AUTHOR'S NOTES: I absolutely love, love this wonderful series. I think my brother's g/f so much for introducing me to this wonderful series. This is my first Saiunkoku fanfiction, and it serves as a prequel of sorts to the stories to come from me (when I get around to them...). Kijin Kou happens to be one of my favorite characters of the series, but I unfortunately am only vaguely familiar with the novels and the details of his past so this is very much AR (Alternate Reality). I do hope you like it, though!

DISCLAIMERS: If I owned Saiunkoku, then I surely wouldn't put Ryuuki and Shuurei into the torture they've been in for very long (although, wait…maybe I would…)

The reasons why Kijin Kou wore a mask to cover the true identity of his face were long, complicated, and sometimes over-exaggerated. Men who took a glimpse at the Secretary of Finances' face - whether deliberately or by accident - would be in denial for months. Women would swoon over. Officials of any status would immediately resign if they could not cope with the dry, stoic man's looks. He had given an oath to the previous emperor to never reveal his face to the public in order to prevent another incident like the infamous "Nightmare Exam".

He also wore them after being rejected by the only woman he loved.

The rumors following, stating that she had married the head of the Kou Crimson clan, his close friend Reishin, instead were not true. Only those who had been directly involved in the incident knew the truth and they had remained quiet about the matter which was fine with him. There was no need for Kijin Kou to dwell back on past mistakes and quickly moved up the political ladder to where he was now without difficulty.

However, there would be times like this early morning where he would work without interruption because there was no on there in which he would reminisce those enjoyable and painful memories.

The first time they met was during the days when he, Reishin, and Yuushun were mere shinshi (and the only three to boot since everyone else left) and were kept under surveillance under the previous reigning emperor - Shi Senka.

It was only the third time that the Emperor had specifically ordered that those shinshi who passed the national exam work within the palace grounds, but it was necessary for this year because there was an extreme shortage of people - officials and shinshi alike.

He remembered on his way back to the dormitories with his friends to continue on his writing assignment due at the end of the month that they heard screaming. A group of women screaming to be precise. Out of instinct, they ran to the source without even thinking of where they were going. Only when did they see a small group of women huddled around a pair of open doors did the trio realize they were at the palace maids' wing. A few women stared at them in shock while others were focused on one particular young woman who had a stick in her hand and carefully trailing something that was presumably on the floor. Looking more closely in the moonlit darkness did the men realize it was a snake, and it was coming their way.

Heeding her fellow maids' warnings and concerns for her safety (and everything and everyone around her), the young woman bided her time trailing the black serpent and expertly lunged at the creature with her blunt object in hand. Only when a small pop sounded from the base of the snake's neck did she realize where she was and looked up, meeting the gazes of three very startled shinshi.

He remembered her wide, doe-like violet eyes and thought they were entrancing and matched well with her oval, porcelain face and long, dark hair that was as dark as a night with no moon.

The second time they met, he was alone and slightly frustrated at the idiocy of the remaining senior officials he had to attend to.

If he had to pick up another piece of trash around the palace or shine one more shoe to one more perverted, decrepit old man…

The sound of a soft, melodic voice slowed his pace and he turned to his right to see her sitting at one of the gardens overlooking a lake that were not a part of the Emperor's private gardens. She was singing a song that he remembered hearing at his clan's New Year's banquet by an invited entertainer.

That voice could not even compare to the one he heard now.

She stopped singing when he approached her, turning around. Once again he was enraptured by her eyes but instead of looking stunned at his appearance, she merely stared at him for a second before giving him a genuine, inviting smile and asked him if he would like to sit down.

From then on, the gardens by the lake became a common rendezvous place for them to escape the realities of their lives.

The first time he was promoted to a rank of a decent status despite the shortages, they were meeting each other on breaks almost daily.

Rumors about them were spreading around the palace like wildfire. Apparently the gossipers thought that the unusually beautiful assistant to the secretary State of Finance was courting the personal and favored maid of the Empress - a woman viewed as one with no manners that matched her no high level status ranking among the families. In other words, she was just a mere commoner. She had told him during one of their more lengthy conversations that she and her younger brother were orphans.

