At the back of the mansion, there was an enclosure called a ryouin, a "refreshing place." Facing the kitchen, there was a water well and a place or washing laundry; or there was a granary for storing grain; or a vegetable garden, a barn and a fish pond. To process all of these things there were processing areas: a grain processing area, the kahei and the sakubou. A section of the mansion continued through, interposed after the vegetable garden.
Thickly clad in a satin padded kimono, Shushou made her appearance in that ryouin, finally a break in her morning chores.
The old man, Bashi, raised his head as he perceived Shushou's appearance.
"Might I ask if the district school has been closed?"
"If Father has said so, then there is no need for you to ask. —Hey, is it okay if I feed Hakuto?"
Go ahead, motioned Bashi with an assenting nod. The old man was also a part of the household. Amidst the troubles following the death of the late emperor, lacking household goods, with only their children in their arms and the clothes on their backs, people flocked to employ themselves in this household. The children of three people were scattered here and there, employed in the capacity of the secondary residence's or the store's assistants, in no way different from the household itself.
.: 44 :.
"...so the headmaster has passed away," Bashi said as he conducted Shushou to the stable.
As far back as Shushou could recall, the old man had always been in charge of the stable.
"What and unfortunate man. Nowadays, there seem to be only blood-filled stories such as those going around Renshou."
"However, thanks to the master of the house, we are able to live peacefully, eh."
"I wonder how long that will last?"
"Please don't say such an ill-omened thing!"
As Bashi spoke, they passed through the entrance to the stable.
Shushou loved the smell of the stable. Especially during winter, when amidst the smell of the stable litter and the plentiful warm bodies of the horses and donkeys, a gentle and warm spirit would envelop her. But since Shushou's mother disliked horses, the woman felt that their smell as disagreeable as well, she thought.
"Morning, how are you all?"
.: 45 :.
Shushou turned to face the stable's interior so that she was facing the heads of the animals. Her favorite, Hakuto, lay in the straw of one of the stalls that she faced.
At the sound of her voice the white animal lying sprawled on the other side of the paling lifted its head. It was a kijuu resembling a white leopard, a moukyoku. Moukyoku were intelligent, good at guessing the thoughts of people, and furthermore attached to their owners with a gentle love. Even now, with that sort of understanding, Hakuto stretched out his neck towards Shushou in a cat-like gesture and a light rumble emanated from his throat.
Bashi called out to Shushou with a soft voice and narrowed eyes. Always, he lived to assist others with the horses. In itself, working in the stable was gratifying. Since animals being taken care of were naturally affectionate, Shushou thus was happy to reciprocate such affection.
With her hand over the paling, Shushou even now turned back to look at Bashi with an air of open hospitality.
"Isn't it okay to play every once in awhile?"
The moukyoku had a gentle disposition, made gentler by Shushou's familiarity with it. She would often come to the barn, at times looking to help out, and caught on to what was good to do and what was bad to do. Therefore, Bashi nodded in assent. Even with the exception of the stable, there was work to be done.
.: 46 :.
Once Shushou saw Bashi off, she advanced toward the chest-high paling, and entered the stall. She seated herself upon the still damp and swollen straw. Snuggling up against Hakuto, who had remained sprawled out all the while, Shushou buried her face in the scruff of his neck. Holding in her arms the large head, she stroked the smooth hair at the back of his ears. From his hair came the same wonderful odor that permeated the straw. Though, Bashi took good care of the place, so the smell was faint.
After some time, Bashi could be heard calling out to the horses. However he was cut off, and his footsteps could be heard exiting the stable. If Shushou strained her ears, she could hear his how the footsteps he created treading on the dirt floor faded into the distance.
"...yeah," murmured Shushou, grinning at Hakuto and rising to her feet.
Leaving the raised paling as it was, Shushou exited Hakuto's stall. Looking right and left, she approached a mountain of straw. Pushing through one side of the straw mountain, she stepped on a squared bundle of straw and reaching along the length of the wall, drew out a bundled-up sack. Inside were things that she had snuck out of the house the night before.
