4-4 Youko retreated to her rooms deep within the Inner Palace where the ministers could not follow her. She left word with her attendants that no one was to enter but Keiki. She opened the window.
A damp breeze blew off the Sea of Clouds, bringing with it the briny smell of the ocean.
"After all that and I just slink away . . . . "
She couldn't resist a wicked smile. She'd taken Chousai down a notch and relegated the leaders of the two warring factions to the Sankou, where they could exercise no de facto authority. With one fell swoop, she'd wiped clean the political map of the palace. She must have been considering it all along. That's why when she opened her mouth it all just came out.
"Empress," came Keiki's stern voice.
Youko turned around. Keiki was wearing as grim an expression as she had hitherto observed.
"What are you doing? It has long been stipulated that the Saiho has no acting authority. That is--"
Youko cut him off. "I'm going to Kankyuu. I'm going to have the Royal En teach me political governance."
Keiki's eyes widened. "What are you saying?"
"Please give my regards to the ministers." Youko leaned back against the window frame and folded her hands in her lap. "And I thought I'd live for a while in a city."
Youko examined her fingernails. She left her care in the hands of her servants and they made sure her nails were always polished and beautiful. All this luxurious clothing and jewelry, it wasn't anything she needed.
"I never wanted the throne of Kei."
"Even if I wished to be made empress, that doesn't mean I wanted to live here amidst all this opulence. I was told the kingdom would crumble into chaos without a king. I was told that the Divine Will reflected the will of the people. It's hard not sleeping in your own bed at night. It's hard going hungry. I know that down to the marrow of my bones."
Youko had been suddenly spirited away to this strange world from Japan. Not knowing her left hand from her right, she had come very close to dying a dog's death by the wayside.
"Getting hunted down by youma is the worst. If I hadn't acceded to the throne, the people of Kei would have met the same fate. That's why I accepted it. That's why there should be a king. Certainly not to make the bureaucrats happy, and not to make you happy. Isn't my reason for being here to make the people happy?"
"That is why--"
Youko shook her head. "Keiki. I don't know a thing about this kingdom."
"Empress, that is--"
"What do the people think about? What do they wish and hope for? How do they live? I don't know the first thing."
"First finding the right path is the most important thing."
"The right path?" Youko smiled. "There's this girl, see. She has homework six days a week. Then there are the clubs she belongs to and cram school, besides. She practices the piano and takes lessons. Midterm exams are the worst and there are two of those every semester. Besides midterms, there are practice exams for college that could determine the rest of her life. Get too many demerits, fail too many classes, and she'll get held back a year. Fail her entrance exams and she'll become a ronin. The hem of her skirt must reach the knee, her tie must be black. Her nylons must be sheer or black. So tell me, what's going to make this girl happy?"
"Huh?" said Keiki.
"In the society I've just described, what path should she take?"
"I am sorry, but--"
"You don't have the slightest idea, do you?" Youko said with a wry smile. "The same way you don't understand, I don't understand. What path should I take? I examine the faces of the ministers and take measure of their attitudes; I consider which opinions I should accept, which I should reject. That is all I've got to work with. That is all I know."
"So can you give me a little time? This is all too different from the world I know."
Keiki wore an expression of utter befuddlement.
"Right now, I can't stand sitting on that throne."
Keiki's eyes opened wide with amazement.
"When I was in Yamato, I lived in constant dread of being disliked by anybody. From dawn to dusk, I constantly tried to read people's expressions, tried to stay in everybody's good graces, tried to keep my balance on that impossibly narrow tightrope. Now I'm trying to read your expression, that of the ministers, the man in the street, and then attempting to agree with everybody. It's impossible."
"I don't want to repeat the same mistake twice. But I find myself headed in the same direction. Right now, I know how this will be interpreted. The ministers won't be pleased. It's because she's a woman, they'll all sigh." Youko laughed to herself. "Maybe everything will come crashing down before my very eyes. But a king who tries to read everybody's mind, who sways back and forth like a reed in the wind, well, good riddance to such a king, and the sooner the better."
Keiki stood there, expressionless. At length, he nodded. "All right."
"For the time being, I shall leave the kingdom in your hands. I know that at the very least you won't oppress the people. If there ever comes a time when my presence is absolutely required, then send the fastest runner in the land to fetch me. Keiki, I am asking you to let me do this."
"You can count on me," Keiki said with a bow.
Youko looked at him intently, then breathed a sigh of relief. "I really am grateful. It's good to know that you understand where I'm coming from."
Keiki was the only real retainer she had. The king of En had many officials at his beck and call. The Royal En was a wild man whose actions exasperated all of his ministers, but they all trusted him, and he trusted them in turn. The only person capable of trusting her was Keiki, and the kirin was the only person in the palace she had any real faith in.
"And what does Your Highness intend to do next, then?"
"Like I said, I was thinking of seeing what life was like in the city. Pick up work as a day laborer, live alongside regular people."
"If it meets with your approval, let me make arrangements for your sojourn beforehand."
Youko tilted her head to the side. "Well . . . . "
"You aren't intending to live as a vagabond, are you? Permit me this. Let me make arrangements that will at least put my own mind at ease."
"All right. I'll leave that to you."
Now Keiki drew a breath of relief.
"I'm sorry for being so selfish."
Keiki smiled thinly. "To tell the truth, I find myself somewhat relieved as well."
"At any rate, please return as quickly as possible."
"Yes, I know."
Leaving the Inner Palace, Keiki stopped to look out at the Sea of Clouds. As complicated as things had just gotten, he was strangely relieved.
Keiki had served two empresses. The posthumous name of the first was Yo-ou. Her reign had lasted a mere six years, and she had remained shut away in the palace for most of that time. The woman had no interest whatsoever in governance or politics.
The memory of her pale face arose from the recesses of his memory. She had a gentle, prudent nature. Except for her extreme shyness, she was not undeserving of the throne. However, what she truly desired was a rather banal sort of happiness.
More than wishing happiness for her people, Yo-ou wanted a peaceful, frugal existence. She didn't care for riches, just a simple life lived without praise or censure. She only desired to be left in peace to till the land, marry a man, and raise their children.
He could still hear the sound of her working at her loom.
When she first acceded to the throne, it seemed that she would serve honorably and true. But she soon grew weary of the rivalries amongst the ministers. The officials she had inherited from the previous monarch wrangled over political turf and fought for leadership positions. As this life surrounded and closed in on her, she withdrew from it. She secluded herself deeper and deeper within the palace and there worked at her loom. It was her way of trying to undo everything he had imposed on her.
"And here I am, still thinking about her."
Keiki smiled a grim smile. The first time he met Youko, he was struck at how much she resembled Yo-ou. And still did. In an honest moment, he would admit that he found the similarities disconcerting.
"But they've turned out differently."
Even if only in small ways, Youko and Yo-ou were different. He could tell from the way Youko battled her personal demons. Like Yo-ou, Youko recoiled from dealing with the ministers and abhorred the throne. But Youko recognized those tendencies within herself. She had begun to take measures to overcome them. That was the biggest difference between them.
"Hankyo!" Keiki called to his shirei.
"Yes," came the reply from the shadows at his feet.
"Accompany the Empress and protect her. Make sure no harm befalls her. She is the one jewel that Kei cannot afford to lose."