"You look troubled," Shoukei said as she laid a gentle hand on Suzu's shoulder. They were all tired, exhausted from trying to save as many of the townspeople as they could from the fires, but the night had worn thin and the weight of those they couldn't reach fast enough was heavy on their minds. Outside the walls waited another kind of death: Gahou's army.
"I feel like we're waiting for things to get worse, just as I used to, up on that mountain."
Shoukei sighed and sat down next to Suzu. They were up on the eastern wall of the compound, waiting as sunrise approached with a new challenge and new hope. "It's not the same. This is heading for the end and fast. There is barely enough time to hang on."
Suzu leaned her head against Shoukei's shoulder. They'd grown close in the little time they'd had, finding a kinship that went beyond their shared strife. In many ways they were a well-matched pair; Suzu had felt it from the moment they met, but only now she knew what had been missing then.
"I still can't believe Youshi is the empress. I mean," she qualified herself, "I know it's true. I can feel it in my heart, but I look at her and she's just-"
Shoukei turned just enough that Suzu could see her face. She grinned. "Just like us?" Suzu nodded, not quite sure why Shoukei was shaking with silent laughter.
Shoukei shook her head. "Oh, Suzu. Look at us. A princess and a sage, two people who were torn from their worlds and went through so much hardship to get here."
Suzu laughed quietly. "I suppose you are right, from a certain point of view."
"Of course I am," Shoukei said, wrapping her arm around Suzu's shoulder in a one-armed hug. "Don't you know, the princess is always right."
Suzu laughed. "In your dreams, your majesty."
Shoukei made a face. "Don't call me that. I don't deserve that title."
Suzu sighed and leaned closer to the warmth of her friend and comrade. They'd both been through so much that Shoukei's guilt felt distant, as if it was part of another life. On the horizon, a thin strip of light signaled the coming of a new day.
"After this," Suzu said, "we will both have to face our past, but for now we have to look forward or we may not survive to wallow in our mistakes."
Soft steps behind them alerted Suzu to company, but she didn't have to turn around to know who it was. It made sense that Youko would be here.
"The sun is coming up," Youko said, a heaviness in her voice that made her sound older than her years.
Suzu patted the stone next to her. "Come, sit with us."
"There isn't much time."
Suzu looked up at the serious face of the empress. She smiled. "There is time enough for this."
They all watched as the sun rose, larger and more potent than it ever looked high in the sky, casting a soft light that bathed everything in an otherworldly glow. In that moment, the past was nothing more than a long shadow behind them.
The morning of the Imperial address found Youko in her chambers, pacing the length of the room with single-minded attention. Her hair had long ago freed itself from the haphazard ponytail, flying wildly behind her on every turn. She dragged her fingers through the mess and repeated the words "every citizen of Kei to be their own ruler".
From the bed she could hear the soft snoring of her two companions. Shoukei and Suzu had listened and provided commentary until they'd both dropped in the hour just before dawn. Stopping to look at the two girls, Youko found herself smiling.
"You know," she said to her sleeping friends, "I couldn't have done it without you."
It was true, to an extent. While Youko was certain that things would have unfolded the way they did with or without the three of them - any other empress might have had to deal with a rebellion in the Kei left behind by Yo-ou - it made the connection they shared no less vital. Shoukei and Suzu had gone through much the same things Youko had endured on her way to the throne of Kei and their unique expertise complemented her like no other advisors could.
Aside from that, the girls were great company. Friends. Youko remembered Yuka with a measure of grief and Asano with the weight of responsibility. In Suzu and Shoukei she'd found friends who had their own stories, their own grievances and their own place in the will of the heavens. Their friendship existed for its own sake and not because of a twisted sense of duty. Yuka and Asano had never been meant to walk the path with her and they'd both paid the price.
"You're brooding again," said the soft voice of Suzu.
Youko smiled at the girl trying to untangle herself from Shoukei without waking her up. It was a decidedly futile effort. "I apologize if my thoughts woke you up."
Suzu yawned, giving up the effort to free herself as a lost cause. "You should get some sleep."
Youko looked at the lightening sky in the east. "There's no point, it's nearly sunrise."
Shoukei mumbled something into the crook of her arm, still fast asleep. Suzu snickered. "Lie down for a moment, you'll need that strength when you face the assembly and Keiki's frown."
Scrunching up her face, Youko tried not to imagine the reaction she would get from her kirin. The man had too much fondness for propriety and her idea was sure to give him a heart attack. Still, she couldn't let it go just yet.
"I'm not done. The wording of the opening paragraph is a mess and-"
"Suzu," Shoukei grumbled, eyes closed and face serene like a doll, "if you don't shut her up, I will."
Startled, Youko laughed and rubbed the back of her neck. "All right then, I will take a small nap, but only because you insist and I hate to be the one responsible when Shoukei doesn't get her beauty sleep." She stared at the two girls on her bed and shrugged. "Move over, will you?"
Shoukei shivered as she stood in front of the large mirror, staring at the skin over her protruding collarbones, all the little imperfections that had not cleared up with her new immortality. The bruises were gone but there were scars that would always remind her of the beatings she'd taken.
"I think you should wear the purple dress, it brings out your eyes." Suzu had a frayed look to her, the appearance of a girl woken in the middle of the night to help her friend panic. It was a rather accurate depiction of the situation all things considered.
Shoukei slipped into the simple silk robe and watched herself become the advisor to the empress of Kei. "This isn't right. I can't face him like this, he will think I mock him."
Suzu sighed and handed Shoukei a black linen robe that looked as severe as the matron of the east wing. Shoukei frowned at the garment. "Admit it," she said, curling her lips. "You think I'm being ridiculous."
"Yes." Suzu smiled at her friend. "I can understand how hard it must be to face him, but he has already sent word that your presence will not cause offense and that he looks forward to his visit. Nothing will happen."
Shoukei fell to her knees. "Suzu! It's all so confusing. Every time I think of him I still feel that old anger, but now there is mostly shame and guilt. What if I make this all harder for Youko?"
The empress had invited Gekkei and several emperors to a casual gathering that was, in essence, an effort to help the northern kingdoms before they fell into ruin. Youma had infested large swathes of the northern shores and the region was wracked by one natural disaster after another. The instability of the northern kingdoms threatened everyone and it had been En-ou who'd first suggested that some larger relief needed to be undertaken.
"I'd heard you two were awake and bothering the maids."
Shoukei glanced at the door, blushing up to her ears. "Youko, I didn't mean to cause any commotion. It's just that-"
Youko grinned. "You're worried about Gekkei."
Suzu put her hands on Shoukei's shoulders. "How did you guess?" There was laughter in her voice. It was infectious and soon they were all laughing. Shoukei caught her image in the mirror. She looked-
"Oh." The lines in her face deepened her smile and her hair had enough of a shine to reflect the first rays of sunlight. "I don't think I need to worry about my clothes."
With her chin resting on Shoukei's shoulder, Suzu chuckled. "Of course not. Just be yourself and you'll be fine. You could wear your traveling clothes and it would be fine."
Youko sat down with them on the floor of Shoukei's rooms. "I have it on pretty good authority that Gekkei is looking forward to meeting you again."
Shoukei dropped her head, sighing. "I have made a right fool of myself, haven't I?"
Laughing, she looked at the mirror again, seeing all three of them united. "I have all I need here, don't I?"
Grinning, Suzu brushed the hair out of Shoukei's face. "And don't you forget it."