5-7 Gankyuu and Shushou ran as best they could, weaving among the rocks and underbrush, following the contours of the hill. Stumbling along, warily rushing from one shadow to the next, they still managed to maintain steady progress.
I hate this, Shushou thought.
She could hear the haku neighing far behind them and shook her head. If she could avert her eyes, couldn’t she avert her ears too? She might as well try. This was less about going forward than running away from the haku.
“Don’t cry, girl.”
“Leave me alone,” Shushou grumbled. The sight of that haku watching them run away was going to stick with her the rest of her life.
“Give things names and you start developing feelings for them. So koushu don’t give kijuu names.” But his own voice was hoarse.
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Go ahead and rail at me for being cold and heartless.”
Shushou glared at him. “Idiot. Nobody’s saying that.” She shifted her stance to give his arm a better hold around her shoulders. “It’s inevitable, right? We had to get away and that meant sacrificing the haku. If the sun rises by the time it takes for the youma to close in, we’ll be mostly in the clear. Staying with the haku and feeling sorry for him might make us feel better, but then we’d all end up dead.”
“So you do understand.”
“Don’t treat me like a fool.”
Shushou mopped her brow with her free hand. She picked up the pace as best she could. The sooner they were too far away to hear the haku’s cries the better.
“If anybody’s a fool, it’s the koushu. Not giving a kijuu a name kind of misses the point, doesn’t it?”
Answering the dubious expression on Gankyuu’s face, Shushou glanced up at him and said, “I mean, referring to your haku as you or him is more intimate than giving him a name.”
Gankyuu stared back at the tearful child. But with his mind focused on the more important task of flight, he didn’t answer.
In any case, he couldn’t tell her she was wrong. This made the ninth kijuu he’d lost. He couldn’t forget the number or the kijuu. A glimpse of another one like them brought all those memories to the fore. There were plenty of shushi who insisted on riding the same species of kijuu, no matter what. Gankyuu never owned the same kijuu twice.
Shushou said, “I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”
“You had to sacrifice the haku because of me. If I wasn’t here, the two of you would have made a beeline for those buildings. That’s why you wanted Rikou and me to leave the haku and go on without you, isn’t it?”
Gankyuu stared in surprise at his human walking stick.
“What wasn’t I supposed to see? I know you couldn’t go there because of me.”
Gankyuu remained mum. The truth was, he was breathing hard by now and trying to carry on a conversation was more bother than it was worth.
“If I took off, that is where you’d go, right? Do you think you could make it there on your own?”
Gankyuu stopped in his tracks. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that if you think you can make it there, then let’s go our separate ways.”
Gankyuu slumped to the ground. There was a hollow beneath the ledge of stone. He rolled himself into it.
“Can you make it there? Then go ahead. I’ll raise a ruckus to draw the youma towards me while I’m waiting for Rikou to return. It’s worth a try.”
Gankyuu looked at the girl kneeling there, a strange feeling welling up inside him. “What in the world are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking I should take responsibility for having to sacrifice the haku. Just to be clear, you bear some responsibility too. You could have said something, like you had a safe haven where Rikou and I weren’t welcome. I certainly would have given an explanation like that all due consideration.”
Gankyuu couldn’t help a wry grin. “All due consideration, eh?”
“You weren’t honest with us. You keep your true intention so bottled up it’s hard to tell when you’re really speaking from the heart. I still might have believed you were only putting on a brave front. Those would be your chickens coming home to roost.”
“But I do believe I was in the wrong to insist on staying with you. The haku had to be sacrificed as a result. You both suffered because me. So to make up for it, I’ll be the decoy while you’re making your way there. Well, that’s what I was thinking, though right now you don’t look like you could make it.”
Gankyuu chuckled. “It looks that way to you too?”
“What if I went to that place and called for help?”
“Stop it. You’re more likely to end up dead than get anybody to listen to you.”
“Then I’ll help you get close enough. I promise never to say a word about it to anybody. What is that place?”
Gankyuu lay down and watched the sky brightening above the ledge of rock. “What did you come to the Yellow Sea to accomplish?”
“To become the next empress.”
“So be on your way. I’ll manage somehow.”
“As close as that place may be, you still need a shoulder to lean on, even my small shoulders.” She tilted her head to the side. “If I was a koushu, there’d be no problem with us going there together, right?”
“If you had any idea what it meant to become a koushu in the first place.”
Shushou sighed. “Do you know how insulting that is? It really ticks me off.”
“You’re saying that a child like me has no clue about the hardships the koushu have to put up with.”
“And do you?”
“I can forgive you for making fun of me because I’m a child. I can forgive you for pointing out that I know relatively little about the Yellow Sea. But I can’t forgive you for insisting that I simply don’t understand how the big world works!”
“And do you?” Gankyuu jested.
The furious child glared back at him. “I have eyes, don’t I? And ears? Don’t you believe there are many things in the world that can be grasped if you only watch closely and listen carefully?”
“Are you claiming to have acquaintances among the koushu?”
“My family are wealthy merchants, well known even in Renshou.”
‘‘I guess that makes you a genuine princess, eh? Not surprised.”
“Stop talking to me like that!”
Gankyuu held up his hand. “Keep it down, please.”
“Then stop saying such insulting things! Anyway, we’re wealthy enough to afford a large staff of live-in servants.”
Gankyuu gazed at Shushou’s flushed face.
“I wore silk kimono and attended the prefectural academy. My servant Keika wore a cotton kimono that was always dirty. I have no problem imagining what it means to work from sun-up to sun-down. Coming on this journey taught me that my imagination wasn’t far off.”
Two girls the same age, one living a life clothed in silk, the other living a life just to serve her.
