PRICES GO UP AT THE GATE
Chapters 17 - 24 (PART 3 COMPLETE)
ouko awoke towards the evening. She walked about aimlessly during the day, spent the night fighting the youma. She slept amidst the underbrush, ate what edible nuts and berries she could find. Three days went by the same way.
She was so exhausted that she had no problem sleeping. Sleep did not address her growing hunger, though. She didn't feel like she was starving to death as long as she held the jewel, but that didn't fill her belly. Her body felt as if it was being gnawed away from the inside out by thousands of little worms.
On the fourth day she gave up on the idea of walking around without any destination or direction. She still had no idea of which way to go. She'd been operating on the expectation that she would eventually run into what she was looking for. Now she had to face the fact that she was simply going around in circles. She wasn't going anywhere.
She had to find Keiki. To do that she had to go where there were people. But once they found out she was a kaikyaku they'd lock her up and she'd be right back where she started.
Youko looked herself over. She really had to get herself some different clothes. If she could only change her appearance that way, people probably couldn't tell at a glance that she was a kaikyaku.
The problem was how to get her hands on different clothes. She had no idea what they used for money here, and besides, she didn't have any cash on her. So she wasn't going to be buying anything. Doing things aboveboard, her options were limited. On the other hand, she could threaten people with the sword and take their money.
The logic of a wardrobe change dawned upon her pretty quickly. Actually robbing somebody, that was another story. But wandering around in the mountains for four days had made up her mind for her. She had to stay alive. That didn't mean killing people and robbing their bodies. She was approaching the limit of what she would hesitate doing.
From the shadow of a large tree Youko looked down at the small village. The village was a collection of humble dwellings crowded together in the center of a narrow valley.
Mustering her courage, she left the shelter of the trees. She approached the nearest house in the village to take a look. Instead of a fence or wall, the house was encompassed by a small garden. The roof was black tile, the white mud walls worn down to the slats.
There was no glass in the windows. The heavy wooden shutters had been left open as well. She drew nearer, scouting out the surroundings. These days she could look a rabid beast right in the face and not even blink, but right now, if she hadn't been clenching her mouth closed her teeth would have been chattering.
She snuck a peek in one of the windows. She saw a small dirt floor, a fireplace and table. It had the look of an ordinary kitchen. She didn't see anybody there, heard nothing out of the ordinary.
With muffled steps she crept along the wall of the house. Next to the well, she came across what she took to be a wooden door. When she pushed on it, it opened, though stubbornly. She held her breath as she peered inside. She had by now concluded it was a house and that nobody was home. Slowly letting out her breath, she went inside.
The room was about ten feet by ten feet. The accommodations were modest, but it smelled like a home. Four walls, some furniture, the various implements of daily life. These alone were enough almost enough to bring her to tears with homesickness.
Upon closer examination, the room otherwise had only a few cupboards. She went to the one door. It opened into a bedroom. There were two beds at opposite ends of the room. A shelf, small table, and a big wooden chest. Apparently these were the only two rooms in the house.
She checked to make sure the window was open, stepped in and closed the door behind her.
First off, she scanned the shelves. She found nothing there. Next she opened the wooden chest. A variety of cloth and fabrics were packed inside. A second look told her that there was nothing she could wear. A further look around the room revealed nothing else that might contain clothing. With every expectation that in there somewhere must be something to wear, she began pulling everything out one by one.
The wooden chest was almost as big as a large screen TV. It contained a number of smaller boxes that in turn contained a miscellany of things, sheets and faded quilts and some children's outfits she knew were too small for her.
She couldn't believe there were no clothes that fit her. As she cast her eyes about the room again, she heard the front door open. Youko literally jumped, as did her heart. She cast a quick glance at the window. It now seemed miles away. It would not be possible for her to move from where she stood without attracting the attention of the person on the other side of the door.
Don't come in here.
Small footsteps padded about the adjoining room. The bedroom door moved. Youko couldn't. She stood there frozen in front of the chest, its contents strewn all about her. Reflexively, she went to grasp the handle of the sword, stopped herself.
She stole because that was what she had to do to stay alive. Yes, it would be easy to intimidate people with the sword, but if intimidation didn't work she'd actually have to use it.
If it hurts so much, it could be over in a moment.
The door opened. A woman started to enter the room, a large-framed woman approaching middle age. Seeing Youko she stopped and started so violently it was like she was having a convulsion.
Youko had no inclination to run away now. She stood there silently. By the by, her nerves settled and she resigned herself to the inevitable. She'd be arrested and herded off to the county seat and likely be executed. It'd all be over. She could finally forget forever about being hungry and tired.
The woman looked down at the clothing and fabric scattered about Youko's feet. She said in a trembling voice, "Got nothing here what's worth being stole."
Youko waited for the woman to scream.
"Was it clothes? Was it because you needed something to wear?"
The plainness of the question left Youko too bewildered to reply. The woman took her silence as a yes. She moved from the doorway into the room. "I keep the clothes over here." She went over to the bed next to Youko, knelt down and drew back the quilt, revealing a drawer underneath. "That box there is for old things I don't need anymore, like for my child that died."
She opened the drawer and took out an outfit. "What kind of clothes do you like, then? Don't have much else besides my own." She looked up at Youko. Youko stared back at her. When she didn't answer, the woman held up a kimono. "Too bad my daughter died so young. These are all pretty plain."
"Why . . . " Youko blurted out. Why didn't this woman sound the alarm? Why didn't she run away?
"Why, you ask?" the woman said, turning to Youko. Youko found herself at a loss for words. The woman laughed, a bit stiffly, resumed laying out the kimono. "You come from Hairou?"
"I . . . um . . . . "
"Big fuss there about a kaikyaku running away."
Youko fell silent. The woman smiled a wry smile. "Lots of hard-headed folk about, that's for sure. Kaikyaku are going to ruin the kingdom, they say. Kaikyaku do bad things right and left, they say. A shoku happens and it's all because of the kaikyaku, they say. The things fools say."
