Chapter 13

3-3 When Riyou told her to do something, Suzu knew of no way to refuse. So on a cold, dark night, with the light of a single lamp to guide her, she climbed Suibi Peak. Clinging to the rope, she searched for a footing amongst the rocks and shrubs. Gales of wind buffeted her. Standing on the narrow path that wound along the crest of the ridge, she had to bend over to face the full strength of the wind.

The cliffs where the kankin mushroom grew were dangerously located halfway up the peak. She tied one end of the rope to a pine tree with it roots anchored into the rock. The other end she fastened around her waist. Clinging to the rope, she started to slowly lower herself down the side of the cliff, but the gusts of wind made her hesitate.

The peaks of these towering mountains were extraordinarily tall. Even holding the lantern over her head, Suzu could not see the base of the cliff she was descending. The wind came rushing skyward out of the pitch-black hole as if to cut right through her. The mere thought of lowering herself into these depths with only the one strand of rope to rely on made her weep with fear.

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Why did Riyou despise her so much? It would have been better if they had never met. It was difficult to live in a foreign country where you didn't speak the language, but she had to believe that life was still possible even if she couldn't comprehend a single word.

Why do I put up with this hell?

She'd catch a worse beating if she didn't get those mushrooms. Even knowing that, she couldn't move her shivering feet.

I have to meet the Royal Kei. If I could . . . .

But all the daydreams in the world wouldn't change the reality of the black cliffs in front of her eyes. That was all there was, and nothing else.

Should I run away? Leave this place behind for good?

If she could return to Japan, she would without a second thought. That was something wizards could do, but there were wizards and then there were wizards. For a wizard like Suzu, crossing the Kyokai was impossible.

She clung to the edge of the cliff and wept. Suddenly she heard a sound behind her, the sound like the purring of a cat. Suzu lifted her head and raised the lantern. The tiger Setsuko was hovering in the air just beyond the precipice.

Suzu gulped and took a step back. Setsuko floated there in the air, as if ready to pounce. It's jewel-like eyes glittered in the light from the lantern.

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"You," the tiger growled insistently at her.

Wizards could grasp the gist of what the tiger was saying, but a wizard of Suzu's status couldn't actually speak the language of beasts.

"The Mistress."

Riyou hadn't been intending all along to feed her to this you-creature, had she? Did she send her out to this solitary mountain crag so this tiger could attack her? Did she hate her that much? But why?

The tiger motioned with its head as if to hurry her along, urging her to just get on with it. So was Riyou spying on her? Making sure that Suzu did as she was told? That's why she sent the tiger after her.

"I know, I know," Suzu answered in a trembling voice. "I'll do it."

She grasped the rope with her shaking hands and little by little inched towards the edge of the cliff. Playing out the rope as she went along, she planted her feet on the edge and stopped, her body suspended in the air. She couldn't move.

I can't do it.

Raw fear prevented her from descending any further.

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"I can't. I'm sorry."

The hand holding fast to her lifeline shook as she were convulsing. If it went on any longer, she could fall for sure. Her hand would slip and she'd let go of the rope.

"Please . . . help . . . . "

A moment later, her hand did slip. Suzu was cast backwards into the air. I'm falling, she thought. She had completely forgotten about the rope tied to her waist.

When she came to, Suzu was floating in the air. The face of the cliff was directly in front of her. The ground beneath her was soft to the touch.

So the ground wasn't that far down, after all. She gasped in relief. Then the sensation of soft fur. Setsuko. She was lying on the tiger's back. She screamed. "No! Let me down!"

A moment later the ground disappeared out from under her. Her body was tossed into the sky. She felt herself falling. She clawed at the air, as if in a dream. And then gagged as the Setsuko grabbed the collar of her jacket. She screamed again. With a flick of its head the tiger again tossed her body into the sky. When she landed once more on the tiger's back, she hung on with all her strength.

It can't get any worse.

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She remembered that the rope was still fastened to her waist. She could climb back up the cliff face using the rope. With trembling hands she drew in the slack on the rope until, abruptly, there was nothing more there.

"Oh no, it's been cut."

Suzu looked at Setsuko's boulder-sized head. She had no choice but to hold on and let it take her back. But why would this creature, who could not be ridden by anyone but Riyou, return her to the grotto?

"T-take me back." Suzu pleaded with the tiger. "Please, take me back to the top of the cliff."

She felt something warm trickling down her back. It was blood, she thought, her mind swimming, from where Setsuko's fangs had gouged her skin. The pain was severe.

"Please. Help me."

The tiger moved. It came closer to the cliff, approached one of the shrubs growing there. With a deep, ferocious growl it admonished her. Do your duty, it was telling her.

Suzu clung to the tiger. She cautiously reached out with one hand, but couldn't reach. A strong gust knocked her sideways. The stronger the wind, the stronger her panic. Her teeth chattering, her knees knocking, she knew this wasn't going to work.

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Apprehensively, she let go with both hands. But as she leaned towards the cliff, she tumbled from the tiger's back. She collided with the face of the cliff, gashing her skin. Setsuko caught her with a claw through her sash and for the third time tossed her onto its back.

Suzu broke down weeping. "Why . . . ?" It was all too much. "Why is she doing this to me? Why does she hate me so much?" Suzu hit the tiger with her fists. "Let go of me! Kill me if that's what you want! Enough is enough!"

Setsuko answered only with a low rumble in her throat.

Take me way from here. It was the first thing that came to her mind. "Where to?" she asked herself timidly. If she ran away, her name would be erased from the Registry of Wizards, and that would be the end of her.

"To Kei."

Go to the Royal Kei. But how? Meet with the Royal Kei and appeal to her. Tell her about her miserable conditions, Riyou's tyrannical rule. But, still . . . .

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Suzu's suddenly raised her head. "That's right! If I appeal to the king, I don't have to worry about the Royal Kei!"

She grabbed Setsuko's coat hard enough to pull the hair out by the roots. "I'll petition the Imperial Court! The king of Sai. I get him to punish Riyou and keep my name in the Registry of Wizards!"

Suzu whacked Setsuko as hard as she could. "Go! We're going to Choukan Palace in Yuunei!"

Setsuko reared up without warning. Suzu clung on for dear life as the tiger's body turned and twisted in the air. Swept into this world, she had survived only by debasing herself. And yet her first ever fight she picked she picked with Setsuko. The tiger flailed about, trying to buck her off. At length it seemed to give up and galloped off through the wind, heading straight to the northeast. The destination was Yuunei, the capital of Sai.

The capital city of Yuunei. Somebody was pounding on the gates before the Hall of Government. The night was approaching dawn. Alarmed at what could be afoot at this time of night, the guardsmen rushed to the gate and discovered there a red tiger, and in the tiger's shadow, a young girl clinging to the post.

"What are you doing here?"

"I came from Suibi Grotto on Mt. Ha. Please help me!"

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The guardsmen lowered their spears to keep the tiger at bay. They assumed the girl had been attacked by this you-creature. After giving them a haughty glare, the tiger turned his back to them and flew off. The guardsmen breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"Miss, are you all right?"

In the light of the breaking day, the girl's sad state became apparent. Her clothes were torn and stained with blood. Her tangled, tostled hair was also wet with blood.

"Were you attacked? Are you all right?"

Suzu clung to the guardsman who was helping to her feet. It's a miracle. I made it to Yuunei. She cried, "You've got to help me! The Mistress of Suibi Grotto is trying to kill me!"

The guardsmen all looked at each other.

"I'm begging you. Help me!"