ain fell like slender threads scattered by the wind. She couldn't move, couldn't cry, could only lie there listlessly with her cheek in a puddle.
Suddenly she heard the swishing sound of something pushing through the undergrowth. She knew she should hide but could do little more than lift her head.
A villager or a beast or a youma. No matter what, the results wouldn't change. Whether she was arrested or attacked, or if she simply continued to lie there, her struggles would come to the same end.
She looked up through the mist in the direction of the sound. It was neither a villager nor one of her pursuers. It wasn't a person at all, but a rather strange creature.
It resembled a rat. The way it stood up on its two hind legs and quivered its whiskers, there was a very definite rat-ness about it. Odder still, standing erect, this rat was as tall as a human child. It didn't look like a run-of-the-mill beast or youma. Youko lay there and stared vacantly at this quite curious rat.
The rat was sheltering itself from the rain with a large leaf it wore over its head like a bamboo hat. Silver rain drummed against translucent green. The pearl-colored raindrops were quite beautiful.
The rat stared back at Youko with a slightly stunned expression. It didn't seem to be getting ready to attack her. It was a bit plumper than a rat. Its fur was a color somewhere between a light brown and gray. Youko felt an urge to pet it. Raindrops decorated its fluffy coat like diamonds. The fur extended all the way down its tail, so though it looked like a rat, it probably wasn't the same species.
The rat twitched its whiskers several times, then toddled closer to Youko on its two hind legs. Leaning its gray-brown body over her, it touched her shoulder with a small forefoot.
"Are you all right?"
Youko blinked several times. She heard the sound of a child's voice. It was definitely coming from the rat. With a curious expression the rat politely bowed its head next to hers. "What's the matter? Can't you move?"
Youko looked up into the rat's eyes and just managed to shake her head, no. Perhaps because it wasn't a person she let her guard down a bit.
"Well." The rat reached out with its small, childlike forefoot. "Try your best. My house isn't far from here."
Ah-- Youko sighed. Whether a sigh of relief for being rescued, or of disappointment for being rescued, she couldn't be entirely sure.
"Okay?" the rat said.
She tried to grab its hand but could only move the tips of her fingers. The rat reached down and clasped Youko's cold hand in its small, warm forefoot.
Leaning on an arm stronger than she would have imagined, they made their way to a small house. That was the last thing she remembered.
Many times she had the sense of opening her eyes and taking in her surroundings, but she couldn't grasp what she was looking at or recall what she had seen. Her consciousness alternated between periods of deep sleep and light sleep. When at last she awoke for good, she found herself within a humble abode, lying on a bed.
She stared blankly up at the ceiling, a moment later quickly sat up. She jumped out of bed and collapsed on the floor. Her legs were of no use to her at all.
There was no one else in the small room. Her vision still spinning, she desperately searched around the bed on her hands and knees. There wasn't much in the way of furniture, except for a stand next to the bed fashioned from a few planks of wood. Neatly arranged on the makeshift table were the sword, shrouded in a bolt of cloth, and the blue jewel, threaded through with a new cord.
With a profound sense of relief she managed to stand up. She placed the jewel around her neck and with the sword returned to the bed. She slipped the sword under the quilt. Finally she could relax.
At this point Youko realized that she was wearing a nightdress. Her many wounds had been treated. There was something damp under her shoulder. It was a wet, folded cloth. She had not noticed it when she jumped out of bed. She placed it back on her forehead. It felt good. She drew up the thick quilts, grasped the jewel, closed her eyes, and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Her life having been saved, she could begin to believe that no matter how worthless her existence still had value.
"Are you awake?"
She sat up again in a hurry. Looking back at the source of the voice, she saw the big gray-haired rat standing there. The door was open and it was coming into the room. In one hand it held a tray, in the other a pail.
Her sense of wariness reared up inside her. It lived like a person, talked like a person. Just because it looked like an animal didn't mean she could trust it.
Paying no attention to the wary looks Youko was giving it, the rat nonchalantly set the tray on the table, and the pail at the foot of the bed.
"How's your fever?"
It reached out with its small forefoot. Youko immediately shrank away. The rat twitched its whiskers and then picked up the damp cloth that had fallen onto the quilt. It must have noticed that Youko had the sword clasped tightly to her chest but said nothing. It placed the cloth in the bucket, looked at Youko's face.
"How are you feeling? Want something to eat?"
Youko shook her head. The rat gave its whiskers a twitch, took a cup from the table. "It's medicine. Will you take it?"
Youko again shook her head. She couldn't take any chances, couldn't expose herself to any possible threats. The rat thought about it for a moment, raised the cup to its mouth and, as she watched, drank a bit. "See, ordinary medicine. A bit bitter, but that's the only way to get it down."
With that, it again offered it to her. Youko refused to take it. Confounded, the rat scratched the fur around its ear. "Well, then. What can I offer you? If you won't drink or eat anything, you won't get your strength back. How about some tea? Goat milk? Rice pudding?"
Youko refused to answer. The rat sighed to itself, as if trying to figure out what to do next. "You've been asleep for three days. If it was in me to do something like that, I would have had all the time in the world, don't you see."
The rat gestured with the tip of its nose at where Youko had the sword clasped to her chest. "You're even hiding that sword from me. Can you not trust me even that much?"
Youko looked into its small black eyes. Slowly she took out the cloth-shrouded sword and laid it across her lap.
"Now we're getting somewhere," the rat said in a pleased voice. It reached out again. This time Youko did not shrink away. With its tiny fingers it briefly touched her forehead. "You've still got a bit of a fever but it's gone down a good bit. Now, you settle down and rest. Is there anything I can get you?"
Youko said uncertainly, "Water . . . . "
The rat's ear's flicked back and forth. "Water. Great. So you can speak! I'll bring some water straightaway. If you need to get up, keep yourself wrapped up in that quilt."
Not waiting for Youko to nod in reply, the rat darted out of the room. Its tail, covered in short fur, swayed back and forth as if to help keep its balance.
A few minutes later the rat returned carrying a pitcher, cup and small bowl. The almost hot water was delicious. She drained the cup over and over. Then she peered at the bowl, caught the scent of alcohol.
"What have you got there?"
"Peaches pickled in wine and simmered with sugar. Want to try one?"
Youko nodded. Then she turned to the rat and said, "Thank you."
The rat's whiskers quivered. The fur on its cheeks stood out, its eyes narrowed and it smiled, or so that was how its expression struck her.
"My name's Rakushun. And you are?"
The question stumped her at first. She simply answered, "Youko."
"Youko. And how is it spelled?"
"You as in youki (cheerful), and ko as in kodomo (child)."
"Ko as in 'child'?" Rakushun tilted his head to the side. "Huh," he said. "That's a curious name. Where are you from?"
As it would be awkward to not answer now, Youko stalled as she wracked her brains. "Kei."
"The Kingdom of Kei? Where in Kei?"
Not knowing anything more of Kei, she promptly answered, "Hairou."
"Where is that?" Rakushun looked at her with an only slightly bewildered look, and then scratched at his ears. "Well, that's neither here nor there. Let's take your medicine and get you back to bed."
Youko nodded. She asked, "How do you spell Rakushun?"
The rat laughed. "It's Raku as in kuraku (sorrow and joy), and shun as in shunbin (quick-witted)."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-2 Youko spent the rest of the day in the room sleeping. She'd come to the conclusion that Rakushun was the sole occupant of the house.
"It's got a tail. That can't be good, eh?" It was the middle of the night. The blue monkey's head sat at the foot of the bed. "One way or another he's bound to betray you, don't you suppose?"
Though there were two beds in the room, Rakushun didn't sleep there. She didn't think the house had another bedroom so she wasn't sure where he bedded down for the night.
"Isn't it about time you skedaddled out of here? If you don't, he's bound to steal your life away. No?"
Youko didn't answer. If she continued to lie there and listen, the blue monkey would just repeat itself over and over. These were her anxieties. The monkey appeared in order to reveal them to her. He fed her fears and then gobbled them down. She was sure that was the way it worked.
Youko turned on her side. The blue monkey smoothly slipped over the covers until its small head rested next to her pillow. He peered at her. "You've got to strike first, before something bad happens. Don't and you'll never survive. Isn't that right, little girl?"
Youko rolled over and stared at the ceiling. "It doesn't mean that I trust him."
"The way things are now, me not being able to move and all, I can't do anything about it. If I leave before being able to effectively use the sword, I'll just become some youma's next meal."
Not to mention that the wound to her right hand was severe. Even after a day of pressing the jewel against her hand, she hardly had sufficient strength in her hand to grip the sword.
"He's going to figure out soon enough that you're a kaikyaku, no? You really think you should be taking it easy like this? Ah, the governor's men could be arriving any second."
