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Japanese Demons 9

Bad People.
Katsuya took Momoko to the city the next day. He left her eating noodles at a roadside diner while he wandered the town himself. His telltale markings were covered with paint, but his white hair still shone conspicuously and warned the local yokai that a high-class mononoke was in their midst.

The owner of the noodle shop approached the small ragged girl suspiciously.

"Whose paying for this?" He asked, eyeing her as she consumed her soup with loud slurping noises.

"He is." She pointed to a tall man entering, his white hair falling past his butt. The man gaped, was it a god?

"Who is he?"

"My older brother." Momoko finished up her soup and wiped her mouth. "What do you have for me?" She asked expectantly. Katsuya dropped some coins on the table for the shopkeeper and handed Momoko a red kimono. It was beautiful and she gasped. The restaurant owner edged up to look at it.

"D-did you get that from a store around here?" He asked. It was more beautiful than any garment he'd seen tailored or made. Katsuya glared at him contemptuously and said to Momoko, "Let's go." Older brother?! He was a century old and no, he had not had the dress made by any human. The kimono was made by his personal tailor, a demon who lived on the mountain Katsuya came from. He saw thieves eyeing them from the allyway, spirit and human alike, and flicked a little dry blood from his fingernails. Maybe they could stay around awhile after all.
*********
Momoko was sick. Katsuya had removed the star disks and commanded little demons to take care of her wound, but the truth of the matter was yokai are no good at healing. Kogaratu's dirty blades had infected her shoulder, and now her body was fighting disease. It had started with a lethargic attitude and then she began vomiting. Katsuya was carrying her now and he could feel her little body burning through the silk dress he'd gotten her. She'd been sick for a few days, but now she was sweating, delirious and didn't recognize him anymore. She cried and called out and there was nothing Katsuya could do about it. He was a destroyer of lives, not a saver and his life-defending sword was only useful in death. He didn't want to wait that long.

The old couple looked up as a tall man entered their home carrying a child. "I hear you two are healers." He said. They nodded, mute at the sight of him. "Do whatever you can for her." He said, put her down, and left. This place was surrounded by guardian spirits, strong ones. Momoko would be safe from other demons here, but it made him uncomfortable to stay with so many Jinushigami around. He would come back for her when she was better, but right now she was in no position to travel. The old couple did everything they could for her, but soon discovered she was beyond even their help. Worse, she was infecting other people who came to their house. In a week, more than thirty people in their village were sick. A priest came to visit them.

"You say this girl was brought in by a demon?" He asked coldly. "He must be powerful indeed to escape detection from our guardian spirits. You should not have accepted her into your home."

"We cannot turn anyone away, be it friend or foe. Especially not a helpless girl like this."

"This child doesn't just have a sickness, she has brought a plague with her. You must get rid of her before the whole village pays for your transgression." The priest said. The old couple protested, but the priest wouldn't yield. "Should our people die so that you can save a demon's brat? Get rid of her by midnight tonight, or else we will do it for you." When he left the couple looked at the child. Momoko didn't burn as hot as before, but she showed no signs of regaining consciousness.

"Perhaps it is the will of the gods." The old woman said sadly. "I'll wrap her in clothes and give her some bread to take to the next world." Tenderly she wrapped the child in a blanket and tucked some rice buns in with her. Then the old man lifted her in his arms and carried her several miles outside the village. When he thought she was far enough away, he put her down in a grove of trees and went home.
For another day Momoko sweated and burned. Then, the second night she was out in the open it began to rain. A little at first, then the heavens opened up and poured. An hour into the deluge, Momoko's eyes opened and she stared into the heavens.

"Where am I?" She felt weak and a little nauseated, but her head was clear. She sat up, and the world spun a few times before righting itself. "Where is Katsuya sama? Did he abandon me?" She asked aloud. It couldn't be. She put her hand to her head and thought back a little. 'I was sick. I remember him carrying me, the feeling of fur on my face and his smell. Then, we entered a cottage, and he put me down.' That was all the little girl could remember. He wouldn't have left her out alone like this; the people in the cottage must have done it. People never seemed to want her. She looked inside the blanket, now sopping wet, and found the day-old buns. They were wet, but she ate them anyway. Then she settled back against the tree and bent her head against the rain. 'Katsuya sama will find me.' Her body was exhausted after fighting Kogaratu's invading bacteria. She fell asleep in the warm shower.

