The next day, as she usually did, Renka brought breakfast to Seihaku in his high tower. The same as the first time they met, he was peering through the tube-like thing on his desk when she arrived.
“What is that?” Renka asked.
“A device that makes very small things big enough to see,” Seihaku explained, moving a go piece with his free hand.
He wasn’t playing go. He was moving the go pieces from one box to another. Renka wanted to ask him what that was all about, but Seihaku showed no inclination to do anything more than acknowledge her presence. So Renka nodded and left.
On her way back, next to the thickets, there was Shikyou leaning over as he had the other day. Probably still searching for cicada husks.
“Good morning!” she called out.
Shikyou raised his head and smiled. Hiding the handbasket behind his back, he replied, “Morning!”
“Are you looking for more cicada husks today too?”
Shikyou nodded. Shikyou wasn’t much older than her father. Though in the prime of adulthood, he had a childlike bashful air about him that was both strange and cute.
“Can I help?”
The startled look on his face was quickly replaced by a broad smile. “Really?”
“Sure. So I’ll be looking for cicada husks too?”
Shikyou answered with a big nod. He happily taught her where to search in the thicket and how to handle the husks. In less than half an hour, they had filled Shikyou’s handbasket. No more were left to be found.
“We have conquered the thicket!” Shikyou proudly declared. That was funny too.
Walking back to the main wing of the manor house, Renka asked, “Are they useful in weather forecasting?”
“Good question,” Shikyou said, tilting his head to the side. “I think so. For the past several years, I’ve only concentrated on gathering them.”
Nothing more substantive than that? Renka thought to herself. The whole thing was dumbfounding.
“Um, you see, there’s a yaboku tree up the side of those mountains.” Shikyou pointed at the low-rising mountains to the north of the lake. “I’ve theorized that’s where these cicadas grow. There isn’t another yaboku in the vicinity. When the ranka ripens and drops, the young larva swarm out. Have you seen the larva of a cicada?”
Renka shook her head.”
“A cicada larva resembles a caterpillar. They burrow into the earth. After several years, they move through the earth and to that thicket.”
She glanced back at the thicket and then up at the mountains. “So far?”
The distance amazed her. It’d take a human being half a day on foot. Could a small insect travel that distance, and through the earth to boot?”
“It is a long way for the larva. They absorb sap from the roots of trees along the way as they move in yearly increments. Finally arriving at that thicket, they emerge as cicadas.”
He looked into the handbasket like a proud parent.
“The cicadas spend several years to several decades inside the earth. So when examining a cicada husk, you can begin to imagine how they spent that time and in what conditions.”
Blessed with good weather and nutritious sap, the larva grew big in no time at all. Otherwise, molting was delayed and the husks were smaller and more brittle to the touch.
“We understand that much. Surely it’s related to the conditions within the earth. Qi forecasters like Seihaku survey the climate above the ground and record what they observe. But understanding what is going on beneath the ground is more difficult. Whether they parallel conditions above ground level is hard to say. In any case, what happens within the earth has a powerful effect on plants that grow out of the earth.”
“Ah,” Renka said. “By looking at the cicada husks, you can learn what’s been going on underground for the past several years, and what kind of conditions the roots of trees and grasses have been growing in as well.”
Shikyou grinned. “Exactly,” he said with a big nod. And then he blushed and looked down at his feet. “Well, no, more like we’re gathering them in the hope of gaining a greater understanding. I’m making these records with the cooperation of forecasters of the wind in each region. But the fact is, there’s no telling what conclusions we’ll be able to draw in the end.”
The ideal approach, he said, would be to breed cicadas in a controlled setting and observe them every step of the way. But thinking about doing so was much easier than actually doing it.
“It’s best to use tools and instruments the way Seihaku does and make records with sound and reliable information.”
“Speaking of which, today, Seihaku-sama was peering through a tube and moving go pieces around.”
“He must have been counting pollen grains. In that case, he would have done his best to ignore you. Please forgive his bad manners.”
“Well, he did answer but didn’t move his head.”
Shikyou laughed. “Avert his gaze and he’d lose count of the pollen grains. Sorry about that.”
With a nod of his head, Shikyou conscientiously apologized for something he had nothing to do with. Yes, indeed. He is an odd one, Renka thought. At the same time, she felt a reassuring warmth in her soul.
