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THE GOLDEN PRINCESS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Near Dun Barstow
County of Napa, Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
April/Uzuki 30th, Change Year 46/2044 A.D./ Shōhei 1

 

The newly-made Empress of Japan took council with her advisors as the night wound down into silence.

Reiko looked at the urn with her father’s ashes and swallowed at the sight of the plain, subtle gray curve and the three thin sticks of incense burning before it. As his only blood-relative here it had fallen to her to use the special chopsticks and pick the charred fragments of bone up out of the remains of the pyre with due reverence, for transfer to the ceramic container. It hadn’t been as hard as she feared; concentrating on doing it properly had helped, as ritual was meant to do. When every motion was prescribed, you need not think. Nor was the memory gruesome. It had been a means of saying goodbye, a final act of love. But...

For an instant she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and cleared her mind by feeling the mild air on her skin, the slip and slide of linen haori on silk kimono belted with the warm wool hakama; and the smells of warm canvas turning cool with night, and the alien greenery beyond, a scent drier and spicier and more dusty beneath the dew than her homeland.

When she opened them the men kneeling around the table in the center of the open-sided tent were waiting for her to speak, eyes politely lowered. The lantern hanging from the center-pole cast slight, flickering shadows. Everything was changed, now that she was jotei.

“We await your orders, Majesty,” her Grand Steward said.

He was a thin weathered man in his late fifties named Koyama Akira, the only one of the senior men who’d been born before the Change. Few such had survived the terrible years since.

It was a little disconcerting to have them waiting on her word, since the half-dozen of them were all at least a decade more than her twenty years—commanders and advisors she’d seen working with her father all her life. They’d always treated her politely, and with increasing deference since it became clear that Prince Yoshihito was lost and there would never be another heir except her or her younger sisters.

Reigning Empresses were very unusual but not completely unknown. Her grandmother had been one, for all her short life, until she died bearing the son who had been Reiko’s father. She had been the sole survivor of the Imperial line, brought from Change-stricken Tokyo through chaos and terror and death on an unimaginable scale, on a journey that had been an epic of sacrificial heroism by men determined that the seed of Amaterasu-ōmikami be preserved at any cost.

“The Renso-no-Gi and the Ryosho-no-Gi are out of the question,” she said quietly; those were the funeral rites. “Investiture with the Regalia... well, you all know why we are here. For the present we will simply take this meeting as Sokui-go-Choken-no-Gi, the First Audience of my reign. I hereby authorize it.”

Koyama bowed and slid a sheet of creamy mulberry paper towards her, and then a leather-covered box. She opened it, hearing an intake of breath as the square gold shapes within were exposed to view; not everyone on this voyage knew that the State and Privy Seals were with them.

Reiko paused for a moment to clear her mind, then in one fluid movement held back the sleeve of her kimono, touched her brush to the wet surface of the inkstone and quickly signed the characters of her name on the paper. Then she pressed the seals home—they were heavy, being of pure gold and three and a half inches on a side, but her hands were strong and steady. The special cinnabar ink stood out below the plain black brushstrokes.

“Are there any objections?” she asked quietly, as she folded the box closed again.

There had been whispers that the Emperor treated her too much like a son after her brother Yoshihito’s ship was lost, as if grief had driven him to distraction. These were his most loyal followers, but they would be weighing her every word and action.

She knew that there had been many times in the long, long history of her people when the Emperor had been a revered but powerless figurehead, a puppet-prisoner in the hands of iron-fisted generals or simply presiding at the rituals of State while politicians ruled. This was not such a time, and her father had been clear that she must command as well as preside. Reaching a consensus was important, it provided the framework that made action possible just as the bones did for a man’s body, but without a central focus it degenerated into paralysis all too easily.

