4-3 Around dinnertime, Youko went to see Risai and inform her that they’d decided to look for Taiki.
“I don’t know how much help we’ll be able to expect from the other kingdoms, or what kind of search we can mount for Taiki until we actually start sounding them out. For the time being, it’s a small step. But at least we’re moving forward.”
Risai couldn’t find the words to express her gratitude. Youko gave her a smile and hurried out of the parlor. Whatever time she was devoting to Tai would have to be made up by burning the midnight oil.
“I don’t know how to thank her,” Risai said to herself.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” a voice called out. Keikei came into the parlor to tend to his “butler” duties. “If they can get the other rulers from the other kingdoms to pitch in, we’ll find him for sure.”
“Yes. For sure,” echoed Suzu.
Risai could only nod in amazement. Compared to the six years she had battled constantly with despair, with no sign of redemption in sight, new vistas were opening before her eyes.
The salvation of Tai had begun. Such was the joy in her heart that she couldn’t fall asleep that night. Lying on her bed, turning Youko’s words over in her mind, her joy turned to anxiety halfway through the night.
What if they couldn’t find Taiki, despite their efforts? The strong possibility that they would was deeply reassuring. Yet those feelings just as easily turned to hopelessness, and then to fear. It wasn’t that she doubted Youko in the slightest. Her life had, for far too long, turned in directions not of her choosing. Her expectations had been dashed, her hopes ruined. And she knew of nothing that would suggest otherwise this time around.
How likely was the happy promise of Taiki returning unharmed? Even if he managed to be found, no end of harm could befall him in the meantime.
Once she started thinking along those lines, her worries made sleep impossible.
Unable to bear the pain bearing down on her chest, with a great deal of effort, Risai struggled out of bed. Her condition had improved enough that Suzu no longer kept an all-night vigil by her bedside, and retired to her own quarters. Suzu wouldn’t be there to assist her, but neither would she be there to castigate her for leaving her bed.
Risai made her way along, using the walls and furniture to support her infirmed body, and finally found her way to the doors of the room. She’d only wanted to let in a little night air, but exhausted she sat down on the spot. Being reminded of the disabled state of her body irritated her to no end.
Even when Taiki was brought back, what would they do then?
Using Taiki’s “imperial sense,” they could launch a search for Gyousou. But to do that, Taiki would have to return to Tai. Could she do something like that? With such a weak constitution and no ability to wield a sword? She’d be incapable of defending Taiki. Youma and brigands rampaged across Tai. Perhaps her heart was no stronger than her body. Perhaps she’d fled Tai and sought safety within the walls of the Kei Imperial Palace in pursuit of physical and mental relief. Casting a backward glance at the place from which she’d come, Tai was a roiling hell. She could not imagine taking Taiki there.
Risai sat on the promenade and leaned against the wall with an air of melancholy. Beyond the eaves, moonlight shone down on the courtyard. She heard the lonely trill of a cicada from somewhere in the darkness.
She didn’t know what they would do after Taiki returned. She wasn’t sure he would return, or that they could save Tai. She’d held onto these beliefs without reason, at some point having become far too accustomed to steeling her heart against failure and disappointment.
It was like heaven and hell had allied themselves against Tai. How many years had passed since Gyousou had disappeared? The Koushi ceremony was said to bring reason and order to the world. Had Asen performed the Koushi, and could there be reason and order in the world if the true emperor did not perform the ceremony?
In any case, the chaos in Tai had been underway ever since the throne had been vacated.
Several summers after losing Gyousou, Risai’s search had brought her to Bun Province. Secretly, in order to escape discovery by Asen, relying on intermediaries and seeking asylum from old and trusted friends, she headed towards Tetsui. Gyousou had previously vanished from a camp in Rin’u.
