“You know, that might have been a bit of an overreaction. We had no idea what they might have wanted.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Zabuza stated as he checked the outside perimeter one more time and set one more simple trap.
We’d located a cave that was about half a day’s walk from the village at normal speed, or about thirty minutes ninja speed. Or five minutes at constant flickers. I was carried for most of the process because of how draining the multiple flickers were.
“They had a sensor of unknown ability offering to let in someone whom they thought was a kekkai gentai from a land where such things were publicly and well known to be outlawed and killed. Most likely scenario is that they were ninjas turned bounty hunters trying to lure Haku into a trap.” He walked deeper into the small cave that used to be the residence of a bear, whose corpse Suigetsu was currently playing with by moving it like it was posturing or attacking us.
“For all their words, they seemed sincere and their skill level in terms of sneaking and approach was lacking so they might not have been formally trained.” Haku said from his place kneeling on the ground. He’d changed out of his dress into pants and a top, which was easier to move around in.
“Which might have also been a ploy to have you lower your guard.” Zabuza’s grimace was visible through his mouth wrapping. “We’ll need to change disguises and move again soon. Mokuyabi, you still got that wig?”
I frowned at that but inclined my head.
“Do you think Haku can fit it?” Zabuza asked.
“Nope, not at all, it’s a fitted wig.” I replied, “Even if he cut his hair, his head’s bigger than mine, it’d be obvious.”
“Fine. Haku, you use a headwrap and a veil. With a sensor in the mix we’ll have to get a good enough distance away before switching to civilian speed again.” He said.
“What? Ugh, that’s so slow.” Suigetsu moaned as he stood there with the bear’s head sitting on his own while the rest of it draped down his back like a cape.
“You want to be captured again?!” Zabuza snapped, which made Suigetsu’s mouth click shut.
“Hey, that’s a low blow.” I spoke up, “He was captured by one of the Sannin, that’s not a comparable problem to this. We don’t even know if they mean any harm.”
“That’s the point. We don’t know. We can’t take the risk of unknowns.” Zabuza stated.
“Plus, Orochimaru collects people like that all the time.” Chojuro’s voice was just above a whisper as he spoke, “We saw it, when we went to his bases.”
My eyes widened. That hadn’t even occurred to me. “Shit, do you think they have the seals?”
“The what?” Zabuza looked from me to Chojuro, though it was Suigetsu who answered.
“Creepy snake guy likes to put seals on his shinobi, he says it gives them power, and it does, sort of, it makes them change form though. Get all grey skinned and horned like oni.” Suigetsu lifted the bear’s paw and made a swiping motion with it.
“And you didn’t think to share this information before because…?” Zabuza looked at the three of us, annoyed.
“Because if Kiri knew that Orochimaru had ways to make shinobi stronger, someone there might be stupid enough to seek him out,” my voice came out in a deadpan.
“He did it to a ton of civilians too. Turned them into monsters who couldn’t control themselves and kept them locked up in the Land of Earth,” Chojuro tilted his head down and let out a breath, “They’re like wild animals when they’re like that.”
“Earth knows about this?” Zabuza asked.
“Fuck no,” I said, “Because they’d DEFINITELY be stupid enough to make that trade. Taking those seals is basically you putting yourself under his thumb.”
That part of the conversation at least didn’t seem to surprise Zabuza in the least, “Well, late as it is, that is good to know. Though it’s a given we won’t be going anywhere near him.” Reaching down he started to remove his robe, “Now let’s get changed and start moving.”
The next town we saw wasn’t a town, it was a civilian border outpost. I say civilian because it had stables.
Horsemanship wasn’t in general something shinobi invested heavily in, unless there was some sort of horse summons scroll (which wouldn’t surprise me) horses were in general too easily startled to be practical for shinobi use. Plus they were fairly easy to injure because of how big they were, a horse being knocked over could easily break a leg which would then have to be healed which would require specialty study from any medical nin present. Moving carts was the best use shinobi had for horses, but even that could be replaced with the right storage seal. All of these reasons were why I was surprised Zabuza was even looking at them while we waited at the stables.
