The pair of master and servant from Han waited for Risai and others to return, then went back to their own country, handing over their room to be used as Taiki’s sickbed. Taiki who had been brought back from Mt. Hou remained asleep, but Enki and Keiki and other kirin were no longer unable to approach him. After confirming that, Renrin who seemed relieved also decided to return to Ren.
“Can’t you wait until you could meet him, before you leave?”
Hearing Risai’s question, Renrin who was about to dash off turned back.
“I’ve seen his face. I’ve also confirmed that he’s safe. …So that’s enough. Because there’s nothing else I must do here, I have no reason to be absent from my country.”
But, Risai started to say, but then her head drooped. The time Renrin had spent while staying in Kimpa Palace and searching for Taiki would normally be used for Ren people’s sake. Risai had deprived Ren of their Saiho. There’s no way Risai could detain Renrin just for sentimental reasons, and she shouldn’t prevent Renrin from moving on, either.
Moreover, said Renrin with a smile,
“Once His Majesty stopped worrying about Taiki, he would start to miss me. If I don’t return home soon, he would surely be troubled. …He’s not at all someone who can be left unattended, you know.”
Risai responded with a smile, and saw Renrin off with a deep bow. On the following day Shouryuu, too, returned to En, leaving Enki behind. The air of autumn was stealthily creeping into the west garden that had suddenly become quiet.
Risai never left Taiki’s bedside. For things Risai couldn’t handle alone, Kei kei was there to help.
“Ah, he has not awakened yet…”
Entering with Hagi flowers in his arms, Kei kei stared at Taiki’s sleeping face. ‘So these would be the first thing he sees if he opens his eyes”, said Kei kei while bringing the flowers closer, without leaving a single branch.
“His complexion has gotten much better.”
“It really has… Tai Taiho is a kirin but his hair is not golden.”
“Yes, because he is a black kirin.”
“I thought his hair turned like this because of his illness or something. When Youko told me that I was wrong, I was relieved.”
Is that so, Risai said, smiling.
“But I thought Tai Taiho would be smaller.”
“He has grown. That’s because it’s already been six years since the last time I saw him.”
The one who was sleeping before Risai’s eyes was no longer a child. If she said she’s completely okay with it, she would be lying. The younger Taiki would never return. Similarly, the already passing time of six years would never be regained.
“So he had been in a sorrowful place for six years, hadn’t he…”
“Because he had been ill, he must have suffered, right?”
“Ah, that… Yes, that might be so.”
“It’s great that he could return.”
Yes, replied Risai. At that time, Taiki’s eyelashes moved weakly.
Kei kei leaned forward and once he saw Taiki’s slightly open eyes, he quickly made a dash.
“I’ll let Youko know!”
Kei kei’s sudden movements shook the Hagi flowers near Taiki’s pillow. So indeed, Taiki’s barely opened eyes were firstly laid on these flowers.
“…Taiki, are you awake?”
Risai looked into that face while everything became blurred and shaded. Those bottomless eyes looked at Risai, and then blinked slowly as if seeing a dream.
“You have returned. Do you understand?”
For a moment he looked up at Risai as if stunned, but then he nodded.
The weak voice, too, was no longer a voice of a child. It was a serene, gentle voice.
Risai couldn’t help crumbling into tears. She embraced the thin body on the bed.
“Risai, your arm…”
The hand that returned her embrace touched what was left of her right arm.
“Yes. I lost it in a blunder.”
“Are you all right?”
Risai was about to withdraw, but the thin arm stopped her.
“Risai… I’m sorry.”
It’s nothing, Risai answered so, but probably it didn’t come out loud for being swallowed by her sob.
When a lower officer finally reached the Outer Hall, the morning assembly was being held there. The officer whispered to Koukan. Koukan gave a nod, and with an ‘excuse me’ he stepped onto the platform. He then whispered into Youko’s ear.
