In the twelfth year of the reign of the Red Child, Rakushun the hanjuu left his post in En and came to the land of Kei to take up the mantle of the Vice-Minister of Winter.
Given the givens, of course, the mantle in question did require some sizing adjustments in advance.
He had already brought this problem up to his king, while they were still working out the logistics of his immigration and promotion. “You'll tell me, won't you,” he'd said, through the messenger bird, “if me showing up as a rat on the first day is going to cause problems with your ministers? I can always ease them into it, you know.” He'd tossed it in at the end of the message, as if he didn't much care. The truth was, he really didn't relish the prospect of spending months or years walking around without fur. It felt like giving in. But he'd do it for Youko, if it would make her life easier.
The bird had zoomed its way back to him within three day. “Don't you dare change the way you look just to cater to the prejudices a lot of stuck-up idiots,” said Youko's voice from the bird's beak, clear and firm. “That's an official order from your king, by the way. There's going to be a lot more of them. Are you sorry you agreed to work for me yet?” He'd laughed out loud at that, and, as requested, sent along his measurements for the court tailors, so they could have his official wardrobe ready when he arrived.
And now here he was. Standing in front of his official closet, staring at rows and rows of elegantly tailored, half-rat-sized robes (with a few full-sized outfits hung in the back), and wondering if it would be completely improper for the new Vice-Minister of Winter to sneak quietly over to the king's wing of the palace and tell her himself he'd finally gotten here instead of getting someone to announce him properly.
He had a glum suspicion that the answer was probably 'yes.'
He was saved from his dilemma, however, by the sound of a door swinging open behind him. He turned around – and registered three layers of silk and a tanned, boyish face, crowned by an elaborately styled construction of rich crimson hair.
Well, he thought, feeling a smile spread across his face, he should have known Youko wasn't going to wait around while he dithered.
He opened his mouth – to say hello, or apologize for not letting her know he was here right away, or something, he wasn't even quite sure – but Youko got in before he did. “Sorry,” she said, breathlessly. “I'd give you a better greeting, but there isn't time. How much do you know about the situation in Shun?”
Rakushun blinked. “I know that they've been having a hard time with the youma blown in from Kou, but other than that I don't know. They're kind of far away for news to come easily, aren't they? Anyway, I've been on the road for the past three weeks, so if anything's happened recently, I haven't heard of it.” He'd decided, and Youko had agreed, that while he was coming from En anyway, he might as well take the long way there and get a good read on the situation on the ground. He could use the chance to familiarize himself with the country, and she could use the insights he would bring.
“We still don't know the details, but it looks like the king of Shun has died, and probably the taiho as well.” As Rakushun assimilated this, with some dismay – they'd all had their eye on Ryuu of late, but this Shun thing was coming completely out of the blue – Youko went on, “Given their position, Sou is going to be coping with a lot of refugees in the next few months. We'll probably get some here, too. The king of Sou has agreed to meet with me to see if there's a way we can coordinate our efforts. I've sent out messages to the other kings, too, and I'm hoping – well, we'll see if anything comes out of that.” She raked her hands wearily back through her hair, dislodging a rainfall of pins in the process. “Anyway, I know you've just gotten here, and you're sick of travel, but I've been hoping you'd arrive in time to come with me. You've never seen Sou, right?”
“Hey, do you think I got that soft in En? I've spent more time than this traveling before. I'm not out of stamina yet,” Rakushun said, with a quick grin, and then hesitated. “But . . . I have to say, it doesn't feel exactly right to be going on vacation before I've even started the job. Shouldn't I go ahead and introduce myself to the Minister?” Not that he was particularly looking forward to that – their initial correspondence hadn't exactly given him the highest opinion of the fellow – but trying to figure out some kind of teamwork was going to be necessary if he wanted to get anything done in Kei. And three weeks on the ground had given him a very good idea of just how much there was to be done.
