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A Thousand Leagues of Wind, The Sky at Dawn
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A Thousand Leagues of Wind, The Sky at Dawn



BOOK 1



This book was also released in two volumes. Book one is complete in this post

Introduction
hronologically, the "Youko arc" in Fuyumi Ono's high fantasy series, The Twelve Kingdoms, occurs in the second half of the saga, with the account of Shouryuu (Higashi no Watatsumi, Nishi no Soukai) taking place first. The novels as published essentially begin in the middle and then branch backwards and forwards, a narrative structure similar to C. S. Lewis's Narnia.

In his afterword to Tsuki no Kage, Kage no Umi, the literary critic Mitsuyasu Sakai suggests the following ordering of the six core novels in the series (as of January 2000):


Title / Protagonist
Higashi no Watatsumi, Nishi no Soukai ("Sea God of the East, Boundless Blue of the West") Shouryuu
Tonan no Tsubasa ("The Wings of Dreams") Shushou
Kaze no Umi, Meikyu no Kishi ("Zephyr Oceans, Labyrinthian Shores") Taiki
Tsuki no Kage, Kage no Umi ("Shadow of the Moon, a Sea of Shadows") Youko
Kaze no Banri, Reimei no Sora ("A Thousand Leagues of Wind, the Sky at Dawn") Youko
Mashou no Ko ("The Demon Child") Taiki


So despite it being out of place in the timeline, Kaze no Banri, Reimei no Sora became my next project for the simple reason that I wanted to find out what happened next (that is, as opposed to the anime version).

The title of Kaze no Banri, Reimei no Sora is often rendered as "A Thousand Miles of Wind, The Sky at Dawn."

The word banri literally means "10,000 ri," or 5,760 km (3,580 miles). The term itself comes from the Chinese for the Great Wall of China, or in Japanese, Banri no Choujo ("long castle"). The Great Wall is 6,350 km (3,946 miles) in length, so obviously the literal meaning is not intended. And according to the Kokugo Jiten, banri means "a very great distance."

The following note in the Wikipedia article about the Great Wall of China makes this meaning clear:

In Chinese, "10,000" figuratively means "infinite," and the number should not be interpreted for its actual value, but rather as meaning the "infinitely long wall."

However, "an infinity of wind" sounds a bit odd. 10,000 ri is pretty close to a thousand leagues, which has a closer contemporary sense to that of a vast distance. The literary antecedent here is from Moby Dick by Herman Melville:

I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue.

The "Notes" heading in each chapter will link to my blog site where I will post the notes I've made during translation. As you will observe from the Table of Contents for Book 1 alone, Kaze no Banri, Reimei no Sora is twice as long as Tsuki no Kage, Kage no Umi, so things will proceed at a relatively slower overall pace.

For those interested in reading more of Fuyumi Ono's work, Retrooo's translations of "Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Labyrinth" and "The Demon Child" are posted here. Otyaku has also been translating the Twelve Kingdoms series. A French translation based on this English translation can be found here. The original Japanese novels can be purchased at BK1 (Book 1) and Amazon-Japan, and Sasuga Books and Yes Asia. (The latter two websites are in English.)

Acknowledgments
Translation, as opposed to reading, focuses the mind on what the author actually means, as opposed to simply propelling you along the narrative track. So the real credit goes to Fuyumi Ono for writing some of the most fascinating and creative novels in the high fantasy genre--in any language--that only get more interesting and morally complex and you go along.

What began as an exercise in studying Japanese (and reading a good story) has turned into anything but a solo effort. I lean heavily on Yoshie Omura's collection of Juuni Kokki resources. Yuko graciously answers my questions about Japanese syntax and semantics, and I'm greatly appreciative to Anna for pointing out typos and inconsistencies in the translation.

I write initial drafts using JWPce. My primary references are Eijirou and Yahoo's Daijisen Japanese Dictionary, running under separate tabs in Firefox. The OS is XP Pro SP2 with the East Asian languages module loaded. I dump the text into WordPerfect 12 and then run macros to turn it into HTML, and do the final edit in Homesite 1.0 (still working after all these years!).

The cover art is from the 1994 Kondansha X (White Heart) edition. The maps and pagination are from the October 2000 Kodansha Bunko edition.
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Prologue

er mother dabbed at her eyes. "Take care," she said. Her father and two older brothers remained steadfastly silent. Her younger sister and brother wouldn't come out of the house. Standing at the door, Suzu could hear her grandmother comforting them.

"What's all this carrying on?" said the man next to her. His was the only cheerful voice. "Aoyagi-sama is a wealthy man. He'll dress you in fine clothes, teach you how to behave in civil society. When your apprenticeship is complete, you may well become the kind of proper young lady who can go wherever she pleases without the slightest reservation."

He laughed loudly. Turning her head to glance up at him, Suzu's eyes took in the broken-down shack before them. The posts leaned and the thatched roof sagged. The dirt floor was divided into a mere two rooms, and everything inside leaned or sagged as well.

Theirs was an impoverished life. They were tenant farmers who farmed rice, with most of the yearly yield going to pay the rent. On top of that, the previous year's harvest had proved meager, and when summer came again, ears did not appear on the stalks. As it was impossible to pay the rent, Suzu was indentured as a servant. Not her seventeen-year-old brother, or her eleven-year-old sister, or any of her other nine siblings. It was Suzu, fourteen years old according to the traditional lunar calender, but only twelve if you counted the years from her birth.

"Well, let's get going."

At the man's urging, Suzu bowed. She said no farewells. If she tried, she wouldn't be able to hold back the tears. She steeled her gaze and refused to blink. She looked at her home and memorized the faces she saw there.

"Take care," her mother said again and wiped her face with her sleeve.

With that, Suzu turned around. Her weeping mother, her stubbornly morose brothers, she understood now that none of them would be stepping forward to hold her back.



Suzu trudged silently after the man as they passed through the outskirts of the village. It was near noon and they had already reached the limits of the world that she knew. The trail cut up the slopes from the foot of the mountain. Suzu had never set foot beyond the remote mountain pass.

"You're a good kid. None of this weeping and wailing. That's what I like to see."

The man's cheerful attitude never flagged. He walked with long strides, saying whatever came to his mind. "Tokyo is a great city. You've probably never seen gaslight, huh? The estate you're going to, you'll be able to ride on a street car as well. Do you even know what a horse-draw trolley is?"

Suzu ignored him. To keep herself from looking back over her shoulder, she focused on the man's shadow and let his pace drag her along. When they drew apart, she would catch up in a flurry of tiny steps and then tread with satisfaction on the shape of the man's head.

Repeating this over and over, they crossed the mountain pass. Starting down the other side, the shadow of the man's head disappeared. He had stopped to look up at the sky.

Clouds raced across the sky from behind them. The shadow Suzu had been walking on grew faint.

"Looks like rain."

They glanced back at where they had come from. A shadow climbed the luxuriant, tree-covered slopes from the village. The shadow of the clouds stuck to their heels, almost as if the rain were pursuing. A warm breeze began to blow. Drops of rain drummed on the road.

"Well, this is unfortunate," the man said, and dashed to a giant camphor tree growing along the side of the road. Suzu hugged her furoshiki-wrapped bundle to her chest and followed after him. The big drops of rain thudded against her cheeks and shoulders. Almost as soon as she had reached the cover of the branches, the squall turned into a driving downpour.

Suzu scrunched up her neck and ran toward the base of the tree. The twisting trunk jutting out of the ground provided some cover as well. Probably because of the roots being worn smooth by any number of travelers stopping here to catch their breath, she lost her footing.

Oh, don't trip, she thought, and at the same time was sent sprawling. She pitched forward and with her next step caught her toes on another root. She started to fall. Her feet slipped out from under her. Suzu skittered up to the end of a precipice in a little dance.

"Hey, watch out!"

Halfway through the warning, the man's voice turned into a shout. Where the trunk of the huge camphor tree split apart was an embankment steep enough to be called a cliff. Suzu teetered there on the edge. She dropped everything and reached out for the man's hands, a nearby branch, a clump of bushes, anything, but could not grab hold. She was just about to tumble in when she was struck by a torrent of rain. It roared in her ears like standing underneath a waterfall.


Suzu's memory was intact up until the moment she thought she was going to fall. Then her head spun. She was thrown by the flood of water. She came to herself again. She seemed to be half-submerged in a river. But what river? It was so deep she couldn't feel the bottom. The water washing into her mouth was salty.

The dark water swallowed her up. She lost consciousness. When she next opened her eyes, she was resting on a gently swaying bed. A handful of men were staring down at her.

Suzu aroused herself with a start, blinked. The concerned looks on the faces of the men softened. They said something she didn't understand. She sat up and took in her surroundings. Her mouth dropped open in amazement. She was on a platform of old boards that barely jutted above the surface of the water. Raising her eyes, she saw that the black water went on forever, meeting the sky at the distant horizon in a straight line. It was the first time in her life that she had seen such a wide expanse of sea.

She searched for the big camphor tree she had fallen under. Behind her was a cliff so high she had to crane her neck to take it all in. The cliff was deeply rutted. Here and there white threads of water streamed down the face. The wide platform of boards had been built out from the foot of the cliff. Piers lined the outer edge of the deck. Three small boats were docked there.

Her only thought was that somehow she had been washed down the river and had ended up in the ocean. She'd heard that if you sailed all the way down a river, it would get bigger and bigger and eventually take you to the ocean.

The ocean.

The water was black as night. She placed her hands on the edge of the platform and stared down into the water. It was nothing like the lakes or river she knew. The water was amazingly clear, but she could not see the bottom. It continued on and on until it was swallowed up in a faraway blackness, where twinkling lights swam together in swarms.

Somebody called to her, gently jostled her shoulders. Suzu finally tore her gaze away from the ocean. The men looked at her with distressed expressions on their faces. One of them said something to her that she didn't understand.

Suzu replied with a blank look. "What? What are you saying?"

The men glanced at each other in noisy consternation. They all spoke at once, words flying back and forth, but Suzu didn't comprehend a thing.

"Hey, where am I? I've got to get back. What's the best way to get back to my village from here? The road to Tokyo would do as well, I guess. Do any of you know where Aoyagi-sama lives?"

This set off another flurry of chatter amongst the men. Confused expressions clouded their countenances.

The men huddled together in a conference. Suzu sat down on the deck and took a closer look around.

The cliffs rose straight up as if the edge of the land had been torn off. The inner face of the cliff was hollowed out. There was a waterfall deep within the mountains near where she lived, but the height of these cliffs far and away exceeded the slope of that waterfall. The cliffs stretched out to the right and left or her, almost seeming to enclose the floating platform.

If a section of the decking were removed, there would be no beach or base of the cliffs to be seen, only this huge, floating, raft-like deck jutting out from beneath the cliffs. Boats were tied up where the raft met the water. In the other direction, where the raft touched the cliffs, was a line of small houses.

That makes sense, Suzu thought to herself. There's no beach so they built a beach. But how would anyone climb that cliff? When she tilted her head back and looked more closely, there were stone steps and ladders running up the tall cliff face. That must be how they got up and down.

"Climbing a ladder like that would make my head spin," Suzu muttered to herself.

The men glanced back at her. Pointing, they drew her attention to the top of the cliffs. Then they escorted her across the platform to the stone steps carved into the face of the precipice.

It was the beginning of her gauntlet. She climbed the face of the cliff. Whenever she wanted to stop and sit down, somebody gave her a push from behind or somebody ahead of her pulled her up. Glancing back over her shoulder and quelling the dizziness brought on by the towering heights, she finally struggled to the top.

"I'd hate to have to actually live here," Suzu said, plopping herself down on the ground. The men laughed and clapped her on the back and shoulders. She didn't understand anything they said, but she thought maybe they were praising her for a good job done.

"I'd much rather work in the fields."

There had been nets spread out and drying on the decking, so she could imagine that they had returned from fishing. Every time they brought in a catch, having to haul themselves up and down these cliffs, it must be a horrible amount of hard work. Working in the fields wasn't easy, but at least it was a quick jaunt out to the paddies across the causeways.

Along the top of the cliffs ran a stone wall much higher than she was tall. She was motioned toward a door off to the side, so she dragged her weary body along behind the other men and kept on going.

Inside the wall was a tiny village made up of a line of small shanties that looked like row houses. She was brought to one of the shanties where she was handed over to the care of an old woman. The old woman stripped off Suzu's waterlogged clothing and pointed her towards a futon spread out on a raised platform on the dirt floor. Suzu obediently crawled under the futon. With Suzu's clothing in hand, the old woman left the hut. Suzu watched her leave and then closed her eyes. She was exhausted.

I wonder if I'm going to make it to Tokyo? she thought as she fell asleep. I'd better get to Aoyagi-sama's house as soon as possible. After all, I was sold to him.

There was no other place for her to go to, and no home for her to return to.

Of course, Suzu had no way of knowing that there was no such place as "Tokyo" in this world. The ocean she had nearly drowned in was the Kyokai, or the "Sea of Nothingness."

The place where she had finally arrived was the Eastern Kingdom of Kei.



Many years passed.
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Chapter 2

0-2 Among the lands of the Twelve Kingdoms, that found in the far northwest is known as Hou, or more specifically, the Outland Kingdom of Hou.



The ruler of the kingdom was the Royal Hou Chuutatsu. His registered family name was Son, his original uji, the surname he had chosen at adulthood, was Ken. As a minister of the Rikkan, Ken Chuutatsu had been commanding general of the Imperial Army. After the passing of the previous king, he was chosen by Hourin and acceded to the throne as the Royal Hou.

In the Sixth year of Eiwa, the reign of Chuutatsu had reached only thirty years. That year, Youshun Palace, the Imperial Seat, was stormed by a force of 100,000 soldiers. Unable to bear his tyrannic rule any longer, the armies of the eight province lords had risen up against him.

The like-minded citizens of the city opened the gates of Hoso, the capital city of Hou, and let them in. Almost immediately, they breached the palace perimeter to the inner sanctum where the soldiers of the Eight Provinces battled undauntedly with some three hundred of the king's bodyguards.

In the end, the Royal Hou Chuutatsu was dead.

"What is all that commotion?"

Her mother's arms wrapped around her, Shoukei heard the bloodcurdling war cries. Shoukei was the daughter of Queen Kaka, Chuutatsu's wife. The plaintive query came from the prone and ailing Hourin, the kirin of Hou. The three of them were hidden within the depths of the palace.

"It came from outside. Mom, whose voice was that?"

