8-6 On the day of the raid on Iryuu, Youko was given use of a flying horse called a kitsuryou. The kitsuryou had a red mane, white stripes covered its coat, and it had gorgeous golden eyes. Jouyuu knew how to ride a horse.
“You’re welcome to stay in Kankyuu,” said the Imperial En.
Youko didn’t agree. With as many as six thousand troops defending Iryuu, even one more rider could make a difference. Moreover, there was the matter of Keiki, not to mention that this was the business of the Kingdom of Kei. It would not do for her to stay hidden.
The Imperial En and Enki had ruled their kingdom continuously for five-hundred years. To face them and declare, “I shall go forth,” required as much courage as she could muster. She still knew almost nothing of this world, nothing of how a kingdom actually ran, nothing of its political structure. She hardly had the right to call herself an empress.
Which was why she had no choice but to go forth, despite how reckless it appeared. If war was what was called for, then to war she would go. And because she could only keep going forward once the ball started rolling, locking herself away in Gen’ei Palace was unacceptable.
Not only Youko, but Rakushun refused as well the safe haven of the palace. She insisted in the strongest terms that he remain behind, but he would not be cowed. Consequently, Enki said that Rakushun could be of use to him. They left together for Kei. A kirin could not abide bloodshed and Enki would not accompany them into battle. Instead, he and Rakushun would visit the provinces that had fallen to the pretender’s army and try to persuade them to see the reality of the situation.
A hundred and twenty beasts flew across the Sea of Clouds. The pretender’s army numbered twenty thousand. Of those, a good five thousand were concentrated in Sei Province. This, the Imperial En pointed out, was not a force a hundred and twenty could go up against.
“The objective is Keiki alone. If we can rescue Keiki then we can play for time. If we can sow doubt within the ranks of the pretender’s army, convince them that they are defending a mere pretender, then all the better. If only three of the province lords can be brought around, the tide will turn.”
The first step in that process was taking back Keiki. Youko asked, “Can we carry the day with only a hundred and twenty?”
The Imperial En laughed. “For the time being, the soldiers I have gathered may not be so great as to take on a thousand each. It is sufficient that they each be the equal of ten. Furthermore, Kei are thinly defended above the Sea of Clouds. They don’t have that many who can fight and fly. Our opponents are probably unaware that the Imperial Kei is in our care. I came to get you myself in order to keep them in the dark.”
So that was why the Imperial En had ventured all the way to Youshou by himself.
“And, well, I was curious about what kind of a person this Imperial Kei was. That’s why Joei is unlikely to believe that En would ever invade. Even if she did, coming over the Sea of Clouds with a cavalry of a mere one hundred and twenty, they won’t see us coming. After that, it all depends on you.”
“If you can turn the loyalties of the pretender’s army, it could be over quicker than we think. Few of your subjects will have any real desire to fight on Joei’s behalf. Once they understand that you are the rightful empress, they will hand over Keiki.”
Yeah, if I can only manage that, Youko sighed.
“Don’t doubt yourself. You are the empress. Never forget it. An actual monarch is something of a vainglorious concierge, but you should never let the people see through the facade. The face you put forward should always be that of the unquestioned person in charge.”
Youko sighed again. “Exactly how do I do that? Sure, easy if you happen to totally believe in yourself. But I don’t.”
“Ah, and there’s the rub.” The Imperial En laughed. “The way I figure it, the kirin chose me, so if I’ve got a gripe about it, he’s going to get an earful.”
Youko looked at him, a bit taken aback. “That’s the way to become an enlightened monarch?”
“So it is. At least it’s gotten me this far. If I’ve got a beef about something, Enki will hear it. And even then, if I’m still not happy about it, I’ll give it my best shot, anyway.”
“That makes sense, I suppose. I’ll keep it in mind.”
What Youko saw of the Kingdom of Kei with her own eyes was far worse than the visions she’d been shown by the sword. Peering down through the transparent depths of the Sea of Clouds, she began to grasp the extent of the devastation of the countryside. At this time of year, rice seedlings should be visible on the surface of the paddies, but it looked like most of the fields had been abandoned and gone fallow. The roads were empty of people, the hamlets and villages still as death, burned to the ground, only the scorched and blackened ruins remaining behind.
She had thought Kou poor. It was nothing compared to the destitution of Kei. Her heart ached as the images piled up of refugees huddled together at the foot of the city walls. They surely all wanted to go home. She knew the misery of not having a bed of her own to sleep in at night.
The ground rolling by beneath them, they flew across the Sea of Clouds for half a day before arriving at Iryuu, the capital of Sei Province. In Iryuu as in Kankyuu, there was a high mountain whose peak jutted above the Sea of Clouds. One of the buildings at its peak was the palace of the province lord. Keiki was sequestered somewhere inside that palace.
While still a good distance from the palace, Youko saw a swarm of black shadows rising from the palace like a flock of birds taking to wing. The palace’s airborne defenders.
To fight meant to kill. Up till now, Youko had killed everything except a human being, but only because she had not had the courage to take the weight of a human death upon her own shoulders. When she had decided to go forth, she resolved herself to the task ahead of her. It was not that noble ends justified taking human life any more lightly. She would remember forever her opponents and the number of those she struck down. This, she understood, was as much as she could do.
“Are you ready for this?” the Imperial En asked.
“Keep your head about you. Losing the Imperial Kei now, just as she is coming into her own, that would be a tragedy.”
“I’m not so easy to kill. I don’t have the good sense to know when I’m defeated, you see.”
The Imperial En responded with a puzzled frown. And then smiled with his eyes. Youko drew her sword from its scabbard and faced the charging cavalry. The kitsuryou galloped unfaltering through the air. They plunged into the mist of the flying horsemen climbing up into the sky from the palace.