The Twelve Kingdoms
Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Maze, Chapter 1.
from Mina's trans. of Ono Fuyumi's Kaze no Umi, Meikyuu no Kishi.
No one knows how a life is actually created. Especially speaking of the biology of things that are not human, this is even more of a riddle.
Life and consciousness suddenly arrived upon her body just like this.
When she came to, her body was under a white tree branch, and there was only one name in her mind.
In the process of getting up, this name slowly occupied the whole of her mind. At the same time, she also got a hold on the rest of the situation: who she was, why she was born, as well as what her most important mission was.
She propped up her upper body. These ideas were still flooding her mind, and they simultaneously spread into every corner of her body.
She straightened her waist, as if she was letting water that had dripped onto her body trickle onto every surface. She lifted her head and closed her eyes. Teardrops slid down from the corners of her eyes and dribbled into her damp hair.
She tried to move her feet, which did not yet have any strength in them, and bumped into the wet soil and golden shards next to her feet.
The shards once belonged to the egg shell that protected her, and the liquid that had originally filled the egg had already been absorbed by the soil. She had just hatched from inside the shell, and the golden egg that had contained her had fallen down from a branch, breaking into pieces all over the ground.
She stared at the shards of the golden egg, and after a little bit, lifted her head again to look at the white branch in front of her. As if it were made of white silver, the long branch extended beyond the top of her head and outward. The root was sturdily set into the high cliff wall.
On the branch, there were still a few little, round golden fruits. Although no one had told her, she already knew by intuition that there were still unhatched lives inside all the fruits, and not too long ago, she herself had also waited like this in the fruit to be hatched.
This is how life is actually created.
She used her strength to prop up her four legs and stood up, while she cried once again.
Her tears flowed only to protect her two eyes, which had been exposed to the outside air for the first time, but the feeling of the warm, wet tears slipping down made her feel as if the only name that she held in her mind was slowly seeping into the very depths of her body.
She wordlessly called out "Taiki! Taiki!" and again tears welled up in her eyes.
She stood up straight and discovered that her hair was hooked on a branch. The four legs on the lower half of her body stood firmly on the ground, whereupon she used the two hands on the upper half of her body to push aside the branch.
- - - - -
Suddenly hearing someone speak, she turned her head to look for the source of the sound.
It was very dim all around. Only the branch above her head gave off a white glow.
After waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, she then saw that she was in an enormous cave.
This was a particularly big cave in the shape of a half-circle with a white tree dangling in the middle. Those branches that were hanging over her, were actually the roots of the tree. These roots had cut through the cliff wall and hung very intricately from a place extremely high in the cave and reached all the way down to her feet.
Suddenly, the sound was even closer.
"You look like a very good nyokai."
She looked around again.
This time, she immediately found the person to whom the voice belonged. It was a hunchbacked old woman who was standing only a few steps from her.
This short old woman's height only reached her chest. The old woman reached out with her two gnarled hands and lightly stroked her hair.
"You are female."
And then the old woman stroked her cheeks.
"You have the neck of a fish."
Then she patted her wrists.
"The upper half of your body is human..."
The hand that had rested on her back slid down and she lightly patted her tail bone.
"...the lower half of your body is that of a leopard, and your tail is that of a lizard. What a terrific mix!"
Finally, the old woman softly pressed on the backbone that connected both parts of her body.
"All right, stop crying. Come with me."
So she followed the old woman. With every step, her tears fell to the dry earth and left little black dots.
They walked slowly and spent a long time passing through the cave before she saw a set of stairs where the top of the arc-shaped cliff wall met the dirt below their feet.
"You will be called Sanshi!"
The old woman finally spoke.
"San, Shi. From now on, everyone will call you Sanshi."
She silently took steps upward on the stone stairs and listened at the same time to the old woman speak.
"Your surname will be Haku, for this is the rule for all nyokai hatched upon Mt. Hou."
The stone stairs made a big turn, and after she went up the steps a bit, she suddenly saw a ray of light.
"The reason you can have a surname is because you carry on your back a very important mission. You must never forget this."
