Hyouchuu descended the narrow stairs of the inn. Light from a handful of candles barely illuminated the rough tavern on the first floor. No diners sat at the long tables lined up on the dirt floor. The wooden door facing the street opened at daybreak, but there were either no early birds among the lodgers or no one in search of a meal at this hour in the morning.
A freezing chill flowed through the quiet dark.
“Morning,” a young servant called out to him. His cherubic features suggested an age of ten or so. “You woke up early.”
Hyouchuu nodded. He ordered tea and breakfast and sat at the table the boy had just wiped down.
“My dad says a storm is coming,” said the boy, returning with the steaming cup.
Outside, flurries danced through the air. Above the sagging roof of the building across the street, leaden clouds filled the gray and slowly brightening sky, surely forecasting bad weather ahead.
“Headed south?” the boy asked.
“I heard the road south is hard going today.”
“I’ll be okay.”
Hyouchuu handed the boy a stone for him to place on the stove. During the winter, tucking a few hot stones into the pockets helped stave off the cold.
“I’m in a hurry, see. How about we get my breakfast ready first?”
As he warmed his hands with the teacup, the falling snow grew heavier. Blown by the wind, the snow drifted into the ruts and potholes.
The innkeeper, a man of fifty or so, came in carrying the bowl filled with rice gruel. He placed the bowl in front of Hyouchuu and said, “The kid asked you already, but you headed out early?”
Yes, he had asked already. “That’s right. I hope to get on my way as soon as the town gates open.”
“Looks like you’d be better off waiting. You headed to San’you?”
San’you was the large city at the end of the road south.
“I’m headed as far as I can go.”
The innkeeper didn’t hide the startled look on his face. “Don’t tell me you’re on the run from somebody.”
Hyouchuu shook his head and said with a wry smile, “No, only trying to cover as much ground as I can.”
The rice gruel was hot enough to scald his tongue. It contained some rice but was mostly millet. Rice was a labor intensive crop. There weren’t enough farm workers left in the kingdom to consume rice as a staple. The gruel was flavored with a few dried mushrooms and minced greens.
Nevertheless, having half-frozen to death getting dressed, Hyouchuu counted it as a blessing. Even if just a little, warming the core of a sluggish body weary from travel was a true pleasure.
“If you’re in that much of a hurry, how about using a horse cart? I sure can’t recommend proceeding on foot. You’ll be in a tough spot if the blizzard catches you out there in the wilderness.”
Hyouchuu eyed the innkeeper. “Do you have a horse cart?” he asked hopefully.
The innkeeper opened his mouth then paused to think about it. “Well—yeah—guess that won’t work. No horse, see. Hardly any horses left in this town. A friend of mine had a horse and cart. He told me the other day he had to part with them.”
Hyouchuu let out a long breath. A common story. A horse could be used as a pack animal and around the farm it was an invaluable asset. But an asset that had to be fed. No one could own a horse for the sake of owning it. If they couldn’t afford to feed it, they sold it.
Hyouchuu looked at the sky above the road. “Doesn’t look like a blizzard. But a full-blown snowstorm is on the way.”
“Any amount with be tough. If it piles up, the road ahead will plum disappear.”
What he meant was, a little bit further on came the wide open plains. Once farm fields, they had gone fallow and reverted to wilderness. The road wound across the flat prairie. Not a problem when the weather was good. But a hard snowfall obliterated all visible traces of the road. During a blizzard, there was no telling east from west. Get lost and a traveler could easily end up in the marshes along the river.
“The river washed away the levees a while back. With no workers, they’ve never been repaired.”
“So I’ll be okay as long as I stay away from the water’s edge.”
“Yeah.” The innkeeper smiled. “This time of year, the river is frozen over. After a heavy snow, you can’t tell the difference between the river and the plains. In any case, those marshlands haven’t been around long, so even a good feel for the land won’t tell you where the road ends and the mud and mire starts. When the snow’s coming down, the locals think twice about going in that direction. It won’t be any easier for a traveler from out of town.”
“I’ll keep on my toes.”
The innkeeper replied with a big shake of his head. “My advice is to wait it out. Have you really taken the weather into account? Whatever your hurry, you won’t get there any faster if you freeze to death. I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed on days like this.”
Hyouchuu didn’t answer. Taking the weather into account made no difference. Even it meant walking into the teeth of a blizzard, he’d still leave.
“Mind if ask what you’re in such a hurry about?”
Hyouchuu didn’t answer that question either. The boy returned with the heated stones in a pail. Hyouchuu had him dump the stones into thickly-padded cloth bags and arranged them in his pockets.
“Thanks. This your kid?”
The boy shook his head. The innkeeper placed a hand on his shoulder. “Found him half-dead at the side of the road. He was living in a neighboring town. Everybody died there except for him.”
“So he’s staying at the rike?”
The boy shook his head again.
