7-3 The kitsuryou galloped effortlessly through the sky. Shoukei looked down at the landscape and felt a heavy weight lift from her chest.
This is the only way to go.
She would hardly be meekly returning to the orphanage or becoming a servant again. From the start, she had determined to free herself and run away. She was never going to kowtow to anybody ever again.
Shoukei headed straight for the Black Sea, arriving at a town along the coast before the gates closed. There she sold an earring, fixed up her clothes and got a room. The sensation of silk against her skin after so long, a luxurious meal, a bed made up with embroidered quilts. She went to sleep, checking her urge to shriek aloud with delight.
The next day she sold another earing and flew off toward the Black Sea
A kitsuryou could cross a kingdom in two days. She passed over the featureless borders and entered Ryuu. There she got a room. The following day she headed north along the coast. Before evening, she had arrived at Haikyou, a port town in the central part of the kingdom. She was now closer to En than to Kyou.
The kitsuryou's reins in hand, she passed through the big gate. The gate was covered in a carved floral pattern. The walls were punctuated with a series of latticed skylights. Lanterns hung from the eaves, lighting the cozy forecourt that spread out from the middle of the gate. It was a large inn.
A man came running out to meet her. To Shoukei question he smiled and bowed low. "There is a fine room available, m'lady."
"Good," said Shoukei, smiling sweetly in return. "I shall stay here, then. Please look after my kitsuryou."
A groom hurried over and took the kitsuryou's reins. A bellhop undid the luggage from the saddle and the groom led the kitsuryou to the stables next to the gate. Shoukei went from the forecourt into the building through the gated entranceway.
Immediately inside the doors was a large parlor. Tables were generously spaced along the walls at which the guests sat and conversed together. To the concierge who walked up and bowed, Shoukei took a silver hairpin from her fashionably done-up hair and held it out to him.
"Should this cover everything?"
Because travelers did not like carrying large amounts of cash with them, payment was often in kind. Large inns always had a small shop where personal items could be exchanged and where accounts were settled. If the payment proved excessive, upon checking out the balance was paid in coin. The concierge took the hairpin and confirmed its workmanship with an enthusiastic nod of assent.
"It is quite sufficient. I shall deposit it against your account."
"If it is not enough, please let me know."
"Thank you very much. Shall you be eating dinner tonight?"
In the smaller inns, there was always a tavern open to the street, and the rooms on the second floor. The larger hotels served meals in the restaurant facing the courtyard or in the guest rooms. The guest rooms in a small inn were for sleeping only: beds set up on a wooden floor, and a sink to wash your face, if you were lucky. Many inns did not even enjoy those accommodations. Cheaper establishments simply had a bunch of cots lined up on a dirt floor, with not even screens separating them. You slept together with complete strangers.
Beds in an average hotel had canopies and curtains, along with a sink and a small table. In a fancy hotel like the one Shoukei was staying at, you had two bedrooms in which to make yourself at home, and a living room where dinner could also be served.
"I'd like a room."
"In fact," said the concierge, a concerned look on his face, "a ship just came into port. We have many guests and no single-occupancy rooms. Would you mind sharing a room?"
A hotel of this class would definitely have two bedrooms per room, and so was set up to handle double-occupancy reservations. If there weren't enough vacancies available, double-occupancy rooms were converted into shared rooms.
"Are there no other options? I wouldn't want to end up with some yahoo."
"I am indeed sorry. We would be happy to arrange for you to stay at another hotel, but I'm afraid they are all booked as well."
"I guess it can't be helped."
"Unfortunately, not in this case. If you would please follow me, I shall show you to your room."
Shoukei was shown to a room on the third floor. They walked down a corridor that overlooked a small courtyard and arrived at a room toward the back. It was hardly the best room in the place. In these types of buildings, the higher you went, the lower the ceilings became. Besides, the best rooms faced the gardens.
"Here is the room."
The room he stopped at was in a wing in the back of the hotel. The beautiful fretwork on the door was glazed with glass, revealing the interior of the room. Behind the door was a living room arranged with furniture of above-average quality.
Opening onto the living space were two wide doors. These led to the bedrooms. The key fitted the bedroom door. There was no key for the door into the living room, as it was not considered a private room. This was how double-occupancy was accommodated.
She handed some change to the bellman who delivered her luggage to the room, and sat down in a chair in the living room.
"What a stupidly prosaic room." A smirk came to her lips.
She didn't feel even a twinge of guilt. The Royal Kyou had it in for her and had driven her to this, and so what was so bad about giving her a taste of her own medicine? The Royal Kyou could lose any number of her personal accouterments and hardly notice a thing missing. At any rate, she'd probably inherited most of it, and so Shoukei had "inherited" it in turn from her.
"If I take it easy on this trip, I should get to Kei in six days."
The capital of Kei, Gyouten. The capital of the eastern kingdom that the Royal Kei now occupied. Once she got there, then what? She had to start somewhere. In order to get close to the Royal Kei, she had to get into the imperial palace. And that wouldn't be easy.
Shoukei didn't have a passport that could vouch for her identity. She'd left behind the papers given her in Hou. She'd heard that there were officials who would forge passports for a price, but she had no idea where to find the kind of corrupt bureaucrat who could do such a thing.
Getting into the imperial palace in Kei with only a passport was far from impossible. The empress had only recently acceded to the throne and so there was likely a considerable turnover in the staff. Shoukei was cultured and educated. If she expressed a desire to serve the empress, the odds of her getting hired were good. At the same time, after so short a time on the throne, the empress would no doubt be lonely. No matter how many officials and bureaucrats she was surrounded by, somebody genuinely nice would no doubt catch her eye. She was perfectly capable of sucking up to the Royal Kei. She'd wait for the chance, and strike.
And besides, she knew the workings of an imperial palace inside and out.
"But maybe I should go take a look at Tai."
In a kingdom that had lost its king and was in chaos, you probably didn't need a passport.
The Royal Tai had acceded to the throne two years before Hou changed governments. Not more than half a year later, an imperial rescript was issued to all the Twelve Kingdoms announcing the king's death. The rescript was delivered by the new king. But an imperial rescript was hardly required when the king of another kingdom died. A phoenix bird in every imperial palace would sing forth, making the announcement. The phoenix birds had remained quiet in regards to the Royal Tai. There was no doubt about it: when Shoukei was living at Youshun Palace, the phoenix bird hadn't uttered a peep about the demise of the Royal Tai.
If the king lived, there was no reason for a new king to arise. Clearly, this was a pretender. In fact, nobody really knew what was going on in Tai. Kingdoms tended to keep their internal affairs to themselves.
If they had lost their king, then Tai was in the same predicament as Hou, and there was no way she was going back to Hou. For the time being, she muttered to herself, Tai it is.
"So, where are you headed?" asked the waiter who brought dinner.
Shoukei looked down at the dishes being placed there and furrowed her brow.
The table was being set for two. She'd be eating with some complete stranger. She made a face. Answering the waiter's call, she saw someone came out of the other bedroom--apparently they'd been in there all along--and lowered her brows. Bad enough that she had to eat with a stranger, but he was a--
A person born half a beast. There weren't a lot of them, but neither were they scarce. In Hou, a hanjuu would never be caught dead in an establishment like this. And in beast-form, certainly would never be allowed into the courtyard.
As if he did not see Shoukei sitting there, brows fully furrowed, he bustled into the room and said to the waiter, "Thank you!"
He had the voice of a child. In the form of a rat, he was no taller than a human child, as well, but was wearing a man's tunic. He tipped the bowing waiter and sat down.
As if finally seeing her there, he said, "Hi."
"Hello," Shoukei replied under her breath.
"Surprising at how many guests there are. I wonder if these arrangements are common in Ryuu?"
Shoukei didn't answer. It was bad enough, simply having to sit at the same table with a hanjuu. She averted her gaze.
"Today is unique," said the waiter. "A ship arrived from En. Were you aboard that ship?"
The hanjuu said, "Oh, gotcha."
"About half of our guests disembarked. And about half will be reboarding. And where are you headed?"
"I thought I'd see the capital."
"Ah," the young man smiled. "Wonderful place. The lilies are beautiful. Though you've chosen to travel during the cold part of the year."
"It's not so different from En."
"Is that so?"
"En is pretty cold, too. It's further south than Ryuu, but catches the seasonal winds."
The young man turned to Shoukei. "And where will you be going next?"
"Tai," she said shortly.
The waiter's eyes opened wide. "But Tai--"
"Is in turmoil, I know. That's why I'm going. People I know live there. I've been worried how they're doing."
"Where in Tai?"
Shoukei's heart skipped a beat. "And why should you want to know?"
"Oh, no reason," the young man answered, with a nervous laugh. "I was originally a sailor on a ship that sailed between Ryuu and Tai."
"We shipped grain to Tai, carried gemstones on the return voyage. Tai is pretty short of grain. But we didn't make it last time around. There were so many youma, we never got near the place."
"It's pretty scary when a kingdom surrounded by the Kyokai falls into chaos. The youma who live at the bottom of the ocean rise to the surface, and before you know it you're completely isolated. In fact, this winter, I have no idea how the people of Tai are going to eat."
He didn't pose the question as if expecting an answer, so Shoukei instead thought about Hou. Hou was in the same predicament. Even after cultivating the land, the harvest yielded only enough for people to scrape by on. If a harvest failed for any reason, there wouldn't be enough to go around.
"Was your friend able to get out of Tai?"
"I hope so."
"So many people are trying to flee Tai. Most of them come to Ryuu. Our last cargo was mostly people. There were so many people flooding into the port, wanting to leave Tai so badly they were clinging to the gunwales. We had to take them on board. If we didn't, they would have capsized the boat."
"Long story short, it's a dangerous place. Sea traffic is closed. I got my parents to help me come here. There are colleagues of mine there still waiting for a ship."
