Anonymous 2016/06/18 (Sat) 07:26 No. 1942 ▼
Sekibanki was squinting through the clear bottom of her tankard. The last golden droplets gathered on its edge. She deliberated going for another round soon.
When she lowered the glass, and looked on who sat opposite at her table, she deliberated going even sooner.
The taproom air was viscous with smoke. Three or four braziers, spaced among the crowded drinking tables, filled it with both warmth and a stink of burnt resin. The pine wood must have been fresh from the forest. The air was thick with other things as well – talk one of them, and some pitiful twanging in a corner of the room another – yet these Sekibanki had dismissed as beyond what little care she nursed. The heaters too, but what comfort they gave in this wintry season she quietly appreciated. A faint sigh whispered between Sekibanki’s lips. She had been attempting to negotiate the remains of her drink down the tall wall of the tankard, but the trail dried about half-way, and the only taste she was awarded was of disappointment. At last she put it down, in her mind’s heart reaching a weary decision. She shuffled to a stand.
The man opposite of her caught the motion by the tail. An unassuming face raised her a questioning brow.
For one more instant he did not speak. Only once Sekibanki was free of her chair did a slightly accented voice issue into the din of the taproom.
A monosyllabic query was presented. Sekibanki turned her head left and right a fraction. Her neck itched.
“One more,” she said. Her eyes slid down to the table, to the man’s unfinished drink. He had two, maybe three sips to go. “You?”
The man followed her gaze. He picked up his tankard and downed it in one. Then he breathed his reply.
Sekibanki sketched a nod. She squeezed past their nearest neighbours, and headed for the bar. The hour was later than propriety recommended, but even this did not relieve the drink-house from the attention of souls who had stored their propriety back at home. And who’s talking? Sekibanki asked herself inside. There was no reply (not yet anyway), and she made the way to her destination wanting senseless conversation. Of this much, she was glad.
The barkeep was a textbook specimen of his ilk, ox-shouldered and cursed forever to chew on something in the side of his mouth. He measured the red-headed girl with a curt question, “What’ll be?” and Sekibanki ordered two servings of the bitter local ale.
As the drinks were poured, she dared a sweep sideways at the room. Nobody was staring in her direction. Almost she released a tiny smile of relief. Almost. She kept the corners of her lips from quirking up by scratching at her neck with one hand. Her collar was damp with sweat.
She exchanged a few coins from her purse for the new tankards, and somewhat lighter of step, went on to torment the other customers with a second passing. She arrived at her table without a disaster, and presented one of the glasses to her companion. Then she sat down, marking only the tiniest nod of gratitude before committing to her own drink. She wet her throat, swallowed, and exhaled the hoppy fumes. She instantly felt better.
They didn’t talk, like the others were at volume all around. They never did.
Well, that isn’t entirely true, thought Sekibanki. I asked him just then, and he replied. That counts for talk, doesn’t it? A moment came and passed that she toyed with the idea of keeping count from here on out, but it was one borne of foolishness. The man dedicated his silence to his own mental exercise, and Sekibanki – to hers. This was their arrangement. This was what they had judged for the best. Time had not changed it. Nor would it. Not tonight. Not likely ever.
How long has this been going on now? she questioned herself, staring emptily sideward from their table. A few weeks at the least… perhaps a month? Two? Three? More? Tracking the passage of days came a difficult thing to an ageless thing such as she, and the years (or were they?) of living disguised among these people had not disabused Sekibanki of this falling. Only the regular festivities the Human Village so adored stayed her time from blending into a formless dream. Too often had the quiet red-headed townswoman woken in the pale hours of the morning to hear another holy-day date arrived outside the window. Too often had she found it eerily close to the previous.
Still she had attended each. Still she had stood each day and joined the hamlet life of these people for whom she felt no kinship. Once, she had still questioned why. That time was now a thing of history. This much even the calendar-immune Sekibanki could say for certain.
So how long? The question returned, with a nagging she would have thought reserved for greater boredom. Their current meeting – hers and her companion’s – was definitely yet another in a venerable sequence, but which one was an utter mystery, not least because nearly all of them were twin to one another. They met, they annexed a table, drank with their own thoughts, then retired to their homes. This routine had aged enough by now to develop an unspoken agreement on which paid for the drinks on this or that night, and Sekibanki had welcomed the freedom to partake of alcohol at another’s expense every other week. This, of course, was a poor illusion – their tab would be balanced no sooner than her turn came to act the sponsor, but she had enjoyed it all the same. It proved mysteriously comfortable.
None of that, however, was the actual reason for their queer compact. That had been a simpler matter by half.
Sekibanki despised company.
