Chapters 25 - 34 (Part 4 COMPLETE)
ouko continued on her aimless trek for two more days, with only the blue monkey as her companion. She had no other goal but to get as far away from Hairou and Kasai as possible.
At every city the gates were closely watched by the guards and travelers were carefully inspected. Perhaps it had gotten out that a runaway kaikyaku from Hairou had shown up in Kasai. At the smaller towns, the small number of people coming and going meant that it was impossible to mingle in with the crowds and get past the guards.
She had no choice but to keep to the highway and camp in the fields at night. On the third day, she arrived at a city even larger than Kasai, surrounded by a high, fortified wall studded with parapets. "Takkyuu Castle," it said above the gate. This, then, was the district capital.
Shops lined the thoroughfare all the way up to the gates of the city. At other cities, the fields and farms spread out from the shadow of the walls. Here at Takkyuu peddlers had set up a market outside the city walls and the fields were covered with tents. Buyers and sellers jammed the roads that encircled the city.
Inside the crude tents there was something for everybody. Pushing her way through the throngs in front of the gate, Youko spied a tent with piles of clothing stacked up inside. It occurred to her that it might be a good idea to buy some used boy's clothes. Traveling alone as a young woman was only inviting trouble. With Jouyuu's help it was easy enough to get out of trouble, but better not to get caught up in it in the first place.
The outfit Youko purchased was made of a thick material that resembled canvas. It consisted of a sleeveless, knee-length tunic and a pair of short trousers. It was the kind of clothing she'd seen farmers wearing, as well as poor people and refugees from Kei, including women.
She snuck away for a moment and changed clothes out of view of the street. In only half a month she'd completely shed all the roundness in her body, so much so that the fit of men's clothing wasn't half bad.
Youko had mixed emotions seeing her lean, fat-free body. Her arms and legs had gone through a hard, grueling workout. Her scrawniness only exaggerated the definition of her muscles. At home in her old world, she approached the bathroom scales with great trepidation. The diet she could never stay on she had now taken to with a vengeance. It was really quite funny.
She suddenly thought of blue, a deep navy blue, a bright kind of indigo. The color of jeans. She'd always wanted a pair of jeans.
When she was in elementary school, there was an athletic field day she got to participate in. The boys and girls were split into two teams and competed against each other. Because you couldn't really move around in a dress, she talked her mother into buying her some jeans. But when her father saw them he was livid.
Your father doesn't think girls should wear clothing like that.
But everybody wears them!
Your father doesn't like it. He thinks it's indecent for girls to dress up like boys, and talk like boys. He won't stand for it.
But there'll be races. I'll lose if I have to wear a skirt!
Losing to boys is nothing to be ashamed of.
But . . .
When Youko wanted to argue further, her mother took the upper hand. She bowed deeply. I'm sorry, Youko, but you have to apologize to your father.
So she did, and the jeans were returned to the store.
Have patience, Youko.
But why did I have to apologize to father? I didn't do anything wrong!
You'll understand when you get married. It's best this way . . . .
Remembering it now, Youko burst out laughing. If her father could see her now, to see the look on his face! Wearing boy's clothing, carrying a sword, camping out in the fields when an inn wasn't available. She could just imagine his face red with apoplectic rage.
That's the kind of person he is, my father. A girl should be charming and chaste. That's what mattered most. And humble and reserved and obedient to a fault. A girl didn't need to be smart or strong. She'd believed it, too, for a long time.
She said aloud, "But it's not true!"
What good did it do her, getting meekly and humbly arrested? Or meekly and humbly letting Takki sell her to a brothel?
Youko gripped her shrouded sword. If there was one thing she wished she had done differently, it was that when she first met Keiki she had possessed a bit more backbone. At the bare minimum, at least ask what this was all about. Where were they going? In what direction, to what destination, and when were they coming back? If she'd done that, she doubted she'd be in the fix she was in now, up the creek and without a clue.
Being weak was no way to stay safe. If she didn't push her brain and her body to the limit, she wasn't going to survive.
She was going to survive, she was going home. Those were the only desires she would permit herself.
The outfit she had been wearing she sold to a used clothes dealer, along with Takki's things, taking a little money in exchange. Money in hand, she mingled in with the crowds moving through the gate. None of the guards flagged her down. Once inside she headed towards the heart of the city. She learned from Takki that inns got cheaper the farther away from the gate you got.
"What'll it be, boy?" she was asked when she walked into the inn. Youko had to smile to herself. Most inns ran a dining hall on the side. It was typical to get asked for an order right off the bat.
Youko glanced around the premises. You could tell a lot about a place from the atmosphere of the dining hall. This inn was no high class establishment, but it wasn't skid row, either.
"Are there any vacancies?" she asked.
The innkeeper gave Youko an inquisitive look. "You by yourself?"
When Youko nodded the innkeeper said, "Hundred sen. You got money, I assume?"
Youko answered by showing the purse. It was common practice to pay when you checked out.
The currency of the realm was coin. There were several kinds of square and round coins. The square coins had the higher value. Money was counted in "sen," and the value was engraved on the face of the coin. There also seemed to be gold and silver coins, but she hadn't seen paper money.
"You need anything?"
Youko shook her head. The only thing that came free with the room was access to the well. Everything else--use of the bath, food and drink--was a la carte. She'd figured this out on her travels with Takki, and so had already gotten something to eat at a food cart outside the gate.
The innkeeper nodded curtly and called out to the back room, "Hey, we've got a guest. Show him up to his room."
An old man promptly emerged from the back room and bowed in response. A smile frozen on his face, with his gaze he directed Youko towards the interior of the inn. Relieved to have so easily gotten herself a room, she followed after him.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-2 They climbed the stairs at the back of the inn to the fourth floor. These buildings were all made out of wood and in big cities usually topped out at three floors. This inn apparently had a fourth. The ceiling was low enough that Youko could easily reach up and touch it. A big woman like Takki would have to stoop over.
She was shown a small room, not much more than six by six feet, with a wooden floor. A set of high shelves lined the wall at the back of the room, piled with some faded futons. There wasn't a bed. You slept on a futon on the floor.
Next to the wall, the shelves forced you to bend over, even kneeling down. You could stand up in the front half of the room. The back half of the room was for sleeping. The rooms she'd stayed in with Takki had high ceilings and beds and even a table. For the two of them it cost something like five-hundred sen a night.
Because this wasn't the safest part of town, in this kind of inn you locked your door coming in and going out. The old man handed Youko the key and started to leave. Youko stopped him and said, "Excuse me, but where can I find the well?"
When she spoke, the old man jerked around like a dog running past the end of his leash. His eyes grew wide. For several long moments he stared at her.
"Um . . . " said Youko. Thinking he hadn't heard her correctly, she repeated the question. The old man's eyes grew wider.
"Japanese . . . " he said, and all but ran back into her room. "You--you come from Japan?"
When Youko didn't answer he grabbed her by the arm. "You're a kaikyaku? When did you get here? Where you from? Speak Japanese to me again."
Youko could only stand there and look at him.
"Please, do like you was talking before. I haven't heard Japanese spoken for years and years."
"I, ah . . . . "
"I'm from Japan, too. Go ahead, let me hear you speak Japanese."
From within his eyes, deeply set in his wrinkled face, tears welled up, sparkling and clear. Youko felt herself start to tear up as well. What a strange coincidence this was, that in this strange land, in a corner of this big city, the two of them should have met.
She said, "You're a kaikyaku, then?"
The old man nodded. Over and over, impatiently, bobbing his head as if words would not come. He gripped Youko's arm with gnarled fingers. She could see in the firmness of his hold on her what kind of loneliness he had endured. She squeezed his hand in return.
"Tea?" he asked in a tremulous voice. "You want some tea?"
Youko bowed her head.
"You drink tea, don't you? Ain't much, but I got me some green tea. You wait here while I go fetch it, okay?"
The old man returned a short time later with two teacups. Youko thanked him graciously. The sudden smell of green tea brought back memories of home. Closely observing Youko as she tasted the tea in her mouth, the man sat down on the floor in front of her.
"So happy to meet you. I told 'em I was sick and skipped out on work. Tell me, boy . . . no, girl, ain't you? What's your name?"
Ah, the old man's eyes replied. "I'm Seizou Matsuyama. Now, miss, my Japanese is not too strange for you, is it?"
Youko wanted to nod, but shook her head. He did have an accent but she could understand him well enough.
"Well, then." The old man really looked happy enough to cry. Indeed, he seemed to be laughing and crying at the same time. He asked, "Where was you born?"
"Where was I born? In Tokyo."
Seizou gripped his teacup. "Tokyo? I can't hardly believe that Tokyo is still standing."
He paid no mind to Youko's response, wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his tunic. "I was born in Kouchi, in Shikoku. I was living in Kure when I came here."
