At the center of the world is the Yellow Sea.
In that country relatively vast in land, a "sea" without water, youma run rampant in the abscence of human habitation. The Yellow Sea does not lie under the dominion of mankind, but neither is it a domain of the gods. There are only the Five Mountains, the Gozan, Situated in the center of that Yellow Sea, and they are said to be the garden of the shinsen who stand subordinate to Seioubo.
The paths of humans and gods do not cross. Humans can only pray before shrines, and shinsen can only soak up those prayers, and not take part in the way which the world came about. Though the Five Mountains are the garden of the shinsen, the Yellow Sea is also the home of the youma, and is a world that humans have no place in. However, only Mount Tougaku of the Five Mountains—Mount Hou—is a place that humans have not entered.
.: 52 :.
Kirin are born on Mt. Hou, and there they are raised under the guidance and protection of the Female Sages. Visiting kirin on Mt. Hou in order to be conferred the Will of the Heavens is known as shouzan, or "ascending" the mountain. —Of course, ascending Mt. Hou is not a requirement. Mt. Hou is in the center of the Yellow Sea, and in the Yellow Sea, passage through the Sea of Clouds to reach the summit of Mt. Hou is blocked. By the Kongou Mountains.
Steep, craggy mountains that are impossible to climb, the Kongou mountains have only four routes by which they can be crossed, and along each of those four routes there is a gate standing in the way. They are called the yonreimon; the Four Gates of Order. Each of the gates opens only once a year. The gate that the people from the kingdom of Kyou come into contact with is the Reiken Gate, which is only open for one day during the spring equinox.
Shushou departed from Renshou with her sights set on that spring equinox. Moukyoku weren't the best flyers, but going by air rather than by land, they could still traverse in one day what would take a horse three times that. The Reiken Gate was far away, and not a distance Shushou could possibly travel alone on just her two legs, but with a moukyoku the difficulty of the journey was cut down by a third. Moreover, when she ran away Shushou had taken with her plenty of money to cover travelling expenses. Whenever something happened in Renshou, Shushou's father, thinking about fleeing to their abandoned secondary residence, knew to stock up on cash in case of an emergency.
Shushou's father would most likely search for her, but even in the best of circumstances, the government officials would have their hands full dealing with all the youma and natural disasters, and would not likely seach for a single child with much zeal. And even though it was the Sou house that she came from, among the master of the house's possessions there was no kijuu faster than a moukyoku, and consequently chasing after Shushou would likely be a difficult feat. The Sou family's stores were spread out all across Kyou, but they weren't in every city; and they might send a notice by seichou to Nachi, or anywhere else that it might seem that she might go, there was no doubt that they could not guess Shushou's actual whereabouts and destination.
.: 53 :.
Whether I stop in a village or continue on it makes no difference, Shushou thought. She wasn't really worried about being pursued. Over the six days since she'd left Renshou, during the evenings she had elapsed two thirds of the distance to Reiken Gate.
"Now..." Shushou murmured as she brought Hakuto to a halt in the fallow land around the village she had chosen; a village that was not particularly small, though nor was it very large. She went straight towards the center of the village but did not enter, aiming towards the choudou at the back of a house.
No matter the village, the highway always connected to its south, while the north held a graveyard. In any case, wanting a place out of public notice where she could slowly ease up, Shushou turned towards the north part of the village. Since the village wasn't very big, she was soon within sight of the yellow roof of the shrine in the corner of the fallow land.
There was no fence around the graveyard. This village was the same as everywhere else; Shushou could see how an entire block of the land was now occupied by a group of brand new grave-mounds. She stopped where she was—the sight of the new graves was a spectacle she had seen in the other six villages, as well. Filled in land—a mound with the white-painted branch of a catalpa tree stuck in it. —Even here, so many people had died.
.: 54 :.
From beside the choudou, Shushou dismounted Hakuto. For the most part, the choudou was a horribly dreary building. Seemingly unconcerned with the shrine, the choudou building stood isolated, and though there was also a fence to defend the choudou building from wind and rain, there was a place without a door at which the dead would be enshrined. But buried in the fallow land were only those who died at the village from abroad, and therefore at that alter there was not a satisfactory memorial service for the deceased. Behind the altar, there was a small room for placing the dead awaiting burial in coffins and the like. The choudou was that building.
