Volume 1: The “Borderland Hero-Wannabe” Arc
Chapter 2: Fusetatsu, Part 1/2
“Yei, welcame!” The owner greeted Seirin in heavily accented Imperial as he stepped through a curtain into the restaurant.
This place was called Airagu, a tiny eatery one street away from the Seikin, communal dorms behind the Administration building.
There were about 100 staff members working for the governor, most of whom were outside transfers. And nobody in their right mind would bring their family with them to such a backwater location, so almost everyone on staff lived alone.
People of high enough rank could afford a separate residence with their own locally-hired servants, but low-ranking employees who couldn’t had to camp down in communal dorms.
Though the Seikin was equipped with a decent kitchen, it was unbecoming of imperial officials to cook for themselves. Because of that, they all frequented Airagu for a proper meal or three.
Airagu’s owner was a pure-blood Shimur, who never had a bite of Imperial cuisine his whole life. However, with the help of his customers’ advice, he managed to improve the taste of his food over the years.
Seirin looked around the store. It wasn’t very wide. There were eight tables for six persons each. On Seirin’s right was the kitchen, separated from the main hall by a block of wood that could serve as an eating place as well.
Almost all the seats were full, but some men, having an after-meal chat, noticed Seirin’s predicament. With a glance at each other, they stood up.
“You can sit here. We’ve already finished our food, so feel free.”
“Th-thanks,” Seirin nodded gratefully. As soon as he took the seat, a woman, probably a hostess, came over.
“What you order?” she asked.
“Um, what do you usually have on menu?”
Hearing that, the smiling hostess nodded once. “Ok, we have usual.”
“Wait, no, not usual, usually…”
“Yes yes, one usual. No need to worry. Dear, we have a usual!” she shouted to the chef before turning to leave.
A thin man around Seirin’s age or a bit older laughed at his indignation. He was sitting behind Seirin and drinking a milk-like beverage.
“Don’t worry” he said. “Their usual is delicious. And also cheap. It’s better than some pricey taverns’.”
His words were clear, with no trace of an accent. He enunciated like the imperial elite, rolling his r’s just enough.
“You… came from the Capital, didn’t you?”
The young man widened his eyes. “How did you…?”
“Ah, sorry, it’s just… You talk like somebody from the capital.
“And you can tell just from the way I speak?”
“Yes, I lived there for all of my life too. I played a lot at Nishiki Koji as a child.”
“Impressive. You have some good ears on you. Say, it’s uncomfortable talking back by back, so mind if I join you at the table?”
For Seirin, who has already resigned himself to a lonely meal, there was no reason to refuse. The man took his plate and narrow jar of the milky-white drink and sat on the opposite side. While he moved, Seirin caught a whiff of alcohol.
So this person was actually drinking. But however you looked at it, there was only milk in the jar…
The man before Seirin introduced himself as Kou Fusetatsu, 21 years old.
“That’s a remarkable name,” Seirin commented admiringly, but Fusetatsu brushed off the praise.
Actually, my real name is Shinryuu Sento, but due to certain circumstances I had to change it.” He looked at Seirin with curious eyes. “You’re not from here either, are you?”
But Fusetatsu interrupted Seirin’s introduction, pointing at him with his index finger.
“Wait a little, please. It’s really hard for me to accept that you saw through my disguise so easily. It’s my turn to guess your identity. Any objections?
Just as Seirin smilingly nodded his assent, the hostess came around with a tray.
“Yei! The Usual’s ready!”
One by one, she placed various plates before Seirin. First came a big bowl of vegetable stew with thinly cut pieces of meat—lamb, it seemed—then something like fried spring rolls, followed by thick egg drop soup, and finally rice with barley.
“Whoah, looks tasty!” Seirin’s eyes lit up at the sight
“Are you all right with lamb?” Fusetatsu asked worriedly, watching him.
“Yeah, I have nothing against it. Why?”
“Because ‘meat’ means ‘lamb’ around here. You won’t see pork or beef anywhere. Even chicken is a delicacy, for heaven’s sake. If you don’t eat lamb, you may as well starve, starting tomorrow.
“So that’s how it is…” Seirin mumbled, stuffing his mouth with the stew.
Although the meat stank quite a bit, the smell was well hidden by the taste of peanut oil and fragrant herbs mixed in with the vegetables. Moreover, the simple seasoning of salt enhanced the taste of the meat itself, and made the lamb much more delicious
“That’s heavenly! You can eat it every day and not get tired of it!
Fusetatsu smiled happily at his excitement.
“I’m glad. Today the owner was generous with the seasoning, because the salt merchants finally came to town. Until yesterday everything’s been a bit bland.”
“Right, there was a cart with salt in my caravan. The sacks were piled so high, it was like a mountain. And the soldiers guarding it drove away anyone who got close. I honestly thought they were transporting money at first…”
“True—no salt, no strength,” Fusetatsu grinned. “Especially true if you’re going to serve as princess Mine’s new tutor. You won’t last long without a proper meal, because every day with her is like a battle. So eat up, while you can.”
Seirin choked on his rice. He hurriedly grasped a cup and gulped down the juice in it.
That dislodged the lump in his throat, and Seirin let out a big sigh when the food settled in his stomach properly.
“How did you guess about me being a tutor…?”
“Eh, that was an easy one. First, you’re not an official. Those men who gave you their seats? They’re from administration, and their status isn’t that high.
“If you were an official fresh from the Capital, they would have behaved more formally. Because anyone from the Capital is an elite.
“Were you a merchant, you would go to the tavern on Suzaku street, across the merchant’s inn. You wouldn’t have to come here.
