Picked up and blown by the wind, the snow stabbed at him like tiny knives.
The storm wasn’t quite as bad as when he was trudging across the open plain, but the wind was no less fierce on the mountain road. Even with the recently heated stones in his pockets, the gusting wind relentlessly sapped his body heat. The snow still fell, albeit not as heavily as before. His feet sank down in the soft accumulating snow. Making matters worse, he was navigating a climbing grade. Extracting his feet with each step forced his posture into a slouch as the wind beat at his back.
Raising his head made it hard to breath. His eyes were dry and keeping them open was equally difficult. Except moving forward bent over and eyes half-closed made it impossible to tell where he was going. Walking at angles to the wind, over and over Hyouchuu found himself drifting off the road. And then hastily correcting his course.
He was thankful the road wasn’t balanced along the edge of a cliff.
The mountain road was lined on both sides by beech groves, their branches bare of leaves. Because of the snow, he couldn’t tell how affected they were by the disease.
Resolutely navigating the winding road, he came to a fork in the road. A narrower trail climbed higher while the broader path descended.
I must have finally reached the summit. With a sigh of relief, he started down the broader fork.
“Hey!” a voice called out behind him.
Hyouchuu turned to see a dark silhouette gamely hurrying up the road behind him.
“That’s the wrong way!”
As the distance between the closed, Hyouchuu was startled to recognize the old man he’d met in the clearing at the foot of the mountain. The old man ran up to him.
“Good thing I made it in time. You can’t go there. The road collapsed further on.” Breathing hard to catch his breath, the old man explained that without the snow covering the ground and with a little more visibility, Hyouchuu might have seen the conditions for himself. “But with all this snow, I thought you might miss it.”
“So you came chasing after me?”
That was because Hyouchuu left without giving them time to explain. So he hastily dressed and ran after him.
“I’m sorry,” Hyouchuu apologized.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. You cover ground fast. Must be used to hiking in the mountains.” With that, the old man started up the narrow trail. “Seeing how far you’ve come, it’d be faster to keep going than turning back. A little further on and it’s downhill the rest of the way. You’ll find San’you at the foot of the mountain.”
Hyouchuu was grateful for the company but couldn’t help regretting the trouble he was putting him to. When he hesitated in confusion, the old man glanced back over his shoulder.
“I’m headed to San’you as well, you see. We’re running short on a few supplies. I’ll spend the night before heading back.”
“I really appreciate it.” Hyouchuu bowed deeply and the old man set off again.
Incidents like this only made the weight on his back heavier. His pack at most consisted of a blue orchid and a round log. But it bore any number of burdens.
The boy who’d looked after Hyouchuu at the inn—the innkeeper who’d taken the boy under his wing—the old couple who kindled a fire for wayfarers like him—the horse he driven until she dropped—to say nothing of Houkou and Kyoukei and their colleagues working day and night for six years to find the cure.
He was particularly thankful to Kyoukei. For Hyouchuu and Houkou and their subordinates, this was a national emergency. Kyoukei was a yaboku hunter, a drifter who called no kingdom his own, with no overarching allegiances to any emperor or entity. He could have begged off and gone on his merry way.
Hyouchuu once asked Kyoukei where he was from. The occasion was a party they threw the night after the first time they successfully got the blue orchid to take root.
They held the party in a beech grove near the district office where they’d set up the test gardens. Sleeping off too many rounds of drinking, Houkou and his co-workers lay sprawled across the garden shed. Only Hyouchuu and Kyoukei remained awake, slowly imbibing the last of the wine. Thinking back about it now, that was the only time he’d engaged Kyoukei in a casual conversation.
“I was born in Hou. Though I have no memories of that kingdom.”
“You fled the kingdom with your parents.”
“That’s right,” Kyoukei answered shortly.
