Pressing forward along a gently sloping hill, a low mountain range came into view. Over those mountains was San’you, the biggest city in the area.
Back in the vicinity of Yosen, a line of trees on both sides marked the road as a major highway. But as the mountain came into view, the trees were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they’d been cut down for fuel. Perhaps a ferocious storm had blown them over.
The highway approached the mountain straight as an arrow. A flat and desolate plain stretched out around him. These must be the wastelands the innkeeper had spoken of.
As if in answer to the unasked question, the sky darkened and the blizzard began in earnest. The howling winds rushed at him across the treeless prairie. He soon could barely see his hand in front of his face, to say nothing of the distant mountain. The snow buffeting his body made it impossible to raise his head. There was nothing to see if he could.
Walking in an unwavering a line as best he could, the wind slanting in from the side still pushed him off course. He repeatedly fell into impossibly deep drifts and realized he had wandered off the road. Every time he struggled back, wasting time, the snow piling up around him, wondering how much longer he would feel the road’s surface beneath his feet.
At least with a horse, he could have plowed right through before the blizzard hit. And had he been held up by the storm, he could made use of the horse’s body heat while waiting for the wind to abate.
He’d had a horse named Agen. But traveling from Kei Province to Ji Province, he’d pushed her too hard and she’d collapsed. He wanted to nurse her back to health but didn’t have the time. All he could do was pay the innkeeper to board her. He’d wondered every since what had become of her. Maybe she died. Maybe the innkeeper sold her.
He was the one who had made such demands of her, so it was only right that he should sacrifice in kind.
Or maybe he was only chasing the wind.
Making decisions was easy. Translating a decision into action was another matter entirely.
Hyouchuu remembered the weather being like this back then too, gasping for the breath in the face of the bitter wind. Resolving to search for a medicine was easy. When it came to bringing that promise to life, he had no idea how to find that critical herb.
The first thing he did was send a general order to the regional offices, requesting that they gather up any unusual plants growing beneath the yaboku trees. Except there was no way to understand the medicinal properties of a plant without cultivating it first. And if those medicinal properties existed, the question remained of how to extract them.
Was the leaf or the root or the fruit the critical part? Would boiling do the trick or drying and powdering? In any case, it’d take more than a day to come to any conclusions, and then to tell whether such an herb could be conveniently harvested in quantities to be worth the effort.
While groping around for the answers, large numbers of plant samples flowed into Kei Province from around the kingdom, where Houkou had his office in Setsuka Prefecture. Houkou and his assistants cultivated and tested them for their effectiveness.
Meanwhile, Hyouchuu continued his own scouting expeditions, packing up samples and shipping them to Houkou. When he got the chance, he’d stop by Setsuka to see how the work was progressing. It wasn’t, inevitably cloaking those conversations in an aura of gloom.
After going nowhere for close to a year, during one of his brief visits to Setsuka, Houkou introduced him to a man he hadn’t see before, and said he’d help him in his search for the herbs.
“This is Kyoukei. He’s a yaboku hunter.”
A gaunt man with a dark and acrid air about him, he looked to be in his mid-forties.
“A yaboku hunter—” Hyouchuu repeated to himself.
Yaboku hunters were drifters, not attached to any one kingdom. They made a living roaming from place to place gathering useful seeds and sprouts from the yaboku trees, then cultivating and selling them. With essentially the same job as a conservation officer, Hyouchuu had run across a fair number of them.
They obviously had different objectives in mind. From the perspective of the conservation officer, civilians poaching the yaboku for their own use were a problem. He couldn’t condone these drifters profiting by monopolizing what the yaboku produced. The yaboku hunters took an equally dim view of the conservation officers, hardly surprising when the conservation officers obstructed their livelihood and did their best to drive them out of their territories.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call them enemies. Considering Kyoukei’s frosty attitude, he undoubtedly felt the same thing about Hyouchuu.
Taking no note of the tension between them, Houkou said, “Kyoukei thinks the search efforts would best be concentrated on Kei Province.”
“Kei Province? Why?”
Answering Hyouchuu’s question, Kyoukei explained, “Because that is the disposition of Heaven.”
In response to Hyouchuu’s puzzled look, Houkou said, “As far as I know, the plague began in Kei Province. Though Sei’in wasn’t the first, it definitely originated there in the northern districts. Kyoukei is well-traveled in this region and he agrees.”
Hyouchuu nodded. He’d thought the same thing.
“This disease was bestowed on Kei Province, so to speak. If so, the cure should emerge there too.”
“How can you be so confident? How likely is it the problem has that convenient a solution?”
Kyoukei addressed Hyouchuu’s doubts. “It’s the right strategy.”
Hyouchuu attempted to raise more objections but Kyoukei cut him off. “The characteristics of this disease do not resemble any other. This is clearly an abnormality. Call it beyond the pale of the natural world.”
Hyouchuu had the same feeling and so nodded in agreement.
