4-2 "I believe this is the first time we've met."
Empress Kouko nodded to the woman entering the room. Ten days had passed since the young girl had collapsed at the gates to the Hall of Government. During that time, Kouko had met often with Suzu, and had sent orders to the relevant ministries requesting more information about this Riyou, mistress of Suibi Grotto.
Riyou haughtily raised her head. With barely a "Hello," she strode to the large table, pulled out a chair and sat down. "I haven't been to the palace for a long time, now."
At first glance, you would have observed the grandmotherly Kouko opposite the much younger Riyou, apparently in the flower of her youth. But, in fact, Riyou was twice the age of the Empress.
"Feels like old times, almost. Hardly a thing has changed."
"I have given shelter to a girl by the name of Suzu. Apparently, she had been living at Suibi Grotto."
This brought an ingratiating grin to Riyou's lips. "For which I am grateful. Quite useless as a maid, but I do consider her a member of the family."
Kouko sighed to herself.
Riyou said, "And just what has she been telling you? Does the Royal Sai actually believe her? Servants never hold their master in high regard. I certainly wouldn't take anything she said at face value."
"Suzu swears that you tried to kill her."
"Oh, nonsense," Riyou laughed. "I certainly wouldn't on purpose. If I got tired of having her around, I'd just kick her out and be done with it. To tell the truth, I've considered doing so many times. But every time, the little brat gets down on her hands and knees and begs me not to."
"You sent her out in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, to pick kankin mushrooms."
"Only because I am so generous." Riyou laughed again. "That girl broke a vase given to me by my liege. It was the way she could think of to thank me for forgiving her."
Kouko knit her brows together. The king Riyou spoke of had lived many generations before. Fu-ou was his name. In truth, Riyou had been his concubine.
"She says you sicced your tiger on her as well."
Riyou shrugged. "The way you say it, it sounds so dreadful. Is that what she told you? It's dangerous picking mushrooms in the middle of the night, so I sent Setsuko along in case anything unfortunate should happen."
"It sounds to me like you treat your servants rather badly."
"They know full well what the job entails. If other people don't like it, well, they should mind their own business. If my servants aren't happy with me, they're free to leave anytime. I don't see the problem."
"Even if they want to, there are still those who cannot."
Hmph, pouted Riyou, flashing a derisive smile. "You mean, all that about not being able to understand anything once she's removed from the Registry? What's so hard about that? She sticks around because she'd rather put up with me than become a normal person again. If I was really such a horrible person, she would just quit and leave. Isn't that what it comes down to?"
"Suzu is a kaikyaku. Not being able to communicate would be quite a hardship for her, would it not?"
Riyou looked at Kokou contemptuously, smiling as she raised her voice. "Even when she speaks the same language as the rest of us, she still doesn't know which way is up!"
Having finally grasped the gist of Riyou's argument, Kouko took a deep breath. "So, then, why must you behave like this? It's honestly the last thing I expected from the mistress of Suibi Grotto."
When Riyou had been a member of Fu-ou's inner palace, she had been a great help to him. But when malevolent retainers took advantage of the king's meek nature to indulge their own tyrannical behaviors, she upbraided them on the king's behalf, and earned their hatred in the bargain. She scolded the king as well, once he began to stray from the Way, and thus fell out of his good graces.
In the end, she was exiled to Suibi Grotto.
She was viewed suspiciously by those traitorous retainers, but they weren't able to strip her from the Registry or otherwise punish her. She was too smart for them. But with Riyou so far removed from him, the rule of Fu-ou saw a swift decline.
"Again, why be so insolent? Are you daring me to sanction you?"
"And are you daring to interfere in the business of a hisen wizard?"
"It is within the royal prerogatives. I simply have never had cause to resort to them."
Riyou got to her feet, grinning defiantly. "Suit yourself, then."
"Do you know the Royal Kei?" Suzu asked Sairin, kirin of Sai. They were in the palace garden, basking in the sunlight. "Oh, sorry, I should have addressed you as Taiho."
The young girl sitting in front of her had golden hair that glittered in the sunlight. Sairin had in fact served two kings, but based on her outward appearance, she looked even younger than Suzu. Her features were exceedingly fine and delicate. Her true nature was that of a unicorn, and Suzu was sure that a kirin must be a beast of extraordinary refinement.
"I don't mind," she said with a smile. "You may address me however you wish."
Kouko had a reserved nature, but Sairin's disposition was even more tranquil. She wore a calm smile from daybreak to dusk.
It's like a dream, Suzu thought whenever she recalled the days spent under Riyou's lash. She asked more politely, "Does the Taiho perchance know the Royal Kei?"
Sairin shook her head.
"You've never met her? Not in your capacity as kirin of Sai?"
"Kei not being a neighboring kingdom, and having no other reason to associate, it is unlikely that we would ever meet."
Huh, Suzu muttered to herself. Each of the Twelve Kingdoms had a king and a kirin. You'd think it'd get kind of lonely if that was your only companionship.
"Are you interested in the Royal Kei?" asked Sairin. The gilded hair spilling off her shoulders shimmered in the sunlight like white gold.
"We were both born in Yamato. We're both about the same age."
Ah, Sairin smiled. Suzu had heard Kouko call her Youran, or "rocking cradle." She really did have the gentle disposition of a baby content in its cradle.
"Being here all alone, I would like to meet her, even if only once and talk to her about Yamato."
"Do you miss Yamato?"
"Home is where the heart is, after all. I can't tell you how many times I cried myself to sleep wanting to go home."
"Do you so dislike it here?"
Sairin asked the question in such a dispirited tone that Suzu shook her head. "I, ah, it's not that I don't like it. It's just that I don't understand anything about this world, not even the language. Things haven't been so easy for me since I came here. I've seen a lot of hard times."
