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A Thousand Leagues of Wind, The Sky at Dawn
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Chapter 15

3-5 The barn and small garden behind the orphanage were covered in snow. The interior of the barn, usually warmed somewhat by the breath of the animals, was quiet and cold. Shoukei stamped her frozen feet to take the chill from her toes.

The snow piled up deeper every day. The villagers had only recently gathered in the town from the outlying hamlets and the air was thick with the lively back and forth of the year's news. Come the new year, however, and by the end of January people would be getting fed up with each other's company. Spending the winter shut up together like this was one long trial. Pent-up feelings got out of hand and petty disputes started breaking out. About the time the bad blood really began to flow it'd be springtime, and everybody would happily return to the countryside, raring to go.

She doesn't have the slightest idea what it feels like.

As she hauled along the feed for the animals, Shoukei cursed the far-off empress of the eastern kingdom.

What it feels like to live the threadbare life of a country bumpkin, wearing clothes reeking with the stench of farm animals, hands so chapped and frostbitten that the skin cracks and bleeds. Sleeping under a freezing blanket in a drafty, clapboard house so cold that in the morning the frost was white on the walls.

I know. And what kind of life are you living?

Silk curtains, scented bedding, a warm room suffused with light, disturbed by not a single errant breeze. Silk hems trailing behind her as she walked along, the obidama jewels in her waistband and tiara sparkling so brightly. Servants at her beck and call, ministers prostrating themselves before her. Her throne resting on a floor paved with gems, the throne and screens carved with an unsurpassed and delicate craftsmanship, inlaid with precious stones and lined with golden bunting and silver rattan.

Ah, yes, those were her father's most sublime treasures. And now she had everything that Shoukei had lost. She was never hungry or cold and never would be. Worshiped by thousands, wielding authority over every official in the land . . . .

With every step Shoukei took, a hole opened wider in her soul. Her silent imprecations swirled into the maw. At some point, without really noticing it, she had come to believe that everything taken from her had been stolen by the newly-crowned empress of Kei.

Unforgivable.

"Gyokuyou!"

The shrill, jeering voice brought her back to her senses. She blinked, her mind blank. Then she realized that her name was being called. She hurriedly glanced around.

Gobo was standing behind her, staring daggers at her. "How long you going to take divvying up this feed, huh? If you think dawdling around here's going to get you out of helping make breakfast, you've got another thing coming."

"I'm sorry. I just got distracted there for a moment."

"I don't want to hear your excuses!" Gobo grabbed a nearby stick and whacked Shoukei on the legs. "You should be working three or four times as hard as everybody else. You can't make anybody in this town feed you. You have to earn your keep with your own filthy hands."

"Sorry," Shoukei said in a small voice.

She had no choice but to put up with it. Humbly hang her head and it'd blow over sooner or later. She'd learned long ago that it was the only thing she could do. She was waiting for Gobo to spit out a nasty aside and leave when another swift blow with the stick caught her by surprise.

"How about for once you apologize like you really mean it!"

Shoukei fell to her knees and collapsed in the straw, suddenly aware of the fierce pain in her shoulders.

"You think you're getting picked on by some fussy old hag? You give me lip service like that and you think I'm going to let you get away with it?"

"I . . . . "

Gobo once again swung the stick at her. Shoukei curled into a ball as the fierce blows fell on her back.

"Why do I drag your dead weight around with me? Why is it up to us to put food in your mouth? Why did the children of this orphanage have to lose their parents? Huh? Do you even have the slightest idea?"

Shoukei bit her lip. No matter how she was struck she wouldn't say a word.

"Everything is that Chuutatsu's fault! Your father!"

But that has nothing to do with me, Shoukei cried to herself as she lay on the ground. Ah, but Her Highness, the Royal Kei, knows nothing of this life! Her teeth still clenched together, Shoukei heard a faint voice.

"Is it true?"

She lifted her head. Gobo as well looked back over her shoulder. One of the orphan girls was standing stock still in the doorway of the barn.

"What are you doing here . . . . "

"You mean, Gyokuyou's father was Chuutatsu? So that means Gyokuyou is the princess royal?" Her eyes crawled over Shoukei. "That means she's Princess Shoukei!"

Gobo was at a loss as to how to answer. Shoukei just stared at the girl. With a start, the girl spun around and ran to the back of the orphanage. "The princess royal is here!" she called out. "The daughter of those killers!"

The children came in a rush. They stared at the dumbstruck Shoukei in amazement. Several of them darted up to her. Shoukei's face went white. Children's voices rang out from the front yard. She soon heard a loud commotion and the sound of more footsteps approaching.

"She's the princess royal?"

"Really?"

The inflamed throng surrounded Shoukei, driving her into the corner of the shed.

"It's true! Gobo said so herself!"

"Is that right, Gobo?"

Their gaze all fell on Gobo. Shoukei gazed beseechingly up at her. They locked eyes for a second. Gobo turned to the assembled crowd.

"Yes, it is."

There followed a moment of silence, and then the jeering cries shook the barn.

Shoukei was dragged from the barn and thrown into the snow.

"Wait . . . please . . . . "

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, the blows rained down. She screamed and was sent sprawling.

"Stop!"

The shrill voice rent the air. The realization sank into Shoukei's dazed mind that the voice belonged to Gobo.

"Why should we?"

"Think about it, what do you think she's doing here?"

"What do you mean, what she's doing here?"

"Somebody registered her on the census. And didn't have a bit of trouble doing it. Like I said, think about it! Who could pull off something like that?"

"Who could pull off something like that?" The throng all raised the same question, and then called out the same answer. "The Marquis of Kei!"

The Province Lord of Kei, the commander of the province lords, he who had killed the king.

"If it was him that done it, do you think he'd like it if we beat her to death? The Marquis rescued us from that black bastard. We don't fear the king's henchmen. We don't worry about being dragged off to the gallows. All those odious laws were repealed. The Marquis has given us lives of peace and safety."

"But . . . . "

"I hate the little princess as well. But if the Marquis chose to save her, I'm not taking it upon myself to do contrariwise. It'd be like spitting in his face. I know how you feel, but you've got to keep it in check."

Now she says so. Shoukei clawed at the snow. "You're telling me this now! When up till now you've done nothing but torment me for your own entertainment!"

A snowball hit her in the nose. Shoukei covered her face with her hands.

"What are you protecting her for, Gobo? You were the one beating on her!"

"That's right! We get to get even with her, too!"

"Listen, you all . . . . "

"While this bitch was lounging around the palace, my mom and dad was getting murdered!"

Shoukei screamed, "They got punished because they broke the law!" It had always been so. People were always criticizing her parents. But her father didn't execute people because he enjoyed it. "If things are ever going to get better, a kingdom has got to have laws. Otherwise you would all do as you damn well pleased! So of course you're going to get punished! You just resent the people that made the laws because you got caught! If nobody was afraid of being punished, nobody would obey the law in the first place!"

Another snowball came flying at her. Shoukei crouched down as the hard balls of ice pelted her one after another.

"So it's okay to kill people then?"

"Just because they get sick and can't work?"

"We had to leave the fields before the harvest to take care of my parents. That's reason enough to cut off their heads?"

"I don't know about any of this!" Shoukei yelled. "It's not my fault! I don't know what my father did! All I saw was what he let me to see!"

They grabbed her and bound her and threw her into the town jail and left her there. After sundown, Gobo came to see her.

"I brought charcoal," she said. "Don't want you to freeze to death."

Shoukei sat back against the cold wall. "I'd rather freeze to death."

"You will soon enough. Right now they're deciding what to do with you."

"Feeling sorry for me, are you? It really is too late in the day for that."

Gobo gave her a cold look. "I don't feel sorry for you. I just don't want to do wrong by the Marquis."

Shoukei snorted. "Gekkei! That jackal!"

"Enough!" Gobo said in a resolute voice.

Shoukei haughtily raised her head in turn. "Overthrowing the king and sitting yourself on the throne without the Mandate of Heaven, that is regicide. No matter how you try to pretty it up." The horrible images from that day welled up in her mind's eyes. "He killed my father. And even that wasn't enough. My mother, too. And Hourin! Gekkei is a traitor. He slaughtered the king and kirin and stole the throne."

"Really?" Gobo murmured to herself. "So the king and queen were executed in front of you?"

"He's a traitor! Don't you know anything?"

Even if she did, the hard expression on her face didn't change. "What I know is that you are rotten to the marrow of your bones."

"What are you . . . . "

"The Marquis can't take the throne for himself. He lives at the provincial capital. Just because you're a shameless little hussy doesn't mean that everybody else is as self-centered as you. But if that's what really happened to you, then curse all you want. You won't be able to after not too long."

"But of course, you're going to kill me no matter what I say." When Gobo turned her back to her, Shoukei continued to glare at her. Bring it on, then. I'm getting tired of you all.

Gobo said, "It looks like the townspeople aren't coming to their senses, no matter what I say. They're talking about having you drawn and quartered."

Shoukei rose to her feet. "Hold on. They're what?"

Gobo shut the door, abruptly cutting off the light. "Drawn and quartered, you mean?"

It meant tying her arms to a pair of stakes and her legs to two ox carts and then tearing her body in pieces. The most barbaric of all punishments.

Shoukei screamed, but there was no one to hear her. In the freezing darkness of the cell, the only light came from the red glow of the coals in the brazier.
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Chapter 16

3-6 It's all a bad dream, Shoukei thought as she was dragged from the cell. All lies, just more of Gobo's hate at her expense, she told herself over and over. She was taken to the public square in front of the Rishi. The blood froze in her veins.

"It can't be."

The square was lined with people. She saw outsiders there as well. At the center of the wall of people a patch of ground was cleared of snow. Two stakes had been pounded into the earth and two ox carts awaited her.

She looked up at the two men holding her arms. "You're kidding, right? You're not really doing this, right?"

"Oh, getting scared, are you?" one of the men sneered. "But your father did it so often."

The other man gave her a twisted smile. "You should be overjoyed to go out the way your daddy loved the best. Daddy must be dancing in heaven, watching his little girl get her own moment on the stage."

"No . . . . "

Shoukei did everything she could to keep stop her forward progress. She planted her feet, resisted with all her might as they pulled her along, slumped to the ground and writhed to get free of their grasp, and all to no avail.

"Stop, please."

"Quit your whining!" the man spat at her. "This is how my wife was killed!"

All she had done, he lamented, was wear a hairpin on a visit to a neighboring town. He yanked her as if to jerk her arms out of their sockets. "Giving you a taste of your own medicine doesn't quite make up for it, but it's all we got. It'll have to do."

"No! Please."

She saw no pity in the faces of the townspeople. With no hope of rescue, she was pulled down and pinned to the ground. She screamed and wept but these men had not a drop of compassion in them. She folded her arms and drew her knees to her chest. They pulled her arms out and fastened a leather strap around each wrist, turned her face up and stretched out her body and bound her arms to the stakes.

Her eyes wide and searching for help, the dull, overcast sky reflected the empty look on her face. She kicked her legs against the earth. Somebody grabbed her legs. She felt the leather cord being wrapped around her ankles and screamed. She was rendered immobile, literally frozen to the ground.

This can't be happening. Something so dreadful couldn't be happening to her. Her legs were bound with the leather cord. The cord was pulled back and tightened, spreading her legs apart.

Into the corner of her fixed gaze floated a black stain. Ah, a premonition of death. I should want to die before my body is torn in two.

Her jaw was wrenched open and a rag was stuffed into her mouth to deny her the easy out of swallowing her tongue. In her line of vision, the black stain grew larger.

The cord tied to her legs was fastened to the carts. The stain spreading across the sky grew a magnitude larger. Suddenly, she saw a man's face leaning over her.

She saw something red in the midst of the black. A crimson red. No, it was a flag.

An ensign.

And then she recognized the shape of the black stain. It was the silhouette of a bird. A great bird with three wings. Swooping down at them. And the silhouette of a rider astride it. The rider bore the red flag. Shoukei recognized the constellation of stars and two tigers on the flag.

Shoukei shut her eyes. Tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes and froze to her temples.

The flag was the ensign of the provincial guard of Kei.

At the sight of the flag, the people crowded into the square caught their collective breath.

A few more minutes and the years of bitterness would have been revenged. Their families murdered in front of them, decapitated, and unable to do anything to save them. Denied even to bury the remains until the appointed time had passed. All that grief and resentment.

The you-bird alighted in the square.

"Halt!" the guardsman called out.

Why? sighed many of the people there. Why should he show up now? They looked around for Gobo. She had opposed the execution to the end. They could only imagine that she had informed on them. But Gobo was nowhere to be seen.

The soldier dismounted from the bird. He wore armor and fleece. "Lynching is expressly forbidden!"

But why? The disappointed voices swirled about the square.

The soldier surveyed the scene. He wore the insignia of a provincial general. He held up his arm, signaling the crowd to be quiet. Two more birds descended and landed. The soldiers dismounted and ran into the square to free the bound girl.

"I understand what you are feeling. But this is not according to the wishes of the Marquis."

The murmurs of disappointment and disapproval welled up again. Looking out at them, the general could hear the pain in their voices. The people still held the late King Chuutatsu in nothing but raw contempt.

An official famous for his honesty and forthrightness, who ferreted out corrupt bureaucrats in high places and would forgive no subordinate who took a bribe--that official's name was Chuutatsu. When he had been chosen as king, the government had, by and large, rejoiced. He would restore the kingdom, rotting under the rule of previous kings.

However, the laws promulgated in order to stem the decay did not accomplish what Chuutatsu had hoped for. More laws were passed, statutes multiplied, and hardly before anyone knew it, there were regulations covering everybody from commoner to minister, and everything from what you wore to the utensils you ate with. And to these regulations were attached harsh penalties.

Laws must be enforced without sentiment. This saying of Chuutatsu was, on the face of it, correct. If pity and compassion were allowed to distort the enforcement of the law, the law would become powerless. The number of people being punished grew alarmingly. This grieved Chuutatsu and he made the penalties even harsher. If ever a voice was raised in protest, a law was passed and that voice was silenced. And so the bodies of the executed criminals piled up in the town squares.

In the year that Chuutatsu had been deposed, in that year alone, three-hundred thousand people were executed. Since his enthronement, the total had reached almost six-hundred thousand, or one person in five.

"I well understand your bitterness, and so does the Marquis. That is why he dared to sully his own name and struck Chuutatsu down."

After spurring the province lords to commit regicide, Gekkei withdrew to the provincial capital and retired from politics. The province lords and ministers took up the reins of government, but Gekkei would not participate.

"When the people take it upon themselves to pass judgements and exact punishments according to their own interests, then the law becomes an ass. No matter how deep your indignation, you cannot trifle with the law, declare to your own satisfaction what is a sin and what is not, and avenge wrongs without proper authority."

But, came the cries. The man once again held up his hand.

"The fate of the princess royal has already been settled by the lords and ministers. Whatever objections you may have with this judgement, taking the law into your own hands cannot be condoned. If smiled upon even once, the rumors would race from this place like a wildfire. You are not the only ones with grievances to settle. The princess royal is not the only person so loathed. You know how the executioners have all hidden themselves away for fear of being lynched. More than the most cruel punishments, this kind of retribution would eat our kingdom alive. I am asking you to please consider the fate of our kingdom and act prudently."

He gazed out at the bowed heads. "We shall protect our kingdom and deliver it to the new king without shame or regret. How can we expect enlightened rule from our future king if we hand over to him a kingdom ravaged by revenge? The province lords and ministers are all working toward that end, and we all ask for your support in doing so."

The girl was bundled onto the you-bird's back. Silence descended on the square, a silence soon swept away by sound of weeping.
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Part IV

hen Shoukei opened her eyes, she was lying on a gorgeously-arrayed canopy bed. Ah, so it was all a dream after all. She breathed a sigh of relief. All a dream: the murder of her parents, being sent off to the orphanage, the slings and arrows of so much hate and malice, on the verge of being most cruelly executed.

"You awake?" a frosty voice said.

Shoukei sat up and looked around. The lady's maid sitting there next to the bed glared at her. Shoukei thought, What's this wench doing in my private chambers?

As she mulled it over, the lady's maid got up and left the room. Shoukei finally noticed the differences between her room at Youshun Palace and the room she was in. All she had on was a short-sleeved cotton singlet, its hem lengthened with a mismatched patchwork of fabrics.

Anxiety welled up in her heart. Glancing around the room, she saw folded on the table a plain jukun, a blouse and skirt made of stiff, rough wool, a cotton smock and a wool jacket.

"Where am I?"

Still wearing only the singlet, Shoukei stepped down from the bed stand and wandered around the room.

This isn't a dream. That guardsman came to my rescue and saved me.

Shoukei didn't know if that was something she should be grateful for or not. The bedroom door opened. A man was shown into the room by the lady's maid.

Shoukei froze on the spot. "Gekkei."

A sardonic smile came to the man's lips. "Get dressed."

Shoukei rushed back to the bed stand, mortified to have been seen in the threadbare singlet. She hastily donned the jukun, flushing with shame at the shabbiness of the blouse and skirt.

"Your thanks are in order to Gobo. She traveled all through the day and night to get to the castle to let us know what was going on."

Gekkei's voice filtered through the curtains of the big canopy bed. Shoukei arranged the outfit as best she could. Gobo? she grimaced. What was with that woman? She'd made her life hell and then turned around and kissed up to Gekkei like an angel. Be thankful to a creature like that?

With all the intestinal fortitude she could muster, she emerged from the canopy bed and stepped down from the bed stand, holding her head high. Gekkei leaned back against the big table, folded his arms and looked her over.

"I never thought we'd meet again, but unfortunately it became necessary."

"Satisfied are you? Happy to see me reduced to such a degenerate state?"

"You are quite the dreadful sight."

Shoukei felt the blood rush to her cheeks. Her impoverished appearance next to the silk-clad Gekkei. Her bony, sunburnt body. As it was winter, she hadn't bathed in ages.

