1-3 The heavens were pale blue, the color of winter. Beneath the low-lying skies, a noisy commotion poured out from the city and snaked up the side of the mountain. The tumultuous echoes rebounded from the towering Ryou-un, almost loud enough to shake the city to dust.
The name of the city was Gyouten. The faces of the people walking its streets were bright and cheerful. Neither the scattered rubble from the wrecked facades nor the poverty apparent in the dress of the city’s occupants weighed heavily on anybody’s mind. The reason why could be readily understood from the waving banners everywhere you looked.
The design of the banner was that of a yellow branch against a black background. From the branch hung three fruits, peaches according to custom. A snake was coiled around the branch. This was the legendary branch given to each of the kings by the Lord God of the Heavens at the Creation of the World.
Draped from every nook and cranny of every building, the banners ascended the slopes, as if showing people along the way to the auspicious events taking place at the Imperial Palace.
The entranceway to every home was decorated with flowers. Paper lanterns hung from the eaves. From the eaves, the eye was drawn upwards to the soaring blue-tiled roof of the Highland Gate at the entranceway to the compound that housed the Hall of Government.
A new empress had been enthroned.
The Ouki, the imperial standard indicating the accession of a new empress, had flown for two months. At last came the announcement of the coronation. The sight of the banners, signaling the arrival of the great day, was cause for much rejoicing.
Crowds of people streamed down the wide boulevards to the Highland Gate. Inside the gate, between the Hall of Government and the Imperial Shrine (used primarily for ceremonial functions) was a wide plaza. The plaza was already jam-packed. Within the neat lines of black-armored Palace Guards and black-robed ministers of state, and the row upon row of fluttering flags, a figure in black appeared on the rostrum of the shrine. The plaza erupted in cheering.
The imperial ceremonial dress was called the Daikyuu. It was comprised of a black robe, a black kanmuri or diadem, a pale red skirt, cinnabar apron and red slippers. And as if purposely made to match on purpose was Youko’s red hair.
“She actually became Empress,” Rakushun muttered to himself, recognizing the person standing in the middle of the luxurious room.
Her presence evoked exclamations of admiration from the mismatched pair ahead of him, one tall man, one short. The Daikyuu was the most formal of the empress’s outfits. Its twelve ornamental insignia identified her supreme rank. Because she was a woman, her kanmuri was smaller. Instead, her hair was beautifully ornamented. The dragon embroidered on her robes was similarly elegant.
The ceremony enthroning the new empress had just finished. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Rakushun as he entered the room. A warm smile came to her face.
“Rakushun,” she said. She noticed the two men next to him and acknowledged them with a polite bow. “Thank you so much for coming all this way.”
“Enough with the etiquette,” the shorter of the two said with a wave of his hand. “You look great, Youko. I’m sure the spectators saw what they came to see. Your subjects will be disappointed if you don’t put yourself on display now and then. Besides, letting the general public know they’ve got a babe for a monarch could come in handy.”
Enki had an indecorous tongue and a nonchalant disposition. Youko grinned. She motioned for her guests to sit. They were the Imperial En and Enki, the emperor and Taiho of the Kingdom of En to the north of Kei. The emperor’s name was Shouryuu and Enki’s name was Rokuta. En was the only country with which Kei currently had diplomatic relations.
“It’s been a while, indeed. I really am grateful for all your help.” She bowed to the gray-haired rat standing next to them. “I must thank you as well, Rakushun. I certainly couldn’t have made it to this point without you.”
“Oh, it was nothing.” Rakushun said with a shake of his tail. “I’m a mere hanjuu. The empress shouldn’t bow to the likes of me. You’re making me self-conscious.”
She’d come from across the sea, from the land of Yamato, the place she called Japan. Youko was born in Japan and had suddenly found herself thrust into this world, a world she knew nothing about. With the help of these three, she’d rightfully claimed the throne. A pretender by the name of Joei had raised an army and sought the kingdom for herself. With the Imperial En and Enki at her side, Youko suppressed the rebellion. She of course appreciated all that they had done. But her depth of gratitude toward Rakushun was much more profound. Relentlessly pursued by the pretender’s minions, Rakushun had rescued her as she lay on the verge of death.
“I am indeed grateful to you,” she said.
Rakushun’s tail fluttered back and forth. Rokuta couldn’t resist chortling at his discomfiture. “A rare thing for an empress in this get-up to bow her head to anybody.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” said Rakushun. Being a hanjuu meant that Rakushun was half-human, half-beast. In his case, the latter half was a rat. When in rat form, he was about as tall as a human child so he had to look up at her. “I’m just saying she doesn’t have to thank me. It’s because of Youko that I was able to attend university in En and that I got to know the Imperial En. I’m the one who should be saying thanks.”
“That’s not something I can take credit for.”
Rokuta laughed again. “Come to think about it, Rakushun has done quite well for himself. He can count an emperor and an empress personal friends. If his chums at college ever found out, they’d have a fit.”
“Point made, Taiho.”
Shouryuu said, a smile in his voice, “But weren’t you dragging your heels a bit, Youko? Joei’s rebellion has been over for two months, already.”