Kyoukei said, “Other trees and plants get sick too. This disease, that drains the trees of their color, appears fundamentally different. The same way a bear and a youma are fundamentally different.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“It’s like a youma that only attacks beech trees. Not part of the human world. That being the case, Heaven should give us something to resist it. Just as it is possible to hunt youma, diseases can be hunted too. If the means to do so don’t exist, Heaven will provide one. The one thing I’m sure of is that there has got to be a yaboku producing the necessary herb.”
Kyoukei turned his attention to the map of Kei Province on the wall. “It started in the northern quarter. That means that a yaboku in the north should product the herb.”
Hyouchuu asked, “How do we tell the difference between what is and what isn’t the right medicinal herb?”
“Like I said, we’re operating under the disposition of Heaven. We’ll find it in quantity beneath a yaboku. A particularly large number beneath a particular yaboku.”
Not just a single stalk, Kyoukei was saying. There’d be a menagerie. Yaboku trees didn’t normally produce menageries. When they did, they didn’t amount to much. So finding one larger than usual would strongly suggest that this was the right herb.
“Heaven will be trying to do its part. With that assurance in mind, look and you shall find.”
No sooner had Kyoukei made that declaration, but Houkou let loose a loud “Aha!”
In that instant, as if simultaneously struck by same spark, Hyouchuu saw the same scene in his mind’s eye.
“That’s it!” they exclaimed together.
Hyouchuu and Houkou looked at each and both nodded. Ever since they’d started looking, they’d been finding the same herb beneath the yaboku trees, often whole outcroppings of them. Moreover, they were found only in regions adjoining the mountains in the north of Kei Province. The leaves resembled those of an orchid.
Kyoukei scanned the sprouts and seedlings arrayed in rows around the room. “Which one?”
“No, we don’t have any here. We weren’t able to bring any back with us.”
Hyouchuu agreed. “We first starting seeing them three years ago, around the same time the beech trees began losing their color. They resembled medicinal orchids with white stripes.”
They’d spotted clusters of them beneath many yaboku trees. Oddly enough, few outside the circumference of the yaboku. And then the next time they checked, the plants had all withered. They’d tried transplanting them, but all had died before they could be cultivated elsewhere.
Kyoukei grabbed his traveling packs. “Where were they? Close by?”
Houkou said, “Last month, a yaboku was spotted in the mountains a day’s travel from here.”
Hyouchuu and his team hurried to arrange their traveling gear and set off for the mountains where that yaboku was located. When they arrived, the herbs in question had disappeared. They widened their search to the nearby mountains and three months later found another yaboku with a fresh burst of growth.
The small, slender, verdant leaves, springing forth in clumps, turned up in several more places, so many that Hyouchuu grew concerned, as if Heaven was sending them a repeated heads-up.
The team split up and gathered up the seedlings. Kyoukei instructed them in yaboku hunter methods. Up till that point, Hyouchuu had excavated the surrounding earth and transplanted the seedling to a container. The yaboku hunters used a hydroponic seedbed made with moss. After they shook off the dirt, the seedlings were tucked into the moss.
Just because a ranka bestowed by Heaven had fallen off the tree and rooted there didn’t mean it was well-suited to the soil. So in the short term, they removed the roots from the soil and transported them that way. After that, they planted one stalk each in a purpose-built seedbed that contained no superfluous substances. The construction of these seedbeds was a trade secret.
They gathered the seedlings as instructed and returned to the Setsuka District office. When they got back and opened them, in a single day and night, most of the seedlings had withered. They managed to transplant the survivors to another seedbed but those didn’t last another three days. Every one they brought back died.
After that, they attacked the problem like waging a war.
Hyouchuu repeatedly ventured into the mountains, searching for yaboku. When he found an outcropping, he contacted the district office and Kyoukei and Houkou arrived as fast as they could. Kyoukei drove himself to exhaustion himself trying to figure out the best way to transport them. They devised every way of digging up the seedlings they could think of.
Houkou often spent the entire day beneath the yaboku observing the plants. They researched different transplantation methods, mobilized the staffers and tested all the different soil samples they could dig up, along with the planting conditions. Making no progress in moving the seedlings, they pitched a tent next to the yaboku and set up camp there.
Those efforts alone used up two years of their time. And those two years yielded no means of cultivating the seedlings. They continued to wither and die in great numbers. At the same time, a greater number thrived beneath the yaboku. Heaven stubbornly persisted in sending them down.
Hyouchuu and the rest had long since concluded that this had to be the plant they were looking for.
At the same time so many blessings were coming to naught, an innumerate number of beech trees were changing color in the mountains. In beech groves here and there, the bigger tree fell over, creating eerie empty spaces. As if the one was caused by the other, small landslides started occurring. The rat population increased. Hungry animals invaded the human realm.
Amidst everything else, Hyouchuu lost his little sister, her husband, and his nephew.
