1-7 Thanks to the certificate Rikou had finagled for her, Shushou didn’t have any difficulty securing lodgings after that. She proceeded directly as planned along the provincial roads to the Black Sea.
Shushou had never seen the ocean before. This wasn’t surprising, as she had rarely left Renshou. Taken aback by the broad expanse of water, for the first time she felt a pang of helplessness in her heart.
To Shushou, born and raised in Renshou, wrapped in the embrace of the Ryou’un Mountains, such a view keenly impressed on her the sensation of being literally at the end of the road with nowhere else to turn.
“This world sure has all kinds of places in it. Well, let’s go, Hakuto.”
She petted the anxious Hakuto, who was no doubt reflecting Shushou’s own sense of unease. The kijuu shook it off and rode like the wind.
They traveled south along the coastal road for several days to the city of Rinken. Rinken was located at the southernmost point of Kyou. Across the Ken Straits was Ken County, the city of Ken, and the Reiken Gate.
“Six days until the spring equinox. Thanks to you, Hakuto.”
Perched on his back, Shushou gave Hakuto an encouraging pat on the neck and he took off. For reasons she didn’t understand, Hakuto was no less eager to press on. When the wind blew in from the south, he shook off the fatigue of the journey and picked up the pace again.
Were Shushou not holding tight to the reins, the kijuu showed every intent of plunging across that broad expanse of blue before their eyes.
“There’s no need to be in such a hurry. You’re going to hurt your feet like you did yesterday.”
However Shushou pulled on the reins, Hakuto’s speed did not slacken as he galloped along the roads threading among the mountains and fields, leaping clean over the forests and groves. With every town left behind, Shushou bent another finger. One more and they’d be at Rinken.
The sun was almost touching the ridgelines of the western mountains. Though there was still time before the sky turned amber, Hakuto’s fleeting form painted long shadows on the ground below. So far on her journey, Shushou had learned that when the dusk came, not only did the tint of the mountains darken all the more, but so did the seas.
Hakuto cleared a hamlet with a small hop. Rinken came into view. At the same time, for a brief moment, that did as well.
Shushou drew back on the reins. Hakuto didn’t stop in mid-air, but began to descend in a falling arc. This was not, for Hakuto, normal behavior. Fixated on that, Shushou’s eyes met empty air.
As soon as Hakuto alighted on the ground, he vaulted into the sky with all his might. Hakuto’s field of view opened up. Astride his back, Shushou took in the great expanse of the sight before them.
Slight signs of spring played across the countryside below them. The nearby hamlet was charred and black, burned by fire. But at that moment, the scars in the earth did not register in her senses. Instead, her eyes focused on the far horizon—
Beyond the coastline fringed by whitecaps, beyond the promontory jutting into the sea and the port city at its base, beyond the great gray sweep of the sea, shimmering in the haze—
The rising slopes melted into the blue sky. The ridgelines stood out as only a slightly different shade of blue, like the azure shadow of a wall cast against all that vast blue.
Bands of fading purple wrapped around the towering enormity floated beyond the sea.
Faintly silhouetted by the setting sun, that stretched out in great bands across the water. One notch in the ridgeline—that seemed sculpted out of decorative granite—glowed brightly, stretching out to the left and right until finally fading into the midst.
“The Kongou Mountains.”
They were so big.
Shushou felt goosepimples shiver across her skin. In that stunned moment, she let go of the reins. Scrambling for them, she felt Hakuto’s hair standing on end as well, as if ruffled backwards by the wind.
This was the barrier wall around the Yellow Sea. Beyond that huge wall was a land hostile to human habitation. And in the center was the Gozan, the Five Mountains.
I’ve made it, she thought. And those are— Even having grown up at the foot of Mt. Ryou’un, the immensity of these mountains were beyond belief.
Hakuto reached the zenith of his leap and fell in a graceful arc, gradually building up speed. That hazy, blue wall disappeared behind the screen of the nearby hills.
“The Kongou Mountains!” Shushou exclaimed. She buried her face in the fur of Hakuto’s neck. “Let’s go, Hakuto. Those are the Kongou Mountains!”
Hakuto kicked off the ground, accelerating so fast he almost bucked Shushou off his back. He climbed the hills, descended the gentle slope to the provincial road, and shot past the Rinken city gate. Shushou did not pull back on the reins.
Hakuto overran the end of the road, bounded over a knoll thick with shrubs, and there reached the headlands of the promontory. Before them was the blue sea and the silhouette of the Kongou Mountains hovering like a mirage above the far horizon.
Shushou watched as the purple-banded blue faded to indigo. The ridgelines glittered white from the light of the setting sun before dissolving into the sepia dusk. Before she knew it, she had all but lost track of time.