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"It is hardly enough, is it?" Tsukino was used to hear Akiyama's musings in the morning, when she visited to provide the daily report. But seldom did she see the Prime Minister this serious. Maybe it was the morning hours, and Akiyama being no morning person, but normally it were trivialities that were uttered. However, the stone grey eyes of Akiyama glared with determination at Tsukino, who felt slightly uncomfortable with the strange attention. "What is, Akiyama-dono?"

 

"Our efforts. We are not going far enough." Tsukino was puzzled over Akiyama's words. "For what?" Akiyama stared at the wondering Tsukino, before turning towards the paperwork on her desk. Shifting through the different notes she had received while asleep, she countered with a question. "Tsukino, why are we not seen as a great power?" Silence fllowed, as Tsukino tried to think of a response, which she finally gave, albeit a bit timidly. "Are we not at least considered a power? We have surely attained a position to stand next to the defeated Commonwealth, if not Russia." Akiyama sighed. "Let me rephrase the issue, Tsukino. Would you deem Russia to be a power next to Tianxia?" This time, the response needed far less time. "No?!"

 

Akiyama did not look up, but continued. "Of course you don't. Because it's a preposterous idea. Any child knows they are different. And do you know why?" Akiyama didn't wait for a response this time, answering her own question. "Because while the both seem in a state of relative decline, Tianxia is a systemically strong nation... just ruled by a man that has nowhere the stature of his father. Russia is a systemically weak nation, that can't go anywhere beyond its borders as it stands. And people know that difference. They remember the days of Yuan Jia and know what Tianxia is capable of, of how Tianxia once dominated the world and Yuan Jia surpassed the British Empire in his control of the globe... what is there to recall with Russia? How they assisted in beating up the Northern Imperium to get their colony in Vancouver? How they almost lost against the Pure Lands? Some power that is... yet, they still hold a higher position in global affairs than us." Tsukino stayed quiet, merely listening, as Akiyama rambled about the perceived status of the powers.

 

"As said, our efforts are not enough, Tsukino. This might be called the Japanese Empire, but look at Russia... Empires aren't forged by treaties and agreements. They are forged by blood and steel, as I think Bismarck put it so eloquently. Because when it comes down to it, the ultimative argument will always be the force upon which a country can fall back on. Which is why people fear Tianxia... not necessarily Russia." Tsukino sensed an opportunity to throw in a retort, as she stated. "But you did state we do need to avoid war with Russia." The Prime Minister frowned. "Well, first off, a war is a war, an expenditure of ressources. And what would you want of the Russians? More Karafuto? Some Yakutia? I think that there are more promising returns from avoiding war and using our ressources otherwise, if we can. Now, secondly... I may have stated that Russia was not on Tianxia's level, but we need not get over-confident here. Russia does command vast ressources and people and it seems quite unified, especially on the defense. Meanwhile, we still get criticised for Alaska. Japan is not ready for any military adventurism... I did tell you to keep an eye on that, right?" Tsukino nodded obediently. "You did, Akiyama-dono. We have kept an eye on the military and they seem to avoid any actions that were not approved by you." "Good, because I don't need those fools from the Navy to think they got a free reign here or for the Army to try demonstrate its own power. The military should be Japan's sword. And a sword cuts when its master swings it. It rests in its sheath when it is not drawn and it neither acts on its own, nor questions the purpose given to it."

 

The morning briefing seemed to have drawn out quite a bit, Tsukino wondered, thus she timidly raised the question. "Would there be anything I can help with, Akiyama-dono? Otherwise, I would ask that I can take my leave." Akiyama looked up from her notes for the first time again. "You can leave for now, Tsukino, but I will require your assistence in the coming days. As said, our current efforts are not enough. We need to change our approach, if we want to be ever worthy of our sovereign. I can count on the Agency's services?" Tsukino bowed respectfully. "Always at your command, Akiyama-dono." Then she turned around and left.

 

"The Genkai era is over. Time Japan actually learns that and acts for itself.", Akiyama rambled, as the door closed.

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While the Kokumin Hoshutō had been for quite some time a rather heterogenous party, of diverse interests, being supported by rural areas, the armed forces, the internal security, the industrialists, conservative urbanites and nationalists, leading at times even to splinters, such as the Shimpotō and Shin Shimpotō, Prime Minister and party president Akiyama was not too willing on letting factionalism stop her policies. But in addition to her already great influence, both formal and informal, within the party, Tsukino supplied her with an instrument that steadily increased the Prime Minister's power and kept the other factions somewhat in check - the national intelligence. While the reorganisation of the Naichō and the Totsū into the Chūōchō had happened "to bring the intelligence apparatus under control", Akiyama had made it into one of her most loyal and reliable pillars of her power. Of course, there were limits on how far she could use this tool to her advantage, however, it sufficed for her when Tsukino acted as the necessary whip to keep the party and military in line and prevent them from countering the course decided by Akiyama.

 

What saved Akiyama much trouble was her incredible popularity, after the successful war against the Commonwealth. Had she been fighting against popular opinion for quite some timenow, with a party tarnished by past militarism, so was the very same popular opinion now what she could use to silence the more moderate critics, most of all the other conservatives in the Diet and the Sesshō, whom Akiyama informed of her intentions whenever she found it necessary, but whom she mostly ignored, as to her, he had stopped mattering. If he had constructed the foundation, Akiyama was now the one to construct the powerhouse and her worth as an architect she had already shown to most Japanese. But even with the national prestige akiyama brought, not all was rosy in her Japan.

