ouko continued on her aimless trek for two more days with only the blue monkey as her companion. She had no other goal but to get as far away from Hairou and Kasai as possible.
The gates of every city were closely watched by the guards. Travelers were carefully inspected. Word must have gotten out that a runaway kaikyaku from Hairou had shown up in Kasai. At the smaller towns, the small number of people coming and going meant that it was impossible to mingle with the crowds and sneak past the guards.
Youko had no choice but to keep to the highway and camp in the fields at night. On the third day, she arrived at a city even larger than Kasai. It was surrounded by a high, fortified wall studded with parapets. “Takkyuu Castle,” it said above the gate. This, then, was the district capital.
Shops lined the thoroughfare all the way up to the gates of the city. At other cities, the fields and farms spread out from the shadow of the walls. Here at Takkyuu peddlers had set up a market outside the city walls and the fields were covered with tents. Buyers and sellers jammed the roads that encircled the city.
Inside the crude tents there was something for everybody. Pushing her way through the throngs in front of the gate, Youko spied a tent with piles of clothing stacked up inside. It occurred to her that it might be a good idea to buy some used boy’s clothes. Traveling alone as a young woman only invited trouble. With Jouyuu’s help she could get out of trouble easily enough, but it’d be better to avoid a fight in the first place.
Youko purchased an outfit made of a thick material that resembled canvas. It consisted of a sleeveless, knee-length tunic and a pair of short trousers. The kind of clothing she’d seen farmers wearing, as well as poor people and refugees from Kei, including women.
She snuck away for a moment and changed clothes out of view of the street. In only half a month she’d burned off all the baby fat in her body, so much so that the fit of men’s clothing wasn’t half bad.
Youko had mixed emotions seeing her lean frame. Her arms and legs had gone through a hard, grueling workout. Her scrawniness only exaggerated the definition of her muscles. At home in her old world, she approached the bathroom scales with great trepidation. The diet she could never stay on she had now taken to with a vengeance. It was really quite funny.
She suddenly thought of blue, a deep navy blue, a bright kind of indigo. The color of jeans. She’d always wanted a pair of jeans.
When she was in elementary school, there was an athletic field day she got to participate in. The boys and girls were split into two teams and competed against each other. Because you couldn’t really move around in a dress, she talked her mother into buying her some jeans. But when her father saw them he was livid.
“Your father doesn’t think girls should wear clothing like that.”
“But everybody wears them!”
“Your father doesn’t like it. He thinks it’s indecent for girls to dress up like boys, and talk like boys. He won’t stand for it.”
“But there’ll be races. I’ll lose if I have to wear a skirt!”
“Losing to boys is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“But . . . ”
When Youko wanted to argue further, her mother took the upper hand. She bowed deeply. “I’m sorry, Youko, but you have to apologize to your father.”
So she did, and the jeans were returned to the store.
“Have patience, Youko.”
“But why did I have to apologize to father? I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“You’ll understand when you get married. It’s best this way . . . ”
Remembering the scene now, Youko burst out laughing. If her father could see her now—wearing boy’s clothing, carrying a sword, camping out in a field when an inn wasn’t available—oh, the look on his face! She could imagine him apoplectic with rage.
That’s the kind of person he is, my father. A girl should be charming and chaste. That’s all that mattered. And humble and reserved and obedient to a fault. A girl needn’t be smart or strong. She’d believed it, too, for a long time.
She said aloud, “But it’s not true!”
What good did it do her, getting meekly and humbly arrested? Or meekly and humbly letting Takki sell her to a brothel?
Youko gripped her shrouded sword. Of all the things she should have done differently, she wished she’d shown a bit more backbone when she first met Keiki. At least ask what this was all about. Where were they going? In what direction, to what destination, and when were they coming back? If she’d done that she wouldn’t be in this fix, up the creek and without a clue.
Being weak was no way to stay safe. If she didn’t push her brains and her body to the limits, she wasn’t going to survive.
She was going to survive, she was going home. Those were the only desires she would permit herself.
She sold the outfit she’d been wearing and the rest of Takki’s thing to a used clothing dealer, taking a little money in exchange. Money in hand, she mingled with the crowds moving through the gate. None of the guards flagged her down. Once inside she headed towards the heart of the city. She’d learned from Takki that inns got cheaper the farther away from the gate.
“What’ll it be, boy?” she was asked when she walked into the inn. Youko smiled to herself. Most inns ran a dining hall on the side. It was typical to get asked for an order right off the bat.
Youko glanced around the premises. The atmosphere of the dining hall told her a lot. This inn was no high class establishment but it wasn’t skid row.
“Are there any vacancies?” she asked.
The innkeeper gave Youko an inquisitive look. “You by yourself?”
When Youko nodded the innkeeper said, “Hundred sen. You got money, I assume?”
Youko answered by showing the purse. It was common practice to pay when checking out.
The currency of the realm was coin. There were several kinds of square and round coins. The square coins had the higher value. Money was counted in sen. The value was engraved on the face of the coin. There were also gold and silver coins but she hadn’t seen paper money.
“You need anything?”
Youko shook her head. The only thing that came free with the room was access to the well. Everything else—use of the bath, food and drink—was a la carte. She’d figured this out on her travels with Takki, and so had already gotten something to eat at a food cart outside the gate.
The innkeeper nodded curtly and called out to the back room, “Hey, we’ve got a guest. Show him to his room.”
An old man promptly emerged from the back room and bowed in response. A smile frozen on his face, with his gaze he directed Youko towards the interior of the inn. Relieved to have so easily gotten herself a room, she followed after him.