21-3 “Are you going back?” Suzu asked Youko. Suzu and Youko and Shoukei were staying in the servants quarters in a corner of the palace compound. They were getting ready for bed.
Youko nodded. “I’ve been away for too long. Keiki is starting to take it personally.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right.”
“I’ve finally made up my mind. There’s still a lot of stuff I can’t make heads nor tails of, though.”
“It’s tough being empress.”
Youko nodded again. Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. Youko asked, “So what are you two going to do next?”
“Eh?” said Suzu, her eyes widening. Shoukei quizzically tilted her head to one side.
“You came here to see me, right? And so you did.”
“Ah—” Suzu and Shoukei said together.
“Indeed. What to do next?” queried Suzu. Shoukei remained lost in her thoughts.
“You never thought about it?”
“Never crossed my mind,” said Suzu. “Though I ought to go back to Sai at least once and express my gratitude to the Imperial Sai.”
Shoukei stared at the ceiling. “There are people I need to thank and apologize to back in my home country. But I fear I’m still persona non grata there.” Then she laughed. “Oh, I do have a promise to keep. I need to take a trip to En.”
“A promise?” asked Suzu.
Shoukei smiled. “I promised Rakushun that I’d see him again and give him a report about what happened.”
Youko furrowed her brow a bit.
Shoukei said, “What’s wrong?”
“I suppose news about the unrest in Wa Province has reached En.”
“Undoubtedly it has. Rakushun pays close attention to the goings-on in other kingdoms.”
“He’s probably worried,” Youko said. “Be sure to tell him all about it. But emphasize that things were resolved in a less-than-disastrous manner so he can sleep easy.” Youko rolled her eyes toward the heavens. “If you can, you might want to play down my actual part in what went on.”
Shoukei giggled. “I understand.”
The soft laughter filled the room. The conversation momentarily came to an end. Youko suddenly blurted out, “I’ve still got a problem that needs solving.” When Suzu and Shoukei turned to her, Youko tilted her head to the side and asked, “What makes for a good kingdom?”
“A kingdom without any bastards like Shoukou in it,” Suzu quickly replied.
Youko smiled thinly. “I get that part, but . . . what kind of lives do you wish to lead? And what sort of kingdom would you wish for in order to accomplish that?”
Shoukei and Suzu thought about it for a minute. The first one to open her mouth was Shoukei. “I hate cold and hunger. That’s what made life at the rike so tough. I’m hardly one to talk but I hate being treated badly and being treated with contempt.”
Suzu nodded. “I agree completely. It’s great to stop having to put up with stuff like that. Because when you are putting up with it, it makes you feel so small.”
“Yeah. You just curl in on yourself.”
“Sorry,” Suzu said, “but I don’t think we’re answering your question.”
As if thinking about something else, Youko shook her head. “No problem. I’m only looking for advice.”
Youko nodded, and then said with less certainty, “At any rate, you’ve told me what you’re going to do next. But what about after that?”
Suzu and Shoukei exchanged glances. Shoukei was sitting on the bed, her arms around her knees. She stared at her hands. “I want to learn more. I’m so stupid about everything it’s embarrassing.”
“Me, too,” Suzu chimed in.
“I don’t necessarily mean going to school and all. I mean learning about everything wherever I find it. It’s too bad the Evergreen Seminary isn’t around any more.”
“You want to study—” Youko smiled. “How about this, then? I’ve asked Enho to become Lord Privy Seal and my tutor. Why don’t you come to Kinpa Palace and let Enho teach you there?”
Suzu and Shoukei gaped at her. “Hold on, you’re saying . . . ”
Youko looked at them. “I could use all the help I can get. Two more pairs of hands will make all the difference.” She glanced from Suzu (who seemed to be holding her breath) to Shoukei.
“What about Koshou and Kantai?”
“Of course. I want to find a place for them as well. I absolutely need people I can trust inside the palace, every last one of you.”
Shoukei heaved a great sigh. “Well, you can’t fight fate. I’m willing to give it a try.”
“I’m in. You could ask for the moon, Youko, and you know we couldn’t turn you down.”
“For the moon?”
Suzu giggled and Shoukei unsuccessfully stifled a laugh. Youko couldn’t help but join in. Their gentle laughter echoed off the walls of the small room.