Chapter 54

7-3 Rakushun had insisted that they take a room at a proper inn and Youko had insisted that it was a waste of money.

"How could the Royal Kei even think of staying in a cheap place like this?"

"The only person saying I'm the Royal Kei is you. Because you're my friend, for the time being, I'm taking what you're telling me at face value. But at this point, nothing's been carved in stone."

"And if it were?"

"In any case, it doesn't make any difference."

"You know, Youko . . . . "

"Look, with the traveling money I've got, this kind of inn is within my means. We don't know how long it's going to take to get a reply from the government. If we move into some high-class place and the days drag on, we'll be out of money before we know it."

"You're the Royal Kei. You shouldn't even have to pay. To start with, what innkeeper would ever take money from a king?"

"Then better that we stay here. It wouldn't be fair to take a room and then try to skip out on the bill. And I'm definitely not going to start freeloading off people."

They ended up getting a room that could be said to be the best of the worst. It was a small, four tatami-mat room, about eight by ten feet. The room slept two. It had a window facing the courtyard. There was a small table beneath the window. As they were going Dutch on the room, this was the best inn Youko had stayed in so far.

It was dusk when they returned from the shrine. First off, she used the bath in the room, changed, and then washed her traveling clothes. Hot running water every day and a fresh change of clothes, she really was in hog heaven.

She went down to the dining hall where Rakushun was waiting and they ate dinner. This wasn't some meal where you stood and ate off a cart. This was a proper dining room, and eating there was a real luxury. She slowly drank her tea, and was about to announce she was ready to go back to the room.

A scream came from outside the inn.

This was no normal scream. Youko at once reached for the sword. She hadn't shed her habit of never being apart from the sword for even an instant. She grasped the hilt and sprang toward the door. The street was in an uproar. On the street corner across the way, people were running around in a great panic.


"I don't believe it. They're here."

She had believed that the youma would not chase her all the way to En. And now that she thought about it, there was no reason for her to think so.

In the first place, there weren't many youma in En. Every night they got a room in an inn. They traveled only during the day, so it was natural that they wouldn't run into any youma. But she shouldn't have expected that her enemies would pursue her only in the mountains or only at night. Perhaps it was only good luck that had spared them so far.

"Rakushun, get back inside the inn."

"But, Youko . . . . "

The screams of the fleeing people awakened something inside her. The most piercing of the cries, that was the sound of a person in mortal danger. Mingled together with the screams was that sound like a wailing baby. The cries of the youma. Youko knew it well.

She drew the sword, pressed the sheath into Rakushun's hands. "Rakushun, get out of here. I'm begging you."

He did not reply. She felt only his presence slip away from her side.

The flood of people surged closer. Youko spied in their midst a black shadow like a small mountain. It resembled a huge tiger. Bakufu, she heard somebody shout.

Youko lowered the point of the sword and positioned herself lightly on the balls of her feet. The steel blade glittered in the light from the adjacent shops. The tide of onrushing people parted to the right and left of her.

The tiger rushed on, mowing down the people in front of it. Behind the tiger was a huge creature that looked like a big bull.

"Two of them."

She steadied herself. She felt that long familiar sensation with something more than fear. Exhilaration. The melee of people poured out the alleyways and piled into the shops around her. She spotted a gap between her two foes. She sprinted toward them, building up momentum, brought the sword to the ready.

First, the tiger. The huge beast bounded toward her as if to pounce. She ducked at the last second and drove the tip of the sword into its enormous head. She pulled out the sword, planted her feet, plunged it in again, and then spun around to face the charging blue bull.

Their bodies were so big, cutting them down to size was going to take some effort. But there were only two of them so it wouldn't be too hard. She was giving herself some room to work with, sizing up the two of them, when Rakushun's voice echoed out.

"Youko! Kingen!"

Her eyes shot up. What looked like a flock of chickens was flying toward her. Ten, twenty, she couldn't tell how many.

"Don't let them sting you! They're poisonous!"

Youko clucked to herself in disgust. They were small, fast, and there were a lot of them. What a bloody pain in the neck. The birds' tails were shaped like ice picks. She struck down two and gave the tiger another should-be mortal blow.

To keep from tripping and falling, she skipped past the corpses and with her back against the wall of the inn searched for better footing. She'd stuck the blue bull twice and it was in a frenzy. The blood of the youma was making the cobblestones slick beneath her feet.

The cramped, poorly-lit alleyway, the birds gathering. No hope of assistance from the surrounding shops, save for the flickering lamplight. Beyond the muddy glow, the night was dark and deep. If the birds realized this as well, they were close at hand and could be scheming to fall on her out of the blackness.

She dodged around the rearing head of the blue bull, took out another bird. She heard a multitude of cries drawing closer, sounding like the creaking of rusty hinges.

"More of them . . . . "

Cold sweat ran down her back. While she had been distracted by the birds, the still-not-dead blue bull had become her most immediate threat. She saw a hoard of monkeys streaming out of the mouth of the alleyway.

Her attention faltered for a moment. A moment later, a bird's razor-sharp scorpion tail was right in her face. She just managed to stumble out of the way and lost her balance. The next bird came at her, aiming straight at her eye. She knew she didn't have time to duck.

So, just how bad was this poison?

Forget about that, what about my eye?

Even if I can't see, I can fight.

I'm not going to get my arm up in time.

The thoughts raced through her head in no more than a split second.

Damn. This one's got me.

In the same instant that she closed her eyes, the bird diving toward her vanished. Someone had come in on her flank and clobbered the bird out of the sky. She didn't have the time to tell who.

The birds came at her and she slashed them to pieces. She sidestepped the charging blue bull. As she did, that same someone pierced the back of its skull with a brilliantly executed stroke. It was with such skill that the dexterity of the stroke completely distracted her. He yanked out the sword and eviscerated the next bird thrusting its stinger at her.

He was a big man, a good head taller than herself. "Don't let your guard down," he said, and dispatched the last of the birds with ease.

Youko nodded and he tore into the charging monkeys like a battering ram. From the rear the tiger leapt at them and impaled itself. Youko quickly found herself back in the midst of the battle.

The man's skill far exceeded her own. His strength was an order of magnitude greater. The hoard was numerous, but the dead bodies piled up in the alleyway and the tempest quieted down. It didn't seem to take much time at all.