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I wasn’t quite sure where the shrine was supposed to be. There was something vague in the back of my mind, something about it being somewhat out of the way. As someone who was supposed to be relied upon to know about the Scarlet household, knowing about their dealings with outsiders also seemed like something I should know. I’d have asked Patchouli if I got the chance but then again, if I was honest, I’d probably find almost any excuse to have a chat with her.
“Following the road for now?” I asked the maid, passing off lingering feelings of inadequacy as idle chat. She certainly seemed to know where she was going.
“Sure, easier to walk down a path than through the brush,” she said. The werewolf was enjoying her time out in her own way. She devoted several glances and tilts of the head to patches of wildflowers that bloomed alongside the dirt road. The occasional warble of a bird in a nearby tree caused her ears to twitch and flop ever-so-slightly towards the source, a tiny smile invariably forming on her lips.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to fly?” I asked.
“Maybe? In a rush, Al?” she asked, throwing her arms over her heads in a stretching motion. The message was: I don’t feel like making more of an effort.
“You know me, physically hurts to be away from my beloved,” I joked, even though… no, that was too embarrassing to admit. “But I don’t meant to rush you,” I continued, “in fact, I was going to suggest the opposite.”
“’The opposite’?” Kagerou scratched herself lightly on the cheek with one of her long fingernails. The bag she had taken along had a single strap that had been slung on one shoulder and was crossed over her chest. It bobbed along with her pace and shook as she took a small playful leap over an uneven part of the road.
“We don’t really have any fairies along in tow this time around. It’s just the two of us,” I said, “and it’s not like we have a timetable. Plus it’s a nice day. Ample opportunity for fun.”
“Fun?!” she tried to act shocked but was a poor actress. Being tied to a single person had its advantages, as it were. I had plenty of time to observe her every move, her every mannerism. The rigid tips of her ears were betraying mischievous excitement, not concern. And, as if that weren’t enough to convince, she overextended herself and added, “We’re on an important mission. You of all people would be the first to say that usually.”
“Fun isn’t mutually exclusive with work,” I told her. “We can do both. Plus, I just mean you’re usually working with fairies—which let’s be honest aren’t the best and brightest of workers—or otherwise dealing with a pretty fussy employer.”
“Ooo, if only Remilia could hear you now,” she joked, “you’d be transformed into a fine powder.” She mimed the motion of a pestle grinding into an invisible bowl in her hand. Then, cocking up an eyebrow, she said with some inspiration, “Though I bet a special stone like yours would be a great magical ingredient. So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if your one-sided crush then used you to a really good bunion balm.”
Though I had a pretty good rejoinder about a certain thing of hers making a good hemorrhoid cream, I let her have the win. “My point,” I continued, “is that you deserve to have some time to yourself. Raise morale and all of that. A happy worker is a productive worker.”
“I suppose I’m happier being outdoors,” she said, stopping to close her eyes and take in a lungful of fresh air. Kagerou smiled as she felt the sunlight on her face.
“Yeah, so think of it as stopping to smell the flowers. Though maybe it’s probably best if we don’t smell any poisonous ones if that makes sense?”
“We’re nowhere near the bells, don’t worry,” she said, looking off in a different direction. There was nothing there except countryside as far as the eye could see.
“Bells? No, never mind,” I avoided straying off-topic, “let’s get things done but enjoy ourselves, eh? If we have the chance to get any more of those ingredients, like, that’d be a good thing as well.”
“You’re so predictable,” Kagerou giggled, resuming our walk. “You should relax, you know, women don’t like men that are overeager.”
“I’m not a guy, though. Maybe.”
“And I’m not a werewolf,” she giggled again, “men are all the same.”
“I guess in your world a few sniffs, some piss on a tree and you’re all set to rut. I’ll thank you to keep your advice about love to yourself in the future,” I huffed.
“I see your point and I think you've convinced me. Just not sure what there is to do for fun on the way to the shrine.”
“We could stop by the village, have a drink, take in the atmosphere? With all the drinking Remilia’s made you do, I’ve wondered if there’s a drink of choice you’d rather be having,” I sort of just blurted out something that had been on my mind.
“I don’t really feel like it right now,” she said, “but you might be on to something.”
“I always am,” I boasted quite unnecessarily.
