eaving the emperor to the care of Itan and the others, Rokuta departed by way of the balcony. The sun had set, casting the Sea of Clouds into darkness. The thin sliver of a crescent moon rose in the east.
“The smell of blood is in the air.”
War loomed on the horizon. Considering the number of scheming ministers and province lords mustering their forces, it was a miracle a civil insurrection hadn’t already broken out.
Rokuta strode through the courtyard, that rancid sense of foreboding buffeting him like a brisk breeze, his spirits dampened by his inborn aversion to war and the shedding of blood.
Leave it to me, Shouryuu had said. But that didn’t make the conflict of arms any less odious. Soldiers would die in droves while innocent civilians were inexorably drawn into the maelstrom.
Rokuta came to one of the palace annexes and casually pushed open the door. It opened with a faint creak. The alcove for the gatekeeper was empty. Under normal circumstances, a guard would be posted there. The Imperial Palace was seriously understaffed, Emperor Kyou having executed so many of his retainers. Given the sparse number of new ministerial appointments, there was little of the expected hustle and bustle anywhere in the Imperial Palace.
He made his way through the front garden and entered the innermost shrine. Inside the building was a small courtyard. In the center of an island of white sand stood a silver-white tree. The branches—that appeared to have been cast from molten silver—hung low to the ground.
This was the literal tree of life.
Parents who wanted a child petitioned the tree. If Heaven acknowledged the petition, a fruit called a ranka sprouted from one of the branches. Ten months later, a child would “hatch” from that fruit. However, before that happened, the ranka could sometimes be swept away.
Rokuta had been swept away. So had Shouryuu, swallowed up by a freakish natural disaster nature called a shoku. When the currents of two worlds otherwise separate from each other crossed paths, a ranka would find its way into the womb of a women in another world. Born cloaked in a “shell” that resembled his “parents,” such a child was called a taika.
He’d been swept away to another world across the sea, to the capital of Hourai. He had a father and mother, a grandfather and grandmother, brothers and sisters. It never would have occurred to him that he was a child who should not, by all rights, exist.
When Rokuta was but a child, their home burned down. Crawling to safety through the clouds of smoke, they found Kyoto awash in a sea of flames. They spent the night fleeing the conflagration. When the morning came, his grandparents and one of his sisters were dead.
They moved to the western outskirts of Kyoto to escape the ravages of the war. But they had nothing saved and nothing stored, and with the capital drawn inexorably into the maelstrom, their father could find no work. A brother died, then the youngest sister, and then Rokuta was abandoned in the mountains.
They had no other choice if the family was to survive.
Deliverance came from this world. Dying of thirst and hunger in the midst of that mountain, Rokuta barely managed to stay alive. He was saved because he was no ordinary living thing. He was a kirin.
Had Rokuta not been a kirin, he would have died in that wilderness, as had so many other children. In that era, in that place, an abandoned child was not at all unusual.
In this wasteland of broken mountains.
When the storms of war came, misfortune rained down on ordinary souls. Amidst the new signs of life, the rumors of war were again echoing through the land. The bitter irony stung his heart.
More devastated hills and valleys, rivers of blood, orphaned children condemned to poverty and death.
Before taking his place upon the throne, Shouryuu said he wanted to see what this kingdom was like. Looking down from the crest of a hill, there was nothing to see. Only twenty years had passed since then. Children grew to adults in that span of time.
Having no fixed lifespans, the emperor, the kirin, their ministers and retainers often lost track of time. But the years still rolled by in the world below.
Those children abandoned in the wilderness—where were they now and what would become of them? Misfortune would surely pour down on them again.
Rokuta gazed up at the heavens, at the sliver of the moon high above, as if gouged out of the firmament by a sharp claw.
Rokuta had stirred from sleep late one night to hear his parents discussing how to get rid of him. And so had another child awakened deep in the night to be delivered to his fate.
What happened next occurred here in this kingdom. Eighteen years ago, in none other than Gen Province.