5-4 Kouryou awoke the next morning to a cool draft and the faint sound of something moving about. He reached for his sword. A quick glance from the couch in the living room to the entranceway confirmed the door was closed. He breathed a silent sigh of relief. Taking another look around the living room, he saw Taiki walking to the veranda.
Startled to see Kouryou sitting up, Taiki stopped in his tracks. “Good morning. Looks like I woke you.”
He said so apologetically though Kouryou was the one who felt abashed. Because he hadn’t even heard Taiki leaving his room.
“Going outside? It’s cold out there.”
“I’ll be okay. You can go back to sleep.”
Taiki stepped onto the veranda. Kouryou released his grip on the sword and sighed again. Something was bound to happen sometime but he had no idea what or when. The parlor door could be locked from the outside. There was no way to lock it from the inside. The door swung open into the parlor so securing it from inside the living room was practically impossible.
Anybody could walk right in whenever he wanted to. That’s why Kouryou slept in the living room. And still he hadn’t heard Taiki get out of bed.
What am I going to do about this?
He was getting rusty. Those six years of idleness had taken the edge off. His senses were razor sharp when he first went on the lam in Bun Province. In the intervening years, wandering here and there, that state of alertness had dropped off to a considerable extent. Considering the little distance that separated them, the Kouryou from six years ago would have been wide awake the moment Taiki opened his eyes.
This was no different than the kind of situational awareness required on the battlefield when a night attack was in the offing. And yet Taiki had made it to the veranda door before he woke up. Kouryou felt as sluggish as an earthworm.
Supposing that Taiki had taken all due precautions and concealed his presence to keep Kouryou from taking notice, a true soldier still would have been wide awake as soon as Taiki got out of bed. Remaining able to draw on those inner reserves of strength while maintaining that level of vigilance was the ideal.
Aside from how possible such an ideal actually was, that it ought to be went without saying in the military. Kouryou had once achieved it for himself and sought it out in his subordinates.
Just how wretched a condition is this body of mine in?
“Pull yourself together,” he scolded himself. Right now, he was the only person who could protect Taiki. It was no exaggeration to say that by doing so he was protecting all of Tai.
These thoughts on his mind, Kouryou followed Taiki onto the veranda. Taiki glanced over his shoulder and gave Kouryou a pensive look. “Something wrong?”
He tapped the latticework. The surface of the black iron was wrapped in a white shroud. Frost. The season was turning inexorably toward winter.
Kouryou put a hand on Taiki’s back and nudged him back into the living room.
“So it’s finally time for the frost to fall. Seems a little late this year.”
“A little late?”
“I haven’t seen frost on the ground until now, later than most years. Come to think about it, this year has been a bit warmer than most.”
“You don’t say,” Taiki mumbled to himself. His shirt was cold to the touch. A cold wind blew across the veranda.
A fire wasn’t lit in the living room. Kouryou at least wanted to get Taiki something hot to drink but that meant waiting for Heichuu to show up. He didn’t even have a warm tunic to wrap around him. Neither of them carried much in the way of clothing. They hadn’t packed with winter in mind.
“Is it still warm in Hourai this time of year?”
“The mornings are usually cool, though it still gets warm during the day.”
“Quite a different world. What time of the year does snow begin to fall in Hourai?”
“Around December. But I don’t think the calendars match up exactly. When I returned from Hourai, the calendar was a month off.”
“Huh,” Kouryou muttered. He hadn’t imagined that even the calendars would be different.
Taiki said with a soft laugh, “The last time I was here, I was really surprised when it started snowing in October. I thought at first that winters came early in Tai. But that was because the calendars didn’t match up. It was more like November in Hourai. Though snow falling at the beginning of November in my home town is almost unheard of too.” He grinned. “As a child, I remember feeling how strange it all was, and yet I accepted it for what it was. For a kid who grew up in Hourai, everything around me was aglow with fantastic and wonderous things.”
“Aglow with fantastic and wonderous things?”
“And strangest of all were the kirin. When I was told that they were beasts at heart and could at any time revert to that form, I was completely dumbfounded.”
“Yeah, I think I can see where you’re coming from.”
As a human being, Kouryou had no difficulty imagining how bewildering such a revelation must have been. The kirin weren’t the only creatures who could transform from human to beast and back again. The hanjuu could too. But attempting to grasp what that actually involved always left him with those feelings of the mysterious.
Kouryou abruptly asked the question on his mind at that moment, though he did so with all the nonchalance he could muster. “Taiho, did you perhaps think this world was a bizarre place?”
“Not at all,” Taiki said with bright eyes. “Quite the opposite. I thought all the fantastic craziness was really fun.” He added as a casual aside, “Mount Hou in particular is both a beautiful and a pleasant place to live. Thinking about it now makes me kind of nostalgic.”
