3-5 It was past noon when they left Takki’s house.
The trip to Kasai turned out to be an unexpectedly pleasant one. At first, Youko cowered whenever they encountered someone, but perhaps because Takki had dyed her hair with a dye made from herb roots, nobody looked at her suspiciously. She grew accustomed to it after a while and enjoyed meeting people along the way.
Although this country had the look and feel of ancient China, the people came in all different types. Their faces were generally Asian in appearance, but the color of their hair and eyes and skin was all over the place. Skin color varied from that of a white Caucasian to a black African. Eye color was everything from black to sea-blue. As for hair, there seemed to be an infinite variety, such as purple or blue-white. In some of the odder cases, hair was two-toned, as if part of it had been dyed.
Initially, it struck her all as very strange, but she got used to it fairly quickly. And once she did she decided that, yes, different was good. And yet she didn’t see anyone with pure, golden hair like Keiki.
Their clothing was in an old Chinese style. Men wore a tunic over short trousers. Women’s fashions were based on the long skirt. Now and then she spotted a group dressed in what was certainly an “oriental” style, though from what country and what era she couldn’t tell. According to Takki, they were traveling minstrels.
For Youko, it was a relief just to walk. She followed Takki’s lead, from getting food to arranging lodgings. Youko had no money, so Takki paid for everything.
“I’m really sorry I can’t help out,” she said as they walked along the road.
Takki laughed heartily. “I’m just an old busybody. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I’ve got nothing to give you in exchange.”
“Not at all. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my mum. Thanks to you now I’ve got a good excuse to go see her.”
Her kind words were a joy to hear. “Takki-san, did you go to Goso to get married?”
“No, that’s where I got my partition.”
Takki nodded. “When you become an adult, you’re given a plot of land and made to stand on your own two feet. The plot I received was in Goso. That’s what a partition is.”
“Everybody receives land when they become an adult?”
“Yes, everybody. My husband is the old guy who lives next door. We split up after our child died.”
Youko stared at Takki’s jovial face. Now that she mentioned it, she had mentioned something about a child dying. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. The child we were blessed with after so long, she died on my account.”
“Surely you don’t mean . . . ”
“Children come to us from heaven. So heaven taking her back again wasn’t up to me. But people being what they are, I guess it was inevitable. It’s too bad about the child, though.”
Youko had no idea how to answer but managed a wan smile. In a small way Takki seemed a sad and lonely person.
“I imagine your mum must be worried sick about you. The faster you get home the better, no?”
“Yes.” Youko nodded. “But is it really possible? When I was in Hairou, one of the town elders said it wasn’t.”
“Well, if you got here somehow, surely you can go back.”
Youko nodded again. The carefree smile that came to her lips reflected a profound happiness.
“Of course. Ah, here we are.”
At the fork of three roads, one pointed to the left. At every intersection along the road there was always a small stone marker into which was carved distance and destination. Distance was measured in units called “ri.” This particular marker listed the destination as “Sei” and the distance as “5 ri.”
According to what she remembered from her Japanese history textbook, a Japanese ri was two and a half miles. The ri referred to here was a much shorter distance, only several hundred yards. So five ri was not that far.
The scenery itself was prosaic, but the peace and quiet was quite nice. The mountains loomed craggy and tall above the rolling terrain. In the distance, she could barely make out the peaks wrapped with clouds. None were covered with snow. The sky pressed low against the ground.
Spring seemed to have arrived here a month earlier than in Tokyo. Flowers bloomed along the rice paddy dikes. Youko recognized some. Others were new to her.
Here and there amidst the fields several small houses were huddled together. These were villages, Takki told her, for the people who worked the land. A little further along they came to a larger settlement enclosed by a tall wall. This was a town, and where people in the surrounding areas lived during the winter.
“So where people live is different during the winter than in the other seasons?”
“There are a few oddballs that live in the villages during the winters, but the rest of us have better things to do than camp out in the fields. The towns are much more comfortable. And safer.”