"You did this to me." Shoukei said, her words suffused with anger.

"You mean, dressed you in rags and sent you to work?" Gekkei smirked. "How easy it must have been to adorn yourself with silk and jewels and be praised for your beauty. What girl would not think herself elegant with servants at her beck and call, and summers spent frolicking in the shade of the trees? But the great majority of the people wear what you call rags and work the land by the sweat of their brows. What is truly ugly is your contempt for their humble lives."

"And where are we now, Gekkei?" Shoukei spat back at him. "In your castle, with you dressed in silk, toying with the powers of the government, indulging your prurient little games. Is it fun playing king?"

Gekkei grinned. "I can hardly think of how to reply to such a question."

"You're the traitor who killed the king and stole the throne."

"That as well I see no need to deny. It is certainly correct on its face." He turned his gaze on her. "Evidently, allowing the princess royal to reside in Hou will only cause more senseless chaos. It's probably best that you left."

"You mean, banish me? You've already removed my name from the Registry of Wizards and forced me to live in rags in a shack in the sticks. Now you make me an exile?"

"Considering the weighty matters of state before us, do you really think that amounts to much?"

In the face of his clear contempt, Shoukei could do little more than wring her hands. "You can't be serious!"

"I know that the Kingdom of Hou faces certain decline. From this point forward, things will only get worse. What you call 'rags,' what you call the 'sticks,' they will seem like luxuries."

"You're the one who killed the king!"

"And that I do not apologize for," Gekkei continued coldly. "If Chuutatsu's despotism had been allowed to continue, the greater part of the people would have been lost as well. At any rate, he was fated to fall. But while we waited for Heaven to sanction him, things may well have become so chaotic as to prevent the kingdom from ever returning to its former glory. What we did was necessarily to keep the damage to a minimum."

"Then you ought to ascend the mountain and ascertain the Divine Will. Ask whether you, the regicide, should become king. The Divine Will was certainly not with you when you murdered the king. Were I you, I would take care not to be struck by a passing thunderbolt."

"Again, I see no need to contradict you." Gekkei smiled sardonically. "I have requested that you be taken to the Kingdom of Kyou. The Royal Kyou has kindly agreed to take the princess royal into custody."

He turned to leave. Shoukei shouted at him, "Why don't you kill me? Cut off my head with the same sword you killed my father with!"

"Because I choose not to," said Gekkei, heading for the door.

"It's all because you wanted to be king!" Shoukei fumed. "Because you were jealous of him! And now everybody, including you, you all hate me because you're envious of me! Because I'm the princess royal! Isn't that right?"

Gekkei didn't answer. He left without a look back. The door shut behind him. Shoukei stared at the closed door, and then buried her face in her hands.

Gekkei returned to the Gaiden from the inner palace. Shoukei was hidden away in the depths of the palace. He knew that even amongst the ministers there were still those who deeply resented her existence and would try to kill her if they had the chance.

You ought to ascend the mountain and ascertain the Divine Will.

Her words stabbed him to the core. He knew well enough that he had rejected the Divine Will, but there was no regretting it now. He stopped at a window just outside the Gaiden and looked southeast over the Sea of Clouds, toward the Five Sacred Mountains at the center of the world. There, the kirin who would choose the next king was being born.

In two or three years, the word would come from Mt. Hou and the yellow standards would be raised over every Rishi in the country. There was a kirin on Mt. Hou and the king would be chosen. Those so possessed would ascend the mountain and express their desire for the throne. Gekkei knew he would not be one of them.

The cruel laws had been followed by slaughter after slaughter. News spread of the failing health of the kirin. Despite the likelihood of it being the shitsudou, the desperate Chuutatsu set about enacting even harsher statutes. If it was the shitsudou and the kirin was destroyed by it, it would take several months to a year for the kirin to die. And even after the kirin died, it would again take several months to a year for the king to be overcome as well. In that space of time, who knew what horrors he would wreak upon the people. Gekkei had no choice but expedite matters. Doing so must to some degree be in keeping with the Divine Will.

He would deliver a worthy kingdom to the next king. Until that day, the Mandate of Heaven had fallen upon his shoulders, and that was to fight against the inevitable ruin of the kingdom.

He turned to the southeast, toward Mt. Hou, and bowed his head.

Gobo heard the lady's maid approaching the room and raised her head.

She'd borrowed a horse from the stables at the town hall and galloped day and night through the snow. She'd made it in time. The provincial guard was sent to rescue Shoukei. As she rested at the castle, Gobo waited for the judgement that was sure to come. She had confessed to figuring out that the girl entrusted to her was the princess royal, confessed to torturing her with this knowledge. As a consequence, she had betrayed Shoukei's identity to the townspeople.

Gekkei stepped into the room. Gobo knelt and bowed low before him.

"Please, as you were."

Gobo looked up at Gekkei's serene face. Gekkei said, "The princess royal will be leaving Hou. I cannot tell you where, but she will never return to Hou again."

Of course, Gobo nodded, staring down at the ground. Of course he'd let the girl off with a slap on the wrists. She'd been hoping for Gekkei to regret the fact that he hadn't punished Shoukei severely enough and would be thrashing her on her behalf.

"You'll be dismissed from your position as headmistress and superintendent."

"I know that."

"For the time being, the townspeople will not be well disposed toward you. I've arranged for you to be relocated."

"Thank you, but I do not think that necessary."

Gekkei examined Gobo's upturned face. "You demonstrated a remarkable concern for the girl's fate. So why did you persecute her so severely?"

"I couldn't forgive her." Gobo averted her gaze. "Chuutatsu murdered my son. I knew that it could never make up for everything I felt, but whenever I saw her, I couldn't help but take it out on her. I'd get so angry I'd lose control of myself. But it was she who told me. She said she was the princess royal, said she didn't know anything of what her father did. I couldn't forgive that."

"I see," said Gekkei.

"The princess royal has responsibilities of her own to own up to, to live up to. To simply cast the past aside and beg shamelessly for mercy, that is unforgivable. She never did what she was supposed to. Around here, you forget to tend to the livestock and people go hungry. She never pulled her own weight. She'd come right out and tell you she hadn't done her part and expect you to feel all sorry for her because of how hard it was. I thought to myself, why should I let her get away with this?"

"Of course."

"That girl doesn't understand her guilt in all this. She still doesn't think she has anything to apologize for. Even seeing her parents killed in front of her, she still thinks it's all about her, about her suffering, about her pain. A lot of people suffered the same, but she won't admit that any of it came about because she didn't do the right thing when she was supposed to."

"I understand how you feel, but you can't make another person feel your pain. I think we'd all be better off forgetting about Chuutatsu. Leave the past in the past. Don't you agree?"

Gobo nodded.

"I'm pleased you had the presence of mind to let me know what was going on. What you did constituted no crime against the townspeople. For now, though, they will bear you no little malice. So in their stead, let me offer you my sincere thanks."

Gobo bowed her head. The tears that had run dry the day her child had died welled up and spilled onto the floor.
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Chapter 18

4-2 "I believe this is the first time we've met."

Empress Kouko nodded to the woman entering the room. Ten days had passed since the young girl had collapsed at the gates to the Hall of Government. During that time, Kouko had met often with Suzu, and had sent orders to the relevant ministries requesting more information about this Riyou, mistress of Suibi Grotto.

Riyou haughtily raised her head. With barely a "Hello," she strode to the large table, pulled out a chair and sat down. "I haven't been to the palace for a long time, now."

At first glance, you would have observed the grandmotherly Kouko opposite the much younger Riyou, apparently in the flower of her youth. But, in fact, Riyou was twice the age of the Empress.

"Feels like old times, almost. Hardly a thing has changed."

"I have given shelter to a girl by the name of Suzu. Apparently, she had been living at Suibi Grotto."

This brought an ingratiating grin to Riyou's lips. "For which I am grateful. Quite useless as a maid, but I do consider her a member of the family."

Kouko sighed to herself.

Riyou said, "And just what has she been telling you? Does the Royal Sai actually believe her? Servants never hold their master in high regard. I certainly wouldn't take anything she said at face value."

"Suzu swears that you tried to kill her."

"Oh, nonsense," Riyou laughed. "I certainly wouldn't on purpose. If I got tired of having her around, I'd just kick her out and be done with it. To tell the truth, I've considered doing so many times. But every time, the little brat gets down on her hands and knees and begs me not to."

"You sent her out in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, to pick kankin mushrooms."

"Only because I am so generous." Riyou laughed again. "That girl broke a vase given to me by my liege. It was the way she could think of to thank me for forgiving her."

Kouko knit her brows together. The king Riyou spoke of had lived many generations before. Fu-ou was his name. In truth, Riyou had been his concubine.

"She says you sicced your tiger on her as well."

Riyou shrugged. "The way you say it, it sounds so dreadful. Is that what she told you? It's dangerous picking mushrooms in the middle of the night, so I sent Setsuko along in case anything unfortunate should happen."

"It sounds to me like you treat your servants rather badly."

"They know full well what the job entails. If other people don't like it, well, they should mind their own business. If my servants aren't happy with me, they're free to leave anytime. I don't see the problem."

"Even if they want to, there are still those who cannot."

Hmph, pouted Riyou, flashing a derisive smile. "You mean, all that about not being able to understand anything once she's removed from the Registry? What's so hard about that? She sticks around because she'd rather put up with me than become a normal person again. If I was really such a horrible person, she would just quit and leave. Isn't that what it comes down to?"

"Suzu is a kaikyaku. Not being able to communicate would be quite a hardship for her, would it not?"

Riyou looked at Kokou contemptuously, smiling as she raised her voice. "Even when she speaks the same language as the rest of us, she still doesn't know which way is up!"

Having finally grasped the gist of Riyou's argument, Kouko took a deep breath. "So, then, why must you behave like this? It's honestly the last thing I expected from the mistress of Suibi Grotto."

When Riyou had been a member of Fu-ou's inner palace, she had been a great help to him. But when malevolent retainers took advantage of the king's meek nature to indulge their own tyrannical behaviors, she upbraided them on the king's behalf, and earned their hatred in the bargain. She scolded the king as well, once he began to stray from the Way, and thus fell out of his good graces.

In the end, she was exiled to Suibi Grotto.

She was viewed suspiciously by those traitorous retainers, but they weren't able to strip her from the Registry or otherwise punish her. She was too smart for them. But with Riyou so far removed from him, the rule of Fu-ou saw a swift decline.

"Again, why be so insolent? Are you daring me to sanction you?"

"And are you daring to interfere in the business of a hisen wizard?"

"It is within the royal prerogatives. I simply have never had cause to resort to them."

Riyou got to her feet, grinning defiantly. "Suit yourself, then."

"Do you know the Royal Kei?" Suzu asked Sairin, kirin of Sai. They were in the palace garden, basking in the sunlight. "Oh, sorry, I should have addressed you as Taiho."

The young girl sitting in front of her had golden hair that glittered in the sunlight. Sairin had in fact served two kings, but based on her outward appearance, she looked even younger than Suzu. Her features were exceedingly fine and delicate. Her true nature was that of a unicorn, and Suzu was sure that a kirin must be a beast of extraordinary refinement.

"I don't mind," she said with a smile. "You may address me however you wish."

Kouko had a reserved nature, but Sairin's disposition was even more tranquil. She wore a calm smile from daybreak to dusk.

It's like a dream, Suzu thought whenever she recalled the days spent under Riyou's lash. She asked more politely, "Does the Taiho perchance know the Royal Kei?"

Sairin shook her head.

"You've never met her? Not in your capacity as kirin of Sai?"

"Kei not being a neighboring kingdom, and having no other reason to associate, it is unlikely that we would ever meet."

Huh, Suzu muttered to herself. Each of the Twelve Kingdoms had a king and a kirin. You'd think it'd get kind of lonely if that was your only companionship.

"Are you interested in the Royal Kei?" asked Sairin. The gilded hair spilling off her shoulders shimmered in the sunlight like white gold.

"We were both born in Yamato. We're both about the same age."

Ah, Sairin smiled. Suzu had heard Kouko call her Youran, or "rocking cradle." She really did have the gentle disposition of a baby content in its cradle.

"Being here all alone, I would like to meet her, even if only once and talk to her about Yamato."

"Do you miss Yamato?"

"Home is where the heart is, after all. I can't tell you how many times I cried myself to sleep wanting to go home."

"Do you so dislike it here?"

Sairin asked the question in such a dispirited tone that Suzu shook her head. "I, ah, it's not that I don't like it. It's just that I don't understand anything about this world, not even the language. Things haven't been so easy for me since I came here. I've seen a lot of hard times."

"I see."

"But I would think the Royal Kei has the same problems. Because we're both kaikyaku, I think we would understand each other. We both know what it feels like." Suzu flushed a bit explaining this.

"So you're saying you'd like to become friends with her?"

Suzu suddenly raised her head. "I suppose . . . if it's possible."

"Perhaps the Royal Kei isn't homesick for Yamato. It is possible, don't you think?"

Suzu's voice grew more resolute. "Well, of course that's what a person from this world would think."

Sairin turned toward her in response. "There are many people here, too, who have been separated from their homes. Itinerants who are not welcomed anywhere, who spend their lives wandering from place to place."

She bowed her slender neck, as if in shame at the very thought. "But I do wonder if being born in the same Yamato necessarily means you would understand each other. There are people born in the same country who hate each other nonetheless."

Suzu said to Sairin with an annoyed scowl, "It's not the same thing. A person born here wouldn't understand. There's a big difference between simply coming from the same hometown and never being able to return to your hometown again."

"But I wonder."

Sairin let out a small sigh. Suzu was about to shoot her another peevish look when Kouko came in from the main hall.

"Oh, there you are." She turned to Sairin. "I'd like to talk with Suzu for a minute."

"Yes," said Sairin, and with a polite bow returned to main residence.

Kouko sat down next to Suzu, who immediately straightened her posture.

"I just met with Mistress Riyou."

Suzu's body began to tremble. Hearing Riyou's name was like stumbling across something filthy in this peaceful, exquisite palace garden.

"I've decided to recall the servants at Suibi Grotto to the palace."

Suzu felt her cheeks flush. Not ever returning to Suibi Grotto was fine with her. Instead, she would live in this beautiful palace, surrounded by kind, graceful people like Kouko and Sairin (her little spat of unpleasantness all but forgotten for now). Her spirits soared upwards.

The next words out of Kouko's mouth turned her to ice. "However, you shan't be one of them."

The trembling rose from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. "What . . . what do you mean?"

"Your name will remain upon the Registry. But I wish you to live in the real world for a while. I've arranged for you to be listed upon the census."

"But why only me? What did I do?"

Kouko's face was almost expressionless, except for a small touch of sadness. "I know that it was difficult for you, not being able to comprehend the language. But now that you can, you should be able to make a living for yourself."

"What did Riyou tell you?" Her whole body shook, from anger or disappointment, she couldn't tell which.

"This has nothing to do with her. Riyou left everything to my discretion."

"Then why?"

Kouko averted her gaze. "I was thinking it might help if you grew up a bit first."

"Grew up?" She had been a prisoner of Riyou for a hundred years. What was it that a century couldn't accomplish?

Kouko looked calmly at Suzu. "It must have been very hard for you, to be thrown into a world you had never seen before and knew nothing about. And even more so because you couldn't speak the language. However, Suzu, simply understanding the words that people say is not the same as comprehending what they mean."

Suzu could only gape at her.

"If impertinence is actually what you are communicating, and that is why you are failing to come to an understanding, then the rest is all for naught. It is necessary that you first try to grasp what the other person intends, showing acceptance without first jumping to conclusions."

"That's not fair!"

"If it really proves too much for you to bear, then at that time you may return. But for now, I want you go down to the city and see what life is like. Even then, it won't be too late to consider other options."

"But why do I have to be the only one? After all this time!"

Suzu collapsed to the floor, her expectations thoroughly dashed. And I thought they were good people. I thought they were nice. If I had to live here and serve them, who knows how bad it would get.

They didn't know what it was like, the agony of getting swept away from your country, to a strange place where you didn't know your left from your right. Growing up here, they couldn't possibly understand what she was going through.

"If there is some other course you wish to take, tell me now. If it is within my power, I'll see what I can do to help you."

What's she asking me this now for? Suzu bit her lip and raised her tear-streaked face. "I want . . . I want to see the Royal Kei."

Kouko bent closer to her. "The Royal Kei?"

"I want to meet her, see what she's like. She was born in Yamato like me."

Ah, Kouko said under her breath, knitting her brows.

"We're fellow countrywomen. The Royal Kei would understand me, I know it. The Royal Sai doesn't. Not even Sairin understands me. Nobody born in this world understands what I've gone through."

The Royal Kei wouldn't treat her like this. She'd have heartfelt concern and sympathy for her. She'd surely help her.

While Kouko mulled it over, Suzu said, "I know the Royal Kei is just as lonely as I am, is just as sad and homesick. People here don't feel sorry for you. Only somebody from Yamato like I am could understand how bad it's been."

"I have no acquaintance with the Royal Kei, so I cannot accommodate your request directly. However, I can provide you with traveling expenses and papers of transit." Suzu's face lit up. Kouko looked down at her naive countenance with a slightly pained expression. "So go and see what comes of it. You certainly have nothing to lose from the experience."

"Thank you! Thank you so much!"

"There is one thing, however, that I wish you to remember," said Kouko, peering at the girl's tear-streaked face, now flushed and smiling. "When it comes to living a life, happiness is only the half of it. Suffering is the rest."

"Huh?"

"Happy people are not those whose lives are well-blessed. Happy people are those who keep their hearts in good cheer."

Suzu couldn't figure out for the life of her why Kouko was telling her this.

"Child of Yamato, in the end, the only thing that truly brings us happiness is the effort we expend to put suffering behind us and the effort we make to become happy."

Suzu nodded. "Sure. Okay." Well, of course. She had fought hard for her happiness and the result was being freed from Riyou. Now she was going to meet the Royal Kei. "I won't let adversity defeat me," she said with a smile. "I've gotten used to hardships. I've got enough patience to endure to the end."

