Shadow of the Moon, Sea of the Shadow
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Part VII

raveling the highway at a brisk pace, they made it to the next city just as the gates were being secured. The next morning they set off as soon as the gates opened. Youko still could not quite grasp the significance of what this was all about, but from the looks on the faces of both Rakujin and Rakushun, she knew it was serious.

She asked as they walked along, "I wonder if we'll really be able to see the Royal En."

Rakushun quivered his whiskers. "Indeed. I've never had an audience with a king, so I'm hardly in the position to say. I think asking to see the king out of the blue like this is not usually done."

"Yeah, you think?"

"When traveling to Kankyuu, there are also the county and prefectural governments to deal with. We should probably ask for a meeting with the Taiho first and see how that goes."

"Taiho?"

Rakushun nodded, with his forefoot tracing the spelling of the Chinese character in the air. "It's what the king's counselor, or Saiho, is called. A kind of honorary title. Kankyuu is in Sei Province, so the Marquis of Sei is the Taiho."

Youko continued to stare at where Rakushun had written the characters in the air. She said, "That sounds familiar. I've heard that word before."

"No doubt you have."

"No, it was in the other world. A long time ago." She thought about it, when and where she had heard someone say, "Taiho." She said, "Oh, yeah, that's it! That's what they called Keiki."

Rakushun blinked his black eyes in surprise. "Taiho? Keiki?"

"Yeah. He's the guy who brought me here. He gave me this sword." Youko laughed. "He kept going on about how he was my servant and that I was his lord and all. I'm telling you, he had this heavy-duty attitude about him."

"Hold on a minute!" Rakushun frantically put up his hands and even with his tail dragged Youko to a stop. "Keiki, you said? They called Keiki the Taiho?"

"Yeah, I think so. Why, do you guys know each other?"

Rakushun shook his head vigorously. His whiskers fluttered up and down in great agitation. "You are Keiki's Lord . . . . "

Man, it was so long ago, Youko thought to herself. She reached back through her memories like turning through the pages of a photo album. For a moment she was lost in her thoughts. When she came back to herself and sighed, she saw that Rakushun had taken several steps back and was staring at her. He looked totally freaked out.

"Hey, what's with you?" Youko tilted her head the side, puzzled.

"What's with me?" Rakushun said to himself. He looked up at her. "If your Keiki was addressed as Taiho, then that makes him the Kei Taiho."

"And that is?"

The thunderstruck expression on Rakushun's face was quite extraordinary.

"So Keiki is the Kei Taiho. There something wrong with that?"

Rakushun sat down on the shoulder of the road and motioned for Youko to join him. Youko sat down next to him. For a while he just stared at her.

"So who is this Keiki? What kind of person is he?"

"This is really, really, really serious, Youko."

"I don't get it."

"I'll try to explain it to you. Keep calm and listen."

Youko felt a growing sense of unease. She nodded and gave Rakushun her undivided attention.

"If I had known earlier that you were taking about the Taiho, the remarkable state of affairs we've found ourselves in could have been cleared up a lot earlier. You probably wouldn't have had to suffer so much, either."

"Rakushun, you're not making any sense."

"What I'm telling you is, the Taiho is a royal counselor. The royal counselor. And you say that his name is Keiki. That being the case, then it must be the Kei Taiho. There can be no other explanation."

"Okay. So?"

Rakushun twitched his whiskers. He made as if to reach out with his forehand and touch Youko's shoulder, but thought better of it and held back.

"That means he's not a person. He's not a youma. He's a . . . kirin."

"A kirin?"

"A kirin. A unicorn. The unicorn is the most exalted of the sacred beasts. He can take on the shape of a human being, but the Taiho is not a human being. He is always a kirin. Keiki is written as the Kirin of Kei. That is not his name, but his title. The kirin of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei, it means."

"Right."

"Kei is on the eastern coast of the Blue Sea. It is situated between En and Kou. It has a temperate climate. It's a good place to live."

"But isn't it in the middle of a civil war?"

Rakushun nodded. "Last year the king died. A new king has not ascended the throne. The king subdues the youma, reins in the supernatural forces, protects the kingdom from disasters. So when there is no king, the country descends into chaos."

"Right."

"If Keiki called you Lord, then you are the Empress of Kei."

"The what?"

"The Empress of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei. The Royal Kei."

Youko was speechless with surprise. She could not find the words to respond.

"You are the chosen ruler of Kei."

"Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute! I'm just an ordinary high school student. Okay, it looks like I'm a taika, but not some big, important person like that!"

"Every king is an ordinary person until he sits upon the throne. Our rulers are not chosen by heredity. To put it in simple terms, it has nothing to do with a person's character or their outward appearance. The king is whomever the kirin chooses."

"But, but, but . . . . "

Rakushun shook his head. "If you were chosen by Keiki, then you are the Royal Kei. The kirin takes orders from no one in this regard. Only the king does the kirin call Lord."

"This is all so stupid."

"The branch of a tree is bestowed upon the king by Heaven. The three fruits on the branch represent the earth, the kingdom, and the throne. The earth is the census and the registry of public lands. The kingdom is the rule of law. And the throne symbolizes the justice and benevolence of the king, meaning the kirin."

As he spoke, Rakushun glanced down the road toward their destination. "I can now see that you are different from ordinary people, even from ordinary taika. You have entered into the covenant with the kirin of Kei."

"I've done what?"

"I don't know the exact nature of the covenant. But a king is a god, not a person. From the moment you entered into the covenant with the kirin, you were no long a human being."

Youko searched her memories. Her mind lit upon a memory. Allow me. "Yeah, Keiki did say something like: 'Allow me.' That's it. Then he did something weird and I got this really strange feeling inside."

Thoughts raced through her head. That feeling. And right afterwards, the window exploding, the shards of glass flying around the vice-principal's office. Everybody was injured except for her, and not a scratch on her.

"Something weird?"

"He knelt before me, bowed . . . touched his forehead to my feet."

"That was it, then," Rakushun declared. "Kirin are dignified and aloof. They obey no one but the king, bend a knee to no one but the king.

"But . . . . "

"I am not the one to fill you in on the details. You should be asking the Royal En instead. I am nothing but a lowly hanjuu. I do not know anything about the Kingdom of Heaven."

There was a hardness in his voice. He looked up at Youko. His whiskers wavered and drooped. "You are so far away from me, Youko."

"I'm . . . . "

"If it is true, then I should not be the one telling you this. Youko, I should not even address you by your first name." He got to his feet. "If we assume it is true, the faster we see the Royal En the better. Rather than heading to Kankyuu, it would be quicker if we reported in at the nearest municipal office. These are matters of the gravest importance."

He was standing with his back to her. He turned to face her. "It has been a long journey and I know you must be tired. But rather than Kankyuu, I suggest we ask for asylum at one of the local government offices. Until we have received the official sanction of the Royal En, we should sojourn at a local inn, if you please."

He bowed low to the ground. It was a pitiful sight.

Youko said, "I am who I am."

"That is indeed the truth."

"I . . . . " Her voice trembled with rage. "I am who I've always been, nothing more! Not once have I ever been anything other than myself. Call me king or kaikyaku, that has nothing to do with me! Rakushun, you're the one I've come all this way with."

Rakushun continued to hang his head, showing his sad, rounded back.

"So what's different? Nothing's changed! I thought I was your friend. If becoming a king is going to change that, then I don't want any part of it!"

There was no answer from her small companion.

"Well, that's discrimination, pure and simple. You didn't discriminate against me because I was a kaikyaku. But now you do because I'm some sort of royalty?"

"Youko . . . . "

"I'm not the one who's far away. It's your feelings that are. You and I are standing no more than two steps apart."

She reached out with her foot and indicated the distance between them. No further than that, she meant.

Rakushun looked up at Youko. He worried at the fur on his chest with his forefoot, fluttered his silky whiskers.

"Am I wrong, Rakushun?"

"It's three steps for me."

Youko couldn't help grinning.

"Forgive me." Rakushun reached out with his forefoot and touched Youko's hand. "I am sorry."

"It's okay. I'm the one who should be sorry. I got you mixed up in all kinds of weird stuff." She was being pursued. If Rakushun said she was a king then it was probably true. And her being chased probably had something to do with it.

Rakushun's black eyes brimmed with laughter. "I came to En for my own reasons, so it's nothing you need to blame yourself for."

