He shook his head and smiled. "Just an ordinary kaikyaku. I grew up in Shizuoka and attended Tokyo University. I came here when I was twenty-two. I was trying to sneak out of Yasuda Hall by crawling under one of the desks barricading the entrance. The next thing I knew, I was in this world."
"Yasuda . . . ?"
"Do you know about it? It was a big deal at the time. Perhaps by now it has been consigned to the musty pages of history."
"Just because I don't know something . . . . "
"The same applies to me. It happened on January 17th, 1969. Night had fallen. What happened after that I don't know."
"It all took place before I was born."
A wry smile came to his face. "How the years have gone by. I have been here a long time."
"You've been here ever since then?"
"I have. I arrived in Kei. Six years ago, I moved from Kei and settled in En. As for my line of work, I'm what you might call a science teacher." He smiled and shook his head. "It's not important. Now, what did you wish to ask me?"
Youko came right to the point. "There's a way to go home, isn't there?"
After a moment's hesitation, Rakujin lowered his voice. "No mortal being can cross the Kyokai. It is a one-way trip. Once you get here, you cannot go back."
Youko took a breath. "Is that so?" But it didn't hit her as hard as she had expected.
"I'm sorry I could not be of more help to you."
"No, that's okay. I had another question. It's a bit strange, though."
"I understand what they say here."
Rakujin tilted his head to the side quizzically.
"At first, I didn't notice any difference at all. I thought everyone was speaking Japanese. The only thing I didn't understand were unique words and terms. And then I met this old kaikyaku in Kou, and for the first time I realized that nobody was speaking Japanese. Yet I have no problem communicating, even though I only speak Japanese. What could account for this?"
"It would seem that you are not human."
I knew that, Youko thought.
"When I arrived, it was hard because I didn't understand a thing. I thought the language was similar to Chinese, but the few words of Chinese I knew did me little good. For many years, I had to communicate in writing. I managed to get by using classical Chinese. But even that was chancy, which made my first year here very difficult. That's been true of everybody who has come here. Taika are no different. I have done my own research on kaikyaku, and every one of them has had real difficulty with the language. You are no ordinary kaikyaku."
Youko unconsciously gripped her arms. Rakujin continued.
"From what I've heard, only wizards and magical beings such as youma do not encounter this hurdle of language. If you did not immediately perceive a difference in language, you cannot be human. You must be of the same species as wizards or youma."
"So . . . there are also youma taika?"
Rakujin nodded. The smile did not disappear from his face. "I've never heard of it, but it is possible. Maybe there is a solution to your predicament after all. Perhaps you can go back."
Youko lifted her head. "Do you really think so?"
"Perhaps. Youma and wizards can cross the Kyokai. It is not something I can do. I cannot go home again, but you are different. You should definitely request an audience with the Royal En."
"If we meet with the king, would he be able to help us?"
"Most likely. It won't be simple, and the rewards may be slim, but it would certainly be worth trying."
"Yeah." Nodding her head, Youko cast her eyes down to the floor. "It all makes sense. I'm not a human being."
She smiled to herself. Rakushun raised his voice sharply.
He drew back her sleeve, showing her right hand. "I find this most curious. There should be a scar in the palm of her hand, a wound she received when she came here and was attacked by the youma. It was a deep wound that went straight through her hand. Now, you can barely see it."
Rakushun gently unfolded her hand and examined her palm. He quivered his whiskers. This was the wound Rakushun had tended to himself. He could testify to the fact that it was indeed a serious injury.
"She should have many other scars, but you'd never know it. The wounds themselves are very light for being inflicted by youma. No fang marks remain where she was bitten. For some reason, her body has become very resilient to injury.
Youko had to smile. Listening on as her alien nature was acknowledged, It struck her as quite funny. "Because I'm a youma, don't you see? That's why they hunt me and attack me."
Rakujin frowned. "Youma hunt you?"
Rakushun answered for her. "It sure looks that way to me."
"That's what I thought, but wherever Youko goes, youma are bound to show up. I was there when we were attacked by a kochou." Rakujun pressed his hands to his temples.
"Recently, there have been rumors of youma appearing more often in Kou. Are you saying it is because of her?"
Rakushun looked hesitantly at Youko. Youko nodded and picked up the story. "I think so, too. The reason I ended up here in the first place is because I was attacked by a kochou and had to escape."
"You escaped to this world after being attacked by a kochou? From that other world to here?"
"Yes. A guy named Keiki--and I'm pretty sure he's a youma, too--he said it was in order to protect me. He's the one who brought me here."
"And where he is now?"
"I don't know. When we arrived, we were ambushed by youma and got split up. I haven't seen him since. He could be dead."
Rakujin held his head in his hands and thought for a long time. "It's impossible. I simply cannot imagine."
"That's what Rakushun said."
"Youma are a species of wild animal. They have been known to hunt humans in packs, but they would not track down a particular individual. Needless to say, they would not cross the Kyokai to do so. It is not in their nature, the same way you would not expect it of a tiger, for example."
"Couldn't a person train a tiger to do something like that?"
"Youma cannot be domesticated. You are speaking of something quite grave, Miss Youko."
"It's that serious?"
"If we suppose that some kind of change was effected in the youma to cause them to attack you, or if we suppose that someone found a way to control and command them, either way, standing idly by and doing nothing by could very well put the kingdom in jeopardy."
Rakujin looked at Youko. "Now, if we supposed that you were a youma, that would simplify things greatly. I have heard of youma being separated from their packs. When they come close to starving, they are the kind of beast that will feed even upon their own kind."
"Youko doesn't look like a youma," Rakushun said, and Rakujin nodded.
"There are people who have turned into youma, but I don't think completely. Moreover, they are not conscious of it themselves."
Youko smiled thinly. "That doesn't mean it couldn't happen."
Rakujin shook his head. "No, you are different. You are no youma. It cannot be."
With that, Rakujin stood up. "You should see the king at once. I am on speaking terms with some officials in the government, but it would be more expeditious for you to go directly to Kankyuu. Visit Gen'ei Palace straightaway and tell them exactly what you told me. You are the key to the whole thing. I'm sure the king will want to see you."
Youko also got to her feet. She bowed deeply. "I thank you very much"
"If you leave right away, you should arrive at the next city by nightfall. Do you have belongings at the inn?"
"No, we've got everything with us."
"In that case, I'll see you to the city gates."
Rakujin walked with them to the gates. "It may not amount to much, but I shall work on a formal petition, as well. Until you figure out what is going to happen next, you may find yourself at loose ends as well, but once everything is put in order, I am sure the king will find a way home for you."
Youko looked at Rakujin. "And you?"
"Do you also wish to petition the king to return to Japan?"
Rakujin smiled wryly. "I do not have the standing that would allow me to see the king. He is not some glad-hander who stoops to rubbing shoulders with run-of-the-mill kaikyaku."
"But . . . . "
"No. If I pleaded, yes, perhaps he might deign to see me, but it is something I simply am not interested in pursuing."
"No interest at all?"
"I was tired of the times and was happy to come to this new world. I harbor no longings for my old country. By the time I understood that a way might be found to return if I petitioned the king, I had gotten used to living here and had lost any desire to go home."
"I still want to," Youko said to herself, feeling a strong stab of homesickness.
"Take care. I'll pray for your successful audience with the king."
"At the very least, we can speak Japanese on our way to the gates."
"There is no need." Rakujin laughed. "You see, that is the country I ran away from when I tried to start a revolution and failed."