Day-shift work hardly made for much activity most days. Traffic to our station was seldom when so few people had business in the daylight hours in Amaden. On the occasion that someone did come knocking, a pamphlet, a leaflet, a coupon book, or a scribbled map tended to suffice for their queries. The rest of the time, I was left to keep watch and engross myself in marking candidates for a future binge in my culinary guide. This indolence tended to grow dull after a short while, of course, and tedium obliged me to make work for myself.
New tasks commonly lingered in the night-shift inbox for me. There were always half-finished incident reports and ones that needed checking before going anywhere near a higher-up’s desk. Making proper reports for lost-and-found items that had turned up late into the evening occupied part of the time. Properly committing the batched reports to the station’s illogical filing system ate up more.
Without so much experience filing applications for postings in the Guard, the paperwork might have overwhelmed me. The similarities made it little more than tedious mechanical work, the sort that drowned out intruding thoughts in the motions.
Evening fell, leaving me back in the dimness I started work in. I stretched, let my tail swing to relieve the pinpricks, and stood up. As I did, my eyes fell to my untouched culinary guide, lying dog-eared in its resting place. The tourist map supplied by Hinawa lay on top of it, forgotten in the day’s work until then. Suddenly conscious of the hour, I hurriedly made my log entry and endorsed it with my seal; as a reward for my unfailing honesty, that sufficed to validate my timekeeping after the first few weeks.
Going from the accumulated heat of the day in the station to the cool air of the summer evening never failed to draw a shiver from me. I grumbled to myself as I shut the door, unmoved by my newly-arrived relief’s greetings.
I stopped to briefly appreciate the smell of frying foods coming from nearby food stalls, then promptly retreated down an alleyway to avoid them. The memory of Hinawa’s pitying smile came back to me. I’d really been lax in terms of spending. No matter how many places I’d marked off, I couldn’t just go blowing two or three weeks’ worth of pay hopping restaurants.
That bit of resolution decided, I paid more attention to my surroundings and noted where I was in the district based off the map I’d studied. Signage indicated somewhere west of the main north-south road. My ramblings had taken me through these paths enough for me to have a good idea how to make my way outward. Following the twists, turns, and opportune gaps between buildings, I sought the furthest exit I could recall towards the main thoroughfare, hoping to dodge the early evening foot traffic, light though it was. Not to mention avoiding any temptation from the eateries I recognised — if I saw any I didn’t recognise, I’d just file them away for later reference.
My little jaunt took me back into the road, at an intersection I didn’t readily know. Looking back to the south, I caught the sign of a dessert place I remembered and smartly started heading in the opposite direction. That was with the flow of traffic anyway. I clutched the ten-thousand yen note in my pocket as I went along with the mass of bodies, fighting my nose while smells drifted in on all sides. With my lack of stature, I was lost beneath a living sea, unable to catch sight of these sources of temptation, something to be thankful for in this instance. The traffic was kind enough to move at a brisk trot for some distance down the road, until the pace came to a sudden crawl. Not eager to be caught in a stagnant and stifling crowd, I pushed out of the first gap I could find, hoping to spot the reason for the hold-up.
Inward shudders passed over me when I noticed possibly a hundred tengu or more, and various others, crowded around something, an uncomfortable number holding out phones, all pointed in the same direction. Nothing spelled trouble in Amaden like a crowd wanting to capture some happening in images.
“I keep telling you I don’t have it!” hollered a girl’s voice not far off.
“Oh yeah? Guess you don’t remember last month, then!” answered another female voice, this one lifeless despite its loudness. Its owner’s (probable) face loomed in the front of my mind.
“W-What about last month?”
Unable to avoid it any longer, I homed in on the voices and spotted what I’d feared: long, flowing pink hair, attached to most unpleasant creature I’d had the misfortune of meeting. The mask-toting girl named Kokoro stood over — towered over, if one short person standing over a slightly shorter person can be called towering — a defiant looking kappa. They were standing amongst abandoned tables set up as makeshift street shops, against several seldom-enforced codes.
