Representative Meikawa Tomoko didn't know for sure if the placement of the Sovereign's seat was an intentional design choice or just happenstance. But she wouldn't be surprised if it was on purpose.
Bleary with fatigue from the room's warmth, Tomoko continued fanning herself with a notepad, deciding to trust her memory to keep a record of Premier Fukushima's report to the Sovereign. This meeting was the bi-monthly Sovereign-Legislature Caucus, a tradition the Sovereign's mother had started back when she was Sovereign Airi and not Retired Sovereign Airi. Ever since Tomoko was old enough to remember and grasp politics, these meetings had been part of Baizoan political life. But she also remembered her father's incense at the "mingling of Crown and Congress," of the Sovereign reasserting an authority they did not deserve to possess. Tomoko's father remembered a time when parties didn't ply the sovereign for support so directly, a time when the shock and shame of the Pacific War kept the sovereign and politics at a mutual arms' length, a time when Tomoko's father could hope for the sovereign's eventual dissolution.
That hadn't happened, and Baizou hadn't even completely gone the way of Japan’s ceremonial monarchy. The sovereign still held some powers, even if the reigning Sovereign didn't use them.
"Thank you for informing me of these developments, Premier Fukushima," the Sovereign said smoothly, his mouth barely curved into a smile, his eyes light but alert, that delicate balance of looking affirming to those who wanted him to agree and just-being-polite to those who wanted him not to. Fukushima smiled back with a similar expression—Is it for show, or is that just how those two smile?—and she settled into her seat, the one nearest the Sovereign.
And the Sovereign turned his gaze to Tomoko, where she sat nearly at the other end of the conference room, and she quickly sat upright from her slight slouch. "Representative Meikawa," the Sovereign said. "Does the Socialist Party have anything it would like to share or ask?"
In a practiced tone, Tomoko replied, "The Socialist Party again affirms that if the Sovereign wishes to learn about current developments in the party, he may avail himself of the same resources we make available to every citizen of Baizou."
A few party leaders sighed, and one groaned—the councilor from the Wakuna Restoration, Tomoko suspected—but the Sovereign just nodded, adjusted his glasses slightly, and smiled.
"Thank you, Representative Meikawa," he said. "I look forward to seeing the party newsletter come out in a few days. I believe you wrote the foreword this quarter?"
Meikawa paused as she processed her surprise internally. She knew he received, and apparently read, the newsletter, but he also had already learned she had written in it this quarter? "That's right," she said. "Thank you for your interest, Sovereign."
"Thank you for the update," the Sovereign said, as smooth as ever, still walking the tightrope between approving and polite. Tomoko just nodded, and the Sovereign moved on to address another party leader.
Evening. After the Sovereign-Legislature Caucus finished before noon, Tomoko had just enough to scarf down a lunch before her parliamentary committee hearings. Experts and constituents testified, politicians and pundits sermonized, and Tomoko was held up for three hours when two legal scholars had to disentangle the flurry of motions made between Tomoko's Committee for Economic Justice, the Market Economics Committee's Investigatory Commission, a concord of auxiliary magistrates, and Premier Fukushima herself. By the end, to Tomoko's relief, her resolution to socialize the South Yamamachi Fishery (a penalty for violating equal pay laws and union agreements) would advance to the floor of the Parliament. South Yamamchi really should've been socialized last year, Tomoko thought, but she was glad that it was at least finally happening.
But untangling the mess of motions was exhausting, and Tomoko still had more work to do before she could call it a night. Updating constituents on how key policy was advancing (even the Investigatory Commission agrees the Hakutsuka magnetic tape plant is still better off in the union's hands), replying to questions from the Party leadership (yes, I do plan on running for re-election, why are you asking me that six years early?), responding to her family (yes, Okaa-san, I'm eating right; no, Oba-san, I'm not going to mass; yes, Aniki, of course I'll still go to my niece's sacraments)—there was still a lot to do, and it was already dark outside.
Tomoko strode into her parliamentary office at full speed (basic recycled wood furniture, artificial white glow from the overhead lights, but the air was cool and fresh from an active aircon), practically rushing to her personal study. As Tomoko entered, a staffer rose from the front desk. It was Haibara, a university intern, dressed in a sky-blue button-up and brown hair in a tight bun.
"Representative Meikawa?" she said.
"What is it?" Tomoko replied. "And what are you doing here so late, Haibara?"
"A guest wants to speak with you," Haibara said, her words clipped and voice clear. "He's waiting in the conference room—"
"Crap," Tomoko bit her cheek, and she stopped dead in her tracks, swiveling on one foot to fumble with the knob of the conference room door. "Is it the Party? I swore I thought they were on the schedule for tomorrow, and the committee ran way late—"
"No, Representative, it's—"
Tomoko swung the door open.
And she dropped to her knees, into a bow.
"Your—Your Majesty!" The words tumbled out of Tomoko's mouth as she bowed deeply. Next to her, Haibara gently descended into a similar bow, though halfway through the Sovereign's voice stopped her.
"Please, this isn't a formal event—no need for bowing," the Sovereign said. Tomoko sheepishly rose from her bow, though she stayed on her knees. After all, the Sovereign was on his knees, as well. Tomoko preferred zabuton in her meeting room. And now that she wasn't gut-reacting to recognizing the Sovereign, Tomoko could see that this almost certainly was not a formal event. The Sovereign had exchanged his suit from their morning Caucus for a nondescript black coat with a high collar. A bowler hat sat on the table (elmwood, with carvings in the legs; this was the nicest furniture in Tomoko's office), and what Tomoko could only assume was a royal aid sat seiza next to the Sovereign, his outfit similarly bland.
"I'm sorry for surprising you, Representative Meikawa," the Sovereign said, and his voice still was smooth and even, betraying only either politeness or approval. But his eyes had a laughing glint to them that Tomoko found disarming, yet also frustrating. "But I have to admit I'm surprised. That is the most reverence I have ever seen you show me. Not even Councilor Akitamoto gets on his knees when I enter the room."