Shoukei was all of thirteen. She was doted upon by her parents, the very apple of their eye. This young girl, bright and clever, beautiful and graceful, and praised as the veritable jewel of the crown, she twisted her face with dread.

"No . . . it can't be."

The people of Hou, provoked to revolt by the province lords, surrounded Hoso on all sides. The clanging of the instruments of war echoed inside the palace walls, as did the curses they sang out against the king.

A surging tide of ashen blue armor. And those ferocious screams.

"It can't be! Father . . . . "

"No!" Kaka held Shoukei tightly in her arms. "This is not happening!"

Kaka railed against the inconceivable. Overcome by the stench of blood, Hourin cried out disconsolately.

"Hourin!"

Hourin's pale face went white. "The king . . . the king is no longer with us."

In that same moment, in the heart of the palace, came the sound of the door to queen's chambers opening.

The soldiers tread into the room, their armor smeared with blood. The design of the insignia worn by the young man at their lead was that of a constellation of stars, the coat of arms of the province lords.

"Such impudence!" Kaka shouted at him. "Where do you think you are? Heaven forbid you should be allowed for an instant before the queen and Taiho!"

The man's fearless young face hardly wavered. Without a word, he cast down before Kaka the thing he was carrying in his right hand. It struck the floor with a heavy thud and a splatter of blood and rolled next to Shoukei's feet. Bitter eyes stared into space.

"Father!"

All kings were promised immortality, but even an immortal king could not live once his head had been separated from his body. Shoukei and her mother screamed. They cast themselves upon the divan where Hourin lay.

The man laughed. "Do you find your father's--your husband's--visage so frightening?" he asked darkly.

Kaka stared him in the face. "Marquis Kei!" She corrected herself, addressing him more rudely by his name. "Gekkei! You bastard!"

Gekkei, Province Lord of Kei, lowered his voice and said coldly, "The Royal Hou has been deposed. The time has come for the queen and princess to part company."

"What are you saying!" Kaka implored. Clinging to her mother's arm, Shoukei trembled violently.

"The king who enacted cruel laws and oppressed his people and the queen who executed the blameless citizens who criticized him--I desire them both to know something of that suffering."

"The king--the king did nothing but what was good for his subjects."

"What good are laws that reward a child with death for stealing a loaf of bread? A child gasping beneath the weight of poverty, having no place else to turn? Or laws that treat a missed tax payment as a capital crime? Or laws that enslave a man and condemn him to death when he falls ill and cannot pull his load? Whatever you are feeling now is nothing compared to the horrors experienced by the people."

Gekkei motioned with his hand. From the rear of the phalanx, a soldier ran up to Kaka and tore Shoukei from her arms. Shoukei wailed. Her mother cried bitterly.

"You envied other women their beauty and their wisdom. Or rather, feared that their daughters might prove more talented than your own. You concocted imaginary crimes, slandered them, and now the earth resounds with their funeral dirges. Can you begin to comprehend the grief of these families as the corpses of their loved ones were cast before them?"

"You bastard!" Kaka spat at him.

Gekkei paid the insult no mind. He turned to Shoukei, wriggling in the grip of the soldier. "You pay attention as well, young lady. Your miserable family always insulated itself from the scene of the crime. Have you the slightest idea what an execution is really like?"

"Stop it! Please . . . . Mother!"

Shoukei's shrieks stirred not a soul, moved not heart in that place. Gasping, her eyes wide, she watched as Gekkei brandished the sword. Unable to look away even at the instant of impact, Shoukei witnessed the very moment when her mother's life left its body.

A scream frozen on its face, its mouth gasping a wordless cry into empty air, the severed head of her mother rolled against the head of the Royal Hou Chuutatsu.

In that moment, Shoukei could not blink, could not speak. Gekkei cast her a disinterested glance and walked over to the divan where Hourin was resting. Hourin looked up at him with blank eyes.

"I wish you to understand as well the two generations of despair suffered by the people because of this black prince whom you chose."

Hourin stared at him hard, and quietly nodded. Gekkei bowed low in respect. Then he raised the sword above his head.

The Royal Hou and the Hourin Touka. Thus did the dynasty of the Kingdom of Hou draw a close.

Shoukei watched dumbfounded as the bodies were born away. No, to say she "watched" perhaps means only that the images continued to impinge upon her sight. She likely understood nothing of what she was seeing.

She sat listlessly on the floor. Gekkei stood before her. She raised her eyes, from the tip of his toes to the top of his head.

"Son Shou, daughter of the Royal Hou, your name shall be deleted from the Registry of Wizards."

Shoukei looked at Gekkei's face. The reality of her mother's death hadn't sunk in. Now, on top of everything else, losing her place in the Registry of Wizards. That meant that her body would once again begin to age normally. The thought terrified her. Her name had been listed in the Registry for at least thirty years. Where was one such as herself supposed to live now?

"No, please. Not that."

Gekkei glanced at her with a pitying expression. "If I leave you here like this, the people will surely tear you apart in revenge. I will enter you upon the census of a small province. You will be stripped of your social standing and your place in the Registry of Wizards. You name will be changed. You will henceforth mingle with ordinary folk like everybody else."

With that, Gekkei turned to leave. Shoukei called after him, "Kill me also!" Her fingernails dug into the floor. "How am I supposed to go on living?" Gekkei did not turn around. Shoukei grasped the arm of the soldier. "This is too cruel!"

In one corner of the Youshun Palace complex was a castle called Godou. The lord of this castle was Hakuchi, or the "White Pheasant." Because Hakuchi sang only twice in its entire life, it was known as Ni-sei, or "two utterances." The first was, "The king is enthroned." The second was, "The king is dead." For that reason, it was also known as "the last word."

When Hakuchi of Godou castle uttered the last word, it fell dead. Gekkei cut off his feet.

The Imperial Seal itself contained a powerful charm. As one of the Imperial Regalia, only the king could use it. When the king died, the engravings on the seal smoothed over, guaranteeing its silence until a new king acceded to the throne. Without the Imperial Seal, neither laws nor proclamations had any authority. In its place, one of Hakuchi's feet would be used instead.

During the regency of the Eight Province Lords, a single document was sealed with the print of Hakuchi's foot. To wit, that the name of the Princess Son Shou be removed from the Registry of Wizards.

Some three years passed.

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Chapter 3

0-3 At the top of the sky, there is an ocean called the Sea of Clouds. The Sea of Clouds divides the world into what is above and what is beneath. From below, you would never know the Sea of Clouds was there. If you stood on a high mountain peak, you might perceive that the translucent azure blue of the broad expanse of the heavens was in fact the lower depths of the Sea of Clouds. But very few are capable of ascending such heights.

Nevertheless, it is understood by almost all peoples that at the top of the sky is an ocean called the Sea of Clouds, and that it separates the heavens from the earth.

Within the Sea stretched a single band of clouds. The band of clouds flowed toward the east, glimmering in a rainbow of colors. This was the Zui-un.

On a paddy causeway on a farm on a ramshackle little hill, a young girl was cutting weeds. She took note of the clouds.

"Look, Keikei. It's the Zui-un." Rangyoku wiped the sweat from her brow and held up her hand, peering at the dazzling summer sky.

The child next to her, gathering up the cut grass, followed his older sister's gaze and looked with amazement. He saw a beautiful cloud stretched across the southern sky.

"That's the Zui-un?"

"It appears when a new king enters the Imperial Palace. Zui-un means the cloud that accompanies good tidings."

"Huh," said Keikei, staring at the sky. As sister and brother watched the sky, in ones and twos across the paddies, the others busily cutting the summer grass stopped and looked as well.

"A new king is coming?"

"Must be. That bad king we had before died and now the new ruler has arrived. From Mount Hou, the king will go to the palace in Gyouten."

The people didn't have much pity for the fallen king. The king had been a god to them, but all indications were that this king, now divine, would bless them with wiser governance.

"Mount Hou is the home of the goddesses. It is in the very center of the world."

"That's correct. You've studied well."

Keikei puffed out his chest a bit. "Yeah. Mount Hou is where the Taiho are born. The Taiho is a kirin. The kirin is the only one who can choose the new king." Keikei again leaned back and gazed up at the sky. "The goddess of Mount Hou is Heki . . . um, Hekki . . . . "

"Hekika Genkun."

"Right, right. Also known as Hekika Genkun Gyokuyou-sama. And in the middle of Mount Hou is Mount Ka, where the number one goddess lives, Seioubo, the Queen Mother of the West."

"Very good."

"Tentei lives on Mount Suu. He's the Lord God of the Heavens. He watches over everything and everybody in the world." The boy looked high into the sky. The Zui-un left a long trail as it headed to the east. He added, "It's the king that rules the kingdom. If the bad king is gone and a new king has come, does that mean we can go home, now?"

I hope so, Rangyoku thought, hugging her brother tightly. Like many of those standing on the paddy causeways, the sign of the Zui-un awakened hope within her heart.

The miserable rule of the Late Empress of Kei, Jokaku, had brought the kingdom to ruin. In her last days she had ordered the expulsion of all women. Rangyoku had no choice but to take her brother by the hand and start toward the border. Many young women were hidden by their families, or were dressed up like boys, or soldiers and government officials were bribed with large amounts of money. Her mother did her best to protect her, but she died in midwinter during a cold spell that engulfed Ei Province.

The kingdom in chaos, her mother dead, and she being driven from Kei, they resolved to flee to another kingdom across the sea. People like them, banished or escaping the kingdom's devastation and ruin, hurried down the roads. Midway through their journey, she observed the flag signaling a new king flying over the Rishi, the city's riboku shrine.

The Ouki, or Imperial Standard, was that of a dragon rising powerfully into the air against a black background and the constellation of a rising sun and moon.

Greatly relieved by the promise of peace and prosperity, Rangyoku again took her brother by the hand and set off for their hometown. But something strange was going on. When a new king was chosen, the Ryuuki, the flag of a flying dragon, was flown over the Rishi. The Ouki was raised when the king formally acceded to the throne. Rangyoku didn't recall seeing the Ryuuki. When she asked around, indeed, the Ryuuki had not been raised. Furthermore, some Rishi were flying the Ouki and some were not.

The old-timers were suspicious. If the rightful king had acceded to the throne, the natural calamities would have ceased. But they had not. To make matters worse, war broke out over whether this was the rightful king or not. Those living far from the capital had no way of knowing which side would win or which side should win.

Rumors abounded that the king was a pretender and that the true king had risen up against her. And then the raising of the Ryuuki. And the Zui-un stretching to the east. Undoubtedly, the true king had arrived.

Rangyoku watched as the tailing end of the Zui-un disappeared to the east. She said, "Hopefully, this king will bless our lives with good fortune."

All of those gathered on the paddy causeways bowed their heads and uttered the same prayer to the fleeting Zui-un.

The capital of the Kingdom of Kei, Gyouten. The city spreads out in terraces across the high and hilly land. In the western part of the city is the steep and soaring mountain. The mountain's summit pierces the clouds. This mountain, reaching to the Sea of Clouds and beyond, is called Mount Ryou'un, also known as Mount Gyouten. At its peak is the Imperial Palace. Kinpa Palace is the home of the king of the Kingdom of Kei, the Royal Kei.

If you could stand above the Sea of Clouds, Gyouten would be an island floating in the midst of an ocean. On the sloping cliffs of the towering, tiered peak, jutting out into the air, was a many-storied building that enclosed the entirety of Kinpa Palace.

A giant turtle set down at the western edge of Mount Gyouten (Gyouten Island, if you wish). This divine beast had borne the king back from Mount Hou. Its name was Genbu.

The Ministers of the Rikkan lined up along the harbor to greet the new king. They who lived in the world above knew it was Genbu whose flight left the trail across the Sea of Clouds, called the Zui-un by those who lived in the world below.

Under the watchful eyes of the ministers, Genbu extended his craggy neck to the strand. The new king stepped onto the shore and there greeted Chousai, the Minister-in-Chief. A soft sigh followed as many of the people there, heads still bowed, sneaked peaks from under their brows.

Kei was a kingdom in chaos because the throne had so long been vacant. In particular, these past three generations had seen a succession of short-lived rulers, all of them women. Even the pretender that followed them had been a woman. And now, the new king as well.

Kaitatsu is a word unique to the people of Kei. A long time ago, a king ruled Kei for over three hundred years. His name was the Royal Tatsu. Kaitatsu means a nostalgia (kai) for King Tatsu. Toward the end of his reign, King Tatsu inflicted all manners of hardships on his people, but at least for three hundred years they had been governed peacefully and wisely. Kaitatsu reflected that longing for the enlightened rule of a long-lived king. This was the reason for the furtive sigh.

Enough of empresses. It'd be nice to have a king again.

This sentiment was voiced surreptitiously so that others would not hear, but those expressing it were not few in number and the sum of their reactions amounted to a rather public expression of dismay.

Nonetheless, that day the Imperial Standard was raised over the Rishi of Kei. In the Eastern Kingdom of Kei, a new monarch acceded to the throne.

The Era of the Royal Kei Youko, the Dynasty of Sekishi (the Red Child), had begun.
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Part I

here is a mountain in the center of the world called Mount Hou. A goddess by the name of Gyokuyou governs that holy place. Because of the respect and affection held for Gyokuyou, many girls are named after her.

In the northwest quadrant of the world, at the eastern reaches of the Kingdom of Hou, in the province of Kei and the shire of Han, there was a girl named Gyokuyou.

"Gyokuyou!"

The cry carried far on the autumn breeze. The girl lifted her head from amidst the field of dry grass. She grimaced as she straightened her aching back, and she grimaced because she didn't much like the sound of the name.

She'd once had a beautiful name, Shoukei. Not some worn out, dime-a-dozen name like Gyokuyou.

Almost three years ago, stained with the blood of her mother and father, she was removed from the Imperial Palace and sent to the village of Shindou. Her once pearl-like skin was browned and freckled by the sun. Her chubby, peach-like cheeks had wasted away. The bones stood out in her fingers as did the sinews in her legs. The sun had bleached her dark blue hair an ashen gray. Even her violet eyes had lost their brilliance, turning a muddy purple.

"Gyokuyou! Where are you! Answer me!"

Hearing the shrill voice, Shoukei stood up. "I'm over here." She parted the stalks of maiden grass with her hands, showing herself.

She knew who that irritating voice belonged to in the moment she saw her face. It was Gobo.

"How long are you going to take harvesting the maiden grass? The other children are already headed back."

"I'm finishing up just now."

Gobo pushed her way through the tall grass. She took a look at the bundles of stalks that Shoukei had gathered and snorted. "Six bales, indeed. Pretty meager ones at that."