 

Time and time again, the Prime Minister was not beating around the bush much, in her at times quite radical opinions, especially on matters such as "leftist subversives" and the "weak democracy of the nation", which she countered with the idea of a stronger more centralised and more community-centered democracy of the Japanese. "This age belongs to the one who acts and seizes it. A state that cannot act will never seize it. Japan has to be able to act, or we will be cast aside by those who surpass us. Japan's destiny ought to be shaped by Japanese, not by anyone else." Such and more caused the opposition to only harden, as the Prime Minister polarised society. But she could afford to do so, as long as she kept her majority. A majority she was ready to defend with all means, if such became necessary.

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Akiyama groaned, visibly annoyed. Sitting in her office, she stared at Tsukino quite angrily, her eyes already asking the question she was about to ask. "Why do I have to meet thid fellow? Right away in the morning no less? What's this important that it has to be now, Aoko?" Tsukino tried to politely gesture for Akiyama to calm down, lest they be heard by the guest. "Akiyama-dono, this is no trivial matter. This one was sent to us from our people in North America. They say she may be of incredible value. Her knowledge may prove to be important for the Fuyokai." Akiyama sighed and righted herself up in her chair, to be able to properly receive the guest. "I wonder what they dug up there. as far as I am aware, there's little of value there. But I trust your people, Aoko. Let her in."

 

Akiyama was by no means unfamiliar with westerners, this wasn't the Meiji era anymore, but the one that entered her office now was just too peculiar. A bit on the smaller side, she looked rather old-fashioned and the black and grey made her seem a bit... lacking in colour. The style itself was at best something you'd expect out of an old times drama or a manga, Akiyama silently whispered to Tsukino who stood besides her even the question. "Is this what they call gothloli?" Tsukino pretented to not have heard a thing and hoped the guest hadn't either. But the foreigner indeed, apart from the brown hair, lacked all colour and the amount of old-fashioned ribbons and lace was a bit too much for Akiyama's tastes. "Welcome Madame. I am Akiyama Kagami. May I ask who you'd be?" The stranger curtseyed politely, before giving her response in French too. "I'm Marie Loriot, a physician from the banks of the Saint Laurent. I was sent here, as I was told that you may be interested in my knowledge?"

 

Akiyama sighed internally, wondering why she now had to converse with this weirdo, not to mention... "Well, may I ask what a physician would know that'd be of interest to me?" Loriot giggled for a moment, then looked around in the room. "Madame Akiyama, I was sent here, because I heard you were searching for something. Something important. Something you deem necessary for perfection and completion... yet, you could not attain it." Akiyama slowly got angry, wondering what exactly Loriot was referring to, but she stayed silent. "Ah, you do search for a person, right? Someone outstanding. Black hair... red eyes..."

 

As she heard the last words, Akiyamas anger made place for astonishment. Throwing out any moderation, she jumped up from her seat in surprise. "What do you know? Have you seen them?" Loriot smiled, knowing that in Akiyama's eyes she had something that attracted more attention than Faraway fashion. "I cannot say I met them, sadly. But I once knew someone who did. She met the red-eyed people... and I would say she was never again the same." "W-what happened? Where is this person? Can you bring her to me?" Loriot shook her head, showing a slight notion of melancholy. "Sadly, the one in question is no longer among us. She met one of them once and devoted her life to find them again. Until she passed from us without accomplishing anything, but spread terror." Akiyama seemed visibly displeased. "Do you have any other clues as to where we can find them?" Loriot shook her head. "Pardonnez-moi, but sadly, I have not the slightest idea as to where these people live. But what I do know, is that you should not seek them, nor should you assume that these are still alive. For all we know, they could have died."

 

"No! They can't have died! They... they..." Akiyama had jumped up once more, this time however out of rage. Tsukino immediatly leaped forward to hold her back and keep her friend and superior from doing anything unwise. Loriot however seemed unfazed. "It is very much possible. The one I knew... she shared their curse... yet, she is dead. Others too... And you should hope that you will never get into contact with them." Akiyama was still being held back by the much stronger Tsukino, but that one seemed to have still a hard time holding her back, as she almost went on a minor rampage. "How can it be a curse? It is the one mark of divinity that we searched for. It must be a sign of their divine status. Do you have any idea what you are saying?" Loriot chuckled for a short moment. "Much more than you, Madame Akiyama. yes, I met the ones that met them... and they were miserable. I met the ones that were red-eyed... and they were miserable. Madame Akiyama, if there is anything divine in this... if this really is a sign of the Kami... then the Kami must hate you. For this is an affliction which brings naught but misery. Pain and misery." Akiyama seemed to calm down some, but still was extremely perturbed. "Are you basing this solely on your experience of one individual?" "No." Loriot responded without hesitation. "I base it on the history of a whole ruling class, and a whole nation."

 

Akiyama slowly settled down in her chair again, brooding over the words of Loriot's. "How did you come to such conclusions?" "Well, you see... to me, the red eyes are not the work of the Kami or of any such divine entity. To me, they are the product of some insane desire for domination or some other corrupted wish. I... I have worked on this matter, researched it, experimented with it, I even tried to recreate it. All I can say though, after all these years, is that it is an art of a time long past. From an age which you can't even fathom. It is a science indistinguishable from magic for most and its results are indeed awe-inspiring, raising the question what god or demon has had their part in this." Loriot seemed rather grim about the matter. She could see that Akiyama had stopped trying to hit her for her shameless words, which kind of shook some long-held beliefs, but it was also clear that Akiyama would not believe her just like this.

