7-3 Men charged into the bedroom. Youko scowled. Leading them was the Naisai, the vice-minister of the Interior, the official in the Ministry of Heaven specifically responsible for the Inner Palace. Behind him were several guards she recognized from the Forbidden Gate
“What’s going on?” She hardly needed to inquire. Their intent was obvious. They carried swords. “What is the meaning of this?” she said, glaring at the intruders.
The men raised their swords. “You are bringing shame upon Kei,” the Naisai said. “Granted, your incompetence does not match the Late Empress Yo, but you take the kingdom and the ministers too lightly. You have elevated commoners of unknown lineage and without connections, have trampled upon our customs, and scorn the dignity of the kingdom and the honor of the ministries.”
“That’s right!” chimed in one of his underlings, nervously gripping his sword, crouching there in a wary stance. “Treating hanjuu and the like the same as normal people, allowing them entrance to the court, even making one a general of the Palace Guard!”
Youko felt a flush of anger rushing to her head.
“Hanjuu and the like, eh?” Her hand reached for her own weapon, and then remembered that she hadn’t brought the Water Monkey Sword with her.
“Dragging the reputations of the ministers through the mud, installing hanjuu and rebels in the very heart of the Palace, contaminating its sacred grounds. Making light of the august court officials, elevating hanjuu and brigands above them, making them serve them. At the end of the day, you obviously cannot bear to stand in their presence and must pull everybody down with you. With hanjuu and bandits as your companions, you could divert your attention from your own weaknesses and insufficiencies. Gather emperors and Taiho from other kingdoms and get caught up in their company, and I suppose you started to fancy yourself one of them. Your self-regard must really be something. A good thing Heaven won’t tolerate your behavior forever.”
Youko was at a complete loss for words. She simply gaped at him.
The Naisai spoke up instead. “That’s enough.” To Youko he said, “I apologize for his incivility. But understand that he is not the only one who holds such opinions. Though I would not go so far as he, I certainly cannot condone bringing foreign emperors and Saiho into the Imperial Palace on such a regular basis. Giving asylum to a general from Tai and assistance to the Tai Saiho—you seem to have forgotten you are the Empress of Kei. What purpose could you have for entertaining so many foreign dignitaries? Do you intend to hand Kei over to foreign hands?”
“You’re quite wrong.”
“Then why do they strut around the Inner Palace like they own the place? Who do you take the subjects of Kei for?”
“Just another woman empress, after all,” the underling guard spit out. “Out to destroy the kingdom in a personal pique. If things aren’t put right quickly, we’ll have another Empress Yo on our hands.”
By now Youko was trembling with fury, feelings that threatened to overwhelm her. A deep sense of despondency welled up inside her. Her intent was not to take the people or kingdom for granted. But arguing that she only had their best interests in mind would likely have little traction here. She could easily fume in the face of their ignorance. The problem was, looking in from the outside, the facts would have been difficult to discern. Even Youko couldn’t have anticipated that any of her ministers would be carrying around this degree of resentment.
So this is what it’s come to? was all she felt.
All anybody could have done based on her words and deeds was guess at what was going on. And arriving at a certain assessment of the facts, act on that basis. She couldn’t see how she could possibly dissuade somebody who had already come to that conclusion with such certainty.
“So, long story short, you’ve come here to assassinate me?” When Youko posed the question, the Naisai faltered a bit. She continued, “If that’s what this is about, well, them’s the breaks, I guess. I’d resist if I had the means to do so, but darn it all if I didn’t leave my sword back in my quarters. I guess that puts me at your mercy.”
“Stop acting like such a smart ass!”
Youko couldn’t keep a wry smile from her lips. “I don’t much care how this goes down, but I’d like to keep any additional harm from coming to the Tai Taiho and General Ryuu. If you find their presence such an affront to Kei, then repatriating them should be sufficient. Tai has need of its people just as much as Kei. You may presume to diminish the suffering in our own kingdom, but you do not have the right to impose your will on the subjects of other kingdoms. So I would ask you not to add anything more to the suffering of the Tai people.”
The Naisai looked coldly back and forth between Youko and Taiki. “In the midst of chaos in Tai, they abandoned their kingdom and sought refuge in Kei. I can’t see it as a great loss to lose a Taiho and general like that.”
“Isn’t that a judgment to be decided by the Tai people alone? If they feel as you do, then I’m sure they will deliver that judgment with their own hands. So, do I have your word that you won’t lay hands upon them in that way yourselves?”
“I can’t make any such promises, but I shall make the effort.”
“At the very least, let’s get out of here. Let’s not spill any blood in the presence of a kirin.”
“Wait—” came a voice behind her.
Youko shook free the hand the clasped her arm. “If they are not part of your plans, then I suppose we can continue where we left off.”
One of the underling guards batted away the hand still reaching for her. Youko was escorted out in the company of the Naisai. Pinned against the wall by half a dozen other men, Risai turned her pale face to her as she exited the room.
If she could, Youko deeply wished Risai and Taiki to understand that none of this was their fault, that none of this should weigh heavily upon their minds.
The thought had barely crossed her mind when she was thrown sideways. Her mind hadn’t reacted to the surprise when a scream erupted behind her. She picked herself off the floor and spun around. With a leaden thud, an arm clutching a sword fell at her feet.
Somebody shouted. A man advancing on Risai had pivoted and aimed his sword at Youko. Before the tip of the sword made contact, a beast’s paw tore through the man’s chest. The sharp, bloody talons withdrew and the man toppled over.
There was nobody behind the man except Taiki, standing frozen in place seemingly quite far away.
“At least put up a fight!”
Youko glanced over her shoulder to see a white-faced Keiki running toward her. A number of bodies lay on the floor of the room. A number of others ran screaming through the gore trying to escape.
“You certainly showed up at the right time,” Youko said with a grim smile.
“En Taiho left some of his shirei behind. Why didn’t you do more to resist?”
“Hey, I wasn’t armed.”
“Even without a sword, you could have done something! Please stop saying you can do without Jouyuu.”
“Okay. At any rate, thanks for coming to the rescue.”
Keiki gave her a look like a parent dealing with a fractious child. “Whenever any shirei keep you company long enough, they inevitably end up covered with blood.”
Youko grinned. “Sorry.” She said to Risai and Taiki, “My apologies. I’ve caused you a great deal of inconvenience.”
“No, think nothing of it. Are you all right?” Risai rushed to her side.
“I seem to have emerged unharmed. More importantly, we need to get Risai and Taiki to different quarters. Keiki, you should get out of here too. It’s not good for your health.”
Youko got to her feet. She glanced down at one of the men sprawled on the floor. The Naisai was among the recently departed. His two henchmen no longer drew breath either. Three others had suffered deep wounds but were alive.
She wasn’t really so nonchalant about going to her death. But it probably was true that she was too damned tired to care at that particular moment. She couldn’t be bothered to fight back or pitch a fit. Yes, she should have confronted these interlopers and defended her reputation. But she didn’t possess the confidence or the conceit to contradict them.
She had once believed she’d been fated to be empress. Lately, though, she had a hard time seeing the workings of Divine Providence in miraculous terms. Not that she objected to anybody else perceiving things that way. If it made the burden lighter, then why not? That was her feeling now.
“They’re rounding up the rest of them.” Rokuta bounded up as they left the building.
Behind them, more soldiers came running and a great commotion broke out. She could hear the curses and cries of the remaining henchmen being dragged off.