n the center of the world was the “Yellow Sea.” An island, actually, surrounded to the north, east, south, and west by four inland seas known as the Black, Blue, Red, and White.
Early one morning, a tiny black dot appeared in the sky to the north above the Black Sea, the shadow of a kijuu pegasus taking flight from the western shores of the Kingdom of Kyou.
Bathed in the rays of a rising sun—now approaching the spring equinox—it cast off occasional flashes of silver as it streaked through the air straight toward the southwest. Beyond the melancholy shades of the briny deep, a great wall blocked the way before them, shimmered in the mist like a mirage.
The tops of the enormous wall traced a ragged line between the heavens and the waters. These were the mighty Kongou Mountains that encompassed the Yellow Sea.
Though the kijuu crossed the sea at speeds faster than any sailing vessel, only the gradually darkening hues of the cliffs of the Kongou Mountains provided any indication of the shrinking distance. And yet, as the steadily soaring peaks made clear, they were indeed drawing inexorably closer.
The kijuu flew all the faster. The sun reached its zenith above the fleeing shadow and turned toward the west. The Kongou Mountains filled the entire horizon.
The bottomless spires broke the surface of the sea like rows of jagged fangs, forming a near-vertical line of palisades that continued on and on, higher and higher, converging into a enormous mountain range that clawed at the sky.
A small sandbar came into view at the base of those cliffs. A speck of dirt compared to the Kongou Mountains. The kijuu drew a bead on that sandbar and slowly descended in a broad arc.
As the kijuu approached the spit, it became clear that far from being a mere sandbar, it was a broad table of land. Closer still and the coastline of this pitched land facing the Kongou Mountains came into view. Ships flying gray, weathered sails queued at the mouth of the harbor to the north.
The flying beast dropped in altitude, glided through the sky above the harbor, and headed straight for the Kongou Mountains.
The small shadow raced across the rice paddies, the thick foliage and treetops beginning to bud, skimmed above the forests that covered the mountains like a low-lying fog, swept through the skies above quiet villages and old crossroads.
Dropping lower with each landmark, the kijuu arrived at the foot of one of the minor ridges in the Kongou foothills, home to the most distant city in the realm. Completely enclosed within its barrier walls, the city spread out against the base of the peaks that comprised the Kongou Range.
A single road led the gate, etched now with long shadows. Travelers on the road picked up the pace. Several turned their faces to the sky, stopped in their tracks, and stared at the winged creature alighting in their midst. Then scattered in all directions. The kijuu set down on the patch of bare ground.
“What the hell!”
“If you’re going to land a kijuu around here, do it in a field! Not the middle of the bloody road!”
A thirty-something man dismounted from the kijuu. Oblivious to the voices of protests erupting around him and ignoring the other travelers, he took in the signboard over the city gate.
“Ken County Seat,” it read. This “sandbar” projecting out from the Kongou Mountains was the administrative capital of Ken County in the Kingdom of Kyou.
After a glance at the signboard and a brief stretch, he took up the reins of the kijuu and entered Ken. Crossing the crowded main thoroughfare, he made his way to an inn in the northwest corner of the city.
A child picking up litter next to the gate brightly called out and hurried over to him when he passed through the old stone gate of the inn. He peered at the boy’s face and grinned. “Ah, you must be Shoumei.”
“Yeah, but—?” the boy answered with understandable caution.
He leaned over. “I’m Gankyuu. Remember me? We had a lot of fun together last time.”
“That’s right. Do you remember me now?”
The boy chortled. “It’s been a long, long time.”
Gankyuu gave the boy’s head an affectionate pat. They’d last seen each other two years before. The boy had been ten at the time, doing odd jobs around his father’s family business. That hadn’t included greeting guests.
Gankyuu handed him the reins. “So you’ve been promoted to guardsman, eh?” he joshed. “He’s all yours, Mr. Guardsman, Take good care. Make sure nobody else gets too close.”
“I know,” the boy sniffed. He took the reins from Gankyuu, though he couldn’t hide a touch of timidity as he looked up at the formidable face of the kijuu.
“Is he the same kijuu as before?”
“Ah, my last kijuu was killed by a youma.”
The boy turned his attention back to Gankyuu. “By a youma? Are you okay?”
“More or less, as you can see for yourself. How’s Ken doing? No youma about, I take it?”
“There are,” he said bluntly, already resigned at his young age to the impending state of affairs. “They show up now and then.”
Twenty-seven years had passed since the death of the last empress. The kingdom was gathering speed in its downhill course. Ken was well prepared for the inevitable youma onslaught. But youma showing up even here meant they must be thick on the ground elsewhere.
