The capital of the southern Kingdom of Sou was called Ryuukou. Seikan Palace, home of the six-hundred year old dynasty built by the Royal Sou, covered the peaks of Mt. Ryuukou.
The focal point of the Imperial Palace was usually the Imperial Residence—the Seishin. But in the case of Sou, the focus was a bit off center. The center of the palace complex was instead the Koukyuu—the "palace at the back"—and specifically Tenshou Manor in the Koukyuu.
This had occurred shortly after the founding of the dynasty and for the past six hundred years had never changed.
More that occupying the peak of a mountain, Seikan Palace looked like an atoll floating in the Sea of Clouds. Many of the buildings lower down on the "islands" jutted above the clear surface of the sea. Countless bridges suspended above the water connected one terrace to another.
The Seishin was one such island and the Koukyuu another. Crossing the bridge from the Seishin and passing through the tower gate, one arrived at the foot of a small peak. Getting to Tenshou Manor, the main building in the Koukyuu, required passing through a tunnel and then climbing a stone staircase along the back of the peak a short ways to a high promontory.
A small bay could was visible from Tenshou Manor. Cliffs surrounded the bay. To the right and left, bridges suspended in the air led deeper into the Koukyuu, to the North Palace and to the East Palace.
Around sunset, the silhouette of a kijuu appeared above the clear, calm surface of the Sea of Clouds. Bathed in the glow of a waning moon, the fleeting shadow crossed the bay and headed for Tenshou Manor. It alighted on the balcony clinging to the side of the cliffs. The balcony made several switchbacks as it descended to the water's surface.
The kijuu perched on the narrow ledge jutting out behind the rear windows. The expansive hall was visible through the glass. Situated squarely in the center of the hall was a large, round table. The table was cluttered with plates and utensils, so apparently dinner had just ended. Five people were scattered around the table, sipping at their teacups.
"No surprise to find you all here," Rikou smiled, entering the room through the tall windows.
The people around the table all turned at the same time with surprised exclamations. A plump, older woman paused and took a deep breath. "You can't seem to remember where the front door is."
The woman was Queen Meiki. From the beginning, she had lived in the North Palace. Not only did she reside in the Koukyuu, but she would roll up the sleeves of her luxurious kimono with a tasuki sash and peel the peaches that flourished on the small peak. A sight surely no one would see anywhere else but in Sou.
"Not to mention that there's no flying kijuu around the Imperial Palace. If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times. Does everything go in one ear and out the other, my cavalier young son?"
"It must not have registered," Rikou said with a carefree smile. "Because of my advanced age, don't you see."
Meiki sighed again and shook her head. "At least your mostly-empty head remembered that you have a family. Where have you been off to this time?"
"Well—" said Rikou smiling. He took his place at the one empty seat at the table. "Here and there."
"Meaning you made another one of your circumnavigations. You leave a person speechless."
"Though you, dear mother, are not at a loss for words."
"You can consider this a reprimand. And try to keep that it in mind for the next time."
"I can't promise for sure that it'll stick in there."
"Mother—" said Prince Eisei Ritatsu, Rikou's older brother, with an even bigger sigh. "Let fools do what fools do best. When you pay so much attention to him, it all goes to his head."
"Hey, don't be mean," said the grinning Princess Bun, Rikou's kid sister (her official name was Bun Koushu). "Our dear brother came home in order to hear our dear mother's scoldings. He's such a mama's boy."
"But Rikou, you're in such a jolly good mood right now. It's always like this. You should take a look in a mirror."
"Hmm," said Rikou, stroking his jowls.
"In any case," softly interjected a girl with golden hair, "it's good to see you home in one piece."
The girl's name was Sourin. Her given name was Shoushou.
Rikou said with an exaggerated nod, "As always, Shoushou alone is concerned for my well being."
"That's because Shoushou is a kirin," said Bunki.
Ritatsu agreed. "It's her natural benevolence rising to the fore."
"Shoushou would be concerned for the worst villain in the world," said Meiki, piling on as well.
Rikou smiled grimly and leaned back in his chair.