To be more precise what she despised was the clumsy fraternising of humans. Singularly, she loathed the invasive attentions of their male half. So then, why was it that her current company was not only a human, but worse yet – very plainly of the less fair gender? This Sekibanki could answer easily were anyone to pose this situation before her (nobody did anyway), and the answer was simplicity itself.
Nobody bothered a girl in the ostensive attendance of a man.
This, perhaps obvious, technicality of social configuration had allowed her to spend many an evening over a drink – drink served cold, unlike at her home – spared the niggling attentions of men looking to acquaint this strange, but at once striking, red-headed young woman. Those men looked away, even now. The quiet, odd-spoken one across the table insured this much.
He had a name, Sekibanki reminded herself. What was it? He must have given it as some point, but there was no instance of it in Sekibanki’s memory. Small matter. He butchered mine anyway. The man had only addressed her by name once, and the name had come out as “Seki.” Not that he’d curtailed it. That had been the extent he had heard it from those few villagers who had for some unknowable end committed her to heart. Sekibanki could not guess at why.
Yet even had she inquired around after this one’s name, she nurtured no doubt she would have run against a wall. The man opposite of her was a stranger. An outlander. Some would venture intruder. Those from beyond the Great Barrier who had stumbled inside were as a rule returned peaceably at a request to the shrine maiden of Hakurei or the crone Yakumo – but still every rule has its exceptions. Those determined to remain were made into a better or worse addition to the Human Village’s workforce. This one – this man who sometimes paid for Sekibanki’s drinks – was just such an instance. Or was he?
No. Another exception, Sekibanki remembered. This one doesn’t fit in. Why, he reminds me of someone else I could name… This man, unlike those come in precedence, had made no attempt to assimilate into this new commune to which he had, perhaps not entirely consciously, surrendered the remainder of his hourglass lifespan. This man spoke his accented tongue with the tenacity of someone after preservation work, and granted very few the opportunity to corrupt it.
To his imaginable relief, very few tried in the first place.
Nor had Sekibanki. Their first meeting had seen no more than a few sentences spoken, and rather out of courtesy than anything else which might have been imagined. “This seat free?” “Why do you ask?” “Mind you?” “Go ahead.” “Sorry if I’m quiet.” “No, it’s fine.” There would have been nothing exceptional about it either, had Sekibanki not marked an acute waning in the number of attempts at conversation from neighbouring regulars. The chance, against all odds, had turned out a discreet blessing, and Sekibanki, in a rare moment of enthusiasm, counted out seven Sun-dawns, after which she walked down to the taproom once more.
In an amusing reversal, she was the one inquiring after the state of the seat that time.
Sekibanki sensed something like a smile oncoming at her own internal cleverness, and she sought to drown it in her drink.
The smile died all right, but not in alcoholic agony. The drink was out.
She muttered, and set her tankard back down. With a strange, confused feeling of regret she noted her companion’s glass was empty as well. Have we learned to match our paces? Their gazes managed someway to cross each other, and the man glanced meaningfully to the big oaken door exiting the drink-house, then back to Sekibanki. The collar around her neck began itching again.
“Yes,” she gave a simple confirmation.
There was no response but for the screech of wood on wood as her companion stood to leave.
The night outside had adulterated into its darkest hours.
Still unspeaking but for a startled complaint of cold, Sekibanki’s drinking partner, quite on his own, began at a hurried pace in the direction of her house. The red-headed girl had offended at the idea of being escorted home the first time this had happened, but the man had given her no ground to argue. “This is for my own comfort,” he had insisted. And anyway what might she do to prevent him from walking beside her? There may have been a few things if one looked, but somehow – someway – Sekibanki had managed to contain those to the realm of frustrated speculation.
Soon they reached her little house near the outskirts of the village, and Sekibanki turned just in time to see the man veer off and leave in the same vague orientation he always, always did. A few more moments and he was out of sight, vanished in a branching alley, and she could stare after him no more.
As always, there had been no goodbyes.
Once she had been delivered to her doorstep, the man’s work was as good as done. As always, he took this precise moment to disappear, quicker than his presence may be marked by any eyes watching from the curtained windows. Never saying a word, never looking back. As always, before she was any wise to it, Sekibanki was once more alone on the shadowed street.
As always, Sekibanki felt something stirring in her chest.
Not irritation – for she would have thrown herself into the River of the Dead before irritating at something so insubstantial – but a sense of urgency. A deep and barely resistible pull to do something – to twist her head from her shoulders, to hurl it after this man, to hear his panicked screams, to corner him in some black, lonely dead end somewhere between the sleeping houses, and…
“… Calm down.” The voice which said it was her own. “You can’t. Calm down.”
Sekibanki released her breath with an effort. Her neck was aflame. She scratched at her collar vigorously with both hands. When she wrenched them away, there was warm meat under her fingernails.
