5-2 When Youko arrived at Taishi’s manor, Keikei was in the courtyard leading Risai around by the hand. With some assistance, the gaunt Risai was now able to move around under her own power. The other day she’d been able to climb on Hien’s back, which brought her no small measure of satisfaction.
“Youko!” Keikei smiled, seeing her. “Look. Risai’s able to walk now.”
“Try not to overdo it.”
Youko nodded and then explained that Risai had a guest. Risai cast her eyes on the person who’d entered after Youko. His eccentric countenance notwithstanding, Risai had the feeling she’d seen him before.
“Keikei, could you leave us alone for a while?”
Keikei agreed without complaint. “I’ll go tend to Hien. Yesterday, Risai taught me how to groom him.”
“Is that so?” Youko smiled as he ran off. And then turned back to Risai. “He’s come from Han. He wishes to speak with you.”
Youko put her arm around Risai’s shoulders. As they returned to the parlor, Risai became all the more convinced that she’d seen the man somewhere before.
“You seem to be in good spirits,” he said, offering Risai a chair.
Risai nodded in gratitude. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
“I’ve come from Han. There is something I would like you to take a look at.”
He took a small, cloth package from the breast pocket of his elegantly embroidered, iron-blue linen kimono. Spreading it out on the table revealed the section of a leather sash. The sash was studded with black silver. The engraved image of a galloping horse graced the metal clasp at one end. Except that the belt itself was no longer than the span of two hands. It was severed in the middle, and worse, the torn end was stained dark red.
The sight of it propelled Risai to her feet as well as her feet could. She immediately almost lost her balance and toppled over. “That is—”
“I had heard you were a general in the Zui Provincial Guard. Do you recognize this article?”
“Yes,” Risai replied in a strained voice. “Where did you come across this?”
“In Han. It was found mixed in with a shipment of gemstones from Tai.”
“What is it?” Youko asked.
“It belonged to His Highness. I’m positive. This is—” Risai’s words failed her mid-sentence. The identity of the unnamed visitor came to her. She had seen him at none other than Gyousou’s coronation. Risai let go of Youko’s hand and sunk to the ground on her knees. “I was told that it was gift presented by Your Highness at the coronation.”
The Imperial Han nodded. “I did not wish to startle you, but you obviously have discerned the idenity of the item. Please, get up and sit down. You’re going to injure yourself.” He flashed Youko a concerned look. “Han has long enjoyed mutual relations with Tai. Though I did not care for the previous Tai emperor.”
“You didn’t care—”
“The man had perfectly awful taste. I simply could not abide someone who took such jolly pleasure in gold and silver-gilded armor.” He made no effort to hide the grimace on his face. “Gyousou, though, struck me as a fine man. Unrefined, but not a bore. And Taiki is such a darling. I simply love that steel-blue mane of his.”
“You don’t say,” Youko said, practically goggling at him.
The Imperial Han laughed. “And so we established a working relationship. Han has no gemstone fountains or mines. However, I dare say that none of the Twelve Kingdoms can best us when it comes to our craftsmanship with precious metals and jewelry. Tai supplies us with raw materials. We found this article inside a shipment of ore.”
He picked up the belt. “As you can see, the engraved strands in the mane of the galloping horse are clearly discernable. I commissioned the most skilled engraver in the Ministry of Winter to make this for the coronation of the Imperial Tai. This is definitely one of the items prepared as congratulatory gifts. The workmanship required to produce silver as beautifully burnished as this could be found only in the Han Ministry of Winter. The person who found it in the shipment from Tai surmised its providence and sent it to the Ministry, who forwarded it on to me.”
The still kneeling Risai looked up at him. “But where did that shipment come from?”
“Bun Province. Together with ore that arrived from Rin’u. I’ve heard it was the only mine in Rin’u still in operation at the time.”
“Yes,” Risai said, nodding. “That would be the case.”
The Imperial Han turned to Youko. “Tai’s best gemstones come from its gemstone fountains. Streams of water course through the mountains. The seed gems grow steeped in these waters. Where the streams emerge from the rock, the gems are deposited in beds of gravel. The stones from those seams are mined for their gem value, but are not sorted when they come out of the ground. The unsorted tailings are shipped off, the mining marks still on them. The precious stones are sorted later, and then cut and polished by artisans. An artisan purchased a lot of stones and found the belt mixed in with the raw ore.”
“Have you found a lot of this kind of thing?”
“Not at all. Bun Province is known as a gem-producing area. But due to the lack of other exports the area has been mined out. The rare good stones that emerge were handed over to Emperor Kyou. Han ended up getting the dregs. And even those diminished to a trickle over the years. In particular, for the past few years, even the dregs have dried up. No shipments are arriving at all. This article arrived two years after that suspicious Rescript announcing the death of the Imperial Tai. The shipments halted after that. It seems to have fallen into our hands at the last moment.”
“It was severed—” Youko observed.
The Imperial Han nodded. “The Minister of Winter concluded it was slashed by an edged tool. There are bloodstains on the surface and on the back of the belt. So that would seem to be the case.”
“Somebody wounded the Imperial Tai—”
“And struck him from behind. Concerned that some sort of calamity must have occurred, we communicated directly with Tai at the highest levels, but the Phoenix would not reply. We heard nothing back from the Ministry of State either. More recently, we were contacted by En and for the first time learned about the particulars of the situation.”
The Imperial Han wrapped the belt in the cloth. “I present this to you. I was relieved to hear that this cut does not necessarily mean that the Imperial Tai has been killed. It came into my possession through a strange series of coincidences. Almost as if the Imperial Tai wished evidence of his existence to be known abroad, perhaps?”
“Yes,” Risai answered, reverently accepting the cloth package.
“Through this miraculous connection, the Imperial Tai and his subjects are still linked together. You must keep the faith.”
“Thank you,” Risai said, though her words could not be heard through her tears.