Mist hung low in the mountainside forest, raising the hairs on the child's tail as he stalked toward his prey. As long as he had been here, these woods were yet foreign to him; each inch he grew brought with it a new perspective, changing everything he thought he had known. Some things would never change, though. Not the comfort of softly streaming rays from a rising sun cutting through the canopy, nor the feel of grass between his toes, still wet with dew, nor the smell of a wayward goat unaware of its fate, nor the thrill of a clean kill. It was a rarity for him, but growing more common with each venture out of his cave.
For all of that, though, he'd just as soon have his mother's warm embrace, or his father's deep whooping laughter. The thought of home quieted his steps, steadied his breathing. His parents had taught him well, and their faces conjured up every lesson. You'll want to keep your eyes on your prey, but your feet are more important. You can't hear twigs, or rocks, or pitfalls. Silently, he stepped forward, toes sinking into muddy grass as he let loose his claws. Be mindful of your shadow, and your smell. They're as much a part of you as your limbs. Ducking from thick trunk to bush to boulder, he worked his way toward the sun – and his quarry. Remember the wind, always. It's a fickle thing, and it can ruin a man. That much, at least, was easy.
Before the goat could blink at him, his claws were soaked in its blood.
Finally allowing himself a satisfied sigh, he looked over his work. He had mostly kept it to the head, though a gash or two had slipped to the creature's chest as it fell. It was a messy affair, blood and brains and bowels all emptying onto the earth, but it was cleaner than his usual, which brought a small swelling of pride upon him. Some day, he hoped to be able to match his father's precise strikes. He remembered fondly the time he had gone out with him and returned with two deer, a boar that took two men to carry, and a rack of pheasants, each of them unmarked but for one or two bloody holes in their heads.
Of course, his father had been a hunter all his life. He was fond of boasting over crowded tables that he had taught Tenma himself, and though everyone knew it was a lie they let him weave his tales. Dogs couldn't afford to look down on dogs, and none among them could fault him for taking pride in his work. He was the best hunter among them, a captain of his own squad for all it was worth. Sometimes they would pat the child on the head, which he liked, and tell him all about how great he would be some day, which he liked even more.
The buzzing of flies reached his ears, the quickest of the bunch. Cursing their constant presence, he strapped the feet of his prize together as to carry it, and made his way toward the nearest entrance to the caves. Before ten steps, though, he was pinned to the ground. They're back, he thought disdainfully. No sound had ever marked their coming, nor had he been able to catch a glimpse of them. He knew only their voices, and that when they came for him it meant pain and loss. Maybe this time they'll make it quick. They never did.
The raspy one was the first to speak. "What have we got here? Seems like our little puppy's growing some fangs." His voice grated on the child like nails against bark. It hadn't always, but he was the cruelest of the three, and he liked to talk while he beat him.
"Big ones, too. Got yourself a pretty decent billy, didn't you, kid?" This one's voice was deeper. It almost sounded like his father's if he let it, and that made it all the worse. The others laughed at some joke he didn't understand.
The woman, though; she was the worst. "And a clean kill, too. You're growing into quite the hunter." A soft rustling drew her closer to his ears, and he could feel the stroke of a finger on one as she spoke. "I might just lay claim to you, if you keep this up. Wouldn't that be fun?" The thought made the child's stomach crawl, and he turned his head as best he could. His nose scraped against the dirt, and it trudged up the smell of death. Blood wasn't so pleasant when it was rubbed on his lip. "No answer for me?" Her voice sounded hurt, but she was a bad actor. He didn't reply, and when next she spoke he could barely hear it over the ringing her kick left in his ears. "Fine! Suit yourself!" Another strike, this time a stomp on his back that blew the air from his lungs. "Fucking mutt." There was a splash, and a warm wetness on his cheek. He couldn't close his eyes fast enough to keep the spit from them.
