Fall fast approached winter. The farmers on the agricultural preserve finished bringing in the harvest, and then herded the sheep and cattle grazing in the nearby hills back to pastures closer to the barns.
Helping out Shikyou and Seihaku meant Renka spent more time in the hamlet. Many of the assistants lived among the farmers while doing their research. Shikyou and Seihaku and Kakei also traveled back and forth on a regular basis.
They met once a month with their assistants in the Flower Room. Invitations also went out to the inhabitants, and the meetings often turned into impromptu banquets. In return, they were invited to festivals and celebrations in the hamlet.
At the urging of Kakei and his assistants, the residents of the hamlet kept records and carried out experiments. As a result, they well understood how the climate related to farming practices. They willingly stepped forward with their own advice and proposals, which Kakei graciously acknowledged, accepted, and applied.
As she frequented the hamlet more often, Renka found herself doted on. Mingling with the hardworking farmers aroused in her strong feelings of nostalgia. Summer items had to be washed and stored away and clothing made ready for winter. Talk of such mundane activities moved her to an extent that surprised her.
The first time Renka visited the hamlet, it was strangely inhabited only by men. By the time the first frost fell, a number of women and children had returned.
“I fled with this child in my arms,” said a woman. She’d arrived home a few days before. “Conditions are really bad out there.”
Waiting at the harbor in Baku Province for a ship to the Kingdom of En, they heard the empress had died and hurried back home.
“My husband entrusted me with our savings. Kakei-sama covered our travel expenses. Still, not knowing how long we were going to be on the run, we had to be careful about parceling out our resources. You can pinch all the pennies in the world, but when you’re on the road and have a baby, greedy merchants are bound to take advantage.”
She sighed and picked up the baby. “With youma here, rebellions there, and awful rumors everywhere, nobody knew what the truth was. We couldn’t relax for a minute.”
Cradling the child in her arms, she looked out over the broad expanse of the lake. “It’s good to be home. Here we can catch our breath and enjoy some peace of mind.”
Renka nodded. An atmosphere of calm pervaded the hamlet. As part of the agricultural preserve maintained by the district, the hamlet’s inhabitants were granted certain guarantees by the district and given a certain degree of preferential treatment. Like the preserve, the hamlet existed at arm’s length to the outside world.
“So many people out there simply have no idea what to do or where to turn. Even if you did, having no idea when the soldiers might send you packing or when you’d get attacked by bandits made the journey all the more exhausting. We’re very grateful to have finally made it back.”
“I understand,” Renka started to say, when Shikyou came to fetch her. He’d finished talking with the men about his latest project.
“Well, let’s go,” he called out.
Cradling the child, the woman laughed. “Must be tough being Shikyou’s assistant. Where are you headed today?”
“Up to the mountains. We’re searching for the treasure lair of the field mouse.”
“You don’t say,” she answered with a grin.
“See you later.” Renka waved goodbye and tailed after Shikyou.
Shikyou pointed at the west flank of the mountains rising to the north of the lake. “That looks like a good spot.”
They started up the slope. A cool breeze had been blowing since that morning, but hurrying to keep up with Shikyou, it didn’t take long for Renka to work up a good sweat.
Shikyou stopped beside a big tree, examined the ground, then raised his voice. “Ah, here it is!” He pointed at a small hole hidden among the roots snaking into the ground. “The nest of a field mouse. But searching there will disturb the poor fellow so we’ll explore his neighborhood.”
“The neighborhood of the nest?”
“It’ll be buried in close proximity. And also beneath the leaves and stones. Under fallen branches like these.”
“This is where the buried treasure is?”
“They’re treasures if you’re a mouse.”
“Huh,” Renka exclaimed. She got down on her hands and knees and methodically turned over the rocks and branches, raked her hands through the leaves. Crawling across the ground, she came to a big rock and rolled over the decaying log next to it. Something stirred in the mat of moldering leaves. Looking closer, she realized it was big hairy bee.
Renka shrieked and jumped backwards. Casting her eyes about, she grabbed the nearest stone and was about the heave it at the insect.
“No, no, no,” said Shikyou, plucking the stone from Renka’s hand. “It looks like it’s hibernating.”
It showed no signs of taking to wing. Given its sluggish movements, it shouldn’t be in the mood to attack.
“You don’t want to kill it.”
“But—” Renka pointed at the bee. “They still can sting, can’t they? They’re dangerous.”
“This one won’t. She must be the last one left. Don’t worry about her.”
The last one left. The words echoed eerily in her heart.
“This is a bumblebee. It may look big and dangerous, but it’s a gentle creature that lives off nectar and gathers pollen.”
A gentle creature?
Renka scrutinized the bee burrowed into the mat of leaves. It had black wings and a fuzzy body striped like a tiger. Several times larger than the honeybees Renka was more familiar with, it appeared all the more ferocious.
“Unlike hornets and wasps, she won’t sting anybody minding his own business. Of course, she will fight to defend herself.”
“Despite her size, she is a cousin to the honeybee. A gentle sort and a hard worker.”
“It’s really not going to sting me?”
“Not at all. Especially not when it’s this cold.”
“Huh,” said Renka. She squatted down next to Shikyou. “If they’re related to the honeybee, where’s the swarm?”
“She doesn’t have one. They’ve all died by now.”
“Really?” Renka glanced at Shikyou. He sat there like a child, elbows on his knees and chin in his hands, watching the slumbering bee.
“Like the honeybee, bumblebees come together in swarms and build hives. But unlike the honeybee, they do not overwinter. They all die except for the queen. She alone will emerge in the spring.”
“That’s right. She’ll winter over by herself. Having survived the winter months, in the spring, she’ll fly off to the yaboku tree to gather a soran.”
“A soran is the essence of the egg. Call it a proto-egg. As you know, birds don’t hatch from chicken eggs. Chickens and geese petition the riboku and are given chicks. Wild birds and insects don’t do that. The yaboku bears the fruit—the soran—that becomes an egg. A wild bird seizes it in its beak. Those soran spawn the eggs that give birth to the chicks.”
Sizes differed according to the enormous variety, but they were said to be small, milky-white grains.
“The soran of the bee is big compared to a creature this size, the size and color of small pearls. When she awakens in the spring, the queen bee will fly to the yaboku and returns with the soran. She’ll incubate the soran, which will produce the eggs the worker bees hatch from.”
As he talked, Shikyou gently rolled the log back into place.
“The bumblebee is cheerful and industrious. If they weren’t so hardworking, trees wouldn’t fruit. The food on our tables is a gift of the bumblebee. Ah, what’s this?”
Shikyou examined a mound in the thick mat of leaves next to the log. Acorns tumbled out, glittering in the winter sunlight. “Here is a treasure chest.”
“The treasure chest of a mouse?”
“Yes, indeed. The field mouse stores up food in preparation for winter. This guy has done a very good job.”
Shikyou counted the acorns one by one, then put them back as Renka jotted down the sums in a notebook. Having finished with that location, they moved onto another. For the rest of the afternoon, they uncovered more similar acorn caches.
“The mice have been busy this fall. There’s a good chance this winter will be a cold one.”
Confused, Renka cocked her head to the side. Shikyou smiled. “Animals, you see, are far more sensitive to changes in the weather than we humans are.”