The Shore in Twilight

Chapter 33

5-3 In her bedroom, Risai took a long look at the belt. We are still connected. It was true. Or so she tried to convince herself.

The only working mine near Rin’u about that time was Mt. Kan’you. It was said to be the oldest in Bun Province. From what she could remember, the gemstone fountains had all dried up. The mine only produced small, low-grade stones.

Gyousou had vanished on the outskirts of Rin’u in the heat of combat. And this belt was discovered at Mt. Kan’you. That would suggest that Gyousou’s enemies caught up with him at Mt. Kan’you. What happened after that? Though the details were unclear, a small trail of breadcrumbs had been left behind, traces of Gyousou that Risai could pursue if she ever made it back to Tai.

Risai took a deep breath and clenched her fists. The other kingdoms said they would help in the search for Taiki. Even if that did not produce the results they wanted, she had not yet exhausted all her options.

She was trying to convince herself of this when Koshou’s big-hearted voice boomed out behind her. “Risai, seen Keikei about?”

Risai glanced over her shoulder. “The Imperial Kei was visiting earlier. I sent him out to play. He said he was going down to the stables.”

“That’s odd. I took a gander around the stables on my way here and didn’t see him. He’s not one to stay rooted in one place for too long.”

Risai smiled. “He’s a lively kid.”

“Full of vim and vigor, that’s for sure.”

“A good boy, too.”

“Well, you know—” Koshou grinned self-consciously, as if he himself was the one being praised. “He’s a hard worker, all right, and not one to get himself into a snit.”

“He doesn’t have any close relatives?”

“His mom and dad died a while back and he ended up at an orphanage. He had an older sister but she got killed.”

“That’s so sad—”

“A sad story, to be sure. But the way he’s dealt with it, there’s a big man inside that small body.”

“He really is a fine young lad. But is it right for Keikei-dono to be working in the stables, Koshou? Doesn’t he have school or other tasks to tend to? Besides, though Hien may have a calm disposition, she’s still a kijuu. I know we’re talking one chance in a thousand, but—”

“Ah, don’t worry about it. He begged to do it himself, after all.” Koshou added with a grin, “You don’t need to call him dono, neither. Just Keikei’s fine. Like he said, he’s the butler.”

“Has he been listed upon the Registry of Wizards?”

“He’s too young for that. Youko wants him to make up his own mind when he gets older about what path he wants to follow. It’s a bit odd, the way you refer to him. Makes him sound like a little prince or something.”

“Do I?” It had never occurred to her. But when she thought about it, that did seem to be the case. “I guess so, now that you mention it.”

“You mean you weren’t aware of it yourself?”

Risai shook her head. The sound of someone singing somewhere in the manor reached her ears. The clear, bright voice of a vivacious young woman. “I believe that’s Shoukei. The Imperial Scribe and the lady-in-waiting come and go around the clock here.”

“That’s true. Both coming and going, and living here.”

Risai blinked. “And which would describe their relationship to you?”

“None of the above,” Koshou said, with a wave of his hand. “Let’s just say I’m borrowing the place for the time being. No relation whatsoever.”

“And no relation to Youko or Keiki as well?” Risai pressed.

Koshou answered with a confused smile. “I know this will sound a bit strange to you. But I started out my career as a ruffian with no connection whatsoever to government ministers and such.”

“I believe the Imperial Kei referred to you as a rogue knight.”

“Nothing so high-falutin’ as that. There was this bad apple of an official, see. And we got a bunch of brave and patriotic souls together to give his butt a hard kicking. Under normal circumstances, raising the flag of revolution would have made us all wanted men. But wouldn’t you know it, one of those brave souls happened to be Youko.”

“The Imperial Kei? One of your revolutionary band?”

“That’s a state secret,” Koshou grinned. “Youko’s a taika. She wasn’t born here. You know about that?”


“That’s why she doesn’t know anything about this world. So she left the city and went to study at the feet of Enho, who’d been the headmaster of a famous private school. Quite accidentally she happened to get caught up in our little revolt.”

“I see.” Though she was unfamiliar with the details, Risai nodded.

Koshou lowered his eyes. “Not much time has passed since the coronation. I’m pretty sure she has what it takes to make a great empress. A lot of my mates aren’t so sure. Kei hasn’t had good experiences with empresses. On top of that, she’s a taika. She doesn’t understand even perfectly obvious stuff. Everybody looks on her with mistrust. The government has been reorganized but there are still plenty of traitors about. Especially those not happy about how they’ve been treated and the way things turned out. Nobody knows what they have in store for Youko.”

Risai was a bit taken aback. So that’s what always went on in a new Imperial Court. Even though Youko had struck her as an empress Kei should have welcomed with open arms.

“There are conspirators about intending to attack the empress and her retinue before everything goes south again. That’s why bureaucrats we don’t know aren’t allowed into the private quarters of the Inner Palace.”

Risai perfectly understood. Even when she was housed in the conservatory, she saw very few ministers or officials about. Though the conservatory was inside the Seishin, life there had been awfully quiet. Risai was looked after by the lady-in-waiting, Suzu, and occasionally by the Imperial Scribe, Shoukei. Aside from them, she saw no other lower-ranked officials.