"Good thing you've got a kitsuryou. It looks like no ships are sailing for Tai. The news from En as well is that sea traffic to Tai has been suspended."
Shoukei's eyes opened wide. "You heard I came on a kitsuryou? Already?"
The young man laughed. "A rare thing it is for one of our guests to arrive on such a splendid pegasus. Well, not really, I guess." He turned to the rat, who was politely finishing his dinner. "Your suugu tiger is even more impressive. It's the first time any of us have seen a suugu, so we've all been stopping by the stables to take a look."
The rat stroked his whiskers. "Well, not so impressive. It's a loaner."
Shoukei looked at him. With a mount so impressive, in spite of his being a hanjuu, of being a child--for that's what she thought he was--that's why he was being treated like a man.
The waiter said, "But the sky is plenty dangerous as well."
Realizing the statement had been directed at her, Shoukei quickly nodded. "Yes, I . . . . "
"Perhaps you had best go on to Kei."
"Warships still manage the journey from Kei to Tai to rescue refugees."
"People from Kei bring in refugees to cultivate new land. In exchange, they're registered on the census and are given a plot of land. When I was traveling to Tai, ships from Kei periodically left Tai with refugees. There aren't so many opportunities as before but I still think they're doing it, so getting a ride with them is probably the best way."
"You think so?" Shoukei just managed to check her delight. Go to Tai. Wait for a ship and return to Kei. Get registered on the census and head for Gyouten. It'd be easy. "That's good advice. Thank you."
She meant it from the bottom of her heart.
From Tai to Kei. Satisfied that there was light now at the end of the tunnel, Shoukei returned to her bedroom and went to sleep. With a brazier to warm the room, she slept warmly and comfortably beneath the embroidered futons.
She was awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at the door.
"Who is it?" she said, frowning. That rat no doubt had something he wanted her to do.
"Excuse me." It was the young man who had served them dinner.
Shoukei sluggishly got out of bed, put on a robe and went to the door. "What's this about?"
"Something I remembered about Tai."
Shoukei unlocked the door. She was debating whether or not to open the door when it was abruptly jerked open. Shoukei recoiled, cowering. Standing in the living room was the young man and a number of soldiers wearing blue armor.
"What?" Her heart pounded in her chest. She somehow managed to ignore her racing pulse.
"Let's see your passport."
The blood drained from her face. "What are you talking about? At this time of night! We can take care of it tomorrow."
Her throat was dry, making it difficult to raise her voice in protest. The soldiers pressed into the room and surrounded her.
"Where's your passport?"
Her knees began to shake. "Truth is . . . I lost it."
"Gyokuyou. Son Gyokuyou."
With an expressionless face, the soldier looked at her and then at his colleague. "You've got a kitsuryou, huh. Where'd you get it?"
"I . . . I don't recall."
They regarded with great suspicion. She bit her lip. She had said the first thing that came to mind and it was a lousy lie, if she said so herself.
"Search her things."
"Stop it! You can't just do whatever you please!"
As she raised her voice, Shoukei felt that this was the end. She had finally made it to Ryuu, and the Royal Kyou had reached out her hand after her and taken her into her clutches. Her gaze flitted about the room. She had to get away, but soldiers held her by both shoulders. Even if there were means of escape, there was no way to run.
The soldiers went to the bedstand and pulled out a small satchel secured with a leather belt. They opened it, and from amidst the clothes pulled out the delicate fineries.
One of the soldiers was holding a piece of paper, and checked each item off against a list. "A decorated belt, a gold buckle with the emblem of a phoenix dragon. Phoenix bird earrings. A string of jade pearls. They're here." He turned to Shoukei. "You're missing two sets of earrings and a hairpin. Where are they?"
Shoukei couldn't answer. She was trembling too violently to speak. She'd be arrested, she would answer for her crimes and be judged. Finally, it dawned on her. Why hadn't any of this occurred to her until soldiers were walking all over her?
The penalty for theft . . . Shoukei searched her memory and goosebumps came out on her skin. Crucifixion. You were tied down to the road and nails driven into your body until you died.
"Hey, what's going on?"
The door to the room opposite opened and the rat stuck his head out. He rubbed his sleepy eyes. Shoukei jabbed her finger at him. "I don't know anything about it! He gave it to me!"
"What?" The rat cast a stunned look at the soldiers.
"It's in my room."
The soldier checked his travel documents and folded them back up with a disinterested expression. He jerked his chin toward the door.
"Let's go. The both of you."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
don't recall giving you anything."
Shoukei sat, bound in cords, in a jail in Ryuu. The jail was so cold that frost was forming on the walls. The rat had been arrested along with her.
"I'd appreciate it if you could tell me what's going on."
Shoukei didn't answer. She didn't have a good answer. Accused of a frightening crime, she had abruptly blamed another person. That's all it came down to.
"What's your name?"
The guilt weighed so heavily on her mind, she tossed off the answer without thinking.
"Shoukei . . . that wouldn't be the name of the princess royal of Hou?"
Shoukei unconsciously nodded.
"Her full name is Son Shou, her azana is Shoukei."
"I . . . . "
How was it that a hanjuu from En would know such things? The imperial family's name was not widely circulated. The surnames of such high status individuals were not loosely bandied about.
"Rumors had it that you'd died, and rumors that you lived."
"Who are you?"
The rat stroked his whiskers. "My name is Rakushun. An ordinary student."
"Ordinary students ride suugu pegasi?"
"Like I said, it's a loaner. Are you being pursued because you're the princess royal?"
Shoukei didn't reply. She remembered what had happened to her the last time she'd confessed who she was. "If there's something on your mind, go ahead and ask me."
"I think you have more to worry about than me."
Shoukei flashed a crooked smile. "You know why I'm in jail? Because when you screw up, you get crucified."
Rakushun tugged on his whiskers. "Crucifixion? I guess that is what they do in Hou, the only kingdom that executes a criminal for the crime of theft. In fact, Hou has already repealed that law."
"It seems that the Royal Hou was quite the disciplinarian. Theft was a capital offense. Stealing gold or specie from the royal family merited death by the flogging. In the case of gems and jewelry, crucifixion. Stealing food got your head placed upon a pike. Have I got that right? But only in Hou. Normally, it's a hundred lashes. In Ryuu, it depends on the crime. A hundred strokes with the cane and ninety days of hard labor, I believe."
Shoukei looked at the rat in surprise. He was conversant in the laws of other kingdoms. This knowledge was the province of government officials. And, in fact, there were few even among those charged with enforcement of the laws that were well-versed in the penal codes of other kingdoms.
She explained this and asked again, "You're really an ordinary person?"
"An ordinary student. Any school student from En should know as much."
Shoukei again looked at him with wide eyes. In Hou, there was one secondary school per province. The one national university admitted no more than a hundred students, so becoming a university students was no small feat. Upon graduation, you would become a civil servant or a high public official. Many dreamed of being accepted, but there were those who would take the entrance exam every year of their life and never pass.
"A child like you? How old are you?"
Rakushun's whiskers drooped. "I'm always mistaken for a child. Well, no matter. I'm twenty-two."
Shoukei blinked. It was not impossible but he would still be improbably young. It was not simply a matter of first qualifying for the selection process and then passing the entrance exams. You would also need the recommendation of your secondary school principal. It was not rare for students to be over thirty.
"That's quite impressive." This rat had it made. A comfortable life as a government bureaucrat. Shoukei had nothing. Not a thing. Only to wait for her trial, tied up in this jail.
"Well, getting arrested like this isn't exactly a good thing. I'll probably end up being expelled."
Shoukei looked at the rat. If he was indeed a college student, not only his intelligence, but his integrity had been called into question. Of course, if you were punished according to your crimes, he would undoubtedly be expelled.
However, Shoukei remembered, she would probably be extradited to Kyou, there to enjoy the scorn and punishments of the Royal Kyou. And it was likely that her punishments would be more severe than what was normally called for. This rat hardly stood to lose everything he had, while Shoukei had only her life left to her. One slip and she'd lose that, too.
"Well, I wonder what's going to happen next? So what happened to you? Why did all those Ryuu soldiers come storming into our room?"
Shoukei wouldn't answer the question. She turned her back and slumped back against the wall and closed her eyes, showing she had no more inclination to talk. From behind her, she heard a small sigh.
She feigned sleep but could not sleep. Trembling, she passed the night till dawn. The next day she was dragged out of jail. As she was hauled to her feet, she cast a glance back at the jail. From inside the jail, the rat leaned forward and gave her a fixed look.
The jail was in the depths of the city hall. Shoukei had no idea whether this city was located in district or prefecture or county or anything else. Criminal cases were prosecuted in county and provincial courts, but a jail could be located anywhere.
Shoukei was escorted to the main chamber of the city hall and, still bound, sat down on the floor. A fat, middle-aged man sat on the rostrum in front of her. The jailers seized Shoukei by the binding cords and forced her to bow till her forehead touched the floor.
"The princess royal of Hou, Son Shou."
"No, I'm not. I could not possibly be such a personage as that."
The man smiled quizzically. "Is that so? We have word from the Royal Kyou herself that the princess royal of Hou stole objects from the imperial palace and fled the country. We also received notice of a warrant being issued by the empress for her arrest. The Royal Kyou kindly provided a catalog of the stolen articles, which together with the warrant was delivered by carrier pigeon. How do you explain that most of the articles listed in the catalog were found amongst your belongings?"
"They were . . . given to me." Her head pressed to the floor, she had to spit out the words. "The hanjuu I shared the room with, he gave them to me." Shoukei made the assertion, guilt heavy on her mind. I'm sorry, but there is no way I can go back to Kyou.
The man on the rostrum roared with laughter. "Do you really think that anybody here actually believes such lies?"
