1-5 In the center of the world was the Yellow Sea.
The Yellow Sea was a dry sea, equal in size to any of the surrounding kingdoms. It was a land that lay outside civilized law and order, where youma roamed at will. The Yellow Sea was the domain of neither humans nor gods. The one exception were the Five Mountains in the middle of the Yellow Sea, known collectively as the Gozan.
The Gozan was home to the gardens of the mountain wizards and Seioubo, the “Queen Mother of the West.”
Gods and humans did not mingle together. People could only pray at the ancestral shrines, and the priests and wizards participated in the shaping of the world only by absorbing into themselves the prayers uttered there.
Supposing that the Five Mountains were indeed the gardens of the wizards, and the Yellow Sea the province of the youma, this still remained a world unconnected to human habitation. Mt. Hou alone was not entirely divorced from mortal concerns.
Mt. Hou, also known as Taishan, was the holy ground where those divine creatures, the kirin, were born. The kirin were magical beings of great power. Exercising affection and compassion, wise both to the Way and the reason of the world, they heard the Divine Will of Heaven as dictated by Providence.
The human world was divided into twelve kingdoms, each ruled by a emperor or empress. They were not chosen according to their bloodline or their meritorious accomplishments. Only the Divine Will of Heaven could place a person on the throne. That meant it was up to the kirin to choose.
The kirin were born on Mt. Hou, reared and protected there by the wizardesses. Traveling to Mt. Hou and ascertaining the Divine Will of Heaven from the kirin was known as the Shouzan.
Of course, going on the Shouzan required making it to Mt. Hou in the middle of the Yellow Sea. The steep, towering ridges rising above the Sea of Clouds were sealed off to airborne travelers. And then there were the Kongou Mountains.
The mountain range was steep and inaccessible, impossible to scale. There were only four routes through the Kongou Mountains, each blocked by a mighty gate. These were the four Command Gates. Each gate opened only once a year. To the northwest, the Reiken Gate abutted Ken County in the Kingdom of Kyou. It opened on the spring equinox. For one day.
Shushou had left Renshou with the goal of arriving by the spring equinox. The moukyoku was not an adept flyer, but by air and on land he put the miles behind them at a pace three times that of a horse. It was a long way to the Reiken gate, not a distance Shushou could have covered on foot. The moukyoku reduced the hardships of the journey by a good third.
What’s more, Shushou had left home with considerable traveling money in hand. She knew that her father had been building a rainy-day fund to cover urgent living expenses in case something happened in Renshou and they had to hurry off to a safe house.
He would probably try to track her down, but with their numbers diminished by youma and disasters, finding a single lost child was unlikely to command the urgent attention of the constabulary. Few had a faster kijuu than the master of the Sou family, so catching up with her would be well-nigh impossible.
The Sou family operated establishments through Kyou, though not in every city and town. They could dispatch “blue bird” carrier pigeons, but with no idea where Shushou was headed, they wouldn’t know where to have somebody waiting for her.
Shushou had figured all along she’d simply drop in on whatever city was closest along the route and work something out along the way. She had no sense of being pursued. The evening of the sixth day after leaving Renshou, she’d made it two-thirds of the way to the Reiken Gate.
Shushou set Hakuto down in the deserted fields surrounding a town. It wasn’t too big and not too small. She didn’t enter the town right away but set off again in search of the graveyard.
These towns all connected to the highway in the south and placed the graveyards in the north. Wanting to stay out of public view and settle her nerves first, Shushou circled around to the north. The town was small enough that in a corner of the field, the golden roof of the cemetery shrine soon came into view.
Many of these cemeteries had no fences or walls. This one was no different. Neither was the patch of ground defined by a cluster of new graves, a scene she’d observed in each of the six towns she’d stopped at so far. The fresh mounds of earth were painted white by the catalpa branches stuck into the ground. People were dying here too.
Shushou set Hakuto down next to the cemetery shrine. Cemetery shrines were, by and large, stark and uninviting buildings. Unlike the ancestral shrines that occupied the city centers, the cemetery shrine stood alone. The walls barely kept out the wind and rain. In an alcove lacking even a door was an altar where respects could be paid to the dead.
The only dead buried in the potter’s field of this town had died far from home, so the altar saw little in the way of memorial services. Behind the altar was a small annex where the dead could be temporarily housed until they were buried. There wasn’t much more to the cemetery shrine than that.
Shushou went to the well next to the shrine, removed the well cover, and drew out a bucket of water for Hakuto. She squatted down next to him. Stroking his neck, she took in the rest of the graveyard, one that had become all too familiar during the journey. In fact, it seemed that with every new town, the number of graves only multiplied.
“That’s what becomes of us when we die.”
Placed in a coffin, buried in a hole in the ground, the earth piled up—and that was the end.
Some said the dead were reborn in Yamato at the eastern reaches of the Kyokai and became wizards. Or their spirits flew off to Mt. Kouri in the midst of Mt. Hou. There an accounting was made of their sins, and according to their good and bad deeds they were given positions in the world of the gods.
Shushou wasn’t the only one who thought this a bit fishy. If it was really true, then the number of the dead would only grow until Gyokkei, the legendary home of the Gods, became jam-packed.
Others claimed that the dead were reincarnated. Except that Shushou had never heard the reincarnation of her dead grandmother calling out to her. If she’d been reborn in a different form, with no memory even of Shushou, then her grandmother had hardly come back again. That’d make her little more than a stranger.
In any case, Shushou thought, staring out at the graveyard, a person’s final resting place was a sad and lonely place.
The surrounding fields served as a fire break to spare the town from wildfires. Houses, barns and crops were forbidden. The bleak, shorn meadows spread outwards. Only here in the rubble-strewn wasteland was the earth exposed in mounds. Catalpa shoots fluttered in the winter wind, here and there fallen over, with no grave tender to straighten them.
The dead were usually born back to their home towns by their families. A child, grandchild, sibling or parent heard the news, and no matter how far away, would come as quickly as they could. They would bear the body back home and bury it on their own soil, build a mound and plant the catalpa shoots. The wealthy would construct a shrine, make offerings, and yearly on the vigil burn articles of clothing made out of paper.
Even supposing the spirits had already departed, for hearts that longed for and missed them, the least they could do was prepare a vessel to serve as a home for their souls so as not to lose that connection with the dead.
This cemetery had originally been a temporary gravesite for those coming to retrieve their dead. So if a family did not live too far away, the mourning period could be extended and the burial put off for a short while. And this being winter, all the more so.
At the end of the day, buried in this potter’s field were the lonely dead who had no living to watch over them. It sounded better to called them wayfarers who had died on their journeys. But anyone who died and whose family did not come to get them was treated the same. Family or no, they lacked the resources or the respect and affection.
And then there were entire families that died at the same time. There were vagabonds on the one hand, and those with families that cared but had no place to bury them on the other, and left them in a potter’s field out of necessity.
After seven years, the grave keeper disinterred the unclaimed dead, crushed the coffin together with the bones inside, and reinterred them in the city mausoleum. And that was the end of it.
In any case, the land a person owned was technically on loan from the kingdom, so when the old owner died, a new owner would take possession of it. Normally, people kept their hands off the catalpa trees at the borders of the hamlets. But if somebody inadvertently cut one down and discovered a coffin beneath, they’d dig it up and hand it over to the grave keeper, who would disposed of it in the customary manner.
And so the end inevitably came, for people and every other living thing.
“There are a few things I need to get done first,” Shushou muttered to herself, stroking Hakuto’s throat. She smiled into those golden brown eyes and took off her satin padded kimono. Beneath it was Keika’s thinner padded jacket.
Once the sun began to set, the chill in the air grew fierce. She’d traveled a considerable distance southeast from Renshou, but the weather hadn’t improved at all. She’d heard that winter didn’t visit kingdoms far to the south like Sou, and had been hoping that things would warm up a bit.
With a sigh of regret, Shushou folded the satin kimono and stuffed it into the traveling pack on Hakuto’s back. Now to find an inn to spend the night.
She’d donned Keika’s padded kimono—and before that had devised a way to take it off Keika’s hands—because she’d imagined that strutting around in her best outfit would make her a prime target for highway robbers.
