6-3 Shushou posed the question to herself over and over: You can’t possibly be— She couldn’t bring herself to say the words aloud.
Gankyuu rode on the haku. The boy walked alongside him holding the reins. Shushou reached out and hesitantly took his free hand. He only glanced over his shoulder, didn’t shake her off, but clasped her hand with his, a warm and gentle grip.
He looked like an ordinary young man, though the way he carried himself hinted of the warrior within. He strode through the forest without the slightest wariness or concern. At first, Shushou was sure he was headed for the koushu village. Instead he returned to the hill where Gankyuu had abandoned the haku.
Winding around the hill and pressing through a thicket at its base, they came upon a narrow creek and followed it upstream. The sun was setting when they entered a rocky area and made their way to a spring bubbling out of the rocks. A copse of gnarled pine trees clung to the adjacent boulders.
The spring was a step down from the stone table. The boughs of the pine trees almost completely closed out the sky above.
He tied the haku to a stake wedged into a crevice in the rock and turned his attention to a hearth beneath a small ledge of stone.
What an ideal place, Shushou thought. He must come here often. He moved about with a natural sense of familiarity. Her mind astir, she watched as he built a fire from the pine needles and dead branches he’d gathered along the way.
Being wise to such a safe haven indicated his deep knowledge of the Yellow Sea. Except not only knowing of such of place, but visiting it often, wasn’t the kind of thing the typical guardian did.
I don’t believe it. You can’t possibly be— She still couldn’t give voice to her question from before.
In the dusky grove, beneath the pine trees, the twilight came all the quicker to the spring. The pleasant breezes stilled. Shushou at last commanded herself to move. Petting and reassuring the haku, she removed the saddle and travel packs, brought it to the spring to drink, then opened the feed bag and spilled some out on the ground.
“I’m so relieved.” She wrapped her arms around the haku’s neck as it bent down to eat. She really was grateful it was safe. She hugged the warm haku and said so over and over in her heart. Hot tears stung the corner of her eyes. She rubbed her face against the haku’s fur.
She glanced over her shoulder to see Gankyuu sitting slumped against the stone wall blankly watching her and the haku. She ran over to him.
“Are you okay? Does it hurt?”
He managed a smile. “Stings a bit.”
“There’s no need to fib. That must hurt like the blazes.” The boy’s very human tone of voice confused Shushou all the more. “Miss, the wound needs to be cleaned. Draw some fresh water.”
Shushou bobbed her head, wrung what remained out of the leather water bag and filled it from the spring. Setting it down, she took hold of Gankyuu’s hands and helped him to his feet. Coming to a standing position, he glanced at the boy, who was tending to the fire.
The boy glanced back at him, only waiting for the rest of the sentence.
“Thank you. For the haku too. Much appreciated.”
“Give your thanks to Heaven. You are simply the beneficiaries of very good fortune.”
Shushou scrutinized him as best she could without staring. Gankyuu called him Shinkun and he’d responded.
“Kenrou Shinkun,” she said aloud.
Squatting next to the fire, Shinkun turned his attention to her.
“But you look like an ordinary human being.”
He laughed a very human laugh. “I don’t recall ever being anything but. Here, let me help you.”
He lent Gankyuu a shoulder. Shushou followed them to the spring. They sat Gankyuu down. Shushou took off his boots and chaps, undid the dressing around the wound and washed it off.
“I never thought,” Gankyuu mused, “that Shinkun was a real person.”
“Well, if you don’t consider wizards people then you would be correct. I am a simple Tensen, a wizard of Heaven.”
“Like a Hisen, a wizard of the air. They live a little longer than most but are by birth never anything but human.”
“Huh,” said Shushou. “Do you serve the gods of Gyokkei?”
“Good question, that.”
“Then you don’t?”
“Enough of the third degree,” Gankyuu interrupted.
Shinkun only reacted with a small smile. “Tensen do not, as a rule, interact with humans. So perhaps we should stick to the matter at hand and avoid unnecessary tangents?”
Shushou apologized and concentrated on Gankyuu’s leg. She washed away the dried blood with a wet cloth. Amazing, she thought to herself. If Shinkun was a human being, then maybe the rest of the Gods were too. And somewhere there might be a real Gyokkei, a kingdom where they all dwelled.
“There are more mysteries in this world than I would ever have imagined,” she mumbled aloud. She said to Shinkun, “This okay? Oh, I mean, do you think that is all right?”
Shinkun said with a wry smile, “Don’t fret the formalities.
He bent over Gankyuu leg. Gankyuu was rooting through one of his travel packs for something. Shinkun stopped him and took a small bamboo flask from the bag attached to his armor at his waist.
“Do you have a fresh cloth there?”
Shushou hurriedly got a clean hand towel from the pack. He poured some of the liquid in the flask onto the towel and applied it to the wound. He capped the flask and handed it to Shushou.
“Take this. Have him drink some if it starts to hurt too badly. There’s not a lot but it should tide him over until the wound heals.”
“Um, what—” is this, she was going to ask. He spoke first.
“You don’t appear to be a koushu.”
“Well, I’m not. I’m going to Mt. Hou.”
Bandaging Gankyuu’s leg, Shinkun glanced over his shoulder at her. “You?”
“Yes, me. Gankyuu is a shushi. But I, um, had him come with me as a goushi.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
The blunt dismissal could help but get Shushou’s goat. “I am fully aware of how ridiculous that might sound.”
“Why would a child like you think of going on the Shouzan in the first place?”