She looked Youko over from head to toe. "Where'd that blood on you come from?"
"When I was in the mountains, the youma . . . . " She could say nothing more.
"Ah, you were attacked by the youma, were you? Lots of them about, lately. You seem to have come through well enough."
The woman got to her feet. "Go on, sit yourself down. You're a hungry one, I bet. Had anything to eat? You're looking positively gray."
Youko could only drop her shoulders and shake her head, no.
"Well, then, let's have ourselves a bite. I'll heat up some water and we'll get all that grime off you. We can decide on what to wear after that." The woman cheerfully gathered up her things and started to leave. She glanced back at Youko, who still hadn't moved from where she stood. "Now, what was your name?"
Youko started to answer. No words came out. She sank to her knees, the tears spilling down her cheeks.
"Oh, you poor thing. It's okay, it's okay." The woman spoke in a motherly voice, her warm hand stroking Youko's back. "It must have been very hard for you out there. You'll be okay."
The weight of everything Youko had endured overwhelmed her all at once. The sobs tore at her throat. She curled up on the floor and wept as if the world would end.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
3-2 "Well, then, why don't you change into this?"
Standing behind a folding screen, the woman handed Youko a nightdress. "You'll be staying here tonight? You can wear this for the time being."
Youko bowed her head deeply in gratitude.
The woman consoled the still teary Youko. She prepared rice gruel sweetened with azuki beans. Then she filled a big tub with hot water and prepared a bath for Youko. Her long, aching hunger satiated, Youko washed in the hot water, put on clean nightclothes. She was starting to feel like a real person again.
"I'm really, really thankful for all you've done." Youko came from around the folding screen the woman had set around the tub and bowed again. "I'm so sorry about everything."
After all, she had tried to steal from this woman.
When she looked at her directly, she could see that the woman's eyes were blue. The woman's blue eyes softened and she laughed.
"Oh, don't worry about it. Let's leave it at that. Have something warm to eat. Drink this as well. It'll help you sleep. I've made up your bed."
"Like I said, not a problem. I hope you don't mind, but I put away that sword of yours. It was making me uncomfortable."
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"Oh, nothing you need to keep apologizing for. Now, I don't think I caught your name."
"Kaikyaku do have funny names. You can call me Takki." She handed Youko a teacup.
Youko took it and asked, "How is your name spelled?"
Takki sketched the characters for "achievement" (tatsu) and "maidservant" (ki) with her finger on the tabletop. "So, Youko, was there someplace you needed to get yourself to?"
Youko shook her head. "No, no place in particular. Takki-san, have you ever heard of a person named Keiki?"
"Keiki? I don't know anybody by that name. Are you looking for him?"
"Where's he from? Is he from Kou?"
"All I know is that he's from around here . . . . "
Takki smiled a patient smile. "Now, that's hardly enough information. Which kingdom and which province, at the very least. Short of that, why, it's a needle in a haystack."
Youko hung her head. "The fact is, I don't know anything about this place."
"So it seems." Takki put down her teacup. "We are one of the Twelve Kingdoms. Specifically, the kingdom of the southeast, called the Kingdom of Kou."
Youko nodded. "And the sun rises in the east?"
"Of course. And this is the eastern part of Kou, called Goso. There's some high mountains a ten-days' walk north from here. Over those mountains is the Kingdom of Kei. Hairou is due east of us, by the seashore. Following the main road you can walk there in five days."
What had been previously completely incomprehensible was bit by bit coming into focus. It was dawning on her that this place was a world unto itself.
"Just how big is Kou?"
Takki tilted her head back and gave it a bit of thought. "How big, she asks me. Well, if you was to walk from the eastern-most border of Kou all the way to the western-most border, I figure it'd take you a good three months."
"That long?" Youko said, her eyes growing wide. She could not begin to grasp what it meant to walk for that length of time, but she did understand that it was quite beyond her imagination.
"Yes, that long. It might not be such a big place, but Kou is a kingdom. It's about the same distance north to south as well. But because it means crossing seas or mountains, going to a neighboring kingdom is an almost a four month trip."
"And all the Twelve Kingdoms . . . . "
Youko closed her eyes. She had somehow pictured in her mind a world like a small garden. How could she find one person in such a vast place? Without a single clue and only the name "Keiki" to go by? Circumnavigating all twelve kingdoms by itself would take four years.
"What kind of person is this Keiki?"
"I don't really know. Probably like the people here. He's the person who brought me here."
"Brought you here?"
"Well, that's a new one on me." Takki was visibly impressed.
"Is that unusual?"
Takki said with a severe, little smile, "I don't have much learning about such things. Don't know that much about kaikyaku, neither. You hardly ever see them around these parts."
"I didn't know that," said Youko.
"It's true. In any case, he can't be any kind of normal person. What you're talking about, that's nothing any of us could have done. One of the gods, maybe, or a wizard, or one of the half-demons."
Youko stared at her. Takki smiled. "Going to that other place, bringing somebody back, it's not what normal people do. And if it's not normal people, then it's got to be a wizard or youma."
"I know there are youma, but gods and wizards, too?"
"There certainly are. But they live in the world above, apart from the rest of us. The gods and the wizards live up there. They hardly ever come down here."
"Above the sky. But that doesn't mean there aren't wizards down here. From king to province lords, they're all up there above the sky."
When Youko tilted her head quizzically, Takki smiled and explained. "Each of the provinces has a province lord. This is Jun Province. Our province lord is the Marquis of Jun. He rules by will of the king. Normal people don't become province lords, neither. They never grow old and have supernatural powers. They're people from out of this world."
"I wonder if Keiki is a person like that."