"Oh, I've caused you no end of trouble."

"No trouble at all. If I thought you were trouble, I wouldn't have stuck with you from the start. If it was so disagreeable, I would have gone home."

"You even got injured on my account."

"I knew there would be difficulties, I knew there would be dangers. But I figured sticking with you would be worth it, so I stuck with you."

"You are a good person, Rakushun."

"I suppose. But I think I'm much better off heading into danger with you than playing it safe without you."

"Oh, c'mon. You didn't think things would get this chancy, did you?"

"In any case, my expectations were a bit uninformed. But that's my fault, not yours."

Youko couldn't think of a way to respond, could only nod. Holding his small hand, feelings of guilt and regret welled up inside her.

Rakushun had likely committed a crime by giving shelter to a kaikyaku. The youma pursuing her may well have attacked Rakushun's home after she left. He had said to his mother when they left, "You're tough as nails, Mom. I'm sure you'll be okay on your own." There was no escaping the implication in his reassurances that her attackers or some other calamity might soon be visited upon her.

Youko pulled him to her and clasped the soft, furry body against her own. She ignored Rakushun's odd cries of protest and buried her head in the charcoal gray fur. It was as gentle and comforting as she imagined.

"I'm really am sorry for messing up your life like this. And really grateful."

"Youko."

She released the flustered Rakushun. "Sorry. I was a little overcome there."

"It's all right." Rakushun awkwardly combed his ruffled fur back into place. "But it'd be better if you acted with a bit more restraint."

"Eh?"

Rakushun's whiskers drooped. "It looks like we need to study you up a bit more about this world. You think?"

He spoke in a concerned tone of voice. With no real idea what he was referring to, Youko could only nod and say, "Yeah, sure."
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Chapter 53

7-2 They stopped at the next city and got a room at an inn. As soon as Rakushun finished writing the letter, they rushed over to the municipal building.

If the letter was received, Rakushun said, a reply would be sent to the inn. Youko still was not convinced of the gravity of the situation, to say nothing of the complete lack of any feeling that there was anything "royal" about her. But she did not venture to stop Rakushun from doing what he was doing, and did as he asked with all due diligence.

"How long do you think it will take?"

"Hard to say. I've described our circumstances and requested an audience with the Saiho, but I have no idea how long it will take to get into his possession. At this point, we're dealing with something I have no experience with."

"Can't we go grab a bureaucrat and do a lot of begging and pleading?"

Rakushun laughed. "Do something like that and they'll throw us out on our butts."

"And what if they ignore us?"

"We'll keep on calling until they pay attention. This letter I'm sending gets straight to the point."

"Do you really think they'll go to the bother?"

"I don't know of any other way."

"This is all a pain in the ass."

"We're talking about the real important big shots, here. It's their way or the highway."

"Huh."

Finding herself in the eye of a hurricane certainly gave her a different view of things.



After leaving the municipal building--it was the local county ward building--instead of returning to the inn, Rakushun started off for the plaza. "Where are we going?"

"You'll see. I think you will find it quite interesting."

The municipal building was located in the heart of the city. It faced the town plaza. Rakushun headed across the plaza. Youko tagged along behind him, scratching her head in confusion. Rakushun went to the front entrance of a white building. The alabaster stone walls were adorned with gold and richly-colored bas-relief engravings. The roof tile was a gorgeous blue enamel. The name of the city was Youshou. On the gates to the building was hung a framed sign that read "Youshou Shrine." All the cities they had visited so far had such a shrine. It was the central civic institution.

"Here?"

"Here is it."

"A shrine, it says. For worshiping God? The Tentei?"

"Once you see, you'll understand."

Rakushun gave her a reassuring smile. They went inside. Inside the gates were a pair of guards. "Just observing," Rakushun said. They were asked for and presented their identification papers.

Through the gate was a narrow garden, and further on toward the heart of the shrine, a big building. The handiwork of the doors was exceedingly fine. A large, square window graced the facade of a rotunda-like hall that reached deeply into the building. Through the window a courtyard was visible.

What looked liked an altar completely encircled the window. Flowers and candles and offerings were piled upon the altar. At the altar, four or five men and women faced the window, fervently praying.

They must be praying to something in the middle of the altar. But all that was there was the window. Was it something you could see from the window? From the windows you could see the courtyard, and in the center of the courtyard, a single tree.

"That is . . . . "

Rakushun reverently faced the altar and clasped his hands together. Then he took Youko by the hand. To the left and right of the walls against which the altar was situated were two wide corridors that lead deeper into the interior. From the corridor she could see the courtyard grounds covered with white pebbles. And what she saw in the midst of the courtyard took her breath away.

It was a white tree. When she had been wandering through the mountains, she had often sought the shelter of these strange trees. This tree was much bigger than those. It was no different in height, but was nearly twenty meters in diameter. At its highest point it stood maybe two meters, and at its lowest its limbs brushed the ground. The white branches bore neither flowers nor leaves. Here and there a ribbon was tied to a branch and there fruits were ripening. The trees in the mountains bore rather small fruit in comparison. These were big enough to wrap your arms around.

"Rakushun, that is a . . . . "

"That is a riboku."

"A riboku? Where the ranka grow?"

"That's right. Inside each of those yellow fruits is a child ."

"Wow . . . . "

Youko gazed at the tree in amazement. She had surely never seen anything like it back in Japan.

"You see, when you were like that, there was a shoku and you were carried off to Japan."

"I find it all hard to believe."

The branches and the fruit had the luster of polished steel.

"A couple who wish to have a child come to the shrine. They make offerings and pray that a child will be entrusted to them. Then they tie a ribbon to a branch. If the Tentei grants the petition, a fruit grows on the branch where the ribbon is tied. The fruit ripens in ten months. When the parents come to pluck the fruit, it falls. After resting for a night, the husk of the fruits breaks and the child is born."

"So a fruit just can't grow on its own. The parents have to petition first for it to happen."

"That's right. There are parents who are never rewarded, no matter how many times they ask. And parents who receive the gift almost at once. Heaven must determine whether or not they have the qualifications to raise a child."

"It was the same with me? I had parents who tied a ribbon to a branch of the tree?"

"You did. And losing the ranka was certainly a profound disappointment to them."

"Would there be any way to find them again?"

"I don't know. A search of the records might reveal the answer. If you calculated the time at which you were swept away, and then figured out the time and place where such a shoku had occurred, and then investigated all the ranka that were swept away at the same time . . . . It'd be tough."

"Yeah, you're right."

She was struck with the desire to search out the people who had wanted her, see what kind of people they were. Knowing that there were people here as well who had prayed for her birth finally convinced Youko of her origins. Under normal conditions, she should have been born in a place like this, somewhere in this world, in the embrace of the Sea of Emptiness.

"Children look like their parents, don't they?"

"Why would children look like their parents?"

Rakushun treated it like such an odd question that Youko had to grin. A human woman with a child who looked like a rat. There couldn't be anything in the way of genetic inheritance going on there.

"In that other world, children resemble their parents."

"Well, that's different. Isn't it a bit creepy, though?"

"Hard to say whether it is or not."

"Seems to me it'd be kinda creepy if everybody in the same household looked like each other."

"Come to think about it, you might have a point."

A young couple entered into the courtyard. They consulted together, whispering while pointing at a branch. After a moment of indecision, they tied a thin, beautiful ribbon to the chosen limb.

"That ribbon is a design of their own making. While thinking about the child they wish born to them, they choose a design they think most felicitous and embroider it into the ribbon."

"Oh." It struck her as a most heartwarming custom. "When I was in the mountains, I saw trees like this."

Rakushun glanced up at Youko. "Yaboku."

"They're called yaboku? There was fruit growing on them, too."

"There are two types of yaboku. Yaboku from which plants and trees are born, and yaboku from which animals are born."

Youko's eye widened in surprise. She said to Rakushun, "Even plants and trees and animals are born from these trees?"

Rakushun nodded. "But, of course. How else would anything be born?"

"Well, ah . . . . " If children could be born from trees, it stood to reason that so could animals and plant life.

"Domesticated livestock come from the riboku. Farmers petition the riboku for livestock on special days, following certain rules. In the wild, trees and plants and the beasts of the mountains reproduce on their own from the yaboku. Their fruits ripen on their own. In the case of trees and plants, the yaboku produces seeds. In the case of birds, the yaboku produces chicks. In the case of other animals, their young."

