5-4 The message came two days after the Imperial Han arrived, unexpectedly as was typical of such messages. Three guests would be crossing the Sea of Clouds to see the Imperial Kei. Youko and Keiki were to wait at the reception hall above the Forbidden Gate.
Her visitors were Shouryuu and Rokuta, as she had expected, together with a golden-haired young woman she hadn’t seen before.
“Has the Imperial Han arrived?” queried Rokuta, dismounting from his suugu.
“Yes,” Youko answered, greeting them with a bemused smile.
“Figures. That’s why he suddenly went all incommunicado on me.” He turned to the girl climbing off the white kijuu. “This is the Ren Taiho.”
A tad flustered, Youko gave her a quick nod. Renrin struck her as a cheerful girl of eighteen or so.
“Renrin, this is Youko, the Imperial Kei. That’s Keiki standing next to her.” Rokuta asked, “So where’s His Royalness and Sis?”
“Probably in their rooms,” Youko said with the same wry grin.
They’d rented rooms in Gyouten, but Youko insisted they stay at Kinpa Palace. The Imperial Han, though, proved a man hard to please. She showed him first to the visitor’s palace, reserved for guests of honor. But he said it reeked of bad taste and refused to stay there. Finally, he cavalierly picked one of the cottages secluded among the hillocks in the Seiden garden.
And then decided that this vase was ugly, so get rid of it. And that painting was a sore sight for eyes, so switch it with this one. And so on.
After that, he didn’t get along with the poor chief butler assigned to look after them. He apparently found the man aesthetically deficient. Exasperated, Youko sent over Shoukei. Thankfully, he did take a liking to her, but then would barely allow her out of his sight.
Hanrin, on the other hand, making liberal use of Han’s crown jewel, the koseisan, wandered at will around the Inner Palace. She suddenly burst into the Seishin—opined that some government official was unacceptably picking on some lowly bureaucrat—and sallied out again.
Shoukei’s opinion—the babysitting duties having falling into her lap—was that while on the outside Hanrin might look every bit the spoiled and overindulged ingénue, underneath she was every bit as mischievous as Enki.
“She is a handful,” Rokuta agreed in a subdued voice.
“So what’s the relationship between En and Han?” Youko asked in turn.
“Reluctant allies, as it were. Because Han is a kingdom of such skilled craftsmen.”
“Like, the way their workmanship with gold and silver is the best in the Twelve Kingdoms?”
“It’s a truth that cannot be denied. Once upon a time, Han was blessed with nothing of worth. It was a middling kingdom full of middling people. The Imperial Han turned that all around, making Han a kingdom of skilled artisans.”
“Arts or crafts?”
“Anything that requires a fine and practiced hand. From materials like paper or cloth to the equipment needed to make them. Tools in particular. The tools made in Han are the finest anywhere. Whether a carpenter’s rule or the weights in a set of scales, the differences in quality are as night and day.”
“We’re good at building the big stuff: roads and buildings and ports. But the talents of Han’s artisans are a necessary part of the equation. So that would make our relationship a substantial one.”
Rokuta sighed, and Youko had a feeling of where that sigh came from.
“I’m not sure how to put this, but I do get the idea that he’s a rather odd chap.”
“You think? He and Shouryuu get along like cats and dogs.” Rokuta glanced over his shoulder. Trailing along behind them, the morose-looking Shouryuu hadn’t said a word since he’d joined them.
“Yeah, I kinda got that vibe,” Youko muttered.
That was when they ran into Shoukei, coming down the garden path at a brisk clip. She headed towards them as if heading into a stiff wind, her shoes stamping against the cobblestones
“Oh, Shoukei. How’s the Imperial Han?”
Shoukei looked back at Youko, fire in her eyes. “He’s in his room. Just to let you know, but he can’t see anybody right now.”
“He can’t see anybody?”
“Well, it seems that the hairpins I picked out don’t match the outfit, and he refuses to change. See for yourself! I’m not dressing him too! Not going to even try.”
“So he’s been giving you a hard time.”
“Hmph,” Shoukei pouted, crossing her arms across her chest. “We seem to have arrived at an impasse. As far as I’m concerned, the hairpins are fine. It’s the choker that doesn’t go with the earrings. I hope you don’t mind, Youko, but I’ve been going through your stuff. Call me stubborn, but a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do!”
Having spoken her mind quite forcefully, Shoukei at last took note of the figures following behind Youko. Her face turned bright red. With a yelp she sank to the ground at the side of the path and bowed deeply. “Forgive me please!”
“A real pain in the neck, eh?” said Rokuta, the laughter evident in his voice. “That kirin of his sure is. She wouldn’t be inside, would she?”
“Yeah, um, yes, they are.”
“Ah. Well, we have something we need to discuss. The faster you can drag the Imperial Epicure out of his room the better.”
“I understand,” Shoukei replied, with another bow.
Smothering grins of their own, they continued on their way, arriving at a pair of pagodas surrounded by a curious rock formation. Due to the Imperial Han’s idiosyncratic dislike of any of Youko’s junior retainers except for Shoukei, nobody was there to greet them. So they simply announced themselves and walked in.
Hanrin lay sprawled on the couch. But it was quite obvious, Youko noted with a wry smile, that the way Imperial Han had moved around the furniture and adjusted hanging scrolls breathed new life into the living space. The man definitely had good taste. And in the midst of it all, Hanrin’s unkempt presence was exactly what turned the still life into a living portrait.
“Hey,” she said, glancing up from her book. “It’s Youko and Keiki.” She all but vaulted off the sofa. “Long time no see, Rokuta.”
Hanrin pounced down in front of Shouryuu and peered up at his face. “And a long time no see to you too, Shouryuu. I see you showed looking like a country bumpkin. As usual.”
