Chapter 32

8-2 The new year began.

In half a month, Suzu and Seishuu had come to Shisui Prefecture at the western fringes of Wa Province. If they kept on along this road, heading west, they would enter Eishuu, home province of Gyouten, the capital.

They'd covered this much ground in a fortnight by horse cart. Nevertheless, they'd only gotten this far because Seishuu's condition had worsened markedly. No matter what she did, his difficulties began as soon as he woke up. Sometimes he would spend half the day in pain. On such days, and often the next, they couldn't really travel.

Midway through their journey, they welcomed in the New Year.

Seishuu's eyes hadn't improved. His vertigo was as bad as before, making it difficult for him to travel on foot. His headaches began to be accompanied by convulsions and then by vomiting.

"Sorry, Suzu."

He was lying in the bed of a swaying horse cart. The tarp over the wagon covered the bed of the cart. When they had the room, farmers in the outlying villages made a bit of money giving rides to people walking along the road. Officials traveled in stagecoaches, but they were reserved for the wealthy, and didn't give rides to people like Suzu.

"How's the money holding out? I could walk if we had to. Though not very fast."

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"We're doing okay. You don't need to worry about such things." Suzu gave him a playful rap on the forehead.

Seishuu laughed and then pouted, "Don't treat me like a pissant little kid."

His smiling face was drawn and thin. He was sick so often that he couldn't keep anything down. The way he spoke was strange as well. Because Suzu was a wizard, she could understand everything he said, but to everybody else, like the horse cart driver, he only spoke gibberish. His condition had reached the stage where words like "Go" and "Listen" were the only intelligible things they heard.

"If you've got the time to waste mouthing off, then go to sleep."

"I do worry, Suzu. You can be so unreliable."

"Oh, shut up," she said, but had to smile. She no longer got angry when he needled her. There was no malice in his words. It's true that sometimes people would say things that would set him off as well. When he'd say something like, "I'm in pretty bad shape, aren't I?" It was easier just to tell him, "Oh, no you're not."

Suzu looked at Seishuu. "Perhaps it was like that for Riyou-sama as well."

"What was?"

"Everybody at the Grotto hated her. But when asked, nobody ever said they did. We'd all shake our heads and say, 'Of course not!' Still, Riyou would always have some sarcastic comeback."

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"Nobody likes to be told people don't like them. At the same time, nobody likes to be told that they're liked by everybody when they know they aren't."

"In that case, it's better if you're not a disagreeable person to start with."

"Yeah," said Seishuu, staring up at the tarp tented over the bed of the cart. "People will be irritating. People will get under your skin. People know they shouldn't do stuff like that, but you know they will."

"Yeah, they will."

"At times, it may occur to them that they did in fact do something wrong. If they then ask if there are people who don't like them, and they're plainly told that there aren't, obviously they're not going to be satisfied. Even if they're told that there are, they're not going to like it."

"Maybe not."

"If things keep going on in that vein, in ways that they don't understand themselves, they'll get stubborn and say, 'So tell me what you really think.' I think a lot of people come to feel that way."

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Suzu gave him a surprised look. "I sounds like you know what's it like to be Riyou-sama."

"It's not hard to imagine."

"I guess not."

When she thought back about it now, she had never tried to imagine what it must have been like to be Riyou. She only thought about what a mean bitch she was.

"Honestly, I never gave a moment's thought to how Riyou-sama felt. Putting up with her was enough. It's hard to imagine that it also frustrated and rankled Riyou and that's what made her so cynical. And when she couldn't stomach what you said, she'd heap a lot of unpleasant chores on your back. The only place you could catch your breath was in your own bed. Even then, she'd wake you up at all hours."

Seishuu sighed. "That really is sad."

"It was awful."

"Not you, Suzu. You were there because you chose to be there. That's not true of Riyou."

Suzu gave him a reproachful glare. "You're not me. Are you telling me you feel sorry for her?"

