7-5 Risai came into the room with the evening meal. “How are you feeling?”
Taiki was up and gazing out the window. They were in the parlor of the Taishi’s manor where Risai was living. “I am doing fine,” he said, glancing over his shoulder.
Though he was putting a brave face on things, he still looked a bit drawn. Risai smiled, as if to dispel her misgivings. “Recently, when you were asleep, the Imperial Kei graciously came by to see you. She wanted to apologize for causing any more contamination to your environment.”
“It was not her fault.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Risai agreed as she set the table. “The Imperial Kei concerns herself with her subjects so, and then something like that happens. It really brought home to me what a tough job ruling a kingdom must be.”
“Indeed.” Taiki remained mum for a while. Then he said, “Will you be returning to Tai, Risai?”
“What?” At first, Risai didn’t comprehend what he was asking. She tilted her head to one side as if to double-check her hearing.
Taiki looked at her, a look of great earnestness in his eyes. “We cannot continue to impose ourselves on Kei like this.”
Risai took in these words with no small measure of surprise. When she finally grasped what Taiki was saying, she felt her countenance grow pale. “Just a minute, Taiho—”
“We cannot allow ourselves to become the seed of greater calamities in Kei. We have tested their patience and disrupted their lives more than enough. After this, I believe we must move to a place where we can fend for ourselves.”
“But, Taiho, that is quite untenable. Not only your constitution, but—if you would pardon my saying so—your horn and your shirei—”
The rush of anxiety left Risai flushed. She felt it was necessary to nip this inclination in the bud. She had thought in vague terms about returning to Tai when and if she found him. With Taiki by her side, they could look for Gyousou using his “imperial sense.” But Taiki had lost his horn and his essential nature as a kirin. He no longer had his shirei. Tai remained an infested nest of youma. And she had lost her good arm.
The incident with the Naisai had forced her to again confront the severity of her injuries. A bunch of armed ruffians had charged into the room and threatened the life of Taiki and the Imperial Kei, and she could barely lift a finger to help them. She was easily overpowered and held down by men who didn’t look like they’d had a day of military training in their lives.
Even factoring in the state of her health, she was pretty useless as a military officer. If they returned to Tai, she would be incapable of protecting him. She’d been aware of this all along, but she hadn’t come to grips with how helpless she really was. All her vague notions about the subject had been brought clearly into focus. She still hadn’t recovered from the shock.
“We can’t do this, Taiho. I understand how you feel, but we can’t go back to Tai. You need to take care of yourself while I solicit help from among the refugees. If we can summon even a small band of supporters—”
Taiki shook his head. “It is true that I am powerless. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we are citizens of Tai.”
Risai felt as if she’d been frozen solid.
“Tai is a kingdom that even the gods have abandoned. Is that not the truth? Tai has no emperor. The good will of other kingdoms never reaches her shores. And Heaven will not deign to grant her any miracles. It is the same as Tai not having a kirin. But Tai still has its subjects, such as you and me.”
“Even without a horn, the Taiho is still our kingdom’s kirin. And my hope. Not something so easily sacrificed. If somebody must return to Tai and search for our liege and rally the people, then that is something that I will do. That was my true intention all along. The Taiho must be secured in a safe location. I beg you to set aside dangerous ideas like returning to Tai.”
Taiki wasn’t the only thing that Risai had lost. One other fear still gripped her. After the disaster in Kouki, Risai had been sent to Jou Province to quell the rebellion there. On her way, she had taken Nisei-shi under her protection. His eyewitness reports had revealed the extent of Asen’s treachery.
At the same time, the incident was used as a pretext to sully Risai’s honor. But perhaps even worse was that Asen somehow knew she was protecting Nisei-shi. Risai had sent a secret communique to Haboku and Sougen alone. Considering its contents, neither of them would have carelessly leaked the information to a third party. So it was likely that only Gyousou’s retainers would have been privy to it. And one of them had passed it on to Asen.
She could not imagine that any of Gyousou’s retainers would countenance spies or eavesdroppers. They would have met behind closed doors and taken all necessary precautions. Nevertheless, Asen had been informed, which meant that someone within their group had done the informing.
A wolf in Gyousou’s own house was guarding the henhouse.
