12-7 Why had Taiki suddenly disappeared?
A cold chill made Risai shiver. As best she could remember, he’d vanished along with Kouryou ten days after they left Touka. They were in Sekijou in Kou Province. The general in Rouan died around the same time, the time of the first frost.
It was hard to believe, but was that what Taiki had sensed? Is that what he meant by “Heaven told me”?
The emperor has died. Choose the next.
“That could not possibly be true,” Risai groaned to herself. If it was true, Taiki would have told Risai straight out. He had no reason to keep something so important to himself. Theirs was a relationship where they spoke their minds.
In any case, Taiki didn’t have his horn. Could he really tell if Gyousou died?
Hurrying around and outfitting her horse for the journey to Rouan, the gloomy thoughts invaded her mind. Think about the situation in those terms and Taiki taking off like that makes sense.
Taiki and Risai had teamed up together to save Gyousou because saving Gyousou meant saving Tai. But if Gyousou was no longer emperor, saving him became meaningless. Moreover, if the new emperor was Asen, as the rumors suggested, continuing to accompany Risai and the rest of them became completely untenable.
“Asen? It can’t possibly be Asen,” Risai blurted out loud.
Impossible. Look at the state of Tai. Asen himself created all this chaos and ruin. He could not possibly become the next emperor.
But she could not argue away the growing feelings of unease. The sight of Rouan in the distance only intensified the feelings of melancholy.
They proceeded through the freezing cold ravines to the encircling ring of the gray barrier walls perched atop bare ridges, unblemished by even a spot of living green. The season transformed the narrow terraces cut into the steep mountainsides into fields of snow. Whipped up by the frigid wind, the snow swirled around the travelers like a circling pack of white wolves.
They entered the village with Seishi in the lead. He soon picked out a familiar face and called to him. The villager ran straight to the rishi. They followed and arrived just as an older man hurried out of the building.
“This is Boukyuu, the assistant village manager.”
Boukyuu looked at Risai. “Seishi-dono, this is—”
Seishi nodded. “We think it’s better to not identify her in public, only to say that she was close to His Highness. She has steadfastly searched for him throughout the ruins and wilds of Tai.”
Boukyuu bowed and did not raise his head. “I am sorry you missed meeting him.”
“You have no doubts that he was His Highness?”
Instead of answering her question, Boukyuu motioned them inside the rishi, to the stand in the corner of room which bore the effects of the deceased.
Risai squared her shoulders and examined the items. Nothing there sparked any memories. The only thing she could confirm was that the shard of armor belonged to the Palace Guard.
Risai shook her head. “Nothing looks familiar.” She turned to Boukyuu. “Did His Highness ever acknowledge himself as such?”
“Yes. Well, no. To be sure, he never referred to himself as the emperor.”
Risai looked down. “I’d like to see his grave.”
Boukyuu agreed, and called out to someone elsewhere in the building. An old man emerged and escorted them to the gravesite.
The grave was located outside the village a small way higher up the snowy mountainside. There a large boulder jutted out like an elevated platform, creating a small and serene spot of level land. A simple arrangement of rocks formed the modest burial mound.
A boy of twelve or thirteen knelt in front of the mound, his hands clasped together. Sensing their presence, he rose to his feet.
The old man said, “Oh, so you’re here.” To Risai, “This boy is—”
The boy spoke up before the old man finished. The old man only shook his head in exasperation.
“That man chose the characters for him,” the old man said with a smile. “The boy looked after him right up to the end.” With a formal bow, he returned back down the mountain.
“Looked after him?”
“What was his condition?” Risai asked.
The boy snapped his head back and forth. “Who are you guys?”
Seishi answered, “We’ve been searching for him.”
“But it appears we did not arrive in time,” Seishi said, kneeling in front of the grave. “I visited Rouan on several occasions. If only our paths had crossed back then.”
He’d suspected someone in the village was badly wounded. But he could tell the residents were in no mood to be interrogated about the matter and did not pursue those suspicions. He wished now he had conducted a more thorough investigation. He struck the ground in mortification.
“If you did that, he would have died all the sooner,” Kaisei said in a low voice.
