1-6 Feeling herself slipping back into sleep, Risai focused her efforts on her eyelids, mustered her energy, and opened her eyes. She found herself cheek by jowl with a man’s face. He craned his ear toward her mouth.
“You were mumbling something—” He drew back and smiled. “Ah, you’re awake.”
She thought she recognized the man but couldn’t say from where. Over his shoulder, a girl rushed up and looked at her. Again Risai only sensed that she should know her somehow.
What are these people doing in Hakkei Palace?
She tried to remember, but her thoughts encountered only vertigo and her body grew short of breath. She was consumed by a raging fever. She hurt absolutely everywhere.
“Are you all right?” the girl asked with deep concern. “Do you understand me?”
The reality of her situation finally hit home. She wasn’t in Tai. This was Kei. She had made it to Kei.
The man said, “I’m Koshou. Do you remember me?”
Risai nodded. Gradually her eyes widened and grew clearer. She was in a bedroom with a high, wide ceiling. Next to the bed was a black lacquered nightstand. The man sat on the edge of the nightstand and examined her face.
“Yep. That’s me. You’re a fighter, you are.” He gave her a reassuring wink, obviously pleased by her improved condition. The girl standing at Koshou’s shoulder dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve.
Risai was alive. That surprised her as well.
She weakly raised her arms above her head. Her left arm complied and appeared before her eyes. Her right arm did not. Her gaze traced an arc across her body to where the right sleeve of her nightgown lay empty on the quilt.
For some reason an apologetic expression rose to Koshou’s face. “Push come to shove, we couldn’t save your right arm. Honestly, there wasn’t any life left in it. I know it’s painful but don’t despair.”
Risai nodded. She’d suffered severely fighting off the youma, had lost her right arm and tied it off with a tourniquet to staunch the loss of blood. Gangrene set in. Of course she couldn’t have expected the arm to survive. By the time she arrived at Gyouten it felt about ready to fall off. She had to wonder if it’d come off of its own accord or whether it’d been amputated.
And yet she didn’t feel too broken up about the loss. Losing her dominant arm would of course end her career as a soldier. But what general, unable to save her liege, deserved to be called his retainer? She could live without it.
Koshou cradled her head in his hand and lifted her head. The girl pressed a warm teacup to her mouth. The liquid trickling into her mouth was sweeter and more delicious than anything she’d ever tasted before. But then as her tongue grew accustomed she realized it was only water.
The girl took away the cup. The man smiled. “Yeah, you’re going to be okay.”
“I get why you’d do something so crazy and reckless. You got the words out before you collapsed. Youko’s been by many times to see you.”
“The Imperial Kei—”
“Providing the doctors don’t say no, I’ll go get her.” Risai nodded. He released her hand and stood up. “Suzu, take care of her. As soon as I’ve called the doctors, I’ll have a word with Youko.”
“Sure. Make it quick.”
Risai followed Koshou with her eyes to the door and then stared up at the ceiling. “How long have I been lying here doing nothing?”
“Oh, please. Don’t say things like that. You needed a great deal of rest. It’s been three days since you last opened your eyes. Since you collapsed it’s been almost ten days.”
She’d intended to close her eyes only for a moment and had instead slept for days. All that time gone to waste. The wasted days pressed painfully on her chest. Risai raised her hand to her throat. She felt something round and smooth at her fingertips. She grasped it and focused her eyes on it. A round gem hung from her neck.
“Nobody but the empress is allowed to use it. But Youko—” A knowing smile came to the girl’s face. “But the empress twisted a few arms at the Ministry of Winter and forced them to make an exception in your case.”
“The Imperial Regalia of Kei, normally stored in the Imperial Repository. The gods have indeed smiled upon you. Had you collapsed in such a condition anywhere else or in any other kingdom, we might not have able to save your life.”
“Oh.” Risai didn’t know whether she should rejoice at such news or not.
When she closed her eyes she could hear nothing but the wind. The round gem at her fingertips was cold. A coldness that brought to mind the face of her friend.
Kaei. I made it.
The warm countenance of the civil servant a mere ten years her senior. As kind as her mind was keen, and so discrete as to almost appear timid. Risai had last seen her in Sui Province in the south of Tai. There they’d parted ways, and Risai had set her eyes upon Kei.
