6-3 “So it’s faster coming back the other way? Why’s that?”
Suzu was standing on the deck, facing the wind. Hearing the kid’s voice, she grimaced.
“It’s the season. The wind blows from the northeast. The ocean currents also flow from north to south. That’s why the return trip is faster.”
When she turned around, she saw Seishuu sitting next to a sailor.
“Boats are real interesting. I’m going to become a sailor!”
“Good for you,” the sailor laughed.
From Sou to a port in the southeast of Kei would take half a month. Already she had come halfway on her voyage. There weren’t many people on the boat, so she’d gotten to know everybody. Seishuu was the youngest. He talked to everybody without the slightest hesitation. Because he always had something smart to say, even the sailors said he was a clever kid and doted on him. Watching all this irritated Suzu.
He doesn’t understand anything. But he’s just a kid so he can’t help it.
Still, it ticked her off whenever he tried to tell her that the awful things that happened to her happened all the time, like being separated forever from her home.
All the time? Just how many kaikyaku do you think there are in this world?
With a huff, Suzu turned her back and returned to the stateroom.
The stateroom was filled with the smell of oil. It had repulsed her at first, but she’d gotten used to it. Still, if she stayed inside for long, the rolling motion of the boat and the smell made her sick to her stomach. That was why, when there was good weather, most of the passengers went out on the deck. Right now, Suzu was alone in the room.
The stateroom was split into two large areas where everybody slept. For the time being, there was a section for men and a section for women, but only because there were so few passengers.
Suzu sat down and let out a breath. From behind her, she heard that annoying voice.
“Hey, Suzu, quit giving me those looks the way you do.”
Suzu didn’t turn around. She pulled her luggage toward her as if she were busy. She opened a package inside the trunk. “What are you talking about?”
“That sailor got on my case. He thought I was teasing you or something.”
The light footsteps approached her. Seishuu sat down next to her. “What are you so mad at me for?”
“I’m not mad at anything.”
“What a big baby.”
Hearing his exaggerated sigh, she glared at him. “I’m an adult. That’s why I’m not mad. I don’t let myself get upset by what children do.”
Seishuu gave Suzu a brief, searching look.
“You look like an easy-going person on the outside but you’re a sourpuss underneath.”
Suzu turned on him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nobody’s ever said that to you before? You really can be a pain.”
Although knowing that if she lost her temper she’d lose the argument, Suzu couldn’t keep the blood from rushing to her head. Almost without realizing it, she hit him. “Shut up!”
Riyou. Kouko. Everybody hates me. Everybody has it in for me.
Seishuu’s eyes flew open. He laughed. “I don’t believe it! I’m right!’
“Get out of here!”
“Nobody likes to hear the truth about themselves.”
“I said, get lost!”
“Does it hurt your feeling that much, telling you that lots of people are just like you? I wasn’t wrong. Lots of people can’t ever go home again. It’s tough for everybody. There’s nothing special about you. But you don’t get it, that’s what makes you such a meanie.”
“I hate you!” Suzu couldn’t take it anymore and broke down in tears. The truth hurt. Nobody she’d met in this world liked her. Nobody understood her. Nobody ever felt sorry for her.
But why? “Why does everybody pick on me? Riyou, you, what do you all have against me? What did I ever do to you!?”
“The mistress of Suibi Manor, in Sai.”
It all gushed out of her. How cruel Riyou was. How demanding she was. All the hardships Suzu had suffered. How she was rescued by the Imperial Sai, who turned around and kicked her out of the palace. But saying all this wouldn’t make a bit of difference to a child like him.
“It’s too bad, Suzu. You’re more of a kid than I am.”
“Do you like yourself, Suzu?”
Suzu shot him a surprised look.
“Do you think you’re a good person?”
“Not really.” She was so miserable all the time.
“So it’s hardly surprising that other people don’t like you either, huh? After all, don’t people put themselves first and always think of themselves first?”
Suzu gaped at him.
“You’re asking an awful lot, expecting other people to like you when you don’t even like yourself.”
“I didn’t mean—” Suzu hastily arranged her thoughts. “That’s not what I meant! Of course I like myself. Who doesn’t? But nobody ever tells me! I don’t like the me that nobody else likes. That’s what I meant.”
“So does that make the people who don’t like you bad people? What if you changed your attitude and became a likeable person? But that’s too far of a reach for you. So you end up being disagreeable. Nothing more. End of story.”
“You don’t understand!” Suzu wrung her hands together. “You don’t understand me! It’s because I’m a kaikyaku! Kaikyaku are different from people like you! That’s why you all hate me for no reason at all!”
“You know, I can’t stand people like you.” Seishuu took a breath and let it out. “Who’d want to be like that? Trying to be unhappier than anybody else, then taking the easy way out and blaming your unhappiness for all your problems.”
Suzu gasped. She detested this little runt to a degree that made her dizzy.
“It’s really dumb,” he continued. “All you can do is brag about how you’re unluckier than everybody else. And even when you’re not, you’re the kind of person who makes sure that you are.”
“No fair! You’re just being mean! Why do you have to say things like that? After all the suffering I’ve been through!”
“Did all that suffering make you a better person? Does all your patience make you feel better about yourself? Me, when it comes to suffering, I’d rather put it behind me.” Seishuu cocked his head to one side. “Do you think if you weren’t a kaikyaku, everything would be peachy? You’re a wizard. You won’t get sick, won’t ever grow old, right? What do you say when you’re around people who really are sick and suffering? Wizards don’t have to worry about eating neither. You go to where people are starving to death, are you still gonna think you’re worse off than them?”
