proud smile. She held her son to her breast to let him root around until he found her nipple and latched on. She would be surprised if he actually got any milk from her just yet, but he sucked contentedly nonetheless.
“We should really do it now,” Rin said softly, trying to be gentle.
Chèri nodded in wordless agreement.
Gathering the supplies from her storage chest as slowly as she could to delay the inevitable, Rin eventually held an instrument at the ready.
“Where do you suppose we should do it?” Chèri wondered.
“On his back. Close to his neck, that way he can cover it with a shirt most of the time, and then cover it with his hair when he takes his shirt off. Yet, he'll still be able to show it to others easily when needed,” Rin answered after a moment's thought.
Chèri nodded in agreement and then held her baby so that he was face down across her lap. Tears poured from her at the ordeal he would suffer, but it was necessary. She looked up at Rin and found that her friend also had tears in her eyes.
As quickly as possibly, Rin put a permanent mark on the baby. It was shaped like the Imperial Crown as best as Rin could do without having ever seen in in person. Chèri had drawn her a fairly detailed picture of it, but even so, it was hard to copy on a squirming baby. Finally, it was over and Chèri held her baby to her breast once more.
She crooned soothingly. “I promise you, never again!” Her son decided to be pacified by this promise once he latched on and sucked the colostrum from her.
Rin squeezed Chèri's arm comfortingly. “I swear I will protect him like he's my very own while you are gone.”
This reminded Chèri that she only had a short amount of time left before she was supposed to go assassinate Great Advisor Meng. She sighed heavily and snuggled with her son while she had a chance.
The Guildmaster stared at the gates to the Imperial Palace in awe. He had never been inside it before, and his hands shook just a bit at the thought that he was about to step foot inside the Imperial Palace for such a deadly purpose. If anything went wrong, he could be executed for treason!
He turned to Chèri. “Are you ready?”
Chèri closed her eyes as she took deep breaths to steady her nerves. She was grateful that he had accompanied her himself as her guard and guide, but she couldn't forget that the real reason that he was here was to be certain that she fulfilled her promise. Feeling as ready as she was ever going to get, she nodded.
She was currently wearing a long, hooded cloak – the hood obscuring her face – but he was wearing the wafuku assigned to minor officials in the Topaz Regional Palace. This meant that it was plain white with a small crest embroidered on it. The Guildmaster placed an encouraging hand on her shoulder, and then looked to the guards at the gates.
“We are here to deliver a message to the Emperor from the Topaz Regional Palace.”
They had done their research to ensure that no other messages had been delivered recently, which would make them look suspicious. Chèri kept her hood pulled down, but held out a wooden badge that proclaimed her a new Official in the Regional Palace.
The guards glanced at her badge briefly before returning their gaze to the Guildmaster. “The Emperor is in the Outer Palace today meeting with his Advisors. Therefore, you should be granted an audience fairly quickly. Good luck!”
“Thank you!” The Guildmaster stated, sounding relieved. He had taken pains to ensure that his disguise was believable. If he escaped with his life, no one here other than Chèri would know what he looked like. He would be able to shed his current appearance and mosey out of the city at his leisure.
He nudged his smaller companion to go ahead of him, smiling at the guards one last time as they entered the Palace. Despite the nudge, Chèri had to force herself to walk before the guards got suspicious. Once they were out of ear shot, she sighed in relief.
“If they're having a meeting, then this should be fairly simple,” she murmured. “I won't have to go looking for him in his quarters...”
“Where does he sit in the meeting room?”
Chèri bit her lip nervously. “Near the Emperor. The Emperor sits at the back of the room, and the Ministers who are highly ranked enough to attend the meeting sit at tables arranged in a giant horseshoe. Meng is usually on the right as close to the Emperor as possible, across from the Grand Advisor.”
“What if he's not there today?”
“Then he's on his deathbed,” Chèri stated confidently.
The Guildmaster nodded in acceptance. They fell silent as they arrived at the waiting area outside the meeting room. He held out a scroll; it looked like an official missive from the Regional Palace, so the servant in attendance motioned for them to wait while he went to inform the Emperor.
