small black dot appeared high in the skies above the Yellow Sea.
It headed due south, gliding above the Sea of Clouds, crossed the Kongou Mountains, and emerged into the skies over the Red Sea at the southern tip of the Yellow Sea.
The black dot continued on its southward path across the bright blue waters. A day and a night later it came to the borders of Sou, the southernmost of the eight contiguous kingdoms. Maintaining the same trajectory, it finally disappeared over the horizon toward Ryuukou, the imperial capital.
Seikan Palace snaked along the peaks of the Mt. Ryuukou, the capital of Sou. This was the imperial residence of the renowned Emperor of Sou.
Rising more prominently above the Sea of Clouds than the mountain summit itself, the alabaster palaces jutting out over the water, the multistoried pagodas, the gardens, and the white stone bridges and corridors connecting them came together to form a single palace structure.
Abutting the inner palace at the very back was the Enshin, the compound that constituted the imperial living quarters. A large courtyard bordered a calm pool of water in which reflected the shimmering arc of the Milky Way.
A court lady quietly appeared on the portico surrounding the courtyard. She knelt and bowed to the woman standing there.
“Ah, Taiho, there you are.”
The Taiho turned and smiled softly. Her golden hair was streaked with silver. The court lady bowed lower.
“His Excellency has returned.”
“Oh?” the Taiho said in her crystal clear voice. She thanked the court lady and proceeded to Jinjuu Manor.
The living foundation of this long-lived dynasty, she was officially known as Sourin. She had placed the present Emperor of Sou on the throne.
It was a fair distance from Jinjuu Manor to the main hall of the Rokuchou. Sourin declined an offer to have a boat summoned and instead crossed through Jinjuu Manor to the Rokuchou at the back of the inner palace. She bowed and entered the room.
Flanked by several assistants, the emperor was changing out of his ceremonial traveling robes.
“Welcome back, Your Highness.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, Shoushou,” he said with a broad smile.
He was a man in his fifties, a big man in fine physical condition. The uncommon Emperor of Sou who’d bestowed on Sourin the name of Shoushou. Or it might be said that doing so was part and parcel of being an uncommon man.
“How fares Kou Province?” she asked with a welcoming nod.
“The harbor is coming along splendidly,” he answered with a jolly grin.
Having shed his formal attire, he strode deeper into the building. She followed him. The custom of the Rokuchou being assigned to the emperor as his main residence and Jinjuu manor being assigned to the kirin was not followed in Sou. The emperor and the kirin resided in Tenshou Manor in the middle of the expansive Koukyuu, otherwise known as “the palace at the back.”
Ministers and bureaucrats were forbidden from the Koukyuu. Only a select number of attendants and the emperor’s closest relatives lived there.
“Just what you’d expect of engineers from the Kingdom of En. You should see the anchorage they built, Shoushou.”
“It must really be something.”
“Yes,” he said, with a strong hint of pride.
His name was Ro Senshin. Shoushou found him in Kou Province, where he was managing a large harbor inn. Her visit scared the living daylights out of him. But that too was a story from a very long time ago.
Word had already been sent, so when the two of them arrived at Tenshou manor, his bodyguards were waiting for them. (As he paid them out of his own funds, “bodyguard” was probably the best word.) They opened the doors with amiable bows.
Walking through Tenjin Manor to the Seiden, Senshin talked to Shoushou about the changes taking place in his beloved harbor town. Inside the Seiden, three people were seated around the big table. They stood as soon as Senshin came in and bowed.
Their official titles were Queen Sou, Prince Eisei, and Princess Bun (often shortened to “Bunki”).
“Welcome home,” the three intoned in proper and dignified voices.
Though her bow was a tad more respectful than the rest, Bunki was the first to raise her head and ask, “Your Highness, how was Kou Province?”
Senshin nodded and sat down. “Kou is doing splendidly. Now, let’s see: one, two, three, and Shoushou makes four. We’re missing the fifth. Where is that prodigal son of ours?”
He looked at the queen. She sighed deeply. “Not only has he not come home, but we haven’t the slightest idea what he’s been up to these days.”
Senshin echoed his wife’s sigh. “He goes missing for a full six months at a time.”
“And yet knowing that, you indulge his whims and let him fly about free as a bird.”
