12-3 Shoukei climbed Mt. Koushuu to the border of En and Kei and entered Kei. The name of the city at the border checkpoint was Gantou. Thanks to Rakushun, she had no problems crossing the border.
Parting with her in the Kei part of the city, Rakushun returned to En. Shoukei watched him leave and couldn't help but hang her head and say, Thank you.
He'd arranged a passport for her, and given her traveling money out of his own pocket. He'd given her a lot. He brought her this far and hadn't begrudged her a thing. She couldn't begin to thank him.
"Oh, damn," she said to herself, as Rakushun's waving tail faded out of view. She hadn't thanked him in person. She'd never apologized to anyone. Back in Hou, back in the sticks, she'd groveled to Gobo. In the palace in Kyou, she'd groveled to the Royal Kyou. But never with any sincerity. She'd never thanked anybody from the bottom of her heart. She hadn't even been sorry about it.
When she raised her head again, Rakushun was gone from the broad, finely-maintained streets of En. He was probably already on the suguu and galloping back to Kankyuu.
She took a breath and cast a glance back over her shoulder. The kind of differences you saw here at the border of En and Kei were not dissimilar to those at the border of Ryuu and En.
So this is Kei.
The city straddled the summit of the Koushuu Mountains. From the gate separating En and Kei, the city stretched out over the terraced slopes. A commanding view of the city opened up from the thoroughfare before the center gate. At the same time, the kingdom spread out from foot of the Koushuu Mountains.
Along with Shoukei, many others also stopped there on the street and gazed out at their surroundings and breathed sighs of resignation. Compared to En, the view was a desolate one. No snow lay on the wintry countryside, and the lack of snow cover only accentuated the lonely, barren view.
The border city was big. Nevertheless, the hustle and bustle were sadly lacking. Small buildings huddled together along narrow streets paved with compacted earth. It was warmer here compared to cities in the north, but all the windows were tightly shut. Windows glazed with glass were scarce as hen's teeth. It seemed a city stubbornly refusing to extend a welcome to anybody.
The wrecked buildings were everywhere, only the skeletons of their structures remaining behind. The jumble of motley shops lined the road, from the cramped buildings spilled a tide of smashed jars and jugs and furniture and household implements. Countless small huts, shutting out the wind with scrapped wood and old rags, perched along the outer loop road encompassing the city. Ragged, weary people crowded sullenly around the bonfires.
Kei was a country in turmoil. Here the precedent of a long-lived king did not exist. The most bitter difference between En and Kei was the long rule of a single monarch.
Large numbers of people flowed into the Kei side of the city, and the greatest portion of them were refugees.
"I thought it would have improved a bit more," muttered a despondent man, who seemed to speak for the crowds of people flowing down the street. "Yeah, I shouldn't have come back."
Shoukei heard the sighs from people in the group.
"Is it all this rotten, I wonder? It sure doesn't look good."
"I left the country after the empress died. I had no idea it had gotten this bad."
"Yeah, it's hard," Shoukei thought to herself as she walked along. It's going to be hard fixing up this kingdom.
The refugees were a headache to En, but so they were to Kei. People who had been to En couldn't help comparing it to Kei. In fact, compared to her home kingdom of Hou, the condition of Kei wasn't so bad to make her despair. Yet the differences between En and Kei were as obvious as the nose on your face. Side by side with the prosperity and liveliness of En, the Kei side of the city looked a wreck.
The group of people continued on down the street together and entered a cheap inn. She finally found a three-story building with vacancies. Big rooms, but you had to share accommodations.
The refugees staying at the inn expressed a variety of sentiments: from those happy they were able to return to their home country, earnestly optimistic about the future, to those nursing the broken dream of moving back to a blessed, wealthy kingdom and living the easy life.
"You hear that about the empress?"
Shoukei overheard several people talking together in a corner of the guest quarters.
"An empress? Again?"
"If I'd known that, I would have stayed in En."
"Empresses are no good. They don't have what it takes. It's all going to hell in a handbasket soon enough."
"The minute it starts heading down that road, we're hightailing it to En."
"I'm telling you, the next time we leave, we're never coming back."
