4-4 One of Kiwa’s men awoke to find that the horse tethered next to him was gone. Worried it had run off, he looked around and spotted the horse lying in the tall grass not far off. He ran over and discovered the animal’s hindquarters. The rest of the horse was nowhere in sight.
His alarmed shouts brought the others running. Unable to bear the suffocating darkness, somebody struck up a fire. Here and there among the company, horses and men had disappeared while leaving the rest behind.
They lit torches, drew their weapons, and sought out survivors. They found a girl and the remains of a goat beneath a tree. For a moment, they thought she was another victim. Then with a shriek of relief she realized she’d been saved.
The search continued until dawn, turning up four corpses torn to pieces and a number of dismembered livestock, and no sign of the creature that had caused the carnage.
“Shushou, are you all right?” Kiwa hugged her close.
She daubed at her face with a damp rag. “I’m alive. I’m fine.”
“Let me go, please. There’s blood all over my hair and clothing. I need to wash it off.”
Kiwa started to object again, but instead, he had three stout women from his retinue accompany her to the stream.
The sun rose over the green campsite. The road shone like a winding white ribbon, so bright and cheerful, as if the land was spinning an elaborate lie about its true nature.
Accompanied by the three women, Shushou scooted down the shoulder of the road to the bank of a narrow stream. She scrubbed her face and rinsed out her hair. The strong, rough hands of the women pitched in to help.
The cold stream water numbed her face. She took off her clothes. One woman washed it, as if mourning the soiling of such a fine garment. The others wiped down her body with wet hand towels.
“It must have been very frightening. You poor thing.”
“I’m okay. I got out of it alive. That’s all that matters.”
“You’re okay? My, my. There’s no need to put up such a brave front.”
“I really am. Though I was scared.”
Thinking about it was frightening, but now she only shivered from the cold. After a perfunctory toweling off, wrapped in a dry robe, the shivering began in earnest. Back on the warm road, though, her emotions snapped back to normal.
She was alive and luck was on her side.
The remains of the humans and the animal were buried in a corner of the campsite. This wasn’t the first youma attack they’d suffered. It was the first time an attacker had left enough of a body behind to bury. That alone was terrifying.
Shushou watched the scene, the hairs on the back of her neck pricking up. A flustered Kiwa came up to her. “How are you doing, Shushou? Have your nerves settled down?”
“Pretty much so. Sorry about the goat. I know it was one of yours.”
Kiwa waved his hand back and forth. “No need to apologize. It’s reward enough knowing that you’re safe and sound.” He followed the direction of her gaze and nervously nudged her in the opposite direction. “You don’t want to look at such things. How about we get something warm in your stomach?”
He guided her to his wagon. A small fire was burning. Water steamed in a kettle. Shushou accepted a cup of green tea and sat down by the fire. Any lingering anxieties vanished. And once they had, it didn’t take long for her to notice that nobody else was crowding around the fire, for it was quite hot.
“Unbelievable. Last night, after expressly telling them not to, a couple of idiots started kindling fires. That’s what probably led to this. Those fires must have drawn the youma here. I had to put my foot down. I let them know that any more such foolishness and they were free to head back the way they came.”
“There’s no stopping fools from doing what fools do, except when it places the lives of others in danger. We’ll be fine, Shushou. Nothing like that will happen again.”
“Just a minute—”
“Once you’ve got your wits about you, climb aboard the wagon. We’ll be on our way as soon as the burials are finished.”
“What? Still frightened? I certainly cannot fault you for that, but staying here any longer would be dangerous. We have to put this place behind us as quickly as possible.”
With that Kiwa ran off to order his retinue around. Shushou watched him in blank amazement. “What’s going through his mind? And here I thought he was one of the good guys.”
It was becoming obvious that Kiwa had no grasp of the big picture. They’d come down a road they never should have set foot on. That’s why the youma attacked. Their primary objective at his point should be to beat a fast retreat. Definitely not continue to plod forward.
Not to mention that the youma had left ravaged corpses behind and vanished into thin air. Didn’t Kiwa see a deeper meaning in such strange behavior? Though the smell of blood was in the air, no other youma showed up. That’s why remains were left lying around—the smaller scavenger youma didn’t dare invade this territory.
Meaning it belonged to one big and scary creature.
“We can’t go any further.”
Of course the goushi had taken a detour. This youma played on a completely different level than any they’d encountered so far.
Shushou got to her feet. She’d turn back on her own and run to catch up with the shushi. Except she couldn’t make her feet take the first step. Kiwa and company weren’t dissuaded in the least. She had to wonder if she was right to abandon them without trying to persuade them otherwise.
She would explain to Kiwa that this route was too dangerous and convince them to turn back. If they hurried, they could probably catch up with the goushi.
“Ah, but no. Shitsu-san has his horse-drawn wagon.”
Considering the amount of effort it’d take getting him to part with that, she had to conclude that setting off on her own was her best option. Head back, catch up with the others, explain the situation. At a time like this, the goushi should know best how to proceed.
Pondering the possibilities, Shushou wrapped her arms around her head. “I can’t imagine the goushi rushing to the rescue in a situation like this.”
