Hills of Silver Ruins

Chapter 19

4-5 Risai, Kyoshi, and Houto left Sekijou and proceeded due north on the highway as planned.

They didn’t have to factor in the normal precautions to keep Taiki safe. At the same time, Risai’s regal kijuu couldn’t help but attract attention and she had been accused of regicide. They kept a wary eye on their surroundings and traveled along the highway doing their best not to stand out. As usual, Risai split with Houto and Kyoshi when they left the inn and flew ahead over the countryside where no one was likely to see her.

She had no concerns about traveling alone, but the routine grew dispiriting day in and day out. When she was with Houto and Kyoshi, she could turn her attention to the next goal and dismiss the storm of thoughts crowding into her mind. But waiting in the hills outside their destination for the evening rush to commence had the cumulative effect of weighing down her spirits

Her primary worries revolved around where Taiki was going, what he was up to, and if anything bad had happened along the way. Exacerbating her anxieties was the disposition of the passport given to him by the empress when they left Kei. He’d left it with Risai and didn’t take it with him. Should worse come to worst, that passport could prove a lifesaver, so she had to wonder whether he’d be all right without it.

He should be. Because Kouryou was with him.

p. 229

Like Risai, Kouryou was a veteran soldier. He had unsurpassed skills with hidden weapons and now carried a sword. Kouryou would see to it that attacks from highwaymen or youma or other misfortunes wouldn’t present too great a risk.

Even after doing her best to convince herself, the uneasiness remained. Taiki didn’t have a natural familiarity with the land. He didn’t know very much about Tai to begin with. As a taika, he lacked a commonsensical understanding of the world. That must be at the root of whatever was bothering him. If Risai were there with him, she could sense the particulars of the situation and do what was necessary to help. She wasn’t certain that, in her place, Kouryou would catch on to the same degree.

But she knew she was getting carried away with her emotions and was being foolish.

She knew well enough that the worry itself had become the cause of her worry. What it came down to was, she was terrified at the thought of him being out of her sight. She could no more let him to travel out of view than she could leave a precious gem at the side of the road. She felt anxious whenever he wasn’t within her grasp, and in order to rationalize that anxiety, she cast about for anything that might go wrong and counted up the reasons.

And that was why Taiki hadn’t consulted with her beforehand.

Even knowing that, Risai couldn’t help wishing he had said something to her before he quietly disappeared, had explained why he was setting off on a different course and with what goal in mind. She knew full well that if he had, she still wouldn’t have agreed to whatever he was planning to do. No explanation would have convinced her to let Taiki set off on his own. So he simply vanished without a word.

p. 230

No matter if she couldn’t trust Taiki and let him go—no matter if she couldn’t trust that Taiki and Kouryou would be okay—she already had no way of knowing where he was and no way of running after him. Worrying about him was pointless. While she was tormenting herself like this, there was a mountain of things she ought to be thinking about.

Even so, she couldn’t stop thinking about Taiki and the situation he was in.

What did he mean by saying he was hearkening to the Divine Will?

Taiki was a kirin. He had a direct connection to Heaven. Risai and the rest of them were never going to comprehend what that meant, except there must be moments when Taiki communicated with the Divine.

At the very least, he could have explained that much.

Risai felt something akin to betrayal. Not that Taiki had betrayed her. If anything, it’d be more accurate to say her expectations had betrayed her.

Though thin on the ground, the clues they needed to find Gyousou were not beyond their grasp. Those clues and Taiki’s return inspired a vague sense of hope. That’s what had betrayed her. She still believed they could save Tai. But doing so would not be easy. Even given the cooperation of many so many emperors and empresses around the Twelve Kingdoms, the salvation of Tai was a long uphill climb.

They’d returned to Tai aware of the gauntlet that lay before them. They first met the people of Touka and at last things began to move, though now that they were making real progress, it seemed more like a stumble.

p. 231

By and large, the Taoist temples were less than cooperative when Risai and her traveling companions showed up on their doorsteps. That surely had an effect. They’d depended on the Taoist temples since leaving Ten Shire. None were happy to see them. They weren’t treated badly but neither did the monks and priests offer any heartfelt thanks or words of support or encouragement. They didn’t go out of their way to help.

To be sure, the temples didn’t know who they were, where they came from, or what they hoped to accomplish. Enchou asked for their cooperation so they gave it. And it went without saying that every temple was doing its upmost just to stay alive. Risai and her party were simply another burden added to their backs that they could not refuse.

I understand all that.

Every day was another day closer to their ultimate goal. Every day they put behind them was another day of accumulated fatigue. Another day passing through a ravaged city, witnessing the worn and weary faces of the displaced inhabitants, encountering another pair of shuttered village gates and crumbling hamlets that showed no signs of coming back to life. Fallow lands lined with graves.

Like it or not, the mornings and evenings growing colder and the daylight shorter could not help but constrain her emotions.

Risai crossed Kou Province and reached the border with Bun Province. Before her was a relatively large city. Behind her were the soaring mountains of Bun Province she had recently surmounted. She was undoubtedly drawing closer to her destination. And yet she felt no closer to her hopes.

Again, more a stumble than a leap. At the heart of that emptiness was Taiki’s absence.

What was Taiki thinking and where had he gone?

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