9-3 "Excuse me, Enho, but would you mind if I took off for today?"
After breakfast, Youko approached Enho as he was leaving for the elementary school.
"Not at all. Where to? Will you be late?"
"I should be home before the gates close. I'm going to Takuhou."
Enho hiked up his bushy white eyebrows. He leaned forward and said, "Why now, out of the blue like this?"
"I'd like to go see the city. Something wrong?"
Enho hesitated for a moment and then shook his head, averting his gaze. "Go ahead, go take a look. It's all fine by me."
With that cryptic remark, Enho turned and left through the courtyard. Youko scowled as she watched him go, wondering, "What was that about?"
Gousui Gorge formed the border between Ei Province and Wa Province. Crossing the rope suspension bridge over the gorge brought you to Shisui Prefecture. It was then a half-day wagon ride to the prefectural capital, Takuhou.
Youko sat in the back of the wagon and pulled on her jacket. In En, these kinds of suspension bridges were only used on very wide rivers. And the river crossings were well organized. Wagons were ferried across the river on boats. In Kei, you had to get off the wagon. There weren't that many bridges in the first place.
Bridges over gorges like Gousui were limited to places where a ferry landing couldn't be built to cross the river. As these were suspension bridges that horse-drawn wagons could not traverse, passengers had to disembark and then pick up a connecting ride on the other side. But a bridge that could be crossed was better than the alternative. At wider ravines, you couldn't even do that and had to go on very long detours.
Kei is poor, she thought, observing the passengers on the opposing shore waiting for wagons to pick them. Comparing Kei to En was a pointless exercise, though.
Arriving at Takuhou after a half-day's journey, she saw that the chaos had far more deeply scared the city than Hokui. In Hokui, damaged houses had been torn down and new structures were being built. All around Takuhou, remnants of burned-out and half-wrecked buildings stood there abandoned. Rough shacks lined the unreclaimed land outside the city. Sullen-looking groups hung out around open fires, the kind of refugees you never saw in Hokui.
Ei Province was doing very well. The province lord of Ei was the Taiho, Keiki. Additionally, as in Hokui, citizens of the Duchy of Yellow could expect relief from taxes. The stark contrast with Gahou, the ill-reputed province lord of Wa, was plain to see.
She climbed down from the wagon and paid the driver. She passed through the gates, listening to Hankyo's whisperings. Following his directions, she made her way to the southwest corner of the city.
Past a certain street, the rows of houses turned smaller and cruder. Before long, things got even worse. Hungry children on the street, faces tight with hunger. The listless eyes of adults squatting in patches of sunlight. Unconsciously, Youko found herself taking a tighter hold on the overcoat she carried in her left hand. With her right she gripped the hilt of the sword bundled inside the coat.
There, the hushed voice whispered from her heels.
Youko glanced from one end of the street to the other. Compared to the state of everything else around them, one of the houses was in rather good condition. As expected, anybody wanting to do business in this kind of neighborhood would first want to preserve the reputation of the establishment.
Youko approached the tavern, entered the open doors. Inside were several suspiciously-dressed men, even compared to the type you'd expected to be hanging out in this neighborhood. Their eyes fell on Youko.
"What you want, boy?"
Standing at the back was the man she had seen in Hokui.
"Just stopped by to ask for directions. You got a restaurant here?"
The men had already found other things to occupy their attention. A single man came up to her and pulled out a chair at a nearby table.
"Have a seat. You got lost?"
"Looks like it."
Youko sat down in the chair. She felt a sensation creeping up her spine, Jouyuu manifesting himself. Jouyuu was one of Keiki's shirei. He dwelt inside her, and now he was tensing up. Sensing danger, he was preparing himself and warning her. In fact, though the men at the tables around her had all looked away, she knew they were all focused on her presence.
"Hey, you." The man planted his hand on the table and leaned over her. The thin ring wrapped around his thick, gnarled fingers left a strange impression on her.
"You a girl?"
Youko looked up at him. "And if I am?"
The man laughed. "Ballsy, you are."
"I'll take that as a compliment. This your place?" The man nodded. Youko looked into his eyes and smiled. "Have we met before? In Hokui?"
"No," the man grunted. "Not that I recall."
From the expression on his face, Youko couldn't tell if he really didn't remember her or if he was only pretending he didn't.
"You gotta be kidding, you come to see me?"
"Just had a feeling we'd met before."
Youko didn't pursue the matter further. Everything about the place was fishy, the man, the tavern. She was going to have Keiki check out exactly who they were.
"Well, I do recall asking about getting something to eat."
The big man exclaimed in amazement under his breath. He looked down at her with something approaching admiration. "Well, ain't you the plucky one. You got money?"
"Are you telling me this is a pricey place?"
"Pretty damned pricey."
"Well, then," said Youko, standing up. "Perhaps I did come to the wrong place. So, what's the best way to get back to the main street?"
The man took a step forward. "Who are you?"
"You expect me to believe that? You got way more guts than fits your frame."
The men around her came to their feet. With flinty eyes they sidled toward her. Youko grasped the hilt of the sword inside the overcoat.
"What you come here asking questions for?"
"I needed directions."
"You take me for a fool?"
They had her on all sides. Six burly men. Youko took a firmer hold on the sword when an unexpected voice called out.
"Everybody, hold your horses!"
Youko stole a glance in the direction of the cry. The men as well turned toward the back of the tavern. When the big man turned, a gap opened up in the wall. She saw a boy there, maybe fourteen or fifteen. He appeared awfully small amidst all those big men.
He walked up to them, grabbed the big man by the arm. "Let her go." He said to Youko. "You may leave now."
"Hey." The big man tried to free himself. The kid wrapped his arm around his in an imploring manner. He also wore a ring on his finger. Youko committed it to memory.
"Sorry if they seem a little intimidating. They don't have much experience being around girls."
Continuing to tug on the big man's arm, he pressed his cheek against the man's upper arm and smiled. "Please don't take any offense."
Youko nodded. She turned on her heels. The cordon of men reluctantly broke apart. She pushed through them to the door, briefly glancing back over her shoulder at the young man. Then she straightened her head and marched out of the tavern.
"What you let her go for, Sekki?"
The big man watched the girl leave and then turned his attention to the boy hanging off his arm. The boy took a breath and let it out. He disentangled his arm and laughed. "I didn't do it for her sake. I did it for yours, big brother."
"You saying a little thing like her could have taken us?"
"That was no ordinary courage." Sekki glanced at the door the girl had just left through. "That was a very dangerous girl."
"When she put her overcoat down on the chair, it made far too heavy a sound." Sekki narrowed his eyes. "Considering the length, I'd say it was a sword. A long sword."
Every eye in the place turned toward the door.
Youko walked down the forlorn streets feeling distinctly dissatisfied.
Something is going on.
That big guy was definitely the man she had seen in Hokui. Furthermore, the men hanging around inside that tavern were a hard bunch, and they gave off a mean vibe. Hardly the typical clientele. And then that kid. Youko drew her brows together.
She drew close to the main thoroughfare. She raised her head. From the intersection ahead of her came a scream. Not of one or two people, but the cries of many. And the sound of wheels racing along the ground, the pounding of horses' hooves.
Youko ran down the alleyway and sprinted into the main thoroughfare. She saw a carriage fleeing down the street. People standing around in shock. The body of a child crumpled on the ground.
The slanting rays of sunlight bathed the avenue in a whiter shade of pale.