1-4 A short time before.
Kyoshi crawled carefully through the tall grass. He’d barely managed to escape the fray. As best he could tell, his colleagues had run off or gotten themselves killed. He shouldn’t be surprised. The man and that woman together made for an indestructible duo.
And I thought he was just an ordinary traveler.
Kouryou, wasn’t that what the woman he was traveling with called him? When they’d met at the village gate, Kyoshi thought them a pitiful pair and sent them packing. An annoyance. But the man carried an iron flute. It looked for all the world like a musical instrument and certainly played like one. Except it had a core of solid steel.
A concealed weapon that could kill a man. Even worse, he knew how to use throwing knives. Small knives made to strike at a distance. And with an accuracy that sent a chill down the spine.
He was in no possible way an “ordinary traveler.”
He was a weapons expert, something he could have only learned on the job. And that woman—not the woman called Enshi, the one with the child—the woman with the kijuu was the same. She might have only one arm but she clearly knew how to wield a sword.
The two of them had to be partners. He and his colleagues never saw it coming. After all, they were a gang that rarely experienced serious mayhem. They carried around their weapons mostly for show.
But no matter what, he simply could not flee the field of battle like this. His friends were lying all around him. If still alive, they had to be tended to. More than anything else, they could not ignore these intruders who had trespassed on their territory.
Starting with the two who’d brought those valuable kijuu with them, and one of them a swordswoman. At the same time, a man proficient with concealed weapons showed up, turned off the road, and headed into the mountains.
Kyoshi was certain he knew what sort of people they were. They had to be dealt with. Compelled by these pressing thoughts, Kyoshi kept close to the ground, hiding any signs of his presence. Fortunately, the late evening light made the visibility poor. A breeze picked up. He still did his best to muffle any extraneous sounds as he crept along the ground, closing on where the intruders were standing in the meadow.
He drew alongside one of his friends lying in the grass. “You okay?” Kyoshi whispered.
The man answered with a moan and a nod. He didn’t look like he could move but at least he was alive. Uncertain whether he should tend to his wounds, his colleague urged him on.
“Get out of here. Please.”
The desperate look in his eyes, intensified by the obvious pain, compelled Kyoshi to accept the entreaty with a nod. Leaving his mate where he lay, he crept forward and stealthily approached the intruders. Now within spitting distance, he stopped. Hidden in the shadowed grass, he took in the situation.
The woman with one arm. He didn’t see the kijuu. He’d last seen it chasing down his colleagues. The creature hadn’t returned. Next to the woman, who was closest to Kyoshi, stood the silhouette of a more slender figure. Across from them, her back to Kyoshi, was the woman with the child. Her name was Enshi. The man was called Kouryou. He faced Enshi, his head bowed. Kouryou must be talking to her.
Kyoshi sized up the situation, gathered his strength, and shot to his feet.
Kouryou noticed as soon as he moved. Kyoshi ignored him. He crossed the two paces separating them, grabbed the closet person in reach, and jumped back. Enshi and the woman spun around in surprise.
Kyoshi took a deep breath and brandished a knife. That was when he realized his hostage was a teenage boy. Kyoshi pressed the blade against the startled kid’s throat. To Kyoshi’s great mortification, his own hands were the ones trembling.
“Give it up!” the one-armed woman shouted.
Opening the distance between them, Kyoshi yelled in turn, “Stay where you are!” He especially meant the man who used the concealed weapons.
The woman and Kouryou froze in place. The young mother, named Enshi, was one who didn’t.
“Stop it,” she pleaded. “Please stop.” Enshi reached into her pocket and pulled out the purse. She held it out in both hands, as if making an offering at a shrine. “Take it and leave. We won’t lodge a complaint with the authorities about you. Then we can all go our separate ways.”
Dragging his hostage backward, Kyoshi furrowed his brows. They clearly believed that Kyoshi and his colleagues were highwaymen. That misunderstanding came as a relief. But at the same time, it aroused fresh suspicions. Enshi and Kouryou were traveling together, were they not? In that case, she must know why he’d come here to the mountains.
Kyoshi took another look at Kouryou and the woman. “Who are you exactly? What did you come here for?”
Kouryou raised his voice. “Mere travelers. As you already know.”
“A traveler who’s an expert user of concealed weapons? Why would a traveler leave the road and venture into the mountains?”
“Because you wouldn’t let us stay in your village. We were looking for a place to bed down. You don’t think we’d spend the night at the side of the road, do you? We were looking for shelter in the forest. That’s all.”
“Then why did they head off on their own?”
The two traveling with the kijuu, he meant. Kijuu were youjuu captured in the forbidden Yellow Sea at the center of the world. The captured youjuu were domesticated as riding animals or kijuu. While they had distinct advantages over ordinary mounts, such as the ability to fly, their limited numbers made them very valuable.
Moreover, the kijuu these two had with them were rare even for kijuu. Never would an ordinary townsperson or even a merchant who’d saved a little money on the side be seen with such kijuu. These were the kind of kijuu used in war, and not by run-of-the-mill foot soldiers. They were ridden by the elite air cavalry, by generals and regimental commanders. Only officers of an equivalent rank would ever think of owning one.
