hose who entered the Yellow Sea could not leave until the following solstice or equinox. They slept under the stars. If they got injured or sick, all they could do was cower beneath the shade of a tree.
The koushu village was said to have started a long time ago. Shushi and goushi—every different kind of koushu—journeyed into the Yellow Sea to hunt beasts, forage for plants, or prospect for gems. They sought out sanctuaries in advantageous locations and collected stones and bricks for underground bunkers as a defense against the youma.
The koushu had no place to call their own. Most didn’t have a home or a permanent address. In time, there emerged koushu who wished to settle down. They joined forces and began to build towns in the Yellow Sea.
“But those aren’t real towns. They don’t have a riboku,” Shushou said as she propped up Gankyuu.
“They didn’t at first.”
“At first?” Shushou said with a surprised look.
“Do you know how riboku spread?”
“No. I’ve never heard an explanation.”
“Supposedly they’re all grafts. Only a cutting from the riboku in the Imperial Palace will suffice.”
Each imperial palace was home to the mother tree of that kingdom, not only where a child of the emperor grew, but also where new fruit appeared when the emperor successfully petitioned for new domesticated plants and animals. The branch bearing that fruit could be cut off and replanted, thus creating new riboku, though only in that kingdom.
“The koushu wanted a riboku of their own. If there was a riboku in the Yellow Sea, then children born from it would truly be citizens of the Yellow Sea.
“Are you telling me they stole one from the Imperial Palace?”
“What palace would they steal it from? The Yellow Sea belongs to no kingdom.”
“The pleas of the koushu no tami were heard and the God of the Koushu granted them a riboku.”
Or so the legends claimed. Kenrou Shinkun, the guardian saint of the Yellow Sea, petitioned the Lord God Creator and the Gods of Gyokkei and received twelve cuttings, which he gave to the koushu no tami.
“I don’t believe it.”
“You don’t believe it?”
“My professors told me that gods don’t exist except in people’s imaginations. Anyway, that’s just folklore and fairy tales, isn’t it?”
“Who’s to say? The koushu all believe it. That part of the story couldn’t be more than three or four centuries old.
“Did that riboku take root?”
“Yes. When Shinkun gave the koushu those cuttings, he told them not to tell anybody else about them.”
Shinkun petitioned the Gods and gave the koushu the branches he received, but the Gods were not altogether pleased with the arrangement. As a consequence, the blessing came with a curse. An ordinary riboku could not be killed by youma or natural disasters or humans. But the riboku of the koushu would die if touched by anybody who was not a koushu.
“So that’s why you didn’t want to bring Rikou or me there.”
“That’s not the only reason. If it became widely known that there were towns in the Yellow Sea, people would flock to them. Not only those going on the Shouzan, but anybody coming to the Yellow Sea for whatever reason. If that happened, at some point somebody would kill the riboku. It’s human nature.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Besides that, no ruler of any kingdom takes kindly to the thought of people living beyond his control. We don’t accept the protection of any ruler. In exchange, no ruler taxes our labor or our wages. It’s easy for people to close their eyes to fact that we take nothing from any kingdom and despise us as a bunch of tax-dodging loafers and laggards. They’d be doubly upset to learn these dog’s tails got their own riboku.”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them would kill the riboku out of spite. It really is too bad.”
“That’s why nobody but the koushu can enter a koushu village. We pledged to protect our covenant with Shinkun, to keep secret the existence of the koushu villages, even if that means killing anybody who stumbles across one.”
“So I wasn’t supposed to see what I saw.
The riboku in a koushu village was not a hardy tree. But it would produce children. Their social standing and the kingdom of their birth was irrelevant. If their petition was answered, a golden fruit would grow on the riboku. No matter how small and misbegotten, a village with a riboku was that koushu’s birthplace.
Outside the Yellow Sea, there’d be no end to the persecution and prejudice that came his way. But here was a place where somebody would always have his back, a place he’d be proud to call his own. Even if such a man never set foot in the Yellow Sea and never laid eyes on his village again, no matter how despised and feared it might be, his hometown would always be there in the Yellow Sea.
“Koushu who want a child go to the Yellow Sea and petition the riboku. The child will live with his mother in the village until he’s old enough to be trusted with the secret of his birth. During that time he’ll study at the feet of the guild master.”
Shushou chuckled. “Those of us who live outside the Yellow Sea have never seen a true koushu child. They really are youma no tami. Like the youma.”
Gankyuu smiled. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”
He wasn’t loud but he’d grown awfully talkative. Shushou didn’t have to guess why. He was leaning heavier on her shoulders. His feet were beginning to drag. The color was draining from his face. His words were clumsy and indistinct. He was slowing fading away. Talking was his way of holding onto consciousness.
Shushou raised her head. What were these big trees soaring here and there out of the forest floor? Big, dark, oak-like leaves sprouted at the ends of twisted branches. Between the branches she could make out the hazy outlines of the mountain with the twin knobs.