Is that so, Youko said so and then nodded. After Koukan stepped down from the platform and returned to the assembly matters, Youko called Keiki who was standing behind her.
Keiki bent with a perplexed look and Youko informed him in a small voice.
“It seems like Taiki has awakened.”
Keiki widened his eyes.
“You are excused. …Go.”
But, hearing her faithful servant said that in a suppressed voice, Youko laughed.
“It’s alright, just go.”
Half dismayed, Keiki left the Outer Hall and headed to the guest house. When he reached the chamber, Enki Rokuta was already there.
Keiki didn’t remember ever hearing that voice before. The face in front of him also looked like a stranger’s, and Keiki couldn’t help feeling distraught, just like so many times before when he came here and looked at his sleeping face. Keiki hesitantly walked to Taiki’s bedside, and when he got there he caught a glimpse of Enki who shot a smile before silently left the room. There were only the two of them remained in that room, and that made Keiki feel lost.
“It seems like I’ve been causing so much trouble, please forgive me.”
“It’s nothing… Are you all right?”
“Yes. From the bottom of my heart I thank you for saving Risai, and for saving me.”
Hearing the quiet voice, Keiki felt more and more uneasy. He of course knew that this person’s face had changed, but now he saw that the beaming smile had also gone, as well as his childish voice. When Keiki thought that the little kirin had gone for good, his heart mourned over the loss.
“…It was not me, because everything was Her Majesty’s doing.”
Keiki, who said that and then hung his head, suddenly remembered that the emperor he had served the last time he met Taiki was no longer around. Indeed, such a long time had passed.
“I heard that Kei-Ou is a taika.”
Taiki said only that, so he must have heard about the situation from someone.
“Yes. …Her Majesty really wants to meet Taiki. But right now the morning assembly is being held, so it’s not possible. ….But that won’t be for long.”
Taiki responded with ‘I see’, and Keiki didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t know where to look either, and while he let his eyes swimming around the room, he heard his voice.
“…I’d been having long, painful dreams.”
Keiki quickly turned back to him, and the face that seemed to wither from pain gave a weak smile.
“Do you remember? When I first met Kei Taiho, I was a kirin who couldn’t do anything.”
“You gave me so much kindness, taught me a lot of things, but I couldn’t remember anything you taught me… After Kei Taiho left, I could finally remember them, but now they are all lost again…”
“Among those painful dreams, I always had dreams about Houro Palace. … How I missed it, how I longed to meet…”
He looked at Keiki. He looked with those earnest eyes of his, just like he’d used to.
“…Will I make it in time?”
“I have wasted so much time. Everything was already lost. Even so, have I returned in time? Do you think there’s still something that I can do?”
Keiki continued strongly.
“That is why you returned. Your return proves that hope hasn’t gone astray. Please do not worry.”
With that he closed his eyes, as if digesting Keiki's words.
Youko looked at him closely and received a nod. The gauntness on his face was obvious, but while remained on the bed he straightened himself up, made himself presentable.
“Are you Kei-Ou?”
“…I’m Nakajima, Youko.”
Hearing that, he cast a smile.
Youko sighed. She had this strange feeling, something near to confusion.
“This is really a strange feeling… to meet a person from the same world and generation, in this kind of place.”
“I feel that too. …You’ve helped me a lot, thank you very much.”
“You don’t have to say that…”
Youko halted, and dropped her gaze.
“Yes, it’s not that I’ve done something worthy of your gratitude. At least, it could be said that I haven’t done anything to save Tai.”
“I am grateful. For being brought back here.”
“I’m glad if you feel that way.”
For a moment Youko said nothing more. She’d thought she would want to talk to him about a lot of things when they meet. About their home country… about this and that. But now when she finally met him she couldn’t find anything to talk about.
That home country was no longer a country she could return to. That place had turned into a world unrelated to her. After finding something to talk about this pointless matter, what she would miss would be her still raw losses. To say it bluntly, she’s afraid she would have a homesickness so severe she’d run away from here. Yes…She had this feeling that probably, before came the time when everyone close to her in that world—her family and classmates—had all died and disappeared, there’s no way she could talk about it just for nostalgia’s sake.