"In that case, I'd let my sword do the talking. If four or five of them came at me, I'd get away with my head intact. But before that happens, I'll take advantage of the situation."
There's no one here I can call an ally.
But she really needed help now. Until she could properly wield the sword again. Until a bit more of her strength returned. Until then, she needed a safe bed, food and medicine. She didn't know if Rakushun was on her side or not, but at least he was providing what she desperately needed. Until she knew for certain otherwise, she would take advantage of the situation as things stood.
"He could be poisoning the food, no? How can you be sure that that medicine is really medicine?"
"I'm taking precautions."
"And I'm telling you that you'll be outsmarted."
The blue monkey was venting her doubts and fears. As she answered them one by one it resembled an exercise in self-examination.
"If he really had in mind to do something to me, he could have done what he wanted when I was unconscious. Even now, even if he wasn't poisoning the food, he would have had any number of chances to kill me."
"Perhaps he is waiting for something? Waiting for reinforcements, no?"
"In that case, I'll save what energy I've got till then."
"In the meantime, he's getting you to trust him. Then he'll turn the tables on you."
"In that case, until Rakushun shows his hand, I'll keep on pretending to trust him."
The monkey burst into bright laughter. "Look at you, growing a backbone all of a sudden!"
"I have figured a few things out."
Like the fact that she had no friends, no allies in this world. The fact that she had no place to go, no home to return to. The fact that she was completely on her own. Nevertheless, she had to stay alive. A life without friends, a life with no place to call her own, yes, it sucked being her. But if everyone in this world wanted her dead, then she wouldn't die. And if no one in her old world wanted her back, then she'd go back anyway.
She wasn't giving up. No way was she ever giving up. She was going to live. She was going to find Keiki. She was going home. It made no difference whether Keiki was friend or foe. If he was her enemy, even if he threatened her, she'd make him take her back.
"And what will you do when you get home?"
"I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."
"Better to just cash in your chips right now, no?"
"If no one gives a crap about me, then at least I'll give a crap about myself."
"That rat's going to betray you."
Youko turned and looked at the monkey. "If I don't trust him, then he can't betray me."
It would have been better, of course, if she had figured this out earlier. She was a kaikyaku. That's why she was hunted. A kaikyaku could count on no one. There was no place a kaikyaku could call safe ground. If she had understood even that much, she wouldn't have been duped by Takki and Matsuyama. She wouldn't have been so ready to trust and been so easily betrayed. When it came to staying alive, she would use the appearance of trust to get what she needed out of people. That was the better strategy to follow.
Take advantage of people who could be taken advantage of. It wasn't the most ethical approach to life. Takki and Matsuyama had taken advantage of her to try and make themselves a little richer. She should have a few scruples, then, about using Rakushun to keep body and soul together.
"You're turning into quite the little scoundrel, now, aren't you?"
"Just doing what I have to do," Youko muttered. She waved her hand dismissively. "I'm tired. Go away."
A strange look came over the monkey's face, an expression like a child stubbornly chomping down on a lemon. He turned his back to her and in a wink sunk down into the futon and disappeared.
Watching this, Youko laughed thinly. These were all the anxieties she didn't allow herself even to feel brought out in the open. It was proving a useful way to organize her thoughts, something she could take advantage of.
"Yes, I really am turning into quite the little scoundrel." She laughed softly to herself in self-derision.
Nevertheless, there was no way she'd allowed herself to be used by another person again. No way she'd willingly allow another person to harm her again. Come what may, she was going to protect herself.
"That's why it's got to be this way."
The mother and child she'd met on the mountain road, they hadn't betrayed her because she hadn't given them the chance to betray her.
I won't give Rakushun the chance, either.
And that is how she would stay alive.
But why had it been so necessary for her to come to this world? Why had Keiki called her "lord"? Who were her enemies? What was their goal? Why were they all after her? That woman--the one with the same golden hair as Keiki--who was she? Why had she done what she had done?
Youma are not the kind of creature to go chasing after one person in particular.
Then why were they attacking her? That woman had embraced the corpse of the black dog as if mourning its death. Maybe they were comrades in arms. The same way Keiki gathered youma about him so did she, and she had sent hers after Youko. Still, it looked like the woman was being ordered to attack her. Who was giving the orders? Was it Keiki or somebody else related to her?
She was clueless and she couldn't afford to stay clueless. She had to find somebody who could answer her questions. Unconsciously she clenched her hands into fists. Her fingernails dug into her palms. Youko held up her hands and examined the tips of her fingers.
Her chipped and broken nails were like knives, like some creature's talons.
Only youma and wizards can cross the Kyokai.
Youko was neither a god nor a wizard.
That makes me a youma.
The dream of the red beast she'd had on the beach of the Kyokai--was it really a dream? Before coming to this world, for a long time she'd dreamt of being attacked by youma. That dream came true. Was her dream of becoming a youma also a premonition of things to come?
Her hair had turned red, her eyes emerald green. Were these the first steps in a total transformation? Perhaps that meant she wasn't a human being at all, but a youma. It struck her as a very frightening thought and at the same time a rather pleasant one.
She could shout, scream, wave her sword about, threaten complete strangers, and all with a strange, hidden sense of euphoria. In the world she was born into, she had not once dared to raise her voice or give another person a cross look. To do so had always seemed like a sin. But wasn't that because she had always known the truth? Wasn't this all the result of pretending to live a "mostly harmless" life, when deep down in her subconscious she knew she was a youma, knew she was a ferocious beast, knew she could not have gone on living in that other world?
Perhaps that was why everybody had described her as an unknown quantity, a closed book.
With these thoughts crowding her mind, she drifted off to sleep.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-3 The house was the kind of small, poor-looking structure common in the rural districts. Even compared to those, Youko knew this dwelling was of a particularly wretched class.
The dwellings located out among the fields were usually grouped together into a village. It was unusual to see a house all by itself like this. There didn't appear to be any other houses nearby on the mountainside.
Think of a rat's house and she would have imagined something tiny. Although the overall scale was small, it was more or less a normal-sized structure. And not just the building. Youko couldn't help but marvel that from kitchen implements to daily necessities, everything was in human dimensions.
"Rakushun, do you have parents?" Youko asked.
She was filling a big kettle on the stove with water. She'd finally been able to get up and give Rakushun a hand around the house. She steadied the pail with her right hand, still wrapped with bandages. Beneath the bandages the wound had almost completely healed.
Rakushun was restocking the stove with firewood. He looked up at her. "Don't have a father. My mom's out."
"Is she on a trip? It seems to be taking a long time. Has she gone far?"
"Not really. She went to the nearby village. She's got a job there. She was supposed to get back the day before yesterday."
Which meant that she would be getting back any day now. Youko made a mental note of this fact. "What does your mother do?"
"During the winter she works as a maid. She's called on for odd jobs during the summer as well. Otherwise, she's a tenant farmer."
"So, Youko, where are you headed?"
Youko turned the question over in her mind. She wasn't really headed anyplace in particular. She didn't want to say she was just walking around. She said, "Have you ever heard of a guy named Keiki?"
Rakushun plucked a chip of wood out of his coat. "You're looking for somebody? Do you think he's from around here?"
"I don't know where he's from."
"Well, I'm sorry to say that I don't know anybody by the name of Keiki."
"Oh. Is there anything else you'd like me to do?"
"No, no, nothing else. You're still on the mend. You'd better sit down."
Youko lowered her tired body into the chair. The creaky old table and chairs sat on the bare earth floor of the small dining/kitchen area. The sword was on the chair next to her, wrapped in its shroud. She would not let it out of her sight for an instant, and Rakushun had not taken her to task over it. She had no idea what his thoughts on the matter were.
"So, tell me, Youko," Rakushun said in his childlike voice, the sleek, glossy coat of his back to her, "why are you pretending to be a boy?"
He would have figured that out when he changed her into the nightdress. She said, "It's dangerous for a girl traveling alone."
"That makes sense."
He brought over an earthenware teapot. Whatever he had brewed filled the small room with a rich aroma. He set two teacups on the table, raised his eyes to hers. "I was wondering why you didn't you have a scabbard for that sword?"
"I lost it."
As she answered, even now, she could remember losing the scabbard. When they crossed the Kyokai, she had been told to never separate the sword and scabbard. Yet no disaster had followed directly from losing it. Obviously, the intent of the admonition had been to preserve the jewel.
Rakushun mumbled something to himself and climbed onto the chair. The way he moved rather resembled a rat mimicking a human baby. "If you don't get yourself a scabbard for that thing, a person could really hurt himself."
"Yeah, a person could," Youko answered in a flat tone of voice.
Rakushun looked at her, his head tilted to the side. "You said you came from Hairou, right?"
"Hairou is not in Kei. Isn't Hairou a village in the county of Shin, along the eastern coast?"
If he says so, that must be where it is, Youko thought to herself blankly. She said nothing.
