raveling the highway at a brisk pace, they made it to the next city just as the gates were being secured. The next morning they set off as soon as the gates opened. Youko still couldn’t grasp the significance of what this was all about, but from the looks on the faces of both Rakujin and Rakushun, she knew it was serious.
She asked as they walked along, “I wonder if we’ll really be able to see the Imperial En.”
Rakushun quivered his whiskers. “Indeed. I’ve never had an audience with a emperor, so I’m hardly in the position to say. I doubt asking to see the emperor out of the blue like this is common practice.”
“Yeah, you think?”
“When traveling to Kankyuu, there are also the county and prefectural governments to deal with. We should probably ask for a meeting with the Taiho first and see how that goes.”
Rakushun nodded, with his forefoot tracing the spelling of the Chinese character in the air. “That’s what the king’s counselor, or Saiho, is called. A kind of honorary title. Kankyuu is in Sei Province, so the province lord of Sei is the Taiho.”
Youko continued to stare at where Rakushun had written the characters in the air. She said, “That sounds familiar. I’ve heard that word before.”
“No doubt you have.”
“No, it was in the other world. A long time ago.” She thought about it, when and where she had heard someone say, “Taiho.” She said, “Oh, yeah, that’s it! That’s what they called Keiki.”
Rakushun blinked his black eyes in surprise. “Taiho? Keiki?”
“Yeah. He’s the guy who brought me here. He gave me this sword.” Youko laughed. “He kept going on about how he was my servant and that I was his lord and all. I’m telling you, he had this heavy-duty attitude about him.”
“Hold on a minute!” Rakushun frantically put up his hands and even with his tail dragged Youko to a stop. “Keiki, you said? They called Keiki the Taiho?”
“Yeah, I think so. Why, do you guys know each other?”
Rakushun shook his head vigorously. His whiskers fluttered up and down in great agitation. “You are Keiki’s lord . . . ”
Man, it was so long ago, Youko thought to herself. She reached back through her memories like turning through the pages of a photo album. For a moment she was lost in her thoughts. When she came back to herself and sighed, she saw that Rakushun had taken several steps back and was staring at her. He looked totally freaked out.
“Hey, what’s with you?” Youko tilted her head the side, puzzled.
“What’s with me?” Rakushun said to himself. He looked up at her. “If your Keiki was addressed as Taiho, that makes him the Kei Taiho.”
“And that is?”
The thunderstruck expression on Rakushun’s face was quite extraordinary.
“So Keiki is the Kei Taiho. There something wrong with that?”
Rakushun sat down on the shoulder of the road and motioned for Youko to join him. Youko sat down next to him. For a while he just stared at her.
“So who is this Keiki? What kind of person is he?”
“This is really, really, really serious, Youko.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I’ll try to explain it to you. Keep calm and listen.”
Youko felt a growing sense of unease. She nodded and gave Rakushun her undivided attention.
“If I’d known that you were taking about the Taiho, the remarkable state of affairs we’ve found ourselves in could have been cleared up a lot quicker. You probably wouldn’t have had to suffer so much.”
“Rakushun, you’re not making any sense.”
“What I’m telling you is, the Taiho is an imperial counselor. The imperial counselor. And you say that his name is Keiki. That being the case, then it must be the Kei Taiho. There can be no other explanation.”
Rakushun twitched his whiskers. He made as if to reach out with his forehand and touch Youko’s shoulder but thought better of it and held back.
“That means he’s not a person. He’s not a youma. He’s a . . . kirin.”
“A kirin. A unicorn. The unicorn is the most exalted of the sacred beasts. He can take on the shape of a human being, but the Taiho is not a human being. He is always a kirin. Keiki is written as the Kirin of Kei. That is not his name. It’s his title. The kirin of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei, it means.”
“Kei is on the eastern coast of the Blue Sea. It is situated between En and Kou. It has a temperate climate. It’s a good place to live.”
“But isn’t Kei in the middle of a civil war?”
Rakushun nodded. “Last year the emperor died. A new emperor has not ascended the throne. The emperor subdues the youma, reins in the supernatural forces, protects the kingdom from disasters. So when there is no emperor, the country descends into chaos.”
“If Keiki called you his lord, then you are the Empress of Kei.”
“The Empress of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei. The Imperial Kei.”
Youko was speechless with surprise. She couldn’t find the words to respond.
“You are the chosen ruler of Kei.”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute! I’m just an ordinary high school student. Okay, it looks like I’m a taika, but not some big, important person like that!”
“Every emperor is an ordinary person until he sits upon the throne. Our rulers are not chosen by heredity. The decision has nothing to do with a person’s resume or their outward appearance. The emperor is whomever the kirin chooses.”
“But, but, but . . . ”
Rakushun shook his head. “If Keiki chose you, then you are the Imperial Kei. The kirin takes orders from no one in this regard. The only person the kirin calls lord is the emperor or empress.”
“This is all so stupid.”
“The branch of a tree is bestowed upon the emperor by Heaven. The three fruits on the branch represent the earth, the kingdom, and the throne. The earth is the census and the registry of public lands. The kingdom is the rule of law. And the throne symbolizes the justice and benevolence of the emperor, meaning the kirin.”