Guards watched them without truly watching them. By all appearances, they were above suspicion. The guards were trained to maintain a blank expression at all times, and looked a bit like statues.
The Guildmaster turned to Chèri and whispered. “If all goes according to plan, I will vanish a scant second after you fulfill your mission.”
“I know,” she murmured. She felt shaky and nauseous. Never in her life had she killed a person! But she had gone over the evidence enough times to know that Meng was very powerful and dangerous.
If she failed while trying to do this, he would gather up his supporters and – no longer having a reason to hide his true intentions – he would ruin the Empire and possibly have Reiki assassinated. Not to mention baby Reiki, her son! She would rather take a life then let her husband and child be left in danger. And they would be in danger even if she did nothing because eventually, Meng would grow tired of waiting...
The doors opened and the servant gestured for them to walk forward. Chèri followed behind the Guildmaster, her presence almost obscured by his. He held the scroll before him as he walked, taking slow steps as if he was nervous.
Chèri was strangely relieved to see that Great Advisor Meng was sitting right where he should be. This will soon be over!
In her cloak was her bow and a couple of daggers. They figured that no matter the situation, she wouldn't need a sword to kill him. If it came to that, she would have already lost the advantage she needed to succeed.
She counted the steps, and then – almost like lightning – pulled out her bow and shot Meng in the heart. Her aim was true, striking him in a spot that would kill him, but not for a minute or so.
He gaped at the hooded figure incredulously for a moment before staring at his chest. Others were just now realizing that something had happened. Chèri pulled her hood off her head and stared Meng in the eyes.
“You!” He gasped in recognition.
Chèri slammed the leather covered pile of documents onto the table. “You had me killed! I'm just returning the favor!”
There was a sudden bang and the room filled with smoke. Chèri knew without having to look that the Guildmaster had dove out the nearest window and was now using the rooftops to escape before anyone even knew to look for him. She also knew that she didn't have that particular skill and never would.
Good luck! Chèri mentally wished him.
Meng started laughing unexpectedly, leaning over to clutch Chèri's hand in his as the smoke cleared. “Are you the specter of death come to take me to the underworld for all my sins?”
“Yes,” Chèri confirmed. “Answer me this, why did you want me dead?”
Meng chuckled again. “Because you were too troublesome, always trying to help the people. The people are sheep! They exist to serve my will!”
Chèri felt a tear slide down her cheek. “I was hoping that you were innocent after all... Goodbye...” She pulled out one of her daggers and buried it in his neck so that he would finish dying already. She gasped out a sob as she watched the light leave his eyes.
All the guards now surrounded her, except for Ran and Ko. They were crowded in front of Reiki in case the Emperor was under attack. She held up her hands in surrender and waited for the guards to search her for more weapons and seize them. The smoke was completely gone now – almost as if it had never existed.
Chèri looked over to her husband, who was staring at her from behind his bodyguards as if he was seeing a ghost. He was bone white and could pass for a spirit himself. She wondered if he was going to faint.
“Chèri...” he exhaled, unable to believe his eyes. She couldn't blame him since it had been a little more than a year since her supposed death.
“Reiki...” Chèri whispered in return, so very glad to see him again. She still held her hands in the air, and her eyes still dripped tears, but she met his gaze almost defiantly. As if she was silently daring him to have her arrested and executed.
Now that the guards surrounding her had de-armed her, not to mention recognized her, they shifted from foot to foot uncertainly. They could actually be beheaded for touching the First Queen without permission!
The Grand Advisor decided to fill the silence. He got to his feet and cleared his throat. “If I heard you correctly, I have a strong suspicion that congratulations are in order, my dear.” He was the only one ever to have the gall to call the Emperor “my boy,” so this diminutive title did not surprise Chèri in the slightest. She smiled at him faintly, hoping that he would be able to persuade the rest of the assembly to agree.
The Grand Advisor held out his hand. “May I see whatever it is that you slammed down on the table a few moments ago?”
Chèri picked up the packet slowly so that the guards wouldn't think that she was planning to grab her dagger from Meng's neck. Once it was in her hand, she held it out for a guard to take and hand over to the Grand Advisor. He – like old men tended to do – made noises as he thought.
