15-2 Taiki, Kouryou, and Yari concluded their conversation and returned to the main hall, where a clearly agitated Juntatsu was waiting.
Kouryou said, “Once we’re done with dinner, you can retire for the night. Tokuyuu not being around has left a lot on your plate. Take a little time off for once.”
Except Juntatsu stood there, a stiff expression on his face, his eyes darting from Taiki to Yari to Kouryou. He finally resolved to put his emotions into words and said, “Are you telling me to stay out of whatever you are up to?”
Kouryou responded with a startled look. Equally caught off guard, Taiki and Yari turned their attention to him as well. Having unwittingly made himself the center of attention and now feeling overwhelmed, Juntatsu hung his head and retreated a step. But then he resolutely raised his head again.
“The last time you asked me to retire to my room early was the night the Taiho snuck out of Nightingale Villa and headed to the Rokushin. The Taiho says he did so of his own volition, but I find it hard to believe Kouryou and Yari did not know what was going on.”
“Juntatsu—” Taiki started to say.
Juntatsu spoke up before Taiki could continue. “That day as well, the three of you conferenced together out in the cold under the arbor. And now you’ve just done the same thing again.”
“Juntatsu,” Taiki said in a gentle and reassuring voice. “On that occasion, I acted entirely on my own, and for that I apologize. I’m sure you have plenty of reservations, but there are times when I believe you would be better off not knowing the whole story. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“If you think I am lacking in some way, or you have doubts about my temperament, such that I am not reliable enough to share your secrets, then I will have to resign myself to such judgements as they are out of my control. However, let me make it clear that I do not believe, as the Taiho stated, that there are things I am better off not knowing.”
“Any criticism of the Taiho’s actions will fall on me as well, as would any punishments meted out. To be sure, I am not questioning what the Taiho choses to do or how he goes about doing it. The Taiho has his reasons, and I am perfectly willing to accept the consequences that fall on me as a result. However, the difference between accepting those consequences in ignorance and accepting them knowing the truth is as vast as that between heaven and earth. The punishment would be the same either way. That being the case, I would like to at least be made aware of the circumstances involved.”
Kouryou cast Taiki a bewildered glance.
“More than anything else, I am concerned that, knowing nothing about what was going on, I might end up unintendedly getting in the way of what the Taiho and the rest of you are trying to accomplish. I mean the kind of trouble that I could have deflected with a well-chosen word or two but was unable to do so. I truly loath getting caught in situations like that.”
His frame trembled as he made his case, no doubt due to the mental strain. Kouryou turned his attention again to Taiki.
Taiki let out a breath. “You’re right. Keeping you in the dark wasn’t respectful, Juntatsu.”
“There’s no need for the Taiho to apologize. I would not mind if you simply stated that I hadn’t measured up. In many respects, I could not disagree in the least. However—”
This time Yari was the one who interrupted him. “Look, you can’t possibly be in cahoots with Asen. And anyway, that weird illness that’s been going around is caused by a jisen.”
“A jisen? That’s a youma, right? Here in the Imperial Palace?”
Yari nodded. “Coos like a big dove. There were a couple nesting here in the villa. I got rid of them.”
“You got rid of them?”
“Of course.” Yari grinned. “Not all that tough as youma go. Once I realized they were on the premises, tracking them down wasn’t hard. I’ve kept an eye out since and no new jisen have crept in. Which means, Taiho—” Yari looked at Taiki. “I see no reason to doubt Juntatsu.”
Taiki heaved a big sigh. “So that’s what’s going on. Thank you, Yari.”
Yari answered with a little bow. Taiki nodded in turn and faced Juntatsu. “I had no doubts about your temperament, Juntatsu. But I was worried about the damage this illness can wreak.” With a polite tip of his head, Taiki added, “I will be slipping out again tonight. Juntatsu, any assistance you can render in that regard would be greatly appreciated.”
“A jisen, eh?” Kouryou said to Yari as they left the main hall. “Good job ferreting it out.”
“I saw one while I was tailing the Taiho when he snuck into the Rokushin. That cooing sound it makes had been on my mind for a while now.”
Kouryou sighed. “And I thought it was a dove.”
“Can’t blame you. Like I said, it kind of looks and sounds like a dove.”
“How many did you find?”