She was shrugging out of her “outing” clothes even before the front door of her house had fully closed behind her. The darkness of her home roused and came alive as more of her emerged, woken from deathlike slumber on the bed, the shelves, cupboards and floor. There were whispers in that darkness, but none other than her own starved voice. Sekibanki stamped over to the closet where she kept her measly selection of clothes, and retrieved a more appropriate set.
A shirt as tar-black as the night, and a cape as crimson-red as freshly spilled blood.
More whispers surged around her as she pulled on these work clothes, giddy all over. Whispers of anticipation. Of promise. Of hunger. Sekibanki flourished her cape, and the heads floating in the air loosed a howl of glee.
She span, and went for the front door. This night, people of the Human Village would be going home happy and inebriated. This night, the distance to their homes would be walked in blissful inattention to the dangers lurking just beyond the reach of light. This night, whosoever should dare peer into the face of the dark, would see it staring back with a dozen blood-shot eyes.
This night, what the dark would turn out, would be a headless terror and her grisly entourage.
Anonymous 2016/06/19 (Sun) 19:16 No. 1951 ▼
I can see why it was ignored on /jp/: It was too highbrow for them.
I like the style; there's a more literary bent to it than a lot of things on this site. Sekibanki's struggle with her own nature is clear throughout, and the ending pretty clearly shows the victor of it. The only point of criticism I'd bring up is that Sekibanki's outsider companion seemed set up as more important than he ended up being to the narrative. Maybe that was intentional? It came across to me like there was going to maybe be some significance in the character himself, but that faded out just as quickly as it came. I could just be misinterpreting the whole story, though.
At any rate, keep writing. There are enough eager consumers left here to sustain it.
Anonymous 2016/07/30 (Sat) 00:41 No. 1955 ▼
- (164.74KB, 475x650, __sekibanki_touhou_drawn_by_urin__430e55b520e8df11
For all she might discern, this could well have been the previous dozen times.
From the chairs of their table, looking anywhere but straight down, it was possible to watch the accustomed backdrop of their meetings. All lengthwise the taproom, tables not unlike theirs were busy to capacity. Though the final snows of the winter had long run into wet slush, fur- and overcoat-clad backs were in evidence among the drinkers. The braziers, usually heating the room, had been removed a fortnight before – inviting heavier dress; still Sekibanki had welcomed having at last been spared the need to wash the reek of smoke out of her clothes every end of the week. The coldest stretch of the year had definitely had shortcomings otherwise than stiffened digits and chattering teeth. Sekibanki, if indeed only she, was satisfied by its passage.
All the same, things persisted which even the rotation of seasons could not wash away. These meetings, for instance.
Almost delivering one unsociable sigh, Sekibanki drew instead heftily from her glass of drink, enough to fill her mouth. A moment she allowed the sourness of its taste to mix with her mood, before at once swallowing it down. The action left her shoulders tensing in a delicious shudder.
The man opposite of her engaged in no such wine-aided calisthenics. Were Sekibanki to attempt at levity, she would have said he proved quieter than the rule tonight.
As quiet anyway, she amused inside, as a man at a drink may be. Though not to take away from him, there is no shortage of louder examples.
Sekibanki curbed a warning tightening of her chest as she realised she was staring. Again. Willing it down, she delegated her eyes to counting bubbles in her drink. These, unguarded, moments had been many too many this night – not unlikely compounded by all the mulled wine she was taking in. Sekibanki’s mouth took on a crook to match.
Still even this was melted from her face as soon as another back-straightening sip. This, most recent, addition to the taproom’s wide array of treats was too wonderful a mixture to spoil with such petty concerns. To do so would have been an insult to winemakers everywhere. Not least to the one manning the bar behind her back. This, Sekibanki did not want to risk.
She drank again of her sour drink, and enjoyed another pleasant shiver.
Then she set her glass back down – and found herself looking straight into a pair of uncomfortable eyes.
The gasp came from an uncertain direction, but whichever one of them it was had issued it, it left Sekibanki’s partner’s mouth hanging open in a fix. The man’s gaze, ambushed, dropped to the table – yet just as soon it returned, something like a decision forging behind it even as Sekibanki looked on. Against the best judgement, she schooled her own eyes to hold.
The man on the other side of the table sucked in a breath. The lukewarm taproom air wheezed between his clamped teeth. Then, with a visible difficulty, a low, accented voice was given its release.
“I apologise,” said Sekibanki’s unlikely partner. “I do not remember your name.”
The stark admission almost made the red-headed girl to reel.
Alcohol and shock had spoken, and at once Sekibanki reproached herself inside for sounding so startled.
“Yes,” he confirmed. A nod was slowly drawn. “I apologise.”
