PRICES GO UP AT THE GATE
ouko said, "He's about this tall." She grabbed hold of a passerby and indicated the height of a human child. "You haven't seen someone who looks like a rat?"
The old woman regarded Youko suspiciously. "What's this about? A hanjuu?"
"Yes. I heard that he was injured last night at the city gates."
"Oh, you mean that kochou attack." As she spoke, the old woman looked back over her shoulder. Goryou was visible in the distance. "Well, if you're talking about them people injured yesterday, they'd be in one of those government buildings. The government is tending to their needs."
It was the answer Youko had been hearing all morning.
She'd waited until morning to return to Goryou, but with the guards at the gate going over everybody with a fine-toothed comb, getting into the city would be well-nigh impossible. Even if she thought checking out the municipal buildings was a good idea, there was no way she'd get anywhere near the place.
"Why not go to city hall and see for yourself?"
"Yes, well, um, he didn't seem to be there."
"In that case, you'd better check around the back."
With that, the old woman resumed her journey. Around the back of the city was where the corpses were piled up in rows. Youko could see them from a distance, but even there the guards had their eyes peeled. She couldn't get close enough to tell if Rakushun was among the dead.
The old lady had a big pack on her back. Youko helped her on her way and then approached the next group of travelers coming from Goryou.
"Excuse me," she said, flagging down a man and woman. The man's foot was wrapped in bandages and he was using a cane. Youko repeated the same questions she had asked the old lady. They looked back at her with dubious expressions.
"Yesterday, a friend of mine was injured . . . . "
"You!" The man abruptly pointed at Youko. "I don't believe it! From yesterday, you're that kid . . . . "
Youko spun around. She didn't need to hear the rest.
"Hey, wait a minute!"
Youko ignored him and ran off, darting through the lines of travelers.
The man's injuries had no doubt been inflicted during the attack. And he'd remembered her. Since this morning, she'd had to flee like this a number of times. And every time she returned the number of guards at the gate increased. The city was getting that much harder to approach.
She left Goryou and went into the foothills and waited for things to calm down. If she kept at it like this, she was sure to be arrested. But even knowing this, she couldn't leave Goryou.
Even if I do find out, then what?
She had to find out how Rakushun had fared. It wasn't because she was trying to make up for abandoning him behind yesterday. That sin had been committed and there was no taking it back. Even if she got word that he was okay, she wouldn't go into the city just to apologize to him. The guards would be on her in a second. And her death wouldn't end up meaning anything more than that, after all.
I haven't the slightest idea what to do next.
On the one hand, she had the sense that she was thinking too highly of her miserable existence. On the other, she had no desire to recklessly throw her life away. Unable to come to a resolution either way, she couldn't bring herself to put Goryou behind her.
She wandered around, returning time and time again to the gates of Goryou. She approached traveler after traveler asking the same questions and getting the same answers. She found herself at a complete loss.
"Well, hello there."
Somebody called out behind her. Youko's initial impulse was to run. But as she glanced over her shoulder, among the faces in the crowd she saw a woman and child looking back at her.
"We met outside Bakurou, didn't we?"
Youko stopped in her tracks, momentarily overcome with surprise. It was the mother and child she had met some time ago on a mountain road. They were syrup peddlers and they traveled with their merchandise strapped to their backs. They were still carrying those big packs.
"This is wonderful. You're all right." The mother smiled a rather puzzled smile. Her daughter looked up at Youko with an even more perplexed look on her face.
"Your injuries healed up okay, I take it?"
After a moment of confusion, Youko nodded and then bowed her head more deeply. "Thank you very much for what you did."
She had brushed aside the helping hand they held out to her and ventured into the mountains. She had thanked them with words, but not from the bottom of her heart.
"It is good to see you again. We worried about you." The woman smiled, this time a less-labored smile. "You see, Gyokuyou, she's fine."
She looked down at the girl, who was staring up at Youko with that confused expression on her face. The girl snuggled closer to her mother. Youko tried to smile and realized that she hadn't smiled in a long time. The muscles in her face were stiff and unresponsive. It hardly felt like a smile at all.
Gyokuyou blinked and with a peevish expression tried to hide herself behind her mother Youko leaned over and forced a smile to her lips. If they hadn't given her water and the sweet syrup, she would not have survived the night. "I'll always be grateful for the water and candy you gave me."
The girl glanced back and forth between Youko and her mother. She started to laugh, and then, perhaps feeling self-conscious, grew serious again. But a moment later she giggled. The look on her face was so endearing and childlike, it almost brought Youko to tears.
"I really am grateful. I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to properly thank you."
A smile filled Gyokuyo's face. "Did it hurt?" she asked.
"Were you in a bad mood because it hurt so much?"
"Oh, yes. I'm sorry."
"It doesn't hurt any more?"
"No. It's healed up fine." She showed her the fading scar in her hand. She wondered if either of them would notice that the wound had healed much faster than normal.
Gyokuyou glanced up at her mother. "She says it's healed," she said.
Her mother's eyes brightened. "That's wonderful. After we got to Bakurou, we wanted to come back and find you. But by the time we arrived, the gates were already closing and none of the guards had the guts to go out after nightfall. Are you looking for someone?"
"We're headed for Goryou as well. Do you want to come with?"
Youko could only shake her head, no.
"Well, then," the mother said. She took her daughter by the hand. "Gyokuyou, let's go to the inn." Then she looked at Youko. "Who are you searching for? A hanjuu, isn't it?"
Youko stared at her.
"He'd probably be in one of the government buildings, or around in the back. What's his name?"
"His name is Rakushun."
She hitched up the big pack on her back and said, almost as if in passing, "You stay here and we'll go and see."
Youko bowed deeply. "Thank you."
