THE DOORS SWUNG inward to allow her through. A waft of warm air crashed a bouquet of heady smells against her face. The odour of sweat, the bitter aroma of hops, wet pine-wood smoke, lingering. And over all sounds, sounds illimited: of glass tinkling, feet shuffling, talk loud and animated. The cold wind howled balefully at her back, tossing up her hair. She smiled and shut it out without the door.
Tsukumo Benben drew of the thick taproom air, tasting of its scents, delighting in its sounds.
Few attended her entrance, and of those who did, fewer still stayed on it long. The barkeep, munching on a strip of salted beef, simply stared at her rich, fur-lined overcoat, until recalled to his business by a nearby patron. There were no stares on her back as she meandered between the crowded tables, her passage leaving the packed ground floor powdered with rapidly melting snow – and that was to the good. She threaded among these tables all but unnoticed, until across the room, coming in beside a bunch of emptied kegs stacked by a wall.
Tsukumo Benben, breathing, undid the ties of her coat, shrugging out of it so it slid dramatically to the floor. Goatgut strings flashed in the torchlight, and golden runes flashed, a fantastic-looking lute issued from the confines of her dress. Here the woman sat atop one upright keg, slinging the lute from her shoulder. She brushed the mussed-up hair behind her ear, still training her breath. Her hand traced the gleaming strings lovingly, registering their length and pressure. Awhile she busied at the pegs, twanging quiet, trying sounds until perfection. Then she breathed out.
The musician enjoyed a thrill of anticipation. All was right now, everything was set. The lute was ready. So was she.
At a strike of her long-nailed fingers the instrument cast the first notes on the purl of voices of the room.
The townsmen closest to her, startling, twisted on their seats to investigate the sudden intrusion into their talk. A scattering of brows rose curiously, regarding Benben with a mixture of surprise and amusement. Her chest squeezed and the corners of her lips quirked up unwittingly, but she crushed the nervousness out with a will and closing of her eyes.
And then, Tsukumo Benben began to sing.
“At last! You found your way To the realms of my world, Through timeless dreams And visions! You always wish to pursue.”
The lute reverberated in her hands, its sound carrying now even over the beat in her ears. Her fingers struck a softer interim, easing the ambushed drinkers into the fantastic realm of her song. All the while she kept her breast full and proud.
The interlude rounded off on a higher note, and Benben picked up again.
“Worlds may change, And roads may end! Shapes may shift and colours blend. But here on this side of the Earth Time’s forever still!
Come with me! This world is yours to believe Succumb to the realm of magic and myth! Into the unknown...”
Another subdued intermission played from her hands, and the musician chanced a look at her audience. The number of eyes transfixed on her set her heart to a race. And the silence! No more was there talk, no more crying for the barmaids. The room was in her thrall. Hers! Tsukumo Benben was put in mind of a bright future, with grand theatres and throngs of enchanted listeners. Her spirit soared with her music. But for now this taproom had to suffice.
With all new will she struck at the belly of her lute, entering the highest stage of the song.
“You’ve come for a reason Of which you may not know Until the riddles are solved And puzzles are pieced together
Oh, deep inside you! A wild flower grows It knows what you seek...”
All of a sudden she sallied forth from her sitting place, flushing, and called at her audience:
“Come with me! Where mountains have ears And waters have eyes Where earth is floating In a clear blue sky! Come with me!”
Faces roused, uplifted by her peaking music. Tsukumo Benben went dancing among the tables, never missing a note, never stopping. The song rushed in her wake, sweeping away hearts and minds.
FROM THE CHAIRS of the bar, looking shoulder-past, it was possible to see the musician make a silent retreat for the keg-stack whence she’d begun – a rose-faced lady of twenty-odd, long-togged, stalked by two tails of lilac hair as slim as snakes. The landscape of her cheeks was a rosy plain, rosier with proximity, intervened by rivulets of translucent sweat. Under her winter pinafore, her leather-black-booted feet picked their way across the floor. From the moment the last of the applauses had sounded, it was all she had looked on, the boots. And the room had once again set to talk.