Tomoko bit the inside of her cheek. Akitamoto was her favorite conservative, but that didn't mean all that much, and she didn't like being compared to him. Indeed, whenever the Sovereign arrived for the bi-monthly caucus, Akitamoto would stand and give a deep bow. Tomoko usually inclined only as much as she would for a stranger. Maybe as much as she would for an intern like Haibara.
Tomoko didn't know if her annoyance showed on her face, and for a moment she hoped it did. But catching herself, she scooted herself into place at the table, and Haibara sat next to her.
"In our bi-monthly caucus, I try to give you the same respect I would give any Baizoan citizen," Tomoko said.
"And I appreciate that," the Sovereign answered. Then he smiled and brushed a lock of dark hair from out of his face. "But in our meeting just now? Was that the same respect?"
Tomoko looked away for a moment. "You surprised me," she admitted. "I may not think much of your royal office, but my family raised me to respect the throne. And so did school assemblies, city events—it's hard to forget a lifetime of training."
And suddenly the Sovereign was the one who looked embarrassed, and he looked away. "Ah. That is—yes, that is understandable," he said. "My apologies for surprising you. I wanted to meet discreetly."
"I could guess," Tomoko said, and she say herself upright, raising an eyebrow. Suddenly she felt like she was in control of the situation again. "Why does the Sovereign want a discreet meeting with me, a young representative from backwoods Hakutsuka? And why without warning?"
"You sell your province short, Representative," the Sovereign replied, all smiles again. "And I—well—" And now all embarrassment again. "I feared you would not accept a meeting with me, if I asked for one ahead of time."
Tomoko blew a hair out of her face. He might be right. After this, he was definitely right. "Being rejected seems more polite than spooking me, you know."
"Indeed," the Sovereign said, and he inclined his body in a kind of bow. "And for that, I am sorry. But I could think of no one besides yourself better positioned to help with my policy need. I feared no one else would do, and I had only one chance."
"You bet you have only one chance," Tomoko said, and next to her Haibara breathed in sharply. Was she being too casual with the Sovereign now? It was hard to take him as seriously. The shock had worn off, and in that jacket he didn't really look royal. "But," she said, and she let herself relax for a moment. Jacket or not, rude or not, this was not only the Sovereign, but still another person. "I'm a servant of the people, and even you are one of the people. What is your policy need?"
The Sovereign's eyes lit up, and a smile tugged at his lips before settling in. And then he became very serious.
Within a week, Tomoko had a meeting arranged with Akitamoto, her favorite conservative.
Not that that was saying much.
It was a rainy day. Tomoko could see her breath in the air, and she tried to will her two layers of windbreakers (one for warmth, one for its green color) to be warmer to as she waited outside the parliamentary building. It was the middle of the day, and Akitamoto suggested getting lunch, insisting he knew a great but not-too-busy place. Tomoko didn't usually like to take so much time for lunch, but she wanted the meeting, and she didn't want it on any other day, so she agreed.
Just as Tomoko was about to check her watch, Akitamoto loped out the door, waving to her with gloved hands and an umbrella. Instead of a windbreaker, Akitamoto had a high-class trenchcoat in a frankly sickly-looking cherry-red color.
"Representative Meikawa!" he called out, and Tomoko waved back, walking toward him to meet Akitamoto halfway. When they did, he continued, "Thank you for meeting over lunch! I promise, you won't regret it. Shall we?"
"Sure," Tomoko nodded. "Let's walk and talk."
"Oh, of course!" Akitamoto said, and he chuckled and set a brisk pace. "You didn't really think we'd actually talk once we got our food, did you? It's a wonderful rāmenyasan, just perfect for a day like this. You actually have to buy your meals with tickets ahead of time, each morning! The chef refuses to cook more than a hundred dishes a day, you see, and—"
"Walking and talking, Councilor?" Tomoko reminded.
Akitamoto burst into another laugh. "Right, right! Well, to what do I owe the pleasure? I never thought I'd see the day a Socialist asked to meet with me!"
"I know exactly how you feel," Tomoko murmured, and she breathed into her hands again. One good thing about their brisk pace would be that she could warm up, she thought. The two of them weaved through the packed Wakuna sidewalks, bobbing through the crowd with the ease of practice.
"So," Tomoko said. "I want to propose a constitutional amendment that would make the sovereignship ceremonial."
"Isn't it already?" Akitamoto said.
"Purely ceremonial," Tomoko added.
Akitamoto went quiet, and he looked at her. Rain pattered against his umbrella, and the droplets seemed to get heavier.
Tomoko continued, "No more leftovers, exceptions, or situationals. No overturning judgments from Yamamachi. No vetoes, no budget proposals, no exigent circumstantial votes—none of that. Just a purely ceremonial throne."
"I'm surprised you would come to me, for this," Akitamoto said, and Tomoko couldn't make out any particular tone from his voice.
"Because you're a conservative?" she asked.
"A Lotus Conservative," Akitamoto clarified. "But yes."
"That's exactly why I came to you," Tomoko said. "You value the throne, but for its heritage. Not for its bag of tricks."
"And frankly, that raises a question I have for you," Akitamoto interjected. "You don't value the throne at all. Certainly not for its 'bag of tricks,' as you say, but also not for its heritage either! Don't think I forgot our caucus last week, haha! Is that what you say to each other in Party meetings? 'Just read the Party newsletter, same as every other Party member?'"
Tomoko ducked her head, her face feeling hot. She didn't like hearing Akitamoto describe her quiet protest that way.
Akitamoto seemed to realize that. "My—my apologies. That was a little ruder than warranted," he said. And he sighed. "I'll be straight with you. I'm listening. And I'm interested. But." Akitamoto paused, and he looked at Tomoko again. "I need to know why you of all MPs would propose a compromise amendment like this. Why not just abolish the throne outright? It's not like you to think of compromises."
