When Youko returned from Mt. Hou, the Joushi was waiting for her at Seishin.
“Youko. You have extraordinary guests.”
“Guests?” When Youko tilted her head, Shoukei nodded. Right after Youko left for Mt. Hou, some people came to Kokufu to call on Youko.
“Messengers with passports endorsed by Han-Ou came and said they would like to meet Youko. However, since Youko wasn’t here, we asked them to stay in Gyouten’s guest house for the time being. This was left by the messengers before they went; a letter from Han-Ou.”
Tilting her head, Youko took the letter. Kei had never had a diplomatic relationship with Han in the past. Probably this letter was about the matters informed to him by En-Ou and Enki.
Once she opened the letter, along with a dim sweet scent, wonderfully written, elegant Chinese characters appeared. The fine handwriting, the clear black color of the ink nicely blended with the light-indigo paper… Though all these gave the feeling of a beautiful styled letter, Youko took a deep breath and could not help squaring up to the letter. Shoukei calmly looked at Youko’s face.
“Shall I read it for you?”
“No, thanks. I’ll try to read this myself.”
Youko, with much difficulty, struggled with the letter. It started with conventional compliments to the season, then it seemed like there was an apology of his impolite use of the messengers. It was written that, considering the matter conveyed by En-Ou, he expressed his will to lavishly give his cooperation, and that he would like to request something. It’s about the general who had come from Tai and had been having a sojourn in Kei. He would strongly ask to have the chance to meet that general.
“Seems like he’s saying that he wants to meet Risai. Probably he’s asking me to send a messenger to the guest house, or probably he’s asking me to meet the messengers in the guest house…”
When Youko gave her the letter, Shoukei blinked.
“You’re wrong. It’s said that he would like you to send the general as a messenger to the guest house. Because he just wants to meet her in person, he would like you not to make a big deal of it. Aaa, then…”
Shoukei opened her eyes wide.
“Then it means Han-Ou himself is in Gyouten already.”
What? Youko mumbled.
“But that would be too rude.”
“Well yes, normally that would be rude. However, Han-Ou himself is asking us not to consider his presence as something important. It seems like he really wants to meet the general.”
“His reasons were not written here. Because it’s confidential, he’s asking us to turn a blind eye to him being here, and also that he would be grateful if we send the general to his place without telling her his identity. And that’s how the letter ends.”
“Even so, Risai still doesn’t have any energy to visit the guest house.”
“There’s no other way than trying to tell them this, right… Probably we should also use a messenger to explain the situation. I think it’s better for you to discuss this matter with Taiho and Chousai.”
Youko nodded and hurriedly went to discuss the matter with Keiki and Koukan. It’s then decided that Shoukei should secretly go to the guest house. They had to explain the situation, that there’s no other way than asking Han-Ou to visit Kimpa Palace instead. Shoukei would be handing Han-Ou a letter explaining that Risai still couldn’t move, and because they couldn’t possibly ask Han-Ou to wait until Risai recovered, though it’s impolite of them, they would like to ask Han-Ou to visit Kimpa Palace. However, the writing of that letter was quite a big commotion.
“What, you’re using this could-be-found-anywhere kind of paper? This won’t do.”
Shoukei decisively said so, and showed Youko the letter from Han-Ou.
“You should know just by looking at this. To a person with such exquisite taste, there’s no way you can give that strange thing.”
“How could you say that… You know I’m terrible at writing to begin with…”
Youko was not used to writing with a brush. She had what people called ‘poor sense of writing’.
“It’s particularly because you’re bad at it, you should put more consideration into it. If you just recklessly write on any paper you could find… Your letter looks like garbage, don’t you think?”
“Is it really necessary to say that far?”
“It is indeed! As I said, it would be a real disgrace if you use some random papers without care. Things without proper decoration would not give proper result. I’ll go looking for papers. Youko, you just stay there and practice to write your letters, kay.”