“There is simply no time for ceremony,” she said, after waiting a moment, putting a decisive snap into her tone. “Nor do we have the other requirements for it. The Montivallans can conduct their rituals for their High King because they are on their own ground. We will give—“

She felt another wave of pain as she stopped herself from referring to her father by his name, or by any title he’d born in life. That would be inauspicious, but it was like another step away. She controlled her breathing—if you ruled the body, you ruled the mind—and went on by using his posthumous name, called after his era, the Rebirth.

Saisei Tennō the proper obsequies when we can. In the meantime we will do him honor by carrying out his plan. Is that understood?”

Hai, Heika! Wakarimashita!” the others replied, ducking their heads in formal agreement.

Nobody was happy about it, she judged, but necessity had no respect for law. Even custom must bow to it at times. They were probably grateful to have her say it for them, though. Most of these men had loved her father too, in their different ways.

“We will also take this as the first year of Shōhei,” she said.

That was the era-name she had chosen: Victorious Peace. There was a very slight rustle at the boldness of her claim, though eras were named as an aspiration, not in retrospect. Only time would tell whether it was correct... or a bitter irony.

“Egawa,” she went on briskly, remembering to use his name alone this first time, as a marker of their relative positions. “How are we placed?”

The Imperial Guard commander bowed.

Heika,” he said.

That was Majesty, as informal as was really possible, acceding to her unspoken command that they keep strictly to practicalities.

His face was an iron mask, his voice flatly objective, though she knew his grief was if anything worse than hers—and tinged with shame that his lord had fallen in battle while he lived. The bandage on his left hand marked where he’d intercepted the throwing knife aimed at her by desperately and instantly putting his own flesh in the way, only moments later. She hoped that soothed his honor; if so it certainly made her glad. He would be the sword-hand of her reign, as he had been for her sire.

“The Montivallans have furnished all the supplies we could ask,” he began.

She nodded. They’d had nothing left, and stores of food and water had been running short for weeks before they made land. For the last ten days of shattering labor at pumps and sails and catapults there had been only a handful of rice each, and barely enough water to cook it and give one strictly rationed cup to drink. Nobody had gone quite mad enough to drink the seawater around them, but some had probably been close.

And Father smiled as he refused the men who offered him their ration, she thought.

Her people prided themselves on the warrior spirit that could overcome mere material things, but there were limits and thirst and starvation and scurvy were among them in the end. The beaching and desperate flight and savage battle that followed had taken the last reserves of everyone’s strength.

Nobody showed it openly, of course, but just being able to drink their fill of clean water and feel it sooth the savage pain between the ears was inexpressible bliss. And it had required all the iron control samurai learned not to gobble and stuff themselves with fresh food like peasants at a festival; they had been very hungry, and for just long enough that it became a grinding, nagging ache without the numbing that followed in real famine conditions. The food here was not what they were accustomed to, apart from the fish, but there was plenty of it and they could prepare the raw ingredients in the fashion they preferred.

In a way she almost missed the physical misery, because it preoccupied you and the spiritual effort of suppressing it smothered the pains of soul and heart.

Father—

“And they have provided excellent care for our wounded, treatment much like ours,” Egawa continued.

“That is most fortunate,” she said proud that her voice was steady.

And she’d noticed the same thing when she visited their injured. It was a comfort that those who’d suffered wounds in the Throne’s service were being given the best possible care, though it was a pity that it was among strangers with whom they shared not a word. Still, the skill and sympathy of the healers and their assistants had been unmistakable. To a man in pain, no matter how brave, a smile and a gentle hand meant much.

“Not one man can be spared if recovery is possible,” she said, with iron in her tones. “And we have no true healers left.”

One of their doctors had intercepted a jinnikukaburi roundshot with her head in the Aleutians, and the other had been slashed to death in the brutal scrimmage around the ship trying to drag a wounded man back from the front line. Everyone learned field medicine, but that didn’t make you a real doctor.

