Leaning into the wind, at times locking arms with the old man as they navigated the snow-slicked road, Hyouchuu climbed to the top of the mountain. It was downhill from there. Before long, the city of San’you came into view.
They trudged through the snow to the city gate. “My, my, but it’s about time.” The old man flashed a smile. “Looks like we arrived in once piece.”
Hyouchuu tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. It was still light out. The old man started toward the gate. Hyouchuu called out, “How’s the going after this?”
“A little further on it emerges on a sunken road and descends the rest of the way from there. There’s a little village down below.”
“How much longer to there?”
The old man stared back at him in amazement. “In good weather, an hour or so. Don’t tell me you intend to keep on going!”
Attempting to ascertain the position of the sun hidden behind the dark, dense clouds, Hyouchuu nodded. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me. At the very least, this will cover the cost of a room for the night.” Hyouchuu held out a handful of coins.
“Don’t want it, won’t take it. I’m telling you, it’s completely out of the question!”
“I’m in a hurry. I am truly thankful.”
Hyouchuu grasped the old man’s hand and forced the coins into his palm. I will make it there for your own good as well, he murmured to himself.
He slipped free as the old man tried to stop him and hurried off down the road as fast as he could manage. Thankfully, the winds blowing off the mountain were at his back.
He would take a break if he could. But there was no telling how much longer the blue orchid might last. If the plant withered, it was too late. Arriving at the Imperial Palace wouldn’t mean a thing.
His heels kicked up rooster tails of snow as the road slowly began to climb. His feet grew heavy. His back and hips ached. But if he kept up the pace, he should make it to the village ahead. And if his luck held, the next village after that.
He knew he was pressing his luck. He’d already taken plenty of crazy chances. The orchid might wither tomorrow. That fear kept pushing him onward.
Because there is no next time.
About the time the blue orchid flowered, and Hyouchuu and Houkou and his team breathed a sign of relief at the hard-won victory, Heaven stopped sending the blue orchids to the yaboku trees. Though they didn’t stop cold, for the most part outcroppings of the blue orchid seedlings ceased to appear.
Hyouchuu, Houkou, Kyoukei and their teams successfully transplanted seedlings into thirteen logs. Two of those later withered. They grew six from seeds, for a grand total of seventeen. The future of the kingdom rested on these seventeen trees.
In the meantime, the destruction of the beech forests continued apace. In some places, the majority of the beech groves had petrified and fallen down.
They were running out of time, warned an increasingly impatient Houkou.
“The most dangerous conditions occur in the spring during the snow melt. Melting snow soaks into the earth and loosens the soil deep below the ground. We could see whole mountainsides collapsing at once. If not handled right, the shape of the mountains themselves could change.”
Houkou sent a directive to the district offices to replace fallen beech trees with trees that had good root spread. They were also to construct dams along the valley rivers that would store water in preparation for summer and block the flow of dirt and sand if a landslide occurred. At they same time, they should repair the barrier walls and construct emergency warehouses.
Except the district offices neither had the budgets nor the manpower. Projects fell behind schedule or didn’t progress. He forwarded the same advice to his superiors, but they weren’t in the mood to listen to their underlings. Alas, forest rangers had no more pull than conservation officers.
They’d vested all their hopes in the medicine. Yet simply possessing it didn’t arrest the progression of the disease. Even if the fruit of the blue orchid grew on the riboku, planting it and then preparing the medicine took time.
Thankfully, the seed itself was fairly hardy. It apparently hibernated until the conditions and the season were right. In a greenhouse environment, the blue orchid only rooted when “planted” in old trees. In any case, obtaining the fruit today did not mean the medicine would be available tomorrow.
“We need it as soon as possible.” The end of the year approached. “We have to deliver it within the year. If the emperor petitions the roboku before year’s end, the fruit should appear on the riboku trees next year.”
Generally speaking, the days to pray for a ranka were established in advance. These days were determined by the rishi in order to accommodate the petitioners in an orderly fashion. No natural law dictated that if petitions were not submitted on a such a day, the ranka would not appear, only that the rishi would only admit petitioners on certain days.
The roboku followed a similar pattern, and since petitions undoubtedly involved a preordained ritual, while the day was established according to custom and practice, it was unlikely to be set in stone.
