5-6 The front door opened, revealing the figure of a middle-age woman.
“Rakushun,” she said.
The rat raised his head. “Hi, Mom.” He quivered his whiskers nervously. “I picked up a most interesting house guest.”
Youko couldn’t help but gawk. This person was definitely a woman and definitely human. The woman looked back and forth between Youko and Rakushun, a surprised expression on her face. “A guest, you say. And who is this young lady?”
“I found her in the forest. She washed ashore in Shin County during that recent shoku.”
“You don’t say,” the woman muttered to herself, giving Rakushun a stern look.
Youko drew back her shoulders. Had this woman heard the rumors of a kaikyaku who’d escaped from Shin? And if she had, would she give her shelter as Rakushun had?
“Yes, it was quite terrible.” The woman turned to Youko, who was holding her breath in anticipation. She smiled, glanced back at Rakushun. “What in the world have you been up to? It’s a good thing I decided to check in on you. Have you been taking good care of her?”
“I certainly have.”
“Well, let’s hope so.” Laughing, the woman looked at Youko with bright eyes. “Sorry I couldn’t be here. I had some tasks that needed tending to. I hope Rakushun has done a good job taking care of you.”
“Um . . . yes.” Youko nodded. “I had a bad fever and could hardly move on my own. He was a great help. I’m very thankful.”
Heavens! the woman’s expression said. She hurried over to Youko. “Are you all right? Should you be up and about?”
“I’m fine. I really was well taken care of.”
As she answered, Youko searched the woman’s face. She was okay with Rakushun because he wasn’t human. But she couldn’t be sure about this person.
“That being the case, all the more reason for coming and getting me. He doesn’t always use his head.”
Rakushun lifted his nose with a put-out air. “I did take good care of her. See, she’s healed up just fine.”
The woman peered at Youko’s face. “Healed up fine, you say? Anything still hurt? Perhaps you ought to go back to bed.”
“I am feeling better. Really.”
“So it seems. But what are you wearing this flimsy old thing for? Rakushun, get her a kimono.”
Rakushun ran into the other room.
“Oh, the tea’s gone cold. Wait a minute and I’ll brew up a fresh pot.”
Youko watched as the woman firmly closed the front door, bustled past her and went out the back door to the well. When Rakushun returned, carrying a kimono that resembled a light overcoat, she whispered to him, “Your mom?”
“Yes. My dad passed away a long time ago.”
She couldn’t help wondering if his father was a human or a rat. “Your real mom?” she asked cautiously.
Rakushun responded with a puzzled look. “Of course she’s my real mom. She’s the one who picked me.”
Rakushun nodded. “She picked me—the fruit that held me—from the riboku. The family tree.” He stopped suddenly, as if something had just occurred to him. “Is it true that in that other world, a child grows inside his mother’s stomach?”
“Ah, yes. That’s the normal way of things.”
“The fruit grows inside her stomach? But how do you pick it, then? Does it hang down from her belly?”
“I’m not quite sure what you mean by pick.”
“You take the ranka from the tree.”
“The egg-fruit. About this big around.” He opened his arms as if carrying a basket. “It’s a yellow fruit. Inside is a child. It grows on a branch of a riboku. The parents come and pick one. Don’t egg-fruits grow over there?”
“Well, not quite.” Youko pressed her hands to her temples. What ought to be common sense here clearly wasn’t. Rakushun looked at her expectantly. Youko smiled to cover her self-consciousness. She said, “Over there, a child forms in his mother’s belly. His mother gives birth to him.”
Rakushun’s eyes grew wide. “Like a chicken?”
“Not quite but that’s the general idea.”
“How does it work, then? Is there a branch inside her stomach? How do you pick the fruit when it’s inside her stomach?”
“Oh, good grief . . . ”
Youko was holding her head in her hands when Rakushun’s mother returned. “Tea’s ready,” she said. “You hungry?”
As Rakushun caught her up to date about Youko, his mother nimbly prepared some scone-like pastries.
“And then,” said Rakushun, breaking the big scone into pieces with his little hands, “we were thinking the best course of action might be to go to En and check out things there.”
His mother nodded. “Yes, indeed. I would agree.”
“With that in mind, I’ll take her as far as Kankyuu. We’ll need to get her some clothes she can bring with her.”
His mother looked Rakushun in the eyes. She said brusquely, “You’re going to do what?”
“There’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be there and back before you know it! She doesn’t know where anything is, so I’ll show her the way. You’re tough as an ox, Mom. You’ll be okay on your own, right?”
His mother gave Rakushun a long look, then nodded. “Well, all right, then. You be careful, though.”
“Rakushun,” Youko interjected. “I appreciate your concern for me but I don’t want to cause you any more trouble. Once you show me the way, I’m sure I can figure things out.”
She couldn’t bring herself to say that she found the prospect of a traveling companion quite alarming. “I don’t want to impose on you. You could draw me a map like you were showing me before.”
“Youko, if it were simply a matter of getting to En, assuming that you’d then be in a position to petition the emperor, you could never do it on your own. Even knowing the way, it will take at least three months to get to the palace in Kankyuu. In the meantime, what will you eat? Where will you stay? How will you pay for anything?”
Youko couldn’t answer.
“This is not a journey you want to take by yourself. You said it yourself, you don’t know anything about this world.”
Youko thought about it. After thinking it through for a while, she nodded. “All right.”
As she spoke, out of the corners of her eyes she caught sight of the shrouded sword. Perhaps it would be better to have Rakushun along for the journey. Both he and his mother seemed ready to give her what help they could, though that wasn’t necessarily the real truth. Whether friend or foe, she couldn’t know for certain. But she couldn’t afford to take chances as long as they knew where she was going. If the authorities were quickly informed as soon as she left, what awaited her in Agan would not be a ship, but a cage.
If Rakushun accompanied her, however, he’d essentially become her hostage. And if by chance he proved an unacceptable risk, her sword would settle the question.
Thinking this, she was struck by the feeling that she truly had become a pathetic creature.