 

"Madame Akiyama, the old arts, they are a mystery which follow their own rules. As said, I did try to recreate them, but..." "But?" Akiyama asked. "Well, I wish I never had dabbled in this, Madame Akiyama. What was created... it was madness. Sheer madness. I have no idea what the original substance was. We managed to distill some residue from corrupted blood though, which... well, the person taking it too has since died. During their lifetime, they were psychotic, death through suicide. Depression I heard. I think that pretty much says what success it was..." Loriot sighed, as she remembered her own works. "Well, maybe it also is just the catastrophic result from trying to change human nature. I know, I once saw a being, which in its entirety, from head to toe, was the product of these old arts. And it was a blessing." Akiyama suddenly brightened up considerably. "So, you can't say all of this is bad? Maybe the original red eyes weren't bad either." Loriot sighed. "Maybe. But I doubt we'd know... and honestly, I'm not sure I want to know. Curiosity, Madame Akiyama, it can cause incredible harm. As can the desire for power. The reason I even approached you, is because I think you should keep such in mind. Especially when you desire so much a being that may be so flawed."

 

Akiyama pondered for a moment, as to what to make of this. She had never seen Loriot before, nor had she seen the things Loriot described. But she didn't seem to have been cooking that up completely. Was Akiyama to give up her ambitions now? Well, not that they hurt Japan, really... And, was this all there was to this? "Madame Loriot, please excuse, but I'm not convinced you just came here to tell me that I should not look for people whom you believe they are most likely dead, because they bring disaster, without any proof to show for it. I do not take you for the person to just waste time trying to pointlessly argue with me without any evidence about matters that sound like superstition." Loriot was somewhat surprised for a moment, but then began to calmly smile. "Well, and you did not strike me as someone who just blindly believes all claims someone may make. Yet you believe in red eyes..." "There are records from the Empire on these matters, you know." Loriot nodded. "Ah, well... But I guess you did see through me." "So you made that up?" Loriot shook her head. "I did not. Sadly, I did not make it up. Madness was very much the by-product of the power... but it is, well, not much that seperates the genius from the insane. My homeland had a thousand reasons to crumble, the traits of its regime are just equally responsible for its success, as for the demise." "Then what do you want?" Loriot smiled a bit gleefully. "My country is gone. You seek power, you seek your monarch, I seek opportunities..." "Opportunities for what?"

 

"Opportunities to create actual perfection." Akiyama raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I'd like some insane imperial oversight..." Loriot snickered. "Madame Akiyama, you are searching for someone whom's entire ideology has been deemed insane. You seek the supernatural. Yet, you fear exactly that? I don't know, but just as I am a person willing to create demons for my curiosity, so do you seem to be a person that flirts with demons for power..." Loriot stood up and seemed to make herself ready to leave, before drawing up a small flask from her sleeve. As she carefully put the ornate glass flask on the table, Akiyama could discern a purplish substance within it. "Well, I spoke my words of caution and my motives. I leave you with this though. It is the last thing my former master requested of me, before she died. And it is the last thing her henchman wanted of me, before she hanged herself. This flask contains a legacy of glory and disaster, it is the demon you might love or despise. I leave it up to you." And with that, she went.

 

[hr]

 

It had been some while, since Loriot had left, the flask still standing exactly where it was. Akiyama still sitting there, staring at it, Tsukino next to her, wondering what to do. It was as if time had frozen still in the room, before Tsukino finally broke the spell. "Akiyama-dono, what should we do now?" The Prime Minister did not respond. "Are you going to use her strange potion, Akiyama-dono?" Akiyama still did not respond. Now Tsukino was angry. With one quick motion she grabbed the flask and removed it from before Akiyama's eyes. "Kagamin, listen to me!" The adressed seemed shocked for a moment, before turning around. "Y-yes, what is it?" Seeing Tsukino this agitated was a rare sight for Akiyama. "A-Aoko, I'm sorry. What did you want?" Tsukino sighed. Staying angry just wasn't hers. At least not at Akiyama. "Kagamin, you aren't going to use this are you? It's witchcraft." She took out the bottle she had snatched away just moments ago, shaking it before Akiyama's eyes. But that one just sighed. "Am I really that bad, doing whatever it takes to get to me objective?" Akiyama seemed still shaken by the words. Somehow, these words had kind of shocked her, leaving her bereft of anything to counter with. Tsukino took the flask and put it aside. Kneeling down to be at the same height as her friend she gave Akiyama a tight hug. "You know, you are, Kagamin. You are incredibly ambigious. And you don't shy away from doing anything to get things done. But you know.. as long as I have known you, you were most of all concerned with the well-being of the country and the restoration of our prestige. You are working very hard and while some things may seem harsh, they at times are what is best and you will see to it being done. And you know, that is what I love about you, Kagamin. But you also always know that it is important to stay in control of what you do... and witchcraft isn't really part of that, is it?"

 

Akiyama tried hard to keep her tears in, but a few still flowed down her cheeks, as she heard her friend's words. "Thanks Aoko. I'll try to do my best and maybe one time we can find her.... C-could you... could you keep the flask for now?" Tsukino was surprised about the sudden request. "W-why?" "Because it still seems unwise to let it fall into the wrong hands and I know noone whom I'd trust more... not even myself." Tsukino was speechless for a moment. On the one hand, because Akiyama's trust was seemingly absolute. On the other hand... she had not noticed what kind of burden this flask seemingly was for Akiyama, for whatever reason. "I'll see to it."

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  • 2 weeks later...

