The Twelve Kingdoms
Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Maze, from Mina’s translation of Ono Fuyumi’s Kaze no Umi Meikyuu no Kishi.
Sea of the Wind Shore of the Maze
Snow drifted from the sky.
The large and heavy snowflakes fell as if they would never stop.
To look up at the sky was to see a canvas of white with countless dull, gray shadows painted upon it. His line of sight followed the snow sweeping across his entire field of vision into the sky, and before he knew it, all he saw was white.
He watched as a snowflake drifted lightly onto his shoulder. It was a big, thick snowflake that looked almost like a crystal made of cotton. Snowflakes fell continuously onto his shoulders, arms and his bright red palms. They immediately melted into the transparent color of water.
His breath really showed how piercingly frigid it was, more so than the white snow. He turned his small child’s slender neck and the white of his breath followed his movements and hung in the air, making him feel chillier.
He had already stood there for an hour.
His little hands and exposed knees were all red like a completely ripened fruit, and he had lost all feeling in them. No matter how he rubbed or covered them, he felt only the cold seep into his bones. So he was like this, feeling nothing as he stared uncertainly into the air.
This was the yard on the northern side.
A storehouse that was no longer in use stood in the corner of the narrow yard. A crack in the earthen wall made the air even colder.
The three sides of the courtyard were the main building, the storehouse, and where the wall contained the yard. However, at this frigid and windless time, there was nothing he could use in this place to shelter him from the cold.
There wasn’t even anything in the yard one could call a tree. For a time in the summer, the irises would bloom, but right now, the ground was only scattered with the white snow.
“What a stubborn child.” His grandmother had moved from the Kansai region when she had gotten married, but when she spoke, she still carried a thick accent.
“He could at least cry a little. Even a little bit would let people know that he feels bad.”
“Mother, you don’t have to be so harsh.”
“It’s because you dote on him so much that he’s become so stubborn.”
“Today’s young parents only know how to please their children. It’s better if the children receive some strict discipline.”
“But mother, what if he gets a cold…”
“He won’t get a cold from a little bit of snow. —You listen to me. Unless he sincerely apologizes, he’s not allowed back inside.”
He just stood there.
In fact, all this had originally happened because of a small matter; someone had dripped water onto the floorboards under the sink and hadn’t wiped it up.
His younger brother blamed him and he denied that he’d done it.
By his thinking, it was because he didn’t remember doing such a thing that he felt secure enough to say that he didn’t do it. His grandmother often warned him that telling lies was the worst thing he could do, so he didn’t want to lie and say that he had done such a thing.
“Just be honest and apologize, and the matter would be over.”
Grandmother had said it very severely, so he could only explain again that he hadn’t done it.
“Why are you so stubborn?”
His grandmother always said this about him, so his young mind decided that he was indeed stubborn. Even though he wasn’t too clear on what exactly “stubborn” meant, he had his own way of explaining it: because I’m a “stubborn” child, grandmother doesn’t like me.
He hadn’t cried because he was confused.
His grandmother wanted him to apologize, but if he had given in and done so, wouldn’t he have become the kind of lying child that his grandmother hated so much? He didn’t know what the right thing to do was. He felt very anxious.
The hallway extended horizontally in front of him. Beyond the hallway’s glass window was the paper door of the kitchen. Through the half piece of glass installed in the paper door, he could see his grandmother and his mother arguing in the kitchen.
The two of them arguing made him feel very sad. Usually, in the end his mother would admit she was wrong, and then she would have no choice but to quickly clean the bathroom. He knew that his mother would eventually hide in the bathroom and secretly weep.
—I wonder if mommy is crying again.
He thought about this as he stood uncertainly.
His feet felt a little numb. He moved all his weight onto one foot and felt a dull pain in his knee. He could not feel the tips of his feet, but he still forced himself to try to move a little more. As a result, he immediately felt and retreated from a sharp, cold pain. He could feel the snow melting on his knees, melting into an icy water that trickled down his calf.
He sighed heavily the way children do.
A puff of wind suddenly brushed the back of his neck. It wasn’t a cold, empty draft but a very warm breeze.
He looked around because he thought that someone had felt sorry for him and opened a door for his sake.
However, after he looked all around him, he found that all the windows were still shut tightly. The window facing the opposite room was covered in a thin fog because of the warm air inside.
He tilted his head suspiciously and looked around once more. The warm air still didn’t stop blowing onto him.
He looked towards the side of the storehouse and immediately blinked his eyes in surprise.
A white object extended from the small crevice between the storehouse and the wall.
It looked like a person’s arm, a completely bare arm, white and full, reaching out from the crevice behind the storehouse, but he couldn’t see to whom the arm belonged. He thought, Could they be hiding behind the storehouse?
He felt like that was unthinkable.
The space in the crevice between the storehouse and the wall was too small. Yesterday, his brother had cried the whole day because he couldn’t get the baseball that had rolled into the narrow crack. Even with his or his brother’s small bodies, they couldn’t fit anything in the crevice but their arms. That arm looked like it belonged to an adult, yet how were they able to fit into that space?
The forearm portion of the arm was swaying as if it were stirring water. He realized that the hand was beckoning to him, and then he took a step toward it. It was very strange that although his knees were numb from the cold, they didn’t make any dry, rough sounds.
He didn’t feel the least bit frightened, because he realized that the warm air was blowing from that direction.
He was really very cold and he also didn’t know what he should do, so he obediently walked over towards the arm.
The snow had already completely coated the ground, almost covering all of his little footprints, eventually leaving no trace of him.
The white sky resembled faded ink, the color gradually changing.
The white of the short winter day gradually turned into the color of night.
No one knows how a life is actually created. Especially speaking of the biology of things that are not human, this is even more of a riddle.
Life and consciousness suddenly arrived upon her body just like this.
When she came to, her body was under a white tree branch, and there was only one name in her mind.
In the process of getting up, this name slowly occupied the whole of her mind. At the same time, she also got a hold on the rest of the situation: who she was, why she was born, as well as what her most important mission was.
She propped up her upper body. These ideas were still flooding her mind, and they simultaneously spread into every corner of her body.
She straightened her waist, as if she was letting water that had dripped onto her body trickle onto every surface. She lifted her head and closed her eyes. Teardrops slid down from the corners of her eyes and dribbled into her damp hair.
She tried to move her feet, which did not yet have any strength in them, and bumped into the wet soil and golden shards next to her feet.
The shards once belonged to the egg shell that protected her, and the liquid that had originally filled the egg had already been absorbed by the soil. She had just hatched from inside the shell, and the golden egg that had contained her had fallen down from a branch, breaking into pieces all over the ground.
She stared at the shards of the golden egg, and after a little bit, lifted her head again to look at the white branch in front of her. As if it were made of white silver, the long branch extended beyond the top of her head and outward. The root was sturdily set into the high cliff wall.
On the branch, there were still a few little, round golden fruits. Although no one had told her, she already knew by intuition that there were still unhatched lives inside all the fruits, and not too long ago, she herself had also waited like this in the fruit to be hatched.
This is how life is actually created.
She used her strength to prop up her four legs and stood up, while she cried once again.
Her tears flowed only to protect her two eyes, which had been exposed to the outside air for the first time, but the feeling of the warm, wet tears slipping down made her feel as if the only name that she held in her mind was slowly seeping into the very depths of her body.
She wordlessly called out “Taiki! Taiki!” and again tears welled up in her eyes.
She stood up straight and discovered that her hair was hooked on a branch. The four legs on the lower half of her body stood firmly on the ground, whereupon she used the two hands on the upper half of her body to push aside the branch.
– – – – –
Suddenly hearing someone speak, she turned her head to look for the source of the sound.
It was very dim all around. Only the branch above her head gave off a white glow.
After waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, she then saw that she was in an enormous cave.
This was a particularly big cave in the shape of a half-circle with a white tree dangling in the middle. Those branches that were hanging over her, were actually the roots of the tree. These roots had cut through the cliff wall and hung very intricately from a place extremely high in the cave and reached all the way down to her feet.
Suddenly, the sound was even closer.
“You look like a very good nyokai.”
She looked around again.
This time, she immediately found the person to whom the voice belonged. It was a hunchbacked old woman who was standing only a few steps from her.
This short old woman’s height only reached her chest. The old woman reached out with her two gnarled hands and lightly stroked her hair.
“You are female.”
And then the old woman stroked her cheeks.
“You have the neck of a fish.”
Then she patted her wrists.
“The upper half of your body is human…”
The hand that had rested on her back slid down and she lightly patted her tail bone.
“…the lower half of your body is that of a leopard, and your tail is that of a lizard. What a terrific mix!”
Finally, the old woman softly pressed on the backbone that connected both parts of her body.
“All right, stop crying. Come with me.”
So she followed the old woman. With every step, her tears fell to the dry earth and left little black dots.
They walked slowly and spent a long time passing through the cave before she saw a set of stairs where the top of the arc-shaped cliff wall met the dirt below their feet.
“You will be called Sanshi!”
The old woman finally spoke.
“San, Shi. From now on, everyone will call you Sanshi.”
She silently took steps upward on the stone stairs and listened at the same time to the old woman speak.
“Your surname will be Haku, for this is the rule for all nyokai hatched upon Mt. Hou.”
The stone stairs made a big turn, and after she went up the steps a bit, she suddenly saw a ray of light.
