ouko was put up in a magnificent suite with a soaring ceiling. The interior decor, from the furniture to the water pitcher on the table, had the indelible mark of fine taste and sumptuous luxury. The room was enormous, the glazed windows huge. There were arrangements of flowers, the smell of burning incense, the kind of thing that would make the eyes of a peasant from the backwoods of Kou spin.
Having become accustomed to a pauper's accommodations on the road, she felt the same. She couldn't settle down. She had wanted to retreat to her room, give herself some time to think things out, but the ornate, overstuffed chairs were uncomfortable. The lacquered table was finished with mother of pearl and would show even a fingerprint if she touched it. She hesitated even to sit there with her chin in her hands.
Glancing around the room, she saw another, smaller room, about ten feet by ten. Perhaps she could relax better in there. Then she approached the room and sighed.
The door partitioning the two rooms was folded back. The door was engraved with a delicate fretwork. As she stepped inside, the room became much bigger. Silk curtains hung down over a raised platform. The curtains were half open. Silk bedding covered the platform. That this ten-foot square room consisted of just a bed struck as some sort of bad joke. She couldn't think of lying on this thing. Sleep was out of the question.
With nothing else better to do, Youko opened the big window. The French doors reached from the floor to the ceiling. Stained glass filled the geometric patterns between the lattices. Beyond the doors was a wide balcony.
As the En had promised, her room faced a terrace that looked out over the Sea of Clouds.
When she opened the window, the salt smell of the sea drifted in. It was preferable to the incense. She stepped outside. The terrace, covered with white stone, ran around the circumference of the building. It was about as wide as a small courtyard.
She walked along the terrace. She leaned against the railing and gazed out at the Sea of Clouds. The big moon was sliding down the sky into the waves. Staring at the waves dashing against the rocks beneath her, she heard the sound of footsteps behind her. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw an animal with a gray coat coming toward her.
"Out for a walk?" she asked.
Rakushun grinned at the question. "So you can't sleep either?"
"Yeah. You too?"
"How can you sleep in a room like that? Now I'm sorry I didn't go back to the inn."
The rat laughed. "What are you talking about? You have a palace just like this one."
The smile disappeared from her face. "Yeah, I probably do."
Rakushun stood next to Youko and like her gazed out over the ocean. "The palace in Kei is located in Gyouten, Ei Province. It's called Kinpa Palace, the Palace of Golden Waves."
It didn't peak her interest. She answered with a listless, "Huh."
Rakushun was quiet for a moment. "You know, Youko."
"It's most likely that Keiki was captured by Joei, the pretender."
"So it seems."
"If the Royal Kou was really determined that you never take the throne, there's one foolproof method."
"Yeah, kill Keiki."
"Right. If Keiki dies, you die, too. Because you have not yet ascended Mount Hou and accepted the Divine Decree, I don't know what would happen to you. But that would probably be the end result."
Youko nodded. "No doubt. It's because I did that covenant thing with him and because I'm no longer a human being. That's why I don't get injured easily and why I can understand what people say. That's why I can wield a sword and why I was able to cross the Kyokai. It's all because of that."
"Probably. Keiki is in the hands of your enemies. For your own good . . . . "
"I don't want to hear it."
"No. It's not that I think I'm above it all. I know what a king is, what a kirin is. That's why I'm not going to make a decision like this just based on self-preservation."
"But . . . . "
"I'm not being self-destructive." She smiled. "When I came here, considering the state I was in, dying wouldn't have come as much of a surprise. I've somehow survived till now, but probably more due to luck than anything else. I was as good as dead when I came here, so it's not something I get all choked up about. At any rate, I don't want to be the kind of person who gets all choked up about stuff like that.
"I don't want this to be some rash, life or death decision. I know what everybody expects of me. But if I simply do what is convenient for everybody else, let everybody else determine what my life will be, then I won't be shouldering the responsibility myself. That's why I've got to think it over."
Rakushun looked up at her with his jet-black eyes. "I can't understand what you're so confused about."
"I can't do it."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I know just how mean and ugly a human being I am. I'm no king. I don't have it in me."
"That's not true."
"If you are a hanjuu, Rakushun, then I'm a hanjuu, too. I may appear human, but I'm a beast inside."
"Youko . . . . "
Youko gripped the railing of the balcony. There was a delicate beauty in the luxurious feel of the ornate stone. Casting her gaze downwards, she could see the lights of Kankyuu glowing like sea fire through the transparent water. The waves broke with a gentle rumble upon the shore. It was an extraordinarily sublime scene, but one far removed from what was in her heart. There was an equally striking castle in Gyouten, Kinpa Palace. To think of herself living there aroused in her not timidity but disgust.
That's what she told him. Rakushun sighed. "A king is just an ordinary person until he is chosen by the kirin."
"Being chosen by the kirin doesn't change anything. I'm the same person I was, stealing from people, threatening people, assaulting people when I have to. I trust nobody. I was willing to trade your life for my own."
"The Royal En thinks you can do it."
"He doesn't know what a miserable creature I am."
"I think you can do it. I'm the one you were thinking of finishing off, so if I say so, then it must be so."
Youko looked down at him, this rat who stood no higher than her stomach. He poked his head through the handrails and gazed intently at the ocean floating in the sky.
"I just can't . . . . "
He didn't answer her murmured dissent, only continued to stare out at the Sea of Clouds. He patted Youko on the arm with his small hand. When Youko turned to him, the gray coat of his back was already to her.
"All this has left me at my wit's end as well. There's nothing wrong with being confused. Take your time, think about it."
Youko watched as he walked off into the distance. He raised his hand, but didn't turn around.
"Rakushun," she said to herself, "even you don't know everything about me."
But I know.
This wasn't the sound of her own voice echoing inside her skull. Her head shot up and she scanned the surroundings. But it wasn't a sound she had heard with her ears.
You have not been alone. I have seen everything.
