hushou grumbled aloud, “To start with, he kept insisting that I just wouldn’t understand. I can’t stand being treated like a little idiot.”
Kiwa responded with an exaggerated nod. “That certainly is an unbecoming attitude. You are anything but an ordinary child, Shushou. Ordinary children certainly do not go on the Shouzan.”
“Well, that’s corpse hunters for you. In a word, cynics. They claim to be koushu as their birthright but some of them were born in Kyou. You never hear about them going on the Shouzan. For that matter, I’ve never heard of a koushu becoming emperor, either.”
“Koushu are raised in the Yellow Sea since they’re children, so they’re not going to understand how the outside world works. And I’m not a koushu. It goes both ways, though. A koushu won’t understand what it means to grow up as a merchant’s daughter either. And yet they go on like they know everything. They’re all Miss this and Miss that. Not like they mean it. I can hear the scorn in their voices. But if they’re going to insist that only koushu can understand koushu, then I will insist that they can’t understand me unless they were born into the household of a wealthy merchant.”
“You’re exactly right. It’s a small man who cannot grasp the needs of others.” Kiwa looked around. “How in the world could people on foot transport all of this? Don’t you think so, Shushou?”
Shushou agreed and similarly examined her immediate environment. The wagon was piled high with luggage. Kiwa sat solidly on a thick mat slung between the boxes. Because of the poor state of the road, the ride was anything but comfortable.
“It would be quite impossible for your people to carry all of this.” All of this came to a horse-drawn wagon and three handcarts.
Shushou nodded, but felt an uneasy qualm in her heart. She said, glancing at Kiwa, “You are carrying a lot of supplies. Why do you need so much?”
Kiwa smiled. “I am a man who prefers to travel with a generous entourage. Simply feeding them takes an equally generous amount of food. I ask you, how could we otherwise carry the necessary water and food to cover an unknown distance taking several days?”
Food for forty-plus people would indeed add up. But Shushou cocked her head to the side and asked, “Couldn’t the members of your retinue each carry their own provisions?”
Kiwa waved his hand as if the subject was hardly worth discussing. “Perhaps if we knew how long it was going to take. To start with, we’re hauling our water in barrels, not the kind of thing a man could easily bear on his own. Even divvied up, there’d be no way to carry individual portions.”
“Yeah,” Shushou mumbled. She looked over her shoulder. The curtains of the covered wagon were drawn back. She could see his men behind the wagon earnestly pushing and pulling the handcarts, packs strapped to their backs.
“What’s the matter, Shushou? You seem unsettled. Are you afraid?”
“Well, I don’t feel that way,” Shushou prevaricated. “It’s hard to say sometimes, you know?”
There were youma around and they were headed straight toward a nest of them. She had good cause to feel uneasy. If that was fear then she was afraid. But having chosen this course over the disagreeableness of putting up with Gankyuu, she wasn’t eager to voice such complaints.
What weighed more on her mind at the moment was traveling in a wagon. She’d been on foot since entering the Yellow Sea, gathering up firewood along the way and filling her canteen from springs. Traveling seated didn’t sit well with her.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Shushou. Those trees indicating the presence of youma were cut down at the beginning of last winter, weren’t they? Youma have to eat. With the road blocked, nobody would be passing their way. They’d surely go elsewhere for food.”
“Well, yes, that’s probably the case.”
“Of course it is,” Kiwa proudly declared with a smile. “After spending this much time in the Yellow Sea, even amateurs can learn a thing or two. I’m not one to look down my nose at the accomplishments of others. That’s where Chodai and I differ. I’ve been watching what the goushi do, you see. But I couldn’t possible discard my wagon. It contains too many things a man like me can’t go without.”
Like your luggage, Shushou thought, while nodding in wan agreement. “But doesn’t the problem come down to taking a full ration of water with you? What if, for the time being, you carried what you could and did you best to make it last?”
“Not knowing whether there will be potable water waiting for us ahead?”
“That’s true, except that Gankyuu and the koushu each carry a single canteen. If the koushu can make it work, surely you and your men could get by each carrying his own rations?”
Kiwa waved his hand. “I’m afraid there’s where you can’t lump me in with the koushu. The koushu have those stones that purify undrinkable water.”
“Ah, yes. Now that you mention it.”
“I had no idea such things existed. So, of course, we have none of our own. That’s why we have to carry so much more water than the koushu.” As if those same koushu were still around, Kiwa lowered his voice to a whisper. “You hear about what happened back there?”
“At the lake where you couldn’t drink the water.”
Shushou felt a chill down her spine. “Um, well—”
“The water in the stream flowing from there to the marsh is undrinkable too.”
“Stands to reason. It flows down from the lake.”
“And that’s why it you can’t drink it. But not everybody travels with a full supply of water like me.”
“The goushi put the rocks into that water and make it potable. The kind of thing anybody here would want, don’t you think?”
“I would think so.”
“I heard that those short on water went asking for some and got turned down point-blank. What could they do? Once they ran out of water they could drink, they’d have no choice but to drink the water they couldn’t.”
