pon her return from Mt. Hou, Youko found Shoukei waiting for her in the Seishin.
“Youko, you’ve got an unusual visitor.”
“A visitor?” Youko queried.
Shoukei nodded, and explained that shortly after her departure for Mt. Hou, an envoy had come to the capital seeking an audience with the Imperial Kei.
“Her passport bore the seal of the Imperial Han on the reverse, and she asked to meet with you. As you weren’t present, she took up lodgings at a manse in Gyouten. She left with us this letter of introduction from the Imperial Han.”
Youko took the letter with a puzzled look. Han and Kei had not enjoyed diplomatic relations in the past. Perhaps this concerned the matter the Imperial En and Enki had been communicating with them about.
A faint fragrance and the sight of beautiful calligraphy greeted her upon opening the letter. The cool black ink and the light blue paper together imparted a sense of great refinement. Youko took a deep breath and shifted her stance.
“Do you want me to read it?” Shoukei softly suggested.
“No. Let me give it my best shot.”
Youko struggled with the prose. According to established form, it began with a seasonal greeting. Then what seemed to be an apology for rudely sending an envoy in place of the Imperial Han. They had received the missive from the Imperial En had been received and would spare no effort. But he had a request to make—he wished to arrange a meeting with the general from Tai residing at the palace.
“The letter seems to be requesting a meeting with Risai. Is he asking to send a servant to the manse or asking to meet with the envoy in the manse?”
Youko showed the letter to Shoukei. Shoukei glanced over it and blinked. “No. He wishes for the general to be sent to the manse. The meeting is for personal reasons only, so we shouldn’t read anything of a life or death nature into it.” Shoukei added, the surprised evident on her face, “That must mean the Imperial Han himself is residing at a manse in Gyouten!”
“Unbelievable,” Youko muttered to herself. “Sounds damned forward of him to me.”
“Business as usual. But if he says this involves nothing of a life or death nature, the meeting with the general probably does concern a private matter.”
“The letter doesn’t say. I’m only guessing, but the implication is that as far as his visit here is concerned, he wishes us to look the other way. The letter also asks us not to inform the general of the writer’s identity. It concludes on that note.”
“So it says, but Risai is hardly in a condition to traipsing off to a manse in Gyouten.”
“Then our only option is to send a messenger to explain the situation. We should discuss it with the Taiho and Chousai and see what develops.”
Youko nodded. A quick meeting with Keiki and Koukan was arranged. The circumstances would be spelled out, and the only option was for the Imperial Han to come to Kinpa Palace. Shoukei was dispatched to the manse with a private communiqué in hand, explaining that Risai was still too indisposed to move, and since waiting until she had healed sufficient was out of the question, would he please come to Kinpa Palace instead?
The composition of the letter, however, was the cause of much consternation.
“It can’t be some run-of-the-mill bit of correspondence,” Shoukei firmly declared, holding up the letter from the Imperial Han. “Look at this. It should be obvious. This is a person with exquisite tastes. We can’t treat him like a commoner.”
“Even if you’re right, my penmanship still stinks.” Youko still hadn’t gotten used to writing with a brush. She was quite self-conscious about the rough look of her characters.
“That’s why this must be handled with all due consideration. Dash off a note on whatever piece of paper happens to be lying around and it’ll look like something destined for the trash bin, no?”
“It’s that important?”
“It is. That’s why if you use overly pretentious paper, it’ll come across as undignified instead. It must be unaffected and in good taste. I’ll hunt something up while you practice your handwriting with this.”
Youko sighed and set to copying the mockup Shoukei had prepared. And then, after a number of attempts, finally produced a clean version on the paper Shoukei had come up with. The letter in hand, Shoukei ventured down to the city at dusk. When she got back it was night. She wore a curious expression on her face.
“Ah, well. Tomorrow they shall be visiting the palace. If they came as official guests of honor, the protocols would demand a lot of time and bother. So they repeatedly stressed that this be treated as a personal visit.”