She nodded her head. As to what this very important mission was, she didn't need the old woman to tell her, for it was already very clear to her.
Once again, she firmly engraved into her mind the mission that she was to shoulder as she silently walked up the stone steps. After ascending a ways, the field of vision in front of her opened up. It turned out that the higher the stone steps went, the wider they became, and at the end, there was a square cave opening.
She stopped walking.
She lifted her head and looked out of the opening, seeing only the pale blue sky and the trunk and branches of a dazzlingly big white tree reaching up into the sky.
The tears that were so hard to stop before started flowing again though she tried to stifle them.
The old woman patted her back again.
"All right, you should go."
She took a few strides and then began to run, using the four legs that had just been hatched to run for the first time.
As soon as she leapt from the cave opening, sunlight splashed upon her body and pierced her eyes so that she began to cry again. She ran straight to a spot under the tree.
Her egg had originally formed among the roots of the tree. Compared to the long and slender roots, the trunk itself appeared to be short and thick. The long branches reached from the mossy stone steps to the sky, and on one of the snow-white branches, there grew a golden fruit.
She said something for the first time.
The golden fruit had grown in the same corresponding area as her egg. The fruit was still very small, so small that you could wrap two hands around it. The sunlight shined upon her sensitive skin, which was not completely dry yet. She used both her hands to surround the fruit and carefully pressed her cheek against it.
She was still crying.
This was Sanshi's birth.
The Yellow Sea is situated at the center of the world.
Although it's called the Yellow Sea, it isn't made up of water. The only things that flow in the Yellow Sea are time and the wind. What's left over are boundless deserts and endless forests, as well as large swamps and continuous mountains.
In the center of the Yellow Sea, there is a particularly high mountain range. This mountain range is called the "Five Mountains" and consists of five lofty mountains with complex shapes.
The tallest mountain located at the very center is called, "High Su." The mountains connected all around it are separated into Mt. Hou, Mt. Ka, Mt. Kaku, and Mt. Kou. In ancient times, Mt. Hou was called Mt. Tai, but every time a disaster occurs, the name is changed. For the last thousand years, it has always been called Mt. Hou.
Legend has it that the Five Mountains belong under the authority of Seioubo, and Mt. Hou belongs to Oufujin. Regarding the masters of the other four mountains, the rumors have always varied. Regardless of whether these legends are real or fake, it is known absolutely that the Five Mountains are the lands of goddesses and nyosen.
All of the Five Mountains reach up very high in the sky, but, like the Yellow Sea at their base, they are very uncultivated. The complex terrain is made up of only trees, rocks, water, and a wind that never stops blowing.
There is a small palace on the middle section of Mt. Hou, called "Houro Palace." This is the only place in not just Mt. Hou but the whole of the Five Mountains where people live.
- - - - -
"Oh? It's a poppy."
Teiei mumbled to herself as she squatted down for a closer look.
She was drawn to several poppy flower petals on the surface of the spring water.
Youka, who had been walking behind Teiei, also stopped. The radiant red flower petals floating on the crystal clear surface of the water was such that it drew people's eyes to it.
"Are they from the poppy garden?"
Teiei nodded her head in reply to Youka's question and extended her hand again to pull some petals out of the water.
"The wind probably blew them over here. The wind feels a little bit different today."
Youka nodded her head in agreement and then lifted her head and looked around.
Interesting rocks can be seen everywhere on Mt. Hou. The green moss that grows all over the surface of the rocks turned the perimeter outside of Houro Palace into a maze, especially on the high terrace where Houro Palace sits.
The crags are really worthy of their reputation. The surface is rugged and goes in and out as if the towering rocks will collapse at any time. Even the smaller of the rocks are three times the height of a person. In addition, the small paths that weave through the rocks are so narrow that they only allow two women to pass through at one time, walking shoulder to shoulder.
Teiei was now walking on a small path, stopping en route to gather the poppy petals drifting around on the surface of the mountain spring water.
