5-2 "It's freezing cold."
Rangyoku's voice carried in the morning air.
The Eastern Kingdom of Kei, the city of Kokei, prefecture of Hokui, Ei Province. Kokei was located to the northwest of the capital Gyouten, located in the center of Ei Province. The road east from Gyouten reached to the Kyokai. The road west ran to the Blue Sea. From ancient times, the thriving city of Kokei, prefectural capital of Hokui, had sat at the crossroads on the road west. Consequently, the city also came to be known as Hokui.
The village was undoubtedly the nucleus of the city that had grown up around it. In this, Kokei was not exceptional. However, the city associated with the village had greatly expanded over the years, displacing the village of Kokei from its critical location on the highway. As a result, the village was attached like a small appendage to the northeast of the big city. The sign over the gates read "Kokei," but no one called it that anymore. The name of the city was Hokui, and the small bump of a town connected to it was called Kokei.
On a quiet block in a corner of Kokei, Rangyoku filled a bucket with water. Glancing around her, she could see the cold and desolate mountains rising above the high walls. Pale white frost clung to the tops of the leafless trees. The gathering clouds were heavy with precipitation.
"I wonder if it'll snow," she said to herself, and went back into the house through the rear entrance. The house was the rike, or orphanage. Rangyoku had no parents, so she had be given over to the care of the rike.
"You're up early, Rangyoku."
The old man lifted his head when Rangyoku came into the kitchen. He was putting coals into a brazier in the middle of the dirt floor. His name was Enho and he was the headmaster of the orphanage.
"You're a good girl, out of bed before an old'un like me. I thought for once I'd be the first one up and get everything ready, but I'm not quite there yet."
Rangyoku laughed and emptied the bucket into the tank. She liked this headmaster. She might have otherwise expected an older man like Enho to get up before her. But she knew that he was concerned that if he got up early, everybody else would feel obligated to, too. So he stayed in bed.
"Looks like snow."
"Sure does. The water was freezing cold. Come over here and get yourself warmed up."
"I'm okay," she smiled.
She lifted up the lid on the big pot sitting on the stove. Warm steam filled the room. She started to prepare breakfast. Enho put the brazier down next to the water tank. He was only thinking of her. She stirred some leftover vegetables and meat into the simmering water, along with some dumplings.
"We're getting a new child today."
Rangyoku looked back over her shoulder and Enho nodded. He meant that the rike would be taking on another orphan.
"Should I set a place for breakfast?"
"More likely this afternoon or toward evening."
When she and Keikei had fled the city, the headmistress of the rike had been a short-tempered old woman. When they returned, the old woman had died and had been replaced. Enho was not originally from the town. She had been quite nervous hearing that a strange old man had become headmaster, but now she was quite thankful.
"G'morning." Keikei ran into the kitchen.
"Hey, Keikei, you're up early."
"The cold woke me up."
Rangyoku laughed as her brother stamped his little feet. She filled a bucket for him. Enho dropped a hot rock into the water. That plop and sizzle was the sound of winter.
"Now, wash your face and dump the water outside."
"Alrighty," Keikei said with a nod and plunged his face into the water.
Rangyoku watched him smiling. There were three other children at the orphanage, but they got up later. Since Enho never scolded them, they stayed in bed as long as they wished. The three had been living at the orphanage for a long time. Because the previous headmistress had been so strict, they took advantage of Enho a bit. Perhaps aware of it himself, Enho let them.
"Man, it's cold!" said Keikei, opening the back door and tossing the water out onto the snow. His breath puffed white in the cold air.
"Better than last year, though. There's not much snow."
Half a year had passed since the coronation of the new empress. Just as the old-timers promised, the natural disasters had mostly ceased. Last year had seen an unusual amount of snow and many of the snowed-in villages had died off.
"I wish it would snow."
The braziers were the main source of heat. On really cold days, they put a kettle on the stove and boiled water and everybody gathered around the stove and warmed themselves with the steam and body heat. Wealthy homes had fireplaces, and even wealthier homes had a system that passed hot air between the walls and under the floorboards, heating each room individually, but few families in Kei could afford it.
Few could afford even to glaze their windows with glass. Instead, the windows were shuttered and paper affixed across the inside of the frame. That would let in some sunlight while shutting out the wind. Cotton was such a precious commodity that the futons were padded with the straw collected in the fall. As for winter clothing, it was practically impossible to get hold of fur or pelts. Charcoal for the brazier wasn't cheap, so the house was cold all the time.
Kingdoms to the north of Kei were colder, but as Kei was so much poorer it had fewer means to combat the cold. Winter in the northern quarter of Kei was particularly hard.