"Of course, it's exactly what a naif like the princess royal would say. She steals from the imperial palace in Kyou and flees the kingdom, stupid enough to stay in inns along the way. Instead of abandoning a conspicuous animal like a kitsuryou, she takes it along with her. Goods she should have pawned at once, she instead carefully hides in her luggage."
Shoukei bit her lip. She truly had botched it from the start. She had been so happy to be free that she had left common sense by the wayside.
"And all you stole were a few trinkets and baubles. How like a girl. A very silly girl."
"Kensei," a voice addressed the man on the rostrum. A kensei was a county court judge, meaning she was in a county court. "Would the princess royal have done such a foolish thing? It stands to reason that this girl is not the princess royal."
"That is a possibility," the judge agreed cheerfully. "Of course not. The truth must lie elsewhere. I shall ask her again. Are you the Princess Royal Son Shou?"
"I'm not!" she screamed at the floor, grasping at this one last straw.
"So the real princess royal forced these items upon you, and did so in order to mislead her pursuers. But would she have given such hard-won treasures to a complete stranger? No, not likely. So, what is it, miss? Were these items really given to you? Or did you steal them?"
Shoukei couldn't answer.
"Raise your head and look me in the eye. Are these stolen goods?"
Shoukei raised her head and looked into the red face of a man wearing a complacent smile. "No . . . they are not."
"And were they given to you? If they were, what kind of person is this, running around bestowing such idiotic alms on complete strangers? Or rather--"
The judge's voice softened to a coaxing purr. "Or rather, isn't it true that they've been yours all along? Afraid that your possession of them would be thought incriminating, you said they'd been given to you? It was mere coincidence that they happened to resemble the items in the catalog, when in fact they have nothing whatsoever to do with the booty spirited away from Kyou."
Grasping the direction in which he was steering the conversation, Shoukei nodded. "Yes."
"Yet aren't such fineries a bit too rich for a girl like you?"
"But . . . they're mine . . . really."
"Doubtful. Still, we're busy around here. Things to do, places to go. We simply do not have the time or resources to go around investigating every little suspicious incident. Once the court has been compensated for the costs of your confinement, you shall be released."
The implied deal now clear, Shoukei recoiled inside. The man was asking for a bribe. The clerks and officials in the courtroom were all snickering as well.
She said, "Sir, if you could find it in your heart to pardon the inconveniences I've imposed upon the court, I should want to leave the items in my satchel and the kitsuryou to your honor's safekeeping."
"Is that so?" The judge slapped his knees. "You are indeed a young girl familiar with the ways of the world. We shall set aside the complaint. Any resemblance between your goods and the aforementioned catalog of items is declared purely coincidental. It would of course be untenable to take them into custody if they were the property of the Royal Kyou, but as they are yours by declaration, I do not see a problem."
"They are mine," Shoukei stated, flashing an understanding smile at the judge and court officials.
"Understood. You shall be released upon your own recognizance. The court hereby takes into custody the kitsuryou and the remainder of your personal goods. Your bags and purse shall be returned to you. You are free to go."
"I thank the court."
Shoukei bowed her head, hiding the emotions that flooded to her face.
Shoukei collected her bags and purse from the bailiff and staggered down the freezing, windswept street.
She had not only been spared her life, but would not be sent back to Kyou. Her hard-won treasures, however, had been stolen out from under her, along with the kitsuryou. And that wasn't all.
Shoukei put her hand into her pocket and found there her much lighter purse. The hairpin she'd given to the inn had been confiscated. When returning the purse to her, the bailiff said that her account at the inn had been settled with the contents of her purse.
But even left penniless was many times better than being sent back to Kyou, or so she told herself as she adjusted her leather overcoat and wrapped her shawl around her neck.
But what do I do now?"
In her bags she had a change of clothes and some jewelry she had bought the other day. If she hocked it all for cash, just how much further could she go? In order to get to Kei, she'd have to go to Tai and get her hands on a passport. But to get to Kei in the first place, she'd have to board a boat from Kei bound for Tai. And she didn't have enough to cover her travel expenses for more than five days.
What if she traveled on foot and stayed in the cheapest inns? And if that didn't work, she'd have to travel while groveling for free lodging along the way, begging for day labor, and generally relying on the kindness of strangers. It wasn't something she had ever believed she could do.
At a complete loss as to what to do, Shoukei exited through the gates of the town hall, hanging her head.
"So you're all right, then," a voice called out to her.
Shoukei looked up in surprise and saw the rat there holding the reins of the splendid suugu. "You . . . . "
"I was wondering how things turned out and came over to see how you were doing. It looks like you cleared everything up."
Shoukei spun around and walked off in the other direction. The sound of footsteps soon came pattering after her.
"What it came down to was, I pay a bribe and all is forgiven. The result was, they took everything I had." Shoukei spat on the street. There was no sense in taking it out on the rat, but the happy-go-lucky expression on his face irritated her.
"Strange," he said in a low voice. Shoukei turned to him. He said, "To think that the government officials of Ryuu would even make such demands."
"These ones did. There's nothing unusual about it. In every world and every kingdom there are people who brandish power to line their own pockets."
"But Ryuu is renown for its constitutional government. The Royal Hou also tried to emulate Ryuu in the creation of the national polity."
Shoukei stopped walking.
"Far more laws were promulgated disciplining the bureaucracy than the citizenry, though Hou differed a bit in the actual implementation. The public servants of Ryuu should not act corruptly. Laws forbid it. And you're saying that a county court judge so brazenly asked for a bribe? It does all begin to make sense."
"That the system charged with monitoring the bureaucracy is itself breaking down. Shoukei, you said you wanted to go to Tai? And you intended to depart from a port in Ryuu?"
Shoukei laughed derisively. "I don't have enough money to travel directly to Kei."
"I would advise against it."
Amidst the hustle and bustle of traffic headed toward the main gate, the rat lowered his voice. "Youma are appearing in the Kyokai."
"I heard that yesterday."
"Half of them are coming from Tai, but the other half are coming from the shores of Ryuu."
Shoukei stopped again and looked at the hanjuu. His black eyes looked back at her. He said, "Ryuu is on the decline."
Shoukei thought this over for a minute. The Royal Ryuu had ruled his country longer than the Royal Kyou. Already, his reign had passed a hundred and twenty years, and he was said to be an enlightened monarch. Shoukei had always thought of the nearest three kingdoms, Han, Kyou and Ryuu, as inviolable. These had been stable kingdoms since the time she was born.
"So what's your next step?"
Suddenly asked this question, Shoukei turned to face Rakushun. Without really knowing what she was doing, she stepped out of the pedestrian traffic moving along the street.
"My next step?"
"Didn't you say you wanted to go to Tai? And all your stuff got ripped off. So you've got no travel money, right? I'm going to wander around Ryuu for a bit and then return to En. If that's okay with you, want to come along?"
Shoukei gaped at him. "You're kidding me. You mean, take me to En?"
"To Kankyuu, if you don't mind. But I am going to have to ask you to hoof it for a while."
"Are you stupid? Didn't I almost get you framed for theft?"
Rakushun laughed. "Not at all. I didn't think I was going to be charged. The endorsements on my visa do carry a bit of weight."
"That's not the problem."
He laughed again. "These kinds of fortuitous encounters seem to be my destiny."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-2 The new year began.
In half a month, Suzu and Seishuu had come to Shisui Prefecture at the western fringes of Wa Province. If they kept on along this road, heading west, they would enter Eishuu, home province of Gyouten, the capital.
They'd covered this much ground in a fortnight by horse cart. Nevertheless, they'd only gotten this far because Seishuu's condition had worsened markedly. No matter what she did, his difficulties began as soon as he woke up. Sometimes he would spend half the day in pain. On such days, and often the next, they couldn't really travel.
Midway through their journey, they welcomed in the New Year.
Seishuu's eyes hadn't improved. His vertigo was as bad as before, making it difficult for him to travel on foot. His headaches began to be accompanied by convulsions and then by vomiting.
He was lying in the bed of a swaying horse cart. The tarp over the wagon covered the bed of the cart. When they had the room, farmers in the outlying villages made a bit of money giving rides to people walking along the road. Officials traveled in stagecoaches, but they were reserved for the wealthy, and didn't give rides to people like Suzu.
"How's the money holding out? I could walk if we had to. Though not very fast."
"We're doing okay. You don't need to worry about such things." Suzu gave him a playful rap on the forehead.
Seishuu laughed and then pouted, "Don't treat me like a pissant little kid."
His smiling face was drawn and thin. He was sick so often that he couldn't keep anything down. The way he spoke was strange as well. Because Suzu was a wizard, she could understand everything he said, but to everybody else, like the horse cart driver, he only spoke gibberish. His condition had reached the stage where words like "Go" and "Listen" were the only intelligible things they heard.
"If you've got the time to waste mouthing off, then go to sleep."
"I do worry, Suzu. You can be so unreliable."
"Oh, shut up," she said, but had to smile. She no longer got angry when he needled her. There was no malice in his words. It's true that sometimes people would say things that would set him off as well. When he'd say something like, "I'm in pretty bad shape, aren't I?" It was easier just to tell him, "Oh, no you're not."
Suzu looked at Seishuu. "Perhaps it was like that for Riyou-sama as well."
"Everybody at the Grotto hated her. But when asked, nobody ever said they did. We'd all shake our heads and say, 'Of course not!' Still, Riyou would always have some sarcastic comeback."
"Nobody likes to be told people don't like them. At the same time, nobody likes to be told that they're liked by everybody when they know they aren't."
"In that case, it's better if you're not a disagreeable person to start with."
"Yeah," said Seishuu, staring up at the tarp tented over the bed of the cart. "People will be irritating. People will get under your skin. People know they shouldn't do stuff like that, but you know they will."
"Yeah, they will."
"At times, it may occur to them that they did in fact do something wrong. If they then ask if there are people who don't like them, and they're plainly told that there aren't, obviously they're not going to be satisfied. Even if they're told that there are, they're not going to like it."
