2-4 The wind blew across the white hill, scattering the fallen snow like a blanket of cherry blossoms.
Shoukei rested her hands from pulling the sleigh and stretched her back. In the distance she could see the walls of Shindou. At last she was drawing near to the town. The town itself looked like it was buried in snow. The dusk was falling, Shoukei's breath blossomed white against the hazy darkness filling the landscape. Winters in the northern kingdoms were severe, especially the winters in Hou, where the snowfall was considerable. More than the cold, it was simply getting around that was so difficult. The roads were buried in snow, the cities shut off and isolated.
Everyone practically holding their breath and waiting for the thaw.
Because nothing could be moved during the winter, the smaller shops had to close their doors. When inventories ran low, only those establishments with horse-drawn sleighs could be depended upon. And if you didn't have the patience to wait for the next sleigh to arrive, your only other choice was to wade through the waist-high snow to the next town.
Which is what Shoukei was doing now.
She drew back her shoulders and took a breath. She picked up the rope and draped it over her shoulders. She had to get to the town before the gates closed. Get shut out of the town in this weather and she would surely freeze to death.
The grade of the road was indistinguishable from the white, rolling hills of surrounding countryside, making it hard to tell where the road ended and the fields began. The fields were surrounded by rock walls to keep grazing goats, sheep and cows from straying, but these too were buried beneath the snow. Though it was yet before the winter solstice, the snowfall this year had been unusually heavy.
Her shoulders ached from the weight of the tow rope. Her toes were frozen. The hundred pounds of charcoal loaded onto the sled made the going slow. She could have just as well been hauling a grown man.
How long do I go on living like this?
Numb and exhausted, that was the only thought going through her mind. Several times already she had run off the road and fallen into a drift. Each time she had to carry up the sled and load the charcoal back on. If she didn't make better time the gates were going to close. That was what kept her shivering, trembling legs moving forward. She dragged the sled along, ignoring the pain that cut like a knife into her throat and sides.
They're all enjoying themselves right now.
The only people that traveled from city to city during the winter were peddlers and the Red Banner troubadours. The Red Banner troubadours chronicled the history of the kingdoms in verse and song. They had come to her town. There was hardly anything fun to do during the winter, so when the Red Banner troubadours showed up it was cause for celebration. Despite this, Shoukei alone was sent out to buy charcoal.
Charcoal was indispensable during the winter, so of course it was kept in good supply. Still, she was told that there might not be enough to last till spring and was sent out to get more. She wasn't even provided with a horse.
She hates me that much.
Shoukei cursed Gobo in her heart. Sending her by herself to a neighboring town to haul back a hundred pounds of charcoal on a sled, Gobo knew for damn sure that one slipup and Shoukei would be dead. And one way or another, she made sure Shoukei understand that she didn't care, either.
How much long do I put up with this?
When she turned twenty, she would get her own partition and could leave the orphanage. The reckoning of those "twenty years" was according to customs followed since time immemorial, but according to Shoukei's age on the census, she had two more years to go.
Two more years of this life.
And even in two years, there was no guarantee that she would get her plot of land. Gekkei, the man who had murdered her father, he wasn't likely to so readily set her free.
She resisted the urge to stop and rest, and instead pushed herself on. At last, she struggled up to the gates just before they closed for the night. Inside the town, there remained something of the lively atmosphere. She staggered back to the orphanage and sat down in the snow. She could hear the excited voices of the children inside.
Two more years.
Those two years stretched out like an eternity. The thirty years she had spent at the Imperial Palace seemed short in comparison. She grimmaced and got to her feet, unloaded the straw sacks of charcoal and stored them in the barn. And then went into the orphanage.
She opened the back door and stepped into the kitchen. "I'm back."
Gobo flashed her a taunting smile. "You've returned with the charcoal, then? If there's even an ounce missing, you'll have to do it all over again."
"It's all there, all one hundred pounds."