"Kure, in Hiroshima. You know Kure?"
Youko nodded, trying to recall her old geography lessons. "I think I remember hearing about it before."
The old man laughed bitterly. "A naval base was there and arsenal. I worked in the harbor."
"So you moved from Kouchi to Hiroshima?"
"My mom was staying at her parent's place in Kure at the time. The house got burnt up in an air raid, third of July it was. So she sent me to live with my uncle. He said he wouldn't feed me just for sittin' around all day, so I got a job. That's when we was attacked and the boat I was comin' into harbor on got near sunk, I fell overboard in all the confusion."
Youko realized that he was talking about the Second World War.
"And when I came to I was in the Kyokai. I was drifting on the sea when I got rescued."
The way the old man pronounced "Kyokai" was slightly different from what Youko was used to hearing, closer to "Kokai."
"So . . . that's how it happened."
"There'd been real bad air raids before then, too, even after the arsenal was reduced to rubble. There was ships at the naval base, but they couldn't help. The Setonaikai and the Suou Sea being all full of mines, the ships couldn't get through.
"Oh," said Youko.
"Tokyo was bombed in March, the whole place turned to ashes. Same thing happened to Osaka in June, a big air raid burned down the city. Luzon and Okinawa surrendered. Honestly, I didn't think we was going to win. We lost, didn't we?"
"Um . . . yes."
The old man sighed deeply. "Figures. For a long time I had the feeling that's the way things was headed."
Youko didn't really understand this feeling. Her parents were born after the war. None of her older relatives ever talked about those times. It was like ancient history to her, the kind of things you learned about in textbooks or from movies or television.
Nevertheless, what he was talking about was not as distant to her as this world. Although she could not well picture in her mind what he was talking about, it was gratifying to hear such deeply familiar places and historical events spoken of again.
"So Tokyo's still around. Well, I suppose that Japan belongs to the United States, now."
"Not hardly!" Youko exclaimed.
The old man's eyes widened in turn. "Is that so . . . is that so. But, miss, what's with those eyes of yours?"
After a moment of bewilderment, she realized that he was referring to her eyes. Her eyes had turned an emerald green since coming here. She hesitated then said, "This has got nothing to do with that."
The old man bowed and shook his head. "No, no. Forget I said anything. It's just that I was so sure about Japan being made into a colony of America. It ain't being so, pay no mind, pay no mind."
Here under distant, foreign skies, this old man continued to fret about his motherland, whose fate he could not ascertain for himself. What would become of their country neither he nor Youko could know. It was only with the passage of time that these sentiments had become so much deeper. It must have been hard enough being thrown into the maelstrom of this world. But on top of it all this old man had for half a century continued to nurse these affections for his homeland.
He said, "And is His Majesty doing well?"
"You mean the Showa Emperor? If you mean the Showa Emperor, well, he survived the war okay, but he's . . . . "
Dead, she was going to say. She corrected herself and phrased it more politely. "He unfortunately has passed away."
The old man's head jerked up, and then he bowed deeply, pressed his sleeves to his eyes. After a moment of hesitation, Youko patted his rounded shoulders. As he did not seem offended, she continued to stroke the man's almost skeletal back until his weeping had subsided.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-3 The old man said, "Sorry about that. When you get to be my age, you cry more easily."
Youko didn't say anything, only shook her head.
"So . . . what year was it?"
"What year?" Youko echoed.
The old man looked back at her with an inscrutable expression. He said, "When did the Great War end?"
"It was in 1945."
"Um . . . . " Youko had to think about it for a minute, digging out of her memory the chronological tables she'd memorized for her high school exams. "Showa 20, I think."
"Showa 20?" He stared at her. "I came here in Showa 20. When in Showa 20?"
"August . . . it was August 15th."
The old man balled his hands into fists. "August? The 15th of August, Showa 20?"
"Yes . . . . "
"I was thrown overboard on July the 28th!" He glared at her. "Not more than half a month before!"
Not having the slightest idea of what to say, Youko could only bow her head, quietly, patiently, while the old man railed on, spelling out all the sacrifices he had suffered because of the war.
It was close to midnight when he finally got around to asking Youko about herself. Her family, her home, what kind of house she lived in, what kind of life she had led. Answering these questions was a bit painful. It struck her forcefully that here was a person, born well before her time, who had been transported to this place and had never returned.
Was this to be her fate as well? Was she to live her whole life in this strange country, never to go home? At least she'd had the good fortune of meeting a fellow kaikyaku. When she thought about all the time the old man has been by himself, it really was a stroke of good luck.
"So tell me, what did I do to deserve this?" The old man sat cross-legged with his elbows on his knees, head in his hands. "My friends and family all gone, me ending up in this strange place. I was expecting to die in one of them air raids, anyways, but to think it would've been all ended in but half a month, just half a month."
Youko still had nothing to say.
"The war ending, that would have turned everything around. But instead I ended up here, not once ever being able to enjoy myself, not even have a decent meal."
"Yes, but . . . . "
"Lots of times I tell myself it'd be better if I'd died in one of them air raids, better than coming to this strange place where I got no sense of what or where anything is and don't understand a thing nobody says at all."
Youko looked at him in surprise. "You don't understand what anybody says?"
"Not at all. Just a few words here and there. That's why this kind of job is all the work I can get." He gave Youko a suspicious look. "You get what they're saying?"
"Yes . . . " Youko said, her gaze steady. "It sounds like Japanese to me."
"Nonsense," the old man said, an astonished look on his face. "The only Japanese I ever heard, save me talking to myself, was from you, starting today. I don't know what kind of words they're speaking, but I got the feeling it's something like Chinese. Ain't nothing like Japanese, that's for damn sure."
"But don't they write with kanji?"
"Yeah, they write it. But Chinese-type characters. There was some Chinamen working at the harbor and them's the kind of words they used."
"That can't be possible!" Youko looked at the old man, a tumult of emotions coursing through her. "I haven't had a single problem with the language since coming here, not one. If they were speaking something other than Japanese, there's no way I could understand them."
"Then you was understanding what they was saying downstairs earlier?"
The old man shook his head. "Whatever you think you been hearing, it ain't Japanese. Nobody here speaks Japanese."
What in the world was going on, Youko wondered, her confusion only deepening. There was no doubt in her mind that what she was hearing was Japanese. But the old man was telling her it wasn't Japanese. She could not discern any measurable difference what she'd been hearing all along and the language he was speaking.
She said, "This is the Kingdom of Kou. Kou is written with the kanji that means "skillful," right?"
"We're kaikyaku, and we came from across the Kyokai. It means, the Sea of Emptiness."
"This city is the prefecture seat."
"Prefecture seat? It's a castle town. A fiefdom, you mean."
"No, like the prefectural offices in Japan."
"Like a prefectural office?"
"Where the governor lives."
"The governor, you say? No governor lives here. The head guy here is the magistrate."
What's he talking about, Youko muttered to herself. "I've always heard him called governor."
"Ain't no such person."
"During the winter, people live in the towns, and when spring comes they return to the villages."
"People live in villages. In the spring they go back to the hamlets."
"Yes, but I . . . "
The old man stared fiercely at her. "Who the hell are you!"
"I'm . . . . "
"You're not a kaikyaku like me at all! I've been here by myself in this strange country forever! Abandoned here in the middle of a war, not knowing nothing about none of these language or customs, no wife, no kids, just me!"
Why was this happening? Youko desperately searched for an answer. No matter how she thought about it, there was no clue in anything she had heard up to now that explained it.
"Out of the frying pan, into the fire, that was me. We made all the sacrifices during the war and you got to live the easy life! Why is that?"
"I don't know!" Youko shouted back.
A voice asked from the hallway outside the door, "Is there something wrong?"
The old man hurriedly put his finger up to his lips. Youko turned towards the door and said, "I'm sorry, it's nothing."
"There's people here trying to sleep."
"I'll be more quiet after this."
From the other side the door, the sound of footsteps trailed away. Youko sighed. The old man looked at Youko with an amazed expression on his face.
"You understood what he said?"
The language they were speaking, he meant. Youko nodded. "I understood it."
"You was speaking our language!"
"Whose language was I speaking?"
"You was speaking Japanese!"
"But, the man I was speaking to, he understood me."
"So it seems."
Youko had spoken the same language she always spoke, she had heard the same words she always heard. What could account for this strange phenomenon?
The old man's expression softened somewhat. "Fact remains, you're no kaikyaku. Not in the slightest. You not just some ordinary kaikyaku, that's for sure."
The way he said "kaikyaku," it wasn't just the intonation he used, now that Youko had become accustomed to his voice, the way he pronounced the words was a bit different as well.
"How is it that you can understand them words?"
"I don't know."
