"The fishing this year is good, but-"
"Did you hear about what happened to the village down the road?"
"Yes, I have a cousin down there. She was fine, thank the gods-"
"It's the demon!"
A hush follows me through the village like a second shadow. The whispers start up again when I pass, like waves crashing on the shore.
I pay them no attention. After three years, you think they'd be used to me. Not so. I continued through the streets with my own bubble of personal silence following me. Mothers hugged their children close. The people that I looked at flinched away and no one tried to stop me.
I walk to headman's house. It's less run down then the others, but that's like comparing a broken arm to a shattered one. In the twenty first century it'd be condemned. Here, it doubles as the tavern.
The door slammed open with a rattle of the wood. An elder woman with dark, loose hair and sallow skin folded her arms in the door. "So you're back, Murderer. How'd it go?"
Ugh. "Jia. Where's your husband?" Every time they sent for me it ended up like this. The head man would be out, gone for the day. His wife would be home. She was always home.
Jia is a spiteful and petty woman. She looked me in the eye and called me a murderer. It be better if I could deny it.
But I can't.
I hated talking to her.
"Hah! Who the hell knows, with that bastard." Her eyes bore into mine. They have shadows as dark as a her hair. "Did you take care of the vermin problem? The elders said you wouldn't, as The more fools they. They always say you won't come back."
"Mother!" The young man says.
I roll my eyes. "Like a couple of bandits would even pose a challenge."
"Good." She said, her eyes like coals. A sickly smile crossed her face. "Did you make it hurt?"
Three years ago, this nameless village was a prime target for bandits. Jia lost her daughter to their blades. The loss scooped out the woman and something hungry lived in her now.
Vengeance, hatred, bloodlust - her slipping grip on reality was obvious to anyone with eyes.
I don't look away. I've seen to much to care for one woman's encroaching insanity.
"The payment," I said.
She blinked, coming back from somewhere far away and nudged a sack in front of the building with her foot. "Of course, Murderer. Three weeks rice." She tipped it over to me with her foot.
I heft the bag over my shoulder and I head back into the village.
I halt for a moment. "What, Jia?"
"You have blood on your face."
The young man squeaks.
I wipe at it without thinking. It wouldn't help -
There's blood on my hands too.
I look over my shoulder. The woman meets my eyes, like she always does. "Ah, thanks."
Another hard smile crosses her face. Her son holds all the fear that she doesn't and tugs at his mother's clothes. This time she follows him back into the house, the door sliding shut behind her.
I start the long walk home.
Home is a minuscule shack on the edge of the river - no one used to go there because bandits hid in the trees.
Now no one goes here because it's where the demon lives.
"I'm back," I said.
"It's about time, girl!" Granny says leaning out the door. Her steel gray hair and her wrinkled face don't take away from her powerful shoulders. She'd been fishing longer than I'd been alive, and all the hauling nets showed. "Is that blood? Tch. What did I say about dealing with that insane woman?"
I set the down the rice. "Not five years old, hag. I can make my own decisions."
"I'm serious. You can't keep on doing this - you're skilled. You can go to work at the palace as a guard. Why keep on as a two bit bounty hunter who works for twenty pounds of rice?"
Work for the nobility? No thanks. Been there, done that. Got the scars to prove it. The long, ugly one on my face twinges.
"You're a pain in the ass," I say out loud after a moment. "Still not five. Quit bitching."
Agony shoots through my head when the old woman grabs me by the ear and twists. "Who is a pain in the ass, you little brat?" She shouts.
"Ow, ow, ow, you old hag, leggo!" I stumble to keep her from pulling any harder.
She snorts, releasing me. "Whatever. You young people have no respect for the poor elderly who don't want to see you waste your life."
I rub my stinging ear. "You're stronger than a gorilla you old hag, you can't claim to be weak."
"What was that, you little brat?"
"Careful, hag, you might break a frail hip if you don't settle down."
A rustle in the trees attracted my attention. I tilted my head, my eyes narrowed. There you are, you little pest. Something followed me all the way from the village and it was getting on my nerves. "Come out where I can see you." A bandit that I missed somehow? A village kid? Jia?
A moment passed. A boy stepped out from behind a tree, with his hand scratching his head. There were leaves in his sandy brown hair. He laughed. "Sorry."
He was fair skinned and half a head shorter then me. Maybe thirteen… and weirdly familiar.
"Hi! My name's Soo-won. I was wandering - er, I was lost - and I heard laughter, you see, -"
Even in clothing that was more of a sack, mended and patched, something about him set off alarm bells in my head. I studied him. Dangerous, but not a threat. He looked like a village kid.
He set off all of my bullshit detectors, though. The way he stood said trained. The way he moved said trained well. Expensive training.
Only two types of people got training out here - nobles and people who served them. Either way he was lying.
"You're so full of it." I said in disgust. "You've been following me since I left the village. What are you, some sort of runaway noble?"
He stared at me. "Pardon me?"
I stare at him for one long moment. Wow, I hit the nail on the head. Go intuition. "Scram." I said to him. Then I turn back to the hag, effectively ignoring him. "I'm going to go wash the blood off. I'll even get the nets while I'm at it. Ain't I amazing?"
"Tch. Rude as ever, Jeong-hui. "
Jeon-hui isn't my name. I picked it when I first got here, back when I still had delusions of fitting in back then. I've had a lot of names since then.
I got used to it.
The blood is sticky on my skin. I scratch at it with a scowl.
I got used to a lot of things.
I wave over back at her. "Yeah, yeah. Don't forget to add lots of pickles to dinner." I shook my head, mouth and eyebrows lowering into a scowl.
It was in the past and I had work to do.
Or I would have work to do, irritation bubbling like a soup inside me, if this brat would stop following me.
