ouko awoke towards the evening. She walked about aimlessly during the day and spent the night fighting the youma. She slept amidst the underbrush, ate what edible nuts and berries she could find. Three days went by the same way.
She was so exhausted she had no problem sleeping. Sleep did not stave off the hunger, though. She didn’t feel like she was starving to death as long as she held the jewel, but that didn’t fill her belly. Her body felt as if it was being gnawed away from the inside out by thousands of little worms.
On the fourth day she gave up on the idea of walking around without any destination or direction. She still had no idea of which way to go. She’d been operating on the expectation that she would eventually run into what she was looking for. Now she had to face the fact that she was simply going around in circles. She wasn’t going anywhere.
She had to find Keiki. To do that she had to go where there were people. But once they found out she was a kaikyaku they’d lock her up and she’d be right back where she started.
Youko looked herself over. She really had to get herself some different clothes. If she could only change her appearance that way, people probably couldn’t tell at a glance that she was a kaikyaku.
The problem was how to get her hands on different clothes. She had no idea what they used for money here, and besides, she didn’t have any cash on her. So she couldn’t very well buy anything. Doing things aboveboard, her options were limited. On the other hand, she could threaten people with the sword and take their stuff.
The logic of a wardrobe change dawned upon her pretty quickly. Actually robbing somebody, that was another story. But wandering around in the mountains for four days had made up her mind for her. She had to stay alive. That didn’t mean killing people and robbing their bodies, but she was approaching the limits of what she would hesitate doing.
From the shadow of a large tree Youko looked down at the small village. The village was a collection of humble dwellings crowded together in the center of a narrow valley.
Mustering her courage, she left the shelter of the trees. She approached the nearest house in the village to take a look. Instead of a fence or wall, the house was encompassed by a small garden. The roof covered with black tile. The white mud walls were worn down to the slats.
There was no glass in the windows. The heavy wooden shutters had been left open as well. She drew nearer, scouting out the surroundings. These days she could look a rabid beast right in the face and not even blink. But at that moment, if she hadn’t been clenching her mouth closed her teeth would have been chattering.
She snuck a peek in one of the windows. She saw a small dirt floor, a fireplace and table. It looked like an ordinary kitchen. She didn’t see anybody there, heard nothing out of the ordinary.
With muffled steps she crept along the wall of the house. Next to the well, she came across what she took to be a wooden door. She pushed on it. It opened, though stubbornly. She held her breath and she peered inside. She had by now concluded it was a house and that nobody was home. Slowly letting out her breath, she went inside.
The room was about ten feet by ten feet. The accommodations were modest, but it smelled like a home. Four walls, some furniture, the various implements of daily life. These alone were enough almost enough to bring her to tears with homesickness.
Upon closer examination, the room otherwise had only a few cupboards. She went to the one door. It opened into a bedroom. There were two beds at opposite ends of the room. A shelf, small table, and a big wooden chest. Apparently these were the only two rooms in the house.
She checked to make sure the window was open, stepped in and closed the door behind her.
First off, she scanned the shelves. She found nothing there. Next she opened the wooden chest. A variety of cloth and fabrics were packed inside. A second look told her that there was nothing she could wear. A further look around the room revealed nothing else that might contain clothing. With every expectation that in there somewhere must be something to wear, she began pulling everything out one by one.
The wooden chest was almost as big as a large screen TV. It contained a number of smaller boxes that in turn contained a miscellany of things, bed sheets and faded quilts and some children’s outfits that were too small for her.
She couldn’t believe there were no clothes that fit. As she cast her eyes about the room again, she heard the front door open. Youko literally jumped, as did her heart. She cast a quick glance at the window. It now seemed miles away. It would not be possible for her to move from where she stood without attracting the attention of the person on the other side of the door.
Don’t come in here.
Small footsteps padded about the adjoining room. The bedroom door moved. Youko couldn’t. She stood there frozen in front of the chest, its contents strewn all about her. Reflexively, she went to grasp the handle of the sword, stopped herself.
She stole because that was what she had to do to stay alive. Yes, it would be easy to intimidate people with the sword, but if intimidation didn’t work she’d actually have to use it.
If it hurts so much, it could be over in a moment.
The door opened. A woman started to enter the room, a large-framed woman approaching middle age. Seeing Youko she stopped and started so violently it was like she was having a convulsion.
Youko had no inclination to run away now. She stood there silently. By the by, her nerves settled and she resigned herself to the inevitable. She’d be arrested and herded off to the county seat and likely be executed. It’d all be over. She could finally forget forever about being hungry and tired.
The woman looked down at the clothing and fabric scattered about Youko’s feet. She said in a trembling voice, “Got nothing here that’s worth being stole.”
Youko waited for the woman to scream.
“Was it clothes? Was it because you needed something to wear?”
The plainness of the question left Youko too bewildered to reply. The woman took her silence as a yes. She moved from the doorway into the room. “I keep the clothes over here.” She went over to the bed next to Youko, knelt down and drew back the quilt, revealing a drawer underneath. “That box there is for old things I don’t need anymore, like for my child that died.”
She opened the drawer and took out an outfit. “What kind of clothes do you like, then? Don’t have much else besides my own.” She looked up at Youko. Youko stared back at her. When she didn’t answer, the woman held up a kimono. “Too bad my daughter died so young. These are all pretty plain.”
“Why . . . ” Youko blurted out. Why didn’t this woman sound the alarm? Why didn’t she run away?
“Why, you ask?” the woman said, turning to Youko. Youko found herself at a loss for words. The woman laughed, a bit stiffly, and resumed laying out the kimono. “You come from Hairou?”
“I . . . um . . . ”
“A big fuss there about a kaikyaku running away.”
Youko fell silent. The woman smiled a wry smile. “Lots of hard-headed folk about, that’s for sure. Kaikyaku are going to ruin the kingdom, they say. Kaikyaku do bad things right and left, they say. A shoku happens and it’s all because of the kaikyaku, they say. The things fools say.”
She looked Youko over from head to toe. “Where’d that blood on you come from?”
“When I was in the mountains, the youma . . . ” She could say nothing more.
“Ah, you were attacked by the youma, eh? Lots of them about, lately. You seem to have come through well enough.”
The woman got to her feet. “Go on, sit yourself down. You’re a hungry one, I bet. Had anything to eat? You’re looking positively gray.”
Youko could only drop her shoulders and shake her head, no.
“Well, then, let’s have ourselves a bite. I’ll heat up some water and we’ll get all that grime off you. We can decide on what to wear after that.” The woman cheerfully gathered up her things and started to leave. She glanced back at Youko, who still hadn’t moved from where she stood. “Now, what was your name?”
Youko started to answer. No words came out. She sank to her knees, the tears spilling down her cheeks.
“Oh, you poor thing. It’s okay, it’s okay.” The woman spoke in a motherly voice, her warm hand stroking Youko’s back. “It must have been very hard for you out there. You’ll be okay.”
The weight of everything Youko had endured overwhelmed her all at once. The sobs tore at her throat. She curled up on the floor and wept as if the world would end.