Accept the throne. You are capable. You are qualified.
Youko couldn't answer. That he had spoken left her speechless. And what he said, only more so.
I have disobeyed the command of my lord. Forgive me.
Keiki's instructions to him came back to her, "Be as if you are not there." Was this why, until this moment, he had not once responded to a thing she had said?
You thought me a monster, begged and whined for me to be taken out of you. That is why. This was an error on your part.
"I really am a fool," she said to herself.
This statement went unanswered.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-2 The next day, Youko was awakened by her lady-in-waiting. When she took her seat for breakfast, to the question on everybody's face, she shook her head, no. Rakushun came as a rat. He nodded and fluttered his whiskers. The En and Enki showed only small signs of disappointment.
The En said, and some bitterness was mingled with his words, "Your kingdom and your subjects are yours to do with as you wish. But in any case, I would like to see you reunited with Keiki. If you still intend to abdicate, that is another matter. At the very least, for the sake of the kingdom, you should want the Saiho back safe and sound. Do you not think so?"
Youko nodded. "I haven't come to any conclusion in my own regard, but I don't object to rescuing Keiki. But how?"
"We have no recourse but to force. Keiki is being kept in Sei Province, in the midst of the pretender's army."
"If Keiki can be rescued, then can I go home? I am asking a simple question."
The En nodded. "Keiki can precipitate a shoku. Because you have the constitution to cross the Kyokai, there would be no difficulty. Rightly or wrongly, if you wish to return and Keiki refuses, I shall have Enki carry it out."
He was a fair person, Youko thought. He could equally have threatened not to if she refused to become king.
"Frankly, I'd rather not," said Enki. "When the time comes, get Keiki to do it."
The En glared at him. "Rokuta."
"Since you're playing dumb, I'll fill her in. Calamities occur whenever there's a shoku. If it's only a kirin crossing over, a windstorm, maybe. But in the case of a king crossing over as well, we're talking massive destruction. And it'll happen over there, too."
"Yes. Here and there. Because here and there are not meant to mingle together. When you were brought here, the shoku caused widespread damage in Kou. But considering that it was royalty crossing the Kyokai, it was a pretty minor catastrophe. That's not bound to be the case next time. If it was up to me, I'd have no part of it."
"If I am able to go home, I wouldn't want to impose so on Keiki."
"Suit yourself," he said with a rather sardonic smile and a bob of his head.
The En spoke up in sterner tones. "Even if you do return to Japan, Youko, you will by no means be beyond danger."
As long as the Royal Kou refused to relent, he could still send youma after her. Her return as well would likely occasion natural disasters. Innocent bystanders would get caught up in youma attacks. She was a goddess of death. Here or there, going home would be no good for anybody. But even knowing this, she couldn't make up her mind.
"Do you think that before I go back, I ought to settle the score with the Royal Kou?"
"That you cannot do. I would not help you in the least."
The En nodded. "If nothing else, remember this. There are three sins a king cannot commit. The first is to reject the Mandate of Heaven and stray from the Way. The second is to choose suicide rather than accept the Mandate. The last is to invade another country, even, for example, to suppress an internal rebellion."
Nodding, Youko said, "Yes, but what about you? What about invading Kei in order to take back Keiki?"
"If the Royal Kei herself stands at the vanguard and leads the way, then it shall be done in her name. In such a case, we are only answering her call and assisting her as her allies."
The En laughed heartily. "In order to secure Keiki's release, I shall grant you the use of the Imperial Army. What say you?"
Youko bowed, a thin smile on her lips. "If you wouldn't mind. I apologize for giving you nothing but reasons to be disappointed by my presence."
Enki scowled, then smiled. "Shouryuu wants there to be more taika kings. But it's nothing to get worked up about. After all, up till now there's been only one."
"There's only one?"
"For the time being. There have been any number in the past, but their numbers were never that great."
"Aren't you a taika, too, Enki?"
"Yes. Me and Shouryuu and Taiki. You make it four."
"Taiki is the kirin of the Kingdom of Tai?"
"Yes. The hinasa of the Outland Kingdom of Tai.
"A fledgling. A kirin who has not reached adulthood."
"I am an adult kirin. When a kirin reaches adulthood, his outward appearance stops growing as well."
"In other words, you grew faster than Keiki did."
"That's it," he said, with no little pride in the fact. The En smiled to himself.
"So Taiki wasn't fully grown?"
"Wasn't, as in the past tense?"
Enki responded to Youko's question with a strained expression on his face. He exchanged glances with the En.
"Taiki died. At least, that's what was communicated to us. The Kingdom of Tai is in the midst of chaos. No one knows what happened to Taiki or to the Royal Tai."
Youko sighed. "So it's a bad situation, like it is here."
"Where there are people, there are complications. His name is Takasato. In human years, he would have been about your age."
"The ki in kirin indicates a male. The Tai kirin was a beautiful black unicorn."
"A black unicorn?"
"Have you ever seen a kirin?"
"Only in human form."
"The coat of a kirin is an orange-yellow, the back variegated, the mane usually gold."
"Like your hair?"
"Yes, but this isn't hair, really. It's a mane."
Makes sense, Youko thought to herself.
"The Tai kirin was black, the color of polished steel. The coat was jet black and the back silver. This variegation was rather unique."
"Is it rare?"
"Indeed. In all our history, there's nothing quite like the black unicorn. There have been red unicorns and white unicorns, too, but I have never seen them.
"If Taiki had indeed died, the Royal Tai could be expected to pass away as well. The Tai-ka--the fruit bearing the Tai kirin--should have appeared on Mt. Hou. But there was no sign of it."
"The tree that bears the fruit of the kirin is on Mount Hou. When a kirin dies, at the same time, the ranka of the new kirin should begin to grow. If Taiki had died, it would become the next Tai kirin. In the case of a female, then Tairin, from the second syllable of kirin. The ranka is named according to the name of its kingdom, in this case designated the Tai-ka. However, there was no Tai-ka to be found on Mount Hou. So he still must be alive."