“The other world… hasn’t changed, right?”
“Yes… Many things happened, but none was so great as to alter it…”
“Is that so…”
---Then that’s enough.
Youko sighed and then smiled.
“Right now we’re discussing about what we can do for Tai. Of course we will help the refugees, but we must also think of a way to save the people who remain in Tai. It would be great if we could just go there to help, but it seems like that really can’t be done.”
“Really, thank you very much.”
“Don’t say that… I’m not doing this solely for Tai’s sake. Moreover, I can’t do the things worthy of your gratitude. Kei is still poor. There are quite large numbers of the refugees, but we can’t even give them constant relief.”
However, Youko said with a smile,
“I find Taiki’s return encouraging. The truth is I’m relying on you, so please get well as soon as possible.”
“Yes. I’ve said many things, but it seems that for the people of this world, my ideas are all weird. For example, when I suggested creating something like an embassy to give relief to Tai, my officials, and even En-Ou and Enki all seemed bewildered by it.”
Taiki asked with widened eyes, and half embarrassedly Youko nodded a yes at him.
“Though for me this idea isn’t that strange… For the benefit of the refugees, I think there should be an institution to represent them. A lot of refugees come flowing into Kei or En, and they accept whatever conditions and expedients given while receiving the custody. But I think it’s fine if they can negotiate ‘we want things to be like this’, or ask ‘can we do it like this?’. After all, the refugees themselves would be the ones to know the best way to help them. In the end, I think in preparation for a country’s fall and the refugees the fall would produce, it would be a relief if every country has their embassy in all other countries. But it seems like this idea is too weird it doesn’t make sense to anyone here…”
When Youko sighed and raised her face, Taiki was looking at her intently.
“Eh? So it really is a strange idea?”
“No… That’s not it. I was just thinking how great Kei-Ou is.”
“It’s nothing that can be called great… And could you please stop calling me Kei-Ou? When I think that you’re a boy from that same Japan, I feel embarrassed when you call me that.”
Taiki smiled weakly.
“Nakajima-san, how old are you?”
When he called her that, it strangely tickled.
“Hmm… I think I’m a year older than Taiki. There’s no meaning in counting age here though, right…”
After she said that, Youko then raised her voice and said ‘ah!’.
“Do you prefer to be called Takasato-kun?”
“Both are fine with me…. When I was little I returned here once, and at that time I was called Taiki, so I’m not unfamiliar with it.”
“Is that so… When I came here I was in my second grade, so compared to Taiki, I am not at all in the category of people who can adapt easily.”
“That’s because I was here for a year…”
More than the nostalgic feel, regret in Taiki’s voice was thicker.
“…In that case, can you help me? When I was in the other world, I didn’t have the slightest interests in politics, the mechanism of the society and all those stuff, so sometimes I talked about these things only with vague knowledge and ideas.”
“I think I’m no different. It can be said that I know nothing about how things work here. I was only here for a year, and I spent half of that time in Mt. Hou… I was in Tai for a very short time. Moreover I was just a child, so I did nothing besides moving around in confusion.”
“You can start now... I would be happy if you’d lend me your knowledge on various matters. Particularly for now, I would like Taiki to be the representative of the refugees from Tai.”
It was when Taiki nodded. There was a loud noise came from the next door. They heard Risai shouting ‘what’s happening?!’. Youko rose, thinking that there might be some accident, but at the same time the chamber’s door burst open.
The intruders were several men. When she saw the leader, Youko frowned. That man was the Naisai. He was under the ministry of heaven and in charge of the Inner Palace (Naiguu). Behind him were two people whose faces she often saw at the forbidden gate—the gate keepers.
“What are you doing?!”
Even before she asked that question, their intention had been clear. Those men were swinging a sword on their hands.