It was toward sundown when the woman returned, alone. She reported that she hadn't found anybody called Rakushun among the living or the dead and then hurried back to the city. She gave no indication that she understood the details of Youko's actual circumstances.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
6-2 Having confirmed this much, Youko gave up on the effort. Maybe Rakushun had left the city without her knowledge. Maybe the woman had overlooked him. There was no way for her to know for sure.
Standing on the highway outside Goryou, Youko faced the city and bowed. She understood only that this was some sort of divine retribution. And that here, in this place, she had come at last to the line she could not cross.
She traveled during the night, slept during the day. Her old life resumed. Having traveled this way so often, Youko's experiences of this country were of nothing but night.
Because Rakushun had been carrying the purse, she had no money. The nights she spent fighting the youma, the days she spent sleeping hungry in the undergrowth. The days all ran together. She didn't have time to feel sorry for herself. This time around she had a goal, she had a destination. She was going to Agan and then sailing to the Kingdom of En. She couldn't be bothered to think about anything other than how she could come up with the money for the voyage.
After the old kaikyaku in Takkyuu ripped her off, Youko figured she'd wandered around for at least a month. With nothing to eat or drink, drawing on the powers of the jewel, that had proved her limit. With that understanding, this time around she was far more confident than on her previous adventures.
The blue monkey did not reappear. Since reclaiming the scabbard, the visions had gone dormant as well. The faint sounds of falling water would chime and light would shine out of the narrow gap where the scabbard rested against the hilt, but she didn't dare to draw the sword from the scabbard to see what the visions had in store for her. Instead, she forged on in silence, persistently pushing herself forward.
What a despicable thing to do. Do you really think your own life is so precious?
As she walked along, the blue monkey's words echoed in her heart. He was the substance of her own conscience to begin with, so she didn't need him around to hear his voice clearly.
"Yes, it is."
But still the kind of life that throws a Good Samaritan to the wolves, no?
"It may not be worth much, but right now it's the only life I've got. That's the way it is."
You should have turned yourself in. That would have made up for everything, no?
"I'll consider it once I get to En."
It seemed she could even hear the monkey's cackling laughter. In other words, your life is the only life that matters around here.
"You got it. As long as I'm being hunted down, staying alive is what counts. Once I don't have that to worry about anymore, once I'm back to living a real life, on my own terms, then I'll think about what sort of life I should be living. Then I'll have time to think things over and make amends."
Right now, all that mattered was staying alive.
And killing youma and putting people to the sword.
"For the time being, I don't have a choice. The only thing worth thinking about is getting to En as quickly as possible, no time for detours. If I can get to En, then at least I'll be able to face my enemies and settle things without using a sword."
So once you get to En, you think all your troubles will go away?
"Not likely, but I've got to find Keiki. I've got to find a way home. There will be plenty of other things to think about then."
You still think Keiki is your ally? Really?
"I'll decide when we meet. I'm not dwelling on it in the meantime."
Even if you do meet Keiki, you're not going home.
"Until I know that for certain, I'm not giving up."
You want to go home that badly? Nobody is waiting for you.
"I don't care. I'm going home."
Back in her old world, Youko had conducted her life based on what she saw in other people's faces. She lived to be liked by everyone, disliked by no one. Confrontation terrified her. The thought of being scolded scared her to death. After this, she didn't think that anything would be very frightening.
Or perhaps it had never been about cowardice at all. Perhaps she had simply been lazy. It was easier to do as other people said than think for herself. Rather than go to the wall for somebody or something, it was easier to go along and avoid confrontation. Being the good girl everybody wanted her to be was easier than following her own mind and taking things on as they came. She had lived a lazy, cowardly life. That's why she wanted to go back. If she could go home now, she could make a different life for herself. She wanted to at least have the chance to try.
She quietly pondered these thoughts as she walked along.
The rains increased. It may have been the rainy season. Camping outdoors was a pain when it rained so she often stopped at one of the secluded hamlets along the way and asked for shelter.
There were those who would let her stay in the corner of a barn and those who wanted money. There were those who called the constables on her, as well as those who looked in the mood to give her a good beating and throw her out in the street. On the other hand, there were those who, despite their meager circumstances, would give her a meal to eat.
Along the way she figured out she could work in exchange for a night's room and board. In exchange for lodging, she'd put herself in the employ of that family. She found herself all types of jobs. She worked in the fields, cleaned houses, did odd jobs, looked after livestock and mucked out the styes, dug graves, and anything else that came down the pike.
Thanks to these jobs, she got herself a bed for the night and put aside a bit of money as well.
She wandered from hamlet to hamlet, picking up work along the way. If trouble presented itself, she drew her sword and got out of there. If the constables were called out, everybody would get skittish for a while and it was back to roughing it until things cooled down. She was often attacked by youma, their numbers increasing bit by bit, but she was also getting used to fighting her enemies.
She'd been traveling for a month when she spotted what seemed to be a bunch of gendarmes coming up the road after her. If she sought lodging, she'd leave a trail that could be tracked. She couldn't go leaving her calling card behind while she was being pursued or they would catch up with her eventually. But she knew all this and didn't let it knock her off her game.
She headed up into the mountains and managed to shake them, but after that she saw soldiers on the road more and more often.
The only thing that concerned her was if Agan had been locked down in the meantime. When she got closer to Agan, she did without lodging. She separated herself from the main road and became more careful about attracting unwanted attention, forging through the mountains instead.
Rakushun had said that it was a month's walk to Agan, but by the time the harbor came into view, a full two months had passed.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
6-3 Before the gates of Agan, Youko flagged down a fellow traveler. "Um, excuse me."
The city of Agan was situated on the slopes of a hilly terrain. Descending the road that wound down from the highlands, the Port of Agan came into view.