"Don't know, huh?"
"Honestly, I haven't got the slightest idea. I don't know why I came here in the first place, or why we're different from each other."
And why had her appearance changed? As she asked herself this question she touched her dyed hair, now hard to the touch. She said, "How are we ever going to get back?"
"I been searching for the same thing. All they say is, can't. That's the only answer."
He gave Youko a dispirited look. "If there was some way to go back, I would've done it a long time ago. Now, even if I did get back somehow, I'd be like old Rip Van Winkle. So . . . miss, where you are headed?"
"No place in particular. Can I ask you something?"
"Did you get arrested when you came here?"
Seizou gave her a wide-eyed look, and then a thoughtful expression. "That's right. They arrest kaikyaku here. Nope, not me. I washed ashore in Kei."
"What? What difference does that make?"
"It's because different kingdoms treat kaikyaku different. I arrived in Kei, got my papers there. Lived there until last year. Then the king died and the whole place went to hell. Living there got to be impossible, so I got out, came here."
Youko recalled the refugees she had seen in the city. "So . . . you can live in Kei without anybody arresting you?"
Seizou nodded. "True enough, but you can't live there now. There's a civil war going on, the whole place is a mess. The town I was living in got attacked by youma and half the people was killed."
"Killed by youma? Not because of the war?"
"When a kingdom goes to hell in a handbasket, that's when the youma show up. And not just youma. Droughts and floods and earthquakes, too. Nothing but bad things happen. So I left there in a hurry."
Youko turned away. So you could live in Kei without people chasing after you all the time. Staying a fugitive in Kou or risking it in Kei, which would be the safer course? She was pondering this when Seizou interrupted her.
"The women, they left a long time ago. Who knows what the king was thinking, but he drove 'em all out of there."
"It's the truth. There was this rumor going around that if there was any women left in Gyouten--that's the capital city--they'd be killed. It wasn't a good place to be anymore and most people I knew got out while the getting was good. You don't want to be anywhere near it. It's a hornet's nest of youma. At one time, lots of people was trying to leave, but that's died down recently. They been closing down the borders."
"So that's the way it is," Youko muttered.
Seizou snorted derisively. "I don't know a thing about Japan without asking, but I go on telling you about what goes on here. Looks like I'm becoming one of them, after all."
"You surely don't mean that."
Seizou held up his hand. "Compared to Kei, Kou is a much better place. But, let on that you're kaikyaku and they slap you in irons. Better or no, not much you can do in either case."
"But I . . . . "
Seizou laughed. When he laughed it almost sounded like he was weeping. "I know, I know. It's not your fault. I know, but it still stings. No need to take it out on you. You having to stay on the lam, that's got to be tough, too."
Youko only shook her head.
"I got to get back to my job. Breakfast to get ready. You take care, wherever you're going, okay?"
With that he slipped out of the room and was gone.
Youko was about to call him back, but stopped herself. "Goodnight," was all she said.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-4 Youko pulled the futons down from the shelf. With a sigh she resigned herself to making her bed there. It had been a long time since she'd slept on a futon and she was still wide awake. So many things weighed on her mind.
Why was it that the language didn't confuse her? If she hadn't been able to comprehend what people were saying, she couldn't begin to imagine how things might have turned out. She couldn't begin to imagine why things had turned out the way they had.
If the lingua franca spoken here wasn't Japanese, then there was no way she should be able to understand anything. When she spoke to that person outside the door, what possible language could she have been using? The old man heard Japanese and the other person heard the language they spoke here.
The few words that the old man could speak in the language sounded only slightly different to her ears. Even that was a curious thing. And then saying that there was no such word as "governor." If that was the case, then what had she been hearing every time someone said the word?
Youko stared up at the low ceiling. A translation. The words were somehow being translated so she could understand them.
"Jouyuu? Is this your doing?"
Of course, in response to her murmured words, she felt nothing at all.
As she always did, she slept with the sword clasped to her chest. When she awoke, the rucksack she had deposited in the corner of the room the night before had disappeared. Youko jumped to her feet and examined the door. The lock was fastened soundly.
She caught up with the manager and explained what had happened. The door and room were examined by two men who both regarded Youko with suspicious looks.
"Are you sure you really had your luggage here?"
"It was. My purse was inside it. Somebody stole it."
"Yeah, but the door was locked."
"What about a master key?"
The men again exchanged suspicious expressions. "You trying to say that one of us stole your stuff?"
"We couldn't do it if we wanted to. Or were you intending to blame us and run out on the bill all along?"
The men sidled up to Youko. She put her hand on the hilt of the sword. "Not true."
"At any rate, you still owe us."
"I told you, my purse was stolen, too."
"Let's take it up with the cops, then."
"Wait a minute." Youko started to undo the covering of her sword. She said, "Call that old man who was here last night." It occurred to her that he could put in a good word for her.
"From Kei. His name is Matsuyama."
The two men exchanged glances. "What do you want with him?"
"Ask him. He saw my rucksack."
One of the men stood guard at the front door and gestured with his chin to his younger companion, who ran off down the hall. He said to Youko, "What've you got there in your left hand?"
"Nothing with any money in it."
"Maybe that's for me to decide."
"After we talk to the old man."
The man glared at Youko, taking her curt reply to mean she was hiding something. Soon came the sound of pounding footsteps and the young man returned.
"He's not here."
"His stuff's not here, either. It looks like he took off."
The man blocking the doorway stood there clucking his tongue. The sound made Youko's blood boil. It was him. That old man did it. She closed her eyes. Despite them both being kaikyaku, he had betrayed her.
Maybe he couldn't forgive the fact that she had grown up knowing only the good life after the war, or that she could understand the language while he couldn't. Or rather, that robbing her had been his intent all along. She thought she had found herself a kindred spirit. He'd led her to believe that as well. After being tricked by Takki she didn't have the courage to trust any of these people, and now she'd let herself be fooled by a kaikyaku like herself.
Something painful rose up in her throat, anger that called up visions of storm-wracked seas. When that happened she knew she was about to turn into some kind of monster. Buffeted by these waves, she spat out, "He stole it."
The younger man said, "He was just a tramp. He got tired of working here."
"Stop making excuses and hand that thing over. I'll decide whether it's worth anything or not."
Youko grasped the sword. "I am the injured party here."
"And we've got a business to run. We can't be letting people stay here for free."
"Then you should run your business better."
"Shut up and hand it over."
The two men closed on her. Youko set herself into a defensive position, and with a flick of her wrist unraveled the covering on the sword. A beam of sunlight spilling in through a small window glittered off the blade.
"What the hell . . . . "
"Get out of the way. I told you, I am the injured party here."
The younger man yelped and ran off. The man left behind wavered back and forth, clearly flustered.
"Move it. If it's money you want, chase after that old man."
"This is what you had planned all along!"
"I already told you what happened. You catch the old man and the money in the rucksack is all yours."
She thrust out the sword in front of her, the man retreated. She advanced three more steps, the man hurriedly turned and fled. Youko feinted as if giving chase, and then fled at a run.
Summoned by the other man, a posse of men came running, swords drawn. They poured out of the inn and pushed their way through the crowds. Youko noticed that her arm ached badly, the same place where the old man had tightly held her arm the night before.
She wasn't going to trust anybody ever again, this she promised herself.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-5 After that she went back to camping outdoors.
For no particular reason, she followed the road to the next town. Having no money, she couldn't rent a room or buy a meal. She would have preferred to sleep next to the castle walls like the refugees, but the guards at the gate looked alert and trying to mingle in with the crowds would be a pain. She gave up on the idea.
Nobody will be your ally. No one will help you. There's not a person here who will let you get away with a damn thing.
Anyway, when she thought about being tricked and being betrayed, she told herself she'd rather sleep under the stars and chase the youma away with the sword.
After changing clothes, instead of being recognized as a teenaged girl, she was taken more often for a younger boy. There was not much law and order out here. She tangled with shady-looking types a number of times, but she had lost any reluctance at all when it came to using the sword to make a threatening point.
During the day she walked while keeping a sharp eye on passers-by. During the night she walked while fighting the youma. She couldn't sleep at night without risking an attack, so she became a nocturnal animal, keeping on her toes at night and sleeping during the day.
There were families that sold food from huts along the road, but they only did business during the daytime, and, at any rate, Youko didn't have any money, so her meals pretty much tapered off to nothing.
When the hunger got too much to bear, she checked her indignation and looked for work. But the towns were flooded with refugees and there was no work to be had. She certainly couldn't expect to be hired when she looked for all the world like a helpless child.
The youma showed up every night, and, just to make things that much worse, sometimes during the day. On top of it all, there were the visions she saw in the sword and the blue monkey tormenting her.