“We have thirty-two men of the Imperial Guard fit for duty, including some lightly wounded, and adequate gear for all though we are short of arrows,” Egawa continued. “Two more have died, and six are seriously injured. I regret to inform you, Majesty, that Watanabe Atsuko-gozen never recovered consciousness.”

Reiko closed her eyes again for an instant. Lady Atsuko had been the last of her female attendants; there had been three originally, all well-born young women a little older than her and selected for their varied skills. She could see Atsuko driving the point of her naginata into the face of the Korean swordsman who’d been about to strike Reiko... and to do it, ignoring the scar-faced savage who brought a stone-headed club down two-handed on her head to shatter the plates of her helmet. Reiko could remember her frowning over the go board, too, or gently, patiently mopping the face of her friend Haru by the flickering light of a single swaying lantern when she was prostrate with seasickness in the endless storms.

“Duty, heavier than mountains,” she said quietly.

They hadn’t been friends, not exactly—there were barriers—but they had all become close, in the confined quarters and constant shared peril and hardship.

“Death, lighter than a feather,” another voice murmured, completing the formula. Then: “But now you will have no woman to attend you, Majesty.”

“We will do as we must. Continue, General-san,” she said levelly, switching to the more courteous distant form of address with his title.

“Our ship Red Dragon is a wreck and most of the crew perished in the rearguard action there.”

Young Ishikawa Goru, who had been Kaigun Daisa—captain—of the Red Dragon—leaned forward slightly at his gesture and supplied the precise information. Her father had directly ordered him to join the retreat because they absolutely must have an experienced navigator, and there had been tears in his eyes as he obeyed.

“The upperworks burned and there is structural damage to the scantlings, Your Majesty, from the fire, from the grounding, and from the storms—we were leaking like a ladle dipping noodles out of the pot for days before we sighted land.”

“I remember the pumping,” she said; her hands had hard callus from weapons practice, but that had worn them sore.

He ducked his head. “Majesty. And the repairs we could make to strikes by roundshot and catapult bolts at sea were makeshift. So sorry, we would need a shipyard, timber and cordage and sailcloth, many skilled workers and even with all these things at least a month or so to make her seaworthy. Effectively, complete rebuilding. As it is, here in this wilderness the ship must be regarded as a total loss. To return to the homeland we will require a new ship, and at least some of the crew for it.”

“The Montivallans have ships capable of the voyage. They trade regularly with Hawaii and even more distant lands,” Reiko said.

“Mainly by the southern routes, Majesty,” Koyama confirmed. “To avoid the savages who helped the bakachon against us.”

“This is why the Montivallans took our side, Lord Steward?” someone asked. “They couldn’t know what was going on. We were all warriors from nowhere, we and the bakachon and those savages they picked up.”

Here Reiko could answer: “The savages fighting with our enemy, the ones whose ship kept us off the coast so long after we reached Alaska... they are called Haida. And evidently they are enemies of Montival—pirates, I think.”

Ishikawa nodded thoughtfully. “Ah so desu ka. That would explain why the seas were so completely empty as we came across the Pacific from Hokkaido, though that is the best sailing route from Asia to this continent, Majesty,” he said. “It is not that there is no sea traffic at all, as we feared, but that it avoids that route despite the favorable winds.”

Reiko gestured agreement with her fan. “That came out when they made sure of where we came from. We are not stranded.”

Nobody moved, but she could feel their relief.

“Continue, General Egawa.”

He went on: “The ship is lost, but a good deal of the baggage and gear in the hold was salvaged by the Montivallans after they put out the fire, and promptly turned over to us. There is much goodwill on their part, I think, but communications are a problem; those of us who have some English have to use written messages. Thankfully they are all literate in the Latin alphabet and a number of us can use it, but it is still awkward.”

Koyama said thoughtfully: “Their High King spoke perfect Japanese... Sado-ga-shima dialect, even... and apparently Korean as well. And now his daughter does. I still do not understand that. Certainly none of the others have any, Majesty.”