Tomoko breathed into her hands again, and then she shoved them into her pockets. She blew a hair out of her face, though it didn't move, being so heavy with rain.
Tomoko sighed. "Yeah, I've got no way to ease into the idea," she said. "I didn't think of it. The Sovereign did."
"I want you to propose a constitutional amendment that would make the sovereignship ceremonial," the Sovereign said.
The Sovereign said.
Tomoko waited for the Sovereign to elaborate.
"What?" she asked.
The Sovereign just nodded, and in the very same measured tone, he repeated, "I want you to propose a constitutional—"
"No, no, I got that part! I just—" The words fell out of Tomoko's mouth, and she had to consciously stop. "You want me to propose that amendment?"
The Sovereign nodded.
"You want me to propose that amendment?"
The Sovereign nodded.
Tomoko blinked a few times. She looked to Haibara. Haibara shrugged. She looked at the royal aide. He had put sunglasses on.
She looked at the Sovereign. "Why?" she asked. "Or, well—I mean, you already almost never use your formal powers."
"But I still have, a few times," the Sovereign corrected.
"But that's exactly my point!" Was she spluttering? Tomoko was regretting her inelegant tone and phrasing at every turn, but she was too surprised. "And you—you want to get rid of that? I mean, I want to get rid of that, but I thought..." And Tomoko trailed off, the sentence's ending as lost to her as she was.
The Sovereign leaned back—or as much as one could while sitting seiza. And he sighed. "Representative Meikawa," he said. "I have regretted it each time I used my formal powers. When the effect was unexpected, I regretted it. When my effort was nullified, I regretted it. When it worked and did what I wanted—still, I regretted it." He looked squarely at Tomoko now. "I am honored and humbled by this royal inheritance in a way that I know you do not consider valuable. But while I treasure this culture, I fear what even the throne's most modest formal powers can accomplish. I mean no disrespect to my mother, but while she was in power, she was a counterweight to democracy, an obstacle to the people. The virtue of her policies makes us blessed and lucky, but it does not make our system wise. I hope to avoid the possibility of a more destructive monarch. I intend to raise my children well, but people are not pawns. Even my own family could be unpredictable."
Tomoko nodded slowly. "I share a lot of your concerns," she said. "But why ask me to propose the amendment? You know how I feel about your throne. I don't want to make you ceremonial. I want to make you—normal."
And the Sovereign smiled, very slightly, and for once Tomoko felt she could tell it was genuine. "And I respect your desire. But in many ways, that is precisely why I come to you," he said. "I need someone who is willing to look at me critically, someone whose respect for me is checked by skepticism. As grateful as I am for their respect, I fear my usual colleagues would look upon me too rosily to want to risk changing things."
"So you come to me instead?" Tomoko asked, raising an eyebrow. She frowned. "But helping you would hurt my cause. If the sovereign is purely ceremonial, then that's one less reason to abolish the throne completely. I would rather dismantle the royal institution in one fell swoop, and you know it."
"You would rather," the Sovereign acknowledged. "But you are not able to."
Tomoko looked away. "We have all the Socialists and Libertarians, as well as most of the Technocrats. But besides that..."
The Sovereign nodded knowingly. "Half your platform is better than none of it, isn't it?"
"A compromise?" Tomoko actually snorted. "I left the Marxist Party and became a Socialist for a reason. I don't like piecemeal reform."
"Perhaps a revolutionary compromise?" the Sovereign said. "I realize this is only half of what you want. And while I do not entirely understand your desire to eliminate the royal institution completely, it is your right to want that—but it is reality that you cannot do it yet. Please, Representative Meikawa. Perhaps someday you will have the support for your revolution against royalty. But for today, I want to at least declaw the throne."
And the Sovereign scooted back from the table. And he bowed.
Tomoko felt uncomfortable. This was backwards, this was wrong. She should bow to him, she kept thinking to herself, and she looked away.
When the Sovereign rose from his bow, Tomoko still wasn't looking. "Well?" he asked.
Tomoko bit the inside of her cheek.
"Is it the same for you as for us?" Tomoko asked. "The way they teach you to reverence the throne? I realize—" Tomoko stammered over the words for a moment. "The Sovereign was your grandfather, and then your mother. I know that's probably different, when they're family. But I mean—" Tomoko thought of her family watching the annual speeches on television. Her father's disregard, but her mother and aunt's deep bows. Tomoko thought of a portrait of every Sovereign since Hirotsuga on the wall of a school hallway. She thought of her brother, wanting to dress as a sovereign for a costume party, and her mother saying it was inappropriate. She thought the pomp and circumstance surrounding sovereigns' press conferences and how networks willingly cancelled overlapping broadcasts. She thought indeed of a man—but one afforded the highest honor.
Tomoko shook her head. "Never mind," she said.
The Sovereign was quiet.
"I have... tried to soften that," he said. "Lower the expectations of formality, somewhat. I hope Baizoans respect the throne, and I believe there is value to 'civil religion,' but—I do not want it to make people uncomfortable, I—I have had only two years, but—I see I have—I know I cannot change what has already happened to you, but—" He sighed.
And for once, Tomoko could hear the regret in his voice. She looked at him. And she saw him hold his glasses in one hand, use the other to rub at the lines around his eyes, now looking away from her. The frown in his lips—not frustrated with her, but with himself.
Tomoko rubbed her face. Was she going to regret this? She better not regret this. "Call me a Marxist," she said. "Fine, I'll propose your compromise. We're better off with an officially toothless demagogue than one with even a few teeth, just in case."
"Hmm." Akitamoto had listened to Tomoko's story closely and quietly. They now seated at a cramped, round table under a cloth awning, seeming to strain under the rain, just in front of the rāmenyasan Akitamoto had raved about. Tomoko had to admit—this was the best tonkotsu rāmen she'd eaten in years.
"I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised it was Sovereign Haruto's idea," Akitamoto said. "I just hadn't expected him to be so future-minded. He'll likely be sovereign for another forty, fifty, maybe sixty years. He can just keep restraining himself until then.