"It seems the place was thrown into quite a turmoil recently."
Youko continued to hold her tongue.
"A kaikyaku washed ashore and then ran away, something like that."
Youko scowled at him. Without giving it conscious thought, she reached for the sword. "What are you getting at?"
"A redheaded girl of sixteen or seventeen, last seen carrying a sword without a scabbard. Should be considered armed and dangerous." He paused and said, "You've dyed your hair, Youko."
Her attention focused on Rakushun, she grasped the hilt of the sword. She couldn't read the expression on his face. His countenance was too many degrees removed from the human.
"Well, at least that's what the local magistrate has been saying."
"The local magistrate . . . . "
"Why the mortified expression? If I had intended to turn you in, I would have waited for the constables to show up. I hear there's a big reward on your head."
Youko unraveled the shroud from the sword. She stood and brandished the naked blade. "What do you want?"
The rat looked up at her with his jet-black eyes and quivered its silky whiskers. "You have quite the short temper."
"Why did you take me in?"
"Why did I take you in? Well, when I come across some poor chap dying along the wayside, I can't very well just leave him there. So I brought you home. I would think that taking care of you obviously means not turning you over to the authorities, don't you think?"
Youko couldn't bring herself to believe him. Simply trusting people like that, you were setting yourself up for a fall.
"All kaikyaku get sent to the county seat. If they're good, they're confined under house arrest. If they're bad, then it's the axe. If you were to ask me, I'd say you belonged to the latter group."
"Why do you think that?"
"The word is, you've got some kind of black magic up your sleeves. You commanded the youma to attack the convoy and used the opportunity to make a break for it."
"I didn't command the youma to do anything."
"That's what I thought." The rat nodded to himself. "I didn't think it'd be so easy to order youma around like that. In fact, I don't think it was you commanding the youma. I think it was you the youma were hunting."
"I . . . I don't know."
"Well, either way, you must be a bad kaikyaku. Any person the youma would have it in for can't be good."
"And what if I am?"
"Nine times out of ten, when a kaikyaku ends up in front of the governor, that's the last you hear of him. So naturally you'd run. But do you know where you should be running to?"
Youko had no answer.
"No, you have no idea at all. You simply stumbled into our little corner of the woods. Well, you should be headed for En."
Youko gave Rakushun a long, hard look. There was no expression on the rat's face. She couldn't read him at all.
"I guess I just can't stand idly by and watch people get killed." Rakushun laughed. "That doesn't mean I'd shed a tear seeing some brigand go to the gallows. But executing a kaikyaku just because she's a kaikyaku? No, that's going too far."
"But I'm a bad kaikyaku, aren't I?"
"Well, the government seems to think so. But I suppose there are good kaikyaku and bad kaikyaku like everybody else. It's a rare thing to know for sure which is which just by having a hunch about someone."
"Bad kaikyaku bring calamities upon the kingdom."
"Old wives' tales."
The quickness of his reply and the tone of his voice set off alarm bells in her head. It was exactly the same thing another person in this country had said. Though in that case it was a human woman.
"So you're saying that if I go to En, they'll help me?"
"They will. The king of En gives sanctuary to kaikyaku. In En, kaikyaku can live their lives the same as everybody else, proof that it's people that are good or bad, not kaikyaku. That's why you should go to En. Now, why don't you put that scary thing down?"
Youko hesitated several times, then lowered the sword.
"Pull up a chair. Your tea is getting cold."
Youko sat herself down again. She had no idea what Rakushun was up to. Whenever her kaikyaku identity was exposed, it was best to get out of there as soon as possible. But she really wanted to know more about this En.
"Do you know the lay of the land around these parts?"
Youko shook her head. Rakushun nodded. Holding his teacup, he got down from the chair. He came over to where Youko was still holding the sword and leaned over the dirt floor.
"We are in An'you county in Jun province, a place called Kahoku," Rakushun said, drawing a rough map in the dirt. "This is the Kyokai, and Shin county is here. Hairou is in this vicinity. That means you have been traveling in a westerly direction right into the interior of Kou. If escaping was your goal--getting out of Kou--then you've been going in the wrong direction."
Youko looked at the map with mixed emotions. Could she believe it? Could he be misleading her? Her doubts notwithstanding, she was starving for information. Right now, the desire for knowledge overcame her second thoughts.
"Bordering Jun on the west is Nei province. Following the main road, you'll enter Hokuryou county. Further along the road, going in a northwestern direction, you'll reach Agan. It's a big port city on the Blue Sea, one of the inner seas."
Rakushun sketched the rough map and wrote out the place names with a remarkably fine hand. "You can take a ship from Agan north across the Blue Sea. Your destination is En."
Rakushun wrote "Enkoku" as The Kingdom of En, using the Chinese character for "wild goose."
"It'd be a good idea to head first for Hokuryou before going on."
But how would she get aboard a ship? If the port was guarded, it'd be like putting the noose around her own neck.
"You'll be okay," Rakushun laughed, as if reading her thoughts. "What I'm saying is, if a person in Shin wanted to escape Kou, the fastest way would be to head due north and cross the mountains into Kei. The constables would never have expected you to take the route you've taken. Your getting lost may have been a blessing. The wanted posters describe a red-haired young girl. Do something about that big sword and no one will know who you are."
"I see." Youko stood up. "Thank you," she said.
Rakushun looked up at her in surprise. "Hey, you're not thinking of leaving right away, are you?"
"Better sooner than later. I don't want to be a burden."
Rakushun jumped up. "Better later. You really are impatient, aren't you?"
"But . . . . "
"After you get to the Kingdom of En, then what? Walk around grabbing people off the street and asking them if they know a guy named Keiki? Do you know how to book passage on a ship? How to petition for sanctuary in En?"
Youko looked away. Compared to her journey up till now, with only this new destination fixed in her mind, a considerably different future had opened up to her. Nevertheless, there would be more obstacles like this she would have to surmount. And these likely didn't amount to a tenth of what awaited her.
"You can't go rushing off without the slightest bit of preparation. If you don't prepare now, you'll be boxing yourself into a corner."
Youko nodded. There was still a part of her that feared falling into a trap, but on this point she had no choice but to trust Rakushun.
"That's right. Have something to eat, put some meat on your bones. Even setting a quick pace, it will take a month to get to Agan."
Youko nodded again. At least until she got the better part of her strength back. That'd give her time to figure out what Rakushun was up to as well. Was he simply doing this out of the goodness of his heart, or was it part of some deeper stratagem? She had to get to Agan and then to En. But more than that, she had to first ascertain Rakushun's true intentions.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-4 Rakushun said as they were cleaning up after lunch, "I hear it was quite a big shoku."
"That's what one of the elders of Hairou said."
"The news is that the wheat crops in the eastern region of Shin County were completely wiped out. It was a big tragedy."
Youko only nodded. Somewhere in her heart she felt a twinge of guilt.
"I seem to have touched upon a sore spot. Not because you think it was your fault, I hope."
"It doesn't mean I'm all depressed about it," Youko said, scraping the ashes out of the stove.
The rat's furry tail reached over and rapped her lightly on the knuckles. "Shoku do not happen because kaikyaku show up. It's the shoku that bring the kaikyaku here."
Rakushun instructed her to deposit the ashes into a wooden box. The remaining embers were stored in another container.
Youko said, "Can I ask you something?"
"What exactly is a shoku?" The elderwoman in Hairou had said it was something like a storm or tempest, but she still didn't understand its exact nature.
"Ah, so you don't know what a shoku is, either. You don't have shoku where you're from?"
"Well, it's written the same as an eclipse of the sun or the moon. We have those."
"They're not dissimilar omens in some respects, except that the sun or moon don't appear to wane. So I guess you could say it's like a great tempest. A tempest throws the air into turmoil. A shoku throws the spirits into turmoil."
"But there's also wind and rain?"
"There can be wind and rain. There are shoku that blow through like a typhoon. They are rare. Earthquakes and thunder and rivers flowing backwards, sinkholes appearing out of nowhere, any kind of natural disaster you can think of, that's what a shoku is. In Hairou, the bottom of Lake Youchi rose up and all the water flooded out. The whole lake vanished off the map."
Youko washed her hands after dumping out the ashes. "Are they always so destructive?"
"It depends. We fear shoku far more than typhoons. You never know what will happen during a shoku."
"But why should such things happen?"
With a serious expression on his face, Rakushun set to making tea as if it were the most important thing in the world. "From what I've heard, a shoku is when here and there get tangled up together. When things that were originally apart come together and overlap each other, disasters follow. I don't really understand it myself, but that's what I think is going on."
"Here and there . . . . "
The tea he made looked like green tea. The aroma was quite different. It resembled a herbal tea, with a quite soothing flavor.
"There is what lies beyond the Kyokai. Here is here. I can't think of any other name for it."