Shushou approached the side of a covered well next to the choudou, and at once removed its cover and lowered the well bucket. She presented the bucket of water to Hakuto and squatted down, while stroking Hakuto's flank, she gazed at the sight of a graveyard that she had become accustomed to over the course of her journey. —No, with every new village the number of new graves, little by little, was multipliying.
"People die, and end up like that..."
Placed in a coffin, buried in a hole, covered over with earth, and that was it.
It is said that to the east of the Sea of Emptiness the dead would become shinsen born in Hourai, or their spirits would fly to Mt. Kouri in the center of Mt. Hou, and in the heavens they would settle their sins, receiving a rank in the world of the gods in proportion to their wrongdoings. However Shushou, along with others, thought such a thing was very suspicious. If it were true, then the dead would only continue to multiply, and there would be billions of spirits packed together like sardines in the home of the gods, right?
.: 55 :.
Or maybe people reincarnated, it was reasoned. Unfortunately, Shushou had yet to be greeted by the reincarnation of her dead grandmother. And if the appearance of her grandmother had changed, and she had forgotten about Shushou, then Shushou's grandmother had not really returned. That person would be a complete stranger.
At any rate, people will be seeing some desolate scenery before they arrive at their final destination, thought Shushou as she gazed at the graveyard.
Fires and other disasters occuring in the city's fallow land made construction and agriculture impossible. Desolate and closely shorn grassland abounded, and only in this wasteland with nothing but bits of rubble scattered about, only in dirt the color of dew, were the mounds created. The branches of catalpa trees stuck in the mounds would flail in the winter winds. Some of them fell, but there was no one to right them.
Death was commonplace, and there was no family left untouched. Children, grandparents, siblings, parents...even from a distance relatives would come running at notice to receive the corpses, take them home, and bury and enshrine them in a corner of their land. Create mounds, grow catalpa trees, the affluent would place a small shrine, offer goods in a memorial service, for each season offer clothing made on paper. Although it was possible that the soul had already moved on, grieving for the dead, hearts that regrest death at least would not part with the grounds presented by soul container which might allow intermingling.
Essentially, the graves in the vacant land were only a temporary burial place, for while the souls waited for such a meeting. So if a family wasn't very far away, there would for a while be an unburied coffin about awaiting burial. More than usual since it was winter.
.: 56 :.
Eventually, everyone dies and is buried in the fallow land, but it's sad when no one visits their graves. It's not strange to hear of this sort of treatment for people who have died far from their homes, but travelers who died while journeying are not the only ones—people without family also receive the same treatment as those who have died away from home. Whether they have family or not, people have not the time or allowance to visit the deceased, though it could be that those people simply do not hold any respect or affection. Otherwise, when one of a household passes away, even fumin (expatriates) who are accepted and treated as family, since they have no land, they are necessarily treated like foreigners and are interred in the fallow land.
Once interred, after seven years the gravekeeper of the choudou would smash the bones in the caskets of those without mourners. Those broken bones would be offered the shrine of the government office and that would be the end of things.
For, after all, since people were only lent their lands by the kingdoms once the owner of a plot of land passed away, the land would be given to a new owner. Usually, people were not to lay their hands on the catalpa trees growing around hamlets, but if something happened to cause a catalpa tree to fall down when a coffin was needed, a gravekeeper would pass over the same kind of treatment. At any rate, that’s how people ended up.
“If that's all that can be done, better that nothing be done at all,” Shushou muttered as she stroked Hakuto's neck. His golden eyes smiled at her as she took off her padded kimono. By removing her satin padded kimono, Keika’s thin padded kimono was revealed underneath.
.: 57 :.
As could be expected, once the sun went down the cold became biting. From Renshou, Shushou had traveled directly southeast, but the weather didn’t reflect that at all. It’s said that in the remote south, the kingdom of Sou and the other southernmost countries had no winter, so she had hoped that it would be warmer.
Shushou regretfully folded the warm satin padded kimono and nestled herself between the baggage that Hakuto had carried on his back. What was she to do about where she would stay that night?