“After giving my brother a kijuu like that, did you expect him to show up anytime soon?”
Assailed by his son on his left and his daughter on his right, Senshin slumped back in his chair and groaned.
“Stop it, you two,” scolded Shoushou. “I told you before, your poor father can’t defend himself when you gang up on him like that.”
“Did you now?” Senshin wondered aloud, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.
Bunki thrust out her hand. “‘More importantly, father, where are our souvenirs?”
“Ah.” Senshin reached into his pockets and drew out the packages. Shoushou watched, smiling, as they unwrapped the presents.
The emperor of the Kingdom of Sou built a dynasty that had lasted five hundred years. Only the emperor of the Kingdom of En approached the length of his reign and the acclaim he was accorded across the Twelve Kingdoms.
Though few knew that the emperor was not, in fact, one person.
To be sure, Shoushou, the kirin of Sou, had chosen a single man, Senshin, to be emperor. But a single man did not built the dynasty he led.
When Shoushou first sought out Senshin in her search for an emperor, he was the master of an inn in a run-down harbor town. The fame of the inn reached beyond the borders of the town thanks to the management of Senshin and his wife, Meiki, and their three children.
Senshin was a pillar of his community and the head of his family, a bighearted, clearheaded man not given to impulsive behavior. He consulted with his wife and children about everything and respected their opinions. Half of the inn’s success he credited to them and endeavored to keep them involved every step along the way.
He brought that system with him when he ascended to the throne, the only substantial change being that now Shoushou joined in the consultations.
Meiki and his children did not hold any actual ministerial portfolios. Aside from being officially titled queen, prince, and princess, they did not participate in the affairs of the imperial court, and were widely thought to pass their time quietly in the Koukyuu.
In fact, the four of them exercised imperial authority equal to that of the emperor.
Well, to be precise, three-and-a-half of them, Shoushou thought, and smiled to herself.
Ever since he was working at the inn, the younger of the two sons would, when the fancy struck him, hire on with a crew and go sailing into the great beyond. His wandering ways continued after becoming a prince of the realm. But one good result was that Sou was always up to date on what was going on in the other eleven kingdoms.
At that moment, the balcony window opened. Seeing the face of the person there, Shoushou couldn’t help laughing.
“Hey, good, you’re all here,” was Rikou’s carefree greeting. His official name was Prince Takuro.
Meiki greeted the arrival of her son with another heavy sigh. “There are these things called doors, you know?”
“Yeah, but this is more convenient.”
“You can at least welcome your father home. He just got back from Kou Province.”
“Oh, so you’ve been on an excursion of your own, eh?”
“For the last two months. And you left two months before that. And still got back after him.”
“Well, well, well. Welcome home, Father.”
“Good heavens, it took you fourth months to think of home again? Where in the world have you been off to?”
“Mt. Hou, as it turns out.”
“No fair!” Bunki wailed. “And you didn’t take me! I haven’t been to Mt. Hou once!”
“To be precise, I didn’t set out with the intention of ending up at Mt. Hou.”
His mother gave him a genuinely surprised look. “Mt. Hou? Without an invitation from the Mistress of Mt. Hou?”
“There is that. I announced myself at the front gate and she was apparently in a good mood. She allowed me to leave from the rear entrance on my way back.”
“The rear entrance?” queried his mother.
Rikou pointed out the window. “Above the Sea of Clouds. I came here straight from Mt. Hou. A good long ways. A full two days. It’s extra tough not having any land below you.”
His sister chimed in, “You announced yourself at the front gate? That’s below the Sea of Clouds! Which means you crossed the Yellow Sea to get to Mt. Hou!”
Rikou grinned. “That’s right. I accompanied a caravan on the Shouzan and witnessed the accession.” Now he bowed formally to his father. “She waited on Mt. Hou for an auspicious day to hold the Investiture. The phoenix should announce her enthronement shortly. I thought it important that Your Highness hear the news first, so I took my leave from Mt. Hou early.”
Senshin looked up at his son. “What kind of person is she?”
Rikou said with a wink at his sister, “A young girl in whom I believe Bunki would find a kindred spirit.”
“An empress, then.”
“Twelve years old.”
It took the rest of them a startled minute to absorb that bit of information.
“That I didn’t expect.”
