4-5 After that she went back to camping outdoors.
For no particular reason, she followed the road to the next town. Having no money, she couldn't rent a room or buy a meal. She would have preferred to sleep next to the castle walls like the refugees, but the guards at the gate looked alert and trying to mingle in with the crowds would be a pain. She gave up on the idea.
Nobody will be your ally. No one will help you. There's not a person here who will let you get away with a damn thing.
Anyway, when she thought about being tricked and being betrayed, she told herself she'd rather sleep under the stars and chase the youma away with the sword.
After changing clothes, instead of being recognized as a teenaged girl, she was taken more often for a younger boy. There was not much law and order out here. She tangled with shady-looking types a number of times, but she had lost any reluctance at all when it came to using the sword to make a threatening point.
During the day she walked while keeping a sharp eye on passers-by. During the night she walked while fighting the youma. She couldn't sleep at night without risking an attack, so she became a nocturnal animal, keeping on her toes at night and sleeping during the day.
There were families that sold food from huts along the road, but they only did business during the daytime, and, at any rate, Youko didn't have any money, so her meals pretty much tapered off to nothing.
When the hunger got too much to bear, she checked her indignation and looked for work. But the towns were flooded with refugees and there was no work to be had. She certainly couldn't expect to be hired when she looked for all the world like a helpless child.
The youma showed up every night, and, just to make things that much worse, sometimes during the day. On top of it all, there were the visions she saw in the sword and the blue monkey tormenting her.
Watching her mother cry was heartbreaking. She couldn't shake tempting thoughts of how much better things would be if that monkey were dead. Nevertheless, the desire to just see her mother, to see the place where she used to live, always won out. Just as the desire to talk to somebody, anybody always prevailed.
The sword's visions visited her at night, responding to her longings to go home. Whether the sword's extraordinary powers only showed themselves at night, or whether it was simply because that's when she was more often awake, Youko didn't know.
On the nights that the youma's relentless attacks didn't give her time to think about home, those nights left her body sore. The nights she did have time, those nights left her heart hurting. She knew that she ought to ignore it when the sword started to glow, but she lacked the resolve to do so.
On this night as well, the phosphorescent light was gathering above the blade. She had fled from the youma, forged her way into the mountains, and was resting against a white tree.
She had seen the white trees here and there deep in the mountains. They were like no trees she had seen before. The bark was pure white, the branches reached as wide as a house, though not very high. She didn't think the uppermost branches were more than six or seven feet off the ground.
The leafless branches hung low to the ground, slender but so incredibly hard that not even the sword could cut through them. It was like the branches were made from some kind of white metal. Yellow fruit was ripening on the branches, but it too held as firmly as if welded on.
The white trees glowed even in the darkness, all the more so when the moon was out. Youko found them quite pleasing to look at.
Despite the low-hanging branches, when she had slipped through and crawled up next to the trunk, there was enough space to sit down. For some reason, youma attacked less frequently when she was beneath these white trees and the wild dogs hardly bothered her at all. So when she needed to take a break, the trees were her first resort.
Concealed under the tree, leaning back against the trunk, Youko looked at the sword. Ten days had passed since meeting that old man, the other kaikyaku, in Takkyuu.
The sword cast off a faint light, the illuminated branches of the tree sparkled brightly. The fruit of the tree glowed in golden hues.
Instead of seeing her mother as usual, a number of people appeared, moving about. A group of young women, wearing black uniforms, in a room filled with rows of desks.
That's my classroom.
The girls seemed to be just hanging around, the kind of between-classes scene she was well used to. Seeing their beautiful blow-dried hair, pressed outfits, clean, white skin and comparing them to her present condition made Youko laugh out loud.
"Youko Nakajima, I heard she ran away."
Her friend's familiar-sounding voice got the ball rolling. All at once a storm of lively chatter rained down on Youko's ears.
"Ran away from home? You're kidding!"
"It's the truth! She wasn't sick, yesterday. She ran away. Last night I got a call from her mother. I was totally surprised!"
This must be from some time ago.
"I can't believe it!"
"And she was class president!"
"Yeah, with those serious types, you never know what they're up to when nobody's looking."
"That's for sure."
Youko had to laugh again. Her reality was so different from what they could imagine.
"Like there was this weird guy who showed up and took off with her. I heard he was a real gangbanger type."
"A guy? You think they were doing it?"
"Yeah, you think they eloped?"
"I heard that, too. You know how all the windows in the principal's office got broken? It was her boyfriend who did it."
"Hey, this guy, what was he like?"
"I don't really know, but he had this long, bleached hair that gave off a real creepy vibe."
"I never would have figured that Nakajima was into the metal scene."
"Or something like that."
Keiki . . . .
Youko hovered there like a ghost, unable to move as she watched the commotion play out before her.
"Like, everybody knows she dyed her hair."
"Didn't she say it was her natural color?"
"There's no way! I mean, nobody's hair naturally turns that color."
"But I heard she left her backpack and coat in the classroom."
"Yeah, what was that about?"
"It was yesterday morning, somebody said that Moritsuka found them."
"But she ran off with that guy, didn't she? And with just the clothes on her back!"
"Don't be stupid. But if she didn't run away, then that means she just up and disappeared."
"Scary . . . . "
"Sooner or later, we're going to see those posters up at the train station."
"Stuff up on billboards, her mom walking around handing out flyers."
"Like, have you seen this girl? That kind of thing."
"Hey, you guys are getting way carried away with this."
"Yeah, it's got nothing to do with us."
"She ran away from home, that's all."
"That's right. It's only when it happens to an honor student that everybody gets all bent out of shape."
"She took off with her boyfriend. Nobody wants to admit it, but when a girl falls for a guy like that, nothing she does is going to make any sense at all."
"That's harsh. You were friends with her, weren't you?"
"I never did much more than talk to her. To tell the truth, I didn't like her that much."
"I know. It was always like she was better than the rest of us."
"I heard her parents were super strict, always on about how she was supposed to be a 'young lady.'"
"That's what I'm saying. But it sure was useful, her always getting her homework done on time."
"True, true. Fact is, I haven't even touched today's math assignment."
"Hey, me, neither"
"Nobody besides Nakajima."
"Youko, come back, please!"
Bright laughter gushed forth. At once the fraternal scene before her blurred, grew dim. The images bent and distorted, the figures dissolved away. Then in a twinkle vanished. The light went out and all that was left was the blade of the sword.