Volume 1: The “Borderland Hero-Wannabe” Arc
Chapter 4: The Secret Organization of Evil, Part 1/2
Two weeks had passed since Seirin became the princess’s tutor.
Probably because she was smart from the start, Mine had managed to improve her Imperial to the level where she could follow any simple conversation. She still couldn’t speak or read kanji, but she was finally able to write characters consisting of a small number of strokes. It was progress compared to her first lessons, when she didn’t even know how to hold a brush correctly.
Though ordered to tutor the princess, Seirin wasn’t a professional educator and had no formal textbooks. He tried to teach Mine the way he had himself learned the words in the past.
Rather than cramming textbook knowledge into her head, he baited Mine’s curiosity with topics like the Capital’s landmarks and delicacies, or imperial fashion, and then casually slipped in basic conversational patterns or grammar, as well as information about Engi’s history, culture and manners.
“Interest your pupils in what you are teaching.” This method didn’t lend itself to learning by heart. It wasn’t suitable for exam preparation, for when one needed to memorize the right answers as effectively as possible to pass. But the technique was handy for broadening a person’s horizons; it made acquiring knowledge fun. Perfect for general education.
Seirin’s tutoring style seemed to suit somebody as artless as Mine was. She ceased her habit of escaping from the Southern dorms and waited for his visits with anticipation.
…That said, he was still forced to participate in her horse riding outings almost every day.
Mine was a model student in the morning, but come afternoon she always found a reason to drag Seirin on the horse with her.
“Seirin, you have improved greatly!” Mine said one day after their traditional ride, while they were still in the saddle. They were in the residence’s garden, and Seirin clung to her from behind. “You don’t scream anymore when the horse breaks into a run. You’re also able to match your movements to those of me and Rohelin. Next I’ll have you train to ride alone! Got it?”
“….Haaa….I see….” He responded while gasping for breath.
Exhausted to the bone, Seirin fell off the horse with a dull thump and crouched on the ground.
“Welcome back.” After greeting the princess and her tutor, Mirin turned to take the reins with a short bow. But Mine stopped her with a shake of her head.
“I’ll take care of Rohelin today, alright? Because starting tomorrow he’s going to be Seirin’s horse. I’ll tell him to behave for his new master.”
Mirin widened her eyes in surprise.
“You intend to cede Rohelin to the tutor-sama? Not some other horse?”
“Yeah. Rohelin’s a docile one. Reasonable too. Just what a complete novice like Seirin needs. After I’m done with Rohelin, I’ll want to bathe! Prepare everything, please”.
“As you wish.”
Mirin followed princess’s retreating figure with her eyes before turning to address Seirin, who was still crouched on the ground.
“You seeming tired.”
As Seirin didn’t havethe energy to answer, simply nodding with a frown.
“Are you, by any chance, thinking that horse riding is Princess’ way to torture you? To demean you, even?”
Seirin looked up.
“And am I wrong?”
Mirin sighed, her guess confirmed.
“All of this is her expression of gratitude. Amongst the Shimur you ‘repay milk with milk and blood with blood’. Such is the tradition. One good deed deserves another in return, just as evil is met with more evil. You are educating the princess on Engi’s language and manners. She is intent on returning the favor by teaching you how to handle a horse”.
“..(pant) I don’t have the right to refuse, do I?”
“To Shimur turning away a repayment is the same as breaking off a relationship. It is like declaring ‘I don’t want to see ya face anymore, ya shithead’… The other side would resent you to their last decendant (The other party and their decendants would forever resent you)”.
“That (pant)… would be bad (pant)”.
“Please try to accept Princess’s gratitude with a measure of grace,” Mirin admonished the resigned Seirin. “Princess holds special sentiment toward Rohelin. Her mother died when she was ten years old. To cheer his daughter up chief Ishil gave her Rohelin. Princess is genuinely fond of that horse. To think that she is determined to entrust him to somebody else! This is no joke on her side. (She is serious?)”
“..pant..If it gets any more serious, I’ll die for sure..pant…”
Seirin was close to tears. Examining his features Mirin muttered to herself.
