6-7 Taiki was immediately flown to Mt. Hou. Gyokuyou was waiting for them at the gates. She examined the figure borne down to her.
“What happened—” she began to ask, and could say no more.
“Can we cure him?” Risai implored.
According to Shouryuu, Taiki had walked about under his own power in Yamato, and had managed to ride on Rikaku’s back from there to here. But ever since then he hadn’t opened his eyes once.
Carried down by the wizardesses according to Gyokuyou’s orders, his face was still an ashen gray. He seemed to have slipped into a deep sleep.
Gyokuyou knelt and gazed down upon the emaciated face, her own features drawn with pain. “Impurities have compromised his horn. Nevertheless, however imperfect, he still wears the titles of the Black Kirin.”
She raised her head and looked at Risai, Youko, and Shouryuu. They had accompanied Taiki here, the kirin being unable to abide his presence.
“This is not something we can address. Our only hope is to rely on the good offices of the Queen Mother.”
All three of them looked back at her. “The Queen Mother?” Risai asked. “You mean the Queen Mother of the West?”
Gyokuyou nodded. “It is possible the Queen Mother will know of a way to help him.”
“The Queen Mother of the West really exists?”
“Of course she does. This way.”
Gyokuyou made her way to a shrine. Youko and Shouryuu had stepped into its precincts once before. Only the statues of the Queen Mother and Tentei rested upon the altar inside the shrine. The altar was carved with numerous patterns and motifs. A stone statue sat on a silver throne set against a pair of burnished silver screens. Pearl curtains strung between the four pillars hid the statue up to its chest.
Gyokuyou bowed to the statue and continued towards the back. Two doors—right and left—graced the wall behind the altar. Gyokuyou knocked on the door on the left. She waited several long moments. At length, from the door came the ringing sound of two stone disks being struck together.
She opened the door. Considering the size of the court, there should not be much else beyond that door. But deeper in were still more pavilions.
Urged on by Gyokuyou, Youko passed through the door.
Inside was a temple that was not a temple. The expansive white floor resembled that of the court. In the center was the same altar and the same throne. Except the pearl curtain had been raised.
The two rooms seemed to be copies of each other. But here there was no ceiling. No inner walls. The pure white pillars forming the wall behind the throne in fact formed a huge waterfall descending out of infinity, shrouded in mist and fog. Looking up, all that could be discerned were white rays of light shining from a great distance.
On one side of the throne, bathed in the clean, white light, stood a woman. Following Gyokuyou’s example and kneeling in respect, Youko and the others understood that this was the Queen Mother of the West.
Even Shouryuu had never seen her before. True gods did not mingle with those of the world below. The other two had never been convinced that the Goddess actually existed.
The beauty of Hekika Genkun’s countenance was acknowledged by one and all. Compared to her, the Queen Mother of the West appeared—not ugly—but surprisingly plain.
The wizardesses bearing Taiki laid him at her feet. Casting her eyes upon him, the Queen Mother calmly sat, not stirring a muscle.
“A horrid sight.” Her voice was flat, almost mechanical.
Gyokuyou bowed deeply. “As you have observed, this is more than our poor, unworthy hands can handle. We wish to rely upon the Queen Mother and her powers.”
“He comes here loathed and cursed. I have never before beheld such a self-damned and despised kirin.”
Her words suggested not a glimmer of pity, perhaps because the silently falling curtain of water absorbed any lilt or intonation in her voice.
“The shirei have lost the Way and run wild. This is due to no fault of the kirin himself. He has lost his horn, fallen ill, and does not have the strength to discipline the raging shirei within him.”
“Leave the shirei to me. I shall exorcize them.”
Silence fell upon their group. The woman grew still. She appeared to Risai little changed from her stone statue. Nothing moved except for the falling water and rising mist behind her. It looked like a cascading river of fine powder, crystal dust dancing in the wind.
“Please do not cast him aside,” said Risai.
The only evidence of a reaction on the part of the Queen Mother was a slight arch of her eyebrows.
“He is necessary to Tai.”
“Even if cured, there is nothing he can do. Do you intend to defeat your enemies with that body of yours?” She spoke without a spark of compassion.
Risai grasped the shoulder of her missing right arm. “No.”
“Taiki is much like you. There is nothing more he can do.”
“He still matters, nonetheless.”
“For what purpose?”
“To save Tai.”
“Why do you pray for the salvation of Tai?”
Risai found herself at a loss for words. “The—the answer to that question should go without saying.”
Risai opened her mouth, but found she had nothing to say. Why was she so driven to save Tai in the first place?
“Do you love Taiki and the Imperial Tai? Do you love the Imperial Court in which you served?”
That is true as well, Risai thought. She revered Gyousou and adored Taiki. She was proud of the fact that they had taken her into their confidence and appointed her to a position of trust. She loved that place where she was treated as “one of the team.”