Risai, anything but that! Kaei had cried out, her body quaking in the wind. Her voice was soft but filled with fortitude. The resoluteness of her refusal showed in her voice and on her face. Risai was overcome by sorrow. She at least wanted Kaei to understand her.
“How could you do something so cruel?”
Risai and Kaei had fled their pursuers to a hill in Sui Province. They had come here intending to meet with the Province Lord. Shisen was the capital of Sui Province. Shisen’s Ryou’un Mountain towered above them. It was spring in name only. The fierce winds buffeted them.
Looking back at where they had come from, they could see the small hamlet at the base of the hill. The fields surrounding the hamlet lay fallow. Several burial mounds had been built there and abandoned without so much as a prayer for the dead.
Kaei and Risai had walked through the hamlet before climbing the hill. The original landowners had deserted the place long ago. Instead, a small number of travelers sought warmth and shelter in the dilapidated houses. They had left their own home towns behind, escaping to any place closer to another kingdom.
Risai and Kaei had begged a few cups of thin gruel and listened to the stories and rumors the refugees had to share. They said that a taika sat upon the throne in Kei.
“One of my relatives’ kids was in the port city. The word on the street there is that she’s a young empress. Perhaps even the same age as the Taiho.” The woman spoke listlessly. She was badly wounded. Sui Province was infested with youma.
It was said that the winds of oppression and subjugation sweeping over Tai had spared Sui Province alone. They’d left their home towns and fled here together, but a fortnight later these few alone had survived. The woman held a child wrapped in rags in her arms. Risai hadn’t seen the child stir once since she and Kaei arrived.
“People say that if the Taiho is alive and well, that’s how old he’d be.”
Risai expressed her thanks for the gruel and left the hovel, a new sliver of hope in her grasp. Her mount was tied up in front. “A teenage empress. A taika—” she muttered to herself, taking up the reins.
Kaei turned to her with a puzzled look. “What do you mean by that?”
“What do you think? Do you think Imperial Kei might still harbor fond feelings for the land of her birth?”
“She might be homesick for Yamato, I mean. She might long for some connection to her life there. Don’t you think so?” There was an additional note of enthusiasm in Risai’s voice.
From the look on Kaei’s face, she clearly didn’t know how to respond.
“The Taiho is also a taika. They’re close to each other in age. If the Imperial Kei learned more about the Taiho, shouldn’t she want to meet him, want to help him? Not to mention that Kei has the full support of En.”
Kaei gaped at her. “You’re not really thinking of going to Kei to beg for assistance?”
“Why shouldn’t we?”
“Risai, the empress could not violate the borders of another kingdom. And doing so under arms would provoke grave and immediate consequences. Dispatching troops to another kingdom is impossible.”
“But you just heard them say so yourself! The Imperial En lent his support to Kei. The Imperial Kei was escorted to her ravaged kingdom by En forces.”
“Those were unusual circumstances. The Imperial Kei sought asylum in En. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Imperial En who crossed the borders to seek her out. In the end, the Imperial Kei borrowed the En Imperial Army and returned to her own kingdom. Here in Tai, however, His Highness is nowhere to be found.”
“You’re familiar with Jun Tei incident in the Kingdom of Sai?”
“The Jun Tei incident?”
“Long ago, Jun Tei, the Sai Emperor, grieved by the ongoing chaos in the Kingdom of Han and desiring to save the people of Han, sent in his Imperial Army. As a result he met an untimely death. Even to spare the people of a kingdom, Heaven will not countenance the army of one kingdom crossing the borders of another. Do you think any other emperor wants to follow in Jun Tei’s path?”
Risai shook her head. Then suddenly she looked up. “That’s right. The Imperial Kei is a taika. Perhaps she’s unfamiliar with the Jun Tei incident.”
“You can’t seriously mean to do anything so abject and cowardly!” Kaei’s pale, exhausted face twisted with shock and repugnance. “Are you suggesting that Kei be sacrificed to save Tai? Because that’s what it sounds like.”
“That is the—”
“No, Risai. Anything but that!”