"I guess he doesn't even want to tempt himself?" Tomoko suggested between slurping her soup and noodles. "Like I said, he told me he 'regrets' it every time he uses his official powers."
"We don't ask him that often," Akitamoto mused.
"'We?'" Tomoko asked.
"You know," Akitamoto said.
She did. The Labors, Marxists, and Lotuses.
"It's not a good look, to have the Sovereign on your side," she said.
"The people love Sovereign Haruto!" Akitamoto objected, nearly choking on his rāmen from talking too fast while eating.
"They love the man named Haruto," Tomoko countered. "At least among my constituents, there are people who worry your trio of parties are undemocratic. Every time you ask the Sovereign to do something, it raises questions."
"It's really not that often," Akitamoto objected as she wiped broth off his coat with a napkin. "The sovereign's 'bag of tricks' is unusual enough that it only comes up once in awhile, even ignoring Sovereign Haruto's reticence. Can it really be so big a deal?"
Tomoko bit the inside of her cheek, holding back a gut response. After breathing in, then out, she spoke. "It might not look like a big deal," she said. "But to people on the ground, it is."
Akitamoto didn't say anything in response immediately, and he quirked his eyebrows curiously.
Tomoko breathed in and out again. "You remember the Hakutsuka cassette plant nationalization, right?" Tomoko asked.
"Of course," Akitamoto said. "1985, yes? I was serving in my prefectural assembly—"
"Do you also remember the first pass at it?" Tomoko interrupted. "The one that failed?"
Akitamoto was quiet now.
"You were Deputy Minister of the Treasury in 1981. I was eight," Tomoko said, and she had to consciously keep her breath shallow. "I didn't know about it at the time. Growing up, all I knew was the success in 1985. But I found out later that the Parliament and Council actually had tried to nationalize the cassette plant once before 1985, four years earlier."
"1981 was the year of the Socialists," Akitamoto recalled. "They won all six Council seats up for election."
"Because of the Hakutsuka controversy. It was serious enough that even other parties felt the pressure, and the legislature passed a resolution to seize control of the plant."
"I remember," Akitamoto said.
"And then the Sovereign called a judicial review," Tomoko continued.
"I remember," Akitamoto said, and his brow furrowed. "It was Sovereign Haruto's grandfather."
"It was an exception," Tomoko said, now smiling at the absurdity of it. "From the bag of tricks. 'Business interest legislation that passes with less than a three-quarters majority in the committee and less than 60% of the combined legislature is subject to judicial review at the will and pleasure of the sovereign,'" she recited. "Judicial review by magistrates that the reactionary sovereign had appointed the previous year."
"The Premier was disappointed," Akitamoto reminisced.
"And my father had to fight for another four years, just to build up the political will again to get the same legislation to the floor again, under a different premiership, only to have to hope to heaven that the bill got 61% of the votes so it wouldn't be subject to the same song and dance!" Tomoko breathed in and out again, willing herself to stay calm even though it felt so raw. She didn't know this as a kid. She was just grateful and happy for Hakutsuka's "kernel of revolution." She only found out later that royal power delayed justice for her city on the whim of a reactionary, the authority of blood, and the power of a technicality. And even though it had been years ago, so long ago, it hurt to imagine four years of life, robbed from her father, four years he had fought for, been given—and then been denied.
"So it's a big deal," Tomoko concluded. "Who's to say the Sovereign's child or grandchild—who's to say they wouldn't pull something like that as well? Who's to say the Sovereign won't?" She looked up at Akitamoto. "I know you don't believe in socializing companies. But it's not just about that bill—it's about what the people had voted for. The will of the people, that's what's at stake, Councilor."
Akitamoto fell silent, just eating for a minute. Still chewing, he rested his head on one hand and that arm on the table.
"I suppose it isn't so principled, is it," Akitamoto mused. "To beg Sovereign Haruto for help."
"It's one thing to ask him to give a speech," Tomoko offered. "As much I might dislike even that. But it's another to ask him to—to raise the vote threshold for a proposal from two-thirds to three-quarters. Or to lower that threshold. Or to call a review. I know it's rare, but—"
"But people notice it, yes," Akitamoto said. "And infrequency is no excuse for laziness. If we don't have the votes, we don't have them." And now Akitamoto crossed his arms—and he smiled. "Well, I'll be. Here I am, agreeing with a Socialist!"
And Akitamoto just made that much less sense to Tomoko.
"You only partly agree," Tomoko added, and she crossed her arms and smiled too. "I'd still like to see the throne go completely."
"Well, well! Maybe someday!" Akitamoto chuckled, and he grabbed his bowl in one hand. In one smooth move, he drained it of remaining soup and "ahh"ed with satisfaction.
"You shall have the Lotus votes," Akitamoto said. "I'll bring them around to it. Don't think I don't see your sacrifice here. You're giving up a bargaining chip for future moves to abolish the throne completely, and the Lotuses will appreciate that."
Tomoko appreciated the gratitude, but she couldn't help looking away anyway. "Yeah, don't remind me."
And Tomoko got another good laugh out of Akitamoto.
Now for the harder sell.
"You want to what?" Premier Fukushima turned on a dime, away from the window and toward Tomoko and Akitamoto. The Premier's office was bright, a natural glow pouring in through five windows and a ceiling portal. Off to the side was Fukushima's desk, where a cassette computer whirred merrily, and behind the desk was an ukiyo-e, allegedly of the first Council of Commoners.
Fukushima looked at Tomoko and Akitamoto with an expression bordering on disbelief, and she went to sit behind her desk. "A constitutional amendment? Have you even considered the voting threshold for that?"
"Nine-thirteenths of the total legislature," Akitamoto said, his voice light and optimistic.
"Plus a confirming majority vote from the public," Fukushima added.
"If the Sovereign gives a speech, he can easily secure a simple majority," Tomoko said—as much as she disliked that.
