Chapter 3

0-3 At the top of the sky, there is an ocean called the Sea of Clouds. The Sea of Clouds divides the world into what is above and what is beneath. From below, you would never know the Sea of Clouds was there. If you stood on a high mountain peak, you might perceive that the translucent azure blue of the broad expanse of the heavens was in fact the lower depths of the Sea of Clouds. But very few are capable of ascending such heights.

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Nevertheless, it is understood by almost all peoples that at the top of the sky is an ocean called the Sea of Clouds, and that it separates the heavens from the earth.

Within the Sea stretched a single band of clouds. The band of clouds flowed toward the east, glimmering in a rainbow of colors. This was the Zui-un.

On a paddy causeway on a farm on 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.

The child next to her, gathering up the cut grass, 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 king enters the Imperial Palace. Zui-un means the cloud that accompanies good tidings."

"Huh," said Keikei, staring at the sky. As sister and brother watched the sky, in ones and twos across the paddies, the others busily cutting the summer grass stopped and looked as well.

"A new king is coming?"

"Must be. That bad king we had before died and now the new ruler has arrived. From Mount Hou, the king will go to the palace in Gyouten."

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The people didn't have much pity for the fallen king. The king had been a god to them, but all indications were that this king, now divine, would bless them with wiser governance.

"Mount Hou is the home of the goddesses. It is in the very 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 king." Keikei again leaned back and gazed up at the sky. "The goddess of Mount Hou is Heki . . . um, Hekki . . . . "

"Hekika Genkun."

"Right, right. Also known as Hekika Genkun Gyokuyou-sama. And in the middle of Mount Hou is Mount Ka, where the number one goddess lives, Seioubo, the Queen Mother of the West."

"Very good."

"Tentei lives on Mount Suu. He's the Lord God of the Heavens. 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, "It's the king that rules the kingdom. If the bad king is gone and a new king has come, does that mean we can go home, now?"

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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 the Late Empress of Kei, Jokaku, had brought the kingdom to ruin. In her last days she had ordered the expulsion of all women. Rangyoku had no choice but to take her brother by the hand and start toward the border. Many young women were hidden by their families, or were dressed up like boys, or soldiers and government officials were bribed with large amounts of money. Her mother did her best to protect her, but she died in midwinter during a cold spell that engulfed Ei Province.

The kingdom in chaos, her mother dead, and she 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, she observed the flag signaling a new king flying over the Rishi, the city's riboku shrine.

The Ouki, or Imperial Standard, was that of a dragon rising powerfully into the air 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. But something strange was going on. When a new king was chosen, the Ryuuki, the flag of a flying dragon, was flown over the Rishi. The Ouki was raised when the king formally acceded to the throne. Rangyoku didn't recall seeing the Ryuuki. When she asked around, indeed, the Ryuuki had not been raised. Furthermore, some Rishi were flying the Ouki and some were not.

The old-timers were suspicious. If the rightful king had acceded 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 king or not. Those living far from the capital had no way of knowing which side would win or which side should win.

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Rumors abounded that the king was a pretender and that the true king had risen up against her. And then the raising of the Ryuuki. And the Zui-un stretching to the east. Undoubtedly, the true king had arrived.

Rangyoku watched as the tailing end of the Zui-un disappeared to the east. She said, "Hopefully, this king 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.

The capital of the Kingdom of Kei, Gyouten. The city spreads out in terraces across the high and hilly land. In the western part of the city is the steep and soaring mountain. The mountain's summit pierces the clouds. This mountain, reaching to the Sea of Clouds and beyond, is called Mount Ryou'un, also known as Mount Gyouten. At its peak is the Imperial Palace. Kinpa Palace is the home of the king of the Kingdom of Kei, the Royal Kei.

If you could stand above the Sea of Clouds, Gyouten would be an island floating in the midst of an ocean. On the sloping cliffs of the towering, tiered peak, jutting out into the air, was a many-storied building that enclosed the entirety of Kinpa Palace.

A giant turtle set down at the western edge of Mount Gyouten (Gyouten Island, if you wish). This divine beast had borne the king back from Mount Hou. Its name was Genbu.

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The Ministers of the Rikkan lined up along the harbor to greet the new king. 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 king stepped onto the shore and there greeted Chousai, the Minister-in-Chief. A soft sigh followed as many of the people there, heads still bowed, sneaked peaks from under 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 had been a woman. And now, the new king as well.

Kaitatsu is a word unique to the people of Kei. A long time ago, a king ruled Kei for over three hundred years. His name was the Royal Tatsu. Kaitatsu means a nostalgia (kai) for King Tatsu. Toward the end of his reign, King Tatsu inflicted all manners of hardships on his people, but at least for three hundred years they had been governed peacefully and wisely. Kaitatsu reflected that longing for the enlightened rule of a long-lived king. This was the reason for the furtive sigh.

Enough of empresses. It'd be nice to have a king again.

This sentiment was voiced surreptitiously so that others would not hear, but those expressing it were not few in number and the sum of their reactions amounted to a rather public expression of dismay.

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Nonetheless, that day the Imperial Standard was raised over the Rishi of Kei. In the Eastern Kingdom of Kei, a new monarch acceded to the throne.

The Era of the Royal Kei Youko, the Dynasty of Sekishi (the Red Child), had begun.