he morning of the Spring Equinox, the innkeeper saw off the girl and the man she’d hired as her bodyguard, the concern evident on his face.
Gankyuu held the reins of the haku as they walked along the dark streets, swept along by the throngs. He sighed mightily. He had patiently explained during breakfast how crazy an idea this was. Not only did his remonstrations go in one ear and out the other, but Shushou lay her head on the table and took a nap.
He was left with no choice but to resign himself to the situation.
Gankyuu was no stranger to life in the Yellow Sea. Many people were going on the Shouzan and many of them brought along family members and bodyguards and hearty kijuu.
Escorting the girl to Mt. Hou and back again, not straying into dangerous territory in search of kijuu, was hardly impossible. He’d never worked in that capacity before but was familiar with the bodyguards—known in the trade as goushi or “guardians”—who made a living at it, and was friends with several of them. He’d heard his fair share of hard-luck stories. He figured he could weather it well enough.
While she was on Mt. Hou, he could work in a little kijuu hunting on the side. Not bad work for sixty-five ryou, he reminded himself over and over.
The handful of trouble he was stuck with hunched her shoulders against the cold and glanced guilelessly up at him.
“What?” he said.
“What are you wearing that poncho for?”
Instead of answering, Gankyuu clucked to himself. The reason he had the poncho draped over his head like a shawl was to keep from being spotted by his mates. He didn’t want it noised about that he was escorting a child across the Yellow Sea. He’d never hear the end of it.
“Son of a bitch,” he grumbled.
Shushou laughed. “You don’t know when to bow to the inevitable. You need the money, don’t you?”
Damn straight, he said to himself. Gankyuu glanced down at her. She’d removed her two-piece ruqun and replaced it with the humble underjacket he’d scrounged up the night before, and then wrapped her padded kimono around that.
He’d expected her to bitch and moan about taking off the ruqun and sneer at the underjacket even more. But without him pointing out that the long sleeves would be a pain to deal with, she’d agreed to the change without any fuss, thank heaven.
“Where did a girl like you come up with money like that?”
“I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you are implying. I took whatever I could find lying about the house.”
“Including the kijuu. But the kijuu was stolen by a bad-tempered man like you. A sad and sordid tale. And then to have my lodgings practically stolen out from under me. You adults really are a sorry lot.”
Gankyuu couldn’t help thinking that she’d broken even on the stealing business. He said, “A kijuu?”
“Named Hakuto. A moukyoku. Do you know the species?”
Shushou recounted how her moukyoku was stolen as they checked out the street stalls. The stores opened this early for travelers who’d left necessary purchases to the last minute. Although he’d put together provisions for two the night before, Gankyuu scanned the store fronts as well.
“He was tame and well-mannered, fast on his feet, so smart it was like he understood what I was thinking.” Shushou’s lips drew a tightly in frustration and regret.
“I see. That was a bad move on your part, Miss.”
“What do you mean?”
Gankyuu picked out a few dried apricots and tucked them away. He said over his shoulder, “Moukyoku are good around people. Not only yours, the whole species. Moukyoku in the Yellow Sea can be coaxed along with a little bait. They’re three-quarters of the way to becoming kijuu from the start, willing to trust anybody who calls out to them. You can’t hand over the reins of a moukyoku to anybody, especially in a busy city. You have to remain extra wary until you’re safely in a stables with trustworthy guards.”
“Really. Getting out of the saddle was your first mistake. You should count yourself lucky he didn’t haul you off to the constable.”
“If he did that, I would have come out on top. I’ve got the papers to prove it.”
“I bet he did too. As authentic as yours.”
Shushou blinked. “Authentic? How could his be authentic?”