"Don't kirin have parents?"
"No. Being a taika is beside the point. That's why kirin don't have names. Only titles."
Enki nodded. There seemed something quite sad about that fact. As if knowing what was on her mind, he put on a deliberately sullen face.
"The kirin are sad creatures. They live only for the king, have no parents or siblings, not even names. If the king chooses, he can work you half to death. In the end, you end up dying because of the king. And not even a grave awaits you."
Enki shot a look at the En. His lord turned the other way. Enki frowned and sighed.
"No grave?" Youko asked and Enki averted his eyes as if in self-reproach for having brought the subject up.
"You can't get somebody to prepare a grave for you?"
The En said with a forced smile, "It's not that he does not have a grave. King and kirin are interred together. He means there isn't a body."
"Why?" Perhaps, she thought, because the kirin were supernatural beings, no physical body was left behind.
Enki said, "Look, it's no big secret. The kirin employs the youma as his servants. The kirin and the youma make a pact. The youma who accept the pact promise to obey the kirin. In exchange, when the kirin dies, the youma get to feast on his body."
Youko looked up, first at the En, then at Enki. Enki shrugged.
"That's what it comes down to. Kirin sure must taste good. Anyway, I'll be dead by then, so I can't say I really care. If it seems a sad end to you, well, then take good care of Keiki. Try not to let him down."
Youko didn't know what to say. So instead she said, "The Royal Kou must not have feared causing Kourin similar distress."
The En smiled sardonically. "Who knows what the Royal Kou is thinking."
Enki shrugged as well. "Interfering in the internal affairs of other kingdoms will lose you the Mandate of Heaven. Despite that, he couldn't refrain from launching on this idiotic course. He must have a powerful reason."
"You would think."
"And yet, acting without a thought in their heads, save knowing that at some point they'll have to face the music alone, humans go rushing in where angels fear to tread. They're fools. The more it hurts, the less they think."
His words hit home like a punch to the solar plexus. Youko could only nod. "It's scary."
"Yeah. I can't help feeling I've just caught a tiger by the tail."
The En smiled softly. "The kirin cannot deny the king. But that doesn't mean that he will do everything you say without objection. Never forget you're just a dumb human. That's the best way to let your other half help you out."
"My other half?"
Youko nodded. She glanced at the chair to her right. The sword was sitting there. The Suiguu-tou, the Water Monkey Sword, that could see the future and the present and what was far from her.
The En hadn't said as much, but if she could control the sword, shouldn't she be able to tell what the Royal Kou was up to?
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-3 The kingdom had two armies. The Provincial Guard was entrusted to the province lords and garrisoned in their various locals. The Imperial Army answered directly to the king.
The regular cavalry would push toward Iryuu, the provincial capital of Sei in the Kingdom of Kei. This campaign, however, would take a month, and when it came to saving Keiki, a month was too long to wait. So it was decided that a combined squadron of a hundred and twenty elite horsemen, skilled at riding pegasi and other flying beasts, would be mustered for an aerial raid on Iryuu.
En and Enki left at once to make the preparations. They weren't back by lunch or supper. Leaving Rakushun to his own devices, Youko returned to her room. She placed the sword on the table and sat down in front of it.
She was the lord of the sword. Although she understood this in theory, what it meant in practice perplexed her. It must be quite difficult, but as she hadn't the slightest idea what to do, it couldn't hurt to give it a try and seeing what happened.
She didn't know how to deliberately bring about a vision. But if all she had to do was call it forth, perhaps it wouldn't be that hard.
Long before she had come to this world, she had seen the dreams and had heard the sound of falling water. When she asked the En about it, he told her that those visions had undoubtedly been shown to her by the sword. Most likely, the sword had predicted the enemy attack, and had been warning her, the lord of the sword, of what was going to happen.
But at the time, Youko hadn't yet met Keiki, had not covenanted with anybody. Yet the sword knew that she was its lord. Before receiving the Mandate of Heaven, before being chosen . . . .
The En ventured that perhaps she had been born with the Mandate of Heaven upon her shoulders. Or perhaps the burdens of the throne had become her own as soon as Keiki made his decision.
"Who knows?" Enki had chimed in. "I can't say why I picked him. There weren't any obvious reasons, except that he was the one."
Enki said that a kirin chose a king by instinct. In any case, Youko did not think that communicating her intentions to the sword should be all that difficult.
She extinguished the lights in the room, drew the sword from the scabbard and stared at the blade.
Show me the Royal Kou.
Up till now, the sword had continued to show her nothing but visions of her life in Japan. Youko had the feeling that it was because there had been nothing else on her mind but the intent to return to Japan.
Show me what the Royal Kou intends to do. Or, his intentions still being up for grabs, show me what makes the bastard tick.
The blade of the sword began to flicker with a phosphorescent light. Faint shadows played within the light. She heard the sound of falling water. She concentrated on the shadows, waited as the shadows coalesced into recognizable objects.
She saw a white wall. A glazed window. A yard. She recognized the yard. It was the yard of her house.
No, not this.
She focused her thoughts and the vision vanished. She looked at the dark blade in front of her eyes. She had failed.
"You're not going to try this just once," she lectured herself. Again, she stared at the blade. Before, she had not seen multiple visions on a single night, but sooner than she expected, the sword began to glow.
Yet, once again, she found herself looking at the yard of her house. She didn't let herself get discouraged. She concentrated on pushing her conscious thoughts away from the image in front of her. Not this, she repeated to herself like a mantra. The vision wavered like the calm surface of water when disturbed.
What appeared next was her room.
And then her school.
As many times as she tried, she saw nothing but the other world. Scenes of her house, her school, her friends' houses. Nothing of this world.
