The bird stopped talking. Youko nudged it gently with her finger. The bird rewound and started over from the beginning.
Listening to his voice reminded her how much she missed him. Not much time had passed since they'd made their journey together. Still, so many things had happened in the meantime that it seemed like ages ago.
His soft, gray fur and rhythmically swaying tail—his quivering silver whiskers—she couldn't help giggling to herself. She heard a sound behind her and turned with a start. One of her ladies-in-waiting had at some point entered the room and was setting out tea.
Gyokuyou raised her head and smiled. "I announced myself, but your attention must have been elsewhere."
"Is that Sir Rakushun? He seems in a good mood. Forgive me for listening in."
"No, that's okay," said Youko, feeding the bird a grain of silver. "I didn't notice. Rakushun was telling me how Gyokuyou is a name given to talented and comely women."
Gyokuyou laughed. "If that's what he's telling you, then Sir Rakushun surely must not have ever laid eyes on me. I do look forward to meeting him some day, but I fear he will be disappointed."
"But weren't you ever thought to be talented and comely?"
"Oh, I suppose some might have said such a thing when I was a young lass." A bright smile came to the woman's old, weathered face. "Why don't you take a break?"
"That I will," Youko said. She stood up and went to the divan, flopped down and stretched out. "I've been sitting so long my legs are going to sleep."
"You're working too hard."
"All these political terms go in one ear and out the other."
"Not the kind of material that can be digested in one sitting."
"It took you a while to learn it too?"
Gyokuyou nodded. "It certainly did. Even now, I've probably forgotten as much as I've learned. In short, if you can remember the person, you won't remember the position. Fix the person's face in your mind—their position, who they work under, who works for them, and what they do—and by the by it'll all begin to stick."
"I wonder," Youko sighed. "I'd like to remember who everybody is right away, but they don't really appreciate me hanging around their offices."
She met ministers above a certain rank at Privy Council meetings, so she could remember them. But the opportunity never presented itself for all their subordinates. She could go around visiting the individual departments, but the departments weren't exactly enamored of that idea either.
"Yes, that kind of thing is generally frowned upon."
"So I've been told. 'The precedent does not exist.' But it sounds to my ears like I'm being told not to make a nuisance of myself."
"Really—" was Gyokuyou's answer.
The fact of the matter was that no bureaucrat wanted people peeking over his shoulder. All the dirty linen was better stuffed into ministerial closets and left there. Kei was still a kingdom in upheaval. The reign of the previous empress had been short, and the turnover in monarchs before that had been all too frequent. Many in the civil service had served in the Imperial Court going back three dynasties. They had become accustomed to arbitrary rule and corruption. It was only natural that they should come to think of their ministries and departments as their own personal domains.
"Oh," Youko said, "that reminds me. Just as I figured, the Ministry of Spring turned down my proposal to hire you."
"You really made such a proposition?"
"But you know so much about education systems. It seems logical that you should work in a related field, even as an undersecretary. So I made inquiries. They just laughed it off." Youko took a deep breath and let it out. "First they all laugh. They tell me it wasn't that they objected to having a lady minister around, but I just can't go around creating positions on a whim. Like they're lecturing a child. They wouldn't seriously debate the issue with me."
"I quite enjoy working alongside Your Highness."
"I like having you around too. But I was thinking of making the most of your talents."
"Well, then I shall strive to the best assistant to Your Highness that I can be. True, it is a bit off the beaten path for me, but I've always looked forward to new challenges."
"You really do have a positive outlook on life."
"I guess because I'm such a curious person at heart."
"I see," Youko said with a grin.
"But as Sir Rakushun said, not causing trouble for the bureaucracy is often the best course."
Youko gave her a long look.
"Please forgive me," Gyokuyou said. "It wasn't my intention to listen in, but I couldn't help paying attention."
"Oh, no problem. I'm not picking fights or anything. I haven't attempted any kind of head-on confrontation. They politely ignore everything I say."
"Yes, honestly speaking one's mind is to be preferred."
"Nobody's actually lying. Now, if I went around pretending we were all one big happy family, the bureaucracy and me, that would be a lie."
"Still—" Gyokuyou started to say, but seemed to reconsider.
The Empress of Kei lived a life of isolation. The Imperial Court was divided down the middle by competing factions, with various parts of the bureaucratic turf staked out by the ministers. They sucked up shamelessly, and treated her as a piece of ornamentation that came with the throne.
"They keep their distance and never open up enough to make even possible to pick a fight with them. So I can't say that Rakushun giving me advice like that even matters."
"But he's your friend, right? We're probably more reticent when it comes to revealing our weaknesses to our friends, but it couldn't hurt being a bit more straightforward."
"Yeah, I suppose," said Youko, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm not being straight with him. To tell the truth, I've made no friends among the ministers. I'm pretty much a complete outsider. I wouldn't look forward to that. And it's not that I'm against revealing my weaknesses. I'm against coming across as weak and pathetic. Against being despised and ridiculed. Rakushun's the kind of guy who offers advice and counsel before getting around to the ridiculing part."
"You don't want to cause him unnecessary concern?"
"There's that too. Becoming a burden. But that's not really it either. I want to stand tall."
Gyokuyou blinked. "Stand tall? Because he's your friend?"
"I don't mean for appearance's sake." Youko smiled wryly and picked up the teacup. For several seconds she pursed her mouth, a concerned look on her face. "I don't think everything's coming up roses for Rakushun."
When Gyokuyou tilted her head to the side, Youko looked up and smiled. "I know he always tries to be the bearer of good news, but I have to wonder, you know? His mom is back in Kou, and the way things are headed there he's got to be more than a little concerned. It's not like he can call her on the phone and see how she's doing. Whether she's in good health. Without knowing that, how can he sit back and enjoy life as a college student?"
