3-7 “Hey, miss.”
At the sound of the voice behind her, Youko tore her gaze away from the second floor balcony. Standing not far away were the four men from before. One of them said to her, “You work there?”
“Not hardly,” she spat back.
She turned to leave. The man grabbed her arm and sidled in front of her, blocking her way. “Like hell you don’t. What kind of woman eats at a place like that?”
“The person I was with knows someone there.”
“And what was that person up to, eh? Maybe she came here to sell you?”
The man grasped her chin with his hand. Youko swatted it away. “Not a chance. Get your hands off me.”
The man laughed. “Now, she’s a spunky one.” He yanked her closer. “C’mon, missy, let me buy you a drink.”
“Drop dead. Let go of me.”
“Tell the truth, she was selling you off, right? And you’re wanting us to overlook the fact you was running out on the deal, eh?”
“I would never—” With all her strength Youko jerked her arm free of the man’s grip. “I would never work at a place like that. I’m not for sale.”
She strode away from him, looking for a way out. The man grabbed her again, this time by the shoulders. She ducked and slipped free. Before he could come at her again, her hand was on the hilt of the sword.
Humans held the sea inside them. And right now the waves were surging violently, threatening to break out of her body and pound down upon the man there in front of her.
“I said, hands off.”
Her arm flashed and the cloth unraveled from the sword. The man retreated, goggle-eyed. “Son of a bitch . . . ”
“If you don’t want to get hurt then get out of my way.”
The man sized up Youko and the sword. He chortled, “You even know how to use that thing?”
Wordlessly Youko raised the sword, aligning the tip with the man’s throat. This was a dangerous weapon she’d been given, this claw of hers, this talon. “Move it. Go back to the restaurant. Your friends are waiting for you.”
Nearby somebody shouted. Youko did not avert her gaze. Raising a sword in the middle of the street like this would no doubt cause a disturbance, but now was not the time to second-guess herself. The man’s eyes flicked back and fro between Youko and the tip of the sword. Slowly he retreated. Just as he seemed ready to turn and run back into the restaurant, a scream reverberated across the street.
“That girl! Somebody grab that girl!”
Youko looked in the direction of the voice. Takki was standing in the door of the restaurant yelling at her. An awful anger engulfed her, an awful thing like what she had seen in her dreams, like a blood-red tide engulfing the sea.
“She’s running away. Get her!”
The disgust that Youko felt welling up inside her almost made her sick. It was directed as much at herself as it was at that woman, who had deceived her with a beatific smile on her face.
People flooded out of the restaurant and flocked from the adjacent streets. Youko didn’t let down her guard. She flipped the hilt of the sword over in her hand, brandishing the wide blade. Whether or not anybody ended up dead, that was up to Jouyuu. And if it went as far as somebody trying to arrest her again, well, there was a small part of her that wouldn’t be too averse to a bit of killing.
Nobody will have you as an ally in this world.
She thought Takki was going to help her. She was so thankful to her. Over and over she had thanked her lucky stars. She’d really believed, that’s what made it so sickening.
She made note of the men rushing towards her. Jouyuu’s tendrils crawled through the arms and down her legs. Her body moved with an extraordinarily natural grace. Every obstruction before her she shut out of her mind.
“Get her! Get her! She cost me a fortune!”
At the sound of Takki’s hysterical voice Youko glanced back over her shoulder. For a moment the deceived and the deceiver locked eyes. With a frightened expression Takki retreated two, three steps. Youko stared her down with cold eyes, steeled herself against the rush of men. She dodged the first and second, smacked the third with the blade.
Almost before she knew it the men had gathered in a human wall around her. Youko clucked softly to herself. Cutting her way through without killing anybody wasn’t going to be easy.
Takki stamped her feet on the ground. “Catch her and there’s a reward in it for you!”
From the back of the crowd came a scream. The crowd turned as one. In that same instant the grating, noisy shrieks were that much closer.
“What’s going on?”
“She’ll get away.”
“No, over there.”
The human wall swayed to and fro. Youko surveyed the street beyond them. A wave of people bore down on them, crying out as they ran away, scrambling frantically not to be left behind.
Youko’s arm responded in a flash.
“A youma . . . ”
“Get out of here!”
The human wall crumbled and scattered. Within it, Youko set off at a run. From behind her echoed a scream. She saw a beast mowing down everyone in front of it as it galloped along. It was a huge tiger. The tiger had a human face stained with splotches of red. Youko ran down the street, dancing out of the way of people diving for cover in the surrounding shops and stores.
The tiger quickly closed the distance between them. She had no choice but to stop and make her stand.
She faced the tiger’s disconcertingly human expression, regripped the hilt of the sword and settled into her stance. The tiger charged at her in a gust of wind. She pivoted to the side and brought the sword down with all her might. A spray of blood accompanied the sound of impact and she knew she could have avoided the blood if she hadn’t closed her eyes in the moment that the blow landed.
She slashed at the striped limbs, skipped out of the way as the tiger toppled over, and took off at a run. The beast picked itself up and chased after her. She parried with the sword, feinted with her feet, and raced down an alleyway.
She emerged into the main thoroughfare and found there a crowd of people who hadn’t grasped exactly what was going on. “Get out of the way!”
At the sound of Youko’s voice and the sight of the beast chasing after her, the crowd scattered.
And then . . . “What?”
There in the distance, a flash of gold. It was beyond the crowd, too far away to make out any facial features. She didn’t have the time to take a good, long look, but she knew that kind of golden hair was out of the ordinary.
Without thinking, she set off after him. In the next moment the golden glow was swallowed up in the stampede of human beings.
A shadow fell across the sun. The huge tiger sailed over Youko’s head. The youma landed amongst the fleeing throng. People screamed, trampled beneath the huge paws. Youko checked her forward motion and ducked out of the way.
Keiki? Who else could it have been?
She didn’t have time to think about it. She slammed another blow into the pursuing beast. Then taking advantage of the confusion all around her, slipped away through the streets of Kasai.