And so, it was rare and somewhat scandalous for a member from one of the eight great provincial noble families to accompany a commoner - especially within the confines of the Imperial palace.

Kijin Kou merely brushed the rumors aside and his accomplice reveled in the challenges that she faced in the palace. She showed no weakness to her so-called rivals and often gave them a taste of their own medicine with her clever wit and play on words. She sometimes even visited him and his other two comrades in their respective departments to spite the gossipers.

It was one of many aspects of her that he liked. Only later did he realize that perhaps he really was courting her and saw her as more than just a comfortable friend to confide in.

The first time it dawned onto him that he had fallen for her was the day he witnessed her fears and heard her past for the first time.

He had arrived at their scheduled meeting place of the day only to find that she was not there. Her unusual absence bothered him a little bit; she was never late. However, the beautifully eccentric and harsh government official thought nothing of it and simply waited, assuming that she was probably still preoccupied with her duties and would be a few minutes late and she would explain to him what had delayed her arrival. When his break was nearing to an end and she still did not come, he returned to his department a bit more than just irritated. His irritation grew when his best friend arrived and handed him what looked like to be a mask and told him that he should wear it in order to not distract his fellow officials. He also ever so subtly mentioned her name as he waved that infamous fan of his in front of his face.

Kijin Kou monotonously gave back an uncaring reply and set aside the mask to continue on his work. Reishin, however, knew him better and gave the man some words of wisdom regarding women like her - taken directly from a piece of literature that he read to boot.

As the man before him left after giving him a few more choice words, he looked outside and noted the time. It was dark.

He found her in their favorite place, sitting against the tree with her knees curled tightly against her body and head buried in the space left in between. She looked up when she heard his approach, startled. He watched her brave a smile in her tear streaked face, mumbling an apology that he didn't care to hear anymore after seeing the despair in her eyes.

He surprised her and himself when he pulled her into an embrace. He explained to her in a quiet voice that she was not alone in her ordeal and he was willing to listen to what had happened. She cried into his chest for a while, soaking the robes with her tears, and began to recant what had happened to her younger brother that was leaving her so scared of losing him. She also began to explain the tidbits of her own clan, wiped out by a much stronger one when she was barely old enough to understand the concept of death.

He patiently listened to her, soothing her hair in rhythmic motions with his hands. A great need of protection overwhelmed his heart as he listened and began to think of ways to somehow prevent her from ever experiencing the sadness and despair that she had to see again today. He wanted her to be happy, to always smile and show that cleverness that he loved and that she masterfully wielded.

He paused in mid thought in surprise. She got away with so many things around him that others - even his close circle of friends - could never do. And the most surprising part was that he really didn't mind.

As he escorted her back to her chambers and heard her gratitude and saw her smile, Kijin Kou realized just how deep he had fallen for this woman.

The time she returned his feelings was the first time they kissed and made love.

He had been very cautious around her since her brother's accident, afraid to reveal his intentions towards her. The notion was silly but she always carried her friendly, sly attitude with everyone so he was certain that she would either turn him away or pretend that his feelings did not exist. He was well aware of her own set of admirers and suitors, and he often heard about them from her and how she was tired of hearing the same words and proposals to her over and over again.

Then came the day her brother finally awoke from his long slumber after his accident. She burst into his chambers late during the night and jumped into his arms. He was awake and finishing reading some statistics that he had to check before turning them in to his superior, when he was completely taken off guard by her harmless attack. Her body matched so perfectly well against his tall, lean frame that he could barely register her babbling. All he remembered was something about her brother regaining consciousness and shared her excitement, chuckling deeply against her ear and commenting somewhere along the lines of being grateful that now he wouldn't have to deal with her gloom and moping around the palace every day anymore.

She laughed at his sarcasm, moving away from her position curled around his shoulder to face him and stare into his eyes. She was about to say something in response but had trailed off mid-way, perhaps suddenly aware how close they were to each other and how his heart was beating fast against her.

