Taiki said, "I'm sorry about taking you away from your work like this."
"Not a problem," Gyousou said with a smile and a quick backward glance.
He headed toward a set of doors that had just been opened. Beyond the doors was a large window. Beyond the window, the Sea of Clouds reached out to the horizon. Having been born in another world, this ocean above the sky remained for Taiki a strange and peculiar phenomenon.
He heard the soft murmur of waves. The sea was usually shrouded in a gray gloom, but today it glowed white. The surface of the water was the color of white pearls, glowing faintly as lit by lights lining the ocean floor.
With an excited cry, Taiki dashed to the window. Gyousou placed a thick coat across his shoulders. "You'd better wear this. It's freezing outside."
"But won't you get cold?"
"You don't need to worry about me."
Taiki couldn't help feeling a little guilty, but his delight in Gyousou's concern for him more than made up the difference. Running to catch up with Gyousou as he strode toward the staircase, he got tangled up in the long sleeves and was sent sprawling. Gyousou stopped and scooped him up in his arms, wrapping the long coat around him in a single motion.
"Still light as a feather."
"That's 'cause I'm a kirin, I think."
Taiki's true inner nature—which he hadn't truly grasped himself—was not human. A species of creature known as a kirin, his unique steel-black hair was actually a mane. And belonging to the genus of flying pegasi, his body was lightly built.
"Indeed," Gyousou said.
Bearing Taiki on his shoulders, he continued down the white stone stairway tucked into a corner of the room. The staircase was by no means short, but with every step they descended ten or twenty times that height in actual distance.
Oddities like this could be found throughout the Imperial Palace. Though amazed at first, Taiki had bit by bit become accustomed to such things. There were beasts—not birds—that soared through the air, a sea above the sky, people with every imaginable color of hair and eyes.
That was just the kind of world this was.
The broad, winding staircase exited onto a large hall. A huge set of doors were set into the front of the room. The guards on either side recognized Gyousou and Taiki and opened the gates.
Halfway through the gates, the needle-like wind and sharp rays of the sun seemed to press against them.
The Forbidden Gate was located halfway up the side of Mt. Ryou'un. It was set into an immense cave located on a high promontory adjacent to the Sea of Clouds. The unenclosed side of the wide, triangular terrace in front of the gate fell away into open space as if it had been interrupted mid-construction.
Taiki slipped out of Gyousou's arms. Firmly clasping his hand, he peered over the edge. The snow-covered city of Kouki spread out below them. The steep serrations of the surrounding peaks shimmered silver-white against the brilliant blue sky.
"It's pretty," he murmured.
The minute he opened his mouth, the bitterly cold air stung at the back of his throat and he coughed reflexively. In the time it had taken to cross the terrace from the Forbidden Gate, his skin was already growing numb. He could feel his eyelids freezing. The brilliance and cold made for an almost painful combination.
"It really is cold." The chill was already making it difficult to talk normally.
Gyousou nodded. "Tai is a kingdom of the far north. The winters come early here, as do the snows. The towns and villages are closed in by the snow. Clear days like this are few and far between. Located here in the heavens, the Imperial Palace mostly escapes the weather. But the ordinary people have find ways to live amidst all this cold."
"It must be tough."
"Loose your shelter and you'll freeze in no time. Once the hills and valleys get covered with snow and the ground freezes, there's no use digging for roots and tubers either. If stores laid up during the fall don't last the winter, you'll starve. And yet the harvest all depends on the weather. How well you prepare for the winter makes the difference between life and death. That's the kind of kingdom this is."
Taiki stared down wordlessly at the glittering city, white and icy and inorganic.
"We leaders of men who stand and stare like this fancy ourselves beautiful and undefiled, but at the same time we will act with ruthless inhumanity. Never forget that."
"Yes," Taiki responded with a nod, feeling a kind of quiet gravity replacing his giddiness.
Before long, hurried along by a gentle hand at his back, they returned to the Forbidden Gate. The grave mood didn't lift even after they had left the cold behind. The chill remained for a while in his hands and feet, his fingers and toes almost painfully numb. But that wasn't the only reason for the lump of ice that seemed to sit in the pit of his stomach.
"It was pretty cold out there, wasn't it?" Gyousou added in a more cheerful voice, "How someplace warmer?"
"Someplace warmer?" Taiki asked quizzically.
"Someplace warm where there's no snow and the flowers are blooming."
"But it's winter, isn't it?"
Gyousou leaned over and placed his hands on Taiki's shoulders and smiled reassuringly. "I'd like you to do a favor for me."
This statement only left Taiki more confused. He couldn't see the connection between "a warm place" and "a favor."
"I'd like you to go to Ren."
"Ren? The Kingdom of Ren? Way to the south?"
Gyousou nodded. "The Ren Taiho was a great help to you at Mt. Hou. I think it would be a good idea to thank her and let her know that the ship of state here in Tai is back on an even keel. But I simply do not have the time to spare."
"So you want me to go instead?"
"Under normal circumstances, a ceremonial mission would have been dispatched immediately following the coronation. But when we inquired, it seemed that Ren had been having some political difficulties. Though the disturbances had been brought under control, they found themselves a bit too preoccupied and asked to put things off for the time being. Things have apparently settled down, and so now I'd like you to pay a visit to the Royal Ren as my representative."
"By myself?" Taiki said a bit hesitantly.
"You'll have plenty of company, of course. I know it's a big job, but how about it?"