8-2 The next day, Youko was awakened by her lady-in-waiting. When she took her seat for breakfast, she shook her head, no, to the question on everybody’s face. Rakushun came as a rat. He nodded and fluttered his whiskers. The Imperial En and Enki showed only small signs of disappointment.
The Imperial En said, some bitterness mingled with his words, “Your kingdom and your subjects are yours to do with as you wish. But in any case, I would like to see you reunited with Keiki. If you still intend to abdicate, that is another matter. At the very least, for the sake of the kingdom, you should want the Saiho back safe and sound. Do you not think so?”
Youko nodded. “I haven’t come to any conclusion in my own regard but I don’t object to rescuing Keiki. How?”
“We’ll have to use force. Keiki is being kept in Sei Province in the midst of the pretender’s army.”
“If Keiki can be rescued, then can I go home? I am asking a simple question.”
The Imperial En nodded. “Keiki can trigger a shoku. Because you have the constitution to cross the Kyokai, there would be no difficulty. Rightly or wrongly, if you wish to return and Keiki refuses, I shall have Enki carry it out.”
A fair person, Youko thought. He could equally have threatened not to if she refused to become empress.
“Frankly, I’d rather not,” said Enki. “When the time comes, get Keiki to do it.”
The Imperial En glared at him. “Rokuta.”
“Since you’re playing dumb, I’ll fill her in. Calamities occur whenever there’s a shoku. If it’s only a kirin crossing over, a windstorm, maybe. But in the case of an empress crossing over as well, we’re talking massive destruction. It’ll happen over there, too.”
“Yes. Here and there. Because here and there are not meant to mingle together. When you were brought here, the shoku caused widespread damage in Kou. Considering that it was royalty crossing the Kyokai, it was a pretty minor catastrophe. That’s not bound to be the case next time. If it was up to me, I’d have no part of it.”
“If I am able to go home, I wouldn’t want to impose myself on Enki.”
“Much appreciated,” Enki said with a sardonic smile and a bob of his head.
The Imperial En spoke up in sterner tones. “Even if you do return to Japan, Youko, you will by no means be free from danger.”
As long as the Imperial Kou refused to relent, he could still send youma after her. Her return as well would likely cause natural disasters. Innocent bystanders would get caught up in youma attacks. She’d become a goddess of death. Here or there, going home would be no good for anybody. Yet even knowing this, she couldn’t make up her mind.
“Do you think that before I go back, I ought to settle the score with the Imperial Kou?”
“That you cannot do. And I wouldn’t help you in the least.”
The Imperial En nodded. “If nothing else, remember this. There are three sins an emperor can never commit. The first is to reject the Mandate of Heaven and stray from the Way. The second is to choose suicide rather than accept the Mandate. The last is to invade another country, even to suppress an internal rebellion.”
Nodding, Youko said, “Yes, but what about you? What about invading Kei in order to take back Keiki?”
“If the Imperial Kei herself stands at the vanguard and leads the way then it will be done in her name. In that case, we are only answering her call and assisting her as her allies.”
The Imperial En laughed heartily. “In order to secure Keiki’s release, I shall grant you the use of our Imperial Army. What do you say?”
Youko bowed, a thin smile on her lips. “If you wouldn’t mind. I apologize for giving you nothing but reasons to be disappointed by my presence.”
Enki scowled, then smiled. “Shouryuu wants there to be more taika emperors. But it’s nothing to get worked up about. After all, up till now there’s been only one.”
“There’s only one?”
“For the time being. There have been more in the past, though their numbers were never that great.”
“Aren’t you a taika, too, Enki?”
“Yes. And Shouryuu and Taiki. You make four.”
“Taiki is the kirin of the Kingdom of Tai?”
“Yes. The hinasa of the Outland Kingdom of Tai.
“A fledgling. A kirin who has not reached adulthood.”
“I am an adult kirin. When a kirin reaches adulthood, his outward appearance stops growing as well.”
“In other words, you grew faster than Keiki did.”
“That’s it,” he said, with no little pride in the fact. The Imperial En smiled to himself.
“So Taiki wasn’t fully grown?”
“Wasn’t, as in the past tense?”
Enki responded to Youko’s question with a strained expression on his face. He exchanged glances with the En.
