Hyouchuu climbed the rising grade. He came to the sunken road cut into the crest of the mountain. The walls of the sunken road blocked the wind long enough for him to catch his breath. He too quickly arrived at the end of the cut. The snow-laden crosswinds again threatened to push him off the road.
I’ll be okay. The course was downhill from here. Simply keep his feet moving and he should arrive at the village at the foot of the mountain.
Yanking his feet out of the snow only to be bowled over by the wind, he staggered down the hill. The descending grade forced him to pick up his pace to a small run. Every time he stumbled and fell to his knees, he glanced up at the sky, catching the position of the sun through the thick clouds
One step forward. One step at a time to the village ahead. One morning he’d awaken to find the blue orchid dead. When that moment arrived, he didn’t want to regret that he could have hurried a little bit faster.
If he’d only hastened from the start—if he’d only kept on going without seeking refuge by the fire—those moments of regret and remorse stung like a twisted ankle. The nightmares he’d seen over and over were so deeply engrained in his mind he could almost believe he’d experienced them for real.
He raced down the hill as if fleeing from the pain. There before his eyes was a small gate. The gate was open. Hyouchuu ran toward it, eyeing the sky. He still had daylight. He could cover more ground.
No sooner had he entertained that thought but his knees buckled. He fell forward, striking the snow with both hands, gasping for breath.
Stand. There’s still light. I can make it to the next village.
No matter how much he remonstrated with himself, his legs only trembled. With no strength left in them, they didn’t move. He pushed down with his arms to sit himself up. But even that simple motion defeated him.
“What’s the matter?” a voice called out to him. “You okay?”
Hyouchuu raised his head. A big man bent over and peered at him.
“Is there another town further on?”
“There is, but—”
The man blinked. “Not so far. Less than an hour. Used to be a big city. Not so much anymore. Half the buildings are rubble. No inns left, neither.”
The man reached a hand down to Hyouchuu. “To start with, in all this snow, you’re not going to get there before the city gates close. You’d be better off staying the night in our little hick town.”
“What about the city walls?”
“Huh?” the man said, his eyes growing a bit wider in surprise.
“Are the city walls intact?”
If they were, there was no getting in after the gates closed. But many city walls had sustained so much wear and tear that getting inside the city after sundown was easy. Worst case, he could find some overhanging eaves to slumber under. He only needed a place to rest his body for a few hours.
“Nope.” Puzzled, the man shook his head. “Not much of them left.”
So he could keep going. Except the hands braced on his knees gave way and Hyouchuu slumped headfirst into the snow.
“Whoa, whoa. Take it easy. Come along and have yourself a lie-down.”
The man grabbed hold of Hyouchuu’s arms. Hyouchuu felt a warm presence around his shoulders. Raising his eyes, he saw he was standing next to a horse. The horse dropped its head and peered at Hyouchuu with it large clear eyes.
“This your horse?” Hyouchuu asked, as the man hauled him to his feet.
The man nodded. “Sure, but—”
“Please. Lend me the use of your horse.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Hyouchuu managed to remain balanced on his feet. “I’ll pay. You can accompany me. That’d be fine too.”
“To the next town. I’d settle for getting to the next town.”
“Not bloody possible. Give it a rest.”
“I see,” Hyouchuu said with a sigh. “Don’t worry about it. Things are what they are.”
He shrugged off the man’s helping hand and took a step forward. “Hey!” the man shouted. He took another. And again crumpled to the ground. His feet felt like blocks of lead. He couldn’t feel his toes.
“Like I told you, not bloody possible. What’s this about?”
“I’m fine. Just leave me alone.”
There was no way to make him understand, no explanation he could offer. He couldn’t get anybody to grasp the danger. All the words in the world didn’t clarify a thing. His petitions, his appeals, vanished into empty air. Maybe they thought that little of him. Maybe they didn’t even notice he existed.
Good-hearted commoners thought he was funny. The superintendent in Sei’in did. His own sister did. His own brother did. Was it they didn’t truly understand? Or maybe they preferred to see only the silver linings and not the clouds. Maybe that wishful thinking was all they had left. That was certainly the case with the old man and woman at the mountain pass.
