yousou devised a snare to catch the suugu. The snares he’d used in the Yellow Sea were made from iron chains. Of course, iron chains were nowhere to be found here in the depths of Kan’you Mountain.
Though rope was not nearly as reliable, the koushu did use rope as well, so-called “black rope” made from the bark of a hardwood tree that grew in the Yellow Sea.
There was no such bark here, so he had to make do with the boughs and branches he had on hand. He peeled off the outer bark and soaked the inner bark before working it over with a stone hammer, then split the pulped wood into strips to release the fibers, which he wove into cords.
The gemstones would come in handy as bait. On this count, he was fortunate to have been imprisoned in a mine. The gravel from the tailings yielded a generous variety. And then while clearing out the debris deposited by the landslides, Gyousou found a large chunk of jasper.
Even in the feeble light, he knew this was no ordinary stone. The perfectly clear green jasper had once been extraordinary large. It was broken into five pieces. It appeared to have a twin, though wedged between several large boulders, its sister stone was impossible to extract.
Still, this one alone produced a considerable yield when broken apart. Though partial to agate, no suguu would turn up its nose at jasper of this quality.
After making rope from the tree bark, he salvaged the clamps and nails from the wrecked support timbers that once supported the tunnels. He reduced several of the wooden pillars to charcoal and made a forge. The charcoal was of poor quality but was sufficient to the task. Working the metal using a stone as the hammer and a boulder as the anvil, he stretched out the iron and created hooks.
Everything Gyousou was doing here he’d learned from the shushi in the Yellow Sea.
Emperor Kyou had on one occasion handed down orders of a sort Gyousou felt he could carry out only under protest. He was about to bow to the inevitable and do as he was told when he felt that gaze upon him.
Asen had Gyousou in his sights, always watching from the sidelines.
Gyousou could not act in such a craven manner in front of Asen. Far more than the disfavor of Emperor Kyou, the thought of Asen’s scorn weighed many times heavier on his mind. In the end, Gyousou refused the orders. Bearing the blame himself, he resigned, relinquished his listing in the Registry of Wizards, and left Kouki.
He didn’t know what to do next. His sense of self-respect wouldn’t allow him to stay in Tai, so he left the kingdom. To his surprise, Ganchou also resigned his position, left government service, and accompanied him. He could hardly allow Gyousou to sally off on his own, Ganchou said.
At first, they considered a tour of the kingdoms. Gyousou had a particular interest in En and Sou. However, on their way to Sou, they encountered a group from the Kingdom of Sai heading to the Yellow Sea on the Shouzan. Though it didn’t involve Gyousou and Ganchou in the slightest, they were curious to find out more about the Yellow Sea.
Some of the participants didn’t know their way around a sword or how to defend themselves. Gyousou and Ganchou decided to tag along and see the Yellow Sea for themselves. Making inquiries about anyone who might need a bodyguard, they happened across a rugged bunch who happened to specialize in the bodyguard business. In the process, they met more shushi.
The shushi hunted youjuu in the Yellow Sea. Traveling through the Yellow Sea looking for potential kijuu struck them as more interesting than the Shouzan for another kingdom. Then came rumors that an emperor had emerged in the first group and numbers in the current group dropped off substantially.
This development also made following the shushi a more attractive option than teaming up with the bodyguards. Gyousou and Ganchou decided instead to apprentice himself to the shushi, capture his own kijuu, tame and train it.
Of course, saying as much didn’t make it so. To start with, he and Ganchou were told to enter the Yellow Sea with the bodyguards so they could experience the situation for themselves. Rather than following those going on the Shouzan, they would then accompany the bodyguards who scouted ahead and cleared the trail.
Only after they committed themselves to that course of action, established their bona fides with the bodyguards and proved their mettle, did the shushi take them on as apprentices.
First off, together with Ganchou, Gyousou hunted down mostly harmless youjuu that resembled dogs. But they did a right fine job of it and were soon equaling the work of the shushi and even outdoing them on occasion.