Rin’u had originally been the only city in Bun Province that was home to a gemstone fountain. The oldest gemstone fountain was in Mt. Kan’you, and fountains of varying sizes spotted the landscape around it. “Company towns” were located hither and yon at the base of the mines. Though most of them had played out, news of the occasional active fountain was still heard. Even those mines had suddenly run dry. Risai couldn’t say whether they too had been touched by the widening gyre of anarchy.
She found little of substance in the neighborhoods of Rin’u. The people of Tetsui would probably know more about Gyousou’s whereabouts. She even harbored the hope that they might be hiding him. But when she arrived there, she found the city burned to the ground. Only the charred rubble remained. Tetsui had been abandoned. Not a breath of human life among the scarred remains. Only the shrine altar had been spared, and atop it, an offering of white keihaku flowers.
The citizens of Tetsui who remained must have come here, under cover of darkness, to pray for Gyousou’s safe return.
Next to the shrine, the withered riboku, scorched by the flames, stood alone forlorn and dejected. The desolate sight impressed upon Risai that, like it or not, Tai was a kingdom whose center could no longer hold. Falling apart was the only option it had left.
Risai as well had to mingle with the shadows of the night, avoiding human contact, and hiding herself from sight. She crept along the streets, looking for anybody who might knew where Gyousou was, or Eikyou or Gashin or the locations of their forces. She met with little success.
She learned that there’d been a pitched battle outside Rin’u between local rebels and the Imperial Guard, and that subsequently the Imperial Guard had grown skittish and unable to respond in force to further rebel attacks. That battle probably occurred around the time Gyousou disappeared.
It would not be that unusual for an emperor to get struck down amidst the fog of war. But not an emperor like Gyousou. Gyousou was renowned as a swordsman. No one was reckless enough to take him on in a fair fight. Except that he was leading Asen’s army. Gyousou had trusted Asen and Asen’s underlings. And at the height of the battle, they would be the ones watching his back. They could have overwhelmed him with superior numbers, or captured and restrained him. But did Gyousou really trust Asen that much? Considering that Gyousou had divided Asen’s forces, perhaps he’d doubted Asen from the start.
She spent the summer walking through the battlefields and the ruins. And then the summer ended and snow began to fall. Perhaps because of the soot, it was a gray snow, a harbinger of worse times to come. The winter that year was particularly harsh. The snow piled up in great drifts. Though built to withstand the elements, many of the houses in these parts collapsed under the weight.
At the end of the cold, snowy winter came a dry summer. Rarely had Tai seen such a hot summer. The farmland lay parched beneath the sun. And when winter came again—
She believed it was the following year when youma began to appear in greater numbers. For a kingdom without an emperor, this was hardly out of the ordinary. But they multiplied practically in front of her eyes. The old-timers said that youma would never appear while the true emperor reigned. People began stating with greater conviction that Gyousou must be dead.
Risai stared into the night sky above the courtyard. How were the people faring now? Here she was, while Tai suffered all manner of privations. The summer was drawing to an end. Another terrible winter waited in the wings.
Please save us. Even now, she could not shed the desire to cry out and cling to the empress. The more she got to know the Imperial Kei, and the more she knew about the people around her, the deeper the grievous nature of the sinful action she demanded seeped into her soul. And despite knowing that—
“There is no other way.”
Somebody must rise up and bring a halt to Asen’s villainy. Lacking a leader with the power to subjugate the youma and bless the land with bounty sufficient to last the winters, Tai could not last many more years longer. This year, or the next, or the year after—it hardly mattered now—the snows would melt away in the spring to reveal the frozen body of the last citizen of Tai.
“What are you doing here?” a voice queried behind her.
Risai glanced over her shoulder. An old man was standing at the gate to the courtyard. “Nothing,” she replied.
The old man was Enho, the Taishi. This was his manor house. It might well be nothing out of the ordinary to him, but since she’d been moved here, he had stopped by to see her on a fairly regular basis. The empress’s entourage was few in number but they were all good-hearted. Whenever she thought about Youko in these terms, she grew fearful even of herself.
