hen Taiki left the building, the Imperial Palace looked completely different.
He stopped in the promenade, looked around and blinked several times. The building itself had not changed. Neither had the great array of magnificent pavilions or the gardens and courtyards. The white walls and indigo tile roofs, the officials passing back and forth—it was the same scene as always.
But now they all seemed to glow with a wan, inner light. Everything was wrapped in a soft luster, as if a thin gauze was draped across the unusually clear winter sky. The blue was faded, the sun a stained smear of white, the shadows falling at Taiki's feet a washed-out gray.
And yet the scene before him was brighter than what he would see at noonday.
This was different than fog, but something like a fog suffused the surroundings. The light was tinged with something too faint and too fine to see—or at least that's how it felt to Taiki.
Behind him, Seirai asked, "Is something the matter?"
Seirai had accompanied him from the main palace. Taiki glanced over his shoulder. He gestured at the expansive gardens as if to say, How does one account for this?
"Ah, yes." Seirai smiled and looked up at the sky. "Strange indeed. A white sun."
Seirai was Taiki's regent. He was also the prime minister of Zui Province, home to the capital of the Kingdom of Tai. It was common practice to assign a regent to a young Saiho like Taiki. The regent always remained close by and attended to everything that needed attending to, from the Saiho's private life to government affairs. At the same time, he served as Taiki's tutor.
"A white sun?"
"That's what weather like this is called. It is clear below as well." As Taiki looked no more enlightened by this explanation he added, "The storms beneath the Sea of Clouds have abated for a spell. The sunlight is reflecting off the snow covering the world below."
Taiki gazed again at the landscape shrouded in white light. It looked like rays of the sun streaming through the paper panes of a shouji door. It reminded him of waking up on a clear morning back in Japan, a place that seemed like a distant, foreign world to him now. He couldn't help feeling a brief pang of homesickness.
"There can't be a cloud in the sky and the weather must be perfect. It doesn't happen very often. We struck the jackpot today."
"Do you think the world below is visible from here?"
"Shall we go see if it is?"
Taiki answered with an enthusiastic nod. The Imperial Palace itself appeared like an island floating in the midst of the ocean. The world below should be visible through the enveloping Sea of Clouds, but come winter, that view disappeared as well as the storm clouds gathered and blocked the view.
Seirai laughed and reached out his hand. Taiki seized his regent's warm hand and looked up at him. "If we don't hurry, the clouds will probably close in again."
As if taking this information into account, Seirai smiled. "Well, I know a shortcut. Let's go."
Taiki agreed delightedly. He had a particular fondness for his regent's "shortcuts." Seirai made liberal use of the paths and alleyways otherwise reserved for the lower-ranked civil servants, at times even cutting through a shuttered palace or an official's courtyard.
Taiki was always impressed and curious that the Imperial Palace contained such places. All the more fun was ducking into the shadows whenever somebody crossed their paths, so as not to catch the odd bureaucrat by surprise.
This day as well, holding onto Seirai's hand, they stole through the nooks and crannies of the government offices, negotiating yet another "shortcut." Sneaking beneath the balcony of a stately manse, they emerged into a courtyard. A number of people were exiting a nearby building in the company of several kijuu.
"Taiho—" said a voice.
The surprised speaker came to a halt. Taiki quickly hid himself and came face to face with Seirai.
"We've been found out!"
"Well, I guess we've got no choice but to surrender peacefully and accept what we've got coming."
Grinning, Taiki and Seirai emerged from the thicket. Several armor-wearing soldiers appeared to be waiting for them on the adjacent cobblestones. Taiki recognized Ganchou and Asen of the Palace Guard and their kijuu. The one woman among them was Risai, general of the Zui Provincial Guard. As always, she was with Hien, her kijuu.
Because Senkaku of the Ministry of Earth was with them, they probably weren't going on military maneuvers. Behind them was Taiki's liege, all the more conspicuous thanks to his shimmering gray hair and ruby eyes and bright smile.
"The Taiho does have the habit of turning up in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times." At the head of the troop, Risai bowed to him and grinned broadly.
Taiki answered, "It's the weird weather. We were wondering if we could see the world below and came to look at the Sea of Clouds. Can I pet Hien?"
"Of course," Risai answered readily. "I'm sorry to have to say it, Taiho, but the skies being as they are, it is unlikely the Sea of Clouds will afford you much of a view."
Stroking Hien's fur, Taiki tilted his head to the side. "But there aren't any clouds, right?"
"Yes. Which means that the sunlight reflecting off the world below is all too blinding."
Taiki looked at Seirai with a disbelieving expression. Seirai averted his gaze, biting his lip to keep the mischievous smile from his mouth.
All of a sudden, Ganchou's big, boulder-like frame shook with orotund laughter. "Seems like Seirai here's been pulling a leg or two."
Hien whimpered in consolation as Taiki scratched the scruff of his neck. He sighed. "Seirai's a big meanie. Before, when I asked him what a 'prime minister' was, he said it was the person in charge of the Imperial babysitting services. Gyousou-sama thought it was a very funny joke."
"Considering the tongue-lashing he caught from His Highness afterwards," Asen laughed, "you could say that he was the one injured on the play."
Taiki smiled as well. Seirai chuckled.
Asen had long been a general in the Palace Guard, as had Gyousou before his recent elevation, and they had enjoyed a close relationship. Risai was on good terms with Gyousou as well. Ganchou and Seirai had been Gyousou's right-hand men. That special air of comity that attends any group of good friends surrounded them.
Laughing, Seirai urged Taiki forward. "Let's get out of here before His Highness boxes my ears. We probably won't be able to see the world below, but it is still a remarkable sight. The Sea of Clouds glows with a beautiful white light."
"While we're at it, can we go to the Forbidden Gate and see what it's like down there?"
They'd only come as far as the inner part of the Naiden. Going through the building Risai and the others had come from would take them to the Forbidden Gate.
Seirai raised an eyebrow. "It's pretty darned cold down there. A small guy like the Taiho would get froze through in no time at all."
"Just for a little while," said Taiki.
Gyousou stepped forward. He was the King of Tai and Taiki's liege. "I'll go with you."
Taiki was delighted, but at the same time felt himself a burden. The coronation had only recently taken place and the King was a busy man. He really didn't have the time to spend escorting Taiki around.
"You must have other things to do."
"Risai and the others could probably use the time to stable their kijuu. And I needed to see you anyway."
Encouraged by Gyousou's smile, Taiki's face as well split into a wide grin. Being around his incomparable liege always made him happy. He glanced over his shoulder at Seirai.
I'll be waiting here, Seirai's grin and upturned eyes answered him.