Volume 1: The “Borderland Hero-Wannabe” Arc
Summer wind blew through the streets of a little town called Tart on the northern border of the Engi Empire. As the merchant caravan rolled into the town, Seirin took a deep breath and smelled the lilacs.
The wife of the first emperor loved this sweet smell and so by her order hundreds of lilac bushes were planted throughout the main street of the capital, about 200 years ago. Ever since, lilacs had been a symbol of the empire, and it became traditional to grow them in every city under its rule.
Moreover, So Heikei, savior of the state who alone stopped a horde of Shimur nomadic tribes during the Northern Plague, was rumored to have used a bow made from a lilac branch. Since then, lilacs became indispensable as the representation of Northern province’s Guardian Deity.
The caravan stopped in Tart’s central square, and Seirin disembarked. After a long stretch he thoughtfully regarded the nearest lilac bush.
It hasn’t even been 10 years since Tart became a part of Engi Empire and yet lilacs are in full bloom already, he remarked to himself. They were probably delivered straight from the capital, fully grown.
The Engi planted these trees as a display of power for the Shimur tribes living nearby: Look, it’s within our abilities to move the trees all the way from the Capital before they wither away. We are that efficient, understand?
“If anything happens an army can be transported just as easily. You barbarians get the hint and realize what would happen if you tried going against us, yes?” The bush that currently held Seirin’s attention seemed to imply this by its very existence.
Suddenly somebody called out to Seirin from behind. “Oi, youngster. Move! We’re trying to unpack the cart, and you’re in the way!”
He hurriedly stepped aside and saw a group of brawny men pass by, heavy-looking cloth bags on their backs.
As they passed, a strong smell tickled at the young man’s nose, not unlike the odour of dried fish. It hung all over the place, intermingling with the flowery aroma of lilacs. Salt. It was definitely salt. Nothing else smelled quite like this.
So, the men who pushed past him earlier were probably salt traders. This certainly would explain the sack carriers and the man with a ledger chasing after them.
The state had a monopoly on salt in the Engi Empire. If the amount stated in the ledger and the number of sacks sent from the Capital didn’t match, merchants’ heads would quite literally fly. Naturally, such traders tended to look rather grave.
Not to mention that for the town of Tart, far from the sea and thus without access to a reliable supply, salt was an inarguably precious commodity.
Right now salt production is thriving in southern cities, so prices are lower, thought Seirin. But salt was once worth its weight in copper, or so I heard from an old man in Nishiki koji market. Speaking of which…
“You can survive without money, but you’ll die if you don’t eat any salt. Without it, everybody becomes unable to move, be it humans, horses or oxen.” That’s why salt is so expensive… According to that old man, anyway.
There were people other than traders gathered around the imperial caravan. Various groomsmen and labourers with their handlers hurried to and fro, shouting in their strange language.
The hustle-and-bustle of the crowd, rapid conversations in barbaric Northern dialects – all of this reminded Seirin of the capital’s marketplace.
“…just like Nishiki Koji…” the young man muttered subconsciously.
Born and raised in the capital, Seirin’s favourite playground was the city’s biggest bazaar, Nishiki koji. It was a place of exotic goods and fruit stands lined the streets, foreign merchants managing the stalls… A place that was filled with the sounds of foreign chatter and music, everything so new to the eyes, so different. There were shops that had stood there forever and shops that changed by the day; nasty owners who kicked you out of their shops and others who gave you fruit for free with a friendly smile.
…And maybe there were also some people who behaved kindly because they understood that he come from a wealthy family.
Looking over Tart’s shabby streets, Seirin sighed despondently.
Along the dusty road were two rows of mismatched houses made from ochre-colored dried brick. One building had a roof covered with black tiles in imperial fashion; it was probably a governor-general’s residence. Aside from a watch tower on top of a castle wall, there were no tall buildings or even shrine towers. And far away behind the town walls a white-capped mount Reihou could be seen towering above everything.
If you asked one hundred men from the capital if that’s what they pictured when they thought of the borderlands, one hundred and ten would say yes.
Meaning, everything here screamed “backwater” so loudly, you didn’t have to imagine anything.
Gods, how I want to return to the capital…
Although only a few minutes had passed since Seirin arrived, he was already feeling homesick.
And that was when somebody called out to him from behind. “You are master Sen’ya Seirin, aren’t you?”
When Seirin turned around, he saw an unremarkable man in his thirties, of average build and height. Judging by his dress he was a lowly ranked official from the governor’s office.
“Y-yes, that’s me.”
“Good. His Excellency the governor is waiting. Please follow me.” The official-looking man nodded and started walking again.
“What? Oh, yes. But I’ve just arrived, what about my baggage..?”
“I’ll tell them to deliver your things to the Seikin governmental dorms, as you’ll be living there from now on.”
“A-ah, uh, yes. Sorry for all the trouble.”
With a slight bow of his head Seirin tried voicing some of his doubts. “But, um… You’ve recognized me almost immediately…”
The official smiled. “Well, it’s easy. You capital dwellers all just stand looking tearfully towards the capital… So when I see someone like that, it’s not hard to tell where they’re from.”
So it wasn’t only me. Sighing once more, Seirin followed the official to the governor’s office.