5-5 It was midsummer when Youko informed Risai that the search for Taiki had begun. The enervated feelings accompanying the oppressive heat stole even into the Imperial Palace. Sleep came hard enough already, and her mounting impatience as she awaited word of good news disturbed her rest all the more.
“No need to worry,” Rokuta cheerfully assured her at first. “We’ll find him right away.”
But his expression had soon turned cloudy. There was no sign of Taiki in Yamato where Rokuta had found him once before. They extended the search but nothing had yet turned up.
Unable to sleep, Risai got out of bed and walked to the visitor’s palace. A large garden surrounded the palace. The guest quarters were located in Seikou Manor. Seikou Manor was connected to a library called Ransetsu Hall. Ransetsu Hall had been turned into the command center for Taiki’s search.
Stopping in several times every day had become something of a compulsion for her. And though her visits were always met with disappointment, it nevertheless quenched her unbearable thirst for the time being.
This night as well she headed toward Ransetsu Hall, in her now constant quest to quench the thirst in her soul. Rokuta was there, slumped exhausted in a chair.
“En Taiho,” she said.
“Yo,” he replied and smiled. His face really did look haggard.
“You haven’t found him?”
“Ah,” Rokuta said in a low voice. As if sensing her despair over her sheer uselessness, he injected a note of cheer into his voice. “Well, you know, this is how these things go. Something’s bound to turn up sooner or later.”
“Yes,” was the only thing Risai could think of to say. There wasn’t a thing she could do to help. The best and the brightest in the Kingdom tended to her body and looked after her every need, and yet all she could do in turn was watch. For her to find fault with the slow pace of developments would be beyond presumptuous.
“You in the mood for some tea? I was getting a hankering myself.”
Risai smiled. She lit the small hibachi on the desk, filled the cast iron pot with water and set it on the hibachi.
“Maybe he’s not in Yamato.”
Risai froze for a moment. “Then China?”
“Hard to say. But the Imperial Han was right. The problem remains why Taiki has not returned of his own accord.”
“And the circumstances that might prevent his return?”
“Easy to say but hard to describe. What do you think?”
“I’d have no way of knowing, but—”
“Taiki caused a meishoku. Keiki insists that Taiki would not know how to cause a meishoku. Assuming that it did occur, something must have triggered it, something entirely instinctual. I can empathize with that. More than being swept away to there, I think it was more like Taiki fell off a cliff. He fell off a cliff here and landed there.”
“Meaning that between the entrance and exit of the Gogou Gate is a path headed both nowhere and everywhere. Think of it as the Forbidden Gate or the Five Gates. It’s not as if you can stand in the gate and ahead of you is the other world and behind you is this world. It’s more like there is a tunnel between the entrance and the exit.”
“Ah,” Risai said, nodding. An enchanted pathway. Like the enchanted staircases crisscrossing the Imperial Palace.
“We know that Taiki is not here and that he did enter the gate. But there’s no way of knowing whether Taiki left the gate and is there.”
“That would mean—” Risai said, turning to face him. “That would mean being trapped within the gate?”
“Hard to say. It is possible that Taiki never made it there. I traveled there using the Gogoukanda provided by Renrin, but while passing through I had to keep hold of Renrin’s hand. Though it might be better to say I was holding onto the tail of the Gogoukanda. There are two tails going into two directions, and with Renrin’s guidance I had to hold onto one. If I didn’t, I’d end up chasing my own tail. Because once you’ve gone in, you can’t turn around and go back.”
“So you’re saying that Taiki might have gotten turned around like that.”
“I don’t really know. Comparing the Gogoukanda to a meishoku may be completely inappropriate. I simply got to wondering whether Taiki made it through to the other side. Aside from that, there’s no reason to get overly concerned. Taiki was swept away as a taika, was born over there and grew up a normal kid. He’s got parents there and a home. I believe it was at his parents’ home that I found him the last time. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where that is. I remember the general vicinity. Yamato is a pretty big place, but I did remember what town it was adjacent to. Because he triggered the shoku and fled instinctually, he might well have gone back to his home town. But I could find no evidence of him there.”
