Not What It Seems

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The form defines the function, so the saying goes.

His case on the other hand, tended to prove the old adage inaccurate on quite a few counts.

For one thing, ordinary medicine peddlers did NOT possess unusual markings upon such a pale face in such a vivid red. They didn't necessarily wear such brightly dyed cloth either although there were perhaps a few. For another, most medicine sellers didn't go around finding evil spirits to defeat for purposes unknown to the rest of mankind.

Although he could argue that his finding mononoke to subdue wherever he went wasn't always on purpose. He just... happened to be there. Coincidence, fate, kismet, the usual.

The fact that he happened to have the Taima sword, the only object that could defeat said spirits with astonishing celerity and thus, could be suspected (it might not, mind you) to have some sort of pull towards those things so it could do its job, wasn't relevant at this point in the argument.

Digression aside, it was basically safe to say that this pale faced, sharp eared, quiet medicine seller's main profession in life wasn't to sell herbs and remedies to make a living.

(Kayo for one sometimes pondered about his existence even after she reached Edo and never saw him again: was he even human? Did he eat or drink or go to the toilet? She would never know.)

In fact, it would be much safer to say that there was a bigger goal in his life: which was probably to find troublesome mononoke and kill them so the universal balance both spirits and humans could be maintained. Such was his existence, such was his destiny.

"Ah!! Kusuriuri-san! Wait! We need medicine!"

And then there were times like these when one really DID have to play the part, spirits excluded.

He turned to see a thin girl, her hair looking like it hadn't been combed in days streaming behind her and in a light green yukata, some way behind him.

To his mild surprise, she was actually carrying a smaller boy in her arms. He also looked like he needed a comb and his dusty blue yukata had seen better days. Both had bare feet. She looked about nine while he seemed to be about five.

The girl caught up to him, and set her brother down. The younger sibling managed to stand, supported by his sister.

She bowed hurriedly and spoke quickly, not even introducing herself in her urgency. Her words tumbled out in a hurry although the medicine seller got the gist. "I'm sorry but we saw you at the shop earlier and you said you sold medicine and my brother needs something to help him. He's been coughing a lot. I mean, a lot lot and it hurts him inside. I, I don't know when it started-"

Her concerned face as she spoke turned a little paler when a coughing fit took over her brother. The medicine seller looked on, face as blank as snow while the boy's sister rubbed his back in an effort to calm his coughs.

"Ssssh...! Kusuriuri-san'll help you feel better soon... hang in there."

A few more coughs racked his little body before he could nod, wincing as he looked at her and then at the strange pale man. His sister too looked back up to the tall adult standing at twice her height, a plea for help on her face.

"Can you help him?"

Still saying nothing, the medicine seller looked at the boy curiously. Then he spoke to the girl. "The doctors didn't give you anything?"

"...I can't... um. We..." She didn't look away from him although she did grimace in expectation of his reaction. "We couldn't really pay the whole... fee. So we couldn't get any medicine."

To her surprise, all the man did was tilt his head a little. "...I see. And you thought I would charge you less?"

"I didn't! But he's getting worse and I'm really scared if he'll cough blood like our parents did and, and..." She moved her brother closer to her by an inch.

"I don't want him to die."

"...I see."

It was obvious this girl had heard that reply one too many times by her near-desperate response. "Please, Kusuriuri-san. My brother's all I've got. After he's well, I promise I'll come work for you for free to make up for what I can't pay-!"

"I'll do it too!"

"You're sick. You can't work."

"You said after I got better...!" The boy hacked again, earning a mild scolding from the sister.

The medicine seller, keeping a straight face, didn't say anything. But he shrugged off his chest and placed it on the ground, still looking at the children. When the boy's coughs receded again, he spoke.

"You will work for me, will you?"

The girl's answer was immediate. "Yes!"

"And your brother too?"

She hesitated here. "...N-"

"Yes! (cough cough)"

"No, you're not!"

Despite the girl's protests, he nodded. "Very well then."

Squatting, he opened up the bottom drawer and removed several trinkets and beads and containers before grasping a small spherical bottle. It was an inch and a half high, and an inch in diameter, half filled with what looked like salt. He also took out a small square box made of dark lacquered wood.

The pair of siblings watched as the man removed several green leaves from the box, holding it flat on his palm. He removed the cork from the bottle with the other hand and tapped out a small pile of miniscule crystals onto the leaves. Once that was done, long white fingers rolled up the leaves into small green pipes, the powder securely encased within them.

With that, he turned around again and held out his hand to the boy.

"Your medicine."

The boy reached out hesitantly, taking one between his thumb and index finger. Then he looked straight at the medicine seller's eyes.

"What are they?"

"Shiso leaves. I'm sure you've heard of them," replied the medicine seller calmly.

The girl spoke up hesitantly. "And the...?"

"Powder?" He cracked a smile. "A home made remedy. Now, eat."

The boy had no more doubts and popping the leaf into his mouth, began chewing. His sister watched on anxiously as he finished all three pieces, one by one.

There was a moment then he beamed up at his sister. "My throat doesn't hurt anymore…! I feel okay!"

His sister breathed a sigh of relief. "That's wonderful...!" She turned back to the medicine seller who handed her both box and bottle.

"Three each day until everything is finished. Then he will recover completely."

"...but the box -"

There was a quirk to the strange pale man's lips. "That should be the least of our worries."

Taking them gratefully, the girl nodded, promising to make sure her brother ate as told. Then she steeled herself for her next question.

"How much do we owe you?"

The medicine seller looked right at her. "What do you have in your right sleeve?"

The girl started. Her few coins, wrapped in a scrap of cloth were in her left yukata sleeve. Still, she pulled out the right sleeve's only occupant: a smooth, gleaming white pebble she'd happened to find in the stream some time before when she was getting water.

"This?"

"My payment for your brother's medicine."

"...and we'll work for you after-"

"I doubt if I'll return – you caught me just as I was leaving, you see. The stone will cover all the expenses."

"Only the stone?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Would you rather I take back the leaves?"

The girl hurriedly handed it over. He nodded after a careful assessment against the sunlight, and with one movement, seemed to make the pebble disappear. Where it went, the girl and her brother couldn't see.

Then the chest was suddenly back on his shoulders and he gave the children a slightly toothy, parting smirk.

"Well then, good day to you both."

The pair bowed low, the sister clutching the glass bottle while her brother held the box in his hands. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"

When they straightened, he had already gone too far for them to see him clearly. They just managed to glimpse his purple bandanna before the crowd swallowed him into their midst. And the medicine seller was gone.

They stood there for a bit, sensing that something had just happened but not really knowing what. The moment faded when the boy happened to look at the lacquered box he'd been given.

"...neechan? Are these words?"

She looked down, running her finger along the carved lines. "I think so. I can't really recognize them though."

"Oh... they're pretty difficult huh?"

"We'll go get someone to read it for us if you like."

"Nah, it's okay. I'm hungry now though."

His sister laughingly took her brother by the hand, glad that he was back to his old self, without the ominous coughing. "Alright then, Makoto. Let's go get something to eat."

The duo left, making sure to keep their medicine safe. (They never did figure out what the carvings meant.)

Miles away, the medicine seller pondered the round white pebble. As a gleam took its place in his eye, it passed through his fingers once, twice.

Then with a simple flick of the wrist, he tossed a white bird up in the air, watching it as it fluttered away into the sunlight.

"Leaves can be medicine and stones can be birds," he murmured seemingly to himself. "I can be what I am."

But he felt, could almost hear, another voice reply.

And we are never what we seem.

A growing smirk appeared on the pale, strangely marked face.

"Who really is?"

.

end.