However, there was also the unalterable agenda of Divine Providence. When the emperor petitioned for a new plant or animal and this prayer was answered, the ranka appeared in fifteen days. The year after it grew on the roboku, it appeared on the riboku trees throughout the kingdom in the appropriate season.
The lunar calendar also figured into these calculations. If the emperor made his petition on a full moon, the ranka would be born on the next full moon, and then appear on the riboku a year hence on the first full moon.
There being optimal times for planting, the ranka would bear fruit containing seeds for early planting on the first full moon of spring.
Because the blue orchid did not have an optimal time for planting, if the emperor received the ranka within the current year, they could expect it to appear the following year. This meant delivering the blue orchid by the middle of December, at the latest. If the imperial petition was made by then, the blue orchid should be available throughout the kingdom by early next year.
If they missed this deadline and the petition was put off until next year, the ranka would not appear until the year after that. “We simply don’t have that kind of leeway,” Houkou said. He predicted large-scale landslides in at least three places that spring.
On foot, traveling from the Setsuka district offices to the Imperial Palace took less than two months. On horseback or by horse cart, they could easily make it on time. The problem was keeping the blue orchid alive for that long.
In order for the emperor to pray for a ranka from the roboku, he had to present a viable sample of the item being requested. Remove the orchid from the tree it was growing in and it quickly perished. The only workable option was to transport the orchid and the tree together. The section of the tree containing the orchid could be cut away. But a severed log couldn’t sustain the orchid for long. When it dried out, the orchid died as well.
“We don’t have any seeds. We’ll have to wait until next year when the fruit appears after the flowers bloom.
That was far too long to wait. They had on hand eleven surviving seedlings harvested from the yaboku and six grown from seeds. Sacrificing a precious two revealed that when removed from the rest of the tree, an orchid survived in a wooden log for half a month at best, six days at worst. A colder environment might prolong the times, though a few extra days was all they’d been able to produce. After that, when the orchid withered was completely random.
“I’d really like a kijuu.”
Any creature that was fleet of foot. But considering the poor state of Hyouchuu’s finances and the meager funds Setsuka district had on hand, they wouldn’t be laying their hands on one anytime soon. Nor did they have the time to go looking for one.
Hoping they could contract with a rider to transport the package, they sought out every connection they had. But in this day and age, nobody knew anybody with deep enough pockets to own a kijuu. That was why they repeatedly begged for an imperial official to come and get it. And received not a single reply.
Hyouchuu couldn’t tell whether any of the entreaties he’d written had reached the right ears. If he didn’t have sufficient political reach, perhaps they could hire a fixer to make the necessary connections.
They searched high and low for a go-between. Informed that gifts and gratuities would be necessary to smooth the way, Hyouchuu took stock of his own scant assets and disposed of his home in the capital district (in which he’d never lived).
It was November when a high provincial official agreed to reach out on their behalf. The chief agronomist in the Kei Ministry of Earth offered to make the appeal to the imperial government. The chief agronomist oversaw his assistant agronomists, who oversaw the regional agronomy secretaries, who oversaw the provincial conservation officers.
In short, the chief agronomist was a permanent undersecretary who reported to the Minister of Earth. In imperial terms, that made him a middle-ranked baron, or a lower-ranked baron in provincial terms. In any case, they dwelt above the clouds, far removed from civil servants like Hyouchuu in the minor nobility
Hyouchuu met with the chief agronomist in the provincial capital and explained the situation. A man of substance and knowledge from all outward appearances, the chief agronomist listened attentively, promised to communicate these findings to the province lord, and deliver a report directly to the emperor. They even planned out a visit to the Setsuka district greenhouses so he could take delivery of the seedlings.
This last step should have seen their efforts through to completion. But all Hyouchuu had done was invite a wolf into the fold.
They expected that servants sent by the chief agronomist would come and pick up the packages. Having already arranged a face-to-face with the emperor, the province lord could then escort the items straight to the capital.
In preparation for that that eventuality, they constructed a shipping container. To safely transport the seedlings, they built a portable plant nursery, selected the seedlings, marked on the trees where to cut the branches. When the servants arrived, they’d prune off the branches and put the whole package together right there.
And so they got every single one of their ducks in a row.