She paused at the coat she had discarded before leaning down to retrieve it, her nose wrinkling with suspicion. There had been tables to round, of course there had; still once the song had given its final breath, Tsukumo Benben fell into melancholy. The high was gone; and as surely as the lute seemed dead-quiet in her arms, so its master too became not unlike a ghost. Who of the patrons who had offered personal compliments on her way had met with silence. Too far in their cups, they did not mind. It was the artists’ privilege, eccentricity. As for the musician, screwing up her mouth, she picked her coat from its resting place.
A dash of bronze and silver coins spilled down the coat’s length to pile on the ground. With a long-suffering shake of the head she began plucking them from the dirt. Which time does it make? wondered Tsukumo Benben, muttering, but she pocketed the coin anyway. There were enough coppers to warrant a meal, enough silvers to overnight in a clean bed. Good reaping overall, though she would have claimed unwanted upon asking.
Tsukumo Benben, her coat hung capelike from her shoulders, stood and scanned lengthways the taproom. For the first instance since she had come in from the cold she marked the individual faces among the smoke. These were the people of the Human Village, of whom the musician had been told they made for a good audience; the weight in her pocket attested to the truth of it. Fur-clad in this wintry season, the townsmen clustered at the tables speaking of matters of mundane; few modestly flushed women (and modestly clothed) sprinkled the crowd, oddly preferring the company of men to one another’s. Their faces spoke of momentary relief from the hard hamlet life. Tsukumo Benben did not envy them.
But for one. At the far end of the room, where was the boundary between paying and paid, a woman, musing, sat at the bar in solitary communion with a tall glass of copper drink. Here, too, the phantom of the chill held at bay by the taproom doors was hard in evidence. Her round face grew like a head of cabbage out of the ring of white fuzz of her collar, and her hair, short-cut and curling, stuck out from beneath a fur cap as round and wide as a wheel of cheese. Weird though the musician had thought the fashion of this place, once her search had taken her through the tipping point of the seasons, she grudgingly shared in the weirdest of it.
Out the corner of her eye she caught a flurry of movement. A short, full-cheeked man approached, shoving his bulk sideways past the narrower of passages. His fat-lipped mouth split apart in a friendly smile as their eyes locked. She felt a core of anxiety ossify down in the pit of her stomach, but she mustered her best to ignore it.
The townsman crossed the last stretch at an unsteady gait, hands spread out in an amiable gesture.
Benben acknowledged with the minutest tilt of her head. The man volunteered a palm which the musician squeezed uncertainly. He had a light grip, but rough either way from the calluses on his pads.
“Good show back there,” the man offered.
Benben accepted the compliment with a faint nod.
The villager wiggled the folds of his chin. “Too little music in this sad winter time. Too little. Whoever of you bardy types seem more willing to winter elsewhere than our village. Twice-damned shame.” He released her hand. “But this is most inappropriate. After such a singing doubtless master lutanist yearns to wet her throat. The ‘keep here may look a monster – but I assure you his ale knows no match in Gensokyo.”
“You don’t drink ale?” the man asked her sympathetically, noting the draw of a frown. “Here are other stuffs.” He pointed his chin behind the bar. “They will churn your stomach right terribly, but they won’t give you poison. It’s their ‘special mixture,’ or I am told. But the ale is OK,” he added, rubbing his palms together hungrily. “Ah, my son also used to frown at the molten gold, but soon enough he grew a stomach. A little young perhaps, but few ways to keep warm on the field. They will spice it for you if you ask as well. But here I prattle at you like an old goose while you tire standing. Master lutanist, I wish to invite you to join with me and my mates. We were watching your singing with our damn arses on the edges of our seat, let me tell you, and we would be beside ourselves if master lutanist deigned to sit with our unwashed band. There’s a hobbyist musician in our midst likewise, who would give his best winter shoes to speak with such a skilful player. Naturally, there will be drink for each of master lutanist’s words.”
Benben gripped the neck of her lute. “I would not presume...”
“As you say, but I’m treating!” the man laughed. “So join us. It’s altogether better to drink in company, even as lowly as ours.” He delivered his final argument and headed back among the tables to torment the sitters with a second passing.
