Poseidon of the East

Chapter 14

2-6 They were past the three-day window of safety Gankyuu had promised, but the Shouzan caravan was still deep in the forest. The mountain stream they were following had grown into a small river.

Just as they had so far, about the time the sun touched the Kongou Mountains in the west, the caravan reached an enlarged hollow in the woods and began setting up camp.

Shushou gathered firewood along the way as always, and placed the stones in the place Gankyuu picked out.

p. 134

That day, Gankyuu chose to bed down in a grove a short ways from the clearing past a screen of overgrown shrubs and bushes. Behind a big tree covered with pungent leaves was a little meadow ringed by small trees. That was where Shushou built the hearth.

While Gankyuu cooked dinner, Shushou fetched water from the river. Coming and going people called out to her.

“Shushou, how are you feeling? You must be tired.”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

It’d be a lie to say she wasn’t, but she’d been prepared for this kind of fatigue from the start. Rather, it was walking through the monotonous forest, however untamed, that was enervating.

“How’s camp life treating you, Shushou?”

The question came from an old man by the name of Shitsu Kiwa. Kiwa had the most belongings and the biggest retinue in the caravan.

“Well enough, I guess.”

“Why don’t you spend the night in my tent? To think that a little girl like you has to sleep every night on the grass! It’s such a sad sight.”

p. 135

“I can’t say I’m not tempted.” Shushou sighed. Kiwa’s tent was large. Rumor had it he’d brought a portable bed with him, along with a horse-drawn coach and a wagon to carry it all. “But Gankyuu would chew my ear off.”

Kiwa furrowed his brows. “What sort of fellow is this Gankyuu?”

“My bodyguard. I hired him. Didn’t I tell you?”

“A goushi?”

“Seems he was once a corpse hunter. There’s no doubting his knowledge of the Yellow Sea.”

“A corpse hunter, eh? No wonder he’s such an unsociable fellow.”

“That I wouldn’t disagree with.”

The professional bodyguards who escorted people on the Shouzan were known as goushi or “guardians.” Corpse hunters tracked and trapped youjuu in the Yellow Sea. Guardians were considered trustworthy assets on the journey. But everybody had to wonder what a corpse hunter was doing in the caravan.

“A corpse hunter is hardly a professional bodyguard, not to mention their reputation for outrageous and loutish behavior. Are you sure you’ll be safe with him? You can travel with me, if you wish.”

p. 136

“Well, if he proves unreliable, I may take you up on that offer.”

“You’d be more than welcome. Should anything bad happen, don’t hesitate to speak up.”

“Thank you.”

Kiwa wasn’t the only one making such offers. Her being a child was a big deal to everybody. She regretted having to turn them all down, but Gankyuu wouldn’t allow it so that was that. Not that she couldn’t imagine fleeing the nagging Gankyuu for a spacious, comfortable tent. But she’d spent all her money hiring him and it would pain her equally to see that investment go for naught.

Good grief, Shushou grumbled to herself after she left Kiwa and returned to their campsite. “But at least he seems a pleasant enough person.”

Far from being a pleasant person, Gankyuu pitched a fit over every little thing. He gave her orders like a general bossing around a private. If she asked him a question, he groused. Maybe he was on edge because they were in the Yellow Sea. At any rate, if she’d only arrived in Ken earlier, she would have had time to find a proper bodyguard.

“That’s probably no less naive a supposition,” she reminded herself.

No matter how much money she offered, it was unlikely she would have found a guardian who’d take seriously a twelve-year-old girl who wanted to travel across the Yellow Sea. In fact, she was here because of Gankyuu, and as long as he was around she was sure they’d manage to work something out.

p. 137

Along the way, other groups called out to her. Giving them the same perfunctory answers, she couldn’t help noticing that over the past two days or so, the mood of the caravan had changed.

Most of the caravan still gathered around a big bonfire in the center of the clearing. At some point, though, a growing number began spacing themselves out more, if not to the same extent as Gankyuu, than at least with the same general idea.

As dusk fell, they could be seen here and there around the grove of trees. They didn’t have tents. Using ropes weighted with stones, they pulled down branches to use as shelters or as makeshift stockades surrounding the fire. They slept close to their kijuu and pack horses. They laid out their sleeping areas very much the same way as Gankyuu.

Wondering if these were the guardians, Shushou returned to the campsite with her bucket. Gankyuu was filling a bowl with steaming rice gruel.

This again. Shushou suppressed a groan. Gankyuu flavored the gruel with wild herbs plucked from their surroundings and shavings of dried meat, but it still had hardly any taste at all. She sensed no inclination on his part to change the recipe or the size of the servings.

p. 138

“I’ll be skin and bones by the time we reach Mt. Hou,” she grumbled to herself. She said aloud, “I fetched the water.”

Gankyuu raised his eyes, but no words of praise would be forthcoming, not even a gruff “Attagirl.”

“Good job,” said Rikou, though he wasn’t the one who’d told her to. Shushou appreciated the thought anyway. Gankyuu’s surly attitude since they’d entered the Yellow Sea was growing oppressive.

“You know, Shitsu-san said we could share his tent.”

Gankyuu answer was as unadorned as usual. “No.”

Rikou chuckled. He didn’t know how to put on a grumpy face. “Are you tired, Shushou?”

“I’m not necessarily tired. We haven’t traveled all that far.”

p. 139

“That’s true.”

“It’s nice not being cold.” She said to Gankyuu, “I heard the Yellow Sea is pretty warm.”

Gankyuu nodded as he wiped out his bowl with a handful of grass. “For now.”

“It gets colder?”

“It gets hotter. So, yeah, the Yellow Sea is pretty warm.”

“Huh,” said Shushou.

Gankyuu finished wiping out the bowl, added a little water from a leather canteen, swished it around, and emptied it on the dying fire. Shushou was taken aback by this crude housekeeping at first, but getting worked up over a little dirt here and there wouldn’t accomplish anything. This was the Yellow Sea, after all.

“Hey, why do you have to put out the fire?”

“You scared of the dark?”

“Not at all.”

p. 140

“The smaller the fire the better. On a moonlit night like tonight, there’s no need for any other illumination.” Gankyuu glanced at the clearing. Shushou and Rikou did as well. The bonfire burned brightly and the people chattered on in equally bright voices.

“Why?”

“Because they are clever creatures. They know full well that where there’s fire, there’s people.”

They, Shushou repeated to herself. Youma, he must mean. In that case— She glanced over her shoulder. “Shouldn’t you tell them?”

“Don’t go sticking your oar in. They’re not interested in anything I have to say.”

“How do you know if you don’t try?”

“If something needs saying, one of the guardians will do his duty and say it. A corpse hunter has no business telling them how to do their jobs.”

“But—”

“Quit complaining and finish eating and clean up and go to bed.”

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