Kokoro pushed her face closer to the kappa. “Last month when you tried selling it! Don’t play stupid with me, you slimy turtle!”
Several indignant cries sailed from the surrounding crowd at the slur, but neither adversary seemed to pay them much attention. Colour rose to the girl’s face. With her scrawny arms, she gave Kokoro a backward shove that, while not managing much, did at least push her away.
“I don’t have to tell you anything, shithead!”
“River-squatter!” returned Kokoro, shoving back towards the kappa.
A severe flash of anger lit up the girl’s eyes and she seethed. Words failed to escape her mouth momentarily as she searched for a rejoinder. “You… ugly pink bitch-face!”
That was the signal for one to spring at the other. The natural result was the pair falling to the ground in a heap, each parrying the other’s attempts at finding a handhold in hair or clothing. Their diminutive sizes rendered the struggle a pathetic sight, though they were doubtless intent on throttling each other — just after they figured out how to untangle themselves.
People in the crowd began to mutter among themselves, and phones vanished back into pockets one after the other. Dissatisfied faces peeled away from the mass. Previously enthralled spectators aimed away to more interesting pursuits. The street hawkers furthest from the spectacle resumed their business. Busy people suddenly remembered their errands. Soon, all but a small core of idlers remained, most looking confused as to their general state of existence. And, naturally, at least one group of middle-aged kibitzers loudly voicing their thoughts to anyone in earshot.
A perm-headed crow tengu, the sort to colour her hair a gaudy purple and wear loud-patterned stretch pants, looked my way, and then three more pairs of eyes were aimed at me. “Well, well, big surprise. Patrol doing nothing. We suffer others’ stupidity and they still get paid. This is what Amaden’s come to, I tell you.”
I grumbled. It was an all too common occurrence. Nobody respected the Patrol. Never mind that it took people being willing to comply with rules, not to mention ones that often contradicted or didn’t make much sense. No matter how much we shouted at anyone, our presence meant nothing if those rules went unobserved. This being Amaden, where laws, in the strictest sense, were non-existent and rules tenuous at best, natural limits arose to how effective any of us in the Patrol could be individually.
Still, it was hardly my place to complain. Grumble though I might, as a patrolwoman, my title carried with it an obligation to the public. Trivialities like being off-duty were no excuse to letting public order slacken under watch. If anything, moments like these were prime for proving my mettle. Shrugging off duty over inconveniences would only disqualify any ambition for re-joining the ranks of the Guard.
Puffing myself up and displaying my armband prominently, I marched towards the fumbling combatants, waving my arms broadly at the last few spectators. “Move along! Move along! This is Patrol business now!”
Those last remaining stragglers found their cue in my shouted directions and scattered to the winds — albeit in a plod. Left alone with Kokoro and her unfortunate target, both of them still struggling heedless on the ground, I stepped close, stooped at an angle to catch the light on my pin, and gave a polite cough.
“Officer Iwabori, Patrol.” Seeing the two stopped in their tussle for the moment, I pulled them upright and stood them side-by-side. “Mind explaining why you’re creating a disturbance in a busy street? You created quite an inconvenience for people.”
Kokoro narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you that wolf who couldn’t help me find my—”
“I’m the officer here, so I ask the questions, Miss…” In the pause, I realised I’d look more professional with my notebook out and produced it. “I never did catch your surname.”
“Harano,” Kokoro spat after a second’s thought. “Though you could skip all this junk and call me Kokoro. Y’know, like when we looked for my mask?”
Her last remark was followed by a deliberate look at the kappa girl, who shrugged up her shoulders, appearing ready to have another go at her tormentor in spite of the lost look in her eyes. I lay a hand on their shoulders to prevent any such foolishness. The two huffed and regarded me with matching expressions of annoyance, which I answered with a stern patrolwoman’s glare. Only the kappa showed much effect from it, shrinking away as far as my grip would let her.
“Right,” I said to Kokoro, “so this is all about your mask, is it? I’ll not disappoint you further, then. This girl doesn’t have it.”