But then the day before their expected arrival, a man from the provincial government appeared uninvited at the district offices. Hyouchuu was suspicious but showed him to the greenhouses. After a brief inspection, instructed his servants to start cutting down the trees the seedlings were grafted into.
“What are you doing!” Hyouchuu exclaimed.
“Moving these seedlings, of course. They are the property of the province. These greenhouses fall under the jurisdiction of our department. So what problem could there possibly be in transferring them from the district offices?”
“Stop it!” Houkou cried out. “You’re going to kill them!”
“They’ll be grafted into other trees before they die,” said the man, who turned out to be the regional agronomy secretary. “Gardens are being made ready in the provincial offices. The province shall then present them to the Imperial Palace.”
Hyouchuu quieted the greenhouse workers when they raised their voices in protest. He asked, “Is that truly all you are going to do with them?”
If they truly made it into the hands of the emperor, then it didn’t matter who took the honors or how.
“We don’t take orders from you. Don’t think that just because you’re some sort of imperial civil servant you get to be in charge. The province’s chief agronomist will decide such things.”
“But of course,” Kyoukei grumbled, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “All those dying birch trees are worth too damn much. The last thing you need is a cure. Or you’ll simply wait for the mountains to go to the dogs and jack up the price of the medicine all the higher. “
That momentarily left the secretary at a loss for words.
“Do you novices have even the slightest idea how to transplant these seedlings?”
The secretary scanned the greenhouse workers assembled there. “Very well, then. One of you veterans will accompany us. Anybody will do. You—”
He indicated the gardener nearest to him. The gardener shook his head. “I couldn’t do it.”
Only Houkou and Kyoukei who lived to do nothing but nurture the seedlings possessed that knowledge.
“Then it’ll have to be the forest ranger.”
In a small voice, one of his underlings raised an objection. “Forest rangers are attached to the Ministry of Summer.” Meaning that the Ministry of Earth couldn’t cavalierly treat a forest ranger like one of its own employees.
The secretary clucked to himself. “Who the hell cares?” he said to himself. “How about this? Procedural violations have taken place within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Earth. So we have to take the man in for questioning.”
In short, he was accusing Houkou of breaking some regulation enforced by the Ministry of Earth. The guilty party had to be detained as part of the investigation. Fully grasping the intent of this fabrication, Hyouchuu felt sick to his stomach.
Houkou shook himself free of the gendarme holding him, though not in order to flee the present danger. His attention was focused solely on the trees in the greenhouse, solely on how to save the precious seedlings.
One of the secretary’s minions grabbed for Houkou, leaping at him and pummeling him as he tried to run. Then abruptly grabbed his stomach and folded in two. Houkou pushed him aside and sprinted away.
Having rushed forward to Houkou’s side, Kyoukei stared down at the fallen man, an icy glare in his eyes. The man’s abdomen was stained bright red. Kyoukei hefted a hatchet in his right hand.
“So this is what the civil service is made of,” he spit out. He glared at Hyouchuu, seething with rage. “Now you know why government officials can never be trusted.”
I’m different, Hyouchuu wanted to say. But now was not the time for such rationalizations. He was the one who beckoned this disaster into their midst, who foolishly threw away his own fortunes in order to make a vain wish come true.
“Stop!” shouted Houkou, struggling over an axe with another underling. Casting Hyouchuu a dismissive look, Kyoukei spun on his heels and slashed down with the hatchet.
The blade bit into the man’s arm. He dropped the axe and screamed and crumpled to the ground.
Taking in the scene, the rest of the secretary’s retinue froze in their tracks. First one and then another dropped the axes they had seized, turned and ran. The secretary was no exception.
“Mobilize a militia and arrest them!” he shouted as he retreated. He was first out the door, leaving his flustered underlings behind exchanging frantic looks
One hesitantly advanced toward Kyoukei, Kyoukei raised the hatchet high over his shoulder. The man yelped and ran, the rest of his colleagues fast on his heels.
Left behind were Hyouchuu and Kyoukei, and Houkou’s greenhouse workers, frozen in place like a garden of statues. And Houkou, staring at the trees,
Though none of the beech trees had been cleanly cut down, four were clearly beyond saving. The deep gouges in the trunks only meant they would soon wither and die. One other tree carried had nurtured three seedlings on its lower branches, two of which were knocked off in the melee.
