11-2 Shoukou. He killed Seishuu. Huddled in her room in the inn, those three words alone occupied Suzu’s mind. He killed Seishuu.
“I won’t forgive. I won’t forget.”
Suzu repeated these words over and over to herself. A knock came at the door. It was one of the innkeeper’s servants.
“Miss, the gates have opened. Will you be staying on?”
Suzu got out her coin purse. “A little while longer. Here, I’ll pay in advance.”
It was enough to cover her expenses for five more days. After that, it would take another five days to get to Gyouten.
“Well, okay then,” said the servant. He quickly cleaned up the room and left. Suzu watched him go. She stared at the ceiling. “Shoukou. I won’t forgive you.”
After that, Suzu wandered about the city pretending to be taking a stroll and seeing the sights. She’d randomly greet passers-by and ask them about Shoukou. No one had much to say. It wasn’t a subject people felt free to talk about.
She thought at first about bringing charges against him. After walking around the city for five days she realized that would be impossible. Shoukou was a governor with a great deal of power. He controlled Shisui Prefecture. The taxes far exceeded the rate set by the kingdom and the balance disappeared into his pockets. The tax collectors were brutal. The law was a plaything used to punish people on a whim.
As egregious as his actions were, Shoukou hadn’t answered for them and wouldn’t answer for them. That’s what everybody said. He distributed his ill-gotten gains throughout the bureaucracy and bought his own protection.
Her next thought was to travel to Gyouten and directly appeal to the Imperial Kei. It wouldn’t be easy arranging an audience with the empress, but she did have her passport with the endorsement of the Imperial Sai.
After five days in the city, she gave up on that too. What she’d learned of Shoukou’s brazen behavior was even worse. The city spilled over with privately resentful voices. Such was the fierceness of Shoukou’s grip that none dare voice these feelings aloud.
“Seventy percent or a life,” was the expression she heard.
The tax was seventy percent of the harvest. If this payment was short in the slightest, the balance was paid with a life. The head of the farmer himself or the head of one of his family.
Shoukou went hunting in the hamlets, they said. When he was in one of his moods, he’d go to a farming village in the outlying districts and kidnap girls. A few days later he’d toss them out like a bundle of old rags.
At times, merchants came from the borders of Kou and ships arrived from Tai carrying human cargo. He deceived itinerants and refugees from the faltering kingdoms into coming to Shisui to replace those that had died beneath his lash. Wagons and ships traveled to the kingdoms bearing food and provisions and distributed it to families who had lost their homes and land. Those receiving the goods believed that the governor dispatching the wagons and ships to be a compassionate man. In the place of the provisions, people were carried on the return trip. Travelers lured by the promise of land and citizenship would curse their terrible folly only afterwards.
Why, Suzu asked herself with almost unbridled fury. Why would the Imperial Kei keep such a beast as a public servant?
Rumors abounded on the streets. The reason Shoukou could persecute the people so, the reason he was never called to account, was because he had somebody covering for him. Probably somebody in Gyouten. Somebody in Kinpa Palace. Somebody at the top.
The Late Empress Yo had been in on it, or so the rumors went.
She had no interest in governing the kingdom, that was why. The ministers and government officials did whatever they wanted and nobody gave a damn. Kiss a little ass, throw a little jewelry and silk around, and she’d look the other way.
Because she was a woman, the people of Takuhou said. Kei had bad luck with empresses. They never governed in peace.
Suzu laughed to herself. An empress from Yamato, the one person in the world who would understand her. A monarch filled with gentleness and compassion.
What a joke.
The Imperial Kei had been her best and last hope, the one thing that kept her going. I want to meet her, Suzu had told herself over and over again. What an idiot she’d been.
“I won’t forgive any of them. Shoukou or the Imperial Kei.”
Suzu left Takuhou and headed for Gyouten. As expected, it took her five days. Using her bank book, she withdrew the balance of the funds. It’d raise eyebrows when the Imperial Sai found out but at this point Suzu didn’t care.
The first thing she did was search out a licensed arms merchant.
Striking a youma with an ordinary sword would only break the blade and not scratch the youma. Youma hunting required weapons cast with a special spell. Because they were only made by the Minister of Winter, they were called winter weapons (touki). On the door to the shop was the official seal authorizing them to make such armaments.