Kouryou groaned. “That’s what happened to Heichuu and Tokuyuu. I should have noticed sooner.” At this juncture, he was indulging in useless regrets, to be sure. But those regret still stung. “Is there any cure for the illness caused by the jisen?”
“Not that I know of. Well, it depends on how long the jisen has affected you. Once the illness progresses past a certain point, I don’t think there’s any going back.”
Yari’s ability to answer his questions in such matter-of-fact terms was impressive, which made thinking about Heichuu and Tokuyuu all the more painful.
“So that’s what it comes down to.”
“We weren’t in time to save Shouwa. A pity.”
“I had a close brush myself. After this, do you think more of them will sneak in here? Why are youma showing up in Imperial Palace in the first place?”
“Must be Asen’s doing.”
Kouryou shook his head. “Not bloody possible. Controlling youma is well beyond his abilities. The only person who could do something like that is the kirin.”
“It would not be impossible for someone who had a thorough knowledge of the youma.”
“Are you sure?” Kouryou said, giving Yari a questioning look.
“True, only the kirin can command the youma and use them at will. However, someone familiar with the behaviors and habitats of the youma could also control them.”
“You’re saying Asen might be the one using the youma? In that case, we’d better stay on our toes after this.”
“We’d better stay on our toes in any case. At a basic level, youma despise the aura of a kirin. Perhaps a better way to put it is, their supernatural powers weaken in the kirin’s presence. Call it luck or a great misfortune, but after Tokuyuu disappeared and Bun’en-dono went incommunicado, it fell on Juntatsu to fill their roles. Day and night, he was never far from the Taiho. I don’t think we need to worry about his health.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” Kouryou said with a great sense of relief. At the same time, he couldn’t help being surprised. “You know a lot about the youma.”
“Stands to reason, I suppose,” Yari said in an entirely offhand manner. “I am a koushu, after all.”
For a moment, Kouryou didn’t understand what she was saying. “A koushu?”
“Yeah. I grew up in the Yellow Sea. A certain someone said I showed a lot of promise and ought to learn more about the big wide world out there. So he shipped me off to Tai.”
“Why would a koushu—why would this certain someone ship you off the Tai?”
“Is it really that surprising? His Highness—Gyousou-sama—has deep connections to the koushu. He once worked alongside them and hunted youjuu. The friendships formed back then continue to this day. Gyousou-sama borrowed the wisdom of the koushu for the benefit of thef kingdom. In turn, he helped the koushu expand their knowledge.”
“Borrowed the wisdom of the koushu?”
“I’ll give you an example. Gyousou-sama talked with them about ways to make it easier for the people to survive the winters in Tai. The koushu presented him with a thorn oak from the Yellow Sea. Gyousou-sama offered that thorn oak to the Imperial Roboku. The similar thorn oak of Tai was the result.”
“The gift of Kouki—” The true origins of this miracle plant left Kouryou dumbfounded.
“Ah,” Yari said to herself.
“Perhaps this is information you were not supposed to divulge?”
Yari muttered, “No, that’s okay. As long as it’s just you, Kouryou.”
“Of course, if it wasn’t meant to be made public, I’ll keep the particulars to myself.”
“Much obliged,” Yari said with a gracious smile.
“I imagine there must be others aside from yourself.”
“I am not the only one and neither is Gyousou-sama.”
Kouryou tipped his head with a quizzical expression.
“I am not the only koushu brought to the Imperial Palace and Gyousou-sama is not the only person who availed himself of their knowledge. Ganchou and Gashin-dono also have ties to the koushu.”
“You don’t say.” Kouryou felt the pieces of a puzzle falling into place. Gashin had often relied on the shusei as advisors on important matters. That practice likely arose from his connections to the koushu. “I had no idea.”
“Well, please go on pretending you don’t.”
“Stands to reason the koushu would know a good deal about youma.”
“After all, the koushu do live in the Yellow Sea and live side by side with the youma. Like it or not, they have to learn all they can about them.”
The same way a farmer is deeply familiar with the livestock he raises and any creatures that might threaten the flock or the herd. The koushu wouldn’t live long without acquiring exhaustive knowledge of the youma, knowledge they could profit from and use to protect themselves from harm.
“In other words, Asen is exploiting the secrets of the koushu?”
“So it seems. Except this isn’t knowledge that Asen could have acquired himself. He must be using someone else who has access to that information. Except the person in question must not have learned very much about the youma. In fact, Asen is using youma in a particularly dangerous way.”