"Isn't it a bit risky for seeds and chicks and cubs to be born willy-nilly? You'd think a chick would soon become some other creature's dinner."

"The parents of animals also come to collect their offspring. Otherwise, until they can survive on their own, they live beneath the tree. That's why other creatures can't come close to the tree. Beasts who are natural enemies aren't born at the same time, and no matter how ferocious the animals might become, while beneath the tree they never fight. People who fail to get to a city before nightfall will go into the mountains and search out a yaboku. It's always safe beneath a yaboku."

"That makes sense."

"In exchange, no matter how fearsome a beast a cub might be grow up to be, it is absolutely forbidden to capture or kill one in sight of a yaboku."

"That being the case, I take it birds don't hatch from eggs."

Rakushun grimaced. "Who'd want to eat one with a chick inside?"

Youko laughed. "Yeah. I guess you wouldn't."

"Whenever I talk with you about such things, I get a weird feeling about that other world."

"I can see how. How about youma? I take it youma are also born from trees?"

"They are, naturally. Nobody has seen the tree from which youma are born, though. It's said that somewhere there are rookeries for youma. It would certainly be in such a place."

"Huh."

Youko nodded. She had more whimsical questions on the tip of her tongue, but they were of a more vulgar nature, so she thought better of asking them here. Like, exactly what kind of hanky-panky went on in the red-light districts, that kind of thing.

"What is it?"

"Oh, nothing. Thanks for bringing me here. I found it very rewarding."

Rakushun smiled broadly in return. "It looks like they're done."

The young couple in the courtyard again turned to face the tree, their hands entwined together.
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Chapter 54

7-3 Rakushun had insisted that they take a room at a proper inn and Youko had insisted that it was a waste of money.

"How could the Royal Kei even think of staying in a cheap place like this?"

"The only person saying I'm the Royal Kei is you. Because you're my friend, for the time being, I'm taking what you're telling me at face value. But at this point, nothing's been carved in stone."

"And if it were?"

"In any case, it doesn't make any difference."

"You know, Youko . . . . "

"Look, with the traveling money I've got, this kind of inn is within my means. We don't know how long it's going to take to get a reply from the government. If we move into some high-class place and the days drag on, we'll be out of money before we know it."

"You're the Royal Kei. You shouldn't even have to pay. To start with, what innkeeper would ever take money from a king?"

"Then better that we stay here. It wouldn't be fair to take a room and then try to skip out on the bill. And I'm definitely not going to start freeloading off people."

They ended up getting a room that could be said to be the best of the worst. It was a small, four tatami-mat room, about eight by ten feet. The room slept two. It had a window facing the courtyard. There was a small table beneath the window. It was the best they could hope for on their budgets.



It was dusk when they returned from the shrine. First off, she used the bath in the room, changed, and then washed her traveling clothes. Hot running water every day and a fresh change of clothes, she really was in hog heaven.

She went down to the dining hall where Rakushun was waiting and they ate dinner. This wasn't some meal where you stood and ate off a cart. This was a proper dining room, and eating there was a real luxury. She slowly drank her tea, and was about to announce she was ready to go back to the room.

A scream came from outside the inn.

This was no normal scream. Youko at once reached for the sword. She hadn't shed her habit of never being apart from the sword for even an instant. She grasped the hilt and sprang toward the door. The street was in an uproar. On the street corner across the way, people were running around in a great panic.

"Youko."

"I don't believe it. They're here."

She had believed that the youma would not chase her all the way to En. And now that she thought about it, there was no reason for her to think so.

In the first place, there weren't many youma in En. Every night they got a room in an inn. They traveled only during the day, so it was natural that they wouldn't run into any youma. But she shouldn't have expected that her enemies would pursue her only in the mountains or only at night. Perhaps it was only good luck that had spared them so far.

"Rakushun, get back inside the inn."

"But, Youko . . . . "

The screams of the fleeing people sounded familiar in her ears. The most piercing of the cries, that was the sound of a person in mortal danger. Mingled together with the screams was that sound like a wailing baby. The cries of the youma. Youko knew it well.

She drew the sword, pressed the sheath into Rakushun's hands. "Rakushun, get out of here. I'm begging you."

He did not reply. She felt only his presence slip away from her side.

The flood of people surged closer. Youko spied in their midst a black shadow like a small mountain. It resembled a huge tiger. Bafuku, she heard somebody shout.

Youko lowered the point of the sword and positioned herself lightly on the balls of her feet. The steel blade glittered in the light from the adjacent shops. The tide of onrushing people parted to the right and left of her.

The tiger rushed on, mowing down the people in front of it. Behind the tiger was a huge creature that looked like a big bull.

"Two of them . . . . "

She steadied herself. She felt that long familiar sensation with something more than fear. Exhilaration. The melee of people poured out the alleyways and piled into the shops around her. She spotted a gap between her two foes. She sprinted toward them, building up momentum, brought the sword to the ready.

First, the tiger. The huge beast bounded toward her as if to pounce. She ducked at the last second and drove the tip of the sword into its enormous head. She pulled out the sword, planted her feet, plunged it in again, and then spun around to face the charging blue bull.

Their bodies were so big, cutting them down to size was going to take some effort. But there were only two of them so it wouldn't be too hard. She was giving herself some room to work with, sizing up the two of them, when Rakushun's voice echoed out.

"Youko! Kingen!"

Her eyes shot up. What looked like a flock of chickens was flying toward her. Ten, twenty, she couldn't tell how many.

"Don't let them sting you! They're poisonous!"

Youko clucked to herself in disgust. They were small, fast, and there were a lot of them. What a bloody pain in the neck. The birds' tails were shaped like ice picks. She struck down two and gave the tiger the coup de grace.

To keep from tripping and falling, she skipped past the corpses and with her back against the wall of the inn searched for better footing. She'd stuck the blue bull twice and it was in a frenzy. The cobblestones beneath her feet grew slick with the blood of the youma.

The cramped, poorly-lit alleyway, the birds gathering. No hope of assistance from the surrounding shops, save for the flickering lamplight. Beyond the muddy glow, the night was dark and deep. Before she knew it, the birds were on top of her. They fell on her, as boiling out of the blackness.

She dodged around the rearing head of the blue bull, took out another bird. She heard a multitude of cries drawing closer, sounding like the creaking of rusty hinges.

"More of them . . . . "

Cold sweat ran down her back. While she had been distracted by the birds, the still-not-dead blue bull had become her most immediate threat. She saw a hoard of monkeys streaming out of the mouth of the alleyway.

Her attention faltered for a moment. A moment later, a bird's razor-sharp scorpion tail was right in her face. She just managed to stumble out of the way and lost her balance. The next bird came at her, aiming straight at her eye. She knew she didn't have time to duck.

So, just how bad was this poison?

Forget about that, what about my eye?

Even if I can't see, I can fight.

I'm not going to get my arm up in time.

The thoughts raced through her head in no more than a split second.

Damn. This one's got me.

In the same instant that she closed her eyes, the bird diving toward her vanished. Someone had come in on her flank and clobbered the bird out of the sky. She didn't have the time to tell who.

The birds came at her and she slashed them to pieces. She sidestepped the charging blue bull. As she did, that same someone pierced the back of its skull with a brilliantly executed stroke. It was with such skill that the dexterity of the stroke completely distracted her. He yanked out the sword and mowed down birds descending upon them.

He was a big man, a good head taller than herself. "Don't let your guard down," he said, and dispatched the last of the birds with ease.

Youko nodded, at the same time slashing at the charging monkeys as if swatting at flies. She impaled one leaping up behind them, and quickly found herself back in the midst of the battle.

The man's skill far exceeded her own. His strength was an order of magnitude greater. The hoard was numerous, but the dead bodies piled up in the alleyway and the tempest quieted down. It didn't seem to take much time at all.
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Chapter 55

7-4 The man flicked the gore off his sword. He said, "You've got a pretty good arm."

He wasn't the least bit winded. He was a big man but not a giant. The picture of a gallant warrior. Youko looked up at him, still trying to catch her breath. He laughed. "This might not be the most appropriate thing to ask, but you are all right?"

She nodded, weakly raising an eyebrow.

"Don't have the strength left to talk?"

"Thank . . . you . . . very . . . much."

"It's nothing you need thank me for."

"Well, I certainly appreciate the help."