Youko snorted. “Don't worry, this is going to be a working trip. Given how this is going to hit our economy, the Ministry of Winter should definitely have someone in on this meeting to take some notes with an eye to the budget. And most of the staff that are already there hate the idea of taking in refugees, and are just going to throw up obstructions. I need someone who'll be able to give figures that I can trust later.”
This was true, of course – and all things considered, that actually did make him a good candidate. There were rules from heaven about how many top-level ministers could be out of the country at once, but those didn't apply to vice-ministers as far as anyone knew. Maybe it was just that it was hard to make the idea of going on a trip with Youko feel like work.
“Besides –” A flash of a smile suddenly broke through Youko's tired expression. “You're not really going to make me miss the looks on the faces of the rest of my ministers when you walk in and start being brilliant at them, are you? You've got to let me have some fun.”
“Huh! Walk in and get trampled, more likely,” muttered Rakushun, doing his best to hide his pleased expression under his whiskers. He could think of more arguments – whatever you said, it looked a bit like favoritism, and it was just going to make his job harder with the Minister when he got back – but he could see Youko's point, too. And besides, when it came down to it, it wasn't like he really wanted to say no. “Okay, okay – if you want me, I guess I'm going. How soon?”
“Just as soon as I get out of these stupid robes into something better for riding – and sorry in advance for how saddle-sore you're going to get, I know you're more used to walking. Can you meet us in front of my palace in half an hour? Keiki and Suzu are saddling up the kijuu – oh, and did I mention Keiki and Suzu are coming with us? I feel like my head's in twenty places right now.”
“Of course,” Rakushun said, nodding. He was relieved to hear it; that was the way it should be, for a diplomatic trip like this.
Even though he'd thought, for just a moment, that she might have been suggesting they take the trip together, just the two of them, like in the old days – well, if it had really been like that, he would have had to say that was a bad idea, wouldn't he? He'd told her a dozen times over the years, a king shouldn't be taking off by herself willy-nilly. And after all those years apart, even just getting to see this much of her was more than enough to be thankful for. You didn't get to ask for time alone with your best friend when your best friend belonged to a whole kingdom.
Keiki was waiting outside with three kijuu when Rakushun ran up to the palace, sandals flapping uncomfortably on his human feet. There was a short girl standing next to him, plainly dressed even by travel standards, with dark hair and a round face. Rakushun had never met Youko's kaikyaku lady-in-waiting before, but Youko and Shoukei had talked about her so often that he felt instantly sure that this girl couldn't be anybody else.
Keiki glanced up as Rakushun approached. They'd met once or twice before, but Rakushun couldn't say he knew him well, outside of Youko's letters – although he'd gotten the impression that that was a hard thing to say about Keiki in general.
Well, maybe this would be a chance for that to change. They were going to be working together, after all. He offered him a friendly smile. “It's good to see you again, Taiho.”
“And you as well.” Maybe Keiki was thinking the same thing, because he added, stiff-faced and uncomfortable, “I hear you – ah – fulfilled your duties satisfactorily. In the Ministry in En.”
Rakushun scratched his head, embarrassed. “Oh, well,” he said. “I can't say I did anything special.” En had run itself so well for the past couple centuries that there wasn't much room for a junior minister to do anything except fulfill basic duties satisfactorily. That was another reason he'd come to Kei. Still, he found himself rather touched at the effort that Keiki had gone to in order to dredge up some – admittedly painful – small talk. The taiho was certainly trying. “I'm looking forward to getting started here, anyway.”
“The Ministry in En?” echoed the girl, startled. “Wait – you're Rakushun?” She covered her mouth with her hand, as soon as she'd said it. “Sorry, I didn't mean – it's just, from everything I'd heard, I was expecting . . .”
“Someone a little shorter?” Rakushun gestured downward with his hand, and grinned. “Yeah, usually that would be true, but the thing is if you're going to be riding, it's a good idea to have legs longer than your torso. You're Suzu, right? It's nice to finally meet you – I've heard a lot about you.”
