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(X) The leggy sailor.
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 one some 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.