京, 1756. 天皇 • 京都守 • 天皇愚女 • 赤清庭, pink It was a crisp, warm autumn morning when Akakiyo learned her life no longer rested in her hands. The sun had risen with promise and splendor as it had so many other times before, days that brought better news on the wings of her father's whims and wishes. She found herself yearning desperately for those times more and more as each second ripped them farther from her grasp. But there were no smiles anymore, no promises of fruitful mornings playing among the flowers or rushing to the nearest temple for early prayers. Her future was written on the scroll with a name, signed in perfect hand following words of designated betrothal. Minamoto Morichika, she read in the back of her mind, etching the name into memory as it would soon be etched on her soul. With nothing but defeat to cling to, Akakiyo let the paper fall to the surface of the vanity and looked into the gilded mirror, seeing a porcelain doll for sale blink twice and stare back at her. "Must I marry, okaasan?" she asked with a simple frown, feeling the weight of royalty crush such fragile shoulders. "I don't even know him yet." "You will, little garden. You will." The empress slid a several more combs of jade and dangling sterling into the intricate weaves her daughter's hair had become. "Have you met him?" she inquired again, looking to her hands as they fumbled nervously with each other in her lap. "More than once, Akakiyo." "What is he like?" Kiyo bit her lip. "Is he kind, at least?" "Do you think your father would marry you off to someone who wasn't kind?" "I think he would marry me to whomever would offer him the most political gain." Her mother chuckled softly at that, adding a final comb resembling a cherry blossom to the hive of black hair encircling the princess's head. "That is a smart answer, dear one. But don't bite your lip, the paint will smear." The fussing mother gripped the girl by the shoulder and spun her carefully around, dipping the long brush into a scarlet substance and reapplying what had been distorted. "The two of you will be very happy together, Kiyo. Why do you doubt your father's judgment?" "I don't doubt his judgment," the girl pouted when her mother had finished the deed. "I doubt...I don't know. I just doubt." "Well, stop." The woman chuckled, taking a step back to admire the vision of beauty and innocence Princess Akakiyo embodied. Silks in a rainbow of colors wrapped around her petite frame and hung from her arms in long, elaborate sleeves, and her face was painted in blacks and reds around dark eyes and pale lips. Kiyo had quickly grown into one of the most desired young women in all of Kyoto, the face of purity and tender desire, and a part of her looked forward to entertaining suitors and choosing the one that the gods had set before her to bring further life to the world. All of it had slipped from her fingers in a matter of seconds, however, and with time she knew it was something she should have expected. Her sisters had all suffered the same fate. It was only a matter of time before she would be forced to do her duty as well. "When will we marry?" Kiyo asked with a gentle frown, examining herself in the mirror with a bittersweet gaze. "On the eve of your fifteenth birthday." "What?!" The princess turned desperately to her mother, eyes widened with powerlessness and fear of the inevitable. "But--But that's so soon--" "Less than two weeks," the empress agreed, and it seemed as if she was displeased with the speed of things as well. "Your father has already arranged it. There's nothing else to be done." "Nothing else to be done," Kiyo repeated in a low whisper, and she would have bitten her lip again had she known better than to encounter her mother's scorn. "I thought I had more time..." "You have plenty of time, my daughter." The queen held out her hands pulled the girl close, giving her a sweet and maternal kiss atop her forehead to bolster a sense of confidence in whatever way possible. "He is the son of the strongest man in Kyoto. You will be safe, and your sons will be great warriors." She chuckled, "besides, he is a noble man. I have no doubt he will treat you with loyalty." "I don't want mere loyalty." Kiyo lifted her dainty head from her mother's chest, and there was a dwindling spark in her eyes that suffered to dust with each passing second, but she knew there was no point in arguing much further. Her honored father and mother were clearly on an agreement in the matter which meant there was nothing to be done except to swell down into humble obedience. The princess pulled away and stood steady on her wooden shoes, folding her hands politely before her frame and meeting her mother's noble gaze with strength. "...I will do as you and my father wish of me." "That's better. Come now," the empress said as she gestured for her young daughter to follow suit. "The emperor awaits us at the gates. He has requested to introduce you to Minamoto himself, if you can believe it. There is no greater honor." For my betrothed, she thought helplessly, or for me?