Now that she was over her initial surprise, Suzu was regarding him with a rather speculative look. “Probably not as much as I've heard about you,” she said, and her eyes crinkled up with amusement. “It's nice to meet you, too.”
“Good!” Youko said briskly, coming out of the palace. “You're all acquainted.” She'd changed out of her formal wear and looked infinitely more comfortable in her well-worn traveling clothes, hair pulled back in a high tail and sword strapped to her back. She slung a pair of packs over the first kijuu's saddle, and then swung herself up after them. “Well, we'd better get going.”
“Your highness,” said Keiki, as if he couldn't help himself, “you really should be taking a larger retinue –”
“We've only got a week and a half to get to Sou,” Youko interrupted him, “and we're going to have to ride long days to get there. The more people we have, the slower we'll travel.”
Keiki heaved another sigh, and, without another word, transformed into his four-legged flying form. Suzu wrinkled her nose. This was certainly the fourth or fifth time that they'd had this conversation, and everyone involved was clearly sick of it. Still, Rakushun could certainly see Keiki's point. A scrawny scholar, a diminutive court lady, and a being of pure empathy who grew weak at the sight of blood weren't exactly going to be a lot of protection if they ran into danger. More likely, it was going to be Youko who was protecting all of them. Well, her, and, he reminded himself, a full fleet of Keiki's bonded youma.
With a quiet sigh of his own, he went over to the last of the flying beasts – Suzu had already claimed the smallest, which was probably fair – and clambered up. “Okay,” he said. “I'm ready. But you have a lot more confidence in my riding ability than I do, Youko.”
“You promised me you weren't out of stamina yet,” Youko reminded him cheerfully, and then they were off.
It was hard to hold much conversation when they were in the air, except for the occasional hollered set of directions; the wind whipped any words away as soon as someone spoke them. Rakushun didn't really mind. As he'd told Youko, he was used to traveling alone, and it made enough of a difference to have friendly faces around him to be a novelty. He liked watching the grins that Youko and Suzu traded back and forth with each other, and the faces that they made to Keiki to try and get him to smile.
What he did not like were the saddle-sores, and when Youko called a halt, he was more than ready to drop off his kiuu and find the closest tree to lean against. “Ooof!” he said, and added, for good measure, “Ow.”
“Yes,” said Suzu, following suit. “That.” She cracked her shoulders, grimacing. “Oh, why didn't you make Shoukei come too? Think of all the suffering she's missing! Pain shared is pain halved, right?”
Youko just laughed as she started to stretch. “I need Shoukei to keep the rest of the ministers in line while I'm gone! Anyway, she'd be suffering a lot more than you if the King of Han actually turns up to this meeting. I've got better things for her to do than spend the whole week arguing over jewelry.”
Suzu shook her head. “You don't understand how much Shoukei likes arguing over jewelry.”
Rakushun slid down to a seat, leaning against the tree, and watched their banter. He'd heard second-hand about the friendship between Youko, Shoukei and Suzu, but he'd never gotten a chance to see any of them together before. He pictured Shoukei with them, and smiled to himself; she would fit right in. Youko had looked so alone at her coronation, standing in her stiff robes at the head of Kei's court. It felt good to see how comfortable she was, how relaxed her face looked as she joked with Suzu. The solitary kaikyaku girl wasn't lonely any more, and it made him glad.
“We should eat,” said Keiki, abruptly human-shaped again, and went over to one of the packs. He pulled out some jerky to pass to Suzu, who accepted it greedily.
“Nurse Keiki,” murmured Youko, but she straightened up from her stretching to accept the rations that Keiki handed her. She shrugged out her shoulders, and then went over to thunk herself down beside Rakushun. Rakushun made to get up and go over to Keiki, wincing at the twinges in his sore leg muscles, but Youko put a hand on his arm and pushed him back down. “There's twice as much as I need here, have some of mine.”