“True, your face seems ashen, like a shadow of death lies on you already.”
Mirin turned away to watch western skies. After a while she grinned.
“Not to worry. Tomorrow will be raining. The ride will have to be cancelled. So you can rest”.
“Wha-? How do you know?”
“The flow of clouds, humidity – easy to figure, if you take these things into account. Well, I have a bath to prepare, so I am off.”
Seirin watched her go to the well. As she passed from his line of sight, he turned his eyes to the West.
It was close to sunset. Some purple clouds drifted through the sky, but there was nothing to distinguish this particular scene from any other sundown.
Will it really rain tomorrow? If so, I would be very glad…
Seirin slowly rose to his feet, still thinking about it.
His thigh joints and his pelvis bone, even his marrow seemed to be filled with lead, they were unbearably heavy. His back was seriously stiff, as well.
Dragging his legs, Seirin slowly headed inside the Southern residence.
The next morning, the sky was shrouded in grey clouds. It started raining just before noon, and by afternoon what had started as a drizzle became a downpour.
“Thank god it’s raining,” Seirin thought, watching the storm clouds overhead. “I won’t have to ride a horse today. Never in my whole life have I been so happy to see rain.”
The weather held for two days.
And on the third, the skies became spotlessly clear again.
Perhaps because the rainfall had washed away the dust in the air, the grandiose snow capes of Mount Reihou were seen in sharp relief against the serene backdrop of crystalline blue.
Seeing the celestial blue and white of Mount Reihou reflected in the big puddles before the Seikin dorms, Seirin came to a conclusion.
The roads are all slushy. I’m sure it’s the same out there in the plains. Should be muddy at some places, at least…Meaning even with such good weather it should be impossible to ride out.
Nodding happily to himself, Seirin headed to the Southern residence to meet Mine.
It was probably half an hour into their language lesson, when Mine started becoming restless. Yesterday and the day before that she was somehow able to stay focused for the full hour, but today seemed different.
“Seiriiin…. It’s boooring….”
With her chin on the table, the princess began complaining, puffing out her cheeks.
“Boringboringboring… If I sit at this table any longer I will start growing mold!”
For two days because of the rain Mine was forced to stay inside, unable to go on a ride. As a result, she had became fidgety and irritated.
“Even if you stay inside for a day or two, you won’t grow mold,” Seirin responded, moving onto the next kanji. But –
“I. Am. Bored.”
Mine started to rattle the table loudly.
Because there was only reading practice planned, ink and brushes were absent from the table, but dictionaries and copies of poem anthologies – all the teaching materials for the day – fell to the floor with a clutter.
“A-ah, that’s bad! You have to treat books carefully!”
Seirin hurried to pick them up, but Mine didn’t concern herself with these petty details. She continued to shake the table.
“Butbutbut! It is B.O.R.I.N.G!”
“You say ‘boring, boring’ all the time, but in truth you simply want to move, don’t you, Princess?”
“But of course. You have to exercise to keep fit.”
“Please don’t make such reasonable excuses…” With that, Seirin considered his next step.
All in all, we progressed further yesterday than expected. And judging by Mine’s behavior nothing good will come out of trying to study today, even if she is forced to sit still. For example, the girl might suddenly bolt for a horse, dragging me with her… This time it will surely turn out worse than some muscle ache. …No, this time I’ll die for sure.
During a ride with Mine three days ago I heard the death god calling out to me. So it’d be no surprise if I died on the next trip.
Well, in that case…
Seirin nodded to himself.
“All right, got it. Princess, why don’t we go down to the town today?”
“BO-O-RI… What? Town? We’re going to the town?!”
Just as the table-shaking threatened to become more violent Mine stopped, apparently changing her mind on the matter.
“Exactly. Let’s go look around the market. I want to have the chance to explore it properly at least once, as well.”
“Yes, yes, yes! I’m ready, let’s go!” Mine shouted excitedly, jumping to her feet, ready to run to the door, when Seirin hurriedly caught her by the arm.