Gobo sniffed incredulously and held out her hand. Shoukei deposited the frozen purse in her palm. Gobo checked the contents and gave Shoukei an icy glare. "There's not much change here, is there?"
"Charcoal is expensive. It's pretty scarce this year."
A summer typhoon had blown down the trees on the nearby mountains, leading to the high cost of charcoal.
"So you say," Gobo muttered to herself. She turned to Shoukei with a cold smile. "If you're lying to me, I'll know soon enough. Until then, we'll have to take your word for it."
Shoukei hung her head. Like I would stoop to stealing chicken feed like this, she told herself derisively.
"Well, you'd better get started on your evening chores."
Shoukei only nodded. She didn't have the right to talk back to anybody in authority, so no matter how tired she was, she knew it wouldn't do any good to complain.
Shoukei went to the barn with the other children to feed the animals, muck out the stables, and milk the cow and goat.
Even while doing their chores, the children chattered cheerfully. "Too bad you couldn't get back earlier," a girl said to Shoukei. "The Red Banner people are gone by now."
Shoukei didn't answer, silently cutting the straw into the feed.
"A good thing it snowed," a boy said earnestly.
Even with a horse-drawn sleigh, the snowy roads were almost impassable. When it snowed, the Red Banner troubadours had to camp out in a town until it stopped. Truth be told, Shoukei had been wishing for snow as well. But the snow was also the reason she hadn't gotten home until late.
The Red Banner troubadours were masters of travel, but even winter could best them at times. They usually traveled the circuit of cities and towns from spring until fall and then wintered over in a big city, where they would rent a small dwelling and settle down for the rest of the season. The reason they would take such risks during the winter was because King Chuutatsu, Shoukei's father, had forbid entertainers to work except when the fields lay fallow.
Since his death, many Red Banner troubadours now chose to pack it in during the winter, but there were still those who continued to tour. During the winter, there was nothing to do in the towns and villages. So when a Red Banner troupe showed up, they would be welcomed with open arms. That was enough to motivate not a few of them to brave the elements and keep on trudging from town to town.
"It was a really great show."
"I liked the acrobats the best."
Her head bowed, Shoukei listened to the accounts of their delightful day. She was dying to say how she used to see similar performances all the time at the palace.
"Oh, yes," said a girl, "and the story they told about the empress of the Kingdom of Kei. She's only sixteen or seventeen!"
"What?" Shoukei raised her head.
"Isn't that something? A king is the same as a god, right? I wonder what it would be like to become one of the twelve ruling the whole earth, the elite of the elite."
The other girls nodded. "Yeah."
"I would definitely wear silk, with the embroidered plumage of a bird. And gold and silver and pearls."
"And there was this pretend king who started doing whatever she felt like and the new empress clobbered her. That must have been something to see."
"Because the Royal En came to help her with reinforcements."
"Wow, to think she even knows the Royal En!"
"You know, they must know each other real well if he'd come to her rescue like that."
"Don't you wonder what the coronation ceremony was like? I bet she was all gorgeous and everything."
Shoukei stared down at her feet. The boisterous voices faded away. A sixteen or seventeen year old girl. Who had become empress.
Shoukei knew what living in a palace was like. It was totally different from this remote corner of the world.
It's not fair, she said to herself. She was stuck in this miserable life while a girl her same age was enjoying everything that had been taken from her. Shoukei had no way of returning to the palace. Her wonderful parents had been killed and she had been exiled to the hinterlands where she would spend the rest of her life.
She looked at the shovel in her hands. Hands tanned like leather from toiling under a blazing sun, hands whose protruding joints had grown accustomed to carrying heavy loads, hands that bent like claws, with no one to manicure and care for them. She would grow old like this. As if adapting themselves to living in this hick town, her mind and body were going to seed as well. In time, she'd turn into a boorish old hag like Gobo.
And all the while, the empress of Kei would reside at the palace, eternally as beautiful as she was at sixteen.
"It's not fair."
Deep within her heart, another voice chimed in.