"The Kyokai encompasses the land. Beyond the land, the Kyokai goes on forever."
"Forever, with no end in sight. And no end there ever will be, or so we are told. Explorers have sailed off in search of the end of the Kyokai. None have returned."
"So that means over here the earth really is flat."
Climbing onto his chair, Rakushun gave Youko a startled look. "But of course it is. Otherwise we'd all be in difficult fix, now, wouldn't we?" There was surprise and laughter in his voice.
"Well, then, what shape does this world have?"
Rakushun picked up a walnut and placed it on the table. "In the middle of the world is Suusan."
"The Supreme Mountain. It's also called Suukou, the Pinnacle, or Chuuzan, the Middle Mountain. Surrounding Suusan at the four cardinal points of the compass are the Eastern, Western, Southern and Northern Mountains. They are more commonly known as Houzan, the Mountain of Wormwood; Kazan, the Mountain of Splendor; Kakuzan, the Mountain of Immediacy; and Kouzan, the Mountain of Permanence. The story goes that the Eastern Mountain was formerly called Taishan. The ruler of the northern kingdom of Tai changed the spelling of his family name from the character meaning "generations" to the character meaning "peaceful calm," the same as Taishan. In deference to him, Taishan was changed to Houzan. Together they are called Gozan, the Five Mountains."
"Encompassing these five mountains is the Yellow Sea. Though called a sea, it is not a body of water. Rather, it is said to be filled with craggy wastelands and deserts and swamps and an ocean of trees."
Youko paid close attention to the characters he was writing. "You've never seen it?"
"There's no way I could. Encircling the Yellow Sea are the four Kongou, the Adamantine Mountains. No mortal being can dwell within them."
"Oh." It really did look to her like an old map of some ancient world.
"The Adamantine Mountains are bordered by four seas. To the north, northeast, south, southwest, east, southeast, west, and northwest, eight kingdoms encircle the seas. Beyond them is the Kyokai. Adjacent to these eight kingdoms are four big islands. The four island kingdoms plus the eight kingdoms that surround the Yellow Sea are the Twelve Kingdoms."
Youko examined the geometric arrangements of walnuts. It looked like a flower, the kingdoms arrayed about the Gozan like petals.
"And there's nothing else?"
"Nothing else. Only the Kyokai reaching out to the very end of the world." But, he seemed to say to himself and added, "Tales have been told of an island far away at the eastern edge of the world, fairy tales about a place called the Kingdom of Hourai. Also known as Japan."
The character he wrote down was Wa, the ancient name for Yamato.
"Really? The same 'Yamato' as Japan?"
When she wrote out the character herself, it definitely was Yamato. Youko bit her lip. Was it because of how the language was translated?
"It's also said that Yamato is where kaikyaku come from."
This time she clearly heard "Yamato." Because she knew the word as well in her native language, she didn't need it translated for her.
"It all might be tall tales, but when you listen to what the kaikyaku say, it seems that there is undoubtedly a country called Yamato. Ships have sailed off in search of Yamato. They too have never returned."
If indeed Japan did exist at the furthest reaches of the Kyokai, it might be possible to reach it by sailing east. But Youko knew the chances of that were slim. The only way home was through the shadow of the moon.
"There's also a legend that says that deep within the Adamantine Mountains is a place called Kunlun. Beyond Kunlun is China. China is the home of the sankyaku, the visitors (kyaku) from across the mountains (san or zan)." Rakushun wrote down the character for Han to represent China.
"Sankyaku? You mean there are other people who get tangled up in this place, not just kaikyaku?"
"That's right. Kaikyaku wash up on the shores of the Kyokai. Sankyaku are found wandering at the foot of the Adamantine Mountains. There aren't a lot of sankyaku in this kingdom, though. Kaikyaku or sankyaku, you've got to run for your life."
"Han or Yamato, normal people just can't come and go. Only youma and the mountain wizards can. When there is a shoku, people from over there are caught up in the currents. Those people are the sankyaku and kaikyaku."
"It's said that the people of Yamato and Han live in houses made of gold and silver, studded with jewels. Their kingdoms are so wealthy that farmers live like kings. They gallop through the air and can run a thousand miles in a single day. Even babies have the power to defeat youma. Youma and wizards have supernatural powers because they travel to those other worlds and drink from magical springs deep within the mountains."
Rakushun looked at Youko expectantly. Youko shook her head with a rueful smile. What a strange conversation this was. If she ever returned to her old world, they would never believe her. Fairly tales, they would say. And here, her world was a fairy tale as well. She laughed to herself. All along she had believed that this was a strange and mysterious world. But in the end, wasn't she and the place she came from even more so?
That must be why, she concluded at length, kaikyaku were hunted down like dogs.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-5 For a long, empty moment, Youko thought about the past and the fate of so many kaikyaku. She said, "The kaikyaku who end up here are killed because everybody automatically associates kaikyaku with shoku."
"That's what it has come to, I guess. What's your occupation, Youko?"
"I'm a student."
"Yes, yes," Rakushun said excitedly. "There are kaikyaku who possess skills that we do not, who know things that we do not. I've heard that they can survive with the protection of powerful patrons . . . don't you think?"
But of course, Youko thought, an ironic smile coming to her lips. She didn't know anything worth anything in this world. She said, "Do you know of any way of returning to Yamato?"
In response to her question, a frown came clearly to his face. "I don't." He hesitated, then added, "Perhaps I shouldn't say this, but I don't think there is a way."
"That can't be true. If I came here, then there's got to be a way for me to leave here."
At the tone of Youko's voice, Rakushun's whiskers drooped. "No mortal being can cross the Kyokai, Youko."
"But I crossed the Kyokai. That's how I got here in the first place."
"Even if you were able to arrive here, there's no way to leave. I have never heard of a kaikyaku or sankyaku returning to his home country."
"That can't be right." She simply could not accept that it was not possible. "What about another shoku? I could wait for another shoku and get home the same way I came."
In response to Youko's spirited objections, Rakushun only sadly shook his head. "Nobody knows when and where a shoku might occur. And even if you did, there's no way a mortal being could travel to that other world."
No, that can't be true, Youko again fervently told herself. If she couldn't go home, then Keiki would have told her so. He hadn't said a thing about it. She'd sensed nothing in his attitude or manner that suggested that it was a one-way trip.
"But I fled from Yamato to get away from the kochou."
"A kochou? You escaped a kochou and came here?"
"That's right. With a man named Keiki."
"And he's the person you're looking for?"
"Yes. This guy named Keiki, he brought me here. To tell the truth, it was because the kochou and the rest of them were hunting me. He said that in order to protect me, I had to come here." She looked at Rakushun. "By which I took it to mean that once I was safe, I could go back. That makes sense, doesn't it? He said that if I really wanted to go home, he would take me."
"Keiki had these creatures with him who could soar through the air. Animals who could talk, like you. As the crow flies, it was a one-day trip, that's what he said. It's not the kind of thing you'd say if you were going on a journey where there'd be no coming back, right?"
Youko spoke as if pleading her case to a judge. For a while Rakushun said nothing.
"I really don't know. But I'd say that something quite important is going on."
"It's that big a deal, just based on what I told you?"
"A very big deal. If a youma like a kochou showed up around here, it'd be a very big deal. Every town within shouting distance would empty out. And you're talking about a kochou going after one person, and going as far as that other world. This is the first time I've ever heard of such a thing. And then a man called Keiki brought you here?"
"It's said that youma and wizards and their kith and kin can take themselves back and forth. As for this Keiki person, no matter what kind a being he is, taking somebody else along with him? That's a new one in my book. Whatever happened, I don't think I'm the one to figure it out. But I know this much: it's definitely not the kind of thing that happens on a regular basis."
After pondering the matter for a while, Rakushun looked at Youko with his jet-black eyes. "So, as things stand now, what do you want to do? Keep yourself safe at all costs? Or go home?"
"I want to go home."
Rakushun nodded. "As I expected. But that's not something I know how to do. In any case, I think you ought to go to En."
"I agree. And after that?"
"You can't expect much help from government officials or the province lords. I think your best bet would be to go to En and ask for help directly from the Royal En."
Youko stared in amazement at the characters Rakushun was writing. "The Royal En? You mean the king?"
Rakushun nodded. "The Kingdom of En has been ruled for generations by a king known as the En."
"But is a king going to bother to help me?"
"I don't know."
You've got to be kidding! Youko wanted to shout, but held her tongue.
"What I do know is that it's better than staying here in Kou. At least better odds than beseeching the emperor of Kou. Perhaps it's because the Royal En is a taika."
"Fruit of the womb, it means. The way children are born in that other world. It's really rare here. A taika is a person from this world who is born by mistake in that other world."
Youko's eyes opened wide. "What are you talking about?"