"But . . . . "

Gobo jumped down her throat as soon as the first word came out of her mouth. "No back talk from you. Who do you think you are?" She lowered her voice. "This isn't the palace, you know. You're just an orphan and don't you forget it."

As always, Shoukei bit her lip. No, she couldn't forget it for an instant. Gobo wouldn't let a day go by without casting an aspersion or two or three. She couldn't forget if she wanted to.

"How about you give it an honest effort for once? I don't think I need to remind you that if I let the cat out of the bag, the people of this village would have your head on a platter."

Shoukei held her tongue. Any reply would be met at once with the retort of that grating voice. "Okay," she said meekly.

"What's that?"

"Thank you for all you've done for me."

A sneer came to Gobo's lips. "Another six bales. Work till dinnertime if you have to. And if you're late, you go hungry."

"Yes."

The autumn sun was already low in the sky. Of course it would be impossible to gather six more bales of maiden grass before suppertime.

Gobo sniffed to herself and left, plowing back through the grass. Glancing briefly at Gobo's back, Shoukei grasped the handle of the sickle at her feet. Her hands were liberally nicked and scratched by the maiden grass, her fingers caked with mud. Shoukei had been brought to Kei Province and placed on the books of this remote mountain village. The story was that her parents had died and she had been sent to local rike, a kind of foster home for orphans and the aged from several of the surrounding towns. Gobo was the headmistress of the facility.

Besides Gobo, there were nine children and one old man. At first, Gobo and the others had been nice to her. But children got to talking about how their parents died. Much bitterness was directed against the dead king. Shoukei could not join in, could only hang her head and hold her tongue. When she was asked about her parents, she could not think of a good way to answer.

Moreover, having been born to wealth and power, she knew nothing of rural life. She had no servants. She had been suddenly thrown into an environment she had never seen before, where you tilled the earth by the sweat of your brow and sewed your own clothes with your own hands. She hardly knew her left hand from her right. Having lived such a cocooned life, it was hard getting used to the life of the orphanage. She found herself estranged from the others. She was so dumb, they said, she didn't even know how to use a hoe. She couldn't explain that she had never seen a hoe before, had never touched a hoe before

According to her current census records, Shoukei's "parents" had lived alone in a mountain forest not far from Shindou. They were fumin, itinerants who had quit their homesteads and were not attached to any township. Fumin were often gamblers, criminals, or recluses like her "parents." They had discreetly eked out a living in the mountains near Shindou as charcoal makers, drifters with no ties to the land or any landowner.

They had been executed.

Shoukei's real father, the Royal Hou Chuutatsu, had promulgated countless laws and edicts ordering that the fumin return to their lands of record. To reject one's obligations to the law was to reject the sanctuary of the law. Crime and corruption festered amongst the fumin. Their undisciplined lives undermined the upright citizenry and encouraged the criminal element. The king implored them again and again to return to their homesteads and resume their proper livelihoods. Those who did not could not expect to escape punishment.

Gekkei, the man who had inflicted this plight upon her, he had registered Shoukei on the census as the daughter of this couple. Their child, previously in the care of an orphanage in a faraway village, had supposedly been transferred here just before their deaths.

But Gobo had somehow seen through the fabrication. The girl entrusted to her orphanage was none other than Chuutatsu's supposedly dead daughter. One day she had said to Shoukei, "If this is indeed the case, then you must let me know all about it. This life must be so very difficult for you."

Shoukei had wept. A life spent growing food and raising animals was indeed a trying one.

"Just supposing that the princess herself was living way out here in the sticks, dressed in rags. She who was once known as the brightest gem in Hoso. The jewel in the crown."

Shoukei buried her face in her hands and Gobo continued on in her soothing, coaxing voice. "An acquaintance of mine happens to be a wealthy merchant in the capital of Kei Province. He deeply mourns the passing of our late king."

Shoukei was unable to hold back any longer. Her life could never be as it was before, but the promise of things improving even just a little, of being rescued from this grubby existence, enticed to her let down her guard.

"Oh, Gobo, please help me." She collapsed in tears. "Gekkei, the Marquis of Kei, he murdered my mother and father and abandoned me to this fate. He hates me."

"Just as I thought." But ice and steel were in her voice. Shoukei raised her head in surprise. Gobo said, "You are that monster's daughter."

Shoukei could hear Gobo clenching her teeth and realized her mistake.

"He killed people like they were insects."

It was because people broke the laws, Shoukei wanted to retort, but too intimidated to speak, she swallowed her words.

"He killed my son. All because he felt sorry for a child going to the block and threw a stone at the executioner. For that alone, he was condemned and sentenced to death by that jackal."

"But . . . that was . . . . "

"So you think he should have been executed as well?"

Shoukei shook her head violently. "No, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't know anything about my father doing things like that."

In fact, Shoukei was completely in the dark as to what her father and mother had done. Sheltered within the heart of the palace, surrounded by wealth and fortune, she had assumed that the rest of the world was the same way. It wasn't until the soldiers had gathered in the city below the palace and turmoil had rent the air that it occurred to her that anyone might hate her father.

"You didn't know? You're asking me to believe that the royal princess had no idea what was going on inside the Imperial Court? The whole kingdom fills to the brim with angry protests and the laments for the dead and you don't hear a thing?"

"I honestly didn't know."

"You lived your shameless little life with no idea where the food came from to fill your dirty little mouth? From the people of this village, that's where from! Who, despite all the burdens laid upon their backs, kept their shoulders to the wheel and put in one honest day's work after another."

"I'm telling you, I didn't know about any of this!'

"To think, all that work to feed the likes of you!"

A sharp stab of pain brought Shoukei back to her senses. She'd nicked her finger on one of the teeth of the sickle. "Ow," she said. There was pain in her heart as well as her finger. "I really didn't know what was going on."

Gobo made no bones about hating her. The other children in the orphanage and the people in the village seemed to dislike her as a matter of course. She had to work three times as hard as the other children, she was always the last one done, and everybody called her stupid.

"What did I ever do to them?"

She really hadn't known. Her father and mother had never granted her an audience at the Imperial Court. They never let her leave the palace. There had been no way for her to find out what kind of place the kingdom was.

It took her three trips to haul the bales of maiden grass. By the time she was finally done, long shadows were falling across the road. Dinnertime at the orphanage was over.

"Where have you been, coming in at this hour?"

The snickers of the other girls at the orphanage fell upon her ears. Gobo looked at her with cold eyes. "Like I said, if you didn't get back in time, there's no dinner for you."

Shoukei bit her lip. Three years had passed since coming to live here. She'd learned to endure her impoverished circumstances, her humble attire. But one thing she'd never do was beg for a bite to eat.

"That's the way it goes for silly slowpokes like Gyokuyou."

"Everybody knows what a freeloader she is."

The slanders ringing in her ears, Shoukei dragged herself out of the dining hall.

The courtyard was bathed in the light of the harvest moon. The children were divided up among the rooms on either side of the courtyard, girls on one side, boys on the other. Shoukei lived with the rest of the girls in the chambers on the right side of the courtyard. This short period of time before the others returned to their rooms constituted the few moments of relaxation she had to herself.

Shoukei looked at the row of crude beds, the small tables and creaky chairs, and closed her eyes.

It's all like a dream.

At the palace, she had been given the run of a building in one of the wings, albeit a small one. A big, luxurious bed. Many, many rooms. A garden bathed in sunlight where flowers bloomed and birds sang. Ladies-in-waiting, musicians and dancers at her disposal. Silk dresses and jewelry. Her playmates were the bright and graceful daughters of lords and ministers.

She slipped under the thin futon. The futon was damp and cool. The cold season was coming to the northern part of the country.

Her parents had been slaughtered, their heads tumbled from their bodies. That butcher Gekkei had done it. Rather than consign her to this miserable existence, why hadn't he killed her as well? Because he wanted her to live on in torment.

Shoukei closed her eyes.

It'd be fine with her if she never woke up again.
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Chapter 5

1-2 In the southwest quadrant of the world is the Kingdom of Sai. In the province of Ho and the shire of Jin, there is a mountain that reaches beyond the clouds. It is called Mount Ha.



On that mountain are located the palaces of the king and the province lords. Aside from these buildings, all of the encompassing land up to the base of the mountain is deemed the Imperial Gardens. Everything belongs to the king. The king's gardens, the king's villa, the king's mausoleum. However, Mount Ha itself was given to a woman by a king who had ruled many generations before. The woman who received this enfeoffment established her residence on the side of the mountain near the summit. It is known as Suibidou, the Cave of Delicate Green.

The woman who lives there is a wizard. Also according to the decree of this king--his posthumous name is Fuou--she had been invested as a wizard. The grotto, or wizard's den, is on Suibi Peak on Mount Ha. She is therefore known as Lady Suibi. Her given name is Riyou. She had been the favorite mistress of King Fuou.

It was daybreak. Riyou stood in the entranceway to the grotto. Though she had servants, her life there was a lonely one. She sought out human companionship in the cities near the mountain, but when you are practically immortal and never age, there are few people you can really bond with. She could count on the fingers of one hand the people she really knew, and all of them were wizards, too. She was setting off from the grotto to visit one of them

Suibi Peak looked down on the distant world below. No human being could scale the bottomless cliffs to the entrance of the grotto. Riyou took up the reins of her flying tiger. The tiger's name was Setsuko, another present from the late King Fuou. With her flying tiger, she could come and go from her front doorstep. There were tunnels through which you could descend the mountain by foot or on horseback, but the idea of sneaking out through secret passageways where the sun never shone was an affront to her dignity.

"Please come back soon."

Her servants lined up at the entranceway to the grotto to see her off. They knelt on the ground and bowed low together, their breath puffing pale white in the clear fall air. Looking over the scene, Riyou narrowed her eyes slightly. There were twelve of them altogether.

"You're always in awfully good spirits whenever I go somewhere." A sardonic smile came to her lips. "Must you be so happy to see me go? Well, I suppose this bothersome old cat being away gives the mice more room to play."

Riyou chuckled to herself. Her servants didn't answer, hunched over like birds huddled against a winter wind. Riyou's eyes fell on a girl. Aside from her being the youngest of the servants, there was nothing exceptional about her. Her name was Mokurin, though Riyou never addressed her by that name.

"If you don't wish me to return, well, why not be honest about it? Wouldn't you say, Honma?"

Jackass, the nickname meant. Riyou addressed her with a sneer on her ruby red lips. The girl hesitantly raised her eyes, eyes that seemed overly large on her thin face. Riyou's smile reflected in those large eyes. "You really don't want me to come back, do you?"

The girl shook her head as if offended by the very thought. "All of us humbly await your return. Please . . . please take care."

"Well, with or without your blessing, I should be back within a fortnight. Are you saying you'd like me to return sooner?"

The girl glanced around, as if confused by the question. "Yes," she said, casting a frightened look up at Riyou's face.

Riyou laughed out loud. "But of course. That being the case, I'll hurry back as quickly as possible. I'm sure you'll want to do all you can to make my homecoming a pleasant one."

"Yes. Of course."

With that, Riyou turned to the rest of the servants. "Then why not brew me some gyokkou stones? Oh, and let's make things tidy around here, shall we? And tend to the gardens."

The girl's complexion changed. Gyokkou were stones created on the Five Sacred Mountains at the very center of the world. These stones contained magical powers, which, when brewed, created a kind of mystic wine. These were not stones you simply picked up and carried home with you.

"What's this? You'll be eagerly waiting to greet me with open arms, will you not? And how about some roasted proverb fish and simmered jewel grass? There should be a scrap or two around here somewhere. Though I'm not aware of a single wilted leaf left in the garden."

Riyou smirked, knowing full well the absurdity of her demands. "While you're at it, another coat of paint on the walls and pillars. A freshly-painted home, nothing would please me more. And only because Honma was thoughtful enough to ask."

The girl looked nervously around at the others. None of them raised their heads.

Gazing down at them, Riyou adjusted her ermine coat and picked up the reins. "Well, don't you work too hard, now. I am a forgiving taskmaster. I'm not going to scold anybody for letting their hair down a little. While I'm out, I leave everything in your capable hands."

"As you wish." The servants scraped their foreheads against the ground, as did the girl, who looked about ready to cry.

Riyou climbed onto Setsuko. With a shout of laughter, the flying tiger leapt from the entranceway and down into the wintry desolation of the world below.

The servants raised their heads and watched Setsuko sail out of sight to the north. As one, they looked over their shoulders at the girl.

"You had to go and open your big mouth!"

"Don't you know when to put a cork in it?"

"A laundry list of impossibilities! Honma sowed this mess, and now she can reap it!"

"How about we send the little witch to the Five Mountains? By the time she returns, Lady Suibi will have been back for ages."

There was rank among wizards as well. Riyou herself was a class-three wizard. In order to be one of her servants, you had to have barely enough talent to be listed upon the Registry of Wizards, but nothing more than that. The girl called Honma was the lowest-ranked of the lesser wizards.

"What a fine mess. In the middle of this freezing cold, we're supposed to go to Mount Go and dig up gyokkou stones? And then to the Kyokai to catch proverb fish? And on top of that, jewel grass? At this time of year, with winter coming on, tell me, where's anybody going to lay their eyes on jewel grass?"

"Damn it all, with her finally leaving town for a few days, I was counting on taking things easy for a change."

"Honma can do the cleaning and painting. That's all she's good for, anyway."

Their censorious eyes all fell upon the girl and she fled.

She ran into the garden, to the trunk of an old pine tree in a corner of the garden nestled up against the cliff. There she wept.

When Riyou spoke to her in that manner, how else was she supposed to respond? If it had been any of the other servants, they would have said the same thing. It wasn't her fault. In the first place. Riyou had no intent of letting her servants slack off during her absence. This was always the way she did things. Everybody in the grotto should know that by now.

"What's this now?" came a voice behind her. It was the old man who kept guard over the garden. "Oh, don't let it get to you. They're taking it out on you because they don't have the guts to stand up to her, either. It'll be okay once they get it out of their systems, Mokurin."

The girl shook her head. "That's not my name."

Back in that world she so dearly longed for, she used to be called Suzu. An itinerant monk had taught her the three Chinese characters of her Japanese name, Ooki Suzu. Most people, though, mixed the second and third character together, and because in Chinese ki (or "wood") is pronounced moku, and suzu (or "bell") is pronounced rin, they called her Mokurin. At least when they weren't using some insulting term like Honma, among others. None was her real name.

