3-4 The peerage system of the Twelve Kingdoms is organized according to the following seven ranks: king, prince, province lord (or marquis), count (or minister), province minister (or viscount), baron, and knight. There are two ranks of count, count and vice minister (or undersecretary), and three subdivisions each of baron and knight. All the nobility is divided amongst these twelve castes.
At the level of national government, most counts are vice ministers or undersecretaries. Hisen ("wizards of the air") are allowed to rise to the rank of full count or minister. Hisen like Riyou who had been elevated according to imperial edict were granted vice-ministerial status. The rank of servant wizards fell between that of knight and baron, which was higher than the typical government bureaucrat.
In fact, such gradations in rank were designed primarily for purposes of decorum and propriety. For example, when a person of lower rank encountered a person of higher rank on the road, who would yield the right of way. In other words, the authority to demand that you be treated with the proper courtesy, though not much else.
In any case, after collapsing in front of the Hall of Government, Suzu was treated very well. She was taken to a room reserved for honored guests. A doctor and nurse were called to tend to her. She was cared for with the utmost courtesy. In fact, they were just being polite, but being treated politely was a first to her. She had grown up poor, her family having to kowtow to the landlord. She had been forced to crawl under Riyou's heel. Compared to all that, this was almost like a dream.
I must be dreaming, she thought as she fell asleep. She woke herself up to consider her situation some more. The bed was suffused with a soft light.
"Are you awake? How are you feeling?" The lady's maid waiting aside the bed noticed that she had opened her eyes. She spoke in a soft voice.
Suzu said, "I'm doing okay." She sat up. Her joints ached. She grimaced.
"Please, rest yourself. Do you wish to partake of breakfast?"
The lady smiled kindly. "We shall make sure of it, then. Thanks be, but none of your wounds was severe. Breakfast is presently being prepared, and a doctor shall see to you shortly. So, please, make yourself at home."
"Thank you," said Suzu. Watching the lady as she left the room, Suzu hugged her arms around herself. "Please make yourself at home. That gorgeously-dressed lady's maid said that to me."
I can hardly believe it. Is this really happening?
The canopy of the bed had already been raised and folded back. The door into the bedchambers was open. The bed itself was like a small room raised on a platform. Looking around the bedchambers, Suzu hugged herself again.
"Not even Riyou's bedchambers are this fine."
The brocaded bedding was warm yet light. It really was a shame she had slept here in her dirty undershirt. The canopy was woven from two layers of fabric, a beautiful embroidery in sheer silk on the one side and a heavier brocade on the other. On either side of the wide bed was an intricately crafted ebony table. There was a shelf also made from ebony, and an ebony footstool for climbing in and out of the bed. The clothes rack for storing kimono was made of silver.
Suzu gazed absently around the canopy bed and then around the light-filled room beyond the bed. "This is so much nicer than anything Riyou has."
Suzu didn't know it, but it was the finest room in the guest palace. Because her status at the Grotto was unknown, they had treated her as if she were a viscount, the highest status that the servant of a hisen can achieve.
She was blankly taking it all in when the doctor came in. He again respectfully examined Suzu's wounds, treated her, and then with a deep bow, exited the room. On his way out, he passed the lady's maid, who came in to ready her meal.
The utensils were silver. The change of clothes she set out were made of brightly colored silk.
It truly must be all a dream.
"Are you in any pain?" the lady's maid asked her.
Suzu shook her head. "Thank you, but I'm fine."
"If you are feeling well enough, I wish to take you to meet someone."
"I think I'll feel up to it. Who wants to see me?"
The lady's maid bowed her head. "It would seem that the king wishes to meet with you."
Suzu's eye went wide.
I don't believe it, Suzu repeated to herself as the lady's maid led her deep into the Imperial Palace. I'm really going to meet the king.
The king of the Kingdom of Sai was known as the Royal Sai. The king had sat on the throne for not yet twenty years, but was beloved by his subjects because of his righteous rule. Beyond that, Suzu knew nothing about him.
They went through a gate and walked up a flight of stairs. Each building they passed through grew more and more opulent. Ruby pillars and white walls, vividly painted balustrades, windows glazed with crystal glass. The doorknobs were all gold. The floors finished with engraved stone, inlaid here and there with mosaics of china tile.
The lady's maid stopped and opened a large, splendidly carved wooden door. She took one step inside the room and then knelt down and bowed her head to the floor. Suzu stared flabbergasted at her surroundings, and then caught herself and hurriedly copied what the lady's maid was doing.
