You’d think it’d be a relief that I got to ride on the back of a mule rather than having to walk. In theory, that might be a boon. In practice, I was bored out of my skull.
It wasn’t that walking at normal civilian speed wouldn’t be boring otherwise, but I could still do things with my free hand while we did that. Not much, mind you, but still. I could practice folding paper, go over combat sign language, practice my single hand signs, or even sew. Not when I was riding, because I basically had to use all that arm to hang onto the animal as it moved. It wasn’t even going that fast, it was just that there was no saddle to lean back into, no stirrups to rest my feet and no bit and lead for me to grip onto. The place where we’d gotten the mule didn’t have any small enough for it. Instead, it was just a rope that was in Zabuza’s free hand as he led Rio along. I couldn’t use chakra to stick to her back because we’d been outright forbidden from using ANY chakra at all. It seemed like an odd precaution, but we had NO IDEA how sensitive that sensor was, so it was one we took regardless.
“Hey, I hear a river nearby, can we follow it to a lake and go swimming?” Suigetsu intoned as he walked backwards with his arms behind his back.
“No.” Zabuza shut him down.
“But we’ve been walking for hours!”
“We’re following this road until we hit a town, then we’ll take a break.” Zabuza growled.
“Oh come on!” Suigetsu put his hands up into the air then looked at a passing cart. “Can’t we ask them for a lift?”
“No, we aren’t inconveniencing someone else. Now shut your mouth.”
“You can’t tell me what to do, old man.” Suigetsu responded.
“He actually can.” Chojuro replied meekly, “I mean, that’s what accepting the apprenticeship means.”
“Nobody asked you.” Suigetsu said before he turned away and scowled at the cart as it moved.
My chin rested on the top of the hinny’s head as Suigetsu sulked. It’d be more impressive if we hadn’t done some version of the same conversation at least a few times, though always with a slightly different script.
The content always changed a bit, last time it was Suigetsu complaining about not riding Rio instead of me. Another was about him being hungry and wanting to go fishing. Before this one, he’d insisted he’d seen a rabbit in the forest and wanted to see if he could catch it. It didn’t matter, this was a staged fight that happened at least once an hour.
According to Zabuza and Haku, one of the biggest mistakes a shinobi can make while they’re pretending to be civilians is acting too stoic. Being quiet and trying to stay out of the way might have been great if you were ACTUALLY a civilian, but when you’re hiding from other shinobi that was the last thing you wanted to do. So instead, we were encouraged to act on something no one expected shinobi to do when on a mission, complaining.
Which would have been more fun if I was allowed to do it.
Unfortunately, Haku and I had to remain silent during the play acting since those looking for us knew our voices and they might have a hearing based sensor nearby. At least a few of the older customs about women reinforced why we in particular wouldn’t speak on the matter, or any matters. Which I found ironic since the Land of Water wasn’t even patriarchal naturally.
The traditional Land of Water custom among civilians was gerontocracy, or being led by the elders, which meant the older generation led regardless of gender. A lot of the older villages were led by elderly women and the nobility itself was equal parts male and female even though the current Water Daimyo and his heirs were male. That wasn’t because a female daimyo couldn’t inherit, it was just that was what the current daimyo had.
Shinobi society, at least in the Land of Water, was much the same. Though all the previous Mizukages were male, that was less for patriarchal reasons and more for pragmatic ones. Mainly, becoming a Mizukage meant you had to be objectively one of the most, if not the most powerful ninja in the village. And while there were several powerful women shinobi, the strongest shinobi were those who got into the most front line direct battles, from sheer experience. Which was the place women generally weren’t assigned for the purposes of repopulating after times of war, since when it came to maintaining a population women were more valuable than men, so women were kept out of places they’d be more likely to die. Most women shinobi, if they got late into their careers, made their way into leadership roles.
Probably why there wasn’t actually much blow back from Mei becoming the Mizukage, if I thought about it.
Still, on the mainland it seemed like most places were more classical feudal patriarchy, at least among civilians. So being seen and not heard was good enough for me and Haku to play the part, but it was still annoying to actually do.
As the fake argument died down I leaned my whole body forward on Rio and set my chin into the fur of her neck. Unlike the stables we got her from, she didn’t smell of hay and piss, in fact she didn’t smell of much at all, except for the faint smell most fur had. Considering how light colored her fur was, she might have been recently cleaned. Maybe even this morning if they had been planning to sell her from the start. It didn’t smell dirty or like sweat, but our pace wasn’t that harsh and the weather was mild.
Closing my eyes, I pushed my face more into the fur. It was so warm and thick, so much thicker than Danny’s, but just as soft. I let the wraps on my fingers uncoil a bit so I could entwine them with the hairs on the underside of the neck I had my arm wrapped around. I couldn’t see it before in my last life, but laying so close, brushing the fur with my face and hands, I could see how people might be so attached to horses or pack animals. Especially ones this fluffy.
Was this the reason why they didn’t train us to ride in the academy?
