1-2 The three climbed the road, approaching the small village that slumbered alongside the road in the evening quiet.
Though spared the scars of war, the village could not escape the widespread ruin. Within the pallisades, nothing in the way of civic liveliness or the boistrousness of commercial activity interrupted the solemn stillness The streets were empty. The rare unshuttered window revealed little in the way of any human activity within.
Only the fallow land around the village showed any signs of life, a young man herding goats from the heath to the village gate. Arriving at the gate, he glanced over his shoulder at the road and saw the three approaching travelers—a man holding the hand of a child and a young woman close behind.
Kyoshi—the young man’s name—furrowed his brows.
Pilgrims traveling to the Taoist temples once thronged the road. Now passersby were rare. The only people who came and went were residents from the surrounding communities, and hardly any of them these days. Which was not to say that a traveler never strayed off the beaten path and ended up in these parts.
Kyoshi stopped and eyed the three travelers in an effort to ascertain their destination. The village had only one gate that faced south. The path from the gate crossed the heath and joined the main road. Kyoshi raised his arm to block the rays of the setting sun and narrowed his eyes.
They did not appear to be trudging along aimlessly. They turned off the road and headed up the path across the heath. The man in front spotted Kyoshi. An affable smile rose to his face. Kyoshi responded with a heavy sigh. He drove the goats inside the palisades with his shepherd’s crook and then waited at the gate for the travelers to arrive.
“Hello, there!” the man called out in a bright voice. “You live here?”
For now, Kyoshi politely nodded.
“Looks like we finally arrived at an inhabited village,” the man said with a broad grin. He gave the hand of the child—no more than three—an encouraging squeeze. The face of the woman behind them as well relaxed into a relieved smile.
“Any boarding houses in this village?” the man asked as they came closer.
Kyoshi grimaced. “You can’t stay here.”
The man came to a halt, a more suspicious expression replacing the smile.
“No strangers allowed. Those are the rules. I’m sorry.”
Kyoshi didn’t register the man’s expression, having averted his gaze as soon as he spoke. Probably one of disappointment. Or anger. It was only natural. Nobody lived in the towns along the road. Any village or hamlet that did exist had long been reduced to uninhabited ruins. The closest town behind them was a day’s walk away. At a child’s pace, more than a day. That meant they’d spent the previous night sleeping under the stars.
In fact, the three had spent the previous night in a hollow along the road, the night before that in a wrecked and abandoned house. Having not slept in a proper bed for two days, they had also not enjoyed a proper meal in that span of time.
“Are there any villages further on?” Kouryou asked the discomfited young man, who wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“There are. But through the mountain pass. Another two days from here.”
“That far—” said Enshi, raising her voice.
Kouryou gave her a comforting glance and walked up to the young man. “I’m sure we can work something out. As you can see, we’ve got a child with us. Two days for an adult, sure, but three days minimum for us. Considering how cool the mornings and evening are, camping outdoors at this time of year is asking an awful lot of the child and his mother. We’ve already spent two nights on the road getting this far.”
The young man only sadly shook his head.
“I see,” Kouryou muttered with an air of resignation.
Enshi understood as well. Like it or not, any traveler knew the lay of the land. Ten Shire was poor, and had only sunk lower into destitution since the travails that beset Zui’un Temple. Most had barely managed to hold their ground before the destruction. The villagers here were probably hanging on by the skin of their teeth and had neither time nor goods to spare for passing strangers.
The village was not unusual in this respect. In normal times, a village was a place where people freely came and went. But these days, most closed their gates to anyone they didn’t already know. The inclination was all the stronger in small villages like this one where its only residents were the ones who lived and were registered there.
Winters in Tai were severe. During the winter, the villagers could only eat what they laid up in store. If the household and village council granaries ran out, they would all starve. No single prospect caused more immediate concern than adding more mouths to feed. Foolishly allow strangers inside and they might never leave. So the gates were closed. To prevent the addition of children, so were the gates to the Rishi.