"If things keep going on in that vein, in ways that they don't understand themselves, they'll get stubborn and say, 'So tell me what you really think.' I think a lot of people come to feel that way."
Suzu gave him a surprised look. "I sounds like you know what's it like to be Riyou-sama."
"It's not hard to imagine."
"I guess not."
When she thought back about it now, she had never tried to imagine what it must have been like to be Riyou. She only thought about what a mean bitch she was.
"Honestly, I never gave a moment's thought to how Riyou-sama felt. Putting up with her was enough. It's hard to imagine that it also frustrated and rankled Riyou and that's what made her so cynical. And when she couldn't stomach what you said, she'd heap a lot of unpleasant chores on your back. The only place you could catch your breath was in your own bed. Even then, she'd wake you up at all hours."
Seishuu sighed. "That really is sad."
"It was awful."
"Not you, Suzu. You were there because you chose to be there. That's not true of Riyou."
Suzu gave him a reproachful glare. "You're not me. Are you telling me you feel sorry for her?"
"Isn't it a pain always having to be such a stick-in-the-mud like that? It looks like you ended up hating yourself, too. Sure must suck being you. But the problem is, you can never run away from yourself."
"I suppose," Suzu said peevishly, looking the other way. She lifted a corner of the tarp and glanced out at the road. "It may sound funny to you, but it really was tough. It's sad to think that my happiest moments were when I could crawl into a freezing bed on winter nights and have all my own thoughts to myself."
"There were other people, weren't there? You never thought of talking to them?"
"I did. But me being a kaikyaku, most people didn't get me. They'd laugh at me every time I'd ask about something I didn't know, so I lost interest. To be sure, it was bad of me not to try and learn stuff myself, but when people are always laughing at you, and they don't have much of desire to learn anything about you, pretty soon there's not much point to it."
"So you'd lie in you bed and tell yourself how pitiful you were, how you were the unluckiest girl in the whole world, and cry yourself to sleep."
"That's not . . . . " she started to say. But it was, she realized, blushing at the truth. "I didn't do that. I thought about lots of things. Like, how it was all a dream, and when I opened my eyes again I'd be lying in my real bed at home."
She laughed wistfully. "After I found out about the Royal Kei, I'd dream about what kind of person she was. I was sure that she must be homesick for Yamato, too. I'd imagine us getting together and talking together like we are now, me telling her all about my hometown."
And the Royal Kei would be so happy to have someone to talk to, and would tell her all about where she was from, too.
Suzu let out a breath. "But when I woke up, it was right back in the same place. Riyou was as unpleasant as ever, working us to the bone, and everybody was mean to me all the time."
Seishuu gave her an exasperated look. "Suzu, you do carry on like a little kid. What did you expect? You never do anything for yourself."
Suzu's eyes flew open in disbelief. Seishuu answered with a tired sigh. "Daydreams sure don't take any effort. Compared to the problems in front of your face and the things that have got to be done, daydreams are a lot easier. But all that time, you're just putting off till tomorrow the things you got to think about now, that you got to do now, right? Instead, nothing changes, nothing gets decided, nothing gets settled."
"That is true."
"Keep on like this, with your head stuck up in the clouds, you're never going to grow up, Suzu."
"You know, there are times when you really are a pain."
Bleah, said Seishuu, sticking his tongue out at her. He curled into a ball. "You're always so weepy, Suzu. I can't stand it."
"Sorry I'm such a crybaby. I think it's because when I was little, I never cried. I was a very patient kid." The man who bought her from her family and led her to the mountain pass said so, too. He said how he appreciated that she didn't get all teary-eyed. "But it was a lot of hard times that turned me into a crybaby."
Seishuu looked at her. "Our home in Kei got burned down, most of the people in our village killed. We had to leave. Before we left, we went to see the burned-down ruins of our house and everybody cried up a storm. It was so sad we couldn't stand it. Because we were kids, we cried all the time. It wasn't like normal crying. It was like we were never going to stop crying for the rest of our lives."
"Even me. At least I thought so at the time. The way I see it, there's two kinds of crying. People cry because they feel so sorry for themselves, and they cry because they're sad. People who feel sorry for themselves are like children who want something done for them. They want their big brother or mother or next door neighbor to help them."
Suzu just looked at him.
"It's because, in situations like this, children don't have any way of protecting themselves. That's why I say they cry like children."
"Huh," Suzu replied. Seishuu didn't speak for a while, either. She said, "So, Seishuu, where did your family live in Kei?"
"In the south."
"When you're feeling better, why don't we go check it out?"
Seishuu uncurled himself. He had all of Suzu's clothes wrapped around him. The horse cart was cold, and he was covered up all the way to his nose. He peered at her with his eyes only.
She said, "You don't want to?"
"Going anywhere with you is such a pain in the ass, Suzu."
He grinned. Suzu laughed.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
8-3 The town of Kokei was adjacent to the city of Hokui, appended to its northeast corner. The only government office was the town hall. The other buildings belonged to the twenty-five households, the smallest size of an incorporated city.
Youko and Rangyoku passed through the gate of the rike and onto the Main Street. Most towns were surrounded by a tall stockade a hundred yards in every direction. The small houses circled the inside the wall. The town hall, Rishi and rike were located in a row in the northern sector of the town. The Main Street ran east-to-west in front of them. The street running north-south from the Rishi to the main gate was the Center Street.
The town hall housed the government offices and the elementary school. The Rishi was the official town shrine where the riboku and the gods were enshrined. A common configuration was for the state shrines of the Gods of the Earth and Gods of Five Grains to be located along the western wall, and the ancestral shrines along the eastern wall. But the faith of the townspeople was focused on the riboku. Because it was through the riboku that children were bestowed and livestock were granted.
"Very interesting," Youko said to herself.
Rangyoku leaned toward her. "What is?"
"Oh, nothing, just thinking about the Rishi. It seems like the state and ancestral shrines were tossed in as an afterthought, a sort of consolation prize."
In fact, the state and ancestral shrines were small and mostly just sat there gathering dust.
Rangyoku giggled. "You do say the most curious things, Youshi."
"The riboku brings children. No matter how many offerings you bring, or how many prayers you pray, the harvest won't necessarily be plentiful and you won't necessarily be protected from calamities. So the riboku is always first in our minds. That's bound to be the case, no matter what, don't you think?"
"You're a very pragmatic people, that's for sure. But Tentei--Lord God of the Heavens--and Seioubo--Queen Mother of the West--are different."
Tentei and Seioubo were often enshrined together in the Rishi, but there were also districts in the town set aside for shrines dedicated to them.
"That's because they're the ones that give you children."
"Tentei and Seioubo?"
"Yes. A couple who wants a child prays to the riboku and ties a ribbon to a branch of the tree."
"And if you're not married, you can't?"
"Nope. The Amanuensis records the names of all the people who want a child and sends it to the Queen Mother of the West. She makes a request to the Tentei, who chooses the most suitable of them to receive a child. Then Seioubo commands the goddesses to create a ranka."
"Huh." It struck her as quite different from any of the old fairy tales she'd heard back in Japan. Not that she could remember them with any great detail.
"The Internuncio implants the seed that will become the child inside the ranka, and then bears the ranka to the riboku. Isn't that how they do it in Yamato?"
"Not at all." Youko said slyly, "Do you believe all of it, Rangyoku? What you just told me?"
Rangyoku laughed. "Not literally. But a ranka does appear. And if a ranka doesn't appear on the branch that you chose, you just can't go pick one from somewhere else. It won't come off. Amazing, isn't it? That's why it's got to be what God gave to you."
"Of course," Youko smiled. "Livestock are also born on the riboku, right?"
"Yes. From the first of the month to the seventh, petitions are made to the riboku. The first day is for birds like chickens and ducks. The second day is for dogs. The third day is for sheep and goats. The fourth day is for boars and pigs. The fifth day is for cattle, and the sixth for horses. The seventh day is for people."
"People? There are days designated for people?"
"Yeah. On the seventh or any day after the ninth. Children requested on the seventh are supposed to turn out the best. My mom said that Keikei was."
"Livestock germinate in a month. You can tie many ribbons at once, but not all of them will necessarily grow a ranka. For people, it's always only one."
"So you don't have twins?"
"When two children are born at the same time? In Yamato, as many as five children have been born at the same time."
"Wow, that's weird." Rangyoku looked back over her shoulder at the Rishi. "The eighth day is for crops. But only the empress can make such requests."
"You can grow the five grains [wheat, rice, beans, and kinds of millet] whenever you want yourself just by planting the seeds. When they bear fruit, you get more seeds, right?"
"That would seem to be the case."
"Plants and trees aren't animals. But not just anybody can make requests for new grain stocks. Only the empress can do that, and at a tree in the Imperial Palace. When Heaven grants the request and the tree bears fruit, the next year, a ranka containing those seeds can grow on every riboku in the kingdom.
Youko opened her eyes wide with surprise. This certainly was news to her. She'd have to ask Enho to fill her in on the details.
"Yaboku, or wild riboku, grow animals other than livestock and domesticated birds. Did you know there are trees in the water, too?"
"I didn't. For fish, I imagine?"
Rangyoku smiled. "Exactly. And then yaboku for wild grasses and trees."
"Plants other than grains just grow on their own?"
"They do. Otherwise there wouldn't be any new plants and trees. So it seems like they can do it all by themselves. When and where new grasses are born nobody knows. So now and then people examine the base of yaboku to see if any unfamiliar plants are growing there. If there are, then bring them home and grow them. There are itinerants who do that for a living. They're called husbandry hunters. They go around searching for new ranka. It also seems to depend on the riboku. There are trees that produce a lot wild species, and those that don't at all. The ones that do are kept secret. No one will talk about them. Hunters will kill people who try to follow them."