His father's impostor didn't hesitate to hit him for so long. "You know, most of your kind would consider it an honor to serve our dear Touko." Each blow came in a different spot, and each one was more agonizing than the last. He had plenty of practice taking them by now, but pain is pain, and by the end of it he could do little more than lay limply in the dirt, waiting for the end of it.
The raspy one continued, just as fiercely and just as scornfully. "You should learn your place, kid. We don't like doing this either. It's for your own good!" The last one had been more than he could take, and he let out a cry despite himself. This time the blows felt different, sharper. A stick, he realized through a rapidly thickening haze, as bits of skin were rended from his back.
Touko picked up where he left off. "Look, kid, you can't function in society like this. We're doing you a favor." He didn't understand her. They said this or something like it nearly every time, but his parents had never hurt him like this, and his friends wouldn't either. If anyone was going to do him a favor, wouldn't it be them? The idea of suffering by their hands like this made his heart ache. "Look at that! He's crying!" Was he? His whole body burned, it was hard to tell. "This little shit is actually crying. Listen. Listen, kid. Are you listening?" He tried to respond; a word, a nod, a twitch, anything, but their blows were too fierce and his body refused to move.
"I said listen!" He was struck for his disobedience, and he coughed painfully in reply. "My father's fought in wars. He's seen men die – good men, friends and family. He's got scars all down his body, and he fought to the end of every single battle, and he never. Cried. You know why?" He found it hard to believe, but he wouldn't dare say as much even if he could. He was struck for not answering. "Because he's a real tengu. You? You're fucking pathetic. I change my mind about taking you. Your goat's worth more." Another rustle, and he knew his goat was theirs. "I don't even want to look at you. Let's get out of here, guys." With one last kick, the three of them were gone.
The child lay there for a long time, listening to flies gather around the blood his goat had spilled when he dropped it.
Under the surface, sunlight gave way to lanterns hanging secure from support beams and rafters. On other days the child would entertain himself throughout the long, twisted, and lonely walk with the shadows they cast on the rough-cut walls, dancing flames bringing life to the creatures of his imagination. Today, he struggled to keep his eyes open in the darkness, searching for the gaping hole that was the entrance to his home. "A dog should always be ready to answer when called," he had been told when he asked why they didn't get doors, too. "A door that never closes is a waste of space."
Haruka Minamiyorinu had just set herself to the task of cleaning her family's hovel when her son stumbled weakly through the door. It wasn't much of a home by tengu standards; what little furniture occupied the two rooms they were allowed was stone, carved out from the expanse of rocks like so many of the dogs' quarters. The only comforts they had they would weave or reap themselves, though the more skilled weavers were happy to trade their services. No one is good at everything, after all. A home is what you make of it, though, and his mother's mere presence gave the boy solace, let him forget his aching legs for a moment. He had eyed a few fallen branches he might have used as a cane on his way in, but his pride hadn't completely abandoned him yet.
"Mom..." Fighting to keep the tears from welling up again, he called from the doorway with a trembling voice.
"Yes, my love?" Though her answer was calm, she couldn't keep the tinge of worry from her voice as she called back from out of sight.
It was harder not to cry, this time. He knew she didn't mean any ill, but for just a split-second the boy was angry with her for not rushing to him as he'd hoped she would. "...Can I have a bath?" His legs shook underneath him, ready to give out ages ago. It wouldn't do to be weak, though. I'm a real tengu, too, he thought, putting all his strength into standing. I'm a real tengu. "Of course, love. Go sit in the basin, I'll be right there." Walking was beyond him, though. Having stopped moving, the fatigue set in his legs, and their violent shaking became too much for him. He dropped to his knees and bit back a cry as his injuries stabbed through him anew.
What little noise he made was enough for his mother, though, and in an instant she was on him. "Ichijin! What happened?!" She hadn't expected an answer; he wouldn't give one the last six times, either. Putting her question to the side before it was even out of her mouth, she tried to help him up. Her hands were gentle, but no amount of gentleness could soothe his sores, and he cried out agonizingly. "Come on, honey, it's just a few more steps. Mommy's gonna make this all better." Knowing how much it would hurt was enough to help him bite back his voice, and when she next lifted him Ichijin stood with a whimper. By the time they reached the one-person bath that stood in the corner, his mother had to lift him into it herself.