Kouko looked away, her face tinged with sorrow.
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Chapter 19

4-3 Along with the Koushi and other upcoming festivals of the midwinter solstice, a giddy atmosphere once again enveloped Kinpa Palace. At the height of the celebrations, an incident shook the capital. A large cache of weapons was discovered at the home of Taisai, head of the Ministry of Heaven.

"Weapons?"

The report was delivered in the middle of the night by Daishikou, the head of the Ministry of Fall. Youko stood there dumbstruck.

"It appears as if preparations were being made for a coup."

They had been stockpiling weapons with the intent of assassinating her, the empress.

"We were informed by a number of Taisai's retainers, who rushed to the Ministry of Fall to warn us. Not believing it ourselves, we retraced their steps and found the cache of weapons. We later took ten mercenaries into custody at Taisai's villa in Gyouten."

Undoubtedly, Taisai had shown himself to be the least satisfied with her. He often clashed with Chousai Seikyou, and it was widely rumored that Youko deferred to Seikyou at every opportunity. But that it would come down to regicide horrified her. Even knowing full well that the bureaucracy by and large still did not accept her, she had no idea that they hated her enough to amass weapons and attempt an assassination.

"Oh," she said.

"We were able to arrest them before the plan could be carried out. Because the ministry Taisai heads is responsible for the operations of the palace, particularly the inner palace, officials serving Your Highness are mostly already in custody. If any of them are found to be bearing weapons and are involved in the plot, how shall we deal with them?"

Youko could do nothing more than gulp for air.

"Interrogations are being conducted as we speak. According to the investigation so far, Taisai may have involved the Sankou as well, with the backing of the Marquis of Baku--I mean, Koukan."

Youko took another deep breath.

The three members of the Sankou were Taishi (Lord Privy Seal), Taifu (Minister of the Left) and Taiho (Minister of the Right). They were subordinate to Keiki, who was the principal counselor (Saiho) of all the ministers. They assisted the Saiho and advised and admonished the empress. Her education was also the province of the Sankou. In terms of rank, they were treated the same as Chousai, minister-in-chief of the Rikkan, and the province lords. However, they did not actually have a direct say in the political process. Consequently, they clashed often with Chousai, and like Taisai often rebuked Youko for taking Chousai's side. However, they were also a more intimate presence than Seikyou or the Rikkan.

Would the Sankou have become involved in an assassination plot?

At the palace, the Ministry of Heaven was responsible for food, shelter and clothing. Because they were so involved and helpful in her day-to-day life, the relationship had a strongly paternalistic aspect to it. To think that the head of the Ministry of Heaven and the Sankou would be plotting a coup d'etat!

"But the Marquis of Baku . . . . "

He had resisted the pretender but had coveted the throne for himself. He had subsequently been detained in Baku Province pending reinstatement. The opinion of her retainers as to the disposition of his case was divided between the faction led by Chousai and that led by Taisai, and so remained up in the air.

"And this is how they express their dissatisfaction. . . . "

Amongst her retainers, the opinion was gaining strength that Koukan should be punished and any subsequent second-guessing about the matter nipped in the bud. Keiki strongly objected and Koukan had been placed under house arrest. This, then, was the result of Keiki's compassion.

"At any rate, I'd like to talk to Taisai. Bring him here."

Koukan was presently being held at the capital of Baku Province. Right now, Youko wanted to hear whatever excuses or explanations Taisai had to offer from the horse's mouth. But that was not to be.

Taisai was found dead in his cell.

Keiki came into the room as Daishikou was leaving. He asked, furrowing his brow, "Empress, Taisai is dead?"

"Reportedly a suicide."

Keiki sighed deeply. "It is said that you have been relying too much on Chousai."

Youko narrowed her eyes. "Are you saying that this is my fault? My fault that Taisai arranged this little conspiracy, my fault that he's dead?"

"Polarizing the loyalties of one's retainers is an open invitation to needless strife."

page 157
"Certainly when it came to this business with Koukan, I accepted Chousai's recommendation that he be dismissed. Are you saying that I should have left Koukan as Marquis of Baku?"

"No."

"Koukan blamed his dismissal on me and cooked up this plot with Taisai and the Sankou. Is that my fault, too?"

"Empress . . . . "

"There are those of my retainers who would be pleased to see an end to Koukan. The prevailing opinion apparently is that I should cut to the chase and save the regrets for later. So tell me, who opposed it? So Koukan lives on and gets back at me by plotting this assassination. Tell me, is that my fault?"

Keiki was too taken aback to speak.

"There's no doubt that Chousai and Taisai don't see eye to eye very often, but Chousai is head of the Rikkan while Taisai is in charge of palace housekeeping. Taisai rose to the post from head of the Ministry of Spring, in charge of rites and rituals, while Chousai came from the Ministries of Fall and Earth. As justice is the province of the Ministry of Earth, law is naturally Chousai's strong suit. What exactly is wrong about giving his opinions preference in this regard?"

"Empress, that is not what I meant."

"Then what did you mean?"

Keiki couldn't find the words to reply.

"This time around, Chousai is going to ask me to go ahead and sentence Koukan. I don't see that I have any grounds to disagree. Do you disagree?"

"I would ask that you listen to Koukan's version of events."

"Of course I will. I've already ordered that the Minister of Fall go and bring him here. I expect Koukan to deny everything. But we now have evidence of frequent envoys being sent under Koukan's auspices to Taisai's residence, and bearing weapons with them. What do you think I should do at a time like this?"

"When judging one's subjects, I would counsel compassion."

"And have the same thing happen all over again?"

Keiki had nothing to add to that.

Youko averted her gaze and looked out the window instead. "You and the ministers, you have a pretty low regard for me. Because I'm a woman, because I'm a taika, it's in every damned sigh I hear."

"Empress, I swear that is not the case."

Youko shook her head. "Chousai will say, see, I told you so. And he'll tell me to come down hard on Koukan and the Sankou. If I agree, you're not going to be happy with me. If I reject their advice, Chousai and his people won't be happy. So, what to do?"

"Empress . . . . "

Youko took a breath, exhaled, and said, "Koukan and the Sankou will be disciplined. The Sankou will be dismissed from their positions and exiled along with Koukan. This cannot go unpunished. You do not condone execution, so they will not be executed. Is that okay with you?"

Keiki opened and closed his mouth without speaking.

"I understand," he answered shortly, followed by a long sigh, a sigh that spoke volumes.

Meaning, Keiki is not happy.

Youko stared out at the dawn breaking over the Sea of Clouds. She laughed. "Shall I issue an Imperial Rescript banning sighing?"

"Empress?"

"You may get tired of breathing your little sighs, but I am really getting tired of hearing them." With that, Youko waved her hand. "You may leave. I need to rest. All these meetings have left me at wit's end."

As expected, Chousai Seikyou and his faction insisted that Koukan and the Sankou be sentenced to death. "You must understand that in Koukan's case, if you show leniency now, it will only be paid back with disloyalty later on."

She could hear the dissatisfaction in Seikyou's voice. Some people were saying that Taisai's attempted insurrection itself was a misunderstanding. Some people were saying he had his reasons and that these reasons should be ferreted out, that in order to prevent more grief down the road the source of the problem should be addressed. And some people were saying that when it came to sentencing, she should show compassion first.

What all these people had in common was their opposition to Seikyou. The Imperial Court was divided into a pro-Seikyou faction and an anti-Seikyou faction. If Seikyou had recommended amnesty, his opponents would just as surely have asked for the sword.

Youko had never imagined that governing a country would be an easy thing. But she had never imagined difficulties like these. No matter what she said, her supposed subordinates would sigh their implicit criticisms. And now she had retainers for whom sighing wasn't enough and were compelled to take up arms. Youko understood nothing of this world, had no other recourse than to pay close attention to what her advisors said and scrutinize their explanations the best she could. She didn't want to hear any more sighs. But no matter what opinion she adopted, the opposing side would be the one sighing. In the end, with both sides fighting for authority, she wasn't going to please anyone.

Well, then, she thought, permitting herself a private sigh. She suddenly looked up. Without really being aware of it, she had been trying to win them over. So phobic had she become of the murmurs of discontent, that wasn't she now trying to read a book into every glancing expression, curry their favor and generally kiss up?

She was overcome with the urge to cast aside this cloying creature she had become.

She said to Chousai, "What should I make of the fact that you were completely unaware of Taisai's scheming in the first place?"

"Taisai was not happy with me and let his temper get the best of him."

"Bearing arms against the king is treason. What more do you need to know about him?"

"I would like to inquire more of the officials who left Koukan to his own devices."

"And where is Koukan? The Minister of Fall has a lot to answer for, letting him get away like that."

While being escorted from Baku Province to Gyouten, Koukan had escaped. Officials from the ministry had pursued him but had not yet found him.

Enough already. Youko smiled sardonically to herself. "I understand," she said aloud. "I order that the Sankou be dismissed and along with Koukan exiled from the kingdom."

Too lenient, came the response from Seikyou's faction. Too severe, came the response from the opposing faction.

"And if the same thing happens again, what will Your Highness do?" queried Chousai Seikyou, looking at her.

"The conduct of the Rikkan is your responsibility. Treason arose from within the Rikkan under your watch. You will step down as Chousai and take over the Ministry of Heaven in place of Taisai."

The gathered ministers gasped. Youko laughed softly. "There are openings in the Sankou. The ministers of Spring, Fall and Earth are hereby appointed to those posts."

"Empress . . . . " said Keiki.

Youko silenced him with a look. "The remaining positions I leave to the ministers to fill at their own discretion. However, for the time being, Keiki will assume the post of Chousai."

The cries of distress arose. "This is unheard of! Giving acting authority to the Saiho!"

Youko only response was, "Consider it an Imperial Rescript!"

With that, she stepped down from the throne and left the room.
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Chapter 20

4-4 Youko retreated to her rooms deep within the Inner Palace where the ministers could not follow her. She left word with her attendants that no one was to enter but Keiki. She opened the window.

A damp breeze blew off the Sea of Clouds, bringing with it the briny smell of the ocean.

"After all that and I just slink away . . . . "

She couldn't resist a wicked smile. She'd taken Chousai down a notch and relegated the leaders of the two warring factions to the Sankou, where they could exercise no de facto authority. With one fell swoop, she'd wiped clean the political map of the palace. She must have been considering it all along. That's why when she opened her mouth it all just came out.

"Empress," came Keiki's stern voice.

Youko turned around. Keiki was wearing as grim an expression as she had hitherto observed.

"What are you doing? It has long been stipulated that the Saiho has no acting authority. That is--"

Youko cut him off. "I'm going to Kankyuu. I'm going to have the Royal En teach me political governance."

Keiki's eyes widened. "What are you saying?"

"Please give my regards to the ministers." Youko leaned back against the window frame and folded her hands in her lap. "And I thought I'd live for a while in a city."

"What!"

Youko examined her fingernails. She left her care in the hands of her servants and they made sure her nails were always polished and beautiful. All this luxurious clothing and jewelry, it wasn't anything she needed.

"I never wanted the throne of Kei."

"Empress!"

"Even if I wished to be made empress, that doesn't mean I wanted to live here amidst all this opulence. I was told the kingdom would crumble into chaos without a king. I was told that the Divine Will reflected the will of the people. It's hard not sleeping in your own bed at night. It's hard going hungry. I know that down to the marrow of my bones."

Youko had been suddenly spirited away to this strange world from Japan. Not knowing her left hand from her right, she had come very close to dying a dog's death by the wayside.

"Getting hunted down by youma is the worst. If I hadn't acceded to the throne, the people of Kei would have met the same fate. That's why I accepted it. That's why there should be a king. Certainly not to make the bureaucrats happy, and not to make you happy. Isn't my reason for being here to make the people happy?"

"That is why--"

Youko shook her head. "Keiki. I don't know a thing about this kingdom."

"Empress, that is--"

"What do the people think about? What do they wish and hope for? How do they live? I don't know the first thing."

"First finding the right path is the most important thing."

"The right path?" Youko smiled. "There's this girl, see. She has homework six days a week. Then there are the clubs she belongs to and cram school, besides. She practices the piano and takes lessons. Midterm exams are the worst and there are two of those every semester. Besides midterms, there are practice exams for college that could determine the rest of her life. Get too many demerits, fail too many classes, and she'll get held back a year. Fail her entrance exams and she'll become a ronin. The hem of her skirt must reach the knee, her tie must be black. Her nylons must be sheer or black. So tell me, what's going to make this girl happy?"

"Huh?" said Keiki.

"In the society I've just described, what path should she take?"

"I am sorry, but--"

"You don't have the slightest idea, do you?" Youko said with a wry smile. "The same way you don't understand, I don't understand. What path should I take? I examine the faces of the ministers and take measure of their attitudes; I consider which opinions I should accept, which I should reject. That is all I've got to work with. That is all I know."

"But--"

"So can you give me a little time? This is all too different from the world I know."

Keiki wore an expression of utter befuddlement.

"Right now, I can't stand sitting on that throne."

Keiki's eyes opened wide with amazement.

"When I was in Yamato, I lived in constant dread of being disliked by anybody. From dawn to dusk, I constantly tried to read people's expressions, tried to stay in everybody's good graces, tried to keep my balance on that impossibly narrow tightrope. Now I'm trying to read your expression, that of the ministers, the man in the street, and then attempting to agree with everybody. It's impossible."

"Empress--"

"I don't want to repeat the same mistake twice. But I find myself headed in the same direction. Right now, I know how this will be interpreted. The ministers won't be pleased. It's because she's a woman, they'll all sigh." Youko laughed to herself. "Maybe everything will come crashing down before my very eyes. But a king who tries to read everybody's mind, who sways back and forth like a reed in the wind, well, good riddance to such a king, and the sooner the better."

Keiki stood there, expressionless. At length, he nodded. "All right."

"For the time being, I shall leave the kingdom in your hands. I know that at the very least you won't oppress the people. If there ever comes a time when my presence is absolutely required, then send the fastest runner in the land to fetch me. Keiki, I am asking you to let me do this."

"You can count on me," Keiki said with a bow.

Youko looked at him intently, then breathed a sigh of relief. "I really am grateful. It's good to know that you understand where I'm coming from."

Keiki was the only real retainer she had. The king of En had many officials at his beck and call. The Royal En was a wild man whose actions exasperated all of his ministers, but they all trusted him, and he trusted them in turn. The only person capable of trusting her was Keiki, and the kirin was the only person in the palace she had any real faith in.

"And what does Your Highness intend to do next, then?"

"Like I said, I was thinking of seeing what life was like in the city. Pick up work as a day laborer, live alongside regular people."

"If it meets with your approval, let me make arrangements for your sojourn beforehand."

Youko tilted her head to the side. "Well . . . . "

"You aren't intending to live as a vagabond, are you? Permit me this. Let me make arrangements that will at least put my own mind at ease."

"All right. I'll leave that to you."

Now Keiki drew a breath of relief.

"I'm sorry for being so selfish."

Keiki smiled thinly. "To tell the truth, I find myself somewhat relieved as well."

"You do?"

"At any rate, please return as quickly as possible."

"Yes, I know."

Leaving the Inner Palace, Keiki stopped to look out at the Sea of Clouds. As complicated as things had just gotten, he was strangely relieved.

Keiki had served two empresses. The posthumous name of the first was Yo-ou. Her reign had lasted a mere six years, and she had remained shut away in the palace for most of that time. The woman had no interest whatsoever in governance or politics.

The memory of her pale face arose from the recesses of his memory. She had a gentle, prudent nature. Except for her extreme shyness, she was not undeserving of the throne. However, what she truly desired was a rather banal sort of happiness.

More than wishing happiness for her people, Yo-ou wanted a peaceful, frugal existence. She didn't care for riches, just a simple life lived without praise or censure. She only desired to be left in peace to till the land, marry a man, and raise their children.

He could still hear the sound of her working at her loom.

When she first acceded to the throne, it seemed that she would serve honorably and true. But she soon grew weary of the rivalries amongst the ministers. The officials she had inherited from the previous monarch wrangled over political turf and fought for leadership positions. As this life surrounded and closed in on her, she withdrew from it. She secluded herself deeper and deeper within the palace and there worked at her loom. It was her way of trying to undo everything he had imposed on her.

"And here I am, still thinking about her."

Keiki smiled a grim smile. The first time he met Youko, he was struck at how much she resembled Yo-ou. And still did. In an honest moment, he would admit that he found the similarities disconcerting.

"But they've turned out differently."

Even if only in small ways, Youko and Yo-ou were different. He could tell from the way Youko battled her personal demons. Like Yo-ou, Youko recoiled from dealing with the ministers and abhorred the throne. But Youko recognized those tendencies within herself. She had begun to take measures to overcome them. That was the biggest difference between them.

"Hankyo!" Keiki called to his shirei.

"Yes," came the reply from the shadows at his feet.

"Accompany the Empress and protect her. Make sure no harm befalls her. She is the one jewel that Kei cannot afford to lose."
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Part V


he Kingdom of Kyou is located to the southeast of the Kingdom of Hou. The Kyokai separates the two kingdoms. The strait between Hou and Kyou is also called the Kenkai, but is more generally referred to as the Kyokai as well. After all, you can't see Kyou from Hou, and for those who dwell along the shores, Kyokai or Kenkai, it is six of one, a half dozen of the other.

Shoukei was escorted by ten flying cavalry from the Kei provincial guard. As they headed toward Kyou, she again thought of her home country. There was of course sea traffic between the two kingdoms, but the crossing took three days. For the first time in her life, it struck her that, floating there in the Kyokai, Hou was itself like a winter-bound city, shut off from the rest of the world.

The species of you-creatures capable of flight were limited in number. As they must also conform somewhat to the disposition of a horse in order to be ridden, this restricted their kind even more. The primary you-creatures employed were striped rokushoku, or Szechwan deer, and they were definitely not beasts of burden. You had to ride on their backs. Shoukei was allowed use of a rokushoku, and, surrounded by the flying knights of the cavalry, headed to Kyou.

