he setsuzan. A wasteland of broken mountains, as if the skyscraping peaks of Ryou’un Mountain had crumbled to pieces and been strewn across the landscape.
Rokuta examined the countryside in stark disbelief. The last time he’d seen this place he would have sworn things could not possibly get any worse. The sight before his eyes tempted him to question that conviction.
Wispy clouds lingered in the high vault of the heavens. Beneath the cruelly bright sky, summer would soon be upon them. But the expected red of flowers and green of grass was nowhere to be seen. The farmlands appeared no more fertile than a desert.
Fields of wheat that should be oceans of green were little more than overgrown tangle of weeds. The withered clumps of wavering shoots rising out of the dry, cracked earth had lost even their warm golden color.
The paddy causeways had crumbled, reducing the rural hamlets to plots of vacant land surrounded by stone walls. The stone walls themselves had fallen apart in places, been blackened by fire, weathered by the wind and rain, blanched to a dreary, desolate gray.
The stockades that normally would have surrounded the village at the foot of the hill were wrecked, the houses within piles of debris. Not one twig remained on the trees that once shielded the hamlets and village.
Only the riboku stood alone in the center of the village, scorched to the color of tarnished silver. Around its trunk sat several people, still as a ring of abandoned statues.
Birds perched in its upper branches. Far more flying youma circled above. Not a leaf or petal was left on the tree. Nothing prevented the youma in the sky from seeing through the spotted white branches. But nobody cast a wary glance over his shoulder. Youma and other predatory animals wouldn’t attack anything in the shadow of a riboku.
Ignoring them, though, wouldn’t make them go away. These humans were simply too exhausted to work up any additional fear of the youma.
The once verdant mountains were charred brown while the rivers uselessly flooded their banks. Any identifiable hamlets and villages had long ago been reduced to cinders. Nobody bothered tilling this ravaged earth. Any hope for fertile ground was in vain, as was planning for next year’s harvest. The farmers were too hungry and too tired to pick up their hoes, let alone gather together in sufficient numbers to share the work and watch each other’s backs.
The wings of the circling youma drooped as well. The youma were starving. As Rokuta watched, one fell out of the sky. Not even these demonic beings could sustain themselves from the ravaged fields.
In this land of broken mountains, the kingdom was a dead man walking. These surely are the last days of the Kingdom of En.
The previous emperor was posthumously known as Emperor Kyou. Though he had governed long and well, at some point a demon took hold of his heart. He oppressed his subjects and even seemed to enjoy the sound of their suffering.
He quartered soldiers in every village. Let the slightest murmur of dissatisfaction with imperial rule be voiced aloud and that person would be arrested on the spot, then together with all their relations be put to death in the street.
When an insurrection broke out, they’d open the sluice gates and flood the village. Or spill oil into the gutters and set it ablaze with fire arrows, killing every man, woman, and child.
A kingdom had nine provinces and nine province lords. The emperor executed any of the province lords who possessed a backbone and a conscience. There was no one left to stop him.
When the Saiho took to his sickbed, his soul mortally wounded and his body struck down by the shitsudou, the emperor haughtily declared it was all according to Providence, and commenced construction of a huge mausoleum.
Conscripted laborers dug a double-ring moat. The excavated dirt and the corpses of the slaughtered workers created a burial mound so high a man standing near its slopes had to tilt back his head to see the top. It was rumored that a hundred and thirty thousand girls were slain in order to serve him in this “Inner Palace of the Dead.”
Emperor Kyou died on the verge of its completion. The kingdom was already in ruins. The whole nation had been slogging for years through this swamp of misery, struggling even to take the next breath. Upon the news of the emperor’s demise, they shouted with joy, so loud the neighboring kingdoms must have heard the roar.
The expectations of the people turned toward the next emperor. But no coronation was forthcoming.
In the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, the kirin chose the ruler. The kirin was a divine beast, an oracle in tune with the Divine. After choosing an emperor according to the Mandate of Heaven, he became the emperor’s closest advisor and chief retainer and served him as the Taiho.
However, thirty years passed without finding a new emperor. The Taiho came to the end of his natural lifespan and died. Such a great catastrophe had only occurred eight times since the dawn of history.
The emperor not only governed the kingdom but ruled over the cosmic forces of yin and yang. When the throne was vacant, nature spun out of control. Disasters continued unabated. In a land already devastated by the actions of Emperor Kyou, such a calamity only wreaked further destruction. The people soon lacked the energy to voice their lamentations aloud.
This wasteland was the result.
Standing there on the hill, Rokuta turned his gaze to the man next to him. He was looking at the ruined vistas before them.
Rokuta’s official name and title was Enki. Although he appeared to be a mere boy, his essence was anything but human. He was the kirin of the Kingdom of En. Standing beside him was the man he’d chosen as the next emperor.
Do you want a kingdom of your own? Rokuta had asked him. A kingdom on its last legs, with barely any people or property to rule over. If so, I will give you one.
I do, he answered without reservation.
What must he be thinking now, surveying this wrecked land? Surely he couldn’t have expected such wide-ranging devastation.
Rokuta looked up at him. Would he sigh? Would he rage? Perhaps feeling his eyes upon him, the man turned to Rokuta and said, “There’s absolutely nothing here.”
Rokuta only nodded.
“Fashioning a whole kingdom out of nothing is a big responsibility,” he said, with no more solemnity than observing the time of day. “But if there is nothing to start with, then we’ll be pretty much free to do as we see fit.”
He raised his voice and laughed in what sounded like blithe disregard. Rokuta hung his head. For some reason he felt like crying.
“What?” a warm and gentle voice asked him.
Rokuta took a deep breath and let it out. For the first time, he really understood the crushing weight that had been riding on his shoulders. And now it vanished.
“Well, then.” The man put his hand on Rokuta’s shoulder. “What do you say we take a trip to this Mt. Hou place and start the ball rolling?”
The only weight Rokuta felt now was that of the man’s hand. According to human reckoning, Rokuta was thirteen years old. For thirteen years he’d carried the fate of an entire kingdom. Only now could he entrust it to another person—for good or for ill.
The man slapped Rokuta on the shoulder and set off. Rokuta looked back at him and said, “I’m counting on you.”
He didn’t say for what. The man smiled. “Leave everything to me.”