n early spring day in Tai, the island kingdom situated off the northeast coast of the continent. The snow covering the hills and fields had only begun to melt away. The buds of the plants and flowers slept beneath a blanket of white.
The lands above the Sea of Clouds were no exception. Although the snowpack did not reach the levels of the lands below, most of the trees and shrubs lining the garden groves remained in a deep slumber.
This was Kouki, the capital of Tai. The western quarter of the Hakkei Palace grounds.
Shaped like a horseshoe, the palace held the bay in its broad embrace. One richly forested arm of the horseshoe reached out to the northwest. There, facing the bay, were Jinjuu Manor, the abode of the Saiho of Tai, and Koutoku Manor, where the Saiho, acting as the marquis, conducted the business of the provincial government.
Though the wooded parks were still locked in wintry desolation, the strangely deformed decorative stones and the ministerial estates had about them a kind of severe beauty. The evergreens contributed their deep hues to the frigid landscape. Now approaching first bloom, the plum buds cast off a faint perfume.
Beneath one bough was the figure of a child leaning against a white stone pillar. Steel blue hair flowed down from his bowed head.
This child was the Taiki, the kirin of the Kingdom of Tai. The kirin chose the new emperor, seated him upon the throne, and became the Saiho. At the same time, he reigned as province lord in Zui Province, home to the capital of Kouki.
He was only eleven.
Six months ago he had carried out his most important duty and chosen the emperor. This child, the cornerstone of the Kingdom of Tai, was now alone in the gardens.
The emperor was not in Kouki. Two weeks before, he had set off on a long journey to Bun Province. Taiki couldn’t help but feel disheartened and anxious, for Gyousou, Emperor of Tai, had gone there to suppress an uprising.
Taiki could never accommodate himself to war. It was in a kirin’s nature to avert his eyes from violence, and the young Taiki had never experienced such conflict. His knowledge of the brutality of battle was purely intellectual. Yet that was where his lord was headed.
To make matters worse, soon after Gyousou left, an ugly rumor spread throughout the palace: the rebellion in Bun Province was a plot to lure the emperor out of his safe haven in order to assassinate him.
Bun Province was north of Zui Province. A rugged, soaring mountain range separated the two provinces. Gyousou had no choice but to cross over the narrow mountain trail that divided the range. According to the rumors, the rebels had taken up positions along a difficult stretch along the route and there were lying in wait.
In fact, the day before, Gyousou’s camp had been overrun in a surprise ambush. Disadvantaged by the unfriendly geography, the fight turned ugly. That’s what Taiki’s informant told him. Distraught and fearful, Taiki felt as if a ton of bricks was crushing his chest.
Take care. Be safe.
Taiki could do nothing but earnestly pray. There was no one upon whom he could unburden the anxieties darkening his heart. Overly concerned about frightening him, the adults in his retinue would see no evil and speak no evil. Rumors of the insurrection were mere gossip, they insisted, nothing to worry about.
So having secretly arranged a meeting and heard the bad news for himself, Taiki couldn’t share this information with any of the adults. He could, but he would undoubtedly be told that he was mistaken and that it was all rumor and innuendo.
Unless he ducked out of his official meetings, chose a moment when few people were present, and escaped to a place otherwise devoid of human activity, even praying for the emperor’s safety was impossible. Everybody treated him as a kid, a youngster, wet behind the ears, and that was both pathetic and exasperating.
He’d persuaded his fearsome shirei and sent them to Bun Province. At the very least, he wished to know if Gyousou was safe or not. He wanted to offer what help he could if and when the fight turned critical.
It was the nature of the benevolent kirin to loathe bloodshed and hate war. Refusing to bear arms or protect themselves through force, they instead commanded the youma and used them as their weapons. But Taiki had only two shirei at his disposal.
And so he ordered Sanshi and Gouran to go.
With that, he’d done all he could for Gyousou. If only he had more shirei. If only he was older and could work in concert with other adults and devise a plan to protect Gyousou.
Preoccupied with the stark reality of the situation, The stark reality returning to his thoughts again and again, Taiki was left with no other option but to pray zealously in a corner of the garden. His personal weakness was mortifying.
Take care. Be safe.
He’d prayed more times than he could count when he heard the faint sound of footsteps behind him. He turned around and saw him standing there. Taiki was relieved to see that it was neither the imperial headmaster nor his bodyguard. Rather, he was the one who’d informed Taiki about the dire straits Gyousou was in.
So Taiki didn’t have to pretend there was nothing for him to worry about. “Gyousou-sama is okay, isn’t he?” Taiki asked as he ran toward him. “Have you heard anything more about him?”
The man shook his head.
“I sent the shirei. I’m sorry.”
Promising to candidly pass along any information that came his way, the man had implored Taiki not to rashly send the shirei to Gyousou. But while he’d apparently kept his end of the bargain, Taiki hadn’t done as he’d been asked.
“I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”
The man nodded and drew forth the sword he wore at his waist in a single motion. Taiki stopped in his tracks. Not because he was particularly afraid. He still trusted the man. These actions simply perplexed him.
“What’s going on?” Taiki queried, suddenly beset by worry, noticing for the first time that the man was casting off a threatening aura that he’d hitherto hidden from view.
“Gyousou is dead,” the man said.
Seized by an unconscious sense of dread and beginning to retreat, Taiki’s feet froze in place. “You’re lying—” he said, looking up at the man.
