Someone is dead, and the question is whether or not they realize it. Raven of the Inner Palace has never shied away from darker themes, and the idea of a spirit who needs help moving on has been central to it since almost episode one. But nearly all of those people were aware that they were no longer living, and that may not necessarily be the case in the overarching plot that is unfolding in this second half of the show. The possibility was raised several episodes ago, when a woman smelling of mourning incense arrived in the middle of the night at the Raven Consort’s palace. She pleaded with Shouxue for help in bringing someone back to life, and at the time I found myself questioning whether or not the woman herself was the one who desired to return to the land of the living. It was later implied that it was perhaps not her, but rather someone she loved who had died, but I don’t think that we can at this point take that for granted. But what we can assume is that the person she has turned to for her resurrection needs is up to no good, something proved in Episode 10 when a woman is found murdered by the ruins of a tree and the grounds of the inner palace.
While I’m not sure that owls and ravens necessarily are natural enemies, it does seem significant that the man Shouxue continually refers to as an owl is shown in opposition to her. In part this is because he is the only male character as far as I know who has a bird name attached to him. While all of the women are given titles such as Magpie Consort or Raven Consort, the men are mostly known by either their positions (as in chancellor) or simply by name. That she immediately associates him with a bird seems significant, and not just because her first encounter with him was while the goddess was flying free in her bird form. The story hasn’t necessarily explained why birds are so important in its world; I have speculated that it could be due to their liminal placement between the boundaries of earth and sky, but that is my own opinion and in no way certain. Now it seems possible that birds are also somehow linked to the supernatural, and that the man is associated with a bird of prey where most of the women are associated with songbirds seems like something that we should not ignore. If nothing else, it may imply that his magic is not aligned with the natural world, and certainly his assertion that bringing someone back from the dead is not only possible but also relatively easy is a major warning sign.
Episode 9 first really suggested the idea of a ghost not realizing that they were dead. That’s when a lady-in-waiting appeared before the Raven Consort complaining that she heard the voice of her dead mistress in the sound of water falling. She is significant not just because it turns out that she had already died before she came to Shouxue for help, but also because she is the first soul the Raven Consort was unable to send onward, at least as far as we know. That this comes directly down to the interference of the man she refers to as the owl is once again a significant factor in whatever overarching plot these episodes are building. He, his actions seem to suggest, has no interest in others’ peace or happiness; certainly he has worked to undo what the Raven Consort has attempted, trapping the spirit in the waters of the lake despite Shouxue’s efforts to help her. But of course, we cannot take the thought that this man is fully alive at face value; in Episode 10, if you look at his hand next to that of the doomed lady in waiting’s on the bucket’s handle, you’ll notice that his skin has a much grayer cast to it than hers. Rather than being indicative of the anime styling wherein men are often drawn with darker skin than women, this could very well be a marker of the fact that no blood is flowing through his veins. Simply put, his skin tone looks dead next to her living flesh. When we factor in that we know that his master gave him the character from the name of his previous apprentice, we really have to question both his origins and his potential undeadness, both of which may have something to do with whatever it is that is motivating him.
With all of this going on, it is impressive that the show still has time to devote to the relationship between Gaojun and Shouxue. We know that she is beginning to like him despite herself, and when she is called out this week by the elderly scholar who remarks that her predecessor would never have allowed her to develop such relationships as she currently has, we can see that she feels guilt. Gaojun, for his part, is also uncertain as to whether he really should be pursuing this relationship; he knows his most trusted eunuch is against it, and he also realizes that he risks angering some of the ministers in his cabinet with his lack of sexual attentions towards his other consorts, several of whom, we can assume, they very specifically placed in his in our palace in the hopes of solidifying their grip on power. We haven’t heard any stories from the past about Summer and Winter Kings successfully forming a marriage, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t happened; it may well be that somewhere along the line someone rewrote history to better suit their own notions of where power should lie. If that is the case, it will be up to our protagonists to determine that for themselves, because the emperors’ ministers are unlikely to undercut their own interests by doing so.
With the supernatural mystery plot moving at an ever-increasing pace, Gaojun and Shouxue may not have a whole lot of time to figure out their relationship. In almost any other story, I would say that they would need the help of the goddess the Raven Consort serves; in this case? They may very well be on their own, and have their work cut out for them.
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