"So... may I ask why I'm here?" Marie Loriot asked with little hint of surprise. She had kind of guessed what the matter was, when two agents intercepted her in front of the hotel to escort her to a meeting with their superior. It required little guesswork who it was she'd be meeting and indeed, she was confirmed when a familiar person entered the interrogation chamber. "I merely have a few questions, Madame Loriot.", Tsukino answered, as she took a seat opposite of Loriot. "You left us quite suddenly, so there were a few things left unclear." Loriot raised an eyebrow. "And that wasn't possible in a more amicable setting? It has been a bit of time since I was escorted by people in black... say, is this not maybe abuse of authority?" Tsukino did not answer the question, but simply started her own inquiries. Loriot could kind of guess that some constitutional limitations existed solely on paper here.

 

"Please explain in detail what you know about the red-eyed people." Loriot shrugged upon hearing Tsukino's question. "As said, I never met them personally, so I'm not knowledgeable on the topic." "Anything suffices." Loriot thought for a moment as to how to respond. "The sole thing I know is that they are creations of an art that is beyond modern understanding and died out. You are wasting your time hunting the ghosts of the past." The answer was obviously not what Tsukino had hoped to receive, but the Director of the CIRA just followed up. "So all you have to base that on is what?" Loriot kept silent.

 

"Madame Loriot, I'd be very grateful if you'd show more cooperation." The physician however just looked annoyed. "Cooperation? I told you already what you need to know, now you are arresting me. Tell me about cooperation." Tsukino sighed. "Well, this is a matter of utmost importance for the nation. I will need all the knowledge you posess." Loriot shook her head. "Well, given the nature of what we are talking about... as well as the nature of these very talks, what guarantees me that I'm not going to just be disposed off once you are finished?" Another sigh followed. "Well, Madame Loriot, what prevents me from hanging you up in Aokigahara or throwing you into Tokyo Bay? If you don't give me a reply, the sole thing you are is a liability to the security of our state, given you do posess knowledge still. But there exists one compelling reason for me not to tell my subordinates to get rid of you... which is that you are useful to our country. Sadly... your usefulness will depend on your willingness to cooperate. In return, we will make sure you will be treated well. wouldn't that be much better for both of us?" Loriot frowned. She hadn't escaped from the Lys-noir just to be now held by the Japanese secret service. But it wasn't something she could now change. And maybe it provided for something. "Well, I guess it was never going to be easy.", she muttered, as she resigned.

 

"As I hinted to in my earlier talks already, I have concluded various experiments to replicate the old arts, though with limited success. I was the physician of one who was affected by this and one who was created through the old arts, so I have some idea of what it is like.", Loriot explained. Tsukino listened attentively. "In what regard were your experiments failures?" Loriot leaned back and sighed, as she remembered. "Well, I do not know how it works for the original, but I know that attempts to replicate the effects do not always work. My serum did not have the desired effect always... a good few didn't make it, some became soulless like human vegetables... those who responded best mostly were plagued still by psychological and emotional instability. You could say, it was a lottery of misery. A Russian roulette with no blanks." Tsukino raised an eyebrow. The tone with which Loriot recalled these events didn't really match the content. It was as if she recalled her days at school, yet the nature of her work seemed far far more dreadful. "And the motivation for this?" Loriot shrugged. "Well, I guess our Master was hoping to utilise the old arts for whatever plans she had. Most of us were quite unsure as to what exactly she wanted, but it seemed like some kind of revenge. For this, our Master was willing to sacrifice quite a bit. As for me... I found it quite interesting." Tsukino looked at Loriot, slightly disgusted. "Interesting, huh..." "Well, if you'd see what a being is like that has taken the original serum and survived... you'd be intrigued. Accounts are as if they are a force of nature. And our Master mostly seemed like one. Maybe like hatred incarnate, but I tell you... her presence was enough to tell you that this was something beyond mere humanity."

 

"Then, why did you part from your organisation?" Tsukino asked, given the way Loriot spoke of her 'Master' didn't seem like running off was that easy. "Well, the Master died. And I took the chance to make my escape. I'd rather not get entangled in the struggles after Master's death... but I heard, they fell apart quite fast. Guess I was not the sole one." "And why did you contact us?" Somehow, Tsukino couldn't quite make sense of Loriot's words and behaviour. Already back when they talked in Akiyama's office. But also now. It just didn't add up. "For a person that wants to be done with it, wouldn't it be better to just stay quiet? Why would you point us there? And why would you hand us this?" Tsukino produced the flask from earlier and put it on the table between the two. "What does this even do?"

 

For a moment Loriot was silent, thinking about how to respond... "I guess if you have sacrificed enough for something, you won't just give up on it. This flask there is up to now, the best shot at a replica I managed to create. It is pretty much the epidom of my research... and I can't throw it away. Maybe you can. Maybe it'd be for the better if you did. But I know the misery that went into making this serum, there's no way I could waste it. I guess I'm just attached to my work." "And why did you entrust us with it?" "Well, how many people would be interested in this knowledge and not have me killed?"