"Having youma wandering about is a nuisance. I didn't know I was coming to your rescue."

She was at a loss on how to reply. She felt somebody grab her tunic from behind. It was Rakushun. "Youko, are you okay?" Rakushun asked, stepping gingerly around the corpses beneath his feet.

She took the scabbard from him, wiped down the blade and sheathed the sword. "I'm okay. Are you injured?"

"I'm fine. Who's he?"

"Dunno," she said with a shrug.

The man only smiled. He indicated the building behind them. "Are you staying there?"

"Yeah."

Right, the man said to himself, glancing around the plaza. "People are coming. Do you drink?"

"No."

"How about you?" he asked Rakushun.

A bit befuddled, Rakushun quivered his whiskers and then nodded.

"Well, then. Let's get ourselves some refreshment. Explaining everything to the constables will be quite the bother, otherwise."

With this, he turned and strode off. Rakushun and Youko looked at each other. Spontaneously, they both agreed and ran after him.



The man pushed his way through the gathering crowds and set off down the street. It didn't look like he had a particular destination in mind, glancing here and there as he walked along the busy thoroughfare. Finally, he decided on an inn. It was a big, gorgeous place. Tagging behind, Youko and Rakushun followed after him inside without a second glance.

Youko glanced back at Rakushun. "What do we do now?"

"What do you mean, what do we do? We've come this far--"

"That's not what I mean. There's a few things I want to talk over with this guy. Maybe you should go back to the inn, just to play it safe."

"I'm not worried. Let's go."

Rakushun clambered up the stone steps and opened the door. Youko hurried to catch up. Inside the inn, the man and a waiter were waiting at the foot of the stairs. When he saw Youko, he smiled and climbed the stairs.

The waiter showed the man to a room on the third floor. It was a two-room suite with a balcony facing the courtyard. The room was big, the interior decor exquisite. Even the furniture was sumptuous. Youko couldn't hide her trepidation. This inn was a higher class establishment than she had ever set foot in before.

The man ordered food and drink and sat down in a sofa-like armchair. He had the air of a person used to these surroundings. In the light of the countless candles, the fine cut of the man's clothing was obvious as well.

"Um . . . . "

The man smiled at Youko, who was standing stock still in the doorway. "Why don't you sit down?"

"Pardon me."

Youko and Rakushun exchanged looks. They both sat down. But she found it hard to settle down. The man only smiled to himself at their apparent discomfort and said nothing else. Not knowing how to respond, Youko glanced around the room. The waiter returned with the victuals.

"Does the gentleman require anything else?"

The man waved his hand and the waiter left, closing the door behind him. "Would you like a taste?"

Youko shook her head, as did Rakushun.

"Um . . . . " Youko didn't have the foggiest idea of how to begin the conversation. Sensing this, the man spoke first. "That certainly is a splendid sword you have there." His attention focused on Youko's right hand, he reached out his hand.

She hesitated for any number of reasons, but handed over the sword. He lightly gripped the hilt and drew the sword from the sheath. It came free without difficulty. Ignoring Youko's exclamation of surprise, he examined the scabbard and blade.

"The scabbard is dead."

"The scabbard is dead?"

"Have you seen strange visions in it?"

Youko raised her eyebrows. "Have I seen what?"

The man smiled at her skittish reaction. He sheathed the blade and reverently handed the sword back to her. Youko wrapped her hand around the hilt.

"So, what is it?" she asked, meaning her question to be taken literally. "I mean, what kind of thing is it?"

The man nonchalantly picked up a pitcher and poured himself a glass of something. The action betrayed not the slightest bit of defensiveness or agitation.

"That is the Suiguu-tou, the Water Monkey sword. The blade was smelted from water, the scabbard formed from a monkey. Hence, the Water Monkey sword. The champion who wields it possesses far more than a sword. When you see the glowing light and hear the sound of falling water, the sword shows you visions. If done properly, it will show you the past and the future, and what is far away from you. If you are inattentive to it, it will chatter on incessantly. The scabbard is there to bind its spirit."

Looking at Youko, he drained the glass. "The scabbard can change and turn into a monkey. The monkey can see into the hearts of people, and if care is not taken, it will confuse and bewilder the mind of its owner. Hence it is said that the sword seals the scabbard. It is the Imperial Regalia of the Kingdom of Kei."

Without thinking, Youko jumped to her feet.

"However, this scabbard is dead. Without the seal of the scabbard, the visions would certainly run wild."

"Who are you?"

"You sent a letter via the local ward office. So, tell me, what's this about?"

"You've got to be kidding. You're the Taiho of En?"

The man scowled. "The Taiho is unavailable at the moment. But I'll listen to whatever you have to say."

Youko felt a profound disappointment. So he wasn't the Taiho after all. "I wrote it down in the letter."

"So you did. Something about the Royal Kei."

"I am a kaikyaku. I don't know much about this world. That's what it comes down to." Youko looked at Rakushun. "This is Rakushun. He says I'm the Royal Kei."

"Well," the man readily agreed, "he would be right, then."

"You believe him?"

"Believing has nothing to do with it. The Suiguu sword is the Imperial Regalia of Kei. Long ago, instead of destroying the most powerful and magical of the youma, they were subjugated and turned into this sword and scabbard, which became the crown jewels. Consequently, only their rightful owner can use them. Namely, the Royal Kei. That's because the one who first sealed them in the sword and scabbard was the King of Kei."

"But . . . . "

"As the both of them were sealed together, by its very nature, only the true king could draw the sword. But because the scabbard is now dead, I can draw the sword. But even in my hands, the blade would not cut through one blade of grass. Nor would I see any of its visions."

Youko looked straight at him. "Who the hell are you?"

He wasn't any kind of normal guy, knowing what he knew about the Kingdom of Kei.

"Why don't you tell me your name first?"

"Youko Nakajima."

The man's gaze fell on Rakushun. "And the one named Chou Sei who sent the letter, that was you?"

"Yes," said Rakushun, quickly correcting his posture and coming to attention. Chou Sei was his formal, given name.

"And your azana?"

"Rakushun."

"Yeah, and you are?" Youko glared at him.

The man wasn't intimidated. He gazed back at Youko without the slightest bit of defensiveness. "Naotaka Komatsu."

Youko gave him a long, hard look. "A kaikyaku?"

"A taika. The Chinese reading for my name is Shouryuu, which is more common. Though I'm afraid not common enough to be of much use to you."

"And . . . ?"

"And what?"

"Who exactly are you? Are you the Taiho's bodyguard, or something?"

"Ah," the man chuckled. "If my title is what you're after, then I am known as the Royal En. The King of the Kingdom of En."
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Chapter 56

7-5 Youko stood frozen on the spot. Rakushun's tail and whiskers shot straight up. Youko stared at the man. He laughed. He was clearly enjoying himself.

"The Royal En . . . ?"

"I am. I'm sorry the Taiho couldn't meet with you, but I thought I'd make myself useful. Will only the Taiho do?"

"No, no, that's okay," said Youko, too taken aback to think of what to say.

He smiled and dipped his finger in the wine glass. "Well, let's start from the beginning. One year ago, the Empress of Kei passed away. Posthumously, she is now known as the Late Empress Yo. Were you aware of this?"

"No."

The En nodded. "Her given name was Jokaku. She had a younger sister named Joei. You could say that Joei usurped the throne."

"Usurped?"

"The king has a kirin. The kirin chooses the king. You know this?"

"Yes."

"The Late Empress Yo left her kirin behind, Keiki. What do you know of him?"

"We've met. He's the one who brought me here."

The En nodded again. "When the Late Empress Yo died, the throne was vacated. Keiki immediately began the search for a new king. Yet the announcement of the accession of the new king of Kei came only two months after the death of the Late Empress. I couldn't help thinking this was in fact a giou."

"A giou."

The En took his finger from the wine glass and painted the characters on the tabletop. "A fake king, a pretender. The kirin chooses the king. A king who ascends the throne without the blessing of the kirin is a pretender. Felicitous omens should attend the accession of a new king. None accompanied Joei. Quite to the contrary, youma are on the rampage and locusts are swarming. Everything tells me this king is no king."

"I don't . . . . "

. . . get it, she was going to say, but the En held up his hand and stopped her.