The crop of nuts and berries that year was poor all around. Late in the fall, winter about to begin in earnest, a hungry bear attacked the hamlet. The inhabitants would have all left the hamlet by mid-winter. The bear killed most of those who’d remained to gather the final harvest. The lower half of his sister’s corpse was gone, as was half of her husband’s head and one arm. Except for the boy’s bloody shoes, found in the doorway of their house, the rest of him vanished entirely.
Sensing something in the wind, the villagers discovered the terrible scene and then spent three days in the mountains tracking down the bear. In the end, the bear must have felt as cursed by his bad luck as the rest of them.
They should have all seen it coming.
He’d made sure to get the word out, and got the various district bureaus to start working on the problem. In fact, none of those efforts panned out.
He couldn’t save them. He was powerless. The people of his village celebrated when he became an imperial civil servant, praising him as the home town kid who made good. The cold hard truth was that he hadn’t done a thing. He had no part in the political process, no way to steer the ship of state back on the right course.
Even as a conservation officer, whose job it was to secure efficacious herbs from the yaboku trees, he couldn’t carry out his duty. He continued sending home food supplies to atone for his failings, but that wouldn’t save all of them, to say nothing of the poor and starving everywhere else in the kingdom.
Far from it, after his sister died, his mother told him to stop sending them supplies. Whatever accrued to the benefit of Sei’in alone only aroused envy and bitterness in the surrounding villages. Some even said of the bear that’d attacked the hamlets in Sei’in, serves them right.
They said that corrupt imperial officials were playing favorites by protecting Sei’in. The attack was Heaven’s way of evening the scales.
All the favoritism in the world wouldn’t matter in the end. That was the real truth.
The inhabitants of the outskirts, of Setsuka District, of Kei Province, along with the citizens of the kingdom—Hyouchuu wanted to feed them all. Except he was a lowly bureaucrat, an imperial minister in name only. Like the rest of the civil servants, he worked for a wage. When it came to filling empty stomachs, it didn’t amount to much.
“I thought it the least I could do,” Hyouchuu blurted out, the letter from his mother in his hands. Before him were the rows of withered seedlings.
“Can’t be helped,” Houkou said in a gloomy voice. “Such are the times we live in.”
Houkou’s mother was fairing poorly these days. The lack of food made her condition worse. Houkou did his best to surreptitiously send her the most nourishing provisions he could lay his hands on, but on a mere district official’s salary, he could never do as much as he wished.
Furthermore, it now being the coldest time of the year, food was always hard to come by. Hyouchuu was happy if any provisions he sent them would help.
“Got nothing to be ashamed of,” Kyoukei, of all people, consoled him. “Even if you can only save Sei’in, that doesn’t mean you’re not saving others too. Every portion the people of Sei’in don’t have to buy off the market adds a little bit more to what will be available elsewhere.”
For two years, Hyouchuu and Kyoukei had searched for medicinal herbs together. And yet a gap remained between them. However grateful Hyouchuu was for the diligent effort that Kyoukei put forth, he had never been able to close the distance between them. Kyoukei was a reserved man with no appetite for casual conversation. Whether they had grown closer or further apart, his attitude and bearing betrayed not a clue.
“So you stop sending supplies because somebody accuses you of playing favorites. I can tell you, that’s not going to change how anybody thinks. So keep sending them.”
“You think so?” Hyouchuu asked.
Kyoukei nodded. “In the first place, any highfaluting official who didn’t care about saving his home town isn’t going to care about saving anybody else’s either. That cold reality will sink in at some point.”
Those words coming from Kyoukei, who would not otherwise be disposed to think kindly of a conservation officer, gladdened Hyouchuu’s heart. He subsequently spoke with the superintendent in Sei’in and increased the amount of provisions he was sending.
After that, the backbiting about Sei’in continued, but with its rike taking in orphans, the bedridden, and the elderly, it never went further than words. They had every reason to thank their lucky stars for that too. In this day and age, Hyouchuu was not the only imperial official sending remittances to his home town. Some of those home towns came under attack by thieves hoping to get their hands on the provisions. Some villages even got sacked and burned by marauders jealous of their good fortunes.
No tragedy was out of the question when a kingdom went to the dogs.
Falling into yet another snowdrift and crawling out of it, Hyouchuu paused to take a breath. The accumulating snow had already reached his knees. Melting snow ran down his legs and soaked his shoes. His freezing toes felt like they were getting stabbed with a thousand knives.
I’ll be okay, he assured himself. Fortunately (or not), he was a wizard. He rarely suffered frostbite, and when he did, his toes weren’t likely to turn gangrenous and fall off. The pain meant that blood was still flowing.
He straightened his aching back and looked up. The snow wasn’t letting up. The snow formed a gray curtain in front of his eyes, obstructing the view ahead. But perhaps it was better this way. Hyouchuu took the compass from his pocket and checked his bearings.
When he began moving again, a faint point of light appeared beyond the gray curtain of snow.