He could help but smile shake his head. That’s all it was.
How to impart the weight of the pack on his back? He wasn’t able to communicate that urgency, that he must arrive, even one hour faster, before the dream withered and died.
If anybody in the world would understand, it’d be a thief. Realizing how valuable these items were to their owner, he’d try to steal them. Hyouchuu had seen that dream often enough as well.
Something so jealously guarded had to be worth a fortune. But having stolen Hyouchuu’s portable plant nursery, the thief would raise the lid only to curse his victim. A log! And cast it aside, right in front of Hyouchuu’s eyes.
Or rather, found out that Hyouchuu was an imperial civil servant and roughed him up. Whatever thing this low-level functionary prized was better cast into the fire. Yes, that would quell the miscreant’s rage and frustration.
So this is what it comes down to. Kyoukei’s words of contempt rang in his ears.
Yes, in the end, this is what it comes down to.
“Don’t worry about it. Let me be.”
Hyouchuu again rose to his knees. Pawing at the ground with both hands, he tried to totter to his feet.
“Don’t be a damn fool!” the man roared.
Hyouchuu raised his head. At some point, a crowd had gathered around them, wearing similar expressions on their faces.
“How about you spilled the beans about what the hell’s going on here. Being a stubborn ass ain’t solving nothing.”
Hyouchuu said nothing. He gritted his teeth and tried to make his legs work enough for him to stand.
“You are as bullheaded as they come. But why not share a word or two? That pack looks heavy. You the only one who can carry it?”
Hyouchuu looked at the man. His pack was heavy, too heavy. “Please—”
“Huh?” said the man, staring into Hyouchuu’s eyes.
Hyouchuu reached out a weary, trembling arm. “Help me. Please.”
The man’s firm, warm grip enveloped his hand.
“I must get to the Imperial Palace. No matter what. No matter what. No matter what.”
The man’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “You have to do what?”
“This pack must be delivered to the new emperor. There is no time to rest. Not an minute to spare. Please. At least take me to the next city.”
The man patted Hyouchuu’s hand. “Makes no different whether you struggle onto the next city and rest there, or rest here and set off first thing in the morning.”
“No. That won’t do. I must be on my way. If it withers, it’s the end. There’s no salvation after that.”
“Salvation? What are you gonna save?”
The mountains, if not the kingdom itself and all its inhabitants. The future of this disintegrating kingdom. If only he had the time to go back to the beginning and explain everything and make him understand. But even the time to do that was too precious. He had to press on. When the plant withered, he could not bear the thought that he had walked when he could have run.
“The emperor is a big important person. You think he’ll take it?”
Hyouchuu nodded. He wanted to believe it’d work out. He had his credentials inside his pack. If he collapsed at the palace gates, his credentials and letters of introduction laid out his case. They only had to search through his belongings to find them. What mattered was getting them into the hands of a government official with a heart.
And the new emperor accepting them.
“I see.” The man nodded. He raised Hyouchuu to his feet and unfastened his packs.
“No. That is—”
“It’ll be fine.”
The man strapped the portable plant nursery onto his own back and grinned. “Didn’t you say you were in a hurry? I got it.”
The man wrapped his arms around Hyouchuu’s waist and hoisted him onto the back of the horse. Hyouchuu managed to cling to the pommel. The man tossed his own quilted blanket around Hyouchuu’s shoulders. “Wrap it tight so you don’t freeze to death!”
He took hold of the reins and started walking.
“Hey!” called out somebody in the crowd. “You taking him serious?”
“What else can I do?” His voice rang out cleanly in the cold air. “I’ll take him as far as I can take him.”
And he quickened his pace.
Reins in hand, the man ran all the way to the next town. The snow stopped and the skies cleared. The sun had set. The cold stars shone down on the white and frozen fields. With Hyouchuu still riding in the saddle, the man sprinted up the city gates. He unstrapped the portable plant nursery and flopped down in the snow, puffing out big breaths of air.
A troupe was camped out around a fire before the gate. One called out, “What’s going on over there?”
