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Chapter 6: Arriving at the Royal Capital
It was early summer when they arrived.
The Royal Capital was dazzling, brimming with displays of flamboyance and wealth.
Yet, there was an underlying darkness in all of it.
Ranukan was the most lively place in La Seine. The palace, where the current Emperor resided and where the Imperial court was held, shone in grandeur and was overflowing with crowds of people.
The Capital was built on flat land, where it could be reached from the national highway across all four directions. Large and small rivers flowed nearby, a pleasant view to gaze at, and even during winter, it was warm and comfortable.
Surrounding the Capital was a tall and thick stone wall and standing before it was a gatekeeper on watch for suspicious figures.
Being their first time in the Capital, the group took in everything with awe while seated in the carriage.
Unlike the countryside, there weren’t any huts.
Residents wore pretty kimonos and talked fast, bustling with liveliness, and carriages or cars belonging to aristocrats came and went.
In Ranukan, people grouped together according to trade or status.
This was especially true for trade where tradesmen would gather and share information on techniques and arts, the remarkable development of Ranukan handicrafts said to be attributed to this.
Wang pointed at something, explaining it to the rest in the carriage.
“That building with the flag is the Relief Centre, built by the government.”
La Seine’s flag was a mix of blue and green, the top half representing the sky and the bottom, the earth. At the centre, there was a white circle symbolising the Sun.
“And if you head to the north of the palace, you’ll find the Green Guard House, established by the Royal family. Both places were built to help citizens. They’re free, but you’d need an introduction to receive protection from the guards. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see the palace doctor there.”
As he looked back, Ashiyowa saw men and women of all ages wearing various types of kimonos entering the impressive wooden building.
“Only in La Seine is the government so generous and kind to its citizens.”
Wang’s voice was tinged with pride.
Ashiyowa gazed at the flag in awe.
The carriage was headed for the West Ryokannan district, where the Royal family resided.
It had been a fairly smooth journey. They arrived safely without being attacked by thieves and though it did rain quite a bit, the rivers did not flood.
The party descended from the carriages and was shown around by a servant of the mansion, guiding them to a room to rest. The eighteen people that made up the party were once again sharing the same room.
District officials went around, counting the number of people and going through some documents.
“Your audience with the Emperor will be in five days’ time.”
“Meanwhile, you are free to tour the city, but be sure to return before an hour after sunset. Turning back now is unacceptable. If you insist on doing so, be prepared to return the travel money and remember this is punishable by whipping.”
“The day before the audience, we will hold a practice to provide guidance to those who are uneducated.”
“After the audience, we will hand out the remaining six silvers.”
“There will be carriages to bring you back in order after, so please make sure to board on time.”
The official left the room and moved on to the next, repeating the same thing.
Today’s lunch was finally something extravagant.
But, this was troubling.
Ashiyowa wasn’t used to this kind of food, made with time and care.
Having been raised with ingredients gathered back at the mountains, it was all unfamiliar flavours when it came to the meals served here, at the governor’s general mansion.
Ashiyowa, was only used to plain and humble flavours, so he tasted the food bit by bit, rolling it around his tongue before raising a brow and rubbing his chest in an attempt to swallow the food, finally deciding to set his chopsticks aside.
“Is it not to your liking?”
Wang, who was sitting to his side, noticed this and called out.
He had followed Ashiyowa, who, conscious of his sitting posture, sat himself towards the end of the line. Wang sat upright, carrying an air of refinement, and though he noticed that Ashiyowa’s right leg was stretched out, touching the table, he disregarded it. During the span of the long journey, he had been taking care of Ashiyowa here and there, unable to ignore his naivete.
“Yeah… Somehow, it’s a bit too much…”
From just mumbling those words, Ashiyowa trembled slightly in his seat, embarrassed.
Honestly speaking, he was hungry.
He left the room where everyone was eating and walked down the corridor. The walls were high, but the garden was wide, so it didn’t feel claustrophobic. The ground was a mixture of white and yellow and the artificial pond was filled with water.
