4-2 When Youko left the anteroom adjoining Risai’s bedroom, she observed three sihouettes in the promenade facing the inner courtyard. One big, one small, one in-between.
“What are you guys doing here?”
The one closest sprang to her feet like a marionette whose string had been given a hard yank. “Youko, what were you and Risai talking about in there? You didn’t really—”
“Shoukei, what are you doing at this time of night?”
“Suzu called me. We’ve been looking for you high and low. The word was that you showed up, ordered everybody out, and went into her room. What were you discussing? You didn’t promise her anything—”
Shoukei audibly caught her breath. Sitting at her feet, Suzu only hung her head.
“Don’t you understand what that means?”
“Sure. That’s why I promised I would do as much as I could and no more.”
Shoukei heaved a big sigh and sat down on the spot. “Don’t do that! You just about gave me a heart attack.”
Suzu gave Shoukei a surprised look. “I told you Youko wouldn’t do anything stupid like abandon Kei.”
“Did I really look like I wasn’t playing with a full deck? C’mon.” Youko grinned and punched Shoukei playfully on the shoulder. Such prevarications aside, she was glad they hadn’t called out the cavalry and barged into the bedroom.
“And what say you, Koshou?”
In response to Youko’s inquiry, the big man made a good attempt at curling into a little ball. “I’m, um, just doing my job as your bodyguard.”
Youko smiled. “In that case, let’s head back. I’ve been running around in circles all day. All that paperwork won’t take care of itself. Suzu, sorry, but could you stay and look after Risai?”
“No problem,” Suzu said with a wave of her hand. “Leave he to me.”
Youko smiled and returned with Shoukei and Koshou to the promenade. By now, the arbor had collected two more silhouettes. Youko stopped and demanded, “And would it do any good asking what you two are doing here as well?”
The two odd-sized shadows exchanged glances. “Naw,” said Enho. “Just taking in the beautiful Moon. That’s all.” He looked at Koukan.
“I was looking for Your Highness. I was getting a bit frazzled, so I asked the Taishi to accompany me.”
“But of course,” said Youko, surveying the four of them. “You have nothing to worry about. Risai told me herself that I was not to be dispatching soldiers to Tai. Even knowing that, there really was no other way to ask for help. I have pledged to do whatever I can, as long as it does not exceed the limits of what is possible. Risai says that is something she can live with.”
Enho and Koukan nodded, clearly relieved.
“Which is why I wish to ask the Taishi and Chousai to explore everything they can think off—within the limitations placed upon us by Heaven—that might done for the good of Tai. Make it a priority and report back to me as soon as possible.”
The next day, the officials involved with the matter held a high-level conference. They worked straight through the night until morning, but failed to come up with a definitive solution of any sort.
“Taking Your Highness’s example as a precedent would suggest escorting the Imperial Tai to Kei. This becomes the premise for taking any further action.” Koukan spoke in the same cool and collected manner as he always did, though he did look a little haggard. “However, it does not appear that the Imperial Tai has escaped from Tai. If he was able to leave Tai, he would likely seek sanctuary elsewhere, and news of such efforts would reach our ears. Lacking such evidence, we must conclude that he remains within the borders of Tai.”
“There’s no way of making sure?” asked Youko. She glanced at the assembled officials gathered in the Sekisui-dai.
“The Phoenix is the fastest way to make such inquiries among the other kingdoms,” said Shouryuu, the Imperial En. “But there’s no way of knowing for certain whether the Imperial Tai will formally ask for asylum. If he seeks shelter among his retainers, former colleagues, and acquaintances who escaped Tai, our inquiries are not likely to reveal that fact.”
Koukan nodded. “If he sought sanctuary, I think it would be in En. En is the closest of the great kingdoms and its shores face Tai across the Kyokai. Moreover, the Imperial Tai and Imperial En have a cordial relationship and have exchanged diplomats. If he seeks asylum in any kingdom, it will be En.”
“One thing the ministers can agree upon is unlikelihood of the Imperial Tai seeking refuge among former acquaintances in other kingdoms. The Imperial Tai is a man of the sword. Furthermore, six years have passed since the last change of government. We cannot believe that a general of such repute would be so afraid of Asen that he would hide himself away for six long years. Neither would he content himself to sup from another’s plate, even that of a dear friend.”
“No, he would not. And if he did seek refuge among old acquaintances, he would surely feel compelled to spread the word around so that the people of Tai could gather to him.”