They’d come down this road after ignoring the goushi’s warnings. She could hardly be sure of her ability to navigate what was barely a footpath and still catch up with the koushu. If she had a kijuu, maybe.
“I’ve got no choice but to convince all of them to go back. Shitsu-san has to get rid of the wagon and divvy up the supplies.”
The problem was, a company of this many people wheeling about and charging back down the road could entice the youma to follow. This youma hid itself at the sound of human voices, proof that it was more intelligent than the ones they’d encountered thus far. They would be drawing the others into the same danger.
“I am a bloody fool.”
However mad she was at Gankyuu and Rikou, she couldn’t stomach the way things were going. Shushou knew what she had to do.
“But how to do it?”
Kiwa proceeded up the road. For the time being, unable to come to a decision, Shushou rode in his wagon. Three times already, the procession came to a halt as people walking along the shoulder of the road simply vanished.
The youma had darted in and snatched them away.
It must be lurking in the woods, waiting for a gap to grow in the line or for somebody to lag behind. The victims were mostly torn to shreds. This youma, it seemed, killed for sport.
Spurred on by a primeval fear, people instinctively picked up the pace. The outriders instead pressed their mounts into the middle of the road, jostling shoulder to shoulder. Come nighttime, they crowded together quiet as mice, awake and alert until the morning broke.
And yet when the sun finally rose in the east, a few more had been picked off here and there.
“If we don’t hunt it down—”
Sooner or later they were going to join up again with the koushu. At this rate, they were simply leading the predator to more prey. They had to stop and kill the beast. However she pleaded with Kiwa, he showed not the slightest inclination to take such measures.
They soon gave up tracking down the victims and burying them. The company grimly hurried along in a cloud of dust. Nobody slept long or well. After two days maintaining a pell-mell pace, they came to a break in the forest.
The collective cry of relief rose into the air. The youma had no hiding places here. A broad savanna opened up before their eyes. The bleak landscape stretched to the far horizon, strewn with boulders and populated only by overgrown bushes and low-lying shrubs, like small undulations in a broad sea.
“Ah, a welcome change. With no place to conceal itself, this youma is bound to give up the chase.” Kiwa smiled and urged the men and horses forward. Like sailors lost as sea finally spying land, they surged ahead with renewed hope.
It was past noon when screams erupted at the rear of the long procession. Shushou caught a glimpse of a big ape-like creature. The tail end of the line disintegrated. People scattered onto an adjoining rise that provided a fuller view of their surrounding.
The horses drawing the wagon set off at a gallop. The people on foot quickly fell far behind, then disappeared behind the gentle rise and fall of the terrain.
“Shitsu-san, you can’t! Those people—!”
“I can’t do anything for them anyway, Shushou. We must take this opportunity to escape.”
“I certainly feel sorry for those who were attacked. What could I do by turning back? Salve my own conscience? Don’t we have a more important mission to accomplish?”
“That’s right. Why are we going on the Shouzan? One of us must go to Mt. Hou, become emperor, and save the Kingdom of Kyou along with its three million subjects. For any of those capable of ascending to the throne to sacrifice their lives out of concern for a handful would only place the lives of those three million in greater danger.”
Shushou glared at Kiwa. “Do you think that those incapable of saving a handful can save millions?”
“Do you think any emperor can reign without killing a single person?”
Shushou set her jaw and didn’t answer.
“Do you sacrifice the few and save the many? Or yield to sentiment and save the few while consigning the kingdom to wrack and ruin? Those who choose to sit upon the throne must be prepared to make countless similar decisions, Shushou.”
“I am not saying I do not deeply regret sacrificing them. If I possessed to power to save them, I would do so without hesitation. But I do not. The best way I can thank them for their honorable sacrifice is to press forward. Afterwards, the only way I can recompense their losses is to never forget my thanks to them and do good by others in equal proportion.”
The same attitude as the koushu. When push came to shove, they saved themselves while others were falling victim. But would any other strategy leave more survivors behind?
“I really am an bloody fool,” Shushou said to herself, her words drowned out by sound of the racing wagon and galloping horses.
The strong rescued the weak. That was their duty. But nobody was strong in the Yellow Sea. The strong saving the weak only made sense in a world where the strong could save themselves. In the Yellow Sea, the goushi were anything but strong.
When a big youma showed up and they couldn’t defend themselves against it, they took the long way around. Under more favorable circumstances, they could maybe save two or three besides themselves. So while the goushi were hired as bodyguards, in the Yellow Sea that by no means made them kings of the hill.
In the Yellow Sea, a goushi could defend himself. Expend the minimum amount of energy doing that and he’d have enough left over to protect his employer. But exhaust those resources and he wouldn’t be able to save anybody else, even if he wanted to.
“That’s what it comes down to in the end.”
No matter how at home they were in the Yellow Sea, even the koushu didn’t rule the roost. They could hardly set forth on such a journey burdened by somebody unprepared in body and mind, and a stranger to boot.
In order guarantee their safety to the greatest extent possible, every member of the expedition must be ready to accept the goushi’s advice from the start.