Suigetsu, having changed appearance again, was hanging off the side of the stable watching the horses as they grazed. The side was tall enough that the action had his feet off the ground, kicking back. Chojuro was sitting with his back to the wall and I was sitting across from him on a bale of hay. It might have been more ungainly, but I was in one of my plain but very comfy kimonos instead of any of the clothes we bought from Takami village or the green raggedy outfit from Land of Wind. My head still itched from the brown wig though.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen some of these. They’re smaller than the ones used back home.” Suigestsu leaned forward as he reached out to try and touch one.
“We had horses back home?” Chojuro lifted his head up.
“Sure, though mostly for those bowman folks. Especially bred and everything, they were huge. I remember one time I went with my brother and…” For a moment the smile faded from Suigetsu’s face and he went silent. It rose a moment later, so strong I could feel it from a distance. It felt like the pricking of rain on my skin, cold and scattered, but it was there, if only for a few seconds before it was gone.
“Oh, the bowman folk,” Chojuro continued where I couldn’t. That was code for Akebino, they were the only clan that invested in training in the bow.
“I guess that makes a bit of sense, only cart pulling I’ve seen back home was done by cattle.” I added even as I focused on Suigetsu, who didn’t respond again even as he seemed to be focused on the horses. I didn’t know exactly what that was, but I could guess he was missing his brother again. It was easy to forget for all his devil may care attitude Suigetsu had lost his entire family to the war.
Well. At least, the family he was blood related to.
Standing up, I glanced around to make sure no one was watching before rummaging around in my sleeves and pulling out a fresh cup of smoothie. It was still cold, right out of the seal I had up my sleeves. I walked over and tapped it on Suigetsu’s arm.
He gave me a subdued smile as he grabbed the glass and tossed it back like sake. He let go of the ledge and landed on both feet. The motion met around the same time Zabuza and Haku reappeared with a new extra.
“A donkey?” I looked at the animal, it was a head shorter than Haku, with grey fur speckled with brown. Its long pointed ears turned a bit as one of its eyes turned towards me, which I found were in fact milky white.
“A mule.” Zabuza said.
“Females are called hinnys actually. Her name is Rio.” Haku corrected.
“And she’s blind in one eye.” I approached quietly, keeping my hand up so that the animal could see me coming as I patted her nose. Her hair was really soft, especially the hair that puffed out around the base of her ears.
Haku moved around to the same side “She’s one of the older ones here and it’s not like they can use her for breeding stock.”
I ran my hand down the hinny’s neck. “Why did you guys bu…?”
My words were cut off as someone grabbed me from under the arms and hefted me up. I recognized the feeling but only had to look back to see that Zabuza had basically placed me on Rio’s back like a girl being placed on a pony ride. “You don’t have the stamina to walk without assistance if we want to properly avoid detection and the rest of us need to keep our hands free.”
I opened my mouth to complain but Rio pulled forward, causing me to lean forward and cling to the animal’s neck. Despite old age it was well muscled. My weight or the awkwardness of me hanging on with only one arm didn’t seem to upset the hinny as she walked a few feet forward before dipping her head and grabbing some foliage from the ground.
The sound of laughter had me shoot up to find Suigetsu as the source. Chojuro had walked over slowly and put a hand on Rio’s back, as well as under her neck to keep her from moving too much. Breathing in and out, I leaned backwards and frowned at Zabuza, even with shinobi balance, there was no saddle on Rio’s back, nor was there any bit or reigns. I had to actively concentrate not to just slide off, “You want me to ride while everyone else walks? I don’t know how to ride, I’ve never even been on a horse before.”
Which was true, for this life. I’d done exactly one summer at a horse camp, which I was banned from for smacking my younger sister’s hand away one too many times when she tried to take the brush away from me.
“She’s trained. She’ll walk with us and won’t wander off the path unless led.” Haku patted her, “Plus it’ll make things seem more natural.”
“Where do you two get an idea about what looks natural? From a block painting of a farmer’s family?” Suigetsu asked as he moved around Rio’s back.
“It doesn’t matter, so long as we have a slightly different silhouette we’ll be harder to trace at a glance from people going down the road.” Zabuza said. “We’ll probably get a small cart when we hit the next town to change it even more.”
I squinted at Zabuza as I tried to straighten up again. I could point out that he’d been oddly jumpy, but there was a sensor in the mix and Zabuza had active bounties. Patting the head of the hinny I looked back, “If we get a cart, can I tinker in the back while it moves?”
“Fine,” He said as he tied a lead around the hinny’s neck, “We’re moving on.”