“Just—ran—here—” the man panted. “Who—are you?”
“We’re shusei.” Traveling entertainers, citizens of the Yellow Sea. “Taking a break before setting off for the next town.”
“Good to hear.” The man sat up. “Can I entrust this guy’s stuff to you? He’s in a real hurry to get somewhere.”
The shusei listened to his explanation with startled expressions and dubious looks. “Can’t say any of that makes any sense to us, but there being just one of him, he’s welcome to ride in the wagon. As long as he can squeeze in among the luggage.”
“So not too much to ask, eh?”
“We’ll be walking through the night to the city on the provincial border anyways.” The shusei grinned. “These days, good luck finding an inn willing to take us in.”
A big voice boomed out, “All right, off you go.” He reached up to Hyouchuu. Hyouchuu’s hands had frozen into a crabbed grip after clinging to the saddle. He had to force them open to reciprocate the man’s gesture.
Hyouchuu sat on the back of the horse cart, crammed between the bags and boxes, his shoulders squished together, holding the portable plant nursery in his lap. He couldn’t shed the thought that if they wanted, these shusei could rob him of everything he had and abandon him in the middle of nowhere. He tightened his hold on the portable plant nursery and prepared himself to leap off the cart and bolt if push came to shove.
But rocked by forth by the cart, he at last reached his limits and fell into a drowsy, hazy sleep. Jostled awake, he came to with a start. Frantically looking around to get his bearings, he realized he was being offered a bowl of hot soup.
“A bite to eat?” a woman asked him, her face beaded with steam.
He still had the portable plant nursery gripped tightly in his arms.
They crossed the provincial border two days later. Once he stopped using his feet, Hyouchuu couldn’t get them working again. The soles of his feet were worn raw, the skin cracked and chapped. His ankles and knees were swollen, his hips and legs stiff as boards. He couldn’t straighten his legs.
And yet he did not fail to check the portable plant nursery three times a day, examining the condition of the log and the blue orchid. Though the green wood of the log was slowly drying, the orchid remained fresh and vibrant.
“You can’t transplant it?” one of the shusei asked.
They gathered around Hyouchuu and peered into the portable plant nursery. Hyouchuu shook his head.
With no allegiance to any one kingdom, the shusei demonstrated no interest in Hyouchuu’s credentials. Though they harbored doubts that the emperor would grant him an audience.
“Not hearing much in the grapevine about the new guy, except maybe he’s not exactly a political operator.”
“I have heard that he’s less than interested in the down and dirty business of governing.”
“If only there was an honest and diligent politician left in the kingdom who could take your delivery and move it up the chain of command!”
Hyouchuu remained silent and held onto the portable plant nursery. He no choice but to go on, before the devastated mountains deteriorated even further.
They arrived at a big city the next day. Strangely enough, passing every major block and intersection on the road, the city appeared just the way an actual city should. It must be possible to hire the use of a horse here. Except that Hyouchuu still couldn’t stand up. The shusei went looking for another horse cart.
They found a young man who’d just dropped off his cargo and was wheeling his wagon around to go back. They pressed a few coins into his hands and asked that, at the very least, he travel onto the next town. The young driver nodded, though didn’t appear very happy being importuned into doing so.
Yet he hurried onto the next town and managed to arrive before the gates closed.
Simply getting off the wagon took every ounce of strength Hyouchuu had left. And then he couldn’t stand up. However he braced his trembling arms, he couldn’t support his own weight. Even when he stood erect, his unbending legs turned into broomsticks. He couldn’t move.
“You’re hopeless,” the young driver said.
Hyouchuu wept. “I’m useless!” he cried over and over like child. “Useless!”
He couldn’t give up. He had to press on, no matter what. He was letting down Kyoukei, and Houkou, and the horse that rushed him here. All the people who’d lent him a hand along the way. He was letting down everybody.
“A man’s got to know his limits,” a throaty voice intoned, as if no less surprised to be the one saying it. The speaker emerged from the hustle and bustle and took the portable plant nursery from Hyouchuu’s hands.
