During the early dawn of vernal equinox, in the town of Ken the man Shushou met was seen off by the inn's owner, who wore a stiff expression.
Gankyuu could not stop sighing as he waded through the hustle and bustle of the dark street with the haku's reins in his hand. Gankyuu had admonished Shushou for her recklessness as they ate the morning’s meal, but she appeared not have listened to him at all. On the contrary, as he spoke she sat slumped over their table in the dining room, half asleep, and Gankyuu had no choice but to prepare for the worst.
He was familiar with the Yellow Sea. There were a large number of people here to ascend. Many family members, guards were there to accompany them, as well as sturdy kijuu. It was not like they all came to this dangerous place just to hunt kijuu; they were only there to go to Mt. Hou and come back it, so it wasn’t impossible. Gankyuu had never protected someone ascending, but he had many acquaintances among the people, called goushi, who did that sort of thing, because they were all companions who regularly entered the Yellow Sea. After hearing tales of hardships to the mountains, he figured he would manage something. He could hunt for kijuu during their stay at Mt. Hou. And if he could get 65 ryou worth, it would be a comfortable trade, is what he kept telling himself.
.: 89 :.
Sticking closely to him was the source of Gankyuu’s trouble who, while shrugging her shoulders as if to ward off the cold, looked innocently up at him.
“Why are you wearing that cloth on your head?”
Gankyuu clicked his tongue in disapproval and did not reply. He wore the cloth over his head so he people he knew would not be able to recognize him. He didn’t want his companions to know that he was taking this kid into the Yellow Sea. He would be a laughingstock.
Shushou exhaled and laughed.
“It would be bad for you to give up, wouldn’t it, mister? You need money, right?”
“You could say that,” Gankyuu muttered under his breath. He looked down at Shushou. She removed her jukun, and put on the coarse robe Gankyuu had acquired for her the previous night over her padded kimono. Shushou hated taking off her jukun; in her mind, the robe was disagreeable and unreasonable, but Gankyuu persuaded her that a long skirt would only become a hindrance, and thankfully she was able to change quickly.
.: 90 :.
“Hey, how did you get that money?”
“I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re thinking. I brought everything from home.”
“A kijuu, as well. Unfortunately he was stolen by a ill-tempered adult like you. It's an awful story. In the end, since he was snatched before I found an inn, the adults around me couldn't do anything about it.”
As he thought to himself that it being snatched was a result, Gankyuu asked A kijuu?”
“His name was Hakuto. A moukyoku. You know them?”
As Shushou peered into a nearby street stall, she told Gankyuu the story of how Hakuto had been stolen. There were stores open this early in the morning because there were people making last minute purchases to add to their luggage. Last night, they had acquired enough supplies for two people; at least, it would be enough if nothing got ruined.
“He was very tame, well-behaved, fast, and I think he understood what I was feeling—or at least he was clever enough that I thought he did.”
.: 91 :.
Looking regretful, Shushou ended her story there.
“I see. But in that case, you’ve only yourself to blame.”
Gankyuu asked for a few dried, sugar-covered apricots, and as he thrust them into his pack he looked over his shoulder at Shushou.
“Moukyoku are friendly. Not just, yours—all moukyoku are like that. Even the moukyoku in the Yellow Sea—if you put out some food they’ll gather. And they're all the more sociable after they've been tamed to be kijuu. Because they aren't suspicious of anyone who calls out to them, you must never release the reins of a moukyoku. In towns, you shouldn’t even dismount. You need to remain vigilant until you reach a stable you can trust.”
“…is that right?”
“That's right. Your first mistake was in dismounting. But at least you weren't forced to go to the government office. That was lucky.”
“If he had taken me there, it would have been my victory. I really did have a certificate.”
“I don’t know about that. His certificate was probably just as valid.”
.: 92 :.
