round the time Rokuta gave Kouya his name, he was living in the Kongou Mountains.
The Kongou Mountains enclosed the Yellow Sea in the center of the world, the palisades formed by their peaks jutting through the Sea of Clouds. Youma nested in narrow caves that dotted the cliffs of the Kongou Mountains. Linked together by a vast network of tunnels, the caves perhaps continued all the way to the Yellow Sea.
Kouya sat in the foul smelling nest and gazed at the youma. “I am Kouya. From now on, that’s what you will call me. If you don’t, I’ll forget who I am.”
Understood, the youma cooed in return.
“So, does the big guy want a name too?”
The youma only tilted his head forward.
“Then it’s ROKUTA. That way, I won’t forget who the human Rokuta is either.”
Rokuta was the first person he’d met who was not his enemy, who didn’t hunt him or the youma, who didn’t run away, but sat down beside him and talked to him and gave him a name.
Kouya hugged his arms around the youma’s neck. “You should talk more too, like the human Rokuta.”
He was now old enough to understand what the word loneliness meant. There were many cities in the lands across the sea, and many people in those cities. People the same size as Kouya, people bigger than him, holding hands, carrying their children in their arms—
These were scenes Kouya enjoyed seeing, though at the same time they were painful to watch. Observing the parents and children, the kids running around everywhere, was so heart wrenching he couldn’t stand it.
And yet no sooner had he left but he wished with all his heart to see them again.
Kouya’s guardian youma never brought along any of his own kind. Youma they encountered in their travels were invariably itching for a fight. It was probably in their nature. So daily life for Kouya consisted just of the two of them.
If he sought out human companionship in the cities, the youma would attack the humans. The situation would soon blow out of control, and before long they’d be attacking Kouya too with swords and spears.
He begged the youma not to, but when a youma was hungry his appetite ruled all. And even when he didn’t attack, people who saw Kouya and the youma would scream and flee for their lives, or turn and attack with any weapons they had on hand.
Kouya looked the youma in the eye and repeated “ROKUTA” over and over. “If you stopped attacking people, then we could go to Kankyuu together.”
Little guy, the youma cooed.
“No. I’m Kouya. Kouya.”
Little guy, the youma said again, in a voice that said he wanted to go out and Kouya to come with.
“If you don’t called me by my name, I’m bound to forget it again, the same way I forgot my real name.”
His mother had certainly addressed him by his name as she walked along, his hand in hers. But he couldn’t recall it to mind.
“Call me Kouya.”
The children playing in the streets, the parents shouting at them, the arms lifting them up, the slap of a disciplining hand—Kouya envied all of it. The only hands he remembered was that of his mother abandoning him in the mountains, the calloused hand of the man leading him to the cliffs overlooking the ocean.
Why was there no warm hand like that in his life? Why were people so kind to other children and yet drove him away and did such awful things?
There was a kingdom called Hourai across the sea. If could make his way there, nobody would chase him away. A warm hand would surely find his. If he looked long enough, somewhere there should be a city that welcomed him with open arms.
Rokuta had listened to what he had to say, gave him food to eat, patted him on the back. He’d ask Kouya to come with him. There’d be no end to the things they could talk about. Rokuta would always call him by his name. They could play together all day long like the children in the cities.
“Yeah, I should have gone with Rokuta.”
Except this youma was the first living thing that hadn’t tried to kill him. Kouya threw his arms around the youma’s neck and buried his face in the red feathers.
“I’d be better if we both could.”
Kouya again reminded the youma, “You can’t go on attacking people.”
When hungry, the youma would kill and eat the first animal he saw. So Kouya learned how to hunt game for him. When he was full, the youma listened to what Kouya said.
But even when the youma stopped attacking people, people still despised them. Get anywhere near a city and the arrows would rain down. And though he had no reason to keep visiting the opposite shore, Kouya couldn’t bring himself to stop going there.
That longing for human companionship grew as he grew older. But there was no place where Kouya could mingle with ordinary people. The youma still didn’t call Kouya by his name. All he could do was talk out loud to himself.
At times, Kouya couldn’t help wondering if he’d only dreamed of meeting Rokuta. Rokuta hadn’t been afraid of him or the youma. He’d talked to him like a true friend. Thinking back on it now, their meeting seemed so unbelievable. So he made sure to call himself Kouya and the youma ROKUTA.
No matter how hungry Kouya was, the youma got first dibs on the food. No matter his aches and pains, he always made sure to go hunting for him. Following Rokuta’s admonition not to eat people somehow sustained the connection between them.
Kouya could dream that somewhere there was a place he could call his own, where simply fewer people screamed at them and fewer arrows were shot at them. He considered splitting up with the youma and searching for Kankyuu on his own, but the youma called him little guy with such affection that the impulse withered inside him.
Kouya was a youma’s child, after all. He couldn’t very well associate with humans.
He was ready to abandon the idea when he met Atsuyu, on the same shores of the Black Sea in Gen Province where he’d previously met Rokuta.
Kouya rode to the land astride the youma as he usually did. There he killed small game with rocks. A rabbit or two wouldn’t fill the youma’s stomach. Kouya left the youma to finish that meal while he hunted bigger prey. A recent wound from an arrow still hurt, so badly at time that he couldn’t sleep. But he had to make sure the youma was fed.
Arrows streaked down out of the sky.
