n is situated to the southeast of Ryuu, but the winters don't differ that much. Just as in Ryuu, it was a hardship to travel except by horse-drawn wagon. Though in En, people used carriages. The team of horses pulled a solidly-built coach and took them south on well-groomed roads.
Poorer travelers walked along the shoulders of the road. The blowing wind was cold, and you could freeze even while keeping on the move. They clutched onjaku to their chests, heads ducked into the wind, and carried over their shoulders sacks filled with a little charcoal and firewood. Here and there along the highway, the firewood would feed bonfires where they could warm themselves. They cast sideways glances at the stagecoach as it rushed past.
"It must be rough to have to travel on foot," Shoukei said to Rakushun, sitting across from her.
The coach seated two facing bench seats that each could sit three people. Shoukei and Rakushun were the only passengers.
"Shoukei, do you still want to go to Tai?"
Shoukei let out a breath. "I really wanted to go to Kei."
"I wanted to go to Kei and work for a minister, get close to the Royal Kei. I'd ingratiate myself with her. And when the opening presented itself, usurp the throne. Something like that. I'm pretty sure half of it was in my imagination. But half of it was serious. You mad at me?"
"No. But if you really were serious, there's no way I could look at you again."
"You're right." Shoukei laughed. "I needed to get registered on the census. I heard that if you went to Tai and caught a boat to Kei, you could get land and get registered in Kei."
Rakushun gave her a surprised look. "I hadn't heard of that."
"The original goal was to go to Tai with the kitsuryou. But for the time being, it's just as well going to Kei and looking for some land there."
Shoukei looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "In fact, being the princess royal was a big deal to me. I didn't want to give up living in the palace and my luxurious lifestyle. It was really embarrassing working in the fields and wearing commonplace clothes. When I heard that the Royal Kei was the same age as me, I envied her so much. I couldn't forgive her for having all that I had lost."
"To tell the truth, it's still hard for me to stay in cheap hotels. It's mortifying to have to wear wool. But that's the penance I've got to pay." She clenched her hands, turning the tips of her entwined fingers white. "All I did was play around at the palace. I didn't do anything else. I didn't know people hated my father so much that they wanted to murder him. I didn't want to know. And now I'm paying for it. That's why Gekkei--he's the marquis of Kei Province--erased me from the Registry of Wizards. I get it now."
"If I hadn't been the princess royal, I would just be another child at the orphanage. I'd still be in my minority, without the wits to become a government official. That's why I got sent to the orphanage. I didn't have a clue. I just didn't get it."
"Better you get it now than never."
"Yeah," Shoukei laughed. "The Royal Kei, what kind of person is she?"
"She's about the same age as you."
"But not an idiot like me."
"Oh, she would call herself an idiot. And then she would say: But they made me empress, anyway!"
Shoukei laughed again. "She sounds like me."
"Perhaps. But you are more, well, feminine. The Empress is kind of rough about the edges."
Shoukei giggled and looked out the window at the passing scenery. "I'd like to go to Kei." She wanted to meet this empress. And if not meet her, she wanted to see what kind of a kingdom she was going to create.
"Returnee groups are forming all over En and heading to Kei."
"You mean, since the Royal Kei was enthroned, people have been going back."
"Quite a number of people. They don't really know what kind of monarch she'll turn out to be, but in any case, with the Royal En lending a hand in her ascension, the people of Kei are pretty sure she'll turn out to be a good empress."
"So that's the rumor. But it's hardly carved in stone that she'll be an enlightened monarch."
"True, but home is better than staying in En. They've got land there, and while it might not be great, they can plant their own two feet on their own ground and start a life." Rakushun flashed a wry smile. "There was nothing wrong with getting out of Kei while the getting was good, but when it comes right down to it, life is rough for a refugee in En. It is better than staying behind in a kingdom going to the dogs. And En does its best to take care of people. Seeing how rich En is has got to hurt, though. Still, the only way to become a citizen of En is to buy land or become a public servant, and neither one of those is easy. Otherwise, if you wanted to settle down in En, you'd have to get hired by a wealthy land owner and work as an itinerant farmer, or get a job in a shop. So people long for their home country."
"I've been very fortunate. I was lucky enough to get into the university. The people of Kei are pretty fortunate, too, compared to the average refugee elsewhere."
"The Royal Kei and Royal En have a good relationship. The Royal Kei has told the Royal En to convey her best regards to her subjects and the Royal En has acknowledged her wishes. That alone is plenty to be thankful for. He has done much to help resettle the people from Kei back in their home kingdom. It's coming out of the national budgets of both En and Kei, a compromise worked out between the En and Kei. It doesn't make life easier for people from the other kingdoms, though."
"The Royal Kei has a lot of things going for her. She's got a strong En watching her back, there to encourage her."
Shoukei wondered what kind of geography Kei had, it being so much further south than Hou. She said, "Do you think the returnees would mind someone who wasn't from Kei coming along with them?"
"I don't think so. They've got no way to check whether you've got a valid passport or not. A lot of people's homes were destroyed and they fled without their papers. Even so, if you want to go to Kei, I'll take you as far as the border."
"Tama should be waiting at the next town. The suguu, I mean. That's his name. With Tama, I can fly you to the Koushuu Mountains and be back to Kankyuu in two days."
Shoukei looked out toward the southeast. "You don't have any concerns about my going to Kei?"
"Not at all. Check it out. Go see what it's like."
"Once you've seen what you need to see, how about you come back to Kankyuu and fill me in on how things are going there?"