Kieskei watched Katsume out of the corner of his eye, noting the deep frown that creased her face, but more importantly, the smoldering anger in her verdant eyes. He had suspected that the Demon Slayer didn’t trust the traveling alchemist they had met the previous day, but this was something else.
“Want to tell me what’s bothering you?” he finally asked.
“Not really,” she replied, never taking her eyes off the slow moving wagon in the road ahead of them.
The devil hunter pursed his lips a bit. “I imagined as much.”
“Then stop askin’.”
“It will be difficult for me to back your play, when you make it, if I’ve no idea what it is going to be.”
Katsume gave him a harsh look, opening her mouth to say something that was, no doubt, sarcastic, cutting, or both. Instead, she hesitated, the bright flare of anger in her eyes fading slightly before she turned to face the wagon again.
“I don’t know yet what my play is gonna be. That’s all.”
Kieskei arched an eyebrow at that. “You certainly don’t trust this Ritsko fellow, that much is obvious. Which means you’ve had the same thought as me. We’re walking into a trap. Possibly one laid by this mysterious Lord Onihone.”
“That ain’t it, either,” she said with a slow shake of her head. “Inari said we could trust Ritsko, and however weird, lazy, and perverted that nine tails may be, he’s never wrong about people.”
“I see,” Kieskei responded quietly, considering this new piece of information carefully. “Did Inari happen to say why he felt Ritsko to be trustworthy?”
“Nope. Just that he was an old friend.” Katsume shrugged slightly. “Though, I’m finding that hard to believe as well. Too much don’t add up here, but I can’t figure out what’s missing.”
With a frown of his own setting up shop on his face, Kieskei considered everything carefully for several moments. “Inari is a friend, that much we can hold to be true.”
“Don’t disagree there.”
“Therefore, it follows that if he says we can trust Ritsko, then we can.”
“On shaky ground with that, but yeah, in a nutshell.”
“However, without knowing why he claims this to be true, we are taking a terrible risk.”
“There’s the wall I keep hitting.”
“Then, perhaps, we should simplify the equation.”
Katsume glanced over to him in curiosity. “How so?”
“There is a demon threatening the pass, or so we assume,” Kieskei replied. “Let us deal with that threat, using our combined, and considerable, abilities. Everything else should become clear once we have.”
The Demon Slayer scowled at that, but only for a moment. With a heavy sigh, she nodded, saying, “I know that’s the right way forward, I just don’t like it.”
“Nor do I,” her companion admitted. “I prefer a better lay of things before entering a battle. However, for now, all we can do is trust in Inari to not lead us astray.”
“I have told you how we met Ger, right?”
“Actually, no, you haven’t.”
Katsume gave another heavy sigh.
Ahead of them, in the wagon, Yukiko rode with the strange, blustery alchemist, Ritsko Tamachi, Inari and Ger napping in the back. Katsume and Kieskei had been invited as well, but the Demon Slayer had opted to walk. The devil hunter had joined her, claiming to want to watch the rear.
Yukiko leaned out, peeking around the side to watch them for a moment as they talked. As she did, a kind smile graced Kieskei’s face, aimed at Katsume. Upon seeing it, she pulled back, watching the road ahead.
It was obvious, really. No matter how she looked at, it was plain as day. It hurt a little, she had to admit, but she couldn’t find it in herself to be angry. They really did look good together, and she knew, they shared some sort of a history, though neither would tell her what it was.
“I see now,” Ritsko said.
The kindness in his eyes made her feel small. “Why those eyes bother you so.”
Yukiko looked anywhere but at him, unable to stand the way his warm smile made her feel guilty. “You don’t see anything.”
“Ah, but I do, my dear,” he chuckled. “I’ve traveled far and wide, seen much, and know a great deal, after all. You try to hide yourself, and your heart, but to me, it is clear as water.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she muttered.
Ritsko gave another laugh at that, deep and full of joy. “Very well, I’ll not pry. Never let it be said that I, Ritsko Tamachi, didn’t know when to mind his own business. Though, I am left to ponder one thing still.”
“Like what?” Yukiko asked, feeling sulky that he had picked up on her unspoken want so easily.
“Which of them it is you long for,” he replied with a wink.
Yukiko turned a bright red. “Neither of them!”
“As you say, then,” he grinned. “I’m not poking my nose in.”
She snorted at that, glaring out at the passing forest. “You’re doing nothing but.”