Her old home on a gently sloping hill amidst the rolling mountains, the moments of warm conversation, she'd lost it all. Already, a hundred years had passed since she'd been swept away to this world. The slave trader had taken her away, and while crossing the mountain pass she'd fallen from some kind of precipice and had ended up in the Kyokai.

"Why does she have to be like that?"

"Because that's the kind of person she is. Don't worry about it so. After all, her being so headstrong was what got her sent packing in the first place. Giving her this grotto was the tactful way of easing her out."

"I know that, but . . . . "

Suzu had been suddenly thrust into this strange world, not being able to communicate, not having the slightest idea what was going on. And all at the age of fourteen.

From the small, seaside village she'd been sent to a bigger town. Not knowing what was going to happen next, she was trundled here and packed off there for days. Finally, she was taken to a big city and was handed over to a troupe of traveling entertainers.

She had spent a little over three years with the troupe. To Suzu, it was a solid blur of incomprehension. They visited cities hither and yon, high and low, met many, many people. All she gathered was that she had somehow been separated a great distance from the land she knew. There were mountains that pierced the heavens, cities surrounded by high walls, strange manners and customs, a strange language. All of it was far beyond her grasp. That was the conclusion she was forced to come to.

With every new city, Suzu harbored fresh hope that, by some happy accident, she would run into a person who could understand her and could send word back to her village. Every expectation was dashed. About the time she began to abandon hope that such a person existed, they arrived in Jin County and there she met Riyou.

In four years she hadn't learned a single one of the troupe's performances. She was consigned to cleaning duties. She knew it was because she didn't understand what anybody was saying.

No matter where they went, she didn't recognize the language people spoke. No matter how many times people talked to her and she talked to other people, nothing made sense. Nobody knew the way home. She had no idea what to do. Every day ended with her in tears.

People would just laugh at her when she said she didn't understand what they were saying. Eventually, Suzu stopped talking all together. It was too intimidating either to speak or be spoken to.

So it was hardly unreasonable that she should be delighted beyond belief when, in a city in Jin County, she met Riyou. It wasn't long before Riyou was deriding her at every turn, but Suzu relished at least being insulted with words she understood.

Riyou could communicate with her because she was a wizard. Learning that if you became a wizard everybody would understand you and you would understand them, Suzu begged to be made a wizard. She'd happily become a servant, work as hard as she had to. And so, answering her pleas, Riyou invested her as a wizard.

And now, for a century, she had been all but a prisoner in this place.

She'd thought of running away any number of times. Yet if she left the grotto without Riyou's permission, Riyou would have her name erased from the Registry of Wizards. And if that happened, she'd be plunged right back into that incomprehensible world of misfortune.

"Well," said the old man, patting Suzu on the shoulder. "You'd better get back to work. No rest for the weary."

Suzu nodded, clenching her cold fingers together. Somebody, she repeated to herself, somebody please save me.
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Chapter 6

1-3 Pale blue heavens, the color of winter. Beneath the low-lying skies, a noisy commotion poured out from the city and snaked up the side of the mountain. The tumultuous echoes rebounded from the towering Ryou-un, almost loud enough to shake the city to dust.

The name of the city was Gyouten. The faces of the people walking its streets were bright and cheerful. Neither the scattered rubble from the wrecked facades nor the poverty apparent in the dress of the city's occupants weighed heavily on anybody's mind. The reason why could be readily understood from the waving banners everywhere you looked.

The design of the banner was that of a yellow branch against a black background. From the branch hung three fruits, peaches according to custom. A snake was coiled around the branch. This was the legendary branch given to each of the kings by the Lord God of the Heavens at the Creation of the World.

Draped from every nook and cranny of every building, the banners ascended the slopes, as if showing people along the way to the auspicious events taking place at the Imperial Palace.

The entranceway to every home was decorated with flowers. Paper lanterns hung from the eaves. From the eaves, the eye was drawn upwards to the soaring blue-tiled roof of the Highland Gate at the entranceway to the compound that housed the Hall of Government.

A new king had acceded to the throne.

The Ouki, the royal standard indicating the accession of a new king, had flown for two months. At last came the announcement of the coronation. The sight of the banners, signaling the arrival of the great day, was cause for much rejoicing.

Crowds of people streamed down the wide boulevards to the Highland Gate. Inside the gate, between the Hall of Government and the Imperial Shrine (used primarily for ceremonial functions) was a wide plaza. The plaza was already jam-packed. Within the neat lines of black-armored Palace Guards and black-robed Ministers of State, and the row upon row of fluttering flags, a figure in black appeared on the rostrum of the shrine. The plaza erupted in cheering.

The Imperial Regalia she wore was called the Daikyuu. It was comprised of a black robe, a black kanmuri or diadem, a pale red skirt, cinnabar apron and red slippers. And as if made to match on purpose, red hair.

"She actually became Empress," Rakushun muttered to himself, recognizing the person standing in the middle of the luxurious room.

Her presence evoked exclamations of admiration from the mismatched pair ahead of him, one tall man, one short. The Daikyuu was the most formal of the king's outfits. Its twelve ornamental insignia identified her supreme rank. Because she was a woman, her kanmuri was smaller. Instead, her hair was beautifully ornamented. The dragon embroidered on her robes was similarly elegant.

The ceremony enthroning the new king had just finished. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Rakushun as he entered the room. A warm smile came to her face.

"Rakushun," she said. She noticed the two men next to him and acknowledged them with a polite bow. "I thank you for coming all this way, Royal En and En Taiho."

Enough with the etiquette, the shorter of the two said with a wave of his hand. "You look great, Youko. I'm sure the spectators saw what they came to see. Your subjects will be disappointed if you don't put yourself on display now and then. Besides, the general public knowing that they've got a babe for a monarch could come in handy in a pinch."

Enki had an indecorous tongue and a completely nonchalant disposition. Youko grinned. She motioned for her guests to sit. They were the Royal En and Enki, the king and Taiho of the Kingdom of En to the north of Kei. The king's name was Shouryuu and Enki's name was Rokuta. En was the only country with which Kei currently had diplomatic relations.

"It's been a while, indeed." She formally greeted Shouryuu and Rokuta. "For all your help I am indeed grateful." She bowed to the gray-haired rat standing next to them. "I must thank you as well, Rakushun. I certainly couldn't have made it to this point without you."

"Oh, it was nothing." Rakushun said with a shake of his tail. "I'm a mere hanjuu. The king shouldn't be bowing to the likes of me. You're making me self-conscious."

Youko laughed.

She had come from across the sea, from the land of Yamato, the place she called Japan. Youko was born in Japan and had suddenly found herself thrust into this world, a world she knew nothing about. With the help of these three, she rightfully claimed the throne. A pretender by the name of Joei had raised an army and sought the kingdom for herself. With the Royal En and Enki at her side, Youko suppressed the rebellion. She of course appreciated all that they had done, but her depth of gratitude toward Rakushun was much more profound. Relentlessly pursued by the pretender's minions, Rakushun had rescued her as she lay on the verge of death.

"I am indeed grateful to you," she said.

Rakushun's tail fluttered back and forth. Rokuta couldn't resist chortling at his discomfiture. "It must be a rare thing for a king in all this get-up to ever bow his head to anybody."

"Oh, give it a rest," said Rakushun, looking up at her. Rakushun was a hanjuu, meaning that he was half-human, half-beast. In his case, a rat. When in rat form, he was about as tall as a human child, so he had to look up at her. "I'm just saying she doesn't have to thank me. It's because of Youko that I was able to attend university in En, that I got to know the Royal En. I'm the one who should be saying thanks."

"That's not something I can take credit for."

Rokuta laughed again. "Come to think about it, Rakushun has done quite well for himself. He can count two kings as personal friends. If his chums at college ever found out, they'd have a fit."

"Point made, Taiho."

Shouryuu said, a smile in his voice, "But weren't you dragging your heels a bit, Youko? Joei's rebellion has been over for two months, already."

Youko smiled wryly. "To tell the truth, I wanted to put it off even longer. The province lords insisted I get it done with by the winter solstice."

It was the king who calmed the heavens and the earth, who propitiated the gods. Of the rites and rituals, the most important was the Festival of the Winter Solstice. The king's role during the winter festival was to travel to the southern district of the city and there make offerings to Heaven and pray for the protection of the kingdom. This ceremony was called the Koushi.

"Why put it off?"

Youko sighed. "Because I haven't yet decided on the Inaugural Rescript."

The Inaugural Rescript was the first proclamation of a new king. All laws were promulgated in the name of the king. However, a law was not even submitted for the king's approval until proposals from the bureaucracy had been considered, the affected ministries had been consulted, and the consent of the Minister of the Left, the Minister of the Right, and the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal had been acknowledged.

It was not intended that the king write the laws and run the kingdom all by herself. The ministers were appointed for this purpose. Laws promulgated upon the king's own initiative were known as Imperial Rescripts.

"What did the Royal En decree?" Youko asked.

"I came up with what is called the rule of one-in-four."

"And that is?"

"For every four ares (400 square meters) cultivated, a homesteader is given one are (100 square meters) of land for every four ares (400 square meters) put under cultivation. This was due to the shortage of arable land."

Youko said with some chagrin, "The ministers want to make the royal color red. They say red because the Late Empress had chosen green."

Rokuta nodded. "I agree."

"You think so?"

"Wood creates Fire. Red follows green. After all, the Late Empress abdicated so that a better reign might follow."

"There are so many customs I don't understand at all."

"Don't be impatient. It'll be second nature to you before long."

Youko managed a smile and nodded. "But this all seems beside the point. From what I've heard, the Inaugural Rescript is supposed to clearly lay out what kind of place I intend to make of this kingdom."

"And yet you can't even agree on which color is best."

Yeah, Youko said, hanging her head. A self-deprecating smile came to her lips. "I still don't know what it means to rule a country. I say I want to make a great kingdom, but what kind of a kingdom is a great kingdom, anyway?"

"Hard to say."

"I want my kingdom to be wealthy. I don't want the people of Kei to go hungry. I suppose that if Kei were wealthy, then people wouldn't go hungry. I was born in a wealthy country. But as to whether that made it a great country, I don't know. All that wealth can distort a lot of things."

The thought went through her mind, Why couldn't I have been a bit more interested in political science and stuff like that? I honestly never even understood how the Japanese government worked.

She said, "I've been entrusted with the weight of a whole country and I can't begin to know how best to balance that burden. How useful can such a king be?"

Shouryuu said, "Youko, governing a kingdom is not easy."

"No, it's not."

page 54
"But you must never let the people see the nature of your struggles."

"I suppose."

"You will have many worries, many troubles, many difficulties. But from the point of view of the people, if you can't be satisfied with your own life, then what value can their own lives have in comparison?"

"You're probably right."

"You have nothing whatsoever to gain by displaying a troubled countenance. No matter how confused you might be, show a confident face to the world. The people will prefer that as well."

"But . . . . "

"Do you think that your subjects can have faith in a hesitant, apprehensive ruler? Will they entrust their lives to a king who apparently finds governing them a constant annoyance?"

"Not at all."

"When you don't know what to do next, first take a good long look at yourself. Don't rush into anything. Life is not short for you."

"But," said Rokuta, sticking his head into the conversation. "I say, to each her own. If you really got as laid back as Shouryuu, now, that would be a problem."

"Rokuta," said Shouryuu with a scowl.

Rokuta ignored him. "Better to have doubts about the Inaugural Rescript than to have none. Who's going to trust a king who tosses off rescripts without a second thought? The fewer the better. Usually, you get a lot of rescripts at the beginning of a dynasty, when pacifying a country in chaos, and at the end of a dynasty, when a peaceful kingdom is being brought to its knees."

"That makes sense."

"On the other hand, Shouryuu here is a positive rescript fiend. You have absolutely no obligation to follow his lead whatsoever in that regard."

Youko had to try hard not to laugh. "I'll remember that."

"How about you trying taking it easy for a while? The affairs of the kingdom have calmed down a bit, haven't they?"

"For the time being," said Youko.

"Then don't sweat it. When it comes to stuff like what direction you want to take the country, it's really not so complicated. Just ask yourself what kind of life you would want to live, and then what kind of kingdom would best bring that about. Don't rush it. Think it all the way through."

"But there's still that Inaugural Rescript . . . . "

Rokuta laughed. "Oh that. In the end, some kings didn't even bother. And others simply wish their subjects to take care of themselves and stay healthy."

Youko burst out laughing. "You're kidding me, right?"

"That was the substance of the Royal Ren's Inaugural Rescript just the other day."

"Unbelievable."

The Kei Taiho walked into the room. He was also wearing the ceremonial regalia. Youko turned and smiled at him. "Hey, Keiki. Look, the Royal En dropped by for a visit."
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Part II


inba Palace was kept in a constant buzz of activity welcoming guests of honor. Ministers and lowly bureaucrats scurried about both tending to the guests and making preparations for the upcoming Festival of the Winter Solstice a month hence. The ladies of the court responsible for the royal wardrobe were likewise busily occupied.

Observing all this, Youko couldn't help rolling her eyes.

"And how does Her Highness wish her hair done today?"

The question was posed by the coterie who tended to her personal appearance. "Oh, just tie it back," she answered.

Her ladies-in-waiting all frowned. "Your Highness, you can't greet your guests looking like that!"

"Indeed. If Her Highness has no particular preference in mind, she should leave it to us."

When they weren't chattering at her in this scolding manner, they went right on arranging her wardrobe pretty much as if she weren't there.

"How would that emerald tiara look?"

"Would it go with the red hairpin?"

"Look, the comb is red as well. Pearl would be better than ruby."

"Well, then let's made the obidama pearl as well."

Youko groaned to herself. It's not that she disliked being dolled up like this, but wearing her hair up and having it festooned with jewelry and doodads made her feel top-heavy. And when the whole shebang didn't feel like it was about to topple over, the long hems of her robes gave her the mobility of a turtle. It was driving her crazy.

"Go ahead and tie it back. And I'll be fine with the jacket."

They all glared at her. "Oh, you cannot be serious!"

Youko surrendered with another groan. In any case, for someone like her, raised in what was to them a foreign country, these were definitely not clothes made for walking. Her life before her coronation had approximated that of a vagabond. At the time, the best she could hope for was a tunic and short hakama made of coarse fabric. Pretty much bargain-basement fashion. Having gotten accustomed to it, though, she couldn't get used to these outfits that had the hems of her robes dragging along the ground behind her.

Even a Japanese long-sleeved kimono wasn't this bad.

She sighed.