Watching her mother cry was heartbreaking. She couldn't shake tempting thoughts of how much better things would be if that monkey were dead. Nevertheless, the desire to just see her mother, to see the place where she used to live, always won out. Just as the desire to talk to somebody, anybody always prevailed.
The sword's visions visited her at night, responding to her longings to go home. Whether the sword's extraordinary powers only showed themselves at night, or whether it was simply because that's when she was more often awake, Youko didn't know.
On the nights that the youma's relentless attacks didn't give her time to think about home, those nights left her body sore. The nights she did have time, those nights left her heart hurting. She knew that she ought to ignore it when the sword started to glow, but she lacked the resolve to do so.
On this night as well, the phosphorescent light was gathering above the blade. She had fled from the youma, forged her way into the mountains, and was resting against a white tree.
She had seen the white trees here and there deep in the mountains. They were like no trees she had seen before. The bark was pure white, the branches reached as wide as a house, though not very high. She didn't think the uppermost branches were more than six or seven feet off the ground.
The leafless branches hung low to the ground, slender but so incredibly hard that not even the sword could cut through them. It was like the branches were made from some kind of white metal. Yellow fruit was ripening on the branches, but it too held as firmly as if welded on.
The white trees glowed even in the darkness, all the more so when the moon was out. Youko found them quite pleasing to look at.
Despite the low-hanging branches, when she had slipped through and crawled up next to the trunk, there was enough space to sit down. For some reason, youma attacked less frequently when she was beneath these white trees and the wild dogs hardly bothered her at all. So when she needed to take a break, the trees were her first resort.
Concealed under the tree, leaning back against the trunk, Youko looked at the sword. Ten days had passed since meeting that old man, the other kaikyaku, in Takkyuu.
The sword cast off a faint light, the illuminated branches of the tree sparkled brightly. The fruit of the tree glowed in golden hues.
Instead of seeing her mother as usual, a number of people appeared, moving about. A group of young women, wearing black uniforms, in a room filled with rows of desks.
That's my classroom.
The girls seemed to be just hanging around, the kind of between-classes scene she was well used to. Seeing their beautiful blow-dried hair, pressed outfits, clean, white skin and comparing them to her present condition made Youko laugh out loud.
"Youko Nakajima, I heard she ran away."
Her friend's familiar-sounding voice got the ball rolling. All at once a storm of lively chatter rained down on Youko's ears.
"Ran away from home? You're kidding!"
"It's the truth! She wasn't sick, yesterday. She ran away. Last night I got a call from her mother. I was totally surprised!"
This must be from some time ago.
"I can't believe it!"
"And she was class president!"
"Yeah, with those serious types, you never know what they're up to when nobody's looking."
"That's for sure."
Youko had to laugh again. Her reality was so different from what they could imagine.
"Like there was this weird guy who showed up and took off with her. I heard he was a real gangbanger type."
"A guy? You think they were doing it?"
"Yeah, you think they eloped?"
"I heard that, too. You know how all the windows in the principal's office got broken? It was her boyfriend who did it."
"Hey, this guy, what was he like?"
"I don't really know, but he had this long, bleached hair that gave off a real creepy vibe."
"I never would have figured that Nakajima was into the metal scene."
"Or something like that."
Keiki . . . .
Youko hovered there like a ghost, unable to move as she watched the commotion play out before her.
"Like, everybody knows she dyed her hair."
"Didn't she say it was her natural color?"
"There's no way! I mean, nobody's hair naturally turns that color."
"But I heard she left her backpack and coat in the classroom."
"Yeah, what was that about?"
"It was yesterday morning, somebody said that Moritsuka found them."
"But she ran off with that guy, didn't she? And with just the clothes on her back!"
"Don't be stupid. But if she didn't run away, then that means she just up and disappeared."
"Scary . . . . "
"Sooner or later, we're going to see those posters up at the train station."
"Stuff up on billboards, her mom walking around handing out flyers."
"Like, have you seen this girl? That kind of thing."
"Hey, you guys are getting way carried away with this."
"Yeah, it's got nothing to do with us."
"She ran away from home, that's all."
"That's right. It's only when it happens to an honor student that everybody gets all bent out of shape."
"She took off with her boyfriend. Nobody wants to admit it, but when a girl falls for a guy like that, nothing she does is going to make any sense at all."
"That's harsh. You were friends with her, weren't you?"
"I never did much more than talk to her. To tell the truth, I didn't like her that much."
"I know. It was always like she was better than the rest of us."
"I heard her parents were super strict, always on about how she was supposed to be a 'young lady.'"
"That's what I'm saying. But it sure was useful, her always getting her homework done on time."
"True, true. Fact is, I haven't even touched today's math assignment."
"Hey, me, neither"
"Nobody besides Nakajima."
"Youko, come back, please!"
Bright laughter gushed forth. At once the fraternal scene before her blurred, grew dim. The images bent and distorted, the figures dissolved away. Then in a twinkle vanished. The light went out and all that was left was the blade of the sword.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-6 Youko lowered the sword, now painfully heavy in her hand. She had known all along, deep in her heart, that those she called her friends were not her friends at all.
For a brief moment of their lives they had been stuck together, shut up cheek by jowl in a little cage. Next year they would end up in different homerooms and forget about each other. After they graduated they would probably never meet again.
Even so, the tears welled up.
She knew these relationships were temporary at best. Yet, and perhaps all the more so, she had hoped to discover some greater truth hidden inside. She wished she could fly back to that classroom, plead her case before them. How would they respond then, she wondered.
They were living far from here in a peaceful country, young women who undoubtedly believed they experienced much misery and woe in their lives. Once upon a time, the same had been true of her.
The thought made Youko laugh so hard she ended up rolling around on the ground clutching her stomach. Curled up like that in a fetal position, it struck her that she was alone, truly alone, totally cut off from the rest of the world.
When she fought with her parents, when she had a falling out with her friends, or when she simply felt down for a spell and told herself how lonely she was, hadn't that been little more than an indulgence? She had a home to go home to, people who would not turn against her at the drop of a hat, who would console her. And if all that went away she could make more friends soon enough, even if they were only fair-weather friends.
Just then she heard the sound of a voice that, as many times as she had heard it, she still could not stand. Curled up on the ground she grimaced.
"You can't go back, I keep telling you."
"I don't want to hear it."
"But as long as you are thinking about it, shall we consider the substance of your hypothetical? Even supposing you could go back, nobody would be waiting for you. You simply are not a person worth waiting for."
In some way, the monkey's appearances were connected to the visions she saw in the sword. The blue monkey always showed up immediately after she saw a vision. It never did her any physical harm. It's just that he never said anything she wanted to hear, and in that grating tone of voice. Moreover, Jouyuu did not react to him in the slightest.
"My mother is!"
There came to her mind the image from another vision of her mother petting the stuffed doll. Even if she could not call her friends real friends, she could count on her mother to stand by her. A sudden welling up of homesickness made her chest hurt.
"My mom was crying for me. That's why, someday, I know I'm going home."
The monkey laughed all the harder. "But of course. She's your mother, after all. It's always so sad for a parent to lose a child.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Youko raised her head above the underbrush. There was the monkey's head, bathed in blue light, close enough to touch with her outstretched arm.
"Oh, she's not sad because you have gone missing, little girl. She's sad because her child is gone. Her sorrow amounts to nothing more than that. Can you not even understand this much?"
It was like getting hit in the stomach. Youko couldn't think of how to respond.
"If, for example, the child in question were not you--were perhaps the black sheep of the family--she would react the same. That is the kind of creatures mothers are."
"Oh, now don't you go giving me those angry looks. I tell you nothing but God's honest truth." The monkey howled with laughter, laughter that resounded brightly in ear-piercing shrieks. "It's the same as any domesticated animal. You raise the creature and it gets attached to you, now, doesn't it?"
"Shut up!" She sprang to her feet, brandishing the sword.
"Oh, I'm scared, I'm scared." The monkey went on laughing. "You miss your parents, don't you? Even parents like yours."
"I'm not listening."
"I understand, little girl. There's no place like home, there's no place like home. Not that you're absolutely dying to see your parents again. What you want to go back to is a warm house and your playmates."
"What are you trying to say?"
The monkey giggled cheerfully. "No worries about being betrayed by your parents, right? Are you sure? But aren't you really nothing more than a pet?"
"Your point is?"
"That you, pet, are no different than a dog or cat. All goes swimmingly as long as you are gentle and affectionate. But bite the master's hand or chew up the furniture, then what? They won't beat you because they have reputations to protect. And yet, were society to look the other way, there'd be no end to the number of parents who'd like to strangle the little tykes."
"Is it? Perhaps it is." The monkey looked teasingly at her, playful eyes wide. "Parents do think so well of themselves for doting on their children. No, by gosh, I've got that wrong. It's how well they play the part of the loving parent, that's what they love about themselves the most."