Youko smiled wryly. “To tell the truth, I wanted to put it off even longer. The province lords insisted I get it done with by the winter solstice.”
It was the empress who calmed the heavens and the earth, who propitiated the gods. Of the rites and rituals, the most important was the Festival of the Winter Solstice. The empress’s role during the winter festival was to travel to the southern district of the city and there make offerings to Heaven and pray for the protection of the kingdom. This ceremony was called the Koushi.
“Why put it off?”
Youko sighed. “Because I haven’t yet decided on the Inaugural Rescript.”
The Inaugural Rescript was the first proclamation of a new ruler. All laws were promulgated in the name of the empress. However, a law was not even submitted for the empress’s approval until proposals from the bureaucracy had been considered, the affected ministries had been consulted, and the consent of the Minister of the Left, the Minister of the Right, and the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal had been acknowledged.
It was not intended that the emperor write the laws and run the kingdom by herself. The ministers were appointed for this purpose. Laws promulgated upon the empress’s own initiative were known as Imperial Rescripts.
“What did the Imperial En decree?” Youko asked.
“I came up with what is called the rule of one-in-four.”
“And that is?”
“For every four ares (400 square meters) cultivated, a homesteader is given one are (100 square meters) of land for every four ares (400 square meters) put under cultivation. This was due to the shortage of arable land.”
Youko said with some chagrin, “The ministers want to make the imperial color red. They say red because the Late Empress Yo had chosen green.”
Rokuta nodded. “I agree.”
“You think so?”
“Wood creates Fire. Red follows green. After all, the Late Empress Yo abdicated so that a better reign might follow.”
“There are so many customs I don’t understand.”
“Don’t be impatient. It’ll become second nature to you before long.”
Youko managed a smile and nodded. “But this all seems beside the point. From what I’ve heard, the Inaugural Rescript is supposed to clearly lay out what kind of place I intend to make of this kingdom.”
“And yet you can’t even agree on which color is best.”
Yeah, Youko said, hanging her head. A self-deprecating smile came to her lips. “I still don’t know what it means to rule a country. I want to make a great kingdom. But what kind of a kingdom is a great kingdom anyway?”
“Hard to say.”
“I want my kingdom to be wealthy. I don’t want the people of Kei to go hungry. I suppose that if Kei were wealthy, then people wouldn’t go hungry. I was born in a wealthy country. But as to whether that made it a great country, I don’t know. All that wealth can distort a lot of things.”
The thought went through her mind: Why couldn’t I have been more interested in political science and stuff like that? I never even understood how the Japanese government worked.
She said, “I’ve been entrusted with the weight of a whole country and I can’t begin to know how best to balance that burden. How useful can such an empress be?”
Shouryuu said, “Youko, governing a kingdom is not easy.”
“No, it’s not.”
“But you must never let the people see the nature of your struggles.”
“You will have many worries, many troubles, many difficulties. But from the point of view of the people, if you can’t be satisfied with your own life, then what value can their own lives have in comparison?”
“You’re probably right.”
“You have nothing whatsoever to gain by displaying a troubled countenance. No matter how confused you might be, show a confident face to the world. The people will prefer that as well.”
“But . . . ”
“Do you think your subjects can have faith in a hesitant, apprehensive ruler? Will they entrust their lives to an empress who finds governing them a constant annoyance?”
“Not at all.”
“When you don’t know what to do next, first take a good long look at yourself. Don’t rush into anything. Life is not short for you.”
“But,” said Rokuta, sticking his head into the conversation. “I say, to each her own. If you really got as laid back as Shouryuu, now, that would be a problem.”
“Rokuta,” Shouryuu said with a scowl.
Rokuta ignored him. “Better to have doubts about the Inaugural Rescript than to have none. Who’s going to trust an emperor who tosses off rescripts without a second thought? The fewer the better. Usually, you get a lot of rescripts at the beginning of a dynasty, when pacifying a country in chaos, and at the end of a dynasty, when a peaceful kingdom is being brought to its knees.”
“That makes sense.”
“On the other hand, Shouryuu here is a positive rescript fiend. You have absolutely no obligation to follow his lead whatsoever in that regard.”
Youko had to try hard not to laugh. “I’ll remember that.”
“How about you trying taking it easy for a while? The affairs of the kingdom have calmed down a bit, haven’t they?”
“For the time being,” said Youko.
“Then don’t sweat it. When it comes to stuff like what direction you want to take the country, it’s really not so complicated. Just ask yourself what kind of life you would want to live, and then what kind of kingdom would best bring that about. Don’t rush it. Think it all the way through.”
“But there’s still that Inaugural Rescript . . . ”
Rokuta laughed. “Oh that. In the end, some emperors don’t even bother. Others simply wish their subjects to take care of themselves and stay healthy.”
Youko burst out laughing. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“That was the substance of the Imperial Ren’s Inaugural Rescript just the other day.”
The Kei Taiho walked into the room. He was also wearing ceremonial dress. Youko turned and smiled at him. “Hey, Keiki. Look, the Imperial En dropped by for a visit.”