On the Boundary Between Light and Shadow
"The thing about history is that it's flexible, yeah? I don't think she really understands that, of course. Memory's such an unreliable thing – believe me, I should know. And the histories… Well, those aren't set in stone either for that matter.
"All you've got to do is kill all the scholars, burn their texts, and wait a hundred years, and by then your version of what happened will be the only version of what happened. But she… She's the kind of person to treat text as inviolate, you know? In her mind, well… Books can't be destroyed, simply because there's no justifiable reason to destroy knowledge.
"And maybe she's right. But that doesn't change the fact that other people are willing to do those kinds of things to achieve their goals – not everyone's as scrupulous as she is. So just keep that in mind.
"I guess my point is that not everything you read is true. And even if it is true, it can still emphasize some stuff and draw attention away from other things. Just… Just remember all that when you read something, all right? Who it was written for, and who it was written by."
From the personal notes of Hieda no Aya
For a place that was supposedly hidden from the rest of the world, Konoha had quite a few inns within its confines. The vast majority of those catered to merchants and various foreign visitors, though there were no small number that made their business next to thinly disguised "tea houses". Keine had deferred to Hina's previous experience when it came to finding lodging within the city, and they'd ended up with a room in one of the former. It was clean enough, she supposed, though the quality of the furnishings left much to be desired.
There was still, of course, the issue of surveillance. Thankfully, it hadn't been too difficult to come up with a solution. For all of her myriad faults, at least the Hakurei shrine maiden took her duties seriously. Before she'd left Gensokyo, Keine had inquired about means to ensure her own privacy, and ended up with a number of barrier seals designed to foil any attempts at eavesdropping.
It had been late in the afternoon by the time they'd left the child's apartment, and by the time that they'd arrived back at the inn, the sun had already begun its slow descent below the horizon, painting all of Konoha in shades of red and orange. Mokou had left to find food, insisting that she stay with the youkai – Hina – in the meantime. In the end, affixing the seals to the walls of the room had only taken a few minutes of quiet work, and so, with nothing else left to do, she'd ended up looking through the brief battery of tests that she'd given to Hina's...
She frowned. There really wasn't a good way to categorize Hina's relationship with the young boy. From what Hina had told her, she'd only visited Konoha a few times before today – certainly not enough time for any child to attach so closely to her. Yet, at the same time, from his words and actions, the boy seemed to treat her almost as an older sister.
At any rate, Naruto had proven to be woefully undereducated. Evidently someone had made the effort to teach him, as he'd at least had some very basic skills in literacy. However, that was about as far as his knowledge extended. The boy only had the most intuitive grasp of mathematics, as far as she could tell, and though she had yet to finish grading the rest of the assessment, she doubted his understanding of the sciences or of literature would prove to be notably better.
Still, for lack of anything better to do, Keine slowly continued working through the rest of the papers, marking incorrect answers and making comments about how Hina might direct the child to improve. It was a slow, tedious process, both due to the sheer amount of incorrect answers and from her lack of knowledge of how to teach the very young. Most of her own students had at least been given an understanding of the fundamentals by their parents, and determining the way to teach a child who had none of that foundation to build upon was no small undertaking.
As she was making a comment on possible ways to introduce the basic mathematical operations, the trail of ink that her pen left on the page abruptly stopped in the middle of a stroke. Keine frowned and scribbled in the margins, but the pen stubbornly refused to leave any mark on the page.
She hissed in annoyance. That was one of the last few ballpoint pens she'd gotten from Kourindou, and with her supply slowly being depleted from use, it seemed that she'd have to switch back to using fountain pens very soon. Unfortunately, she forgotten to bring ink – or extra pens, for that matter – along with her, and so the rest of the grading would have to wait until she acquired some writing instruments within the village.
Keine gathered up the papers into a neat stack and stuffed the entire pile into a satchel where she'd put her teaching supplies, and then sat back, looking over to where Hina had been sitting, slowly folding a series of small paper dolls.
The curse goddess hadn't been particularly talkative, even on the slow journey to Konoha, but ever since her... episode in Naruto's apartment, she'd been particularly reticent to speak. Ever since they'd gotten back and applied the barrier seals, she'd been intently making those things, slowly turning a small pile of paper into a larger pile of dolls. Watching the repetitive motions, machine-like in their consistency.
Fold. Turn. Fold. Turn.
At long last, just as the silence was slowly becoming uncomfortable, Hina finished folding the last piece of paper and looked her in the eye. "Yes?" she asked. "Was there something you wanted to ask me?"
"You are not," Keine said slowly, "at all like what I expected."
"What did you think I was?" Hina asked. "A malicious force of nature, perhaps? Some sort of witch who slings curses around with reckless abandon? A heartless youkai who had not a bit of concern for her undoubtedly innumerable victims?" She smiled, perhaps a bit bitterly.
Keine coughed, her face coloring a little in embarrassment. "Yes, well... The Chronicles–"
"The Chronicles present the current Child of Miare's perspective on the people and events surrounding Gensokyo," Hina said crossly. "It is a compendium written by a human for an audience of humans. Considering the role you've played in publishing the last few editions, I would expect it to be something you, of all people, should understand." She glowered at Keine. "Would it not be reasonable to expect some amount of bias to be present in its contents?"
"I will admit, I do have a tendency to treat the written word as truth," Keine said. "It is a bad habit of mine, and one I would do well to avoid." She sighed. "As a scholar, I forget sometimes that the books I study are just as fallible as the authors who write them. Moreover, it is difficult to find reliable information about the truth of things due to the circumstances of the coexistence between humans and youkai, especially when I am forced to rely on hearsay for much of my information." A shrug. "Some amount of embellishment is expected when stories are told and retold, and it is often impossible to safely contact any of the youkai in question, which is why the Chronicles takes such a precautionary tone."
