A Thousand Leagues of Wind

Part Three

The month drew to a close. In Gyouten, the capital city of Kei, the giddy atmosphere finally dissipated. A sense of calm returned to the handling of visitors and the reaction to the coronation in general. The topsy-turvy of the palace settled down. Nevertheless, with the midwinter Koushi ceremony approaching, there was still that sense of being kept constantly on her toes.

Youko looked out the window and sighed softly. Through the windowpanes she could see the wintry gardens and fields.

Mornings she spent at the Gaiden. Afternoons she returned to the Naiden. These two buildings were where the empress did the bulk of her work. In basic terms, the Privy Council met in the Gaiden and the Naiden was where she performed her official duties as empress.

The Naiden essentially began where the Outer Palace ended and the Gaiden began where the Inner Palace ended.

As a matter of course, the government functionaries who worked in the Outer Palace were not allowed to pass further into the palace than the Naiden. The empress’s living quarters were mostly found in the Inner Palace, and she was not supposed to transgress the Outer Palace further than the Gaiden.

Youko had a visitor. He entered the Naiden accompanied by a palace guard. Seeing who her guest was, she raised her eyebrows.

Chousai Seikyou. Chousai was his title, Prime Minister Seikyou of the Rikkan, or Six Ministries. The Six Ministries themselves were known as the Ministries of Heaven, Earth, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. They handled the various affairs of the palace, the census and apportionment of lands, ritual and protocol, defense, justice and public works. Historically, the Taisai, or the head of the Ministry of Heaven, assumed the post of Chousai and the administration of the Rikkan. But more recently the appointment of the Chousai simply followed established tradition.

Youko was never sure of how to deal with the magisterial-looking Chousai.

“I beg your pardon, Highness,” said Seikyou, prostrating himself before the throne.

“What is it?”

“The matter of workforce management, if you please.”

This again, Youko said to herself, biting her lip. Keiki wasn’t available to assist her as her chief advisor during the afternoon executive sessions on governmental affairs. He had to attend to his duties as marquis of Ei Province. And when Keiki wasn’t around, Youko was at a loss when it came to even the basic workings of government. That was probably why Seikyou always showed up in the afternoon.

The realm had fallen to ruin due to the previous empress’s mismanagement, wrecked by the ongoing calamities, strife and youma rampages. Simply getting things back to normal would require a massive amount of civil engineering.

Over the past several days, the discussions in the Privy Council had centered around this matter. The question of where the work should begin and according to what criteria laborers should be recruited and deployed was still up in the air.

Youko gathered that the council members had more or less divided into factions. The biggest faction was led by Seikyou. The proposals of his faction were completely at odds with those of the opposing faction. He insisted that, until the spring, flood control measures should be emphasized. The opposing faction insisted that in order for the most people survive the winter, the rebuilding of the cities should be paramount.

Only this morning, Seikyou had again repeated his position before the Privy Council, and now he had come on bended knee to assess her disposition on the subject.

“How is Your Highness resolved as to the matter?”

Youko was momentarily at a loss as how to answer. Both flood control and urban reconstruction were equally important. But which one should be given priority? Kei was not wealthy enough to take on both simultaneously. This was the decision she had been left to unsuccessfully wrestle with.

Moreover, in either case, she was completely incapable of fathoming which flood control measures and urban renewal programs were at issue. She’d read the reports prepared by the Ministry of Summer, but had no idea where these places were, what kind of places they were, or the nature of the relief required.

“I’m sorry but I really don’t know.”

She spoke in a muted voice. Admitting her ignorance really grated.

Seikyou sighed to himself. “Your Highness, this is a decision that you must make.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I am aware that your Highness comes to us from Yamato. However, I trust that by now you have come to some understanding of the situation.”

“I am educating myself but my understanding is incomplete. I am sorry.”

“At this point, we need only determine which of these programs shall be given priority.”

“I’ll talk it over with Keiki and come to a decision.”

Seikyou again sighed deeply. “Forgive my forwardness, Your Highness. But is it your intent that the Taiho rule in your stead? The Taiho’s first thoughts are always on the alleviation of the people’s suffering. Given control of everything, the Taiho will always act out of pity, even to the ruin of the kingdom.”