The government of Hou would have been in turmoil about the time Kyoukei was born. Probably the reason he had no use for a kingdom, Hyouchuu hazarded, though Kyoukei didn’t appear to be familiar with the fine details. Or rather, he did know and chose not to talk about them. At any rate, his parents had traveled to Kyou before he formed any lasting memories. When he was four, they sold him to a master yaboku hunter and disappeared from his life.
“Yeah, that must have been tough,” Hyouchuu said.
Kyoukei chuckled softly. “I don’t remember any of it. I imagine my parents were in a tough spot.”
“You hold it against them?”
“Wouldn’t do any good if I did. If you’re going to begrudge anything, begrudge the wrack and ruin that made it so.”
“Got that right,” Hyouchuu muttered.
After that, as a member of a band of yaboku hunters, he traveled and lived in many kingdoms.
“Then you became a master hunter and struck out on your own.”
“Well, I don’t have any apprentices so I really can’t call myself one. Mostly it means I got permission from my master to leave.”
“Which more or less means you did become a master?”
“I suppose,” Kyoukei answered vaguely. “After Tamoto and I went our separate ways.”
Apparently, newly-independent yaboku hunters teamed for a while. In order to lend Houkou a hand, Kyoukei stayed in Kei Province while his partner stuck to his wandering ways.
Startled, Hyouchuu asked next, “So you’re giving up on being a yaboku hunter?”
Kyoukei answered with a wry smile. “I’m sure we appear to come and go as we please, but when push comes to shove, a promise made is a promise kept. So having taken my leave, well, I guess that means I left.”
Hyouchuu had no idea of the price he’d paid to get involved. “Why have you gone to such lengths to help us out?”
“Because I couldn’t stand by and watch the mountains get destroyed.”
“I thought you guys had no use for the civil service.”
“Well, I can’t say I know the civil service well enough to paint them all with the same brush. I suppose I hold to the same general prejudice that they’re a self-serving bunch busily lining their own pockets, but I hope I’m not so narrow-minded as to jump to that conclusion before actually getting to know one.”
“Make sense,” Hyouchuu said with a crooked smile of his own.
“Every walk of life has its good people and its bad. Houkou is a prime example. We yaboku hunters tip our hats to Houkou. He knows the mountains better than we do.”
Hyouchuu laughed. “Houkou has the mountains in his veins.”
Kyoukei grinned as well. “That’s for sure. Wherever you go, he knows what gifts nature will have in store, the particularities of the yaboku trees in each region. At the same time, he knows all the ways the mountains can clobber you good. He’s got no problem sharing that knowledge with guys like us.”
The first time they met was in the heart of the mountains. Kyoukei and his team were climbing up and Houkou was coming down. When they passed by each other, barely acknowledging each other, Houkou called out to them, “Woodsmen?”
They didn’t answer. Houkou surmised from their silence, “Ah, yaboku hunters.” He pointed out that the yaboku tree on the mountain ridge was heavy with fruit but said to watch their step because of the hive of bees along the slope.
“Bees that makes their hives in the ground are a mean bunch. Get anywhere near them and they go on the warpath. A sting can knock a grown man flat. Worst case, even kill you. Houkou planted a flag near the hive as a warning, making it easy to skirt. We really owned him one.”
They knew well enough for themselves what getting the opposite treatment felt like.
Government employees who made their way into the mountains—woodsmen, for example—viewed the yaboku hunters as poachers pilfering the bounties of the land. Drifters, no less, they strutted around like the public lands were their own private property. But because the yaboku hunters were apt to have unusual plants and herbs on them, and only they knew where they came from, civil servants had to look the other way.
Houkou, on the other hand, treated Kyoukei and his colleagues as fellow citizens of the mountains, not at all reluctant to share information when they crossed paths and willing to answer any questions they might have. When a storm was brewing, he’d see that they made it safely to shelter.
“I’ve even been put up at Houkou’s family home in Sei’in on occasion. I drop by whenever I’m around and Houkou’s family is always welcoming.”
“You don’t say.”
That was the kind of a guy Houkou was. And it appeared that Hyouchuu wasn’t the only person who’d figured it out.