The monkey's spirited screeches hurt her ears.
"You . . . . "
"True of you, too, eh?"
Youko stopped with her hand on the hilt of the sword.
"Playing the good child was fun, no? Because then you could take everything your parents said as right, right? Yet you still had that feeling you'd be punished if you disobeyed, which makes you no better than the dog who curries his master's favor, no?"
Youko bit her lip. She never worried about getting physically punished. But getting yelled at, or coming home to that heavy, brooding atmosphere, or not being allowed to buy something she wanted, or the imposition of other penalties--those were the things that weighed her down, that without her really knowing it made her continuously attentive to her parents' moods.
"It's not true that you were the good child. Not a good child at all. You were scared of rejection so you made yourself a convenient child for your parents to have around."
"And your good parents--well, that is a lie as well. Not good parents at all, always looking over their shoulders, afraid of what people might be saying behind their backs. You think that liars who flock together never betray each other? Oh, you will betray your parents. And your parents will certainly betray you. It is the way of all flesh. We tell each other our lies and the betrayed betrays the betrayer."
"You son of a bitch."
The monkey shrieked hilariously. "Oh, what a fine tongue you have on you. Yes, yes, I am a son of a bitch, but an honest son of a bitch. I never lie. I alone will never betray you. It is most unfortunate that I must be the one to teach you this lesson."
"Shut the hell up!"
"No, no, you can't go home. You'd be better off dead. But if you haven't the courage to die, you had better find yourself a better way to live."
The monkey eyed Youko's raised sword. "Another truth I shall tell you. You have no allies. Nothing but enemies. Even Keiki is your enemy. Your stomach is empty? You wish a better life for yourself? He won't help you. Instead, why not use that thing to shake a few people down?"
"Hither and thither, everywhere you look, nothing but dirty little moneygrubbers. Extort yourself a little cash. That is the way to a better life."
Youko swung the sword in the direction of the ear-piercing screeches, but there was nothing there. Only the loud laughter fading away into the dark night.
She tore at the ground, her hands bent into crooked tongs. She felt tears spilling down between her fingers.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-7 Youko wandered the backroads. She lost track of how many days had passed since leaving Takkyuu, or for that matter, how long it had been since she left home. She had no idea where she was or where she was going and by this point she didn't much care.
When the night came she drew the sword and stood her ground. When the enemy came they fought. When the morning came she found a place to make her bed and slept. And so her life went on.
Gripping the jewel and using the sword as a cane became natural to her. If there were no enemies about, she sat down. When they attacked at longer intervals, she dragged herself along. If there were no people around, instead of talking she moaned and groaned constantly.
Her hunger became attached to her thoughts. It became part of her consciousness. When starvation threatened, she flayed the dead body of a youma. It had a strange smell and she could not even hold the meat in her mouth. Occasionally she brought down a wild animal. She tried to eat it but her body could no longer handle solid food.
She struggled through countless nights to meet the dawn.
Leaving the road to forge deeper into the mountains, she tripped over a tree root and tumbled down a long slope. Casting care aside, she slept where she fell. She did not even bother to scout out her surroundings first.
She slept without dreams. When she awoke, she found she could not stand, no matter how hard she tried. She was in a shaded hollow within a sparse copse of trees. The sun was already setting and night was falling. If she stayed here like this, if she could not get up and move, she would become a youma's next meal. Even against impossible odds, Jouyuu could hold off one or two attacks. Beyond that, her body would become a useless tool.
Youko dug her fingers into the earth. No matter what, she had to get back to the road.
If she couldn't get back to the road and find somebody to help her, she would die here. She raised her head and searched for the jewel. But even gripping the jewel with all her might, she could not drive the sword into the ground to leverage herself up.
"No one's coming to help," an unexpected voice said.
Youko turned her head. This was the first time she had heard him during the daytime.
"You might as well make yourself comfortable right here, no?"
All Youko could focus on was the monkey's fur, shimmering like blown powder. All she could think was, why was he showing up now?
"Even if you do manage to crawl back to the road, you'll probably only end up getting arrested. Though if you asked for help, they might give it. They might be the type who would put you out of your misery, just like that."
That was undoubtedly what would happen, she thought as well.
She wouldn't ask anybody for help. Now when her need was the most pressing was when she should expect help the least. Even if she got back to the road, there would be no help forthcoming. If somebody were to pass along the way, they would look the other way. This filthy vagrant would provoke nothing more than a grimace.
On the other hand, maybe she'd only get mugged. But a thief would figure out pretty quick she didn't have anything worth stealing and take the sword. Perhaps he would be kind enough to finish her off there and then. That was the kind of a place this world was.
Then all at once a new thought occurred to her. The monkey fed off her hopelessness and despair. Like some kind of emotional vampire, he exposed all the anxieties and insecurities hidden in her heart and used them to crush her spirits.
Youko giggled. It felt good unraveling this small puzzle. She rolled over, gathered strength into arms and pushed herself into a sitting position.
"Now, wouldn't it be easier if you threw in the towel?"
"Oh, shut up."
"Why not take it easy?"
Youko drove the sword into the ground. Her strained knee almost gave out. She screamed, grabbed hold of the hilt of the sword, caught herself. She almost stood but lost her balance. Her body was too heavy to move like this. It'd be better to crawl along the ground, like an animal newly born.
"You want to live that badly, do you? And what will living get you?"
"Oh, why torment yourself so? No matter how much you hold on to life now, you can't go back."
"I'm going home."
"You cannot go home. There is no way to cross the Kyokai. Here, in this country, you will be betrayed and you will die."
She would trust only the sword. Youko gripped the hilt and focused on the strength in her hands. Depend on no one, trust no one. Only the sword would protect her.
And then . . . ?
Keiki had brought her here and he never said anything about not going home. Finding Keiki was probably the only way. Right now, that was all she could hope for.
"Didn't I tell you that Keiki was your enemy?"
I'm not going to think about it.
"Do you really think he will help you?"
Whether friend or foe, finding Keiki and finding out for herself would be preferable to wandering around like this without a clue. When she met him, she would ask him why he brought her here, ask him how she could get back. She'd get the whole story out of him.
"Supposing you do go home, then what? Eh? You think then you'll live happily ever after?"
She knew what he was saying. She couldn't forget the nightmares she'd had about this place. She couldn't pretend that nothing had happened and go back to the way things were before. There were no guarantees about her appearance, either. And if not, then the Youko Nakajima that used to be was gone forever.
"What a miserable creature, what an everlasting fool you are, little girl."
The monkey's bright, loud laughter ringing in her ears, Youko roused herself once more. She didn't really understand why she was doing it. She was miserable, she was a fool. Nonetheless, if this was enough to make her give up, then she should have given up a long time ago.
Youko considered the current state of her body. She was covered with wounds, caked with blood and mud, her clothing reduced to reeking rags. But she didn't give a damn about her appearance, if that's what it took. Throwing away her life was no longer such a simple proposition. If she was indeed better off dead, then she should have died on the roof of the school when the kochou first attacked her.
It wasn't because she didn't want to die. It probably wasn't because she wanted that badly to live. It simply was because she did not want to give up.
She was going home. Without a doubt, she would return to the place she so deeply longed for. As for what awaited her there, she'd cross that bridge then. Because going home meant staying alive, she would protect herself. She wasn't about to die in a place like this.
Youko clung to the sword and pulled herself to her feet. She thrust the sword again into the rising slope and began climbing the brush-covered hill. No hill she had ever known had been so excruciating, covering so short a distance so slowly. Numerous times her feet slipped out from under her. She urged on her battered self, focused on the objective above her. She at last reached the end of the gauntlet, grasping the shoulder of the road with her outstretched hands.
She dug in her fingers and crawled up to the surface of the road. With a groan she pulled her body onto the mountain road and fell prostrate on level ground. At the same time she heard a faint sound. The sound came from the far side of the road. A bitter smile came unbidded to her lips.
Youko hated this world with all her heart. Approaching the road was a sound like the wail of a crying baby.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-8 The pack of dog beasts came at her in a rush, the same ones that had attacked her before on the mountain road. Swinging the heavy sword, she dispatched most of them and was soon drenched with blood.
A dog beast leapt at her. She decapitated it. Suddenly she found herself down on one knee, a deep bite wound in her left calf. She felt no pain, as if the limb were numbed, though from the ankle down the pain was intense. She glanced at her blood-soaked leg then surveyed the road for any lingering foes. One dog remained.
This dog beast was bigger than all the rest she had felled. The difference in its physical strength was obvious as well. She had delivered two solid blows to it already and it hardly looked winded.