“That he would. The logical conclusion is that the Imperial Tai is still in Tai. However, seeing that Risai-dono is unaware of his location, the possibility remains that he may have been captured, or he is biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike back. The odds of the former are high. In any case, in order to extend asylum to the Imperial Tai, it would first be necessary to travel to Tai and search him out. And that would likely encroach upon the Divine Decrees.”
After a few moments of thought, Youko said, “If a search was the only thing involved, we wouldn’t need an army. Say that I—or somebody appointed by me—entered Tai, accompanied by the bare minimum number of soldiers. If it was a personal visit, how would it be different from the trips Keiki has made there previously? It’s natural for me to travel with an armed guard, and discovering that the Imperial Tai was absent, we would then set off to try and find him.”
Koukan glanced at Youko. “The opinion has been expressed that Heaven might turn a blind eye to such contrivances, but besides the enormous uncertainties involved, the worst case scenario would be disastrous to Kei. The ministers are unanimous in the opinion that this is not a viable solution. I’d like to explain what they did come up with in the possible category.”
One of the kirin there let out a long, exasperated sigh. The other kirin laughed out loud. With a patient smile Youko said, “Okay, for the time being, let’s hear what you have to offer in the possible category.”
“If a way can be found, what about the Tai Taiho? According to Risai-dono’s testimony, a meishoku occurred at the same time that the Taiho disappeared. In that case, we venture that the Taiho would have been swept away to Yamato or China. Searching for the Taiho would not present the same problems as searching for the Imperial Tai. The question remains of how such a search would be organized.”
“First of all, only a person capable of traveling to Yamato could engage in the search. And only a person holding the rank of count, whose name is listed on the Registry of Wizards. More importantly, from what I’ve gathered speaking with Your Highness, whether Yamato or China, these are not places where searchers can be dispatched in great numbers to poke around willy-nilly.”
“You are right about that.”
As she pondered this conundrum, Rokuta spoke up. “A large-scale search would be impossible. We might as well forget about it from the start.”
“Yeah, it would be difficult.”
“The difficulty of the search itself is hardly the whole of it. We might be able to scrape together enough wizards with a rank of count or above, but those who aren’t taika would have a hard time of it over there.”
Youko blinked. Rokuta grinned and said, “In short, Yamato’s a stranger place than any of them could believe in their wildest dreams. Here and there were never meant to mingle together. Only a shoku allows people to come and ranka to go. For the most part, the kaikyaku are swept here from the east, from Yamato. Language aside, the kaikyaku look the same as the rest of us. Even those who don’t rarely strike us as foreign. Wouldn’t you say? Simply put, it comes down to the way the people who come from there to here look.”
“Yeah. That definitely is true.”
“So I don’t think it’d be such a big deal if someone here got swept away to over there. But the fact is, excepting those among us who possess rather particular characteristics, ordinary people can’t go there. Only ranka. Only people in their unformed state.”
“Yes. Alive, yet without form. Nobody travels from here to there in other than a prenatal state. There are exceptions, but those are the rules that the two worlds abide by. Otherwise, it’s a one-way trip.”
“But Keiki came to Yamato to get me.”
“Indeed. Kirin can cross over. Wizards above the rank of count can too, those whose names are listed in the Registry of Wizards. In actual practice, though, I think it better to stipulate that only taika listed upon the Registry of Wizards can pop over there in the bodies they possess. When Keiki came to fetch you, how’d it go?”
Keiki nodded in response to Rokuta’s question. “As the En Taiho has observed, I did so in a warped state.”
“A warped state?” asked Youko.
“Before traveling to Yamato in search of Your Highness, I consulted with the En Taiho. He told me that I had to put myself into a warped state. I didn’t really understand what he was talking about at the time, but I did once I put the plan into action. Without a doubt, I could not travel to Yamato in concrete form as myself.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
“It is hard to put these concepts into words. It was so that I wouldn’t be visible to the people of Yamato. And even when observed, seen as if through a clouded glass. As if they were seeing something completely different. When people did see me clearly, they wouldn’t hear me or understood what I said. Or in other circumstances, they would only hear my voice. Maintaining the human form was difficult and full of uncertainty. I might suddenly revert to my animal form, or dissolve into the ley lines in the Earth. Just as when I am in this world, I could only be assured of maintaining my form when I was in the presence of Your Highness.”
“Really?” Youko queried in surprise.
Keiki nodded. “Over there is definitely not where we are meant to be. It is almost as that world constantly repels us from its presence.”
