0-3 At the top of the sky was an ocean called the Sea of Clouds. The Sea of Clouds divided the world above from the world below. From the world below, there was no way to tell that the Sea of Clouds was even there. Standing on a high mountain peak, the translucent azure blue of the broad expanse of the heavens might reveal itself to be, in fact, the lower depths of the Sea of Clouds. But very few mortal beings were capable of ascending such heights.
Nevertheless, almost all people understood that at the top of the sky was an real ocean called the Sea of Clouds and that it separated the heavens from the earth.
Within the Sea stretched a single band of clouds. The band of clouds, glimmering in a rainbow of colors, flowed toward the east. This was the Zui-un.
On a paddy causeway on a farm terraced into a ramshackle little hill, a young girl was cutting weeds. She took note of the clouds.
“Look, Keikei. It’s the Zui-un.” Rangyoku wiped the sweat from her brow and held up her hand, peering at the dazzling summer sky.
Gathering up the cut grass, the child next to her followed his older sister’s gaze and looked with amazement. He saw a beautiful cloud stretched across the southern sky.
“That’s the Zui-un?”
“It appears when a new empress enters the Imperial Palace. It means the cloud that accompanies good tidings.”
“Huh,” said Keikei, staring at the sky. As sister and brother watched the sky, the others busily cutting the summer grass in ones and twos across the paddies stopped and looked as well.
“A new empress is coming?”
“Must be. That bad empress we had before died. The new ruler has arrived. From Mount Hou, the empress will go to the palace in Gyouten.”
Nobody had any pity for the fallen empress. She’d been like a god to them, but all indications were that this empress, now divine, would bless them with wiser governance.
“Mount Hou is the home of the goddesses. It is in the center of the world.”
“That’s correct. You’ve studied well.”
Keikei puffed out his chest a bit. “Yeah. Mount Hou is where the Taiho are born. The Taiho is a kirin. The kirin is the only one who can choose the new emperor.” Keikei again leaned back and gazed up at the sky. “The goddess of Mount Hou is Heki . . . um, Hekki . . . ”
“Right, right. Also known as Hekika Genkun Gyokuyou-sama. In the middle of Mount Hou is Mount Ka, where the number one goddess lives. Seioubo, the Queen Mother of the West.”
“Tentei lives on Mount Suu. He’s the Lord God Creator. He watches over everything and everybody in the world.” The boy looked high into the sky. The Zui-un left a long trail as it headed to the east. He added, “The empress rules the kingdom. If the bad empress is gone and a new empress has arrived, does that mean we can go home?”
I hope so, Rangyoku thought, hugging her brother tightly. Like many of those standing on the paddy causeways, the sign of the Zui-un awakened hope within her heart.
The miserable rule of Jokaku, the Late Empress of Kei, had brought the kingdom to ruin. In her last days, she’d ordered the expulsion of all women. Rangyoku had no choice but to take her brother by the hand and start toward the border. Many families hid their daughters, or dressed them up like boys, or bribed soldiers and government officials. Although her mother did her best to protect her, she died in midwinter during a cold spell that engulfed Ei Province.
The kingdom in chaos, her mother dead, and Rangyoku being driven from Kei, they resolved to flee to another kingdom across the sea. People like them, banished or escaping the kingdom’s devastation and ruin, hurried down the roads. Midway through their journey, Rangyoku observed the flag signaling a new empress flying over the Rishi, the city’s riboku shrine.
The Ouki, the imperial standard, depicted a powerful dragon against a black background and the constellation of a rising sun and moon.
Greatly relieved by the promise of peace and prosperity, Rangyoku again took her brother by the hand and set off for their hometown. Except something strange was going on. When a new ruler was chosen, the flag of a flying dragon, called the Ryuuki, was flown over the Rishi. The Ouki was raised when the empress formally ascended to the throne. Rangyoku didn’t recall seeing the Ryuuki. When she asked around, indeed, the Ryuuki hadn’t been raised. Furthermore, some Rishi were flying the Ouki and some were not.
The old-timers were suspicious. If the rightful empress had ascended to the throne, the natural calamities would have ceased. But they had not. To make matters worse, war broke out over whether this was the rightful empress or not. Those living far from the capital had no way of knowing which side would win or even which side should win.
Rumors abounded that the empress was a pretender and that the true empress had risen up against her. Then came the raising of the Ryuuki and the Zui-un stretching to the east. Undoubtedly the true empress had arrived.
Rangyoku watched as the tailing end of the Zui-un disappeared to the east. She said, “Hopefully, this empress will bless our lives with good fortune.”
All of those gathered on the paddy causeways bowed their heads and uttered the same prayer to the fleeting Zui-un.
Gyouten was the capital city of the Kingdom of Kei.
The city spread out in terraces across the high and hilly land. In the western part of the city was the steep and soaring mountain. The mountain’s summit pierced the clouds. This mountain, reaching to the Sea of Clouds and beyond, was called Mount Ryou’un, also known as Mount Gyouten. At its peak was the Imperial Palace. Kinpa Palace was home to the Imperial Kei, the empress of the Kingdom of Kei.
From high above the Sea of Clouds, Gyouten looked like an island floating in the midst of an ocean. Perched on the sloping cliffs of the towering, tiered peaks were the many-storied building that comprised Kinpa Palace.
A giant turtle set down at the western edge of Mount Gyouten (or Gyouten Island). This divine beast had borne the empress back from Mount Hou. The turtle’s name was Genbu.
The Ministers of the Rikkan lined up along the harbor to greet the new empress. They who lived in the world above knew it was Genbu whose flight left the trail across the Sea of Clouds, called the Zui-un by those who lived in the world below.
Under the watchful eyes of the ministers, Genbu extended his craggy neck to the strand. The new empress stepped onto the shore and greeted Chousai, the prime minister. A soft sigh followed as many of the people there, heads still bowed, sneaked peaks from beneath their brows.
Kei was a kingdom in chaos because the throne had so long been vacant. In particular, these past three generations had seen a succession of short-lived rulers, all of them women. Even the pretender that followed them was a woman. And now, the new empress as well.
Kaitatsu was a word unique to the people of Kei. A long time ago, an emperor ruled Kei for over three hundred years. His name was Emperor Tatsu. Kaitatsu meant a nostalgia (kai) for Emperor Tatsu. Toward the end of his reign, Emperor Tatsu inflicted all manner of hardships on his people. But for three hundred years they’d been governed peacefully and wisely. Kaitatsu reflected that longing for the enlightened rule of a long-lived emperor.
This was the reason for the furtive sigh: Enough of empresses. It’d be nice to have an emperor again.
Though always voiced under the breath, those expressing this sentiment were not few in number. The sum of their reactions amounted to a rather public expression of dismay.
Nonetheless, that day the imperial standard was raised over the Rishi of Kei. In the Eastern Kingdom of Kei, a new empress had ascended to the throne.
The Era of the Imperial Kei, the Dynasty of Sekishi (the Red Child), had begun.