s he walked along, leading his kijuu, Kouryou couldn’t help wondering how willing Risai had been to go along with this arrangement. He glanced at the darkening western sky. Three days had passed since they left Sekijou, when he and Taiki parted ways with Risai, Kyoshi, and Houto.
The moonlight lit up the landscape in forlorn hues, casting the deepening fall into stark relief.
Taiki’s unexpected actions must have taken Risai by surprise. Though Kyoshi had persuaded Kouryou to accompany Taiki, he doubted Risai was that willing to go along with the whole thing. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she insisted on chasing him down.
Were Kouryou in her position, he probably would have gone looking for Taiki too—or so he argued with himself. He cast a sidelong glance at the shadowed figure next to him, who looked up at the same dusky sky as he led his kijuu. The travelers around them streamed toward the city like a current. The gates were going to close before long.
Kouryou and Taiki had taken the road east when they departed from Sekijou. Following the highway and keeping a low profile, they proceeded across the countrywide and sought out the closest convenient city at sunset. This day as well, they joined the throngs entering the city. Passing through the gate, Kouryou felt a chill down his spine that again reminded him they were taking one chance too many for his own comfort.
Since leaving Sekijou, that sensation struck him at every city they came to. The highway ended at Kouki. All the more alarming, heading down this road took them closer and closer to Kouki.
Taiki was setting the itinerary here. When they set out from Sekijou, he asked which road led to Zui Province and Kouryou indicated this one. Ever since, Taiki had not deviated from the course.
The gate was thick with guards. Kouryou could not escape the fear of getting stopped and questioned. Avoiding the cities and camping under the stars seemed a plausible option, except that anyplace where wild animals prowled the countryside there were bound to be youma too. Here in the heart of the kingdom, the possibility struck him as slight but he could not dismiss the odds, no matter how small.
Even if they found an acceptable campsite, Kouryou would have to travel to the city for water and food and other provisions. That would mean leaving Taiki alone in the wilds, something he absolutely could not bring himself to do. Not knowing the dangers that awaited them, he couldn’t quench the belief that if he left Taiki alone for any span of time, he’d return to find that he had disappeared.
So the city it was. Call it good luck or bad, but Taiki had grown up during his time in Hourai. He was unrecognizable to anyone who knew him then. Though his steel black hair set him apart, people associated the kirin with golden hair. Despite Taiki being known as the “Black Kirin,” the image of the kirin was so firmly entwined with golden or blonde colors that the relationship of the one to the other was a difficult assumption to overcome.
Kouryou only recognized Taiki because he was with Risai. Otherwise, it likely never would have dawned on him.
With their kijuu, an inn was their only choice. In fact, not staying at an inn would raise more eyebrows. Thankfully, as they approached the capital, the number of travelers with kijuu also increased. As before, they found an inn and got a room. Only after Taiki left the kijuu at the stables and returned to the room did Kouryou finally dare venture into the city to buy dinner.
Though he always stopped at the stables first and made it clear that his companion’s kijuu was not to be released without Kouryou’s explicit say-so.
The streets grew congested around the time the gates closed. Mingling with the crowds, Kouryou breathed a sigh of relief. He eyed the food stalls, looking for a meal palatable to Taiki as well, meaning nothing that contained any blood or meat.
For a short while, Kouryou could relax and enjoy some time by himself. This day, though, his emotions remained clouded. They followed the highway but he didn’t know where they were headed. They didn’t have to wait for the horses to catch up and so traveled as fast as their kijuu could carry them.
“Where are we going?” Over and over he tried to raise the question. But then his sense of protocol kicked in. He hesitated questioning Taiki so directly.
“Which way?” he’d asked when they left Sekijou.
“East” was the succinct answer. He hadn’t made any further inquiries since.
Tonight was different. No matter what, he had to know their destination. If they kept going down the road like this, they’d arrive in Kouki tomorrow.
Wrapped in these heavy thoughts, he returned to the inn. He climbed the stairs to the room and found Taiki standing at the window in the main room looking down at the city. Inns that accommodated kijuu attracted an upper-class clientele and the room was furnished accordingly, though it was still rather cramped. The sleeping quarters on either side of the main room lacked even windows. Kouryou had chosen such a small room on purpose. This way, no one could get close to Taiki when he was in the main room and neither could Taiki leave without his knowledge.
I’m treating him like the enemy.
Kouryou had to smile at himself. More like transporting a prisoner, around whom he could not let down his guard for a minute. He couldn’t avoid the irony that he was treating the kirin, of all people, in such a way.
Amidst the strained silence, he waited for the opportunity. With dinner over, he took a deep breath. He couldn’t drag things out any longer.
