11-3 Youko finished her morning chores and sent Enho's charges off to school. The school here didn't have an age limit, so Rangyoku attended along with Keikei. The main subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic. Children could go to school starting from the age of seven (counting a child as one at birth and a year older on each New Year), or five (counting birthdays on date of birth).
Because there was no formal graduation, adults could attend as well, and often came with babes in arms.
It was a pretty laid-back atmosphere. The main thing stressed was that the talk be about something more constructive than mere gossip. But as a consequence, open attendance was allowed only during the time that the villagers returned from the hamlets to the town. The school itself was closed from spring until fall. Anybody wishing to attend otherwise had to get a recommendation from the superintendent (who was also the principal).
Youko lingered behind in the now vacant orphanage and fretted about the girl named Suzu. What should she do? Go to Takuhou to look for her? She'd sent Hankyo off to Gyouten and he still hadn't returned. That was another reason for her hesitation. As she prepared lunch, she turned the whole thing over in her mind, wondering what to do.
"Hey, Youshi!" said Keikei.
Enho always left with Keikei and Rangyoku and returned together. Keikei ran ahead and got home first.
"You got a guest!"
"Yeah," Keikei nodded.
Youko glanced over her shoulder as Rangyoku walked in with Enho. Without a word, Rangyoku looked at Youko and grinned. "At the Eika Inn next to the dragon gate."
Rangyoku giggled and went into the kitchen. She pulled Youko over to a secluded area by the wall. "It's a guy."
Youko raised her eyebrows. The first image that popped into her head was the man she'd met at that shady tavern in Takuhou. "Was it perhaps a rather grim-looking man? A big man?"
"More of a slender physique."
"About fourteen or fifteen?" If it wasn't the big man, then maybe the boy who had intervened on her behalf.
Rangyoku gave Youko a teasing scowl. "Oh, stop it! I can't believe you'd forget a good-looking guy like that! He said to tell you that your servant had arrived. You'd know who it was."
Youko's eyes flew wide open.
"Wow, I mean, your servant! That's so incredible!"
Youko hastily waved her hands, batting away the implications. "Don't be ridiculous! It's nothing like that!"
"Ah, you're blushing. Must be a really neat guy. He was dressed so fine!"
"No, no, no. Oh, all right, what exactly did he have to say?"
"So you do know him. You two must be really close." Rangyoku laughed out loud. She rolled up her sleeves and went to the water barrel. "Well, you better go right away and find out. And if you're not going to be back tonight, be sure to let us know!"
"I figured it was you," Youko said when she walked into the guest suite at the inn and recognized the prim face.
He opened his eyes suspiciously and leaned forward. Then quickly and politely bowed. The cloak fell from his shoulders.
"Forgive me for beckoning you here."
He certainly did present himself well. Compared to his usual attire, he had about himself an air of frugality, but that was because he couldn't very well show up here in full ministerial dress.
"That was some way of getting my attention."
The bellhop who had showed her to the room gave her a meaningful look. He left the room and wordlessly closed the doors behind him.
Youko let out a deep sigh. "Forget it," she said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. From next to her ankles she heard what sounded like snickering laughter. "Oh, Hankyo. You know, you could have sent Hankyo for me."
"I wished to see what kind of place this orphanage was. Should I not have?"
"Hey, fine with me. So, Keiki, why come all the way here?"
Keiki took a scroll from the stationery box resting on his knees and rolled it out on the table. "Do you have your Imperial Seal?"
"Do I have my what?" Youko shook her head and grinned. "Sorry, didn't bring it with me."
"Some paperwork that needs to be taken care of. Tomorrow, I'll have Hankyo go fetch it."
She took each of the documents from a stationery box. Although she had left everything in Keiki's care, the decrees of high government officials still required the Imperial Seal. She unwound the scrolls and scanned the text. She could hardly read a word, so she couldn't do much more than skim over it. She'd have to get Keiki to read it aloud for her in order to understand it.
"And how is the rike?"
"What? Oh, it's great. Enho's a good man, and I love the kids."
"Is that so? That is good to know."
"Which isn't to mean I don't have any concerns," Youko muttered.
"Ah," said Keiki, lowering his voice. "As for your inquiries about Shoukou, I examined the civil service records and asked around the ministries. He is the governor of Shisui Prefecture, Wa Province. A high-ranking official of no good repute."