Kouryou again appealed to the young man. “We are not going to settle down here. Any place you have that’s reasonably dry and out of the wind will do. We’ll happily pay to rent a place under the eaves of the Rishi. If you could possibly share a bite to eat, of course we’ll pay for that too.”
“Could you sell us anything to eat? The provisions we’ve got on hand won’t last us three days.”
The young man responded to Kouryou’s inquiry by lowering his head and apologizing again.
“Please,” Enshi cried out behind Kouryou. “Anything you can do would be fine. If you can’t help us, at least help the child.”
Enshi gazed at the young man’s face. My hands are tied, his expression plainly stated.
Kouryou sighed. “Well, that’s that. Let’s go, Enshi.”
“Everybody’s in a tight spot these days,” Kouryou said, urging on the reluctant Enshi.
But Ritsu, his hand still in Kouryou’s, was unwilling to accept this turn of events. He plainly wanted to stay in the village. He frowned and pointed his finger at the gate.
“Ritsu, this is not the place for us,” Kouryou said, doing his best to console him.
Ritsu shook his head. Even a child of three knew the village was their best option. When Kouryou put his arms around him, he broke into tears. He was a tough and patient kid, but at this point on the journey he was plain worn out.
From the look on the young man’s face, the sound of Ritsu crying tore at his heart. But seeing that look, Enshi couldn’t help but realize that the village truly was in dire straits.
Kouryou hoisted the crying Ritsu onto his shoulder and returned to the road. Enshi followed them. Reluctantly and regretfully, she glanced back. The young man stood there, eyes averted, head slumped. The signboard posted high atop the gate stared down at him. Touka was the village name written on the signboard.
“I’m sorry,” Enshi apologized as they trudged up the road.
Deciding where to go was up to her. Kouryou had only promised to accompany her. Except Enshi had no destination in mind. For no particular reason, they’d traveled from Ba Province to Kou Province and followed the road south. Should they continue on in this manner? Or change direction and head instead for the capital, Kouki? Enshi couldn’t make up her mind.
The road to Kouki would certainly be busier and more prosperous. But the odds of them running into ruffians and highwaymen was also higher. The cost of lodgings and food would climb. Unable to choose which way to go, she repeatedly made decisions on the spur of the moment. As a result, they had ventured off the beaten track and eventually ended up on this dreary road.
“This is all because I’m so confused and indecisive.”
“What?” Kouryou said in a bright voice. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve just got to bear with it for three more days.
Except Ritsu’s sobs tugged painfully at her heartstrings. Enshi had headed west from the northeast of Tai, crossed Bun Province, then continued south through Ba Province to Kou Province. On a journey with no end to the trail in sight, she walked to and fro from one place to another. Her wandering ways forced her to realize how unforgiving a place Tai was. There were no handouts for the traveler who’d lost sight of her destination.
But knowing all that, what would be the best way to winter over this year? Ritsu’s weeping pierced her ears.
For the young Ritsu, surviving the harsh winter depended on getting enough to eat and sleeping in a bed that wasn’t freezing cold. For that to happen, they had to find a village that would take them in and let them stay for a spell. Alas, as the conditions in the kingdom grew worse year after year, the towns and villages willing to take in a traveler grew all the rarer. What Enshi needed now was a way of finding a place that would.
In an effort to raise her spirits, Kouryou said in a bright voice, “One way or the other, we’ll make it through the next three days. We can be thankful the weather is as good as it is around these parts.” He patted the still bawling Ritsu in an effort to reassure him.
Ritsu finally stopped crying and looked at Kouryou as if to say, “Really?”
Enshi observed the two with tender feelings in her heart. It was easy to imagine having husband back and that Ritsu was their child. She needed him no less than Ritsu did.
“I’m sorry. Some days I would simply be besides myself without you here.”
Last winter, Kouryou had bought her the overcoat she had on. Enshi had come to rely on him for everything from their lodgings to their meals.
Kouryou said with a broad smile, “Just doing what I can while I can. Don’t worry about it.”
