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SEA OF THE WIND SHORE OF THE MAZE
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This is volume 2

SEA OF THE WIND SHORE OF THE MAZE Or SEA OF THE WIND SHORE OF THE LABRYNTH



Chapter 7

"Taiki, you can leave the palace today."

The summer solstice had actually passed some time ago, but it wasn't until now that Teiei spoke these words.

The day had finally arrived. Taiki put down the chopsticks with which he was using to eat breakfast.

"Yes..."

He had gotten up earlier this morning than usual, and even the clothes that Sanshi had prepared for him were all much more ornate than usual. Taiki had already mentally prepared himself for this.

Youka patted his back gently. "You don't have to be this nervous."

"Youka, will you accompany me when I go?"

Youka smiled. "Yes. I'll also be by your side the whole time."

"What about Sanshi?" Taiki had a feeling that she would say no.

Teiei nodded and her answer wasn't far from the one he wanted to hear. "Of course Sanshi will come with you. Except, Sanshi has to hide herself. You might not be able to see her, but she'll definitely be nearby."

Taiki heaved a disappointed sigh. If Sanshi had to hide nearby, that meant that when the time came, she wouldn't be holding his hand, not to mention that she wouldn't be able to gently stroke his back.

"I understand..."

- - - - -

Teiei and Youka were in the front, followed by over ten ceremonial nyosen, and Taiki was in the middle as they walked onto the small paths, all the way to the gate of Houro Palace without stopping.

The nyosen in front of him took down the bolt of the door.

Before the door was opened, Taiki remembered the vast wilderness that was the exterior of the maze, but after the door was opened, the scene outside had underwent a complete change.

The towering crags stretched out in layers, creating waves upon waves of green, and between these rocks was an expansive grassland, upon which there was a flood of colors. Tents had been pitched one after another, and countless flags had been raised everywhere. Fences had been built with stakes to which horses and unusual animals had been tied, and on which harnesses and cloths had been hung to dry. Not to mention that there was a variety of people, dressed in a variety of styles.

Just like this, a busy little village had appeared.

Taiki began to feel apprehensive and couldn't help but grab Teiei's hand.

"There is no need to be afraid. Would you like to adjust your breathing?"

Taiki used his eyes to express consent and then straightened his chest even more and took a deep breath.

Teiei held his hand and prepared to walk forward. A man at a nearby tent saw this and kneeled down to bow. This movement spread outward like a ripple, as the people scattered about the grass in discussion all kneeled down to bow.

Taiki tightened his grip on Teiei's hand, as he looked straight ahead at the quivering hairpins on the heads of the nyosen walking in front of him, hoping to rely on this to shake off the torment of being stared at by innumerable eyes.

"Are you still all right?" asked Youka's gentle voice from behind.

"Yes... Can we speak?"

"Yes, there's no need to be so shy."

"Okay."

The ceremony seemed not to be as difficult as he had thought it was going to be. At this, he heaved a sigh of relief.

"Is this all the people?"

Teiei replied, "No, only half of them have come first."

"Oh, good..."

When he looked around, he saw a great many people wearing armor. There were many very young people and a lot of old people as well, and there were numerous men, but also lots of women.

"I didn't think there would be so many women here."

Teiei smiled, but her smile was not as natural as it usually was, as if she were suppressing her emotions. It was probably because Teiei was also very nervous, but just had a different way of expressing it.

"Well, of course... would you rather serve under a king or a queen?"

"I don't know."

The road from the great gate to Hoto Palace was paved with stones. Many adults had gathered on either side of the road, kneeling down with their heads lowered. This sort of scene looked unnatural.

"Why is everyone bowing?"

"They are paying their respects to you." Teiei knew that had she used the word "status" to explain it to Taiki, he probably wouldn't understand, so she stopped herself from using it.

"Should I greet them?"

"You do not need to right now. If you wish to speak to someone, you can invite them to stand up."

"Can I chat with them?"

"You may after the incense ceremony. Then, you can ask them whatever you want."

"There are a lot of big animals here..."

"Those are youju. Everyone has ridden their youju here."

"Oh..."

Some of the beasts looked like tigers, and others looked like lions, while still others looked like horses and cows.

"Can youju be subdued too?"

"Youju are caught, and after they're tamed, they go through training. Come, and watch your step. After we go inside, please remember to bow towards the alter once."

Taiki stopped looking around, turning his eyes forward, and realized that Hoto Palace was right in front of him.

Hoto Palace was not quite like the structures inside Houro Palace, as all four sides had walls, and as soon as he was out of the view of all those people, Taiki was really able to heave a sigh of relief.

The interior of Hoto Palace was both high and spacious, and an altar faced the entrance; it felt a lot like the central hall of a temple.

Taiki did as Teiei said, and after he bowed towards the altar, he walked to the wall and made an incense offering. Then he was taken onto a platform adjacent to the wall on the right side of the room. If this were a Japanese-style room, we could say that the platform was about eight tatami mats wide. It was backed by the wall of the palace, while bamboo blinds hung down on the other three sides. The blinds facing the front had already been pulled up, and inside there was a chair. When sitting on the chair, one could see everything between the entrance to Hoto Palace and the altar.

Taiki sat peacefully in the seat and quietly watched as the nyosen busily offered incense. Suddenly feeling eager eyes gazing upon him, he looked over and realized that many people had gathered at the entrance to Hoto Palace. After the nyosen finished offering incense, a large portion of them came to the platform in succession. When they had all assembled themselves on the platform, the blinds were then lowered. Taiki heaved a sigh.

"You should feel much more relaxed now," said Teiei as she smiled.

"I get really nervous when so many people are staring at me."

"You'll get used to it in no time."

"Can I call Sanshi to come here?"

"Yes, as long as the blinds are down."

After Teiei said this, Taiki called upon Sanshi, and in the blink of an eye, she appeared next to his feet. He laid on her leopard portion as she wrapped her arms around him, making him feel much more at ease. Sanshi comforted Taiki by hugging his head, and Taiki felt that her hands were so warm.

"You look so nervous. But actually, you don't need to be so tense," said Teiei with a smile.

"My mind knows this, but my body isn't listening to its commands... What do I do now?"

"Those who've climbed the mountain will come and offer incense. Before we return, all that is required of you is watch them one by one as they do so. If you become bored with this, you may go outside and chat with the people outside."

When Teiei had finished speaking, there was already a person inside of the palace offering incense. The movements of this first person to come in were abnormally stiff, and he walked like that up to the altar.

"Taiki, do you feel any ouki?" inquired Teiei next to Taiki's ear. Taiki shook his head, signifying that he didn't know. Teiei understood what meaning Taiki was expressing.

"No matter. If you do feel the ouki, then you can call us to you and whisper it to us."

"Okay..."

The person for whom offering incense was not easy, walked in front of the platform, and after taking a bow, he kneeled down. This man was old enough to be someone's father, and his build was big and fat, like that of a sumo wrestler. Taiki struggled to listen to what the nyosen and the man were talking about by the platform. However, the revelation--up to now, Taiki still wasn't clear on how it would manifest itself--did not seem to come with this man.

Seeing Teiei's expression of inquiry, Taiki shook his head.

Nothing strange happened that could have been the revelation.
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Taiki quietly watched people entering one after another to offer incense, and after two days, he began to feel bored.

On the fourth day, he finally decided that he wanted to walk around outside.

The offering of incense occurs for only a few hours in the morning. Taiki sat on the platform and watched those offering incense. At first, he had thought that these people who weren't nyosen were very refreshing. Since everyone's appearance and clothes each had their own special traits, it was interesting to see everybody's differences. However, very quickly, he began to feel that sitting in the chair was very bothersome.

He only had to stay until noon before he could return to the palace, but the length of time that he had to sit was too long.

"Can I walk around outside?"

As soon as they heard Taiki ask this, the nyosen on the platform twittered with joy, because they had also felt bored.

"Of course you can," replied Youka with a big smile on her face.

"Were you all just waiting for me to ask this?"

"Not completely," said Youka as she laughed. "However, I can't say that it hasn't been a little annoying, because, since this morning, we've already seen Pumpkin Daibu's face six times."

Though the nyosen tried to suppress their laughter, they were unable to hold it in and began laughing.

Among those who have offered incense, some will do it several times a day. And of those people, the first person to enter the palace and perform the rite on the first day had come every day and offered incense at least ten times before Taiki returned to Houro Palace. That man looked like a daibu from some kingdom, and his face was round and red, like a pumpkin, so they privately gave him the nickname, "Pumpkin Daibu."

"Will it be dangerous for me to go outside?"

Teiei smiled and said, "We'll all be by your side. With this many people, you shouldn't worry. Even if we did encounter someone up to no good, you can believe that the people in the vicinity will not stand idly by. They will definitely help you out, because everyone wants you to see their best side."

Ten foolish people who had tried to sneak into Houro Palace had already been expelled from Mt. Hou, but none of the nyosen intended to inform Taiki of such a thing.

"I see..."

"When the time comes, a lot of people will surround you and want to greet you, but that would be better than sitting here as if you were doing penance, right? I think for sure that there will be those who are too impatient to wait for a ruler to be chosen, and I'm afraid that you'll eventually you'll be scared by all the flattering."

"Then...what do I say to them?"

"If you find the ruler, then you follow the ancient customs and bow before him..."

"And then I vow never to abandon him, never to disobey his royal command, and pledge my loyalty to him?"

Teiei nodded. "Correct."

"What if they're not the ruler?"

"Since it's the summer solstice right now, it's tradition to say, I wish you well from the solstice until the equinox, or you could say, I wish you well from the equinox until the solstice."

"So I just wish them well until the next Ankou Day."

"Yes."

"What if I can't figure it out and I mess up?"

Teiei smiled and comforted Taiki. "Don't worry. That won't happen."

"Will Sanshi come with me?"

"Sanshi will hide herself nearby. However, you must not call her out when we're amongst the big crowds. If you do that, she'll frighten the horses and kiju."

