3-3 Kouryou pushed his pack beneath the bed. “Don’t hold back on my account,” he said.
Likewise removing his traveling clothes and arranging his luggage, Houto shot a puzzled look over his shoulder.
The residence they’d repurposed as an inn had but a single main building on the small side, with two bedrooms on either side of the narrow central hall. Two detached wings surrounded the courtyard to the right and left, though one was a shed and the other a store front facing the street.
The establishment once belonged to a grain merchant. Perhaps that explained why the structure as a whole was large and solidly built while the living quarters were limited to these two rooms. Taiki and Risai occupied one. Kouryou, Houto, and Kyoshi were bedding down in the other.
“Anyway, shouldn’t Kouryou-sama being staying with the Young Master? The other room is bigger. And—”
“Here is fine,” Kouryou said, cutting off the rest of Houto’s argument.
“But—” Kyoshi said, raising his voice in his usual reserved manner. “This may not be the most polite way to phrase it, but Risai is missing her right arm. However unlikely the event, just in case something bad were to happen, shouldn’t Kouryou-sama be staying with them?”
Kouryou waved his hand dismissively and said for the umpteenth time, “Enough with the sama.” He added with a wry smile, “This is one of those situations where three really would be a crowd. Besides, I shouldn’t have to point out that a Taoist monk expressing such concerns might raise suspicions among the wrong sort of people.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Kyoshi said with a bowed head.
“Besides, don’t go underestimating Risai-sama’s abilities. While she may rank her own skills on the rusty side, she was a general, after all, and she’s still good enough to place her among the best of the best.”
Swordsmanship did not arise solely from physical ability. Using a sword in close combat depended on sharpening the five senses such that conditions on the ground could be grasped in an instant. It required a state of mind able to calmly assess those conditions. And it demanded the courage to take the next step into danger even while all those factors were coming together
In every one of those particulars, her skills had not languished in the least.
“We all walked different roads to get where we are. She rose up from the ranks. Push come to shove, in a fair fight, she might have the better of me.”
“Is that really the case?”
“My specialty back in the day was the halberd and the lance. If had enough confidence with a sword, I wouldn’t use concealed weapons.”
“The lance. Kouryou-sama—Kouryou—you’re familiar with stick fighting?”
“I am. Why?”
“I was hoping you could teach me.” Kyoshi made this request more forcefully than initially intended and added in a more subdued tone of voice, “Of course, it’s unlikely that a little more practice will make me any more useful in that regard. At the very least I’d like to know enough not to be burden if and when the times comes.”
Kouryou grinned. “No trouble at all. Either Risai-sama or myself would be happy to be your sparring partner.”
“Not a realistic option for her these days but back in the day she knew her way around a lance. No cavalry officer worth her salt will get on a kijuu without first mastering the bow or lance.”
Listening in on the conversation, an intrigued Houto said, “So that’s what it comes down to. Incidentally, are you sure you’re okay bunking with us? We won’t take it personally if you want to move to the other room.”
“Like I said, I’m fine here. Do you really find my presence that much of nuisance?”
“Not at all.” Houto waved his arms as if to swat away the implication. “I meant nothing of the sort.”
“Well, if I’m not, then I’ll stick around. Frankly, talking with the Young Master is like pulling my own teeth.”
“You too?” Kyoshi said, his eyes widening.
“The fact is, starting conversations with people is the kind of thing I’ve spent most of my life avoiding. Forcing myself to talk to someone out of the blue sets my nerves on edge.”
Kyoshi smiled. “And here I thought I was the only one. It’s a relief to know I’ve got company.”
“If you ask me, Houto here is the real mystery, the way he can talk up a storm without a care in the world. I’m truly impressed.”
Startled, Houto said, “Ah, so that’s what you meant by no holding back on your account. Of course, I can’t help feeling overwhelmed myself, but nothing’s going to happen if you don’t start talking.”
“Well, nothing’s happening in my case. Though I can’t speak for Risai-sama.”
“So that’s what it comes down to, eh?” Houto said with a grin. “I won’t deny I have a hard time getting a read on him.”
“I’m a commoner down to my bones, you see. I haven’t once caught a glimpse of what lies above the clouds. I never spent much time trying to imagine the sort of the folks who live there. But if I did, well, I might have imagined someone a bit more meek, softer, and more delicate.”
“He has certainly changed. I guess guileless was the main impression I came away with way back then.” Kouryou added with a wry smile. “Then again, the Young Master was a child the last time I saw him.”
“Only natural for a big change to come of that.”
Houto chuckled and so did Kouryou.