“Are you all right? Being up and about at this hour?”
“More or less, I guess.”
Enho approached her and sat down on the steps leading up to the promenade where Risai was seated. “It seems that the Imperial En will be lending a hand in the search for the Tai Taiho.”
“And yet you appear quite disheartened.”
You don’t say, Risai thought to herself, but couldn’t repeat this to Enho
“Indeed. We are faced not simply with the matter of finding him. And supposing that we do, a mountain of tasks lay ahead of us. Once the Taiho has returned, searching for the Imperial Tai becomes that much easier. Yet, it would then become necessary that the Taiho return to Tai, and doing so might very well risk losing the Taiho as well.”
“Yes.” Risai nodded.
“In order to effect a successful search for the Imperial Tai, a large contingent would be necessary. However, I’ve heard that assembling such a number of allies is well-nigh impossible. And even if they can somehow be found, while the search for the Imperial Tai is underway, the people will continue to bear the unbearable.”
“Winter is coming. Not many months remain until the first snowfall.”
“When you think about it in those terms, Tai is a hard country. You cannot survive the winter in the open air.”
“It’s true. Winters in Kei must be quite temperate.”
“Compared to Tai.”
Risai nodded dejectedly. “There are temperate kingdoms and kingdoms that are not. I have to wonder how much better off Tai would be if it shared Kei’s climate—if people huddling together and sharing the warmth of their bodies was enough to make it through the winter. Why must there be both warm kingdoms and cold kingdoms in this world?”
Risai looked up at the Moon. “Why did Tentei create a kingdom such as Tai? It would be enough if only people could depend on the warm of their own bodies to survive the winter.”
“Asking such questions does not change what is.”
“But—” Risai said, biting her lip. “Didn’t Tentei create the world? Then why did Tentei create such a place as Tai? With such merciless winters? If I was Tentei, I would have at least created kingdoms with more pleasant climates. The winters not too cold, the summers not too dry. A world like that.”
“Huh,” was Enho’s only response.
“If the people were starving, I would send them manna. When a cruel pretender rose up, I would strike him down. Why isn’t Heaven more like that?”
“It does make you wonder.”
“But why? It’s said that the right to rule their kingdoms is granted by Heaven to emperors according to the Way of Compassion. If so, then why would it be a sin to dispatch soldiers also in the name of compassion? It was Heaven that sat Gyousou-sama on the throne. Didn’t Tentei make Gyousou-sama emperor and promote him to the throne? So why doesn’t Heaven protect him?”
Enho didn’t answer.
“Does Tentei really exist? If He exists, then why won’t He save Tai? Why won’t he listen to the prayer of the Tai people, even as they drown in their own blood? Are you saying that their prayers somehow aren’t enough? Or perhaps that Heaven wishes Tai to be destroyed?”
“If Tentei doesn’t exist, that’s fine too. A God who doesn’t deign to save his own creations has no business existing. But if there is no God, then why can’t the soldiers of one kingdom trespass the borders of another? Who is it punishing that sin? If some person is making those judgments and passing those sentences, they why doesn’t that same person pass that same sentence upon Asen?”
Enho warmly covered her cold, quivering hand with his own. “I understand how you feel. You musn’t allow your passions to sap your own strength.”
Risai took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m sorry. I got myself into a bit of a tizzy there.”
“I do understand where you’re coming from. After all is said and done, we are left to live out our lives under the Providence of Heaven. For as long as that holds true, we are condemned to this irrational state, the logic of which we cannot control.”
“However, this is the world of men and women. Pay no mind to the business of Heaven. Instead, find a way to live within whatever Providence dictates. That is the end to which the Imperial Kei is devoting her heart and mind.”
“Yes. I apologize.”
“You need not worry about it. Nobody is casting Tai aside.”
Risai nodded. The cruel light of the Moon shone down on the World Below.