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A Sleight of Force

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"Your exam results are some of the highest we have ever seen," says the headmaster. Rakushun feels his cheeks heat, and bows his head. He almost starts worrying the hem of his sleeve between his thumb and forefinger. "When they become public, there will be many government offices here in En that would like to employ you."

Rakushun keeps his head down.

He knows what will come next: a question that he's been dreading to answer for the six years of his studies, an anxiety that's been building up slowly and steadily. He sometimes wonders whether there's anything left in him it hasn't touched.

"Have you considered what you would do after graduation?"

"Yes, headmaster."

"And?"

Rakushun takes a deep breath. When he raises his head, there's a small, polite smile on his lips.

"I have decided to go back to Kou," he says.

The decision hasn't been easy. His research and mother are in En and his heart is in Kei, but his duty ... his duty is in Kou, where his abilities and knowledge can serve people best.

The headmaster runs a hand thoughtfully through his long, white beard. "I see. I had feared you would, and yet as disappointed as I am, I must admit that hearing your decision fills me with respect."

Rakushun humbly bows his head again.

"It was an honour to have you here. The people of this institute have learnt as much from you as you have from them."

"That's very kind of you to say," Rakushun says.

"When will you leave?"

"A week after graduation," Rakushun replies. "There are still some things that I would like to settle before I set out."

The headmaster nods. "Then I ask that you come by my office again the day after graduation. I will have a letter of recommendation ready for you that will hopefully smooth matters for you in Kou."

Rakushun looks up at him in surprise. "I couldn't possibly --!" he protests.

The headmaster says, smiling, "It is no trouble, I assure you."

He chooses his words carefully. "Surely, the standard letter of graduation should be enough to satisfy most people."

The headmaster's smile falters. "I will speak plainly, then," he says. His eyes are serious, hiding fathomless knowledge, exuding an aura of worldly understanding worthy of the master of all the university's professors. "Bunchou, you are a hanjuu heading back to Kou, which is not known for its tolerance in most matters. I am aware that you would prefer to make your own name back in your homeland, much as you have done here, but I am also aware -- as are you, I am certain -- that as a hanjuu, you will likely not have the opportunity."

He's right, of course.

Rakushun has never considered being a hanjuu a special hardship. Not all people who aren't hanjuu live in safety and comfort, after all. He prefers to view his circumstances as stepping stones -- if he does not receive land on his twentieth birthday, that only means that he can remain and aid his mother with her work. If he cannot enroll in higher education, he can learn on his own, and only focus on the subjects that interest him.

He has a healthy body and a sound mind. He has family and friends, a roof over his head, and food to put in his mouth whenever he is hungry.

He considers himself lucky. He has met many people less fortunate than him.

And yet, he cannot contradict the headmaster's words. Rakushun knows what the headmaster says is true, but his directness embarrasses Rakushun, forcing him to acknowledge a truth he has fought his entire life to sidestep.

"However," the headmaster continues, "The kingdom of Kou does not have the luxury to be intolerant, now that there is no one on the throne. By giving you a letter of recommendation and helping you be taken on a more equal footing, I support En and the other kingdoms that shoulder the brunt of aiding it."

This goes against everything Rakushun has ever stood for, but in the face of such sentiment, he cannot refuse. "Then I will accept it in the spirit it is given," he says.

The smile returns to the headmaster's lips. "It is entirely my pleasure, young man."

*

It's nighttime when someone knocks.

Rakushun's room is a mess; there are piles of books all over the floor, a small pack for necessities by his bed, said necessities all over his bed, and piles of papers and scrolls arranged disorderly on his desk. His fur is dusty, and he can't stop himself from sneezing every few minutes, but he's trying to finish most of his packing tonight.

"Just a moment!" he shouts in the direction of the door, tightens the knot around one of his packs of books, and makes his way to the door.

There's nobody there.

His nose twitches. He turns towards the window and, sure enough, the En Taiho is hanging down from the roof, laughing. With a sigh, Rakushun closes the door and goes to open the window for his unusual -- but not unlikely -- guest.

As soon as the window is open, the Taiho hops into the room. He ends up landing on top of Rakushun's desk, and Rakushun hopes that his scrolls and sheafs of papers will survive the night.

"I told Shouryuu you hadn't left yet!" says the Taiho, looking inordinately pleased with himself. "We had a bet going. Anyway, sorry I didn't come earlier to say goodbye, things have been rather hectic at the palace."

"As you can see, I am still here," Rakushun replies, slightly at a loss. He's flattered that the En Taiho and King En have thought to say goodbye, but he still has much to do before the night is out. He can't bring himself to pack while in the presence of a holy beast, no matter how friendly or forgiving he is. "I give my key back to the dorm master tomorrow."

The Taiho hops off the desk much in the same manner he hopped onto it. Rakushun is relieved to see that his scrolls have remained spherical instead of being flattened.

"You've been here for a long time," the Taiho muses; there's a faint tone of sadness to his words. "Sometimes it's difficult to remember that our friends cannot stay in one place forever."

