13-3 The central garden was the unifying element of all of the buildings in the Imperial Palace, here referring to a courtyard surrounded on all four sides. The entire structure might contain three or four such gardens aligned north to south.
Taiki had been taught this at Seirai’s knee.
The central axis of the compound ran straight along a north to south line, with the main entrance at the south and the more important rooms located further north and deeper in. The gate accessing the building at the south end of the compound led to the first courtyard. The second courtyard was situated north of the buildings surrounding the first, with the third and possibly a fourth following the same pattern.
Whether a large castle or a small abode, the layout incorporated the same architectural approach. Only the scale differed.
If a structure with four courtyards proved insufficient, then parallel axes were added to the right and left, with the buildings organized around the same arrangement of three or four courtyards. The surrounding walls defined everything inside as a single compound.
Strolling about the grounds, Taiki learned that every structure in Hakkei Palace hewed to these architectural concepts.
Holding Seirai’s warm hand and listening to his calm and reassuring voice, Taiki delighted in exploring the so-called shortcuts and byways around the palace. Starting with the occupations, customs, and cultural background related to each of the surrounding buildings, Seirai extended the conversation into the relevant etiquette and politics.
Seirai conducted many such lectures in disguise, and answered any of Taiki’s questions using words he could easily understand.
Gathering together these scattered fragments from his memories, Taiki wended his way among the dark buildings. For good or ill, the waning crescent moon offered little illumination. One result was that it was easy to make out lanterns from a distance. Since soldiers were the only ones carrying lanterns at this time of night, he had no problem spotting approaching patrols and finding a hiding place.
The Rokushin in which Asen must be ensconced was surrounded by a long wall. But Taiki knew of several secret passageways. To start with, according to the customary layout of the courtyards, the Rokushin was not one massive single structure but a cluster of buildings linked together. There were bound to be gaps in the security cordon where one abutted another.
A variety of circumstances had allowed Taiki to confirm their existence. “The walls around my home must be filled with as many holes,” he once pointed out to Seirai.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Seirai assured him with a gentle smile. “You see, the Taiho’s residence is surrounded by the sea. There is no easy way to approach it from below. There are only two gates and two ways in and out.”
In any case, a wall could be surmounted by anyone with the mind to do so, and a kijuu could alight anywhere. Kijuu were forbidden in the Imperial Palace and especially above the Sea of Clouds in the Enchou precisely because they had that capability.
Meaning there wasn’t really anywhere that could be locked down tight.
As a child, he’d wondered how wise that was. Now he was thankful. He crawled down a passageway beneath the floorboards that led to an empty room, quickly crossed it to the other side, climbed through an open lattice window, and hopped across the pond on a series of stepping stones to an open corridor along the waterfront.
In a corner of the corridor that wrapped around the inside of the building, he ducked through a side door. From there through the west flower gardens brought him to the Rokushin where Asen resided.
Making his way down a narrow alley, Taiki stopped in his tracks. The subfloors of the mansions built into the rising slope were taller than his own height. Once upon a time, he could follow these subfloors right up to the side of the building where he used to live. Taiki gazed into the darkness and resumed walking.
The buildings of the Rokushin housing the emperor’s living quarters came into view. Among them were those reserved as the personal quarters of the emperor and his consort. Asen must reside in one of them, or so Taiki supposed.
He sidled beneath the eaves and surveyed the compound, then continued deeper in. He hardly saw another soul, and no soldiers on patrol. The main wing of the Rokushin was dark, so he again headed north. The buildings north of the main hall could be called the inner sanctum of the Rokushin, the emperor’s true private quarters.
Only a few points of light glowed around the compound. Peering into the distance, he saw no signs of human life. One person in court dress stood on a nearby walkway doing nothing but staring off into space
Concealing his presence, Taiki approached for a closer look. Despite the chill, the man wasn’t wearing a cloak or overcoat. He faced the open air, standing straight as a pole. His enervated face slightly raised, his mouth slightly parted, he gazed at the sky. He hadn’t moved an inch since Taiki first spotted him.
As a test, Taiki tossed a handful of small stones into a nearby thicket of trees. He clearly heard the clattering sound but the man did not react in the slightest.
Soulless, was the description that sprang to mind.
Taiki had grasped that much, but not what caused this phenomenon or what it actually was. He was only sure that it had some connection to Asen.
Those thoughts on his mind, he proceeded deeper into the compound. Through a gap between the buildings, he crept into a garden. The garden gave way to a courtyard paved with stones. The courtyard was surrounded by buildings and ringed by a covered walkway. Taiki took a good look around and then stepped onto the walkway.
He peeked into the rooms housing the sleeping quarters at the head of the courtyard. Though lit by a dim glow, he sensed no human presence.
So he’s not in the official sleeping quarters.
Muffling his steps, he searched his surroundings for any signs of life while making his way further in. He passed the sleeping quarters, through the garden on the other side, and stopped before the soaring gate to the north. On the other side of this gate should be a plaza surrounded on all four sides by more buildings.