Ritsko gave a wide, rolling shrug. “Probably. I can’t help myself, I suppose. I am a fan of true love, after all.”
“Who said anything about love?” Yukiko yelped.
“Why, you did, my dear,” he answered, waving a hand toward her in a grand, sweeping motion. “With every movement, every look, every inflection of your lovely voice. All of you, down to your core, sings it out for the whole world, if only it would take a moment to stop and listen.”
She blinked a few times, then scowled at him. “Not that you’re going to pry, of course.”
“Of course,” he howled with glee. “The thought never even tarried in my mind.”
Yukiko gave him a narrow look, not buying that claim for a moment. “So you know, it hardly matters. They have a lot in common, and neither of them has anything in common with me.”
“That doesn’t sound right, not at all,” Ritsko argued with a thoughtful tone, putting a finger to his chin and gazing away in a very dramatic way. “Is not that Katsume Oda, a half demon?”
“Well, yeah, but,” Yukiko started, then stopped, giving him a guarded glance. “How did you know that about her?”
Ritsko gave another chortle of delight. “My dear girl, I am Ritsko Tamachi! How could I not know the woman that wields Shoki?”
“Knowing her is one thing,” Yukiko countered. “Knowing she’s a half demon is another.”
The alchemist gave her a curious smile at that, both guarded, yet full of mirth. “Let’s just say I am well acquainted with the Oda family, shall we?”
Yukiko watched him for a moment, then sighed. “I’m not sure if I should trust you or not.”
“You absolutely should,” Ritsko declared. “But never too much.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“You didn’t ask a question.”
The demon girl frowned, realizing she hadn’t actually. “So, you know Katsume is a half demon. She’s still a Demon Slayer, and Kieskei is a devil hunter, from a pretty famous family. It makes sense they’d be drawn to each other. I’m just playing with same fantasies, nothing more.”
“Ah, but playing with fantasies is what makes for dreams,” he said, waggling a finger at her. “Dreams are what inspire us to reach for goals. Goals make us move forward to what we desire. What we desire is what makes life worth living.”
“That’s really roundabout logic.”
“That’s the best kind.”
Yukiko frowned again, staring at him with curiosity, and annoyance. “You are a very strange man.”
“I’ve been called worse, my dear. Much worse, I assure you. For me, that is a veritable compliment.”
“Whatever,” she muttered, turning to watch the forest again. “I’m a demon, and that’ll never change. If I can just get by in life without people hating me on sight, that’ll be enough. That’s all there is to it. Everything else is just me chasing butterflies.”
Ritsko watched her for a moment, his smile fading to sadness as he considered the young woman before him. “But if you had a choice?”
“In all of it.”
Yukiko sighed. “That’s a bit vague.”
“I like vague,” he told her. “Vague is where all possibility waits to be born.”
“Yeah, okay,” she grumbled.
They rode in silence for a time, Ritsko watching her as she occasionally stole glances back at the two trailing the wagon on foot. His expression shifted slightly to one of loving sympathy, then faded into a wide smile.
“Let’s say I give you this pendant that let’s you hide those lovely eyes of yours. Then what?”
“Then, nothing,” Yukiko told him. “I go on with my life.”
“Come now, don’t be like that,” he pleaded. “I’m asking you a serious question, after all.”
She gave him a wary look. “You can be serious?”
“Most certainly,” he assured her, sitting up straight and giving the road ahead a stern look.
Yukiko fought to suppress a giggle, but failed, getting that same warm smile that made her feel unsure of herself. “I suppose, I’ll just keep going as I have. Trying to help people. Trying to find my way. Just, without everyone treating me with so much suspicion, or hate.”
Ritsko considered that for a long moment. “How fascinating.”
“You seek this charm, this magic, just to make it easier for you to help others.”
She gave a small shrug. “Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, it would cut out a lot of the difficulty I usually run into.”
Ritsko gave her a wide, beaming smile. “How absolutely wonderful.”
Yukiko decided he was too strange to define, shook her head, and went back to watching the road.
Behind her, Inari closed his eyes, having listen to the entire conversation. With a smile, he admitted, he was truly, deeply, proud of his young charge. Even in a selfish desire, she sought the path of light.
All would be well.
The sun was setting as the small group rounded a turn in the road, and came upon a caravan of wagons, gathered in a clearing, forming a circle around a bonfire. Ritsko cried out in joy at the sight, and quickly pulled his own into the gathering before swinging his bulk down and calling out to the figures gathered about the fire.
