1-2 In the southwest quadrant of the world is the Kingdom of Sai. In the province of Ho and the shire of Jin, there is a mountain that reaches beyond the clouds. It is called Mount Ha.
On that mountain are located the palaces of the king and the province lords. Aside from these buildings, all of the encompassing land up to the base of the mountain is deemed the Imperial Gardens. Everything belongs to the king. The king's gardens, the king's villa, the king's mausoleum. However, Mount Ha itself was given to a woman by a king who had ruled many generations before. The woman who received this enfeoffment established her residence on the side of the mountain near the summit. It is known as Suibidou, the Cave of Delicate Green.
The woman who lives there is a wizard. Also according to the decree of this king--his posthumous name is Fuou--she had been invested as a wizard. The grotto, or wizard's den, is on Suibi Peak on Mount Ha. She is therefore known as Lady Suibi. Her given name is Riyou. She had been the favorite mistress of King Fuou.
It was daybreak. Riyou stood in the entranceway to the grotto. Though she had servants, her life there was a lonely one. She sought out human companionship in the cities near the mountain, but when you are practically immortal and never age, there are few people you can really bond with. She could count on the fingers of one hand the people she really knew, and all of them were wizards, too. She was setting off from the grotto to visit one of them
Suibi Peak looked down on the distant world below. No human being could scale the bottomless cliffs to the entrance of the grotto. Riyou took up the reins of her flying tiger. The tiger's name was Setsuko, another present from the late King Fuou. With her flying tiger, she could come and go from her front doorstep. There were tunnels through which you could descend the mountain by foot or on horseback, but the idea of sneaking out through secret passageways where the sun never shone was an affront to her dignity.
"Please come back soon."
Her servants lined up at the entranceway to the grotto to see her off. They knelt on the ground and bowed low together, their breath puffing pale white in the clear fall air. Looking over the scene, Riyou narrowed her eyes slightly. There were twelve of them altogether.
"You're always in awfully good spirits whenever I go somewhere." A sardonic smile came to her lips. "Must you be so happy to see me go? Well, I suppose this bothersome old cat being away gives the mice more room to play."
Riyou chuckled to herself. Her servants didn't answer, hunched over like birds huddled against a winter wind. Riyou's eyes fell on a girl. Aside from her being the youngest of the servants, there was nothing exceptional about her. Her name was Mokurin, though Riyou never addressed her by that name.
"If you don't wish me to return, well, why not be honest about it? Wouldn't you say, Honma?"
Jackass, the nickname meant. Riyou addressed her with a sneer on her ruby red lips. The girl hesitantly raised her eyes, eyes that seemed overly large on her thin face. Riyou's smile reflected in those large eyes. "You really don't want me to come back, do you?"
The girl shook her head as if offended by the very thought. "All of us humbly await your return. Please . . . please take care."
"Well, with or without your blessing, I should be back within a fortnight. Are you saying you'd like me to return sooner?"
The girl glanced around, as if confused by the question. "Yes," she said, casting a frightened look up at Riyou's face.
Riyou laughed out loud. "But of course. That being the case, I'll hurry back as quickly as possible. I'm sure you'll want to do all you can to make my homecoming a pleasant one."
"Yes. Of course."
With that, Riyou turned to the rest of the servants. "Then why not brew me some gyokkou stones? Oh, and let's make things tidy around here, shall we? And tend to the gardens."
The girl's complexion changed. Gyokkou were stones created on the Five Sacred Mountains at the very center of the world. These stones contained magical powers, which, when brewed, created a kind of mystic wine. These were not stones you simply picked up and carried home with you.
"What's this? You'll be eagerly waiting to greet me with open arms, will you not? And how about some roasted proverb fish and simmered jewel grass? There should be a scrap or two around here somewhere. Though I'm not aware of a single wilted leaf left in the garden."
Riyou smirked, knowing full well the absurdity of her demands. "While you're at it, another coat of paint on the walls and pillars. A freshly-painted home, nothing would please me more. And only because Honma was thoughtful enough to ask."
The girl looked nervously around at the others. None of them raised their heads.
Gazing down at them, Riyou adjusted her ermine coat and picked up the reins. "Well, don't you work too hard, now. I am a forgiving taskmaster. I'm not going to scold anybody for letting their hair down a little. While I'm out, I leave everything in your capable hands."
"As you wish." The servants scraped their foreheads against the ground, as did the girl, who looked about ready to cry.
Riyou climbed onto Setsuko. With a shout of laughter, the flying tiger leapt from the entranceway and down into the wintry desolation of the world below.
The servants raised their heads and watched Setsuko sail out of sight to the north. As one, they looked over their shoulders at the girl.
"You had to go and open your big mouth!"
"Don't you know when to put a cork in it?"
"A laundry list of impossibilities! Honma sowed this mess, and now she can reap it!"