 

Tsukino nodded. It still was flimsy, but seemed to make at least a bit more sense. "And this serum works?" Loriot leaned back. "Well, it's the most promising one. It may still cripple you, but there haven't yet occurred any deaths with it. Officially, it's a failure. It does not reach the strength of the original. I made this serum as an experiment. Most of the more potent serums would give greater power, but also would wreck the user. Either outright killing them, or driving them mad. We made some studies even whether age matters in using this, but all we found is, the younger, the less likely to die, but the more likely to have serious mental defects. This serum has been produced as a less potent but also less aggressive variant of the serum which created our sole artificial red-eyed monstrosity." Tsukino looked surprised. "Red-eyed monstrosity?" "Yes, monstrosity. She was the sole test subject to respond very well and developed actual red eyes, however, if you'd ask me, she was another case of insanity. Not stupid, but incredibly violent, destructive and sadistic, I wanted to write her off, but Master kept her as her right hand and I guess she was the sole one to control that bundle of calamity. But seeing the effects, I made this version, which should show less effect. Users usually develop less physical strength and aren't as capable as with the other serum, but the strain on the body and mind seems to be also less. At least people did not seem to die from it. We still had those though which were devoid of any sentience." Tsukino was astonished by what she heard. This was quite something, even if it did not lead to the Souvereign, it was a major discovery. "Are there any other flasks of this?" Loriot shook her head. "It was made as a new approach, to first induce this lighter serum to reinforce the test subject, then follow up with a heavier serum to achieve the actual effect. Plans for greater quantities were drawn up thus, but were shelved when Master died. I took the samples with me, as well as most data." "So you could produce more?" "Provided I have the necessary equipment and materials, yes." Tsukino pondered for a moment. "Well, this research will have to stay hidden, but I offer you work with our organisation." Loriot frowned slightly. "What will you be using my research for?" "Well, I'd like to have you assist our American section, so as to find what we are looking for. And your serum research... continue it, but please keep the number of corpses down. I don't really like the thought of it, but who knows when it might not be useful."

 

Tsukino then took the flask with the serum and left the room. This discovery... she wondered how to report it best to Akiyama. And how was it best to be used. So many questions arose, so many things seemed unclear. Only one matter Tsukino knew for sure. The Americas had to be examined more closely. Maybe there was the key to all these mysteries.

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  • 2 weeks later...

As spring arrived in Japan, bringing with it mild warmth and blossoming flowers and trees, not all was well in the nation. Shaken by ongoing recession, increasing international turmoil and uncertainty over the nation's future, the greater part of the Japanese public was more pessimistic about what the future may hold. Japanese elites, organised in their own networks and factions with varying interests and views, were no less worried. Prime Minister Akiyama needed not to look for a new job, her position was rather secure, for the moment. But unlike the masses, the Prime Minister was fully aware of the diplomatic relations with the neighbours, with the Americas, the fragile position Japan was in and the negative attention it had attracted. Imperial warnings had mostly been kept from the public, as it was to noone's benefit to have any public worries or even worse any resentments there. But nevertheless, among the Japanese elites, it was known and it was cause for concern.

 

Still, Akiyama Kagami was far from panicking, even though her term had up to now seen the largest decline in the Japanese economy in decades and a notable friction with neighbours. To the Prime Minister, this wasn't the fault of her policies, or if it was, then it was a necessary and fully acceptable price to be paid. Though even for Akiyama, nothing could be left unadressed, as even if the population widely supported her and the recent Upper House elections strengthened the national conservative majority, social stability was key to remaining in office and keeping the nation strong. And while she was far from a Prime Minister of the People, being notoriously detached and aloft, to Akiyama, it was the duty of the betters to look out for the less well-off, a view she adopted more and more as the system she had tried to establish in her first few years fell apart.

 

And in her public address, given her reappearance in public at Hanami, the Prime Minister announced in her usual way of being round-about, yet ignoring the limits of her role... "The economic strive we are experiencing is a tragedy and is causing much grief to the Japanese people, but we are working tirelessly on stabilising the situation and returning prosperity to our nation. It has been factors largely outside our control, which have caused this economic slump, which is worrying and might cause concern that we might not be able to get it under control, however I can reassure you, we in the cabinet are quite prepared and have plans to restore order and stability.

 

To this end, the coming months will see several changes, as we will have to enact measures to protect our nation, even if they may seem harsh. If we can be blamed for this whole mess, then it is due the fact that Japan has been relying on others too much and not been acting in its own best interests when it should have. This course will need to change. There is a need for reforms and for a stronger policy of Japan, in regards to trade and foreign policy, to guarantee that our people will not suffer and a national way of life is secure and not threatened by any international woes.

 

Japan needs to strengthen itself, which we will do economically, by providing economic stimulus, increasing government intervention and assisting our weakest members of society to be cared for, but also this will require reforms of the government administration, to establish a more efficient system that can respond to the needs of the Japanese people. Political reforms have been a tricky issue for quite some time, being linked to our national identity and our idea of what Japan should be. The Japanese Empire, as it stands, is a remnant of a personal union with Tianxia, organised in a manner that was befitting a situation that was established two decades ago. Japan now is an independent state, with full sovereignity over its affairs and our politics need to reflect this. The Japanese Empire needs to focus more on Japan, not the Empire, and it has to be a state of and for the Japanese nation, in accordance with Japanese spirit, establishing a new Japanese national structure that befits our nation. Modern Japan, new Japan, will have to be a nation that can acknowledge the issues of the past, be affirmative of its present and form its own future. The Japanese Empire cannot, must not chase after unreflected ideals of the past, or it will revert to outdated structures, but it can also not simply defer all responsibility to outward actors, or it will be just like a child, unable to speak and act for itself, not taken serious by anyone, a joke of a nation. The Japanese nation needs to mature, find its own destiny, its democracy and national order and establish a lasting foundation that can be basis for a future Empire.

