The Story of Saiunkoku, Vol. 1 and 2
written by Yukino Sai
illustrated by Yura Kairi
Ryuki wasn’t ever meant to be emperor. As the sixth son, he was mostly ignored—and even abused—as a child. But when one of his older brothers was cast out for treason and the others killed one another in an attempt to get the throne, Ryuki became the unlikely new emperor.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem very bright. People suspect he’s gay and worry that this will get in the way of his begetting an heir. It’s decided that a smart girl will be brought into the palace to not only teach him about how to be emperor, but to hopefully get him to fall in love with her and get a successor.
That’s how Shurei becomes involved in the emperor’s life. Of noble birth, she is nevertheless poor, and she’s smart and kind enough to make one wonder if she shouldn’t be the next emperor. Shurei saw the horrors of war as a child and wants to do what she can to prevent that from happening again. Well-read, she once studied to be a civil servant and was knocked down by the unfair system that only hired men.
Now Shurei is training and teaching the emperor, who hangs on her every word. It seems he’s not really gay; the fact that he likes to share his bed with men started the rumor. This isn’t for amorous reasons, but because the emperor remains afraid of the dark and doesn’t like being alone at late hours. Before long, he’s sleeping in the same bed as Shurei, and while nothing happens, she’s mortified because she knows how people make assumptions.
As it turns out, Ryuki also isn’t the idiot he pretends to be. Rather, he pretends to be stupid in hopes that his beloved older brother, wrongly accused of treason, may be brought back and take over the throne. And while Ryuki at first seems a pampered, spoiled, and oblivious prince, it turns out he had an awful childhood and is a deeper thinker than he initially lets on.
Ryuki can swing from noble to goofy in his disposition, but throughout, Shurei remains a strong, intelligent, and appealing character. Ryuki truly admires her, and one can see why. It’s nice how their relationship is shown developing through the pages, and it doesn’t just happen all at once. Political intrigue, poisoning, and kidnapping bring in serious notes, but at its core, The Story of Saiunkoku is about the growing relationship between Ryuki and Shurei.