"It is understandable," Hina said placidly. "But still irritating, nonetheless."
"I understand." She nodded. "But in that case, since we seem to have the opportunity now, if you'd like to provide any insight on your own circumstances, I'll be certain to pass them along to Akyuu."
At those words, Hina smiled suddenly and clapped her hands together, her previous ill mood all but forgotten. "Tell me, Kamishirasawa-san," she said intently. "Do you know why the Chronicles calls me a curse goddess?"
Keine shook her head. "I'm afraid not."
"I have been told that the first edition of the Gensokyo Chronicles to make note of my existence is the seventh. At the very least, Hieda no Anana is the first Child of Miare to make reference to the existence of one 'Kagiyama Hina,' if I am not mistaken. And that is true. In some ways, the seventh edition does, in fact, mark the appearance of my entry within the Chronicles. However, it is more accurate to say that the first article about my existence was written by Hieda no Aichi."
"Akyuu's ancestor?" Keine asked, a bit incredulously. "The first Child of Miare? That Hieda no Aichi?"
Hina nodded, reaching up to her chest, tugging at the ribbon that held her hair in place. "The very same." The small bow came loose, and she swept her hair back over her shoulders, letting it fall loosely behind her back. She sighed. "Kamishirasawa-san, do you understand what separates gods from mere youkai?"
"Faith," Keine replied, feeling a little like a schoolgirl reciting facts to her teacher. "Where youkai achieve their existence through fear, the gods maintain themselves through the faith and veneration that is obtained through their followers' rituals and sacrifices."
"Is it not strange, then, that I am called a goddess even though I have no devotees to my name?"
And in truth, the more Keine thought about it, the more paradoxical it seemed. As far as she knew, even the other youkai avoided Hina like the plague, with very few exceptions, and the few acquaintances she was known to have certainly did not venerate her as a deity. Yet, if she truly were a goddess, as the Chronicles claimed, then she should have long since faded into nothingness due to lack of faith. And that clearly hadn't happened, now had it?
"There are," Hina continued, "two kinds of deities: those whose existence was spun into existence by the prayers and wishes of their faithful, and those who already existed prior to their deification."
Hina smiled thinly. "Many, many years ago, when I was nothing more than a simple youkai, born of fear and superstition, I met a human. Out of nothing more than generosity, he fed me and clothed me, and in return for his kindness, I granted him a blessing of good fortune. In time, that human told his fellows of the stranger who'd repaid his efforts with the gift of luck. And as that story was told and retold, it slowly became warped, until it slowly warped into a tale about a wandering goddess who would appear before travelers and grant them safe travels in exchange for a gift."
She sighed and looked up, her gaze distant and unfocused. "And this it was that I ascended into the ranks of divinity. For a time, travelers would pray to me at wayshrines for protection from hazards they might encounter. I granted benedictions to the worthy and cursed those who wronged the ones who begged for my protection." Hina grimaced. "And then, from over the sea, a new goddess of fortune appeared."
"Benzaiten," Keine said quietly.
"Yes," Hina hissed, her voice laden with hatred. "Benzaiten."
Keine blinked in surprise. So far this trip, Hina had been polite and soft-spoken, almost to a fault. Nothing she'd said or done had indicated that this kind of explosive anger might lurk under the placid exterior, that public face that the youkai showed to the world.
"As that whore's power grew, my influence waned until I could not even hear the pleas of those who begged for my aid at my own shrines!"
Hina sighed, her previous anger gone in an instant. "You cannot understand," she continued, suddenly quiet, "that feeling of frustration and rage that I experienced then, as the boons I had given in the past slowly became forgotten, until the curses I had delivered as retribution were all that was remembered of me." She smiled again, a faint, maudlin sort of smile. "I have had many years to come to terms with this diminishment that was inflicted upon me, but even now, it pains me greatly to think of what I once was."
But no matter how much Hina claimed she couldn't, Keine really could understand what she'd felt all those years ago. Anger, frustration, helplessness... Were they not those same emotions that she herself had experienced, years ago on that imperishable night?
For a while, there was silence, interrupted only when Keine spoke once again.
"I understand," she murmured, laying her hand over Hina's and giving it a slight squeeze. There was nothing more to be said.
It was late in the evening by the time Mokou returned to the room Hina had rented, a wooden slab carrying three bowls balanced carefully on one shoulder. It had been difficult to find food cheap enough to fit their budget in the village. While Keine had brought a good supply along with her on top of the cash they'd gotten from the knickknacks that that curse goddess had sold, a good portion of the money was earmarked for purchases – various cultural items, a few books and scrolls, and supplies for the return journey.
In the end, she'd settled on a small ramen stand, where she'd left behind a deposit and a promise to return the utensils later that night. That the piping hot broth had made it easy for her to test the food for poisons or other similar additives was only an added bonus.
And so, with everything taken care of, she headed back towards the inn, food in tow.
Predictably, there was trouble waiting for her there in the form of a small scroll on the low table in the room the three of them shared, a wrinkled red ribbon bearing a crest that she recognized as the seal of the Uchiha Clan lying on the polished oaken surface nearby.
