Taiki and the others returned to Kouki a little more than a month after leaving Tai. The capital was buried beneath a blanket of snow. Taiki gazed down on the white mountains and valleys as they flew in a ragged formation toward the Forbidden Gate.
As soon as they dismounted, the gate attendants emerged and greeted them, their breath condensing in small clouds. Guardsmen were called, the kijuu were handed over to the soldiers, and the gate doors were opened in the quiet stillness.
Taiki said, "Ren really is different from Tai, and not just because of the weather."
Seirai laughed. "It surely is."
"Are you relieved, Seirai?"
Smiling, they passed through the Forbidden Gate and headed to the Naiden. Word of their arrival having preceded them, when they entered the Naiden, the ministers were already seated and the king occupied the throne.
Taiki couldn't help but sense a tenseness in the atmosphere as he approached the throne. He bowed low and said, "I have returned."
Gyousou nodded and beckoned for Taiki to join him. Taiki got up and stood next to the throne. Strangely, he felt as if he'd come back to the place where he belonged.
"And how was Ren?"
"The flowers really were blooming there."
"Were they?" Gyousou smiled. "You can fill me in later." He said to the Chousai, "The fine details can be confined to a written report. I know everybody else must be very tired. There's no need to dawdle here."
"Yes!" they answered with military precision.
When the Chousai had finished with his official duties, he congratulated Taiki. Sougen and the other delivered a simple account of their journey. As this was mostly a matter of going through formalities, Gyousou had the pearl-encrusted rattan blinds lowered, indicating that the audience with the king was over.
"You must be tired. We should call it a day. I'll take you to your room." Giving Taiki a gentle nudge, Gyousou left the Naiden.
"I'm okay. I'm not tired at all." There were mountains of things he wanted to talk about. "But I guess you do have work to do."
Gyousou chuckled. "Well, with Kouri finally coming home, I don't suppose anybody will mind if I take some time off."
Taiki immediately felt his spirits lifting.
"So what kind of people are the Royal Ren and the Ren Taiho?"
"They're really nice." Taiki grabbed hold of Gyousou's sleeve as they walked along and rattled off the details as quickly as he could. How they ended up barging into the Koukyuu, and how Seitaku's farm was smack dap in the middle of the Imperial Palace, and how in the morning Renrin came to deliver the wake-up call and air out the rooms and draw the water for them to wash up, and how this left Tansui and everybody all fit to be tied.
"The Royal Ren even let me help him when he was working on his farm—"
Gyousou interrupted him with a nudge to the back. "This way, Kouri."
"Eh?" said Taiki, glancing around. He was sure this was the right way to get back to Jinjuu Manor. He gave Gyousou a curious look.
Gyousou smiled. "This way."
Gyousou turned down the path to the Seishin. Assuming that's where they were headed, Taiki didn't give it a second thought. He prattled on about Urou Palace and what Juurei looked like and where they stopped in Ryuu and Kyou and Han on the way there. A month to Taiki was like forever. Explaining what had happened in the meantime seemed to him a way of filling in the time he'd been gone.
"And then Seirai—"
Taiki suddenly stopped. Gyousou had been guiding him along and now he found himself in totally unfamiliar surroundings. Looking around, he could see the Seiden of the Seishin. Next to the Seiden on the western side was what appeared to be a building.
"And then Seirai—?" said Gyousou.
They passed through the building and emerged into a small courtyard. Taiki stopped and stared. Tansui was standing at the gate to what Taiki took to be the main wing of the building. He thought that when they'd separated at the Forbidden Gate, Tansui had returned to Jinjuu Manor.
"What's the hold up?" Gyousou queried, giving Taiki a friendly push.
Taiki hurried into the building and uttered a surprised cry, finding there all the familiar trappings of his life, including the head housekeeper.
"What's going on?" he asked, turning to Gyousou. Before he'd left for Ren, Taiki recalled that Seirai had promised certain aspects of his life would see a "definite improvement" upon his return. "You mean, I'm moving here?"