The boy caught his breath like he’d just remembered something. Regripping the reins he said, “What kind is it?”
The kijuu resembling a horse, except for its sharp, intimidating horn and thick claws instead of hoofs. Gankyuu pressed a coin into the boy’s hand and removed the travel bags strapped to the kijuu’s back. “It’s a haku.”
He gave the kijuu a slap on the flanks and the boy a tap on the head and crossed the covered courtyard. As soon as entered the inn, he addressed himself to the back of the man standing there.
“Got a room?”
The man’s head was slumped forward as if examining his feet. His head snapped around and he smiled, the movement revealing the unkempt little girl in front of him. Gankyuu thought at first he’d be whiling away the time with her, but it looked like he and the girl were engaged in some sort of business.
The man crossed the room with long strides. “I do believe it’s Gankyuu! Long time, no see.”
“It can’t have been that long. What about that room?”
The innkeeper smiled broadly as he took Gankyuu’s bags. For some reason, he was more pleased than usual to accommodate this request.
“Hey, nothing fancy, remember. All I need is a place where I can get a good night’s sleep.”
“Understood, understood. I’ve got the last one here.”
“Nick of time.” That’s what life in Ken was like when the spring equinox fell the very next day. “I left my kijuu in the stables. I trust it’ll be well taken care of.”
The innkeeper nodded. “No problem—”
A shrill, demanding voice cut him off. “You wait just one minute!” The little ragamuffin of a girl—the child the innkeeper had been previously tending to—glared at him. “I asked for that room first! By what right are you giving to him?”
Gankyuu gazed down at the girl with a small jolt of surprise. The innkeeper groaned and held his head in his hands. “Miss, it was a bad joke to start with. You’ve pushed it too far. Go back to your mother. What inn is she staying at? I’ll send for her.”
“This is no joke. This is an inn, is it not? I want a room.” Her pale cheeks flushed red with anger.
An interesting turn of events, Gankyuu thought, taking the innkeeper by the arm and depositing the money in his palm. No way was his losing the last vacancy in town at this juncture. “Put my things away, would you? I’m off for a bit to eat.”
“I said, wait!” The girl scowled at Gankyuu. Not only scowled, but marched right over to him and looked him up and down. “You have no shame, cutting to the head of the line like that?”
She looked no older than the boy at the gate. Gankyuu said with a slight smile, “All in a day’s work for me. When you think about a girl staying by herself at an inn, I’ll save the shame for you.”
“This is no laughing matter. Whether child or adult, a guest is a guest.”
“Well, then, find yourself an inn that will treat you as such.”
“I would if I could!”
Gankyuu laughed out loud. The inns of Ken around the spring equinox would be packed in any case. No surprise that “No Vacancy” signs were already going up. Gankyuu wasn’t about to risk giving up the sure bet he already had in hand.
“There are bound to be more hospitable lodgings in one of the towns back the way you came.”
“Do you think any of the gates would still be open if I left now? Are you suggesting that I sleep under the stars at this time of year? You are right. I am a child, but that child needs a room too. Why don’t you try camping out at the side of road? I haven’t got your constitution. I would freeze to death. Haven’t you the humanity to spare me such a fate?”
“I see. You are deficient both in compassion and the good sense your mother must have taught you to take your turn in order.”
“So it would appear.”
The girl scowled at him. She placed one hand on her hip and shook her finger at him in the manner of a parent lecturing an unreasonable child. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“What am I—?”
Ken was the furthest city in the realm, well off the beaten path and deep in uncharted wilderness. Beyond Ken there was nothing but the Yellow Sea. It was by no means a vacation destination. Nor did anybody pass through along the way to more habitable climes. Besides the occasional adventure seeker, the only travelers who had business in Ken around the spring equinox were taking that business to the Yellow Sea.
“I should be asking you the same thing. What is a little girl like you doing wandering around a city like this? Did you take the wrong turn? What about your parents?”
“I am neither wandering about nor did I take any wrong turns. This is Ken. As for my parents, they are in Renshou.”
Gankyuu’s eyes opened a notch wider. Watching this little drama unfold in front of him, the flustered innkeeper raised his voice in equal surprise. “Your family lives in Renshou?”
“That’s right. I came all the way from Renshou. After many days, my life at risk on more than one occasion, I have finally arrived in Ken. And then to have the only lodgings torn out of my grasp—is that not more than a little cruel?”
“Nonsense. There’s no way you could have made it here all by yourself. Who brought you?”
