Shushou trotted alongside Gankyuu as he walked in silence. Unlike Gankyuu, Shushou was light of foot. The predawn road was cold with fallen frost; to a child’s legs the journey was long, and having to half-run the three days distance from the port town was not something her legs could recover from with just one night’s rest, but Shushou paid her discomfort no mind.
.: 97 :.
She’d really thought that they might not make it. They somehow made it, arriving the previous day, and Shushou had even managed to Gankyuu to guide her though the Yellow Sea. She’d heard that that there were people that could be hired to guard those making the shouzan, and of course she understood that to pass through the Yellow Sea those kind of people were necessary. What with Hakuto being stolen, even if she managed to make it in time for the spring equinox, Shushou had prepared herself for the possibility of not having the time to search for a guard. But her luck was good, and having been able to find someone who knew the Yellow Sea, probably everything from now on would somehow work out as well.
Right now, she felt more curiosity than nervousness. Following the barrier wall from the northwest of the city, Gankyuu walked south. The wide city street was not all that different from those in Renshou, but there was an odd division in the street. In Renshou there was nothing in the place where streets intersected. There was only a square plot of ground the width of a street that stretched off into each of the four directions. However, in that space in this city there were numerous buildings the width of a street. There were square, stone-built, and hollow—and in each of the four directions of the roads there had steel doors. There were many projections along the barrier wall and ramparts as well, and the shops lined up along the roadways all had gates and doors.
While surveying these with curiosity, she rode the wave of humanity southeastward, at length arriving before a single gate.
“So there's a gate in such a place.”
.: 98 :.
Shushou raised her voice.
In the city over, only before this one gate was there a wide, empty space. People flowed in and stagnated—a large gate watchtower rose up before them.
“This is the southeast, isn’t it?”
Shushou looked up at Gankyuu and he nodded.
Gankyuu looked up at the five-storied edifice.
Since it was the prefectural castle it should have twelve gates facing in twelve directions, as was customary. However, in Ken city there was neither a Dragon Gate nor Snake Gate. Instead, as if cutting off the city’s southeast corner, openly facing the mountains there was a different gate.
Near the gate peaks pressed forward, and beyond the overlapping repetitions of thin, delicate spires in the pale blue sky of approaching dawn, a black sheet of wall stood in the way. While looking at the sharp summit with edges like the teeth of a saw, either end of the wall that extended to the left and right blurred, melting into the grey dawn of morning. Those were the Kongou Mountains, their peaks that reached the heavens cut off way up high, forming a streaked path. This was one of the only four paths in the world that allowed passage into the Yellow Sea.
.: 99 :.
Chi Gate was thicker than any other gate in the city, as it opened into the Yellow Sea. Once a year, Reiken Gate would open, and from it would flood out the beasts that lived in the Yellow Sea. No, before they flooded out—that was how it should be. On the outer side of the Yellow Sea, that tall, thick building was built on Chi Gate, and no matter how many hundreds of years passed inside the Yellow Sea, the solid citadel was built. Even now no youma flooded out from the Yellow Sea, and Chi Gate idly displayed its majesty.
“An extravagant gate, isn’t it?”
Gankyuu looked at Shushou, who had whispered in amazement.
“When you think about it, it’s pretty great. Look at that preparation. Even though only once a year, for one day, is that gate open—yet that much preparation is needed. All the buildings in this city are made of stone. Even the gardens have roofs—because youma come.
In this city there were no gardens that opened up to the sky. The green appearances of the great roofs seen here and there across the city were due to the copper tiles placed on top. Windows were small, and many of them were covered with iron grids, and the spaces between the bars were also small. Iron plates were invariably stuck to doors in every direction. The edifices built here and there along the main roadways were called battlements. Like the battlements jutting from barrier walls and ramparts, they were structures to which people could run and hide behind when youma appeared. Ten times more than cities that only had belltowers that tolled to warn of pending attacks, this city was composed of everything to protect people from being attacked by youma.
.: 100 :.
To Gankyuu’s words, Shushou laughed lightly.
“The city people have a rough time of it. But we don’t need to worry.”
“Just where does that confidence come from?”
Shushou laughed demurely at Gankyuu’s amazement.
“Tentei is protecting us.”
Right, Gankyuu muttered tiredly, gripping the reins of the haku. The wave of people stopped short in front of the gate. Right next to the inside of the still closed gate was a company of soldiers. The forms of countless soldiers could be seen clustered against watchfires, acting as sentries. Despite the great number of people gathered, there was little noise. In the cool predawn air, there was only slight stirring.
“This is normal. Because from here on it’s the Yellow Sea, and once you’re in, you can’t leave until summer solstice. Everyone understands that.”
“Oh…” muttered Shushou, and Gankyuu pressed her forward.
They pushed through the crowd to face the southern end of the gate. The southern end of the open space, at the side of Chi Gate, there was a shrine (祠廟).
In the pale darkess purple smoke drifted and people crowded around it, but Shushou had never seen this sort of shrine even in Renshou.
.: 101 :.
It had neither gate nor inner courtyard. As if glued to the barrier wall the altar was built very wide, and had countless stands for offering lights built into it. Gankyuu faced the shrine and lit a light. Absentmindedly, Shushou peered into the shrine. Normally at one of these shrines multiple gods and sages were worshipped, but at this one there was only one idol. Because it was dark she couldn’t see the figure very well, however she could at least tell that it was wearing armor. It had a thin sash slung over its shoulder, and reminded her of a statue of a divine general she once saw at a temple. Shushou, who had been staring at it fixedly, had her head forced down by Gankyuu.
“Calm down and pray like a good girl. From here on, we’ll no longer be in a world of humans.”
The other side of Chi Gate—there, the human perception of order did not apply. The only thing left to them was to supplicate to gods and sages for divine protection.
Next to the altar was a full bucket of water. Immersed in it were countless peach branches. Gankyuu took one of those leafless branches, and shook the water droplets onto himself, Shushou, and the haku, then thrust the branch into the haku’s saddle. Countless tags hung from the stone wall next to the bucket. Gankyuu took three of those tags and hung one around Shushou’s neck.
.: 102 :.
“It might not be necessary for you, Great One, but I’m giving you one just in case.”
Shushou took the wooden tag into her hand and looked at it.
“A charm for the protection of Kenrou Shinkun. Protection for those who travel the Yellow Sea.”
So saying, Gankyuu hung the other two aging talismans on himself and the haku. He had specifically chosen to take up those aging ones, though the ink on them was blotted. If those who borrow these talismans manage to safely emerge from the Yellow Sea, they gratefully return these to the shrine. Since the older the talisman, the longer it has protected travelers, everyone chooses the oldest ones.
Shushou turned to look back at the shrine, and upon doing so realized that the idol must be Kenrou Shinkun.
“I’ve never heard of Kenrou Shinkun.”
“Don’t be disrespectful. He’s the only divine being who can be relied upon in the Yellow Sea.”
“But aren’t there many other gods?”
“The Yellow Sea is a place forsaken by the gods. The only one who takes it upon himself to save hapless travelers is Shinkun.”
As Shushou muttered this, a low drumming sound began. In the open space behind her, it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
.: 103 :.
—Chi Gate was opening.