The man brandished the sword. Taiki gaped at him. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t cry out. He stood there like a post.
“Too bad you’ve only got two shirei.” The sword glimmered like white ice as it arced downward. “Your mistake was choosing Gyousou.”
Even Taiki couldn’t say whether the naked blade struck first or whether—exercising the only best option at hand—he had already reflexively turned his body and readied to run.
In either case, the assassin’s sword bit deeply into Taiki’s horn—that he possessed as a unicorn, not as a person. Taiki howled, a pure and visceral reaction. Not from the pain alone, but from the sense of betrayal and the agonizing loss of his irreplaceable lord.
The cry of a beast in extremis, its life in the balance. A cry whose intensity knew no equal. Driven by his instinctual will to flee this place, Taiki abruptly melted away.
The violent shock aroused from Sanshi a high, piercing scream. The white and frozen mountains reached out beneath her. Bun Province lay before her. She emerged at the summit of a small peak in order to determine her location.
Something had happened.
What was this pain? The frightening pain and numbness raced through her body.
Sanshi moaned. No sooner had she come to her senses but she dissolved her body and projected the essential nature of her self within the earth. Her body slipped into the ground.
She knew the veins and ley lines that laced the mantle of the earth. Carried along without form, her “self” raced along these subterranean streams that were at once there and not there. Though “raced” hardly approached the actual meaning. She traveled as if through the dark ocean depths, in the midst of nothing but the chaos of oblivion, with nothing but the weight of that oblivion surrounding her.
Sanshi plunged forward in her mind and with all her might. Far in the distance she set the bright, vivid splash of golden light in her sights.
Pressing through the ley lines, she rose like a bubble rising to sea level. Riding the rising current of air, she burst forth from a “dragon hole” and soared high into the sky. So great was her velocity that the ground was soon shrouded in mist and lost its shape and form.
The golden light grew stronger. Gleaming, sparkling, growing all the more brilliant, illuminating her vision and then filling the entirety of her vision with light.
A golden color like twilight. The moment she slipped into the dusky, golden darkness, Sanshi was forcibly thrown free—
—of the shadow that was Taiki’s own ley line, a ley line that twisted and turned with a frightening force, ripping itself away from this world.
Her flesh crawled with fear. This was so reminiscent of the golden fruit torn from the silver branch right before her eyes so long ago. I’ve lost him again. Feelings of despair greater than any of her anxieties assailed her senses.
She leapt from her ley line. Hakkei Palace stood before her. The distortions in the atmosphere were so great that the tiles along the rooftops bent and buckled. Beyond the roofs of the palace the sky was as black as the grave.
A glimpse of the other world.
This was a shoku. A shoku uniquely brought forth by the scream of a kirin.
Sanshi spotted a distant shadow in the midst of the undulations, the wavering silhoueette of a jet-black beast. Its mane cast off a faint glint of light.
The wavering palace—the gardens shimmering in the warped air—the twisted and tortured arbor—and leaning beside the arbor, a crabbed and contorted silhouette.
Who is that?
Sanshi’s gaze flashed across the horizon. The gate was closing. Without a moment’s hesitation she jumped, dissolved her form, and closed in pursuit.
His arm. She reached toward the arm there in her mind’s eye. Her fingers grasped at air. Just a few inches more.
The ley line through which she was traveling shattered behind her. The color—its feel around her—changed.
It had merged with that other world.
Sanshi reached out with her heart and soul, clawing at the escaping saffron shadow. Her fingers found purchase—
The trembling rooftops, the shimmering thoroughfares, the warped woods. Beaten down by the surging waves, in a single breath they snapped back to normal shape and form. At the same time she managed to steal into the dusky, golden penumbra.
A passerby would have observed an unbelievable spectacle unfold before his eyes.
Here was a small village, old buildings standing in rows between tiny fields. A narrow asphalt road wound through the village. Bathed in fresh April sunlight, gentle waves of warm air rose from the asphalt.
A fierce force rent the gentle waves of air, the waves strengthening and expanding, thickening and solidifying, as if the asphalt itself had exploded in fire. The waves rose to the height of a large man.
A shadow floated within. The waves slowly disgorged the figure of a person. He took a step and stumbled forward—the unsteady silhouette of a child. Two or three more uncertain, tottering steps and his forward progress stopped.
The child stood on the asphalt. The shimmering waves of heat at his back evaporated into thin air.
And then all that was left was the peaceful spring landscape. A bright, hazy blue sky blotted with silken clouds. From somewhere high above came the song of a skylark.
A warm, gentle breeze rustled the flowers in the fields, bent the stems of the shepherd’s purse along the footpath between the rice fields, touched the surface of the road. Reaching the child’s shoulders, it ruffled his long hair.
The child stood there in a daze. Or rather, he stood there numb, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, staring straight ahead with unblinking eyes. As if pushed by the gentle wind at his back his feet moved. He took a step, and then another. He started walking almost like an automaton, his stride at length growing more even.
After a few steps he blinked once and suddenly seemed to take hold of his senses. His feet stopped. He took in his surroundings and blinked several more times in amazement.
Tidily arranged fields and rice paddies dotted with old buildings. And among them he spotted newer houses as well. It was a small village somewhere out in the countryside.
He tilted his head to the side, the expression on his face still half-dreaming, half-awake. Ahead of him, where the road met the footpath, he noticed a curtain of black and white funerary bunting.
Taiki had passed over the Kyokai, the impassable “Sea of Nothingness.”