She was a nyosen who looked as if she were eighteen or nineteen, but a nyosen's age could not be determined by looking at her appearance. Neither how nor when she became a shousen are clear even to her. This meant that she had arrived at Mt. Hou a very long time ago. Out of the over fifty nyosen, Teiei had lived on Mt. Hou the longest.
Opposite to her, Youka had just become a nyosen not too long ago. Only 16 years of age, she was originally a girl from an ordinary peasant family. However, not knowing why she was totally incompatible with the common customs, at the age of 13, she took the shousen oath, and from then on, did not eat grain. She spent three years at the shrine of Seioubo living a pious life, and she finally attained purity just recently and was summoned up to Mt. Hou.
Thus, it had not been long since the day Youka arrived at Mt. Hou. She had just moved from living on Mt. High Su to Houro Palace only half a month ago, but even she felt as if the wind that day did not blow as it usually did.
Ordinarily, the wind calmly whisked through the small path, but this day, it was both strong and urgent. At one second, it blew powerfully up the crags into the sky, and at the next, it scraped the edges of the cliff walls downward, curling into a gusty whirlwind. Even the sky was looking murky. Since there was only a thin layer of clouds, they didn't know why it gave off such an oppressive feeling.
"Is this some sort of omen?"
Teiei tilted her head to contemplate the question Youka had brought up.
"It shouldn't be. This morning's Eight Diagrams divination symbol didn't show that anything would occur. Come on, let's hurry and draw water out and then get back."
Youka tossed the bucket that was in her hands into the spring water.
This pool of spring water is called "Kaidou Spring." The spring water gushes endlessly from the base of the crags, and a great sea paulownia (kaidou) tree covers the tops of the crags around the pool.
Of course, the spring water of Houro Palace doesn't come from just this one pool. No one has been silly enough to count how many springs there are in all, but the number is many, so it follows that they had to name every spring lest they confuse them.
On Mt. Hou, there are no differences in the seasons. Flowers can bloom throughout the year. For instance, right then there were a few little fluffy white sea paulownia flowers floating on the surface of the spring. Because the fragrance of the flowers had permeated the water, though it was not known when it started, the wooden water bucket also gave off the scent of the sea paulownia flower.
The scented water in the bucket is for an offering at Taishin Shrine in Houro Palace for the patron goddess of Mt. Hou—it is used for washing the wooden image of Oufujin.
Youka pushed aside the flowers as she filled the bucket with water, and then she turned around and prepared to walk in the direction of Taishin Shrine. At this time, Teiei smiled and called out to her.
"Where are you going?"
"Hm? I'm going to help Oufu..."
"The shrine isn't in that direction! Don't you remember which way to walk yet?"
Youka looked at the three diverging paths and her face could not help turning red.
"I've really gotten the direction wrong."
The rocks and the countlessly diverging paths made Mt. Hou into an absolute maze.
The only ones who can master all the routes are those who live on Mt. Hou. Only the nyosen who live here can choose the right route in the spider-web-like paths, in order to get to the side of a clear river to wash clothes, to a waterfall to bathe, or to a pure spring to draw water. The area wasn't big, whether she wanted to reach the grasslands, flower gardens, and vegetable gardens, all splashed with sunlight, or she wanted to visit the little palaces sprinkled around Mt. Hou. However, for Youka, who was a new nyosen, she still needed a bit of time to get around.
"Why are the paths here so complicated...?"
Hearing Youka sighing like this, Teiei smiled.
"It's there to protect the Mt. Hou Kou! Just endure it for a little bit."
The land is shaped like a maze in order to prevent intrusion by outsiders.
Regular people or animals would not be able to make their way up the rocks. And although youju possess the ability to do so, they are generally not allowed into Houro Palace with only a few exceptions. Also, the paths through the strange rocks are very narrow, so those that come to visit must leave their mounts at the base and walk up to Houro Palace alone.
As soon as one steps onto the small paths, they will notice the interlocking grid, just like a labyrinth.
The enormous crags will block your lines of sight. And amongst the rocks that are covered by the damp green moss, the elaborate stone slabs on the small paths have formed innumerable diverging roads and tunnels that cause people to lose their sense of direction in the blink of an eye.
