he city spread out from the banks of a brimming blue lake. The mirror-like surface of the water gleamed with reflections of the white stone facades, and rising up behind them, the soaring grey peaks of the Ryou'un Mountain.
As soon as they surmounted the last of the mountain passes, travelers climbing the roads leading to the city were presented with the sight—the mountains surrounded by broad, green fields, the sparkling lake, the peaks jutting through the clouds, and at the white city at the mountain's base.
"What a view!" The man wiped the sweat from his brow and turned to a fellow traveler, who had stopped beside him. "Shisou certainly is a beautiful city!"
They paused at the top of the pass on a small stone outcropping overlooking the scene. The man's excited proclamation prompted an amused look from the other traveler.
Noting that he'd made himself the center of attention, the man flashed a crooked grin. "You've been walking ahead of me the whole way. Despite such a splendid kijuu, dutifully hiking up this mountain road seemed a strange exercise. But it certainly was the right decision."
"Indeed," answered the traveler with a bright smile. He petted the tiger-like beast. He looked to be in his early twenties. And befitting the valuable kijuu accompanying him, he was finely attired.
"Speaking of which, are you a citizen of Shisou?"
The man nodded and again blotted his forehead. The climb had left him lightheaded and the sweat beading up like tiny pearls. Though the sunlight pouring down was as clear and strong as the early summer might bring, a refreshing wind blew through the pass.
He loosened the collar of his tunic to direct the cool breeze through his clothing. After taking a deep breath, he again remarked on what a fine place this was, and began his descent.
The traveler with the kijuu watched him depart. He again took in the view from the ridge. Then he too picked up the reins and started down the road. The white city in the distance was the capital of the Kingdom of Ryuu. At the top of the white mountain was the home of the Royal Ryuu, Fun'ka Palace. It looked from this vantage like a distant forest shrouded in the clouds.
The path lazily wound down the mountain and cut across the green fields. Hamlets dotted the fields. They eventually arrived at the white barrier wall. Inside the barrier wall were the white streets of the city. The city itself seemed to have been fashioned entirely from a quarry of gray-tinged white stone.
There were few forests in the vicinity of Shisou. And rather than carting lumber great distances, carving away at the Ryou'un Mountain—that looked like it was holding up the heavens—was a much shorter cut. Boring into its flanks, carving notches in its sides, the white city seemed an extension of the mountain itself. The unique black timbers that held up the roofs wood came from the central region of Ryuu. The tiles as well were dark as mahogany.
It was a handsome, black and white city. The city's citizens trod the white cobblestones dressed in their brilliant and variegated colors.
The traveler passed through the Horse Gate and entered the city. He paused to observe the hustle and bustle of traffic before the gate. The people passing back and forth seemed to be walking with light steps, and were generally in a pleasant mood. Like they hadn't a worry in the world.
He drew his brows together. "I don't like this."
The sudden voice behind him caused him to spin around. He blinked with recognition and smiled broadly.
"Meeting you here, of all places."
"Exactly the kind of place I'd expect to meet you. Long time, no see, Rikou."
Rikou smiled despite himself. It definitely had been a long time since they had last met. A good thirty years. "I don't believe it, Fuukan. Wasting your time just loitering about."
"Same as you."
"How long have you been here?"
"Only two days," Fuukan answered. He pointed west. "I've got a room in an inn down the street. The food's terrible but they've got decent stables."
"Well then, lead the way."
With a rare kijuu in tow, choosing the right inn was a necessity, and finding one with stables and good security could take a fair amount of time. Rikou was grateful that Fuukan had picked him out in the crowd.
How had they first run into each other? It was an old story by now. He couldn't even be sure of where it was. He couldn't remember the exact details of what had led them to cross paths or part ways. At first, he'd probably thought him a strange chap, and doubted they'd ever meet again.
But time had passed and they'd met again in a different kingdom. It became clear there was no way he could be some sort of self-styled vagabond. Sixty years had passed in the meantime. The average person would have died or would have aged past recognition.
Since then, they'd met here and there. The traveler gained a sense about who he was, though without inquiring too deeply. He could figure it out without getting into a cross-examination—a man who like Rikou had spent a very long time on the road.
