5-3 The house was the kind of small, poor-looking structure common in the rural districts. Even compared to those, Youko knew this dwelling was of a particularly wretched class.
The dwellings located out among the fields were usually grouped together into a village. It was unusual to see a house all by itself like this. There didn't appear to be any other houses nearby on the mountainside.
Think of a rat's house and she would have imagined something tiny. Although the overall scale was small, it was more or less a normal-sized structure. And not just the building. Youko couldn't help but marvel that from kitchen implements to daily necessities, everything was in human dimensions.
"Rakushun, do you have parents?" Youko asked.
She was filling a big kettle on the stove with water. She'd finally been able to get up and give Rakushun a hand around the house. She steadied the pail with her right hand, still wrapped with bandages. Beneath the bandages the wound had almost completely healed.
Rakushun was restocking the stove with firewood. He looked up at her. "Don't have a father. My mom's out."
"Is she on a trip? It seems to be taking a long time. Has she gone far?"
"Not really. She went to the nearby village. She's got a job there. She was supposed to get back the day before yesterday."
Which meant that she would be getting back any day now. Youko made a mental note of this fact. "What does your mother do?"
"During the winter she works as a maid. She's called on for odd jobs during the summer as well. Otherwise, she's a tenant farmer."
"So, Youko, where are you headed?"
Youko turned the question over in her mind. She wasn't really headed anyplace in particular. She didn't want to say she was just walking around. She said, "Have you ever heard of a guy named Keiki?"
Rakushun plucked a chip of wood out of his coat. "You're looking for somebody? Do you think he's from around here?"
"I don't know where he's from."
"Well, I'm sorry to say that I don't know anybody by the name of Keiki."
"Oh. Is there anything else you'd like me to do?"
"No, no, nothing else. You're still on the mend. You'd better sit down."
Youko lowered her tired body into the chair. The creaky old table and chairs sat on the bare earth floor of the small dining/kitchen area. The sword was on the chair next to her, wrapped in its shroud. She would not let it out of her sight for an instant, and Rakushun had not taken her to task over it. She had no idea what his thoughts on the matter were.
"So, tell me, Youko," Rakushun said in his childlike voice, the sleek, glossy coat of his back to her, "why are you pretending to be a boy?"
He would have figured that out when he changed her into the nightdress. She said, "It's dangerous for a girl traveling alone."
"That makes sense."
He brought over an earthenware teapot. Whatever he had brewed filled the small room with a rich aroma. He set two teacups on the table, raised his eyes to hers. "I was wondering why you didn't you have a scabbard for that sword?"
"I lost it."
As she answered, even now, she could remember losing the scabbard. When they crossed the Kyokai, she had been told to never separate the sword and scabbard. Yet no disaster had followed directly from losing it. Obviously, the intent of the admonition had been to preserve the jewels.
Rakushun mumbled something to himself and climbed onto the chair. The way he moved rather resembled a rat mimicking a human baby. "If you don't get yourself a scabbard for that thing, a person could really hurt himself."
"Yeah, a person could," Youko answered in a flat tone of voice.
Rakushun looked at her, his head tilted to the side. "You said you came from Hairou, right?"
"Hairou is not in Kei. Isn't Hairou a village in the county of Shin, along the eastern coast?"
If he says so, that must be where it is, Youko thought to herself blankly. She said nothing.
"It seems the place was thrown into quite a turmoil recently."
Youko continued to hold her tongue.
"A kaikyaku washed ashore and then ran away, something like that."
Youko scowled at him. Without giving it conscious thought, she reached for the sword. "What are you getting at?"
"A redheaded girl of sixteen or seventeen, last seen carrying a sword without a scabbard. Should be considered armed and dangerous." He paused and said, "You've dyed your hair, Youko."
Her attention focused on Rakushun, she grasped the hilt of the sword. She couldn't read the expression on his face. His countenance was too many degrees removed from the human.
"Well, at least that's what the local magistrate has been saying."
"The local magistrate . . . . "
"Why the mortified expression? If I had intended to turn you in, I would have waited for the constables to show up. I hear there's a big reward on your head."
Youko unraveled the shroud from the sword. She stood and brandished the naked blade. "What do you want?"
The rat looked up at her with his jet-black eyes and quivered its silky whiskers. "You have quite the short temper."
"Why did you take me in?"
"Why did I take you in? Well, when I come across some poor chap dying along the wayside, I can't very well just leave him there. So I brought you home. I would think that taking care of you obviously means not turning you over to the authorities, don't you think?"
Youko couldn't bring herself to believe him. Simply trusting people like that, you were setting yourself up for a fall.
"All kaikyaku get sent to the county seat. If they're good, they're confined under house arrest. If they're bad, then it's the axe. If you were to ask me, I'd say you belonged to the latter group."
"Why do you think that?"
"The word is, you've got some kind of black magic up your sleeves. You commanded the youma to attack the convoy and used the opportunity to make a break for it."
"I didn't command the youma to do anything."