“Taiki died. At least, that’s what was communicated to us. The Kingdom of Tai is in the midst of chaos. No one knows what happened to Taiki or to the Imperial Tai.”
Youko sighed. “So it’s a bad situation, like in Kei.”
“Where there are people, there are complications. His name is Takasato. In human years, he would have been about your age.”
“The ki in kirin indicates a male. The Tai kirin was a beautiful black unicorn.”
“A black unicorn?”
“Have you ever seen a kirin?”
“Only in human form.”
“The coat of a kirin is an orange-yellow, the back variegated, the mane usually gold.”
“Like your hair?”
“Yes, but this isn’t hair. It’s really a mane.”
Makes sense, Youko thought to herself.
“The Tai kirin was black, the color of polished steel. The coat was jet black and the back silver. This variegation was rather unique.”
“Is it rare?”
“Indeed. In all our history, there’s nothing quite like the black unicorn. There have been red unicorns and white unicorns too, but I’ve never seen them.
“If Taiki had indeed died, the Imperial Tai could be expected to pass away as well. The Taika—the fruit bearing the Tai kirin—should have appeared on Mt. Hou. But there’s no sign of it.”
“The tree that bears the fruit of the kirin is on Mount Hou. When a kirin dies, at the same time, the ranka of the new kirin should begin to grow. If Taiki had died, it would become the next Tai kirin. In the case of a female, then Tairin, from the second syllable of kirin. The ranka is named according to the name of its kingdom, in this case designated the Taika. However, there’s no Taika to be found on Mount Hou. So he still must be alive.”
“Don’t kirin have parents?”
“No. Being a taika is beside the point. That’s why kirin don’t have names. Only titles.”
Enki nodded. There seemed something quite sad about that fact. As if knowing what was on her mind, he put on a deliberately sullen face.
“The kirin are sad creatures. They live only for the emperor, have no parents or siblings, not even names. If the emperor chooses, he can work you half to death. In the end, you end up dying because of the emperor. And not even a grave awaits you.”
Enki shot a look at the En. His lord turned the other way. Enki frowned and sighed.
“No grave?” Youko asked and Enki averted his eyes as if in self-reproach for having brought the subject up.
“You can’t get somebody to prepare a grave for you?”
The Imperial En said with a forced smile, “It’s not that he doesn’t have a grave. Emperor and kirin are interred together. He means there isn’t a body.”
“Why?” Perhaps, she thought, because the kirin were supernatural beings, no physical body was left behind.
“That’s enough of the subject for now.”
Enki said, “Look, it’s no big secret. The kirin employs the youma as his servants. The kirin and the youma make a pact. The youma who accept the pact promise to obey the kirin. In exchange, when the kirin dies, the youma get to feast on his body.”
Youko looked up, first at the Imperial En, then at Enki. Enki shrugged.
“That’s what it comes down to. Kirin sure must taste good. Anyway, I’ll be dead by then, so I can’t say I really care. If it seems a sad end to you, well, then take good care of Keiki. Try not to let him down.”
Youko didn’t know what to say. So instead she said, “The Imperial Kou must not have feared causing Kourin similar distress.”
The Imperial En smiled sardonically. “Who knows what the Imperial Kou is thinking.”
Enki shrugged as well. “Interfering in the internal affairs of other kingdoms will lose you the Mandate of Heaven. Despite that, he couldn’t refrain from launching on this idiotic course. He must have a powerful reason.”
“You would think.”
“And yet, acting without a thought in their heads, save knowing that at some point they’ll have to face the music alone, humans go rushing in where angels fear to tread. They’re fools. The more it hurts, the less they think.”
His words hit home like a punch to the solar plexus. Youko could only nod. “It’s scary.”
“Yeah. I can’t help feeling I’ve just caught a tiger by the tail.”
The Imperial En smiled softly. “The kirin cannot deny the emperor. But that doesn’t mean that he will do everything you say without objection. Never forget you’re just a dumb human. That’s the best way to let your other half help you out.”
“My other half?”
Youko nodded. She glanced at the chair to her right. The sword was sitting there. The Suiguu-tou, the Water Monkey Sword, that could see the future and the present and what was far from her.
The Imperial En hadn’t said as much, but if she could control the sword, shouldn’t she be able to tell what the Imperial Kou was up to?