She knew that she should not appear to be too affluent, and so she wore Keika’s discarded padded kimono. Nonetheless Shushou felt a bit as if she were dressed like a bandit. Shushou had a moukyoku, however. But, then because she had Hakuto with her, she needed to stay at an inn with a stable for kijuu; yet no matter where Shushou looked, her appearance prevented her from getting lodging since it was not appropriate to the inns’ social status. Moreover, because she had a kijuu despite not appearing to be wealthy, the employees of the inns suspected her, and wondered why she had said kijuu. When she came within sight of a government office, she didn’t panic or run away.
“After all, they’re short on hands.”
.: 58 :.
Generally, Shushou would pretend to play the part of having come this far as an employee under the command of a rich man to deliver the kijuu somewhere, but the idea of a twelve-year-old child being entrusted with a kijuu alone was not about to allay peoples’ suspicions. Furthermore, traveling southeast with conditions being so bad, the clients of the inns were apt to examine at her closely with very discerning eyes. At the towns before this one, when she could not secure for herself a place at an inn, Shushou hid herself and slept under the floor of a choudou. After two nights sleeping under the cold choudous she had hoped to find something better, but finding nothing, tonight again she would sleep with Hakuto.
Since things were so bad, there were many ruins to be found in the south. Natural disasters were apt to occur anywhere, but youma came from the south. Hakuto was especially restless at night, when he could feel the presence of youma. Last night, Hakuto had growled throughout the entire night, and consequently today had little energy to spare. At the very least, she could search for a yaboku—because for some reason it was always safe to stay under a yaboku tree—but in this cold weather Shushou didn’t think that camping out would be such a good idea. Some days she was able to get lodging from a pleasant resident of a town though tearful pleading, other times she was able to lie and convince careless travelers to allow her to accompany them. However, at the last few villages even these methods were followed in vain.
As if he’d heard and found Shushou’s muttering voice aggravating, Hakuto let out a low growl. Confused, Shushou held her hand out to Hakuto’s lower jaw and gently stroked his throat.
“I’m sorry. It’s alright. Tonight, even if it’s just for you, I’ll find you a stable to stay at.”
Even as she spoke, Hakuto did not stop growling. Moreover, without even appearing to notice Shushou’s presence, Hakuto turned towards the choudou.
.: 59 :.
“What’s wrong?” As Shushou hugged Hakuto’s neck, she heard a small sound.
Without thinking, Shushou tightned her grip on Hakuto, because that sound—like the sound that Hakuto made in his throat—exceedingly resembled the growl of a tiger. There were no tigers in Kyou, but there were a tiger-like youma called Hinpan that sometimes appeared.
She thought the sound was coming from the other side of the choudou. Shushou hesitated between fleeing or going to look. Even though she knew it would be better to escape, if she ran away she would never know what was over there. It could be scary.
She wanted to both flee and see what it was. She could do neither. As she stood torn between her opposing desires, she heard the throaty sound again. At the same time, face appeared from around the other side of the choudou.
Shushou gasped, and as she tried to flee while holding on to Hakuto while turning around, in her confusion she happened to turn and look back towards the choudou and what she saw caused her to inhale sharply.
"What in the world..."
.: 60 :.
Its head was even bigger than Hakuto’s. It had the appearance of a tiger, but Shushou knew immediately that it was not one. Tigers’ eyes were the same golden color as Hakuto’s, but this animal’s eyes were a deep scarlet red. And since it wore a bridle, it was obviously a kijuu.
"Don’t scare me like that, jeez..."
Shushou stared at the kijuu, and stood up, facing the back of the choudou.
“As I thought, it’s a suugu.”
The kijuu at the back of the choudou had a saddle on, and its long tail reached and law sprawled in the dirt. It used only its neck to turn towards Shushou as it fixed its eyes upon her.
“How amazing. What beautiful eyes…”
They were the color of black pearls, but a hidden small light shone clearly from within them, brighter than any pearl.
Even Banko didn’t own any suugu. They were among the most daring and bold of kijuu, prided upon being extremely swift—but not at all easy to come by. They were usually only seen in the hands of generals in some parts of the Imperial Army.
Shushou inclined her head, wondering if she would be able to pet the suugu. Some kijuu were bad-tempered, and would allow no one but their masters to come near them, but this suugu didn’t seem like it was that way. Moreover, she’d heard that suugu were very clever.
.: 61 :.
Shushou slowly reached out her hand.
When she heard that voice literally jumped from shock. She hastily turned around, and saw a man wearing a cloth to protect from the wind over his head.