“The reason you can have a surname is because you carry on your back a very important mission. You must never forget this.”
She nodded her head. As to what this very important mission was, she didn’t need the old woman to tell her, for it was already very clear to her.
Once again, she firmly engraved into her mind the mission that she was to shoulder as she silently walked up the stone steps. After ascending a ways, the field of vision in front of her opened up. It turned out that the higher the stone steps went, the wider they became, and at the end, there was a square cave opening.
She stopped walking.
She lifted her head and looked out of the opening, seeing only the pale blue sky and the trunk and branches of a dazzlingly big white tree reaching up into the sky.
The tears that were so hard to stop before started flowing again though she tried to stifle them.
The old woman patted her back again.
“All right, you should go.”
She took a few strides and then began to run, using the four legs that had just been hatched to run for the first time.
As soon as she leapt from the cave opening, sunlight splashed upon her body and pierced her eyes so that she began to cry again. She ran straight to a spot under the tree.
Her egg had originally formed among the roots of the tree. Compared to the long and slender roots, the trunk itself appeared to be short and thick. The long branches reached from the mossy stone steps to the sky, and on one of the snow-white branches, there grew a golden fruit.
She said something for the first time.
The golden fruit had grown in the same corresponding area as her egg. The fruit was still very small, so small that you could wrap two hands around it. The sunlight shined upon her sensitive skin, which was not completely dry yet. She used both her hands to surround the fruit and carefully pressed her cheek against it.
She was still crying.
This was Sanshi’s birth.
The Yellow Sea is situated at the center of the world.
Although it’s called the Yellow Sea, it isn’t made up of water. The only things that flow in the Yellow Sea are time and the wind. What’s left over are boundless deserts and endless forests, as well as large swamps and continuous mountains.
In the center of the Yellow Sea, there is a particularly high mountain range. This mountain range is called the “Five Mountains” and consists of five lofty mountains with complex shapes.
The tallest mountain located at the very center is called, “High Su.” The mountains connected all around it are separated into Mt. Hou, Mt. Ka, Mt. Kaku, and Mt. Kou. In ancient times, Mt. Hou was called Mt. Tai, but every time a disaster occurs, the name is changed. For the last thousand years, it has always been called Mt. Hou.
Legend has it that the Five Mountains belong under the authority of Seioubo, and Mt. Hou belongs to Oufujin. Regarding the masters of the other four mountains, the rumors have always varied. Regardless of whether these legends are real or fake, it is known absolutely that the Five Mountains are the lands of goddesses and nyosen.
All of the Five Mountains reach up very high in the sky, but, like the Yellow Sea at their base, they are very uncultivated. The complex terrain is made up of only trees, rocks, water, and a wind that never stops blowing.
There is a small palace on the middle section of Mt. Hou, called “Houro Palace.” This is the only place in not just Mt. Hou but the whole of the Five Mountains where people live.
– – – – –
“Oh? It’s a poppy.”
Teiei mumbled to herself as she squatted down for a closer look.
She was drawn to several poppy flower petals on the surface of the spring water.
Youka, who had been walking behind Teiei, also stopped. The radiant red flower petals floating on the crystal clear surface of the water was such that it drew people’s eyes to it.
“Are they from the poppy garden?”
Teiei nodded her head in reply to Youka’s question and extended her hand again to pull some petals out of the water.
“The wind probably blew them over here. The wind feels a little bit different today.”
Youka nodded her head in agreement and then lifted her head and looked around.
Interesting rocks can be seen everywhere on Mt. Hou. The green moss that grows all over the surface of the rocks turned the perimeter outside of Houro Palace into a maze, especially on the high terrace where Houro Palace sits.
The crags are really worthy of their reputation. The surface is rugged and goes in and out as if the towering rocks will collapse at any time. Even the smaller of the rocks are three times the height of a person. In addition, the small paths that weave through the rocks are so narrow that they only allow two women to pass through at one time, walking shoulder to shoulder.
Teiei was now walking on a small path, stopping en route to gather the poppy petals drifting around on the surface of the mountain spring water.
She was a nyosen who looked as if she were eighteen or nineteen, but a nyosen’s age could not be determined by looking at her appearance. Neither how nor when she became a shousen are clear even to her. This meant that she had arrived at Mt. Hou a very long time ago. Out of the over fifty nyosen, Teiei had lived on Mt. Hou the longest.
Opposite to her, Youka had just become a nyosen not too long ago. Only 16 years of age, she was originally a girl from an ordinary peasant family. However, not knowing why she was totally incompatible with the common customs, at the age of 13, she took the shousen oath, and from then on, did not eat grain. She spent three years at the shrine of Seioubo living a pious life, and she finally attained purity just recently and was summoned up to Mt. Hou.
Thus, it had not been long since the day Youka arrived at Mt. Hou. She had just moved from living on Mt. High Su to Houro Palace only half a month ago, but even she felt as if the wind that day did not blow as it usually did.
Ordinarily, the wind calmly whisked through the small path, but this day, it was both strong and urgent. At one second, it blew powerfully up the crags into the sky, and at the next, it scraped the edges of the cliff walls downward, curling into a gusty whirlwind. Even the sky was looking murky. Since there was only a thin layer of clouds, they didn’t know why it gave off such an oppressive feeling.
“Is this some sort of omen?”
Teiei tilted her head to contemplate the question Youka had brought up.
“It shouldn’t be. This morning’s Eight Diagrams divination symbol didn’t show that anything would occur. Come on, let’s hurry and draw water out and then get back.”
Youka tossed the bucket that was in her hands into the spring water.
This pool of spring water is called “Kaidou Spring.” The spring water gushes endlessly from the base of the crags, and a great sea paulownia (kaidou) tree covers the tops of the crags around the pool.
Of course, the spring water of Houro Palace doesn’t come from just this one pool. No one has been silly enough to count how many springs there are in all, but the number is many, so it follows that they had to name every spring lest they confuse them.
On Mt. Hou, there are no differences in the seasons. Flowers can bloom throughout the year. For instance, right then there were a few little fluffy white sea paulownia flowers floating on the surface of the spring. Because the fragrance of the flowers had permeated the water, though it was not known when it started, the wooden water bucket also gave off the scent of the sea paulownia flower.
The scented water in the bucket is for an offering at Taishin Shrine in Houro Palace for the patron goddess of Mt. Hou—it is used for washing the wooden image of Oufujin.
Youka pushed aside the flowers as she filled the bucket with water, and then she turned around and prepared to walk in the direction of Taishin Shrine. At this time, Teiei smiled and called out to her.
“Where are you going?”
“Hm? I’m going to help Oufu…”
“The shrine isn’t in that direction! Don’t you remember which way to walk yet?”
Youka looked at the three diverging paths and her face could not help turning red.
“I’ve really gotten the direction wrong.”
The rocks and the countlessly diverging paths made Mt. Hou into an absolute maze.
The only ones who can master all the routes are those who live on Mt. Hou. Only the nyosen who live here can choose the right route in the spider-web-like paths, in order to get to the side of a clear river to wash clothes, to a waterfall to bathe, or to a pure spring to draw water. The area wasn’t big, whether she wanted to reach the grasslands, flower gardens, and vegetable gardens, all splashed with sunlight, or she wanted to visit the little palaces sprinkled around Mt. Hou. However, for Youka, who was a new nyosen, she still needed a bit of time to get around.
“Why are the paths here so complicated…?”
Hearing Youka sighing like this, Teiei smiled.
“It’s there to protect the Mt. Hou Kou! Just endure it for a little bit.”
The land is shaped like a maze in order to prevent intrusion by outsiders.
Regular people or animals would not be able to make their way up the rocks. And although youju possess the ability to do so, they are generally not allowed into Houro Palace with only a few exceptions. Also, the paths through the strange rocks are very narrow, so those that come to visit must leave their mounts at the base and walk up to Houro Palace alone.
As soon as one steps onto the small paths, they will notice the interlocking grid, just like a labyrinth.
The enormous crags will block your lines of sight. And amongst the rocks that are covered by the damp green moss, the elaborate stone slabs on the small paths have formed innumerable diverging roads and tunnels that cause people to lose their sense of direction in the blink of an eye.
Only those familiar with Houro Palace are able to find their way and arrive at that place, unique in this world, a high terrace full of plants and trees.
“So that’s how it is.”
Hidden in the deepest part of the maze is the Shashinboku, and on this tree, the fruit of the kirin grow.
In this world, whether human, beast, or any other living thing, they all grow in fruits on white trees. However, the only fruits that bear kirin grow on the Shashinboku on Mt. Hou.
Mt. Hou is the holy land where kirin are born. Houro Palace and the nyosen in it all exist for the sake of the kirin. The kirin are the masters of Mt. Hou, thus they are also called “Mt. Hou Kou.”
Teiei nodded her head.
“There is no bigger responsibility than taking care of the kirin, but there is also no greater happiness. When the Taika hatches, you should also help us take care of him. However, you must be very careful.”
Teiei’s words made Youka’s eyes glimmer.
“Can I help? Really?”
Actually, Youka had felt a little dissatisfied. Serving the kirin was an important job for the nyosen on Mt. Hou. The remaining jobs were only a few chores. There was a young kirin on Mt. Hou at the time, but because Youka was new, she had not been able to join the task of caring for the kirin.
“But you have to figure out the lay of the land first.”
Youka nodded vigorously.