"A runner sent it up here while you were gone," Keine said by way of explanation, as she laid the bowls out around the table. "It's an invitation, apparently. The Uchiha clan 'cordially invites' us for dinner tomorrow evening. I think it'll be a good opportunity to establish some-"
"I told you not to handle things sent to you directly," Mokou grumbled. "You shouldn't-"
"-take the risk, I know, I know," Keine said. "I heard your little speech the last hundred times you said it, too. I'm not some child to be coddled, Mokou. I'm glad you care about me, I really am, but…" She huffed petulantly. "I'm not that little girl you found lost and alone in the woods all those years ago."
"No," Mokou said slowly. "You're not." And that was the problem, wasn't it? "You don't understand, Keine. These people aren't like the your villagers. You've read those reports that tengu wrote up. Everyone here will gladly slit your throat for money, and if someone wants you dead, I can't do anything about it if you just waltz right up into their hands!"
Keine sighed. "Look," she said wearily, "we've been over this before. If they wanted to kill us, they would have done it as soon as we stepped through the village gates."
Mokou just shook her head and decided to let the matter drop. She'd learned when Keine could be budged from the positions she took a long time ago, and now was not one of those times. Really, for someone who studied history, she was far too trusting of humans. Though, admittedly, living her entire life in Gensokyo might have had something to do with that.
As a rule, humans in the Village had little to fear from each other. The existence of youkai made sure of that – infighting was not tolerated, and troublemakers would often find themselves cast out of the village and quietly forgotten thereafter.
Gensokyo's situation, though, was unique. History had shown, time and again, that people from the Outside were perfectly happy to slaughter each other without compunctions. Keine knew that. Or, at least, she should have known. But the habits gained over the course of a lifetime were not so easily shaken off, and an intellectual understanding could never be same as having firsthand experience of man's inhumanity to man.
And if it were up to her, Keine would never have such experiences, though if she insisted on taking these kinds of risks… If something were to happen to Keine, not even the Great Dragon himself could stop her from having her vengeance against those responsible. Not that it could make up for any of what would have already happened.
Mokou grimaced and turned her face down to face the bowl of ramen on the table in front of her. There was no point in souring the mood even further. Keine hadn't been in the best of moods when she'd left – something she'd learned about the boy they'd met had left her quite displeased – but she seemed quite excited about the invitation. And if it made Keine happy, she was loathe to refuse, especially not when this was exactly the kind of business they were supposed to be here for.
"All right," she said grudgingly. "I'll allow it. Just this once."
Keine smiled brilliantly. "I'm glad we don't have to fight over this."
Mokou just shook her head ruefully and lifted up the bowl of broth, taking a deep gulp of the warm soup before setting it back down on the table.
"What about you, Hina?" Keine asked. "Will you attend as well?"
Mokou blinked. When had 'Kagiyama-san' become 'Hina'?
The curse goddess shook her head. "I would go, but I have business to attend to in town," she said softly. "I will prepare a token of my appreciation though, if you would pass it along on my behalf?"
Keine nodded. "Of course."
And wasn't this a strange occurrence?
Keine's attitude towards everyone who could not be considered a part of the village – youkai especially – could best be described as 'frostily polite'. There were a few exceptions, of course – she tolerated that one tengu's presence in the Village for some unfathomable reason, and had a good deal of grudging respect for Yakumo Yukari, but for the most part, she had never been friendly with anyone who could be considered an 'outsider'.
Not that she was particularly close to anyone inside the village, for that matter. At this point, there were very few people living there who she hadn't taught, and it showed in her interactions with the other villagers. She was treated with deference and respect – not an attitude that engendered close friendships.
In many ways, it was good to see Keine making some more friends. Normally, she'd be opposed to it, especially because Kagiyama was a youkai, and thus someone inherently dangerous, but Keine seemed happy enough, and she was loathe to take that away. It certainly helped that Kagiyama seemed harmless enough – in temperament, at least, if not in ability.
Well, there was no need to step in. Not for the moment at least.
Mokou sighed and stood up, shaking a cigarette from the battered box in her pocket and sticking it between her lips.
"I'm going out," she announced. "Going to take these back. Keine, don't-"
"Yes, yes, I know," Keine said absently, already having gone back to flipping through that pile of tests she'd given to that boy she'd met with. "Could you find me a pen?"
"The shops're probably all closed by now," she said, grunting softly as she shouldered the board with the now-empty bowls, "but I'll see what I can do."
She spent her trip back to the ramen stand in a contemplative silence. Something had happened while she was gone. That much, at least, was clear. But what?
Mokou shook her head. There was no point in wondering. If it were something she needed to know about, Keine would tell her. Later rather than sooner, perhaps, but she'd find out eventually.
For now, though, there were more pressing concerns for her to worry about.
When they'd first arrived in the village, Keine had sent out a few tentative feelers to some of the smaller merchant houses, trying to gauge if there was any interest in establishing a longer-term trade relationship. Each and every one of those requests for a meeting had been met with refusals of varying politeness.
Given the general atmosphere, it had been surprising to receive a request for a meeting, and from such a powerful clan, no less.
The Uchiha were, to the best of her knowledge, the single most powerful group in Konohagakure, both in terms of political and economic influence. Ignoring the fact that they were a clan of mercenary assassins, an alliance, or, barring that, an understanding of some nature, would be greatly beneficial, not only to Gensokyo as a whole, but also to Keine's villagers.
There was some ulterior motive behind that request for a meeting. Keine had taken it as a direct offer to establish a working relationship of some kind, but Mokou herself was not so convinced. Keine had always been far too trusting of other humans, far too quick to assume that they did not have malicious intentions at heart. In Gensokyo, where humanity had been forced to band together against youkai for the sake of survival, that may have been the case, but out here…
For a moment, Mokou froze, staring up at the empty rooftops surrounding the street. For a second, she thought she'd seen someone watching her, though it was hard to tell now that the last rays of sunlight had disappeared beneath the horizon.
