The bird abruptly stopped speaking, tilted its head to the side and looked at Rakushun.
Rakushun said himself, "You seem to be doing well, Youko."
The blue bird curiously cocked its head in the opposite direction.
"You're getting the hang of being an Empress."
The bird warbled as if in reply. Rakushun laughed and got a jar from off the bookcase. He took out a grain of silver and gave it to the bird.
The bird only ate silver. Rakushun didn't know its name. The birds were used to pass messages back and forth among the aristocracy. They usually didn't go anywhere near anybody of Rakushun's class. A blue twill-like pattern ran through its wings. The long, dark-blue tail feathers were spotted with white. The beak and legs were red.
The bird pecked at the grain of silver with its red beak, and sang again.
A knock came at the door. Startled, the bird flew off the desk and out the window.
Before Rakushun could respond, the door opened. These rooms carved into the flank of Kankyuu Mountain were college dorms. The university offices were located there as well. Most of the student body shared quarters with the teachers and staff.
Meiken—another student at the university—poked his head in the door. "Hey Bun Chou, you got a delivery." He came into the room carrying a book.
"I told you, this 'Captain' business—"
"Don't sweat it," said Meiken, placing the book on the desk. "Pillow Spider asked me to take this to the Captain."
The gray rat's whisker's drooped a bit and he sighed. Observing his expression, Meiken grinned. "Captain of Composition," Rakushun's nickname meant. A professor had used those words to praise him because of an essay he'd written. The word got around campus, and before long the name stuck.
"Just take it in the spirit of respect intended. Though I wouldn't deny a touch of teasing or prejudice can be found there sometimes."
"I can't say that I took any offense."
"So what's the problem? It's a lot better than 'Pillow Spider.'" Meiken laughed.
Pillow Spider's azana was Shintatsu. But not even the professors called him that. He was so zealous a student that he purportedly never stopped to sleep or eat. One day a friend visiting his room saw that a spider had woven a web attached to his pillow. That anecdote became the basis for his new nickname. That was generally the way names circulated across campus.
Meiken's name ("crowing intelligently") was not written the same way it was pronounced. He was admitted to college at the age of nineteen, a remarkable feat. The name had accompanied him ever since. Something to do with him being a clever kid with a big head. Meiken probably didn't really know himself.
"So, when does he want this back?"
"Oh, he said you could keep it." Meikaku retrieved a stood from the corner of the room and sat down.
Rakushun shot him a surprised look. "I just asked to borrow it."
"Yeah, well, Spidey says he doesn't need it anymore."
"Doesn't need it?"
"He's throwing in the towel. Couldn't collect enough signatures to graduate." Meiken added under his breath, "After eight years."
Students didn't graduate after a fixed number of years, but only after the professors in their chosen field of study literally signed off on their graduation. Until a student had filled his card, he couldn't graduate. It was not uncommon for students to exhaust their financial aid before that happened.
"Spidey's got a wife and a kid."
Rakushun gave the textbook Spidey had given him a troubled look. Only three hundred students or so from across the kingdom won the privilege of attending the Imperial University. Many students retook the entrance exams over and over well into their thirties and forties. A fair number of them had a family by the time they were admitted, and relied on their spouses to make ends meet. Spidey undoubtedly already heard middle age calling to him.
As there was no set age for matriculation or graduation, students could be anywhere from their twenties to their forties.
Meiken was twenty-six. He'd matriculated at an unusually young age. But despite his moniker, his progress ground surprisingly to a halt after three years. He stopped attending lectures. In a display of his outstanding talent (or so it was said), he'd collected six signatures his first year alone. But his second came and went, and then his third, and the numbers dwindled. He'd only added one the year before last, and then none at all the year after that. Go three years without passing a course and he'd be expelled.
Like Spidey, many students quit before that third year rolled around. To the outside world, it looked better on one's resume. A student could always claim he'd run short of funds and he had to think about his family, that he couldn't keep putting his wife and kids through such travails. With his transcripts to date, he could find work and even return to school in the future.
"Then I guess it's time to take things seriously," Rakushun said.
Meiken frowned and turned his gaze out the window. "Yeah, I guess."
Meiken's first thought as well had been to go full bore and make something happen. But the demands of academia were such that he couldn't naively believe that abandoning the simple pleasures of sleeping and eating and recklessly diving into his studies would accomplish the goal.
