Kōgō: Empress Consort
“I have a secret to share,” Abe said one afternoon as she and Hiro lazed around in the shade of a cherry tree. They’d discarded their bows and arrows at their feet, and the duck Hiro had shot was tied upside down to a branch.
Abe was seventeen now and old enough to marry. She would never possess her mother’s beauty, but she was still appealing in her unique way. Hiro thought she’d make someone quite happy one day. If she stopped being a pain, that was.
“What secret?” he drawled with a sigh. “Gods, please don’t let it be palace gossip. I’m sick of palace gossip.” It was all he ever heard when his uncles dined with them at the sanctuary.
“It’s not palace gossip, you goof.” She nudged his shoulder.
Through the branches, he could see his bedroom through the open doorway. Ryū was punching the living daylights out of Hiro’s sleeping cushion, trying to remove the dust and feathered lumps that had formed overnight. When he was pleased with his work, he picked up a basket and made his way to the well to wash the sheets.
“I heard Father and Mother talking last night.”
Hiro’s eyes continued to follow Ryū. “Hmm, what did you say?”
“I said I heard Father and Mother talking. She is going to be made kōgō.”
Ryū dropped the basket and pulled up a bucket of water. He cupped his hands and brought the cold liquid to his lips.
“Are you listening to me? My mother is going to become kōgō! She will be the first Empress Consort without royal blood flowing in her veins.”
When Hiro finally heard what Abe was saying, he sat up and turned to her in shock. “Empress Consort!” He took her hands in his. “That’s wonderful! That would make you the Crown Princess, the next Empress! I’m so happy for you.”
She threw her arms around his neck. He was surprised at her informality, but he hugged her back. “Me too! And,” she said, “you know what else this means, right?”
“The Head Priest of the Grand Shrine of Ise will be bringing Kusanagi and the other heirlooms to Heijo-kyo. At long last, we can see Susanoo’s sword!”
“Kusanagi will be brought for the enthronement?” His voice—which was in the process of changing—raised an octave. “Really?”
“Mhmm, and I have a plan for us to sneak into the palace shrine to see them.”
Hiro was restless but happy that night, sighing and tossing and turning. Kusanagi was returning to Heijo-kyo, and he would finally be here to see it.
“Master, is everything all right? You seem agitated. Do you need anything?” With his slender form silhouetted by the moonlight from the open window, Ryū looked like an ethereal apparition. Hiro blushed and pulled his gaze away.
“I didn’t mean to wake you up,” he said.
Ryū gathered his sheets under one arm and held the corner of his pallet with the other. His hair fell in a braid along his shoulder. “Can I come closer, Master?”
Hiro’s breath hitched. “Yes,” he said.
They’d shared the same room for a month. Hiro had listened to Ryū fall asleep every night, wondering what he dreamed about. Sometimes he had nightmares and cried in his sleep. But sometimes he laughed. Two weeks after he’d taken Ryū from the bailiff, Hiro had started having mortifying dreams that turned him rock hard. He would absolutely never recount the fantasies to anyone in his life, ever, but it had still made him self-conscious around Ryū.
Ryū stopped at his feet and crouched to arrange the pallet.
Hiro frowned. “Not there,” he said. “You will not sleep at my feet like a dog. Come over here.”
Ryū hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“I am. Sleep next to me.”
The straw rustled as Ryū let the pallet drop on the hard floor. Hiro watched him stretch the sheets over his crude mat, enraptured by the ends of Ryū’s hair that had escaped from the tight coil of his braid. Hiro’s own locks fell over his shoulders and into a silken pool in his lap. Ryū had combed it that evening until it shined.
Once in bed, they fixed their attention on the ceiling and listened to each other’s breathing. Hiro feared his heartbeat was loud enough to wake up the hall.
“What’s keeping you awake, Master?” Ryū asked when the silence became too jarring.
“Have you ever heard of the sword Kusanagi the Grass Slasher?”
“I… I don’t know much about the gods. I was never given an education.”
Hiro shifted onto his side. “Do you want me to tell you the story?”
Ryū nodded and turned toward him, placing his hands beneath his cheek. His bruises had faded, and he was gaining weight from eating proper food. He reclined with his face to the window, the moonlight reflected in his eyes.