"Just relax, honey. The fire's started up, I'm going to find some medical supplies." Haruka had been raised to be a nurse, though being a dog it was as much as she could hope to be. She had never been allowed into battle, and she would never be given more than an assistant's role, but the profession had been kind to her nonetheless. Being able to treat her husband and later her son had been more than enough to make it worthwhile for her, and other dogs were especially grateful. Her work was endless, though, and her body was anything but tireless. Even now, her silky black hair was in disarray and bags hung heavy under her deep green eyes as she ran off to some cabinet or another. Ichijin couldn't keep his attention focused once the water had started warming.
One thing was clear, though. A sharp voice called from the tunnels, "Haruka! Haruka, where are you?" It echoed in through their 'door', only just close enough to hear.
In that instant, Ichijin knew his wounds would wait. "Coming!" She could spare him only one light kiss on his untouched forehead and an, "I'm sorry, love. I'll be back." before rushing off to meet her master. That much he couldn't blame her for. She had been claimed long ago; good nurses were in high demand. Still, the bath was enough to soothe him somewhat, and in its warmth he watched the shadows dance on the walls as he slowly fell asleep.
When he awoke his mother was still gone, but Isamu Minamiyorinu was waiting for him, all sinew and grit. His short-cut hair made his rough skin and sharp jaw clear as day, and when the fires hit his ruby eyes they burned right back. The moment he laid eyes on him, the boy nearly swallowed his tongue; for an instant he thought it was the impostor. He wasn't pleased, Ichijin could tell. "Crows." Leaning over the side of the bath, unafraid of the flames beneath it, his father said the only word that needed saying. "What did you do this time?" His voice was barely above a whisper, but the words were striking all the same.
He could keep silent for his mother, but his father's glare demanded answers, and he couldn't help but give them. "Nothing," Ichijin replied warily, his voice cracking a bit as he remembered. "I was hunting, and they just..." His voice trailed off, unsure of how to continue. He wouldn't dare lie to his father, but he was just as hesitant to accuse the crows of this.
Isamu, though, wasn't. "Pinned you, beat you, took your quarry?" His voice was low and steady as his face. He wasn't one to show his son anger, but he could tell it was there all the same. "An old story."
"A true one." Having his father say it first emboldened him, though he fell silent all the same.
For a short while, they sat together, content to stew in shared contempt. As the fires grew dimmer, though, questions raged in Ichijin's mind, demanding to be asked. "Why do they do this? Why do people let them do this?" It didn't seem fair, and truly it wasn't. He'd never done anything like this, but they came for him all the same. Near as he could tell, no one came for them.
"...Even if they're tengu, a crow's a crow. They take what they can take, and give nothing in return." The answer only raised more questions, and now they buzzed in his head like flies around death.
"Then why do they deserve to? Why can't someone stop them?!" Without realizing it, he had started shouting. His father stared at him hard, and he sunk down in his seat. "It's...it's not fair."
A sigh escaped Isamu's lips, tired and resigned. "No, it isn't. But it's the life we're given." Reaching over with a thick arm, he reached over to rest a hand on his son's head. Slowly rubbing his fingers through his hair, he continued. "Listen, Ichi. We're tengu before anything. Before men and women, before dogs and wolves and crows, before we're youkai, we're tengu. If everyone got revenge for every quarrel, the mountain would collapse before anything got settled. I know you have no love for them, but they're your brothers just the same, understand?" He didn't, really, but he nodded anyways. "This mountain is the only place we have, and it takes all sorts to keep it ours. I know it isn't easy putting things behind you, but...try to make it work." There was a sadness in Isamu's eyes, but pride shone through it when his son replied.
"...Okay, Dad." He couldn't hide his anger, but he had never broken a promise to his parents before, and he didn't intend to start.