Ashiyowa rubbed his empty belly as he gazed at the pond’s surface.
… Should I head to the forest…
There should be food in the forest.
It’s just that, even if there were woodlands in the Royal Capital, you would have to leave the Capital to get to the deeper parts of the forest. And though he was given a bill to enter and leave the mansion, he wasn’t sure if he could get past the gate.
Should I head to the kitchen and settle for the leftover ingredients…
But it would be rude to complain, especially when he was served the food for free.
Knowing this, Ashiyowa couldn’t follow through.
He didn’t eat most of his meal that night and couldn’t bring himself to finish the next morning’s breakfast either.
Ashiyowa had been constantly hungry ever since they arrived at the Capital. His messy hair and slouched posture hid his complexion, and though his meals remained untouched, his leftovers would be snatched up by the servants, left unreported to the higher ups.
Each and every one who came to the capital decided to have a look around Ranukan that day. Everyone left the mansion, even those intimidated by the Capital; each setting off with their own purpose.
Ashiyowa was hungry to the extent that his eyes were spinning, but he shook it off and picked up his cane, deciding to head out by himself. There was something he wanted.
The roads were spacious, wide enough such that carriages could come from the right and left without bumping each other, and pedestrians would be safe from harm. He marvelled at the two-story buildings that stood side by side and embraced the frightening rush of the Capital.
Wandering around, he ran into a market.
He decided to pass through the market and found himself fascinated by one of the stalls, lined with Houmai fruit. Houmai was a sweet fruit, a little on the chewy side.
Ashiyowa fluttered towards the stall.
The plump shopkeeper gave a quick glance at Ashiyowa. Accompanied by a cane and a ragged straw head, over his dishevelled black hair, tufts of straw poking out here and there, he gave the impression of an impoverished traveller. Regardless, the shopkeeper clapped his hands together and called out to Ashiyowa in a loud voice.
“How about some Houmai fruit from the South? You can tell from the smell, can’t you, it’s ripe and ready to eat. How about it?”
“H-how much is it?”
“It’s a copper for six.”
Ashiyowa immediately took out the copper coins he earned from selling herbs.
“Oh, Thanks! Do you have a bag, or a basket?”
People who came to the market usually brought a bag or basket with them to carry their purchases.
“Ah, I don’t have one but I can put it in my pocket… Or could I eat it here?”
The shopkeeper nodded, but his smile disappeared as he handed over the fruit.
“Oh, that would get in the way of business, but it’s fine if you eat someplace a bit further.”
Ashiyowa placed a hand under his pockets, now full, to support it and proceeded to the back of the stall. He crouched at the root of a tree, and immediately took a bite.
Upon first bite, the soft skin of the fruit burst, and sweet juice filled his mouth. He savoured the flavour, chewing on the fruit, having to lift his head upwards so the juice trickling down his chin wouldn’t catch onto his clothes.
In no time, all that was left was the fruit’s large seed.
…Ah, that was tasty!
He reached for another fruit, the lower half of his face, which wasn’t being covered by his bangs, revealing a smile. He let his cane rest against a tree and grasped the plump red fruit with both hands, this time placing it to his lips as though he was kissing it, to savour its scent and giving it a lick before gently biting down. It was a sweet meal, yet there was something sensual about this scene.
Ashiyowa felt someone’s presence nearby, and upon lifting his head, he was met with the stall owner.
“――I-Is there something wrong?”
Silently, he took out four Houmai fruits.
“It sold well today. After seeing you eat the fruit so deliciously, customers came one after another. These were badly shaped, so I didn’t put them up for sale but they taste the same. Take it.”
“What is it? It’s fine, it’s fine. Have it.”
The shopkeeper’s belly shook as he pulled himself up.
Ashiyowa wiped his mouth with a sleeve and stood up, the remaining fruit that he bought and the additional four given to him, tucked into his pocket. With his stomach satisfied, his head was now clear.
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