bird welcomed the break of day in Touka with a song.
Though the falling rain had lifted at some point during the night, the gloomy gray still permeated the room. Enshi sat up in bed and listened to the cry of the small bird. Next to her, Ritsu slept soundly and still.
He must be exhausted.
Enshi gazed at the sleeping face of her young son and gently stroked his hair, damp with sweat.
They’d had to sleep in the open air the two nights before they arrived at Touka. They then carried that fatigue with them as they trudged up the long slope of the hill. At that point, one thing led to another and they got caught up in an altercation of altogether unexpected origins. But at the end of the day, they finally were given a bed in a small cottage in a corner of the rika.
A young man met them at the gates of the village—the same village that had previously turned them away—and treated them in an entirely different manner. The villagers welcomed them with warmth and courtesy and fed them well. The room provided for her and Ritsu included hot water to wash away the dust of the road and a simple but soft bed.
The night before, as they were settling in, a knock came at the door. Enshi got to her feet expectantly and answered the door. It was the village superintendent. He graciously thanked Enshi and asked if there was anything she needed. The room was small but she should feel free to use it as she saw fit. They could stay as long as they wished. The rika would see to the support of Enshi and Ritsu.
Here was a place to “settle down” that Enshi had long been searching for. If she so wished, the superintendent would guide her through the process so she could live here as a member of the community. That would be possible because the village in which she was registered no longer existed.
They could stay at the rika or set up accommodations in the village. If she needed a job, he could arrange for one. It was a poor village but she should set her mind at ease and think of it as her own.
Enshi bowed and thanked him. She truly was thankful. No more wandering about with no destination in mind, no more getting soaked by the night dew, no more freezing in winter. If she formally became a resident of Touka, she would receive an allotment. Thus her presence in the village would truly take root in more ways than one.
And yet she couldn’t shake the hollow and forlorn feelings in her heart, such that she hadn’t been able to sleep.
Right behind her quarters was a snug courtyard. At the back of the courtyard was the guest house for entertaining important visitors. Though Enshi couldn’t see it from the cottage or sense anything about the place, peering over the hedge and through the trees that separated the cottage from the courtyard, she could make out a point of lamplight.
That must be where he was. The Taiho—he who would save Tai from its troubled and confused state.
In fact, he had saved her and Ritsu. And at the same time, he stole Kouryou from them.
She knew she was being disrespectful but in her mind she couldn’t help upbraiding him for casting aside such a heavy responsibility and disappearing from off the face of the earth. While he was gone, Enshi lost everything important in her life, save Ritsu. Why would the Saiho abandon his kingdom? Where had he been and what was he doing all this time? Why couldn’t he have come back faster? Now he returns, when she had nothing, only to take Kouryou from her and Ritsu too.
Kouryou had already had left her to fend on her own. The hedge blocking her view was more proof of the wall that separated them—herself and a commander in the Palace Guard.
From her perspective, he was one of the elite who lived above the Sea of Clouds. Before Tai degraded to the state it was in today, Kouryou likely lived in Kouki in a place close to the sky.
Enshi couldn’t cross the hedge to the other side and Kouryou wasn’t about to stay in Touka with her. She should be fine with that. Kouryou had remained with her until she arrived at a place that she could call home. That place was here and here was where her journey with Kouryou ended.
The day would always come when we would go our separate ways.
She knew Kouryou was shouldering a burden she could not see. He was carrying the Kingdom of Tai on his back, the kingdom as it truly was, the kingdom he saw with his own two eyes as he wandered hither and yon. No true emperor sat on the Tai throne, hence its ragged and savage state. During his endless journey, Kouryou was constantly on the lookout for the best way to address the situation.
The best way came to him in the form of the Taiho.
Kouryou simply could not accompany her any further. As well as she understood this, looking at Ritsu’s sleeping face, the stark reality broke her heart. When did we grow so fond of him?
Ritsu would be terribly upset when that stark reality became impossible to ignore. She’d even understand him longing for the hard days on the road when they were together.
However she tried to convince herself that it was all for the best, a part of her continued to raise objections. Her unsettled emotions kept her awake all night. When the singing birds signaled the dawn of the new day and the room began to brighten, she gave up trying to sleep.
She got out of bed. After assiduously brushing the dust off of her kimono and doing the same with Ritsu’s clothing, she washed her face with the water from the pail on the dresser. Perhaps sensing her moving around, Ritsu woke up. Enshi helped him get dressed. Not knowing what they should do next, she took Ritsu by the hand and exited the room.
A woman working the courtyard noticed them. “Oh, I see you’re up.”
“I hope you’re feeling better this morning.”
“We rested well thanks to all you’ve done for us.” Enshi did her best to muster a smile.
Perhaps sensing the polite lie in Enshi’s answer, the woman smiled sympathetically. “You should take it easy for now. But just as well. I was thinking it was about time to wake you up anyway.”
“Was there something we needed to do?”
The woman shook her head. “They will be leaving pretty soon now.”
Enshi caught her breath. Already?
“There’s no time to waste, they say. Did you wish to see them off?”
By them, did she mean Kouryou or the Taiho? Enshi nodded. Ritsu looked up at her, the puzzled expression on his face asking what was going on. Enshi knelt down in front of him.
“Kouryou has to leave on a journey. Let’s say goodbye to him, okay?”
Ritsu tipped his small head to the side and then nodded. The young Ritsu perhaps didn’t understand what “goodbye” meant this time. He probably thought that Kouryou was leaving the inn to go sell his wares, as he had so often done during their travels.
Holding Ritsu’s hand, Enshi followed the woman back through the rika, down a corridor, and then followed the gallery around the courtyard before exiting through the courtyard gate. The gate led directly from the courtyard to the rika entrance. There they joined the people already assembled there.
A group of seven soon appeared. Enshi recognized the superintendent among them. The middle-aged man was probably a member of the village. A thin, elderly man. And then the travelers dressed for the journey ahead. Two kijuu, a young man and a woman. Also wearing a traveling outfit was Kyoshi, whom she’d met the night before. And one other person.
Enshi took a tighter hold of Ritsu’s hand.
Kouryou had about him the aura of a husband, the husband who had returned for Enshi’s sake. But she had to see things as they really were. Enshi’s husband left Ritsu when he died. Now Kouryou was leaving. He was leaving to fight. And to fight meant to kill and be killed.
Enshi stood there stock still as these thoughts belatedly occurred to her. Kouryou looked at her. He had on the big pack he always wore on his back and that cheerful expression on his face. Their eyes met. He nodded. He looked at Ritsu and his eyes narrowed in a smile.
“How are you doing?” he said, drawing closer. “Did you sleep well?” He put his hand on Ritsu’s head and tousled his hair in an affectionate manner. Ritsu answered with a bob of his head. Kouryou smiled. He turned to Enshi. “Risai did a good job making the arrangements.”
Enshi wordlessly nodded.
“She’s quite accomplished.”
Enshi nodded again. She had no idea what else to do.
A troubled look briefly rose to Kouryou’s face. “It’s not like I’m abandoning you and Ritsu. Quite the opposite. I want to make sure you understand that.”
Enshi responded with another nod. Kouryou had to leave to save ordinary people like her. She placed a trembling hand on Ritsu’s shoulder. “Ritsu, say thank you to Kouryou and wish him well.”
Ritsu responded with a blank stare. Kouryou again placed his hand on his head. “Keep your chin up until I get back.”
“Get back?” Enshi echoed.
Kouryou turned his bright eyes to her. “Of course. I am definitely coming back and in fine fettle too. I know it’ll be tough but do your best in the meantime, okay?”
Enshi said in a timid voice, “And when you get back, you’ll soon be setting off again.”
No,” Kouryou answered with a smile. “When I get back, I won’t need to go on any more adventures. Nobody in this kingdom will.”
Early in the morning, at the appointed hour, the gate of Touka opened. Two kijuu and four travelers passed through the gate and headed to the road. Seeing them off outside the gate were three men and a woman. And a child. But inside the gate, a far greater number of men and women hung back. Kneeling on the ground, they watched them leave, their eyes fixed on the four travelers until they disappeared out of sight.