It must seem a logical course of action. After all, a student graduating from the Imperial University was guaranteed a job in an Imperial ministry. But in another year, he thought, this rat will discover just how steep that climb would become.
He turned the stool around and said to Rakushun, "Hey, is it true you never attended secondary school?"
"It is. Hanjuu aren't allowed past elementary school in Kou."
"Yeah, I've heard that Kou is pretty tough on hanjuu like that."
In En, no such restrictions were placed on hanjuu. Any hanjuu like Rakushun could take the entrance exams, and if he passed, could go on to serve in a government position. This was not true in many kingdoms.
"And in Kou, hanjuu don't have a koseki either?"
"Well, hanjuu do have a koseki, but all that's recorded is your hanjuu status. And when you turn twenty, you don't legally become an adult."
"Then even though you've got a koseki, you don't receive an allotment?"
Rakushun shook his head. "Or a stipend. And you can't legally work."
"You can't work? You gotta be kidding."
"I'm not kidding," Rakushun answered with a shrug and a smile.
Meiken's surprised was not feigned. In En, even refugees and displaced persons without a koseki record could find employment. It tended to be at the lowest wages, often not much better than that of indentured servants, but they weren't barred from working.
"Anybody hiring a hanjuu would be taxed an amount equivalent to the wages paid. So nobody in his right mind would hire a hanjuu."
"How do hanjuu in Kou get by then?"
"They pretty much have to depend on their parents."
"And when their parents die?"
"They are sent to orphanages, though as servants."
"Unbelievable. I never imagined there were kingdoms that did stuff like that."
Meiken recalled rumors he'd heard about how chancy a place Kou had become, and that the Kou kirin had died. Well, there was no way such a regime could have survived for long.
"But you at least attended a district academy?"
"Normally it's not allowed, but I was given permission to sit in corner of the room and audit classes."
"And after that? Did you attend juku?"
"We couldn't afford something like that. Unlike En, Kou doesn't provide any financial aid for education."
"Not even to a prefectural college?"
"Nope," said the rat.
"So how does anybody learn anything?"
Meiken was truly startled by this information. A student normally advanced to university after graduating from a prefectural college. A letter of recommendation from the headmaster or some other well-regarded dignitary was required. Getting into a prefectural college similarly required a recommendation from a district academy, which meant getting outstanding grades and really standing out in the crowd. From the time a student started attending the district academy, attending a juku was a necessity. Either that or, as in Meiken case, hiring a private tutor.
"I did take on a teacher for about a month before the exams."
"There's no way that would cut it."
The place to prepare for university was not at a public school. Having the skills to a district academy the goal did not equate to having what it took to get into a provincial college. It was up to the student himself to make up the difference through his own effort. In En, at least, the student who set himself apart could get his juku fees covered, and there were publically-funded prep schools as well. Unless he could avail himself of these options, a student who didn't have wealthy parents couldn't attend juku.
"There are books, you see."
Books were expensive. A student who couldn't afford to attend a juku was unlikely to be able to afford books.
"My father left a lot of books to me. And no matter how trying things got, my mom made every effort never to part with one. So when I get my hands on a book, I read it over and over, make notes, and cram its contents into my head. That way, even if I had to sell it, it wouldn't matter."
Rakushun grinned. "Yeah, my father was like a teacher. He died when I was a little kid, but left a lot of manuscripts behind."
He indicated the top of his desk. Meiken got to his feet and took a closer look at the pile of worn books. Their rough appearance gave him the impression of a number of documents being compiled and amateurishly bound together. However, the handwriting was exquisite. The text was about diplomatic protocols. It seemed a random collection of thoughts. Still, not only the characters, but the sentences as well were expertly crafted.
"I see. You've been using this as a model. That's why your writing is so good."
"Not compared to my dad," Rakushun said with a smile. "This has been a real resource for me. My father's writings are the one thing I would never part with."
There were five volumes on the bookshelf next to him with the same paper and cover as the one on his desk. Since each book was large enough to enclose seven or eight volumes, the books represented a library of forty or so volumes.
Meiken quickly corrected himself. Together with the book on the desk, it was more like fifty. A quick perusal told him that the text was written at a fairly advanced level. "This is really something. Was your father a professor or something?"
"No. Though apparently when he was young, he worked for the county government in one capacity or another."
"I had these, and some books, and nothing else to do except study. At best, I could work my allotment and grow rice. But there'd be no house or land in the offing. Anyway, my mom sold everything to pay for my education."