"That's what I thought." The rat nodded to himself. "I didn't think it'd be so easy to order youma around like that. In fact, I don't think it was you commanding the youma. I think it was you the youma were hunting."
"I . . . I don't know."
"Well, either way, you must be a bad kaikyaku. Any person the youma would have it in for can't be good."
"And what if I am?"
"Nine times out of ten, when a kaikyaku ends up in front of the governor, that's the last you hear of him. So naturally you'd run. But do you know where you should be running to?"
Youko had no answer.
"No, you have no idea at all. You simply stumbled into our little corner of the woods. Well, you should be headed for En."
Youko gave Rakushun a long, hard look. There was no expression on the rat's face. She couldn't read him at all.
"I guess I just can't stand idly by and watch people get killed." Rakushun laughed. "That doesn't mean I'd shed a tear seeing some brigand go to the gallows. But executing a kaikyaku just because she's a kaikyaku? No, that's going too far."
"But I'm a bad kaikyaku, aren't I?"
"Well, the government seems to think so. But I suppose there are good kaikyaku and bad kaikyaku like everybody else. It's a rare thing to know for sure which is which just by having a hunch about someone."
"Bad kaikyaku bring calamities upon the kingdom."
"Old wives' tales."
The quickness of his reply and the tone of his voice set off alarm bells in her head. It was exactly the same thing another person in this country had said. Though in that case it was a human woman.
"So you're saying that if I go to En, they'll help me?"
"They will. The king of En gives sanctuary to kaikyaku. In En, kaikyaku can live their lives the same as everybody else, proof that it's people that are good or bad, not kaikyaku. That's why you should go to En. Now, why don't you put that scary thing down?"
Youko hesitated several times, then lowered the sword.
"Pull up a chair. Your tea is getting cold."
Youko sat herself down again. She had no idea what Rakushun was up to. Whenever her kaikyaku identity was exposed, it was best to get out of there as soon as possible. But she really wanted to know more about this En.
"Do you know the lay of the land around these parts?"
Youko shook her head. Rakushun nodded. Holding his teacup, he got down from the chair. He came over to where Youko was still holding the sword and leaned over the dirt floor.
"We are in An'you county in Jun province, a place called Kahoku," Rakushun said, drawing a rough map in the dirt. "This is the Kyokai, and Shin county is here. Hairou is in this vicinity. That means you have been traveling in a westerly direction right into the interior of Kou. If escaping was your goal--getting out of Kou--then you've been going in the wrong direction."
Youko looked at the map with mixed emotions. Could she believe it? Could he be misleading her? Her doubts notwithstanding, she was starving for information. Right now, the desire for knowledge overcame her second thoughts.
"Bordering Jun on the west is Nei province. Following the main road, you'll enter Hokuryou county. Further along the road, going in a northwestern direction, you'll reach Agan. It's a big port city on the Blue Sea, the inner sea.
Rakushun sketched the rough map and wrote out the place names with a remarkably fine hand. "You can take a ship from Agan north across the Blue Sea. Your destination is En."
Rakushun wrote "Enkoku" as The Kingdom of En, using the Chinese character for "wild goose."
"It'd be a good idea to head first for Hokuryou before going on."
But how would she get aboard a ship? If the port was guarded, it'd be like putting the noose around her own neck.
"You'll be okay," Rakushun laughed, as if reading her thoughts. "What I'm saying is, if a person in Shin wanted to escape Kou, the fastest way would be to head due north and cross the mountains into Kei. The constables would never have expected you to take the route you've taken. Your getting lost may have been a blessing. The wanted posters describe a red-haired young girl. Do something about that big sword and no one will know who you are."
"I see." Youko stood up. "Thank you," she said.
Rakushun looked up at her in surprise. "Hey, you're not thinking of leaving right away, are you?"
"Better sooner than later. I don't want to be a burden."
Rakushun jumped up. "Better later. You really are impatient, aren't you?"
"But . . . . "
"After you get to the Kingdom of En, then what? Walk around grabbing people off the street and asking them if they know a guy named Keiki? Do you know how to book passage on a ship? How to petition for sanctuary in En?"
Youko looked away. Compared to her journey up till now, with only this new destination fixed in her mind, a considerably different future had opened up to her. Nevertheless, there would be more obstacles like this she would have to surmount. And these likely didn't amount to a tenth of what awaited her.
"You can't go rushing off without the slightest bit of preparation. If you don't prepare now, you'll be boxing yourself into a corner."
Youko nodded. There was still a part of her that feared falling into a trap, but on this point she had no choice but to trust Rakushun.
"That's right. Have something to eat, put some meat on your bones. Even setting a quick pace, it will take a month to get to Agan."
Youko nodded again. At least until she got the better part of her strength back. That'd give her time to figure out what Rakushun was up to as well. Was he simply doing this out of the goodness of his heart, or was it part of some deeper stratagem? She had to get to Agan and then to En. But more than that, she had to first ascertain Rakushun's true intentions.