2-3 A questioning voice brought her back to her senses.
The Imperial Kei was looking at her, concern etched on her face. What should I tell her? Searching for the words, Risai found herself falling back into her own memories.
“Are you not feeling well? If so—”
Risai shook her head. “I beg your pardon. It’s just that I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
I understand, Youko said with a nod of her head.
“You inquired as to what was happening in Tai. In short, there was a coup d’etat. His Highness was drawn out of the capital to a rebellion in one of the provinces and disappeared.”
In a simple and forthright fashion, Risai outlined the nature of the conflict.
“Even I am unaware of the specific details. I have subsequently learned that he managed to make it to the outskirts of Tetsui and set up camp there. They were attacked. At the height of the battle, he vanished from sight. Not a word has been forthcoming about him since.”
“Nothing more? Not a single word?”
“There is likely more to know. I haven’t been able to meet with people who were in Bun Province at the time, who would have more precise information about the incident. I don’t know if others have investigated the matter closely, or whether a search is underway. It is possible that nothing has been done at all. When I was informed that His Highness had disappeared, the Imperial Court was in an uproar. Nothing could get organized in a systematic way. Nothing could get accomplished.”
“Because of the shoku.”
The shoku occurred a fortnight after Gyousou departed for Bun Province. The day before, word had arrived at the capital from Sougen, also headed to Bun Province. Gyousou and company had safely crossed the mountains. If that indeed was the case, then Tetsui would be several days away. In fact, several days later another messenger pigeon arrived. They had arrived at Rin’u, the prefectural palace this side of Tetsui, and set up camp.
“He seems to have arrived safely,” said Senkaku, the Minister of Earth, with a relieved smile.
Risa had ran into him in the Romon, the soaring gate to the south of the Imperial living quarters and the Imperial Court. It was a huge building with three towers at least ten times the height of a normal person. In the center of the white hall, sandwiched between the open north and south doors, a large, white staircase descended toward the Sea of Clouds.
“I wish all the best to His Highness,” said Senkaku. “Though I fear expressing such concerns about a man who was once a general himself could be thought offensive.”
“Indeed,” Risai agreed with a smile, and continued down the staircase.
That was when it happened—a low, faint, subterranean rumble. Risai stopped in her tracks, wondering where the sound was coming from. Apparently deaf to it, Senkaku glanced curiously over his shoulder at her.
“What was that sound just now?” Risai said.
She remembered later that the mountain quaked. The sound arose from the earth beneath her feet—from the whole of Ryou’un Mountain supporting the Imperial Palace—shaking her body. Or so it seemed to her. The world wavered back and forth. The enormous Romon creaked back and forth like a bundle of sticks.
A shadow fell across her startled eyes. She tilted her head back just in time to see the tiles peel away from roof of the Romon and cascade down like an avalanche.
At that moment, a quake had indeed shaken the mountain. Observing the Imperial Palace from the air, the observer would have seen an island floating in the Sea of Clouds. And in the center of the island, huge, round wave rising high against the cliffs that formed the bay and then spreading out concentric circles.
The surface of the Sea of Clouds rose up and crashed down on a wing of one of the palace buildings adjacent the cliffs. The building rocked and shook and collapsed with a deafening scream. As if someone had taken a giant hammer to a section of the palace.
The whirlwind kicked up by the blow turned into a squall racing out into all directions. The sun dimmed, turning into a copper shadow. A moment later, the red-tinged sky began to gather into a swirling whirlpool, like some poisonous volcanic miasma.
What is this?
Risai sat down suddenly in amazement right where she was standing. What was this strange sky expanding beyond the veil of dust? Spasms coursed through the ground. The shaking had already ceased, but as if some being were stirring in the bowels of the Earth, the tremors shot up through the palms of her hands.
“A shoku—” screamed a nearby voice on the verge of hysteria.
When Risai glanced back over her shoulder, Senkaku looked up at her. He was sprawled on the cobblestones of the Romon, covered with dirt.
The thought, “This is a shoku,” again mingled with thought, “Why?” She had never encountered a shoku before. She had also heard that a shoku never occurred above the Sea of Clouds.
Senkaku picked himself up. The tile shards had rained down even to where he’d been standing. Another two or three steps and the both of them would be buried beneath them.