“Quick, let’s transplant them into another tree!” Houkou picked up the seedlings and motioned to the greenhouse workers. “The injured trees as well. Let’s see if we can replant the seedlings that fell off.” He turned and said to Kyoukei, “Get going. No sense in you sticking around here and getting arrested.”
Kyoukei said with a wry smile, “Not that it’d do any good. Those bastards will be back with the militia soon enough.”
Houkou ignored him and ran over to the packs beneath the tent. He pulled out a money belt. “Yours too,” he said to Hyouchuu.
“Houkou, I—” Hyouchuu started to say, and then nodded. “Yeah, I understand.”
“They used you. But more importantly, we’ve got to get Kyoukei out of here. He’s a koushu with no ties to this or any other kingdom. There’s no need for him to get tangled up in our problems.”
On the census, yaboku hunters like Kyoukei were classified as koushu, citizens of the Yellow Sea.
Hyouchuu nodded again and removed his own money belt. Houkou took it and together with his own pressed them into Kyoukei’s hands.
“I’m sorry. This is all we’ve got. Flee. Leave the kingdom. They can’t follow you across the border.”
Kyoukei gave Houkou a long look, then turned an icy stare on Hyouchuu. Perhaps he merely despised Hyouchuu. Perhaps he lumped him together with the secretary. Either way, whether he trusted him and how much he disdained him didn’t matter now. All Hyouchuu could do was avoid his gaze.
Kyoukei asked, “How are you going to deal with this mess?”
Houkou laughed. “We’ll deal with it one way or another. Push come to shove, I’ll make sure we get our stories straight and take the blame. That should make the powers that be happy. Fact of the matter is, that’s where things were heading in any event, and my head on the chopping block.”
Kyoukei didn’t disagree with him. He glanced up at the horribly wounded beech trees. “The seedlings—”
“They’ll be okay. Get out of here.”
Houkou once again urged him on. Kyoukei grabbed his pack and hurried out of the greenhouse. He ducked under the rope fence at the far end of the beech grove and disappeared into the forest.
His mind blank, Hyouchuu watched him go. Houkou called out, “Help me save the seedlings!”
In a flash, Hyouchuu collected his wits. Alongside Houkou and the gardeners, they gathered up the seedlings. In the end, of the fifteen remaining seedlings, eight had already withered. Only seven remained. In order to rebuild their stock, not a single one could go to waste.
The provincial militia would arrive soon. But in the meantime, one of their more astute gardeners rushed off to the district office and organized a posse of his own. With words of warning that a provincial interloper was violating the prerogatives of the district Ministry of Summer, he turned the tables on the agronomy secretary.
Hyouchuu’s rank in the imperial civil service finally proved useful. What was the provincial Ministry of Earth doing, arresting employees of the district Minister of Summer who, in good faith, were working under the aegis of an imperial civil servant? If anyone was acting in an unreasonable manner, it was the secretary.
The secretary refused to back down, and so they came to loggerheads. In the end, Houkou wasn’t arrested, but they were left with only one way to meet their goals. Though there was no guaranteeing the deadline could be met, Hyouchuu would transport the blue orchid to the Imperial Palace himself.
He had no idea what would happen once he got to the Imperial Palace. Even if he arrived there in one piece, could he actually place the blue orchid in the hands of the emperor? He carried the credentials of an imperial conservation officer, which should get him into the Imperial Palace. Except the distance between Hyouchuu and the throne rivaled that between heaven and earth.
Hyouchuu’s petitions had been stamped out of existence somewhere along the line. The new emperor likely had more pressing matters to deal with and little interest in Hyouchuu’s concerns. Rumors had it that the new emperor possessed no great passion for the job of governing.
And yet Hyouchuu’s had no other choice. In order to complete the petition within the current year, there was no time to spare. A limb in which one of Houkou’s precious seedlings was planted was cut off the tree and reduced to a small log. Hyouchuu strapped the portable plant nursery to his back and saddled up Agen.
He’d left the Setsuka district greenhouses half a month before. The last month of year loomed before him. One way or another, he had to get there in time. He looked up at a darkening sky laden with layers of lead-stained clouds, an infinite number of snowflakes whipped by a fierce wind.
Please, he prayed, let the blue orchid cling to life until then.