 

In this sense, we will also do away with this era. The Genkai era saw 18 years. But is this really still the Genkai era? How come that despite all changes, we still refer to this as the same old era name? I think that we need to overcome the idea of Genkai, to arrive at the idea of a new Japan. Let this be known as a new era... Let this be the Hōfuku era!"

 

While the people present were quite a bit puzzled, as of the quite radical calls from the Prime Minister, not to mention the implications, of which they still weren't sure, some started to whisper to the ones standing next to them and a murmuring broke loose. "Hōfuku?", one reporter asked carefully. "Yes, Hōfuku.", Akiyama responded with a smile. "It may not be such now, but let us create an era of prosperity, abundance and happiness for our people. That is what it stands for. Hōfuku [豊福]!"

 

Slowly the crowd seemed to become a bit more cheerful, though a few questions still came in. "Is Tianxia going to stand for this?" "What changes will this 'new Japan' mean?" "Has this already been sanctioned by the Diet and the Regent?" As could be expected, the speech triggered a hail of questions other than these, but Akiyama merely smiled and stated. "I think that even if Tianxia may find it worrying at first, all elder siblings will need to concede their younger ones some freedom of individual development and a distinct Japanese identity should not threaten the regional order, nor revolutionise it. I think that the major changes towards a Japan that cares for its people and takes a more proactive approach in its internal and foreign affairs will not be a problem in the long term. It certainly can be accommodated. And as far as how far this matter has been passed... You can consider it done."

 

With these words and an ominous smile, Akiyama walked on, now surrounded by her security, as she headed for the Kantei. The gears had been set in motion, the machinery was to be put to work, to set the stage for a new era.

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Date Seiranko had often been seen as the centre of the notional conservative political scene in Japan. While she had never been prime minister, she had been party president, deputy prime minister and the fleet minister for most of that post's existence. Her influence was one of seniority, having been one of the initial members of the Home Rule Association, and of her own making, as she successfully monpolised her ministery. This had even forced the prime ministers to leave naval matters to her, even after the more moderate factions came into power. Or at least, it seemed that way. Date wasn't so sure about this herself. While it certainly held true for Prime Minister Tachibana, who retained her despite belonging to the party-internal opposition, Tachibana's formal successor Akiyama was different. Akiyama, who initially seemed very much a successor of moderate liberal conservative Tachibana had turned into something else. While Akiyama never stated what it was, Date knew, her vision of Japan was different. Whether it was better or worse, Date could not tell, nor could she even tell whether her policies were good or bad. She had to give props to the Prime Minister, she did understand how to obscure matters and to walk fine lines... at least internally. Even her public image as Prime Minister was one that existed between extremes and while noone would call her a very likable or honest person, people did respect her and saw her as a capable politician fit for her role. She was a pragmatist, statist, realist and elitist, but she got things done. And that most likely explained Date's appointment as Minister of the Navy more than Date's influence did. Because for all the talk about Date's power behind the scenes, Akiyama had been the one to offer her the position, to support the naval agenda and to integrate the fleet in her very own informal complex of power that supported her politics. And Akiyama had done a lot to indirectly cut away the ties of Date that were of no use to her, as if clipping the wings of a caught bird, to make sure it'd stay around, never fly away and never become independent again. To Akiyama, Date, just like so many others, was like a figure in her game of politics, an asset, not much of a person. She understood to make people do what she wanted, she hardly understood how to deal with people themselves.

 

But this was her skill, and as much as Date might have disliked Akiyama's attitude, the Prime Minister had firmly integrated her into her political faction, something she could not cunter-act. Which she did not even want to counter-act. Akiyama after all did not recruit Date merely to exterminate opposition, it was more that Akiyama had seen merit in getting Date onboard in exchange for giving Date's ministry the funds for a modern fleet. Date loved her fleet, Akiyama loved maybe not the fleet itself, but definitely the benefits it could bring and was thus willing to allow the incredible expenditures that came with building a proper naval force. In the end, it was an mutually benefitial relationship, just not an equal one. And it seemed typical for most of Akiyama's interpersonal relations. If Date had to guess, the sole exception was maybe Tsukino, though it could be that that one was merely the Prime Minister's favourite toy.

 

These were the matters Date kept in mind, as the Minister of the Navy entered the grounds of the Kantei, following an invitation of the Prime Minister for tea and some conversation. That Akiyama was not going to just go on about private matters or trending topics was not just unlikely due to her discreet nature, seeming lack of a love life and the occassional remark and appearance that showed how far out of place and time the Prime Minister's way of thinking was, but Date had already heard of one of her political allies that something was off. Had Akiyama merely invited Date, it most likely would be some talk about the fleet. But under the guise of afternoon tea among and socialising like a bunch of ojou-samas, the Prime Minister had invited also former minister Akechi. And if Date owed her position to the fact that she had qualities that made her useful, even if Akiyama distrusted her personally, she knew Date hated Akechi's guts and held her in a rather low regard. What kept Akechi afloat were her connections in the Chūbu region, from where she hailed, contrary to most of the Northern clique, which, as the name implies came fromTōhoku. This had forced even the mighty Akiyama to accommodate Akechi, although it was one of the upper circle's worst kept secrets that Akiyama considered appointing Akechi as ambassador also a way of getting her away from Tokyo. Pretty much pensioning her off gracefully on a pretty post. Akechi being invited for tea too was quite surprising thus, knowing the terrible relationship between the two of them. But it sealed it for Date to conclude that this was about politics, nothing else. Because regardless of how unlikely it was that Akiyama considered Akechi useful for any of her schemes, it was even less likely that she considered making up with what she considered a "hot-headed imbecile". And Akechi never made up with Akiyama. Reconciliation would thus fail at Akiyama's awful social skills and Akechi's equally terrible temper. Both were capable of nice pretenses in public, but in private, they could be nigh-unbearable. For a moment, Date considered whether she really wanted to have tea with the two of them. But Akiyama was her superior and Akechi her ally. Not for their great character (or lack thereof), but because it was politically favourable. And political pragmatism ultimately also prevailed in making Date attent the meeting.

