7-5 Youko stood frozen on the spot. Rakushun's tail and whiskers shot straight up. Youko stared at the man. He laughed. He was clearly enjoying himself.
"The Royal En . . . ?"
"I am. I'm sorry the Taiho couldn't meet with you, but I thought I'd make myself useful. Will only the Taiho do?"
"No, no, that's okay," said Youko, and couldn't think of anything more to add.
He smiled and dipped his finger in the wine glass. "Well, let's start from the beginning. One year ago, the Empress of Kei passed away. Posthumously, she is now known as the Late Empress Yo. Were you aware of this?"
The En nodded. "Her given name was Jokaku. She had a younger sister named Joei. You could say that Joei usurped the throne."
"The king has a kirin. The kirin chooses the king. You know this?"
"The Late Empress Yo left her kirin behind, Keiki. What do you know of him?"
"We've met. He's the one who brought me here."
The En nodded again. "When the Late Empress Yo died, the throne was vacated. Keiki immediately began the search for a new king. Yet the announcement of the accession of the new king of Kei came only two months after the death of the Late Empress. I couldn't help thinking this was in fact a giou."
The En took his finger from the wine glass and painted the characters on the tabletop. "A fake king, a pretender. The kirin chooses the king. A king who ascends the throne without the blessing of the kirin is a pretender. Felicitous omens should attend the accession of a new king. None accompanied Joei. Quite to the contrary, youma are on the rampage and locusts are swarming. Everything tells me this king is no king."
"I don't . . . . "
. . . get it, she was going to say, but the En held up his hand and stopped her.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we were dealing with a pretender. When I investigated further, I discovered it was in fact the sister of the Late Empress Yo who had claimed the throne. The sister of the Empress is an ordinary woman. She cannot enter the Imperial Palace, and consequently, cannot govern the country. I knew this was a serious matter."
She didn't follow well what he was telling her, but Youko opened her ears and listened.
"Regardless, she set herself up within the fortress of one of the province lords and from there proclaimed her enthronement. The ordinary citizens had no way of judging the truth for themselves. They had no reason to question her authenticity, rather, they were ready to believe. The province lords joined together, barricaded their castles, and announced that she, a commoner, would never enter as their equal. But the people believed her and blamed them. Joei even dared to declare war and solicited new officials and soldiers. She was met with a flood of enlistees."
The En continued with a sullen expression. "The enthronement of the previous Empress took a long time and her reign was short. The kingdom had not yet been able to recover and the resentment of the peasants against the province lords was deep. Of the nine provinces, already two are ruled by pretenders, and three more have been toppled by their armies."
"Has no one been able to refute her claims?"
"Some have tried. When the province lords pointed out the absence of the kirin, Joei insisted that they were hiding him. But then he was produced by Joei, making their position untenable. The presentation of the kirin in its creature form made it hard for anyone to question her or rescue Keiki. And with that, of the four remaining provinces, two more switched sides."
"They produced Keiki. Then Keiki . . . . "
"It seems he was captured."
That's why he hadn't come to rescue her. It wasn't the worst thing that could have happened, but it was damned near close.
Rakushun said, "So this Joei has been sending assassins after Youko."
"It's not possible. You're talking about youma attacking people. That does happen. But singling out, pursuing and attacking a specific person, that does not. Were they shirei, though, then it becomes another matter, entirely."
"The king employs the special powers of the Imperial Regalia, and the kirin commands the shirei. If someone were commanding the youma to attack a specific person, it could only be a kirin."
So the youma that surrounded Keiki were under his command. That's what Youko took from the explanation, but Rakushun's reaction was one of extreme agitation.
"It can't be!"
The En nodded, a grave look upon his countenance. "No, it should not be. But I can think of no other explanation. It was by means of the kirin's shirei that the wild youma were sent to attack the Royal Kei."
"It's just . . . . "
"When I think this through logically, I conclude that Joei has neither the resolve nor the resources to raise and maintain an army. There must be someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. If that someone is also sending forth the shirei, then turn that rock over and you should find a king there."
Youko looked back and forth between Rakushun and the En. "Meaning?"
The En asked, "Do you know what kind of a being a kirin is?"
"The sacred beast that chooses the king . . . . "
"Yes, it is. But a kirin is no you-creature like the youma. Closer to a god. It has the heart of a beast, but can take upon a human appearance. Its whole being is suffused with charity and compassion. It is aloof and detached, but it cannot abide conflict. In particular, it has a horror of blood. The stain of blood makes it ill. It will never take up the sword and fight. It has the shirei to protect itself. The shirei are youma, though youma that have covenanted with the kirin and become what you might call its servants. In no wise would they ever take it upon themselves to attack a human being. To do so would be contrary to the kirin's will."
And yet, the king is the kirin's lord. Though the kirin bears no malice toward any person, if the king commands it, that changes everything. The shirei attacked you because the king ordered the kirin to do so. Nothing else is possible."
"Could this Joei have tamed a kirin?"
"No. There is but one kirin in a kingdom. The king is its lord, the king searches it out, but nothing beyond that."
So that meant a king had put a price on her head. Then she remembered, the woman on the mountain road. She had watched her mourn the death of the youma. Was it because those youma had been her shirei? The parrot had commanded her to kill Youko. Weeping, unable to defy him, she had brandished the sword. If that parrot was the king, and that woman a kirin . . . the pieces of the puzzle began to fall together.
"But whose kirin?" And what king of what kingdom?
The En stared off into the distance. "The answer will become apparent soon."
"But . . . . "
"As long as you are within our custody, no one will lay a finger upon you. The problem for your enemies is that Keiki, even in the form of a kirin, is not so easily disposed of. Were the kirin murdered, the king who ordered your assassination would be quickly revealed. Heaven could not overlook such an injustice."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"Better to leave it alone for now. With the kingdom on the wane, who is giving the orders will become clear." With that, the En laughed heartily. "Keiki is being held in Kei. That alone would justify a rescue mission. In order to do so, and in order to protect your Highness, we must get you to a safe place. Shall we be going?"
"As soon as possible. If you have belongings at the inn, there's just enough time to go fetch them. I'd like to take you to my place."
Youko look at Rakushun. Rakushun nodded. "You'd better get going, Youko. That is the safest way."
"But . . . . "
"Don't worry about me. Go."
The En smiled at Rakushun's admonition. "Another guest is hardly going to complicate things any further. It's kind of a dilapidated old place, but I've got rooms to spare."
"You--you can't be serious!"
"Keep in mind that I'm an utter incompetent when it comes to housekeeping, but it you don't mind, then you're welcome. I think the Royal Kei would be more at ease with you there as well."
His home was none other than Gen'ei Palace. Privately shocked that the En would refer to it like some broken-down hut, Youko said to Rakushun, "C'mon, let's go. I wouldn't feel good about leaving you behind."
Rakushun nodded stiffly.