3-2 Youma attacked the campsites on the shores of the lake that very night.
Sensing Rikou and Gankyuu moving about, Shushou awoke from a light sleep. I don’t believe it, she thought. She hadn’t gotten up before the screams filled the air. Sheer amazement overshadowed the cold thrill of fear.
As before, no sooner had the cries turned to exultations but they’d packed their bags, leapt onto the kijuu, and bolted down the hill.
The rest having become accustomed to the routine, the number of people fleeing the campsites had grown with each attack. They quietly ran away, descended the banks and quickly put distance between themselves and the shore.
Around dawn, those riding kijuu slowed their pace so the rest of the caravan could catch up. Having set off at the speed of a galloping horse, the wait gave them a bit of breather.
As he always did, Gankyuu sought out the right place to rest and secure his haku. He glanced over his shoulder. “We’ll take—” a break here, he was going to say, but instead found Shushou standing there glaring daggers at him.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“Let’s go someplace where there aren’t people around.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“No, I want you to come with. I don’t think even you’ll want anybody overhearing what I have to say.”
For a long moment, Gankyuu took in the sight of the enraged young woman standing there in the gray morning light.
He untied the haku—still saddled with the travel packs attached—and climbed on. Then turned to Shushou and extended his hand. She quietly joined him.
“I’ll go too,” Rikou volunteered.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Shushou said.
“Don’t misunderstand. I won’t interrupt. I promise to simply observe without saying a word.”
Without pausing for a yea or nay, Rikou mounted up. Shushou said nothing more. Gankyuu didn’t object either and urged the haku forward. The haku picked its way through the maze of fallen trees. A minute later, they reach a small hill overlooking the rest of the caravan, that had stopped halfway down the slope.
At the crest of the gently rising knoll was a overgrown grove of still-standing, still-green trees, old branches piled up around their trunks. Gankyuu stopped behind the grove. Rikou brought the suugu to a halt a few yards off. He sat on a fallen tree. The resting caravan was visible through the branches of the thick undergrowth.
Gankyuu sat down in the hollow formed by the dead tree. Shushou stood in front of him. With a glance at Rikou, Shushou drew in a deep breath and returned her gaze to Gankyuu, sitting there on a moss-covered stump.
“What were you and Kinhaku talking about last night?”
Opening the mouth of the leather satchel he was carrying, Gankyuu responded to the pointed question with a wan smile. “You made a point of calling me out about that? I’m sure you heard what we were talking about.”
“You were discussing how you’d like youma to show up.”
“Indeed we did,” said Gankyuu. He upended the satchel in front of the haku. A part of a feathered wing rolled onto the ground with a dull thud.
“Hold on. What’s that?”
“That is a piece of a youma.”
“What are you doing with it!”
Gankyuu looked back at her, the expression his face telling her that was a stupid question. As if waiting for a treat, the haku buried its snout in the carcass.
“The haku’s eating it? A youma?”
Gankyuu shrugged. “Kijuu don’t mind the flavor.” He sliced off a chunk of the wing with his sword and heaved it into the air. It traced a long arc and landed in front of Seisai.
Watching the kijuu eagerly devour it, Shushou shuddered. “Don’t make them eat weird stuff like that.”
“Even a kijuu will waste away if not fed regularly. Haku are omnivores. Suugu can get by on an agate diet, but they need meat. Their bodies won’t function properly without it.”
Shushou grimaced. She looked back and forth from the haku to the suugu, and with a single shake of her head turned her attention to Gankyuu.
“You hoped that youma would show up. And youma showed up. What is going on?”
“What’s going on is we got lucky,” Gankyuu said, wiping off the sword with a handful of grass.
Shushou balled her hands into fists. “You expect me to believe that was mere chance?”
“Well, it was, so what do you want me to say?”
“You’re lying. I don’t believe in coincidences, and certainly not when it comes to coincidences like that. Last night, you and Kinhaku were wishing for an attack. There’s no other way to interpret it. And an attack happened. An attack happened and people died—”
“You don’t know that anybody died.”
“That’s not the issue!” Shushou’s voice grew louder. “Why were you wishing for a youma attack? You hoped for them to show up, and they showed up. What’s that all about?”
Oh, good grief, Gankyuu’s sigh said. “I also said you were smart enough to be a little handful of trouble and a big pain in the ass.”
“Answer my question!” the girl looked up at him, all but ready to stamp her feet.
“Yeah, I wanted the youma to attack. The next three days down the slope from that lake will be dangerous going.”
“You’re telling me you wanted the scent of blood in the air?”
“That’s right. The next three days will be bad enough. This takes at least one worry off the table.”
Shushou fixed her eyes on him. “So you summoned them?”
Gankyuu shrugged. “Who knows? Kinhaku hoped they would show up, and I agreed. That’s all we did.”