Takki again smiled her wry smile. "If it's wizards we're talking about, I hear tell that all the people who work at the royal palace, right down to the underlings, they're wizards of one sort of the other. The same goes for the big government officials. Regular people can't go to that place above the sky because that's where the royal palace is. The king is one of the gods. The wizards are chosen by the king. Now, there are some folks who manage to pull themselves up there by their own bootstraps, but most of them are recluses, hermit-types. They belong to that other world that we're not part of. Us and them, like ships in the night."
Youko made careful note of everything that Takki said. There was no telling what aspect of this information might later prove important.
"There's said to be a dragon king that rules over the ocean, but that may just be fairytales. If there really was a dragon kingdom, they wouldn't be normal people, either. Besides them, there's supposedly youma that can change their appearance to look human. That's what we call the half-demon. Most of them just look human, but there are some of them that can disguise themselves so that you can't tell the difference.
Takki poured some more tea from the earthenware teapot. The tea was cold. "They say that somewhere the youma have a kingdom of their own. I can't say if it's true or not. At the end of the day, though, what it comes down to is, youma and people, they come from completely different worlds."
Youko nodded. What she was learning was changing the way she saw things, and things were getting a lot more confusing. Like, Keiki probably wasn't human. If he wasn't, what was he? Hyouki and Kaiko and those strange beasts must be some species of youma. If they were, then didn't it stand to reason that Keiki was a half-demon?
"Um . . . have you ever heard of youma called Hyouki or Kaiko or Jouyuu?"
Takki gave her a funny look. "I haven't heard of any youma like that. Why do you ask?"
A surprised look came to her face. "Ah, Hinman. The possessor. A youma that possesses warriors on the field of battle. No body except for its red eyes. How did you come to know about a creature like that?"
Youko felt herself shiver. Jouyuu was a youma called the Hinman, and even now it possessed her. But admitting that would probably only make Takki think she was weird or something, so she shook her head.
"Kochou." Takki wrote out the characters for "rice worm" (ko) and "carve" (chou). "The horned bird. A ferocious animal that eats people. How did you come to know about the kochou?"
"I was attacked by one."
"Surely not! Where?"
"That other place . . . where I'm from. A kochou attacked us and we had to escape. It appeared out of nowhere, like it was pursuing Keiki and me. We had to come here to keep from getting killed . . . or that's what Keiki said."
Takki said in a low voice, "Did such a thing really happen?"
Youko took a deep breath. "It doesn't sound right?"
"Not right at all. It's a serious thing for people around here if youma start showing up even out there in the mountains. Back then, youma didn't make it a practice of coming around where people are."
"Really? Is that really true?"
Takki nodded. "But recently, for whatever reason, there's been a lot more of them. It's gotten dangerous. After sundown, people don't dare go outside. But when one of those mean ones like a kochou appears, what a hullabaloo."
Takki gave her a stern look. "Youma are like any other wild beast. They're not the kind of creatures to go chasing after one person in particular, let alone to the other side of the sea. Never before heard of such a thing. You know, Youko, it sounds like you might have met up with something quite serious."
"I guess I did."
"Well, it's not that I'm any kind of expert. But recently, what with so many more youma around these parts, it all gives me a bad feeling."
The tone of Takki's voice even made Youko feel uneasy. It seemed common sense to her that there were youma in the mountains and that they attacked people. What in the world had she gotten herself caught up in?
Seeing her caught up in her thoughts, Takki said in a cheerful voice, "Well, not much point to worrying ourselves sick when it won't change a thing. So, Youko, do you have someplace to go after this?"
At the question Youko raised her head. She looked at Takki and shook her head. "Other than looking for Keiki, there's not much else I can do."
Even if Keiki were a youma, she knew he couldn't make things any worse for her than they already were.
"That's going to take some time. Not a thing easily done."
"Yes," Youko reluctantly agreed.
"And in the meantime, you've got to make a living for yourself, no? Wouldn't mind you staying here, but my nosy neighbors find you out and they'd no doubt pack you off to the county seat. I could say you were the child of a relative, but they'd probably see through it before long."
"I don't want to cause you any more trouble."
"East of here there's a town called Kasai. My mother lives there."
When Youko looked at her, Takki laughed. "She runs an hotel. Don't worry, she won't turn you in. She's my mum, see. I'm sure she'll give you a job. You willing to work?"
"Yes," Youko agreed on the spot. It'd be tough looking for Keiki. And it'd be well-nigh impossible if she'd didn't have a place to live in the meantime. Fighting the youma every night, having nothing to eat, sleeping outdoors--if she could avoid all that she would.
Takki laughed and nodded. "That's great. You'll see, it won't be such a bad job. Everybody who works there is good people. You'll fit in just fine. How about we set off tomorrow?"
"That'd be okay."
"Okay it is, then. We'd better get to bed. And tomorrow morning, if you're not in the mood for traveling, we can stay here for another day if you want."
Youko bowed her head deeply in gratitude.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
3-3 Her bed felt like a thin mattress laid out on a tatami mat. Youko fell asleep once, then woke up later in the middle of the night.
Her benefactor was sleeping soundly on the other side of the room. Youko sat up and clasped her knees, her clean nightshirt rustling against her clean skin. The shutters were closed. The room was dark. The night was quiet. Sheltered by the heavy roof and thick walls, not even sounds of small animals disturbed their rest. The air lay calm and still around them. The room felt like a place of sleep.
Youko got out of bed. She retrieved the sword from where it was stashed on the shelf, went into the kitchen. She had quickly formed the habit of waking herself from a sound sleep, and until she felt the hilt of the sword in her grasp again she could not rest easy. She sat down in a chair, wrapped her arms around the sword--now covered in a new cloth Takki had given her--took a deep breath.
Takki said it was a three-day trip to Kasai, where her mother ran the hotel. When they got there Youko would have a home of her own in this world. She had no experience working for a living, but her sense of expectation was greater than her anxieties. She wondered what kind of people she would be working with.
