She was wandering around looking for an inn when she heard a familiar voice behind her. Because of the sansui, she had to stay at an inn with stables. According to the man who’d sold it to her, stealing a pegasus was a serious crime. But they were so valuable that plenty of thieves would risk it. Pretty sure there ought to be an inn with stables that wasn’t all that expensive, she set off for the neighborhood where she’d stayed before.
She turned around. There amidst the bustle of people was the boy she’d met at the cemetery. “It’s you . . . ”
He slipped through the throng piling up at the gates before closing and ran over to her. “You came back? Why?”
Suzu tilted her head to the side. “What are you asking for?”
“You went somewhere, didn’t you? You left the inn. I thought you’d taken off for good.”
Suzu remembered that his name was Sekki. “How do you know what inn I was staying at?”
On the day they had met, he hadn’t come with her to the inn. They’d gone their separate ways on the main boulevard.
Sekki shrugged guiltily. “Ah, sorry. I tailed you.”
“I was worried about you. I thought you might try to get back at Shoukou.”
Suzu gulped. “Don’t be silly.”
“So you’re fine, then? And the pegasus? You went to buy it?”
“Yeah. I got tired of traveling by wagon. I don’t have to worry about carrying a sick kid around any more.” She laughed cynically and Sekki looked away. She said, “Fine by me. So, do you know a cheap inn with stables?”
She didn’t have much left in her purse and inns with stables weren’t that common.
Sekki raised his head. “I live at an inn. It’s a bit run down and it doesn’t have stables. But the back yard should be big enough for a pegasus. But that’s okay, ’cause nobody’s going to steal anything from us.” He took hold of her hand. “You can stay with us. Besides, our rates are good.”
Sekki’s house was located in a run-down block of the city. Men loitering along the way gave Suzu and the sansui suspicious glances as they passed by.
Leading the sansui along, Suzu asked, “You’re sure this is okay? It looks like a pretty dangerous neighborhood.”
Sekki grinned. “No worries. Ah, here we are.”
Suzu looked in the direction he was pointing. The building was an old but well-kept inn. Sekki ran ahead to the side of the entrance, opened the wooden door, and motioned to her to follow. “Let’s go in here.”
Inside the door was an alleyway where barrels and buckets were stored. Through the alleyway was a small courtyard and vegetable garden. Sekki pointed at the hedge. “You can tie it up there. Do you know what it eats?”
“Hay and fodder.”
“We’ll get some for you. In the meantime, we can water it.”
Sekki went to the well and lowered a bucket into the water. At that moment, the back door opened and a man appeared there. He was so tall she had to look up at him.
“What are you doing with a fine beast like that, Sekki?” His eyes focused on Suzu. He gave her a very suspicious look. Hauling up the bucket, Sekki turned and smiled at him. He said, “It’s hers. She’s staying here. I told you before, remember? The girl I met in the cemetery.”
“Ah,” the man said, nodding. He grinned broadly, a friendly smile. “Yeah, that was pretty awful. Come in. The place is something of a dump, though.”
“Do you also work at this inn?”
Suzu was shown into the kitchen and invited to sit down. She politely took a seat. The man dipped a ladle into a big pot, filled the teacup and set it down in front of her. He cut a pretty rough figure as a waiter.
“I guess you could say I’m the landlord. In fact, it’s Sekki that’s keeping the books.”
“You’re his older brother?”
“Yeah. And he works me like a dog.” He laughed in a loud voice. “I’m Koshou. And you are?”
“That’s an odd-sounding name.”
“I’m a kaikyaku.”
“Hoh,” he said, a surprised look in his eyes.
Suzu was surprised, too. To be honest, claiming to be a kaikyaku hardly aroused any feelings in people at all. When she thought back about it now, whenever she said that she was a kaikyaku, she kept expecting something dramatic to happen.
“Must have been rough.”
Suzu shook her head. She hadn’t suffered much during her journeys. She was healthy, and even though her parents had died long ago, she hadn’t been chased out of her hometown. Her life was still her own and that was no small thing.