"No kidding." Meiken said to the smiling, rather nonchalant rat, "Must be tough being a hanjuu."
"It can be just as tough not being one," Rakushun answered lightly.
"Yeah, I suppose," Meiken laughed as well, though his internal reaction was far more mixed. In private, the good humor in calling him "Captain" was often less than good. For a hanjuu— said the cold smiles accompanying it.
The reason Rakushun had to borrow the book in the first place was because the library was loath to lend him the texts required for classes. He alone had to sign an affidavit to the effect that he would return book borrowed from the library on time and undamaged. Some students said it was because they were afraid he would nibble on them. Or that they were afraid he'd sell them.
Meiken himself couldn't say. As for the former, it was stupid bigotry based on outward appearances. As for the latter, it was the kind of prejudice attached to anybody dumped in the same basket as refugees from other kingdoms.
It was good of Pillow Spider to give Rakushun the book. At the same time, though, Meiken couldn't avoid noticing that the only people who ever seemed to hang around with Rakushun were dropouts like himself and Spidey. Those steadily filling their cards wouldn't invite Rakushun into their cliques. Professors weren't necessarily an exception either. One in particular had made it clear that Rakushun was welcome in his class only in human form.
Except that this hanjuu student was a genius. Especially when it came to the law, the rumor around campus was that he amazed even his professors.
But for Meiken, that was only additional cause for concern. The geniuses who burned the brightest at the start often burned out the quickest. Like himself. So focused on passing the entrance exams, their field of vision was similarly narrow. Even though they'd made it over that first big hurdle, the shallow reach of their knowledge became stumbling blocks. Deprived of the impetus that had kept them going for so long, they lost sight of their real goals. The naysayers kept all those precedents in mind and waited for Rakushun's fall.
"I bet coming to En was a bit of a let-down," Meiken said.
"A let-down?" Rakushun echoed, clearly taken aback.
"I mean, things here being no so different than they are in Kou, and all."
"Not so different? There was no way I could attend college in Kou."
"Well, there is that."
Rakushun smiled, his furry cheeks dimpling. "Kou and En are nothing alike. Night and day."
And he really meant it, Meiken surmised. Rakushun wasn't one to prevaricate. His tail and whiskers gave him away every time.
"Graduating from a place like this in one piece takes a lot of work. You've got a rough road ahead"
"Now you're being depressing."
"Nobody's ever graduated who matriculated at the top of his class."
"That's just an old myth. Professor Hou said so himself."
I wish it was. Meiken let out a big sigh instead. He said, gesturing, "Hey, so this is all about you basking in your freedom since leaving Kou and coming to En?"
"You're always in that form."
"Ah—" said Rakushun, looking down at his gray, furry body. "This isn't because I came to En. I've always gone around like this."
"Even in a kingdom that discriminates against hanjuu?"
"Yeah, but it doesn't make any difference what you look like. What you are is recorded on your koseki. And besides, we were poor. I don't need to worry about clothes when I'm like this."
"Of course." Meiken said, a touch of irony in his voice, "But when you think about it, it's still got to cause a lot of problems. You not being used to your human form is why you're so lousy at archery."
Archery was considered an aspect of ritual and deportment, a required subject. The emphasis was on learning conduct and decorum and less on hitting the target. Nevertheless, skills required to actually hit a target were necessary, and the archer had to be able to go through all the motions before firing an arrow.
"You do have a point."
"Same thing with riding a horse. If you don't master your human form sufficiently to shoot and arrow and ride a horse properly, you'll never fill your card."
"I can't argue with you about that." Rakushun's whiskers drooped dejectedly. "I must confess that I've been thinking the same thing."
Watching Rakushun practicing horseback riding and archery was like watching a randomly bouncing ball. It seemed to Meiken that he simply didn't have a good command of his own body. Looking down at the stool he was sitting on, it struck him that Rakushun was so short he'd need it even to open the window. The differences between his human and rat forms were significant enough that he couldn't exactly sell the former as his "true form."
"The more you do it, the better you'll get. You're never going to graduate if you can't get a handle on it."
"Well, chin up, and prove the folklore wrong."
Meiken grinned, and so did Rakushun. "You too, Meiken. The legends have it that nobody has ever graduated who matriculated before the age of twenty."
Meiken clucked to himself as he got to his feet. "More folklore. And that one's going down, if I have anything to say about it." He headed to the door in high spirits, then stopped and looked back over his shoulders. "Tonight, after dinner," he said, pointing his finger at Rakushun.