- - - - -

The nyosen on the platform surrounded Taiki, and they all walked towards the outside of the palace. The nyosen that were not on the platform could only look on with envy, since it was their responsibility to stay in the palace for the whole day and look after the people offering incense, as well as handle the various problems of those who had climbed the mountain.

To those who want to become the ruler, it could be said that the mountain-climbing season is a magnificent ceremony. For the nyosen, it could also be counted as an amusing activity.

Extremely few regret becoming a nyosen, but living such a long time still makes some of them weary. Over the summer solstice, the nyosen spend a lot of time on their appearances, though it wasn't done to convey their dignity. The nyosen teased the men who had climbed the mountain with their affection for fun. While this went on, the playing would sometimes become serious, and it's not unheard of for a nyosen to descend the mountain with a man.

It had not been easy for Taiki to leave the palace, so it was unfortunate that the first person that came to greet him was the aforementioned Pumpkin Daibu. He must have set up his camp near Hoto Palace, so that when Taiki and his group came out of the palace, he could immediately hurry to him with the utmost speed.

It sounded like something heavy had been dropped onto the ground when he kneeled down, and he hit his forehead upon the ground probably because he used too much force as he was preparing to bow. The nyosen tried with all their strength to keep straight faces, but after seeing this, they couldn't contain their laughter anymore, nor could the other people who had gathered around and seen him.

"M...Mt. Hou Kou, you look very pleasant today." Pumpkin Daibu was so nervous that the tone of his voice sounded strange. "I am the Shiba of Sui Province in Tai Kingdom. I am called Rohaku. I...I'm originally from Nan'you County in Ba Province--"

Since he was crouched on the ground and speaking quickly, and also stuttering because he was nervous, Taiki couldn't hear very clearly the flattery that was directed toward him.

"It is an extreme privilege to be able to pay my respects to your honorable self today! I wish the Kou a very long life!"

Taiki didn't know what to do, so he glanced up at Youka. She then raised her eyebrows a little towards him. He understood the meaning in her eyes, and said to the man who was bowing, "I wish you well...until the equinox."

The man immediately looked up, and then his shoulders suddenly drooped.

"...Re-really? I... I see..." said the man, thinking outloud as a dejected expression came to his face. Youka stifled her laughter and lightly pressed Taiki's back.

"Let's go. Just do as you did as we walk around."

- - - - -

Taiki was surrounded by a group of nyosen who were looking back at the men again and again as they walked. After a stretch of road, one of the nyosen quietly said to Taiki, "It's a good thing you stopped him from saying more. Who knows how long we would have had to listen to him otherwise!"

"...I couldn't find an opportunity to interrupt."

"Thank goodness he won't become your master, or else he wouldn't have been worthy to serve under."

Seeing the relief on the nyosen's face, Taiki tilted his head and asked, "Was that guy not good?"

"If you discover the revelation, it doesn't matter if the person is good or bad. It's just that it would be too embarrassing for Tai Kingdom if even a pumpkin like that could become the king. Although it isn't too important whether the ruler looks good or not, all people are even a little bit vain. At the very least, the person who becomes the ruler should have a bit of dignity."

"Is...that so?"

Youka smiled and said, "Don't listen to their nonsense. The most important thing is whether or not you receive the revelation."

The other nyosen heard Youka explaining things to Taiki so earnestly yet again and lightly flared up at her. "Come now, Youka. You say that, but from ancient times until now, has an ugly person ever become the ruler?"

"Right, right. That's because a person's dignity can be seen from their appearance. Moreover, those who want to become ruler, whether it's their looks or their personality, must fit with the manner of a ruler."

"When we're out in public, speak a little more quietly," warned Youka softly, and the nyosen immediately stopped talking.

Youka saw this and couldn't help but smile. She bent down and said to Taiki, "Don't mind their idle talk. Your duty is to wait for the appearance of the revelation."

"Okay..."
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Many people surrounded Taiki and continuously flattered him, but Taiki didn't feel anything unusual happen.

The number of mountain-climbers, together with all their servants, added up to more than three-hundred people. Besides the masters who had come to see if they could become the ruler, the servants that followed them also had the opportunity to be chosen the ruler.

There many who saw Taiki and rushed to be near him, but there were also people who saw him and chose not to speak with him since they hadn't planned on going forward and talking with him. The nyosen had also once mentioned to him that even if he didn't talk with the ruler, he would still recognize the ruler's presence. Unfortunately, no sort of revelation showed itself to him.

Regardless of whether it was the people who were talking to him or the people who were not, their eyes were all filled with anticipation. When he thought about the fact there was no way to fulfill the expectations of most of them in the end, Taiki couldn't help but feel sorrowful.

After getting a break from the crowds, Taiki heaved a sigh. Youka heard it and was concerned, so she tried to gauge his mood.

"Are you tired?"

"No. It's just that meeting so many people in so short a time..."

"It's already past noon. Would you like to return to Hoto Palace? You probably want to rest a little bit. Or, we could just go straight back to Houro Palace."

"Yeah..."

Taiki nodded and looked around. He spotted something and yanked on Youka's hand.

"Youka, look! That dog has wings!"

Not far from the tents, a huge dog had been tied up among the horses. At the moment, a few men and women were tending to this mount.

"That is a tenba. Would you like to go over and look at it?"

"Can I?"

"No problem." Youka held Taiki's hand and lead him closer to the tent that the dog had been tied to.

The dog's shape was enormous with a white body and a black head, not to mention a pair of wings folded against its back. It was beautiful.

"Isn't this...Mt. Hou Kou? I wish you the best of health." Among the men and women who were caring for the tenba, a tall and strong woman recognized Taiki and hurried to pay him her respects.

"Is this tenba your mount?"

"Yes."

"Would you let the Kou see him for a moment?"

"It would be my honor."

The woman smiled and encouraged Taiki to get closer to the tenba. Under Youka's protection, Taiki moved slowly towards it with apprehension and realized that in reality, the tenba was much bigger than he had first thought it to be.

"He's so big..." Taiki mumbled.

"He's actually relatively smaller compared to most tenba," replied the woman who had kneeled down. It looked as if out of all the people who were taking care of it, she was his master.

"Please get up. May I pet him?"

"Thank you, Mt. Hou Kou. Of course you may pet him. His behavior is quite docile."

After he heard her say this, he hesitated a moment and then cautiously reached his hand out. The fur of the tenba looked shiny, but it felt much harder than it looked. Taiki rubbed its neck, and the tenba closed its eyes with a comfortable look on its face.

"He's really tame... Does he have a name?"

"He is called Hien."

"Hien," repeated Taiki. With its eyes still closed, Hien nuzzled against Taiki's hand as he stroked it under the ears.

"Does he bite?"

"Don't worry. He doesn't randomly bite people. Tenba are already a relatively docile kind of youju. Moreover, Hien's personality is especially gentle. It's very clear to him that there are people whom he should not bite."

"How smart."

Taiki talked with the woman about tenba for a good stretch of time. He was very interested in how she caught the tenba, how she takes care of it, and what it feels like to ride upon its back.

The woman's answers were very easy to understand. In addition, her tone was kind, her words polite, and her voice was very clear. It all gave Taiki the sense that she was a strong person.

To be honest, Taiki could still not determine an adult's age by looking at them. He could only guess from her appearance that she was probably older than Youka and Teiei by a lot.

Though, this could possibly just be due to the impressions she held. It was very hard to compare the impressions of the nyosen to regular people, so he also felt like the woman's age was very far from a nyosen's.

Nyosen in general are all very pretty. They always wore beautiful clothes and ornate hairpins, each one more extraordinary than the next.

Opposite to that, this woman wore deep-colored men's clothing and had not even one accessory upon her body. Her dark brown hair had also not been arranged into a knot, but instead, it hung freely down to her shoulders. She was tall and her movements were graceful and gentle. She was pretty, but it was completely different than the beauty of Gyokuyou and the nyosen. It was very obvious that she was a different type of person.

"Thank you for letting me look at Hien." Taiki was reluctant to take his hand off of Hien's body.

"It was nothing. I believe Hien was also very happy."

"Where are you from?"

"I am from Jou Province. I am a General of the Jou Provincial Army, called Risai. My name is Ryushi."

A glimmer entered Taiki's eyes.

Every kingdom has nine provinces, each of which is ruled by a Shukou, a provincial governor. The military that the Kou controls is called the Army of the Provincial Kou, which is shortened to simply the Provincial Army. The size of this military varies in each province from two armies to four, depending on how big the province is. Thus, it follows that for each province, there are anywhere from two to four people holding the rank of general.

"So you are a general." No wonder she felt so different from the nyosen.

"Yes, to the best of my ability."

Since Taiki got along so exceptionally well with her, he couldn't bear to disappoint her, but no matter which way he looked at it, he had not received the revelation.

"...I wish you well until the equinox."

Risai's face revealed a sliver of a self-deprecating smirk, but it lasted only a very short moment. She immediately recovered her previous smile and bowed to Taiki.

"Thank you very much. I respectfully wish you a healthy body."

"Thank you."

Having to choose a suitable person was a painful task. It seemed as if the revelation would not base its occurrence on Taiki's likes and dislikes, which made Taiki feel even worse.

"Oh... If I have time, can I come back and see Hien?"

Risai smiled clearly and said, "Of course, anytime."

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Taiki encountered a fight on his way back from taking a stroll around after he had left the tenba.

Not a small amount of people had gathered at a place in front of him, and Taiki was wondering what was going on when he heard the nyosen whispering. He heard the word "fight" and anxiously grabbed onto the lower part of Youka's dress.

Regardless of what kind of creature was involved, any sort of violence frightened Taiki for the same reason that he was scared of blood. But it wasn't that he was fearful of getting hit. It was the actual act of hitting that he was afraid of, and at the same time, he was terrified of the people who did such things.

"Why is there a commotion?"

It wasn't until they heard the nyosen's voice that the people noticed that Taiki had arrived, whereupon they bowed down.