"You can gather unusual medicines and herbs and saplings for new crops and sell them, but it sounds like a scary business."
Youko nodded in agreement. Of course, people were discriminated against in this world as well. There wasn't much discrimination based on occupation, because vocations weren't inherited along family lines. No matter what family a child came from, he would get a partition when he turned twenty. A big business or enterprise couldn't be passed on to your children. The disabled were also treated with compassion. But the world was closed off to hanjuu and itinerants.
"What is it?" Rangyoku asked.
Youko shook her head.
Her friend was a hanjuu. In gratefulness to him, she wished to repeal all the laws that held hanjuu back. The ministers refused to go along. She considered it for her Inaugural Rescript, but that didn't sit right with her. The Inaugural Rescript was supposed to make a statement. Without really being aware of it, she had become seized with the conviction that she should carry out her first official duties with all the self-confidence and gravity of an empress.
"Did I say something bad?"
"No, of course not. Just something that's been on my mind of late. Ah, here we are."
She and Rangyoku came to the town gate. Rangyoku had to leave for the grazing grounds. Youko had a task in Hokui.
"Well, cheer up, okay?"
Youko smiled. No doubt, Rangyoku assumed that her dolefulness was caused by thoughts of her homeland. Appreciative of such sentiments, Youko waved and headed west on the loop road.
Towns usually had only one main gate. Kokei had two. That's because Kokei had originally been a part of Hokui.
The town was definitely the nucleus of the city. The city offices were originally located in an extension of the town hall. When the city became a county seat, the tables were turned, and the government offices were moved to the city center, and the essential services of the town were relegated to a block in the northeast corner of the city. Hokui was pushing the town right out of the city. At this point, there was no more than a single gate connecting them.
Youko entered Hokui and headed straight for the city hall in the center of the city. She followed the loop road around the city center until she found herself facing the southeast quadrant of the city.
"Where is it?" she muttered to herself.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the street, right at her heels, a small voice said, "Turn right at the next corner."
Youko followed the directions, moving deeper into the city, and arrived at a tiny house. Originally, the only homeowners were residents of the town who had been given the property by the kingdom. But the fact of the matter was that people sold their land and houses and moved around. One person sold his homestead and acquired property or a shop from the city comptroller. Another person bought the land and hired tenant farmers to work any number of homesteads. One way or another, an entire hamlet would end up as the private domain of a single owner. Not a few individuals sold out without even seeing their own land grants and went looking for housing in the city.
The owner of this house had come to live there through a tangled series of events. At any rate, his name was Rou, and this was the house of the man who served Enho's strange visitor.
Hankyo had tailed him, and just as he had the first time, confirmed that the man had not gone to an inn but to the house of this Rou. The next day the man had left Hokui and headed north.
And now what?
Youko looked up at the house. If she called the man out and demanded to know who his guest was, she was unlikely to get an answer. She was watching from the opposite side of the street when suddenly the front gate opened. Youko averted her gaze and pretended like she was looking for something on the road.
"All right, then," a man's voice said.
"The package--" He stopped in mid-sentence, as if he had just noticed her there. A small, middle-aged man with calico hair. Next to him was a man as big as he was small, with a boulder-sized physique and ordinary, black hair. He looked at Youko and then away.
"It's up to you."
With that simple exchange, the two parted. The smaller man all but ran back inside the house. The big man started off down the avenue with quick steps.
Just an ordinary visitor, perhaps.
But she couldn't ignore the way the smaller man had suddenly stopped talking.
Youko walked away in the opposite direction from the big man. Under her breath she beckoned Hankyo.
"Does his presence concern you to such a degree?"
Youko nodded at the disembodied voice. "Sorry about this, but if you would. It may well be an ordinary visitor, but I'd like to get to the bottom his connection to Enho."
Just as Rangyoku predicted, Enho had been highly agitated after the visitor came and canceled their studies. And so with time on her hands, she'd come to see Rou's house for herself.
"By your command."
The small voice faded and disappeared.
That night, Hankyo returned past midnight and reported that man owned property in the city of Takuhou, Shisui Prefecture, just across the river in Wa Province.
The city of Takuhou was to the east of Hokui. The man who had visited Enho had headed north. Was there even any connection between them?
Youko silently turned these facts over in her mind.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
e was born in Kou, Rakushun explained as they traveled along. "But in Kou, a hanjuu can't even get into elementary school. So I moved to En." A hanjuu couldn't be matriculated in Hou, either. When Shoukei pointed this out, he nodded.
"Itinerants and refugees aren't admitted either. If you aren't listed on the census, you're out of luck. A lot of kingdoms are that way. Kou used to be the only kingdom that didn't list hanjuu on the census. In the past, that was true everywhere. In Tai, the new king was apparently about to revise the census laws, but before he could get the job done, he was usurped by a pretender."
"In Hou and Kou, hanjuu can't become public servants and aren't admitted to university. And for the most part, Shun and Kei."
Rakushun's itinerary took him hither and yon, with no great design in mind. Going by suugu, it wouldn't take more than a day to get to Shisou, so they stopped at cities along the way. They often took detours to see cities in the opposite direction of Shisou. With the suugu, it was a trouble-free trip, but Shoukei couldn't help wondering what he was up to and what the whole purpose of the trip was.
"More kingdoms don't allow itinerants or refugees to become public servants or go to school. It's even tougher for sankyaku and kaikyaku. They're normally treated the same as itinerants, but in Kou they're treated even worse than that. At the other extreme, there are kingdoms that treat them very well, Sou and En and Ren. Sankyaku and kaikyaku can tell you fascinating things about paper making, ceramics, printing techniques, medicine."
"Sankyaku and kaikyaku actually exist?" Shoukei had never seen one.
"The first one to build a temple was in Hou."
"A sankyaku arrived during the reign of Hitsu-ou. He carved away the side of a mountain and built a temple. That was the first time the teachings of Buddhism were promulgated. That's why cremation is still practiced in Hou. Only Hou, En, Sou and Ren cremate the dead. In Hou, Rishi don't follow the same layout as the imperial court, but are built like temples. The arrangement of the buildings is different."
The twelfth or thirteenth dynasty of Hou, I believe."
Shoukei looked at the hanjuu in amazement. He knew more about Hou than the princess royal herself, a citizen of Hou. It was both mortifying and irritating.
"By the way, Shoukei, starting tomorrow, things are going to get a bit tougher."
They had left Shisou and traveled two more days on the suugu. They were about to enter the gates to a city. The road before the gate was quiet. It was still some time till sundown. Rakushun tied a small bamboo tube to the neck of the suugu. That morning, Shoukei had seen him place a letter into the tube.
"What's that for?"
"Starting tomorrow, we'll proceed on foot to En." She was about to protest, when Rakushun sent the suugu on its way. "Go on ahead of us and see that this letter gets to its destination."
With a cry, the suugu climbed into the air. It soared skyward like a kite, waved its long tail, swept over them like the wind, and disappeared.
"Well, what are we going to do now, with the suugu gone? It's still some ways to En!"
"About five days. Sorry. We won't be doing any more sightseeing."
"That's not the problem! Where are we going to stay tonight?"
Hanjuu weren't welcome in any city. Whenever he entered a high-class establishment, Rakushun was met with sour looks. But when they saw the suugu, their attitudes would change just like that. Without the suugu, they wouldn't hesitate to show him the door.
"It's okay. We won't stay in those kinds of inns. The kitsuryou's not around to fuss about the stables, so any old dive will suit us fine."
Until now, they had stayed at the best hotels, because it was necessary for the inn to have stables that could care for a suugu. Although she understood this, Shoukei frantically ran after Rakushun, who had already started for the gate.
"You can't be serious! Any old dive? You're kidding, right?"
Rakushun blinked. "About what?"
"What do you mean, about what?"
"What does it matter where you sleep? I'm not exactly thrilled at the prospect of sharing a room with you, though."
"Not even a canopy bed? Some dirty closet of a room?"
Rakushun paused at the gate and sighed. "You really did have a pampered upbringing. No worries. The beds may be hard, but not so narrow that you're going to fall out of bed. Or there will be a wooden floor. You should be able to get to sleep."
"I know that," Shoukei spat back. "That's why I can't stand it. I don't want to sleep in a place like that ever again."
The mere thought made her miserable, to be reminded of that mean and shabby life. Having stayed only in the finest hotels after fleeing Kyou, the thought was all the more unbearable.
Rakushun scratched at the fluffy fur beneath his ear. The main street of the small town was as quiet as the highway. "Well, yes, people usually sleep in beds. But there are people who sleep on the floor. There are people who sleep on the ground."
"That's hardly news to me."
"In your case, that's all it is. News."
Shoukei drew her eyebrows together. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"To you, it's simply something you know. Unfortunately, I suspect you have no idea what it is really like."
"Well, I wasn't kidding. I slept in a bed in a cold, drafty room, under a threadbare quilt. You may not realize it, but I hate even thinking about those times."
Shoukei's eyes widened in amazement. "Why? Don't you know how miserable a life that was? Getting woken up at the crack of dawn, sent off to work before breakfast, coming home covered in mud and dung and straw. Never enough to eat. Going to bed exhausted, not being able to sleep because you're starving and cold. And even with no sleep, getting woken up the next morning and sent off to work all over again. Everybody making fun of you and talking down to you. I don't want to remember any of that life. You get it now?"
"Sorry, but not at all. Why so bad? Why deem it such a wretched existence? It is the life of all peasants. When you're poor, you go hungry. That shouldn't be news to you. But why can't you bear to be reminded of it? That's what I don't understand."
Rakushun stopped and glanced to his right. "How about there?"
It was a small inn that would hardly be high up on anybody's travel itinerary. Several tables were lined up on the dirt floor of the narrow, one-story storefront. Were it not for the sign advertising rooms, it would have struck her as nothing more than a shabby food stall.
