1-6 Shushou pouted, “That’s what the shallow wisdom of a child will get you.”
Thanks to Rikou’s help, they were in the dining hall of the inn. Shushou cradled the teacup in both hands, taking the chill out of her numb hands. She took a long breath and let it out.
“Aw, you didn’t do half bad,” Rikou said with a smile. “I’ve seen worse.” He was seated across the table from her, warming his insides with a tankard of ale.
“You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I meant to do a lot better by myself. It’s just so irritating.”
“That moukyoku is a big part of the problem.”
“I couldn’t possibly make it to Ken without Hakuto. But wearing the kinds of outfits that the owner of a moukyoku should wear, I’d make myself a target for every highwayman along the way.”
Raising the tankard to his mouth, Rikou paused. “So you are really going to Ken?”
“Where do you call home?”
“Renshou. I wasn’t about to walk all the way from Renshou to Ken. Besides, I’m in a hurry.”
“You have parents, I assume? And you left against their express wishes to the contrary?”
“They certainly did not expressly wish me not to. My going to Ken is hardly the kind of thing they’d be likely to overlook.” She stopped and looked up at Rikou and said, “Well, ah, no. That’s not exactly true. Forget I said it.”
Rikou smiled. “Too late. I’ve heard enough already. Don’t worry. I’m not about to turn you into the authorities. Were you a lost child, though, that’d be another story.”
Shushou sighed. “I know enough to stay on my toes. But you struck me as a goodhearted person, so I wasn’t watching my tongue.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Rikou chuckled. “So I assume you left without telling anybody?”
“Yeah. I ran away from home.”
“My, my. Now things are getting serious. And all the way to Ken? What business do you have there?”
“The Reiken Gate is there. I am going to Mt. Hou. Which isn’t to say that I know anybody who lives on Mt. Hou.”
The smile vanished from Rikou’s face. He blinked. “Young lady, are you going on the Shouzan?”
“Any reason why I shouldn’t?”
For a long moment, Rikou stared intently at Shushou’s face. Feeling a touch of self-consciousness, she met the look with upturned eyes.
“No reason.” Rikou nodded. “No reason at all. However, it’s still a long ways from here to Ken. I came from the south. Things are even more chaotic down there than they are here. Finding a place to bed down at night will become increasingly difficult.”
“Oh.” Shushou bit her lip. She didn’t like admitting it to herself but it’d been naive of her to think that a moukyoku alone would spare her most of the hardship on this journey.
“That’s right. You need to have something in writing: The child bearing this letter has been entrusted with a kijuu. Please accommodate her in any way you can. Something like that. Get it stamped with an official seal and nobody will give it a second look. Because no matter how you dress it up, a young girl traveling alone with a kijuu is an odd sight.”
Shushou’s eyes opened a bit wider. “Can you help me out?”
“Do you understand what kind of journey you have ahead of you before you get to Mt. Hou?”
“I understand. It’s dangerous, right?”
“Sure is.” Rikou nodded and smiled again. “As long as you understand that much, then sure, why not?
The next morning, Rikou had a letter of introduction notarized by the local representative of the Ministry of Fall. Shushou wasn’t familiar with the precise process, as the government building wasn’t the kind of place where a girl her age could just wander around. So she stayed outside with Hakuto and Rikou’s suugu.
“Think this will do?”
The substance of the certificate Rikou presented to her reflected their conversation the night before. The notary’s name and affixed seal turned it into an imposing-looking document.
“Thank you,” she said, though not without a moment of hesitation.
“Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, but—”
Her father was identified as the owner of the kijuu and Shushou as the courier. She couldn’t have Rikou’s name on the document and risk him later showing up to claim Hakuto, though she didn’t believe Rikou was the kind of person who would do such a thing. Had her father’s name been written using the characters by which he was commonly known, there was no telling where in the Sou business empire it might come to light. Using his formal given name, though, that was much less of a concern.