The musician’s eyes trailed after his commotion until she realised she was wiser than to stare and averted her gaze accordingly. At the same time she began to stare at the pudgy woman at the bar who had captured her attention previously. The loner was capping her glass with an open palm, clearly toying at some private idea, though Benben did not know what kind. Something about her flustered the musician, but not which you’d think. Tsukumo Benben ripped her attention free, glancing round the room, quick enough to witness the stocky man reattain his table, debriefing his colleagues on his mission’s fate in short, confident nods. The musician looked away yet again before any of them caught her watching.
Somewhere in the heart of her mind she kept a silent debate with another voice which lasted a full minute, after which she arrived at a decision. The man had stood a good point, though far it was from Benben to socialise so. Yet of that which she hoped to find in this place which could be found, she might not begin to guess where to look for. Maybe, then, it was these people who could satisfy her scorching questions.
The lutanist paused to swallow a hot globe of spit, before picking the direction for her steps.
[ ] She would join the villagers. [ ] She would sit at the bar.
The drinker faces on the edge of her sight became burning as she passed, embraced in her coat; Benben kept her face forward. For, why she did not know, she felt a stab of shame suddenly at spurning the townsmen’s good offer. They were staring, she was sure they were – where does the lutanist go? We see her even now, yet she does not see us. And had she not sung for them minutes before? Even Tsukumo Benben knew of one lutanist who had danced atop their table at one point this night; yet who that was, and whence she knew this – she did not wish to recall. Her shoulder itched. It was one thing to know a thing; another still to know someone else did.
But she weathered. And here, climbed on a bar stool fully half her height, did the lutanist at last forget these shameful stares. A moment and she calmed; across her lap did Tsukumo Benben rest her lute, and on the bar her hands. The ‘keep eyed her from his chewing (how did the snack survive this long?), but she adjourned him with a shake. The woman beside her, again at her drink, did not notice her joining – or if she did, she failed to show; with her cup tipped, and her head capped, again she sailed on the sea of her own thoughts. Benben leaned closer.
“What is that?”
At last – the stranger took heed; and presently she shuffled round to meet the curious lutanist.
They did not come the friendliest, but when they did, she had beautiful red eyes, the colour of aged wine.
And Benben’s they met. The lutanist tensed.
“What is what?” asked the stranger. But when she found the point of the question, she only shrugged, “Nothing special,” and on went on her own musings.
And at this cruel disregard Benben scowled; yet undaunted called to the barkeep, from whom she ordered, “What the lady here is having.” The lady here said nothing. Still, the barkeep gave a nod. Down to work he came.
As she waited her drink to become, her eyes wandered toward the old barman’s hands – wrinkled hands, and stained – but moving now with all the swift of her own at the lute. Any second Tsukumo Benben expected the glass to chime, the spoon to sing out – but what music there was to be had remained firmly in her mind. Tsukumo Benben willed it away, and last spices made it into her glass, now before her on the ‘top. She paid for it from tonight’s reapings. Then tried the drink.
It was good. She tasted honey and cloves, a touch of cinnamon, and over all the malty relish of ale. She drank deeper, let it wash down her tongue and throat, savouring. It was sweet and rich. Thick and warm. Filling. It was good.
Tsukumo Benben, at least one of her hungers now satisfied, determined to feed another. Who was her neighbour – or why she had so wilfully ignored her – the lutanist could but guess; but it was all she had to do, to guess, to know she wouldn’t suffer it to stand. Tsukumo Benben rose to the bait.
“Good drink,” she opined.
Her neighbour frowned on her sidelong. “Huh?”
“Good drink,” Benben replied, tipping the glass. “They warned me of these special mixtures, that they did. But this is good – despite what they say.” When the woman stared on, Benben continued. “Few distractions in this winter-time, I heard. Yet these folk seem content sitting and drinking. Talking, too. Well, but methinks this is what they do, townsmen. Weirder when they are alone, wrapped in the cocoon of their own thoughts – rather than in company. Makes me wonder.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed into crescents. “My business is my own,” she said. Her breath bristled the silver fuzz of her collar. “But you’ve yet to say what is yours.”
Tsukumo Benben reproached herself for being so forthright. Why was I? she asked herself. But there was no answer.