Mount Hou was the holy mountain where the kirin were raised.
“Nostalgic, eh?” Kouryou responded when a voice rang out from beyond the door. Heichuu had arrived with breakfast.
Kouryou opened the door to find Heichuu there as expected. This morning, a female attendant accompanied him. The two of them bowed to the floor at the door before proceeding into the living room.
“I brought with me a lady of the court to be at your service.”
Heichuu glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind him. The court lady appeared to be a woman in her forties. Her plump cheeks lent her a warm and pleasant demeanor
She knelt and identified herself as “Shouwa.”
“Shouwa,” Taiki echoed, with a tilt of his head.
“Yes,” the woman responded. She lifted her head and looked at Taiki with unblinking eyes. A moment later, those eyes filled with tears. “Taiho—are you doing well?”
As soon he heard her voice, Taiki jumped up and ran across the room and fell to his knees in front of her. “You’re Shouwa? The tenfukou?
The tenfukou were the ladies-in-waiting who looked after high-ranked officials. They handled the many small but necessary chores that cropped up in the course of their daily lives.
“Oh my!” Shouwa exclaimed. “How this brings back the old days. Just look how big you’ve grown!” Daubing at her eyes with her sleeves, she began to weep in earnest.
Taiki placed his hand on her shoulder. “I am pleased to see you safe and sound after such a long time.”
“Oh, I worried about you so much. There’s nothing wrong with you, is there? You’re eating and sleeping well? You don’t feel out of sorts, do you?” She again faced him squarely. “What a fine young man you’ve become! Nothing in this world could have made me happier. Though I can’t help regretting that I wasn’t there while you were growing up.”
Shouwa buried her face in her sleeves. Looking on, Heichuu let out a long sigh and sat down on the floor next to her as if the energy had suddenly drained out of him.
“You really are the Taiho?”
“Of course he is!” Shouwa said with unexpected vehemence. And here he is in a room more like a jail and without any of his attendants!”
“Ahh—” Heichuu was literally at a loss for words.
Shouwa dried her tears with the undersleeve of her kimono. Then she bounced to her feet and strode to the soldiers behind her and retrieved the serving trays from them.
“It was cold this morning so the breakfast is cold as well,” she said, briskly arranging the dishes on the table. “I see no one has stopped by to clean the premises. And these gentlemen are wearing little better than rags! Heichuu-dono, please see to it that these matters are taken care of.”
“Oh, yes. My apologies.”
The care of the kirin was once entrusted in its entirety to these ladies-in-waiting. Taiki was a child at the time, having left Mount Hou a short time before. While at Mount Hou, he’d been attended to by the muses of Mount Hou, the female sages charged with raising him. With that in mind, Kouryou heard that Gyousou instructed Taiki’s ladies-in-waiting to create as similar an environment as possible.
Alas, Shouwa explained, most of the women who once served Taiki had long since left the Imperial Palace
The shoku occurred six years before on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Here and there—that enchanted and magical country known as Hourai—mingled together and swallowed up Taiki. The shoku caused tremendous damage in Tai. In Bun Province at the time, Kouryou heard that many buildings were wrecked and government officials injured.
The court ladies were in a house adjacent the living quarters—Taiki’s home at the time—and were spared any injuries. But with Asen’s subsequent rise as the pretender, they scattered to the four winds.
Shouwa said as she served them, “Asen said the emperor was dead and Taiki had been swept away by a shoku and would never return.”
Asen claimed the shoku that stole Taiki away appeared completely out of the blue. But rumors soon spread that the shoku was a meishoku, triggered by a kirin in extremis. If that was the case, then Asen must have been the attacker. The ladies-in-waiting who cared for Taiki opposed Asen with one voice. As a result, some were punished severely, others were stripped of their titles and positions and expelled from the Imperial Palace, and the rest eventually left of their own accord.
Shouwa stayed at her post, even while weathering a storm of severe censure. She did not bend a knee in the slightest to Asen. As a reward, she was relegated to the kind of menial chores usually handled by maidservants and houseboys.
At the time of the shoku, many of the servants who weren’t listed upon the Registry of Wizards were badly injured. It was up to the government officials who had served Taiki and Gyousou to fill the ranks. Or so the reasoning went.
Shouwa once worked in the Zui Province Ministry of Heaven. She was appointed a lady-in-waiting and personally attended to Taiki. Now she spent most days washing dishes for the cooks in the palace kitchens.
“Life’s been pretty hard on you.”
“It was all but a passing shower once I was able to see you again.” Shouwa picked up the teapot, a smile dimpling her face. “Nothing could make me happier than being able to serve you as I once did.”