“Yes,” he said with a nod.
Sitting this close to him, he looked quite haggard. Nevertheless, he managed to come to a half-sitting position, and put on a brave front.
“You are the Imperial Kei?”
“My name is Youko Nakajima.”
A smile flitted across his lips. “My surname is Takasato.”
Youko took a long breath. She was seized by an unexpected sensation that left her almost flustered. “It does feel quite strange, meeting somebody from my generation in a place like this.”
“Same here. You have done so much for me. I am very grateful.”
“Nothing you need thank me for,” Youko said reluctantly, casting her eyes down. “We haven’t done anything worth being commended for. Tai still remains in the same sad straits as before.”
“I am thankful that you came to retrieve me.”
“Yes, we can both agree on that.”
Youko struggled for words. There were so many things she had planned on talking about when they met. Their old home town. This, that, and the other thing. But here Taiki was right in front of her and she couldn’t think of what to say.
Their old “home town” was a country they could never return to. It had become for Youko a place entirely unrelated to her. Yet touch upon some silly topic and in that sense of poignancy still welled up inside her. The thought of being seized by homesickness and nostalgia if the conversation turned in the wrong direction frightened her.
She had the feeling that until all her friends and family still waiting for her over there had died, she wouldn’t be able to talk about old times simply for old times’ sake.
“I don’t suppose things have changed all that much over there.”
They should be doing well, all those people she once knew.
“No, not at all. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“Indeed.” And all the better that they do. Youko sighed and smiled. “We’re currently discussing what can be done for Tai. Naturally, we’re helping the refugees as best we can, and trying to come up with the means of assisting those still in the country. It’d be best to go there and help out, but that doesn’t look like a possibility right now.”
“I’m really thankful to you.”
“No, we still haven’t actually done anything for Tai, nothing that will really make a difference. Kei is still poor. We have too many refugees of our own, and we can hardly come to their aid.” She added with a smile, “Still, your return is most heartening. In fact, I’ve been looking forward to it. So get well as quickly as possible.”
“Looking forward to it?”
“Yes. I say a lot of things, but most of it seems to fly over people’s heads. For example, in order to help the Tai refugees, shouldn’t we open an embassy or something like it—that sort of thing. All my ministers, and the Imperial En, and Enki, thought I was nuts.”
“An embassy?” Taiki said with a surprised look.
“Ah, yeah,” Youko answered with a chagrined shrug. “It seems a quite reasonable suggestion to me. There ought to be an organization that speaks on behalf of the refugees. Countless refugees have washed up on the shores of Kei and En, and their disposition is left up to conditions and circumstances. But I think that it’d be a good idea if they could negotiate with the government—articulate what they needed or what kind of expectations they had. After all, I’d think refugees would know the needs of refugees better than anybody. If only in preparation for the time when a kingdom falls into disorder and starts generating refugees, I think everybody could sleep a lot easier if every kingdom had embassies in every other kingdom. But these seem such foreign concepts that nobody can grasp what I’m getting at.”
Youko sighed and lifted her head. Taiki gave her a long look. “Pretty weird, huh?” she said.
“Not at all. I think the Imperial Kei is an impressive empress.”
“Well, impressive isn’t a word I would use. And could you drop the Imperial Kei business? Considering that we’re just two normal Japanese kids, it sounds funny.”
Taiki smiled. “So how old are you, Nakajima-san?”
But being addressed that way struck her a tad odd as well. “A year older than you, I think. Counting years doesn’t really mean anything here.” A thought occurred to her. She said, raising her voice, “How about I call you Takasato-kun?”
“I’m fine either way. I came here once before when I was young, so being called Taiki doesn’t feel so strange to me.”
“I see. I only came here three years ago. I guess that makes me a relative newcomer compared to you.”
“The fact is, I’ve only been here a total of one year.” The poignancy in his voice contained more pain than nostalgia.
“Well, you just may end up being my go-to guy anyway. I didn’t have a particular interest in politics or social organizations when I was in high school. As a result, all I’ve got to go on is some vague knowledge and ideas.”
“I really don’t think I’m all that different from you. I’m equally clueless about everything. I was only here a year, and half of that time I spent on Mt. Hou. I really didn’t live in Tai for very long at all. Not to mention that I was a kid and didn’t understand how the world worked. I sort of wandered about in a daze.”
“Starting now, then, any advice you have for me would be most welcome. For the time being, I’d like you to be my representative among the Tai refugees.”
“Yes,” he said with a nod.
A loud commotion suddenly erupted from the room next door. “What’s going on?” she heard Risai cry out.
Youko rose from her chair as the door to the room was forced open.