The night forest breeze, threaded with wintry cold, picked sparks up and through the laden grille. A spray of fat burst from a crack in the meat. It splashed on the coals, sizzling – puffing up a wisp of white smoke.
Mystia Lorelei snuck an irritated note into her humming. She strained onto her tip-toes and reached the steel hook hung from an eave of her wheeled stall. The hook was, in a less than innocent truth, an old and blunted sickle – which Mystia had long ago rescued from a shed of a human farmstead. It did decently as a poker, however, and this was the function she had ultimately prescribed it. She stuck it with a firm, unafraid hand under the grille, and spread the glowing chips of coal out to the farther edges. The coals hissed, sparked, but seemed to calm a little all the same.
But this was not the end of her troubles.
Mystia’s clientele – opposite to her estimates – had not been bountiful that night. This was troubling because – once more, unlike herself – the eels and chicken breast spitted and laid out on the grille would not deign to wait another night. Come a few more hours, and they would cool, harden and, in the first opportunity afforded, moulder and turn rather less than appetising. A fresh batch was days away still; the fairies, which she had bullied into gathering pretty stones to bribe the lake’s guardian youkai, had not been heard from yet; and if Mystia Lorelei did not make the necessary sales, then she would need to steal her next bag of coal from the humans’ stockpiles. The delicate economy of Gensokyo’s eel-and-chicken market demanded she rid of her supply tonight, but…
… The gods of the realm were evidently watching. Watching – and not liking what they saw.
One. One human sat behind the counter of her stall, and had sat so far since Sun-down. One human male – though, to Mystia’s relief, one decent enough to order seconds and even thirds. Thrice or four times that, and she might just come clear by morning. Though, if she had the say… if she had the say, and the say did not scare anyone away, Mystia would prefer her clientele less… blatant. The man at her stall tonight was white all over – except the trim of green, red and yellow at the extremities of his robe. The front of the same was festooned with a pair of black, pom-pom boutonnieres, and atop the man’s head...
Atop the man’s shaven head stood a tall, lacquered hat, netted all around in white ribbon. A mark of court. A Taoist eboshi.
More trouble, Mystia grumbled inside. Trouble, trouble, trouble.
And her coals were still going too hot.
Her humming hitched when her customer dropped his emptied skewer on the counter. Attiring a polite smile, Mystia span her hook and faced the Tao priest.
“Fourths?” she suggested with stiff, affected humour. “These are almost done.”
The priest weighed his desires – briefly. Then gave a nod. “Please.”
Mystia’s humour softened. “You know the song.”
A few hollow-centred coins found their way from the man’s pocket to the one in Mystia’s apron. A hum of appreciation, and she returned her hands to the food, and her thoughts – inwards.
“You are pretty.”
The man’s voice jarred them out. Mystia Lorelei, whose own voice had snipped off, rounded once more on her customer.
The customer met her gaze. Though his hands masked his face – mounted in a steeple at his mouth; but its upper half shaped a slight frown, as if he were solving some logic puzzle not quite within his faculties. Nor within Mystia’s.
“… Excuse me?” she tweeted.
“You-kai,” the priest syllabised. The furrow between his eyes deepened. “Monster. But pretty.”
But for the hook hooked around the edge of her grill, Mystia might have been blown away. A breath of wind stirred up a few more sparks from the coals, which pattered onto her arm. Mystia hardly felt them over her head grinding the words into an easier absorbed form.
But… the challenge wasn’t there. The crook on her (now she wished he wasn’t) customer’s brow was dumb – but not mocking. The Taoist eyed her on, content to let silence fill in the conversation; and if it was a response he was after, his posture visibly precluded one of a fight.
And yet, Mystia’s head could extract nothing else:
The words had been meant to rile.
( ) Mystia got riled. ( ) Mystia took it in stride.
The words may be… Mystia, however, was no fairy to provoke at a pinch of ill-respectful commentary. For one, she had a brain.
She racked it for a reply.
“I… Thank you?” she chirped.
This was the common return. Wasn’t it? Mystia hadn’t over-much experience being courted. Mostly village boys, on those occurrences she went among the humans to make her purchases. In costume – wings tucked in and draped behind a carrying sack – she sang a song little different from any work- or farm-girl going about the day’s errands. Little enough, anyway, to get pepped on by cavorting youths.
Adults… Yes, well, a few times. Though never so artlessly. Was this the act? Mock-courting the youkai in its own territory for a rise? It was demanding to tell past the steeple at the white-cloaked priest’s face. Hands at her skewers, Mystia Lorelei braced for the next feint.
None was forthcoming.
Not to say feints were, conventionally; Mystia simply didn’t buy the argument about standing ground. A stand-off of any fashion meant whoever wished her ill had all the more opportunity to find a softer spot in her flanks. Not that her flanks were that soft in the first place. They were stressed from inadequate sales and wasting food. Nothing more.
Mystia hummed a soothing note.
“Was… there a point attached to that?” she asked.
Seated on the outcropped bench of her stall, the Tao man did what men did. He annoyed her.
“I hope,” he said, shifting on his perch.
The stall creaked on its wheels from the motion. Arrayed on a shelf overhead, Mystia’s collection of pretty baubles clinked a brief threat. There was a precarious pause, but no delivery. Mystia breathed out – softly. The priest maintained his tune of disquieting, double S: steepling and staring. Only now, he switched his gaze from detail to detail as he spoke.
“Clothes,” he noted, “co-ordinated by colour. Clean, combed hair. That’s a pin keeps it out of your eyes. Nice, flower shape, too.”
“Your nails,” the priest counted on, “are long, but well-kept. Your wings… pretty, sooner than scary. Your shoes aren’t scavenged – rather made to fit. You wear lipstick. Why?”
“I—” Mystia began.
The Tao man stole her stanza – folding down his hands and rapping on the counter. “You cast your spell of blindness,” he accused, “then lure men with your song. You give them food, and take their coin in exchange. Why? What for? Is this what a youkai does?”
“Are… Are you with the Tengu?” Mystia choked out. “Am I being interviewed?”
The priest scoffed. “Tengu. There’s another can of… How do you say? Whores?”
“Worms,” corrected Mystia. Not far wrong, though. “Another can of… of worms.” Unaccountably, she felt a lurch of hunger. “Um, here—” She singled out the longest skewer on the grille, and thrust it out at the human. “It’s done. Salt? Pepper? Soy sauce?”
The human picked it out of her hand. “… Thanks all the same.”
An overtone of “I wasn’t finished” rode his answer; but Mystia didn’t care. The human employed his mouth with the food – rather than her – and that was for the better.
This is what you get, Lorelei, Mystia criticised herself, jabbing the hook under the crackling coals. You didn’t philosophise with humans. You toyed with them; you took from them what you needed, and gave no thought to leaving them worse for the interaction. Worse that it often was. It never ceased to stun Mystia how nosy humans could be for all their inbuilt fragility. How could such corporeal a species remain so preoccupied with the spiritual? How could those so harshly shackled to the yield of the earth begin to understand the motivations of gods and youkai? Why they did as they did? Why Mystia Lorelei did what she did?
How far be it from her, she wondered, to enlighten this crass human?
Very far, like as not; but metaphysical distances meant little when the other party was buying.
“… Because,” Mystia Lorelei murmured, ahead she could think better, “Because thievery is hard.”
The man in white eyed her over his brown meat. It was an ugly combination. “… Do tell?”
A wry smile quirked Mystia’s lips. “I’ve tried thievery,” she complained. “It isn’t easy. Stockpiles are watched; someone will always make an educated guess if you sell something that’s gone missing, and humans are wont to overreact where their food is involved. I’ve gathered it’s significant.”
“Mm. Astute of you.”
Mystia shrugged. Her shoulders were sweating under the apron. “You need to eat to exist,” she said, fanning her face with the hook. “A fairy could figure that much. Which explains none why you’ll swap it for shiny clips of metal, but… Here we are.”
“Money is a strange thing, yes,” agreed the priest.
Mystia nodded. “But that’s the reason. It is less trouble to buy your food from you. Then, I can sell it right back – along with what I’ve gathered from… other sources – for even more money. More money means I can buy more things. Simplicity.”
The man bit into a chunk of crispy meat as if it were Mystia’s own argument. “More fings?”
Mystia smiled, very much against her mood. “The pin.”
“And the shoes?”
“Ordered at a cobbler’s, like everyone’s.”
The man mulled, then swallowed down the rest of the meat. “… Which explains none,” he aped her earlier line, “why you need these things. They aren’t just functional. They’re pretty.”
He’d intoned the last one like an allegation.
And… It stung in its closeness. Mystia had but to glance below the privacy curtain at her back to feel the full, forceful bite. There, jammed under her cot, was an antique trunk replete with clothes that were far too showy for utility: all frills and floral patterns. An awkward flush crept up her jaw. Mystia’s need for pretty things was half of this song. Though, the other half… was just life these days. Her life was food and pretty things.
“I…” Mystia hesitated. No. No need to tell him that. “… No one,” she reasoned, “would buy my food if I looked like a mountain hag out from under the rain. It’s elementary. Me, I would never buy food from you.”
The priest lifted a brow. “Because I look like a mountain hag?”
“No. You’re—” Mystia bit down on a lip. “… You’re ugly.”
A second brow joined the priest’s first. “Tell me how?”
Had humans been gifted a third brow, the one before Mystia would have been raising his. “I… Huh.” He ripped the side off another cube of meat to smooth over whatever it was his naked scalp was making him feel. Cold, no doubt. “… All it comes around to that, though,” he called back their refrain. “You sell food for money. You spend money to make yourself pretty. You make yourself pretty to sell food. Repeat.”
“You forgot the spell,” noted Mystia. That was an important beat.
“But why?” The priest speared the skewer at her chest. It didn’t touch, but almost. “Tell me this, Miss Cook. Where does this go? Whence does it go? Why hobnob with humanity when you’re clearly not of us?”
“Why not? Name with a fine heap of curves. Like you.”
Mystia scowled. “That’s rude.”
The priest had no concern to show for it. “Then,” he challenged, “be rude yourself. Tell me your part. Tell me why this whole operation. Tell me why I’m being fed talk and food instead of my own screams. You youkai.”
Mystia’s wing-feathers bristled.
She could tell him any number of reasons. Manifold reasons: from, “Not your pooped affair!” to “Flock off, that’s why!” A Mystia with her humours roiled might have given him those and any pigeonholed in between. But, with her anger pinned under her nails (against her palms), she had something even worse to tell. Much, much worse.
The one behind her chicken-and-eel business. Of her fascination with pretty clothes. The truth of why, the youkai such that she was, she had been led to imitate humanity.
Mystia breathed this truth. Tasted it. Knew its tune.
“Well, because—!” she snapped.
… What was the truth?
Mystia stuck with the words lodged in her throat. No, not the words. There were none to this song. Only an empty note which left her lips prised apart in helpless confusion. She felt as if she’d hit a glass window.
The priest before her gave her a knowing stare, all white and disappointment.
“You can’t say,” he guessed.
No. Not guessed. Known. Mystia, stunned out of her wits, weakly shook her head.
The priest sighed. “None of you can,” he complained, softly. “That’s what makes her so… vexing.”
Sooner ahead than Mystia could process his reply, the priest wolfed down the remainder of his meat. He placed the charred skewer – upright, point down – on the counter of her stall. It remained so, unfeasibly, standing on its sharp end, even after he had let it go to lick the grease from his fingers. He fished inside his robe, and dug out a fistful of shiny coins.
“For putting up with me,” he said.
The coins clattered on the buffed countertop. Mystia blinked. There was enough for fifths, sixths, and twice again. One coin trundled away from its siblings and grazed the priest’s emptied skewer. They knocked each other down.
The Tao man stood up to shuffle out of the bench.
“Ah—” he remembered. “Miss Cook? One thing more.”
Mystia started. “Um. Yes?”
The priest stared at something past her head. “Your wings,” he said. “Where do they attach?”
“Oh. Um. They… At my shoulder blades. They come out of those.”
The man squelched his forehead. “Bone and all?”
“Bone and all.”
“Can I see?”
Mystia batted her eyelashes. “Wha—” Her cheeks grew hot. “No! No, you can’t!”
The Tao man gave her a weird look. “… Shame,” he half-complained, half-noted. “Curious.” Off the bench, and he regarded Mystia and her wheeled stall one last time. “The chicken was good, though. I will try again.”
He sketched a lazy namaste: one hand up flat at his chest. Then, as ordinarily as youkai themselves might, he leapt for the cloudy, midnight sky above the treetops. Mystia watched him with her night-creature’s eyes, until he broke their ambit and melted in the darkness.
Once he did, she swept the coins from the counter, and stashed them in a pocket of her apron. They cooped up to become an awkward weight at her stomach. Mystia didn’t mind it.
What she did, was that now she wasn’t sure why she didn’t.
The yard by the western wing of the temple – usually quiet – was this morning busy in profusion. On the neatly swept grounds, in a wide circle, acolytes in novice robes were crowded, peeking over one another’s shoulders at a small, spry woman pacing and speechifying in their middle. Scrawled all around her in the dirt lay the likeness of the temple itself: its floor plan with walls, chambers and places of focus marked – rendered with shocking accuracy by the Crown Prince’s aide herself. Each time the grey-haired (yet little wizened) master of the Tao brushed close this or that side of the circle, the novices shrank, muttering. Not at all unreasonably. For, in her small hand, Futo of the late Mononobe clan, Lord Tashi’s confidante, held something impossible:
A mass of churning flames, confined to the shape of a fist-size orb.
“—Thereby,” Futo was cheerfully explaining, “whenas thou to a focal point nearest, yon Feng doth its influence expand. Heed ye!”
The master Taoist, whom most every acolyte outmatched in height by a third, shoved the fiery orb out over a square on the ground standing in for the Crown Prince’s inner sanctum. The orb swelled: the blaze within whipped into a frenzy by an unseen, ethereal wind. An awed murmur crept across the group.
“But lo—” Futo twirled about, arms wide and full of melodrama. Novices nearest by winced away. “Near thou a place elsewise…” Here, Futo hovered the orb above the temple’s communal bedrooms. “… And Shui doth again ravenous come. Heed ye!”
Her students did heed, even as the orb appeared to wrinkle and die down. A few relieved sighs could be heard, let fly from under noses disinclined to scalding. A few of those attained the master Taoist’s ears.
Mononobe Futo smiled.
Then, casually, she slashed at them with the arm bearing the orb.
Novices bowled over each other to duck out of the way of the fiery projectile… which, in reality had never at all been released from Futo’s grip. Those who had dived, of course, had only after they had knocked themselves and others close by to the ground to realise the fact.
Mononobe Futo bent over.
Then, she sniggered. Then, began to laugh.
The tricked acolytes picked themselves up from the yard’s dirt. But, even so, a handful cracked sheepish smiles of their own. There was no spite in Mononobe Futo’s laugh. No ill-will. No slight. Only an explosion of joy at a prank struck perhaps a little truer than intended.
Wiping at her face with a hand, Futo span at those of her listeners who had been spared her fiery sense of humour. They blanched when her bright, roguish eyes took them in; yet, all that the little master of the Tao did was resume her lecture on mysterious Feng and Shui. As though a full quarter of her flock hadn’t just been floored.
One could easily love Mononobe Futo.
Here, after all, was a soul who never hid anything. Here was a woman who lived on such an extreme outside of her skin, there seemed little underneath except more Futo. Any emotion felt by her painted upfront on her face and coloured her demeanour. Any action taken – any word said, joke pulled – came of nothing else but who and what she was.
And, there was nothing Mononobe Futo was that was not Mononobe Futo.
Those on the sharp ends of said jokes, as well, did recognise this much. These were only jokes. Humorous asides to her not-always-humorous work. A manifestation of Futo’s Futo-ness.
Wonderful. This was the word. Such poise. Such confidence.
Such well-anchored legwork when she flared the orb… and whirled in the direction of the temple’s balcony.
The fire ruptured its shell with a roar. Novices threw themselves down in earnest as a miniature Sun blazed past their heads: screaming toward a figure eavesdropping on the lecture from up on the shaded platform. The listener, jostled out of their distraction, forged a quick, sloppy gesture with their palms. Quick enough… but plenty sloppy.
The spinning fire-ball crashed into the ward, sawing like a wheel on a loose axle. For an illusive moment, it seemed as though a wild beast: snapping its jaws, attempting with great ferocity to devour the figure whole.
Then, as if by some divine miracle, the fire-ball gave a throb. It twitched. It twinged. It recoiled as if stung, and – sharply – veered away from its prey. Novices gaped after it as it sailed, fantastically, first over the temple’s roof, and then up into the perpetual blue of the Sen-kai’s sky.
Once they quit squinting, and looked back to who had routed it, they saw a man. A simple, unremarkable man: with a shaven head and Taoist robes – so like their own – and steadied: feet out wide, one palm ahead the other in a warding sign. Gaze ahead, scanning for danger. A picture of a warrior-monk.
… Less, perhaps, the flames eating at the coloured edges of his sleeves.
The priest jumped, flailing his arms. Almost like Futo did sometimes, when seized in enthusiasm.
All the stares in the yard (even the priest’s) snapped back to the little master Taoist.
Arms propped on her slight hips, Mononobe Futo stood, seeming – for the first time that day and some before – genuinely upset. Her grey eyes focussed on the watcher atop the balcony – like little torches threatening to re-light his clothes. Her somewhat copious brows joined above her nose into an even more copious V.
The priest ceased flapping. He began to sweat, instead.
“… Ye—Yes, master Futo?” he coughed.
Futo stamped a clog-encased foot. “Handai Mu!” she called a third time. “You art – correct me should I you wrong – ready initiated in Feng and Shui. Art not you?”
The priest bowed. “Yes,” he confirmed. “Yes, master Futo. So I am.”
“Then what!” demanded Futo, “What, pray, mightst you yourself avail by on young cadets spying?”
“With respect, master Futo,” the priest corrected. “I was spying on you.”
The little master of the Tao paused. Then, within a blink, she regained her poise.
“Ere aught else,” she huffed, “your of address mode! You art of rank to mine similar. But one ‘master’ doth these walls rule – and I am not she. You will me with accord to our peerage call. Yes, Mu brother?”
Acolytes as one glanced to the unremarkable priest’s (now faintly blackened) sleeves; and there, indeed, were the three colours of rank. Yellow, green and red, going outward. All missing was Futo’s final blue. Their own, red sleeves, were mean in comparison.
Abashed, or unaccustomed to such scrutiny, the priest tugged the outmost, white layer of his robes over the markings. “… Yes,” he said at length. “Yes. Apologies. It is as you propose, sister Futo.”
This noticeably mellowed the master Taoist, who frowned on for a heartbeat or two, mostly on principle. Then, she melted into a fond smile. Still, belonging to Futo, this as well was ahead long filled with more of herself.
“Ah, perchance I too soon spake,” she announced; “perchance there yet a lesson herein is.” She swivelled on a heel at the staggered novices. “Mightst ye venture,” she asked them, “what error Mu brother there did misfortunately make?”
A numb moment, and the initiates straightened to attention.
“… Used Feng against Feng, instead of Shui?” one hazarded.
Futo gave them a magnanimous nod. “Thou an aright thought makest,” she granted. “Howbeit, alack… Only forby truth.”
Flames licked out and swirled to form a new orb above her outstretched hand. Futo carried it to the section of her drawing reflecting Handai Mu’s vantage. The fire picked up current, the same it had from the Crown Prince’s chambers. A place of Feng.
Her students, fear forgotten to curiosity, drew closer about the little master as she proceeded to explain in a sagely manner why, then, her “brother” had drawn on Wind when surprised, which had fed the fire at first – rather than the opposite Water.
Overhead, in the balcony’s shadow, Handai Mu leaned on the scorched railing.
Mhm, he thought. I could easily love her.
A warm, lazy afternoon was glazing over the Taoist temple in Toyosatomimi Miko’s hidden Sen-kai. The Sun… which was not the Sun, but another trim in the Crown Prince’s ethereal weave… glared from on high, unimpeded by a single cloud. It was never cloudy in Miko’s Sen-kai. Never cold. Not outside of those rare days when she slipped in her control over the realm, and a touch of the outside weather slid in through the cracks. The Crown Prince, it was whispered in less public quarters, simply thought the full illumination of sunlight to foster a like enlightenment within. Mu thought these whispers simple… but passed them on, for no reason but their simpleness gratified him.
As he was gazing out over the rolling, golden fields with encompassed Toyosatomimi Miko’s temple palace, another impossibility loomed at the fringe of his awareness.
Above the temple’s roof, high in the tepid air, a lone, greenish cloud swam languidly out onto the otherwise unblemished sky. Though, once more… not a cloud, but something else yet, which the Crown Prince had brought into this dreamlike space. A person, this time… of a sort. A dead sort, to be rude on mark – even if the person herself made it an open display.
As a ghost, the Crown Prince’s wife… at least in his – or her – previous life (the details were confusing and Miko’s public secret)… Soga Tojiko enjoyed few pleasures but for the most basic. Many an afternoon she whiled away, basking in the warmth of her husband’s manufactured Sun. The afternoons she did not, she followed the Crown Prince around – giving any new recruit to the Tao a nasty start.
Mu liked Tojiko. Not as deeply as he liked (and admired) Futo; but the woman was more than capable of being pleasant – when one found a topic of conversation pertinent to a ghost. She was, in honesty, a dear and mannered soul… even if her moods could be a touch abrupt. The same way a sea was a touch wet.
The orb, Mu figured. The orb must have drawn her out. Even with Futo about, it was seldom that fire-balls were randomly arcing through the Sen-kai’s sky. The ghost lady might have been curious. Or furious; both were equally like.
Mu skewed an ear down, where Futo was rounding off her lecture with twice the flair it was warranted. He tapped his knuckles on the burnt railing, musing. Another gaggle of neophytes was already waiting instruction in the temple’s main hall; Mu himself had guided them in. Afterwards, daily ceremonies at Miko’s side would keep the little Taoist booked until evening. If Mu wanted her to himself (which he did), it had to be now.
So, he waited, tapping, as the acolytes below filed in twos and threes back indoors. Some did so plainly footnoting to each other what they had been told; some marched wrapped in cloaks of their own thoughts. Those, Handai Mu suspected, would flee within the week. Toyosatomimi Miko’s power and radiance seduced many; few withstood the expectation behind them. Ally to this Futo’s overwhelming passion, the thundering of Tojiko and the solitariness of Miko’s handful of elevated servants, and the turn-out for the Taoist temple attached to Gensokyo was – in a word – miserable.
Though, if the Crown Prince was bothered any by this truth, it was not bother enough to shift her benchmark.
Mu heaved himself upright once the doors below shut behind the last of the novices. Futo dusted her hands, sides, butt… before her grey eyes turned up once more at her spying brother. A smile tugged the corners of her mouth.
And then – impossibly – Mononobe Futo jumped.
The single leap conveyed the petite Taoist from the temple yard – seven metres down – up to the other side of the Mu-occupied stretch of railing. Futo clung on, vising the fingers of one hand around the singed wood. At the same time, she extended the remaining one to Mu. The priest grasped it, hauling the small woman, up and over, onto the balcony. Truthfully, Futo’s legs would happily have carried her that bit farther on their own. There were not too many things Futo’s legs couldn’t do. But, the Crown Prince’s aide relished in baiting these moments of camaraderie out of those she liked. Mu didn’t hold it against her.
He did hold her hand, though, a little longer than Futo softly pulling it away.
Futo, being Futo, made a naughty face ahead stepping back. “Well?” she asked, arms folded. “What thinkest you?”
Mu cocked his head. He joined his newly recoloured sleeves at his stomach. “Of?”
“Those.” The little Taoist thumped a heel on the balcony’s floor. “Whereof else?”
The redsleeves, Mu translated to himself. “Half won’t last the week,” he opined. “Half again won’t see their greens.”
Futo nodded. It wasn’t a cruel gesture, not even sad; but Mu could sense the pity. “I’ll fain any who stay groom,” she admitted; “mayhaps whichsoever my Crown Prince master’s eyne captureth. But I nowise hope for this lot have.” She shrugged away her own damning criticism. “Well, marry that,” she decided. “Somedeal more importunately… Mu brother?”
Mu raised a brow. “Sister Futo?”
Futo raised both of hers in an adorably askance scowl. “I you to address me with respect before the cadets asked,” she told him. “Nay to grovel. Our Taishi Lord doth solely mastery over this domain command. I am no one’s master but this body and soul’s. Nor yours. We,” she reminded, “almost of rank are. Are not we?”
“We are,” Mu agreed.
“And friends,” added Futo.
“I rather like you, yes.”
“And I, you. So, do not my like harder make. Will you, Mu brother?”
The priest bowed an obeisance. “I have had trouble addressing… people to their satisfaction since I wound up in this place. I recognise my failing and mean to amend it… someday.”
He unrolled from his bow. Futo was rolling her eyes.
“Your failing, Mu,” she moaned, “that you your puissant qualities beneath yon daredevilry hidest is.”
Mu hesitated. “… I thought you liked it?”
“Oh, soothly,” Futo allowed. “It hath its childish charm. And I do so children love.”
“… Is that what I am to you?”
The little Taoist smiled. “I a rank yet above you am. No? Now—” She bucked Mu’s forging retort by swishing closer. “What hath you so morose gotten?”
It was exceedingly easy, ribbing Futo, to forget the woman was keen as well as wonderful. Not without cause had the Crown Prince designed for Futo to collocate with her into this new era; not without cause was Futo, even now, the sword of Toyosatomimi Miko. The daily repartee and excitement of her second youth veiled well that Futo of the late Mononobe clan had bloomed and aged in ancient court. Observance of others had like been the lesser of her duties. Observance and, more keenly, connecting those observations to their sources.
And, they were brother and sister in Lord Taishi’s retinue. This, perhaps, counted too.
He still asked, feigning uncertainty, “… ‘Morose?’”
Futo raised a finger, wagging it pertly in the air. “An everyday Mu,” she taught, “either our Crown Prince master like a hound attendeth, or in yon broom-closet he a library calleth his study furthereth. A morose Mu my sessions with young cadets stalketh and disrupteth. It nay a difficult match is.”
“I suppose,” gave morose Mu.
“And so?” urged Futo. “What doth my brother ail?”
Handai Mu shut his eyes. Then, helplessly, he opened them – together with his arms.
“I am in doubt, Futo.”
A common malady, she might have said. She did not.
Instead, she stole his earlier – genius – question. “Of?”
Mu’s mouth cracked into a tiny curve. Sauntered into that one, you. “I am,” he hurried to explain, “mounting an inquiry. Of a sort. Have been, for a while.”
Futo made a nod. “Mhm. I know.”
The Crown Prince’s acolytes were discouraged from re-entering Gensokyo, unless to progress their training… discouraged, but not dissuaded. Any and all goings were, of course, noted; Mu could no more hide his than he could wrest Toyosatomimi Miko’s control of her domain from her golden mind.
And yet, Futo let it lapse. “Good,” she, in fact, said. “Many a grand answer hath from inquiring begun. How doth it proceed?”
Mu flattened his mouth back into a line. “Ah…” he sighed, sidelong. “Well. Herein’s the bug. I do not know that it should.”
Futo’s answer had been nothing but level. Still, when he looked, Handai Mu found the little master of the Tao frowning.
“I… am not sure of it, anymore.”
“Dost you knowledge desire, Handai Mu?” Futo asked sharply.
Mu squared his back. “Yes, but—”
The small woman shook her head. Her ponytail wiggled at its back. “Wei wu wei,” she declaimed. “Action from action precluded. Our Crown Prince master hath you with strength and means equipped; the Tao – the Way – your guide is. The Sage occupied with the unspoken is,” Futo recited, “he without effort acts; with nary verbosity teaches, with nary possession produces. He with nary regard to result creates.”
“I know the adage, Futo.”
“What, then? If to wit doth what you desirest be – pursue it. Therethrough you to our Crown Prince master dost honour.”
“What if my question is wrong?” dared Mu. “What if it defies the precepts?”
“How doth it?” Futo dared back. “A mere question?”
“It—” Mu clamped his jaw. He sieved his reply. He separated the lies. “… My question,” he said at last. “It sets… people… against me. It sows discomfort. Chaos.”
“Meanest you your friends in your former home?” guessed Futo. “In the human town?”
“Can’t be,” sniffed Mu. “I’m not capable of friends. Too morose.”
Futo brushed past the joke. “How dost you this know?” she asked, all scholarly. “That your question this discomfort, this chaos sows?”
“Conjecture. Surmise. Glares and silences. The works.”
“But nay words.”
“No,” confirmed the inquiring priest. “No, never words. Why—”
A trace of discontent fogged behind Futo’s eyes. Mu cut himself short.
“Let us,” the little Taoist proposed, “your question with another question trial.” She put her hands to her sides. “Handai Mu. What dost you want, right now?”
Mu faltered. “Now?”
Futo inclined her head. The ponytail bobbed. “Here. Now.”
Handai Mu withdrew into a spell of silence, taking stock of the small, grey-haired woman. He sidestepped the undertone of his wants turning immediately to her… and let them shape.
Mononobe Futo, ancient of Shigisan, Lord Taishi’s familiar, stood before him: a bundle of stark energy wrapped inside a thin skin of discipline. Mu skimmed his gaze along the woman’s edges. The tall hat – held by a tucked clip to her hair, so as to prevent it falling off. The long-sleeved hunting cloak – many-layered, each dyed to reflect a tier of her rank. The navy skirt below, cut almost inappropriately short for ease of movement. The bare legs with scuffed knees… which could shoot her like a mortar round over Gensokyo’s mountains.
Mu’s eyes trailed up again, returning to his once-tutor’s own.
Futo held his stare, waiting – a faint smile drawing her cheeks. Audacious, but accepting. Honest. Open.
And then, in a flash of insight, Handai Mu knew what it was he wanted.
( ) “I want to pick you up.” ( ) “I want your scrunchie. For keeps.”
As sagely as befit her station, Futo gave him a nod. “Then—” Her arms fanned out. “Do.”
Mu sighted down his nose at the short woman. But, no. Joke though they did often and with audacity, Futo had never made light of his tutelage. They were almost of a rank now, yes; yet, in some ways, his wardship with Futo had never ended. Nor did he want it otherwise. The colours at his wrists weren’t a restitution for losing out on the woman’s company.
A heartbeat distraction saw him pause in reaching out to execute his desire. The sleeves of Futo’s cloak hung loose, wing-like, from her outstretched arms. The likeness hatched an idea in a back-wise corner of his head.
One for later, Mu chided himself. Now… Now, he stooped half over in front of his tutor: slinging an arm under her seat, and the other round the small of her back. His hopes were dashed, ever-so-slightly, when Futo made no sound of surprise at her feet being unmoored from the balcony’s floor. Then again, what reason had a woman who could fly at will to do that? Consolation arrived in the shape of a pincer – made of Futo’s legs around his sides. All prim and ladylike, Futo placed her hands on Mu’s robe-draped shoulders. An indulgent smile, the like the Crown Prince gifted her petitioners, adorned the small Taoist’s face. The priest met it with a huff of effort – mostly faked.
Then, abruptly, he hitched her up.
Futo spluttered, clutching his head to her chest. Moments later, wisdom struck… through Futo’s knuckles digging painfully into his temples. The small Taoist unrolled a fine fan of words which proved too deprecated for Mu’s pedestrian grasp of Gensokyo’s historic language. He chuckled – then, at once, groaned – but held on to his tutor, even despite her retaliation.
Being close to Futo was… striking. Never mind the knuckles; never mind the clogs poking Mu’s kidneys through his back. Never mind the scent of Futo’s Sun-baked clothes, or that of her warm, delicately tanned skin. Never mind that Futo was – in her bright-eyed and tireless manner – a magnet for all alloys of ineligible feelings. Most striking of all was the energy. The same vigour, which burned behind Futo’s eyes and beneath her skin, was actually palpable up close. This close, it was all but tactile. A sheath of electrifying air – wrapped all around her youthful body.
Mu had never solved out this particularity of his teacher. So far, his best theory had him convinced Futo was constantly Winding some quality of the surrounding air. He had done much similarly, after all, when minutes before he had agitated the air at his palms to pressure-deflect the fire-ball. What it was that Futo was Winding here, however, remained a question with an evasive answer. Life? Excitement? It made no sense; Winding and Damping were logical processes: hemmed in by the things the manipulator blindly believed or understood, and only inside themselves or at their immediate extremities. Futo could no more exude something like “life” than she appreciated what “life” was and how it very well functioned.
But had it to make sense? The lens through which Futo observed the world was of another glass altogether than Mu’s; one had but to compare the Windings with which each defied gravity to see the difference in transparency and colour. The little master of the Tao would likely tell him all about hers – across an entire evening – had he but put her to the query, but… He liked it this way. He liked a mystery about Futo. He liked the presence of aspects of her which he hadn’t yet gotten his head around. It reminded him of something older. Older than their partnership; older than Mu’s tutelage. Older, even, than his tenure in Miko’s Sen-kai.
It reminded him of—
No, not that, thought Mu, even if the age did check out. He issued a tired sound. “No, Futo,” he sighed. “This isn’t to imply you’re heavy.”
“Fie—” snorted Futo. “This? You shouldest Toziko whenas she was a babe have beheld. Yon a weight to lay you alow was.”
“I’ll tell her you told me that.”
Futo tossed her head. Her ponytail bounced. “Toziko this as well as I knoweth. We both there were. Now, Mu. If wilst you. Your question.”
Vised between his tutor’s legs, Handai Mu schooled his expression. He wiped his smile. He flushed the sensation of Futo’s body from his thoughts. It was a nice body – and he hadn’t lied about wanting to pick it up. But this was weightier. Futo had a look on her face. It was one he had come to know – and anticipate – in the months spent riding his tutor’s skirt.
“I am an ear,” he assured her.
Futo, nodding, raised a finger. “Tell, then,” she said. “How-ever hast you, Mu, that I would you to pick me up allow known?”
Mu scrunched up his forehead. “I’ve… figured?”
“I’ve known you.”
“Suppose,” Futo suggested, “eke I a thorough stranger to you was. Wouldst you then know?”
“Suppose I wouldn’t,” gave Mu.
“Heyday!” The small Taoist put a hand up to her mouth in mock wonder. “Wherethrough might, in so a case, such pick-up business usward ushered be?”
Mu tilted his head. He’d hardly followed that. “… I could ask?”
“But would I yes say?” pondered Futo. “Or, peradventure, would I you puissant upwise the chin knocked? Both of these answers are; but you, Mu, mayest never either know… ere you askest. Therethrough your Way lieth. Ask – and you know shalt. Ask not – and you guess shalt… perchance forever.”
“You would have me,” Mu interpreted, “to shelve my inferences – and inquire anyway?”
“But one being mayeth the minds of tother people at but a glance know,” declared Futo, “and, parfay… you art nay He. Less radiant, for one. More morose.”
