n the third year of the reign of Empress Youko, a black pair of wings appeared in the skies above Gyouten.
Gyouten was the capital of Kei, the kingdom occupying the easternmost reaches of the continent. That day, early in the summer, the city slumbered beneath a blanket of listless, hot weather. North of the capital, an enormous mountain soared into the sky like a giant pillar. The city spread out along the foothills that fell away from the descending slopes like the train of a dress.
The terraced city—its steel-blue tile roofs all squashed-together, its roads reaching left and right and up and down bathed in white sunlight—sweltered under the heavy, humid air.
The shutters of every window opened like sails seeking a fresh breeze. But the air had fallen still since noon. The open windows and doors welcomed only the faded, reflected light, the baking heat, and a quiet hustle and bustle that invited sleep.
Perhaps having grown weary of the weather as well, the birds deserted the skies, escaping the sun for the shade of the trees. A dog crawled into the thin shadows beneath the eaves of a house and dozed off. An old man napped in a chair next to the slumbering dog. As the old man slept, his fan dropped from his hand. The dog only raised its snout and cast its master a languid look.
At that moment a shadow fell across the sun.
The dog aroused himself expectantly. The cloud flowed in from the east, as if eating away the blue summer sky. The smell of the humid breeze reached its snout and it heard the sound of distant thunder. The cloud now covered the heavens. In short order the surrounding area plunged into darkness.
That black silhouette appeared in the skies above Gyouten at the same time. Driven on by the lead-colored clouds, it appeared in the east and traced a wide arc as it approached Ryou’un Mountain. The denizens of the city awaited the rain. But some who looked up recognized what they saw.
Pathetically weak wings barely holding themselves aloft, white plumage fouled and torn, blackened flight feathers mutilated and missing. Descending like a wounded bird, raking desperately at the heavy wet air, the creature closed on Ryou’un Mountain.
Drops of rain began to fall, as if to batter the fleeting shadow into the ground. The rain soon became a downpour assaulting its wings. As it vanished into the mists, swallowed up by the pouring rain, it seemed to those watching from below that the upper reaches of mountain had taken a breath and sucked it into the towering heights.
Toshin loitered beside the enormous gates. The gates were located halfway up the side of Gyouten Mountain on a cliff just below the Sea of Clouds. The secured gates were set into a cave-like alcove many times the height of a man. In front of the alcove was a broad ledge. This was the Forbidden Gate, which provided the only direct access to the Imperial Court and the highest levels of Kinpa Palace on Gyouten Mountain above the Sea of Clouds.
It was past noon. Along with the regular rotation of the guard, Toshin took his position in front of the gate. Below the ledge, the city of Gyouten spread out below him, shimmering in the hot air. There were no breezes even at this great height. The heat hung around him like a sauna.
Clouds finally began to gather in the skies above his head. The clouds came from the east, crawling along the Sea of Clouds as if licking at its base. Toshin heard the sound of distant thunder. A misty haze filled the air. The sheer weight of the clouds seemed to push them down towards the Forbidden Gate, blotting out the sun.
The light drizzle did not even reach as far as the shuttered gates. Toshin observed the leading edge of the ledge turning gray with dampness. Along with the cool, damp breeze the faint rumbling seemed to course along the ground where he stood.
Toshin sighed nonchalantly. “Looks like rain,” he said to Gaishi, standing next to him.
“Yeah.” Gaishi took a deep breath, showing his white teeth. “Makes the weather easier to put up with. Armor gets awfully stuffy in this heat.” He grinned.
Gaishi was the sergeant in charge of the five-man squad at the Forbidden Gate. Being the sergeant, he was the most experienced, the most skilled, and the one most likely to take charge of a situation. Yet Gaishi didn’t lord it over the rest of them. He wasn’t stuffy or high-handed. Whether that was how a sergeant should be, or whether that was simply the way Gaishi was, the inexperienced Toshin really didn’t know.
Toshin had joined the military a year after the empress was enthroned. Following a year of training he was assigned to the Army of the Left. He’d served officially in this position for half a year. He hadn’t worked under any other command but Gaishi’s.