But even Risai understood—what was gone could never be restored as it once was. She had lost many of her own subordinates, and many of the court officials she trusted. The last she’d heard, the disposition of Taisai Kaihaku of the Ministry of Heaven remained unknown. The word was that Chousai Eichuu had died from his wounds. The rumors also said that Ministers Senkaku of the Ministry of Earth and Haboku of the Ministry of Summer had been executed. She had no idea what had happened after she’d parted with Kaei in Sui Province, and was too frightened to pursue the matter any further.
All these people dead and gone in under six years of time. Risai looked down at the feet of the Queen Mother where Taiki lay. He was no longer the child she once knew. That young Taiki no longer existed either.
“Or you simply cannot forgive Asen?”
Of course she couldn’t forgive Asen. He’d gained Taiki’s trust and then used it to attack him. He had stolen the throne. He had driven Tai into the depths of hell. So many had lost their lives because of him. There was no way such inhumanity could ever be forgiven. That Asen could be permitted to remain upon the throne was a flat repudiation of morality and good sense, charity and good faith—of everything that human beings should hold dear.
“You want to clear your good name? Or is this out of love for Tai?”
Risai couldn’t answer. Neither one seemed the right answer. “I don’t know.”
“So you stamp your feet and carry on like an unreasonable child about how much everything upsets you.”
Neither was that a satisfactory explanation. Risai lifted her gaze. The white expanse of space reminded her—however painfully—of Tai’s snow-swept landscapes. The countless snowflakes blanketing the mountains and fields and villages. Every sound deadened and subdued. Beneath the silent shroud, the world falling into a kind of paralyzed hibernation.
Yes, Risai felt the sting of her muddied reputation. Yes, she was furious at Asen for doing so, and had sworn revenge upon him for trampling all that was good and right beneath his feet. Yes, she had very much resolved herself that if Heaven would not straighten his crooked paths, then she would.
Waiting for the opportunity while roaming about Jou Province, Risai had lost many friends and acquaintances. After suffering so many wounds, she had come to believe that only in overthrowing Asen could she hope for any hope of healing.
And yet with each passing winter, the snow had frozen all those thoughts out of her.
“I don’t even know for certain myself.” She followed the billowing mists from the waterfall with her eyes. It resembled the smoke arising from the ruins. “Except that Tai will be destroyed if things continue as they are.”
“And its destruction is unacceptable to you?”
“Yes. That alone I cannot bear.”
Why, Risai thought to herself. The first thing that came out of her mouth was the last thing she expected to say. “Because if Tai falls, it will be my fault.”
“I don’t know how to say it. But that’s the way I feel.” Of course, the ruin of Tai was not something Risai could have done. “If Tai is destroyed, so much shall be lost to me. The kingdom I love. Its realms and territories. Its people. And every memory tied to them. Everything. But I sense I shall lose something even greater than all that. Before longing for what is lost and weeping for what I no longer have, I shall loath what I have become and curse my fate.”
She took a breath and let it out. “You’re right. I may be acting like a querulous child. At the end of the day, I was willing claw my way out of there in order to escape that pain. Simply in order to preserve the sanctity of my own mind.”
Risai looked at Taiki and then turned her gaze to the altar. “This is not something I am hoping the Taiho will give me. I’m not looking for any miracles. If the gods—who could perform such a miracle—are not going to save Tai, how could I expect the Taiho to do so?”
The Goddess raised an eyebrow.
“However, light must be brought to Tai. Lacking that, Tai will truly freeze over and the death and destruction will only continue.”
The Queen Mother said nothing. Her face expressed nothing. In her eyes was reflected a universe of nothing. At last, her eyes fell on Taiki.
“I will exorcize this sickness from him. I promise nothing else.” Almost mechanically, she raised her hand. “You may leave now. And take him with you.”
As soon as she spoke, a roaring sound resonated and the waterfall surrounded the throne, swallowing it up in the mist. Before Risai could raise her voice in alarm, she had stumbled backwards, closing her eyes reflexively. Gathering her wits about her, she realized she was at the back of the wide court, standing on the white cobblestones.
The empty expanse of cobblestones reached out to the foothills of the verdant mountains. The quiet sound of the waves from the Sea of Clouds drifted in.
Risai looked around in confusion, at the wizardesses gathered around Taiki, at the dumbfounded Youko and Shouryuu. Gyokuyou alone knelt on the cobblestones. After bowing deeply, she got to her feet and glanced over her shoulder at Risai.
“You may take him back with you. Taiki will sleep for a while, but as the Queen Mother promised, he will most definitely be cured of this sickness.”
Risai looked back at Gyokuyou. Her noble features reminded her of the sad visage of the young woman she had parted with so long ago in Gyousou’s home province of I.
“That is all?”
Gyokuyou nodded wordlessly.