5-3 Relieved from the strain of all that stress, Kouryou now found himself keeping company with his own thoughts. A long minute passed, and then another. His confusion only deepened. Why were they being left alone like this for such a long time?
“What the hell is going on?” he grumbled with a good deal of pique.
The sunlight had long disappeared from the gap beneath the door. By now, a puzzled look had even risen to Taiki’s face. Finally reaching the limits of his patience, Kouryou strode toward the door. He was about to demand answers from the soldiers on the other side when the door abruptly opened.
Finding Kouryou right in front of him, the middle-aged government official pulled back in surprise and then hurriedly corrected his posture.
“Excuse me. You gave me a start.”
“Sorry about that. I was getting a little stir crazy in here and was going to pester the guards with some questions.”
The official, a man of small stature, bowed deeply. “I apologize for the long wait. My name is Heichuu. I am a valet with the Ministry of Heaven.”
This particular rank of valet waited upon the Emperor and Saiho and assisted them in the conduct of their personal business. The position was not unknown to Kouryou. Because of his commission in the Palace Guard, he had often associated with those who served the emperor. Still, the name of Heichuu did not ring any bells.
Though on second thought, that did make some sense. This valet didn’t belong to Gyousou’s retinue but Asen’s, and Kouryou would expect considerable turnover in Asen’s inner circle.
The valet turned to Taiki and bowed low to the floor. “It took some time to make ready your quarters. I apologize for the delay.”
He motioned for them to proceed to the door. The five soldiers posted outside the room were not wearing armor but regular military dress. They did not appear on edge or ready for a fight.
“Your kijuu were entrusted to the stables with instructions to take the utmost care. You have nothing to worry about in their regard.”
He indicated the end of the corridor. A soldier with a lantern led the way. Passing through a passageway hewn out of the rough rock, they exited onto long colonnade set into the face of Ryou’un Mountain. On one side was a white wall carved out of the bare rock. On the other, beyond the retaining wall filling in the spaces between the stone pillars, the vast expanse of sky was filled with glimmering moonlight. The Sea of Clouds hovered just above their heads. The countryside unfurled beneath them.
“There are several inquiries we wish to make of you but you must be tired. You should rest for now.”
Heichuu opened a door bored into the rock wall. Another long colonnade climbed up and down the side of the mountain before widening at the end into a portico. Beyond a doorway of solid wood decorated with black iron hardware, the portico merged into a small living room furnished with only the bare necessities.
At the back of the room was another heavily engraved doorway, and through that doorway was a space larger than the parlor in both width and depth. Facing the entranceway along the back wall was a set of folding screen doors inset with glass. The bright glow of the lamps illuminated the interior. The room was furbished with elegant furniture.
Having shown them to their quarters, Heichuu bowed deeply to Taiki while gesturing toward the couch. “Your dinner will arrive shortly. Please accept our apologies. These were the only accommodations available on such short notice. Rest assured they are only temporary.”
After several more deep bows, he backed out of the room as if yanked by a rope. Taking this as their cue, the soldiers who’d accompanied them shut the door. This time Kouryou clearly heard the clank of a bolt being thrown.
“Heichuu-dono—” a flustered Kouryou called out after him.
No answer came from the other side of the door.
More strange goings-on.
Kouryou looked around the room. Everything was perfectly arranged, the furniture and fixtures all of the highest quality. Kouryou crossed the room with long strides. Excepting the parlor, he counted four doorways facing the main room. Three of them led to finely accoutered bedrooms with luxurious beds. The fourth appeared to be a study, equipped with a large regal desk and shelves.
Opening the folding doors revealed a veranda as wide as the main room carved into the rock face. The countryside lay far below them. Covering the face of the veranda was a finely crafted latticework of iron bars.
What a nice jail cell this is, Kouryou fumed.
At the same time, the cause of his unease became clearer. Though Heichuu told them his name, he never asked for Taiki’s name and didn’t once refer to him as Taiho. Even while walking alongside him, Heichuu hadn’t asked Kouryou who he was.
They were below the Sea of Clouds. The heavens above the Sea of Clouds were home to the inner sanctum of the Imperial Palace. Here they were on the other side of the palace wall, so to speak. By rights, the Saiho did not live beneath the Sea of Clouds. For Taiki, the “Imperial Palace” meant the Enchou, the buildings that encompassed the Imperial Living Quarters of the Inner Palace and the Imperial Court of the Outer Palace. As far as Taiki was concerned, he had yet to be welcomed into the Imperial Palace.
How to explain what was going on? Pondering that question, Kouryou felt a cold night breeze sweep around him and closed the doors to the veranda.
Taiki glanced at Kouryou. He said with a small smile and a knowing expression, “You look like a man who doesn’t trust the direction he’s headed in.”
“That is indeed the case. Taiho, are you fine with all this?”
Taiki answered with a small shrug. “And by fine you mean?”
Kouryou swallowed the rest of the sentence. This was neither the time nor the place to question the state of their elaborate deception. The doors notwithstanding, soldiers might still be posted in the parlor. Nor could he dismiss the possibility that spies were eavesdropping on them.
