1-4 Risai’s ears were still ringing.
No, she thought, it was the sound of the wind. The freezing winter wind of Tai whistled outside the door. This winter had been unusually harsh. The strong, swirling gusts cut through the body like cold, sharp knives. Exposed to the moaning, howling wind, the trees and mountains and rivers froze solid white.
The rivers iced over and the snow piled up. Drifts accumulated on the roads and highways, covering the hard ground beneath a frigid blanket. Strong winds scoured the surface, whipping up biting curtains of white.
Orphaned from the continent, the Kingdom of Tai sat alone in the Kyokai. During the winter, stabbing winds blew in from the northern seas. The towns and hamlets crouched beneath the snow, the windows and doors of the houses boarded shut.
In the small spaces within, separated from the outside air by layer upon layer of protection, glowed a small, warm fire. The people huddled together, shoulder to shoulder, sharing that small portion of the warmth—small indeed compared to the storms outside—among each other.
The flames of the fire, the mutual body heat, the steam rising from the kettle on the brazier—these too were freely shared with the shivering stranger who ducked in from the snow-covered roads. Though harsh and demanding, Tai winters were also filled with warmth.
And sometimes they took on the shape and form of brightly-colored flowers, Risai thought as she observed the figure of a child bounding towards her.
“Risai, here—” he said, handing her a bouquet of red and yellow flowers bigger than his own face.
In the cool room, barely illuminated by the weak rays of the sun, the flowers were like luminscent candles. The sound of the wind coursed through the walls. The Tai winter had just begun, so the mountains and fields were only thinly dusted with snow.
Such brilliant flowers could hardly be expected to bloom this time of year. Surprised, Risai turned to her benefactor. The smile of the child grasping the bouquet was brighter and warmer than the flowers themselves.
“Congratulations. I was so happy to hear you’d been promoted to general in the Provincial Guard.” Relating this news with his beaming smile was Taiki. He was still ten years old at the time.
“These are for me?”
“Of course. I asked Gyousou-sama and he got them for me,” the young Saiho said with a bashful nod. “Back in Yamato, where I’m from, we give people flowers in celebration. I guess it’s not really done here, but I wanted to give Risai a bouquet. Since you’ve barely moved in, I thought the flowers would look all the nicer.”
“Well—” smiled Risai.
They were sitting in the parlor of her new official residence. Only a month had passed since the enthronement of the new emperor, Gyousou. Risai was appointed general of the Zui Provincial Guard of the Center and had just moved to her living quarters in Hakkei Palace.
The Saiho was second in importance to the kingdom only after the emperor. The Saiho was also Province Lord of Zui, where Risai now resided, and commanded its forces. She was delighted and honored that he would pay her a personal visit.
A retainer arranged the flowers and placed them on a shelf in the parlor. That alone made the room so much more pleasant. Though having only just arrived and not yet used to her surroundings, she sensed that might still make this residence her own.
“I’m really grateful. I’m truly blessed to have the Taiho take such a kindly interest in me.”
“Me too. I’m still a kid and I don’t understand a thing about all this government and the military stuff. That’s why you becoming general of the Provincial Army is so reassuring.” The Saiho plopped himself into a big chair and bowed his head. “I, um, look forward to working with you.”
“Please, the Saiho really shouldn’t be bowing head to the likes of me.”
None exceeded the rank of Saiho except the emperor himself. It was impossible to imagine that he should normally bow to a mere Provincial Guard general such as herself.
“Well, I’m not kowtowing. I’m simply being polite. So it’s okay. I know it’s considered out of order, but it’s become something of a habit. Gyousou-sama says it is what it is and I shouldn’t get worked up about it. So neither should you, I think.”
“All right then,” said Risai, suppressing a smile.
This small Saiho was born in another world. She’d heard that he was born and raised in Yamato, the legendary kingdom at the furthest reaches of the eastern seas. That accounted for some of his more eccentric mannerisms, though Risai found them rather endearing. He was a kind and gentle soul.
“I’ve got a lot more, you know,” Taiki said to Risai with a bright smile. “We’ve got something of an oversupply in the flower department. Headmaster Seirai has a whole bunch of celebrations planned, but I couldn’t wait so I brought them here.”
