7-4 The man flicked the gore off his sword. He said, "You've got a pretty good arm."
He wasn't the least bit winded. He was a big man but not a giant. The picture of a gallant warrior. Youko looked up at him, still trying to catch her breath. He laughed. "This might not be the most appropriate thing to ask, but you are all right?"
She nodded, weakly raising an eyebrow.
"Don't have the strength left to talk?"
"Thank . . . you . . . very . . . much."
"It's nothing you need thank me for."
"Well, I certainly appreciate the help."
"Having youma wandering about is a nuisance. I didn't know I was coming to your rescue."
She was at a loss on how to reply. She felt somebody grab her tunic from behind. It was Rakushun. "Youko, are you okay?" Rakushun asked, stepping gingerly around the corpses beneath his feet.
She took the scabbard from him, wiped down the blade and sheathed the sword. "I'm okay. Are you injured?"
"I'm fine. Who's he?"
"Dunno," she said with a shrug.
The man only smiled. He indicated the building behind them. "Are you staying there?"
Right, the man said to himself, glancing around the plaza. "People are coming. Do you drink?"
"How about you?" he asked Rakushun.
A bit befuddled, Rakushun quivered his whiskers and then nodded.
"Well, then. Let's get ourselves some refreshment. Explaining everything to the constables will be quite the bother, otherwise."
With this, he turned and strode off. Rakushun and Youko looked at each other. Spontaneously, they both agreed and ran after him.
The man pushed his way through the gathering crowds and set off down the street. It didn't look like he had a particular destination in mind, glancing here and there as he walked along the busy thoroughfare. Finally, he decided on an inn. It was a big, gorgeous place. Tagging behind, Youko and Rakushun followed after him inside without a second glance.
Youko glanced back at Rakushun. "What do we do now?"
"What do you mean, what do we do? What we did was come here."
"That's not what I mean. There's a few things I want to talk over with this guy. Maybe you should go back to the inn, just to play it safe."
"I'm not worried. Let's go."
Rakushun clambered up the stone steps and opened the door. Youko hurried to catch up. Inside the inn, the man and a waiter were waiting at the foot of the stairs. When he saw Youko, he smiled and climbed the stairs.
The waiter showed the man to a room on the third floor. It was a two-room suite with a balcony facing the courtyard. The room was big, the interior decor exquisite. Even the furniture was sumptuous. Youko couldn't hide her trepidation. This inn was a higher class establishment than she had ever set foot in before.
The man ordered food and drink and sat down in a sofa-like armchair. He had the air of a person used to these surroundings. In the light of the countless candles, the fine cut of the man's clothing was obvious as well.
"Um . . . . "
The man smiled at Youko, who was standing stock still in the doorway. "Why don't you sit down?"
Youko and Rakushun exchanged looks. They both sat down. But she found it hard to settle down. The man only smiled to himself at their apparent discomfort and said nothing else. Not knowing how to respond, Youko glanced around the room. The waiter returned with the victuals.
"Does the gentleman require anything else?"
The man waved his hand and the waiter left, closing the door behind him. "Would you like a taste?"
Youko shook her head, as did Rakushun.
"Um . . . . " Youko didn't have the foggiest idea of how to begin the conversation. Sensing this, the man spoke first. "That certainly is a splendid sword you have there." His attention focused on Youko's right hand, he reached out his hand.
She hesitated for any number of reasons, but handed over the sword. He lightly gripped the hilt and drew the sword from the sheath. It came free without difficulty. Ignoring Youko's exclamation of surprise, he examined the scabbard and blade.
"The scabbard is dead."
"The scabbard is dead?"
"Have you seen strange visions in it?"
Youko raised her eyebrows. "Have I seen what?"
The man smiled at her skittish reaction. He sheathed the blade and reverently handed the sword back to her. Youko wrapped her hand around the hilt.
"So, what is it?" she asked, meaning her question to be taken literally. "I mean, what kind of thing is it?"
The man nonchalantly picked up a pitcher and poured himself a glass of something. He seemed, however, to have lost a bit of his prior composure.
"That is the Suiguu-tou, the Water Monkey sword. The blade was smelted from water, the scabbard formed from a monkey. Hence, the Water Monkey sword. The champion who wields it possesses far more than a sword. When you see the glowing light and hear the sound of falling water, the sword shows you visions. If done properly, it will show you the past and the future, and what is far away from you. If you are inattentive to it, it will chatter on incessantly. The scabbard is there to bind its spirit."
Looking at Youko, he drained the glass. "The scabbard can change and turn into a monkey. The monkey can see into the hearts of people, and if care is not taken, it will confuse and bewilder the mind of its owner. That it why it is said to never separate sword and scabbard. It is the Imperial Regalia of the Kingdom of Kei."
Without thinking, Youko jumped to her feet.
"However, this scabbard is dead. Without the seal of the scabbard, the visions would certainly run wild."
"Who are you?"
"You sent a letter via the local ward office. So, tell me, what's this about?"
"You've got to be kidding. You're the Taiho of En?"
The man smiled slyly. "The Taiho is unavailable at the moment. But I'll listen to whatever you have to say."
Youko felt a profound disappointment. So he wasn't the Taiho after all. "I wrote it down in the letter."
"So you did. Something about the Royal Kei."
"I am a kaikyaku. I don't know much about this world. That's what it comes down to." Youko looked at Rakushun. "This is Rakushun. He says I'm the Royal Kei."
"Well," the man readily agreed, "he would be right, then."
"You believe him?"
"Believing has nothing to do with it. The Suiguu sword is the Imperial Regalia of Kei. Long ago, instead of destroying the most powerful and magical of the youma, they were subjugated and turned into this sword and scabbard, which became the crown jewels. Consequently, only their rightful owner can use them. Namely, the Royal Kei. That's because the one who first sealed them in the sword and scabbard was the King of Kei."
"But . . . . "
"Because they were sealed together, only the true king can wield the sword. Because the scabbard is now dead, I can draw the sword. But even in my hands, the blade would not cut through one blade of grass. Nor would I see any of its visions."
Youko looked straight at him. "Who the hell are you?"
He wasn't any kind of normal guy, knowing what he knew about the Kingdom of Kei.
He said, "Could you tell me your name again?"
The man's gaze fell on Rakushun. "And the one named Chou Sei who sent the letter, that was you?"
"Yes," said Rakushun, quickly correcting his posture and coming to attention. Chou Sei was his formal, given name.
"And your azana?"
"Yeah, and you are?" Youko glared at him.
The man wasn't intimidated. He gazed back at Youko without the slightest bit of defensiveness. "Naotaka Komatsu."
Youko pressed on with an equal bravado. "A kaikyaku?"
"A taika. The Chinese reading for my name is Shouryuu, which is more common. Though I'm afraid not common enough to be of much use to you."
"And . . . ?"
"Who exactly are you? Are you the Taiho's bodyguard, or something?"
"Ah," the man chuckled. "If my title is what you're after, then I am known as the Royal En. The King of the Kingdom of En."