The lady's maid said, "Forgive my intrusion, but I have brought with me the wizardess of whom we spoke earlier."
Her head bowed, Suzu couldn't see who she was talking to. She listened carefully, steeling herself for the fearful, commanding sound. Instead, she heard a woman's soft voice.
"Thank you. She does seems a young thing."
It was the voice of an older woman. There was no scorn, no bitterness in the voice. Rather, it was an encouraging tone.
"Come over here and sit down."
Suzu timidly lifted her head. They were in a wide, resplendent room. An elderly woman was standing next to a large black desk.
"Um . . . . " She fumbled for words, not knowing whether to ask, Are you the Royal Sai?
The woman smiled warmly at her. "Please get up. If you've been injured in any way, I wouldn't make you uncomfortable. Tea? Please, here."
She indicated the chair where Suzu was to sit, and then nodded to the attending servants, who arranged the tea set on the table. Suzu apprehensively got to her feet. Instinctively, she raised her hands and laced her fingers together as if in prayer. "Um . . . are you the Royal Sai? I mean, Your Highness?"
The woman answered affirmatively with a friendly smile.
The Royal Sai's family name was Chuu, her given name Kin, meaning "jewel." The name she had taken as empress was Kouko, meaning "golden mother-in-law."
"I . . . ah . . . my . . . . "
"Don't worry about formalities. Relax. Now, you've come from Suibi Grotto, isn't that right?"
Kouko pulled out the chair for her. Nervously, Suzu sat down on the edge of the seat. "Yes."
"And your name is?"
"Um . . . I'm a kaikyaku."
Really, Kouko's eyes said, widening. "That is indeed unusual. How did you come to be a wizardess?"
With a disconsolate sigh, Suzu began to recount the story that for ages she had been longing to tell somebody. How she had been swept into this world, the tears spilled in frustration at not being able to comprehend the language. How she met Riyou, the first person who understood her, and begged to be made a wizard.
Kouko listening attentively, with the occasional word urging her to continue.
The mistress of Suibi Grotto had been appointed hisen by a king many generations before. The hisen, as opposed to the chisen, or "wizards of the earth," did not take part in government or help shape the national polity. Rather, their distinguishing characteristic was simply that they were long-lived. There were hisen who served the gods, but for the most part they lived secluded lives.
Hisen wizards were not appointed often. In the end, many tired of eternal life and gave up their place in the Registry of Wizards. Presently in the Kingdom of Sai there were only three hisen, and the whereabouts of two of them were unknown. Wizards who had removed their names from the Registry often just disappeared, and neither hide nor hair of them was seen again.
"So Riyou is the Mistress of Suibi Grotto."
"Yes," Suzu nodded.
"What caused your wounds? Were they inflicted by Riyou?"
In answer to her question, Suzu recounted the events of the previous night. Riyou had ordered her to pick kankin mushrooms. She had encountered Riyou's red tiger at the edge of the cliff. Petrified by the tiger's gaze, she had fallen from the precipice.
"That sounds awful. But are you saying that you were sent out to pick mushrooms in the middle of the night?"
"The Mistress does not care about such things. She wanted mushrooms for breakfast and thought nothing of making such a demand. She hates me anyway." Simply thinking about it now brought tears to her eyes. "She was always telling me that she was going to kick me out and erase my name from the Registry of Wizards. I don't speak the language, so if that happened it would be the same as being struck deaf and dumb."
Kouko looked at the weeping girl. Hisen were not involved with the government so she had never meet Riyou. The government's only obligation in turn was a budget appropriation for the maintenance of the Registry. Hisen didn't meddle in the kingdom's business and the kingdom didn't meddle in theirs. That had been standard operating procedure for ages.
"Well, then, I suppose I could speak with the Mistress of the Grotto. In the meantime, you may stay here and recuperate."
Suzu gazed up at her. "She may be removing my name from the Registry as we speak."
"You needn't worry about it. If such a request is made, that is something I would have to approve. If the Mistress of the Grotto does in fact make such a request, I promise to deny it."
"Really?" Suzu stared earnestly into her face. Kouko answered with a smile. Suzu sighed in relief. She had finally, after such a long, long time, been freed from the constant threat and fear. "Thank you. I am so very, very thankful."
She slid down from the chair and prostrated herself on the floor. After this, she wouldn't have anything to be frightened of ever again.