"Uh... That is..."

The masters of Mt. Hou inherently hate blood and violence, so incidents that cause bloodshed are strictly prohibited here. However, when they do occur, those who caused the trouble are immediately expelled from Mt. Hou.

"Really! How can you people from Tai Kingdom be so careless and hot-blooded!" A nyosen couldn't hold it in any longer and yelled at them as she approached the crowd.

Because every kingdom had different local customs and practices, they all also had their own national character. The people of Tai Kingdom were famous for their drive to outdo others. Originally, every kingdom's characteristics would also flow into their kirin, but exceptions do occur.

"Stop! Where do you think you are?"

When the crowd of spectators heard the nyosen, they opened up a path.

In the middle of the gathering stood two men. One of them was a big fellow, built like a rock and holding a long sword. By comparison, the other man whose hands were held in fists, looked short, though one could see that he still had a capable figure. The latter of the two men was wearing a sword, but he had not drawn it. Also, any discerning person could tell that this spirited man, though shorter, was superior to the other.

It was this bold man who had attracted Taiki's attention.

His black armor contrasted sharply with his white hair, and the sun had made his complexion dark. He was tall, and his physique and movements were frighteningly agile, giving off the impression that he was a fierce beast.

The nyosen passed through layer after layer of people, intending to put a stop to this fight, not expecting that the fight had already resolved itself. After dodging an attack from the sword, the bare-handed man had knocked the big fellow over with his fist.

The big fellow hit the ground and was not able to get back up. The man looked at him and said, "How dare you draw your sword in the honorable residence of the Mt. Hou Kou! You should be extending our gratitude to the Kou."

The man's movements did not contain even a bit of the arrogance of a winner, and his speech held a modest tone.

After he said these things coldly, he turned and met Taiki's line of sight.

--The man's eyes were crimson, like the color of blood.

Taiki couldn't help but grab Youka's dress tightly. Taiki feared this man from the deepest part of his heart.

As Taiki, who was ready to leave, tugged at Youka, the man slowly made his way over and kneeled to him.

"I didn't think the Mt. Hou Kou would be here as well."

The man's expression softened greatly, very much warming Taiki's first impression of him. People came to greet Taiki, so he had no choice but to stand there, tightening his grip on Youka's dress.

"I'm extremely sorry to have done such disrespectful things here. I must ask the Kou of Mt. Hou to please forgive me."

Taiki wasn't able to reply, so Youka spoke to the man for him.

"Please refrain from cause any more trouble on Mt. Hou."

"I really am very sorry!"

Youka had been holding Taiki's hand and moved it in order to soothe Taiki. She then pat his back lightly and pushed him forward slowly.

"It's okay now. There's no more fighting. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt."

It seemed as though Youka was telling this to Taiki, so he could only nod. Taiki was truly unable to say anything because the man in front of him really scared him.

The man kneeling on the ground looked like he was older than Risai. His hair had been tied up in the back very simply, and its silver color seemed to radiate a slight blue sheen. Perhaps it was because of this that he looked older. He had handsome features, and the corners of his eyes revealed a shrewdness. The line of sight that he had directed over to Taiki was as sharp as an arrow.

The man smiled and said, "It looks like I've really frightened you. I'm extremely sorry."

"Don't be..." Taiki finally spoke. "I was just a little shaken... Where are you from?"

"I am from Kouki. I am General Saku of the Tai Kingdom Kingun."

When they heard his name, the people nearby began talking to each other, causing a small commotion. It looked like this man was well-known.

The Kingun consists of three armies that belong exclusively to the ruler. Together with the three armies of the Kou of the capital province, who is appointed by only the kirin, it is called the Rokushi, the Six Armies. Because of the nature of kirin, they aren't able to command the army, so in reality, the ruler directs the army in the place of the kirin. Thus, the Rokushi is also called the Oushi, the Royal Army.

"My name is Sou, and I am called Gyousou."

Taiki was frightened by his direct gaze, but he had to say a few words. Being pulled in two directions by these conflicting conditions, he could only toughen up and speak.

"So... You're a general."

Even though they were both generals, he felt like Gyousou was much more stern than the gentle impression he had gotten from Risai.

The difference between Gyousou and Risai was either because of their personalities, or the fact that their positions were not the same since one was a Kingun General and the other was a General in a provincial army. Taiki really had no clue why.

"Yes. I am humbly most satisfied with my skill with the sword."

Though he said this, Taiki could feel that this person believed in all of his abilities. His body was filled with ambition.

Taiki could not stay here any longer.

At this point, he felt that the other person must be wondering if he could be the king. After Taiki was sure nothing unusual had occurred, he pulled on Youka's sleeve lightly.

"...I wish you well until the equinox."

It wasn't easy for Taiki to say this, but it wasn't until he finished that he was able to look away. Gyousou nodded in respect. As to what expression he had on his face, Taiki had no idea.

The group of people surrounding them made another commotion.

"So it wasn't Saku?"

It was not known who said this, but it sounded like he had a renewed hope in becoming the ruler.
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"Gyousou? Oh, the Oushi's General Saku."

The next day, Taiki asked the Risai, the female general that he had just met, if she knew Gyousou.

She didn't look discouraged at all and gave an enthusiastic welcome to Taiki, who had come to pay Hien a visit. When the nyosen were chatting with Risai's servants, Taiki sat next to Risai and Hien.

"Madam Risai, you're also a general, right? Do you know him?"

Risai shook her head. "I am a general, but I'm a general in a provincial army. Sir Gyousou is a general in the army under the direct control of the ruler. Our social positions are not the same."

It could be said that the difference between a general in a provincial army and a general in the Kingun is very great. A Kingun general may enter the royal palace and speak directly with the ruler. They can also participate in the morning court council and assume a role in government. A general in the Army of the Provincial Kou is simply a person in the military. Thus, if one were to become a Kingun general, there is no doubt that they would be an important subject to the ruler.

"You say that, so is he very famous?"

"Yes. He is considered a very well-known swordsman and receives the genuine respect of his soldiers. I've heard others say that he is direct and tough, but that he is also intelligent and well-mannered." After Risai finished saying this, she looked at Taiki. "Do you have an interest in Sir Gyousou?"

"...Yesterday, I came across a fight..."

Risai nodded. "So I heard. Someone was irritated and purposefully provoked Sir Gyousou. The fault is with the other person, not with Sir Gyousou. Supposedly, that person seriously insulted Sir Gyousou's character. Otherwise, this quarrel would never have occurred."

"So that's how it was..."

Risai looked directly at Taiki and asked, "Is Sir Gyousou the king?"

Taiki quickly shook his head. "No. It's just that he makes me feel scared..."

Since this wasn't what she expected to hear, a look of disappointment appeared on Risai's face. "Oh... So it wasn't Sir Gyousou..."

"I heard people say that yesterday too."

Risai smiled. "He isn't a warm person, but he also isn't terrifying. I think he's a very strong man. There are 12500 soldiers in an army, and to get every one of them to respect him is not an easy task. He has made enemies along the way, but there are far more that admire him. For Sir Gyousou to not be the king, it's a little disheartening."

"Do you also admire Sir Gyousou?"

Risai ran her hands thru Hien's fur. "Yes! Though I've never had the opportunity to actually meet him, I definitely respect him a lot, since I have also lead troops before. Thus, if Sir Gyousou were to become king, I would certainly recognize his authority."

"I had no idea he was such a capable person."

Risai nodded. "If we're talking about swordsmanship, King En ranks first, and second is Sir Gyousou."

"Oh..."

"I think you might be able to find another person comparable to Sir Gyousou, but a person who possesses such a deep public support, and has both a talent for military and administrative leadership and also a high nobility and prestige, is few and far between."

Taiki nodded.

(...But, he didn't prompt any revelation...)

"It is regrettable." This came from the bottom of Risai's heart.

Anyone who had something to do with the military knew that talented people like General Saku of the Kingun were hard to come by. It was an exceptional case that Gyousou was still young when he became a general in the Kingun. It has been said that early on, the people of a rebellion that Gyousou quelled came to respect him greatly in the end.

It's not hard to find a military officer in other kingdoms who is strong or one that is honorable, but to find a person who is both of these things and also whose fame resounds through all the kingdoms, that is extremely rare to come by.

In truth, when she was hurrying along the Reikon Gate road, Risai had heard that Gyousou was among the crowds climbing the mountains, at which point she knew that she was not to ascend to the throne.

Because she was a compassionate general, the people thought of her as a very kind and honorable military officer. She received the attention of the people and their utmost expectations. They believed that she had what it took to be chosen, so she climbed the mountain. However, Risai herself had never thought herself to be the best candidate. She believed that if she really compared herself to others in the world, she would not be able to surpass Gyousou.

"It really is...very regrettable..." mumbled Risai to herself.

Taiki felt bad when he heard this, so he said, "I think Madam Risai would make a great queen..."

When Risai heard this, she laughed. "You compliment me with these words. I thank you."

"I really think so."

"I am honored, but perhaps you believe in people too easily! There are those who will flatter the Kou for the sake of honor and wealth," said Risai, half in jest as she looked at Taiki. Taiki was surprised.

"No way!"

"Yes, these kinds of people are everywhere! There are many among the mountain-climbers who aren't capable of ascending to the throne, so they rely on this opportunity to befriend the Kou or the ruler in order to pave the way for their own future."

"Are there really?"

"It's unfortunate, but there are. For instance, a person like me might hope that after you've descended the mountain and gone to Tai Kingdom, you will promote me into the Oushi."

Taiki held his head askew. "I think...you're not that kind of person."

Risai laughed even more happily. "Kou, you really know how to speak. I am overjoyed by your words."

"Really?"

"Really," laughed Risai as she stood up and lightly brushed off the straw that was on her clothes. "It looks like the nyosen who accompanied you here have also finished their conversation. If you don't mind, please allow me to stroll with you around this area."

(End of Chapter 7)
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Chapter 8

"Youka, can I go outside?" asked a restless Taiki, who had only entered Hoto Palace not too long ago.