"And this isn't even thinking about getting the amendment out of a committee," Fukushima said. "There hasn't been a constitutional amendment since, since—and why would you even want to? Sovereign Haruto hardly ever does anything with his official powers."
"He could," Akitamoto said.
"And his descendants could!" Tomoko added. "This is thinking about the future, Premier Fukushima."
Fukushima visibly bit her lip. She drummed her fingers against the desk (oak wood, old, from Japan). Slowly, she shook her head.
"I just—I don't know if—what if—!"
Tomoko had never seen Fukushima so frazzled. The Premier sank into her chair, swiveling it around to face away. For a few moments, there was just the creaking sound of her chair.
"Why did you have to raise this now of all times?" Fukushima said, still facing away. "Why now, when I need Haruto most?"
And Tomoko remembered something, and her eyes widened. She stepped toward the desk, placed a hand on it, leaned forward.
"Premier Fukushima? Is this about the gender rights bill?" she asked.
The creaking sound of the chair stopped. And Fukushima sighed, swiveling around to face Tomoko and Akitamoto again.
"It's just—" Fukushima started, stopped—and started again. "I have to introduce the bill in the Committee for Human Affairs instead of the Justice Committee because it's outside the oversight of any magisterial council comprised of less than thirteen high magistrates, which protects it from magisterial intervention." Fukushima stood from her chair, and she began to pace. "But the Committee for Human Affairs could tie on the vote if the Wakuna Bloc representatives there invoke a No Authors Vote precedent, which is still valid in Human Affairs legislation. That drops the two bill authors from the vote, which makes a tie possible, and that tie needs to be broken. And the easiest, cleanest, most straightforward way to break the tie is—well, the sovereign gets a tie-breaking committee vote in the event of Subject's Welfare legislation, which this one is."
Fukushima stopped in front of the window again. She stood straight and tall for a moment—but then sagged.
"I promised this bill twelve years ago," Fukushima said. "When I first came to the Upper Parliament. Miya—Ambassador Mizushima, she should've had this bill to help her when she was a college student. I've been an MP for twelve years. Premier for six." She bowed her head even lower. "We are so close. I just need—I just need Haruto for this."
"Is there no other way to secure the tie-breaker in our favor?" Akitamoto suggested.
"Not without tying up a ton of our resources and hobbling us in the committee-to-floor transition motion phase" Fukushima said, shaking her head. "And it would be a gamble. It's hard to calculate the alternatives. The Committee for Human Affairs isn't a good place to start legislation."
"Maybe we start a temporary committee?" Akitamoto offered. "A Joint Temporary Committee on Overcoming Queerphobia. We could just define it as the whole Upper Parliament."
Fukushima shook her head. "Rights bills submitted by temporary committees undergo mandatory judicial review by a council of the high magistry, minimum council size of five, organizing magistrate chosen at random," she said. "I don't want to gamble with this bill." Fukushima rubbed at her temples, still facing the window. "...I don't want to gamble with any bills. Haruto—Sovereign Haruto, he—the Sovereign so often is exactly where we need him to be. Twelve years, for this bill. More than that, really, for this and for so many others."
Tomoko's brow creased. Like with the Sovereign—like with Sovereign Haruto—Tomoko hadn't quite noticed the wrinkles around Fukushima's eyes before.
Tomoko still didn't like Fukushima's brand of politics—she always seemed too milquetoast on economic justice, on social revolution, hemming and hawing for a year about whether or not to socialize South Yamamachi. But Tomoko could see why it was hard to let the throne go.
"We could have Haruto for sixty years," Fukushima said. "He can outlast the magisterial establishment. A progressive anti-democratic 'balance' we can use to counteract a conservative anti-democratic 'balance.'"
"But we might not have Sovereign Haruto for sixty years," Tomoko pressed, and she stepped toward Fukushima, standing next to her by the window. The window overlooked the front steps of the parliamentary building—hundreds of people coming and going, pouring from and pouring into the bustling streets of Wakuna, as if all of Baizou was before them.
Tomoko looked out the window, then back to Fukushima. "It's a complicated, messy, unpredictable world. We were supposed to have the Retired Sovereign—Sovereign Airi—she was 'supposed' to be Sovereign for another thirty years, maybe. And where are we now? Two years in, and the throne is already almost unrecognizable."
Fukushima didn't respond right away. She crossed her arms, and then she rubbed one of her temples. "Whoever Haruto's heir is," Fukushima said. "It'd only make sense that they'd—take after him, at least some. I mean—well, it's only natural, right?"
"Did Sovereign Haruto take after his mother?" Tomoko asked.
Fukushima buried her face in one hand. "I can't—" she started and stopped immediately. Tomoko had never seen Fukushima so frazzled, so—raw. "I can't gamble with this bill, I can't—I can't hope, I need to know."
"No one knows we're planning this amendment yet," Akitamoto interjected from behind. "Maybe we propose the amendment after the gender rights bill goes through."
"No, that'd be worse," Fukushima immediately replied while lowering her hand. "We'd be hypocrites, squeezing one last hurrah out of Haruto before denying the same opportunity to everyone else. My own Labors would reject it, and I wouldn't be Premier for much longer after that, and rightly so."
"I agree," Tomoko said. "The amendment has to be first. It has to be genuine. We have to really mean it."
"Hm, you make a good point," Akitamoto conceded. "Perhaps we ask Sovereign Haruto to give a speech? We already planned on having him build support for the popular confirmation, right? Just ask him to speak ahead of the amendment, and that will place pressure on the committee."
"The bully pulpit is hardly a guarantee," Fukushima said, grimacing. "He can swing the nation, but can he swing individual voting districts?"
Tomoko made a mental note to bring up unitary voting to Fukushima later.
Fukushima "hmmm"ed. She asked, "The vote threshold. Where are you on that?"
Tomoko blinked. And she ran the numbers in her head again. "Right, right—well, we have the Lotuses, of course. And I hope we can persuade the Socialists—"
Fukushima looked at Tomoko. "That's still uncertain?" she asked.
