A Thousand Leagues of Wind

Part Nine

He was born in Kou, Rakushun explained as they traveled along. “But in Kou, a hanjuu can’t even get into elementary school. So I moved to En.” A hanjuu couldn’t be matriculated in Hou either. When Shoukei pointed this out, he nodded.

“Neither are itinerants and refugees. If you aren’t listed on the census, you’re out of luck. A lot of kingdoms are that way. Kou used to be the only kingdom that didn’t list hanjuu on the census. In the past, that was true everywhere. In Tai, the new emperor was apparently about to revise the census laws. Before he could get the job done he was usurped by a pretender.”

“Oh.”

“In Hou and Kou, hanjuu can’t become public servants and aren’t admitted to university. And for the most part, Shun and Kei.”

Rakushun’s itinerary took him hither and yon, with no great design in mind. Going by suugu, it wouldn’t take more than a day to get to Shisou, so they stopped at cities along the way. They often took detours to see cities in the opposite direction of Shisou. With the suugu it was a trouble-free trip, but Shoukei couldn’t help wondering what he was up to and what the whole purpose of the trip was.

“More kingdoms don’t allow itinerants or refugees to become public servants or go to school. It’s even tougher for sankyaku and kaikyaku. They’re normally treated the same as itinerants. In Kou they’re treated even worse than that. At the other extreme, there are kingdoms that treat them very well, Sou and En and Ren. Sankyaku and kaikyaku can tell you fascinating things about paper making, ceramics, printing techniques, medicine.”

“Sankyaku and kaikyaku actually exist?” Shoukei had never seen one.

“The first one to build a temple was in Hou.”

“Really?”

“A sankyaku arrived during the reign of the Late Emperor Hitsu. He carved away the side of a mountain and built a temple. That was the first time the teachings of Buddhism were promulgated. That’s why cremation is still practiced in Hou. Only Hou, En, Sou and Ren cremate the dead. In Hou, Rishi don’t follow the same layout as the Imperial Court, but are built like temples. The arrangement of the buildings is different.”

“Emperor Hitsu?”

The twelfth or thirteenth dynasty of Hou, I believe.”

Shoukei looked at the hanjuu in amazement. He knew more about Hou than the princess royal, a citizen of Hou. It was both mortifying and irritating.

“By the way, Shoukei, starting tomorrow, things are going to get a bit tougher.”

They had left Shisou and traveled two more days on the suugu. They were about to enter the gates to a city. The road before the gate was quiet. It was still some time till sundown. Rakushun tied a small bamboo tube to the neck of the suugu. That morning, Shoukei had seen him place a letter into the tube.

“What’s that for?”

“Starting tomorrow, we’ll proceed on foot to En.” She was about to protest, when Rakushun sent the suugu on its way. “Go on ahead of us and see that this letter gets to its destination.”

With a cry, the suugu climbed into the air. It soared skyward like a kite, waved its long tail, swept over them like the wind, and disappeared.

“Well, what are we going to do now, with the suugu gone? It’s still some ways to En!”

“About five days. Sorry. We won’t be doing any more sightseeing.”

“That’s not the problem! Where are we going to stay tonight?”

Hanjuu weren’t welcome in any city. Whenever he entered a high-class establishment, Rakushun was met with sour looks. But when they saw the suugu, their attitudes would change just like that. Without the suugu, they wouldn’t hesitate to show him the door.

“It’s okay. We won’t stay in those kinds of inns. The kitsuryou’s not around to fuss about the stables so any old dive will suit us fine.”

Until now, they had stayed at the best hotels because it was necessary for the inn to have stables that could care for a suugu. Although she understood this, Shoukei frantically ran after Rakushun. He’d already started for the gate.

“You can’t be serious! Any old dive? You’re kidding, right?”

Rakushun blinked. “About what?”

“What do you mean, about what?”

“What does it matter where you sleep? Though I’m not exactly thrilled at the prospect of sharing a room with you.”

“Not even a canopy bed? Some dirty closet of a room?”

Rakushun paused at the gate and sighed. “You really did have a pampered upbringing. No worries. The beds may be hard, but not so narrow that you’re going to fall out of bed. Or there will be a wooden floor. You should be able to get to sleep.”

“I know that,” Shoukei spat back. “That’s why I can’t stand it. I don’t want to sleep in a place like that ever again.”