“There are plenty of crafty hunters like them about. They do their hunting in Ken Province, not the Yellow Sea. Because hunters going to the Yellow Sea are bound to have kijuu. They probably had their eyes on you since Rinken. They pick out a kijuu boarding the ship and send a carrier pigeon to North Ken. Something like, There’s a moukyoku headed your way. Their colleagues in North Ken then select the proper certificates from the ones they’ve already got on hand, nab the moukyoku and make off with it. Since they handle a lot of kijuu, they’ve got a certificate for every one they’re bound to encounter.”
Shushou lapsed into a silent sulk.
“They would have secured a theft report from their colleagues in Rinken. They’ve got a whole network dedicated to stealing and selling kijuu. Yours is probably in the Kingdom of Han by now. I wouldn’t count on getting it back.”
“I am going to remember this,” Shushou said under her breath. When Gankyuu looked at her, she said, “When I ascend the throne, I’ll have them all rounded up. I swear, they are going to regret this.”
Gankyuu’s shoulder’s fell in dismay. “Going on the Shouzan isn’t enough? You’re already planning on becoming Empress?”
“What else does one go on the Shouzan for?”
“And you think you’ll be the one chosen?”
“Anything wrong with thinking so?”
“Not at all,” Gankyuu grumbled.
A moukyoku wasn’t a bad kijuu, certainly worth targeting by the criminal element. It’d fetch a fine price. A family that owned one would be well off. Upon a closer look, the kid had a genteel air about her and didn’t shrink from ordering people around. This well-bred girl, treated with kid gloves her whole life and naive to the ways of the world, had let it go to her head and launched herself on the Shouzan. He’d never heard anything like it before. But seeing it for himself, it didn’t strike him as all that strange.
“At least you can be grateful they didn’t rob you of your money as well.”
“That’s why I took off my ruqun when traveling. Dressed like a pauper, nobody would believe a child like me was carrying that much money, right?”
“That’s very clever.”
“It’s common sense.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“Why?” she said, tilting her head up at him.
Gankyuu patted the kijuu. “Couldn’t I just as well take off with all your money here?”
Shushou sighed. “You’re not as smart as you think you are. Your name is Gankyuu. You’re a corpse hunter, well known to that innkeeper. If you ran away, I would report you to the authorities at once. Do you know what province this is?”
“I Province.” Ken County was a detached administrative territory of the capital province.
“That’s right. I am no stranger to the government officials of I Province. Or rather, my father isn’t. In North Ken, I was in a hurry so I gave it a pass. But if I ended up missing the Spring Equinox, you could count on me pursuing every legal option available.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Hells bells, Gankyuu cursed to himself. What a shrewd little kid. “But what if somebody shut your mouth for good? Not a few people enter the Yellow Sea never to be seen or heard from again. I couldn’t carry the body out, Your Honor, and had to leave her there. Hard to made any of those legal options stick in that case.”
Shushou snorted through her nose. “That is not likely to happen either.”
“If I die, then nobody will become Empress. It is unlikely the Gods would let such an injustice pass without a righteous response.”
Gankyuu’s shoulders sagged again. “Look—”
Shushou smiled and held Gankyuu’s hand. “When my moukyoku was stolen, I was afraid I wouldn’t make it in time for the Spring Equinox. But we’ve arrived right on time. Heaven must be smiling down upon us.”
“Sure seems that way.”
“When I become Empress, I am not going to do bad things. You are a lucky man.”
Gankyuu took a deep breath and let it out. Where the hell does such confidence spring from? “Mt. Hou is a long way away.”
“No problem. I knew we’d have a kijuu.”
But yours got stolen, Gankyuu was about to say. Shushou glanced at his haku and said, “I heard you say you’d left a kijuu in the stables. That’s why I hired you.”
Shrewd was right. Even at her age, she was far too scheming to be called precocious. There was no denying the look of resignation in his shoulders as he slumped a bit in his stride. “I’m impressed.”
Shushou patted him on the back. “Compared to me, there’s nothing for you to get discouraged about. Anyway, back home, I’m known as the brightest kid in the neighborhood too.”
Gankyuu didn’t have it in him say yay or nay. His shoulders only slumped further.