“What do we have here?” He muttered to himself.
Chèri answered him anyway. “Great Advisor Meng contracted to have me assassinated, but that's only the beginning. There's so much more...” her breath caught on an unexpected cry, and she took a moment to compose herself. Wiping the tears from her face slowly so as not to alarm the jittery guards, she decided not to say anything else after all.
“Yes... so I see...” He shook his head sadly. “Never would I have guessed that Meng could be responsible for so much wrongdoing.” He cast a wry smile at the Great Advisor who sat next to him. “In all honesty, I rather thought that this was your doing.”
The shocked Advisor took the proffered papers and scanned through them. He gasped incredulously when the full implication hit him. “You thought I could do all this?!”
The Grand Advisor shrugged unabashedly. “I daresay that someone should go arrest Meng's son before word gets out and the snake escapes.” He smirked at Chèri mischievously. “Or do you plan to kill him too?”
Chèri shook her head fervently. “I was only required to kill Meng, and I didn't even want to do that!”
“Too bad; you seem to be pretty good at it.”
Chèri couldn't help but laugh even as she started crying again. She literally shook as it fully hit her what she had done. She wobbled, feeling faint.
Reiki caught her before she could fall. He held her tight, and stroked her hair repeatedly. “You're alive!” He whispered over and over as if he still didn't believe that she was real.
Chèri tangled her fingers in his wafuku between his shoulder blades, pulling him into her as she buried her face in his chest. “I missed you so much!” She admitted, sobbing without control now.
The guards finally determined that the Emperor wasn't likely to have his wife arrested at this point, so they backed away a few steps. Since no one stopped them, they left to go apprehend Meng's son as the Grand Advisor had suggested.
“Chèri,” her uncle murmured, putting a hand on her shoulder. He normally would never dare to interrupt the Emperor during such a tender – and frankly private – moment, but he had to see for himself that she was real. He closed his eyes in relief, kissed the back of her head, and then took off to go tell her father that she wasn't dead after all.
He ran faster than he had in years, and was practically crying by the time he reached the library that his brother worked in. He didn't waste time explaining – he couldn't speak anyway – he simply grabbed Sho roughly by the arm and dragged him away. Sho protested, but couldn't seem to fight the strange frantic energy that his brother pulled him with. They were soon running through the Palace as if their lives depended on it.
Enough time had passed that Chèri's uncle was afraid that she'd be gone when he returned, but she was still clinging to Reiki and he to her. They didn't look like they were capable of moving just yet. He stopped abruptly, which allowed Sho time to stare at his brother in bewilderment for a moment as he stabilized his footing. Slowly, he looked toward the Emperor.
“Shurin!” He uttered so softly that no one head him. Then he shook his head, but his brother was looking at him now and nodding. Sho felt like his heart stopped for a moment as his blood felt like it was racing through his veins. “Shurin!”
Chèri gasped and finally pulled out of her husband's arms. She cried with joy as she flung herself into his arms. He twisted her side to side, lifting her off her feet so that he could squeeze her extra tightly.
“The Gods have brought you back to me!” Sho announced.
It occurred to Reiki that he wanted to hear her full explanation in private, so he gently tugged on their arms, and gestured for them to follow him. Sho had been a great comfort and source of advice when they thought Chèri was dead. Sho did have experience losing a wife after all. They often spent hours just talking, so Reiki now felt as if Sho was his father too. He couldn't bear to separate the two now that they were together again.
Chèri followed her husband into the hallway that led to his private entrance to the Inner Palace. Sho had an arm around her shoulder just as she had an arm around his waist. She slipped her free hand into Reiki's, wanting to be connected to him too.
Reiki stopped for a moment to look at her hand and then her. He felt like pinching himself. Please don't let this be a dream!
He turned to Ran, his heart feeling heavy. “Go get Ando...” he whispered into Ran's ear.
Ran nodded solemnly, and then rushed off to do as he was told. Reiki continued to lead them to the small building that was his room. Just outside the door, he gestured for them all to stop.
“Sho, please follow me inside for a moment. There's something Chèri needs to do before she can join us,” Reiki stated, gesturing for Chèri to wait outside his door while he, Ko, and her father went into the room.