“Give it a break. Enough is enough.”
Hyouchuu’s eyes clouded with tears, reducing the world around him to a misty fog. The man shouldered the portable plant nursery. “I’ll be on my way. You get some rest.”
Leaving Hyouchuu in the care of his wife, the man took off at a small run. Dusk was falling on the road. Hyouchuu could only watch as his precious pack grew smaller in the distance.
It is now out of my hands. And yet letting it go had been his intention from the start.
The man disappeared over a crest in the road. Only then did consciousness slip away. Hyouchuu fell into a heavy sleep. In his dreams beech trees crashed to the ground, screaming as they broke into pieces.
The man ran down the road. He couldn’t ignore the sight of that older man weeping aloud. That man was in a hurry, and considering the dangers of the dusky road, being in a hurry was a good idea. So he moved as fast as he could. Walking when tired, collecting his strength and picking up the pace again, he ran through he night.
About ready to collapse, he arrived at the city gates. There he spied a group of young men hanging out in front of the gate.
“Hey, if you’ve got the time, could you help me out here?”
About that same time, dead to the world, Hyouchuu slept in a tiny, broken-down house. In his dreams, forests of beech trees toppled over and shattered into pieces. The mountainsides collapsed. The avalanches of mud and gravel turned into hoards of rats that swallowed up the villages.
The young men ran in a relay, swapping the pack when one of them grew tired. They had no idea what the emergency was, only that it was on behalf of the kingdom. Having been born in a kingdom of chaos, none of them truly knew what he meant to work on behalf of the kingdom
With nothing better to do with their time, they simply ran, competing against each other for the fun of it. They had no jobs, nothing they ought to be doing, except earning enough from day work to fill their stomachs. There wasn’t anything particularly enjoyable about the lives they lived. They didn’t feel any real value in what they were doing.
And yet when told to act for the good of the kingdom, a tiny bit of social consciousness awakened within them.
One of the group finally had to drop out, then two. The last one passed five more towns before reaching the end of his rope.
“I don’t know what this is about, but it’s for the kingdom. This package has to reach the Imperial Palace.”
With those words he entrusted the portable plant nursery to a woman and her children on a horse cart.
When Hyouchuu awoke, the snow had started up again. The kind wife changed the compresses on his legs. He said nothing and did as he was told and ruminated over the packs he no longer held in his arms. Where was it now? In what patch of wild countryside had it been discarded?
The wife’s husband said he had entrusted it to a group of young men. How could they possibly comprehend its importance? If they did not and simply threw it away. Hyouchuu was in no position to find fault. He hadn’t bore his burden to the bitter end.
The realization made him weep. He’d done nothing but mooch off his position and his fief his whole career. Not once had he successfully executed his duties and responsibilities.
How was Houkou faring? Where was Kyoukei these days? What were they doing? What was on their minds? Did they ever imagine such a disappointing conclusion to his journey?
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, and closed his eyes.
His legs were swollen from hip to toes, his arms up to his elbows. He couldn’t bend his knees or legs. He couldn’t grasp anything with his chapped and stiff red fingers.
Puffing warm breath on her red hands, the woman regripped the reins. She glanced behind her. Her children sat amongst the firewood in the bed of the cart, holding onto the pack like it was the most important thing in the world.
Her husband was working away from home. “In order to support the children,” he’d said, but she’d gotten no news from him since he left. During heavy rains last fall, the town where he was working got buried by an landslide. She didn’t know whether he’d met his end in the disaster or had taken the opportunity to abandon them.
Left behind, she farmed the unruly land in the summer. In the winter, her young sons helped by gathering firewood in the mountains. They earned money providing rides for tired travelers in a hurry and managed to eek out a living.
Still, life was worth living. She managed to keep her children by her side. She’d sold their house in the village to get the horse. Along with her scrawny but hardworking sons, those were their only assets. Despite the cold and hunger, they never whined or complained. They sat shoulder to shoulder in the bed of the cart, holding onto the pack as they gazed at the countryside.