The beast crouched low against the ground. She sized up their positions and corrected the grip on the sword. The weapon had almost become an extension of her own body, yet it was so heavy she could barely keep the tip on target. She felt a dizziness verging on vertigo. Her consciousness began to cloud over.
She swung the sword at the shadow that bounded toward her. The blade did not so much cut as it slapped against it. Taking everything Jouyuu had to give she could not deliver a second blow.
The slap from the sword was enough to send the black beast sprawling. An instant later it was back on its feet, flinging itself towards her. She aimed at its snout and could do nothing more than thrust the sword forward.
The tip of the blade ripped through the beast's face. At the same time its claws tore into her shoulders. The shock of collision jarred the sword loose from her grasp. She managed to grab hold and with a shout turned on the fallen beast and swung down with all her strength.
Her energy exhausted, she stumbled forward, collapsed. Somehow the sword had pierced the beast's neck. The sword was staked into the ground through a patch of black fur. Dark blood spotted the earth around the end of the blade.
Youko could not move from where she had fallen, but, then, neither could her foe. The two of them lay not more than a yard apart. They each raised their heads and guardedly examined the other's predicament.
Youko's sword was pinned to the earth. Her opponent exhaled foamy blood.
They exchanged brief glances. Youko moved first. She grasped the hilt of the sword with enfeebled hands, and, with the buried end supporting her weight, pulled herself to her feet.
A moment later her opponent roused itself and almost immediately collapsed.
Somehow she managed to pull the blade out of the ground. It was an anchor on her arm. She closed the distance between them, sank to her knees, and with both hands brought the sword down.
Her foe lifted its head and howled, gushing foamy blood. Its paws clawed weakly at the ground. It could not right itself. Holding the sword up with both arms, she aimed for the beast's neck, letting the weight of the sword by itself do the damage. The blade, shiny with blood and fat, sank into the fur. The beast's claws sprang out, its limbs convulsed.
It spewed more frothy blood, almost seemed to mutter something to itself.
With every ounce of strength she had left, she raised the heavy sword and let it fall. This time the beast did not even twitch.
The sword had embedded itself halfway through the creature's neck. Youko let go of the hilt, rolled over on her back. Clouds hung low against the dome of the sky.
After lying there for a while staring up at the sky, she gulped air and screamed. There was a burning pain in her side. Every breath tore at her throat. She could feel nothing in her extremities, as if her arms and feet had been amputated.
She was grasping the jewel but could not even move her fingertips. Suppressing a sense of dizziness that verged on seasickness she watched the clouds roll by. A part of the sky was stained a faint madder red.
She was suddenly overcome by the urge to vomit. She turned her head to the side and threw up. The corrosive-smelling bile ran down her cheek. She took a breath but couldn't breathe. She gagged and choked, instinctively turned over and coughed violently.
I'm still alive. Somehow she was alive. As the hacking coughs wracked her body, this was the thought that turned over and over in her mind. When she at last brought her breathing under control, she heard a faint sound, the sound of footsteps.
Oh God! Were her enemies still around? She lifted her head. Her vision spun, blackness closed in. Her head dropped back to the earth.
She couldn't get up. But within those brief moments, the image that swam into her reeling gaze embedded itself in her mind.
The color of gold.
Still flat on her back she cried out, "Keiki!"
Of course it would be you, Keiki. You sent these youma.
"Why? Just tell me why!"
The footsteps were very close now. Youko raised her head. She caught sight first of a brilliantly colored kimono. Then the golden hair.
"Why . . . ?"
There was no reply to any of her questions.
Craning her head backwards, she realized it was not Keiki's face. "Oh," she said. Not Keiki. A woman. The woman peered down at her. Youko stared into her eyes. She said, "Who are you?"
She was a woman with golden hair, maybe ten years older than Youko. On her slender shoulders perched a brightly-colored parrot. The woman's extraordinarily beautiful face was suffused with sadness. Staring up at her, it struck Youko that she was on the verge of weeping.
"Who are you?" Youko asked in a hoarse voice.
The woman looked at her and said nothing. Tears gathered in the woman's crystal clear eyes.
"What . . . . "
The woman blinked slowly. Tears fell softly down her cheeks. She averted her eyes. Youko was too taken aback to speak. The woman turned her attention to the beast lying next to Youko. She gazed at it with a sorrowful expression, then slowly stepped forward. She knelt down next to the corpse.
Youko could do nothing but watch. No words came, she couldn't move her body. She had been trying all along to rouse herself but she couldn't move a finger.
The woman gently reached out and stroked the beast. The tips of her fingers touched a patch of red and she jerked back her hand as if she had touched something searing hot.
"Who are you?"
The woman didn't answer. She reached out again, grasped the hilt of the sword--the blade was still embedded in the beast's neck--pulled it free and set it on the ground. She eased the beast's head into her lap.
"Did you send them after me?"
The woman didn't speak. She cradled the beast in her lap, petted its coat. Her luxurious kimono was soon stained with clotted blood.
"And all the youma who've attacked me up to now? What do you have against me?"
Hugging the beast's head, the woman shook her head. Youko raised her eyebrows. The parrot perched on the woman's shoulder flapped its wings.
The shrill voice no doubt belonged to the parrot. Startled, Youko looked at it. The woman opened her eyes and glanced at the parrot as well.
"Put an end to this."
The woman spoke for the first time. "I cannot."
"Kill her. Finish her off."
The woman shook her head emphatically. "Please! That is the one thing I cannot do!"
"I am giving you an order. Kill her."
The parrot beat its wings and soared into the sky. It circled once and glided back to the earth. "Then take the sword."
"The sword is hers. It would be pointless to take it." There were echoes of pity and supplication in the woman's voice.
"Then cut off her arm." The parrot spoke in a loud, shrill voice. It flapped its wings vigorously. "I shall ask this much of you. Cut off her arm so she cannot wield the sword."
"I cannot. First of all, I cannot use that sword."
"Then use this one."
The parrot opened its beak wide. Something glittered deep in its mouth behind its round tongue. Youko stared disbelievingly as the parrot coughed up the tip of a glossy black rod. Before her startled eyes, inch by inch, the bird continued to disgorge the full length of a Japanese-style sword in a black scabbard.
The woman's face was white with despair. "Please, I beg of you."
The parrot once more flapped its wings. "Do it!"
As if struck physically, the woman covered her face with her hands. Youko pawed at the earth. She had to get up and get out of here. Yet the best she could do was rake the ground with her fingers.
The woman turned towards Youko, her face wet with tears.
"Stop." Youko's voice was so hoarse she could barely hear herself speak.
The woman reached down and seized the sword the parrot had disgorged. Her hands were soiled with the blood of the dog beast.
"Don't do this . . . what kind of person are you?"
What kind of thing was that parrot? What kind of creatures were those beasts? Why was this happening to her?
The woman's lips scarcely moved. Forgive me, Youko barely heard her say.
"Please . . . don't."
The woman aimed the tip of the sword at the spot on the ground where Youko's right hand clawed the earth. As strange as it might seem, it was the woman who looked about ready to keel over, she was so gray.
Observing this, the parrot flew over and perched on Youko's arm. Its thick talons dug into her flesh. For some inexplicable reason, the bird was as heavy as a boulder. Youko wished to fling it off her arm but couldn't budge an inch.
The parrot cawed, "Do it!"
The woman raised the sword.
Youko exercised every ounce of strength left in her, but she was too weak, the weight of the parrot riding her arm too heavy, and the woman drove the sword down faster than she could possibly move.
She felt nothing, only the shock of the impact.
Youko was not even sure she was still alive. Before shock could turn into pain, she lost consciousness.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-9 The awful pain brought her back to life.
As soon as her eyes opened, she checked her arm. There was the sword that had stabbed her. At first she didn't understand what she was looking at. The sword stood erect, hilt pointing towards skyward.
Seconds later the pain brought her back to her senses. The sword pinned her right hand to the earth, the slender blade buried deeply through the palm. Throbbing pain radiated up her arm and into her head. Gently she tried moving her arm. The pain tearing through her hand made her scream.
Swallowing the dizziness and pain, taking care not to make the pain in her hand any worse, she sat herself up. With her trembling left hand she seized the hilt of the sword. She closed her eyes, clenched her teeth together, yanked out the sword. Pain convulsed her body.
She cast the sword aside, pressed her wounded hand to her chest, rolled on the ground over to where the beast had fallen. She didn't cry out. The intensity of the pain was enough to make her physically sick.
Writhing in agony, she grouped for the jewel and tore it free of the cord. She gritted her teeth and pressed the jewel hard against her hand. Groaning, her body twisted into a ball.
The magic of the jewel saved her. The pain abated a bit. After a few minutes more, holding her breath, she could bear to sit up again. She applied the jewel to the wound, cautiously tried to move her fingers, but couldn't feel anything below the wrist. She continued to force her right hand around the jewel.