“A dangerous way?”
Yari nodded. “Without a doubt, Asen sent the jisen that nested here. But I don’t believe he wanted all the civil servants in the Rokushin to flock there. Asen can summon and dispatch the jisen but he can’t control them after that. The jisen are wreaking damage on their own and it is spreading. The problem is that simply abandoning the victims would soon arouse suspicions about the presence of the youma. Asen was forced to gather them together in the Rokushin. But when so many ill people gather together in one place, they create a miasma.”
“That’s what we call it. The youma in our world give rise to a separate Providence. Youma cannot exist under the same Providence as humans. They warp the Providence around them and stain it with one of their own makings. Think of it as them seeding their surroundings with poisonous air.”
“The jisen spread this poisonous air. And then the people they infect spread it as well?”
“That’s what it comes down to. When all these ill people get together, the poisonous air grows more concentrated. In short order, a miasma wells up, which summons more youma.”
“And Asen is okay being around these conditions?” Kouryou asked.
“There are talismans that keep the miasma at bay. I expect Keitou to have one too. A wooden amulet about this big.” Yari traced a small square in the air with her finger. “Ordinarily a badge that attests to the noble’s rank, but with a brand inscribed with the spell burned into the back. In short, Asen would have sent Keitou here with a talisman to unleash the jisen and one to ward them off. Of course, Asen will have his own talismans.”
There were other ways of warding off the miasma, Yari explained, such as protecting an entire building. But the more the miasma welled up, the more the dangers inevitably multiplied.
“Whether they just don’t understand, or they know what they are doing and they are out of other options. Either way, they’re playing with fire.”
Kouryou folded his arms. “Then how big a risk is it sneaking into the Rokushin? Won’t we be exposed to this miasma?”
“One night only won’t pose that big of a problem. Moreover, we’ll be with the Taiho and his presence should disperse the miasma.”
“What about youma no one invited showing up out of the blue?”
“I don’t see that happening, though there’s always the chance that Asen will summon more of the monsters.”
Kouryou groaned. There was always the chance Asen would exploit the knowledge of the koushu to summon more youma, convinced he could use them to further his ends. Kouryou hadn’t heard of any connections between Asen and the shusei or the koushu. But once he started thinking along those lines—
He raised his head with a shock of realization. “You don’t think that maybe Rousan—”
Yari tipped her head to the side and mulled over the idea. For Kouryou, having put the thought into words, he strangely felt himself in agreement with it. Start with how Yari and Rousan resembled each other, especially how differently they behaved around the emperor and the kirin. They demonstrated none of the unqualified reverence and awe that was normal for Kouryou and his colleagues.
When had Rousan joined Gyousou’s camp? She’d likely served longer than Kouryou. By the time Kouryou rose to a commensurate position, Rousan was already a staff officer, and had carved out a rank and portfolio that was all her own. Ever since then, her extensive knowledge, intense curiosity, and uninhibited approach to whatever she did made her famous.
“Rousan is a koushu?”
Yari nodded. “I heard she was the first of the koushu entrusted to Gyousou-sama.”
Makes sense, Kouryou thought.
The breadth and depth of Rousan’s education was without compare. It was widely rumored that there wasn’t an artisan or engineer in the Ministry of Winter she couldn’t converse with at a level equal to their own.
Given everything she’d learned in the Yellow Sea and everything she’d learned since, together with her God-given talents, if Rousan was involved, there’d be nothing unusual about Asen using youma to his own ends.
Wasn’t Gyousou her benefactor? Why would she betray him? When Gyousou articulated these thoughts aloud, Yari averted her gaze.
“Well—” she began. “I don’t know. But I think it’s different.”
“The koushu have a different sense of priorities from everybody else. In general, the koushu feel a deep sense of obligation to their benefactors. However, they do not lend emperors and kirin or even kingdoms any particular weight or importance.”
“Does that apply to you as well?” Kouryou asked.
Yari shrugged. “The Taiho is an interesting person. I find everything about him fascinating. But unlike you, I do not hold him in unqualified respect.”
Kouryou had no idea how to put such sentiments in a context he could begin to comprehend.
Yari said with a knowing smile, “You have nothing to worry about. I will defend and protect the Taiho. That is what I was asked to do and that is what I want to do.”