By the time Crow and Shio arrive at Kitsune Oden, Hasako is shuttering the shop for her break. She beckons them as they near, removing her apron after they have seen her; her clothes are plain but well-made and she does, as Shio said, look better. She goes around the back of the building, where a small vegetable garden flourishes, and motions for them to sit upon a moss-encrusted rock beside it. Hasako seats herself opposite on another rock.
“Thank you for returning, samurai-san,” she says with a smile, nodding toward Crow. “You did great good for my home your last visit.”
Crow laughs, sounding a bit unsure. “I do not remember much of it, if I am being honest. I was hoping I might…find closure now that I have returned.” She shakes her head, then continues. “But that is later. I am glad to help. What was the news you spoke of?”
Hasako frowns. “Poachers are growing in number once again,” she says, with a flash of anger and teeth that she hides quickly. “I have seen them in the village itself, and I have heard from my family of others in the wood. I am concerned.”
Crow frowns deeply, on her feet quickly, hand on the grip of her sword. “I will take care of them.”
Shio stills, gone stiff and cold for a moment, before she nods once. “Yes.” she says softly.
Hasako looks at her hands, then back at them, seeming very tired. “I cannot thank you enough,” she says to them. “Toshio-san may know more about them, but please, be careful. The woods are dangerous of late.”
Crow softens a bit, studying Hasako’s expression, her heavy eyelids. “It is nothing.” She says, and then briefly pauses before venturing further, “…are you unwell?”
Hasako blinks at Crow, surprised, then gives her a wry smile. “I am worried,” she explains quietly. “I fear for my family and friends. Many do not live in the village, and would be… easy targets.”
Crow’s gaze drops to the ground. She briefly glances back toward Shio, and then bows to Hasako”Not to worry, Kitsune-san.” Her voice is soft. “We will handle it.”
Hasako eyes go a little softer in turn. “I trust you,” she says simply, bowing in return. “Thank you.”
Crow’s wary smile strengthens; she beams at Hasako, and then Shio, who gives her a smirk. The pair of them bow and say their farewells before heading back to the inn to retire for the evening.
Fitful dreams and anxiety mingled with anticipating keep Crow from sleep; she wakes well before the sun does, and after an hour of failed attempts to return to sleep, she drags herself from her room and goes about her morning routine.
Stretches. Bath. Tea. Breakfast. By the time she’s downed a bowl of rice, the sun is still a ways off, and Kitsune Mori Mura is still quiet. She is glad enough to slip out unnoticed, hand resting on the hilt of her katana as she makes her way past the northern border of the village and into the surrounding woods.
She isn’t sure what she is searching for, but a morning walk in the woods sounds nice enough by itself—even if she doesn’t find what she unknowingly seeks.
Very few are out and among the sprawling village when Crow wakes, and even less so when she makes her way to the northern border. Some of the villagers linger near tea and sake houses, and Crow swears that she can see their eyes glint in the dark. Others yet begin their morning routine. At this hour, the wildlife has more of a presence than the humans: she walks carefully through a gathering of sika deer grazing fearlessly near the center of the village, and apologizes to the fat tail of a mujina retreating into the brush as she nears the edge of town.
The trees near the village are thinner; the forest grows denser as one ventures inward, with rocky outcroppings and the occasional jutting hill. Crow strays carelessly from the path once the village is a ways behind her, and fortunately she does not encounter any trouble. After a while of walking, she happens upon a small shrine and a scattering of birds, intermingled with a congregation of tiny monkeys that scatter into the trees when she nears. The shrine is small and very old, its carved rock mossy and chipping near the edges. Several offerings of sake, rice, fruit, and small trinkets sit beneath it.
One of the monkeys remains, young and brown and very small, sitting on a tree branch and eyeing her. She smiles and approaches slowly, pulling a berry from within her kosode and reaching out to offer it. It eyes her, wary and unmoving for a moment, but then approaches cautiously. Its eyes dart from the berry to Crow’s face, to her hand, back to the berry. It reaches out and plucks it, tilts its head, shoves it into its mouth and chews with its cheek bulging. Crow laughs.
“I’m sorry, that was my last one.” She speaks as if it can understand her, even bowing apologetically before she turns to inspect the shrine, careful not to disturb any offerings. The shrine itself is nondescript. likely an offering for the forest spirits or anything that might happen by.
The monkey, meanwhile, finishes its berry, wiping its mouth with small, spindly hands, and stares at her back. It’s a clear prompt for more, but when more doesn’t come, it sits and watches. Eventually, it carefully reaches out and prods her sleeve, her satchel, the jug of sake that hangs at her hip.
Crow’s silent reverence is interrupted by the tug at her sleeve. She turns to face the monkey and bows once more.