"And then—" the head of the family, the Royal Sou Senshin, said encouragingly. He put his utensils down on the serving table and poured a cup of tea and offered it to him. Nowhere else but in Sou would such a scene ever been seen. "How is the world doing? Here and there?"
"Things aren't looking good in Ryuu."
Senshin's teacup hit the table with an audible thump. "Ryuu—"
Ritatsu furrowed his brows. He put down his pen and pushed the papers off to the side. "Again? The same old wheel keeps spinning round and round."
"Are you sure about that?" Senshin asked.
Rikou nodded. "From what I could see, it sure seemed that way to me. There are reports of youma appearing on the coasts of Ryuu facing the Kyokai. It seems limited to the coasts facing Tai, so many believe that these are merely youma being blown off course. But unless the Divine Will is being undermined, they would never stray so close. En is posting guards along the border."
"Huh," grunted Ritatsu. "If a smart guy like that is mustering the Minister of Summer into action, then it really must be serious."
Bunki sighed. "The Royal En is in a tough place too. Tai is in bad enough straights that youma are wandering about, and Kei isn't exactly stable. And Ryuu on top of that."
"And Kou as well. Crossing the Blue Sea, you can see the refugees streaming toward En."
"How's Kou faring?"
"Bad as usual. The sea lanes from the Red Sea to the Blue Sea are completely shut down. The youma have rendered the Sonkai Gate impassible. What in the world did the Royal Kou do? The Hakuchi has only recently fallen, and yet the place is thick with youma. And as a result—" Ritatsu cast a distasteful look at the papers he'd pushed to the side. "Things are getting a bit hectic, what with all the refugees thronging here. It's time you put on leash on that free spirit of yours and took charge of refugee relief."
"Isn't that more Bunki's department?"
"I have my responsibilities at the Hosui Havens."
Sou had sanctuaries—called "Hosui Havens"—set up across the kingdom for refugees and the homeless. Bunki had long served as the executive director, or "Taisui."
When setting up special Imperial positions not expressly defined in the law, it would always be run by a member of the royal family. Rather than simply appointing a minister to the position, the best way to insure a good outcome and put the people's minds at ease was to put a crown prince or princess royal in charge, even if serving only in an honorary capacity.
Despite knowing that Bunki was serving nominally as the "Taisui," having the princess royal as the executive director was broadly taken to mean that the king himself had a personal interest in making sure things got done right. That meant they could put their trust in the project.
Though in fact the king had nothing really to do with it. Bunki acted as Taisui with all the authority of the Royal Sou. She would go through the motions of compiling the opinions of the bureaucrats and presenting them to Senshin, just as Senshin would go through the motions of rendering decisions.
But Bunki did not require his yea or nay on every decision. She had piles of blank authorizations bearing his Imperial Seal. And in any case, they could forge each other's handwriting, a talent they'd refined over the past six hundred years.
Ritatsu took a deep breath and let it out. "The Hosui Havens won't be enough by themselves. The refugees are fleeing with the barest necessities. For them, just making it over the border will have pretty much exhausted their resources. And since they'll mostly want to go home once things begin to settle down in their home kingdoms, they are setting up villages in the vicinity of the Koushuu Mountains. But in fact it's as good as them being abandoned there."
"Is somebody from the Hosui Havens there to meet them?"
"There is," said Bunki. "But we simply can't keep up."
Meiki nodded. "We need to organize the refugees, treat them as our guests. At the bare minimum, incorporate these villages in some kind of systematic way."
"As things stand now," Ritatsu pointed out, "you're the only one not carrying his own weight. Time to quit holding out and lend a hand."
Rikou sighed. "Sounds like I don't have a choice."
"Start giving me the old run-around and I'll kick your butt out the door. It's up to you."
"When I get involved in something, I end up spending money hand over fist."
"That's hardly news to anybody."
"Procuring and transporting supplies?"
"We've pretty much decided that once you've exhausted the emergency stores maintained in the county seats, we'll go back to the drawing boards."
"Well, then. Let's give it a try."
"Prepare some firm policy objectives, even if in rough form. The sooner the better."
"I'll get right on it."