"How about we send the little witch to the Five Mountains? By the time she returns, Lady Suibi will have been back for ages."
There was rank among wizards as well. Riyou herself was a class-three wizard. In order to be one of her servants, you had to have barely enough talent to be listed upon the Registry of Wizards, but nothing more than that. The girl called Honma was the lowest-ranked of the lesser wizards.
"What a fine mess. In the middle of this freezing cold, we're supposed to go to Mount Go and dig up gyokkou stones? And then to the Kyokai to catch proverb fish? And on top of that, jewel grass? At this time of year, with winter coming on, tell me, where's anybody going to lay their eyes on jewel grass?"
"Damn it all, with her finally leaving town for a few days, I was counting on taking things easy for a change."
"Honma can do the cleaning and painting. That's all she's good for, anyway."
Their censorious eyes all fell upon the girl and she fled.
She ran into the garden, to the trunk of an old pine tree in a corner of the garden nestled up against the cliff. There she wept.
When Riyou spoke to her in that manner, how else was she supposed to respond? If it had been any of the other servants, they would have said the same thing. It wasn't her fault. In the first place. Riyou had no intent of letting her servants slack off during her absence. This was always the way she did things. Everybody in the grotto should know that by now.
"What's this now?" came a voice behind her. It was the old man who kept guard over the garden. "Oh, don't let it get to you. They're taking it out on you because they don't have the guts to stand up to her, either. It'll be okay once they get it out of their systems, Mokurin."
The girl shook her head. "That's not my name."
Back in that world she so dearly longed for, she used to be called Suzu. An itinerant monk had taught her the three Chinese characters of her Japanese name, Ooki Suzu. Most people, though, mixed the second and third character together, and because in Chinese ki (or "wood") is pronounced moku, and suzu (or "bell") is pronounced rin, they called her Mokurin. At least when they weren't using some insulting term like Honma, among others. None was her real name.
Her old home on a gently sloping hill amidst the rolling mountains, the moments of warm conversation, she'd lost it all. Already, a hundred years had passed since she'd been swept away to this world. The slave trader had taken her away, and while crossing the mountain pass she'd fallen from some kind of precipice and had ended up in the Kyokai.
"Why does she have to be like that?"
"Because that's the kind of person she is. Don't worry about it so. After all, her being so headstrong was what got her sent packing in the first place. Giving her this grotto was the tactful way of easing her out."
"I know that, but . . . . "
Suzu had been suddenly thrust into this strange world, not being able to communicate, not having the slightest idea what was going on. And all at the age of fourteen.
From the small, seaside village she'd been sent to a bigger town. Not knowing what was going to happen next, she was trundled here and packed off there for days. Finally, she was taken to a big city and was handed over to a troupe of traveling entertainers.
She had spent a little over three years with the troupe. To Suzu, it was a solid blur of incomprehension. They visited cities hither and yon, high and low, met many, many people. All she gathered was that she had somehow been separated a great distance from the land she knew. There were mountains that pierced the heavens, cities surrounded by high walls, strange manners and customs, a strange language. All of it was far beyond her grasp. That was the conclusion she was forced to come to.
With every new city, Suzu harbored fresh hope that, by some happy accident, she would run into a person who could understand her and could send word back to her village. Every expectation was dashed. About the time she began to abandon hope that such a person existed, they arrived in Jin County and there she met Riyou.
In four years she hadn't learned a single one of the troupe's performances. She was consigned to cleaning duties. She knew it was because she didn't understand what anybody was saying.
No matter where they went, she didn't recognize the language people spoke. No matter how many times people talked to her and she talked to other people, nothing made sense. Nobody knew the way home. She had no idea what to do. Every day ended with her in tears.
People would just laugh at her when she said she didn't understand what they were saying. Eventually, Suzu stopped talking all together. It was too intimidating either to speak or be spoken to.
So it was hardly unreasonable that she should be delighted beyond belief when, in a city in Jin County, she met Riyou. It wasn't long before Riyou was deriding her at every turn, but Suzu relished at least being insulted with words she understood.
Riyou could communicate with her because she was a wizard. Learning that if you became a wizard everybody would understand you and you would understand them, Suzu begged to be made a wizard. She'd happily become a servant, work as hard as she had to. And so, answering her pleas, Riyou invested her as a wizard.
And now, for a century, she had been all but a prisoner in this place.
She'd thought of running away any number of times. Yet if she left the grotto without Riyou's permission, Riyou would have her name erased from the Registry of Wizards. And if that happened, she'd be plunged right back into that incomprehensible world of misfortune.
"Well," said the old man, patting Suzu on the shoulder. "You'd better get back to work. No rest for the weary."
Suzu nodded, clenching her cold fingers together. Somebody, she repeated to herself, somebody please save me.