“Wait a moment!”
“Are you seriously intending to go out like that?”
She had on only a pair of underpants and a white shirt. Looking down at her own attire, Mine asked, puzzled, “Can’t I? These are my usual clothes, after all.”
“Indoors, this may be permissible. However when venturing outside you need to pick more appropriate clothing.”
“You don’t know who you will meet outside. People you’re indebted to, people you respect… It’s considered good manners to be dressed properly in case you encounter such a person. You don’t need to go all out, but I think it’s necessary to maintain a certain standard.”
“Seirin, you said yourself that it’s not good to judge people by their looks…” Mine protested with a pout. “So why should I care about my attire!”
Seirin shook his head with a smile and crouched to look Mine in the eyes. When he was teaching her something new, he was in a senior position and he spoke to the princess accordingly. However he always talked to her as a friend and her equal when Mine needed a reminder about something she already knew. He did it half-consciously.
“That wasn’t what I said, though. I told you that it’s bad to judge people only by their looks.
“Is this person evil or decent? Does he deserve my trust? Before answering these questions, you need to take a lot of things into account: his behavior, words, past actions… First look at the information you’ve got from many different angles and only then pass your judgment, all right?
“Swindlers and liars all dress splendidly. If you need proof about the importance of appearance just look at the never ending number of people who get their money stolen because they decide to trust a pretty suit.”
Seirin regarded Mine with a serious air about him.
“You are a Shan princess. A representative of Shimur, if you may. Your dressing slovenly may lead to Shan… or even Shimur as a whole being taken for fools. Not only that, but Tsukihara Genzai, who allied himself with your tribe, will be seen as a fool, too. Have you ever thought about it like this?”
Mine widened her eyes, shocked, but then lowered her gaze in shame.
“”No, it never occurred to me. I just wanted to get back at the imperial officials who locked me up in here…”
“Things done out of ignorance can’t be helped,” was Seirin’s quiet reply. “But it would be truly foolish not to change your behavior now that you know everything.”
Mine nodded obediently.
“I shall change into something suitable then. And after we’ll go to the town! Mirin! Prepare my clothes, please!”
“I always do. You just don’t care to wear them, my princess”.
“Enough with the complaints! From now on I will, ok? I’m no fool!”
“I’ll wait for you in the hall,” Seirin said, standing up. He was smiling.
“Yes, I’ll come as soon as I’m dressed. Count on it.”
As Mine was stripping while she spoke, Seirin opted for an immediate retreat. He escaped in the middle of her speech.
While he waited near the entrance to the residence, he heard footsteps approaching.
But men can’t come here without permission… Who is it?
Seirin turned around to look and was rather surprised by what he saw. The owner of the footsteps was none other than Tsukihara Genzai.
“Ah, Seirin-kun. I saw your face in passing and decided to check. I don’t have any business in the Southern residence itself.” Genzai explained, laughing. Becoming serious, he continued. “So, how is everything? How does our Wildcat behave? I hear she is up to her usual tricks, riding out on her horse… Are her studies going smoothly? More importantly, have you managed to teach her some common sense, at least?”
“Ah, well… by some miracle she seems to listen to what I say… She is a true wildcat, reckless and unrestrained. Nobody can control her. But on the other hand, she is pure-hearted and trusting… A good child.
“It may take some time, but I think everything will turn out well in the end.”
“True, I’ve heard she’s become attached to you. Well, trust is vital for a teacher. She probably gives you a lot of trouble, but do your best, please.”
That was when the South residence’s door opened with a clatter, and Mine came rushing through.
“Seirin, I changed my clothes! Are they ok?”
She stuttered to a halt, though, when she saw Tsukihara Genzai standing beside her tutor.
“W-why is Genzai-dono here?!”
“Genzai-sama came to check on my work, to see for himself whether I’m taking my duties seriously enough…”
After Seirin’s reply the princess seemed to realize something. She turned to face Tsukihara Genzai properly.
And then Mine proceeded to execute a full court-style bow – hands clasped in front of her, knees bent, head lowered in a slight nod.
