“I can’t believe we’re delivering the exploding kappa eggs,” Hachi grumbled as their boat glided along the Kiso River.
“They’re firepots,” Shindara insisted.
“Nonsense! But if what you’re saying is true, then these jars are infused with the same magic that makes kappa eggs so highly explosive! After all, that demon Hrioshango had a hand in their design, did he not? Mikoto said as much.”
“Please don’t ever say that again out loud. Not in front of me, not in front of Mikoto, not in front of an imperial guard…”
“It’s fine if you can’t handle the truth. I mean, honestly, it’s quite obvious that they’re using the kilns to heat these eggs to just the right consistency so that they’re unstable when thrown. We were standing on top of a fresh kappa egg farm.”
Shindara grunted as he maneuvered the ukai boat along a rough current. A fire blazed in an iron basket dangling from a pole near the front of the boat. The crackling flames parted the evening gloom that heralded their passage. Their smuggled cargo was concealed in baskets along with a number of rations. If the firepots were as sustainable as Mikoto claimed, they would be more than capable of surviving the journey. Shindara hoped he could say the same of his companion, who was leaning dangerously over the edge of the boat.
“Very well,” the scribe said. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll call them exploding kappa eggs, too.”
Hachi immediately pulled back from the river in bewilderment.
“At last! You’re the first person to take my side!”
“Just remember, if we’re caught by the Taira, we’re only fishermen. Never mind the fact that we have no idea how to catch fish with cormorants.”
A dozen sea birds trailed the ukai boat by leashes, grunting and dunking their heads underwater in search of a fresh catch.
The Kiso River flowed lazily through a stretch of untamed countryside on the way to the village of Juku. Shindara thought he saw a few lonely hamlets and shrines scattered along the river bank, but his eyes deceived him. Rugged forests cloaked the shore, where one could easily find themselves at the mercy of the darkness. Wild hogs were known to scrounge for food in the deep valleys beyond the woods without fear of humans.
Shindara treasured the silence as their nocturnal journey stretched from one river bend to another. Even Hachi had fallen under the spell of the murmuring waters, as he was content to gaze into the fire and sip from a dried gourd filled with sake.
In fact, the persistent grunting of the cormorants had also vanished. An intrigued Shindara looked over his shoulder.
“What happened to the birds?”
The cormorants were nowhere to be found, but their leashes dragged freely in the water.
Hachi leaned over the boat.
“I’m sure there’s a completely reasonable explanation for--”
A webbed claw burst from the water and clamped down on his hand. Hachi screamed and nearly tumbled off the boat. As he caught his breath, a humanoid face emerged from the river. Hachi almost forgot how to speak as he was confronted by a strange cross between a monkey and a turtle.
Shindara immediately drew the Obsidian Blade and swiped at the river demon. It cackled like a possessed child and withdrew underwater.
“Why didn’t the Obsidian Blade warn you?” Hachi screamed. Before Shindara could answer, he heard the violent thrashing of water ahead. Hachi peered over the boat to see the commotion for himself and his heart dropped into his gut.
“By the gods… anything but kappa.”