assing through the forest took another five days. During that time, two more members of the caravan died.
A wide and shallow river cut through the forest. A single chain stretched across the river to the opposite shore. Clinging to the chain, the river bottom slippery underfoot, they crossed the river and plunged back into the forest.
As before, the foot-worn trail ran alongside a valley stream. Their only recourse was to climb alongside it as well.
Day by day, the Kongou Mountains faded into the distance behind them. When the caravan entered a clearing to rest and make camp, the ridgelines of the Kongou Mountains were visible above the forest canopy. But they grew fainter and fainter day by day, slowly sinking down into the sea of trees.
The trail finally crossed a mountain. Coming down the other side, the Kongou Mountains were swallowed by the great expanse of green.
More fallen trees cluttered the forest floor, along with dying and withered ones. Before long, all they could see before them were trees piled atop each other like chopsticks, decaying and overgrown with moss, the whitened trunks poking out from among them like bleached bones.
Emerging from this dead forest, they found themselves on the banks of a eerily crystal clear lake. Within the lake was a long, stone-lined depression, submerged beneath the glass-like water.
Fifteen days had passed since they’d left the fortress. The number of fatalities had reached ten.
During that time, the caravan had worked out a system of sorts. Taking the point were the goushi and koushu like Gankyuu. Tagging along were Shitsu Kiwa and others without guardians who, together with their entourages, had thrown in with the koushu. Plus those who similarly hoped to draw on the good graces of the goushi. Together, the lead group came to almost two hundred.
Following after them was an ensemble of around a hundred and fifty put together by Ren Chodai. Many of them made no effort to hide their contempt for Kiwa and the goushi.
The rest had the protection of their skilled retainers and were equipped accordingly. They didn’t ally themselves with either camp, and traveled in the caravan wherever they could best fit in.
A rough form of leadership had formed among the twenty or so koushu, in the groups led by Kiwa and Chodai, and in the smaller, unaligned bands. Kiwa’s and Chodai’s entourages also included hangers-on who joined this or that group on a purely utilitarian basis. As a result, there was no end to the bickering and backbiting.
The koushu were hardly a model of organization. But they did understand what to do and what not to do. When something happened, they joined forces without anybody shouting out commands.
They quietly came together to clear fallen trees off the path, then separated and continued on without any ado. They selected similar ground for their campsites. At such times, Kiwa hurriedly ordered his people to rally around the koushu. Where they stopped, he pitched his tents nearby.
All the while, Chodai pretended they weren’t even there or even searched out detours. He quite deliberately made camp as far away from them as was reasonably possible.
“It’s weird,” Shushou muttered.
They were clearing the dead leaves and grass out of a hollow in the pile of decaying trees on the banks of the lake. Leaning over to secure a tree with a length piece of rope, Rikou paused. “What is?”
“Shitsu-san and Ren-san. Especially Shitsu-san. He’s an odd duck.”
“How’s that?” Rikou pushed aside a rotten trunk, drove a stake into the exposed ground, and fastened the other end of the rope to it.
“Look where he pitched his tent, next to these fallen trees like us. He apes everything we do.”
“He probably thinks that is the safest course of action.”
“Yeah, I get that. But Shitsu has an entourage of at least forty. With such a large group, mimicking the three of us doesn’t make sense.”
Shushou looked at the bustling Kiwa camp. She understood why Gankyuu picked this as their camp site. He always sought out sheltered locations where they could hide out of plain view. Except that hiding was out of the question with Kiwa and his big crew stomping around.
“That is true.”
“Why doesn’t he simply ask Gankyuu or one of the guardians for an opinion on the matter? Something like, where’s the best place for a big group like ours? As long Shitsu-san keeps on doing whatever he sees us doing, he’s not going to ask what would be the best course for him.”
“Would you ask, Shushou?”
“Of course. People who are experienced at doing things are bound to have the best answers. The koushu travel in small groups, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about organizing big ones.”
In fact, Shushou mused as she watched the dusk falling over the lake, Gankyuu told them the crystal clear water was poisonous. A mouthful wouldn’t cause instant death, but human and animals shouldn’t drink it. If Gankyuu hadn’t said told her, she probably would have. And so would have Kiwa and company if they hadn’t been listening in.
“Ren-san is strange too. I saw them on the shore debating whether or not to drink the water.”