“Nobody,” the girl answered crisply.
Gankyuu couldn’t believe his ears. Renshou was the capital of the Kingdom of Kyou. Getting there by ship and on foot took nearly two months, and considering the stride of a child, much longer for her.
“You’re telling me you came here, from Renshou, by yourself?”
“Yes. Are you impressed enough now to give me a room?”
Gankyuu was impressed. Without an adult to protect her and show her the way, the girl had crossed a distance that made Gankyuu weary simply to think about.
“How did you go about ending up here?”
The girl lifted her gaze, the scorn plain in her eyes. “It goes without saying, doesn’t it? One simply chooses whatever town is closest along the way when one needs to stop.”
“It goes without saying, she says.”
“Of course, I am going to Mt. Hou.”
The mouths of Gankyuu and the innkeeper fell open.
“I am going on the Shouzan. Kyouki is on Mt. Hou.”
“Hold on, there, Missy.” She’s going on the Shouzan? “You?”
“Does any law say that a child cannot?”
Not law that Gankyuu had ever heard of. “That is entirely beside the point! You are talking nonsense!”
“Why? If any of the adults of this kingdom were worthy vessels, one of them would be surely sitting on the throne already. That’s why I am going.” The girl looked at Gankyuu with all the more disdain. “I can only imagine that you are in Ken with the intention of proceeding on to the Yellow Sea as well. I should hardly need to point out that the kind of man who would steal the last room in the inn from a poor girl is only wasting his time going to Mt. Hou.”
“Do you have any idea what the Yellow Sea is really like?”
“Who doesn’t?” The girl answered Gankyuu like he’d asked her the sum of one and one. “No hamlets, no crossroads, no villages either. No inns, taverns or roads.”
“Not only that.”
“The place is thick with youma. I know. But youma can show up anywhere.”
“There’s no comparison. How do you intend to travel? What’s a child to do when she’s attacked by a youma?”
“And what are you going to do? What kind of odds do you give yourself against a youma?”
“Even so, there’s no point in you going. You’re wasting your time. So you might as well give the room to me.”
Now Gankyuu was the one holding his head in his hands. He squatted down in front of her. “Listen, Miss—”
“There is a person standing right here who might very soon become the next empress. Say whatever you are going to say with that in mind and I will listen.”
“The Yellow Sea is hardly such a forgiving place.”
The girl stared back at him, showing not the slightest sign of being swayed in the least.
“I am not going to Mt. Hou. I am entering the Yellow Sea in order to hunt youjuu that can be trained as kijuu. Do you know what people call men like us?”
“Corpse hunters. Even when old hands band together, they are less likely to capture a youjuu than they are to return from the Yellow Sea bearing the dead bodies of their companions on their backs. That’s the kind of business this is.”
The year before last during the fall equinox, Gankyuu lost his kijuu and hunting companions in the Yellow Sea. A youma devoured the six kijuu hitched to an outcropping of rock, along with his two partners nearby. Eight in total. If the beast hadn’t already gorged itself, Gankyuu would have been the next item on the menu.
He stayed in the Yellow Sea until the winter solstice, managing to catch the haku to use as a kijuu. Training the beast kept Gankyuu busy enough that he hadn’t made it back to Ken the year before.
“As a result, my supplies have hit rock bottom. On the way to Ken this year, I didn’t stay at a single inn or sail on a single ship. No sooner had I finished training the haku but I rode him three days and two nights straight here, practically falling asleep in the saddle. I’m just as tired as you and probably more broke. Fact is, the keeper’s a old family friend, so I’m counting on him to spot me the balance.”
“Ah,” the girl muttered, momentarily lost in her thoughts.
Gankyuu gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder. “That’s the kind of place the Yellow Sea is. Now be a good girl and go back to your family. Your lodgings tonight—”
He didn’t finish the rest of the sentence. The girl whipped off her dirty padded kimono, removed the fur coat beneath it and turned it inside out. Seeing the silver coins sewn in a crisscross fashion into the lining, Gankyuu nearly fell over in surprise. A single silver coin was worth five ryou, what the typical petty bureaucrat made in a month. And there was more than one silver coin.
She thrust the coat into Gankyuu arms. “Thirteen silver coins comes to sixty-five ryou. Take me to Mt. Hou.”
The flabbergasted Gankyuu stared down at her.
“Consider it your retainer. However, you’ll be expected to cover any expenses along the way.” The girl smiled sweetly. “My name is Shushou. First item on the agenda: as your employer, I shall be taking the bed tonight. You can sleep on the floor. Do you have a problem with that?”