The place they always seemed to meet was that kind of place. Like the capital of a kingdom beginning to show its age. Rikou had heard rumors that things were getting chancy in Ryuu. The current dynasty was going on a hundred and twenty years. It was starting to falter. He'd come to check it out in person, and here they'd met again.
"So what exactly don't you like about the place?" asked Fuukan over his shoulder, a step ahead of him.
"The way people appear in this city."
The kingdom was heading downhill but its citizens were unperturbed. Long experience had taught Rikou that this was the surest proof of an impending disaster.
People always liked to laugh about how their kingdom was headed for wrack and ruin. While expressing some sense of unease, they'd badmouth the king and the government with smiles on their faces. When things got really dire, it was all gloom and doom.
Yet when society teetered right on the edge of collapse, they'd grow restless and strangely optimistic. In the blink of an eye, they'd throw themselves into empty pleasures, uprooted and swept along by their emotions. At some point, this diseased optimism would shatter and the kingdom would collapse in one fell swoop.
The facts on the ground were difficult for other kingdoms to judge from afar. It was clear when law and order completely broke down in a kingdom. But at the beginning of the breakdown, as the strains and distortions compounded beneath the surface, they were not so apparent to outside eyes.
But they were to the people living there. And what they couldn't see they could sense. Taking a personal look at the citizenry, Rikou had learned, told him a lot about the condition of the kingdom. Rumors of precarious times had leaked to other kingdoms, but the citizens of the capital were in a good mood. An omen of danger ahead.
"The time for reform is when the people are down in the dumps," Rikou said with a sigh.
Fuukan answered under his breath, "They're past that stage. There's no stopping it no matter what they do. Ah, here we are."
He indicated an inn. At first glance, it seemed a rather ostentatious place. The white stone walls carved with countless, brightly-colored base relief ornamentation. Even though the time was barely past noon, the sound of intoxicated merriment could be heard echoing over the surrounding walls.
Rikou rented a room and arranged his personal belongings.
"Is Ryuu really in such dire straits?" Fuukan inquired behind him. Apparently he had nothing better to do. He opened the window. The lively sounds of the throngs flowed in.
"Hard to tell. There are no reports of the people being oppressed. No rumors of the Imperial Court falling into extravagance and immorality. But it seems the wheels are coming off in the provinces. The further away from the capital, the worse off everybody is."
"For the time being," Rikou muttered, throwing himself into the nearest chair. That was indeed what it came down to.
On the surface, nothing was wrong. But the foundations were full of fissures. Hence the sense of unease. That sense of unease translated into rumors filled with uncertainty. The outsider would not see the source of the anxiety. That was why, when the downfall came, it would seem to come all at once and out of nowhere.
"A flash in the pan," Rikou said to himself.
Fuukan sat down on the divan and stretching out his legs. "Just the kind of thing one would expect a man of Sou to say. He counts a hundred and twenty years as a mere flash in the pan."
"Yeah, I guess so," Rikou laughed.
Rikou hailed from the Kingdom of Sou in the southern reaches of the world. The Royal Sou had reigned now for six hundred years. In eighty more years, the Sou Dynasty would become the longest in history, the longest of all the Twelve Kingdoms. The northeast Kingdom of En was only a century behind.
"One way or another, I got the impression Ryuu could keep it together longer."
The name of the Royal Ryuu was Jo Rohou. Rikou didn't know the fine details of how he'd been chosen to be king. Sou and Ryuu were at opposite ends of the earth. News from Ryuu came to Sou only in drips and drabs.
Neither did visiting the kingdom in person necessarily make him privy to the inner workings of the Imperial Palace. In many kingdoms, the ruler's given name wasn't even disclosed. Rikou only knew because he circulated at the proper levels of society to know such things.
It wasn't because Rohou had worked in the upper echelons of the Imperial government. Nor had he traveled on the Shouzan, to Mt. Houzan in the center of the universe for an audience with the kirin. Nor had he been plucked from the farming or merchant classes.
His ascension simply hadn't been the kind of dramatic affair people made a big fuss about.
Twenty years had passed between the end of the previous dynasty and Rohou's coronation. Ryuuki had taken his time choosing the new king. Usually after the previous kirin had died, the new fruit appeared at once, and within the year the kirin was born.
Several years would pass before the kirin could hear the Word of Heaven and chose a new king. But the sooner the better, and the new ruler would be enthroned within that span of time.