She stopped once again and opened up the bag. Reaching in she took out a thin grey cloak, something best suited for keeping dust off than keeping warm. She closed the bag up, slung it over her shoulder and placed it on the ground in order to cover herself.
“When did you grab that?” I asked as she made sure the cloak was securely fastened. I must have tuned out when when was dealing with food and fairies.
“Right at the beginning. Figured it might be handy to disguise myself a little,” she said.
“Embarrassed by the maid uniform, huh? Can’t say that I blame you. Even if it isn’t that sexy, you’re bound to get a few unwelcome stares from people,” I said, once again lacking a filter on my thoughts.
“That’s not it!” she snapped, picking up the bag again and carelessly slinging it cross-shoulder again. I think I hit a nerve? But I wasn’t sure which one it was or why. At any rate, she didn’t deign to explain. Kagerou moved on, “There are a few things we can pick up at the village that would make our lives easier. Let’s focus on that.”
“Got any money? They’re not just going to give you things because you’ve got such an adorable face, you know.”
“In the bag,” she said, “it’s stupid how they just keep the stuff lying around pretty much everywhere.”
“Vampires are weird,” I mumbled mostly to myself as the werewolf picked up the pace.
It didn’t take us long to get to the village. The roads were empty and Kagerou kept a brisk pace as she didn’t need to mind neither cart nor fairy this time around. Being a modest but still worldly person, I didn’t mind the village that much. It was a cozy place with enough people and businesses to add variety to what was otherwise a pretty dull rural life for the average villager. I still preferred the Scarlet estate despite all of its gaudy excesses because I was just better used to the western trappings. And well, there was also another good reason that was better left unsaid.
Kagerou made a beeline for the market. Specifically, the food stalls. Why someone with a pack full of food would do that, I could not rightly guess. And it wasn’t like there were many that were open yet, the lunchtime bustle still being a while away. Still, she picked up a small box of candy and a rice ball, putting away the former and chomping into the later. I didn’t say anything but it seemed that she read my mind, mumbling that “the food at the mansion is completely different.”
Fair enough. I let her enjoy her meal in peace.
Gorged and happy, she then turned to other pressing matters. A little window shopping came next. Without the burden of having to follow a list she let herself take her sweet time seeing what was on sale. It didn’t seem like she was used to navigating shops or what she could expect in each one. Her gaze was constantly caught by the sight of something new, something shiny or even the very mundane. She smiled at knickknacks and seemed especially pleased at anything vibrant and colorful. If that was fun for her, then who was I to get in the way?
Much to her credit, Kagerou was restrained when it actually came to spending. She probably had more money in that bag than most merchants would see during a few months’ worth of business. It would have been easy for her to take a tiny portion of that and splurge on personal effects. I sure wouldn’t have blamed her. Somehow I got the feeling that Remilia wouldn’t either, likely amused by the types of things that a werewolf would be drawn towards. Yeah, no way she would pass up to lord over her ill-defined superior taste and compare it to Kagerou’s invariably plebeian sensibilities.
There was one thing she bought with my blessing. A woman was sitting by the side of the street, wearing a hood and cloak and napping placidly with a small tray full of stones propped up in front of her. The display of color caught Kagerou’s eye as she passed. She mumbled a question asking if I could tell what kind they were. I replied that I was a genius but not a geologist. So she asked instead, rousing the sleeping vendor as politely as she could.
A half-asleep reply came from the woman, her head continuing to slump forward, “all sales are final.”
“I don’t think she’s too interested in explaining,” I stated the obvious. “Just pick something you like.”
“It’s for Flandre,” Kagerou said, deciding that the fast-asleep woman wasn’t going to wake up again without some more effort, “I think she might like something simple and shiny.”
“Canny,” I told her, “can’t hurt to be on her good side.”
“Something like that,” she said, picking up a white mineral-type-looking-or-whatever-thing. I was serious about not knowing about geology. Anyhow, though it felt smooth to her touch, it was slightly translucent and layers upon layers of white bands compacted together. There were a few hints of other colors deep within but the milky opaqueness made it difficult to make sure. Though she looked at the more vibrant blue and greens on display, she settled on her first choice.
The seller seemed to wake up again just long enough to cite a price. She hadn’t even bothered to look up, instead putting out one of her hands to receive payment. A strand of long blond hair peeked from under her hood, revealed by the motion. Kagerou shrugged and gave her a coin. “Is that enough?” she asked.