“Beg your pardon,” Kouryou finally said. “But where are we going tomorrow? I do need to ask what our destination is here.”
Having returned to the window where he again stood and took in the city below, Taiki glanced over his shoulder. He gazed at Kouryou as he mulled over the question.
“Same as it’s always been,” was all he said.
Up to this point, Kouryou would have taken such an answer at face value. But he couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
“If we keep going the way we’ve been going, we’ll arrive in Kouki. You don’t really intend to go to Kouki, do you?”
Taiki turned away and again directed his gaze at the hustle and bustle beyond the wall around the inn.
“I’m begging you here. Where are we going and what are we going to do when we get there?”
Taiki didn’t answer, only looked down at the street below. “More and more people are wearing heavy coats.”
Kouryou heaved a big sigh. Dispirited, he joined Taiki at the window and took in the view below. He really didn’t need to see for himself, but day after day, the travelers were donning heavier clothing. Naturally. The onset of winter was not long off. At a loss of what to do or say, he stood there and watched the people passing by.
Taiki spoke in a soft, low voice. “I’m going to Hakkei Palace.”
Kouryou turned to him, making no attempt to mask his utter amazement. “That is completely crazy!”
But Taiki remained serene. With calm and collected demeanor, he closed the window and looked at Kouryou.
“I know you would have stopped me. That is why I didn’t mention it until now.”
“Of course I would have stopped you! It’s too dangerous! I could not possibly look the other way!”
“If you think it is dangerous, then you can go back and catch up with Risai.”
“As if I could do that!” Kouryou practically shouted.
Taiki said with a bemused look, “Then what will you do? Place me under arrest?”
“I will return you to Risai by whatever means necessary.”
“You’re going to tie me up, then? I would run away otherwise. Your kijuu would never catch my Tora.”
Kouryou was at a loss for words. Taiki was right. His kou was no match for a suugu. That meant his only recourse was to bind him hand and foot, something he could not possibly bring himself to do either.
“I’m going to Hakkei Palace,” Taiki said again. “The only question that remains is whether you will go with me or turn back and catch up with Risai. Please decide on your next course of action.”
Kouryou heaved another big sigh. “Answer me this only. Before we left Sekijou, you said you were hearkening to the Divine Will. Is that true?”
Taiki didn’t answer.
“Or was that the most convenient explanation that you figured would sway me and Kyoshi?”
Taiki puzzled over the question for a minute before answering with a nod.
“I can’t believe you’d do something so outrageous!”
“Yes, it is,” Taiki murmured with wry humor. “It is entirely outrageous.”
He crossed the room to the table and sat down. He picked up one of the handful of walnuts spilled across the tabletop and rolled it around in his hand, as if testing the soundness of the shell.
“Kouryou, I was born in Hourai.”
“I grew up in Hourai. At the age of ten, I was brought back to Mount Hou. There I chose Gyousou-sama as Emperor and returned to Tai. In the spring of the next year, I once again returned to Hourai.”
“Of course. I know that too.”
The exasperation in Kouryou voice brought a flitting smile to Taiki’s face.
“The fact of the matter is, I have lived in Tai all of six months and experienced winter only once.” It came as a complete shock, he murmured to himself. He said aloud, “The climates of Tai and Hourai are completely different. Winters in Tai are very cold. Surprisingly so. Gyousou-sama once took me to the Forbidden Gate so we could look down on the city. The city was covered in white, a scene so beautiful it was almost frightening. I will never forget what I saw that day.”
He glanced at the walnut. “A beauty as pure as it is cruel and terrifying. That was how Gyousou described it. That terrifying winter will soon be upon us.”
Taken aback by this turn in the conversation, Kouryou caught his breath.
“The wind grows cold. Travelers don heavier and heavier coats. Snow will fall before long. Finally, snow will cover every last inch of everything. When that happens, a little walnut like this can spell the difference between life and death.”
Taiki opened his fingers to reveal the walnut in his hand.
“Asen has cast the people aside. Town governments no longer function. Most have been abandoned to their own devices. How will the villagers of Touka fare this winter? What about the inhabitants of all the towns and villages we pass by every day? Will they have enough to eat? And if their stores of food run short, what will the people living there do?”
“Kouryou, before the snow completely shuts down the countryside, the minimum necessary steps must be taken to save the people of this kingdom.”
At last, Kouryou began to grasp something of Taiki’s state of mind, what was so incessantly driving him forward.
“And you’re saying that to bring that about, we must head for Hakkei Palace?”
“No emperor occupies the throne. Asen has no desire to save his own supposed subjects. In that case, I must step into the breach. That is the reason I am here, is it not?”
“I understand how you feel,” said Kouryou, clenching his fists. “I understand so well it hurts.”