“A long time ago, Izanagi and Izanami created our country and called it Ashihara-no-naka-tsu-kuni, The Land in Between the Reed Plains. They produced many gods together and lived happily, until one day Izanami died giving birth to Kagutsuchi, the Fire God. Izanagi mourned the loss of his wife and vowed to travel to the Land of Yomi, where the dead sleep, and bring her back to the world of the living. He was unsuccessful and barely got away with his life. Demons chased him until he reached the pass between the two worlds, where Izanami was waiting for him. She’d become a demon, so she attacked him, but Izanagi was swift and escaped, barring the pass with a giant boulder. He heard Izanami cursing him from behind the boulder. She asserted that if he ever came back, he would have to carry the burden of a million souls from the Land in Between the Reed Plains in order to open the gates to Yomi. Izanagi never returned.
“Izanami gave humans death, so she’s thought to be the first shinigami.”
“But what about the sword?” Ryū asked. “Where was Kusanagi then?”
“Kusanagi didn’t exist yet,” Hiro said. “Not until later, after Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susanoo were born. Izanagi was filthy with the stench of death after he left Yomi, so he went to the island of Tsukushito, to a field covered with bush clover. That’s where he found a small river mouth near a forest of orange trees, and he proceeded to purify himself. When Izanagi washed his left eye, Amaterasu the Sun Goddess was born. From his right eye came Tsukuyomi the Moon God. And from his nose, Susanoo the Storm God. Izanagi had fathered many, but he gave these three children power over the Land in Between the Reed Plains. Then they all crossed the golden bridge together and settled in Takamagahara.
“Amaterasu and Susanoo were envious of each other and always competing. Susanoo was impulsive and impetuous and played pranks on his sister, leaving horse shit in her halls or stealing her most favorite possessions. One day, he burned her beloved rice fields, and Amaterasu was so upset that she hid in a cave and took the sun away with her. The mountains withered, the rivers darkened with dead fish, and a great famine began, for the world needed the sun as much as it needed Susanoo’s rains. For this, his father banished Susanoo from the Kingdom of Heaven.
“So, having been expelled, Susanoo went to a place called Tori-kami in the Land of Izumo. There he came upon an old man and woman on the bank of the River Hi. The couple had a young girl between them, and they were all weeping.
“Susanoo asked, ‘What is the cause of your crying?’ and the old man answered, ‘I originally had eight young daughters. But the eight-forked serpent of Koshi has come every year and devoured one, and now it is time for it to come again, so therefore we weep.’ Then Susanoo asked, ‘What is its form like?’ and the old man said, ‘Its eyes are like winter cherries, and it has one torso and eight heads. On its body grows moss and cryptomerias. Its length extends over eight valleys and eight hills, and its belly is constantly bloody and inflamed.’
Susanoo said to him, ‘If this be thy daughter, wilt thou offer her to me?’ The old man replied, ‘With reverence, but I know not thine august name.’
“Susanoo felt a little insulted, so he puffed up his chest and said, ‘I am Susanoo, God of Storms, brother to Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun. I have descended from Heaven.’ To that the old man said, ‘If that be so, with reverence we will give her to thee.’
“Susanoo at once transformed the young girl into a comb, which he stuck into his hair. Then he said to her parents, ‘Make a round fence, and into that fence, build eight gates. At each gate, tie together eight platforms, and on each platform, put a vat filled with liquor. Then wait.’
“After having prepared everything in accordance with his bidding, they waited, and then the eight-forked serpent came and immediately dipped a head into each vat and drank the liquor. Now intoxicated, the snake lay down all of his eight heads and slept. Susanoo drew his sword and cut the serpent into pieces, causing its blood to flow into the River Hi. When Susanoo cut the middle tail, the edge of his sword broke. Thinking that was strange, he thrust in and split the flesh of the serpent with the point of his sword, and he found a greater sword within, which he called Kusanagi the Grass Slasher. Many years later, he gave Kusanagi to his sister Amaterasu as a peace offering to calm the bitterness between them. Amaterasu later gave the sword to her grandson, the ancestor of Jimmu, the first Emperor of Yamato. The sword has become an emblem of the Tennō, and it reminds us all of his divinity and ancestry going back to the Goddess of the Sun.”
Ryū’s breathing was slow and deep. He’d been lulled to sleep by Hiro’s voice. A tress of dark hair had fallen over his cheek, and Hiro reached over and gently brushed it away. His head fell back onto his pillow. He watched Ryū sleep, until he, too, fell into the clutches of his embarrassing dreams.