Their journey continued for two more days. With every meal that Chiyo found herself limited to vegetables, she grew more petulant and less bearable. After some time, he grew weary of explaining that roots were ‘real food’ and repeatedly refusing to hunt.
“Could we at least build a fire to cook these with?” Chiyo asked, glancing down with disdain at the yams he had offered. Despite the cold, dark night, Shichi had neglected to start a campfire.
“Flames would attract the hunter,” he replied simply, breaking off a piece of the root to eat.
“But you said he’s very skilled. He would find us, fire or not.”
“It can’t hurt to take precautions,” Shichi said, not budging in his decision. Chiyo’s tails flicked as she settled down on the cold earth, placing the yam between her paws to gnaw at.
“I think I was better off with the poisoned food,” she grumbled. “At least it had flavor.”
“I think I was better off without a whiny fox using me as a rickshaw all day.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she said. “Rickshaws don’t trip over roots.”
“You’re perfectly welcome to walk on your own.”
Chiyo didn’t reply, going back to biting awkwardly at the large root. Despite her difficult personality, Shichi found himself glad to have her company. It was refreshing to have someone to talk to, even if their conversations generally lacked substance. He recalled the farmer and his wife. Though their lives were difficult, it seemed they could always count on one another. It was clear that they loved each other -- it was no wonder that Junya had been so desperate to save her.
Shichi thought back to the time he had thought Kana was ill. He had been so quick to forget his choices and responsibilities. All he could think of was helping her.
As his mind wandered, he stopped eating. His eyes dropped to the dead grass, unfocused as he thought of her. He wondered how she would react to this lifestyle -- to running around in the forest with barely any food or rest. She had always been strong willed and, unlike the kitsune, rarely complained. Though it was better for her to be in a warm house with her family, he couldn’t help but wish that she was sitting next to him. He missed their conversations -- he missed everything about her.
“How can you expect me to eat this junk when you won’t even do it?” Chiyo said, her voice cutting into his thoughts.
“Hm?” he asked, slowly looking over at her.
“You stopped eating.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just thinking.”
“About what?” she asked, chewing as she spoke. He resisted the urge to lecture her on manners, knowing that he would be ignored.
“Someone I left behind.”
“Oh, really?” she asked, perking her ears. “Please -- tell me about your tragic past.”
Shichi shot her a look, to which she smiled in response. A fox’s smile could hardly be called ‘comforting,’ instead coming forth as a sinister, sharp-toothed attempt at emotion.
“It’s personal,” he mumbled, breaking off another piece of the root.
“So you’re going to be tragic and mysterious?” she asked.
“Are you even capable of respecting another person? Enough to love them?” Shichi asked, growing uncharacteristically bitter.
Chiyo didn’t reply, only dropping her smile. She lay her head down on top of the half-eaten yam, keeping her eyes away from the tengu.
“I’m sorry,” he said, immediately feeling guilty. “I...”
Shichi sighed. He would have to get used to Chiyo’s personality. No matter how someone spoke to him, it was no excuse to be cruel.
“Her name was Kana,” he said. “She was a human.”
“I loved a human once, too,” Chiyo said, finally turning her attention back to him.
“Really?” he asked, caught off guard by her reply.
“Yes. Her name was Shinju,” she said, her eyes sleepy with nostalgia.
“Tell me about her.”
“She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When we were together, I forgot all of my troubles,” Chiyo said. “But, you know, humans don’t live very long. She died a few decades ago.”
“I’m sorry... it sounds like you were very happy together.”
“Did your human die, too?” Chiyo asked, tilting her head with curiosity.
“No,” Shichi said, eyeing his hands. “As far as I know, she’s alive.”
“Then what are you doing here? Why aren’t you with her?”
“She’s married -- to another human. She has a child,” he explained.
“But doesn’t she still love you?”
“I... don’t know,” he murmured, his words trailing uncomfortably.
“Did you ask her?” Chiyo said, sitting upright.
“Why not?” she demanded. She appeared to be growing impatient with his apparent lack of common sense.
“It was complicated,” Shichi insisted. “I didn’t want to intrude on her new life. And, maybe, part of me didn’t want to hear the truth.”
“But you don’t even know what the truth is.”
“I suppose not.”
“So you’re a coward,” Chiyo said, blunt as stone.
Slowly, Shichi looked up, then over to the kitsune. His beak opened, but he had nothing to say. He knew, as her words ran through his head, that she was right. He was afraid -- so afraid to be rejected that he broke his promise. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head once more.
“What would you say to her now?” Chiyo asked. “If she were right here?”
Shichi considered this for a moment, rubbing one hand with the other. He had just been longing for the very same thing -- to be with her, to tell her what he never had the chance to say before.
“I... I would tell her that I still love her, and she’ll always be special to me. I would thank her for hiking up the mountain every week, in the heat and the cold, just to be with me -- for teaching me so much about the world,” Shichi said. “And that I hope she and her family are happy, and healthy. That... I’m sorry, if I hurt her, and for all of the trouble I caused.”
“That’s a bit depressing,” Chiyo said.
“And your story wasn’t?”