“But what becomes of our kingdom?” Risai exclaimed. Gripping the reins in her hands she motioned at the base of the hill. “Look at that hamlet. You saw the people living there. That is what Tai has become. No one knows the whereabouts of His Highness. No one knows the whereabouts of the Taiho. There is nobody left who can save our kingdom!”
She had searched. Even while being pursued, while being labeled a traitor, she had searched for them. But she could find no evidence of Taiki and Gyousou anywhere. Not a trace of them.
“Spring is coming, but where is there one field under the plow? If the fall does not yield a harvest, the people will certainly starve. If grain is not quickly stored away, the winter will come again. And with every winter, three more hamlets become two, and two become one. After this winter passes, how many of our populace will be left? How many more winters do you think Tai can survive?”
“But the ends do not justify causing Kei to sin against Heaven!”
“Someone has to come to the aid of Tai.”
Kaei averted her eyes and shook her head.
“I am going to Gyouten,” Risai said.
Kaei looked back at her, pain and grief in her eyes. “Please. Anything but that!”
“Fleeing to the territory of the Province Lord of Sui ensures little more than our own safety. And even our own safety is hardly guaranteed. Sui Province may sicken just like the rest of the kingdom. It likely will. Then all we’ll be able to do is to run away again.”
“There is no other path left to us.”
“Then here we must part ways.”
Kaei clasped her shivering hands to her breast. Yet even the sight of Kaei’s face—on the verge of tears—left her unmoved. Risai nodded. “I must do this. I have no choice.”
Risai met Kaei at the Imperial Palace. There they had forged a fast friendship and together were driven from the capital. Years passed. This winter, at long last, they had reunited in Ran, Kaei’s home province. They’d somehow survived a winter there before their pursuers once again caught up with them. Together they’d managed to make it to the adjoining southern province of Sui.
Kaei looked long and hard at Risai. Then she pressed the sleeve of her cloak to her face and softly moaned. “Sui Province is infested with youma. As you head south, they will grow thicker and more fierce as you near the coast.”
Kaei covered her face with her sleeves and lowered her head. When she raised her head again, there was a resolute expression on her face. This was the face of the accomplished individual who had risen from minister-in-chief of Ran Province to the top post in the Ministry of Summer in the Rikkan. She bowed once and turned her back.
I truly am doing a despicable thing, Risai thought.
All the better if the Imperial Kei was unfamiliar with the Jun Tei incident—and if she still held fond ties to the place of her birth—and if she could be incited by her emotions to save Tai. If she did, Kei would be destroyed. As soon as the Imperial Army crossed the borders of Kei, the Imperial Kei would soon follow the same path to destruction as Jun Tei. Even so, the Imperial Army would be left behind. A single division under her command was all she required.
She had resolved to do a terrible thing.
Resolved to the bitter end, Kaei did not look back or lessen her stride as she descended the hill toward Shisen. Risai watched her leave. Grasping the reins of her mount, with a heavy heart she turned her gaze from Kaei’s retreating figure to that of Hien, her pegasus.
“I alone have lost my mind in my struggle to save Tai,” she said, stroking the glistening black fur at its neck. “You remember him, don’t you?” She pressed her forehead against its muzzle.
Inside her head, the high, joyous voice rose out of the darkness of her thoughts. Risai. He ran toward her at full tilt, as if about to dive headfirst into the ground. Soon he’d be asking if it was okay to pet Hien.
“You remember those small hands? I know you loved the Taiho very much.”
Hien cooed softly in response.
“Shall we become the last fools left in Tai together, then? Shall we be on our way?”
Hien looked back at Risai with those deep, black eyes. Without a word it knelt and urged her to climb onto its back. Risai pressed her face against its neck and then leapt into the saddle. Taking up the reins she cast her eyes toward Shisen. There a forlorn, solitary figure stood looking back at her.
Will you destroy Kei to save Tai?
Risai eyes lingered vacantly on the ceiling of the bedroom. There, the face in her mind’s eye looked down on her, clouded with loathing and contempt.
But this is what I came here for.
She’d arrived here with her life hanging by a thread. She’d only survived because the Imperial Kei had saved her.
Risai could not help but close her eyes. This surely must be what I am fated to do.