Like all monks, the tengu of the mountain temple valued cleanliness. The grounds had been equipped with a communal bath, its walls and floors lined with pale cedar planks. Because the mountain lacked a natural hot spring, a fair amount of firewood was required to keep up with their bathing habits. Steam filled the warm room, contrasting the frozen, moonlit landscape surrounding the building. Filling a shallow bucket, Shichi poured the water over his head, letting it rinse away all evidence of his day’s labors. Shusei was already submerged up to his throat, resting his head back on the edge of the large tub.
“It’s too bad the village doesn’t have a bath,” Shusei said, his voice lazy with the heat of the room. “Maybe they enjoy being filthy.”
“They’re not filthy,” Shichi said, filling the bucket once more. “Only larger towns have public baths.”
“Why are you always defending humans?” Shusei scoffed, turning to fold his arms on the ledge. His voice had raised, but their conversation remained more-or-less ignored by the other soaking monks.
“Because you should know better than to be judgemental,” Shichi said rather simply. “You don’t know what their lives are like.”
“Well, I know they aren’t as clean as we are. And they... what is it, when the water comes out of their skin?”
“It’s sweat,” he explained. “It helps them cool down.”
“Well, whatever it’s called, I bet it smells,” Shusei said dismissively. “Since when are you an expert on humans, anyway?”
“It’s called reading, you should give it a try,” Shichi said, hoping Shusei wouldn’t actually search the temple for a book about humans -- he certainly wouldn’t find one. He finished rinsing himself, entering the scalding water with a slight cringe. After a moment his body grew accustomed to the heat and he sank down into it with a sigh. His relaxation, however, was interrupted by his companion’s gawking stare.
“What?” Shichi asked, looking back at the other monk with a raised brow.
“Y-your shoulders. You’re missing... feathers,” Shusei said, clearly disturbed. “Did you get into a fight?”
“Oh. I had an allergic reaction to some ointment,” he lied, self-consciously feeling over the bare spot. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Well, it looks terrible. Good thing your robes can cover it.”
“Thank you. Your concern is very touching.”
“Is that the same reason you cut off your nails?” Shusei added skeptically.
“My nails?” Shichi asked, looking down at his hands. “Ah, it’s easier to prepare herbs this way.”
“Is it? It looks a little odd, if you ask me.”
“You’re the one who can’t take his eyes off of another man in a bathhouse.”
With that, Shusei glanced away, straightening his posture in an attempt to dignify himself. Though he was generally nosy, he hadn’t been the first one to notice Shichi’s hands. Sagiri had mentioned it immediately, only half-buying his explanation. Shichi mentally scolded himself. He had done rather well in keeping up his diligence and focus, but was finding it difficult to hide the physical evidence of his relationship.
From that day on, he kept his hands tucked neatly into his sleeves. As the new year came and went, he found a new challenge approaching. Kana’s birthday was in winter, and monks were most certainly not famous for extravagant gift giving. Even in receiving they had little experience, only able to accept donations of food or utilitarian goods. It had taken a long time for him to grow accustomed to Kana’s occasional presents and he was at a loss on how to return her gestures. It was only after one night of listening to her tell a particularly long story did he think of a proper gift -- but he would need help.
“All right, Shichi, this is everything you asked for,” Sanae said, handing him a set wrapped in cloth. “But... are you certain you need these? I’m surprised you’ve found time for calligraphy with all the work you have.”
“Thank you,” he replied, accepting the package with a bow. “I’ll manage, don’t worry.”
“And don’t forget your half of the bargain-”
“Your kitchen duties for two months,” he said with a nod. “And a bag of sencha?”
“The good stuff,” she emphasized. “Ceremony quality.”
“Of course,” he agreed, his tone pleasant.
“You know, I could cut it down to one month if you’d like a lower grade of brush,” she said, clearly hesitant to hand over high quality tools to a beginner.
“They’ll be in good hands, I assure you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a used set?” she asked, even as he was leaving the room.
“I have a newer ink stick, if you-”
“Thank you, Sanae,” Shichi interrupted as he disappeared down the hallway. Sanae folded her arms as she watched him go, murmuring under her breath.