Chèri bit her lip, puzzled, when Reiki pulled the door shut. She knew from experience that it was thick enough to muffle all but the loudest sounds, so she briefly wondered if Reiki needed to have a private conversation with her father. What could they possibly need to say to each other that they can't tell me?
A full minute passed with her staring at the door with a frown on her face. Suddenly, she heard a shout. She looked around to see who was yelling so close to the Emperor's room, but didn't see anyone at first.
The next thing she knew, she was swept up into a pair of strong and warm arms that swung her in a circle and then held her tight. She barely recognized Ando, he had changed so much! He was leaner and scruffy looking. His face had an almost gaunt appearance that told her without words that he had truly suffered in her absence.
He was so overjoyed to see her again that he couldn't contain himself. He kissed her like she was the only woman he would ever love. She let him because she was so happy to see him again.
A couple of seconds later, Ran cleared his throat loudly, and then actually said: “Ahem!”
Ando abruptly remembered that he was kissing the First Queen and set her back on her feet. A bit of the old Ando – the one she trusted with her life – emerged as he blushed. “Forgive me, my Lady!”
Chèri chuckled and hugged him once more. “The fault was half mine. I missed you so much!”
Ando was overcome with emotion. He had done so much more than miss her; he had mentally beaten himself almost to death over the fact that he had failed her. Ran knew this and gently placed a hand on Ando's shoulder.
“Come on,” Ran urged softly. “The Emperor's waiting for us.”
“Wait,” Ando insisted. “Give us just one moment alone.”
Ran scrutinized him suspiciously, but then granted his request. He stepped into the Emperor's room and closed the door behind him. Even so, Ando pulled Chèri a few steps away from the door.
“What happened to the baby?” Ando asked, clearly worried.
“What baby?” Chèri wondered, looking at him as if he had lost his mind.
“You had morning sickness when you were taken...” Ando reminded her, confused.
Chèri shook her head. “No... I was wrong. I had an illness that kept me in bed for a couple of weeks, and then finally cleared up.”
Ando narrowed his eyes at her in disbelief. “Why would you lie to me?”
“I'm not lying,” Chèri insisted, but couldn't quite meet his gaze.
“Right...” Ando murmured, biting his lip. He decided that whatever happened, she probably wouldn't tell him until there was absolutely no chance her husband would overhear. He always kept her secrets, so it hurt that she wouldn't tell him, but he forced himself to let the matter drop... for now.
Chèri forced a smile, and then turned back toward her husband's room. It was open just a crack, and Reiki was watching them. Rather than try to pretend he wasn't, he opened the door all the way and gestured for them to come inside.
Deep down, he knew that Chèri had never betrayed him with her bodyguard, but he also knew just how much Ando loved her. This was why he had given them the relative privacy they deserved for their reunion, but also didn't quite trust Ando not to abduct her until he could be certain that she really was her.
They way they had whispered together made him doubt himself. It looked a lot like the were plotting, but he couldn't figure out what. Chèri looked at him with a smile so brilliant that it almost blinded him. He returned her smile, feeling a bit relieved, and then pulled her into a kiss.
They hadn't kissed at all since her return, and he wanted to ensure that his lips were the ones that she desired most. He suspected that Ando had kissed her, but decided to ignore the possibility. His kiss would erase all others!
Chèri purred and melted into him. She tried to pour her heart into him through their kiss. Reiki finally cast aside all other thoughts but her.
Ando knew that the Emperor was subtly making a point, and nodded in acceptance. He quietly slipped past them to go stand over by Sho, Ran, and Ko. They all studied the decorations in Reiki's room thoroughly to prevent their impatience from getting the better of them.
Finally, Chèri was settled next to her husband at a table. Ko poured everyone tea that he had made during his long wait, but then, it was time for Chèri to explain everything that had happened. She decided to keep it simple.
“First of all, I know what they made you believe, but the Assassin Guild never hurt me. Just as they said when they took me, they wanted to bring me before the Guildmaster to see if he was certain that he wanted to fulfill the contract on my life.”