She grimaced and shook her head. Maybe Keine was right about her being too paranoid.
His guests arrived exactly at the expected time.
From where he sat at a table up on the second story of the guest house, Fugaku had a clear view of the main gate that opened into the Uchiha clan compound. There were two of them, the ones who his intelligence reports had called 'Keine' and 'Mokou', judging from that peculiar hat and the uncommon hair color, both clearly visible despite the dying light. Even as Mikoto hurried outside to usher them in, he continued to watch his visitors as they waited just outside the gates. There were some things that transcripts of conversations simply could not convey – the subtle signs and mannerisms that said much more about a person than the words that came out of their mouth could only be seen through direct observation.
The older of the two, Keine, was most likely a civilian, if only because her companion, Mokou, was obviously a kunoichi sent along to guard her. It was common practice for merchants and diplomats to be paired up with one or more shinobi for protection from the various threats that faced travellers, ranging from the occasional group of bandits looking to strip the unwary of their valuables to other ninja acting under orders or looking to cash in on a bounty. It helped that he'd seen the observation logs detailing this Keine's activities throughout Konoha. Ninja didn't usually spend their time haggling with shopkeepers in the marketplace. And while it was possible that she was, in fact, a ninja on an intelligence gathering mission, in the end, the simplest explanations tended to be the best.
Even though he'd invited the entire delegation from Kekkaigakure, however, it seemed that he would only be hosting two guests tonight. The one named Hina seemed to have declined his invitation. No doubt his previous deductions about her status was correct. Truth be told, he wasn't particularly surprised by her absence from this meeting – it was rare enough for civilians carrying a bloodline to even be allowed outside their own village. Delivering oneself directly into the heart of another's power… Well, there were some problems that even luck could not resolve.
It wasn't as if the meeting was without risks on his part, for that matter. Inviting an unknown ninja into hearth and home was always dangerous – precisely why he was conducting this meeting in a separate building specifically used to host visiting dignitaries and other such guests. And while completely avoiding any risk would prevent him from conducting business altogether, taking precautions was certainly a good idea.
Fugaku took a long look at the young woman he'd marked as a kunoichi, tracing the way her clothing shifted as she moved. She wasn't openly carrying any blades, as far as he could see, and, similarly, she wasn't wearing any of the commonly seen pouches used to store kunai or shuriken, suggesting that she'd be carrying hidden weaponry of some sort.
If she was, though, he couldn't find any. Her sleeves hung naturally off of her arms, with none of the stiffness that that marked the presence of hidden senbon. Nor did the cloth of the rest of her clothing, shirt and pants alike, betray the presence of any concealed blades. Furthermore, while her clothing was tight enough to make concealed weaponry unlikely, it was still far looser than most taijutsu specialists would prefer.
This Mokou was probably someone who focused on either ninjutsu or genjutsu, then, coinciding with what the intelligence reports on her had said. With the Sharingan on his side, she was not someone he needed to be overly worried about.
A good thing to know. If all went well, he'd likely be meeting with the two visitors he was hosting today again in the future, and the more he could find out about the people he hopefully would be working with in the future, the better.
He rose to his feet as his wife opened the door, standing up just in time for her to let their guests into the dining room.
"I am Uchiha Fugaku," he said. "You've already met my wife, Mikoto. Please, make yourselves welcome. My home is yours." He bowed, and his visitors returned the gesture.
"Thank you for having us, Uchiha-san," the woman with the strange hat said. "I am Kamishirasawa Keine, and my companion is Fujiwara no Mokou. Kagiyama Hina has requested that we apologize on her behalf – she has fallen ill, and was unable to attend." She pressed a heavy basket into his hands, which he set down beside the table.
Fugaku nodded, gesturing towards the table. "Please, have a seat." He sat down next to his wife, across from his two visitors. "On behalf of the Uchiha Clan, I would like to formally welcome you to Konohagakure."
Keine smiled graciously. "We are grateful for your hospitality."
While Kagiyama Hina's absence was disappointing, he'd half-expected to have no guests at all tonight. And while he wouldn't get the chance to dig deeper into the mystery surrounding her apparently impossible power, hopefully, he'd at least be able to attempt to gain some sort of a rapport with some citizens from the newest hidden village to grace the Elemental Nations.
"Have you enjoyed your visit here so far?" Mikoto asked.
This time, it was Mokou who responded. "It's been good enough, I guess," she said, not sounding particularly enthused.
While his wife regaled his visitors with descriptions of sites of interest in Konoha, Fugaku concerned himself with analysis. His guests were difficult to read. While it had been quite some time since he'd last invited complete strangers to visit the Uchiha Clan, his position and the constant meetings, both with civilians, other clan members and Konoha ninja alike meant that it wasn't too difficult for him to gain at least a little bit of insight into what other people were thinking. Not so with these guests, though.
Thankfully, Keine, at least, seemed to hold no ill-will towards either him or his wife, which was encouraging, engaging in the conversation with genuine, if slight, interest. On the other hand, Mokou could have been lying through her teeth without him knowing.
It was disconcerting. In general, most of the people he'd met who'd had similar abilities were old – old enough to recognize and quash the visible signs of their own emotions. To find that same ability on someone who could not possibly be older than twenty was surprising.
He made small talk as his servants brought out the food, covering the table with dish after dish. It was nothing of real import, just the typical inane conversation that filled the first half of any business dinner that civilians dealt with. Though he didn't particularly like the almost formulaic way in which meetings such as these played out, it was, at the least, another opportunity to gather information about their enigmatic guests.