There was no falsehood in his words, however she searched them – only a firm expectation that she would excuse his slip of manners. Sekibanki raked her muddled thoughts for an appropriately dismissive reply.
“That’s—” she began, but all that followed was a helpless, “That’s… fine.” There was no understanding in her voice, so she shook her head and tried again. “That’s fine.”
“Then it is…?” the man prompted.
“Seki—” Sekibanki started automatically, before apprehension reined in her tongue. At length she managed to crush it out with a will, and supplied, “My name is Sekibanki.”
Her partner’s eyes blinked in dim recognition. “Ah. That’s right. I have heard it. Seki Banki. That’s it.”
A pause crawled between them, long and fat and seeming keen to settle.
Was that it? Sekibanki might not keep out a touch of surprise at the conversation – however stunted and brief it had been. Her face squelched, and her brows came together above her nose. This was conversation, wasn’t it? Or had she in her advanced cups merely imagined her own voice giving up alarmed replies? Sekibanki drew another mouthful of her drink, the taste suddenly not as sour in comparison.
When her partner spoke again, she almost spat it back out.
“Seki? No, would that perhaps be Banki?...” The man experimented aloud. Then he shrugged with a surrender. “The protocol of this place – I do not grasp it. Seki Banki?”
It was a moment before she realised it had been a question.
“Yes? It’s… It’s fine.”
“Thank you.” Her partner squared his shoulders. “Seki Banki. I want to settle our tab.”
This made Sekibanki frown again. “Your turn is next week.”
“No.” There was a shake of a head crowned with overgrown hair. “No next week. Next week I leave.”
“Leave? Leave where?”
“Leave here. The village.” For what was likely the first time in their arrangement, Sekibanki witnessed her partner force something that could on a different face pass for a smile. “Won’t return,” he added. “Probably.”
“And you are telling me this, because...?”
“Ah.” He looked troubled. “See… We have been meeting for half a year. I understand having me here was of… use, to you. This will end, soon. For which I apologise.”
Half a year! Had it been so, or had he exaggerated their acquaintance, as men were wont to do? Sekibanki battled back the heat rising in her ears. A more sober part of her mind attempted a count of holy-days come and gone since their initial meeting. That part alone was not enough. The months were blurred and similar. Sekibanki’s frown tightened.
Mistaking the gymnastics of her brows for a question (or perhaps the matter of the question itself), the man hurried on to explain.
“I do not fit here,” he confessed, surrounded by evidence. “For a time I believed it may become otherwise. This has since changed. I do not return to the Outside World, for it is now impossible. I am taking the only remaining way out. I apologise that this will inconvenience you.”
Had she been more frugal on drink that night, Sekibanki may have palmed the matter away with never a care. As she was now, it was all she could do to present her partner with a blank stare. A selection of empty, unneeded words formed on her tongue, and it was her sheer wonder which stayed them from flying out and making a commotion.
Half a year, she chewed the estimation over once more. Or near on to make no matter, apparently – enough to make this man whom I don’t know to apologise to me. Sekibanki had not been apologised to often in her semblance of a life, and it was not a thing she knew readily what to do with. Had she to do anything? Just as the man had conceded ignorance of proper conduct, so the red-headed girl knew only those manners absolutely needed to maintain a decent standing among the villagers. Oh, she could issue a mean apology herself if the circumstance presented. Yet how to take one had never featured much in her mind. What for would these clueless people apologise to such an unobtrusive townswoman as she? And what for, by the gods, would they apologise to the headless one who stalked their streets at night?
They should be screaming, thought Sekibanki indignantly, not apologising.
In a single, manner-defying gulp, she downed the rest of her drink. Then she stood, and – before her tongue had time to shrivel up – she called to the man seated opposite.
“You.” Gods alone know what your name is. “Get up. Come.”
There was no reply as she span to leave this crowded taproom, almost tossing up the tails of the cape she had left at home on a reflex. She did not look to confirm whether her partner had followed. Nor was it needed. No sooner than she had thrown open the exiting door, a courteous arm caught it and held it from behind. Then it filed out after her, onto the sodden street.
Anonymous 2016/07/30 (Sat) 00:46 No. 1957 ▼
- (856.08KB, 1395x2000, __sekibanki_touhou_drawn_by_kukkuru__c07fee2f61862
The night was as biting as the one before it had been, and the one before that; still the cold exhalations of the wind were the last thing on Sekibanki’s mind. Were she to pay attention, she could hear the sound of their shoes pulling free of the street’s muck, or listen as the ruckus of their favourite tavern fast faded away. She did neither. The part of her concerned with such human impressions had been shoved aside.
