5-10 The falling dark cast the road into shadows. It’ll be okay, she told herself as she walked along with hurried steps. It will.
After the night turned black and the pedestrian traffic vanished, she ran on without caring how it looked. Some ways from Goryou she turned at an intersection, leaving behind both the road they had started their journey on that morning, and the road to Goryou.
She had come far enough, but she kept going. No longer in a headlong fashion, but with that pervasive sense of being pursued.
It’ll be okay, she told herself again.
Even if Rakushun fessed up about her, they didn’t have photographs in this place, so she didn’t think they’d catch up with her. Besides, wouldn’t Rakushun cover up his own involvement? He wasn’t likely to start talking about the kaikyaku who’d left him behind and taken off by herself, for fear of being thought guilty by association.
As she repeated this to herself, Youko stopped in her tracks. She felt a hole open up in her soul.
This wasn’t the kind of thing she ought to be thinking about now.
Was Rakushun okay? Youko hadn’t seen any severe wounds on him, but she couldn’t know for certain that he wasn’t badly injured.
Go back, a voice inside her said. She should go back and see how Rakushun was doing, and then make her escape.
Too dangerous, another voice said. Go back and you likely won’t be able to do a thing.
You’ve got the jewel, a voice answered.
That didn’t mean the jewel would do Rakushun any good. He could already be dead. Go back and she’d get captured. Get captured and it’d all be for naught. Get captured and she’d end up dead.
Is your life that precious to you?
There was no reason to suppose it shouldn’t be.
You’re stabbing your Good Samaritan in the back.
He didn’t necessarily help me because he’s good.
That doesn’t change the reality of what he did. He gave you shelter and a place to hide.
He had his reasons. It wasn’t out of the kindness of his heart. A person like that will betray you eventually.
So it’s okay to abandon someone if their intentions aren’t perfect? Do you really want to go down that road?
That place was filled with the dead and the dying, and amongst them was someone she knew, who knew her. And she was just going to cast him aside? Shouldn’t she at least lend a helping hand? If she did, there were surely some people who might make it through alive.
Don’t start glossing over reality with empty gestures, not in this country. When your number’s up, that’s it. Lights out.
But it wouldn’t be an empty gesture. It was what people naturally did of their own accord. How could she forget that?
“Even now, at this late hour, you’re going on about your principles, little girl?”
Even now, little girl. Even now!
“Yes, yes. Do go back and finish him off.”
Youko jumped at the piercing sound of that screeching voice. The blue monkey’s head appeared in the brush along the shoulder of the road. “Isn’t that what you have been considering all along? Isn’t it?”
“I . . . ” Youko stared at the blue monkey. Her whole body trembled.
“Indeed, that’s what you plan to do, no? And look at you, little girl, preaching yourself up a regular old sermon and all. You! Now!”
The monkey broke into gales of mad laughter.
“No . . . it isn’t.”
“Oh, yes, it is. That is exactly what you were thinking.”
“I would never do something like that!”
“Yes, you would.”
“I wouldn’t have. I couldn’t!”
The monkey cackled gaily. “Because the thought of murder frightens you or because you wanted to murder him but just couldn’t screw up the courage?” The monkey screeched, looking at her cheerfully. “Don’t you trust me? That’s okay. You’ll do it next time.”
The blue monkey laughed on, ignoring her, the shrill sound remorselessly stabbing at her ears.
“I’m going back.”
“Even if you do, he’s long dead.”
“I don’t know that.”
“He’s dead, I say. Go back and you’ll be captured and killed. What’s the point?”
“I’m going back anyway.”
“Well. You think doing so will wash away your sins, no?”
Youko turned on her heels and stopped.
“Oh, going back is good. So you go back, you look down at his dead body and have yourself a good cry. It’d cancel out all those murderous thoughts just like that!”
Youko stared dumbfounded at the monkey’s cackling countenance. She was taking to herself. This was the sound of her own wretched voice. This was nothing other than the substance of her soul.
“He will surely betray you. Best you take care of it before then, no?”
“Soldiers may be headed this way right now! That rat ratted you out for sure!”
“Shut up!” She took hold of the hilt of the sword and swung. The leafy tips of the bushes rained to the ground.
“Dying’s good, but snuffing out his candle would be perfect. You’re still so naive, little girl.”
“Next time, then. Next time something like this happens, you’ll be sure to get the deed done.”
“Quit messing with me!” A whusk of air and more leaves dropped to the ground.
And if she did get the deed done, then what? If only abandoning him left such a weight on her heart, how could she go on living with murder on her conscience? Did her existence by itself trump all? Did it matter what miserable depths she sank to as long as she could stay alive?
“I’m glad I didn’t kill him.” She was glad she hadn’t acted rashly, hadn’t succumbed to temptation, and hadn’t put her thoughts into action.
The monkey laughed her to scorn. “So you’re just going to leave him alive to squeal on you?”
“Fine if he does!” She felt a tightness in her chest as the tears welled up. “He’s got the right. Let him complain about me all he wants!”
“Oh, so naive, so naive.”
Why couldn’t she trust people anymore? It wasn’t because she was afraid of being taken in. Even if she was, she should have been able to trust him.
“It’s because you think credulous things like that. It’s because you’re such an easy mark, so easy to take advantage of.”
“It’d be fine with me if he did.”
“How gullible you are!” The monkey’s laughter rent the night. “Really? Truly? Being played for the fool is just peachy with you?”
“If that’s what it comes down to, yes. The betrayer only betrays his cowardice. It does me no harm. But better betrayed than be the betrayer.”
“Of course the betrayer is a coward. But in this demon-haunted world, he’s the one who comes out on top. No one will show you the slightest speck of kindness, little girl. Such souls do not exist here.”
“That has nothing to do with me.”
Because they tracked her down and drove her into a corner, was that reason enough to reject her own humanity? Was it reason enough to spurn anybody who approached her with good intentions? And then if their motives were not as pure as the driven snow, reason enough not to trust them in the least? If people showed her no more kindness than this, was that reason enough to show them no kindness as well?
“No, it is not.”
Whether she trusted others had nothing to do with whether or not she was betrayed. Whether or not others were kind to her had nothing to do with whether she was kind to them in turn. Even if she were all alone in this big, wide world, if not a single person would help her or grieve for her, that gave her no cause to play the jaded coward, to abandon those in need, to bring harm upon perfect strangers.
The monkey laughed hysterically. His earsplitting shrieks went on and on.
“I want to be strong.”
She firmly gripped the hilt of the sword. It had nothing to do with this world or these people. She wanted to hold her head high. She wanted to be strong.
The monkey suddenly stopped laughing. “You are going to die. You will never go home. No one will see your face again. You’ll be deceived and betrayed. You will die.”
“I’m not going to die.”
If she died here, she’d die a fool and a coward. Dying now would validate the worst part of herself. It’d be easy to brand her life as one not worth living, but she couldn’t permit herself such an easy way out.
“You will die. You will starve, you will tire, you will lose your head and you will die.”
Youko swung the sword with all her might. The tip of the sword trimmed off the tops of the bushes and parted the air. She felt a strong reverberation in her arm. The monkey’s head tumbled down amidst the falling leaves, falling to the earth, scattering clots of blood as it rolled along.
“I will never give up.”
She could not stop crying.
She wiped away the tears with a stiff sleeve and started to leave. The color of gold glinted at her feet. For a long moment, Youko could not grasp what she was seeing. She stared, amazed. There it was, in the middle of a pool of dark blood where the monkey’s head should be, what she had lost so long ago.
The scabbard of the sword.