Taiki sensed where he was going and said with a nod, “Impatience will get us nowhere. Let’s give things time to work out on their own.”
“Sure,” Kouryou agreed.
Having kicked the wheels into motion, as Taiki said, all they could do now was go along for the ride.
After that, Heichuu personally supervised the serving of their dinner, though he demonstrated not the slightest inclination to keep them company. Beyond uttering the occasional polite word with a courteous air, he said nothing of substance and studiously avoided answering any of Kouryou’s questions. When asked how long they were going to stay there, he only said that he didn’t know.
They could only conclude that Heichuu had been given sole responsibility for Taiki and Kouryou. He knew nothing beyond that. Asen wasn’t about to come bounding in, and neither was any other high official. The soldiers weren’t going to storm into the room for an interrogation. So no warm welcomes but no signs of impending danger either. They were very much being left alone.
Kouryou found it all incomprehensible. He could understand a cross-examination by a host of suspicious wardens. But simply being abandoned like this?
The status quo didn’t change the next day. Any question posed to Heichuu went unanswered. Kouryou tried striking up a conversation with the guards posted outside the parlor door and got nowhere.
“What in the meaning of all this?” Kouryou raged after another day of fruitless waiting.
Heichuu averted his gaze and said nothing while he gathered up the dishes from the evening meal.
“At the very least, you could show the Taiho some respect!”
For whatever reason, Heichuu responded to this request with a small bow. He delivered the dishes to the soldiers outside the door. In exchange, he brought in a tea tray and set it on the table.
“So this is how you behave in front of the Taiho, eh? Uncouth bastard.”
Confronted by Kouryou’s intimidating demeanor, Heichuu took an anxious step backwards. He was about to beat a hasty retreat out of the room when Kouryou stepped in front of him.
“Explaining what’s going on here is your responsibility.”
“I’m sorry,” Heichuu squeaked in a small voice. He stepped around Kouryou and headed for the door.
“Hey!” Kouryou grabbed him by the arm.
“Kouryou,” Taiki said in a soft voice, “You can’t blame Heichuu for any of this. Please show him more respect.”
Heichuu gulped a sigh of relief. Kouryou glared at him, then turned to Taiki. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense. This is nothing more than house arrest.”
“Something we can’t do anything about for now,” Taiki answered with a wry smile. “The fact of the matter is, the two of us are Asen’s enemies.”
“I’m sure being cooped up like this is getting on your nerves. Heichuu likely doesn’t know why either. And even if he did, it’s equally likely he was ordered to say nothing to us. Were he to strike up a conversational tone, he might well be seen as colluding with the enemy. Try to see things from Heichuu’s point of view.”
Taiki added with a nod to Heichuu. “Kouryou is concerned for my safety, you see. I hope you will take no offense at his actions.”
“Of course not,” Heichuu replied with a bow.
“Thank you for all you have done. Please take your leave and have a good night’s rest.”
With another bow, Heichuu proceeded to the door. But upon reaching it, he turned back. “Um—” he began hesitantly. He faced Taiki. “With all due respect, are you really the Taiho?”
“Yes,” Taiki responded simply.
Heichuu stood there like a statue in obvious consternation.
Kouryou said, “If he wasn’t the Taiho, who did you think he was?”
“I—all I was told was that he was somebody claiming to be the Taiho.”
“Ah,” said Kouryou, with the look of a man for whom everything was becoming clear. “He is most definitely the Taiho. You’ll have to take my word for it, though. I can’t exactly prove it to you.”
“Then Kouryou-sama is the Taiho’s bodyguard?”
“I was previously a regimental commander in the Palace Guard. The responsibility of being his defender fell rather unexpectedly into my lap. But I did know the Taiho before and had several opportunities to serve him in the course of my duties.”
“But if he is, as you say, most definitely the Taiho, then why is he being detained here?”
Kouryou gaped at him. “That’s what I want to know! Why is he being treated like this?”
Heichuu shook his head in a manner that suggested he had no idea why. If he indeed had been told Taiki was only claiming to be the Taiho, then someone somewhere must harbor doubts about his identity. The problem was, if that was the case, then why hadn’t he been handed over to that someone for questioning?
“It’s only natural that my identity should be in doubt,” Taiki broke in. “Though if I met with Asen-sama, all those questions could be cleared up in an instant. Please tell that to the people who sent you here.”
“Yes,” Heichuu said with an ambiguous nod and retreated from the room.
Taiki watched the door close and sighed to himself.
Kouryou was about to speak up when a look from Taiki and a shake of his head warned him otherwise. So Taiki as well sensed the presence of the soldiers stationed in the nooks off the parlor. Taiki was right to be on his guard about people listening in.
There was no telling whether the way they were being treated was a good or ill omen. Given this turn of events, Kouryou wanted to ask if Taiki could still come to the relief to the people as he hoped. He closed his mouth.
With a bob of his head, Taiki cast his eyes toward the veranda. The moon was rising in the cold night air. Across the countryside below, set aglow by the moonlight, the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn.