7-6 When the Imperial En arrived at the outskirts of the city, he put his fingers to his mouth and sounded a high whistle.
Walking all the way to Kankyuu would take another month. Moreover, at night, there was no getting in or out of the city. Youko was trying to figure out how in the world he was planning to get to Kankyuu when, in response to the whistle, a shadow appeared above the wall. She could make out the glowing forms of two tigers. The play of light on their coats turned their black stripes an iridescent white, not as pale as pearl, not as impenetrable as a slick of oil. Their impressive eyes were like black opals, their tails magnificently long.
As on that very first night when she’d crossed the Kyokai, Youko climbed onto the tiger. They flew into the night sky, a half moon rising, and turned toward Kankyuu.
She felt a deep nostalgia. Looking back at it now, how much time had passed since then? She had ridden on one of Keiki’s shirei, by the name of Hyouki. When they’d headed out over the ocean, it was still cold. The Youko then didn’t understand a thing, not about Keiki, not about herself.
Now it was summer. The heat rested like a blanket on the night, the air around them so still as to seem melancholy.
Just as on the night she’d crossed the Kyokai, the nightscape opened up below them as the beast galloped through the sky. The nights in En were bright, the villages and hamlets twinkling like small constellations of stars. It reminded her of the Kyokai.
“Youko, there is Kankyuu.”
Seated behind her, clinging to her back, Rakushun pointed with his small forefoot off into the distance ahead of them. At that point, two hours had passed since the journey began. She saw nothing in the direction Rakushun had indicated. There wasn’t a city there, only the deep blackness. Where? she was going to ask, when she understood what it was she was looking at. Rakushun wasn’t pointing out something within the darkness, he was pointing at the darkness itself.
“I don’t believe it . . . ”
Bathed in the light of the half moon, the world below was the dark color of the ocean. The contours of the forests had a faint white glow, like waves, dotted with a countless number of lights.
Within the nightscape was a deep, black hole.
No, not a hole. It was a silhouette, the moon rising up behind it. What had gouged a hole in the nightscape below looked like a hole, but was in fact the rising shape of a . . .
“ . . . a mountain.”
Could such a mountain exist?
They were so high already that the villages appeared as no more than dots. Even so, she found herself looking up and up.
A mountain that reaches to heaven, Rakushun had said.
How could a mountain reach to heaven? For a moment, Youko had the feeling of being a very small, insignificant speck of life.
A soaring mountain like the pillars penetrating heaven and earth. The shape of the mountain, rising abruptly from the hilly countryside and projecting upwards toward the sky, looked like a bundle of calligraphy brushes of different lengths stood on end. The narrow, steep summit of the mountain was shrouded with clouds that hid it from view.
The sheer rock face creating such a silhouette was more like an enormous wall.
“That’s Kankyuu? That mountain?”
Comparing the tiger’s legs against the mountain, they were still an unbelievably long way off. That’s how big this mountain was.
“That is Kankyuu Mountain. Such a mountain is home to the imperial palaces in all the kingdoms. The palace is at the very summit.”
The light of the moon gleamed faintly on the outlines of the rising cliffs, so pointed as to come close to the vertical. She searched for the familiar shape of a palace, but with the summit hidden in the clouds, she could be sure of nothing. At the base of the mountain she saw one or two points of light.
“Those lights are the city of Kankyuu.”
If it was the capital, it must be bigger than Ugou. They must be so far away that the lights were all she could see of the city.
Youko was momentarily overcome with surprise. Even at the rate the beast was flying, Kankyuu was not close enough to seem to be moving. Slowly, the mountain drew nearer, such that she could not take the entire mountain into view without turning her head, nor could she clearly see its summit. At last, she could see the outlines of the city of Kankyuu.
The city rose up around the base of this absurdly high mountain, spreading out in an arc over the gently rolling terrain. Lying in the shadow of a mountain so gigantic, the nights must be very long indeed.
When she asked Rakushun, he confirmed that it was so. “I went once to the capital of Kou, Gousou, and that’s what it was like. Because Gousou is to the east of the mountain, the twilight lasts a long time.”
Seen from above, Kankyuu was a large city. A sea of light spread out beneath them. And before them, as far as the eye could see, the cliffs. The bare, treeless layers of stone that made up the narrow, vertical mountain looked chalky in the dark.
Up ahead, the Imperial En had alighted on a rocky ledge projecting from the side of the cliff
The landing area was about the size of a tennis court. The level area had apparently been hewn from a larger mass of rock. Following the Imperial En, the tiger Youko and Rakushun were riding set down on the ledge.
Grinning, the Imperial En glanced back over his shoulder at them. “Looks like you made it here without falling off.”
How could you fall off? Youko wondered. On the back of the tiger, there was no sense of cutting through the wind, no shaking from side to side.
As if reading her thoughts, he smiled. “The height makes some people dizzy. Others get so used to the sensation they fall asleep.”