She smoothed the strings of the lute on her lap, the motion working muted ripples of sound upward her arm. Bolstering her nerve, she plucked the first three notes of her song from the instrument’s belly. Then again. It did not do at all, but Benben appreciated the feeling of familiarity all the same. All of this was new to her; walking and breathing alone had been new experiences, let alone speaking. She had known no language but music before recent weeks; allied to that, the abrasive woman did not help at all. Benben was stumped.
“What is your business, girl?” her neighbour demanded.
“Nothing,” replied Benben, quick – too quick – for her preference. “Nothing, only... I am new here. Yes, new,” she clutched the thread, sensing in it a hope, “that is why I was wondering. I am a lutanist, and fairly fresh. This is my first time in this taproom – in this village as well; I am unfamiliar with the customs here. Perhaps it is normal to—” She caught the woman’s glare and was silenced. “But I am rude.” She bowed her head. “I apologise. Music seems the only language wherein I don’t founder. Did... Did you hear me playing perhaps?”
“I come here to think, lutanist – not to listen.”
Benben’s heart sank. “There are many things to hear in such a taproom...”
A contumelious smirk warped the woman’s lips. “From these louts?” She chuckled, then wet her throat from her drink. “Please, lutanist, you make me laugh. You must be new indeed to believe any worth ever comes from these mouths. Many things, yes, maybe – none of them smelling any better.”
The lutanist, feeling she had broached at least a kind of compromise, forced a smile. “I meant more my music...”
“Maybe, maybe,” granted her neighbour. “But, like I said, I tend to come here with my ears laid—er, closed, if you follow. My thoughts are company enough; I don’t need no bush-not-man creature reeks of dungheap roaring over my shoulder to enjoy my drink. And won’t you say? You don’t look to have any hovering about you, either. Though by no merit of their disinterest, of that I have no doubt.”
Tsukumo Benben, blushing, ripped a discordant note from her lute. “Er, yes.”
To which the woman had another laugh.
As she drew once more from her glass, Benben mustered her courage.
“I never caught your name,” she told the woman.
“You never did,” she agreed.
The lutanist screwed up her lips. “Well, what is it?”
The corners of her neighbour’s lips curved up shrewdly. “You don’t need my name, lutanist,” she said, amused. “Yes, I see now you have little needs – least of all my name. Nor indeed this drink, nor even this roast you no doubt smell the guests gorging themselves on upstairs. You do smell it, don’t you? Though I doubt sincerely anyone here does – no, not this far away. Well, lutanist?”
Alarm bells broke out in Benben’s head, but she gave them no outward sign. All she did was incline her head, slowly.
She could smell roast – keenly, as though it were right before her. Couldn’t everyone? And what of her plump neighbour?
The neighbour smiled, as though she were being silently complimented. “Yes, I knew you could. At any rate this goes to show how wrong of a foot we have gotten off of... Maybe I should apologise for earlier – maybe, if only we needed such things as apologies. No, I think we have got no use for those little courtesies – do we? We’re above that, you and I. So, let’s get to the thrust of things – why don’t we?”
“What—What do you mean?” choked out Benben.
“You are here because you seek something, lutanist. Something, I dare say, not usually gotten in such a place as the likes of this. These humans,” she gestured around the room, “may waste fully a third of their existence on drink and folly, and they may seek that. Food, drink, company. But you, lutanist – you have no such cares. Or have you?”
Tsukumo Benben swallowed. “Then you know who I am.”
“I do not know who you are, lutanist. I merely know what, now.”
The woman, smiling, leaned back, resting against the bar. Tsukumo Benben was tense as the carmine eyes walked up and down lengthwise her height. She closed her legs under her dress.
At length, the woman nodded her head – first to herself, then to the world as a whole, and then, finally, to Benben.
“Should have seen it sooner, really, but yes. Yes, you are. As fresh as you have said, lutanist.”
“My name is Benben,” said Benben, overcome with anxiety. And excitement. But mostly anxiety.
The woman palmed it away as though it were a matterless fly. Unaccountably, Benben was put in a mind of punching things. “You are worried for names? Your priorities are flawed, lutanist. Truth be told, you were lucky to chance on me, of everyone. Here. Tonight.”
