When Risai awoke in the middle of the night, there was a shadow of a person at her bedside. The moonlight flowed in through another room next to the chamber, and the sounds of insects chirped in as well.
When Risai spoke, the shadow that had been stooping raised its face.
“Ah… I’m sorry. Have I awakened you?”
No, mumbled Risai.
“Everybody was looking for you.”
“I know. That’s because I’ve been doing a little running and hiding today.”
“Running and hiding…?”
Though Risai asked, no further answers were given. A new silence fell onto the chamber. Only the clear sounds of insects could be heard. Before long, the shadow opened its mouth.
“What kind of person was Taiki?”
Risai was a little surprised. ‘So she indeed in a special way cared about Taiki who came from the same home country’, she thought.
“Taiho was small.”
When Risai answered like that, from the darkness of the night came a chuckle.
“You answered just like Keiki did… And I’ve told him, you can hardly call that a description.”
Hearing the laughter-filled voice, Risai too gave a weak smile.
“But really… Taiho was really like that. So small and so young… He was very innocent, yet he possessed deep kindness and thoughtfulness.”
“He’s indeed a Kirin.”
“There’s something about Taiki that was similar to Kei-Ou.”
“Taiho was a very friendly person. From my point of view he was a person with a very high status, but there was nothing in his conduct that showed that. His Majesty—Gyousou-sama said that Taiho didn’t really understand the nature of one’s status here. But indeed, rather than not comprehending his grandeur, it’s more likely that Taiho just didn’t care so much about it. I see Kei-Ou as someone like that, too. It startled me when I heard Jogo and Joshi called Kei-Ou in a very friendly term, but then I thought ‘ah, Taiho was like that, too’.”
Ah I see, the shadow replied, and Risai could feel a wry smile accompanying that voice.
“That’s because in Hourai there’s no such thing as status. …Ah, no, it’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it is not placed above people’s feelings. Jogo and Joshi—Suzu and Shoukei, they are not my subjects, they are my friends. Though it seems like people don’t make friends beyond their ranks here…”
“Is Daiboku your friend as well? Daiboku also calls you in a free manner.”
“Yes… But probably it doesn’t fit to call him a friend, because he’s a comrade.”
“A comrade in supporting this country. Yes…, we were once comrades in a rebellion group.”
When Risai tilted her head curiously, the shadow nodded. There’s a thick feel of earnestness pervaded from the shadow.
“Not too long ago, there was a terrible Gouchou (Head of Gou/Prefecture) in Kei. He was spreading terrifying oppression, and exploiting the people to their limits. I just so recently succeeded the throne, so I didn’t have the actual authority to drive him away from his position. Koshou helped me with that. In order to punish the Gouchou, for quite sometime Koshou had been gathering comrades from among the people—who were mostly too scared of the Gouchou to even say any cristisms about him—and also making all preparations for that goal.”
After she said that, Youko lightly raised her body up. The moonlight fell on her profile, somehow showing a repressed and intense pain, somewhere in that expression.
“…Is it impossible to do something like that in Tai?”
So that’s what she wanted to say, Risai thought, holding her heart.
“…I do think it’s impossible…”
Youko was about to say something, but Risai stopped her.
“I know what Kei-Ou wanted to say. ‘If the people really want it, then there’s no way they can’t do it’. I fully understand how foolish it might sound when I say that it is impossible. But even so, still, I would have to say that it really is impossible…”
Risai looked up to the ceiling. The chamber was filled with the air of summer night, yet Risai felt like she was frozen to the core. The ringing sounds were no longer there, but still she thought she heard the sounds of freezing winds.
“I brought only several subordinates with me, and ran away from Asen. I heard that he had taken control of my soldiers and led them into Kouki. Not only my soldiers, but other generals’ army also fell under Asen, and many ministries and other officials ran away from him. All of us then managed to regroup. We gathered as fellow fugitives, accused of murdering Gyousou-sama and Taiki, as well as conspiring against the government.”
At the beginning, the situation didn’t make Risai think that it would be so difficult.
“As soon as the emperor and the Saiho disappeared, Asen made a show as if he was keeping the country safe, but for sure he convinced nobody with that. ---
--- In fact, the number of people who suspected Asen increased gradually, as well as those who felt dissatisfaction towards him. So while searching for Gyousou-sama, I gathered these people, and also made every effort possible to build an anti-Asen force. But none went well. It was so strange, truly like building castles in the air. After all the trouble to gather the people and even formed an organization, some people would so mysteriously disappear. Then we would have to organize everything from the beginning again…”
“Is that so…”
“These disappearing people would either go over to Asen’s side or simply vanish without a trace. Soon the country fell into silence. Even if I could gather some sympathizers, we could no longer get a place to organize the group. Those who were against Asen and still hadn’t been caught had to creep deep into the earth to escape him. The people who fought Asen became aware that if they acted carelessly and made their intention clear, everybody around them would get the punishment as well. If a rebel against Asen was found in a town, without any hesitation Asen would burn that whole town to the ground. I’m sure there are still many people waiting for the chance to bring Asen down even now, but it’s nearly impossible for them to find comrades, to contact and to cooperate with other people who share the same intention…”
Moreover, mumbled Risai,
“Kei-Ou, do you know what kind of winter we have in Tai…? The order of the world turns upside down, and Tai is often struck by disasters. Youma go out to hunt, and for the people in general, it takes all effort they can muster just to stay alive. To survive the winter is the first and foremost thought the people have.”