Keine, it seemed, was a schoolteacher by trade, and seemed unduly interested in the historical sites in and around Konoha. It seemed to be something more than a mere professional curiosity. If he didn't know better, he'd suspect her of prying for some kind of information. But what kind of spy cared only of events that had taken place fifty years ago? No, there was nothing to be concerned about here – she was, as far as he could tell, mostly harmless.
Mokou, on the other hand, claimed to run a food stand, of all things. Hardly a likely profession for someone whose thin, delicate hands bore no trace of the calluses that years of manual labor would leave behind. She looked soft, he realized abruptly. Her mannerisms had thrown him off initially – her wary alertness and the way she subtly kept an eye on the dining room's exits and entrances spoke of the kind of paranoia that could be learned through the kind of violent lifestyle that ninja, or perhaps, samurai, led.
Yet, at the same time, if she changed her clothing, at first glance, he'd have thought her some nobleman's pampered daughter, a girl who, by virtue of birth, knew nothing of true hardship. He'd seen the likes before in the people he'd been assigned to, either to protect or kill. Pale skin, unmarred by the sun's scorching gaze. Soft hands, with none of the scars and rough skin that came part and parcel of making an honest living.
And then, of course, there was the girl's name.
"I must confess, Fujiwara-san," he said during a convenient lull in the conversation, "I do not mean to pry, of course, but... I am curious as to how a person with a name such as yours might come to be in such a place."
The name Keine had given for her companion was unexpected. Usually, having a name of that form came with an implied claim of nobility. While it had originally been used simply to denote membership in a clan, the tradition had gradually fallen into disuse amongst the ninja clans after the foundation of the various hidden villages, leaving it a custom retained only by the daimyo and their retainers.
Almost as soon as the words left his lips, the atmosphere of the room darkened. Keine's cheerful demeanor disappeared, replaced by a guarded neutrality, and Mokou seemed to slide down in her seat, her shoulders slumping as if forced down by some tremendous weight.
"It is a memento," Mokou said quietly, "of a different time." She fell silent, and when it became clear that she would not say anything more, it was Keine who spoke on her behalf.
"She belongs to a great family," she said firmly, "and though they may have long since fallen from grace, we keep her name out of respect for what they once were."
Keine fell silent again, and Fugaku realized belatedly that he had touched upon a subject that he should have left alone.
So. A disgraced noble's daughter who'd somehow acquired some ninja training, guarding someone who likely was someone her parents had known. Not a particularly likely set of circumstances, to say the least.
Still, they didn't seem to be lying.
Over the course of his career, he'd developed a sense for when someone was intentionally being misleading. There were a few common tells, a few signs that almost universally indicated when someone was not being entirely honest.
But as far as he could tell, Keine, at least, was being truthful, if circumspect. He had little doubt that the story he'd just been told was not entirely a fabrication, even if the some of the finer points may have been embellished.
So, evidently Kekkaigakure had, at some point in the recent past, had a noble class. But the diplomats they'd sent in their delegation certainly had made no claims of nobility. Perhaps the daimyo had recently been deposed, then, with no clear leadership to take the reins? It certainly would explain the strange lack of definite leadership that the delegation had displayed – for all that that Yakumo Yukari had claimed to be the leader, the others certainly had not looked to her for guidance whatsoever.
In the end, though, it was just another mystery among many. No, best not to spend his time speculating when there was a meeting to attend to.
"So," he asked, finally, trying to lighten the mood a little, "what brings you here to Konoha?"
Keine smiled, the formerly oppressive atmosphere vanishing in an instant. "Business, mostly," she said, "though I intend to do some sightseeing if I have the time." She smiled. "The groups that I represent wish to establish a trade relationship of a more permanent nature."
It was as he expected. Whereas the Konoha and the other hidden villages typically relied on a network of traveling merchants to provide for their needs, Kekkaigakure seemed to be aggressively pursuing trade ties of a more contractual nature. While many of the older, more well-established merchant houses had balked at committing to anything concrete, preferring to buy and sell their product on the open market as usual, Fugaku could see the wisdom in having a guaranteed source of supplies. It was, after all, a simple way to hedge against unforeseen risks.
He was well aware of the various methods that Konoha's ninja corps used to mitigate the effects of a failed mission, ranging from ensuring that requirements for plausible deniability were met to the outright elimination of the 'rogue elements' involved. This was an elegant method to achieve similar effects, protecting the buyer from sudden price spikes or unexpected shortfalls, while, at the same time, providing the seller with both a stable source of income and a bit of a buffer against bad prices.
The fact that they were looking for a contract was good news. Establishing the Uchiha Clan as the sole party through which Kekkai's valuable trade goods were imported into Konoha would put him in the unique position of having a good deal of both military and economic power. The merchants that governed Konoha's trade between the various Elemental Nations yielded very few good ninja, simply due not having most of the natural advantages that members of a ninja clan held. Most ninja clans, on the other hand, tended to stay away from the merchant's life, driven away by familial pressure combined with a healthy disdain of civilians in general.
The attitude was one which stemmed from times long before the various hidden villages had been established. The Uchiha and the Senju, the two clans around which the village of Konohagakure had been founded, had been wholly independent from the feudal lords who called upon their services, while most of the other clans had been party to that same agreement had been contracted retainers of some noble family or another.
As a result, while the other clans had had their needs met by the nobles who they served, his clan had found it necessary to obtain weapons and supplies on their own. Because of that lingering culture, it was not uncommon for civilian members of his clan to make a living through trading rather than through ninja work, whereas it would be practically unheard of in a smaller clan.