The so-called Blue Sea really was blue, the waves breaking on the shore white. Within the embrace of the peninsula that encircled the Agan coast, white sails floated on the blue, transparent sea. Beyond the peninsula she could see the unbroken horizon. How this world could be flat was a mystery to her.
A number of roads came together at the gates of Agan. The city was big, and a great many people were going in and coming out. She slipped in amongst the crowds and called out to what looked like a good-natured person.
"Excuse me, but could you tell me how to get a ship to En?"
The middle-aged man politely instructed her. She also inquired about the price of a ticket. She'd managed to scrape together enough money during her journey to get her to En.
"When does the next ship depart?"
"A passenger ship leaves every five days. The next one is three days from today."
Youko confirmed the ship's departure time. If she messed this up and the harbor got closed down, it'd all be for naught. She asked about everything she thought she might need to know, and then bowed. "Thank you very much. You've been a great help."
She left Agan at once and spent the next two days in the mountains. The ship was scheduled to leave in the morning. The day before she again went to the gates of Agan.
The guards were on their toes. Because she would have to spend the night in the town, she couldn't do anything to attract any suspicion. Youko looked at her sword, wrapped up in its cloth shroud. Now at least she had the scabbard. Still, she didn't see many travelers wearing swords on their belts, so it wouldn't do to stand out in the crowd.
If not for the sword, the risk here would be less. She'd given much thought to discarding the sword here in Kou, but even if she could, she had no desire to. As long as she was being pursed by the youma, it was necessary for her survival. It just wasn't a sword the guards were on the lookout for, so she didn't think getting rid of it would by itself improve her situation.
She cut some long grass in the mountains and wrapped the sword up in a bundle that, at a glance, would not be taken for a sword. Toward evening, she crouched on the road holding the bundle and waited for the right opportunity.
Soon after she sat down, she heard a man's voice. "Hey, kid, what's the problem?"
"Oh, it's nothing. Just my foot acting up."
The man gave her a suspicious look and hurried on toward Agan. She watched him leave and continued to sit there. After the third such inquiry, she spotted the kind of companions she was looking for, a man and wife with two children. "What's the matter?" she was asked.
"I guess I'm not feeling very well."
Youko didn't look up as she spoke. The woman reached out and touched her. "Are you all right?"
Youko only shook her shoulders. If this didn't work, if she couldn't gin up some sympathy for her plight, she'd have to dump the sword and risk the consequences. The strain was enough to make her break out in a real sweat.
"Are you sick? You're almost to Agan. Can you walk that far?"
Youko nodded slightly. The man put his arm around her. "Well, then, hold on. It's only a little further. You can make it."
Youko nodded again and put her hand on his shoulder. When she stood up, she intentionally let the bundle fall to the ground. When she stooped to get it, the woman picked it up for her and said to the children. "Why don't you carry this. It's not heavy."
She handed it to the boy and his younger sister. They took it with a serious looks on their faces.
"Can you walk? We can summon the guards, if you'd like."
Youko shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'll be okay. My friends already went ahead and are getting a room."
The man laughed. "Is that so? You've got somebody with you, that's great."
Youko nodded, clinging gently to the man's shoulder as they walked along. She intended to appear beholding to the man helping her, while garnering as much sympathy as possible from the people around them.
They drew nearer to the gates. The guards flanking the gates were inspecting the stream of people hurrying toward them. She passed through the gates. She felt eyes on her, but no one raised his voice. After putting a bit of distance between her and the gates, Youko finally allowed herself to breathe. When she peeked back over her shoulder, the gates were far enough away that she could not make out the faces of the guards.
Sighing with relief, Youko took her hand off the man's shoulder. "Thank you. I'm feeling much better."
"Will you be okay? We can take you as far as the inn."
"That's okay. I'll be fine from here. I'm really grateful for your help."
She bowed deeply. I apologize for lying to you, she said in her heart.
The man and wife exchanged glances. "Take care," they said.
The city was bustling with refugees. Worried about falling under the wary eye of an innkeeper, she found an open space along the city walls and spent the night there.
The welcome morning finally came. Youko followed the city streets to the harbor. The streets opened up as she approached the water, ending at a shabby wharf. A ship was tied up at the pier. It looked rather small to Youko's eyes, but it was bigger than all the other ships lying at anchor.
"There it is . . . . "
As the wharf grew nearer, a flood of emotions filled her chest. She stopped. Soldiers were inspecting the line of passengers boarding the ship. For a moment everything went dark. They were searching the passengers' luggage as well.
She had no desire to get rid of the sword. She'd managed to get this close staying in the shadows, and could get no closer. Youko stared at the guards and passengers.
Do I lose the sword?
She'd lose her primary means of defense, but it was better than staying behind in Kou. Yet thinking this, seeing the water not far from where she stood, she couldn't bring herself to do it. It was what tied her to Keiki. Lose it and she'd sever the half of her connection to him. It'd be as much as severing her ties to her home.
What to do?
She turned the question over and over in her mind and could not come to a decision. She looked around the harbor. Was there any way to get to En and keep the sword? Several small boats were moored there. Could she steal one of them?
I haven't the slightest idea how to sail a boat.
She'd heard that the Blue Sea was an inland sea. So while she couldn't imagine how long it would take, she ought to be able to make it to En by following the shoreline. Dazed by the tumult of her own thoughts, she suddenly heard the loud pounding of a drum. She looked up, startled. The sound was coming from the deck of the ship. It was the signal that the ship would soon be departing. The line of passengers was gone. The soldiers were standing idly by.
I'm not going to make it.
Even if she made a run for it now, the guards would grab her. There wasn't enough time to undo the bundle and take out the sword. And if she dumped everything, it would look equally suspicious trying to board a ship without any luggage at all. Frozen with indecision, she watched as the ship raised its sail.