A platoon of twenty-five soldiers guarded the Forbidden Gate. One platoon consisted of five squads. Many of the other sergeants and the captain in charge of the platoon were as personable as Gaishi. At least according to the rumors he’d heard, this was hardly the case with other captains.
“Ei Province is hot. Baku Province has better weather.”
“Are you from Baku Province, Sergeant?” Toshin asked.
Gaishi nodded. “Born and raised. I was in the Baku Provincial Guard before the present empress was enthroned.”
“Wow,” said Toshin. He was keenly aware of the unique distinction accorded the soldiers from Baku Province. In fact, the head of the guard of the Forbidden Gate, the general of the Army of the Left, had been chosen from the leadership of the Baku Provincial Guard.
“So do you know General Sei—?” Toshin started to say.
A mass of black emerged suddenly from the curtain of grey just beyond the edge of the cliff. Toshin barely had time to yelp as it shot out of the heavy mist and collided with the rock wall next to the Forbidden Gate. With smothered cries, the creature pawed at the rock face as it slid down to the ledge.
“What the hell!” came Gaishi’s tense voice.
The beast sprawled onto the terrace, its wings beating two, three times, as if convulsing. It keened pitifully and collapsed. A solitary human figure tumbled off its back.
Gaishi readied his lance. Toshin followed suit as they ran to where the two of them lay. Only the empress, the Saiho, and those to whom the empress had given special permission could pass through the Forbidden Gate. The pegasus that had fallen at their feet wasn’t one of them.
The gate leading to the heart of the palace was not the kind of place that people simply took it upon themselves to approach without consent, their circumstances notwithstanding.
Like Toshin, his fellow soldiers rushing to the side of the beast were ready for a fight. Toshin felt a rock of anxiety growing in the pit of his stomach as he ran. A phalanx of soldiers charged out of the barracks on either side of Forbidden Gate, erecting a wall of lances around the beast and its rider.
Toshin finally got a good look at the two of them. His eyes opened wide with surprise.
The beast resembled an enormous dog with a silver-white body and black head. Dark red blotches spotted the soot-stained down of its ruffled coat. The black fur of its head was sheered clean or torn away in spots. The dirty white tips of its stubby wings and its black flight feathers were shredded and missing.
Lying on its side, it weakly beat at the ground with its wings, but with hardly enough force to call it the flapping of wings. Next to it, sheltered by its wing, lay a human figure in a distressed state hardly different than that of her mount—wounded, filthy, exhausted.
Bewildered, Toshin sought out Gaishi. Standing at the vanguard, his lance at the ready, Gaishi faced the beast and its rider with a startled expression. A buzz of confusion ran through the throng. Gaishi raised his hand to check the forward motion of the soldiers around him. He put down his lance and knelt next to the rider.
“Are you all right?”
Hearing his voice, the rider raised her head. That was when Toshin finally realized the rider was a woman. She was tall, possessed of a rugged constitution, and was wearing leather armor. Or rather, what was left of her armor. It was not all filth and discoloration, but like the beast, was riddled with slashes and missing pieces.
“Can you understand me? How did you come to be here?”
The woman moaned and attempted to sit up. As she made the effort, Toshin realized that her arms were lacerated with deep wounds. Gaishi hesitantly retrieved his lance.
“Don’t move. I’m sorry, but don’t make a move. This is the Forbidden Gate. People of unknown origin are not allowed anywhere near here.”
The woman looked up at Gaishi as if trying to divine his intentions. She answered with a small nod. Gaishi removed the sword from around her waist and handed it to Toshin behind him. He again set down his lance.
With a groan the woman tried to raise herself up. This time she was not impeded. “Forgive me for causing such a commotion,” she murmured, her chest rising and falling with each breath. She managed to kneel. “My name is Ryuu. I hold the rank of general in the Kingdom of Tai.”
“The Kingdom of Tai?” Gaishi echoed, his eyes wide.
A supplicatory look in her eyes, the woman prostrated herself at his feet. “I know I speak with great offense and ask far more than I deserve, but there are words I must humbly share with the Empress of the Eastern Kingdom of Kei!”