The Yellow Sea lies at the center of the world. Four vast inlands seas surround the Yellow Sea at each of the cardinal points. To the north, in the skies above the Black Sea, the sun rose early in the morning.
West of the Black Sea, the shadow of a kijuu was bathed in sunlight as it took off from the shore of the kingdom of Kyou. The effect of the approach of vernal equinox on the sunlight caused the kijuu’s shadow to occasionally shine silver as it dashed earnestly through the sky towards the southwest. Facing the melancholy colored ocean, a wall extended out like a faint, hazy mirage. In the space between sky and sea, Mt. Kongou blocked the way like notches on the top of a long, ragged folding screen, encircling the Yellow Sea.
As the kijuu crossed the sea, it outstripped distant boats with its speed. However, although the color of the bare rock of Mt. Kongou was becoming more defined, the mountain did not seem to be getting any closer. No—it was getting closer; and as proof, the size of the mountainous region was gradually increasing.
The kijuu again began to pick up speed. The shadows cast by the overhead sun pointed to the west. Already, Mt. Kongou completely obstructed the fore view. From the sea, the peaks of the towering, bottomless rock projected out repeatedly, like fangs. The unswerving rock face rose higher and higher as the kijuu ascended.
.: 8 :.
At the base of the mountainside, a small sandbank could be seen. If compared to Mt. Kongou, the kijuu appeared to be a small speck aiming at nothing but an invisible sandbank. With easy grandiose, it descended in an arc. As the kijuu drew closer, it became apparent that the sandbank was not a sandbank after all, but rather a spacious area of land. When the kijuu had approached and was facing Mt. Kongou, the edges of the inclining land became clear. To the north of the bank there was a harbor. Tan sails lifted as a boat came into the port.
Gliding down from the skies high above the harbor, the beast headed straight for Mt. Kongou. It dropped a small shadow over the rice paddies, penetrating deeply into the blackened earth. The treetops were beginning to bud, and like mist, the beast skimmed across treetops and a sleepy hermitage, crossing the sky of an aging town in a clean sweep. Every time it passed over a section of land the beast descended. At length it arrived at the furthest ends of the city, which was spread out at the base of the small ridges that extended along Mt. Kongou.
A wall encircled the city in every direction, and it continued to extend towards Mt. Kongou, nestling up against the ridges. The road wound directly towards the gate. There, as the rays of the setting sun cast lengthy shadows, people appearing to be travelers headed towards the city at a fast pace. The group of people turned to look overhead. Flying down from the sky to the shadows on the ground, they stopped, but in confusion scattered in every direction. The kijuu landed where it could find room.
.: 9 :.
“What’s going on?”
“If the kijuu descended, the road must end here,” said a voice from the road. Nonchalantly, a man jumped down from the kijuu. Appearing to be just over thirty, the man glanced at the surrounding people, and then looked at then sign put up on the gates leading into the city.
“Kenjou,” it said. The city called Kenjou, in the prefecture of Ken in the country known as Kyou, was the piece of land projecting out from Mt. Kongou like a sandbank.
After glancing at the sign, the man gently bent his upper body and stretched out his limbs. After that he took the reins of the kijuu and went into the city. Passing the wave of humanity milling in confusion along the thoroughfare, he entered into the single inn located in the northwestern part of the city.
He passed through the inn’s old stone entryway. There was a child picking up garbage on the other side of the gateway who rushed over, flustered, when the man loudly cleared his throat. Seeing the child’s face, the man grinned broadly.
“Hey, you’re Shoumei, right?”
.: 10 :.
Suspicion crossed the child’s face, and the man bent down.
“I’m Gankyuu. Don’t you remember? I played with you a lot, didn’t I?”
“That’s right. Did you remember?”
“It’s been a really long time since I last saw you.”
The boy laughed. Gankyuu patted the child’s head with affection. The last time they had seen each other was two years ago. At that time Shoumei had been ten, and Gankyuu had helped out at the family’s inn doing odd jobs here and there. But now Gankyuu was a guest, and Shoumei was not sure how he was supposed to act.
“You’ve finally been promoted to door guard then?” said Gankyuu, teasing the boy as he passed Shoumei his reins. “Well then, this old man here will leave you to your duties. Be careful, and don’t let strangers get too close.”
“I get it, already.”
The child took the reins from Gankyuu with a mischievous smile. Showing only a little fear, Shoumei looked at the kijuu.
“Is this the same kijuu as before?”
.: 11 :.
“That one died. Youma got ‘im.” The child looked up at Gankyuu.
“Was it an attack? You okay, Uncle?”
“See for yourself, I’m doing just fine. But how’s it here in Ken? No youma out here?”
“They come out once in a while.” He spoke bluntly, because most likely it was too late to leave. It had been twenty-seven years since the late emperor had died, and the country was in a state of decline. From the start, the cities deep in Ken had been prepared to fight against youma; but as long as it was said that youma appeared in Ken, it was all too likely that youma were appearing in other prefectures as well. The child exhaled as if to forget something and picked up the reins, admiring the kijuu.
“What do you call this kind of kijuu?”