“I know.” To a kirin, the suffering of the people took priority over everything else. “But I truly haven’t come to a decision.”

Seikyou briefly bowed his head. When he raised his head the look on his face was either that of scorn or discouragement. In any case, she knew that he was getting fed up with her. He said, and there was exasperation in his voice, “Forgive me for being presumptuous, but perhaps you could delegate the matter to one of your subordinates?”

When it came right down to it, time was of the essence and Youko had no choice but to agree. She said, “Sure. Fine. It’s all your responsibility, Chousai.”

Seikyou bowed low.

Youko watched Seikyou leave and groaned aloud.

Remarkably, the problem-plagued imperial ministries had been reorganized and the holes in the dike plugged for the time being. The harmful statutes enacted by the Late Empress Yo had been repealed, the rule of law reestablished. A large part of the military budget had been diverted to assist the refugees, and the year’s tax assessments cut.

Bit by bit the kingdom was starting to move forward. That’s what everybody assured her.

Everybody was happy that a new empress now occupied the throne. Exactly what they were happy for, Youko wasn’t sure. What she knew about this world barely rose to the level of common sense. Called upon to make a decision, she prevaricated. Giving orders was next to impossible.

Any proposal she made would just get laughed at. Worse, except for Imperial Rescripts, any proposal would have to be approved first by the Sankou and then by the Rikkan. Aside from the ceremonial formalities involved with the Inaugural Rescript itself, there was nothing to prevent her from issuing additional Imperial Rescripts. But she didn’t have the courage to start issuing rescripts. In the final analysis, she was stuck with the Rikkan that the Late Empress Yo had left to her, and did whatever they told her to.

Such is the lot of the Imperial Kei.

Youko laughed derisively at herself. The rejoicing at her accession reached even to the palace. Who could begin to imagine the reality of what even Rakushun and the Imperial En and Enki had congratulated her for?

“Your Highness.”

Keiki came into the executive chambers, having completed his administrative duties. “It seems that Chousai was recently here.”

“Yeah, he was. That business of workforce deployment. I left it all up to him.”

“You left it all up to him?”

“Shouldn’t I have?”

Keiki answered her question with a disappointed expression on his face.

“Look, I didn’t know which one to give priority to. I didn’t know because I don’t know anything about the conditions of this country. So I handed it over to somebody who did. You disagree?”

“No. That would seem a satisfactory solution.” But he sighed.

Youko sighed as well. Since her coronation, she’d heard that sigh any number of times. “If you think I shouldn’t have, then go ahead and say so.”

“It is always wise to listen to what your ministers have to say. If Your Highness then decided to delegate this responsibility, I see no reason to object.”

So why the sour face? Youko thought, looking into his impassive countenance. All she sensed from him was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. “If you’re not happy with me for some reason, let me know. If there’s something you think I should be doing, let’s hear it.”

A hard edge came to her voice. She was giving everybody reason to sigh, even him, and was getting sick and tired of it.

Keiki said, that same stoic expression on his face, “As you wish. As empress, you rule the kingdom according to the council of your ministers. There is nothing wrong with listening with an open mind to what they have to say. But simply handing the entire matter over to Chousai is likely to make the others unhappy. When taking advice from the civil service, you must be sure to consider all contributions equally.”

“I do.”

Keiki’s expression didn’t change. “If, upon taking all points of view into consideration, you then decided to delegate the matter to Chousai, I don’t believe anybody would complain.”

“Are you unhappy with me too, Keiki?”

Your Highness? the expression on her counselor’s face asked, his eyes widening.

“Dissatisfied with another empress? Am I a disappointment to you?”

They all looked at her with suspicious, doubting eyes. Oh, for the good old days of Emperor Tatsu, she could hear them saying. They simply couldn’t accept another empress on the throne.

“Nothing of the sort.”

Youko averted her gaze and rested her elbows on the table. “You’re the one who put me on this throne. So don’t look at me like that.”

“Your Highness, I . . . ”

Youko interrupted him. “Go away.”

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