6-3 Before the gates of Agan, Youko flagged down a fellow traveler. "Um, excuse me."
The city of Agan was situated on the slopes of a hilly terrain. Descending the road that wound down from the highlands, the Port of Agan came into view.
The so-called Blue Sea really was blue, the waves breaking on the shore white. Within the embrace of the peninsula that encircled the Agan coast, white sails floated on the blue, transparent sea. Beyond the peninsula she could see the unbroken horizon. How this world could be flat was a mystery to her.
A number of roads came together at the gates of Agan. The city was big, and a great many people were going in and coming out. She slipped in amongst the crowds and called out to what looked like a good-natured person.
"Excuse me, but could you tell me how to get a ship to En?"
The middle-aged man politely instructed her. She also inquired about the price of a ticket. She'd managed to scrape together enough money during her journey to get her to En.
"When does the next ship depart?"
"There's one leaving on the fifth. That's three days from today."
Youko confirmed the ship's departure time. If she messed this up and the harbor got closed down, it'd all be for naught. She asked about everything she thought she might need to know, and then bowed. "Thank you very much. You've been a great help."
She left Agan at once and spent the next two days in the mountains. The ship was scheduled to leave in the morning. The day before she again went to the gates of Agan.
The guards were on their toes. Because she would have to spend the night in the town, she couldn't do anything to attract any suspicion. Youko looked at her sword, wrapped up in its cloth shroud. Now at least she had the scabbard. Still, she didn't see many travelers wearing swords on their belts, so it wouldn't do to stand out in the crowd.
If not for the sword, the risk here would be less. She'd given much thought to discarding the sword here in Kou, but even if she could, she had no desire to. As long as she was being pursed by the youma, it was necessary for her survival. It just wasn't a sword the guards were on the lookout for, so she didn't think getting rid of it would by itself improve her situation.
She cut some long grass in the mountains and wrapped the sword up in a bundle that, at a glance, would not be taken for a sword. Toward evening, she crouched on the road holding the bundle and waited for the right opportunity.
Soon after she sat down, she heard a man's voice. "Hey, kid, what's the problem?"
"Oh, it's nothing. Just my foot acting up."
The man gave her a suspicious look and hurried on toward Agan. She watched him leave and continued to sit there. After the third such inquiry, she spotted the kind of companions she was looking for, a man and wife with two children. "What's the matter?" she was asked.
"I guess I'm not feeling very well."
Youko didn't look up as she spoke. The woman reached out and touched her. "Are you all right?"
Youko only shook her shoulders. If this didn't work, if she couldn't gin up some sympathy for her plight, she'd have to dump the sword and risk the consequences. The strain was enough to make her break out in a real sweat.
"Are you sick? You're almost to Agan. Can you walk that far?"
Youko nodded slightly. The man put his arm around her. "Well, then, hold on. It's only a little further. You can make it."
Youko nodded again and put her hand on his shoulder. When she stood up, she intentionally let the bundle fall to the ground. When she stooped to get it, the woman picked it up for her and said to the children. "Why don't you carry this. It's not heavy."
She handed it to the older boy, who took it with a serious look on his face.
"Can you walk? We can summon the guards, if you'd like."
Youko shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'll be okay. My friends already went ahead and are getting a room."
The man laughed. "Is that so? You've got somebody with you, that's great."
Youko nodded, clinging gently to the man's shoulder as they walked along. She intended to appear beholding toward the man helping her, while garnering as much sympathy as possible from the people around them.
They drew nearer to the gates. The guards flanking the gates were inspecting the stream of people hurrying toward them. She passed through the gates. She felt eyes on her, but no one raised his voice. After putting a bit of distance between her and the gates, Youko finally allowed herself to breathe. When she peeked back over her shoulder, the gates were far enough away that she could not make out the faces of the guards.
Sighing with relief, Youko took her hand off the man's shoulder. "Thank you. I'm feeling much better."
"Will you be okay? We can take you as far as the inn."
"That's okay. I'll be fine from here. I'm really grateful for your help."
She bowed deeply. She wasn't lying. The words came from the bottom of her heart.
The man and wife exchanged glances. "Take care," they said.
The city was bustling with refugees. Worried about falling under the wary eye of an innkeeper, she found an open space along the city walls and spent the night there.
The welcome morning finally came. Youko followed the city streets to the harbor. The city center faced the water, and where it opened up there was a shabby wharf and a boat tied up at the pier. It looked to Youko's eyes rather small, but it was bigger than all the other ships lying at anchor.