A few days ago, the Shashinboku finally bore another fruit, and this one was called “Taika.”
Youka’s thoughts had already drifted over onto that little fruit.
The time from when the Taika is formed to when the kirin is hatched is ten months. A newly born little kirin is extremely adorable. To be able to get so close to the little kirin in order to take care of it, she only had to think of such a situation and she would become so happy, she could not help but laugh.
More poppy flower petals floated from somewhere, silently dropping onto the surface of the water…
“Are those poppies?”
Someone from behind suddenly spoke to them, and Teiei stopped picking up the petals. She turned around and saw a woman coming out of Kaidou Palace, which was near Kaidou Spring.
Youka looked at the woman uncertainly as she had an unfamiliar face. She couldn’t tell her age by her appearance. She looked like she was very young, but she also looked as if she had already passed middle age. She was wearing clothes and accessories that were more magnificent than the ordinary nyosen, and from this, Youka could tell that her status was definitely very high.
Teiei kneeled hurriedly. This scared Youka and she quickly kneeled down with Teiei.
This woman was the head of the nyosen at Houro Palace, Tensen Gyokujo Hekika Genkun—Gyokuyou.
“They’re probably flowers from the poppy garden that were blown here by the wind.”
Teiei replied. Gyokuyou lifted her pretty face and looked at the sky through an opening in the crags.
“The wind is blowing quite strangely today.”
Gyokuyou wrinkled her brow as she stared at the sky for a moment, and then she turned to look at Youka.
“You’re called Youka? Have you gotten used to life on Mt. Hou yet?”
Gyokuyou had spoken to Youka so suddenly that for a time, she didn’t know quite what to do.
Before she became a nyosen, Youka had only heard Gyokuyou mentioned in legends, a distant figure. Now that this honorable goddess was standing right in front of her and had spoken to her, how could she not panic?
“But she still gets lost!”
Teiei grinned as she added this. Youka heard this and turned red again.
Gyokuyou’s laugh sounded like a silver bell.
“Everyone is like this when they first arrive. Even Teiei got lost a long time ago. You’ll be fine in a little while.”
Youka secretly glanced at Teiei, who was also laughing.
“That’s right. Youka’s memory is much better than mine. She’s also diligent and isn’t afraid of getting tired.”
Gyokuyou gave a tiny smile.
Youka’s face became a deeper red.
“N…no. I still make mistakes often and get lectured.”
“Of course you’ll get lectured before you become experienced. You shouldn’t take it too seriously.”
Gyokuyou looked at Youka, who was the kneeling down with her forehead earnestly on the ground, and smiled again. She then looked at Teiei who was also smiling at Youka.
“That’s right, I’ve heard that the Nyokai of Tai has been born.”
Gyokuyou did not often stay at Houro Palace. Her whereabouts drifted from place to place. Even Teiei didn’t know where she ordinarily was, nor did she know when or where she would appear. Though Teiei was very curious, this was not something that a good nyosen could ask about.
“What’s her name?”
“Where is Sanshi right now?”
“She is standing guard under the Shashinboku, never stepping away an inch.”
When she heard Teiei say this, Gyokuyou raised her red lips into a smile.
“The devotion a nyokai has for her kirin is extremely deep!”
Teiei also smiled and nodded.
A kirin did not have parents, yet the nyokai was very similar to a kirin’s parent, as she was responsible for protecting them. A nyokai’s egg develops on the roots of the Shashinboku. When the fruit of a kirin forms on a tree branch, the nyokai will hatch on the following day. And then, for ten years as the fruit ripens, she will stand guard under the Shashinboku until the kirin is born.
“And the kirin’s gender?”
Only a nyokai knows the gender of an unhatched kirin.
“He’s called Taiki.”
A male kirin is named Ki, and a female is named Rin. The clan name of the kingdom is added before this, and the designation of a kirin is formed. This is a rule that has been passed on since very ancient times. The Ki of Tai Kingdom was growing on the Shashinboku, and the surname of Tai Kingdom is Tai. Thus, the name of this kirin is “Taiki.” [Note: Tai, the kingdom, and Tai, its surname, have the same pronunciation, but different kanji.]
Gyokuyou nodded her head, turned in the direction of the Shashinboku and started walking. Teiei and Youka lowered their heads to respectfully see her off.
It was then that suddenly the air began to tremble.
A strong wind violently blew into the small paths, as if it wanted to scrape everything off the face of the mountain.
Before they could even say anything, Teiei had already tumbled to the ground. The same had happened to Youka and she let out a scream.
A deep sound occurred all around and pieces broke off the crags. A strange roar came out of the entire maze.
Though Teiei had heard Youka’s frightened voice, she was not able to respond.
This was no simple storm or earthquake, for, if it had been, the symbol of the Eight Diagrams would certainly have shown it. Also, under the protection of gods and goddesses, a simple variation in the weather would not encroach upon Mt. Hou like this.
“Genkun, hide in the palace quickly!”
For the safety of the mistress, Teiei grasped the stone steps firmly with her fingers and wearily lifted her head to look towards Gyokuyou, only to find that Gyokuyou was standing firm, staring up at the sky.
The sky had turned red, as if it was covered with curtains of red mist.
“It’s a shoku…”
Gyokuyou was not paying any attention to the earthquake, looking directly at the bright lights flying in the sky.
To be able to stand firm when that sudden, strong wind came shows that Gyokuyou had the strength of a goddess. However, Teiei did not currently have the spare time to express her admiration for this.
She could feel that the entire current of the air was already completely twisted, rapidly moving nonstop. And with every movement, the red mist above her head would move about.
In a fissure in the red mist, an image revealed itself like a mirage.
A land that was not of this world drew near.
The soft petals of the poppy flower fluttered along with the strong wind and continuously hit Teiei on the face.
“Ah! The Taika’s in danger…!”
Sanshi was crouched under a white tree branch, the wet moss making her skin itch. She looked at the fruit on the end of the branch with happiness.
This fruit, which bore the Taiki inside of it, would ripen in ten months.
After ten months, Sanshi’s master will hatch out of this Taika—Taiki. Sanshi needed only to think about the moment that the ripe fruit cracked open and she became so happy that tears would flow from her eyes.
Just when Sanshi’s heart was full of joy and pride, in that moment when she had lifted her head to look at the gleaming golden egg, something suddenly happened!
At first, Sanshi was at a loss for what was going on.
The air began to swirl into itself, destroying everything around Sanshi. A red tent-like fog covered the entirety of the sky. Fear made Sanshi’s whole body tremble, when finally the word “shoku” floated into her mind.
She suddenly stood up as the fierce winds brushed at her feet. The white branch could not bear the pummeling of the wind, as it shook violently and creaked.
Sanshi shouted loudly and sprung towards the tree branch. She held the branch tightly and straightened her body up against the wind. Her wind-blown hair was messily tangled with the branches. In the violent shaking of the tree branches, a portion of her hair was torn out, but she didn’t have time to acknowledge the pain on the top of her head. She thought with all her heart of only protecting the Taika. When she looked up toward the branch, all she saw was the twisting air.
The roaring wind continuously hit her body. She saw the already turbulent air spinning even more, as it opened up and devoured the branch.
This was how the small golden fruit was drawn into the twisting air. That fruit that should only have been tenderly plucked by Sanshi after ten months, otherwise should never have left the branch, was harshly swept away.
Sanshi reached out and tried to save the fruit with both her hands, which had been scraped by tree branches and was dripping with blood. However, the distance between her hands and the fruit became farther and farther until she despaired.
“Someone come quickly!” Sanshi shouted with all her strength, but it only reached the end of her outstretched fingers before it dissipated in the wind.
The golden fruit gradually disappeared into whirlwind in this way.
The first sound that Sanshi made after she came into this world was the name of Taiki. And then who would have guessed that the second time she opened her mouth, it would be in a sorrowful crying—a crying that received no replies.
The end came just as suddenly as the beginning.
Sanshi stared blankly at the white branch.
There was no longer a golden radiance at the end of the branch, the solitary fruit had already disappeared leaving neither a shadow nor a trace.
The sound came from all directions as a number of nyosen all ran towards Sanshi.
The first to arrive at Sanshi’s side was Gyokuyou.
Sanshi clutched tightly onto the two hands Gyokuyou had reached out.
First, she shouted Gyokuyou’s name, and then she let out a sorrowful cry and began wailing.
“How could this happen…?”
Gyokuyou hugged this nyokai, who had been born not too long ago, as she gently stroked her wind-blown hair as well as her scarred body.
“Of all times, it had to happen when the fruit of the kirin was growing…”
The nyokai at her chest was continuously letting out a mournful cry. Originally, in the ten months before the kirin hatched, the nyokai would not leave her post under the tree. The nyokai’s feelings toward the kirin were that deep. Now this nyokai had watched wide-eyed as the kirin was taken from her. Gyokuyou could understand her pain.
She patted the nyokai’s back.
“You don’t have to cry like that, Sanshi. We will definitely find Taiki.”
Gyokuyou said this quietly. In fact, she was also telling herself this.
“I will return Taiki to your side as quickly as is possible.”
She nodded to Teiei, who had just arrived.
“Let Suzaku fly to every kingdom and quickly find the direction of the shoku!”
“It must be done before the moon rises. Quickly, assemble the nyosen and prepare to open the gate.”
“Yes, I’ll go immediately.”
The nyosen scattered, and Gyokuyou looked up.