"Good. Now, what should we do for dinner?" It was supposed to be goat, tonight.
Ichijin didn't have to wait long to meet them again. Sitting on a soft patch of earth by the river, he had been practicing carving, a small pile of wood by his side and a dulled dirk in his hand. As always, he was on the ground by the time he knew they were there. His wounds had already healed by then, sped along by both his mother's aid and his nature as a youkai, but their very memory made the spots they had once been sore. It was harder than ever to bite back a cry when his cheekbone landed hard on rock, and harder still when they greeted him with a stomp. The earth beneath him was rocky, and the blow came from both sides because of it. There was a slow burning in his arm where his dirk had landed, though thankfully it was only a scratch.
He was the first to speak, this time. "What do you want?" His father's talk rung in his head. If they were really his brothers, they'd respect that much. He still clenched though, bracing for the inevitable blow. It didn't seem to matter what he did or didn't do, they would strike him as they fancied.
Today, they didn't. "Holy shit, he has a voice!" Touko sat on his back, crushing his ribs against the stones beneath them. When next she spoke, it was from beside his ear. "Or am I hearing things? Did you ask me something, kid?"
Speaking was difficult under her weight, but with labored breath he repeated, "What do you want?"
What came out was more of a groan, but they understood him well enough. "It looks like he wants to talk to us for a change. Let him up." That easily, her weight was off of him, and their arms lifted him to his feet...and a hand's width higher. For the first time, he glimpsed his tormenter, a gaunt woman with hair black as night like almost all the crows. You might see brown among the younger ones, but even that tended to be dark enough not to make a difference. Her eyes shone blue as the sky, frightfully beautiful things under carefully plucked brows. Her lips were thin and straight but for the edges, where there was the slightest hint of a smile. The white and red robes of scouts hung over all three of them; he could tell that much from his peripheral vision. He didn't want to risk taking his eyes off Touko, though.
"That's a pretty odd question, kid. What do we want..." Tapping her chin thoughtfully, she paced for only long enough to turn her back to Ichijin. "I know you're a little too simple to get this, but. Scouting's a boring job. I was going to be a general, you know. Studied my ass off, too. I know damn well I'm qualified. They put me here, though. With the scouts." He didn't quite follow why she was telling all this to him – or to the clouds off in front of him, anyways. "Sure, it was fun at first, but I need something to do. There's been nothing to report for weeks. You see where I'm coming from?" Truthfully, he didn't. Wasn't it enough to spend your days in the open air? Wasn't it good enough to live to explore the mountain they called home?
He was still too frightened to speak his mind, though. "Yeah, I think."
She turned to face him with that sickening half-smile of hers. "You're not such a retard after all, are you? So if you get that much, maybe you can answer your own question. What do we want?" She leaned in close, her lips beginning to part over teeth smooth as a human's, but sharp as razors.
It was clear that she wanted an answer. "...Something to do?" he hazarded.
The answer only drew out a sigh from her. "Dumbass. Well, hey, maybe if you learned how to talk you learned how to fight, too." Nodding to the one to his left, she drew a dirk from her belt. When his hand was free of Ichijin, whose feet landed sorely on the rocks, she tossed it to him.
This one was short and small, a wolf by the looks of his tail. Dirty white ears over matching hair; one of the higher families, most likely. He kicked off his sandals and spun the blade in his hand, experimenting with the grip. Small as he was, his muscles more than made up for it. He looked like he might lift the mountain if he needed to, veins popping from exposed arms. The sleeves of his outfit were torn; some of the scouts favored the style, but Ichijin always thought it looked stupid. "Don't worry, kid. I won't kill you." The raspy one.
The other let go of his arm and backed away. All eyes were on him, but he hesitated to grab his knife. "Do I have to fight?" Nothing they did made much sense to him, this least of all. He hoped it was all some bizarre joke.