"There was no doubt in my mind that we were dealing with a pretender. When I investigated further, I discovered it was in fact the sister of the Late Empress Yo who had claimed the throne. The sister of the Empress is an ordinary woman. She cannot enter the Imperial Palace, and consequently, cannot govern the country. I knew this was a serious matter."

She didn't follow well what he was telling her, but Youko opened her ears and listened.

"Regardless, she set herself up within the fortress of one of the province lords and from there proclaimed her enthronement. The ordinary citizens had no way of judging the truth for themselves. They had no reason to question her authenticity, rather, they were ready to believe. She declared that the province lords had conspired together to prevent her--the rightful Empress--from entering the Imperial Palace. The people believed her and blamed them. Joei even dared to declare war on her 'treasonous and disloyal subjects,' and solicited new officials and soldiers. She was met with a flood of enlistees."

The En continued with a sullen expression. "The enthronement of the previous Empress took a long time and her reign was short. The kingdom had not yet been able to recover and the resentment of the peasants against the province lords was deep. Of the nine provinces, already two are ruled by pretenders, and three more have been toppled by their armies."

"Has no one been able to refute her claims?"

"Some have tried. When the province lords pointed out the absence of the kirin, Joei insisted that they were hiding him. But then he was produced by Joei, making their position untenable. She claimed Keiki had been rescued from her enemies who had kidnapped him. The presentation of the kirin in its creature form made it hard for anyone to question her or rescue Keiki. And with that, of the four remaining provinces, two more switched sides."

"They produced Keiki. Then Keiki . . . . "

"It seems he was captured."

That's why he hadn't come to rescue her. It wasn't the worst thing that could have happened, but it was damned near close.

Rakushun said, "So this Joei has been sending assassins after Youko."

"It's not possible. You're talking about youma attacking people. That does happen. But singling out, pursuing and attacking a specific person, that does not. Were they shirei, though, then it becomes another matter, entirely."

"Shirei?"

"The king employs the special powers of the Imperial Regalia, and the kirin commands the shirei. If someone were commanding the youma to attack a specific person, it could only be a kirin."

So the youma that surrounded Keiki were under his command. That's what Youko took from the explanation, but Rakushun's reaction was one of extreme agitation.

"It can't be!"

The En nodded, a grave look upon his countenance. "No, it should not be. But I can think of no other explanation. It was by means of the kirin's shirei that the wild youma were sent to attack the Royal Kei."

"It's just . . . . "

"When I think this through logically, I conclude that Joei has neither the resolve nor the resources to raise and maintain an army. There must be someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. If that someone is also sending forth the shirei, then turn that rock over and you should find a king there."

Youko looked back and forth between Rakushun and the En. "Meaning?"

The En asked, "Do you know what kind of a being a kirin is?"

"The sacred beast that chooses the king . . . . "

"Yes, it is. But a kirin is no you-creature like the youma. Closer to a god. It has the heart of a beast, but can take upon a human appearance. Its whole being is suffused with charity and compassion. It is aloof and detached, but it cannot abide conflict. In particular, it has a horror of blood. The stain of blood makes it ill. It will never take up the sword and fight. It has the shirei to protect itself. The shirei are youma, though youma that have covenanted with the kirin and become what you might call its servants. In no wise would they ever take it upon themselves to attack a human being. To do so would be contrary to the kirin's will."

"And yet?"

And yet, the king is the kirin's lord. Though the kirin bears no malice toward any person, if the king commands it, that changes everything. The shirei attacked you because the king ordered the kirin to do so. Nothing else is possible."

"Could this Joei have tamed a kirin?"

"No. There is but one kirin in a kingdom. The king is its lord, and searches out the king, but nothing beyond that."

So that meant a king had put a price on her head. Then she remembered, the woman on the mountain road. She had watched her mourn the death of the youma. Was it because those youma had been her shirei? The parrot had commanded her to kill Youko. Weeping, unable to defy him, she had brandished the sword. If that parrot was the king, and that woman a kirin . . . the pieces of the puzzle began to fall together.

"But whose kirin?" And what king of what kingdom?

The En stared off into the distance. "The answer will become apparent soon."

"But . . . . "

"As long as you are within our custody, no one will lay a finger upon you. The problem for your enemies is that Keiki is a kirin, and not so easily disposed of. Were the kirin murdered, the king who ordered your assassination would be quickly revealed. Heaven could not overlook such an injustice."

"I don't understand what you mean."

"Better to leave it alone for now. That kingdom will decline, and who is giving the orders will become clear. However," the En said with a broad smile, "that Keiki is being held prisoner in Kei alone justifies a rescue mission. In order to do so, and in order to protect your Highness, we must get you to a safe place. Shall we be going?"

"Right now?"

"As soon as possible. If you have belongings at the inn, there's just enough time to go fetch them. I'd like to take you to my place."

Youko look at Rakushun. Rakushun nodded. "You'd better get going, Youko. That is the safest way."

"But . . . . "

"Don't worry about me. Go."

The En smiled at Rakushun's admonition. "Another guest is hardly going to complicate things any further. It's kind of a dilapidated old place, but I've got rooms to spare."

"You--you can't be serious!"

"Keep in mind that I'm an utter incompetent when it comes to housekeeping, but it you don't mind, then you're welcome. I think the Royal Kei would be more at ease with you there as well."

His home was none other than Gen'ei Palace. Privately shocked that the En would refer to it like some broken-down hut, Youko said to Rakushun, "C'mon, let's go. I wouldn't feel good about leaving you behind."

Rakushun nodded stiffly.
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Chapter 57

7-6 When the En arrived at the outskirts of the city, he put his fingers to his mouth and sounded a high whistle.

Walking all the way to Kankyuu would take another month. Moreover, at night, there was no getting in or out of the city. Youko was trying to figure out how in the world he was planning to get to Kankyuu when, seemingly in response to the whistle, a shadow appeared above the wall. She could make out the glowing forms of two tigers. The play of light on their coats turned their black stripes an iridescent white, not as pale as pearl, not as impenetrable as a slick of oil. Their impressive eyes were like black opals, their tails magnificently long.



As on that very first night when she had crossed the Kyokai, she climbed onto the tiger. They flew into the night sky, a half moon rising, and turned toward Kankyuu.

She felt a deep nostalgia. Looking back at it now, how much time had passed since then? She had ridden on one of Keiki's shirei, by the name of Hyouki. When they had headed out over the ocean, it was still cold. The Youko then didn't understand a thing, not about Keiki, not about herself.

Now it was summer. The heat rested like a blanket on the night, the air around them so still as to seem melancholy.

Just as on the night she had crossed the Kyokai, as the beast galloped through the sky, the nightscape opened up below them. The nights in En were bright, the villages and hamlets twinkling like small constellations of stars. It reminded her of the Kyokai.

"Youko, there is Kankyuu."

Seated behind her, clinging to her back, Rakushun pointed with his small forefoot off into the distance ahead of them. At that point, two hours had passed since the journey began. She saw nothing in the direction Rakushun had indicated. There wasn't a city there, only the deep blackness. Where? she was going to ask, when she understood what it was she was looking at. Rakushun wasn't pointing out something within the darkness, he was pointing at the darkness itself.

"I don't believe it . . . . "

Bathed in the light of the half moon, the world below was the dark color of the ocean. The contours of the forests had a faint white glow, like waves, dotted with a countless number of lights.

Within the nightscape was a deep, black hole.

No, not a hole. It was a silhouette, the moon rising up behind it. What had gouged a hole in the nightscape below looked like a hole, but was in fact the rising shape of a . . .

" . . . a mountain."

Could such a mountain exist?

They were so high already that the villages appeared as no more than dots. Even so, she found herself looking up and up.

A mountain that reaches to heaven, Rakushun had said.

But can a mountain really reach to heaven? For a moment, she had the feeling of being a very small, insignificant speck of life.

A soaring mountain like the pillars penetrating heaven and earth. The shape of the mountain, rising abruptly from the hilly countryside and projecting upwards toward the sky, looked like a bundle of calligraphy brushes of different lengths stood on end. The narrow, steep summit of the mountain was shrouded with clouds that hid it from view.

The sheer rock face creating such a silhouette was more like an enormous wall.

"That's Kankyuu? That mountain?"

Comparing the tiger's legs against the mountain, they were still an unbelievably long way off. That's how big this mountain was.

"That is Kankyuu Mountain. Such a mountain is home to the royal palaces in all the kingdoms. The palace is at the very summit."

