Shushou’s house was located close to the prefecture school, on the northern edge of Renshou. Renshou was a city that faced north on an ascent at the base of Mt. Ryouun. Going up the rising thoroughfare, from the quiet nook formed by the line up of various temples along the barrier wall that enclosed the city, upon reaching the northern barrier wall, one would come to a magnificent, large gate fronting a multistoried building.
The gate was two stories high, and the building to the left and right of the gate was three stories high. Past the gate and the building’s walls, the intricate roof of the main wing could be seen. The tiles of the roof were glazed a brilliant green and multicolored decorations formed crests along the roof or hung below the eaves. A circular pathway leading from the gate gradually widened, along which an arresting wall stood petitioning for the divine protection of the gods. To the left and right, the overhanging limbs of a handsome arbor encircled the enclosing wall, which itself possessed thin, translucent windows. Past the mansion, the city of Renshou ended. The master of the estate bore the family name of Sou, and as the garden-grove extending out along the slope of the house grounds was extremely well known, the place was called the Sou Park Mansion or simply Sou Park.
Shushou was born in this house, though her surname was Sai. Her father, Sou Joshou, is also called Banko—the Jack-of-All-Trading—meaning that there is no business that Joshou does not have a hand in. Because he revived Kyou standard in forestry, he won the reputation of being the wealthiest merchant in Renshou.
They say that in Renshou it is impossible to surpass Banko in terms of wealth and rank as such a fortune does not exist. Though it might not be expected from one with such affluence, his wife, Bashou, was celebrated as being a wise wife; his business sense was that of a superior character, and surpassed that of three men and three women; his family was tightly knit, and Joshou’s numerous employees all revered him. They said that one couldn’t possibly wish for more fortune.
.: 28 :.
If one looked up at the numerous gates they could see the embodiment of that fortune in the fine motifs formed by the iron trellises covering the windows and apertures. Besides looking, Shushou also muttered as she passed through the large front gate.
No matter how solidly the mansion was built, or how strongly devoted the joushin, should a even a single hippou appear, or a large fire, the whole thing would be burned to the ground. A flood during a drought, a gale during a cold wave—even Banko’s fortune would be powerless in the face of youma or natural disasters.
“My goodness; ‘stupid’—I can’t just overlook that, now can I?”
Shushou lifted her head at the sudden voice. The joushin uniformly bowed deeply to the shadow of the man standing in the courtyard. That middle-aged man with the gentle face was the famous Joshou of Renshou.
“My dear youngest daughter, something must be done about that sharp tongue of yours.”
“Is that right?”
Joshou smiled and embraced his daughter.
“When I heard that some mushi appeared near the prefecture school I came out to meet my daughter as she arrived home, and what do I hear, but Shushou saying some extremely rude words.”
Shushou lightly ducked her head. Joshou smiled at her reaction and thanked the joushin.
“Judging from how you look, it must have been you men who took them down. Good job.”
.: 29 :.
In the cold and silent courtyard, the joushin nodded in acquiescence.
“It is as I have told you, Shushou. Why don’t you just stop going to the prefecture school? By doing so not only do you put yourself in danger, but it is dangerous for the joushin to go and pick you up.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. They’ve closed the school.”
Shushou briskly turned towards the midpoint gate. While she had been waiting for the joushin she had been frozen to the bone, and walking all the way home from the school hadn’t seemed to warm her up at all.
“That’s right. The principal was killed.”
The prefecture school—or it could be called simply “school”—was the only one its kind in any prefecture. Those who excelled in the prefecture school could be elevated to the district school by receiving a recommendation. That had almost been within her grasp. Shushou’s father said that it wasn’t necessary for her to attend the prefecture school once she passed the county school, which resulted in a huge argument between Shushou and her father, for he hadn’t understood why she wanted to attend so much.
Joshou’s eyed widened in surprise.
“Sage Baku was?”
“Yes. Early this morning, youma attacked his house. A bafuku ate him.”
.: 30 :.
Joshou chased after Shushou, and placing himself before her, he kneeled down.
“...what a thing to happen.”
“Please don’t look at me like that. I saw him die with my own two eyes. For the relatives of the students at school it was simply the last straw.”
“If you put it that way...”
Shushou gave a small shrug.
“It couldn’t be helped. If it had been his house, maybe, then they wouldn’t have been able to enter through the iron lattice covering the windows.”
As she spoke, Shushou surveyed the courtyard. The beautiful motifs made of iron framework still covered all the apertures. Every day, new mortar was plastered on so that it piled up. Every day an iron rivet was nailed to the door without question, and the joushin stood guard day and night.
“They say that the father of a boy from a neighboring village was also killed. His father, because he was far away and stayed until the last bushel had been collected, didn’t return home before twilight. I heard that when he didn’t come home everyone was worried, and when the neighborhood searched for him, someone who passed the winter in the old hermitage about ten ri away said that everyone was dead, and they discovered their bodies there.”
.: 31 :.
“That’s why I said that it couldn’t be helped. That boy doesn’t have any joushin at his house, and because in the fall the locusts come out and make the wheat go bad, they don’t eat until the last bushel has been hauled in. They say that the boy’s father held the payment for the bushels they collected in his mouth. I wonder if, when the youma attacked, he dropped it while he was trying to escape.”
Joshou gently stroked his youngest daughter’s back to comfort her, but Shushou avoided his hand and began to walk towards the main wing of the house.
“It’s alright. I’m fine. You don’t have to do that anymore. No matter who dies I won’t be scared. Ever since I was small and aunty died, it’s seemed stupid to be scared.”
“That’s good, Shushou.”
Joshou followed his daughter and embraced her shoulder. He held her like that until they reached the main wing, where he seated himself on a roomy chair.
“...We’re facing hard times right now.”
“Everyone says so.”
“I understand that it hurts your heart seeing the people around you, but don’t let yourself become careless.”
.: 32 :.
“I don’t really think that I’ll become so negligent.”
Her father watched her as she sat down.
“You’re not going to ascend the mountain, Father?”
Joshou widened his eyes fractionally.
“After all, we’re facing hard times because there in no emperor on the throne, right? If Father becomes the Emperor, then won’t our problems disappear?”
Joshou stroked his daughter’s hair, and shook his head with a bitter smile on his face.
“Fortunate though I am, Shushou, I am still no more than a mere merchant.”
.: 33 :.