Sighing all the while, Youko practiced to write accordingly to the model letter Shoukei wrote for her. When Shoukei returned with the papers, Youko wrote and rewrote on them many many times until she could finally make a clean copy of the model letter. Shoukei went with it around dusk, and she returned when it’s already night time. She had somewhat strange expression on her face.
“How was it?”
“Aaa… Yes. He would come to the Kokufu tomorrow. Because it would be troublesome and time consuming if we accept him as a formal honorable guest, he asked us to consider him a usual, personal guest instead.”
“I see… Well then, what kind of person is Han-Ou?”
Han-Ou’s reign was already going for three hundred years, he’s a Great Emperor whose reign next only to Sou in the South and En in the North East. Shoukei kept her silent countenance and cast an upward glance towards the ceiling.
“Well… For sure, he’s a person with exquisite taste…”
To Youko who asked ‘Ha?’, Shoukei showed a twitched smile and said,
“Well, you’ll know once you’ve met him.”
True to the plan, the next day a message came from Kokufu saying their guests from Han had arrived. Youko was in the middle of settling the governmental matters accumulating from her absence while going to Mt. Hou. But when hearing the news, Youko left her business and went to the Outer Hall. There’s a shrine beside the Outer Hall, and it seemed like her guests were settled there for the time being. When she entered the hall, two figures were waiting inside. One was a tall lady in her late twenties, and the other was a young girl of fifteen or sixteen. There’s nothing particular about the young girl’s feature, but when Youko saw her face, her feet stopped moving for a split second. That’s because she felt like she had seen that young girl’s face somewhere before.
This girl somewhat looked like a girl Youko met before in Kei. Of course, she couldn’t possibly be that girl. Because that other girl had already passed away. However still, it slightly pained her heart. It saddened her to think that the two girls looked alike.
The young girl knelt before Youko. After looking at Youko rather mysteriously, she put her hands together and gave her greeting.
“Even though we so rudely came here without notice, you still kindly grant us an audience with you, and for that I am giving my deepest gratitude. I brought along with me another messenger sent by Royal Highness Han-Ou.”
After saying this, the young girl turned her head towards someone behind her who was also kneeling. Well, this person’s probably Han-Ou himself—with such thought, Youko looked at the person who had taken a bow to her, and she was a bit surprised. There’s definitely nothing gaudy about this person, and at one glimpse she seemed like a beautiful lady wearing simple, plain dress. But when Youko really looked carefully, the Kimono and its flowery motif, though wasn’t obvious, was a very fine product. However, no matter how Youko looked at it, she could only see this ‘lady’ with a slim and tall body, as a man. Anyhow, it’s certain that the kimono suited him well. No mistake, just like what Shoukei said, he was a man with a fine taste. But still…— seeing Youko who did not know where she should direct her eyes to, the young girl smiled.
“Anyway, he would like to convey the words from Royal Highness Han-Ou…”
Youko who understood that it meant they would like to request a private meeting, nodded. She turned to the gate keeper. “Tell the Daikoujin, they shall welcome these guests. And also---”
While Youko said this, the young girl looked to her side.
“No… I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but His Royal Highness had told me not to make this such an extravagant. Please, do not bother your officials for our sake.”
“I am pleading with you. If not, His Royal Highness would reprimand me.”
“Well then, please excuse me; I would invite you to come as my personal guests. Follow me this way, please.”
Although the gate keepers gave reproaching protests, Youko silence them with a glance. While leading the young girl from the Outer Hall to the Inner Hall, they heard one gate keeper said whisperingly behind their back, that ‘Han doesn’t know of etiquette’.
“I have failed in disciplining my subjects. Please forgive me.”
When Youko apologized, the young girl smiled.
“It’s only because Kei-Ou just so recently became an emperor.”
Youko thought there was something peculiar. There was nothing particularly conspicuous about this young girl’s appearance, but she had some qualities that attracted people. Moreover, this special ‘something’ wasn’t there on the girl who died in the corner area of Ei Province of Kei.
“Is there something wrong?”
