Taiki held onto Seirai's hand and walked further into the compound. They crossed through two courtyards and came to a temple, but found it empty. The temple simply couldn't be uninhabited. It appeared to be smartly kept. Fresh incense and flowers had recently been placed on the memorial shelves.
With no particular reason in mind, Taiki set off in a westward direction and then headed toward the "North" palace compound. They crossed a promenade and entered another courtyard, looked around, went onto the garden in the "North" palace compound and stopped.
Taiki stared at the pastoral view before him. He glanced up at Seirai. "It's a farm!"
"There aren't any farms in Hakkei Palace. Or is that something only found in the Koukyuu?"
"Not ordinarily, I don't think."
"They said there was some sort of civil war going on. I wonder if things got so bad they decided to plant crops inside the palace."
"Hard to say."
With Taiki clinging to Seirai's hand, they made their way down a dirt path between the magnificent vegetable gardens, the leafy greens practically forming a carpet beneath their feet. They rounded the corner of a shed. The pastoral view stretched out before them. Following the clean and orderly paths, they came across an enclosure of small trees arrange in neat rows, very much resembling an orchard.
"Seirai," said Taiki, pointing.
Signs of human life had at last appeared. A single farmer with a pair of pruning shears was at work beneath a tree bearing some kind of red fruit.
"Hey—" Taiki called out. He let go of Seirai's hand and ran toward the bright copse of trees. "Excuse me—"
A farmer dressed in a peasant's work clothes turned around. His eyes focused on Taiki and then on Seirai behind him. He smiled and wiped his brow with his sleeve. He added the branch he'd just cut to the small pile at his feet and raised his youthful face.
"Sorry for barging in unannounced. There was nobody at the gate and we couldn't find anybody."
This seemed to take the young man somewhat by surprise. "There wasn't anybody there? They must all be taking a siesta."
"We hate to interrupt your work, but do you think there's somebody here who could show us around? I—um, we—came from Tai. My name is Taiki."
"Ah," the man said, a friendly smile rising to his face. "I see. So you're the Tai Taiho. I heard you were a small fellow. It looks like the reports were right on the mark."
"And you are?"
"My name is Ou. Ou Seitaku."
"This is a really great garden."
The young man grinned. "You think so?"
"What's that red fruit called?"
"Red kashou. Here, have one—"
Seitaku casually reached out and plucked a glittering red fruit from a branch. He dunked it in a water bucket and wiped it off with a handkerchief. "Here you go, Tai Taiho. There are seeds inside, so take care."
"Sure." Taiki looked up at him. "Are you sure this is okay? Doesn't all of this belong to the king?"
"I grew it, so I don't see the problem."
"But won't the king get mad at you?"
A slightly perplexed expression came to Seitaku's face. "Well, I'm the king, so I think that unlikely." He placed the red fruit in Taiki's palm.
Taiki gaped at him. "You—you're the Royal Ren?"
Unsure of how to proceed with this information in hand, Taiki peeked over his shoulder at Seirai. Seirai stood rooted to the spot, eyes wide. Confused, Taiki turned his attention back to the grinning Seitaku. He'd studied the proper protocol for accepting an audience with the king in the Seiden. Nothing he'd learned had covered situations like this.
As if taking no note of Taiki's bewilderment, Seitaku picked another fruit from the tree and said, indicating Seirai with a glance, "Do you think this gentleman would like one?"
"Yes. I mean, no," Seirai stumbled.
"Ah, it isn't polite of me to keep you standing around like this. There's a gazebo no far off. Let's go over there."
Taiki nodded, because he couldn't think of any other way to respond.