Mu made a grimace. “Lord Taishi’s gifts aside,” he argued, “there are presages, Futo. I’ve mentioned glares, I think?”
“Appearances.” Futo tugged loose the strap of Mu’s court hat, then lifted it off his head. “Appearances one astray leadeth.” She stroked a palm along his shaved scalp as she spoke. “Heed, Mu. You in a realm of illusiveness livest. Meet a figure human-like on the road – and they mayeth on your bones yonside the meeting gnaw. Meet the spryest young maiden there was – and she mayeth a sage of a thousand years of age turn out. A pretty smile mayeth nay a smile be – but a morbid warning. A glower mayeth nay one be – but a friendly challenge. Or—” she smirked, “—fie, they mayeth not. It nay a court is, of rules and rigid protocol.”
“And I,” concluded Mu, “shall never know which way it crumbles – until I ask.”
“It an odd, odd land is, Gensokyo,” Futo granted. “But, if nay else – upfront. Honest.”
“Blunt. Like a mace to the head.”
“Whereagainst we you with a blunt head of your own have equipped,” joked Futo. “Eke the powers you now wield. Use them, Mu. Both.”
Maul them all, for the Crown Prince, went unsaid.
But, irony of ironies, the bluntness had a point; and Mu had rarely ever had to run after posing his indelicate questions. The odd fairy taking them for abuse scarcely made the count; the even odder youkai to give him a… practical reply, also was nothing regular. The matter of his pursuit was, perhaps, discomfiting. But then, even more were the thorns of ignorance in his sides.
Wei wu wei, thought Mu. Futo was right. Do, don’t think. Like those you wish to understand.
Handai Mu hefted what little there was to heft of his tutor, and carried her to the edge of the balcony. There, he deposited the small woman on the railing. Futo let herself peel away, still holding on to his hat.
Hands on either side of her, Mu leaned in – and kissed his tutor on the cheek.
The arcane barrier at her skin made it a nervous, almost tingling experience. But, this was what he wanted to do. Mononobe Futo, Lord Taishi’s closest, gave him no benefit of a reaction. Or, perhaps she reacted with the absence of one; any way Mu broke it down, Futo had only a small, opaque smile to give in return when he pulled away. She rotated the hat in her hands, then placed it back atop Mu’s head.
“Will you, then,” she asked, even as she tied the straps under his chin, “your inquiry soothfast continue?”
Mu, stupidly, began to shape a nod. “… Yes,” he said in alternate. “Methinketh I will.”
Futo let the sally bounce off her lavish brows. She finished the knot – a little tightly in her earnestness – and patted Mu’s own cheek. “Heyday,” she said with teased magnanimity. “Howbeit – iwis you shouldest the same at your other duties labour. Thinkest not you so, Mu?”
Mu popped a smile. “I’ve led your next batch in already, Futo,” he informed her. “Softened them up, all the usual. They’re waiting below, in the main hall.”
“Told them nay to touch the plates?”
“If they felt attached to their limbs, yes.”
“Good man. I had best go, then. Nay much in a chopping mood today.”
The small Taoist made to flip backwards off the railing. Mu caught her arm.
“Are you sure,” he asked, “that you don’t want a piggyback ride there?”
His tutor stared up at him. Then, she sniggered. “With you as the pig?” she returned. “Never. Meseems you buck too much.”
Another time, Mu deciphered the tone under Futo’s words. He returned her grin, hoping his wasn’t too rueful. Then, he let her arm slip his grasp.
The small Taoist pitched off the balcony, pirouetting in mid-air. She punched, clogs-first, into the temple yard. Dry earth burst up in a billow. Unimpaired by the fall, Futo patted down her skirt, knees, shot her brother a two-handed salute – and rushed indoors.
The undying late Summer of Miko’s Sen-kai reinstalled itself in Futo’s turbulent wake. Silence – warm, eternal, unchanged – swiftly blanketed the yard.
Handai Mu rested his elbows on the railing, feeling himself deflate. He squinted up to check the position of the Sun (and the Tojiko beside it), then referred it to his experience with Gensokyo’s parallel time. Within two to three hours, nightfall would begin outside. The Sun in Lord Taishi’s domain would cling to the sky for a while yet, to permit the new inductees a little more time to settle in. It would also permit Mu to see to other, no less important tasks, ahead he left to resume his investigation.
Tasks wherein he…
( ) The Crown Prince like a hound attendeth. ( ) Tojiko selfish pestereth.
Handai Mu vaulted the railing. At the same time, he Damped his weight to about a fourth of its normal.
The drop was crisp and vertiginous. His feet thumped on the packed dirt of the yard not two seconds later. Mu shuddered, then plastered on a wry smile. The reduced mass of his body had spared his shins from rocketing up into his ribcage, but he had felt his bones jar each other all the same. Nor had the spell slowed his fall. Some universal laws could not be duped, not even with Winding and Damping; and gravity pulled a cavalier Taoist just the same, regardless of his weight.
Mu Winded his up again to its natural level, before the nausea come of the sudden manipulation could sink its hooks into his stomach. What was it Tojiko would say? That Mononobe was rubbing off on him? And not in ways I should appreciate, Mu brooded. Futo could do these things; her distinct outlook made his frame of mind seem a disability in comparison. He wished he might rub that part of his tutor instead, but… some usances ran deep. As the twig had been bent – so the tree looked like an idiot, so to say.
Mu peered up at the Sun and its orbiting Tojiko pom-pom. In case the ghost lady had been watching him near-shatter his own legs, he waved at her the trans-vertical sign for “I’m down here, you’re so far up!” In case she asked after it later, he assumed the momentary fuzzing of her outline meant she’d waved a “You look like an ant!” back.
Courtesies satisfied, Mu smoothed his sleeves down and crossed the doorway into Miko’s home.
The interior of Lord Taishi’s temple palace ever became its name: hush and oaken panels all over. Handai Mu stalked across the empty passages almost a white-draped phantom of a man. Smoked incense swirled about in the air: cold, in defiance of the heat without, and scented with foreign spices. Diffuse light seeped from paper-screened lampions which never went out. It wasn’t a crypt; the Crown Prince still had a pronounced use for walls and doors (unlike a certain green someone). But it was the next thing in the line. Or, by that measure, the previous.
Handai Mu, however, arrived at the audience room undisturbed – at least, dead-people-wise. He gave the common entrance a wide, disdainful berth. He stole instead down an auxiliary corridor, which would lead him to a side door meant for those of his rank. The tri-coloured priest swung it open, scattering the misty smoke.
Beyond the threshold lay a sliver of ancient past. A wide chamber, lushly carpeted, hung with livery; it may well have been ripped whole from the pages of a storybook. Arranged in loose rings on the carpets were pillows for courtiers waiting their audience; in the centre of each: a kalian – a kind of water-pipe – was placed, rigged with an appropriate number of spouts. Sentinel over the empty seats was stood by bronze statuettes of strange, exotic gods. Their polished skulls gleamed in the orange lantern-light.
Mu strode into the room. Smoke churned behind him, grasping at the tails of his robe. It didn’t follow; the focused Wind of the chamber refused it entry. The priest snapped the door shut. Three heads were turned at the sound of his appearance. Two of these were mounted on the shoulders of men swathed in traditional kimonos under rough winter cloaks – and kneeling before a rise at the cardinal end of the room.
The third one belonged to a goddess.
Atop the rise, the Crown Prince, Toyosatomimi Miko, lounged on a cathedra put together from pillows stacked atop pillows. However she censured such an address, it was difficult to see the temple’s grand master as anything but divine. Glimpsed out the corner of an eye (with a helping cataract), the Crown Prince may have struck said eye as a towering, masculine figure simply for the posture and confidence that she carried. An eye trained square on Toyosatomimi Miko – as it should be – would perceive the belying reality.
The cloak of royal purple draped about her slight, feminine shoulders. The modest distension in the simple vest she wore underneath – lined down across with glowing, cabalistic runework. The diminutive fingers, each tipped with a small, lacquered nail. The circlets of pure gold clasped around the woman’s bare wrists and ankles. The subtle, golden pin earrings she put in whenever her earmuffs weren’t necessitated. One had but to glance to see that Lord Taishi… though she accepted “Lady” just as graciously… was resplendent with devices of brazen femininity.
Some in Gensokyo spoke of the Crown Prince’s fondness of jewellery as vain. Not so Mu. He understood the meaning behind the glitter. Metals were of the earth; so as well was Lord Taishi herself. Melted down, forged, reshaped – and made all the more beautiful for it. They were changed, yes – divorced from their origin. But bettered.
So as well was Lord Taishi.
This, perhaps, had been what Handai Mu had lacked for in his previous life. Something – someone – beyond the palest shade of doubt above his mundane self. Maybe it was this which had made him choose Gensokyo over the alternative. Granted that he hadn’t known the Crown Prince – even of her – as of then. But the pervading sense of wonder in Gensokyo – the Land of Illusions – and its possibilities had been a heady promise. Now, he had before him nothing less.
Without shame, from the peak to the root of his soul, Handai Mu loved the woman who sat the temple’s pillow throne.
The men eyed Mu with wariness as the priest strode across the chamber. The bolder of the two – or just longer-moustached – looked inquiringly back to the Crown Prince.
“My Lord Taishi?” he said. “Who…?”
Miko attired a politicised smile. She touched the bamboo fan she had been toying with to her lips. “Ah,” she said. “My escort, it seems. A touch overdue. Must be an effortful day.” Her eyes, however, spoke a different language. What do you think you’re about, Handai Mu?
Mu wrote back to none of the stares. Wordlessly, he stepped up onto the dais, then hunkered down behind Miko’s left shoulder. Her right one was reserved for Futo. The Crown Prince twisted about on her seat to give him a questioning frown.
Mu cocked his head. Miko tapped the fan on his nose with exasperation.
Gods, but he loved that woman.
“I apologise, of course,” said the goddess to her visitors, “for this rude and untimely interruption. But, such as it was, it suggests to me perhaps to speed our gallantry, and cut to the thrust of our meeting. There are clearly demands we must yet meet today – you and I.”
The well-moustached man tugged at his most defining feature. “I imagine,” he said, peering at Mu. The priest drew himself up, trying to appear threatening. He was ignored. “The thrust, my Lord Taishi, is this,” the man continued at Miko. “That we have noticed the comings and egresses of your… students, nearby one of our fields. We discern it is, by fortune, where an entrance to your secret plane is located. Well, I say ‘discern’… We were led, naturally, to that self-same entrance by your emissary this very evening. Queer kind of door, that. Most perturbing, I must say.”
Miko smiled. “The thrust, goodman?”
“The thrust, yes,” repeated the townsman. “My Lord Taishi, as you may have heard… There are plans in venture to renovate the mechanisms of the fields which provide feed to our town – no sooner than Spring touches the land. Waystations on the highways, crew rotation, more stringent scheduling and re-seeding. The works. Good effort, overall. Well needed for a time now.”
“But?” Miko supposed.
“But politics, ma’am,” sneered the man. “No one’s mark is eluded that some parties are already contracted preference in the coming effort. Take you, for instance, the house Itou. They are warranted first space in the warehouse to stand on the primary thoroughfare, on account – I quote – of ‘seeding the earliest and most principal grain incumbent to the livelihood of the town.’ Well, my Lord Taishi, it is known that we – the Toorima – seed the very same grain in our hereditary quarter of the fields in the same months. Yet, the town council shuts their ears to our petitions. They promise Itou support and machinery devised by ingenious Kappa of the Goddesses’ Mount, while families just as old and illustrious are made to squabble over seconds!”
Moustache man paused, his righteous umbrage (and the winter coat) beading sweat out onto his face. He shoved a hand out in front of his companion who, from earmarks, must either have been used to the treatment, or the man’s son. Mu had been staring that one down. The youth looked like he hadn’t two wits to strike together, and was looking at the Crown Prince a little too hard.
Training, still, must have stuck; for the young man dutifully dug a kerchief out of a pocket to pass to his elder. The older man wiped his moustache down. Or, it might have been his face at large; either was like as much as the other.
“The thrust, my Lord Taishi,” said the head of illustrious Toorima, “is that, in the shadow of this adversity, I must dedicate to protecting my family’s interests.”
“By becoming a Taoist?” Miko proposed half-seriously. “A Way most healthy for one’s soul… but I do not know about one’s interests.”
“Would it were, my Lord Taishi!” laughed Moustache. “Would it were. But, no. My time and my prayers belong to the land… and a certain oft-overlooked goddess who lives on the mountain slopes. I would not dare abandon her.”
“I shall be truthful, my Lord. It is subject to no uncertainty that you, an Emperor of a distant era, reject our modern politics by dint of principle. I would not ask of you to break that principle – not for us. But, I cannot help… I could not help but hear of the wonders of your secret realm and think. The skies, the earth… The air here cloys with the scent of pollen. In the middle of Winter, no less. Most wondrous.”
Miko clacked her fan shut. “I must disappoint you, Kijou of Toorima. I do not lease this land. Not anymore than I would lease a part of my soul.”
Kijou… really, “Moustache” described him better… Toorima raised both his palms in the manner of someone attempting to stop an oncoming bus. Or a noblewoman with an unswerving moral compass. “Nothing so… invasive, ma’am,” he assured. “All I ask… All I present to you today is a business opportunity. I have seen your students tending the fields; I have seen the harvest they make. Trade us, then. A cart of grain, even every now and then, would go a long way to undermine the monopoly the Itou are poised to gain. If your students are strained, then raw sheaves would do as well. We can thresh the grain ourselves.”
“And what would I,” challenged Miko, “an Emperor of far past, stand to gain from said trade?”
Moustache smiled like a cat in a tub full of cream. “Honour, my Lord,” he declared. “No money nor earthly goods would satisfy one such as you. But Honour… It is a virtue you cherish over all. You will do what is right – for naught but it is right. Nor will you turn an ear from an honest plea for help. That is your own Honour.”
Miko’s eyes went wide, genuinely impressed. “Well done,” she praised. “Many who come to me do so unlearned of half of what you have said. Well researched, goodman.”
“I am not completely without my merits, Lord.”
“All the sadder it is,” said the Crown Prince, regretful, “that you request the impossible.”
The cat-smile under Moustache’s moustache curdled.
Still, the cat must have been hoary and wise; it knew a tubful of cream might well be followed by one full of cold water. Moustache locked it behind a face of mild despondence. It wasn’t a reply he hadn’t countenanced. Just one he’d ill-expected – or liked.
He took the loss with what grace he could. “… Understandable,” he gave up. “I will, of course, abide your word. But, forgive me – if for nothing else then my curiosity… Why ‘impossible,’ my Lord Taishi?”
Miko gifted him a tolerant smile. “Nothing to forgive about curiosity. Ignorance is the only evil; wisdom – the only treasure.”
The townsman’s back visibly starched by the reply. “Why, then?” he asked, bolder.
The Crown Prince leaned forward on her throne. Her fan was angled down at the rise which bore her seat. It gave a hollow tock as the goddess knocked it on the rise’s floor.
“Where do you think you are, Kijou of the Toorima?”
The townsman blinked at the simplicity of the question. “… Your temple, my Lord?” he presented.
“Yes, obviously,” Miko granted. “But tell me this. Where is this temple of mine? Where is ‘here?’ How did you come to be here – in this Winter-less realm – when not an hour hence you were suffering the cold-wracked Gensokyo? Where are you, Kijou of the Toorima?”
For the first time since Mu had entered, the moustached smallholder looked uncomfortable.
“I… I do not know, Lord.”
Miko didn’t grudge his blindness. She never did. A benighted soul was one to be given light, not thrust farther into darkness. Not unless it chose to retreat by itself.
Miko described a circle with her fan, encompassing the chamber and its unseen surrounds. “What you see around you, Kijou of the Toorima,” the goddess explained, “is but a figment of my mind. My soul, if you should prefer such nomenclature. Moulded, forged and bathed in etheric essences to allow it to shine – like a beacon – before your own. You see these walls, these fields – for no reason but I chose for you to see them so. You see the bluest, unblemished sky, because it is the sky I dreamed in my millennium of deathlessness. It is nothing more – and nothing less – than a shadow on the wall of your mind.
“There is no life here,” Miko revealed. “None beyond that which I bring into this place myself. My students toil at the fields because it whets the character, not for the yield. Nature is too esoteric a system to be emulated by the human intellect. A reality with which, I dare say, you are better acquainted than I. The fields you saw outside, goodman, would in truth feed you. They would make a savoury meal. They would delight your palate and fill your stomach. And then, feeling stuffed and satisfied, you would days later die of starvation. For it is but an illusion of fulfilment you would be feeling.
“I cannot sell you the grain,” the goddess concluded with another tock of her fan. “Not for I wish to decline you help – but because I have a better offer to make. I have acquired a student recently, named Aiko, who makes good cheer of studying methods of cultivation. Currently, she is studying methods from the Outside World from books she has procured… somewhere she won’t say. I could lend her to you, goodman. It shan’t fix the perversion which has taken in the governing ranks of your town, but… It may edge you ahead in providing for your family in the coming months. How you use her wisdom – this would be upon you.”
Moustache brightened at once. It never ceased to fascinate Mu how quickly those sorts span on Miko’s finger.
“My Lord Taishi,” the townsman intoned. “It seems I have slighted your gracious attention with my crass offer. In this, I find myself deposited within a trough of shame. I shall accept the counter-proposition you made me with jubilation. The field hands, I feature, will rue any deviation from the rule. But, if it proves to work… Kaito? What do you think?”
The youth at the man’s side lurched. He looked about, bleary-eyed. “… Sounds swift to me,” he decided.
So he had brains in his head. Miko’s bare, gold-encased ankles had just thoroughly sucked them out.
The Sen-kai’s grand master made no point of this. She gave Moustache Toorima another smile, and pretended a lapse of mind. “Ah. Goodman, one complication I failed to note.”
“None too complex than the problem you have solved, my Lord,” Moustache insisted. Mu couldn’t tell if it had been a statement or a demand.
Miko laughed: a golden sound, like the peal of a tiny bell. “None indeed,” she indulged. “The complication is this. Aiko, the student I mentioned… she has but last month received her greens. That means she is only second-bottom rank in my retinue. She has a fraction of my frugality – never mind generosity – at best. And, she is protective of her little hobby. No doubt she will demand reimburse. I ask that you give it to her. What she learns is her own wisdom, hers to do with as she sees fit.”
Moustache wiped his forehead. “My Lord Taishi,” he said, gravely, “we will kiss dam Aiko’s palms and wash her feet in cow’s milk if she aids us in spoking the wheel of the corrupt Itou. Then, if I may, I shall away to our town and trouble you no more. When do I expect dam Aiko to descend on my unworthy doorstep?”
Miko smiled, then un-crossed her legs. Handai Mu tried not to think of the word “swift.”
“She shall be with you,” the goddess promised, “no sooner than Spring touches the land.”
The question fled Mu’s mouth the same minute the smallholder and his son had quit the chamber. The same didn’t see the goddess deign a reply. Handai Mu disembarked his master’s pillow ark to stand where the visitors had knelt in supplication.
Miko’s eyes were distant. Turned up and right, keeping a survey of something no other may see. With a twinge of uneasiness, Mu realised what. Her guests. The grand creator of the Sen-kai was watching her guests depart the realm of her mind. As, he reminded himself, she is watching everyone’s. Steady, Mu.
Less steady he was made by the fact that Toyosatomimi Miko looked ravishing when distracted. The golden pins in her ears and the fan tap-tap-tapping pensively on her lips cut a dash the like the Crown Prince rarely ever showed the public. She was adorable – at once vulnerable and self-reliant. Like a learner of an art, come across a passage in an old book which defied all her hitherto convictions – and not about to let the argument pass. Futo may be cute… and pop into his thoughts often and uninvited. But even his tutor paled beside the sheer radiance of Toyosatomimi Miko.
Insofar, anyway, as anything could make the hot-blooded Futo lose her colour.
The Crown Prince’s gold-flecked eyes snapped to Mu’s own, as if she’d sensed his scrutiny. Oh, right, Mu congratulated himself inside. The earmuffs are off. Best time to ogle. He flushed, but held Miko’s gaze.
A few much-too-loud heartbeats later, and the goddess exhaled her relief. The visitors must have passed back into Gensokyo. Miko set her fan down on the dais floor.
“Which part,” she asked of her red-faced acolyte, “did you figure for a lie, Mu?”
Handai Mu shook out of his shame – somewhat like a sodden dog shakes out of water. “The—” He swallowed. “The grain, Lady Miko. I mean… I drink down bowls of porridge made of the stuff every morning. And, pardon me… I do not feel half as light a soul as our dear Tojiko.”
That earned him a small, gorgeous smile. “The grain is quite real, yes. Granted. I had it seeded here. How-ever else would I feed all of you?”
“And yet you said—”
“Only the truth,” Miko interrupted. “An oblique one, perhaps. But I made no lie when I claimed the gratification from our trade would only be illusory. Goodman Kijou is not an evil man; nor was my – purportedly free – aid his first choice. Men like him, who till the earth, aren’t wont to pick the short term, which such aid would be… Not unless they are compelled by forces outside of their purview. Which, I remind you, our goodman Kijou was – by the politicking of his own kin, no less. Such things confuse men rooted in the constants of agriculture. He sought a Way of least resistance today, not because he is a lazy person at heart – but because he treads ground he has never had to before.
“My Way,” the Crown Prince declared, “will serve him better. Mine will put money in his family’s coffers not only this Spring, but the next also. My grain will feed him not only this year, but those to come. Should this realm vanish one day, and this source dry out, the Toorima family shall not face a sudden hunger. And, if… dam Aiko,” Miko fairly giggled the title, “if she does her work as I have taught her, and keeps her comments to herself… Then the Toorima and their servers shall have no reason not to feel they have achieved stability all of themselves. There is no greater motivator than that, Mu. You know this.”
Handai Mu did know this. He knew it no worse than he recalled the months of furiously absorbing the lessons Futo had bestowed him. Success, which hadn’t reared at first, had been intense enough that Futo had shared in it easily, once Mu had found his own Way to put her teachings into practice.
“… I still disagree,” he said, argumentatively.
Miko laughed. Gods, what a laugh that woman had. “Ahh—” she breathed, all contented amusement. “Jealousy, is it? You needn’t, Handai Mu. You bear the name I gave you; you bear the colours I endowed you. You sleep in my home. You are already more mine than those could ever be.”
“The youth was rude.”
“And while your concern flatters me fierce, Mu,” Miko replied, “I should think I can deal with one young man’s indecent desires. Can’t I not just?”
She’d delivered that last demand while staring right at him. Mu felt a curious punch of queasiness and arousal slam into his… let’s say gut. He grimaced. Miko raised her brows at him in feigned innocence.
“… Speaking of these matters, however,” she continued after he’d stewed for a moment. “Tell me. How goes your courtship?”
Not very good, hallmarks are, Mu thought. He squeezed out a sigh. “… I am not courting anyone, Lady Miko.”
“Tojiko says differently.”
“With respect—” Mu shook his head. “Tojiko has ideas. Futo is my sister and my tutor. Not just mine. I couldn’t in good conscience steal her away from others. We’re already enough close.”
“No one has said anything about Futo,” Miko remarked, smiling. “That is first. Second, even if I had named Futo expressly, she has easily time and attention enough to spare everyone. You would simply… get more of it. Would you like that, Handai Mu?”
“I…” There was no hiding it. “I would, Lady Miko. But—”
Miko fanned his reply away. “Hush. I understand; I will not say anything indelicate. Besides, you aren’t courting her. Are you?”
“As he says,” chuckled the goddess. “But, pray. Where is our beloved Futo, anyway?”
This was flatter ground for Mu. “Making loaves of the newbloods,” he said. “Should be. Was where she was headed when I threw her off the balcony.”
Miko didn’t even bat an eye. “Once she is done kneading those loaves, then,” she suggested, “and we take to maintaining the Sen-kai’s fixtures, I shall whisper into her ear a word or two about a shy someone she is neglecting.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Never too, Handai Mu,” Miko teased. “Any other words you would have me put in her pretty head while I am there? I know how thick it can be.”
( ) More time with Futo would be plenty. ( ) Her language had been backsliding. She was confusing the novices. And Mu.
(X) Her language had been backsliding. She was confusing the novices. And Mu.
“There is,” admitted Mu, “a thing.”
Miko regarded him in a quizzical way. “A thing?”
“… That takes fore,” he conceded. “I watched Futo teach today: an introduction to Feng and Shui for redsleeves. Her language has retrogressed. Quite literally… and literarily.”
The Crown Prince let the lame wordplay glance off her ears. “Causing frictions, is it?”
“Less frictions, more… fractures. Of comprehension. Some of those reds looked positively… What was it? Adrift?”
“At sea, I should think,” said Miko. “Same watery area. An oar’s difference. At any rate, I acknowledge your charge, yellow-rank Handai Mu. It shall be remedied. Ironic such as it is…”
Mu dignified himself with a shrug. “I’ve no huge issue slipping past those ‘eth’s and ‘dost’s myself,” he said. “But, owing to your assigning red-rank Handai Mu as her ward, I’ve had time aplenty to get used to them. See them coming. Futo could talk me upwise all day; I’d still understand her. Mostly.”
“Would that not mean,” Miko noticed, “that you were the one who spoiled her?”
Mu hesitated. Then blinked. “I… uh, recognise my failing?”
“And doubtless you mean to amend it.” The Crown Prince swatted it aside. “It does not matter, in the end, who or what encourages Futo’s little affectation. It is, after all, nothing else than that. An affectation. A vice of character. We all have our own. Futo adores her romantic speech; I cannot disavow the lure of external politics. Tojiko loves gossip… and the occasional scream of fright from the inattentive novice. Aiko would bury you like a plant should you step on one of hers. You, I have on good authority, have yours, no different.”
I do, thought Mu. He saw them flitting through the shoals of his memory. A house on the fringes of the human town. Nights whiled away outside the latitude of his goddess’s all-hearing ears. Bottles never left uncorked. Scathing comments never left unmade. A red-eyed face, full of derision… but never telling him to stop.
Mu shooed it away.
“… Yes. I have,” he surrendered at length. “… My sincere regrets, Lady Miko.”
“If they are,” said the Crown Prince, “then I wish you speed in amending them. This is what we have furnished you for. This is why we’ve taught you the Way. Make sure, only, that it marks no decline in your responsibilities to me… I have so few trusty servants; I ill desire to miss even one.”
Mu stared. His jaw squeaked open, but clever retorts seemed suddenly a thing that happened to other, more clever people.
“Were you expecting reprimand?” Miko wondered, all smile and patience. “Chastisement? Mistrust? When I willed this space to be, years ago, I did not destine for those to weave into its design. When I witnessed the lattice of lies upon which Gensokyo had been built, I craved a place where those could be laid down. Where humans like you – like Aiko, like goodman Kijou – could be what they desired to be, not what the Sages of Gensokyo have prescribed them.
“Have you heard of the philosopher, Epicurus? The man was possessed of concepts hauntingly similar to those propounded by students of the Way in our continental rival. Moderation. Minimalism. Interior balance and personal fulfilment. The western wight that he was, however, his application of these ideas proved more… empirical. On his own, by his own means, Epicurus established a commune of like-minded, closely-knit people, who pursued work and pastimes of their own preference, at their own pace… all in the name of their own, subjective happiness.
“There were those in that commune who tilled the land – not because Epicurus had decreed they do, but because they themselves were enamoured of the process. There were those who amassed knowledge, penned chronicles and missives – not because their lords had commanded, but for their own creative aches. There were those who pursued philosophic inquests – not because their doctrine demanded so, but because they themselves desired to.
“This Sen-kai is… not such a place.” Miko shaped a sardonic smile. “I am nowhere as selfless as that ancient, Grecian man. Yet, there are parallels between his ideals and mine; and this, my dear Handai Mu, is one of these. I may demand my novices sever their ties to their kinsmen in Gensokyo, yes. But, this is only a preventive measure. There are those who would take advantage of my generosity. They would reap the rewards of a double allegiance: to me, to Gensokyo; and that, Mu, I simply cannot let be. It is the one blasphemy I will not permit in my religion. The least because I do not wish to inadvertently step on another’s.
“Now that you are beyond that stage, however,” the goddess finished, “now that you are mine… you may walk about unfettered. As long as you respect the precepts, respect yourself… you may exercise your Way in whichever direction you desire. The paths you walk are but your own. All I require in return is that you come when I call… And, perhaps, that your Way does not tread on the younger students’ toes. Like a certain dusty-spoken woman we could both name.”
“Futo,” guessed Mu.
“Whom, may I add,” Miko, faithfully, did add, “I have nothing against being courted. Gods of the land know she could use a healthier distraction…”
“Sooner I’ll court Tojiko,” grumbled Mu. “Less like to burn the hair off my head.”
Miko eyed his clean-shaven scalp.
“… Futo’s idea,” Mu gave up.
“And you consented?”
“… Futo shaved it off. Started while I was asleep. My consent was… consequent.”
“Mysterious regard for each other you two have,” marvelled the Crown Prince. “On top of those other things I have heard… Ah, but do try not to twist this particular prank back on her. That shine on top of you complements your shining personality. Futo, however… Well, she needs the hair to help her keep balance, if nothing else.”
“Gratefully,” muttered Mu, “I prefer Futo hair-with, as well.”
Though the Crown Prince gave him a knee-melting smile, all Handai Mu could do was look away. More denigrating was that he could not call to account the reason for his pique. There were a few candidates. None of which adolescent truants he wanted to drink with. Nor, likely, would they answer even had he called. Too busy at his nous. The bastards.
Miko must have sensed his… whatever it was. Miko sensed everything. And, the beautiful, golden goddess she was, she took mercy.
“Ah, well—” she sighed, lying out her long, smooth legs. “I did not recall – and I still do not recall – sending for an escort today, but… Now that you are helpfully here, perhaps you could go fetch dam Aiko for me? I should very much like to plant this idea of lending her out early… And that address. Maybe it’ll take root by Spring. I’ve no more petitioners today, either, so… No need for anyone to glower them over, I don’t think.”
Mu bowed his head – and not because of any legs present. He joined his sleeves at his front.
“… It will be as you will,” he obeyed.
“Good enough,” the goddess praised. “Ah. And, Mu?”
Miko gave him a look. “When you come back to me tonight—” she began, and Mu felt a wave of heat work up his face, “—please, do not pass into the Sen-kai with your humours all Winded. It makes a terrible report. Almost as if a youkai was breaking in.”
“I will strive not to be a toad in anyone’s shoe this time,” Mu promised.
“Yes,” Miko replied, chuckling. “You do not be that.”
FUTO SLID DOWN the temple’s hallways at glorious speed.
The best of it was, no sorcery required. No Winding her feet’s slipperiness; no Damping the wooden floor’s resistance until it felt like waxed. All Futo had to do was take off her clogs, and she could glide along on her socks forever.
It wasn’t without a check. Turning. Turning was a problem. Belike since it wasn’t part of the Way. When the Sage Laozi had first climbed the mountain above Chengzhou, Futo doubted much he’d stopped for every blade of grass in his path. Futo had to stop. If not for she would have dashed her nose on twenty different walls otherwise, then because her sliding had a definite destination.
Futo skidded right past it. She hopped out of her overshot slide, span around, and tiptoed back to the door she wanted.
No plaque. None needed; the Crown Prince’s home was intimate to those wised to it. Any new cadet would learn it soon or late. Futo cracked the door three hand-spans, then slipped inside. Thank the wicked Seiga for this compact body. She pushed the door back shut with nary a hap of sound.
An archive. This was what the room had been, once; it was long and narrow, with a ubiquitous bookcase running one, entire wall and little else of contrast. When the Crown Prince had recreated His home through arcane, hermit means, following His resurrection, the archive had been grafted a new purpose. It would be where those students of the Way inclined to knowledge in its more flammable form would bring, and store, their findings. Some called it a library. Futo called it a broom closet. It had as good been one; there was dust enough here to complete the illusion.
At the rear of the closet, an old scribe’s desk had been emplaced – with a chair underneath and a glass-window lamp atop – as though to hinder Futo’s choice of term. The lamp threw a long, bulky shadow half down the stretch of the room. Incumbency of the bare-headed man stooped in the chair.
Futo sidled on forward, depositing her clogs on an overturned book in the shelf as she went.
From behind, the man seemed he could be anyone. Futo, of course, knew wiser; the shaven stern of his impressive skull had, after all, been her own achievement. Her pupil, titled Handai – “without base” – at his ascent to greens, cut a fine chunk out of the closet’s musty air. A simple yardman back in his non-native Gensokyo, he’d had scarce care or time to exert for his outward looks. The mane of scruffy, flaxen hair he had carried into Toyosatomimi Miko’s secret realm had been a fair distinguisher in his redsleeve weeks. Once, however, the Crown Prince had turned him over, now as Handai, unto Futo’s undivided charge, it had proven something of an eyeful.
An eyeful of hair.
Futo would wait her pupil to attain his yellows, ahead she’d moved to have that bother solved. Scissors in hand, she had sat her pupil down on a stool in the temple’s modest washroom, and rid him of the mangy thing as best she could. It had been her own, personal elevation of Handai Mu: from a man merely close in rank, to one she was unafraid to call “brother.”
… Might be, to hang an eye on, too. Now, especially, that Futo had fallen into ownership of a proper razor. Overnight, Mu had become a sight more akin to Futo’s ideal of the less fair sex. In the years preceding her shikai, that image had always been filled by the paragon, the Crown Prince. An unspoken part of Futo had oft viewed the shrewd, elegant ruler with a less than moral eye. Now He was conspicuously not a man anymore, it had become easier to ignore that – niggling – facet of her attraction to her liege.
The tumults of her arrival in the modern era, as well, had diverted her something intense. The revival of the Crown Prince, reuniting with Toziko, the rite of combat with Gensokyo’s shaman priestess, the re-emergence of the lost masks, the hunt for the disastrous Occult Orbs… All they had eclipsed the day-to-day function of Lord Taishi’s court. All they had drawn Futo away from what for her sense of aesthetics had been lacking.
No sooner had she held the mirror for the freshly-shaved Mu, than she had remembered what it was.
Which might have had everything… or nothing… to do with what she did now. Futo pulled up at her brother’s undefended back. Then, smartly, she slapped one hand over his eyes, while her other strapped his chest.
Mu tensed – but of course he did. To boot, Futo sensed him Wind some attribute of his body… albeit she couldn’t sense which. He didn’t scream or squeal his surprise, though – which was more than could be said for some in the temple.
Futo smiled a pleased smile. “Guess you who?”
Her brother recomposed himself. It was a brisk process because Mu had an aptitude for breaking things up – unless they ducked under the table. “… Tojiko?” he said. “Weren’t ghosts supposed to be… um, softer? I’m disenchanted.”
“Again,” Futo ordered.
