Snow was falling on the first day of the New Year, on the beech trees in Setsuka District too, where Houkou diligently guarded his blue orchids.
Houkou had to wonder, as he constantly did of late, if Hyouchuu had safely gotten to the Imperial Palace.
Two more blue orchids withered after Hyouchuu left. Despite it being a fool’s errand, they gathered four new seedlings from around the yaboku trees to replace them.
They must be protected.
It was snowing a fortnight later, and at the end of the month as well.
A desolated village, all but abandoned to the wilderness. No voices there welcomed in the New Year. The sun rose and the sun set, same as the day before. Another villager died, reducing their number to eight. The only break in the routine. The man sat down and leaned back against the riboku tree. The branches of the tree were dark gray, almost black.
The man—Kyoukei—hugged his knees with his arms and gazed absent-mindedly at the snow falling softly at his feet.
He’d had every intention of fleeing the kingdom. But he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He had no childhood home to return to. He couldn’t remember the kingdom he was born in, or the kingdoms he’d traveled to thereafter. Even the faces of his mother and father left no mark on his memories.
Rootless, he’d wandered from kingdom to kingdom, never abiding in one place for long, never long enough to form any binding ties. It was precisely because of such reasons that he couldn’t take lightly Houkou’s and Hyouchuu’s deep feelings for their home town.
Weighed down by a nostalgia that shouldn’t exist for a home town that never existed, he traveled from Kei province to Kou province, near the border with Ryuu.
There he stopped. Kyoukei couldn’t bring himself to step across the border. Something kept tugging him back the way he came.
How had Houkou fared since he left? Kyoukei didn’t imagine it likely, but Houkou might have been arrested in his stead.
And then there was Hyouchuu. Though his job carried an imperial title, he was a lowly civil servant. Kyoukei didn’t doubt his honest intentions to save his home town. But when Hyouchuu grew frustrated with his inability to get the job done and ended up inviting a provincial minister to the greenhouses, Kyoukei had to wonder if he’d been in cahoots with the higher-ups all along.
Nevertheless, Hyouchuu was certainly expending every effort to save the land and all the people living on it. Had anything changed because of those efforts? Kyoukei had no idea.
The road to this village took him past many towns and hamlets. Word was, a new emperor ruled over this ruined kingdom. Would that be enough to save them?
He holed up in this used-up and mostly abandoned one-horse town. During the day, he lent a hand to the locals and took on the odd job here and there. And waited.
He took a deep breath and let it out.
Just then, a drop of water fell onto the tip of his nose. Glancing up, the dull silver branch over his head was silhouetted against the early morning sky. Midway along the branch grew a small yellow fruit, no bigger than the tip of his finger.
The dancing flurries clung to the fruit, slowly melted, trickled down the curved surface, and fell in tiny, round drops.
Another drop of water splashed onto Kyoukei’s nose.
Kyoukei jumped to his feet and cradled the fruit with his cold, numb hands.