Before dawn, in mid-winter, the snow fell silently through the bitter cold air.
Arousing himself in a small, soot-stained room in the inn, Hyouchuu exhaled a cloud of white. He dragged his leaden body out of bed. The first thing he did was crawl across the floor to the box in the corner. He struck a match and softly opened the lid of finely woven bamboo. Like the lid, the box was fashioned from a close weave of bamboo strips. The exterior was lacquered, the inside lined with cotton and linen.
The workmanship suggested a luxury of considerable worth. But the glimmering treasure inside consisted of nothing more than a single wooden log. The log was approximately the circumference of two hands cupped together and the length of two hands (as when measuring the height of a horse).
The quite ordinary log sat half-buried in a bed of sawdust. Midway down the speckled bark, green shoots sprouted from the stump of a severed branch.
Having confirmed what he was so eager to see, Hyouchuu let out a small sigh of relief. He retrieved the log from the box and examined it. Though the severed ends and the bark appeared dried out, a light tap with his knuckle suggested fresh wood deeper within. No signs of rot, mold or mildew. Neither was there anything amiss with the leaves sprouting from the knot in the wood.
The leaves resembled those of a slender orchid, grown thick enough to grab a small handful. Hyouchuu examined them one by one. The healthy glossy green showed no signs of withering or wilting.
All that he could have hoped for.
That was why, staying overnight in an inn, he always woke up worried that the shoots had withered as he slept. The first thing he did when he opened his eyes was check their condition. The fear accompanied him whenever he lay down to sleep. No matter how tired he was, that fear kept him awake. When sleep finally came, so did the nightmares that one morning he would check the box to find its contents dead.
Three times a night, the horrible dreams yanked his eyes open. He had to rouse himself to check the box, and then force himself back to bed.
And yet this morning they still thrived. “Oh, good,” he whispered.
Hyouchuu scooped out a furrow in the sawdust and replaced the log. He secured it within the box with a cord and then carefully brushed the sawdust from the orchid to keep it from being buried. Over the orchid he placed the small cage he’d previously removed and stuffed in a small bag filled with cotton to keep it from shifting around.
He spread out a square cloth on which he placed a letter wrapped in waxed paper, attached it to the inside wall of the box with a pair of ribbons, and closed the lid. He secured the box with a leather belt and carefully packed it away.
This whole time, his fingers were growing numb from the cold. The water in the bucket he’d filled the night before was skimmed with ice around the outer edge.
Skirting the rim of ice, Hyouchuu scooped up a handful of water and washed his face. He couldn’t feel his fingertips. His knees hurt from the cold seeping up from the floor. There wasn’t even a brazier to warm in the room. Charcoal had been in short supply for several years now. Ordinary citizens wouldn’t know where to find it if they could afford it.
Some things simply couldn’t be helped. Hyouchuu rubbed the circulation back into his legs. Almost before he knew it, another year had ended. During this season, charcoal was as scarce as hen’s teeth. The winters were harsh. The cold would continue, the days not growing warm for some time, even come spring. Every year during these months, no small number of people froze to death.
After massaging his limbs a while longer, Hyouchuu pulled on an extra layer of furs. He removed his shoes at night to let them dry out. Now when he pulled them on, he found that they wouldn’t fit his swollen feet. He had no choice but to use a small knife to cut slits into the parts that proved too snug, wrapped a strip of cloth around the ankle, and secure it with leather strips.
At this point in his journey, his toes were covered with blood blisters. His knees and hips ached. He could hardly straighten his legs. His shoulders ached from carrying the makeshift planter box. His hand were calloused and chapped.
But that was all fine. His hopes yet remained green.
Having completed his preparations, he hefted his traveling pack and the box onto his back and left the room.
It all began with a single oddly-colored beech tree. Or rather, it began with the first time Hyouchuu took note of a tree in a grove of beech trees in his home town.
That was ten years ago.
Hyouchuu was born in Kei province, in the northern quarter of the kingdom. He grew up in a town further to the north, in the mountains near the border. It was a poor village not blessed by a favorable climate. He paid his own way to secondary school and from there advanced to the provincial academy. Good fortune smiled upon him. In his mid-thirties he became an imperial minister.
He was appointed a conservation officer in the Ministry of Earth, with the rank of squire. Although technically a mid-ranked minister, he was a minor official in the bureaucracy at the lowest level.
Hyouchuu’s appointment was regarded as an outstanding achievement in Sei’in, his home town. He’d only recently been listed on the Registry of Wizards, so his parents and relatives were still around. He remained on good terms with friends he’d known since childhood. Every New Year he tried to return home for the holidays. It was during one such trip that he happened to see the strangely colored beech tree in a grove near his village.
