ouko was put up in a magnificent suite with a soaring ceiling. From the furniture to the water pitcher on the table, the interior décor had the indelible mark of fine taste and sumptuous luxury. The room was enormous, the glazed windows huge. The arrangements of flowers, the aroma of burning incense, would make the eyes of a peasant from the backwoods of Kou spin.
Having become accustomed to a pauper’s accommodations on the road, Youko felt the same. She couldn’t settle down. She wanted to retreat to her room and think things out, but the ornate, overstuffed chairs were uncomfortable. The lacquered table was finished with mother of pearl and would show even a fingerprint if she touched it. She hesitated even to sit there with her chin in her hands.
Glancing around the room, she saw another, smaller room, about ten feet by ten. Perhaps she could relax better in there. Then she approached the room and sighed.
The door partitioning the two rooms was folded back. The door was engraved with a delicate fretwork. As she stepped inside, the room became much bigger. Silk curtains hung down over a raised platform. The curtains were half open. Silk bedding covered the platform. That this ten-foot square room consisted of just a bed struck as some sort of bad joke. She couldn’t think of lying on this thing. Sleep was out of the question.
With nothing else better to do, Youko opened the big window. The French doors reached from the floor to the ceiling. Stained glass filled the geometric patterns between the lattices. Beyond the doors was a wide balcony.
As the Imperial En had promised, her room faced a terrace that looked out over the Sea of Clouds.
When she opened the window, the salt smell of the sea drifted in. It was preferable to the incense. She stepped outside. The terrace, covered with white stone, ran around the circumference of the building. It was about as wide as a small courtyard.
She walked along the terrace, leaned against the railing and gazed out at the Sea of Clouds. The big moon was sliding down the sky into the waves. Staring at the waves dashing against the rocks beneath her, she heard the sound of footsteps behind her. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw an animal with a gray coat coming toward her.
“Out for a walk?” she asked.
Rakushun grinned at the question. “So you can’t sleep either?”
“Yeah. You too?”
“How can you sleep in a room like that? Now I’m sorry I didn’t go back to the inn.”
The rat laughed. “What are you talking about? You have a palace just like this one.”
The smile disappeared from her face. “Yeah, I probably do.”
Rakushun stood next to Youko and like her gazed out over the ocean. “The palace in Kei is located in Gyouten, Ei Province. It’s called Kinpa Palace, the Palace of Golden Waves.”
It didn’t peak her interest. She answered with a listless, “Huh.”
Rakushun was quiet for a moment. “You know, Youko.”
“It’s most likely that Keiki was captured by Joei, the pretender.”
“So it seems.”
“If the Imperial Kou was really determined that you never take the throne, there’s one foolproof method.”
“Yeah, kill Keiki.”
“Right. If Keiki dies, you die, too. Because you haven’t climbed Mount Hou and accepted the Divine Decree, I don’t know what would happen to you. But that would probably be the end result.”
Youko nodded. “No doubt. It’s because I did that covenant thing with him and because I’m no longer a human being. That’s why I don’t get injured easily and why I can understand what people say. That’s why I can wield a sword and why I was able to cross the Kyokai. It’s all because of that.”
“Probably. Keiki is in the hands of your enemies. For your own good . . . ”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“No. It’s not that I think I’m above it all. I know what an emperor is, what a kirin is. That’s why I’m not going to make a decision like this just based on self-preservation.”
“But . . . ”
“I’m not being self-destructive.” She smiled. “When I came here, considering the state I was in, dying wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. I somehow survived till now, probably more due to luck than anything else. I was as good as dead when I came here, so it’s not something I get all choked up about. At any rate, I don’t want to be the kind of person who gets all choked up about stuff like that.”
She paused and went on. “I don’t want this to be some rash, life or death decision. I know what everybody expects of me. But if I simply do what is convenient for everybody else, let everybody else determine what my life will be, then I won’t be shouldering the responsibility myself. That’s why I’ve got to think it over.”
Rakushun looked up at her with his jet-black eyes. “I can’t understand what you’re so confused about.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I know just how mean and ugly a human being I am. I’m no empress. I don’t have it in me.”
“That’s not true.”
“If you’re a hanjuu, Rakushun, then I’m a hanjuu, too. I may appear human but I’m a beast inside.”
“Youko . . . ”
Youko gripped the railing of the balcony. There was a delicate beauty in the luxurious feel of the ornate stone. Casting her gaze downwards, she could see the lights of Kankyuu glowing like sea fire through the transparent water. The waves broke with a gentle rumble upon the shore. The extraordinarily sublime scene was far removed from what was in her heart. There was an equally striking palace in Gyouten, Kinpa Palace. To think of herself living there aroused in her not timidity but disgust.
That’s what she told him. Rakushun sighed. “A emperor is just an ordinary person until he is chosen by the kirin.”
“Being chosen by the kirin doesn’t change anything. I’m the same person I was, stealing from people, threatening people, assaulting people when I had to. I trusted nobody. I was willing to trade your life for my own.”
“The Imperial En thinks you can do it.”
“He doesn’t know what a miserable creature I am.”
“I think you can do it. I’m the one you were thinking of finishing off, so if I say so, then it must be so.”
Youko looked down at him, this rat who stood no higher than her stomach. He poked his head through the handrails and gazed intently at the ocean floating in the sky.
“I just can’t . . . ”
He didn’t answer her murmured dissent, only continued to stare out at the Sea of Clouds. He patted Youko on the arm with his small hand. When Youko turned to him, the gray coat of his back was already to her.
“All this has left me at my wit’s end as well. There’s nothing wrong with being confused. Take your time, think about it.”
Youko watched as he walked off into the distance. He raised his hand, but didn’t turn around.
“Rakushun,” she said to herself, “even you don’t know everything about me.”
But I know.
This wasn’t the sound of her own voice echoing inside her skull. Her head shot up and she scanned the surroundings. But it wasn’t a sound she had heard with her ears.
You have not been alone. I have seen everything.
Accept the throne. You are capable. You are qualified.
Youko couldn’t answer. That he had spoken left her speechless. And what he said all the more so.
I have disobeyed the command of my lord. Forgive me.
Keiki’s instructions to him came back to her, “Be as if you are not there.” Was this why, until this moment, he hadn’t once responded to a thing she had said?
You thought me a monster, begged and whined for me to be taken out of you. That is why. This was an error on your part.
“I really am a fool,” she said to herself.
This statement went unanswered.