"It really is rare. But even then, I'd be hard-pressed to say whether it's being born by mistake over there that's rare, or just returning here that's rare."
"There are three well-known taika: the Royal En of the En Kingdom, the Saiho of En, and the Saiho of the Tai Kingdom."
"A counselor or advisor to the king. There's talk that the Tai-saiho has died. The whereabouts of the Tai king are unknown. The kingdom is in turmoil and nobody wants to go anywhere near the place. You really ought to make En your destination."
Youko found herself a bit overcome, partly because her brain was suddenly crammed with so much new information, and partly because all at once a whole new view of things had appeared before her.
Going to visit the king--that was on a par with visiting a prime minister or president. Was it even possible? At the same time, the prospect of getting caught up in such weighty matters left her lightheaded and confused.
As she turned all this over in her head, she heard the sound of footsteps outside.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-6 The front door opened, revealing the figure of a middle-age woman. "Rakushun," she said.
The rat raised his head. "Hi, Mom." He quivered his whiskers nervously. "I picked up a most interesting house guest."
Youko couldn't help but gawk. This person was definitely a woman and definitely a human. The woman looked back and forth between Youko and Rakushun, a surprised expression on her face. "A guest, you say. And just who is this young lady?"
"I found her in the forest. She washed ashore in Shin County during that recent shoku."
You don't say, the woman muttered to herself, giving Rakushun a stern look.
Youko drew back her shoulders. Had this woman heard the rumors of a kaikyaku who'd escaped from Shin? And if she had, would she give her shelter as Rakushun had?
"Yes, it was quite terrible." The woman turned to Youko, who was holding her breath in anticipation. She smiled, glanced back at Rakushun. "What in the world have you been up to? It's a good thing I decided to check in on you. Have you been taking good care of her?"
"I certainly have."
"Well, let's hope so." Laughing, the woman looked at Youko with bright eyes. "Sorry I couldn't be here. I had some tasks to attend to. I hope Rakushun has done a good job tending to your needs."
"Um . . . yes." Youko nodded. "I had a bad fever and could hardly move on my own. He was a great help. I'm very thankful."
Heavens! the woman's expression said. She hurried over to Youko. "Are you all right? Should you be up and about?"
"I'm fine. I really was well taken care of."
As she answered, Youko searched the woman's face. She was okay with Rakushun because he wasn't human. But she couldn't be sure about this person.
"That being the case, all the more reason for coming and getting me. He doesn't always use his head."
Rakushun lifted his nose with a put-out air. "I did take good care of her. See, she's healed up just fine."
The woman peered at Youko's face. "Healed up fine, you say? Anything still hurt? Perhaps you ought to go back to bed."
"I am feeling better. Really."
"So it seems. But what are you wearing this flimsy old thing for? Rakushun, get her a kimono."
Rakushun ran into the other room.
"Oh, the tea's gone cold. Wait a minute and I'll brew up a fresh pot."
Youko watched as the woman firmly closed the front door, bustled past her and went out the back door to the well. When Rakushun returned, carrying a kimono that resembled a light overcoat, she whispered to him, "Your mom?"
"Yes. My dad passed away a long time ago."
She couldn't help wondering if his father was a human or a rat. "Your real mom?" she asked cautiously.
Rakushun responded with a puzzled look. "Of course she's my real mom. She's the one who picked me."
Rakushun nodded. "She picked me--the fruit that held me--from the riboku, the family tree." He stopped suddenly, as if something had just occurred to him. "Is it true that in that other world, a child grows inside his mother's stomach?"
"Ah, yes. That's the normal way of things."
"The fruit grows inside her stomach? But how do you pick it, then? Does it hang down from her belly?"
"I'm not quite sure what you mean by pick."
"You take the ranka from the tree."
"The egg-fruit. About this big around." He opened his arms as if carrying a basket. "It's a yellow fruit. Inside is a child. It grows on a branch of a riboku. The parents come and pick one. Don't egg-fruits grow over there?"
"Well, not quite." Youko pressed her hands to her temples. What ought to be common sense here clearly wasn't. Rakushun looked at her expectantly. Youko smiled to cover her self-consciousness. She said, "Over there, a child forms in his mother's belly. His mother gives birth to him."
Rakushun's eyes grew wide. "Like a chicken?"
"Not quite, but that's the general idea."
"How does it work, then? Is there a branch inside her stomach? How do you pick the fruit when it's inside her stomach?"
"Oh, God . . . . "
Youko was holding her head in her hands when Rakushun's mother returned. "Tea's ready," she said. "You hungry?"
As Rakushun caught her up to date about Youko, his mother nimbly prepared some scone-like pastries.
"And then," said Rakushun, breaking the big scone into pieces with his little hands, "we were thinking that the best course of action might be to go to En and check out things there."
His mother nodded. "Yes, indeed. I would agree."
"With that in mind, I'll take her as far as Kankyuu. We'll need to get her some clothes she can bring with her."
His mother looked Rakushun in the eyes. She said bruskly, "You're going to do what?"
"There's nothing to worry about. I'll be there and back before you know it! She doesn't know where anything is, so I'll show her the way. You're tough as an ox, Mom. You'll be okay on your own, right?"
His mother gave Rakushun a long look, then nodded. "Well, all right, then. You be careful, though."
"Rakushun," Youko interjected. "I appreciate your concern for me, but I don't want to cause you any more trouble. Once you show me the way, I'm sure I can figure things out."
She couldn't bring herself to say that she found the prospect of a traveling companion quite alarming. "I don't want to impose on you, but you could draw me a map like you were showing me before."
"Youko, if it were simply a matter of getting to En, assuming that you'd then be in a position to petition the king, you could never do it on your own. Even knowing the way, it will take at least three months to get to the palace in Kankyuu. In the meantime, what will you eat? Where will you stay? How will you pay for anything?"
Youko couldn't answer.
"This is not a journey you want to take by yourself. You said it yourself, you don't know anything about this world."
Youko thought about it. After thinking it through for a while, she nodded. "All right."
As she spoke, out of the corners of her eyes she caught sight of the shrouded sword. Perhaps it would be better to have Rakushun along for the journey. Both he and his mother seemed ready to give her what help they could, though that wasn't necessarily the real truth. Whether friend or foe, she couldn't know for certain. But as long as they knew where she was going, she couldn't afford to take chances. If the authorities were quickly informed as soon as she left, what awaited her in Agan would not be a ship, but a cage.
If Rakushun accompanied her, however, he'd essentially become her hostage. And if by chance he proved an unacceptable risk, her sword would settle the question.
Thinking this, she was struck by the feeling that she truly had become a pathetic creature.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-7 Five days had passed since she had set off with Rakushun. At least he and his mother had treated her like they were sympathetic to her plight, and that gave her time to rest and recuperate.
"You have no idea what the two of them have up their sleeves," the blue monkey lectured her. This was hardly news to her.
Rakushun's mom made all the preparations for their journey. Despite subsisting on an even more meager income than Takki, she was able to put together a change of clothes for Youko. The clothing was rough and plain and seemed made originally for a larger man. Youko guessed they had belonged to Rakushun's father.
It only made Youko more wary. She could not believe they were simply a pair of good Samaritans. She was still okay with Rakushun because of his non-human form. She didn't have the courage to trust his mother completely.
"Why are you doing so much to help me?" she asked. They had left Rakushun's home and the dwelling had finally disappeared from view. She couldn't bear not knowing any longer.
Rakushun stroked his whiskers with his small forefeet. "Well, it's because you were all alone and we have to get you to Kankyuu."
"Don't you think that giving me the directions would have been enough?"
"What are you talking about? The sights in Kankyuu aren't half bad, or so I've heard. A most interesting place. It's like that other world, probably because that's where the king is from."
"Like Yamato or like China?"
"Like Yamato. The Royal En came from Yamato."
"And that's your only reason?"
Rakushun looked up at Youko. "You still don't trust me, do you, Youko?"
"And perhaps you've been overdoing it a bit?"
The rat was carrying a knapsack on his back. He scratched the fur on his chest. "Well, look at me. I'm a hanjuu."
"A half-beast, a chimera. The Royal Kou doesn't like hanjuu, either. He hates kaikyaku, hates anything that is different."
"There aren't a lot of kaikyaku in Kou. Most kaikyaku wash ashore in the eastern kingdoms. But when I say, 'most,' in fact their actual numbers aren't that great."
"About how many?"
"I'd say one shows up every couple years or so."
"Huh," said Youko. Even that was more than she would have imagined.
"At any rate, the greatest number of kaikyaku are found in Kei, perhaps because Kei is the easternmost of the kingdoms. After that, En and then Kou. There aren't many hanjuu in Kou. I couldn't tell you why or to what degree."
"Are there many in the other kingdoms?"
