3-6 The three-day journey was soon over, and proved somewhat anticlimactic. On the third day the tall buildings of Kasai rising above the river plain told them that they had arrived. It was the first place Youko had seen that actually looked like a city.
"Well . . . it is big," Youko said, as they passed through the gate and got a chance to look around.
Takki chuckled. "Around these parts, the only city bigger than Kasai is Takkyuu, the district capital."
A district was the next step up from a prefecture. Youko didn't have a good grasp of the relative sizes involved. She didn't think that Takki did either. When she spoke of the "government," it was sufficient for her to mean the town hall or maybe the prefecture seat.
Inside the gate, stores large and small lined the main road. They were different from those in the towns they'd passed through up to now. These were grand and luxurious. It reminded Youko of Chinatown. The big buildings had glass windows that were quite impressive. It was still early in the afternoon and the street was not crowded, but she had the feeling that come closing time and the place would be packed with travelers.
Now that she thought about her decision to live in this bustling city, her mood improved a bit. No matter where she settled down, even in one of the towns, she couldn't complain. But it went without saying that a lively place like this was better.
Takki turned off the main road, towards a block of smaller-scale shops. The area had a vaguely run-down feeling, but there was no change in the hustle-bustle atmosphere. A number of businesses were organized into a kind of medieval strip mall sharing a common roof. Takki headed towards the one that was quite the most elegant.
It was a three-story building with bright green pillars. They entered the imposing front doors into a large restaurant that took up the whole of the first floor. Takki left Youko to admire the splendid accouterments and grabbed the waiter who came out to greet them.
"Call the mistress for me, will you? Say her daughter's come to see her. You got that?"
The man's face broke into a grin and he hurried out of sight. Takki watched him leave, then sat Youko down at the nearest table. "You wait here. Go ahead and order something. Everything's really good."
"Are you sure it's okay?" This restaurant was bigger than any inn or dining hall they'd been in so far.
"Don't worry about it. My mum will pick up the tab. Treat yourself, anything you want."
Even so, Youko couldn't really follow the menu. Sensing that, Takki laughed, summoned a waiter and ordered a few things. The waiter bowed and left. At the same time, from the back of the restaurant appeared a woman just old enough to be called an "old woman."
"Mother," said Takki, standing up and smiling. The old woman reacted with a cheerful expression. Watching attentively, Youko saw with relief that she came across as a nice person. With her as her boss, it couldn't be that bad of a job.
"Youko, you wait here, okay? I have a few things to talk over with my mum."
"Yes," Youko said with a nod. Takki smiled and hurried after her mother. The two patted each other on the back and laughed together and then disappeared into the back. Youko watched them leave with a smile. She placed Takki's rucksack next to the table and paused to look around the restaurant.
For some reason, there seemed to be no female employees. All the waiters and busboys were men, as were most of the customers. She caught several of them glancing in her direction, checking her out. Without really knowing why, she began to feel very unsettled.
A short time later, a group of four men came in. They sat themselves down at an adjacent table, turned and leered at her, whispered amongst themselves and burst into laughter. It was starting to creep her out.
As she scanned the restaurant, she saw no hint of Takki returning. She put up with it the best she could, but then one of the four got up and walked towards her. She scrambled to her feet, ignored the man calling after her and caught the attention of a waiter. "Um . . . do you know where I can find Takki-san?"
He curtly pointed towards the back of the restaurant. Figuring he meant for her to go find Takki by herself, Youko set off in the direction he had indicated, lugging the rucksack along with her. Nobody tried to stop her.
She made her way along a narrow corridor and emerged into what looked like the building's cluttered back rooms. Feeling somehow self-conscious as she crept along, she at last came upon a beautifully carved door. The door was open. From behind a screen that blocked the middle of the room from view came Takki's voice.
"Really, there's nothing to worry about!"
"But, my dear, she's being sought by the police!"
Youko stopped in her tracks. There was reluctance in the old woman's voice. The sudden rush of anxiety made Youko stop and crane her neck. Of course, no way she'd want to hire a kaikyaku. She resisted the impulse to rush in and bow her head and beg, Please. That would be too presumptuous. At the same time, she was in too desperate a state of mind to return to the restaurant.
"Oh, what's a kaikyaku? Just somebody who got lost, no? All that stuff about them making bad things happen, you don't believe those old superstitions, do you?"
"Of course I don't, but what if the officials find out?"
"Nobody says anything, nobody finds out anything. That girl's not going to talk. Think about it, she's a bargain find, don't you think? Not bad looking, not too old. She'd be handy to have around."
"Yes, but . . . . "
"Behaves herself, too. You teach her how to treat the guests right and she'll be bringing 'em in the front door. All you have to do is take her off my hands for a reasonable price. What's there to worry about?"
Youko tilted her head to one side. Takki's tone of voice was . . . odd. It wasn't good manners to eavesdrop but she wasn't going to stop listening now. She began to hear something else as well, almost subconsciously, a sound like the faint roar of the ocean.
"But a kaikyaku . . . . "
"And no strings attached! Think of that. No parents or brothers storming in and raising a ruckus. Right from the start it'll be like she doesn't even exist. None of the usual fuss and bother."
"But does she really have what it takes to work here?"
"She said so herself. I told her it was a hotel. She thought I meant working as a maid or something. That girl is quite the little fool."
Listening attentively to their conversation, Youko knew something was terribly wrong. She was "that girl." Till now, Takki had always addressed her so warmly and sincerely. Youko didn't sense a speck of that consideration now. What was she to make of this? It was almost as if she were listening to the voice of a completely different person.
"But . . . . "
"Everybody knows what those green pillars mean, and what kind of a woman works at a place that has them. You'd better know the difference, too, when it comes to paying the bill."
Youko's eyes flew open wide. The shock didn't knock her flat only because she was still holding onto Takki's rucksack. The monkey had told her. Why hadn't she listened more closely to its warnings?
Shock, and then anger. Her pulse raced. Her constricted breath was hot in her throat. The sound of the ocean roared in her ears, deafening her. So that's what this has been about. She took a tight grip of the sword, still wrapped up like a parcel. A moment later she settled herself down and instead turned on her heels and retreated down the narrow hallway the way she had come. Pretending that nothing at all was amiss, she strode through the restaurant and headed for the exit.
At a brisk pace, Youko stepped through the doors and again looked up at the building. The pillars and beams, even the window frames, were painted green. She'd figured out what it meant in the nick of time. She was still carrying Takki's rucksack. No way was she going back inside to return it.
Almost as if on cue, a second-floor window opened. A woman leaned against the ornate balcony railing and stared out at the world. Her gleaming kimono was rumpled and undone, the collar wide and open. Her occupation was as plain as the nose on her face.
Youko shuddered with revulsion. As if sensing that she was being watched, the woman looked down at her, laughed derisively, and closed the window.