“There’s this big beech grove in the hills above Sei’in, right? Couldn’t just leave it be.”
“And for that I am very grateful,” Hyouchuu said with a sincere bow of his head.
“Oh, stop it,” Kyoukei said, looking away.
Even Hyouchuu doubted he felt the danger as keenly as Houkou did. Houkou saw the big picture. His concern for the mountains and the people living there was untainted by political motives or pecuniary interests. He saw the mountain dwellers as part of the mountains themselves.
Hyouchuu, on the other hand, had a far more narrow view. To be sure, he was deeply worried about the collapse of the beech grove in Sei’in. The slopes could break away and swallow up the village. Wild animals descending from the untamed forests could overrun them, eat them out of house and home. He couldn’t bear to witness all that loss and suffering.
So all the better if he could help other villages avoid the same fate. There must be other officials concerned about their home towns too. For the good of the people who lived there and the people who cared about them, he had to find a way to bring this disease to a halt.
Every time the good deeds of others reached out and touched him, the weight on his back grew heavier.
“So what’s the big hurry?” the old man asked him.
The question brought Hyouchuu back to the present. Their labored breaths freezing into a white cloud in front of their faces, they climbed the mountain trail side by side.
“Because I have to get to where I’m going no matter what.”
“Huh,” the old man said, and suddenly stopped in his tracks. Hyouchuu did too. Ahead of them, a big tree had fallen across the road.
“This wind must have done her in. Still, strange to see one fall over like this.”
The old man looked up at the mountain and then back at the tree. At a glance, Hyouchuu understood what had happened. The tree was a beech. It had withered and fossilized. The trunk snapped in two.
“Somebody should tell the folks in San’you. No horse carts getting through here.”
The tree wasn’t too large in diameter to prevent the average person on foot from climbing over it. But no wheeled cart could get through. The two of them climbed over the tree.
“So this is the kind of thing you were talking about?”
Hyouchuu only nodded.
“Strange to see a tree wither up like that. These trees really worth as much as people say?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“How about that.” The old man laughed. “Before informing the authorities, maybe I’ll reach out to some friends of mine in San’you and haul it away.”
The old man looked at Hyouchuu, the unasked question hanging there in the air.
Hyouchuu shook his head. “No worries. My lips are sealed.”
“Good to know.” The old man laughed again. “Must be thanks to our new emperor getting enthroned. Time was, all Heaven gave us was one disaster after the other.”
Hyouchuu didn’t reply. Time was, he’d thought the same thing, the same way he’d rejoiced at the news of the new emperor. Especially at first, he’d fully expected the disease afflicting the beech trees to come to an end.
“Not likely,” Kyoukei warned them.
The blight hadn’t occurred because the throne was empty. It wouldn’t end when the throne was filled. In fact, while other calamities had abruptly ceased, this strange disease continued to spread, slowly but inexorably.
Meanwhile, the political situation grew more complicated. Under normal conditions, in order to gain an audience with the emperor, an imperial minister had to visit the imperial palace. Except that Hyouchuu and his colleagues were of the minor nobility, with no standing to do so.
Higher-ranked ministers hardly had the time. They were too busy herding all the civil servants who’d absconded to the provinces back to their government posts. And with the accession of the new emperor, their superiors would be terrified at the prospect of losing their present positions.
Their professional negligence and despotism was news to no one. But since the new emperor arrived, they strutted about like it was only reasonable to act unreasonably in unreasonable times. These were the ministers who clung for dear life to their current status, who seized any opportunity to kick their competitors out of the way and take their jobs, or who figured political reform was inevitable and looted the treasury before they were shown the door.
Far from maintaining the status quo, even with the coronation of a new emperor, the state of political affairs could be expected to grow much worse.
Hyouchuu and his team finally found the medicine they needed. A new emperor had been enthroned. They should be able to appeal to the emperor and thereby save the beech groves. Hyouchuu enthusiastically reported the results to his superiors. And heard nothing in reply.