Rikou coiled up the excess rope and chuckled. “I’m not surprised.”
“It seems they’re always discussing things, like they’re doing the opposite of us as a matter of course. I can understand him getting his back up because of his arguments with the goushi, but the goushi know the Yellow Sea a lot better than he does. I don’t see the point of being so contrary.”
“For what it’s worth, neither do I.”
“The one is just as annoyingly bullheaded as the other. Or is that the way all adults behave?”
Rikou fastened the coil of rope to the travel packs. The travel packs were always ready to be strapped to the backs of the kijuus on a moment’s notice. Another one of those things Gankyuu never stopped harping on.
“I think it’s wrong, Gankyuu and the others not telling people what they know. Treating information like it’s some big secret is selfish and self-serving. I am totally against it.”
Rikou got to his feet. Not addressing that statement he said, “Where’d Gankyuu head off to?”
“He went to talk to one of the guardians.”
“Gankyuu is a hunter. That takes him away from the paths used on the Shouzan. He probably isn’t familiar with the road ahead. So he’s asking around. They’re the ones who said we shouldn’t drink the lake water.”
Rikou smiled. “So that’s it.”
Shushou blinked. “What?”
“If you ask him, he’ll tell you. Same goes for the goushi. I’ve seen men approach a goushi on behalf of a provincial general from somewhere or another. Same kind of questions. Shitsu-san doesn’t ask and neither does Ren-san.”
“Yeah, that’s what it comes down to.”
“I don’t think Gankyuu likes keeping secrets. It’s more that he dislikes telling people things they clearly don’t want to know.”
“So he won’t tell you anything until you beg him to? How’s that any different from flaunting that you know it and they don’t?”
“Not quite the same thing, I don’t think.”
“I have to wonder.”
Kinhaku squatted in front of Gankyuu and traced a map in the dirt. “After three more days, we’ll descend through the forest and come out at the lowest place in elevation.”
Kinhaku was a sturdy man who rode a rokushaku and had long experience as a guardian. Due to his stalwart nature, he’d been named the nominal leader of the dozen or so other goushi.
“And then level ground?”
“A marsh. Because of the muddy ground, you should stay on your kijuu. Crossing the marsh will take a day. Fly as much as possible, just skimming the surface. The marshes are home to some vicious leeches.”
“Are they poisonous?”
“No, but they do like the taste of human blood.”
“How’s the visibility?”
“Poor. The place is thick with overgrown trees and rotten trunks and tall grass.”
Gankyuu nodded. “So proceeding during the day wouldn’t present a problem?”
“Perhaps not there. The tough going comes before. Nothing but fallen trees. No good hiding places. To make matters worse, with all the dead trees and rocks underfoot, you can easily lose your footing. If a flying youma swoops down out of the blue, you don’t stand a chance.”
“No good. After this, we can’t depend on wells and springs for potable water. We’ll have to use jug stones.”
Jug stones were native to the Yellow Sea, having been popularized by the koushu. Placed in a jar or canteen, jug stones purified contaminated water.
“So the hard part is getting to the marsh. Then the best time for crossing would be at night?”
“Not necessarily. In terms of the risk, it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. The bigger question is how those accompanying us will react, it being drummed into their heads so long that the nighttime is bloody dangerous. If they raise a stink about it, it’ll have to be daytime.”
“I figured as much.”
“You three have fast kijuu. You could make it to the marsh in a flash.”
“What about you?”
“We’ve got three people on foot and the master on a horse.” Kinhaku’s mouth twisted into a slight grimace. “I’m hoping for them to make an appearance tonight.”
Gankyuu was agreeing under his breath when Shushou called out. “Gankyuu, dinner’s ready.”
Gankyuu and Kinhaku started and glanced back over their shoulders. The girl peered down at them from a short ways off.
“I’m coming,” Gankyuu said, getting to his feet.
Squatted there on his haunches, Kinhaku chuckled. “That young lady of yours is holding up well.”
“The first time I saw her, I really had to wonder. But she’s got steel in her spine. There must be a lot to recommend about her.”
“Or so it would seem. Thing is, she’s as contrary as she is strong-willed.”
“So you’re saying she’s a handful.”
Gankyuu glanced up at Shushou, waiting for him at the top of the slope. “That little girl is clever as a fox. And that makes her one big pain in the ass.”