“Thanks,” said Rakushun, not sorry for the excuse to sit back down. She passed him the food and settled in to eat, her shoulder next to his. Her body next to him seemed to radiate warmth, after the cold of a day up in the heights. “Hey, did I ever tell you how much wheedling it took to get the riding instructor to give me a passing signature in university?”
“So, isn't that why you came to Kei? To advance?” said Youko, unperturbed. She popped a piece of dried fruit into her mouth, her arm brushing against his as it lifted and fell.
Rakushun gave an exaggerated sigh. “What can I say? You push me into being a better person, Youko, that's for sure.”
He became aware that Suzu was watching them, eyes bright and considering, and shifted away from Youko a little, feeling himself turn faintly red. Blushing was something you didn't have to worry about as a rat. Suzu finished off her stick of jerky, and abruptly declared, “Keiki and I are going for a walk.”
This was apparently news to Keiki, who blinked at her, cheeks distended around a piece of fruit. Rakushun bit his lip and glanced at Youko, who appeared to have choked on her fruit.
“I want to stretch out legs after all that riding, or I'll turn into a bow-legged grasshopper,” said Suzu. “And I'm really afraid to be walking around on my own when there might be youma coming in from Shun, so Keiki's just going to have to come with me.”
Youko had composed herself again, with some effort, and was nodding gravely along, although her cheeks were trembling just a little. “There is very little risk,” Keiki informed Suzu, repressively. “Considering the location of Shun comparative to –”
“You never know,” Suzu announced, and dragged him off.
Youko managed to wait until they were out of sight before she burst out laughing, doubled over, her arms around her stomach. Maybe she really was going to choke. Rakushun thumped her back helpfully, just in case.
“Sorry,” Youko said, wheezing slightly. “It's just, it's so high school!”
Rakushun tilted his head and waited for her to explain the reference – though he thought he had a pretty good idea.
“High school girls,” Youko told him. “If your friends thought you liked someone – well, I didn't really have friends back there, so this never happened to me, but it's the kind of thing that's supposed to happen, at least – if your friends thought you liked someone, they'd set you up to be alone with them so that you could confess.”
“Confess?” Rakushun's brow furrowed. “As in, to a crime?”
Youko shook her head. “ I guess that's one of those idioms that doesn't really translate well. It means, well, something like–” She shifted position a little, clasped her hands together and ducked her head, thick crimson bangs falling into her eyes. This, Rakushun realized, must be what you'd call 'high school girl' posture. It made her look like a completely different person from any Youko he'd seen. But if you thought about it logically, there had to have been a time when this had been natural to her. “I – I really like you,” she mumbled. “I know this is totally forward and everything, but could you maybe please, if it's not too repulsive, consider going out with me?” Her lips were twitching, which was only fair, because now Rakushun was trying not to laugh, too, despite the unfamiliarity of the idioms. “That's high school,” Youko concluded, and straightened back up to grin at him. “Though I guess it's not as if Suzu went to modern high school either, so maybe sixteen-year-old girls are basically the same no matter what.”
He grinned back. “Still, it doesn't really seem to fit, does it?”
“Not really,” said Youko, emerald eyes dancing. The wind teased at her topknot, and she reached up a hand to smooth it down. Rakushun leaned over and picked up a flyaway strand to roll between his fingers, because to be honest he had maybe spent some time wondering what it would feel like, and Youko took advantage of his nearness to rest her forehead against his. He was glad to have human hands, right now, and a human face without fur, that touched Youko's skin to skin. He was glad people didn't have to pick only one thing to be.
They sat like that for a while, heads together, smiling – like doofuses, probably, thought Rakushun – and listening to not much, except the wind going through the trees and the sound of their own breathing. “High school or not,” Rakushun said, eventually – his fingers had wound their way into her ponytail by then, palm resting on the nape of her neck – “I guess I'm not exactly sorry they're gone for a little while.”
