4-4 The next day, in the dead of night, Shuka met Sairin at the back gate of the Imperial Palace.
"How are you faring, Taiho?" Shuka asked, peering into the palanquin being born under the direction of the Ministry of Summer.
She knelt to get a better look. Sairin answered only with the emotionless flash of her eyes. Up till now, Eishuku hadn't witnessed her enfeebled state and was clearly startled at what he saw. The exhausted young woman with empty eyes lying in the palanquin still clung to the withered twig.
With their eyes averted, they transferred Sairin to a rickety old horse cart. She was attended to by only three ladies-in-waiting. Shuka rode in an equally decrepit wagon. In order to keep things to a minimum, other than Seiki, only six civil servants were allowed to accompany them. They silently rode in the third wagon.
In the middle of the night, the gate was tightly closed. The place was deserted except for the soldiers escorting them. Officials from the Ministry of Summer held the reins. Five soldiers—watchers or guards—were assigned to each wagon. The gate quietly opened. Only the Shoushikou was there to see them off as Shuka and the others left the palace. It was an unbelievably sad parting.
It'd take over a month to reach the Koukyou by horse cart. Because Sairin was with them, they couldn't stop at ordinary inns. They slept in the wagons, traveling at night as they made their way to the Koukyou. Their shabby appearance notwithstanding, the interiors of the covered wagons were kept shipshape. They were hardly comfortable, though, and the trip was a trying one.
Equally harsh was the severity of Sairin's illness. She lay on a bed in the middle of the wagon as if in a trance. From time to time she came to herself and wept over the plight of the people. When she had cried herself out, she raised her voice in bitter cries against Shishou. Even with her riding in a different wagon, the rest of them couldn't get those cries out of their heads.
The journey wasn't half over before Sairin's ladies-in-waiting had been worn haggard and were on the verge of nervous breakdowns. Shuka had to step in and take over their duties more and more often. And then there was no way to stop their ears or avert their eyes.
"We're all going to die, Shuka! The earth is stained with blood!"
"Taiho—don't say such things—"
"It's the truth! Shishou has cast Sai aside! A wicked era dawns. The youma lie in wait gathering their strength. But the king will tear us asunder before their swarms arrive!" Sairin clutched the withered branch with both hands. "You, me, he'll kill us all! He'll murder Sai!"
"Oh, you mustn't get carried away," Shuka said, consoling her. "Things aren't that bad." She repeated the lies over and over. "His Highness is concerned for your well being, that's all. He doesn't want to place a greater strain on your health. You should take the opportunity to rest well in Sou. Put your mind at ease."
"You're wrong! He's cast me aside! He's cast us all aside! Don't you understand, Shuka? His Highness has murdered scores! He will take everything and cast it into the fire!"
She again collapsed in tears. Shuka said, stroking her hand, "Taiho, please—"
"He wears the visage of a sage and then blesses us with dross and throws Sai to the wolves. And he said he'd show me Paradise."
"I believed in His Highness, Shuka. I waited. He said that those dreams were coming ever closer. But they've only grown farther away. Sai isn't like Paradise in the slightest. Every step taken a step into the distance. He promised me!" Sairin raised her head. "Ah, the king's aura again dims—"
Sairin clung to her. "Please. We must return to Yuunei. His Highness must be saved. Why are you abandoning him? He is sinking alone beneath the waves.
She was clearly divided by her enmity and her love for him, scorning him with the same vehemence with which she delighted in his excellence, and her joy for having chosen him. She alternately lambasted him for abandoning his subjects, and Shuka for abandoning him.
"I don't know if I can take any more of this," Shuka wept, returning to her wagon after a lady-in-waiting relieved her.
"Shuka-sama—" Seiki placed his hand on her back. He looked up at her and said, his voice layered with concern, "I can well understand why His Highness wished to have the Taiho out of view. It is an unbearable sight."
Sairin's illness was evidence of mistakes being made. And Shishou was not the only person making them. Shishou had appointed them to the Imperial Court. Sairin's shitsudou was the fruits of their collective effort. If it was simply the results of fatigue, or the debilitation caused by the contamination by blood, it wouldn't inflict this degree of suffering. And yet her suffering had been cruelly ignored, an indifference that was evidence of the loss of the Way.
Now the consequences of that cruel inattention were being thrust upon them.
"That is something we've all had a hand in. But why?" Shuka looked at Seiki and Eishuku. Up till now, she hadn't been willing to admit to any personal fault. "The fact is, we chased that dream and nothing else. We believed that the course before us was self-evident, that the goal we were pursuing was the proper ideal, and as long as we unfurled that flag with sufficient vigor, we could make anything happen.
In the idealistic government they had founded, no one used their positions for self-interest or personal gain. When such civil servants were discovered, they were fired. But then things grounds to a halt without them so they had to be rehired. The whole affair was certainly a blunder of the first order. And it was their mistake, Shishou's mistake.
They had actually convinced themselves that if the crimes of the corrupt were exposed and they were punished, then they really would see the light. They would reflect upon their sins, and their humiliating example would convince others like them to change their ways. They had not allowed for the fact that there existed corrupt officials who, indicted, punished and shamed, would never repent.
If someone had pointed out to them that the real world was not the one they naively pictured in their minds, then they might have been the ones to see the light.
"Is that where we stumbled? Just like Junko-sama said, have we been building prison walls the whole time? But we haven't been forcing people to hew to the right and killing those who did not obey."
Even the more tyrannical of the officials had been sacked, not executed. Sentences had been tempered by compassion, and every attempt was made to be benevolent. And yet the kingdom continued to sink into chaos, just as did Sairin.
As the journey continued, this fact became undeniable. The common people were plainly in distress. A good part of that distress was due to exploitation by local officials. But the rest was Shuka's fault. Though land management was in her portfolio, she had done little for the people who make their living from the land. Since the time of King Fu, the ministers had lined their own pockets first, and had left the foxes to watch the henhouses.
The farmers abandoned their allotments, the fields went fallow, the canals silted in, the dikes sprang leaks, and the villages were drained of resources by political corruption. All these facts on the ground should have demanded her attention. The course of action was clear, but the Imperial Treasury lacked the funds to address these problems.
The people impoverished by graft and corruption couldn't bear a heavier tax burden. Shishou had lowered taxes out of compassion, but had drained the treasury in the process.
Sairin's sickness, the devastation of the land, the poverty of the people—the journey brought home to her day after day the enormity of her failings. She was mightily relieved when the peaks of the Koushuu Mountains finally came into view.