akushun's hirsute tail stood straight up. "Youko left the palace?"
Rokuta gave that sight a curious look and with the tips of his fingers motioned for him to calm down. "Mum's the word," he said, glancing around at the surrounding tables and the waiters delivering the food.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry."
Rokuta grinned and then with an annoyed expression picked up the bandana that had fallen onto the table in front of him. After covering his head with the bandana, he looked like an ordinary child again. "She just took off for a while. She asked for a visa, so I sent her one."
"What is going on with her?"
"Who knows?" said Rokuta, tossing a dumpling into his mouth. "All kinds of stuff. I got the feeling last time that she had a lot on her mind."
"Yeah," Rakushun muttered.
"It's because she's such a serious person. To make matters worse, everybody over there is so uptight and argumentative. You tell them to sit back and take it easy, but they're just not the kind of people who can do that."
Rakushun nodded. He picked up his chopsticks again and stopped. "I was thinking of going to see how she was."
University was in recess over the New Year's holiday, the last part of December and the first part of January.
"You're being overprotective." Rokuta gave Rakushun a teasing look.
Rakushun's whiskers drooped dejectedly. "And I thought I'd take the opportunity to go see my Mom."
The country of Rakushun's birth--the Kingdom of Kou--was going downhill and fast. The king had already died. Rokuta recalled Rakushun saying something about sending for his mother.
Rakushun said, "I'd like to find out more of the kingdoms around here, see how things are going in Kei."
"Expanding your horizons is always a good thing." Rokuta jabbed the dumpling skewer in Rakushun's direction. "If it's about your mother, I'll take care of it. How about you go check out Ryuu?"
Rokuta nodded. He said in a hushed voice, "Recently, youma have shown up off the coast of Ryuu."
"Word is that perhaps they were swept in from Tai. But youma don't go barging into a kingdom that isn't in trouble. Something stinks."
Rakushun mulled it over.
Rokuta added, "When I say I'd like to go see what's going on in Ryuu, I mean somebody who can put his other work aside and get on with it. If you could do this for me, it'd be a real help."
"Okay. I'll do it."
Rokuta's face lit up. "Hey, I appreciate it. Something strange is going on, I can feel it. There's Tai and Kei and Kou. And on top of that, Ryuu. Recently, none of the kingdoms around En have been on an even keel."
"If something fishy is going on in Ryuu, no matter how insignificant, I want you to let me know as soon as possible. I know I'm asking a lot. And while you're at it, I'll handle things for your mother and check in on Youko."
Rakushun nodded, and then turned his thoughts eastward.
Rokuta said, "Youko being Youko, she'll be okay."
Rakushun looked at Rokuta.
Rokuta said, "I trust her. It'll be tough for a while, but knowing her, she'll pull through. Ever heard of the word, kaitatsu?"
"It's particular to Kei. It means a longing for a king, a man. After so many bad empresses in a row, it's not an unreasonable sentiment. Even I was wondering if an empress really was a good idea. But my concerns were quickly put to rest. Youko being a girl means she gets judged on her looks alone. That's why we're the only ones who can really put our faith in her."
Rokuta grinned, and Rakushun smiled as well. "Yes, that's very true."
The province of Ei, with the capital Gyouten at its center, was shaped like a bent bow. Hokui Prefecture, in its northern quarter, was located at the very tip of the bow, west of Gyouten. In the eastern part of Hokui Prefecture was Kokei, or, as most people called it, the city of Hokui. Crossing the river brought you to Wa Province and the outskirts of a big city called Takuhou.
At a small cemetery on the outskirts of Hokui, Rangyoku brought her hands together in prayer. She was at the grave of the children who had been killed at the orphanage. Their parents had died. They had been entrusted to the orphanage, and in the end had been killed by the youma. Half a month later and she couldn't stop thinking of the fear and suffering they must have experienced.
Taking along the goat she'd left at the gate, Rangyoku returned to the town. During the day, she let the goat graze on the vacant land adjacent the city, and now she was taking it home. Kokei, the town Rangyoku lived in, was an appendage of the city of Hokui. From her perspective, Kokei really did look like a pimple growing on the side of Hokui. As she pulled the goat along behind her in the cold wind, the town's appearance struck her as rather forlorn. She entered the town through the Kokei gate and returned to the orphanage.
When she went around back of the orphanage to the barn, Keikei was running out of the back door to do his evening chores. With him was Youshi.
"Hey, you're home!"
Keikei's high voice carried far. Youshi gave her a slight bow. Rangyoku smiled in return, thinking, she is an odd one. A kaikyaku, Enho had said. That must be why. Enho said that she was a new member of the orphanage, but she was more like Enho's guest.
Towns were generally run by a town manager and a superintendent. The town manager worked in the town hall and officiated at the Rishi. The superintendent was his principal advisor. The superintendent was the most senior of the town elders. He was also headmaster at the orphanage and elementary school. Yet, Enho was not from Kokei. When Rangyoku inquired about this, she was told he was from Baku Province in the west of Kei. Usually, the posts of manager and superintendent were filled by people from that town.
The more she thought about it, the odder Enho's situation seemed.