Youko chuckled again at that. Her breath warmed his nose. “I'm glad you came,” she said, which was good, because Rakushun couldn't think of a single place in the world that he would rather be – saddle-sores and all.
By the time they reached Sou, Rakushun was probably a better rider than he'd ever been in his life. Intellectually he was proud of this, although his legs disagreed with his brain profoundly. It was also the longest straight amount of time he'd ever spend wearing human clothes. Youko leaned over to him, as they landed, and murmured, “What I said about the court of Kei goes here, too.”
“Well, I can wait until we get settled,” said Rakushun, privately vowing that he was shedding his robes and settling back into rat-shape as soon as they had a chance to get into their rooms.
There were two youthful-looking men waiting for them when they arrived. “You must be the Royal Kei,” said the shorter one. “I can see why they call you the Red Child!”
Youko's hand twitched faintly, as if she was resisting the impulse to shove her hair back. In twelve years, Rakushun thought, she'd gotten better at maintaining some level of regal composure. She had also, finally, trained herself out of bowing. “Yes,” she said, and tried to smile back. It looked a little awkward – well, Youko had never been all that comfortable with new people, either, especially in formal situations. Rakushun hoped these strangers would see past the stiffness, to the genuine Youko underneath. “This is the Kei Taiho.” She gestured to Keiki, who gave a kirin's standing bow. “This is Rakushun, the Vice-Minister from the Ministry of Winter.” Unlike Youko and Keiki, Rakushun formally prostrated himself – kowtowing might be abolished in Kei, but that proclamation had never been made in Sou – and Suzu followed suit, as Youko concluded, “And Suzu, my lady in waiting.”
The one who seemed to be the spokesperson jerked his thumb to one side. “Eisei Ritatsu,” he said, “And I'm Rikou.”
“Oh?” said Youko, looking a bit at a loss, as Rakashun tried not to give a start. The Princes Royal of Sou, huh? Well, he could fill Youko in when they got to their rooms. The Sai Royals, thankfully, didn't seem the kind to take offense. “Uh – I'm pleased to meet you.”
“Let me show you to your rooms,” said Rikou, and turned around to lead them forward into the palace. Youko glanced over as they started off, and Rakushun made a small gesture to indicate 'tell you later.' “By the way,” he added, glancing back over his shoulder, “I have messages for you from the Kings of En and Han. They say 'see you soon'.”
Youko's eyes widened, and from underneath her stiff smile came a flash of something real. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, good.”
“The king of Han said he wants to know,” added Rikou, “if your Royal Scribe is coming to this meeting as well. The Royal Han doesn't get along with many people, if I remember, so I guess that says something about your staff.”
There was the sound of a repressed chortle from behind that had to come from Suzu. “No,” Youko said, straight-faced. “No, she wasn't able to come, unfortunately, but I'm sure when she hears that the Royal Han was asking about her, she'll be very, very sorry she missed it.”
“The Princes Royal?” Youko sank down on the bed and put her head in her hands. “I knew that Sou had a big royal family, but I didn't expect them to be there to meet us at the gate –”
“Well, from everything I've picked up from Shoryuu, they don't really seem to be the kind of royalty that stands on formality,” Rakushun offered. He was back in his rat-shape, short legs dangling off the bed. For the first time in a week, he didn't feel itchy – though his transformed muscles ached in some unexpected places.
“Well, I don't blame them. If I'm around six hundred years from now, I hope I'll have managed to get rid of formality, too,” Youko said, and then sighed. “That doesn't even sound believable. I can't even believe it. Six hundred years! How do you make a kingdom stand for that long? I can't even see ten years ahead.”
“Hey,” Suzu protested. “If you're going to talk like that, you're going to make me feel old, too.” That was right, Rakushun remembered, with a start – Suzu, who looked younger than Youko, had been swept in from Japan over a hundred years ago. She certainly didn't seem it, as her fingers fidgeted uncomfortably with the ties of her gown. “Look, Youko – are you sure they really want me at the dinner? I can just as easily stay here and . . .”
