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.