Nevertheless, Rangyoku liked the winter. Not only Rangyoku, so did all the children at the orphanage. Normally, from spring until fall, the people decamped to a nearby villages and hamlets, leaving the towns pretty much deserted. Only the orphans and town elders were left behind. During the winter, they all returned and would get together in big groups to spin cotton and weave baskets. That was a lot more fun.
Rangyoku took the lid off the big pot. "Keikei," she said, "go wake everybody up. It's time for breakfast."
Rangyoku was slicing steamed mochi into a bowl when suddenly she heard a scream from the courtyard. Taken aback, she looked around as Keikei came running back from the detached wing of the orphanage.
"What's going on?"
It wasn't Keikei who had screamed. But then there came another cry.
Enho jumped to his feet. Rangyoku put both hands to her mouth and swallowed her own scream.
"Go out the back and get to the Rishi." Enho gave the gasping Keikei a push. "Run for the cover of the riboku tree and stay there! You understand?"
"You, too, Gramps."
"I'll be along soon. Wait for me there."
Enho nodded his head at Rangyoku, urging her to go on ahead. Rangyoku bowed in turn, grabbed Keikei's hand, pushed open the back door and was about to stumble out when she heard the rustling of feathers and the sound of strong wings flapping.
She instantly stepped back and slammed the door shut. For a brief moment, she caught a glance of the sweep of its wings and the form of a tiger alighting on the ground. A kyuuki.
"Rangyoku?" Leaving the kitchen, Enho had turned back in the direction of her cry.
"In the back--there's a kyuuki in the back yard!"
Keikei began to wail. A kyuuki was a fierce, man-eating youma. It meant the end of the town. A kyuuki would devour every last person in sight.
Even now, the kingdom was still in this much chaos.
The back door reverberated with a crash. Rangyoku jumped back. She grabbed Keikei. Enho put his arms around them and hustled them into the main hall. Splinters came flying as the kyuuki tore through the wooden door with its claws. They bolted the door to the main hall and ran into the courtyard. Somehow they had to get to the Rishi. No youma would attack them beneath the riboku.
They rushed down the corridor toward the inner gate, down the stone steps, and emerged into the front yard. Behind them the screams of the children continued.
She wanted to help them but couldn't think of a way how. She knew it was inhuman to abandon them like this. She knew if it were Keikei back there, she would have turned back, even if it meant sacrificing herself.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
They reached the eaves of the main gate to the orphanage, Keikei suddenly shouted. Without thinking, Rangyoku turned and followed his gaze. Her eyes flew to the roof of the inner gate, to the crouching form of the kyuuki.
"Get going!" Enho urged them forward. "Run to the Rishi and don't look back!"
"No," said Keikei, clinging to Enho's coat.
"The others, they're probably already dead!"
Rangyoku took Keikei's hand in hers. She'd at least save him. She'd abandon Enho, use herself as a shield, and at least save him. The kyuuki licked its chops, crouched down low. Rangyoku watched it launch itself into the sky and fall on them. Transfixed, she held Keikei's hand.
A bright splash of red shot past them, grazing the creature's muzzle.
That shock of red was a mane of red hair. Somebody had rushed past them and up to the youma. The image frozen in her eyes as she turned was that of the flutter of crimson and the brilliant flash of a naked sword cutting an arc in the air.
A boy, and a not very big one at that. His silhouette and that of the pouncing kyuuki merged together. Rangyoku hugged her brother to her chest.
The claws and fangs of the kyuuki, limbs as fat as logs. It's entire body was a weapon, yet the sword danced as it nimbly slashed at the youma. The spray of blood and gore belonged to the youma. The sword severed the steel-clawed limbs from its body. The youma slumped, howling, until the tip of the sword pierced its throat. The boy drew out the sword, swung it around and down. The blade bit deeply into the kyuuki's thick neck.
The kyuuki shuddered and toppled over. The boy jumped back and out of the way and then without a second thought, ran forward again and delivered the second blow to the beast's neck. Gripping the hilt with both hands, coming down on one knee, in a single blow cutting off the kyuuki's head.
Rangyoku fell to her knees. "I don't believe it." It was impossible, felling a kyuuki like that. She closed her eyes only briefly, only time enough to scream. She sat down on the ground, Keikei still in her arms. The boy wiped the blade clean and looked back at them.
She couldn't answer, could only nod her head, yes.
Mouth agape, Enho finally put down the hand he had raised to hold them back. "And you are, sir?"
Before he finished asking the question, Keikei shouted, "Look out behind you!"