What kind of future could they make for themselves in a desolate kingdom, in a fruitless land? Though a new emperor sat on the throne, would that be enough to save them? She couldn’t say. Conditions certainly were’t improving, not with the roads in such deplorable condition and every town along the way so lacking in vitality.
“But won’t things will get better once we give this to the emperor?” asked her oldest son.
“Of course.” She nodded. Her emotions were more complicated. She wanted to believe even as she could not believe. Those doubts she kept to herself. Let the hope remain alive in them. Let not their future world sink into despair.
“The emperor is definitely going to help us out,” he said to his younger brother.
His mother gave the reins a firm shake. She didn’t know what the truth was, but they might as well hurry up and find out. She believed that hope resided inside that bamboo pack.
Inside that bamboo pack.
Hyouchuu opened his eyes. It was the middle of the night. A cold crescent moon shone through a narrow window, bare of paper or glass. What would become of them? Would the new emperor save the kingdom? But what had Hyouchuu done to that end? Had he only hoped for the new era to come?
Could the ravaged land breath life back into a ravaged people? Or perhaps it had reached its limits and would break them and the kingdom too.
He suddenly recalled the warmth of another living thing. Agen collapsed crossing the border from Kei Province. He and his horse had traveled throughout the kingdom for quite some time. Had he driven her to her death? From the greenhouses in Setsuka to that point, he’d demanded every ounce of strength she had to give. If he found himself in that neighborhood again, he’d check up on her. Had she not survived, he’d see to it that she got a good and proper burial.
Casting his thoughts back, other warm memories rose to his mind—Houkou, Kyoukei, and the hardworking gardeners. The people of Sei’in, his aging mother still living in her mountain village. He had to believe that a day of salvation was coming for all of them.
These prayers on his lips, he rested awake as the morning came.
Around that same time, the mother and her children arrived at a crossroads town. There she handed over the pack to a distant relative. The ties between them were neither deep nor strong, but she’d heard that he’d had the opportunity to visit the Imperial Palace in the course of his business dealings.
As she entrusted the package to his care, the children repeatedly stressed the importance of his mission. “Make sure it gets there!”
Puzzled over the nature of the task being asked of him, “Don’t worry!” he reassured them in a cheerful voice. He patted the boys on the head and jumped onto his horse and rode away.
He didn’t want to ask more of his old nag than the animal could manage, it being his sole material asset in the world. But the children had implored him in such serious tones that he must not betray their expectations.
In any case, it was about time he paid the Imperial Palace a visit, where he might finagle a face-to-face with somebody.
Once upon a time, he’d been a regular visitor, though only as a delivery man. He didn’t have any clout with the civil service, nor was he still on friendly terms with anybody. He had to wonder if he’d even be granted a meeting without any money on the table. There had to be somebody, the servant of an acquaintance, at the very least, who would give him the time of day.
Turning these thoughts over in his head, it occurred to him that most everybody he knew had fled the capital or had died. When it came to revolts and riots, natural disasters and youma attacks, the capital was no exception. The loss of life there was far greater than in the towns and villages on the frontier.
The late emperor’s tyranny and the long era of the empty throne had ravaged the capital more than elsewhere. The emperor was responsible for the death of his parents. He’d lost his ten year old niece, leaving him with only his young sister. Until the day she was dragged off by human traffickers and never returned. Then having finally gotten a family of his own, his wife and child were attacked by hoodlums and killed.
It was hard for him to believe that the kingdom was finally on the mend.
Turning these bitter memories over in his mind, he remembered that a fellow tradesman back when he was a regular visitor to the Imperial palace had been appointed a chief engineer in the Ministry of Earth.
The delivery man wasn’t familiar with the ins and outs of the imperial bureaucracy. At best, his credentials would win him admittance to the Ministry of Earth, so approaching the chief engineer seemed his best option. The chief engineer, he recalled, was blessed with open ears and an open mind. As far as he knew, they’d once both been located somewhere on the same organizational chart.
Uncle, make sure it gets there!
“I hear you, I hear you,” he murmured to himself. He urged on his old horse and galloped down the road, the road that led straight to Gankyuu.
Gen’ei Palace was a two day’s ride away.