“Lady Miko? We just spoke… Two hours ago. This is unseemly affection.”
“One more, Mu.”
Her brother chewed it over. A likely third name must have been tougher to find.
“… Seki?” he said at last.
“I do not any ‘Seki’ know,” Futo informed him. “And you out of chances are.”
Ahead Mu may wiggle himself a more unassailable position, Futo squeezed the arm she wasn’t using for his eyes around her brother’s neck. Then gave it a wrick. Not too hard. No Winding her strength; no actual injury. But a twist of pain, yes. Tooth for tooth.
Mu didn’t fight back. He didn’t because he couldn’t; and only half of it was for Futo had him in a choke-hold. The remaining one… Well, she was almost certain he would have a different answer than her own. He did, though, give her an obligatory wheeze. A dutiful chokee, her brother.
Futo softened her grip, until it was merely a strong embrace.
“Awful pert,” she accused him. “For someone purported to after my company pine. Aren’t you so, Mu?”
“Lady Miko’s suggestion,” Mu griped back. “I didn’t pine… out loud.”
“Lord Taishi all hears, all knows,” Futo argued. “And He nay mis-hears.”
Mu scoffed. “Her ears are scarily big, yes.”
Futo grinned, even if their conversations on the Crown Prince always felt a little… seesawing.
At an early leg of Mu’s training, he and she had simply agreed to disagree on their Master’s gender. For Futo, who had lived beside Shotoku Taishi the emperor, it perplexed her now to think Him anything but so… except less attractive. For Mu, who had first seen Toyosatomimi Miko in vastly feminine splendour, the reverse almost had to hold true.
It vexed Futo to condone such thoughts. But, the Crown Prince did, in honesty, make a splendid display of His new femininity. Not but the visual side; not even the penchant for gold and finery. Those had ever been with the Crown Prince; He merely wore them better now. But His mannerisms, even His tiny foibles, were all at once more womanly: softer, daintier. Almost it drove Futo to question whether she had ever known Shotoku Taishi as good as she’d believed. Almost it made her wonder if He also preferred male companionship now.
Might it be He had always?
But, no. His betrothal to Toziko and its products were incontrovertible. Nor were Futo’s… other memories attesting to such a case. And, even if His desires leant at a rougher angle now, He had still declined to tutor Mu by Himself – as He would have other promising cadets. Instead, He had given that one to Futo. But if so, why? What had He seen that she had not?
Intrigue. Even in this era: petty, upper-crust intrigue. Some habits lived through death. Futo rubbed her cheek on Mu’s smooth pate. Her brother was a worthy man. He could trade repartee with ease, and had an evident passion about him. Yet, he was not domineering. He was keen and purposeful, but even-handed to a fault. He did not deserve the tail of courtly knavery she and the Crown Prince were dragging behind.
Well… He hadn’t. Futo pinched his face.
“What, then,” she asked him sweetly, “of on your lovely tutor ratting?”
“You werf confufing fe ftudenf,” Mu groaned. Futo eased up on her punishment. “… I could listen to you thee-thou all day,” resumed her brother, “but I’ve listened to you do just that. All day – for days. Gensokyo taught me to pick up tongue on the go. The students? I doubt.”
“I can speak this new, mongrel mode of the language,” Futo said, without a hitch of trouble. “Maugre it, I nay to do so choose. What you crass ‘thee-thou’ hightst, style hath. Cadence. Class. Why, pray, would I nay in it delight?”
“You can. With me, with Lord Taishi. But spare the poor redsleeves, please.”
“Fie—” Futo snorted. “No. If you would the young cadets of this joy reave, then nowise shall you yourself it fully feel. I will my silvern tongue from now on clip.”
“No more ‘heyday’s for me?” Mu lamented.
“No. It all lackadays from here on is.”
“Shame,” replied her brother.
Then, not at all shamefully, he gave an overt sigh of relief.
Futo tweaked his ears. A rational and reasonable way to fight pedestrianism. Mu didn’t sound educated once she’d finished; mostly, he sounded in mild discomfit. But of course he did. Her brother was a handsome, erudite man; but, he had a lump of wet lint for a sense of art.
It made no matter. Futo dropped from Mu’s back, and moved to wedge herself between him and the book on the desk. This, a few shoves and jiggles later, placed her comfortably astride her brother’s lap.
Mu stiffened. His mouth quirked with uncertainty. A few heartbeats in the pass, though, and he mended his expression. Then, he secured Futo in place by her hips.
He always did that. Not the hips thing. That was on occasion her butt or her shoulders. But the hesitation. Something about Futo’s closeness chipped her brother’s confidence every time. Months of nigh-familial intimacy hadn’t stripped it away. Truthfully, Futo felt a little chuffed. It was gratifying to see an easy man such as Mu in unease. It was even more gratifying to know the unease was caused by her.
Mu minced that, too – as well he did most things which stumped him. Then, when the bits were small enough, he stored them in a drawer of his mind whence he may pull them out for study later. Although, Futo rather suspected he wouldn’t.
“… On another boat,” her brother said, as if recalling. “Tell me, sister. Have you done anything… rash, recently?”
Futo cocked her head. Her hat tipped, but stayed attached by the clip sewn to its inside. “How rash?”
“Are we talking degree, or kind?” Mu wanted to clarify.
“Why not the cause whereof to ask?”
“Right. Well, see,” he told her, “I fear me the Crown Prince has been giving thought to selling you off. Maybe even into marriage, if you read the fine print.”
Futo chuckled. “I well past my edibility am,” she said. “Who-ever would a crone alike me buy?”
Her brother rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Well, you’ve heard the rumours…”
A crumb of the unease must have not stored properly; for there it was, tinting Mu’s face. Futo rolled her eyes with him. She had heard the rumours, of course she had; there were whisperers in Lord Taishi’s palace temple whose voices thundered even when they whispered.
“Candidly,” said Mu, “I see where they derive.”
“Whence might that be?”
Her brother considered her closely. “… Futo,” he said, “let’s not pad it. You are nothing if not forward. I like that about you; I love that about you. But it spawns rumours like earthworms in the rain. I am also nothing if not easily forwarded myself,” he added with false modesty, “which like only made it rain harder. I hadn’t before, but now I’ve mused it over, I see through.”
“Yes,” Futo admitted. “It why I after respect in front of cadets asked was.”
“And I had too much fun pulling your legs to stop and think. Sorry.”
“Fie.” Futo made a derisive sound. “It idiocy is, withal. I your sister am. I haven’t aught with you done which I would not have with my blood brother.”
Mu raised a brow. “Pelted him with fire-balls?”
“Pff. Nay!” Futo smacked him. “Tother stuff!”
“Hung off of him like a high bar?”
She nodded. “When-ever no one looked.”
“Let him pick you up and kiss you?”
“To an annoying point.”
“… Took baths together?”
“Right ‘till I flowered. Afterwise… sometimes when he visited.”
Mu had the look of someone with additional questions, but ones he held back. “… Any way you tear it,” he said instead, “the Crown Prince wants us close. I’m not fooled. I think either she foretells I will do something rash, or you.”
Futo smiled. “I haven’t aught such planned,” she lied. “Have you?”
Her brother shrugged. “Not beyond what I’ve been doing already.”
“Same,” Futo agreed.
Mu gave her a stare which came as near shaking its head as it could without one. Then, in the same breath, he slid a hand up from her waist to scratch the hair behind one of her ears. He mirrored her smile. The reflection brimmed with cheerful conspiracy.
Heed, my Lord Taishi, Futo exulted inside. Heed, what you in independent thought fosterest. The man Handai, who had never made stealth of his fascination with the Crown Prince, now foiled his liege’s own advice. Had the Lord Taishi predicted this when He’d thrust cadet Mu under Futo’s wing? Had He believed her own investiture would naturally extend to her adopted brother? Mu was loyal. No mistake about it. No one would dispute the adoration in his eyes whenever he gazed upon the Sen-kai’s beautiful master. But he was loyal on his own accord. He hadn’t been conditioned to love the Crown Prince through proximity and exposure, as some of His servants were. Mu loved Him – or Her – for no fealty, training, or obligation.
He did, because he wanted to.
And that was the soul of what it meant to follow the Way. That was the hidden path. That was what Futo’s blood brother had preached – a millennium in the past.
The trouble for the Crown Prince was, such genuine love as Handai Mu’s knew its freedoms. The grander of which was to be shared with someone else. Happily, that someone was her. Futo calmed her racing enthusiasm. Then daubed on a sober face.
“Think you, then—” she poked a finger at Mu’s chest, “—we should that watch-each-other order have belayed?”
Mu gripped her hip. “Absolutely not. I don’t much relish the sensation of being paired off,” he admitted; “but, if it gives me an excuse to piggyback you around the temple, then I hallow the Crown Prince’s name for it. Whatever the term she sticks to it.”
“And your inquest?” Futo questioned. “Shall you it too chase, as promised?”
“I would have, Futo,” said Mu. “It is… a thing of pride, I think. I may have just wanted a second opinion. Yours.”
“Now you it have.”
“Now I do,” Mu agreed. “And even a plan to go with tonight. Thank you, Futo.”
Futo patted his cheek. “Naught less for my brother. When you victorious return, we may about satisfying the Crown Prince’s request go. Small steps. We may bathe and talk… Mayhaps a common tale match, in case something rash does one day happen. Hmm?”
“Sounds swift,” said Mu. He seemed pleased, somehow, at the turn of phrase. He began to stand up.
Futo slid out of her brother’s lap.
In passing, she cast over a shoulder at the book her brother had been perusing. The contents were nothing of moment: a guide to Gensokyo by some amateur pen with no appreciation for finer verbiage. What a love for brevity these modern Japanese had. The confines of paper must have shrunk the language as decades passed.
Futo wasn’t ignorant of the function which books served; she was, after all, lettered. It did not mean she was fond of letters. A speech from a noble mouth might accomplish what not a thousand books might… unless burned in a strategic place. One had but to consider what hers had done for Mu earlier in the day. The margins of the book on the desk may be scratched with Mu’s simplistic script, which no one understood in the temple but he. Still he had needed words from Futo’s mouth to regain his Way. What good was a book?
Futo gave that one a fiery glare for giving her brother false hope.
Mu put his hand to the lantern on the desk, and smothered the flame with a quick Wind of the air. He could have blown it instead; but Mu wasn’t above an excess of effort when it very well amused him. Futo wondered whom he was taking that after. He had used to be so stoic before his greens.
But that Mu would never have done what current Mu did now. He would never have crouched with his back to Futo, and beckoned her to latch on. He would not have said, “Hop on, and hold on to your hat. And mine, while you’re at it,” with a twinkle in his eyes. Now he did.
Futo grinned, happy all over.
There had been some tough dances to dance along the way, but she finally had a brother again.
Thrice. Thrice they were espied on their way out of the temple. Twice by new cadets committing the temple’s plan to memory. Once by an established one, lately given her greens.
With the former, Futo had pre-empted the arousal of further rumours by spinning her peculiar ride into a lark. She had spurred Mu viciously with her heels – all the while yelling at the redsleeves like a herd driver on a busy thoroughfare.
With the latter, Futo’s brother had taken hold of his own reins.
Aiko – this name being also the Crown Prince’s gift – was a small, stout woman of no more and little less than twenty. An herbalist’s second daughter, she had enlisted in Lord Taishi’s service ensuing her elder sister’s belated marriage. With a scarce remaining dowry – and an even scarcer itch for relationships – Aiko had opted, instead, to wage her passions under the Crown Prince’s patronage. As many Taoshi with pre-existing… social conditions… Aiko, too, could betimes be a touch abrasive. But she was faithful and tenacious underneath; and these were the qualities which the Crown Prince sought to bring out above all.
Aiko had given Mu a nod of recognition, which Futo’s brother had loosely returned. Then, the girl had noticed Futo peering over his shoulder. She’d motioned a polite namaste.
“Adviser Mononobe,” she had said.
Futo had returned it – with slightly more flourish. “Sister Aiko.”
Mu had hiked her up on his back – almost as if to shush her. Futo had kicked at his sides. Her brotherly steed had jolted, but hadn’t thrown her.
“… Well?” he’d addressed Aiko instead. “What’s your take?”
Aiko had sketched a shrug. “I know of the Toorima,” she’d said. “Not a name I’d have dabbled with before. Now… who’s to tell me otherwise? There are a few techniques I’d much like to try on a larger scale, too. If the Toorima volunteer, who am I to tell them shoo?”
Mu had nodded. “Wash your feet,” he’d cautioned.
Aiko had blinked. “… What?”
“When you go,” Futo’s brother had explained, “and your techniques work out. Wash your feet.”
Aiko had stared at Mu for a moment. Then sighed. “… I’ll take that under advisement, mentor Mu,” she’d assured. “And? What about you? Sneaking out again tonight?”
It had been Mu’s turn to shrug. A feat of some weight, with his arms Futo-occupied. “Trying.”
Aiko had peered at his passenger. “Not proving good, I see.”
“I shan’t anyone tell—” Futo had grinned, “—if thou shan’t.”
“Suits me,” Aiko had agreed. “My bed don’t listen, anyway. Good-night, adviser Mononobe. Mentor Mu.”
The green-sleeved girl had bowed, and gone on down the darkened, smoke-filled passage. Afterwise, once she had quit the earshot, Mu had made an amused sound.
“I like that girl,” he’d admitted.
Futo had done the high thing and hadn’t let herself feel too jealous.
Outside, night had been allowed to fall on the Sen-kai’s sky. It shifted the hue of the surrounding landscape: from the brilliant gold of grain in harvest, to a pale, muted blue of deep secrecy.
Mu loosed his arms, and Futo slid off his back to her own two feet. She slipped on her clogs, while her brother gazed out over the night-shrouded hills. She hung back – a few paces behind him – as they embarked along the singular, packed-dirt road streaming out from the temple palace’s main access. It ran to course among the hills, ultimately to terminate on a sleek Toori gate, visible even in the dark, a handful minutes of brisk walking distant.
Mu marched enveloped in an air of quiet purpose.
His posture was not unfamiliar to her; during Futo’s childhood, her blood brother had often marched as Mu did now – usually into something to which the rest of the clan would tactfully object. Like the dissent in Naniwa. Like the disaster at Shigisan. Mu’s, of course, may never effect anything of the scale. Gensokyo was a closed, firmly garrotted system; with basic care and the Hakurei priestess’s vigil, it was implausible Futo would have to intervene again. He may rebut the existence of native gods; he may court the Hakurei priestess herself for the good that would do him. Nothing Mu desired could ever force Futo’s hand.
Not at all like her blood brother’s stone-blind fixation.
Murky thoughts, Futo told herself, swallowing them down. Murk could swamp a woman. Best not to pour it over her head.
They crested the final hill, and the base of the Toori gate loomed at the bottom of the decline. A faint shimmer – like the rime of frost on flagstone on a cold Winter morning – played along the pane of space between the tall, timber-hewn pillars. The road did not suddenly shear off at this milestone; it weaved on as far as the eye leapt – even in the day – together with the fields which hemmed it on both sides. But the eye lied; and this was the end of the Sen-kai, no different. Mu had attempted, once, walking the road past the invisible threshold. He hadn’t done twenty paces when he had turned around, his face paper-pale and nauseated as if he had Winded or Damped something of his body far beyond the impositions of his mind. He had never tried again.
Nor was tonight a time for experiments. Futo’s inquisitive brother stopped at the gateway, an arm’s breadth away from the glittering, frost-rime barrier. He turned to face his sister.
Futo was not her liege lord; but even she knew what to brace for when Handai Mu approached. She mounted no objection when he swept her up in his arms. None whatsoever. Handai Mu picked her up – the same he had earlier in the day – and Futo helped him along to anchor them both in a mutually comfortable embrace.
This embrace, however, was less reserved than its older sibling. Something in the fallacious privacy of the night had caused her brother’s arms to be tighter than usual. And warmer. Mu was already Winding his body heat in preparation for Gensokyo’s wintry cold. His body felt like one huge hot-water bottle.
“… Toasty,” Futo giggled into his ear.
Ahead any scientific cleverness spoiled the chance, Futo squirmed herself more room in her brother’s arms. Then, once she but might, she looped her arms behind his neck, and gave his left cheek a long, generous kiss.
“There,” she said when she pulled away. “Does this any wise for my neglecting you make up?”
Mu’s replying sternness was all but comedic. In fact, it very much was. “Other side,” he commanded. “Then we may check.”
Futo feigned a weary moan. Then, doing exactly as he’d said, she smacked a twin kiss on his other cheek.
“Done?” she asked when she was.
Mu gave her a sportive smile. “Now between.”
Futo huffed. “Fie, Mu,” she scolded. “Fie. I a far too pure and intricate soul to fall for that trick am. Nay, either, to mention: a thousand years old. Can you not of aught better think?”
“… Hmm,” mused Mu.
Had she imagined it, or was her brother in honesty about to— Yes. Yes, he was. He was thinking. Crazy world. And there came the effects.
“Have you ever stumbled,” Mu posed to her with not a drop of mockery, “upon the country they call France?”
Futo hadn’t. Not even with a finger on the map. Yamato had been her sole home; what use had she for Franz? “… No,” she admitted. “What of this ‘Franz?’”
“There is this one eccentricity they hold very dear in their culture there,” Mu explained, “that is relevant to my making a better try. See, the French – they love to kiss. Often, and with few inhibitions. I went there on a… let’s say business trip, once. Before now. Before Gensokyo. The whole kiss thing had me caught quite… How do you say? Without panties?”
“With pants down,” Futo prompted. “Men pants wear. Not panties. Those for womenfolk are.”
“Both work,” decided Mu. “Any way we do, imagine me as I step off the train, and that my guide and translator saunters up to me, all sunny smiles – and slaps a kiss straight dab on my dopey mouth. Woman I had never seen, Futo. Only talked to through, uh… Correspondence, I suppose. Well. Turns out, that is how they do in France. No one thinks it lesser to kiss someone else by way of hello or good-bye. Women with men, with other women. Men with men, too… if they like.”
Futo frowned up at her brother. “… Does this Franz country exist?”
“Last I saw, yes. Of course, last I saw was… when I last saw the Outside World. But, here. This is it. My better try.”
And what dost you of me expect? Futo thought, no less lost than the minute before. Well, no; Futo knew what it was here Mu was concocting. This game was no new thing; all throughout their partnership were sprinkled instances wherein they would goad each other onto uneven terrain, for no end but simply to see which relented first. This had seen Mu first pick her up; it had seen them first bathe together, and their odd, nigh-on blasphemous debates on Lord Taishi’s nether bits. This, now, was but another bout. Mu’s deadpan expression all but spelled it out. And yet, where Futo would have kissed him as ready as the Franz reportedly did had he but asked within the Crown Prince’s sanctuary, then here…
… Here, out in the lightless hills, it gave her pause to as much as contemplate assent. Alone, at night, outside Lord Taishi’s wakeful hours (for He must, unlike Futo or Mu, to sleep off the burden of retaining His Sen-kai), irrationally, Futo felt a sink of reluctance open under her heart.
Aware full well this had belike been her brother’s aim, Futo’s womanly instincts still made her delay. Those forgotten things. Those she had once fancied burned away.
Mu, that clever imp, had struck her figurative gonads. Futo had seldom felt prouder of her new brother.
Souring this pride was that she still hadn’t figured out how-wise to proceed. Wind? Water? The Way didn’t bend strong in either direction this time. This time was clearly not her ally.
But she had beaten time before. Fell beast though it was, care and study had laid it low the same it lay low everything else. Time was nothing.
Nor this. Futo rallied her mistaken faculties, and withdrew her arms from Mu’s shoulders. Her brother had naught to return but silent amusement in his eyes. Futo slapped a hand over it. Mu’s brow wrinkled under her touch, but the rest of her brother held faster than a bent nail. Futo tweezed his waist between her legs, and lifted herself a little higher in his arms. Then canted her head.
To her evergreen credit, she only wavered a trice. Then, Mononobe Futo, once his guide and tutor, kissed her impudent brother on the lips.
No smooching. A brush and a tiny press. Naught more modest. Nothing Futo would not have given to her blood brother. Not near.
Handai Mu’s brows squelched, even so, tighter under her palm. Futo snuck in one more press ahead she quit her brother’s feverish lips. Not the hand, though. That, she left clapped over his eyes. No use letting him see what he potentially shouldn’t. He managed, somewise, to give her a puzzled look anyway.
“… Huh,” he opined.
Futo held back a smack. “Nay enough between?”
Mu gave a soft shake of his head. “Oh no,” he said; “the geography was fine. Only I’d thought—”
“That I would alike yon Franz girl had done do,” Futo chimed in. “Fie, Mu. You a thousand years too early are. Nor am I a Franz. Take it. This all you get this time is.”
Goodly, Mu didn’t hang too long on that last part. Her brother pushed himself an inch or so taller, then produced from the depths of his soul (or just the stomach) a disaffected growl. He peered back, hungrily, at the shimmering Toori gate. That Futo’s palm was still in the way seemed airy matter. Like a greyhound in the slips.
“Rearing to go,” Futo sighed, mock-despairingly. “Are nay we?”
Mu’s mouth twisted. Then, he caught the rib. “… Yes, well,” he murmured. “Unless you can shikai the night to be again as young as you are, I am eating every minute here.”
“I can time stay,” Futo told him. Leastwise for myself. “I can nay it respool.”
Neither am I young, she added – quietly – inside. The springtide, mobile body Futo’s soul now animated was nowise that which Soga’s clansmen had laid to rest in Lord Taishi’s sepulchre. No more than a forgery. A gift of selfishness from the selfish hands of Seiga. The hermit’s Somatic wards – granted on nothing above a moment’s fancy – had allowed Futo’s gutted soul to shape its new vessel after what it had felt it had been – rather than the reality.
The ravages of age had been undone. When the Crown Prince had waked from His trans-historic journey, and Futo with Him, they had met the rising Sun of Yamato with younger, unblemished faces. In Lord Taishi’s case, His desired transformation had taken… a turn. Yet, these changes had been but physical; and His mind, as well as Futo’s, were still the same things they had been a millennium ago.
Something which Futo vowed every day to fight.
None, still, overmuch relevant to her brother – whose desires grasped toward the portal gate like invisible, lecherous fingers. Futo removed her hand from Mu’s eyes. Momentarily, they remained affixed to the gate. Then slid back to Futo.
A twinge of surprise – even if not un-pleasant – did all the same round their already oddly round edges as Futo climbed, once again, up her brother’s front – and gave him one more kiss. On the forehead, this time. Mu may have won that bout; but, that had been an exception to the rule. Futo would come back. For now, no more romantic kisses. There were rumours enough swimming about to feed a small town for a year, anyway.
Her brother had the marked set of someone about to say something clever once she pulled back. So, she kicked the heel of her clog into the small of his back. Mu winced. Then, he dropped her – when she kicked again. Futo danced back, sleeves flaring. She threw them down, and propped her hands on her hips.
Mu gave her a contrite smile.
For a moment, Futo returned it.
Then, once it was gone, she stored the feelings it had contained in a safe, backwise corner of her mind. With hope, they wouldn’t rattle out from the first next such shake.
Futo fanned her hand: like the Crown Prince did, these days, now it made Him look charming rather than ridiculous. “Go,” she told her brother. “I will you when you return sense. And heed what Lord Taishi has you this afternoon told. It me as well hurts when you all Winded burst in.”
Mu managed to humour her venture at authority. He inclined his hatted head. “Yes, sister Futo.”
“Stay warm. Never to mind: safe. I a restful bath want – nay one sticky with blood.”
“I’ll try, Futo.”
Saying no more, Handai Mu turned to approach the barrier at the heart of the Toori. The gate towered, even over his tall figure. Mu sketched a focusing gesture – his own, as if he were swinging back a curtain – and desired himself through.
And then, betwixt one infinitesimal slice of time and the next, he vanished into Gensokyo.
The priest’s booted feet crunched into the mantle of frozen leaves on the forest floor.
A wrench of dislocation, a preternatural motion sickness, almost pitched him off-balance. Handai Mu swallowed hard of the stiff, wintry air. He brute-forced his mind to acknowledge it was here, and not on the golden hills of Miko’s Sen-kai.
Gensokyo, remember? he hushed inside. Our old amigo. And cold as a bastard. His Winded body heat would stave off frostbite and chattering teeth; though, being otherwise a natural process, tuned above its proclivity it would soon leave Mu positively (or negatively) starving. The better, then, that the night’s target had a relationship with food. Food that, importantly, wasn’t Mu.
As the dizziness began to rinse out, Mu reassured himself further of his scene. The skirts of a well-trodden forest. From where he stood, it was possible to make out where the trees ceded ground to the farmland which sustained the human town. Once Gensokyo took the Spring train, there would be a pair of eyes on them – prowling, watching – somewhere. Something Mu would must watch out for as well.
At his back, the slip-gate to Miko’s domain was a faint blur between two nondescript trees. No more conspicuous than a spider-web in the same arrangement, the gate would have been a right female dog to pinpoint without foreknowledge. That, and a relevant need. Mu sensed it resonate, even now, with his longing to be near the Crown Prince, and Futo, once again. Mostly near Futo. Very near Futo. In touch would be the best.
… Swung that trick right around on him, had his pretty tutor. Handai Mu scribbled a mental post-it to give some mind to self-injury. Then, he banished the memory of Futo’s lips where it belonged. With his lowest fantasies.
He Damped his weight, slowly, until his feet weren’t punching holes in the frozen carpet of leaves. All the while, he scanned the forest’s canopy for a hint of the night sky. Soon, and he found one: a patch of deeper blackness, pinpricked with stars. Mu gave his strength a flash of Wind, and kicked off the ground toward the opening.
The untamed woods of Gensokyo sprawled beneath him like the surface of a roiling, kelp-infested ocean. To the east, over the inert farmland, the walled, terracotta-roofed town burned an orange blot in the lightless landscape. Where humans dwelled, there was illumination. Glowing windows and lantern-lined streets: men and women staking a claim on the night. Mu’s thoughts weren’t with them. They strayed, wistfully, to someone – one decisively in-human – living unbeknownst among them. Then reeled back.
Another oddity to harry tonight.
Mu squinted at the forest roof below. The book hadn’t deigned a more precise clue to his victim’s location than the tatty old newspaper from the archive had. There had been report in town that Toyosatimimi Miko’s secret home – as secret homes did – contained a veritable cache of tomes on ancient, recondite subjects. This, of course, was a baseless fancy; the Crown Prince could no more have recreated whatever esoteric library her original home had held than she could recall its every book and scroll word for word. The books that there were, were the bigger share contributions from the students – meaning whatever had wound up, or been printed locally, in Gensokyo. Had the gossip been true, even, then Mu had ever little faith the tomes would list the whereabouts of a tiny, somewhat recent, business enterprise of one insignificant youkai in an arse-end-nowhere valley of rural Japan.
Futo hadn’t even heard about France. A whole country. Futo should stop intruding on his thoughts.
What was her name, again? Mu forced himself to remember. Something… mystical? Lore, lore, lay? Any how the book and the newspaper had spelled it, one congruity welded the two accounts together. That the youkai in question was capable of inducing night-blindness in passing humans at will. The latter of the two claimed, also, that she had of late been using of the skill outrageously to make a living off her blindness-curing cookery. Why, however, a youkai of all things would need to make or desire a living…
… Well, this, Mu meant to find out.
He Winded his weight up a fraction, and let mother gravity pull him back down. Father logic would have him out of his hide; but, with no more definite way to track the Lore-lay’s stall down less his sense of smell, Mu would have to resort to leaping about the vicinity of the town until the reported blindness struck him. Then, presumably, he should leap face-first into a devious bird lady.
With his Futo-wished luck, Mu hoped the bird would be a softer one than his last.
FUTO FACED AWAY from the Sen-kai’s gate, and Winded her sky-lust. The familiar, lukewarm air embraced her like an old lover. She rose, gently, upwise, and willed herself back toward the temple.
For the twenty heartbeats of flight, Futo allowed herself to feel immoral. No fraternal excuse may disguise the things she and Mu were doing were well beyond their ken as tutor and student. Futo may once again be young and full of zeal; it didn’t mean she was once again stupid. The buzz about their relationship was naught if not an effect of their own fluttering. Neither of them imagined otherwise; neither of them, nonetheless, did aught to head it off.
Futo took solace in but one thing: whoever the unutterable prudes who would countermine her brother’s achievements with suspicions of liaison, they would now need countenance Lord Taishi’s own approval. Futo’s repute may indeed be spotted; yet, there were few souls in the Sen-kai who would gainsay the Crown Prince as they did her. Who, after all, would dare disappoint their beautiful, saintly benefactor? Except Futo?
She had but to alight by the temple’s front door and steal into the silent vestibule to remember who.
Futo’s left foot wasn’t halfway out of its clog when a splotch of greenish luminance broke out on a nearby wall. Tongues of ethereal smoke boiled out of the light-stain, as if seeping from the other side. A finger’s breadth out of the obstacle, and they coalesced into a familiar shape. A face shape.
The ghostly likeness of Lord Taishi’s deceased wife flushed with colour as the remainder of her form birthed out of the solid wall. From corpse-grey to the cream of healthy skin; from funereal black to the vivid green of her favourite dress. Futo’s lips twitched into a tart smile at Tojiko’s full, voluptuous figure reconstituting before her eyes. Not, precisely, at the figure itself; Tojiko’s assets, while enviable, were now as useless and barren as Futo’s own. What they were besides was a stroke of sour irony. For where Futo and her liege had sought change in death, Soga’s middle daughter had remained hauntingly the same as she had been in life. For where her disembodied spirit had the power to appear however well she desired, Tojiko felt still at most ease in her original appearance. A young woman, barely on the wrong side of twenty, wonderfully recuperated from her first maternity. In Lord Taishi’s court, Tojiko had been the simmering resentment of His other consorts. In His Sen-kai, she had no such rivals. No admirers. No children to nurse. No husband to please. Not anymore.
And yet, Tojiko chose to stay her plump, motherly self. Futo was loath to think what this spoke of her own, selfish alteration.
Tojiko’s featureless tail – her sole telling part – wriggled free of the wall. The ghostly dreg of Futo’s shameful past regarded her with gorgeous, emerald-green eyes.
“Mononobe,” she said, in her sonorous voice.
Futo warmed up her envious smile. “Toziko.”
“Mononobe,” Tojiko insisted.
Futo checked her cracking expression. But, Tojiko wasn’t focused on her anymore; she gazed out whence Futo had come – as though the temple’s walls were no more substantial to her senses than they were to her body.
“… Walking out late?” Tojiko asked with mild disinterest.
“With your latest fling?”
“Language, Toziko,” Futo chided with a wrinkle of her nose. “If thou to me taunt meanest, so leastwise with propriety do.”
Tojiko’s eyes widened into huge, cut gems bright with innocence. Mostly false. “Taunt?” she echoed. “Sooner I’ll die. Had I wished to taunt you, I would have spoken differently.”
Futo sighed inwardly. So it begineth. “… Such as?” she obliged out loud.
A full, wholesome smile opened on Tojiko’s face. “Why,” she almost sang, “I do not know. Squeeze? How about these? Toy boy. Necker. Bed warmer. Personal prick.”
“Enough!” snapped Futo. “Taunt me all thy heart thee demandeth, Toziko. But leave thou Mu of it out.”
The ghost’s face darkened. Corposant lashed from the tips of her fingers to the nails in the floorboards. Ah— Futo caught herself. Wrong excuse. Fie, me.
Tojiko crushed her hand into a tight fist, the rogue lightning contained. For the moment. “You disgust me,” she hissed. “You are a wedded woman. How long must the world turn before you learn to act your state? Your age? Have your parents taught you nothing but to rebel against your betters? What should Father say if he saw you now?”
Futo shook her head. “Umako a thousand years dead lieth. He canst nay see aught. Whenas will you let go, Toziko?”
“Let go? Let go? Listen to the rot pouring out of your mouth, Mononobe. The Crown Prince lies a thousand years dead. That preposterous, romance-play jargon you speak lies a thousand years dead. Why cling to these relics of the past, while you spit on the memory of others?”
Futo’s gaze took on an edge. “Do you begrudge me this, Toziko?” she asked. “Do you begrudge me making best of my second chance at life? After all the arguments, is that it?”
“What I begrudge you,” sneered Tojiko, “is the spite. The spite you bear under that blithe exterior. The spite that enables you to deceive your own family and feel nothing afterwards.”
“Then you resent what I have done to you?” Futo dared.
Tojiko bristled, her ethereal form blackening with barely restrained fury.
… And yet, within the same moment, as if sucked out of a hole in her soul, Tojiko’s anger vanished without a trace.
The ghost’s opulent, green eyes wandered someplace distant. Someplace far away, where no one else but she may see.
“… No,” admitted Tojiko. Her voice had fallen nigh to a whisper. “I do not resent you for that. You may never know what it is like, Mononobe. To be free of need, free of want… You may never feel the peace I feel when I close my eyes.”
Our wants, Futo thought petulantly, are what us who we are make, Toziko. Lord Taishi, me… even thou. Why else, if not so, would she have suffered the vigil over the Crown Prince’s sleep? Why else would she hover at His side, loyal as a hawk, even to this day? Why else would she have come to spoil Futo’s mood tonight? The differences of age, state and womanhood may well mean nothing before this one, grand distinction. That of the Way.
Where Futo was faithful to her desires, Tojiko would deny hers even in the grave.
And this, above all else, nettled Futo something wild.
Tojiko – curse her father’s keenness passing down – gave her a sly, knowing look. “Ah, worry not—” she said, almost off-hand; “I shan’t meddle with your romances, Mononobe. Your… brother is a decent man; unlike some, you would have a tough time of making him your bedside aide. Try, though, at your leisure. I’ll fain watch you fumble.”
“It’s not like that, Toziko,” Futo argued.
Tojiko laughed it away. “Bed him or stab him, it makes no matter to me in the end. I am but dead – and not even very well.”
“… I will do what my heart tells me to do, Toziko. Naught else.”
“As you always have, Mother,” Tojiko returned. “As you always, always have. At least your mistakes are unlike to haunt you, this time. So long.”
The final dagger punched in, Tojiko sailed noiselessly through the air toward the wall opposite whence she’d emerged. Then passed through. As if it all counted for naught. As if the entire conversation had been no more than a roadside distraction on the way to… wherever it was that ghosts went to rest.
Futo stood in the dark, empty vestibule for a long while: a clog stuck in one hand and a storm churning in her head. A storm of guilt, indignation and, bizarrely, pride. Trust Toziko to take the air out of an affair.
At the end of the while, she shrugged out her frustrations. Lord Taishi may sleep off the strain of His arts, and Tojiko may doze out of habit; but Futo had learned early her immortal body was at odds with the concept of rest. A gentle Dampening of her awareness may still put her to sleep, yes; and Futo did, on occasion, engage in the pure luxury of dreams. This night, however, she had a watch to stand. Her brother would ahead long return from his outing, and they had plans in place.
