2-2 The sun had long set when the village gate was closed and barred. It was dead quiet inside the palisades, the wan glow of lit lamps from the houses providing the only illumination.
Now past midnight, the village would ordinarily be quietly slumbering. But evident in the dim light coming from the rika, where several dozen villagers had assembled, no one slept beneath the blanket of this apparent tranquility.
The villagers gathered in an arc around the guest house just east of the rika, so crowded together there was hardly any room to spare. Except a passerby glancing at the rika would not suspect there was anybody there. Carrying no lamps that would betray their presence, the villagers crept along the unlit corridors to the dark courtyard where they crouched low to the ground.
Maintaining a stubborn silence, they peered at the sliver of light coming from the building.
No, it was not completely quiet. Although the assembly was devoid of conversational chatter, muffled murmurs and stifled sobs resounded through the darkness—a family locked in a tight embrace—the trembling hands of a husband and wife clasped together—a sleeve held between clenched teeth to muffle her voice—a man clinging to the tree in the courtyard.
None of them averted their eyes from the guest house. Peering through the window and door at the shadows cast by the lamp inside the guest house, they focused their attention on a single silhouette.
An older man appeared in the window, blocking the view. As if trying not to attract any more undue attention, he directed his low and subdued voice at the darkness. “You all need to go home.” The man addressing them was the superintendent of the rika. “I know how you feel, but he cannot relax like this.”
The superintendent didn’t say who wasn’t able to relax though they understood his intent. And yet they did not respond, lingering there like a garden of statues.
“Time to call it a night, you know?” the superintendent added.
The crowd wavered, but not because they were heeding his plea. What made them draw a collective breath was the appearance of another person behind the superintendent.
“I have no objections,” he said to the superintendent. He took another step forward and for a long moment looked at the night. Then he said in a hushed and soft voice, “There are small children here. The night dew will soak them to the skin. Please, at least bring them inside.”
The superintendent turned to him with a startled expression. The crowd swayed again. With a faint gasp here and a muffled outcry there, the throng collapsed like a toppled wall, sinking to their knees and prostrating themselves on the ground. Then rising to their feet, the crowd slowly unraveled from one end as they filed out. Not a word was uttered until the last person vanished from the courtyard.
The superintendent contemplated the young man next to him. With not a soul left in the courtyard, the Taiho gazed at the night, filled now with nothing but the darkness.
“Surely there are things they wished to say. Fine people you have in this village.”
“Thank you,” said the superintendent with a nod of his head.
Kyoshi looked on in silence. The long-suffering villagers had planted their stakes in this barren ground continued to support the Taoist monks even at the cost of their own meager provisions. They deserved a reward. Seeing Taiki with their own eyes and hearing his voice must have provided some sort of recompense.
Taiki lingered at the window until, urged on by the superintendent, the two of them returned to the center of the guest house.
“Well, then,” the superintendent declared in a bright voice. He addressed the several villagers who’d remained behind to serve the meals and take care of the guests. “We shall leave for now. Please have a good night.”
He turned his grizzled face to Kouryou. “You and your companions are welcome to stay in our rika. Ours is not an affluent village, and hardly a comfortable one either. But we will do our best to accommodate you. Please set your minds at ease.”
“Thank you very much,” Kouryou said with a heartfelt bow.
Risai followed his example with similar words of appreciation. “We are indeed indebted to you for all you have done for us.”
The superintendent answered with a deep bow of his own. The remaining villagers bowed as well and then withdrew. Left in the room, gathered in a circle around the Taiho, were Kouryou, Risai, Kyoshi and two others. One was a thin man in early middle age, the other an old man adorned in a simple robe.
These two had had made it their job to support the refugees from Zui’un Temple. The younger of the two was the village manager, who went by the name of Doujin. The older man was a Taoist priest from Zui’un Temple.
When Kyoshi returned to returned to the village along with his wounded comrades, Douji had been standing anxiously by the gate. Hearing about the return of Taiki, he had hurried there to await their arrival. The village manager, who himself was the very picture of a virtuous man, dropped to the ground in a kowtow as soon as he caught view of Taiki in the distance.