“Mine was touching!” Chiyo declared, looking rather proud of herself. “And magical.”
“I don’t remember any magic in your story.”
“The love was magic! You’re really thick, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so,” he said, holding in a laugh. “Since you’re an expert on everything, can you tell me how far we are from the coast?”
“We’re very close. There’s a town near here where we can take a ferry. Why do you want to go to Awaji, anyway?”
“I need to go through the island to reach the mainland.”
“To Osaka? But there are so many... humans there.
“I take it back,” Chiyo said. “You’re not a coward. You’re just a fool.”
“You sound like my sister,” Shichi said, leaning against the tree at his back. “Let’s get some rest. We should leave at dawn.”
Chiyo muttered something about a ‘monk’s schedule’ to herself before settling down. She wrapped her tails around her nose, looking much like a round, white rice cake. Though neither of them felt as cold as a human would have, Shichi couldn’t help but think that a fire would have been nice, after all.
The morning wasn’t any warmer. A faint, purple dawn cast over the surrounding trees, gently waking the tengu with its light. He looked up, still able to see the crescent moon in the western sky.
“Are you ready to-,” he began, but froze when he glanced down. The spot where the fox had been sleeping was empty.
“Chiyo?” he said, getting to his feet to search the clearing. She was nowhere in sight. His first thought was that she had grown tired of him and had simply left. The kitsune didn’t strike him as sentimental and might not have felt it necessary to say good-bye. Then he remembered what she had admitted to him -- that she didn’t like to be alone. Though she was detached and lacked tact, he felt that there had to be more to her. She must be nearby.
He followed the river in search of the fox. Though the farmer was no longer a threat, it was still possible that something had happened to her. Even so, she was probably more capable of defending herself than he was.
As he walked, a sound caught his attention from the other side of a treeline. It was a terrible ruckus -- a chorus of painful crashing and squawking. He hurried over towards the source, finding the edge of a farmhouse on a hill. A white shape darted forth, fleeing the scene in a wake of brown feathers. It nearly crashed into him, stopping just short of his feet with a skid of dust.
“Chiyo,” Shichi said, glaring down at the panting kitsune. Her fur was ruffled with adrenaline and her jaws were clamped firmly on the throat of a fat hen.
“Good morning,” she replied, her voice muffled by the struggling chicken. Shichi folded his arms, his eyes narrow with disappointment.
“Did you steal that chicken?”
Chiyo shook her head in spite of the cacophony of distressed poultry from the farmer’s yard.
“Put it back.”
He received a pained look in return, but didn’t give in. His fingers tapped his arm, waiting for her to comply. After a moment, her expression changed to an irritated pout. With a snort, she turned to trudge back to the pen.
Soon, she returned, spitting out a mouthful of down feathers.
“That was supposed to be my breakfast,” she muttered, still scowling as they walked.
“So that was your ‘hurt leg,’ was it?” he asked.
“Walking is hard,” she insisted, looking up at him with a shameless grin.
“And so is being honest, apparently.”
“Honest, in this day and age?” Chiyo said with a laugh. “You’re lucky I’m coming to Osaka with you. You wouldn’t last a day on your own.”
“Why not?” he asked with concern, then paused. “Wait, you’re coming with me?”
“Well, somebody has to look after you.”
“No, really. You’re too trusting,” Chiyo said as they made their way back to the river. “Someone’s going to take advantage of you. You’ve got to stop being so nice and accommodating to everyone you meet.”
“Perhaps I should start with you,” Shichi said, picking a stray chicken feather off of his sleeve.
“Very funny. Now let me back up, all that running made me tired.”
By midday, they reached the edge of the town. It ran along the curve of the coast, boasting rows of finely tiled buildings and the bustle of merchant carts. A wide road led to the main entrance, busy with both locals and travelers. Chiyo, now in her human form, continued to walk forward, yet Shichi stopped in his tracks. His feet were still at the edge of the road -- the human road, as he stared on from the cover of trees.
“What?” Chiyo asked, glancing back at him over her shoulder.
“I’ve... never been in a human town before.”
“So?” she asked, squinting at him. “Just walk in.”
“Well, it must be easier for you. You look like a human.”
“Sort of,” she said, lifting a few strands of white hair. “I still look a little strange.”
“At least you don’t have a beak,” he said, gesturing towards his own. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Look,” Chiyo said, her attention returning to the road. Behind a cart of cloth bolts was a kappa, strolling as if he owned the road. He made no attempts to hide his appearance -- both his scaled, green skin and wide beak were prominent in the afternoon sun. Shichi stared as the kappa walked in through the town’s gates, attempting to swallow his anxiety at the sight.
“The bigger the town, the more yokai you’ll see. Now are you ready, or do you want me to hold your hand?”
Shichi took a breath, then moved forward. They stepped onto the road together, making their way through the entrance. Shichi didn’t speak, trying to ignore the intense pounding of his heart. He looked left and right from the corner of his eye, unable to believe that nobody was stopping them. His tension was apparently visual, as Chiyo was making a poor attempt at holding in her laughter. She snickered behind a closed fist, earning an elbow jab in her side.