The beech had shed its leaves. The branches reached into the frigid air blanketing the wintry mountains. A stream ran through the grove, coursing through a narrow gulch and over a small waterfall. When he was a kid, he used to go fishing in the pool at the base of the waterfall. Surrounded by the low cliff walls and beech grove, it was a cozy place.
The end of one branch facing the cliff wall sparkled as if covered by fresh frost.
“What in the world—”
Hyouchuu looked up at the branch of the tree soaring high over his head. He called out to an old friend. Houkou was his name. Houkou was born in Sei’in. They’d attended the provincial academy together. Houkou graduated a year earlier and became a prefectural official in their home town.
Following Hyouchuu’s gaze, Houkou looked up at the end of the branch. “Can’t be frost. That branch has a southern exposure.”
Hyouchuu nodded. They were in an open area well lit by the sun. In any case, by this time of day, any frost would have melted away. “It looks like it is shining.”
“Yeah,” Houkou agreed.
Houkou nimbly scaled the face of the cliff, shifting his position as he went, getting different views of the branch. After that, he sized up the trunk, looped a leather strap around the trunk and his waist, and climbed the tree.
Watching him, Hyouchuu smiled to himself. Houkou had been a mountain man since he was a kid. He’d explored the nearby mountains and made himself an expert on their geography, flora and fauna. He knew what kinds of trees and plants grew where and what kinds of animals lived where, no less than a farmer knew his own fields.
He could spend an entire day watching a single tree and cataloging all the birds and bugs it was home to. After graduating from the academy, he became a prefectural forest ranger in the Ministry of Summer, tasked with the preservation and protection of the countryside. As far as Houkou was concerned, the best job he could have hoped for.
Houkou scampered up the tree like a monkey. He paused at the thick branch for a closer look. Finally, undoing the leather strap, leaning out as far as he could and snapping the strap like a whip, he broke off the oddly-colored end. Hyouchuu waved to Houkou. Searching through the undergrowth he found it and held it up.
The twig was no longer than his fingers. The strange color and luster, resembling polished stone, made it easy to spot amidst the dried brush. It was cold to the touch and as hard as a rock. Equally odd was the end of the twig where it had broken away from the branch. It showed no torn wood fibers. The break was clean as glass.
“What do you think?” Houkou called out as he climbed down.
Hyouchuu handed him the twig. Houkou took it. His eyes sparkled. “Fascinating. Like stone.”
“What about the branches higher up?”
“Much the same. As if they’re fossilized. And the color is fading.”
“Huh,” Hyouchuu muttered.
The twig that Houkou cut off had a light grayish color. So did the bark of the beech tree, which was not unusual. The beech tree varied from light to dark gray, smooth and without any natural fissures. Perhaps that was why moss and lichen and fungi covered the outer skin of the tree.
Because the bark of the beech did not flake or peel off, the moss and lichen that attached themselves to the bark remained. The mottled patterns grew as the tree aged, becoming distinctive markings of green and brown, eventually turning the tree from white to gray. The fading color suggested these discolorations themselves might also be fading.
Houkou suggested that the twig was from this year’s growth and so retained its original color. “It’s withered away. What could account for this? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
He snapped the twig in half. It made a high, hard sound as it broke apart.
“Did it dry out and freeze?”
“I doubt it,” Houkou said. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around the twig. He intended to examine it at length when he got home. He looked absolutely delighted, the same expression he wore as a child when he discovered some new strange insect.
He hasn’t changed at all, Hyouchuu thought.
A forest ranger had jurisdiction over mountains deep in the wilderness, far away from where people lived. The mountains where people made their homes fell under the authority of the Ministry of Earth. The territory beyond those boundaries did not directly affect human habitation. However, the damage wreaked by wildfires and avalanches occasionally reached inhabited communities.
To guard against such occurrences, rangers were put in charge of the forests and mountains otherwise untouched by civilization. Intimately familiar with the topography and geography, they made the necessary preparations in case emergencies arose.
As a prefectural official, the forest ranger was responsible for those far-flung lands under the control of the prefecture. Imperial rangers supervised the forest rangers on imperial lands in the nine provinces, district rangers supervised the rangers in each district. Only the prefectural rangers actually ventured into the forests and mountains.
Houkou assiduously surveyed the lands under his watch and knew them like the back of his hand. Once he strapped on his backpack and hiked into the hills, he might not be back for another month or two. Camping under the stars and living off the land, he had the run of the back country as its sole inhabitant.
“You really do love these mountains,” Hyouchuu said.
Houkou responded with a shy smile.
