6-3 Having caught a few winks of sleep, Risa and the others left Kinpa Palace in the early morning light. They spared no time loitering around Ryou’un Mountain, gulped down their breakfast, and set off across the Sea of Clouds toward Mt. Hou.
Three days after leaving Gyouten, the peaks of the Adamantine Mountains encircling the Yellow Sea came into view. Having barely slept in the meantime, it became clear that Risai was slowing down their progress. As accustomed as she and Hien were to each other, riding a kijuu at full speed with only one arm was harder than she had anticipated. Nor was Hien as fast as the suguu that Youko and Rokuta rode.
Nevertheless, it was equally true that, if not for Hien, Risai never could have made the trip in the first place. At times like this, the sense of loss to which she had resolved herself again weighed heavily on her mind.
Youko and Rokuta silently urged her on, and the next day they finally arrived at Mt. Hou. At last, Risai said to herself, at the same time thinking, That was easier than I’d imagined.
She had once crossed the Yellow Sea on foot to Mt. Hou. Thinking back on how arduous that experience had been, she was struck by the difference. Flying above the Sea of Clouds made things so much more straightforward. Thinking about the price Heaven extracted from people going on the Shouzan, she couldn’t help but taste the bitterness in her mouth.
It only deepened when she saw the woman standing in front of the white temple palace. According to Youko, even without being informed, Gyokuyou somehow sensed when visitors were arriving.
After Enki filled in Gyoukuyou about the circumstances surrounding their trip, she instructed that they be given a place to rest and then left. They descended Mt. Hou through the red lacquer doors, and were given the use of a palace. Making herself at home along with Youko, Risai suddenly burst into tears.
“Risai? What’s wrong? Are you feeling okay?”
Risai shook her head. She didn’t understand why, but she couldn’t stop weeping. “Genkun remembered who I was.”
“Ah,” came Youko’s bewieldered voice. When Enki told Gyokuyou that Risai was from Tai, she had immediately surmised that Risai had been among those making the Shouzan.
“But how can that be? I’ve never met her!”
“Gyokuyou knew I was here without anybody telling her so in advance. She knew who I was when we had never met. Why is that?”
Youko gave Risai a distressed look as she stroked her back.
“If she can see all and anticipate everything, then she ought to know what is going on in Tai as well!”
“But Risai, Tai is very far away.”
Youko spoke without great conviction. Risai shook her head violently. “Once before I crossed the Yellow Sea before on the Shouzan. Does her Highness understand what that journey is like?”
“No, I don’t.”
“A sterile land where the youma are as thick as thieves. The people going on the Shouzan band together and set off with Mt. Hou in their sights. Many of my fellow travelers perished along the way. With no roads and no resting places, it could only be called a wasteland. We made the crossing risking life and limb, youma stalking every fearful step. What took almost two months I crossed in a single day. Above the Sea of Clouds, that’s all it amounted to.”
Youko only looked into her eyes and listened to what she had to say.
“The people going on the Shouzan travel to Mt. Hou in order to ascertain the Divine Will. Why? Because the kirin are here? If meeting the kirin was all that mattered, then why not fly here above the Sea of Clouds? Then everybody could meet with the kirin without risking their lives.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Because of the necessity of crossing the Yellow Sea, everybody thinks twice before setting forth. And once having ventured in, getting out again is not easy. The journey becomes a marathon. There and back could be a four-day trip. The people could make the Shouzan so much easier. Choosing the next emperor would be so much easier. Don’t you think so?”
“Yes, it would be,” Youko agreed.
“It’s said that Heaven looks into the hearts of the people and chooses the best person to receive the Mandate of Heaven. It never crossed my mind to question that. But does Heaven really exist? That’s the question that first raised doubts in my mind. How exactly does it work? Genkun divines our arrival and recalls the faces of people who went on the Shouzan, whom she has never met. And with those same miraculous powers, Heaven foresees who should be emperor. Is that it? But couldn’t Heaven do the same without the Shouzan? Why must we risk our lives crossing the Yellow Sea? What do we do it for?”
Youko furrowed her brows. It was indeed a paradox.
“If meeting with the kirin and ascertaining the Will of Heaven was the only way to chose an emperor, the cost would be high. But considering the good of the people, one worth the trade-off. If that is not the case, though, then what is the sense of it all? What good was served by those who died in the Yellow Sea?”
How am I supposed to know? Youko couldn’t help thinking to herself. There was no denying the point she was making. If Heaven could discern the hearts of the people beforehand and pick from among them the purest heart, there would be no need for the Shouzan.
If that wasn’t the case—if only through the eyes of the kirin could the right person be chosen to be emperor—then what about cases such as her own? Knowing nothing of this world, an ordinary high school student had been born as a taika. Yet the Mandate of Heaven had fallen upon her shoulders. According to Keiki, he’d sensed in her a “divine right” to rule. But perhaps “imperial” persons were so predestined beforehand, and that divine right did not suddenly arise.
“For Heaven to unreasonably demand such a heavy cost and then to offer those so chosen no assistance—what failing on Gyousou’s part deserved such a fate? Of course, no emperor can be said to rule without making mistakes. Perhaps Heaven has a reason for turning its back. But then why condone Asen’s existence? He rains death and destruction on the people. Why not help the true emperor and strike down the pretender?”
“What are we—what are emperors and empresses—to Heaven?”
The Garden of the Gods, Youko suddenly thought with a start. Maybe that’s what this was all about. Tentei was the overseer of the realm of this world. Tentei sat upon his throne in Heaven. Youko chose the Rikkan. By entering the name of the officials and ministers upon the Registry of Wizards, she raised them to the status of the divine. She appointed the wizardesses.
Struck by the thought, she felt her mind reel. In which case, Risai’s cry was the cry of the people. Youko had once heard a similar cry in a town in Kei.
“Risai, I don’t know how to answer your questions. But there is one thing that I do know.”
“One thing you know?”
“If there is a Heaven, it is not infallible. A Heaven that does not exist cannot err. But a Heaven that does most certainly can.”
A surprised and curious look came to Risai’s face.
“If Heaven has no concrete existence, then there could be no expectation that it could do anything to save us. But if it was up to Heaven alone to save us, then it would certainly err.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that only we can save ourselves, Risai.”