It was a youma that resembled a horse, but it had a single, sharp horn, and instead of hooves it had thick claws that were terrible to behold. Gankyuu pressed a small sum of money into the boy’s hand and unloaded his baggage from the kijuu’s back.
“He’s a haku.”
Gankyuu lightly slapped the kijuu’s flank, and simultaneously patted Shoumei on the head. From the roof, Gankyuu extracted a small square object and entered the building. Just as he entered through the door a voice greeted him; it came from a man with his back turned to Gankyuu.
.: 12 :.
“Will you be staying the night?” The man raised his head from its lowered position and turned to Gankyuu, smiling broadly. With that movement, Gankyuu was then able to see a slightly dirty girl standing before the man. He thought the man seemed as if he had some unfinished business with the girl, but in any case, the man turned his back on the girl and turned to Gankyuu, walking towards him with a swinging stride.
“Gankyuu, right? What’s up? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Not that long. You got any vacancies?”
“Oh, I think we’ve got one.”
The innkeeper was happy about something. His face lit up with a smile as he took the baggage from Gankyuu.
“Hey now, I know I’m just saying this but, it really doesn't have to be that nice of a room, you know. As long as I can sleep in it, its fine."
“I get it already. It’s just—this is the last one.”
Usually, when vernal equinox—which was the next day—drew near, the cities in Ken…well…it was that sort of thing.
“I’ll leave stabling the kijuu to you.”
I understand said the innkeeper with a nod, when a piercing cry rang out.
.: 13 :.
“Wait a minute!” The cry had come from the child the innkeeper had been addressing earlier. The child, in her state of dishevelment, was glaring determinedly at the innkeeper.
“I asked for a room first! You wouldn’t give it to me— why is it okay to give it to him?” Gankyuu stared at the girl in surprise as the innkeeper moaned and held his head in his hands.
“Come now, young lady, stop this bad joke. Why don’t you go home to your mother? This inn isn’t a place to play around. I’m sending you on your way.”
“I told you, I’m not joking. I want to stay the night. This is an inn, isn’t it?” Her cheeks were flushed white, most likely with anger.
—It was an interesting sight.
Gankyuu caught hold of the innkeeper’s arm and pressed a small sum of money into his hand. To part with the last available room would be unbearable.
“Could you put my luggage in for me? I’m going to eat.”
“Hey! Wait a just a minute!!”
.: 14 :.
The child scowled at Gankyuu. As she scowled, she strode in a determined fashion to stand beside Gankyuu. She looked him up and down.
“Aren’t you embarrassed, cutting in like that?”
She looked to be about the same age as the gate-watcher child. Gankyuu smiled lightly.
“Cutting in nothing. Is it so bad to think about the idea of a child staying alone at an inn, and to determine that for a young lady to be doing so would be very embarrassing?”
“Don’t joke around. Whether a child or an adult; a customer is a customer!”
“Then go find a more hospitable inn and stay at it.”
“If I could have found one, I would have done so long ago!”
Gankyuu laughed sardonically. With vernal equinox so close, Ken County would be chaotic even without travelers exacerbating the issue. As it was the day before vernal equinox, that there would be people who wouldn’t get rooms was obvious. As for Gankyuu, he really didn’t want to be left without a place to sleep.
“First of all, why don’t you go back to the town? It’s more convenient for travel.”
“I can’t go back now. Not while the city gates are closed! Are you telling me to camp out in this cold weather? Well then, I’m certainly a child—aren’t you concerned about my not having a place to stay at night? You’ve probably slept on the side of the road, right mister? But if a weak person like me tried to camp out, I would be certain to freeze to death. Consider my plight as I ask you be so kind as to relinquish your room to me. Is this a situation in which to show no kindness?
.: 15 :.
“Unfortunately, I have no such obligation.”
“Is that so? Are these not circumstances in which one should feel an obligation of compassion and realize that it’s only common sense that one should not interrupt others?”
“Seems that way.”
The girl glared at Gankyuu and placed her hands on her hips. As if she were remonstrating a disobedient child, the girl thrust her finger out at Gankyuu.
“You—just what did you come here to do, anyways?”
Ken was a remote city. It was disconnected from the main highway and located in the innermost edge of Ken County. From Ken, there was only the Yellow Sea. The city was not a place to go for pleasure, nor was it a stop on the way to somewhere else. Indeed, no one came to Ken on a pleasure jaunt or out of idle curiosity. But whenever vernal equinox drew near, those who came to Ken were the people who had business in the Yellow Sea.
“That should be my line. Did you get lost, kid? Did you take the wrong road? What about your parents, eh?”
“I’m not lost, and nor did I take the wrong road. This is Ken, isn’t it? If so, my parents are in Renshou.”
.: 16 :.
Gankyuu’s eyes widened. The innkeeper, who had been listening the entire time, was flustered by the turn of events. Surprised, he raised his voice in amazement.
“Renshou?—is that where you live?”
“That’s right. I came all the way from Renshou. All that time I was traveling I kept thinking that I was about to die, but at last I arrived here. But more importantly, don’t you think it’s awful that there’s nowhere for me to spend the night?”