Youka smiled. "Of course. Did you want to go see Madam Risai?"

"...Is that not good?"

"Of course not. Madam Risai is a good person. She is a general and we believe her to be a trustworthy person."

Obtaining permission, Taiki exited the palace surrounded by the nyosen who had been on the platform.

As the days went by, the nyosen had gotten to know quite a few of the mountain-climbers. First one nyosen, then another would encounter someone that they knew and stop to chat with them. Slowly the number of nyosen walking with Taiki would become smaller and smaller. Even Youka stopped just shortly before they reached Risai's tent to talk with an attendant from some other place. Taiki ran the remainder of the distance.

Currently the number of people who stopped to greet him had lessened, but there were still a lot of people who took the opportunity to befriend and chat with Taiki. Taiki had learned a way to avoid being bothered by idle people: he just had to run as quickly as he could.

"Madam Risai!"

Even before Taiki said anything, Risai had already come out of her tent.

"You've come."

"You knew I was coming?"

"When you're coming, Hien calls out happily."

"Really?"

"Yes, perhaps Hien thinks you're really his master!"

"That can't be."

"We'll never be sure. Youju are not able to speak, otherwise you could ask him." Risai laughed as she lightly patted Hien's neck. "Am I right, Hien?"

The tenba suddenly turned its head and rubbed it against Taiki's chest. Risai smiled wryly and said, "Look, didn't I just say so?"

- - - - -

After they washed Hien and brushed his fur, Taiki and Risai used the remainder of the morning to stroll around. Risai very patiently answered all of Taiki's questions in detail. In addition, if there were any strange things that Taiki was unfamiliar with, she would explain all of them to him without exception.

Risai would also introduce Taiki to her friends. It seemed as though these people had gotten to know Risai after they had climbed the mountain, and they all felt like good people. Walking around with Risai always made Taiki feel an unrestrained happiness.

"Are all the people who come here from Tai Kingdom? Are there no people from other kingdoms?" asked Taiki casually as he and Risai were walking slowly through a vast area surrounded by spring water that gushed from the bottom of a crag.

Risai couldn't help but lightly chuckle. "Of course. The ruler of Tai Kingdom is decided from the people of Tai Kingdom."

"Is that so?"

"Could it be that you didn't know?" Risai had a slight surprised look on her face.

"I wasn't brought back to live on Mt. Hou until recently, so there are a lot of things I don't know."

Risai nodded in understanding. "I wasn't aware. How rude of me. It is a rule that says the ruler of a kingdom must be from that kingdom."

"So all these people here, they're all from Tai Kingdom?"

"Well it's not limited to just that. It just requires that one is born in Tai Kingdom."

"Oh..."

Risai held Taiki's hand as they walked for a bit when he suddenly stopped.

"Madam Risai, look at the really beautiful beast over there."

Risai turned to look where Taiki was looking and nodded.

"Yes, that's a sugu. They are very beautiful."

This creature looked a lot like a tiger. It had a long tail and an incredible multi-colored radiance. Compared to the gentle impression the tenba gave people, the strength it displayed was much fiercer by far.

"The sugu makes the best kiju. It can cross a kingdom in one day."

"How powerful!"

The nyosen had said before that it took an entire month's time for a horse to completely cross a kingdom, which gave him an idea of how considerably big the land was.

"Yes, sugu are extremely obedient to their masters and are also very smart. You will not be able to find a beast braver on the battlefields than this one." Risai looked admiringly at the sugu and walked slowly towards it. "I would very much like to have a sugu."

"You want a sugu? Then what about Hien?"

"Of course I would like one. Hien is cute and docile, but his personality is too gentle to bring onto a battlefield. I am a military commander, so I must consider matters of war first and foremost."

"I see..."

"I'm hoping that I'll encounter a sugu on my way back from Mt. Hou."

"If you run into one, will you catch it and take it back with you?"

Risai laughed. "That's my plan. Before I came, of course I very much anticipated meeting you, but I also looked forward to a chance to capture and take back a sugu."

"Oh..."

"If I dared to spend money, I could probably buy a sugu to take home, but it would be very embarrassing to buy a youju. No, I should actually say that for something like a kiju, I would like to rely on my own strength to tame it."

"I see."

Risai smiled as she nodded, and then called out to the tent next to which the sugu was tied up, "Forgive me for inquiring, but is the master of this sugu available?"

"If you're asking about Keito, he is my mount."

They suddenly heard a voice from behind them. Risai looked surprised as her reflexes put her into a defensive stance.

"Sir Gyousou..."

It was that man. Today, he wasn't wearing that armor from before, but his sword was still at his waist. It had been hard to forget his ice-like hair and his eyes that were like rubies.

After Risai looked at Taiki and Gyousou, she stood up straight. "This is the first time we have met. I am--"

"You are Madam Risai of the Jou Provincial Army, are you not?" smiled Gyousou. Risai looked pleased.

"Why do you...?"

"General, your name is known far and wide. There are few that do not know of you."

"Just as I thought!" Taiki blurted out. Risai and Gyousou both turned to look at him. "Ah... Excuse me."

Gyousou was very interested in Taiki's response. "As you thought?"

"It's like this... I had previously said to Madam Risai that she was a very exceptional general. It seems as if I'm not the only one who thinks so..."

Risai's face reddened a little bit as she turned to Gyousou. "The Kou speaks too highly of me."

"Not at all," said Gyousou with a smile.

"Kou, you have very good insight. It's just as you said. The people exalted when Madam Risai was promoted into the Jou Provincial Army."

"Please don't listen to him, Kou."

Risai became shy, which was unusual for her, so it made her feel awkward.

Gyousou noticed her slight distress and could not hold in a smile. Taiki stood on the side and, seeing Gyousou's smile, realized that he wasn't the scary person that he had originally thought him to be.
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"That's right. I don't know if it was Madam Risai or the Kou that had a question about Keito." Gyousou looked at Taiki and Risai.

"The Kou said that he would like to get a good look at him."

"If it is the Kou, then I do not think Keito will have any objections." Gyousou showed them to the sugu.

Observing it from so closely, Taiki discovered that its eyes left a deeper impression than its appearance. He was stunned by the complicated and beautiful colors in it.

"Might I ask...if Sir Gyousou captured this sugu with his own hands?"

"Yes, because I don't like to buy kiju."

"Why is that? Isn't capturing youju really dangerous?"

Suddenly, Gyousou raised the corners of his lips. Taiki flinched at seeing this intense sort of smile, and it scared him.

"These youju originally come from the wild and become kiju when people rein in and restrain them. For us to become their masters, if we didn't risk our lives as payment to them, wouldn't that be unfair to them?"

"Oh...yeah..."

Gyousou stroked Keito fondly, as the frightening smile that was previously on his face disappeared.

"I captured him with my own hands, and trained him myself. This sugu and my sword are both my treasures."

Risai was very astonished and asked, "You trained Keito on your own?"

"Essentially. The trainer had not done a good job. He does not listen to anyone but me," said Gyousou as he smiled. He leaned his head and looked at Taiki. "Normally, people say that doing this is not smart, because a dangerous accident could happen in a second."

"Oh..."

"Oh, that's right." Risai looked at Gyousou. "Is Sir Gyousou's sword the one bestowed upon you by the previous King Tai?"

"Yes."

"It must be an exceptionally fine sword."

"It is most definitely a very sharp blade."

The sword is a weapon, not a simple accessory. When this thought entered Taiki's head, he couldn't help but quiver with fright.

Since Gyousou was a military man, fierce combat was unavoidable for him. He probably received this sword through some great military achievement, and carried it to do battle with.

"So what was the achievement?"

In response to Taiki's question, Gyousou shook his head.

"It wasn't because of some great feat. Once, the late king had asked King En to grant me a duel."

"Did you win?"

"I lost," laughed Gyousou happily. "We fought three times, and I only won once. The late king was very pleased with my one victory, so he bestowed this sword upon me. I do not use this sword to fight with, so it really is a treasure."

"King En is truly very powerful."

"He was too much for me, but I tried my best." At this, that frightening expression reappeared on Gyousou's face. "Had I also lived five-hundred years, I believe that King En would not be a match for me."

This was Gyousou's utmost confidence in himself.

If he hadn't said it with such a serious tone, it might not have scared Taiki. It was just this expression that appeared every now and then that really frightened him.

"I would also very much like to have a sugu..."

Risai looked at Keito. Gyousou quickly replied, "I know a good place to look for them. Why don't I take you there?"

"Really?"

"I have almost completed everything here that I came to do. I was thinking that perhaps I could find another sugu before the next Ankou Day."

"You already have Keito. You wanted another one?"

"If I could get another sugu, then Keito could rest more. Three might be too many, but I think two is a perfect number."

"I understand your meaning. It's just that...are you really willing to let others know where to find them?"

"Why not? If a person wants one, they should catch one for themselves."

"Aren't you afraid that other people will exhaust the place of sugu?"

Gyousou laughed lightly. "What is there to be afraid of? Those who want to become master to a sugu are required to have many skills."

- - - - -

After they left Gyousou, Taiki let out a big sigh, but he knew that he was still very anxious.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing..."

Risai could see Taiki's mood in his face.

"Kou, are you still afraid of Sir Gyousou?"

"Madam Risai, it seems like you don't feel it at all."

"I think that he is able to strike fear into the hearts of all the enemies who face him... What I mean is, he truly makes other people feel a little nervous."

"So that's it..."

"He has a frightful ambition. You see a friendly dog and relax, but then you realize that it's really a wolf, and so you're paralyzed with fear. Do you know that feeling?"

This had perfectly described his emotions.

"I know exactly what you're saying."

Risai murmured, "It is just as the rumors said. He has an extraordinary ambition... It's too bad he's not the king."

"Really?" Taiki was truly afraid of Gyousou.