“The live-in servants are itinerants too. They left the place where their family records are registered, lost their land and their vocations and their homes. With nobody to turn to or depend upon, they have to indenture themselves in order to eat. Their employers take care of the basic necessities but they can’t do a thing without a by-your-leave. My professors taught me that it’s illegal to buy and sell people, to own slaves. Live-in servants may not be called slaves but that’s what they are.”
Gankyuu’s attention didn’t waver.
“People see these refugees and itinerants—who can’t even put food on the table—and hire them because they feel sorry for them. The servants in turn repay that kindness by working for them the remainder of their days. That’s the polite fiction we all tell ourselves. Both parties know when they’re hired they’ll have a status little different than that of a slave.”
“In exchange for indenturing themselves, live-in servants give up their passports. Did you know that?”
Gankyuu nodded. A passport was issued by the government office in the prefecture where a person legally resided and was the sole means of vouching for his identity. If he did not occupy his house and land for a period of seven years, he was declared legally dead and the land was confiscated. But by producing a passport, he could return home and file a claim for compensation. At the bare minimum, he could appeal to the prefectural government for support.
The majority of refugees gave up their passports for reasons that came down to trading uncertainty for security or peace of mind, as in the case of child sold to a koushu guild master. As a result, refugees were also known as “undocumented.”
“Giving up a passport is essentially a pledge not to run away. When a parent becomes a live-in servant, so do his children. They go to work when they are still young. They won’t attend school, and if they have a passport, it will be confiscated. When they become adults, they won’t be registered on the census and won’t receive a homestead, making it difficult to pursue an independent life. They can’t get married and can’t have children. Their only hope for a reward comes from working for their master. And because the master doesn’t want them saving money and running away, he won’t pay them in cash, only in kind, and the bare necessities at that. When they grow old, because they are not registered on the census, they cannot retire to a rike. They’ll work until the day they die and get buried in a potter’s field.”
Gankyuu silently nodded.
“Keika won’t be free until my father dies. Even when he dies, if my mother is still alive, she will inherit the live-in servants along with the rest of the property. Keika will remain a live-in servant until my mother dies and no one is left to inherit and the household is forfeited to the kingdom.”
“Except such forfeitures hardly ever happen.”
“That’s right. Under the guise of compensation, my father will distribute the assets of the household and company to my eldest brother. When my father dies, in the eyes of the law, he will be a penniless old man living off the charity of his children. There will be no estate—or servants—left to forfeit, it having been divvied up among the children.”
Gankyuu nodded again.
“I can’t claim any koushu as my close acquaintances. But being raised by servants meant being raised by refugees. I always thought it strange that I should be given such beautiful silk while Keika was not. Why couldn’t Keika and I eat the same meal at the same table? And how was it that our meals, prepared in the same kitchen, were so very different? Why couldn’t Keika live in the main wing of the house with me? Even though I’ve never been a refugee or itinerant, nobody can tell me I don’t understand their lot in life.”
“Though I don’t get the koushu to that extent, I understand that instead of trading their freedom for the safe and secure jail cell of a family estate, the koushu choose to live free in the Yellow Sea. Servants and koushu start out refugees. On the one hand, there are those who grovel to the master of the house, trying to shed the stigma of a refugee and rise in respectable society. On the other, there are those who shed respectability and take on the name of koushu no tami. As for me, I’d take that red passport over the patronage of any lord of the manor.”
“But you are going to Mt. Hou in order to become empress.”
“That I am. That’s why I’m here. But if I can’t be empress then becoming a koushu is good too. You know, there’s nothing wrong with being a shushi either.”
“So empress on one side of the scale and koushu on the other.”
“What’s the problem with that? Don’t you know? Emperors and empresses don’t have census records either.”
Gankyuu grinned. “Koushu like me don’t need either.”
Gankyuu was born in Ryuu. Driven out of the kingdom by civil strife, his parents were stricken from the census records. They relocated to En, except that the Kingdom of En existed for the people of En and the refugees were left to observe the lives of its blessed subjects while sleeping at the side of the road. They could hope for no land or children of their own. As vagrants, they were cut off every aspect of society.
“The emperor can do nothing for us. On the other hand, if there is no land to be had, no place to call our own, then we have no need of an emperor. And if Kyou goes to the dogs, there is nothing left for us to do except to say goodbye and wish her good luck.”
“I suppose so.”
“What does this world really need with an emperor? When an emperor strays from the Way, calamity awaits. I say they should lock them up. Permanent house arrest. Let the government grind to a halt. Sure, things may not improve, but they won’t get any worse.”
Shushou tilted her head to the side, as if trying to shake free some meaning from Gankyuu’s words.
“Does the benevolence of the kirin save any lives? Anybody can feel sorry for somebody else. If that’s all the emperor and kirin are good for, who needs them? All that matters in the end is resolving to live your own life and rejecting a kingdom’s handouts. People long for an emperor out of habit. They subjugate themselves before the emperor the same way refugees beg for mercy from the lord of the manor.”
Rejecting the rule of the emperor, repudiating the will of the Lord God Creator, the koushu were subjects of the youma and their home was the Yellow Sea.
“You can’t long for an empress and be a koushu, Shushou.”
“Don’t be silly,” Shushou laughed. “I don’t long for an empress. I want to be empress. Hardly the same thing at all.” She looked up at the brightening sky. Dawn was breaking. “It’s getting light. Shouldn’t we be on our way? Or do you want me to leave?”
Gankyuu got to his feet. “Lend me your shoulder,” he said.
“Will you be okay?”
“I should be able to hold out till we make it there.”
Gankyuu raised his face to the sky. “The koushu village.”