“I don’t want to talk to you. You just saying that because you caught all the lucky breaks and I didn’t.”
“I caught all the lucky breaks?”
“Yeah. You were born here and grew up here. You’ve got a family and a place to go home to.”
“I don’t have a home.”
“What?” said Suzu.
“I used to live in Kou. And not just my home, but our entire village is gone.” Seishuu wrapped his arms around his knees. “We lived near the Kyokai. The whole cliff gave way and sent everything and everybody into the sea. Well, not everybody, if you’re gonna get picky about it. There’s always me.” He laughed. “Everybody who was at home, my aunt and the kids, they all died. I’m lucky to be alive.”
Suzu was at a loss for words. She recalled the village that had given her shelter when she was swept ashore in Kei. The village overlooking the ocean, clinging to the edge of the cliffs. If that cliff collapsed . . .
“Go to Kou and you’ll find a lot of kids like me. The emperor died. The Taiho died too. It’s going to be hard times until a new emperor sits on the throne and that’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody’s getting out while they can. I don’t know when they’re going to get a new emperor. But I’m not going back until they do. Maybe I’ll never go back.”
“But . . . ”
“My village happened to be close to the borders of Sou. I was lucky enough to escape. Kou is only going to get worse. After this, even if you wanted to make a run for it, it’s not likely you could.”
“Still, you wanted to escape.”
“Not everybody wants to run away. You own home is always best. Lots of people started running and were lining up at the borders. Then the youma came and ate them up. Doesn’t matter if they had homes to go home to, they’re not going home now.” He muttered, almost as an aside, “My father neither.”
“And your mother?”
“Dead,” Seishuu said with an unsettled laugh. “We were all going to get a boat and sail to Kei. She died before the boat came into port. I gave my mom’s ticket to that old man.”
A scrawny, middle-aged man had come aboard with him.
“He’s from Kou too. He got out with just the clothes on his back. Didn’t have the money for the fare.”
“But why Kei? You escaped to Sou.” Sou was the wealthiest of the Twelve Kingdoms.
“Because we’re originally from Kei.”
“The empress of Kei, the one before the empress we’ve got now, left things in a really bad state. When I was real small we fled to Kou. There ought to be a nice quiet village there, right? Mom said we’d go back when Kei got a new empress.” Seishuu took a deep breath. “Mom and Dad weren’t very lucky. They died knowing nothing but hard times.”
Suzu gave him an irritated look. “My parents suffered a lot, too. We were poor and never had anything good to eat. And then the crops failed. I was sold as an indentured servant and sent packing.”
“Yeah, but that’s better than everybody dying.”
“You only say that because you’re so fortunate. Your parents were good to you, right? My parents were the kind of parents who sell their children.”
“True, I liked my parents but it’s lonely being the only one left.”
“Same with me. You’re the lucky one. You were with them to the end. I’ll never see my parents again. I don’t know what became of the country I left, except that they’re all dead for sure.”
“So, we’re in the same boat together.”
“We’re not the same! Just being there when they died, that was a blessing. I wanted to care for them in their old age.”
“Being there when my mom died, well, okay. But my dad was eaten by a youma. I really didn’t want to see that.”
“Still, he was there with you till the end! I wanted to take care of them no matter what happened. I didn’t want to leave their side ever.”
Seishuu tilted his head to the side. “You know, Suzu, you’re doing everything you can right now to be unhappy.”
“You’re being cruel. It should be pretty obvious whether it’s better to see your father torn to piece and eaten by a youma or not. I didn’t want to see that. I couldn’t run to him, either. I couldn’t do anything to help. I had no choice but to run away. My father has no grave. There was no funeral. Do you really mean that is better?”
Suzu’s hand flew to her mouth. “I . . . ”
“It’s a lie to say that your suffering is worse than anybody else’s. Everybody suffers the same. If there’s somebody somewhere who’s never suffered, I’d like to meet them.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t . . . ” She bowed her head in chagrin. This child had seen his father slaughtered in front of his eyes. There was no way that was the better fate.
“When things really get that bad, people do what ever they can to escape it. If it’s not bad enough to do that, Suzu, you weren’t suffering enough to want to run away.”
“But . . . ”
“I don’t know how to describe it, but you know that feeling when you want to die and you know that fighting on won’t do any good?”
“That’s, um . . . ”
“Talk is easy. Suzu, whatever you suffered wasn’t bad enough to try to escape or die trying. Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for people who drown themselves in their own misfortunes. After all, living your own life is a full-time job. If you had someone sidling up to you all the time and wanting you to feel all sorry for them, you’d get sick of them. Don’t you think?”
Is that what it comes down to? Is that why nobody could stand to have her around? Though she could hardly believe that Riyou or Kouko every really suffered in their lives.
Um . . . ” said Seishuu.
Suzu looked up and saw that Seishuu was resting his head on his knees.
“Being around you makes my head hurt.”
Suzu gave the smart remark an equally sharp look, but then noticed the sweat on his brow. “Does it’s really hurt? Are you all right?”
He rolled over and lay down. His face was gray.
“Hold on. I’ll go get somebody.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll feel better after some sleep. I’m used to it.”
Suzu peered closely at his face. “This happen often?”
“Now and then. It’s this injury that hurts.”
“A youma nicked me in the back of the head. It starts hurting now and then.”
“I’ll be okay. It gets better after I sleep.”
Suzu hurried to get a blanket and tucked it around his shoulders.