She looked down to her lap to demonstrate her shame. “The only way the Guildmaster would spare my life was if I promised to personally kill the man who signed the contract against me. I stubbornly refused! I would rather die than take a life, but then... he told me who... and why...”
Reiki looked at Ko expectantly. Ko had taken the documents from the Grand Advisor when they left the meeting room, and now held them out for Reiki. Chèri continued as he read.
“Once I... came to terms with the fact that Advisor Meng wanted to ruin the Empire, and that he would eventually contract to end your life and our son's...” Tears filled her eyes again, but she ignored them. “Well, I decided to accept the deal. I would live and go free so long as I killed Meng with my own hand.”
“Never!” Ando exhaled in disbelief. “You could never do such a thing!”
Sho nodded in agreement, but then took a better look at the light spattering of blood on her houmongi.
Ran put a hand on Ando's shoulder. “I hate to tell you this, but she did...”
Ko nodded to confirm the statement, then added his two cents. “And almost got herself killed or arrested in the process.”
Before anyone could say another word, there was a knock on the door.
“Enter!” Reiki called out. A pair of guards opened the door, and then walked into the room.
“Imperial Majesty! Great Advisor Meng's son has been apprehended.”
“Good,” Reiki murmured. “Put him in a cell until I can figure out what to do with him...”
Reiki waited until the guards were gone before asking his next question. “Anything else happen.”
Chèri took a moment to exude serenity. “Nothing. The only reason it took me so long to fulfill my mission is that I was a terrible shot. It took me months to be able to hit the target ten feet in front of me! I was the laughingstock of the Assassin's Guild! Which I don't mind being...”
“Speaking of...” Reiki said, piercing her with his eyes. “What happened to your accomplice, and where exactly is the Assassin's Guild?”
“I can't tell you either because I don't know,” Chèri said with a helpless shrug. “They wouldn't let me know where their hideout is... And as far as I know, my accomplice has vanished into a puff of smoke.”
“Why do you protect them?!” Reiki demanded in frustration.
“I'm not protecting them!” Chèri adamantly insisted. “ I really have no idea where they are!”
“You must have an inkling!”
Chèri simply closed her eyes and shook her head. After a moment of silence, she murmured: “I really don't...”
They all frowned at her, even Sho. Each one of them suspected that she might be lying, but none could figure out why. Ultimately, they couldn't force her to come clean, and so they had no choice but to take her word for it.
“I forbid it!” Reiki shouted angrily. “You can use messenger birds and whatever else you feel is necessary, but you will never set foot outside the Imperial Palace again!”
Chèri gaped at him incredulously. “Reiki...”
He would not be swayed by her big eyes which were round with hurt. “Your Assistant Director and his assistant – that you hand picked – are doing an excellent job. Topaz Region is doing better than it has in years! It's all thanks to you, and so I will let you keep your title and oversee the region, but you will do so from right here.”
“Reiki!” Chèri exclaimed, getting angry herself now. “What good is being Regional Director if I can't actually go to the Region and Direct?!”
“You have only been undead for a month! Why would you possibly want to leave already?!” Reiki demanded.
“Because if I go now, I can be back before winter!” Chèri pointed out loudly.
Reiki was done trying to argue, and simply shook his head. “No. I have forbidden it, and that is that.”
Chèri growled in frustration but ground out a reply as civilly as she possibly could. “Fine...” She stalked away emphatically.
In the aviary, she grabbed a piece of stationary, scribbled a note that said change of plans, I want a full progress report brought to me here at the Palace. Then she stamped it with her official seal of Office and carefully selected a bird trained to fly out to the Topaz Regional Palace.
She watched the bird fly off with her message for a few minutes, and then bit her lip in thought. If I can't do the duties I rightfully earned, then what can I do? With a shrug, she decided to do what she always did... search the archives for mysteries to solve.
The next time an Imperial meeting was held, everyone was surprised when she showed up. Reiki narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously, and subtly shook his head to warn her that she could not pull the same trick on him twice. She simply smiled at him, and then offered everyone tea and cookies.
“Carry on, I'm simply here to listen,” she assured everyone, and then stood next to Reiki so that she could smile at him adoringly. “I've always wondered what it is you do during these meetings. I promise that I'll be so silent that you'll never even know I'm here.”
