he emperor and kirin of Han were waiting for them when they got back to Kei.
Enkyuu palace was converted into Taiki’s recovery room. Taiki continued to slumber after being brought back from Mt. Hou. But now Enki and Keiki and the other kirin were able to approach him.
Having confirmed this for herself, with a great relief, Renrin as well would be returning to Ren.
“You won’t be coming to see him?” Risai inquired.
Preparing for her journey home, Renrin shook her head. “I have seen his face. I know he will be okay. With no other compelling reason to stay, I must be about my kingdom’s business.”
“But—” Risai was about to say, and hung her head instead. Holed up in Kinpa Palace, Renrin had been spending time in the search for Taiki she should have been devoting to her own people. Risai had essentially stolen Ren’s Taiho from Ren. She couldn’t continue to detain her for mere sentimental reasons.
Renrin smiled. “With things getting back to normal, I’m starting to miss my liege. And if I don’t get back right away, he’s going to get anxious too. We don’t want to be out of each other’s sight any longer than necessary.”
Risai amiably agreed, and saw her off with a deep bow. The next day, Shouryuu returned to En, leaving Enki behind. The first hints of fall began stealing into the quiet West Gardens.
Risai stayed by Taiki’s side. If there was anything she couldn’t handle, Keikei was there to pick up the slack.
“He still hasn’t opened his eyes,” Keikei said rather grumpily. He always brought a sprig of bush clover with him so that would be the first thing Taiki saw when he woke up.
“His color looks a lot better.”
“Yes, it does. The Tai Taiho is a kirin and yet he doesn’t have golden hair.”
“That’s why he’s called the Black Kirin.”
“I thought his hair turned this color because of his illness. Youko said that wasn’t the case.”
“That’s the way he came into this world,” Risai said with a smile.
“I thought the Tai Taiho was smaller.”
“He grew up. The last time I saw him before now was six years ago.”
The kirin sleeping there was no longer a child. She couldn’t say it didn’t leave her somewhat discomfited. The young Taiki had not returned to her. Those six years had been swept away and would never return.
“It must have been a tough place where he was those six years.”
“I mean, that would explain why he got sick.”
“Indeed. That may well be the case.”
“It’s good to have him back, though.”
“Yes,” Risai answered.
Taiki’s eyelashes faintly fluttered.
Keikei leaned forward to get a better look. Taiki opened his eyes, sending him stumbling backward in surprise.
“Keikei, go tell Youko.”
Keikei dashed out of the room with a liveliness that stirred the petals on the bush clover next to the bed. Taiki’s still dim gaze followed him out of the room.
“Are you conscious, Taiki?” Risai hovered over him and studied his face.
His wavering eyes focused on her. He blinked, as if perceiving a vision before him.
“You’ve come back. Do you understand?”
He stared at Risai in astonishment. And then nodded. “Risai?” he said in a faint voice. Not the voice of a child. A soft, warm voice.
“Yes.” The tears coursed down her cheeks as she embraced the frail body lying beneath the quilts.
“Risai, your arm—” The arms hugging her in turn had detected her missing right limb.
“I lost it due to a bit of carelessness.”
“Are you all right?”
“I’ve never been better.”
She started to straighten herself, but Taiki’s thin arms detained her. “Risai, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she replied, though the words were likely lost in the sound of her weeping.
A junior official entered the Outer Palace during the Privy Council meeting and whispered something to Koukan. He nodded. Apologizing, he approached the dais. He said something quietly to Youko, who nodded in turn.
Koukan descended the dais, and returned to the business of the Privy Council. Youko beckoned to Keiki, standing behind her. He leaned forward with a curious look.
“Keiki,” she said quietly, “Taiki is awake.”
Keiki couldn’t keep the reaction from his eyes.
“Please go and see how he is.”
“But—” he said in a tight voice.
“It’s okay,” Youko smiled. “Go.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Keiki left the Outer Palace and headed for Enkyuu Palace. When he arrived at Taiki’s quarters, he found that Enki had already arrived.
Keiki did not recognize the voice beckoning him from the bed. The face looking up at him was no more familiar to him than all the times he had come here before to study Taiki’s sleeping countenance. And like all those other times, he found himself at something of a loss. He stood uncertainly by the bed.
With a grin, Rokuta left the room, leaving the two of them alone, and Keiki feeling all the more at sea.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble I have put you to.”
“Think nothing of it. Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes. I am deeply grateful from the bottom of my heart for all you have done for Risai and for myself.”
He spoke in a quiet voice. Keiki grew more perplexed. It was logical that he should look different. But the smile that had once bubbled effortlessly to his lips, and the childlike voice that accompanied it, were gone. That small kirin was gone. That sense of loss weighed heavily on his thoughts.
“Such was not the product of my efforts, but those of Her Highness.”
Keiki bowed his head. He couldn’t help remembering that the empress he was serving when he first met Taiki was no longer counted among the living. That many months and years had passed between then and now.
“Is the Imperial Kei a taika?”
He must have been told something about the circumstances surrounding her coronation. “Yes. She’s been looking forward to meeting you. She’s currently conducting the Privy Council. She will be coming here directly.”
Keiki felt himself losing the thread of the conversation. He didn’t know where to direct his attention. His gaze drifted aimlessly across the bed.
A faint voice said, “I dreamed a long and terrible dream.”
Keiki came back to his senses with a start. A faint smile came to the ashen face.
“You remember, don’t you? The first time we met I was a kirin who was completely incapable of doing anything.”
“You patiently did so much on my behalf, and taught me so much, and yet I forgot all of it.”
“In the midst of those painful dreams, I constantly saw visions of Houro Palace. I longed for it so badly and wanted to go there.” He looked at Keiki. “I wonder if I made it in time.”
“I frittered away so much time. I feel like I’ve lost so much. But we made it in time, didn’t we? I feel there is still so much left for me to do.”
“Of course,” Keiki said, with as much conviction as he could muster. “That’s why we brought you home. The two of us speaking here and now is testimony enough that hope remains alive. Don’t worry about it.”
“Yes,” he said very thoughtfully, and closed his eyes.