While there wasn't necessarily any connection between the years leading up to a king's coronation and the competence of the king, Rohou's past was vague at best, and the impression he made was mostly that of not making much of an impression.
Perhaps because of that, his accession didn't create much of a stir. As time passed, his fame increased. By now, the Kingdom of Ryuu was renown as a kingdom of law and order. And yet it was hitting the skids. To Rikou, this was an entirely unexpected turn of events.
When he said as much, Fuukan tilted his head doubtfully. "Unlike you, I'm surprised the dynasty lasted this long. When Rohou acceded to the throne, he didn't strike anybody as king material. He'd been a county supervisor and then a governor in the provinces. The locals thought well of him, but not so much that word of his accomplishments ever made it to the capital. Nothing much to set him apart from the next guy."
Fuukan knew Rohou's given name as well, evidence that he moved in the same circles as Rikou.
"Well, you'd expect a man from En to know about such things. You're next door neighbors, after all?"
"I guess so. I swung by shortly after the coronation. A middling choice, was my impression. Like a ship that looked nice sailing out of port but would sink during the first real gale."
"The first real gale," Rikou echoed.
The reign of a king had no time limit. As long as he followed the Way and ruled according to the Will of Heaven, his dynasty would continue. But keeping the Imperial Court in working order was no easy task.
What made the whole thing surprising to Rikou was that Heaven started out by bestowing its Mandate on such a person—an enlightened monarch—with the capabilities and qualifications to govern a kingdom. The kirin listened to the Word of Heaven and chose its Lord and the new King.
And yet the dynasties were so short-lived. Sou at six centuries and En at five were the exceptions. After them was the Western Kingdom of Han, closing in on three centuries. And then Kyou at a mere ninety years.
Curiously enough, having witnessed the six hundred years of an Imperial Court, Rikou had concluded that there were certain turning points over the rise and fall of a dynasty. The first came at the ten-year mark. Successfully crossing it usually meant another thirty to fifty years of comfortable rule.
Then came the second, and this one was a big one. It coincided with the king's natural lifespan.
Upon his coronation, a king was entered upon the Registry of the Gods, after which he did not age or die. A king who had acceded to the throne in his thirties would, after another thirty or so years, had he not been listed on the Registry of the Gods, be closing in on his three-score-and-ten.
This rekindled sense of his own "mortality" could prove dangerous. Even though the word "lifespan" meant nothing to them, the king and the ministers who served him couldn't help but keep track of their "real" age: the ages at which it was not strange for them to be still alive, and the ages at which, by rights, they would have otherwise lived a "full life."
And at the same time, in the world below, all the people they used to know were disappearing one by one.
In fact, this wasn't something they witnessed personally. Being listed in the Registry of Wizards or the Registry of the Gods inevitably broke their relationships with people in the world below. Climbing above the Sea of Clouds, their birthplace became just another one of the kingdom cities. "News from home" rarely reached them, and nobody came to visit.
And yet it was impossible not to imagine their passing and imagine that he wouldn't be long for the world either. He couldn't escape the thought that he alone had been left behind to live a life whose ending he could not fathom.
A life's worth of time had been exhausted, and what did he have to show for it? Some looked backward and were overcome by the meaninglessness of it all. Others looked forward and were overcome by a terror of the unknown.
The ministers listed upon the Registry of Wizards faced these same turning points, and sudden resignations were hardly unexpected. But a king couldn't just walk away from it all and end his life in the face of some vague sense of futility and fear. And so Heaven's hand would be forced instead, and the chaos unleashed.
Such a king created the very inevitability he resigned himself to. Rikou and others identified it as a "passive resignation."
In any case, once he had made it past that point in time when he should have no time left, he would catch his second wind. Having crossing over that mountain, a dynasty could expect a long life ahead of it, and wouldn't face its next gauntlet until the three century mark.
Rikou didn't know why this milepost was so perilous, but when such a kingdom collapsed it always seemed particularly ugly. Respected and enlightened monarchs transformed into tyrants overnight. The people were slaughtered and the land laid waste.
"They got over the mountain and made it to the one hundred and twenty mark. Split the difference, more or less."
"Split the difference." Fuukan smiled. "I see. Many kings who cross that mountain make it to three hundred. But just as many don't."