"I guess you don't have to, but that doesn't mean he won't." Ichijin didn't want to look at his father's impostor. If he pretended hard enough, it almost seemed like his words were encouraging, and he didn't want to know whether they looked alike, too. "Five seconds."
Not waiting for him to count further, he bent to pick up his knife, holding it awkwardly. He'd never needed to fight with it before, nor had he wanted to. He understood which parts cut things, though, and figured that was half there was to know.
The fight, if you could call it that, was embarrassing beyond anything he'd suffered before. The wolf boy never even cut him, juggling the knife in the air as he deflected every strike Ichijin attempted. On the fourth go-round, he lost his knife and was promptly offered his opponent's. He was at least dextrous enough to catch it by the handle when it was tossed to him, but it didn't help him any. Without a knife to juggle, the wolf was all the nimbler, and after the tenth failed strike he bored of the game, ending it with a single knee to the stomach that sent blotches of color across Ichijin's vision.
One of the blades landed with a thunk, close enough to Southpaw's ear to leave behind a scratch and a sharp burning. They'd not cut him before, and knowing that they could made his position all the more terrifying. "Nice try, kid. Maybe if I was one-legged you would have gotten me."
"What happened to those fangs, kid? I was hoping you'd last longer than thirty seconds." Thirty seconds was longer than he'd been hoping for even before he realized how outclassed he was. "Maybe we should teach him a thing or two." He'd only realized what his father's impostor meant when his foot made contact, and by then it was too late to stop the onslaught. It was all he could do to try not to think about it.
When they allowed him a painful breath, he wheezed out a single question. "Why?"
He could swear he heard a laugh, though he may have only imagined it. "If you still have to ask, it means we're not done."
He waited patiently as his brothers taught him their lesson: a dog's place was at his master's feet.
A light rain pattered against the wooden pane of their cabin's lonely window, singing softly with the crackling flames in their hearth. The newness of it all still bothered her, though she did enjoy being warm outside of covers. The floors still didn't feel right after walking on dirt for so long, nor the quiet of carved wooden walls after their...well. She wasn't sure what to call it, but it certainly wasn't this. The move had brought a lot of things, and blood was one of them.
A deep bronze glared from the dark stones that stretched to the ceiling above the fire, themselves almost a matching shade to the tiny sparkling puddles at her feet. When the light was on them like this, it was hard to ignore. At least once it dried it almost seemed like it was just another part of the floor, another little stain to the wood, but for now it was shimmering and wet and foul. Somewhere else the odor might have been pleasant, but seeing it drying there, right where she would sit after a cold day in thin clothes, made it burn in her nose. The droplets that ventured too close to the fire were still steaming from the heat, filling the room with their stench.
Every now and then she would wake up to find some, or it would be there upon coming home from gathering kindling or vegetables or water, whatever chores her father would send her on. She was a good girl, and good girls helped whenever they were asked. Good girls didn't need to be told anything twice, so back when she saw it for the first time and asked what happened, and her father simply said, "Don't you worry about it, honey," that was that. She hadn't been worried, though; she was just curious. Living out by the mountain like this did that to a child. Blood isn't much to worry over for a girl who skins rabbits (and one who's pretty good at it, if she might say so herself). That was where it came from this time, she figured, but when she peered over the counter her father was working over there was only oatmeal – or what promised to be oatmeal, anyways.
"Good morning, Dad." Hopping onto a chair (with a little help from a stick between its legs), she rested her head on her hands and let her feet kick at the air idly.
Looking over his shoulder with a smile, her father said, "Good morning, sweetling," in that way that she loved. Her name wasn't sweetling, but whenever her father called her that it made her smile, and whenever she smiled he would smile right back, and that just made her smile even bigger. "How did you sleep?"
She hadn't that night. Not well, at least – before she started dreaming, she woke up to the sound of muffled screams, and burning smells, and breathing so heavy and ragged it frightened her too much to sleep again. "Well," she lied. "What's for breakfast?" She was used to insomnia by now, but the less time she spent lying the better. Only after asking did it occur to her that she might ask how he slept, too.
