isai awoke in the dead of night. When she opened her eyes, someone was sitting in the shadows at the side of her bed. Moonlight spilled through the doorway from the adjoining room. The sounds of cicada flowed through the windows.
“Your Highness?” said Risai.
The shadow raised her head and nodded. “Sorry. Did I awaken you?”
“Not at all,” Risai murmured. “You know, everybody’s been looking for you.”
“Yes. I ran away and hid, you see.”
“Ran away and hid?” Risai queried.
The Imperial Kei did not elaborate. The room once again fell into silence. The sounds of the night floated on the cool breezes. At length, the empress spoke again from the shadows.
“What kind of person is Taiki?”
Risai started a bit. Coming from her same home town, Taiki’s existence must hold a special place in her heart.
“He’s kind of small,” Risai said.
Soft laughter answered from the cloaking darkness. “Keiki said the same thing. I told him such descriptions are not really helpful.”
There was humor in her voice. Risai had to smile. “That’s really what he’s like. Small and innocent. Guileless in the extreme. Yet with enormous reservoirs of empathy.”
“Then he certainly is a kirin.”
“He does resemble Your Highness in some ways.”
Risai nodded. “He’s very laid back. From the perspective of my class and rank, Taiki is a person of very high social status, and yet does not act that way in the slightest. Gyousou-sama says that Taiki is quite unaware of his social position. It’s not that he misuses his rank and authority, but rather that he pays it no mind. Your Highness seems to deport herself after a similar fashion. The first time I heard your ladies-in-waiting address you by your given name, I was quite taken aback. But then I thought, ah, the Taiho is like that too.”
“I see.” Risai sensed a wry smile on her shadowed face. “There’s no such thing as social class in Yamato. Well, no, it does exist, but more as a state of mind than anything else. My ladies in waiting, Suzu and Shoukei, are more my friends than my retainers. Surmounting class doesn’t seem something easily done here.”
“And the Daiboku? He addresses you informally as well.”
“Yes. I don’t know that I would call him a friend. More a colleague.”
“A colleague who helps me hold up the kingdom. Once upon a time, he was a member of a rebel gang.”
“A rebel—” said Risai dubiously.
The shadowed girl nodded with great air of sincerity. “Not long ago, there was a terrible governor in Kei. He ruled with an iron fist and exploited the people. I had only recently acceded to the throne and lacked the power to drive him from his seat of power. So instead I gave my support to Koshou. To strike down the governor, he chose compatriots from among the people—many who so feared the governor’s despotic rule that they recoiled from even criticizing him aloud—and together they spent many long months planning the revolt.”
Youko leaned forward. The moonlight illuminated the side of her face. She had a severe look on her face, as if steeling herself against a deeper pain. “I wonder if that sort of thing would be possible in Tai.”
Risai caught her breath. So this was the subject she wished to broach. “I don’t think that it is,” she said. Youko seemed on the verge of saying something further. Risai cut her off. “I understand what you are trying to say. If the people were so inspired, there should be nothing to hold them back. I know how foolish it sounds—how much like an excuse it sounds—to say that such a thing is impossible. But I must insist that it is.”
Risai stared up at the ceiling. Though the summer night air filled the room, Risai felt a block of ice in her heart. Her ears had stopped ringing. Yet she could still hear that cold wind blowing through her.
“I escaped Asen’s clutches together with a few troops of my own. I later heard that they were caught and taken back to Kouki. Not only my soldiers, but the commanders serving with the other generals as well. Many civil servants fled from Asen’s presence. All of them ended up on the lam, accused of assassinating Gyousou-sama and Taiki, and plotting to usurp the throne.”
At first, Risai interpreted these turns of events in a straightforward manner. “The emperor and Saiho having died, and Asen offered himself forward as the man to take charge of the kingdom in their stead. But not everyone went along with his version of things. Doubts about Asen gradually mounted, and in time a significant number of people grew dissatisfied with his rule. While searching for Gyousou-sama, I gathered together those with similar sentiments and put together an anti-Asen coalition. But nothing good came of it. We were building castles out of sand. No matter how often we organized people together, there were always a suspiciously large number of defectors. Everything we built was doomed from the start.”
“The defectors either betrayed us to Asen or simply disappeared into the night. In time, the patriots were all silenced. We had already lost any safe havens where the volunteers could gather. Those who hadn’t been captured were forced deep underground to escape Asen’s clutches. Those who harbored any doubts about Asen understood that a moment’s carelessness would drag everybody around them into the maelstrom. If a rebel was known to be in a certain village, Asen would spare nothing to burn that town to cinders and salt the earth. Even now, there must be many people with opportunities to strike back at him. But it is next to impossible for them to seek each other out, to communicate and join forces.”
Risai paused and then said, “Your Highness must know about the harsh winters in Tai. Heaven has turned its back upon us. Disasters strike with increasing frequency. Youma flood the land. It takes everything they’ve got for the people merely to stay alive. The only question on their minds is how to survive the coming winter.”