“No… I just feel like you resemble somebody I knew.”
Oh is that so, said the girl, smiling. The other ‘messenger’ held himself behind the young girl. He had not changed his countenance, and from a while ago he had not uttered any words. His presence gave this unobtrusive but strange feel, and his movements seemed naturally flowing, graceful and elegant. He might be Han-Ou, thought Youko confusedly while leading the two people to the Inner Hall. On their way, they met Keiki. It seemed like Keiki was on his way to the Outer Hall.
“Aa, Keiki! These are…”
Youko began to speak, but stopped in the middle. Out of character, Keiki gaped at them.
“Your Majesty… These people are?”
“Aa… They are Han-Ou’s messengers.”
The young girl grinned and took a bow. It startled Youko to see Keiki, who seemed taken aback, hurriedly went down on his knees.
“Then, this is Han Taiho?”
“What?!” Youko was about to exclaim so, but the girl withheld her. She pressed a finger on her lips as if asking Youko to keep silent. Youko looked at the young girl again. This young girl’s hair was shining black. No matter how she thought about it, being a Kirin, the young girl’s hair should not be black. The tall man who stood silently behind them looked at Youko and smiled for the first time.
“Could you take us someplace?” Because the girl asked this nonchalantly, Youko hurriedly showed them towards the park of Inner Hall.
In that huge park, there was a library connected to the Inner Hall, and they kept going towards a guest palace on the opposite of that library. Here and there in that park, there were summerhouses and castles; they appeared like a lair of abundant buildings up and down the park. Youko showed them into one of the buildings, and sent the guards away. Seeing that, the young girl put her hands over her neck. She dropped a cannot-be-seen cap, and made a movement like tearing off a coating. Then brilliantly shining, almost transparent golden hair appeared.
She approached the dumbstruck Youko, and took a bow.
“I am sorry to have startled you. Please let me greet you again. I am Hanrin.”
Her face no longer resembled the other girl Youko knew. On the contrary, Youko had never before seen anybody who looked so beautiful, so angelic like this girl. Now there was a thin gauze-like coating on her two hands, the one she seemed to cast off from her face before.
Aa, the young girl said. “This is called Koseisan (lit. Incantation to cast one’s skin). With my appearance, I would surely cause commotion towards your officials, so I borrowed this from His Majesty. But it seemed like I had really startled Kei-Ou. Did I resemble someone?”
“Then, that person is special to Kei-Ou, correct?”
Hanrin smiled like a flower.
“This is such a thing. People who see me wearing this would see me as someone they prefer. However, when I look myself in the mirror, I would see no difference at all. But indeed, it didn’t work on Taiho.”
“That’s because I could see your Kirin spirit’s glow.”
Saying that, Keiki let out a sigh and knelt down. “Anyway, let me give my greeting. This is the first time we meet.”
“Yes, please accept my greeting as well”.
The girl bobbed her head, and relying on her hands, let herself fall deeply into a chair with some force.
“Kei-Ou, what is your name?”
“Then I’ll call you Youko. I’m really a grandma, and I’ve known many Kei-Ous, so it would be confusing to call you Kei-Ou. Keiki, don’t you have a new name already?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Poor thing… My current name is Risetsu (lit. Snow Peach). But since my emperor changes my name capriciously, I don’t know how long this name would last. Isn’t that right?”
The girl said so, and looked up to the man standing by her side. Youko thought ‘so it’s true’ and nodded, while Keiki opened his mouth in surprise.
The man smiled.
“I’m the emperor of Han, I am called Goranjou.”
Ah, said Youko, nodding. Then she came to her senses and hurriedly embarked from her seat.
“Forgive my rudeness. Please, have a seat. I have unknowingly treated you with disrespect, haven’t I?”
There’s no such thing, said the man, smiling. Hanrin laughed like the ring of a bell.
“That’s because we did this kind of visiting, it’s no wonder things don’t suit the courtesy. We’re the ones who were disrespectful, so please do not think about it.”
