Rinken had a port. From this port, once a day a boat would depart for Ken County. There was no way Hakuto could cross the sea. Even flying kijuu that could cross it were sent across by boat to take things easier on them. The ship with the raised tan sail, at midday passed through Kenkai Gate. The ship that left in the morning crossed the path left by the ship returning to Rinken in the afternoon, then sometime in the evening entered the port on the opposite shore. During that time, Shushou gazed upon the mountains from the deck of the ship. No matter how often what resembled the shadow of a youma grazed over the surface of the sea, the boat was never attacked, nor was she driven into a cabin.
The ship advanced by making use of the remains of a northeasterly wind. It cut through the sea, cleaving it into a series of white waves. The shadow of the mast that fell upon the deck first lengthened, then shortened, then again stretched out to face east. Around the time when the signs of the returning ship became visible, the Kongou Mountains abruptly obstructed the forward view.
The sound of the bell signaling the arrival of the ship resounded across the surface of the sea.
.: 80 :.
“Well, we’ve arrived.”
Shushou descended the ship with a triumphant air. Once here, Ken was only three days walking distance away, which Hakuto could easily cover in a single day. This village in the northern part of Ken to which the ship had arrived was said to be the door to Ken County, and because in the first place Ken County was a frontier region, it was not very big, and finding inns to stay at shouldn’t be difficult.
Entering the village together with the rest of the ship’s passengers, Shushou stepped onto the main road with the intent of seeking out an inn, when she felt someone lightly tap her shoulder from behind.
She turned and was met with the sight of a smiling, round-faced, middle-aged man.
“Little lady, is that a moukyoku?”
It was a question she’d heard countless times on the road. There were many people who, like Shushou, loved kijuu.
The man leaned forward, and like a child stroked Hakuto's white fur.
“A nice, calm kijuu. Yeah, it’s got good eyes. It’s been well taken care of.”
The man smiled and scratched Hakuto behind his ears as Shushou looked on.
“This is my first time seeing such a magnificent moukyoku. Is it yours?”
“No, he belongs to my master.”
.: 81 :.
The man looked at Shushou’s thin kimono, and nodded with a smile.
“Is that so…of course, that’s right. The excellent health kijuu is such as it is because you take good care of it? Or else because your master places great value in it?”
“Master places great value in him. Of course, I take good care of him as well.”
Yes, yes, the man nodded, standing.
“He must be a wonderful master. Those who take good care of their kijuu also take good care of their servants.”
“I don’t know about that,” Shushou said, looking up at the man.
“May I take my leave now? I have to look for somewhere to stay.”
“Is that so? Are you travelling?”
“Yes, are you a villager here? If so, then would you happen to know an inn with a good stable?”
“I don’t know whether it has a good stable or not, but there’s a place where all the travelers with kijuu stay. I’ll show you there.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, if you could just tell me how to get there that would be fine.”
“It’s no trouble, if I could, just once I’d like to try taking up the reins of a kijuu. I’ll guide you there, so let me take the reins, okay?”
.: 82 :.
“That’s no good. He belongs to my master. I’ll be scolded if I hand him over to someone else.”
“I see,” the man said in disappointment, though he continued to smile. “You’re quite the watchful one aren’t you? Well, it would be bad to entrust a kijuu to someone who wasn’t.”
The man smiled broadly, and caught Shushou’s arm.
“Just what are you—”
As Shushou raised her voice to ask the man what he was playing at, the man cried out angrily:
“You little thief!”
Shushou looked up at the man in astonishment, and at the same time the passerby stopped to see what the commotion was.
“That’s my kijuu! Give it back, you brat!”
For a moment, overwhelmed, Shushou looked at the round-faced man, surprised by the change that had taken place in.
Voices called out from the crowd, asking what happened. Responding to this, the man raised his own voice.
“This brat tried to steal my kijuu! Dammit, kids these days have gone to ruin,” spat the man, twisting Shushou’s arm.