"There it is . . . . "
She approached the wharf, a flood of emotions filling her chest. She stopped herself. Soldiers were inspecting the line of passengers boarding the ship. For a moment everything went dark. They were searching the passengers' luggage as well.
She had no desire to get rid of the sword. She'd managed to get this close staying in the shadows, and could get no closer. Youko stared at the guards and passengers.
Do I lose the sword?
She'd lose her primary means of defense, but it was better than staying behind in Kou. Yet thinking this, seeing the water not far from where she stood, she couldn't bring herself to do it. It was what tied her to Keiki. Lose it and she'd sever the half of her connection to him. It'd be as much as severing her ties to her home.
What to do?
She turned the question over and over in her mind and could not come to a decision. She looked around the harbor. Was there any way to get to En and keep the sword? Several small boats were moored there. Could she steal one of them?
I haven't the slightest idea how to sail a boat.
She'd heard that the Blue Sea was an inland sea. So while she couldn't imagine how long it would take, she ought to be able to make it to En by following the shoreline. Dazed by the tumult of her own thoughts, she suddenly heard the loud pounding of a drum. She looked up, startled. The sound was coming from the deck of the ship. It was the signal that the ship would soon be departing. The line of passengers was gone. The soldiers were standing idly by.
I'm not going to make it.
Even if she made a run for it now, the guards would grab her. There wasn't enough time to undo the bundle and take out the sword. And if she dumped everything, it would look equally suspicious trying to board a ship without any luggage at all. Frozen with indecision, she watched as the ship raised its sail.
The gangplank was withdrawn. Youko jumped out from her hiding place. The ship edged slowly away from the pier, where the guards stood observing the departure. She ran toward it, but could not risk getting any closer. She watched dumbfounded as the ship set sail. The image of the white sails burned into her retinas
If I do it now, I can jump.
Ideas raced through her head, but she could not act on any of them.
That's my ticket out of here.
Hugging the bundle to her chest, eyes wide, she could do nothing but watch the ship sail away. So much had depended on her making this escape, and she didn't think she would recover from the shock.
"What's the matter?" a rough voice said. "Miss your ride?"
Youko started, the gravelly voice bringing herself back to her senses. Down where the piles of the wharf were driven into the earth, she saw a vessel. Four men were working on the deck. One of them was looking up at her.
Youko nodded stiffly. The next ship wasn't for five more days. Those five days would probably settle her fate.
"Well, come on, kid. You want a ride or no?"
For a moment, Youko didn't grasp what he was saying and only stared.
"Hurry up, then. You got other plans?"
Youko shook her head. The sailors grabbed hold of the rope tied to the bollard next to her. "Loosen that up there and jump aboard. We'll catch up with them at Fugou. But you've got to work for your passage."
The other sailors thought that was a pretty funny offer. Youko nodded as resolutely as she could. She undid the rope from the bollard and, holding it tightly, jumped down onto the deck.
It was a cargo ship that went as far as the island of Fugou, just north of Agan. It was a full twenty-four hours to Fugou. From Fugou to En there were no more ports of call.
Save a ferry ride on a school field trip once, Youko had never been on a boat. And this was certainly the first time in her life she'd been on a sailing vessel.
She had no idea what she was doing, but every time one of the sailors barked at her she hauled something here or straightened up something there and generally chased her own tail around the ship. When they left the coast and the ship settled into its course, she found herself being told to do this, that, and the other thing, from scrubbing the dishes to cooking dinner. Finally, they even had her massaging the legs of some old salt of a first mate. Whenever anybody asked her about herself, she mumbled a half-hearted reply and they laughed about how she was a reticent little brat but thankfully didn't pry any more into her affairs.
The ship sailed on through the night without rest, and arrived at Fugou harbor the next morning.
The ship bound for En had already arrived and was resting quietly in its berth. The sailors worked Youko right up to the last minute. At last, not even coming into dock, they brought the boat alongside the passenger ship and called out to one of the seamen and requested that Youko be allowed to come aboard. She shimmied up the pole that had been lowered to the boat. After she boarded the ship, somebody threw a small parcel up onto the deck.
"Some dumplings for you. Put a little meat on your bones."
"You're a good worker. Take care, now."
They laughed goodheartedly. The men hauling up the fender--Youko had been the one who'd lowered it--were the last people she saw as she left Kou.