As Shikyou predicted, that winter was harsher than usual. Spring took its time arriving. And when it did, so did frequent and long rains. A sunny sky became a rare thing. The planting season came late. Yields would be small. Push back the harvest too long and the crops would stop ripening and rot in the fields.
“This spring has been no relief at all,” Choukou said for the umpteenth time.
When it rained, it poured, and his hips and knees hurt. Renka wanted to lend a hand, but was spending the bulk of her time helping out Shikyou and Seihaku. Now, before bringing Seihaku breakfast, she had to measure the temperature of the water in the well at a specific time.
In order to keep track of the time, her job was also to wind the expensive clock imported from the Kingdom of Han. She wound the clock and rang the gong in the turret adjacent the main wing every morning at the predetermined hour. She brought Seihaku breakfast and assisted him for a while. After that, she helped out Shikyou.
Choukou joked that she’d practically become Shikyou’s apprentice.
Once in a while, she accompanied Choukou on shopping trips and other tasks. When Renka first arrived, Setsuyou was a sad and bedraggled town. The mood had changed of late. The women who’d fled the town had returned, bringing with them some much needed good cheer. At the same time, though, the number of exhausted travelers increased, refugees from civil wars and natural disasters.
The rumors that a new empress had arrived were apparently true. No one could say whether she was a pretender or the real thing. Every province and district reacted differently. In towns like Setsuyou that tried to remain neutral, tensions were rising.
“The prefectural government is in a tight spot, trying to figure out which side they’re on,” Choukou observed.
Perhaps because of the long rains at the beginning of spring, produce prices were on the rise. Thanks to the brutally cold winter, the poorest of the poor had emptied out their meager reserves in exchange for wood and charcoal. Every time they visited, public order seemed to grow worse. The entirety of society felt like it was fraying around the edges.
“Do you think she’s the real empress?”
“Hard to say. A guy like me has no way of knowing. Baku Province says no. Sei Province couldn’t say yes fast enough and opened the gates of the provincial palace to her.”
They heard the province lord of Ken Province also supported the new empress. Yet outlying districts like Setsuyou refused to commit themselves. In particular, the three districts closest to Baku Province favored the faction that claimed she was a pretender.
“I see,” Renka said to herself.
When they left the confines of the agricultural preserve, the atmosphere grew heavy. That wasn’t changing anytime soon. The pervasive sense of unease and melancholy meant that nobody could relax. An era when imperial edicts were promulgated without the slightest regard for common sense—and towns were torched when they failed to take them seriously—the darkness of that era was bound to continue.
I am so sick and tired of it all.
In her heart, this state of affairs frightened her. Returning to the agricultural preserve lifted her spirits. The first sunlight in many days made her squint.
Choukou said, “I’ve got nothing else for you to do this afternoon, so feel free to lounge around for a while.”
Shikyou and Seihaku would beckon her soon enough. In the meantime, she intended to enjoy the bright sunshine. Renka left the manor house and walked down the path next to the lake. North of the lake was a plot where the villagers grew flowers. The flower garden was laid out in terraced steps. It was all abloom with everything from expensive ornamental flowers to wildflowers that could be found anywhere.
Renka found a stone bathed in sunlight and nicely situated next to the path and sat down. She let her mind wander as she watched the breeze raise glittering ripples on the surface of the lake. She suddenly took note of her surroundings. Here she was in the midst of the round, wide field, but what were those dots floating in the sky?
The dots hovered in the air like large black soybeans. Just as Renka started to wonder what was going on, they stopped wavering back and forth and darted off. The swarm climbed higher and turned to the nearby tool shed, then soon returned and again paused in the sky.
Renka narrowed her eyes. A swarm of insects, she guessed. The big bugs glided en masse to a stop, waited, remembered what they were waiting for, and swooped back toward the tool shed. Then returned again.
Curious about what they were up to, Renka strolled over to the tool shed. Never much more than a ramshackle shack, this time of year the shed was as beautiful as a dream. Rose vines snaked up the walls and across the roof. Gleaming white flowers blanketed the little building.
Last fall, the vines were covered with red berries and the birds flitted about pecking at them.
Now that Renka was next to the shed, she could make out the bees flying from one flower to the next. Alarmed, she took a cautious step back. And then raised a small cry of recognition.
Big bees, their furry bodies covered with tiger stripes.
She again drew closer. The roses smelled divine. Bees buzzed around the tufts of small flowers. Even when Renka leaned in for a better look, they paid her no mind, jumping from flower to flower.
She squatted down next to a big vine hanging down from the eaves of the shed. The flowers spilled down like a white waterfall. The bumblebees swarmed around the luxuriant cascade, burying their bodies inside the white petals.
“I see. Now she has a whole host of companions.”
Or better yet, call them her family, living proof that the queen bee had patiently endured through the winter beneath the log.
The swarm of bumblebees showed no signs of slowing down. They dove into the soft petals, so radiantly white it was like they were scooping up handfuls of sunlight. The golden rose pollen covered their bodies, clinging to the short and fluffy black and brown hairs.
With a quiver of their translucent black wings, the bumblebees circled the inside of the flowers, transferring the pollen from their bodies to their legs. What resembled little round donut holes grew in size as they industriously scooped up more pollen and packed it together at the joints of their hind legs.
Even bees had their individual idiosyncrasies—there were the ones who earnestly gathered pollen—the ones who got greedy and their donut holes fell off—and the sneaky ones who snatched up the fallen donut holes and stuck them to their own legs.
Renka couldn’t help giggling. And only then noticed she was crying. Not because she was sad. Only that the hardworking bees burying their bodies in the beautiful white flowers were so endearing.
Accompanying the fragrant air and the glistening wings and the glittering soft hair and the glossy golden pollen was a persistent hum, the whisper of the wind, and the cry of the birds, all playing a leisurely lullaby that might easily sing her off to midday slumber.
But come fall, all of them would die. Such were the merciless demands of nature.
And yet life persisted, endured, made those deeply-rooted connections and continued on.
Renka said in an encouraging whisper, “Keep it up, guys. Do your best.”