Except that Rikou had been in Ryuu at the time of that first high hurdle. He'd wandered around and seen for himself how well that hurdle could be surmounted. The feeling he got at the time was quite positive. Things were looking up.
There were definitely a good many kingdoms that made it through that gauntlet and yet collapsed before making it to the three-hundred mark. More made it than didn't, but made it through the storm with sails torn and taking on water, on the verge of abandoning ship.
Rikou hadn't seen any signs of that in Ryuu. A sound hull, clear skies and calm seas.
When he explained this, Fuukan raised an eyebrow and scowled a bit. "Yeah, I thought the same thing. I recall thinking that Ryuu was something of an enigma."
"It had taken on a form that wasn't obvious at first glance. I talked about that first real gale, but the real typhoon comes at a dynasty's inauguration. The first ten years of so after the coronation of a new king determined the structure of the new Imperial Court. It seemed to me that Rohou messed that up."
"If they can't get it right out of the blocks, even with a bit of improvising here and there, the dynasty won't last long." Rikou glanced at Fuukan and grinned. "As far as that goes, once in a while you see an incoherent monster that doesn't know its head from its tail and lasts only a generation or two."
Fuukan laughed. Rikou added with a thin smile, "Normally, a kingdom that begins in failure won't last a hundred twenty years."
"You wouldn't think so. But Rohou held it together. More than that, when the first big test arrived, Ryuu did a complete about-face. Most striking was the legal system. It was so constructed so soundly that I could imagine the king turning his throne into a bed and the kingdom would carry on regardless."
"True, true. I had to believe this was one capable man. Anybody who lays down that firm a foundation at that stage should make it to three hundred."
"That big of a change always struck me as odd. A kingdom used to traveling in a rut is likely to topple over when the king jerks the reins in a different direction. That was the first time I'd seen the opposite."
"Reminds me of En," said Rikou. "I didn't think En was going to last its first decade. But things turned around with that first big hurdle." He folded his arms. "If Rohou was following suit, then Ryuu wouldn't be in such dire straits. I haven't seen anything like this before."
En and Sou alone had passed the three-hundred mark. That's how fragile the other kingdoms were. Three-quarters didn't make it through the first gauntlet. A dynasty survived several decades and then died. So Rikou had seen many a dynasty rise and fall.
"I never get used to the way they fail," Fuukan muttered.
Rikou cocked his head to the side. "Never get used to it?"
"I don't understand why Ryuu has begun to fail now either. Or rather, I don't understand what's happened, except that, to put it bluntly, Rohou seems to have reversed course yet again."
"Now. Not only has Rohou become oblivious to the fact that the laws he promulgated are being ignored and trampled upon, but he is acting in a manner that undermines the very edifice he constructed."
"He's undermining it?"
Fuukan nodded. "The law requires three components to work together. Simply forbidding something by statute is not enough."
"An organization is needed to ensure that that prohibitions are applied where intended and faithfully carried out. Else the law is simply an ornament. And the third?"
"The law must affirm as well. Laws designed to outlaw tyranny and the corrupt must respect the incorrupt and make the most of their contributions. The one will not work without the other."
"Ryuu did this remarkably well. But Rohou has set to wrecking it. He changes one and leaves another alone. Nothing is done in a consistent manner. That is how discord is born."
"And that is very strange." Rikou pondered this and exclaimed, "Perhaps Rohou is no longer sitting on the throne."
"No longer occupying the throne?"
Rikou nodded. "Maybe he just got tired of the whole thing. Gave up the reins of power."
"I could believe it," said Fuukan. He got to his feet and went to the window. The rays of the early summer sun were beginning to slant across the city. The cacophony from streets below was growing louder.
Voices of drunken merriment like a pack of baying hounds unleashed. Flirtatious, cooing voices like musical instruments played wildly out of key. As if the entire city had turned into one giant block party.
"Rohou set up a very sound system. So even if he threw away his authority, it should have lasted this long. The real chaos will start to set in after this. But Rohou would have abandoned the fight a long time ago. So much so that Heaven withdrew its favor."
Rikou drew his brows together. "What do you mean by that?"
"Youma have appeared along the Kyokai coast."
Rikou hadn't expected this development. It could only mean that the end of the dynasty was on the horizon. And yet the chaos remained at a low enough level that it was only apparent to an outsider like Rikou.
"Snow piling up in areas where snow is ordinarily scarce and the like. Heaven is not happy. The chaos is buffeting the countryside before striking at the seat of power. It's usually the other way around."
"It's progressed that far without revealing itself?"
"So it seems. En has begun posting troops along the border," said Fuukan, as if discussing a situations removed far from them.
Rikou glanced at him and nodded. "In any case, Ryuu hasn't got long to go." The Imperial Court was in a very brittle state.
The commotion drifting in through the window grated painfully in his ears. Invisible fissures were opening in the earth beneath their feet. The gates of hell were opening. Nobody could stop them now.
When a king strayed from the Way, the kirin who chose him grew ill. When that happened, it became clear to all what was going on, no matter who the king was. All a monarch had to do for the kirin to recover and the kingdom to catch a second wind was return to the Way. And yet Rikou had rarely seen that actually happen. There were kings aware of how far they had fallen. But examples of a king repenting and reforming the kingdom were few and far between.
Once that downward slide had begun, a kingdom's fate quickly became inevitable, and the king's tragic efforts a drop in the ocean.
"What's that?" said Fuukan from the window, waking from his reverie. "Are you that down about Ryuu falling short of your expectations?"
"The meeting of my expectations is neither here nor there." Rikou sighed. "But it is a disappointment. That dynasty began with such promise."
Ryuu had that spark of greatness in her. And yet in a mere—at least what to Rikou was a "mere"—one hundred and twenty years, Ryuu had failed.
"When you stop to think about it, dynasties like that never lack the ability to disintegrate overnight."
"Now you're just stating the obvious. The good man from Sou has no doubt seen them come and go by the gross."
Rikou laughed. "And so this man of Sou has. I guess a young colt like yourself wouldn't understand." When Fuukan quizzically hiked up an eyebrow, he added, "Sou being the longest-lived of all the Twelve Kingdoms."
"Oh, is that it?" Fuukan answered with a wry smile. He turned and looked out the window.
"That's what it comes down to. A man of En couldn't grasp this sense of oppressiveness. Even if it's only a hundred years, you have least have one example standing before you."
But Sou had none to follow. And after eighty more years, even the legends would be left behind. No other dynasty had lasted that long.
"I think about it every time a dynasty comes to an end. I stand beside the deathbed and can't keep the thoughts from my mind: no dynasty lasts forever."
And Sou and En were unlikely to prove the exception to that rule.
"When I think about it in those terms, it makes me catch my breath. No dynasty lasts forever. An immortal dynasty is impossible. And if all dynasties must surely die, then Sou must surely die."
"Nothing lasts forever," said Fuukan, still looking out the window.
"Nope," Rikou chuckled. "No matter how I look at it, that's what it comes down to. And still I can't imagine the end of Sou."
"Naturally. Nobody can imagine his own death."
"You sure? I think I could picture it. Getting drawn into some meaningless quarrel and losing my head in the process, or getting turned into youma food during one of my wanderings."
Fuukan laughed and turned around. "Imagining the variously possibilities and imaging the moment itself are not the same thing."
"You could have a point." For a moment he let his thoughts spin. "You're right. It's a non-starter. Nothing comes to mind."
It was difficult for Rikou to imagine the conditions that would cause the Royal Sou to stray from the way. But insurrections could arise no matter who the king was. Thinking along those lines, he imagined the faces of the retainers in his mind's eye. Among all the princes of the kingdom, he couldn't connect any of them with the word "treason."
"But when it comes to En," he muttered, "I can well imagine it."
"Oh?" said Fuukan curiously.
Rikou smiled. "I have no problem imagining that. Taking the Royal En's temperament into consideration, I don't think it'd ever end with him straying from the Way. There is some question as to what understanding he has of the road ahead. But the law has been laid down, and he's not going to accidentally drive the cart into the ditch. No matter what two-bit criminals try to take him on, he's not the type to go quietly. En will only fail when the Royal En decides to let it."
"And you can count on him doing it just for the hell of it. No big reason. One day, out of the blue, with no malice aforethought. Considering how persistent the man can be, though, once having resolved himself, I doubt that he would immediately spring into action. Yes, he'd make a wager."
"A wager?" Fuukan inquired with a dubious look.