Another Sekibanki now stamped along the street, her night creature’s eyes scanning about with undisguised fervour. Another place should be her “taproom” tonight: a dark, isolated place – one she might flee quickly, once her hunger has been satisfied. Soon, and she found just such a secret retreat. A garden of a sort, or park, or grove – she cared not overmuch for the proper term. A few steps full of excitation and she was among the neatly-trimmed hedges, shrouded from the lights of the street, bathed in the shadow lining the place. A few more and gravel rasped underneath her feet as she ground her heels in, stopping and whipping around to face the unsuspecting man who had followed her in.
The man, too, had stopped. The man, too, was taking in the all-enveloping darkness.
The man, unlike her, was frowning.
A smile slit Sekibanki’s face like a wound with pristine white bone underneath. Her hands rose to her head, grasping it firmly by the temples. For one more starved moment she compelled her body to endure the thrill of anticipation.
Then, in a quick, savage wrench, she tore her head free.
The sound of ripping flesh was deliciously vile. The cartilage between the vertebras of her nape strained and snapped with a sickeningly moist pop. At last it all came away, strings of meat trailing, blood sloshing on the ground in gruesome spurts, before piping down to a menacing drip.
The headless horror stepped forward, its maniacally grinning head held out as a terrible gift to the man before her – man rendered stock still by shock and fright. Two eyes, as wide as saucers and likewise white, might but gape in mute terror as the monster presented its own head to him, as though in some sort of obscene tribute. Two foolish arms reached out, by themselves, and took the head in a pair of cold, quivering hands.
The headless monster danced back, twitching in grotesque delight as it drank, drank of the man’s fear.
… Only, there was no fear.
The lurid grimace on Sekibanki’s face slacked, and she had to focus to remind the edges of her mouth to contort.
Yet when she turned her attention back to feeding, there was no reply.
Nothing was being moved. Nothing was being filled. The dark hunger coiling at the centre of her being was bloated and ungratified. An aching pull was everything that fought back when her reason began wresting control back from her instincts. Sekibanki had to gnash her teeth to bite back the howl the less civilised half of herself had been about to unloose. Enamel squeaked.
Slowly, painfully… and at last she re-mastered her decapitated body. A final, wilting, dying hope of a meal was burnt away by a will made scalding by shame.
The reasoning part of her was squirming in its cage. And why shouldn’t it? Sekibanki had wasted her drink, trashed the remainder of the night, broken her disguise, even soiled her outing clothes with all the blood – and for what? A stray chance at easy prey? An outlet for her resentment? Which of these exactly warranted the price?
She would have hung her head in embarrassment, had it not been ill-disposed to any such manoeuvres in its current place.
“Do you understand now?”
Her voice was resigned, and only teased out a stiffening of the man’s fingers when it broke the silence. Not fear. Certainly not terror. A mere tensing of the muscles – a natural human response to the sudden releasing of a sound nearby. The man, who would in all probability never again be her drinking partner, looked toward her body to give voice to his confusion, only realising the folly of it afterward. He returned his eyes to the head weighing down his arms.
More difficulty than usual was plain in the way his lips opened and closed. Opened and closed. Like a freshly landed fish.
“I…” He swallowed. “You are…”
And yet, no fear, agonised Sekibanki. Who is this madman? “A monster, yes,” she growled. “Was there something about it that needed commentary?”
“Then… All along I have…”
A sigh broke out of Sekibanki’s severed throat. “You have been drinking with a monster.” For half a year. “You must be thankful that shall soon be done.”
The man, if ever he had shown capacity for discomfort, he was doing it now. Yet Sekibanki held no doubt her disembodied head was but part of the cause for his unease. How big a part, and why not bigger – these remained questions with thornier answers.
Maybe I should ask and be done with it, she speculated. Speak the lunatic’s own tongue.
“Why aren’t you afraid?” she demanded.
Had she ever given him a true start – it was now.
“What? N—No!” His overlong hair was tossed left and right. “I am afraid! See?”
“A man who is afraid doesn’t stroke.”
“Ah.” There was a familiar sound. So it was him who gasped back there – not me, Sekibanki thought. Good to know. “Your… Your skin,” the man said lamely. “It’s your skin. It feels… real.”
“I am real,” hissed the severed head. “Terribly real.”
An unfamiliar sound followed. “See. I do not believe that.”
A moment came and chilled on the air before Sekibanki registered what the sound had been.
It had been a chuckle. A dark, self-damning chuckle, issued between lips she had thought incapable of such expression. This simplistic man had chuckled at her.
Sekibanki had never had her existence questioned so brusquely, let alone when she was still in earshot, and the anger she had entertained had been quelled was welling up again. And yet when her reason managed to speak, and when she turned an indignant ear, she knew the chuckle had not been meant for her. The words had been. The rest… That had been merely her companion’s personal indictment.