“They said they wanted all of us.” Youko straightened, and turned to give each of them a stern look. “And besides, why do you think I brought you all here? I'm not going out there by myself!”
“That would not be a risk,” murmured Keiki, “if you had brought a full entourage, as I advised –”
Youko glowered at him. “What did I tell you about saying 'I told you so?'” she snapped, and rubbed her forehead. “Someone tell me why I ever thought this meeting was a good idea?”
“You're trying to change the world,” said Rakushun, peaceably. “You can get through a dinner.” He hopped off the bed and pulled on the set of half-sized formal robes that he'd brought for just this kind of occasion. He felt ridiculous – and to be fair, he'd known he would feel ridiculous – but this was another thing he would have to get used to.
This time, it was a bright-eyed girl who met them at the door. If she was surprised to find that one of the Kou ministers had shifted into rat-shape, she didn't show it. “I'm Bun Koushou,” she volunteered. “But you can call me Bunki.” Youko glanced again at Rakushun, who gave a small nod. This was the Princess Royal, all right.
“I'm so glad you organized this visit,” Bunki chattered cheerfully, as she led them down the hallway. “Rikou says it's about time I got some new ears to talk off – and I'm in charge of relief for refugees and the homeless at the Hosui Havens here, so I've got a lot to say. Of course it would be incredibly rude to go around telling the other kingdoms, 'hey! I've got a really good way of doing things, and you should listen to me!' But since you've all come here and asked . . .”
To Rakushun's surprise, it was Suzu who spoke up to answer, before Youko even got the chance. “Hosui Havens – are those permanent shelters for refugees? I wish Sai had had something like that, when I got blown in there!”
“You're a kaikyaku, aren't you?” asked Bunki, and looked pleased when Suzu nodded. “I guessed, but I wasn't sure. We don't get them all that often, but I've worked with several to place them in the kingdom.”
“But how are you dealing with the language problem?”
“Well, it's not easy, but – oh, here we are!” Bunki gave Suzu a conspiratorial grin. “We'll talk more once we're sitting down, all right? I'll make sure you're next to me.”
Not entirely to Rakushun's surprise – but to Youko's evident relief – the room into which they were ushered was no grand banquet hall, but a comfortable chamber that had just enough room for the two tables squeezed together at the center of it. Supper was apparently going to be a 'just the family' affair. After the introductions were made and everyone told to find themselves a seat, Rakushun found himself sitting across from Youko, next to a woman who comfortably told them to call her Meiki, and was quite evidently the Royal Consort of Sei.
Youko clasped her hands around her cup, and took a deep breath. “I wanted to thank you, first of all,” she began, “for agreeing to host me here. I know that a lot of the kings find my ideas strange, so I appreciate that you're considering it –”
“In six hundred years,” said the Royal Sei, comfortably, “I've come across a lot of strange ideas. This is far from the strangest – and to be honest, it's not too far off from some thoughts I've been having myself. The problem is, in my position, it's hard not to come off as patronizing. So I'm glad the initiative is coming from you.” He leaned his elbows on the table. “Now – who exactly is coming to this little gathering? I know En and Han have both said yes, though they're dubious about the concept –”
“The Royal Kyou hasn't confirmed,” Rikou volunteered, “but if I know her, she won't miss it. If nothing else, she'll be much too curious.”
“I received a note from the king of Sai saying that she wouldn't be able to come due to some political crisis, but she has an ambassador here who will participate in the discussion,” Meiki put in. “When I hadn't heard from Ren, I thought it was unlikely they would make it – Renrin is far too formal to ever drop in uninvited – but just yesterday I received a message from her, and reading between the lines, I think she'll be able to drag the king away from his garden.”