Katsuya sama still had not come for her the next day, but the sun came out and dried her out. She spent that day sitting where the old man had left her and sleeping, her body still recovering. Around midday she became thirsty and left her spot to drink rainwater from a shallow depression in the ground. As cool night fell she wrapped herself tightly in her blanket and wondered 'where is he?' She didn't sleep well that night, and woke ravenously hungry. The morning sun found the Momoko treading the wilderness alone, the blanket on her shoulders, its end trailing on the ground.

The sun rose and she came to an encampment. She didn't see anyone around, but she saw the remains of a fire and a pot sitting beside it with a few bowls. She was too hungry to worry about who was around. It was a big pot, and she could smell the sake from inside. She took one of the earthenware bowls from the ground and ladled the alcohol into it, gulped it down. It made her eyes water and her throat burn.

"Oi." Through teary eyes she saw a tall, broad shouldered man standing in her way. He was handsome, with long bangs, and a thick braid hung down his back. He observed her through cruel, arrogant eyes....but she was used to cruel eyes. She smiled at him, at peace with the world. She picked up another bowl, filled it with sake and trotted over to give it to him. He accepted it with a callused hand. "That's what I like to see a woman do. Are you from a village nearby?" She shook her head. His eyes traveled down her ruined silk dress, bedraggled blanket and muddy feet. "I think we could use a girl like you." He lifted his voice. "Hey, brothers, look at what wandered into our camp." Three more men came into view, large, ruddy guys who stared at Momoko curiously.

"Do you want me to get rid of her?" One of them asked. His hair was short, and jagged.

Bankotsu said. "I suppose we could take her with us. Not worth killing anyway, and she can do the menial tasks."

"If you prove useful to us we'll let you live." Genji the fourth brother said to her.

"That is if, Touya doesn't find some way to kill you when we're not looking." Shinji the third brother said. He was the one with the short, rough-cut hair and metal blades strapped to his hands. He had a wild look in his eyes.

"I wonder what made him such a misogynist? Our mother couldn't have warped him that badly, could she?" Ryouji, the second and biggest brother asked. He would have liked to be the leader but couldn't help looking up to Bankotsu, who was smarter, stealthier and stepped into control the moment their father died.

"I think her wanting a baby girl and dressing him up like one for ten years did something to him." Genji replied. "Plus he always had a cruel streak. Remember what he did to that kitten we brought back once? Anyway, we'll keep an eye out so he doesn't kill her this time. Come here girl, you belong to us now."

Not knowing what to do about this turn of events, Momoko said nothing. They swung her on a horse and galloped away to a house deep in the woods. They hung their leather armor up on hooks, and looked hungrily at a boiling pot in the corner. A young man stood there, his hair was put up in the back of his head and he wore a flowing kimono.

He looked around at them with bored eyes. They settled on the little girl, and narrowed.

"Did you do what I asked you to Touya?" Bankotsu asked.

Touya stared coldly at Momoko, who was staring back. "What is this, a woman whelp?"

"What do you think it is, idiot? And you are not to touch her, she is for us to use as a servant." The boy's lip curled, but he did not reply. Why was the stinking girl child staring at him so? He lashed out at her.

"Don't look at me like that, brat." Her eyes switched to some other object. But he noticed her watching him out of the corners of her eyes later, studying him. Touya hated females, but knew that once his brothers were set on keeping her he'd have a hard time getting rid of her. He'd just make her life miserable in the meantime.
The similarity was unmistakable, Momoko thought. He reminded her strongly of Katsuya sama. The cold eyes, the effeminate beauty... the elegant clothes. But where it had all fit Katsuya sama's lordliness, it looked out of place on this mean stranger. She decided to avoid him.
***
The little girl proved to be a capable servant. They figured she was mute, because she never said anything. She didn't require much looking after. She ate their leftovers and then sat in the corner that night. They took her with them the next day when they left for the City of Lords, where they could always find business. They slept under the stars and with one of them always watching over the camp. Some of the brothers used blankets, some didn't. Momoko always went a little ways away and curled up on her side. She knew she was being watched, and how far was far enough. She hated it when they told Touya, the youngest brother, to watch her.
After being treated like a girl for so long he hated girls, though she didn't know this. He was always pinching her or trying to make her trip.