Kouya yelped and ran for the cover of the woods. He’d been shot at too many times to remember, and bore too many scars from the arrowheads to count. A wound worth complaining about now would set at naught everything he’d learned.
He tumbled into the trees and buried himself in the undergrowth.
“Boy, come out.” The voice rang out loud and clear. As Kouya held his breath, the man went on, “Wasn’t it you were riding that youma through the sky?”
Kouya had a hard time comprehending human speech. Strangely enough, he understood everything the man said. He spoke in neither fear nor anger. That piqued Kouya’s curiosity. He poked his head out from the dense thicket.
Several soldiers were on the crest of the slope rising up from the woods. Most were kneeling, bows at the ready. In the center of the line, a step in front of the others, stood a man with his arms folded.
“Are you going to come out?” The man scanned his surroundings and said to the soldiers, “Stand down.”
“But—” they protested. The man waved his hand and they lowered their bows.
Kouya watched them set aside their weapons and dared to scoot another few feet forward. The smiling man’s eyes met his. Except for a patch of white over his right brow, he had a head of hair as red as the youma’s. Kouya’s wariness eased. He rose to his knees.
“Come on,” the man reassured him. “You’ll be okay.”
Kouya slowly emerged from the thicket. He wanted to see what it was like being around people who weren’t intent on making him the prey.
The man leaned over and stretched out his hand. “Nobody’s going to harm you.”
All the more drawn to him, Kouya was about to step away from the cover of the woods when a howl stopped him in his tracks: Stop.
With a rustle of feathers, the youma plummeted like a stone and alit in front of him. With a menacing roar at the soldiers on the hill, he crouched down and implored Kouya to climb onto his back.
The soldiers who’d set aside their bows hastily grabbed them again and drew a bead on the youma.
The man dropped to a knee. “Halt! Nobody shoot!”
The man looked at the youma and back to Kouya without the slightest sign of fear. More an expression of intense curiosity. “Fascinating. That youma is defending you. He reached toward Kouya again. “Come with me. You and the youma will be safe. Ah, but of course.”
He turned to his perplexed retainers, some still bearing bows, others not. “Bring the deer.” Then to Kouya, “You must be hunting too. But you can’t very well kill a deer with a rock.”
Kouya gaped at him and the deer carcass. The man surely intended to give it to them. He didn’t understand why.
The man smiled at Kouya’s consternation. “Do you eat venison too? Or is it for your companion?”
From a satchel at his waist he produced an item wrapped in green leaves. He peeled back the leaves to reveal a steamed rice and barley dumpling. Kouya remembered—like the rice cakes Rokuta had given him.
“Well?” the man cocked his head to the side. “You don’t like? Or would you prefer the meat?”
Kouya pushed out of the thicket and left the woods behind. The youma called for him to stop. Kouya didn’t listen. He faced the man and pointed at the deer, then back and forth from the youma to the deer.
The man nodded. He flashed a smile at the youma. “It’s for you. Go ahead and eat. Just don’t come after any of us.”
The youma answered with a suspicious coo, but stepped forward, seized the foot of the deer in its mouth and yanked it closer. Kouya watched the youma eat and cautiously turned back to the man, casting a hesitant glance at his retinue. They didn’t look like they were going to do anything bad to him.
Relieved, he sat down. The man reached out to him. Kouya shrank back a bit. He placed his hand on Kouya’s head, a big warm hand.
“What a strange child. You tamed a youma.”
The gentleness of his voice soothed Kouya’s senses. He pulled away. The touch of his hand vanished, replaced by a fierce feeling of longing.
“You don’t like being touched?
It’s not that. Kouya shook his head.
“That’s okay. I won’t do anything you don’t like. Who’s child are you? I’d heard stories of a sprite about these parts keeping company with a tenken. Who’d believe it was a real human child?”
Kouya only stared at the man’s smiling face.
“Do you have a name? Where do you live?”
Being able to answer the question struck a chord in his heart. He had a name and here was a place where that name mattered. He’d dreamed of this scene for so long.
“Kouya, eh? Are from around here, Kouya?”
Being called by his name was all the more delightful. Savoring the sensation, he looked back over his shoulder and pointed at the distant mountains soaring into the sky above the trees.
“The Kongou Mountains? Not the Yellow Sea. They say neither humans nor youma can enter and leave there at will.”
The man grinned. “I see. You live on the cliffs. You understand what I’m saying, then. Bright kid.”
He patted Kouya on the head again. This time Kouya didn’t shrink away.
“How old are you? Twelve or so?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about your parents?”
Kouya shook his head.
“Another family with too many mouths to feed. A lot of kids got tossed into the Black Sea that way. You did a good job surviving this long.”
“Because of ROKUTA.” Kouya bobbed his head at the youma behind him.
“That is no less amazing. A child raised by a youma. His name is ROKUTA, eh?”
The man chuckled. His directed his attention to Kouya’s left arm. “What’s this? That wound is infected.”
When Kouya nodded, he took the arm and examined it more closely. “You’ve got the tip of an arrowhead imbedded in the skin. You need to get that treated.”
The man got to his feet. Kouya already felt the sting of their inevitable separation. But he reached down. “Come with me. You really deserve a better life than this.”
“Come with you?”
“My name is Atsuyu. I live in Ganboku. Do you know where that is?”
Kouya shook his head.
“You can live with me. You’ll need clothes and an education. Not to mention medical attention.”
“ROKUTA too?” Kouya asked with great apprehension.
The man answered with a dazzling smile. “But of course.”