Taiki was scheduled to stay there for three days. He and his retinue were given an official reception and made an official appearance at court. But were otherwise treated as personal guests.
They were given the use of a wing of the guest palace. There and within the main gardens of the Seishin as well, the ministerial staff dispatched to the environs were limited to the minimum number of attendants and caretakers. Not to mention that Seitaku breezily gave them free rein of the Imperial living quarters without, it seemed, a second thought.
"It just can't be a good idea, them letting their guard down all the time like this," mused Sougen, who was having a hard time understanding what he was seeing.
The adults in general seemed ill at ease with all this ease. Taiki, on the other hand, was having a grand time. He didn't get all the stuff about ceremony and protocol. And even when it made sense, he wasn't used to it, and constantly had to be on his toes so he wouldn't screw up.
But it wasn't like that in Urou Palace at all.
"Perhaps they feel comfortable letting down their guard because the palace is so secure," Asen wryly responded.
Seirai sighed. "Secure or happy-go-lucky. The people of Ren seem a generous lot in any case."
"That's not a good thing?" Taiki asked.
Seirai's shoulders sagged a bit. "I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Only that it's hard teaching an old dog like me new tricks. I came up through the ranks as a military man. I'm an expert at following the rules to the letter and snapping to attention. When it comes to the opposite—"
Both Sougen and Asen nodded in agreement. "It's like we don't really know where you stand, so we don't stand very tall. The Taiho shouldn't be afraid to enjoy himself. This place seems to fit your character."
"It's not like I don't like Hakkei Palace."
"I know that. And it's not like I dislike Urou Palace. I mean, these past two days, I've watched Tansui get himself lost at least three times."
"That's true," Taiki grinned.
"And yesterday, Tansui was fit to be tied when Ren Taiho brought us breakfast and made us tea."
"I wouldn't go noising this around, but that's a state I've almost never seen him in."
Taiki giggled. Tansui was standing by the door pretending as he always did that he was overhearing none of this. Still, he did look a bit downcast.
"Well, I'm going to take off for a while," Taiki said.
He left the tall, grand building and Tansui followed after him without a word. Taiki headed straight for the "North" palace complex. When Seitaku wasn't busy with business, he could usually be found on his farm. When Taiki arrived at the fields, sure enough, there was Seitaku in his peasant garb.
"A good day to you!"
His utterly unaffected smile and manner always delighted Taiki. Given a minute of spare time during his official and ceremonial duties and here is where Seitaku would come. Taiki had been "helping out" from the start. Not so much really working as wandering around, and getting things for Seitaku when he asked for it.
Taiki had no experience doing any kind of farm work. He wasn't sure what even constituted "help" in the first place. Going this way and that and following Seitaku's directions wasn't a whole lot different from what he did back in Tai.
"I must be getting in your way a lot," he said, gathering up a pile of prunings he had run into and knocked over.
"Not at all," Seitaku's smile assured him.
Taiki had the impression that this king never stopped smiling. "I know I'm a pain in the neck, but since we have to leave tomorrow, I was hoping you could put up with me for another day."
"You're not a pain in the neck in the slightest. When I was a kid, I worked alongside the people in the village and learned the ropes the same way you are now." He added with a bright grin. "Ah, but I guess learning how to be farmer won't do you a lot of good. And here I am running you around in circles."
"It's nothing like that. I think it's really fun helping you out like this."
He was telling the truth. This was the first time he had ever seen farming up close, so he found it very interesting. It felt nice moving about in the warm breeze. Watching Seitaku working so energetically gave him a good feeling as well.
More than anything, Seitaku's easy-going attitude made him fun to be around. Taiki didn't understand the logic of this world or the reasoning of adults. Just being around adults all the time was the most stressful job he could imagine.
Taiki said dejectedly, "But I was thinking that if I was getting in the way, I could always go somewhere else—"
Seitaku tilted his head to the side. "Did something happen?"
"Something happen?" Taiki echoed.
"If I asked you to help me, then I shouldn't think that you were also in the way. So why would you ask such a question?"
"Because—I really can't do anything."
"You gathered up all those prunings, didn't you? Helped fetch the water, carried all that straw—"
"All I did was carry it."
"That alone constitutes help, doesn't it? When you talk like that, it makes me think you don't see yourself as being very useful."
Seitaku looked at him with his clear, warm eyes. Taiki nodded. "I don't want to think so, but I'm afraid it's true."
"Why is that?"
"Because I'm so totally useless. Not just farming. Everything. Gyousou-sama says it's just because I'm small, but I can tell I'm a disappointment to everybody."
"Really?" Seitaku asked. Taiki nodded his head. Seitaku patted him on the back. "Why don't we take a break?" he said, indicating a pile of hay.
"No, we can keep working."
"Well, I'm pooped. How about some tea?" Seitaku directed his voice at the levy bordering the adjacent rice field where Tansui had withdrawn to observe from a comfortable distance. "Hey, Mr. Bodyguard, would you like some tea too?"
Tansui waved his hand, declining the offer.