All Futo may do now was to find something sharp enough with which to kill the intervening time. An idea formed. Futo pulled off her second clog, and launched at a deft slide down the temple’s mist-filled halls.
Hours afterwise, Futo would sense the Sen-kai portal being breached. She would blow out the candle over which she had been burning pages from Mu’s book, and quit the dusty archive.
Then, much heartened, she would go to draw a bath.
Some minutes later, Futo slipped into the narrow changing room neighbouring the bath. She unceremoniously dumped the heap of towels she had gone to retrieve in an empty basket. Then, she kicked the door close, and engaged the latch.
Her brother’s robes already lay in another basket: a martially-neat stack of blacks and chalky whites. Futo unclipped and dropped her hat. She wormed out of her voluminous over-cloak, and tossed it haphazardly on top of Mu’s clothes. The blue under-shift, which comprised the inner layer of her uniform and the skirt, followed before long. Futo loosed her ponytail and shook her hair straight. Then, she skinned and stepped out of her underwear.
Naked as her birth-day, she padded for the screen dividing the changing room from the bath proper, and slid it aside.
The palace temple’s bath was one of the unnumerous touches of modernity in Lord Taishi’s secret realm. Whereas straw-mat, bamboo and cypress reigned ever elsewhere in the His home, the steam-fogged room beyond the screen was peculiarly foreign. Maroon wood of a mysterious name lined the walls endlong as well as the ceiling; and the floor had been cobbled with whitish, blue-veined stone which didn’t slicken when wet. A row of spouts jutted out the length of one wall – fitted with contrived shower-heads, which would grate the hot water from the pipes into a fine likeness of a summer rain. Quaintest of all, perhaps, was the tub – fairly, more a basin sunk into the bathroom’s floor than aught else – with its wide bottom inlaid in dark, polished brass.
Only a tiny dash behind was the man sprawled in the tub.
His chin propped on the edge, an arm laid out on the floor; Futo’s brother seemed to be doing a practiced impression of a washed-up castaway. Unlike one, he did crack open an eye as Futo pushed the screen back shut. His arm enlivened long enough to give her a lazy wave.
There was aught to be said of her: higher-ranked, carrying towels to and fro whenas her student had showered already and was taking his ease in the tub. But, Futo paid it not overdue attention. Truthfully, the brief touches with domesticity were a pleasant experience. They reminded Futo of an age when her life hadn’t been near so… stratified. An age she might count on but two hands and a few toes. An age before her blood brother’s campaign of obsession.
Though she had a more even-humoured brother now, there were more parallels between these days and those than Futo had accounted for at the start, when she had first goaded Mu into taking their baths together. More underhand of which was her brother’s one-eyed gaze trailing after her as she walked under one of the fancy shower-heads. There was little else for his imagination to fill in unassisted than the stretch of Futo’s back under the waist-long cape of her silver hair. That, too, was given up when she twisted the lever on the wall, and the hair parted under a jet of hot water.
A deep-seated part of Futo wanted to shriek.
The propriety, embedded in her in her earliest education, was revolting at the instance of nakedness in front of a man who wasn’t her betrothed. But, want though it might, Futo voiced nary a squeak of shame. No. Her will was made of sturdier stuff these days. Her right to shrieking had been forfeit long before she had first undressed before the man assigned as her ward.
And, that besides, a more immediate percentage of her felt treacherously excited. Her brother may baulk at some displays of intimacy – and, curiously, not others; yet, he did little and littler to keep himself athwart of bluntly ogling Futo’s nudity whenever they took their baths. It spoke volumes of Handai Mu’s discipline that Futo had never caught him with any hard evidence.
It spoke volumes of her, perhaps, that she had looked for it.
For all her mastery, Futo was not without weaknesses. Tojiko’s accusations, the Crown Prince’s prodding, Futo’s own half-hearted denial – all these were but rind on a fatter chunk of reality. A chunk which she had never explained to her liege lord, let alone tattletale Tojiko. A chunk which weighed down her own standing among the students, as well as Mu’s. A chunk which she had carried under her heart since her first kiss with her brother.
No simpler than this simple chunk, Futo simply enjoyed being seen as a woman again.
After the awakening, after the Crisis of Hope, after the Symposium and the Occult Orb incident, her role as Lord Taishi’s torch had been doused in the peace of the ensuing days. No more loosed on His enemies, no more permitted to take part in Gensokyo’s power struggles, Futo’s revived sense of purpose had been Damped, collared and confined in the invisible barriers of the Sen-kai. And, what torches did when denied fuel was, they began to eat away at their own handles.
Futo’s handle was that simple thing. Mu’s appearance and allotment under her care had only stoked it.
The crude, unalloyed truth was, she had thought about having sex with her brother. At length, and in scandalous detail. Mu was, plainly, attracted; and, when she detached her obligations to her liege, Futo could not lie that she wasn’t. Her adopted brother was, nonetheless of his oddities, a prize. His crash with Gensokyo’s immunity to modern sensibilities had made him by need take on work unrequiring of brains, but rather much of brawn; Futo’s own like immunity had seen him further adjusted to her liking. He was swift on his wit, and had an impressive capacity for learning. Nearly as good, even, as her own. He understood her quips. He was tall, handsome, delightfully puzzling, and she wanted to have sex with him.
But, she hadn’t. Nor would she.
Not because of Tojiko. Her blabbermouth of a daughter had anyway already pegged them for lovers. The worst Futo might do here was confirm the presumed. Nor was Lord Taishi why. The Crown Prince would pair them merely for He believed it would bind Futo’s attention tighter to the temple.
No. What was why, was Handai Mu. Handai Mu who stared and did nothing. Handai Mu who would confess to like other girls, but not her. Handai Mu who dared her to kiss him between his cheeks, and hadn’t the decency to kiss back. Handai Mu who, not three weeks before, had quit sneaking out to overnight in the Human Village, and suddenly took on some cryptic (and evidently frustrating) investigation.
Futo was not dumb. She had grown in court, and could read the courtly alphabet. Though, while she would rather her brother stopped making her hot and bothered with no release, she still loved him enough so as not to force the latter. Tojiko may blather; Futo wasn’t an animal. Her brother deserved better respect.
She grabbed a hold of her arousal and Damped it until her chest wasn’t tingling.
Mu… Well, either he’d somewise detected her focussed will, or hadn’t at all – because he was idly contemplating said chest even as Futo sat on the edge of the tub, picked up a bar of grey soap, and began lathering up her long hair. Mu’s head was, in fact, laid on its side the better to see: the drowned man’s pleading arm now delegated to the trite function of a pillow.
“… Futo?” he said after a moment.
He had a slack quality to his voice. Hot water did that to men, Futo had noticed. Hushed them. What sense did that make?
“Yes?” she’d replied. “What doth my brother ail, this time?”
Mu scrunched up his wits for a bit before saying what.
“… You’re pretty,” he said.
Futo paused. There had been a challenge in the statement, though Futo knew not what kind. Her brother’s impression of a barely live fish was lasting, however, and not telling.
Fie, Futo thought. Nay a while of rest with this boy.
( ) “Yes, I try nay to Toziko’s bubbly form imitate. Thank you.” ( ) “Belike not as pretty as some in the town, hmm?”
(X) “Belike not as pretty as some in the town, hmm?”
Futo allowed her eyelids to drop shut. The compliment had stung in its casualness – even if there was a point behind it. Mayhaps because there was a point. Futo hadn’t fought enough pointed compliments to figure wherethrough they were meant to sting. Her brother hadn’t deigned to let her practice too often.
Futo had all the same to respond somewise. Sarcasm volunteered – briefly. That, however, would have been ill appropriate. The comment had been trained at her womanhood; the best, therefore, if Futo responded in a like womanly fashion. If it also meant rubbing Mu’s nose in it, then all the better.
“Yes, well—” Futo sighed, “Belike still not as pretty as some in the town. Hmm?”
Sediments of modesty in her mind instantly reared up at the inadvertent envy behind her words. Futo stifled the old impulse. Words had never been her ally nigh as commonly as her enemy, but they would array together against a shared threat just the same. Mu was now just such a foe. Futo absently massaged the soap-foam into her hair, awaiting her brother’s response.
None was forthcoming.
At length, she condescended – and gave him a tentative peek. Wrong-footed by her reply, Mu was merely staring up at her – and, markedly, not her chest. His exotic, round eyes were even rounder than the rule. Futo raised a brow. Her brother twinged. Then, abashed, he sat up, cross-legged, in the middle of the basin.
“I’ll warrant,” he offered, the very soul of conciliation, “there are no more than four women prettier than you in all of Gensokyo, Futo.”
Futo graciously took the offer. “Do we their names perchance know?” she asked. “I will them over a fire cook.”
Mu scoffed. “I shan’t tell Lord Taishi you said that.”
“Good,” she returned. “That one is. Who the second counts?”
Her brother shrugged. “Mistress Seiga is certainly striking.”
“Wicked Seiga,” warned Futo, “for attention such as that trawls. She a facile and wily succubus is. Stay out of her net.”
“Has the ‘pretty’ part down pat, though,” Mu maintained.
Futo splashed him with a kick of the foot. “The third, then?”
Her brother wiped the water from his face. Then wrung his woefully inadequate beard – the little length Futo had permitted him to keep. “Well, there is this talk,” he put forward, “that the rabbit princess of the Bamboo Forest is the prettiest woman there is. Not in Gensokyo alone. The whole, wide country. As wide as Japan is, anyway. Which would place her on… How do you say? The rim of the cup?”
“Cream of the crop?” Futo guessed.
“I almost had it.”
She rolled her eyes. “And have you this alleged princess seen?”
“From afar, and not really,” confessed Mu. “Once, back when you and Lord Taishi combatted for the Mask of Hope. I glimpsed her spectating a bout. Seemed like she was sleeping on it, though; difficult to tell, what with what you and the rest were doing on up. There’s hearsay she likes to visit and divert patients in her clinic, but… I’d need have at least a violent stomach cramp to get admitted. And, forgive me, I like to keep my stomach just fine. It’s on the list of my favourite organs.”
“A long list that must be.”
“Only topped by the list of my favourite fingers. Probably.” Mu breathed out. Then frowned. “… How did we get onto this tangent, again? I swear, Futo. I love our conversations, but they remind me sometimes of a horse.”
“… Hard to bridle?”
“They kick. Then run away.” He sniffed. “I don’t like horses.”
“Methinks,” said Futo, “that the first kick yours was, Mu. Have you for hooves checked, of late?”
Her brother dutifully hefted one of his legs up over the surface of the water. He wiggled his toes. Then dropped it back in explosively.
“No hoof,” he concluded among the waves. “But, I suppose it would behoove me anyway to put us back on track.”
“The race track, I assume?”
Mu nodded – very seriously. “Yes. No more horsing around.”
Futo chuckled, rather despite herself. “Fie, Mu,” she chided. “Had you half the mind whereof you into this punnery put elsewhere employed, you might have your blues by now had. Or your idioms on straight. Your focus misaimed is.”
“I don’t put that much mind in it, actually,” he said. “It’s mostly made up on the hoof.”
Futo flicked some of the foam at his eyes. He’d squeezed them shut in time, but was courteous enough to sputter about it appropriately. Though, the pick of language wasn’t that which Futo was able to appreciate. It sounded… rustly. Like a bunch of really angry leaves.
Futo had never asked after her brother’s birthplace, and Mu had never told; yet, if his homeland were aught alike his language, then indeed it was no wonder he seemed as thick-skinned as a tree at times. Ultimately, he arrived at the conclusion many a Taoshi did: that the readiest solution is usually right underfoot. He dunked his head in the water. Then came up snorting.
“Horseplay aside,” he said next, “that is still norm, isn’t it? It is natural you are pretty. You’re human. Or, were.”
Are we nay someone skipping? Futo wondered distractedly. “Semantics besides,” she indulged regardless, “yes.”
Mu nodded. “I’m not greatly bothered which,” he told her. “But, either or, human. Therefore, normal. Functional.” His expression became speculative. “We enjoy dressing it up in smart clothes, but that is what it is, at core: a function. Flowers are bright and colourful to attract bees; women are busty and butty to attract men.”
“I familiar with the concept am, yes.”
“And the clothes,” went on Mu, “simply serve to enhance it. Or the lack thereof; both can work.”
Oh, they can, can they? Futo thought. “Did a thrust with all this come, Mu?”
“I think so, Futo.” Her brother paused, gaze wandering to her admittedly un-busty quarter. He shaped a frown, and Futo debated internally whether to splash him again. “… See,” he confessed at last, “I have a problem.”
“In this case? Yes. One. One cantankerous, maddening problem.”
“Does she a name have?” Futo dared.
Ahead he’d even begun to make his reply, she knew her brother had missed… or carefully ignored… the jealousy in her quip. Instead, he sketched a simpleton’s shrug. “That’s the foreproblem of it, Futo,” he said. “I’ve no first of what it’s supposed to be.”
Futo eyed him incredulously. “‘Foreproblem?’”
“The head part,” Mu explained – as if it were the plainest thing. “And then there’s the midproblem and the rearproblem. All problematic. Stacked together, and it’s one huge problem.”
“And no name to call on. Alas, poor problem.”
“Ha,” he indulged. “But, name or no, it doesn’t matter. Not really. If there is but a single truth you’ve taught me in absolute, Futo, it’s that if you hack at a problem long enough, soon or late you’ll… Um.” He looked to her face for help. “… Something about lumber?”
Futo shook her head. “I no idea have, Mu.”
Mu sucked his teeth. “This blasted tongue…”
Wouldst you to speak Franz prefer? “What happened to hacking the problem?”
“Yes—” Her brother exhaled. “That. Well. Hack it, and it’ll give way. Once it does, the name will come by itself. Take, for instance, this.”
He raised a palm up flat, and Winded the air in front of it. It kissed Futo’s bare skin, a warm breeze.
“What, then, do you call this?” asked Mu.
“Air,” Futo replied. “You made it, no?”
Her brother made his own shake. “Motion,” he countered. “Force. More accurately: pressure. When you first taught me the Wind and the Water, Futo, I couldn’t relate what you did to anything I could… well, relate to. It was impossible. You cannot create air – not least because all matter is constant. You cannot push it – the rest of it will simply push back and stop it. Air is not… not entirely, unlike water. Stir a spoon around in a lake—” here, he stirred his hand in the basin’s water, “—and the surrounding mass will simply drown out whatever movement you manage to cause it. Similarly, there is enough air in any large space to suppress the turbulences we would make by walking about alone. The weight of air is simply too great, too steady, to allow any sustained motion.
“Except then,” Mu asked conspiratorially, “how do we explain wind? All that heavy air, whooshing about, blowing up your skirt… Once I remembered this bit, it was like… like something that opens all of a sudden. See, there is this thing we Outside World men call the atmospheric pressure. And there are areas of air where that pressure is higher – where it is more densely packed than elsewhere. Wind, trivially, is a thing for no reason but that pressured air seeks to equalise with the nearest, less-crowded spot. Like an emptying balloon… or a smart man on a train. Thus, I figured it, if I were to suck in the air surrounding my hand – round and round it – except this one hole at the front…”
“You would wind make,” said Futo. “Heyday.”
Mu snapped his fingers. “I know that idiom!”
“No. You nay do. It ‘breaking wind’ is. Not ‘making.’”
Her brother made a dejected face. “Blast. Well, but here it is. Once I can decompose something into something else that I understand… I can usually do it with the Wind and the Water. Not even the precise mechanics. Just… the concept. I may make my blood run hotter for the Winter outside, because I know it can do that – even if I do not exactly know how. I may make my body lighter and hop around like I’m on the Moon – even if no one has ever told me what gravity really is. I may make the gruel from Reo’s kitchen taste better in my mouth – even if I do not know what it is he adds to it sometimes that offends my taste buds. As long as I can understand where it comes from, and why,” Mu summed up. “Then it becomes possible.”
It was, altogether – Futo considered as she kept on nursing her hair – a convoluted Way that her brother had. Convoluted, roundabout… however, not wholly alien. The Wind and the Water – Feng and Shui wielded, as opposed to planted – were an art of the mind. Handai Mu’s prescribed how his particular Winding and Damping brought about the effects he required. Futo’s was no different. Though, there was a third world of contrast between their two.
Where Mu’s was scholarly, Futo’s world was that of desire. To wit her humanly lust to soar the sky – that timeless wish – meant to be able to Wind it and fly. To wit the strength within her limbs meant to be able to Wind it and split boulders with her bare fists. To wit her desire to push her savant of a brother down and reaffirm his manhood… that meant she may grab it and Damp it to a level less disruptive for her thoughts. There were other tricks, as well. Tricks she would fain have shown Mu – had he only given in and agreed to be pushed down.
Nor was his theorem about air completely without it. It reminded Futo, if remotely, of how local spheres of Feng and Shui tended to interact with the results of temporal Winding and Damping of a practitioner. It had been, mostly, the risk her brother had taken earlier in the day by Winding the air to deflect her fire-ball in a place of focused Feng. The inherent harmonics of Lord Taishi’s palace temple had been as like to feed into his clever Winding as to fuel the fire-ball – which, too, had been a creation of Futo’s own Wind. Somewhat alike the atmo-spheric pressures which Mu had described.
This, here, was the crux. The axle of tragedy upon which Handai Mu had spun in insular Gensokyo. He thought differently. He didn’t demonise that which he didn’t understand; rather, he broke it down, then put it under the loupe of his firm, logical mind-set. It was the curse that his kinsmen in the Human Village had branded strange and undesirable. It was the blessing which Futo was fiercely proud to have discovered early in their partnership as tutor and student. Mu with a lesson was like a mastiff with a bone: leave him to it, and he would soon be lapping on the sweet marrow. He but had to gnaw it down to splinters first.
The truth, therefore, was belike that Handai Mu was perfectly equipped to solve his problem (with its fores and rears) on his own. Futo was pleased he sought her opinion anyway. She was galled she didn’t have much of one to provide. Not that he’d helped it much.
Mu watched her rise from the edge of the tub – the horse of his thoughts apparently forgotten at a previous crossroads. She felt his eyes quartering her back even as she rinsed the foam out of her hair under a shower.
“… Mu?” she said.
And turned around.
It took her brother a second to muster a response. “… Yes?”
“What are you for tomorrow set?” she asked him.
Mu wavered. “I’m… I think supposed to show the newbloods around the facilities in the morning,” he said. “Feed them. Then bring them before the Crown Prince. Afterwards… I’m not sure.”
“You are now,” she told him. “You aid me in my lectures shall. High time the redsleeves be a taste of power granted. I will you to demonstrate and simplify need, if such need be.”
“And to show,” guessed Mu, “how formal and non-illicit our relationship is, after my today’s stunt. Got it. I’ll be your target practice, Futo.”
Futo gave him a satisfied smile. “The Crown Prince it willed, Mu. Remember?”
“The Crown Prince,” said her brother, “willed we keep each other out of anything inappropriate.” He replicated her smile. “I don’t reckon that’s working.”
“Nay at all.”
Then, ahead either of their smiles may wilt, Futo shut off the shower, Winded her strength…
… And leapt straight for the tub.
Mu scrambled out of the way as she cannoned into the water, spraying it all over the white floor and maroon walls. Futo came back up like a mermaid: beautiful, nude, whipping her wet hair in a graceful arc.
She laughed when she saw Mu cautiously lower himself back into the tub.
“… One of those days, Futo,” he sighed, settling down again, “you’re going to kill me. And then, I’m going to be very put out.”
Futo sneered. Then kicked some water at him by way of reply.
Fifteen minutes hence, when the ceiling was dripping and the tub was nigh on empty, Futo called the festivities to a quit.
Tiring Mu in tow, she withdrew to the changing room beyond the screen, where she and her brother towelled themselves down and squirmed back into their clothes. Futo pulled the long, outer piece of her cloak over her bare skin; Mu slipped into his wide hakama pants, forgoing the remainder of his uniform. He gave a flagging sigh when Futo dragged out a stool, sat down, and motioned at him to help dry her damp hair. Then, popping a boyish smile, Mu knelt behind her, drew out the first silvern lock, and pulled it reverently between the halves of a folded towel.
Once slaked on his primping attention, Futo smacked her brother’s skilful hands away. The rest may be done with a Wind of heat and some cloth on her own time. Now, she had something else of which she hadn’t yet taken her fill. She swivelled about on the stool, and gestured Mu to pick her up.
Her brother fixed her with a weary stare. Then, all knightly obeisance, he scuffed closer. As always, his motions caught for the almost ritual second as his arms wrapped around her slight body… Albeit, in this instance, Futo had a strong stake going the naked butt under her cloak where Mu had grabbed had been the immediate cause.
Giddy, she scissored her naked legs about his not-much-more-clothed waist. The raw, skin-on-skin contact flared her heartbeat. Futo tucked a stray wisp of hair behind an ear – if only for the treacherous flash of anticipation in her brother’s eyes when he realised what it was she was preparing to do. Her brother tensed, his fingertips digging into her few curves.
Futo teased the moment to its fullest, finding a second lock of hair to tuck. Then, once she but began to sense the balance of Mu’s humours tip away from her, she perked up in his arms, and kissed him: fully, lovingly, with no reservation…
… On the left cheek.
Futo pulled away. “So you nay the notion on the morrow get,” she explained, “whenas we in front of the cadets are.”
Mu’s expression was a studied copy of Tojiko’s thunderous scowls. But, unlike her choleric daughter, her brother wasn’t about to let his disenchantment steal the opportunity for a quip. “That’s a novel way about it,” he observed. “Stall kisses with kisses. That’s a traffic jam in the waiting, Futo.”
“Then you to walk will have.”
Mu scoffed. “My bane.”
Futo gave him a smile. “And whom do we to fault put, Mu?” she asked. “For certes – nay the innocent me?”
“Innocent or else,” returned her brother, “you’re walking with me.”
And then, quite abruptly, he shoved his face between her chin and her right shoulder.
Futo startled. An utterly indecent noise squeezed out of her throat when she felt Mu’s questing lips on the skin of her neck. Futo jolted stiff – at once shocked, alarmed and aroused. Mu picked a patch of her skin beneath her collar – and sucked. There was another noise, but her brother didn’t care. Futo squirmed inside his arms, trying – but not trying – to wiggle free. A more regimented part of her screamed at her to Wind, but it was ignored. Futo flushed pink with ashamed guilt when she realised her hands were clutching her brother’s shaven head – but not, in any measurable fashion, pushing it away.
And then, rationality reared. And Mononobe Futo – ancient of Yamato, wedded, bedded and widowed – remembered the sort of mark caresses such as these were wont to leave.
She cracked the edge of her palm against Mu’s temple. Her brother yelped, and ceased blowing a raspberry on her neck. Futo touched two fingers to the assailed spot. The skin was sore, tender… and sticky. Futo jabbed her heel into Mu’s flank. Her brother, blessedly, rather took her meaning – and let her slide down to the ground.
That, in itself, was a dangerous sensation. Not to Mu – who was anyway preoccupied by his small victory. It was dangerous to Futo first – who wantonly wished her brother would blow raspberries to match in a dozen different places on her body.
The flagrant trouble was, some of those places – her thighs, ankles, and the insides of her knees – would show plainly below her skirt. And that was not something to parade before the students. Already many regarded her as an eccentric. She ill needed they thought her a hussy to boot. There were frustrations… and then there were priorities. Futo wasn’t ruled by her wants. Her wants were ruled by her. The question was merely of place and time.
And as for Mu… With time, he would solve this problem, as well.
There was an implied “the sooner, the better” in that line of thinking, but Futo was already a thousand years old. A few more were, for her, a drop in a vast sea. At least, mathematically. There were regions of her which stubbornly disagreed. Futo determined to calm them, soon.
She thrilled at the immorality of thinking such thoughts while peering straight into her brother’s oblivious eyes. But, in the dark watches of the previous weeks – months, even – had he been any cleaner? He, who alleged no friends in the Human Village – yet had left the warmth of the Crown Prince’s light to spend a night there at the close of nearly every week? Futo was a-puff with doubt.
These were ugly, petulant feelings… but comfortable. And Futo needed a solid comforting right now.
She shot her brother a dirty look – one she was all but certain he would ascribe to the raspberry and nothing else. Then, she tugged the collar of her outer cloak up over the reddening skin.
“Fie, Mu,” she told him. “All that of not sowing further rumours talk. And you this do?”
Her brother managed to look contrite. “Well—” he chanced, “Someone wise once said: all’s fair in love and war…”
“Bold words,” said Futo, “for someone who has in nary a war been.”
“… I’m a lover?”
Whose? Futo almost asked. “A poor one,” she said out loud. “That hurt, Mu. I nay a piece of rock candy am, to suck on with abandon. I bruise.”
“Yes. Me. I’ve this blue spot on my back…”
“The only blue,” Futo countered, picking up her remaining clothes, “you will from me get. Less you to be gentle learn.”
“I can be gentle, Futo.” Her brother sounded wounded.
“Then show so,” she told him. “Tomorrow. Good night, Mu. Sleep well.”
And then, ahead he might think to ask whom he was to be gentle to (the students or her), Futo walked out of the changing room and thumped the door close.
Swelling with impatient fluids, thighs itching, Futo cast her steps toward the women’s wing of the palace and her chambers, where – in her selfless bid at grooming her brother’s independence – she would pass the night with no company except that of her longest fingers.
For the next block: ( ) Mu ( ) Tojiko ( ) Sekibanki
>>41712 Actually… It was a simple and honest brainfart. I’d even looked up the correct term (“hickey”) since I hadn’t been 100% certain, but ended up typing “raspberry” anyway. Why? It is a secret to everyone. In the end, it’s either little slip-ups like these, or an extra day to proofread, since I usually write in the evenings – then go to work in the morning.
Dank to see there’s always someone ready to ascribe my mistakes to creative license, though.
Morning had come a sudden thing: a stab of ashen light through the curtains. Stalled the conventional few hours by the Winter season, it had still come too soon. Stuffing her head under the blankets had helped… slightly. Her others weren’t here. Sekibanki had dismissed them last night – no later than coming home from feeding. To re-summon each would be a drain on her mental reserves. It beat by half, still, the drain of a dozen hangovers at once.
Sekibanki jostled around on her couch, bearings reasserting themselves over the absence of visuals. A bundle of blankets lay by her side, which she began to unravel with numb fingers. Hesitantly. Like a human heard a noise from the basement at midnight. She picked apart the final layer, and cursed. The midday light still hurt.
Squinting, Sekibanki lifted her head to its vacant slot on her shoulders. The vile sensation of skin, vertebra and assorted meat melding back together was compounded by the pounding headache in her skull. She’d puke… if she’d eaten anything physical last night. No. The table beside her couch was, instead, stocked with traces of a different sort of indulgence. Sekibanki tallied four bottles emptied and two more knocked half-way before she’d run out of fingers willing to rise when she commanded.
Her feet, astonishingly, were more obedient. Sekibanki found them, climbing up to a semblance of verticality. She walked – more or less – to the lone window of her salon, where she attempted half-heartedly to tug it open. The latch was stuck so fast it was plain she hadn’t greased it in years. Sekibanki gave it the best wrench her youkai’s body had presently in it, and the window stooped to crack a whole, one inch.
A gush of chill, wintry air blew in through the gap. It brought a welcome change from the stench of stale sweat and dried-up wine.
Something else, as well, stole after it into Sekibanki’s quiet home on the outskirts of the human town. Sounds. Of voices, commotion, of wheels grinding along on the packed-dirt street, and the people hurrying after. As she stared out, forehead squished against the blessedly cold glass, a push-cart heavy under a pyramid of crates trundled by the porch of her house. A second followed the first, in attendance of jabbering, excited women, equally laded. Something was afoot. But what?
Sekibanki watched her breath mist the window’s glass. It was an uphill battle, to put a date to the day without the punctuation of… the usual events. Can’t be a work-day, Sekibanki thought dully. I was drinking. I fed. I don’t do that on work-days. A holy-day, perhaps, of some stripe or another? Very like a villain stripe, to happen on the leisure days of the week’s close. So, what is it, then? Sekibanki wondered. A funeral? Wedding? Market day?
And why, she asked herself inside, do you even give a care?
She slammed the window shut, and wobbled back to collapse on her couch. The Human Village… so, anyway, called by the youkai slaved to its presence… may indulge its excesses without her input. Sekibanki knew the value within silence. She had treasured it for years, vaulted under her youkai’s core. Years, which Sekibanki had all whiled away, disguised, among Gensokyo’s ignorant humans.
Ignorant of her. Ignorant of the monster who, even now, lived and walked in their midst.
A humble and restrained exterior had proven to come with benefits over and beyond the fearful deference which the town’s humans showed before other, less reserved youkai. Within the same week of Sekibanki’s inglorious arrival in the realm (now as distant as it had been inglorious), already it had earned her the keys to a deserted house on the town’s then-farthest reaches. It had earned her a change of clothes and a soft blanket to stave off the cold. And when the time had come for supper, Sekibanki had but to crawl out of the bed – a bed, not a hole in the earth – and find out those humans foolish enough to wander through the blackest watches of the night. Glutted on their superstitions and fear, she could then seek again the comforts of a mattress under her back and a roof over her many heads. It had been perfect. The veil of an honest life she had to attire during the day had been no price in contrast. What else could a simple youkai want?
Apparently, there had been more things she might.
There came a third cart – audible even with the window shut – and Sekibanki thought sourly that she knew the name of her problem.
It was boredom. She’d been bored for almost three weeks.
Sekibanki cursed, her restlessness a needy void in her belly. Three weeks, she thought, and how old are you? The mess on the table: overturned bottles and discarded underwear, suggested old enough. She’d heard talk of youkai turning odd as they aged; she hadn’t imagined to confront the evidence herself. If it even was evidence.
Of one thing she remained firm. She was going to keep sane. The Sekibanki of previous years hadn’t come to the Human Village to chase off boredom. She’d come for the roofing and clothing the humans had provided, and only picked up worse dependences afterwards. The Sekibanki of now had to screw her head on straight. She’d learn to cope. She’d have to. That was her punishment.
Her mouth tightened. She tossed her attention around, counting on it to hook.
And it did. It caught on the Winter coat thrown without care over the couch’s backrest. The coat had a rip along one sleeve; for it itself had caught on a grasping branch during one of Sekibanki’s drunken returns home. She’d sewn it back as nimbly as her fingers might, yet the solution was stop-gap at best. It certainly wasn’t stop-cold. Her purely-survival skill with the needle went nowhere that far.
It was something anyway. Sekibanki sensed a smirk oncoming at her own fickleness, but wiped it from her face with a hand. A new coat was adventure enough; and, if her last supposition had been correct, it would be easier to find one today than any other day she might muster the will to try.
But then, what about the rest of the bloody day?
( ) … Called in at work, even though it was not a work-day. ( ) … Stocked up on drinks, even though she’d drunk the night before.
(X) … Called in at work, even though it was not a work-day.
… Concluded that she was exploitable as well as bored.
A wine-soaked sigh carried the conclusion out to the tepid air of her house. Cynicism was speaking. Volunteer work was, of course, a youkai unto itself; to her employer’s limitless innocence, however, she had never been cheated out of a single rusty coin by the man. A day out of her blurred calendar was the least she may give in return. No?
That, Sekibanki realised, was cynicism too.
Ahead the last pillars of motivation were knocked from her mind, she pushed herself off the couch. Sekibanki collected her undergarments, which lay in a crumpled, silken ball among the finished and half-finished bottles on the table. Mercifully, her last night’s drunk, bored, frustrated self hadn’t forgotten to slip them off before she’d got them too dirty. Underwear wasn’t cheap in Gensokyo. Not unless it abode by the current, cumbersome mode – which Sekibanki doggedly despised. Whoever the bastard clothier who’d designed a potato sack with holes and called it “bloomers,” he deserved very well to get stuffed inside a large pair and tossed into a river.
Satisfied having already wished death on someone – not five minutes after waking – Sekibanki set about the laborious process of layering on more clothing. Snows had, somehow, yielded at a deficit that Winter; still, it hadn’t done a thing to keep any exposed skin from turning to cold leather outdoors. Sekibanki armoured up in a set of leggings, workpants, two undershirts, a jacket and a scarf. She strapped on the torn coat. She stepped into her full, knee-length Winter boots. Topping off, she tugged a warm, dog-eared cap over her head. Then, and not before, did she deem the weather outside to be assailable.
Not remiss, even in her headaches, Sekibanki tossed a log into the smoulders on the hearth to prevent the house cooling in her absence. Then, she quit her dim retreat… and joined the humans in their futile day-to-day.
The street adjoined to her home hadn’t much to scratch her simple youkai’s care, less the few straggler neighbours and the toe-nipping cold. At the far end, however – where it fed into a main thoroughfare – Sekibanki may see a fair disgusting crowd of noisy market-goers. Some – fording up toward the nearer of the town’s two squares; some – already slung with bags and baskets of fresh purchase. Sekibanki, tying up her scarf, eyed the passers-by with muted annoyance. If nothing else, she cheered herself, you’ve a theory confirmed. On balance, it wasn’t foul. At least, she would not have given up the afternoon’s idleness for naught.
The simple youkai had to relish the simplest boons.
An unknowable time’s adaptation fixed her into a brisk, deliberate gait even as she married with the flow of townsmen. Firm of step, eyes onwards: the set of a woman after urgent business… or a spoiled date. Gaze never meeting anyone else’s. Slim chance, anyway, anyone would recognise her ruddy, half-concealed face. Sekibanki herself would have not. On principle, she knew only a scant handful faces by heart. To avoid: the Hakurei shrine maiden’s; the same: the educator’s from the history school. To placate: the proprietor of her workplace; to greet and head off the rumour mill: those of her few neighbours. And, lastly…
… Lastly, that of someone who had lately removed himself from her environs.
Sekibanki felt her mouth scrunch beneath her scarf. Not, however, for any dumb, missing or spiteful faces. A team of wagoners had turned a sudden and rude corner, barring her progress – as well as about twenty different walkers without the vantage of a horse and wheels. Sekibanki drew back, throwing her angry hiss in with the lot of others. Until, previously distracted, her keen youkai’s eyes took note the wagon’s load.
Sekibanki sniffed opportunity. She peeked, sideways, down the street whence the wagon had leapt out. A second one sneakily following – and loaded just the same – validated her speedy guesswork. That makes twice, she amused inside. All that religious company must be paying off. That it was also three weeks late only spoke to Sekibanki’s enduring views on religion.
She ducked, youkai-swift, under the arms of the stalled humans, gave the pass to the second wagon, then made – now less inhibited – down the narrow, cobblestone side-street.