“The imperial accession is a difficult task in any case. How will a girl so young bring order to the imperial court?”
“It does seem a reach.”
“Which is why I think you should write to her personally, Father, and send an envoy to congratulate her on the occasion of her enthronement.”
“Ah, so you’re intending me to have the girl’s back.”
“I think Shushou will have a much harder time ahead of her without your support.”
“Shushou. So a twelve-year-old girl went on the Shouzan?”
“She did.” Rikou sat down at the table. “A truly amazing young lady, if I do say so myself. Her temperament is perfectly suited to the role. If she can surmount the inevitable turmoil that every fledgling court goes through, I do believe she’ll make a worthy empress.”
Meiki set a cup of tea in front of her son. “Don’t tell me you were the one who put the idea into her head?”
“Not in the slightest!” Rikou said with a boisterous laugh. “The likes of me couldn’t instigate a girl like that to do anything but what she’d already set her mind on. We met in Kyou. She’d already begun the Shouzan. She’s the daughter of the famous Banko Sou family of traders. Hearing that she’d run away from home to go on the Shouzan, I decided to accompany her.”
“Left to your own devices, you’re the last person who knows where he’ll end up when he goes anywhere.”
“Call it the workings of Providence. A twelve-year-old girl sets off with Mt. Hou in her sights. That girl runs into the profligate young son of the Ro clan. You’d think I’d at least have it in me to plan for the day when I could become the power behind the throne. But not at all. Rather, I was the one caught up in the extraordinary wave of serendipity that carried the empress-to-be along her journey.”
“That is something else,” marveled Bunki. “Crossing the Yellow Sea at the age of twelve. I’m eighteen and I can’t image doing such a thing!”
Rikou smiled. “I think you’re forgetting the other five hundred years.”
Bunki stuck her tongue out at him. She turned her attention to her father on the other side of the table. “Father, appoint me ambassador to her coronation. Pretty please. I so want to go.”
This time the sigh came from Prince Eisei (also known as Ritatsu). “So, Rikou, did you get around to telling her who you really are?”
“Oh, that is definitely going to give her a start.”
“Which won’t happen if we don’t send you.”
“Exactly. That’s why you have to dispatch me as the congratulatory envoy.”
“No fair!” Bunki protested again.
Ritatsu shushed her. “What else can we do? Rikou will serve as ambassador pro tem to Kyou. We need to come up with an appropriate gift. Father, does that meet with your approval?”
It was Meiki who nodded. “But Ritatsu will be head of mission. Put Rikou in charge and who knows what misadventures will befall our diplomatic corps.”
“Considering the importance of making a good first impression, sending Shoushou would be the best option. But not right after a coronation. Because Shoushou has such a frail physique.”
“Mother, because Shoushou is a kirin, you mean. Say, how about we include Seisai among the gifts?”
“Ritatsu!” Rikou exclaimed.
Meiki nodded. “I concur. No good will come of leaving that creature in Rikou’s care.”
“And after I’ve gotten so attached to him,” Rikou pouted.
His older brother spared him no sympathy. “If you don’t like it, cast the blame at your own feet, vagabond. What if something happened in the Yellow Sea?”
“I took all the appropriate and necessary measures.”
“As if your appropriate and necessary measures are ever appropriate or necessary. At any rate, what might the empress take a fancy to?”
“Kijuu. I must admit that she would not be dissatisfied with Seisai.”
“That settles that, then.”
“Yes, yes,” Rikou said with forlorn look.
His father caught his eye. “So it seems my gift turned into something of a white elephant.”
Rikou smile. “That’s okay. Shushou will treat Seisai like a member of the family. Better, I suspect. But what a fine kijuu he was.”
“You wouldn’t be conniving already to get your hands on another one?”
“If you would only say the word—”
“The word is, let’s first see what kind of effort you put into your next assignment.”
“So that’s what it’s come to?” Rikou shook his head in bemused resignation and turned his gaze out the north windows. In a voice almost too soft to be heard, he said, “I made a few friends in the Yellow Sea.”
And now that he knew his way around the place, he could well imagine hunting one down on his own.
Five days later, the phoenix sang in the Kingdom of Sou. The news came from the Kingdom of Kyou: The Empress of Kyou has ascended to the throne.