“Then I’ll ask it a different way: are there ways of summoning youma?”
“There are. Sacrificing a goat or horse or bird usually does it. But I’d hardly call that summoning them.”
“You—you beast!” Letting her anger get the better of her, Shushou flung out her arms in a rage.
Gankyuu seized them easily. “I’ll tell you this. You hired me, and told me to take you to Mt. Hou.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You being the one who hired me, and I being the one hired to protect you, the end result is no different than you protecting yourself.”
Shushou gaped at him. “You must be joking!”
“Why? It is what it is. We’re not here on my account, but yours. Try exercising that imaginative mind of yours before you go shooting off your mouth.”
“I didn’t—” Shushou wrenched her body, but couldn’t tear her wrist free of Gankyuu’s firm grasp. “Nobody here told you to do awful things like that!”
“That’s what asking for safe passage means. A goushi protecting the person who commissioned him has to make maximum use of every resource, person or thing, at his disposal. There are no exceptions. None.”
“That can’t be—”
Gankyuu released his hold. Abruptly finding herself yanking against nothing, Shushou fell on her behind. However she wanted to jump to her feet and fling herself at him, she didn’t have the strength left in her legs.
“I never expected such despicable means.”
“You think that is despicable? You are naive.”
Gankyuu glanced up at Rikou, sitting on the broad bench of the fallen tree, arms folded across his chest, silently looking down at Gankyuu.
“The Yellow Sea is not a place where humans should be. Setting foot here was madness in the first place. You think killing every youma would be the end of it? That’s the joke. Take that approach and your bodyguard, meaning me, would be dead on his feet in no time. Forget about me, there are youma out there that an armed regiment of twenty-five hundred men couldn’t handle. And yet you tell me to put my own life on the line and protect you. Failing that, are you going to use me as a shield while you scamper to safety?”
Shushou was at a loss for words.
“Do you think that with a bodyguard close at hand, the youma will just give you a pass? That’s the kind of thinking that makes you a troublesome brat. This is youma territory. We’re the ones who crossed the line onto their turf. They’re going to come at us, no matter what. It’s a month and a half to Mt. Hou. Did you think you’d be so lucky that none of them would run into you? How long did it take you to get here from Kyou? Was it smooth sailing the whole way?”
“You couldn’t get here from Kyou without having your kijuu stolen out from under you. Did you think there was no risk of having your life stolen out from under you after traveling for a month and a half in the Yellow Sea?”
“How is using me as a shield any different from using them for the same ends? The moment you put your trust in others and stepped foot into the Yellow Sea, you chose to sacrifice them to ensure the safety of the journey for yourself.”
“No! I didn’t!”
“Unfortunately, safety and security come a bigger cost than money alone. Why do those going on the Shouzan travel in groups? A big crowd makes it dead simple for youma to sniff us out. They can spot us coming a mile away. And yet, instead of standing alone in a field, we’d rather be one among many. Why?”
“Because your best odds of getting away are while the guy next to you is getting attacked.”
Shushou bit her lip. It was the bitter truth.
“Not only people, but all living things that are powerless by themselves form groups and herds and schools. By dividing the risk among all of them, they ensure the greatest safety for the greatest number.”
“This is a grotesque conversation.”
“Grotesque? Don’t pretend to be stupid. There’s nothing grotesque about it. It is natural providence.”
Providence, Shushou repeated to herself.
“By gathering ourselves together while traveling in the Yellow Sea, the risks are suffered by only a few of the total number. I could hardly guide five-hundred to Mt. Hou. Do you think a dozen goushi could do the job? All I can do is protect the person who hired me. As long as my employer remains unharmed, I have done my job. If some other poor chap dies, and his blood draws the youma away from me and mine, then I can only be grateful.”
Shushou hugged her arms around her knees and hung her head. Gankyuu sighed. He looked up at Rikou sitting on the tree. He didn’t say anything. Rikou didn’t say anything, except for a nod. The setting moon floating eerily behind Rikou cast his countenance into shadow, masking his expression.
“It’s okay. I know how naive I am.”
“Why did you come to the Yellow Sea?”
Shushou raised her head. She couldn’t see Rikou’s face, but from his tone of voice she could at least surmise he wasn’t smiling.
“Have you forgotten why you are going to Mt. Hou?”
“I haven’t forgotten. That’s why—”
“In order for a dynasty to endure, to ensure public peace and order throughout the realm, a ruler must require that blood be shed. Even if the ruler does not shed that blood himself, when his subordinates do so on his behalf, the responsibility falls upon his shoulders. No matter how you define it, there never was such a thing as a bloodless reign.”
Shushou looked back at him.
“You will shed the blood of others for your own good. That’s what it means to sit upon the throne.”
“I—” Shushou started to say. She cast her down her eyes. “Yes. Yes, that is probably quite true.”