After three years, the last hunt they took part in was for a suugu.
Gyousou wanted a suugu for himself. Even after returning to the Imperial Court, he traveled to the Yellow Sea whenever he could find the time. He finally came away with Keitou.
Keitou was a white suugu. Suugu were mostly white or mostly black. The latter was far rarer than the former. The suugu he’d found on Kan’you Mountain was mostly black.
The suugu’s mane made him think of Taiki, the black kirin who ran after him as he descended the mountain.
What a stroke of luck, encountering a black suugu in a place like this.
He could almost believe someone sent it here with instructions to get captured, tamed, and trained.
Fortunately, this suugu he’d met in the depths of the earth appeared to have emerged from hibernation in a haze. Having been asleep around the clock, it showed no signs of attacking Gyousou. When he drew closer, the suugu opened its eyes and flashed a menacing mien. But when Gyousou withdrew, the suugu didn’t give chase and seemed content to stay where it was.
If he strayed too close, it most definitely snapped at him. He had to get the creature in restraints before it fully awakened.
He had the rope, hooks, and gemstones—everything he needed but a clapper. Hung from ropes at strategic points, the clappers detected the movements of a suugu hiding out of sight. In the Yellow Sea, they’d used rattler geodes. Too loud and they’d unnecessarily provoke the suugu. Too quiet and they wouldn’t be any better than nothing.
Gyousou needed something small but with a sound that traveled well. He thought about making something out of the gemstones, but trying to shape small stones only resulted in splitting them apart. He simply didn’t have the tools necessary. Using the reshaped nails and sand as grit, he could drill a hole in a rock, except that would take too much time.
On the other hand, big rocks didn’t produce a sound with the right timber or respond with the right sensitivity. Wracking his brains, a thought struck him. One of the baskets that had washed ashore in the cave contained a girl’s otedama. Three of them. He recalled the chiming sound when he picked them up, suggesting that each had a small bell attached.
He proceeded at once to the storage area he’d set aside with great reverence to preserve the offerings and searched for the beanbags. A close examination of the threadbare otedama revealed a bell attached to either end of the seed-filled pouches. From his memory of retrieving the basket, he’d been certain that each otedama had only one bell.
One bell each wouldn’t have been enough. For whatever reason, the whimsy of the girl who made them, she’d attached two. Here was another stroke of good luck. He needed at least five.
I guess Heaven is still smiling upon me.
By now, Gyousou had to believe that someone was arranging these little miracles on his behalf.
The key to catching a suugu was to get it mad without enraging it. Just mad enough for it to give chase so it could be lured into a trap. While the hunter lurked in the shadows, the suugu would simply stay put unless properly provoked. But overexcite the creature and get it really angry and the trap would prove useless.
The suugu knew where the hunter was hiding. Once it got its back up, it’d make menacing moves while closing the distance between them. If driven into a fury, a suugu didn’t bother intimidating its foes and instead attacked in a single bound. There wouldn’t be enough time to close the net.
In the Yellow Sea, they tracked down suugu dens and animal trails. A suugu had a keen sense of its territorial boundaries. Trespassing them was bound to attract its attention. Laying a trap within its territory was sure to get it riled up. Catching the slightest scent of an uninvited third party put a suugu on guard. Lingering there annoyed it all the more.
That’s when it crept closer, intending to drive the intruder from its territory. At this point, the trap had to be already laid out. Once the suugu took notice, the trap had to be ready to go as soon as it resolved to drive the interloper away. There was no room for mistakes or delays. One chance to get it right.
If the hunter wasn’t ready to spring the trap, the suugu would charge ahead without mercy. Just in case, it was a good idea to have a handful of gemstones to placate the beast, but there was no guarantee they would do the trick. So fight the attacking suugu to the death or freeze up and then run.
