4-3 The old man said, "Sorry about that. When you get to be my age, you cry more easily."
Youko didn't say anything, only shook her head.
"So . . . what year was it?"
"What year?" Youko echoed.
"It was in 1945."
"Um . . . . " Youko had to think about it for a minute, digging out of her memory the chronological tables she'd memorized for her high school exams. "Showa 20, I think."
"Showa 20?" He stared at her. "I came here in Showa 20. When in Showa 20?"
"August . . . it was August 15th."
The old man balled his hands into fists. "August? The 15th of August, Showa 20?"
"Yes . . . . "
"I was thrown overboard on July the 28th!" He glared at her. "Not more than half a month before!"
Not having the slightest idea of what to say, Youko could only bow her head, quietly, patiently, while the old man railed on, spelling out all the sacrifices he had suffered because of the war.
It was close to midnight when he finally got around to asking Youko about herself. Her family, her home, what kind of house she lived in, what kind of life she had led. Answering these questions was a bit painful. It struck her forcefully that here was a person, born well before her time, who had been transported to this place and had never returned.
Was this to be her fate as well? Was she to live her whole life in this strange country, never to go home? At least she'd had the good fortune of meeting a fellow kaikyaku. When she thought about all the time the old man has been by himself, it really was a stroke of good luck.
"So tell me, what did I do to deserve this?" The old man sat cross-legged with his elbows on his knees, head in his hands. "My friends and family all gone, me ending up in this strange place. I was expecting to die in one of them air raids, anyways, but to think it would've been all ended in but half a month, just half a month."
Youko still had nothing to say.
"The war ending, that would have turned everything around. But instead I ended up here, not once ever being able to enjoy myself, not even have a decent meal."
"Yes, but . . . . "
"Lots of times I tell myself it'd be better if I'd died in one of them air raids, better than coming to this strange place where I got no sense of what or where anything is and don't understand a thing nobody says at all."
Youko looked at him in surprise. "You don't understand what anybody says?"
"Not at all. Just a few words here and there. That's why this kind of job is all the work I can get." He gave Youko a suspicious look. "You get what they're saying?"
"Yes . . . " Youko said, her gaze steady. "It sounds like Japanese to me."
"Nonsense," the old man said, an astonished look on his face. "The only Japanese I ever heard, save me talking to myself, was from you, starting today. I don't know what kind of words they're speaking, but I got the feeling it's something like Chinese. Ain't nothing like Japanese, that's for damn sure."
"But don't they write with kanji?"
"Yeah, they write it. But Chinese-type characters. There was some Chinamen working at the harbor and them's the kind of words they used."
"That can't be possible!" Youko looked at the old man, a tumult of emotions coursing through her. "I haven't had a single problem with the language since coming here, not one. If they were speaking something other than Japanese, there's no way I could understand them."
"Then you was understanding what they was saying downstairs earlier?"
The old man shook his head. "Whatever you think you been hearing, it ain't Japanese. Nobody here speaks Japanese."
What in the world was going on, Youko wondered, her confusion only deepening. There was no doubt in her mind that what she was hearing was Japanese. But the old man was telling her it wasn't Japanese. She could not discern any measurable difference what she'd been hearing all along and the language he was speaking.
She said, "This is the Kingdom of Kou. Kou is written with the kanji that means "skillful," right?"
"We're kaikyaku, and we came from across the Kyokai. It means, the Sea of Emptiness."
"This city is the prefecture seat."
"Prefecture seat? It's a castle town. A fiefdom, you mean."
"No, like the prefectural offices in Japan."
"Like a prefectural office?"
"Where the governor lives."
"The governor, you say? No governor lives here. The head guy here is the magistrate."
What's he talking about, Youko muttered to herself. "I've always heard him called governor."
"Ain't no such person."
"During the winter, people live in the towns, and when spring comes they return to the villages."
"People live in villages. In the spring they go back to the hamlets."
"Yes, but I . . . "
The old man stared fiercely at her. "Who the hell are you!"
"I'm . . . . "
"You're not a kaikyaku like me at all! I've been here by myself in this strange country forever! Abandoned here in the middle of a war, not knowing nothing about none of these language or customs, no wife, no kids, just me!"
