4-7 Two and then three years passed. The impurities accumulated, steadily eating away at him. The dusky golden hue of his shadow grew darker and darker.
And, thought Sanshi cynically, it seemed that the more polluted his shadow became, the easier things got for them. Slipping away from Taiki’s shadow had once been quite difficult. Now it was becoming surprisingly easy. Perhaps they were drawing energy from the pollution itself. Or perhaps this was proof that the shell enclosing them was growing thinner and more brittle.
Or perhaps—and as she examined the state of her own being, the thought send chills down her spine—the impurities gathering within Taiki’s shadow came not only from without but also from within.
Sanshi drove away all those who tried to harm Taiki. And every time she sensed the golden glow corroding and dimming. As far as she was concerned, she didn’t have a choice.
She was his foster mother, born from the golden fruit at the same time and destined to share the entirety of his life with him. When the end of his days arrived so would hers. Such was the extent to which she lived her life through him. Taiki chose the emperor and then descended from the place of his birth to become the Saiho. Even though no longer the child that Sanshi had raised, she lived to serve him as she always had.
Gouran was no different. To be sure, Gouran had not been born for Taiki’s sake. But the covenant that bound them was as true as that binding Taiki and Sanshi. The covenant between kirin and shirei was on a par with that between emperor and kirin. So not only Sanshi, but Gouran as well existed to protect and serve Taiki.
How long could they stand by silently and watch injury pile upon injury? According to Taiki’s command, or for the emperor whom Taiki served with all his heart and soul, they could endure and even approve of the stripes he suffered. But no such reasons were forthcoming.
Only a warning at first. Those who showed him any disrespect had to understand that a price must be paid. But the incivilities did not cease. Sanshi had no choice but to impress upon them what a grievous mistake it was to take Taiki for granted. The realities of their situation compelled her and Gouran to condone his imprisonment and the abuse of his jailers.
That did not mean he had lost any of his dignity or divinity.
In particular, attempts to compound his injuries with malice aforethought were deserving of death. The law notwithstanding, injuring the Saiho was a capital offense. There were no mitigating circumstances.
Remove one threat and there were more malcontents where that one came from. They came, it seemed, out of the woodwork. Every time they disposed of one, their patience and forbearance ran thinner. With every contest, the malice of his persecutors increased and Sanshi and Gouran sensed the golden hues of Taiki’s shadow growing muddier.
The muddier it became, the weaker the psychic streams became.
Even if this was in part the fault of Sanshi and Gouran, she didn’t know how else to deal with the threats. How long must it continue?
If there was one thing that rescued her at all from the depths of despair, it was the joy that Taiki evinced when, spurred by one impetus or another, she reached out to touch and console. Unfortunately, Taiki remembered nothing about Sanshi or Mt. Hou or Tai. And yet he had not forgotten the touch of her hand.
I am always with you. I am always by your side.
Whenever she comforted him, a small ray of light brightened the darkness, and Sanshi felt, however slightly, that her efforts were being rewarded.
“I shall protect you, come what may,” she whispered.
Within the gloom, though, she was gradually losing form. Sanshi was not aware of this herself—that she was slowly losing control of herself. Her thoughts constricted and hardened. In such a state, it did not occur to her that the impurities were attaching to herself as well.
And neither was she aware of what was happening to herself and to Taiki.
To be sure, Taiki had noticed the many “accidents” happening around him, but put them down to echoes from the wrinkle in time that had brought him to this here and now.
For as long as he could remember, he’d suspected there was something “off” about him. He was conscious of the strange feeling—the knowledge, even—that the existence of a strange creature like himself meant his environment must be somehow amiss. He sensed that he was a disappointment to those around him, a bewildering burden.
Those feelings grew year by year, blossoming into a conviction.
He really was an alien here, a source of unease to his surrounding. A bad seed. The rift in time and space that at some point had cut him free from this world grew so deep that he could no longer turn his eyes from its reality.
There came the point that, despite all her efforts, his mother could no longer bridge the widening divide between them.
He was cast adrift. He understood the necessity of his isolation. Calamities struck those connected to him. He was rumored to be cursed, rumors that became attached to his character. He had no choice but to accept that he was a dangerous element, a mark of bad luck whever he went.
And he accepted this with an almost uncanny sense of resignation.
He did wonder now and then where these feelings sprang from. When he was small, being the odd child out was very painful and disheartening. However, now the fact struck him as neither painful nor disheartening.
Perhaps because of that comforting presence. At some point he’d realized that something like spirits tended to him with their warm assurances. Hence his isolation never truly isolated him, never left him truly alone.
Though when it came to associating with others—namely, when it came to avoiding drawing others into danger and considering the distress when such things actually occurred—avoiding such relationships was so many more times preferable.
But more than that, many orders of magnitude deeper within him, something was breaking down and falling apart.
I don’t belong here.
The feelings haunted his mind. Except that no particular sense of suffering accompanied these thoughts. At some point in time he had already come to fully accept it.
As a child, nothing weighed on his conscience more than when his mother wept because of him. Even now it stung at his heart. But whenever he grieved for his mother, the impression descended upon him that his life was that much more precious. More than his mother, more than his family, he should be concerned for his own welfare.
Growing with every passing year, this impression eclipsed the anguish and the inward turning of his thoughts. He was forgetting something of supreme importance. Something of great importance that he positively could not put behind him.
During this time, living his life with no purpose in mind, he grew into the knowledge that some part of him was missing and lost beyond all repair.
Why couldn’t he remember?
That lost year. The love and longing for what he’d possessed during that important lost year grew day by day, the growing distance between now and then filled only by a growing despair.
He had to return.
But to where?