1-5 “The new emperor ascended the Tai throne some seven years ago this fall. His name is Saku Gyousou.”
The matter-of-fact voice echoed around the room. They were in a building called the Sekisui-dai, a section of the library found at the back of the Inner Palace. Though not to the same extent as the world below, the heavy heat particular to summers in Gyouten stagnated in the snug room.
The rear windows faced a rock wall covered with moss and ferns. A delicate, white waterfall tumbled down the wall to a small, clear lake spreading out below the balcony, dappled with the sunlight streaming through the greenery. The sound of water mingled with the songs of the birds floated on a cool breeze through the open windows.
“He served under the previous emperor as general of the Regiment of the Left in the Palace Guard. He served with loyalty and distinction and was loved and respected by both his soldiers and the people of the region, sufficient that his fame spread to other kingdoms. Almost as soon as the previous government collapsed, that General Saku should be the next emperor was widely rumored about.”
“He sounds like a remarkable person,” Youko said in admiration, a touch of envy in her voice.
“Indeed,” agreed Chousai Koukan, Minister-in-Chief of the Rikkan. “Following the demise of the late emperor, he continued to prop up the Imperial Court. Everybody had high expectations for him. As soon as the Yellow Flag was raised, he journeyed to the Yellow Sea and made the pilgrimage to Mt. Hou. There he was anointed by Taiki and acceded to the throne. He’s been called a hyoufuu emperor.”
“A hyoufuu emperor?”
“Meaning a whirlwind emperor. He was chosen from among the first pilgrims traveling to Mt. Hou on the shouzan.”
The kirin chose the emperor. Or rather, it was through the kirin that the Mandate of Heaven was expressed. The kirin were born and raised on Mt. Hou in the center of the world. When a kirin became old enough to choose the emperor, a flag was raised at the temple in the middle of the kingdom. All those desiring to be emperor journeyed to the Yellow Sea and set forth to Mt. Hou. There they met with the kirin, who ascertained the Divine Will on their behalf. This was called the shouzan, meaning the “ascension of the mountain.”
“He was an emperor who ascended the throne like a sudden squall. It’s said that a rain squall doesn’t last the morning, and a raging heat quickly cools. Some also say that a whirlwind emperor will be a strong oak or a leaf in the wind. One or the other.”
“On the other hand, seeing that over ten years had passed in the interim, perhaps calling the Imperial Tai a whirlwind emperor isn’t entirely appropriate. In any case, The Taiho of Tai would be a fellow countryman of Your Highness.”
“Ah,” Youko said with a nod. “A taika like me. The Imperial En has said as much.”
Youko was born in Yamato, the distant, mythic land at the far reaches of the eastern seas where the streets were supposedly paved with gold. But Yamato was not the actual land of her origins. Yamato was “there,” and now she was “here.” That was the only way she felt comfortable describing the difference. The one was always a dream world to the other, though rarely the two did intersect.
Youko had been swept away during one of those rare crossings of worlds, and then she had returned. That’s what it came down to. She grasped that much in her mind, though she didn’t yet feel it in her bones.
She’d been swept away while still in embryonic form. In this world, children were born from the ranka—the “egg fruit”—that grew on trees. When “here” and “there” crossed, the ranka that contained Youko was swept away to “there.” She was “alive” but had not yet born. Her embryonic life found its way to the womb of a Yamato woman and nine months later she’d been born.
Naturally, she had no memories of the ranka. As far as she was concerned, she’d been born and raised as an ordinary child. Even after learning that the truth of her existence was entirely different—even being brought here and told that she’d been “born” here and that she was the empress—it was no different to her than being dragged down an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole.
Though she could hardly swear to it in court with a clear conscience, she probably had been born that way. She could hardly dismiss the reality of being here, and so that had to be the way things had been.
Which was how she dealt with her reality. She’d returned from there and reigned as empress now for two years. There had become the fantasy world. Being born and raised in the exotic land that was Japan had turned into a dream.
“Taiki is how old?” she asked herself.
Behind her Keiki answered. “I believe he was ten when the Imperial Tai was named emperor.” Keiki was the kirin of Kei who had brought Youko back from Japan and seated her upon the throne.
