"Why are there so many people?" Fuu hissed.
They had been marched towards a cluster of small tents, nestled snugly in the heart of the township. The city was swarming with villagers going about their daily business and Mugen and Fuu almost lost sight of Jin in the rush.
"Because they live here?" Mugen said, agitatedly sweeping hot sand from the curves and notches of his scabbard. He paused for a moment to give Fuu the evil eye.
"Would you stop brushing at that thing? I dropped it in sand, not tar," she exclaimed, unapologetic for dropping and leaving his sword in pursuit of Jin and their little tour guide.
Mugen was all aboard the HMS Slit Her Noisy Little Throat when Fuu turned her head, gesturing at him for silence. Jin had entered the central tent and they both caught the heady and sadly unfamiliar scent of food. Mugen's eyes teared up a little. Fuu, being part Japanese, part bottomless pit, somehow morphed the time-space continuum and ended up at the tent flap in the blink of an eye.
"We're so glad you could come," the troupe leader was telling Jin gratefully. They were almost moved to pity, too, except for the fact that he had been shamelessly picking his ear at the time. With his toe. Needless to say, the performing troupe had been all sorts of charming.
But then again, the three of them had never really embodied any cultural ideal either, so who was Fuu to speak?
The story had gone like this: the village had been the troupe's semi-base, a place they retreated to every once in a while to restock on important things and take some time off. But alas, their current visit had been ruined by a slew of supernatural occurrences and they were convinced that their humble, part-time abode was virulently cursed.
In any case, Fuu relished the sudden access to ample food-free food, keep in mind-and kept her mouth shut and ear pinned to the flap of the tent as Jin did the whole mystically listening bit.
"I see," he was telling the troupe leader, a bald man of considerable girth (although this clearly had no effect on his limberness, see above), decked out in an enormous, queer hat embellished with garish blue flowers. Fuu couldn't help raising an eyebrow. This place...
A sharp tug at her collar indicated that Mugen had reached the absolute end of his patience, which had only very waveringly been bought by the promise of food.
Using his usual inside voice, he yelled: "Just what the hell is going on?"
The leader looked up at the sudden noise and Fuu couldn't help grimacing. Busted. Well, so be it then. She reached up to arrange Mugen's head wrap into a more convincing facsimile of a turban before entering the tent with what she hoped was a magical-looking flourish. Mugen followed with an out-of-character complacency, seeking answers but, more importantly, shade.
"My colleagues," Jin said. He was trying very hard not to sigh.
Smiling politely, Fuu turned to the troupe leader and said: "Nice to meet you."
"We are honoured to have you both here," he nodded generously at both new appearances.
Mugen raised a hand in feigned good-nature, until he caught a glimpse of the little boy they had encountered earlier in the busy road.
"You little piece of shit!" Mugen leapt at him viciously, getting a mouthful of dirt when the child dodged his attack. "I'm gonna slit your throat."
"And he looks equally delighted at the re-acquaintance," Jin surmised, watching the child skitter behind the troupe leader in an attempt to avoid the Scary Turban Man. Fuu looked at him, perplexed by his deadpan sarcasm. In an attempt to thwart the kid's escape, Mugen moved to grab him from behind the leader's considerable girth before he darted outside.
"Your associate," the troupe leader asked Jin, now the appointed Sane One. "Is he alright?"
His words were met with Jin's long, grim, resounding and contemplative silence. Any longer and the grand promise of accessible food would be lost forever, prompting Fuu to intercede on his behalf. "Oh, it's just the spiritual energies. He's from an ancient clan of exorcists, old, old blood, really. He was raised in a graveyard, you know. There's really no normal after that." Jin raised an eyebrow slightly as she spoke. When she finished, it had reached an impossibly high peak, nearly meshing with his hairline. Well, she didn't see him trying. In the end, she opted to smile awkwardly before darting out of the tent in pursuit of her wayward colleague and his small prey.
The troupe leader turned to smile at his newest employee. "I understand. It's nice to travel with such eclectic comrades, no? It makes life very interesting."
Jin nodded almost imperceptibly. Interesting would not have been his word of choice.
God, not again. If he had been one to believe in it, Mugen would have suspected that he had extremely bad karma from a past life. Or possibly the karma from this life had been so horrific, divine retribution had acted prematurely. It could have been that guy he killed last week or those corpses he mugged in the road. Or the dango he stole from that kid. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The one with the crutches.
Actually, screw believing in karma. He probably had every freaking deity on his tail. And irregardless of which religion he managed to earn the ire of, Mugen was convinced their punishment came in the form of the fifteen-year-old girl in front of him. Because, more often than not, Fuu's voice roughly equalled the fiery and (usually)unparalleled depths of hell. This, of course, being the one exception.
"Don't blow our cover," she said.
Who the hell was she to tell him what to do?
"Maybe I want to blow our cover," he told her, purely out of spite. Which would have been a bad time for his stomach to growl, but it did, effectively revealing that no, he really didn't want to blow their cover.
She gave him an irritatingly smug look, but only briefly. Fuu was big enough to put aside their differences for food. "Here," she said, almost complacently. "You go on a reconnaissance mission for us."
"Scope out the city! Get information on this 'curse'. We'll have to do some work or they'll figure us out." Naturally, Fuu's explanation didn't cover exactly why he had to be the one carrying out the grunt work and various other menial tasks. It also omitted the part where she would be stuffing her stupid face in the tent while said work was being done. But standing around all day really wasn't Mugen's thing, even if it was about a thousand degrees in the shade. Plus, he had the whole turban thing going on. No sense in wasting his newfound mystic mojo on these two morons.
So this is what led him through the streets of that sun-baked, seaside town and subsequently to realise that he had seen enough of it in the first few minutes to last a lifetime. The whole damn place was just the same backdrop, rewound over and over again, blurry in the hellish sun. The buildings were low, sturdy, built from rickety driftwood and doused in random splashes of colour. The sand was bleached white-hot and gleamed brilliantly in the daylight. Somewhere near the outskirts of the central square, Mugen could sense the ocean.
All around him, townspeople flooded the streets in busy hordes, seemingly untouched by the blistering heat. Toting fans and parasols and other things in bizarre arrays of colour, they went about their daily business as per usual. Mugen had been taking a brief rest in the shade of a store awning, leaning back against a hot post to watch the throngs of people and seriously contemplating finding the elusive ocean for a swim.
He was awoken from his reverie by a sharp rap on the side of his leg. So the little punk had come back. Mugen scooped him up by the back of his collar and held him up at eye level.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The kid looked at him with a grudging pout. After a moment of silence, Mugen shook him roughly. Sometimes they needed a little persuasion.
"You do want to see them, don't you?" The child said angrily, caving to Mugen's questionable child-rearing skills and pointing towards the central square a little off in the distance.
"Huh?" He made his way over slowly, picking a path through the thick swarm of bodies in the dry market.
Mugen raised a hand to his face, trying to shade himself from the brutal glare of the afternoon sun. Though the areas surrounding it were full of people, the square was an empty, deserted plot in the heart of it all, and Mugen soon understood why.
The central square was crisscrossed with dozens and dozens of lines. They covered surrounding buildings, disappeared into narrow alleys, over and under edifices and were an off-white sort of colour. Mugen had seen statues that colour on old smuggling ships; they were made from the teeth of some sort of giant animal. What was it called?
"The omens," the boy said reverently.