4-2 Even when Kiwa stopped at noon, he pitched a small tent and spread out a ground tarp. Wheat flour was kneaded into dough, pan-fried over a fire (using a bisque), and served with soup and tea and fruit.
Shushou couldn’t stomach the meal. This wasn’t the kind of food that people traveling in the Yellow Sea should be eating. Come nighttime, Kiwa thought nothing of lighting another fire to cook rice.
“Maybe we should hold off on the fire,” Shushou said, stopping what she was doing.
But Kiwa only responded with a surprised expression. “Without a fire, we won’t be able to eat anything.
“Didn’t the goushi say not to light any fires back when crossed those fallen trees?”
“We’ve traveled well beyond that point.”
Now Shushou was the one taken aback. There was a youma down this road, dangerous enough that the goushi were literally going out of their way to avoid it. That’s why Kinhaku said to keep a low profile, to not light fires and not slaughter any livestock. Because any youma in the vicinity would sense a human presence, see the fires, and smell the blood.
All the more so since they might have passed within a stone’s throw of the creature.
“They didn’t mean that only fires back there were dangerous. They’re a risk everywhere.”
“Fires are a risk?”
“That’s why the goushi only make small fires and put them out as quickly as possible.”
“And so will we, as soon as possible.”
“But in a place like this—”
Kiwa had halted the wagon beneath a tree alongside the road. The tent covering the wagon was fully exposed to the broad expanse around them. Nothing shaded the light of the fire. Like the goushi, they’d fenced in the fire with a screen of branches but clearly didn’t understand why.
The care Gankyuu took in that regard was obvious without explanation. The canopy of the trees masked the presence of human and kijuu and fires, especially from the eyes of flying youma. When the concealing canopy was high above, boughs could be pulled down to form an overhanging lean-to.
Likewise, the screen around the campfire concealed the flames as much as possible. No matter how many branches were stuck around a fire, they’d have no effect if it was stuck out in the open.
“Shitsu-san, the branches surrounding the campfire—”
“Oh, that,” interrupted Kiwa. “You’ve seen those before, haven’t you, Shushou? That corpse hunter does the same thing. A windbreak, I imagine. Or maybe a warding spell. Those corpse hunters do strange things. I have to wonder if it actually amounts to anything.”
Shushou couldn’t believe her ears. He’d trailed after the goushi for weeks, slavishly aping their actions without grasping why they did what they did or what they were trying to achieve. It was as if safety could be found in the mere ritual of copying people who knew more than he did.
“Shitsu-san, please put out that fire.”
“The koushu don’t light fires when it’s dangerous. Where there are man-made fires, youma know there are men. A fire is like a bulls-eye to them.”
Kiwa’s eyes opened wide. His mouth popped open like a fish. He cried out, “Extinguish the fires!”
His attendants looked back at him with blank faces. He raised his voice and ordered them to put out the campfires. As the flames winked out, uneasy murmurs filled the dark campsite.
A number of people came up to Kiwa. They weren’t in his retinue but had chosen to follow his party on the Shouzan.
“Shitsu-san, is it wise to keep the campsite this dark?”
“We haven’t finished cooking.”
“I understand your qualms but please put up with it for the time being. Youma are known to target fires.”
Reassured by Kiwa’s explanation, Shushou pointed into the forest. “Beneath a big tree should be okay. Better one with thick foliage and low-lying branches.”
“You must be joking,” Kiwa said, shaking like he’d just had the fright of his life. “Youma are attracted to fire like moths to a flame, are they not?”
“Yes. That’s why you build a small fire beneath a tree and enclose it so it can’t be seen.”
“You think a few boughs are going to block all the light coming from a fire?”
“You can see light through the branches of a tree, can’t you? Don’t youma have keen night vision? No, no. Fires are completely out of the question!”
“Not being able to see the area around you is no less dangerous. On a moonless night like tonight, you can keep a fire at safe distance from where you’re sleeping as long as it’s well-concealed and burning low.”
“If you can see your surroundings, then couldn’t whatever’s in your surroundings see a fire?”
“That’s true, but—”
“Wouldn’t you be inviting a youma attack right under your nose?”
“That why a fire at a safe distance from where you’re sleeping—”
“No. That is a risk I simply cannot tolerate.”
Shushou tried her best to explain but now Kiwa had the idea lodged in his head that youma targeted fire and couldn’t shake it loose. He had the ears to hear and wouldn’t listen to a thing.
“Unbelievable,” Shushou sulked to herself. “Like talking to a stump.” She approached one of Kiwa’s attendants and asked to borrow a goat. “I’m not going to steal it or anything. I need it in place of a bed.”
She hurried to a proper-looking tree, ducked beneath the branches and tied the goat to a bush.
Turning to the person calling out to her, Shushou found several of the people accompanying Kiwa on the Shouzan standing there.
“Traveling with that corpse hunter, you learned the safest way to bed down for the night, didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure what I’ve learned—”
“You’ve been closer to him than the rest of us. At least share with us what you’ve observed.”
“Well, sleep beneath a tree, the leafier the better. Conceal yourselves with bushes like these, or rocks, or fallen trees. A hollow in the earth with do in a pinch.”
“White tents are easy to spot. In most cases, you should do without. If the branches are tall and long, use a rope to bend them down around you. Or else cut down the boughs and cover yourself with them like a blanket.
“That makes sense.”
“Stick close to trees that emit a strong aroma. And keeping a fire going isn’t a bad idea.”
“But a fire—”
“I’m not talking about a roaring bonfire. Build a hearth and kindle a fire at a good distance but still in sight. Gankyuu cuts down pine boughs and places them over the fire, though I don’t know how to keep a fire smoldering like that without going out.”
“So a fire is better.”
“Fires are always dangerous. But on a night like tonight, doing without is more so. You can’t see any youma that get close. The darker it is, the further away the fire should be. That gives you a margin of safety while remaining visible. Youma have good night vision so the right kind of extra light makes it harder for them to make out details. But you’ll still want to sleep with the horses and kijuu. Animals have keener senses than humans. They’ll react first if a youma gets close. That’ll be the alarm that wakes you up.”
“Yeah, figures,” her audience agreed.
Shushou felt a sudden sense of unease. They were hanging on her every word. Gankyuu said they wouldn’t but that wasn’t true. Average folk here really did value what the koushu knew. But should she be the one sharing that knowledge?
They eagerly let her have her say, yet getting the attention she wanted left her feeling conflicted. Shushou hadn’t grown up in the Yellow Sea like the koushu. Her knowledge came from watching Gankyuu, listening to him, and reading between the lines. And here she was prattling on like a know-it-all.
“Um—” Shushou hastily amended her remarks. “I couldn’t possible know as much about the Yellow Sea as the koushu. Don’t treat anything I say like I’m some sort of expert.”
“That’s okay. Thanks.”
“No problem,” Shushou answered with a relieved smile. She watched them leave and threw her arms around the neck of the goat. “Well, tonight it’s just going to be you and me.”
Except the goat had evidently taken a disliking to her and tried to jerk free instead. Trying to calm it down, the light of a fire grew visible through the trees. Soon followed by the sound of running feet and angry shouts and men arguing, the hiss of water cast on hot embers and feet stomping out flames. She watched dumbfounded as darkness again filled the forest.
“Amazing. The only person Shitsu-san will listen to is himself.”