“So, neither a merchant nor an official. Which leaves us with but one possibility: you’re in the personal employment of Tart’s governor, Tsukihara Genzai. But he would usually hire local people for his servants. It’s cheaper and also more convenient because they know the land. If he called you here all the way from the Capital, that can only mean he needed somebody with specific skills. And you realized my origins just from hearing me speak, so your abilities must lie with languages.
“Why would Tsukihara Genzai need a language expert? You can’t be anyone except a tutor for a certain wildcat princess, residing in the Southern wing of the Governor’s office.”’.
Pausing, he let out a smirk and continued.
“And there’s your proof. The end.”
“A-Amazing! Fusetatsu-san’s so smart!”
Throwing a glance at the impressed Seirin, he poured himself more milk from the jar and gulped it down.
“It’s beginner level,” he said a little bashfully. “No need to sound so excited.”
“Well, I believe clever people deserve respect… After all, I’m just a dead last, who failed the state exam many times.” Scratching his head in embarrassment, the young man continued. “So my name’s Seirin, Sen’ya Seirin. I’m only nineteen, so that makes Fusetatsu-san two years older than me, give or take.
“I failed the exams repeatedly and went to wander around the city market. But then father heard that His Excellency Tsukihara Genzai is looking for a translator. So he told me to go try for the job.
“I thought I would fail for sure—Tsukihara Genzai is very popular with the capital citizens, he’s their hero, y’know—but in the end, I decided to try my luck. And somehow I got hired…”
Giving a short nod, he continued.
“That’s how I came to be sitting here before you now. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Smiling, Fusetatsu held out a cup with milk in it.
“Come, enough with formalities. We’re the only two young men from the Capital in all of Tart at the moment. A fine reason to get along from now on, I should think. Let’s drink for that.”
He poured the tall jar’s contents into Seirin’s cup. However you looked at it, it seemed to be plain milk…
But for some reason it had a strong, strange odour. Part sour, part sweet and somewhat reminiscent of cows.
“ What is it?” – Seirin asked.
“Trust me, just try it. Drinking this is a good way to get along with Shimur.”
Get along with Shimur? Meaning things might go smoother with princess Mine?
Seirin recalled her image from when he met her in the Southern dorms. Flat chest, thin arms and legs. She’s not in the least appealing, except for those pretty, wide blue eyes.
Seirin shook himself out of his idle musings and drained the cup in one gulp. At the first mouthful of the white liquid he felt sourness permeating his mouth, stabbing at his taste buds. He swallowed and felt the cheese-like smell of curdled milk enter his nose.
Uwah, what is this???
Fusetatsu laughed at his reflexive grimace.
“It’s kumis. You let mare’s milk ferment until it becomes mildly alcoholic. Very sour and smells terribly. May be near undrinkable for amateurs, but once you get used to it, the taste’s really good.
“Don’t know why, but this drink’s also good for the body. Better alternative to wine, health-wise.”
“Anybody who can drink that without flinching has to be healthy, yeah.”
In response to the scowling Seirin, Fusetatsu answered seriously.
“To tell the truth, I love alcohol. Because of that I lost my way in life. But since I started drinking kumis, it’s like the damage wrought by wine has been lessening gradually. I still get hungover, but it passes more easily.
“Lost your way in life? What are you talking about, you’re too young for that!”
“After we turn twenty we’re all just ordinary men. You’re from the Capital, you have to have heard of Rengai school.”
Seirin stared at him in wonder.
“By Rengai you mean that Rengai – the one that’s a legendary school for genius children from all over the Empire? I’ve heard that among its graduates there are people who passed the Imperial exams at sixteen!”
“Oh, you’re talking about Sawagi Enmei. He’s now serving in the ministry of law. My underclassman.”
“Underclassman? But that means…”
To Seirin’s genuine amazement, Fusetatsu could only answer self-derisively.
“That’s right. I’m also one of the famed Rengai students. They called me a wunderkind when I was ten. By twelve I’d already memorized all the law books. At fourteen I argued politics with my teachers. Some thought my genius was legendary.
“However, the spring I became fifteen, my inner struggles began. The meaning of my existence. The world’s existence. Human life and death. What kind of prodigy was I, if I didn’t know the answers to such questions? I didn’t understand anything at all!
“After series of sleepless nights, still struggling with my dilemma, I went out to Nishiki koji. While wandering in search of a place to eat, I saw a seventy-something year old man whistling happily under his nose and drinking wine. I didn’t know wine. Knew about it, but not once had I tried the drink itself.
“I begged the old man to let me have a taste.
“It wasn’t exceptional wine or anything. Just a cheap swill you can buy anywhere in Nishiki koji. But that first taste of sake stole my soul that day. ‘How can there exist something so delicious in the world!’ I thought.
“That day, on the eve of my fifteenth spring, I decided to devote my life to wine.”
“That’s why I came to Tart – to chase after the mythical ‘fire water,’ a drink so strong it burns you like fire when you consume it. It’s rumored to be produced here, in the Northern province.
“And I guess I also had to run away, so I came here… Yeah, something like that.”
“Run away? From whom? An enemy? An official?”
“Better quit while you’re still ahead. I won’t tell you. It’s a terrible organization I am hiding from. Demons. They tend to turn people into beasts, slowly ridding them of their soul and dignity. To escape them I had to run as far as Tart.”
Seirin swallowed heavily at the sight of Fusetatsu’s seriousness.
“Can there really be somebody so terrible in the Engi Empire?”
“Yes, such people really do exist. It’s a secret organization. Their headquarters are in the West, near Danskaal. But they have several hundred operatives undercover in the Empire as well. They’re also very persistent. No matter how long you keep running away, they always come after you. So finally I came to Tart. They’ll probably leave me be for a while, if it’s here.”