Perhaps they simply did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. With that in mind, Hyouchuu wrote a report laying out the particulars of the crisis, the ongoing threat from the falling beech trees, and the details of the unfolding disaster already underway. He pointed out that they had a cure at the Setsuka District office. By all means, it must be presented to the emperor so he could petition the roboku tree.
And still they heard nothing from the imperial government. More than four months had passed since the coronation and still not a word.
If the imperial government wouldn’t come to get the cure, they would bring it to them. But that was easier said than done.
The blue orchid rooted in old-growth trees. Once the roots burrowed beneath the bark, the plant resisted transplantation. Remove one and it quickly withered. Another option was to graft the blue orchid into a tree, then dig up the tree and move it. Except transporting a hundred-plus year old tree was out of the question. When the branch in which the blue orchid had rooted was cut from the tree, the plant died when the branch dried out.
If only Hyouchuu could lay his hands on a fast kijuu—but a lowly civil servant like Hyouchuu only had Agen, an ordinary horse. That was why somebody from the imperial government had to come and get it. Or at least lend him use of a kijuu.
Alas, every attempt to communicate with the imperial government disappeared into the void. Hyouchuu was beside himself with frustration. After all the hard work Houkou and Kyoukei had gone to, Hyouchuu couldn’t deliver the results when it counted.
“What’s the problem?” he was asked. “What’s going on?” He had no answers. The expectation that the long years of work had finally born fruit was met only with more disappointment.
“I have importuned them over and again, but somewhere along the line my reports are hitting a brick wall.”
Whether the words of a mere conservation officer were deemed not worthy of a hearing, or he wasn’t explaining the urgency of the situation clearly enough, or more likely, their activities didn’t measure up to some arbitrary yardstick somewhere along the way and the reports were being summarily shelved.
“I’m sorry,” Hyouchuu apologized.
Houkou and his assistants sighed. Kyoukei grumbled under his breath. “So this is what it all comes down to.”
Hyouchuu felt the disgust in their reactions and it stung him deeply. After all, gathering the gleanings of the yaboku and presenting them to the proper imperial authorities was his job. He’d made his reports in accordance with his responsibilities. Not obtaining even a cursory review of his findings simply shouldn’t be happening.
Or, rather, these days, it was standard operating procedure in this kingdom.
The voices of the people were ignored. Petitions for relief, for salvation, were crumpled up and thrown away. The imperial ministers labored only to benefit themselves, concerned themselves only with how best to exploit the people and the kingdom for their own gain. Especially with the coronation of a new emperor, alarmed to feel the ground shifting beneath their feet, all their frantic efforts only exacerbated the decline.
They didn’t give a damn about the kingdoms or its citizens. Or rather, far from taking him for granted, they viewed the common man as the enemy. That was why Hyouchuu hid his credentials inside his pack. He couldn’t very well travel with his status on display, and certainly not of late.
Well, that was inevitable. A city like Yosen should occupy a prominent position along this road. Why weren’t the roads leading there way thronged with travelers? On these freezing winter days, why didn’t he see smoke curling from the chimneys of the houses?
A simple reason—the people simply weren’t there.
A population once large enough to support a city of that size had been hollowed out, evidence of the number of lives lost.
Houses that had lost their inhabitants had about them the deep and dark aura of ruin. Streets with no passers-by were taken over by the weeds and brambles and covered with drifts. The city walls crumbled. The city gates hung awkwardly on their hinges. Fertile land and farming hamlets no longer ringed the cities. Even the rike fell into disrepair and disuse.
None of these institutions was administered by commoners. Running them was the responsibility of civil servants like Hyouchuu, who instead extorted tax monies from people barely scraping by, stuffed it into their own pockets, and gave nothing back.
He wasn’t surprised that the people they were supposed to serve loathed them. He knew that nothing would change those attitudes for now.
Which was why he absolutely had to get to where he was going.
The blue orchid he carried on his back must make it to the Imperial Palace and into the hands of the new emperor. Before it withered away.