Risai nodded. "A ruler isn't simply a good person. A ruler who is too compassionate will lead his kingdom astray, and one who is too modest will bring his kingdom to ruin... I sincerely believed that Sir Gyousou was the one."

"Madam Risai, do you really mean that?"

Risai looked at Taiki, whose head was raised toward her, and smiled. "After meeting Sir Gyousou, I am a little embarrassed that I came to climb the mountain. --Sir Gyousou is really the strongest of the strong."
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"It doesn't look like there's a ruler among those who have climbed the mountain."

When Youka said this, a month and a half had already passed since the summer solstice.

It was late at night with the moon high in the sky, and the insects chirped continuously.

"Then...it should be okay if we don't go to Hoto Palace tomorrow, right?"

Youka nodded as she tidied up the bed.

Sanshi silently helped Taiki change clothes.

"I suppose we could just close the gates of the outer palace. That way, we can let everyone know that they should stop hoping."

"And then what?"

"And then we let things happen. If you want to go outside and play, you might as well."

"Really?"

"Yes, since there'll be people to help us watch out for you. You're probably going to look for Sir Gyousou and Madam Risai, right? As long as those two are there, then we don't need to worry. Also, Sanshi will be by your side."

After that day when he talked to Gyousou, Taiki always stopped by to visit him.

Ordinarily, he would first pay a visit to Risai, and then after he played with Hien, he would visit Gyousou. Eventually, it became an unexpected sort of routine.

Occasionally, Gyousou still made Taiki's heart jump, but after a while, he got used to that too. There were normally very few men on Mt. Hou, so after Taiki became familiar with Gyousou, if he didn't visit him, he would feel as if something was missing.

"Then..." Taiki looked up at Youka. "Tomorrow Madam Risai and Sir Gyousou are going out to the Yellow Sea to look for sugu."

Youka raised her eyebrows. "And?"

"...And I would like to go with them... I can't go, can I?"

When Risai invited Taiki, he had told her that the nyosen might not allow him to go.

Youka exchanged glances with Teiei, who was standing in the corner of the room, and then sighed and said, "All right, since you don't usually ask us for anything. Just please do your best to be careful. Don't get hurt or we'll be very worried."

A wide grin spread across Taiki's face. "Okay!"

- - - - -

The darkness was still draped over the sky though daybreak was approaching. Taiki rushed over from Hoto Palace to Risai's tent without stopping.

The surroundings were so hazy that human shapes were hard to make out, but the camp area had been illuminated by torches.

"Madam Risai!"

"Kou."

Taiki saw that Gyousou had already put on his armor and was standing with Keito, waiting for him to arrive. Risai was just placing a saddle onto Hien's back, and it was the first time that Taiki had seen her in armor. She turned her head and looked at the nyosen following Taiki and nodded.

"Are we ready to set off?"

Risai smiled. "Almost."

"Am I riding with you on Hien?"

"That's right."

Teiei, who had chased behind Taiki, bowed deeply. "There are none who can replace Taiki's person, so Madam Risai and Sir Gyousou, I please ask that you must take care of him, no matter what."

Risai and Gyousou returned the bow.

"We earnestly believe in both of your abilities, so the danger shouldn't be too great that Taiki is with you. However, please be sure that you return him before noon."

"Certainly."

Teiei nodded, and then noticed that only a tenba and a sugu were ready with saddles.

"Are you not bringing any attendants with you?"

"If we bring attendants on horses, I'm afraid that we would not be able to make it back by noon," said Risai difficultly. Teiei creased her brow.

The Yellow Sea is quite a dangerous place, and though it protects the Five Mountains, countless numbers of youma reside there. Youju will obediently listen to their masters as soon as they are subdued, but they are originally born wild, so they are dangerous and will attack people.

Besides youma and youju, there are countless other hazards hidden in the Yellow Sea, such as quicksand, swamps full of poisonous vapors, boulders falling off the mountain, and the like.

"Can the both of you guarantee that you will bring the Kou back without the slightest injury?"

Risai nodded her head solidly. "We will definitely make sure he does not get injured in the least."

"It's too bad we can't come with you. The nyosen need the permission of Genkun to leave the Five Mountains. I know it's very dangerous there, so please consider the Kou's safety first while you're hunting. He must not come into contact with blood. This I ask of you."

"Yes... Of course." A labored expression floated onto Risai's face. Teiei ignored it and continued speaking.

"If you really must kill a youma, one of you please take the Kou away first...even if it means abandoning the other person."

"Teiei..." Afraid that Teiei would keep talking, Taiki gently tugged at the bottom of Teiei's dress.

"We are not setting off on a sightseeing excursion," said Gyousou with a stern look upon his face. "The main purpose of this trip to the edge of the Yellow Sea is to hunt for youju. Thus, I cannot guarantee you that it won't be dangerous. However, we are most confident that we can protect the Kou, so that is why we have invited him to come with us. For you to give us these instructed again and again, I must say that the nyosen of Mt. Hou are being a bit too discourteous."

Teiei looked unwaveringly at Gyousou. "...You are really full of self-confidence... I suppose that it would be useless to say anymore..."

Gyousou fearless looked back at Teiei, the unyielding glimmer in his eyes becoming more intense. "I must please ask the nyosen not to worry. The Kou is the Kirin of our Tai Kingdom. Protecting the safety of the Kou is the absolute responsibility of the people of Tai Kingdom. Can the nyosen accept what I have said?"

The two looked at each other for a moment, until Teiei looked away briefly.

"What you've said does make sense... Then that is all I ask of you."

"Of course."

When Teiei turned to make her way back to the palace, Gyousou grasped his sugu's reins and said, "The daylight is almost here. We should head out, Madam Risai."
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Though the tenba was galloping very quickly, riding upon it didn't feel shaky.

Whether it was leaping across the crags, running upon flat land, or passing through the dense forests, it completely didn't affect those who rode upon it. This steady feeling was not at all like riding on the back of an animal. Sitting on top, Taiki felt both surprised and blissful.

It seemed as if the tenba had exceptional eyesight in the dark. Even if it was going through areas where rocks and trees were blocking the moonlight, it didn't slow down at all.

"...What does it feel like?" asked Risai, who was holding Taiki with her arms as she clutched the reins with her hands. Taiki turned back to look at her.

"It's a lot like a kirin."

Risai showed a little surprise. "You've ridden a kirin before?"

"Yes... Is that strange?"

Risai smiled wryly. "Now that is quite a rare experience. --Also, how could Hien compare to a kirin? I feel rather embarrassed."

"Really?"

"Yes. Of course, since you are a kirin, you may not think that riding a kirin is anything special. But for someone like me, I wouldn't dare to dream of riding one."

"Oh..."

Taiki had never thought about that before. Certainly, when he recalled riding upon Keiki, he felt a little bit bewildered, but not that it was anything terribly special.

"But really, I would never have dreamed that I would actually have the opportunity to ride upon the same saddle with you."

After Taiki looked up and saw Risai smiling, he tilted his head, which meant that he didn't object to what she had said.

Taiki had wanted to ask Gyousou for his opinion, but when he turned to look at Gyousou, who was riding Keito next to them, he only saw Gyousou's profile as he looked ahead with a stern expression on his face. Taiki supposed that Gyousou hadn't heard the conversation between himself and Risai.

That frightening feeling emanated from Gyousou once again, and he looked like he was still irritated with what Teiei had said before.

Taiki had originally been cheerfully riding on the tenba, but that feeling rapidly disappeared.

He felt as if it had all been his fault.

- - - - -

Hien and Keito entered into a deep part of the Yellow Sea, gracefully passing through the rocky crags, and arrived at a place south of the Five Mountains--the base of Mt. Kou.

Gyousou, who had been riding in front, stopped Keito upon a hill that was connected to a savage-looking rock which was protruding upward, and came down off the saddle. At this time, the moon could still be seen in the sky.

"Sir Gyousou, is this the place?" asked Risai, after she had stopped Hien. Gyousou nodded gravely.

Risai lifted Taiki down off the saddle. He looked at the ambitious Gyousou from the side.

"Uh... Sir Gyousou..."

"Yes?" Gyousou's tone was impatient. He unloaded the packs that had been tied to the saddle, not bothering to look back at Taiki.

With Gyousou's back towards him, Taiki lowered his head. "Just then...the nyosen were a little disrespectful."

Gyousou stopped what he was doing and sighed. His air of determination subsided as well.

"...You do not need to apologize to me."

"No... Actually...I am very sorry, Sir Gyousou, and Madam Risai too."

Risai had found a suitable place in a corner surrounded by crags to prepare a fire. When she heard Taiki say this, she couldn't help but laugh a little.

"You need not think about it. I know that it's very normal for the nyosen to worry."

"No!" Taiki looked at the two of them.

"I...am an ailing kirin."

The two looked at Taiki, making him feel embarrassed, so his face turned red.

"That's just a metaphor..." Taiki tried his best to find a suitable way to describe it. "Teiei wasn't doubting the abilities of Madam Risai and Sir Gyousou. It's because I can't quite take care of myself, so that's why she was so anxious."

Risai smiled warmly. "Kou, in this world, you are someone whom no one can replace. You shouldn't sell yourself short."

Taiki shook his head. "No! The nyosen worry so much because I can't do any of the things a kirin is supposed to be able to do! That's what I think it probably is... I...don't even have any shirei."

Gyousou and Risai both opened their eyes widely, and then exchanged glances with each other.

Since kirin cannot stand blood, they have no way of holding a weapon and fighting with others, even if their opponent is a youma or a youju.

Thus, the ones that are able to help protect the kirin are his shirei. It is common knowledge that a kirin possesses a countless number of shirei. If a kirin does not have any shirei, that means that he has no way of protecting himself.

"And it's not just that. I cannot transform either."

After hearing this, Gyousou and Risai were even more shocked.

"I should have a lot of shirei and depend on those shirei to protect myself, but I don't have even one. If we have to run away, I should be able to run away by changing into kirin form, but I don't know how to transform."

Telling other people about how useless he was made him feel ashamed. Taiki couldn't help but shrink down his body a little bit.