No matter how she looked, there remained no traces of the golden fruit on the white branch.
– – – – –
The shoku had begun on the west side of the Yellow Sea and had swept its way east.
On the Five Mountains, which are protected with divine might, and the even more closely guarded Houro Palace, all the flowers were fluttering about from the crush of the shoku. The shoku brings destruction to any kingdom it arrives at, but the nyosen of Mt. Hou were not concerned with this result. To them, the most important thing was the kirin.
The question was, where had the shoku taken the fruit?
Shoku are able to travel between this world and another. The worlds outside of this one are called “Hourai” and “Konron.” It is said that Hourai lies on the edge of the world and Konron is situated on the other side where the sun never shines.
Regardless of whether this is true or false, the people of this world are unable to enter or pry into the other. Only shoku and the Gogou Gate, opened by the use of moon incantations, are able to connect the two worlds.
This world is surrounded on all sides by the Empty Sea. If the shoku continued east, the Taika would also follow it over the Empty Sea, until it reached the edge of the world—Hourai.
Though ordinary people are not able to travel to Hourai, nyosen are not ordinary people. On Gyokuyou’s instruction, several nyosen passed through the Empty Sea searching for the Taika. However, the Taika’s whereabouts were still not clear.
—This is how the kirin disappeared.
From that day forward, many people saw the shadow of Sanshi, east of Mt. Hou in the Yellow Sea, constantly searching back and forth.
Youka spotted Sanshi just as she came out of the spirea tunnel.
At the end of the tunnel, there was a small, circular open area covered with soft green grass, and spireas had grown all over the surface of the crags around the vicinity. One bush was situated right on top of the tunnel with its long and thin white branches hanging down, as if it were a curtain of beads covering the entrance to the tunnel.
When Youka pulled aside the flower curtain, she saw Sanshi leap down from the top of the rocks.
Youka put down the bucket of water from Kaidou Spring that she had just filled.
Nyokai were able to traverse freely upon the crags, unlike people or horses. Thus, it was not unusual to see Sanshi jump down from above, but it had already been a long time since Sanshi had made an appearance.
“Sanshi, you’re back.”
The nyokai had passed through this maze and went to the east to look for the Taika. Whenever she traveled to a distant place, she would not ordinarily come back within the space of a month.
The nyosen at Houro Palace all knew the reason for her trips. She always searched until she was completely exhausted and came back with a weary look on her face.
“I just came back from getting some water. You should rest here for a little bit.”
When Sanshi heard Youka say this, she obediently bent her four leopard legs and crouched under the spirea flowers with her snow-white body.
“But you were gone so long this time. Did you go to the edge of the Yellow Sea to search?”
If she could have, the nyokai would’ve liked to cross the Kongou Mountains at the edge of the Yellow Sea, to look even farther east. There was no living creature that could go over the Kongou Mountains. No one knew the reason, but this was a rule from very ancient times.
“Here, drink a little.”
Youka pushed the wooden bucket to Sanshi’s lips, and Sanshi drank water from the bucket.
She watched as Sanshi took a few gulps and then lifted her head. Youka took out an embroidered handkerchief from her sleeve and moistened it. She then gently wrung it dry and used it to cover Sanshi’s foot. She had been supporting Sanshi with her hand, so she knew that Sanshi’s feet were radiating heat.
“Ah, your feet are so swollen.”
She wrapped Sanshi’s claws with the cloth. Sanshi closed her eyes in relief, and leaned her head gently against the bunch of spirea flowers, her weight causing the flowers to drift down in succession.
A long time ago, all the spireas here had been pulled out with their roots, not one remaining.
—That was ten years ago.
“Comfortable? From now on, don’t go so far.”
Sanshi didn’t reply, but Youka didn’t mind, because Sanshi had always been like this.
The powerful shoku that had previously descended upon Houro Palace didn’t alter the shape of the land on the Five Mountains, but the places and landscapes outside of the Five Mountains underwent a great change. The fruit of the white tree was thusly swept away to an unknown place.
At that time, the nyokai had wept profusely, but afterwards, no one ever heard a sound from her.
Youka used the handkerchief she had moistened and carefully applied it to Sanshi’s legs.
“Does it still hurt? You should go to the river and soak them in the cold water.”
She poured out the water that was now warm. Sanshi wordlessly stood up and walked aside.
However, Sanshi wasn’t headed toward the river. She wanted to return to the Shashinboku. Youka knew this much, but she didn’t stop her.
This was because Youka could understand Sanshi’s feelings.
At first, Teiei had told her that after the fruit of the kirin hatched, Youka would be able to help take care of him.
When she was a part of the human world, she knew that the ordinary person didn’t have the chance to see a kirin. When she had finally become a nyosen, taking care of Taiki was originally going to be her first meaningful job and also her first opportunity to come close to a kirin.
She would never have thought that the fruit would disappear like that. Youka, who had originally filled her heart with anticipation, had been disappointed by the loss. And because Sanshi lost the one she was to nurture, the breasts on her upper human half had shrunk to the size of a girl’s, leaving only small bulges. In addition, the feet on her lower leopard half were now extremely red and swollen due to all the long-distance running she had been doing. Similar to Sanshi, Youka held in her heart the pain of emptiness.
The fruit had been swept away ten years ago. All the nyosen had said that Taiki would never return and that, in a short while, the Shashinboku would bear a new fruit. This would mean that the kirin who had disappeared had already died in an unknown place.
Though it had been like this, they still refused to give up hope. Since then, Sanshi still went back and forth through the east to search, and in her heart, Youka constantly thought of Taiki. Youka would pray for Sanshi, prepare a few necessities for her, and in her spare time, learn how to take care of a kirin. She could not help but want to do these things, and thus could empathize with Sanshi’s pain. And Sanshi was the same. Of all the nyosen, she was closest to Youka.
After she watched Sanshi’s tired frame leave, she picked up the water bucket.
When she turned her body, preparing to get more water, a nyosen moved the spirea flower curtain and came out of the tunnel.
“Isn’t Sanshi here?”
Youka turned her head to look at the path that Sanshi had taken, but she could not see her outline anymore.
“She went to the Shashinboku.”
“Can you quickly go get her?”
“But I have to go get water…”
“This is an order from Genkun.”
Youka opened her eyes widely.
“I think we’ve found out where Taiki is.”
Youka rushed to get Sanshi, and then the two of them ran to Hakki Palace to see Gyokuyou.
All the buildings in Houro Palace are either palaces or temples. Because the crags are able to block the wind and the weather on Mt. Hou is inherently good, neither cold nor hot, the buildings only need to have roofs as shelter from the rain.
Youka walked on the small paths, ran up five sections of white stone stairs, and hurried onto the white stone floor of the palace. At the same time, Teiei was also running in.
“I’ve brought Sanshi here.”
Youka kneeled upon the octagonal floor. Gyokuyou nodded her head from the chair in which she was sitting.
Teiei lifted her head.
“Have they found the Taika like I’ve heard?”
“The Kirin of En helped us find it.”
“Then it must be right!”
This was almost a miracle. All the nyosen on Mt. Hou had already lost all hope. In Mt. Hou’s history, there had never been a kirin that was found after being lost for ten years. Kirin have drifted to Hourai before, but they were all found and returned within five years. The length of ten years was really so long that Teiei was shocked.
“It should be right… Since the kirin drifted to Hourai, it has turned into a taika, but a kirin can still sense another kirin’s spirit. Thus, I asked the kirin of various kingdoms if they could cross the Empty Sea to look for Taiki. We finally received some news today.”
After the fruit was taken away by the shoku, in another kingdom, it was deposited in the womb of a woman and turned into a taika.
“Was he discovered by En Taiho?”
Gyokuyou used her glazed fan to cover her lips as she laughed.
“It seems as if En Taiho often crosses the Empty Sea to go to Hourai. I have always thought that if anyone could find the Taika, it would be him. I didn’t think that I would have guessed right.”
Actually, kirin often run all over the place and it’s not particularly special, but right now, no one concerned themselves with that.
“We heard that he had discovered a kirin in Hourai. Currently, the only kirin whose whereabouts are unknown is Taiki, so it should be him.”
With this talk, it seemed as if the kirin would really return!
“Then I should assemble the nyosen immediately…”
Gyokuyou interrupted Teiei mid-sentence.
“There’s no need.”
Gyokuyou turned to look at a blankly-staring Sanshi, who was standing behind Teiei and Youka. She set her fan on the table and then reached out with both hands.
“Sanshi, come here.”
Sanshi slowly strode toward Gyokuyou.
“I told you that we would find Taiki and bring him back. I didn’t trick you, did I?”
Gyokuyou took Sanshi’s hand.
“Please forgive us for making you wait so long.”
She patted Sanshi’s hand.
“There’s a gate where the roots of the Shashinboku are. You should go. And this time, use your hands to pull Taiki back to us.”
Sanshi’s round eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t cry. She turned and flew out the door.
Gyokuyou squinted to see Sanshi’s figure getting farther and farther away. She waited until Sanshi turned onto a small path and was not visible anymore. She turned to Teiei and laughed cheerfully.
“At last, a season of celebration has come to Mt. Hou!”
– – – – –
Sanshi ran as fast as she could. When she arrived at the nest of her birth—the bottom part of the Shashinboku, she saw a young woman standing under the trunk of the tree. The woman was pointing down towards her feet where there was a round hole giving off a white glow.