“… What do you mean with this?”
When she gazed at them, they raised their swords.
“You, you take Kei too lightly.”
It was the Naisai who spoke.
“I’ll give you credit for being less stupid than Yo-Ou. But you think too little of this country and the ministry. You treasure those commoners who don’t have clear backgrounds, trample on our traditions, and you don’t care about our country’s prestige or the ministry’s pride.”
That’s right, said one of the gate keepers. He stooped his body while gripping his sword restlessly.
“You treat those kind of Hanjuu as if they're ordinary people, and not only you assign them into the government, you even chose one of them to be a Kingun general!”
Youko could feel her face getting bright red.
“'Those kind of Hanjuu'?!”
In that instant she thought of drawing her sword, but then she remembered she’d left Suiguutou (Kei’s treasury sword) before coming there.
“You place mud on other officials’ faces and bring Hanjuu and local criminals deep inside the palace, defiling it. By making light of the dignified officials, treasuring Hanjuu and criminals and keeping them by your side, in the end you mean to create a glaring distance between yourself and other officials, don’t you? It’s because if you’re surrounded by Hanjuu and criminals, there would be no need for you to feel inferior by your deficiencies. By gathering other countries’ emperors and Taihos, and having fun with them, do you feel like you are a part of them? …You’re too conceited. It’s better for you to think that the Heaven won’t tolerate your behavior for long!”
Youko was struck dumb. Replacing Youko who could only widen her eyes and gasp, it was the Naisai who told the gate keeper to stop.
“I’m sorry for his rudeness, but I wish you to realize that there is such opinion on you. I don’t personally see you that low, but I can’t accept other countries’ emperors and Saihos enter the Royal Palace so often. You’re giving shelter to a Tai’s general, and though you said by doing that you’ll save the Saiho of Tai, don’t you think you’re forgetting the fact that you are Kei’s empress? What’s the purpose of having other emperors entering and leaving our palace so easily? Do you plan to hand this country over to another country?”
“Then why do the other emperors stride into the deep parts of the Royal Palace in front of our faces? What actually do you think this country and the people are?”
“Eventually, that’s because she’s a woman emperor.”
One of them spat that.
“You’re going to ruin this country for personal interests. If we don’t correct this now, you’ll be just like Yo-Ou.”
Youko was so angry her body trembled. …Then suddenly, the anger pierced through her.
Her heart sank so deeply. She had never had any intentions to make light of her country or her people. On the contrary, if not for the sake of her country and her people, she felt that there’s no meaning of her working here. Without even knowing her real feelings… it’s easy for them to be upset, but, fundamentally, probably ‘real feeling’ was not something other people could understand without being told about it. Because the truth was, Youko also had no idea that her officials harbored such deep dissatisfactions towards her.
…’So that is it’, she thought.
People could only guess another person’s intention through his actions and behaviors. And when with that evaluation they’ve already decided ‘no mistake, this must be his intention’, that evaluation alone would matter to them, disregarding his real intention. And accordingly, people who’re holding a belief would think another person who had no doubt on his own belief would never change his way, no matter what they said or did.
“So in other words… Right now you’re going to execute your empress?”
When Youko asked this, the Nansai and the other two men flinched slightly.
“If that’s your intention, then there’s nothing I can do. If I have the means to fight I would resist you, but unfortunately I left my sword at Inner Hall. …It seems like I can do nothing to fight you.”
“Now don’t act like you’ve got everything figured out!”
It sounded like there’s a wry laughter mingled in the gatekeeper’s voice.
“…I don’t care how you’re going to seize me, but please don’t do any harm to Tai Taiho and General Ryuu. If you somehow feel that their existence hurts Kei, then sending them away would be enough, don’t you think? Just like there are people in Kei, there are also people in Tai. To free your own country from sorrow is your right, but you have no right to determine a result for other countries. Please don’t do anything unnecessary, that might bring misery into Tai people’s lives.”