"Seems to be a lot of that in Wa Province: Marquis Gahou, Governor Shoukou."
"He has crossed the line many times. The ministers are desperate to discipline him, but no matter what happens, Gahou watches his back and covers everything up."
"Enho calls Gahou a jackal who shed its tail."
"A fair description."
"Fortunately, Shisui happens to be close by. I was curious to see for myself what this Shoukou was like. I'd also like to check out the capital of Wa Province."
"You shouldn't be taking unnecessary risks."
"I don't. I'll be careful."
Keiki gave Youko a sideways glance. "Really? I can smell blood on you."
"Eh?" Youko sniffed at her sleeves.
"It is blood, is it not? Though I do not wish to imply that Your Highness was the cause of it."
"Oh, that's right. I came across an accident. It happened a few days ago. Can you still smell it?"
"It strikes me as the blood of an innocent, spilled without a curse, so it is not acrid. I do worry for your well being."
Accursed blood. Youko smiled darkly to herself. Keiki used that description often when she was battling the pretender. No matter how much magnanimity you displayed, when you killed someone or ordered their death, the malice and bitterness in the blood hung like a fog around her. Kirin could not abide blood, and the scent of such accursed blood pained them.
"Don't worry about it."
Keiki--and all kirin--ate nothing tinged with blood. They weren't forced to reject it out of hand, but even foods fried or sauteed in suet would harm their bodies. According to Rokuta, kirin of En, that was why kirin swept away to Yamato never lived long. The shortened lifespan of a kirin without a king was approximately thirty years. A kirin in Yamato could last maybe a third that long.
Such were the kind of creatures that kirin were.
"Really. I can take care of myself."
"I earnestly pray that you will."
"So, how are things going in Gyouten?" Youko asked, with a bit of forced cheerfulness.
Keiki responded with a dour expression. He said, "Without Your Highness there . . . " and sighed.
As usual, the warring ministers had divided the court into two factions. Although Seikyou, the previous Chousai, had lost de facto authority, and Taisai, leader of the opposition, had died, things had pretty much stayed the same. Left with no real authority of consequence to toss around, Keiki's sense was that they had less interest in governance than in fighting petty turf battles.
The things some people were saying as if true: fearing regicide, the empress fled to Yamato. She had sought refuge in En. She had hidden herself deeply within the palace compound. Others went so far as to say she had been kidnapped by Marquis Koukan of Baku Province. What they all had in common was the criticism that she had abandoned the throne and grave doubts that she would ever return to it.
As Keiki explained all this, Youko took a breath and let it out. "I see."
"And there are those who claim that because things were not going the way you desired at the palace, you grew frustrated and appealed to the Royal En and will henceforth staff the court with bureaucrats from En."
"What?" said Youko. She bit her lip and then cynically laughed. "But, of course. Without the help of the Royal En, they think I couldn't have done a thing by myself."
It was true, though. And it vexed her, having to depend on others like this.
"I consider it all nonsense. But perhaps you have entertained such thoughts?"
Youko felt a shiver go through her. "Why ask me a question like that?" Her green eyes darkened. "Is this something you have your own doubts about?"
Feeling the weight of her displeasure, Keiki unconsciously averted his gaze. He who could stare down a youma could not look his lord in the eye.
"At least you have to believe in me."
"Look, no one has less faith in me than myself. More than anybody else, I doubt my qualifications to be empress. There have been rulers who let these doubts and suspicions overcome them and fell from the Way. That is why, if nobody else in this world believes me, you have to."
"Yes," he said, bowing.
Youko opened the scroll in her hand. "Do you have to return right away?"
"A quick return would be problematic. I have supposedly traveled to En."
Youko grinned. "Of course. So, would you like to take a trip to Takuhou?"
"Takuhou in Shisui Prefecture, I take it."
Youko nodded. "The capital of Wa Province, what is it, again?"
"You mean, Meikaku?"
"Yeah. I'm thinking of going to Meikaku, and stopping by Takuhou on the way. I'd like to see what things are like in Wa Province. You can be my tour guide."
"Yes, but . . . . " Keiki hesitated.
Once again her eyes darkened. "I'd like you to see it, too, Keiki. I want you to see the Kei you don't see from the palace."
"Well, then, let's straighten out all this paperwork. Sorry, but would you read it aloud to me?"