Youko took another breath. She spoke up forthrightly; only someone who had known her as long and as well as Rakushun would have been able to pick out the signs of strain from the effort of conversing with so many royal strangers. “I don't think the new Royal Kou will be coming. She's still too unused to her position to travel far away from the capital, and they don't have the resources yet to provide much support for Shun in any case. But she's promised to think about it, and to have a private meeting with me at a later date, when she's more secure. As for Tai –”
Rakushun found himself watching Youko as she talked with the Royal Sou and his eldest son like the king she was. She wouldn't break out her laughter, her cynicism or her rueful jokes yet – she saved those, he knew, for the people she felt most comfortable with – but he could see her guard lowering, her directness beginning to come through. She'd grown so much over the last decade, he thought; he knew her so well, and there were so many pieces of her he hadn't seen yet.
Eventually, he became aware of someone watching him watching Youko, and turned, rather sheepishly, towards the Royal Consort Meiki. “I'm sorry – did you say something? I didn't mean to be rude.”
“Oh, you weren't,” Meiki assured him. “It's rather fascinating, isn't it? We don't often get to see two kings together, the way things are now.”
“Well, if it's like that,” Rakushun admitted, “I guess I've been a little spoiled. The first time I met the Royal En, I was traveling with the Royal Kei, back when she was still a kaikyaku – but I guess you've already heard that story.”
“Of course,” Meiki said. “Though I hadn't been aware you were the friend who found her.” Rakushun wondered if she was being diplomatic about this – it wasn't like rats who knew the king of Kei grew on trees, after all, and at the moment he was pretty obviously a rat – but then again, maybe by the time the story got down to Sou, the part about the rat hanjuu had gotten erased all together. “That makes you quite privileged, you know,” she went on. “Most kings born into this world have parents, childhood friends, or even spouses and children before they're chosen by their kirin. But you're the only person in this world who knew the Royal Kei before she was a king.”
“Believe me,” said Rakushun, “I know how privileged that makes me.” His whiskers twitched. He understood what Meiki was saying. People didn't have to be only one thing; that was good for kings to remember, too. “I think the Royal Kei been thinking to herself how fortunate the Royal Sou is, to have all of you here beside him.”
“And please believe me,” agreed Meiki, smiling, “I know that, too. No false modesty here, I assure you. So you must do your best to support her, you know.” And while Rakushun was still processing that – and wondering just what exactly the Royal Consort had been looking at, watching him watch Youko – she went on, “Given her history, it's not at all surprising she would be interested in helping refugees. But I have to ask – and please forgive me if this is forward – how much help Kei is really in a position to give to the refugees from Shun. Twelve years of stability is wonderful, but from the perspective of an old woman like me . . .”
This was a test. Not cruel, and not as harsh as it could have been, but a test all the same – not of him, but of Kei. Rakushun took a breath. “I know it doesn't seem like much,” he said, “but I've just spent three weeks on the ground traveling through Kei. The people aren't wealthy, not like here, or in En, not by a long shot. That will take many more decades, or even centuries. But they're ready to start standing tall again – and one of the things that can make you stand the tallest is a feeling that you're able to lend a hand to someone else. Both the Royal Kei and I know that well. It's true our budget will not stretch to take in many. But it will stretch some. And we believe it's worth it, to stretch a little thin, to give the people of Kei the pride of being able to look beyond ourselves.”
It was the first time, he would realize later, that he'd spoken on behalf of Kei, as if it was his own country in truth.
Suzu had spent the whole dinner talking animatedly with Bunki. Rakushun hadn't heard more than snippets of their conversation, but from what he had heard, he wasn't entirely surprised when Suzu came and knocked on his door the next day.
“Listen,” she said. “Um – Bunki gave me a lot of stuff to think about last night, but – I'm going to talk to Youko with this later on, but I want to have something real to go to her with before I do, and you've been reading up on that kind of stuff, right?”
“I'd better have been,” said Rakushun, agreeably, “if I want to take up my position in the Ministry of Winter.” He stepped away from the door, and ushered her inside. “So, you want Bunki's job, right? But in Kei?”