In basic terms, men's clothing was based on the houkin, women's on the jukun. The houkin consisted of a light kimono (kin) worn under a jacket or tunic (hou). You never went out just wearing the kin, always the hou over it. The jukun was a more traditional dress, something like a blouse and wraparound skirt. The ju was the blouse and the kun was the skirt. But a woman was not considered presentable wearing only the blouse and skirt. She would never leave the house without donning an outer garment, such as a vest or robe.

All clothing came in a variety of styles with different names. In a nutshell, the wealthier the person, the longer the hem and sleeve, and the more generous the fit. The fabric was always of the highest grade. The clothing wore by the poor was shorter in length and tighter in fit simply in order to economize. Having grown up in a much different environment, Youko found it disturbing that you could tell at a glance a person's economic status.

There was a class system very much at work here. The presence (or absence) of a particular status symbol made all the difference in lifestyle. Government ministers and administrators set themselves apart with the long, wide-sleeved tunics the commoners called chouhou, or "long coats." They referred to their own garb simply as "togs" (hou), while the elite termed it houshi, or "tad togs." Thus were the distances between the classes demarcated.

The clothing Youko wore signified the authority of her office. Her hems must be long, her robes exceedingly so, such that they dragged on the floor. Her sleeves as well must be both wide and long. On top of everything else was layer after layer of kimono. The layers also indicated her status. That alone made for quite an unbearable mass, not to mention the cloth talisman she had to hold on to, the obidama and necklaces and other baubles, and in her hair, a mountain of combs and hairpins pressing down on her head.

If that wasn't enough, they tried to get her to pierce her ears so she could wear earrings. She lied and said that back in Japan getting your ears pierced was the custom of criminals. They bought it.

"Simple is better," she stated. "After all, the Royal En is one of our guests."

Her lady's maid scowled. "Precisely because the Royal En is present, you should not want to be seen so. You don't want to look all dowdy compared to the monarch of such a splendid kingdom, now, would you?"

"And besides, the Royal En is a warrior king."

A pained smile came to Youko's lips. "I just find it hard to get excited about this frilly getup. I'm afraid it's so over the top it's going to put him off."

At least, that's the opinion I'll be sure to leave him with.

Her ladies-in-waiting were still trying to find a comb that went with her hair, and this statement left them looking so despondent that Youko had to laugh. "Look," she said, "I'm not talking about putting on togs, but couldn't we pare things down a bit?"

When she told the Royal En Shouryuu about it later, he roared with laughter. "It's a hard life, isn't it, Youko?"

"I preferred Gen'ei Palace. They understood."

When you became a king, even a man wasn't supposed to run around in togs. Still, for the most part, Shouryuu's appearance was plainer than the average minister of Kei.

Rokuta leaned against the railing of the gazebo and scowled. "Oh, live with it," he said. "He's been fighting it for three hundred years. What you're seeing now are the hard-won fruits of compromise."

"Fighting . . . oh, I see. The fashion police." Youko grinned.

"It's nice in Yamato. You know 'western dress'? The kind of clothes that are real easy to move around in."

"You certainly seem to know it well. You go to Japan a lot?"

"Now and then," Rokuta said with a knowing smile. "One of the few perks of being a kirin. Once a year or so I take a little trip." He folded his arms across his chest. "That said, there's no way I'm going shopping for you or becoming your tailor. What I prefer is no better than beggar's rags, I'm telling you."

"Well, I really don't need anything like that from over there." She glanced at Rokuta. "But exactly how do you go shopping for clothes? The money is completely different."

"Oh, there are ways," Rokuta said with a laugh.

Youko gave him a surprised look. "I thought kirin were supposed to act only with the purest of intentions at heart."

"Let's not go there." Rokuta jumped down into the garden. "Hey, Rakushun, what's up?"

Rakushun was standing at the edge of a lake not far from the portico looking out at the water. Rokuta ran over to him.

They were in Hari Palace, located to the south of Kinpa Palace. Hari Palace was a greenhouse build by a king many generations before. The walls and transoms were made of glass, as was the steeply steepled roof, supported by a row of white stone pillars. Light streamed down on the garden. In the midst of the grove, the clear, brimming water of a lake spilled off into a marshy stream. The lake was stocked with fish. Brightly-feathered birds flew about. The portico enclosed a large garden. Several small gazebos were set amidst the blossoming flowers.

Shouryuu said, "Nice place to take a nap."

Youko smiled. "When do you ever have time to take a nap?"

"Oh, the bureaucrats do most of the heavy lifting in En these days. There's not much left for me to do."

"But of course."

He said, lowering his voice, "It's tough going until you can find the kind of people you can trust the government with." Youko looked at him and he smiled bitterly. "The early days of a dynasty are not about thought and reason. For the time being, your kirin won't be of much use to you. What it comes down to is how long it will take you to gather a band of trusted and loyal retainers."

"Yeah."

"And what became of the Marquis of Baku?"

Youko shook her head with an exclamation of exasperation. The man's name was Koukan. Koukan had once been province lord of a Baku, on the western coast of Kei facing the Blue Sea. After Kei fell into chaos under the rule of the pretender, Baku continued to resist.

When Youko asked for Shouryuu's assistance in overthrowing the pretender, the first thing he encouraged her to do was contact Koukan and obtain the support of the provincial guard of Baku. But before this communique could be delivered, the Marquis was captured by the pretender's forces.

"It seems that the Marquis of Baku had designs on the throne as well."

"Really?"

With Youko's arrival, those not actually residing at the palace had difficulty deciding whether she was the true king or not. Many of the province lords far from the capital flocked to the pretender's side, but Koukan did not. He carried on the fight.

What in the world was he up to, wondered the government functionaries. Far more than the province lords who had sided with the pretender, they focused their criticism on Koukan.

He dared to seek the throne for himself and refused to bow to the pretender, that's what some said of Koukan. Others rose to his defense, and so the Imperial Court was split in two. In the end, the weight of evidence tipped the scales in favor of his critics. Koukan was relieved on his authority, taken into custody and was now awaiting sentencing.

Shouryuu listened to Youko explanation and shook his head. "So that's what it's come to."

"The court officials are sticking to their guns. Keiki has repudiated their handling of the case. And so everything is up in the air. The word is they'll give him a sinecure and put him out to pasture and sweep the whole affair under the rug."

"You speak of it as if it were somebody's else's problem."

Youko managed a thin smile and didn't answer.

Shouryuu said, "Getting a handle on the Imperial Court is always a challenge for a new king. But you've got to know when to take it easy, too. You ride everybody hard all the time and your fair-weather friends will start thinking up with ways to bite back. Backbiting is always the easy first step."

"So it is."

"If they're the type who will back down when the king turns up the heat, then don't make a big deal out of it. In any case, you want to keep things in proportion."

"Was it hard for you starting out?"

"You might say. There's no need try and hurry things along. With a king on the throne, the natural disasters and calamities will abate. By that alone, you are performing a great service."

"But that alone won't do."

"Why do you think kings are given such long lives? Because what needs to be done can't be done in fifty years or so. You're not working against a deadline, so pace yourself."

Youko nodded. "But you must have things that weigh on your mind."

"You mean the things that make your head hurt just thinking about? There's no end to them."

"Oh, great."

"If you didn't have any problems, you wouldn't have anything to do. It'd get boring." So said this king, who had ruled his kingdom for five hundred years. With a tone of voice somewhere between sarcasm and self-mockery, he added, "And if it did, I'd probably destroy En just to see what happened next."
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Chapter 8

2-2 "Say, do you think maybe Youko's getting a little down in the dumps?"

The water in the lake was warm. Rokuta took off his shoes and sat down on the shore and splashed around with his feet. Rakushun sat down next to him.

"It's hardly surprising that you would come to that conclusion."

Rakushun glanced over his shoulder at Rokuta. He'd thought he was the only one this had occurred to.

"Yeah. I have to wonder if Youko and Keiki are getting along."

"Don't be silly."

"But you hardly ever see them together."

"That's true." Rokuta rested his chin on his hands. "It could be that Keiki's just uncomfortable around guys like us. That's why we never see him. Shouryuu and I being the way we are, you know. We're not the kind of company that a super-serious guy like Keiki wants to hang with. And then you have to consider that he and Youko got off to a pretty shaky start."

"You think so?"

"Like I said, a super-serious guy. If Youko was all kicked-back like Shouryuu, they'd probably be at loggerheads already. But Youko taking herself pretty seriously as well, Keiki just keeps himself busy as a bee. Not to mention that Youko is Keiki's second liege."

"How's that factor in?"

"It factors in all over the place. When you've served two kings, you can't help comparing the two. You invest a lot of yourself in your first king. No matter what, the next one's going to take some getting used to. For example, even if the previous king was a bad man and his reign short-lived, the kirin's going to regret it. It's going to stick with him. No doubt it would have been better had Youko been a boy."

Rakushun exhaled. "Probably so."

"Youko can't help but remind him of the Late Empress Yo-ou. On top of that, there's his straight-laced personality, and the man doesn't exactly have a way with words. Makes him hard to read. Not to mention that hardly any time has passed."

Rakushun brought to mind Keiki's brusk, blunt manner, his expressionless face, his limpid, golden hair. Golden hair was particular to kirin, but comparing Rokuta and Keiki, their hair was each golden in its own way. Rokuta's hair was more of a bright yellow, while Keiki's was a colder, translucent color. It almost seemed an extension of his personality.

Rokuta laughed brightly. "One way or another, I'm sure Youko will make it work."

Rakushun nodded. "I'm sure she will."

Youko glanced at Rakushun and Rokuta, sitting there at the water's edge, absorbed in conversation. She said in a low voice, "I still don't get this place."

Shouryuu responded cheerfully, "No, I'm sure you don't. Anyway you look at it, it's different here." He chuckled. "Children growing on trees, now that was a shock."

Youko smiled thinly. The smile faded. "Not knowing all this stuff seems to irritate a lot of people."

"You mean Keiki?"

Youko glanced at him and shook her head. "The ministers and officials, too. Everybody seems taken aback by how totally clueless I am. And who can blame them?"

Every time she said, I don't get it, Keiki and the ministers shook their heads and sighed.

"It's because I'm a woman, that's why they're not happy with me." She'd heard the whispers plenty of times already. This is what you get with an empress.

"Not quite," said Shouryuu.

Youko looked at him. "No?"

"When I came here, the most perplexing things to me were that woman could become ministers and the strange relationship between parents and children."

"Meaning?"

"In Yamato, women were at the center of the family. They never ventured into the outside world. But here, women will leave their children in the care of the father and go to work. Because the Late Empress Yo-ou expelled all the women from the kingdom, Kei doesn't have many female ministers, but in En they make up almost half of my staff. As you would expect, men predominate in the military. Even there, a good third of the soldiers are women."

"Really . . . . "

"If you think it over, there's nothing unusual about it. The kirin choose the kings, and as many of the kirin are female as male. Every generation, the scales may tip one way or the other, but in the long run it balances out to about fifty-fifty. The kings chosen are about half women and half men. Go through the historical records and do the calculations and you'll see that neither sex is favored in the long run."

"No kidding," said Youko, her eyes growing wide.

"There's nothing wrong with a king or kirin being a woman, and there's nothing wrong with a minister being a woman, either. Women here do not give birth, and raising children is not by default the woman's job. So the woman's place is not necessarily in the home. Simply because of raw physical strength, they are not as suited for the military, but where delicacy is called for, or a comprehension of the intricate workings of business, they are unsurpassed. As government administrators they can go far. Secretariats are often staffed by women."

Youko laughed. "Of course."

"That's why I don't think the ministers of Kei are giving you a cold shoulder because you're a woman. At the same time, however, being a women does have something to do with it, Kei having had such bad luck with empresses of late."

She gave him a good long look.

"These last three generations have seen a succession of incompetent monarchs who just happened all to be empresses. The last king Keiki chose was an empress and her reign was singularly short. And then he goes and chooses another empress. So the ministers must be thinking to themselves, What? Again?"

"That's what it's about?"

"That's what it really is about. The Royal Kyou of the northwest kingdom of Kyou has reigned for almost ninety years. And the empress who ruled before her did so for an extraordinarily long time. So if you were to spring a male king on the people of Kyou, they probably wouldn't be very happy about it. In the final analysis, that's what it amounts to. Don't worry about it."

Youko sighed and then smiled. "Thanks for straightening me out."

"No problem," Shouryuu replied with a grin. "If there's any way I can help out, let me know and I'll do what I can."

Youko bowed to him. "I am truly grateful for all you've done."
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Chapter 9

2-3 As she had promised, two weeks later Riyou, lord of Suibi Grotto, returned to her mountainous fiefdom.

When she arrived at Mt. Ha, she drew alongside the soaring castle on Suibi Peak. In the world below, at the foot of Suibi Peak, she could see the hodgepodge of small blue roofs. If you took the tunnel from Suibi Grotto down through the heart of the peak, that is where you would emerge in the world below. The palisades enclosing the buildings stood in neat rows, along with more blue-tiled roofs standing before the gate. It was a shrine dedicated to the wizard who lived on Suibi Peak.

Astride Setsuko's back, peering down at the tableau beneath her, a crooked smile came to Riyou's lips. All she was doing here was piling on the years, nothing more. And yet these people from the world below were grateful for her presence.

Her worshipers no doubt believed that if something serious happened to them one day, Riyou would come to their rescue. In times past, there had been famous wizards of the air who did lend a hand to those in need. Still, it was awfully ignorant of them to expect that all wizards should similarly be overflowing with grace and good works.

"Let's go home."

Setsuko set down before the gate to the grotto. Five servants rushed out to greet her. Riyou dismounted and gave them a once-over.

"Any changes in my absence?"

Fine with her if there were. In a place in her heart she chose to ignore, Riyou knew that a long life was a thing you could weary of. Add three hundred years on top of that, along with the loneliness that came from being left behind by the world. There was not a mortal being left who still remembered a woman named Riyou.

One of the menservants bowed low and said, "There have been no changes."

"Is that so."

She scanned the entrance to the grotto. Of course she remembered what she had asked of them before she left. The grotto had been spiffed up considerably. The various beams and columns sported a fresh coat of red paint, the walls newly-applied white stucco.

"So it looks like nobody ran off and played hooky."

Riyou laughed. Leaving the red tiger in the care of a groom, she took herself back to the main house. When she arrived at her room, three girls were already waiting, heads bowed, no doubt given the heads-up by a fleet-footed servant.

"Welcome back."

She nodded curtly and continued to stand there. The three scurried over to her and began to undress her. The room was perfectly in order. The pillars and walls had been repainted. All this could not have been accomplished in a mere fortnight. They had likely only tended to the places Riyou was most likely to notice.

"Honma."