“And you’re as unhousebroken as usual. Go get your owner.”
“No can do. Alas, his Highness still hasn’t found a thing worth wearing around here.”
With an expression that looked like he’d taken a bite out of a lemon, Shouryuu said, “I don’t much care. If nothing suits him, then he can join us in the buff.”
“Just the thing I’d expect from an ill-bred boor like you, Shouryuu.” Her eyes lit on Renrin. “Well, well, well,” she said flirtatiously, and followed with an elegant bow. “I don’t believe I’ve had the honor.”
“Um, this is the Ren Taiho.”
“It is a pleasure to finally lay eyes on you. I am Hanrin.”
With a bright smile, Renrin introduced herself as well.
Hanrin surveyed the room. “I gather the dead serious mood everybody’s in has to do with the search for Taiki commencing?”
“That would be the case,” Shouryuu answered dourly, motioning for Hanrin to sit down. “I asked you to come to En, but you never showed up. Instead I find you here.”
“Oh, so that’s why you showed up? Well, good. I much prefer Kei. Your retainers in En really are an uncool lot. All they do is spew hot air all day long.”
“You’re describing yourself. At any rate, it’s been decided that En and Kei, and Han and Ren will conduct the search in Yamato.”
“Sou and Kyou and Sai.”
“A major operation,” Hanrin mused. She tilted her head and asked, “But is it okay, doing this sort of thing? I mean, I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”
“It’s okay,” Rokuta answered. “We kirin searching for Taiki doesn’t run up against Divine Providence.”
“Hmm. So how does this search work? In concrete terms. Send in the Imperial Army?”
“Don’t be silly,” Enki said with a grimace. “Can’t be done. Genkun asked us to keep the shoku to a bare minimum. And besides, it wouldn’t do us any good. Taiki is a taika. Only we kirin can sense the presence of another kirin.”
Hanrin gaped at him. “Are you serious? Isn’t Yamato a pretty big place?”
“Not as big as any one of our kingdoms, if you’re just talking about Yamato.”
“Even so, that’s a whole lot of ground to cover. And only four of us. I could almost swear you’re pulling my leg, Rokuta.”
“I know it’s a tall order. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t have asked the other kingdoms to pitch in and help in the first place.”
“We found Taiki once before. I can’t remember exactly where it was, but I’ve got a grasp of the general area. There’s no guarantee that Taiki returned to that spot. But our best bet is to start the search there and work outwards.”
“You really plan on launching this dragnet with only that clue to go by? Unbelievable.”
“You want to give up?” Rokuta scowled at her. “If you’ve got a better option, I’ll take it. There isn’t one. Obviously there’s no telling how long this will take. But if you want to do something on behalf of Tai, it’s all we’ve got!”
The room fell into silence. At length Renrin said, “What about using our shirei?”
“Yes. Shirei can detect the presence of their kirin, right? No matter how far away, my shirei will sense where I am and return to me. It stands to reason that shirei should be able to detect other kirin as well. Probably better than we kirin can.”
“Indeed,” Enki nodded. “What about it?” he said into the air.
“Yes,” a voice spoke out of the ether. The voice of Enki’s shirei.
“Well, then. What about youma?”
There was no answer.
“You can summon those of your own kind. Of course, we wouldn’t want to gather dangerous youma. But the small, harmless ones?”
After another moment of silence, “Yes,” came the answer.
“Great. This way we can really leverage our numbers.”
“In that case,” Hanrin said, raising her voice and clapping her hands together, “Han does have the Kouyoukyou.”
“Yes. The Kouyoukyou dematerializes the person whose image it reflects. Only beings capable of the tonkou can use it. With it, theoretically, shirei and youma could replicate themselves infinitely. The replicated portion is limited in its capabilities. But if searching for someone is all that is called for, then it should prove sufficient.”
“And Ren has the Gogoukanda,” said Renrin. “The Gogoukanda creates a wormhole to the other side without triggering a shoku. People cannot pass through it, nor can it handle large number of beings at one time. But using it greatly minimizes the effects of a shoku. It was used once before to retrieve Taiki. When the En Taiho discovered his location, he was transported to Mt. Hou using it.”
A cool voice interrupted Rokuta’s celebratory mood. “Does not the problem remain as to why Taiki has not returned of his own volition?”
Everybody turned around. The Imperial Han was standing in the doorway to the bedroom. He was dressed in a dazzling white silk robe. Shoukei stood behind him, a rather smug look on her face.
“So you finally decided to join us? What’s that question supposed to mean?”
“What’s it supposed to mean? If Enki got unwillingly swept away to Yamato, would you settle down there?”
Rokuta was momentarily at a loss for words.
“If it was Enki, then I’d say he’d happily given his Monkey Emperor the slip. But Taiki never struck me as such an ingrate. He would definitely try to return. And yet he hasn’t in six years. I think it best to consider the circumstances that would explain this.”
“We know that. We also know there’s no way to know. In any case, we’re not going to find him if we don’t look. Still, putting yourself in his shoes, can you imagine those circumstances?”
“Well—” The Imperial Han stared off into space. “Putting myself in his shoes, I’d say that it’s because he’s not a ki.”
“He’s not a ki?”
“The true nature of a kirin serving his emperor, and the wellspring of a kirin’s compassion for the people. The part of him that would urge him to return for the good of his emperor and the good of the people. And that which would imbue him with the ability to do so. Because he cannot, I believe the only conclusion is that he is not a kirin.”
“How can a kirin not be a kirin?”
“I’m not sure we can know,” the Imperial Han stated curtly. “But Taiki is a taika.”
“He is, but so what?”
“I’m not sure how to explain it. Hanrin will probably only cease to be a rin when she passes away. But what happens to a taika kirin when he is in that other world? That, to put it simply, is the thought that occurred to me.”