3-2 "Well, then, why don't you change into this?"
Standing behind a folding screen, the woman handed Youko a nightdress. "You'll be staying here tonight? You can wear this for the time being."
Youko bowed her head deeply in gratitude.
The woman consoled the still teary Youko. She prepared rice gruel sweetened with azuki beans. Then she filled a big tub with hot water and prepared a bath for Youko. Her long, aching hunger satiated, Youko washed in the hot water, put on clean nightclothes. She was starting to feel like a real person again.
"I'm really, really thankful for all you've done." Youko came from around the folding screen the woman had set around the tub and bowed again. "I'm so sorry about everything."
After all, she had tried to steal from this woman.
When she looked at her directly, she could see that the woman's eyes were blue. The woman's blue eyes softened and she laughed.
"Oh, don't worry about it. Let's leave it at that. Have something warm to eat. Drink this as well. It'll help you sleep. I've made up your bed."
"Like I said, not a problem. I hope you don't mind, but I put away that sword of yours. It was making me uncomfortable."
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"Oh, nothing you need to keep apologizing for. Now, I don't think I caught your name."
"Kaikyaku do have funny names. You can call me Takki." She handed Youko a teacup.
Youko took it and asked, "How is your name spelled?"
Takki sketched the characters for "achievement" (tatsu) and "maidservant" (ki) with her finger on the tabletop. "So, Youko, was there someplace you needed to get yourself to?"
Youko shook her head. "No, no place in particular. Takki-san, have you ever heard of a person named Keiki?"
"Keiki? I don't know anybody by that name. Are you looking for him?"
"Where's he from? Is he from Kou?"
"All I know is that he's from around here . . . . "
Takki smiled a patient smile. "Now, that's hardly enough information. Which kingdom and which province, at the very least. Short of that, why, it's a needle in a haystack."
Youko hung her head. "The fact is, I don't know anything about this place."
"So it seems." Takki put down her teacup. "We are one of the Twelve Kingdoms. Specifically, the kingdom of the southeast, called the Kingdom of Kou."
Youko nodded. "And the sun rises in the east?"
"Of course. And this is the eastern part of Kou, called Goso. There's some high mountains a ten-days' walk north from here. Over those mountains is the Kingdom of Kei. Hairou is due east of us, by the seashore. Following the main road you can walk there in five days."
What had been previously completely incomprehensible was bit by bit coming into focus. It was dawning on her that this place was a world unto itself.
"Just how big is Kou?"
Takki tilted her head back and gave it a bit of thought. "How big, she asks me. Well, if you was to walk from the eastern-most border of Kou all the way to the western-most border, I figure it'd take you a good three months."
"That long?" Youko said, her eyes growing wide. She could not begin to grasp what it meant to walk for that length of time, but she did understand that it was quite beyond her imagination.
"Yes, that long. It might not be such a big place, but Kou is a kingdom. It's about the same distance north to south as well. But because it means crossing seas or mountains, going to a neighboring kingdom is an almost a four month trip."
"And all the Twelve Kingdoms . . . . "
Youko closed her eyes. She had somehow pictured in her mind a world like a small garden. How could she find one person in such a vast place? Without a single clue and only the name "Keiki" to go by? Circumnavigating all twelve kingdoms by itself would take four years.
"What kind of person is this Keiki?"
"I don't really know. Probably like the people here. He's the person who brought me here."
"Brought you here?"
"Well, that's a new one on me." Takki was visibly impressed.
"Is that unusual?"
Takki said with a severe, little smile, "I don't have much learning about such things. Don't know that much about kaikyaku, neither. You hardly ever see them around these parts."
"I didn't know that," said Youko.
"It's true. In any case, he can't be any kind of normal person. What you're talking about, that's nothing any of us could have done. One of the gods, maybe, or a wizard, or one of the half-demons."
Youko stared at her. Takki smiled. "Going to that other place, bringing somebody back, it's not what normal people do. And if it's not normal people, then it's got to be a wizard or youma."
"I know there are youma, but gods and wizards, too?"
"There certainly are. But they live in the world above, apart from the rest of us. The gods and the wizards live up there. They hardly ever come down here."
"Above the sky. But that doesn't mean there aren't wizards down here. From king to province lords, they're all up there above the sky."
When Youko tilted her head quizzically, Takki smiled and explained. "Each of the provinces has a province lord. This is Jun Province. Our province lord is the Marquis of Jun. He rules by will of the king. Normal people don't become province lords, neither. They never grow old and have supernatural powers. They're people from out of this world."
"I wonder if Keiki is a person like that."
