We have to try.
Risai’s presence was a strong, sure weight against his back and his courage, buoying Taiki through the sea of fear that threatened to swamp him. She stood with him and understood what he really meant when he said they had to try.
She understood that nothing that lay ahead could be as bad as going back.
Taiki’s stomach roiled when they flew within a stone’s throw of the coast. He’d been anticipating seeing Tai again since they’d left Kei. It was changed, he knew, but he’d been more at home in that cold and barren country than in all his years in Hourai—Japan, he corrected himself, then wondered why he bothered. No one in Tai would care what he called the place of his birth, for he couldn’t call it his homeland.
Tai was his homeland, and it made him ill to be near it.
“Are you all right?” Risai called over the wind, nearly shouting in his ear.
Taiki nodded, but he wasn’t all right. He could feel the stench of blood, washing over him from the shore. “There’s been fighting here,” he called back. “I don’t know how recently.”
“You smell it? How fresh is it?”
“I can’t tell. The Queen Mother of the West said I might be extra-sensitive to it for a little while, since she cleansed me.”
“That’s right, I forgot. Is it so bad that we can’t land?”
Taiki’s stomach turned over, but he shook his head. Hien’s flanks were heaving, exhausted from flying for so long without a rest. There was no rest over the ocean, of course. One either kept going or one drowned.
With a pang that hurt more than the blood-smell, Taiki remembered his first trip over those waters. He’d been able to transform then. He’d borne his Master on his back, showed everyone who was fit to rule over the Kingdom. He’d been patted, told he’d done well. He could still hear his Lord’s voice, even now. “You’ve done well, Kouri. Together, we will restore Tai and her people to their former glory.”
Hien touched down on the soil, and they dismounted. Taiki wanted to feel something, but all he felt was the earth under his shoes. Maybe that part of me is really gone forever. Maybe it’s as they said, and I’m not a ki anymore.
That doesn ’ t matter. I still have to find him. Like Risai said, the people of Tai need us.
He still cared about the people of Tai, at least. He couldn’t tell whether that was his ki nature maintaining a hold over him, or if he was just naturally compassionate to those in need.
“This way, Taiho.”
Holding Hien’s reins with her hand, Risai led the kijuu and Taiki to a dip in the cove, where the sand trickled out to form a narrow pathway. “The last time I was in Tai, a pair of sisters showed me this path. It leads a hidden way up the shoreline, until you get to their cottage.”
She said no more, but Taiki could see the hidden fear in the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She feared for her friends. Back in Kei, she’d told him about the old man and his granddaughter that had begged her to find him. She hadn’t said so, but Taiki was sure the people in her story had died.
The walk was long, and the winds fierce. Twice, a haunting pressure in the back of his mind told him that there would be one fewer youma bothering them this night; Gouran was eating well. Taiki pulled his borrowed coat—a gift during his brief stint as an official of En—further around his shoulders against the wind.
No matter what lies ahead, it would be worse to go back.
His feet ached by the time they arrived at a cozy-looking cottage. Risai motioned for Taiki to stand back, then knocked rapidly.
The man who answered was tall, lean, and rangy. There was an unshaven look to him that Taiki suspected was always there, no matter what time of day. “Yeah? What do you—oh, my Lady. How can your humble servants help you tonight?”
Risai’s smile was tired. “The same thing as last time, Kazushi. If you’ve got a bite to spare and a bare patch of floor, I’ll be a new woman in the morning.”
“Seems a shame, I like the woman you are now. Is your friend coming in?”
“Yes,” Risai said firmly. “He’ll take my patch of floor if you’ve only got one.”
“Nonsense,” another voice said from behind Kazushi. Despite the way people reproduced without shared blood, Taiki could have sworn that the two were cut from the same mold. Kazushi’s brother was nearly identical, except for the fact that his hair was dark green. “Lady, we’ve said before that our home is yours. You can take our beds. Kazu and I will sleep on the floor—or better yet, this will be a perfect time to sleep outside. The night is fair, for this time of year.”
Taiki remembered the biting chill of Tai evenings all too well. Gyousou would order him a hot mug of tea, better than the way his grandmother used to make it, with all the honey Taiki could possibly want. He wished he were there at Hakkei Palace right now, drinking sweet tea and wrapped in one of his Master’s robes.
He was so tired he didn’t even realize he was tired. He swayed on his feet, then blinked when one of the men—the one who wasn’t Kazushi—suddenly grabbed his arms.
“What…why are you doing that?” he asked, blinking heavy eyelids.
“My apologies, sir,” the man apologized. “But you were falling over.”
“Was not,” Taiki mumbled under his breath, but there was little to complain about. His borrowed bed was firm and warm, and he had a spot quite close to the fire. Better yet, he was back in Tai. He could fall asleep dreaming of gemstones and eyes that burned like fire, and no one would fail to believe him. No one would tell him he was insane, or dangerous for “talking like that.” He was home, truly home, and he could stay as long as he wanted.
More accurately, he’d never be able to leave.
He overheard Risai talking to the men, but none of that mattered as he drifted off to sleep.
From far, far away, he thought he heard someone say his name.