“I don’t have much else!” Another laugh as she reaches out to give it a pat on the head, which it seems content with for all of two seconds. She then takes a moment to fish around in her bag—finding nothing, she gives the sake jug a shake and then pulls the stopper out, offering the wet end for a lick; initial disinterest gives way to a sniff, and then curiosity—at least until Crow is distracted enough for its tastes so that it can worm a tiny hand inside her pack. Eventually, after some picking around, he finds a string of zeni. A koku is of more interest. He tries to palm it, holding it with both hands.
Crow does not notice until she has stoppered the jug again, and her expression shifts from one of surprise to a grin.
“Hah, you’re a clever one!” She says, slowly reaching to fish the koku back out of his palms. The monkey inspects the koku, holding it out as far as it can, tapping it on the tree branch once or twice. Its tail swishes and it makes a chittering sound, seeming pleased in its gain until it notices Crow’s reach. It bolts, hopping off the tree and onto the grass, starting off northward into the trees. Crow calls out in surprise as he turns and runs; it is far too early yet for a chase through the woods, but she follows him anyway.
“Wait! Wait! Please!” She tries her best to keep up, running through the branches and underbrush. There’s more of the chattering as it runs. Is it a game? Probably. But it seems determined to make off with its loot. The trees thicken as they run until, after some time, they enter a clearing. It is far from Kitsune Mori Mura.
The monkey scampers toward a small spring at the center of the clearing. There, on a flat rock overhanging the water, a woman sits, calves submerged. She runs a wet cloth along her neck and wrists, her skin tan and her hair black, save streaks of white near the front. She hears Crow approach shortly after the monkey has dropped the koku into her hand, and immediately stands up in alarm.
“You! Are you—are you one of them?”
Crow, so focused on the monkey, nearly tumbles over in surprise at the sound of a voice. Wide-eyed, she stumbles to a halt; her cheeks are red with embarrassment as she sees the woman, bowing apologetically.
“Sumimasen,” She says breathlessly, smoothing a hand over her wild hair as she straightens.
“One of…? You mean—you mean one of the poachers?” Her mouth is dry and she struggles to catch her breath; these are at great odds with her efforts to look collected and dignified.
For several moments, the woman looks wary, as if she might run. There is something strange about her appearance that makes it difficult to determine her age. Maybe twenty two, maybe a year or two younger, or perhaps older. Her face is thin and fox-like, her eyes brown. She reaches out and the monkey flattens the koku in her palm. She inspects its Lion brand and her lips thin a hair, but she looks back to Crow and does not show much more.
“Yes. One of them.” She says quietly, eyeing the fur in her clothing, her long hair—her nervousness does not seem to abate, but she does not run. “What is your name?” She says eventually. “And is this yours?” She holds the koku out, asking before Crow has a chance to give her a name. It’s accompanied by a tiny smile.
Crow is mindful of her suspicion, but she can’t blame her for it. How does one appear less threatening? She bows again, avoiding eye contact.”No, I am not one of them. I have been sent to take care of them, in fact. I am called Crow.”
When she stands, it’s slow and she chances a step toward, then another.
“Yes, it is mine.. I’m afraid that it’s all I have, too.” She laughs and averts her eyes. “What is your name?” She glances at her long enough to smile.
The name stirs something in the woman’s face. It is quickly bedded down beneath a small, careful smile. The monkey chitters and tilts its head, hiding behind her, looking as apologetic as a monkey can look. She carefully adjusts the patterned obi and sash around her waist. It’s red and orange, set apart from a simple, tea-colored robe.
“I am called Umeko,” she says after a long while, “I apologize for his… interest. He must have taken a liking to you.”
“Umeko.” Crow repeats and smiles a bit wider, bowing her head. “There is nothing to apologize for. He’s quite charming.” Umeko laughs at this and Crow responds in kind, shaking her head. Slowly, very slowly, she seats herself at the edge of the rock a good distance from Umeko, taking a moment to familiarize herself with her surroundings before looking to her again. “Have you encountered the poachers?”
Umeko seems almost skittish as Crow sits and she shifts, widening the distance between them. “I have seen their tents, but not their numbers. You said you would…take care of them? From where do you come?”
“We’ve just come from the north of the forest. My… friends and I. Kitsune Hasako has asked us to handle it.”
Crow all but trails off toward the end of her sentence, her attention drifting back to their surroundings. Her brow knits; there is something familiar about it. Something she can’t place her finger on. Her eyes drift to gouges in the trees, old markings from blades that have darkened with age or been grown over by gnarled bark. She is just on the cusp of remembering something when Umeko’s voice draws her from the thought.
“Kitsune Hasako?” She echoes with recognition, and scratches her nose with her little finger.
