18-3 On such a carefree afternoon, it was hard to believe that there was a war going on.
“Starting tomorrow, people are going to start dying,” Suzu blurted out as they strode along the wall walk.
“With so many sacrifices being made,” Shoukei added, “news of this is bound to reach the ears of the Imperial Kei.”
Youko stopped in her tracks. Shoukei glanced over her shoulder, a quizzical look on her face. “Ah,” she said, a smile rising to her face. “You see, even if we attempted a coup d’etat, there’s no guarantee that it would succeed. Kantai and the others aren’t thinking about dispatching Gahou. If they could have their way, they’d like to know why their leader was punished by the Imperial Kei. If she takes notice then it’s worth the cost.”
Suzu nodded in agreement. “The empress can’t have any idea what’s going on in Wa Province and Shisui Prefecture. If she knew the chaotic state things were in, how much Shoukou and Gahou are despised, she’d surely spend a lot more time righting wrongs like this. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Suzu giggled to herself. “To tell the truth, I came to Kei to meet the empress. So did Shoukei.”
Youko’s eyes flew open wide. “To meet the Imperial Kei? Why?”
“Because she’s the same age as us,” Suzu and Shoukei said at the same time, and laughed.
“That’s the only reason?”
“No, not really,” Suzu quickly added. “It was also because we were both kaikyaku.”
As they strolled along the wall walk, Suzu recounted the tale of her long journey. It really was a long journey. So many things had happened by the time she’d wound up here. Now, despite being in the middle of a war she wasn’t sure she’d survive, she found herself strangely at peace with herself, as calm as this early spring morning.
“Because I was a kaikyaku, I felt incredibly sorry for myself. I told myself that a fellow kaikyaku like the empress would take pity on me and help me out.”
“You’ve really grown up, Suzu,” Shoukei said.
Suzu waved her hand. “Oh, c’mon. It’s hardly anything to boast about.”
“I despised the Imperial Kei. I made her my favorite scapegoat. I couldn’t forgive the fact that I’d been driven out of the Imperial Palace at the same time a girl my same age had been crowned Empress.”
Shoukei recounted the details of her journey as well. The regicide of her father, the freezing winters spend at the rike, the time she was almost executed, and being sent to Kyou. How she’d escaped and fled to Ryuu, and the person she encountered there.
“If I hadn’t met Rakushun, I’d still be in the same sorry state I was then. I owe him everything.”
“Rakushun!” Youko exclaimed.
Shoukei turned to her. “He’s a really good person. I had to believe that if the Imperial Kei was a friend of his, then she must be a good person too.”
“Eh?” Suzu and Shoukei said together. They stopped and stared at her. “You’re what?”
“I mean, the Imperial Kei you’re talking about is me!”
Both Suzu and Shoukei’s mouths dropped open.
“I know it must sound like a joke, but listening to your stories I had to say something.”
Youko felt incredibly awkward. Suzu and Shoukei didn’t look like they were buying it.
“The Imperial Kei? Sekishi?”
“Yeah. The ministers came up with that name. The Red Child. You see, because of my hair.”
Their sense of astonishment slowly grew. “Is your name really Youshi?”
“It’s Youko. The characters are the same. You as in taiyou [the sun]. Shi as in shison [descendant].”
“You can’t be serious!” Suzu stared at Youko. Buried feelings groaned to life within her. Hadn’t she bought the dagger inside her vest in order to kill the Imperial Kei?
Shoukei gazed at Youko as well. The person she’d resented and envied for so long was right there in front of her. Long-forgotten emotions swelled within her breast. Had she ever really hated her that much?
“If you’re telling us the truth, then what in the world are you doing here?” Why aren’t you in Kinpa, the Imperial Palace in Gyouten? she meant.
“I’m a taika. I don’t know a thing about this world. I was being tutored by a man named Enho.”
“Enho—the man who was kidnapped?”
Youko nodded. “Shoukou had the rike attacked and Enho abducted. Shoukou may have carried out the orders, but one way or another Gahou was at the root of it. Shoukou says that Enho is now in Meikaku. I’ve been looking everywhere for him, trying to rescue him, and this is where I ended up.”