The gangplank was withdrawn. Youko jumped out from her hiding place. The ship edged slowly away from the pier, where the guards stood observing the departure. She ran toward it, but could not risk getting any closer. She watched dumbfounded as the ship set sail. The image of the white sails burned into her retinas.
If I do it now, I can jump.
Ideas raced through her head, but she could not act on any of them.
That's my ticket out of here.
Hugging the bundle to her chest, eyes wide, she could do nothing but watch the ship sail away. So much had depended on her making this escape, and she didn't think she would recover from the shock.
"What's the matter?" a rough voice said. "Miss your ride?"
Youko started, the gravelly voice bringing herself back to her senses. Down where the piles of the wharf were driven into the earth, she saw a vessel. Four men were working on the deck. One of them was looking up at her.
Youko nodded stiffly. The next ship wasn't for five more days. Those five days would probably settle her fate.
"Well, come on, kid. You want a ride or no?"
For a moment, Youko didn't grasp what he was saying and only stared.
"Hurry up, then. You got other plans?"
Youko shook her head. The sailor grabbed hold of the rope tied to the bollard next to her. "Loosen that up there and jump aboard. We'll catch up with them at Fugou. But you've got to work for your passage."
The other sailors thought that was a pretty funny offer. Youko nodded as resolutely as she could. She undid the rope from the bollard and, holding it tightly, jumped down onto the deck.
It was a cargo ship that went as far as the island of Fugou, just north of Agan. It was a full twenty-four hours to Fugou. From Fugou to En there were no more ports of call.
Save a ferry ride on a school field trip once, Youko had never been on a boat. And this was certainly the first time in her life she'd been on a sailing vessel.
She had no idea what she was doing, but every time one of the sailors barked at her she hauled something here or straightened up something there and generally chased her own tail around the ship. When they left the coast and the ship settled into its course, she found herself being told to do this, that, and the other thing, from scrubbing the dishes to cooking dinner. Finally, they even had her massaging the legs of some old salt of a first mate. Whenever anybody asked her about herself, she mumbled a half-hearted reply and they laughed about how she was a reticent little brat but thankfully didn't pry any more into her affairs.
The ship sailed on through the night without rest, and arrived at Fugou harbor the next morning.
The ship bound for En had already arrived and was resting quietly in its berth. The sailors worked Youko right up to the last minute. At last, not even coming into dock, they brought the boat alongside the passenger ship and called out to one of the seamen and requested that Youko be allowed to come aboard. Clinging to a pole that was lowered to the boat, she was hauled onto the ship. Coming aboard, somebody threw a small parcel up onto the deck.
"Some dumplings for you. Put a little meat on your bones."
One of the sailors on the boat waved to her. Youko picked up the parcel and waved back. "Thank you."
"You're a good worker. Take care, now."
They laughed goodheartedly. The men hauling up the fender--Youko had been the one who'd lowered it--were the last people she saw as she left Kou.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
6-4 The inner sea was so wide that Youko could not see the opposing shore. Standing on the deck, breathing in the salt spray, it looked like a perfectly normal sea. The ship left Fugou and crossed the bright blue water, heading north to Ugou as the bird flies. From Fugou to Ugou it was a journey of three days and two nights.
When the coast of En first came into view, it looked no different than Kou. But as the ship drew closer, the differences became apparent. A well-maintained harbor and the huge city looming up behind it. Ugou was bigger than any city Youko had seen in Kou. Save for the buildings, she could have been looking at a city in Japan. It was obvious that a fair percentage of the passengers gathered on the deck were seeing Ugou for the first time, too, and along with Youko stared in amazement.
The city itself was set off to the side of the harbor, surrounded by walls that enclosed the city in the shape of a "U." The city wound leisurely up the side of the facing mountains. In the distance, the richly-colored architectural decor ran together into a subdued, rosy hue. Around the circumference of the city and about its center, she observed tall, finely-built stone buildings. One was a clock tower, and her eyes opened wide as she saw it.
The harbor was developed to a degree to which Agan could not compare. The number of ships lying at anchor far outstripped those at Agan. The harbor was alive and bustling. The masts stood together like trees. The furled white and faded, ruddy brown sails accented the gorgeous panorama. Having finally arrived here after escaping such a harsh country, Youko gazed at it all as if there could be nothing else to compare to such a spectacle.
Descending from the ship, Youko looked out over the throngs. This was a city that left its inhabitants in good spirits. The faces of the people streaming by were full of vitality and life, and her own face was likely the same. Down on the dock, Youko found herself in the midst of bedlam. Men working madly, children running around doing heavens knows what, the voices of people and peddlers, thrumming together in a frenzied rhythm.
She was standing there on the pier when the voice called out to her.
Her head snapped around at the sound of a voice she could not have possibly expected. She saw the charcoal-gray coat, fine whiskers gleaming silver in the light of the midday sun.
"Rakushun . . . . "
The rat pushed his way through the crowds to Youko's side. With his small, pink paw he grabbed the bewildered Youko by the hand. "This is so great. You arrived safely."
"How . . . ?"
"Take a ship from Agan and you're bound to arrive in Ugou. I've been waiting for you."
Rakushun nodded. He tugged on Youko's hand. She was still frozen with surprise.
"I waited for a while at Agan. When you didn't turn up, I thought maybe you'd gone on ahead of me. But there was neither hide nor hair of you here. So I decided that every time a ship came into port, I'd come down and look for you. I figured you might have gotten delayed, but made it through just the same."
The rat looked up at Youko and smiled.
"But why, for me?"
Rakushun rounded his back and bowed his head. "I wasn't thinking. I should have let you have the money, at least half. You must have had a rough time of it getting here. I'm sorry about that."
