he girl placed a pillow behind Risai’s back. “Are you in any pain?”
By this point, Risai had grasped that the lady-in-waiting asking the question went by the odd name of Suzu. As it things turned out, Risai wasn’t able to see the Imperial Kei the last time she woke up. While being treated by the doctors, she fell into a long slumber.
She’d awoken several times after that, but the doctors said it was too soon for her to be seeing visitors. Another two days passed before they relaxed the prohibition.
“I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
For the first time in a long time she managed to sit up. Her body was weaker than she expected, and even leaning back against the pillow she felt winded. The doctors had not permitted her to leave the bed, so Risai had to meet with visitors in her sleeping quarters.
Suzu washed Risai’s face, arranged her hair, and dressed her in a light tunic. She had apparently taken on the responsibility of looking after Risai by herself. Not much time had passed since the coronation of the Imperial Kei. This perhaps could account for the Imperial Palace being so short-handed.
Or perhaps Risai wasn’t trusted, and guarding against the possibility that she might fall out of favor, they’d decided to restrict the number of court ladies attending her to one.
About the same time Suzu had finished dressing her, three visitors entered the room. The first one to step into the room and take a seat next to Risai’s bed was Youko, the Imperial Kei. There was no way Risai could forget her fiery red hair.
“How are you doing?”
“Because of Your Highness, I appeared to have escaped death. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Having been blessed by your extraordinarily good graces, I must beg forgiveness for appearing before you in such a slovenly manner.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I know you must have suffered a lot. Your recuperation is my first priority. I’d like to do whatever I can. If there is anything you need, please let me know. Anything at all.”
Risai estimated her age between sixteen and seventeen. The striking and unusual manner in which this young Empress spoke communicated great sincerity and good faith. She had imagined someone more frivolous and inconsequential. Risai was taken aback by the unexpected presence of an empress possessed of such soldierly fortitude.
She had a different air about her than Taiki. They both came from the same Yamato. Risai realized for the first time that she had simply assumed the Imperial Kei would be like him.
“Thank you very much.”
“Would you mind relating to me a bit of your story? If you find it trying, you need only say so.”
“Not at all. I came bearing a message to be expressly delivered to Your Highness.”
Youko nodded. She glanced at the two men standing behind her. “I thought it might be rude to bring men to a lady’s sleeping quarters, but I’d like them to stay, if you don’t mind. This is our Chousai. He goes by the name of Koukan. And next to him is Keiki.”
Here as well Risai realized the extent to which the totality of her understanding was based upon Taiki. She couldn’t help smiling sardonically to herself. But of course. The golden hair meant he must be a kirin. The Tai kirin was a black unicorn with hair like burnished steel.
“Your reputation precedes you, Kei Taiho.”
Keiki gave Risai a somewhat surprised look. Risai smiled in turn. “The Taiho—Taiki—spoke of you often. He said that he was fortunate to call the Kei Taiho a friend, that he was a magnanimous man who showed him every kindness. The Taiho seems to have developed a great affection for the Kei Taiho.”
As Risai spoke, Keiki averted his gaze with a conflicted look on his face. At the same time, the Imperial Kei cast a surprised look at him over her shoulder.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Have I said something unbecoming in your presence?”
“No,” Keiki muttered.
Youko smiled. “No offense given or taken. Such unexpected information simply startled me. In any event, I would like to learn more about what has happened in Tai, even if it limited to Taiki alone.”
Risai nodded. “I’m not sure where best to begin.”
The previous emperor of Tai was known posthumously as Emperor Kyou. He’d reigned for one hundred and twenty-four years.
Emperor Kyou loved pomp and splendor and drowned himself in luxuries. Though when it came to governance, he hewed to the straight and narrow. He housed his indulgent and merrymaking compatriots in the Imperial Palace, collected a harem of beauties in the Inner Palace, and exhausted the riches of the Imperial Treasury with the forbearance of a drunken sailor. But he never bestowed ministerial responsibilities upon such wastrels and philanderers, and never mixed the business of state with his pleasures.
“Sleep in the dark and rule in the light.” That was his motto.
Setting aside the question of whether he could be called an enlightened statesman, while sitting in the Imperial Court, Emperor Kyou was not in any way deficient in his abilities. He respected precedent, principle, and order. He had no taste for revolution or sudden change, and quietly created a sound rule of law.
In the closing years of his reign, the treasury was bankrupt and the kingdom impoverished. Even then it was said that, compared to other kingdoms, the corruption of the national government of Tai was held to a minimal level.
And then, as if waiting for an opening, all those corrupt bureaucrats he had assiduously kept at bay devoured the regime.
After Emperor Kyou died, though the plundering spread far and wide, Tai held its ground. There remained many thoughtful and informed province lords and general and officials.
Gyousou was the best of them all. Originally a general of the Palace Guard, he was a trusted and favored retainer of the late emperor. He was well-versed in the operations of the government. He was possessed of many talents for which he was widely revered.
In the provinces, so was the legendary army of Gyousou, and its commanders and officers.
Taiki pledged himself to Gyousou and he ascended the throne. He quickly organized the Imperial Court and guided Tai into a new era. Gyousou was said to have been preparing all along to occupy the throne. And in a sense that was true.
He understood that Emperor Kyou would soon lose the Mandate of Heaven. Whether or not he was enthroned as the new emperor, he knew that the stormy seas ahead could not be avoided, and that in order to keep the listing ship of state from sinking, a man of his abilities must stay lashed to the wheel.
Gyousou sought out and trained accomplished officers and commanders. The duchy of Saku County he ruled became Tai in miniature. Though the civil and military officials were mere county authorities, they comprehended the intricacies of imperial polity and grasped the conditions of the kingdom better than the Rikkan. In the waning days of Emperor Kyou’s reign, they fanned out across the kingdom, serving as bulwarks shoring up the faltering regime.
At the same time, many more figured out that the days of Emperor Kyou were numbered. Risai as well saw that Emperor Kyou’s regime was taking on water and would soon sink beneath the waves. The water would be up to their necks before long. Of this she was sure, but that was the only thing she could be sure of.
She hadn’t thought seriously about what must be done after the emperor died. That the inevitable aftermath must be considered had not arisen in her thoughts. But it had in Gyousou’s. That was the big difference between people like herself and Gyousou.
Gyousou went to the Imperial Court and did his best to keep things afloat. After Emperor Kyou died, his subordinates arrived to buoy up the sinking realm. They became the flagships of the new dynasty. Gyousou’s Imperial Court was laying the strong keel of a new ship that would be nothing short of revolutionary.
Following the coronation of the new emperor, the Imperial Court was typically thrown into chaos. Finding the right people to serve as ministers of the Rikkan usually required a considerable amount of time, but that wasn’t true of Gyousou. Compared to most kingdoms, Gyousou organized his Imperial Court practically overnight. It was an unprecedented accomplishment.
The incident began half a year after Gyousou’s coronation. A large-scale rebellion broke out in Bun Province.