Even after the three days Gankyuu predicted would be safe had passed, the travellers had not yet made it out of the forest. However the swamp that followed their route had turned into a narrow river.
It became a habit for them to make the first clearing they came upon once the sun reached the Konkou Mountains in the west their campground. They also habitually picked up branches for firewood as they walked along, and Shushou would make a hearth out of stones in a place indicated by Gankyuu. That day, Gankyuu had decided they would sleep just inside where the line of trees met a small clearing, in the shadow of a thick shrub. What kind of trees were they? With the strong smell emanating from the thickly growing leaves of the giant trees behind them, and as if embraced by the thick shrubbery, they built a small hearth in the little grassy clearing.
While Gankyuu cooked, Shushou went down to collect water from a stream nearby. As she made the trip many people called out to her.
“Shushou, how are you? You must be tired.”
To say she wasn’t tired was a lie, but she had long since prepared herself for this level of hardship. Rather, the real problem was that walking on the uneven road within this unchanging forest fostered within her a sense of languor.
“Shushou, how’s it going? Sleeping outdoors is tough, huh?” called out the voice of Shitsu Kiwa, a middle-aged man. Of of them all, Kiwa had the largest amount of luggage and largest number of retainers.
“How about it, won’t you come sleep in my tent? I feel bad forcing a young girl like you to sleep on the grass.”
“Your offer is quite tempting,” Shushou sighed. Kiwa’s tent was huge, and according to rumor it even had bedding. A silly thing to have to carry, but Kiwa had brought with him enough wagons.
“But if I were to join you I would be reprimanded by Gankyuu,” Shushou said, and Kiwa raised an eyebrow.
“Who is he to tell you what to do?”
“He’s my bodyguard. I hired him. I told you, didn't I?”
“He’s a goushi (剛氏)?
“He was a ryoushishi (猟尸師), but he knows just as much about the Yellow Sea.”
“A youjuu hunter. No wonder he’s so arrogant.”
“I won’t disagree with you there.”
Goushi guard people undergoing shouzan (昇山). Ryoushishi hunt in the Yellow Sea. Naturally, the services of goushi are prized beyond measure, and they’re heavily depended upon, but with ryoushishi, on the other hand, no one wants to think about why they exist.”
“If he’s a ryoushishi, then that means he’s not a total expert. Moreover, I hear a lot of them are unreasonable thugs. Are you really going to be okay with someone like him? You are welcome to join me if you’d like.”
“If at some point I find him undependable, I may take you up on that offer.”
“Yes, please do. If ever you’re in trouble, just let me know.”
Many others besides Kiwa invited her to join them. Her being a child was probably the motivating factor. To refuse such offers seemed a bit of a waste, but since Gankyuu refused give the okay it couldn’t be helped. It wasn’t as if she didn’t want to escape the fastidiousness of Gankyuu in favor of a tent, but she had hired hims using all of her money, and that was frustrating as well.
“Good grief…” muttered Shushou as she parted from Kiwa and returned to their camp.
“Just a little more and maybe I’d be able to think of him as a good guy.”
Never mind good guy, the man was a nag. He gave orders without explanation and if she asked any questions he would become sullen. Sure he had his guard up since they entered the Yellow Sea, but now Shushou wished she’d arrived in Ken earlier so she could have taken her time choosing a guard.
“Or would that be asking too much, I wonder…”
Although she was certainly paying good money, she’d never thought that he would take accomapanying a twelve-year-old like her into the Yellow Sea seriously. Not just was it thanks to Gankyuu that she was able to enter the Yellow Sea, but Shushou felt that as long as she stayed with Gankyuu things would somehow work out in her favor.
At some point along the way, after being spoken to by many people, and only replying to them in a perfunctory manner, after two days she somehow realized that the group was losing its feeling of solidarity.
Most people would gather towards the center of the clearing. At first there had been one big bonfire that everyone would gather around, but at some point one group, then another formed, and the number of small groups like Gankyuu’s began to increase. Right now the shapes of these various groups could be seen sprinkled along the forest’s edge in the glow of the twilight. Most of them didn’t have tents, and instead used weighted ropes to create a sort of roof out of tree branches, or surrounded themselves with small fires made of tree branches. Their sleeping areas were narrow places next to their kijuu and horses, or they purposefully created areas like Gankyuu’s.
Maybe these shouzan (昇山) groups were the ones guarded by goushi (剛氏) thought Shushou as she collected water and returned to their sleeping area. She arrived just as Gankyuu finished preparing their meal of congee.
That stuff again, thought Shushou wearily. Gankyuu’s meals were invariably congee, and though the taste varied with the addition of whatever edible vegetation they picked or dried strips of meat, and the taste was not very appetizing. At any rate it didn’t seem as if the menu was going to change anytime soon, and the portions were sparse.
“By the time we get to Mt. Hou I will be nothing but skin and bones,” Shushou whispered to herself, then called out to Gankyuu: “I’ve brought the water.”
Gankyuu lifted his eyes to hers, but they showed nothing of approval or appreciation for her efforts.
“Thank you,” said not the one who had ordered her to get the water, but Rikou, and Shushou couldn’t help but be glad that it was him who said it. Since they’d entered the Yellow Sea, Gankyuu had been nothing but a gruff stick in the mud.
As they ate their tasteless meal in a circle around the fire Shushou spoke up with a lively voice.
“Hey, Shitsu-san invited us join him in his tent,” said Shushou.
“No,” Gankyuu said in his usual sort of flat refusal. Rikou smiled. He didn’t seem to know how to frown.
“Are you tired, Shushou?”
“I’m not tired. We haven’t even gotten that far.”
“And it’s not even cold. The Yellow Sea is quite warm.”
She said this to Gankyuu, who as he used some grass to clean out his empty bowl, nodded.
“It’ll get colder?”
“It’ll get hotter. The Yellow Sea is a warm place.
Oh, Shushou murmured as in front of her Gankyuu poured a small amount of water from the waterskin inside the dish wiped clean with grass, swirled it about, and disposed of it in the embers of the dying fire. Shushou had at first been disgusted by this rough method of cleaning up, but even if she’d made a fuss about dirt and uncleanliness it couldn’t be helped, so she could do nothing but give up. After all, this was the Yellow Sea.
“Hey, do you always need to put out the fire? No matter what?”
“Is the young lady afraid of the dark?”
Shushou stared at the embers of their fire, feeling indignant at the tone Gankyuu had taken.
“That’s not it.”
“It’s best to not stand out by using a fire. Tonight the moon is out, so there’s plenty of light,” said Gankyuu, and looked towards the clearing. Shushou and Rikou followed his gaze and looked in that direction as well. At the bright fire and lively voices.
“Why is that?”
“Because they’re smart. They know that where there’s fire there are humans.”
They… whispered Shushou. He was referring to the youma, right? If that was the case… Shushou turned her gaze back to their camp.
“Um, then shouldn’t we tell them that too?”
“Don’t do unnecessary things. They wouldn’t listen to me anyways.”
“You can’t know that without trying to tell them.”
“As for telling them things they should know, that’s what goushi are for. It’s not the place of ryoushishi to do such things.”
“Stop nitpicking. Eat your food, clean up and go to sleep.”