8-3 The town of Kokei was adjacent to the city of Hokui, appended to its northeast corner. The only government office was the town hall. The other buildings belonged to the twenty-five households. It was the smallest size of an incorporated city.
Youko and Rangyoku passed through the gate of the rike and onto Main Street. Most towns were surrounded by a tall stockade a hundred yards in every direction. The small houses circled the inside the wall. The town hall, Rishi, and rike were located in a row in the northern sector of the town. The Main Street ran east-to-west in front of them. The street running north-south from the Rishi to the main gate was the Center Street.
The town hall housed the government offices and the elementary school. The Rishi was the official town shrine where the riboku and the gods were enshrined. A common configuration was for the state shrines of the Gods of the Earth and Gods of Five Grains to be located along the western wall and the ancestral shrines along the eastern wall. But the faith of the townspeople was focused on the riboku. Because it was through the riboku that children were bestowed and livestock were granted.
“Very interesting,” Youko said to herself.
Rangyoku leaned toward her. “What is?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking about the Rishi. It seems like the state and ancestral shrines were tossed in as an afterthought, a sort of consolation prize.”
In fact, the state and ancestral shrines were small and mostly just sat there gathering dust.
Rangyoku giggled. “You do say the most curious things, Youshi.”
“The riboku brings children. No matter how many offerings you bring, or how many prayers you pray, the harvest won’t necessarily be plentiful and you won’t necessarily be protected from calamities. So the riboku is always first in our minds. That’s bound to be the case no matter what, don’t you think?”
“You’re a very pragmatic people, that’s for sure. But Tentei—the Lord God Creator—and Seioubo—Queen Mother of the West—are different.”
Tentei and Seioubo were often enshrined together in the Rishi. There were also districts in the town set aside for shrines dedicated to them.
“That’s because they’re the ones that give you children.”
“Tentei and Seioubo?”
“Yes. A couple who wants a child prays to the riboku and ties a ribbon to a branch of the tree.”
“And if you’re not married, you can’t?”
“Nope. The Amanuensis records the names of all the people who want a child and sends it to the Queen Mother of the West. She makes a request to the Tentei, who chooses the most suitable of them to receive a child. Then Seioubo commands the goddesses to create a ranka.”
“Huh.” It struck her as quite different from any of the old fairy tales she’d heard back in Japan. Not that she could remember them with any great detail.
“The Internuncio implants the seed that will become the child inside the ranka, and then bears the ranka to the riboku. Isn’t that how they do it in Yamato?”
“Not at all.” Youko said slyly, “Do you believe all of it, Rangyoku? What you just told me?”
Rangyoku laughed. “Not literally. But a ranka does appear. And if a ranka doesn’t appear on the branch you chose, you just can’t go pick one from somewhere else. It won’t come off. Amazing, isn’t it? That’s why it’s got to be what God gave to you.”
“Of course,” Youko smiled. “Livestock are also born on the riboku, right?”
“Yes. From the first of the month to the seventh, petitions are made to the riboku. The first day is for birds like chickens and ducks. The second day is for dogs. The third day is for sheep and goats. The fourth day is for boars and pigs. The fifth day is for cattle, and the sixth for horses. The seventh day is for people.”
“People? There are days designated for people?”
“Yeah. On the seventh or any day after the ninth. Children requested on the seventh are supposed to turn out the best. My mom said that Keikei was.”
“Livestock germinate in a month. You can tie many ribbons at once but not all of them will necessarily grow a ranka. For people, it’s always only one.”
“So you don’t have twins?”
“When two children are born at the same time? In Yamato, as many as five children have been born at the same time.”
“Wow, that’s weird.” Rangyoku looked back over her shoulder at the Rishi. “The eighth day is for crops. But only the empress can make such requests.”
“You can grow the five grains [wheat, rice, beans, and kinds of millet] whenever you want yourself just by planting the seeds. When they bear fruit, you get more seeds, right?”
“That would seem to be the case.”
“Plants and trees aren’t animals. But not just anybody can make requests for new grain stocks. Only the empress can do that, at a tree in the Imperial Palace. When Heaven grants the request and the tree bears fruit, the next year, a ranka containing those seeds can grow on every riboku in the kingdom.
Youko opened her eyes wide with surprise. This certainly was news to her. She’d have to ask Enho to fill her in on the details.
“Yaboku, the wild riboku, grow animals other than livestock and domesticated birds. Did you know there are trees in the water, too?”
“I didn’t. For fish, I imagine?”
Rangyoku smiled. “Exactly. And then yaboku for wild grasses and trees.”
“Plants other than grains just grow on their own?”