“Oh. So what kind of person is the Imperial Han?”
The Imperial Han had reigned for three hundred years, the longest dynasty after the southern kingdom of Sou and the northeast kingdom of En.
Shoukei gazed up at the ceiling, a somewhat perplexed expression on her face. “An individual of complete refinement. As far as I can tell.”
“Huh,” Youko replied.
Shoukei answered with a clever smile. “You’ll understand once you meet.”
The next day, as promised, word came from the Ministry of State that visitors had arrived from Han. Youko was taking care of the business that had piled up during her trip to Mt. Hou. With a minimum of formalities, she left for the Outer Palace.
One of the manors adjoining the Outer Palace was reserved for welcoming guests. Entering the hall, Youko saw two people waiting for her. One was a tall and stately lady who appeared to be in her late twenties. The other was a girl perhaps fifteen or sixteen. Glancing at the young woman, whose countenance showed no particularly unique features, Youko briefly paused. She looked familiar.
She resembled a girl Youko knew . Of course they couldn’t be the same person. That girl Youko knew was dead. Still, the similarity in their appearances made her heart hurt.
The girl curtsied. Returning Youko’s curious look, she said with a polite bow, “Thank you for overlooking the abrupt nature of our arrival and honoring us with your presence. We are truly and deeply grateful to present ourselves as the most humble servants of the Imperial Han.”
With that, the girl curtsied to the woman behind her. Youko turned her attention to her as well. Was this in fact the Imperial Han? With an air of serene formality, the woman nodded. Youko found herself a bit taken aback. There was nothing pompous about her. At a glance, though modestly attired, she was a strikingly attractive woman. Looking closer, though she wore her kimono and floral jewelry without a breath of pretense, they were quite splendid articles.
And yet the slender and well-proportioned frame struck Youko as nothing if not that of a man. And still a perfect fit for the attire. Of course. Just as Shoukei had said. An individual of complete refinement. Youko was flustered as to where to direct her gaze.
The girl smiled at her. “The Imperial Han wishes to share a few words with you.”
Youko nodded, taking this to mean they wished the room cleared. She turned to the Registrar. “Tell the Minister of Protocol to show our honored guests—”
The girl shook her head. “I’m sorry, but whenever and wherever possible, we would prefer to avoid pomp and circumstance. There is no need to disturb the ministers.”
“If you wouldn’t mind. Otherwise, I’m afraid the Imperial Han would be most displeased with me.”
“Well, then. Given your leave, I welcome you as my personal guests. This way, please.”
The Registrar raised an aggravated voice of protest, but Youko silenced him with a look. As she led the girl from the Outer Palace, the Minister of Protocol could be heard to mutter in aggrieved tones that Han must be a land replete with ill-bred people.
“I’m afraid the manners of my retainers are not all they should be,” Youko apologized.
The girl smiled. “Only because His Highness has only barely made Your Highness’s acquaintance.”
There was something about her Youko couldn’t put her finger on. Her figure itself should not draw undue attention, and yet she possessed a kind of magnetic brilliance about her. The one aspect that Youko’s friend, buried in a corner of Ei Province, had not shared.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, it’s just that you remind me of somebody I used to know.”
“I see,” the girl smiled.
The other “envoy” said nothing, but followed close behind, a fixed expression on his face, not saying a word. Not only did he have an almost strangely unobtrusive sense about him, but his movements flowed along with remarkable grace. He must be the Imperial Han, Youko confusedly thought as she escorted them alone.
Walking to the Inner Palace, they ran into Keiki, headed toward the Outer Palace at practically a run.
“Oh, Keiki. This is—”
She stopped mid-sentence as Keiki, quite unlike himself, gaped. “Your Highness, this is—”
“A servant of the Imperial Han,” the girl interrupted with a smile and a bow.
Youko looked amazed as an obviously flustered Keiki did the same. “The Han Taiho?”
“What?” Youko blurted out.
