The Twelve Kingdoms
Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Maze, Chapter 2.
from Mina's trans. of Ono Fuyumi's Kaze no Umi, Meikyuu no Kishi.
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.