The light of the moon gleamed faintly on the outlines of the rising cliffs, so pointed as to come close to the vertical. She searched for the familiar shape of a castle, but with the summit hidden in the clouds, she could be sure of nothing. At the base of the mountain she saw one or two points of light.

"Those lights are the city of Kankyuu."

If it was the capital, it must be bigger than Ugou. They must be so far away that the lights were all she could see of the city.

Youko was momentarily overcome with surprise. Even at the rate the beast was flying, Kankyuu was not close enough to seem to be moving. Slowly, the mountain drew nearer, such that she could not take the entire mountain into view without turning her head, nor could she clearly see its summit. At last, she could see the outlines of the city of Kankyuu.

The city rose up around the base of this absurdly high mountain, spreading out in an arc over the gently rolling terrain. Lying in the shadow of a mountain so gigantic, the nights must be very long indeed.

When she asked Rakushun, he confirmed that it was so. "I went once to the capital of Kou, Gousou, and that's what it was like. Because Gousou is to the east of the mountain, the twilight lasts a long time."

"Huh."

Seen from above, Kankyuu was a large city. A sea of light spread out beneath them. And before them, as far as the eye could see, the cliffs. The bare, treeless layers of stone that made up the narrow, vertical mountain looked chalky in the dark.

Up ahead, the En had alighted on a rocky ledge projecting from the side of the cliff



The landing area was about the size of a tennis court. The level area had apparently been hewn from a larger mass of rock. Following the En, the tiger Youko and Rakushun were riding set down on the ledge.

Grinning, the En glanced back over his shoulder at them. "Looks like you made it here without falling off."

How could you fall off? Youko wondered. On the back of the tiger, there was no sense of cutting through the wind, no shaking from side to side.

As if reading her thoughts, the En smiled. "The height makes some people dizzy. Others get so used to the sensation they fall asleep."

Well, I suppose, Youko thought sarcastically.

Intricate designs were carved deeply into the smooth landing area, like anti-skid marks. There were no handrails, and she had no urge to peer over the edge. She couldn't begin to imagine how far above the ground they already were.

A pair of doors led from the ledge into the cliff. The En turned on his heels and headed toward the doors. The doors both swung inwards before he arrived.

The doors were twice her height and seemed to have been fashioned from a single slab of stone. As heavy as the door looked, they were opened by a pair of soldiers. She wasn't positive that they were soldiers. But as they both wore thick leather breastplates, it seemed a logical conclusion.

After nodding to the soldiers, the En looked back at Youko and Rakushun, beckoning them to follow along. When they passed through the doors, the two soldiers bowed, but not deeply, and then hurried out onto the ledge where the two tigers were resting. They were probably going to water and feed and groom them as they would a pair of horses.

"What's holding you up? This way." The En was looking at her. She hurried to catch up and found herself within a large hallway.

The chandelier overhead made the room as bright as day. Fluttering his whiskers in amazement, Rakushun stared up at the ceiling. So it must be something pretty unusual.

The hall wasn't long, leading to a much less impressive room. From there, in the middle of a tunnel-like arch, a white stone staircase continued on upwards. Seeing the staircase, Rakushun's whiskers drooped.

The En glanced back and said encouragingly, "Come on. No need to worry about courtesies."

"Not at all." Rakushun had a stiff expression on his face that Youko understood at once. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "You know, Youko, I think this is how we get up there."

"Yeah, probably." The thought left her in a less than enthusiastic mood as well. The ledge they had landed on was quite high up, but the distance that remained from here to the summit was comparable to a skyscraper. Walking up all that way would be torture.

Nevertheless, Youko kept her thoughts to herself and stepped onto the staircase. She took hold of Rakushun's hand. The rise of each step was short, but the staircase itself was long. They climbed the stairs in step with the En. Where the stairs ended there was a large landing. They turned ninety degrees and climbed another flight of stairs and entered a small room. At the back of the room was a door. The thick, wooden door was beautifully adorned with vivid bas-relief carvings.

Passing through that door, a soft breeze drifted in, carrying with it the rich scent of the sea.

"Oh . . . " Youko unconsciously exclaimed. Before them was a wide terrace. They were already above the clouds.

What miracle this was, she didn't know, but ascending those few steps had brought them already to the very heights of the mountain. The floor was finished in white stone, as were the balustrades of the terrace. Beneath the terrace, waves of white clouds broke against the shore.

No, Youko realized in astonishment, they were the whitecaps of actual waves.

"Rakushun!" she shouted, "it's an ocean!"

She ran to the railing. Beneath her feet, where the terrace protruded from the face of the cliff, the tall waves crested and broke. As she cast her eyes about, she knew this was the surface of an ocean and where the smell of the sea came from.

"There is an ocean above the sky," said Rakushun.

Youko glanced back at him. "An ocean above the sky?"

"Well, if there wasn't an ocean, then we wouldn't call it a Sea of Clouds."

The rich smell of the ocean mingled together with the wafting breezes. The black sea reached out as far as she could see. Waves crashed against the shore beneath the terrace. Leaning out over the railing and peering down into the water, she could see lights in the depths of the sea. It was like the Kyokai, but then she realized that these were the distant lights of Kankyuu.

"This is so cool. But why doesn't the water all just fall down?"

"Well," said the En, with a chuckle, "if the Sea of Clouds were to fall like rain, that would cause quite a bit of trouble for everyone. If it would please her Highness, I'm sure we could arrange a room with a balcony for the Royal Kei."

"You know," said Youko, trying to put this as politely as possible, "I would really appreciate it you could stop it with this 'Highness' stuff.

Amused, the En raised an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

"I guess it seems like you're talking about somebody else."

The En laughed. He was about to say something, then suddenly looked up at the sky. Following the direction of his gaze, Youko saw a slender beam of light.

"It looks like the Taiho has returned. Well, then, Youko."

He turned around. At the left-hand side of the veranda was a short stone staircase. Youko followed after him, stepping where he stepped. She looked up in amazement.

There, arranged upon an island-like formation in the center of the craggy mountain, its cliffs white in the light of the moon, were a countless number of buildings. Like in a scene depicted in a sumi-e watercolor, the ranges of curiously-shaped rocks, the branches of trees and shrubs protruding from the bare rock, the many narrow waterfalls.

Some of the buildings on the cliffs were pagodas, others had multiple stories. Corridors running in all direction connected them together, creating one massive structure. It was an enormous castle embedded within the mountain itself. The heart of the Kingdom of En. The residence of the Royal En. Gen'ei Palace.
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Chapter 58

7-7 Youko and Rakushun entered the building and were surrounded by a number of what they took to be servants. They were separated from the En and hustled off to rooms further inside.

"Hey," said Youko.

"Wait a minute," said Rakushun

A lady-in-waiting turned to the flustered Youko and Rakushun and said with an impassive expression on her face, "Please follow me. A change of clothes shall be made available. Your baths are being drawn."

In other words, they were not to be wandering around the palace in such an unkept state. Despite their confusion, they agreed. They were brought buckets of water and scrubbed themselves down. After that, behind a set of folding screens, took turns soaking in the bath. When they went into the next room, they found new clothes laid out on a big table.

"This is what we're supposed to change into?" Rakushun held up the florid fabric, inspecting it with a look of disgust. "Seems to be men's clothing. Maybe he thinks you're a man, or he knows you're a woman and he's having a little fun with you."

"Looks like there's a suit for you, too," Youko pointed out.

Rakushun's shoulder's slumped. "Yes, it should have occurred to me before, but I guess it would be considered rude to show up like this."

In other words, naked, Youko thought, handing him his clothes. She recalled the hanjuu she'd seen on the streets. More than a few of them were wearing clothes. As put out as Rakushun looked, when she imagined him dressed up like that, she had to smile.

His shoulders rounded, dragging his tail, she sent Rakushun off behind the folding screens while she changed her clothes. The trousers had an ample cut and were made of a soft, pale fabric, as was the blouse. A long, finely-embroidered tunic finished up the ensemble.

Everything was made out of silk. After becoming used to plain clothing scratching against her skin, it was ticklish. About the time she had finished tying the sash, the door opened and an old man appeared.

"Have you finished with your wardrobe?"

"I have. I think my friend . . . "

. . . needs some more time, she started to say, when the screens moved. "It's okay," he answered in a low voice. "I'm done."