"Not a job I'd want to have, sitting around like that all the time," Seitaku said, getting out a big earthenware teapot. "I used to think it'd be tough being a bodyguard because it was dangerous. But times like this, when there's no danger at all, could be just as bad."
"Yeah," Taiki laughed. But the smile quickly faded. Staring into the teacup Seitaku passed him, he said, "So there's a difference between your job and your duty—"
"When I heard that, I thought it must be true. The duty of the kirin is to pick the king. I've done my duty. It'd be nice if I could just do my job the best I knew how. Except as Saiho, as Province Lord, I'm too small to really do anything."
"I've always thought the kirin's duty was to act with compassion."
"Not choose the king?"
"Choosing the king is one aspect of that, is it not? Choosing the ruler who will best serve the people?"
"So there's still a duty left for me to perform."
"I would say so."
"Then what is a kirin's job?"
"Taiki's job is to grow up." Seitaku smiled. "That's the job of every child, isn't it?" He plucked a red kasho from a low-hanging limb and placed it in Taiki's palm. "You've got a lot on your mind. And that's part of your job too. As is eating and sleeping and crying and laughing.
Taiki looked at the bright, red fruit in his hand. "But is that enough? The people of Tai are in a bad state. Tai is very cold in the winter. A lot of people are suffering amidst all that snow. Even though I'm Saiho and Province Lord, there's nothing I can give them. Just growing up with nothing to offer—"
Seitaku interrupted, "I'm no great leader of men myself. A mere farmer who can hardly make heads nor tails of politics and government. Renrin's got a talent for that sort of thing, so I leave it up to her. Looking after the crops and livestock is about the best I can do."
"Even when you're the king?"
"I guess so," Seitaku laughed. "That's why I built this farm. It's the one way I know to make myself useful. Having plowed under the royal gardens, and thinking about the time and effort it takes to keep things all shipshape, I thought I should do my part to defray the public expenditures of money. At the very least, it'd be cheaper and easier than buying from the stores in Juurei."
"So it's like you're paying your room and board."
"Exactly," Seitaku answered with an earnest nod. "You can't live without somebody paying for your upkeep. I'm a farmer, see? That duty was given to me by the kingdom. But there's no way I'd be able to pay the wages of all the officers and officials, or afford the silk ceremonial robes, or wine and dine the guests of honor. That's why even Renrin tells me that I cannot limit myself to what only I can afford with my own labor. It seems the kingdom would lose prestige in the process."
"That makes sense."
"As it turns out, I'm not all that useful either. But if there is a Tentei, then he surely would have foreseen my shortcomings."
Taiki gazed up at Seitaku, taken aback by this statement.
"If a farmer like myself is to be the king, then that must have what Heaven had in mind all along. So not doing anything must be what I was destined to do. Tending to a kingdom seems to me a lot like tending to my crops."
"Tending to a kingdom—"
"A tree will grow just fine if left according to its own devices. And perhaps a kingdom will too. The tree knows what's best for the tree. All I can do is lend a helping hand. If the leaves wither, for example, I take that as a sign to add water. I think a kingdom is much the same. In other words, that is the kind of husbandry Heaven was looking for, and that is why Heaven chose a farmer."
"And the Ren Taiho? When you're making yourself useful like this, how does she help out?"
"Not at all," Seitaku responded with a smile. "Renrin isn't a farmer. She doesn't know the difference between a weed and a flower, or when to water and when not to water."
"So there's nothing she can do?"
"Hardly," Seitaku said brightly. "She can take delight when the harvest comes in."
"That's all?" Taiki said disbelievingly.
"That is no small thing. When it's cold outside and I'm tired and working in the fields is the last I want to do, when I think of the harvest going to waste and Renrin's disappointment, I buck myself up and put my shoulder to the wheel." Seitaku gazed at the orchard. "I am standing watch over the kingdom. Watching for hints of a bad weather. Watching for wells running dry. That is the duty of a guardian. The Taiho watches me in the same way. Making sure I am doing my duty. Watching for signs of hidden rot. Having eyes to see is very much something."
Standing watch. Taiki turned the words over in his mind. "I could do the same thing. Just that."
"It's not just that. You're like your bodyguard there. Standing watch is no small responsibility."
He's right, Taiki thought, sneaking a peek at Tansui. At times like this, Tansui stood watch from a safe distance and kept his eyes peeled.
"Staying on your toes, keeping your mind alert—that's a pretty impressive accomplishment, don't you think?"
"Yeah," Taiki nodded.
"Do you think Gyousou-sama would be happy about me standing and watching?"
"Of course," Seitaku answered pleasantly. "I don't understand government or what kirin do, but when it comes to being a king and being a farmer, I get that. I think the Royal Tai as well will put a lot of faith in what you see with your own two eyes."
I wonder, Taiki said to himself. He had a hard time believing Gyousou would ever put such faith in a child like himself.
"If I am the watchman for this kingdom, then Renrin is the one who watches over me. Perhaps that is the true calling of the kirin."