Any reminder of that mean and shabby life made her miserable. Having stayed only in the finest hotels after fleeing Kyou, the thought was all the more unbearable.

Rakushun scratched at the fluffy fur beneath his ear. The main street of the small town was as quiet as the highway. “Well, yes, people usually sleep in beds. But there are people who sleep on the floor. There are people who sleep on the ground.”

“That’s hardly news to me.”

“In your case, that’s all it is. News.”

Shoukei drew her eyebrows together. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“To you, it’s simply something you know. Unfortunately, I suspect you have no idea what it is really like.”

“Well, I wasn’t kidding. I slept in a bed in a cold, drafty room, under a threadbare quilt. You may not realize it but I hate even thinking about those times.”

“Why?

“Why?” Shoukei responded in amazement and disgust. “Don’t you know how miserable a life that was? Getting woken up at the crack of dawn, sent off to work before breakfast, coming home covered in mud and dung and straw. Never enough to eat. Going to bed exhausted, not being able to sleep because you’re starving and cold. After a few winks getting woken up the next morning and sent off to work all over again. Everybody makes fun of you and talks down to you. I don’t want to remember any of that life. You get it now?”

“Sorry, but not at all. Why so bad? Why deem it such a wretched existence? It is the life of all peasants. When you’re poor, you go hungry. That shouldn’t be news to you. But why can’t you bear to be reminded of it? That’s what I don’t understand.”

Rakushun stopped and glanced to his right. “How about there?”

It was a small inn that would hardly rank high on anybody’s travel itinerary. Several tables were lined up on the dirt floor of the narrow, one-story storefront. Were it not for the sign advertising rooms, it would have struck her as nothing more than a shabby food stall.

“That? Places like that don’t even have beds. In the first place, nobody dressed like me would ever stay at a place like that!”

“If that’s the way you feel, then go buy something else to wear.” Rakushun took a few coins from his pocket and pressed them into her hands. “That’s where I’m staying. You can buy yourself some more appropriate dress or take the money and run. It’s up to you.”

“I—!”

Rakushun wagged his tail at the speechless Shoukei and walked over to the inn. Shoukei watched dumbfounded as he called out to the proprietor. With this amount of money, she could only afford the meanest quality of clothing, the kind of plain garb she’d worn at the orphanage, and only secondhand at best. In this winter weather, there wasn’t anything she really needed other than a coat or jacket. But she’d have to sell her silk outfits to buy those kinds of clothes. And that meant going back to the way she was before.

But, Shoukei thought, she had no money of her own. If Rakushun abandoned her here, she’d end up selling her clothes anyway. And even then, it was hardly likely she’d have enough to take her all the way to En. Eating the cheapest food in the cheapest inns, could she even make it to the border?

Live with it, she told herself. But when she thought of returning to wretched life of a girl on the lam, she wanted to weep. Continuing on in this state, in the company of a hanjuu, and no suugu to boot, was simply infuriating.

She swallowed her pride and went looking for a used apparel shop. She picked out a change of clothes. When the pedestrian outfit was ready to her satisfaction, only her shoes were out of character. She’d sold off everything down to there. The only thing she hadn’t purchased was peasant-grade footwear. So now her shoes didn’t match. At any rate, the only thing left to do was go behind the screen in the shop and change.

Pulling on the starchy garments, she wanted to cry. Right now in Kei, a girl is draped in a luxurious silk kimono of the most amazing quality, wearing a brocaded, embroidered fur coat heavy with pearls.

Biting her lip, she returned to the inn. It was mortifying enough to have to tell the proprietor that she was with the hanjuu, and just as miserable being shown down the moldy old hallway.

“Here,” he said, abruptly.

When she opened the door, there was the hanjuu, sitting nonchalantly on the floor in front of a brazier. He looked at Shoukei and scratched his ear. “I don’t understand girls. What’s so embarrassing about going into a rundown inn wearing silk clothes?”

“You’re the one who gave me the money and told me to.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t think you’d actually change into them. Well, that’s what you should wear from now on. That’s about the class of travel we’ll be engaged in.”

“It stinks.” Shoukei sullenly sat down on the floor.

Rakushun gazed at the brazier. “No matter how many times you say it, it doesn’t change the fact that that’s how most people get by. How inconvenient bringing up a princess must be.”