"After dinner?" queried Rakushun. "What?"
"Don't give me that. Archery practice, right?" Meiken laughed as he left.
Rakushun went to stop him, but decided against it. He scratched his head and said to himself, "Not really the time for him to be worrying about other people."
He heard a chirp behind him. Turning, his eyes met the gaze of the blue bird perched on the windowsill.
"Yeah, I guess we kind of startled you."
The bird again flew over to the desk and cocked its head to one side. Rakushun got another grain of silver from the jar and presented it to the bird. Watching it peck at the expensive feed, he said in earnest, "I'm a lucky fellow, thanks to Youko."
There was no denying that Kou was a tough kingdom for a hanjuu. When Rakushun came to En from Kou, he felt like a refugee leaving a devastated country behind, like he'd escaped by the skin of his teeth. He'd heard that a hanjuu could attend school in En, could find employment, could even become government officials. Get a koseki like any regular person, and a hanjuu could receive an allotment and stipend. He'd be treated like anybody else. He had longed for En as if for a lover.
"Well, it didn't exactly turn out to be heaven, either."
When he saw the place with his own two eyes, he saw that there was good, bad, and everything in-between.
"But there are good blokes like Meiken. Just getting into college has proved a real windfall for me. My only real problem is keeping at it and graduating."
Rakushun rested his chin on the desktop and muttered, "Along with paying tuition."
He saved some money anticipating the time when he might make it to En. But it wasn't nearly enough to last him all the way to graduation.
"I've opted out of everything I could this year. But once this economizing starts to hurt my grades, that's where I draw the line."
Would he graduate? Could he keep on living in En until that day came? And if he did graduate, then what?
In any case, compared to his life in Kou, living here was like night and day. Though his mother had given away her last farthing to get him an education, Nothing existed for Rakushun beyond that. As long as he remained in Kou, every avenue was blocked. He hadn't needed to give any thought about what the next year would bring, let alone his "future." That was the one thing he hadn't needed to worry about.
"Yeah, En and Kou really are two different worlds." He stroked the throat of the blue bird. "You really are something."
The bird again opened its beak and that dearly familiar voice again filled the room. The girl who had become Empress of Kei. Even receiving her letters by this means, she lived a world apart from his own. Youko was listed upon the Registry of Gods, and would never age beyond the age she had been when they last parted. As a citizen of the world below, Rakushun would only grow further and further apart.
Youko had only recently acceded to the throne. She knew nobody in the Imperial Court and could trust only Keiki. The last thing she needed to be worrying about was Rakushun. She had enough troubles of her own. The future of Kei and all its millions of people rested on her shoulders.
"All I did was pick up something lying at the side of the road."
Lying there as good as dead. Hardly something he would ever consider worshipping. No normal person could have just walked by on the other side. Taking her home and nursing her back to health was something anybody could have done.
What he had received in compensation far exceeded what he had done.
Even if he hadn't met Youko, he would have made his way to En somehow. But wasn't so naive as to believe that a person with no connections could carve out much of a future for himself. Thanks to Youko, he'd gotten those lucky breaks. He could never tell a soul, but that lucky break has come from the Royal En himself.
The King had smoothed the way, making it possible for Rakushun to take the university entrance exams without first graduating from a provincial college. He'd found him a place to stay in the meantime, given him free access to any book he wished to read, and a tutor to help him prepare for the exams. That's what had made his present existence possible.
But from this point forward, he would shape his future according to his own efforts. He'd been given what he needed to make it possible. Thinking back to a time when he had utterly lacked the means to do so, he could only conclude he had been blessed beyond measure.
Ruminating over this, listening to Youko's voice, he said aloud, "And in particular—" and gave the blue bird another grain of silver.
This silver was also a gift from the Royal En. It was the one thing he had specifically asked for that he never could have otherwise managed. There was no way someone like him was even going to lay his hands on an old silver spoon.
The bird happily devoured it and trilled. Rakushun reached out and placed the bird atop his head. When the bird was perched thusly, it would remember everything that the person said. Rakushun didn't know whether it had been trained that way, or behaved according to instinct.
"Hey, Youko. You sound like you're in a good mood."
Her crimson hair and emerald eyes—those were the only fashion accessories Youko had ever needed. Surely by now, she would be clothed in the finest silk and adorned with expensive jewels. But that wasn't the Youko that Rakushun pictured in his mind's eye.
"I'm doing okay myself—"