She resisted when she became aware the man’s hands were attempting to turn her head on its side. He did not surprise at the unseen force. No more than he had at the head being given to him moments before.
“You live,” he said.
Had it been so, or had she affixed it on her own, that a vestige of humour had marked his observation?
Sekibanki ignored it. “I do.”
“Your arteries are cut. So are your nerves. Yet you live. Yet you speak.”
Her body crossed its arms, as if guarding itself against examination. “I do,” she admitted warily.
“No.” Her companion shook his head. “No creature may live with its head removed. Still your body stands. Still you show no pain. Still you live.” He stared her down. “You are impossible. This must be a mirage, a nightmare, or a fakery. You have no right to exist.”
All at once, Sekibanki went taut.
Something in the pit of her stomach was born and died in the span of an instance, rupturing like a cracked eyeball, spraying her insides with the corrosive venom of doubt. The strange, alien sensation worked up from her abdomen to the stump of her neck, and in a flight of something – something she had seen many times, but never experienced – her body lashed forward, wresting its head from her companion’s hands, then planting it back in its spot. The nauseous feeling of violated tissues melding back together offered only a fleeting semblance of being whole again. It was a stopgap cure.
Still, relief was relief – however small – and Sekibanki found herself recomposed enough to face her whilom companion once more. What she found meeting with her dismay was a returning thing. The same dark, melancholy chuckle as before.
“This,” said the strange man, “is why I don’t fit in.”
The headless – albeit possessed again of a head now – woman secured no reply but for the narrowing of her nocturnal eyes. The man, prompted by her silence, went on to clarify.
“These people—” here he swept his arms to include the surrounds, “—they believe you. You are natural to them. You exist. Not so here.” He touched a finger to one of his temples. “As we speak, my mind tells me you are an illusion. A pseud. You are not possible. I… I wonder why you had me keep you company.”
The question, sudden though it was, was a steadier ground for Sekibanki.
“You kept—” She hesitated, choked up by her own eagerness to deflect the conversation away from herself. “You kept… The others. You kept them at bay.”
“Not into socialising?”
Sekibanki wrenched her head left and right. The meat of her neck flared up with an itch she barely prevented showing on her face. “… No.”
Her companion mulled over the reply – whatever reluctant one it was. At last he produced a nod.
“Yes,” he said. “Stands to reason. I used you just the same.”
That surprised her. “You did?”
“As you did me,” the man reminded. “Myself, though, I... At least I am glad.” His arms drooped along his sides in defeat. “This village. It never had much use for me. I do not understand its culture. I am not strong. My historic knowledge, and my medicinal skills – they are irrelevant in this place. Neither does your kind profit from my presence here.”
Sekibanki scowled. “This is why you are glad?”
“That I was of use to someone, after all. To you. Some use.” He paused. Then, as though entertaining a private joke, he added: “Small steps deliver.” His shoulders made a weak shrug. “All the same, I am glad. And I am sorry. That I won’t be of use again. That I wounded you just now. I apologise.”
On the brim of offending at the implication of being wounded, Sekibanki pushed the tips of her canines into her lower lip. A hot trickle slithered down past her chin. Sekibanki wiped it with a sleeve.
The damnation of it was, she truly had been wounded. The persistent fraying on the edge of her awareness refusing to mend – it was a testament to the truth of the word. Her companion had been right to – if nothing else – beg forgiveness for causing her hurt. No. Not right. Not at all, realised Sekibanki. This – all of this – was my fault from the start.
Anger bled together with her lip, and as it was drained, so Sekibanki saw the extent of her error. This man – her companion, or whilom companion, or whatever else he now was – had never intended for this confrontation. There had never been more of Sekibanki in his mind than their queer arrangement to drink together, and her twice-malformed name. Nor had he feared her – but neither had he courted her. The desire to remove their debt had been motivated by principle, not sympathy. The warning of his departure had not been a call for attention, but functional courtesy, and the apologies… The ease of long practice with which he dispensed them perhaps proved them just as machinated as hers had been, whenever she had apologised to one of the townsmen.
For a tiny moment, which was as short as it was distracted, Sekibanki thought herself similar to this man. Just thought, however – nothing too dangerous. And only for a moment.
A wry smile squeezed out onto her face, pulling her teeth out of her lip. You have lost, “Seki Banki,” mocked a voice inside her head. Sekibanki, clinging onto the pillar of sanity, told the voice in a crisp manner what and where it could do with its opinions. The voice shrank, then took her advice.
Sekibanki breathed in. Now, maybe I can save some face.