“No rike in this town,” the innkeeper said. “Youma wrecked all the buildings. Besides, the town’s got no superintendent and no money for the upkeep.”
“You don’t get a budget from the town council?”
That prompted a guffaw from the innkeeper. “If there was one. Only time anybody like that shows up is at tax collecting time, and most years nobody shows up.”
Hyouchuu didn’t pursue the subject. It was a not-uncommon tale. There wasn’t enough tax revenue to support the town government. In any case, the taxes just went into the pockets of the higher-ups, leaving the villagers with nothing. The town council members went broke, scattered to the winds, and local governance ground to a halt.
When tax time came, a revenue official was promptly dispatched by the higher-ups. In normal circumstances, tax revenue would be shared as well as collected. But that had all disappeared. Now he only showed up to stick his hand in the till.
“A speedy bunch, those guys. They hear the sound of a coin falling on the ground and appear out of nowhere to pick it up. As soon as it’s in their pockets, they disappear as fast as they came.”
Hyouchuu agreed with a wordless nod. This was how the average person felt about the civil service, which was why he kept his official credentials safely tucked away in his pack.
“You’re not gonna end up one of them,” the innkeeper said, patting the boy on the shoulder.
“Are you his guardian?” In times like these, that made him a better man than most.
The innkeeper nodded. “My relatives are all dead too. He’s the closest thing I’ve got to kin. And a hard worker, to boot.”
The boy reacted to the innkeeper’s words with a bright smile. The sight aroused in Hyouchuu an unbearable longing for a lost past. He wrapped the scarf around his neck, covering his face up to his nose. He hoisted his portable plant nursery onto his back and secured the rest of his packs around his waist.
“Hey, you crazy or something?”
The innkeeper reached out to stop him. Hyouchuu placed the coins for the meal in the man’s outstretched palm.
“It’s no use, Uncle.”
The boy took hold of Hyouchuu’s hand and looked up at him, his brow furrowed with concern. Hyouchuu felt that sense of loss all the keener. His nephews would be about the boy’s age. If they still lived.
“I’ll be all right. Thanks for everything.”
He smiled and placed another coin in the boy’s chapped hand and folded his fingers around it. Then turning his back on whatever the boy wished to say next, Hyouchuu exited the inn onto the quiet street.
Two years after seeing the oddly colored mountain beech, Hyouchuu finally made it home for the New Year. There he met Houkou for the first time since then. Hyouchuu arrived home first. The villagers and old acquaintances gave him a warm welcome. The year before, he’d ended up on opposite side of the kingdom and couldn’t make it.
Houkou showed up the next day. No sooner had he arrived but he was raring to head up into the mountains. A serious expression fixed on his face, he made his way quickly to the narrow valley that was home to the beech grove.
Once in the glade, Houkou turned his attention to the beech grove. There stood the tree with the oddly colored branches. Hyouchuu realized it was the same tree from two years before. He’d completely forgotten about it.
“Same tree, huh? Hasn’t changed that I can tell.”
“No. It’s spreading.”
Houkou grabbed hold of the trunk and climbed up the tree. Now that he mentioned it, the curious hues covered more of the tree. Half the branches were that translucent, lustrous color, like polished stone, glittering like morning frost.
Houkou scanned the branches from his high perch and climbed back down.
“You understand what’s going on here?”
Houkou responded with a puzzled expression of his own. “I don’t. When I checked it out last year, it had advanced. This year, it’s accelerated. This isn’t the only one.”
“There are more trees like this?”
According to Houkou, he’d gotten word that beech trees in the same condition were popping up in the northern quarter of Kei Province. The translucent portions withered and turned to stone like petrified wood. Left alone, the disease spread. The only way to stop the growth was to break off the branch beyond the petrified portion.
“Some sort of sickness?”
“Probably. Except nobody I’ve talked to has seen it before.”
“You don’t say.”
Hyouchuu still didn’t think it was a big deal. Diseases attacked people and trees alike. No matter his depth of knowledge, Houkou couldn’t be familiar with all of them. Here was a case in point.
Hyouchuu’s father wasn’t doing well either. Fit as a fiddle two years ago, this year he tottered around like a frail old man. The following January, he was weaker still. Word of his death came in the fall. Constantly on the move, Hyouchuu didn’t find out until October that his father had died that summer.
Though poor, Sei’in was still blessed by the mountains. The mountains might at least keep the worse of the ruin at bay. Or so Hyouchuu thought. Conditions turned out to be worse than he’d imagined. Food was chronically in short supply. Nobody in the village got the nourishment they needed. Children and the elderly afflicted by otherwise minor ailments often fell into grave distress.
Upon receiving the news about his father, Hyouchuu headed home as fast as he could, with whatever provisions that’d fit into a horse-drawn cart.
Though the villagers were delighted to see him, familiar faces were missing from the crowd. Houkou arrived at a run that night. Hyouchuu thought at first that he’d hurried back upon hearing the same news, but that wasn’t the only reason. Houkou took him into the mountains. The beech tree in the glade had fallen over.