It was an uneventful trip. On the way there, they spent a night at a city on the shores of Hou and a night at a city on the shores of Kyou. After three days, they arrived at Soufuu Palace in Renshou, capital of Kyou.

The Royal Kyou, Empress of Soufuu Palace, had ruled for ninety years. Shoukei didn't know anything more about her than that. Hou had not enjoyed productive diplomatic relations with other kingdoms. On the occasion of her father Chuutatsu's coronation, envoys from Ryuu, Kyou and Han, the three nearest kingdoms, had come bearing congratulations, but from the start he rarely discoursed with the rulers of other kingdoms.

Shoukei and her escorts were shown by the palace officials into the Gaiden. Passing through the gates, Shoukei cast a painful look at the resplendent buildings.

I've got no reason to be a shrinking violet, now.

She had lived in the imperial palace, after all. Even reminding herself of this fact, she felt herself shrink. Part of it was being in the palace of a foreign potentate. The other part was, as always, shame at her slovenly appearance.

The officials who greeted them and accompanied them into the palace regarded Shoukei suspiciously. She hung her head, knowing she undoubtedly looked like some lost flower girl from the wrong side of town.

No, she thought as they walked down the polished black granite hallways, she was more wretched than any other flower girl of Kyou. Kyou was a wealthier country than Hou. She could tell that by what she had seen so far of Soufuu Palace. The city was beautifully arrayed. Hoso, the capital of Hou, looked like a one horse town in comparison.

Entering the Gaiden, she felt too miserable to raise her head. After shooting her a look, the envoy with her knelt down and proceeded forward on his knees, bowing low with his head touching the floor. Shoukei took his glance to mean that she was to do the same. Kowtowing like this only made her feel more miserable. It wasn't right that she had to humble herself like this. It should be enough to kneel. She was the princess royal, after all.

The envoy ceremoniously unfurled the decree from Gekkei and proclaimed his greeting. "The Marquis of Kei, together with all his retainers, humbly and with gratitude thanks the Royal Kyou for her great generosity in taking into custody the person of the princess royal."

Somebody chuckled. The Royal Kyou, Shoukei realized, catching her breath.

"Oh, it was nothing," she said. "We're neighbors, after all."

Shoukei opened her eyes and looked down at the floor. It was the voice of a young woman.

"But enough of that. How is Hou doing these days?"

"Fortunately, as well as can be expected."

The envoy again touched his head to the floor.

"Well, from my perspective, sitting upon the throne by right of the Mandate of Heaven, I'd say the Marquis of Kei is in a rather bad spot. But I'm sure you know that better than I do. I cannot thank you enough for all your good offices."

The echoes of her young voice rang out like a bell.

"Please congratulate the Marquis on his decisive action. The king was the cause of his own ruin. To escape his wrath, many refugees fled to Kyou in small boats and clinging to rafts. The people of Hou must all be breathing sighs of relief, now."

Unable to bear it any further, Shoukei began to lift her head. It was a breach of etiquette to raise one's head without permission. But not only that held her back. Shoukei didn't want to see the Royal Kyou. From her voice, Shoukei could tell she was a young woman, perhaps the same age as herself. She didn't want to see her, a girl clothed in silk, adorned with jewels, sitting on the throne.

"And I take it this is Son Shou."

Hearing her formal family name so casually spoken by the Royal Kyou, Shoukei bit her lip and fumed. That glib use of her name alone spoke volumes.

"Yes, it is."

"I shall take Son Shou into my custody. You needn't concern yourself about her any longer. The people of Hou and the ministers of Hou can forget all about her."

Understood, said the envoy with a bow.

"Please tell the Marquis of Kei to put the king behind him and work for the good of the realm, and so atone for his sins. A kingdom without a king can sink into the depths with alarming speed. That is the best way of keeping the ship of state afloat."

"I shall inform him thusly."

"Does the Marquis still reside at the provincial capital? He should take possession of the imperial throne as soon as possible. I believe it best that he assume the throne until the coronation of the next king and work on behalf of all the people. I will send along letters making note of the same. If any profess dissatisfaction with this course of events, let it be said that it was done according to the recommendation of the Royal Kyou."

Outraged, Shoukei raised her head. She couldn't stop herself. "Gekkei is a traitor and regicide!"

Their eyes met. The Empress sitting on the throne looked no older than twelve. She had the face of an angel. Standing behind her was a man with golden hair closer to a shade of copper. Kyouki, the kirin of Kyou.

The girl's coral lips parted. "The king destroyed himself," she said dismissively. "No king is killed except as the consequence of his crimes." She returned her attention to the envoy. "Sir, hasten back to Hou and give whatever assistance you can to the Marquis."

The envoy bowed deeply. With a voice filled with emotion, he thanked the Court and withdrew, leaving Shoukei behind. Shoukei continued to stare up at her.

The Empress said, "Once you are registered upon the census, would you prefer to live in the city or serve in the palace as a maidservant?"

The blood rushed to Shoukei's cheeks. A maidservant, a working servant, not even rising to the rank of a lowly clerk, not even listed upon the Registry! This child was asking her, the princess royal, if she wanted to be a maidservant.

Seeing the expression on her face, the girl giggled. "She still has her pride, if nothing else. Yet I am not so compassionate as the Marquis. Go to a orphanage or become a maidservant. Take your pick. You will reside at the orphanage until you reach the age of your majority, but as you are not a citizen of Kyou, you will not receive a partition. You'll have to find yourself a job. Well?"

"You're mean."

"And I don't much care for you, either." She grinned. "We took custody of you because your continuing presence in Hou would only cause more harm. Pity for your plight had nothing to do with it, and don't you forget it. So, which will it be?"

Shoukei could not imagine being at the beck and call of this girl. But her memories pushed those feelings aside. Ending every day covered with dirt, working until you could barely move, sleeping in a drafty shack. Everything she had experienced in Hou now mitigated her feelings of outrage.

"I'll be a maidservant."

Really, the girl chortled. "In that case, the first thing you need to learn is to prostrate yourself properly before the Empress, and never to raise your head and speak until and unless you are spoken to."

The Empress was about to return to the Naiden when the man behind her opened his mouth to speak. Shushou looked over her shoulder at him.

"What was that?"

He said, a flustered look on his face. "The way you dealt with the princess royal . . . . "

"Oh, nonsense," Shushou said flippantly. "Before you start feeling sorry for Shoukei, first feel sorry for the people of Hou who have so much cause to hate her. Really, you kirin do let your sense of compassion get the best of you, putting the cart before the horse and all."

"But . . . . "

Shushou laughed. She peered at face of Kyouki high above her. While most kirin had a willowy physiognomy, the kirin of Kyou was a big man.

"I have made up my mind. Okay?"

"Yes, but isn't it the Empress's duty to show compassion toward her subjects?"

Shushou snorted. "When I became empress, becoming a great humanitarian wasn't part of the deal. Sorry. Besides, you are my servant, right?"

"Yes, but . . . . "

"Then don't nitpick so. I don't want to hear any more about this Shoukei business. Governing the kingdom is hard enough. I haven't got any sympathy for some little fool who fiddled while her kingdom burned and utterly lacks discernment when it comes to her father."

Disheartened, the big man hung his head and continued to mope. "But that you would even consider recommending that the Marquis of Kei usurp the throne . . . . "

"Didn't think to. Recommended." Shushou plopped herself down in a chair. "So you're saying that because the Marquis of Kei killed the king, he shouldn't be the one to rule the country? Frankly, I wish the man would show a little backbone and just call himself king."

"It is Heaven who crowns the king. It's that throne you are recommending be usurped. If that comes to pass, and because of it Hou is destroyed . . . . "

Shushou rested her chin in her hands and sighed. "I really don't know what to do. Wave after wave of refugees from Hou."

"You should think about the refugees first."

Shushou poked her finger at Kyouki. "You are really such a dunce! Isn't there any room in that head of yours to consider anything other than pity? Hou is in chaos. And you're saying you don't want the Marquis to take charge and shore up the kingdom? Hou doesn't have a kirin, you know."

Kyouki glanced anxiously around the room. "Empress--"

"Don't worry, nobody's here. Of course I wasn't going to tell that to the envoy. I'm not stupid. There's no kirin on Mt. Hou. Who knows how long it will take for a new king to accede to the throne. If the people of Hou knew that, they would lose hope and the kingdom would collapse before our eyes."

There was no kirin on Mt. Hou to choose the new king. Not even Shushou knew why not. The wizardesses of Mt. Hou were the servants of God and Mt. Hou was the inviolable sanctuary of all the kings of the Twelve Kingdoms, yet no further details of the incident had been forthcoming. Three years before, an anomaly had passed through Kyou in the direction of Hou. A shoku. It was possible that this shoku had originated in the Five Sacred Mountains. When inquiries were made as to whether this was the case, it was said that all the palaces on Mt. Hou remained shut. None were open in order to welcome a new kirin.

When asked if Houki--word was, the kirin of Hou was a boy--was well and strong, not even a vague prevarication was heard in reply. Further investigation confirmed it. There was no kirin on Mt. Hou.

Shushou let out a breath. "We've got no choice but to let the Marquis get on with it. He's got a good head on his shoulders. And we don't know when a kirin will show up in Hou and chose a new king. That's why I'm trying to spur things on. You got a problem with that?"

"Empress--"

Shushou swung her feet back and forth. One of her shoes flew off. She said, "Chuutatsu brought this all upon us. It's not only his fault, but the fault of all his blockhead retainers and hangers-on who let it happen. That's why I can't stand Shoukei. Even you should be able to understand that. Now, quit crying me a river and get me my shoe and put it back on for me."
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Chapter 22

5-2 "It's freezing cold."

Rangyoku's voice carried in the morning air.

The Eastern Kingdom of Kei, the city of Kokei, prefecture of Hokui, Ei Province. Kokei was located to the northwest of the capital Gyouten, located in the center of Ei Province. The road east from Gyouten reached to the Kyokai. The road west ran to the Blue Sea. From ancient times, the thriving city of Kokei, prefectural capital of Hokui, had sat at the crossroads on the road west. Consequently, the city also came to be known as Hokui.

The village was undoubtedly the nucleus of the city that had grown up around it. In this, Kokei was not exceptional. However, the city associated with the village had greatly expanded over the years, displacing the village of Kokei from its critical location on the highway. As a result, the village was attached like a small appendage to the northeast of the big city. The sign over the gates read "Kokei," but no one called it that anymore. The name of the city was Hokui, and the small bump of a town connected to it was called Kokei.

On a quiet block in a corner of Kokei, Rangyoku filled a bucket with water. Glancing around her, she could see the cold and desolate mountains rising above the high walls. Pale white frost clung to the tops of the leafless trees. The gathering clouds were heavy with precipitation.

"I wonder if it'll snow," she said to herself, and went back into the house through the rear entrance. The house was the rike, or orphanage. Rangyoku had no parents, so she had be given over to the care of the rike.

"You're up early, Rangyoku."

The old man lifted his head when Rangyoku came into the kitchen. He was putting coals into a brazier in the middle of the dirt floor. His name was Enho and he was the headmaster of the orphanage.

"Morning."

"You're a good girl, out of bed before an old'un like me. I thought for once I'd be the first one up and get everything ready, but I'm not quite there yet."

Rangyoku laughed and emptied the bucket into the tank. She liked this headmaster. She might have otherwise expected an older man like Enho to get up before her. But she knew that he was concerned that if he got up early, everybody else would feel obligated to, too. So he stayed in bed.

"Looks like snow."

"Sure does. The water was freezing cold. Come over here and get yourself warmed up."

"I'm okay," she smiled.

She lifted up the lid on the big pot sitting on the stove. Warm steam filled the room. She started to prepare breakfast. Enho put the brazier down next to the water tank. He was only thinking of her. She stirred some leftover vegetables and meat into the simmering water, along with some dumplings.

"We're getting a new child today."

Rangyoku looked back over her shoulder and Enho nodded. He meant that the rike would be taking on another orphan.

"Should I set a place for breakfast?"

"More likely this afternoon or toward evening."

"I see."

When she and Keikei had fled the city, the headmistress of the rike had been a short-tempered old woman. When they returned, the old woman had died and had been replaced. Enho was not originally from the town. She had been quite nervous hearing that a strange old man had become headmaster, but now she was quite thankful.

"G'morning." Keikei ran into the kitchen.

"Hey, Keikei, you're up early."

"The cold woke me up."

Rangyoku laughed as her brother stamped his little feet. She filled a bucket for him. Enho dropped a hot rock into the water. That plop and sizzle was the sound of winter.

"Now, wash your face and dump the water outside."

"Alrighty," Keikei said with a nod and plunged his face into the water.

Rangyoku watched him smiling. There were three other children at the orphanage, but they got up later. Since Enho never scolded them, they stayed in bed as long as they wished. The three had been living at the orphanage for a long time. Because the previous headmistress had been so strict, they took advantage of Enho a bit. Perhaps aware of it himself, Enho let them.

"Man, it's cold!" said Keikei, opening the back door and tossing the water out onto the snow. His breath puffed white in the cold air.

"Better than last year, though. There's not much snow."

Half a year had passed since the coronation of the new empress. Just as the old-timers promised, the natural disasters had mostly ceased. Last year had seen an unusual amount of snow and many of the snowed-in villages had died off.

"I wish it would snow."

The braziers were the main source of heat. On really cold days, they put a kettle on the stove and boiled water and everybody gathered around the stove and warmed themselves with the steam and body heat. Wealthy homes had fireplaces, and even wealthier homes had a system that passed hot air between the walls and under the floorboards, heating each room individually, but few families in Kei could afford it.

Few could afford even to glaze their windows with glass. Instead, the windows were shuttered and paper affixed across the inside of the frame. That would let in some sunlight while shutting out the wind. Cotton was such a precious commodity that the futons were padded with the straw collected in the fall. As for winter clothing, it was practically impossible to get hold of fur or pelts. Charcoal for the brazier wasn't cheap, so the house was cold all the time.

Kingdoms to the north of Kei were colder, but as Kei was so much poorer it had fewer means to combat the cold. Winter in the northern quarter of Kei was particularly hard.

Nevertheless, Rangyoku liked the winter. Not only Rangyoku, so did all the children at the orphanage. Normally, from spring until fall, the people decamped to a nearby villages and hamlets, leaving the towns pretty much deserted. Only the orphans and town elders were left behind. During the winter, they all returned and would get together in big groups to spin cotton and weave baskets. That was a lot more fun.

Rangyoku took the lid off the big pot. "Keikei," she said, "go wake everybody up. It's time for breakfast."

Rangyoku was slicing steamed mochi into a bowl when suddenly she heard a scream from the courtyard. Taken aback, she looked around as Keikei came running back from the detached wing of the orphanage.

"Sis!"

"What's going on?"

It wasn't Keikei who had screamed. But then there came another cry.

"Youma!"

Enho jumped to his feet. Rangyoku put both hands to her mouth and swallowed her own scream.

"Go out the back and get to the Rishi." Enho gave the gasping Keikei a push. "Run for the cover of the riboku tree and stay there! You understand?"

"You, too, Gramps."

"I'll be along soon. Wait for me there."

Enho nodded his head at Rangyoku, urging her to go on ahead. Rangyoku bowed in turn, grabbed Keikei's hand, pushed open the back door and was about to stumble out when she heard the rustling of feathers and the sound of strong wings flapping.

She instantly stepped back and slammed the door shut. For a brief moment, she caught a glance of the sweep of its wings and the form of a tiger alighting on the ground. A kyuuki.

"Rangyoku?" Leaving the kitchen, Enho had turned back in the direction of her cry.

"In the back--there's a kyuuki in the back yard!"

Keikei began to wail. A kyuuki was a fierce, man-eating youma. It meant the end of the town. A kyuuki would devour every last person in sight.

Even now, the kingdom was still in this much chaos.

The back door reverberated with a crash. Rangyoku jumped back. She grabbed Keikei. Enho put his arms around them and hustled them into the main hall. Splinters came flying as the kyuuki tore through the wooden door with its claws. They bolted the door to the main hall and ran into the courtyard. Somehow they had to get to the Rishi. No youma would attack them beneath the riboku.

They rushed down the corridor toward the inner gate, down the stone steps, and emerged into the front yard. Behind them the screams of the children continued.

She wanted to help them but couldn't think of a way how. She knew it was inhuman to abandon them like this. She knew if it were Keikei back there, she would have turned back, even if it meant sacrificing herself.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

They reached the eaves of the main gate to the orphanage, Keikei suddenly shouted. Without thinking, Rangyoku turned and followed his gaze. Her eyes flew to the roof of the inner gate, to the crouching form of the kyuuki.

"Get going!" Enho urged them forward. "Run to the Rishi and don't look back!"

"No," said Keikei, clinging to Enho's coat.

"The others, they're probably already dead!"

"Gramps!"

Rangyoku took Keikei's hand in hers. She'd at least save him. She'd abandon Enho, use herself as a shield, and at least save him. The kyuuki licked its chops, crouched down low. Rangyoku watched it launch itself into the sky and fall on them. Transfixed, she held Keikei's hand.

A bright splash of red shot past them, grazing the creature's muzzle.

"What?"

That shock of red was a mane of red hair. Somebody had rushed past them and up to the youma. The image frozen in her eyes as she turned was that of the flutter of crimson and the brilliant flash of a naked sword cutting an arc in the air.

A boy, and a not very big one at that. His silhouette and that of the pouncing kyuuki merged together. Rangyoku hugged her brother to her chest.

The claws and fangs of the kyuuki, limbs as fat as logs. It's entire body was a weapon, yet the sword danced as it nimbly slashed at the youma. The spray of blood and gore belonged to the youma. The sword severed the steel-clawed limbs from its body. The youma slumped, howling, until the tip of the sword pierced its throat. The boy drew out the sword, swung it around and down. The blade bit deeply into the kyuuki's thick neck.