Startled, Suzu raised her head. The girl's fear of her was palpable from the moment she entered the room till she left. Knowing this, Riyou looked down at the kneeling girl straightening up her clothes. She said with pure spite, "I went to see the brand-new Royal Kei. I'd say she's about your age, an empress."

Empress, Suzu repeated in a small, trembling voice.

"Like I said, about your age, though hardly in the same league. Not very ostentatious. A rather severe young lady."

Suzu nodded. Riyou suppressed a smile as she pulled on her robes. "I ran into her at Kaisen Grotto on Mt. Ga. It was right after the enthronement and I went to pay my respects. The mistress of Kaisen Grotto just happens to be the mother of the Royal Kei from many, many generations past. The empress is a woman of manners and breeding. In other words, not like you at all."

Riyou sat down, comfortably draped in her house robes. Seeing that Riyou's attention was focused on Suzu alone, the two other maidservants bowed and wordlessly withdrew.

"Apparently she was born in Yamato."

Suzu's head shot up, her eyes seeming to fill her entire face.

"That's right. Where you came from, that place across the eastern Kyokai. Ironic, isn't it? Two girls born in the same Yamato. One becomes a lowly maidservant, the other the empress of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei. A frugal dresser, to be sure, but royalty nonetheless. Her clothes and even her hairpins were of the highest class." Riyou smirked. "If we turned you upside down and shook you silly, not a single jewel would fall out. But when she returns to her palace, it's to mountains of gems, no?"

Suzu again nodded. She did not glower or answer back when Riyou ridiculed her. She only debased herself so as not to provoke Riyou any further. Riyou's teasing of the girl resembled that of a predator playing with its prey.

"Oh, I've heard all kinds of things. The Royal Kei was also swept into this world. At first, she was at a complete loss. Isn't that rich? But despite not knowing a thing, she set off on her journey and eventually sought the assistance of the Royal En."

Riyou nudged Suzu's collar with the tips of her crossed feet. "Well, for that matter, there's going to be a world of difference between you and anybody else. Falling in with a bunch of itinerant actors, lacking even the talent to stand up on a stage, relegated to a life of menial servitude. The little nobody who begged and pleaded to become my maid."

She gave the girl another jab with her toes, swaying Suzu's bowed head and shaking free several teardrops.

"Now, now, what's this? Imagining the Royal Kei as some sort of kindred spirit? How impertinent. She'd be furious to be pitied by the likes of you. It'd be like a slap in the face."

Suzu's couldn't hold back her smothered sobs and Riyou raised her eyebrows. Having forced her victim to yield, her interest faded. "You may leave," she said dismissively. "I don't want to look at your wretched face. Get out of my sight."

Suzu ran to the garden, to the twisted old pine tree in the heart of the garden where no one could see her. She clung to the trunk of the tree and wept.

Yamato, the country she so longed for.

"What happened to you, Mokurin? Did the mistress say something to you?"

The old man hurried over to her. Suzu could only shake her head. It was just Riyou being her normal self. She lived to ride Suzu like that. Did she find Suzu so detestable? She couldn't imagine what it was about her that made her so hateful.

"I don't know what she said, but you mustn't take it to heart. Serving the mistress requires a lot of patience."

"I know that."

Even knowing that, it didn't mean being ridiculed by others didn't hurt.

"Then why . . . ?"

Suzu collapsed to the ground in tears. Behind her, the old man sighed. "The Royal Kei," Suzu said between sobs. The Royal Kei was from Yamato. If she was, then from where? What had become of her home country? "Um . . . " she said, raising her tear-streaked face. When the flustered old man turned around, she asked, "The Royal Kei, where does she live?"

"She lives in the Kingdom of Kei, of course. In the royal palace."

"Oh."

A girl who had come from Yamato just like she had. Like her, she had probably been washed onto the shores of Kei. And she became a king. In this world, with their respective stations in life, their paths should never cross.

I want to meet her. Perhaps even find out what kind of person she is.

Another woman like her should have some sympathy for her plight. She would understand what it was like to be separated from her homeland, the distress of being swept into this strange land, the pain of understanding nothing, the torment of her situation.

"Do you think the Royal Kei will ever come to Sai?"

The old man shook his head. "Can't see why she would. A king coming to visit from somewhere else, it hardly ever happens."

"I see."

I want to meet her, Suzu again whispered inside her heart. How could she ever make it happen? As far as going to Kei and finding her there, what were the chances? How would she get to Kei? If she asked Riyou, the woman would just laugh at her. If she asked for the time to journey there, without giving a reason why, it was hardly likely that Riyou would ever let her go. Simply imagining Riyou's abuse and ridicule made Suzu tremble.

I want to see her, but have no way to go to see her.

What kind of woman was she? If she was good enough to sit upon the throne, she should be a person of great charity, not a cruel witch like Riyou. There were so many things she wanted to ask. More than that, so many things she wanted to plead for.

Come. Suzu looked up at the eastern sky. Please come, come to Sai. Come to Sai and rescue me.
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Chapter 10

2-4 The wind blew across the white hill, scattering the fallen snow like a blanket of cherry blossoms.

Shoukei rested her hands from pulling the sleigh and stretched her back. In the distance she could see the walls of Shindou. At last she was drawing near to the town. The town itself looked like it was buried in snow. The dusk was falling, Shoukei's breath blossomed white against the hazy darkness filling the landscape. Winters in the northern kingdoms were severe, especially the winters in Hou, where the snowfall was considerable. More than the cold, it was simply getting around that was so difficult. The roads were buried in snow, the cities shut off and isolated.

Everyone practically holding their breath and waiting for the thaw.

Because nothing could be moved during the winter, the smaller shops had to close their doors. When inventories ran low, only those establishments with horse-drawn sleighs could be depended upon. And if you didn't have the patience to wait for the next sleigh to arrive, your only other choice was to wade through the waist-high snow to the next town.

Which is what Shoukei was doing now.

She drew back her shoulders and took a breath. She picked up the rope and draped it over her shoulders. She had to get to the town before the gates closed. Get shut out of the town in this weather and she would surely freeze to death.

The grade of the road was indistinguishable from the white, rolling hills of surrounding countryside, making it hard to tell where the road ended and the fields began. The fields were surrounded by rock walls to keep grazing goats, sheep and cows from straying, but these too were buried beneath the snow. Though it was yet before the winter solstice, the snowfall this year had been unusually heavy.

Her shoulders ached from the weight of the tow rope. Her toes were frozen. The hundred pounds of charcoal loaded onto the sled made the going slow. She could have just as well been hauling a grown man.

How long do I go on living like this?

Numb and exhausted, that was the only thought going through her mind. Several times already she had run off the road and fallen into a drift. Each time she had to carry up the sled and load the charcoal back on. If she didn't make better time the gates were going to close. That was what kept her shivering, trembling legs moving forward. She dragged the sled along, ignoring the pain that cut like a knife into her throat and sides.

They're all enjoying themselves right now.

The only people that traveled from city to city during the winter were peddlers and the Red Banner troubadours. The Red Banner troubadours chronicled the history of the kingdoms in verse and song. They had come to her town. There was hardly anything fun to do during the winter, so when the Red Banner troubadours showed up it was cause for celebration. Despite this, Shoukei alone was sent out to buy charcoal.

Charcoal was indispensable during the winter, so of course it was kept in good supply. Still, she was told that there might not be enough to last till spring and was sent out to get more. She wasn't even provided with a horse.

She hates me that much.

Shoukei cursed Gobo in her heart. Sending her by herself to a neighboring town to haul back a hundred pounds of charcoal on a sled, Gobo knew for damn sure that one slipup and Shoukei would be dead. And one way or another, she made sure Shoukei understand that she didn't care, either.

How much long do I put up with this?

When she turned twenty, she would get her own partition and could leave the orphanage. The reckoning of those "twenty years" was according to customs followed since time immemorial, but according to Shoukei's age on the census, she had two more years to go.

Two more years of this life.

And even in two years, there was no guarantee that she would get her plot of land. Gekkei, the man who had murdered her father, he wasn't likely to so readily set her free.

She resisted the urge to stop and rest, and instead pushed herself on. At last, she struggled up to the gates just before they closed for the night. Inside the town, there remained something of the lively atmosphere. She staggered back to the orphanage and sat down in the snow. She could hear the excited voices of the children inside.

Two more years.

Those two years stretched out like an eternity. The thirty years she had spent at the Imperial Palace seemed short in comparison. She grimmaced and got to her feet, unloaded the straw sacks of charcoal and stored them in the barn. And then went into the orphanage.

She opened the back door and stepped into the kitchen. "I'm back."

Gobo flashed her a taunting smile. "You've returned with the charcoal, then? If there's even an ounce missing, you'll have to do it all over again."

"It's all there, all one hundred pounds."

Gobo sniffed incredulously and held out her hand. Shoukei deposited the frozen purse in her palm. Gobo checked the contents and gave Shoukei an icy glare. "There's not much change here, is there?"

"Charcoal is expensive. It's pretty scarce this year."

A summer typhoon had blown down the trees on the nearby mountains, leading to the high cost of charcoal.

"So you say," Gobo muttered to herself. She turned to Shoukei with a cold smile. "If you're lying to me, I'll know soon enough. Until then, we'll have to take your word for it."

Shoukei hung her head. Like I would stoop to stealing chicken feed like this, she told herself derisively.

"Well, you'd better get started on your evening chores."

Shoukei only nodded. She didn't have the right to talk back to anybody in authority, so no matter how tired she was, she knew it wouldn't do any good to complain.

Shoukei went to the barn with the other children to feed the animals, muck out the stables, and milk the cow and goat.

Even while doing their chores, the children chattered cheerfully. "Too bad you couldn't get back earlier," a girl said to Shoukei. "The Red Banner people are gone by now."

Shoukei didn't answer, silently cutting the straw into the feed.

"A good thing it snowed," a boy said earnestly.

Even with a horse-drawn sleigh, the snowy roads were almost impassable. When it snowed, the Red Banner troubadours had to camp out in a town until it stopped. Truth be told, Shoukei had been wishing for snow as well. But the snow was also the reason she hadn't gotten home until late.

The Red Banner troubadours were masters of travel, but even winter could best them at times. They usually traveled the circuit of cities and towns from spring until fall and then wintered over in a big city, where they would rent a small dwelling and settle down for the rest of the season. The reason they would take such risks during the winter was because King Chuutatsu, Shoukei's father, had forbid entertainers to work except when the fields lay fallow.

Since his death, many Red Banner troubadours now chose to pack it in during the winter, but there were still those who continued to tour. During the winter, there was nothing to do in the towns and villages. So when a Red Banner troupe showed up, they would be welcomed with open arms. That was enough to motivate not a few of them to brave the elements and keep on trudging from town to town.

"It was a really great show."

"I liked the acrobats the best."

Her head bowed, Shoukei listened to the accounts of their delightful day. She was dying to say how she used to see similar performances all the time at the palace.

"Oh, yes," said a girl, "and the story they told about the empress of the Kingdom of Kei. She's only sixteen or seventeen!"

"What?" Shoukei raised her head.

"Isn't that something? A king is the same as a god, right? I wonder what it would be like to become one of the twelve ruling the whole earth, the elite of the elite."

The other girls nodded. "Yeah."

"I would definitely wear silk, with the embroidered plumage of a bird. And gold and silver and pearls."

"And there was this pretend king who started doing whatever she felt like and the new empress clobbered her. That must have been something to see."

"Because the Royal En came to help her with reinforcements."

"Wow, to think she even knows the Royal En!"

"You know, they must know each other real well if he'd come to her rescue like that."

"Don't you wonder what the coronation ceremony was like? I bet she was all gorgeous and everything."

Shoukei stared down at her feet. The boisterous voices faded away. A sixteen or seventeen year old girl. Who had become empress.

Shoukei knew what living in a palace was like. It was totally different from this remote corner of the world.

It's not fair, she said to herself. She was stuck in this miserable life while a girl her same age was enjoying everything that had been taken from her. Shoukei had no way of returning to the palace. Her wonderful parents had been killed and she had been exiled to the hinterlands where she would spend the rest of her life.

She looked at the shovel in her hands. Hands tanned like leather from toiling under a blazing sun, hands whose protruding joints had grown accustomed to carrying heavy loads, hands that bent like claws, with no one to manicure and care for them. She would grow old like this. As if adapting themselves to living in this hick town, her mind and body were going to seed as well. In time, she'd turn into a boorish old hag like Gobo.

And all the while, the empress of Kei would reside at the palace, eternally as beautiful as she was at sixteen.

"It's not fair."

Deep within her heart, another voice chimed in.

It's unforgivable.
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Part III


he month drew to a close. In Gyouten, the capital city of Kei, the giddy atmosphere finally dissipated. A sense of calm returned to the handling of visitors and the reaction to the coronation in general. The topsy-turvy of the palace settled down. Nevertheless, with the midwinter Koushi ceremony approaching, there was still that sense of being kept constantly on one's toes.

Youko looked out the window and sighed softly. Through the windowpanes she could see the wintry gardens and fields.

Mornings she spent at the Gaiden. Afternoons she returned to the Naiden. These two buildings constituted the core of the palace, where the empress did the bulk of her work. In basic terms, the Privy Council met in the Gaiden and the Naiden was where she performed her official duties as empress.

The Naiden essentially began where the outer palace ended and the Gaiden began where the inner palace ended.

So on one hand, the government functionaries who worked in the outer palace were not allowed as a matter of course to pass further into the castle than the Naiden. On the other hand, the empress's living quarters were mostly found in the inner palace, and she was not supposed to transgress the outer palace past the Gaiden.

Youko had a visitor. He entered the Naiden accompanied by a palace guard. Seeing who her guest was, she raised her eyebrows.

It was Chousai Seikyou. Chousai was his title, Minister-in-Chief Seikyou of the Rikkan, or Six Ministries. The Six Ministries themselves were known as the Ministries of Heaven, Earth, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. They handled the various affairs of the palace, the census and apportionment of lands, ritual and protocol, defense, justice and public works. Historically, the Taisai, or the head of the Ministry of Heaven, assumed the post of Chousai and the administration of the Rikkan. But more recently the appointment of the Chousai simply followed established tradition.

Youko was never sure of how to deal with the magisterial-looking Chousai.

"I beg your pardon, Highness," said Seikyou, prostrating himself before the throne.

"What is it?"

"The matter of workforce management, if you please."