Only those familiar with Houro Palace are able to find their way and arrive at that place, unique in this world, a high terrace full of plants and trees.
"So that's how it is."
Hidden in the deepest part of the maze is the Shashinboku, and on this tree, the fruit of the kirin grow.
In this world, whether human, beast, or any other living thing, they all grow in fruits on white trees. However, the only fruits that bear kirin grow on the Shashinboku on Mt. Hou.
Mt. Hou is the holy land where kirin are born. Houro Palace and the nyosen in it all exist for the sake of the kirin. The kirin are the masters of Mt. Hou, thus they are also called "Mt. Hou Kou."
Teiei nodded her head.
"There is no bigger responsibility than taking care of the kirin, but there is also no greater happiness. When the Taika hatches, you should also help us take care of him. However, you must be very careful."
Teiei's words made Youka's eyes glimmer.
"Can I help? Really?"
Actually, Youka had felt a little dissatisfied. Serving the kirin was an important job for the nyosen on Mt. Hou. The remaining jobs were only a few chores. There was a young kirin on Mt. Hou at the time, but because Youka was new, she had not been able to join the task of caring for the kirin.
"But you have to figure out the lay of the land first."
Youka nodded vigorously.
A few days ago, the Shashinboku finally bore another fruit, and this one was called "Taika."
Youka's thoughts had already drifted over onto that little fruit.
The time from when the Taika is formed to when the kirin is hatched is ten months. A newly born little kirin is extremely adorable. To be able to get so close to the little kirin in order to take care of it, she only had to think of such a situation and she would become so happy, she could not help but laugh.
More poppy flower petals floated from somewhere, silently dropping onto the surface of the water...
"Are those poppies?"
Someone from behind suddenly spoke to them, and Teiei stopped picking up the petals. She turned around and saw a woman coming out of Kaidou Palace, which was near Kaidou Spring.
Youka looked at the woman uncertainly as she had an unfamiliar face. She couldn't tell her age by her appearance. She looked like she was very young, but she also looked as if she had already passed middle age. She was wearing clothes and accessories that were more magnificent than the ordinary nyosen, and from this, Youka could tell that her status was definitely very high.
Teiei kneeled hurriedly. This scared Youka and she quickly kneeled down with Teiei.
This woman was the head of the nyosen at Houro Palace, Tensen Gyokujo Hekika Genkun—Gyokuyou.
"They're probably flowers from the poppy garden that were blown here by the wind."
Teiei replied. Gyokuyou lifted her pretty face and looked at the sky through an opening in the crags.
"The wind is blowing quite strangely today."
Gyokuyou wrinkled her brow as she stared at the sky for a moment, and then she turned to look at Youka.
"You're called Youka? Have you gotten used to life on Mt. Hou yet?"
Gyokuyou had spoken to Youka so suddenly that for a time, she didn't know quite what to do.
Before she became a nyosen, Youka had only heard Gyokuyou mentioned in legends, a distant figure. Now that this honorable goddess was standing right in front of her and had spoken to her, how could she not panic?
"But she still gets lost!"
Teiei grinned as she added this. Youka heard this and turned red again.
Gyokuyou's laugh sounded like a silver bell.
"Everyone is like this when they first arrive. Even Teiei got lost a long time ago. You'll be fine in a little while."
Youka secretly glanced at Teiei, who was also laughing.
"That's right. Youka's memory is much better than mine. She's also diligent and isn't afraid of getting tired."
Gyokuyou gave a tiny smile.
Youka's face became a deeper red.
"N...no. I still make mistakes often and get lectured."
"Of course you'll get lectured before you become experienced. You shouldn't take it too seriously."
Gyokuyou looked at Youka, who was the kneeling down with her forehead earnestly on the ground, and smiled again. She then looked at Teiei who was also smiling at Youka.
"That's right, I've heard that the Nyokai of Tai has been born."
Gyokuyou did not often stay at Houro Palace. Her whereabouts drifted from place to place. Even Teiei didn't know where she ordinarily was, nor did she know when or where she would appear. Though Teiei was very curious, this was not something that a good nyosen could ask about.
