1-8 Rinken was a port city with a harbor. Ships departed for Ken County once a day. Hakuto couldn’t leap across the broad expanse of the sea. But even a flying kijuu could book passage on a sailing ship, which was certainly a lot easier on the kijuu.
Filling their faded gray sails with the brisk breeze, a ship could cross the Ken Straits in half a day. Leaving port in the morning, it passed the ship returning to Rinken shortly past noon, and slipped into the harbor on the opposite shore around evening.
Shushou spent the time on the deck looking at the mountains. On several occasions youma-like creatures swept through the air above them, but none of them attacked the ship and she didn’t have to retreat to her cabin.
Catching remnants of the joufuu, the ship knifed through the water, leaving a white wake behind. The shadows cast on the deck by the sails shortened, turned toward the east, and lengthened again. Looking beyond the silhouette of the ship returning to the mainland, the Kongou Mountains already filled the entire sky.
A bell rang out when the ship entered the harbor. The sound reverberated across the waves before being swallowed up by the surf.
“Looks like we got here in one piece,” Shushou declared with a triumphant air as she descended the gangplank. From here to Ken would take three days on foot, no more than a day riding Hakuto.
The ship had arrived in the city of North Ken, the gateway to Ken County. Because Ken County was on the frontier, it was not too large and finding lodgings shouldn’t be too taxing.
Mingling with the other passengers going ashore, they entered the city and turned down the main thoroughfare where the inns should be located.
Shushou felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to find a smiling middle-aged man with a round face looking down at her. “Miss, that’s a moukyoku, isn’t it?”
Shushou had heard the question plenty of times on her journey. She clearly wasn’t alone in her love of kijuu.
The man crouched down and petted the white fur with soft, childlike hands. “A splendid kijuu and very well trained. What nice eyes. He sure looks well taken care of.” The man smiled and scratched Hakuto behind the ears. He looked up at Shushou and said, “This is the first time I’ve seen such a splendid moukyoku. It is yours?”
“No. This is my master’s kijuu.”
The man eyed Shushou’s worn kimono, grinned and nodded. “Really? I suppose so. Are you responsible for his care, or would that be your master?”
“My master prizes him very highly, just as I care for him a great deal.”
“Of course, of course.” The man bobbed his head as he got to his feet. “What a fine master you must have. He who cares for his kijuu cares for his servants no less.”
“I wouldn’t say that was always true.” Shushou glanced up at him. “I need to find an inn.”
“What, are you in the midst of a journey?”
“I am. Do you live in this town? Perhaps you could direct me to an inn with good stables?
“I don’t know about what makes stables good or not, but I am familiar with an inn where kijuu owners like to congregate. Shall I show you the way?”
“You needn’t go to such lengths. Directions would be fine.”
“No problem. Just once I’d like to hold the reins of a kijuu. In exchange for me showing you the way, how about you let me lead the kijuu?”
“Sorry, but I couldn’t do that. I’d catch a scolding if my master found out I’d let his moukyoku be handled by anybody else.”
“That’s too bad,” the man said in a regretful tone. But he smiled. “You are a cautious young lady. Whoever entrusted that kijuu to you, though, most definitely is not.”
The man’s face split into a broad grin. He grabbed Shushou by the arm.
What are you doing, she was about to say, when the man shouted, “Thief!”
Shushou looked up at him in amazement. People passing by paused and turned their attention to him.
“This is my kijuu! Give it back, you stupid little kid!”
For a moment, Shushou gaped at the man’s round face, struck dumb by the sudden transformation.
“What’s going on?” somebody in the growing crowd asked.
“This brat stole my kijuu!” he spit out. “Unbelievable, kids these days! Can’t take your eyes off them for a second!”
The man wrenched Shushou’s arm, prompting a yelp of pain. “No!” she managed to blurt out, though she couldn’t be sure that she’d made herself heard.
“Hold on a minute,” came a woman’s voice from the crowd. “That kijuu belongs to the girl. We were both on the boat coming over.”
“Yeah, she stole it from me in Rinken! I thought there was something fishy about the way she was hanging around my kijuu.”
“That’s not true!” Shushou raised her voice, but with her arm feeling like it was about to rip out of its socket, she couldn’t find the words to say anything more.
“What’s not true? Look! I’ve got the papers to prove it!” The man drew documents from his breast pocket and unfurled them for all to see. “This one proves the kijuu is mine. And this one says it was stolen. Both bear official seals!”
The wall of people surrounding them shifted their sympathetic gaze from Shushou to the man.
“Unbelievable,” the man hissed, giving Shushou’s arm another twist. “There are surely unsavory masterminds behind this all. There’s no way a kid like you would be put in charge of transporting a kijuu! That’s got to be the dumbest thing I ever heard! It should make anybody suspicious.”
The man gave Shushou a shove and sent her flying.
“It’s not dumb!” Shushou cried out. “That’s my kijuu!” She reached into her own pocket and pulled out the certificate Rikou had prepared for her. “If you want papers, I have papers too!”
The words had barely left her mouth when the man yanked it out of her grasp and tore it into pieces. “Worth the paper it’s printed on!”
The man’s shamelessly overbearing manner stunned her. Tossing the shredded paper aside, he next set to stripping the travel packs off Hakuto’s back and tossing them onto the ground.
“Be grateful I don’t hand you over to the authorities,” he called out, and jumped into the saddle. Hakuto cast Shushou a brief, bewildered look. The man dug his heel hard into his sides. Hakuto bolted away in a panicked sprint.
“Wait! Wait! Hakuto!”
The congested street parted before Hakuto and swallowed up the beast and rider. Shushou gathered herself up and bolted after them. Someone behind her grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Let me go!”
“What should we do? Call the constable?”
“But the man who says she stole from him—”
Shushou shouted at the jabbering adults, “I’ve got the notarized papers right here. He’s the real thief!”
With a curious glance at Shushou and then at the disappearing form of Hakuto, one of her fellow travelers plucked the scraps of paper off the street and pieced them together.
His mouth dropped open. “Hey, these are the real thing!”
“That’s what I’ve been saying! How can a bunch of adults be so stupid!”
While half of the onlookers who’d gathered around her scurried away, the other half peered at the certificate.
“Yeah, it’s got an authentic seal.”
“What about his?”
“Only caught a glance. Did anybody get a good look?”
As the adults stood there and chatted, Shushou shook herself free and ran off in the direction she’d last seen Hakuto. But the kijuu was nowhere to be seen on the crowded high street. Several adults tailed after her and assisted in a cursory search. They concluded only that the thief and the moukyoku had left through the main gate.
“Sorry about that, Miss.”
The man held out Shushou’s bags. He’d picked them up for her. Shushou took them from him. The two travel bags that had been slung across Hakuto’s back now dwarfed Shushou as she hugged her arms around them. She sunk to her knees and let out a long sigh.
“Um, Miss, are you going to report this to the constable?”
Shushou looked up at him. “Won’t the government offices be closed by now?”
“I appreciate your concern. Thanks for getting my bags. And helping me look for Hakuto.”
“Ah, no problem.”
Shushou again checked out her surroundings. Dusk had settled on the town. Hakuto was nowhere to be seen.
“There’s nothing else I can do now but keep pressing forward, and all the more so without Hakuto.”
She looked at the people standing around her in confusion. The remainder of her itinerary would take an adult three days on foot. For Shushou, things would get a lot chancier. But she had no choice but to struggle on and see things to the end.
“Can anybody point me to a quiet, safe inn? I guess it doesn’t have to have stables.”