Youko gaped at the figure that appeared from behind the screens. For a moment she was at a loss for words.

"What?"

"Rakushun, that is . . . you?"

"Sure is." He nodded and grinned. "The first time you've seen me like this. But I'm still Rakushun."

Youko put her hands up to her face in mortification. Now she understood what Rakushun meant when she hugged him and he said that she needed to learn some "discretion."

"I forgot that some things here are still beyond the bounds of my common sense."

"So it seems." He laughed, a striking man of twenty or so, of average height and somewhat thin. But in any case, a healthy young man. A "legal adult" really did mean a human who had come of age.

"An ordinary animal couldn't talk, right? I said I was a hanjuu, right?"

"Yeah . . . you're right."

She felt her face burning. A hanjuu, a half-human, he had said. A legal adult, he had said. Not only had they hugged, but they'd shared rooms together, and a long time ago she vaguely recalled that he had changed her nightclothes.

"Youko, just when you seem to have it all together, you can still completely miss the big picture."

"I think so, too. So why aren't you always in human form, then?" Youko asked, a peevish tone creeping unbidden into her voice.

Rakushun sighed despite himself. "Because it's a lot easier being a rat," he said, an air of resentment in his voice. His vermillion-clad shoulders sagged disconsolately. "I'm telling you, dressing up like this is a real pain in the neck. My shoulders are so stiff. And to makes things worse, on a highfalutin day like today."

He complained so miserably that Youko had to giggle.



The old man accompanied them down a long hallway and into a large room. The scent of the sea drifted in through a pair of open French windows. The En glanced over his shoulder at them. He was standing on the terrace, facing the water. He had changed as well, but there wasn't much difference among their outfits. Youko and Rakushun were by no means wearing haute couture, so the king's clothes seemed rather plain considering his stature. There was nothing pompous or pretentious about him.

The En grinned as he came back into the room. "I see you've dressed. My attendants insist on sticking to formalities. It is annoying, but they get quite upset when you don't do exactly as you're told. I do apologize."

Youko thought perhaps it was the En who was underdressed, but his tone was charming enough that Youko limited her response to a smile.

"Rakushun, you want to take all that off, it's okay with me."

Rakushun (the young man) managed a strained smile. "It's nothing to be concerned about. What about the Taiho?"

"He'll be here any minute." As he spoke, the door opened. The scent of salt air filled the room. "Speak of the devil."

There was (as always) a pair of screens inside the doors. The personage who appeared from behind them was a golden-haired boy of twelve or thirteen.

"How are things going?"

"As expected, they don't seem to have ascended yet to the Imperial Palace. Interesting guests you have."

"Actually, they're not my guests. They're yours."

"Mine? Never met them before." The boy scowled and turned to Youko and Rakushun. "So, what's with you two?"

"Now, now, you can be nicer than that."

"You know what it means to mind your own business?"

"You're going to regret it."

"So, you finally decided to get yourself a better half, huh?"

"I'm not kidding."

"Your mother, then?"

"And if she is neither my wife nor my mother, will you remember your manners, then?" The En sighed and turned to the dumbfounded Youko. "I'm sorry, but this is Enki, an incorrigible little cuss. And Rokuta," he said, addressing Enki, "this is her Royal Highness, the Empress of Kei."

Enki gulped audibly, took a very big step backwards and peered up at her. Youko tried but couldn't help herself and burst into laugher. It was perhaps the first time she had truly laughed out loud since crossing the Kyokai.

"You should have said so in the first place! What a bastard!"

"Takes one to know one," the En said. "Her companion is Sir Rakushun." He grew more serious. "How are things in Kei?"

The boy sobered up as well. "It looks like Ki Province has already fallen."

Rakushun wrote out the character for "Ki." Even though everything was automatically translated for her, she still had to attend to how things were written. The spoken language wasn't a problem, but that alone wasn't enough to make her literate.

"Only the northern province of Baku remains. Joei resides in Sei Province, as she has all along. Her armies have grown such that the Imperial Army dare not cross swords with them."

Rakushun wrote "Imperial Army" using the characters, The Royal Masters of War.

"The pretender's army is advancing on Baku Province. The Marquis of Baku has three thousand soldiers under his command. He can't hold out for long. It's only a matter of time." He sat himself down on top of the table and helped himself to some fruit. "So where'd you find the Royal Kei, anyway?"

The En gave him the abridged version. Enki listened silently and then leaned forward and said with sullen expression, "What kind of fool would sent a kirin to attack a human?"

"For the time being, we can leave aside the question of who is pulling the strings. But we've got to get Keiki back."

"The sooner the better. Once they realize the Royal Kei is here, they may kill him."

"Excuse me," Youko interrupted. "But I don't understand any of this."

The En raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Look, I was brought here totally in the dark. The Royal En says I'm the Empress of Kei, so I guess it must be true. Just as it's true that some king somewhere obviously wants me dead. But I never wanted to be the Royal Kei. I didn't reach out to you hoping you'd recognize me as the Royal Kei, or anything. I don't much care for getting chased around by youma, and I didn't particularly enjoy getting chased around by those soldiers in Kou, either. The only reason I'm here is to ask The Royal En for a way to get back to Japan. That's it."

The En and Enki looked at each other. For a while, everybody was silent. Then the En spoke up.

"Youko, have a seat."

"I . . . . "

"Sit down. There's something I'd like you to hear, and it's going to take a while."
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Chapter 59

7-8 The En stared off into space for a moment. Then he said, "There are people and there are kingdoms. So it stands to reason that there must be people to govern those kingdoms, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes."

"This palace is where the king resides. The king administers the affairs of state. As this responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the king, he must administer the government in accordance with the wishes of the people. Of course, power corrupts, and ofttimes the king ends up oppressing his subjects. I'm not saying that all rulers are by definition bad. But from the time the king takes up the reins of power, he is no longer an ordinary person. And what he knows of being an ordinary person slips away."

"I've heard it said that the Royal En is an enlightened monarch."

The En smiled wryly. "I wouldn't go that far. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The point is, when kings oppress their subjects, what recourse do the people have?"

"There's always democracy," Enki interjected. "The people choose a king to their own liking. And when he becomes not to their liking, they choose somebody else."

"Well, that's one way," the En responded. "But here it is done another. If a king is oppressing his subjects, then someone chooses a king who won't. That someone is the kirin."

"The kirin chooses the king on behalf of the people?"

"That's one way to put it. Here, there is what may be called the Divine Will. God in His Heaven created the earth and the kingdoms and established the natural law. According to the Divine Will, the kirin chooses the king and the king, in turn, receives the Mandate of Heaven."

"Mandate of Heaven."

"The king protects the kingdom, comes to the aid of the commoners, and maintains law and order. The kirin selects those capable of carrying out that Mandate. Those chosen are placed upon the throne. The intent is that by means of the kirin, Heaven will enthrone wise rulers. There are those who call me an enlightened monarch, but that is hardly true. All kings possess the character and capability to reign with wisdom, strength and benevolence."

Youko didn't respond. She sat there quietly.

"Still, many enlightened monarchs have reigned in Japan and China. So why is it that these countries have not, in general, remained at peace?"

Youko nodded slightly. "Even if a person is a so-called enlightened monarch, he can go astray in a moment of weakness. And even if he doesn't, the best ruler will die someday, and the person who succeeds him will not necessarily be so wise. So it's inevitable that you'll eventually end up between some kind of rock and hard place."

"That's right. But if a monarch were made immortal, made a god, that would solve half the problem. And then supposing the king does die, better that you eliminate hereditary rule, requiring the kirin to choose a new king and watch him very carefully to make sure he doesn't stray. Do you think that would work?"

"Yeah, I suppose that would work."

As if in agreement, the En nodded once. "For the present time, the Kingdom of En has been entrusted to me. Enki chose me as king. The selection process has nothing to do with how hard a person wishes to be king or strives to be a ruler. The kirin relies on his intuition, the way a man decides upon a woman. Or perhaps I should say, the way a woman chooses a man. I was a taika. I was not born here. Like you, I had not the slightest idea of what a king was or should be. Yet the kirin chose me and so a king I am. The Mandate of Heaven rests upon my shoulders, and nothing I can do can change that."

"Does that mean I can't go home, either?"

"You may, if you wish. But you are still the Empress of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei. That calling you cannot repudiate."

Youko's head slumped.

