6-7 Youko was caught up in her thoughts for a moment, thinking about herself and her place in the world. She turned to Rakujin. “Are you a taika too, Professor?”
He shook his head and smiled. “Just an ordinary kaikyaku. I grew up in Shizuoka and attended Tokyo University. I came here when I was twenty-two. I was trying to sneak out of Yasuda Hall by crawling under one of the desks barricading the entrance. The next thing I knew, I was in this world.”
“Do you know about it? It was a big deal at the time. Perhaps by now it has been consigned to the musty pages of history.”
“Just because I don’t know something . . . ”
“The same applies to me. It took place on January 17th, 1969. Night had fallen. What happened after that I don’t know.”
“It all took place before I was born.”
A wry smile came to his face. “How the years have gone by. I have been here a long time.”
“You’ve been here ever since then?”
“I have. I arrived in Kei. Six years ago, I moved from Kei and settled in En. As for my line of work, I’m what you might call a science teacher.” He smiled and shook his head. “It’s not important. Now, what did you wish to ask me?”
Youko came right to the point. “There’s a way to go home, isn’t there?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Rakujin lowered his voice. “No mortal being can cross the Kyokai. It is a one-way trip. Once you get here, you cannot go back.”
Youko took a breath. “Is that so?” But it didn’t hit her as hard as she had expected.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you.”
“No, that’s okay. I had another question. It’s a bit strange, though.”
“I understand what people say here.”
Rakujin tilted his head to the side quizzically.
“I didn’t notice at first. I thought everyone was speaking Japanese. The only thing I didn’t understand were unique words and terms. And then I met this old kaikyaku in Kou. For the first time I realized that nobody was speaking Japanese. Yet I have no problem communicating, even though I only speak Japanese. What could account for this?”
Rakujin looked inquiringly at Rakushun. When Rakushun confirmed what she was saying, he thought it over for a minute.
“It would seem that you are not human.”
I knew that, Youko thought.
“When I arrived, it was hard because I didn’t understand a thing. I thought the language was similar to Chinese, but the few words of Chinese I knew did me little good. For many years, I had to communicate in writing. I managed to get by using classical Chinese. Even that was chancy, which made my first year here very difficult. That’s been true of everybody who comes here. Taika are no different. I’ve done my own research on kaikyaku. Every one of them has had real difficulty with the language. You are no ordinary kaikyaku.”
Youko unconsciously gripped her arms. Rakujin continued.
“From what I’ve heard, only wizards and magical beings such as youma don’t encounter this hurdle of language. If you didn’t perceive a language difference, you can’t be human. You must be of the same species as wizards or youma.”
“So . . . there are also youma taika?”
Rakujin nodded. The smile didn’t disappear from his face. “I’ve never heard of it but it is possible. Maybe there is a solution to your predicament after all. Perhaps you can go back.”
Youko lifted her head. “Do you really think so?”
“Perhaps. Youma and wizards can cross the Kyokai. It is not something I can do. I cannot go home again. You may be different. You should definitely request an audience with the Imperial En.”
“If we meet with the emperor, would he be able to help us?”
“Most likely. It won’t be simple and the rewards may be slim, but it would certainly be worth trying.”
“Yeah.” Nodding her head, Youko cast her eyes down to the floor. “It all makes sense. I’m not a human being.” She smiled to herself.
Rakushun raised his voice sharply. “Youko.”
She drew back her sleeve, showing her right hand. “I always thought this was odd. There should be a scar in the palm of my hand, a wound I got after coming here and being attacked by the youma. It was a deep wound that went straight through my hand. Now, I can barely see it.”
Rakushun gently unfolded her hand and examined her palm. He quivered his whiskers. This was the wound Rakushun had tended to himself. He could testify to the fact that it was indeed a serious injury.
“I should have a lot of other scars but you’d never know it. The wounds themselves are very light for being inflicted by youma. No fang marks remain where I was bitten. For some reason, my body has become very resilient to injury.”