"But . . . I'm the one who ran off and left you behind."
"I blame myself for that as well. I really messed up." The rat smiled bitterly. "And a good thing you did run. If the guards had arrested you, then what? Better if I had told you myself and given you the purse, but I kind of got myself knocked out cold."
"Rakushun . . . . "
"I was really worried about what happened to you after that. I'm glad to see you're okay."
"It's not like I abandoned you because I had to."
"Really. The idea of traveling with another person gave me the willies. I didn't think I could trust anybody. I thought I was surrounded by no one but my enemies. That's why."
Rakushun twitched his whiskers. "Does that include me now?"
Youko shook her head.
"All's well, then. Well, let's get going."
"Don't you hate me for double-crossing you?"
"I might think you a fool for doing so, but, no, I don't have any particular reason to hate you."
"I even thought of going back and killing you."
Rakushun started to walk off, still holding her hand. He stopped in his tracks. "You know, Youko . . . . "
"To tell the truth, when I realized that you had gone off and left me there, I was a little let down. Only a little. I knew that you didn't trust me. The whole time, you were worried I was going to try and pull something. Still, along the way, I had hoped the truth would sink in. When you ran off without me, I knew you hadn't. So I was a little disappointed. But if you've finally come to your senses, then it's all good."
"It's not all good. You've got every reason in the world to tell me good riddance and send me packing."
"Whether I do or not, that's up to me, isn't it? I wished for you to trust me. If you do, then that makes me happy. If not, then not so much. But that's my problem. Whether you trust me or not, that's up to you. Trusting me may be to your benefit or to your loss. But that's your problem."
Youko humbly bowed her head. "Rakushun, you're--awesome!"
"Hey, hey, what's this all of a sudden?"
"It's just that I get myself into these snits and convince myself that I have no friends in this world."
"Youko." Rakushun tugged on her arm with his small hand.
"I am so totally messed up."
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am."
"You're not, Youko. After all, I'm not the one who was washed ashore in a strange land and then chased around it from one end to the other."
For a moment Youko stared down at Rakushun's face. Rakushun looked up at her and laughed. "You've really pulled yourself together, Youko. You're in a fine fettle."
"I knew it as soon as you came off the boat. A blind man couldn't miss it a mile away."
"Yes, you. So, shall we get going?"
"The prefecture building. If you're a kaikyaku and get yourself properly registered, people will do what they can to help. The officials will write letters of introduction for you, or so I've heard. You were taking your time getting here, so I did a bit of wandering about myself and went to the local prefecture building and checked it out. That's what they told me."
"Rakushun, you're unbelievable."
For whatever reason, one by one, doors now seemed to be opening up to her.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
6-5 "This is one happening town."
The crowds of people bustling back and forth and proprietors shouting out their wares from the storefronts only added to the lively atmosphere.
"I'd heard that En was a wealthy kingdom, but when I saw Ugou for the first time, even I was taken aback."
Youko nodded. The streets were wide in the same way that the dimensions of the whole city were big. The castle walls that surrounded the city must be a good ten meters thick. On the city-side of the walls, shop stalls had been hollowed-out of the stone and businesses were thriving there as well. They very much resembled under-girder kiosks in Japan.
The buildings were made of wood and reached three stories. The ceilings were high and every window was glazed with glass. Here and there was a huge building made of brick and stone. A "Chinatown-like atmosphere" by itself was not enough to describe the strange and curious ambience the place created. The streets were paved with stone, with drainage ditches running down both sides. There was a park and public square. None of this had she ever seen in Kou.
Youko said, looking at her surroundings, "I feel like a country bumpkin."
Rakushun laughed. "I thought the same. And I am a country bumpkin."
"Just how many layers of fortifications are there?"
Youko pointed out to Rakushun where the high walls could be seen here and there rising above the surrounding houses and stores.
"Well, technically, a city's outer walls are called the ramparts, and the inner wall protecting the keep is called the bailey. In Kou, cities with baileys are rare. Those are probably the remnants of an old rampart left over from when the city grew bigger and expanded beyond it."
Refugees from Kei were camped out at the foot of the ramparts and in the plaza, in neat and tidy rows of similar-looking tents that gave no indication of disorder. According to Rakushun, the tents were also provisioned by the local government.
"So, is this a provincial capital?"
"No, a prefectural seat."
"The prefecture is one step below a province?"
"Two steps below. Starting with hamlets of twenty-five households, it goes, from smallest to largest: hamlet, town, township, county, prefecture, district, province. A district consists of fifty-thousand households."
"How many districts are in a province?"
"It depends on the location."
"If this is a prefectural seat, then district and provincial capitals must be huge."
According to official designations, a district capital was a city that was home to a district administration, also called a district seat. For administrative purposes, districts were designated as having populations of fifty thousand households, though that didn't necessarily mean that fifty thousand people lived in a single district. Generally speaking, it terms of urbanization, a town was bigger than a hamlet, a district capital bigger than a county seat, the capital of a province bigger than a district capital.
"How is it that En and Kou can be this different?"
Rakushun answered with a thin smile. "The difference is in the characters of the rulers."
"The difference in their characters?"
Rakushun glanced back at her and nodded. "The Royal En is an unusually enlightened monarch. He is said to have reigned for five hundred years. The Royal Kou has been around for at most fifty years. He's hardly in the same league."
Youko blinked. "Five hundred years?"
"Exceeded only by the Royal Sou of the Kingdom of Sou. It's said that the longer a king rules, the more enlightened his governance becomes. Sou is also a wealthy country."
"A single king reigns for five hundred years?"
"Of course. Kings are gods, not ordinary human beings. The degree to which Heaven allows a king to govern is commensurate with the caliber of the king. So, the better a king rules, the longer he will reign."