It's this scabbard, Youko thought. The scabbard was toying with her the same way the blue monkey did. Still, she knew it was her fault as well, not being able to put old thoughts behind her. And knowing that, she didn't give up.
Patiently, trying over and over, she finally recognized a vision that came from this world. At last! she rejoiced. But then she recognized what she was seeing. The gates of a city surrounded by piles of bodies. The road leading up the gates soaked with blood. From among the fallen, came wrenching moans. In their midst stood a young man with a dark expression on his face.
God, that's me.
"Stop!" she cried, hastily extinguishing the vision.
It was Goryou, where she had abandoned Rakushun. Even though she knew it was herself, she found her appearance astonishing. Had she really looked so miserable? She threw down the sword. Then conscious of how frightened she was of the sword, she laughed derisively.
But it's the truth, isn't it?
If the blue monkey were here, that's what he would tell her. This was the real world. She didn't have the right to avert her eyes. Better to face it head on. If she kept ignorantly looking away, who knew when she would ever wise up.
Again, she gripped the hilt. She steadied her breathing and concentrated on the blade of the sword. The gates of Goryou soon appeared. In the vision, her visage was suffused with malevolence. At a glance, she knew what she was thinking. She was looking at Rakushun, debating whether or not to kill him.
The guards came rushing out of the city. Youko beat a fast retreat. After running away, the vision wavered and changed. What next appeared before her was a mountain trail. Youko watched as she turned her back on the mother and child who had been so kind to her.
She saw Takki and the old man from Japan and the two men driving the horse cart who were devoured on the road from Hairou. She saw their weeping families. It's the fault of the kaikyaku, she heard them curse her.
She was shown the city of Kasai and the horrid aftermath of the attack by the youma. At Goryou, the bodies stacked up like cordwood. Refugees from Kei squatting at the foot of some wall outside some city somewhere.
Youko watched all these visions. She realized that if she tried to reject what the visions were showing her, they would rage against her all the more. If she accepted what they were showing her, the visions drew closer to what she wanted to see.
A palace, and in the palace, an emaciated woman.
"I wished no women to remain in Gyouten."
"But . . . . "
That was Keiki, trying to voice a contrary opinion. Youko guessed that the woman was the Late Empress Yo.
"Criminals refuse an imperial order. Why do you hesitate administering justice to criminals?"
The only life left in the Empress Jokaku was in her eyes. She had the skin of a corpse, sunken cheeks, the tendons stood out in her neck, there was a sickly pallor all about her. Youko sensed these were the woman's last days. She must be suffering much to be that shrunken and skeletal. Despite the mounting pain and knowing the foolishness of her crimes, she was not able to stop herself from committing them.
Youko saw the ruin of the Kingdom of Kei. She thought Kou was poor, but it was nothing compared to the destitution in Kei. She saw villages decimated by youma, the burning huts of the poor caught up in the conflagrations. The land and fields overrun with rodents and locust, rivers overflowing their banks, inundating the paddies with mud and sludge, countless bodies bobbing in the water.
This is the destruction visited upon a kingdom that loses its king.
"The kingdom will fall into ruin," she had heard over and over. The stark reality of those words finally came home to her. Living in Japan, they would have meant very little. Here, she understood what she had been repeatedly told with such passion.
The next thing she saw was a mountain road.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-4 There were two people on the road. One wore a dark shroud over his head like the Grim Reaper. The other had golden hair. They were surrounded by a horde of beasts.
"Forgive me, you said." The statement was addressed by the shrouded personage to the woman, the same woman Youko had encountered on another mountain road.
That would be Kourin.
"I assume, of course, that you were begging my forgiveness."
The Grim Reaper let the shroud fall from his head. What appeared was the deeply wrinkled face of an old man. Nevertheless, he had a large stature that seemed incongruous with his age. A brightly colored parrot perched on his shoulder.
"A helpless girl. It's too bad we couldn't finish her off, but wandering about in these mountains, she shouldn't last long. Though we seemed to have miscalculated about whether or not she had accepted the covenant." The man spoke in a disinterested tone of voice, devoid of emotion. "Oh, well. She'll die a dog's death at the side of the road, or try to sneak into a village and be arrested. Either way, Taiho. Either way."
"I'll be upset if something like this happens again. No matter what, that girl must be exterminated."
When the man said, "that girl," he must be referring to herself. That meant he was . . . the Royal Kou.
"But such a weak-hearted thing. She does not have the constitution to be a great king. You go all the way to Yamato, and that is what you bring back?"
The man spoke to one of the beasts. It looked like a deer with only one horn. You could call it a "unicorn," but only in overall appearance. The mane was a luxuriant gold, the coat a more subdued yellow. The speckled pattern of colors on its back resembled that of a fawn, though these were strange and fantastic colors, glimmering faintly in the sunlight.
"Luck seems not to favor your lord, wouldn't you say, Kei Taiho?"
Kei Taiho . . . then that was . . . Keiki.
This is a kirin.
She recognized the mountainous location as the road she had traveled from Hairou. What she had taken then for Keiki had been Kourin. What Jouyuu had called "Taiho" had been Keiki in his kirin form.
Kourin said, "As she is a mere child, would it not be better to leave her to the elements? Two men of Kou have died. Please, can you not end all this?"
She looked up at the Royal Kou, tears in her eyes. Youko had observed the same expression on her face at another time, in another place.
"All men die," her lord answered. "Dust to dust."
Even now, Youko did not perceive a flicker of humanity in him.
"Heaven will not countenance such actions. Sow the wind and Kou will surely reap the whirlwind. Your lordship shall prove no exception."
"I have already reaped the whirlwind. You lecture me in vain. I've come to the end of my tether. Kou will fall. And when Kou falls, Kei will fall as well. As God is my witness, I will drag the Royal Kei down into the depths with me."
"How can you hate the taika so much?"
The Royal Kou laughed a hollow laugh. "I don't hate them. I find them disgusting. Did you know that in that other world, a child is born from its mother's belly?"