“The Queens traditionally do have the right to attend these meetings,” the Grand Advisor reminded everyone.
“Some would even call it their responsibility,” the Great Advisor that sat next to him muttered in agreement.
“See?” Chèri nudged her husband cheerfully.
Strangely reluctant – though he couldn't figure out why – Reiki gestured for her to sit on the dais in front of him. She promptly obeyed, pulling a bit of embroidery from her basket to work on. This set everyone at ease, and they started their meeting as if she wasn't even in the room.
She really was so silent that they almost forgot her, but occasionally, she'd murmur a helpful suggestion. Her goal was to gain their trust implicitly and prove that she could be useful. If Reiki was going to insist that she be confined to the Palace, she was determined to make the best of it!
Inside, she was seething! She hated feeling so trapped! Her feelings festered inside her like a rotting corpse...
Until a month later, when she found out that she was pregnant again. With a deep sigh, she vowed to be the best mother she could possibly be.
With a smile at the six month old that nursed from her breast, Chèri firmly dismissed all of the servants from the Emperor's room. Including the Nanny – the same woman Chèri had employed back when her son was first born and she claimed she had found him in the woods. The Nanny was fiercely loyal to Chèri, but knew better than to disobey her. She smiled.
“You're such a good mother, taking the time to play with your children everyday.”
Chèri smiled at the Nanny in return and then watched her leave. She beckoned her eight year-old son and almost six year-old daughter to come snuggle up in bed with her. They were far too rambunctious to settle down without a good tickle fight first, which Chèri won despite cradling a baby in her arms.
She laughed and kissed them both several times. Finally, they all lay down together.
“Tell us a story!” Prince Reiki begged.
“Yes! Please?!” His sister agreed.
Chèri smiled. “Once upon a time ago, your father was the youngest of seven Imperial Princes. When the time came, well... The oldest Prince was technically supposed to inherit the throne, however, it was long held that an Emperor would marry a woman from each of the Eight Great Clans, and then any Princes born would vie for the throne. They would curry favor from the Imperial Court and even kill each other. Throughout history, this has been done very subtly..
“However, when your father was young, the whole Court – maybe even the whole Empire – seemed to go slightly mad! The Queens all encouraged their sons to openly fight and kill each other until the only one left was your father.”
Chèri hugged them each for several long moments. “Do you know what the greatest gift your father has ever given you is?”
Prince Reiki shrugged. “Toys, probably. He seems to think I'm a baby still and never gives me anything useful!”
Chèri laughed. “No! He has given you a gift far greater than that! You will never have to fight all your brothers until there is only one left standing. You will only ever have the support and love of all your siblings.”
She kissed her daughter on the cheek. “And you, my love, are still alive, which is more that any of the previous Emperor's daughters could say.”
Prince Reiki snorted. “You make it sound like some sort of vast treasure, but I don't have any brothers!”
“Oh but it is a treasure!” Chèri insisted. “And you must never forget the password. The one that will one day grant you access to your treasure.”
Prince Reiki sighed in frustration, rolling his eyes as he said it with his mother. “The second Prince bears the mark of the Imperial Crown.”
Chèri sighed – mildly aggravated by his impertinence – but then smiled at him. “That's right. Now I have a marvelous idea! Why don't I play a song for us to dance to?”
Princess Leelee leapt up excitedly. “I'll get your fiddle!”
Chèri watched her, hiding how sad she was deep inside. Aside from the mark, she had left her original fiddle with her son, along with a letter of explanation that she knew Rin guarded with her life. Her child had been the payment required by the Guildmaster for several reasons.
One of which was that he was literally the only thing of value that Chèri had, but more importantly, he was a guarantee that if they let Chèri live, she would do everything in her power to protect the Guild from repercussions. It had broken her heart to make such an agreement, but at least this way, she was certain that he was safe. Lastly – and probably the most crucial reason that she had agreed – if anything ever happened to the first Prince and Heir to the Imperial Throne, there would be an Heir safely hidden away that no one knew about. One who was being raised in a way that gave him the skills to protect himself should several of the Clans ever band together and decide to rise up against the Emperor.