“Yes, I recall, and I was astonished at his fluency even then,” she said. “The difficulty in speaking with them is very awkward; we cannot expect a ruler to act as our interpreter whenever it would be convenient. We must master their language as rapidly as possible, and that applies to you all, and to your subordinates.”

Her mouth twisted a little wryly. Her tutors had been convinced that she could already speak fluent English. She had studied dutifully, even though it had seemed a useless accomplishment to her.

They and she had both been very wrong. It would have been extremely useful to speak English now, but though she could handle the written language easily enough, several embarrassing attempts at the spoken tongue had proved incomprehensible to the locals. Nor could she follow more than a word or two per sentence when they spoke. The sounds that English-speakers actually used were excruciatingly difficult—many of them were identical to her ear but were distinct and crucial to meaning—and the spelling in the supposedly phonetic Latin alphabet was bizarrely useless as a guide. Why did night have a g and an h and no e on the end?

And while she was not sure, she suspected that at least two very different dialects of English were involved here.

The Kami know it’s hard enough to understand someone from Hachijo, the way they mumble everything as if their mouths were full and call a field a mountain or say garbage for firewood. It might be something like that. And I don’t even know which dialect is more important! But the important thing here is—

“It is the sword he carried, and that his daughter now bears, that did these things,” Reiko said flatly. “It is... shintai.”

She turned slightly and bowed to the urn. Everyone followed suit; it wasn’t necessary to speak. Shintai was a word with many implications: literally it meant something that served as the dwelling of a kami. Most commonly it was at the center of a shrine, and it could be a rock, a tree, a waterfall... or an object like a sword. Some considered the relationship merely symbolic, but the ancient tales could make the power embodied in a shintai sound quite bluntly literal.

Her father’s quest involved taking the stories very seriously indeed, and they now had direct proof in the light of day that he had been absolutely right.

Koyama went on slowly: “These people... they are not at all as I would have imagined Americans, from the records and stories. Even two generations after the Change. Though they recognized us immediately, what we were and where we came from. Even using our own terms; I heard their ruler’s daughter say Nihon as soon as she saw us closely. Curious.”

“As far as custom and appearance go, I suspect that we too might be surprising to someone who had no knowledge of Japan since Heisei 10,” she said; that spring was when the machines had stopped. “Since we have returned to many of the older ways.”

She reminded herself to think of the Western calendar as well, though it wasn’t much used in everyday speech any more: Heisei 10 was 1998 AD.

“And just as surprising to someone brought forward in time from before Meiji, Majesty,” Koyama said, surprising her a little. “Though they might take a little longer to realize it. History cannot be completely undone, even by the Change, nor can the past be truly brought back even if you wear its clothes.”

True enough, she thought. I am not about to shave my eyebrows off or blacken my teeth or apologize for existing every time I speak to a man.

“My father once said he felt as if he had awoken in a Kurosawa epic and could not escape,” Koyama added.

They all ignored the mysterious last sentence; the Grand Steward was given to gnomic references nobody else could understand.

Egawa’s second-in-command Nakamura Ichiro spoke; his left arm was bandaged and in a sling.

“These gaijin look so strange, though. More so than the pictures prepared me for. Hardly like human beings at all. More like characters in an ancient manga!”

Reiko tapped her fan on her chin; that had struck her too. Nobody born in Japan since the Change had seen a living gaijin, of course. When nine hundred and ninety-nine in every thousand perished, it wasn’t to be expected that any of a tiny group of foreigners centered in the cities where devastation was worst would survive. For her generation, their parents hadn’t seen one either, though there were surviving photographs.

A representation was one thing, the living reality another. The fantastic hair and eye colors were like something from a dream, and the odd angular features, even the way they differed so strongly one from another in things like the tint of their skin—she had seen everything from the commonest odd-looking pink shade through normal tan to a very dark brown almost the color of an aubergine. It all made it a little difficult to see most of them as individuals, though she supposed she’d grow accustomed to it.