He’d remained prostrated on the ground, weeping through clenched teeth, until Kyoshi and his party drew alongside. The sun had already set. The village of Touka greeted the party and then shut the gate, closing off the outside world. The guests of honor were ushered to the rika, where they enjoyed a brief respite and a hastily prepared banquet.
Receiving word of what had happened, Enchou hastened from his hiding place on a nearby mountain, arriving with the messenger Douji had dispatched a short time before. Enchou, whom Kyoshi had not seen exhibit a single moment of consternation or panic since the catastrophe that befell Zui’un Temple, appeared completely flummoxed for the first time in his life.
At a loss for words in the presence of Taiki, he bowed low to the ground, and thereafter retreated to a corner of the room and crouched there like a stone statue.
Taking advantage of a moment of silence, Kyoshi took him by the hand and brought him before Taiki. “Taiho, let me introduce to you the chief priest of Zui’un Temple. This is Enchou.”
Zui’un Temple was home to nearly a hundred temples and monasteries. Each institution had its own head priest or abbot. Pulling all of their efforts together was the chief priest. Though there wasn’t just one surviving chief priest. There were at least six at this juncture, of whom Enchou was “first among equals.”
The other five had escaped to neighboring provinces. Enchou remined here, supervising the monks involved in the production of medicines, serving as a liaison to the temples of other Taoist sects that had also remained, and coordinating the efforts of all the sects and Buddhist institutions in the area.
When Kyoshi explained this, as he had done with Kyoshi, Taiki politely took Enchou’s hand in his, and raising their hands together, thanked him for all he had done. Kyoshi held Enchou upright as the priest dabbed at his eyes with the hem of his robe. The poverty and cold he’d endured since the catastrophe had left the aging Enchou with aches and pains in his lower body, such that he required assistance to stand or sit or even walk.
Noticing this himself, Taiki offered his own arm along with Kyoshi’s and led him to a chair. “Please sit down,” he said. Glancing over his shoulder he said the same to the Douji. “The village manager should to.”
The flustered Douji shook his head. “No, I—”
His refusal clearly surprised Taiki. “The floor is cold. And to start with, I am hardly qualified to have you kowtowing to me like this.”
“Taiho!” Risai said with a raised voice.
Taiki cut her off with a glance. “Please, have a seat. I must apologize for my long absence. Not only that, I must tell you things that are bound to disappoint you.” He stopped speaking for a moment, his face taking on a quiet, matter-of-fact expression. “First, to the village manager and the chief priest, I express my heartfelt thanks for their tireless efforts on behalf of the people.”
Taiki turned to Kyoshi. “Kyoshi, I mean you as well. I greatly appreciate everything you have done up till now. While I was far removed from Tai, literally good for nothing, all of you were doing your level best for the good of the people. Despite returning at this late date, you gladly bore the terrible sacrifices demanded of you and welcomed me with open arms. However—”
Taiki again stopped speaking, searching for the right words.
“I have no miracles to offer you. I no longer have my horn. To be honest, I cannot even call myself a kirin.”
Risai jumped to her feet, slamming her foot against the chair in the process. “Taiho, you should not talk like that.”
“It is the truth.”
Kyoshi didn’t follow the meaning of what they were saying. He noticed that Kouryou as well wore a dubious look on his face. Risai glanced at him and shook her head.
“What the Taiho said is incorrect. How can a kirin be anything but a kirin? The Taiho is the kirin of Tai. He is, without a doubt, the divine being bestowed on Tai by Heaven. He simply suffered an injury.”
“The horn, you mean?”
Kyoshi couldn’t help but pose the question. The true nature of the kirin was that of a divine beast. Most possessed the golden mane of a lion and a single horn on its head. The horn was said to constitute the wellspring of its supernatural powers. Was that the horn they were referring to?
“That villain Asen cut it with his sword. As a result, the Taiho suffered a grave wound and fell to Hourai. None of this was in any way the Taiho’s fault.”
As Risai earnestly launched in her explanation, the Taiho stopped her.
“Risai, however that may be true, it is also irrelevant. As she said, I was wounded. As a result, I cannot sense the emperor's aura. Neither can I transform into a unicorn nor can I subjugate the youma and employ them as my shirei. I can do none of those things for the Kingdom of Tai or for its people. All I am is what you see before you.”
