Chapter 12

3-2 Oh, so you were born in Japan as well?

"Yes," Suzu answered with a nod.

And you were swept onto the shores of this world. How unfortunate.

"It was awful," Suzu agreed.

I know, I know. Nobody in this world can truly understand how difficult a kaikyaku's life is. But I do.

"Yes, it is. It's really, really tough," Suzu said. "But I'm so happy to have met the Royal Kei."

I'm pleased as well. You have nothing to worry about anymore. You're a fellow kaikyaku like me. I'll do whatever I can to help you. If there's anything troubling you, let me know.

"I am indeed grateful, Your Highness. I . . . . "

Suzu turned over on her cot. Her imagination failed her. She couldn't think of what to say next.

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Since hearing about the Royal Kei from Riyou, she'd had this conversation with herself night after night. The Royal Kei would be full of sympathy for her. They'd converse about Japan, about the trials of the past, their plans for the future. But Suzu had no power, no wealth, no freedom. Surely, the Royal Kei would come to her rescue.

How can I help you?

Could she demand that Suzu be sent to Kei to live in the palace? A luxurious palace, not at all like Suibi Grotto, with generous and kindhearted servants. There they would talk together and stroll through the gardens. And while she was at it, how about giving Riyou a taste of her own medicine?

This child is my fellow countrywoman. If you have treated her badly, I shall not forgive you.

When the Royal Kei said that, Riyou would grovel at her feet. She'd be sorry, then. No matter how bitter, faced with the power and authority of the empress, she would have no choice but to comply.

I shall name Suzu mistress of Suibi Grotto. Riyou will be her servant.

"No, that isn't necessary," Suzu said, shaking her head. "That is not what I want. I only desire that the mistress of the grotto show me some kindness and gratitude. That alone would be sufficient."

My, Suzu, you are a good person.

The Royal Kei smiling at her, Riyou's grateful eyes meeting hers.

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"Not hardly," Suzu muttered to herself. "Riyou would never thank me for anything."

She wrapped the quilt around her shoulders. Still, if she could only meet the Royal Kei, that would make up for everything. If she could go and see her . . . .

As she closed her eyes, she heard high tone of a ringing bell. Outside a winter wind was blowing. The high tone mingled with the sounds of the dry, rustling brush, the turbulent chorus of wind weaving through the undulating peaks.

Suzu suddenly sat up and listened more closely. Kang, the bell rang again. It was Riyou calling a servant. She hurriedly slipped out of bed, threw a robe over her nightdress, hastily tied the sash and ran out of the room.

What was going on in the middle of the night?

Riyou didn't care when her servants went to sleep or woke up. Suzu's room had cots for three servants, but the other two had quit a long time ago. Even at the cost of losing their place in the Registry of Wizards, they had decided to run away and had been fortunate and lucky enough to carry it off. At least that's what the other maidservants said.

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Urged along by the shrill, incessant sound of the bell, Suzu ran down the hallways and into Riyou's quarters. Already, two other servants had arrived ahead of her. As soon as she entered the room, Riyou's vituperations flew at her.

"You're late! You're such an idiot and slowpoke!"

"I am sorry. I was asleep."

"So was everybody else. You're such a sluggard the stable hands got here before you, and you're supposed to be my personal maid!"

The man and woman who had arrived first averted their gaze. Were they careless enough to rise to Suzu's defense, they would feel the brunt of Riyou's scorn as well.

"I beg your forgiveness."

"Even when asleep, servants should be attentive to the needs of their master. That's why I deign to provide you with room and board in the first place."

Suzu bowed her head. The strange fruits that grew on the mountain, the yield from a plot of land in the ravine, a modest stipend from the national treasury, the meager rent from the fields at the base of the mountain farmed by the locals, taxes collected from the shrine village below Suibi Peak--this was the totality of Riyou's income, and what Suzu and all the others had to live on.

"This is unbelievable! Twelve servants and only three bother to show up!"

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Riyou looked at the middle-aged woman. "You! I can't bear this cold. Massage my feet for me. Honma!"

She undoubtedly meant this scornful epithet for Suzu. "It's stale in here. The place needs to be aired out. Go wake everybody up. That's your punishment. The entire grotto needs a good cleaning. It's because of all this dust."

You mean, now? Suzu swallowed the words that came to her lips. If Riyou said do it, she had to do it.

"I am unfortunate to be surrounded by servants who can't clean a blessed thing to my satisfaction. Unbelievable. And be quiet about it. I'm trying to sleep!"

Suzu had no choice but to go around and wake everybody up. Even if it was on Riyou's orders, nobody was ever happy about being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, and they all turned their resentment on her. Her head bowed, she did as she was told. In the wintry dead of night they shook the dust out of everything, wiped, mopped, scrubbed and dried the stone-lined hallways. The winter solstice was almost upon them. The water at this time of night was freezing cold.

Your Highness.

As she scrubbed the floor, the tears welled up. That a girl from Japan had become empress of the Kingdom of Kei pleased her immeasurably. Wouldn't they meet, somewhere, sometime? Meeting her would be the happiest moment in her life. Imagining that moment was so gratifying, and awakening from the dream so miserable.

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Your Highness, please help me.

The cleaning took them until sunrise. After a brief nap, morning chores awaited. Riyou awoke toward noon and inspected the work. She expressed displeasure with the effort and told them to do it all over again. This was when Suzu broke a vase.

"What a good-for-nothing you are!" said Riyou, flinging the broken shards at her. "The cost of this vase will come out of your meals. You're a wizard, after all. You won't starve to death. And I'm a charitable enough person that I won't revoke your wizardhood." Riyou hiked up her eyebrows. "You don't like it? Then why not pack your bags and go?"

Leaving the grotto would mean having her name erased from the Registry of Wizards. Riyou knew that was something Suzu could not do.

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"Of course you won't." She snorted. "You really are a useless child. It is only because I am such an extraordinarily generous person that I bother to keep you around."

Suzu lowered her face and bit her lip. Could she leave this place? She swallowed the thought as soon as it came into her mind.

"I've been treating you too well. You don't really need a bed, now, do you?"

Suzu looked up at her.

"Every minute you're sleeping in a nice, warm bed you're not doing any work. Don't you think so?" Riyou laughed with open malice. "You may sleep in the barn for the time being. It's so spacious in there and not so cold. Yes, that would suit you well."

That meant sleeping with Setsuko, Riyou's tiger. Suzu's face went pale. Setsuko was not an animal easily handled by others. She was such a ferocious creature that only one man was assigned to be her handler.

"Forgive me, please, Mistress," quailed Suzu, trembling with fear.

Riyou stared down at her with undisguised scorn. "Oh, you'll do it. You ask so much of me. Who do you think you are?"

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Riyou laughed and said with an exaggerated sigh, "Well, all right. Instead, you can go get me some kankin."

"Mistress . . . . "

Kankin was a kind of mossy mushroom that grew on the cliffs of the towering mountain. To pick them, you had secure yourself with a rope and rappel down the side of the cliffs.

"Gather some kankin for breakfast tomorrow morning and you can consider yourself forgiven."