Logic flew out the window when his lips covered hers and after a small moment of shock, to his surprise, she returned his demands with a fire that matched his own. That night he claimed her as his.

He would have never known that that night changed their lives forever.

The time he took her with him to his homeland of the Kou Yellow province was the beginning of a spiraling downfall.

He remembered the stinging heat against his cheek where his father hit him and was now pacing around the room like a crazed man, shouting at his young self for being inconsiderate of the future he had ahead of him and disgracing of what little dignity their clan had left among the eight great provincial noble clans despite where they both stood in the main house. He was staring numbly back at her still form; she was frightened by the older man in the room and the scathing words he uttered. He had never seen her so scared before. She, a woman who fought off all the criticism within the palace on their relationship and had faced the jaws of death many times, was afraid of the man he called "Father".

He broke out of numbness when a rather harsh comment directed at her began to boom across the room. He sharply cut into his father's rant like an arrow who hit its mark, regaining the cold prowess that had earned him the respect he held in the palace. He didn't remember what was said, only the shock that registered on his father's face and how he turned around and grabbed her hand to pull her out of the room and severed what little bonds he had left with his father.

Residing at one of the few safe houses that his friend's clan had within the province that was his homeland, he watched her chat amiably with one of the few women she called a true friend and ironically Reishin's fiancé while his own friend watched him only now and then unfolding that fan of his. After trying to dissuade him from making the situation they were in much worse, the honorary head of the Kou Crimson clan suggested on having a secret, simple private wedding for the two of them and revealing the marriage only when the old man died and thus the majority of the opposition to their union. Reishin offered to have his own clan to help arrange the wedding.

Kijin Kou turned to his friend, bitterly asking if Reishin was joking or insane. Kou Reishin set his fan down on the table and stared at him with a touch of seriousness that he had seen only on a few occasions.

"You are forgetting the fact that you are both my friends. I am not helping you out of sheer interest, Houju. I am helping because of you and Meiko."

He then settled back to his original position of fanning himself and nonchalantly staring out at the women in the courtyard as before.

"Besides, I'm quite curious to see what kind of children would come out between you two."

Kijin Kou, Kou Houju, let out an amused snort as he joined is friend again in their silent watch.

The time of their secret, private wedding was perhaps the happiest day of his life.

With Reishin's help and the power he held as the head of the powerful Kou Crimson clan, it was held at an indiscrete teahouse owned by a trusted cousin of his in the capital. It was not entirely extravagant like normally held weddings but simply yet elaborate - just what she liked, he mused. Only their most trusted circle of friends was there with the exception of Tei Yuushun who had been recently appointed to far off Sa Province two months before.

He remembered how beautiful she looked standing next to him as the ceremony went underway. And he remembered how passionately they made love for the second time, for the moment free of the fears that would come to them later on. He watched her sleep, their naked bodies curled neatly against each other with a thin blanket covering them, and contemplated on the unforeseen future.

He mused back to Reishin's comment earlier in the week and smiled at the thought of the children they would bring into the world, holding her close to him as he joined in her slumber.

The time that all happiness he possessed left him was the day she and her brother disappeared.

He had awakened one day to find the familiar comfort of her soft, pliant body next to him gone. The morning sounds of her brother's training were no longer present. All that was left of them was torn down to a single letter on the pillow where she used to lay.

As he read her letter describing inane and ridiculous reasons why she had to leave him, only three months after they had married, one reason became the beginnings of the flying rumors revolving around the former Kou Houju.

Houju, I don't deserve to be with someone as kind and beautiful as you.

A month later, his best friend Kou Reishin married her best friend in a lavish ceremony…and the mask he was given by him so long ago was finally worn.

"I'm surprised that you can fall asleep with that thing on your face."

He awoke at the familiar voice of his friend's arrival, sitting back straight against the chair.