“And that is enough,” Douji said before anyone else could speak. “You are the grace that Heaven bestowed upon Tai. The presence of Taiki, of the Taiho, in Tai is proof that Heaven has not abandoned us. That alone is reward enough for me.” Douji let out a sign. “The truth is, I was ready to believe that Heaven had abandoned Tai, that the kingdom and its people would sink beneath the waves and never rise again to the surface.”
Under normal circumstances, Douji was a constant source of inspiration to the villagers and to Kyoshi and his fellow monks. This was the first time Kyoshi had been privy to his inner doubts.
“Should I conceal such thoughts and let them cling to hope to the very end? Or was doing so just a cruel joke—”
Douji interrupted himself, raising his fist to his mouth, as if physically worn down by the weight of such questions.
“The villagers have done no wrong. Far from it, they earnestly supported the Taoists. They have worked harder and eaten less. How could I then tell them that Heaven had cast them aside? I could not allow them to suspect their good works had not reached Heaven, that their just devotions were tossed onto the ground.”
Douji appeared on the verge of tears. Now a smile rose to his face.
“But Heaven has not abandoned us. Telling them not to give up hope, that a reward awaited them if they endured through the bad times, was not a lie. I could not have imagined such a welcome turn of events.”
Taiki took in Douji’s words. Without a word, he bowed deeply.
Enchou added, “I agree with Douji. Despite your wounds, you returned to Tai. Traveling between here and Hourai cannot be something so easily done.”
“I could not have done such a thing on my own. Risai put her life on the line and traveled to Kei, where she secured the support of the empress.”
“The Imperial Kei,” Enchou repeated, as if he could not believe his own ears, as if the words themselves were so unexpected he failed to grasp their meaning.
Kyoshi reacted the same way. Did the Taiho mean the Empress of the Kingdom of Kei at the eastern end of the continent? She came to the support of Tai? Kyoshi had never heard of one kingdom reaching out to help another in such a manner. Perhaps two kingdoms located on the continent. Eight kingdoms shared the same continuous land mass. Tai sat by itself in the middle of the sea. It enjoyed no substantive diplomatic relations with any other kingdom. He’d heard that other kingdoms had sent envoys to the enthronement of the new emperor—then who disappeared only six months later. But he knew nothing about the particulars.
For someone like Kyoshi, who did not reside in the world above the Sea of Clouds, the rest of the world might just as well not exist.
Taking note of the blank faces around them, Taiki urged Risai to continue with her account.
“Because it had come to my attention that the Imperial Kei, like the Taiho, was born a taika.”
In this world, life began as a ranka, the “fruit of life” that grew on the riboku tree. In some unfortunate cases, the ranka was swept away to that mysterious country, where the transplanted ranka “hatched” and was born the same as a human child. The Imperial Kei was rumored to be one such taika.
Risai thought it possible that if she had also been born in Hourai, she might share an affinity of birth with Taiki and be willing to come to his aid. At that point, Risai had no other option but to rely on the good offices of another kingdom.
The young empress of Kei went to great lengths to save Taiki. By means of the empress, Risai was also able to secure the assistance of the Kingdom of En, which had close and friendly relations with Kei. Thanks to entreaties made by Imperial En, other kingdoms got involved as well. Taiki was located in Hourai. Using a shoku, he was at last returned to Kei.
Securing the cooperation of the emperors and empresses to bring back Taiki was no simple or straightforward process. Even after his return, lacking his horn, Taiki could not defend himself to any satisfactory degree. Nevertheless, he insisted on returning to Tai.
As soon as Taiki had recovered from the maladies he’d suffered in Hourai, he and Risai left Kei for Tai. Risai had her kijuu and Taiki rode a kijuu lent to him by the Imperial En. They crossed the Sea of Clouds and headed first to Sui Province.
Located at the top of the sky, the Sea of Clouds divided the world between the heavens and the earth. As evidence of a kingdom on the decline, youma increased within the borders of the kingdom. The southern province of Sui Province was already infamous for the swarms of youma found there. But youma could not proliferate above the Sea of Clouds.
They intended to make the provincial palace in Sui their initial stopping point. Except the palace turned out to be inaccessible. Every inch of the surrounding area was occupied by the Provincial Guard, such that they could not even get close to the palace.