This latter option was a last resort. A hunter in such dire straits who managed to escape wouldn’t get anywhere close to that suugu’s territory again, especially if wounded in any way. The suugu was a smart creature. It remembered a foe with all five senses, starting with its scent. As soon as it caught wind of a returning threat, it would attack at a run.
Discovering the den of a suugu made the job much easier but this was rare. The more reliable approach was to set a trap along the animal trails, but not without a good grasp of the suugu’s whereabouts. Lurking nearby in a blind hoping to ambush the animal when it showed up rarely yielded results.
The trap was laid only after confirming that a suugu was in the vicinity and then determining its actual location. If the suugu was a long way off, there’d be plenty of time to get everything set up right. But in the meantime, there was a good possibility the suugu would grow wary and take off in different direction.
Get close enough to honestly annoy it and there were good odds the trap wouldn’t be ready soon enough. If a hunter found a den and set up the snare right outside it, the suugu could be lured in with little trouble. But the trails were a different story. There was no telling what approach it would take. Read its movement wrong and the encounter might end on a tragic note.
Fortunately, Gyousou had discovered this suugu in what more or less passed for its den. Even so, he had only one chance to spring the trap as fast as he could. There was no margin for error.
While arranging the ropes and hooks, Gyousou stepped through the process and practiced the moves he had to make over and over. He couldn’t help thinking back to the last time he had laid such a trap in the Yellow Sea. At the time, Taiki was with him.
An intense curiosity shone in the boy’s eyes as Gyousou showed him how to prepare the snare.
In fact, at that time, Gyousou hadn’t discovered evidence of a suugu in the area and wasn’t trying to catch one along the animal trails. Rather, having captured Keitou in the vicinity, he had good grounds for concluding this was a suugu habitat. He didn’t think waiting there for one to come along would yield results, but that didn’t rule out setting up the trap just in case.
There was always the rare success story. In the unlikely event they did succeed, Gyousou scattered gemstones around to calm down the suugu and keep Taiki out of harm’s way. Taiki apparently thought they were there to lure in the suugu like a trail of breadcrumbs, but that wasn’t the case. The blind was quite a distance further away than normal from the trap.
Taiki said he wanted to see for himself, so Gyousou brought him along. He was equally interested in showing Taiki what capturing a kijuu involved, and wanted Taiki to know about the people who specialized in wrangling kijuu, such as the shushi. Many shushi had ended up as refugees due to the devastation of a kingdom, and Gyousou hoped he’d come away with at least a grasp of that reality beyond the simple abstract knowledge.
Thinking back about it now, Gyousou had to smile and shake his head. The events that would unfold as a result had been well beyond his wildest imagination.
How was Taiki faring now? Gyousou was still alive, so he could say for certain was that Taiki hadn’t been killed. Given that no one had come galloping to his rescue, at the bare minimum, he must have been captured or detained. How was he being treated? Gyousou could only hope he had not up in similarly wretched conditions.
Whenever he pondered such things, the image of the child rose up in his thoughts. Except many years had passed. Taiki must have grown a good deal. It was quite possible that he was an adult—an adult kirin. What manner of young man had he become?
The wizardesses on Mount Hou said the people of Tai were hot-blooded. A nice way of saying they were a violent bunch, which was not necessarily wrong. Without that stubborn contrariness at the core, they’d never hold up through the long winters and the fierce cold and prevail against the worst odds without giving up. That’s what living in this kingdom required.
The reasons so many entered the priesthood, joined the land gangs, and became marauders and mercenaries were not unrelated to that innate temperament. Gyousou believed that to persist, to endure, and to act with undiminished resolve was an inherent trait of Tai itself.
The young kirin was said to be the exact opposite. Gyousou wasn’t convinced, but he understood why people came to that conclusion. What kind of adult had the child become? Despite his best efforts, he had a hard time picturing him now.
Only that he is likely the furthest thing from safe and sound.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to help.”