"Goodness gracious," Senshin said, exhaling noticeably. "The Royal En is handling his end of things by himself? I take my hat off to him."
"Because the ministers in En have got talent and drive," said Ritatsu. He scowled. "While ours spend half the days resting on their laurels."
"As far as that goes, even if a bad thought crosses their minds, they're too lazy to act on it. Everything balances out at the end of the day."
Meiki grinned slyly and the whole family laughed.
"Well," Senshi smiled, "to each his own. And how is everybody else doing?"
Rikou shrugged. "Tai is in a bad way. I went to the general vicinity to get a closer look, but there was nothing to see. The Kyokai is completely infested with youma."
Bunki asked curiously, "But the Hakuchi hasn't died, has it? It seems that something must have happened to the Royal Tai."
"And we haven't the slightest idea what. From putting the bits and pieces of gossip together, the only conclusion is that a pretender has taken the throne."
"Even though the Royal Tai appears to be alive?"
"Strange goings-on, to be sure. There's no talk of the Taiki being struck down with the shitsudou, no word of the king's death. This points to an internal rebellion. But such a rebellion should not be enough to bring out so many rampaging youma."
"The two situations do seem similar," suggested Shoushou.
"The two seem similar?"
"Yes. Kou and Tai. The Royal Kou died soon after Kourin succumbed to the shitsudou. That by itself is not unusual. But that it occurred in such quick fashion is almost unprecedented."
"Indeed," said Meiki, dividing up the peeled peaches onto several plates. "But hopefully nothing funny is going on with the youma themselves."
"With the youma?"
"Strange things are afoot, are they not? Either strange things going on in Tai and Kou, or strange things going on with the youma causing them to flock there. We can't really know without the matter being settled one way or the other."
"Don't go there, Mom," Ritatsu stated crisply. He glared at Rikou. "Say something like that, and a certain somebody will be just chomping at the bit to go take a look. Rikou, you're getting antsy just sitting there."
"Because I have shouldered a great responsibility. Nothing more than that."
"And don't you forget it."
"Can't promise that I will," Rikou answered with a sly grin.
Senshin asked, "There's one other kingdom I'm concerned about. How is Hou?"
"Nothing more than what would be expected. Slowly sinking beneath the waves. But doing so in as fine a form as could be expected. That provisional court shows real promise."
"And the rest?"
"The rest are getting by. Shun hit a few uneven spots recently, but it's a young dynasty with only forty years under her belt, so they may just be working out the kinks. While it's hard to say how the dice will roll, I have the feeling that they're heading in the right direction. Han is approaching a big turning point. But like they'd been there and done that, they're proceeding on as usual."
"What about Kei? Has it settled down?"
"Ah," said Rikou with a smile. "Yes, Kei."
"How's that?" Bunki inquired. "Doesn't Kei have an empress?"
"They do. Kei and empresses have gotten along like oil and water. But it looks like they didn't roll snake-eyes for once. The Imperial Rescript was just published. It abolished kowtowing."
"What?" everybody said in a collective expression of surprise.
"Abolished kowtowing? What exactly does that mean?"
Bunki said, "Surely you jest. Everybody just bows standing up? Like the kirin?"
Rikou nodded. "That about sums it up."
"What's that supposed to accomplish?"
"Well, nothing practical, to be sure. However, I think the intent is clear. She's the first monarch to tell her subjects: Don't prostrate yourselves before me."
"You've got a point there."
"Before the Imperial Rescript was issued, there was a bit of trouble in one of Kei's central provinces. The Royal Kei reportedly got directly involved in the conflict and pacified the situation."
"Good heavens!" Bunki brought her hand to her mouth.
"She also put the screws to the gang that for decades had led the Imperial Court around by the nose. All the ministries were reorganized. It looks like this girl knows how to get things done. Pretty remarkable for an empress of Kei."
"Since the Imperial Rescript, the reforms have proceeded at a respectable pace. The prejudicial laws against hanjuu and kaikyaku were abolished by imperial edict. Believe it or not, the general of the Palace Guard is a hanjuu."
"That really is impressive."
"It's about time, might be the more appropriate reaction."