“They do. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any new plants and trees. So it seems like they can do it all by themselves. When and where new grasses are born nobody knows. So now and then people examine the base of yaboku to see if any unfamiliar plants are growing there. If there are, then bring them home and grow them. There are itinerants who do that for a living. They’re called husbandry hunters. They go around searching for new ranka. It also seems to depend on the riboku. There are trees that produce a lot wild species, and those that don’t at all. The ones that do are kept secret. No one will talk about them. Hunters will kill people who try to follow them.”
“You can gather unusual medicines and herbs and saplings for new crops and sell them but it sounds like a scary business.”
Youko nodded in agreement. Of course, people were discriminated against in this world as well. There wasn’t much discrimination based on occupation because vocations weren’t inherited along family lines. No matter what family a child came from, he would get a partition when he turned twenty. A big business or enterprise couldn’t be inherited by the children. The disabled were also treated with compassion. But the world was closed off to hanjuu and itinerants.
“What is it?” Rangyoku asked.
Youko shook her head.
Her friend was a hanjuu. In gratefulness to him, she wished to repeal all the laws that held hanjuu back. The ministers refused to go along. She considered it for her Inaugural Rescript but that didn’t sit right with her. The Inaugural Rescript was supposed to make a statement. Without really being aware of it, she had become seized with the conviction that she should carry out her first official duties with all the self-confidence and gravity of an empress.
“Did I say something bad?”
“No, of course not. Just something that’s been on my mind of late. Ah, here we are.”
She and Rangyoku came to the town gate. Rangyoku had to leave for the grazing grounds. Youko had a task in Hokui.
“Well, cheer up, okay?”
Youko smiled. No doubt, Rangyoku assumed that her dolefulness was caused by thoughts of her homeland. Appreciative of such sentiments, Youko waved and headed west on the loop road.
Towns usually had only one main gate. Kokei had two. That’s because Kokei had originally been a part of Hokui.
The town was definitely the nucleus of the city. The city offices were originally located in an extension of the town hall. When the city became a county seat, the tables were turned. The government offices were moved to the city center and the essential services of the town were relegated to a block in the northeast corner of the city. Hokui was pushing the town right out of the city. At this point, there was no more than a single gate connecting them.
Youko entered Hokui and headed straight for the city hall in the center of the city. She followed the loop road around the city center until she found herself facing the southeast quadrant of the city.
“Where is it?” she muttered to herself.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the street, right at her heels, a small voice said, “Turn right at the next corner.”
Following the directions, Youko moved deeper into the city and arrived at a tiny house. Originally, the only homeowners were residents of the town who had been given the property by the kingdom. But in reality, people sold their land and houses and moved around. One person sold his homestead and acquired property or a shop from the city comptroller. Another person bought the land and hired tenant farmers to work any number of homesteads. One way or another, an entire hamlet would end up as the private domain of a single owner. Not a few individuals sold out without even seeing their own land grants and went looking for housing in the city.
The owner of this house had come to live there through a tangled series of events. At any rate, his name was Rou. This was the house of the man who served Enho’s strange visitor.
Hankyo had tailed him and confirmed that the man had not gone to an inn but to the house of this Rou. The next day, the man had left Hokui and headed north.
And now what?
Youko looked up at the house. If she called the man out and demanded to know who his guest was, she was unlikely to get an answer. She was watching from the opposite side of the street when the front gate abruptly opened. Youko averted her gaze and pretended she’d dropped something on the road.
“All right, then,” a man’s voice said.
“The package—” He stopped in mid-sentence, as if he’d just noticed her standing there. He was small, middle-aged man with calico hair. Next to him was a man as big as he was small, with a boulder-sized physique and plain black hair. He looked at Youko and then away.
“It’s up to you.”
With that simple exchange, the two parted. The smaller man all but ran back inside the house. The big man started off down the avenue with quick steps.
Just an ordinary visitor perhaps.
But she couldn’t ignore the way the smaller man had suddenly stopped talking.
Youko walked away in the opposite direction from the big man. Under her breath she beckoned Hankyo.
“Does his presence concern you to such a degree?”
Youko nodded at the disembodied voice. “Sorry about this, but if you would. He may be an ordinary visitor but I’d like to get to the bottom his connection to Enho.”
Just as Rangyoku predicted, Enho had been highly agitated after the visitor came and canceled their studies. And so with time on her hands, she’d come to see Rou’s house for herself.
“By your command.”
The small voice faded and disappeared.
That night, Hankyo returned past midnight and reported that man owned property in the city of Takuhou, Shisui Prefecture, just across the river in Wa Province.
The city of Takuhou was to the east of Hokui. The man who had visited Enho had headed north. Was there even any connection between them?
Youko silently turned these facts over in her mind.