2-3 As she had promised, two weeks later Riyou, lord of Suibi Grotto, returned to her mountainous fiefdom.
When she arrived at Mt. Ha, she drew alongside the soaring castle on Suibi Peak. In the world below, at the foot of Suibi Peak, she could see the hodgepodge of small blue roofs. If you took the tunnel from Suibi Grotto down through the heart of the peak, that is where you would emerge in the world below. The palisades enclosing the buildings stood in neat rows, along with more blue-tiled roofs standing before the gate. It was a shrine dedicated to the wizard who lived on Suibi Peak.
Astride Setsuko's back, peering down at the tableau beneath her, a crooked smile came to Riyou's lips. All she was doing here was piling on the years, nothing more. And yet these people from the world below were grateful for her presence.
Her worshipers no doubt believed that if something serious happened to them one day, Riyou would come to their rescue. In times past, there had been famous wizards of the air who did lend a hand to those in need. Still, it was awfully ignorant of them to expect that all wizards should similarly be overflowing with grace and good works.
"Let's go home."
Setsuko set down before the gate to the grotto. Five servants rushed out to greet her. Riyou dismounted and gave them a once-over.
"Any changes in my absence?"
Fine with her if there were. In a place in her heart she chose to ignore, Riyou knew that a long life was a thing you could weary of. Add three hundred years on top of that, along with the loneliness that came from being left behind by the world. There was not a mortal being left who still remembered a woman named Riyou.
One of the menservants bowed low and said, "There have been no changes."
"Is that so."
She scanned the entrance to the grotto. Of course she remembered what she had asked of them before she left. The grotto had been spiffed up considerably. The various beams and columns sported a fresh coat of red paint, the walls newly-applied white stucco.
"So it looks like nobody ran off and played hooky."
Riyou laughed. Leaving the red tiger in the care of a groom, she took herself back to the main house. When she arrived at her room, three girls were already waiting, heads bowed, no doubt given the heads-up by a fleet-footed servant.
She nodded curtly and continued to stand there. The three scurried over to her and began to undress her. The room was perfectly in order. The pillars and walls had been repainted. All this could not have been accomplished in a mere fortnight. They had likely only tended to the places Riyou was most likely to notice.
Startled, Suzu raised her head. The girl's fear of her was palpable from the moment she entered the room till she left. Knowing this, Riyou looked down at the kneeling girl straightening up her clothes. She said with pure spite, "I went to see the brand-new Royal Kei. I'd say she's about your age, an empress."
Empress, Suzu repeated in a small, trembling voice.
"Like I said, about your age, though hardly in the same league. Not very ostentatious. A rather severe young lady."
Suzu nodded. Riyou suppressed a smile as she pulled on her robes. "I ran into her at Kaisen Grotto on Mt. Ga. It was right after the enthronement and I went to pay my respects. The mistress of Kaisen Grotto just happens to be the mother of the Royal Kei from many, many generations past. The empress is a woman of manners and breeding. In other words, not like you at all."
Riyou sat down, comfortably draped in her house robes. Seeing that Riyou's attention was focused on Suzu alone, the two other maidservants bowed and wordlessly withdrew.
"Apparently she was born in Yamato."
Suzu's head shot up, her eyes seeming to fill her entire face.
"That's right. Where you came from, that place across the eastern Kyokai. Ironic, isn't it? Two girls born in the same Yamato. One becomes a lowly maidservant, the other the empress of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei. A frugal dresser, to be sure, but royalty nonetheless. Her clothes and even her hairpins were of the highest class." Riyou smirked. "If we turned you upside down and shook you silly, not a single jewel would fall out. But when she returns to her palace, it's to mountains of gems, no?"
Suzu again nodded. She did not glower or answer back when Riyou ridiculed her. She only debased herself so as not to provoke Riyou any further. Riyou's teasing of the girl resembled that of a predator playing with its prey.
"Oh, I've heard all kinds of things. The Royal Kei was also swept into this world. At first, she was at a complete loss. Isn't that rich? But despite not knowing a thing, she set off on her journey and eventually sought the assistance of the Royal En."
Riyou nudged Suzu's collar with the tips of her crossed feet. "Well, for that matter, there's going to be a world of difference between you and anybody else. Falling in with a bunch of itinerant actors, lacking even the talent to stand up on a stage, relegated to a life of menial servitude. The little nobody who begged and pleaded to become my maid."
She gave the girl another jab with her toes, swaying Suzu's bowed head and shaking free several teardrops.
"Now, now, what's this? Imagining the Royal Kei as some sort of kindred spirit? How impertinent. She'd be furious to be pitied by the likes of you. It'd be like a slap in the face."
Suzu's couldn't hold back her smothered sobs and Riyou raised her eyebrows. Having forced her victim to yield, her interest faded. "You may leave," she said dismissively. "I don't want to look at your wretched face. Get out of my sight."
Suzu ran to the garden, to the twisted old pine tree in the heart of the garden where no one could see her. She clung to the trunk of the tree and wept.
Yamato, the country she so longed for.
"What happened to you, Mokurin? Did the mistress say something to you?"
The old man hurried over to her. Suzu could only shake her head. It was just Riyou being her normal self. She lived to ride Suzu like that. Did she find Suzu so detestable? She couldn't imagine what it was about her that made her so hateful.
"I don't know what she said, but you mustn't take it to heart. Serving the mistress requires a lot of patience."
"I know that."
Even knowing that, it didn't mean being ridiculed by others didn't hurt.
"Then why . . . ?"
Suzu collapsed to the ground in tears. Behind her, the old man sighed. "The Royal Kei," Suzu said between sobs. The Royal Kei was from Yamato. If she was, then from where? What had become of her home country? "Um . . . " she said, raising her tear-streaked face. When the flustered old man turned around, she asked, "The Royal Kei, where does she live?"
"She lives in the Kingdom of Kei, of course. In the royal palace."
A girl who had come from Yamato just like she had. Like her, she had probably been washed onto the shores of Kei. And she became a king. In this world, with their respective stations in life, their paths should never cross.
I want to meet her. Perhaps even find out what kind of person she is.
Another woman like her should have some sympathy for her plight. She would understand what it was like to be separated from her homeland, the distress of being swept into this strange land, the pain of understanding nothing, the torment of her situation.
"Do you think the Royal Kei will ever come to Sai?"
The old man shook his head. "Can't see why she would. A king coming to visit from somewhere else, it hardly ever happens."
I want to meet her, Suzu again whispered inside her heart. How could she ever make it happen? As far as going to Kei and finding her there, what were the chances? How would she get to Kei? If she asked Riyou, the woman would just laugh at her. If she asked for the time to journey there, without giving a reason why, it was hardly likely that Riyou would ever let her go. Simply imagining Riyou's abuse and ridicule made Suzu tremble.
I want to see her, but have no way to go to see her.
What kind of woman was she? If she was good enough to sit upon the throne, she should be a person of great charity, not a cruel witch like Riyou. There were so many things she wanted to ask. More than that, so many things she wanted to plead for.
Come. Suzu looked up at the eastern sky. Please come, come to Sai. Come to Sai and rescue me.