Rokuta agreed. “It is very difficult for those who are not taika to maintain a concrete existence there, except as spirits or ghosts. They cannot maintain a firm hold on their physical bodies over long periods of time. And if they can maintain their physical shells, it is with great uncertainty. They become like shadows. This applies to emperors as well as kirin. And counts and wizards suffer even worse effects. Furthermore, the people there know nothing of the world here. A whole bunch of non-corporeal being showing up over there would cause a bit of a ruckus.”
“Moreover, even if they were to force their way through, they don’t know what Taiki looks like. Risai could certainly sketch a resemblance, but six years have passed. He’s a taika, which means his appearance would have changed as well.”
Youko puzzled over this information. “How I looked definitely changed when I came here. What happens when you go back?”
“Don’t you be going back,” Rokuta said bluntly. “Taika are born in that other world from a woman’s womb. When they are born, they are covered with a shell resembling that of their parents, called the taikaku. When a taika returns here, he reverts to his God-given form. In the case of the kirin, our hair takes on this golden hue.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. You wouldn’t likely be born blond over there.”
“Yes. I don’t understand all the reasons, but it feels like wearing a reversible coat. When you go back to Yamato, you take on the form you had there. So you’d think that when I went back, I’d turn into the skeleton of a tottering old man. That doesn’t happen. When we stop growing older here, our taikaku seems to stop aging as well. While things don’t match up exactly, I’m fairly confident they’ll fall into the same general category.”
“So even if you brought Risai with you, there’s no guarantee she would recognize Taiki?”
“Pretty much so. Except that a kirin’s aura can be comprehended. Taiki was swept away to Yamato while still an egg. I’m the one who found him there.”
“Yeah. I was on an excursion. Or rather, I was there to scout things out. And I felt the aura of a kirin. I notified Mt. Hou, and they arranged for a rendezvous.”
“But that means you can search for a kirin?”
“I can. Except when I say I sense the aura, that means that first we both must be in the same general vicinity. And what’s worse, back then, we knew from wake left behind by the shoku that he was in Yamato. But it still took ten years. This time around, we don’t know whether he’s in Yamato or China. He could have swept away to either. Even with Keiki helping me, it could easily take years.”
“What about a dozen of you?” Youko casually asked, but her question was met with stunned silence. “Well, I guess there are kingdoms with vacant thrones, so it’s not like we could come up with all twelve— What? Did I say something funny?”
Shouryuu sighed. “Youko, we don’t interfere in the internal affairs of other kingdoms. That is a long-established tradition. Each kingdom deals with its own problems in its own way. They don’t seek the assistance of other kingdoms, and don’t seek their cooperation in such causes.”
“But the Imperial En gave me a helping hand when I needed it.”
“That’s because I’m also a taika and a known eccentric.”
“And he loves sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong,” Rokuta chimed in.
“I’m telling you the way things are. Officials don’t get together in the name of mutual cooperation. Even if once in a while a kingdom requests aid from another, such things are always carried out in purely diplomatic terms. We have no allies, only interests. This is a world where, except out of need, even neighbors avoid forging international relations.”
“So even with twelve kingdoms, nobody ever forms some sort of United Nations and does anything together?”
“History suggests no precedents.”
“Because it’s expressly not allowed, like not invading another kingdom?”
“Hmm.” Rokuta and Shouryuu exchanged glances. “It’s never been confirmed one way or another. The subject itself is so extraordinary it simply hasn’t ever come up before.”
“But there’s probably isn’t any other way. The Imperial Tai cannot escape his own kingdom. No such rumors have come to our attention. Taiki most likely has been swept away and cannot venture back under his own power. We know this simply because he has not yet returned. In the absence of both the Imperial Tai and Taiki, what can the people of Tai hope for? Even if there are more people like Risai, organizing the people and raising an army has become impossible, has it not? Tai cannot save itself. That’s why the other kingdoms must lend a hand. If we don’t have enough kirin, then we must ask the other kingdoms for help.”
Youko paused and said, “In the first place, weren’t any eyebrows raised when Tai announced a change in government? The Phoenix never sang, and yet a new emperor was enthroned. No matter how you look at it, that was just wrong. Didn’t anybody bother to see for themselves what was going on, or confirm all the rumors?”