Licensed arms merchants were also the only dealers in the chains and ropes used to capture and train youma and other you-beasts. Suzu recalled traveling often to an arms merchant at the base of Mt. Ha in the southwest kingdom of Sai to buy military-grade tack for the groom who took care of Setsuko, Riyou’s flying tiger.
And unlike ordinary dealers, these arms merchants carried a class of weapons not widely known to the public—weapons that could kill a wizard. A governor was a class of baron and thus a full-fledged wizard. Only a particular kind of sword could mortally wound him.
Suzu browsed around the shop and selected a dagger. She didn’t know how to use one but she knew she’d need it. Arms merchants rarely sold touki to customers. This was one time when the endorsement of the Imperial Sai on her passport came in handy.
She next went to an establishment that specialized in pegasi and flying beasts. She didn’t need a horse or ox. What she needed was a mount much faster than a horse, a pegasus that could leap over any fence or barrier.
Flying youma were captured by wild game hunters in the Yellow Sea, where youma abounded in great numbers. Game hunters were called corpse hunters because they spent as much time tracking down the bodies of fellow hunters killed by youma as they did the youma themselves. The job of a corpse hunter was to capture youma, break them, and deliver them to a wrangler. Youma wranglers worked hand-in-hand with death. The animals didn’t come cheap. Capture a top of the line youma like a suugu, break and train it, and a hunter would be set for life.
Suzu entered the shop. A middle-aged man in the shop was turning through the pages of a ledger. He said, “Welcome.”
He only raised his eyes when he spoke. A scar ran from the top of his head to his right cheek. His right eye was caved in.
“I’m looking for a pegasus.”
“How much?” Are you willing to spend? he meant.
Suzu placed the bank notes on the table. “Whatever I can get for this.”
“You want one that flies or one that’s fast?”
“One that flies. And one that heeds commands well.”
“You ever been on a bird youma?”
Riding a bird youma was no simple task. “No. I’d prefer a horse.”
“In that case, a sansui is the best I can do for you.”
“What kind of beast is a sansui?”
“A horse with a blue coat. It doesn’t really have what it takes to fly at altitude but it’s got strong legs. Handy for leaping over the occasional river. Not exactly fleet-footed. Three times faster than your regular horse but gets winded quick. If that’s okay with you, I’ve got a real gentle one.”
Suzu nodded. “Sounds fine.”
“Where you staying?” the man asked.
Flying youma were not kept in the city. Suzu gave him her name and the inn she was staying at.
“I’ll bring it to you. The whole thing takes seven days. To get it to you any quicker I’d have to run it, and it being a sansui you’d have to rest it a day. After that, it needs time changing owners.”
“Seven days suits me fine.”
“Half down, half on delivery.”
Suzu nodded. “It’s a deal. I’ll be waiting.”
And so she waited at the inn, portioning out the remainder of her funds to leave herself enough to eat. This was the Gyouten she had so longed for, the city that blanketed the terraced slopes of Mt. Ryou-un. She wasn’t impressed. It didn’t mean anything without Seishuu there with her.
Seishuu, welcome to Gyouten.
High up at the top of Mt. Ryou-un was the Imperial Palace. In the palace lived the Imperial Kei, the damned fool of a monarch who let a man like Shoukou live.
Suzu grasped the dagger inside her blouse. She’d gut Shoukou with it and head back to Gyouten ahead of the news. Using the Imperial Sai’s endorsement on her passport, she’d arrange for an audience with the Imperial Kei.
They’d squeal like stuck pigs. Shoukou and the Imperial Kei—they’d picked the wrong child of Kei to kill.
As promised, the sansui was delivered seven days later. The stable boy handed Suzu the scent ball. Inside the scent ball was a burning incense stick. It had a little buckle to attach to a belt or sash. Inside the ball was the incense prepared by the youma dealer. The wrangler used this burning incense to tame the youma. When the youma was sold to another person, it’d be charmed by the smell of the incense and would not get alarmed. After that, the intensity of the incense was slowly reduced until the animal was acclimated to the scent of its owner.
But Suzu didn’t have much interest in any of this and didn’t bother to remember much of it. Once she’d made it back to Gyouten, the thing could drop dead for all she cared.
Suzu stayed on in Gyouten for three more days while she and the sansui got used to each other. Then she headed back to Shisui Prefecture and Takuhou.
Seishuu, soon I’ll have your revenge. Shoukou and the Imperial Kei will feel what you felt in spades.