Many nyosen had already gathered here, but Sanshi did not have the time to pay them any attention. She ran straight to that woman.
The Shashinboku was on an enormous rock at the side of a cliff. The woman was standing right next to a root on top of a rock covered in moss.
Aside the woman’s feet was a silver ring. On closer inspection, the ring wasn’t a ring at all. It was a snake. This silvery-white snake had two tails and a curved body. One of its tails was held in its mouth, forming a circle.
This snake gave off a shallow glow, as if rays of light were shining on it from the sky and a glow was coming from the green moss under it.
Sanshi stopped. The woman smiled beautifully and reached her right hand out towards Sanshi. The other tail of the snake was wrapped around this hand.
“You must be Sanshi.”
Sanshi looked at her and then at the glowing ring of the snake. The ring was about as wide as a circle formed with one’s arms, and inside, pale white shadows formed a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel there was another round hole, and through that small hole, she could only see a very unusual sort of building, an area that appeared to be a yard, and a round, golden shadow. However, for Sanshi, this was already enough.
No matter what, there was no way she wouldn’t recognize that golden shadow. It was Taiki!
“You should go in. However, no matter what happens, you must not let go of my hand.”
Sanshi didn’t recognize this woman, but right now, she didn’t care.
Sanshi held onto her hand, and stepped into the glowing ring. She felt cool air coming at her. At the exit of the tunnel, white snowflakes were fluttering about, like the petals of the spirea.
When she reached the beginning of the tunnel of white light, she suddenly felt her body become more nimble, as she already didn’t know where she was. The woman followed Sanshi tightly from behind.
“Keep walking forward.”
Hearing the woman say this, Sanshi strode forward. She walked to the end of the tunnel and reached her hand out.
She could now see the scene more clearly. Cold snowflakes were flying everywhere, and a golden shadow was floating in the dark air. This was what she saw.
A closer look at the glimmering shadow would reveal that it was actually the silhouette of a small boy. However, in Sanshi’s eyes, it was a fruit, the same one that she should have plucked from the white branch ten years ago. This fruit had a shiny golden surface and was just big enough that she would be able to wrap her hands around it.
Sanshi did her best to reach out with her fingers, but she just wasn’t able to touch that fruit. She tightened her grip on the woman’s hand and, holding the cold air open with her front paws, she reached out even further and beckoned to the fruit. And then she saw the fruit begin to drift towards her.
This was the moment she had been dreaming of for so long!
Sanshi tightly grasped the fruit that had drifted over to her hand.
She pulled the fruit towards her and it fell into her embrace.
When he neared to the white hand, it didn’t hesitate at all in grabbing hold of his wrist.
Different from his cold skin, that hand made him feel very warm.
Originally, he had wanted to walk towards the hand because he wanted to find out how someone could hide in the small crevice between the storehouse and the wall. However, when he got close, the view of his surroundings suddenly changed in the blink of an eye. It was as if his pupil had been covered by a thin layer of water, so everything that he saw became blurry, their outlines disappearing.
After the hand took hold of his wrist, his body felt as if it drifted into the air, as a burst of energy pulled him toward an unknown place.
He went through a white space filled with a clear mist. He had no idea where he was, but his intuition faintly told him that it was a gentle place.
It was even warmer inside. Moreover, a warm breeze was blowing onto him from a place he didn’t know.
His feet didn’t feel like they were stepping on anything hard, but neither did he feel like they were stepping on something soft. He thought that perhaps this was what walking on clouds felt like.
He sensed someone beside him, sturdily holding on to his hand, but he could not see who it was. Through the dense fog, he could barely see a milky white figure swaying, but that might have been just his imagination.
So it stayed like this for a moment, and then the hand that was holding on to his wrists pulled him in another direction. He didn’t know why, but he wasn’t frightened at all. He just obediently went wherever the hand pulled him.
In the amount of time it approximately takes to walk through a short hallway, he finally saw the sky again, as if he had floated to the surface of a pool.
To suddenly see the dazzling sunlight shocked him momentarily.
Towering in front of him was a great tree. He had never before seen a snow-white tree trunk that looked as if it was made with a pure white metal. The tree trunk was very thick, but not very tall. White branches extended a long way with their ends hanging down.
Behind the tree, he saw marvelous landscapes for the first time in his life. He also saw a strangely-shaped, enormous green rock and a group of unusually dressed women.
Also, the strangest of all was the woman who had been holding on to his hand.
She looked like she was half-human and half-tiger or leopard. Her face was flat and her round eyes were opened wide and radiating a glimmer that was hard to describe. He should have felt scared, but for a reason he didn’t understand, he was not. On the contrary, he sensed that those eyes were very gentle.
This word came from the lips of the half-woman, half-beast. However, he didn’t understand what it meant. And he also didn’t know that this was the first time she had spoken in ten years.
She used her soft hands to gently stoke his hair, as her round eyes filled with tears.
Like he had always done very naturally with his mother, he held her hand and drew closer to her face.
“Did something happen that hurt you?”
She shook her head not as if she was saying no to Taiki’s question, but that he not worry about her. This action was also very similar to something his mother would have done.
“Taiki? So, is he Taiki?”
It was because of this human voice that finally triggered a realization of his surroundings. Just when he was wondering what strange thing had happened to him, a woman approached him.
“This is very rare.”
“Who are you?”
The woman kneeled in front of him.
“I am Gyokuyou. I have probably not seen hair like yours for hundreds of years.”
The woman raised her hand and ran her fingers through his hair.
“You are a kokki, a black kirin! This really is very rare.”
“Is that weird?” he asked.
He was not looking at the woman who was standing in front of him, but at the half-woman, half-beast beside him holding his hand. He didn’t know why, but in his heart, he had already recognized this half-woman, half-beast as someone he could rely on.
She once again shook her head silently.
“Of course it’s not weird. This is a very good thing!” said the woman standing in front of him.
“Since you were born in another world, you were probably already given a name. However, here we will call you Taiki.”
“Taiki? Why is that?”
“Because this is the rule.”
“What is this place? I was just standing in the yard.”
He had already realized that what had happened to him wasn’t ordinary, but he had not yet come upon anything that would inspire fear or panic in him.
“This is Mt. Hou. This is where you stay.”
“I…don’t think I understand.”
“You will understand in the days to come. Oh, that’s right. This is Sanshi, called Haku Sanshi, and her particular responsibility is to take care of you.”
He lifted his head to look at the half-woman, half-beast at his side.
Gyokuyou then looked to the side again.
“This is Ren Taiho.”
A golden-haired woman was standing next to the white tree trunk. When he followed Gyokuyou’s line of sight, he was just able to see the white snake curled around the golden-haired woman’s wrist turn into a silver bracelet. That snake had had two tails, and he thought he saw the second tail turn into a silver ring, but because he was so astonished, consequently he didn’t dare decide if what he had seen was real or not.
“You should thank her. In order to help Sanshi get you back, she specially lent us her very precious treasure.”
He look up to see the golden-haired woman smiling and then glanced at Sanshi again. Sanshi nodded at him, so he then obediently turned toward the golden-haired woman and bowed.
The golden-haired woman just smiled. Gyokuyou, who had been watching the scene satisfyingly, suddenly straightened up and turned to leave.
“Taiki, you must call me Lady Gyokuyou.”
Taiki looked up at Sanshi.
“You should call her Lady Gyokuyou.”
Taiki nodded. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t doubt anything Sanshi said. Even though Sanshi called him Taiki, a name he had never heard before, he felt like he should always have been called by this name, because it had come out of Sanshi’s mouth.
“Lady Gyokuyou… I feel like all of this is very unimaginable!”
He didn’t quite know how to express his feelings of uncertainty.
Gyokuyou smiled as she looked at him.
“You will get used to it very soon. Just ask Sanshi if there is anything you don’t understand.”
Once again, he looked up at Sanshi. Sanshi gave him a smile—Sanshi didn’t really have any expression on her face, but he thought he saw a small trace of a smile.
He tightened his hold on Sanshi’s hand, and he felt Sanshi reply with an even stronger squeeze.
“Sanshi, Sanshi! Let us get a good look at this child!”
“Come here, Taiki. I’ll help you change your clothes.”
“Don’t change your clothes yet. Have a drink of water. Or did you want eat a peach?”
“There are still plums and pears.”
After Gyokuyou and the woman wearing the bracelet left, the nyosen swarmed upon him, leaving Taiki surrounded and not knowing what to do.
Although the smiling faces of the nyosen let Taiki know that they were welcoming him, this situation was still a little too unusual. He held onto Sanshi’s hand tightly and leaned towards her. The nyosen saw this and laughed.
“Ah, he just wants to be with Sanshi!”
“Sanshi, you can’t have him all to yourself!”
“Taiki, come over here.”
Finally Teiei could not watch this any longer.
“Taiki won’t know what do with all of you like this. Everyone calm down a little bit, and let Sanshi take care of Taiki.” After saying this, Teiei turned to Youka, who had been standing to one side. “Take Taiki back to the palace. It should be better to take him to Rosen Palace.”
Teiei knew that up until now Youka had been preparing Rosen Palace for Taiki’s return. Youka looked gratefully at Teiei for a moment and then vigorously nodded her head.
Youka walked slowly to Taiki and kneeled down so that she and Taiki were at the same height. Taiki looked straight at her.
“Your servant wholeheartedly welcomes your return.”