“Koshou, you shouldn’t entertain guests in the kitchen.” Sekki walked in and gave his older brother a playful glare.
“Oh, this is okay, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not. Now, go find out where we can get hay or fodder.”
“Okay, okay,” Koshou replied cheerfully. He smiled at her and left.
Watching him leave, Sekki sighed. “Sorry. My big brother really isn’t much of a gentleman.”
“It’s fine. Sorry about making you run around looking for fodder. I don’t want you to go to too much trouble.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sekki laughed. “Let me show you to your room. Please forgive the fact that it’s a tad unkempt.”
Despite being located in this neighborhood, the inn had guests. There were four guest rooms. In the three days Suzu had been staying there, occupants had come and gone. A bunch of men hung out in the tavern on the first floor. They weren’t exactly a high-class bunch and they (and the occasional woman) seemed to be there all the time, talking together in hushed voices. The house across the alleyway also saw a lot of comings and goings.
This is a strange inn, Suzu thought as she straightened her things. After some thought, she placed her purse with what few coins remained on top of her bags. She slung a long, thin pack over her shoulder. In the darkened courtyard, she saddled up the sansui.
“You going out at this hour?” asked Koshou, coming out of the house.
Suzu nodded. “I thought I’d go for a walk.”
“The gates are closed. Where you going?”
Suzu didn’t answer. Koshou leaned forward and gave her a hard look. “Take care,” he said, with a wave of his hand. The light from the kitchen glittered dully off the ring on his finger.
Suzu bowed her head, took up the reins, and turned toward the alley.
Oh, yes, it’s from a chain, she thought, settling into the saddle. The thin ring that Koshou wore, it was the link of chain. The slender strand of steel just big enough to wrap around a finger—it would be otherwise linked together to form a chain belt. She’d seen them decorating the leather belts that the less-privileged classes wore. They’d obviously taken one apart and wore the links on their fingers. A short chain like that hung in a corner of the kitchen like a talisman.
Sekki wears one, too.
Not only Sekki. Now and then, a man she passed in the hallway did, or one of the men lounging around the tavern. Perhaps most or all of the people coming in and out of the inn.
She felt like she’d chanced across something strange and curious. Feeling a touch of melancholy, she exited onto the main thoroughfare. It was already night, and even the number of drunks on the street had begun to decrease.
The prefectural hall was located in the center of the city. The prefectural offices occupied the grounds within the fortress walls that surrounded the palace-like complex. On the inner loop road that ran around the walls was a large mansion facing eastwards.
Shoukou, the governor of Shisui Prefecture, the beast of Takuhou.
He had an official residence within the inner palace. A second residence, a large house in Takuhou’s second district. And a huge estate in the countryside outside Takuhou.
Suzu had recently taken to walking down this street. She’d determined that of his three residences, he was currently staying at the one on the inner loop road. The estate in the countryside was solely for entertaining invited guests. The house on the inner loop road was for when he had work to attend to at the prefectural hall. The third house seemed to be reserved for other occasions. This meant the beast was up to his usual tricks at the prefectural offices. She couldn’t begin to imagine what sort of sinister plans he was cooking up, but they wouldn’t be for the benefit of the people of Shisui.
Suzu cast a cold look at the house and rode the sansui to the street corner. On the grounds of a deserted Taoist temple, she dismounted and sat down in an inconspicuous spot with a view of the currently-closed gate of the temple.
Now we wait, Seishuu.
She reached inside her vest and touched the handle of the dagger tucked into the sash of her kimono. The blade could cut a youma apart. It could cut apart a wizard as well. She had already determined that the sansui could vault the wall inside the loop road. Anything that could jump over that wall could easily trespass the wall of the house. If the master of the house was present, he would be sleeping in the back. And, in fact, at the back of the building that faced the road was a luxurious, multistoried house.
I will make him feel our bitterness and pain.
She hugged her arms tightly around her knees.