Just then, a woman’s voice rang out. “Oh, look who’s already here!”
A group of woman from the village came down the path that wound through the grove of beech trees, Hyouchuu’s and Houkou’s mothers among them. All were carrying baskets on their backs.
“So this is where you’ve been.” The two men nodded and the women smiled. “We came to gather nuts and berries. Sorry we can’t put on a banquet.”
Houkou peeked inside one of the baskets and saw they were collecting beechnuts. “Quite a haul here. Plenty for a feast.”
“No, no, no. Scarce on the ground this year too. But the men don’t like being left all alone so we decided to return early.”
With that, they continued down the mountain.
The beechnut had a triangular shape resembling a buckwheat seed. They couldn’t be eaten raw, due to the bitter fruit, but they were nutritious and tasty. Normally they were boiled. In this village, beechnuts were ground, pressed into cakes, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. The mountains did not produce a rich variety of agricultural produce, so beechnuts were a favored specialty.
Unfortunately, these beech trees were not a reliable source. Perhaps once every several years, sometimes only once in a decade, did they produce an abundant crop.
Hyouchuu said, “So a poor yield this year as well? These trees are quite stingy in that regard.”
Houkou grinned. “Hard to remember ever eating my fill.”
Trees and bushes normally produced nuts and berries on a predictable timetable. There was nothing predictable about the beech. The next bumper crop might be in a year or in ten. Moreover, the incidence of rich and poor harvests was the same across the kingdom. Good and poor-yielding trees were not evenly distributed.
“At best, we could expect the trees to behave themselves every few years and produce enough beechnuts to deserve calling them a staple.”
Houkou grinned. “That guys like you and me get to chow down at all means the good old mountain beech is looking out for us.”
Hyouchuu dubiously cocked his head to one side. Houkou explained, “Maybe these irregular harvests are the beech tree’s way of doing us a favor. A good year for the beech is a good year for the rats and everything else that eat them. The year after that, those critters will eat everything in sight. But if the next year is a poor one, the rats will starve and the population will drop. So the next good harvest has a better chance of being around to benefit us.”
“Makes sense. But why does the beech alone produce such indeterminate harvests? To the extent that anything in nature is normal, most normal crops grow on a fairly regular basis.”
“In that light, the beech is an odd one. There must be a reason. The stark difference between good and bad years means that stands of beech trees are all the same kind.”
“The same kind?”
Houkou pointed at the surrounding beech grove. “Aside from differences in size, they’re all approximately the same age. About a hundred years in this case.”
“Huh.” Hyouchuu glanced around the woods. Most of the trees did indeed have the same average height, lending them an overall air of order and regularity. “Meaning that about a hundred years ago, they all took root together.”
“That’s the obvious conclusion. Moreover, the roots of the beech secrete poisons that ward off competing trees. Any sapling that sprouts too close will die. Hence this arrangement of trees with the same spacing and same size. Other kinds of trees can’t compete in such an environment, so beech groves tend to be the domain of only beech trees.”
On top of that, Houkou pointed out, the mountain beech was a “bright” tree, letting a good amount of light through to the forest floor. This resulted in a luxuriant and diverse undergrowth. Although the beechnuts were scarce on the ground, mushrooms grew in the rich soil and animals nested there. The unobstructed view provided by the beech made it a good hunting ground.
“Prosperous and good company to have around—there’s a lot to like about a mountain beech.”
“You don’t say.” Hyouchuu surveyed the grove. A century or so ago, this grove of trees sprouted together. The mountain beech had a long life and would live for centuries after this.
“My aunties are getting old,” Hyouchuu blurted out. Compared to a tree, a human life was a fleeting thing. “And yours too.”
Houkou nodded. He and Hyouchuu were both civil servants in the imperial nobility, and thus were listed on the Registry of Wizards. They could have listed their parents as well, but none of them wished to do so. Parents normally did not. According to established precedent, only a civil servant’s parents, his wife and children could be listed. Siblings and relatives were excluded. While ways could always be found if a minister rose high enough in the government, there were no guarantees.
Otherwise, the line would have to be drawn somewhere. And everybody was loathe to draw it. Hyouchuu had an older brother and sister, and listing his parents would necessarily leave them behind in the world below.
Gaining imperial rank and position meant taking leave of the mortal, material world. Minor officials like Hyouchuu and Houkou were no different. At some point, their parents would depart the world and their childhood friends would grow old. The day must inevitably come when returning to their home town held no fond expectations for them.
Well, Houkou would still be there. In fact, if Houkou wasn’t there, he might not bother coming home at all.