Tomoko flushed a little. "I'm working on it," she said. "Then we need you to persuade the Labors."
"Easier said than done," Fukushima replied. "We can't all be like Akitamoto and his Lotuses."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Akitamoto said.
"I think the Marxists will be easy enough to win over," Tomoko continued. "Purely ceremonial is basically their ideal status for the throne. And the Libertarians will probably learn to accept this as an alternative to abolishing the throne."
"Still not two-thirds," Fukushima said, shaking her head, and she turned away from the window, now toward the center of the office. "Even if you assume we take the entire Grand Coalition, which is—reasonable enough."
"We can win votes from the independent parties," Tomoko said. "Maybe even from Video Life, or even the Technocrats or Self-Defense. Heck, there's all sorts in the Wakuna Bloc who would appreciate you giving up one of your tools."
Fukushima covered her face and groaned again, and Tomoko wondered if she maybe shouldn't have brought that up again so quickly. But still, she pressed the advantage. "It's really only a minority of even the Wakuna Bloc that wants the sovereign to have explicit powers. People liked the Retired Sovereign, sure, but more people like the current Sovereign—Sovereign Haruto," Tomoko said. "And there's a reason for that. He's their symbol, and he doesn't try to be more than that."
Now Fukushima stood in the center of the room while Tomoko was by the window. And for a moment, Tomoko wondered if this is what it felt like to be the premier.
For a moment, Tomoko thought about her own future. Running for Parliament a third time would likely mean giving up the chance to be premier. She wouldn't likely be in a coalition in power next term, and that would be the last parliamentary term of her life. Most premiers didn't get the second term that Fukushima now had.
Six years of clawing for these bills. Only six more years to finish the work.
Act for today? Or act for tomorrow?
"Premier Fukushima," Tomoko said. "I won't ask you to gamble away today. I'll get your gender rights bill out of that committee—without Sovereign Haruto, and without magisterial nullification."
Fukushima looked up at Tomoko, her expression now—a little confused.
"You'll—how?" she asked.
Tomoko opened her mouth—then closed it. She wasn't sure.
"I... I don't know yet," Tomoko said. "But I want to try." Tomoko stepped over to Fukushima, and she gripped her shoulder. "I want the gender rights bill through as much as you do. But I think we can do it through the people, without the sovereign. Just give me a chance?"
Fukushima looked at Tomoko, and then she looked at Akitamoto. Akitamoto shrugged. Fukushima looked back to Tomoko.
Her surprise relaxed into weariness—and gratitude. "Thank you for being willing to try, Representative Meikawa," she said. "In the meantime, I will try to get the nerve."
"The nerve?" Tomoko asked.
Fukushima nodded. "To gamble. If you can't get the gender rights bill out of committee without the sovereign, I shall have to either commit to monarchy—or learn to gamble on the magistry."
There were twelve members seated on the Parliamentary Committee for Human Affairs. Eight were from the Grand Coalition: six Labors, one Marxist, and one New Liberal. Six were from the Wakuna Restoration Bloc: two Liberals, one New Conservative, one Self-Defense, one Technocrat, and one Village Love. It was just enough votes that together, the Wakunas could force a No Authors Vote precedent, and the Marxist and one Labor had been the bill's co-authors. But if just one Wakuna representative opposed the No Authors Vote motion—not abstain, oppose, but just one—the motion would fail, and they could vote the bill through the committee with only a simple majority, no sovereign tie-breaker necessary.
Tomoko poured through the parliamentary archives, searching for any hints on how the representatives might vote. The parliamentary library was surprisingly narrow—aisles only wide enough for one person, shelves that towered over you. It was also surprisingly noisy, as Tomoko could hear recordings playing in the background as researchers and other representatives pored over files for their own purposes. Tomoko had two VCRs playing as she listened to parliamentary debates, occasionally pausing and rewinding between the two to find the specific speakers she wanted, all while also reading microfilm transcripts of the same debates.
As she searched, Tomoko weighed her options. Only the New Conservative representative had an official position on transgender rights, and that was opposition on the grounds of natural wrongness. The two Liberals, while technically silent on the matter, had voted against virtually every rights bill Fukushima's Labors had ever brought to the floor. These two, at least, are more worried about man's right to be scum than anything else, Tomoko thought.
That left the other three: Self-Defense, Technocrat, and Village Love. Civil rights and gender rights weren't strictly part of any of their parties' platforms. And their voting records were spotty, splitting their votes between topics and subtopics. How did the Technocrat representative vote for both the Ethnic Justice package but also the Acknowledging Reverse-Racism resolution? (The latter didn't pass, but it still annoyed Tomoko.)
But Tomoko could find one thing consistent about these three in the archives. The last time Fukushima had brought a gender rights bill to the table—the milquetoast-named Accommodating Transgender Baizoans Act four years ago—all three representatives had voted it down.
Tomoko bit the inside of her cheek.
The crack of a baseball bat, followed by the modest cheers of the audience. Tomoko had left the city center of Wakuna, finding herself in the Rokkoyama suburbs, standing in the shade of some stadium seats at a youth baseball game.
"Thanks for meeting me under these circumstances," Representative Otsuka Shin said. He was a tall man, but built narrowly, reminding Tomoko of a pole. His complexion was sun-kissed, making Tomoko think of Okinawa in Japan, and his Hawaiian shirt added ten years to a man really only middle-aged.
"No, thank you, Representative Otsuka," Tomoko said. She herself had worn slacks, tennis shoes, and a blouse today. Tomoko wasn't sure what to wear, so she was glad that compared to Otsuka, she neither over or under-dressed. "I feel a little bad taking time away from you during what seems like a family event. Your son is playing, then?"
"Daughter," Otsuka said. "Kyouko. But she's very skilled! She prefers playing with the boys."
Tomoko wasn't sure what that was implying. But she needed his vote. She bit the inside of her cheek.
"And it's alright, this is just the only time I had open, really," Otsuka continued. "The other team's batting now, so we just need to finish our conversation before the inning is up."
