10-3 From the eastern quarter of Ryuu, Shoukei and Rakushun crossed Mt. Koushuu and entered En. As soon as they had crossed the border, Shoukei gaped at the splendidly maintained roads.
They had traveled parallel to the ridgeline of the Koushuu mountains, making their way along the valleys, then climbed the switchbacks up the face of the mountains, stayed a night there, climbed further to the summit of a small peak. At the summit, a city hugged the slopes. A high barrier wall divided the very center of the long, narrow city. In the wall was a huge gate. This side of the gate was Ryuu. On the other was En.
The differences in the appearance of the streets and the cities themselves facing the barrier wall were highly curious. Upon reaching the gates, the worn, pothole-filled roads turned into trim, even, stone-paved avenues. The typical panorama of small shops lining the rutted streets along the main boulevard, people, carriages and carts all tangled up together. Crossing into En on the other side of the gate, the shops stood smartly in tiers and waves of people flowed down the sidewalks between the shops and the right-of-way alongside the road.
The building lining the streets themselves were tall. Many were built from stone, four or five stories, windows glazed with glass. Ryuu also had tall building with glass windows, but Ryuu left you with a gloomy, decrepit impression. Perhaps because the buildings in Ryuu were so much older. Perhaps because of the frozen water puddling on the worn stone roadways. Perhaps because the glass windows were clouded and cracked. In any case, it looked as if Ryuu had tried mightily to mimic En, but had tired of the effort and quit halfway through.
I'd heard En was wealthy, but . . . .
The wealthiest of the northern kingdoms. Yet the sight of this city, more than anything she had imagined, left her speechless.
"En is a cold country, so how can it be so different?"
When it came to the seasons, Hou and En were not that different. En was situated further south than Hou, but as it was located in the northeast corner of the continent, during the winter, it was swept by freezing seasonal winds. In fact, the sense she got as they walked along was that it got no warmer as they drew closer to En.
"Are there large mines here?"
Rakushun glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "No. Unlike Hou or Ryuu, En doesn't have much in the way of natural resources. Growing wheat and raising cattle, that's about it."
The cities were big and business flourished, explained Rakushun, but the larger portion of the kingdom's wealth came from the annual harvest.
"But a difference this big!"
"That has to do with the difference in the qualities of the kings."
"The kings? That accounts for this?"
"En has not faltered in five hundred years. That accounts for the biggest difference."
"When the throne is occupied, natural disasters occur less frequently. With fewer wars and natural disasters, the population grows. The people work hard and cultivate land and agricultural stocks grow as well. By maintaining the fields well, harvests flourish. The kingdom carefully controls surpluses of grain to ensure against overproduction and price deflation. The kingdom manages the land, and stockpiles against a rainy day, and thus keeps every nook and corner in good condition."
"For example," Rakushun continued, "dig drainage canals to prepare for the rainy season. Build bridges over the canals, and secure them with stone foundation so they don't collapse. Cover the canals where they cut through roads. By preparing and following a well thought-out plan, the cities can be protected. Over ten or twenty years, carry these programs throughout the kingdom. With a kingdom being guided over a long period of time by a single policy, it will come to be adopted in the kingdom's furthest precincts."
Shoukei's father had sat on the throne for thirty years. The previous king had ruled for not half a century. In contrast to that, this was the result of a single king governing for half a millennium.
"The kingdoms of short-lived kings are quite unfortunate. You finally create a business and build it into something big, and it's swept away by a flood and you have to start all over again."
"The Royal Hou was infamous for his cruelty. Maybe not to you, but such a king was not a blessing to his subjects."
Shoukei glanced briefly at Rakushun's profile. "Probably not."
"The king is there to help the people. Oppressive kings do not stay in their positions for long. But what is difficult now will become worse when a king falls. And when the Saiho dies as well, it will take five to ten years for the king to be chosen. Twenty years might not be unusual. When natural disasters have gone on for two decades, the land is all the more devastated. Even finding enough food to eat becomes problematic."