There was only just enough time to feel bad about it, though. At least her father didn't seem too hurt, from the healthy grin practically splattered across his gaunt face. "Oatmeal. Just because there's more than usual in the pot, don't take too much. We have a guest."
Another one? she thought, People must really like visiting us. It had been the third guest this week, although the two of them hardly had enough food for themselves, and the guests never brought anything. She was used to being hungry by now, too. "Is he hurt?" They usually were.
"No worse than the last one," he said, laughing at the counter. It was just a quick little ha-ha, barely even different from breathing. He only did that when he was afraid, but the girl knew better than to say that she could tell. She'd been told plenty of times that everyone laughs at all sorts of things, so when a person's laughing you should just let them.
Glancing over again to make sure his daughter was listening, the skeleton of a man continued, "I gave him my bed for the night. He's doing okay right now, but depending on how quickly he gets up we may need some things from the village before he leaves."
There were good people in the village, with all sorts of medicines and tools and things. They never asked for money after the first time her father talked to them, and sometimes they'd even let her have candy if she promised not to tell anyone. "Can I go take a look at him?"
"Do it quietly. Remember, you have to walk soft now." That much was easy. There's no way to get through the forest if you don't walk soft.
So she walked soft, and she opened the door to her father's room slowly, and stopped every time she heard a creak, and though it felt an age and a half she was at the foot of her father's bed before long. There wasn't much to see, admittedly. Just another sleeping man, covered in blankets. She half-expected to find him missing an arm, or for his skin to be grey and scaly, or...something. They were never like that, but her imagination always got the best of her. Living out by the mountain like this did that to a child, too. Walk in any direction long enough to sing a song, and you'd be in a deserted wasteland, or a river so wide you'd swear there were fish-people at the bottom, or a forest so full of bugs and animals you could discover a new kind every day for a lifetime.
Sometimes it didn't even seem that lonely. For the most part, though, she only really got to talk to her father. There weren't many people around here (except their guests, but they hardly ever talked and never stayed long) and the youkai were either mean or shy. Sure, she had plenty of imaginary friends, and her dolls – she made them all herself, and her father said that gave them spirits – and sometimes the trees and the animals would talk to her...at least, she liked to think so. It wasn't the same, though. Still, she had long since learned to make due with what she had.
And today, that was her father and a smaller-than-usual bowl of oatmeal. By the time she had made her way back to the table, he was already cleaning his own bowl. Between muffled licks, he said, "Have you got any plans for today?"
"Not really. I was thinking about getting together some things to make a new doll." Playing with them was good and all, but making dolls was half the fun. Some parts came from the forest, and some came from the riverside, and some came from the dry, rocky part of the mountain, and the whole thing was just a big excuse to have an adventure. Sometimes it took all day, but that just made finishing feel that much better.
Her father knew it, too. No sooner had she said 'doll' than his bowl dropped to the table to reveal a big beautiful smile, the kind that got her grinning too. "Well, I was going to ask you to help with picking berries before it got dark out, but if you're going to make a doll..."
"I can pick berries if you want." One day wasn't much different from the other; the doll could wait.
Waving his hand dismissively, he put on a face that tried to look incredulous but only ended up looking ridiculous. "No, no, go ahead. You know I love seeing your work. Besides, I need the exercise." It was hard to believe that, from the way his skin clung to his thin, muscular frame. Then again, her father never lied – not once! – so she believed it anyways.
But that didn't keep her from being curious. "What kind of berries do you need? I can pick any I come by while I'm getting my stuff."
"Nothing that grows anywhere you'll be going. Don't you worry about it, sweetling." Don't worry about this, don't worry about that. She knew her father didn't mean anything by it, but sometimes she wanted to worry about it.
Times such as this. "I just wanna know. You're always teaching me things, why not this?"
"Because I only just learned myself. The doctor's been showing me a thing or two, so I can help our visitors better." Better? He already gave up his bed, and his food – their food – and he was always taking trips to the village just for them. Wasn't it enough?