The response was a lethargic closing of hands and retraction. Apparently, it was.
A good chunk of the morning went by while Kagerou looked around and explored the village center. She seemed to sense that I was getting restless and towards midday and turned her attention to something more productive. “Is there anything here you think we could get?” she asked quietly, ducking into a narrow alley between shops and producing Patchouli’s list from a secret pocket in the front of her outfit. There always was more to a maid than met the eye.
“A straw doll sounds a little out of place for a list of magical items,” I mused, “think it’s to curse someone?”
“If it was, I’d say you’re the prime target,” Kagerou joked, “if you had a body, you’d be stalking her all day long.”
“You just don’t understand deep love,” I figuratively shrugged.
“These other things… root of something or the other. I just don’t know where to look for them.”
“There’s incense on there,” I pointed out, “can’t be too hard to find some of that. Let’s worry about the other things later.”
“She doesn’t strike me as the devout type,” the werewolf commented, “wonder why she’d need the stuff. Maybe she just likes the smell?”
“I’m sure she has a good and logical reason for wanting some,” I said, urging her to action, “we can ask her all about it once we’re back.”
With a most disinterested shrug, Kagerou acquiesced and set off to look around for some of the items on the list. She tried some of the nearby sellers first, asking about a few of the more unusual botanical items on the list. We got redirected to perfume sellers and herb specialists. With limited success. A kind old lady who ran a hole-in-the-wall type shop specializing in all things pickled and dry goods took the time to explain just what it was we were trying to buy. Kagerou fidgeted now and again, trying to make sure her cloak was properly fastened and hid her features. Ironically, it was her preoccupation with not being scrutinized that probably drew more attention to her than she would have otherwise gotten. A fleeting glance from the grandmotherly shopkeeper that I just happened to catch made me suspect that she knew she was dealing with a youkai alright.
We ended up getting one of the ingredients we needed from that shop: a root vegetable that had been milled into flour. It probably wasn’t Patchouli’s preferred form for a magical ingredient but it was better than nothing we supposed. More usefully, we had a better idea of what some of the other things looked and smelled like. There was a clear opening for a good series of jokes at Kagerou’s expense but I didn’t want to risk putting her on edge—she was having a hard enough time trying to look inconspicuous.
As it was getting close to the lunch hour, we started gravitating away from the market center and towards the smaller side streets. People were beginning to flood in from the rest of town and the surrounding countryside. Kagerou became ever more uneasy. She almost snarled at someone who brushed against her shoulder trying to pass her by. It was just thereafter that we stumbled into another item that was on our shopping list.
“Careful there,” I said, happy with the stroke of good luck, “you almost knocked over that pile of incense. Sandalwood judging by the smell.”
The cloaked maid apologized to the seller, a young girl who was clearly not human. Were those…? Ears, a long, thin tail… a couple of mice that were perched on her shoulders. Yeah, she was clearly some sort of rat queen. Or, probably more accurately put, a mousey merchant. She smiled and told Kagerou that it was no problem. “I expected this sort of thing to happen when I was told to help move our stock today.”
Kagerou took a look at what she had on offer: trinkets, mostly vaguely religious-looking stuff but there were also a few baubles and things with no particular theme to them, of course, the incense. The humans that passed by took no heed of the small youkai with gray hair. She tried to strike up a conversation with Kagerou, talking about a place where youkai and humans mingled all the time. The wolfy maid was too worked up about the constant hustle and bustle to care much about her pitch. Thus the encounter was strictly transactional. I told Kagerou to pick this and that type of incense and was quick to pay the mouse and leave.
I wondered if it would be wise to try to pry a little into her state of mind. I was curious as to why she was getting so flustered. But, then again, bringing it up in a very public space was probably a dumb idea. At best, she’d snap at me. I didn’t think that she would freakout and runaway or whatever else but, then again, she did have another side to her. As much as I made fun of her, comparing her to a dog or wolf, there was a kernel of truth to there being something not-quite-civilized deep within her.
Something else took precedence. A heart-to-heart would have to wait. Though I could tell that her thoughts were beginning to get messy, her eyes were sharp enough to spot another one of the things that we needed. She weaved through the crowd deftly and with singular purpose. She made it to the basket just outside another small store in record time. Just to witness another hand grabbing the very thing that we needed.
