ouko said, “He’s about this tall.” She grabbed hold of a passerby and indicated the height of a human child. “You haven’t seen someone who looks like a rat?”
The old woman regarded Youko suspiciously. “What’s this about? A hanjuu?”
“Yes. I heard that he was injured last night at the city gates.”
“Oh, you mean that kochou attack.” As she spoke, the old woman looked back over her shoulder. Goryou was visible in the distance. “Well, if you’re talking about them people injured yesterday, they’d be in one of those government buildings. The government is tending to their needs.”
The same answer Youko had been hearing all morning.
She’d waited until morning to return to Goryou. With the guards at the gate going over everybody with a fine-toothed comb, getting into the city would be well-nigh impossible. Even if checking out the municipal buildings was a good idea, there was no way she’d get anywhere near the place.
“Why not go to city hall and see for yourself?”
“Yes, well, um, he didn’t seem to be there.”
“In that case, you’d better check around the back.”
With that, the old woman resumed her journey. Around the back of the city was where the corpses were piled up in rows. Youko could see them from a distance, but even there the guards had their eyes peeled. She couldn’t get close enough to tell if Rakushun was among the dead.
The old lady had a big pack on her back. Youko helped her on her way and then approached the next group of travelers coming from Goryou.
“Excuse me,” she said, flagging down a man and woman. The man’s foot was wrapped in bandages and he was using a cane. Youko repeated the same questions she had asked the old lady. They looked back at her with dubious expressions.
“Yesterday, a friend of mine was injured . . . ”
“You!” The man abruptly pointed at Youko. “I don’t believe it! From yesterday, you’re that kid . . . ”
Youko spun around. She didn’t need to hear the rest.
“Hey, wait a minute!”
Youko ignored him and ran off, darting through the lines of travelers.
The man’s injuries had no doubt been inflicted during the attack. And he’d remembered her. Since this morning, she’d had to flee like this a number of times. And every time she returned the number of guards at the gate increased. The city was getting that much harder to approach.
She left Goryou and went into the foothills and waited for things to calm down. If she kept at it like this, she was sure to be arrested. But even knowing this, she couldn’t leave Goryou.
Even if I do find out, then what?
She had to find out how Rakushun had fared. Not because she was trying to make up for abandoning him behind yesterday. That sin had been committed and there was no taking it back. Even if she got word that he was okay, she wouldn’t go into the city just to apologize to him. The guards would be on her in a second. And her death wouldn’t end up meaning anything more than that, after all.
I haven’t the slightest idea what to do next.
On the one hand, she had the sense that she was thinking too highly of her miserable existence. On the other, she had no desire to recklessly throw her life away. Unable to come to a resolution either way, she couldn’t bring herself to put Goryou behind her.
She wandered around, returning time and time again to the gates of Goryou. She approached traveler after traveler asking the same questions and getting the same answers. She found herself at a complete loss.
“Well, hello there.”
Somebody called out behind her. Youko’s initial impulse was to run. But as she glanced over her shoulder, among the faces in the crowd she saw a woman and child looking back at her.
“We met outside Bakurou, didn’t we?”
Youko stopped in her tracks, momentarily overcome with surprise. It was the mother and child she had met some time ago on a mountain road. They were syrup peddlers and they traveled with their merchandise strapped to their backs. They were still carrying those big packs.
“This is wonderful. You’re all right.” The mother smiled a rather puzzled smile. Her daughter looked up at Youko with an even more perplexed look on her face.
“Your injuries healed up okay, I take it?”
After a moment of confusion, Youko nodded and then bowed her head more deeply. “Thank you very much for what you did.”
She had brushed aside the helping hand they held out to her and ventured into the mountains. She had thanked them with words, but not from the bottom of her heart.
“It is good to see you again. We worried about you.” The woman smiled, this time a less-labored smile. “You see, Gyokuyou, she’s fine.”
She looked down at the girl, who was staring up at Youko with that confused expression on her face. The girl snuggled closer to her mother. Youko tried to smile and realized that she hadn’t smiled in a long time. The muscles in her face were stiff and unresponsive. It hardly felt like a smile at all.
Gyokuyou blinked and with a peevish expression tried to hide herself behind her mother Youko leaned over and forced a smile to her lips. If they hadn’t given her water and the sweet syrup, she would not have survived the night. “I’ll always be grateful for the water and candy you gave me.”
The girl glanced back and forth between Youko and her mother. She started to laugh, and then, perhaps feeling self-conscious, grew serious again. But a moment later she giggled. The look on her face was so endearing and childlike, it almost brought Youko to tears.
“I really am grateful. I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to properly thank you.”
A smile filled Gyokuyo’s face. “Did it hurt?” she asked.
“Were you in a bad mood because it hurt so much?”
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t hurt any more?”
“No. It’s healed up fine.” She showed her the fading scar in her hand. She wondered if either of them would notice that the wound had healed much faster than normal.
Gyokuyou glanced up at her mother. “She says it’s healed,” she said.
Her mother’s eyes brightened. “That’s wonderful. After we got to Bakurou, we wanted to come back and find you. But by the time we arrived, the gates were already closing and none of the guards had the guts to go out after nightfall. Are you looking for someone?”
“We’re headed for Goryou as well. Do you want to come with?”
Youko could only shake her head, no.
“Well, then,” the mother said. She took her daughter by the hand. “Gyokuyou, let’s go to the inn.” Then she looked at Youko. “Who are you searching for? A hanjuu, isn’t it?”
Youko stared at her.
“He’d probably be in one of the government buildings, or around in the back. What’s his name?”
“His name is Rakushun.”
She hitched up the big pack on her back and said, almost as if in passing, “You stay here and we’ll go and see.”
Youko bowed deeply. “Thank you.”
It was toward sundown when the woman returned, alone. She reported that she hadn’t found anybody called Rakushun among the living or the dead and then hurried back to the city. She gave no indication that she understood the details of Youko’s actual circumstances.