She'd been thinking it for a while, but today was the first time she actually got herself to say, "Why do we have so many visitors, anyways? We don't know them, and they never come back, and they never help us, so why do you help them?"
Her father scrunched up his face for a second, and put a hand on his beard, stroking it just the slightest bit. "Well, because...that's just what we do."
"That doesn't make any kind of sense, Dad." It's not like they didn't have a choice.
"Sure it does. Let me ask you this, instead." Leaning forward a little bit, he rested his elbows on the table between them and offered a hand, as though the question were in his palm. "Would it be better to not help them?"
"Well, you'd get to sleep in a bed--"
"And they wouldn't."
"And we'd have plenty of food--"
"And they wouldn't."
She was getting the pattern by now, but his stare demanded that she keep going. "And...maybe we'd be able to live a little more comfortably?" Maybe we'd be able to spend time doing what we want instead of just helping people all the time. She wasn't feeling quite that bold; not today.
"And maybe they wouldn't be alive at all." That was all it took to get tears welling up in her eyes. She just wanted a full stomach, why did he have to bring all that into it?
Of course, by the time she had started to lose her grip, he was already wrapping his arms around her, and holding her close. "Hina, sweety, it's just what we do. Just because they're not related doesn't mean they don't need the help, and if everyone just thinks someone else can give it then no one will at all. After people leave our house, they probably go on to help a bunch of other people, too, so that bowl or two of food and a night in a bed does a lot for more than just the one person. Besides, doesn't it feel good when you know you made someone happy?" She had to admit, it did, though she mostly just made her dad happy. All she did in reply was reach back and wrap her arms around him, squeezing as tight as she could.
They stayed like that for a while, and Hina thought for a long time about what her father had said. For the most part, her thoughts went in circles, though, and she hadn't gotten much deeper than what was already said by the time he asked, "So what kind of doll are you making today?"
She hadn't thought about that at all, but if she was going to decide now was as good a time as any. After all, you couldn't make a pretty girl without flowers for her pretty hair, and you couldn't make a big strong man without little rootlets for his big strong beard, and you couldn't make a scary monster without dirt and clay for his scary hard skin – although he's really nice underneath it all, if you'd just give him a chance. Most people are. "I think I'm gonna make a lady."
"Ooh. Is it gonna be a queen?" A queen...that'd be a little complicated. Besides, who would she rule over? A queen is nothing without people to rule over.
"Mmm...no. Just a lady." Not to be confused with a girl, or just a regular woman. Ladies had to be pretty, and polite, and nice to everyone. Hina knew that she was going to be a lady, when she grew up.
"With a big poofy dress?" Ooh, that did sound fun. She could use those tiny bunchy flowers to puff out the petals of one of the big floaty flowers... "And long, pretty hair?" Maybe she could use those spidery red flowers to make it... "And--"
"And she'd be tall and graceful and really really nice and all the other dolls would love her!" By then she had forgotten all about being hungry. It was doll time. "Yeah! Sounds like an awesome plan!"
She was too excited to sit around grinning at her dad (who of course was grinning back), so she practically leapt from her seat and grabbed her favorite basket; the one with the lid, so the wind wouldn't blow anything away while she was adventuring. On her dash for the door (another thing she'd have to get used to) her dad scooped her up and spun her around in the air without missing a beat, and set her right back to running the second her feet hit the ground. She barely remembered to shout, "Bye!" and she didn't remember to shut the door behind her at all.
Hina's feet carried her long and far before she stopped to even think where she was going. The rain just felt so good pattering against her skin, and it was even better when she was running. The dirt under her bare feet was just starting to get muddy, and even though it was cold the air was fresh and smelled like all the nice things that it only smelled like when it was raining. Now that she had stopped for a second, she could even hear it all – the rain on rocks, and trees, and rivers, and the roof of her now-distant cabin. Who wouldn't be excited for all that?