"More than there are in Kou. I'm the only hanjuu around these parts. The king isn't a bad person, but he does have his prejudices. He deals severely with kaikyaku and keeps his distance from hanjuu like me." Rakushun gave his whiskers a twitch. "I don't mean to boast, but I am the sharpest apple in the barrel around here."
Unable to grasp the intent of this statement, Youko just looked at him.
"Not to mention intelligent, quick-witted, and fairly even-tempered."
Youko laughed politely. "Of course you are."
"Yet all that won't make me a full-fledged human being. No matter how much time passes, I'll always be half a man. Because I'll never be anything more than half-human. It was set in stone when I was born in this form. Not being able to do anything about it doesn't make it my fault."
Youko replied with a slight nod. Though she vaguely understood what he was getting at, it didn't assuage any of her misgivings.
"A kaikyaku is the same. Killing a kaikyaku for being a kaikyaku is not something I can condone."
Rakushun scratched the bottoms of his big ears. "Do you know what a joushou is? It's a district academy. I was first in my class and was recommended by the dean to the provincial university. If I had attended university, I could have become a local government official."
"Is a district bigger than a county?"
"Bigger than a prefecture. There are a handful of districts in a province. How many's a handful depends, though. Each district has a population of fifty thousand households. Each district has four prefectures with a population of twelve thousand, five hundred. There are five counties to a prefecture."
"Huh." She had a hard time wrapping her head around a number like fifty thousand.
"In fact, I only made it to the district academy after my mom petitioned over and over, and she was finally able to get me admitted. If my grades were good, I knew I could go to the university and become a government official. Because I'm half-human, I won't get an allotment. But even without an allotment, I could make a decent life for myself. As it turns out, though, hanjuu aren't allowed into the provincial university."
"In order to pay my tuition to the district academy, my mom ended up selling her own allotment."
"And now she's a tenant farmer. She farms land rented from one of the richer homesteads in the area."
"Homesteads are granted by the executor for public lands. After getting permission from the government, the newly cultivated land is called a homestead. Still, my mom can work the land, but not me. People don't hire out hanjuu. The taxes are too high."
Youko tilted her head to one side. "Why's that?"
"Among the hanjuu, there are also those of us who resemble bears or cows. They are more powerful than ordinary humans. But what it comes down to is, the king doesn't like hanjuu. That's all."
"Yeah, that really sucks."
"He doesn't hate us as much as kaikyaku. I can't say we're arrested or executed or things like that. But we're not counted as part of the official census. That's why we're not given allotments or jobs. My mom has to provide for both of us. That's why we're so poor."
"I'd really like to get a job." Rakushun gestured to the purse hanging around his neck. "This is all the money my mom saved up so that I could pay the tuition at a university in En. In En, even hanjuu are admitted to the best universities in the country and become important statesmen. I'd be recognized as a legal adult, given an allotment and included in the census. I thought that if I went to En with you, I could get myself a job, too."
So it wasn't all out of the kindness of his heart, Youko thought cynically. There was no malice in it, but this was no altruistic act, either.
"Yes, it all makes perfect sense."
There was a barb in her voice that made Rakushun stop and look at Youko for a moment. But he kept his thoughts to himself.
Youko said nothing more after that. Everybody keeps their own welfare first and foremost in mind. Question an act of charity deeply enough and you'll discover a kernel of selfishness in it. That's why she begrudged nothing Rakushun had said.
Of course, Youko thought. That's why we betray one another. In the end, we're only out for number one. It doesn't matter who you are, nobody can live with another person's welfare solely in mind.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-8 That evening they arrived at a city called Kakuraku, a city as big as Kasai.
Youko had traveled with a person from this world before, but compared to then they were on a much tighter budget. They ate dinner at a roadside stand and spent the night in the cheapest inn. A single night costs fifty sen, and for that you got a bed in a big room sectioned off with folding screens. Because Rakushun was picking up the tab, Youko was in no position to complain.
Rakushun passed off Youko as his younger brother. If nobody had a problem with him having a human mother, they shouldn't have a problem with him having a human brother. And, in fact, no one gave them so much as a second glance.
It was at first an uneventful journey. As they walked along, Rakushun helpfully explained things. "The Twelve Kingdoms are made up of four Great Realms (Taikoku), four Principalities (Shuukoku), and four Outlands (Kyokukoku)."
"Four Great Realms?" Youko glanced over her shoulder at Rakushun, tottering along beside her.
"That's right. The four Great Realms are the Eastern Kingdom of Kei, the Southern Kingdom of Sou, the Western Kingdom of Han, and the Northern Kingdom of Ryuu. The Great Realms are not particularly bigger than the Principalities, but that's what they're called. The Principalities are En Shuukoku, Kyou Shuukoku, Sai Shuukoku and Kou Shuukoku. The four Outlands are Tai, Shun, Hou and Ren."
"In other words, Tai Kyokukoku, Shun Kyokukoku, Hou Kyokukoku and Ren Kyokukoku?"
"Correct. Each is ruled by a king. The Royal Kou is known as the Mountain King. His palace is in Gousou, in Ki Province. It is called Suikou, the Palace of Green Bamboo."
"Gousou is a city?"
Nodding, Rakushun pointed off to the left at the mountains coming into view. The land was very hilly here. In the distance she could see a rising line of foothills, and beyond, dimly visible, an even more formidable range of towering mountains.
"In that direction, far beyond those mountains is a mountain that reaches up to heaven. Mount Gousou. At its peak is Suikou, the Palace of Green Bamboo. Around the foot of the mountain is the city of Gousou."
"From there the king rules the country. He appoints the province lords, promulgates laws, and allocates public lands to the people."
"What do the province lords do, then?"
"The province lords are the de facto rulers of each province. They are responsible for the disposition of provincial lands, the welfare of the citizenry, and the conduct of the military. They formalize and execute the laws, conduct the census, collect taxes, and mobilize the troops in times of emergency."
"It sounds to me like the king isn't the person who's really running things."
"It is the job of the king to provide the guidelines for the administration of the government."
She didn't really understand it, but perhaps it was like the federal system in the United States.
"The king lays down what is known as the Law of the Land. The province lords can also legislate but they cannot go against the Law of the Land. And neither can the Law of the Land violate the Divine Decrees."
"The Divine Decrees?"
"The Divine Decrees are handed down to the sovereign, declaring how a kingdom must be ruled. If you think of this world as broad pavilion, the Decrees are the pillars that hold it up. They're also known as the Pillars of Heaven, or the Great Colonnade. Even kings bow to their authority. As long as a king does not tread upon the Great Colonnade, he may rule his kingdom as he sees fit."
"Huh. So who decided what this Great Colonnade was? You're not telling me it's some sort of God, are you?"
Well, Rakushun chuckled. "The story is that a long, long time ago, Tentei--the Lord God of the Heavens, the Divine Creator--vanquished the Nine Dominions and the Four Barbarian Domains that comprised the Thirteen Realms. Five gods and twelve mortals were spared and all the rest of humanity were returned to their eggs. In the center of the world, five mountains were created, and presided over by Seioubo, the Royal Mother of the West. The realm encircling the five mountains was transformed into the Yellow Sea. The five gods were appointed the Dragon Kings of the Five Seas.
"A creation myth, in other words."
"So it is. Each of the remaining twelve was given a branch of a tree. A snake coiled around each branch, and each branch bore three fruits. The snakes unwound themselves from each branch and lifted the sky to the heavens. The fruits fell down creating, in turn, the earth, a kingdom and a throne. Then each of the branches turned into a calligraphy brush."
This is was a creation myth different from any Youko had heard of.
"The snakes are the pillars of the Great Colonnade, the earth represents the census, the kingdoms stand for the law, the thrones symbolize justice and virtue, or the Saiho and the ministers of the realm, and the brush records the history of the people." Rakushun twitched his whiskers. "At that time none of us had been born, so nobody knows how true is really is."
"Naturally." When she was a lot younger, she'd read about Chinese creation myths in a children's book. She remembered none of it now. Even so, she had a hard time believing there could be any similarities. "I take it this Tentei is the head God?"
"I guess you could put it that way."
"So if you're going to pray to anybody, Tentei is the guy to pray to?"
Pray to? Rakushun seemed to say, tilting his head to the side. "Well, if you were praying for a child, yes, you would petition the Tentei."
"Other than that? What about praying for wealth and prosperity?"
"If you were asking for wealth and prosperity, you'd petition Gyoutei, the August God. Speaking of which, there are sects that worship Gyoutei. And in that same vein, to escape floods, there are those who look to Utei. To escape youma, there's Koutei."
"So there are all kinds?"
"Yes, and there are religions that worship all of them, too."
"But it's not something people normally do?"
"No need to. If the weather is good to us, the harvest will be bountiful. Whether the weather is good or bad depends on the conditions of the heavens. The rain falls on the happy and the sad, on the just and the unjust alike. When it doesn't, there's a drought. Praying about it won't do any good."
