Part V

Rain fell like slender threads scattered by the wind. She couldn't move, couldn't cry, could only lie there listlessly with her cheek in a puddle.

Suddenly she heard the swishing sound of something pushing through the undergrowth. She knew she should hide but could do little more than lift her head.

A villager or a beast or a youma. No matter what, the results wouldn't change. Whether she was arrested or attacked or simply continued to lie there, her struggles would come to the same end.

She looked up through the mist in the direction of the sound. It was neither a villager nor one of her pursuers. It wasn't a person at all, but a rather strange creature.

It resembled a rat. The way it stood up on its two hind legs and quivered its whiskers, there was a very definite rat-ness about it. Odder still, standing erect, this rat was as tall as a human child. It didn't look like your run-of-the-mill beast or youma. Youko lay there and stared vacantly at this quite curious rat.

The rat was sheltering itself from the rain with a large leaf it wore over its head like a bamboo hat. Silver rain drummed against translucent green. Youko thought that the pearl-colored raindrops were quite beautiful.

The rat stared back at Youko with a slightly stunned expression. It didn't seem to be getting ready to attack her. Its fur was a color somewhere between a light brown and gray. Youko felt an urge to pet it. Raindrops decorated its fluffy coat like jewels. The fur extended all the way down its tail, so through it looked like a rat, it obviously wasn't the same species.

The rat twitched its whiskers several times, then, still on its two hind legs, it toddled closer to Youko. It leaned its gray-brown body over her and with its small forefoot it touched her shoulder.

"Are you all right?"

Youko blinked several times. She heard the sound of a child's voice. It was definitely coming from the rat. With a curious expression the rat politely bowed its head next to hers. "What's the matter? Can't you move?"

Youko looked up into the rat's eyes and just managed to shake her head, no. Perhaps because it wasn't a person she let her guard down a bit.

"Well." The rat reached out with its small, childlike forefoot. "Try your best. My house isn't far from here."

Ah-- Youko sighed. Whether a sigh of relief for being rescued, or of disappointment for being rescued, she couldn't be entirely sure.

"Okay?" the rat said.

She tried to grab its hand but could only move the tips of her fingers. The rat reached down and clasped Youko's cold hand in its small, warm forefoot.

Leaning on an arm stronger than she would have imagined, they made their way to a small house. That was the last thing she remembered.

Many times she had the sense of opening her eyes and taking in her surroundings, but she couldn't grasp what she was looking at or recall what she had seen. Her consciousness alternated between periods of deep sleep and light sleep. When at last she awoke for good, she found herself within a humble abode, lying on a bed.

She stared blankly up at the ceiling, a moment later quickly sat up. She jumped out of bed and collapsed on the floor. Her legs were of no use to her at all.

There was no one else in the small room. Her vision still spinning, she desperately searched around the bed on her hands and knees. There wasn't much in the way of furniture except for a shelf next to the bed fashioned from a few planks of wood. Neatly arranged on the shelf were the sword, shrouded in a bolt of cloth, and the blue jewels, threaded together with a new cord.

With a profound sense of relief she managed to stand up. She placed the jewels around her neck and with the sword returned to the bed. She slipped the sword under the quilt. Finally she could relax.

At this point Youko realized that she was wearing a nightdress. Her many wounds had been treated. There was something damp under her shoulder. It was a wet, folded cloth. She had not noticed it when she jumped out of bed. She placed it back on her forehead. It felt good. She drew up the thick quilts, grasped the jewels, closed her eyes, and breathed a deep sign of relief.

"Are you awake?"

She sat up again in a hurry. Looking back at the source of the voice, she saw the big gray-haired rat standing there. The door was open and it was coming into the room. In one hand it held a tray, in the other a pail.

Her sense of wariness reared up inside her. It lived like a person, talked like a person. Just because it looked like an animal didn't mean she could trust it.

Paying no attention to the wary looks Youko was giving it, the rat nonchalantly set the tray on the table, the pail at the foot of the bed.

"How's your fever?"

It reached out with its small forefoot. Youko immediately shrank away. The rat twitched its whiskers and then picked up the damp cloth that had fallen onto the quilt. It must have noticed that Youko had the sword clasped tightly to her chest but said nothing. It placed the cloth in the bucket, looked at Youko's face.

"How are you feeling? Want something to eat?"

Youko shook her head. The rat gave its whiskers a twitch, took a cup from the table. "It's medicine. Will you take it?"

Youko again shook her head. She couldn't take any chances, couldn't expose herself to any possible threats. The rat thought about it for a moment, raised the cup to its mouth and, as she watched, drank a bit. "See, ordinary medicine. A bit bitter, but that's the only way to get it down."

With that, it again offered it to her. Youko refused to take it. Confounded, the rat scratched the fur around its ear. "Well, then. What can I offer you? If you won't drink or eat anything, you won't get your strength back. How about some tea? Goat milk? Rice pudding?"

Youko refused to answer. The rat sighed to itself, as if trying to figure out what to do next. "You've been asleep for three days. If it was in me to do something like that, I would have had all the time in the world, don't you see."

The rat gestured with the tip of its nose at where Youko had the sword clasped to her chest. "You're even hiding that sword from me. Can you not trust me even that much?"

Youko looked into its small black eyes. Slowly she took out the cloth-shrouded sword and laid it across her lap.

"Now we're getting somewhere," the rat said in a pleased voice. It reached out again. This time Youko did not shrink away. With its tiny fingers it briefly touched her forehead. "You've still got a bit of a fever but it's gone down a good bit. Now, you settle down and rest. Is there anything I can get you?"

Youko said uncertainly, "Water . . . . "

The rat's ear's flicked back and forth. "Water. Great. So you can speak! I'll bring some water straightaway. If you need to get up, keep yourself wrapped up in that quilt."

Not waiting for Youko to nod in reply, the rat darted out of the room. Its tail, covered in short fur, swayed back and forth as if to help keep its balance.

A few minutes later the rat returned carrying a pitcher, cup and small bowl. The almost hot water was delicious. She drained the cup over and over. Then she peered at the bowl, caught the scent of alcohol.

"What have you got there?"

"Peaches pickled in wine and simmered with sugar. Want to try one?"

Youko nodded. Then she turned to the rat and said, "Thank you."

The rat's whiskers quivered. The fur on its cheeks stood out, its eyes narrowed and it smiled, or so that was how its expression struck her.

"My name's Rakushun. And you are?"

The question stumped her at first. She simply answered, "Youko."

"Youko. And how is it spelled?"

"You as in youki (cheerful), and ko as in kodomo (child)."

"Ko as in 'child'?" Rakushun tilted his head to the side. "Huh," he said. "That's a curious name. Where are you from?"

As it would be awkward to not answer now, Youko stalled as she wracked her brains. "Kei."

"The Kingdom of Kei? Where in Kei?"

Not knowing anything more of Kei, she promptly answered, "Hairou."

"Where is that?" Rakushun looked at her with an only slightly bewildered look, and then scratched at his ears. "Well, that's neither here nor there. Let's take your medicine and get you back to bed."

Youko nodded. She asked, "How do you spell Rakushun?"

The rat laughed. "It's Raku as in kuraku (sorrow and joy), and shun as in shunbin (quick-witted)."