Kokoro’s jaw fell open and she stammered for a moment. Shaking her head, she gave a poisonous laugh. “Oh, and I guess you found it.”
“As a matter of fact, I did. No need to thank me.”
Were I not playing my part as patrolwoman, I would have basked in the feeling brought on by Kokoro’s utter lack of an expression in the wake of my pronouncement. However, I retained my occupational awareness and turned my attention to the kappa. Her nerve from moments earlier had vanished. Upon noticing me looking at her again, she practically twisted on herself, as if she’d have retreated into her shell if she had one. Then, seeing that she couldn’t move away with me arresting her, her eyes widened, pure panic blaring from the two murky green pools.
That was about the time I noticed the vines woven in careful patterns through the girl’s sandy blonde hair and the blue-green poncho she wore draped over her narrow shoulders. Fear pricked me at the realisation that she was a valley kappa. These sorts required handling with tact. Their representation in the Trade Association, though fewer in proportion to their mountain cousins, managed to be the most vocal of all the interest groups. Allegations of mistreatment at the hands of tengu were practically the standard. That this girl I was detaining hadn’t already started calling for help was nothing short of miraculous.
Recovering myself, I recognised this as a good time to tap into those diplomatic skills honed at Academy. I let go of the girl’s shoulder and searched my memory for the gesture I was thinking of; the last time I’d employed it was well before I’d even thought of Amaden. When recollection struck, I took a quick look around to make sure no one was watching too closely. This was, strictly speaking, something of a secret.
I brought my hands up parallel to the ground, one palm up and the other down over the other, cleared my throat, and made a quick movement like I was flicking dust off the upward palm. The girl didn’t seem to notice at first, so I repeated the gesture, making the brushing motion twice this time.
“Suri-suri,” I intoned.
There was a stifled laugh from Kokoro, who had apparently come back from her shock. I shushed her without turning around.
The kappa stood staring. Seeing no reaction, a prickle of unease that I’d got the gesture wrong crept along my tail. Or maybe it was the words. I would have trusted my memory, but there were admittedly blind spots here and there. Fretting, I said nothing and made no sudden movements.
Some sudden internal connection made, the girl’s eyes lit up with recognition. Raising her hand and scooping at the air, she fixed me with a beaming grin, cheeks aglow in joy.
Relieved that I’d been understood, I let out the breath I’d been holding. “So…”
“I was scared at first, but I can’t be scared if you’ve shared cress! Still, a tengu. That’s sure rare. You must have been someone’s really good friend!” The kappa seized my hands and held them with a newfound fondness. “I’m Rie, by the way. Nice to meet you!”
“Erm, Koyomi. Pleasure’s mutual.”
There was a tug on my sleeve. “What’s that about cress?” muttered Kokoro.
“Valley kappa thing. Difficult to explain,” I whispered back. Turning back to Rie, I tried to match her friendly look, though my face tired of it right away. “So, Rie, just for curiosity’s sake, would you mind telling me what happened with you and…” I looked over at Kokoro. “Just for curiosity’s sake, you understand.”
Rie’s perkiness faded being reminded of Kokoro’s existence. She shrank back a little like she was on-guard in case Kokoro decided to spring for her.
“Say, you’re not her friend or anything, are you?” Her eyes darted between me and Kokoro, narrowing to lines.
I cast another look at Kokoro and promptly waved the notion away emphatically. “Oh, great Tenma, no!”
Rie considered my answer for hardly a second, shrugged her shoulders, and reverted to a cheerful expression. “Well, okay, I’ll trust you!” She paused and then looked around on the ground, finding an overloaded rucksack. Despite her tiny frame, the load only drew a tiny grunt from her as she hefted it. “Can we talk about it while walking, though? I’ve gotta run this load of junk back to the settlement.”
Hearing the settlement mentioned, I recalled how far away that was and suddenly remembered my errand, forgotten amid the little fracas. “While we’re on the subject, I know you’re probably busy, but you know that area and I don’t. I need to go that way anyway, so would you mind showing me to the bazaar?”