"You don't think it's impressive that the Royal Kei should make such changes by imperial edict? Nothing like that has happened there for a very long time."
Rikou smiled. "Yes, the status quo is getting stirred up in Kei. It's a good feeling."
He still harbored some doubts about this flurry of activity in Kei, and about the strength of their new empress. But the closer he'd gotten to the capital, the more energized the people appeared. This was evidence that confidence and hope was radiating from her presence outward. The kingdom had been visited and revisited by strife and rebellion. The bureaucracy had hardened like stone. And yet he sensed an energy there that could knock them out of their set ways like a sledgehammer.
Kei would make it past the ten-year mark, and in good shape.
Ritatsu sighed. "Well, we can all be thankful that Kei is settling down. There is unrest on the home front that keeps me up at night. Perhaps Kei presents us with an example worth following. Not a few places here stand in need of improvement."
"Are you trying to tell me something?"
"Well, according to your own accounting, you do seem to growing a bit senile."
"Yes, yes," Rikou answered with a self-deprecating grin.
The room grew quiet as the people seated around the round table sank into collective contemplation.
Senshin broke the silence. "How is Ryuu actually holding up?"
Rikou had to think about it for a minute. "Hard to say. My guess is that once things come to a head, the situation will resolve itself quickly one way or another. Things are bad enough that youma are showing up. The Divine Will is definitely wavering. It is entirely possible that the shitsudou will strike down the Taiho any day now."
"When it comes to Ryuu, we don't have to get involved, do we? We should be able to count on En and Kyou for that."
"En has already got a handle on things, so I don't think we need to worry."
"But aren't they already accepting refugees from Tai, Kei and Kou? Things are improving in Kei, but they're still not ready to go it on their own. Tai is a complete mess and En is taking the full brunt. Add to that the refugees on Kou's northern borders who will make a beeline for En as their first alternative. They're not going to risk crossing youma-infested territory in order to get to Sou. But supporting Kou, and on top of that, supporting Ryuu when things start getting rough there is asking an awful lot of them. I suppose it would be rude of us to offer aid."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Rikou smiled. "Rather, it might be better to think about ways to accept more refugees from Kou. We'd actually be taking the pressure off Kei, seeing that Kei hardly has the resources to support them these days."
Senshin grunted in agreement. "The problem is, how to get the Kou refugees to Sou?"
"We could transport them by sea," suggested Ritatsu, making a note. Writing with one hand, he raised the other and added, "Going from the Red Sea to the Blue Sea is problematic. For the time being, we can maximize the number of ships putting into harbor on the Red Sea coast, and after that use the Kyokai to send ships to pick up refugees moving north up the Kou coast."
"There aren't any good harbors on the Kyokai, are there?"
Expecting the question, Rikou nodded. "There are only two harbors big enough for large ships. But quite a few capable of handling fishing trawlers."
"Then small is the way to go. That way they can dock at the fishing ports too. In any case, we couldn't get enough larger ships out of dry dock in time. We don't have enough ships now, so we'll have to build more. Trawlers don't make the best ferries, but combined into a fleet, we can drastically increase the number of routes."
"Hmm, I hadn't thought of that," agreed Meiki. "Let's do it. If we build a lot of big ships in a hurry, we'd eventually end up with no way to use them. At least fishing trawlers can be sold to fishermen once we're done with them. Traveling up the Kyokai and gathering refugees from the north of Kou will relieve the pressure on Kei."
"Indeed. The rest of the problem then becomes Kyou's," said Ritatsu, looking up at Rikou.
"I dropped by Kyou on my way home. I told them that storm clouds were brewing."
"What's the logistical situation in Kyou?"
"They've set aside emergency stores to deal with Hou. In an emergency, those can be diverted to aid refugees from Ryuu. Contrary to expectations, Ryuu seems to be hanging in there. But if things were to take a turn for the worse and not resolve themselves quickly enough, the situation could grow dire."
Bunki sighed. "Kyou can't carry Hou and Ryuu by herself. In particular, Hou has a geographical dependency on Kyou. Does Kyou have friendly relations with Han next door?"