“I thought that was because you were suspicious of me.”

“No, that wasn’t the case. Few people are allowed in the Imperial living quarters. We don’t want the old guard hanging around Youko. Only those we trust completely. We bring people on board only as we get to know them and what kind of people they are.”

Risai was amazed at first, but on second thought found this approach quite understandable. As the Imperial Kei had observed, Gyousou had run the provisional court with a firm hand preceding his coronation. To begin with, Gyousou hadn’t needed to shake things up that much around the court. As one of the senior statesmen, his popularity was hard-won and deserved. But what had happened in Tai had happened nonetheless.

“So Kei still hasn’t turned the corner.”

“A little more patience is all we need. I really believe that.”

Risai nodded. The Imperial Court in Kei had not returned to a solid footing. Risai had come literally barging in, tempting this young woman—still frantically trying to patch the nascent Imperial Court back together—to sin against Heaven. At this late hour, a recognition of the true gravity of her actions was beginning to seep into her soul. She had committed a terrible indiscretion. The tenaciousness with which she stuck to her objective was nothing to boast about.

The Imperial Kei bore so many burdens. Kei had nothing left over to spare for a kingdom like Tai. And yet, while bearing up the kingdom with one arm, its young empress had embraced Risai with the other. She had even promised to do all in her power for Risai, as if she couldn’t be expected to do anything less.

I should not hope for anything more than this.

They said they would search for Taiki. And that was enough. Even if Taiki was not found, coming to Kei would not have been in vain.

“That’s why,” Koshou continued, seemingly a bit abashed at having to admit it, “we keep Youko’s retinue to a minimum. Besides Suzu, the only other court lady attending to her on a day-to-day basis is Shoukei, who was appointed Imperial Scribe. The junior retainers are all old friends, or are chosen from among those absolutely trusted by the General of the Palace Guard. That’s why we’re all cooped up at the Palace. I got a place of my own, but I hardly spend any time there these days.”

“And so you’re staying here?”

“That’s what it boils down to. You know, I’ve got a kid brother.”

“A real brother?”

“Yeah. Right now, he’s attending the Provincial Academy in Ei Province. He’s living in the dorms.”

“He must show a lot of promise.”

“Yeah, he does,” Koshou said with a bright smile. “I was really glad he got to go, but after he got accepted, to be honest, things got a bit lonely. He’s the only family I’ve got. Suzu’s a good friend, but she deserves better than hanging around a bunch of ornery guys. So Youko asked me to look after Enho and Keikei.”

“Ah, that would make this the Taishi’s place.”

“That would. I mean, me looking after Enho hardly means moving the Taishi into the Daiboku’s flat. Anyway, Enho is practically glued to Youko’s side from morning till night. She’s a bit iffy when it comes to the workings of government and still has a lot of studying to do. So Enho lent me these rooms and pretty much gives me free rein to look after whatever needs looking after.”

Koshou chuckled bashfully. “I grew up a poor innkeeper’s kid. So a guy like me isn’t going to get far either if he can’t ask people what’s good manners and what isn’t. I even got to make Keikei mind his p’s and q’s. The kid’s always had a good head on his shoulders. So I jumped at the chance to take care of Enho. Except without a woman’s touch, things of late were grinding to a halt. Finally, Suzu and Shoukei pitched in. What you see here is mostly thanks to them.”

“They do keep things moving along at a merry clip.”

“That they do,” Koshou agree with a laugh. “Youko’s got a good nose for people. I think she understood that a big guy like me being Daiboku and all, I was still a sad sack on my own. Hard for me to settle down when there aren’t people around. Not to mention that the Palace is more than I can get my arms around. I wouldn’t have lasted long cooped in my own manse all by myself. Thanks to the hubbub around here, I manage to hold my own.”

“And to make matters worse, I came barging in.”

“Youko asked that we keep things down to a dull roar, so I’m sorry about the noise and commotion. And I’m happy you haven’t taken offense at our lack of decorum along the way.”

“Oh, it’s nothing.” Risai smiled. She was happy as well to have been entrusted to such a trustworthy man. “The Imperial Kei does seem to have the makings of a great empress.”

“It pleases me to hear a general from another kingdom say so. And I hope so too. Unlike people like you and me, the empress and kirin just can’t quit and do something else when the going gets tough.”

“Very true,” Risai agreed with a nod. The empress could either improve herself and continue along that path, or walk the plank to destruction. No detours were allowed.

“The Imperial Tai’s a splendid chap as well, I hear. Kantai of the Palace Guard says so. He’s our General of the Army of the Left. He says the Imperial Tai was really something even before he was made emperor. He’s even known among officers from other kingdoms.”

“Yes, I think so too.”

“I sure hope they get back okay, the Imperial Tai and the Tai Taiho. The Taiho first, I guess.”

Risai nodded again. At the very least, they must find Taiki. Otherwise, there’s no hope for saving Tai.

The room fell into silence. She heard footsteps. Keikei had returned. He flung open the door, and flooded in sunlight, ran into the room with a bright smile, clutching a flower.