"That's why the nyosen are so extremely worried about me. They've thought up all sorts of methods to try to cure me, and even specifically asked the Taiho of Kei Kingdom to come help me.."

When he thought about how worthless he was, and how that made everyone around him worry about him and concentrate their care upon him, Taiki had no choice but to feel sad.

Gyousou gently patted Taiki's head with his big hand.

Taiki looked up and saw only a warm expression gazing in his direction. Though it was still the Gyousou who sometimes frightened people, he occasionally had a kinder side to him.

"We were not planning on using any shirei, so please don't worry."

"At least...I still have a nyokai."

Gyousou smiled. "That is reassuring."

Gyousou's hand, which was bigger by far than Keiki's hand, stroked Taiki's head.

"Yes..."
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"What kind of bait are we going to use?" asked Taiki to Risai as she was setting a trap.

"A gem. Sugu are especially fond of agate."

Risai took out a piece of agate about the same size as a chicken's egg for Taiki to look at.

"Wow... It's so big... The sugu will really eat it?"

Risai smiled. "It's just like a cat and the silvervine."

"I see..."

Risai put the piece of agate in Taiki's hand, turned to Gyousou and said, "I'm going to lay out some bait to lure them over here."

Risai jumped onto her tenba.

"Lure?"

"The shattered pieces of agate. Sir Gyousou, I leave the Kou in your care."

"I understand."

After taking a giant leap, Hien flew outward. At this time, the eastern sky had slowly grown whiter.

The middle of the night was the most suitable for hunting, because very few youju wandered around in when the sun was high in the sky. Currently, there was still a stretch of time before it was light out. This wasn't the best opportunity to hunt, but taking into consideration Taiki's safety, Gyousou and Risai chose this period of time.

After Gyousou tied a rope onto a stake that had been driven into the ground, he lightly patted his hands, stood up, and walked towards Keito who was laying on the rocks by the fire.

"Kou, would you like to rest?"

"Yes."

Gyousou leaned on Keito and motioned for Taiki to come beside him, whereupon Taiki obediently walked over and sat next to him.

"Do you think we'll be able to catch one?"

"We'll have to see how lucky we are."

"Did you catch Keito here?"

Gyousou nodded. "In all the Ankou Days that I passed through, I think it was my sixth attempt that I caught him."

"It must be pretty hard then?"

"To be honest, it's a lot of trouble just to set all those traps."

Since he didn't know how the complex apparatus formed by the chains and ropes would be operated, Taiki sunk into his fertile imagination almost immediately.

"Are you scared of me?"

Faced with such a sudden question, Taiki lifted his head and looked surprisingly at Gyousou.

"No..."

"Sometimes I feel that when you look at me, it seems as if you want to get far away from me. Or is it perhaps you smell something horrible on me, and you're afraid that it's contagious?"

"It's not like that!"

"Or are kirin afraid to look at me?" Gyousou revealed a sliver of a bitter smile. "Kirin are very compassionate creatures. It looks like I have been spared compassion, hasn't it?"

"Not at all..."

"I am a warrior. I cannot be compassionate. That is unavoidable... Kou, if you recognize anything in which I am lacking, I hope that you can tell me, because I would like to know in what area I have not done well."

Gyousou's tone was still and his voice was so light that it felt like it dissolved into the night. Taiki was at a loss.

"...I think perhaps Sir Gyousou has misunderstood."

Gyousou looked inquiringly at Taiki.

"Or perhaps, it is the color of your eyes... It reminds me of blood, and that frightens me a little..."

"I appreciate your concern for me, but it is not necessary to be too kind to me."

Taiki calmly gathered up the courage to look back at Gyousou and said, "...I really don't know how to explain it."

"You can say anything. Do not worry about me."

"I...I've always considered my personality to be weak. The nyosen often tell me that I lack ambition, that I should have more confidence in myself. I don't know why I'm like this."

Gyousou looked at Taiki with a deep silence.

"Sir Gyousou, you're not the same way. You're full of self-confidence. Truthfully, I'm not sure if I would describe it as ambitious, but I think the sense that you give people is that you are driven, especially...when that determination sometimes rises up very intensely. --Do you understand what I'm talking about?"

Gyousou nodded.

"So that's why I get a little scared. It's a little bit different than envy."

Taiki looked at the fire next to Keito.

"Fire...is warm and bright, but at the same time, it's strong and scary, right? So that's why I'm afraid... I think that's probably how I feel about you."

Even Taiki himself didn't understand why he felt this fear.

"But I'm not down on myself because of this. I don't think it's because of any sort of violence that I feel scared. It doesn't feel quite the same. And it isn't like the fear I feel when I see blood. That feels different too..."

No matter how he said it, he just couldn't find a way to express what it was that he was feeling. The more he thought about it, the more flustered Taiki would get, and suddenly, he felt like crying.

"It's not quite an unpleasant feeling. A big fire is frightening, but it's also beautiful and amazing. That's what I've been trying to say. I feel like you're very great, but at the same time, I'm a little scared of you."

He put his hands to his face.

"There's no need to cry."

"I'm sorry..."

"It's my fault for asking such a strange question."

"Not at all..."

Gyousou laughed warmly and gently stroked Taiki's hair. "You are a good child."

"No... That's..."

"You are both honest and kind. I believe Tai Kingdom will definitely get better."

"Do you really think so?"

Gyousou nodded. He hugged Taiki's shoulders with the arm he was using to stroke Taiki's head as he looked into the fire.

Afterwards, neither of them said anything. Previously leaning on Keito, Taiki shifted toward Gyousou's body and sunk into the silence.

(End of Chapter 8)
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Chapter 9

"Sir Gyousou!"

Taiki saw the ashes from a torch flying around and its light growing closer to where he was sitting. It was Risai returning on Hien's back. A sliver of a white light had just begun revealing itself in the sky to the east.

"Sir Gyousou, I've discovered a suspicious cavern."

"Oh?" Gyousou stood up.

"It's near a swamp not too far from here. I saw tracks coming out of it, but I didn't know if they were those of a sugu or not."

"Is it its lair?"

"Perhaps."

"We should go take a look."

Risai lifted Taiki onto Hien as she climbed on as well, and Gyousou mounted Keito.

- - - - -

The cavern was an opening in the crags at the edge of a swamp where a mixture of murky water and mud had accumulated. The stretch of land between the swamp and the cave was overgrown with weeds in such a way that it was as if there was a path through it.

Hien and Keito tried to get closer to the cavern. By means of the light from the torches, they saw tracks leading into the cave.

Gyousou stopped Keito. Comparing the prints that Keito had just made, he discovered that the tracks looked like they were left by a creature bigger than a sugu.

"It may not be a sugu... But then, what is it?"

Risai got off of Hien and looked into the mouth of the cave.

An arrangement of giant rocks formed the cave opening, which was about as tall as Risai. They called it a cavern, but it could also be described as a big crevice forming a tunnel underneath a mass of connected crags.

Not too far in, the tunnel turned, so the deepest part of the cave could not be seen.

"I'd gone into it a little bit before to survey it. It looks like it goes very deep. Should we go inside?"

"Perhaps we might run into a dragon."

"That reminds me. The Dragon Palace is at the bottom of the Yellow Sea."

Gyousou investigated the inside of the cave once again.

"Anyway, that's what they say..."

"This cavern looks a bit too small to be one that went all the way to the bottom of the Yellow Sea."

"...Well then, what should we do?" Risai was a little uncertain.

"Why don't we go in for a look?" said Gyousou with his back to the others, and then turned around to look at Taiki. "What do you think?"

"Ah... I don't know."

"Then let's go inside and look around."

Risai walked into the cavern. "I'll walk in front. Sir Gyousou, please watch over the Kou."

"All right."

Taiki had some reservations and looked up at Gyousou. "Um..."

"Scared?"

He was originally going to shake his head, but then Taiki decided to speak honestly. "A little..."

"What's wrong?" Risai had already walked to the turn.

"We're going in now. Kou, you must not leave my side."

"Yes..."

- - - - -

It seemed as if the tunnel passed under the mountainous crags. The path extended slowly downward, twisting and turning, as if it had no end. Though there was no wind, their flame wavered, which meant that there was air circulation. Though this path turned so much that it was hard to travel, there were no branches to distract them.

"It's fairly long..." Gyousou's voice echoed throughout the inside of the cave. Risai, who was in the front, stopped walking.

"There's no more road in front of us."

Looking in Risai's direction, there seemed to be a small open area beyond her. Except, the ground of the open area was lower than the path of the subterranean tunnel they had walked through. The difference in the elevation of the two was almost Taiki's height.

Risai jumped down and looked around this space, uneven because it was piled with rocks.

"Strange... There's nothing here."

"That shouldn't be. There's a bad smell inside this cave."

Taiki crinkled his eyebrows. A stench permeated the air just as Gyousou said this.

The smell wasn't so bad that it disgusted people. It was just enough to be bothersome.

In this rocky area, Risai constantly stepped up and down to get through it. At the next moment, Taiki saw her squatting next to a sloped, prominently smooth rock. After her figure moved farther and farther away, Taiki began to feel a strong anxiety.

"Ah! There's another tunnel over here that goes further down."

"Where?" Gyousou picked Taiki up and jumped down into the open area. He stood on a piece of rock and looked where Risai was pointing.

--It was a dark cave.

"It looks like...there's something inside." Taiki murmured to himself.

"Hm?" Both Gyousou and Risai looked over at Taiki. He felt a chill running up his body from the soles of his feet. His heartbeat quickened and he became very distressed.

"...Let's go back... Over there... It's not safe."

"What's wrong?"

Taiki grabbed Gyousou's hand and reached out with his other toward Risai.

"I don't like that place."

Risai and Gyousou exchanged looks. Risai smiled and placed her hand at the edge of the cave.

"I just want to make sure whether anything is inside the cave."

"No! No, don't go over there!" Taiki was about to go forward and stop Risai, but after he took only one step, something suddenly appeared on the rocks and blocked him from going any further.