Yukiko hesitated, standing to look them over. Colorful in garb, many were gathered in groups, drinking or chatting. Closer to the fire, however, was a cluster with a wide array of musical instruments, playing a lively tune that filled the air with a warm, welcoming sensation she was drawn to, but afraid of at the same time. Before them, several young women, close to Yukiko in age, danced to the music as a gathering of boys watched and clapped.
“What the hells is this crap?” Katsume snarked, making the demon girl jump half out of her skin.
“It appears to be a guild,” Kieskei replied. “Probably associated with the Ginmota family in Hakfu.”
Katsume scowled at that. “The Ginmota’s, huh? Uppity would be tyrants.”
“True,” Kieskei nodded. “Though, hardly the fault of these people. They are just trying to make an honest living.”
The Demon Slayer snorted at that, but said nothing else as Ritsko bounced around the camp site, shaking hands and being welcomed in return. Still, her expression said all there was in regard to her opinion of both the Ginmota family, and the people before her.
“You guys know so much about the world,” Yukiko said softly. “They just look like people having fun to me.”
Katsume glanced up at her, then pouted a little. “Yeah, well, I guess that’s all they really are.”
“Isn’t that basically what I just said?” Kieskei asked, a bit petulant at her change in mood.
“Shut it, devil hunter,” Katsume barked, threatening him with a fist.
“Music!” Ger cried, bonding out of the back to watch the dancers for a moment, before trying to mimic their movements. Inari thumped him on the head as he joined the group.
“Who are not likely to take well to a Goblin, a breed of demon known for their thievery and lies.”
“Look who’s talkin,” Katsume muttered.
“Hey, now,” Inari wailed.
“Wondrous news,” Ritsko declared as he rejoined them. “These generous souls from the Ginmota-za have agreed to let us join their craven. They make for the same pas as we, and will no doubt be glad for the protection from Lo Fan.”
“Ginmota,” Katsume growled before spitting on the ground.
“Stop it,” Kieskei pleaded.
“Ritsko,” a older man, with graying hair called as he joined them. “Never seen you travel with people before. You finally get some apprentices?”
“Hardly,” the alchemist chortled. “They are far better than that, to all of us.”
“How so?” the old man asked, eyeing them warily.
“You’ve heard about Lo Fan, I assume?” Ritsko asked back, giving the man a dark look. “The demon that has begun haunting the pass?”
The man frowned. “Yeah. Not to worried about it, though. We got a couple of priests traveling with us. They can hold back some random demon while we make our way through.”
“Ain’t that nice,” Katsume purred, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “They got them a couple of biwa hoshi, and think that’ll keep them safe from a real demon.”
“You think you can do better?” the old man shot back.
Katsume planted Shoki before her. “I know I can.”
He scoffed at that. “So you got a sword. Big deal. Any fool can swing a sword. At least the biwa hoshi have magic to hold us back.”
Katsume set Shoki ablaze. “That so?”
The old man fell back a step, shocked at the sight of the fire circling up the blade in flowing streams that danced at the Demon Slayer’s command. After a moment, he glanced to Ritsko, who was smiling in a way that could only be called mischievous.
“Please, Ho, allow me to introduce you to the wielder of Shoki of the Nine Rings, Katsume Oda.”
The old man, Ho, fell back another step. “It can’t be. The Oda family is dead.”
“No, just my parents,” Katsume shot back. “Wanna join them?”
“Stop it,” Kieskei begged of her again.
“And this would be Kieskei Atochi, of the legendary Atochi family,” Ritsko said, waving a hand his way. “He who wields the sacred blade Seiken.”
Ho chewed his lip for a moment, glancing from the two to Ritsko and back. “You find yourself in strange company, old friend.”
“I prefer the term interesting,” the alchemist huffed. “Nor have you seen it all yet.”
“Why?” Ho barked. “That girl on the bench the long lost heir of the Shang Empire?”
“Not that I know of,” Ritsko mused. “Though, anything is possible, I suppose.”
“I’m Yukiko,” she offered, stepping forward to let the light of the bonfire fall on her fully.
Ho scowled instantly, taking a step back. “A demon? May be best for you to move along, Ritsko. The biwa hoshi won’t stand for something like that to stay with us.”
“Jerk!” Ger cried, jumping forward to shake a fist at the old man, putting himself between Yukiko and Ho.
“A Goblin as well?” the old man barked. “You’re a fool, Ritsko, twice over now!”
“Is he?” Inari asked, leaping down from the wagon to spread all nine of his tails wide. “Then what does that make me, old man?”