And frankly, most of them are repulsively ugly. So hairy! Almost like oni. Though this Princess Órlaith is striking, in a deeply strange way—hard to realize that the yellow hair and blue eyes are real. And her face is like a blade.

“They seem civilized enough in some respects,” she said thoughtfully. “Not too smelly, at least.”

Everyone nodded. The communal bathhouse in the little village looked as if had been among the very first things built there when the settlement was established a few years ago, and it had been almost exactly like the sentō, the equivalents back in the homeland. Almost as if it had been modeled on them, with provision for scrubbing down first and then soaking in a large tub of hot water. Hers were a fastidious people, when they could be, and it had been a deep relief to be properly clean again after so long. Though it had been a little strange and sad to be rattling around in it by herself.

“General Egawa, your military evaluation of our... hosts,” Reiko said.

She wanted everyone to have the facts, and she was also interested to see if his judgment would match hers.

And the battle was so... chaotic. Despair, and then it was arrows and lances in the enemy’s back. I could easily have missed something crucial. I am the descendant of the Sun Goddess, not Herself. And even the Great Kami are not omniscient.

“Majesty.”

He passed his bandaged hand over the shaven strip on his head, back towards the topknot, and frowned for a moment as he organized his thoughts.

“Their High King’s personal troops dealt with the jinnikukaburi who were about to wipe us out very well. From what I observed their individual weapons-handling with sword and lance was reasonable, allowing for different weapons and styles. The archers were truly excellent, as good as our shashu, and the heavy cavalry charge was fearsome, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Or those horses!”

“Huge but graceful,” Reiko agreed.

“Feeding them might be a problem, though—I’ve seen that they eat grain, General-sama,” his second-in-command said thoughtfully.

Egawa nodded; it was a valid point. In Japan, animals ate only what humans couldn’t, apart from the odd handful of barley to keep chickens tame enough to be easy to catch. The Imperial Guard commander went on:

“Coordination between arms was nearly perfect. Beautiful timing, which requires not only a commander with good judgment but a force with maneuver discipline. And the way they deployed indicates to me that they scouted carefully with those lightly armed horse-archers without either we or the enemy noticing them before they struck. The jinnikukaburi were taken entirely by surprise.”

“Their High King assumed that any friend of the Haida was an enemy of his, and any enemy of an enemy was a friend,” Reiko said. “Logical, but it is not easy to be completely logical in a situation like that, with so much unknown and so much at stake.”

Egawa nodded. “Hai, Majesty, that was sound thinking, when he had so little time to consider and no precise information. Swift! Decisive! He saw the situation and struck precisely with all his force, and without a moment of the hesitation that might have let the enemy recover their balance. A great pity he was killed.”

Silence fell for a moment as they thought of their own loss, until Grand Steward Koyama nodded.

“Very fortunate thinking for us,” he said dryly. Then: “And perhaps not so much of a pity that their High King was killed.”

“Explain,” Reiko said sharply.

“Majesty, even without understanding the language well, it is obvious that the Montivallans are stricken with sorrow. And beneath their sorrow, a deep anger, hot but lasting; both as great as ours at the loss of our Emperor. The jinnikukaburi have killed a man, but they may well have awoken an entire nation. And filled it with a terrible resolve.”

“That is a point,” Reiko said thoughtfully. “Yes... yes, considering what I have seen, you may well be correct. Continue, General. You spoke of the household troops of the Montivallan ruler, who are presumably their best men. What about the rest?”

Egawa went on: “The militia from the village are good archers, and well equipped for light troops. I cannot say more without seeing them in action, but my impression is favorable. They resemble our kosakunin-ashigaru, our farmer-infantry.”

More nods. Every household in the homeland kept weapons ready to hand, trained to arms in what spare time they had, and every fit man and every woman not pregnant or recovering from childbirth was ready to turn out with bow and naginata when the alarm-drum boomed out. Full-time samurai were a handful, their numbers set by what the land and the peasants and craftsmen who worked it could produce, but the raiders from across the Sea of Japan did not find an easy meal anywhere.

