5-7 Five days had passed since Youko had set off with Rakushun. At least he and his mother had treated her like they were sympathetic to her plight, and that gave her time to rest and recuperate.
“You have no idea what the two of them have up their sleeves,” the blue monkey lectured her. This was hardly news to her.
Rakushun’s mom made all the preparations for their journey. Despite subsisting on an even more meager income than Takki, she was able to put together a change of clothes for Youko. The clothing was rough and plain and seemed made originally for a larger man. Youko guessed they had belonged to Rakushun’s father.
It only made Youko more wary. She could not believe they were simply a pair of good Samaritans. She was still okay with Rakushun because of his non-human form. She didn’t have the courage to trust his mother completely.
“Why are you doing so much to help me?” she asked when Rakushun’s home finally disappeared from view. She couldn’t bear not knowing any longer.
Rakushun stroked his whiskers with his small forefeet. “Well, it’s because you were all alone and we have to get you to Kankyuu.”
“Don’t you think that giving me the directions would be enough?”
“What are you talking about? The sights in Kankyuu aren’t half bad, or so I’ve heard. A most interesting place. It’s like that other world, probably because that’s where the emperor is from.”
“Like Yamato or like China?”
“Like Yamato. The Imperial En came from Yamato.”
“And that’s your only reason?”
Rakushun looked up at Youko. “You still don’t trust me, do you, Youko?”
“And perhaps you’ve been overdoing it a bit?”
The rat was carrying a knapsack on his back. He scratched the fur on his chest. “Well, look at me. I’m a hanjuu.”
“A half-human, half-beast. A chimera. The Imperial Kou doesn’t like hanjuu either. He hates kaikyaku, hates anything that is different.”
“There aren’t a lot of kaikyaku in Kou. Most kaikyaku wash ashore in the eastern kingdoms. But when I say most, in fact their actual numbers aren’t that great.”
“About how many?”
“I’d say one shows up every couple years or so.”
“Huh,” said Youko. That was more than she would have imagined.
“At any rate, the greatest number of kaikyaku are found in Kei, perhaps because Kei is the easternmost of the kingdoms. After that, En and then Kou. There aren’t many hanjuu in Kou. I couldn’t tell you why or to what degree.”
“Are there many in the other kingdoms?”
“More than there are in Kou. I’m the only hanjuu around these parts. The emperor isn’t a bad person but he does have his prejudices. He deals severely with kaikyaku and keeps his distance from hanjuu like me.” Rakushun gave his whiskers a twitch. “I don’t mean to boast but I am the sharpest apple in the barrel around here.”
Unable to grasp the intent of this statement, Youko just looked at him.
“Not to mention intelligent, quick-witted, and fairly even-tempered.”
Youko laughed politely. “Of course you are.”
“Yet all that won’t make me a full-fledged human being. I’ll always be half a man no matter how much time passes. Because I’ll never be anything more than half-beast. It was set in stone when I was born in this form. Not being able to do anything about it doesn’t make it my fault.”
Youko replied with a slight nod. Though she vaguely understood what he was getting at, it didn’t assuage any of her misgivings.
“A kaikyaku is the same. Killing a kaikyaku for being a kaikyaku is not something I can condone.”
Rakushun scratched the bottoms of his big ears. “Do you know what a joushou is? It’s a district academy. I was first in my class and was recommended by the dean to the provincial university. If I had attended university, I could have become a local government official.”
“Is a district bigger than a county?”
“Bigger than a prefecture. There are a handful of districts in a province. How many’s a handful depends, though. Each district has a population of fifty thousand households. Each district has four prefectures with a population of twelve thousand, five hundred. There are five counties to a prefecture.”
“Huh.” Youko had a hard time wrapping her head around a number like fifty thousand.
“In fact, I only made it to the district academy after my mom petitioned over and over, and she was finally able to get me admitted. If my grades were good, I knew I could go to the university and become a government official. Because I’m half-human, I won’t get an allotment. But even without an allotment, I could make a decent life for myself. As it turns out, though, hanjuu aren’t allowed into the provincial university.”
“In order to pay my tuition to the district academy, my mom ended up selling her own allotment.”
“And now she’s a tenant farmer. She farms land rented from one of the richer homesteads in the area.”
“Homesteads are granted by the executor for public lands. After getting permission from the government, the newly cultivated land is called a homestead. Still, my mom can work the land, not me. People don’t hire out hanjuu. The taxes are too high.”
Youko tilted her head to one side. “Why’s that?”
“Among the hanjuu, there are also those of us who resemble bears or cows. They are more powerful than ordinary humans. But what it comes down to is, the emperor doesn’t like hanjuu. That’s all.”
“Yeah, that really sucks.”
“He doesn’t hate us as much as kaikyaku. I can’t say we’re arrested or executed or things like that. But we’re not counted as part of the official census. That’s why we’re not given allotments or jobs. My mom has to provide for both of us. That’s why we’re so poor.”
“I’d really like to get a job.” Rakushun gestured to the purse hanging around his neck. “This is all the money my mom saved up so that I could pay the tuition at a university in En. In En, even hanjuu are admitted to the best universities in the country and become important statesmen. I’d be recognized as a legal adult, given an allotment and included in the census. I thought that if I went to En with you, I could get myself a job, too.”
So it wasn’t all out of the kindness of his heart, Youko thought cynically. There was no malice in it, but this was no altruistic act.
“Yes, it all makes perfect sense.”
There was a barb in her voice that made Rakushun stop and look at Youko for a moment. But he kept his thoughts to himself.
Youko said nothing more after that. Everybody kept his own welfare first and foremost in mind. Question any act of charity deeply enough and she’d discover a kernel of selfishness in it. That’s why she begrudged nothing Rakushun had said.
Of course, Youko thought. That’s why we betray one another. In the end, everybody was out for number one. Not even the biggest saint in the world could live with another person’s welfare solely in mind.