 

As Date arrived, Akiyama and Akechi were already seated, though quite silent. Akiyama smiled, but they seemed to have very little to say to each other in private. Or maybe all they had to say had already been stated. While greeting two, Date was slightly surprised that Akiyama had shown some consideration for whom she had invited. Instead of the usual darjeeling, macha was served and instead of her usual western attire, the Prime Minister wore one of her crimson furisode. Not the one she had worn during hanami, as far as Date could tell, and instead of the hydrangea, this one featured azaleas. Akiyama really did not hesitate to demonstrate her wealth. For a moment, Date wondered whether this would lead to a full tea ceremony, but while Akiyama seemed definitely the kind of affluent upper-class person to have been taught how to do it, she was not going that far just for Akechi and Date. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's furisode, combined with Akechi who wore traditional wafuku on an everyday basis, made Date stand out in her formal western-style dress suit. After she seated herself next to the other two at the table (seiza was most likely one of the reasons Akiyama could not be bothered to do a tea ceremony), the Prime Minister poured her a cup of tea.

 

"I'm glad both of you had the time to come visit me for tea.", Akiyama started with a friendly smile. "It's been so busy lately, one hardly catches ones breath. I already was afraid that some problems might get inbetween and keep some of us occupied." She then gestured at a bowl filled with colourful sugar candy. "Some konpeito?" Silently Date looked at Akiyama, then Akechi. The Prime Minister was a master in faking a smile and she wondered a bit whether this was all just some setup, or whether Akiyama had lost it... or what else had happened. But Akechi answered her questioning gaze merely with a silent expression that could not be described as puzzled, but conveyed unmistakenably that whatever had happened, she knew nothing. So it was Akiyama's doing.

 

"Well, these are indeed quite harsh times, with no minor problems. But I considered you'd not call me away from my work for some minor issue.", Date responded trying to keep it polite enough to not cause issues. However Akiyama merely nodded. "Sometimes, it is best to let the troubles be, settle for a cup of tea and wait till the time is ready for a solution." Akechi was silent, pretty much looking over at Date for answers, given she felt out of the loop as the one person not in the cabinet. But now it was Date who had no idea.

 

"I think most of our problems are ones that do not require fixing as soon as possible.", Date responded after about a minute in silence, trying to figure out a befitting reply. "It did not seem to me like you'd be one to sit idly by when so many issues unfold, Prime Minister Akiyama." Akiyama sighed, then put down her cup before her and put her hands neatly on her lap. "Well, as frustrating as it may be, some problems cannot be resolved in the present and we can only wait and hope for a solution over time." Silence set in again, but now it was Akechi who broke it. "Did something happen?" She finally grew annoyed and inpatient. Who knew how long she had been sitting there at Akiyama even before Date arrived, most likely saying little, but staring a lot. Date couldn't fault her much, for her usual attitude, she held back remarkably well.

 

Akiyama's smile disappeared slowly, but instead of the expected anger and harsh remark directed at Akechi who dared speak up, it was worry and a certain insecurity that showed on her face. "The Russian Pacific Fleet is getting modernised most likely." For a moment, Date had feared it was something more detrimental and so the words came almost as a relief. "Well, their fleet is no joke, but I doubt it'd outperform ours even if they get a few new ones. We can live with that... or, if you are worried too much, we could add a couple ships to the budget." While Date suggested such jokingly, however, Akechi was more concerned and caught on, despite her terrible reputation. "That's not all there is, right? This is linked to the conscription debate, no?" As she said that, Date gulped down her cheery attitude that now seemed misplaced. Akechi was right. At the time, the suggestion seemed like some momentary lapse of judgement to her, and Date had not been in attendance of the session, due to the Watanuki exercises in the South. But if one put it into context. This had to be about the Russians. But then, why would Akiyama go this far? A few more destroyers most likely would've done it and cost less, financially, as well as politically.

 

"Akasaka-Panina informed me yesterday that the conference with the Russians produced little of value, but the delegation of Tianxia brought up a suggestion for Russia to modernise its fleet.", Akiyama explained calmly. But the news did not fail to take her guests aback. "She did try to prevent it, right?", Date quickly asked. "I doubt the Imperial government would just ignore our stake in this, if she protested." Akiyama however shook her head. "Her protest earned nothing but criticism and seems to have been dismissed by both the Imperial delegates and the Russians." While Akiyama had stayed calm before, showing her usual unshakable nature (or at least the image she tried to cultivate), it became clear that she was putting quite some effort in this facade that quickly began to crumble. "Ambassador Shiramine in Nanjing has also advised to not forward any additional protest, or at least to consider the wording, after he got lectured by their minister for a few hours over our politics."

 

Akiyama's words shook the two quite a bit. The implications of these events were problematic... to a point, they were shockingly threatening. "What did they say to our diplomats?", Date asked. Maybe it was just a problem with the translation. Maybe cultural differences. Russians were a brutish pack anyways. But the Prime Minister shook her head, steeled her spirit and spoke her opinion.