If he had to make a guess, this wasn't going to be a surprise to Youko, either. In fact, Rakushun thought, it probably wasn't going too far to say that maybe that's what she'd hoped for in bringing Suzu along to begin with.
“I don't think there's anyone better for it than me,” Suzu said, serious and determined. “Oh, I know it'll take a while, but I've got a lot to learn, anyway.” She pulled a fistful of papers out of her sleeve. They looked like a child's scribbles – but of course, Suzu was a kaikyaku; it was only recently that she'd learned to write properly in the language of this world at all. “Here's what I was thinking, if you want to look through it –”
“Oh, man,” Rakushun said, scanning through the sheets. “Suzu, this is all great, but there's no way we're going to have the budget for this for another fifty years at least. I know Bunki has a lot of good ideas, but that's a six hundred year old kingdom we're talking about. The situation is a little different.”
“Well, I know that,” said Suzu. “That's why I came to ask y.”
Rakushun twitched his nose ruefully. “I don't want to be the kill-joy, but we're going to have to start a lot smaller than this if you want to get anything done in the next decade. To begin with, if you want to levy a special tax . . .”
They were deep in the middle of an argument about food stores when another knock came on his door. Rakushun hurried to open it, and saw Youko standing outside, Keiki behind her. “Oh, good,” Youko said, seeing Suzu, “you're both here. I wanted to run something by you all.”
A few minutes later, Suzu and Rakushun were sitting cross-legged on Rakushun's bed, with Keiki leaning against the wall next to them. Youko, standing in front of them, cleared her throat. “All right,” she said. “Bear in mind that I've never really written a speech before, so don't judge me too much . . .”
“That's not true,” protested Suzu. “You've given some great speeches. Remember, when you made the proclamation at the end of the battle? And I've seen you completely deflate some of the ministers in council –”
“But those were just things I said. They weren't planned,” Yoko protested. “This is completely different.” She frowned down at her feet. “But I have to say something to convince the kings to give this a try, and the Royal Sai said it would be better coming from me. So I stayed up all last night, and – ah – here goes, all right?”
All three members of her entourage did their best to look expectant. Rakushun grabbed a pad to take notes.
Youko cleared her throat again, and jerked her chin up. “Fellow rulers,” she began, and Rakushun jotted down find better opening. “I know that many of you think it's ridiculous for me to be here, trying to propose an alliance to help the refugees of Shun, when my kingdom is still climbing its way up out of poverty.” Maybe don't start on such a self-deprecating note? wrote Rakushun. “And this may be so. Perhaps I'm reaching too far, to want to help another kingdom. Perhaps Kei should be my primary concern – is not that my duty, as king?”
She took a breath, and went on. “My duty as king is to make Kei prosper. But what I have come to see – what you all, who are much more experienced than I am, know much better than I do – is that Kei is more prosperous when everybody is prosperous. It's the same for all of us. It's the same for anybody. As kings, why do we have kirins, and trusted ministers? Why are we allowed to promote our families to the rank of Count, and keep them with us, immortal? It's because we can't stand alone. Tenten knows that a king who stands alone, with no support, no one to trust, is doomed to fall. It's the same, I think, for kingdoms. We all must stand tall by ourselves, make decisions for ourselves, walk for ourselves as best we can. It doesn't do to lean unduly on another. But there is a difference between being independent, and being alone. And none of us need to stand alone.”
“Well,” Youko concluded awkwardly, after a beat, “I know it's short. It probably needs to be longer. But the bones of it – do you think they'll listen?”
Rakushun reached forward, then, and caught her hand, not caring if Suzu and Keiki stared. “I think,” he said, “they'd be idiots not to.”
The Chronicles of Kei
In the Fourth Month of the Twelfth Year of the Red Child, the Royal Kei set forth on a journey to the kingdom of Sou, and called there a gathering of rulers such as had never been seen before. And this was the first of the Great Councils of Kings.