"The kirin covenants with the chosen king. Thereafter, the kirin will not divorce himself from the king. It is an unbreakable compact of obedience. After the king takes the throne, the kirin stands by him as his prime minster."

"Enki, too? He's the prime minister?"

Youko looked at the boy sitting cross-legged on the table. The En chuckled. "Looks can be deceiving. You might not be convinced by looking at him, but kirin are, by nature, beings of justice and mercy."

Enki scowled. The king smiled. "You will find nothing in the counsel of the Taiho but words of justice and mercy. But justice and mercy alone cannot govern a kingdom. There are times when I have gone forth when Enki said to pull back, when I have acted ruthlessly and without mercy. It is, at times, what the righteous rule of a kingdom requires. If I adhered to every word Enki spoke, the kingdom would fall to pieces."

"Yeah . . . I suppose."

"For example, imagine there is a criminal, a man who murders for money. And let us imagine that this man has a hungry wife and child. In such a case, Enki would tell me to spare the rod. But to leave criminals at large would make the kingdom unmanageable. Regrettable though it may be, the man must be convicted for his crimes."

"Sure . . . I guess."

"On the other hand, let us suppose that I ordered Enki to execute the criminal. A kirin has not the disposition to do such a thing, but, in the end, protesting all the while, he would carry out the order. Enki must obey me. Must. A kirin cannot oppose the will of the king. Even if I were to order him to kill himself--if, in fact, such an order could be given--he would not disobey."

"So, you're saying that after you're chosen by the kirin, you can pretty much do what you want?"

"Therein arises the hard part. It is the Divine Will of Heaven that a king rules righteously. Heaven's desire is that the kingdom be governed with justice and mercy. Heaven's proxy in this regard is the kirin. However, as I said, a kingdom cannot be governed by justice and mercy, alone. There are times when you must be unjust, must act without mercy. But only to a certain degree will Heaven turn a blind eye."

Youko simply looked at him.

"You may act ruthlessly for the good of the kingdom, but only to a point. Go past that point and the king will lose the right to rule. After all, the throne was given him by Heaven. And when a king strays too far and loses the Mandate of Heaven, the kirin falls ill. This illness is called shitsudou, or the Loss of the Way."

The En wrote the characters in the air. "When the king strays from the Way, the kirin will suffer. At that point, the wise king mends his ways. If he does not, the kirin will not recover. But it is not enough for the kirin to simply persevere. The problem is one of character, the same as with all those people who promise to change their ways and do not. There are few cases of kings who were able to remedy the situation after a kirin was struck down with the shitsudou."

"And what happens if he can't?"

"Then the kirin will die. And if the kirin dies, so will the king."

"Dies . . . . "

"Human life is short. The king does not age, does not die, because his name is recorded in the Census of Heaven. Kings are immortal because they are gods. But it is the kirin that makes the king a god. So if the kirin dies, so does the king."

Youko nodded.

"Aside from the king returning to the Way, there is one other way for the kirin to be cured of the shitsudou."

"And that is?"

"That is, for the king to release the kirin from the covenant. The simplest method is for the king to end his own life. If the king dies first, the kirin will not."

"And so the kirin will be spared?"

"Indeed. Keiki being a case in point." The En took a breath. "The Late Empress Yo was by nature human, and human beings are by no means perfect. She became romantically attached to Keiki. She would not allow any women to associate with Keiki. She paraded herself around as his wife, grew insanely jealous. In the end, she went too far, expelled all women from the palace and tried to drive all women from the kingdom. With Keiki covering for her, she only grew more extreme, and tried to have those who remained killed. At that point, Keiki fell ill."

"And . . . ?"

"The late Empress parted from the Way because of her romantic attachment to Keiki. The prospect of being the cause of his death could not be pleasing to her. In some small way, she had not fallen so far as to be beyond reason. So the Late Empress Yo climbed Mount Hou and there renounced the throne. Heaven accepted her abdication and Keiki was emancipated from her.

"What happened to her?"

"Becoming a king or empress means dying as a human and being reborn as a god. When you are no longer a monarch, you cannot continue to live."

And so the Empress Jokaku of the Kingdom of Kei had passed away.

"You have already been chosen by Keiki as the next king. To accede to the throne, you must ascend Mount Hou and accept the Divine Decree. However, no significant distinction should be made between the convenant and accession to the throne. The Mandate of Heaven has descended. You are the Empress of Kei. Nothing you can do will change it. Do you understand?"

Youko nodded.

"The king has the responsibility to govern the kingdom. You may, if you wish, cast your kingdom aside and return to Japan. A kingdom abandoned by its monarch will fall into chaos. When that happens, make no mistake, Heaven will cast you aside as well."

"And Keiki will be struck down with the shitsudou and die."

"Most likely, yes. But it is not so simple as that. Think about the subjects of your kingdom as well. A king does not only rule. He also bears the responsibility of reigning in the natural forces and the youma. The youma run rampant. Tempests storm. There are droughts and floods and epidemics. The hearts of men are confused. When the realm falls to ruin, there are no words on the lips of the people but those of suffering."

"Falls to ruin?"

"Yes. It took Keiki a long time to find the Late Empress Yo, and the throne was vacant for an extended period. In that time, the kingdom was left in turmoil and the people were impoverished. An empress was finally placed upon the throne, but her reign lasted only six years. In recent years, as he suffered from the shitsudou, public order disintegrated. And then this calamity. All those proximate to En or Kou have fled the country. But the great majority remain behind in Kei. And during all this time, they have been left to the mercies of the youma and natural disasters. There is no other way of saving them."

"You mean, placing a righteous king on the throne as soon as possible?"

"Precisely."

Youko shook her head. "There's just no way."

"Why is that? I believe that you possess all the necessary kingly attributes."

"You're kidding."

"You are the master of your own soul. You know what responsibilities you bear toward yourself alone. When it comes to a ruler who lacks such knowledge, trying to persuade him of his duties is useless. How can he who cannot rule himself rule others?"

"I . . . can't."

"But . . . . "

"Shouryuu," Enki said in a reproving voice. "You're twisting arms. What the Royal Kei does with the Kingdom of Kei is up to her. Until she is prepared to accept the consequences of her actions, let her be."

The En sighed. "Yes, you are right. But this alone I wish to ask of the Royal Kei. I am doing everything I can think of to assist the people of Kei, but the national treasury is not inexhaustible. I am pleading with you to save your kingdom."

"I'll think it over." Youko hung her head. There was no way she could bring herself to look them in the eye.

"Excuse me," said Rakushun, "but has anybody figured out what king has it in for Youko?"

The En looked at Enki. Enki stared off into the distance. He said, "And who do you think it is?"

"Well, I've come to the conclusion that it is probably the Royal Kou."

Youko looked at Rakushun. For just a moment, this young man with the strained expression on his face seemed in no way connected to the gentle rat she knew.

"And why's that?"

"This is by no means definite. But Youko was chased to exhaustion around those mountains. I don't think all of the youma that attacked her were the kirin's shirei. In that case, what could have caused the wild youma living in the mountains to come together like that? Even if half were shirei, that is still too many. I can't help feeling that the Kingdom of Kou itself is on the decline."

The En nodded. "So it is. In fact, I have received from Kou a strongly-worded petition seeking the extradition of a kaikyaku who fled to En. Kaikyaku have fled here from Kou before. But extraditing a kaikyaku is such an unusual step that I had Enki look into it. Somehow or other, someone in Kou has been supplying Joei with funds. Furthermore, Kou is falling into chaos. Not only does this cast all the more suspicion upon the Royal Kou, but only yesterday, we received word that Kourin has fallen ill with the shitsudou."

" . . . with the shitsudou," Rakushun echoed. Bitterness clouded his otherwise lively, young face. "In that case, the end of Kou is near."

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Youko asked.

It was the En who answered. "It would be simple to counsel with the Royal Kou as a colleague, but the man will not agree to meet. And even if we did, nothing can be done if he will not admit to the error of his ways. Our only remaining recourse is that the rightful Empress of Kei accepts the Mandate of Heaven and fills the vacant throne. Why the Royal Kou has meddled in the internal affairs of Kei, I do not know. But if the purpose was to put a puppet on the throne and lead her around by the nose, then only then shall we see his ambitions wither and an end to this insulting pretense."

His gaze fell on her. There was much more in his eyes that was left unsaid. Youko bowed her head. "Please give me time."
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