The kyuuki shuddered and toppled over. The boy jumped back and out of the way and then without a second thought, ran forward again and delivered the second blow to the beast's neck. Gripping the hilt with both hands, coming down on one knee, in a single blow cutting off the kyuuki's head.

Rangyoku fell to her knees. "I don't believe it." It was impossible, felling a kyuuki like that. She closed her eyes only briefly, only time enough to scream. She sat down on the ground, Keikei still in her arms. The boy wiped the blade clean and looked back at them.

"You okay?"

She couldn't answer, could only nod her head, yes.

Mouth agape, Enho finally put down the hand he had raised to hold them back. "And you are, sir?"

Before he finished asking the question, Keikei shouted, "Look out behind you!"

In a flash, the boy spun around, in the same split second drawing the sword as another kyuuki leapt down from the inner gate, throwing its entire weight against him. He feinted and ducked the charge. The kyuuki's bloodstained fangs closed on empty air. The sword connected, a mortal blow to the back of its head and then plunged in between its shoulders. He drew out the sword and in the same movement twisted his body and thrust backwards, impaling it through the throat.

Again, he made short work of it.

The sword was buried in the kyuuki's neck. Yanking it out, the boy tottered backwards in a manner Rangyoku found strangely affecting. He was so small compared to the kyuuki.

"Wow! Wow!" Keikei let go of his sister's hand and jumped to his feet.

Again, the boy wiped down the blade and glanced back at them. "It looks like you're not injured."

"Yeah. You were so great!" Keikei grinned happily.

The boy turned toward the heart of the compound. "I heard screaming."

Enho staggered up to him. "The other children--"

Not waiting to hear the rest, and without a second thought for the kyuuki, the boy leapt over the carcass and ran into the grounds of the orphanage.

Rangyoku and Keikei and Enho hastily followed after him, coming upon the ravaged exterior wing of the orphanage. Not a breath of life was left in the place. Three children between the ages of seven and fifteen lived there. They had lived together as a family until today.

The big window gaped open. The door hung from its hinges. A frigid wind blew into the quiet, cold room. Every surface was splattered with blood so fresh and acrid it almost seemed strange that no steam rose from the bodies.

They laid the three bodies out in the courtyard and covered them with matts of reeds. Hearing the commotion, the townspeople flocked to the orphanage, lending their assistance and sharing their grief and they bore the bodies to the town hall. By that time, news of the incident had reached the neighboring communities, and the center of town was crowded with unfamiliar faces.

Rangyoku looked at the spectators surrounding the orphanage, all keeping their distance, then at the boy. He stood in the courtyard, holding the sword in one hand, watching as the dead were born off. He had crimson hair and dark green eyes. His skin, darkly bronzed by the sun, had a vibrant quality to it. He was wearing a short, plain coat, but the sword he had killed the kyuuki with was magnificent.

"Um . . . " she said. "Thank you for saving our lives."

"It was nothing," he replied, in a quiet voice that somehow left a matter-of-fact impression on her. He seemed a little older than herself. They were both about the same height, so she guessed his age based on his overall stature.

"Are you from Hokui?" She asked, as he did not look like anyone she had seen around these parts.

"No," he answered.

Rangyoku tilted her head to one side. It being first thing in the morning, this struck her as a bit odd. The town gates opened at daybreak. In order to have gotten in so early, she reckoned he must have camped out the night before. When she asked him this, he nonchalantly nodded. "I considered seeking shelter in one of the hamlets, but there was nobody there."

Who would seek shelter in the hamlets at this time of year? Then the thought occurred to her. "Are you perhaps from Kou or Sou?" She had heard that in the kingdoms further south, people stayed in the hamlets year-round.

"No, from En."

"En is a cold country this time of year. The hamlets in En would all be empty, wouldn't they?"

"Probably so."

There was a smile in his voice. She turned to see Enho returning from where he had left Keikei in the care of the neighbors.

Enho said, "A kaikyaku."

Rangyoku looked at the boy with wide eyes. Enho said, "You're Chuu Youshi, correct?"

"Yes. And you are Enho-san?"

Enho nodded and glanced at Rangyoku. "This is the child I told you about, who was sent to the orphanage. Your new roommate."

"My what? But . . . . "

Rangyoku gave the boy a good long look. What Enho was saying was, this was the girl, a girl her same age, that he had been telling her about. "Oh! I'm sorry! I completely misunderstood!"

The girl smiled pleasantly. "No problem. I've gotten used to it."

Enho turned to Rangyoku. "Youshi, this is Rangyoku, one of the residents of the orphanage. She's the older sister of the boy you just rescued."

"I'm pleased to meet you," Youshi said with a slight bow.

When Rangyoku smiled and bowed in turn, Enho gave her a nudge. "While Youshi is changing her clothes, why don't you go fetch Keikei? He's still in something of a panic."

"I'll do that," she replied with a nod. Enho watched her hurry off and then looked up at the girl standing next to him. "With all these people about, we never greeted you properly."

"Understood. It's fine."

"I apologize. I'll see to it that you are properly treated as a resident of the rike."

"Well, that is why I came here."

Hearing her soft voice and seeing the look in her eyes, Enho nodded. "We are very grateful to you for saving our lives."

"Do youma still come into inhabited areas like this?"

"Yes, but less often since Kei got a new Empress."
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Chapter 23

5-3 Waiting for the ship to depart, Suzu leaned back against a bollard on the pier and examined her travel papers. Her passport was in the form of a small wooden token that she was to carry with her during the journey.

The people of a kingdom made their living on the partitions they were granted by the government. And the kingdom in turn governed the people using the land partition as the primary instrument of its control. Meaning, when you left your homestead, you gave up the rights and protections granted by the government.

Because of this, when a passport was issued, your name was inscribed on the face of the wooden token, and the back of the passport listed the name of the issuing prefectural office. The passport was placed on the person's koseki, or census record, and at three places along the edge of the token, a dagger was driven into the koseki. By lining up the grooves in the passport token with the puncture marks in the koseki, the authenticity of the passport could be confirmed.

It was also not uncommon for a guarantor's name to be inscribed on the back of the passport.

With a passport in hand, even when a person left his homestead, if circumstances required it, he could seek assistance from the nearest government office. It was the same when traveling abroad. Traveling abroad without a passport made one an itinerant or displaced person, and you lost all your rights. A passport was necessary even when going to a city in a neighboring jurisdiction. Consequently, you carried it with you everywhere you went, if only out of habit.

As Suzu's passport had been issued by the Royal Sai herself, the back was inscribed with the Imperial Seal. The passport was affixed to a small plaque called a rakkan, or financial guarantor. The seal burned into its face was that of the issuing bank.

The Royal Sai Kouko had given Suzu a generous sum for traveling expenses. These funds were deposited in a bank in Yuunei, the bank that issued the rakkan. Banks formed powerful trade credit unions by establishing strong and secure relationships with banks in other municipalities and even other countries. If you had a rakkan issued by a bank in the trade credit union, no matter where you went, you could withdraw money or establish a credit line at another bank in that trade credit union.

On the rakkan, the issuing bank and the stated credit limit were written in coded characters that could not be read by anybody outside the trade credit union.

"Unbelievable," Suzu muttered to herself. She carefully replaced her travel papers inside her jacket pocket, and secured it further with cord running through her belt.

It was too bad she wouldn't be working at the palace. However, if only a little, things seemed to be moving in the right direction now. Kouko arranged for the cavalry to fly her to the port of Eisou on the Kyokai. After a journey of ten days, they arrived at the coast and passage on a ship was arranged. She was asked whether she preferred a cargo or passenger ship. A passenger ship could only be booked as far as Sou. She would have to transfer several more times to get to Kei. If she went on one of the cargo vessels that plied the Kyokai around the Twelve Kingdoms, she could sail all the way to En, with a stop in Kei.

Suzu said that a cargo ship was fine with her, and the agent spoke with one of the commercial outfits on her behalf. This would get her to Kei. With the endorsement of the Royal Sai on her passport, getting a meeting with the Royal Kei shouldn't be too difficult.

I'm going to meet her. Somebody from Yamato, like her. Definitely the only person on the planet who could really understand her.

A tan-colored flag was raised. It was a small boat and there was only one flag. A small wheel was affixed to the top of the flagpole. It was a good-luck charm issued by the Ministry of Winter, called a junpuusha, a wheel-like talisman affixed to the top of the mainmast to ensure smooth sailing. As there were no deep harbors on the Kyokai, large ships did not travel these routes. Primarily cargo ships, though upon request they could take on passengers.

This takes me back.

Suzu looked down at the dark sea from the side of the boat. The ink-black sea, the faint, starlike flicker of lights. Swept away from her long-lost home, the first thing she saw of this world was this ocean. Suzu still didn't understand it. This ocean she almost drowned in, how far was it from her hometown in Japan? Told that the lights glimmering in the midst of the ocean were some kind of fish, that was good enough for her.

Glowing you-fish that lived deep in the ocean. They looked small to her, but in fact some were big enough to swallow a barge. Because they never surfaced except during storms, they were not considered dangerous. The youma that attacked people at sea were mostly beasts and birds that came from the Yellow Sea.

The boat left from a port in the south of Sai and sailed in an eastward direction across the Kyokai. They chose routes across the Kyokai rather than the Inner Seas because midway they would have to pass close by Kou. The king of Kou had fallen and the kingdom was in chaos.

"Usually, we don't see youma like that but once every three of four years," a sailor she'd gotten to know told her. "Youma are way worse than natural disasters. The Sonkai Gate up to the Reison Gate are particularly bad. They say that when sailing back to Sai from En on the Inner Seas, the flocks of youma from the Yellow Sea blot out the sun."

"Wow."

The Yellow Sea in the center of the world was completely close off by the encompassing range of the Kongou Mountains. You could only enter the Yellow Sea at one of four gates, called the Shirei Gates. The gate in the southeast quadrant was called the Reison Gate. The narrow strait between the Yellow Sea and Kou was called the Sonkai Gate.

"He must have done something bad, that Royal Kou. He hasn't been dead but a couple of months and look at the state they're in. Must be rough for the people of Kou. Until they get themselves a new king, you got to wonder how much worse things will get."

"So it's really bad . . . . "

The countries in this world are so strange, Suzu thought. It was one thing to say that the God in Heaven created the world, but children that grew on trees and all these strange creatures--she would hardly be surprised if God really existed. But if God did exist, why didn't He make it so kingdoms didn't go to pieces like that? If God did exist, it'd be nice if He'd make it so people didn't get turned into kaikyaku. And it'd be nice if He'd help her out for once.

The boat followed the coast of Sou east. Along the way, it stopped at three ports. The last was a small island close to Kou. From there, they passed through the straits between Kou and Shun and headed north. The water of the straits was a dark navy blue, somewhat bluer than that of the open sea.

"Why is the ocean a different color?" she mused as she rested her elbows on the railing and cupped her chin in her hands.

Out of the blue, a voice next to her said, "Because it's more shallow."

Suzu jumped and turned toward the sound of the voice. Next to her she saw a boy stretching as he peered out at the sea. At first, Suzu had been the only passenger on the boat. After three ports of call, the number had increased to eight. He must have been one of the passengers who came on board at Bokko, the last port of call.

"Shallow?"

"Shallow seas are bluer than deep water. You don't know much about the ocean, do you?"

Suzu glared at him. "I've never lived close to the ocean before."

"Really?"

The boy let go of the railing and laughed. He looked to be twelve or so. With his freckles and hair the color of oranges, he made a cheerful impression. When he laughed, his whole face lit up.

Suzu asked, "Are you going to En or Kei?"

"Kei," he answered.

Oh, Suzu smiled. "I'm Suzu. Pleased to meet you."

The boy cocked his head to one side. "That's a funny name."

"I'm a kaikyaku."

"Kaikyaku?"

So there are things people here don't know, either. "I'm from Yamato. I was washed ashore here."

The boy's mouth gaped open in surprise. "No kidding? That's great!"

"It's not great. It's pretty awful. It means I can't ever go home again."

Huh, the boy muttered, and stretched again. He looked down into the waves. "So your luck's not so good."

"No."

White waves washed the sides of the ship, vivid against the dark surface of the ocean. If you shifted your gaze to the open sea, your eyes met the clear line of the horizon dividing the heavens from the water. Somewhere beyond that distant horizon was the country where she had been born. She had wept profusely when she heard she could never go back again. She knew that it was possible for wizards to cross the Kyokai and had indulged the fantasy that if she served Riyou well, she would get a promoted to the class of wizard who could do so. But when she found out that she would have to become a wizard of the air, and a count as well, she gave up on the idea.

"Hey, cheer up." The boy hit Suzu on the shoulder. "There are lots of kids who can't go home again."

Suzu scowled at him. "No, there aren't. There aren't that many kaikyaku here."

"Even if you're not a kaikyaku. Like when your kingdom gets all messed up, your home gets burned down, there are people like that."

"That's different from what I'm talking about! I can't go back to the place I was before. Your house burns down, you can build a new one. Do you know what it means to never return to a place you once loved? Do you have the slightest idea what you're talking about?"

The boy looked up at Suzu with a perplexed look on his face. "I kinda think it's the same thing."

"You're just a child. You don't understand."

The boy puffed out his cheeks. "Kid or an adult, being sad is being sad. Not going home again would hurt the same, wouldn't it? You know how sad it is not being able to ever go home, but so do a lot of people."

"I'm telling you, it's not the same thing!"

The boy sulked for a minute. "Well, then, have it your way. Go on crying your eyes out. Excuse me for butting in."

Everybody here is just the same. Nobody understands anything. She said aloud, "Brat!"

The boy didn't turn around.

"So what's your name?"

The boy tossed the answer back over his shoulder. "Seishuu."
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Part VI


akushun's hirsute tail stood straight up. "Youko left the palace?"

Rokuta gave that sight a curious look and with the tips of his fingers motioned for him to calm down. "Mum's the word," he said, glancing around at the surrounding tables and the waiters delivering the food.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry."

Rokuta grinned and then with an annoyed expression picked up the bandana that had fallen onto the table in front of him. After covering his head with the bandana, he looked like an ordinary child again. "She just took off for a while. She asked for a visa, so I sent her one."

"What is going on with her?"

"Who knows?" said Rokuta, tossing a dumpling into his mouth. "All kinds of stuff. I got the feeling last time that she had a lot on her mind."

"Yeah," Rakushun muttered.

"It's because she's such a serious person. To make matters worse, everybody over there is so uptight and argumentative. You tell them to sit back and take it easy, but they're just not the kind of people who can do that."

Rakushun nodded. He picked up his chopsticks again and stopped. "I was thinking of going to see how she was."

University was in recess over the New Year's holiday, the last part of December and the first part of January.

"You're being overprotective." Rokuta gave Rakushun a teasing look.

Rakushun's whiskers drooped dejectedly. "And I thought I'd take the opportunity to go see my Mom."

The country of Rakushun's birth--the Kingdom of Kou--was going downhill and fast. The king had already died. Rokuta recalled Rakushun saying something about sending for his mother.

Rakushun said, "I'd like to find out more of the kingdoms around here, see how things are going in Kei."

"Expanding your horizons is always a good thing." Rokuta jabbed the dumpling skewer in Rakushun's direction. "If it's about your mother, I'll take care of it. How about you go check out Ryuu?"

"Ryuu?"

Rokuta nodded. He said in a hushed voice, "Recently, youma have shown up off the coast of Ryuu."

"You're kidding!"

"Word is that perhaps they were swept in from Tai. But youma don't go barging into a kingdom that isn't in trouble. Something stinks."

Rakushun mulled it over.

Rokuta added, "When I say I'd like to go see what's going on in Ryuu, I mean somebody who can put his other work aside and get on with it. If you could do this for me, it'd be a real help."

"Okay. I'll do it."

Rokuta's face lit up. "Hey, I appreciate it. Something strange is going on, I can feel it. There's Tai and Kei and Kou. And on top of that, Ryuu. Recently, none of the kingdoms around En have been on an even keel."

"That's true."

"If something fishy is going on in Ryuu, no matter how insignificant, I want you to let me know as soon as possible. I know I'm asking a lot. And while you're at it, I'll handle things for your mother and check in on Youko."

Rakushun nodded, and then turned his thoughts eastward.

Rokuta said, "Youko being Youko, she'll be okay."

Rakushun looked at Rokuta.

Rokuta said, "I trust her. It'll be tough for a while, but knowing her, she'll pull through. Ever heard of the word, kaitatsu?"

"No."

"It's particular to Kei. It means a longing for a king, a man. After so many bad empresses in a row, it's not an unreasonable sentiment. Even I was wondering if an empress really was a good idea. But my concerns were quickly put to rest. Youko being a girl means she gets judged on her looks alone. That's why we're the only ones who can really put our faith in her."

Rokuta grinned, and Rakushun smiled as well. "Yes, that's very true."

The province of Ei, with the capital Gyouten at its center, was shaped like a bent bow. Hokui Prefecture, in its northern quarter, was located at the very tip of the bow, west of Gyouten. In the eastern part of Hokui Prefecture was Kokei, or, as most people called it, the city of Hokui. Crossing the river brought you to Wa Province and the outskirts of a big city called Takuhou.



At a small cemetery on the outskirts of Hokui, Rangyoku brought her hands together in prayer. She was at the grave of the children who had been killed at the orphanage. Their parents had died. They had been entrusted to the orphanage, and in the end had been killed by the youma. Half a month later and she couldn't stop thinking of the fear and suffering they must have experienced.

Taking along the goat she'd left at the gate, Rangyoku returned to the town. During the day, she let the goat graze on the vacant land adjacent the city, and now she was taking it home. Kokei, the town Rangyoku lived in, was an appendage of the city of Hokui. From her perspective, Kokei really did look like a pimple growing on the side of Hokui. As she pulled the goat along behind her in the cold wind, the town's appearance struck her as rather forlorn. She entered the town through the Kokei gate and returned to the orphanage.

