15-4 Taiki ran through the door alone.
At the end of the corridor he encountered another closed door like the one he’d come through. More doors lined the hallway on both sides. Though old and worn, they were solidly built. An opening in the top section of each door was lined with iron bars. There was a small slot in the bottom section through which items could be passed back and forth
The scent of blood accompanied the savage sounds of the battle being waged behind him. His senses reeled. He seized hold of the first door to steady himself and peered through the bars. The room was empty. The next two were vacant as well. Only the last cell at the very back showed any signs of life. A faint point of light in the darkness.
The cell was little more than a dark hole. A human silhouette slumped at the foot of the wall opposite. Taiki pressed against the door to get a better look. Perhaps realizing he had a visitor, the prisoner raised his head. The dim light cast a shadow across his face. Even so, Taiki recognized him.
He gasped. “Seirai—”
He tried to open the door. It was bolted shut. The bolt simply consisted of an iron bar threaded through the latch. Sliding it to the side would free the latch, except it was secured with a padlock at the end. Without unlocking it, the bar wouldn’t come free.
The key had to be around there somewhere. Taiki examined the gloomy hallway and turned up nothing. He glanced through the doorway at the far end. The corridor continued on a short distance before ending at a short flight of stairs.
Making himself as inconspicuous as possible, Taiki opened the door and crept down the hallway. Crouching lower, he climbed the stairs. At the top of the stairs, the corridor opened onto another small guardroom. Rising out of his crouch, he peered into the room. The glow from a lantern revealed a single soldier on duty.
Taiki observed the room for a short while. The bored-looking soldier sat in a chair fiddling with a deck of wooden playing cards. Taiki didn’t see a key anywhere. If there was one, the guard must have it on his person.
No matter what, he had to get his hands on that key. But how?
He backed several steps down the staircase. He turned the question over in his mind but couldn’t come up with a single answer. Taiki took a deep breath and pressed a trembling hand against his chest.
He muttered to himself, “One way or another—”
There was no way he could leave here empty handed.
The countryside was buried beneath the snow, the commoners reduced to dire poverty. And far, far away was a city by the sea likely still untouched by snow. Taiki’s home town, that he would never see again. All the people who perished there should not have died in vain.
His return alone occasioned such an enormous calamity. He left them all behind on that shore
“One way or another—”
Given everything that happened there, he could only call that city by the sea his hometown because of one person, the one person who insisted he belonged. Even knowing the sorrow and suffering he would shoulder going forward, the personal battles he would endure just to get on with his life, Taiki left him behind because there was no place here he could call his own.
A place to call home. The struggle to preserve that alone coupled with the strength of a powerful resolve born from such unbridled naivete.
One way or another—
Taiki stifled his voice, took a deep breath, and rose to his feet. Hearing the approaching footsteps, the guard at the table lifted his head and glanced over his shoulder.
“Who are you?”
“I am Taiki.”
The man responded with a dubious look. A moment later, he corrected his posture. But he couldn’t erase the puzzled look from his face. He looked back and forth at Taiki’s face, his hair, the staircase he’d just ascended.
“What are you—what is the Taiho doing in a place like this?”
“I wish to see the prisoner in the cell,” Taiki said.
The expression on the guard’s face changed at once. “That is not possible. Nobody is supposed to get anywhere close to that jail cell in the first place. Please leave.”
“That I cannot do. You must allow me to inspect the cell. Unlock the door.”
“Sorry.” The guard stood to block Taiki’s approach and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. “If it’s really that important, bring along His Highness or the Chousai. Nobody gets in otherwise.”
“A direct order from me isn’t good enough?”
“No, it’s not. My orders all along were to kill anybody who wandered in here, no questions asked. The only reason you’re still alive is because you’re the Taiho.”
Taiki paid the implicit warning no mind and approached him. The soldier started to draw his sword, vacillated, then in clear irritation sheathed it again. He spread his arms wide and blocked Taiki’s way.
“Where’s the key?”