"You can't go over there!"

"Sanshi!"

The abrupt appearance of the nin'you caused Gyousou to immediately clutch the hilt of his sword, preparing to draw it. But then, Taiki let go of his hand and hugged the nin'you in front of him, at which point he realized that this nin'you was the nyokai that Taiki had mentioned before.

Risai was also very surprised, widening her eyes at the emergence of the white nin'you. Her hand was still placed upon the side of the cave as she turned the upper portion of her body toward Taiki, and just then, something suddenly took a hold of her hand.

Risai didn't even have time to react. She only heard the child next to Gyousou cry out.

"...Risai!"

Unable to hide the look of shock on her face, Risai's body was pulled into the cave. They saw her struggling legs just as they turned to look, and before they knew it, she was gone.

"...Risai!!"

As if in response to Taiki's desperate cries, a scream came from deep inside the cave.
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Gyousou rushed toward the cave into which Risai had been swallowed up.

The dark tunnel extended downward, as if it had no end.

"Sir Gyousou!"

"Sanshi, please take the Kou away from here and ride Keito back to Mt. Hou!"

Sanshi nodded. However, Taiki had already run to Gyousou's side.

"Taiki, you cannot go!" Sanshi leapt forward and held onto the child.

"But, Madam Risai, she..."

Gyousou's glare stopped Taiki who had been pointing at the cave. "Entrust the matter of saving Risai to me. You must leave here quickly!"

"I can't!"

Before Gyousou could even answer him, Taiki had already shaken off Sanshi's embrace and jumped toward the cave.

"Taiki!"

Taiki tumbled his way toward the cave while throwing off Sanshi's outreaching hands. Not caring about anything, he jumped into it.

--No matter what, I can't leave Gyousou to save Risai all by himself!

- - - - -

The cave was quite deep. After she looked around, Sanshi hurried to block Taiki's way.

"...Taiki!"

"No! I'm not going!"

Sanshi couldn't help but hold back the hand that she was going to use to grab onto Taiki's arm. For some reason, she just wasn't able to go against Taiki's wishes.

--Why is this?

Suddenly, Sanshi forgot where she was and looked at her own hands, lost in thought.

Taiki was Sanshi's master, and right now, the most important thing was to make Taiki's safety her first consideration. She had to take Taiki away from this dangerous place as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, she didn't know what kind of dangerous creature this was. Actually, she didn't have to pay attention to Taiki's refusal. She could be very forceful if it was to keep Taiki safe.

At this thought, she grabbed Taiki's hand, who unexpectedly shook her off easily. Not to mention, she could not help but pull her hand back.

--Why?

Taiki did not have the time to acknowledge Sanshi's feelings now.

The end of the tunnel was also a wide area, filled with stalactites. The torch that Gyousou had brought was the only source of light inside of the cave, a weak fire that made it very hard for them to estimate the depth of the cavern with any certainty.

Taiki saw the silhouette of Gyousou in front of him with his sword drawn. Laying not far from his feet was Risai.

What frightened him, what had almost swallowed up Risai's body, was a giant dark shadow!

The shadow appeared to take shape. One end of it changed into the shape of a sickle and swung stiffly towards Risai!

"Toutetsu!" Sanshi cried out.

--How could this be?

Sanshi looked unwaveringly at the youma. No, perhaps it should not be called a youma. Its power was far beyond that of any ordinary person, and very few had ever seen it before. It was essentially a monster of legend.

Sanshi was no match for it. Is there anything in this world that can face the toutetsu without drawing themselves back?

Risai raised her head. "Kou, run away!"

"I can't!"

Gyousou pointed at Taiki. "The Kingdom of Tai needs you! You must not die here!"

"I don't want to be the only one to leave. We should all go together!"

A scream rang out.

The toutetsu targeted Risai with a violent force, and then followed it by turning to Gyousou and attacking him.

Gyousou flew to the ground, the toutetsu's attack roaring above his head. It then raised its claw even higher.

--I have to think of a way to stop that frightening weapon!

(How can I do it?)

--The Sword Seal.

"Rin, Byou, Tou, Sha, Kai, Jin, Retsu, Zen, Kyou!"

(I hope I can stop it.)

The black shadow suddenly stopped moving.

(And then...what do I do?)

Koushi. --Except Taiki was shaking so much that he was not able to perform it.

One part of the shadow turned toward him. In the light of the torch, Taiki could see a pair of eyes close to the ground.

Taiki made eye contact with the toutetsu.

"Use this opportunity and go quickly..."

Taiki looked back at the pair of pupils without the least bit of fear, except he didn't know how much longer he could keep this up.

"Sanshi, save Madame Risai!"

"Taiki..."

"Get Madame Risai out of there quickly!"

--There it was again! Sanshi ground her teeth.

There was no way she could disobey Taiki's words. Sanshi hurried to the collapsed Risai. She lifted the body that was lying in a puddle of blood and returned to Taiki's side. She glanced briefly at Taiki and sprinted toward the entrance of the cave.

"Sir Gyousou, you should also take this chance to leave here!"

The fallen Gyousou was outside of Taiki's scope of vision, and Taiki did not have the time to consider if he had actually been hurt.

He could not lose to this pair of blood-like eyes.

"Please..."

A reply came back in a deep voice. "That is not possible."

At this time, Taiki no longer had the extra energy to ask Gyousou to go.

For the first time, he understood that a person's eyes gave them such great leverage. One was the pressure he could put on his opponent; another was the force he could send back.

The struggle between the two filled the inside of the cave. It was as if time had stopped and left everything motionless.

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(Sweat...)

That pair of eyes still stared at Taiki. Taiki was entirely unaware of how much time had passed. He felt the sweat on his forehead drip down along the bridge of his nose. All he could do was softly breathe in and breathe out.

(Forehead...)

He didn't know when it started, but the area between his eyebrows hurt. It felt like something hot and solid had been buried there. The sweat was actually falling from the spot on his face that hurt.

(My eyes...)

Taiki's sight had already become blurry. Taiki relied completely on feeling the pressure that the toutetsu put on him in order to determine the toutetsu's position and to hold its line of sight tightly. Except, he had almost lost the sense that allowed him to find the direction that the force came from.

(Time...)

Just how much time had passed?

In his subconscious, Taiki had been concerned about the passage of time since a short while ago.

(I don't know...how much longer...)

Why he cared so much about time, he didn't know himself.

Suddenly, he felt resistance. The strength of the resistance became greater and greater, and Taiki opened his eyes wide. It was as if he had suddenly understood something.

Just in that moment of comprehension, his forehead felt like it was beginning to crack. Even the air that he breathed in was like a burn that went from deep in the bridge of his nose to his throat.

The toutetsu's line of sight began to waver, and its endurance suddenly doubled. There was no easy way for Taiki to continue challenging the power of his opponent. It was as if the time that caused a person to be scared had arrived.

--The seiki turned into shiki.

"Sir Gyousou..." He didn't know if Gyousou was still there; if he was, where would he be?

"You'd better go quickly..." Taiki felt that he could not keep this up anymore.

Taiki heard a still voice come from behind him. "I am very sorry... I can no longer walk."

The little kirin widened his eyes. His breathing became erratic.

--This was the moment it had turned to shiki.

"I am wounded. I cannot move--I must ask you to save me."

In the instant it appeared that his determination was wilting, it was revived.

- - - - -

The two strengths were evenly matched; the situation became more precarious than before. Then and there, they sunk into a deadlock.

(Sweat...)

It fell from his forehead.

(I don't know...if there are any other ways?)

Taiki felt that Gyousou was nearby. He had not moved, nor did he once take his eyes off of Taiki.

(I can only...subdue it.)

Gyousou could not move, but Taiki was even less able to move.

(Submit...)

Taiki began to mumble.

(Shirei, submit...)

Taiki sensed the dark shadow suddenly move. The pressure that came from the shadow waned very slowly. For the first time, he felt the slightest bit of ease.

(Shirei, submit!)

His opponent's strength became even weaker.

He could blink his eyes without much effort. His vision, originally blurred by sweat, had become clear. Taiki saw the dark shadow with a dangerous weapon raised up high and completely stationary.

His two eyes sent out an intense force, and the dark shadow began to change shape.

First, it trembled and withered, slowly changing into a giant spirit that flooded the cavern.

Taiki was not scared at all. He only felt like a heavy burden had been lifted off of him. His limbs were originally like they were made of hard metal, but they had finally recovered their faculties.

"Submit..."

The dark shadow shrank smaller and smaller, slowing changing into the shape of a big cow. The next second, it became a tiger. Then it changed into a great eagle. And then again it turned into a large snake. Countless changes--it proved that the dark shadow itself possessed an extraordinary power. Its last transformation was to that of a small dog that sat in front of Taiki.

"...Shirei, submit..." Taiki pointed toward the ceiling of the cave and received the Will of the Heavens.

In that instant, the power that was emanating from his line of sight suddenly disappeared. He lost the power to resist, and something went straight through him. From the hand that had accepted the Will of the Heavens came a great force that shattered all the restraints in his body.

"Subdue the monster! A union between the light and the dark!"

From his palm came a sound like a flood that pounded at his mind.

GOU. Gou, gou, gou, gou, gou, gou, gou... [note: different written characters with the same pronunciation of "gou" are going through taiki's head.]

Taiki was drawn into the sounds, and scenes were shown continuously in his mind: A person. Playing. Leaving. With the wind. A flag, fluttering. A whip, hitting, striking, water. --They overflow.

"Quickly according to the laws!"

It was simply intuition.

"Submit! Gouran!!" The dog stood up.

Amidst the haze, Taiki thought that this dog looked like a shiba inu. Just as he thought this, at every step, the shadow became smaller and smaller, and the fur on its body turned brown.

It would be good for it to be a small dog, but it would be better if the ends of its paws were white.

Gouran followed Taiki's wishes and transformed into a little dog. When the dog sat near Taiki's feet, it looked just like the shiba inu of his native land.