"I know. But what has that to do with this?"
"Don't you think it filthy?"
"I do not."
"Well, I do. No taika born from a woman's belly belongs in this world. They should stay where they came from."
"Heaven does not agree. Else why should taika be chosen as kings? What is filthy is to reject the Divine Will of Heaven."
The Royal Kou smirked. "So I gather we won't be seeing eye to eye on this."
"No, we shall not."
"Still, I am your lord. You must follow my lead. Pursue her and kill her. She must not be allowed to escape Kou alive. And while you're at it, post the Imperial Army along the borders of Kei. She is bound to try to return to Kei."
"Would it not be better to pay this unclean girl no mind? You call her a girl, you say she does not have the constitution to be a king, then why would you resort to murder to keep her from the throne?"
"I will not have a taika king on the borders of my kingdom!"
Kourin sighed deeply. "What, then, do you intend to do with the Kei Taiho?"
"Give him to Joei. That'll shut up the province lords."
"It may silence them for the time being, but it will not allay their suspicions for long. With his horn sealed, the Kei Taiho cannot return to human form. He cannot even speak. What kind of Taiho is that? You must not continue in this manner. Heaven will surely not overlook such indiscretions."
"I never said that it would."
"You may be resigned to your fate, but you forget your people."
"The people of Kou are an unlucky lot. After I die, the next ruler may be of better stock. If you take the long view of things, then perhaps it's all for the better."
"What are you saying?" Kourin again buried her face in her hands.
The Royal Kou said in a blank, detached voice, "I was never meant to be a king." Perhaps he was already beyond hope, completely resigned to his fate. "Both you and Heaven chose badly, indeed."
"This is not true."
"True enough. My reign will end after only fifty years. En has stood for five hundred, Sou for almost six hundred. I am a mayfly compared to En and Sou, and yet I have reached my limit."
"If you changed your heart now, your reign would be much longer."
"That ship has already sailed, Taiho."
Kourin hung her head.
"This great task proved my stumbling block. I should have lived and died a provincial guard. Instead, I found myself blessed with this outrageous fortune, when I was not in the least qualified to accept it. A scant fifty years was the best I could do."
"Do not call it scant. The reigns of many kings have been briefer."
"So they have been. The late Empress of Kei, for one. And not just her. Kei has always been caught up in unrest, has fared far worse than Kou. Some of my subjects are ignorant enough to look at En and Sou and say how much poorer Kou is. But when compared to Kei, well, Kou is so much the better."
"Neither En nor Sou were wealthy kingdoms to begin with."
"I know. I did as much as I could. But for every step I take, the En and the Sou are two more ahead of me. And so Kou will be poorer than En and Sou forever. Simply put, I will never reach their level, never be their equal."
"That is not so."
"I can't compete with En and Sou. But Kei is different. Kei is poorer than Kou. But now, if a new king were to ascend to the throne and Kei were to become wealthier than Kou, then what? Kou alone impoverished? And I, the prince of fools who made it so?"
"Will you lose the Mandate of Heaven over so slight a reason?"
The Royal Kou did not answer the question. "Yamato is a wealthy country. Talk to the kaikyaku and you understand that very well. The En returned from Yamato, and his country is wealthy, too. Taika are different from those of us born in this world. When the kingdom of that En taika is so wealthy, why shouldn't I fear the Royal Kei? The taika know secret things that allow them to rule a country so. That's why, no matter what I do, I will never measure up."
"You are talking nonsense."
He smiled a faint, weary smile. "Yes, utter nonsense. I have come too far to back down now. And even if I did, the fate of Kou is set. Kou will go to ruin. I will die, and when I do, the Kei taika, too. We'll all go down together."
You fool. The words came unbidden to Youko's lips, "What a jerk." The vision vanished. Exhausted, Youko set down the sword. "How could someone do something so stupid?"
He didn't want to get left behind, but rather than seeking the cooperation of his neighbors, he would rather drag them down to his level. It happened all the time. God, did it happen all the time. But, still . . . .
"If a king can't give a moment's thought to the suffering of his own people, he'll do the unthinkable just in order to pull off a dumb stunt like this."
How many people would get caught up in this, how many would lose their lives? If Kou was destroyed, the damage would be unimaginable. Enki's words echoed in her head. People are idiots. And the more they suffer, the dumber they get.
Flanked by the kingdoms of Kei and Sou--the Royal En and the Royal Sou never far from his mind--fifty years at the most, he had said. But how long a time was that to him? This was a road she could just as easily head down as well. The Kingdom of Kei was in the same position as Kou, vis-a-vis En and Sou. Was it possible she could start thinking the same way the Royal Kou did?
"This is scary," she said to herself. "God, this is really scary."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-5 Youko went out onto the terrace for a breath of night air. She saw she had a guest.
He was gazing out at the Sea of Clouds. He glanced over his shoulder, waved hello with his tail.
"Can't sleep?" she asked.
"I've been thinking about things."
"Thinking about things?"
Rakushun nodded. "How to get Youko to change her mind, things like that."
Youko smiled wryly. She joined him as she had the night before. She leaned against the railing and looked down at the Sea of Clouds.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Why do you want me to be king?"
"It's not a matter of me wanting. You are the king. You've been chosen by the kirin. But you keep trying to abdicate. So I keep trying to think of ways to stop you. When a king turns his back on his country, it's bad luck for both."
"If I became king, it'd probably be even worse."
"Not in this case."
"Because you have what it takes to do the job."
"You can," Rakushun said and sighed. "Even now, why do you think so little of yourself?"
"Because it's not just about me." Youko looked down at the waves crashing against the shore. "If it were just about me, then sure, I'd give it my best and see what happened. That is, if the responsibility were all mine and I'd be the only one who'd end up dead when I really screwed up. But that's not the case here."
"The people of Kei await the day when they can return to their country."