When she went around back of the orphanage to the barn, Keikei was running out of the back door to do his evening chores. With him was Youshi.

"Hey, you're home!"

Keikei's high voice carried far. Youshi gave her a slight bow. Rangyoku smiled in return, thinking, she is an odd one. A kaikyaku, Enho had said. That must be why. Enho said that she was a new member of the orphanage, but she was more like Enho's guest.

Towns were generally run by a town manager and a superintendent. The town manager worked in the town hall and officiated at the Rishi. The superintendent was his principal advisor. The superintendent was the most senior of the town elders. He was also headmaster at the orphanage and elementary school. Yet, Enho was not from Kokei. When Rangyoku inquired about this, she was told he was from Baku Province in the west of Kei. Usually, the posts of manager and superintendent were filled by people from that town.

The more she thought about it, the odder Enho's situation seemed.

Or so it seemed to her. She didn't understand all the ins and outs of becoming a superintendent. The town manager certainly treated Enho as if he were of a considerably higher rank than himself. Enho had many visitors, who traveled great distances to see him, and who stayed over at the orphanage in order to converse with him. She didn't know who they were or why they came to see him. Even when she asked about them, no one could or would tell her. It was obvious, though, that all of his visitors greatly respected him. They came here to be taught by him. They were the ones staying in the guest quarters.

The rike compound where the orphanage was located generally consisted of four buildings. The first was the orphanage, where the orphans and elderly people stayed. The second was the assembly hall, where the townspeople could gather. When they returned from the villages and hamlets during the winter, the assembly hall was where they would come during the day. There they would weave and do piece work. Sometimes at night, they would turn the place into a bar and drink and have a good old time.

The guest quarters was a building for people visiting the orphanage or the town. Attached to the guest quarters was a garden, and in the garden was the cottage Enho used as a study, and where he spent most of the day. The care and upkeep of these buildings and the people and visitors who gathered there was the responsibility of the residents of the rike.

Youshi was assigned a room in the guest quarters. That was according to Enho's explicit instructions. If you didn't live in the orphanage itself, you weren't really counted as a resident of the rike. In the first place, the people who lived in the orphanage were supposed to be from the town, and Youshi obviously wasn't.

It just seems so strange.

Rangyoku left the goat to Keikei's care and went back to the kitchen with Youshi. She watched as Youshi drew water from the outside well and filled the tank in the kitchen.

Aside from the fact that Youshi had been given a room in the guest quarters, she spent the days the same as the other members of the orphanage. She helped out in the kitchen and cleaned up around the rike. The only really different thing about her was that when Rangyoku and Keikei were done with their chores and went off to play, Youshi went to Enho's study and talked with him.

It's probably because Youshi is a kaikyaku and he's teaching her what she needs to know about living here.

At least that's what Enho said, and it probably was true.

"What's up?" Youshi suddenly asked her.

Rangyoku started. Youshi had caught her standing there staring off into space. "Um . . . oh, nothing."

Youshi only quizzically tilted her head to the side, so Rangyoku asked her straight out. "Why did you come to Kokei?"

Ah, Youshi said to herself. "I didn't know anything of this world, and a person I know arranged for me to meet Enho. So here I am."

"Is Enho an important person? It's just that so many people come to see him."

"I don't really know. From talking with him, though, I would say that he is a very wise man."

"Huh."

When she was finished drawing the water, Rangyoku had her wash the vegetables. While dicing the vegetables, Rangyoku asked her, "Um, what kind of place is Yamato?" Old people said that it was the land of wizards. A land of dreams, where there was no suffering or grief.

"It's not so different from here. There are natural disasters and there are wars."

"Oh." She was somewhat relieved, and also somewhat disappointed.

"Can I ask you a question?" said Youshi.

Rangyoku stopped cutting the vegetables. "What?"

"Is Rangyoku your azana?"

"No, it's my real first name."

"People here have so many different names. It's very confusing."

She sighed, as if she truly were at a complete loss. Rangyoku couldn't help smiling. "I take it in Yamato you don't have an azana. The name listed on the census is your full name that you use all the time, and an azana is just a casual nickname. In olden times, nobody called you by your given name. Old-timers hate being called by their given name, but I don't care. My registered family name is So. When I become an adult, I'll choose my own surname and the characters for that name, but I'm not an adult yet."

Becoming an adult meant reaching one's majority. At the age of twenty, you would receive a plot of land from the government and become an independent person. This plot was called a partition or homestead. Those twenty years were calculated according to kazoe-doshi, meaning that you were one year old when born and counted a year older every New Year's day.

Youshi laughed. "See, there are so many ways to count your age. What a mess."

"Normally, age is counted by your birthday. It's because of compulsory service. Using kazoe-doshi, you can end up with people who are all seventeen years old but have all different sizes of bodies."

You became responsible for paying taxes when you became an adult and received a homestead, but age wasn't taken into consideration when it came to compulsory service. In an emergency, even ten-year-olds would be rounded up. Rebuilding dikes, digging ditches, building villages and hamlets, and in the worse case, fighting wars. It was rare to draft soldiers who hadn't reached the age of eighteen, but if troop strength proved insufficient, the draft age would be lowered.

"Compulsory service also used to be done according to kazoe-doshi, too, but that was a long time ago."

"Huh."

"Yamato doesn't have compulsory service?"

Youshi shook her head, a sardonic smile creeping onto her face. "It doesn't, but it often seems like the compulsory service is year-round."

"How's that?"

"Adults work from morning till midnight. Children study from morning till midnight. It's not actually compulsory, but if you don't work harder than everybody else, you'll really get left behind. So everybody works through the night to the break of dawn."

"Sounds awful," said Rangyoku.

Keikei burst into the kitchen, having finished tending to the goat. "I'm done!" he cheerfully declared, ready for his next job. "Well, then, clean off the table and get out the dishes."

"Okay."

A twinkle in her eyes, Youshi watched Keikei dart off, rag in hand. "Hard worker, Keikei is."

Rangyoku readily agreed. "He is, isn't he?"

The abundant pride she evidenced made Youshi smile. "Is Keikei his name?"

"It's his nickname, what everybody calls him. His real name is Rankei."

Youshi laughed. "It really is very confusing."
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Chapter 25

6-2 Youko did not have a really good idea of who Enho was. Keiki had arranged for her to come to the orphanage and had asked him to be her teacher. He was, according to Keiki, a very distinguished scholar. She hadn't been able to get anything more out of Enho, either, other than that he was also the superintendent of Kokei.

The day after she arrived, Enho told Youko to come to the study in the afternoon and then after supper so that they could get acquainted. At first, they chatted about nothing important. After that, he spent several days inquiring into her personal history. Then he asked about Yamato. What kind of country it was, the nature of the geography, what kind of business and industry it had, how it was governed. What people thought and dreamed about.

As Youko conversed with Enho, many things surprised her. She was mortified at how little she knew about her native land.

After straightening up the kitchen after lunch, Youko slipped down the portico to the study. Along the way, she allowed herself a sigh. Another day answering questions. Day after day, the breadth and depth of her ignorance grew and grew.

When she got to the study, Enho wasn't there. She looked out at the garden and saw him sitting in the gazebo-like tea room, bathed in sunlight.

"Oh, there you are."

When she walked out onto the veranda facing the tea room, he smiled. "The weather's turned out so nice today. Youko, come and have a seat."

She obediently sat down on the bench in the tea house.

"This must be your first winter here. How are things going?"

"It doesn't feel so different from Japan."

"Oh?" said Enho, with a nod. "Kei is quite fortunate, compared with the kingdoms to the north. Still, in the northern part of the kingdom, you can freeze to death living outdoors. Game is scarce in the fields. It's not the same as the warmer kingdoms where, though the yield may be poor, you can plant during the winter and gather a harvest. So, during the winter, what do you think the most important thing is to people?"

"Um, a warm house?"

Enho stroked his beard. "I can see how that would be true in Yamato. But, no, not a house, but food. Yours is the opinion of someone from a country whose people do not suffer from starvation."

Youko bowed her head in chagrin.

"It is a particularly grave concern in the kingdoms to the north. The mere touch of bad weather during the summer will be reflected in the fall's harvest. Even a poor harvest will be taxed. And from what remains, a certain proportion must be set aside for next year's planting. Eat your seed corn and next year you will starve for sure. Even when the storehouses are full, in some kingdoms, goods cannot be easily transported during the winter. In some kingdoms, even if you are starving, the ground will be frozen too hard to dig for roots."

"I understand."

"Talk it through and you'll figure it out. You only have to work at it."

Youko glanced at Enho's profile. "Were you perhaps testing me?"

"No. I don't set out to test people. I just try to determine where the problems are. You're a stranger in a strange land. The gulf between here and there is vast. There's no way that I'm going to be able to comprehend where you've come from."

Right, said Youko, with a nod.

Enho gazed at the garden for several minutes. Then he said, "It is a universal truth that the foundations of the kingdom are in the land."

Caught a bit off guard, Youko came to attention.

"All citizens receive a plot of land when they reach their majority. A single allotment is equal to one hundred are, or one hundred paces squared [one hectare]. Nine allotments form a well brigade. A well brigade, or one square ri (900 are) [nine hectares], is owned by eight families."

"Wait a minute. The units of measurement . . . . "

Rokuta, the kirin of En, often crossed the Kyokai to Yamato, and was well-versed in things Japanese. He managed to bring back with him some books and a few tools. According to what he'd taught her, one pace was equal to 135 centimeters.

"If one pace is 135 centimeters, and one ri is 300 paces, then . . . . "

Watching her run through the calculations, Enho laughed. "You're thinking about it too hard. One pace is equal to two strides. This is a stride--" Enho took a single step forward. "The width of a step is one stride. Two strides, left, right, is equal to one pace."

"Oh. That makes sense."

"So two steps, or strides, makes one pace. When referring to area, one pace squared is also called a pace. And a shaku is as follows."

Enho put his hands together as if praying, and then opened his hands, spreading out the palms. "The width of my hands is one shaku. One shaku is ten sun, so each sun is approximately the width of a finger."

"Got it."

"One jou is harder to describe, but it is generally the height of a man. One shou can be thought of as the amount of liquid scooped up with two hands." He added with a smile, "But because a large man has a longer stride, a ri he measures will be bigger than an actual ri. Similarly, a small man's shou isn't going to add up to an actual shou. Keep this in mind and things should average out right."

"I see," Youko said, with a small laugh.

"To sum up, one allotment is equal to one hundred paces squared, a plot of land four hundred paces in circumference. As farmland, it's quite spacious. Nine allotments make up a well brigade. This land is divided up amongst eight families. The well brigade is the smallest division of jurisdictional discipline that the kingdom exerts over the citizenry itself."

"Eight families on nine allotments?"

Enho gave her an approving smile. "One allotment serves as the commons. Eight families farm the eight allotments, and the ninth is held in trust by the kingdom. Eighty percent of the commons, called the kouden, is yielded to the government as tax. The remaining twenty percent, called the roke, is reserved for houses and gardens."

Ah, that's how it works, Youko thought, recalling the scenes of hamlets dotting the countryside. The hamlets consisted of the same general number of buildings. Not enough buildings to be called a village, but assembled together in a kind of proto-village.

"The kouden is eighty are and the roke is twenty are. And twenty are is?"

"Um . . . two thousand square paces."

"That's right. A single family's share is two hundred square paces for the garden, fifty square paces for the house. Do you know how big a garden of two hundred square paces is?"

"Um, no."

"Fruits trees and mulberry bushes are planted around the periphery. The land left over is devoted to the garden. The garden should be sufficient to provide for one house and two people. A house of fifty paces is small. Two rooms, living room and kitchen. I believe in Japan it is called a two eru-dee-kee."

Youko grinned. "A 2LDK."

Enho smiled as well. "A house is generally counted as two people. There is enough land to supply the food and a house big enough for two. Eight such families constitute a hamlet. Three hamlets make a village. The village is smallest division of municipal incorporation. Three hamlets of eight families come to twenty-four families, plus the rike equals twenty-five."

"And you can get a house in the village as well?"

"Yes. The hamlets are in the countryside, so when the land lies fallow, there's not much for them to do there. During the winter, the twenty-four families return to the village."

Youko smiled. If she listened carefully, right now she could hear the lively voices from around the rike. The women had gathered to spin and work the looms. The men had gathered to weave matts and baskets. They would be talking about the goings-on in their hamlets.

"In any case, the basis of everything is the one square ri that constitutes a well brigade. It is governed according to the seidenhou, the law of well and paddy."

Youko took a breath. "Yes, it's written in the Divine Decrees, on the scrolls of the Law of the Land."

Oh? said Enho, hiking up his white eyebrows.

"But I could hardly read any of it."

Not only was it written in medieval Chinese characters, but in hakubun, a particularly dense kind of unpunctuated Chinese text. As a consequence, she found it mostly incomprehensible, and she didn't have access to anything like a Chinese-Japanese dictionary. Frankly, it was way over her head. Even having Keiki read it for her and following along in the text, she didn't have a clue.

"It would be preferable if somehow you could learn to read Chinese."

When Youko sighed, Enho laughed. "That's okay. You've got a good memory. If you work hard and take things seriously, you have what it takes to get by okay."

Unconsciously, she straightened her posture.

"The smallest possible house on the smallest possible plot of land. You work hard, and there are no natural disasters or unexpected phenomenon, you'll never be left to starve. All citizens of the kingdom get this minimum allotment. Whether or not they can live comfortably depends in the end on their own resourcefulness."

"And when there are natural disasters?"

"What you must keep in mind is the former, not the latter. You must stop trying to shoulder the burdens of the entire population. You must concern yourself with water and land management, and your own self-discipline, and by doing so extending your life if even just a little."

"I know that, but . . . . "

"As for the things that you ought to do, they are quite limited. To prepare for droughts, create reservoirs and dig canals. To prepare for floods, build dikes and levees and improve the watersheds. To prepare for famine, stockpile grain. To guard against youma, train the military. Then there's the untangling of the red tape that is the law . . . but that's about it. And these are mostly the responsibilities of the ministers, not something you should be doing yourself. Okay? Was there anything else troubling your mind?"

Youko laughed. "I guess you're right."

"Save superfluous thoughts like making the kingdom rich and prosperous for later. First, concentrate on quelling the turmoil and unrest, on making sure things are not getting any worse."

Youko took a deep breath. It felt as if a great weight was lifted from her shoulders. "Thank you," she said.
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Chapter 26

6-3 "So it's faster coming back the other way? Why's that?"

Suzu was standing on the deck, facing the wind. Hearing the kid's voice, she grimaced.

"It's the season. The wind blows from the northeast. The ocean currents also flow from north to south. That's why the return trip is faster."

"Huh."

When she turned around, she saw Seishuu sitting next to a sailor.

"Boats are real interesting. I'm going to become a sailor!"

"Good for you," the sailor laughed.

From Sou to a port in the southeast of Kei would take half a month. Already she had come halfway on her voyage. There weren't many people on the boat, so she'd pretty much gotten to know everybody. Seishuu was the youngest. He talked to everybody without the slightest hesitation, and because he always had something smart to say, even the sailors said he was a clever kid and doted on him. Watching all this just irritated Suzu.

He doesn't understand anything. But he's just a kid, so he can't help it.

Still, it ticked her off whenever he tried to tell her that the awful things that happened to her happened all the time, like being separated forever from your home.

All the time? Just how many kaikyaku do you think there are in this world?

With a huff, Suzu turned her back and returned to the stateroom.

The stateroom was filled with the smell of oil. It had repulsed her at first, but she'd gotten used to it. Still, if you stayed inside for long, the rolling motion of the boat and the smell made you sick to your stomach. That was why, when there was good weather, most of the passengers went out on the deck. Right now, Suzu was alone in the room.

The stateroom was split into two large areas where everybody slept. For the time being, there was a section for men and a section for women, but only because there were so few passengers.

Suzu sat down and let out a breath. From behind her, she heard that annoying voice.

"Hey, Suzu, quit giving me those looks the way you do."

Suzu didn't turn around. She pulled her luggage toward her as if she were busy. She opened a package inside the trunk. "What are you talking about?"

"That sailor got on my case. He thought I was teasing you or something."

"Oh?"

The light footsteps approached her. Seishuu sat down next to her. "What are you so mad at me for?"

"I'm not mad at anything."

"What a big baby."

Hearing his exaggerated sigh, she glared at him. "I'm an adult, that's why I'm not mad. I don't let myself get upset by what children do."

Seishuu gave Suzu a brief, searching look.

"What?"

"You look like an easy-going person on the outside, but you're a sourpuss underneath."

Suzu turned on him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nobody's ever said that to you before? You really can be a pain."

Although knowing that if she lost her temper, she'd lose the argument, Suzu couldn't keep the blood from rushing to her head. Almost without realizing it, she hit him. "Shut up!"

Riyou. Kouko. Everybody hates me. Everybody has it in for me.

Seishuu's eyes flew open. He laughed. "I don't believe it! I'm right!'

"Get out of here!"

"Nobody likes to hear the truth about themselves."

"I said, get lost!"

"Does it hurt your feeling that much, telling you that lots of people are just like you? I wasn't wrong. Lots of people can't ever go home again. It's tough for everybody. There's nothing special about you. But you don't get it, that's what makes you such a meanie."

"I hate you!" Suzu couldn't take it anymore and broke down in tears. The truth did hurt. Nobody she'd met in this world had liked her. Nobody understood her. Nobody ever felt sorry for her.

But why? "Why does everybody pick on me? Riyou, you, what do you all have against me? What did I ever do to you!?"

"Who's Riyou?"

"The mistress of Suibi Grotto, in Sai."

It all gushed out of her. How cruel Riyou was. How demanding she was. All the hardships Suzu had suffered. How she was rescued by the Royal Sai, who turned around and kicked her out of the palace. But saying all this wouldn't make a bit of difference to a child like him.