“Inconvenient?”

“Inconvenient to treat the ordinary as extraordinary. As surely as you get used to luxurious attire, you start to think that that kind of clothing, as you put it, stinks. So you want to wear silk. You’re not the only one who thinks that way. Every girl wants to wear beautiful silk clothes and live a dressed-up life. Perhaps it’s in their nature. Who wouldn’t want to live the life of a empress or princess?”

“Well, unfortunately, not everybody is a princess.”

“No, indeed. But you are.”

“I’m—” not the princess royal, Shoukei started to say, but Rakushun wagged his tail. “You are the princess royal. That fact notwithstanding, I’m not saying this with any ulterior motive in mind. The people of Hou sure didn’t like you, though.”

“Why?”

“I’ve met my fair share of refugees from Hou. They all hated the late emperor. Not a one of them had a good word for you. You are a very unpopular person.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Shoukei shouted. She couldn’t for the life of her understand what everybody had against her.

“It is your fault. Because you were the princess royal.”

“Because of my father.”

“Your father became emperor. So you became princess royal. That, indeed, was not your fault. But when a man becomes emperor, the mantle of responsibility falls upon his shoulders, and upon the shoulders of the princess as well, like it or not.”

Shoukei gaped at the rounded back of the rat.

“There are two kingdoms with a princess or prince, Ryuu and Sou. The empress of Sai had a son, but he died before her coronation. The prince of Ryuu is a minister of state, working on behalf of the kingdom. The prince and princess of Sou also assist the emperor. The princess is the director of the national health service. Before, the sick were treated at homes and the doctor visited them there. Nowadays, they are admitted to a hospital where doctors can care for them. That system was initiated by the princess royal of Sou. So, tell me, Shoukei, what did you do?”

“What?” Caught off guard by the question, Shoukei stared at him.

“There once was a princess who remonstrated with her faltering emperor and was killed for it. And the word is that after the emperor of Kou died, the princess of Kou and her brother joined the work brigades along with everybody else. The kingdom collapsed and they could do nothing to stop it. So they took responsibility. They volunteered. Until the next emperor is chosen, they’ll work to save their ravaged country. So, what did you do?”

“But . . . my father never asked me to do anything.”

“You’re missing the premise of the question. That is something you should have addressed.”

“But . . . ”

“You knew nothing? Nothing of what the princesses in other kingdoms were doing?”

“I didn’t know!”

“Then you should have informed yourself. I know Hou better than Shoukei, the princess royal of Hou. Don’t you find that more embarrassing than your tattered wardrobe?”

“But . . . ” she started to say and swallowed the rest. She didn’t know what to say next.

“Does wearing wool embarrass you? Most people in the world wear wool. No one should be embarrassed to wear the best that their hard work could afford them. Then there are those who do no work and wear silk. Nobody much cares for them. Nobody likes a freeloader who, without raising a finger, gets something they could never afford with a lifetime of labor. That should be obvious. If you know someone who got all that you had lost without an ounce of effort, you’d resent her, wouldn’t you?”

Shoukei shut her mouth to keep from saying anything. In fact, there was a certain empress whom she deeply resented.

“Something you’ve been given through no effort of your own demands nothing of you in turn. You never understood that. Hence your resentment.”

Shoukei struck the floor with her fist. “So you’re saying that everything is my fault? Everything happened because I was bad!” She couldn’t admit that. Neither did she want to. “My father never asked me to do a thing! My mother said the same thing! What was I supposed to do? They didn’t let me go to university. I didn’t have the chance to learn anything. And that’s all my fault? There are lots of people like that, lots of people who live rich and comfortable lives. Why does it all have to come down on me?”

“We rightfully reap what we rightfully sow. To profit otherwise is a mistake. And hiding behind misbegotten gains fools no one.”

“But!”

“You had mountains of silk dresses, didn’t you? You could be said to be an expert on silk dresses, couldn’t you? But do you have any idea how all that finery came to be? Did you ever stop to think how much labor it took or why it was given to you in the first place? Why the servants wore hand-spun garments and you wore silk? Until you understand that, you won’t understand anything, this is what I’m saying.”

“I don’t what to hear it!” Shoukei threw herself on the floor and covered her ears. “Just shut up already!”

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.