Knowing all this, he’d accepted his position. And knowing all this, his family had bid him a fond farewell. So he wanted to make the sacrifices worth it. He had to. Especially in a kingdom with no king.
The emperor died the year Hyouchuu was born. Though his rein was marked by extraordinary cruelty and tyranny, the calamities never quite reached these small mountain villages on the frontier.
Nevertheless, when the emperor faltered, a kingdom went to the dogs. A vacant throne made things all the worse. The kingdom was in distress. The ruin left no corner of the realm untouched, all the more so in poor villages like Sei’in. The barren land yielded little no matter how hard they worked, forcing them into the mountains to gather nuts and berries. And so they managed to scrape by.
Whether they would manage to survive after this depended in large part on the work of Hyouchuu and Houkou.
“Speaking of which—” Houkou said in a low voice. “Word is that big things are happening at the top.”
“So it seems,” Hyouchuu answered.
Though Hyouchuu was an imperial minister, he spent most of his time traveling in the outlying districts. He didn’t have a good idea of what was going on in the capital. Still, rumors whispered of profound and unsettling events that had everyone above the clouds in a state of near panic.
Houkou said, “You have to wonder what will become of this kingdom.”
Hyouchuu didn’t answer. Though Sei’in was poor, it rested in the embrace of the prosperous mountains. As long the youma didn’t appear, they could manage to scrape by.
The destruction in the places that didn’t was brutal. With the fields barren and unproductive, farmers flocked to the cities to earn enough money to eat. But there weren’t enough jobs or food to support all of them. Starvation, disease, and crime became facts of life, along with the proliferating youma preying on the teeming crowds.
Even in these times, the work of the civil service could not cease, though the most trusted and necessary officials kept themselves busy simply staying alive. Things were no different in the imperial realm.
Hyouchuu graduated from the provincial academy with aspirations of becoming a civil servant. He had the unexpected good fortune to be selected for a position in the imperial government. Once this would have been considered a great achievement. The cruel reality was that it was the result of the emperor executing ministers who opposed him, leaving many vacancies in the bureaucracy.
The kingdom was on a downward slope. Hiring new ministerial staff should otherwise have been out of the question. Except departmental budgets were determined by staffing levels. Managers desperate to keep their pockets full were equally desperate to fill any and all vacancies.
Hence, Hyouchuu’s unexpected good fortune. He was a conservation officer in the Ministry of Earth, serving under the regional secretary of agronomy. The regional secretary of agronomy was responsible for preserving any unique and unusual flora and fauna found growing around the kingdom. And from among these unique and unusual things, a conservation officer gathered new plants and vegetation, birds and animals arising from the yaboku.
Venturing into the mountains was normally the job of local officials. Hyouchuu often explored the rural districts by himself to get a first-hand understanding of the lay of the land. Well, that was his official explanation. Mostly it was a good excuse to get out of the office.
Hyouchuu spent little time in the capital. He usually ended up touring the countryside. As an imperial officer, he had been an assigned a fief. But he’d never seen it or set foot in it. As he hardly ever returned to the office, he couldn’t very well supervise his fief in the capital province.
So the regional secretary of agronomy managed it for him, converting the income from the property into cash and passing it onto him. That’s how the situation was set up on paper. Except the secretary’s underlings knew about it. Rather than receiving imperial appointments, they were treated as staff and given a salary.
The income from Hyouchuu’s fief disappeared into the secretary’s pockets, out of which the secretary paid the bare minimum in wages. And whatever he was pocketing was probably getting sucked up by his superiors as well. That was the way things worked, making Hyouchuu all the happier to spend his time elsewhere.
So he stayed on the road, traveling from district office to district office, keeping the bureaucracy at arm’s length. These local offices themselves were overflowing with civil servants who had fled the capital looking for some safe place to settle down.
There was no point to resenting his lot in life. In this day and age, simply having a job was reward enough. Ever since Hyouchuu aspired to the imperial civil service, he had understood, if only vaguely, that this is what it came down to at the end of the day. The unvarnished truth of the matter was, he’d set the civil service in his sights because it paid the bills.
The minimum salary for a government employee was pretty generous, generous enough to support his parents and siblings back home. A conservation officer spent his time trekking across the frontier where the devastation was at a minimum. Disconnected from the chaos in the capital and accepting the world for what it was, he lead a poorer but less constrained life.
After all, he’d grown up in a little village nestled in the mountains. The wilderness didn’t intimidate him. It wasn’t a hardship. He enjoyed it.
Hyouchuu gazed up at the birch tree. And then back over his shoulder. From the foot of the cliffs he could make out the village nestled there at the bottom of the steep mountain valley.
After this, no matter what happened, he was going to protect his home town and the people he loved.