This again, Youko said to herself, biting her lip. Keiki wasn't available to assist her as her chief advisor during the afternoon executive sessions on governmental affairs. He had to attend to his duties as lord of Ei Province. And when Keiki wasn't around, Youko was at a loss when it came to even the basic workings of government. That was probably why Seikyou always showed up in the afternoon.

The realm had fallen to ruin due to the previous empress's mismanagement, the ongoing calamities, strife and youma rampages. Simply getting things back to normal was going to require a massive amount of civil engineering.

Over the past several days, the discussions in the Privy Council had centered around this matter. The question of where the work should begin and according to what criteria laborers should be recruited and deployed was still up in the air.

Youko gathered that the council members had more or less divided into factions. The biggest faction was led by Seikyou. The proposals of his faction were completely at odds with those of the opposing faction. He insisted that, until the spring, flood control measures should be emphasized. The opposing faction insisted that in order for the most people survive the winter, the rebuilding of the cities should be paramount.

Only this morning, Seikyou had again repeated his position before the Privy Council, and now he had come on bended knee to assess her disposition on the subject.

"How is Your Highness resolved as to the matter?"

Youko was momentarily at a loss as how to answer. Both flood control and urban reconstruction were equally important. But which one should be given priority? Kei was not wealthy enough to take on both simultaneously. This was the decision she had been left to unsuccessfully wrestle with.

Moreover, in either case, she was completely incapable of fathoming which flood control measures and urban renewal programs were at issue. She'd read the reports prepared by the Summer Ministry, but she had no idea where these places were, what kind of places they were, or the nature of the relief required.

"I'm sorry, but I really don't know."

She spoke in a muted voice. Admitting her ignorance really grated.

Seikyou sighed to himself. "Your Highness, this is a decision that you must make."

"I'm sorry."

"I am aware that your Highness comes to us from Yamato. However, I trust that by now you have come to some understanding of the situation."

"I am educating myself, but my understanding is incomplete. I am sorry."

"At this point, we need only determine which of these programs shall be given priority."

"I'll talk it over with Keiki and come to a decision."

Seikyou again sighed deeply. "Forgive my forwardness, Your Highness. But is it your intent that the Taiho rule in your stead? The Taiho's first thoughts are always on the alleviation of the people's suffering. Given control of everything, the Taiho will always act out of pity, even to the ruin of the kingdom."

"I know." To a kirin, the suffering of the people took priority over everything else. "But I truly haven't come to a decision."

Seikyou briefly bowed his head. When he raised his head the look on his face was either that of scorn or discouragement. In any case, she knew that he was getting fed up with her. He said, and there was exasperation in his voice, "I am aware that I am being presumptuous, but could I perhaps request that you delegate the matter to one of your subordinates?"

When it came right down to it, time was of the essence and Youko had no choice but to agree. She said, "Sure. Fine. It's all your responsibility, Chousai."

Seikyou bowed low.

Youko watched Seikyou leave and groaned aloud.

Remarkably, the problem-plagued Imperial Ministries had been reorganized, the holes in the dike plugged for the time being. The harmful statutes enacted by the Late Empress Yo-ou had been repealed, the rule of law reestablished. A large part of the military budget had been diverted to assist the refugees, and the year's tax assessments cut.

Bit by bit the kingdom was starting to move forward. That's what everybody assured her.

Everybody was happy that a new monarch had acceded to the throne. Exactly what they were happy for, Youko wasn't sure. What she knew of this world didn't even rise to the level of common sense. Called upon to make a decision, she too often prevaricated. She found giving orders next to impossible.

Any proposal she made would just get laughed at, and, to make matter worse, except for Imperial Rescripts, would have to be approved first by the Sankou and then the Rikkan. Aside from the ceremonial formalities involved with the Inaugural Rescript itself, there was nothing to prevent her from issuing additional Imperial Rescripts. But she didn't have the courage to start issuing rescripts. In the final analysis, she was stuck with the Rikkan that the Late Empress Yo-ou had left to her, and did whatever they told her to.

Such is the lot of the Royal Kei.

Youko laughed derisively at herself. The rejoicing at her accession reached even to the palace. Who could begin to imagine the reality of what even Rakushun and the Royal En and Enki had congratulated her for?

"Your Highness."

Keiki came into the executive chambers, having completed his administrative duties. "It seems that Chousai was recently here."

"Yeah, he was. That business of workforce deployment. I left it all up to him."

"You left it all up to him?"

"Shouldn't I have?"

Keiki answered her question with a disappointed expression on his face.

"Look, I didn't know which one to give priority to. I didn't know because I don't know anything about the conditions of this country. So I handed it over to somebody who did. You disagree?"

"No, that would seem a satisfactory solution." But he sighed.

Youko sighed as well. Since her coronation, she'd heard that sigh any number of times. "If you think I shouldn't have, then go ahead and say so."

"It is always wise to listen to what your ministers have to say. If Your Highness then decided to delegate this responsibility, I see no reason to object."

So why the sour face? Youko thought, looking into his impassive countenance. All she could read in him was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. "If you're not happy with me for some reason, let me know. If there's something you think I should be doing, let's hear it."

A hard edge came to her voice. She was giving everybody reason to sigh, even him, and was getting sick and tired of it.

Keiki said, that same stoic expression on his face, "As you wish. It is the monarch who rules the kingdom. You rule the kingdom according to the council of your ministers. There is nothing wrong with listening with an open mind to what they have to say. But simply handing the entire matter over to Chousai is likely to make the others unhappy. When taking advice from the civil service, you must be sure to consider all contributions equally."

"I do."

Keiki's expression didn't change. "If, upon taking all points of view into consideration, you then decided to delegate the matter to Chousai, I don't believe anybody would complain."

"Are you unhappy with me, too, Keiki?"

Your Highness? the expression on her counselor's face asked, his eyes widening.

"Dissatisfied with another empress? Am I a disappointment to you?"

They all looked at her with suspicious, doubting eyes. Oh, for the good old days of King Tatsu, she could hear them saying. They simply couldn't accept another empress on the throne.

"Nothing of the sort."

Youko averted her gaze and rested her elbows on the table. "You're the one who put me on this throne. So don't look at me like that."

"Your Highness, I . . . . "

Youko interrupted him. "Go away."
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Chapter 12

3-2 Oh, so you were born in Japan as well?

"Yes," Suzu answered with a nod.

And you were swept onto the shores of this world. How unfortunate.

"It was awful," Suzu agreed.

I know, I know. Nobody in this world can truly understand how difficult a kaikyaku's life is. But I do.

"Yes, it is. It's really, really tough," Suzu said. "But I'm so happy to have met the Royal Kei."

I'm pleased as well. You have nothing to worry about anymore. You're a fellow kaikyaku like me. I'll do whatever I can to help you. If there's anything troubling you, let me know.

"I am indeed grateful, Your Highness. I . . . . "

Suzu turned over on her cot. Her imagination failed her. She couldn't think of what to say next.

Since hearing about the Royal Kei from Riyou, she'd had this conversation with herself night after night. The Royal Kei would be full of sympathy for her. They'd converse about Japan, about the trials of the past, their plans for the future. But Suzu had no power, no wealth, no freedom. Surely, the Royal Kei would come to her rescue.

How can I help you?

Could she demand that Suzu be sent to Kei to live in the palace? A luxurious palace, not at all like Suibi Grotto, with generous and kindhearted servants. There they would talk together and stroll through the gardens. And while she was at it, how about giving Riyou a taste of her own medicine?

This child is my fellow countrywoman. If you have treated her badly, I shall not forgive you.

When the Royal Kei said that, Riyou would grovel at her feet. She'd be sorry, then. No matter how bitter, faced with the power and authority of the empress, she would have no choice but to comply.

I shall name Suzu mistress of Suibi Grotto. Riyou will be her servant.

"No, that isn't necessary," Suzu said, shaking her head. "That is not what I want. I only desire that the mistress of the grotto show me some kindness and gratitude. That alone would be sufficient."

My, Suzu, you are a good person.

The Royal Kei smiling at her, Riyou's grateful eyes meeting hers.

"Not hardly," Suzu muttered to herself. "Riyou would never thank me for anything."

She wrapped the quilt around her shoulders. Still, if she could only meet the Royal Kei, that would make up for everything. If she could go and see her . . . .

As she closed her eyes, she heard high tone of a ringing bell. Outside a winter wind was blowing. The high tone mingled with the sounds of the dry, rustling brush, the turbulent chorus of wind weaving through the undulating peaks.

Suzu suddenly sat up and listened more closely. Kang, the bell rang again. It was Riyou calling a servant. She hurriedly slipped out of bed, threw a robe over her nightdress, hastily tied the sash and ran out of the room.

What was going on in the middle of the night?

Riyou didn't care when her servants went to sleep or woke up. Suzu's room had cots for three servants, but the other two had quit a long time ago. Even at the cost of losing their place in the Registry of Wizards, they had decided to run away and had been fortunate and lucky enough to carry it off. At least that's what the other maidservants said.

Urged along by the shrill, incessant sound of the bell, Suzu ran down the hallways and into Riyou's quarters. Already, two other servants had arrived ahead of her. As soon as she entered the room, Riyou's vituperations flew at her.

"You're late! You're such an idiot and slowpoke!"

"I am sorry. I was asleep."

"So was everybody else. You're such a sluggard the stable hands got here before you, and you're supposed to be my personal maid!"

The man and woman who had arrived first averted their gaze. Were they careless enough to rise to Suzu's defense, they would feel the brunt of Riyou's scorn as well.

"I beg your forgiveness."

"Even when asleep, servants should be attentive to the needs of their master. That's why I deign to provide you with room and board in the first place."

Suzu bowed her head. The strange fruits that grew on the mountain, the yield from a plot of land in the ravine, a modest stipend from the national treasury, the meager rent from the fields at the base of the mountain farmed by the locals, taxes collected from the shrine village below Suibi Peak--this was the totality of Riyou's income, and what Suzu and all the others had to live on.

"This is unbelievable! Twelve servants and only three bother to show up!"

Riyou looked at the middle-aged woman. "You! I can't bear this cold. Massage my feet for me. Honma!"

She undoubtedly meant this scornful epithet for Suzu. "It's stale in here. The place needs to be aired out. Go wake everybody up. That's your punishment. The entire grotto needs a good cleaning. It's because of all this dust."

You mean, now? Suzu swallowed the words that came to her lips. If Riyou said do it, she had to do it.

"I am unfortunate to be surrounded by servants who can't clean a blessed thing to my satisfaction. Unbelievable. And be quiet about it. I'm trying to sleep!"

Suzu had no choice but to go around and wake everybody up. Even if it was on Riyou's orders, nobody was ever happy about being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, and they all turned their resentment on her. Her head bowed, she did as she was told. In the wintry dead of night they shook the dust out of everything, wiped, mopped, scrubbed and dried the stone-lined hallways. The winter solstice was almost upon them. The water at this time of night was freezing cold.

Your Highness.

As she scrubbed the floor, the tears welled up. That a girl from Japan had become empress of the Kingdom of Kei pleased her immeasurably. Wouldn't they meet, somewhere, sometime? Meeting her would be the happiest moment in her life. Imagining that moment was so gratifying, and awakening from the dream so miserable.

Your Highness, please help me.

The cleaning took them until sunrise. After a brief nap, morning chores awaited. Riyou awoke toward noon and inspected the work. She expressed displeasure with the effort and told them to do it all over again. This was when Suzu broke a vase.

"What a good-for-nothing you are!" said Riyou, flinging the broken shards at her. "The cost of this vase will come out of your meals. You're a wizard, after all. You won't starve to death. And I'm a charitable enough person that I won't revoke your wizardhood." Riyou hiked up her eyebrows. "You don't like it? Then why not pack your bags and go?"

Leaving the grotto would mean having her name erased from the Registry of Wizards. Riyou knew that was something Suzu could not do.

"Of course you won't." She snorted. "You really are a useless child. It is only because I am such an extraordinarily generous person that I bother to keep you around."

Suzu lowered her face and bit her lip. Could she leave this place? She swallowed the thought as soon as it came into her mind.

"I've been treating you too well. You don't really need a bed, now, do you?"

Suzu looked up at her.

"Every minute you're sleeping in a nice, warm bed you're not doing any work. Don't you think so?" Riyou laughed with open malice. "You may sleep in the barn for the time being. It's so spacious in there and not so cold. Yes, that would suit you well."

That meant sleeping with Setsuko, Riyou's tiger. Suzu's face went pale. Setsuko was not an animal easily handled by others. She was such a ferocious creature that only one man was assigned to be her handler.

"Forgive me, please, Mistress," quailed Suzu, trembling with fear.

Riyou stared down at her with undisguised scorn. "Oh, you'll do it. You ask so much of me. Who do you think you are?"

Riyou laughed and said with an exaggerated sigh, "Well, all right. Instead, you can go get me some kankin."

"Mistress . . . . "

Kankin was a kind of mossy mushroom that grew on the cliffs of the towering mountain. To pick them, you had secure yourself with a rope and rappel down the side of the cliffs.

"Gather some kankin for breakfast tomorrow morning and you can consider yourself forgiven."
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Chapter 13

3-3 When Riyou told her to do something, Suzu knew of no way to refuse. So on a cold, dark night, with the light of a single lamp to guide her, she climbed Suibi Peak. Clinging to the rope, she searched for a footing amongst the rocks and shrubs. Gales of wind buffeted her. Standing on the narrow path that wound along the crest of the ridge, she had to bend over to face the full strength of the wind.

The cliffs where the kankin mushroom grew were dangerously located halfway up the peak. She tied one end of the rope to a pine tree with it roots anchored into the rock. The other end she fastened around her waist. Clinging to the rope, she started to slowly lower herself down the side of the cliff, but the gusts of wind made her hesitate.

The peaks of these towering mountains were extraordinarily tall. Even holding the lantern over her head, Suzu could not see the base of the cliff she was descending. The wind came rushing skyward out of the pitch-black hole as if to cut right through her. The mere thought of lowering herself into these depths with only the one strand of rope to rely on made her weep with fear.

Why did Riyou despise her so much? It would have been better if they had never met. It was difficult to live in a foreign country where you didn't speak the language, but she had to believe that life was still possible even if she couldn't comprehend a single word.

Why do I put up with this hell?

She'd catch a worse beating if she didn't get those mushrooms. Even knowing that, she couldn't move her shivering feet.

I have to meet the Royal Kei. If I could . . . .

But all the daydreams in the world wouldn't change the reality of the black cliffs in front of her eyes. That was all there was, and nothing else.

Should I run away? Leave this place behind for good?

