3-3 That evening, Risai was on her way to the Provincial government offices when Taiki ran over from the adjoining arboretum. Glancing about as he came down the gallery, he spotted Risai, cried out and raced up to her. Normally his voice would be bright with cherubic laughter. This day, though, he wore a harried look on his face.
“Risai, I’ve been looking for you,” he said, grasping Risai’s hand, almost clinging to her. “It is true that Gyousou-sama is in trouble?”
“Gyousou-sama left because bad people were plotting against him. They are lying in wait in Bun Province to attack him.”
“Nonsense,” Risai said with a forced smile. “Who’s planting such silly ideas in your head? Gyousou-sama went to Bun Province to calm the waters there.”
Taiki pulled away from her. His countenance hardened. “That’s what Seirai said too.”
“Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? There’s nothing for you to be worried about.”
Taiki shook his head. “You and Seirai are telling fibs. You don’t want me to worry because I’m a kid.”
Bewildered, Risai knelt and looked Taiki in the eyes. “I’m not telling fibs. Why wouldn’t I tell you the truth?”
“Nobody tells me what they talk about in the Rikkan. But Rousan told me.”
Risai furrowed her brows. She knew that Kaei had convened the Rikkan to discuss the same subject Risai had brought up with her colleagues. She could assume as well that they would have debated whether or not to tell Taiki. Taiki’s permission was necessary in order to mobilize the Provincial Guard. For the time being, as Minister-in-Chief of Zui Province, Seirai served as Taiki’s regent in such matters. Getting to the bottom of rumors so nebulous to begin with remained an exercise in guesswork. At this point, she would expect that they’d come to the decision that there was no need to inform Taiki and worry him needlessly.
That Rousan, the Minister of Winter, was telling him such things—
“When I ask Seirai, he says I have nothing to be worried about. It’s only a minor rebellion and Gyousou-sama isn’t going there to fight but to rally the people. There’s no danger and I have no cause for concern. Everything’s going to be all right. That’s just what Rousan said he would say.”
Risai stood up and urged the unhappy Taiho to return to the garden. She said in a low voice, “There’s no telling who might be coming by here. If they see the Taiho in such a state, the ministers are likely to get the wrong idea.”
Risai smiled. “The Saiho shouldn’t behave in such a manner as to cause the ministers needless worry, should he? I’ll walk you back to your quarters.”
She took the hand of the dejected Taiki and set off towards the Seishin, continuing their conversation in as cheerful a voice as she could muster. She spoke of her own anxieties about the manner in which Gyousou had left the Imperial Palace; the wild speculations being tossed about; and among them the rumors that it was part of a scheme to lure Gyousou to Bun Province.
Emphasizing that these rumors too were nothing more than rumors. If too widely noised about, who knew what damage would result. The Rikkan and the generals were conferring about how to face that threat.
“That a rebellion has occurred is a fact. So I can’t say that there is no risk in His Highness’s journey to Bun Province. But Eishou is serving as his vanguard and Sougen is accompanying him. Add to that Gyousou-sama’s strengths as a general, and too much worry might come across as discourteous.”
“But they say that Eishou was having a hard time of things. Didn’t he ask Gyousou-sama to assist him?”
The surprised look in Risai’s eyes answered the question. “Yes, the rebellion proved fiercer than expected and it is true that Eishou found things hard to handle. But he didn’t ask for help. His Highness and Sougen went there to rally the people and the troops and bring peace to Bun Province as quickly as possible.”
Risai smiled and nodded. Taiki drew a relieved breath, replacing the worried expression on his face. Hoping to raise his spirits, Risai fumbled around for something else to talk about, but Taiki wasn’t paying much attention. About the time the Seishin and Seiden came into view, she’d run out of things to say. She got the feeling he hadn’t decided whether or not to trust what she’d told him.
“It seems you’re still not ready to believe me,” she pressed gently.
Taiki looked up at her with a confused countenance. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think.” As he spoke, his head lowered, the hard expression remained on his face. “I’m a kid, so everybody treats me like I’m something special. They don’t let me see stuff and won’t talk to me about stuff. And when they do, everybody knows it’s too difficult for me to understand and they think they can’t have me worrying about stuff I don’t understand, so they don’t say anything. Since it goes on all the time, I can’t say whether you’re telling me the truth or not.”
“I mean, if what Rousan is saying is true, and if what the civil servants are talking about are true, you’re still going to tell me differently. You and Seirai and everybody else.”
Taiki let out a strained sigh and continued. “It’s because I’m a kid, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But I’m worried about Gyousou-sama too. He took off to a dangerous place far away. I don’t want him to get injured or his life to be in danger. If something bad happens, I want to help him. I know everybody thinks I can’t do anything, but I still want to try the best I can and figure out something—”
Taiki stopped talking. Tears filled his eyes. A air of despondency radiated from his body. “Isn’t this my job? That’s what I can’t help thinking. But as far as everybody else is concerned, I’m just an unwelcome burden.”