These men had definitely not forgotten about the sad state of human affairs. They were working their hardest to help their fellow countrymen make it through these hard times.
The summer waned and autumn arrived. As the fall progressed, Renka mastered the more mundane of her chores and took over many of Choukou’s duties.
Choukou never missed an opportunity to laugh and say, “I’m going to leave everything in Renka’s hands and retire.” But he didn’t demonstrate the slightest inclination to stop working. Rather, he seemed to enjoy working alongside her. And Renka enjoyed working alongside him.
Before the winter winds began to blow, one of the elderly women returned. Renka feared she might be out of a job, except Kakei wasn’t about to send her packing. With another pair of hands around the house, Renka had less to do there. At the same time, she increasingly found herself assisting Shikyou and Seihaku.
When she actually started helping them out, her earlier opinion that they had devoted themselves to helping out the common man struck her as a bit of a romantic exaggeration.
Clearly, Shikyou and Seihaku and Kakei dedicated themselves to their respective duties. They demonstrated this dedication in their various fields of study. At first, as Choukou had observed, it seemed that, apart from their specific areas of interest, they couldn’t care less about food, clothing, and frivolous pastimes.
The same way they paid no attention to the cruel and dreary world. Or rather, it was not that they paid no attention. The rest of the world simply did not register in their senses.
Even grasping all that, Renka didn’t find it as off-putting as she had before. After all, Kakei and his team were committed to the creation of the most accurate almanacs possible. She understood the need for reliable almanacs and calendars. As long as she didn’t forget that, she could hold onto a strong sense of pride and responsibility. Observing them at work made that clear in her mind.
All that was no less true when rumors circulated that a new empress had been enthroned.
The previous empress had fallen by her own choice and of her own accord, so the Saiho remained in good health. That meant their next ruler should be chosen with relative alacrity. In fact, the new empress was rumored to have appeared that fall.
But then came rumors that their new liege was a pretender.
The “empress” accused the imperial ministers of conspiring together to cast her out of the Imperial Palace. In turn, they disparaged her as a pretender. As a result, said Choukou, who kept his ear to the grapevine, regional conflicts were breaking out here and there, and threatened to fragment the kingdom into civil war.
When Choukou recounted the news at dinnertime, Suiga and Seihaku were dumbfounded.
“You don’t say!” the startled Suiga exclaimed. “Now that you mention it, I suppose that means the empress died?”
Their surprise surprised Renka. Choukou was no less amazed. “I am well aware how out of touch you are with the real world, but I didn’t think you were that out of touch.”
“We’re in touch,” Suiga protested. “We just sort of forgot.”
Seihaku nodded and Choukou sighed. “How about this? I’m talking about war. Those sparks might come flying our way tomorrow.”
“Except we’re not soldiers,” Shikyou pointed out. “Fighting is hardly in our job description.”
“I’m talking about being prepared,” Choukou answered with added emphasis.
Kakei raised his voice in tones of mild reproach. “Simply because war breaks out doesn’t mean the people no longer have to live their lives.”
“Hard to live a life when a town gets burned down the way Renka’s was.”
Choukou’s words gave Renka a jolt.
“That’s not what I’m referring to. Even in times of war, people have to eat. Their day-to-day lives must go on.”
Shikyou added to Kakei’s thoughts, “Suppose that every able-bodied citizen marched off to war. The aged and the infirmed and the children would still be left behind.”
Kakei nodded. “For the time being, the throne is empty. After this, countless calamities are bound to devastate our kingdom. The people will have to battle natural disasters and youma and contend with civil strife. The criminal element that such hardships always spawn will arise as well.”
Choukou kept any retorts to himself.
“If waging such wars of survival is in accordance with the Way, wouldn’t supporting the daily life of ordinary citizens also be in accordance with the Way?”
“That it would,” Choukou agreed with a perfunctory bow.
Looking at the abashed Choukou, Renka repeated to herself, Sustaining the daily lives of the people is in accordance with the Way. Without a doubt, even in the midst of war, lives had to be lived. That being the case, somebody had to lend a hand. They all had to pitch in so the people could live the best lives they could.
That might not sound terribly “heroic,” but there was no denying how important and necessary it was.