THE TWELVE KINGDOMS (is also known as Juuni Kokki, and isn't mine)
Title: Short Vacation
Note: 50 bu = approximately the length of a football field
The news traveled back in waves -- the Empress is almost here, the palanquin bearers are passing through the gates, they're through! The crowd cheered. The number of people who had come was simply amazing. Already they spilled out of the square and onto the surrounding streets. Those in the first few dozen rows pressed forward toward the dais, eager to catch a glimpse of the woman behind the curtain -- and she hadn't even arrived yet! When Kei Taiho, leading the procession, mounted the steps, the crowd began to cheer in earnest.
It seemed the whole world had come to see him, and to see the Empress behind her curtains of state. The balconies overlooking the square had been filled since early morning, mostly by regional officials who'd paid for the privilege. Several enterprising young men had climbed the eastern watch tower and were enjoying a precarious view of the proceedings from an alcove three stories up. Altogether there were more than three thousand people: practically everyone in town, several bands of traveling entertainers and merchants, and twice as many people from the surrounding villages.
And out of all of them, only two were trying to leave.
"Walk normally!" she said. "We don't want to draw attention."
"I think we'll draw attention no matter what," he said.
It was true: although he wasn't in his beast form (too conspicuous), they were both pushing against the crowd in suspiciously heavy cloaks, in the process drawing a considerable number of half-curious stares. However it wasn't until he attempted to navigate around a group of enthusiastic Shusei -- half of them sitting on the shoulders of the other half, all cheering -- and stumbled, that the stares became serious.
"I'm really very sorry," he told the tiny old woman he'd accidentally run into. "I didn't mean to at all, are you hurt? I'm sorry, that was careless of me, please accept my apologies..." The old woman, already nodding her forgiveness, began to shift impatiently, in a way that said he was blocking her view. Meanwhile three of the Shusei had turned from the spectacle on the dais to regard the two of them with interest, and maybe something more...
She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the crowd. As soon as they were free, she broke into a run.
"Run!" she said, belatedly.
"I can't!" he said, although he was anyway, his hand still in hers. "Stop, I can't run in these clothes, I'll fall-"
Her only response was to run faster. He closed his mouth and focused on not tripping over his robes. They tore down the main road, passing dozens of brightly colored festival tents. The tents lined both sides of the road, narrowing it from wide enough to accommodate carts in both directions to barely wide enough for a single rickshaw. Most were unmanned, even those with items for sale clearly on display. Still trying hard not to trip, he spared a moment of pride in Youko, who'd managed to instill such trust in the occupants of this town, a huge change from the lawlessness of just ten years earlier.
She abruptly changed direction, yanking him between two tents and into an alley.
"There was a patrolman ahead," she said, panting a little. She threw back the hood of her cloak and he was momentarily lost to the contemplation of the brilliant red of her hair. His distraction only lasted the single instant it took for him to remember to breathe -- Rakushun, in contrast to Youko, was gulping for air.
"Haah," he weezed.
"Soft," she teased, not even breathing hard. "We've only run fifty bu."
"Professorship," Rakushun said with mock-dignity, "is not what one might call an active profession."
She smiled at that, and Rakushun smiled back. Then, at the same time, they broke into laughter. Youko slid helplessly down the wall of the alleyway and Rakushun, gasping, followed her, until they both sat shaking on the ground.
"It wasn't that funny," he said when he'd finally gotten his breath back.
"No," Youko agreed, "it really wasn't." They grinned stupidly at each other.
"Maybe it's the thrill?" Rakushun ventured. "I've never had to run from the authorities before."
Youko raised an elegantly sculpted eyebrow. "Never?"
"I guess I haven't had to either -- not in the way we're talking about, anyway. In Hourai I was the good girl, and here I'm the good Empress." She said it with such obvious satisfaction that Rakushun found himself smiling again, involuntarily. At the same time...
"Um," Rakushun said. "About that." He trailed off. He picked at the fabric covering his arm -- at his sleeve. It itched, but not in an unbearable way.