Her commander went on: “The reinforcements they’ve received since then look generally similar to the regular troops we saw fight, well equipped, well-fed and strong, with good march and camp discipline as well. They hold themselves with pride, care for their gear without being driven, obey orders promptly, work hard, and set alert watches.”

Everyone nodded; those were good rule-of-thumb indicators of quality if you couldn’t actually see men fight. Egawa continued in a slightly lighter tone.

“Some of the older troops have seen much action, judging from their smooth skins and beautiful looks.”

There were a few smiles as he touched one of the scars that seamed his square pug face before he went on:

“Apparently they also have heliographs, gliders and observation balloons. And catapults. Probably fortifications, castles, too. The crossbows some of the reinforcements carry have a very ingenious rapid cocking mechanism, and I noticed a number of other good tricks that might be worth copying. Unless there were implausible stockpiles before the Change, most of what they use is of modern make, done to a very high standard.”

“So your appraisal is on the whole positive?”

Egawa nodded. “Hai, Majesty, very much so. They would make formidable allies, if we can persuade them. If I could combine our own total forces with an equal number of troops of the quality I have seen here, and the necessary ships, I would pledge to lay all Korea at your Majesty’s feet in two campaigning seasons.”

At the thought his expression changed slightly. To something you might glimpse on the face of the very last tiger you ever saw.

Ishikawa Goru was only ten years older than her, which made him the second-youngest present, and the sailor was also inclined to headlong brashness.

“But their country seems to be very thinly populated, General-sama,” he said. “How many of them can there be?”

They all looked at him, and he flushed and mumbled: “So sorry.”

Reiko made a tapping gesture towards the naval captain with her closed tessen war-fan in mild reproof, making allowances for the way he’d kept them afloat through weeks of storms in the frozen wastes of water north of Hokkaido as they ran before the gales and the relentless pursuit of the jinnikukaburi squadron. And for the fact that the Red Dragon under his command had sunk two of the enemy ships in brilliant slash-and-run engagements without taking crippling damage or heavy casualties. If those extra jinnikukaburi crews and marines had been on their tails when they came ashore here not one of the Japanese would have lived long enough to be rescued.

“This is probably only a fringe territory, like our new settlements on the main islands,” she said gently. “The equipment, weapons and tools we have seen... there must be plenty of large workshops somewhere, with highly skilled specialists, their tools, and a labor force. Which means many farming villages like this one we have seen to support them. Hundreds, at the very least. Probably thousands.”

Koyama nodded. “Yes, Majesty. I have definitely learned from maps they have shown me and what conversation we have been able to manage that this is the southernmost of their inhabited territories and far from the center.”

There was an old map of western North America on the table, and he used a finger that had been broken long ago and healed slightly crooked to point:

“From what I was able to learn, the heart of their realm lies here in the valley of this river to the north, the Columbia, and the other rivers flowing into it, from the coast far into the interior. This was where the largest number survived the Change. Rather as Sado-ga-shima or Hachijōjima or Goto and Oki-shoto and the other islands of refuge are to us, but I suspect they have more people than we do. Possibly many more; that river and those seaports were the path by which huge quantities of grain were exported before the Change, and much would have been available in ships, storage elevators and trains. There were a few large cities which doubtless perished, but also very broad farmlands with few inhabitants. Very few, by our standards.”

“Ah, yes,” Egawa said clinically. “With organization, that could have made quite a difference to the logistics.”

His was not the only nod of agreement. Famine had been the greatest killer everywhere in the year after the Change, closely followed by the chaos and plague that inevitably came in famine’s wake and brought everything down in wreck. There had been a hundred and twenty million people in Japan in 1998; thirty-five million in Greater Tokyo alone. She had learned those numbers from her tutors, but it was difficult to think of them as anything real. Sado-ga-shima had been a rural backwater, and not many of the few surviving adults from the cities willingly spoke of that time. Or of the battles on the island’s shores to keep out starving refugees, fought by men weeping as they killed.