When Gyousou was a general, Seirai had been his aide-de-camp. Following the change in government, he was put in charge of Taiki’s education, and at the same time served as the Minister-in-Chief of Zui Province. Though he was a good-natured person, among the bureaucrats serving under Gyousou he was renown as one of the best and the brightest.
“Seirai and I really wracked our brains about what would be best way to celebrate. Gyousou-sama said that I could take whatever I liked from the Imperial Repository, but that just made deciding all the worse. There’s so much stuff there it makes your eyes spin.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t waste such things on me!”
“Gyousou-sama said he didn’t care. He said to choose some to send on his own behalf as well. It’s Gyousou-sama’s share and Seirai’s share and my share too. So don’t be too surprised.”
Risai looked at the brimming, cheerful countenance of the small kirin, feelings of thankfulness filling her heart. “I really have been blessed with great fortune.”
She was truly happy. With the emperor and Saiho extending their best wishes to her in such a manner, a new future reached out before her. The Imperial Court would quickly be put in order and the people of Tai would welcome their new emperor. A bright and inviting future awaited them.
The kingdom and the people would prosper and be happy. To the bottom of her heart Risai was certain it would be so. Not in her darkest nightmares could she imagine that in a few short months all her dreams would turn to dust.
Her noble visitor left at least this room of her residence glowing with a warm light, while outside the cold winds blew. The light surrounding Risai vanquished the shadows. But she couldn’t forget the storm brewing beyond the door. A storm that froze everything it touched: the kingdom, the hills and dales, the streets and cities. The people.
There could be no doubt about the sound of the wind that day, bearing the piercing cold on its back, availing itself of every opportunity to extend the reach of its icy touch. The whirling, howling wind seeped inside the ears and played its discordant song.
Enveloped by the festive spirits, Risai was not aware of the wind. But here and there in her new home, the coldness hung in the corners and clung to the walls. Her feet were long to warm and the chill bit at her fingers. Her limbs were heavy with numbness, her senses distant. The only sensation alive in her was the raw, cutting cold.
Like now. She was so very, very cold. She was freezing to death, along with the kingdom and its people.
I’m so cold—
“Are you awake?” a voice asked cautiously.
Or that’s what she thought she heard. Concentrating with all her might, she managed to crack open her heavy, cold eyelids. Through the dark shadows of her eyelashes appeared the worried face of a girl.
“Oh, good,” the girl said.
The girl pressed something cold against her face. A chill shook her from the marrow of her bones. The icy thing causing it was pressed against her face. That’s right—she was—
“The empress—” Risai muttered, coming back to herself. She probably didn’t even hear her own self say it. She opened her eyes wider and searched the face of the girl. She saw no sign of that brilliant red hair.
“Please rest. You’re in no condition to get up.”
Only when the girl cautioned her did Risai realize she was attempting to get out of bed.
But I’m still alive.
The girl pressed her cool palm over Risai’s hand. The cool touch of her skin relieved her mightily. So chilled and so cold, yet the girl’s icy hands felt so pleasant.
The girl rested her gaze on Risai and said slowly and deliberately, “You got here in one piece. Her Highness will meet with you whenever she can. So take it easy and close your eyes.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, okay?”
The girl took Risai’s hand in her own and placed it against Risai’s throat. There she folded Risai’s fingers around a round object resting against the hollow of her throat. It was even colder than the girl’s hand and engendered within her an even stronger sense of relief. Then she finally understood that her body was burning up, arousing the pain of fevers and chills.
“You really must rest. You’ll be fine. Youko won’t forget about you.”
Youko, Risai repeated to herself. Her tongue felt like it was sticking to the roof of her mouth.
“She’s not here right now, but she’s repeatedly stopped by to see how you’re doing. She really is concerned about you. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re going to be all right.”
Instead of nodding, all Risai could do was relax her brows. Her eyelids closed of their own accord. She heard the sound of the wind. But whether this was the sound of the winter wind raging at the door or simply the sound of the roaring in her ears—
This is no time to sleep, Risai told herself.
“If I am unable to meet with the Imperial Kei—”
“Risai, anything but that!” The voice mingling with the sound of the wind was suffused with grief and heartbreak. In her mind’s eye, woman’s face pulled into focus, on the verge of tears. “What a wretched and terrible thing to do!”
“Yes it is,” Risai said, nodding her head and turning to face the empty air.
I know the awfulness of what I am doing, Kaei.