Rocking back and forth, she hugged her hand against her body. She cracked open her eyes and looked up at the sky. The red-stained clouds were still there. She hadn't been unconscious that long.
Who was that woman? Why did she do this to her? So many things were racing through her mind, but she was in no condition to think about anything. After searching around some more, she found the sword. She took hold of the hilt and hugged the sword and her right hand to her chest. For a while she stayed curled up that way.
Not a long time had passed when she heard a voice say, "Oh . . . . "
She looked in the direction of the voice. A small child was standing there. The girl looked over her shoulder and yelled, "Mom!"
A woman hurried towards them at a small run.
Youko's expression said that the child had not bothered her. Her mother seemed an honest type. Her appearance betrayed her low economic status. She carried a large pack on her back.
Similar looks of concern rose to the faces of mother and child as they ran toward her. They jumped over the bodies of the dead beasts, grimacing with distaste.
Youko couldn't move. She could only watch helplessly from where she lay. They'll help me, she thought, for only a moment, before more anxiety overcame her. This was one time when she really needed help. The worst of the pain had subsided, but had hardly disappeared. All her strength was exhausted. She doubted she could even get up a second time.
So she felt more suspicion than relief. It was all too good to be true.
"What's going on? Are you all right?"
The girl touched Youko's face with her small hand. Her mother put her arms around her and helped her sit up. For some reason, Youko found the body-warm touch of the woman's clothing repulsive.
"What in the world happened to you? You were attacked by these beasts? Are you badly injured?"
As she spoke, the woman's attention was drawn to Youko's right hand. She let out a small cry. "What is this? Hold on."
She searched in the sleeve of her kimono and extracted a strip of cloth the size of a hand towel. She used it to bind Youko's hand. The girl took the small pack off her own back, took out a bamboo container, and held it out to Youko.
"Sir, you want some water?"
Youko hesitated. She couldn't shake her sense of unease. The canteen had been in the girl's pack so it must be for the girl's own use. There shouldn't be any poison in it. And the canteen didn't look like it had been tampered with in the meantime.
Having reassured herself, she nodded. The girl removed the stopper and with her two small hands held the canteen to Youko's lips. The lukewarm water flowed down her throat. In a stroke her breathing eased considerably.
The mother said, "You're probably hungry."
At the moment her stomach did not feel empty, but Youko knew she was starving so she nodded.
"When's the last time you had anything to eat?"
Youko couldn't be bothered to come up with a number so she remained silent.
"Mom, there's some fried bread."
"No, no, that'd be no good. It wouldn't stay down. What about something sweet?"
The child opened the mother's pack. Inside were a variety of jars of different sizes. With a stick she drew out the thick syrup. Youko had seen people carrying these kinds of containers before. They were probably syrup peddlers.
"Here you go."
Youko didn't hesitate this time. She took the stick with her left hand. The syrup melted sweetly in her mouth.
"Are you traveling somewhere? What happened to you?"
Youko didn't answer. She didn't want to tell the truth, and it would be too tiring to think up a lie.
"I dare say, you seem well enough for being attacked by youma. Can you stand up? The sun will be setting soon. There's a village not far off, at the foot of the mountain. Can you walk that far?"
Youko shook her head. She meant to say that she didn't wish to go to the village, but the woman took her to mean she could not move. She turned to the child and said, "Gyokuyou, run to the village and have someone come here. There's not much time. As fast as you can."
Youko sat up. "I'm okay." She said to the mother and child, "I thank you both very much."
She spoke bruskly, by way of turning down the offer. She managed to get to her feet and crossed the road to the steeply rising slope on the other side.
"Just a minute, where are you going?"
Youko didn't know herself. So she didn't answer.
"Wait. The sun is almost down. If you head into the mountains, you'll die for sure."
Youko slowly crossed the road. Her hand hurt with every step.
"Let's go to the village."
The grade here was quite precarious. Climbing the slope with only one hand, would take considerable effort.
"We're traveling merchants. We're going as far as Bakurou. You've nothing to fear from us. Let's go to the village, shall we?"
Youko caught hold of a root growing out of the roadbed.
"Wait, what's the hurry? Why aren't you taking this seriously?"
Youko glanced back over her shoulder. The woman stared at Youko, her eyes wide with bewilderment, like the child immobilized by her consternation.
"Please, let me be. If I do go with you to the village, what will be waiting for me there?"
"What has that to do with anything? The sun is setting! You're injured . . . . "
"Yes, indeed. You'd better hurry. You have a small child with you."
"Wait . . . . "
"I'm used to it. Thank you for the sweets."
The woman looked at Youko in confusion. It was possible she was simply acting out of kindness. Or possibly not. Youko couldn't know for sure which.
She started once more to climb the slope. Below her the child called out. She held out both hands towards Youko. In one hand was the bamboo canteen, in the other a teacup filled to the brim with the syrup.
"Take these. It wasn't enough, what we gave you before."
Youko looked to the mother. "But . . . . "
"It's okay. Well, then, Gyokuyou."
At her mother's urging, the child reached out and placed the cup and canteen at Youko's feet. She jumped down, ran back to where her mother was strapping on her pack.
Youko watched blankly as the child pulled on her own pack. She had no idea of how to respond. The mother and child glanced back at her many times as they descended the hill.
After they had disappeared from view, Youko picked up the canteen and teacup. Her knee gave out and she sat down on the ground.
It's better this way.
She couldn't know for certain that they were acting out of the best of intentions. After arriving at the village, perhaps their attitude would have changed. Even if it didn't, once they found out Youko was a kaikyaku, she'd be hauled off to the county seat. As painful as it might be, she had to take precautions. She couldn't trust anybody, couldn't expect anything. The minute she got careless and naive, she paid for it the hard way.
"They just might have helped you, you know?"
Again, that intolerable voice. Youko answered without turning around. "It may have been a trap."
"Perhaps, but you won't see that kind of help again."
"It may have been no help at all."
"Considering the state of your body and hand, will you make it through the night?"
"One way or another."
"You better chase after them, no?"
"I'm fine here."
"Little girl, you have gone and thrown away the first and last real chance you'll ever get."
Youko turned, sweeping wide with the sword. The monkey's head was gone. Only it's bright laughter remained, disappearing up the slope and into the underbrush.
Youko glanced back down the road. Dusk was falling. It began to rain, pebbling the road with small black spots.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
4-10 That night was as bad as any night she'd been through. She was dead on her feet. The cold rain stole away her body heat. Naturally, a bad night for humans was a good night for youma.
Her clothing clung to her, restricting her movement. Her numb, lame limbs would not work the way she wanted. Some sensation had returned to her right hand, but barely enough. Holding the sword was extraordinarily difficult. To make things worse, the hilt became slippery in the rain. She had no idea how many foes there were in the surrounding darkness. And though the youma attacking her were on the small side, there were very many of them.
She was knee-deep in mud, covered with the blood of her victims and the blood flowing from her own wounds. As the rain washed away the blood and mud, it also washed away the last of her strength. The sword was heavy, Jouyuu's presence weak. The tip of the sword dipped lower and lower with every encounter.
Over and over she looked up at the sky in supplication, waiting for the dawn. The night had always passed quickly while she was fighting, but on this night in particular, her enemies coming at her in an endless torrent, it went on fearfully long. Over and over she dropped the sword and was covered in wounds before she could retrieve it. About the time when she finally saw the first signs of daybreak, she also saw the silhouette of one of the white trees.
Youko rolled under the branches of the tree. The hard trunk bruised her back. But that sense of being pursued ceased. Beneath the branches, as she collected her breath, she knew they were still out there, waiting. After a while they slipped away into the rain.
The sky brightened. Her enemies vanished. She began to make out the outlines of a surrounding grove of trees.
"I made it."
She took a deep breath. Raindrops fell into her mouth.
"I actually made it."
She paid no mind to her throbbing, mud-grouted wounds. She lay down, caught her breath, looked up at the sky through the white branches of the tree and waited for the gray day to come. As her breathing steadied she became quite cold. The branches did not stop the rain. She needed to slip away from here and find shelter from the rain, but she didn't move.
She desperately clutched the jewel as if to store up more of the strange energy that warmed her fingertips. Exerting great effort, she rolled over and crawled out from under the tree and dragged her body towards the lower part of the slope. Crawling over the wet grass and ground was not difficult.
She had tried her best to stay to the road, but in the middle of the night, driven on by her foes, she couldn't begin to imagine how deeply into the mountains she had wandered.
Clinging to the jewel and to the sword, she stood up.
She was well aware of her injuries. She understood the nature of the severe pain she was feeling. Still, she could not say exactly where she hurt. With each step she braced herself to keep her knee from buckling.