“Before departing for Kei, I traveled with a friend to Sui Province. We heard it had not yet surrendered to Asen’s forces.”
“No,” Kouryou interrupted. “Sui Province is out of the question. The province lord there fell ill some time ago.”
“Oh.” Risai responded with a groan.
Not privy to that information, she and her friend had headed to the provincial palace. Along the way, they had parted ways, with Risai flying off toward Kei, leaving her friend behind amidst the ruins of a desolate hill. Risai had no idea what became of her. Contemplating her fate, Risai fell silent for a spell.
“Not knowing the conditions on the ground in Sui Province, the Taiho and I set our eyes on Sui Province. However—”
Risai had considered the possibility that, in her absence, the province lord of Sui Province switched allegiances.
At first, Asen claimed only to be filling the throne as the provisional emperor according to established practice, and would abandon it when a new emperor was chosen. For the time being, the province lords who governed the kingdom’s nine provinces had no reason to question his claims.
In time, Asen’s usurpation became clear. But even then, not all of the province lords stood against him. A few raised objections. Asen’s threats silenced them. Others bided their time, waiting for the right moment, seeing no point in swimming against the tide. One by one, the provinces lined up behind Asen. Among them, there were those who inexplicable and suddenly switched sides. It was said that they “fell ill.”
Asen’s opponents had a habit of abruptly “falling ill.” Risai was aware of the phenomenon. Seeing the palace defended in depth by the Provincial Guard, she knew that Sui Province was no longer a viable option. The lord of Sui Province must have “fallen ill” and allied himself with Asen. Youma could not proliferate above the Sea of Clouds. But that constituted no sure defense against the devils in their midst.
She wracked her brains for a place they could head to next. There were no waystations above the Sea of Clouds where they could rest and recuperate. They had to descend from the Sea of Clouds at some point. The provincial palaces were closed to them. Risai knew that Ran Province and Gai Province to the north had already surrendered to Asen’s control.
And yet the only route available to them was a Ryou’un Mountain. Turning that thought over in her mind, Risai remembered Bokuyou Mountain in Kou Province. The Taoist temples in Ten Shire occupied the foothills of Bokuyou Mountain. News of their destruction by Asen had reached her ears. But as a result, the area around Bokuyou Mountain should be nearly depopulated.
In fact, with the gate towns eradicated and the nearby villages and hamlets reduced to ruins, Bokuyou Mountain had no defensive perimeter. Risai was amazed anybody lived there at all.
“The Providence of Heaven perhaps,” Risai mused aloud, “that Bokuyou Mountain should occur to me like that.”
There were Ryou’un Mountains in the north of Sui Province and in Ran Province further to the north. Risai wasn’t familiar with all of them, but she could recall at least two or three without much effort. Then why not only make a single bound across Ran to Kou Province but then proceed straight to Bokuyou Mountain at the top of Kou?
Though the tragedy of Zui’un Temple had indeed left a strong impression on her mind, the distance to Ten Shire alone should have been reason enough to look elsewhere. But once Bokuyou Mountain occurred to her, she dismissed all of the other options from her thoughts.
“A good thing you did,” Kouryou said. “We would not have met otherwise.”
Kyoshi also nodded. Recalling the circumstances of their chance encounter sent a chill down his spine. If they hadn’t run into Kouryou, and continued to mistake Risai and Taiki for a posse sent by Asen to hunt them down, Kyoshi and his companions would have tried to drive them off. Given Risai’s battle-hardened fighting skills, Kyoshi and the rest of them wouldn’t have stood a chance.
And Taiki could have been caught in the crossfire. Taiki was a Black Kirin. He didn’t have the golden hair unique to the kirin. Kyoshi never would have imagined that he was the kirin of the kingdom. With no shirei to protect him, he could have gotten wounded or even killed.
Almost as if he was privy to Kyoshi’s thoughts, Kouryou said to Risai, “If you hadn’t been there, I would have continued to wander around Tai waiting for the Taiho to return. I am indeed grateful.”
Risai shook her head. “None of this is my doing. I prefer to believe that Heaven took note of the good people of Touka and their good works.”
Overcome by emotion, the men around her pressed their hands against their eyes.