5-4 Rakushun said as they were cleaning up after lunch, "I hear it was quite a big shoku."
"That's what one of the elders of Hairou said."
"The news is that the wheat crops in the eastern region of Shin County were completely wiped out. It was a big tragedy."
Youko only nodded. Somewhere in her heart she felt a twinge of guilt.
"I seem to have touched upon a sore spot. Not because you think it was your fault, I hope."
"It doesn't mean I'm all depressed about it," Youko said, scraping the ashes out of the stove.
The rat's furry tail reached over and rapped her lightly on the knuckles. "Shoku do not happen because kaikyaku show up. It's the shoku that bring the kaikyaku here."
Rakushun instructed her to deposit the ashes into a wooden box. The remaining embers were stored in another container.
Youko said, "Can I ask you something?"
"What exactly is a shoku?" The elderwoman in Hairou had said it was something like a storm or tempest, but she still didn't understand its exact nature.
"Ah, so you don't know what a shoku is, either. You don't have shoku where you're from?"
"Well, it's written the same as an eclipse of the sun or the moon. We have those."
"They're not dissimilar omens in some respects, except that the sun or moon don't disappear. So I guess you could say it's like a great tempest. A tempest throws the air into turmoil. A shoku throws the spirits into turmoil."
"But there's also wind and rain?"
"There can be wind and rain. There are shoku that blow through like a typhoon. They are rare. Earthquakes and thunder and rivers flowing backwards, sinkholes appearing out of nowhere, any kind of natural disaster you can think of, that's what a shoku is. In one part of Hairou, the ground beneath a lake rose up and all the water flooded out. The whole lake vanished off the map."
Youko washed her hands after dumping out the ashes. "Are they always so destructive?"
"It depends. We fear shoku far more than typhoons. You never know what will happen during a shoku."
"But why should such things happen?"
With a serious expression on his face, Rakushun set to making tea as if it were the most important thing in the world. "From what I've heard, a shoku is when here and there get tangled up together. When things that were originally apart come together and overlap each other, disasters follow. I don't really understand it myself, but that's what I think is going on."
"Here and there . . . . "
The tea he made looked like green tea. The aroma was quite different. It resembled a herbal tea, with a quite soothing flavor.
"There is what lies beyond the Kyokai. Here is here. I can't think of any other name for it."
"The Kyokai encompasses the land. Beyond the land, the Kyokai goes on forever."
"Forever, with no end in sight. And no end there ever will be, or so we are told. Explorers have sailed off in search of the end of the Kyokai. None have returned."
"So that means the earth really is flat."
Climbing onto his chair, Rakushun gave Youko a startled look. "But of course it is. It'd all be quite incomprehensible otherwise." There was surprise and laughter in his voice.
"Well, then, what shape does this world have?"
Rakushun picked up a walnut and placed it on the table. "In the middle of the world is Suusan."
"The Supreme Mountain. It's also called Suukou, the Pinnacle, or Chuuzan, the Middle Mountain. Surrounding Suusan at the four cardinal points of the compass are the Eastern, Western, Southern and Northern Mountains. They are more commonly known as Houzan, the Mountain of Wormwood; Kazan, the Mountain of Splendor; Kakuzan, the Mountain of Immediacy; and Kouzan, the Mountain of Permanence. The story goes that the Eastern Mountain was formerly called Taishan. The ruler of the northern kingdom of Tai changed the spelling of his family name from the character meaning "generations" to the character meaning "peaceful calm," the same as Taishan. In deference to him, Taishan was changed to Houzan. Together they are called Gozan, the Five Mountains."
"Encompassing these five mountains is the Yellow Sea. Though called a sea, it is not a body of water. Rather, it is said to be filled with craggy wastelands and deserts and swamps and an ocean of trees."
Youko paid close attention to the characters he was writing. "You've never seen it?"
"There's no way I could. Encircling the Yellow Sea are the four Kongon, the Adamantine Mountains. No mortal being can dwell within them."
"Oh." It really did look to her like an old map of some ancient world.
"The Adamantine Mountains are bordered by four seas. To the north, northeast, south, southwest, east, southeast, west, and northwest, eight countries encircle the seas. Beyond them is the Kyokai. Adjacent to these eight countries are four big islands. The four islands plus the eight countries that surround the Yellow Sea are the Twelve Kingdoms."
Youko examined the geometric arrangements of walnuts. It looked like a flower, the kingdoms arrayed about the Gozan like petals.
"Nothing else. Only the Kyokai reaching out to the very end of the world." But, he seemed to say to himself and added, "Tales have been told of an island far away at the eastern edge of the world, fairy tales about a place called the Kingdom of Hourai. Also known as Japan."
The character he wrote down was Wa, the ancient name for Yamato.
"Really? The same 'Yamato' as Japan?"
When she wrote out the character herself, it definitely was Yamato. Youko bit her lip. Was it because of how the language was translated?
"It's also said that Yamato is where kaikyaku come from."
This time she clearly heard "Yamato." Because she knew the word as well in her native language, she didn't need it translated for her.
"It all might be tall tales, but when you listen to what the kaikyaku say, it seems that there is undoubtedly a country called Yamato. Ships have sailed off in search of Yamato. They too have never returned."
If indeed Japan did exist at the furthest reaches of the Kyokai, it might be possible to reach it by sailing east. But Youko knew the chances of that were slim. The only way home was through the shadow of the moon.
"There's also a legend that says that deep within the Adamantine Mountains is a place called Kunlun. Beyond Kunlun is China. China is the home of the zankyaku, the visitors (kyaku) from across the mountains (san or zan)." Rakushun wrote down the character for Han to represent China.
"Zankyaku? You mean there are other people who get tangled up in this place, not just kaikyaku?"
"That's right. Kaikyaku wash up on the shores of the Kyokai. Zankyaku are found wandering at the foot of the Adamantine Mountains. There aren't a lot of zankyaku in this kingdom, though. Kaikyaku or zankyaku, you've got to run for your life."
"Han or Yamato, normal people just can't come and go. Only youma and the mountain wizards can. When there is a shoku, people from over there are caught up in the currents. Those people are the zankyaku and kaikyaku."
"The people of Yamato and Han, it's said that they live in houses made of gold and silver, studded with jewels. Their kingdoms are so wealthy that farmers live like kings. They gallop through the air and can run a thousand miles in a single day. Even babies have the power to defeat youma. Youma and wizards have supernatural powers because they travel to those other worlds and drink from magical springs deep within the mountains."
Rakushun looked at Youko expectantly. Youko shook her head with a rueful smile. What a strange conversation this was. If she ever returned to her old world, they would never believe her. Fairly tales, they would say. And here, her world was a fairy tale as well. She laughed to herself. All along she had believed that this was a strange and mysterious world. But in the end, wasn't she and the place she came from even more so?
That must be why, she concluded at length, kaikyaku were hunted down like dogs.