Kaworu reached a slow-moving eddy and knelt, scooping water in his hands and bringing it to his mouth. It was cool and only faintly fishy. He dipped his hands for a second drink.
Fingers coiled about his wrists and jerked sharply. Kaworu pitched forward, barely catching breath before he went underwater. He twisted his legs beneath him and kicked, but the grip on his arms was immovable and it drew him down, down—
Someone else grasped his hair, then his shoulder, and then the grip shifted beneath his arm and pulled upward. Kaworu kicked out and connected with something hard and slick, unyielding. He writhed and saw for the first time a shape before him. More hands clutched him. With a rush of panic he twisted again, desperate to reach the surface.
And then they were moving up, and Kaworu’s head broke the surface. He threw back his face and gasped deep, sucking precious air before he could be drawn down again. But the hands beneath his arms held firm and pulled him against the bank.
He blinked water from his eyes and looked at the kappa still holding his wrists. It was smaller than his human shape, the size of a child. Its beak was only a hand’s breadth from his face. Kaworu pressed backward against the bank, digging for purchase with his heels, and Tsurugu leaned over his shoulder to face the kappa.
The kappa turned from Kaworu to Tsurugu. “This one came to me.”
Kaworu tried to turn his arms to break the hold on his wrists, as he’d been taught, but the kappa’s solid grip pinned his wrists together. Genji’s hands shifted about his torso to grasp Kaworu more securely, bracing him against the bank.
“This one is not yours,” Tsurugu answered. “Return him to me, if you please.”
The kappa clacked its beak angrily. “I am hungry, and I have caught him in my own domain.”
Kaworu kicked again, but again he struck the kappa’s turtle-like shell and the creature hardly seemed to note the blow.
Tsurugu shifted forward and began to chant. The kappa looked wary, and then it jumped as the water began to move out of the current’s natural flow. The kappa hissed and glared at Tsurugu. “You wish to match strength?”
“No, kappa-sama,” replied Tsurugu. “I wish to have this boy returned. But I would not deprive you; we will bring in return two cucumbers to make your meal.”
The kappa blinked and brightened. “You will barter for him?”
“He is worth it to me, yes.”
“Three cucumbers, then.”
The kappa nodded. “Your bargain is acceptable, onmyouji-sama.”
His hands still on Kaworu’s shoulders, Tsurugu bowed low. “Thank you for your kind understanding.”
The kappa bowed in the water, showing the lilypad depression at the top of his head. “Thank you for your kind generosity.”
The pressure on Kaworu’s wrists ceased, and he scrambled backward against the bank. Genji pulled hard and he fell back on the grass, winded and shaken.
“I shall expect the cucumbers this evening,” said the kappa, and then it sank into the water, its blue-green hide vanishing instantly into the mud and plants and current.
For a moment, Kaworu couldn’t speak. They had not known of a kappa, and he had nearly died. It was Genji who said, “I don’t know that the cook will give us cucumbers tonight.”
“You’d better thieve them, then,” Tsurugu said, “loath as I am to encourage your mischief. But you daren’t break faith with the kappa. Their memories are long, and you cannot avoid water forever.”
Kaworu imagined that sharp beak tearing flesh from his drowning body.
“And bear in mind,” Tsurugu continued, “that tonight’s offering is only for this day. Be cautious when you approach the river next time.”