Shoukei said, "No matter the king, he gives his all for the people. But it's not necessarily true that these efforts will quickly come to fruition and yield results. When a kingdom is in chaos, so are men's hearts. For the time being, judgements must be severe and the people brought back to the straight and narrow. Don't you think that is necessary?"
Her father had said so often. Whenever he promulgated a new law, there were ministers who complained it was too strict. He repeatedly insisted that in order to reorganize a kingdom, such steps were required.
"But to such an extent? There are limits to everything. True, overthrowing a king is perhaps going too far."
"The Royal Hou did not fall because he lost the Divine Mandate, but because traitors assassinated him."
Rakushun nodded. "The province lord of Kei rose up and struck down the king. Though regicide is a grave crime, it is not always proscribed. In some cases, it might be preferable."
Shoukei bowed her head. It was beginning to dawn on her why her father had been so hated, why a traitor like Gekkei remained so popular. The people believed that Chuutatsu was only making things worse. Gekkei acted before ruin was visited upon them, and so they revered him. The people made their choices clear. And thus their reproach had turned on Shoukei as well, who had never once remonstrated with the king.
"Let's go," Rakushun said.
Shoukei walked from the rather sad Ryuu side of the city to the bright and thriving En side of the city. The name of both cities was Hokuro.
As expected, when entering En, passports were expected. According to custom, passports were always inspected when crossing an international border, in order to check the movement of criminals and inspect any belongings in your possession. You were not necessarily turned away if you didn't have a passport, but you did have to be questioned by an immigration official.
Having been told about this beforehand, Shoukei nervously told the border guard that she did not have a passport. She was shown to a building next to the gate, but another guard stopped then. "No need to bother," he said. "As long as you're with him, you can be on your way."
The guard politely handed Rakushun's passport back to him. Rakushun bowed and passed through the gate. Shoukei asked him again, "So exactly who are you?"
"Like I said, a student."
"Whenever I think about it, you're an awfully suspicious guy."
"I've got my reasons. Just as you have yours."
"It's almost as if your plan all along was to investigate Ryuu."
"That was part of it. I wanted to see what other kingdoms were like. When I was living in Kou, I heard a lot about En, but actually going there was a whole lot different. School is in recess from the New Year till spring. So I wanted to spend the time to take a look at the other kingdoms. As it turned out, there were people willing to make the necessary arrangements if I went to Ryuu. In exchange, I was to fill them in on the state of affairs in Ryuu."
Shoukei gave Rakushun a sideways glance. "You mean, like whether Ryuu is in decline."
"Yeah," Rakushun nodded. "This is a matter of no small import. If Ryuu really is failing, then its borders will become more and more dangerous. Refugees will start flooding out of Ryuu. A kingdom has got to prepare for that kind of eventuality. A heads-up beforehand can make all the difference."
"So, important people in En sent you to investigate."
"That's pretty much it. En is a wealthy kingdom, truly blessed. The land and the people are at peace. But that doesn't mean it is free from problems." Rakushun looked over his shoulder and pointed back at the gate. "The Ryuu side of the city is rather forlorn. No two ways about it, it's better to stay at an inn in En. Despite this, come nightfall and you have many people entering Ryuu. Why would that be?"
Shoukei craned her neck, looking backwards. "It is strange, now that you mention it. So many people leaving like that. There's no way they could make it to the next city now."
"It's because there's no low-rent district in En."
"The people of En are well off. When they stay in an inn, they don't have to share lodgings with people they don't know. In the first place, such establishments aren't that common. And the clientele tend to be the kind who skip out on the rent, so innkeepers have no fondness for them. However, not all the citizens of En are rich. There are itinerants, refugees, people just scraping by. Lodgings for these people are hard to come by in En. True of traveling. In En, it's pretty much by carriage or nothing."
