Something I've consistently praised The Twelve Kingdoms for is its depth of character writing. While not perfect, the show puts in a lot of effort to give as many of its cast as possible relatable human motivations, explaining and exploring what makes them tick and how their actions reflect their inner selves. That's not, however, to say it makes every character likable, as has become very clear through two-thirds of our storylines this arc. Youko has already had her most pivotal character arc, and having internalized a desire for self-improvement we largely see her trying to learn what the best way of queenship for her is. Sure there's intrigue about possible insurrection and assassination, but her story is mostly about filling in the gaps in her knowledge about Kei as a nation and eventually deciding what kind of kingdom she wants to create. That could easily turn boring, but so far it's been a charming way to continue her story while also explaining the finer details of this world's society and history, plus it's just nice to have one person with power in this show behave responsibly.
Because boy are there a lot of bad leaders to go around in these kingdoms, even the ones who haven't invoked magic plague from the heavens. We already knew about the whole mess in Hou, the ongoing crisis in Kou, and the catastrophe going on in Tai with Taiki's absence, but we also learn that the apparently thriving millenia-long rule of Ryuu is on shaky ground too, with a corrupt justice system posing as the most “lawful” of the kingdoms. There's also Queen Kyou, whose rule seems to be stable enough, but her teaching instincts could use a lot of work. Taking it upon herself to humble former-princess Gyokuyo, she assigns her as a palace servant to teach her the value and dignity of hard work. But as it turns out, taking a formerly privileged royal desperate to recapture her former glory and constantly taunting her with the treasures and elegance of divine royalty isn't a very effective method. True to itself, The Twelve Kingdoms gives Kyou enough nuance about it – she believes that the luxuries of royalty are earned by taking on the responsibility of a ruler, and anyone who covets the former without embracing the latter isn't worthy of either. It's not a bad lesson, but Gyokuyo is absolutely not in the headspace to internalize something like that.
Which is why she steals a sackful of royal treasures and skedaddles, planning to eventually make her way to Kei and...I guess replace Youko on the throne somehow? It's not a great plan, but Gyokuyo is a pampered and sheltered child despite technically being over 30 years old, so it makes sense she'd pull the equivalent of a kid packing up their toys and “running away” to the end of the street. She almost immediately gets captured in Ryuu, but not before having a run-in with everyone's favorite rat baby Rakushun! And then she tries to frame him for her theft. Remember what I said about not everyone being likable? Through bribery she manages to get out, and the ever-patient Rakushun takes the initiative to lay down some hard truths on her. Whether it's her “fault” or not, Gyokuyo was a princess who knew nothing about her own people, and so long as she looks down on those of lesser wealth or glory, she's going to keep making people hate her. If she wants the prestige of power, she needs to earn it. Our tritagonist still isn't ready to face that just yet, but from how she reacts to our calm mouseketeer's rebuffing it seems like something's finally managed to breech her armor.
Suzu also has some issues to contend with, though hers are a lot thornier. After briefly being threatened by Asano, she boards a ship and continues her way to Kou. There she meets an ailing orphan boy named Seishuu and tries to out-misery him in a painful display of self-pity. Don't get me wrong: Suzu has been through the ringer and if she wants to have a good cry over it that's her place, but the combination of her circumstances and struggles has left her with a complex where she interprets any kindness as setup for betrayal, and is nearly incapable of recognizing the suffering of Kingdom natives. Even as she learns about Seishuu losing both his parents and being forced to flee his home, she keeps trying to one-up him to find a reason why he should feel sorry for her instead of trying to empathize. While obviously not a great look, it's an extremely human cycle to get trapped in. Suzu's been abused and abandoned so much that she's convinced herself she's the wretch of the world, and the only sympathy she can expect is pity. Thankfully some harsh words from Seishuu seem to be helping her turn around, but it's likely to be a long road to getting out of this kind of hole.
Especially since Seishuu gets run over by the corrupt lord of Wa Province almost immediately after they arrive in Kei. It really does keep coming back to the awful people in charge, doesn't it? And let me tell ya, it sure is awkward to be writing this while a sitting Attorney General is currently being investigated for a deadly hit-and-run. But that kind of hitting close to home is what helps ground The Twelve Kingdoms' loftier themes of leadership and power, and I suspect it won't be the last time this arc rings more true than is comfortable.