Seishi raised his head. Risai as well gave the boy a puzzled look. She asked, “Because of his poor condition?”
“Milord caught a cold toward the end of the summer. It dragged on longer than usual. But he got better. That’s not what killed him.”
Risai drew closer. “He died because of his grievous wounds—”
“He had a lot of wounds. He never slowed down and gave himself time to completely heal. But nothing life-threatening. His condition was much worse before. He’d gotten better since I started taking care of him. Even Milord said he was okay.”
The boy’s face clouded with anger. He fixed his furious glare on the village below. “Because the word got around that people were looking for him. That’s for certain.”
“Looking for him?”
“Only what I happened to overhear so I don’t know all the details. Word went around the village that somebody was looking for him.”
The rest of them exchanged glances.
“They were based in Rin’u and traveled from around the countryside. That was you, wasn’t it?”
Risai let out a gasp. “People were spreading rumors about us?”
The boy nodded. “The adults caught wind of the rumors and got in a tizzy about what to do. Things could get tough if outsiders found out about Milord.”
Risai place her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Do you understand what you are saying?”
“I know,” Kaisei said, his voice shaking with fury. “Even I figured out that much. Milord mixed something into his food on the sly. When I asked him what, he said it was medicine. Because it cost so much, Milord insisted that nobody should go to that much trouble. That’s why he said to keep it a secret.”
Tears spilled his ‘s cheeks. “I was a fool and believed him. I should have tasted it for him. Then he wouldn’t have died.”
“You are fools too. Why didn’t you show up earlier? Now you’re too late. Milord is no longer in the world.”
“Kaisei,” Risai said again, shaking his shoulder. “Do you know who the person you call Milord is?”
“I know.” Kaisei shook off her hand and look up at her, eye blazing. “My defender and benefactor. My one and only lord and master.”
With that, he spun around and ran back down the hill.
At Seishi’s voice, Risai only nodded and watched until the boy disappeared out of sight.
“Is what he just said the truth?”
“Hard to tell.”
They had become the stuff of rumors. That was probably true. Risai had stayed too long in the same place. When that information reached their ears, the villagers understandably grew alarmed. They had no idea what sort of force they were up against.
“They probably thought we were one of Asen’s posses hunting down remnants of the Imperial Army.”
“Or the opposite,” said Houto. “They knew some sort of force was searching for His Highness and it wasn’t Asen or a specific military unit.”
“Then they’d have no reason to get all up in arms.”
“Not necessarily. The villagers no doubt expected that giving shelter to His Highness would pay off in the future. He was their legendary Kouin. A pearl of great price was lost in this land. If they got their hands on it and protected it, all their wishes would come true.”
Eventually Gyousou would arise. Or rather, when the forces that claimed him marched forth and toppled Asen, Rouan would become the heroes and saviors of Tai.
“Except the time is clearly not right for now.”
“Just like the Kouin,” Risai muttered. “Simply having it in your possession paints a target on your back.”
Houto nodded. “The rebels arise and cross swords with Asen. An uprising follows. At this stage, knowing his whereabouts, His Highness’s loyal retainers gather around him, also increasing the likelihood of Asen learning about his existence. That would spell the end of Rouan.”
Until now, Rouan had escaped the purges. The next time, they wouldn’t be so lucky.
Risai covered her face with her hands and took a deep breath.
“I know. If what Kaisei told us is true, then to the people of Rouan, it was an unavoidable choice.”
From the start, Risai hadn’t believed that Gyousou died. She couldn’t believe. Whatever sins Rouan had or hadn’t committed along the way were a distant concern.
Not only that, given the current conditions in Tai, with the kingdom itself teetering on the edge of the precipice, such actions could hardly be considered surprising. Just as it would be equally fair to conclude that Rouan sheltered Gyousou and the renegade soldiers with the best of intentions in mind. No one there demonstrated any animosity towards Asen. Rouan was not recruiting or quartering troops. No one intended to rise up in revolt. The village lacked the size and scale to do so in any event.
So even if they were covering for Gyousou and the soldiers, for the time being, she couldn’t think of any good it would do them. They were taking a great risk for only the distant promise of a reward.