Ho reeled back, staring in confusion and awe. “A Heavenly Being? I don’t understand.”
“I am a companion to an Oda, an Atochi, and two demons who have proven themselves as friends. That is all you need know.” Inari frowned at the man. “Now run along and tell the biwa hoshi to mind their manners, or I’ll have a word with Benzaiten about their rudeness.”
The old man struggled to find an argument for that, but quickly failed, and retreated, heading for a small group gathered far from the campfire. As he went, Yukiko shook her head and moved to step down from the wagon, only to find Katsume there, holding out a hand to her.
She stared at it for a moment, the took it, allowing the Demon Slayer to help her to the ground. Looking up at her friend, she half expected to see the kind, gentle smile she had first seen in the village where they had encountered Kamachi and Junto, but instead found the powerful woman glaring towards the traveling merchants and performers, sending them scattering.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she offered quietly.
“Like hells I didn’t,” Katsume replied, resting a hand on her shoulder.
Yukiko couldn’t keep the smile from her face.
“May be best for us to linger here,” Ritsko cut in. “Just while old Ho smooths things over. No sense starting a fight with these folks.”
“I agree,” Kieskei nodded. “Though they would be wise not to start a fight with us.”
“Punch faces,” Ger shouted.
“Hush you,” Inari ordered. “There will be no need for a fight of any kind. The biwa hoshi won’t go against me, and the guild won’t go against them. All will be well.”
“As you say,” Ritsko grinned.
Ho returned a short time later, his dark expression saying enough. “The biwa hoshi agree to let you stay with us, on the reputation of those two, and the demand of the nine tails. The demons are to stay here, near your wagon, though, Ritsko. Don’t want anyone going missing as a midnight snack for those things.”
“Watch your mouth, bastard,” Katsume roared, moving forward.
Kieskei was quick to block her path. “Enough. Calm yourself.”
Ho smirked at her. “I’ll say what I please, girl. Your father is gone, and whatever you might have been, you ain’t nothing now. My sponsor is proof of that.”
“Son of a bitch,” the Demon Slayer snarled. “Those damn Ginmota’s couldn’t even dream of bleeding in my father’s shadow! You best believe I’ll make them know it one day soon, too!”
“Whatever,” Ho laughed. “You got no bite to back up that bark.”
“Wanna bet?” she raged, jabbing Shoki at him, the flames wreathing the blade snapping and hissing.
The old man backed up quickly, then caught himself and tossed her a smirk again. “I’ll let my lord know he can start measuring his rugs for when he moves into your old home.”
“Mother fucker!” Katsume bellowed lunging against Kieskei, who struggled to hold her back.
“Stop this, now,” he hissed in her ear. “You are an Oda, dammit. Act like it.”
Katsume fumed for a moment, then whipped Shoki back over her shoulder. “If a few of you get eaten by Lo Fan, don’t expect me to mourn over much.”
“Should we encounter the demon,” Ho shot back. “The biwa hoshi will deal with it. Your pet monsters best stay in Ritsko’s wagon. Wouldn’t want them biting the hand that feeds when they run against a wild cousin, would we?”
“Enough!” Kieskei roared, shoving Katsume back and advancing on the old man. “As an Atochi, I can no longer abide this flagrant display of shamelessness. Have you no honor at all, old man?”
Ho drew himself up, glaring at the devil hunter. “What’s the Atochi’s done for us lately, huh?”
“If you have to ask,” Kieskei snapped back. “Then you obviously take it for granted. Now go. We have no need of your pitiful company any longer.”
Ho snorted at that, then waved a hand and stormed away.
“That could have gone better,” Ritsko sighed.
“Probably,” Inari agreed.
“Fuck them,” Katsume snarled.
“They are ignorant,” Kieskei told her. “Do not hate them for it. Pity them for it.”
Yukiko stared at Katsume, eyes assessing her with curiosity and uncertainty. “Who are you, really?”
Katsume hesitated, then kicked at a rock idly, her anger abandoning her at the look on Yukiko’s face. “Nobody anymore, it seems.”
“Why won’t you tell me?”
The Demon Slayer floundered, struggling to find words, or anything, to respond.
“It’s been a long day,” Kieskei cut in. “Maybe we can wait to address these things after we’ve all had some sleep.”
“A wondrous idea,” Ritsko laughed, then patted his generous belly. “And a fine meal, as well! I feel as I’ve wasted away to nearly nothing after all that excitement. Ger, my boy, be a dear and come give me a hand getting dinner started, won’t you?”