With a whistle of exasperation she released the borrowed air, drawing herself up to meet her companion’s expectation. A thin, fabricated smirk pulled at one of her cheeks. The impulse to throw up the tails of her robe with a show was almost smarting. All the same Sekibanki kept her arms out of tomfoolery by tying them firmly against her chest.
“Very well,” she said, injecting just enough magnanimity into her voice to fool her companion. I hope. “Your apologies are human and thus cheap, but… for what they’re worth, I accept them.”
The man’s facial muscles tightened, then relaxed. Then he bowed: a low, deferential bow, as synthetic as Sekibanki’s excusal had been. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Then, about our tab—”
“No,” Sekibanki cut him off. My turn now. “Never mind the tab. I ill have need of your money. No. You were right. You were useful to me, and for that, perhaps it is I who owes you a favour.”
The man, suspicious, glanced up from his fabricated bowing. “A favour?”
“Yes,” whispered Sekibanki, and her voice was the rustle of a corpse being dragged through a forest. “Tell me, human. How would you like to die?”
When he shot back to his full height, Sekibanki felt her instincts being jerked dangerously close the extremity of her skin. The man’s expression was wild. She put more force into her smile.
Her companion blinked. “How would I like to…?”
“Die.” Sekibanki made the word the strike of a gavel. “Not by my hand, that’s for sure. There are those among us monsters who could be persuaded to assist you. Some may even make it painless.” She paused, mock-dramatically. “You spoke of your hatred for this place. You spoke of being unable to go back. You spoke of taking the only other way out. Well, I offer a few variations.”
“Seki Banki, I—”
“Hush!” Sekibanki hissed. “I know. There are rules in place. Those can be circumvented. They have been for years.” She scoffed. “You can take care of your last rites or whatever as you please. I’ll arrange for a… friend, to pick you up, in the meanwhile. Once ready, you may come find me. You know where my home is. Find me there.” Since I’m guessing we will not be meeting over drinks again. “Then, I’ll tell you where to go. You will only need to leave the village. The rest, well – that’ll be outside your power.”
Sekibanki closed her eyes. “What?” she groaned. “Not to your fickle liking? I am doing you a favour, mind.”
There was a pause, with movement within she heard more than sensed.
“No.” The word was a familiar, odd-spoken phantom. “I do not want to die.”
Had Sekibanki’s tolerance been stretched before, now it was becoming like catgut on a lutenist’s instrument. Her crimson eyes flashed open. Her companion had looked all but about to release another black-humoured chuckle, but then his mortal reflexes engaged, and the chuckle was smothered before being given birth. The man swallowed what remained with a muffled gulp.
When Sekibanki released her own things, they were a glare and a harsh demand, “Are you playing with me, human?”
“I… am not.”
Her companion’s voice was level. Sekibanki glowered on all the same.
“What is your…” She searched a word otherwise than ‘game.’ “…deal, then? You say you are leaving. Then you turn it around. Were you making a joke?”
“No.” Again he swung his head left and right. “No deal, Seki Banki. And no joke, either. I join my Lady, and that is it.”
Sekibanki snorted, then her gaze became knife-like. “Your ‘Lady?’”
“My Lady Toyosatomimi,” the man explained. “I join her in her sanctuary, on the day after tomorrow. This will require I leave my place in the village. My Lady Toyosatomimi decrees—”
“Who is this Toyosatomimi?”
Sekibanki’s companion blinked. Something that may have been disbelief formed on his untended face. Sekibanki cared not what it was. She watched the man fumble.
“My Lady— My Lady’s name is Miko. Toyosatomimi Miko? The Taoist. Maker of the Masks.” When even that achieved no recognition from the red-headed girl, he tried, “My Lady… partook in the religious war, some months back. She… She wore the cape. The twain-coloured cape.”
“Ah.” Sekibanki’s tone was prickly. “One of those eminences.”
“Yes!” The man before her clutched at this connection. Whether he had marked the disdain in her voice, he did not show, or say. “Yes, she. My Lady inducted me into the Tao this winter. Now my training is complete, I begin apprenticeship in the earnest. My chambers in my Lady’s domain, I am told, have already been made ready. Merely now I await an emissary to guide me through. My Lady’s teachings speak the need to remove oneself from one’s past, as a great saint once did. Thus, my place in the village shall be forfeit. My Lady’s sanctuary shall be my new—”
“Stop.” Sekibanki was palming her face. “Stop. Just shut up.”
The man did as told. Sekibanki dug her fingers into the bridge of her nose. Then she exhaled – and it was a slow, pained breath, which left her feeling half her previous size once it was come out.
This is what you get, “Seki Banki.” The jeering voice at the periphery of her mind was whispering. For a moment Sekibanki wondered when it had recovered from its last trouncing. The next moment she knew it had never had to. The voice was hers. It had been hers, all along.