They continued through rows of market stalls, with merchants selling baked pottery and fish. The air smelled of salt and seaweed and was filled with the sounds of gulls. As they passed a stall selling calligraphy brushes, Shichi paused. He remembered the ink set he had given to Kana, realizing that it was probably still sitting in the storehouse, weatherbeaten and abandoned. His memory, however, was shaken by another sight. Through a crowd of fishermen, he spotted the back of a dog -- of Bou.
The feathers on the back of his neck stood on end. Without a word, he took Chiyo by the wrist and pulled her into a narrow alley behind the brush vendor.
“What?” she snapped, quite unhappy at being dragged.
“Th-the hunter. He’s here. He’s right down the road,” Shichi whispered, clutching the side of his head in worry.
“Really?” Chiyo asked, leaning towards the street to take a look.
“Chiyo!” he hissed, pulled her back into the shadows between the buildings. “Don’t let him see you.”
“He’s not going to murder us in the middle of the busy street,” she insisted, then paused to think. “Though... it has happened before.”
“You said it was safe!”
“I never said it was safe, I just said there’s more yokai.”
“If I weren’t a monk I would kill you,” he groaned, covering his eyes with his hand. “What are we going to do?”
“Well, the ferry isn’t far,” she mused. “We can just go down another street. He can’t catch us once we’re on a boat.”
Shichi nodded, following her down the alley towards a smaller road. They hurried towards the harbor, catching a few eyes as they rushed past.
“There,” Chiyo said, pointing towards the dock. “There’s a boat. Maybe it’s leaving soon.”
There was indeed a ship waiting at the water’s edge. A wooden sign hung from a rope on a post, reading ‘Awaji.’ From across the strait, Shichi could see the low hills of the island it was destined for. Several passengers were already onboard and the ferryman was smoking a pipe on the wooden dock.
“Excuse me, do you have room for two more?” Shichi asked, attempting to catch his breath as he spoke.
“It’s ten mon each,” the man said, adjusting the pipe in his mouth.
“What?” Chiyo said, practically bristling. “For a boat ride? You can’t be serious.”
“The whirlpools make it dangerous. Feel free to try swimming.”
As Chiyo and the human bickered, Shichi felt a new panic rising in his chest. He didn’t have any money. He’d never had any money. He had forgotten that the outside world didn’t work the way his temple did. Food, clothing, and even transportation -- they all required payment.
“I... I don’t have any-,” he began to say, but was interrupted by Chiyo. She placed a hand on his beak, silencing him as she fished a coin from her robe. It was a golden oval, embossed with a few written characters. The ferryman stared at it for a moment, finally finding his words.
“I don’t have change for that,” he said.
“Well, make change. We’re in a hurry.”
“I...,” Shichi started, trying to think of what he had in his bag. “I have some vegetables.”
“The price is in mon, not carrots.”
“You should have taken the money!” Chiyo seethed, glaring at the tengu whose bleeding heart had lost them their potential boat fare.
As Shichi thought of a retort, his eye caught the silhouettes of a man and his dog on the other side of the docks. He stared, urging Chiyo to hurry with a panicked nudge.
“Well, how much change do you have?” she asked the ferryman, her arms folded impatiently.
The man held up several strings of copper coins.
“That’s hardly-,” she said, but was stopped by her companion's imploring eyes.
“Chiyo,” he begged, glancing back to see that Zaisei had moved closer. The hunter was browsing a fish stall and would notice them any moment now.
“Fine. But we have to leave now,” she huffed, slapping the golden coin into the human’s palm. His flat expression shifted to a grin as he eyed the ryo, absently depositing the lesser coins into her hands.
“All aboard,” he said, gesturing towards the plank that led to the ship.
The two hurried on, settling down on a low bench as they boarded. A human merchant eyed them for a moment, then turned his attention back to the sea. The seconds seemed to drag as the ferryman pulled the plank up into the ship, preparing the boat for departure. He silently willed the man to go faster, daring a glance back to the docks.
Zaisei was now close enough to make out the details of his headband. The hunter was crouched on the wooden platform, picking up a fallen black feather to examine. Shichi’s heart lept into his throat as he ducked below the edge of the boat, pushing Chiyo’s head down to match his own. This drew a few more stares.
“Did he see us?” Chiyo whispered, sliding down against the low wall of the ship.
“I don’t know,” Shichi replied, not willing to look back up over the edge. He could only manage to breathe properly when he felt the ferry move, pushing off through the water and away from the town. The tengu sighed, weakening against the ledge in relief.
“That coin you had,” he murmured. “It was worth a lot, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replied bitterly.
“How did you earn it?” he asked, turning to her with a skeptical glance.
“Look, whirlpools,” Chiyo said, turning to watch the churning water. She hung over the ledge of the ferry, though it was unclear if her excitement was genuine or a simple distraction.
Back on the dock, Zaisei watched the boat as it shrunk in the distance, chewing a strip of dried squid. His eyes fell on the wooden sign that indicated its destination.
“I wonder, Bou,” he said, offering a piece to the dog at his side. “When the next ferry for Awaji leaves.”
He kneeled, scratching behind the dog’s pointed ears.
“You wouldn’t mind waiting, would you?”