Hanrin said that and tilted her head slightly. “But really, Youko, I would be very happy if you don’t think badly about us either. His Majesty said he really wants to meet the general who came from Tai. If we came formally, it would take time, and would cause a fuss among the officials, so we ended up coming here this way.”
“That doesn’t bother me at all, but—You want to meet Risai?”
When Youko looked at Han-Ou, the man nodded.
“According to the talk from En, the general was from the army of Zui Province. Though I’ve heard her condition is still not good, can I meet her?”
“Yes… Though she still doesn’t have the power to walk far, she’s on the road to recovery and doing some exercises to move her withered arm and legs.”
“I would be grateful if you keep my identity a secret to her, coz startling a sick person is not my attention. I just wish you’d let me have a meeting with her as a mere guest from Han.”
“Please come this way.”
“Okay. Since I’m visiting as a private guest, of course I would have to walk from here. Would you please show me the way?”
Yes, said Youko, and led Han-Ou.
Hanrin stayed sitting on her chair, gripped Keiki’s clothes and waved her hands in fluttering movements.
When Youko entered the courtyard of Taishi’s estate, Risai was on her training hour with Kei kei. With some help, Risai could already move forward on her once completely withered feet. Risai was a bit relieved because yesterday she could even manage to mount Hien.
“…Youko!” Acknowledging Youko, Kei kei smiled.
“Did you see? She can already walk a little.”
“It indeed seems so. You haven’t let her try too hard, have you?”
Youko nodded, and told Risai that she had a guest. Risai looked behind Youko. The person who came forward was a person with eccentric look, but Risai felt like she recognized the look from somewhere.
“Kei kei, could you go out for a while?”
Once Youko said so, without any fuss Kei kei nodded.
“Well then, I’ll just go taking care of Hien. You know, yesterday I learnt how to clean his body from Risai.”
Oh is that so, said Youko with a smile, and sent Kei kei off. Then she looked back at Risai again.
“This is a guest from Han. I brought him here because he requested to meet you.”
Saying so, Youko put Risai’s arm on her shoulder and helped her to walk. Gratefully Risai accepted the help, and while they were returning to her room, again she felt like she had seen this guest from Han before.
“You are getting better, aren’t you?”
The man said so after he sat himself on a chair by Risai’s invitation. Risai bowed to him.
“Yes I am… Excuse me, but you are…?”
“I came from Han. There’s something I’d like you to see.”
Having said so, from his front kimono which was made of steel colored hemp with elegant black embroidery, he took out a small cloth packet. He opened the packet, took out a fragment of koshiobi (strap/belt to keep a kimono in place) and put in on the table. The leather belt was decorated with sparkling ornaments of the darkest silver color. At the edge of the belt there’s a shackle carved with magnificent feature of a stampeding horse, but the rest of the belt was missing. Only two handful length remained. It was cut halfway, and the leather part of the belt was tainted with a dark red stain.
Having a look at it, without thinking Risai stood up. Soon she lost her balance and was dangerously about to tumble down.
“I heard you are the general of Zui Province Army. Do you recognize this belt?”
Yes I do, replied Risai.
“This belt… Where did you find it?”
“In Han. It seems like it was mingled with the crystal and gem sent from Tai.”
This belt is..? Asked Youko who was keeping Risai from falling down.
“This belongs to His Majesty. There’s no mistake about it. This belt—”
Suddenly Risai remembered. She indeed recognized this guest who had not revealed his identity. Yes, she had definitely seen him before; without doubt it was at Gyousou’s coronation feast.
Risai let go of Youko’s hand and knelt down on spot.
“I’ve heard that Your Highness gave this belt to Gyousou-sama as a coronation gift.”
That’s right, Han-Ou nodded. “I didn’t want to startle you, but you’ve remembered, haven’t you... All right. Now sit down, please. You’re hurting yourself.”
Having that said, Han-Ou looked at the perplexed Youko.