“There are those who’d have dealt differently with a lutanist, had they sensed what she was, truly, and you... you have the all the hallmarks, you lutanist. Of that other thing, that is. At a closer glance, you’re all but naked.”
Tsukumo Benben’s expression curdled. “Please do not tease me.”
Her neighbour appeared confused for a short space of time; but, presently, she went on. “Anyhow... This is no sin, being new. No, you wouldn’t be the first to be; nor, I suspect, the last.” She produced a sigh. “Well, it is well that you have found me: here, and tonight to boot – however you managed to do it. Only wait my master to claim it was Her radiance had rubbed off on me,” she sneered. “Still, better, I guess, than having you stray with one of these barroom goats, doing gods-alone-know-what. Too many accidents come to pass that way. Too many in my humble opinion.”
“You still have not explained,” said the lutanist.
“And haven’t you?” returned the woman.
Tsukumo Benben knew not what to make of this answer. Only she watched, feeling oddly it had been devised to confound her more still, how the short woman drained the remainder of her drink.
At least in the abstract; Tsukumo Benben knew whatever had guided her heart had brought her before this woman, in her round winter-cap and stocky cloak to the calf. Whatever had led her – whatever it was she sought – she had sensed a kernel of the thing beyond the façade of her pudgy face, flushed from the drink, thick clothing, or both. Tsukumo Benben looked past her tall headwear where, at the far end of the room, a young couple sat engrossed in quiet conversation over a candle-lit table. She could not say – not with certainty – whether they had been even so when she had sung for them. Why she thought this now, of all times, eluded her as well – but a germ of anger began to coil in her gut at the idea. She looked and watched it grow.
“I do not know what I seek,” she said suddenly.
Her new acquaintance grinned, and immediately Tsukumo Benben regretted her outburst. “No,” agreed the woman. “Few newcomers do.”
The lutanist squeezed her fists. “How do I find it? Where?”
“Ah, now herein is a tale. Oh, excuse me.”
Benben boiled as her neighbour shuffled sideways and denied the returning barkeep’s inquiry. Her ears, out of nowhere, felt as hot as coals.
“Not tonight anyhow. There is one who will help you,” she heard after a moment. “There’s a temple not far outside this village. Go there – enquire for master Byakuren. She will have your answers. Whether they will be free, well... That remains to be seen.”
“Who is this Byakuren?” asked the lutanist.
The woman considered the question at a length. “To you?” she theorised, “nothing for the moment. In time, she may be otherwise. Who knows? To me, I serve her. Though I beg you, don’t tell her of our meeting here. There’s no need to muddy her waters with my entirely private matters. Do you take my meaning?”
Tsukumo Benben did not reply. “You are her server?” she asked instead.
“After a fashion, yes.” Her neighbour’s lips quirked as she registered the snubbing of her status. “At least, so I am ordained. What are you thinking, lutanist?”
Tsukumo Benben didn’t answer, rising from her chair. Her lute stung in her grip.
[ ] “Then take me to this Byakuren. Tall price or no, I will see her.” [ ] “Why trouble your liege? You seem knowledgeable. You help me.”
Both of the options seem to reflect Benben's disgruntlement (they both disagree with what the stranger has suggested). Of them, this seems more the fruitful. She didn't want to associate their meeting with Byakuren enough to speak it aloud, so she'll flat out refuse in all likelihood. Might as well prod and see if we can get a little more out of this conversation before heading to the monk.
[x] “Why trouble your liege? You seem knowledgeable. You help me.”
The previous posts don't say anything about what she is looking for, only that she is discontent.
Sorry for giving this the finger, lads, but I’ve sincerely forgotten where I was going with this. I’ve a horrible memory. I should make more notes. I was clearly going somewhere, but thanks to that crazy September I had it’s all blown out of my head and I can’t remember where.
Let’s put this on hold for now, shall we? Unless, in the light of recent developments, someone feels like continuing this in my stead. You’re very much welcome.
>>37245 I had a sojourn with school-teaching. At the same time I worked part-time elsewhere because I was starved for money. Took a few years off my expectance very likely, but you know what they say: live fast, visit Gensokyo young, battle the youkai menace for glory and victory.
Benben is still the best DDC and I will immortalise her in writing one day.