"I don't think so."
"Then it'd probably be a good idea to think about providing Kyou some aid. At least to ensure a minimal amount of food stores."
"That wouldn't work, Bunki." Meiki smiled. "Think about the time and labor and money required to transport it. Rather than providing food stores ourselves, it'd be more efficient to augment Kyou's Imperial Treasury directly. Besides, if we're bringing refugees from Kou, we're going to have to call on our food reserves. On top of that, if we try to purchase rice on the open market in order to ship it to Kyou, commodity prices will go through the roof."
"You are probably right about that."
"The best course might be to warn the Royal Kyou to monitor the price of grain. That and lumber. It's one of the main exports in Kyou, Hou and Ryuu, isn't it? If two of those kingdoms start to falter, prices will shoot up. Grain or lumber, loosening up supplies here so surpluses can flow north would likely prove the most efficient strategy."
"But—" Bunki started to say.
Senshin interrupted her. "What your mother is saying is correct. Sending actual matériel would not be good. People take that kind of thing personally. They feel they're being robbed of their ability to take independent action. As far as the refugees are concerned, the most important thing for them is to persevere and not lose hope. That's what we can provide."
"We have a duty to help out where we can. But once we've helped that person to his feet, we also have a duty to let go. I think that assisting Kyou through her Imperial Treasury so she can direct aid to the refugees is a good idea. But Kyou should be the one directing the aid. A neighboring kingdom handing out assistance will reassure the citizens of Ryuu, who will in the future feel a sense of obligation. That would be just as true if Sou were providing the aid, but with Kyou, they will be in a much better position to return the favor because of the geography. Whatever Sou did would likely never be repaid. A debt that cannot be repaid is little different from a handout. Getting refugees accustomed to such a relationship would break that which is most important to them."
Bunki nodded. Senshin smiled and turned to Rikou. "The same applies to you. I don't so much mind you spending your way through the Imperial Treasury on behalf of the people of Kou, as long you keep in mind that it's possible to be charitable to a fault."
Senshin sighed. "Well, wherever you go, you manage to bring home the news of the world. It's much appreciated."
"Don't encourage him, Father," Ritatsu interjected. "When it comes to Rikou, it'd be better to encourage a little self-reflection than letting him bask in praise."
"You don't need to keep beating that drum. I'm committed to the refugee problem."
"And we'll hold you to it. Count on having your feet held to the fire."
"I figured as much."
"And you can start," said the scowling Ritatsu, "by getting off your butt and stabling your kijuu. How much longer are you going to make it wait out there?"
Smiling at the chagrined Rikou, Shoushou got to her feet. "I'll—"
"That's fine, Shoushou," Meiki said crisply. "People who make messes should at least learn to clean up after them. Goodness gracious, you're not children anymore."
At this, everybody burst out laughing.
"That's for certain."
"Yeah, it's about bloody time our brother became an adult."
"There's nothing funny about a six-hundred year old child."
Grinning as well, Rikou bobbed his head. "Yes, yes, yes." He got up and went to the window. Stepping through the window onto the ledge he thought to himself: They're all exactly the same as when I left.
They'd always be here, the light burning in the window, and those bright faces gathered around the table in warm harmony. Returning from his journeys to find that scene waiting for him filled him with a sense of relief. For good or ill, he hadn't tired of the idle life of the bourgeois.
Or perhaps he left home and wandered about the Twelve Kingdoms—even knowing of the dangers that awaited him—because he had grown tired of it. In fact, whenever he left he did so with no thought as to where he would go or when he would return. Sou and Seikan Palace and his family were the furthest things from his thoughts.
Deep down in the recesses of his mind, he might even contemplate leaving and never coming home.
But he always came back. In time, the other kingdoms turned desolate and cold. Kingdoms were fragile things. No matter how firm the ground might feel underfoot, the people were always standing on thin ice.
No dynasty lasted forever. That fact was all too self-evident.
Here, though, and now, the world was all right. And it'd be all right as long as they were there to hold each other up and watch each other's backs.
Rikou glanced over his shoulder. This was probably why he always came home again. To make certain that much was still true.