When Hyouchuu saw it in January, most of the branches had changed color. At the time, he’d foreseen that, like his enfeebled father, it would wither away in short order.
Except these abnormal changes were not confined to the toppled beech. Its neighbors were transforming as well. The trees shouldn’t be losing their leaves but the affected branches were bare.
“It’s contagious,” Houkou said, a hard expression on his face.
An epidemic was clearly underway. The trunk had broken in two near the ground. The wood all the way through had that translucent, petrified appearance. All the odder, the bark retained its “natural” look and feel. Like the branch Houkou had snapped off before, the severed surface of the trunk resembled a cleanly shattered stone.
Houkou dug further down around the trunk. The roots were gone. All he turned up was gravel and sand, what must be left of the roots. They’d petrified in the ground and crumbled to pieces.
This is dangerous. The realization struck Hyouchuu right then. If a person was standing nearby when the tree came down—well, he didn’t need to entertain that thought any further. Foremost on his mind was his dead father and the ailing villagers. If only this year had produced an abundant harvest, he thought, looking at the fallen tree. With so many beech trees in the vicinity, a rich yield of beechnuts would have provided a nourishing supply of food.
At the same time, a more sobering thought crossed his mind. If the disease struck down the beech trees one after the other, a bountiful harvest would never be forthcoming.
That winter he returned home with all the provisions he could carry. The plague of dying beech trees had not abated. Though well aware of the disease, the villagers put up a cheerful front. Paradoxically, they claimed the fallen beech had fetched a high price.
The mountain beech did not make good lumber. Although the tree grew to a large size, it grew slowly. In five years, a seedling barely reached a child’s height. It took more than a century for the trunk to reach the circumference of a man’s arms. A hardwood with a uniform texture, beechwood lacked a distinctive grain pattern and tended to be marred by knots and other defects. It suffered from decay and discoloration and thus had little value in construction.
Beechwood was useful when making miscellaneous goods and wooden parts. But even there, care had to be taken to prevent warping during the drying process. Thus it was less likely to end up as a building material. Anything of a manageable size was mostly used to make charcoal.
However, the beech trees afflicted by the strange disease proved resistant to rot. The “petrified wood” was solid and without deformities. The hardness and the difficulty in finding suitable fasteners counted against it. But a carpenter with the right skills and the right tools could fashion it into fine lumber. The bark had the luster of stone. The beautiful finish attracted high prices.
What with so many beech trees in the surrounding mountains, the residents of Sei’in were delighted. Even Hyouchuu considered it a great boon. In an era without an emperor, they were certain that Heaven would curse them with nothing but catastrophes. Finally, here was an exception.
Only Houkou carried a grim expression on his face.
In hindsight, Houkou must have foreseen the looming disaster. But having no proof to back it up those doubts, when Hyouchuu and the villagers celebrated the “blessing” of the disease, he couldn’t go and pour cold water on their rekindled hopes.
The cold stiff wind stabbing at him like a knife, Hyouchuu thought back to that moment in time. Regretting it now wouldn’t change a thing. He hurried down the main thoroughfare. The square before the gate was normally thronged with travelers. There was hardly a human in sight, and not only because the bad weather made any sane person think twice about leaving town. The storefronts were still as death. No smoke puffed from the chimneys of the houses.
When he arrived in the town of Yosen the night before, Hyouchuu thought it a mid-sized municipality. Facing a major highway that passed south through Kei Province and Ji Province, it should have been alive and bustling.
He’d found only two inns in operation. At the “high” end, one equipped with stables. The one at “low” end didn’t even have beds. No other guests had checked in with him. The building faced the street and the attached sign identified the inn, but it appeared uninhabited. None of the shops that sheltered beneath the overlapping eaves were in business.
Their roofs sagging, the windows broken, these were literal holes in the wall. Though none had completed collapsed, the extent of the ruin was obvious. An invisible air of dissolution and cold fatigue hung around the town like a low-lying mist.
Whether Houkou could or could not articulate what he had foreseen, the ruination already existed at the time. It began during the dynasty of the late emperor and continued into this era of the empty throne.
Passing down the quiet, frozen street and arriving at the gate, Hyouchuu still spotted no other travelers. An old man with a tired face looked at him and hurriedly opened the gate doors.
Perhaps because of the lack of barrier walls and supporting structures, the wind did not abate when Hyouchuu stepped outside the town. The muddy, potholed road was skimmed over with ice. Any vegetation was stiff with frost. Hyouchuu glanced up at the sky. The breaking dawn revealed heavy clouds as far as the eye could see.
A storm was coming.
But he had to keep going.
Hyouchuu checked the direction of the wind and started off with long strides. So far, he had covered two-thirds of his journey. Whether he could complete the remaining third in time was now in the hands of fate.