“Those walls sure are thick. They’re to protect you from the youma, right?”
“Youma wouldn’t attack a town like that. It’s mostly to protect from wars and wild animals.”
“Wolves and bears. A panther or tiger will turn up now and then, though you don’t find them much around these parts. In the winter when game is hard to find they come down to where people are.”
“How do people arrange housing during the winter? Do they rent?”
“You’re also given a house when you become an adult. Most people sell right away, though some rent to the townsfolk when they go back to the village. The ones that sell out rent during the winter. That’s the most common.”
The cities were guarded by high castle ramparts. The only way in and out of a city was through a reinforced gate. Guards were posted at the gate and they inspected every person who entered or left.
Usually the guards just guarded the gate, Takki said. They were particularly interested in any red-haired young women amongst the travelers, no doubt on the lookout for a kaikyaku who had run away from Hairou.
Inside the gate the houses were packed together. Shops lined the crisscrossing avenues. The streets were busy with vagrants. A number of people had set up house tents along the base of the inner walls.
“If everybody receives their own land, why do they have to live in tents?”
When Youko pointed at the tents Takki raised her eyebrows. “Those are refugees from the Kingdom of Kei. A sorry lot. There’s a great unrest in Kei these days. The refugees run away from the youma and the wars and collect together like that. When it gets warmer, their numbers will increase.”
“It looks like there’s unrest here, too.”
“Indeed. It’s not only Kei. To the north, I hear there’s trouble in the Kingdom of Tai. They say it’s even worse there.”
Youko only nodded. Japan was a peaceful country in comparison. Here there were wars, and nothing good could be said about the state of law and order. They didn’t let their belongings out of their sight for a second. Unsavory characters propositioned her any number of times, and a tough-looking gang tried to draw her away. But Takki scolded them with a lively stream of invective and rescued her.
The lack of security was probably why nobody traveled at night. The city gate was shut as well. A traveler had to make it to the next town or city by the time the sun set.
“You said it takes about four months to travel from one kingdom to another?”
“Is there any other way to travel than walking?”
“There’s horse and cart as well. But you got to be rich. Someone like me wouldn’t be able to afford it, not in a whole lifetime.”
This was an impoverished world compared to her own. No cars, no gas or electricity. Not even running water. This could not simply be due to the delayed development of civilization. She’d gathered from their conversations that at the root of the problem was the lack of any oil or coal technology.
She asked Takki, “So how did you learn so much about the other kingdoms? Have you been to Kei or Tai?”
“Of course not,” Takki laughed. “I’ve never been out of Kou. We peasants don’t do much in the way of traveling like that. Got to take care of the fields. You find out about the other kingdoms from listening to what the minstrels have to say.”
“Traveling actors and musicians, you mean?”
“Yes. There are those among them that have traveled around the world. In their performances they tell stories about how they went here and saw this and how they went there and saw that. Tales from all the cities and all the kingdoms.”
“Wow,” Youko said. In her world, back in the olden days, people used to watch newsreels at the theater. It must be like that, she thought.
In any case, it was great having a guide along to answer her questions. Youko didn’t know a thing about this world, and the anxiety that accompanied that ignorance was frightening. But with a helpful person at her side, someone who could explain things one by one as they came along, it was all quite fascinating.
They completed the trip without incident. A world that had struck her as harsh and cruel had become a thing of great curiosity and interest.
Every night she was visited by the strange visions, that left her homesick and depressed. The blue monkey showed up, too, and made things worse. But the raw feelings didn’t last.
Once they got up the next morning and started out, it was one fascinating scene after another. Takki was as nice to her as she could have hoped for. Borrowing strength from the jewel she could keep on walking without getting tired. And knowing that at night they would be eating a good meal and sleeping in a decent bed made it all the more tolerable.
It was hard being so far from her home, but at least she now had a caring guardian at her side. She couldn’t be thankful enough that she’d been lucky enough to meet her.