"A kingdom undergoing a change of regimes will always fall into chaos, while a kingdom with a wise ruler prospers. In particular, the Royal En has proved to be a most shrewd reformer. And speaking of enlightened monarchs, Royal Sou is said to be one as well, who has made the Kingdom of Sou a place of peace and tranquility. En, on the other hand, is, as you say, a 'happening' place."
"It is, indeed."
"No doubt about it. Oh, here's the prefecture building."
Rakushun pointed to a large brick building. The walls and eaves were decorated after a Chinese fashion, and though the architecture was in the "western" style, the combination did not clash. The interior decor was similarly a potpourri of Occidental and Oriental tastes.
The first thing Youko said after they left was, "This place is incredible."
Rakushun nodded. "I always knew that Kou was hard on kaikyaku, but I wouldn't have believed that En was this different."
Youko agreed. She examined the wooden card she had been given by the administrator. On the front was a red seal and beneath it in black ink, "Conferred in Ugou, Tei Province, Haku District, Shuuyou Prefecture." On the back was her name. It was her identification card.
The official Youko had been brought to asked for her name, her address in Japan, her occupation and other details, including, most surprisingly, her postal code and area code, before handing over the identification card.
"By the way, Youko, um, what are postal codes and area codes?"
The official had asked the same question as Rakushun. Apparently he didn't know either. "Just following regulations," he said, opening a volume in a set of books. Sneaking a peek at the Japanese-style bound volume, Youko saw that it contained rows of numbers printed with woodblock characters. Only after referencing one of the volumes did he hand over the card.
"A postal code, or zip code, is a number you put at the end of an address when you mail a letter. An area code is the number your dial when you call somebody on the telephone outside your local calling area."
"Um, it's a gizmo that transmits your voice a long distance so you can talk to people."
"To think they have such things in Japan. But why would he ask about it?" Rakushun quivered his whiskers.
"Probably because someone who wasn't Japanese wouldn't know such a thing. Makes it easy to tell who is a kaikyaku and who's not. Otherwise, you'd have people pretending to be kaikyaku all over the place." Youko grinned and showed him her card.
"Yeah, that must be it."
This card was proof of her bona fides, but it was good for only three years. In three years it was expected that she would find a livelihood, at which time she would settle on a permanent place of residency and be officially recorded on the census. In exchange, during her three years as a ward of the state, she would have free access to the local community colleges and hospitals. Not only that, if she took her identification card to a kind of bank called a trade credit union, she could collect a stipend to cover your living expenses.
"What a country!"
Kou was so much poorer, En so much richer. If nothing else, that's what the card taught them.
The Royal En should by no means prove to be an unapproachable individual. Rakushun said she should ask him for help. She still had her doubts about the likelihood of that ever happening. She had her doubts about a lot of things, but felt more confident that she wouldn't be rejected out of hand or summarily punished for making the attempt.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
6-6 As Rakushun had predicted, many beasts mingled in with the crowds on the streets. Amidst the hustle and bustle, there was something unbearably cute about these animals walking about on their two hind legs. Some were even dressed like people, and Youko had to try hard not to giggle.
While he was waiting for her, Rakushun had gotten work at the harbor doing maintenance on the ships coming into port. He told her enthusiastically all about it.
Still, he took the occasion of meeting up with Youko to quit his first job ever. When she insisted that it was all right with her to stay a while longer in Ugou while he gave his notice, Rakushun said that when he signed up, he had told the foreman that he only wanted to work until the person he was waiting for arrived, so it was no big deal.
The day after Youko arrived, they set forth for Kankyuu. Though her stipend couldn't be called exceedingly generous, it was by no means a miserly amount, and they could afford to take things easy. They walked along the highway during the day, and at night stopped in at a city and found an inn. All of the cities in En were big, and for the same fee you got that much more than a comparable inn in Kou. They'd arrive at dusk, arrange for lodgings, and then go sightseeing. Rakushun particularly liked checking out what the shops had on display.
It was an uneventful trip. Nobody came chasing after her, though it took her some time to train herself not to recoil every time she saw a guard or constable. They never left the cities at night so she couldn't confirm this for herself, but from what she gathered from conversations with people, even if you traveled at night, you hardly ever ran into a youma.
It was in the midst of their journey, eleven days out from Ugou and about a third of the way to Kankyuu, that Rakushun went out for a stroll while Youko was taking a bath, and heard talk about another kaikyaku.
Though Rakushun had pointed out that because they were in En, it'd be okay to show herself off a bit more, as always, Youko preferred men's clothing, specifically a jacket or tunic called a hou. It was more comfortable, and having gotten used to it, she had no desire to put on a woman's long kimono.
So, of course, everybody took her for a boy. This made using public baths a pain. The inns in En often had a furo, but they were more like a communal sauna, so she made do by bathing in their room. Because they had money to spare, even after taking care of their travel expenses, they always got a room. Still, it seemed a bit pointless since they settled for one room, and whenever she took a bath she kicked Rakushun out. Rakushun no doubt found it annoying.
She filled a basin with hot water and washed her hair. She hadn't been in this world very long when Takki dyed her hair. As the days and months passed, her hair had grown out. Takki made the dye from roots in her garden. Copying what she had observed Takki do, Youko had searched for the same kind of roots. Through trial and error, she was able to fashion a dye of sorts. But the species of root or the process itself was wrong, because the dye washed out afterwards.
At this point, her hair wasn't so different from its original red. She was getting used to the strange color. She still got an odd vibe when looking at herself in the mirror, but the visage wasn't unbearable. She bathed and dressed, all the more aware that she was getting used to this life.
When Rakushun got back, he told her about the kaikyaku. "It seems there's a kaikyaku living in Houryou, the local prefectural seat. It's along the way."