 

"The situation is confusing, yet clear. I have looked over the reports of both Shiramine and Akasaka-Panina to make sure for myself. But there's little doubt. Shiramine-san was told quite bluntly, that the Imperial government expects us to not act against Russia and to show more restraint. Their choice of words is one that was hardly the one used between cordial partners, but more akin to what they use for their adversaries. Shiramine-san states he felt at first even overwhelmed at the hostility and distrust brought forth by the Chinese. But up to now, he and I took it as a slightly aggressive drawing of lines and more of a concern over our recent success."

 

"Up to now..." Akechi repeated the ominous words. She had seen the report herself, enjoying certain access to such documents due to her position in the diplomatic corps. But even more than Akiyama, Akechi had deemed the tone merely a coincidence, maybe due to her experiences kow-towing before Yuan Jia during the troubles with the American Commonwealth. "Up to now..." Akiyama continued. "Akasaka-Panina-san's report is devastating. The Chinese did not just try to sell equipment. In response to our protests, we were merely dismissed, them stating that Russia was merely reasserting its rightful place." Date stayed silent. She was at a loss of words. Akiyama was holding together barely through all her willpower, most likely despairing inside. Akechi sighed.

 

"So, that was it..? I doubt Nakamichi-san can smile us out of this. And conscription... even if it gets through... will it be enough?" Akechi wondered. But her words gave Akiyama some resolve necessary to reply. "It most likely won't suffice. If Russia and Tianxia cooperate against us, Japan doesn't stand a chance. But we can at least hope that it'll make them reconsider or that it at the very least... impose an extreme cost for a military invasion. Honestly, at this point... as said, things aren't clear, yet there's no doubt. The intentions of the Emperor and his government are a mystery and I know not whether they are trying to force us into submission or what purpose their actions serve. What is however painfully obvious is that they are aimed at us and that Tianxia is no longer favourably disposed towards us. Yuan Shizi took not just the Commonwealth with him, but seemingly also Sino-Japanese cooperation. I don't have any idea what the current Emperor is up to, but a reestablishment of a Union is not an option, so we're stuck with that."

 

Akechi nodded in agreement, while Akiyama calmed down and Date caught up. Now, the three sat there in silence. Half an hour ago, they had been rivals, but cooperative for their own benefit. Now they were still rivals. But cooperation was now necessary for the national security. It needed not to be stated, but it was clear, if Japan had to deal with the prospect of an unsecure Northern flank and an unsecured Southern flank, there was no room for petty disputes and fifth columns. Even Akechi understood that as she asked calmly. "So, what do you plan?"

 

Akiyama, now again calm, took a short moment, before responding. "Well, first of all, I guess we need to collectively acknowledge the fact, our cooperation with Tianxia is pretty much dead. Any post-Union settlement is hardly going to be possible, as long as Tianxia is hostile towards Japan. Second... this sadly means, our foreign policy just went bancrupt. We need to review our policies and adjust for a harsh future... possibly war, if this was just the start of worse to come. Nakamichi is despairing and I ordered him to take a leave for a week. I bet it won't get better, but he'll maybe calm down. Because at the end... we can't do much. I need you, Date, to have the Navy revise war plans. Any future conflict with one of the two will be a future with both of them. We better acknowledge that in our planning, as that will mean that any rear needs to be guarded as well. Also, I have the Army work out a plan for conscription to get to the army increased to a million soldiers. It will be far from enough to withstand any attack, but maybe it will raise the cost of invasion and give us something to fall back on. There's the matter of nuclear conflict... but we can't help that. As it stands, we are at a loss and we can merely hope for the best, while preparing for the worst. There have been some cooperative signals, but they are minor and can be pretty much ignored. We might get a non-aggression treaty with Russia, but I think that wouldn't be worth the paper it was written on. And Tianxia at least didn't insist on that one. As for how to approach Russia in general now... Tianxia insists we should pay proper respect, so I guess we can adhere to formalities. But we better not expect too much from them. If there are any issues regarding Russia, report them to me, so I can try raise them with the Imperial government. Their reaction counts. Though even there... it's better to be careful. We cannot take this lightly. I want to believe it isn't the case, but it is very well possible, that we might get attacked."

 

Date nodded. But Akechi waited for a short moment, before raising one question. "What do you require my person for?" "First, we need all the support we can get, if we want the best chance of getting through this. Second, I am putting you into the political reserve for now. Nakamichi looked pretty bad. If he resigns, I need a replacement. Also, there's always the possibility for special diplomatic missions. I need someone who understands the situation."

 

"I doubt you found noone more capable." Akechi noted, knowing fully well, how others saw her. But Akiyama merely shook her head and responded with the first smile since the start of the conversation. "I won't find someone whom I can trust to do their job with more conviction. I would hope you are willing to serve your country and follow my policies without fail." Akechi frowned. The sound of this was not to her liking. But Akiyama quickly soothed her upcoming anger. "We will need to work together without any disputes. I'm not going to depend n your loyalty to me, but on your loyalty towards your nation which has been humbled and your Prime Minister, whom's job it is to get us out of harm's way. So you either agree to it and help me, or I'll have to find someone else." Akechi still frowned. "I'm not going to just appease the Russians." Akiyama smiled for a moment. "Well, they may be undeserving of respect by themselves, but what are we going to do about it? At least, we won't forget and one day... maybe we will have better times, where we can actually live in peace and get acknowledged too. You know how it goes, given you did work hard back in your days."

 

Akechi sighed and merely took her cup of tea. "Then we shall wait. And meanwhile enjoy our cup of tea." It was already cold, but given the situation, this seemed least of all worries.

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