The girl placed her finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
Youko looked back at her with new eyes. Her hair was long, glossy, and black. Youko had never seen another kirin like her. A chance smile came to the lips of the tall person following close behind.
“And where are you taking us?” the girl asked in her carefree manner.
With a start, Youko collected herself and pointed out the garden enclosed by the Inner Palace. The expansive garden reached through the Inner Palace to the library, opposite the Guest Palace. The arbors and pavilions dotting the gardens stood like hideaway cabins among the knolls and hillocks.
Youko led them to one of the abodes and dismissed the servants. The place having been secured, the girl took hold of the collar of her robe. With movement that resembled removing a singlet, she removed a hitherto invisible headdress, revealing the bright sheen of transparent, golden hair.
She turned to the dumbfounded Youko and bowed. “I’m sorry for startling you. Let me greet you on a more proper footling. I am Hanrin.”
She didn’t resemble the girl Youko once knew in the least. Hanrin was, to be sure, the most beautiful creature Youko had ever beheld. She draped the “wig” across her arm, a kind of fabric like delicate gauze.
“Oh,” she said. “This is a koseisan. As my true appearance would only get the ministers all in a tizzy, I borrowed it from His Highness. You seemed to have been somewhat taken aback. Did I appear as somebody familiar to you?”
“Somebody important to the Imperial Kei?” Hanrin’s smile resembled a blossoming flower. “That is one of the attributes of the koseisan. Those who look upon it see a reflection of what the heart desires. I do not perceive this when I look in the mirror, and apparently neither does the Taiho.”
“That is because I detected the aura of a kirin,” Keiki sighed and bowed. “In any rate, let me take this opportunity to welcome you. I believe this is the first time we have formally met.”
“Indeed,” she answered with a nod. “I’m pleased to meet you as well.” She all but tossed her lithe form into the nearest chair. “And how should I address the Imperial Kei?”
“Well, my first name is Youko, and—”
“Good. Then I shall call you Youko. The old grandma that I am, I’ve gotten so I can’t tell one Imperial Kei from the other. How about you, Keiki? There a nickname you prefer?”
“Oh, that’s too bad. These days, I call myself Risetsu. Of course, His Highness may get it into his head any day to call me something else, so don’t consider that name etched in stone. You know?”
And she cast a look up at the person standing next to her. But of course, Youko thought. Keiki just gaped.
“I am the Imperial Han Go Ranshou,” Hanrin’s companion said with a bemused smile.
Youko came back to herself and nodded. She hastily offered him a chair. “I’m sorry. Please, have a seat. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Nothing of the sort,” he smiled.
Hanrin laughed, her voice like a bell. “Don’t sweat it. We set the ground rules for this meeting so there’s no need to fret about protocol. You can leave the apologizing to me.” She tilted her head to the side and said, “I’m pleased you didn’t take any of this the wrong way, Youko. His Highness truly does want to meet this general from Tai. A formal visit would take too much time to arrange and would inevitably turn the Imperial Court upside down. That’s why we adopted this subterfuge.”
“That’s perfectly fine with me. It was Risai you wished to meet, then?” Youko said, turning her attention to the Imperial Han.
He nodded. “According to the rumors coming out of En, this would be the general of the Zui Provincial Guard. Although she is still recuperating, may I assume a meeting would not be out of the question?”
“It shouldn’t be a problem. She’s not in any condition to travel far. But the worst of her wounds have healed. She is now working to recover the strength in her legs and arm.”
“I’d appreciate you not mentioning precisely who wishes to visit her. I do not want to startle her. Simply say that a visitor from Han would like to speak to her.”
Youko nodded. “I’ll get her.”
“Hey, seeing that you’re supposed to be arranging this audience as a private individual, it would make more sense if you went to see her. You can show him the way, can’t you, Youko?”
“Sure,” said Youko, motioning to the Imperial Han.
Slouched in the chair, Hanrin took a firm grip of Keiki’s robe and cheekily waved goodbye.