hat day, following her morning meeting with the privy council, Youko returned to the Inner Palace to find a bird waiting for her in her living quarters. The bird was a Ran, used to communicate messages among the ministers.
Messenger pigeons bore letters back and forth, but a Ran memorized human speech and communicated it verbally. Like the Hou’ou (phoenix) and Hakuchi, the Ran resided in Godou Palace and could be used only by the empress and the person she was communicating with.
In other words, the Ran was the equivalent of a personal letter from the empress. The kingdom that a Ran came from could be identified by the color of its tail feathers.
Youko was a tad surprised by the sight of the Ran. She gave it a grain of silver. In a cheerful male voice, the bird said to open the Forbidden Gate at noon. And then closed its beak.
Grinning, Youko went down to the Forbidden Gate exactly at noon and waited in front of the gate. The two suugu arrived right on schedule.
“Thank you for coming so far to see me on so short a notice,” she said, greeting the two with an amused smile as they dismounted.
The taller of the two men raised an eyebrow. “You asked to let you know if I knew anything regarding the matter, and that sounded like there was a job waiting for me in Kei.”
“Not even the Chousai imagined that Shouryuu, the Imperial En, would be delivering the report in person. Thanks to you, the welcoming committee is running around all in a tizzy.” Youko laughed and turned to the golden-haired youngster accompanying him. “We haven’t seen each other in a long time either, En Taiho.”
“Yep,” said Enki Rokuta, already heading for the Forbidden Gate. “About that Tai general, is she up to seeing visitors?”
“More or less.”
Youko guided her two guests of honor into the Imperial Palace. Along the way, she addressed their questions about Risai’s tumultuous arrival. Risai still could not move and was confined to her bedroom in a corner of the Seishin where her needs could be attended to.
“The doctors said that it’s okay to move her now, so I think we’ll get her more accessible facilities. As long as she’s awake, she should be up for conversation, but don’t expect anything long and drawn out. The other day, she faded quite badly in the middle of our discussion.”
“What have you heard of conditions in Tai?”
“Only the bare minimum so far, but— Ah, Koukan.”
Koukan was waiting for them at the entrance to the Inner Palace, Keiki and the Taishi Enho standing behind him. After exchanging greetings, they headed together to the Sekisui-dai in the back quarter of the Imperial Library.
“According to Risai, both the Imperial Tai and Taiki have gone missing.”
“So it would appear,” agreed Shouryuu as he sat down. “We have made repeated searches, but there is no Taika on Mt. Hou. That means Taiki is not dead. Because the Phoenix has not cried out, the Imperial Tai must still be alive as well. The general opinion, according to refugees from Tai, is that there was a coup d’etat. For now, that’s the most likely possibility.”
“It would agree with Risai’s explanations. The Imperial Tai left the capital to suppress an uprising and wasn’t heard from again. But hard facts remain hard to pin down.”
“Something happened as he departed for the front. He’s not dead, but neither is he safe. Perhaps he was taken captive, or was being stalked by assassins and had to lie low. In any case, the rebels have Tai under their thumb. The Imperial Tai is not in the position to strike back at them and reclaim the throne. But what about Taiki?”
“The details are similarly unclear. His whereabouts are also unknown. For some reason, a shoku—a meishoku—is said to have occurred in the vicinity of the Imperial Palace. Hakkei Palace reportedly sustained heavy damage.”
“A meishoku?” Rokuta said in a startled voice. A grave expression clouded his face.
“Yes, and afterwards Taiki disappeared. Risai says that the rubble was repeatedly searched but no trace of him could be found.”
“That leaves me with a bad feeling.”
“A bad feeling?”
Rokuta nodded. “The occurrence of a shoku must mean that something calamitous happened to Taiki’s person. Unless the damage is grievous, a shoku is not likely to happen.”
“You really think so.”
Rokuta nodded again. “A meishoku occurred and Taiki disappeared. Meaning that some accident or disaster took place, and reacting to the emergency, Taiki triggered a meishoku. That’d be a better way of putting it. Worse case scenario, Taiki isn’t even in this world anymore.”
“You mean, he’s over there?”
“Hard to say, but something catastrophic occurred. In order to escape, Taiki caused a shoku and fled to the other world. The most likely explanation. If that was all there was to it, then returning wouldn’t be a problem. Normally, considering that he’s been gone now for six years, I’d have to wonder if something else is going on.”
Youko nodded and looked at Shouryuu. “Given these circumstances, what do you make of this situation?”
“By which you mean?”
“I mean, if the Imperial Tai had died, then Taiki would choose the next emperor, right? And even if the Imperial Tai is okay, if Taiki was dead then the Imperial Tai would die not long after, in which case a new taika would be born on Mt. Hou. The new kirin of Tai would choose the new emperor of Tai.”
“That is indeed the case.”
“However, Taiki is not dead. So there’s no reason for the next kirin to be born, right? But we don’t believe the Imperial Tai is dead either. If Taiki is alive and well, there’s no need to chose a new emperor.”