A wooden fence, tall and obscuring, ran the street’s entire right-hand length. Yet, as Sekibanki peered ahead, her sharp eyes picked out further evidence of luck. A gate stood, flung wide, some hundred or so paces away; drudges in work kimonos were filing in and out in groups, varied rarely by an exiting or arriving customer. Not so discreet as to make Sekibanki squeal her joy (nothing was); though, by all previous earmarks, it was less than she’d have suffered at the main market. By about three halves.
A crier in drab robes did disturb her good afternoon by loudly bidding her a good afternoon when she came near enough, but Sekibanki turned a deaf ear. She entered the yard unassisted.
A wide, well-trodden avenue spanned from the gate to the long, squat manor-house another two hundred steps distant. To either side, roofed stalls, open-doored sheds and flat bamboo pallets had been placed to facilitate easier browsing. Colourful rugs, bales of raw textile, carpets big and small, as well as squared sheaves of bright, exotic fabric lay displayed on each to the browsers’ ogling desire. No one stood attendance behind the stalls; still, when Sekibanki looked, she saw a number of the ubiquitous brown robes in hushed conversation with whom she assumed were prospective buyers. She shuffled on, frowning over the wealth of fabrics laid out.
Sheaves, bales, rugs and squares… but no ready clothing. Not least coats.
Sekibanki’s mood curdled. Her nose hadn’t been wrong; it just hadn’t been right, either. With a grumble of self-criticism, Sekibanki swivelled about on her heels, damned – or so it was proving – to brave the main market’s crowds and clamour after all. Then, immediately at the next vexed step, she ground to a stop.
There, tucked between high stacks of rolled-up canvas, almost invisible from the approach, a lone rack was standing, festooned with thick, varicoloured, Winter coats.
Sekibanki cocked her head. Three strikes of providence in the same afternoon seemed a thing of gods, not youkai. The rack, however, didn’t up and run away as she hurried over; and the coats were full, real things – not a youkai’s hungover mirage. Sekibanki, sceptical, picked one off of its hanger: a fantastic, even overwrought, piece of inky black with bright, pearly buttons and dangling, studded tassels as long as the ankle. Under Sekibanki’s scarf, her lips quirked into a wry smile. Almost, and she would have wiggled out of her own – dull beside these – coat to try on the ostentatious, midnight-sky creation. She’d already had one arm out.
Only then, ruining the whole self-indulgent moment, a voice broke out like a rash at her back.
“Um… Miss? Can I help…?”
For a tiny instant – nothing near the realms of possibility – Sekibanki contemplated violence. Just contemplated. Nothing more. Violence wasn’t her. The memory of the Amanojaku and the Mallet was a constant, acrid reminder. Sekibanki was as suited to violence as the gaudy coat in her hands was to… anything.
A sigh had to do; and, sighing, she faced the interloper. A plain, brown robe, as all the rest… but not. A finish of white lace on the cuffs and the six golden pins sewn to the front marked the woman wearing it out as something else. Master of the house? No. Work kimono still. Who…?
No answer came willing. None, anyway, which might frame in the time it took the woman’s amber eyes to glide from Sekibanki’s face to the coat down below. The eyes lit up.
Ah, bastard, Sekibanki had just the chance to think, ahead the woman yanked the coat from her hands.
“Oh. Oh! You want to buy this?” chirped the woman. She shook the piece straight, tassels rustling. “This one is special, you know? See these big buttons on the halves? It’s moonstone. Well, allegedly; Naoto said he’d bartered for these with someone who’d made friends with the Misty Lake’s guardian, if you’ll believe. I asked to have them cut to discs and holes drilled through the middle. I’d thought the same for the studs on the skirts, but there weren’t enough to divide, so I had to manage with white tin. Maybe for the best, too. These things rattle. Moonstone could crack.” The blond ponytail at the rear of the woman’s head bobbed with the sad shake it sketched. “Tin is lighter, too,” the clothier-apparent went on; “I’d like have had to give it half a league of padding at the shoulders if I’d gone all stone. I’ve seen dresses before with that problem – and they were scale, not rock. I miss that dress, you know? Not that it’s gone, mind. Just not much my size anymore. Oh, but – look here. These flaps along the front are a stitch of genius. Not mine; that was all Mother’s idea. See, if you’re in a strong wind, you fold these in, and…”
Sekibanki ceased paying attention.
Time had been, not long gone, when she would spend a night a week listening to similar soliloquys. Then, at least, it’d had a use. It had filled out the space between one bottle and the next. Now, she found herself rubbed wrong by all the rambling and nothing to drown it. Sekibanki hated people who talked. But then, she tried to hate everyone. That way, she ran no risk of leaving out any who were particularly deserving. An exception to the rule invalidated it not. That which she had stooped to make could, at any rate, be smothered under other means. Means which Sekibanki had loathed as much as to know. Means she’d despised even to think to enjoy.
Means she’d enjoyed anyway.
And now, this woman, another chatterbox attachment, was hammering her with words Sekibanki couldn’t flee so easily. Not without she turned and walked off; not if she wanted the coat – and no more crowds to punch through along the way.
“—but if I had to say,” the clothier was dutifully saying, “black doesn’t agree with you, miss. White – like you’re wearing now. You’re made for it. White looks stunning with that red hair of yours. You’d have all the men on their knees if… Huh? Hold on.”
With rather more candour than tact, the clothier woman leaned down to inspect closer the parts of Sekibanki’s face which weren’t masked by her scarf or stuffed under her cap. The rich, amber eyes narrowed to almost youkai-like slits.
The woman gasped, eyes shooting wide. “… I know you!”
Sekibanki didn’t want the coat. She dug a heel into the yard’s frozen ground and span on it.
A hand whipped after her, clutching at her sleeve. Sekibanki twisted about, glaring her sentiments on the matter.
The clothier woman licked her lips, nervous – but didn’t release the hold. “I—” she stammered out, “—I hadn’t meant… Not like that,” she promised. “Really. Only I… I’ve seen you, before. We’ve met. Last Summer? In that tap-house? You’re it, right? Grumpy? Me and Naoto… remember? We sat at your table—”
Sekibanki scowled. “I don’t know what you mean.”
The clothier wagged her cutesy ponytail left and right. “No. I feel you. I hadn’t noticed right away, but you’re—”
“I’m,” growled Sekibanki, “not looking to make acquaintances. Let me go. I’m not… whoever you think I am.”
A twinge of stubbornness squeezed the woman’s teeth down on her bottom lip. Sekibanki breathed out her rise. Then stuck on a disinterested look. Age had revealed this to her: that her youkai’s pride was the doom of stealth. Shrug off accusations; snap at tiny, human things. That way, no one would be able to tell her apart.
The snooping clothier struggled to sew past that truth. Obstinate as an Oni, she thumbed along the sleeve of Sekibanki’s coat as she minced her next argument. Then, something tore her focus; and the woman’s stare slipped down to the cloth she had been molesting – and the rip Sekibanki had herself attempted to sew shut.
A child with a new, shiny toy, she turned the sloppily fixed sleeve around to study the inadequate work.
“Hmm,” she murmured.
Sekibanki’s irritation spoke. “… Hmm what?”
“You’ve tried to stitch this close?” asked the clothier.
Sekibanki frowned. “… I did,” she admitted.
“It’s bad,” the woman said candidly. “Oh, the outer layer holds,” she granted; “but, that’s only water-proofing. Warmth is kept inside by the padding, which you haven’t meshed back. I could mend this, you know? No worries. I mean,” she added, somewhat hastily, “if you’d like. I won’t charge you, I promise. Come inside, give me a half-hour, and I’ll have it done. Good as new. Well?”
There was a phrase Sekibanki mistrusted. Mostly, because it was usually weighed. “… Why?”
For a brief, awkward moment, it seemed the woman herself hadn’t known why. At the tail end, Sekibanki’s sleeve was allowed to fall along her side. A diffident smile spread out the clothier’s cheeks. Innocence beat from it like heat from a Summer’s noon Sun.
“… I guess,” she confessed, “I just want to help those who are like me.”
Sekibanki had to squint to see past the blinding sincerity. What she saw had her neck flare up with an itch.
Still, galling though it was… the crowd of one woman was better by a world than that of a few hundred. This much, Sekibanki was willing to concede.
But dare you? a voice jeered in her head. As you did, once? Whatever came of that, ‘Seki Banki?’
( ) “… No. I don’t take charity. Help me fit a new one, if you must.” ( ) “… I’m not ‘like you.’ I’m not a prying harpy. Good day.”
(X) “… No. I don’t take charity. Help me fit a new one, if you must.”
Nothing, Sekibanki thought back. And shut up.
Outward, she loosed only a murmur of dissatisfaction. The amber-eyed clothier made no further push – only strained, visibly, at whatever in-visible leash stayed her from outright skinning Sekibanki’s coat from her back. Words, she imagined, might well have cut it. Sekibanki’s neck crawled. Why did she so fascinate those all too eager to invade her privacy?
This is your curse, ‘Seki Banki,’ taunted the voice, ostensibly immune to her orders. Secrecy. That old obsession.
As the flame of a candle drew the night-months, so her privacy seemed to allure those with none to call their own. Why shouldn’t it? Sekibanki had secrecy to spare. She bedded down each night after feeding with a heart full of apprehension that someone would have realised the thunder-strike rarity of her eye- and hair-colour in the town. Its parallel of the stories about the many-headed youkai who stalked the streets in the weest hours. The fact these streets neighboured the home of one reticent “Seki Banki.”
Or had they, already? At some more or less distant point she’d slacked in her precautions? Was this why the askance looks? Was this why the polite smiles? Sekibanki, the Dullahan. The youkai. The weird one. Was there another secret everyone was privy to but she? Had the Hakurei talked? Had those windbags from the Grassroots clique? Had that nitwit, Blue?
… Where did this persecution complex stop?
Not here, Sekibanki thought. Not now. Not ever resounded in the echo.
All the same, she could tuck it away. Salt the mental anguish for later. Let it marinade. For now… coat. That was paramount. That stupid, human thing.
Sekibanki resisted jabbing her nails under her scarf. She half-turned, nocking a fiery look to shoot the nosy clothier. The look failed to find purchase in a face altogether too practiced in smiling around frowns and glares. Sekibanki… What was it that Blue had called it? … Damping? She screwed a damper down over her indignation.
“… No,” she said out loud. “Thanks, but no. I don’t take charity.”
Behind, the plump clothier gave her a sullen pout: one of somebody who’d heard of dampers, but rarely had them put anywhere nearby their enjoyment. Sekibanki sighed.
“If—” she pre-empted whatever replies were pumping up those cherry cheeks, “If you must, then help me fit a new one. I’ve already dragged myself out of bed; I’m not about to go home empty-handed. No whites,” she cautioned when the clothier’s face began to glow; “I like the black one. Okay? I’ll try it on.”
A dazzling, cheerful grin erupted the clothier’s mouth. “Yes – please!” she replied, clapping her hands together. “Go ahead! I’ll hold your coat in the meanwhile. Come on, take it off, take it off. Come on!”
Sekibanki gave her grumbling assent, numb to the glee swamping her surrounds.
She crawled out of her old piece, which the clothier helpfully liberated from her hands. A gust of teeth-chattering cold briefly slammed into her as Sekibanki transferred herself from one coat to the other. A last, vengeful bit of it melted out of her body when she did up the chunky, Moon-white buttons; buttons which, if you gave faith to the men insane enough to break the surface of the Misty’s Lake, had an intimate history with youkai.
Sekibanki wrenched on her waist to survey the coat’s fit. Studded tassels rustled around her feet, and she found she quite fancied the resultant sound. The fur-lined hood reduced the essentiality of stuffy headwear, and Sekibanki felt pleased to let it cast a shadow down her face. The inner sleeves hugged around her arms, while the overlay broadened toward the ends – so amply as to become priest-like. This, Sekibanki didn’t like. It reminded her of things. Tall, inquisitive things with too few scruples for her enduring sanity.
An anyway tiny stain like that, though, mightn’t negate the sheer fancy of taking a sharp turn and seeing them flare. Which they did. With dispatch.
“Well?” the clothier asked over her shoulder. “How’s it sit?”
Sekibanki reined in her bucking habits. “… It’s fine,” she obliged. “Mostly. A bit loose.”
“The middle area.” Sekibanki patted down the coat’s void flanks. “Here.”
The clothier made a confirmatory nod. “Ah. I see. That’s no big snag. No worries. We can fix this. Hold on.”
Ahead Sekibanki might but ask what it was she was incumbent to hold on to, the over-keen clothier was kneeling behind her. A pair of deft, slim-fingered hands pinched the coat’s thick casing, feeling out something within that Sekibanki had to suppose was related to her complaint. It was, too; and how became clear when the woman plucked at some unseen threading, which caused the sides to pull more intimately around Sekibanki’s unassuming figure.
“About this tight?” asked the clothier.
Sekibanki wiggled around, experimentally. “… Can it go a bit tighter?”
“Should be fine.”
“Are we certain?” the clothier wanted to know. Mischief played hooky in her tone. “Women here tend to put on extra fluff in Winter, I hear.”
“… Certain,” groaned Sekibanki. “I’m not planning to binge.”
The clothier mused. “Hmm. Well, all right,” she decided.
So satisfied, one of her hands detached from the coat’s bunched sides to rifle through the kit lashed to the clothier’s belt. It resurfaced armed with a needle and a length of stout thread. The clothier pinched the business end of the needle between her lips.
Then threaded it using the free hand. With not so much as a glance.
“I’m going to have to sew this in,” she announced, needle already halfway through the beginning loop. “Hold still, if you’ll please. I’ll be just a minute… Or three.”
Sekibanki did as instructed… even if the sensation of somebody digging a needle near the small of her back was, at its most delicate, a prickling one.
It didn’t matter. Over the moments in following, she had copious plenty opportunity to learn to ignore it. She tried standing purposely still. That turned out less than fun. She tried counting breaths. Then thinking. Then not thinking. At length – as a last ditch, crazy option – she tried to relax and let the woman work.
Her tension fled her chest in a foggy, milk-white billow. It whisked away on the chilly breeze. The pale ball of the Sun was rolling down the western slope of the sky at ponderous speed.
Sekibanki touched a spare thought to her earlier plans. Market day meant most townspeople would hurry home laded with purchases; a goddess’s share of those would reasonably forgo other entertainments along the way. This boded well for Sekibanki’s legs, which didn’t subscribe to any philosophy enamoured of hard work. It didn’t for her boredom, which threatened to bite if not aptly occupied. Work might not do tonight.
There was, of course, the other option. One which implied itself almost immediately – to the tightening of Sekibanki’s stomach. An option which would leave Sekibanki’s purse lean, and her skull afire the day after. An option she’d lived for three slow, monotonous weeks. Weeks that had made Sekibanki apprehend her own desires. Was this how a youkai lived? This was no question; it bloody well wasn’t. Sekibanki hadn’t lived like a youkai for what felt ever. These were merely the latest derailments. What youkai carried themselves how she had? What youkai indulged the things she’d indulged? There were words for creatures such as she. None of them appropriate for civilised ears.
Sekibanki knew what these were; she muttered them at herself most mornings.
The clothier’s voice was a knife (needle?) through the blanket of her self-pity.
Sekibanki lurched. Only afterwards did she recall her particular circumstance – and stilled. The clothier hadn’t noticed – or said if she’d found it a professional risk.
“So,” she was instead saying, needle confidently dipping in and out, “I’m wondering, you know?”
What was it Blue would say? “… Demonstrably,” supposed Sekibanki.
“Yes—” the blond woman’s voice hitched with a smile, “Yes, well. I mean… I’ve had my own experiences with… you know, here. The town. The people. It isn’t all mild winds and steady weather, but it’s as nice a place to spread a… um, to live, as there are few in Gensokyo. I’ve been, myself – for a bit. It’s… confusing – but also comfortable. Interesting. There’s a lot to do. To see, to learn about, to—”
“There is,” Sekibanki put in. “It’s a big town. What about it?”
She sensed another smile was clamming up the Winter air behind her. “… All right,” said the clothier, surrendering; “I’ll be frank. It’s a bit of… a kindred curiosity? Mhm. That. I can’t help but wonder how you’re doing with your… Mm. Shall we call him a ‘friend?’”
Sekibanki swore under her breath. The rumour-mongering tsukumogami must have been running long shifts. “… I,” she said, carefully, “do not have ‘friends.’”
An anxious giggle stitched out from the plump woman’s chest. “… Sorry. I kind of think otherwise.”
Sekibanki scowled. It struck nothing; she couldn’t get an angle at the woman, and the other employees were nowhere in the throw. Sekibanki did it anyway – fell on her own sword, as it were. “… And what is it, exactly,” she growled, “that makes you think I do?”
The clothier sniffed at her back. “You smell,” she said. Then caught herself. “Um, that is… not as in you stink,” she hurried on to explain; “but you do have a smell on you. A scent, you know? Of… Um. Of sex.”
A spear of shock punched a hole through Sekibanki’s stomach. “… What?”
The clothier’s needle jabbed into the coat at speed now. “It’s… It’s not out there,” she went on; “not even that sharp, just… It’s there. Faint, but it is. I… I can probably only smell it because I’m so used to it.”
“You asked why!” moaned the blond woman. “That was it. I can’t help how you smell!”
Sekibanki unscrambled her wits with difficulty. “… Is this,” she managed to ask, “part of store policy? Talking about sex with your customers?”
Sekibanki hissed. “… Then let’s both of us shut up. Okay?”
No further foolishness offered itself from the nosy clothier. Only a whimper choked with a barely restrained want to say more.
Sekibanki shut her eyes. Against her best (and worst) efforts, a kernel of shame stirred all the same to queasy life in her belly. What else had there been to tell? That she hadn’t had any bloody sex? That was the damning part, really. Sekibanki could handle ill-meant commentary, so long as the commentary was true. This was key. She’d fought truth well past the point where most people’s arteries clanged shut and burst. If the fight confused her detractors, so much the better. A controversial truth was louder than a tacit lie. Wasn’t it?
Or maybe, theorised the voice inside, you are making all the noise. Like a certain someone we could name.
That wasn’t correct. Sekibanki couldn’t name the someone. Not with any accountability.
She told the voice to go hang. It wouldn’t. But Sekibanki had an unrequited passion for wishing others to hang. She hung her own head – metaphorically – clenched her jaw – literally – and let the plump clothier to sew through the remainder of the awkward silence.
The minutes in consequence had gone precisely nowhere. Then come back with a perfectly fitted coat.
Sekibanki had taken the coat for a brief spin (both literally and metaphorically) ahead she’d judged it had met the yardstick. It, in fact, had smashed into and knocked the yardstick loose – which hadn’t happened for a while ahead now, as Sekibanki had stuck the yardstick far enough afield so as never have to move it again. In the aftermath, Sekibanki’d need not only to walk – she would have to reassert, maybe even revise, what a Winter outfit for a youkai in disguise ought to, oughtn’t to, could and couldn’t be. Her entire mental cloth-scape lay in a sudden, stick-less ruin, and the thing to fault had been happily riding on her shoulders.
In a few, blunt, un-Sekibanki-like words – she’d liked it.
She hadn’t at all liked what the clothier had to say about the price.
“Mm, well,” she’d had to say; “I’m supposed to ask at least to cover for the materials, but… I’d like this to be a gift, okay? Not from the store. We don’t really do clothes, anyway; there are just my compulsions running away with me. It’d be from me to you – personally.”
Sekibanki had grimaced. The common trouble with gifts, she’d found, was that they often longed to be returned.
“… Why?” she’d asked.
The blond clothier had given her silky ponytail a shake. “Because,” she’d explained, “you and I – I feel we are the same. Strangers in a strange place, I think. Trying to get by, to mingle. To understand. That’s why. I’d like it if we could be friends. Or, at least, allies. Sisters abroad. That kind of thing, you know?”
“I don’t know what you’re—” Sekibanki had begun.
“I’m an earth spider.”
Sekibanki had gone cold despite the coat. “… What?”
Something inside the plump woman must have ached at the reaction, because she’d smiled sadly before explaining, “… A tsuchigumo, if you prefer. My name is Yamame Kurodani. If you haven’t heard that one, I’ve had others. Spider of illness. The yearly malady. Mother of plagues. A handful of others Naoto won’t let me know. I don’t know that I want to, anyway. And you—” she’d nodded at the startled Sekibanki, “… Well, I can’t tell what you are,” she’d admitted. “But, I can tell who. Someone sensible. Someone who is doing the same thing I am. Or, if not the same, then close.”
“… Which is?” Sekibanki had demanded.
A silent, reluctant look had fled the clothier’s (how had Sekibanki missed this?) inhuman eyes to wander toward the long, sprawling manor at the end of the avenue. Sekibanki’s had glanced after, but seen nothing much compelling reluctance.
“… I’m,” the clothier had said at length, “paying off a debt. Studying, working, having a lot of fun and… and other things, too… but, most importantly, it’s that. I’m here because someone too good for me risked everything to help me live. Not just exist – live. So, I’m trying. And here, they let me try. Isn’t it the same for you?”
Sekibanki had felt queasy. She’d pulled the coat tighter around its new shoulders, and sawed out an unflattering noise.
Grey clouds had been piling up over the town. Sekibanki’d cast around the courtyard she’d been trapped in. The stalls. The bales of rolled-up fabric. Workers in brown robes attempting to seem occupied. The amber-eyed youkai before her. The rectangle of space full of Sekibanki that should, by then, have been empty air.
At last, she’d sighed.
“… I don’t have debts,” she’d said. Unless a tab counts. “I am here because it is where I live. No deeper reason.”
The spider youkai had smiled. “I’m sure,” she’d said. “Well, do take the coat. It’ll be happy to be worn, and I’ll be happy to know it is. And, you have a change of heart about debts… you can come here, sit down, drink with me and talk. That’ll be a reward enough for me. I’m going to be here a couple more months, so…”
“I don’t want to talk,” Sekibanki had snapped. “Least of all with a—”
“A hated, underground spider. Yes. I get that. I’ve recognised it. I don’t bite. Not anymore.”
“I do,” Sekibanki had retorted, ahead she’d thought better. “I’m not interested. Go bother someone else.”
“I think you’re already plenty bothered,” the earth spider had joked. “Would I make that big of a difference?”
Sekibanki had made an effort to look less bothered. That she’d had to at all bothered her immensely.
But she’d taken the coat. She’d taken the coat, and now – paddling down the river of returning market-goers – she allowed the hood, the sleeves and the dangling tassels to pass the bother on. It earned her no friendship from those so-afflicted, but Sekibanki arrived at her workplace with her mood overall improved. She was still bored, and she was still Sekibanki – but, on par, she wasn’t bothered.
Sekibanki slunk into the shop, whose door was shut, and the windows – shuttered. Of course. They were always.
Indoors was quiet. The common room, immediately in, was all but deserted. A coal stove crackled away in one corner; overhead, slightly grimy gas lanterns hung on cotton cords from the rafters – three of them on at a low burn. Around the room, low, pine-wood coffee tables were spaced and – currently – gathering dust in anticipation of Sekibanki’s shift two days away.
There was not a soul present in the room. Less, that is, a single man, slumped behind a corner by the door to the back – who happened to be Sekibanki’s employer, and therefore of speculative soul content. He was a stocky man, on the saltier side of life, who peered out at his clientele (and now, dimly, at Sekibanki) through a perpetual squint, which may or may not have had something to do with the lighting arrangements inside the shop. Sekibanki had never whetted the care to ask the man’s name, but he’d reacted well enough to “Chief,” so she’d supposed she’s simply guessed it right the first time.
Chief was not a good man. He wasn’t a bad man, either – unlike his father, from whom Chief had suddenly, and tragically, one day inherited the “White Mare” – which was both the phrase seared on the shop’s front sign and a euphemism Sekibanki’d had explained to her once, but rather forgot. There was, strictly speaking, nothing of an illegal nature or nurture on offer in the White Mare. Speaking loosely, there were those in town (and outside of it, like a certain man of foreign sensibilities Sekibanki couldn’t name) who could see this Mare’s particular droppings as something to walk around in a wide circle.
Chief wasn’t a good man because, despite the hereditary drift, he had chosen to carry on his father’s dubious business in his place. He couldn’t be a bad man, because he’d hired Sekibanki, and only asked for her family name a grand one time.
All told, they had a stable, uneventful relationship. Like an old marriage, minus the rare, compulsory admission of love. Sekibanki didn’t ask what it was the customers ordered put in their teas, and Chief didn’t ask her to remove the most intoxicated – or depressed – ones from their seats at closing hour. He did that himself, with the gentle firmness of a man who understood the need to forget – but not that to do it overnight on and under his tables.
Given the number of attemptees, Sekibanki admired his persistent ignorance.
Sans today, she corrected, brushing by the empty tables, tassels grasping the odd leg. Today, there were other places to forget all about human decency and fragility.
Chief walked her all across the room with his nearly halved gaze. “… Seki?” he asked, as she dropped her old coat on the counter and began to tug open her new one. “I’ll say, I did doze off for an ‘our or two, but it can’t be that I slept all the way ta Monday. Can it?”
“No,” agreed Sekibanki. Though I had my own doubts when I woke up. “I’m restless. I want something to do.”
Chief scratched the pink scar on his forearm. A tiny expression of educated dismay from one of those forgetful customers. “Flattered you’d come ‘ere on an off-day,” he told her, “but there ‘asn’t been a lot of outturn today. I’ll say, I was even about ta close until evening. Go an’ get some rest afore the pricks book in and keep me up all night.”
Sekibanki froze, half-way out of her coat. The pricks. It was what she’d denominated a particular band of customers who’d used to rent one of the back rooms on the regular, and regularly failed to remember the rent didn’t include a red-headed waitress. The exact phrase she’d used was, “If one of those limp pricks as much as makes to touch my butt again, I’m breaking hands” – but that, perhaps, didn’t roll off the tongue as neatly as the circumcised version.
Sekibanki glared. “… Haven’t I heard you screaming how you wouldn’t let them in anymore?”
Chief attired a sailor’s face. It was a sailor who’d just heard the main sail rip down the middle, and the captain’s cabin’s door bang open. With extreme reluctance, as if gauging the coldness of the sea, he met Sekibanki’s gaze.
“They pay well, Seki,” he argued. “Always up front, and always cover their damages. I’ll say, since I asked ‘em ta come in on days you aren’t on shift, I ‘aven’t ‘ad a fraction of a trouble with ‘em. They’ve brought their own girls ta keep ‘em company. No complaint out o’ those, either.”
Sekibanki made a snort. “Great hindsight.”
“Their hinds do play inta that, I’ll warrant,” granted Chief, helpfully. “Anyhow. They’ve cashed already, and they’ve been behavin’. I’ll wager you could serve ‘em drinks all night tonight, and not get a one glance your butt-wise. And I’d get the first round number o’ sleep hours since weeks. That’d be loverly, actually. Why, I’d pay out ta go home and bed down right now.”
The statement hung between them on a fine, metaphysical thread. It hung there for a well good moment. In fact, it did right up until Sekibanki grabbed and yanked it down. Metaphysically.
“… How much?” she asked.
Chief blinked his already half-blinked eyes. “You’d do it?”
“Depends.” She folded her arms on her chest. “How much?”
Her boss mulled. “Nine-and-fifty an ‘our?” he tried.
( ) Would rather go home and masturbate. ( ) Would do it for a grand and hundred.
—Would precious sooner share her night with a horse than the shop’s hardheaded patrons. Fairly, she had. Her first through fifth nights in the Human Village had been spent inside a stable on the town’s then-fringes. The hay had been warm, and the horse had been a good neighbour. These, Sekibanki distrusted not to mistake her for feed.
But there was something else muddying her waters. Not Blue, whom she hadn’t seen swimming around her pond for three weeks, anyway; nor the comments, which the spider youkai had made on the state of her underwear. Muddiest by half was a creature called Sekibanki. Sekibanki, who had quit her bed bored, tired and afoul of a migraine for the twentieth day in a row; Sekibanki, who had nonetheless sat down each evening with a bottle doing the office of supper. Sekibanki, who was at once sickened by the lately add-ons to her list of excesses, and couldn’t marshal an excuse not to pull down her panties when comfortably alone. Sekibanki, whose soundness of mind was drowning in the absence of the one who had both introduced these new addictions… and staved off the worst of their clutches.
Sekibanki, who would still die ahead she stooped to meet him again.
Which, patently, was why. Though it rubbed her worse than a dog with a runny nose; though it wrung her neck with the itch to tear it off and hurl it at whoever or whatever happened by, Sekibanki would make herself work. If the pricks picked tonight to be trouble, despite her boss’s claims, then so it bloody well be. Sekibanki might turn in at home short a few thinner nerves – but that, too, would be a change. She would rise next morning a slightly different person.
And that was infinitely preferable to rising the one she was today.
The moment stretched to breaking point, Sekibanki plunging through it down the pit of occupational doom.
“… Grand and a hundred,” Sekibanki countered. “Hourly. I come in tomorrow to clean up, but get the Monday off.”
Chief half-eyed her with half-concealed concern. Not, Sekibanki hoped, for any managerial fears. She was self-possessed, but she possessed herself with efficiency. The only dispute Chief had ever had with her was over her skill in making small talk with the customers, which was not so much underdeveloped as unluckily dropped on its head in infancy.
At length, whatever illusory bug was causing Chief’s concerns to rise, it was swatted away.
“Sounds fair, I’ll say,” he agreed. “Grand-and-hundred, Sunday in, Monday off. I’ll mark it for your monthly.”
Sekibanki gave a nod. A combative part of the waitress in her wanted to fight for cash to hand, but… she could think of no reason to put on the elbow grease. She’d secured something to do. That had to suffice for the immediate.
Chief saw surrender grudgingly pass behind her eyes… or just the glare cool a few degrees. Any way he chopped it, there were a handful more swings to make. “Seki,” he said, “a couple a’ things. Wine’s in the cellar; I’ve stocked it to order, an’ they’ll mostly be after that. Were they ta ask for tea, charge ‘em normal, but cut the spice by a third. Two pinches, most-wise. Oh, an’ no mixin’ whites and reds,” he cautioned. “Either or, no both.”
Sekibanki groaned. She’d known this. Whatever bedevilled substances were stuffed in the jars labelled in red and white, there was scarce little in the alchemical world they loathed with greater ferocity than being stuck inside the same stomach. “Yeah, yeah,” she sighed, “I can mix the teas. How many years I’ve worked here? Sheesh.”
Chief tallied out on his fingers. “… Coming on to five, I’ll say?”
That choked Sekibanki just a little.
Her boss – apparently of five years – clapped her on the shoulder as he clomped for the coatrack to pick up his duster. He squeezed inside it with the quickness of a man with a warm bed not fifteen minutes distant.
“When are they booked?” Sekibanki asked him at the door.
Chief half-turned, already one leg under the blankets. “Oh? Oh. Seven on the clock. Soon’s it gets dark, they said.”
“Monsters come out at night,” Sekibanki recited – an old proverb in the town.
Her boss chuckled. “Right-o. Goo’ night, Seki. Take care.”
Then he left, throwing the door shut. Sekibanki was on her own. She glanced, faintly resigned, at the clock.
It was nailed to the shelf overhead the counter, showing six thirty, and – in a very personal, Sekibanki sense – it had just begun to tick.
>Sekibanki groaned. She’d known this. Whatever bedevilled substances were stuffed in the jars labelled in red and white, there was scarce little in the alchemical world they loathed with greater ferocity than being stuck inside the same stomach. gee i wonder if this will come up in the future
Speaking of uncomfortable. While I’m still dying working out the next update, I’d like an opinion on something.
That is, once we get to the inevitable naughty bits of this story, where would you prefer to see those bits exposed? The main thread? A side-thread on /at/? Keep in mind, the porn I gravitate towards tends to be somewhat obscene, as seen in >>>/at/39522 and >>/at/39491.
So, with that in mind, ( ) Porn here or ( ) Porn in the clos/at/ ?
Or Shiro. Or Guy. Or any of a dozen other names derived from ancient proto-Indo-Altaic to mean “someone whom I, from the roots of my indigenous sensibilities, deem precluded from my home body politic, yet must by Fate’s infinitesimal machinations and contracts of employment unfortunately address.” His skin was palely tanned (or tannedly pale), his eyes were a perfectly wall-paint-catalogue hazel, and his hair was… at the moment, elsewhere. He was in that awkward area between confused maturity and a no less confused midlife crisis, where dreams went to sleep and beer was interchangeable with water. He’d never featured himself in the position of a model. Let alone that of a role-y variety.
Today, he’d featured as several.
From the gum-eyed morning to the gum-mouthed evening, hour after hour, at his tutor’s side, behind it, beside it and a fair distance away, Handai Mu had performed his best as Futo’s iterator and crash dummy. He’d stood, hands in a nervous ball on his back, as the small Taoist had pointed out the three dantians – hoards of elixir, or energy – of his body: between his brows, a little right of his heart, and a few inches below his navel. She’d given the last an especial focus, being critical for digestion, rest, and reproductive functions. Futo had explained this coolly, matter-of-factly – as though it were natural for the women (and men) in red-sleeved robes to be informed of Handai Mu’s procreative ability.
Later, afterwards of Futo recapping the previous day’s lesson on Feng and Shui, the acolytes’ number had been split down the middle; each half – given to either instructor to take their shaky first swings at the art of Winding and Damping. In due course, Mu’s dignity – trampled under Futo’s commentary – had been allowed to pick itself up and dust off; for no sooner had Mu sat his share of students down around a crystal goblet of purified water – which the students were, as an exercise, to try to warm up – than he’d made an astounding discovery.
He had a terrific knack for describing the indescribable.
Across the proceeding hours, Handai Mu had managed to tease success out of a number of equally astounded acolytes. He’d goaded a once-florist from the human town to picture the goblet as a Sun-warmed puddle in an overwatered garden. He’d whispered to the youngest son of a blacksmith that glass was nothing but molten sand – which itself was little anything other than ground-up minerals, like an ore – and to warm up the water roundabout: by imagining the container in its rawer, hotter form. Mu’d had to Damp the water’s temperature to keep it from boiling over (by calming down the agitated molecules his eyes couldn’t see – but which had to be in there as per scientific decree), yet found he could do little of the same for his smile.
“It’s all in the Cyclops’s eye, as they say,” Mu had reasoned for his students, in the slightly exasperated tones of a maths teacher who doesn’t like those Sine and Cosine characters either, but can’t exactly have them taken out back and shot; “the Vaiseshika sutra teaches us: from perception cometh inference; from inference cometh knowledge. And knowledge—” he’d paused, dramatically, “… Knowledge, you cadets, is half the battle.”
“… What is the other half?” the blacksmith’s son had wanted to know (professionally curious).
A crack and a scream had erupted from Futo’s group where, eager but untrained, another acolyte had caused a minor explosion of steam and glassy bits.
“Usually, that,” Mu had said. “Sometimes, you get to make your own.”