“You can’t mean that you came all the way here by yourself? Who came with you?”
“No one. I came alone,” said the child openly. Gankyuu was overcome with surprise. Renshou was the capital of the kingdom, Kyou. Getting to Ken by walking and riding on a boat it took nearly two months. With a child’s legs it would undoubtedly take even longer.
“You did, lass? With no one to accompany you, you came here from Renshou all alone?”
“That’s right. And while you’re admiring me, why don’t you go ahead and give me the room?”
Gankyuu was shocked. This child, without having to be held by the hand and guided under the protection of an adult, had alone come over such a great distance. Even Gankyuu would probably have gotten fed up traversing it.
“...Why in the world did you want to come here?”
The girl raised her eyes. In the look she gave Gankyuu, her scorn was evident.
.: 17 :.
“I decided to. Simply put, if someone’s on pilgrimage they’re going to choose to go to a town en route to their destination, right?”
“You decided to?”
“Yes, since I’m going to Mt. Hou, of course.”
Naturally, the jaws of Gankyuu and the innkeeper dropped.
“I am going to ascend Mt. Hou and see Kyouki.”
“Wait just a minute! That’s…”
“Oh come now, are you going to tell me that children can’t ascend?”
They can’t. Gankyuu was seldom left speechless. That was for sure. Yet…
“No matter what the circumstances, it is extremely unlikely that you will be…”
“Why is that? If an adult could have become the emperor, then the throne would already be filled. But that has yet to happen, so I’m going to give it a try.”
Having said that, the girl again looked at Gankyuu with open disdain.
.: 18 :.
“Even if you say that ascension is unlikely, aren’t you also in Ken because you’re going to enter the Yellow Sea? I may be getting ahead of myself now, but I think that going to Mt. Hou is pointless for someone who would even take away an inn room from a helpless child.”
“...do you know what kind of place the Yellow Sea is?”
Don’t most people? thought the girl, amazed by Gankyuu’s persistence.
“A place where there are no hermitages, and no towns. Neither are there inns, or roads,” she said.
“That’s not all.”
“You mean that there’s youma about. I already know that. But youma could appear anywhere.”
“Is this becoming a question of comparison? How can you travel like that? As a child, traveling by yourself, what would you do if youma attacked you?”
“How about you? What would you do if youma attacked you? Are you so sure that you could beat a group of youma?”
“Let’s assume that it happens: that you’re attacked by youma. You can’t do anything but run away. So how about give me the room.”
Gankyuu put his head in his arms. He squatted down before the girl.
“It’s possible for anyone here to immediately become the emperor. Now, if you still have something to say to me after all that’s been said, I’m willing to listen.”
“The Yellow Sea isn’t such a nice place...”
.: 19 :.
Unmoved, the girl looked at Gankyuu.
“I’m not going to Mt. Hou,” he said. “It’s true that I’m going to the Yellow Sea, but I’m going to hunt youjuu to train as kijuu. Do you know anything about what people like me do?”
“We’re called corpse-hunters. Youjuu tamers band together to form groups, but often without even capturing the youjuu they were after, have to carry back the corpses of their comrades over their shoulders. It’s that sort of job.”
The vernal equinox the year before last, the men Gankyuu had gone together with on kijuu to the Yellow Sea were all killed. In a rocky area to which were tied six kijuu, two of Gankyuu’s companions were devoured by youma. Had not the youma eaten their fill of those unfortunate men, perhaps Gankyuu would not have returned as well. It was through those circumstances that Gankyuu was forced to remain in the Yellow Sea until winter solstice, during which interim he barely managed to get himself a youjuu—his haku. During that time, Gankyuu had his hands full taming the haku he captured, and therefore hadn’t had the time to come to Ken for the previous year’s vernal equinox.
“...thanks to that, I was severely restricted on time. Coming to Ken, I couldn’t afford to go by boat or stay at any inns. I had to ride on the back of my haku, which I had only just finished taming, and traveled for three days and two nights, dozing half the time; but I finally arrived. To tell the truth, I don’t have much money. That is…what I’m trying to say is that this guy here is an old pal of mine, so he’s helping me out a little bit.”
“Is that right?” muttered the girl, as she appeared to immerse herself in thought. Gankyuu lightly tapped the girl’s arm to get her attention.
.: 20 :.
“The Yellow Sea is that sort of place. I don’t mean insult you, but go home, okay? As for staying the night—”
The girl cut of Gankyuu in mid-sentence as she suddenly began to undress, removing her dirty padded kimono. She then took off the short leather fur coat she had on under her kimono, and turning it inside out she began to pull silver coins out of the lining of the coat. Gankyuu’s jaw dropped at the sight. Each of those silver coins was worth five ryou, and was roughly equal to a month’s salary of a petty government official. He wouldn’t have expected even a single mai to be attached to her person.
The girl thrust the coat at Gankyuu.
“Here are thirteen mai and sixty-five ryou. Please escort me to Mount Hou.”
Gankyuu looked at the girl in mute amazement.
The girl gave him a sweet smile.
“My name is Shushou. Anyhow, you’ll be giving me the bed. You can sleep on the floor. Okay?”
.: 21 :.