She withdraws, but not very far. Eventually, after what seems like a very long eventually, she seats herself at the edge of the wide, flat rock and. Umeko adjusts her tabi, setting her geta aside.
“Kitsune Hasako,” she echoes with recognition, and scratches her nose with her little finger, “I see. The tents are through there.” She lifts a tan hand and points directly ahead of them, what is likely west. Crow follows the line of her hand, her brow furrowing in determination, before she nods and stands.
“Thank you, Umeko-san. I will gather my friends.” She turns and bows, then heads for the treeline; Umeko watches her go with a confused smile before realization sets in and she scrambles to her feet.
“Wait!” She calls after her, her cheeks puffed out in frustration. Umeko picks up the koku and starts after her, bending to adjust her geta mid-stride. “Your money!”
Crow stops abruptly as she remembers, her face hot with embarrassment. It manifests in already-ruddy cheeks becoming even redder as she turns to receive the koku with a bowed head and a laugh.
“I—I forgot. Thank you.” Another bow of her head, and with Umeko close, her intent to leave is immediately forgotten. Crow’s smile is as delayed as it is stupid. When the money is pocketed, she rubs the back of her head and laughs again.
“Otherwise I would have been begging for scraps when I returned to the village.”
Umeko smiles and her laugh is light, but it’s clear that she is on edge with this proximity.
“You came from Lion lands, then?” She gestures to wear Crow has stowed the koku.
Crow’s answer is delayed. Her embarrassment mingles with something else; perhaps a different kind of embarrassment. The hand at the back of her head moves to her neck, which she rubs idly as she conjures a response.
“Well, not originally. I was Ki-Rin. Only traveling through the Lion lands.” Her tone is almost apologetic, as if being Ki-Rin is somehow inherently less exciting than the alternative. “I’m sorry. I was unclear before.”
Umeko nods, adjusting her pack as the monkey hops, hops again, and ends up on her shoulder, rooting through her things. A berry silences his chattering.
“Ki-Rin,” she echoes, nodding once. Then twice. There is something like recollection in her face. She forces it away quickly and smiles. “I see. You have been to the forest before, or never?”
“I have been to the forest once before, yes. Several years ago. I was happy to return.” Crow straightens, this line of conversation stirring her memory again. Her gaze drifts to the side and she takes in the clearing, her brow drawing tightly together. Concentration only seems to chase the memories away faster, and she releases her frustration in a sigh and a shake of her head.
“Do you live here?” She looks back to Umeko. “By this spring? I can’t shake the feeling that I have been to it before, but surely I would have remembered a face as pretty as yours.”
Her stance is more relaxed as she eases into what she’s most familiar with: shameless flirting. She winks.
Umeko blinks once, then nearly twice, halfway there. She isn’t quite sure how to handle this: the pink embarrassment on her cheeks is evidence enough of that, and a light, halfway-to-nervous laugh follows.
“I—I do. Not precisely here, but nearby.” Pause. “I think I have heard of you before. You helped with poachers here. The last time.”
Umeko’s blush is as much encouragement as it is discouragement. For now, Crow settles on a sly smirk and a slight shift in her weight, arms folding across her chest.
“You’ve…heard of me?” By her tone, it’s obvious that she finds the notion ridiculous. Crow can’t help but laugh and shake her head, and soon her arms are at her sides again, fingers fretting at her palms. She does know this place. She remembers the poachers. And then…
“I was not here very long at all, and there were so few of them… I doubt it is me you’ve heard of.”
“Ah,”Umeko gives her a smile smile, “perhaps I was mistaken, then. But I know that word does spread.” The early light of morning filters through the trees. Birds begin to chirp and trill. Something rustles through the brush. “Do not let me keep you, Crow-san. I apologize.” A slight bow.
It’s difficult not to feel as though that wasn’t the answer that Umeko had wanted, but it is the one Crow feels is most earnest.
“You are not keeping me. Thank you for your help, Umeko-san.” A slow bow follows, and she seeks her gaze when she is low enough for their eyes to be level. She gives her a small, private smile before she straightens.
“I hope you keep your distance from the poachers. We will take care of them before the day is out. I promise.”
Umeko smiles. It’s less a small and private thing than before, and she lingers in lieu of knowing really what to say. There’s a sense that she doesn’t quite want to move on, but is too embarrassed otherwise.
“Thank you, Crow-san. I only ask that you are… careful.” There is a pause. Her lips press together. “Perhaps I will see you in the village.” It’s not really a question.
“I am always careful!” It’s not a lie, but it’s not precisely true, either. Taking a bold leap, Crow reaches to press her finger gently into the tip of Umeko’s nose. The gesture is short-lived.
“I hope we do meet again.”
Another smile, a slight nod of her head, and Crow moves past her. Northward.