“That is only the half of it,” Taiki said, interrupting him. “There are prisoners being held in the Imperial Palace. Seirai and Ganchou and Rousan.”
“Right,” Kouryou said with a nod.
“We cannot abandon them. Someone has to go to Hakkei Palace and ascertain their well-being and, if possible, rescue them.”
“I agree with you, but how would you bring that about? If you show up at Hakkei Palace, won’t you get apprehended and executed all over again?”
“Probably. But I do have a plan this time.”
Kouryou blinked. A way to get within spitting distance of Hakkei Palace without losing his life in the process? Was such a thing even possible?
“And this plan of yours?”
Taiki shook his head. “I can’t make any promises about the actual effectiveness of my plan, so I will say nothing for now. Because if it doesn’t work, we’ll have to come up with something else on the spot. If we had the time, I would prefer consulting with you on every detail. But that isn’t a viable option now. So I think it’s better to leave you in the dark. If I did a poor job laying out the course of action beforehand, and then suddenly had to do an about face, I’m not sure you’d be ready to follow my lead.”
“This is madness!”
“You’ve got a mountain of concerns, I know. But I don’t think it’s as crazy as you can imagine. I’ve been mulling over these strategies ever since we returned.” Taiki spoke in a subdued tone of voice. Then he added, “I honestly don’t think we’ll end up dead. Simply believing that is a good place to begin. But if you stick with me, you’ll be in for a lot of surprises, a lot of things that will make no sense. If you come along, I’ll have to ask you to leave everything to me. Keep your own counsel and go with the flow.”
“You are asking the impossible.”
“Would it do any good to argue that this will be the safest course of action for both you and me?”
Taiki asked that question with an utterly straight face, to which Kouryou had no ready rebuttal.
“Are you saying there will be absolutely no risk to the Taiho’s life?”
“I am saying that I will not do anything to cause the people of Tai—who up to now have shouldered so many hardships—to lose any more hope.”
Kouryou did not understand where Taiki was going with all of this but he nodded anyway. He couldn’t do much else.
The next day, Kouryou and Taiki headed straight to Kouki. These days, no one entered the city without their credentials being subjected to a thorough check. Anticipating such an eventuality, Doujin, the Touka village manager, had forged travel papers for them. Getting inside the city should not pose that great a challenge. The far larger obstacle came later.
While flying low over the countryside, eyes drawn upwards as Kouki’s towering gray mountain drew ever closer, Kouryou asked, “So how do we get into Hakkei Palace?”
“Through the front door.”
The sun hung low in the western sky when Kouryou and Taiki arrived at Kouki.
Rising like a bundle of stone pillars, the immense mountain soared into the sky, the hard, white contours of Mount Ryou’un framed against a light veil of clouds. Hakkei Palace was located at the summit of the mountain, though the lingering cloud cover hid it from view.
And yet there was no denying the beauty of the sight. The trees and shrubs clinging to the cliffs and outcroppings dotted the mountainside with daubs of dark green, vividly contrasted against the pale bare rock. The city traced undulating lines around the hilly base of the mountain, spreading out in waves of white. Glazed blue roof tiles covered many roofs and decorative crimson was visible everywhere.
Kouryou hadn’t visited Kouki in six years, not since the launch of the military campaigns in Bun Province. After his promotion, his face had become a familiar sight to soldiers in other regiments as well. If he was recognized, he’d be arrested for desertion on the spot. Though he’d previously strayed into the vicinity of Kouki, confident of keeping clear of any danger, he’d never actually entered Kouki.
From the highway, Kouki appeared to be right on top of them. To his eyes, the city hadn’t changed in those six years. His heartbeat drummed in his ears like an alarm bell. He forced himself to maintain a steady pace as they approached the massive southern gate.
The Horse Gate was a complex of five separate gates. The center gate was reserved for use by the emperor and Saiho alone. Kouryou got ready to present the travel papers they’d obtained in Touka and pass through one of the side gates into Kouki. But without a moment’s hesitation, Taiki headed to the central gate.
Kouryou frantically called out under his breath. Taiki answered only with a small nod and walked right up to the guards at the gate. The guards exchanged dubious looks and lowered their lances to block the way.
“Who are you? If you’re going to Kouki, use one of the side gates.”
Disregarding the obvious wariness of the guards, Taiki said, “Please open the gate. Six years ago, an accident separated me from Kouki. I have returned at long last.” Addressing the increasingly suspicious guards directly, he added, “I wish to convey a message to Asen-sama. My name is Taiki.”
The flabbergasted Kouryou managed to clamp his mouth shut and maintain an even composure. That hardly mattered, because what Taiki said next left him speechless.
“I have made this unannounced visit in accordance to the Divine Will. I seek an audience with the new Emperor of Tai.”