He’d motioned the next student to scuff closer and touch the goblet. As the acolyte (a retired luthier; this would be interesting) reluctantly had, Handai Mu had affixed his previous, introspective discovery.
He’d not only been half-decent at rationalising that which suffered no rationalisation.
He’d been half-enjoying the novelty.
And that had been remarkable. Where, regularly, Mu would have been ensconced in yon broom closet (he a library calleth), pestering Tojiko, pestering the Crown Prince, seeking out opportunities to pester Futo, or sleeping off his nightly escapades to pester the native fauna of Gensokyo, now he’d been – for a change – pestering his fellow Taoist aspirants. Though, rather than idle banter, unsolicited chaperoning, unsolicited kisses or even less solicited questions (respectively), he’d been worrying their appetites with crumbs of wisdom. Such as they were.
He shook out of that metaphor. Then of this one.
It hadn’t been at all what Mu had outlined for the day. He’d outlined to watch Futo at work. He’d expected to get a note or two in edgewise, then whisk his tutor away for a round of ribbing and inappropriate workplace relations in between the classes. The trouble with doing that while attending to as an anatomical model, or coaching a drove of cheerful ignoramuses on how to make a total mockery of the laws of physics mankind had painstakingly sieved out of the universal chaos throughout the ages, was that he couldn’t. It was a wolf, as some may say (not Mu; he’d always held a boar would be more convincing), in sheep’s wools; Futo was a steady heat-spot on his mental field of Hot and Cold, but Mu was not the seeker. Something else about him was. And Mu wasn’t supposed to let it win.
All the novel parts apart, Mu was disappointed. He was bored, impatient, and cared not in the merest what it told of his sociability. He felt a wash of relieved surprise when the luthier Winded the water’s temperature unrequiring of further armchair psychology. He smiled, nodded his respects, then waved in the next student. Inside, he wanted Futo.
Nearby dusk, his wishes would be answered.
Or, at any rate, given a promissory chit. Handai Mu would lead the final pack of newbloods of the day from the palace temple’s courtyard yard to the audience chamber, where others had gathered already for Lord Taishi’s evening muster. Mu would ensure first none of the well-impressed acolytes had half an eye of him as he edged for the rear-most door of the chamber. Then, unremarked by anyone (but for the Crown Prince, who saw all anyway), he would dart off, down the mist-choked hallways, again to the courtyard – where Futo had stayed behind.
His tutor would be meticulously wiping away all traces of the day’s lessons once Mu got there: with her clogs in the case of the charts and runic labels scrawled in the dirt, and her dainty fingers for the shards of glass strewn among them. Handai Mu held off on bucking the small woman’s rare moment of conscientiousness, and kept to the veranda’s shadow. He measured – visually – the additional finger-breadths of Futo’s thighs showing below her skirt when she bent down to pick up another crystal chip. It was three too many.
At least, it would be – for anyone who hadn’t already seen Futo in her most natural state.
Mu set his jaw. The golden goddess of the Sen-kai hadn’t mistaken his desires; and Mu indeed had been nursing a few for Futo. He’d more than nursed them; he’d brought them up, sent them to a good school, and helped file their first income tax forms so a decent percentile would properly go toward his eventual retirement fund. Mononobe Futo was wonderful. She was honest, direct, more positive than a battery’s nubby end, and the third prettiest woman he had met in Gensokyo (which he’d discreetly lied about). He could easily love her.
Only, he’d taken great care not to.
It wasn’t for any fault of Futo, or that of his loyalty to the Crown Prince, or even the whispers issued in winded breath about their public displays of affection. Mu had displayed his affection publicly long enough, even before recent weeks, to outgrow the stemming shame. That wasn’t the barbed bit. Taking it beyond the ribbing and casual skinship – was.
Simply, Mu felt it a touch unfair to springboard off of their ordained relationship straight into another one. Not to Futo, who – Mu had on clear, detached conjecture – was still a woman with all the womanly quirks. It would be unfair to someone else. Someone whom he hadn’t even bothered to fully understand. It made him feel – insofar as his bachelor’s pride permitted such unmanly things as feelings – like he would be cheating.
Mu set his jaw. Then, realising overdue he’d already kind of done that, he un-set and re-set it again. His gums ached at the unstipulated abuse, but Mu denied their complaints. He was in a mood in which people either wrote poetry or dirty-bombed a mall. And he could barely distil a metaphor – let alone sublime a rhyme.
There were no malls in Gensokyo, granted. But there was a bomb nearby, which Mu wanted little more than to pick up, stuff under his coat (if he had one), and plant in some quiet, private area where it wouldn’t be found until it was way too late. He could do one of the three, at least. More than some other poets, he was certain.
All he had to decide was how.
( ) With stealth. ( ) With deliberation. ( ) With Seki in mind.
And bombs, Mu had learned, were excitable things. Apt to give fifth-degree burns if handled too boldly. He knew this. He was still smarting after the last one.
How, then, startling a bomb was any wiser was nimbly sidestepped when Mu began to Damp his weight. He flattened it out at around half, then Damped his lower body strength to match. His hard-shod sandals barely impressed in the dirt when the priest hopped off the veranda. Futo, occupied plucking glass seeds, hadn’t at all noticed when she had been snuck behind. Oblivious, she bowed down to pluck the next. Four fingers that time.
Mu waited his tutor to right up again. Then slid a hand over her eyes.
“Guess who,” he said.
Futo went taut, one fist crushing around the bits of glass she’d collected. No sound, however, was issuing of her surprise. Mu bit back his dissatisfaction. He’d hoped the whole day for a new item to add to the list of things which made his ageless tutor squeal like a schoolgirl, but the list stubbornly refused to grow. His aim must have gone world-wide, because Futo seemed actually to relax – not startle – when he slung his other arm across her shoulders.
It was a moment – and a soft sigh – before Futo ventured her guess.
“Handai Mu,” she replied, “who may ne’er better learn.”
Mu ran this through his mental pressman. He handed it back with an apologetic smile. “… Half-right,” Mu insisted out loud. “But, you know what they say about learning experiences…”
“… No?” Futo sounded amused.
“That they are what you get,” explained Mu, “when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
Futo mused it over. Then, watchful as a clockmaker’s left wrist, she read the fine print her brother hadn’t printed anywhere except his expression – which Futo, logically, should not have been able to read. Of course, where Futo’s particular dexterities were at play, logic was oft-times collateral.
The small master of the Tao laid a hand atop Mu’s own, seeming to read the emotional braille from his skin.
“And what you today wanted,” she supposed, “nay to in earnest work was.”
Futo squirmed her head left and right. “Fie, Mu,” she told him. “You’ve fain well done. Seldom do young cadets such speed and success as today see. Nay, either, overmuch wanion accidents… Methinks you yourself due credit deny.”
Mu grimaced. Unaccountably, the praise only put him further in mind of sulking. “… I don’t know, Futo,” he muttered. “I’ve had a fair bit of wanion a fair few times.”
“Nary one fatal, though.”
Mu paused. “… These tend to be?”
Futo sniggered. She smacked the top of his palm with affection. Once it lay flattened to her shoulder, Futo investigated the spaces between its splayed fingers with her own, smaller ones. Handai Mu felt some of his temper flee his earthly vessel when Futo sank lightly against its front. When she spoke again, it was in the quiet, patient tone Mu had heard rarely since they’d moved on from their student-tutor relationship.
It woke… something inside him the priest at once missed and wished tied to the next rocket bound for the surface of Mars. Or better yet, Jupiter. Though he’d settle for as far as the Moon, too.
Futo’s voice yanked it back down to Earth.
“Be with what you have content,” she recited; “in the Way things are rejoice. Whenas you there is naught lacking realise, then the World to you belongeth.”
“So sayeth Sage of Sages, Laozi,” Mu filled in. “Though, with respect… That one always smacked a tad arrogantly to me.”
“Ah, Mu—” bemoaned Futo. “It nay so dark is. Alack, you a creature of the modern era are; you it your task to scent chicanery ever and every place make. The Sage Laozi more ancient than you and I boiled together was. He in simpler terms spake.”
“I see why that would be present,” quipped Mu. “Most curses weren’t invented yet.”
Futo swam under his witticism. “What it means, Mu,” she said, “that you nay needs must a flaw in everything seek is. When your actions without conscious effort come; when the words without lack on your tongue visit. Then your soul in the right place is. And you on your own Way tread.”
“I’m not laced straight enough to be a teacher, Futo,” Mu argued. “Too lax on rules.”
“That, too,” said Futo, a touch smugly, “a lesson is.”
Handai Mu breathed his mute objection at the Sen-kai’s dusking sky. Futo made no commentary of his target of appeal; only wriggled her fingers deeper among his own. Sooner than his modern creature’s brain could do the evolved thing and think, Mu did something he had altogether not done enough done too often of late for his own peace of mind.
He allowed himself to feel Futo.
His tutor and adoptive sister was, as ever, electrifying to the touch. Mu had all but skimmed over it earlier in his drive to surprise her; yet, once he but focused, the faint, nervous tingle of direct contact with Futo’s skin was, as it always was, there. As well were the less mystic qualities of her. The smell of warm, Sun-blasted clothes. The smell of warm, Sun-blasted Futo. A bouquet of trace sweat and something else he couldn’t place; a steady flow of body heat against his own, from the chest down. A small, wonderful girl inside his arms.
It was nice… but not all that.
There were places, mostly in the Outside World, where doing even this with Futo would have earned him harsh looks at least – and a harsh jail sentence at slightly worse. And, in the privacy of Lord Taishi’s palace temple (not to forget that of his own, little world), Handai Mu had done way more. He didn’t overmuch mind his sister’s outward age. He hadn’t danced the proverbial dirty dance with her, either; but, they definitely had an unsubtly felonious relationship with each other’s bodies. Mu could well calculate the distance between Futo’s… let’s say, shoulder blades… and she, the number of razors it would take to go through all his hair. It was a candid, innocently perverse, show-yours-show-mine sort of relationship, which siblings shouldn’t, but sometimes just enjoyed. He and Futo simply improvised the “siblings” part.
And that was the crux, wasn’t it – because, removed from this safety belt, accidents didn’t seem so distant anymore. That Mu was still itching to undo it only sang ironic of his recent ones.
You’re pent-up, suggested an imaginary voice he wanted to hear… just not now. You’re pent-up, frustrated, and that’s it.
But it was a knock on the door of a very noisy bedroom. When Mu leant down, and brushed his cheek on Futo’s, and sensed the breath catch in her tiny chest, cheating felt no more substantial than a dentist appointment three months away. His palm still over his tutor’s eyes, Handai Mu tweaked the small Taoist’s face a few more degrees toward his own.
Then, quite without further philosophical ado, he gave her a long, unbrotherly kiss.
Futo, understandably, had something to say for it afterwards; for her goof of a brother had sorely missed either one of her available cheeks – and gone, instead, for what lay in the geographically confusing middle. It was the same middle Handai Mu had managed to distract himself from well enough the previous night… but which he couldn’t quit glancing at throughout today.
What Futo had to say was this:
“Fie, Mu. In the temple?”
Which, distinctly, wasn’t “Fie, Mu. At all?” or “Not after shōchū, you ass!” One being something Mu had heard before. And it had been soju, not shōchū. A narrow gap… but wide enough for an argument.
“There is no one watching, is there?”
“And that,” Futo wanted to know, “reason enough makes?”
“Mm. Well—” Mu obliged. “I have had another drawn up, in case.”
Futo rolled her eyes. It was a masterful display of expressiveness, because Futo’s eyes were shut, and covered up besides. The roll, even so, was plain in her tone when she replied, “Fie. Fine, then. Let us it heed.”
“All right. See, in the world west of this tiny island,” explained Mu, “west of that itty-bitty ridge we call the Urals, there is this staple, or myth, for when a man of purpose embarks on a quest. It is called… a Lady’s Fable? Favour. That’s the name. More or less, the man’s lady of the pick bestows on him a gift – a personal effect, usually – meant to maintain his stock of luck. Our ladies are chock full of the stuff, apparently. Leave it all over their things.”
“And I,” Mu chimed in, “haven’t had success with my inquiry. My quest, if you will. So, I thought to pinch some luck. Straight from the source.”
Futo’s answer was a carefully cut slice of sarcasm. “Would that nay thievery be?”
Her brother smiled against her ear. “If so,” he said, quietly, “I could give it back… if you want.”
There was, as there were customarily after such offers, a pregnant pause. It squished under its own weight, spreading over to the next moment. Then the next. Then the one afterwards – giving both Mu and Futo precious ample time to ponder swapping the stolen bit of luck back and forth for the rest of the evening.
The pause, at last, decided to get a caesarean. Futo’s voice grabbed the knife.
“… Mu?” she said.
“… Yes?” said Mu.
“I a woman am.”
“I’ve… seen the clues, yes.”
“And women,” Futo told him, firmly, “these things seriously regard.”
“These things,” returned Mu. “Meaning…?”
“Meaning,” Futo shot back, “either shut your mouth or eat your words, you son of a mule.”
There were two things men, traditionally, did at a birth. The first was to stand by: holding on to the woman’s hand, putting on the best stoic act in the face of life’s adversities and its messy beginnings. Or, they could run to and fro – filling up and carrying basins of hot water, which they’ve been told – in no uncertain terms – were absolutely vital to the baby’s safe delivery.
What these honest, diligent men hardly ever realised was that both had been designed by cunning midwives to keep them from getting underfoot. They could hold the woman’s hand – because the hand was the least busy area of a woman undergoing labour; or, they could wait the kettle’s whistle as they prepared the hot water in the kitchen – and out of the delivery room altogether, therefore.
Handai Mu was neither honest, nor very diligent. He did, thus, do the slightly less conventional third thing.
He stood there, shocked, while the basin scalded his palms sore.
“… I nay so thought,” sighed Futo—
—And drove the heel of her clog into his right foot.
A year’s worth of pitiless training flashed Mu’s limbs with a Wind of strength in response. His half-Damped weight clashed with the imbalanced humours, and the priest stumbled backwards, tripped up by his own body. Futo burst out of his embrace – her wide, colourful sleeves dancing in her wake.
Mu was still fighting the nausea of the sudden Winding when she span about to face him. The expression under her copious brows was, in the want of a better term, Tojikous.
“Keep the luck,” Futo told her wincing brother. “You’ll well it need, if you to treat your quest as you your duties to the Crown Prince treat mean. You are tonight as well leaving. Yes?”
“I… Yes,” mumbled Mu.
“Then be back early. I’ll of you need on the morrow have.”
“… More lectures?”
A savage smile pulled on Futo’s pink lips. “Nay,” she said, with vicious relish. “I to do… something rash plan. A visit… to our Gensokyan rival. Howbeit, now—” she narrowed her eyes at the temple’s nearest entrance, “—I must to my Crown Prince liege attend. Fare well, Mu brother. And – I guess – luck.”
Most people bent in half from motion sickness (or well-near clubfooted from a clog to the toes) had worse things to take their attention off their pains than the bouncing skirts of their sisters hopping up a knee-high veranda. Handai Mu tried very hard to ignore, as he suffered, that his own sister’s skirt contained underneath a pearly-white, lace-trimmed pair of old-fashioned, but nonetheless titillating drawers.
What he couldn’t not notice was that the bits of glass Futo had tossed aside at the last moment had been heat-fused into one, solid, milky lump.
Ok, I don't think I'm perfectly clear on what exactly just happened.
>“Meaning,” Futo shot back, “either shut your mouth or eat your words, you son of a mule.” As far as I know 'eat your words' mean to admit something you said was wrong, but that doesn't seem to apply here. So maybe we can instead assume she means something like, take back what you just said.
Combined with the regarding these things seriously line, my best guess is that she's now reached her limit to how much skinship she'll do light-heartedly without any sort of commitment or pronouncement of affection (or whatever else would be the proper order to it), and she got upset with how flippantly Mu was treating kissing her. Although, in that case, I don't understand why she's apparently been perfectly fine with it up to this point, only to get suddenly get mad now. It also wouldn't fit with this line: >“Keep the luck,” Futo told her wincing brother. “You’ll well it need, if you to treat your quest as you your duties to the Crown Prince treat mean. You are tonight as well leaving. Yes?”
Because it has nothing to do with his 'duties'.
So I don't think this interpretation is right actually. I have no other ideas though.
This, by itself, wasn’t a lot to write home about. Rumia was hungry always. She’d been born hungry, and had been hungry as long as she’d existed, that is to say, as long as she had been hungry. It was something she’d simply gotten used to, like a lazy eyelid. A constant, low-key buzz at the edge of hearing. It wouldn’t kill her. She couldn’t die. She could, however, stop existing one day.
That was a comforting thought.
A nippy, Winter night clung to the sky above the Forest of Magic. Not that this meant too much. It was always night where Rumia was concerned, that being mostly the space immediately adjacent to Rumia. The distinction came from the parts of the Forest of Magic touched by her sphere of darkness not becoming a lot brighter once no longer Rumia-adjacent. Around Rumia – inside the sphere – the night was darker than… well, the night. Meaning, really dark. Might-as-well-not-open-your-eyes dark.
And that was how Rumia liked it.
The Forest of Magic didn’t. The trees were very pointed in their attempts to snatch the roaming darkness youkai out of the air. But it was still a Nice Place. For a youkai, anyway. It was where the proverbial fool went to die, causing monsters to lurk in every shadow in anticipation of a morsel, presumably very bored throughout most days. These days – the short, Winter days – it was an even Nicer Place, on account of the trees going to sleep and losing half of their grasping ability. At least, so the wandering Rumia liked to think.
Then a branch smacked her in the face.
The youkai of darkness yipped her surprise and tumble-crashed to the cold, forest ground. Her bubble of un-light popped. It folded away like a hand-fan without guards, ceding to the blueish, nightly ambience.
Rumia sat up in a clump of frozen leaves, pawing at her face. A full, rosy hemisphere of it was stinging – under the brow included. A more vain part of Rumia hoped she wouldn’t get a lazy eyelid from this.
“Hello,” said a voice above.
Rumia peered up the tree that had caught her with her non-stinging eye.
Seated on a bough, a bit up the hibernating trunk, legs dangling off the side, a person was confidently peering back. A human (or, so Rumia assumed from the lack of an aura), male (or, so Rumia figured from the scruff on his chin), wrapped up in robes which were (or, so Rumia thought) almost too bright to look at. A tall, black hat, like a fat sesame roll, sat comfortably atop the human’s shaven head. Rumia’s stunned attention glided down the tree. At its foot, almost directly below the human, lay a long, forking branch of the same wood. It looked freshly snapped off.
Her mind added the two together… then found something more interesting in between. Rumia looked back up.
“… Are you a human I can eat?” she asked.
The human’s brows rose a little under his hat. “That… would lean on the definition, I think.”
Rumia blinked. “What definition?”
“The definition of ‘a human you can eat.’”
“Oh.” Rumia paused. “… I can eat humans who aren’t from the village,” she recalled. “Are you from the village?”
“I was from the village,” confessed the human. “I suppose not anymore.”
Rumia brightened at these words (forgoing the gross paradox of such a thing). “Then I can eat you?”
“Oh—” he scoffed. “You could try, I’ll grant.”
Rumia frowned. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” said the human, “except… This.”
He reached to pluck a dead leaf from an offshoot overhead. He held it out for her to see.
Rumia sensed something MOVE in the piece of the world before her… and the leaf disappeared in a flash of heat and smoke.
“… Ah,” she said, dejected. “One of those, huh.”
The human eked out a wry smile. “So I am,” he admitted.
Most people Rumia had met had some means of filling out the awkward holes in a conversation, and, despite her preference for ones who agreed to be eaten without threatening to burn her physical sheath to a crisp, she had to concede there were worse things than sliding off a branch high in a tree and floating slowly to the ground like… well, like the leaf they’d just burned to a crisp. A butterfly seemed to flap inside Rumia’s belly (and there were no butterflies to eat in Winter) when the man settled to the forest floor beside her and pulled out a waxed canvas sack.
The butterfly flew away when the sack was unstrung and out wafted a mouth-watering smell. An array of spiced, grilled meats met with Rumia’s hungry stare when the man laid the sack, like a picnic blanket, out on the ground.
“These—” he pointed out some pieces, “—are from a grill house in town. These are from Miss Cook’s stall, here in the forest.”
Rumia was half-listening. “… Miss Cook?”
“Wings? Long nails? Curves all over?”
“Ah.” Rumia swallowed. “Mystia, huh.”
Mystia’s cooking was good. Notoriously so, and, Rumia would tell if asked, honestly wasted on the humans the plump youkai insisted to serve.
The man in the hat gave a nod. “Myst-yah,” he syllabised. “Lore-lore-lay. Yeah. These, I got from her.”
Rumia eyed the crispy drumsticks and skewers of charred yakitori. Fowl-meat, she noted. These had to be lean weeks, if Mystia was resorting to chicken (which she’d as readily stick up for other times) to plug up her supply. Maybe the Lake had frozen over; maybe the fairies had run off with the pretty stones meant to pay off the Lake’s guardian mermaid. Rumia framed a mental reminder to fly by the night sparrow’s stall later tonight and take care of any chance leftovers.
(Rumia couldn’t know it now, though she would when she got there, that Mystia would be found afoul of a vile mood. Any answer to any question posed to the bird youkai would be curt and followed by a lot of grumbling – as if there was a bunch of things that Mystia wanted to say, but they were lacking for the intended target. Rumia would make the educated guess and assume Mystia’s mating season must be coming on. That, after all, happened every six-odd years, and would be about the correct time. Whether this was or wasn’t the core cause of Mystia’s short temper… wouldn’t really matter once the leftovers were off the grill.)
“Well. Help yourself,” spoke the human – somewhat rattling the frame around Rumia’s reminder, but not so hard that it rattled all the way out.
The youkai of darkness cast up at the human, looking for deception. All she caught was a human making good on his own advice, and helping himself to one of the drumsticks. Rumia wouldn’t be left behind; she measured out the biggest among Mystia’s yakitori sticks, and picked it up before the human could.
The scents of hot chicken meat, cayenne peppers and soy sauce blended together into that of pure bliss. Rumia felt its touch on her soul when she bit into the first cube’s crunchy skin. She purred her delight. She slid the cube off the skewer altogether, and passed it whole into her mouth.
The man in the hat gave her a speculative look as she happily chewed the meat into delicious mush. He’d ripped the browned skin off his drumstick, and, himself, was munching on it like a strip of jerky.
There was a longer moment, full of mostly mouths too stuffed to speak. Rumia swallowed down the meat, and licked the grease that had dripped onto her fingers. The human did the same to his chicken-skin… Although, where she sought to refill her mouth as soon as she could, he had something of a different mind.
“… Have you ever wondered,” he asked after a bit, “why it is food tastes good?”
“Myffi makesh it goof,” Rumia replied, sagely. “Ish why.”
The man’s stare turned troubled for a second. “Well, yes—” he allowed, “but why? You are youkai. You needn’t to eat to survive.”
“No,” the youkai confirmed.
“Then why?” the man wanted to know. “Human meat is… plausible. It is what you do. But why this? Why do you like chicken?”
Rumia stared back. She gulped down the second cube (a little sooner than she’d have liked) before answering.
“I am youkai,” she pointed out. “I am what I am. Why should I care why?”
“Why should you care why you should care?”
The man sighed. “Never mind,” he said, fanning the whys away. “It’s… funny. That’s all. Anyone can tell you what youkai do. Almost, it seems, no one can tell what goes on through your heads. Whether you even consider what you do.”
“I consider things,” Rumia supplied. “I’ve considered eating you.”
“And why haven’t you?”
“I’ve considered against it.” When the human provided no reply, only stared on, Rumia went on, “I don’t need to do everything I consider. I’m not a fairy. I could eat you, but you could burn me before you die. That would hurt, and it would take me a whole night to recover. Therefore, I considered not to eat you. That worked out fine, I think.”
“The food is tasty, too.”
Something else occurred. “I could have eaten you, then the food,” Rumia realised.
The man wigged his fingers in the air. “Fire,” he reminded. “Needs just a thought.”
“Is that so?”
“So it is.”
“Worked out fine, then.”
“… I suppose.”
There was another patch of greasy, meaty silence. But the human must not have gone a bundle on his choices, because he spoke again – no sooner, in fact, than Rumia had tossed her now-empty skewer away.
“… Are there,” he asked, eyeing her from below his bushy brows, “other things that you enjoy – but can’t say why?”
Rumia’s hands carefully swiped the next meat-stick, even as she made her reply. “Maybe. I enjoy things. What about them?”
“Is there… anything you like to do? When you’re bored, or restless, or…”
“Mhm.” She took a bite. “I pfay wif Wiggle shometimef. She makef bugf do shilly fings.”
Rumia swallowed. “Makes them lie back on their shells. Then makesh anoffer wun shpin ‘em. Oh—“ she remembered; “been playing ‘guess the human’ at the wolf’s place, too.”
“What might that be?”
“A game,” she explained. “A buncha youkai come together to do youkai stuff, but one of us is secretly a human. The rest hafta finf fem out. Ish fun, foo… When I’m not the human, anyway.”
The man took it in. “… Music?”
Rumia shrugged. “Myschi has a nice singing voice.”
“Can’t read too good in the dark.”
“Ish shomefing to do.”
The man’s jaw hung idle for a little. His eyes climbed up and down the front of Rumia’s body, as if sizing her up.
“… What about sex?” he asked at length.
“Happens sometimes,” Rumia replied.
That, visibly, gave the man something to chew through other than gristle.
“… Really?” he wanted to know.
“You’ve had sex?”
“A bunch,” admitted Rumia. “Why?”
There was a clipped, disbelieving chuckle. “See? That’s what I want to know,” said the man. “To be clear, though. Sex is when—”
“When I put a man’s bits into my bits,” Rumia finished. “I know what it is. I’ve had it.”
“Is that so?” challenged the man.
“So it is,” she began to nod—
… And then stopped. He hadn’t said “Is that so?” in the tone of voice she said “Is that so?” to humans who loudly, often unprompted, exclaimed that she was, in fact, a youkai. He had said “Is that so?” rather in the tone she told the same humans, “I have you now.”
But, for as much as he was trying to play the youkai’s part, he hadn’t a very good grasp on the proper train of proceedings. Instead of pinning her down, for one, and tearing out her throat, he merely tore a chunk of meat off his drumstick, and carried on with his questions.
“How, exactly,” he wanted to know now, “does a youkai ‘happen’ on sex?”
Rumia cocked her head. “Humans…” she started to say, wrong-footed by this line of questioning. Hadn’t he known? Hadn’t everyone? “Humans,” she started again. “Some of them think… very hard… about sex when they’re about to die. Sometimes, they ask me to do it before I eat them.”
“And you… uh, drop your skirt? I mean, give it? The sex?”
“Sex feels good,” Rumia pointed out, dumbly. It felt odd to have to explain it. To a human, no less. Much more a male. “If I get to have sex, then get to eat them, that’s more fun for me. If it’s a man, anyway; women are kind of useless.”
“This happens… how often?”
Rumia licked her lips. “Last time was… A full Moon ago, huh.”
It hadn’t felt half as long, but when she thought about it, it had been. Rumia’s memory of the night was nigh-on eidetic: a round, cheese-coloured Moon in the sky, but none of its pale light below the snow-plastered treetops. She had been hungry (then again, that was the least variable part), and her meal had been wandering about the woods in a numb panic. He’d been cold and delirious, and hadn’t reacted at all the usual way when Rumia alighted before him: arms outstretched, a horrible craving behind her crimson eyes. No.
He’d called her “mother,” instead.
Fever, or hope, had spoken; and the too-lightly dressed human had thrown his arms around the slightly startled Rumia. But if he’d truly seen the small, blond youkai as his mother… then the way he’d ground the stiff, hard front of his trousers into her tiny chest had told a less innocent story. One his mother might not have ever wanted to hear.
Rumia remembered smiling. She remembered a thrill of excitement at her widening opportunity.
She’d laid the demented, rambling man down in the snow, and tugged down his trousers. She’d lathered his desperate, trembling manhood with her spit, dragging her tongue up and down its veiny length, until it had been shiny from their combined fluids. Her victim had gazed up at her in deranged adulation when Rumia had stood up to skin her underwear. Then, stretching herself open with her fingers, she’d straddled his hard, impatient thing. Her lower mouth had done what her upper one couldn’t, and swallowed the man’s thing, inch by hot inch, until it’d bottomed out and Rumia’s crotch had been resting directly on his. For a tiny moment, as brief as it had been tantalising, the sensation of his stiffness in her belly – of being stuffed full – had dislodged the constant, nagging hunger that had been her ceaseless companion.
Rumia had bit down on a lip, towed her hips up, then let her tingly crotch slip back down the man’s long tool. She’d moaned her needy, yearning arousal. Then done it again. Then again. And again.
She’d bounced on top of the stranded man for a long time, rapidly forgetting and remembering her curse, long after he’d expired from fever and hypothermia. She’d ridden his cooling, but stubbornly rigid thing, on and on, until her own pleasure had peaked, and she’d spent the next few minutes twitching and moaning senselessly into the wintry air.
Then, once sanity had but returned, Rumia had turned to her feast.
The dead man’s insides had still been pleasantly warm. He’d tasted like… like getting lost in the woods at night with no torch, or map, and a dwindling supply of hope… and that had always spiced up the flavour. Nothing had remained by morning of the man who’d wanted his mother, except cracked bones sucked clean of their marrow.
Rumia shuddered out of the memory, back to the less exciting present.
The man – the hatted one, in the bright robes, not lost at all – watched her expression snap from distraction to alertness.
“… A month ago, then,” he reiterated her last admission, before she could. “And you haven’t… No, let’s try this. You don’t feel tempted to seek it out? Sex, I mean?”
“I… I don’t,” said Rumia, confused. “It’ll happen if it’ll happen. If not… Mm. It’s not something that youkai are supposed to do.”
The man’s face was a picture of diligence. “Is that so?” he asked.
Rumia nodded. “So it is.”
The man smiled. Then shifted on his spot in the frozen leaves. “All right,” he said. “Tell me this, then. Is there a part… or something, about sex, that you like better than all else?”
“Like… Huh.” He hesitated. “Right. Well, let’s say… Men, as a general, tend to enjoy the penetration the most. As in, sticking their—”
“Thingie in my thingie,” Rumia supplied. “Mhm. I get it. I like semen, I think.”
“It tastes good. Not like a food, but… It feels good to eat it. Yup.”
“… So, you like doing it with your mouth?”
Rumia tweaked her head left and right. “No,” she said. “My mouth gets dry, and men kick me if I so much as brush them with my teeth. Usually, I’ll scoop it out of myself and eat it after we’ve finished.”
Again, and lower this time, the hatted man’s jaw squeaked wide open – as if he’d heard something so incredible, he was having issues fitting it between his ears without the extra wiggle space. Again, he shifted on his seat.
“… Right. Um, Loom-yah, right?” he said smoothly, with the obvious finesse of a man who solved his problems by charging them with a spear. “That’s your name, isn’t it? Loom-yah?”
“Right, yes. Rumia. Rrrr. Long u. Say, here…” He coughed into one of his bright sleeves. “… Is this conversation turning you on? At all?”
Rumia, being the simple, straightforward youkai she was, considered it.
And discovered, upon said consideration, a faint quiver in the area of her belly where sex stuff, as a rule, took place. A tickle, or itch, that told her in a conspiratorial way things could feel really good if only she got something to stuff it. To cram inside. To fill it up.
Then again… That could be just the regular hunger, up to tricks. The distinction was a blurred line in her mind. Sex preceded food; both made the hunger fade away while they lasted. There was little to separate her distinct appetites – at least until she was already satisfying one or the other.
Rumia erred, just in case, on the slightly more pleasant side.
“Mhm,” she concluded. “A bit.”
The human in the bright robes opened his mouth, wherein he had – presumably from embarrassment – stowed the remaining half of his drumstick.
“So… taging afout shex turns you won,” he managed to say with some articulacy and, stranger, a trace of relief.
Rumia couldn’t quite agree. “Talking, no,” she corrected. “Talking makes me think about it. Thinking about it turns me on.”
“Are you turned on?” she asked back.
The man scoffed through his mouthful. Then gulped it down. “Me?” he sighed. The bitterness in his voice would have shamed week-old carrion. “Oh, I’m so bottled up a leather wallet could get me hard. If I had one.”
“… Is that so?” said Rumia.
It wasn’t so – or the man truthfully had no wallet – because he didn’t complete the exchange.
Instead, and silently, his gaze fastened to Rumia’s motions as she picked up the last of the yakitori skewers and bit in. The youkai of darkness wrapped her tiny lips around a browned meat cube and, gingerly, slid it up and off the long bamboo spike. She pushed it into her mouth with a finger.
A sharp intake of breath from the hatted man presaged he was about to make some supportive commentary. He even wetted his own lips, for similitude.
“… What would it take to sleep with you?” he asked.
Rumia tilted her head. Not the question she’d imagined. “… Sleep?”
“Sex. Blast. What would it take to have sex with you?”
Rumia thought about it. “… Let me eat you,” she concluded.
“That’s the only way?”
“It is fair. I get to eat you; you get to stick your thingie inside me. Men like doing that. You told me so.”
“So, you never—” began the human. Then swung his eyes to the swiftly vanishing food. “… So, you’ve never had sex,” he continued, pinching another drumstick, “where you didn’t eat your partner afterwards? Sex for sex’s sake? For fun?”
“Not even once?”
“You always ate them?”
“Yup—” Rumia made to say… and held herself back. “… Mm. No. There was that one time, huh. I caught a human, and he asked to have sex with me. I said yes. We started, and then he told me he was from the Human Village.”
The human in front of her perked up. “And?” he wanted to know. “What did you do?”
Rumia frowned. “He was from the Human Village,” she said again, as if that instantly explained everything. Which, really, it should. “It was my bad. I should have known from his clothes. He apologised for tricking me. Said he wouldn’t tell anyone. So, I let him finish. Then let him go.”
“Was it fun?”
“… A bit,” Rumia admitted.
“Did you come?”
“Did I what?”
The human in the robes blinked. “Uh. Come. It means… An orgasm. It’s when—”
“I know what that is,” said Rumia. “I had three.”
“Three?” The man sounded amazed, somehow.
Rumia gave a nod. “Yup. While he was pumping me,” she recalled, “his thingie’s tip kept rubbing and hitting a spot inside me that made my thingie shiver. When I told him about it, he started poking it really hard, and I had an orgasm.”
Weirdly, now Rumia had remembered, that had marked one of the rare few instances where she’d had to divulge such information in the first place. So it had been because, rather than have her mount up and move by herself, as Rumia was used to do, the villager had requested instead she lean against a tree and lift a leg to expose her crotch. It had felt odd, not to have control over when and how the man’s long, fat-headed tool was pulled out or shoved in all the way to the base, or poked at her sensitive places.