“You can’t have it. Please leave.” He seized Taiki by the shoulders and turned his head toward the hallway. “Hey—”
By that point, he must have decided to call out to his colleagues. The rest of the words never left his mouth. Taiki slammed his body against him. The man swallowed the rising shout, staggered to the side, tried to find his footing, lost his balance, fell forward, and tumbled down the stairs. He hazily raised his head, eyes wide as Taiki charged down the stairs after him.
Taiki grabbed the sword and jumped onto his back. The man thrashed from side to side and clawed at the ground with his hands, trying to crawl away and flee to safety. He again tried to raise his voice. That was when Taiki settled on the target and swung the sword against the back of the man’s head.
The blow raised a heavy, sickening thud.
The soldier stopped moving. There was still residual movement in his limbs so he wasn’t dead. Taiki of course couldn’t kill him. He’d struck him instead with the flat of the blade.
I can’t let him call his colleagues.
He didn’t know what to do. A thousand thoughts warred inside his head. His nature as a kirin, the social norms instilled in him in a foreign land from his childhood on, the overwhelming danger of the man summoning more soldiers, Gyousou and Risai, Touka and the fate of the people of Tai—
Not killing him is a risk I cannot take.
I cannot do it.
And yet I can.
Didn’t the kirin use their shirei to those same ends? He’d seen it with his own two eyes at Kinpa Palace in the Kingdom of Kei. The shirei left by Enki to watch over Taiki did not hesitate to eliminate any threat to him. The kirin commanded the shirei to defend them. Of course that meant killing the enemy. Depending on the circumstances, if you have to kill, then kill you must.
That’s what it came down to. All kirin killed and wounded people. They just didn’t do it themselves.
An emperor who never got his hand dirty might have existed somewhere and at some time. But there was no such kirin. He simply removed those bloody hands in the form of the shirei and put them out of his mind. Moreover, the shirei had minds of their own. Even without an explicit order to kill, they could act of their own volition. A kirin could never claim that inflicting bodily injury was not an outcome he anticipated or desired.
A kirin could certainly shed blood. That he could not was simply a widely shared belief, shared by himself as well. The unique way a kirin expressed that murderous intent gave rise to it as well.
A kirin born and raised on Mount Hou remained untouched by violence. No active steps were taken to counter that natural fear of blood and violence. More than nothing being done, those inclinations were strongly reinforced from a young age onward.
That certainly did not apply to a kirin who grew up in Hourai.
This kirin is on intimate terms with violence.
He wanted to say he was sorry, but only to salve his own conscience. Begging for forgiveness likewise served only to feed his own sense of self-satisfaction. The end result remained unchanged. All the words in the world changed nothing.
But this person could not be allowed to add to the accumulated harm. Taiki tightened his grip on the hilt. His hands trembled as if in the throes of a spasm. I can’t. I can’t. But he must.
As Taiki crouched over the prone soldier, frozen in indecision, the body suddenly slid out from beneath his feet and disappeared from view. Reflexively following the movement and glancing over his shoulder, he took in the man lying there face down, a knife sticking out of his back. Without uttering another word, the man stopped moving. A hand reached down and pulled out the knife. The hand belonged to Kouryou.
“Never hesitate. Now is not the time to be nice.”
Taiki turned to face him. Kouryou met his gaze with a severe look. “If he got a shout out, it’d all be over. If you let him live and he talked, it’d still be over. You start something, you finish it. That’s the responsibility of the person who acts first.”
Taiki let the sword fall from his grasp. Kouryou picked it up and returned it to the dead man’s scabbard. Then he searched through the man’s pockets, extracted the key, and handed it to Taiki.
Kouryou let out a long breath. “Let’s suppose this man took pity on you and helped the prisoner escape. He would be punished. Somewhere out of your sight, somebody other than you would execute him. Because once you take that first step, there is always going to be a last.”
Taiho didn’t respond. He only nodded and took the key.
“Sorry for not getting here sooner. This is the kind of mess I should have cleaned up myself.”
All Taiki could do was shake his head. Kouryou placed a hand on his back and gave him a gentle shove. “Go. I’ll keep a lookout here.”