he Kingdom of Kyou was located to the southeast of the Kingdom of Hou. The Kyokai separated the two kingdoms. The passage of water between Hou and Kyou was also called the Kenkai Straits, but was equally referred to as the Kyokai. After all, Kyou wasn’t visible from Hou. For those who dwelled along the shores, Kyokai or Kenkai was six of one, a half dozen of the other.
Shoukei was escorted by ten flying cavalry from the Kei provincial guard. As they headed toward Kyou, she again thought of her home country. Sea traffic continued between the two kingdoms, but the crossing took three days. For the first time in her life, it struck her that, floating there in the Kyokai, Hou was itself like a winter-bound city, shut off from the rest of the world.
The species of you-creatures capable of flight were limited in number. As they must also conform somewhat to the disposition of a horse in order to be ridden, this restricted their kind even more. The primary you-creatures were striped rokushoku or Szechwan deer. They were definitely not lowly beasts of burden. Shoukei was allowed use of a rokushoku. Surrounded by the flying knights of the cavalry, she headed to Kyou.
It was an uneventful trip. On the way there, they spent a night at a city on the shores of Hou and a night at a city on the shores of Kyou. After three days, they arrived at Soufuu Palace in Renshou, the capital of Kyou.
The Imperial Kyou, empress of Soufuu Palace, had ruled for ninety years. Shoukei didn’t know anything more about her than that. Hou had not enjoyed productive diplomatic relations with other kingdoms. On the occasion of her father Chuutatsu’s coronation, envoys from Ryuu, Kyou and Han, the three nearest kingdoms, had come bearing congratulations. But from the start he rarely discoursed with the rulers of other kingdoms.
Shoukei and her escorts were shown by the palace officials into the Gaiden. Passing through the gates, Shoukei cast a painful look at the resplendent buildings.
I’ve got no reason to be a shrinking violet now.
She had lived in the Imperial Palace. Even reminding herself of this fact, she felt herself shrink. Part of it was being in the palace of a foreign potentate. The other part was, as always, shame at her slovenly appearance.
The officials who greeted them and accompanied them into the palace regarded Shoukei suspiciously. She hung her head, knowing she undoubtedly looked like some lost flower girl from the wrong side of town.
No, she thought as they walked down the polished black granite hallways, she was more wretched than any other flower girl of Kyou. Kyou was a wealthier country than Hou. She could tell that by what she had seen so far of Soufuu Palace. The city was beautifully arrayed. Hoso, the capital of Hou, looked like a one horse town in comparison.
Entering the Gaiden, she felt too miserable to raise her head. After shooting her a look, the envoy with her knelt down and proceeded forward on his knees, bowing low with his head touching the floor. Shoukei took his glance to mean that she was to do the same. Kowtowing like this only made her feel more miserable. It wasn’t right that she had to humble herself like this. It should be enough to kneel. She was the princess royal, after all.
The envoy ceremoniously unfurled the decree from Gekkei and proclaimed his greeting. “The marquis of Kei, together with all his retainers, humbly and with gratitude thanks the Imperial Kyou for her great generosity in taking into custody the person of the princess royal.”
Somebody chuckled. The Imperial Kyou, Shoukei realized, catching her breath.
“Oh, it was nothing,” she said. “We’re neighbors, after all.”
Shoukei opened her eyes and looked down at the floor. It was the voice of a young woman.
“But enough of that. How is Hou doing these days?”
“As well as can be expected.” The envoy again touched his head to the floor.
“Well, from my perspective, sitting upon the throne by right of the Mandate of Heaven, I’d say the marquis of Kei is in a rather bad spot. But I’m sure you know that better than I do. I cannot thank you enough for all your good offices.”
The echoes of her young voice rang out like a bell.
“Please congratulate the marquis on his decisive action. The emperor was the cause of his own ruin. To escape his wrath, many refugees fled to Kyou in small boats and clinging to rafts. The people of Hou must be breathing sighs of relief.”
Shoukei almost raised her head at that point. To imagine that some mere slip of a girl would say that to her face . . .
It would be a grave breach of etiquette to raise her head without permission. That wasn’t the only thing that restrained her. Shoukei didn’t want to see the Imperial Kyou. Shoukei could tell from her voice that she was a young woman, perhaps the same age as herself. She didn’t want to see her, a girl clothed in silk, adorned with jewels, sitting on the throne.
“I take it this is Son Shou.”
Hearing her formal family name so casually spoken by the Imperial Kyou, Shoukei bit her lip and fumed. That glib use of her name alone spoke volumes.
“Yes, it is.”
“I shall take Son Shou into my custody. You needn’t concern yourself about her any longer. The people of Hou and the ministers of Hou can forget all about her.”
Understood, said the envoy’s bow.
“Please tell the marquis of Kei to put the emperor behind him and work for the good of the realm, and by doing so atone for his sins. A kingdom without an emperor can sink into the depths with alarming speed. That is the best way of keeping the ship of state afloat.”
“I shall inform him thusly.”
“Does the marquis still reside at the provincial capital? He should take possession of the imperial throne as soon as possible. I believe it best that he assume the throne until the coronation of the next emperor and work on behalf of all the people. I will send along letters making note of the same. If any profess dissatisfaction with this course of events, let it be said that it was done according to the recommendation of the Imperial Kyou.”
Outraged, Shoukei raised her head. She couldn’t stop herself. “Gekkei is a traitor and regicide!”