"That? Places like that don't even have beds. In the first place, nobody dressed like me would ever stay at a place like that!"
"If that's the way you feel, then go buy something else to wear." Rakushun took a few coins from his pocket and pressed them into her hands. "That's where I'm staying. You can buy yourself some more appropriate dress or take the money and run. It's up to you."
Rakushun wagged his tail at the speechless Shoukei and walked over to the inn. Shoukei watched dumbfounded as he called out to the proprietor. With this amount of money, she could only afford the meanest quality of clothing, the kind of plain garb she'd worn at the orphanage, not to mention that it'd be secondhand at best. In this winter weather, there wasn't anything she really needed other than a coat or jacket. But she'd have to sell her silk outfits to buy those kinds of clothes. And that meant going back to the way she was before.
But, Shoukei thought, she had no money of her own. If Rakushun abandoned her here, she'd end up selling her clothes, anyway. And even then, it was hardly likely she'd have enough to take her all the way to En. Eating the cheapest food in the cheapest inns, could she even make it to the border?
Live with it, she told herself. But when she thought of returning to wretched life of a girl on the lam, she wanted to weep. Continuing on in this state, in the company of a hanjuu, and no suugu to boot, it was simply infuriating.
She swallowed her pride and went looking for a used apparel shop. She picked out a change of clothes. When the pedestrian outfit was ready to her satisfaction, only her shoes were out of character. She'd sold off everything down to there. The only thing she hadn't purchased was peasant-grade footwear. So now her shoes didn't match. At any rate, the only thing left to do was go behind the screen in the shop and change.
Pulling on the starchy garments, she wanted to cry. Right now in Kei, a girl is draped in a luxurious silk kimono of the most amazing quality, wearing a brocaded, embroidered fur coat heavy with pearls.
Biting her lip, she returned to the inn. It was mortifying enough to have to tell the proprietor that she was with the hanjuu, and just as miserable being shown down the moldy old hallway.
"Here," he said, abruptly.
When she opened the door, there was the hanjuu, sitting nonchalantly on the floor in front of a brazier. He looked at Shoukei and scratched his ear. "I don't understand girls. What's so embarrassing about going into a rundown inn wearing silk clothes?"
"You're the one who gave me the money and told me to."
"Yeah, but I didn't think you'd actually change into them. Well, that's what you should wear from now on. That's about the class of travel we'll be engaged in."
"It stinks." Shoukei sullenly sat down on the floor.
Rakushun gazed at the brazier. "No matter how many times you say it, it doesn't change the fact that that's how most people get by. How inconvenient bringing up a princess must be."
"Inconvenient to treat the ordinary as extraordinary. As surely as you get used to luxurious attire, you start to think that that kind of clothing, as you put it, stinks. So you want to wear silk. You're not the only one who thinks that way. Every girl wants to wear beautiful silk clothes and live a dressed-up life. Perhaps it's in their nature. Who wouldn't want to live the life of a queen or empress or princess?"
"Well, unfortunately, not everybody is a princess."
"No, indeed. But you are."
"I'm . . . " not the princess royal, Shoukei started to say, but Rakushun wagged his tail. "You are the princess royal. That fact notwithstanding, I'm not saying this with any ulterior motive in mind. The people of Hou sure didn't like you, though."
"Why . . . ?"
"I've met my fair share of refugees from Hou. They all hated the late king. Not a one of them had a good word for you, either. You are a very unpopular person."
"It wasn't my fault!" Shoukei shouted. She couldn't for the life of her understand what everybody had against her.
"It is your fault. Because you were the princess royal."
"Because of my father."
"Your father became king. So you became princess royal. That, indeed, was not your fault. But when a man becomes king, the mantle of responsibility falls upon his shoulders, and upon the shoulders of the princess as well, like it or not."
Shoukei gaped at the rounded back of the rat.
"There are two kingdoms with a princess or prince, Ryuu and Sou. The empress of Sai had a son, but he died before her coronation. The prince of Ryuu is a minister of state, working on behalf of the kingdom. The prince and princess of Sou also assist the king. The princess is the director of the national health service. Before, the sick were treated at homes, and the doctor visited them there. Nowadays, they are admitted to a hospital where doctors can care for them. That system was initiated by the princess royal of Sou. So, tell me, Shoukei, what did you do?"
"What?" Caught off guard by the question, Shoukei just stared at him.
"There once was a princess who remonstrated with her faltering king and was killed for it. And the word is that after the king of Kou died, the princess of Kou and her brother joined the work brigades along with everybody else. The kingdom collapsed, and they could do nothing to stop it. So they took responsibility. They volunteered. Until the next king is chosen, they'll work to save their ravaged country. So, what did you do?"
"But . . . my father never asked me to do anything."
"You're missing the premise of the question. That is something you should have addressed."
'But . . . . "
"You knew nothing? Nothing of what the princesses in other kingdoms were doing?"
"I didn't know!"
"Then you should have informed yourself. I know Hou better than does Shoukei, Princess Royal of Hou. Don't you find that more embarrassing than your tattered wardrobe?"
"But . . . " she started to say, and swallowed the rest. She didn't know what to say next.
"Does wearing wool embarrass you? Most people in the world wear wool. No one should be embarrassed to wear the best that their hard work could afford them. Then there are those who do no work and wear silk. Nobody much cares for them. Nobody likes a freeloader who, without raising a finger, gets something they could never afford with a lifetime of labor. That should be obvious. If you know someone who got all that you had lost without an ounce of effort, you'd resent her, wouldn't you?"
Shoukei shut her mouth to keep from saying anything. In fact, there was a certain empress whom she deeply resented.
"Something you've been given through no effort of your own demands nothing of you in turn. You never understood that. Hence, your resentment."
Shoukei struck the floor with her fist. "So you're saying that everything is my fault? Everything happened because I was bad!" She couldn't admit that. Neither did she want to. "My father never asked me to do a thing! My mother said the same thing! What was I supposed to do? They didn't let me go to university. I didn't have the chance to learn anything. And that's all my fault? There are lots of people like that, lots of people who live rich and comfortable lives. Why does it all have to come down on me?"
"We rightfully reap what we rightfully sow. To profit otherwise is a mistake. And hiding behind misbegotten gains fools no one."
"You had mountains of silk dresses, didn't you? You could be said to be an expert on silk dresses, couldn't you? But do you have any idea how all that finery came to be? Did you ever stop to think how much labor it took or why it was given to you in the first place? Why the servants wore hand-spun garments and you wore silk? Until you understand that, you won't understand anything, this is what I'm saying."
"I don't what to hear it!" Shoukei threw herself on the floor and covered her ears. "Just shut up already!"
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
9-2 "Well, let's go."
At Rakushun's urging, Shoukei picked up her things. The night before, he had left her to cry herself to sleep. He woke her up that morning. In the tavern, she warmed her chilled body with a bowl of gruel, and they left. He said nothing, and she kept her thoughts to herself.
They left the city on foot, and pressed on toward the east. The snow was not as heavy in Ryuu as Hou. But a sharp, cold wind blew instead. It was the coldest time of the year. If you didn't have a thick wool muffler wrapped halfway up your face, small icicles would start forming at the end of your nose. And if you didn't keep your hair covered, it would turn to a sheet of ice.
Many people traveled by horse cart. The bed of the wagon would be packed with straw and rags and covered with a thick tarp. Along with the heat from a brazier, you shared the warmth along with your fellow travelers. Farmers from the neighboring communities hired out their wagons while their fields lay fallow. Hou had a similar system, but in her home country they didn't use wagons, but horse-drawn sledges.
"So where do you hail from?"
The travelers they rode with were often girls and old women. Healthy men walked alongside on the highway. The girl sitting next Shoukei asked the question.
Shoukei hugged the onjaku to her chest. "Hou," she said. The onjaku was a round metal container filled with hot coals. The surface was etched with a lattice of small slits and ridges and the interior was packed with steel wool. This kind of simple onjaku was hung around the neck and kept you warm when you go out in the winter.
"Hou isn't doing well. The king was overthrown."
"Ah . . . yeah."
Wrapped in the heavy canvas, the interior of the wagon was dark, lit by a single lamp.
"How about you, child?" she said to Rakushun. Beneath the heavy muffler, Shoukei laughed to herself.
"I was born in Kou."
"Oh, didn't the king of Kou die last year? Three years ago it was Hou and a year ago the empress of Kei died. Tai is in that condition now. These are unsettled times."
"Ryuu is doing well. The king is very long-lived."
"Yes," the girl laughed. "But not as long-lived as the king of En. But longer than Kou or Hou, so we count ourselves blessed."
Shoukei instead thought of what she'd seen along the way. She'd assumed that it was a wealthy kingdom, but landscape was more desolate than she had expected. There were hardly any tall buildings. The cities spread out over the land as if clinging to the earth.
When she interrupted to ask about this, the girl and the other travelers laughed. "The houses of Ryuu are in the earth. The winters are long and the summers cool, so we burrow into the ground. Rich or poor, all houses are big."
She said that aside from the rain-drenched northeast and the Kyokai shoreline, houses in Ryuu had large rooms underground. Because of the cold climes, the kingdom did not have large-scale industry, but was rich in stone. They quarried stone, built their houses underground, connected the sub-basements together, and even tunneled out small underground roads.
"Wow." Shoukei didn't know anything about the other kingdoms. She had never left Hou before. She hadn't associated with the citizens of other kingdoms. She had spent her life confined to the imperial palace. And with no interest in what was going on in the world around her, the whole idea of underground roads fascinated her.
"What if the air goes bad? Doesn't it get stuffy in there?"
"Oh, the ventilation takes care of it."
"But there's no sunlight down there. Isn't it awful dark?"
"There are skylights. In Ryuu, the courtyards of houses extend down into the ground. The light radiates out from there. It's not dark and gloomy at all. The rooms clustered around the courtyard are very comfortable."