Sure, Youko thought sarcastically.
Intricate designs were carved deeply into the smooth landing area, like anti-skid marks. There were no handrails and she had no urge to peer over the edge. She couldn’t begin to imagine how far above the ground they already were.
A pair of doors led from the ledge into the cliff. The Imperial En turned on his heels and headed toward the doors. The doors both swung inwards before he arrived.
The doors were twice her height and seemed to have been fashioned from a single slab of stone. As heavy as the door looked, they were opened by a pair of soldiers. She wasn’t positive that they were soldiers. But as they both wore thick leather breastplates, it seemed a logical conclusion.
After nodding to the soldiers, the Imperial En looked back at Youko and Rakushun, beckoning them to follow along. When they passed through the doors, the two soldiers bowed, but not deeply, and then hurried out onto the ledge where the two tigers were resting. They were probably going to water and feed and groom them as they would a pair of horses.
“What’s holding you up? This way.” The Imperial En was looking at her. She hurried to catch up and found herself within a large hallway.
The chandelier overhead made the room as bright as day. Fluttering his whiskers in amazement, Rakushun stared up at the ceiling. So it must be something pretty unusual.
The hall wasn’t long, leading to a much less impressive room. From there, in the middle of a tunnel-like arch, a white stone staircase continued on upwards. Seeing the staircase, Rakushun’s whiskers drooped.
The Imperial En glanced back and said encouragingly, “Come on. No need to worry about courtesies.”
“Not at all.” Rakushun had a stiff expression on his face that Youko understood at once. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “You know, Youko, I think this is how we get up there.”
“Yeah, probably.” The thought left her in a less than enthusiastic mood as well. The ledge they had landed on was quite high up, but the distance that remained from here to the summit was comparable to a skyscraper. Walking up all that way would be torture.
Nevertheless, Youko kept her thoughts to herself and stepped onto the staircase. She took hold of Rakushun’s hand. The rise of each step was short, but the staircase itself was long. They climbed the stairs in step with the Imperial En. Where the stairs ended there was a large landing. They turned ninety degrees and climbed another flight of stairs and entered a small room. At the back of the room was a door. The thick, wooden door was beautifully adorned with vivid bas-relief carvings.
Passing through that door, a soft breeze drifted in, carrying with it the rich scent of the sea.
“Oh . . . ” Youko unconsciously exclaimed. Before them was a wide terrace. They were already above the clouds.
What miracle this was, she didn’t know, but ascending those few steps had brought them already to the very heights of the mountain. The floor was finished in white stone, as were the balustrades of the terrace. Beneath the terrace, waves of white clouds broke against the shore.
They were the whitecaps of actual waves, Youko realized in astonishment. “Rakushun!” she shouted, “it’s an ocean!”
She ran to the railing. Beneath her feet, where the terrace protruded from the face of the cliff, the tall waves crested and broke. As she cast her eyes about, she knew this was the surface of an ocean and where the smell of the sea came from.
“There is an ocean above the sky,” said Rakushun.
Youko glanced back at him. “An ocean above the sky?”
“Well, if there wasn’t an ocean, then we wouldn’t call it a Sea of Clouds.”
The rich smell of the ocean mingled together with the wafting breezes. The black sea reached out as far as she could see. Waves crashed against the shore beneath the terrace. Leaning out over the railing and peering down into the water, she could see lights in the depths of the sea. It was like the Kyokai, but then she realized that these were the distant lights of Kankyuu.
“This is so cool. But why doesn’t the water all just fall down?”
“Well,” said the Imperial En, with a chuckle, “if the Sea of Clouds were to fall like rain, that would cause quite a bit of trouble for everyone. If it would please Her Highness, I’m sure we could arrange a room with a balcony for the Imperial Kei.”
“You know,” said Youko, trying to put this as politely as possible, “I would really appreciate it you could stop it with this Her Highness stuff.
Amused, the Imperial En raised an eyebrow. “And why is that?”
“I guess it seems like you’re talking about somebody else.”
The Imperial En laughed. He was about to say something, then suddenly looked up at the sky. Following the direction of his gaze, Youko saw a slender beam of light.
“It looks like the Taiho has returned. Well, then, Youko.”
He turned around. At the left-hand side of the veranda was a short stone staircase. Youko followed after him, stepping where he stepped. She looked up in amazement.
There, arranged upon an island-like formation in the center of the craggy mountain, its cliffs white in the light of the moon, were a countless number of buildings. The curiously-shaped rocks, the branches of trees and shrubs protruding from the bare rock, and the many narrow waterfalls were like a scene depicted in a sumi-e watercolor.
Some of the buildings on the cliffs were pagodas. Others had multiple stories. Corridors running in all direction connected them together, creating one massive structure. It was an enormous palace embedded within the mountain itself. The heart of the Kingdom of En. The residence of the Imperial En. Gen’ei Palace.