Half-crawling, she descended the slope and came upon a narrow trail. It didn't look like the main road. She saw no ruts or wheel marks. It was hardly wide enough for a horse cart to pass. This was the end of the line. Sinking to her knees, she dug her fingers into the bark of a tree to support herself but her hands were of little use to her.
She had been headed towards the wrong road all along. And now she couldn't move another inch.
She held the jewel tightly in her hands. It brought forth no warmth or comfort. Whatever energy they could supply her with, more was washed away by the rain. The jewel had reached the limits of its miraculous powers.
So this is where I die, she thought, and laughed.
Among all her classmates, Youko alone would die the beggar's death. They belonged to a different world. They would always have homes to return to, families who would protect them, futures sure to be free of want or hunger.
She had done the best she could. This was it. She didn't want to give up, but no matter how she tried she couldn't raise a finger. She had endured to the end, and if an easy death were her reward, she supposed she could find some value in the struggle.
Mingled in with the sound of the rain there sounded a clear, high tone. She raised her eyes. The faint light was shining out of the sword lying next to her cheek. From where her head was resting on the ground, she couldn't see the sword itself, but she could see the faint images rising up in the mist from the pounding rain.
And Youko Nakajima? a man's voice asked.
The vice-principal was sitting there. She couldn't make out where he was.
"Youko was a kind and diligent student. At least as far as her teachers are concerned, she was the most agreeable of all our students."
The vice-principal was speaking to somebody. She could hear the interlocutor's voice. It sounded like the voice of a big man.
"You ever hear anything about her getting messed up with the wrong crowd?"
"I wouldn't know."
"You wouldn't know?"
The vice-principal shrugged. "Youko was the model of a perfect student. There was never any reason to question what kind of life she was living or whether she ever strayed from the straight and narrow."
"A strange boy showed up at your school, isn't that right?"
"Yes, but my impression was that he wasn't an acquaintance of hers. But the truth of the matter is, I just don't know. It always seemed like there were aspects of her character that were a closed book to the rest of us."
"A closed book?"
The vice-principal's answer was accompanied by a sullen expression. "That's not quite what I meant. Let me put it another way. Youko was an honor student. She was on good terms with her classmates as well as with her parents, or so I've heard. But that's simply not possible."
"I may be out of line saying this, but teachers will see things in whatever light favors themselves. Friends do the same. Parents tell you only what's convenient for them to tell you. They all fashion their own image of the student and try to impose it on everybody else. Now, the opinions of these three parties are never going to agree. A student trying to meet all the expectations of his teachers and parents would find it intolerable. A good kid to you or me won't be to somebody else. What it comes down to is, in being all things to all people, Youko never got close to anybody, either. It might have been a convenient way to play things, but I suspect it never amounted to much more than a convenience."
"And how about yourself?"
The vice-principal frowned. "I'm talking about your gut type of reaction, okay? But for most teachers, the few hard-to-handle students--the ones you keep your eye on--they're the ones you find endearing, memorable. I always thought Youko was a good student, but I'd probably forget all about her the day after graduation. And at a ten-year reunion, I wouldn't have the slightest idea who she was."
"Whether Youko acted this way on purpose, or whether it was the result of her simply trying to do the right thing, I don't know. If it was done with deliberation, I can't imagine what she was trying to hide. And if not, once she realized what she was doing, at some point it must have struck her as an awfully empty way to live. Wondering what she was doing with her life, seeing it all as meaningless, I don't think that would have been unusual at all for her to just want to disappear."
Youko stared with amazement at the vice-principal. The image faded. In his place a girl appeared, a student, one of Youko's closer friends.
"I've heard you were one of Ms. Nakajima's best friends."
The girl flashed him a severe look. "Not really. We were never really that close."
"Yeah. Sure, we talked now and then at school, but we never got together outside of school, never talked on the phone. That was true for most of us. That was about as much as we ever got to know about girls like her."
"So, frankly, I really don't know anything about her. I don't have anything bad to say about her, either."
"Did you dislike her?"
"She wasn't particularly unlikeable, but she wasn't all that likeable, either. I got the feeling that, no matter what, she would always try to say the appropriate thing, you know? She wasn't interesting enough to actually dislike."
"You don't say."
It was another girl who came right out and said she didn't like her. "Youko, she was a little two-faced brown-noser."
"Yeah. Like, you know, sometimes you badmouth somebody? If she was there, she'd nod and say, like, yeah, me too. But when somebody else was badmouthing us, she'd do the same thing. Always kissing up to whoever she was with. That's why I couldn't stand her. There's no way a person like her has real friends. She was fine to complain to, though. She'd go along with whatever you said. That's about it."
"That's why I think she just ran away from home. She was probably messing with some gangbangers behind everybody's back. It wouldn't surprise me if it all started with a lot of big talk about how dumb we all were and deciding to jerk us around. I could never figure out what was going on with her, anyway."
"Perhaps she got caught up in something she couldn't handle."
"Yeah, you know, like she got into a fight with the homies she was hanging with. Not that I would know anything about it."
It was yet another girl who said she flat-out hated her. "To be honest, I don't mind her being gone one bit."
"You said your classmates teased you a lot?"
"And Ms. Nakajima went along with it?"
"Yeah. She always went along when they froze me out. But she was the one who always played innocent afterwards."
"They were always giving me crap, you know? Youko never joined in like she really meant it. She always pretended that she was above it all. Fact was, she was a coward."
"Like she was a better person than anybody else, like she felt sorry for me. But she wouldn't do anything to stop it. That's what pissed me off the most."
"Whether she ran away or got kidnapped or whatever, I couldn't care less. As far as I'm concerned, I was the victim and she was one of the perpetrators. I'm not going to sit here and act all sorry for her. I don't want to be a hypocrite like her. I suppose that gives me a motive, huh? But I'm glad she's gone. That's the truth."
She's not that kind of person, her mother insisted. Her mother sat there with a distressed look on her face. "She was a good girl. She wasn't the kind of girl who would run away from home or get mixed up with such unsavory types."
"Apparently she wasn't completely happy at home."
Her mother looked surprised. "Youko? Nothing of the sort."
"Her classmates had much to say on the subject. 'Her parents are really strict,' things like that."
"We did discipline her at times, but nothing more than what any parent would do. No, that has nothing to do with it. She had nothing to be dissatisfied with at home, not in the least."
"You're saying you knew of no reason for her to run away from home?"
"None at all. She would never do anything like that."
"Are you familiar with this boy who came to see her at school?"
"No. She's not the kind of girl who would associate with such people."
"Well, then, what do you think accounts for her disappearance?"
"Somebody kidnapped her on her way home from school."
"Unfortunately, there is no evidence for that. Youko left the principal's office together with the boy. After that we believe they went somewhere else. It doesn't mean she wasn't taken against her will. But several of the teachers said that they appeared to be on intimate terms."
Her mother hung her head.
"You say that your daughter didn't have a boyfriend. Perhaps she was involved in some other type of relationship. A shared acquaintance, for example. Anything we could use to begin a search with . . . . "
"Did they really say Youko wasn't happy with the way things were at home?"
"So it seems."
Her mother buried her face in her hands. "I never sensed that there was anything she was unhappy about. She's not the kind of girl who would run away from home, or would make bad friends behind our backs. She's not the kind of girl who would get involved in things like that."
"Teenagers don't usually reveal their true selves to their parents."
"Hearing about what goes on in other people's homes, it does make me wonder what kind of a person Youko really is. When I think about it now, perhaps I should have looked harder at anything that struck me as unusual."
"Indeed, children don't always turn out in ways that are convenient for their parents. My own kid is quite the little brat."
"Yes, I guess that must be it. She always showed us her good side. We dealt with her on the basis of outward appearances and ended up being deceived. Children will use their trust against you."
No, Mom, it's not true . . . .
Youko wanted to weep, but no tears would come. It's not true, she wanted to scream but her mouth only formed the shape of the words. As with the silent click of a switch, the vision disappeared.
The ground around her was covered with puddles, her head half buried in the mud. She did not have the strength left to stand up. No one could have possibly imagined that she would have ended up here, in this condition. Knowing nothing, that's how they could come to such convenient conclusions.
Cast into this world, starving, covered with wounds, not even able to rise, and despite everything, her desire to go home had made it all possible to bear. But in truth, what she had seen were the only human relationships of any merit at all that she could claim in her home country.
What did I think I was going home to?
No one was waiting for her. She had nothing there and no one who understood her. Being deceived, being betrayed, being here or being there, it made no difference at all.
Yes, I get it now.
And still, she wanted to go home. She found it strangely funny. She wanted to roar with laughter but the cold rain had left her face too numb. She wanted to cry as well but she had no tears left in her.
Whatever happened, it was all good. Because very soon it would all go away.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love