In the end, it was just one among the many differences that set his clan apart from the rest of the village.
Fugaku smiled. "While I would be pleased to discuss matters of business, let us put that off until later. For now, there is food to be eaten, and we would do our chefs a grave disservice should we let their efforts go to waste."
Keine glanced briefly at her bodyguard and smiled back at him. "We would be honored."
The meeting was not unlike any of the dozens, if not hundreds of similar gatherings she had attended throughout her lifetime. Even though she might be far from home, many things, it seemed, nonetheless stayed the same. The familiarity was comforting. No matter how good she had become at divining the true interests driving others' actions over the course of the years, she had never enjoyed conducting business – it was much too stressful for her tastes – and having the old formalities to fall back upon was comforting, if nothing else.
Not that it was terribly difficult for her to keep calm. It seemed that this Fugaku had gone out of his way to try to impress his visitors. While the food tasted strange to her palate – the dishes had far too much in the way of meats and not enough salt and spices compared to the fare she was used to – it was still of very high quality, and it was obvious that whoever had prepared the dishes was highly skilled. Doubtlessly, the banquet had been prepared at great expense.
Fugaku, and, by proxy, the Uchiha, wanted something from her. Or, perhaps more accurately, wanted something from Gensokyo, which she represented. It had been very clear from the moment she'd received the invitation from a party that she had not solicited a meeting from, but this only reinforced her conviction. Yes, there was only one conceivable reason for her be contacted so suddenly, and now it was up to her to try to divine just what specifically it was that Uchiha Fugaku desired desperately enough for him to resort to such drastic measures.
It was a game that Keine had played far too often over the course of her long life, and it was not one that she particularly enjoyed. She had spent far too much of her life trying to discern the absolute, undisputed facts of the past. To then turn and spend her time concealing the truth, to use her talents to misdirect and deceive felt, in many ways, almost like a rejection of the long hours she had put in on the various editions of the Gensokyo Chronicles.
But in the end, she'd had all too little choice in the matter. The people in the village – the people she'd promised to care for – had always been in a precarious position. Gensokyo had been founded as a safe haven for youkai, with little consideration for the human population, who inevitably became caught in the crossfire whenever anyone with more power than sense inevitably started causing trouble.
She was not proud of many of the things she had done in the name of keeping conflict away from the Human Village. It was – had always been – a thankless task that won her few friends and many enemies. But so long as she could keep the villagers safe, it was worth it. And now, those carefully honed skills would, with luck, serve her well.
"Thank you for the food," Keine said, once the last few dishes had been cleared away. "I will admit that this is not the fare I am accustomed to, but it is still quite good."
Fugaku's wife smiled at that. "Our clan may not be the largest in Konoha," she said, "but we are by far the most well-known, and as such, we hold ourselves to a high standard. When I heard that we were to host guests from foreign shores, I was concerned that our ideas of quality might not match up to yours, but I am glad to see that it was not the case."
Keine nodded. "My home has only just begun to reopen ourselves to the rest of the world. Given the length of our isolation, differences are only to be expected, and I would certainly be a poor guest if I were to refuse to take those into account." A pause. "But no matter how lovely this dinner has been, Uchiha-san, I understand that we are not here simply to share a meal with your family."
Fugaku inclined his head and cut directly to the point. "It was my intention to establish some sort of trade agreement between my clan and Kekkaigakure."
She smiled graciously. "I would be more than happy to work out the fine details of such an arrangement. I am afraid, however, that my authority only extends to myself and the people I represent."
Fugaku hummed thoughtfully. "Would you be able to convey our offer to the appropriate persons?"
Keine nodded. "Of course."
Well, maybe what she'd said earlier wasn't exactly true. Her position on Gensokyo's ruling council in theory granted her the power to at least provisionally approve binding contracts on behalf of the rest of Gensokyo. If she unilaterally made decisions here, though, it would undoubtedly cause friction with the other factions. On the other hand…
"If you would prefer to establish something more concrete here and now, I can negotiate on behalf of my own group. Almost half of all of Kekkaigakure's exports pass through our hands. If you wish, I would be more than happy to establish an understanding of some sort here and now."
It would be good to find allies outside of Gensokyo. Already, quite a few of the more adventurous villagers who'd volunteered to establish trade Outside had been attacked, some by bandits, and others by unknown assailants with significantly more training. Thankfully, no one had died, but in the end, the tengu had needed to intervene in quite a few cases. Having to rely on youkai to protect her villagers, and thus ending up owing favors to the tengu for doing something she should have done herself… It was infuriating, and there was nothing she could do about it.
At least they hadn't demanded all that much for their services. So far, the tengu had contented themselves with a few concessions regarding access to the village, and while she hadn't exactly been pleased to agree to those, they had still been far more generous than she'd expected.
But if she could arrange for traders to come to the village instead of having to risk her own people by sending them Outside, she could neatly sidestep the need to find someone to protect the merchants that she sent out.
She'd have to be careful, though. Push too hard for closer relations with the humans Outside, and she risked upsetting the tenuous balance between her village and the various youkai groups, with potentially disastrous consequences. With the Outside having essentially been declared to be fair game, there were already those questioning the necessity of having a village of humans within Gensokyo.
For once, Hakurei Reimu had acted swiftly and decisively, firmly quashing any possibility of infighting with a few harsh words. That it had required the Hakurei's intervention to calm the situation, however, only emphasized the importance of finding allies outside of Gensokyo. Relying solely on Hakurei's nebulous goodwill to keep the villagers safe would be a spectacularly poor decision. And in twenty years, there would be a new shrine maiden, one born and raised under substantially different circumstances, one who might not be so sympathetic towards the plight of the humans within her home.