Triumphantly, with her prize in her hand, she swum her way back out of the straw, and hurriedly returned back to Hakuto's stall. She beamed a light smile at Hakuto's questioning face and removed his saddle from the stall's wall.
It took no time at all to ready Hakuto. Saddle in place, and as she made to lead him out of his stall he fully awoke and was soon standing.
"Hold on a minute, okay," she told him, pulling from her breast pocket a sheet of paper.
.: 47 :.
Peering at the marvel, Shushou turned her arm along Hakuto's neck.
Don't scold Bashi.
Shushou placed the paper in the feed box.
Because if you do, I won't come home for twice as long, she wrote.
Hakuto looked up blankly at Shushou.
"We're going pretty far, but we'll keep each other company. With your legs, we'll be fine."
She was speaking to Hakuto, but of course, he gave no reply. His mysterious tea-gold eyes only twinkled. Shushou stroked his head.
"...It's been twenty-seven years. Twenty seven years since the previous emperor died. Nowadays, even in Renshou there are youma about killing lots of people..."
She looked up to see lattices covering the stable's skylight. If a kingdom has no ruler, they say state of the kingdom becomes such that natural disasters often strike and youma freely loiter around.
"In any case, good adults place lattices over their homes and feel safe. It's so stupid. If there's no ruler, I wonder what good they think it does to only try to solve one problem."
In the abscence of any sudden revelation or anything to stop her, Shushou smiled at Hakuto, who had been gazing at her, and took up his reins.
.: 48 :.
Under the eaves, basking in sunlight filtering into where they were seated, Bashi and his fellow workers dashed to the ryoushin, taken aback by the sight of the moukyoku.
In leaps and bounds, as they called for it to halt, the moukyoku easily passed over Bashi and the others as they broke into a run, jumping through the rays of the sun.
"Young Miss! Lady Shushou!"
Bashi and the others cried out, raising their voices. But the moukyoku bounded toward the eaves, climbing above the brilliant green roof of the multistoried mansion. By some means, Shushou's carefree voice filtered down to Bashi as he stared up at her.
"I'm going out for a bit!"
No way... Young Miss!"
"I don't need any company."
Bashi and company were left in consternation as the moukyoku ran up the great roof of the main wing of the house. The mounted Shushou turned slightly to wave back at them. The moukyoku's white tail flicked against the lustrous, glossy glaze of the roof. From the upper stories of the mansion, the joushin who stood watch in every direction pointed out the kijuu.
To them, also, Shushou waved laughingly as she urged the moukyoku forward. As the two passed over the roof of the main wing of the house, before Shushou's eyes was spread the vast blue sky, showing signs of spring.
.: 49 :.
The sky was a light blue fading into a light purple. White clouds spanned the sky like silk threads. Below, rundown tiled roofs formed a wave spread out across Renshou. The barrier wall that surrounded the city to the rear, where Mt. Ryouun was, in the sunlight resembled the egg white surrouding the yolk of an egg. Facing that same direction were black earth and green hills. All of these things heralded the advent of spring, bearing in a gentle light.
The white kijuu kicked off from the wave of tiled roofs and sprung over the city wall. The sentinels cried out in surprise, as it ran over the wall. As the moukyoku ran, Shushou turned to look back, thinking to herself: "It's fine like this."
"Everything is fine. In Renshou, this moukyoku was just Hakuto....There's no way that anyone will recognize him as Banko's kijuu."
Shushou smiled at Hakuto, and looked at the hills bathed in sunshine.
"There's nothing else to do. If the adults won't go, then I will."
Though as she were if to about to ask another question Shushou turned back and pressed Hakuto onwards, leading them away from Renshou.
"I will go to Mt. Hou...and I will ascend it."
.: 50 :.
.: 51 :.