"But I would think the Royal Kei has the same problems. Because we're both kaikyaku, I think we would understand each other. We both know what it feels like." Suzu flushed a bit explaining this.
"So you're saying you'd like to become friends with her?"
Suzu suddenly raised her head. "I suppose . . . if it's possible."
"Perhaps the Royal Kei isn't homesick for Yamato. It is possible, don't you think?"
Suzu's voice grew more resolute. "Well, of course that's what a person from this world would think."
Sairin turned toward her in response. "There are many people here, too, who have been separated from their homes. Itinerants who are not welcomed anywhere, who spend their lives wandering from place to place."
She bowed her slender neck, as if in shame at the very thought. "But I do wonder if being born in the same Yamato necessarily means you would understand each other. There are people born in the same country who hate each other nonetheless."
Suzu said to Sairin with an annoyed scowl, "It's not the same thing. A person born here wouldn't understand. There's a big difference between simply coming from the same hometown and never being able to return to your hometown again."
"But I wonder."
Sairin let out a small sigh. Suzu was about to shoot her another peevish look when Kouko came in from the main hall.
"Oh, there you are." She turned to Sairin. "I'd like to talk with Suzu for a minute."
"Yes," said Sairin, and with a polite bow returned to main residence.
Kouko sat down next to Suzu, who immediately straightened her posture.
"I just met with Mistress Riyou."
Suzu's body began to tremble. Hearing Riyou's name was like stumbling across something filthy in this peaceful, exquisite palace garden.
"I've decided to recall the servants at Suibi Grotto to the palace."
Suzu felt her cheeks flush. Not ever returning to Suibi Grotto was fine with her. Instead, she would live in this beautiful palace, surrounded by kind, graceful people like Kouko and Sairin (her little spat of unpleasantness all but forgotten for now). Her spirits soared upwards.
The next words out of Kouko's mouth turned her to ice. "However, you shan't be one of them."
The trembling rose from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. "What . . . what do you mean?"
"Your name will remain upon the Registry. But I wish you to live in the real world for a while. I've arranged for you to be listed upon the census."
"But why only me? What did I do?"
Kouko's face was almost expressionless, except for a small touch of sadness. "I know that it was difficult for you, not being able to comprehend the language. But now that you can, you should be able to make a living for yourself."
"What did Riyou tell you?" Her whole body shook, from anger or disappointment, she couldn't tell which.
"This has nothing to do with her. Riyou left everything to my discretion."
Kouko averted her gaze. "I was thinking it might help if you grew up a bit first."
"Grew up?" She had been a prisoner of Riyou for a hundred years. What was it that a century couldn't accomplish?
Kouko looked calmly at Suzu. "It must have been very hard for you, to be thrown into a world you had never seen before and knew nothing about. And even more so because you couldn't speak the language. However, Suzu, simply understanding the words that people say is not the same as comprehending what they mean."
Suzu could only gape at her.
"If impertinence is actually what you are communicating, and that is why you are failing to come to an understanding, then the rest is all for naught. It is necessary that you first try to grasp what the other person intends, showing acceptance without first jumping to conclusions."
"That's not fair!"
"If it really proves too much for you to bear, then at that time you may return. But for now, I want you go down to the city and see what life is like. Even then, it won't be too late to consider other options."
"But why do I have to be the only one? After all this time!"
Suzu collapsed to the floor, her expectations thoroughly dashed. And I thought they were good people. I thought they were nice. If I had to live here and serve them, who knows how bad it would get.
They didn't know what it was like, the agony of getting swept away from your country, to a strange place where you didn't know your left from your right. Growing up here, they couldn't possibly understand what she was going through.
"If there is some other course you wish to take, tell me now. If it is within my power, I'll see what I can do to help you."
What's she asking me this now for? Suzu bit her lip and raised her tear-streaked face. "I want . . . I want to see the Royal Kei."
Kouko bent closer to her. "The Royal Kei?"
"I want to meet her, see what she's like. She was born in Yamato like me."
Ah, Kouko said under her breath, knitting her brows.
"We're fellow countrywomen. The Royal Kei would understand me, I know it. The Royal Sai doesn't. Not even Sairin understands me. Nobody born in this world understands what I've gone through."
The Royal Kei wouldn't treat her like this. She'd have heartfelt concern and sympathy for her. She'd surely help her.
While Kouko mulled it over, Suzu said, "I know the Royal Kei is just as lonely as I am, is just as sad and homesick. People here don't feel sorry for you. Only somebody from Yamato like I am could understand how bad it's been."
"I have no acquaintance with the Royal Kei, so I cannot accommodate your request directly. However, I can provide you with traveling expenses and papers of transit." Suzu's face lit up. Kouko looked down at her naive countenance with a slightly pained expression. "So go and see what comes of it. You certainly have nothing to lose from the experience."
"Thank you! Thank you so much!"
"There is one thing, however, that I wish you to remember," said Kouko, peering at the girl's tear-streaked face, now flushed and smiling. "When it comes to living a life, happiness is only the half of it. Suffering is the rest."
"Happy people are not those whose lives are well-blessed. Happy people are those who keep their hearts in good cheer."
Suzu couldn't figure out for the life of her why Kouko was telling her this.
"Child of Yamato, in the end, the only thing that truly brings us happiness is the effort we expend to put suffering behind us and the effort we make to become happy."
Suzu nodded. "Sure. Okay." Well, of course. She had fought hard for her happiness and the result was being freed from Riyou. Now she was going to meet the Royal Kei. "I won't let adversity defeat me," she said with a smile. "I've gotten used to hardships. I've got enough patience to endure to the end."
Kouko looked away, her face tinged with sorrow.