"Right," Tomoko said. "I wanted to talk to you about an upcoming bill on the Human Affairs docket. Co-authored by Representatives Takahara and Sukino?"
Otsuka didn't reply right away, and his smiling warmth stiffened a little. After a few moments, he managed, "The Self-Defense Party doesn't have a specific platform on, uh—on—"
"That's why I wanted to ask you," Tomoko said.
Otsuka nodded. Several times. "Yes, that makes sense," he said. "Well, I've seen the bill—"
"Great," Tomoko said, and she felt for a moment like she was pressing down an accelerator. "So you have some thoughts?"
Otsuka looked away. "I'd rather not say more, as I'd still like to think about it—"
Tomoko stepped to the side to look at Otsuka squarely. "Do you think it's appropriate for an author to vote on their own legislation in committee?" she asked.
"Well—" Otsuka stammered his first words. But he cleared his throat, and his next words came out clearer. "There is a clear precedent that in the Committee for Human Affairs, a sufficient plurality may make clear their concern that a bill's author has exercised undue influence on the committee-level voting process."
"That's the entry in the Encyclopedia of Baizoan Parliamentarianism," Tomoko pressed. "What do you think?"
"I think I can't tell you what I don't yet know myself," Otsuka replied, and his mouth fell into a line as he shrugged.
"Why are you hedging so much?" Tomoko asked. "Can't you know by now?"
"I respond to the voice of the people," Otsuka insisted. "And I don't know what the people's voice on this is, yet."
Tomoko opened her mouth to speak further—but before she could, a young voice interjected.
"Dad!" And a small body in a boy's baseball uniform rushed up to them. Kyouko, Tomoko assumed. This Little League's players weren't older than eleven, and Tomoko couldn't really distinguish Kyouko from the boys on her team. Her dark hair was cropped very, very short, and she crossed her arms while speaking to Otsuka. "Dad, my inning's about to start. I'm going to be batting!"
"Ah!" Otsuka said. "Thank you for letting me know. I was just talking to Representative Meikawa, a coworker."
Tomoko waved, and she bowed slightly. "You must be Otsuka—"
"My name is Kyou." The child thrust out a hand to shake, and slightly surprised, Tomoko took it. The handshake was firm for such a young child.
"Kyou likes going by that for short," Otsuka explained quickly. And then to Kyou, he continued, "Alright, I'll be back in the stands in a flash! I wouldn't miss the cutest home run hitter for anything!" They walked and talked, and Tomoko walked with them.
"Dad, don't call me 'cute,' please?" Kyou said "It's embarrassing."
"Is it? I thought—well, your classmates called Princess Yuu cute, right? Isn't that a good thing?" Otsuka asked. Turning his head to Tomoko for a moment, he waved politely. Tomoko waved back and stopped walking with them. Their conversation was over, it seemed.
But Kyou and Otsuka's continued as they walked away. "It's different for a princess to be cute," Kyou insisted. "And I don't like her because she's cute, but because she's cool! She always speaks up for what she wants and tells everyone to be who they want to be!"
"Just like you, little man!" Otsuka said.
Tomoko wondered for a moment. Was I supposed to hear that?
The Technocrat and Village Love representatives similarly stonewalled: they would not commit to any decision, whether about the bill itself or whether it was appropriate for bill authors to vote on their own legislation in committee (which Tomoko still thought was a nonsense precedent). Reporting her failure to make any progress was a bitter pill, though.
"It's alright, Representative Meikawa. You did your best. I can't honestly say I expected anything else, though I had hoped," Fukushima said. The premier seemed much more relaxed than she had been a month ago. Now they were all meeting over dinner in a private dining room—some European-style place Tomoko'd already forgotten the name of that Akitamoto picked. It was her, Akitamoto, Fukushima, and now Ambassador Mizushima Miya as well. Though no longer a councilor, the Marxist Party had asked Miya to represent them in this negotiation.
"And unfortunately, the Marxists haven't found any strategy better than yours," Miya said, between sips of water. "If the Committee for Human Affairs does invoke a No Authors Vote, you will either need to count on Sovereign Haruto to break the tie or shift the bill to a Temporary Committee and count on not rolling one of the Magnificent Seven in the randomized magisterial review."
"Magnificent Seven? Really?" Tomoko repeated, grimacing. "There's a nickname for those magistrates?"
"And what's so 'magnificent' about them, anyway?" Fukushima groused, poked at her napkin with a fork.
"It's what certain conservative circles call them," Miya explained evenly, and she next glanced toward Akitamoto. "No offense, Councilor."
"None taken," Akitamoto said, and he glanced up from his menu with a smile.
"In better news, the Socialists have come around to the amendment," Tomoko said. "Though the other party leaders insist on a separate press conference to clarify our long-term goals."
"Understandable," Fukushima said. She directed her gaze toward Tomoko. "And I read your latest draft. It's good."
Tomoko blinked. And then she smiled. "Thanks."
For a few moments, they read their menus. Re-confirmed their orders. Tomoko thanked her lucky stars that Akitamoto said he'd pay. Just sitting in this place made her feel a little too bourgeois.
Fukushima plopped a menu down and leaned back in her chair. "So it's down to nerve, then," she said.
Akitamoto smiled wryly. "I'm out of ideas, at least."
Tomoko looked down at her plate. "Sorry, Premier," she said.
"It is what it is," Miya said, and Tomoko looked up. Miya was sitting up straight, a slight yet rare smile on her face and a surprising hope in her eyes. "We've all done our best with what we have." And Miya turned to look at the others in the group. "And I'd rather put today on the line than tomorrow. With the last vestiges of monarchic government done away with, Baizoans of the future will have one less thing to worry about and will be able to vote with confidence."
Tomoko smiled as well, but inside, she worried. Or they'll have one more thing to worry about...