"Sure, to a wealthy, peaceful country. But that's not something I can give them."
"It's not only about being chosen by the kirin. The Royal En says that anybody has the ability to become an enlightened monarch."
"If that were true, then why is Kei in chaos? Why should Kou be? Even if that ability is there, it is no easy task bringing it to the fore."
"But you will."
"Groundless self-confidence is arrogance."
Reproofed, Rakushun bowed his head.
"This isn't about my self-esteem. If you think that's what my lack of self-confidence comes down to, then so be it. But I've got reasons for thinking so. I've learned a lot here, the most important of which, to put it simply, is that I'm an idiot."
"I don't get any pleasure from criticizing myself. I'm an honest-to-goodness fool. Knowing that much about myself, I've finally gotten around to searching out the less stupid parts of me. That's what comes next, Rakushun. If I try my best and bit by bit can make myself an even slightly better person, then it'd be worth it. If being chosen by the kirin to be a king is proof that you are a good person, then that's something I ought to strive for. But that isn't me now. That's me a long time from now, after I've become a little less of a dunderhead."
I see, Rakushun muttered to himself. He let go of the railing and paced around the wide veranda. "You're scared."
"I sure am."
"This big responsibility fell on your shoulders, and now you're scared stiff."
"That's pretty much it."
"Then you'd better hurry up and get Keiki back, Youko."
When Youko looked at him, he was standing behind her, in her shadow. "You're not doing this all by yourself. What do you think the kirin are there for? Why do you think Heaven made it so that the kirin chooses the king and not the other way around? You call yourself contemptible, you say that you've acted despicably. If you say so, then who am I to contradict you? But when Keiki chose you, he must have thought those aspects of yourself necessarily as well."
"What are you saying?"
"Bring all the parts together to make the whole. You are insufficient by yourself, and so is Keiki. Isn't that why king and kirin were made to exist together? A kirin is a kind of hanjuu, half-human, half-beast. You say you are, too. Two halves make a whole, don't you see? The same way as with the Royal En and Enki."
"There are people who'd be ecstatic to become a king. Having the good sense to get scared thinking about your people means you have the qualities to sit on the throne."
"That's not it."
"But . . . . "
"And trust yourself more. If it will take you five more years to grow into the crown, then why not start now? What's there to be afraid of?"
"But . . . . "
"Keiki chose you as king. Right now, no one else on earth will look to anyone but you as the Royal Kei. The Divine Will of Heaven is the will of the people. That means that no one else can bring about the happiness of the people of Kei. But let's not start things off so seriously. The people of Kei are your subjects. By the same token, you are a subject of Kei. So perhaps the place to begin is with yourself."
"Yeah, but . . . . "
"If you wish to become a better person, accept the throne and become a better king. Do that and you will become a better person, will you not? The duties of a king are indeed heavy. But isn't it better that way? The more responsibilities a person willingly bears, the quicker the soul is honed."
"And if I don't become this better person?"
"If you have the will to better yourself, you will, regardless. The kirin and your subjects will be your instructors. With so many teachers, you won't remain a fool for long."
For a long time, Youko stared silently at the sea. "If I become king, I won't be able to go home."
"Do you want to?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
Youko nodded. "To be honest, my life in that other world wasn't so great. And I don't mind being here as much as I used to."
"Of course not."
"But ever since I came here, all I can think about is going back."
"My parents are there. My home, my friends. If you asked me, yes or no, are they good parents, are they good friends, I'd have a hard time answering. But it's not their fault. I was lacking as a human being, so the relationships I formed were lacking as well. But if I went back, I think I could do it right. Start all over from square one, make a place for myself in the world. I really regret being such a jerk. That's why I'd like to have the chance to do it over again."
Her tears spilled down onto her hands, still grasping the handrail. "Even if I couldn't make it all right, even if that is not the world I truly belong to, I still miss it. I never said goodbye. If I'd had the time to prepare myself, I don't think it would hurt this much. But I left it all behind without a single word of farewell."
"So you did."
"And not only that. I've been telling myself all along that I wanted to go home, that I was definitely going home. It's tough giving up what's kept me going this whole time."
"If I went home, I would regret it for sure. And if I don't, I'll regret it as well. No matter what I do, I'm going to hurt. I want both, but I have to choose only one."
A soft, warm hand touched her cheek, wiping away the tears.
"Rakushun . . . . "
"Don't turn around. I'm not really presentable right now."
She found herself laughing and crying at the same time.
"C'mon, don't laugh. I can't help it. My rat hands won't reach."
"I guess not."
"You know, Youko. When you don't know which choice is the best, then you should choose the path you ought to take, rather than the one you wish for. You know you are going to regret the path not taken. But regrets being more or less equal, better the one where the regret is even a bit less."
"And if you go with what you ought to do, then all that remains is the wishful thinking you had to give up to do the right thing. Such regrets should rest easier on the mind in the long run, should it not?"
The hand clasped against her cheek was warm. "I really want to see what kind of kingdom you are going to build, Youko."
"Thank you, Rakushun."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-6 On the day of the raid on Iryuu, Youko was given use of a species of flying horse called a kitsuryou. The kitsuryou had a red mane with white stripes and gorgeous golden eyes. Jouyuu knew how to ride a horse.
"You're welcome to stay in Kankyuu," said the En, but Youko did not agree. With as many as six thousand troops defending Iryuu, even one more rider could make a difference. Moreover, there was the matter of Keiki, not to mention that this was the business of the Kingdom of Kei. It would not do for her to stay hidden.
To face the En and Enki, who had ruled their kingdom continuously for five-hundred years, and declare, I shall go forth, required as much courage as she could muster. She still knew almost nothing of this world, nothing of how a kingdom actually ran, nothing of its political structure. She hardly had the right to call herself a king.
