9-4 At last, Suzu could get down from the wagon and stretch her aching back. They’d arrived at Takuhou, the westernmost city in Wa Province. Ei Province was not far past this city. And after that, it was a journey of no more than five days.
Helping Seishuu down from the wagon, Suzu had to smile. “Tomorrow we’ll be in Ei Province.”
“Yeah,” Seishuu smiled in turn and then slumped to the ground. This happened a lot more, lately. Just as he was getting up, his knees would give out.
“You carry me, and I’ll be okay.”
“When you’re better, I’m going to work you like a horse.”
Seishuu laughed. Of course, she couldn’t carry him around while she searched for an inn, so she went to ask the driver if he’d look after him for a while. “Only until I find a room, if you don’t mind”
“Okay. But be back before the gates close.”
The gates of the city closed at sunset. After that, there was no coming or going. Suzu searched the sky. The sun was still not so low in the sky.
“I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
Seishuu sat beside the gate and watched the people walking to and fro. A few yards off, the driver twiddled his thumbs.
“Hey, Mister, you can go if you want.”
When the man turned to him, Seishuu smiled and pointed beyond the gates. For some reason or another, the words rarely came out of his mouth right. People frequently misunderstood him. But he wasn’t self-conscious. Suzu could understand him, but other people couldn’t, no matter how often he repeated himself.
“You go. Okay.” Seishuu again got to his feet. He tottered a bit but could stand.
When the man saw this, he smiled in turn. “Thanks!” he called out, and jogged back to his wagon. He had people waiting at home for him. He waved as he drove through the gate.
Seishuu waved after him. He looked around. He didn’t see Suzu. It was boring. But if he didn’t stay here they’d end up missing each other. In the meantime, he wandered around the gate. The outer loop road ran around the city just inside the walls. Stalls lined the avenue on both sides, narrowing the road somewhat, but it was still plenty wide.
Seishuu tottered along, apologizing to the people he bumped into. He went over to look at the gate. Peddlers’ voices sang out over the crowds. From somewhere close came the sound of buskers. The spirited music flowing around him. Trying to see where it was coming from, he stepped into the street.
He didn’t hear the sound of the horse-drawn carriage, drowned out by the music. It came rushing at him from the right. He didn’t see it. He was blind on that side.
The look on a man’s face directly across the way at last told him of the two teams of horses bearing down on him. He hurriedly tried to jump out of the way, but for Seishuu, who lately couldn’t walk a straight line without calmly putting one foot carefully in front of the other, this was a near impossibility. He staggered, and far from getting out of the way, tumbled to the ground in front of the carriage.
The carriage came to a hasty halt. The horses reared and neighed. This is awkward, Seishuu thought. The carriage was opulently detailed, the property of an aristocrat. He’d catch a thrashing for blocking the road.
“What are you doing? Get out of the way!” The censorious voice rang out from inside the carriage.
“Sorry,” Seishuu muttered. He hastened to stand but tripped over his own feet.
“What is this brat blocking my way for?”
“I’m sorry, sir. You see, I’m not doing too well.”
A man dressed in ministerial robes glared at him. He couldn’t understand Seishuu. Seishuu knelt and bowed his head.
“Couldn’t care less. Go.” The voice of the man inside the carriage was laced with laughter.
Seishuu frantically tried to get up and flopped back down again. His limbs had to fail him now. Like a bad joke happening to somebody else. He again tried to rise, heard the sound of carriage begin to roll, the shrill snap of the whip. The horses neighed and galloped straight toward him.
He attempted to back out of the way but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. He had to try and crawl. All of a sudden the energy had gone out of his body. He futilely clawed at the earth and collapsed there on the ground. The horses’ hooves raised a cloud of dust about his head.
His thoughts stopped. There was nothing that he could think to think about.
Screams echoed down the boulevard.
The carriage rushed on without a pause. Then it slowed and resumed its leisurely pace. His retinue followed after, passing down the street as if nothing had happened. Everyone else who had watched the tragedy unfold before their eyes froze in horror. Within an empty space inside the crowd lay the trampled child.
Many there thought to rouse themselves to help him, but were equally cowed at the thought of the retinue turning back. The banner that they carried was the banner of prefectural governor. It was his carriage. His name was Shoukou. Making a scene in his presence was a very risky thing to do. Everybody who lived along the street had learned that lesson well.
The child moaned. Yes, he might still be saved. But wait at least until Shoukou’s carriage has turned the corner.
The child lifted his head slightly and then let fall. He heard the sound of his own skull splashing into the mire of his own blood. Again he tried to raise his head and look for help, but could not.
The people stopped on the street and looked at him with vacant eyes. No one was coming to his rescue. He wanted to get up but could not.
It hurts, Suzu.
Someone ran out of the nearby alleyway. She stopped, spun around with an extraordinary grace and rushed over to him.
“Are you okay?”
She knelt down next to him. He had no idea who she was. His eyes were already growing so dim that all he could see was that her leggings were soaked with red.
She called out, “Somebody bring a wagon!” Seishuu felt her warm hand on his shoulder. “Hold on.”
“Oh damn, I’m dying.”
“You’ll be okay.”
“Suzu will get all weepy on me.” Once you got her started, the tears just kept coming. It was such a downer.
He thought nothing else after that.
Suzu ran over from the hitching post next to the gate. Seishuu was suspiciously nowhere to be found. Where did he go? she asked herself, looking around. Not far off, a crowd of people was gathering. Something was going on. A strange wind blew down the avenue.
She finally approached the bystanders, asking, “Have you seen a kid about this tall?” She strayed closer to the crowd. Though there were quite a number gathered there, they were shrouded in silence. “Um, have you seen a kid with orange hair?”
A voice called out from the other side of the crowd. “Do you mean this child?”
Suzu clawed her way through the throng and froze on the spot. A person was kneeling there on the ground and next to her the crumpled form of a child.
He must have collapsed. His condition had been getting worse lately. She rushed up to him and stopped in shock. Where did all this blood come from?
“Seishuu!” Suzu knelt, scanned the faces around them. “What happened? Somebody call a doctor!”
“It’s too late.”
Suzu turned abruptly to the source of that calm voice. “If we don’t get a doctor . . . ”
Suzu stared at the girl with wide eyes. She was the same age as her, perhaps a tad younger. Her crimson hair was so red it almost looked dyed.
“No . . . ”
Suzu shook her head. This was no time for pleasantries. They had to get help immediately.
“If you are Suzu, then he asked that you not cry for him.” The girl lowered her eyes. “I’m pretty sure that’s what he wished me to tell you.”
“This can’t be!” Suzu touched his body. It was still warm to the touch. “Seishuu!”
How did he get this awful wound? His particular orange hair, that so agreed with everything about him, was splattered with blood. Why were his arms and legs all bent up like this? Why was his chest caved in like this?
“No, it’s not true . . . is it?”
But they were going to Gyouten. They were going to meet the Imperial Kei and she was going to cure him. Suzu took the boy’s body in her arms, embracing him like the hostage rescued from the enemy.
“I don’t know. When I found him, he was already like this on the ground. I suspect he was trampled by a horse.”
“Whose?” Suzu surveyed the people around her, seeking out the villain. They shook their heads. “Bastards!” Who could do such a thing? She balled her hands into fists, the question echoing over and over in her mind. “Seishuu . . . the bastards who did this . . . !”
The drum sounded, announcing the closing of the gate. The crowd melted away in ones and twos. Before long, no one was left in the thoroughfare but the weeping Suzu and the body of the boy.
“Seishuu. Gyouten is right there in front of us.”