She wasn’t sure they’d make it there by evening, or whether she could keep Gankyuu upright the whole time. Every time they stopped to rest, she loosened the tourniquet around his thigh and checked the bleeding. Perhaps it’d slowed down a bit, though she couldn’t say it had for certain.
“Does it hurt?”
“No. Compared to refugees, the koushu are a lucky lot. They will never die abroad. Even if a koushu’s corpse is cast into a potter’s field, that red passport guarantees his return to the Yellow Sea and his burial in a koushu village.”
“Stop it. Now’s not the time to go jinxing us. By the way, what kind of place is Ryuu?”
“I remember it was cold.”
“So is Kyou,” Shushou quipped. And he was cold now. Gankyuu’s arm on her shoulders was cool to the touch.
It’d take several men linking arms to ring the trunks of the great trees around them. Despite their massive size, the treetops hung low to the ground. The big leaves formed a dense, green canopy that turned the ground into a shadowed twilight.
Thick roots thrust out of the ground, as if pushing the trunks into the air. Slender hair-like roots hung down like bamboo screens. Thicker ones stretched across the pale brown ground and entwined with those of their scattered siblings. They welled up all around them, lifted and twisted skyward like threads plucked by the fingers of giants.
Navigating this arboreal maze, the slightest stumble could break a man’s leg, all the more so when that man was nursing an injury like Gankyuu’s. The low canopy spread out horizontally over their heads. Where the branches of one tree touched another, noonday sky, narrow bands of sunlight slanted through the treetops.
Shushou caught a glimpse of the blue, noonday sky. A shadow grazed her view.
She immediately pushed Gankyuu to the ground between the tangle of roots. Clinging to the root above her head, Shushou looked up. It wasn’t a bird. It wasn’t a suugu. It didn’t appear to be any of the kijuu the goushi had brought with them.
“That’s a san’yo,” came Gankyuu’s hoarse whisper.
A flying snake twice as long as a man was tall. Flapping its four wings slowly, slithering its torso back and forth, it swam through the air. The sight sent a chill down Shushou’s back.
She stifled the urge to bolt and squatted down among the roots. The san’yo swam through the air and circled back. It passed right above her, close enough that she could make out the scales on its body and count its three legs. Right when she thought it was going to keep on going, it turned around.
The thing was in no hurry to leave. Cruising lazily back and forth, its belly brushed the surrounding treetops, raising a sound like gravel scraping on glass.
“It smells blood.” Gankyuu’s stifled voice was barely audible. “It smells me. Shushou, get out of here.”
“This is the same thing as the haku. Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s not at all the same thing. If I was a haku, I would have escaped with you and your haku. Unfortunately, I’m a human being.”
“Aren’t you going to become a koushu?”
“I am. But to do that I need a guild master to guide me.”
“Koushu don’t throw away their lives for no good reason. They always chose the best means to ensure the longest life. A sacrifice made under those conditions is no sacrifice.”
“Then too bad I’m not really a koushu.”
No sooner had she spoken but a sound rang out very close by. Shushou felt the blood drain from her face.
It came from the vicinity of a big mound, one of the tree trunks held aloft by the great tangle of roots. A face poked out from among the roots strung across the face of the mound. The head of a wolf covered with red hair but as big as a tiger. Shushou clearly sensed its black eyes locking on hers.
Gankyuu grasped the scabbard bound to his right leg as a splint. “Crawl under the roots there.”
Before she could finish that thought, Gankyuu grabbed her by the head and shoved her down. He drew the sword with great difficulty. This youma was probably a kasso. It stared back at Gankyuu, not budging an inch.
Branches snapped over their head. The san’yo circled lower and lower.
His hand around the hilt had hardly any strength left in it. He might have a fighting chance if he only had to worry about the san’yo. But there was the kasso barely a few arm lengths away.
“Shushou, stay there and don’t move. Tuck yourself into a ball and don’t make a sound. If it gets quiet up here, run. Sorry about this, but give my red passport to Kinhaku.”
“That’s not funny!”
A wounded older man on the one hand, an otherwise healthy young girl on the other. Right now, the best odds lay with the girl. That was the way the koushu saw things. According to that logic, had fate dealt the cards the other way around, Gankyuu would be more likely to survive, meaning he’d be leaving Shushou in the lurch instead.
But given the present circumstances, there wasn’t any debate about who had the longest life ahead of her.
Gankyuu raised the sword—or just barely managed to as he searched for a foothold. He took a step forward. At that moment, he heard again what sounded very much like a bird call. It didn’t come from the kasso or the san’yo, but from a completely different direction.
Not another one, Gankyuu thought, sinking to his knees.
As if unleashed by the bird call, the kasso leapt up from between the roots. Faster than Gankyuu could swing his sword, the kasso vaulted into the sky, broke through the branches, and made a beeline straight for the san’yo.