“Risai, the Taiho—”
Hearing the urgency in his voice, Risai sprang to her feet. The earth continued to groan. No small number of people lay on the ground around them, moaning and screaming. She couldn’t spare them any attention now.
Where was Taiki? It was a too early for him to be attending the afternoon’s session on government affairs. He should have already left the Gai-den, but he couldn’t have already made it all the way back to his room in the Seishin. He must be in Jinjuu Manor.
“It’s okay,” Risai said. “The Daiboku should be with the Taiho—”
Senkaku grasped Risai’s arm. His dirty face had turned quite green. “Risai, don’t you know? Shoku simply don’t occur naturally in the heavens. If a meishoku has occurred, then it could only have been brought about by the Taiho.”
Risai broke into a sprint.
“Senkaku, take care of the wounded!” she called out behind her. She leapt over the rubble and ran toward the Roshin. She knew that a kirin could cause a very small shoku called a meishoku. But a kirin born and raised in Yamato should not know how to bring such a shoku about.
Risai first met Taiki on Mt. Hou. When Gyousou set forth on the Shouzan, so had she. The kirin she met there couldn’t transform into a unicorn. He possessed no shirei. A kirin born and raised in Yamato couldn’t understand what being a kirin was all about. Those powers awakened within him must have sprung forth by necessity.
That being the case, what made them necessary?
The smell of dirt and torn, fresh wood; the ripening, rancid sun; the rust-colored sky; the writhing crimson currents in the air; the turbulent timbre of the subterranean rumblings—Risai could not help but be gripped by evil forebodings.
Something bad had happened. Something unbelievably bad.
The damage grew worse the closer she got to Jinjuu Manor. The gate in front of the Provincial Offices had toppled on its side. In places the walls had collapsed. Glancing through the gaps, the buildings inside were badly listing and more had fallen over. Cobblestones had bubbled up like foam on water, flipped over and tossed around. Fissures snaked through the ground. Rubble was strewn about everywhere.
The grounds of Jinjuu Manor came into view. Most of the structure had been reduced to piles of stone.
The rumblings in the earth ceased. In their place came the shrieks and moans of people. The dim rays of the sun shone down. She looked up. The ominous red bands in the sky were fading.
People at last began to huddle together. The mustered soldiers pawed through the rubble looking for any sign of Taiki. The small kirin was nowhere to be found. There was not one trace of him on the western side of the Seiden in Jinjuu Manor or on the balcony or in the gardens facing the Sea of Clouds.
Buildings and trees had been torn up by the roots, the agitated earth and shards of tile heaped up in piles. Then the giant waves smashed down on top of them, sweeping everything into the Sea of Clouds, leaving only the scarred ground behind.
Ships were launched, kijuu saddled up, the gardens excavated—all searching for signs of the small Saiho.
But his whereabouts had not been discovered.
While the search continued, a messenger pigeon bearing news of the emergency was dispatched to Bun Province. Before that bird reached Bun Province, a pigeon from Bun Province arrived at the capital, carrying word that Gyousou had suddenly vanished.
The bedroom fell silent. Risai clung to the jewel hanging around her neck as if for dear life.
“We have heard nothing more of His Highness. Or of the Taiho.”
“Risai, if this is too hard for you—” Youko was about to call a halt to the proceedings, but Risai closed her eyes and shook her head.
“The Imperial Court was thrown into chaos. Nobody could put together an organized plan to look for His Highness and the Taiho.”
Risai gasped for breath. Youko anxiously grasped her hand. “Are you all right?”
I’m fine, Risai meant to reply, but her voice faded away in the middle of her labored breath. Only the sound of the wind. The sound of her ringing ears. And within the wind, the sound of Kaei’s voice.
“We’ll call it a day and pick things up at this point next time. Well, then—”
Risai stretched out her arm in the direction of her voice. She stretched out her arm—and realized again that her right arm was missing. This was how much she had lost. After so long the anguish welled up inside her.
“Please help us.” Releasing the jewel clasped in her hand, she reached out. A warm hand enclosed hers. “I beg of you. Save Tai.”
Risai heard the doctor in the waiting room rushing to her side. “That’s enough,” she heard him say as she sank down into darkness and remorse.