4-7 Observing the ragtag company moving along at a determined pace and half-listening to Shoutan chatting cheerfully beside her, Shushou nursed troubled thoughts. If they kept going down the road like this, they were bound to join up with Gankyuu and the rest of the caravan.
And the youma clearly intended to stick with them the whole way.
Except as long as they were on this road, there wasn’t anything else they could do but keep putting one foot ahead of the other. When and where and how they would hunt down the youma was very much up in the air.
Though most in their group weren’t armed, a fair number carried weapons. The typical youma had to stop to eat whatever it attacked. At that moment it could be overwhelmed by a massed assault. This youma, however, appeared in a flash, ravaged one or two, and disappeared just as fast. When it was in a mood to eat, it didn’t lounge around but dragged off its victim. It didn’t leave its enemies any openings.
“What’s on your mind?” Shoutan asked.
Shushou managed a smile. “Since we can’t very well run away, I’ve been thinking about how to hunt down that youma.”
“Hunt that thing?”
“We’ll have to figure out how to get it to stop moving. There doesn’t seem any way to even slow it down.”
“Yeah,” Shoutan mumbled. He said in a louder voice, “Shushou-sama, look.”
A black object squatted on the road ahead of them. Despite the smell of blood in the air, the moonlight was bright enough to tell it wasn’t a youma. A horse-drawn wagon in rather wretched condition had been abandoned there.
“The master’s wagon.”
“So he finally gave up and left it behind.”
The irony of the situation hardly escaped her. Kiwa had expressly come this way so as not to lose his precious wagon. When they drew closer, several people emerged from behind it, riders whose mounts had been killed and more servants cast aside by Kiwa.
“What about Shitsu-san?”
“He got on one of the horses and rode away.”
“Oh. What a dutiful lord of the manor. Well, it’s good to see you folks alive.”
“What should we do?” asked Shoutan.
“There might be useful supplies left in the wagon. Let’s take a look.”
They took a break while Shushou searched the bed of the wagon. She said, “The wagon cover and tents might come in handy as camouflage. During the day, the canvas shouldn’t look much different than big rocks.”
Shoutan nodded. “We could cut them into pieces and hand them out.”
“Let’s do that. Start with the weak and the injured.”
“Understood.” He summoned the others. “Hey—!”
Confirming that Shoutan had relayed these instructions to his companions, Shushou resumed rooting through the supplies.
“The water barrels are here. A few are still intact. Let’s divvy them up. What’s in these smaller kegs?”
“Probably sake and oil.”
“Can’t do better than oil. We can use the alcohol to treat injuries. We need smaller containers, though. Portion it out to people who have something to carry it in.” Shushou moved onto the next item and stopped in surprise. “Silk.”
Shoutan chuckled. “The master brought it to present to the people on Mt. Hou.”
“Amazing. He needed this big wagon to carry all this stuff. Well, that’s the mind of a merchant trader for you.”
They sorted through the dazzling array of exquisite fabrics, flagons and baubles. “Ah, there are some vases here. They look stupidly expensive, but if we cut up this fur coat to use as stoppers, they’ll come in handy.
“Yep,” Shoutan said with another sardonic smile. His master was indeed a fool, making this girl’s determined good intentions no less curious by comparison.
“I wonder what this is?”
A box made of solid oak. The lid was loose. Using one of the trinkets as a lever, she wrenched it open. Seeing what was inside, Shushou suppress a gasp.
“My word!” What in the world was Kiwa thinking? It was a jewelry box crammed with necklaces and ornate hairpins. “What possible good would—”
She was about to cast them aside and abruptly stopped and looked again. Finely wrought gold and silver. And jewels.
Shoutan said softly, “If Shushou-sama wished to take those, I certainly wouldn’t object.”
Shushou shook her head, reflexively grasping at the front of her kimono jacket. “Gather together as many of these as you can find. I don’t care about the gold and silver. Save anything with gems or jewels, no matter how small. Turn the place upside down.”
“Yes. Check those oil and sake flasks too.”
Beneath the jacket she felt the outlines of the talisman and thought back to the shrine next to the Earth Gate. A Kenrou Shinkun talisman, for protection in the Yellow Sea. Kenrou Shinkun, with his armor and his shawl strewn with jewels. She didn’t know whether they’d work on that red monkey but it wouldn’t hurt to try.
“After that, please round up everybody who’s carrying a weapon.”
Shushou stood in front of the assembled group. Moonlight made any passing face appear untrustworthy. With several dozen men gathered together that was not an impression easily brushed off.
“We have here oil and sake that Shitsu-san left behind. And necklaces and hairpins.”
A murmur rustled through the crowd.
“As long as we’re not doing the hunting, we’ll be the ones hunted. Our numbers will continue to fall. Maybe the next victim will be me. If you’re lucky, it won’t be you. But the fewer there are of us, the worse our odds are the next time. Anybody disagree?”
As long as that angel of death was tagging along, Shushou had no intention of rejoining the caravan led by the koushu.
“I’ve heard there’s something inside every youma that’s intoxicated by gems and jewels. I don’t know if it applies to this one. Perhaps not. But we have sake and oil. If jewels don’t work, maybe the alcohol will. The oil could be used in fire arrows.”
Another murmur erupted in her audience.
“The tent poles are made out of bamboo. These could be fashioned into one of those big crossbows used to defend castles.”
“You mean a siege crossbow?”
“Yes, that. Those who don’t have weapons can arm themselves with bamboo spears. We need to consider anything that might be effective against it.”
“This gallant band should be more than enough to do the job.” Shushou forced a smile to her lips. “If we can only arrest its movements, we should be able to kill it.”
The men exchanged nervous glances as Shushou surveyed her troops. “And we’ve got the perfect decoy. Me. Now, you wouldn’t want to see a frail little girl come to a bad end, would you?”