moonless night. The wind roared. Not a light was on in the rike. Youko sat listlessly in the empty main hall. Keiki had transformed into a unicorn and was bearing Keikei to the palace. Keikei was still alive. But whether or not he could be saved depended on the doctors.
Hyouki said, “The Taiho is not well.”
“What happened here?” the town manager had asked when he saw Rangyoku’s body. He covered his face with his hands. “And Keikei and Enho?”
“They’re not here,” was Youko’s only reply.
What would she do if he died? And if he lived, how would she explain his sister’s death? And Enho’s absence?
The elders didn’t have to say it. I should have been here. If she’d been here, three people would not have met such terrible fates.
She said to Hyouki, “Please tell Keiki I’m thankful for all he’s done. Take all due care with Keikei.”
“By your command. What shall be your next move?”
“I’m going to look for Enho.”
“I do have some idea about what I’m doing. No matter what, I will find Enho and apprehend the brigands who did this.”
“The Taiho will worry.”
“Tell Keiki he can rest assured I won’t do anything reckless, but I just can’t sit around here twiddling my thumbs.”
“That is what I shall communicate to him.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Hyouki’s voice ceased. In the dead calm, the sound of wind filled the main hall. There was no one here to light the fires. The girl who worked so diligently keeping the coals stoked and the warm steam rising from the stove, she was not here. She would never return again.
Youko picked up the sword she had cast onto a nearby chair. The Suiguu-tou, the Water Monkey Sword, Imperial Regalia of the Kingdom of Kei.
The great power of a youma’s soul was sealed into its blade and scabbard. If she could master it well, the sword would show her the past, the present, and the future, and that which was far from her. The sword could also read the human heart.
Youko drew out the sword far enough to expose the blade and stared at the gleaming steel. This sword had, in fact, been smelted from water, and changed its shape according to the lord who possessed it. The Imperial Tatsu created the Suiguu-tou. At first, the sword had no scabbard and resembled a long-handled scimitar. The Imperial Tatsu christened it the Water Smelted Sword (Suikan-tou). Knowing of its powers to befuddle its lord, the Imperial Tatsu later fashioned a scabbard to bind it. Since naming it the Suiguu-tou, its shape had changed with each new monarch. Now it rested in her hands as a plain sword.
Even as an axe or a stave, the scabbard must attend to that shape. Without the scabbard, it had the mysterious power to turn on its owner. Yet Youko had lost the original scabbard, leaving only its dead shell behind. The scabbard in its current form had already proved incapable of sealing the sword’s power.
I should probably call it the Water Smelted Sword from now on.
Although the Winter Ministry created a new scabbard for the sword, it did little to check its power. Far from it, when removed from the binding force of the scabbard, the sword ran wild, tormenting her day after day. Even now, Youko could not control the naked sword, experiencing nothing but cryptic visions and nightmares.
The ministers all silently reproved Youko for losing the precious scabbard, a crown jewel without peer in the known world.
Youko stared at the blade. Finally, she sighed. “It’s no good.” She could see no sign of Enho anywhere in the visions that emerged from the sword. “Hankyo,” she said.
“Yes,” he answered from the darkness.
“I’m going to sleep for a while. Please wake me up before the gates open. I want to set out for Takuhou first thing in the morning.”
“By your command,” the voice alone replied.
Early in the morning, Youko entered Hokui and went straight to the residence of the man named Rou. The strange, shrouded man had led her to Rou. At his place, she’d also observed the big man she’d seen at the inn in Takuhou. The men who had some time ago surrounded the rike were also from Takuhou. Youko had to believe they were all involved one way or another.
Trudging through the fierce winter air, she finally arrived at Rou’s residence, and after wandering about for a while, knocked on the front gate. The inside of the residence was deathly silent. She was pounding more determinedly on the door when an old man passed by in the street.
“What with all this noise at this hour? Rou’s not here.”
Youko glanced back over her shoulder at the melancholy face of the old man. “Not here?”