"What's her name?"
"Where is Sanshi right now?"
"She is standing guard under the Shashinboku, never stepping away an inch."
When she heard Teiei say this, Gyokuyou raised her red lips into a smile.
"The devotion a nyokai has for her kirin is extremely deep!"
Teiei also smiled and nodded.
A kirin did not have parents, yet the nyokai was very similar to a kirin's parent, as she was responsible for protecting them. A nyokai's egg develops on the roots of the Shashinboku. When the fruit of a kirin forms on a tree branch, the nyokai will hatch on the following day. And then, for ten years as the fruit ripens, she will stand guard under the Shashinboku until the kirin is born.
"And the kirin's gender?"
Only a nyokai knows the gender of an unhatched kirin.
"He's called Taiki."
A male kirin is named Ki, and a female is named Rin. The clan name of the kingdom is added before this, and the designation of a kirin is formed. This is a rule that has been passed on since very ancient times. The Ki of Tai Kingdom was growing on the Shashinboku, and the surname of Tai Kingdom is Tai. Thus, the name of this kirin is "Taiki." [Note: Tai, the kingdom, and Tai, its surname, have the same pronunciation, but different kanji.]
Gyokuyou nodded her head, turned in the direction of the Shashinboku and started walking. Teiei and Youka lowered their heads to respectfully see her off.
It was then that suddenly the air began to tremble.
A strong wind violently blew into the small paths, as if it wanted to scrape everything off the face of the mountain.
Before they could even say anything, Teiei had already tumbled to the ground. The same had happened to Youka and she let out a scream.
A deep sound occurred all around and pieces broke off the crags. A strange roar came out of the entire maze.
Though Teiei had heard Youka's frightened voice, she was not able to respond.
This was no simple storm or earthquake, for, if it had been, the symbol of the Eight Diagrams would certainly have shown it. Also, under the protection of gods and goddesses, a simple variation in the weather would not encroach upon Mt. Hou like this.
"Genkun, hide in the palace quickly!"
For the safety of the mistress, Teiei grasped the stone steps firmly with her fingers and wearily lifted her head to look towards Gyokuyou, only to find that Gyokuyou was standing firm, staring up at the sky.
The sky had turned red, as if it was covered with curtains of red mist.
"It's a shoku..."
Gyokuyou was not paying any attention to the earthquake, looking directly at the bright lights flying in the sky.
To be able to stand firm when that sudden, strong wind came shows that Gyokuyou had the strength of a goddess. However, Teiei did not currently have the spare time to express her admiration for this.
She could feel that the entire current of the air was already completely twisted, rapidly moving nonstop. And with every movement, the red mist above her head would move about.
In a fissure in the red mist, an image revealed itself like a mirage.
A land that was not of this world drew near.
The soft petals of the poppy flower fluttered along with the strong wind and continuously hit Teiei on the face.
"Ah! The Taika's in danger...!"
Sanshi was crouched under a white tree branch, the wet moss making her skin itch. She looked at the fruit on the end of the branch with happiness.
This fruit, which bore the Taiki inside of it, would ripen in ten months.
After ten months, Sanshi’s master will hatch out of this Taika—Taiki. Sanshi needed only to think about the moment that the ripe fruit cracked open and she became so happy that tears would flow from her eyes.
Just when Sanshi’s heart was full of joy and pride, in that moment when she had lifted her head to look at the gleaming golden egg, something suddenly happened!
At first, Sanshi was at a loss for what was going on.
The air began to swirl into itself, destroying everything around Sanshi. A red tent-like fog covered the entirety of the sky. Fear made Sanshi’s whole body tremble, when finally the word "shoku" floated into her mind.
She suddenly stood up as the fierce winds brushed at her feet. The white branch could not bear the pummeling of the wind, as it shook violently and creaked.