In any case, Shushou still couldn’t imagine how a traveler like Rikou had managed to secure an official seal.
“Where are you from?” she asked him.
“A long ways away.”
“How long a ways?”
“Sou. Do you know where Sou is?”
“Sure. It’s a kingdom in the south. Pretty famous, isn’t it?”
The Kingdom of Sou was known for its long-lived dynasty and its wealth. Rikou definitely did not hail from around here.
The Ministry of Fall not only prosecuted lawbreakers, but notarized contracts and other important documents, and publically certified that official papers were authentic and in proper order. Shushou had learned this at the prefectural academy. Now she had to wonder how trustworthy a document bearing the seal of the Ministry of Fall really was.
Considering the nature of the thing, she couldn’t imagine that a government clerk would stamp any odd piece of paper presented to him. At the very least, the bearer would have to establish his bona fides. Because Rikou was a traveler, that would mean his passport. On top of that, the document didn’t even have Rikou’s name on it.
“What?” he asked.
“Oh, I was just wondering how you got the seal of the Ministry of Fall on that certificate.”
“Ah.” Rikou smiled. “That is because I am a much better teller of tall tales than you, young lady.”
“And have you been telling them to me?”
“Not to you,” Rikou said with a broad smile. He took up the reins of the suugu. “A little of touch of this and a little touch of that. There’s a way to getting these things done, you know.”
Shushou reached into the pocket of her kimono. “How much?”
“How much what?” Rikou blinked.
“That what it came down to, didn’t it? I’ll cover whatever it cost you. How much did the clerk take you for?”
“Where would a nice girl like you learn something like that?”
“I’m the daughter of a merchant. It comes with the territory.”
Rikou laughed and patted Shushou on the arm. “I’m afraid you didn’t catch my drift.”
Rikou crouched down in front of her. “The shops will all be opening pretty soon, right?”
“Yes. That’s true.”
“And all the merchants and shopkeepers are going to show up with any paperwork they need to get done. First thing in the morning, the Ministry of Fall will be swamped.”
“Oh. I suppose so.”
“Amidst the confusion, a man comes running in with the story of an unfortunate lass who’d lost her father a few towns over.”
“You mean, me?”
“That’d be you. The dead man worked for his brother. He was delivering a kijuu with his daughter. Alas, they were attacked by highwaymen along the way, and he died protecting his dear daughter. The tough-minded girl managed to get away. Having a strong sense of responsibility, rather than mourn his passing, she felt compelled to complete the job her father had undertaken. She continued on the journey, her sad tears freezing on her cheeks in this frigid winter weather. Unfortunately, the burden of the kijuu now prevents her from securing lodgings—”
“Um—” said Shushou, tugging at his sleeve.
Caught up in his own story, Rikou continued: “What a brave young woman! Don’t you think? Such are the times we live in. Regardless of who was working for whom, they were, first and foremost, brothers. What a cruel man this uncle of hers must be!”
“That’s what you said?”
“The clerk knows when the shops are going to open. So he’ll want to take care of any business before him as soon as possible. And here is this man going on and on, burdening him with the sad tale of an unfortunate girl.”
“And trying his patience.”
Rikou laughed heartily. “There are times when the best recourse is to tell the biggest whale of a lie you can imagine.”
“This is all very instructive.” Shushou shrugged and looked up at him. “Do you mind my asking why you’re doing all this for me?”
Rikou stood and again took hold of the suugu’s reins. “I’ll take a pass on that, if you don’t mind. I haven’t asked you why you’re going on the Shouzan, have I?
“I don’t mind. It’s all the same to me. Because no worthy person has yet stepped forth.”
“Really? Well, take care of yourself.”
“I should be all right, thanks to you.”
“Getting to Ken is one thing. After that is when your true character must rise to the fore.”
“Oh, um, thanks.”
Rikou smiled and urged on the suugu. Shushou watched as the two of them disappeared into the distance.