She'd sleep in a real building, wake up in the morning, work all day, go to bed at night. Once she started working she probably wouldn't have time to think about anything else. Maybe she wouldn't be able to go home, to her home in that other world, or be able to look for Keiki. But right now she couldn't care less.
Having finally found herself a place in this world, she let herself drift off into sleep. As her forehead rested against the shrouded sword, a high, clear note sounded from within the steel.
Youko awoke with a start. A faint light was shining out from under the layer of cloth. She timidly undid the cloth. As on the night before, the sword was glimmering with a ghostly light. She could see small, dim images flickering across the blade.
Her eyes focused in the dark. The images drew into shape. Before her eyes, like a movie projection, was an image of her room. It looked so real she imagined that if she stretched out her hand she could touch it. But it wasn't real.
The cavernous echo of falling water continued incessantly. The figure she saw in the sword was, as before, her mother. Her mother moved aimlessly around Youko's room.
She opened a drawer, moved things around on the shelf as if she were looking for something. About the umpteenth time she opened the bureau drawers, the door opened and there was her father.
He said, and Youko heard his voice clearly. "The bath ready?"
Her mother shot him a quick glance and then resumed searching through the drawer. "Should be. If it's warm enough, go ahead."
"I need a change of clothes."
"If that's all you need, then get it yourself."
There was a caustic edge to her mother's voice. Her father's reply was no less barbed. "Hanging around her room won't do a damned bit of good."
"I'm not just hanging around her room. I have things to do. If you need a change of clothes, you're perfectly capable of getting it yourself."
Her father said, his voice low, "Youko left. Spending your every waking moment camped out in her room isn't going to bring her back!"
"She didn't leave."
"She ran away. She met up with that strange boy at school, didn't she? Then they had some of their friends go outside and break the window. She got mixed up with a gang and hid it from us, isn't that the best explanation for what happened?"
"She isn't that kind of girl."
"What you mean is, you never noticed. Like her hair. She's been dying it all along, hasn't she?"
"It happens all the time. A kid starts hanging out with the wrong crowd and finally she runs away from home. She'll come home eventually, when the fun wears off."
"She wouldn't do something like that. That's not the way I raised her."
They both glared at each other. Her father said, "Every mother says that. That kid that broke into the school, they say his hair wasn't a natural color, either. Those gang kids are all like that, and she was one of them, too."
Dad, it's not true!
"Stop slandering your own daughter!" Her mother's words boiled over with resentment. "What do you know? All you know is your work. But my work, everything to do with our child, I had to do!"
"That's the way it is. That's the father's role."
"Father? Who's being a father?"
"Ritsuko . . . . "
"So you go to work, you bring a bunch of money home, and that makes you a father? Our daughter disappears and you didn't even bother to take the day off! What kind of a father is that? Don't lecture me about what Youko is or isn't when you don't know a thing about her!"
Her father seemed more surprised than angry, "Calm down, you're being hysterical."
"Oh, I am calm. I'm as calm as I possibly can be. Just imagining what Youko is going through, what do you expect me to do?"
"You have your responsibilities, too. You calm down, you do what you have to do, and then you can worry."
"And doing your laundry is my responsibility, I suppose? Rather than worrying about my child, that's what I should be concerning myself with? All you can think about is yourself!"
Her mother stared at her father. His face flushed with anger but he said nothing.
"You say she was one of them? How can you say that? She's a good, proper girl. She never talks back or acts up. She never gave me cause to worry, never. She could talk to me about anything. She's not the kind of child who would run away from home. Because there wasn't anything she'd want to run away from!"
Her father turned away, still holding his tongue.
"Youko left her backpack at school. And her coat, too. How can that be called running away? Something must have happened. That's the only thing that makes sense."
"If it did, so what?"
Her mother's eyes went wide. "So what?"
Her father answered bitterly. "Let's say she did get caught up in something. Even so, what could you do about it? We informed the police about everything that happened. Running around like chickens with their heads cut off isn't going to bring her home any faster."
"Why do you have to say things like that!"
"Because it's the truth! Handing out flyers and slapping posters on telephone poles, do you really think that's going to make a difference? Be honest!"
"If she didn't run away, if she got wrapped up in some kind of conspiracy or something, she'd be dead already."
"You see it all the time on the news. Do those kids ever turn up alive? That's why I say she ran away from home!"
Her mother burst into tears. Her father stared at her, then stomped out of the room.
Dad . . . Mom . . . .
Seeing them like this cut her to the core. The scene blurred. She closed her eyes and felt the tears tumble down her cheeks. When she opened her eyes, her vision was clear. The images had already vanished.
All she could see was the sword, the light gone out of it.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
3-4 She wept uncontrollably. "I didn't die."
Maybe she would be better off dead, but for the time being she was still alive.
"I'm not a runaway."
There must be some way to get back. She missed her home and her parents more than anything.
"That was the first time I ever saw Mom and Dad fight."
Youko rested her forehead against the table. The tears came like rain.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid . . . . "
She didn't know what it was she had seen, but it wasn't necessarily the truth.
She sat up, wiped away the tears, bound the sword in the cloth. Somehow it was like the sword itself was showing her these visions. She couldn't tell whether they were real or not. Her intuition, though, told her the visions were true.
Stiffly she got to her feet. She opened the back door and wandered out into the night. The heavens were suffused with stars. She didn't recognize any constellations. The fact was, she had never had any interest in astronomy, so it was probably because she didn't know any of the constellations up there.
She sat at the edge of the well. The cool stones and the cool breeze was a small comfort. She held her knees to her chest. Behind her a saw-edged voice stabbed at her ears.
"No, no, no. You can't go home, missy."
She turned slowly. Sitting on sturdy stones that formed the rim of the well was the blue head of the monkey. The monkey rested there on the hewn surface, bodiless, as if severed at the neck, and laughed at her.
"My, my, my, but haven't you given up yet? You can't go home, little girl. You so want to, don't you? Go see your dear mum. But you can plead and plead and it will never happen."