Youko was taken aback by this. "Yeah, but if there's a flood, isn't that going to cause problems for everybody?"
"In order to prevent floods, the king orders that dikes and dams be built."
"Or, say, frost damage?"
"So there won't be famine at such times, wouldn't it be up to the king to manage the distribution of food?"
I don't get this at all. What she did get was that these people weren't like the people she knew at all. "So what you're saying is, nobody says prayers to pass a test, or save money, or stuff like that."
It was Rakushun's turn to look surprised. "Don't things like that all depend on the effort of the individual involved? How would you go about praying for them?"
"Well, yeah, but . . . . "
"If you study for a test, then you'll pass. If you work hard, you'll earn money. What exactly is praying about it supposed to accomplish?"
So that's what this is all about. Youko laughed cynically to herself. Nobody crosses their fingers, nobody makes promises to God. So if you've got the chance to sell a kaikyaku into slavery, make yourself a little on the side, hey, what's the problem? Waste not, want not.
"Yeah, I guess it figures," she muttered, but there was a coldness in her words that made Rakushun look up at her and made his whiskers droop in disappointment.
It was something he usually boasted of only to himself, but Rakushun was well-studied and had an unusually sharp mind. He found it painful to think that despite this he should become a burden on his mother, and only because he was a half-human hanjuu.
Rakushun wanted to ask more about Youko and about Japan, but she had nothing more to say.
And so it was, on the sixteenth day of their journey, that the attack came.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-9 Evening approached. Goryou, the city they planned to stay in that night, had just come into view.
The travelers moving hastily along the highway had created a crush of people in front of the gates. Youko found herself caught up with them and quickened her pace. It was about five hundred yards to the gates. As if to hurry them along, from within the walls a big drum began pounding. When the drum stopped sounding, the gates would close. Everybody started running. This only added to the throngs jammed up at the gates. Then amongst the crowds somebody started yelling.
As if drawn along by the voice, a person, then two, then more looked back and up at the sky. Here and there the crowd came to a standstill. Noting this with great suspicion, Youko glanced back over her shoulder. Already she could clearly see the silhouette of a great bird. A great bird like an eagle with a horn. And there were eight of them.
The screams reverberated, a wave of humanity rushed toward Goryou. Youko and Rakushun took off at a sprint, but it was obvious that the kochou would get there ahead of them.
With total disregard to the flood of people, the huge gates began to close.
Those idiots. They certainly had the right to defend themselves against the kochou, but even if there were nobody else but those inside the gates, what good would closing the gates do against these flying monsters?
"Wait . . . !"
The cries echoed out around them. Youko suddenly pushed Rakushun away from the crowds. They were fortunately still a good distance from the gates. Had they been alone at the gates, they would have been trampled and crushed by the onslaught of people pushing and clawing their way through. It looked like some inner circle of hell.
Putting distance between her and the human tidal wave, Youko ran toward the city. She permitted herself a hollow laugh.
This is a country that asks nothing of God.
Even being attacked by youma, they expected nothing from their Gods. So they thought nothing of tearing down the people in front of them to get there faster. Yet the gates closed on the travelers as if they weren't there. Whether or not they were being attacked by youma, wasn't it up to them to keep on their toes? And wasn't being rescued or not all up to them, solely the product of their own efforts?
"The fools," she said aloud. This bunch couldn't be more powerless.
That sound grew nearer, like the wails of a crying baby. Youko stopped on the spot. Running along next to her, Rakushun looked back over his shoulder and shouted, "No, Youko, it's pointless! We won't make it!"
"You keep heading toward the city!"
The circling kochou was now close enough that she could see the spots on his breast. Glaring at it, she again motioned Rakushun toward the gate. She undid the shroud wrapped around the sword. That familiar sensation crawled along her skin. She was used to Jouyuu's touch by now and did not find it unpleasant at all. A smile came to her lips.
It's not pointless.
The kochou were taking their time. There were only eight of them and her sword would easily pierce their fat flesh. All a bigger foe meant was a bigger target. At the intervals they were gliding in, it would be easy enough to pick them off.
It'd been a while since she'd gone toe-to-toe with her enemies. Her gleeful self was looking forward to it. Her wounds had healed, she had energy to spare, and no doubts about defeating them. Hearing the cries of the people who could do nothing but run--many of whom would otherwise be hunting her--sent a strange thrill up her spine.
A rancid smell was in the wind. She prepared herself as the flock of kochou dove toward her. The blood boiled in her veins, the sound of raging seas roared in her ears.
I am an animal, a beast. No doubt about it, I am a youma.
That's why meeting her enemies on the field of battle was such a great joy.
The slaughter began. The slaughter of kochou, the slaughter of humans.
She felled the first one that came at her, and the second. By the time she had four down and four to go, the road was a river of blood. The fifth dropped on her like a crashing plane. She cut off its head, dodged the sixth. The sixth grazed her with its talons, tore through a bunch of travelers behind her and rose back into the sky.
Youko stood her ground and did her job. She'd long ago become used to the scent of blood, to the sensation of severing flesh and bone. The sight of dead bodies no longer aroused within her any sensitive feelings. To parry and kill, to draw blood and retreat, when it came down to it, that was all she cared about
She struck down the seventh and looked up at the sky. The eighth kochou was maintaining altitude, turning circles high in the air, as if confused about what to do next. The falling dusk turned the sky the color of rust. The dark shadow of the youma bird passed by overhead. No matter what powers Jouyuu gave her, she could not chase a kochou into the sky.
"Come on down," Youko muttered to herself. Come into the reach of my claws.
As she stared up at the wheeling shadow, she also searched the landscape out of the corners of her eyes. Her foes had appeared in the light of day. And that meant that the woman, the golden-haired woman, had to be around somewhere.
If she was anywhere nearby, Youko would grab her. She could do that now. She'd grab her and find out what she was up to. And if the woman didn't have anything to say, Youko was pretty sure lopping off an arm would get her into a talking mood.
As she turned over the possibilities in her mind, she found herself aghast. Where did such ferocity come from? As if the nature of the beast was revealing itself to her. Or perhaps she was simply intoxicated from so much blood.
The shadow overhead suddenly changed the angle of its movements. Here it comes. Youko regripped the sword and strengthened her hold on the hilt. But in the moment she raised the sword, the bird corrected its course and once again climbed vigorously into the sky.
"C'mon!" she yelled. "Bring it on!"
Did a youma hold its own life as precious? They'd had no problem attacking people up till today! Youko flipped the sword around and sank it into the corpse of the kochou at her feet. "You don't come at me!" she shouted, fully intending her words to be understood, "I'll cut your buddy here to pieces! How's them apples, huh?"
The wheeling kochou suddenly plunged earthward, streaking toward her like an arrow. In a flash, Youko yanked the sword out of the corpse, flicked the flowering blood off the steel, parried the sharp, hooked talons and ran the sword through the bird's legs.
The bird raised a strange cry, beat its wings. A great wind buffeted her as it tried to take itself back into the air, and her along with it. Youko stepped on its feet, freed the sword and sank the blade into its torso. She did not sense an immediate response to her thrust, but when she jumped back a moment later, pulling out the sword, blood gushed onto the ground.
It was easy work after that. Unable to hold itself aloft, the bird crashed to the earth. After a second strike and a third, she delivered the coup de grace and cut off its head. Nothing around her moved as she whipped the sword around in a great arc, flinging off the gore.
Not only the kochou but people as well lay in heaps on the road. She could hear moaning, so that meant that not all of them were dead. Dispassionately observing all of this, she wiped off the sword using the neck of the kochou. She reminded herself, I said I didn't want anybody coming with me.
"Rakushun . . . . ?"
When she looked back up the road toward Goryou, she could just make out that the gates had opened wide enough to allow a line of soldiers to stream out.
She again surveyed the ground between herself and the city gates. Some distance removed from her, she spotted a fallen creature. Its gray fur was soaked with blood that had turned its coat a dark red.
She started to run toward him, then looked again at the city gates. The soldiers pouring through the gates were calling out to each other, but she couldn't catch what they were saying. She estimated the distance to Rakushun and the distance from him to the gates. She couldn't judge the extent of his wounds from here, but doubted that all the blood muddying his fur had come from kochou crumpled up on the ground close by.
Youko grasped the jewel hanging around her neck. She didn't know if the jewel worked with everybody or if, like the sword, they only responded to her. But if the jewel was not particular about the patient, it would likely help Rakushun.
Thinking this, she held the jewel, unable to move. She should run to him, determine the state of his injuries and see whether the jewel had the power to help him. As far as Rakushun was concerned, that would undoubtedly be the best thing to do. But all the while she was treating him with the jewel the soldiers would be approaching. And the distance between them was simply not that great.