“Naturally, we were—” Shouryuu said, but Rokuta interrupted. “At first, formal emissaries and informal observers were sent to Tai, but were not allowed to enter Kouki. Having no vantage point from which to observe, they adopted a wait-and-see stance. Since then, things have been pretty much left to their own devices. I, for one, have repeatedly urged that conditions in Tai be investigated, and ways be found to offer assistance.”
“But, of course,” Youko said with a faint smile. “So far as the other kingdoms are concerned, they’re screwed, right?”
Everybody in the room collectively drew their breath. “Your Highness—” scolded Keiki in a small voice.
Koukan and Enho seemed frozen with surprise. Shouryuu drew his brows into something of a scowl. “I think that was uncalled for.”
“But it’s the truth, isn’t it? We stand around watching from the sidelines. Sooner or later the ranka of the new Tai kirin begins to grow. Everything goes back to square one. And in En, nobody’s feathers get ruffled.”
“Yeah, that’s about it,” Rokuta answered before Shouryuu could interject.
“This custom of not intervening in the internal affairs of other kingdoms is, when you get right down to it, nothing more than an excuse. The fact is, in Youko’s case, you went around sticking your fingers into every pie in the kitchen. You just haven’t found a good reason to get involved. Because the Imperial Tai and Taiki aren’t around, they can’t petition you personally. I dare say, you haven’t been trying hard enough to find a good reason, and that’s because of that little moat called the Kyokai separating En and Tai.”
Shouryuu was on the verge of answering when Rokuta waved his arms wildly. “Don’t give me any more of your lame excuses. At the end of the day, you’re worried about the refugees. Refugees flowing in from other kingdoms stir too many pots in En. That’s why you keep an eye on Kei and Ryuu and track any developments there, and lend a hand if you can. But there’s the Kyokai between En and Tai. Not many refugees make it across the Kyokai to En. Compared to Kei, it’s almost nothing. Little harm will come to En by standing by and doing nothing.”
“You mean because it’s not in En’s national interest.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I’m the Emperor of En,” Shouryuu said roughly. “So of course I act in En’s national interest. You fault me for that? That is the only reason I exist.”
Rokuta glanced at Youko, as if seeking out moral support. “That’s about the best you can expect out of a guy like him. Even if you’re the only one with her shoulder to the wheel, I’ll throw my weight behind your efforts. One way or another, I want to get the little pipsqueak back here.”
“The little pipsqueak.”
“He really was small. And so timid. But not without his charms. I’ve met him on several occasions. If he is suffering wherever he is right now, I want to help.”
“And I’ll do whatever I can.”
Shouryuu pounded his fist on the table. “Kei herself still hovers on the edge of chaos. Should the Imperial Kei be dividing her efforts for the sake of other kingdoms? You’re traipsing down the garden path.”
“It’s the fellowship of the taika. I can’t abandon them.”
“And as a fellow taika, let me warn you. This is not the time for you to be setting off on such adventures.”
“But is En going to act?”
Shouryuu seemed momentarily at a loss for words. “Who do you think I am, first and foremost? I am the servant of En. It’s not my job to fix the problems of other kingdoms! En has no end of problems of her own. Are you telling me, the Emperor of En, to put everything on hold and run off and help Tai?”
Youko looked at Rokuta. “Enki, whatever you’ve got I’m willing to give it a try. The rejuvenation of Kei may be delayed somewhat, but whatever refugees cross the border into En, I believe the good-hearted Imperial En will take care of them.”
“Oh, and that reminds me. I think it’d be better to have a contingent of the Imperial Guard organize the refugees in wagon trains and safely escort them to the En border.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“The debtor wouldn’t be trying to out-bluff the debtee, would she?” objected Shouryuu.
“The same goes for you too,” Youko said with a wry smile. “En is the only one of the northern kingdoms that enjoys both wealth and stability. Whenever anything happens in this hemisphere, even if the people stay where they are, they turn to En for help. If Tai goes to the dogs, it’s a sure bet that, before long, the entire population will grab anything that floats and head for En. The youma and the Kyokai may stand in their way, but that will soon be their only option.”
Youko looked down at her hands. There was no avoiding the fact of how small her hands were.
“Kei is hardly in the position to be looking after the affairs of other kingdoms. We have yet to restore our own fortunes. Even after we turn the corner, you could seize us by the ankles and shake us upside down and we still wouldn’t have any spare change to share. But I can’t stand by while Tai wastes away. The fate that awaits the people of Tai is the same one that awaits the people of Kei.”
“The people of Kei?”