"It's too bad, Suzu. You're more of a kid than I am."

"What?"

"Do you like yourself, Suzu?"

Suzu shot him a surprised look.

"Do you think you're a good person?"

"Not really." She was so miserable all the time.

"So it's hardly surprising that other people don't like you either, huh? After all, don't people put themselves first, and always think of themselves first?"

Suzu gaped at him.

"It's asking an awful lot, expecting other people to like you when you don't even like yourself."

"I didn't mean--" Suzu hastily arranged her thoughts. "That's not what I meant! Of course I like myself. Who doesn't? But nobody ever tells me! I don't like the me that nobody else likes. That's what I meant."

"So, does that make the people who don't like you bad people? What if you changed your attitude and became a likeable person? But that's a reach for you, too. So you end up being disagreeable. Nothing more. End of story."

"You don't understand!" Suzu wrung her hands together. "You don't understand me! It's because I'm a kaikyaku! Kaikyaku are different from people like you! That's why you all hate me for no reason at all!"

"You know, I can't stand people like you." Seishuu took a breath and let it out.

"Who wants to be like that? Trying to be unhappier than anybody else, then taking the easy way out and blaming your unhappiness for all your problems."

Suzu gasped. She detested this little runt to a degree that made her dizzy.

"It's really dumb," he continued. "All you can do is brag about how unluckier you are than everybody else. And even when you're not, you're the kind of person who'll make sure that you are."

"No fair! You're just being mean! Why do you have to say things like that? After all the suffering I've been through!"

"Did all that suffering make you a better person? Does all your patience make you feel better about yourself? Me, when it comes to suffering, I'd rather put it behind me." Seishuu cocked his head to one side. "Do you think if you weren't a kaikyaku, everything would be peachy? You're a wizard. You won't get sick, won't ever grow old, right? What do you say when you're around people who really are sick and suffering? Wizards don't have to worry about eating, neither. You go to where people are starving to death, are you still gonna think you're worse off than them?"

"I don't want to talk to you. You just saying that because you caught all the lucky breaks and I didn't."

"I caught all the lucky breaks?"

"Yeah. You were born here and grew up here, and you've got a family and a place to go home to."

"I don't have a home."

"What?" said Suzu.

"I used to live in Kou. And not just my home, but our entire village is gone." Seishuu wrapped his arms around his knees. "We lived near the Kyokai. The whole cliff gave way and sent everything and everybody into the sea. Well, not everybody, if you're gonna get picky about it. There's always me." He laughed. "Everybody who was at home, my aunt and the kids, they all died. I'm lucky to be alive."

Suzu was at a loss for words. She recalled the village that had given her shelter when she was swept ashore in Kei. The village overlooking the ocean, clinging to the edge of the cliffs. If that cliff collapsed . . . .

"Go to Kou and you'll find a lot of kids like me. The king died. The Taiho died, too. It's going to be hard times until a new king sits on the throne, and that's not going to happen overnight. Everybody's getting out while they can. I don't know when they're going to get a new king, but I know I'm not going back until they do. Maybe I'll never go back."

"But . . . . "

"My village happened to be close to the borders of Sou. I was lucky enough to escape. Kou is only going to get worse. After this, even if you wanted to make a run for it, it's not likely you could."

"Still, you wanted to escape."

"Not everybody wants to run away. You own home is always best. Lots of people started running and were lining up at the borders. Then the youma came and ate them up. Even if they had homes to go home to, they're not going home now." He muttered, almost as an aside, "My father, neither."

"And your mother?"

"Dead," said Seishuu, with a unsettled laugh. "We were all going to get a boat and sail to Kei. But she died before the boat came into port. I gave my mom's ticket to that old man."

A scrawny, middle-aged man had come aboard with him.

"He's from Kou, too. He got out with just the clothes on his back. Didn't have the money for the fare."

"But why Kei? You escaped to Sou." Sou was the wealthiest of the Twelve Kingdoms.

"Because we're originally from Kei."

"From Kei?"

"The empress of Kei, the one before the empress now, before she took the throne, things were really in a bad state. When I was real small, we fled to Kou. There ought to be a nice, quiet village there, right? Mom said that when Kei got a new king, we'd go back." Seishuu took a deep breath. "Mom and Dad weren't very lucky. They died knowing nothing but hard times."

Suzu gave him an irritated look. "My parents suffered a lot, too. We were poor, never had anything good to eat. And then the crops failed. I was sold as an indentured servant and sent packing."

"Yeah, but that's better than everybody dying."

"You only say that because you're so fortunate. Your parents were good to you, right? My parents were the kind of parents who sell their children."

"True, I liked my parents, but it's lonely being the only one left."

"Same with me. You're the lucky one. You were with them to the end. I'll never see my parents again. I don't know what became of the country I left, except that they're all dead for sure."

"So, we're in the same boat together."

"We're not the same! Just being there when they died, that was a blessing. I wanted to care for them in their old age."

"Being there when my mom died, well, okay. But my dad was eaten by a youma. I really didn't want to see that."

"Still, he was there with you till the end! I wanted to take care of them no matter what happened. I didn't want to leave their side, ever."

Seishuu tilted his head to the side. "You know, Suzu, you're doing everything you can right now to be unhappy."

"What?"

"You're being cruel. It should be pretty obvious whether it's better to see your father torn to piece and eaten by a youma, or not. I didn't want to see that. I couldn't run to him, either. I couldn't do anything to help. I had no choice but to run away. My father has no grave. There was no funeral. Do you really mean that is better?"

Suzu's hand flew to her mouth. "I . . . . "

"It's a lie to say that your suffering is worse than anybody else's. Everybody suffers the same. If there's somebody somewhere who's never suffered, I'd like to meet them."

"I'm sorry, I didn't . . . . " She bowed her head in chagrin. This child had seen his father slaughtered in front of his eyes. There was no way that was the better fate.

"When things really get that bad, people do what ever they can to escape it. If it's not bad enough to do that, Suzu, you weren't suffering enough to want to run away."

"But . . . . "

"I don't know how to describe it, but you know that feeling when you want to die, and you know that fighting on won't do any good?"

"That's, um . . . . . "

"Talk is easy. Suzu, whatever you suffered wasn't bad enough to try to escape from or die trying. Nobody's gonna feel sorry for people who drown themselves in their own misfortunes. After all, living your own life is a full-time job. If you had someone sidling up to you all the time and wanting you to feel all sorry for them, you'd get sick of them. Don't you think?"

Is that what it comes down to? Is that why nobody could stand to have her around? Though she could hardly believe that Riyou or Kouko every really suffered in their lives.

Um . . . . " said Seishuu.

Suzu looked up and saw that Seishuu was resting his head on his knees.

"What's wrong?"

"Being around you makes my head hurt."

Suzu gave the smart remark an equally sharp look, but then noticed the sweat on his brow. "Does it's really hurt? Are you all right?"

"I'm okay."

He rolled over and lay down. His face was gray.

"Hold on. I'll go get somebody."

"Don't bother. I'll feel better after some sleep. I'm used to it."

Suzu peered closely at his face. "This happen often?"

"Now and then. It's this injury that hurts."

"Injury?"

"A youma nicked me in the back of the head. It starts hurting now and then."

"Oh."

"I'll be okay. It gets better after I sleep."

Suzu quickly got a blanket and tucked it around his shoulders.
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Chapter 27

6-4 Shoukei was assigned to the Shousha, the superintendent in charge of the palace buildings in the Ministry of Heaven. To be precise, she was made a servant to his underlings.

Her day began before daybreak. She was awakened before she could see the first rays of dawn and started earning her daily keep by dusting all the furniture. She polished the windows, swept, mopped and polished the floors. Before the empress and ministers awoke, everything had to be washed and dried.

The gardens were groomed while the empress and ministers were in their meetings. Weeds were pulled, the cobblestones swept and scrubbed. By the time the high officials finished with their duties and returned to their ministries, everything had to be wiped down again. And then you had to rush back to the place they just left and straight it up. At the end of the day, you washed all the cleaning rags and went to bed right after dinner.

If she were mopping the floor or washing the cobblestones and the empress or a minister happened to pass by, she had to prostrate herself right there in the place she was cleaning. She stooped over or kowtowed until the person in question had gone by. Otherwise, she had to walk around with a big pile of rags in a hamper on her back. If anybody complained about a spot of dirt anywhere, she had to fly over, bow with her face to the floor, and wipe away the stain.

Her quarters were in a dorm in a corner of the Imperial Palace. She was given clothes to wear and was never hungry. Winters in Kyou were slightly more temperate than winters in Hou, and the world above the Sea of Clouds even more so compared to the world below. But life here was a lot worse than it was when she was living in that poor little village in Hou.

The other servants took pride in working at the palace, but pride was the farthest things from Shoukei's mind. Until three years ago, she had been the one walking on the polished floors, the one being kowtowed to. It was her own personal hell to have to scrape the floor with her forehead in a palace like it.

On top of that, the Royal Kyou Shushou assiduously avoided her. Since that first day, she had not spoken to her once. At best, as Shoukei crawled along the floor, she might spy a glimpse of the brilliant silk train of her dress, a whiff of fragrant perfume, the clear, lucid chiming of her swaying obidama as she sailed past her.

Once it had all been within her grasp.

"What's this?"

Shoukei put down the cloth she was using to dust the furniture and picked up the ornamental hairpin in the shape of a flower. It was made from a kind of limpid ruby mined in the Kingdom of Tai. It was in the shape of a peony, carved from a single crystal of the transparent, scarlet gemstone, a gorgeous, blossoming flower, layered with petals so thin you imagined them bending at the touch of a fingertip.

"I used to have dozens. The ministers fell over each other presenting them to me."

She was in a room inside the imperial repository. The jewelry was neatly lined up on a shelf, wrapped in clothes.

So what's with all these things? Probably got stored here and long forgotten. Stored away, belonging to no one, put away for safekeeping, waiting for the next king, to decorate the hair of the queen or princess. And so the gifts just piled up in the repository.

Or the empress.

Shoukei was seized with the urge to dash the hairpin on the floor.

The Royal Kyou. Or the Royal Kei.

Right now, these were the kinds of accolades and glory raining down on them. And this was the cruel lot that she, the mere daughter of a king, had been left to.

"Sooner or later, everything comes to an end."

Every king, too, comes to an end. A day when the corpses roll on the floor.

She tried calming herself with these words but would not be pacified. Her life would end before that day came for the Royal Kyou and Royal Kei.

"You done in there?"

The sudden voice made Shoukei's heard skip a beat. The old woman who oversaw the Shousha's servants had caught sight of her.

"Um . . . yes, I am."

"Well, then, get onto your next job. If you don't hurry up and get it done, you won't be in time for dinner."

"I'm sorry," Shoukei apologized, rewrapping the hairpin.

The old woman laughed. "Allowing young women in here is always a mistake. I understand how you feel, but don't go around touching the fine merchandise. There'd be hell to pay if any of it got broke."

"Yes," she said, placing it back on the shelf.

"They all think, what would this look like in my hair? Oh, I'd be so beautiful. I did the same thing when I was your age."

Shoukei glanced back at the wrinkled old woman. The woman smiled. "It's always a disappointment. It don't look right on girls like us, just looks sad and funny, like decorating a scarecrow with flowers."

Shoukei picked up the cleaning cloth and clenched it tightly.

"We've got the arms and legs of people who work for a living. Strong physiques and even dispositions. Got no rank or fine jewelry to wear, but you don't need those to have pride in a sound body and mind. Don't need to care about doodads like that."

But I'm different. The words stuck in her throat. She painfully swallowed the retort.

With no idea what Shoukei was thinking, the lady laughed. "Only makes it worse, you still being young and all. And kinda cute as well. But you got to treasure what's been given you. You don't want to go lusting after baubles and ignoring your hard-won talents. Well, when you're done here, go to the room in the back."

Her head bowed, Shoukei hurried out of the room and went to a room deeper in the building. She closed the door and took several deep breaths.

The jewel of Youshun Palace. Skin like pearl, dark blue hair like the sky before daybreak. Eyes the color of amethyst. Waves of praise and adoration falling on her as ceaselessly as the waves breaking upon the shore. She'd lost all of it, and for no reason of her own.

"I used to have tons of these," she said to herself, approaching the shelf.

It was the room where the ceremonial fineries were kept, used to dress up the empress, queen or princess for religious festivals. Robes entwined with the feathers of a phoenix, strings of black pearls like so many poppy seeds woven into a fretwork, a diadem displaying a phoenix perched on the branch of a Chinese parasol tree.

The jewels could be plucked by the handful from the gemstone fountains in the Kingdom of Tai. She knew for a fact that of most value were the pearls, harvested in the southern waters of the Red Sea.

All gone. All those beautiful things that had once been hers, locked away in the imperial repository in Hou, waiting for the next king to be crowned.

"But they were all mine."

They had been made for her, tailored to her specifications, presented to her by her retainers. Why must they pass right under her nose to the next empress? Shoukei found herself possessed of the conviction that she must be the next empress of Hou.

I am the Empress. Just like that girl the same age as me. The Royal Kei.

That girl got lucky and robbed her of everything that had once been rightfully her own. Here she was, crawling and groveling, being worked to death, growing old and decrepit without a speck of joy or happiness, while she was adorning herself with all these treasures.

Unforgivable.

The Royal Kei had taken everything Shoukei had lost. A girl who had been a big fat nothing until the kirin chose her, and then she went and grabbed everything Shoukei had lost. A peon like her didn't deserve a thing.

Right now she'd be in the imperial palace in Kei, living it up on cloud nine. Like Shoukei, she'd never dream that one day she'd lose it all. She'd be too busy dressing herself up in all her countless gowns and adorning herself with ruby hairpins.

I'll steal it all back. Shoukei would take from that girl everything that had been taken from her. She casually placed the phoenix diadem on her head. There was a mirror in the corner of the room. She removed the dust cover and gazed into the glass.

Still fits me like a charm.

She quickly straightened her clothes and prettied up her hair.

Let's say I take this from the Royal Kei.

And the throne as well.

If it was okay for Gekkei, that monster who'd killed her father and cast her into these miserable circumstances, then it'd be okay for her, too. Shoukei glanced in the direction of the Royal Kyou's living quarters. I'll take it from her, she thought momentarily. But it would never fill the void in her soul the same way taking it from the Royal Kei would.

She said aloud, "I'll usurp the throne of the Royal Kei."

And when she did, she'd cheerfully tell the Royal Kyou to put up or shut up. The license you gave to Gekkei, now you give to me. Then at last she would be at peace.

Shoukei put down the diadem. She carefully wrapped it in its cloth and placed it back on the shelf. Instead, after perusing all the objects, she chose several smaller baubles and ornamented belts, and hid them inside a pile of rags in her cleaning hamper. If she broke them apart and sold the gems, she had enough to cover her travel expenses to Kei.

Of course, she'd be found out. Everything in here was under the purview of a conservator, and his underlings came by every day, dusting off and polishing the merchandise. But that a concern for tomorrow. They had all completed their work for the day.

She inspected the position of everything on the shelf, filling in the spaces left behind. With an innocent look plastered on her face, she did her cleaning and then hid the bounty in the undergrowth in the garden. Wearing a guileless expression, she washed her rags and ate dinner. She returned to her room with four other servants and pretended to sleep while she waited for night to fall.

In the dead of night, she strapped the hamper to her back and approached the main gates to palace complex. She called out to the night-watchman there, saying that as a punishment for her carelessness, she had been ordered by the empress to clean her riding tack.

With a doubtful look on his face, the night-watchman let her pass.

If there were no mounts there to fly her away from the gates, she'd never get out. The pegasi were kept in the royal stables outside the gate, but they couldn't be ridden by ordinary servants.

But I'm no ordinary servant.

Entering the stables, her eyes fell upon a flying horse called a kitsuryou. She quickly saddled him up.

"I used to have a kitsuryou of my own."

She grinned, flung open the stable doors, laughed in the face of the night-watchman running toward her, and launched herself into the sky.

"Amazing."

Shushou sat her flabbergasted self down in the chair. According to the night-watchman, a servant had commandeered a pegasus and, ignoring his commands to halt, had flown away from the palace gates. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be Shoukei, the princess from Hou given over to her custody. And not only that, several valuables had vanished from the imperial repository.

"She certainly surprised me."

"Then, you have done all you can for her," the kirin answered in a perplexed voice. More than one of grace or refinement, this kirin left an impression of profound naivite.

Shushou smiled sweetly at her retainer. "I've done what? No matter what the circumstances, breaking the law is still a bad thing. Right?"

"And who drove her to do such a bad thing? Please consider that as well."

"But, of course," Shushou laughed. "C'mere, Kyouki."

She beckoned him with her smiling countenance to come up next to her and squat down. Kyouki obediently knelt down and looked up at his eternally young liege. Then the palm of her hand across the side of his face. The sound alone made the assembled ministers flinch.

The hand she raised against the Saiho of the kingdom didn't even leave a mark. Shushou shook the stinging sensation out of hand. "I would have preferred a kirin smaller than me, like the En Taiho. I want to give somebody a walloping and my arm won't even reach. It is really annoying."

"Your Highness--"

Shushou said with a grin, "That Shoukei was really annoying, too. Such a stuck-up brat, she had nothing but contempt for the life of a servant, didn't she? Otherwise, what would be the point? I wanted to needle her a bit."

"Your Highness!"

"The princess royal becomes a mere servant, working from dawn till dusk, kowtowing to people. So she steals some things and runs away and that's the end of it? Times like this, a kirin's compassion makes me laugh."

With a hmph, Shushou raised her head and gazed down at her retainer, cowering there with downcast eyes. "What is with you kirin? Don't you realize that this so-called compassion is like spitting in the face of all the other honest, hard-working servants?"