“Got it,” the Goblin replied, bouncing down from the bench to waddle after the alchemist.
“Katsume,” Yukiko pressed.
“It doesn’t matter,” the Demon Slayer interrupted. “I’m your friend, ain’t I?”
“That’s enough, then. For both of us.”
Yukiko watched her storm away, leaving her alone with Inari and Kieskei, both of whom looked anywhere but at her. Throwing her hands up, the demon girl climbed back up in the wagon, leaving them all to the secrets they so clearly wanted to keep from her.
It was past midnight, and sleep eluded Yukiko. Yet again, she found herself staring at the stars, from a mat on the ground, rather than out a window this time, but the things that swirled in her mind were the same. The way the old man, Ho, had spoken to her filled her with anger, but that was normal enough.
It was the deeper anger that she couldn’t name that haunted her. The thing that was burning a hole in her soul.
“Damn it,” she muttered, pushing herself up and stretching before walking around the wagon.
To her surprise, Katsume was already there, sitting against the wheel, watching the low burning bonfire in the center of the circle of wagons. Yukiko hesitated a moment, then remembered how much comfort she had found in the Demon Slayer so recently, and moved to join her.
“Can’t sleep, huh?” Katsume asked.
“No,” she sighed.
“Pissed at that idiot?”
“Good. You should be.”
Yukiko shook her head. “Not really. I am a demon, Katsume. His reaction should be expected.”
“To the hells with that shit,” the red head snapped. “You standing there, looking all cute and innocent, and he thinks your some kinda threat? That’s just bullshit.”
Yukiko snickered at that, drawing a dark look from her companion.
“Sorry,” she offered with a thin smile. “It’s just, I didn’t know you thought I was cute.”
Katsume sulked for a moment. “Yeah, well, you are, so shut the hells up about it now, will ya?”
“Making me feel normal.”
Katsume’s hand landed on her head roughly, then lightened to stroke her hair. “Shut up with that, too. You are normal. Just like me.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I say you are, and that should count for ten times more than what some traveling hill billy idiot thinks.”
Yukiko smiled. “It does, but it doesn’t change what I am, Katsume.”
The Demon Slayer’s hand stopped, lingered a moment, then circled her shoulders. “No, I guess it doesn’t. For either of us.”
“Why won’t you tell me why everyone treats the Oda name as so special?” Yukiko asked after several minutes of silence had lingered between them.
Katsume shrugged. “Lots of reasons, I guess.”
“Like, I don’t want you to look at me different. Like, I’m not sure what it means anymore, or how to define it myself. Like, it doesn’t matter anyway.”
Yukiko considered that for a while. “Are you ashamed of it?”
Katsume looked down at her. “Was that what you were thinkin?”
Yukiko bobbled her head for a moment in indecision. “I wasn’t sure. It’s sometimes as if you are hiding it from me, so I was trying to figure out why.”
Katsume thumped her head against the wheel. “Figures you’d come up with some weird idea like that. Should of guessed it.”
“It’s not weird,” Yukiko argued, pulling back to give her a stern look. “I didn’t know what else to think.”
Katsume laughed at her. “Tell ya what, pipsqueak. When I figure out what it all means to me, I’ll tell you all about it, okay?”
The demon girl gave a nod at that. “Okay, I guess. I just don’t like how it feels as if everyone is keeping secrets from me.”
“Not secrets,” Katsume assured her. “None of it would mean anything to you anyway, what with you not remembering where you come from, and stuff. It’s just a bit of a tangled mess that’s hard to explain without a ton of context and other boring crap.”
Katsume patted her on the head. “Don’t worry so much.”
Yukiko grinned at that. “I guess that’s my thing, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s like, you’re the angry one. Inari’s the crazy one. Kieskei’s the logical one. And I’m the worrying one.”
Katsume gave her a glare in the low light of the bonfire. “I’m gonna let that angry one jab slide this time, pipsqueak, but only cause I like you.”
“Took you long enough>”
“You grow on people,” the Demon Slayer snorted. “Like moss or something.”
Yukiko laughed at that, giving her a playful shove. “You do too, you know.”
The head of one of the blind monks of the biwa hoshi hit the ground in front of them as a raspy, grating voice issued from the dark.
“I’ll grow on you both, with pleasure.”
The Demon Slayer and the demon girl looked up into the face of Lo Fan.
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani