2-7 A cry awoke Shushou in the middle of the night.
At first she was sure she was dreaming, and it was her father doing the shouting. Shushou was inside her house, surrounded by lattice walls, staring at something in the middle of the shrubbery in the nearby garden.
Her father’s shouts came from beyond the neatly tended grove. And screams. Her father was being attacked. I have to go rescue him, she thought, but no matter where she went in the house, more lattice walls surrounded her. She couldn’t make her way outside.
I have to hurry, she fretted with growing impatience. There weren’t any doors or exits. Even as she cursed the lattice walls, a part of her was grateful. Being unable to run to the rescue meant she didn’t have to watch her father die.
Shushou clawed at the latticework. She wanted to shout or weep but couldn’t do either.
And then she awoke and knew it was a dream. She didn’t have time to feel relieved. A moment later she realized something much worse was happening. When she opened her eyes and tried to bolt to her feet, she found her mouth covered and her arms pinned in a bear hug.
She didn’t have to think about it long. The answer came in the form of loud and ragged voices. Luckily or not, pressed up against the suugu, moving her eyes back and forth, the only thing she could see was Rikou’s face. He was holding her.
In the dark, she barely made out the tense expression on his face. And the drawn sword in his right hand. He stared intensely over her shoulder. She couldn’t grasp what was going on, except for the shouts and screams of panicked and angry men.
She struggled fitfully to see more. Rikou said softly in her ear, “Calm down. Do you remember what Gankyuu told you to do?”
Shushou looked up and nodded.
Stay with the caravan, he’d told her. “No matter how welcoming it might appear, do not venture into the forest. If a shadow falls across your path, do not look at the sky. Duck beneath the nearest tree. When youma appear, hide under a tree or in the undergrowth, stay still and don’t make a sound. Youma don’t have great eyesight. Stick close to the trunk and the youma can’t tell the difference between you and the tree. If it’s an aromatic tree and you don’t make any sudden moves, a youma is unlikely to ferret you out unless it gets close.”
Shushou remembered well, except remembering didn’t qualm the bone-shaking fear.
Screams and horses neighing, shouts about hunting something down. Whatever it was, she didn’t know what was going on, and it was all the more frightening not being able to find out. She’d be better off asleep. If she was asleep, she could wake up and everything would be fine.
Pressing her cheek against the suugu, she fended off the impatience and anxiety. Seisai was so calm he might as well be sleeping, except for the rapid rise and fall of his chest. Seisai as well knew what to do in a situation like this.
Shushou shut her eyes and shrank in on herself. Finally cries of joy replaced the shouts and screams. Rikou’s arms around her relaxed.
It’s over. But what is over?
She tremulously opened her eyes and tried to look into the clearing over Rikou’s shoulder. Gankyuu called out to them first.
“We’re leaving! Hurry! Get going!”
Gankyuu shouted as he came running from the clearing. For some reason, he had a sharp, raw scent about him. The red glow of the bonfire lit up the clearing. It wasn’t bright enough to make anything out, only people milling about in confusion.
“Gankyuu, what’s going on?”
“I said to hurry!” Gankyuu barked.
He threw the saddle onto the haku and strapped on the travel bags—always packed and ready to go—and slung the leather satchels across his shoulders.
Before Rikou could follow suit, Gankyuu had torn off his poncho, bundled it up in his arms, and was astride the haku. A second later, Rikou and Shushou jumped onto Seisai’s back.
“Let’s go,” Gankyuu said in a low voice, and the haku took off. Seisai needed no urging from Rikou to follow of his own accord.
“Out of the way!” Gankyuu shouted.
The people milling about in the clearing scattered in surprise. Fear showed on some faces, consternation on others. The rest were in a daze. Just beyond them was the silhouette of a bird the size of a small mountain. It had fallen to the earth and wasn’t moving.
“Rikou, did something happen?” Shushou asked, clinging to his back.
Rikou glance back at her. In the moonlight she could make out his slightly rattled smile and that made her feel a little better. It was reassuring having a big-hearted man around.
“Probably,” he replied shortly, and turned to Gankyuu galloping along next to him. “We okay to be moving like this?”
Gankyuu nodded. At the same time, beyond a nearby grove of trees came a human shout. More mounted riders, their packs similarly secured, burst into the clearing. Confronted by the sight of this sudden stampede—two kijuu in front and the rest hot on their tails—the rest of the caravan gaped and ran about.
One called out to them, “Hey! Where are you going?”
The answer didn’t come from Gankyuu, but from one of the riders bringing up the rear. “We’re leaving. Once the smell of blood gets into the wind, more will be on the way.”
The man’s mouth dropped open. With a squeak of alarm, he tripped over himself scrambling toward his own travel bags.
Leaving the rest of the caravan in their wakes, the company of a dozen or so formed up and continued at a brisk pace down the road. Only when the light of the bonfire and the sound of human voices disappeared behind them did they slacken their pace. But they didn’t stop riding.
“Gankyuu, is this okay? Are youma going to pounce from the shadows?” However Shushou steeled her nerves, she couldn’t suppress the quaver in her voice.
“We’ll be okay, Miss.” The answer didn’t come from Gankyuu, but from a rider who drew up beside the suugu. “They mark their territories and there’s usually no more than one. It’ll be a little while longer before the others flock in to fill the void.”
“Oh. Is that so?”
He nodded. He was a big man with a big sword strapped to his back. “More importantly, Miss. Who’s your shushi? This fellow here?”
Rikou spoke up. “Not me. The guy on the haku.”
“I see,” said the man. He wheeled his rokushoku—a kijuu that resembled a cross between a tiger and a horse—around the suugu and approached Gankyuu.
“Rikou, what’s a shushi?”
Rikou glanced back at Shushou. He brought Seisai to a halt. “You’d feel safer in front, wouldn’t you?
Sitting there pinned against Rikou’s back made her feel both uncomfortable and uneasy. So she immediately heaved herself out of the saddle and Rikou pulled her back up in front of him. Perched between Rikou’s arms as he held the reins gave her a clear view ahead and no worries about anything coming at her from behind.
“Shushi are corpse hunters,” Rikou said, slowing Seisai to a walk. “Guys like Gankyuu are called corpse hunters by outsiders, but they refer to themselves—people who regularly travel into the Yellow Sea—as shushi.”
“Gankyuu calls himself a corpse hunter.”
“Well, that’s Gankyuu for you. Hunters who don’t haul out a trophy but only their partner’s remains—you wouldn’t expect them to talk like that among themselves. It’s a term of ridicule, not how they address one of their own.”
“Huh.” Shushou looked at Gankyuu.
“There are shushi and goshi and shumin.”
“Shumin? Are they different from shushi?”
“You’ve seen traveling entertainers, Shushou. Do you know why they’re called shusei?”
“Well, um, I heard it’s because they carry red-colored passports.”
Rikou nodded, and Shushou continued.
“Entertainers, itinerants, and peddlers who travel through the various kingdoms with no fixed place of abode such as are known as shumin because of their red passports.”
“Well, back before that,” Rikou said with a smile. “If you lose your papers, you can report to the local government office and receive a temporary passport, right? A temporary passport is marked with a red stripe. Originally, temporary passport were called shusei. Those issued shusei, who wandered from kingdom to kingdom with no permanent address, were also called shusei. In time, they came to be known as shumin.”
“Among these itinerants are the corpse hunters. As they are considered first among equals, they are called shushi. Men like Gankyuu who hunt in the Yellow Sea are the most respected of the shumin.”
“Really? Then what about the goushi?”
“The guardians are also shumin. And though they travel in the Yellow Sea, they make a living hiring themselves out to people who aren’t shumin. The shumin have more respect for the shushi than the goushi, whom they see as hired hands.”
“So shushi rank higher than goushi.”
“Shumin are also known as koumin. In general, they call themselves koushu no tami, meaning the people of the red and yellow. In spirit, they think of themselves as children of the Yellow Sea. It’s said that a long time ago their passports were yellow. Since yellow is the color of the kirin, the practice might have ended out of respect. Or was simply banned.”
“You don’t say,” Shushou mused.
That was when the voices of the people following behind finally caught up with them.