Choshu-den: The Imperial Audience Hall
“Do you see it?” Princess Abe hissed, pushing down on Hiro’s shoulders as she craned her neck.
“No,” he whispered. “Stop squirming, you’re going to get us caught.”
“We’re too far away. Maybe we should get closer so we can see it better.”
“Do you want us to be hanged?”
“They can’t hang us. I’m the next empress.”
Hiro scoffed. Dressed in a young man’s agekubi, with her hair tied in a knot and a wooden sword at her waist, Princess Abe looked as far from a Crown Princess as possible.
Abe had found a way into the Kasuga Taisha, the largest shrine in Heijo-kyo. They’d climbed on top of a storehouse and jumped from there to the roof of the main shrine. Then they’d snuck inside through the secret trapdoor.
Hiro and Abe were now hiding behind one of the supporting beams in the ceiling, looking down at the empty altar. It was a long way down if one of them fell. Hiro was beginning to think this might not be the best idea in the history of Abe’s ideas.
“There’s so much dust up here, what if we sneeze?” he worried aloud.
The High Priest of the Ise Grand Shrine, along with the imperial heirlooms, had arrived that morning under the protection of a hundred guards. His retinue included the high priests of all the major Shinto shrines in the country. The festivities would be held for eight days and eight nights, a lucky number which brought prosperity and growth, and would end at the beginning of October. At that time, all the priests would be required to return to their shrines for another celebration called Kannazuki, the Month without the Gods.
Emperor Shōmu had spared no expense in celebrating Aunt Asukabe’s enthronement. He’d sent emissaries into the kingdom to invite the best musicians to the palace. He would be opening the imperial granaries to provide food to the poor during the eight days. He had invited diplomats from Silla and Tang. What concerned the Fujiwara clan was that he’d also invited an array of Buddhist priests to the capital. During a particularly tense dinner, Hiro had heard his father and uncles lament that they would even outnumber the Shinto priests.
“They’re coming,” Abe whispered.
The High Priest of Ise entered the shrine and walked toward a table covered in red silk. He deposited three wooden boxes on the table, moving with such caution that they could have contained sleeping babies.
“The long one must have the sword,” she breathed.
The dark cherry wood boxes were inlaid with gold embellishments indiscernible from Hiro’s vantage point. One of them carried the Yata no Kagami, the octagonal mirror forged by the deity Ishikoridome. Another contained the Yasakani no Magatama, an ancient jade jewel curved like a tailless hunched hajiro fish. In the Kojiki, it was written that the mirror and jewel were hung from a tree to lure Amaterasu from the cave where she’d hidden after Susanoo had burned her fields. Together with Kusanagi the Grass Slasher, these pieces were given to Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, when he went to pacify The Land in Between the Reed Plains. Once Jimmu became the first Emperor, the treasures passed to the Yamato Dynasty.
“Look at them,” Princess Abe murmured. “They’re the symbol of my father’s divinity. Through them he is the paramount ruler of Yamato. Through them Mother will be crowned empress in a couple of days.”
Hiro’s throat tightened with the excitement of getting a glimpse of Kusanagi. He was so close…
The priest opened the smallest of the boxes.
“For your inspection, Heavenly Sovereign,” the High Priest said and moved a few steps away. Hiro managed a peek of the Magatama jewel before his view was obscured again.
“Don’t move.” Abe clung to his sleeve, panic on her face. “If Father catches us here, he’ll hang us.”
“Yes. I mentioned that.”
I whistled, sending an ethereal wind to the shrine. It rose in a twist from the ground, gaining momentum as it reached the ceiling and stirred up the dust in the beams.
“Oh no,” Hiro gasped when he noticed her trying hard not to sneeze, burying her face in her sleeve.
Princess Abe sneezed.
“—sneeze,” Hiro finished, dejected. He sighed and looked down into the startled eyes of the Emperor.
“Guards!” the priest called. Within moments, twenty imperial guards burst into the shrine.
“Why do I always let myself get talked into trouble,” Hiro muttered.
“Abe-hime.” The Emperor’s voice was like ice. “And Young Fujiwara. Why am I not surprised?”
Hiro was escorted out of the Kasuga Taisha like a criminal, surrounded by eight guards and their spears. They mounted him onto a horse and rode toward the Imperial Palace. The princess wasn’t with them. They had been separated as they emerged from the shrine.
“Father is kind. He will not be hard on us,” Abe said to him before being taken away in the Emperor’s party.
“On you, maybe,” Hiro replied.
Heijo-kyo was located in a basin with low mountains to the north, east, and west. Its main road was Suzaku Avenue, which connected the Imperial Palace to the Rajōmon Gate, the southern exit from the capital.
