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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.