Of course, now that she had stopped for a second, she realized where she was, and where she could go. There was a lot she'd need to make a pretty lady, and she was in a mood to make a really pretty lady. She'd need some of that long, wide grass with the stuff on it, the stuff that's...stuffy. She didn't have much of a memory for names, but since when do names matter? You can see what things are by looking at them. Ooh, and those flowers that only grow by the river, she'd need a lot of those. Maybe she could weave a few of those things together, and use her knife to fray the ends...
I'm a genius.
I'm a prodigy.
I'm just too awesome at this.
Maybe if she kept thinking it, she'd believe it. After all, she did give it her best, but...It didn't come out bad, it just wasn't nearly what she was hoping it would be. The flowery bits she was going to use for the hair tore themselves up, so she ended up making the dress out of them, but then she couldn't get the frills right. She didn't want to waste the stems, so she'd went and made her hair out of them, but green hair just looked silly. Her legs ended up thin and barely-together, so she had to tie the ends together, but that just made her feet look like lumps. Maybe a lady was a little out of her league right now.
It was already getting dark, too, so she couldn't just put more work into it. Maybe that was for the best though; sometimes the more you hack away at something trying to make it better the worse it gets. Gotta give a little less than your best if you're going to give it your best. So, with just a little less spring in her step, Hina made her way back to the lonely cabin at the foot of the mountain. She still had a little trouble thinking of the place as home; till now home was all grass and sticks and mud. She wasn't really sure why they needed somewhere new, either. It wasn't that cold, and they didn't get bitten by bugs any more than they would going out for the day. There was a place for a fire, so they could cook and eat and sometimes just have a fire for the sake of having a fire.
But then one day, her father told her they had a new home. One of the people he helped gave it to them, because he wanted to live in the village instead. A lot of people lived in the village, these days. One time she asked her dad why they didn't, and he just said, "Because they don't need us." She still wasn't quite sure what that was supposed to mean, but she kept it in mind because she was a good girl, good girls don't need to be told anything twice. Except names. Lots of names. She was getting better about it, though!
When Hina got back to the cabin, her father was standing outside next to a big fire that smelled like dinner. There hadn't been one of those for a long time, and it reminded her of all the times they would sit around and her dad would tell her stories while turning whatever was cooking, so with a big smile she ran right up next to him. He wasn't smiling, though; at least not the way he usually smiled. It looked like he was trying really hard to smile. "Hey, sweetling. How did the doll come out?"
Pulling it from her basket, she offered it to him. He didn't like it when she didn't like how her dolls looked, and he already looked kind of upset. Looking it over, though, his smile looked a little more real. "It's beautiful. You really did a great job."
"Thank you." A lady had to be polite. "What's the fire for? We haven't had one outside for a long time."
And just like that, he went back to the weird smile. "Well...It's for..."
Before he had a chance to come up with a reason, though, she saw a glimpse of what was in the fire. It was just a shadow of the man, but it was enough for her to realize, enough for her stomach to turn. Through the disgust, she forced out a quiet, "Don't say dinner, please." She had wanted a full belly, but not this badly.
Seeing that he couldn't hide it any longer, her father grimaced as he fell to a knee to hug her. "No, sweetling. It's not dinner. Not for us, and not for any of the youkai." She was trying hard not to cry, but when she could feel the warm wetness on her neck, she couldn't hold the tears back any longer.
When her wails subsided, and all she had to fight through was the occasional sob, she choked out, "Didn't you help him?" It didn't make sense. The extra food when they already didn't have enough, the sleepless night – both hers and her father's – the bandages and the special berries and the time, the work. Wasn't it enough?
For once, she forgot all the things her father had told her. It was supposed to be worth it, but there they were crying next to a giant pyre that reminded her of all the other ones they'd had, all the lives that had been lost without her even realizing. Her father had never seemed so thin, so weak, or so timid as when he said, "I...I did everything I could. I gave him my best."
The answer only made her feel numb.
The man kept talking for a little while, but she couldn't hear a word.