“The enthronement was seven years ago, so that’d make him about my age.” Knowing that another person shared the same dreams as herself, Youko felt a strange sensation come over her. Perhaps they dreamed of the same phantom country. Perhaps they even dreamed of the same places in that same phantom city. When she’d been a young child, another child like herself—a kirin—had been there too.
How extraordinary. According to what the Chousai and Saiho were telling her, this child of her dreams belong to her reality.
Youko knew of at least two other taika in this world: the emperor and Saiho of the kingdom to the north of Kei. Together they’d built a great, five-hundred year dynasty. They were taika, but the medieval Japanese they spoke was equally fantastic. Theirs was the ancient Japan she’d read about in history textbooks and seen in the illusions painted on the silver screen. It was all the same fantasy, but their Japan was not the same Japan that haunted her dreams.
She had acceded to the throne with the help of Enki and the Imperial En. The stormy seas they had seen her through left her forever in their debt. But Youko had never felt the same way around them as she did now. She’d never felt that they’d emerged out of the same dream as herself.
But she and Taiki could have stood together at a crosswalk or passed by each other on the street.
He was the kirin of the Kingdom of Tai. He’d chosen the Imperial Tai, they had established the Imperial Court, and Risai—the general whose body was scarred from head to toe—had come to Kinpa Palace at the risk of her own life on their behalf
“Something on your mind?” queried Keiki, furrowing his brows.
Youko came back to herself. “Ah, no. It’s nothing. I felt a little weird there for a moment. That’s all.” She smiled wryly. Concern showed on Koukan’s face as well. “Sorry, Koukan. Where were we?”
“Taiki,” Koukan said, looking at her. He glanced down at the manuscript. “A shoku transported him to Yamato where he was born a taika. After that, he returned to Mt. Hou. Though that was ten years later.”
“Ten years later? And he’s ten years old?”
“Yes, and—?” queried Koukan.
Youko shook her head. But when his taika was swept away and implanted in the womb of a human woman, a life in utero must have already been there. The implications came to her with something of a shock. The vessel that would become Taiki already existed in his mother’s womb. It moved. It had a heartbeat that its parents could hear. In its place Taiki’s taika took root.
But what happened to the life that was already there? Was it expelled by Taiki? Had she likewise been born after stealing the place of another? Thinking about her birth in these terms, she was overwhelmed by strange feelings of guilt. Though perhaps it was a mistake to think of the life there and the taika as two separate things. This was one question she couldn’t expect to find an answer to here.
Youko again shook her head as Koukan turned to her with a puzzled expression. “I’m okay. Continue.”
“Upon Taiki’s return, the yellow flag was raised in Tai and the shouzan commenced. The Imperial Tai was forthrightly seated upon the throne. A record of the event remains in Kei. The Phoenix sang forth the name of the Tai Kingdom, announcing the ascension of the emperor. According to our records, the Taiho made an unofficial visit to Tai to deliver his congratulations.”
When Youko cast a surprised glance over her shoulder, Keiki wordlessly confirmed that this was true.
“So we have diplomatic relations with Tai.”
“Diplomatic relations—” Keiki echoed mostly to himself. “I was still on Mt. Hou at the same time as the Taika, Taiki’s ranka. And when the shoku swept him away. When Taiki returned to Mt. Hou, I took the opportunity to return to Mr. Hou and met with him. Hence the ties between us.”
“Wow,” said Youko, the strange feeling returning. This child from her dreams had met with the kirin right there in front of her. “So that’s why that woman—Risai—came to Kei? To petition Keiki because he’s a friend of Taiki?”
Keiki tilted his head to the side doubtfully. “Hard to say. I haven’t met with General Ryuu personally.”
“But the Imperial Tai?”
“I have met His Highness. He struck me as an extraordinary person.”
Koukan nodded his head as Keiki had done. “I don’t know that we can term these two personal visits by the Taiho an establishment of foreign relations. Indeed, with Kei herself falling into chaos shortly thereafter, the Taiho was not able to congratulate the Imperial Tai upon his coronation. Neither do the ministers show any indication of having concluded their deliberations about whether or not to send an official envoy to express Your Highness’s well wishes. In other words, we have not even established a sufficent diplomatic relationship that would allow us to exchange ambassadors.”