"Assuming you haven't grown too fond of Jinjuu Manor."
Taiki couldn't avoid the fact that his face had flushed with delight. He would be right in the Seiden with Gyousou. That close. The Imperial Palace was so large that he normally couldn't say two words to Gyousou without taking a long hike. He'd always found it a disagreeable chore.
"But now it'll be a long way to your Provincial Offices in Koutoku Manor."
"That's fine with me. It won't be a problem if I hurry."
"Even hurrying, you still might not get there on time."
"Then I can run."
"That'd be an awful bother, day after day."
"It's okay. Besides, it'll be good for my health. I'm a growing boy, after all. This way I'll grow up even faster. Besides—"
Gyousou grinned. "You still don't like riding in a palanquin."
Taiki replied with a small nod. He just couldn't get used to the things. He felt he should be constantly apologizing to the people carrying him around on their shoulders. He could never relax in one.
"In any case, you'll become Tansui's pupil."
"There's a colt waiting for you as well. Tansui will be your instructor."
"Really?" Taiki jumped up and down. "You mean, I get to ride a horse?"
"That's right. You've already mastered riding kijuu, but flying kijuu around the Inner Palace has long been against the rules. And you're a bit small to be handling a kijuu all by yourself. I suppose you could travel in a palanquin atop a horse as you did on your journey, but that seems a bit silly, now, doesn't it?"
Taiki was too delighted for words.
"You did a good job putting up with all that travel."
"It wasn't that bad. Really. And there were so many fun things to do. Is it really okay for you to reward me like this?"
Of course it is, Gyousou's smile said. He headed up to the second floor. There was a warm, brightly-lit room enclosed with glazed paneled doors. The whole expanse of the gardens was visible from the room.
"This isn't all on your behalf alone. I wished to have you closer as well."
Taiki's eyes opened wide. In that moment, he couldn't help feeling he'd imposed himself on Gyousou. He'd been so lonely that Gyousou had gone to such lengths to show he cared about him.
"But—" He didn't want to appear ungrateful. And yet that Gyousou had thought it necessary to express his concern with so grand a gesture weight on his mind.
He was searching for the right words to express how he felt when Gyousou smiled wryly. "I'm not one for letting things work themselves out on their own."
Gyousou found a chair, settled into it, and motioned to the one next to it. Taiki quietly sat down. Gyousou said, "There are those of us who prefer to strike when the iron is hot. It is not necessarily a vice. But riding with a loose reign has never been a strong point. So I think it best that I see more of you."
"Like when you first came to Hakkei Palace and couldn't go five minutes without wanting to know what that was or what this did—somebody to talk to on a regular basis. Some ballast to keep me on an even keel. Somebody to take the kettle off the fire when it's boiling over. Else I'm liable to go firing ministers right and left and otherwise getting ahead of myself."
Taiki looked up at Gyousou, unable to hide the flabbergasted expression on his face.
Taiki shook his head.
"At any rate, we're going to kick back and relax while you catch me up to date on all your adventures. Gashin says that I've been so on edge of late that I'm scary to be around and pretty unapproachable."
"Gashin of the Zui Provincial Guard?" He'd previously been one of Gyousou's generals. Now he commanded the Zui Provincial Guard of the Right.
"He said being around me was like spending time with a hungry tiger."
Gyousou smiled wryly and Taiki grinned despite himself. Somehow or another, he had the feeling that this was exactly the case. He was Gyousou's watcher, and it was his job to make sure that the tiger got fed.
"Then I'll do my best to make sure that Gyousou-sama's stomach is always full."
"I'd appreciate it," Gyousou laughed. He suddenly raised his hand. "Ah, look at what else you brought back from Ren—"
Taiki looked at where Gyousou was pointing. There was a big plum tree overhanging the balustrade just outside the window. Two small white flowers were blooming on the branch closest to them.
Tai's long winter was finally drawing to a close.