In the middle of these winters, it was said that the reason the poor people of Tai could still survive was the Kouji (note: ‘Kou’- from Kouki, Tai’s capital, and ‘Ji’ means blessing/love--Ajisai). Around the time when Gyousou succeeded the throne and started reforming his administration, even before promulgating his First Decree, there’s something Gyousou did first. Inside the Royal Palace there was a Riboku from which Tai was originated. The Riboku was called Roboku, and Gyousou prayed to this Roboku and received a plant called Keihaku from the Heaven.
“Yes. Keihaku is a plant like wild rose/brier; it can grow well even when left neglected on a barren land, and for a long time from spring to autumn no matter what the season is, the plant produces white flowers. When these flowers fall they’ll bear fruits with the size of quail’s eggs, and when dried, these fruits/seeds will be used as substitution for charcoal.”
For Tai with its harsh winter, charcoal was something that people just got to have, but of course charcoal was not unlimited, and people had to buy it. But if it’s Keihaku, people could just grow them at some corners on their fields. From these plants they could gain plenty of seeds, and by drying and storing these seeds the people could survive the winter. Every family could be self-sufficient in producing charcoal—this truly meant alot for Tai people.
“It was said that by nature Keihaku is a plant that can only grow in the Yellow Sea. His Majesty prayed to the Roboku and got us Keihaku which can also grow in Tai. In that spring when His Majesty disappeared, all Riboku in the entire Tai bore Keihaku. Before three years, everywhere throughout the country there was not a single slope of land where the white flowers of Keihaku could not be seen, that how it became. Because of this, even in that tragic condition Tai people could still survive the winter. The people saw this as a ‘blessing (Ji)’ given by the magnificent person who lived in ‘Kouki’, so Keihaku has been called ‘Kou-ji’, though nobody knows who started to call it that.”
Is that so, Youko let out a mournful voice.
“…If Asen were the emperor then the Heaven would have set an end to his reign, but Asen is not an emperor. If Asen were a mere human-traitor then there would be a limit to his life span, but he is an immortal. As long as nobody takes Asen down, he will never fall. The only person entitles to remove Asen’s immortality is the emperor, or, after the emperor dies, only the remaining feet of Hakuchi can give that authority. His Majesty and Taiho have not passed away, but their whereabouts are unknown. –Because of this, all Providence to stop this malevolence cannot work…”
“So Tai people have no means to save themselves…”
Yes, Risai nodded.
At the same time, looking at Youko who earnestly listened to her and gazed into her pleading eyes pained Risai’s heart. She wanted to say ‘please help us’. She wanted to be helped in searching for Gyousou, looking for Taiki, and if possible, punishing Asen.
Just when Risai was about to open her mouth, Youko quietly spoke.
“If only Tai-Ou were safe and fine, I would surely want him to share the Kouji. …Kei is so poor.”
Youko said that and looked at the moon.
“Northern parts of Kei get cold in winter, too. Especially in the northern areas where there’s no notable production, there are so many poor households and some can’t even afford the charcoal for the winter. Naturally these lands can’t get as cold as Tai, so generally there are no preparations to face the winter. The walls are thin and the windows are not equipped with glass. They don’t have enough feathers or fur, while there are other things more important for them to get. So the northern people wear only cotton clothes and pass the winter by embracing their families in their houses.”
“Of course, having or not having charcoal does not really affect people’s survival. Even in the height of winter people can still enter the fields and mountains and take the roots of plants, so winter in Kei is not as vicious as to determine life and death. That’s why for sure it can’t be compared to Tai’s winter, but still I feel sad for these northern people of Kei.”
“…Of course you do…”
“I heard that although the former emperor of Tai was wasteful of Tai's treasury, he was an emperor who ruled the administration well. Keiki has said that Tai's temporary government, too, was well administrated. Kei is the opposite. We have been having series of emperors who neglected the administration, or who couldn't store the country's resources. In the previous empress' reign, too, the officials ruled tyrannically, bringing devastation to the people. The government was infested with these people like the Gouchou who persecuted the people. Even now I don't think we have managed to exterminate these lot. Even more, after the previous empress fell, a Gi-Ou rose and the country fell into ruin. Kei has just started to embark on recovery. The people who are resting right now throughout the cities of Kei, most of them have never experienced a blessed era. All the time the country failed to start on its course, and Kei had been poor and full of stormy events.”
“I feel compassion for all Kei people...”
Seemed like out of sorrow, the voice trembled.
“But at the same time, Tai people are so pitiful, too. Tai's current condition is worse than Kei. The climate there is so harsh and even more, with the oppression of the Gi-Ou and the natural disasters, how terrible the hardship must be... The Gi-Ou must be brought down, and the justified emperor and the Saiho must be brought back to the Imperial Palace. I --"
Risai stretched her remaining arm and searched for Kei-Ou-s hand.
"Anything more than that, don't... You must not move your army. If Kei-Ou leads your own army to interfere with another country's problem, you would commit a great sin that will drag Kei people down."
"Please forgive me. My heart broke so badly to see Tai's fate that I thought of committing a terrible sin. ...But it's not right. Kei-Ou is the empress of Kei. You can't give compassion to Tai people more than what you give to Kei people."
---Kaei, you were right.
There's a strong power in the hand that returned Risai's grip.
"For sure I have no intention of abandoning Tai. I will do everything I can. I'm planning to implore En-Ou to try and help as well. ...However, I wish you'd forgive me for things I can't do. I don't have the heart to ask Kei people who have never experienced any good times to prepare themselves for another chaos..."
"Those words alone are enough..."
Risai let out a smile, but truthfully, she wanted to beg and ask her not to abandon Tai. But only that she couldn't do. The person before her eyes was an empress vital to Kei. To take this empress away from Kei people, only this she must not do.