Odd… but not bad. Not really. A little exciting, even – in a faintly scary way.
Rumia paused, swallowed. “Then—” she continued, “Then, afterwards, after he’d squirted his semen inside me. I was trying to scrape it out, but he’d pushed it in really deep. He said he’d help – since his fingers were longer. I let him, but… he wasn’t very good. He was really slow, and his fingers kept accidentally prodding that same spot, and I ended up having another orgasm. He waited until I was done, then said we’d need to use his thing, because it could reach better. I asked him to try not to hit that spot anymore, but, while he was sliding in and out, it just kind of kept happening, and…”
She left it hanging.
“… Wow,” wheezed the hatted man. He vacated his lungs, loudly, of what had to be a whole clump of invisible hair. “Ahem. Um. Er. Well, if nothing else… Sounds like sex for pleasure, to me.”
“Is that so?” wondered Rumia.
“Isn’t it, though?” he countered. “Was all that before or after he’d told you about the village caveat?”
“And yet, you went through. You let him have sex with you. A youkai.”
“… Mm,” Rumia murmured.
With grave resignation, as if chucking a danmaku orb at a Hakurei shrine maiden, she plucked the final cube of meat from the last of the yakitori sticks. The human in the bright robes watched her chew it up and toss the spike.
“… Why, do you believe, do you enjoy sex?” he asked then.
Rumia nudged her chin side to side. “I don’t know. Why do you?”
“Humans—” the man let fly a long-suffering sigh, “—for us, we’ve evolved to get off on sex. It’s a mechanism, see? It encourages us to reproduce.”
“Maybe I want to reproduce, too.”
“But you’re biologically immortal,” he insisted.
“I’m neither bye-oh,” objected Rumia, “nor logical. But I am immortal.”
“An immortal who likes sex?”
“… Yes,” Rumia replied – at once flurried that the fact had had to be coaxed out of her… and that it had been.
The human in the hat rolled his next question around his mouth. Then, after he’d balled it up enough, he spat it out.
“Are other youkai… like that, do you think? Like you?”
Rumia squinted. “Like me?”
“As in—” He snapped his fingers with impatience. “As in, maybe they don’t pursue sex,” he guessed; “but, once they happen to get it, they do derive some satisfaction. I’ve read stories about youkai mating with humans; of course I have. But is this normal? Kitsune and mermaids and Oni are all writ to take human lovers. But, no one says how it is for the less… sociable of you. Are your impressions normal, then? Or does it do differently for other youkai? That’s what I want to settle.”
“I’m—” Rumia faltered. Shortly. “… I’m a normal youkai,” she decided.
It would be a very accurate historian who could pinpoint the exact beginning of the man’s dubious stare, but it only took a normal youkai – like Rumia – to spot its end. It lurked at the end of the minute, and carried a somewhat familiar question.
The question went something like this:
“Is that so?”
And Rumia’s answer was an unsurprising:
“So it is.”
The man scoffed, even if his face was wearing a quizzical smile. Then, he moved on to hoist himself off the ground. He dusted – with some success – the rear of his robe, then patted down – with less success – the front. This didn’t escape notice – neither Rumia’s nor his; and the man made a couple of unflattering sounds.
“… Right,” he muttered. “Seems I’ve a date with a cold shower.”
Rumia did the honours of asking the important stuff. “Can I eat the rest?”
“Huh?” He followed her eyes to the remaining meat. “Ah. Sure. Blast. It’s the least I owe you. You’re a wonderful creature, did you know that?”
“Wonderful, huh?” said Rumia, snatching up the drumsticks in both hands.
“Wish all youkai were as forthright as you. If they were, I wouldn’t be… Well. Here. But, you know what they say about folly…”
“No. I dom’f.”
He gave her a dull look. “Uh. Something about each fool loving theirs?”
“Ivvat fo?” saif Wumia, hef mouf weawwy fuww.
The man in the bright robes barked off a rough chuckle. Then, he snapped a one-handed salute, and – wilfully ignoring he was a human and not a youkai, a shrine maiden or a witch (the hat was nowhere wide enough for that last one) – he kicked himself off the ground to rip through a narrow gap in the skeletal forest roof.
Rumia did not stare after him – like a fool might – as he flew off, because she didn’t allow for things such as regret to enter the temple of her mind or, more closely to truth, the tiny offertory box of her mind. She scarfed down the last of the now-cold meat, and vised the end off of the remaining bone. She picked herself up and, chewing on the springy gristle, followed the habituated mental track to Mystia’s wheeled, food-stuffed home.
In one thing, at least, the hatted man hadn’t been mistaken. Rumia was immortal. Time meant scarce anything when all one had was time (and hunger), and Rumia had but to wait the cosmic chance to bring him around.
Then, she could again try and prove that he should totally let her eat him.
Ahead Futo would whisk him away to infiltrate, penetrate and, presumably, grossly perforate the Buddhist temple of Myouren-ji, Handai Mu would spend a precious, early morning moment with another of the Sen-kai’s bright personalities.
That would be—
( ) The Sun, the Crown Prince. ( ) The (Dead) Live Tesla Coil, Tojiko.
When Futo came to shake him out of bed in the morning, he had half a mind to yank her down.
That was but thirty-percent true. Handai Mu had actually one full mind to yank his sister down, then another half to pull her under the sheets. The ten percent of truth left over were, in the main, things not thought by decent men and, certainly, never confessed to by clever ones. Altogether, it made for a lot of mind to have in the first moments of wakefulness. Having recourse to this, Futo squirmed, almost cat-like, out the way of Mu’s encroaching hands. The key difference being, she didn’t leave them in bloody shreds.
“Ah-ah-ah,” she chided, slinking away. “Nay today.”
Mumbling a curse on all catkind and its dexterity, Mu jacked himself up to a sit. He did what men were wont to do after a night over too soon, and peeked around to confirm his whereabouts. Unlike many such men, Mu was pleased to find said whereabouts were, first of all, recognisable and, secondly, familiar. They were, in fact, his own quarters in Lord Taishi’s palace temple. He faked a lapse anyway, and peered about longer – every blink of his gummy eyes an extra split-second of sleep which, his brain maintained, he absolutely couldn’t go without. Mu blinked with interest.
His tiny square of privacy under his Master’s wing was, in a word, Spartan. Not in the least because he had any special fondness for huge men clad in nothing but loincloth and slathers of olive oil; it was, because Mu had never owned much of anything since his inadvertent expatriation to Gensokyo. The golden goddess of the Sen-kai lauded not frugality – but purpose; and the new additions to the temple were oft permitted to bring along whichever personal effects they desired – so, at any rate, long as they weren’t a distraction from training. Mu hadn’t had a lot to carry in beyond his shoes, a bundle of clothing and a magnesium-lined, fire-starter card he’d removed from his wallet ahead peddling it away for a quick yen. He’d hardly touched that card since using it, on one occasion, to amuse Futo.
All else within the room had been the Crown Prince’s gift; and it had been waiting him upon his move from the temple’s communal bedrooms, on receiving his greens. A set of bedding, a stumpy table and a few leather-bound trunks to hold his rhetorical wealth. Mu’s sole addition, the elevated frame for the bed’s mattress, had been commissioned from one of the temple’s more steady-handed acolytes. Less the volume of breathable air that fitted inside at once, there was scarce to this room, really, above the one where he’d lived before, on the second floor of a boarding house in the human town.
Well… except Futo. Mu’s previous room had no Futo – which, in hindsight, should have warranted a formal complaint. It had been a flagrant oversight. All the rooms in Gensokyo should, Mu thought now, by design include their own Futo.
This one, the one with him, was far and away the most arresting part of the décor. Though, to hear her tell it, her shikai-sen body had no need of sleep, Mu’s starburst of a tutor had still the sense to change her garments every successive dawn; and she knelt now, one the edge of his bed, barely halfway through that process. With her hair down, her hat tucked under one arm, and the vest of her hunting cloak only tugged loosely over her underwear, Futo made for a wonderfully dishevelled sight. Her feet were bare, and the smooth, uninterrupted stretch of her legs made it difficult to leg on any legs other than leggy leg legs.
Somewhere in the unused wastes of his mammalian brain, Handai Mu recognised her marching into (and soon, out of) his quarters in this state would do nothing and less for their reputation in the purview of anyone making their own morning rounds. His lizard brain, however, had him well-occupied counting the pores in Futo’s left thigh.
“Are you now awake?” said the thigh.
Handai Mu vied to turn his boat lengthwise this new, dangerous tide in the stream of consciousness. “… Wuh-huh,” he mumbled. Then dug a knuckle into one eye. “‘Wake.”
“Amain, I see,” returned Futo. “Mm. Heed me, natheless. Whenas you up to dress rise,” she advised, “do, pray, inconspicuous dress put on. Unlike for the youkai filth of Myouren-ji to me unchallenged their territory let roam. I’ll you to them distract a little need. To run… How did you say, that other time?”
Mu squelched his forehead. He rather couldn’t figure which time Futo’s thigh might have meant, but filed it with other, less pressing mysteries for the minute.
“… In’ference?” he guessed.
“Methinks ‘interference,’ it was,” corrected Futo. “Yes. I’ll you to run interference want. So, up you rise, get dressed, eat, and me in the main hall meet. I will with Okiku Miss convene and her aid beseech.”
“… Wan’ some luck?” offered Mu.
There was a pause. “… Some what?”
“Y’know—” he babbled on. “Luck? What I stole yesterday…?”
Futo made no reply; and an awkward impression of having let loose something dumb dragged the crosshairs of Mu’s attention up to his tutor’s face. Sensing this grand shift in the surrounding world, Futo, too, quit eyeing something off to the side, and met her brother’s – somewhat wobbly – challenge.
“… Have you,” she asked, after a moment, “any success last night had?”
Mu conceded, with a careful nod, “Uh. Yeah. I met with someone… um, helpful. She confirmed a… theory, for me.”
“Aah,” Futo intoned, a foxy smile drawing her lips. “Then you’ve that luck right up used. Fie, piteous.”
Sooner than Mu may argue the person whom he’d met hadn’t required as much luck as an early tip-off, a ton of patience, and hours of Winding his body heat, Futo had patted his cheek and slid off the bed – trailing a faint scent of soap, Futo and disappointment. Smoothing herself down – to no effect, far as visuals – Mu’s adoptive sister tipped on naked toes for the exiting door.
At its threshold, her long, supple legs span her around.
“Hurry not,” she told her brother; “howbeit, nay tarry. Yon Myouren-ji devils mayen’t flee, but, Okiku Miss impatient gets. Speed, Mu.”
And, so having him wished, she left, gently shutting the door behind.
Handai Mu lay back, sighing and feeling a bit like the fabled elephant in a Chinese shop. Or was it just a china shop? That might have been an important difference, in an elephant situation.
Without much hope for what he might see, he squinted down the bed at the place Futo had been eyeing throughout their conversation. All at once, he understood where “amain” he had been awakened by Futo, and, perhaps, why – beside other reasons – her attractive bits had seemed even more attractive than usual.
He swung his feet down the side of the mattress – a lot less confident, someway, in his decision from months before to cut down on laundry by going to sleep buck-naked. He needed a punch of fresh air. Some rogue elements of him were begging for another punching altogether, but Mu delegated his self-disciplinary regimen for later. For now, he wanted something on his back, something in his stomach, and someone to talk to so far removed from earthly concerns, she would, through principles of magnetism, send him careening back to solid ground.
And that was what Futo’s ghostly daughter could be counted on to do every time.
As an ageing man, possessed of an array of time-ripened opinions, Reo, sovereign duke of the palace temple’s kitchens, had a certain Way with his cookery.
It was one of maximised efficiency. Any casual eater of Reo’s meals could have told they were made by someone who was both an expert on nutrition and embroiled in a civil war with the condiments rack. The cook – who had taken his greens (with his single, new name) by storm, and since worked from atop the cosy plateau – took these alternating allegations of tastelessness and weird-tasteness in stride. He would give the due attention to whoever was complaining at the time; then, he would suggest the daring critic – in a calm, no-nonsense tone – to acquire the missing spices for every single mouth in the temple. Or, better yet, to devise a method of producing them on-site, in the Sen-kai.
Since Mu’s maiden tenure, only one soul had been bold (or hungry) enough to actually take up the old cook’s challenge. A certain herbalist’s daughter, climbed of late to the equal rank.
As yet higher-ranked (or, at its root, better acquainted with the temple’s floor plan), Handai Mu gave a miss to dealing with whichever redsleeve had been assigned today’s mess hall duty, and strutted, with apt aplomb, straight into the temple’s kitchens. He exchanged terse nods with Reo (the cook’s, a shade bewildered – on account of Mu’s absence of uniform), ladled up a bowl of barley porridge from the giant cauldron on the woodstove, and burgled a strip of peeled sugarcane from the forbidden jar. Ahead caught by the kitchen’s apron-clad king, Mu did a bunk and fled its stuffy, humid confines. Then – those of the temple altogether.
Once out in the glow of Lord Taishi’s artificial Sun, the priest Damped his weight, hopped up to the roof, and reclined on the gently slanting, Sun-warmed tiles. While the porridge cooled in its bowl, Mu snapped off a piece of the sugarcane and popped it in his mouth. He pocketed the rest inside his undyed, woollen cloak, which, while he’d still cared to, he’d used to disguise in when sneaking out to the human town. It should do as well, Mu had supposed, for Futo’s undercover needs.
He chewed the sweet fibres in the side of his mouth. Futo. What could he tell her? That he hadn’t required luck to read up on, then ask around about this minor, light-consuming youkai who ranged the forests? Nor, then, to perch for hours up in a tree along the route she was (reportedly) inclined to take? Oh, she’d happened to support – and buttress, and rivet for a good measure – his hypothesis about some youkai enjoying, if not actively seeking, the odd bouts (and fashions) of human company. But, and here was the unlucky bit…
… He’d already, kind of, known that. And, while he’d have loved to pick apart this idiosyncrasy with his tutor’s input, Mu’d had ample sense to gather things between Futo and youkai were, to risk tiring a cliché, a little like a house on fire. Warm, mesmerising to look at – but, at the end of the day, either the fire or the house were out of commission. Mu could no more involve Futo than he was ready to unleash her on someone – some-youkai – too dear to him to trade for even the prettiest light show.
Yes, even now. Yes, even if he understood he’d never truly understood her. Yes, even if she’d booted him out to the street in the wee hours of the morning, bidding him never to speak to her, ever again.
Might be, mused Mu, swapping the sugarcane to the other cheek, that the luck Futo had shared with him had been fed, inadvertently, into something else. Say, getting the naïve youkai of darkness – who looked, outward, no older than twelve – to talk about her sexual encounters. How some luckyclever bastard of a man had gotten her to drop her panties and spread her legs. How the small, blond youkai had been screwed, come inside, finger-banged, then screwed again under a dumb pretext – yet, managed to orgasm no less than thrice throughout due to how good her partner had been at finding and molesting her G-spot.
In blunt, it had made Mu jealous.
Attaching physical age to a youkai from their appearance was, yes, not unlike dating a car you were pondering to buy by the state of its paintjob. It might smell fresh off the assembly line; inside, though, the milometer could be poised to run over the zeroes. Rumia’s age may well count in dozens, perhaps hundreds of human years. But, the sheer, immoral picture of that tiny body yielding to sexual pleasure had torn at Mu’s mental restraints. It’d made his neighbour down below remember, with a jolt and a kick, how long he’d been forced to lie idle. It had made Mu on up regret, for hours afterwards, that he hadn’t offered to teach the little youkai girl all about that special place the bad man had teased with his “thingie,” but never explained.
It’d made that same Mu realise, later in bed, that he’d had no downright issue separating cheating from a simple fling.
It was, in a comfortably non-specific phrase, a bit troubling. A bit more troubling was the knowledge that a night’s sleep hadn’t fully washed away the quiet hope to meet Rumia again… and complete the fantasy.
He spat the half-mulched sugarcane. Sweets and sex (or lack thereof) were doing the realm of Inner Mu no good. Something else would have to fill in the breaches in his diet. Something soft and green and white. Something in the sky.
Soga Tojiko proved as steady as… something that was a thousand years dead and not about to change. At the first limen of the Crown Prince’s Sun entering its zenith, the pear-shaped, legless form of Futo’s daughter coalesced above the temple. A wisp of smoke snaked out to become Tojiko’s arm, which grasped toward the midday Sun in a manner that may, were this another kind of story, have meant no one would ever need to wear sunglasses again.
Mu dumped the porridge down his gullet. Then placed the empty bowl atop the roof’s flat ridge. The temple kitchens, opposite to variety foods, had no shortage of crockery; and, when somebody did find the bowl one day, it would make them for a right decent headscratcher. Mu had worked physical labour; he knew the blessing of a good headscratcher to punt around the back of the mind. It’d been the thin, scratchy line dividing boredom from absolute, raving insanity.
He eyeballed the distance between himself and Tojiko. Then, converting this to some proprietary, internal unit, he Damped his weight – and jumped.
Seconds later, ahead Tojiko’s underside provided a sudden (if potentially nice) end to his flight, the priest Winded his weight back to its usual. At the apex of the jump – that vertigo-inducing stop between rising and falling – he shut it off altogether – turning no heavier than a puff of dandelion parachutes.
It was not a perfect hover. Not even with a margin of error the width of Tojiko’s hips. Mu’s timing had been human, thus faulty; and, the basic co-relation of physics – negligible weight, large surface area – meant the tiniest breeze could tumble him all across the Sen-kai.
Gratefully, wind was part of Futo’s domain – not Lord Taishi’s.
Queasy from the violent Damping, Mu sucked in a therapeutic gulp of air. Then, he craned his neck at the ghost lady overhead.
“Hail Soga,” he intoned.
Tojiko rolled around with the grace of an award-winning swimmer. Or, to be pedantic about it, award-winning fly girl.
“Handai,” she replied.
Tojiko rolled her eyes. “… Mu,” she sighed.
Mu plied out a smile, capping off their unofficial routine. Soga Tojiko, who had refused to address him by any name until his second one had been bestowed by the Crown Prince, galled at the reminder that Mu had exceeded her expectation – and wormed up through the ranks into her ex-husband’s retinue. Mu made it, therefore – in the absence of higher ones – a point of pride to nudge that sore spot whenever they spoke. It was petty, futile and utterly blasted stupid.
And Tojiko went along with it every time.
Mu had run it through his mental faculty once, and the unanimous verdict of the assorted Mu-staff had been that Tojiko couldn’t have not taken this after her mother. Outward, there was nothing particularly Futo-like about Tojiko. Underneath the ghostly skin, however, there was no mistaking the genetic spill-over. The affinity for ribbing, the sharp wit, the quickness with which each resorted to their powers in a debate… even that sardonic eye-roll. Strip Tojiko’s assets, cut off her electricity supply, boil her down to bare bones, and – chances are – it might just look like if the same had been done to Futo.
“… Well?” prompted Tojiko, folding her arms under her generous (and un-Futo-like) bust. “What is it today that we shall… I want to say ‘verbally sodomise,’ but… What was the polite term, again?”
“‘Talk?’” ventured Mu.
Tojiko gave him the condescending stare of someone who didn’t “talk,” but “conversed.”
“‘Sodomise’ it is,” she decided.
“Would you take ‘lexically abuse?’”
Tojiko sniffed. “That is farther in Mononobe country than I’d have liked.”
Mu mirrored the arm fold – except, less breast. “‘Wordfully explore,’” he proposed.
“Now you are making words up.”
“Sodomising them, conceivably,” supposed Mu. He paused. Then cursed. “Confound you, Soga! You set this up!”
For the span of time it takes a Tojiko to smother an involuntary smile, Tojiko popped an involuntary smile. Then, not at all unpredictably, she smothered it under an ostentatious yawn. “You bore me already, Mu,” she told him. “Was that all? May I go back to contemplating existence, now? Hmm?”
Mu considered it. “… Before anything,” he said first of all, “could you steady me? I seem to be drifting.”
Tojiko gave him an incredulous look. “Were you ever planning on learning to fly properly?”
“Men aren’t meant to live in the sky, Tojiko.”
The ghost lady raised her lush (and Futo-like) brows. Then compressed them into a silken frown. “… Was that a stab at my sex, or my state?”
Mu couldn’t wrestle back a grin. There were days in his life when he believed Tojiko was the one soul in the temple who understood him best. Then, there was the rest of the year. The ghost lady had the defined expression of someone who would precious rather their sex and state remain unstabbed – albeit did proffer a slim, pale hand, nonetheless. Mu gripped it – using the anchor to kill his stray movement.
He surprised, as always, at the distinct lack of deadness in Tojiko’s touch. Her skin was nowhere near corpselike. It wasn’t even cool. There was, at least above her waistline, nothing much about Futo’s late daughter that could be deemed especially ghostly. No bedsheet with jagged eyeholes. No dieting-Hollywood-actress-grade transparency. It had to be confessed Tojiko did pass through solid walls like nobody’s business, but… So did radio waves. And Mistress Seiga. The whole “dead for a millennium” thing more or less lost its gravitas once one gazed into Tojiko’s large, dark-green eyes – and saw nothing but life inside.
Marry to that the rest of her body exuding its own brand of vitality… and the earlier talk of sodomy… and Handai Mu had his question.
“… Are you human, Tojiko?”
A woman with a lesser content of Futo’s blood might have grabbed him and rolled him into an accordion. Tojiko only rolled her eyes. “I was human, once,” she allowed. “As was most every ghost, I should think. Or have you met a lot of dog ghosts? Horse ghosts? Flea ghosts, perhaps?”
“But are you human now?” Mu pushed on. “Yes, you were one, and you are a ghost now. Yet you look humanly enough. Are you, still?”
Futo’s daughter flicked her free hand, as if shooing off a ghost fly. “That would rest heavy on the definition we accept, would it not? What is a human, at its base? A furless beast that walks on two feet?” Tojiko scoffed. “Great many things we may qualify as human, then. Chicks, those miniature dragons from Jirando, Mononobe… You, however—” here she gave him a thin smile, “—would barely make the pass. Try though you fain might with these latest changes…”
Mu let that make its own pass. “Lord Taishi teaches,” he pointed out instead, “that our desires are what shapes our humanity.”
“That old precept,” scoffed Tojiko. “Yes… I do imagine humans comprise the only beasts who stick leaves in their water to make it taste better. Or murder their young for no good reason.”
“But that would make you human, too,” argued Mu. “This is why you are here. Your lingering attachments. Those desires that didn’t let you to—”
Ahead even the words left his lips, Mu knew he had made a poor prick.
All the muscles inside his arm – from the tips of his fingers to the ball of the shoulder – cramped all at once as Tojiko speared it with electricity. A lance of vicious, searing pain flashed in Mu’s brain… before the arm turned into a numb, stony weight hanging off the right side of his body.
Tongues of black smoke seeped from Tojiko’s contorted mouth. The air around her crackled.
“I am here,” she hissed, “because Mononobe could not unlive her past mistakes. I am here, because Mononobe could not face down eternity with a reminder of her failures at her side! That is why!”
Mu prised open his jaw. The right slope of his neck prickled. “… When I let go… of what I am,” he quoted, “I become… what I might be.”
“THAT OLD PRECEPT!” shrieked Tojiko, her resonant voice cracking like a sheet of ice.
And it was then, when Mu expected most to find out what Mystia’s yakitori felt like, that Tojiko’s thunderous mood swung around.
Futo’s beautiful, dead daughter snapped her eyes shut, and spat out the final wisp of ethereal smoke. Her anger bled; and Tojiko peered, longingly, skyward, at a point on the Sen-kai’s firmament.
Always the same point. Had he been more curious and less in pain, Mu would have wondered what it was she saw there.
Tojiko turned back to regard him with the same, blasé unconcern which had opened up their meeting. “… Tell me, better,” she sighed, “how your courtship is coming along.”
Mu hesitated. “… Which one do we refer to, here?”
And there it was once more. The Mononobe/Soga eye-roll. “Oh, please,” begged Tojiko. “All within the palace have seen you and Mononobe founder again and again to contain yourselves. Or do you not… aid each other in the baths? Or steal into each other’s chambers, half-clothed and a-blush? Tell me this, Handai Mu.”
“… Me and Futo aren’t courting,” said Mu, steadily.
“No?” Tojiko faked a gasp. “My word. But Mother dear is so skilled! What a terrible waste you are making. Are you positive you do not want a go?”
Handai Mu steeled his gaze. “Futo is my sister,” he said.
Tojiko returned it. “So?”
There was a discreet and keen impression that Futo’s daughter was alluding to something very specific. Mu chose not to follow.
“Had I to court anyone,” he said instead, “I’d sooner it were you, Tojiko.”
Tojiko laughed. It would have hurt – if it weren’t such a pleasing sound. “Me?” she said. “Oh, you and Mother are a match! Insane both. Why-ever me, Handai Mu?”
Mu forged out a smile. “I love how mannered you are.”
“Mannered? I should think I am everything except.”
“Ah—” said Mu, “but it takes especial manners to imply I’m screwing your mother and remain so very polite about it.”
Tojiko, actually, seemed taken aback for a blink.
Then, that was gone; and Futo’s provocative daughter shrugged her overburdened shoulders.
“Give in or hold out, Handai,” she told him; “I am but dead, and do not discriminate. It does not matter to me which way it goes. I win, one way or the other.”
“Win what?” asked Mu.
Soga Tojiko shaped an angelic smile. “My… How did you say? Lingering attachments? Those, of course. Speaking of, however—” She eyed their still-joined hands. “… Say, Handai Mu. How does one tell somebody to ‘bugger off’ in your father language?”
Mu brightened, sensing familiar country. “Oh,” he began, “it’s—”
“Shush,” Tojiko silenced him; “don’t say it. Imagine I did.”
And then, ahead Mu could explain that, no, for real, it was the damnedest thing, because the etymology had its radices in a folk story which no one remembered these days, but which visited on tongues anyway through sheer, blind perpetuation, Tojiko flung him at the ground.
Selfish thinking, and little else, saw him twist his feather-light body about to take the impact onto his deadened arm. Once it came, Mu Winded his weight, and rode it into something that may, from an oblique enough angle, be called a gymnastic roll.
The priest stood up in the palace temple’s courtyard, dust settling down around him, and peered up again where from he’d fallen. Tojiko had vanished from the Sen-kai’s sky. So had a bite out of Mu’s self-esteem. The feeling in his right arm hadn’t returned, but it would; and Mu wasn’t ready to wager he would at all enjoy that. His grey, outing cloak was dirty. His innards wanted out.
On balance, Handai Mu filed it as a gain.
There was a piece of wisdom, sooner or later acquired by intelligent people, which said never to let others recognise your mental landscape didn’t comprise nine parts butterflies and one part next meal. Tojiko wasn’t dumb; she hadn’t needed to spell out for Mu that he and Futo had been reckless, nor that she’d covertly checked whether his weight had still been Damped before she’d thrown him from the sky.
Most of all, Tojiko hadn’t needed to say out loud that death was a small thing – and that, wherever his Way took him, he could never meet a worse end than that which Futo’s daughter was locked in now. And, even if he did, and if Tojiko was there to tease him about it…
Then that, further, meant life was scarier by half than its inevitable sequel.
Cradling his insensate arm (and rather sensitive pride), Mu went inside to fetch Futo.
“Subtlety” was not a word which featured much in Mononobe Futo’s Great Book of Featured Words. “Subterfuge” was there, as was “subversion” and the odd “subtext;” yet, on the whole, Mu’s lovely tutor rode at the forefront of her little stratagems.
For Myouren-ji, there was to be no exception; and Futo’s plan, which she’d explained in the course of their short flight from the Sen-kai’s slip-gate, was simplicity itself. Mu, who would pose as a prospective supplicant, was to enter the rival temple’s grounds and distract one or more of the head priestess’s youkai lackeys. No more than three were capable of battling Futo on equal terms; and, with such diversion, Mu’s tutor, who very well may – but very well didn’t want to – combat all of Myouren-ji’s guardians at once, would be able to divide and conquer in her assault.
“What’d you intend to do while I’m in there?” Mu had asked, once Futo had set them both down under some trees, a minute’s walk away from Myouren-ji’s front gates.
She’d swatted at him absently, straightening her hat, which had tipped askew after a kiss with an errant branch. “The field of battle reconnoitring,” she’d replied. “Iwis winter-time hath these environs from our previous duels changed. I’ll ill to be knocked down some sinkhole fancy. Shouldest you more than fifteen minutes need, Mu brother?”
Mu hadn’t raised the issue of her excitement colouring her language. “Twenty,” he’d rather said. His heat-Winded breath steamed in the frigid air. “Give me twenty, and I’ll have had chance aplenty to talk at least one to sleep.”
“So be it.”
All the loose points of the plan at last pinned, Futo had risen on her tiptoes and kissed her brother’s cheek. She’d smacked the kidney area of his back – let him smack hers in turn – and taken off again for the Winter sky. Mu had waited till the period of obtrusiveness was gone. Then, he tore out of the brush, and onto the road which ran from the human town, through its orchards and its grain fields, and came to a weary rest on Myouren-ji’s gates.
Myouren-ji. The place was baffling. For the town’s humans, it was said, the Buddhist temple was an alternative to the youkai-infested Shinto shrine of Hakurei and the expectation-heavy Sen-kai of Toyosatomimi Miko. Certainly, it was closer the town’s walls – in conventional terms, anyway – than either of the other two; and yet, to claim it was lesser on youkai threat or lower in requirements struck the discerning seeker of religion as nonsense.
Myouren-ji was just as dangerous – and just as demanding – as its competitors. But it was closer – which, Mu figured, was enough for some people. Of course, for some people, a spoon of sugar was enough to make any medicine go down.
Winter had chased even those chary souls indoors, and Mu had the whole width of the road to himself as he neared the Buddhist dwelling. Through the tree line, which sequestered the temple from the open fields, he might catch glimpses of the main building: a large, oblong hump, or dome, reminiscent of a beached boat, flipped around on its business side. Some, who had been in Gensokyo longer than Mu, spoke as if the temple was a boat – that it had been used to carry the Acharya, Hijiri, into the realm, then landed and repurposed to serve as her home.
The same storytellers could never explain how the ship had remained navigable inside after being turned upside-down. Or, for all that, why it had been at all.
Mu strode past the gate into the temple grounds; and here, too, the Winter lull was in harsh (lack of) evidence. A handful of black-robed supplicants was milling about the enclosure, yes. None had paid attention to his arrival, however; nor was the gatekeeper youkai, who should, reportedly, stand watch, there to protract his entrance. The priestess Hijiri was nowhere in a stone’s throw, which was to the good; and there were but two other figures present altogether that halted Mu’s surveying eye.
A woman in a long, navy habit danced in the middle of the yard. Her sandals scuffed across the cold sand, perfectly tracing a four-leaf mandala, even as her arms swished through a series of elaborate katas. In her hands, however, the woman wielded not blades – but a pair of polished, golden hoops, no wider than a large plate. Mu didn’t need to guesswork to realise the woman was a youkai; even if he hadn’t recognised her from the duels for the Mask of Hope, the fact she wore no socks in this, toe-snapping weather was a cold, dead giveaway. That, then, he noted inside, was one.
The second mark was seated on the veranda of a housing complex tucked away, along the fence, to the left of the main sanctuary. Were one to believe the trickle of rumours that had filtered into Miko’s Sen-kai, the complex had been commissioned by Hijiri near the end of the Summer, following another of Futo’s attacks, which had then left a section of the capsized-ship-building short of a roof. As for the youkai now keeping watch over its vacant flowerbeds, her short-sleeved naval rig, sailor’s cap and a skirt that shied of the middle of her thighs spoke volumes of how little the youkai of Myouren-ji cared not to make their human brethren feel vulnerable to the elements.
That, then, was two.
Out of usance, a dumb mannerism, Mu joined his sleeves on his stomach. He divorced them as soon as the next bright thought. Futo had sent him to infiltrate the Buddhist temple in the guise of an applicant; priestly gestures, like his, could quickly put a hole in the cover. Futo would have been put out.
… But there was something that Futo couldn’t know; and this something was that being sent among youkai – youkai with regular human contact – aligned well with Handai Mu’s own, deeply personal goals. He would give Futo the distraction she wanted, no mistake. But he would give it in his own Way.
(x) The busty nun. Both of them should have interesting answers to Mu's interrogation, but interrupting Ichirin then possibly drawing Murasa's attention to the conversation would probably be best as a distraction. Might be harder to do that the other way around.
And, what was useful on any Way, were well-functioning legs.
Whatever other reasons may have yanked his sails in that direction, Mu flushed them down a mental drain. Hood up over his (awkwardly) hatless head, the priest (incognito) edged along the fence for the housing complex, where the legs sailor youkai was idling the afternoon away.
His entire right flank crawled with goose-bumps when the dancing nun’s attention caught onto his passing. Mu marched on determinedly, nevertheless. He wasn’t about to be the doe that attempts to outstare the headlights of a speeding eighteen-wheeler with a caffeine-addled Parisian behind the wheel; if anything was his spirit animal at that moment, it was the boar that splits out of the roadside brush and causes a five-mile pileup that’ll take the rest of the week and the lives of the insurance firm’s stockholders to clear up. It redressed him, for once, to be bull-headed (or boar-headed, anyway); and the busty nun danced on with all the dispatch of religious performance.
No such success with the other youkai. Mu had no sooner come closer than the average length of an eighteen-wheeler than the sailor-capped head swung abeam, swathing him in the full attention of a pair of bright and sea-green eyes. The sailor youkai’s mouth slipped into an amiable smile as she uncrossed and re-crossed her legs.
“Hoy there, Commodore!” she called out to the hooded Mu. “What would you like?”
Handai Mu anchored himself short of admitting he’d quite like a number of things, and bore up into the teal stare.
That gave occurrence to two things. To bow, he realised this just about marked the extent of his nautical vocabulary (save, perhaps, the trans-oceanic “ahoy”). To stern, that the youkai on the veranda was rather pleasantly attractive. Not in the classical sense, say, Tojiko was. This one was a trifle strong in the tomboy department, and seemed to live by a calendar full of nothing but leg days. But her smile was a veritable trove of sociability. Most youkai which Mu had met had given him the feeling they were enormously new to this “having a conversation” thing – like an old Polynesian seeing a family of tourists and their pet dog for the first time. Instantly, Mu had a clear impression this Polynesian had seen dozens of families on vacation – and had it on very good experience their pet dogs weren’t, in fact, along as packed lunch. So, he didn’t ask.
Mu spread his arms, while he approached, in the universal gesture meant to display he wasn’t carrying any arms or small dogs anywhere on his person.
“Was wondering,” he made his call back, “whether someone could maybe give me a tour.”
The youkai regarded him with a faint hint of surprise. “Are you looking to sign up?”
“Something like that,” granted Mu.
“… Huh,” she replied.