"Ten years of wearing your oh-so-skilled craftsmanship lets sleeping with it on occur as second nature," he retorted back, a frown wrinkling his delicate face behind the mask. "What do you need now?"

Reishin merely took out his fan and unfolded it out. "Why, can't two secretaries and old friends enter each other's department just to see how the well being of the other is doing?"

Kijin Kou merely took a brush in his hand and dabbed it into the ink, ready to continue on the work he had left off after he fell into a dream of memories. "I don't ever recall a day stepping foot into your department to check to see if you were still breathing since you often have the devil's luck. Although, I've heard from your son that since your beloved niece told Yuushun of your conduct, the rumors around your department have said that a miracle has occurred."

Reishin stared at him annoyingly and then continued to fan himself. "Do not speak so ill of my precious Shuurei, Houju. It's making you even less of a candidate of marriage to her."

He paused in his writing. "Did you really think that I intended to marry Shuurei?"

Reishin paused once again in his movements and then again continued on as if nothing happened. "At first, yes, until I realized that you just wanted to annoy me."

Kijin Kou continued to write where he left off. "Hmph."

Before any more could be said among them a servant from the Emperor's wing arrived unexpectedly. The servant bowed low to both senior secretaries.

"Kobu-shosho, Ribu-shosho, the entertainment troupe for the Emperor has arrived."

Reishin eyed the man who had interrupted their conversation and fanned himself ever so lightly. "You can tell the Emperor that we will be arriving at the gates shortly."

The masked senior secretary of Finance set down his writing brush and inwardly sighed. He really hated attending such useless ceremonies of welcome.

When he stood quietly between Reishin and Yuushun, all he could think was how much work that needed to be done and was being wasted for such an elaborate welcome as this. They were even standing just outside the palace, waiting for the gates to open and the troupe to enter. Managing the country's thinly balanced national budget was more important than seeing the arrival of a famed troupe personally invited by the reigning Emperor, but the duty couldn't be ignored. To ignore such a duty was considered as an insult to the Emperor.

As the gates opened and the troupe made its long trek to the main palace, the masked secretary recanted in his mind just who was coming. The Crimson Flower troupe - in no affiliation to the Kou Crimson clan - was told to be as large as a small army, led by two women who dared to defy the traditional boundaries of musical and theatrical entertainment of their era by uniting the tastes of both nobility and commoner alike. They were extremely popular in all of Saiunkoku, and this trip was their first time ever to perform in the capital and before the Emperor and the inhabitants of the palace.

His heart began to pound as he made out the features of one of the women he presumed to be one of the leaders. Her dark hair was held up by an intricate weave of pins tangling to and fro by the movements of the horse she rode on. Her wide, doe-like violet eyes seemed to stare straight into his heart even though she seemed to be looking at the Emperor and the royal court as a whole. The muscles around his jaw tightened slightly as she and her much older female companion got off their horses not far from them as the rest of their troupe - caravans and all - finally entered inside the gates.

His gaze went passed hers as she and everyone behind her bowed and greeted the young Emperor and locked onto a pair standing just behind her.

Just from a glance, he could tell that the boy and girl were siblings - twins, perhaps. The girl looked very much like her mother with the exception of the color of her eyes which were a familiar dark green, but the boy's looks…

His gaze strayed back to the woman before them and his heart stopped, the muscles in his face clenched so tightly together that he was struggling to keep his composure together. Of course, no one else saw his discomfort except the two men who knew him best, and he did not notice the subtle look they shared as he was so enraptured and torn by her reappearance before them.

No one except a rare few knew what Kijin Kou, Kou Houju, looked like beneath the variety of masks he wore to prevent a second coming of the "Nightmare Exam" and to hide the past that had been so twisted around him. The rare few who did know could not deny the striking similarity between him and the young boy who stood just slightly behind his mother and next to his equally beautiful twin sister.

His estranged wife had a lot of explaining to do.

*Kobu-shosho = roughly the name for the Senior Secretary of Finance and Treasury

*Ribu-shosho = roughly the name for the Senior Secretary of Civil Affairs