In a flash, the boy spun around, in the same split second drawing the sword as another kyuuki leapt down from the inner gate, throwing its entire weight against him. He feinted and ducked the charge. The kyuuki's bloodstained fangs closed on empty air. The sword connected, a mortal blow to the back of its head and then plunged in between its shoulders. He drew out the sword and in the same movement twisted his body and thrust backwards, impaling it through the throat.
Again, he made short work of it.
The sword was buried in the kyuuki's neck. Yanking it out, the boy tottered backwards in a manner Rangyoku found strangely affecting. He was so small compared to the kyuuki.
"Wow! Wow!" Keikei let go of his sister's hand and jumped to his feet.
Again, the boy wiped down the blade and glanced back at them. "It looks like you're not injured."
"Yeah. You were so great!" Keikei grinned happily.
The boy turned toward the heart of the compound. "I heard screaming."
Enho staggered up to him. "The other children--"
Not waiting to hear the rest, and without a second thought for the kyuuki, the boy leapt over the carcass and ran into the grounds of the orphanage.
Rangyoku and Keikei and Enho hastily followed after him, coming upon the ravaged exterior wing of the orphanage. Not a breath of life was left in the place. Three children between the ages of seven and fifteen lived there. They had lived together as a family until today.
The big window gaped open. The door hung from its hinges. A frigid wind blew into the quiet, cold room. Every surface was splattered with blood so fresh and acrid it almost seemed strange that no steam rose from the bodies.
They laid the three bodies out in the courtyard and covered them with matts of reeds. Hearing the commotion, the townspeople flocked to the orphanage, lending their assistance and sharing their grief and they bore the bodies to the town hall. By that time, news of the incident had reached the neighboring communities, and the center of town was crowded with unfamiliar faces.
Rangyoku looked at the spectators surrounding the orphanage, all keeping their distance, then at the boy. He stood in the courtyard, holding the sword in one hand, watching as the dead were born off. He had crimson hair and dark green eyes. His skin, darkly bronzed by the sun, had a vibrant quality to it. He was wearing a short, plain coat, but the sword he had killed the kyuuki with was magnificent.
"Um . . . " she said. "Thank you for saving our lives."
"It was nothing," he replied, in a quiet voice that somehow left a matter-of-fact impression on her. He seemed a little older than herself. They were both about the same height, so she guessed his age based on his overall stature.
"Are you from Hokui?" She asked, as he did not look like anyone she had seen around these parts.
"No," he answered.
Rangyoku tilted her head to one side. It being first thing in the morning, this struck her as a bit odd. The town gates opened at daybreak. In order to have gotten in so early, she reckoned he must have camped out the night before. When she asked him this, he nonchalantly nodded. "I considered seeking shelter in one of the hamlets, but there was nobody there."
Who would seek shelter in the hamlets at this time of year? Then the thought occurred to her. "Are you perhaps from Kou or Sou?" She had heard that in the kingdoms further south, people stayed in the hamlets year-round.
"No, from En."
"En is a cold country this time of year. The hamlets in En would all be empty, wouldn't they?"
There was a smile in his voice. She turned to see Enho returning from where he had left Keikei in the care of the neighbors.
Enho said, "A kaikyaku."
Rangyoku looked at the boy with wide eyes. Enho said, "You're Chuu Youshi, correct?"
"Yes. And you are Enho-san?"
Enho nodded and glanced at Rangyoku. "This is the child I told you about, who was sent to the orphanage. Your new roommate."
"My what? But . . . . "
Rangyoku gave the boy a good long look. What Enho was saying was, this was the girl, a girl her same age, that he had been telling her about. "Oh! I'm sorry! I completely misunderstood!"
The girl smiled pleasantly. "No problem. I've gotten used to it."
Enho turned to Rangyoku. "Youshi, this is Rangyoku, one of the residents of the orphanage. She's the older sister of the boy you just rescued."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Youshi said with a slight bow.
When Rangyoku smiled and bowed in turn, Enho gave her a nudge. "While Youshi is changing her clothes, why don't you go fetch Keikei? He's still in something of a panic."
"I'll do that," she replied with a nod. Enho watched her hurry off and then looked up at the girl standing next to him. "With all these people about, we never greeted you properly."
"Understood. It's fine."
"I apologize. I'll see to it that you are properly treated as a resident of the rike."
"Well, that is why I came here."
Hearing her soft voice and seeing the look in her eyes, Enho nodded. "We are very grateful to you for saving our lives."
"Do youma still come into inhabited areas like this?"
"Yes, but less often since Kei got a new Empress."