Rough Copy: The Magister's Conspiracy (working title)
Author: Amber Michelle K.


The wisteria hung in ripe clusters from the arbor, curling vines drooped between the cypress slats to catch on Mochi's silk coat, snatching at threads, embroidery. Cool night left his moon-viewing pavilion dark, but his guest sat where he was instructed to wait, hair unbound, as if this were a lover's tryst. Lights floated in the fog from the pavilion across the water. "His majesty's decree," Mochi said, twisting a vine out of his path. "What do you think of it?"

Dainagon's head turned slightly to the side, the starlight just bright enough to highlight his complexion. "Your holdings will suffer more than mine."

"A noble's answer." Mochi knelt, feeling for the bamboo mat, and sat by the rail. "Think like an official for once."

"Those who climb from the bottom never fully grasp the importance of such a philosophy. Your background has you thinking the world revolves around money." Dainagon's fan spread with a harsh whisper. The gold accents were like the water, absorbing the scarce illumination, turning it cold. "He will not lose the nobility. I think it more likely, in fact, he will regain the support of those lost in the uprising when he took the throne. The migrants are forever encroaching on their land. Any opportunity to be rid of them will be met with approval."

Mochi leaned on the rail, dipped his fingers into the water. The filmy surface lapped at his knuckles and he felt the currents of fish underneath, fleeing his intrusion. He wasn't so crass as to assume money was at the root of every problem, but when his majesty strangled trade to starve the migrant tribes out, there weren't any other conclusions to reach. The nomads thrived because they were allowed to supplement their hunts with purchased goods. Let them ridicule agriculture all they wanted; they too were dependent on the dirt-bound farmers and the food they raised, the luxuries - the silkworms, the fibers, the dyes. He'd never met a tribesman that didn't appreciate bright reds and greens.

"It's reactionary," he said. The water was too dark to show his reflection - only an outline, a dim one, and the gleam of beads adorning his cap of office. "He's not a child anymore. If he continues to rule as if he's ten he'll undermine the structure of the government--"

"Or--" Dainagon's fan snapped closed. "Someone will take matters into his own hands."

Mochi licked his lips, pressed them together. "That isn't why I called you here."

"Money is easy to follow, Magister. You're young, yet."

He flicked the water from his fingertips and curled them into the lining of his sleeve. A knife hid there, between the lining and the outer layer, the silver hilt warm on the base of his hand. "If that were true, the emperor's agents would be lying in wait."

The slide of silk on the bamboo mat startled him, and he almost drew his knife. Dainagon had shifted, but his pale hands were still on his knees. "The Lord of the Sky hasn't made his opinion on this matter known. The flame still burns bright in the temple. You know what my advice will be."

"I didn't come for advice." He clenched his teeth at the other's sigh. He and his compatriots had thought this through more times than they could count. In the beginning, the laws their child emperor had passed could be blamed on bad advice, or the bias of his ministers, and others who joined his cause because the former sovereign's grip on Finance or Civil Affairs was too tight. Why fight for him, why put up with his harmful policies? The Lord of the Sky had spoken - a new child was ready to take the throne.

One by one, the emperor had fired or exiled those men. He was alone now, but for one guardian and a pack of nobles who stood by him only because their coffers were filling with gold at the expense of the other castes.

Mochi stood up and saw Dainagon's face turn in his direction again. His support was invaluable when Mochi studied for the exams and climbed his way up the ranks. It was unheard of for a graduate his age to find a way into the senior ranks. He had no doubt there was some money involved - his senior wasn't averse to using gold for his ends, though one wouldn't know it to listen to his lectures on the value of land and rice.

"If I were you," he said, turning to leave, "I would leave for an extended stay in the provinces before the week is out."

Dainagon didn't say anything in reply. Mochi felt his way out of the pavilion and walked down the open corridor with his hand on the rail. He would have his senior watched, just in case. He only hoped the man listened and took his family to safety before time ran out.