"About what?" Youko prompted, when it was clear that Rakushun wasn't going to continue.
"No, I shouldn't say anything."
"Rakushun. Tell me." She shifted a little bit against the wall, getting comfortable. I can wait as long as it takes, her posture said, but you will tell me what you're thinking.
Rakushun conceded to her superior position. "About that...is it really okay to sneak off like this? So many people came to see you."
"Is that what you really think?" she asked.
"Yes, of course," he said.
"I don't think so," she declared. "I've done this tour every year for the last eight years, visiting all of the regional capitals along with my retinue, and in my experience no one really wants to see the Empress."
Rakushun peered at her. She looked like she was completely serious. He wrinkled his nose, unaware that the expression looked completely different (in Youko's opinion, much more adorable) when he was in human form. "What makes you say that?" he asked.
Youko shrugged. "When I suggested an annual tour of the country, my ministers immediately seized on the idea. It seems that in ancient times, the tour was a well-established ritual of Kei, and there were many traditions surrounding it they were overjoyed to see revived."
"Not only Kei," Rakushun said. "Ren, Hou, Han, Sai, and Shun also have similar traditions."
"That doesn't surprise me. In any case, it seems one of the most important traditions is that I only appear before the crowd hidden by the curtains of state. No one but officials of Daibu rank or higher are to see my face, it would be improper."
"Pardon me," Rakushun said, "but I can't imagine you let that stop you."
"No, I worked out a compromise. On the first day, I appear in my palanquin. But on the second day, and the third, and the fourth, for as many days as it takes, I hold informal audiences and hear complaints. The thing is, getting back to your question, most of the people who come to see me on the first day aren't interested in an audience."
"What are they interested in?"
"Oh, food, fun, the excitement, trade goods. I think most of them just want to say they've seen the Empress. Whether they actually see me or not, what's the difference? They're still having a good time. The townspeople love me because I'm good for business, so they come to cheer in the main square, but I doubt they really care who's sitting in the palanquin."
He hadn't thought of it that way, but now that he'd heard her explanation, he had to admit it made sense. But all the same... "It still seems dishonest, somehow."
Now it was Youko's turn to pick at her sleeve -- or in her case, to shift guiltily and look away. "I'll be there for the audiences tomorrow," she said, and was it his imagination, or did she sound a little guilty? She wasn't meeting his eyes.
In Hourai I was the good girl, and here I'm the good Empress, wasn't that what she'd said?
Rakushun suddenly felt terrible.
"I think you should have picked someone else," he said, miserably. "I'm no good at this kind of thing."
"What do you mean?"
"Playing hooky...what's so funny?"
"Nothing, just...that phrase...and you..."
"I fail to see the humor," Rakushun said, but his eyes were sparkling. The corner of his mouth twitched, and that was enough to set her off again.
"Any-anyway," she said, after she'd recovered, "who was I supposed to take? One of my ministers? Shohaku? Keiki? They're good people, but they would never have agreed to it."
Rakushun went back to picking at his sleeve. "Kei Taiho would have."
"Yes, but he wouldn't have enjoyed it, and that kind of misery is contagious. It was bad enough telling him what I planned to do. He got that disapproving line on his forehead, you know the one I'm talking about?"
"I don't know the Taiho that well," Rakushun said, "but if he's as proper as you say he is..."
"I'll have to make it up to him somehow," she said. "Later. But you see why I'm glad it's you here." Her eyes met his across the alley -- and really, it wasn't a very wide alley, two bu at most. She reached out to catch his hand, still worrying at the sleeves of his robe, and stilled it.
"I don't know," he said. "What about Shokei? This is exactly the sort of thing she would enjoy."
"You're right, it is. That's why she's the one pretending to me."
"Your other friend, then -- Suzu."
He gave up and looked up at her. "Yes?"
"I wanted it to be you."
"Oh," he said, in a small voice.
It was a very small alley.