Chapter 58

7-7 Youko and Rakushun entered the building and were surrounded by a number of what they took to be servants. They were separated from the En and hustled off to rooms further inside.

"Hey," said Youko.

"Wait a minute," said Rakushun

A lady-in-waiting turned to the flustered Youko and Rakushun and said with an impassive expression on her face, "Please follow me. A change of clothes shall be made available. Your baths are being drawn."

In other words, they were not to be wandering around the palace in such an unkept state. Despite their confusion, they agreed. They were brought buckets of water and scrubbed themselves down. After that, behind a set of folding screens, took turns soaking in the bath. When they went into the next room, they found new clothes laid out on a big table.

"This is what I'm supposed to change into?"

Youko held up the florid fabric with a look of disgust. Rakushun inspected it. "Seems to be men's clothing. Maybe he thinks you're a man, or he knows you're a woman and he's having a little fun with you."

"Looks like there's a suit for you, too," Youko pointed out.

Rakushun's shoulder's slumped. "Yes, it should have occurred to me before, but I guess it would be considered rude to show up like this."

In other words, naked, Youko thought, handing him his clothes. She recalled the hanjuu she'd seen on the streets. More than a few of them were wearing clothes. As put out as Rakushun looked, when she imagined him dressed up like that, she had to smile.

His shoulders rounded, dragging his tail, she sent Rakushun off behind the folding screens while she changed her clothes. The trousers had an ample cut and were made of a soft, pale fabric, as was the blouse. A long, finely-embroidered tunic finished up the ensemble.

Everything was made out of silk. After becoming used to plain clothing scratching against her skin, it was ticklish. About the time she had finished tying the sash, the door opened and an old man appeared.

"Have you finished with your wardrobe?"

"I have. I think my friend . . . "

. . . needs some more time, she started to say, when the screens moved. "It's okay," he answered in a low voice. "I'm done."

Youko gaped at the figure that appeared from behind the screens. For a moment she was at a loss for words.


"Rakushun, that is . . . you?"

"Sure is." He nodded and grinned. "The first time you've seen me like this. But I'm still Rakushun."

Youko put her hands up to her face in mortification. Now she understood what Rakushun meant when she hugged him and he said that she needed to learn some "discretion."

"I forgot that this might not have figured into your sense of things."

"I'd say it didn't."

He laughed, a handsome man of twenty or so, of average height and somewhat thin. But in any case, a healthy young man. A "legal adult" really did mean a human who had come of age.

"An ordinary animal couldn't talk, right? I said I was a hanjuu, right?"

"Yeah . . . you're right."

She felt her face burning. A hanjuu, a half-human, he had said. A legal adult, he had said. But she hadn't been paying attention. They'd shared rooms together, and once upon a time he had undressed and dressed her.

"Youko, just when you seem to have it all together, you can still completely miss the big picture."

"I think so, too. So why aren't you always in human form, then?"

Rakushun sighed despite himself. "Because it's a lot easier being a rat," he said, an air of resentment in his voice. His vermillion-clad shoulders sagged disconsolately. "I'm telling you, dressing up like this is a real pain in the neck. My shoulders are so stiff. And to makes things worse, on a highfalutin day like today."

He complained so miserably that Youko had to giggle.

The old man accompanied them down a long hallway and into a large room. The scent of the sea drifted in through a pair of open French windows. The En glanced over his shoulder at them. He was standing on the terrace, facing the water. He had changed as well, but there wasn't much difference among their outfits. He had changed as well, but there wasn't much difference among their outfits. Youko and Rakushun were by no means wearing haute couture, so the king's clothes seemed rather plain considering his stature. There was nothing pompous or pretentious about him.

The En grinned as he came back into the room. "I see you've dressed. My attendants insist on sticking to formalities. It is annoying, but they get quite upset when you don't do exactly as you're told. I do apologize."

Youko thought perhaps it was the En who was underdressed, but his tone was charming enough that Youko refrained from smirking in response to his apology.

"Rakushun, you want to take all that off, it's okay with me."

Rakushun (the young man) managed a strained smile. "It's nothing to be concerned about. What about the Taiho?"

"He'll be here any minute." As he spoke, the door opened. The scent of salt air filled the room. "Speak of the devil."

There was a pair of screens inside the doors. The personage who appeared from behind them was a golden-haired boy of twelve or thirteen.

"How did it go?"

"As expected, clear sailing all the way to the palace. Interesting guests you have."

"Actually, they're not my guests. They're yours."

"Mine? Never met them before." The boy scowled and turned to Youko and Rakushun. "So, what's with you two?"

"Now, now, you can be nicer than that."

"You know what it means to mind your own business?"

"You're going to regret it."

"So, you finally decided to get yourself a better half, huh?"

"I'm not kidding."

"Your mother, then?"

"And if she is neither my wife nor my mother, will you remember your manners, then?" The En sighed and turned to the dumbfounded Youko. "I'm sorry, but this is Enki, an incorrigible little cuss. And Rokuta," he said, addressing Enki, "this is her Royal Highness, the Empress of Kei."

Enki gulped audibly, took a very big step backwards and peered up at her. Youko tried but couldn't help herself and burst into laugher. It was perhaps the first time she had truly laughed out loud since crossing the Kyokai.

"You should have said so in the first place! What a bastard!"

"Takes one to know one," the En said. "Her companion is Sir Rakushun." He grew more serious. "How are things in Kei?"

The boy sobered up as well. "It looks like Ki Province has already fallen."

Rakushun wrote out the character for "Ki." Even though everything was automatically translated for her, she still had to attend to how things were written. The spoken language wasn't a problem, but that alone wasn't enough to make her literate.

"Only the northern province of Baku remains. Joei resides in Sei Province, as she has all along. Her armies grow, but they can't match the might of our Imperial Army.

Rakushun wrote "Imperial Army" using the characters, The Royal Masters of War.

"The pretender's army is advancing on Baku Province. The Marquis of Baku has three thousand soldiers under his command. He can't hold out for long. It's only a matter of time." He sat himself down on top of the table and helped himself to some fruit. "So where'd you find the Royal Kei, anyway?"

The En gave him the abridged version. Enki listened silently and then leaned forward and said with sullen expression, "What kind of fool would assault a kirin?"

"For the time being, we can leave aside the question of who is pulling the strings. But we've got to get Keiki back."

"The sooner the better. Once they realize the Royal Kei is here, they may kill him."

"Excuse me," Youko interrupted. "But I don't understand any of this."

The En raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Look, I was brought here totally in the dark. The Royal En says I'm the Empress of Kei, so I guess it must be true. Just as it's true that some king somewhere obviously wants me dead. But I never wanted to be the Royal Kei. It's not like anybody gave me a heads up beforehand, you know, said how they'd really like me to consider being their next Queen, or something. I don't much care for getting chased around by youma, and I didn't particularly enjoy getting chased around by those soldiers in Kou, either. The only reason I'm here is to ask The Royal En for a way to get back to Japan. That's it."

The En and Enki looked at each other. For a while, everybody was silent. Then the En spoke up.

"Youko, have a seat."

"I . . . . "

"Sit down. There's something I'd like you to hear, and it's going to take a while."