"And the tunnels?"
"The tunnels are built on the same principle. Haven't you seen them? For the larger tunnels, the long, narrow skylights run down the center of the main thoroughfare."
Now that she thought about it, Shoukei recalled seeing the long, narrow shed-like structures running down the middle of the road. Yet they didn't have roofs. She'd wondered what they were.
"Those are the skylights? What about rain? Doesn't water collect in there?"
The girl smiled. "It doesn't rain much there."
Shoukei nodded. She looked at Rakushun. "That inn didn't have underground rooms, did it? But if we looked, we should be able to find one."
"The underground rooms aren't for the lodgers, but for the innkeeper and his family. That's because Ryuu levies a tax based on how large the underground part of the building is. Add a business surcharge on top of that and it can get quite costly."
"Hey, kid, you know a lot."
Rakushun awkwardly scratched at his ear. The girl paid no attention to his reaction and smiled at him. "Ryuu is a good place. We don't grow a lot of wheat, but we have a lot of mines and quarries and gemstone fountains. And lumber. We really have been blessed."
"There are mines in Hou, too. What about raising livestock?"
"We do. But there's not good grazing. Don't you have good horses in Hou?"
"And cattle and sheep. Lots of those."
"We raise them in Ryuu, too, but not that many. We can't grow enough forage in the summer. Still, we do pretty well for ourselves. Our king's a good person, too. The winters are real bad, though."
"It really is cold. I didn't expect it."
"People say it's better than Tai. They say that if you go outside at night, your nose will freeze half off. Even during the day, if you don't cover your face, your nose will get frostbit."
"Huh," Shoukei exclaimed. "There are so many different kingdoms. I wasn't aware."
She had thought they were all like Hou, closed in during the winter by the snow that in the summer produced green seas of grass.
The girl looked at Rakushun. "Is it true that in the south you can even sleep outside during the winter? That you can harvest wheat twice a year?"
Rakushun waved his hand. "Yes, you can harvest crops twice in a year. But that doesn't mean you can sleep outside in the winter. Though in Sou, the southernmost of the kingdoms, that might be possible."
Shoukei blurted out, "The winters in Kei are probably warm."
"I wonder," the girl sighed. "Kei just crowned a new empress. The kingdom seems to be settling down pretty well."
Shoukei had nothing to say in response.
"It must be really tough when a kingdom starts to falter. The refugees from Tai are in a bad way. If your house gets burned down there, you'll surely freeze to death."
"Tai is totally in chaos. Recently, youma have even shown up near Ryuu. I've never seen one, but that's what people say."
Unconsciously, Shoukei found herself looking at Rakushun.
"To make matters worse, the weather of late has been getting worse. The north has seen record amounts of snow. Smaller towns are completely cut off and there's great concern that famine will set in there. We've got a good king, so nobody knows why."
The wagon creaked. The sound struck Shoukei as the creaking of the kingdom itself. The kingdom was rusting from above. If a county court could be corrupted, then everything above must be already rotten to the core. The kingdom was headed on a downward path.
With no king upon the throne, a kingdom descended into chaos. Natural disasters continued and the youma rampaged. Homes were lost to fires and floods, people had no way of surviving the winter. Shoukei remembered those cold winters in the orphanage. The weather improved during the summer, but locusts devoured the sprouting wheat, leaving the people with nothing to eat. Frost or flood, in either case, starvation was not far behind.
This is no doubt the kind of chaos Hou has plunged into, Shoukei thought, a thought that hadn't occurred to her before.
They got out of the wagon at the gates to the city.
"I really don't know a thing," Shoukei confessed as they walked to the inn.
Rakushun didn't contradict her. He said, "But from now on, if there's something you don't know, you need to learn it. I've got no problem with that."
Shoukei stopped. "Better late than never, no?"
There was a great deal she needed to learn, and quickly. About Hou, about the national polity, about other kingdoms, about kings and empresses, about princesses.
"What you didn't know about being the princess royal of Hou came back to haunt you. That lesson should be pretty well settled by now. True penance is still in the offing, but your life as a human being has only just begun. At this point, you're still a toddler. There's no need to hurry it."
"You think so?"
"There are some things in this world that you can never get back. Your life as princess royal is over. There's no reclaiming that piece of the past. Don't you think it'd be better to abandon it completely and consider instead what you did wrong and learn from it?"
"The trappings of royalty are a stumbling block. In any case, lose the throne once and it's gone for good. As far as that goes, being an ordinary person is a lot easier. As long as you're still alive, there's always time for second chances."
"Yeah," said Shoukei, looking down at the hanjuu. His soft, charcoal-gray coat looked quite warm to her eyes, and his fine, glimmering, silver whiskers struck her as quite pretty. "You know, it just occurred to me, but you're probably quite comfortable."
Rakushun laughed. "For now. Come summer and it'll be truly tiresome." Shoukei laughed softly as well.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
9-3 "Excuse me, Enho, but would you mind if I took off for today?"
After breakfast, Youko approached Enho as he was leaving for the elementary school.
"Not at all. Where to? Will you be late?"
"I should be home before the gates close. I'm going to Takuhou."
Enho hiked up his bushy white eyebrows. He leaned forward and said, "Why now, out of the blue like this?"
"I'd like to go see the city. Something wrong?"
Enho hesitated for a moment and then shook his head, averting his gaze. "Go ahead, go take a look. It's all fine by me."
With that cryptic remark, Enho turned and left through the courtyard. Youko scowled as she watched him go, wondering, "What was that about?"
Gousui Gorge formed the border between Ei Province and Wa Province. Crossing the rope suspension bridge over the gorge brought you to Shisui Prefecture. It was then a half-day wagon ride to the prefectural capital, Takuhou.
Youko sat in the back of the wagon and pulled on her jacket. In En, these kinds of suspension bridges were only used on very wide rivers. And the river crossings were well organized. Wagons were ferried across the river on boats. In Kei, you had to get off the wagon. There weren't that many bridges in the first place.
Bridges over gorges like Gousui were limited to places where a ferry landing couldn't be built to cross the river. As these were suspension bridges that horse-drawn wagons could not traverse, passengers had to disembark and then pick up a connecting ride on the other side. But a bridge that could be crossed was better than the alternative. At wider ravines, you couldn't even do that and had to go on very long detours.
Kei is poor, she thought, observing the passengers on the opposing shore waiting for wagons to pick them. Comparing Kei to En was a pointless exercise, though.
Arriving at Takuhou after a half-day's journey, she saw that the chaos had far more deeply scared the city than Hokui. In Hokui, damaged houses had been torn down and new structures were being built. All around Takuhou, remnants of burned-out and half-wrecked buildings stood there abandoned. Rough shacks lined the unreclaimed land outside the city. Sullen-looking groups hung out around open fires, the kind of refugees you never saw in Hokui.
Ei Province was doing very well. The province lord of Ei was the Taiho, Keiki. Additionally, as in Hokui, citizens of the Duchy of Yellow could expect relief from taxes. The stark contrast with Gahou, the ill-reputed province lord of Wa, was plain to see.
She climbed down from the wagon and paid the driver. She passed through the gates, listening to Hankyo's whisperings. Following his directions, she made her way to the southwest corner of the city.
Past a certain street, the rows of houses turned smaller and cruder. Before long, things got even worse. Hungry children on the street, faces tight with hunger. The listless eyes of adults squatting in patches of sunlight. Unconsciously, Youko found herself taking a tighter hold on the overcoat she carried in her left hand. With her right she gripped the hilt of the sword bundled inside the coat.
There, the hushed voice whispered from her heels.
Youko glanced from one end of the street to the other. Compared to the state of everything else around them, one of the houses was in rather good condition. As expected, anybody wanting to do business in this kind of neighborhood would first want to preserve the reputation of the establishment.
Youko approached the tavern, entered the open doors. Inside were several suspiciously-dressed men, even compared to the type you'd expected to be hanging out in this neighborhood. Their eyes fell on Youko.
"What you want, boy?"
Standing at the back was the man she had seen in Hokui.
"Just stopped by to ask for directions. You got a restaurant here?"
The men had already found other things to occupy their attention. A single man came up to her and pulled out a chair at a nearby table.
"Have a seat. You got lost?"
"Looks like it."
Youko sat down in the chair. She felt a sensation creeping up her spine, Jouyuu manifesting himself. Jouyuu was one of Keiki's shirei. He dwelt inside her, and now he was tensing up. Sensing danger, he was preparing himself and warning her. In fact, though the men at the tables around her had all looked away, she knew they were all focused on her presence.
"Hey, you." The man planted his hand on the table and leaned over her. The thin ring wrapped around his thick, gnarled fingers left a strange impression on her.
"You a girl?"
Youko looked up at him. "And if I am?"
The man laughed. "Ballsy, you are."
"I'll take that as a compliment. This your place?" The man nodded. Youko looked into his eyes and smiled. "Have we met before? In Hokui?"
"No," the man grunted. "Not that I recall."
From the expression on his face, Youko couldn't tell if he really didn't remember her or if he was only pretending he didn't.
"You gotta be kidding, you come to see me?"
"Just had a feeling we'd met before."
Youko didn't pursue the matter further. Everything about the place was fishy, the man, the tavern. She was going to have Keiki check out exactly who they were.
"Well, I do recall asking about getting something to eat."
The big man exclaimed in amazement under his breath. He looked down at her with something approaching admiration. "Well, ain't you the plucky one. You got money?"
"Are you telling me this is a pricey place?"
"Pretty damned pricey."
"Well, then," said Youko, standing up. "Perhaps I did come to the wrong place. So, what's the best way to get back to the main street?"
The man took a step forward. "Who are you?"
"You expect me to believe that? You got way more guts than fits your frame."
The men around her came to their feet. With flinty eyes they sidled toward her. Youko grasped the hilt of the sword inside the overcoat.