“Genzai-dono, how are you faring this fine morning?” She declared in Imperial, “Weather is good today.”
Genzai looked like he has witnessed something beyond extraordinary. He stood there, amazed, with his mouth open in silent surprise.
It is perfectly understandable, Seirin reflected. This is like seeing a wild cat suddenly getting on its hind paws and speaking human language…
A pause hung between them, before the governor of Tart managed to overcome his wordless astonishment.
“Thank you. You seem to be in good spirits today as well, my lady,” he replied.
Mine looked to Seirin as she couldn’t yet decipher the meaning of Genzai words.
“His Excellency says: How are you?”
Smiling in reply, Mine turned to the man again.
“Good! Very good!” she chirped in Imperial.
Seirin grew flustered at the familiarity of her speech.
“I’m incredibly sorry. I haven’t explained polite language to the princess yet…”
Genzai was staring fixedly at Mine.
“Don’t worry about it. I can’t believe I lived to see the day when Princess Mine greeted me in proper Imperial,” he said, admiration evident in his voice. “To think that the ragged downtown beggar-like… – sorry, the tomboyish child – from two weeks ago would change so much… No, this is nothing to scoff at.”
“Surely you’re exaggerating,” Seirin parried, scratching his head in a bashful manner.
“Is the greeting finished? Can we go now? Seirin!” Mine tugged insistently at his arm.
“Are you going somewhere?” Genzai enquired at the face of Mine’s impatience.
“Yes, actually. I thought it would be a treat to let her go into the town, let the princess hear the real Imperial, so…”
“I agree. Language is not something you can learn solely at your school desk. You need to practice on living people… Have a safe trip, in that case.”
“We will!” Mine replied, glimpsing a familiar phrase in the string of the governor’s words. With that, she dragged her tutor away.
“I wasn’t sure he if he would be the right man for the job at first,” Genzai muttered to himself, watching Seirin’s retreating figure. “But count me corrected.”
The man adored by the wildcat to such a degree… He has to be pure and honest himself for it to be possible.
Purity of heart is a base requirement. A man can’t excel at his job or lead others without being virtuous.
This youngling might just turn out to be a diamond in rough.
Meanwhile, the unsuspecting Seirin was walking towards the market with Mirin and Mine. ..Though it looked more like he was chasing after the princess.
“Hurry, hurry! You’re too slow! I’m going ahead!”
“Wait up! Don’t run! A road is mud! You’ll slip and fall! Who do you think is going to wash your clothes if that happens?! You wildcat!”
Mirin’s admonishment fell on deaf ears, though. Mine continued on her merry way to the market.
“Wait up, I said!”
“Please slow down!”
After hearing her handlers’ panicked exclamations, Mine spared them a fleeting look, stuck her tongue out and disappeared into the bazaar’s hustle and bustle.
Many merchants and performers came to Tart from the Capital. Here you could find things exclusive to this province and also get your hands on the goods from places even more distant. So of course traders came, attracted to the possibility. And where a crowd gathered, entertainers swarmed as well.
So near the market’s entrance was a place for a variety of show tents.
“Inside the palace, or outside in the town, it’s all the same for that wildcat! What shall we do now? Should we split up and search for her?”
“Let me think. There’s a lot of people out in the streets right now. If we split up we mightloose each other in the crowd afterwards. So let’s look for her together for a while”.
Seirin let out a small sigh.
We go to the market, and this happens. I am nothing but a fool for thinking the princess would behave for once.
“My mistake. I probably should have led her by the hand, like a small child.”
“Respected teacher, you are being too naïve still. If you want the wildcat to behave you have to tie a rope around her neck.”
“That’s a bit much, isn’t it? However tempting it may be.”
Seirin chuckled at the image of sulking Mine on a leash.
Mirin looked around the busy market place, where merchants, newly arrived nomads out on a supply run and village folk all mingled together, hurrying about on their business.
“I’m sure the Wildcat will go to where the new and shiny things are”, she said.
“Makes sense. So we might find her inside this tent.”