“Probably because that’s not where it was. Someplace else perhaps?”
“I thought so too. I went through the place house by house starting in the middle of town and working north and then south. But couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere. Well, it was pretty much a seat-of-the-pants once-over.”
His tone of voice suggested he’d added that last part for Risai’s benefit.
“Next time, I’ll take a more careful approach. Like going up to people and asking them about weird stuff that might have happened six years ago. It’ll take time, though.”
“During that time, it’d be nice if somebody ran into him in China. In any case, we can’t keep imposing on Hanrin and Renrin forever. Not to mention Keiki. Kei still needs a lot of work. Sooner or later we’re going to have to resign ourselves to the reality of the situation, and the search will no doubt end up on the back burner. When that time comes, I want you to understand.”
“No, not at all. I know these things can’t be helped,” Risai said, struggling to keep from betraying too much emotion.
You can’t keep asking for more, she told herself. Though deprived of an arm, she was regaining her health. She knew that something calamitous had happened to Gyousou on Kan’you Mountain at the outskirts of Rin’u. Regardless of how the search for Taiki turned out, she could return to Tai and resume her search for Gyousou. Her journey to Kei had not been in vain. Her link to Gyousou still existed.
“Even in that case, we’re not casting Tai aside. We promised to do what we can for the refugees from Tai and those who still remain in Tai.”
“Thank you,” Risai murmured, almost despite herself.
At that moment, a light flashed across the dark room. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw faintly glowing doorway deeper back in Ransetsu Hall. She got to her feet. The doorway led to a short corridor. Down the hall and around one corner she came to a small building called the Kokinsai.
The light was shining from the center of the Kokinsai. It looked like the light of the Moon shining through a window. But there weren’t any windows in the Kokinsai. And there was a new moon this night. A round patch of white light glowed upon the floor, but there was no other light source. That was to be expected as well. For the light was coming not from above, but below the floor.
“The Gogoukanda,” said Risai, stepping into the room.
The ring of light slowly widened until a human figured slipped out. One person at first, then followed by a second. At the same time the two of them emerged, the light faded as if retreating into the distance and winked out.
“Ah, Risai,” Hanrin said. She raised her voice and said, bolting down corridor and into the library. “Rokuta! Something strange is afoot!”
“Strange?” Rokuta was leaning back wearily in his chair. He quickly righted himself.
Hanrin nodded. “The shirei are saying they won’t venture any further. They’re quaking in their boots.”
“They’re saying there’s no way they’re getting any closer than they are now!”
“I don’t understand a thing you’re saying. Renrin, what’s going on?”
“What she said.” Ranrin came into the hall with the same concerned look on her face. “It doesn’t make any sense to me either. The shirei are spooked. Something wicked this way comes. That’s what they all keep saying.”
“Yes. Hanrin wanted to go back to Taiki’s home town for another look around. But the shirei said that a Big Bad was lurking about, and they weren’t going one step further.”
“What do they mean by that? Weren’t you there previously?”
“That’s correct. According to the shirei, it was there before, but only in whispers. Juuko? Could you please explain?”
“Yes,” a voice answered dryly.
From behind Renrin’s skirts, a small, tailless dog appeared. The beast narrowed its one blue eye. Along with the hair hanging down like an old man’s eyebrows, it created a perplexed-looking expression.
“Like I said, something wicked is going on there.”
“I wouldn’t know. Except I’m not getting up close and friendly with it.”
“That’s not helpful. You said it was there before?”
“Yes.” Juuko seemed to shrink away from the thought. “That’s the way I remember it. Before, I caught a fleeting glimpse, so fleeting that it barely registered. I put it out of my mind. But the other night there was nothing fleeting about it. The whisper had turned into a whirlwind. Something unholy. I’m sorry, but I’m not getting anywhere near it. Taiho or no Taiho.”