"Gouran..." Taiki bent down and the dog lifted its head to look at him, lovingly wagging its tail. Taiki reached out with his hand, and the dog licked it. He could feel the dog's warm tongue at his fingertips.

Taiki hugged the dog and pulled him close. His legs suddenly lost their strength and Taiki sat down in place.

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"I can't believe it..." It didn't feel like he had just done what he did.

Deep inside, Taiki felt that he really wasn't a human, nor was he a beast. He was part of some power--a power both great and frightening.

(I'm not human.)

At this moment, he firmly believed that he was a kirin.

(So I'm not actually human...)

He realized profoundly just what kind of creature a kirin was.

Kirin are part of the Heavens. Thus, he was able to understand the Will of the Heavens, and also specifically express this Will.

--He was once confused. He could not believe that inside of his body, besides himself, there was another him.

Now, he finally understood.

It wasn't until after this that he discovered he possessed far more than the limits he had previously set for his own "self." Also, he had a direct connection with the Heavens. Unexpectedly, this enormous power had been poured into that little body of his.

"I can't believe it..."

Suddenly, upon hearing a voice, Taiki was brought back to his senses. He remembered that he was not the only one there. He hurriedly turned his head back and saw Gyousou in a daze, sitting amongst the rocks.

"And I thought that you would be snatched away by the toutetsu..."

Taiki forced himself to stand up though his legs didn't have strength in them. His legs shook, making it hard for him to walk forward.

"Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"No..." Taiki held Gouran in his arms and plopped down next to Gyousou. Although the torch had long since gone out, a sliver of light shone through a thin crack in the rocks, so that in what was originally a pitch black cavern, it was not so dark that one couldn't see their fingers in front of them.

He turned to his side to check the condition of Gyousou's injuries. After he looked up and down Gyousou's body closely and carefully, he discovered that Gyousou did not have any open wounds.

"Where do you hurt? Do you have any broken bones?" Taiki lifted his head to look at Gyousou only to see him shake his head.

"I...am not hurt anywhere." His blood-red eyes revealed a mysterious look. "I'm very sorry... I did not tell you the truth."

Taiki was struck dumb for a moment and then immediately comprehended Gyousou's reasons.

"Sir Gyousou..."

- - - - -

When Taiki had strongly urged him to leave, Gyousou understood very clearly.

--Under no circumstances should he have moved.

Had he moved, Taiki would surely have eased up a bit, and had Taiki eased up, it would have been all over. He didn't want to give the kirin, who was using all of his energy to deal with the toutetsu, any reason to relax.

Thus, he had decided then that he could not move. He understood extremely well that he could not split the kirin's attention. So he quietly sat where he was, not allowing Taiki to sense his presence, and looked on attentively at Taiki from the sidelines.

He silently looked at the child in front of him and what method he used to restrain this youma that was worthy of its reputation. He also understood in this way the determination that Taiki had previously mentioned. Other than determination, a better word could not be found to describe the intensity that had filled the cave at that time. He believed that Taiki probably shared feelings similar to him as well.

Gyousou could hardly even believe the things he had seen. He began to hold in astonishment the child in front of him.

"Thank you for saving my life."

"No..." Taiki shook his head. If it were not for Gyousou supporting him from behind, he probably would have been very quickly swallowed by Gouran's ambition.

If Taiki had been dejected at that time, Gyousou would probably have lost even his life. However, in order to obtain the state of mind not to escape and to stay where he was, it required a courage and wisdom that surpassed those of other people.

"I should be the one thanking you... Sir Gyousou...you are amazing..."

"Please save that talk for yourself." Gyousou smiled. He combed Taiki's sweat-drenched hair with his hand. "Really incredible...that Tai Kingdom is protected by so great a kirin."

Taiki looked at the man in front of him, whose eyes were emanating a warmth.

(It is absolutely true; I really am a kirin...)

The hands that were holding Taiki tightly were really very gentle, but deep inside his heart, he was unable to cheer up.

(I am certain... Gyousou is not the king...)
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"Ah! Just what was going on?" Teiei bit her hard fingernails and Youka's face was pale as she stood at one side.

"Has Madam Risai woken up?"

The faces on Risai's attendants were all helpless.

At daybreak, the nin'you had brought back an unconscious Risai, whose wounds on her entire body were horrible to look at. After the nin'you had set Risai down, she didn't explain anything at all, immediately disappearing without a trace.

This kind of situation was hard to deal with even without the all the noise the nyosen were making. Risai, who had originally been entrusted with a great responsibility, was now sinking into a coma. By dusk, she had still not awakened.

"It was because we believed in Madam Risai, so we agreed to Taiki accompanying her. Now, Risai has come back, but we have not seen heads or tails of Taiki. What has happened?"

No matter how much they grumbled, Risai still did not move and did not respond.

"If by chance something unfortunate did happen, neither Risai nor us nyosen could live on so shamefully in this world." Just as the nyosen were reproaching themselves, they suddenly heard a loud noise.

"What was that?" Teiei looked around. Amongst the nyosen one of them pointed to the distance.

"Teiei! Look, a sugu is coming!"

"...Sir Gyousou!"

Under the light of the sun, they could only see a white light on top of the sugu, which was flying slowly towards them. Following the sugu was a tenba. One of Risai's attendants cried out. "Hien!"

They only saw Hien and a beast with a tail that was long like a whip flying past a nearby tent, and stopping soundlessly next to a group of people. The crowd saw Gyousou sitting on top of the sugu and the figure of a child laying in his arms, and all of them sent out sounds of welcome without exception.

"Gyousou!" Teiei parted the crowd as she ran to the sugu's side. "What has happened?"

Teiei shouted. Gyousou faced her wordlessly.

"Taiki..."

"He's asleep. He is perfectly all right, not a wound on him."

At hearing Gyousou say this, Teiei silently leaned forward. She saw the child in Gyousou's arms presently sleeping soundly, without any injuries on his body that were cause to worry, and there were certainly far from any signs of suffering in his appearance. With great difficulty, Teiei breathed a sigh of relief. "As long as he's all right..."

Gyousou carried Taiki down from his mount. "If it's convenient, I'll just take him like this into the palace to rest."

"Before that, I would like you to give me an explanation of what happened. We'll see if you can, depending on that."

Gyousou smiled and said, "The Kou is very tired. He probably fell asleep during the ride back on the sugu."

"You have been away until this late... I requested that you bring Taiki back before the afternoon. This could cause resentment!"

"I'm very sorry, but we should take him back to the palace first. I don't think that you could bear to wake him. Then shortly thereafter, I will give you an explanation."

It seemed as though there were other implications in Gyousou's words. Teiei looked all around her and discovered that the people surrounding them all carried lively expressions. She had no choice but to nod.

"...All right. Then, please." Teiei urged the nyosen to depart and walked in the front, leading the way to the big gate. She called Gyousou to enter Houro Palace.

"Now then, what happened exactly?" asked Teiei as she walking upon the winding paths.

"The taming took quite a while..."

Teiei opened her eyes wide, and from Youka to all the nyosen that followed behind, there rose a commotion after they heard these words.

"Tame? Are you referring to Taiki?"

"I know about the Kou not having his own shirei."

"Yes... That's right. But this matter..."

"You need not worry. I will not divulge this information. Moreover, this matter is not a disgrace for Tai, but one worthy of pride, because the Kou already has a shirei."

Teiei glanced at the smiling Gyousou and then looked at Taiki. "So..."

"He has very successfully subdued a shirei. He confronted his opposition all the way from daybreak until just a short while ago."

Teiei released a deep sigh, as if she had just put down a heavy burden. "So that's how it was... I blamed you for this, even before I understood the circumstances. I'm very sorry. Please forgive me."

"That's not necessary." Gyousou laughed and looked down at the child in his arms. He didn't know if it was because Taiki was so tired, but as he was sleeping, his color looked a bit unhealthy. However, this would not have too big an impact. He simply needed to get some rest, and he will have recovered after he woke up.

Since Taiki could already subdue youma, then transformation shouldn't be any problem for him.

The Mt. Hou Kou was not injured and there wasn't anything to be worried about, so words of comfort were unnecessary here.

"I suppose it is a good thing..."

"He is a worthy black kirin... Unexpectedly, he has tamed a toutetsu."

Teiei immediately turned back to look at Gyousou. "What did you just say?"

"I said that he has subdued a toutetsu to become his shirei."

"How can that be...?"

From within the nyosen came sounds of surprise.

This was simply impossible. Because there was no way for toutetsu to become shirei, and they were even much less a youma that could be tamed by a kirin.

"I am also very surprised." Gyousou's line of sight fell upon the child in his arms. Taiki was sleeping very deeply; even his eyelashes didn't move.

"This time, it was by chance that he was able to open his eyes. At the very least, he is letting us know that he is not an ordinary kirin. Gradually, he will let us all see his abilities."

"Excuse me?"

"If you feel that what I say is disagreeable, then I ask that you forgive me. I have no secret intentions. It is just that he possesses such a great power, but is unaware of it. It's a little worrisome."

Teiei wrinkled her brow again.

"To take advantage of this situation to help him cultivate self-confidence would not necessarily be a bad thing. He put his life on the line to protect me. Had I not been there for him to protect, he might not have put in as much energy as he did. This could be very dangerous for him."

"Yes..."

"He has such strength, but not the slightest ambition. Is there some other reason for his lack of confidence? But regardless, his development in the future will cause both happiness and sorrow."

"Thank you for caring so much about him."

"This is as it should be... Perhaps I am only a person of Tai Kingdom who should not be saying such things, but I really think that if it is possible, it may be best for the Kou to live on Mt. Hou for a while longer. That would do him good."

Teiei looked unwaveringly at Gyousou. He understood the situation very well. It was a pity that a revelation did not accompany this sort of person.

Gyousou looked at the child in his arms. "He is a remarkable kirin... It really is regrettable."

(End of Chapter 9)
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