Yeah, it really was a mess. Shoukei sighed. For some reason, the Royal Kei didn't seem like a stranger to her. When she thought about what it must be like to be the Empress, she had to sigh in sympathy.
And right now she's probably in the palace thinking the same thing.
"I wonder if we just should head back now."
"Never happen. There's nothing left for us in En. No matter how you slice it, we weren't born in En."
"Yeah, but we can't go back to where we was born, neither."
"Hopefully something's left of our hometown."
"Forget it." One of the men leaned forward. "You know anything about ships leaving from Goto?"
"Warships headed to Tai. One of the governors in Wa Province been dispatching them, or so's I hear. Seems they're picking up refugees in Tai and bringing them here."
"News to me. You gotta be crazy, heading off to Tai, now? Put a cork in it."
"Not, I'm not talking about that. Let's see, where was it . . . yeah, Shisui. The governor of Shisui, he sends out these boats 'cause of how sorry he feels for the refugees and all. If you get on board and make it to Shisui, he'll give you a plot of land and register you on the census."
"Shisui, Wa Province . . . that's right on the border of Ei Province."
"Hey, if they can take care of refugees like that, Shisui's got to be doing great, right? If we ask, they got to welcome us in, right?"
"Nonsense." A woman waved her hand dismissively. "It's all sweet talk. People pulling the wool over your eyes."
"It ain't. I heard the same from other people as well. Right?"
There was a lull in the conversation.
"They got you believing in tall tales, all right. That's all they are."
"That can't be true. C'mon, no one's heard of it before? Really?"
In response to his query, Shoukei raised her voice. "I have."
The tight little group suddenly opened up, its attention falling on her. The one man approached her. "It's true, isn't it? I knew it!"
"Well, um, I heard about it in Ryuu. I heard about it from a sailor who worked on ships that sailed from Ryuu to Tai. He said there were ships like that."
A flurry of conversation followed, all of them arguing at the same time about how well off Shisui must be, and how their hometown might not even exist anymore.
"So why don't we just go see for ourselves?"
"My village got destroyed when the river flooded its banks."
"I'd still rather go back to where I was born."
They ended up split down the middle, between those who wanted to start for Shisui right away, and those who thought it all a pack of lies and argued that nothing good would come of it.
"Where'd you come from?" one of them asked Shoukei.
She tilted her head to one side. "I'm from Hou. You know, I'd like to get a homestead of my own, but I'm not old enough." She could always fib about her age, but she wasn't sure about how to carry it off. "But if Shisui really is that wealthy, I don't see any harm in finding out for myself." She nodded to herself as she spoke. "I figure I've got to get a job somewhere, and it might as well be Shisui as anywhere else."
The next day, Shoukei started her journey to Shisui. She'd gotten used to traveling by wagon in Ryuu so that was how she'd decided to proceed. Unlike Ryuu and En, there were many people walking along the roads. In fact, it wouldn't be too cold to walk. The work of walking alone would keep you warm enough, aside from the tips of your feet and hands, to be tolerable.
The road headed south toward Meikaku, the capital city of Wa Province. The highway to Gyouten ran east to west through Meikaku and Shisui.
The devastation of the countryside was severe. Many of the buildings in the villages en route were destroyed. The wrecked fields lay fallow, the ashen forests blighted and burned. With so little snow, nothing was hidden from view. Now and then, in the countryside surrounding a hamlet where people lived, you could see the rows of earthen mounds. So many people had died.
It made her shudder. The ravaged mountains and streams, the loss of life. This was because of the king, because no king sat upon the throne.
"Miss, where you from?" an old man sitting next to her in the wagon asked.
Shoukei tore her eyes away from the view out of the back of the wagon. Many wagons in Kei traveled with the back uncovered.
"Hou," she said.
"Is it true, the stories about the king of Hou dying?"
"Huh." The old man hugged the onjaku to his chest. "So Hou's gonna go through this as well."
Shoukei's eyes widened in response to this matter-of-fact statement. It was true. Many people would die. Victims would begrudge their assailants, the same way she hated the Marquis Gekkei.
And so he should be hated, for bringing such destruction upon the kingdom. She said, "Kei is better off now, with a new empress on the throne."
The old man chuckled. "I suppose you could say it's getting better. But that's what we all thought the last time."
He didn't have anything more to say after that.