It was said that the only reason anybody remained alive was because of the kouji. Having acceded to the throne and reorganized the Imperial Court, Gyousou took action even before delivering the Inaugural Rescript. The riboku upon which the kingdom was founded, known as the roboku, was located in the heart of the Imperial Palace. Gyousou made a request to the roboku, and Heaven granted him a plant called keihaku.
“Yes. The keihaku is a plant like a brier. It grows freely in the harshest of environments, producing white flowers over a long growing season, from early spring until late fall. After shedding its flowers, it bears a large fruit the size of a quail’s egg. When this fruit is dried, it burns as well as charcoal.”
No one could survive the harsh winters in Tai without fuel. But charcoal was a limited resource, and the people required a supplemental source of energy. Keihaku, though, could be planted in the corners of fields. A rich harvest, dried and stored away, could tide things over until spring. A single person could prepare enough charcoal for a family, a great boon to the people of Tai.
“Keihaku originally only grew in the Yellow Sea. His Highness made the request to the roboku and obtained it for Tai as well. The spring His Highness disappeared, keihaku appeared on the roboku. Before three years had passed, white keihaku flowers could be seen in every nook and cranny around Sui Province. In the midst of this disastrous chain of events, the people were provided with the means to survive the winter. The people came to call it the kouji, meaning the gift of the emperor who lives in Kouki.”
“I understand,” Youko murmured in a sad voice.
“If Asen truly was emperor, he would have exhausted the Mandate of Heaven by now. But he isn’t emperor. If he was but a mere usurper, his lifespan would be limited. But he is a wizard as well. As long as nobody can eliminate or overthrow him, the only people who can take his wizard status from him are the emperor, or if the emperor no longer lives, then the seal of the Hakuchi. Neither the emperor nor Taiho have died, but nobody knows where they are. Consequently, Providence will not stir itself to remove this treachery from our midst.”
“And that is why you say the people of Tai don’t have the means to save themselves.”
“Yes,” Risai nodded. At the same time, she caught sight of Youko, attending sincerely to her every word, and her heart ached in her chest. Please help us, she wanted to say. Please search for Gyousou. Please search for Taki. And strike down Asen—
Risai was about to speak when Youko said softly, “If the Imperial Tai is safe, I wonder if he would share the kouji with us? Kei is impoverished—” She gazed up at the moon. “It gets quite cold in the north of Kei during the winter. The villagers are particularly poor there, where few valuable crops can be grown. There isn’t a good substitute for charcoal in the winter. This land does not get as cold as Tai, so those in the north are poorly provisioned against the winter. The walls are thin, and the windows aren’t glazed. There never seem to be enough down or furs. Or rather, nothing else of equal weight that can take their place. The people of the north drape themselves in cotton, and huddle together until spring.”
“Oh,” Risai said simply.
“Of course, charcoal by itself doesn’t make the sole difference between living and dying. In the dead of winter, they can venture into the countryside and harvest wild tubers. The winters in Kei are not so fierce as to bring people to the brink of death. I can’t talk of the winters in Tai in the same breath. But I wish to lessen their suffering.”
“I’ve heard that though the former emperor of Tai exhausted the storehouses, he left the government in fair condition. Keiki says that the provisional court was ruled with a similar degree of competence. Kei was quite the opposite. The misrule of the former empress has been replaced by an empress frankly not that much better. The bounties of the land have yet to accumulate. During the reign of the former empress, the ministers turned to tyranny and oppressed the people. Like that governor I told you about. The evil-doers ran rampant and still have not all been purged. Furthermore, after the former empress died, a pretender arose and laid waste to the Kingdom. Kei has only begun to resurrect itself. Right now, those citizens residing in the cities have yet to experience the good times they deserve. A country like Kei that is constantly in chaos will know nothing but poverty.”
“Yes,” Risai said.
“I feel sorry for all of them—” Youko spoke in low, strained tones, a quaver in her voice. “And I feel sorry for the people of Tai. Tai is in even worse straits than Kei. More than the severity of the seasons, the natural disasters and the oppressive rule of the pretender must make for suffering I cannot imagine. The pretender must be eliminated and the rightful emperor and Taiho restored to the capital. I—”
Risai reached out with her remaining hand and grasped the hand of the Imperial Kei. “And beyond that, what? You cannot mobilize your troops. The Imperial Kei cannot command her soldiers to breach the borders of another Kingdom. It is a sin that would surely destroy Kei.”
“Please forgive me. I was so caught up in my feelings for Tai that I contemplated unpardonable sins. But you cannot do this. You are the Empress of Kei. You cannot pity the people of Tai at the expense of your own subjects.”
Kaei, you were right. And yet she sensed great strength in the hand holding hers.
“I will not let Tai go by the wayside. I will do whatever I can do. I intend to press the Imperial En to do whatever he can. However, if the task ahead should exceed my abilities, please understand. I cannot ask the people of Kei, who have not yet experienced a happy era of their own, to resign themselves to another era of chaos.”
Risai smiled. “Your reassurances are more than enough.”
In her heart she wanted to plead: Don’t abandon us. But she couldn’t. The person before her was the Empress of Kei. Risai could not do anything that might take her away from her own people.