“What does unholy mean? Is that the kind of vibe it’s giving off?”
“No, that’s not it. Something calamitous. Something impure. Something dangerous. Though this creature would seem to come in a small package, it is anything but diminutive. We are keeping our distance from it.”
“Diminutive?” Rokuta hazarded dubiously.
Risai broke in forcefully, “Hold on a minute. I’m sorry for interrupting, but what if you were sensing the aura of a very powerful youma? Would you have the same sort of reaction?”
Juuko practically did a back flip. “Yes! That’s it! And no ordinary youma at that. The kind of youma none of us could imagine sidling up to. Escorting our Taiho there—”
Risai raised her voice and said—at the same time that Rokuta muttered to himself—“Gouran.”
Risai ran up to Juuko and knelt down in front of him and leaned over and said, “Where? Where was it? That was Taiki’s shirei. I don’t doubt it for a second.”
“But that thing possesses the aura of a creature that could never become a shirei.”
“Taiki has a toutetsu as one of his shirei. It was a toutetsu. Wasn’t it?”
Juuko perked up his ears. Even his hair stood on end. “Toutetsu. You must be kidding me!”
Risai grabbed hold of Renrin’s sleeve with her only hand. “Ren Taiho, Taiki is most definitely there!”
She was on the verge of collapsing. Gentle arms caught her and buoyed her up.
“We understand. Rest assured we shall bring him back with us.”
“You cannot!” Juuko pranced up and down in a fury. “That’s no shirei! That’s a youma!”
“I won’t stand for such timidity, Juuko. If it really is a youma, then there must be a reason such a powerful youma is in that other world. It must be in the company of Taiki. We’ll have to determine whether Taiki is there or not. If you find the notion so unpalatable then I shall go there by myself.”
“I get it, I get it,” Juuko grumbled, hanging his head.
“Renrin—” Rokuta said, heading down the hallway. “Send me through. I’m going to go take a look. What about you, Sis?”
Hanrin’s eyes darted around the room. “Yes. Of course. Be right with you. But—”
Renrin plucked the piece of sheer fabric from her quailing hand. “Can I use this as well?”
“If you don’t mind, then. In the meantime, why don’t you inform the others what is going on?”
Youko and Keiki hurried over to the Kokinsai as soon as word came from Hanrin, just as two figures emerged from the pool of light.
“Enki, did you find him?”
“I don’t know,” answered Rokuta. The fatigue of the last few days had evaporated from his features. He strode energetically back to the library, where the Imperial En and Imperial Han were waiting.
“What about Taiki?” they both asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him.”
“You didn’t see him? What do you mean?”
“I’m quite sure that was Gouran. Taiki’s shirei. Except I would definitely not call that a shirei. I understand what’s got our shirei spooked. That is definitely a youma. And damned scary and powerful to boot.”
Renrin entered the library at this point, her face pale. “That is indeed what I would call a Big Bad. Get anywhere near the thing and it’s as clear as day. I have a grasp of the location. It’s a large town but Gouran is there. I can’t detect the aura of a kirin.”
“The risks notwithstanding, we took a closer look and detected not even a vestige. I think the Imperial Han is correct on this.”
Rokuta nodded. He still looked like his hair was standing on end. “There was no kirin there. I believe that Taiki is there. But not in a form that could be called a ki.”
“Then in what form?” Youko asked.
Rokuta and Renrin exchanged glances. “Hard to say. Still, if Gouran is there, Taiki must be there as well. Gouran couldn’t have returned to youma form. He’s still serving Taiki as his shirei. However, not even a glimmer of the kirin’s aura exists. Even if Taiki wanted to return, he couldn’t. I have no choice but to conclude he is loosing his ki. Otherwise, even in that other world, there’d be no cause for his aura to die out.”
“Does such a thing ever happen?”
“I wouldn’t know. We can only contemplate that it can. Our only recourse at this point is to conduct a house-to-house search. Find him and bring him home. We can’t fuss about the methods. Gouran is as much a threat over there as he would be here.”