“Neither hide nor hair. Probably took off in the middle of the night. Don’t know what’s going on, but what with all those shady character coming and going, I’m sure something was afoot.”
“When was that?”
“It’s been a while, now. Say, about a half a month ago.”
Half a month ago had been when Youko first came here. “Would you happen to know any of these men who were coming and going? I’d like to know where he went.”
“Hard to tell. At any rate, every last one of them looked to be up to no good.” Then something came to him. “There was this creepy-looking fellow who came by now and then. Rode a real fine horse. Looked like a man trying hard not to be seen.”
“He wore a shroud over his face?”
“Yeah, that’s one way to describe it. A man about forty, I’d say.”
“About forty.” Youko couldn’t think of anybody meeting that description.
“So, was this Rou up to something?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Hmph,” the old man snorted. “Sure seemed to me he was up to something. He wasn’t from around these parts to begin with.”
“He wasn’t originally from Hokui?”
“Not hardly. Fall of last year, he showed up and settled down here with hardly a how-do-you-do to anybody in the neighborhood. Best not to get involved with that sort. Definitely not good people.”
“I see.” Youko thanked him with a nod of her head.
She left Hokui and called Hankyo. He was among the fleetest footed of all the pegasi. Traveling by means of the tonkou he could get there all the faster. But Hankyo couldn’t carry her through the earth with him. She had to ride.
From a discreet place along the highway, she mounted up and in a flash had arrived at Takuhou. She dismounted near Takuhou, passed through the gate and headed to the inn she’d already visited twice already. There had to be connection there.
The men who’d been spying on the rike had returned to Takuhou. The first time she’d come here, the men at the inn struck her as a dangerous and formidable sort. She couldn’t risk trusting them. As for the shrouded man and the man named Rou, she was already out of leads. The man at the inn, who’d been to Rou’s place in Hokui—she had no choice but to doubt him as well.
She ran down the alleyway, heavy with stagnant air, and stopped in her tracks. The inn was there as she remembered it. She approached the entranceway and put her hand on the door.
Curiously, the door didn’t move. The windows facing the thoroughfare were tightly shuttered. She knocked lightly on the door. Just as at Rou’s place, there was no answer.
What is going on?
She hit the door with her fist, then turned and hurried over the house facing the inn and pounded on the locked doors. “Who’s that?” came the immediate answer. A man in his fifties poked out his head.
“Excuse me, but I was wondering about the inn.”
“Ah,” said the man, glancing across the street. “They appeared to have closed up shop.”
“Closed? I was here yesterday and it was open.”
“Late last night, they packed up and left.”
“Last night . . . ” Youko clenched her fists. “And that big guy was one of them?”
“Oh, you mean Koshou? Yeah, he is a big fellow.”
“And a boy of about fourteen or so.”
“Sekki, you mean. He’s Koshou’s kid brother. Did you come to see Koshou?”
“Not them. I came to see a girl, Suzu.”
“I see,” said the man, suppressing a yawn. He scratched at the back of his neck. “The girl with the sansui. They all left. Sorry, but I didn’t find out where they went. Who are you, anyway?”
Youko answered with a slight nod, turned and walked away. She heard the man’s angry voice behind her but she didn’t look around. Yesterday, hadn’t Suzu said that Koshou was out? Hadn’t she said that he’d be back?
Koshou had gone somewhere. Why close the inn and disappear? The rike had been attacked at the same time.
“Koshou . . . ”
She couldn’t believe these events were unrelated. They attacked the rike and then absconded. At any rate, it’d be ridiculous to ask whether Suzu would be returning. She asked herself, “What the hell should I do now?”
The shrouded man whose presence caused Enho so much grief showed up at Rou’s house. He’d met Koshou there. These men, also involved with the rike, had returned to Takuhou. Koshou, Sekki, the kaikyaku Suzu, and the child who had died in Takuhou—she simply couldn’t see how they were all connected.
“I’ve got to find Koshou.”
It was too soon to give up. Koshou, Sekki, and Suzu—Suzu had a sansui with her and a sansui could be tracked.
“I am definitely going to find them.”