However, there was still the moukyoku. She needed an inn that had stables equipped to care for him. Except that Shushou certainly did not look like a seasoned traveler who knew her way around inns, or was wealthy enough to own her own kijuu, and so was likely to arouse suspicions. She’d had the constable called on her once already and had to make a quick getaway.
“I’m pretty much running out of options.”
She’d made it this far by pretending to be a servant whose master had ordered her to deliver a kijuu. Except that putting a twelve-year-old in charge of a kijuu and sending her alone on such a journey wasn’t any more believable.
To make matters worse, the further south she went, the greater the civil unrest, and the harsher the eyes of the guests. In the last city, she’d skipped the inn and crawled beneath the floorboards of the cemetery shrine. She wasn’t looking forward to another night in a graveyard, and wanted to give Hakuto a good night’s rest too.
Along with the rack and ruin, public order was worse in the south too. It wasn’t that disasters were choosey about the geography, but that the youma were working their way north. Perhaps sensing the youma presence, Hakuto grew especially agitated when the sun set. The night before, he’d growled from sundown to sunup. That was probably the reason for his pace being off today.
Shushou could do worse than search for a yaboku to bed down under. She was guaranteed to be safe from harm beneath a yaboku. But she simply didn’t have the constitution to sleep out under cold winter skies like these.
She could try her usual routine, put on a teary expression and beseech the nicest-looking innkeeper for a room. Or sidle up to a traveler and tell a pack of lies in order to convince him to let her to tag along. Though these strategies had proved equally futile on more than one occasion.
“What a bother—” Shushou grumbled. When Hakuto answered with a low growl, as if taking her to task, she scratched him beneath his chin. “Sorry. Don’t worry about me,” she said reassuringly. “At the very least, I’m going to find a nice barn for you tonight.”
But that didn’t reassure Hakuto. He didn’t stop growling as he turned his gaze toward the graveyard.
“What’s the matter?”
She wrapped her arms around Hakuto’s neck. A faint sound reached her ears. She tightened her hold. It very closely resembled Hakuto’s growl, the sound made by a species of tiger. Tigers weren’t normally found in Kyou. But youma that resembled tigers were showing up more frequently.
The growl seemed to be coming from behind the cemetery shrine. Shushou hesitated, deciding whether to try and flee, or try to figure out what it was. Running away was the best option, but for some reason she couldn’t take off without first ascertaining what it was. At this moment, not knowing was the more frightening option.
She wished to do both and wished to do neither. Frozen there in indecision, she again heard the growl. At the same time, a face peeked out from the corner of the shrine.
Shushou choked down the cry in her throat, leapt to her feet and started to run away. With her arms still wrapped around Hakuto’s neck, she promptly fell on her face. She picked herself up and looked back at the shrine. And let out a sigh of relief.
The head was a size larger than Hakuto’s. Though it looked like a tiger, it quickly became apparent that it was not a tiger. She knew from having seen a tiger in a traveling circus that tigers had the same golden brown eyes as Hakuto’s. Plus, the reins made it clear that this was a kijuu.
Shushou glared at the creature. “You scared me half to death!” She got to her feet and snuck a look behind the shrine. The kijuu made no attempt to flee, only eyed Shushou carefully.
“But of course. A suugu.”
The kijuu behind the cemetery shrine had on a saddle. It lay sprawled on the ground. A tail almost as long as its body reaching out behind it. It raised its head and looked quizzically at Shushou. She peered back into those eyes.
“Wow, you have pretty eyes.”
Like a pair of black pearls, but a black all the more intense, as if lit up inside by brilliant points of light. Not even Banko could afford a suugu. Daring and resolute, the fastest of all the kijuu, it was not the kind of animal anyone could easily lay his hands on. She had seen the general of the Imperial Guard leading a procession on one.
Shushou leaned closer, with a tip of her head asking whether it would mind being petted. Kijuu were wild animals at heart, accustomed only to being handled by their masters. This suugu seemed different. She’d heard they were especially intelligent as well.
“Whoa, I’d watch it if I were you.”