Shushou looked down at the disheartened man. "Nobody lives better than the royalty of a kingdom. I live a better, more blessed life than any servant, but I bear far more responsibilities than any servant. That's why, though I live a life clothed in silk, the servants forgive me that and bow their heads. Were that not the case, I'd pretty soon lose my head like the Royal Hou. No?"

"Ah . . . yes."

"Shoukei didn't have a clue about those responsibilities. She didn't live up to those responsibilities. The godforsaken work is too hard, cleaning is too hard. She whines and complains and carries on like the spoilt child she is. If we look the other way now, we're insulting all the people who do those jobs and do them well. If we treat her the same as everybody else who puts in a full day's work, who doesn't steal, who doesn't run away, how are we keeping faith with those good people?"

Shushou sighed and glanced down at her hangdog kirin. "I understand people like her, but she is unworthy of anybody's pity. With all these gushings of misplaced compassion, you ought to be a mortician. You're exactly the right person to bring to a funeral. Stand there weeping with a kirin by your side, I'm sure it'd be very consoling to the bereaved family."

"Please forgive me."

Shushou called to the assembled ministers. "Dispatch the Imperial Army and capture Shoukei. Contact Han and Ryuu and ask them to extradite her if the criminal falls into their grasp."

"As you wish, Your Highness."

The servant from the imperial repository still lay prostrated before her. Shushou gave her a long look. "Raise your head, please. I know that you are surrounded by many temptations in the course of your duties. You have done well to resist them."

"But I failed to supervise her properly."

"That was not your fault in the least. You have served well. Keep up the good work, okay?"

"Yes, Your Highness."

At the sight of the overwhelmed old lady, Kyouki touched his cheek and sighed.
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Part VII


nho spread out the map of Kei on the table. "You can safely assume that the capital province will be located in the middle of the kingdom." As maps went, it didn't have nearly the detail that a map back in Japan would have. From it you could understand the gross features of the land, but little more than that.

"In the case of Kei, Ei Province is in the middle. Surrounding it are eight provinces. This is also in accordance with the Divine Decrees. The province lord of Ei Province is the Taiho. Essentially, the land of Ei Province is divided up and enfeoffed to the imperial ministers. Technically speaking, the ministers are not given a salary. They are confined to specific territories within Ei Province, called duchies. From the taxes raised within each duchy, a portion is assessed by the kingdom. What remains constitutes the minister's income.

"The smallest taxable jurisdiction in a duchy is a town, for which the imperial assessment is five percent. To this, poll taxes and other levies are attached. Consequently, the income of a public servant enfeoffed a duchy of a single town often comes to as much as fifty percent of the revenue from the operating homesteads. The largest taxable jurisdiction is a county. There, a county tax assessor can be appointed by the duke. The process is the same in the districts of the provincial capitals as well."

"So the district the provincial capital is located in is divided up and enfoeffed to the provincial ministers."

"That's right. So, what do you see as the strong point of this system?"

Youko tilted her head to the side. "Because you don't have paper money, when you pay your public servants, wouldn't they have a hard time taking it home with them?"

Enho smiled. "We do have such things as bank notes, so that shouldn't be a concern. The ministers are given land. When there is a famine, the income of the public servants must necessarily decline."

"Oh, I see. Income levels are free to fluctuate on their own, without lowering and raising salaries."

"That's right. And the disadvantages?"

"The possibility of despotic rule?"

"Yes, indeed. A chief constable is guaranteed to be stationed at least in the capital province. He sends inspectors into every county and prefecture to audit the business of government, but his eyes cannot reach into every nook and cranny. Inspectors are accorded the same authority as county superintendents. But inspectors and superintendents can conspire together and pretty much do as they please. The gross tax rate is set by the kingdom, but there is much room for personal discretion in the assessment of fines and levies. That is why, whenever a duchy in the capital province changes hands, the people have cause for either celebration or despair."

"I see."

"In the case of Hokui Prefecture, where Kokei is located, it is in the Duchy of Yellow. It does not have a duke. It is governed instead by the Taiho. Long ago, it was the domain of the Province Lord of Wa."

"The Marquis Gahou." Youko knit her brows. Amongst the province lords, Gahou was held in considerable disrepute. He was said to be a crafty and conspiring man, cruel in his governance of the province. Many voices clamored for his dismissal, but he never gave them the chance.

"At the time of the ascension of Yo-ou, Gahou was appointed Daishiba, head of the Ministry of Summer and was enfeoffed Kokui County in Hokui Prefecture. He later left that post to become Marquis of Wa Province. When the people of Kokui heard that, not a few of them wept tears of joy to be free of his clutches. Gahou is a jackal who cut off his tail and stood on his hind legs. A dangerous man, one who never leaves a chink in his armor exposed."

"The Rikkan doesn't know how to deal with him, either. They've done investigations, but they never turn up sufficient grounds for dismissal."

"Indeed. At any rate, this kind of thing--"

A knock came at the door, causing both Enho and Youko to look up.

"Hey, Gramps, a messenger came!" said Keikei, bounding into the study. "Oops, sorry."

Enho took the letter from Keikei. He opened it and cast a concerned look in Youko's direction.

"What is it? Bad news?"

"Oh, it's nothing," said Enho dismissively, folding up the letter. He said to Youko, "It looks like I'll be having a visitor tonight."

Meaning there would be no lessons after dinner. Youko nodded.

Keikei looked up at Enho. "A guest? So he'll need a meal and a room?"

"Oh, no need to worry about that. He'll be here after dinnertime and will be returning tonight as well. I'll make all the arrangements, so you can go to bed without any concerns."

That night, in her bedroom, Youko secretly met with a visitor of her own. It was Hyouki, one of Keiki's shirei.

"And how is everybody doing?" she asked, apparently to no one. There was no one besides her in the room.

"As always, all are doing well." The answer seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere in the room. A person overhearing the conversation would imagine a voice coming from beneath the floor. That wouldn't necessarily be wrong. Hyouki had hidden himself within the ground.

Shirei could travel through the invisible conduits and currents in the heavens and in the earth. Following these pathways, they moved unbeknownst to humans. It was called tonkou, or "the art of hidden escape." Keiki could travel on the currents of the wind, but he couldn't move that far. He certainly couldn't travel all the way from the palace at Gyouten to Hokui.

Because he couldn't make the trip by himself, he sent his shirei in his stead. Hyouki reported in detail about the conditions of the palace. Upon his return, he would in turn relay to Keiki how Youko was doing.

"Koukan's whereabouts are still unknown."

Youko nodded. Koukan had plotted her assassination and then slipped his shackles and was currently on the run.

"There is a rumor among the province lords that Your Highness has fled to En in fear for her life."

Youko had to smile. "I thought they'd come up with something like that. Well, then, let them go on believing it."

"Nevertheless, you must be on your guard. If Koukan were to discover your current location, he would certainly conspire to kill you again."

"No need to worry. Hankyo and Jouyuu are with me."

"I shall communicate the same."

She saw Hyouki off. In fact, there was no need to "see him off." He simply left from where he was. And Youko exited the room.

The basic layout of the apartments in the building consisted of one open room or living area attached to two private rooms. This was the case with Youko's room as well. In terms of Japanese architecture, it consisted of two 3 jou bedrooms adjoining a 4.5 jou living room. In a big house, the bedroom on one side would have a bed for sleeping and the other room would be furnished with a divan that could be used as a bed or couch, along with a writing desk and shelves so that it could be turned into a study. Between the two rooms was a living area. During seasons when the climate was agreeable, the door could be opened and screens set up to preserve some privacy.

It was also common to completely remove the thin, sliding doors, creating a large open space. More than a room, it turned into a broad extension of the veranda. Youko figured she could put a table and chairs there.

There wasn't any class in the sliding doors at the rike. Paper was glued to the fine latticework within the doorframe, like a Japanese shouji door. Those doors were closed. When you went to bed, unless you wanted to discourage others from coming in, no matter how cold it was, it was considered polite to leave the doors open a crack. So Youko opened the doors just a bit.

From Youko's living space, she could directly see the portico facing the small study that was sandwiched between the courtyard gardens. She saw a silhouette advancing down the corridor. She fixed her attention on that spot.

She could only make out that it was a man. Not young enough to be a boy, and not an old man. He was wearing a cotton-padded jacket over a plain outfit. And a hat. A black veil fell down from the brim of the insignificant-looking cap. Furthermore, a shawl was wrapped around his neck up to and covering his face. As a result, she could not make out any features of his face.

"Who is that?"

Now matter how hard she looked, his face remained hidden from her. The silhouette appeared to bow and disappeared into the study. Youko observed this, drawing her eyebrows together. Then she left the living room and headed down the corridor to the orphanage.

"Rangyoku."

Hearing Youko's voice from the hallway, Rangyoku lifted her head. Keikei jumped to his feet and took Youko by the hand.

"What's going on?" Rangyoku asked.

"Let's go play!" Keikei said.

"Could I speak with you a minute?"

"Go ahead," said Rangyoku with a smile. She took the pot from off the brazier. She had brewed some tea in the kitchen and was warming it on the brazier. "Oh, that's right. Enho has a visitor, so you don't have classes tonight."

"That's right," Youko smiled, taking the teacup Rangyoku offered her.

"Do you know who it is?"

"His visitor? I don't know. I haven't heard anything."

Keikei tugged on her sleeve. "Hey, sis, it's that guy, the one with the calico hair. I delivered the letter for him."

Ah, Rangyoku nodded. She thought maybe he'd said his name was Rou. He had black hair mottled with brown. He visited Enho occasionally. He seemed to be some kind of servant. She didn't know anything more about him than that.

"Rou-san. So then who that creepy visitor?"

"Creepy?"

"The way he always hides his face. The way he calls on Enho now and then. First he sends Rou-san. He always comes at night, and always late into the night. I know when he's coming because Enho says it's okay not to lock all the doors at night."

"Do you know where he's from?"

"No. I asked Enho, but he wouldn't say a word. I don't like him."

Keikei nodded as well.

"Don't like that man?"

"He's got to be a bad man, for sure," said Keikei, looking at Rangyoku.

Rangyoku gently rebuked him. "You shouldn't say that. But whenever he does come by, the next day Enho looks all depressed."

"Why?"

"I don't know. He won't say. Just one more thing to worry about, you know?"

"Yes, I know very well."

She talked a while longer with Rangyoku and Keikei and then returned to her room.

"Hankyo."

"I am here."

"When that man leaves, tail him. I want to know where he is lodging."

He had to be staying somewhere. The city gates would be closed at this time of night.

"By your command."
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Chapter 29

7-2 The boat passed Mt. Koushuu at the borders of Kou and Kei. The Koushuu were the ranges of mountains that demarcated the borders between each of the eight kingdoms. There was at least one crossing, and no more than three, where the mountains could be traversed from one kingdom to the other.

Because every kingdom had the same geography at its borders, the borders were also known as the Koushuu. Suzu gathered that from the Koushuu mountains separating Kou and Kei to the port of Goto in the northern quarter of the Kei, centrally located on the eastern coast, it was a trip of four days and four nights.

"Hey, Suzu, I've got a present for you!"

Suzu was standing on the deck looking out at the ocean. Seishuu ran up to her.

"Here," he said, proudly producing a piece of dried fruit, a candied apricot.

"What's this?"

"It's for you," he said with a pleased look.

What a strange child. He'd given her such a hard time, you'd think he'd keep his distance afterwards. But that was not the case. Rather, they seemed to bury the hatchet rather quickly. He was cheeky enough to come into the women's stateroom and sleep next to her. Suzu as well was somehow able to keep her temper in check. Anyway, anybody picking on Seishuu because he was a child would catch it in spades. The kid really had a mouth on him.

Also because they were now sleeping in the same room, Suzu couldn't help but observe how often he was in pain. Almost every morning found him holding his head and moaning. He wasn't lying when he said that he'd get better after some rest, but even when he was on the mend, he often got sick to his stomach. When he was well, he'd go back to behaving as if nothing were wrong. Otherwise, he could hardly keep his feet under him, and would have to half-crawl, half-walk to get around.

Suzu suspected that Seishuu did not have an ordinary illness. He said he'd been attacked by a youma. Suzu had seen the wound once. There was a small cut in the back of his head right beneath his pony tail. She was relieved that it did not look like a particularly severe injury, but he said that his head began to ache only after being wounded there.

"Hey, Seishuu, you really okay?"

He popped an apricot into his mouth and looked at her in surprise. "What?"

"Your injury. You say it still hurts, so that must mean it's not healing. How are you doing?"

"You're right. I'm not really okay."

"Have you been seen by a doctor?"

Seishuu shook his head, no. "Never had the time. But it's okay. I just got to rest for it to get better."

"Is it as bad as it used to be? Or is it somehow getting worse?"

She had noticed that the periods of time he was in pain were getting longer and longer. And after he woke up, it was taking him longer before he could walk normally.

Seishuu said in a disconcerted voice, "Hard to say, I guess."

"The last couple of days, you've been rubbing at your eyes. Are your eyes feeling bad, too?"

"It's getting hard to see."

Suzu gasped. "Obviously, something's wrong. Don't keep saying it's getting better. When we get to Kei, we're taking you straightaway to see a doctor."

"Okay."

"Did you have a place you needed to go?"

"Seishuu shook his head. "My mom's dead--"

"I don't believe it. So you just randomly headed for Kei? Shouldn't you have just stayed in Sou?"

Seishuu turned away with a huff. "Mom said to go back to Kei, so I'm going back to Kei."

Suzu took a deep breath. "At any rate, when we arrive in Kei, I'm taking you to the doctor for an examination. For all we know, you could be at death's door."

Seishuu suddenly trembled. "You know that because you're a wizard, Suzu? Am I really dying?" He looked up at her with the frightened face of a child.

"It's just words, Seishuu. I don't have any reason to thinking your dying."

"You've got a mean streak in you, Suzu."

"Yes, I do. Sorry. And you're a plenty bad stinker of a kid as well. Besides, you know that only the good die young."

Seishuu laughed in agreement and Suzu gazed briefly at his bright, smiling face.

The sailor laughed. "Feeling seasick, little guy?"

"No way," Seishuu shot back.

Suzu poked her head out from the shelter and wrinkled her brows in concern. It was awful the way he dragged his body along. The sun was low in the sky and yet his condition hadn't improved.

"But I am feeling a little dizzy."

"Don't get yourself all worked up so. Take it easy. You must be getting all worked up about returning to Kei, huh?"

"I'm not!"

The sailor said that because Seishuu's hands were trembling. More than a tremor, he was almost convulsing.

"The best thing to do when you're sick is to sleep it off. Tottering around like this you're going to fall overboard."

"Okay," Seishuu laughed and disappeared into the stateroom.

Suzu watched this with some relief. Seeing Seishuu like that frightened her terribly. A headache or a few tremors, perhaps she wouldn't be very concerned. But day after day it all piled up, that's what worried her so. She followed Seishuu into the stateroom. Seishuu was sitting there with a vacant look on his face.

"You okay?"

Seishuu looked over his shoulder at her, glancing around the stateroom with a puzzled look on his face. He blinked several times, then rubbed his eyes.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm not okay at all. My eyes are really blurry."

"But are your eyes okay?"

Suzu rushed up to him. She knelt down on his right and examined his face. "Does it hurt? Do you have a headache?"

Several times, Seishuu glanced back and forth between Suzu and the wall in front of him. "Suzu, I can't see you."

"You can't?"

"When I'm looking ahead like this, I can't see you at all."

Suzu hurriedly directed her gaze forward. People normally had a wide field of vision. She could clearly see Seishuu out of the corners of her eyes.

"What's wrong with me?"

His childlike face colored with fear.

"Seishuu--"

His stricken countenance crumpled. She thought he was going to cry, but instead he laughed. The tint of fear still hung in his eyes. "I guess I'm a good boy after all."

"Seishuu."

"Yeah, looks like I'm going to die."

"No, you're not! Don't say stupid things like that!"

His face fell again.

"Let's go together." Suzu reached out and grasped his trembling hands. "Let's go to Gyouten together."

"Gyouten?"

"I'm going to Gyouten to see the Royal Kei. Surely the Empress will be able to heal you. The best doctors are in the royal palace. So shall we?"

Seishuu shook his head. "I don't think people like that are going to want to see me."

"But it hurts, doesn't it? And your headaches are real bad. What happens if things just keep getting worse and worse?"

"Do you think she can heal me?"

"If the Royal Kei can't, we'll go onto Sai. I'm sure the Royal Sai will."

"Okay," Seishuu nodded. A small tear spilled down his cheek. "I'm scared to die."

"Seishuu."

"No matter who you are, everybody dies. But you can't laugh about your own death."

"Idiot. You're going to be fine."

Seishuu laughed and cried at the same time. "It looks like I'm going to have to practice my poker face a lot more."

"Don't be a smart-ass." Seishuu nodded and rested his head in Suzu's lap. "Everything's going to be okay," she said, stroking his back. "I promise."

Three days later, they finally made it to Goto. Though called a "port," Goto had no real docks or piers. Instead, a series of large boulders had been sunken off the coast in a gentle arc. The boat anchored to the stones within the arc, and then barges came out from the cliffs to meet them. The barges were from the floating wharf at the foot of the cliffs. From there, a stone stairway carved into the cliff face in switchbacks up to the top of the cliffs.

Suzu helped Seishuu down from the stones, assisting him on his right side. His eyes still hadn't improved. Since that day when he said he couldn't see her, the vision on his right side hadn't returned.

Many times his feet got tangled up and they almost fell. A longshoreman, seeing that Suzu was not able to support Seishuu without losing her own footing, offered to carry him the rest of the way. They arrived at the top of the cliffs out of breath. From there they could survey the whole of the countryside. A long and narrow village spread out along the edge of the cliffs.

The Kingdom of Kei, Wa Province, the port of Goto. They were in the eastern reaches of Wa Province in the northeast quarter of Kei.

Seishuu slid down from the man's back and took in the landscape. Suzu grasped his hand. They were going to Gyouten and the Royal Kei was going to help them.
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