Rie looked unsure of whether to answer. Noting her eyes on my armband, I covered it as if trying to hide it.
“Ah! I probably should have mentioned: I’m not on duty. In fact, I got off work not long ago and need to buy something. And I figured…”
She blinked and then nodded, face returning to the broad smile. “Oh, okay.”
What I had managed to get out of the young kappa — and she was evidently young, or else quite sheltered when it came to the nature of a great many of Amaden’s neighbourhoods — was not only an account of the incident with Kokoro, but also a full chronicle of that day’s junk haul, an informal mental map of places in the Fifth District with green curtains, her rather convoluted family tree, and her petty criminal record. The last was, in her terms, all about the times people ‘unreasonably’ got angry at her for violating established legal norms, mostly harmless ones, but I had to disagree; preventing entrance to a ramen stand with an overstuffed back of junk and vending it from that spot was certainly reason enough to earn a good scolding.
At first, I responded to her lines of thought and tried to offer corrections where possible. This only managed to steer her off onto tangents so far removed from the topic at hand that I quickly abandoned offering anything other than the occasional polite assent. Unperturbed, Rie happily pushed the conversation along by herself.
“Anyway, I don’t really see what the big deal is. There’s nothing special about a place where you sell stuff. It’s just walls!” Rie concluded her long-winded, expert analysis of zoning laws.
My ears twitched. So many things I could say, but I didn’t want to prompt any further rapid diversions from a single train of thought. “Indeed,” I forced myself to say, adding an inflection of finality.
After almost fifteen minutes of unceasing chatter later, Rie’s well-exercised mouth stayed in a slack resting position, her head tilting curiously. It was the look of one who expects an equal exchange of prattle. I’d been victim to such types before, and my tried and true strategy was to courteously ignore the sign. True to my method, I simply nodded before looking ahead at the road.
A displeased tutting sound to one side reminded me of Kokoro’s continued presence. She hung to one side of path, opposite Rie, trying to look like she wasn’t walking with us. Given her tendency to cut into Rie’s story at odd intervals, I doubted any casual observer bought the act.
Part of me suspected that her reason for following had less to do with her mask and more to do with trying to rebut whatever Rie said about their exchange. When Rie plead ignorance to why she’d been ‘attacked’, Kokoro was quick to assert that she had it ‘on well-paid authority’ that Rie had been attempting to sell the lost mask a month ago. Naturally, I had to step in to keep their resulting squabble from degenerating into further pathetic displays of fighting prowess. Still, only a true imbecile or a human would have been fooled by Rie’s childish denials. I had no doubt that she had indeed tried to hock the mask for a quick profit. It was too consistent with valley kappa ways to have been untrue, anyhow.
“That’s all fascinating, but where are we going?” asked Kokoro. I noticed her unstopping her ears. My own ears twitched again, and I felt a tinge of jealousy at being able to so easily shut out noise.
“Never mind where you’re headed, Rie and I are going across the river. I have business over there anyway,” I answered.
Kokoro gave an indignant toss of the head, making her long hair flutter for an instant. “Maybe I do too.”
“I doubt it.”
“And if I come anyway?”
“If you’re thinking about having another go at Rie, give up. She has nothing more to do with that. Your mask is safe.” I paused and screwed up my face. “And another thing, if you’re so hell-bent on that mask, why didn’t you come back? A whole month, I waited. I’ve had half a mind to throw the damned thing in with the rubbish. It’d serve you right.”
Kokoro’s sole answer was a chagrined blush and a muttered series of words that ended in ‘job’. Peevishly, she turned to avoid regarding either me or Rie and kept walking along our chosen course.
“Are you sure you’re not really friends?” Rie asked with renewed suspicion.
“I assure you, if I had more than one friend, she wouldn’t be among them,” I answered despite myself. It was only when I heard the drawn breath and saw the open eyes that I realised the mistake I’d made.