"What would your terms be?" Fugaku asked, a thoughtful frown settling across his face.
"I am prepared to offer preferential rates on goods purchased from us in bulk," Keine said. "A sort of 'most-favored' status, if you will. Any transportation arrangements will be left to your clan."
"I have heard," Fugaku said slowly, "that Kekkaigakure had been seeking trade arrangements of a more contractual nature."
"There does not appear to be much interest in that sort of thing within Konoha. It seems that most of the merchant houses prefer to follow the old ways." Keine shrugged. "Given the current climate, I had thought it best to return to a more traditional approach."
"We are not opposed to such an agreement, for certain classes of items especially. There are certain classes of items that are in particularly high demand in our line of work. Blades in particular. We will purchase as much of your stock as you are willing to sell."
Keine made a vague noise of agreement. "That should not be an issue." The Village didn't have true industry – not the way some of the kappa did, at least. What her people lacked in industrial capacity, however, they made up for with artisanry, and now that personal defense had suddenly become a very real concern, they'd slowly been building a truly tremendous stockpile of edged weapons of of all descriptions. Most, if not all of it, should be saleable.
Considering that the goods she was offloading were relatively simple to make, the Village stood to make a huge profit off of any deal of the nature that Fugaku was proposing.
But as she slowly ironed out the details of the agreement, Keine could not escape the feeling that there was something she was missing. It was unlikely that been invited to Fugaku's home simply so he could buy knives from her. No, there had to be some other motive behind this arrangement.
"She reminds me of the old stories my parents used to tell," Mikoto remarked, after the foreigners were gone. "The ones from before the hidden villages were founded."
"Oh?" Fugaku asked, rifling through the basket of gifts his guests had brought. Two gourds filled with liquor of some kind, that would need to be tested for poisons before consumption. A lacquered wooden fan, embossed with an image of some kind of flaming bird. And nestled snugly in the rough paper padding, a small folding mirror, made from flat glass of a stunning smoothness and clarity.
"Like the samurai of old. The competent ones, at least, the ones with their strict sense of honor and unyielding convictions. That lady certainly is no ordinary woman."
Fugaku snorted. "No ordinary person has a noble's daughter as a bodyguard."
Mikoto shook her head. "There's more to it than that, though. Those two… They were far too close to each other for the kunoichi to simply be a hired bodyguard. Too much familiarity between the two. It's almost as if Fujiwara were one of those samurai retainers, the ones raised alongside their charge. But with that story…"
"A debt of honor, then? If we take their story to be true."
"Mmm. Something of that nature, perhaps. But at any rate, you can expect Kamishirasawa-san to hold to our agreement as best she can. She's the dutiful type, you know? The kind of person who takes their responsibilities seriously."
He'd suspected as much, though it was good to have some confirmation. Mikoto had always been far better than he at reading people, and for her observations to line up with his own gave him an additional measure of confidence in his analysis.
"It seems," he murmured softly, "we've stumbled across something extraordinary." Fugaku looked back over the papers he'd signed just a few hours ago. "You believe they will hold to their end of the bargain?"
Mikoto nodded. "There's no guarantees about the rest of Kekkaigakure, of course, but I expect we should be able to trust her to hold to her word, if nothing else. It's more than we can expect from someone seeking to do business, for what it's worth." She shrugged. "The rest is an interesting mystery, but it's not particularly relevant to trade deals, at least. I'll just leave you to deal with that, then, while I put Sasuke to bed. Don't stay up too late – you still need to wake up early tomorrow to meet with the rest of the clan."
Fugaku let out a vague noise of assent.
If the trade agreement with Keine's group held up, he'd be simultaneously be able to cut his dependence on Konoha for supplies and increase his own clan's coffers.
Hopefully, it would give him some leverage the next time he tried to expand the purview of his police force, as well. He'd long suspected that the organization he headed had been founded more as a means to appease Madara than for any other reason. While the idea of having an internal process to prevent wrongdoing by the shinobi forces had been – and still was – a remarkable idea, it didn't change the fact that he had very little formal authority over much of the people he was supposed to police.
It all originated from Konoha's origin as a loose alliance of the prominent ninja clans in Fire Country. When the founding compact had been written, it had contained a number of benefits for the founding clans, both as an acknowledgement of their status and as a sort of recompense for the fact that they were expected to bear the brunt of the fighting, and thus, the heaviest casualties, during times of war.
Although those benefits were a great boon to Uchiha Fugaku the clan head – the meeting he'd just held had only been made possible through their existence – they had proven, time and again, to be a remarkable hindrance to Uchiha Fugaku the police chief. Clans could demand that he remand suspects into their custody, bar access to personnel conducting investigations, and otherwise hinder his efforts without fear of repercussion.
He had always tried to avoid abusing those privileges in cases where his own work was involved, as doing so would undermine his own authority. Criminals coming from within his own clan should not be treated any differently from any other in the village, and indeed, any audit of his records would show that they had not been. And while some of the other clans shared his sentiments about abuse of power, there were many more who did not.
It was a frustrating situation that he had been trying to combat. His efforts at expanding the scope of the military police's authority, however, had been stonewalled repeatedly, first by the other clans when he'd raised the issue to Konoha's council, and then by the Hokage himself.
Looking back, making the attempt while he had also been petitioning to increase the land allotted to the clan for their compound had been a poor decision. He hadn't had much choice in the matter, though. The Uchiha clan had grown significantly since the founding of Konoha, and the clan compound, once more than sufficient to house the entire clan, had become more and more crowded as time went by.