Taiki felt the arm, which Sanshi had laid upon his shoulders in order to protect him, loosen. Sanshi gently pressed him forward, closer to the kneeling Youka.
“May I ask who you are?”
“I’m called Youka.”
“Lady Youka…” He had only said this much before the nyosen that surrounded him burst out again in laughter. Youka’s face carried a smile upon it as well.
“Please just call me Youka. You only need to address Genkun as Lady.”
“She is Lady Gyokuyou.”
Taiki looked at Sanshi, and Sanshi nodded. Thus, Taiki accepted this way of speaking.
“Then… Youka, who are you? Why do you call my arrival a return?”
“I am a nyosen who lives here on Mt. Hou, and you, Taiki, are the master of Mt. Hou. In fact, you were born here!”
Taiki’s eyes widened and he stared at Youka for a moment.
“I was born here…?”
“Yes.” Youka nodded. “You could also say that this is your homeland.”
Youka shook her head to stop Taiki from continuing.
“We could not find you because a change occurred in the world and you drifted to another place. We really searched for you for a very long time.” An expression of both joy and uneasiness crossed Youka’s face. “We were all so worried, because we didn’t know where you were or what kind of life you were living. You’ve finally come back, which is something that we are all very happy about. We truly welcome your return.”
Taiki only stared blankly at Youka.
So he wasn’t the child of his parents.
When this thought occurred to him, it was as if all his uncertainties had been resolved. He now had a very good explanation for why his grandmother disliked him so much and for why he never felt like he fit into his surroundings.
In truth, he had never really gotten along with his family. That wasn’t what he had wanted, so he had tried hard to improve relations with his family. However, it seemed like they always had a chasm between them that was too wide to jump over.
Like many children, he thought about all the ways that he was not similar to other people. He wouldn’t have thought that his feelings were right.
“Then…is Sanshi my real mother?” He looked back and forth between Sanshi and Youka and saw them both shake their heads.
“Sanshi is your servant. It is her personal responsibility to take care of you. And I am a nyosen. My responsibility is to handle a few chores so that your time at Mt. Hou is even more comfortable.”
“Then where is my real mother?”
Youka looked up at the tree. “You were hatched from a fruit that grew on this tree. This is Tentei’s blessing.”
Taiki also looked up at the white tree. Not only was there no fruit on the tree right now, but there was also not one flower or leaf. Taiki still understood too little about the creation of life, so he didn’t have any difficulty in believing any of the things that Youka had said.
Taiki imagined that when season arrived for the fruit to grow, that tree would certainly be full of red fruit. And the fruit must be very big if he had first jumped out from one of them.
Though he did feel that using this method to arrive in the world was a little strange, he had always thought that he had been different from most people. He understood now that it all had to do with how he had been born.
(So it had all been because of this.)
It was all because he had been taken in from the outside that his grandmother hated him. He probably also created a problem for his mother. Because he had come down from a tree, he was never able to win the love of his grandmother or parents.
—He didn’t have parents. He didn’t know exactly why, but he didn’t have real parents.
These thoughts didn’t seem illogical to him, so he believed them without a shadow of doubt. This way of thinking was very reasonable to him and had no trouble spots for him. However, it also made him feel bad.
“What’s the matter?”
When he suddenly heard Youka ask him this, he hurriedly closed his mouth and shook his head vigorously. Sanshi pulled him closer, as if to comfort him, so he leaned his whole body onto her.
—Now he knew.
(I wasn’t originally born to my parents.)
Several memories floated into his head.
He remembered his grandmother’s looks of contempt and his father’s reprimands. No matter how hard he tried, he could never meet their expectations. And whenever his mother argued with his father or grandmother over him, which was often, she would always end up hiding in the bathroom alone and secretly weep. His brother was also often lectured, but he always accused him for making him do it.
“I don’t know what to do with him,” his young teacher had said. “He doesn’t get along with any of his classmates, so I don’t know what would be the best thing for me to do.”
She had looked at him with concern. “For a child his age not to have any friends at school is a pretty serious problem.”
His grandmother had pursed her wrinkled lips in dissatisfaction. “Why doesn’t anyone want to be your friend?”
“Mother, don’t be like this. It’s the other kids who are purposefully excluding him.”
“Well, that’s just because there’s a problem with his personality. Why can’t he just get along with his classmates?”
“Because he’s a scaredy-cat! That’s why no one plays with him!”
“Don’t interrupt! You only know how to bully people. It’s all because your mother didn’t teach you guys right that both of you have let us down. Is our family not going to have any children who make anything of themselves?”
After his grandmother’s nagging, in the end she would always come to the conclusion that it was his mother’s fault. That’s why his mother would always hide in the bathroom and cry.
“Why are you this way?” His father would look at him and sigh, but he didn’t know how to respond to that.
“Isn’t it possible for you to behave yourself so that your grandmother doesn’t get angry?”
“I’m sorry.” He could only say this.
“All because of you that I get lectured as well! Every time you get grandmother angry, she lectures me too!”
“I’m sorry.” He was always apologizing.
Regardless of how hard he tried, the situation never took a turn for the better.
He hadn’t understood why it was like this. He could only think that his presence itself made his family unhappy. He had often felt that were he not to exist, his family would be able to live together happily.
(So it really is like this.)
He really wasn’t like them.
(I’m not originally a part of their family.)
When he thought back to his family at that moment, he still felt its warmth. He missed his father and his mother, and his grandmother and his brother.
Perhaps if he put more effort into it, everything would change. No one would have to get mad or cry because of him.
(But I can’t go back again.)
At this thought, he couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.
Yet those weren’t homesick tears; they were tears of goodbye.
He knew that he would never again return to that family.
“Are you awake?”
Hearing Sanshi’s voice, Taiki rubbed his eyes, and then suddenly opened them up and stared at the ceiling for a moment.
The white ceiling was made of a milky stone with a design carved upon its entire surface. A bird was cut into each corner, matching intricate flower and grass patterns that surrounded a circular design engraved in the center. Though the ceiling wasn’t painted, it had been set with a multitude of different colored stones.
“What bird is that?” he asked as he pointed at one of the birds in the corner.
It looked as if Sanshi didn’t know how to answer, so he responded with an “Oh!” In truth, he didn’t really want to know what bird that was. It was just that because he had suddenly remembered his crying yesterday, he felt a little embarrassed.
“What time is it right now?”
He had made up his mind and turned to look at Sanshi. This was a small room, just smaller than his study at home. A thin, beautiful covering had been laid upon the floor, and pillow-like cushions filled three sides of the walls. The top portion of the white stone walls were inlayed with small stones, forming the image of a tree.
Only one side was without a wall, having layers of curtains instead. The curtains were rolled up now, and Sanshi was standing on that side.
Sanshi puzzlingly tilted her head.
“Well, what am I supposed to do right now? Don’t I have to go to school?”
Taiki knew that his life had undergone a tremendous change. He had a feeling that nothing would be like it had been before, being awakened by an alarm clock, and then changing into his uniform, washing his face, eating breakfast, and going to school.
“What should I do now?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” said Sanshi as she shook her head. “Would you like to get out of bed?”
Hearing Sanshi ask him this, he took it to mean that he could get up, or he could continue sleeping. He didn’t know if these were temporary privileges or if it would always be like this, but he didn’t really care either way.
“Yes, I’m getting up.”
Taiki sat up in the small room.
When he saw Sanshi stand up, he realized that this small room was a step higher than the ground. Behind the curtain were doors carved with decorative flower designs, and through the doors he could see another room.
Taiki curiously looked around at the small room he was in and the room outside. Yesterday, he had cried very hard under the tree, so hard that he had felt a little embarrassed, and afterwards he had wearily fallen asleep. Thus, someone had carried him into this room, and it wasn’t until this morning that he had gotten a good look at it.
He discovered that this room let people feel at ease, while the other room also looked very comfortable. The other room appeared not to have any walls, but stone railings instead, and beyond the room were cliffs covered in green moss. The light shining between the cliffs and the building made the moss gleam. The grass and small bushes on the cliffs had grown into the room, and this gave Taiki a fresh feeling.
Sanshi walked in, carrying a water bucket and a ladle. She set the bucket on a table in the corner and called Taiki over. Taiki rolled out of bed and walked over beside Sanshi.
Sanshi smiled and told Taiki to sit down. He did as she said. He discovered that he wasn’t wearing any clothes, but he didn’t care. This was because Sanshi and Youka and all the other nyosen wore styles of clothing that he had never seen before, so he figured that here, things were done differently than usual.
Though he was naked, he didn’t feel cold, nor did he feel hot. He thought that it must have been a moderate season.
Sanshi used a very peculiar method to wash his face. Even though this made him feel like a little kid and a little embarrassed, he didn’t resist. Sanshi took the bucket outside and brought in a pile of clothes. He felt those clothes looked a lot like the kind his grandmother wore.
When she was dressing him, Sanshi kept her silence. He thought that she sure was a quiet person, but it didn’t make him feel awkward. After he was dressed, Sanshi took his hand and lead him to the room next door. He saw a table in the center of the room on which a breakfast had been set, and Youka standing next to it.
“Good morning, Youka.”
Youka smiled with joy. “Good morning. Did you sleep well last night?”
“Very well. Did you make this breakfast?”
“No, another person is specially assigned to make your breakfast.”
Taiki looked at her with surprise. “Then is there also someone who’s specially assigned to sweep?”
