“Truly, sire, I think you should reconsider Oko’s sentence of this man, this creature. It may not be safe to keep him, even in the hatchery.” Sato knelt before her new Emperor and husband of one year, Saburo, youngest son of the house of Takeo, ruler of Zhing-piao. He sat before her on his throne in the royal palace of the mountain capital in the crisp, delicate robes of his office, his young wife Empress Haewon sitting beside him. Saburo scowled at Sato’s strange request.
“Why do we listen to this woman, Saburo?” Haewon asked, looking like the sun with her golden gown and silky black hair, the beautiful former princess of Lan-zhal to the west. “You know that she betrayed Oko in her ambition, how she helped you gain the throne in his stead. What makes you think this is anything less than a play for more power, ruthless as she is?”
“By getting rid of my enemies?” Saburo asked dryly, cocking an eyebrow. His face had turned as expressionless as chiseled stone. “Sato may be wise in her estimation of the beast Oko had locked up in the hatchery. Now that Oko is gone, we need not keep any of his pets around, especially one with such a dangerous reputation, one associated with the witch Xanthia. I barely dare to keep even the guardian snakes in the royal stables. No, I will consider your request, my concubine.”
“But what more do you need to make your decision, sire?” Sato asked. “You know his history and the magic he is reputed to have. Why not exile him immediately?”
“I must speak with his keeper, that woman,” Saburo turned to his attendant, “what was her name?”
“Susana Ortiz, sire,” the guard standing at his left said in a whisper. “Shall I call her to the throne room? Joji will bring her if you wish.”
“I think it best, Chima,” Saburo said. “Send for her at once. Tell her that her Emperor awaits her and that she should not delay.”
Chima disappeared through the side door of the throne room, leaving Saburo to contend with his wives.
“What can this woman tell you that I have not already said?” Sato asked shrilly, standing. “You make a mockery of my counsel by calling her here.”
“Sato, allow me to rule as I see fit,” Saburo said, anger flashing in his eyes, the first emotion he had shown.
They glared at one another in silence until Chima re-entered the chamber, an attractive, olive-skinned brunette of about thirty-two entering behind him. She wore the yellow uniform of Zhing-piao’s royal guard with a special symbol designating her position in the royal stables as assistant to the keeper of the city’s guardians. Her expression was controlled but sorrowful, Sato noted in displeasure. Sato could only hope this woman, loyal to her enemy, wouldn’t soften the Emperor’s heart against her counsel. Chima brought Susana before Saburo and introduced her.
“Miss Ortiz,” Saburo said warmly, “I have heard so much about you from the guardsmen who serve in our hatchery.”
She bowed slightly but didn’t smile at the complement.
“They tell me of their great respect for you after years of serving with you in the stables,” Saburo continued. “I have before me a petition about which I would like your honest opinion. It concerns De Yong Wu, our only prisoner in the hatchery.”
“A petition about De?” Susana asked. “What’s the problem? I’ve guarded him for six years, and he has been no cause for concern.”
“I have been told something of his history,” Saburo said, noting her apprehension. “He is still a fox, not a human?”
“Yes, sire. He has refused to change back into human form.”
“I have been advised that he shouldn’t be released from the cage. Is that your assessment as well?”
Susana sighed heavily, her face downcast.
“No, sire,” she said gravely. “It’s best for all concerned that he remains caged.”
“He still poses a danger?”
“He does.” Susana’s voice rang out the words with finality.
Saburo nodded, glancing at Sato. The triumph must show on her face, she thought. Her benefactor would be so grateful to her if this all went as planned.
“Then I am left with no other choice than to grant the petition,” Saburo said.
“What was the petition, may I ask, sire?” Susana asked meekly.
“It has been requested of the Emperor to send De Yong Wu into exile to the penal colony of Luk-dao, far from Zhing-piao’s inhabitants, as a measure of safety.”
“No,” Susana said. “Isn’t that where Oko was sent into exile? The stories I’ve heard about that place. Surely you can’t mean to send De there, alone.”
“It must be done, sire,” Sato insisted, “for the sake of your people.”
“But De is no danger in the hatchery. He has never even tried to escape,” Susana said.
“The hatchery isn’t as secure as the penal colony would be. I’m sure you will agree, Miss Ortiz,” Sato said, knowing that the truth of her words would draw blood.
Susana didn’t answer but only looked at the floor in dismay.
“The petition is granted. It is my final word,” Saburo said.
“But, your majesty,” Susana said, falling to her knees on the stair before Saburo’s throne, “if you must exile him, then you leave me no choice but to go with him.”
“Why?’ Saburo asked. “You have been a loyal subject and don’t deserve to share this man’s punishment. I will not allow this perversion of justice.”
Haewon put her hand on his arm as his voice rose, and he immediately returned to his granite-like expressionlessness.
“The keeper should be allowed to choose her own path,” Haewon said, looking at Susana with compassion. “It may not be just, but should she choose to go with De Yong Wu, as she chose to stay with him in the hatchery, that is her business, not yours, my Emperor. Consider my petition on her behalf.”
“The fox-man, De Yong Wu, will be exiled tonight,” Saburo said grimly. “What you choose to do, Miss Ortiz, is up to you, though I implore you to remain in my service and not follow this riffraff into the penal colony. You may return to your duties and inform your charge of his change in surroundings.”
“Thank you,” Susana said weakly, her eyes on Haewon instead of the Emperor. She walked out of the chamber in a daze. Chima took her arm to hurry her along.
Sato gave Haewon a venomous look and knelt before Saburo in thanks, as was fitting for a favor granted to a concubine. Noting the look, Saburo turned to Haewon....
Haewon glared at her again as Sato bowed to Saburo, who waved his hand to permit her to leave them. She shuffled quickly to the farthest door of the chamber, out of the reception room and down the hall before stopping beside a figure waiting by the steps leading to the palace’s main entrance.
“Is it all arranged?” asked the man with a thick, alien brogue. He also wore the yellow uniform of Zhing-piao’s royal guard.
“He’s to be exiled tonight, Alex. However, your old friend, Susana, has insisted on going with him. I hope you’re pleased with my persuasion. My husband was easily swayed to see things your way.”
“Excellent. One down, one to go,” he said, smiling.