1-2 Shushou’s house was located in the northern outskirts of Renshou, a stone’s throw from the prefectural academy.
Renshou sat at the foot of Mt. Ryou’un, facing north along its rising slopes. Ascending the angled streets to a quiet neighborhood lined with monasteries and shrines, then following the city walls surrounding the city higher until obstructed by the northern barrier wall, a magnificent, multistoried gate came into view.
The gate was two stories tall, the buildings to the left and right three. Further inside, the expansive roofs of the main wing of the house became visible, the tiles finished in bright green enamel. Multicolored ornamentation decorated the ridges of the roofs and hung from the eaves.
The loop road was slightly wider in front of the main gate. A large privacy wall stood in front of the gate, carved with bas-relief symbols petitioning for divine protection. Finely engraved tracery windows were set into the fence on either side of the wall, through which the branches of a stately arbor could be seen.
There was probably not a finer manor house in all of Renshou. The house was owned by a man named Sou. Because of the renown gardens covering the hillside, the estate came to be known as Sou Park or Sou Gardens.
Shushou was born there. Her formal given name was Sai. Her father’s name was Sou Joshou, though he also went by “Sou Banko,” a name that meant there wasn’t a business he would not engage in.
Starting out in the forestry business common throughout Kyou, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to earn a reputation as a merchant of considerable means in Renshou.
It was said in Renshou that one could only hope in vain to exceed the riches and honors of Banko. Because greater riches and honors simply did not exist. That did not extend only to his material blessings. Hajou, his wife, was known for her wisdom. He had three sons and three daughters who each possessed a strength of character to match their brilliant business sense.
And a much younger daughter.
Joshou ran as tight a ship inside the home as outside it. The large staff of servants revered him. So with good reason was it was that one could only hope in vain to exceed the wealth and honor of Joshou.
All the windows and openings in the gate towers, the physical symbols of that wealth, were covered with delicately-shaped iron latticework. Passing through the gate Shushou shook her head and murmured to herself, “Bloody fools.”
They could build the strongest buildings in the world, surround themselves with the most devoted bodyguards, and the breath of one hippou—a winged, fire-breathing youma—would reduce the place to cinders. When it came to droughts and floods, cold waves and typhoons, all of Banko’s wealth couldn’t begin to combat the damage wreaked by youma and natural disasters.
“Hoh, I can’t let myself be called a fool without comment.”
Shushou raised her head to the unexpected interjection. Seeing the figure standing there in the courtyard, her bodyguards all kowtowed at once. Everyone in Renshou knew the face of this genial, middle-age man: Joshou.
“My youngest daughter needs to watch her tongue.”
Joshou smiled and gave her a hug. “Word came that there was a mushi outbreak near the prefectural academy. I was about to hurry to meet you, and here I run into Shushou cursing to high heavens.”
Shushou acquiesced with a meek shrug, making Joshou smile again. He turned to the bodyguards and thanked them for their efforts. “It looks like you dealt with those mushi. Good work.”
The bodyguards bowed their heads to the cool ground of the courtyard.
“That settles it, Shushou. I’m pulling you out of the academy. It’s not only your well being that I’m concerned about, but that of your bodyguards as well.”
“You don’t need to worry about it. The academy closed on its own.”
Shushou strode to the inner gate. Waiting for her bodyguards had chilled her thoroughly. The walk from the academy to her house had done little to warm her up.
“Yeah. The headmaster died.”
There was one prefectural academy—also known as a shougaku—in each prefecture. The district academies, or joushou, matriculated the best students from the various shougaku who had received a recommendation from their headmaster. Shushou had been about to receive that recommendation.
She hadn’t had to attend the shougaku. Her father urged her to quite after finishing preparatory school (jogaku). She’d pitched a royal fit, only to see it all come to naught.
Joshou’s eyes widened in surprise. “Haku Sensei?”
“His house was attacked this morning by youma. They say a bafuku ate him.”
“Shushou—” Joshou ran over and knelt down next to her. “This is terrible news!”
“You don’t have to make a big deal over it. This is the second headmaster in a row. When you include the students who’ve died and all their relations, it’s getting to be a pretty run-of-the-mill kind of thing.”
“Don’t talk like that, Shushou.”
“It’s the truth!” She shrugged. “But hardly all that surprising. The headmaster’s house didn’t have bars on the windows.”
Shushou looked across the courtyard. All the windows and doors facing the courtyard were protected by beautifully designed iron latticework. Additional layers of coat of fresh plaster were added to the walls on a daily basis. The doors were reinforced with iron rivets. Watchmen stood guard day and night.
“The father of a boy from a nearby town died. His father traveled a long distance taking orders and delivering barrels. At sundown he hadn’t returned. The concerned neighbors went looking for him, only to discover that the people wintering over in a hamlet three miles away were all dead. They found his head there.”
“But what can you do? The boy didn’t have any bodyguards at his house. In the fall, locusts destroyed the whole crop. If his father didn’t deliver the barrels, they would starve. Payment for an order was found in his mouth. When the youma attacked, he probably worried about dropping it while running away.”
Joshou patted his daughter’s back in a consoling manner. As if escaping that reassuring touch, Shushou set off to the main wing of the house. “I am fine. I’ve gotten used to it, don’t you know. People dying isn’t so frightening anymore. Grandmama died when I was young. It seems foolish to be afraid of anything after that.”
Joshou ran after her and hugged his arms around her shoulders. He all but carried her into the parlor and set her down in a chair. “These are hard times.”
“That’s what everybody says.”
“I understand the pain you must see in the people and the world around you. But you mustn’t allow thoughts of resignation to take hold of your mind.”
“I am hardly resigning myself.”
Shushou looked up at her father. “Aren’t you going on the Shouzan?”
Joshou’s eyes opened a bit wider. “The Shouzan?”
“These are hard times because an emperor does not sit upon the throne. If you became the emperor, that would solve the problem, wouldn’t it?”
Stroking his daughter’s hair, Joshou shook his head and said with a sad smile, “Blessed though I may be, Shushou, I am nothing but an ordinary merchant.”