As of this moment, things were peaceful. Chèri had done her best to ensure that the entire Empire was prosperous, and so no one was currently angry at the Emperor. Even so, that could change...
After she finished playing a few songs – her baby daughter long since lulled to sleep and set inside a carrier on her back – she told her older children to go outside and play. In a wistful mood, Chèri took a walk through the beautiful Palace garden. It was a certain time on a certain day...
A beautiful lady appeared before Chèri, mostly hidden from the sight of others by a flowering bush. She was dressed as a proper court Lady should be, but she wasn't really a court Lady.
“Imperial Majesty,” she said with a graceful bow.
“Rin,” Chèri purred happily.
“You look as beautiful as ever,” Rin murmured sincerely. She held out a small packet of papers, which Chèri quickly exchanged for one she'd written, and then stashed in the pocket of her long sleeve. She looked around to see if anyone was watching her. To her dismay, both her husband and Ando were looking vaguely in her direction as they discussed something.
Rin shook her head. “They don't suspect anything...”
Chèri nodded, hoping she was right. “Give him a kiss from me, and never let him forget that I love him.”
Rin saw that the Emperor and Imperial guard were both walking towards them now, and hastily bowed once more. “Until next time!” Then she vanished almost as abruptly as she'd appeared.
“Who was that?” Reiki asked curiously. He had only seen a glimpse of something, but thought he had heard her whispering to someone.
“No one,” Chèri replied, staring at him as if he was talking nonsense.
Ando frowned at her in a way that let her know that he didn't believe her. He investigated the short path all the way to its end a few feet later. Finding nothing, he returned with a shrug.
“Then what did you tuck into your sleeve?” Ando asked, holding up her hand. There was once a time in which she would have trusted him with everything and he would never have questioned her, but that had changed.
Chèri smiled and used her free hand to pull a fresh flower blossom from her sleeve. “I merely thought it pretty.”
Reiki and Ando exchanged glances, but had no choice but to believe her. She put her right fist into her left hand and let her sleeves cover her hands completely as she bowed deeply to her husband and bodyguard. Then she turned and walked away, seeking out the privacy of her own little area of the Emperor's bedroom.
Reiki sighed as she left. “I thought that perhaps things would be better now, but...”
Ando merely nodded, understanding that there was a rift between the couple that neither time nor love had been able to mend.
Once alone, Chèri read the letters. One was from the Guildmaster, simply keeping her appraised of events all around the Empire that might interest her. The other was from her son. He talked mostly about how grueling his training was, ending with a deep desire to see her one day.
She held the letter to her heart for a moment, and then tucked it into a drawer she kept locked at all times. She put the other letter in a drawer with one from Bo and another from Gan. Scrunching up her face, she wondered what to do.
It looks like someone is trying to cause trouble again...
She lifted Bo's letter so that she could reread it, but Reiki startled her. “What's that?”
Chèri set the letter back in the drawer and closed it. This one wasn't locked, so she simply shrugged. “Nothing really, just a report I'm working on.”
Reiki chuckled in amusement. “Still trying to pretend you're nothing more than a simple Official solving mysteries?”
Chèri nodded to confirm his suggestion, and then walked up to her husband so that she could kiss him. “If you have nothing better to do, then why don't we snuggle up for a bit?” She suggested.
“I'd love that,” Reiki murmured, holding her close. He kissed her a couple of times. “I love you.”
Chèri purred happily in response because it had been a while since he'd said that. “I love you so much!”
It occurred to her that since her lover for him was true, she should probably devote more time to being a good wife to him. She always seemed to prioritize everything above him, and now that she was looking into his love-filled eyes, she realized that it wasn't fair.
They smiled at each other as if it was the first time they had truly seen one another in a long time. Considering that Chèri had held a grudge against him for ordering her to never step foot outside the Imperial Palace – aside from the occasional trip into Nortown – they really hadn't seen each other. Not truly and fully with eyes filled with love.
Chèri gave her husband a tender kiss. Reiki brushed a stray hair out of her face, and then kissed her on the forehead as if she was the most precious thing in the world to him. Hand in hand, they went to bed.
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