16-3 Youko paced the streets of Takuhou. Her best lead was the trail left by Suzu's sansui. But it was not a well-known species of pegasus, and after beating the pavement and asking around, neither she nor the people she questioned were any wiser as to the nature and fate of the creature in question.
Although she'd asked Hankyo to look for the sansui, he was not likely to ferret out the creature in a city of this size in such a short space of time.
Koshou, Sekki, Suzu. All she had were those three names. No more clues than these? She asked Koshou's neighbors about his whereabouts, but nobody would answer her questions. Clearly, most if not all of them were hiding the truth from her.
She talked to many people, asking about Koshou, and couldn't but become aware of the despondent expressions on their faces. A child had died in this city, and its citizens had watched the carriage drive away, pretending that nothing had happened. She saw that same mind set everywhere she went. What are you looking for him for? she was asked over and over. Even when she explained about the attack on the rike, she was told, "Well, that's too bad," and with those words of consolation, they crossed the street to get away from her.
No consciences were stirred, and no one showed the slightest inclination in helping her. Far from it, the only attention she received was from those warning her to lay off.
What has happened to this city? she thought, passing through the gate of an inn. "Excuse me," she said, and proceeded to ask if anybody there knew a man named Koshou, or if Suzu or Sekki had stayed here before. It stood to reason that a fellow innkeeper might know. Having moved, though, Koshou could be lodging anywhere. But she had no good grounds on which to proceed. She was equally aware of the possibility that he might have simply left town.
"Don't know," the innkeeper bluntly replied.
"Is that so? Thanks, anyway."
She stepped outside and lingered for a while in front of the establishment. While she'd been talking with the innkeeper, Hankyo had surreptitiously checked inside for any you-beasts quartered there.
"None," came the faint whisper when he returned.
Youko nodded to herself. She had started for the next inn along the way when a voice called out behind her. "You looking for somebody?"
When she turned around, a man was coming out from the inn after her. At a glance, he struck her as anything but an upstanding member of society.
"That's right. Do you know a man named Koshou?"
"Koshou, eh?" The man motioned her toward an alleyway next to the inn. Without a word, Youko followed him.
"So what's this Koshou to you, anyway?"
"The rike in Kokei was attacked. I'm looking for some connection between him and the criminals who did it. If you know anything, tell me."
The man leaned against the wall. "You got any evidence for what you're talking about?"
"No evidence. That's why I'm looking for him."
"Huh," the man said. His eyes fell to Youko's waist. "Some sword you got there. You know how to use that thing?"
"It's for my own protection."
"Really." The man straightened himself. "Can't say I know a thing about anybody named Koshou. But if this Koshou was some kind of criminal, you don't expect that he'd still be hanging around here, do you? He would have flown to coop long ago."
Youko looked up at the man's face. He knows something, she thought to herself. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"I usually am. You can't go chasing around after people without any evidence. It could be this Koshou's no criminal at all."
The man scratched at the back of his neck. Her eyes fell on his rough hands and her attention focusing to a point.
"While you're traipsing around asking questions like this, you're bound to run into some real villains. Could get dangerous, don't you think?"
A ring. A ring that didn't match up with the man's overall appearance.
"Don't go looking for trouble. Leave that to the authorities."
Koshou, Youko remembered. Koshou wore a ring just like that one. And so did the kid who'd stopped him from roughing her up. And the girl, Suzu, who'd served her tea.
"Shouldn't go around wasting folks' time like this," he said with a flippant wave of the hand.
He turned on his heels. Youko strode toward him. He glanced back at her suspiciously. She caught him by the shoulder and spun him around.
Grabbing him by the collar, she slammed him into the wall, pressing her shoulder against his back. The man bellowed. She laid the tip of the blade against his neck. "Would you like to find out whether or not I can use this sword?"
"Where did you get that ring?"
The man squirmed and pushed her away. She firmed her hold on the sword. The tip sank a few millimeters into his flesh. "Quit moving unless you want get hurt a lot worse."
The man's head nodded forward and he caught his breath, sending a shiver down the length of the sword. A slash of red appeared from a section of the streaked, stained wall above his head. The forefoot of a beast grew out of the wall, extending its claws atop the man's head. His cheek pressed against the brick, the man grasped something of what was happening and cast her a beseeching, sideways glance.
"You know who Koshou is?"
"You're lying. Look, my arm's getting tired. You'd better have something to say before my hand starts to shake too much."
"I don't know!"
"All I want is to sit down and talk. The way you're holding out makes me think that both of you are criminals."
"You've taken leave of your senses!"
"Now you're just pissing me off. Talk."
A moment passed.
"Koshou isn't that kind of man."
"And if we can sit down and talk about it, then hopefully I'll agree with you."
"You're wrong. Believe me."
"Take me to his place. Then I'll have reason to."
"Okay, okay," the man groaned.
At the same time, the forefoot of the beast vanished. Youko drew back the tip of the sword. Sensing no resistance from him, she released her hold.
The man placed his hands on the wall and shook his head. With the hand bearing the ring, he wiped the back of his neck, looked at his palm, and grimaced. "You would go this far? You're crazy, woman."
"And you'd better keep your promise. Try anything funny, and next time this sword will cut you for good."