I ignored him and the emotion. He didn't try to hide his interest ,but he didn't say anything either. I could deal with that. As long as he wasn't bothering me, he could do whatever he wanted. I wasn't quite far gone enough to attack a kid for being obnoxious.
The forest was quiet. I walked to the river, tracing the same path that I've gone down hundreds of times. I could hear the kid tripping around behind me. I smirked. The path was treacherous if you didn't know what you were doing.
When I reached the river, I shrugged the kimono's layers off, heedless of modesty, then my shoes, and waded in. Fuck, that was cold. The swift current tugged at my legs like a petulant child, but I stood firm. One last breath and I ducked under the waves.
Hoo - my breath left without so much as a goodbye. The world slowed down, went burry. I kept my eyes open, and the sun filtered through the water. The leaves were orange smudges through the water's surface. Winter was coming on fast.
Seven years ago, I fell into a river and climbed out into a nightmare world. The first two, I nearly drowned myself over and over and over again - just out of hope.
Maybe I could go home, if I could just stay under long enough.
It never works.
Still, I close my eyes. Hope was a hard thing to let go of.
I break the surface when my lungs start burning. Gasping, I tilt my head back. I glance out of the corner of my eyes. Still the same forest and the boy kneeling on the bank; he was watching me with eyes like chips of ice set into his face.
The disappointment always stings.
I shake the water out of my face. There was work to be done, and not a lot of time to do it in. Daylight was precious in fall.
I waded out of the water, shivering. The rope for the fishing nets was anchored securely to a post hammered into the river bank. I hauled the nets up, straining against the current. I heave it up inch by inch. The sun presses down as I get it onto the bank, unusually warm for near the end of fall.
It's a good haul. Fish glitter in the light, like silver coins. I wipe my forehead and stretch. Now came the gutting and the salting. The housewives at the market liked to have fish all ready to cook when they got home. Granny went to town to sell once a week. What we didn't sell would get preserved into fish jerky and sold with the next batch.
"That's a lot of fish," A voice said much closer than it should have been.
My body reacted before my mind did. I lashed out, still looking at the fish.
The person ducked under my hand in a truly impressive back-bend.
I was already in motion, leg slashing at his head.
He flipped back into a fighting position.
Not fast enough.
I spun into a combo, striking faster than thought- stomach, temple, grab the clothes, reel him in, strike the throat and end this-
-and then my brain caught up with my body. My hand halted just a centimeter away from his throat. I could feel his skin every time he inhaled.
He stared at me, wide eyed.
My heart was a drumbeat.
I nearly killed this kid.
"What," I said, "the fuck was that?"
"Were you raised without manners or are you just stupid? Is there some sort of law that says nobles can just sneak up on people? Personal space. Learn it. Love it."
"Uh. I'm sorry?" His eyes were wide and his hands were up.
I looked at my hand, and clenched it. Let go of his robes and took two large steps away. I pulled my kimono back up and turned to the river. "Stupid it is. Go. Home."
The rage still boiled inside me. I waited until his footsteps faded away.
Then I punched a tree. Pain shot up my arm like white hot bars of metal inside my veins. Kids. Fucking hated hurting them. Even the annoying ones, even on accident.
I pressed my forehead to the bark. "Fuck." I said. Cradling my hand, I could pretend it was the pain that made it shake.
That wasn't the end of it.
Of course it wasn't.
Like a bad penny, the kid kept turning up. In the mornings, to trample through the forest and scare off all the game, and disturb my sleep. In the evenings, to watch me haul in the nets. In the middle of lunch to mooch onigri and salmon jerky off the hag, who doted on him like a son.
He didn't come every day - it was sporadic, twice a week at most.
That didn't make him any less obnoxious.
Always with the questions - how, why, what, blah blah blah. I did my best to ignore him as the months passed.
Despite the kid's best efforts, my life remained blessedly calm. I hunted and I gathered and earned my keep. I went through kata and didn't have to fight anyone at all.
In the winter, the bandits started up again. Jia sent more jobs my way, and I forgot about annoyances for a while.
Granny looked in the direction of town. "Soo-won hasn't been around. I wonder if something happened."
The ax thunked through a piece of firewood. "Who?" I asked, absently. Trying to get the perfect split was harder than it looked. The nights were getting a lot colder. It didn't bother me because I was used to colder weather. I just added an under-layer to my kimono and warmed up water before I washed.
The hag wasn't young anymore. It'd be bad if she caught a cold or something stupid. Medicine is primitive.
"Who - I can't believe you, brat. The only person who's been visiting for the past half a year?"
I gave her a blank look. See my confusion. See it.
She stared at me, pity on her face. "That poor boy," she added for no apparent reason.
Wait that did sound familiar. My brows came down. Oh right. That kid. "It has been annoyance free around here lately." No one interrupted my morning meditation for a while.
She threw an old cloth at my head. "You're heartless. I'm worried, Jeong. Go into town and find out what's keeping him."
I blinked and made an x by crossing my arms in front of me, careful with the ax. "No way. I don't care. You can just ask when you go into market. Plus, I'm busy not being annoyed out of my mind."
"I care, and I feed you. Trying to concentrate on cooking at when I'm worried is hard. Who knows, I just might mistake sugar for salt the next time I make onigiri." She shrugged in an exaggerated manner.
"That's cruel and unusual punishment, you old hag!" Pitting my love of food against my desire to pest-free. Devious!
She gave me a smug smile. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
I hesitated. On one hand, that annoying, ever questioning brat.
On the other - sweet onigiri.
"Take a hat with you. Your hair stands out too much." The hag said, tugging a gold brown lock hard. She dodges before I slap her hand away, and walks off laughing.