8-4 There were two people on the road. One wore a dark shroud over his head like the Grim Reaper. The other had golden hair. They were surrounded by a horde of beasts.
"Forgive me, you said." The statement was addressed by the shrouded personage to the woman, the same woman Youko had encountered on another mountain road.
That would be Kourin.
"I assume, of course, that you were begging my forgiveness."
The Grim Reaper let the shroud fall from his head. What appeared was the deeply wrinkled face of an old man. Nevertheless, he had a large stature that seemed incongruous with his age. A brightly colored parrot perched on his shoulder.
"A helpless girl. It's too bad we couldn't finish her off, but wandering about in these mountains, she shouldn't last long. Though we seemed to have miscalculated about whether or not she had accepted the covenant." The man spoke in a disinterested tone of voice, devoid of emotion. "Oh, well. She'll die a dog's death at the side of the road, or try to sneak into a village and be arrested. Either way, Taiho. Either way."
"I'll be upset if something like this happens again. No matter what, that girl must be exterminated."
When the man said, "that girl," he must be referring to herself. That meant he was . . . the Royal Kou.
"But such a weak-hearted thing. She does not have the constitution to be a great king. You go all the way to Yamato, and that is what you bring back?"
The man spoke to one of the beasts. It looked like a deer with only one horn. You could call it a "unicorn," but only in overall appearance. The mane was a luxuriant gold, the coat a more subdued yellow. The speckled pattern of colors on its back resembled that of a fawn, though these were strange and fantastic colors, glimmering faintly in the sunlight.
"Luck seems not to favor your lord, wouldn't you say, Kei Taiho?"
Kei Taiho . . . then that was . . . Keiki.
This is a kirin.
She recognized the mountainous location as the road she had traveled from Hairou. What she had taken then for Keiki had been Kourin. What Jouyuu had called "Taiho" had been Keiki in his kirin form.
Kourin said, "As she is a mere child, would it not be better to leave her to the elements? Two men of Kou have died. Please, can you not end all this?"
She looked up at the Royal Kou, tears in her eyes. Youko had observed the same expression on her face at another time, in another place.
"All men die," her lord answered. "Dust to dust."
Even now, Youko did not perceive a flicker of humanity in him.
"Heaven will not countenance such actions. Sow the wind and Kou will surely reap the whirlwind. Your lordship shall prove no exception."
"I have already reaped the whirlwind. You lecture me in vain. I've come to the end of my tether. Kou will fall. And when Kou falls, Kei will fall as well. As God is my witness, I will drag the Royal Kei down into the depths with me."
"How can you hate the taika so much?"
The Royal Kou laughed a hollow laugh. "I don't hate them. I find them disgusting. Did you know that in that other world, a child is born from its mother's belly?"
"I know. But what has that to do with this?"
"Don't you think it filthy?"
"I do not."
"Well, I do. No taika born from a woman's belly belongs in this world. They should stay where they came from."
"Heaven does not agree. Else why should taika be chosen as kings? What is filthy is to reject the Divine Will of Heaven."
The Royal Kou smirked. "So I gather we won't be seeing eye to eye on this."
"No, we shall not."
"Still, I am your lord. You must follow my lead. Pursue her and kill her. She must not be allowed to escape Kou alive. And while you're at it, post the Imperial Army along the borders of Kei. She is bound to try to return to Kei."
"Would it not be better to pay this unclean girl no mind? You call her a girl, you say she does not have the constitution to be a king, then why would you resort to murder to keep her from the throne?"
"I will not have a taika king on the borders of my kingdom!"
Kourin sighed deeply. "What, then, do you intend to do with the Kei Taiho?"
"Give him to Joei. That'll shut up the province lords."
"It may silence them for the time being, but it will not allay their suspicions for long. With his horn sealed, the Kei Taiho cannot return to human form. He cannot even speak. What kind of Taiho is that? You must not continue in this manner. Heaven will surely not overlook such indiscretions."
"I never said that it would."
"You may be resigned to your fate, but you forget your people."
"The people of Kou are an unlucky lot. After I die, the next ruler may be of better stock. If you take the long view of things, then perhaps it's all for the better."
"What are you saying?" Kourin again buried her face in her hands.
The Royal Kou said in a blank, detached voice, "I was never meant to be a king." Perhaps he was already beyond hope, completely resigned to his fate. "Both you and Heaven chose badly, indeed."
"This is not true."
"True enough. My reign will end after only fifty years. En has stood for five hundred, Sou for almost six hundred. I am a mayfly compared to En and Sou, and yet I have reached my limit."
"If you changed your heart now, your reign would be much longer."
"That ship has already sailed, Taiho."
Kourin hung her head.
"This great task proved my stumbling block. I should have lived and died a provincial guard. Instead, I found myself blessed with this outrageous fortune, when I was not in the least qualified to accept it. A scant fifty years was the best I could do."
"Do not call it scant. The reigns of many kings have been briefer."
"So they have been. The late Empress of Kei, for one. And not just her. Kei has always been caught up in unrest, has fared far worse than Kou. Some of my subjects are ignorant enough to look at En and Sou and say how much poorer Kou is. But when compared to Kei, well, Kou is so much the better."
"Neither En nor Sou were wealthy kingdoms to begin with."
"I know. I did as much as I could. But for every step I take, the En and the Sou are two more ahead of me. And so Kou will be poorer than En and Sou forever. Simply put, I will never reach their level, never be their equal."
"That is not so."
"I can't compete with En and Sou. But Kei is different. Kei is poorer than Kou. But now, if a new king were to ascend to the throne and Kei were to become wealthier than Kou, then what? Kou alone impoverished? And I, the prince of fools who made it so?"
"Will you lose the Mandate of Heaven over so slight a reason?"
The Royal Kou did not answer the question. "Yamato is a wealthy country. Talk to the kaikyaku and you understand that very well. The En returned from Yamato, and his country is wealthy, too. Taika are different from those of us born in this world. When the kingdom of that En taika is so wealthy, why shouldn't I fear the Royal Kei? The taika know secret things that allow them to rule a country so. That's why, no matter what I do, I will never measure up."
"You are talking nonsense."
He smiled a faint, weary smile. "Yes, utter nonsense. I have come too far to back down now. And even if I did, the fate of Kou is set. Kou will go to ruin. I will die, and when I do, the Kei taika, too. We'll all go down together."
You fool. The words came unbidden to Youko's lips, "What a jerk." The vision vanished. Exhausted, Youko set down the sword. "How could someone do something so stupid?"
He didn't want to get left behind, but rather than seeking the cooperation of his neighbors, he would rather drag them down to his level. It happened all the time. God, did it happen all the time. But, still . . . .
"If a king can't give a moment's thought to the suffering of his own people, he'll do the unthinkable just in order to pull off a dumb stunt like this."
How many people would get caught up in this, how many would lose their lives? If Kou was destroyed, the damage would be unimaginable. Enki's words echoed in her head. People are idiots. And the more they suffer, the dumber they get.
Flanked by the kingdoms of Kei and Sou--the Royal En and the Royal Sou never far from his mind--fifty years at the most, he had said. But how long a time was that to him? This was a road she could just as easily head down as well. The Kingdom of Kei was in the same position as Kou, vis-a-vis En and Sou. Was it possible she could start thinking the same way the Royal Kou did?
"This is scary," she said to herself. "God, this is really scary."