Risai felt a pain in her heart. Taiki was still a youngster. That was why everybody went out of their way to avoid causing this pure-hearted child any pain or suffering. It was all done with the best of intentions, but from Taiki’s point of view, he was being ostracized because of his age and small stature. Risai had to wonder what Gyousou would do in her place.
“That surely isn’t the case, Taiki,” she said.
Taiki let go of her hand and ran through the gate. Watching him leave, she sighed deeply, turned on her heels, and headed to the Ministry of Winter.
Rousan was still at the ministry. Risai informed her secretary that she wished to see her. After a short wait Risai was invited into her office. Rousan seemed buried up to her neck in correspondence and official paperwork.
Rousan glanced up from the volume she was perusing and said, gesturing with her hand, “Find yourself someplace to sit down.”
She looked like a young girl of sixteen or so, hardly an appearance that agreed with her position as head of the Rikkan. But her scholarship was vast and deep. As the Daishikuu of the Ministry of Winter there was certain nobody else as capable. Rousan was said to be a veritable polymath.
Her portfolio included the Shoushi, Genshi and Gishi. These departments manufactured goods and material for the kingdom, made amulets and charms, and explored new technologies. They employed countless numbers of artisans, and Rousan could fluently speak to any one of them in the jargon of their trade and make herself understood.
Risai said, as if speaking her thoughts aloud, “Why have you been saying such things to the Taiho?”
Rousan abruptly raised her head. The expression on her face said she knew exactly that Risai was referring to. “Because I thought somebody should bring it to his knowledge.”
“At this point, it all amounts to little more than rumor and innuendo. Telling him such things—”
“You mean, don’t go filling his head with such nonsense and causing him needless worry? Yet the fact remains that there well might be a conspiracy against Gyousou-sama in the works.”
“That is only a possibility.”
“Which makes it possible. If true, it is a grave matter indeed. I don’t think the Taiho is better off staying in the dark.”
“But—” Risai started to respond.
Rousan scowled and shut the book. She folded one leg beneath her on the chair and rested her chin in her hand. “If you ask me, you’re all treating the kirin with kid gloves. I understand this impulse to pamper him, but when it comes to the affairs of the Kingdom, there are limits. Let’s pretend this isn’t just some rebellion in a far-off province but a full-scale insurrection in the works. How can the Saiho of the Kingdom not be informed? The Saiho has his duties as Saiho. Age is beside the point. If the Provincial Guard has to be mobilized, he must first grant permission.”
“That is true, but—”
“So don’t come barging in here with that scary look on your face. I’m the one acting logically. Everybody around here is letting their emotions get the better of them.”
Risai was at a loss for words. She couldn’t quibble with what Rousan was saying.
“But now that we’re on the subject, if something has happened to His Highness, how do we proceed? The Taiho may be small and his faculties limited, but he’s not powerless. This current course of action will only make things worse. How is feeling sorry for the Taiho and covering for him any different than taking him for granted? If His Highness is in danger, and the Taiho can do something to save him, we should take all steps to allow him to do so. Denying him that opportunity is the crueler course.”
Risai couldn’t help recalling Taiki’s despondent air. “That’s right.”
A small, satisfied smile came to Rousan’s lips. “You catch on fast, Risai. That’s good to know.”
Risai smiled wryly in turn. “Rousan-dono, do you think this is an assassination attempt?”
Rousan drew her knees up to her chest and took a deep breath. “I wish I knew. And even if we did, we probably couldn’t get there in time. Bun Province is far enough from here that it’d take several days using the air corps. Push come to shove, we don’t want to end up relying on those jewels in the crown to pull us through. However, the only people who can wield them are the heads of state: the emperor and kirin. Under the pressure of necessity, the Taiho’s shirei would be the quickest, most likely, and most reliable candidates.”
Risai started. Rousan glanced at her teasingly from beneath her brows. “If you ask me, none of you are aware yourselves of the extent to which you’ve been treating the Taiho as an incompetent child. It’s around somewhere, isn’t it? The toutetsu?”
The kirin commanded youma known as the shirei. Taiki had the misfortune of being born and raised in Yamato. Consequently, he had only two shirei, a sadly small number. One was the guardian nyokai that raised him and so really didn’t qualify. Technically speaking, he had one shirei: the toutetsu. A powerful youma, more legend than real.
“The monster of all monsters. That’s the toutetsu. Look at you, calling a kirin who can charm a beast like that a child. It makes me wonder who the real children are.” Rousan narrowed her eyes and stared off into space. “It would not be too great an exaggeration to say that the only monster superior to the toutetsu is that dear, little kirin.”