Guremurin had grown tired of this game. The lies and deceptions had delighted him at first, but he was glad they would end today. The joke had grown stale.
He tied a white sash tight to secure his black robe about him and smiled with pride. He alone among his tribe had been cunning enough to sneak through the forest, past the searchers and through the cracks in their towering walls, and arrive here.
The empire's barriers had been breached in the past, he knew. There were legends. But the braves before him had not been as clever; they had all been tracked down and caught in the end. None had gotten half as far. None would have had the patience to wait for months as he had, playing pretend.
After today, Guremurin knew his name would never be forgotten. The Father of Night's own lips would speak it with praise. His tribe would sing it from the mountainsides.
The screen to the dressing chamber slid open.
"How can you not be dressed?" the abbot croaked, incredulous. Blue veins poked out on his bald, liver-spotted head. "Do you think the Emperor intends to wait until you are ready, Guri? You are not even wearing your kanmuri!"
Guremurin sighed, returning his thoughts to the present. He donned the black lacquered hat and reached back to ensure that the white ribbon trailing from it was centered across his back. The abbot studied his appearance critically then eventually moved on to berate some of the other young priests.
This was to be expected. Guremurin, or 'Guri' as these men knew him, was their newest member so he received the most scorn.
Having spent a good amount of his energy recently manipulating humans, it was transparent to him that the abbot was not really despairing of his appearance. The old man was merely using him as an example to ensure the utmost respect was paid to this ceremony. For his part, Guremurin continued to play along, blushing and nervously making adjustments to his robes.
It was good that he had reached the end of his plotting. Going through these motions had begun to irritate him a bit, and the abbot's opinion was no longer of any real value. But he did not want to draw his peers' attention by acting outside of their expectations for earnest young Guri's behavior.
He turned to Hashi, another young priest who had become his friend and mentor since he first arrived at the monastery.
"I feel like I have enough butterflies dancing in my stomach to bring spring into bloom myself."
The soft-cheeked young man chuckled; his eyes becoming distant for a moment, perhaps reliving his first time participating in the rebirth ceremony. It would not have been long ago.
Hashi patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.
"You will be fine, Guri. In truth, no one will really be paying you much attention." That was something that Guremurin was counting on. "Just try not to drop your censor."
The abbot silenced their chatter with a glare and began lining them up for the procession. As the newest priest, Guremurin's place was all the way at the back. They had rehearsed their part in the ceremony so many times that muscle memory now began to take over and the feeling of routine calmed his nerves.
At the abbot's signal, they filed out of the dressing chamber onto a back corner of the dais outside. Beginning their chant, they swung their censors wide to spread incense upon those nobles with enough imperial favor to be seated near the stage.
The sun was bright above and immediately uncomfortable on Guremurin's brow. Fortunately, during the past months he had grown somewhat accustomed to how strong it shone here, and he scowled little more than the acolytes preceding him. Upon his shoulders, the black robes grew instantly warm, but the crisp breeze kept it from feeling anything like the heat back home.
The crowd's anticipation was something more felt than heard. A more vulgar audience might have cheered to see the rites beginning, but from these onlookers there was barely more than an expectant rustle of cloth. He was aware of their rising interest only from the increased intensity of the eyes upon him.
The amphitheater here was a natural one; and it was a little funny to see so many richly dressed lords and ladies trying to look formal whilst lying about on mats in the dewy grass. Fabrics dyed in expensive blues and purples broke up the green of the surrounding lawn. Servants hustled about in a panic, trying to adjust parasols for shade and provide other comforts.
His procession made its way slowly but steadily across the perimeter of the platform, all of them chanting in deep, guttural tones. In a way it reminded him of the shamans back home. As the priests finished tracing the edge of the stage, the excitement of the crowd reached an almost palpable climax, and Guremurin knew before turning that the Emperor must have stepped out onto the center of the dais.
Emperor Hiroki had not been present during any of the rehearsals of course, so it was the first time that Guremurin laid eyes upon this great enemy of his people. The pretend priest was unimpressed.
While Hiroki's bulky figure had likely once projected strength, it was now stooped and softened with fat. The man moved in a slow and stilted way that to Guremurin bespoke gout or some other infirmity; but the Emperor's experience at performing for an audience was immediately clear. He managed to gird his hesitant movements in a veil of austerity, as if he moved slowly so as to pay the proper respects, and to ensure the rites were not rushed by human impatience.
Hiroki's garb also guaranteed that he made a marked impression. Though they both wore black, the Emperor's robes were glossy where Guremirin's were dull, as deep as midnight where his were own were faded, and rippled like silk where his hung heavy against the windv -- scraping like burlap against his skin, or at least this pale human analog.
With each step toward the altar, Hiroki placed his considerable weight upon the staff he carried for support. Guremurin knew that this powerful relic was originally of his homeland, and that in a way it was a symbol of the very feud between the Father of Night and the Emperor; but he was still surprised to see how visibly its vitality contrasted with the tired trappings of this empire's cumbersome ceremonies.
Unlike the typical deadwood that you saw these people using for all of their construction, the staff appeared formed from a sturdy, living branch. Its circumference was wreathed by glistening green leaves, whose blades where tinted here and there by bands of blue, yellow, and red. Nubs of new twigs sprouted from its umber bark, which was rough and uneven all along its length despite its decades of use.
With their circuit complete, the monastery's priests had completed their part in the opening rites. Hashi stepped off of the stage and back into the shade of the holy vestibule. If Guri hesitated a moment too long to follow, surely it was nothing but the act of another young acolyte, awed by the appearance of the holy Emperor?
"Come on! Off! Off!" Hashi urged him from the doorway, pulling lightly on his sleeve. The abbot saw him lingering upon the edge of the stage and started down the line with surprising speed, no doubt intending to haul his newest charge into the vestibule by the ears if the prior rehearsals had been any indication.
But that young priest was already gone.