Serpent of Time

Chapter 11

The Provincial Road

Ryô headed south on the main inland road. Once over the mountains, she would cross the border into Kii Province at Katsuragi and catch a ferry across the Kino River. After that, it’d be another two or three days to Mt. Kôya.

She was traveling with a foot caravan of servants and farm hands. According to long tradition, the hired help rotated every February. The smart and hard workers moved up. The infirmed and incompetent were discharged and replaced with fresh indentures. With every town they passed, a few joined their band, a few more left.

The morning of the third day, their motley troupe was overtaken by a long procession of mounted samurai and palanquins. Ryô looked on with disgust. Another gaggle of Izumi aristocrats scurrying out of the shogun’s reach until tempers cooled.

A rough hand slammed down on her shoulder. Her knees buckled. She collapsed on her hands and knees in the freezing mud. The horrifying realization flashed through her mind as she fell—every commoner along the road was kowtowing.

It simply hadn’t registered. Once upon a time, they’d kowtowed to her. It was what commoners did.

Such brazen disrespect could earn her death on the spot. If she blabbed that she was Princess Ryô, they would think her mad. If they believed her, she would end up a hostage, eventually traded to the shogun for money and favors.

Ryô fixed her eyes on the pebbles and dirt brushing her nose and listened to the clop-clop-clop of the lead horseman approaching. The hooves slowed. She felt the samurai’s eyes burning holes in the back of her neck—

But she was an idiot commoner and not worth the trouble. He settled back in the saddle and picked up the pace. The palanquin bearers and porters marched past. She waited and waited and waited—

“Yer can get up,” a man said gruffly. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her to her feet. He looked in the mood to deliver her a good scolding. The terrified look on her face must have mollified his response.

She stood there like a statue until her brain started working again. “Thank you, thank you,” she said with a deep bow.

“Ain’t a festival parade, okay?” he grunted, strapping on a big bushel basket. “Them types is always trying to make up for what they don’t got by lording it over everybody else.”

Ryô nodded in vigorous agreement. He patted her head like a disobedient dog whose actions could be accounted to youth and inexperience.

The man’s name was Kuga and he was a woodcutter. She tagged behind him like a stray puppy. He didn’t seem to mind, but he wasn’t slowing down or waiting for her. Though he carried a heavy pack and did not walk fast, his constant pace forced Ryô to quicken hers.

They stopped that night in Kono, a small town at the foot of the Izumi Mountains. Ryô recalled Sen’s advice to not say a word more than she had to. The talk among the travelers emphasized cautionary tales about brigands. The worst of the lot were said to be discharged palanquin bearers, making Ryô wonder if any of hers had succumbed to lives of crime.

She and Kuga set off early in the morning with a dozen other travelers. Though spring was slowly working its way up the Kii Peninsula, they were soon above the snowline. The road was clear, the air not too cold. The brisk pace kept her warm.

The stands of towering pine and cedar reached high into the infinite blue. At times, her head craned back, Ryô felt like she was looking down into the crystal waters of Lake Biwa from a great height. A hawk turning high overhead looked like a circling dragon.

A dragon was waiting for her. The thought made her shiver. This thought arose out of something more than her imagination.

By this point, the group she was traveling with consisted of seasonal workers heading back to the mountains, like the woodcutter, or traveling overland to the Kino Valley, like her.

For reasons good or ill, they all had places to go and reasonable expectations of what they’d be doing when they got there. When it came her turn, Ryô said she was on her way to Matsusaka, on the east coast of the peninsula.

In truth, she had no idea what she’d be doing a month from now, other than cooling her heels on Mt. Kôya. Disgraced warlords who promised to behave themselves were allowed to take the tonsure and live out their lives on Mt. Kôya. Her father was presently confined to a monastery in Saga on the outskirts of Kyôto, far away from Yoshino.

The shogun kept his enemies closer. It was unlikely he’d trust Ryô if she said she wanted to become a nun, which was why she’d grown up in Muromachi right under his nose, destined to marry a Hatakeyama clansman for a generous dowry.

And that, she promised herself, was never going to happen. But where would she be a month from now? Dead? Married? Cloistered?

She heard the answer to the question so clearly she was almost certain it had been spoken aloud: “A month from now this world will be dead to you. You should never have been alive in it. Accept me and live again.

Ryô stopped in her tracks and looked up, only to see the circling hawk. Kuga glanced back at her. “Something the matter, Ume?”

The name clicked. Ryô came to herself. “Oh, no,” she called back and ran to catch up.

At Tonohara, Kuga and two others turned east to the lumber camps. “Take care, Ume,” he said, with a parting pat on her head. “And remember to pay your respects to the people who deserve it the least.”

A day later, Ryô reached Katsuragi and the barrier gate on the border between Izumi Province and Kii Province.

It was hard paying the border guards any respect. They made a great show of examining the letter of transit Sen had forged. Ryô doubted they were literate. Seeing the leers in their eyes, the possibilities of a little bribery and quid pro quo must be the only thing on their minds. She pressed her wrist again the cool handle of the dagger inside her sleeve.

Sen’s forgeries were sufficiently convincing, her bedraggled state sufficiently discouraging, and she was allowed to pass.

From there she descended into the Kino River Valley. Here were busy river towns bustling with traffic and trade. Spring was well on the way. Nobody stopped for palanquins unless preceded by heralds and flag bearers.

The highway paralleled the Kino River from the port of Wakayama in the east to Yoshino in the west, and then turned north to Nara. Ryô at last recognized the world around her. She felt a painful tug in her heart.

But the river roads and coastal highways were more heavily patrolled, the border crossings more closely watched, than the overland routes. At this point, all paths for Ryô led further south to Mt. Kôya.

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