"We're only a day away from the City of Lords." Bankotsu said. Momoko groaned inwardly. She was used to walking long periods of time behind Katsuya sama, but he always seemed to stop right when she was tired. No such luck with these men.
She was walking behind the rest, just in front of Touya when she was shoved roughly from behind. She lost her balance, stumbled, and found herself falling off the steep embankment they'd been walking along.

She didn't cry out when the stones cut her face and she splashed into the shallow creek at the bottom of the ravine. She looked up and glimpsed Touya's triumphant and malicious grin before he continued past her, not telling his brothers what had happened. Momoko crawled out and sat on a stone, hoping all the others would pass her by. A few minutes later she looked up to see them standing at the top of the embankment.

"We almost didn't realize you'd gone missing." Shinji called. "How did you manage to get way down there?"

"I can guess." Bankotsu said grimly. He'd been the one to realize she wasn't where she was supposed to be. "Ryouji go carry her back up."

"You're more trouble than you're worth." Bankotsu said to her when she was back up, and slapped Touya. "You were supposed to be watching her. Don't do that again." Touya got a black scowl on his face. The company started again, and Momoko was disipirited. What was the point when every trace of Katsuya sama was disappearing...eh? What was that? In one of the brother's packages, carried by horses, something was sticking out, a piece of bright red cloth. Ryouji and Genji watched as the little girl suddenly picked up her pace and ran to the side of one of the horses. She could barely reach it, but she hung on to the pack and got a hold of the piece of cloth. From up close the pattern was unmistakable. She pulled out the dress, and saw it was the one Katsuya sama had gotten for her. The last thing of his. The old couple she'd stayed with had taken the kimono and put a clean one on her, but it had been taken when the brigands burned the village they day after she left. As she stared down at it her face puckered, and she had to hide her face in it to stop the tears from flowing.

"Hai, that's not for you." Ryouji took it from her, exposing her tears. "you're just going to ruin it."

"I'd cry too." Said Touya's voice behind her. "If I had to wear what she's wearing. Not that it matters, she's an ugly brat no matter how you look at her." He flicked out his sword and it slit through Momoko's dress, piercing her shoulder. It was a shallow cut, but it was the same shoulder Kogaratu had injured and Touya heard a sharp intake of breath. He was pleased to hear the normally stony-faced child react to something.

"I wouldn't say that." Said Genji. He was at the bottom of the scale, second only to Touya who was the youngest. Touya, however, seemed to be more respected in general, though he had been saddled with the menial tasks before Momoko came. Genji's rough thumb wiped a tear off Momoko's cheek. "She's going to be pretty cute in a few years."

"You should leave her alone. She's half your size, idiot." Ryouji said to Touya.

"I'm noticing a disturbing trend here, brothers." Touya said. He had a cruel arrogance and self-assurance Genji and Ryouji didn't have though Genji was older and Ryouji a lot bigger. "You seem to care more about that brat than me. Is she a part of this band, or am I?" He was at the tail end of the group, Momoko and his three brothers were in the middle with the horses and Bankotsu strode in front of them all, ignoring their spat.

"Brothers we're one day away from the castle where we are to get our next commission." He said over his shoulder. "Hurry it up."

They climbed up a trail to get there, and the peasants on the way down avoided their gaze. Momoko looked around her with tired eyes. Her face hurt, her body sore from the tumble. Plus her shoulder was bleeding. She looked behind her and Touya made a face. 'Hurry Katsuya sama, find me and save me.' It had been fun trotting after Katsuya sama, she'd always found the strength to go on even when she was tired. And there had been the dragon to ride on. Traveling with these butchers was no fun at all. Her feet were moving more slowly now and she was falling behind even Touya.