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"Isn't it a pain always having to be such a stick-in-the-mud like that? It looks like you ended up hating yourself, too. Sure must suck being you. But the problem is, you can never run away from yourself."

"I suppose," Suzu said peevishly, looking the other way. She lifted a corner of the tarp and glanced out at the road. "It may sound funny to you, but it really was tough. It's sad to think that my happiest moments were when I could crawl into a freezing bed on winter nights and have all my own thoughts to myself."

"There were other people, weren't there? You never thought of talking to them?"

"I did. But me being a kaikyaku, most people didn't get me. They'd laugh at me every time I'd ask about something I didn't know, so I lost interest. To be sure, it was bad of me not to try and learn stuff myself, but when people are always laughing at you, and they don't have much of desire to learn anything about you, pretty soon there's not much point to it."

"So you'd lie in you bed and tell yourself how pitiful you were, how you were the unluckiest girl in the whole world, and cry yourself to sleep."

"That's not . . . . " she started to say. But it was, she realized, blushing at the truth. "I didn't do that. I thought about lots of things. Like, how it was all a dream, and when I opened my eyes again I'd be lying in my real bed at home."

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She laughed wistfully. "After I found out about the Royal Kei, I'd dream about what kind of person she was. I was sure that she must be homesick for Yamato, too. I'd imagine us getting together and talking together like we are now, me telling her all about my hometown."

And the Royal Kei would be so happy to have someone to talk to, and would tell her all about where she was from, too.

Suzu let out a breath. "But when I woke up, it was right back in the same place. Riyou was as unpleasant as ever, working us to the bone, and everybody was mean to me all the time."

Seishuu gave her an exasperated look. "Suzu, you do carry on like a little kid. What did you expect? You never do anything for yourself."

Suzu's eyes flew open in disbelief. Seishuu answered with a tired sigh. "Daydreams sure don't take any effort. Compared to the problems in front of your face and the things that have got to be done, daydreams are a lot easier. But all that time, you're just putting off till tomorrow the things you got to think about now, that you got to do now, right? Instead, nothing changes, nothing gets decided, nothing gets settled."

"That is true."

"Keep on like this, with your head stuck up in the clouds, you're never going to grow up, Suzu."

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"You know, there are times when you really are a pain."

Bleah, said Seishuu, sticking his tongue out at her. He curled into a ball. "You're always so weepy, Suzu. I can't stand it."

"Sorry I'm such a crybaby. I think it's because when I was little, I never cried. I was a very patient kid." The man who bought her from her family and led her to the mountain pass said so, too. He said how he appreciated that she didn't get all teary-eyed. "But it was a lot of hard times that turned me into a crybaby."

Seishuu looked at her. "Our home in Kei got burned down, most of the people in our village killed. We had to leave. Before we left, we went to see the burned-down ruins of our house and everybody cried up a storm. It was so sad we couldn't stand it. Because we were kids, we cried all the time. It wasn't like normal crying. It was like we were never going to stop crying for the rest of our lives."

"Even you?"

"Even me. At least I thought so at the time. The way I see it, there's two kinds of crying. People cry because they feel so sorry for themselves, and they cry because they're sad. People who feel sorry for themselves are like children who want something done for them. They want their big brother or mother or next door neighbor to help them."

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Suzu just looked at him.

"It's because, in situations like this, children don't have any way of protecting themselves. That's why I say they cry like children."

"Huh," Suzu replied. Seishuu didn't speak for a while, either. She said, "So, Seishuu, where did your family live in Kei?"

"In the south."

"When you're feeling better, why don't we go check it out?"


Seishuu uncurled himself. He had all of Suzu's clothes wrapped around him. The horse cart was cold, and he was covered up all the way to his nose. He peered at her with his eyes only.

She said, "You don't want to?"

"Going anywhere with you is such a pain in the ass, Suzu."

He grinned. Suzu laughed.