Or so it seemed to her. She didn't understand all the ins and outs of becoming a superintendent. The town manager certainly treated Enho as if he were of a considerably higher rank than himself. Enho had many visitors, who traveled great distances to see him, and who stayed over at the orphanage in order to converse with him. She didn't know who they were or why they came to see him. Even when she asked about them, no one could or would tell her. It was obvious, though, that all of his visitors greatly respected him. They came here to be taught by him. They were the ones staying in the guest quarters.
The rike compound where the orphanage was located generally consisted of four buildings. The first was the orphanage, where the orphans and elderly people stayed. The second was the assembly hall, where the townspeople could gather. When they returned from the villages and hamlets during the winter, the assembly hall was where they would come during the day. There they would weave and do piece work. Sometimes at night, they would turn the place into a bar and drink and have a good old time.
The guest quarters was a building for people visiting the orphanage or the town. Attached to the guest quarters was a garden, and in the garden was the cottage Enho used as a study, and where he spent most of the day. The care and upkeep of these buildings and the people and visitors who gathered there was the responsibility of the residents of the rike.
Youshi was assigned a room in the guest quarters. That was according to Enho's explicit instructions. If you didn't live in the orphanage itself, you weren't really counted as a resident of the rike. In the first place, the people who lived in the orphanage were supposed to be from the town, and Youshi obviously wasn't.
It just seems so strange.
Rangyoku left the goat to Keikei's care and went back to the kitchen with Youshi. She watched as Youshi drew water from the outside well and filled the tank in the kitchen.
Aside from the fact that Youshi had been given a room in the guest quarters, she spent the days the same as the other members of the orphanage. She helped out in the kitchen and cleaned up around the rike. The only really different thing about her was that when Rangyoku and Keikei were done with their chores and went off to play, Youshi went to Enho's study and talked with him.
It's probably because Youshi is a kaikyaku and he's teaching her what she needs to know about living here.
At least that's what Enho said, and it probably was true.
"What's up?" Youshi suddenly asked her.
Rangyoku started. Youshi had caught her standing there staring off into space. "Um . . . oh, nothing."
Youshi only quizzically tilted her head to the side, so Rangyoku asked her straight out. "Why did you come to Kokei?"
Ah, Youshi said to herself. "I didn't know anything of this world, and a person I know arranged for me to meet Enho. So here I am."
"Is Enho an important person? It's just that so many people come to see him."
"I don't really know. From talking with him, though, I would say that he is a very wise man."
When she was finished drawing the water, Rangyoku had her wash the vegetables. While dicing the vegetables, Rangyoku asked her, "Um, what kind of place is Yamato?" Old people said that it was the land of wizards. A land of dreams, where there was no suffering or grief.
"It's not so different from here. There are natural disasters and there are wars."
"Oh." She was somewhat relieved, and also somewhat disappointed.
"Can I ask you a question?" said Youshi.
Rangyoku stopped cutting the vegetables. "What?"
"Is Rangyoku your azana?"
"No, it's my real first name."
"People here have so many different names. It's very confusing."
She sighed, as if she truly were at a complete loss. Rangyoku couldn't help smiling. "I take it in Yamato you don't have an azana. The name listed on the census is your full name that you use all the time, and an azana is just a casual nickname. In olden times, nobody called you by your given name. Old-timers hate being called by their given name, but I don't care. My registered family name is So. When I become an adult, I'll choose my own surname and the characters for that name, but I'm not an adult yet."
Becoming an adult meant reaching one's majority. At the age of twenty, you would receive a plot of land from the government and become an independent person. This plot was called a partition or homestead. Those twenty years were calculated according to kazoe-doshi, meaning that you were one year old when born and counted a year older every New Year's day.
Youshi laughed. "See, there are so many ways to count your age. What a mess."
"Normally, age is counted by your birthday. It's because of compulsory service. Using kazoe-doshi, you can end up with people who are all seventeen years old but have all different sizes of bodies."
You became responsible for paying taxes when you became an adult and received a homestead, but age wasn't taken into consideration when it came to compulsory service. In an emergency, even ten-year-olds would be rounded up. Rebuilding dikes, digging ditches, building villages and hamlets, and in the worse case, fighting wars. It was rare to draft soldiers who hadn't reached the age of eighteen, but if troop strength proved insufficient, the draft age would be lowered.
"Compulsory service also used to be done according to kazoe-doshi, too, but that was a long time ago."
"Yamato doesn't have compulsory service?"
Youshi shook her head, a sardonic smile creeping onto her face. "It doesn't, but it often seems like the compulsory service is year-round."
"Adults work from morning till midnight. Children study from morning till midnight. It's not actually compulsory, but if you don't work harder than everybody else, you'll really get left behind. So everybody works through the night to the break of dawn."
"Sounds awful," said Rangyoku.
Keikei burst into the kitchen, having finished tending to the goat. "I'm done!" he cheerfully declared, ready for his next job. "Well, then, clean off the table and get out the dishes."
A twinkle in her eyes, Youshi watched Keikei dart off, rag in hand. "Hard worker, Keikei is."
Rangyoku readily agreed. "He is, isn't he?"
The abundant pride she evidenced made Youshi smile. "Is Keikei his name?"
"It's his nickname, what everybody calls him. His real name is Rankei."
Youshi laughed. "It really is very confusing."