He reached out as he passed her and grabbed a fistful of her hair. "Don't fall behind, brat." She twisted her head to look at him and a guttural noise of disgust came out of her.

"I..."

His eyes widened and he let go of her hair. "So you can talk?" She turned her head back down and concentrated on her feet the rest of the way. 'Just leave me alone.'
They had gained entrance to an encampment of soldiers. They seemed to be quite well-known, and the soldiers tolerated their presence. They joined in with the joking and talking, and swapped stories while Momoko stood in the background.

"Are you allowing girls into your band of rogues now?" One of them asked, "Who is it, your little sister?"

"More of a vassal." Bankotsu said.

"She can join the servants then who are cooking for us." Momoko went where he pointed and found a lot of women cooking in a tent, and washing clothes.

"Girl child, did you come in with those brigands?" A woman asked. Momoko nodded. The woman looked sad. "You're such a sweet thing to be traveling with those evil bastards. And you're a mess as well. You need a new kimono." She got a kimono and an undertunic for Momoko, who almost cried again from the gesture of kindness. Two outbursts of tears in one day, Momoko thought, 'I'm getting soft.' Still she was very grateful for it, because it was cold outside. After helping out she sat in a corner and looked up when Genji passed her. He looked down and saw her.

"Come on."

She rose and followed him to where the band was sitting in a circle, discussing something. Touya amused himself by flicking her with his sword. "Say something pup, talk to me. Too proud?" He taunted. He'd come close to nicking her face, but never quite did it. He wanted her to flinch, but eventually she just closed her eyes. That's when she felt the blade slashing against her belly. She opened her eyes as her outer garment fell away, he'd cut through her kimono and she was just in the cotton tunic. Thank goodness it was long, but her kimono...She looked up with anger at her eyes. Touya was sitting in the same position, his legs sprawled in front of him. He jerked his wrist and the trick blade folded back into itself.

She hated him, his smirk, his unwarranted cruelty. Where was it all coming from?
"Do you know how many people I've killed? Little girls like you? Too many to count. Someday, I will kill you too, you know." He said. Momoko glared at him unabashed as the hatred began to well up inside unchecked. She was tired and her body hurt, her face hurt, her insides hurt, all because of him. She hated him. Momoko picked up the kimono, Touya now reminded her of Ryou more than anything. It was time for him to die.

That night Shinji was guarding them. He sat with hands in his sleeves, legs folded, his weapon of choice by his side. He surveyed the sleepers. There was Bankotsu, on his side, sleeping as he always did without a mat. The large body sized cleaver he called a sword was right by him, and his hand was touching the hilt as usual. It took monstrous strength to swing that sword, but strength was something Bankotsu had in plenty. On the far side Ryouji was sleeping, face upwards. He tended to gravitate away from Bankotsu. He was ambitious, and though there was no power struggle as yet, he was not totally trustworthy. Genji was sleeping between the two, and Touya on the other side of him. The girl was closest to Shinji, because as usual she had separated herself somewhat from the brothers. She had her damaged kimono clenched her hand, which Shinji thought seemed unnatural for a child. Bankotsu, was a warrior and used to making fists even in his sleep, whereas this girl wasn't. She slept on her side, back to the wall. Finally Shinji closed his eyes also.

Twenty minutes later Momoko rose. She turned her back on Shinji and dipped her kimono into the pot of sake. There was just enough left to soak into the cloth completely, she twisted it into a heavy strand. She moved past Genji on light feet. His head was bent forward and his eyes still closed. Not that he could hear her anyway, even the dogs in her aunt's courtyard had not been able to pick up the sound of her feet. She had to step around a few arms and legs to get to Touya, freezing every time someone moved.

Touya lay sprawled over a mat, a blanket twisted around his limbs. He was sleeping on his face, with his head turned to the side. She knelt beside his prone body and carefully threaded the long, roped kimono through the space between his neck and the mat. Then she crossed the ropes, stood, placed a foot on his back and pulled. The next thing she knew she was thrown backwards as Touya rose in a fury, his strong hands were around her neck. Touya knelt on her chest, her stranded kimono hanging from his shoulders, his eyes blazing. Ever light sleepers the other four instantaneously came to life at his outcry. Bankotsu immediately grabbed his weapon, but when he saw what was the matter he leaned back casually, eyes bored.
"Oi, you two fight like brother and sister."