Why was this happening? Youko desperately searched for an answer. No matter how she thought about it, there was no clue in anything she had heard up to now that explained it.
"Out of the frying pan, into the fire, that was me. We made all the sacrifices during the war and you got to live the easy life! Why is that?"
"I don't know!" Youko shouted back.
A voice asked from the hallway outside the door, "Is there something wrong?"
The old man hurriedly put his finger up to his lips. Youko turned towards the door and said, "I'm sorry, it's nothing."
"There's people here trying to sleep."
"I'll be more quiet after this."
From the other side the door, the sound of footsteps trailed away. Youko sighed. The old man looked at Youko with an amazed expression on his face.
"You understood what he said?"
The language they were speaking, he meant. Youko nodded. "I understood it."
"You was speaking our language!"
"Whose language was I speaking?"
"You was speaking Japanese!"
"But, the man I was speaking to, he understood me."
"So it seems."
Youko had spoken the same language she always spoke, she had heard the same words she always heard. What could account for this strange phenomenon?
The old man's expression softened somewhat. "Fact remains, you're no kaikyaku. Not in the slightest. You not just some ordinary kaikyaku, that's for sure."
The way he said "kaikyaku," it wasn't just the intonation he used, now that Youko had become accustomed to his voice, the way he pronounced the words was a bit different as well.
"How is it that you can understand them words?"
"I don't know."
"Don't know, huh?"
And why had her appearance changed? As she asked herself this question she touched her dyed hair, now hard to the touch. She said, "How are we ever going to get back?"
"I been searching for the same thing. All they say is, can't. That's the only answer."
He gave Youko a dispirited look. "If there was some way to go back, I would've done it a long time ago. Now, even if I did get back somehow, I'd be like old Rip Van Winkle. So . . . miss, where you are headed?"
"No place in particular. Can I ask you something?"
"Did you get arrested when you came here?"
Seizou gave her a wide-eyed look, and then a thoughtful expression. "That's right. They arrest kaikyaku here. Nope, not me. I washed ashore in Kei."
"What? What difference does that make?"
"It's because different kingdoms treat kaikyaku different. I arrived in Kei, got my papers there. Lived there until last year. Then the king died and the whole place went to hell. Living there got to be impossible, so I got out, came here."
Youko recalled the refugees she had seen in the city. "So . . . you can live in Kei without anybody arresting you?"
Seizou nodded. "True enough, but you can't live there now. There's a civil war going on, the whole place is a mess. The town I was living in got attacked by youma and half the people was killed."
"Killed by youma? Not because of the war?"
"When a kingdom goes to hell in a handbasket, that's when the youma show up. And not just youma. Droughts and floods and earthquakes, too. Nothing but bad things happen. So I left there in a hurry."
Youko turned away. So you could live in Kei without people chasing after you all the time. Staying a fugitive in Kou or risking it in Kei, which would be the safer course? She was pondering this when Seizou interrupted her.
"The women, they left a long time ago. Who knows what the king was thinking, but he drove 'em all out of there."
"It's the truth. There was this rumor going around that if there was any women left in Gyouten--that's the capital city--they'd be killed. It wasn't a good place to be anymore and most people I knew got out while the getting was good. You don't want to be anywhere near it. It's a hornet's nest of youma. At one time, lots of people was trying to leave, but that's died down recently. They been closing down the borders."
"So that's the way it is," Youko muttered.
Seizou snorted derisively. "I don't know a thing about Japan without asking, but I go on telling you about what goes on here. Looks like I'm becoming one of them, after all."
"You surely don't mean that."
Seizou held up his hand. "Compared to Kei, Kou is a much better place. But, let on that you're kaikyaku and they slap you in irons. Better or no, not much you can do in either case."
"But I . . . . "
Seizou laughed. When he laughed it almost sounded like he was weeping. "I know, I know. It's not your fault. I know, but it still stings. No need to take it out on you. You having to stay on the lam, that's got to be tough, too."
Youko only shook her head.
"I got to get back to my job. Breakfast to get ready. You take care, wherever you're going, okay?"
With that he slipped out of the room and was gone.
Youko was about to call him back, but stopped herself. "Goodnight," was all she said.