There was a time when Kouryou saw Taiki on a regular basis. He was attached to the Palace Guard of the Center. As such, his duties often brought him into contact with the Taiho. Not such much in a personal way. Only once had they conversed directly, when General Eishou brought Taiki a pony and Kouryou accompanied him.
General Eishou had a horse breeding center on his estate renown for the quality of its horses. Gyousou had discussed getting a horse for Taiki, so Eishou arrived with the finest pony in his stables. Eishou, the bearer of the gift, made the presentation. Kouryou had the honor of taking the pony by the reins and presenting it to Taiki.
Taiki thanked him and then asked, “It is a gentle horse?”
As Eishou was the man making the decisions in this regard, of course he settled on a pony with a mild disposition and had trained it thoroughly. Even when on a lead rope, the pony exhibited no skittishness or willfulness.
“A very gentle horse.”
“Aren’t horses sensitive animals?”
Seven years had passed since Gyousou’s accession. The enthronement ceremonies complete, they were seeing in the new year. Kouryou’s recollections placed these events shortly after that. Taiki was eleven years old at the time. His young eyes glittered with excitement, though he gazed at the pony with a palpable sense of wariness.
“Very much so. But this little horse has a big heart. No need to feel nervous around him at all.”
“Is it okay if I pet him?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
The young Saiho reached out his hand toward the pony. The horse didn’t shy away. Rather it turned its curiosity filled eyes to the Taiho. Not only bighearted but it had an outgoing personality as well.
Perhaps tickled by the downy hairs of the pony’s muzzle, Taiki giggled. Kouryou’s clearest memory of him from that time was his cherubic smile. If those memories served him correctly, Taiki had only recently returned from his trip to the Kingdom of Ren as Gyousou’s envoy.
“Only natural, eh?” Kouryou said to himself.
Houto craned his head to the size, a quizzical expression on his face.
“Well, no. More likely because he was attacked by an adult he had every reason to trust and suffered a grievous wound as a result.”
Whenever Kouryou recalled Taiki’s sweet smile on that day, the cruel turn of fate that followed weighed heavily on his heart.
“No small wonder that the many hardships he suffered after that should cast a shadow on his soul.”
“Attacked—” Houto muttered. “I heard the Taiho had been killed. In fact, it was considered a matter of public knowledge at the time.”
Kouryou shook his head. “I doubt you’ll find any official reference to the Taiho in the public record.”
Kyoshi agreed. “The only formal pronouncement declared the demise of the emperor. Not a single word about the Taiho.”
That was why the inauguration of a provisional government seemed a natural development, the assumption being that it commenced with the approval of the Taiho.
“However, the conduct of the provisional government grew increasingly strange. Suspicions arose that a pretender had usurped the Imperial Court. In that case, the question debated even within the precincts of Zui’un Temple was what had become of the Taiho? Some wondered if the Taiho was dead. But that appears not to have been the case.”
Despite the close relationship between Zui’un Temple and the Ministry of Winter, their combined efforts yielded no new information about Taiki. The one thing they knew for certain was that not a single person claimed to have seen Taiki in the Imperial Palace. No one had met him or caught sight of him or even heard rumors about somebody else encountering him.
“I heard that a disaster struck the Imperial Palace. Might have been a shoku.”
Kouryou nodded. “I was in Bun Province at the time so I can’t vouch for what actually happened. But that’s what I heard too. After the shoku, all news about the Taiho ceased.”
“Some rumors said the shoku swallowed him up and transported him to places unknown. And at the same time, rumors spread that he’d been imprisoned somewhere.”
“That fact of the matter is, the Taiho himself caused the shoku.” Risai told him so the night before during a late-night discussion together with Taiki about how they would proceed next.
“His Highness had headed to Bun Province. The Taiho stayed behind in the Imperial Palace. He had his shirei—youma he’d subjugated as his bodyguards—to protect him. Told a pack of lies, he dispatched them to Bun Province to watch over the emperor.”
Most kirin had a multitude of youma in their retinue serving as shirei. Taiki only had two. Risai said this was because Taiki was a taika born in Hourai. Convinced to send his only two shirei the guard the emperor, the young Taiki was left completely exposed to Asen’s attack.
“Asen attacked the Taiho with a sword. In that split second, a shoku became his only means of escape. It’s called a meishoku, a small shoku triggered by Taiki in dire circumstances.”
“Unbelievable,” Houto exclaimed in unbridled indignation. “Was he hurt?”
