The next morning, Taiki donned his ceremonial garb. They went to the northern quarter of Juurie, passing through the Highland Gate into the soaring Imperial compound, and then to Urou Palace, the residence of the Royal Ren.
The party was met by the Daikoujin and his assistants from the Ministry of Heaven, who served as their guides. They passed under the Five Gates one by one. With each gate, tunnel, and flight of stairs leading them deeper in and higher up, they arrived at the gigantic, cloud-piercing mountain's third station, and then the fifth station, and then the seventh.
Climbing the final passageway to the Romon, the fifth gate, they were already above the Sea of Clouds, where the mountain peaks floating like islands. The expansive Inner and Outer Palaces and the layout of Urou Palace were much the same as Hakkei Palace.
The air above the Sea of Clouds was even warmer than the world below. The upper slopes of Juurei Mountain were less precipitous than Kouki Mountain, and the broad summit of the mountain spread out from the water's edge.
The Imperial Palace compound was larger than that in Tai, the buildings arranged in a spacious and relaxed manner. The spaces between the buildings, despite the time of year, were thick with verdant growth. The view aroused in Taiki a touch of homesickness.
Most of the large palaces and manors spaced among the luxurious green had their doors flung wide open. Many of the corridors and arbors were not fenced or walled in. Taken all together, it resembled what he'd seen at Mt. Hou during his short stay there.
Taiki and his retinue exited the Romon and headed to the Gaiden. In the center of the cool but cloistered Seiden was a resplendent throne. There was nobody on or anywhere near it.
The empty throne surprised Taiki and obviously confused Seirai and the others. But the Ren officials who had guided them there appeared even more taken aback. They looked at each other exchanging exasperated expressions, and cast flustered glances about the great hall.
A solitary officer came running from the deserted wings of the Seiden. He whispered something to the Daikoujin. The Daikoujin's eyes widened with surprise. After a heated back and forth between the two of them, he approached Taiki with a troubled air and bowed deeply.
"I'm sorry to have to communicate such disrespectful tiding to you. I hope you do not take offense, and I dearly regret having to trouble you in such a manner. But if you would not mind, I should like you to proceed somewhat further in."
"Somewhat further in?" queried Seirai.
Asen and Sougen looked at each other. Guests from another kingdom were typically greeted in the Visitor's Pavilion, situated in the western part of the Gaiden. Moving any further in would mean entering the Naiden. No matter how cordial the relations, even a king from another kingdom would think twice before doing such a thing.
"We were instructed to escort you to where His Highness happens to be right now," the Daikoujin explain, sweat beating on his brow.
Palanquins were hastily summoned and Taiki and his retinue were solemnly born further in. Passing the Inner Palace barrier, they entered the Naiden and continued on for quite a ways. Finally a pair of much higher and stouter barrier walls came into view.
"Um, Seirai?" Taiki whispered to his regent, sitting in the palanquin next to him.
"Wasn't that building we just saw Jinjuu Manor?
"Hmm—" Seirai answered in a perplexed tone of voice. "In fact, the thought occurred to me as well."
"Then wouldn't that make this the Roshin?"
"Well, yes, I guess it would."
"If we keep on going through the gate at the end of the Roshin, then we'll be in the Imperial living quarters?"
"Yes, indeed. But I can't imagine—" Seirai scowled. His forehead was growing damp as well. And it just wasn't due to the warm weather.
At the heart of the Imperial Palace, covering the peaks floating above the Sea of Clouds, the Imperial living quarters consisted of a number of small, city-like blocks of manors and palaces, accessible through multiple walls and gates.
The innermost buildings comprised the "North" palace compound, the Queen's residence. Just before it was the Royal Sleeping Quarters, called the Koukyuu, or "the Palace at the back." To the west of the Koukyuu was the "East" palace compound, including Choumei Palace and Kaei Palace, where the king's parents resided.
In the "West" compound was Godou Palace, home to the five species of holy birds, including the Hou'ou and Hakuchi. The Taibyou where the king worshipped—more specifically, Fukuju Manor housing the Roboku, where children and crops were prayed for—was also located there.
The Koukyuu, along with the East and West palace compounds, were together designated the Enshin. Because the Koukyuu was in the very center of the Enshin, it was often used to refer to the whole thing.
However, except for the "West" palace compound, the Koukyuu in Hakkei Palace in Tai was mostly shuttered. And even when it was open, the buildings in the Koukyuu aside from the "West" palace compound were hardly places where the Saiho could wander about as his leisure.
Even Taiki knew that much.
Except that the Daikoujin and his escorts had stopped right in front of the gate that lead nowhere other than to the Koukyuu. The palanquins were set down and they all bowed deeply.
"Ah, we are deeply sorry to have to say this, but we would ask that you proceed the rest of the way on your own. We are forbidden to continue any further."
"Umm—" said a flustered Seirai.
The Daikoujin interrupted him. "We were instructed to make the invitation. Please proceed as you are. I'm sure there will be guardsmen inside the gate who will take things from here."
"You mean for us to continue on by ourselves?"
The Daikoujin bowed and apologized profusely. The sweat poured off his face in small rivulets. There was no hiding the poor man's flustered state.
Taiki turned to his companions and said encouragingly, "He's says it's okay, and we were invited, after all."
"I guess so, but—" Seirai glanced back and forth between the inside and outside of the gate.
"Well, then," Asen finally said in a small voice. "It'd probably be best if the rest of us stayed behind. Going all together like this would no doubt be an imposition."
"Not at all," the Daikoujin said, raising his voice. "You were all to be included." He was practically wiping his sweaty brow on the cobblestones. "I understand that this must strike you as a severe breach of protocol, but please, go on."