Heading north of the plaza would bring him to the gate of the annex compound reserved for members of the imperial family. To the northwest were gates leading to the East Palace and West Palace.
Taiki’s knowledge of the palace grounds extended only so far. He hadn’t been here on many occasions. Only once, in fact. One day before he met Seirai, Gyousou had taken him by the hand and brought him here.
Here the buildings and the gardens of trees buildings had been arranged to create a scenic point looking across the Sea of Clouds. There at the crest of a slightly elevated hill to the northeast was the Inner Palace itself.
If not in the sleeping quarters, then what about the Inner Palace annex? Here, in fact, were several people around the gate and many more occupying what he could see of the plaza. The surroundings were lit up to a degree he hadn’t seen elsewhere. Most of the people appeared to be concentrated in the vicinity of the gate leading to the East Palace
He could not possibly go straight from here to there.
Thinking about the arrangement of the security details, Asen must occupy the East Palace. The East Palace was originally intended for close relatives of the emperor, but as far as Taiki knew, Asen had no close relatives.
Taiki pondered the situation for a while, then took the road west. He recalled a path from the West Palace to the annex. Though he’d never tried it himself, Seirai once confided to him that “If you go through here, you’ll end up in the annex.” And once he got to the annex, there had to be a way to get into the East Palace.
He headed west and picked up the road to the West Palace. Recalling those memories, he climbed the imposing outcropping of boulders that intersected the surrounding walls and came down on the side of the annex. With no marked path here, he scaled the boulders relying mostly based on touch. But the slope was not that steep so he got to the top without much effort.
From atop this little mountain, he could tell that only the area around the gate to the East Palace was lit up. Strangely enough, from this vantage point, the East Palace was completely dark. Rather, in a corner of the annex compound was a building called Gen’i Manor. He could make out dim points of light arrayed around Gen’i Manor.
That must be it.
Having confirmed that no lights were on in the house at the foot of the boulder mountain, Taiki descended the slope.
The man heard a faint sound from out there in the darkness.
He was lying on his bed, eyes open, mind blank, staring listlessly at the dark ceiling when that faint sound reached his ears.
He got up as habit instructed him, without any good idea of what he was doing. The sound woke him up, so he should find out what made it. His body simply responded to that long ingrained common sense.
He went to the window next to the bed and gazed at the dark world beyond the glass. The soft sound of the ocean reached his senses. Mixed into the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves came a slight rustle distinctly out of place.
At the foot of the mountain of boulders not far from the window, he could have sworn he’d seen a human silhouette. Staring absentmindedly at that spot, the undergrowth close to the house wavered. He focused his attention on that spot. A figure popped out from the thicket. Despite the near absence of light, he clearly made out the pale features.
The man racked his brains. And then a moment later forget what he was trying to remember. For a moment, a flash of recognition lit up his mind. And then vanished.
The man—Heichuu—gazed at the passing shadow in a daze. I know I’ve seen him somewhere before.
But when, and who, he could not rightly recollect. The impulse arose that he should go with him, but his feet would not move. He had to think, but the darkness filling his head pushed aside any cogent thoughts.
He did not abandon the effort. Groping through the darkness, he heard a sound above his head. It came from outside the building, somewhere beneath the eaves. A sound like a quavering voice, a moan pitched low but with an almost effervescent tone.
No sooner had the voice reached him but the darkness inside deepened. Surrounded by the pitch-black walls, there was nothing within his grasp and no desire to reach for whatever might be there.
As he could do nothing else, Heichuu simply stood there.
Yari saw the face at the window, and from his eyes could tell his attention was directed at Taiki as he moved away from them. She felt a sudden surge of alarm. Except the man didn’t move in the slightest. Neither did he look at all flustered or surprised.
He must not be on the alert for intruders.
The personnel around the gate she’d passed a short time before appeared to be on the lookout for whatever came their way. That meant the mannequins inside the Rokushin need not concern themselves with trespassers. The man in the window must be one of them. Luckily.
She averted her gaze and was about to resume tailing Taiki. From somewhere above her head came a warbling voice, like the cooing of a dove, though pitched much lower.
She searched for the source of the sound. Near the end of the eaves, she spotted something moving on one of the crisscrossing brackets and joists. Whatever it was resembled a bird. A dove, she thought again, but it was rather big for a dove, bigger even than the average cat. Gray feathers covered its body. The tips of its wings were blue. Following the same pattern, its short blue tail feathers were yellow at the ends.
With a rustling of feathers, the bird awkwardly turned its body before finding another perch among the wooden joists and swiveling its head back around. What very much looked like the squashed face of a baby emerged from the gloomy darkness. Eyes shut, the bird squawked in a flat voice.
A youma that fed on human souls. Yeah, I thought something like this might be responsible. She’d heard a similar song coming from the eaves of Nightingale Villa. When she got back, a youma hunt would be in order.
But I don’t have time for you right now.
She couldn’t go meddling in the middle of the night and risk leaving behind evidence she’d been there. Yari gave the ugly, impassive face peering down at her one last glance, and took off after Taiki.