"That definitely would be cause for concern."
"I can fill him in about what's going on and try to calm his concerns that way. Still, that can't be expected to set his mind at ease. Even bringing his mom from Kou to En wouldn't likely settle things. She'd be another refugee who'd left her kingdom. And with the disposition of his mother settled, he'd surely be troubled by the growing chaos in the kingdom of his birth."
"I would agree with that assessment as well."
"It sure seems that way to me. And being in college is tough enough. It seems he can't get enough formal instruction through regular channels and is relying on home study."
"The En Taiho did report that his grades are very good."
"Yeah, I suppose. But I'm worried that if he spends the bulk of his time in home study, he won't make the most of his college experience, like forming relationships with classmates and professors. En is a wealthy kingdom and the standards at its universities have got to be pretty demanding. A student only exposed to a district academy in Kou who suddenly finds himself attending an En university has got to feel like a fish out of water."
"It's tough getting by in a kingdom you know nothing about, in a city you know nothing about, in a completely different environment. And on top of everything else, Rakushun in a hanjuu."
"En is quite different from Kou and Kei."
"And not just the politics," Youko agreed.
A hanjuu could attend college in En, could get a job, could even become a minister. Though the first time they had visited Gen'ei Palace, the Minister of Heaven had presented Rakushun with a set of clothes.
"We may be equal before the law, but the law has no rule over people's hearts. So the Minister of Heaven telling Rakushun to get dressed in 'grown up clothes' may have been his way of saying that he didn't want him walking around the palace like that. It was never clarified whether doing so was against protocol or was simply considered ill-mannered."
"Such things are bound to happen."
"And all the more so at college, even at an elite institution that educates the cream of the crop. You graduate and are pretty much guaranteed a job in government, right? The training ground for the future leaders can be divorced from the demands of national dignity, right? I don't think they'd be pleased by the site of a big rat sauntering about the place. Take discrimination and prejudice out of the equation and there's still no denying Rakushun looks like a little kid. He's got to find it all a pain in the neck."
"That well may be so."
"But Rakushun hasn't said a thing about it. And I can't believe that's because it's not getting to him. No matter who you are, get treated irrationally and those feelings are going to accumulate. At the end of the day, we all wince when we're hit and laugh when we're tickled."
When harsh and vexing things happened, the reaction was predictable. But Rakushun never wore his heart on his sleeve and went around groveling for sympathy.
"I can't believe that everything's all hunky-dory. And that he's fitting in as easy as he implies. I don't think anybody really ever gets used to being given a hard time. If you asked him, he'd probably say it just means he's gotten used to his surroundings. But that's not the same thing. There's no way it can't hurt. I think what it comes down to is that he's figured out how to shrug it off."
Youko rested her chin on her hands. "It's really something." She smiled at Gyokuyou. "You too. It's got to be harsh to be kicked out of a country for totally illogical reasons. But you took it as a good opportunity to visit schools all over the place. You got beyond it. You kept moving forward. I'm totally impressed."
"Well, I consider myself an optimist by nature."
"Undoubtedly," Youko laughed. "But it's great the way you maintain a positive look on life. When I heard about how well Rakushun is doing, I figure that I've got to keep at it too. Knowing that it can't be all such smooth sailing and still not whining and holding your head high—when I see that, I figure I've got to buck up and try harder."
Gyokuyou smiled. "A positive attitude can be contagious."
"So it seems. That's what keeps you going. You can't do the ministerial job you're good at, but you don't go around with a chip on your shoulder. That makes me think that as bad as things are, we're a long ways from hitting rock bottom. It's not so bad that I can't say I'm getting by, that at least I've got my health and stuff. So when Rakushun says how he's doing okay, I feel I have to face my own demons as well."
"I understand that feeling very well."
"I know this is mere bravado. But bravado is better than nothing, don't you think? I'm not talking going overboard or anything. Just that I want to stand tall and put on a brave front and stay positive and all."
"Of course," Gyokuyou answered with a smile. "Though I suspect Sir Rakushun sees through Your Highness's bravado."
"Yeah, I know. I think that's true for both of us. But that's fine."
"I see." Gyokuyou laughed again, and Youko joined in.
Another of her court ladies hurried into the room. "I am sorry for barging in like this."
"The Taiho has something he must see you about at once."
Taking note of the bowing court lady, Gyokuyou got to her feet. "I'll get you a change of clothes."
Youko nodded. She said to the still-kneeling court lady, "I'll see him right away."
Something must have happened to bring Keiki to her quarters at this time of night. The pretender's dead-enders raising hell somewhere, or some discord among the ministers or province lords. But if it couldn't wait until morning and couldn't be handled by the regular bureaucracy, it must be something important. She knit her brows in concern.
Gyokuyou interrupted her thoughts, holding up a cheongsum jacket for her approval. "No matter what it is, there's no sense worrying about before you find out what it is."
"Yeah, you're right."
"Times like this demand a straight back and a bit of that bravado."
"Very true," said Youko, slipping her arms into the sleeves of her cheongsum jacket.
Kei was a long ways off from achieved peace and prosperity. A mountain of problems awaited her every day. Hardly knowing her right hand from her left, she had no choice but to scramble after every problem as they came at her from all directions. Despite that, it shouldn't be too much for her to bear. There were so many people watching out for her.
"Well, I'd better get going. Thanks for the tea."
"I'll prepare some tasty for you upon your return."
"Sure, if you wouldn't mind."
From its perch, the bird watched as Youko left the room.