“Nobody lives forever. Nobody reigns forever. I intend to restore Kei to her rightful place. But I can’t know for certain if I’ll be able to accomplish that goal. There’s no guarantee I won’t stray from the Way before I can make it happen. And when I’m gone, what becomes of my people? Everything comes down to how we treat Tai now.”
Youko turned to her retainers: Keiki, Koukan, and Enho. “I’m sure you are asking yourselves: here we are treading water and yet we throw our remaining life vests to Tai? I’m fully aware of these feelings. Yet I also feel that I must save Tai. I will do what I can. And not only for the people of Tai. For the people of Kei as well. Against the possibility that the same thing will ever happen to Kei.”
“Your Highness—” Keiki raised a warning voice but Youko shook her head.
“Of course, I have no intent of straying from the Way. I do want to be the best empress I can be. But all the wishing in the world won’t necessarily make it so. I don’t think any ruler sets out to ruin his kingdom on purpose. And some, like Tai, were brought low by insurrection and revolt. That’s why I want to lay down some precedents in preparation for the day that I perish, or stray from the Way. I want to shore up the levees against the day the floods will come so my people will have refuge even without an empress.”
With that, Youko said to the startled Shouryuu and Rokuta, “I know that every ounce of energy I expend on Tai delays the resuscitation of my own kingdom. The people may become impatient and wish to shake the dust of Kei from their feet. And I can do nothing to stop those who say En is a better place than Kei and choose to emigrate there. Kou has already begun to crumble. Those in the northern quarter of Kou will of course turn to En for help. Asking En to bear the burdens of Kou, Kei and Tai all by herself is asking too much.”
You see, Youko said to herself, have thought this thing through.
“But that is not now the current reality. Kei will grow less chaotic, we will produce our own surpluses in time. What I’m saying is, once we become that kind of kingdom, I want to think about the ways we can help the refugees from other kingdoms. The people flee their kingdoms because their kingdoms are in chaos. I mean, rather than supporting their homelands out of sheer necessity, they should be proactively assisted. And even when people have not fled their kingdom, policies should be in place so that they can endure until the next emperor is enthroned.”
“What I’m saying is, there should be some sort of goodwill warehouse. A food bank in each region. In the case of famine or the ravages of war, these warehouses can be opened to assist those in need. Ideally, they would be located between the kingdoms. If a kingdom could not bear the burden, the other kingdoms would consolidate their surpluses and when a refugee problem presented itself, open up those warehouses.”
She continued, “I’ve only thought this through in general terms, but witnessing Risai’s flight to Kei, I believe that somewhere, somehow, the establishment of such institutions is necessary. Risai coming here to plead on behalf of her kingdom convinces me that the other kingdoms should be available to intercede and open their warehouses. I didn’t know about these sins with instantaneous punishments or about these customs of non-intervention. So maybe I’m approaching the subject too simple-mindedly.”
“Youko,” Rokuta said, half in amazement, “you sure do come up with some interesting ideas.”
“Well, it’s not really my idea. It’s something people in that other world thought up. It didn’t exist when you were living there.”
Youko said to Shouryuu, “If nobody’s done it before, then I want to give it a shot. See how it flies. Can we petition the other kingdoms and ask for their assistance?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“I’d be happy to try, but as the new girl on the block, I don’t think the other rulers will give me so much as a backward glance.”
Shouryuu mulled things over for a while. Finally he said, “Everybody’s so eager to put us up on this pedestal as the great power. Now it’s Tai. Not long ago it was Kei. And now that Kei is finding her feet, Kou is crumbling. To make matters worse, storm clouds are gathering over Ryuu as well. One after the other, En’s neighbors have succumbed, falling against us like so many dominoes. I’m not omnipotent, you know. Our storehouses are not inexhaustible. And you want me to shoulder this as well?”
Rokuta turned to the exasperated Shouryuu with a surprised look. “What’s this? You never noticed before what’s going on here?”
Rokuta grinned. “It’s because you’re the Angel of Death.”
Shouryuu frowned at him fiercely. “I’m making my best effort, working as hard as I can, and this is the thanks I get? All right, we’ll search for Taiki. I might as well be the one leading the charge.”
“Thank you.” Youko smiled broadly and bowed her head. “Sometime in the future I promise to repay all the debts I have amassed.”
“I should be the one stating the terms.”
“But of course,” Youko laughed. “For as long as the Imperial En shall live, and until the day En itself descends into chaos, I promise to make Kei all that Kei can be. Set you mind at ease. You can trust me on this.”