As he spoke, Rakushun glanced down the road toward their destination. “I can now see that you are different from ordinary people, even from ordinary taika. You have entered into the covenant with the kirin of Kei.”
“I’ve done what?”
“I don’t know the exact nature of the covenant. But an emperor is a god, not a person. From the moment you entered into the covenant with the kirin, you were no long a human being.”
Youko searched her memories. Her mind lit upon a memory. Allow me. “Yeah, Keiki did say something like: Allow me. That’s it. Then he did something weird and I got this really strange feeling inside.”
Thoughts raced through her head. That feeling. And right afterwards, the window exploding, the shards of glass flying around the vice-principal’s office. Everybody was injured except for her, and not a scratch on her.
“He knelt before me, bowed . . . touched his forehead to my feet.”
“That was it,” Rakushun declared. “Kirin are dignified and aloof. They obey no one but the emperor, bend a knee to no one but the emperor.”
“But . . . ”
“I am not the one to fill you in on the details. You should be asking the Imperial En instead. I am nothing but a lowly hanjuu. I do not know anything about the Kingdom of Heaven.”
There was a hardness in his voice. He looked up at Youko. His whiskers wavered and drooped. “You are so far away from me, Youko.”
“I’m . . . ”
“If it is true then I shouldn’t be the one telling you this. Youko, I shouldn’t even address you by your first name.” He got to his feet. “If this is true, the faster we see the Imperial En the better. Rather than heading to Kankyuu, it would be quicker if we reported in at the nearest municipal office. These are matters of the gravest importance.”
He was standing with his back to her. He turned to face her. “It has been a long journey and I know you must be tired. But rather than Kankyuu, I suggest we ask for asylum at one of the local government offices. Until we have received the official sanction of the Imperial En, we should sojourn at a local inn, if you please.”
He bowed low to the ground. It was a pitiful sight.
Youko said, “I am who I am.”
“That is indeed the truth.”
“I . . . ” Her voice trembled with rage. “I am who I’ve always been, nothing more! Not once have I ever been anything other than myself. Call me king or kaikyaku, that has nothing to do with me! Rakushun, you’re the one I’ve come all this way with.”
Rakushun continued to hang his head, showing his sad, rounded back.
“So what’s different? Nothing’s changed! I thought I was your friend. If becoming empress is going to change that, then I don’t want any part of it!”
There was no answer from her small companion.
“Well, that’s discrimination, pure and simple. You didn’t discriminate against me because I was a kaikyaku. But now you do because I’m some sort of royalty?”
“Youko . . . ”
“I’m not the one who’s far away. It’s your feelings that are. You and I are standing no more than two steps apart.”
She reached out with her foot and indicated the distance between them. No further than that, she meant.
Rakushun looked up at Youko. He worried at the fur on his chest with his forefoot, fluttered his silky whiskers.
“Am I wrong, Rakushun?”
“It’s three steps for me.”
Youko couldn’t help grinning.
“Forgive me.” Rakushun reached out with his forefoot and touched Youko’s hand. “I am sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m the one who should be sorry. I got you mixed up in all kinds of weird stuff.” She was being pursued. If Rakushun said she was an empress, then it was probably true. Her being chased probably had something to do with it.
Rakushun’s black eyes brimmed with laughter. “I came to En for my own reasons, so it’s nothing you need to blame yourself for.”
“Oh, I’ve caused you no end of trouble.”
“No trouble at all. If I thought you were trouble, I wouldn’t have stuck with you from the start. If it was so disagreeable, I would have gone home.”
“You even got injured on my account.”
“I knew there would be difficulties, I knew there would be dangers. But I figured sticking with you would be worth it so I stuck with you.”
“You are a good person, Rakushun.”
“I suppose. But I think I’m much better off heading into danger with you than playing it safe without you.”
“Oh, c’mon. You didn’t think things would get this chancy, did you?”
“In any case, my expectations were a bit uninformed. That’s my fault, not yours.”
Youko couldn’t think of a way to respond. She nodded. Holding his small hand, feelings of guilt and regret welled up inside her.
Rakushun had likely committed a crime by giving shelter to a kaikyaku. The youma pursuing her may well have attacked Rakushun’s home after she left. He’d said to his mother when they left, “You’re tough as nails, Mom. I’m sure you’ll be okay on your own.”
There was no escaping the implication in his reassurances that her attackers or some other calamity might soon be visited upon her.
Youko pulled him to her and clasped the soft, furry body against her own. She ignored Rakushun’s odd cries of protest and buried her head in the charcoal gray fur. It was as gentle and comforting as she imagined.
“I’m really am sorry for messing up your life like this. And really grateful.”
She released the flustered Rakushun. “Sorry. I was a little overcome there.”
“It’s all right.” Rakushun awkwardly combed his ruffled fur back into place. “But it’d be better if you acted with a bit more restraint.”
Rakushun’s whiskers drooped. “It looks like we need to study you up a bit more about this world. You think?”
He spoke in a concerned tone of voice. With no real idea what he was referring to, Youko could only nod and say, “Yeah. Sure.”