Youko had to smile. The realization that she was not human struck her as rather amusing. “Because I’m a youma, don’t you see? That’s why they hunt me and attack me.”
Rakujin frowned. “Youma hunt you?”
Rakushun answered for her. “It sure looks that way to me.”
“That’s what I thought. Except wherever Youko goes, youma are bound to show up. I was there when we were attacked by a kochou.”
Rakujin lightly pressed his hand against his forehead. “Recently, there have been rumors of youma appearing more often in Kou. Are you saying it is because of her?”
Rakushun looked hesitantly at Youko. Youko nodded and picked up the story. “I think so, too. The reason I ended up here in the first place is because I was attacked by a kochou and had to escape.”
“You escaped to this world after being attacked by a kochou? From that other world to here?”
“Yes. A guy named Keiki—and I’m pretty sure he’s a youma, too—he said it was in order to protect me. He’s the one who brought me here.”
“And where he is now?”
“I don’t know. When we arrived, we were ambushed by youma and got split up. I haven’t seen him since. He could be dead.”
Rakujin again rested his fist against his forehead and thought for a long time. “That’s impossible. I simply cannot imagine.”
“That’s what Rakushun said.”
“Youma are a species of wild animal. They’ve been known to hunt humans in packs, but they wouldn’t track down a particular individual. Needless to say, they wouldn’t cross the Kyokai to do so. It is not in their nature, the same way you wouldn’t expect it of a tiger.”
“Couldn’t a person train a tiger to do something like that?”
“Youma cannot be domesticated. You are speaking of something quite grave, Miss Youko.”
“It’s that serious?”
“If we suppose that some kind of change was effected in the youma to cause them to attack you, or if we suppose that someone found a way to control and command them, either way, standing idly by and doing nothing could put the kingdom in jeopardy.”
Rakujin looked at Youko. “Now, if we supposed that you were a youma, that would simplify things greatly. I have heard of youma being separated from their packs. When they come close to starving, they are the kind of beast that will feed even upon their own kind.”
“Youko doesn’t look like a youma,” Rakushun said.
Rakujin nodded. “There are youma who can disguise themselves as humans but not perfectly. And to not be aware of their youma nature themselves . . . ”
Youko smiled thinly. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Rakujin shook his head. “No, you are different. You are no youma. It cannot be.”
With that, Rakujin stood up. “You should see the emperor at once. I am on speaking terms with some officials in the government, but it would be more expeditious for you to go directly to Kankyuu. Visit Gen’ei Palace straightaway and tell them exactly what you told me. You are the key to the whole thing. I’m sure the emperor will want to see you.”
Youko also got to her feet. She bowed deeply. “I thank you very much”
“If you leave right away, you should arrive at the next city by nightfall. Do you have belongings at the inn?”
“No, we’ve got everything with us.”
“In that case, I will see you to the city gates.”
Rakujin walked with them to the gates. “It may not amount to much, but I shall work on a formal petition, as well. “Until they figure out what is going on, you may be detained. But once everything is put in order, I am sure the emperor will find a way home for you.”
Youko looked at Rakujin. “And you?”
“Do you also wish to petition the emperor to return to Japan?”
Rakujin smiled wryly. “I do not have the standing that would allow me to see the emperor. He is not some glad-hander who stoops to rubbing shoulders with run-of-the-mill kaikyaku.”
“But . . . ”
“No. If I pleaded, yes, perhaps he might deign to see me. It’s simply not something I am interested in pursuing.”
“No interest at all?”
“I was tired of the times and was happy to come to this new world. I harbor no longings for my old country. By the time I understood that a way might be found to return if I petitioned the emperor, I’d gotten used to living here and lost any desire to go home.”
“I still want to,” Youko said to herself, feeling a strong stab of homesickness.
“Take care. I’ll pray for your successful audience with the emperor.”
“At the very least, we can talk about Japan on our way to the gates.”
“There is no need.” Rakujin laughed. “You see, that is the country I ran away from when I tried to start a revolution and failed.”