The Naisai looked at Youko and Taiki coldly.
“Tai is falling, isn’t it? And in the middle of that chaos, they abandoned Tai and so comfortably looked for custody in another country. I don’t think Tai people would mourn over this kind of Taiho and general, though.”
“How about letting Tai people decide that for themselves? If they feel the same, then they would punish Taiho and the general, right? …So please, will you promise me not to do anything to harm them?”
“We can’t promise that, but we’ll try.”
“Then let’s at least leave this room. Refrain yourselves from killing in front of a kirin.”
From behind her, there’s a hand gripping her arm with a voice saying ‘wait a minute, please’, but she freed herself.
“My own people say they don’t need me, so there’s no other way but to go along with this…”
The hand came and gripped her again, but one of the gate keepers tore it from her. The men brought her out and once she got outside the room, she saw ashen-faced Risai, arrested by several men.
…If possible she would like to tell Risai, ‘this is my and my people’s own fault, so don’t distress yourself so badly over this’.
While thinking that, she was suddenly pushed to her side.
So fast after that, before she had the time to even feel startled for being pushed, she heard a shriek of pain behind her. The push made her fall, so she raised herself into a sitting position and then looked around, only to see an arm—still gripping a sword—rolling on the floor towards her feet with a dull sound.
There’s another shriek. It was when the man who had been pointing his sword at Risai came charging at Youko, targeting the point of the blade at her. But before the sword reached her, there’s an animal’s forefoot poking out from his chest, piercing through it from behind. When the bloody claw was pulled out and the man collapsed, though there should be a creature right behind the man, Youko saw nothing there. She could only see Taiki, further away, stood frozen and seemed petrified.
“…Couldn’t Your Majesty at least fight them?!”
Youko turned around and saw ashen-faced Keiki arriving to her. Inside the room, there were several men spread on the floor, while other several men were running away from the room with their shrieks of pain, stepping on the blood and the gore.
“It seems like we’re in the advantage…”
While remained sitting, Youko said that and smiled a bitter smile.
“En Taiho left a shirei here. Why didn’t Your Majesty fight them at all?”
“…Because I was unarmed.”
“Even without the sword, fighting them should have been possible—I have asked Your Majesty to stop blocking Jouyuu out.”
“I know… Well, anyway I’m saved. Thanks.”
Once Youko said that, Keiki looked at her reproachfully, before turning away.
“Whenever my shirei are on Your Majesty’s side, without fail they would get unclean. This is troublesome.”
My bad, Youko said this with a laugh and turned to look at Risai and Taiki.
“…I’m sorry. I have made you see this kind of thing.”
“Never mind that—are you all right?”
Looking rather embarrassed, Risai came closer to Youko.
“Yes. Not a wound on me. More importantly, Risai, please take Taiki somewhere else. Being here would harm him. Keiki, you too.”
Youko stood up and looked at the men on the floor.
The Naisai was dead. The other two men didn’t seem to survive, either. Other three men seemed to have serious injuries, but at least they’re still alive.
She’d had this thought that it’s okay if she died, but probably she hadn’t truly meant that.
It’s just she felt so down that obviously she didn’t care about what would happen anymore. It took too much effort just to fight them or to be angry. To confront the intruders she would have to claim that she was not a foolish empress, but she didn’t have the confidence or the arrogance to do that. ---
--- There might be times before, when she had the backbone to think ‘I am the empress because the Heaven’s Will came upon me’, but these days she could not longer see the Heaven’s Will as a kind of miracle. If they want to kill her, then that’s fine. ‘If with this I could be free from this heavy responsibility, then it might be okay’, she had also thought like this.
“Those who fled have been arrested.”
When she tried to leave the building, Rokuta finally arrived. Youko knew that some soldiers had also arrived behind him, because some violent noises could be heard. ‘Surely you can stand up and walk by yourself!’, and there was a sharp cry of a gate keeper who spat some cursing words.