They discussed further over dinner, hammering out details and double-checking, even triple-checking their vote totals. They had the amendment, with votes to spare, more than Tomoko expected, really. She assured everyone that the Wakuna Restoration Party would get over it (she sure hoped they would), Akitamoto reported a few New Conservatives he managed to convert to the amendment, and Miya noted that the Marxists had persuaded all of Aboriginal Recognition to back it as well. The amendment was safe.
But as they left the restaurant, waving good night and parting their separate ways (though she and Miya were walking to the same train station) Tomoko couldn't ignore the pit in her stomach. Is this really the right thing, when it's putting the gender rights bill in jeopardy like this?
Tomoko walked silently, trying to enjoy the warm air of an early summer night as she pondered. It wasn't even dark out yet. Tomoko certainly thought the amendment mattered. It didn't go as far as she liked, but she could at least appreciate declawing the throne. The throne's official powers were undemocratic, and Tomoko still didn't think a British vassalship was "heritage."
...But she had spent so much time trying to work around Fukushima's resistance to magnetic tape freedom that she hadn't appreciate how much Fukushima relied on that "bag of tricks"—or at least the threat of it. And while Tomoko didn't like the way Fukushima used Sovereign Haruto's powers sometimes... she couldn't help but sympathize with wanting a counterweight of her own to outlast the magistrates of issue. Especially for something as important as the "gender rights bill"—landmark protections and guarantees for LGBTQ+ Baizoans that Tomoko wished she'd written. But it had been Fukushima's milquetoast Labors. They're still milquetoast when it comes to revolution. But they do good work. Should I just let them have the throne?
"Tomoko." Miya's voice interrupted Tomoko's thoughts like a static shock, and she looked over. Miya's eyes were calm yet piercing, as Tomoko often thought they were. In some ways, Miya was an odd choice for ambassador. Not very bubbly, prone to stage fright, and somewhat stiff. But Miya was also genuine and selfless in a way that Tomoko used to think was just for storybooks.
"Miya?" Tomoko replied. "What is it?"
Miya cocked her head slightly. "You're still thinking about something," she observed.
Tomoko allowed herself a wry smile. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am," she said.
Miya waited, expectant.
Tomoko huffed, she straightened her back, kept her eyes straight forward as she walked. "What if the rights bill doesn't go through? What if it's my fault, for putting it in Premier Fukushima's head that she shouldn't use Sovereign Haruto's formal powers, that she should give up on that completely?"
"It was Sovereign Haruto's idea, wasn't it?" Miya offered.
"But I accepted it," Tomoko replied, and she snorted a bit, at herself more than anything. "I compromised on what should have been one fell swoop, a revolutionary change. I should've known piecemeal change would put us in binds like this. We need an overhaul, not a tweak, to the—to the throne, the magistry, the—to—"
"To everything?" Miya finished, and now she was the one smiling, ever so slightly. Tomoko smiled back. And then the smiles were gone, and Miya was looking straight ahead too. "We simply do not yet have the amassed political will for such changes. There is only one way to eat an elephant, Tomoko. One bite at a time."
"That'd be fine, if the elephant would stay still," Tomoko said, and she swung her arms to—just to shed energy, really. "But it turns out if we eat the trunk, we're vulnerable to the left foot, or if we eat the ear the heart can hurt us, or, or..." Tomoko rubbed one of her temples. And now she looked at Miya. "How do you stay so... cool? So calm? This bill, it—for you—" And Tomoko looked down and away. She wasn't sure how to say it.
But Miya nodded anyway. "I know," Miya said. "Thankfully, Baizou is already not a bad place to live as a transwoman. But I know I've been fortunate, and for too many others there are still obstacles, still challenges, still injustices." She nodded again. Tomoko thought Miya's eyes looked faraway. And Miya shrugged. "Call it religion, call it Zen, call it naive hope... I think things will work out."
"Even though history tells us things not working out is frighteningly possible?" Tomoko asked, an eyebrow quirked upward.
Miya's gaze shifted back toward Tomoko, but she didn't answer right away. Then, she said, "I suppose so. It's history, after all. Not prophecy."
Miya placed a hand on Tomoko's shoulder, and Tomoko looked up to meet her gaze. And they smiled. Political rivals after a fashion though they were, Tomoko considered Miya a friend. It was nice to have someone at dinner to talk to who understood Marx and Luxemburg, even if they didn't agree on them. Fukushima and Akitamoto were nice enough, but they didn't really get it.
"You mentioned meeting Representative Otsuka at a youth baseball game?" Miya asked.
And Tomoko blinked. Where's this coming from? And where's it going? "Uh, yes," she answered.
Miya nodded. "So you met his child?"
Tomoko thought about the question, and her eyebrows rose. She opened her mouth, but then she doubted her words for a moment.
"Is it a secret?" Tomoko asked.
Miya shrugged. "From what I understand, Representative Otsuka treats it like one," she said. "But Kyou doesn't."
Tomoko thought about that. "Do you think it'll make a difference?" Tomoko asked.
"I think it gives Representative Otsuka a lot to think about," Miya said.
Tomoko supposed that was all they could really be sure of. She nodded, and she managed a smile, and for tonight she allowed herself to lean into Miya's contact.
At last, the sun dipped below the horizon, and twilight fell on Wakuna, and on Baizou. Tomorrow was Friday, and Tomoko would be back in Parliament, as would Akitamoto and Fukushima. Miya would likely be at the airport, on her way to meet who knew.
Next week, on Monday, the gender rights bill and the constitutional amendment would both move forward.
Tomoko tried to imagine tomorrow washing away with a tide, tried to imagine next week washing away with a tide, leaving only today. She had fought plenty for tomorrow by now. For the rest of tonight, she decided, there was time enough for tonight. Time enough for the train ride, for getting ready for bed, for resting.
At the train station, Miya and Tomoko had trains in opposite directions.
"Good night," Tomoko said.
"Good night, Tomoko," Miya said.
And Tomoko let her mind wander blank as she rode the train, watching twilight turn to night as stars peeked out from beyond.
Gratitude to Sanghyeok for beta-reader feedback.