For a moment, the sailor girl considered Mu. For a moment, Mu considered her. At the end of this cross-examination, once Mu had reasoned out short hair and toned calves weren’t half bad either, he recognised also and over-late that the youkai had been sizing up his three dantians.
“… Pardon me, Skipper,” she said, her face a study in forbearance, “but you don’t feel in need of spiritual help.”
Mu, once more, did his earnest to be the boar and not the doe. “Wait—” He furrowed his brows. “Have I just been demoted?”
Another smile pulled at the edges of the sailor youkai’s lips. “Ah, no—” she chuckled, “—no, no, no. I didn’t reckon you for a maritime man, anyhow. Not enough surf in your voice. I’m merely throwing out terms. Seeing which sticks. It’s a pastime. Nothing deeper, on that assumption. My point, though, floats on.”
Mu scrunched up his wits. “I’ve, uh, dabbled,” he lied with priestly speed. “A trip up the ropeway to Moriya here, a few coppers to the Hakurei there. Helps for old age, they said.”
“Can’t speak for old age,” said the youkai, swimming under the jab; “never been there, never will. Soul-wise, though… That it would do. Well, I don’t mean to spit in sister Byakuren’s oatmeal—” here, she swapped her legs around again, “—but Myouren-ji will belike disappoint you, Captain. We aren’t for prepping for old age as much as we’re for foiling it altogether. Sister Byakuren won’t tell it in so many words, but that’s the long short. This is a temple for those with three sheets to the wind. You get? Those in deep six.”
“I think I get,” said Mu. “Well, see here, er… What was your name, again?”
“Ack, pooped—” The sailor youkai clicked her tongue. “Where’re my manners? Minamitsu. Murasa Minamitsu – as in the peach and the ship. Yes, I know. No need to tire it.”
Mu had to scoff. So, he did. “Oh, I wit that pain,” he assured her. “They called me Handai Mu.”
Minamitsu positively chortled. “How appropriate! Mu. Sister Byakuren would go whole nine yards to hear this. Handai, though… That’s Chinese. Isn’t it? Mu of Han dynasty?”
“Afraid it’s less… grand than that,” explained Mu. “Dai as in where you stand; Han, as in…”
“… None,” interpreted Minamitsu. “Without, No Foundation…” She blew off a heavy whistle. “I don’t envy after your school years, Captain. That is a serial killer’s name.”
Mu roughed out a shrug. “Accurate, if anything,” he confessed, “in ways I’ve learned of late aren’t always beneficial to talk about straight away.”
“Ooh. Mysterious.” The sailor youkai grinned. “Tell me more.”
The easy camaraderie with which she said it sucked a return smile out of the priest without even consulting his brain along the way. His booted feet, also, shuffled him closer almost on their own. Minamitsu watched his automatics with the whimsical expression of someone who’d taken a study of the baser side of man and emerged with a whole, new degree of tolerance. The sight of her seaweed-black hair streaming in the breeze might have been more Titanic-esque if the hair had been longer – or the breeze more powerful – but it framed nicely around her honest face anyway. Some hair had it; some didn’t. Minamitsu’s did in spades. Stumpy ones.
Indeed; in that moment of unsubtle scrutiny, Handai Mu sensed that any other kind of hair atop the sailor youkai’s head would have been… false, someway. Wrong. A defection from the truth lying at the bottom of the ocean of history. Mu had never learned the word for “eerie” in Gensokyo’s warbling tongue, which was a shame – because it would have been the perfect descriptor.
It was also, and nonetheless, the perfect reminder of what it was he was – and wasn’t – there for.
“… Truthfully,” he said, “I’m not here to enrol.”
Somehow, Minamitsu wasn’t too shocked. “Oh?”
“Truthfully,” repeated Mu, “I wanted to ask you some questions.”
The sailor girl’s eyes went innocently wide. “Me? Ole, little me, specifically?”
“You are youkai,” noted Mu. “Aren’t you?”
“And where do you fancy you’ve landed, Handai Mu?” teased Minamitsu. “After a fashion, of a kind, everyone of importance in Myouren-ji is a youkai. Our Bishamon is a youkai tiger; our guardian priestess is half-nyuudou; our head monk is a magician. There are no humans here who haven’t at least a bitter end on youkai land.”
“And you?” Mu wanted to know. “Are you important?”
Minamitsu spread her hands in humility. Then, she laughed, and said, “Yes – every bit I can be. I ferried sister Byakuren out of Hell. I steered us to Gensokyo. I landed us in these parts, where we’ve now tied our moors. That counts for something around here, as you’ll imagine.”
Mu imagined. “A youkai, then,” he gathered.
“After a fashion, of a kind,” granted Minamitsu, “by dint of technicality, the scuttlebutt. Is that in any worth relevant to those questions?”
“Quite,” promised Mu.
“Then, Captain,” determined the sailor girl, “I might be able to humour you.” She propped her elbows on her knees, and her chin – in her hands. “Ask away.”
Ahead he could, a black-gowned supplicant turned out of a nearby door. He saw Mu, opened his mouth… then blinked in a relieved way as he caught Minamitsu sitting with him. A furtive nod to the fellow shaven-headed man, and the monk hurried on down the veranda to some urgent, monky business. Mu shook his coconut out of the distraction.
“What is it, then,” he asked the long-legged sailor, “that you youkai do here?”
All line officer’s patience, Minamitsu sighed, “What does, anyone in any temple, do, Captain? We pray, we fast, we listen when sister Byakuren proselytises. We say our mantras and observe the Noble Eightfold Path. We receive gifts and words from visitors, and give our wisdom in return. Myouren-ji is a temple first, a youkai haven later. In this, we aren’t far from the likes of Toyosatomimi or Moriya.”
“And afterwards? After the mantras and fasting?”
“Afterwards, everyone does what everyone likes. Sister Byakuren doesn’t slave us to the temple. Unlike some.”
Mu let that slide. “And you? What do you like to do?”
“Stories,” Minamitsu declared. “Stories are what I like to do. Telling, hearing – makes no matter. I’m always down for stories.”
Mu raised a mocking brow. “Stories?” he repeated. “Are those not for children?”
Minamitsu reached out to punch him in the side – once more stunning the priest with her easy-going fellowship. Then, she smiled. “So we would think, we adults,” she did admit. “Until, at least, we were made to sail on the flat, open sea for more than four weeks going with nothing else to pass the latest watches. Stories can fill out time when all else is far away but your boatswain and your mates. When the sails are down and the ship rests at anchor, and the lanterns are all doused, and you can hear naught but the creaking of the beams and the silence of the ruthless sea below… stories may well be the last thing that stays you from going mad. All drowning men dream of dry land; and a drowning man, we liked to say, is merely one who hasn’t yet breathed his last breath.”
“… Memento mori,” said Mu.
Minamitsu peeked up. “What’s that?”
“Remember death,” the priest translated. “A rote greeting in religious communities in places around Europe. Means to live day-by-day and not to attach too close to past mistakes or earthly belongings – because death takes both in the end. Remember, you will die – but, also, live before then. Something like your ‘drowned man’ saying.”
“Mm. Yes. I suppose.” Minamitsu looked aside. Then, she gave a short, nostalgic chuckle. “Yes, they did tell me that for the first time after I’d got knocked overboard by an unmoored barrel. That stands to sense. Weird that I’d forgot… Or, maybe I’d had too much salt water in my ears. Any way you rope it, stories were my food then. They are my food now. All that’s changed is I hear them from visitors, rather than my crew. This fat tub—” she swung an arm vaguely toward the main sanctuary of Myouren-ji, “—has come to port. Who can say if she shall sail out again? That is why, Handai Mu, I’m biding my time. Standing watch. Listening to stories. Fearing inside,” she added, voice fading to a whisper, “that I may yet again have to take to the cruel sea…”
There was a long silence, which even Mu’s inner boar felt it would have been inadequate to break short. At its tail-end – or butt-end, or foot-end, or whatever silences had – Minamitsu breathed in, sharply – almost like a swimmer who’d been under for several minutes and finally broke the surface.
“Wow!” the sailor youkai gasped, with raw self-deprecation, “would you listen to this old sea-hog ramble! ‘Course, I’m an outlier,” she resumed; “that is, in terms of youkai and their pastimes. I’ve been at this one very, very long. Most others you might ask, Captain… I dare say you would hear simpler answers. Take Ichirin, there, for an instance.”
Mu followed Minamitsu’s index finger to the nun dancing on the mandala out in the yard. Her habit had slipped off her head; and a modest ponytail was now whipping in the wake of the dancer’s flowing steps.
“What do you reckon?” asked Minamitsu.
Mu quit thinking back to someone else’s ponytail. “… She looks very skilled,” he opined.
“How long, in estimate, she’s been at this? To your eye?”
“There’s months of practice in there,” he guessed. “At least.”
But the sailor youkai lowered her hand. “A week,” she said. “That’s how long. This is her eighth day. You get?”
“But that’s—” Handai Mu frowned. He glanced again at the dancing nun. Her moves were smooth and with no ready flaws… despite the hefty ballast. “… She’s crazy skilled, then.”
“Outrageously,” agreed Minamitsu. “I’m the seaman here – and my footwork isn’t half that steady. But did you know the plagueyest thing? This won’t last till the next moon. No wherry’s chance in a storm.”
“How do you figure?”
A trace of distaste… or some other, secret loathing… curled the edges of Minamitsu’s lips. “… Because, see,” she said, gloomily, “our dear Ichirin is only doing this for a human. There’s been this… girl. You get? Coming here from that there town, putting a fire under Ichirin’s stove about this jigging business. Oh, I’ll warrant you, they look like the time of their lives when they’re together, prancing about, swapping notes and such. When this girl stops coming, though… which she will; there’s an ugly shift in the wind… Once she stops coming, it won’t be sooner another week than Ichirin will have thrown it all overboard. Then, it’ll all be back to old sails. Old tat. Old habits. Hah.”
Minamitsu snorted at her own joke, without any real mirth.
Handai Mu peered sidelong at the top of the sailor girl’s head, which, earmarks were, contained a whole ocean of feelings and opinions the rest of Myouren-ji’s staff, Mu rather suspected, was unlike to condone. Quaintly – and somewhat counter to his immediate goals – he found himself astride the beginnings of a less than innocent interest. Minamitsu wasn’t instantly magnetic; at least, not polarised in such a way that kick-started his turbines, like onesome other youkai he had met were. But her outspokenness – combined with the devil-may-care attitude for showing off huge swathes of skin – accounted for the exact brand of idiosyncratic attractiveness which reminded Mu of those women of whom he was already deeply fond. By association, it seemed, Minamitsu was getting towed along.
He shelved the implications of that thought for later never. Then cleared his throat.
“… Is that,” he asked, “an Ichirin thing, or…?”
Minamitsu laughed again – with enough outspokenness to make a turbine do a half-turn. “Still answering your question, Captain,” she said. “It’s not just an Ichirin thing; it’s a youkai thing. Ichirin isn’t the sole afflicted. We’re all… like that. Look anywhere in Gensokyo; you’ll belike find any number of youkai playing at being human. Myouren-ji… We are no different. So, in short,” she concluded, “and to give you an oar-straight answer. We do whatever happens on our hands. Or, whatever the humans mire us in. Ichirin wants to dance; I want to have meandering conversations. Shou has hankered after baubles and trinkets as long as we’ve taken them in offerings; even sister Byakuren had a brief voyage with masonry while those earth spiders were here last Summer.”
“But when that wind peters out—” said Mu, casting once more at the swishing nun.
“—Then,” picked up Minamitsu, “it’s easy to forget. To revert.”
“And when that happens…” Mu swam on.
“There are always fall-backs. When those fail, we lapse back to our purpose. And when a youkai forgets even that…”
Then, they die went unsaid.
Mu paddled around this conversational whirlpool. “… What are those fall-backs, then?” he asked, instead.
“And what do humans fall back on,” Minamitsu bounced the question around, “when they aren’t braining themselves on how better to copper-bottom their boats?”
“Surviving, most often,” said Mu. “It’s kind of reverse for humans. It is when we’re done being busy surviving that we go on to copper-bottom things.”
“So? What is it that you do, for that end?”
“We build homes for warmth.” Mu shrugged. “We hunt, or plant fields, for food. If we can do neither… we find ways to mooch off of those who can.”
Minamitsu gave a knowing nod. “Animal instincts.” She said it without derision, rather as a base reality. “Warmth and feed, water and comfort. But it goes a few yards farther once you’ve settled down, does it not? Once your existence is ensured? You begin to seek tastes, impressions… or how to avoid them. But, even those are your animal roots. Have you heard of Bossou?”
Minamitsu smiled. “An island. But close. It was someplace west of Africa, last I heard of it. It’s a worn anecdote; it might have gone elsewhere in the meanwhile. At any rate, stories would have it, there is a tribe of monkeys native to the island that has, for generations and generations now, been drinking a specially fermented sort of palm sap. Some might venture, they even use an odd leaf off a local plant as a spoon. And they get roaring drunk on the stuff.”
Mu saluted his respect. “Cheeky monkeys.”
“Cheeky indeed,” Minamitsu agreed. “But, Captain, this is my point. This goes to show. There are things you humans are all, inside, inclined to do. You took it after monkeys. And we, youkai, took it after you. Warmth and feed are fine. That yard farther, though, there are even better things. Alcohol, stories, more intricate foods, music, games…”
“… Sex?” suggested Mu.
Minamitsu’s head snapped up to give him a look that, the priest fancied, must have been the same he had worn near the start of their heart-to-heart. The look of a young rabbit caught out in the middle of a four-lane at rush hour. Contrary to his madcap escape, however, her youkai’s instincts swiftly recognised the safest place to be in such straits would usually be right down the middle, on the stripes – which the whirring, metal boxes didn’t seem to dare cross.
“… Wow, Captain,” the sailor youkai whistled, nevertheless. “No beating around the bush with you, huh?”
Mu slid a hand along his shaven skull. “Bushes and I are on war terms, which you see.”
Minamitsu graced the lame (and probably unshod) joke with a small chuckle. Then – distractedly and without an overt effect – she drew a lock of her oil-black hair behind an ear. “Mm. Yes, well… That isn’t wrong. Sex happens, too. It is a basic vice; any youkai with enough self-awareness can belike enjoy it. Some might have more difficulty finding it, is everything.”
“Not you, though?”
With a sailor’s honesty, Minamitsu sighed, “This is a Buddhist temple. It’s a home of youkai. You’d be shocked at how much sex I don’t get out here. We do crew a number of very nice men… but they are very nice Buddhist men. Stiffer than ironwood, those – and not in a good way, either. And, if sister Byakuren heard I was sharing a bunk with one of her devotees…” She hugged her bare stomach and shuddered. “I love sister Byakuren as I loved my shipmates. I do, on my name. But she must learn from this mistake, soon or late. When you parade all these humans before so many youkai… Accidents hang upon the red string.”
Mu considered his next question very carefully. Then didn’t.
“… What would it take to have sex with you?” he wanted to know. “For someone not from here?”
Minamitsu blinked up at him. “… No bushes?” she asked. “Not even one?”
The priest jogged his shoulders. To which the sailor youkai issued a plaintive sound.
“Oh, Captain…” she moaned. Then, she switched her legs around. Mu let his attention have a short break – until her slightly pained voice jostled it back upright. “… A nice dinner and a decent drink,” she resolved. “I’m no hygiene freak – nor stranger to a bit of sweat – but I should also prefer there was a bath somewhen in your week. And you had best know how to use your fingers if you can’t go a second round. Also-also, not a peep about my legs. You get?”
Handai Mu peeked again at Minamitsu’s thighs, which contained enough sinew for an all-string orchestra, and forbore to comment.
“That’s… simple,” he noted, instead, inwardly congratulating himself on the rather diplomatic synonym for “easy.” “A dinner date. I’ve found women to have… taller hurdles.”
“I’m a youkai, Captain,” Minamitsu said, exasperated. “Those things go a long way for me. I can’t cook; I can’t go traipsing into the Human Village without undue spectatorship. I make a mean cider, but apples from the fields go either to Winter stocks or to presses in town. I’d do nigh-on anything for a bottle of plum wine or whisky. Same for food. I’d give a lap dance for a side of beef. I’ll leave my porthole open at night if you get me a pig and a barrel of salt. You own a farm? I’ll dodgasted marry you.”
It was a discriminating moment ahead Mu had inferred this wasn’t a vivid daydream, but a real, human (well, youkai) voice propositioning him with sexual favours in exchange for food. It turned quite incriminating once Mu remembered he’d been the one to bring topic about. There were some serious ethical and theological ramifications in there, which the priest was seriously glad to sidestep altogether – on account of his purely scientific persuasion.
“Unnn—” he drawled his reply, “—fortunately… I’m no landed lord.” Might become, if I ever wed the Crown Prince, filled in his imagination. “And, I haven’t any meat on me.” This time, anyway, added his conscience. Then, so as not to leave the sailor girl completely dry, his stupidity chimed in, “Although, I do have this.”
And his hand dug into his grey cloak, out producing the stick of sugarcane he’d not had the appetite to finish at breakfast. With natural ease, Minamitsu readjusted the focal angle of her eyes to the object in Mu’s hand, which enabled said eyes to interpret the particles/waves of light rebounded off its surface and transfer the information, through electro-conductive tissue, into the fluffy folds of her brain. Nature had gone to a lot of evolutionary trouble to let the sailor girl know the object was, in fact, a stick of sugarcane.
She said as much. “Sugarcane?”
Mu gave a smile, which he hoped was more encouraging than villainous, and Minamitsu took the sweet. Her superbly evolved eyes lit up with a primal spark when she put the end between her lips.
“Good?” asked Mu.
“Wow,” she said.
“It’s Chikusha cane,” explained the priest. “Or, it might have been Chikusho,” he speculated; “the guy what I nicked it from told me both words. Well—” He scoffed. “Screamed, really.”
Minamitsu gave him a nasty look. “Jolly,” she obliged. “No, but it is good. Sweeter than sugar itself.”
“Ah, they do make this into sugar,” recalled Mu. “Wasabon, methinks the variety was called. Something of a delicacy, I am told. And blasted expensive.”
For another minute, Minamitsu sucked contentedly on the treat, holding onto it with the fingers of one hand, while her other was squeezed between her stacked thighs. The sight roused Mu’s hindbrain from its power nap, prompting it to suggest that, had the hand been his, then he and Minamitsu could enjoy a much nicer conversation. It rode the ensuing aftershock all the way to its upper counterpart’s speech centres, and ahead Handai Mu may catch and summarily execute the traitorous presence within his skull, it hijacked his tongue.
“… So,” he heard himself saying. “What would this earn me?”
And the rabbit called Minamitsu got almost run over. Mu wrested for control of his face while a brief (and, he felt, not wholly voluntary) once-over startled the sailor’s eyes down his front. When he did, finally, regain the commander’s seat behind his forehead, Minamitsu was bolt upright on her feet.
“Captain?” she said to him. “Can we talk indoors, please let’s?”
And then, rather than wait, she took off along the veranda for the door the Buddhist supplicant had exited earlier. Mu followed, while he put out the small fires on his mental pulpit.
Indoors turned out shaded, warm, and smelled of candlewax smoke. Minamitsu shut the door closed behind them, and the priest and the youkai found themselves in a silent, wood-lined hallway. At either side, rows of other doors led into separate rooms. No one was padding down the hallway with their head full of ears and their mouth full of water, which was just as well. For then, Minamitsu said,
“I’ll blow you.”
Handai Mu rounded on the sailor girl with a mask for a face. Which all faces were, when Mu thought about it, in a way; only, this one had grown particularly rigid. When he saw Minamitsu leaning with her butt against the door, tipped forward, a creamy abyss for a neckline, something else mistook the same impulse and began to draw in blood.
Mu tilted his head with priestly self-discipline. “You’ll…?” he started – not quite decided how to end.
Minamitsu let go of a giggle that could have put a blush on a lesser man’s cheeks. “Come, now,” she complained. “Going to make me explain?”
“… I am not the quickest horse,” said Mu. “More of a mule, actually.” Which was not far from the truth.
Minamitsu gave him a long, scalding, and not at all innocent stare. “… Cheeky monkey,” she whispered, borrowing that term. “I’ll blow you. Scrub your mast. Mouth-stuff, you get? Sink me, you’re lucky I’ve a weakness for bold boys like you.”
Minamitsu licked her lips. “… Yeah. You remind me.”
Mu moved his jaw to drive the question on. Wisely, he clamped it closed just as soon.
A furtive smile was hovering around the edges of the sailor’s mouth. It was the sort of smile that sits on the edge when you are talking, feigning the minimum polite interest, and then, once you finish the thought, throws you down on said couch and takes its impatience and frustrations out on your helpless body. Minamitsu must have scented his apprehension, because she used the sugarcane stick to peel down her lower lip, hinting that if they could substitute the treat with his “mast” then they could really enjoy themselves.
“So-o?” the shameless sailor wanted to know. “Ought we to find a room, Captain?”
( ) Wanted the lewd sailor’s mouth around his mast. ( ) Was asking for a friend. Because of a friend. A very close friend.
(X) Wanted the lewd sailor’s mouth around his mast.
Mu, candidly, could envisage smarter places to be than a youkai’s mouth. Japan, for example. The difference was, when he’d ultimately left Japan, he’d ended up by far more tired. That aside, Minamitsu was waiting his land ho – at first blush nibbling on the sugarcane, but also watching him from behind slightly upturned eyes. The stare must have gotten its figurative hands on Mu’s equally rhetorical bivouac field, because someone was pitching a very literal tent down in the area.
At length, Mu lapped up the necessary air, and – with the weight of responsibility such an admission licensed – said, “… I like rooms. Very private.”
Which was, from the I to the E, precisely the type of Insipid Joke that would have netted Mu a rendezvous with Futo’s foot and randez-worse from the other woman he’d used to Insipidly Joke at. There was a tittering laugh that attested it was the manner of joke Minamitsu had no grudge against and even wanted to hear.
The sailor youkai had a glint in her eyes generally displayed by those girls who have persuaded a man to conform with their whimsies, but who haven’t yet learned that a lot of men master the seemingly impossible skill of keeping a look-out for a girl’s eyes at the same time as her child-rearing bits.
“All right,” she said. Her lips sucked in in the remaining sugarcane and shaped a coy U. She pushed herself off the door, and began to walk, one foot firmly before the other – like someone who knew with microscope-lens clarity where it was they were bound. Minamitsu, in this case, was for that square of space in front of Mu which he would normally have called “personal,” but which – once he looked down – he was happy to lend to Minamitsu. Her slim, cool-fingered hands walked up the priest’s chest to rest atop his shoulders. “So…” she asked, in a conspirative whisper, “… Want to kiss? Ahead we get my mouth all filthy?”
Mu couldn’t help ribbing. “Would you like that?”
Minamitsu kneed him – in a friendly sort of way. “I’m not about to fellate a guy I haven’t even kissed, Captain.”
“That, I can empathise,” agreed Mu.
And then, having set his unexpended scruples adrift, the priest gripped around the sailor’s scantily-clad hips, and pressed them to his own.
Minamitsu tensed in mild surprise when the overcrowded front of Mu’s trousers was squished against her nude belly. A great wealth of her tension escaped, together with an inadvertent sigh, when Mu leaned down to brush his nose and lips along her exposed collarbones. Minamitsu’s skin was smooth, cool and dry, and stoked underneath with a body warmth that worked, even now, to reheat its exterior after the Winter chill outside. It did not, to Mu’s vague wonder, smell or taste of sea-salt. Neither did her neck – or her jaw, or even cheek, all along which he pecked tiny, suckling kisses, on his great journey toward Minamitsu’s lips. Those were ajar and damp from anticipation when he, at last, found them; and the knowledge of the imminent future, where they would be sliding wetly up and down his raring manhood, urged Mu on to pre-test their capacity with his tongue.
Minamitsu squirmed, moaning, under his hands when he slipped said tongue between her lips. And yet, once in the wake of the initial shock, the sailor girl seized on the gap Mu had left between their mouths – and closed it with noisy, messy, slurping relish. Her tongue wrapped half around his, and her arms looped behind his neck. Mu, forced to stoop, prised open his eyes, which – by geometric happenstance – were by then directly in front of Minamitsu’s.
Suddenly, Handai Mu felt a right humble priest indeed. Minamitsu’s sea-green eyes were shimmering with excitement. Her mouth was an engine room after hours of full speed ahead. Her tongue was as pushy as a cat after full-body rub-downs. Somewhere, in a less hot-wired part of his head, Handai Mu recognised that, as a youkai with an apparently lax approach to sex, Minamitsu’s chances of being less experienced than he were rather on the far side of remote. So, the thought told upon expansion, were Rumia’s. And, plausibly, Miss Cook’s. Handai Mu could about name one youkai excepting the rule… except, the risk of being woefully wrong drew him up short.
The thought shed its early casualties and journeyed onwards. Minamitsu might be fast and loose, but her body had its own, ineffable rigging. That included, plainly evidenced, startling when Mu slipped one of his hands down onto her thigh, then up and under her skirt. He squeezed the firm, ample buttock – half his fingers on bare skin and half – over the fabric of her panties. Minamitsu moaned around his tongue and into his mouth. She pulled away, managing to just about mumble, “Cheeky—” when Mu grabbed the other hemisphere of her butt and pinched both at once. With a vexed sound, but not about to give the lead, Minamitsu mashed their mouths back together. Mu gripped both her cheeks and spread them apart – then squished them against each other. He rubbed them together. He pushed them up, then let them fall, weightily, back into position. He let them eat up the back of the panties. Minamitsu didn’t cease coddling and sucking on his tongue – even while her ass was being toyed with under her skirt.
And then, emboldened (and aroused) past all restraints, Handai Mu began to pine after the next prize. He removed one hand from the sailor girl’s bullied rear, and brought it around, past her athletic thigh, to her groin. The front of Minamitsu’s panties was hot and pliant under his fingertips. Minamitsu herself was too absorbed, demonstrably, in the frantic Frenching to notice when the priest pinched and tugged the fabric of her underwear to the side. Her privates did, all the same, quiver in response when he slid his hand underneath them – dragging his longest finger down the sticky crevasse in the middle. It wasn’t at all difficult to feel out the slot between Minamitsu’s frilly lower lips. Mu enjoyed the sensation for a moment longer – then, he slipped the finger up between her hot, unresisting walls.
He’d just passed in the second knuckle and been about to start working out her G-spot (or pretend to) when Minamitsu’s own hand shot down and snapped around his wrist.
The lewd sailor youkai pulled her tongue out of his mouth, and his middle finger – out of herself.
“None of that,” she rebuked him – forcibly lifting the finger up to her face and licking it clean. “Just a blowjob! You get? And, for Byakuren’s sake, Captain,” she chided, “for real. Not here.”
Mu squared his brain and racked his shoulders for a reply; but, being low on oxygen and even lower on rationale, things mixed up for him somewhere halfway. And then, there was Minamitsu’s face. She wasn’t angry; if her eyes were manifesting anything, overtly, it was the lie beneath her words. Minamitsu did want to continue. The trouble part, of course, would come once they were discovered by Byakuren or one of her stiff-backed supplicants. And then, a fine couple of perverts they would look.
What was done to perverts caught in Myouren-ji was told by the other part of Minamitsu’s expression; and, by the warning flare, it could be something that features in a cheap, two-word-title horror film that goes on to amass an irrationally large following and gets seventwentysixteen sequels across the next few years. Then fades to obscurity.
Handai Mu didn’t want obscurity to be his final destination. He gave, therefore, a somewhat numb nod, and allowed Minamitsu – whose skirt was still hitched up on one side – to trawl him off to the first vacant room down the hallway.
Plus, as long as we're putting the Porn™ in a separate thread from this one (and there aren't any unfortunate interruptions from the above), it could be interesting to show both perspectives at once, with a post here describing the fruits of Futo's reconnaissance, and a separate post on /at/ detailing Murasa's exploits.
A new Sun was birthed in the skies overhead Myouren-ji. The Wind of the world surged in to fulfil her wish; it cradled the core of the new Sun – something her brother had once called plaz-mah – and grew, and grew, unto enormity. Futo strained at the chains of self-control. She was conversant enough with the arts to wit naught short of calamitous may interrupt the flow of Shui – of Water – exuded by the heretic temple. That did little aught for the thrill of violence in the offing.
The spirit of Okiku Tally-Plate had declined its aid. Futo had been patient – if down-hearted. From the day she had enshrined Tally-Plate’s treasures within the Sen-kai, Futo had sounded the death-knell of her partnership with the ancient spectre. Apprehended by the cadets, regaled by those with the tact not leave finger-grease all over the plates, Okiku had no longer a need – or lust – for Futo’s own company.
“I am taking tea, today,” the spirit had said, in its maudlin, sentimental voice, “with a wonderful man who said he would show me the loveliest platter I would lay my eyes on in Gensokyo. I daren’t stand him up, understand. After the lengths he went…”
In the end, Futo had broached a compromise. For agreeing to furnish the main sanctum with a discreet tea-drinking corner, Okiku would lend to her a saucer suffused with the spirit’s centuries of impotent wroth. Nowise the power they had wielded when in concord during the war for the Occult Orbs, it would loan an edge still to Futo’s arts, which may elsewise demand utmost focus and expenditure. It blazed now, like the molten heart of a forge, in its thong bassinet above Futo’s breast. The infant Sun raged in rhythm with it.
Futo flashed her tongue across her lips. Impatience stirred her internal humours about. It had been; from the previous day, Futo’s inner sea was a sea a-storm. This would be calmed, soon. Not by its fount; not by the means she would have more preferred. But Myouren-ji’s vile suppliants had ever made for good sport when other sports were out of reach.
Futo cut off her Wind. There was a precipitous pause when the Sun’s invisible skin closed over the pore wherethrough it had fed on the ambient air. To most, the Sun would have seemed mighty and complete; to Futo, who had listened to her brother rationalise everything and nothing for hours and hours, any thinner patch in the Sun’s arcane sheath might spell premature explosion. Time had been when Futo hadn’t thought to bother with minute details like these. Hours and hours spent listening to Mu’s scholarly jabber, however, had badly distorted her plain outlook on the world. Her brother had a Way of appending logic to things which should never have logic attached. Simple, elemental things. The Wind and the Water, the Tao, youkai and gods, a woman’s needs…
Her brother should get his logic screwed.
Futo hawked up a few filthy words, before whirling in mid-air. With a fierce, Wind-cased kick, she dispatched her miniature Sun at the almond-shaped shell of Myouren-ji, far below.
Shui buffeted her Sun as it descended on the temple. Half the previous hour, which she had permitted her oaf of a brother to perform his deception, had been scarcely so harrowing as the seconds the globe of flame had taken to halve its distance to the ground. These were naught again beside the tension between Futo’s ears when her Sun began to grate against the barriers of layered Shui. Another few heartbeats, and the churning fireball ground to an inexorable stop… and screamed as it was ripped down the middle by the contrarian flows.
And it was then that, from within the shrieking flames, the heart of the Sun – the untouched, virgin Feng – tore free of its dying womb. It zipped, die-straight, downwise at the noxious temple – and smashed, cleanly, through its domelike roof.
Futo saw the explosion ahead she heard it: a flash of starry white, succeeded by a spray of brown, wooden debris and a billow of wet, coal-black smoke. A mighty voice raised the cry into the air, which even Futo, high above, may hear: “Fire! Fire!” and panicked figures – tiny and antlike – began to spill out of the punctured Boddhist lair.
None made a shred of matter… less one, which, sooner than mill about in aimless alert, would launch sky-wise through the smoke, scenting the attack’s origin. Futo struck a dancer’s pose: one leg straight, as if readied for a pirouette, the other bent at the knee, even as she waited the figure to approach. The ancient shikai-sen hadn’t to strain her millennium-old eyes to see the colours resolve on the navy flaps and the white underlay; she hadn’t to free her senses to feel the pressure of directed fury.
She hadn’t to dig very deep to recall the name of Kumoi Ichirin.
The Boddhist youkai priestess sliced an enviable (if dishevelled) shape out of the frigid, Winter air. Albeit her expression could have cracked a mirror at twenty paces, what presented below was a woman’s body in its prime; Futo may well have called it “motherly” – if youkai had been capable of such nuances as motherhood. When she had shared in Ichirin’s physical sleeve, during her inquest of Perfect Possession some seasons prior, she had taken first-hand fill of what a human-turned-youkai was like, inside. A fragile soul of glass within a fortress of unnatural, steel-tough flesh.
But even steel would melt when the fire was hot enough. Futo grieved only that its pleasant form had to be wasted thus.
Ichirin stopped within a spear’s reach, red all over. “AGAIN?!” she shrieked, waiving even the cruder of Gensokyo’s autochthonic greetings. “You do this AGAIN?!”
And Futo waived hers. Her mouth stretched into an impudent grin.
“Nay with thy guardian this ‘noon?” she bantered, nodding her chin at Ichirin’s vacant shoulder.
Where her pink, cloud-like youkai companion would be, there now was naught but empty sky.
Ichirin spat. “Not with yours?” she shot back.
Futo sketched a shrug. “Who-ever mightest thou mean?”
“Your golden Prince,” snarled Ichirin, “who shall have to pick up the pieces after I’m through with you.” The youkai priestess gripped her chakrams. “Happy, turncoat?” she asked. “Let’s be about it. With or without Unzan, I can still break a plate.”
Futo’s grin warmed up, like a stone-lake garden on a Summer day.
This was it. That combat thrill. The nervous jitter in her hands. The grudging respect for the opponent before her. Futo’s blood throbbed inside her ears. This would not be the civilised duel Lord Taishi had fought with the realm’s shrine maiden protector at His awakening. It would be something else. A realer thing. Knees, brimstone and shattered porcelain. It was a clash of two beings – one foul, one divine – for whom a hammer-blow to the chest would have been considered a mere hint.
It was something her blood brother would have died to see.
Ichirin recognised the emotion bulging under Futo’s skin. She dropped into a combat stance. “And here I’d thought I could like you, despite all.”
Futo burst out laughing. “Fie, thy sentiments doth mutual—”
Ichirin’s fist slammed on the rest of the sentence.
Instinct and training in equal parts thrust Futo to Wind health when she felt a handful of teeth coming loose. Ignoring the disgusting sensation in her mouth, she rammed her knee up between Ichirin’s thighs. The youkai priestess simply broke her leg.
Agony overrode everything. All her more recent worries, all the tiny hurts and injustices she was suffering, flew away into unimportance. Futo desired all the health in the world, even while she twisted round to smash her other knee under Ichirin’s breastbone. This time, it earned her a splutter of pain.
The idleness of Lord Taishi’s domain. The frustrations of having – but not having – a brother. The misguided jealousy which distorted her relations with the students. Those were the subtle pains. The pits in her Way.
Futo cracked the heel of her palm on the side of Ichirin’s skull and saw her eyes roll back in their sockets.