"What you come here asking questions for?"
"I needed directions."
"You take me for a fool?"
They had her on all sides. Six burly men. Youko took a firmer hold on the sword when an unexpected voice called out.
"Everybody, hold your horses!"
Youko stole a glance in the direction of the cry. The men as well turned toward the back of the tavern. When the big man turned, a gap opened up in the wall. She saw a boy there, maybe fourteen or fifteen. He appeared awfully small amidst all those big men.
He walked up to them, grabbed the big man by the arm. "Let her go." He said to Youko. "You may leave now."
"Hey." The big man tried to free himself. The kid wrapped his arm around his in an imploring manner. He also wore a ring on his finger. Youko committed it to memory.
"Sorry if they seem a little intimidating. They don't have much experience being around girls."
Continuing to tug on the big man's arm, he pressed his cheek against the man's upper arm and smiled. "Please don't take any offense."
Youko nodded. She turned on her heels. The cordon of men reluctantly broke apart. She pushed through them to the door, briefly glancing back over her shoulder at the young man. Then she straightened her head and marched out of the tavern.
"What you let her go for, Sekki?"
The big man watched the girl leave and then turned his attention to the boy hanging off his arm. The boy took a breath and let it out. He disentangled his arm and laughed. "I didn't do it for her sake. I did it for yours, big brother."
"You saying a little thing like her could have taken us?"
"That was no ordinary courage." Sekki glanced at the door the girl had just left through. "That was a very dangerous girl."
"When she put her overcoat down on the chair, it made far too heavy a sound." Sekki narrowed his eyes. "Considering the length, I'd say it was a sword. A long sword."
Every eye in the place turned toward the door.
Youko walked down the forlorn streets feeling distinctly dissatisfied.
Something is going on.
That big guy was definitely the man she had seen in Hokui. Furthermore, the men hanging around inside that tavern were a hard bunch, and they gave off a mean vibe. Hardly the typical clientele. And then that kid. Youko drew her brows together.
She drew close to the main thoroughfare. She raised her head. From the intersection ahead of her came a scream. Not of one or two people, but the cries of many. And the sound of wheels racing along the ground, the pounding of horses' hooves.
Youko ran down the alleyway and sprinted into the main thoroughfare. She saw a carriage fleeing down the street. People standing around in shock. The body of a child crumpled on the ground.
The slanting rays of sunlight bathed the avenue in a whiter shade of pale.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
9-4 At last, Suzu could get down from the wagon and stretch her aching back. They had arrived at Takuhou, the westernmost city in Wa Province. Ei Province was not far past this city. And after that, it was a journey of no more than five days.
Helping Seishuu down from the wagon, Suzu had to smile. "Tomorrow we'll be in Ei Province."
"Yeah," Seishuu smiled in turn, and then slumped to the ground. This happened a lot more, lately. Just as he was getting up, his knees would give out.
"You carry me, and I'll be okay."
"When you're better, I'm going to work you like a horse."
Seishuu laughed. Of course, she couldn't carry him around while she searched for an inn, so she went to ask the driver if he'd look after him for a while. "Just until I find a room, if you don't mind"
"Okay. But be back before the gates close."
The gates of the city closed at sunset. After that, there was no coming or going. Suzu searched the sky. The sun was still not so low in the sky.
"I'll be back as soon as possible."
Seishuu sat beside the gate and watched the people walking to and fro. A few yards off, the driver twiddled his thumbs.
"Hey, Mister, you can go if you want."
When the man turned to him, Seishuu smiled and pointed beyond the gates. For some reason or another, the words rarely came out of his mouth right. People frequently misunderstood him. But he wasn't self-conscious. Suzu could understand him, but other people couldn't, no matter how often he repeated himself.
"You go. Okay." Seishuu again got to his feet. He tottered a bit, but could stand.
When the man saw this, he smiled in turn. "Thanks!" he called out, and jogged back to his wagon. He had people waiting at home for him. He waved as he drove through the gate.
Seishuu waved after him. He looked around. He didn't see Suzu. It was boring, but if he didn't stay here, they'd probably end up missing each other. In the meantime, he wandered around the gate. The outer loop road ran around the city just inside the walls. Stalls lined the avenue on both sides, narrowing the road somewhat, but it was still plenty wide.
Seishuu tottered along, apologizing to the people he bumped into. He went over to look at the gate. Peddlers' voices sang out over the crowds. From somewhere close came the sound of buskers. The spirited music flowing around him. Trying to see where it was coming from, he stepped into the street.
He didn't hear the sound of the horse-drawn carriage, drowned out by the music. As it came rushing at him from the right, he didn't see it. He was blind on that side.
The look on a man's face directly across the way at last told him of the two teams of horses bearing down on him. He hurriedly tried to jump out of the way, but for Seishuu, who lately couldn't walk a straight line without calmly putting one foot carefully in front of the other, this was a near impossibility. He staggered, and far from getting out of the way, tumbled to the ground in front of the carriage.
The carriage came to a hasty halt. The horses reared and neighed. This is awkward, Seishuu thought. The carriage was opulently detailed, the property of an aristocrat. He'd catch a thrashing for blocking the road.
"What are you doing? Get out of the way!" The censorious voice rang out from inside the carriage.
"Sorry," Seishuu muttered. He hastened to stand, but tripped over his own feet.
"What is this brat blocking my way for?"
"I'm sorry, sir. You see, I'm not doing too well."
A man dressed in ministerial robes glared at him. He couldn't understand Seishuu. Seishuu knelt and bowed his head.
"Couldn't care less. Go." The voice of the man inside the carriage was laced with laughter.
Seishuu frantically tried to get up and flopped back down again. Once more. Now, like this, crushed in such an inconceivable manner. He again tried to rise, heard the sound of carriage begin to roll, the shrill snap of the whip. The horses neighed and galloped straight toward him.
He attempted to back out of the way, but his legs wouldn't cooperate. He had to try and crawl, but all of a sudden the energy had gone out of his body. He futilely clawed at the earth and collapsed there on the ground. The horses' hooves raised a cloud of dust about his head.
His thoughts stopped. There was nothing he could think to think about.
Screams echoed down the boulevard.
The carriage rushed on without a pause. Then it slowed and resumed its leisurely pace. His retinue followed after, passing down the street as if nothing had happened. Everyone else who had watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes froze in horror. Within an empty space inside the crowd lay the trampled child.
Many there thought to rouse themselves to help him, but were equally cowed at the thought of the retinue turning back. The banner that they carried was the banner of prefectural governor. It was his carriage. His name was Shoukou. Making a scene in his presence was a very risky thing to do. Everybody who lived along the street had learned that lesson well.
The child moaned. Yes, he might still be saved. But wait at least until Shoukou's carriage has turned the corner.
The child lifted his head slightly and then let fall. He heard the sound of his own skull splashing into the mire of his own blood. Again he tried to raise his head and look for help, but could not.
The people stopped on the street and looked at him with vacant eyes. No one was coming to his rescue. He wanted to get up but could not.
It hurts, Suzu.
Someone ran out of the nearby alleyway. She stopped, spun around with an extraordinary grace and rushed over to him.
"Are you okay?"
She knelt down next to him. He had no idea who she was. His eyes were already growing so dim that all he could see was that her leggings were soaked with red.
She called out, "Somebody bring a wagon!" Seishuu felt her warm hand on his shoulder. She said, "Hold on."
"Oh damn, I'm dying."
"You'll be okay."
"Suzu will get all weepy on me." And once you got her started, the tears just kept coming. It was such a downer.
He thought nothing else after that.
Suzu ran over from the hitching post next to the gate. Seishuu was suspiciously nowhere to be found. Where did he go? she asked herself, looking around. Not far off, a crowd of people was gathering. Something was going on. A strange wind blew down the avenue.
She finally approached the bystanders, asking, "Have you seen a kid about this tall?" She strayed closer to the crowd. Though there were quite a number gathered there, they were shrouded in silence. "Um, have you seen a kid with orange hair?"
A voice called out from the other side of the crowd. "Do you mean this child?"
Suzu clawed her way through the throng and froze on the spot. A person was kneeling there on the ground and next to her the crumpled form of a child.
He must have collapsed. His condition had been getting worse, lately. She rushed up to him and stopped in shock. Where was all this blood coming from?
"Seishuu!" Suzu knelt, scanned the faces around them. "What happened? Somebody call a doctor!"
"It's too late."
Suzu turned abruptly to the source of that calm voice. "But if we don't get a doctor--"
Suzu stared at the girl with wide eyes. She was the same age as her, perhaps a tad younger, her crimson hair such a vivid red it looked almost dyed.
"No . . . . "
Suzu shook her head. This was no time for pleasantries. They had to go for help immediately.
"If you are Suzu, then he asked that you not cry for him." The girl lowered her eyes. "I'm pretty sure that's what he wished me to tell you."
"This can't be!" Suzu touched his body. It was still warm to the touch. "Seishuu!"
How did he get this awful wound? His particular orange hair, that so agreed with everything about him, was splattered with blood. Why were his arms and legs all bent up like this? Why was his chest caved in like this?
"No, it's not true . . . is it?"
But they were going to Gyouten. They were going to meet the Royal Kei and she was going to cure him. Suzu took the boy's body in her arms, embracing him like the hostage rescued from the enemy.
"I don't know. When I found him, he was already like this on the ground. I suspect he was trampled by a horse."
"Whose?" Suzu surveyed the people around her, seeking out the villain. They all shook their heads. "Bastards!" Who could do such a thing? She balled her hands into fists, the question echoing over and over in her mind. "Seishuu . . . the bastards who did this . . . !"
The drum sounded, announcing the closing of the gate. The crowd melted away in ones and twos. Before long, no one was left in the thoroughfare but the weeping Suzu and the body of the boy.
"Seishuu. Gyouten is right there in front of us."
[End of Book 1]
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love