.: 83 :.
Shushou cried out in pain. She thought she managed to shout “that’s a lie!” but couldn’t tell whether she actually put it in words.
From the crowd of people a woman’s voice rang out.
“That’s that girl’s kijuu. I came here with her by boat.”
“Of course you did. She stole him from me on the other shore. It was suspicious how she hung about the kijuu.”
“That’s not true!” Shushou denied, but experiencing a sharp pain in her shoulder, was unable to say anything further.
“What’s not true? Lookie here, I even have a certificate.”
From his breast pocket the man extracted a document and unfolded it.
This certificate proves that moukyoku is mine. As you can see, she’s the thief here. This has got a seal and everything.
Now there was a crowd gathered around Shushou and the man, but among them no one seemed to sympathize with Shushou, all their attention was fixed upon the man.
“Damnit,” the man spit out and proceeded to twist Shushou’s arm upward.
.: 84 :.
“At any rate, you were probably brought up by no-good adults. No one should put up with punk kids like you. No matter what, if a brat like you is stringing along a kijuu, it’s naturally gonna be suspicious.”
Having said his fill, the man pushed at Shushou, thrusting her away.
“Don’t toy with me! That’s my kijuu!” Shushou shouted and stuck her hand into her breast pocket, taking out the certificate Rikou had procured for her.
“I also have proof that—”
Without letting her finish, the man snatched the document from Shushou and tore it to pieces.
Shushou was dumbfounded by his high-handed actions.
The man crumpled the torn certificate into a ball and tossed it aside. Removing the baggage on Hakuto, he dumped it on the ground.
“Be grateful I’m not taking you up to the public office!” said the man, as wasting not time, jumped into the saddle.
For a moment, Hakuto looked Shushou’s way as if in bewilderment, but took off in panic after being furiously reprimanded by the man.
“Wait! Wait, Hakuto!”
The crowd split apart, swallowed up Hakuto, then closed. One of the surrounding adults grabbed Shushou's shoulder as she tried in haste to run after him.
.: 85 :.
“Let me go!”
“What should we do? Should we take her to the public office?”
“But the real thief is—” Shushou shouted at the adults, who were all trying to speak at the same time.
“You’re mistaken! I have my certificate right there! He’s the theif!”
Eying Shushou and the place where Hakuto had disappeared from, a man who looked to be a traveler picked up the crumpled paper ball. Looking at the paper, the man's jaw dropped open in surprise.
“…this is the real thing.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you, you stupid adults!”
At that, some people broke into a jog and fled the scene, while others gathered to look at the document.
“There’s no mistake, it’s got a seal.”
“But his also had one.”
“We only got a glimpse of it. We didn’t really get a good look at it.”
.: 86 :.
Shaking off the hands of the pointlessly arguing adults, Shushou took off running, but of course nowhere along the street could Hakuto be seen. Some of the adults followed after Shushou and helped her search, but all they could discover was that the man and Hakuto had left through the nearest gate.
“That’s…I’m sorry, girlie.”
Having said that, the man held out Shushou’s things. Shushou snatched them from him. Unthinkingly she set them on her lap, and sighed.
“Err… do you plan to go to the public office?”
Shushou looked up at the man.
“The building has already closed, hasn’t it?”
“In any case, I must express my gratitude. Thank you for getting my bags. And for helping me search.”
“It was nothing. But…”
Shushou took in the scenery as it faded to twilight. Of course, Hakuto was nowhere to be seen.
“It can’t be helped. It’s more important for me to continue on as quickly as possible. All the more since Hakuto is not here,” she whispered, and looked up at the bewildered adults milling about.
The remaining distance she needed to travel would be a three day walk for an adult. With Shushou’s legs it would be a close call.
.: 87 :.
“Do you know of a cheap, safe inn anywhere around here? It doesn’t need to have a stable.”
.: 88 :.