They had pursued them into the mountains. And then that man came to their aid. He appeared to be a common tradesman, had a mother and child with him. But he was in fact a skilled user of concealed weapons. The only conclusion Kyoshi was left with was that they were allies.
One team set off across country traveling disguised as a family with a child. The other flew into the mountains on kijuu. That way they could converge on the mountain separately without attracting attention, and then meet up at a prearranged location. To Kyoshi, this was the only explanation that made sense.
“They headed off on their own because we were never together in the first place. We didn’t know they were here. They didn’t know we were coming. This meeting was pure coincidence.”
“You may think so, but I am telling you the truth. There aren’t any other wooded areas along this road. The night dew falls like rain in these parts. The weather was taking a turn for the worse. I had a woman and child with me. We weren’t about to sleep under a boulder. So we came here to find a better place to spend the night. That’s when you people showed up. It sure looked like these two had a bunch of highwaymen stalking them. Speaking of which, who are you? Why go out of your way to attack them? Why us? Are you after money? Well, money is on the table. Just put away the knife.”
Kyoshi again drew his brows. He had the sense, just beneath the surface, that Kouryou was pleading with him. Kyoshi didn’t believe a word he was saying. Kouryou surely must have realized that too. Nevertheless, he earnestly continued to make the argument. What would such a dangerous man resort to such desperate ends?
Turning these thoughts over in his mind, a quiet voice said, “Let me go, please.” The voice of his hostage. “I won’t try to escape. If there is something you want, why don’t you lay out your demands for us?”
The question left Kyoshi flustered. His hostage spoke in such a quiet and measured tone. Kyoshi grabbed him because he was within reach. But seeing as he’d come here with the woman in the first place, he might be as seasoned a fighter as Kouryou. Kyoshi tightened his grip on the knife. If that was the case, he never had a chance of winning from the start. He simply was not suited for this sort of thing.
The moment that thought crossed his mind, Kouryou abruptly raised his voice. “General! No!”
Kouryou was in his line of sight for only a moment. Then he saw the one-armed woman. She drew her sword and was about to charge at Kyoshi. And yet at the sound of Kouryou voice, she whirled about as if yanked by a hidden string. She faced him and raised her sword. The tension in the air was palatable.
What is going on?
Kouryou addressed the woman as general. As he had believed all along, the two of them must be allies. So why did Kouryou lie and say they didn’t know each other? If they were allies, they must share the same objectives. That meant they had come here together to scout the mountains. That meant they had come here to arrest Kyoshi and his colleagues and execute them after all.
And yet the woman now raised her sword against her supposed comrade in arms.
The confusion left him all the more tense. Kyoshi held his weapon as tightly as he was able. His hand trembled. He couldn’t deny what was happening and neither could he stop. The tip of the knife pressed against pliable flesh. What suddenly sapped the force in his hand was the sight of Kouryou dropping to his hands and knees in front of him.
“Please stop! He is the Taiho!”
Kyoshi gaped. The outburst caught the woman by surprise as well and she lowered her guard. The young mother with the child stood there stock still.
All at once, Kyoshi became aware of the body in his grasp, that he had seized and threatened with a deadly weapon. Who was he?
There was no Saiho in the Kingdom of Tai. Kyoshi knew that much. Each kingdom had but one Saiho. The true nature of the Saiho was that of a unicorn, the kirin, who hearkened to the Divine Will and chose the emperor. Afterwards, the Saiho advised the emperor and served the people with mercy and compassion. The kirin was the greatest ally of the people.
For six years, no news about the Saiho had been forthcoming. Rumors said he had been killed. Kyoshi didn’t believe them. Somewhere he was safe. Someday he would return.
Kyoshi peered at his hostage with growing apprehension. His hostage calmly glanced up at him. But his hair, Kyoshi thought. Then he remembered—the Saiho of Tai was a rare Black Kirin. A Saiho’s hair was actually the mane of the unicorn. The mane of most kirin was golden in color. But for the Saiho of this kingdom—if this was Taiki—then his hair should be black.
Kouryou ignored the dumbfounded Kyoshi and addressed the woman. He said with a bow, “General Ryuu. A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Risai-sama, I served in the Palace Guard of the Center. The name is So.”
“Palace Guard of the Center,” Risai repeated to herself. Her eyes widened. “Regimental Commander So? I had heard of a skilled user of concealed weapons by the name of Kouryou.”
“The very same.” Kouryou turned to Kyoshi—no, to his hostage—and kowtowed deeply. “It is good to see that you are doing well.”
The knife slipped from Kyoshi’s hand. “Really?” He sank to his knees.
His equally dazed hostage looked at him and answered with a subdued nod. “And you are?”
“I was once an acolyte at Zui’un Temple.”
“Zui’un Temple!” The exclamation chorused around him.
“Yes, I am a survivor of Zui’un Temple.”
Six years ago, Zui’un Temple and the nearby Taoist temples were burned to the ground, the monks and priests killed. Kyoshi barely managed to escape. Sheltered by the local villagers, he had lived the life of an ordinary goatherd until now.
Kyoshi bowed deeply to his hostage. “From the depths of our souls, we have long awaited your return.”