That was why she had no choice but to go forth, despite how reckless it might appear. If war was what was called for, then to war she would go. And because she could only keep going forward once the ball started rolling, locking herself away in Gen'ei Palace was unacceptable.
Not only Youko, but Rakushun refused as well the safe haven of the palace. She insisted in the strongest terms that he remain behind, but he would not be cowed. Consequently, Enki said that Rakushun could be of use to him, and they left together for Kei. A kirin could not abide bloodshed and Enki would not accompany them into battle. Instead, he and Rakushun would visit the provinces that had fallen to the pretender's army and try to persuade them to see the reality of the situation.
A hundred and twenty beasts flew across the Sea of Clouds. The pretender's army numbered twenty thousand. Of those, a good five thousand were concentrated in Sei Province. This, the En pointed out, was not a force a hundred and twenty could go up against.
"The objective is Keiki alone. If we can rescue Keiki, then we can play for time. If we can sow doubt within the ranks of the pretender's army, convince them that what they are so vigorously defending is merely the pretender herself, then all the better. If only three of the province lords can be brought around, then the tide will turn."
The first step in that process was taking back Keiki. Youko asked, "Can we carry the day with only a hundred and twenty?"
The En laughed. "For the time being, the soldiers I have gathered may not be so great as to take on a thousand each. It is sufficient that they each be the equal of ten. Furthermore, there is no good defense against an attack coming from above the Sea of Clouds. There aren't that many who can fight and fly. Our opponents are likely unaware that the Royal Kei is in our care. I came to get you myself in order to keep them in the dark."
So that was why the En ventured all the way to Youshou by himself.
"And, well, I was curious about what kind of a person this Royal Kei was. But that's why Joei is unlikely to believe that En would ever invade. Even if she did, coming over the Sea of Clouds with a cavalry of a mere one hundred and twenty, they won't see us coming. After that, it all depends on you."
"If you can turn the loyalties of the pretender's army, it could be over quicker than we think. There are bound to be few of your subjects with any desire to fight on Joei's behalf. Once they understand that you are the rightful king, they will hand over Keiki."
If it were only that simple, Youko sighed.
"Don't doubt yourself. You are the king. Never forget it. An actual monarch is something of a vainglorious concierge, but you should never strike that pose with your people. The face you put forward should always be that of the unquestioned person in charge."
Youko sighed again. "And exactly how do you do that? Sure, if you happened to believe totally in yourself. But I don't."
"Ah, and there's the rub." The En laughed. "The way I figure it, the kirin chose me, so if I've got a gripe about it, he's going to get an earful."
Youko looked at him, a bit taken aback. "That's the way to become an enlightened monarch?"
"So it is. At least it's gotten me this far. If I've got a beef about something, Enki will hear it. And even then, if I'm still not happy about it, I'll give it my best shot, anyway."
"That makes sense, I suppose. I'll keep it in mind."
What Youko saw of the Kingdom of Kei with her own eyes was far worse than the visions she'd been shown by the sword. Peering down through the transparent depths of the Sea of Clouds, she began to grasp the extent of the devastation of the countryside. At this time of year, rice seedlings should be visible on the surface of the paddies, but it looked like most of the fields had been abandoned and gone fallow. The roads were empty of people, the hamlets and villages still as death, burned to the ground, only the scorched and blackened ruins remaining behind.
She had thought Kou poor. It was nothing compared to the destitution of Kei. Her heart ached as the images piled up of refugees huddled together at the foot of the city walls. They surely all wanted to go home. She knew well the misery of not having a bed of her own to sleep in at night.
The ground rolling by beneath them, they flew across the Sea of Clouds for half a day before arriving at Iryuu, the capital of Sei Province. In Iryuu as in Kankyuu, there was a high mountain whose peak jutted above the Sea of Clouds. One of the buildings at its peak was the castle of the province lord. Keiki was sequestered somewhere inside that castle.
While still a good way off from the castle, Youko saw a swarm of black shadows rising from the castle like a flock of birds taking to wing. The castle's airborne defenders.
To fight meant to kill. Up till now, Youko had killed everything except a human being, but only because she had not had the courage to take the weight of a human death upon her own shoulders. When she had decided to go forth, she resolved herself to the task ahead of her. It was not that noble ends justified taking human life any more lightly. She would remember forever her opponents and the number of those she struck down. This, she understood, was as much as she could do.
"Are you ready for this?" the En asked.
"Keep your head about you. Losing the Royal Kei now, just as she is coming into her own, that would be a tragedy."
"I'm not so easy to kill. I don't have the good sense to know when I'm defeated, you see."
The En responded with a puzzled frown. Seeing the look on his face, Youko had to laugh. She wheeled herself around to face her charging foes. She drew her sword. The kitsuryou galloped unfaltering through the air. They plunged into the mist of the flying horsemen climbing up into the sky from the castle.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-7 A solitary beast, imprisoned in a room in the depths of the castle, shackled within a thick wall of netting . . .
" . . . a kirin. "
This is a kirin.
An animal with a translucent golden coat and a single horn on its head. The kirin's slender legs, like those of some species of deer, were bound in iron chains. The kirin looked at Youko with its deeply colored eyes. When she approached closer, it touched her arm with its slightly rounded muzzle.
"Keiki . . . . "
At the sound of her voice, the kirin looked straight at her. It folded its legs beneath itself and prostrated itself at her feet. When she knelt and reached out her hand, it did not shrink back. She stroked its golden mane
The other half of me. The beast who had delivered such a fate to her, who in that other world existed only in fairy tales.
Youko said, "I've been searching for you."
The kirin brought its muzzle next to her knees. Several times, almost as if bowing to her, it nuzzled its head against her. Again, as she stroked its mane, she heard a hard noise at her feet, the sound of the chains binding it.
"Hold on. I'll get those things off you."
She stood and focused her attention on the shackles. Aiming the tip of the blade, she drove the sword straight down, severing the fetters. The kirin sprang nimbly to its feet, but continued to chafe its head, specifically its horn, against her arm.