Risai looked at the unmarked grave. Are you really sleeping down there?
Under a setting sun, they plodded down the trail to the foot of the mountain. The village gates would have closed by now anyway. Although Rouan did have a single inn where they could stay the night, none of them had any desire to do so. No matter the cold and the falling snow and traveling through the dead of night, they wanted to put distance between themselves and that grave.
With that shared thought on their minds, they urged their horses on, only leaving their saddles to rest halfway along the way. Half-frozen water coursed down a snow-covered mountain stream. The horses lowered their heads to drink, their breath raises clouds of white like billowing steam.
Risai said, “The two soldiers Seishi met didn’t make an appearance.”
“So it seems. I was told they left Rouan yesterday for parts unknown. I wouldn’t put a whole lot of credence into that story either.”
“What do you think, Seishi?”
Seishi shook his head. “To tell the truth, I don’t know what to believe. If somebody tells you about a man with white hair and crimson eyes, His Highness immediately springs to mind. Ask people if they know of anybody else who looks like that and they all say no. What else can they say? I’ve never heard of anyone with that appearance either. But His Highness can’t be the only one in the world. The possibility cannot be dismissed.”
“No, it can’t.”
“What we want to believe and what is actually credible get all mixed up together.”
True enough, Risai murmured. She sat there in the stillness and watched the horses drinking from the creek. She said, “We have a decision to make.”
“A decision?” Seishi asked.
Risai nodded. “If Asen really does become the emperor, what will you do, Seishi? Kyoshi? Houto?”
Caught in Risai’s gaze, the three responded with perplexed looks of their own.
“If Asen becomes the rightful emperor of Tai? Asen is our enemy, but overthrowing a new emperor would cause the kingdom to founder all the more. Rebelling against the throne is a crime to begin with. Would we nevertheless cling to our hatred for him?”
The three of them sank into silence.
“Or let bygones be bygones and support the new dynasty?” Risai turned her face into the cold, oncoming wind. “If Gyousou-sama died, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Kyoshi didn’t answer. If Asen really was the emperor, he would become an integral part of Tai itself. But Kyoshi had lost too much to Asen’s atrocities, too many friends and colleagues had died in the temples and monasteries set ablaze by his orders.
The priests and monks who allowed themselves to be captured and executed so he could escape—the people of Ten Shire who had made so many sacrifices and suffered so many privations in the era that that followed—those who died patiently waiting for a new day to dawn—all that pain and misery must be laid at Asen’s feet.
Kyoshi would never forgive. He would never forget.
He would never follow Asen, never respect or revere him. Should Asen reign upon the throne of Tai, Kyoshi’s only desire would be to run up to that throne and place every bit of blame where it was due.
But strike him down? Could he say that the emperor, so absolutely necessary to Tai, and now more than ever, truly had no use?
If the substance of his own mind was all that mattered, then Asen was useless. Kyoshi would say so to his face. But what was his worth to the kingdom and all the people in it?
After they descended the mountain, around the time they passed by the shuttered gates of Kohaku, the side door to the Rouan main gate opened wide enough for a head to poke out and peer into the darkness. After looking to the right and left, a small shadow slipped through the gap.
It was Kaisei. Bundled up in a hand-me-down cloak, Kaisei again examined the surrounding environment and didn’t see signs of any predatory animals or youma.
These mountain paths were dangerous at night. The people who came to visit the master’s grave left straightaway and hadn’t stayed overnight in the village, proof that conditions here weren’t as dangerous as the adults around him said.
We didn’t arrive in time.
They hadn’t arrived in time. Kaisei couldn’t do anything about that either.
He felt nothing but contempt for the adults who gazed down at his grave with sadness and regret. They had arrived too late, and now there was no way to mend their mistakes.
I’m not going to turn out like them.
So Kaisei would act.
You’re being reckless and foolhardy.
It was almost as if he could see the wry smile on his master’s face, hear his voice and that familiar song always on his lips.
South of the castle we fought
North of the walls we died
Perished like dogs at the side of the road
And ended up food for the crows