"Exactly what the word means. A bet with Heaven. For example, that you'll run into a certain person you rarely see a hundred times. Every time fate smiles upon you and you meet, you win. Every time you don't, you chalk one up for Heaven."
"Oh, that kind of bet." Fuukan laughed.
"Whatever he settled on, he'd do it whole hog. En would be wiped off the map. The ministers, the people, the Taiho. The capital and the cities. En would be turned into a pretty but empty field."
"Killing the Taiho would be as good as slitting his own throat."
"But not right away. He'd kill the Taiho and declare war on Heaven. Whether Heaven would take him out before he'd razed the land and salted the earth—that's the kind of wager he'd love to make."
"And who do you think would win that one?"
"Push come to shove, I think he could pull it off. But it'd prove so unbearable that in the end he'd leave behind a few scattered hamlets and then die, all the while laughing at himself. How's that?"
"Not bad." Fuukan smiled. "And when it comes to Sou, it's not beyond my imagination."
"The vagabond prince gets tired of clinging to the world as it is, and assassinates the Royal Sou."
Rikou blinked, and then burst out laughing. "Low blow. And I have a feeling it just might be possible."
Fuukan laughed loudly, and then turned his gaze out the window. "Flights of fancy rarely touch down on solid ground."
Would it were so, Rikou thought, watching as well as the twilight settled over the city.
"Such things tend to resolve themselves without ever playing out."
"Probably." Rikou didn't respond further.
The dusk crept into the room along with the noise of the street below. What they mused about in these flights of fancy had already occurred to most dynasties. If such things could wreak such destruction, then living an extraordinary long life was not in the cards. With the run-of-the-mill dangers surmounted, the future only became less and less certain.
Why did dynasties fail, Rikou wondered to himself. Why did a king who had received the Mandate of Heaven fall from the Way? Was it because it never occurred to himself that he really had? And if he hadn't noticed, had he ever understood was the "Way" was? Could such a person receive the Mandate of Heaven in the first place?
If not, then he surely should have known at some point. And yet he strayed. At some point, he must have realized he was heading in the wrong direction.
Based on past precedents, he could grasp at what point the mistake was made. But just as he could not imagine the moment of his own death, he couldn't imagine being consciously aware of setting down the wrong path. What was the cause that came before the effect? And how to stop it ahead of time?
Fuukan's cheerful voice suddenly broke into his thoughts. "You staying in Shisou long?"
"That was the intent, but I'm not so sure." It wasn't mere rumor anymore. If things really were getting chancy in Ryuu, then Rikou had to sound the alarm. "Maybe two or three more days. I want to check things out with my own two eyes. And you?"
"I'll be taking off tomorrow. I took the long way around from the En border to here."
"Sounds like you. Living your life by the seat of your pants."
"You're hardly one to talk."
You and I are hardly in the same position, Rikou thought of bantering in return, but held his tongue. They were both free spirits with a love of the open road. As long as they could keep on meeting like this, it was better to keep that pretense alive.
At the same time, for all their chance meetings from the opposite ends of the world, they had never gotten together on their true own home grounds. And that's how it'd probably be the next time as well.
"Well, then. I should like to hear about your long way around getting here." Rikou grinned. "Dinner's on me."
Just as Fuukan had warned him, the food was bad and the drink no better. They wrapped things up around midnight and parted ways at the top of the stairs. Rikou wasn't in the mood to see Fuukan off the next morning. He intended to sleep in till noon. If Heaven smiled upon Sou and En, they would meet again when they least expected to.
"I don't have to tell you to take care of yourself," he said, and headed toward his room.
"Not at all," came Fuukan's voice behind him. "But let me tell you an interesting story."
Rikou stopped and leaned back against the railing.
Fuukan grinned. "I'm lousy at go. But I pull off a win now and then. When I do, I pocket one of the stones. So far I've collected around eighty."
Rikou stood there stock still. "And?"
"Well, to be precise, I got up to eighty-three. And then the whole thing struck me as silly."
Rikou laughed out loud. "And now?"
"Well, I don't remember throwing them away, so they should be sitting around somewhere."
"How long ago are we talking about?"
"Oh, about two hundred years." Fuukan grinned. With a wave he spun on his heels. "See you," he said cheerfully over his shoulder.
"Yeah, you son of a bitch!" Rikou merrily shot back.