The image of my platoon all lining up to be placed on the back of a horse and taught to move around a field before starting races suddenly popped into my head. Feeding them hay and maybe coming back later to sneak them treats when the instructors weren’t there. Brushing the manes, before getting into a fight or maybe throwing the brushes at each other or getting into slap fights because they wanted to braid the hair and the others got in the way, and singing, because of course they’d be singing. They’d sing and they’d sing, and they’d be fascinated, and would make up nonsensical lyrics, Enji would probably beat on the side of the stable with a horse shoe to get the rhythm going. They would have been so happy.
The heat in my cheeks increased as I felt water dripping. I rubbed my face deeper into the fur to push away the fur, but it didn’t stop the strangled breaths that escaped my constricting throat. The words came out softly as my gut twisted, soft and silly, but fresh in my memory, “Yankee doodle, went to town, riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.”
“Kyoko?” Chojuro set a hand on my shoulder and I shivered at the touch. A rise of emotion, subtle, but slow. It was hard to parse, but knowing Chojuro it was probably concern or something similar. I squeezed my eyes shut as the tears streamed down my face and it took two or three breaths before I opened my eyes and met his.
“I’m okay.” The words came out as steady as I could manage them, but there was still a tightness in them that made him wince. Pulling the canteen off his belt, he held it up for me to drink. Awkwardly I slid my arm a bit around so that the hand gripped the complete opposite side of Rio’s head as I edged my body out to take a sip. The precarious positioning of the motion made me tighten my thighs around Rio’s body as I drank deeply from the water even as we walked. It worked for a few seconds, then suddenly Rio’s head reared up, ears twitching as she stared into the woods.
That look lasted all of a second before the feeling hit me. It was an aura, but it wasn’t coming from the woods. Instead, it came from Zabuza. It was a thick, potent intent that hit me, but it had another interesting effect on Rio, who bolted out into the woods like someone had thrown a bees’ nest on her, dragging me along for the ride.
I didn’t get any time to cry out or react other than to hang on for dear life as I stared backwards, the mist started to thicken and the rest of us split away.
You know, people underestimate just how little control you have when your mount decides to go its own way. Especially if one doesn’t have the luxury of a saddle, or a bit, or reigns, or two arms.
Suffice to say, I really didn’t have much say in where I was going with Rio, who darted through the trees with an amount of grace and speed I hadn’t seen her use before. She certainly had no trouble with the change in terrain, as she jumped over several rocks as well as leaped over a creek. All while I clung on for dear… well, not life, falling off a mule wouldn’t have killed me, but it would definitely hurt and I didn’t really want to lose Rio in the woods.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say that it took me longer than a minute to get into the mentality that I could just stick myself to Rio with chakra again, since clearly something odd was happening and hiding our signatures was likely a non factor. By this point I couldn’t even see the road as I pushed myself up from Rio’s back and looked around as she darted through the trees. I knew we were separated, but I didn’t know if this was an accident or by design. Given Zabuza’s actions, the latter seemed more likely.
“But why?” I said softly as I looked down to see Rio was starting to slow down. I supposed she could only run for so long. Pulling my leg over one side, I winced at the pins and needles from it having fallen asleep before I pushed some chakra into it and slid off her back with my hand still gripping her mane. The hinny seemed ready to bolt again, but I led her to the side, whispered softly and tied her lead to a tree. I pulled out one of Minami’s ignore me seals, set it on the ground then did a transformation jutsu over the two of us to make us look like a large rock for good measure.
It was the most reasonable thing I could do at the time. Running would just make me tired and make it easier for me to be isolated from whatever was happening. Setting traps would take a lot of time, and risk an ally tripping them if they came after us. Actively looking for my companions might run me straight into an ambush with whomever was doing this. So I hid and waited with Rio.
The hinny, after a few minutes, decided to sit down, which meant I had to adjust the henge, but it wasn’t that hard and I was glad to sit down with her too as I just thought about what was happening.
Or really, I thought about the lead up to what was happening. Something about all of this didn’t add up. Mainly, Zabuza’s actions. Why send me away? I could take care of myself just fine if something was happening. It wasn’t like I was tired. I hadn’t even been walking. Was it fear? What was Zabuza afraid of? The sensor, no that didn’t make sense. We’d JUST met them. Sure, they were a liability, but it seemed like more than what he was saying. Just like this entire trip was, really. We’d been at this for about a month, only found one solid lead, which was a bust. Now where were we going? Did we even have a place to go?
That was the problem though, it was much too broad a purpose for this mission. We had no actual leads, just wild guesses, and a time frame that was more or less indefinite. Was there even an end point here? We were heading towards Land of Fire, but we weren’t going to Konoha so what was the direction? Zabuza hadn’t told us, just vaguely wanted us to get away as fast as possible.
Letting out a puff of air I leaned backwards and tried to take my mind off of things. At least I did until something burst through the trees.
The bloodied form of the masked kiri hunter nin followed by the long haired boy made me almost bolt upright.