“Some cotton roses were blooming in the gardens in the north courtyard,” he said, holding out the stem of the flower.

Risai glanced at the flower and then at Keikei. “How old are you, Keikei-dono?”

Keikei giggled and said, “I just turned eleven.”

“I see. I see.”

Keikei’s bashful smile dimmed in her vision, distorted by her veil of tears.


She could no longer see his smile. She reached out and found his small, warm hand, the strength of his concern communicated through his fingers. “Are you happy?”

“Me? Um, well, sure—”

“I see.”

Risai, called out the carefree voice, seeking her out, running toward her at full tilt, his face beaming. And if Hien was there, asking to pet her—

“The Taiho was about your age.”

Please, God, bring Taiki home, Risai prayed for the first time. It was painful seeing her expectations betrayed. Wishing for something from the bottom of her heart only deepened the despair when those dreams were dashed. To pray was to hope. That was why she couldn’t bring herself to pray until that day.

Risai had watched the people of Tai mutely visit the shrine. Watched them solemnly trudge to the shrine in the middle of snowstorms. Wordlessly, lest any word of protest might reach Asen’s ears, they silently approached the shrine and placed a keihaku flower atop it. They expressed thanks for whatever blessings remained, and prayed for the safety of he who had given the flower to them.

While regretting that the people of Tai could do no more than that, Risai had not once visited a shrine. She hadn’t been able to. It’d been the same since she’d been told the search for Taiki had commenced. More than the expectation that they would find him was the fear they might not. And even if they did, what happened then? Taiki’s return guaranteed nothing.

Then what did it all mean? It meant that, however distant and faint the flicker of light, Taiki was a candle on the water.

An old hermit Risai knew through acquaintances had once offered her refuge. He told her to give up. “There is no emperor here anymore.”

Garyou, Gyousou’s home village in the mountain valleys of I Province in Tai, had been reduced to embers. Risai had gone to I Province in search of Gyousou with the hope he was hiding out in the land of his birth. All she found were ruins shrouded in fog.

“You need to take a load off as well.”

“I’m doing fine.”

“A kingdom without an emperor goes to wrack and ruin. Everybody knows that. But we don’t know that the emperor is dead. If the imperial rites aren’t conducted, does the kingdom decline then? Or does the emperor’s presence itself protect the kingdom?”

Risai shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“And thus the era of this new emperor begins with Tai having no emperor. You have looked for him all this time and to no avail. Haven’t you done enough already?”

Risai reacted with surprise. “Are you telling me to abandon the emperor?”

The old man shook his head. Deep lines ran through his wise and weathered face. “I’m only saying you should consider your own welfare. You are also one of the emperor’s subjects, one of those he must redeem.”


“If you are to talk about the happiness of the people of Tai, shouldn’t you include yourself among them? If you intend to bear the pain of all on your own shoulders, nobody will end up satisfied.”

Risai nodded dejectedly.

“And yet he remains the only person who can save this kingdom—”

With a sad sigh, the old man got up and left the room, leaving his granddaughter there alone. She gave Risai a sad and wistful look.

“Do you think me a fool as well for wandering around after the emperor?”

The girl shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve never met the emperor. I don’t understand politics. The emperor is somebody who lives above the clouds. Even Taiki is far, far above our stations. But the smoke—”

“What’s that?”

“Looking down from the gates, you can seen the whole of I Province and all the smoke hanging in the sky above it.”

“Ah,” Risai said.

Asen could not condone the existence of anything connected to Gyousou. Or anyone Gyousou had governed. Or anyone who ever found fault with Asen personally. Any burg that did not agree with his fancy was rooted up and burned to the ground. Those who turned their backs to him were scattered and driven from their lands.

“Is it true that kingdoms to the south enjoy springtime weather all the year round? That it never snows in Sou? I’ve heard the rivers never freeze over. That a warm sun shines even in winter. And when the storm clouds part, the skies above are as blue as forever—”

Risai nodded. She had never been further south than the Yellow Sea. But the sun shone so brightly there. The sky was truly as deeply blue as forever.

“From the first snow until the last, how many days will the skies be clear? They could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And so the smoke—”

Risai grasped what the child was saying. Instinctively she seized her hand.

“And those few clear days as well are obscured by the smoke. The fires scorch the ground and melt the snow and freeze the rubble solid. How long must the people of Tai await the spring? It seems like the Imperial Palace is the single remaining spot of blue in a land covered by low, thick clouds. Even those blue skies are turning gray. The smoke that covers Tai like snow blankets Kouki as well. This kingdom has no clear days left.”

The girl looked up at Risai, her eyes brimming with sadness. “Kouki must yet dwell under clear skies. In Kouki must be that one spark of spring, that one ray of sunlight that never freezes in the midst of winter.”

The girl who had so spoken so resolutely was no longer in this world. She had been executed together with her grandfather for the crime of sheltering Risai. At the time and afterwards they had abetted her escape, even knowing the fate that awaited them.

Risai vowed to herself that she would never forget those words.

Please save His Highness and the Taiho.

previous Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved. next