3-3 Shushou returned to the campsite, settled down in the hollow amidst the pile of fallen trees, and took a nap.
Gankyuu silently watched over her, scabbard in one hand. Rikou similarly remained in the saddle on the suugu’s back. The sky was turning bright when Shushou slipped into a deep sleep.
That was when Gankyuu said to Rikou, “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Do you think she’s going to become the next empress?”
Rikou tilted his head to the side and gazed up at the sky. “I wonder. To start with, there’s this little matter of making it to Mt. Hou. She’s got as much guts as any kid I’ve known, but no matter how you look at it, she’s awfully small to be crossing the Yellow Sea.”
“The way you were talking to her earlier, it sure sounded like you expected her to become the next empress.”
Rikou smiled. “You know, Gankyuu, if Shushou makes it to Mt. Hou, I do believe she will ascend the throne.”
Gankyuu’s eyes opened a notch wider. “How’s that?”
Rikou chuckled, as unfazed as ever. “Figured it from the minute we first met.”
Gankyuu sighed deeply. “What confidence. You and Shushou both. Where does such great faith in yourselves come from?”
“Hmm. Good question.” The smile vanished from this face. “Call it the cumulative acts of Providence.”
“The cumulative acts of Providence. Huh.”
“That girl was in a bind. I was in a position to help her. Another person may not have. But it was the kind of whimsy that struck my fancy.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Shushou met me and then met you. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.”
“I needed the money.”
“You were made for each other: a shushi short on funds with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Yellow Sea, and Shushou in need of a bodyguard.”
“Her kijuu was stolen.”
“But not her life, and not the money to hire you. It’s amazing enough that she made it all the way to the Kai Straits on a moukyoku.”
You may have a point there, Gankyuu thought. He jested aloud, “Ah, so you sized up her talents and abilities and came here to protect the future empress. Quite the gallant knight.”
“Less gallantry than the luck of the draw. I would caution you not to think of me in such chivalrous terms.”
“Anyway, did you really summon them?”
He didn’t identify them but Gankyuu got the inference. “I have no idea. The conversation went down as Shushou says. The outcome was as I desired. Perhaps Kinhaku and the others did something.”
“Perhaps or probably?”
“I can’t say.”
The circumstances hadn’t been that pressing. Although Gankyuu welcomed a youma attack, he was no less surprised than the rest when one came.
“I see. So it wasn’t something either of you was responsible for.” Rikou said it aloud so Gankyuu didn’t have to. “In that case, why not explain as much to Shushou? I dare say she came away concluding that you had intervened.”
“She can believe what she wants to.”
“You don’t care what she thinks of you? A widely-shared attitude among koushu, it seems.”
Gankyuu responded with a thin smile. “You’ll be back to calling us corpse hunters and dog’s tails before long, so read it anyway you’d like. It won’t change a thing in the long run.”
“I suppose not.”
Rikou didn’t say anything more. Gankyuu got to his feet. With a little wave that said, She’s all yours for now, he stepped over the rotting timbers. Wending his way through the maze of fallen trees, he circled around a small mountain of dead wood overgrown with moss, and came to the gathering of Kinhaku and the other guardians.
“Yo, there’s the shushi master himself. What a lifesaver.” One of the goushi raised his arm in a kind of salute. “I swear, that was some great timing.”
“How many died?” Gankyuu asked.
Kinhaku said, “One person. Two horses. In all the confusion, they tore into the pack animals. We got lucky.”
“So I take it that you didn’t summon them. Figures.”
Kinhaku raised his eyes and said drolly, “Meaning you didn’t either.”
Gankyuu sat down. One of the goushi handed him a bamboo canteen. He accepted it gratefully, took a sip, and passed it on.
“We’ve just been talking about how it was too bloody convenient to call it coincidence. So you must have summoned them. Not that that current state of affairs necessarily called for such measures. But it sure helps, no doubt about it.”
“Yeah,” muttered a goushi. “We’ve got one with us.” When Gankyuu glanced at him, he added with a wry smile, “This caravan’s got a phoenix along for the ride.”
When Gankyuu glanced back at Kinhaku, he nodded too. “Thirty casualties so far. That’s low, and the victims are spacing themselves out quite nicely. The river we crossed a while back usually runs high and fast, with youma fish swimming the currents. A tough crossing. You can lose ten people in the process, easy. This time around, the water was practically stagnant.”
“That’s true,” another chimed in. “This rotting forest is a helluva place when the rains come. The ground turns into quicksand and the trees come down like there’s an army of lumberjacks at work. But we’ve barely suffered a drizzle since leaving the fort.”
Kinhaku nodded again. “We’re riding on the wings of the phoenix. None of this would be happening otherwise.”
The journey that saw the selection of the next emperor saw far fewer hardships than normal. “Riding on the wings of the phoenix,” the goushi called it. The person on the Shouzan destined to become the next emperor was called a “phoenix” or a “fledgling phoenix.”
“Then who is this fledgling?” Gankyuu asked.
Kinhaku smiled. “The little girl who hired a shushi to be her goushi, of all things. Who else in this caravan has the chops to be the next ruler?”
“I’d hardly call my being hired the product of executive decision making.”
“Call it the workings of fate, then. Being able to work fate to your advantage is what makes or breaks any leader. Appearances and personality don’t mean a thing in the Yellow Sea. The strength of will and the good fortune to cast a net and reel in total strangers, to reel in an entire kingdom—that’s what it takes to be in charge of the whole shebang.”
“Well, keep such claptrap to yourselves, if you don’t mind. She’s got a big enough head already without anybody giving her any reasons to be an even bigger ass about it.”
“Call her the provisional empress, then. She sure is what a real one would be like.”
“Emperor or empress, nobody’s been chosen yet.” Gankyuu glanced down at his hand. He felt a numbing deep in the muscles. He’d forgotten to wash his hands after slicing apart the youma flesh earlier.
Kinhaku smiled. “Well, it’s good either way, as long as we bring back our employers with arms and legs intact. Otherwise a fat fifty percent of our fee goes poof.”
“If you die,” someone jested, “just leave half that fee to us and what comes with.”
A bubble of laughter welled up.
“Right back at you. To us, personally, it don’t much matter who the phoenix is. But when it comes to riding on the wings of the phoenix and the smooth sailing we’ve all been waiting for, it can’t help but matter.”
Kinhaku glanced at the faces of the men around him. “To be sure, the girl’s not necessarily the one. Keep a close eye those going on the Shouzan. Don’t drop that phoenix. Loose the fledgling and the bill for all this good fortune will come due in a flash.”