“I totally get you! I’ve only got one friend, too, and she’s not even a valley kappa. All the others treat me like a kid. But she’s as nice as can be. I’d heard the mountain guys were stuck up. Not her! Nosiree! She listens real good and doesn’t give me any crap about my stories. Although, there was this one time…”
Helplessly, I walked and listened to Rie’s continual monologue about the virtues of her best friend in the whole world. My thoughts drifted back to that black-haired kappa, Kuriko, and how wonderful it would be if it were her I was following. I couldn’t see her scribbling endlessly in her sketchbook as we walked along. Just a simple conversation required full attention to her writing, so she would probably be silent the whole way. Imagining such blissful silence sustained me for the rest of the long, long walk to the river.
We were hardly alone when the three of us had come to the bank at last. The early evening crowds had also started coalescing around the ferries. Though likely efficient under any other circumstances, the ferrymen were far from renowned for their ability to handle congestion. Aiding in efforts to keep the appearance of order, several low-level Trade Association officials, bureaucrats who were nearly always seen scurrying around with clipboards in hand, were in their element, giving shrill cries at people edging out of line and scowling at those who were slow or reluctant to pay the fare.
I gave a start when I realised how many Guards were amongst the people in line. They had to be a good third of the passengers going across. My heart sunk. This was not where I wanted to be still dressed in my Patrol uniform. Should any Guards notice me, I was sure remarks would be forthcoming. There were always remarks. Often, snickering and whispering followed. Because we in the Patrol were known for being their run-off, so to speak, their looking down on us was an inevitability, or perhaps an immutable law. Privately, I could accept that this was for good reason.
Trying to keep myself inconspicuous, I leaned down to make conversation with Rie. “Quite a number of fellows from the Guard here. Must be something going on, you think?”
“Huh, you’re right. First time I’ve seen this many. I wonder what they’re doing,” replied a plain-faced blonde kappa, dressed in typical blue-green mountain style, who answered in Rie’s voice.
I blinked, took off my glasses, saw that everything was an indistinct blur, put my glasses back on, and stared at the kappa who’d answered. She tilted her head quizzically. Those were certainly the same eyes that resembled a murky, scummed-over pond. Shaking my head, I pulled myself back to the present moment.
“Incognito?” I half-jested.
Rie furrowed her brow. “Do what now?”
I sighed through my nose. Definitely the same Rie. “That is, a disguise? You certainly managed to look, erm, different.”
“Oh! Yeah. Gotta do it.” She patted the overfull rucksack next to her. Various metallic jingling sounds came out when she disturbed it. “They’ll totally hassle me ‘cause I’m a valley kappa. Then they’ll start asking where I got my junk. Uncle told me all about it. They’re real buttheads about that stuff. He had to swim the river one time!”
I tried not to feel a twinge of indignation at someone potentially endangering or obstructing boat traffic while making an unsanctioned crossing at the river. “Indeed.”
Feeling another story coming from Rie, I looked around for anything else to pay attention to, finding only more Guards whose notice I wanted to avoid. I was about to give up and weather the onslaught when someone from behind jostled me.
“Excuse me,” I said sharply.
“Yeah, excuse you,” monotoned a voice.
Somehow, I’d failed to notice Kokoro standing behind me this whole time. Nothing about her had changed either. My eye had either simply passed her over — something I had difficulty imagining due to her overall loud presence — or she had been doing her best to blend in.
Checking my sense of surprise, I adjusted my glasses and regarded Kokoro with a cross stare. “I wouldn’t suppose you have any reason to fear the Guard, would you?”
“I don’t have to be afraid of anybody. Least of all, you.”
I scoffed. “And yet you still ended up asking me for help.”
“Some help you were.”
“And yet,” I said, my voice rising higher, “I still got the mask back. A month ago, I might remind you.”
There was a flicker of anger in the dull pink depths of her eyes, but she didn’t say anything right away. I was right and acknowledging that fact was the last thing she wanted. She stood muttering to herself like the sore loser she was. With another perturbed toss of her hair, she looked away.