"What's the matter?"
She looked closer and noticed a subtle pattern of designs on the horn, characters a hand's breadth high in a reddish-brown color that looked an awful lot like dried blood.
"Where did this come from?"
Keiki went on scraping the horn against her arm. Youko couldn't help but attend to this vexing behavior. Rakushun was a hanjuu and he could talk. In this world, where even the enchanted magical creatures could speak, should not the kirin, the preeminent of the sacred beasts, be capable of speech as well?
Now that she thought about it, she recalled the vision she had seen in the sword. Kourin had said something like, With its horn sealed, it cannot return to human form and cannot speak. When she lightly brushed her hand against the horn, the kirin calmed down. She scrubbed harder with her sleeve, lightly grazing the surface, but changing nothing else. Examining it more closely, she saw that the thin characters were etched into the horn.
A wound she could do something about. Youko took the jewel from her pocket. Applying the jewel and gently abrading the surface she saw the characters growing fainter. Repeating the process until the characters were almost imperceptible, she suddenly heard a voice at her elbow, a voice she hadn't heard in such a long time.
"I thank you."
The kirin narrowed its eyes slightly and looked up at Youko. "Yes, it is I. I do regret any undue hardships that may have been inflicted upon you in my absence."
Youko smiled. She had even missed that composed, unapologetic tone of voice.
"Are you alone?"
"The Royal En is lending a hand. The Imperial Army of En is holding off the pretender's forces."
"I see." He nodded, then called out in a strong voice, "Hyouki! Juusaku!"
The two beasts appeared, as if emerging from out of the walls. "We are here."
"Go and offer your assistance to the Royal En."
The two beasts bowed deeply and slipped away.
"You are okay?"
"Of course," the kirin said with a nod. His utterly unflappable voice was really quite amusing.
"So when your horn was sealed, your shirei were bound as well?"
"You seem to have learned a great deal," the kirin muttered. "Yes, that is what happened. I am sorry for any trouble this might have occasioned on your behalf."
"Jouyuu wasn't bound so it didn't affect me. What about Kaiko and Hankyo?"
"They are here. Shall I call them?"
"No, as long as they're okay. But I would like to meet them later."
"That can be arranged."
"Oh, come to think about it, I do have a request to make."
"What is that?"
"I'd like you to reverse the order you gave to Jouyuu. I'm still not ready to do without him, though."
The kirin looked at Youko and blinked several times. "You have indeed become a different person."
"I have. Thanks to you and thanks to the hinman. Jouyuu was a great help. I'd like to say so personally, and there's something else I'd like to ask."
"A request you wish to make?"
"Yeah. How do you spell his name?"
The beast's eyes opened wide. "A most peculiar request."
"I suppose. But it seems I haven't really heard his real name yet. It's been bugging me."
As soon as Youko spoke, that unexpected sensation crept up her arm to her hand. Seemingly of its own accord, her finger wrote the characters in the air. "The Useless (Jou) Assistant (yuu)."
Youko smiled. "Thank you, Jouyuu, my Useless Assistant."
The shirei serve the kirin, and by extension the king. There is no need to thank me.
Youko only laughed. Looking at her, the kirin narrowed its eyes. "You truly have changed."
"Yeah, it's been a real learning experience."
"To speak the honest truth, I did not think we would ever meet again."
Youko nodded. "Same here. Say, can't you turn back into a person?"
"I surely do not wish to appear naked before you!"
Youko had to smile at the shocked tone of his voice. "Well, then, I'll get you some clothes. It's about time we headed back. Before returning to Kinpa Palace, we're going to have to crash at Gen'ei Palace for a while."
She grinned and the kirin blinked again. Then he knelt down before her. With every movement, his back radiated an extraordinary luster.
He said, "I greet your Highness bearing the Mandate of Heaven." He lowered his head and touched Youko's foot with his horn. "I shall never part from thee, nor disobey thy decrees. My fealty I hereby pledge in covenant to thee."
The whisper of a smile came to her lips. "I accept."
This was, for Youko, the true beginning of her story.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
From The Chronicles of Kei
The Annals of the Red Child
n the Spring of the Sixth Year of Yosei, the Reign of the Empress Jokaku, the Taiho Keiki fell greviously ill with the Shitsudou. The Capital Gyouten was ravaged by Fire and Pestilence. The Government waxed oppressive. Corruption and Calumny flourished. The Lamentations of the People cried out across the Land, saying, The Gods of War will surely destroy Kei.
In the Fifth Month of that Year, the Empress Jokaku repaired to Mount Hou and there sought Pardon from Heaven and renounced the Throne. And so she died and was buried at Senryou. Her Reign lasted Six Years. Following her Death, she was given the Posthumous Name, Yo.
With the Abdication of the Late Empress Yo, Joei usurped the Throne. Joei falsely named herself Royal Kei and entered Gyouten. The Kingdom was cast into Chaos.
In the Seventh Month of the Seventh Year, the Empress Youko, the Royal Kei of the Kingdom of Kei, accended the Throne.
The Surname of the Empress Youko being Nakajima, her Imperial Insignia being Sekishi, or the Imperial Child, also meaning the Red Child, she having been born a Taika. In the Third Month of the Seventh Year, the Empress returned from Yamato, quelling the Rebellion in the Seventh Month. Answering her Petition, the Royal En, King Shouryuu, deposed the Pretender, Joei.
In the Eighth Month of that Year, the Empress Youko ascended Mount Hou and there accomplished her Investiture. Her Name was recorded in the Census of Heaven, and she was granted the Title of Royal Kei. The Royal Kei re-interred the Late Empress Yo at Gyouten, appointed six new Ministers of State, and established the Government.
The Era of her Reign was designated Sekiraku, from the First Character of the Imperial Insignia and the Name of her Friend and Confident, Rakushun.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love