Shushou literally jumped at the voice, casting a hasty look over her shoulder. A man wrapped in a poncho was standing there.
“A bite from him is just as likely to take off your whole arm as the tips of your fingers.” In contrast to the words, though, an affable smile rose to his face.
“Is this your kijuu. It’s a suugu, right?”
The man looked to be in his early twenties, even younger when he smiled. His dress was a cut above the average, a good match for the suugu. “I’m impressed. You know what a suugu is.”
A suugu, after all, was not the kind of kijuu that ordinary people saw everyday.
“I like kijuu. Do suugu bite?”
“Depends on the temperament. Not often, but I wouldn’t say never. Better to play it safe and keep your hands off.”
The man smiled and knelt down next to the suugu. He put his arm around its neck and said with a nod, “Go ahead. You must really like kijuu.”
“I really do,” Shushou said, stroking the suugu’s broad forehead. The hair was stiffer than it appeared.
“I see. So that moukyoku is the young lady’s?”
Shushou glanced at the man’s cheerful face. “No, he belongs to my master. His name is Hakuto.”
The man laughed softly. “What an interesting girl. She introduces her kijuu before herself.”
“What’s wrong with that? My name is Shushou.”
“This guy is Seisai.”
Shushou grinned. “That’s a neat name. What about yourself?”
Looking into his bright, friendly face, a thought struck her. “Are you from around here?” She spied the bags next to the suugu. “No, probably not, considering your bags.”
“I’m a traveler.”
“Are you staying in this town?”
“That was my intent.”
“I have a request. You do seem a man of good character.”
“Do I now?” He responded in a voice both curious and amused.
She raised her upturned eyes to his. “My master needs this kijuu delivered right away, but the thought of finding an inn at this hour leaves me ill at ease. It would seem awfully strange for a small girl like me to show up with kijuu in tow. Last night, all the inns turned me away.”
“How awful! No inn on a cold night like this?”
“Yes, indeed. I slept in the crawl space of the cemetery shrine. Pretty pathetic, don’t you think?”
Rikou’s eyes grew a little wider. “That’s crazy! Don’t you know that youma are popping up all over the place?”
“But I didn’t have anyplace else to stay.”
“You’re a gutsy young lady. What would you do if you were attacked by a youma?”
“It hasn’t happened so far. I must be doing something right and haven’t done anything to jinx it.”
“I don’t think that’s the actual problem here.”
“Spending all my time worrying about it won’t accomplish anything. But if I keep on sleeping in cemeteries every night, my luck’s bound to run out.”
“I wouldn’t disagree with you on that. How far are you going?”
“Um, to Ken.”
Rikou couldn’t hide his surprise. “You mean all the way to the Reiken Gate? That Ken?”
“You really are testing your luck. By yourself?”
“It’s what the job entails, so I don’t have a choice. You’re staying in an inn, right? You’ll need stables for your suugu, right? I don’t suppose I could accompany you? I’ll pay my half, of course.”
“Um, well, I had a letter of introduction from my master introducing me as a servant in his household who’d been asked to deliver his moukyoku—so please set your suspicions aside—but I, um, lost it.”
“You don’t say.”
“In any case, if I had to turn back now, my master would give me an earful. He is a really scary man. There is no telling what awful fate might befall me. But without that letter of introduction, none of the inns will take me seriously. And so I find myself in a real bind. Please help me out.”
“Huh,” Rikou said, regarding Shushou with unfeigned delight.
“If not, if you simply cannot agree, then take Hakuto. I will sleep in the stables with him. And if that is not acceptable, I’ll do whatever—”
Rikou suddenly laughed. “I understand. A simple enough request. How about I call you my traveling companion?”
“Really? Thank you. I am much obliged.”
Rikou grinned and nodded. He stood up. “We’d better get going before the city gates close.”
“Yes, yes,” said Shushou, racing back to her moukyoku.
Rikou called out after her, “Miss, would you mind a friendly bit of advice?”
Shushou stopped and turned. “What?”
“If you’re going to tell a real whopper of a lie,” Rikou said, a big grin on his face, “I’d wager the more understated the lie the better.”
Shushou gaped at him, then turned her face to the heavens and sighed.