“From a long time ago, Han has had a diplomatic relationship with Tai. Even when I hated the former Tai-Ou...”
“He just had such terrible taste… No matter what, I could never get along well with someone who liked to hang gold and silver jewelry on his armor!”
Han-Ou frowned as if he really hated it.
“However, Gyousou wasn’t bad… I came to his throne succession feast, and though he looked rugged, seemed like he had fine taste. And Taiki was indeed splendid… I fancied that steel colored mane!”
Realizing that he had made Youko blinked in astonishment, Han-Ou laughed.
“Well, that’s how we became associated with each other. Furthermore, Han doesn’t have gem springs, and of course doesn’t have mountains producing gems either. However, among the twelve countries, we can boast about our processed products of gem, gold and silver. The materials needed to make these processed products were sent from Tai. In one of the materials’ cargos, this belt was found.”
He said so and took the shackle.
“Look. Every single hair of this stampeding horse’s mane was carved in detail. This was my gift for Tai-Ou’s coronation, so I asked only the best craftsmen specialized in carving from our Toukan (Public Works & Industrial Arts Department) to work on it. This was, without doubt, one of the things I presented to Tai-Ou for his commemoration. Even only from the workmanship it is certain, there’s no other place but our Toukan that could produce a silver product which still shines so beautifully. The person who found this belt guessed as much, so he sent it to the Toukan, and the Toukan delivered it to me.”
Risai who’s still kneeling down looked up at Han-Ou.
“This… This belt was found in a cargo from where?”
“Bun Province. It’s mixed with stones from Rin’u city of Bun Province. But I heard now there’s only one productive mine left in Rin’u.”
“Yes, that is true.”
Han-Ou nodded at Risai’s answer, and then looked at Youko.
“Tai’s best gem was produced from gem springs. Seeds of gem were dipped into mountain’s water vein so they would grow. Places passed by the water vein could produce belts of gems layers where small stones got caught into them as well. If we dig these places, we could find material for decorating stones, but of course Tai people don’t bother separating the gems from the stones. These stones were sent just like that. So, literally, ‘mixed stones’ were sent to Han. It is our craftsmen’s work to sort the good part of the stones from the bad ones. Craftsmen purchased cargos of one kin (equal to about 18 kg) of mountain stones with some large amount of money. In one of these cargos, this belt was found.”
“It sounds laborious…”
“It is indeed… Bun Province was a source of gem, but since almost no gem could be found anymore, it might be that people had exhausted the springs. Whatever left of the good gem was taken by Kyou-Ou (Tai’s previous emperor), and to Han they sent mostly worthless stones. Even these stones’ shipments were diminishing through the years. Especially these recent years, we hardly get any stones from Tai. It seems like the trading of stones’ cargos had completely stopped. This belt was found about two years after a suspicious delegation came from Tai—
—to inform that Tai-Ou had passed away. The stone shipments stopped around that time, so this belt barely managed to get to Han. It came just right in time before the cargo stopped coming.”
“The belt is slashed”
Han-Ou nodded at Youko’s words.
“The Toukan agreed with one opinion: this cut was made using a sharp object. Not only the front, but the back part of the belt was also stained with blood. This could only mean one thing…”
“Someone stabbed Tai-Ou…”
“Not just stabbing, but stabbed him from behind. Although we were worried that some serious incident had happened to Tai-Ou, no replies came from Tai regarding our inquiries. Then this time we got a contact from En, and it’s the first time we learned of the real situation.”
This belt, said Han-Ou while wrapping the belt back into the cloth,
“I pass on to you. I’m relieved to hear that although this belt’s been slashed, Tai-Ou didn't die. By a strange stroke of fate this belt returned to me. Tai-Ou himself never managed to inform you of his whereabouts, is that right?”
While nodding, Risai accepted the cloth packet gratefully and respectfully.
“You Tai people are still connected to Tai-Ou with such a miraculous link… Do not give up.”
Thank you very much
Couldn’t manage to utter these words, Risai let them out in a sob.