“It’s okay to stretch your hand out to him. He won’t bite you, Miss,” said the man, and along with his words let loose a brilliant smile.
“Is this kijuu yours? It’s a suugu, right?”
It was a first for Shushou. As he smiled broadly, the man looked younger to her. He looked in place next to the suugu, and they made quite a pair.
“Correct. You have good insight.”
Suugu were rare, and a class of kijuu that Shushou had never seen before.
“I love kijuu. Do suugu bite?”
“If they feel like it. They rarely do, but it can’t be said that they never do. So it’s best not to approach them carelessly.”
“Can I pet him?”
The man laughed and from beside the suugu slapped his knee. He grasped the suugu about its neck—like so, he urged Shushou.
“You really do like kijuu.”
"I love them."
So saying, Shushou petted the suugu's large head. It's fur was tougher than the suugu's appearance led her to believe.
.: 62 :.
"I see. —Is that moukyoku yours?"
Shushou looked back at the man's smiling face.
"...No. This moukyoku belongs to the master of my household. He's called Hakuto."
The man laughed lightly.
"You're an interesting girl, miss. Introducing your kijuu before yourself."
"Is that so wrong? I'm Shushou."
"This here is Seisai."
Shushou also laughed lightly.
"Oh, how lovely. It's a good name. —And you are?"
"I am called Rikou."
Seeing his nice, bright smile, at heart, Shushou felt weak at the knees.
"Mister, are you from this village? ―You're not, are you. After all, you're carrying luggage."
Shushou fixed her gaze on the saddlebags placed on the flanks of the suugu.
.: 63 :.
"As you can see, I am a traveller."
"Are you staying in this village?"
"That is what I intend to do, yes."
"Then I have a request...if you don't mind."
"A difficulty," she clarified in a sweet—though also remotely amused-sounding—voice, looking up and gazing intently at Rikou.
"I must deliver this kijuu for the master of my household, but I'm worried about finding a place to stay tonight. I look like a little kid, so it seems odd for me to be staying at an inn with a kijuu, right? Because of that, the inn in the town I stayed at yesterday refused me."
"That must be rough. You had nowhere to stay? In this cold weather?"
"That's right. I slept stowed away under the floor of the choudou. Isn't that sad?"
Rikou rolled his eyes.
"Now that's too much. Don't you know that there are youma appearing everywhere?"
"But I had nowhere else to stay!"
"You're a courageous girl. But what would you do if youma attacked you?"
"That won't happen. I usually don't have this difficulty."
.: 64 :.
"Well, if you overthink things, you'll get nothing done—but, whatever the circumstances may be, if I had to stay at a choudou every time...I hope I'd have very good luck."
"Definitely. Where are you headed?"
"Ken? 'Ken' the town where Reiken Gate is?"
"That's a very rough trip. Are you going all that way alone?"
"It's my job, so I don't really have a choice. —Mister, you'll be staying at an inn, right? Since you have a suugu, you'll almost definitely choose to stay at a large inn. Won't you let me stay with you? I'll pay for myself, of course."
Umm. You see...from my master, that is the master of my household, so that it wouldn't seem suspicious for me to be transporting this moukyoku, he gave me a document of authorization but, I lost it.
.: 65 :.
"But my master would scold me if I were to return after having gone so far already, and he is a ve—ry scary person. He'd glare at me harshly. But because I can't stay at a big inn without any documentation, so I'm worried. Please help me out."
"Hunh," Rikou murmured as he regarded Shushou with interest.
"Is that no good? Umm, if that's no good, I would appreciate even just getting shelter for Hakuto... If definitely don't want to help me get a room, I can just sleep in the stable with Hakuto. Uh, uhmm, if that's still no good, I'll do whatever..."
Rikou all of a sudden burst out laughing.
"Alright already. Don't worry, it's an easy enough request. I'll just say you're with me, right?"
"Really? You will? Thank you. I'm indebted to you."
With a laughter-filled no, Rikou stood.
"Well then, let's go before they close the gates."
As she guided Hakuto, Rikou called for Shushou to halt.
"Would you like to hear somthing good?"
.: 66 :.
Rikou turned a magnanimous smile towards the halted Shushou.
"When you lie, you'll sound more truthful if you speak humbly."
Shushou looked him in the eyes, and then up at the sky as she let out the breath she'd been holding.