“Thanks for the reminder, but I’ve had reasons. Good reasons.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t like to talk about them.”
“Ah, well. I suppose I’ll keep holding your mask, and that’ll be the end of that topic.” I gave her a cool business smile, but it was to the back of her head. Feeling the effect spoiled, I straightened back up before anyone could see me. “And I didn’t submit it officially. It’s at my place,” I added generously.
“I thought it all went into evidence or something,” Kokoro remarked with thinly-concealed interest.
I bit my lip, cursing myself for letting off that last bit. Of course, someone like Kokoro would see something amiss. “There were—” My turn to avoid looking at Kokoro. “—circumstances.”
I could feel her gaze as she watched me from the corner of her eye. She was going to try and corner me on this. I could feel it. Then she’d know what nobody else was supposed to. A million regrets flashed back to me in the moment, reminding me that I should never have compromised myself, even to carry out my duty in principle. Bad things came of it always.
“Uh huh,” Kokoro remarked. Then, she said nothing further.
I was stunned until I looked and saw that one of the Trade Association officials, a severe-looking human, was standing right next to Rie, tersely questioning her. Rie pointed to me and then to Kokoro, and the human looked at us, lingering on Kokoro an instant longer before jotting something on her clipboard.
Rie caught my eye and winked, passing several bills to the official in return for three tickets. “For your help.”
I glanced at Kokoro and back at Rie with a question in my eyes. She shrugged and smiled, apparently having lost all her animosity in the space of ten or twenty minutes.
Having acquired tickets, the rest of the time passed in conspicuous silence, the three of us standing in the slow-moving line, bearing the faint chill of the summer evening. I had thoughts about trying to get something warm in whatever bargain I ended up making. Even a scarf would have done me well. There really were all kinds of things I needed to iron out as regarded my living expenses.
Perhaps it was those sorts of guilty thoughts that made me eager to jump in the ferry when it was our turn. The bureaucrat at the head re-confirmed that we were a party of three, and then a shirtless human — these ferrymen were bloody well all humans, likely by some arrangement — grunted out something and waved us aboard his vessel. I couldn’t be certain, but I felt like packing the ferry as full as they were was contradicted some regulation. It was against all reason, at the very least. Sitting was out of the question at that capacity. I mourned for my already troubled feet.
Those worries were quick to leave my mind, however, seeing a couple of the Guards that I’d spotted earlier looking right in my direction. The sneers were clear in their eyes. They exchanged unheard remarks, and they were quickly lost in laughter as they continued their discourse. I tried to hurl an icy glare at them, but their thermal shield of laughter made them impervious. Lost as to what else to do, I turned again to Rie.
“So, how often do you, erm, take this ferry?”
Before Rie could answer, there was a cry from the ferrymen signalling the time for departure. The business was accomplished with a few kicks and nudges, helped along by the poles they wielded. Soon enough, we were adrift.
Rie’s attention went to the nearest side of the ferry. She stared out in amazement at the expanse of the river, the nearly-set sun still managing to cast a glow over a distant forest line. It was hard to really appreciate it from the bank, but the river was indeed a wide one. Not only that, but one could easily see down into the valleys leading down from Amaden, off into lands that most tengu rarely cared to think about. It had been a while since I’d caught a sight like it.
Gradually, I tired of looking at the river and tried to restart the conversation with Rie. The thought that I was stuck on a boat with at least two current Guards, whom I spotted in the immediate vicinity, had started to creep into my mind, agitating me.
“Somehow, I took it that you do this a lot. Taking the ferry, I mean.”
“Hm?” replied Rie, breaking away from her admiration of the river. “Oh, yeah. Three or four times a week. Uncle sends me off for stuff.”
[ ] “That many times? You must know a lot about the ferry, then.”
[ ] “You know, I’m rather fond of cress. Is there anyone in your family who does it well?”
[ ] “What sort of business are you on, anyway? Anything the TA would give you trouble over?”
[ ] “I suppose it’s the valley settlement you live in, then? I’ve never seen it and can’t help being a little curious.”