“And did they?”
“No, no.” Kiwa shook his head. “They went back to the goushi and begged for some stones. The goushi wouldn’t budge an inch. So they found themselves at the end of their rope.”
“Are you telling me they tried to steal them?”
“Well, tried. Rather pathetically. Personally, I wouldn’t have had it in me to take them to task. Without anything to drink, they were going to die of thirst. At any rate, I heard there was hell to pay when they were found out.”
“It turned into a brawl. That was after leaving the marsh, wasn’t it?” She was pretty sure she’d caught sight of the scene.
“That it was. The goushi ganged up for a few rounds of punching and kicking, but let them off with the warning that under any other circumstances, they would have tossed them into a youma nest. Seeing as they were right back where they started, I shared some of my supplies.”
“A sad tale, don’t you think? When you come across people in dire circumstances, it’s only natural to lend a hand, isn’t it? Doing nothing when people are at their wit’s end and settling the matter with violence? I felt it was about time I parted way with the goushi. This was a opportunity worth taking advantage of.”
“I suppose so.”
Kiwa was certainly correct. If the koushu weren’t thirsty, it didn’t matter to them how much anybody might want a drink. That’s what it came down to.
But she also knew about the “jug stones” Kiwa had mentioned. Gankyuu kept a number of them in a small satchel. The stones, however, did not last forever. A stone could be used only one time. They started out white, then turned a pale black or green color.
“Those goushi, they’re hard nuts to crack.”
Shushou said, “The goushi don’t have an unlimited numbers of those stones, you know.” When Kiwa bridled she quickly added, “It’s not like I’m covering for them or anything. But they probably only carry enough stones for themselves. They have to calculate how long it will take to get to Mt. Hou, the distances involved, and prepare the number of stones they’ll need along the way. Handing them out would put them in a fix. Because of the stones, they don’t bring extra water with them.”
“And when a thirsting man appears in front of you?”
“I’m not denying it, but the goushi don’t have enough to share with everybody. Gankyuu is ever mindful of the rainfall, so I have to believe he’s cutting it fine. It’s easy being charitable with the people right in front of you, except won’t everybody start asking for a handout then? There’s no way everybody can have one. In the first place, they only work once. What happens when people come back for more? In which case, there’d soon be no stones left for anyone.”
“In other words, anticipating your own need for water in the future, you should cast aside those in dire need now?”
“Yes, it could turn out that way. But however terrible it may be turning away those in need, would it really be any different knowing they’d be coming back to you in the future in the same straits? Goushi are responsible for more than their own lives. They are entrusted with those of their employer. Making a show of such sympathies now when it will condemn their employer to a gruesome death later would be turning their priorities upside down.”
“Ah. So as long as their employer stays safe and they collect the balance of their fees, they shouldn’t worry their little heads about what it took to get them.”
“I didn’t mean that. Oh, I don’t know. I can’t explain what I mean.” Shushou sighed and looked away.
Kiwa smiled. “I understand that you feel a sense of obligation to the goushi, and hence your impulse to rationalize their behavior.”
“Not my intent.”
Shushou really wasn’t trying to cover for them. The goushi and koushu didn’t want or need anybody making excuses for them. Though it’d be hard to read what she was saying as anything but exactly that.
White sunlight bathed the road ahead. The wagon continued on in a faint cloud of dust. Sweat glistened on the foreheads of the men hauling the handcarts. They were piled with a lot of supplies.
It was three months until the Summer Solstice, the next opportunity to leave the Yellow Sea. If they didn’t want to starve to death in the meantime, they’d need all that food. Thinking about it that way, somebody like Gankyuu must be out of his mind making the round trip on a single kijuu while carrying only what he could.
“But he’s not,” Shushou mumbled to herself.
Gankyuu hadn’t brought along any rice. Shushou would have expected him to pack rice and barley. He hadn’t at all. Only a sack of what looked like flour. It made up the bulk of every main meal. Boiling water added to a half-filled bowl would expand enough to top off three full bowls. The gruel was flavored with locally-found herbs, or shavings from beef jerky, dried shrimp or seaweed or tea.
The equivalent amount of rice, wheat or barley couldn’t be crammed into a space so small. Gankyuu only packed provisions that’d allow them to leave at a moment’s notice. Come to think of it, Rikou carried much the same. How did he know it’d be so necessary?
At any rate, because they traveled so light, they could leave almost at once when youma attacks came.
Kiwa was hauling along an extremely generous amount of supplies. He was a man of considerable weight. Literally. But was that the wisest strategy? Especially with youma ready to pounce on them at any moment.
“Hey, Shitsu-san, don’t you think maybe it’d be a good idea if we went back?” When Kiwa regarded her with a sour expression, she added, “Even discarding most of the luggage, it’d probably be the safest course.”
“Do that, Shushou, and the two of us would have to walk the rest of the way.”
“Most everybody else is already walking. It’s hardly impossible.”
“But not something I could do. Surely you understand that much.”