The Kii Mountains south of the Kino River proved more rugged than the Izumi Mountains to the north. By the time Ryô reached the town of Hidaka, the weather had again retreated from early spring to late winter.
The clouds of steam rising above Hidaka identified it as a hot springs resort. Thinking about bathing made her feel dirtier. Thinking about food made her hungrier. Ryô had developed a good idea of how long it took to cover each leg of the journey. She could be at Mt. Kôya in another day.
She’d pinched her pennies and could afford to indulge herself for one night. And hardly indulge. For once she wouldn’t be staying at the cheapest dive in town. A well-deserved rest was in order. It would hardly be respectful of her to arrive at Mt. Kôya stinking like a pig.
The inn’s o-kami bowed deeply, even as she struggled not to frown at Ryô’s unkempt appearance. She was all smiles as soon as Ryô produced a handful of coppers. As far as Ryô was concerned, it was nice being properly bowed to. She didn’t care if her money was purchasing the courtesy.
An attendant escorted her to a room. It wasn’t the biggest, nor was it the best. Though the tatami and futons showed some wear and tear, the bedding had been aired out and the room was spanking clean. The facilities were no less comfortable than those at Hikone Castle.
The room attendant left with her kimono and shift, not the jacket. That jacket was her money belt.
She decided to indulge further and enjoy a proper bath. She hadn’t had one—alone—since leaving Sakai. The outhouses on the road from Kishiwada only made her appreciate the landlady’s strict standards and Haru’s hard work. No matter how she scrubbed herself after using them, she still felt grubby and out of sorts. Her two months on the run hadn’t accustomed her to the feeling.
“I can’t believe how filthy I’ve gotten,” Ryô said aloud, as the bath attendant led her to the onsen.
“Um,” the bath attendant said, but couldn’t summon up the ritualistic reassurances to the contrary, and instead set about dousing her with water and scrubbing her thoroughly. When the hot water—that was actually hot—showered over her and the steamy air billowed up like soft down, Ryô practically swooned.
She sensed a brief hesitation then, felt a pair of eyes focusing on the winding mark on her back. With a sudden qualm, she said to the attendant, “Oh, I was born with that,” though her nonchalance was a bit forced.
The attendant glided over the discomfiting moment. “You have lovely hair.”
They could both agree about that, and Ryô went back to pretending she was enjoying a soak at her manse in Muromachi.
Clean as a pink, Ryô settled into the steaming water of the onsen. She took a deep breath—it was such a luscious shock to her senses—and let it out slowly. Every muscle in her body turned to warm taffy. For the first time in a long time she felt like a properly pampered princess.
A cold puff of air against the back of her neck raised goose pimples on her skin. She cautiously opened her eyes and glanced over her shoulder. There, off to the right, a flicker of movement, followed by a silver ripple as the serpentine torso wound its long tail around the bath.
Ryô’s heart thumped with painful recognition. Her eyes darted back and forth, trying to discern head from tail. The dragon reared up before her, eyes glowing like red-hot coals.
She shrank back, then gathered her courage and leaned forward. “What are you doing here?”
“The question you should ask of yourself. The fates decreed your death. Your mother wished you to live. So I gave you a life that should not exist, providing it was returned to me. Those were the terms.”
“Why should you want something you think so little of?”
“It is not enough to merely see through human eyes, to watch the world going by in a butterfly’s dream. I cannot be free unless I can live, and you surely cannot be free if you die. Yours is the life I own. Two birds, one stone.”
“Gomen kudasai,” the bath attendant announced. The door slid open. Ryô started slightly, blinked the water out of her eyes. The attendant smiled. “You’ve been in there so long I was worried you were going to overheat.
Ryô frowned. She was sure she’d gotten in a minute ago. But her skin was indeed quite rosy. The bath attendant wrapped her in a yukata and bundled her back to her room, and to a truly edible dinner of trout (salted and dried, but prepared with a skill that practically brought it back to life), pickled daikon radish and cucumber, flavored with red ginger. It was the best food she’d eaten since New Year’s.