Shouryuu agreed. “That is the sum of it. Because both the Imperial Tai and Taiki continue to live, it stands to reason that there should be no change of government in Tai.”
“But large numbers of refugees are leaving the shores of Tai. Tai is currently in a terrible state of affairs.”
“Yes it is. Swarms of youma are flocking to the coasts. The once numerous flow of refugees has dwindled considerably.”
“A pretender sits on the throne. The appropriate enthronement rites and rituals have not taken place. The kingdom is still in chaos. Don’t we have any way of correcting these injustices?”
“As long as the true emperor lives, the term pretender doesn’t technically apply. But it’s close enough. In situations like this, the only recourse is for the people of Tai to rise up. We don’t know what has become of the Imperial Tai and Taiki, but the province lords and the people must unite and strike back against the pretender. Doing so remains true to the rule of law.”
“But it’s been six years since Tai published an Imperial Rescript stating that the Imperial Tai was dead. If all that was needed to strike at the pretender was a call to action, then it would have happened already. Didn’t Risai risk life and limb to come here and petition me because that was not possible?”
“At any rate, even after having you come all the way here, we haven’t gotten hold of any really useful information. In the final analysis, things in Tai are the way they are. Even a shoku occurring on the grounds of the Inner Palace and causing a great deal of damage was news to us. All evidence indicates that the chief government officials and senior statesman who would know the most about the situation—not to mention the citizens of the capital—haven’t been able to escape. Risai is the sole exception. It’s from her account alone that we know about the desperate straits Tai is in.”
Shouryuu and Rokuta fell silent.
“Risai has no means to save the people of Tai by herself. Even if we could dispatch people solely to search for the Imperial Tai and Taiki—”
Youko hadn’t finished her thought when Shouryuu raised his voice. “That is as much as we understand about Tai. But that is not what we came here to tell you. We came here to put a stop to that.”
“Listen. No matter what happens, you cannot send the Imperial Army to Tai.”
Youko blinked. “Why not?”
“Because you can’t. That’s what it comes down to.”
“Didn’t I return to Kei with your backing?”
“That was different,” Shouryuu replied fiercely. “You petitioned in person for my assistance. The Imperial Kei was driven from her kingdom and sought refuge in En. I did nothing more than lend her the use of my Imperial Army.”
“Splitting hairs, as far as I’m concerned.”
“So it may be, but that doesn’t change anything. It’s the Law of Heaven. The sin of leading troops into another kingdom for any reason brings down immediate consequences. A violation so severe that both the emperor and kirin will succumb in days.”
Youko cast a bewildered look around the room. Taishi Enho nodded. “Are you familiar with the Jun Tei incident?”
“Long ago in the kingdom of Sai there was an emperor by the name of Jun Tei. During his reign, the emperor of the neighboring kingdom of Han strayed from the Way. His subjects suffered great privations. Feeling pity for the people of Han, he dispatched the Imperial Army. To be precise, he had no intent of striking against the head of another kingdom. He stationed troops in villages close to the borders of Han to assist people from Han wishing to cross the border into Sai. He was doing nothing more than trying to effect an evacuation, but a scant few days after the Imperial Guard crossed into Han, the kirin died. Jun Tei soon followed him. This was not something Heaven allows under any circumstances.”
Shouryuu shook his head. “Even if you say that you are doing the will of Heaven, there are no allowances. Even if you invade nothing, usurp nothing, and do it all for the welfare of the people, the armies of one kingdom cannot trespass upon another. However pure the motives, Providence has declared this the sin of all sins. Moreover, after the Jun Tei incident, the imperial family name (kokushi) changed from the character for “purity” to the character for “baton of command.”
With a look taking them all in, Shouryuu said, “When Jun Tei died, the engraved characters disappeared from the Imperial Seal as they usually do. But when the new emperor ascended to the throne, the characters on the seal changed to the latter. The actions of the emperor themselves changed the Imperial Seal. That was how grave his sin was. The kokushi of a kingdom rarely changes, which indicates the seriousness of this matter.”
“So we just abandon them to their own devices?”
“I didn’t say that. There are people there in distress and it is right to do what we can to help them. However, that is definitely not so simple a task as it sounds. The fortunes of Kei weight in the balance. You must not act rashly.”
“I can understand why you would advise leaving them be. But you don’t know how much Risai suffered to get to Kinpa Palace. How can you tell me to turn away someone who has gone to such lengths to seek my aid?”
“You misunderstand. You are the Empress of Kei. Not the Tai Emperor.”
Shouryuu held up his hand. “Some among the refugees say that the Imperial Tai was assassinated and Taiki with him. They also say the assassin was General Ryuu of the Zui Provincial Guard.”
“I do not believe the Imperial Tai and Taiki are dead, and I do not put much stock in rumors. Still, you need to keep in mind that not a few of the refugees have offered up the name General Ryuu as the leader of the rebels.”