All her people together were perhaps a third of a million now, and that was much more than it had been at the lowest point. When a city of thirty-five millions found itself with only a week’s food, and no light or clean water or sewage disposal or transport or ability to communicate faster than a man on foot... Tokyo and Osaka had burned for months. The skies had been dark that year, the elderly said when they spoke of it at all, and stank of smoke, and the cold rain left stains like liquid soot. Her father’s generation had been more haunted by it than hers, but it would be centuries before the memory of horror lifted entirely.

The Grand Steward concluded: “Montival claims the whole western half of this continent. I have not yet determined how real that is.”

Reiko nodded; her government claimed all of the old Empire, but most of that was howling wilderness and haunted ruins. Her people were the children and grandchildren of remnants preserved on offshore islands with enough food—just. And not too impossibly many mouths as the Change flashed around the globe like a flicker of malignant lightning and the great world-machine stopped in its tracks. On some of those islands the aged and infirm had refused food or opened their veins or walked into the ocean lest they starve the children, or overburden those strong enough to work and fight and breed.

“Not entirely unlike us in the breadth of their claims, then,” she said dryly. “However little substance there is to either.”

“Every reality that we can make begins with a dream, Majesty,” the Grand Steward said. “The Seventy Loyal Men who brought your grandmother to Sado dreamed, and made the dream truth in the face of the wrath of the Kami.”

Hai, honto desu ne,” she conceded to the unspoken reproof. “Unquestionably true. Or I would not be here.”

Some of those men had paid with their sanity, most with their lives, many with both, and none were still among the living; but every child in Nippon learned their names now, and made offerings to their memories in summer at the Obon festival. Their giri had been fulfilled, but an unbreakable burden of obligation remained with the living.

This too passes to me with Father’s death. All the generations past and those to come look to us now, their fate balancing on the blade of the sword we hold. Duty heavier than mountains, neh? But we may not escape it through death; we must triumph and live and hand down our heritage. The first duty we owe our ancestors is that they have descendants.

Her shoulders moved as she set herself to it, but her face showed nothing. Koyama acknowledged the point with a gesture and continued:

“But certainly they are pushing new settlements into the wilderness here in what the maps call California. Here the Change struck as badly as it did in Japan. Our hosts recognize the name California, by the way, but do not use it. I also have... mmm... an impression that this High Kingdom is a federation of very different units. No details yet, so sorry, Majesty.”

Reiko made a small hissing sound of frustration, and there were nods of agreement.

We know so little! And we cannot make sensible decisions until we do know more.

The jinnikukaburi raids had kept Japan’s survivors isolated from any real contact with the outside world all her lifetime. There was an occasional ship from the mainland looking for salvage or trade or just fleeing chaos, but the coasts of China were mostly a wreck as bad as the main islands of Japan. And from what they had heard the interior was a bloody murk of warlords fighting each other and Tibetan and Mongol invaders, seasoned with flood and disaster as the dams and dykes and canals of the old world broke down and spilled the great rivers across their floodplains.

The rest of the world was barely even rumors. And all her people had wanted to do was begin the long slow process of resettlement of their homeland, until the enemies of humanity forced them onto another path.

“There is another matter,” Reiko said; after her first reminder, it was time to drive the lesson home. “You all watched the cremation of their High King.”

Another series of bows. This time they masked deep unease. They had been politely distant, but close enough to know that something entirely strange had taken place.

“You saw what happened then. I know many of you thought Saisei Tennō was... possibly unwise... to seek Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. You thought it was a piece of mysticism, perhaps even madness, to follow visions seen in dreams. I suggest that you reconsider. The Grass Cutting Sword is exactly what he said: our only hope.”

 

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