“Hey, how much for this doll?” the girl asked the shopkeeper, holding up a tiny straw doll in her hand. Hm, I felt like I had seen her somewhere before. She had short red hair and wore a high-collared outfit that matched it and almost covered up to her cheeks. Definitely weird to wear with a skirt. While racking my brain for more clues, a weird thought came to mind: the outfit was kind of cape-like and seemed like something a fashionable vampire might wear. Were day walkers a thing in Gensokyo?
Kagerou stared impatiently at the girl, unsure of what to say or do. A crease of irritation formed on her forehead and grew into a complex array of lines before too long. She listened to the shopkeeper answer something and the girl asnwer that she would take the doll. After waiting for her to leave, she asked if there were any more like them in the store. An apologetic gummy smile didn’t smooth things over; “Last one, I’m afraid.”
She dashed after the girl, fighting the natural flow of people down the street. It was an upstream struggle and I had half a mind to tell her to just forget it—we could always look for another doll elsewhere. Worst came to worst we could even make our own. Not too hard. But I got the feeling that she wouldn’t listen to me as all of her previous frustrations and apprehensions were being channeled into strenuous activity. She was serious about the chase and clutched her bag close, making sure it didn’t bump into people and slow her down.
The chase took us from the village center to the outlying areas and the crowds thinned out. Still, she couldn’t quite catch up with the girl and more than once it seemed that we had lost her. Whether through instinct or luck, however, she was able to pick up the trail quickly and managed to stick with her. We ended up at a spot where there were only a few modestly-sized houses about. They looked like they were made from simpler materials and used wood that was less polished and sturdy-looking than the bigger homes elsewhere in the village. The girl was opening the door one one of the doors when Kagerou finally intercepted her.
“Excuse me,” the wolf stopped her, “could I talk to you for a moment?”
The girl seemed surprised that there was someone there. She eyed the cloaked figure warily, putting a hand under her cape as if to reach for something hidden. “What do you want?” she asked curtly.
“It’s about that doll you just bought—“ Kagerou paused and showed that she hadn’t thought very far ahead.
“Offer to buy it from her,” I piped up.
“I’d like to buy it from you,” she continued with a nod.
“Huh? Why?” she girl blinked, looking even more suspicious of the cloaked stranger’s motivation.
“I wanted to give it to someone else,” Kagerou explained with a version of the truth, “there aren’t any more for sale so I figured I could buy yours from you.”
“It’s not for sale,” the girl said, “leave me alone.”
“Prickly, isn’t she?” I was trying to figure out why she was being so gruff. Maybe she was just the type of person that hated other people.
“I’ll give you more than what you paid for it,” Kagerou said, being insistent but remaining civilized for the time being. She tried to be conciliatory without giving away too much which was kind of impressive, actually. “Listen, I know it’s weird for me to come out of the blue and ask you this but it’d really help me out if you gave it to me. It has to be made from straw, you see, and I haven’t really seen others in the marketplace. So I’ll definitely make it worth your while.”
Ah, to be able to be generous with other people’s money was such a blessing.
“My answer is the same. It’s mine now. Save your coin,” the girl huffed, taking a step towards the door. “Leave and don’t come back.”
Kagerou’s lips pursed with displeasure . She scrambled to think of what to do next and I could feel a few rapid and strong thoughts and emotions surfacing. Something along the lines of frustration having been converted to purpose in order to keep herself from straying. It didn’t feel like she wanted to make this a bigger deal than it needed to be but after all that effort she probably wanted to save face. If only to make herself feel like her efforts didn’t just result in a damp squib.
The problem was the other girl whose suspicion grew by the moment. She seemed to want to go inside the house but didn’t want Kagerou to see her doing so for whatever reason. So it was a strange standoff in a quiet part of town, with an atmosphere that was difficult to read. Not that there were any overt signs of threats by either party or anything but we definitely hadn’t gotten off on the right foot. I didn’t think that inviting her out for a cup of tea would smooth things over.
Kagerou’s left hand was clenched under her cloak, a sign that she was making up her mind quickly.
 Let her try her best to find a solution.
 Dissuade her from wasting more time and head to the shrine.
Time remaining: ::
Timer ended at: 2019/05/28(Tue)13:10