“You’re lucky you make good tea...”
In the following days he grew to understand why Kana was so fond of gift-giving. The anticipation of making her happy was energizing. By the time her visiting day arrived, he felt a rather odd excitement that he hadn’t experienced since childhood.
Though the ground was covered with snow, the air was mild. The two sat together on the outer porch, watching birds huddled in the bare trees above.
“I wonder if birds realize how lucky they are... that they can fly wherever they like, whenever they want,” Kana mused, resting her hand on her chin. “Sometimes I wish we could run off together.”
“You know I would, but-”
“But you belong at the temple,” Kana said, finishing his sentence. “I understand. But it’s nice to daydream, once in a while.”
“It is,” Shichi agreed, glancing sideways at her as she gazed up at the trees. “Ah, Kana. I know your birthday isn’t until tomorrow, but...”
“You remembered?” she asked, turning to look at him in surprise.
“Well, of course,” he said, removing the cloth package from a slim crate. “I thought, since you’re always telling me stories, that you might enjoy writing.”
She accepted the parcel with both hands, looking down at it for a moment before untying the cloth. Inside was a carved wooden box containing an inkstone, stick, and brush. There was also a set of mulberry paper tucked neatly against the bottom.
“Ah,” Kana said, and for a moment Shichi was worried that she was disappointed. “I’ve always wanted to write. But my husband said it would be a waste of time.”
Shichi only tilted his head, wondering how writing could be considered so.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, leaning forward to pull him into her arms. “Thank you.”
He happily accepted her embrace, glad that his gift could be of use to her.
“I... I might make mistakes,” she added, giving him an uneasy smile. “Maybe I shouldn’t show you my work at first.”
“Don’t worry about mistakes. All you need to do is clear your mind. The letters will come to you.”
“Spoken like a true monk,” she said, smiling as she touched his face.
“Very few things I do with you are appropriate for a ‘true’ monk,” he muttered in response.
"What sorts of things are those?" she asked, tracing her finger along the crest of his beak. He quickly saw where her thoughts were going and held her firmly by the arms to make a point.
"Look, Kana, you've got to watch it with the feather pulling thing this time," he started, having rehearsed the request earlier in his head. "I don't really mind it, but everyone keeps--"
His lecture was interrupted by a sound -- it was a crisp, metallic noise, one which pierced the previously quiet forest. They both turned sideways towards the source and their hearts stopped simultaneously at what they say. It was a sword, drawn cleanly from its sheath and presented in the two-handed grasp of a man. He was human, but the ire in his eyes suggested otherwise.
"Unhand her," was all he said, his words and eyes locked directly on the monster that was holding his wife.
After his mentor had discovered the hair on his clothing, Shichi had taken special care to ensure that it would not happen again. Any evidence of human contact was picked clean -- even her scent would be masked with incense. He hadn't considered, however, that Kana might take the same precautions. Her husband had already been suspicious of her long outings and it had only taken a single black feather to turn his concerns into outrage. Then, it was only a matter of choosing a day to follow her up the mountain -- the day before her birthday.
"Kokou..." Kana said, finally able to speak.
"I will not repeat myself," the man said, positioning himself to attack.
"Don't," she said, spreading her arms defensively as she stepped between the two. "Please don't hurt him."
"He's cursed you, Kana. Your mind isn't clear. Step aside."
"I will not," she said, her heels pressing firmly into the snow. "My mind is clear... it's always been clear. This was my choice."
This was apparently not what he wanted to hear and his grip on the blade's handle tightened.
Kana didn’t respond, only holding her position with a glare. There was a flurry of movement as Kokou stepped forward, taking her by the wrist and wrenching her body sideways. She stumbled down to the snow and it was only the sight of her pain that finally snapped Shichi out of his stupor.
"Kana!" he called, moving towards her without thinking. He had only gone two steps before the blade did its work, glinting as it cut through the air and across the monk's body. Spots of red dotted the snow, staining the white ground as he collapsed. He was almost certain that he could hear Kana cry out, but couldn’t make out her words. The last thing he saw was their feet, her geta kicking up snow as she was dragged off -- then, there was only black.