If she could return to Japan, she would without a second thought. That was something wizards could do, but there were wizards and then there were wizards. For a wizard like Suzu, crossing the Kyokai was impossible.

She clung to the edge of the cliff and wept. Suddenly she heard a sound behind her, the sound like the purring of a cat. Suzu lifted her head and raised the lantern. The tiger Setsuko was hovering in the air just beyond the precipice.

Suzu gulped and took a step back. Setsuko floated there in the air, as if ready to pounce. It's jewel-like eyes glittered in the light from the lantern.

"You," the tiger growled insistently at her.

Wizards could grasp the gist of what the tiger was saying, but a wizard of Suzu's status couldn't actually speak the language of beasts.

"The Mistress."

Riyou hadn't been intending all along to feed her to this you-creature, had she? Did she send her out to this solitary mountain crag so this tiger could attack her? Did she hate her that much? But why?

The tiger motioned with its head as if to hurry her along, urging her to just get on with it. So was Riyou spying on her? Making sure that Suzu did as she was told? That's why she sent the tiger after her.

"I know, I know," Suzu answered in a trembling voice. "I'll do it."

She grasped the rope with her shaking hands and little by little inched towards the edge of the cliff. Playing out the rope as she went along, she planted her feet on the edge and stopped, her body suspended in the air. She couldn't move.

I can't do it.

Raw fear prevented her from descending any further.

"I can't. I'm sorry."

The hand holding fast to her lifeline shook as she were convulsing. If it went on any longer, she could fall for sure. Her hand would slip and she'd let go of the rope.

"Please . . . help . . . . "

A moment later, her hand did slip. Suzu was cast backwards into the air. I'm falling, she thought. She had completely forgotten about the rope tied to her waist.

When she came to, Suzu was floating in the air. The face of the cliff was directly in front of her. The ground beneath her was soft to the touch.

So the ground wasn't that far down, after all. She gasped in relief. Then the sensation of soft fur. Setsuko. She was lying on the tiger's back. She screamed. "No! Let me down!"

A moment later the ground disappeared out from under her. Her body was tossed into the sky. She felt herself falling. She clawed at the air, as if in a dream. And then gagged as the Setsuko grabbed the collar of her jacket. She screamed again. With a flick of its head the tiger again tossed her body into the sky. When she landed once more on the tiger's back, she hung on with all her strength.

It can't get any worse.

She remembered that the rope was still fastened to her waist. She could climb back up the cliff face using the rope. With trembling hands she drew in the slack on the rope until, abruptly, there was nothing more there.

"Oh no, it's been cut."

Suzu looked at Setsuko's boulder-sized head. She had no choice but to hold on and let it take her back. But why would this creature, who could not be ridden by anyone but Riyou, return her to the grotto?

"T-take me back." Suzu pleaded with the tiger. "Please, take me back to the top of the cliff."

She felt something warm trickling down her back. It was blood, she thought, her mind swimming, from where Setsuko's fangs had gouged her skin. The pain was severe.

"Please. Help me."

The tiger moved. It came closer to the cliff, approached one of the shrubs growing there. With a deep, ferocious growl it admonished her. Do your duty, it was telling her.

Suzu clung to the tiger. She cautiously reached out with one hand, but couldn't reach. A strong gust knocked her sideways. The stronger the wind, the stronger her panic. Her teeth chattering, her knees knocking, she knew this wasn't going to work.

Apprehensively, she let go with both hands. But as she leaned towards the cliff, she tumbled from the tiger's back. She collided with the face of the cliff, gashing her skin. Setsuko caught her with a claw through her sash and for the third time tossed her onto its back.

Suzu broke down weeping. "Why . . . ?" It was all too much. "Why is she doing this to me? Why does she hate me so much?" Suzu hit the tiger with her fists. "Let go of me! Kill me if that's what you want! Enough is enough!"

Setsuko answered only with a low rumble in her throat.

Take me way from here. It was the first thing that came to her mind. "Where to?" she asked herself timidly. If she ran away, her name would be erased from the Registry of Wizards, and that would be the end of her.

"To Kei."

Go to the Royal Kei. But how? Meet with the Royal Kei and appeal to her. Tell her about her miserable conditions, Riyou's tyrannical rule. But, still . . . .

Suzu's suddenly raised her head. "That's right! If I appeal to the king, I don't have to worry about the Royal Kei!"

She grabbed Setsuko's coat hard enough to pull the hair out by the roots. "I'll petition the Imperial Court! The king of Sai. I get him to punish Riyou and keep my name in the Registry of Wizards!"

Suzu whacked Setsuko as hard as she could. "Go! We're going to Choukan Palace in Yuunei!"

Setsuko reared up without warning. Suzu clung on for dear life as the tiger's body turned and twisted in the air. Swept into this world, she had survived only by debasing herself. And yet her first ever fight she picked she picked with Setsuko. The tiger flailed about, trying to buck her off. At length it seemed to give up and galloped off through the wind, heading straight to the northeast. The destination was Yuunei, the capital of Sai.

The capital city of Yuunei. Somebody was pounding on the gates before the Hall of Government. The night was approaching dawn. Alarmed at what could be afoot at this time of night, the guardsmen rushed to the gate and discovered there a red tiger, and in the tiger's shadow, a young girl clinging to the post.

"What are you doing here?"

"I came from Suibi Grotto on Mt. Ha. Please help me!"

The guardsmen lowered their spears to keep the tiger at bay. They assumed the girl had been attacked by this you-creature. After giving them a haughty glare, the tiger turned his back to them and flew off. The guardsmen breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"Miss, are you all right?"

In the light of the breaking day, the girl's sad state became apparent. Her clothes were torn and stained with blood. Her tangled, tostled hair was also wet with blood.

"Were you attacked? Are you all right?"

Suzu clung to the guardsman who was helping to her feet. It's a miracle. I made it to Yuunei. She cried, "You've got to help me! The Mistress of Suibi Grotto is trying to kill me!"

The guardsmen all looked at each other.

"I'm begging you. Help me!"
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Chapter 14

3-4 The peerage system of the Twelve Kingdoms was organized according to the following seven ranks: king, prince, province lord (or marquis), count (or minister), province minister (or viscount), baron, and knight. There are two ranks of count, count and vice minister (or undersecretary), and three subdivisions each of baron and knight. All the nobility is divided amongst these twelve castes.

At the level of national government, most counts are vice ministers or undersecretaries. Hisen ("wizards of the air") are allowed to rise to the rank of full count or minister. Hisen like Riyou who had been elevated according to imperial edict were granted vice-ministerial status. The rank of servant wizards fell between that of knight and baron, which was higher than the typical government bureaucrat.

In fact, such gradations in rank were designed primarily for purposes of decorum and propriety. For example, when a person of lower rank encountered a person of higher rank on the road, who would yield the right of way. In other words, the authority to demand that you be treated with the proper courtesy, though not much else.

In any case, after collapsing in front of the Hall of Government, Suzu was treated very well. She was taken to a room reserved for honored guests. A doctor and nurse were called to tend to her. She was cared for with the utmost courtesy. In fact, they were just being polite, but being treated politely was a first to her. She had grown up poor, her family having to kowtow to the landlord. She had been forced to crawl under Riyou's heel. Compared to all that, this was almost like a dream.

I must be dreaming, she thought as she fell asleep. She woke herself up to consider her situation some more. The bed was suffused with a soft light.

"Are you awake? How are you feeling?" The lady's maid waiting aside the bed noticed that she had opened her eyes. She spoke in a soft voice.

Suzu said, "I'm doing okay." She sat up. Her joints ached. She grimaced.

"Please, rest yourself. Do you wish to partake of breakfast?"

"Um, yes."

The lady smiled kindly. "We shall make sure of it, then. Thanks be, but none of your wounds was severe. Breakfast is presently being prepared, and a doctor shall see to you shortly. So, please, make yourself at home."

"Thank you," said Suzu. Watching the lady as she left the room, Suzu hugged her arms around herself. "Please make yourself at home. That gorgeously-dressed lady's maid said that to me."

I can hardly believe it. Is this really happening?

The canopy of the bed had already been raised and folded back. The door into the bedchambers was open. The bed itself was like a small room raised on a platform. Looking around the bedchambers, Suzu hugged herself again.

"Not even Riyou's bedchambers are this fine."

The brocaded bedding was warm yet light. It really was a shame she had slept here in her dirty undershirt. The canopy was woven from two layers of fabric, a beautiful embroidery in sheer silk on the one side and a heavier brocade on the other. On either side of the wide bed was an intricately crafted ebony table. There was a shelf also made from ebony, and an ebony footstool for climbing in and out of the bed. The clothes rack for storing kimono was made of silver.

Suzu gazed absently around the canopy bed and then around the light-filled room beyond the bed. "This is so much nicer than anything Riyou has."

Suzu didn't know it, but it was the finest room in the guest palace. Because her status at the Grotto was unknown, they had treated her as if she were a viscount, the highest status that the servant of a hisen can achieve.

She was blankly taking it all in when the doctor came in. He again respectfully examined Suzu's wounds, treated her, and then with a deep bow, exited the room. On his way out, he passed the lady's maid, who came in to ready her meal.

The utensils were silver. The change of clothes she set out were made of brightly colored silk.

It truly must be all a dream.

"Are you in any pain?" the lady's maid asked her.

Suzu shook her head. "Thank you, but I'm fine."

"If you are feeling well enough, I wish to take you to meet someone."

"I think I'll feel up to it. Who wants to see me?"

The lady's maid bowed her head. "It would seem that the king wishes to meet with you."

Suzu's eye went wide.

I don't believe it, Suzu repeated to herself as the lady's maid led her deep into the Imperial Palace. I'm really going to meet the king.

The king of the Kingdom of Sai was known as the Royal Sai. The king had sat on the throne for not yet twenty years, but was beloved by his subjects because of his righteous rule. Beyond that, Suzu knew nothing about him.

They went through a gate and walked up a flight of stairs. Each building they passed through grew more and more opulent. Ruby pillars and white walls, vividly painted balustrades, windows glazed with crystal glass. The doorknobs were all gold. The floors finished with engraved stone, inlaid here and there with mosaics of china tile.

The lady's maid stopped and opened a large, splendidly carved wooden door. She took one step inside the room and then knelt down and bowed her head to the floor. Suzu stared flabbergasted at her surroundings, and then caught herself and hurriedly copied what the lady's maid was doing.

The lady's maid said, "Forgive my intrusion, but I have brought with me the wizardess of whom we spoke earlier."

Her head bowed, Suzu couldn't see who she was talking to. She listened carefully, steeling herself for the fearful, commanding sound. Instead, she heard a woman's soft voice.

"Thank you. She does seems a young thing."

It was the voice of an older woman. There was no scorn, no bitterness in the voice. Rather, it was an encouraging tone.

"Come over here and sit down."

Suzu timidly lifted her head. They were in a wide, resplendent room. An elderly woman was standing next to a large black desk.

"Um . . . . " She fumbled for words, not knowing whether to ask, Are you the Royal Sai?

The woman smiled warmly at her. "Please get up. If you've been injured in any way, I wouldn't make you uncomfortable. Tea? Please, here."

She indicated the chair where Suzu was to sit, and then nodded to the attending servants, who arranged the tea set on the table. Suzu apprehensively got to her feet. Instinctively, she raised her hands and laced her fingers together as if in prayer. "Um . . . are you the Royal Sai? I mean, Your Highness?"

The woman answered affirmatively with a friendly smile.

The Royal Sai's family name was Chuu, her given name Kin, meaning "jewel." The name she had taken as empress was Kouko, meaning "golden mother-in-law."

"I . . . ah . . . my . . . . "

"Don't worry about formalities. Relax. Now, you've come from Suibi Grotto, isn't that right?"

Kouko pulled out the chair for her. Nervously, Suzu sat down on the edge of the seat. "Yes."

"And your name is?"

"Suzu."

"Suzu?"

"Um . . . I'm a kaikyaku."

Really, Kouko's eyes said, widening. "That is indeed unusual. How did you come to be a wizardess?"

With a disconsolate sigh, Suzu began to recount the story that for ages she had been longing to tell somebody. How she had been swept into this world, the tears spilled in frustration at not being able to comprehend the language. How she met Riyou, the first person who understood her, and begged to be made a wizard.

Kouko listening attentively, with the occasional word urging her to continue.

The mistress of Suibi Grotto had been appointed hisen by a king many generations before. The hisen, as opposed to the chisen, or "wizards of the earth," did not take part in government or help shape the national polity. Rather, their distinguishing characteristic was simply that they were long-lived. There were hisen who served the gods, but for the most part they lived secluded lives.

Hisen wizards were not appointed often. In the end, many tired of eternal life and gave up their place in the Registry of Wizards. Presently in the Kingdom of Sai there were only three hisen, and the whereabouts of two of them were unknown. Wizards who had removed their names from the Registry often just disappeared, and neither hide nor hair of them was seen again.

"So Riyou is the Mistress of Suibi Grotto."

"Yes," Suzu nodded.

"What caused your wounds? Were they inflicted by Riyou?"

In answer to her question, Suzu recounted the events of the previous night. Riyou had ordered her to pick kankin mushrooms. She had encountered Riyou's red tiger at the edge of the cliff. Petrified by the tiger's gaze, she had fallen from the precipice.

"That sounds awful. But are you saying that you were sent out to pick mushrooms in the middle of the night?"

"The Mistress does not care about such things. She wanted mushrooms for breakfast and thought nothing of making such a demand. She hates me anyway." Simply thinking about it now brought tears to her eyes. "She was always telling me that she was going to kick me out and erase my name from the Registry of Wizards. I don't speak the language, so if that happened it would be the same as being struck deaf and dumb."

Kouko looked at the weeping girl. Hisen were not involved with the government so she had never meet Riyou. The government's only obligation in turn was a budget appropriation for the maintenance of the Registry. Hisen didn't meddle in the kingdom's business and the kingdom didn't meddle in theirs. That had been standard operating procedure for ages.

"Well, then, I suppose I could speak with the Mistress of the Grotto. In the meantime, you may stay here and recuperate."

Suzu gazed up at her. "She may be removing my name from the Registry as we speak."

"You needn't worry about it. If such a request is made, that is something I would have to approve. If the Mistress of the Grotto does in fact make such a request, I promise to deny it."

"Really?" Suzu stared earnestly into her face. Kouko answered with a smile. Suzu sighed in relief. She had finally, after such a long, long time, been freed from the constant threat and fear. "Thank you. I am so very, very thankful."

She slid down from the chair and prostrated herself on the floor. After this, she wouldn't have anything to be frightened of ever again.
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