he winds came on like the eternal nothingness of the pitch-black Sea of Emptiness itself.
Starting in the fall, the slow, cool, atmospheric currents began to stagnate, collecting into a mass of frigid air over the Northern Kyokai. The waters shed their warmth. The temperate zones thinned and contracted. Eventually the ocean took on a uniform chill.
Carried to the surface by the sluggish currents and touched by the winter frost, the dark water froze in patches, mottling the dark ocean with specks of white.
The air froze as well into an icy wind that poured out of the north, bobbing the ice floes, raising whitecaps on the surface, and finally surging to a gale-force wind that even turned back the tides as it bore down on the land.
This was the joufuu.
The joufuu roared out of the Kyokai from the northeast and whipped across the coasts. Reaching the northeast quarters of the Kingdom of Ryuu, it battered the mountains, released great quantities of snow, froze Ryuu to its very bones, and rushed on.
Leaving the last of its precipitation in the border mountain ranges, the now dry air flooded across the northern frontiers into the Kingdom of Kyou.
In Renshou, the capital of Kyou, the literally skyscraping heights of Ryou’un Mountain stood like great sailing masts. The cluster of overlapping peaks drew an arc around the city far below, as if embracing it within a bundle of calligraphy brushes. The peaks converged into a smaller number of summits that broke through the Sea of Clouds, forming an atoll of small islands at the top of the world.
The dry winter wind whistled among the peaks and hummed across the ridges, soaking like rain into the cracks and fissures, raising a constant, humming chorus. The winters in Renshou were accompanied by what sounded very much like the distant call of the ocean.
Where the sunlight slanted into the streets, the constantly blowing wind and the gusts tumbling down the bare face of the mountains whipped up little whirlwinds, one of which tossed the hems of a young girl’s kimono.
“Oh, bother.” The girl clutched her bag against her side while slapping down the dancing hems. “It’s cold,” she muttered.
Behind her a voice called out. “Hey, Shushou, you going home or what?”
She glanced over her shoulder as a boy emerged from deserted courtyard of the prefectural academy.
“Of course I am.” Leaning against one of the gate’s pillar, Shushou pointedly averted her gaze.
“Yeah, but you’ve been standing there forever.”
“And you’ve been watching me the whole time?”
The boy blushed a bit and glared at her in turn. “Doesn’t meant I’ve been watching you the whole time. I happened to catch sight of you now and then. Like I would look at you even if you asked!”
“And I would be the last person on earth to ask you. Thank goodness.”
The boy scowled at Shushou’s prim profile, turned on his heels, and started up the stone steps in front of the gate. He whirled around and said, “Are you coming or not?”
“I am. You are, aren’t you? Then why don’t you hurry it up?”
“Same goes for you. If you’re going home anyway, why don’t you hurry it up?”
Shushou answered with a small sigh. “My bodyguards haven’t arrived. I don’t know where they’re off wasting time, but I cannot very well leave without them. So I am going to wait.”
“Ha!” exclaimed the boy. “You’re scared of going home alone.”
“What have I got to be afraid of? It’s a straight walk from here.”
“Tell the truth. A little princess like Shushou is scared to go anywhere without somebody accompanying her.”
Shushou set her mouth and glared at the jesting boy. “You are correct. I was brought up to be a proper young lady. A proper young lady like me should not be seen walking around without an attendant. Were I to do so, I would not be the one taken to task, but my attendants.”
“Still doesn’t mean you’re not a fraidy cat. Send them home ahead of you, then.”
“You aren’t listening to a single thing I’m saying.”
Just then three burly men came running up the road, the bodyguards employed by Shushou’s father. Slouched against the pillar, the impatiently waiting Shushou straightened and said, her voice rising slightly, “What happened? Is that blood?”
The bodyguards exchanged glances. Their leather armor was spattered with tiny red splotches.
“Please excuse the delay. We heard a scream from over there.”
He pointed down the main thoroughfare that ran straight south from the main gate. Approaching dusk, the wide boulevard was thronged with the usual crowds. But among them were apprehensive faces, and where the bodyguard was pointing, people in a great hurry.
“A mushi swarm. We took care of ’em. Sorry for making you wait.”
Shushou furrowed her brows. Twenty-seven years had passed since the demise of the empress. Even here in Renshou, the capital city, youma outbreaks were becoming more and more frequent. As youma went, “mushi” referred to a variety of small and relatively benign creatures. But they were also a harbinger of worse things to come. When a swarm of mushi appeared, much bigger youma often followed soon after.
“We’d better hurry,” the bodyguard urged.
Shushou nodded, and stepped quickly down the stone staircase, the boy bringing up the rear.
“Hey, Shushou, do you think it’d be okay?”
“To come with you?”
Shushou cast a peeved look over her shoulder. “What good would that do? As soon as we got home, the bodyguards would have to turn right around and head back out with you.”
“But—” The boy hesitated then smiled. “This is the last time, after all. So I might as well keep watching out for you until we’re all done here.”
“Hardly necessary,” Shushou muttered. “Besides, isn’t it about time you headed home too? Well, then—”
Her words trailed off as Shushou skipped down the stone steps of the main gate. The boy watched her leave, his sigh swept away by the swirling wind.