Rakushun's whiskers twitch again, and he has to suppress a sneeze. When he has his nose under control again, the En Taiho is looking at him fondly, softly, as if Rakushun is a flower that has had its bloom, and now cannot help but wither.

"I would have thought," Rakushun says respectfully, "that six years were not a long time for your highness or his majesty."

"Mmm," the Taiho agrees, but doesn't elaborate. Rakushun doesn't press the issue. He follows the Taiho with his eyes as the kirin walks slowly through the room, looking at the various books and scrolls laid out, letting his fingers caress a cover here and there, regardless of the amount of dust it leaves on his fingertips.

He turns back to Rakushun. "I read your dissertation," he says. "It was very interesting."

Rakushun bows his thanks.

"Are you sure there isn't a way we could keep you here in En?"

Rakushun says, "I'm afraid my heart is set on this course of action."

"I see." And then the Taiho smiles again, open and carefree. "I had to try just this once, y'know?"

"I understand." He hesitates, but decides that if he doesn't say the things on his mind now, he might never get another opportunity. "I will miss your highness. Our meetings have always brought me joy."

The Taiho nods. He twiddles his fingers nervously before saying, "Would you allow me and Shouryuu to grant you a parting gift?"

Rakushun looks around him at the mounds of books he will not get to take. "I'm afraid I'm rather limited at how much I can carry."

"It's not a gift you would have to carry on your person."

"I'm not sure I understand your meaning," Rakushun says carefully.

The Taiho says, "We want to add you to En's sennin registry."

Rakushun starts to frown.

"Kou is bound to be dangerous," the Taiho explains.

"I was aware of the risks when I made my decision."

"That's not the point!" the Taiho says in frustration.

Except it is. The Taiho doesn't seem to trust Rakushun's ability to assess the risk and decide that he can handle it. "You are worried that I might get hurt."

"No." The Taiho begins to pace; Rakushun worries for his carefully-arranged piles of books, but the Taiho gracefully steps between them, hardly ever stirring even a single page. "The point," he emphasises, "is that Shouryuu and I would like to see you again one day, as would Youko and your mother, I'm sure. You have been invaluable for both En and Kei, after all."

"While I appreciate the thought behind the offer," says Rakushun, "I would prefer to live in Kou the way I always had before coming to En."

The Taiho stops his pacing and glares at Rakushun, who tries not to shrink back. "Would you just let anybody help you out for once!" he exclaims. "Whatever you're telling yourself, you're wrong. You're not going back to Kou with the same things you left with. You've gone to university, you've made friends, you've gained new perspectives! I've read your dissertation on how to prevent a kingless kingdom from falling into disrepair. You cannot apply all of that in Kou if you die, and the longer you live, the better off Kou will be -- Kouki has only just started imitating human language, and who knows how long it will be until he'll choose a new monarch? It could be five years. It could just as well be thirty."

Rakushun doesn't know what to say. He's embarrassed, and angry, and frustrated, because he doesn't want all this help that people seem to want to heap on him. He wants to go to Kou and be accepted on his own merits, to do things in his own way, but the Taiho is right. And so was the headmaster.

And that stings.

He bows his head, accepting the offer, but when his face is invisible to the Taiho, he grimaces.

*

In lieu of hugging him goodbye, his mother holds his hands in both of hers.

"Be careful," she says. "Keep yourself safe."

"I will, Ma."

Her hands are warm and callused after years of field and housework. Rakushun knows that she misses it sometimes, in En, where she's been hired as a shopkeeper, but she never once complains.

"Have you said goodbye to your professors and friends?"

Rakushun nods.

"And have you told your plans to Queen Kei?"

Rakushun's ears flatten against his head, and his nose twitches. "I sent her a message this morning," he mutters.

Mild as it is, he can still hear his mother's censure in her voice: "She might've had advice for you if you'd contacted her in advance, but what's done is done." She sighs. And, almost wistfully, says, "I am so proud of you, Rakushun."

Rakushun hugs her. He might be as good as naked in his rat form, and they are standing at her doorway, but she's his mother and he's not sure if he'll ever see her again. He is sennin now, after all, and immortal (albeit a lowly one), and she is not.

She holds him close for a long time, but then she kisses the top of his head and lets go. "I packed you some food for the road," she says, and disappears into the darkness of the house. She returns a minute later with red eyes and two packages wrapped in fresh leaves.

Rakushun puts them both in the bag across his chest, next to his oilskin-wrapped dissertation and a light robe, in case he will have to take on human form. "Thank you," he says, and hugs her one last time. "Bye, Ma."

And then he starts walking.

He can't help but stop every few steps and look back until he turns into a different street, and he can't help but notice that she remains rooted to the spot until they can no longer see each other.

But he's made his choice and she's proud of him, and that will have to be enough, especially since he's laden with gifts he doesn't want, and which he suspects nobody in Kou will think he had earned the right for.

He doesn't allow himself to think about how he doesn't feel like he's earned it, either.