Youko raised her eyes for a moment and then looked away. "Oh, really."
She didn't want to meet him. And even if she did, the thought of hanging out with a fellow countryman and getting all depressed was even more painful.
"They say he goes by the name of Hekirakujin."
"That's Heki Rakujin?"
"Yeah. He's something like a professor at a prefectural college."
That being the case, he wouldn't be the old man who had ripped her off. And when she thought it through, it wasn't likely she would run into him here. But that was only a minor comfort.
"Shall we go and see him?" Rakushun looked at Youko with hopeful eyes.
"Well, it'd probably be a good idea."
"Then you'll go?"
"Sure . . . I guess."
The next day, they departed from the road to Kankyuu and headed to Houryuu to visit the school.
Shire-level preparatory schools here were called jogaku and prefectural academies were called shougaku. In En, students aiming for a district academy (joushou) could do their preparatory work at a prefectural academy, or could attend a prefectural polytechnic college (shoujo). This "Professor Heki" they were visiting taught at such a shoujo. He lived in a compound at the school.
Dropping in on a professor out of the blue was bad manners. Following formal procedures, a letter was sent and an interview requested. The reply from Heki Rakujin arrived at their inn the next morning. The courier bearing the reply accompanied them to the school.
The school in Houryou was located within the inner bailey wall of the city, built in the archetypal Chinese style. With its expansive gardens, the school resembled more a wealthy estate than a school. They were led to a small gazebo where they waited. The next person they saw was Heki Rakujin.
He said, "Please excuse the delay. I am Heki."
His age was hard to tell. Older than thirty, younger than fifty, Youko thought. He seemed both old and young. A gentle smile came easily to his smooth, unwrinkled face. He had a completely different air about him than that old man, Seizou Matsuyama.
"Did you receive our letter?" Rakushun asked. "We, um, thank you so very much for sparing a moment of your precious time with us."
Rakujin smiled at Rakushun's overly polite language. "Relax. Make yourselves at home."
"Um . . . . " Rakushun scratched at the bottom of his ear. He looked at Youko. "This is the kaikyaku."
The man responded at once to Rakushun's introduction. "Of course. But she doesn't look much like a kaikyaku to me." He turned to Youko.
"I supposed I don't."
He laughed. "I can't say I ever saw that color of hair in Japan."
"Um . . . . "
Responding to the inquiring look in his eyes, Youko explained her predicament. Why, she didn't know, but since coming here she had changed like this. It wasn't only the color of her hair. Her face, body, even her voice had changed.
When she finished talking, Rakujin nodded. "That means you're a taika."
"Me?" Youko's eyes opened wide. "A taika?"
"When there is a shoku, here and there get mixed up together. People come here and ranka go there."
"I don't get it."
"When a person in Japan or China is caught up in a shoku, they are brought here. In the same way, ranka sometimes get swept into that other world. A ranka is like an embryo. In the other world, a ranka can become embedded in a woman's womb. The child that is subsequently born is called a taika."
"That's what you're saying I am?"
Rakujin nodded. "A taika is a being of this world, the way you appear now. It is the form bestowed upon you by the Tentei."
"But when I was over there . . . . "
"If you had been born the way you are now, it would have caused quite an uproar. You do probably resemble your parents."
"Yes. People say I look like my grandmother on my father's side."
"It is a shell, so to speak. A second skin grows within the womb so that those born in that other world may pass as 'normal.' I've heard that a taika's appearance can be transfigured in such a manner."
Youko struggled to make sense of what he was telling her. He was telling her that in Japan, she had been a stranger in a strange land all along. That she accepted without objection. There was definitely a part of her that said, Yes, of course.
She didn't belong to that other world. That was why she had never felt at home there. She found the thought very comforting. And at the same time, very sad.
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love
6-7 Youko was caught up in her thoughts for a moment, thinking about herself and her place in the world. She turned to Rakujin. "Are you a taika too, Professor?"
He shook his head and smiled. "Just an ordinary kaikyaku. I grew up in Shizuoka and attended Tokyo University. I came here when I was twenty-two. I was trying to sneak out of Yasuda Hall by crawling under one of the desks barricading the entrance. The next thing I knew, I was in this world."
"Yasuda . . . ?"
"Do you know about it? It was a big deal at the time. Perhaps by now it has been consigned to the musty pages of history."
"Just because I don't know something . . . . "
"The same applies to me. It happened on January 17th, 1969. Night had fallen. What happened after that I don't know."
"It all took place before I was born."
A wry smile came to his face. "How the years have gone by. I have been here a long time."
"You've been here ever since then?"
"I have. I arrived in Kei. Six years ago, I moved from Kei and settled in En. As for my line of work, I'm what you might call a science teacher." He smiled and shook his head. "It's not important. Now, what did you wish to ask me?"
Youko came right to the point. "There's a way to go home, isn't there?"
After a moment's hesitation, Rakujin lowered his voice. "No mortal being can cross the Kyokai. It is a one-way trip. Once you get here, you cannot go back."
Youko took a breath. "Is that so?" But it didn't hit her as hard as she had expected.
"I'm sorry I could not be of more help to you."
"No, that's okay. I had another question. It's a bit strange, though."
"I understand what they say here."
Rakujin tilted his head to the side quizzically.
"At first, I didn't notice any difference at all. I thought everyone was speaking Japanese. The only thing I didn't understand were unique words and terms. And then I met this old kaikyaku in Kou, and for the first time I realized that nobody was speaking Japanese. Yet I have no problem communicating, even though I only speak Japanese. What could account for this?"
Rakujin looked inquiringly at Rakushun. When Rakushun confirmed what she was saying, he thought it over for a minute.
"It would seem that you are not human."
I knew that, Youko thought.