Sanshi shouted loudly and sprung towards the tree branch. She held the branch tightly and straightened her body up against the wind. Her wind-blown hair was messily tangled with the branches. In the violent shaking of the tree branches, a portion of her hair was torn out, but she didn’t have time to acknowledge the pain on the top of her head. She thought with all her heart of only protecting the Taika. When she looked up toward the branch, all she saw was the twisting air.
The roaring wind continuously hit her body. She saw the already turbulent air spinning even more, as it opened up and devoured the branch.
This was how the small golden fruit was drawn into the twisting air. That fruit that should only have been tenderly plucked by Sanshi after ten months, otherwise should never have left the branch, was harshly swept away.
Sanshi reached out and tried to save the fruit with both her hands, which had been scraped by tree branches and was dripping with blood. However, the distance between her hands and the fruit became farther and farther until she despaired.
"Someone come quickly!" Sanshi shouted with all her strength, but it only reached the end of her outstretched fingers before it dissipated in the wind.
The golden fruit gradually disappeared into whirlwind in this way.
The first sound that Sanshi made after she came into this world was the name of Taiki. And then who would have guessed that the second time she opened her mouth, it would be in a sorrowful crying—a crying that received no replies.
The end came just as suddenly as the beginning.
Sanshi stared blankly at the white branch.
There was no longer a golden radiance at the end of the branch, the solitary fruit had already disappeared leaving neither a shadow nor a trace.
The sound came from all directions as a number of nyosen all ran towards Sanshi.
The first to arrive at Sanshi’s side was Gyokuyou.
Sanshi clutched tightly onto the two hands Gyokuyou had reached out.
First, she shouted Gyokuyou’s name, and then she let out a sorrowful cry and began wailing.
"How could this happen...?"
Gyokuyou hugged this nyokai, who had been born not too long ago, as she gently stroked her wind-blown hair as well as her scarred body.
"Of all times, it had to happen when the fruit of the kirin was growing..."
The nyokai at her chest was continuously letting out a mournful cry. Originally, in the ten months before the kirin hatched, the nyokai would not leave her post under the tree. The nyokai’s feelings toward the kirin were that deep. Now this nyokai had watched wide-eyed as the kirin was taken from her. Gyokuyou could understand her pain.
She patted the nyokai’s back.
"You don’t have to cry like that, Sanshi. We will definitely find Taiki."
Gyokuyou said this quietly. In fact, she was also telling herself this.
"I will return Taiki to your side as quickly as is possible."
She nodded to Teiei, who had just arrived.
"Let Suzaku fly to every kingdom and quickly find the direction of the shoku!"
"It must be done before the moon rises. Quickly, assemble the nyosen and prepare to open the gate."
"Yes, I’ll go immediately."
The nyosen scattered, and Gyokuyou looked up.
No matter how she looked, there remained no traces of the golden fruit on the white branch.
- - - - -
The shoku had begun on the west side of the Yellow Sea and had swept its way east.
On the Five Mountains, which are protected with divine might, and the even more closely guarded Houro Palace, all the flowers were fluttering about from the crush of the shoku. The shoku brings destruction to any kingdom it arrives at, but the nyosen of Mt. Hou were not concerned with this result. To them, the most important thing was the kirin.
The question was, where had the shoku taken the fruit?
Shoku are able to travel between this world and another. The worlds outside of this one are called "Hourai" and "Konron." It is said that Hourai lies on the edge of the world and Konron is situated on the other side where the sun never shines.
Regardless of whether this is true or false, the people of this world are unable to enter or pry into the other. Only shoku and the Gogou Gate, opened by the use of moon incantations, are able to connect the two worlds.
This world is surrounded on all sides by the Empty Sea. If the shoku continued east, the Taika would also follow it over the Empty Sea, until it reached the edge of the world—Hourai.
Though ordinary people are not able to travel to Hourai, nyosen are not ordinary people. On Gyokuyou’s instruction, several nyosen passed through the Empty Sea searching for the Taika. However, the Taika’s whereabouts were still not clear.
—This is how the kirin disappeared.
From that day forward, many people saw the shadow of Sanshi, east of Mt. Hou in the Yellow Sea, constantly searching back and forth.