Their eyes met. The empress sitting on the throne looked no older than twelve. She had the face of an angel. Standing behind her was a man with golden hair closer to a shade of copper. Kyouki, the kirin of Kyou.
The girl’s coral lips parted. “The emperor destroyed himself,” she said dismissively. “No emperor is killed except as the consequence of his crimes.” She returned her attention to the envoy. “Sir, hasten back to Hou and give whatever assistance you can to the marquis.”
The envoy bowed deeply. With a voice filled with emotion, he thanked the Court and withdrew, leaving Shoukei behind. Shoukei continued to stare up at her.
The empress said, “Once you are registered upon the census, would you prefer to live in the city or serve in the palace as a maidservant?”
The blood rushed to Shoukei’s cheeks. A maidservant, a working servant, not even rising to the rank of a lowly clerk, not even listed upon the Registry! This child was asking her, the princess royal, if she wanted to be a maidservant.
Seeing the expression on her face, the girl giggled. “She still has her pride, if nothing else. Yet I am not so compassionate as the marquis. Go to a orphanage or become a maidservant. Take your pick. You will reside at the orphanage until you reach the age of your majority, but as you are not a citizen of Kyou, you will not receive a partition. You’ll have to find yourself a job. Well?”
“And I don’t much care for you, either.” She grinned. “We took custody of you because your continuing presence in Hou would only cause more harm. Pity for you had nothing to do with it, and don’t forget it. So, which will it be?”
Shoukei couldn’t imagine being at the beck and call of this girl. But her memories pushed those feelings aside. Ending every day covered with dirt, working until she could barely move, sleeping in a drafty shack. Everything she had experienced in Hou now mitigated her feelings of outrage.
“I’ll be a maidservant.”
The girl chortled. “In that case, the first thing you need to learn is to prostrate yourself properly before the empress. And never to raise your head and speak until and unless you are spoken to.”
The empress was about to return to the Naiden when the man behind her opened his mouth to speak. Shushou looked over her shoulder at him.
“What was that?”
He said, a flustered look on his face. “The way you dealt with the princess royal—”
“Oh, nonsense,” Shushou said flippantly. “Before you start feeling sorry for Shoukei, first feel sorry for the people of Hou who have so much cause to hate her. Really, you kirin do let your sense of compassion get the best of you, putting the cart before the horse and all.”
Shushou laughed. She peered at face of Kyouki high above her. While most kirin had a willowy physiognomy, the kirin of Kyou was a big man.
“I have made up my mind. Okay?”
“Yes, but isn’t it the Empress’s duty to show compassion toward her subjects?”
Shushou snorted. “When I became empress, becoming a great humanitarian wasn’t part of the deal. Sorry. Besides, you are my servant, right?”
“Then don’t nitpick so. I don’t want to hear any more about this Shoukei business. Governing the kingdom is hard enough. I haven’t got any sympathy for some little fool who fiddled while her kingdom burned and utterly lacks any discernment when it comes to her father.”
Disheartened, the big man hung his head and continued to mope. “But that you would even consider recommending that the marquis of Kei usurp the throne—”
“Didn’t think to. Recommended.” Shushou plopped herself down in a chair. “So you’re saying that because the marquis of Kei killed the emperor, he shouldn’t be the one to rule the country? Frankly, I wish the man would show a little backbone and just call himself emperor.”
“It is Heaven who crowns the emperor. It’s that throne you are recommending be usurped. If that comes to pass, and because of it Hou is destroyed—”
Shushou rested her chin in her hands and sighed. “I really don’t know what to do. Wave after wave of refugees from Hou.”
“You should think about the refugees first.”
Shushou poked her finger at Kyouki. “You are such a dunce! Isn’t there any room in that head of yours to consider anything other than pity? Hou is in chaos. And you’re saying you don’t want the marquis to take charge and shore up the kingdom? Hou doesn’t have a kirin, you know.”
Kyouki glanced anxiously around the room. “Empress—”
“Don’t worry, nobody’s here. Of course I wasn’t going to tell that to the envoy. I’m not stupid. There’s no kirin on Mt. Hou. Who knows how long it will take for a new emperor to ascend to the throne. If the people of Hou knew that, they would lose hope and the kingdom would collapse before our eyes.”
There was no kirin on Mt. Hou to choose the new king. Not even Shushou knew why not. The wizardesses of Mt. Hou were the servants of God and Mt. Hou was the inviolable sanctuary of all the kings of the Twelve Kingdoms, yet no further details of the incident had been forthcoming. Three years before, an anomaly had passed through Kyou in the direction of Hou. A shoku. It was possible that this shoku had originated in the Five Sacred Mountains. When inquiries were made as to whether this was the case, it was said that all the palaces on Mt. Hou remained shut. None were open in order to welcome a new kirin.
When asked if Houki—the kirin of Hou was reportedly a boy—was well and strong, not even a vague prevarication was heard in reply. Further investigation confirmed it. There was no kirin on Mt. Hou.
Shushou let out a breath. “We’ve got no choice but to let the marquis get on with it. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. And we don’t know when a kirin will show up in Hou and chose a new king. That’s why I’m trying to spur things on. You got a problem with that?”
Shushou swung her feet back and forth. One of her shoes flew off. She said, “Chuutatsu brought this all upon us. It’s not only his fault, but the fault of all his blockhead retainers and hangers-on who let it happen. That’s why I can’t stand Shoukei. Even you should be able to understand that. Now, quit crying me a river and get me my shoe and put it back on for me.”