Keiki apparently agreed with this summary of events. “In any event, the new emperor was enthroned. However, barely six months later, there came from Tai an Imperial Communique to the effect that the Imperial Tai had died.”
“An Imperial Communique? What about the Phoenix? When the emperor abdicates, doesn’t the Phoenix announce the end of the regime?”
“You are correct. The Hakuchi sings forth when the emperor is enthroned, as he does when the emperor gives up the throne. The Phoenix then passes these tidings along. But this time the Phoenix did not sing. The Phoenix has not yet announced the end of the Tai regime. In short, I do not believe that the emperor has died or abdicated.”
Youko rested her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. “I heard something similar from the Imperial En. The proclamation came that the Imperial Tai was dead, but it didn’t ring true to him. If Taiki died, then the fruit of the next kirin sprout forth on Mt. Hou. But there is no sign of the taika at all.”
“Yes. According to the communique produced by the envoy, only the Imperial Tai died. It did not touch upon the disposition of the Tai Taiho. However, no rumors about the disposition of the Tai Taiho have emerged since. At the same time, refugees began leaving Tai in droves. The word was the Tai Taiho had died, but seeing as the Phoenix has not announced his passing, I have to believe they were mistaken. Subsequently rumors about the coronation of a new emperor were noised about. In this case as well there were no envoys and the Phoenix made not a sound.”
“What do the refugees say?”
“They are of many opinions. Some say a pretender has assumed the throne. Some say the Taiho has chosen the next emperor. And some say that were it simply a matter of the emperor passing away, then the throne would sit empty. But the vast majority believe there was a coup d’etat in the palace, the Imperial Tai was assassinated, and the Taiho has fallen into the hands of evil-doers.”
Even in her own kingdom, it was difficult to communicate to the outside world exactly what was going on inside the Imperial Palace. Everything ended up as rumor and hearsay. The reason was that information was rarely imparted directly to the people.
Youko let out a breath. “No matter how I look at it, I can’t believe that the Imperial Tai and the Taiki are dead. Risai said that the Imperial Tai was driven from the Imperial Palace. So that’s got to be what happened. In short, there’s a pretender on the throne. The pretender led the coup and drove the Imperial Tai and Taiki from the palace.”
“I agree. Although a pretender is an emperor who lies about having received the Divine Mandate and then occupies a vacant throne. Strictly speaking, this is not a pretender but an usurper.”
“Oh, yes. Because the rightful emperor still lives.”
“That would be the case. General Ryuu commanded the Zui Provincial Army and Zui is the home to the capital of Tai. Having access to the heart of the palace, she could be expected to have the most accurate perspective about what was going on there. As I can see no discrepancies in her account, I find it difficult to believe she is lying.”
Youko frowned at Koukan. “But not impossible?”
“Should we at least try to verify what she has told us?” Koukan replied without hesitation.
Youko sighed. “Yes, of course. I did say I wanted to help Risai, but I really have no idea what to do. If this were only as simple a matter as a pretender.”
“Very true. We don’t even know what has become of the Imperial Tai or Taiki.”
“Asking Risai would be the most efficient thing to do. What does the doctor say?”
Koukan furrowed his brow. “So far he has nothing to report.”
“There is something I’ve discussed with the Taiho. The Imperial Tai and the Tai Taiho have connections with the Imperial En and the En Taiho. Moreover, En has received the largest number of refugees. So an official request has been made to the ministries of Summer and Fall in En informing them of the circumstances involving General Ryuu thus far, and requesting any additional information about the situation. Their reply should not be long in arriving.”
Youko nodded. The Imperial Scribe entered the library to tell her that Risai had awakened. Youko hurried to the conservatory. By the time she got there Risai had drifted off to sleep again.
The doctor had been summoned at the same time and said that at this point he still hoped for the best. “Because of the crown jewel, the Hekisouju, she should soon turn for the better.”
“I see,” Youko said with a nod, looking down at the face of the sickly and emaciated general. “That she would go to such extremes—” To rescue her kingdom she had suffered wounds across every inch of her body.
I want to do whatever I can, Youko told herself, but she didn’t know what that might be. Only that she must save the general. And Tai. And Taiki.