Risai looked into Taiki’s guileless eyes. She didn’t want to expose him to such disagreeable realities, but this only doubled the danger to them in Tai. It would become necessary to establish lines of communication with Gyousou’s old retainers and rally their troops. And yet a traitor might be lurking in their midst, someone well-known to them, who could appear at any moment as a friend and intimate. Risai would have no way of protecting him from such a person.
All she could do was mumble incoherently what a bad idea this all was. Taiki flashed her a puzzled smile. “You have not changed one bit, Risai.”
Risai gave him a puzzled look of her own.
“You are worrying about me and doing your best to shield me from anything unpleasant or frightening. It was the same way when Gyousou disappeared.”
“I was really worried about Gyousou-sama. But nobody would give me a straight answer. Well, what you told me may have been the truth. But I knew that all the adults around me were hiding anything unpleasant from my eyes. So I had to turn to Asen to find out anything that was not sugar-coated.”
Risai caught her breath.
“Asen told me that Gyousou-sama was in danger. He said Gyousou-sama had been ambushed. When you said that he had arrived safely in Bun Province, I found myself no longer able to trust you. I believed Asen when he told me that a fierce attack had been launched before they arrived, and the outcome was uncertain. Desiring to help him, I dispatched my shirei to help Gyousou-sama. I never doubted Asen for a second. In fact, I came to question the veracity of anybody who told me anything other than bad news.”
Taiki smiled thinly. “I really was a child, and very hard to please. Whatever I tried to do only caused Risai and everybody else more problems. And now is no different.”
“Taiho, don’t say such things—”
“But Risai, I am no longer a child. To be sure, speaking in terms of my abilities, I was much more capable then. I’m quite helpless now. Still, I am not so immature that I could be content to bemoan my helpless state and settle for the safe status quo.”
“Somebody must save Tai. If not we citizens of Tai, then who?”
“But—then—let’s go back to Mt. Hou and confer again with Genkun, to see if there is anything we can do to save Tai.”
“And what, may I ask, do you think she will do on our behalf?”
Risai didn’t know how to reply.
“And can Heaven be so relied upon? Only those under its personal care and protection can rest well knowing that help will come. At what point did the people of Tai become the property of Heaven?”
“I have learned something of the steps you took to seek assistance from Kei. If you had not done so, I most definitely would never have made it back here. I am not so naive as to believe that nothing is beyond our power to accomplish. It may be beyond the power of a horn-less kirin and a one-armed general to save Tai in her current state. But, Risai—”
Taiki grasped Risai’s remaining hand. “This was never something we were destined to accomplish through the strength of our own wills alone. If, unable to pull Tai back from the brink from here, we conclude that there is nothing we can ever do and so do nothing, we will forever lose the right to call ourselves citizens of Tai.”
But of course, Risai thought, looking back at him.
She had never understood why she wanted to save Tai. At the same time, she couldn’t help being aware of how quickly she lost that feeling when Taiki was right there in front of her. As far as she was concerned, if Taiki was safe—if she could guarantee his safety—then that was the same as keeping Tai safe as well.
Even if that safety came from residing in Kei and she did not actually contribute to it herself—as long as Taiki was safe, then Tai was safe inside her. Protecting Tai had become for her the same as preserving something that belonged to her, her motherland. And if she could not and it was destroyed, then as an extension of Tai, it would become her fault.
But as long as she could keep Taiki safe, Tai would never be lost to her.
“We are citizens of Tai. If we reach out to others as citizens of Tai, then there are duties and responsibilities we also bear as her people. If we cast them aside, then Tai is lost to us.”
Losing that place to which they were connected was no different than losing themselves.
Risai had lost her imperial position and her friends and colleagues. Kaei had become a distant memory. Apart from her connection to a place called Tai, she had nothing. It had to be saved so that she would not lose herself.
Now that she had Taiki, and as long as she held on to him, Tai remained alive within her. Here in Kei she knew where she stood. The prospect of leaving was terrifying. But for Tai, its people, Gyousou, all those imprisoned within its borders and all those who had lost their lives there, remaining here was nothing but a betrayal.
They had no other recourse except to leave this safe redoubt and return to Tai.
She looked at her hand, her vision clouded with tears. The hand holding her hand was indistinguishable from her own.
“You really have grown up.”