2-5 "Get up."
Youko was roused from sleep. Her eyelids were heavy from weeping. Hard sunlight stung her eyes. Fatigue and hunger left her drained but she still had no desire to eat.
The men woke her up then bound her--not too tightly--with a length of rope and led her outside. When they emerged from the building there was a wagon waiting in the plaza, harnessed to a team of two horses.
She was hoisted onto the horse cart. From this vantage point she could see around the plaza. Here and there and on the street corners crowds of people had gathered and were staring at her.
Where, she wondered, had all these people been hiding? Yesterday the place had looked like nothing more than the deserted ruins of a town.
They appeared Oriental, though the color of their hair was markedly different. With so many of them together it made for quite the human kaleidoscope. Every person wore a mixed expression of curiosity and hatred. They really did see her as a criminal getting shipped off in a paddy wagon.
In the fleeting moment in time between when she had opened her eyes until she had truly woken up, she had prayed from the heart to make it all a dream. The dream was shattered by those men dragging her out of the cell.
They hadn't given her any time to tend to her dress or appearance. Her school uniform was still drenched with the stench of the ocean from when they had plunged into the whirlpool in the sea.
Another man climbed into the wagon next to her. The driver loosened the reins. Sizing up the two of them, Youko's only thought was, God, she was dying for a bath, dying to immerse her body in the steaming water, wash herself with sweet-smelling soap, dress in fresh pajamas and go to sleep in her own bed. And wake up and eat the food her mother made, go to school, meet her friends, and talk about all the dumb stuff that didn't matter to anybody.
It occurred to her that she hadn't finished her chemistry homework. A book she'd borrowed from the library was overdue. Her favorite TV show, that she'd been watching forever, was on last night and she'd missed it. She hoped her mother remembered to tape it for her.
Dwelling on it now it was all so pointless. The tears welled up again. Youko hastily hung her head. She wanted to bury her head in her hands, but with her hands bound . . . .
Better you get used to things being the way they are.
No, she couldn't accept that. Keiki never said she couldn't go back home. It couldn't go on like this. It couldn't. Not being able to wash or put on clean clothes. Tied up like a criminal, hauled along in the back of this filthy wagon. She knew she was no saint, but she didn't deserve to be treated like this!
Glancing back at the gate receding behind them, she hunched her bound arms and wiped her cheek on her shoulder.
The man next to her--she guessed he was in his thirties--clutched a sack to his chest and gazed blankly at the passing scene. "Um . . . " Youko asked him timidly, "where are we going?"
The man looked at her suspiciously. "You talking to me?"
"Um, yes . . . where are we going?"
"Where? To the county seat. You're going to see the governor."
"And after that? Will there be, like, a trial or something?" She couldn't shake that feeling of being branded a criminal.
"Oh, they'll shut you up someplace safe until they figure whether you're a good kaikyaku or a bad kaikyaku."
The bluntness of the statement made Youko turn her head. "Good kaikyaku or bad kaikyaku?"
"Yeah. If you're a good kaikyaku, you get yourself a guardian and you get to live someplace. If you're a bad kaikyaku it's off to prison, or they just execute you."
Youko reflexively shrank into herself. Cold sweat ran down her back. "Execute . . . ?"
"When a bad kaikyaku shows up everything goes to hell. If bad things start a-coming and it's because of you, off with your head.
"When you say, bad things coming . . . . "
"I mean wars and disasters and hell following after 'em. If you don't kill 'em quick they'll wreck the whole kingdom."
"But how can anybody be sure?"
The man laughed a mean little laugh. "Oh, lock 'em up for a little while and you find out quick enough. You show up and bad stuff starts to happen at the same time, that means you're bad seed, no doubt about it." There was a threatening look in his eyes. "You brought a few disasters along with you, didn't you?"
"What do you mean . . . ?"
"That shoku that sent you here. You know how many farms got buried in the mudslides? This year's harvest in Hairou going to be a complete bust."
Youko closed her eyes. Oh, yes, that, she thought. That's why they were treating her this way. To these villagers she had become an omen of doom.
The thought of death frightened her to the core. The thought of being killed, even more so. If she were to die in a foreign place like this no one would weep for her, or miss her. Her parents could not even claim her body.
How did it come to this?
At any rate, she could not believe that this was her fate. The day before yesterday she left home just like on any other day. "Later," she had said to her mother. The day had begun like always, it should have ended like always. Where had everything gone wrong?
She probably shouldn't have approached those villagers. She should have been more patient and stayed there by the cliffs. She should have stuck it out with those who brought her here--or for that matter, not gone anywhere with them in the first place.
But she didn't exactly have a whole wide range of choices open to her. Keiki told her she was coming with him whether she liked it or not. Then they were pursued by those monsters. She'd done what she had to do to protect herself.
It was like she'd been lured into some kind of trap. On that perfectly ordinary morning the snare had already been set. In the hours that followed the noose had drawn closed. By the time she'd noticed that anything was amiss it was too late, there was no way out.
I've got to get out of here.
Youko checked her growing desire to spring into action right then and there. There was no room for failure. If she blew her chance at a clean getaway she could not imagine how they'd make her pay. She had to pick the moment and get herself the hell out of here.
Thoughts and ideas were spinning around like crazy inside her head to a degree she'd never experienced before in her life.
"Um . . . how long will it take to get to the county seat?"
"By wagon, about half a day."
Youko raised her head. The sky was the kind of clean blue you see after a hurricane. The sun was directly above. She'd have to make a break for it before the sun set. She had no idea what the county seat would be like, but no doubt escaping it would be a lot harder than this horse cart.
"What about my things?"
The man looked suspiciously at Youko. "Everything a kaikyaku brings gets turned in. Them's the rules."
"The sword, too?"
The man again flashed her a distrusting look. She took it as a warning. "What you asking for?"
"Because it's important to me."
She lightly clasped her hands behind her back. "The man who caught me, he wanted it real bad. It's such a relief to know it didn't get stolen."
The man sniffed. "Useless crap. We'll hand it over like we're supposed to."
"Yeah, it's just an ornament, but it's got to be worth a lot of money."
The man looked into her face, then opened the cloth sack on his knees. The jeweled sword buried within gleamed and sparkled.
"This is an ornament?"
Being this close to the sword made her feel that much better. But Youko focused instead on the man. He put his hand on the hilt. Go ahead, she urged him, try and pull it out. That man back in the field, he hadn't been able to. Keiki said that only she could wield the sword. Perhaps it was true that no one besides her could, but she wanted to be sure.
He put all his effort into it. The hilt didn't budge from the scabbard even a fraction of an inch.
"Please, give it back to me."
He laughed to scorn at Youko's request. "Like I told you, it gets turned over to the authorities. Besides, it won't do you much good, what with your head chopped off. No matter how much you want to look, you can't see much with your eyes shut."
Youko bit her lip. If not for these ropes, the sword would be hers. Perhaps Jouyuu could help her out, she thought. But as much as she tried the cords would not give. Not even Jouyuu could give her supernatural powers.
Glancing about for some way to cut the rope and get hold of the sword, a flash of gold in the passing terrain caught her eye.
The horse cart turned onto a mountain road. There amongst the rows of trees neatly arrayed in the dark forest she recognized a familiar color. She opened her eyes wider. At the same time Jouyuu sent his presence crawling across her skin.
There was a person in the forest. A person with long golden hair, a pale face, wearing a robe that resembled a long kimono.
As Youko whispered his name, a voice she knew that was not her own echoed inside her head.