"When I arrived, it was hard because I didn't understand a thing. I thought the language was similar to Chinese, but the few words of Chinese I knew did me little good. For many years, I had to communicate in writing. I managed to get by using classical Chinese. But even that was chancy, which made my first year here very difficult. That's been true of everybody who has come here. Taika are no different. I have done my own research on kaikyaku, and every one of them has had real difficulty with the language. You are no ordinary kaikyaku."
Youko unconsciously gripped her arms. Rakujin continued.
"From what I've heard, only wizards and magical beings such as youma do not encounter this hurdle of language. If you did not immediately perceive a difference in language, you cannot be human. You must be of the same species as wizards or youma."
"So . . . there are also youma taika?"
Rakujin nodded. The smile did not disappear from his face. "I've never heard of it, but it is possible. Maybe there is a solution to your predicament after all. Perhaps you can go back."
Youko lifted her head. "Do you really think so?"
"Perhaps. Youma and wizards can cross the Kyokai. It is not something I can do. I cannot go home again, but you are different. You should definitely request an audience with the Royal En."
"If we meet with the king, would he be able to help us?"
"Most likely. It won't be simple, and the rewards may be slim, but it would certainly be worth trying."
"Yeah." Nodding her head, Youko cast her eyes down to the floor. "It all makes sense. I'm not a human being." She smiled to herself.
Rakushun raised his voice sharply. "Youko."
She drew back her sleeve, showing her right hand. "I always thought this was odd. There should be a scar in the palm of my hand, I wound I got after coming here and being attacked by the youma. It was a deep wound that went straight through my hand. Now, I can barely see it."
Rakushun gently unfolded her hand and examined her palm. He quivered his whiskers. This was the wound Rakushun had tended to himself. He could testify to the fact that it was indeed a serious injury.
"I should have a lot of other scars, but you'd never know it. The wounds themselves are very light for being inflicted by youma. No fang marks remain where where I was bitten. For some reason, my body has become very resilient to injury."
Youko had to smile. The realization that she was not human struck her as rather amusing. "Because I'm a youma, don't you see? That's why they hunt me and attack me."
Rakujin frowned. "Youma hunt you?"
Rakushun answered for her. "It sure looks that way to me."
"That's what I thought, but wherever Youko goes, youma are bound to show up. I was there when we were attacked by a kochou." Rakujun pressed his hands to his temples.
"Recently, there have been rumors of youma appearing more often in Kou. Are you saying it is because of her?"
Rakushun looked hesitantly at Youko. Youko nodded and picked up the story. "I think so, too. The reason I ended up here in the first place is because I was attacked by a kochou and had to escape."
"You escaped to this world after being attacked by a kochou? From that other world to here?"
"Yes. A guy named Keiki--and I'm pretty sure he's a youma, too--he said it was in order to protect me. He's the one who brought me here."
"And where he is now?"
"I don't know. When we arrived, we were ambushed by youma and got split up. I haven't seen him since. He could be dead."
Rakujin held his head in his hands and thought for a long time. "It's impossible. I simply cannot imagine."
"That's what Rakushun said."
"Youma are a species of wild animal. They have been known to hunt humans in packs, but they would not track down a particular individual. Needless to say, they would not cross the Kyokai to do so. It is not in their nature, the same way you would not expect it of a tiger, for example."
"Couldn't a person train a tiger to do something like that?"
"Youma cannot be domesticated. You are speaking of something quite grave, Miss Youko."
"It's that serious?"
"If we suppose that some kind of change was effected in the youma to cause them to attack you, or if we suppose that someone found a way to control and command them, either way, standing idly by and doing nothing could very well put the kingdom in jeopardy."
Rakujin looked at Youko. "Now, if we supposed that you were a youma, that would simplify things greatly. I have heard of youma being separated from their packs. When they come close to starving, they are the kind of beast that will feed even upon their own kind."
"Youko doesn't look like a youma," Rakushun said, and Rakujin nodded.
"There are youma who can disguise themselves as humans, but not perfectly. And to not be aware of their youma nature themselves--"
Youko smiled thinly. "That doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Rakujin shook his head. "No, you are different. You are no youma. It cannot be."
With that, Rakujin stood up. "You should see the king at once. I am on speaking terms with some officials in the government, but it would be more expeditious for you to go directly to Kankyuu. Visit Gen'ei Palace straightaway and tell them exactly what you told me. You are the key to the whole thing. I'm sure the king will want to see you."
Youko also got to her feet. She bowed deeply. "I thank you very much"
"If you leave right away, you should arrive at the next city by nightfall. Do you have belongings at the inn?"
"No, we've got everything with us."
"In that case, I'll see you to the city gates."
Rakujin walked with them to the gates. "It may not amount to much, but I shall work on a formal petition, as well. "Until they figure out what is going on, you may be detained. But once everything is put in order, I am sure the king will find a way home for you."
Youko looked at Rakujin. "And you?"
"Do you also wish to petition the king to return to Japan?"
Rakujin smiled wryly. "I do not have the standing that would allow me to see the king. He is not some glad-hander who stoops to rubbing shoulders with run-of-the-mill kaikyaku."
"But . . . . "
"No. If I pleaded, yes, perhaps he might deign to see me, but it is something I simply am not interested in pursuing."
"No interest at all?"
"I was tired of the times and was happy to come to this new world. I harbor no longings for my old country. By the time I understood that a way might be found to return if I petitioned the king, I had gotten used to living here and had lost any desire to go home."
"I still want to," Youko said to herself, feeling a strong stab of homesickness.
"Take care. I'll pray for your successful audience with the king."
"At the very least, we can talk about Japan on our way to the gates."
"There is no need." Rakujin laughed. "You see, that is the country I ran away from when I tried to start a revolution and failed."
Single and Happy - But Still looking for love