Old Kenji lead his cart of animals along the winding dirt track beside the wall, back towards his home. It was Spring, and the mud was just starting to dry up. The cherry blossoms choked the air all around the little cart, a fluffy pink reminder of Nature's beauty. Kenji tried to enjoy them as he held the silk hanky to his nose. His poor old eyes were lined with red. Of all the things to be allergic to, he though. "Beauty makes me sneeze" was his claim to any of the shop girls that asked after him in the market. They all called him "Grandfather", but he didn't feel old. His age disagreed with him.

When he was a younger man, he tended the horses for Samurai, an honored post. He broke the wildest stallions and healed the most vicious battle wounds. It was a grand station in life. But then, as things do, it changed. He fell in love with a girl, the daughter of a scribe. They wed and moved away and tended a great farm. Prosperity and wealth were good friends. Then, again, everything changed. Kenji found his home in ruins, dashed uncaringly under the feet of warring clans fighting to be Shogun. Nyoko died of the wasting disease that followed the armies. Kenji was alone, in an empty hovel, surrounded by hungry ghosts of the past. The Oni spoke to him in his dreams, driving him away. Kenji turned to peddling, selling the animals from his farm in the city. Slowly, his wares grew more exotic. Civet cats from China, well bred cats and pug-faced dogs, crickets in bamboo cages and a big stoneware pot full of Koi, songbirds in boxes and mice in a basket, squat little pigs from Siam and white-faced monkeys, fat young ducks and small yellow chicks, he peddled his pets to those he judged had good hearts. He kept only his old one-eyed Pug Fu, and his sturdy steppe pony Koma. Fu would have no other master, loyal and ugly and happy all in one, and tireless Koma pulled the cart and asked only to eat the grass when they stopped.

It was on his trek through the blooming trees that Kenji happened to meet his favorite customer. As usual, he began to whistle, a touch too loudly to just be entertaining himself. Some of the caged birds joined the chorus. When he met the edge of the great tree, he stopped and stooped to adjust his sandals, even though they needed no fixing. A tiny pebble knocked his on the top of his straw hat. Kenji jumped up and made a puzzled face. "Are the very trees attacking me?" he called out. A giggle answered. "Oh! it is a forest devil! She means to steal my face and eat you Fu! Let us run away!". Kenji motioned to the little dog, coaxing him to bark his gruff bark. "I believe you are right Fu. It must be Kuri, hitting poor old men with chestnuts."

"Fu always knows!" called out the little girl, from high in the tree.

"Hello Little Empress. What will we sell to you today?", asked Kenji. Kuri scampered down the branches to stand beside his cart. She should be on the other side of the stone wall that the tree overhangs, thought Kenji. "Has your father found out where you get your pets yet", he asked.

"No, he assumes I am a great huntress, and that our estate is a wonderland of nature. I have a special request today, Master Kenji. I need a special animal." Kuri stood with her little hands on her hips, serious and imperial. Kenji stood to attention. "Yes my Empress!" he playfully offered. Kuri was no royalty, but her father was a wealthy bureaucrat that was careless with his coins. "What shall we sell you today? I cannot sell you Fu, as he is too ugly, and I cannot sell you Koma, as he is too pretty. Any other, but please not these!"

"Oh, you always say that." said Kuri, her eyes rolling with impatience." I need your help to fix something. Something terrible has happened!". Kuri's eyes filled with serious tears. "I knew I shouldn't have left her alone." she sobbed.

Kuri told her tale. When last they met, Kenji has sold her a noisy little duckling, largely to get it off his cart. Kuri fell in love, as she did every time, and carried it up the tree and into her private world of wealth. She followed the squawking little bird round and round the huge koi pond, feeding it rice and laughing as the fish nibbled at it. Soon, night fell and she desperately tried to herd the animal into the house. The duckling would have nothing to do with that. As her father herded her into the house, she cried and struggled, the willful duck paddled around it's new home.

When the house was quiet and asleep, Kuri snuck out into the dark. She carried her father's cane as weapon against the terrors of the night. Kuri could not, would not sleep while her pet was alone in the dark. When she called out and heard no quacking, she felt a dread feeling. The rustling in the reeds had a tone to it that spelled tragedy. Kuri moved into the weeds, and she found her pet. A water snake, one of her earlier purchases, had caught her new pet, and was in the act of eating it, its jaw unhinged. Kuri beat the weeds with the stick, screaming, and the snake left it's prey. The broken little duck lay in the cool grass.

Kuri buried her lost love under the great tree. Her broken heart filled with a righteous child's thirst for vengeance. The snake, black hearted murderer, must die. She grilled her tutors on what natural enemies she could use to balance out the karma of her garden. She was treated to stories of mongooses and eagles, dragons and spirits. Of all the names, Kuri found one most interesting. A badger. All her tutors agreed that it was a most angry, foul animal, with sharp claws and strong jaws, a spitting snarling avatar of revenge. Kuri dreamed of her black and white demon destroying the monstrous snake, traitor to her heart.

Kenji listened intently. When she finished, opened his hands and shrugged, delivering the bad news. While Kuri cried against his arm, Kenji deftly opened a cage and extracted an orange kitten. Soon, the evils of the world were washed away by waves of purring.

When the new friends left, Kenji continued on his way.

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