2-8 When a headcount was made that night, they’d lost three people. A youchou dove out of the sky and killed three of the men gathered around the campfire in the middle of the clearing.
At daybreak, the rest of the caravan nervously returned to the campsite. Most had dropped their belongings and bolted with only the clothes on their backs. They couldn’t continue the journey without food and water and medicine, so had no choice but to retrace their steps.
There they found the remains of the three men and the youma, their corpses reduced to bits of bone and flesh. The youma they’d killed was a giant bird. Also scattered about were youma of various shapes and sizes, undoubtedly victims of the scramble over the carcasses.
The grotesque scene sent a shiver down their spines. They at last grasped the true nature of where they were.
The caravan again set forth. They had no means but to press forward. The only sanctuary in the Yellow Sea was on Mt. Hou. Anybody who decided to return to the fortress would have to wait a year for the Reiken Gate to open on the Spring Equinox, and nobody was so brave or so foolhardy to separate from the caravan and strike out on his own. Hiking overland to one of the other gates was equally out of the question.
There was nothing for them to do but soberly arrange their belongings and walk on, casting wary looks around them with every step, and cursing Gankyuu under their breaths for abandoning them without a second thought.
Taking the lead was Ren Chodai, a prosperous man who ran a business in the Kingdom of En.
“If he’d bothered to help those three, they might still be alive. Running away without a backwards glance, not even bothering to ascertain their condition—what sort of a man is that?”
Answering the question was the guardian on the rokushoku who’d spoken briefly to Shushou the night before. He went by the name of Kinhaku. The dozen or so that had fled a few steps ahead of the others were less an organized company than a group that traveled in the more or less the same place in the caravan.
Kinhaku said, “We knew what dangers awaited us if we remained. Our job is to protect those who pay us, not everybody else.”
“Then why are we traveling together in this caravan all the way to Mt. Hou?”
“Cowards of a feather stick together,” Kinhaku said with a ironic smile.
Chodai furrowed his brows. “If you’re talking cowards, abandoning those unfortunate folks and running for the hills is a good description.”
“I couldn’t care less how you define the word. But I suppose, then, that you promptly rushed to their assistance and you stood your ground to the end?”
The blood rushed to Chodai’s gaunt face.
“No? Another bit of tail wagging the dog.”
“What did you say?”
Gankyuu walked alongside Shushou, the haku’s reins in his hands. Observing the two enraged men, she reached over and tugged at his cloak. “Hey, do you think maybe we should stop? It looks like a fight is about to break out between those two.”
“They’re big boys,” Gankyuu said over his shoulder. “Let them sort it out.”
Twenty-seven years had passed since the abdication of the empress. All those with egos and aspirations to greatness had long since given up on the Shouzan, having already determined that they’d never sit on the throne.
People going on the Shouzan these days weren’t elbowing each other out of the way in a race to Mt. Hou. More likely they’d been encouraged by those impatient for the new ruler to appear. These were less the heroic figures than generally decent individuals.
If not them, then those of even smaller stature who, observing these good people returning heartbroken from the Yellow Sea, resolved to make something of their own petty ambitions. With all due haste they reformed themselves and mended their relations with their fellow man and tried to convince the world of their newly found virtue.
Whichever camp Chodai belonged to, he wasn’t the kind of man to abandon common sense for a pointless blood feud.
Shushou said, “Hey, Gankyuu.”
“If you’re going to ask what a dog’s tail is, don’t. When it come to trading insults, there’s no end to the words we can come up with.”
“Yeah, and I guess there’s nothing to be done about that either,” Shushou muttered. Gankyuu cast a sidelong glance at her and hiked up his brows. She said, “The fact is, we did run away. And to make matters worse, you knew that fires were dangerous and didn’t tell them.”
Gankyuu clucked to himself. He shook his head. “Like they would listen to anything I had to say.”
“They would. Because you’re a specialist about the Yellow Sea.”
“I have to wonder. Even if they did, it’d turn into a real nuisance.”
“Fires are dangerous. But at times they’re necessary. So you tell them to not go around recklessly lighting fires. The next time a fire becomes necessary, count on them pitching a fit about the last time you told them not to. Amateurs who can’t tell the difference have no business being in the Yellow Sea in the first place. You hired me, but not to clean up after every heedless idiot we meet along the way.”
“And if your employer tells you to?”
“Now, now,” interrupted Rikou. “That’s enough.”
“Are you taking this fraidy cat’s side too?” Shushou said in a muffled voice.
Rikou answered quietly, “As far as Gankyuu is concerned, we are a couple of impetuous idiots who walked into the Yellow Sea without knowing a thing about it. We’re likely to cause him no end of grief. So we should trust the one person who knows what he’s talking about.”
Shushou took in the vexed look on Rikou’s face and sighed. “So it’s all about bodyguards.”
“That’s what it’s all about in the end. Those who have the resources to hire a bodyguard survive. Those lacking the wisdom or the resources don’t. Their fate is to be left by the wayside.”
“Ah, yes.” Rikou said with a tight smile. “That could be the case.”
“In other words, those who enter the Yellow Sea without hiring a knowledgeable bodyguard have no one to blame but themselves. They’re the bad apples”
“I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either.”
“But that and telling people that fires are dangerous are two separate things. Gankyuu could have helped those men if he wanted to. He didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, the word coward isn’t that far from the truth.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Rikou said with that same wry grin.
“It’s okay. I’ll tell everybody.”
“Enough already!” Gankyuu growled.
Shushou glared at him. “Didn’t you say you wouldn’t speak up because they’d just ignore you? Well, I don’t care if they do. So what’s the harm?”
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
“What’s stupid about it?”
Gankyuu looked at Shushou, his eyes briefly hard as cold steel. “That is information best kept among ourselves.”
Shushou felt her cheeks flushing. “You mean, if everybody knew how to travel more safely they couldn’t value their services so highly? Is that it?”
“I don’t care what you think it means. Don’t go around spreading bad advice.”
“I shall do as I please.”
“If you make big announcements and something happens, there’s no telling how the guardians might make their displeasure known.”
“Is that a threat?”
Gankyuu met Shushou’s scowl with one no less pointed. “A warning.”
“And I shall tell you this: you are a miserable excuse for a man.”
Gankyuu turned his eyes straight ahead. With a final sharp look, Shushou harrumphed and averted her gaze. She glanced up at Rikou. “A real coward. No two ways about it.”
But she found no agreement and no humor in his face. He looked at her with a grave expression that raised a sudden qualm in her heart.
What? she started to say when Rikou muttered, “You are still young.”
“Meaning? That I am a child is hardly a mystery to me either.”
Rikou nodded and smiled. “Meaning this is something we should let Gankyuu handle.”
Shushou puffed out her cheeks in a pout. “I get it, cowards sticking up for each other. You’re probably dying to tell me how adults know stuff that only makes sense to other adults too.”
“What about it?”
“Sure. Fine. But keep this in mind: the throne does not distinguish between children and adults. When I become empress, don’t think I’m going to forget any of this.”