Youko fumbled about for the sword, then realized she'd left it in the house.
"It's what I keep telling you. You're perfectly capable of whacking off your own little head. And if you did, ah, you could rest so easy. All that love and all that longing, it will all go away."
"I'm not giving up. Someday I'll go home, even if it's the last thing I do."
The monkey cackled gaily. "So who am I to persuade you otherwise? But I might as well take the opportunity to fill you in on what's coming next."
Youko stood up. "I don't want to hear it."
"Really? You don't want to know? About that woman . . . . "
"Takki-san?" Youko turned.
The monkey bared its teeth at her. "You had better not trust her."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"She's not the good person you think she is, little girl. Good thing she didn't poison you during dinner and be done with it."
"Oh, give me a break."
"Maybe she's scheming to kill you and rob you of everything you've got. Or maybe she'll let you live and sell you into slavery. Either way that's the kind of thing she's up to. And you want to thank her for it! Oh my, but you're so naive!"
"Quit jerking me around."
"Don't I tell you these things out of love? Don't you understand? You've got no allies here, little girl. No one would shed a tear if you dropped dead. You're such a bother to everybody, don't you know?"
Youko stared hard at the monkey. The monkey answered her with a screech of laughter. "If I told you once, I told you a thousand times. If it's so painful, it can be all over in a moment." The monkey howled again, then turned on her with a fierce expression. "Since you won't say a bad word about her, let's just kill her, then."
"What . . . ?"
"Kill her and take the money and run. Since you don't seem to know when to give up, you'd better do it for you own sake!"
"Shut up about it already!"
Chattering madly with laughter, the monkey disappeared, like chalk being erased off a blackboard. As before, only its grating laughter remained behind, fading away into the distance.
Youko continued to stare at the place the monkey no longer was. What did this thing have against her, to do nothing but give her such grief?
I don't believe it.
Not a single word the little monster had said.
The next morning Youko was shaken awake. She opened her eyes. The large-framed woman was looking at her with a bothered expression. "You awake? Dead to the world, you were. Well, get yourself up and have some breakfast."
Youko hurriedly got up. From the look on Takki's face, it was obvious she'd been sacked out for a long time.
"No need to apologize. How you doing? Ready to set off? We can always do it tomorrow."
"I'm okay," Youko said, bouncing to her feet. Takki laughed and pointed at her bed.
"There's a dress there. You know how to put one on?"
"Probably . . . I think."
"You run into trouble, give me a holler."
With that, Takki disappeared into the adjacent room. Youko sat down on the bed and picked up the kimono Takki had laid out for her.
It had an ankle-length skirt that was tied with a cord around the waist, a short, vest-like blouse along with a tunic the same length. It wasn't a comfortable fit when she first put it on. The collar pinched her neck as she walked into the next room, where Takki had set the table.
"Ah, looks just right on you." Takki put down a big bowl of soup and laughed. "It's a bit plain, true. Something from when I was younger would have been better."
"Not at all," Youko said. "Thank you very much."
"Even so, it's a bit too showy for me. I was thinking of giving it away to the neighbors one of these days. Well, let's eat. Don't hold back, now. We've got a long walk ahead of us."
Youko bowed. She sat down at the table. When she picked up the chopsticks, for a moment she remembered what the monkey had said the night before. But it didn't feel true in the slightest.
She is a good person.
If the villagers knew that Takki had taken her in, they'd no doubt have harsh words for her. Takki had done good by her, and suspecting her now would only invite bad karma.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
3-5 It was past noon when they left Takki's house.
The trip to Kasai turned out to be an unexpectedly pleasant one. At first, Youko cowered whenever they encountered someone, but perhaps because Takki had dyed her hair with a dye made from herb roots, nobody cast a suspicious eye on her. She grew accustomed to it after a while and enjoyed meeting people along the way.
Although this country had the look and feel of old China, the people living here came in all different types. Their faces were generally Asian in appearance, but the color of their hair and eyes and skin was all over the place. Skin color varied from that of a white Caucasian to a black African. Eye color was everything from black to sea-blue. As for hair, there seemed to be an infinite variety, such as purple or blue-white. In some of the odder cases, hair was two-toned, as if part of it had been dyed.
Initially, it struck her all as very strange, but she got used to it fairly quickly. And once she did she decided that, yes, different was good. And yet she didn't see anyone with pure, golden hair like Keiki.
Their clothing was in an old Chinese style. Men wore a tunic over short trousers. Women's fashions were based on the long skirt. Now and then she spotted a group dressed in what was certainly an "Oriental" style, though from what country and what era she couldn't tell. According to Takki, they were traveling minstrels.
For Youko, it was a relief just to walk. She followed Takki's lead, from getting food to arranging lodgings. Youko had no money, so Takki paid for everything.
"I'm really sorry I can't help out," she said as they walked along the road.
Takki laughed heartily. "I'm just an old busybody. You've got nothing to worry about."
"I've got nothing to give you in exchange."
"Not at all. It's been a long time since I've seen my mum. Thanks to you now I've got a good excuse to go see her."
Her kind words were a joy to hear. "Takki-san, did you go to Goso to get married?"
"No, that's where I got my partition."
Takki nodded. "When you become an adult, you're given a plot of land and made to stand on your own two feet. The plot I received was in Goso. That's what a partition is."
"Everybody receives land when they become an adult?"
"Yes, everybody. My husband is the old guy who lives next door. We split up after our child died."
Youko stared at Takki's jovial face. Now that she mentioned it, she had mentioned something about a child dying. Youko said, "I'm . . . sorry."
"Don't worry about it. I wasn't cut out to be a mother. The child we were blessed with after so long, she died on my account."
"Surely you don't mean . . . . "
"Children come to us from heaven. So heaven taking her back again wasn't up to me. But people being what they are, I guess it was inevitable. It's too bad about the child, though."