Where drinkable water wasn’t available, jug rocks would be provided. Whatever wasn’t packed beforehand wouldn’t be available later. There weren’t any stores in the Yellow Sea. There weren’t any roads in the Yellow Sea. The places that were flat and level and straight weren’t roads. There was no room for regrets, no way to call off the journey halfway there.
Success in the Yellow Sea was determined by the preparations made before even entering it.
Accept the advice of the goushi, diligently prepare well ahead of time, grant the goushi’s knowledge the respect due it, trust the goushi’s intuition—otherwise, the protection of the greatest guardian in the world wasn’t worth a thing. He who hired a goushi was not the goushi’s master. All the authority on the journey must rest with the goushi.
Only the koushu could definitely address such seemingly trifling matters as where to build a fire and when to extinguish it. They could look at the landscape and size up the situation and come to the right conclusions, the product of the wisdom and experience they’d amassed after living in the Yellow Sea since they were children.
The person in charge on a journey had to be the one with the most experience under his belt. That’s what it meant to hire a goushi.
“Hand over a lot of money and have somebody accompany you to Mt. Hou—”
Hiring a bodyguard was a somewhat different proposition. A goushi was hired to go to Mt. Hou. They made the journey. The employer was basically along for the ride.
It was the goushi who shepherded his employer, who provided the necessary leadership and direction. A goushi planned from the start with the needs of the person who paid him in mind. The safety of others, or a Kiwa or a Chodai, simply didn’t factor into his thinking. If it did, many more goushi would be required.
“It’d be pretty much pointless unless everybody had their own goushi.”
One apiece would require a lot of goushi. With that many, the could combine their forces in a pinch and have enough to spare when dangers presented themselves.
Very few of those going on the Shouzan had a goushi. Kiwa had more than forty attendants, but knowing nothing more than them, Kiwa was every bit their equal. Had he hired a goushi before the journey began, the goushi surely would have recommended reducing the size of his retinue and supplementing the company with additional bodyguards.
There had to be a better way than hoping for safety in numbers, none of them knowing how to protect themselves in the Yellow Sea, then running away while the stragglers took the fall.
“It’s disgusting that I only figured this out now,” Shushou castigated herself as the wagon raced across the prairie. “Gankyuu would be well within his rights calling me on the carpet for such foolishness.”
Towards sundown they finally slackened their pace. Having left the youma far behind with its victims, everyone who’d kept up smiled with a survivor’s relief.
Shushou got out of the wagon and peered back through the thin veil of dust. The company was a third the size of what it had been. That was how many people they had consigned to oblivion.
She planted her feet on the ground, ground that felt no firmer than a small boat on rough seas, and walked over to where Kiwa was building a fire.
“Shitsu-san, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Yes?” He glanced up at her, his face gentle as a babe’s.
“I hate to have to say this, after all that you’ve done for me.”
“Oh, what’s this all about, then?”
“I’d like to borrow a little food and water.”
“I’d also appreciate a lance or sword, if that’s not asking too much.”
“Shushou! What in the world are you going on about? What would you need such things for?”
“I’m going back for them.”
“I’m going to try and join up with the rest of the travelers on foot. If that’s possible, and the youma has truly given up the chase, then good. If not, then we’ll need to figure out together how to get rid of that youma.”
A clearly flustered Kiwa grabbed Shushou by the arm. “Don’t say such foolish things!”
“Shitsu-san, don’t you understand? We never should have come down this road. That youma isn’t likely to give up the chase. If we keep going, we’ll inevitably meet up with those who exercised their better judgment in order not to get attacked by that youma.”
“The stupidity of our actions is a settled fact. Nothing we do now can reverse those decisions. And maybe abandoning the unlucky and running away is nature’s way of allowing fools like us to survive. But inflicting this youma on those who had no part in this foolishness goes beyond the pale.”
“Shushou, calm down and think this through.”
Shushou shook her head. “I have thought it through. I got angry at the way the goushi did things and joined you. I couldn’t stomach being told that because I didn’t know anything about the Yellow Sea, I didn’t have an opinion worth listening to. Except if this was about people who owned and raised horses, say, getting lectured by people who didn’t, it’d be the same thing.”
“It is what it is, and no good will come from plowing that ocean. But having lost my temper at the koushu, I can’t repeat the same mistakes here. Nursing emotions like that is stupid. So I’m going back and admitting I was in the wrong and apologizing—that is, if the youma doesn’t follow me.”
“I got my dander up without understanding the first thing about what it takes to be a koushu. I ignored their warnings and stepped into this danger all on my own. Running away and leaving behind those on foot is one thing. But to expose the koushu to the same danger? I won’t do it. Do you have in you to part with a portion of your supplies? Only as much as I can carry. Either way, I won’t hold it again you.”
“What reason have I to part with any supplies? This talk of going back—”
“Fine. I understand.” Shushou turned on her heels. Traveling light could prove the better strategy anyway.
“If you don’t have the courage to go back for your own, well, you’re free to do as you see fit. I can’t tell you what to do. Better to go on alone, I suppose, than in the company of a coward who can’t pay the bill for his own foolishness. But don’t expect me to play along any longer.”
Shushou said with a final wave, “Thanks for everything, Shitsu-san. Take care of yourself.”