“Because I thought myself a worthy vessel.”
“Shushou,” Gankyuu chided her under his breath. She paid him no heed.
“You certainly aren’t lacking for self-confidence.”
“My professors taught me there was nothing wrong in believing in yourself.”
“And pride goeth before a fall. Would you even understand what being empress involves?”
Shushou felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Koushu and wizards, they were one and the same when it came to this subject. “I’ve had it to here with this attitude that I can’t comprehend something because I’m a child! Do you think I would have come to the Yellow Sea in the first place if I didn’t know what being empress involved?”
“And with that knowledge in hand, you thought yourself capable of becoming empress?”
“Yes. What, you don’t see it?”
“In any case,” Shinkun said, eyeing her coldly, “you’re going to have to make your own way after this. Just to let you know, there are already youma headed this way. They won’t attack as long as I am here. But as soon as I leave, they will, without a doubt, make their way up here.”
Shushou glared back at him. “I’m not surprised. Become a wizard and you lose your humanity.”
“The throne is not a child’s plaything, not furniture you sit on but a burden you must bear. If you truly comprehended the responsibilities and obligations of a ruler, you would be the last one to claim yourself as a worthy vessel.”
“I do comprehend. The burden the emperor must be bear is the kingdom itself and the lives of every one of its subjects. Simply choosing between two equally compelling options can mean that ten thousand will die on the other hand and ten thousand mourn on the other.”
“And you’re saying you could correctly make such decisions?”
“Of course I’m not!” Shushou shouted at him.
Gankyuu started a bit. “Shushou—”
“I am a child. I don’t know anything about the in and outs of imperial government and administration. When I came to the Yellow Sea, I couldn’t take a single step without relying on the help of others. A person like me could hardly safeguard the lives of others! The best I could do on my own was study, go to school, and become minor government official. That should be obvious on its face. If a person like me really did have what it takes, the kirin should at least have met me halfway rather than coming to a place like this.”
“Then why go on the Shouzan?”
“Because it was my duty!” The long journey through the Yellow Sea had done nothing if not convince her of her own powerlessness. “I am a subject of Kyou. If I was the prime minister, I would make a law that everybody in the kingdom had to go on the Shouzan when the flag of the kirin was raised!”
Her father had no desire to go on the Shouzan. He wouldn’t do anything to compromise the good life he already enjoyed.
“The next emperor or empress is somewhere to be found among us. Nobody knows who. But while they all tremble in fear at the long journey ahead and the dangers of the Yellow Sea, people are dying like flies.”
Hearing of youma appearing everywhere, they only wrung their hands and lamented the fallen state of the world.
“If every subject went to Mt. Hou, the next ruler must be among them. But instead they treat every bad turn of events like it’s somebody else’s problem, somebody else’s business. They bar the windows and the doors and whine about how bad things are getting from inside their self-imposed jail cells. Such stupidity!
“Shushou—” Gankyuu reached out to her.
“When I ask why they’re not going on the Shouzan, they laugh and go on about how I don’t know anything about the grave responsibilities of ruling a kingdom and the dangers of the Yellow Sea. I’m only a child, you see, and a child of privilege to boot. They smile and tell me how naive I am about the ways of the world, while they are wise to everything.”
“As far as I’m concerned, when people are dying all around you and you turn the other way and pretend it won’t happen to you, you’re the one who’s being naive. You’re the one who knows nothing of death and suffering. Do you disagree?”
“Not at all.”
“The Yellow Sea is a scary place, they say. Don’t be unreasonable, they say. What is unreasonable? Even I only came here with a single resolve in mind!”
Shushou slumped to the ground. Gankyuu caught her in his arms. “You’ve got nothing to cry about. You’ve done well.”
Shushou got to her feet and wiped her face with her sleeve. “If had no desire to go on the Shouzan, I might as well be like the koushu and say that nobody needs an emperor. When youma show up all over the place, shrug it off. Learn how to live with them, how to protect yourself from them, how to keep from being attacked.”
“People live in the Yellow Sea, after all. So people should be able to live in Kyou. You could hunt youjuu everywhere, pick up work guarding people traveling through the kingdom. Everybody would be a goushi or a shushi.”
Gankyuu grinned. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“Gankyuu, right now, you’re really annoying.”
“It’s written all over your face. You don’t want to upset the weepy little girl.”
“Well, the truth’s the truth.”
“Hmph,” Shushou pouted, averting her gaze.
Behind her Shinkun gently asked, “If you were empress, what would you do?”
Shushou glanced up at the wizard. “That’s a bridge I’ll cross when I come to it. But if I did become empress, that would mean there’s nobody better suited for the job in the kingdom than me. What else could I do but resolve myself to take on the task?”
“Naturally,” he said, a smile in his voice. “And you’d be able to indulge in every possible luxury, with an army of servants kneeling at your feet and tending to your every whim.”
“Don’t spout nonsense. I’m the cute and clever daughter of a wealthy family. I’ve lived a life of luxury up till now, treated every step along the way with kid gloves.”
“And yet you cannot tolerate the ruin around you. Why is that?”
She couldn’t hide the surprise on her face. “Simply because I do not suffer does not mean I should sleep well.”
“When the whole kingdom is safe and prosperous, when every subject wears silk and fills their stomachs with good food every night, that is when I will return to the lap of luxury, dress however I wish and eat whatever I want without a guilty thought crossing my mind.”
“I see,” he said with a smile. “But we should get food in your stomachs right now.”