Youko had no idea how to answer but managed a hesitant smile. In a small way Takki seemed a sad and lonely person.
"I imagine your mum must be worried sick about you. The faster you get home the better, no?"
"Yes." Youko nodded. "But is it really possible? When I was in Hairou, one of the town elders said it wasn't."
"Well, if you got here somehow, surely you can go back."
Youko nodded again. The carefree smile that came to her lips reflected a profound happiness.
"Of course. Ah, here we are."
At the fork of three roads, one pointed to the left. At every intersection along the road there was always a small stone marker into which was carved distance and destination. Distance was measured in units called "ri." This particular marker listed the destination as "Sei" and the distance as "5 ri."
According to what she remembered from her Japanese history textbook, a Japanese "ri" was two and a half miles. The "ri" referred to here was a much shorter distance, only several hundred yards. So five ri was not that far.
The scenery itself was prosaic, but the peace and quiet was quite nice. The mountains loomed craggy and tall above the rolling terrain. She could see faintly in the distance mountains whose peaks were wrapped with clouds, but none covered with snow. The sky pressed low against the ground.
It seemed that here spring had arrived a month earlier than in Tokyo. Flowers were blooming here and there along the rice paddy dikes. Youko recognized some, others were new to her.
Here and there amidst the fields several small houses were huddled together. These were villages, Takki told her, for the people who worked the land. A little further along they came to a somewhat larger settlement enclosed by a tall wall. This was a town. It was where people in the surrounding areas lived during the winter.
"So where people live is different during the winter than in the other seasons?"
"There are a few oddballs that live in the villages during the winters, but the rest of us have better things to do than camp out in the fields. It's much more comfortable in the towns. And safer."
"Those walls sure are thick. It's to protect you from the youma, right?"
"Youma wouldn't attack a town like that. It's mostly to protect from wars and wild animals."
"Wolves and bears. A panther or tiger will turn up now and then, though you don't find them much around these parts. In the winter when game is hard to find they come down to where people are."
"How do people arrange housing during the winter? Do they rent?"
"You're also given a house when you become an adult. Most people sell right away, though some rent to the townsfolk when they go back to the village. The ones that sell out rent during the winter. That's the most common."
The cities were all guarded by high castle ramparts. There was only one way in and out of the city, through a reinforced gate. Guards were posted at the gate, and they inspected every person who entered or left.
Usually the guards just guarded the gate, Takki said. They were particularly interested in any red-haired young women amongst the travelers, no doubt on the lookout for a kaikyaku who had run away from Hairou.
Inside the gate the houses were packed together. Shops lined the crisscrossing avenues. The streets were busy with vagrants. A number of people had set up house tents along the base of the inner walls.
"If everybody receives their own land, why do they have to live in tents?"
When Youko pointed at the tents Takki raised her eyebrows. "Those are refugees from the Kingdom of Kei. They are a sorry lot. There's a great unrest in Kei these days. The refugees running away from youma and wars collect together like that. When it gets warmer, their numbers will increase."
"It looks like there's unrest here, too."
"Indeed. It's not only Kei. To the north, I hear there's trouble in the Kingdom of Tai. They say it's even worse there."
Youko only nodded. Japan was a peaceful country in comparison. Here there were wars, and nothing good could be said about the state of law and order. They didn't let their belongings out of their sight for a second. Unsavory characters propositioned her any number of times, and a tough-looking gang tried to draw her away. But Takki let loose a lively stream of invective and rescued her.
The lack of security was probably why nobody traveled at night. The city gate was shut as well. By the time the sun set it was imperative that a traveler make it to the next town or city.
"You said it takes about four months to travel from one kingdom to another?"
"Is there any other way to travel than walking?"
"There's horse and cart as well. But you got to be rich. Someone like me wouldn't be able to afford it, not in a whole lifetime."
It was an impoverished world compared to her own. No cars, no gas or electricity. Not even running water. This could not simply be due to the delayed development of civilization. She gathered from their conversations that the bigger source of the problem was a lack of any oil or coal technology.
She asked Takki, "So how did you learn so much about the other kingdoms? Have you been to Kei or Tai?"
"Of course not," Takki laughed. "I've never been out of Kou. We peasants don't do much in the way of traveling like that. Got to take care of the fields. You find out about the other kingdoms from listening to what the minstrels have to say."
"Traveling actors and musicians, you mean?"
"Yes. There are those among them that have traveled around the world. In their performances they tell stories about how they went here and saw this and how they went there and saw that. Tales from all the cities and all the kingdoms."
"Wow," Youko said. In her world, back in the olden days, people used to watch newsreels at the theater. It must be like that, she thought.
No matter what, it was great having someone with you to answer all your questions. Youko didn't know a thing about this world, and the anxiety that came with not knowing was frightening. But with a helpful person at her side, someone who could explain things one by one as they came along, it was all quite fascinating.
With Takki at her side they completed the trip without incident. A world that had struck her as harsh and cruel had become a thing of great curiosity and interest.
Every night she was visited by the strange visions, that made her homesick and left her feeling depressed. The blue monkey showed up, too, and made things worse. But the raw feelings didn't last.
Once they got up the next morning and started out, it was one fascinating scene after another. Takki was as nice to her as she could have hoped for. Borrowing strength from the jewel she could keep on walking without getting tired. And knowing that at night they would be eating a good meal and sleeping in a decent bed made it all the more tolerable.
It was hard being so far from her home, but at least she now had a caring guardian at her side. She couldn't be thankful enough that she had been lucky enough to meet her.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
3-6 The three-day journey was soon over, and proved somewhat anticlimactic. On the third day the tall buildings of Kasai rising above the river plain told them that they had arrived. It was the first place Youko had seen that actually looked like a city.
"Well . . . it is big," Youko said, as they passed through the gate and got a chance to look around.
Takki chuckled. "Around these parts, the only city bigger than Kasai is Takkyuu, the district capital."
