When he was young, he was afraid of the road to Kyoto. It wound past the village and the inn and plunged into the trees, disappearing where his father told him he couldn’t follow. People who stayed in their rooms and ate under their roof would follow the road the next day, perhaps two days later, and he wouldn’t see them again; they disappeared with the road, in the woods and past the lake nearer to the next village than their own.
It wasn’t until he was nine that he learned he shouldn’t fear the road, or the forest it led into- he should have been afraid of what was inside. There were stories of strange things in the woods, but it was that year he actually saw something come out of them. It had been late on a winter afternoon, on a day when there were no guests and the sun was just beginning to slip down into dusk. He and his mother had been outside doing something- he didn’t remember what, really, as that wasn’t the important part- and something he couldn’t see clearly other than being dark against the white snow came out, stumbling and jerking.
“Ken!” His mother’s arm came down to grip his shoulder, her small and sharp fingernails digging into him even through thick fabric. “Ken!”
“What is it? Is there someone here?” Kaya Ken never liked being dragged out in the middle of his accounts, and less so when the weather was bad. His mother pointed wordlessly, hand still painful on him, and his father turned and went back into the house without another word. As the thing approached and his mother drew him back, he could see perhaps the most frightening thing of all- it had a face. Not a human one, and dominated by a beak, but definitely a face.
There had been a wakizashi hanging on the wall next to where his parents slept for as long as he could remember, but he’d never once seen it used, or so much as taken down for polishing. His father carried the blade when he came outside again. He hadn’t known his father knew how to use it.
“Son,” he said tensely, uncharacteristically using a name other than his given name more out of a desire to save breath and time than out of any sort of affection, “Take your mother inside.”
He took his mother inside. Or rather, she took him inside, since her small hand with its sharp nails was oddly heavy on his shoulder, leading him in.
Now he is thirteen, too old to be afraid of what lurked past the dark fringe of trees. His father had driven back whatever it was and come inside as if nothing had happened; he cleaned the wakizashi and returned it to the wall, and never mentioned another word about the incident where his son could hear him.
Kaya Fuyuuinnenbippu, who tries to think of himself in pronouns because his name is too long to use even mentally, is hanging laundry when the first and last visitor of the day arrives. It’s early in the afternoon, too late for a nighttime traveler to stop for the morning and too early for a daytime traveler to stop for the night, and they rarely see guests arrive at such a time. He’s behind the inn, not in front of it, because according to his mother respectable people don’t hang their laundry in front for the whole world to see, and as a result can’t see the visitor.
“Sir?” He can hear his mother all the way back here, and that means one of two things. Either this guest isn’t up to her standards and will be loudly turned away so that she can complain later about ‘the dreadful state of things lately,’ or something about the guest tells her that he has money and status, and she wants the entire town to know who is staying at the Kaya inn. “If you’ll give me your trunk, I’ll have my son carry it in for you.”
He’s performed this dance of ettiquette so many times that he’s memorized his cue to enter and take the rich man’s trunk upstairs. So he stops hanging laundry to dry and walks around the building, eyeing the trees that start not far from their inn warily despite himself. The Kaya family keeps its inn near the far end of the small town, close- foolishly close, according to some- to where the forest begins, and he’s watched where the trees swallow the road since he was very young.
The only difference is, now that he’s older he doesn’t watch because of the trees- he watches because of what may come out of them.
“Fuyuuinnenbippu! Get the man’s trunk immediately, and take it upstairs to the last room.” Kaya Asa orders him, and she wears the look on her face that wonders why she didn’t choose to wear a nicer kimono today, why the last room on the second floor- the nicest one in their small inn- isn’t better, and why that good-for-nothing carter hasn’t delivered their rice yet.
This man doesn’t look like the sort of man that usually gets this reaction from Kaya Asa. He does wear his gray-streaked hair in a topknot, but that’s the only sign of status about his person. His clothes are worn and obviously old, and his trunk is battered- and no nobleman ever carried his trunk for himself. He carries something sheathed and wrapped on his back that could be anything, from a weapon to merely a bundle of things that didn’t fit into his trunk. But then he sees the small bag in his mother’s hands and knows that this man has given her a great deal of money to earn this treatment.
“Yes, mother,” he says obediently, taking the trunk and the bundle from their guest, who looks at him solemnly.