Carriages pulled by one or two teams of horses frequented the highways, speeding travelers from one city to the next. In the countryside, farmers with time on their hands would make their horse carts and wagons available for transportation. Otherwise, driving a carriage or stagecoach was an occupational specialty.
"Because En is a wealthy kingdom, there is no need for farmers to hire themselves out during the off-season. Usually, only the rich ride in carriages, but in En, anybody can. Moreover, the rates are reasonable, though not as cheap as a horse cart. People have enough in their pockets that they tend not to quibble. Still, lacking the horse carts that poor people can afford, if the poor have got to travel during the winter, it's on foot."
Shouko again glanced back at the gate. The travelers heading in the Ryuu were indeed a worn-out, unpretentious, motley-looking bunch. At a glance, it was obvious from the tide of people flowing through the customs houses on either side of the gate that they were mostly refugees and itinerants without passports.
"People flock to En because it is wealthy. But the distinctions between the citizens of En and the people flooding in, between rich and poor, can't be erased. Those who can't find lodging often camp out in the streets and freeze to death. Then you've got desperate men who, fearing that fate, become thieves and robbers. Refugees are En's biggest problem. In some of En's larger cities, the number of refugees and itinerants are becoming significant. In these past ten years, dealing with them has turned into a real headache."
"That's why you're concerned about the state of things in Ryuu."
"That would be it."
"So, tell me, who did endorse your passport?"
Rakushun only waved his tail in response.
"What, you can't show me?"
Without answering, Rakushun took the passport from his pocket and held it out to her. On the back was the fresh seal of the Chousai of En, one In Hakutaku.
"The Chousai . . . . "
Rakushun fluttered his whiskers. "Don't take that to mean I've ever talked to the man. The person who let me borrow the suguu got the endorsement from the Chousai for me."
The Chousai was the head of the Rikkan, the chief minister. Anybody who could make such a request from the Chousai would have to be close to the center of power.
Rakushun scratched at the bottom of his ear. "It's not that I'm an important person. But I do happen to know the Royal Kei."
"The Royal Kei?"
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, Shoukei felt a pain in her chest. "How could someone like you--?"
Rakushun said, answering the rest of the question. "How could a hanjuu like me know her?"
Shoukei hurriedly apologized, "No, I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. I am nothing more than the hanjuu you see. But I don't see anything wrong with that. Though you do make it sound as if there is."
"I didn't mean that."
"The Royal Kei is an acquaintance of mine. A friend. I like to think that she counts me as a friend, as well. From the outside looking in, it might strike some as very strange. I resisted it at first, too. I mean, she being an empress, and all. I told her once that I couldn't very well go around calling her my friend, and she practically chewed my head off."
"The Royal Kei did?"
"Yeah. She said that there was no more distance between us than that of two people standing next to each other." Rakushun smiled. "I found her dying at the side of the road. So I picked her up and took her to En."
Shoukei's mouth dropped open. "Dying at the side of the road? The Royal Kei?"
"She's a kaikyaku. A taika. She was swept onto the shores of Kou. At the time, the standing edict in Kou was to execute all kaikyaku. They pursued her until she collapsed from exhaustion."
Shoukei pressed her hand to her chest. She had believed that this girl who had become empress had been blessed with that great fortune without so much as lifting a finger.
"When I first took the Royal Kei to Kankyuu, I thought I'd get myself a nice little job as a reward. The longer I was with her, the pettier such goals became. When asked what I wished as a reward, I planned to say: admission to secondary school. But when the moment actually came, I blurted out: university. I'd mostly studied at home, so I was really bluffing when I said I wanted to go to college."
Shoukei looked at Rakushun, a jumble of feelings going through her. "I don't think anybody's going to give you a reward for taking me to En."
"That had nothing to do with it. You looked pretty miserable sitting there in that jail cell."
"Yours was the face of somebody who had taken about all she could take." He narrowed his eyes. "It reminded me of the Royal Kei when I first met her."
"So you picked me up and took me to En."
Rakushun laughed. "Like I told you, these chance encounters seem to be my destiny."