A district was the next step up from a prefecture. Youko didn't have a good grasp of the relative sizes involved. She didn't think that Takki did either. When she spoke of the "government," it was sufficient for her to mean the town hall or maybe the prefecture seat.
Inside the gate, stores large and small lined the main road. They were different from those in the towns they'd passed through up to now. These were grand and luxurious. It reminded Youko of Chinatown. The big buildings had glass windows that were quite impressive. It was still early in the afternoon and the street was not crowded, but she had the feeling that come closing time and the place would be packed with travelers.
Now that she thought about her decision to live in this bustling city, her mood improved a bit. No matter where she settled down, even in one of the towns, she couldn't complain. But it went without saying that a lively place like this was better.
Takki turned off the main road, towards a block of smaller-scale shops. The area had a vaguely run-down feeling, but there was no change in the hustle-bustle atmosphere. A number of businesses were organized into a kind of medieval strip mall sharing a common roof. Takki headed towards the one that was quite the most elegant.
It was a three-story building with bright green pillars. They entered the imposing front doors into a large restaurant that took up the whole of the first floor. Takki left Youko to admire the splendid accouterments and grabbed the waiter who came out to greet them.
"Call the mistress for me, will you? Say her daughter's come to see her. You got that?"
The man's face broke into a grin and he hurried out of sight. Takki watched him leave, then sat Youko down at the nearest table. "You wait here. Go ahead and order something. Everything's really good."
"Are you sure it's okay?" This restaurant was bigger than any inn or dining hall they'd been in so far.
"Don't worry about it. My mum will pick up the tab. Treat yourself, anything you want."
Even so, Youko couldn't really follow the menu. Sensing that, Takki laughed, summoned a waiter and ordered a few things. The waiter bowed and left. At the same time, from the back of the restaurant appeared a woman just old enough to be called an "old woman."
"Mother," said Takki, standing up and smiling. The old woman reacted with a cheerful expression. Watching attentively, Youko saw with relief that she came across as a nice person. With her as her boss, it couldn't be that bad of a job.
"Youko, you wait here, okay? I have a few things to talk over with my mum."
"Yes," Youko said with a nod. Takki smiled and hurried after her mother. The two patted each other on the back and laughed together and then disappeared into the back. Youko watched them leave with a smile. She placed Takki's rucksack next to the table and paused to look around the restaurant.
For some reason, there seemed to be no female employees. All the waiters and busboys were men, as were most of the customers. She caught several of them glancing in her direction, checking her out. Without really knowing why, she began to feel very unsettled.
A short time later, a group of four men came in. They sat themselves down at an adjacent table, turned and leered at her, whispered amongst themselves and burst into laughter. It was starting to creep her out.
As she scanned the restaurant, she saw no hint of Takki returning. She put up with it the best she could, but then one of the four got up and walked towards her. She scrambled to her feet, ignored the man calling after her and caught the attention of a waiter. "Um . . . do you know where I can find Takki-san?"
He curtly pointed towards the back of the restaurant. Figuring he meant for her to go find Takki by herself, Youko set off in the direction he had indicated, lugging the rucksack along with her. Nobody tried to stop her.
She made her way along a narrow corridor and emerged into what looked like the building's cluttered back rooms. Feeling somehow self-conscious as she crept along, she at last came upon a beautifully carved door. The door was open. From behind a screen that blocked the middle of the room from view came Takki's voice.
"Really, there's nothing to worry about!"
"But, my dear, she's being sought by the police!"
Youko stopped in her tracks. There was reluctance in the old woman's voice. The sudden rush of anxiety made Youko stop and crane her neck. Of course, no way she'd want to hire a kaikyaku. She resisted the impulse to rush in and bow her head and beg, Please. That would be too presumptuous. At the same time, she was in too desperate a state of mind to return to the restaurant.
"Oh, what's a kaikyaku? Just somebody who got lost, no? All that stuff about them making bad things happen, you don't believe those old superstitions, do you?"
"Of course I don't, but what if the officials find out?"
"Nobody says anything, nobody finds out anything. That girl's not going to talk. Think about it, she's a bargain find, don't you think? Not bad looking, not too old. She'd be handy to have around."
"Yes, but . . . . "
"Behaves herself, too. You teach her how to treat the guests right and she'll be bringing 'em in the front door. All you have to do is take her off my hands for a reasonable price. What's there to worry about?"
Youko tilted her head to one side. Takki's tone of voice was . . . odd. It wasn't good manners to eavesdrop but she wasn't going to stop listening now. She began to hear something else as well, almost subconsciously, a sound like the faint roar of the ocean.
"But a kaikyaku . . . . "
"And no strings attached! Think of that. No parents or brothers storming in and raising a ruckus. Right from the start it'll be like she doesn't even exist. None of the usual fuss and bother."
"But does she really have what it takes to work here?"
"She said so herself. I told her it was a hotel. She thought I meant working as a maid or something. That girl is quite the little fool."
Listening attentively to their conversation, Youko knew something was terribly wrong. She was "that girl." Till now, Takki had always addressed her so warmly and sincerely. Youko didn't sense a speck of that consideration now. What was she to make of this? It was almost as if she were listening to the voice of a completely different person.
"But . . . . "
"Everybody knows what those green pillars mean, and what kind of a woman works at a place that has them. You'd better know the difference, too, when it comes to paying the bill."
Youko's eyes flew open wide. The shock didn't knock her flat only because she was still holding onto Takki's rucksack. The monkey had told her. Why hadn't she listened more closely to its warnings?
Shock, and then anger. Her pulse raced. Her constricted breath was hot in her throat. The sound of the ocean roared in her ears, deafening her. So that's what this has been about. She took a tight grip of the sword, still wrapped up like a parcel. A moment later she settled herself down and instead turned on her heels and retreated down the narrow hallway the way she had come. Pretending that nothing at all was amiss, she strode through the restaurant and headed for the exit.