“You didn’t have to get involved in something like this!” Shoukei practically shouted at her. If she was the empress—really was the empress—then she should have simply dismissed Shoukou. Carrying on in this manner, so many people who’d never intended to put their lives on the line were suffering mortal injuries. How many people had died so far? Of the three men Kantai had ordered to Takuhou, one was already dead. The faces of mercenaries she’d become so accustomed were gone before she knew it. How many of Suzu’s comrades had been lost as well?
“I couldn’t order the Imperial Army to arrest Shoukou. I don’t have that kind of authority.”
“What do you mean you don’t? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“I don’t. I truly don’t. I told Keiki to relieve Shoukou of his post. The ministers wouldn’t act without sufficient grounds. I had to present them with convincing reasons and concrete evidence to back them up. I don’t have the trust of the bureaucracy.”
“They say I’m incompetent. And I am. I don’t know anything about this world. No matter how hard I think matters through, I can’t say what the best solution is. The ministers don’t trust empresses. This kingdom has had a bad run of empresses. When it comes to something like this, they’re hardly going to leave things to my discretion.”
“This is unbelievable.” But Shoukei had heard too many times how Kei was not blessed by its empresses.
“I asked Keiki to mobilize the provincial guard but he wasn’t able to. His minister of defense and his three commanding officers suddenly all caught colds.”
Shoukei was too taken aback to speak.
“He returned to the palace to put the Imperial Court in order but it was too late. Enho had been kidnapped. The rike was attacked and a girl my age was murdered. Her brother was stabbed and now clings to life. He was immediately taken back to the palace, and while the doctors have done everything they can for him, we don’t know whether he will live or die.”
“Doctors,” Suzu muttered to herself. Shoukei glanced at her. Suzu’s eyes were focused on Youko.
“Yes, I know. A child died in this city as well. When I found him, the life was all but gone from him. There wasn’t anything I could do to help.”
“Really?” Shoukei asked. “You would have helped him if you’d been in time?”
Youko drew her brows together in obvious discomfort. “Of course. One life is worth as much as another.”
“And if that child had suffered a less grievous wound?”
Youko’s expression turned even more disagreeable. “And you, Shoukei? Would you have walked by on the other side? Wouldn’t you have at least taken him to a doctor? Isn’t that the kind of thing that people normally do?”
“Yeah, sure,” Shoukei said with a sigh. Suzu didn’t say anything. She rested her forehead against the merlon.
“Look, as an empress, I’m nothing to write home about, okay? I had no idea my subjects were dying right and left, being taxed to death, worked to death, and suffering God knows what else. Saying I only feel compelled to help the unfortunate right there in front of me is a poor excuse. I know. But like I said, I’m pretty much a joke as far as empresses go. When I said I’d help Keikei or that other boy, that still means that some other kid in some other place else is going to die. But how can you ignore the suffering in front of your eyes?”
“Yeah,” said Youko, bowing her head. “I’m sorry I don’t exactly measure up.”
Shoukei nodded. Hugging her arms around the merlon, Suzu suddenly burst out laughing.
“I know, I know,” Suzu said, waving her hand back and forth. She clung to the merlon and buried her face in the crook of her arm, tears of mirth streaming down her cheeks as she laughed.
“Suzu, what is your problem?”
“But . . . I mean . . . this is so stupid!”
“Not knowing the slightest thing about her, I built up all these expectations, only to see them dashed. I didn’t place all my hopes in Youko. I placed all my hopes in some big important person called the empress. What a fool I was!”
Youko stared at her, a perplexed expression on her face. Suzu flashed her a strained smile. “But that’s the way it is with an empress, isn’t it? Everybody burdens you with their own expectations. Nobody thinks about things from your perspective. And so we all get to wallow in our own disappointment. Don’t you think?”
Shoukei looked up at the heavens and sighed. “Indeed.”
“So what do you think I should do?” the puzzled Youko asked.
“Huh?” said Suzu, raising her head. “Well, there’s no doubt about that, is there?”
Shoukei scowled at Suzu and then sighed again. “No, you’re right. There isn’t.” She clapped Youko on the back. “We defeat the provincial guard and tear Gahou from power!”