“Thank you,” Enshi said with a smile of her own, a smile tinged with complicated emotions.
While I can and While you can were pet expressions for Kouryou. When he got a room in a boarding house to do his woodworking, Enshi looked for odd jobs around town. She left Ritsu in Kouryou’s care while she worked. But he wouldn’t take any of her meager earnings. He told her instead to save up for when she did find a place to settle down and could start living a normal life.
Nothing wrong with relying on others while you can, he was fond of saying. Nothing wrong with putting a little aside while you can.
And whenever he did, Enshi found herself loathing the rationalization that he was nothing more than a convenient traveling companion.
They’d been on the road together for over half a year, and she didn’t sense that this arrangement would be ending anytime soon. Like a mother and father and a child. But those words shattered the illusion. We are together for now. But that could change. Kouryou’s intent was to keep that reality in front of her eyes.
Enshi couldn’t abandon the hope that Kouryou would take her and Ritsu under his wing. But neither could she bring herself to believe that would actually happen. This man spoke little about himself, not about where he was born or about his upbringing. There couldn’t be much money to be made at his chosen trade. Though his funds were meager, he knew the cost of basic necessities.
And yet Enshi had never seen him carry on like he was hard up for money. He wasn’t a wealthy man. Rather, he always had enough to spare. He must have a reasonable amount of savings somewhere, but he provided not the slightest hint of how they came into his possession. He’d taken to the road because he no longer had a place to call his own. He never explained why.
His casual manner made her think at first he’d embarked on this journey for the sake of the journey itself. And yet he was no whimsical nomad. Though Kouryou had no particular purpose and no particular destination on his mind, she was left with the distinct impression that he couldn’t stop. There was no end to the journey for him. He was driven by the pressing need to keep moving.
Kouryou was gripped by forces Enshi couldn’t see. At some point he would leave Enshi and Ritsu behind. She should not wish for things to continue on forever as they were.
Pondering these dark thoughts, Enshi urged on her legs as she climbed the hill.
Kyoshi hadn’t moved from the gate. The setting sun on their backs, the three figures on the road slowly grew farther and farther away. The woman must be exhausted by the journey. The child likewise wanted no more of traveling. The man bearing them along was surely also at the end of his rope. Kyoshi wanted to call out to them, offer to at least let them stay the night.
But that was not Kyoshi’s decision to make. The villagers were unlikely to agree. This was a poor village. Even a village with more resources at its disposal were loath to allow strangers inside the gate. Once inside, if they dug in their heels and insisted on staying, driving them out again was an unpleasant task.
Which was why, from the start, travelers weren’t allowed inside the village at all. Moreover, the run of the mill poverty aside, other circumstances in Touka made the presence of strangers intolerable.
Though I still wish you well on your journey.
These thoughts on his mind, watching as they went on their way, he heard the sound of footsteps. He glanced back at the heath. A man rushed around a corner of the palisades, running as if for dear life. He was a resident of the village. Gasping for breath, he opened his mouth as if to shout, then looked toward the road and clamped his mouth shut. On the verge of tumbling over, he ran up to Kyoshi and grabbed him by the arm.
“People in the mountains,” he panted in a harsh whisper. “Two of them. And kijuu.”
Kyoshi pressed the wheezing man in a subdued voice, “They arrived on kijuu? Their appearance?”
“Their clothing is high class, no doubt about it. More importantly, those kijuu are anything but ordinary.”
Kyoshi regripped the shepherd’s crook he used with the goats. Long use had worn the hard oak staff to a dark amber hue. The old wood preserved the faint traces of bloodstains at both ends.
“Where are they?”
“I saw them descending the ridgeline from the remains of Fugen Temple.”
Kyoshi nodded. “I’ll go on ahead. You let the rest of the villagers know.”
Shoulders still heaving, the man agreed. Grasping the staff, Kyoshi broke into a run. With a backwards glance at the three travelers on the road, he circled the palisades and sprinted across the heath.