6-6 As Rakushun had predicted, many beasts mingled in with the crowds on the streets. Amidst the hustle and bustle, there was something unbearably cute about these animals walking about on their two hind legs. Some were even dressed like people. Youko had to try hard not to giggle.
While he was waiting for her, Rakushun had gotten work at the harbor doing maintenance on the ships coming into port. He told her enthusiastically all about it.
Still, he took the occasion of meeting up with Youko to quit his first job ever. When she insisted that it was all right with her to stay a while longer in Ugou while he gave his notice, Rakushun said that when he signed up, he had told the foreman that he only wanted to work until the person he was waiting for arrived, so it was no big deal.
The day after Youko arrived, they set forth for Kankyuu. Though her stipend was by no means exceedingly generous, it wasn’t a miserly amount, and they could afford to take things easy. They walked along the highway during the day. At night they stopped in at a city and found an inn. All of the cities in En were big. For the same fee they got that much more than a comparable inn in Kou. They’d arrive at dusk, arrange for lodgings, and then go sightseeing. Rakushun particularly liked checking out what the shops had on display.
It was an uneventful trip. Nobody came chasing after her, though it took her some time to train herself not to recoil every time she saw a guard or constable. They never left the cities at night so she couldn’t confirm this for herself, but from what she gathered from conversations with other travelers, hardly anybody encountered a youma, even when traveling at night.
They were in the middle of their journey, eleven days out from Ugou and about a third of the way to Kankyuu. That evening, Youko decided to take a bath. Rakushun went out for a stroll to give her some privacy. That was when he heard about another kaikyaku.
Rakushun had pointed out that because they were in En, it’d be okay to show herself off a bit more. But Youko preferred men’s clothing, specifically a jacket or tunic called a hou. It was more comfortable, and having gotten used to it, she had no desire to put on a woman’s long kimono.
So, of course, everybody took her for a boy. This made using public baths a pain. The inns in En often had a furo, but they were more like a communal sauna, so she made do by bathing in their room. Because they had money to spare, even after taking care of their travel expenses, they always got a room. Still, it seemed a bit pointless since they settled for one room, and whenever Youko took a bath she kicked Rakushun out. Rakushun must have found it annoying.
She filled a basin with hot water and washed her hair. She hadn’t been in this world very long when Takki dyed her hair. As the days and months passed, her hair had grown out. Takki made the dye from roots in her garden. Copying what she had observed Takki do, Youko had searched for the same kind of roots. Through trial and error, she was able to fashion a dye of sorts. But the species of root or the process itself was wrong because the dye washed out afterwards.
At this point, her hair wasn’t so different from its original red. She was getting used to the strange color. She still got an odd vibe when looking at herself in the mirror, but the visage wasn’t unbearable. She bathed and dressed, all the more aware that she was getting used to this life.
When Rakushun got back, he told her about the kaikyaku. “It seems there’s a kaikyaku living in Houryou, the local prefectural seat. It’s along the way.”
Youko raised her eyes for a moment and then looked away. “Oh, really.”
She didn’t want to meet him. And even if she did, the thought of hanging out with a fellow countryman and getting all depressed was even more painful.
“They say he goes by the name of Hekirakujin.”
“That’s Heki Rakujin?”
“Yeah. He’s something like a professor at a prefectural college.”
That being the case, he wouldn’t be the old man who had ripped her off. And when she thought it through, it wasn’t likely she would run into him here. But that was only a minor comfort.
“Shall we go and see him?” Rakushun looked at Youko with hopeful eyes.
“Well, it’d probably be a good idea.”
“Then you’ll go?”
“Sure . . . I guess.”
The next day, they departed from the road to Kankyuu and headed to Houryuu to visit the school.
Shire-level preparatory schools here were called jogaku and prefectural academies were called shougaku. In En, students aiming for a district academy (joushou) could do their preparatory work at a prefectural academy, or could attend a prefectural polytechnic college (shoujo). This “Professor Heki” they were visiting taught at such a shoujo. He lived in a compound at the school.
Dropping in on a professor out of the blue was bad manners. Following formal procedures, a letter was sent and an interview requested. The reply from Heki Rakujin arrived at their inn the next morning. The courier bearing the reply accompanied them to the school.
The school in Houryou was located within the inner bailey wall of the city, built in the archetypal Chinese style. With its expansive gardens, the school more resembled a wealthy estate than a school. They were led to a small gazebo to wait. The next person they saw was Heki Rakujin.
He said, “Please excuse the delay. I am Heki.”
His age was hard to tell. He seemed both old and young. Older than thirty, younger than fifty, Youko thought. A gentle smile came easily to his smooth, unwrinkled face. He had a completely different air about him than that old man, Seizou Matsuyama.
“Did you receive our letter?” Rakushun asked. “We, um, thank you so very much for sparing a few moments of your precious time.”
Rakujin smiled at Rakushun’s overly polite language. “Relax. Make yourselves at home.”
“Um . . . ” Rakushun scratched at the bottom of his ear. He looked at Youko. “This is the kaikyaku.”
The man responded at once to Rakushun’s introduction. “Of course. But she doesn’t look like a kaikyaku to me.” He turned to Youko.
“I suppose I don’t.”
He laughed. “I can’t say I ever saw that color of hair in Japan.”
“Um . . . ”
Responding to the inquiring look in his eyes, Youko explained her predicament. Why, she didn’t know, but since coming here she had changed like this. It wasn’t only the color of her hair. Her face, body, even her voice had changed.
When she finished talking, Rakujin nodded. “That means you’re a taika.”
“Me?” Youko’s eyes opened wide. “A taika?”
“During a shoku, here and there get mixed up together. People come here and ranka go there.”
“I don’t get it.”
“When a person in Japan or China is caught up in a shoku, they are brought here. In the same way, a ranka sometimes get swept into that other world. A ranka is like an embryo. In the other world, a ranka can become embedded in a woman’s womb. The child that is subsequently born is called a taika.”
“That’s what you’re saying I am?”
Rakujin nodded. “A taika is a being of this world, the way you appear now. It is the form bestowed upon you by Tentei.”
“But when I was over there.”
“If you had been born the way you are now, it would have caused quite an uproar. You do probably resemble your parents.”
“Yes. People say I look like my grandmother on my father’s side.”
“It is a shell, so to speak. A second skin grows within the womb so that those born in that other world may pass as normal. I’ve heard that a taika’s appearance can be transfigured in such a manner.”
Youko struggled to make sense of what he was telling her. He was telling her that in Japan she had been a stranger in a strange land all along. She accepted that fact without objection. There was definitely a part of her that said, Yes. Of course.
She didn’t belong to that other world. That was why she had never felt at home there. She found the thought very comforting. And at the same time, very sad.