“Yes. Well now, please eat before your food gets cold.”
I’ve become the child of a rich family, thought Taiki, though in reality, he didn’t actually know people like that.
He raised his hand to receive the long, white chopsticks that Youka handed over to him.
He looked over the food on the table, none of which he recognized, and then he looked at Youka and Sanshi.
“Aren’t you guys eating?”
“Sanshi doesn’t eat, and I’ve already eaten.”
“But I can’t finish this all by myself.”
There were many dishes on the table, big and small.
“It’s okay if you can’t finish everything.”
“Is it because I slept late that everyone’s already eaten?”
Youka laughed. “Sanshi doesn’t need to eat anything, but if she did, her status does not permit her to eat with you.”
Taiki tilted his head. Although he had heard of the word “status,” he still didn’t quite understand what Youka meant.
“Can’t you all eat with me? Even if I woke up earlier?”
Taiki gave the food on the table a confused look. “Why?”
“It’s probably a rule here, but…”
“Hm?” Taiki looked up at Youka.
“It would make be feel very strange, because… um…” Youka’s head went askew as she searched for the words.
“If you’re punishing me for sleeping late by making me eat all alone, then I can understand. But there are other people here and I’m the only one eating. That makes me feel weird. I think the food would taste better if everyone ate together.”
“Well,” Youka said quietly as she laughed. Then she nodded her head and called out towards a screen in another corner of the room, “You should all take a short break. Taiki wants to eat with everybody!”
It looked as if there was yet another room behind the screen.
After breakfast, Youka took Taiki to visit the surroundings.
Taiki held Sanshi’s hand as he stepped outside and stared dumbfoundedly for a moment.
There were no walls outside of the building, nor doors or windows, and the entrance was shielded by only a screen.
Three flights of stone steps led downward onto a small path, but here, there was no courtyard or gate. Although a relatively large space existed in front of the steps, it was almost the same as coming out of the building and facing a cliff wall.
The strange crags towered so high above that Taiki could not see the sky without tilting his head back. The small paths, which extended outward in three directions, were extremely narrow, and standing on one was like standing in a small alley between two tall buildings. Looking back at the building he had just stepped out of, he felt like it had shrunk, as if it was a small house hidden amongst skyscrapers.
“This place is really beyond imagination,” Taiki absent-mindedly mumbled to himself. When Youka heard this, she laughed.
“This question might be a little weird, but what is this place?”
Youka tilted her head to the side. “This is Mt. Hou.”
“Oh… I wasn’t asking about that. I was talking about…” Taiki wracked his brain for a way to express his doubts. “This place should be pretty far from my house, right? I would like to know just how far is it actually? Where in Japan is this? Or are we not inside the country?”
Even though no one here was speaking a foreign language, everything was so unusual that he felt like it wasn’t Japan.
“Or have I arrived in a fantasy world?” It was like something depicted in a manga where a secret passage inside of a wardrobe leads to a fantasy world.
Youka puzzlingly tilted her head. “I think it should be like that…”
“Oh…” He felt that this was unimaginable. Everything in front of his eyes appeared to be reality, but there was a big gap between this reality and the real world that he recognized.
He thought carefully about what exactly was “reality” and what “reality” could be. The more he thought, the more confused he got, until he let out a heavy sigh and decided never to tackle this problem again.
“Is there flat terrain here?”
“Yes, I’ll take you there.”
After they took a few steps, Youka turned and looked at the building behind them. “That is Rosen Palace. It is a residence that has been specially prepared for you.”
“Then, it’s my home?”
“Yes. After you’ve been living here longer, if you feel there’s a better palace, please let us know at any time.”
“I can move too?”
Youka laughed a little bit. “Of course you can! You are the master of Houro Palace. You may live wherever you like.”
Taiki angled his head. They followed the narrow path and walked to the intersection between a gentle slope and a tunnel.
“Actually…this is something I don’t really understand.”
“Houro Palace… that’s right here, right?”
“Why would I be the master of this place?”
Taiki felt uncertain. No matter if it was Youka, Sanshi or any of the other nyosen, there were many that were older than he, especially Gyokuyou, who looked even more dignified. He didn’t understand why he was the master and not any of the other people. No matter how he looked at it, it didn’t make any sense.
Youka had a troubled smile on her face. “Because you are a kirin.”
“What is a kirin?”
“A kirin is what is born from that tree from yesterday.”
Suddenly, a little light popped into Taiki’s head.
“Then, are there others like me?”
“Yes. Besides you, there are eleven others.”
“Including me, there are twelve total?”
“Yes. Ren Taiho, whom you met yesterday, is also a kirin.”
“Was it that lady who was wearing a bracelet?”
“Then do I have another opportunity to see her?”
Youka shook her head. “Ren Taiho has already gone back.”
He thought that this was unfortunate. If he hadn’t cried so much yesterday that he cried himself to sleep, perhaps he could have talked to Ren Taiho about many things.
“Then where are the rest of the kirin? Can I meet them?”
Youka laughed. “Everyone has already gone to their respective kingdoms. Perhaps you will run into them after you have also descended.”
“You will choose a ruler, and then you will leave Mt. Hou.”
“A ruler? There’s a ruler?”
“Yes, and he will become your master.”
“A kirin will choose a ruler, and then he will serve the ruler. And it is the duty of us here on Mt. Hou to take care of you before that happens.”
So that’s how it is, Taiki thought. In the future, he will work as a servant to the ruler. As to which ruler he will work at the side of, only the future can decide. And before that, he will stay on Mt. Hou, which is probably similar to living a pious life.
When he thought all of this through, he finally got a little bit of relief from the uncertainties that had occupied his mind since yesterday.
“But am I qualified enough for such an important job?”
“Well,” Youka sigh again and laughed. “Of course you can! Because you are a kirin.”
“Is a kirin’s job to work at the side of a ruler?”
“Do the other kirin also do this?”
Youka nodded and began to list it out. “There are a total of twelve kingdoms here, and every kingdom has a ruler. There are also twelve kirin. There will always be a kirin at the side of a ruler. This is how things are.”
“But right now, there are only eleven rulers. The ruler of the kingdom situated in the northeast, Tai Kingdom, passed away ten years ago, and a successor has not been chosen yet.”
“Then what about the Kirin of Tai Kingdom?”
Youka smiled and looked at Taiki. “Isn’t he right here?”
“Yes, you are the Kirin of Tai Kingdom, so that’s why we call you Taiki. You will eventually choose a ruler. This is the duty of a kirin.”
Taiki blinked his eyes. “Is it right to let me decide such an important thing?”
Youka nodded her head energetically. “This is something only you can decide. …Ah, this is the mulberry garden.”
After not too long a time, Taiki became accustomed to life on Mt. Hou: the unusual clothes, the strange customs, and the vegetarian meals.
Even though there were so many remarkable things, Taiki was still little enough that he didn’t fuss over them as an adult might. Especially since he never felt that this way of life was an inconvenience or unsuitable to him, so he very naturally took to it.
If there was just one thing he had trouble adapting to though, it would have to do with the fact that his appearance had changed. The mirrors here did not reflect as clearly as they did back at his old home, but, although he understood this much, he still felt as if his reflection in the mirrors was not the same as it used to be, no matter how he looked at it.
He had never looked at himself very closely in the mirror before, so he wasn’t able to say where exactly he was different, but the person in the mirror looked like someone else. He didn’t know the reason, but it was as if the change had occurred when he had first gone through the tunnel full of white mist.
Right now he had also felt out clearly his own role on Mt. Hou. The nyosen would take care of the organization of an ordinary day. All he had to do was to get up at a proper time and go to bed at a proper time. When he was awake, he wasn’t required to do anything. He just looked around everywhere and asked the nyosen questions, all in order to get basic knowledge about life on Mt. Hou. This was his homework on Mt. Hou.
The nyosen who protected Taiki and carried with them an unmatched love and at the same time an endless concern, could finally stop worrying.
“In the beginning I was really so fretful,” said one of the nyosen who were spreading a cloth over jasmine flowers in order to dry it in the sun. The scent of the flowers covered by the cloth became stronger.
“After all, there has never been a kirin that has spent more than ten years away from Mt. Hou.”
Youka also lifted a cloth up and gazed at that other nyosen briefly. “It doesn’t matter how many years they’ve been gone. A kirin is always a kirin. It’s not like they’ll change.”
“I guess you’re right.”
The other nyosen who were folding cloths all laughed. The cloths had all absorbed the smell of the jasmine flowers and were giving off a clear fragrance.
“But in any case, he did grow up in Hourai, so there are still some things that are strange about him. Fortunately, none of it makes anyone uncomfortable.”
Youka heard this and put her hands on her hips. “How can you say that Taiki is strange!? He’s much easier to approach than the kirin who are born and grow up on Mt. Hou! If anything, we should be grateful!”
The nyosen who were folding clothes around the area burst into laughter.
“Youka really favors Taiki!”
The nyosen completely surrounded the determined Youka and waved the cloths around her feet as if they were performing the ribbon dance, and then with another shout, they spread out.
Teiei watched them and couldn’t help but laugh as well. “All right, you girls stop picking on Youka.”
The nyosen of Mt. Hou are generally a very lively bunch, but because their work is to take care of kirin, if a kirin is not around, they can get low-spirited as well. Especially in a situation like before when they didn’t even know the whereabouts of the kirin, they had all been like balloons that had lost their air.
