1-3 The empress’s private rooms, called the Chouraku-den, were located in a part of the inner palace known as the Seishin. The Imperial living quarters were located at its locus, and all the other buildings of the Seishin were organized around and in reference to it.
While every palace in every kingdom had its own peculiarities, their overall structures remained the same. Consequently Risai had a good idea of where in the Seishin she was being taken. In the Kingdom of Tai, unlike most palace officials, Risai was allowed the special privilege of entering the Seishin.
The Daiboku named Koshou carried Risai on his back straight from the Forbidden Gate to the Seishin. They passed by the other structures and crossed a great covered arcade to a building that overlooked the resplendent facade of the multistoried Chouraku-den.
By Risai’s calculations, she had arrived at an antechamber of the conservatory. The conservatory, or Ka-den, was separated from the Chouraku-den by a wooded park. The park was quite large. Furthermore, a wall had been erected down the center separating the Imperial living quarters from the conservatory. To get from the one to the other thus required going around the park.
Risai couldn’t help wondering how long that wall had been in place. She found it a depressing sight. No matter how cordially she was treated, she knew she’d never be permitted to enter the Imperial living quarters. She’d only gotten this far thanks to the remarkable forbearance of the Daiboku.
What remaining strength she had was draining from her legs. Even supported by Koshou, she could barely stay on her feet. She risked toppling over at any moment. Perhaps observing this, Koshou said, “Why don’t you sit down?”
Risai shook her head. She could not behave any more discourteously than she already had. The realization that she was in no condition to meet the ruler of any kingdom weighed heavily upon her. The necessity of her actions notwithstanding, breaking through the Forbidden Gate itself was an offense deserving of the death penalty. She resolved that should not add to her sins now. If she could not draw the line on her dignity at some minimum point, then the entirety of her purpose for coming here would lose all meaning.
She planted herself firmly on the floor. The retainer who’d gone ahead of Koshou returned and whispered something in his ear. Though Koshou was still holding Risai erect and only a foot at most separated them, she couldn’t understand what the retainer was saying. For the past few minutes, a low ringing in her ears jumbled all the sounds she heard.
Where was the empress? Had she even left her living quarters? Was she changing her clothes before meeting Risai? How long was Risai going to have to wait here?
These thoughts burning in her mind, she saw Koshou and the others turn their attention towards the door. Through the open doorway she observed a group of retainers and court ladies advancing along the corridor that faced the inner courtyard. The retainers in the room cleared the pathway to the door and bowed their heads. Risai felt her expectations rising.
But no noblewoman appeared in the midst of the coterie, nor did they appear to be leading a imperial processional. At the head of the group was a young woman wearing the ordinary court dress of a government clerk or minor lady-in-waiting. She entered the room at a brisk pace.
There were no signs of anybody else coming. Risai clung to Koshou, standing on tiptoe as she searched the corridor behind them.
Her vision grew dim. She channeled all her energy into her left arm and dug her fingers into Koshou’s shoulder but felt her knees buckling. How many more footsteps did the empress have to take until she arrived? It shouldn’t be long now. Each footstep was a battle against time.
The young court lady reached out her hand. Feeling her touch, Risai glanced at her. The brilliance of the girl’s scarlet hair practically burned her retinas. Her green eyes etched their surprising vividness onto her mind.
“Koshou, why won’t she lie down?” the girl asked, offering her own shoulder to support Risai’s right arm. The girl continued, “My name is Youshi. I am Empress of Kei.” [Youshi is the Chinese prounciation of Youko’s name.]
Startled by the clarity in her voice, Risai turned her head to look at her. The girl said, “Rest assured that I shall take into consideration all the circumstances that brought you here. But for the time being, let’s get you to bed.”
The energy left her arms. Risai fell to the floor. Still, she managed to twist her body into a kowtow. “I have come here to most humbly beg a favor of the empress.”
“Oh, there’s no need to abase yourself so,” the empress said, kneeling next to Risai.
Risai raised her eyes. “Please. I beg of you. Please save the Kingdom of Tai!”
The empress’s fixed her gaze on Risai, her emerald-green eyes filling with evident surprise.
“I know that what I am asking of the Empress of Kei is well beyond the bounds of reason. But we are already—”
Risai choked off the rest of the sentence. The Kingdom of Tai floated in the midst of the Kyokai, isolated off its northeast coast from the rest of the continent. It was a cold country, completely frozen over during the winter. But there remained the people of Tai. Six years before a new emperor had ascended the throne. Then, not long after the onset of the New Year, he was lost.
Without the emperor to intercede, the divine protection of Heaven was lost as well. Tai became an island jail, beset by calamities and harried by youma.
“The people of Tai lack the means to save themselves. Youma multiply along the coasts. Fleeing the country has become impossible. Nothing can survive in Tai.”
All the rage and grief stored in her heart for so long burst forth and lodged in her throat in a cold, hard mass, choking off her breath.
“The emperor was driven from the palace by treasonous rebels. No one knows where he and the Taiho now are or how they are faring.” Risai flung herself at Youko’s feet, pressing her forehead to the floor. “The Hakuchi has not fallen from his roost!”
The emperor was not dead, the fate of Tai not yet sealed.
“Please—” But there was no air left in her lungs. She tried to inhale. Her throat clamped shut. Her breath whistled uselessly from her mouth. Black spots bloomed ominously before her eyes, swelling and plunging her into total darkness. All she could hear was the sharp buzzing in her ears.
Please help us, she intended to say. She could not be certain whether the words left her mouth.