Standing there amidst the fallen bodies, Youko stood out like a sore thumb. Anybody observing from afar would have seen the kochou going at her and would know it had been her taking them down. That would strike anybody as more than a little suspicious.
She had a sword without a scabbard. It would take another two seconds to figure out that her hair was dyed. That she was a kaikyaku was as plain as the nose on her face.
But if I take off now. . . . She looked at the prone, unmoving matt of fur. She didn't think Rakushun would inform on her if she ran away and abandoned him here.
The sword that was the slender bundle she was carrying--the color of her dyed hair--dressed like a man--traveling to En by way of Agan--if such things were revealed, the noose would quickly draw tightly around her neck. But she didn't have the physical strength to haul Rakushun along with her.
For Rakushun's own good, she ought to go back. And for her own good . . . .
The blood throbbed in her veins. Go over there and put him out of his misery.
Are you crazy? a voice asked inside her head. Who was exhorting her to do such things? She didn't have time to second-guess herself. If Rakushun said too much, Youko wouldn't last long. She couldn't go back. She'd be throwing her own life away. She couldn't cast Rakushun aside like this. That was just as dangerous.
If she went back, the best she could do was find Rakushun's purse and take it with her. At least then she'd have a chance to get herself out of this predicament. She had time to do that. And nothing else.
The gate opened wider. More and more people rushed out. She took one look at the approaching stampede and instinctively retreated.
Once she made her move, she wasn't going to stop. She spun around. The remaining travelers rushing in from the highway were on top of her. She slipped through the crowds and left the scene at a sprint.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
5-10 The falling dark cast the road into shadows. It'll be okay, she told herself as she walked along with hurried steps. It will.
After the night turned black and the pedestrian traffic vanished, she ran on without caring how it looked. Some ways from Goryou she turned at an intersection, leaving behind both the road they had started their journey on that morning, and the road to Goryou.
She had come far enough, but she kept going. No longer in a headlong fashion, but with that pervasive sense of being pursued.
It'll be okay, she told herself again.
Even if Rakushun fessed up about her, they didn't have photographs in this place, so she didn't think they'd catch up with her. Besides, wouldn't Rakushun cover up his own involvement? He was unlikely to start talking about the kaikyaku who'd left him behind and taken off by herself, for fear of being thought guilty by association.
As she repeated this to herself, Youko stopped in her tracks. She felt a hole open up in her soul.
It was not the kind of thing she ought to be thinking about now.
Was Rakushun okay? Youko hadn't seen any severe wounds on him, but she couldn't know for certain that he wasn't badly injured.
Go back, a voice inside her said. She should go back and see how Rakushun was doing, and then make her escape.
Too dangerous, another voice said. Go back and you likely won't be able to do a thing.
You've got the jewel, a voice answered.
That didn't mean they'd do Rakushun any good. He could already be dead. Go back and she'd be captured. Get captured and it'd all be for naught. Get captured and she'd end up dead.
Is your life that precious to you?
There's no reason it shouldn't be.
You're stabbing your Good Samaritan in the back.
He didn't necessarily help me because he's good.
That doesn't change the reality of what he did. He gave you shelter and a place to hide.
He had his reasons. It wasn't out of the kindness of his heart. A person like that will betray you eventually.
So it's okay to abandon someone if their intentions aren't perfect? Do you really want to go down that road?
That place was filled with the dead and the dying, and amongst them was someone she knew, who knew her. And she was just going to cast him aside? Shouldn't she at least lend a helping hand? If she did, there were surely some people who might make it through alive.
Don't start glossing over reality with empty gestures, not in this country. When your number's up, that's it. Lights out.
It's not an empty gesture. No, it's what people naturally do of their own accord. How could she forget that?
"Even now, at this late hour, you're going on about your principles, little girl?"
Even now, little girl. Even now!
"Yes, yes. Do go back and finish him off."
Youko jumped at the piercing sound of that screeching voice. The blue monkey's head appeared in the brush along the shoulder of the road. "Isn't that what you have been considering all along? Isn't it?"
"I . . . . " Youko stared at the blue monkey. Her whole body trembled.
"Indeed, that's what you plan to do, no? And look at you, little girl, preaching yourself up a regular old sermon and all. You! Now!"
The monkey broke into gales of mad laughter.
"No . . . it isn't."
"Oh, yes, it is. That is exactly what you were thinking."
"I would never do something like that!"
"Yes, you would."
"I wouldn't have. I couldn't!"
The monkey cackled gaily. "Is that because the thought of murder frightens you, or because you wanted to murder him, but just couldn't screw up the courage?" The monkey screeched, looking at her cheerfully. "Don't you trust me? That's okay. You'll do it next time."
The blue monkey laughed on, ignoring her, the shrill sound remorselessly stabbing at her ears.
"I'm going back."
"Even if you do, he's long dead."
"I don't know that."
"He's dead, I say. Go back and you'll be captured and killed. What's the point?"
"I'm going back anyway."
"Well. You think doing so will wash away your sins, no?"
Youko turned on her heels, and stopped.
"Oh, going back is good. So you go back, you look down at his dead body, you have yourself a good cry. It'd cancel out all those murderous thoughts just like that!"
Youko stared dumbfounded at the monkey's cackling countenance. She was taking to herself. This was the sound of her own wretched voice. This was nothing other than the substance of her soul.
"He will surely betray you. Best you take care of it before then, no?"
"Soldiers may be headed this way right now! That rat ratted you out for sure!"
"Shut up!" She took hold of the hilt of the sword and swung. The leafy tips of the bushes rained to the ground.
"Dying's good, but snuffing out his candle would be perfect. You're still so naive, little girl."
"Next time, then. Next time something like this happens, you'll be sure to get the deed done."
"Quit messing with me!" A whusk of air and more leaves dropped to the ground.
And if she did get the deed done, then what? If only abandoning him left such a weight on her heart, how could she go on living with murder on her conscience? Did her existence by itself trump all? Did it matter what miserable depths she sank to as long as she could stay alive?
"I'm glad I didn't kill him." She was glad she hadn't acted rashly, hadn't succumbed to temptation, and hadn't put her thoughts into action.
The monkey laughed her to scorn. "So you're just going to leave him alive to squeal on you?"
"Fine if he does!" She felt a tightness in her chest as the tears welled up. "He's got the right. Let him complain about me all he wants!"
"Oh, so naive, so naive."
Why couldn't she trust people anymore? It wasn't because she was afraid of being taken in. Even if she was, she should have been able to trust him.
"It's because you think credulous things like that. It's because you're such an easy mark, so easy to take advantage of."
"It'd be fine with me if he did."
"How gullible you are!" The monkey's laughter rent the night. "Really? Truly? Being played for the fool is just peachy with you?"
"If that's what it comes down to, yes. The betrayer only betrays his cowardice. It does me no harm. But better betrayed than be the betrayer."
"Of course the betrayer is a coward, but in this demon-haunted world, he's the one who comes out on top. No one will show you the slightest speck of kindness, little girl. Such souls do not exist here."
"That has nothing to do with me."
Because they tracked her down and drove her into a corner, was that reason enough to reject her own humanity? Was it reason enough to spurn anybody who approached her with good intentions? And then if their motives were not as pure as the driven snow, reason enough not to trust them in the least? If people showed her no more kindness than this, was that reason enough to show them no kindness as well?
"No, it is not."
Whether she trusted others had nothing to do with whether or not she was betrayed. Whether or not others were kind to her had nothing to do with whether she was kind to them in turn. Even if she were all alone in this big, wide world, if not a single person would help her or grieve for her, that gave her no cause to play the jaded coward, to abandon those in need, to bring harm upon perfect strangers.
The monkey laughed hysterically. His earsplitting shrieks went on and on.
"I want to be strong."
She firmly gripped the hilt of the sword. It had nothing to do with this world or these people. She wanted to live with her head held high. She wanted to be strong.
The monkey suddenly stopped laughing. "You are going to die. You will never go home. No one will see your face again. You'll be deceived and betrayed. You will die."
"I'm not going to die."
If she died here, she'd die a fool and a coward. Dying now would validate the worst part of herself. It'd be easy to brand her life as one not worth living, but she couldn't permit herself such an easy way out.
"You will die. You will starve, you will tire, you will lose your head and you will die."
She swung the sword with all her might. The tip of the sword trimmed off the tops of the bushes and parted the air. She felt a strong reverberation in her arm. The monkey's head tumbled down amidst the falling leaves, falling to the earth, scattering clots of blood as it rolled along.
"I will never give up."
She could not stop crying.
She wiped away the tears with a stiff sleeve and started to leave. The color of gold glinted at her feet. For a long moment, Youko could not grasp what she was seeing. She stared, amazed. There it was, in the middle of a pool of dark blood where the monkey's head should be, what she had lost so long ago.
The scabbard of the sword.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love