Of course, there isn’t always a kirin on Mt. Hou. In fact, the length of time when they are away is probably greater than when they are present. When the kirin aren’t there, the nyosen still draw water, wash clothes or weave fabrics regardless. Everything they do is for themselves, so they do it all without much enthusiasm. However, right now things were not like that! Right now, a kirin was living on Mt. Hou!
Therefore, all the nyosen were also very excited. The nyosen were very fond of kirin, especially toward this one. In actuality, none of the nyosen really had the liberty to laugh at Youka for favoring Taiki, because of the fifty-some nyosen, almost all of them adored him.
In regard to their poking fun at Youka’s favoritism, it was probably a little bit of envy because Taiki and Youka were comparatively closer.
“Youka!” A crisp and clear child’s voice came from far away.
All the nyosen stopped what they were doing and turned to look at where the voice had come from. Just then, Taiki came down a path, running towards the open area.
“Hide me! Hide me!” said Taiki between breaths as he ran toward Youka and hid behind her.
“Taiki just wants to be friends with Youka!”
“That’s what I was saying!”
The nyosen laughed and used the cloths they were holding to cover Taiki up. The little body that hid between the jasmine bushes and Youka was completely covered by the cloths in the blink of an eye.
The nyosen giggled. At this time, a shadow appeared on the ground. It was Sanshi coming down from the rocks. The nyosen then all pointed to the eastern path.
“He’s over there, Sanshi!”
“Taiki ran that way.”
“I almost knocked him over!”
Even though the nyosen tried to trick Sanshi, there was no way she wouldn’t be able to find Taiki. She walked directly over to Youka and lifted up the cloth that was covering him. Taiki, who had been hiding inside with neck scrunched up, looked up at her and sighed forcefully. “You still found me.”
Still panting heavily, he sat down and hugged Sanshi’s foreleg. Sanshi handed the fabric and clothes back to the nyosen and rubbed his head. The nyosen laughed joyously.
“It’s impossible to hide from Sanshi.”
“I know,” said Taiki, as his cheeks turned red. He leaned on Sanshi’s foreleg and loosened the collar of his robe. Everyone stifled their laughter and watched him. They all thought that Taiki looked much cuter than any of the kirin who had stayed at Mt. Hou before—It was probably because of their favoritism.
Youka laughed as she stroked Taiki’s hair. His hair had grown much longer since he first arrived, and his bangs stuck to his forehead because of his sweat. She gently lifted it aside.
Most kirin had golden hair, but to be accurate, it should be called a mane, rather than hair. Furthermore, Taiki’s mane was the color of steel. This showed that he was not like most kirin, and it caused the nyosen to feel that he was particularly dignified.
“You should go bathe for a bit. It’s almost time for dinner.”
The status of a kirin is much higher than that of a nyosen, but since they take care of a kirin’s everyday life, they feel as if the kirin was their own child. Thus, it follows that the tone of their voice isn’t overly respectful. Even the head of the nyosen, Hekika Genkun is like this, so naturally no one can blame them.
“Luckily, there is a lot of clothes here for you to change into. I’ll tidy up here and then I’ll come find you.”
“Okay.” Taiki nodded and stood up. “Sanshi, let’s go.”
The nyosen smiled as they watched Sanshi leave, holding on to Taiki’s hand.
“It looks like the one who favors Taiki most is Sanshi!”
Though they all agreed, none of them felt jealous, because Sanshi and the nyosen were not the same. Sanshi existed solely for Taiki. Moreover, they were all in a good mood, because anyone who saw Taiki before dinner could eat with him. This was the newest unwritten rule upon Mt. Hou.
After she put away the sun-dried clothes, Youka chose a set that smelled like sun and jasmine for Taiki and walked to the river. She used a path by a waterfall that ran beside Rosen Palace, and after she turned a corner, she heard crisp and clear laughter.
In the river, Taiki was chasing Sanshi’s tail around. One moment, it floated up out of the water, and the next, it sunk back down. Even when he got a hold of her tail, she would lift it up high, sending him back into the water, and then he would surface again with a splash. At this time, he noticed Youka walking towards him and waved to her.
“I’ve come to see you.”
A nyosen spread a cloth at the side of the river. Taiki walked up onto the blanket on the bank, and another nyosen used the cloth that was hanging at her wrist to wrap around Taiki.
“I can do this myself.”
“You never completely dry your upper back, so I think you should still let me do it.” After the nyosen said this, she began to wipe down Taiki’s body. Even though Taiki felt very embarrassed, all the nyosen wanted to attend to him. And then yet another nyosen helped him put his clothes on, as Youka dried his hair for him.
“I think it’s okay already.”
“But your hair isn’t dry yet.”
He took a few tufts of hair in his hand as it rolled off the cloth. His hair had now become an unusual color between black and silver.
“Is my hair too long?”
“Right now, it’s still too short!”
Taiki looked Youka with astonishment. “Do I have to keep letting it grow longer? Until it’s as long as a girl’s?”
“Usually, you let it grow until it stops growing any longer. We’ll cut it neatly for you.”
“Then I can’t cut it myself?”
If you want to be ugly when you transform, then we’ll cut it off for you.”
Youka began to comb Taiki’s already partially dry hair. “You are a kirin, so you can change into the outer form of a kirin.”
“The outer form of a ‘kirin’? Do you mean the animal?” [Note: In Japanese, the word for giraffe is “kirin.” For this next part, just keep in mind that while they’re all saying “kirin,” Taiki is thinking of a giraffe, while the nyosen are all thinking of the divine beast.]
Then, Taiki began to contemplate. He already knew that he was a “kirin,” but he thought that it was only a name referring to people who were hatched from the fruit of the tree. However, listening to what Youka was saying, it seemed as if that wasn’t the case.
“Then am I originally an animal?” This confused him. Even though it’s said that humans are a kind of animal, the meaning was not quite the same.
“Then, the person I saw earlier, Ren Taiho, is she one too?”
Taiki’s understanding lessened even more.
Was he going to change into a giraffe like a wolfman’s transformation? A wolfman’s transformation didn’t seem that weird, but to turn into a giraffe, his neck would have to stretch so much, so he felt that it was definitely really weird.
—At this time, Taiki had not yet figured out what kind of creature a kirin was.
Teiei had been smiling and watching Taiki and the nyosen when she discovered a look of uncertainty on Taiki’s face and suddenly came to a realization.
“Oh, it’s because you haven’t transformed before, so you don’t understand. The hair on your head is not the same as ours. You have a mane.”
Taiki nodded. Giraffes definitely had a sort of mane.
Teiei motioned for Taiki to move to in front of her and gently touched the center of his forehead, near his hairline. At this time, Taiki suddenly felt a rush of strong discomfort and anxiety.
“You have a small bump right here.”
When he heard Teiei say this, Taiki lifted his hand up and rubbed his forehead. There definitely was a little bump.
“This is a kirin’s horn. This horn is extremely important to the kirin. Just then, when I touched your forehead, you should have felt very uncomfortable, right?”
“…A little bit.”
“You don’t need to be embarrassed about it. A kirin does not like it at all when someone touches their horn. When you get a little older, you’ll hate it even more. You won’t want to let anyone touch it, not even Sanshi.”
After hearing Teiei say these things, Taiki remembered that he had never liked it when someone touched his forehead. Even if it had been his mother, he had still felt like running away.
“Then I’m really a kirin, huh.”
From the side, Youka anxiously said, “Just wait until you’ve transformed. Then you’ll understand what we mean.”
“How do I transform?”
At this question from Taiki, Youka tilted her head and thought for a little bit. “Yeah… If you had been born and raised on Mt. Hou, then you would inherently know. Because those who are born here remain in kirin form for the first part of their lives. But you were born in Hourai, so you’ve been in human form…”
Youka wasn’t very clear on matters concerning Hourai, but because there had been kirin before who had come back from Hourai, she had heard a few things.
“Does changing into a kirin feel uncomfortable?”
“There are no kirin who dislike transforming, so I don’t think it’s uncomfortable.”
“Don’t you think it’s really weird?”
“Not at all.” After Youka said this, she started to comb Taiki’s hair with her fingers again. “You aren’t like most kirin. Most kirin have manes are gold, like Ren Taiho’s. You are a kokki, which I’ve heard are very rare! You need to hurry and let me see you after your transformation! The color of your mane is so pretty, you’ll definitely look even better after you’ve turned into a kirin.”
“But I can’t think of a way to transform.”
“I think…” Youka sighed. “I can’t think of a way either. After all, I’m not a kirin, and I’ve never transformed. If we get a chance, we’ll ask Genkun!”
Teiei looked at Taiki, who was not yet completely at ease, and could not help but silently crease her brow. Having lived in the other world for ten long years, would Taiki actually be able to transform without any problems? Though it’s said that there has never been a kirin who was not able to transform, if Taiki were to be the first to set the precedent, it would be too unfortunate.
Gyokuyou may have an answer to this question, but she wasn’t someone one could find just by wanting to find her. However, Taiki was running out of time!
Teiei’s line of sight moved away from Taiki and Youka, who were joking with each other, as she looked up anxiously at the already darkening sky.
Luckily, the spring equinox had already passed, but when the summer solstice arrived, there would definitely be people climbing the mountain.
Is a kirin who cannot transform able to choose a ruler?
Edited and proofread by audiowuxia.
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