Takki again smiled her wry smile. "If it's wizards we're talking about, I hear tell that all the people who work at the royal palace, right down to the underlings, they're wizards of one sort of the other. The same goes for the big government officials. Regular people can't go to that place above the sky because that's where the royal palace is. The king is one of the gods. The wizards are chosen by the king. Now, there are some folks who manage to pull themselves up there by their own bootstraps, but most of them are recluses, hermit-types. They belong to that other world that we're not part of. Us and them, like ships in the night."
Youko made careful note of everything that Takki said. There was no telling what aspect of this information might later prove important.
"There's said to be a dragon king that rules over the ocean, but that may just be fairytales. If there really was a dragon kingdom, they wouldn't be normal people, either. Besides them, there's supposedly youma that can change their appearance to look human. That's what we call the half-demon. Most of them just look human, but there are some of them that can disguise themselves so that you can't tell the difference.
Takki poured some more tea from the earthenware teapot. The tea was cold. "They say that somewhere the youma have a kingdom of their own. I can't say if it's true or not. At the end of the day, though, what it comes down to is, youma and people, they come from completely different worlds."
Youko nodded. What she was learning was changing the way she saw things, and things were getting a lot more confusing. Like, Keiki probably wasn't human. If he wasn't, what was he? Hyouki and Kaiko and those strange beasts must be some species of youma. If they were, then didn't it stand to reason that Keiki was a half-demon?
"Um . . . have you ever heard of youma called Hyouki or Kaiko or Jouyuu?"
Takki gave her a funny look. "I haven't heard of any youma like that. Why do you ask?"
A surprised look came to her face. "Ah, Hinman. The possessor. A youma that possesses warriors on the field of battle. No body except for its red eyes. How did you come to know about a creature like that?"
Youko felt herself shiver. Jouyuu was a youma called the Hinman, and even now it possessed her. But admitting that would probably only make Takki think she was weird or something, so she shook her head.
"Kochou." Takki wrote out the characters for "rice worm" (ko) and "carve" (chou). "The horned bird. A ferocious animal that eats people. How did you come to know about the kochou?"
"I was attacked by one."
"Surely not! Where?"
"That other place . . . where I'm from. A kochou attacked us and we had to escape. It appeared out of nowhere, like it was pursuing Keiki and me. We had to come here to keep from getting killed . . . or that's what Keiki said."
Takki said in a low voice, "Did such a thing really happen?"
Youko took a deep breath. "It doesn't sound right?"
"Not right at all. It's a serious thing for people around here if youma start showing up even out there in the mountains. Back then, youma didn't make it a practice of coming around where people are."
"Really? Is that really true?"
Takki nodded. "But recently, for whatever reason, there's been a lot more of them. It's gotten dangerous. After sundown, people don't dare go outside. But when one of those mean ones like a kochou appears, what a hullabaloo."
Takki gave her a stern look. "Youma are like any other wild beast. They're not the kind of creatures to go chasing after one person in particular, let alone to the other side of the sea. Never before heard of such a thing. You know, Youko, it sounds like you might have met up with something quite serious."
"I guess I did."
"Well, it's not that I'm any kind of expert. But recently, what with so many more youma around these parts, it all gives me a bad feeling."
The tone of Takki's voice even made Youko feel uneasy. It seemed common sense to her that there were youma in the mountains and that they attacked people. What in the world had she gotten herself caught up in?
Seeing her caught up in her thoughts, Takki said in a cheerful voice, "Well, not much point to worrying ourselves sick when it won't change a thing. So, Youko, do you have someplace to go after this?"
At the question Youko raised her head. She looked at Takki and shook her head. "Other than looking for Keiki, there's not much else I can do."
Even if Keiki were a youma, she knew he couldn't make things any worse for her than they already were.
"That's going to take some time. Not a thing easily done."
"Yes," Youko reluctantly agreed.
"And in the meantime, you've got to make a living for yourself, no? Wouldn't mind you staying here, but my nosy neighbors find you out and they'd no doubt pack you off to the county seat. I could say you were the child of a relative, but they'd probably see through it before long."
"I don't want to cause you any more trouble."
"East of here there's a town called Kasai. My mother lives there."
When Youko looked at her, Takki laughed. "She runs an hotel. Don't worry, she won't turn you in. She's my mum, see. I'm sure she'll give you a job. You willing to work?"
"Yes," Youko agreed on the spot. It'd be tough looking for Keiki. And it'd be well-nigh impossible if she'd didn't have a place to live in the meantime. Fighting the youma every night, having nothing to eat, sleeping outdoors--if she could avoid all that she would.
Takki laughed and nodded. "That's great. You'll see, it won't be such a bad job. Everybody who works there is good people. You'll fit in just fine. How about we set off tomorrow?"
"That'd be okay."
"Okay it is, then. We'd better get to bed. And tomorrow morning, if you're not in the mood for traveling, we can stay here for another day if you want."
Youko bowed her head deeply in gratitude.