At a brisk pace, Youko stepped through the doors and again looked up at the building. The pillars and beams, even the window frames, were painted green. She'd figured out what it meant in the nick of time. She was still carrying Takki's rucksack. No way was she going back inside to return it.
Almost as if on cue, a second-floor window opened. A woman leaned against the ornate balcony railing and stared out at the world. Her gleaming kimono was rumpled and undone, the collar wide and open. Her occupation was as plain as the nose on her face.
Youko shuddered with revulsion. As if sensing that she was being watched, the woman looked down at her, laughed derisively, and closed the window.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
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 from her 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 now you're wanting me to overlook how you're trying to run out on the deal, eh?"
"I would never--" and with all her strength Youko jerked her arm free of the man's grip. "I would never work at a place like that. And 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 hold 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 were flooding out of the restaurant and gathering in 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, either.
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, and 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. The people cried out as they ran away from something, 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, skipping out of the way as it toppled over, and took off at a run. The beast roused itself, chased after her. She parried with the sword, feinted with her feet, 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 . . . .
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 suddenly 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.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
3-8 The monkey said, "I told you so."
It was the middle of the night. The monkey's head floated above the stone marker standing at the side of the road. After leaving Kasai and wandering about for a while, Youko had continued on down the highway.
She was on her own again. In the process she'd ended up with Takki's rucksack. In the bag was a change of clothes and Takki's purse. There was enough money in her purse that if she ate and slept in cheap dives along the way she could make it last a bit. The theft didn't bother her conscience a bit.
"I warned you, silly girl."
Youko ignored him. The glowing blue head tagged along, as if skating next to her as she walked along silently. Youko zoned out the monkey and its screeching laughter. She knew she'd been a fool to let herself be fooled so badly. She didn't need to hear it from the monkey as well.
Besides, she had more pressing things on her mind than the monkey, such as the gold-haired man she'd seen in Kasai, and the appearance of the youma in the middle of the city.
Youma are never supposed to go where people live.
Takki had said as much, said that it was rare that such a thing should happen.
Youma never show up in the middle of the day.
The tiger in Kasai, the dog-like creatures that attacked the wagon, the kochou that had shown up at her school, they had shown up during the day or in the early evening. But they were the exceptions.
Was it because Keiki was there?"
The monkey's piercing laughter interrupted her mid-thought. "Little girl, it's because you're such an easy mark!"
This was impossible for her to ignore. "It's not!"
"Oh, but it is. Think about it carefully, little girl. Even you find it most strange, do you not?"
Youko bit her lip. She was determined to believe in Keiki. If she couldn't believe in him, she would have nothing to fall back on. Nevertheless, her doubts continued to grow.
"He pulled the wool over your eyes, little girl. He gave you the shaft, he did."
"No, he didn't."
"I simply cannot comprehend this stubbornness of yours." The monkey said, laughing, "Unless it's your way of refusing to see what a fine fix you really are in."
"Keiki protected me from the kochou. Keiki is my friend."
"Really? Is he? And since coming here, exactly how has he helped you? It was that one time only, no?"
Youko stared long and hard at the monkey. How could it know about what had happened before she came to this world? The tone of his voice gave her the creeps.
"What do you mean, that one time?"
"Over yonder, I mean. When you were attacked by the kochou, I mean."
"How could you know anything about what happened there?"
The monkey screeched, "Oh, I know everything about you, little girl. I know how much you distrusted Keiki. How hard you tried to get away from him. You don't want to believe it, how much he totally used you."
Youko averted her gaze and stared at the dark road. "That's not . . . it's not true."
"Then why hasn't he come to help you?"
"Something must have happened."
"What possibly could have happened? Did he not say he was going to protect you, little girl? Let us think this thing through. It was a trap, right? Do you get it now?"
"Other than at the school, I can't be sure that I really saw him those other two times. It couldn't have been him!"
"Have you been seeing a lot of golden-haired chaps around these parts?"
I don't want to listen to this.
"And wasn't your Jouyuu as well convinced it was Keiki as well?"
How could he know about Jouyu? As she thought about this, staring off into the distance, the monkey's mocking eyes suddenly collided with hers.
"I know everything. Just like I told you."
Taiho. That voice was suddenly alive in her memory. She shook her head. She would never forget the surprise contained in that one word
"No. That's not right. Keiki is not my enemy."
"Are you certain? Really certain? Yes, but that would be nice."
The monkey turned its eyes towards the heavens, laughed. He whispered, "Want to know what I think?"
"I don't want to hear it."
"It was Keiki who sent those youma to attack you."
Youko couldn't move. The monkey looked at her blank, wide-eyed stare and leered at her.
She said, "No way."
The monkey roared with mirth, peals of laughter that went on and on like the ravings of a madman.
"There's no way!"
"Are you so sure about that?"
"He'd have no reason to do anything like that!"
"No reason?" the monkey inquired, with a crooked smile.
"Why would Keiki do something like that? It was Keiki who saved me from the Kochou, wasn't it? He gave me this sword, and put Jouyuu inside me. It's only thanks to him that I'm still alive."
The monkey giggled gleefully.
"If he wanted to kill me, he could have done it right then and there."
"He had you attacked on purpose, so he could save you and be your pal. Did you ever think of that?"
Youko bit her lip. "Yes, but now that I've got Jouyuu, it won't be so easy. If he wanted to kill me now, he'd have to exorcize Jouyuu out of me first."
"But maybe his goal isn't to kill you."
"Hmm, I wonder. Well, you'd better figure it out eventually. They are really going to come after you after this."
Youko scowled at the bobbing, chortling head and quickened her pace. "You can't go home." The monkey's voice followed after her. "Not at all, little girl. You're going to die here, my dear."
"But there's always a way, isn't there? If it hurts so much, it could all be over in an instant."
"Shut up!" Youko shouted.
Her words were swallowed up in the darkness.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love