The timing had been unfortunate, however. No doubt he'd overreached a little, but at the same time, the concessions he'd asked for had been reasonable. He suspected, however, that most of the objections stemmed from the fact that very few of the others saw his two roles, as head of the Uchiha Clan and as head of the Konoha Military Police, as separate roles, and instead, grouped the two as one monolithic entity. But regardless of the reasons, in the end, neither proposition had been approved after facing stiff opposition on all fronts.
It rankled a little. More than a little, perhaps. He could tell from what Mikoto told him about the conversations she'd had that many of the others in his clan felt similarly – that the Uchiha clan's efforts on Konoha's behalf were unappreciated, perhaps even resented by the rest of the populace.
Which meant that he needed to make sure this trade deal succeeded. If he could not make the rest of Konoha respect his clan, then he would just have to get enough leverage, enough to bargain with that they were forced to go along with some of his plans.
And if the Hokage persisted in blocking his efforts… Well, now he had other locations to look to when it came to finding allies, didn't he?
Hina looked over to where Naruto lay on the floor, haphazardly scribbling in one of the primers Keine had brought with her.
"Yes?" she asked tiredly. Teaching had been an exhausting experience. For all of Naruto's enthusiasm, he was still a young boy, one with a great deal of energy, and who found it difficult to sit in one place for an extended period of time. It had taken a great deal of patience to get her charge to stay still long enough for her to explain what the textbooks were, and how they were to be used.
"Why do I hafta do this again?"
"Have to," Hina corrected firmly. She frowned. Keine had made it clear to her that someone needed to impart the importance of the education on the child, and with the distinct lack of parental figures in Naruto's life, that duty fell squarely on her shoulders. Considering that could only be in Konoha for a few weeks out of a year at most, however, she had to do it in a way that he would not forget.
She would just have to rely on his enthusiasm for the shinobi lifestyle, she supposed.
"Tell me, Naruto-kun," she said. "What do you think it means to be strong?"
"It means I can beat up all the bad guys and protect everyone, like the Hokage!" he replied cheerfully.
"And why do you think the Hokage is so strong?"
"He told me before! It's because…" Naruto's face scrunched up in concentration. "It's because we're stronger when they fight for the people they love. And the Hokage loves the whole village!"
Hina smiled weakly. She'd never met the man whose visage adorned the cliffs looming over most of the village in person. She had, however, been in the village for one of his public addresses, and the impression she had left with, that of a leader willing to go to any means necessary to protect his village, certainly had not resembled the kindly old man that Naruto described in the slightest.
He was still a child, though, and and she would not ruin that youthful innocence that he still had. "The Hokage's strength comes from what he knows, Naruto-kun," she said gently. "He's smart, isn't he?"
"A good fighter needs more than just strong arms and legs," Hina continued. "They need a good head as well. If you can outthink your opponent, you'll have an advantage over them, right? And the strongest people know how to end a fight without resorting to violence at all."
"Like how Hashirama convinced Madara to join him and stop fighting with each other?"
Hina hesitated for a moment before nodding. It was not a tale she was familiar with – one of the local legends, no doubt, so different yet so similar to the ones she knew – but it sounded like its intended message was similar to hers.
"Exactly," she said.
Naruto nodded once and returned to his work with renewed vigor. Hopefully he'd taken the importance of education to heart. It seemed to have stuck, judging from how he seemed to cling to her every word, but a few reminders wouldn't hurt matters any. Keine had left plenty of teaching material to accompany the exercises, but there were other things outside of the purely academic that Naruto had yet to learn.
A few notes about things like budgeting and cleaning would go a long way towards keeping him healthy and well-fed.
"I'm leaving you a note," she said, giving the inked sheet of paper a quick look-over. "Keep it somewhere safe, all right?"
The sound of Naruto's writing stopped abruptly. "You're leaving?" he asked in a tremulous voice.
She grimaced. Human children were like feral youkai, in a sense. Uneducated, perhaps, but not unintelligent. Naruto in particular sometimes had to be taught some of the most basic things – the larger counting numbers perhaps being the best example – but at the same time, he was scarily knowledgeable when it came to reading attitudes and divining hidden meanings.
She'd also found out that avoiding the issue was less than useful. Once he'd latched onto a topic, there was nothing she could do but satisfy his inquiries. "Tomorrow morning," Hina replied. "My visa expires soon, and it would be for the best if I could get a good day's travel in before nightfall."
"Can't you stay here, Hina-nee?"
Hina shook her head wearily. "I have duties at home," she said softly, "responsibilities that cannot be avoided." She cut off Naruto's squawk of protest with a cutting gesture from her hand. "We all have things that we must do, Naruto-kun, tasks that we have no choice but to set ourselves to."
"And, of course, were I to stay, I would find myself unable to visit in the future."
"But you're not going away forever, right? You'll come again, won't you?"
"As soon as I can," she confirmed. "Within a few months, I hope, though I cannot guarantee that I will be back by any given date."
Naruto nodded glumly.
Hina sighed to herself. Seeing the normally energetic child so down was almost painful in a way. Perhaps there was something she could do to cheer him up? "How about this?" she asked. "If you're done with all of the work Kamishirasawa-san left you by the time I'm here next, and you can show me that you've done it correctly, I'll stay here for an extra week or so, all right?"
He looked up at her with a piercing look. "You swear?"
She nodded. "Of course."
And with that, Naruto's sunny disposition was back, just as suddenly as it had gone.
"It's a promise!"