The palace was protected by earthen ramparts as tall as three men, and it was encircled by twelve gates. The most prominent of these gates was the Suzakumon, named after the Suzaku bird, one of four legendary guardians. Since Heijo-kyo had been constructed to imitate Chang’an, the capital of Tang, the Yamato Imperial Court appropriated its four celestial guardians of the four corners of the world. They included Genbu, the black tortoise guarding the North; Byakko, the white tiger guarding the West; Suzaku, the red phoenix in the South; and Sei Ryū, the dragon guarding the East.
The guards led Hiro through the Suzakumon and toward the Choshu-den, the Imperial Audience Hall. Only the highest ranks of the Yamato society had access to the Choshu-den. In the rare cases a Fujiwara broke the law and subjected the clan to public scrutiny, being brought here was an earthquake meant to shake their power. His own family treated the culprit with absolute ruthlessness.
It was becoming more and more clear to Hiro that he was in serious trouble and this would go beyond a mere scolding.
Fujiwara no Muchimaro, Hiro’s uncle, arrived first. He’d been promoted to the rank of Dainagon a month ago, an Imperial Court counselor of the first rank. He stood close to the throne, with only three men between him and the Chancellor. As Hiro waited on his knees for the court to assemble, the glare from his uncle could have curdled milk.
Fusasaki, Umakai, and Maro—who were all part of a lower branch of counselors from the Great Council of State—entered together. They took their places as per their ranks, farthest away from the throne. Hiro couldn’t see his father’s fury, but he sensed it from the top of his skull to the last bone in his spine.
Finally, the Emperor and the Chancellor, Prince Toneri, arrived in the hall. They were followed by a throng of Buddhist and Shinto priests.
The Chancellor read from a scroll, “Today, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu, firstborn son of Fujiwara no Umakai, associate counselor in the Great Council of State, broke the law by trespassing in the main shrine of the Kasuga Taisha as the imperial heirlooms were being presented to our Heavenly Sovereign.”
No mention of Princess Abe. Her presence was being kept secret as he was thrown to the tigers.
“The law states that only the Heavenly Sovereign and High Priest of Ise are allowed to lay eyes on the Imperial Regalia. Failing to follow this law is punishable by death.”
Hiro began to hyperventilate. The walls were caving in on him.
“Do you have anything to say in your defense, Young Fujiwara?” the Emperor asked.
It was just a game, he wanted to say. He’d dreamed all his life of seeing Kusanagi. He dropped his forehead to the floor. Terrified, he could only reply, “Your Highness, I am so sorry. I was stupid.”
“Chancellor,” the Emperor asked Prince Toneri, “could there be an exception to the death penalty?”
The prince had been acclaimed for supervising the compilation of the Nihon Shoki, the historical chronicles of the Land in between the Reed Plains. He was well respected at court. But unfortunately, he’d never been a friend of the Fujiwara clan.
“The recommendation is to set an example to the masses, an explicit signal that the Imperial Court punishes anyone who breaks the law, commoner or aristocrat,” Prince Toneri said. “But I would differ to the wisdom of the High Priest of Ise. What would you recommend, High Priest?”
The priest stepped forward and said, “We do not recommend death. We recommend exile. One year spent in prayer and cleansing rituals.”
“With all due respect to the High Priest of Ise,” a Buddhist priest said, “one year would not be enough for the unrepentant to cleanse himself of his evil nature and hubris.”
Unrepentant? Hiro’s distress grew as they spoke. Evil nature? They didn’t know him.
Hiro was too inexperienced to realize that this power struggle had little to do with him. The Shinto priests were sustained by the Fujiwara clan. On the other side, the Buddhist priests were supported by Prince Toneri and every other family that opposed the Fujiwara.
“How many years would you recommend, Genbō?” the Emperor asked.
“Five at least, Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Everything is in fives with Buddhists,” the High Priest of Ise scoffed. “You have five precepts of morality, five colors, five senses, five wisdoms, five Buddha…”
“The High Priest of Ise knows our religion all too well,” Genbō retorted. “Is he thinking of joining our ranks, perhaps?”
“We accept five.” All heads turned toward the voice of Fujiwara no Muchimaro. “Five years of exile for my brother’s eldest son.”
The Emperor nodded, pleased that a solution had been reached. “So be it. Where will the exile take place?”
The hall grew silent as the men looked at each other. A Shinto priest approached Hirotsugu and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Your Imperial Majesty, on top of Mount Kurama is a forest beloved by the gods. I believe the boy would benefit from a lesson in humility in the presence of divinity. Give him to the Shrine of Kifune and let him suffer his punishment there, away from society.”
“I accept,” the Emperor said. “Fujiwara no Hirotsugu, you are exiled to Mount Kurama for a period of five years. Offer yourself to the gods so that they might forgive you for your recklessness.”