"You!" Touya pointed a livid finger at Shinji. "You let her try to kill me!"

"I just wanted to see what she was up to, and then if she would actually do it. Some bandit you are, letting a child get to you like that. C'mon you think a kid like that could kill you?"

"Course not." Touya said contemptuously.

"So let her go." Bankotsu said.

The boy rose, and stared down at Momoko stared back at him with hate filled eyes. They stayed like that for a moment, him with a burning neck and her breathing in little puffs through her nose. Then she got up quietly and retreated to her corner.

"You. Why don't you ever speak?" He asked as she passed him.

The next morning Momoko went back to washing clothes with the women.
"What happened to your kimono?" The first woman asked. Momoko remembered her kindness from the day before, and it reminded her of the first time Katsuya sama had asked her a question. She felt tears prickle at the memory.

"They took it away." She said softly. "I wish, I wish I was with my family." Even as she said it, she barely knew who she was referring to. She wanted to be with either her aunt, or Katsuya sama, but she didn't know which one she wanted more. She could barely remember her old family.

The woman squeezed her good shoulder. "Little one, you've had a rough life."

Another woman looked at her in annoyance. "So has everyone." She said sharply.

"Why don't you go play? We don't need your help." Momoko didn't particularly want to be turned loose in a camp full of strange men, but neither did she want to be where she was not wanted. At least with the band of brothers she had a function to fill, if only one of a lowly servant. She wandered around until she found Bankotsu talking with a soldier.

"It must be a rough life you guys lead, going here and there. Your brother looks like he hasn't seen a woman in years." The soldier said. They were looking at Genji, who was talking to a prostitute.

"He's a lady's man." Bankotsu said. "Touya there, he prefers to kill them." They both looked at the muscular, beautiful boy. He was leaning indolently against a stump, sharpening his many blades. "I have never seen him with a woman."

"How about you? I haven't seen you with anyone since you've been here."

Bankotsu shrugged. He was powerfully built and spare. "Women have their place."
Bankotsu saw women as objects with one function, and one function only. To serve him. All he really cared about was living the life of a high class rogue, fighting, destroying, burning and taking lives. "We rarely keep women around. Otherwise Ryouji and Shinji fight, and things just get messier when Touya kills them."

"I can't stand female servants." Touya murmured.

"What about her?" The soldier asked and the three of them looked around to see Momoko standing quietly nearby.

Touya's lazy eyes drifted over to her. "What about her?" He asked blandly and went back to cleaning his blades. Momoko was surprised, that was all he had to say after she tried to kill him last night?

That night the five brothers sat in a group up in their room and Momoko sat beside Genji, keeping her head down over her bowl.

"You can stop the pretense." He said to her. "I heard you talking to the women, I know you can speak." She stared into her food and didn't answer. She could feel their eyes on her.

"You said you wished your family was here. So, we're your family now." She blinked, them? Never! "With us, you can have anything you wish. Everyone will fear you, as they do us." He continued, ignoring her reticence. 'But that's not what I want!' She cried inwardly, in mental anguish. "We can be like your big brothers."

Finally she spoke. "I've already had brothers."

"Where are they now?" Ryouji sneered.

"They were killed by brigands."

"How ironic." Bankotsu said.

Her large round eyes narrowed and when he read the hate in them, Bankotsu shifted so he could stare her in the face. "What do you think, little Momoko? You think we will be the only ones burning in hell?" He shook his head, his thick bangs swishing over arrogant eyes. "The reality is, you are just like us. You tried to take a life yesterday, and if the circumstances were right, you would be a murderer just like us. If you had been born into our family as that daughter mother wanted, that sixth sibling, you would have become a bloody marauder too and assisted in the slaughter of villages. Don't pretend like you're different, because you're not. Inside we're all the same."
By
Published: 2/23/2010
Bouquets and Brickbats