“There are some kijuu hunters who are crafty like that. They don't hunt kijuu in the Yellow Sea, but hunt them in Ken County. In Rinken, you found that out firsthand. They target kijuu as they board ships, and send a message by seichou to their comrades on the opposite shore in northern Ken. For moukyoku, they take out a certificate for moukyoku. Since they regularly handle kijuu, they carry a ton of those certificates.
Shushou sunk into a sullen silence.
“The lot in Rinken got and sent out the "stolen" certificate and their co-conspirators matched the certificate with a kijuu to steal. About now they're probably in the kingdom of Han. Well, unless they have a town to stay at.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shushou said softly.
Gankyuu gazed at her steadily.
“If I become empress, I will catch them all. I will definitely make them regret what they’ve done.”
“So you’re not just here to do the shouzan—you really have the will to become empress?”
.: 93 :.
“Oh? Isn’t that what shouzan is for?”
“Then you think that you may be chosen?”
“Is there something wrong with me thinking that way?”
“Right, I get it,” Gankyuu muttered under his breath.
Moukyoku weren't bad kijuu. The lot who conspired together and targeted the moukyoku, were likely going to make good money. Not to mention that the family that owned such a kijuu in the first place was undoubtedly very well off. Looking at her, she did somehow look like the child of refined people, and also gave the apearance of being accustomed to ordering other people around. A wealthy girl, ignorant of the ways of the world, treated like a precious jewel, full of conceit, aiming for Mt. Hou. It was unprecedented, but not impossible.
“Well, I'm glad you could make it without stealing even a zen.”
“That's I purposefully came wearing that jukun. If I looked impoverished, there is no way anyone would think a child like me could be carrying that much money.”
"Oh? Isn't that sort of thing more like common sense?"
“I wonder about that.”
.: 94 :.
Shushou looked up at Gankyuu as he patted the kijuu.
“I could run off with all that money right now, couldn’t I?”
“Well aren’t you clever.”
“Your name is Gankyuu, and you are a kijuu hunter well known to that inn, right? If you were to run off, I would go directly to the prefectural office to lodge a complaint. You know what province we’re in, don’t you?”
Ken Prefecture was part of the capital province of Ei.
“That's right, and I am—or rather, my father is—well known to the government officials of Ei Province. Before I was in a hurry to get to northern Ken, but if something were to happen to cause me to miss my change during the vernal equinox, there would be nothing to stop me from taking advantage of that fact when I lodge my complaint.”
“So it’s like that…”
Definitely cunning, Gankyuu breathed to himself.
“But what if you were silenced? There are many people who enter the Yellow Sea only to end up dead. A corpse can be transported and left in the Yellow Sea. If it worked out that way, even if you'd intended to complain, you would be unable to.”
.: 95 :.
Shushou snorted lightly.
“That will not happen.”
“If I were to die, there would be no one to become empress. The gods in heaven will do something to prevent that.”
Unconsciously, Gankyuu dropped his shoulders in defeat.
Laughingly, Shushou grasped Gankyuu’s hand.
“When my moukyoku was stolen, I thought there was no way I would make it in time for the vernal equinox. But here I am. It must be because the heavens will it.”
“If I am to become empress, nothing will happen to me. My luck has been good so far, hasn’t it?”
Gankyuu heaved a sigh. Just where was all this confidence coming from?
“Mt. Hou is far away.”
"I have a kijuu, so I'll be fine."
Wasn’t your kijuu stolen? thought Gankyuu, and he observed Shushou looking up at Gankyuu's haku.
“You’d said before that you’d stabled a kijuu in the stable, didn’t you? That was why I hired you.”
Should he call her 'clever?' No, 'cunning' described her well enough. Either way Gankyuu lowered his shoulders in defeat.
Shushou clapped Gankyuu on the back beneath his unconsciously rounded shoulders.
“Don't be discouraged, comparing yourself to me. I was known in my area for my cleverness.”
Gankyuu's shoulders fell a little more, but he made no move to acknowledge the validity of Shushou's comment.
.: 96 :.