This is what I get, then, she satisfied this new discovery. Though not altogether new. The moment her drinking partner had for the first time broached their agreed silence had turned out a kernel of apprehension, which Sekibanki had since constantly nurtured. Whichever the cause for her playing along with this silly human’s silly human theatrics, she held no like for either possibility. The first had her ashamed of being too careless on her drinks. The second she would not have suspected of herself in her most disturbed times. A combination of the two had her clawing at her face again.
Sekibanki grunted a curse. She pulled her hand away and examined her nails. There was no blood. She had not broken skin. That was to the good. Any more, and her outing clothes, she felt, would have switched colour entirely.
We are a pair, she thought, itching. He has been drinking with a monster. I have been drinking with a zealot. What did that make the two of them? A few words volunteered themselves, to Sekibanki’s spat laughter. They fled from her bitter voice. All but one. And that, too, was a recurring curse.
Sekibanki had had enough. As soon as the leftover reason she yet had clamped a hold on the idiotic grin tugging at the corners of her mouth, she rose and faced once more – perhaps for the last time – to the man who had hunched with her, for half a year, over dozens of different drinks. The man, mirroring Sekibanki, straightened his frail human back as well.
“Seki Banki?” he asked.
Of this, I tire as well, she answered in her head. “It’s one word,” she sighed. “Sekibanki. Not two.”
“Sekibanki,” repeated her partner, this time omitting the awkward hitch in the middle. Though if he were committing the correct name to memory, his tone alleged everything but. “Very well.”
“I don’t remember yours,” she told him.
“Nor do I care to do so,” she cut in. “We are parting tonight. You said so yourself.”
“Then, I don’t need to remember your name.”
“Maybe,” he surrendered. Then he corrected, “No, actually. You are right. Names are ephemeral, human things. My Lady will like anyway grant me a new one, once I enter her realm.”
Sekibanki’s companion spread out his hands. “My Lady Toyosatomimi delights in naming new things to her home. Servants no different.”
Sekibanki allowed her lips to curl up. “That makes me want to hear your old name, just a little bit.”
They held a stare.
They could hold a stare, Sekibanki and her partner.
Yet at the end of the minute the man had given up no names, old or otherwise. He had not risen to the bait. Nor did I expect anything else, Sekibanki admitted to herself. After all, I would have reacted the same. She reviewed the thought inside her head. Well. If I weren’t drunk, anyway.
When he saw the red-headed girl acknowledge her defeat, the man – apparently now a yet unnamed Taoist – also lowered his defences. The tension, which had strummed between them since Sekibanki had steered them to the secluded garden, gave and loosened by degrees. Almost, and it would have vanished altogether.
And yet, whatever dark hunger had led the smaller of the two to threaten the larger one, and whatever overweening scepticism had enabled the larger not to fear the smaller one despite, one of them still was splashed with blood from neck to toe. This fact, if none other among the flock, kept things moored in a place which Sekibanki found more comforting than the totally relaxed alternative.
Almost a rule now, it had fallen to Sekibanki’s partner to raise the next point. “Then I take it our tab is settled,” he said. “We should be leaving soon. The night grows old.”
“Yes,” Sekibanki agreed. “That we should.”
The man looked her over. “Are you able to go home like this?”
“Yes. I am.”
“You may take my cloak.”
“No. I’ll get home just fine.”
“Are you certain? You look—”
Sekibanki growled, a cautionary sound. “Certain,” she told him, in a tone that would brook no argument. “I already permitted you to escort me home before. Quit pushing.”
“Of course.” The man drew another of those slow, deliberate bows, which could not lesser like the genuine article than if Sekibanki were the one bowing. “Yes. You have done this before.”
“Of course,” he said.
Then, he turned around… and left. As always, a voice in Sekibanki’s head whispered.
As always, there had been no superfluous goodbyes. As always, once their business was concluded, he took off in the same direction known only to himself.
And as always, something in Sekibanki’s chest stirred at the sight of the now-familiar back turned and getting farther. Not irritation – for it would have been madness to irritate now after what she had experienced – but a sense of urgency. A deep and, yes, barely resistible pull to do something – yet not to liberate her head from its neck and uselessly throw it at him again, nor even to track him from the rooftops and wait a more opportune time to attempt the same.
No. This urge was something else. This urge, as it were, was borne of her human half, rather than the monstrous one which stalked the shadows at night. This urge was something much, much simpler. It was the simplest thing. It was foolish and unnecessary as well, but mostly it was simple.
As simple as curiosity.
Sekibanki, breathing in, gave her neck a mollifying scratch.
“Hey!” she called after her drinking companion. “Hold up!”
The man stopped. Then he turned.
Then, Sekibanki asked her question.