“His horn, I was told.” Kouryou pointed at his forehead. “The Taiho is at heart a kirin. When in kirin form, he has a horn in the middle of his forehead. Asen’s attack struck that horn.”
“Don’t tell me Asen severed the horn from his head! A child of only ten or so.”
Kouryou nodded. He could not bring to mind the image of the young Taiki without shuddering in horror. Asen faced the child, raised his sword high over his head, and swung down with great force.
“A grave injustice to be inflicted on any kirin, let alone our kirin.”
The kirin was a divine guardian of the people. Under normal circumstances, an ally of the people who served them with compassion. The people were cognizant as well of the emperor as a link to that charitable impulse.
“The Taiho instantaneously triggered a meishoku and fled. Within that shoku, he was swept away to Hourai.”
“To Hourai—” Houto repeated in amazement. He looked at Kyoshi. Kyoshi agreed with a nod.
“The Taiho himself said he didn’t know the way home.”
Kouryou recalled Risai’s explanation. “To be precise, with his horn severed, he lost that sense of himself as a kirin. By nature, kirin can freely travel between here and there. Deprived of his powers and his memories as a kirin, the Taiho could not return.”
Houto blinked in confusion. “I don’t really get it.”
I don’t either, said Kouryou’s grim smile. Even after the explanations he’d been given, he still didn’t understand. He really wasn’t sure what a kirin was in the first place. What he did understand was that Taiki couldn’t get home according to his own devices. Asen’s actions had robbed him of that ability.
Houto let out a long breath. “Still, lucky it was Hourai, right? Bad men couldn’t pursue the Taiho there. And Hourai is the best possible place where any of us could hope to end up.”
Houto was referring to the popular myths and legends—that Hourai was the blessed land of the wizards.
Kouryuu’s grim smile now took on a bitter edge. “Turns out that Hourai isn’t necessarily a blessed land of the wizards either. The Taiho suffered a severe bout of esui while he was there.”
“Apparently a disease that afflicts kirin, brought about by contamination of blood and long-harbored grudges.”
“You don’t say.” Houto’s jaw dropped in surprise and even Kyoshi’s eyes opened wide.
“The Taiho couldn’t return here by his own power. Far from it, day by day, the esui ate away at his lifespan. But Risai-sama made her way to the Kingdom of Kei and petitioned the Imperial Kei, a fellow taika. The empress agreed to search Hourai for him. Starting with the emperor of En, they enlisted the assistance of several other emperors and empresses, and eventually were able to secure the return of Taiki. Alas, because of the wounds received at Asen’s hand, he cannot transform into a kirin, or command his shirei, or sense the location of the emperor.”
“Does not that put him in a highly precarious position?”
“Very much so.”
“If his presence was revealed to his enemies, they would surely attack him again. Makes you wonder if returning to Tai was really his best option.”
“That is what the Taiho desired. He insists that Tai must be saved.”
But simply returning to Tai did not mean anything in and of itself. As Taiki said himself, he could perform no miracles that would transform Tai. For the time being, Taiki was merely a powerless young man. Perhaps he would have been better off staying behind in Kei. However—
“As long as the Taiho was not here, the current state of affairs would not change.”
Kouryou didn’t even think that Risai returning to Tai and proclaiming that Taiki was alive and well in Kei would have made a difference. He felt keenly that Taiki standing there in front of them was what set everything in motion.
Six empty years had passed since he’d last seen that dazzling and cherubic smile. Looking back on that day now, that smile preceded the tragedy by only days. News of the uprising in Bun Province arrived one day after Eishou and Kouryou presented the pony to Taiki.
Gyousou had ascended the throne as the new emperor only a year before. Province lords had been dismissed and others appointed. A campaign to suppress the tyrannical rule of the local rebel groups began in earnest. This prompted a backlash from the rebels, who raised clenched fists and launched a full-scale rebellion.
The province lords dispatched their militaries to bring the situation under control. The rebels amassed weapons and fought back. These ongoing skirmishes had long constituted the status quo in Bun Province. But as Gyousou’s first official year as emperor ended, the rebels overran and occupied Kohaku. It became clear that only a direct assault would dislodge them from their strongholds.
The province formally dispatched the provincial guard to Kohaku with orders to drive the rebels out of the city, an objective that remained elusive even come the new year. The conflict took on the appearance of a drawn-out war. Reports of an insurrection in Bun Province soon reached the capital.
Gyousou decided at once to dispatch the Imperial Army. The orders came down to the Palace Guard of the Center. They were to join forces with the Bun Provincial Guard, suppress the rebel groups instigating the uprising, liberate the city, all the while safeguarding the citizenry.