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This, newest acquaintance sealed – sealed away, if nothing else – Yamame Kurodani rethreaded her attention with more liquid matters.
Yamame’s human, once planted beside her on the bench, rotated one of the tankards handle-wise toward the spinstress, and pushed it out, until she grabbed at it and took it away. The drinks – and Yamame did not preclude a divine interference in this – had someway retained their full caps of hissing white foam, even throughout Paran’s loose interpretation of her advice. The drink beneath was a vivid brown of damp tree-bark. Yamame dipped an experimental finger in the foam. She licked it down. The taste, at first, was hoppy and bitter over all; but then, a sweeter after-note misted up inside her mouth, and Yamame’s enthusiasm was fully piqued.
Paran, who had watched her put these cautious steps forward, asked her from the side, “How is it, then?”
Yamame wiped the sticky finger on her overalls. “We’ll find out in full measure in a bit,” she told him. “Anyway, say. Are there any… mm, rituals, for before drinking, here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know – like, where we live, the… um.” Yamame glanced sidelong warily. Huddled on the opposite edge of the table, Grumpy – hands joined into a steeple in front of her ruddy eyes – appeared to have forgotten either of them had ever existed in any perceivable manner. All the same, an earth spider erred always on caution’s side. “Where we live, our… our big friends, they have these things. These things, like, when they throw their cups down after the first sip. Only then they go on to drink normally – from new ones. I think it’s supposed to stand for something. I couldn’t tell you what, though; I could never catch any sober enough to tell me while I still remembered.”
Paran’s expression curdled a little. “I don’t know that the proprietor would agree.”
“That’s why I asked if you had any ideas. I’m not a… well, one of our big friends,” Yamame closed up lamely. “I’ll content myself with fitting in. I just want to know how.”
“… Hmm.” Paran tapped on the thick handle of his tankard pensively for a moment or two. “A friend of mine did use to do this thing,” he then admitted. “He would shoo us away our glasses, until it was decided to what we were drinking that day. He would let us drink then, but not before.”
Once again, Yamame Kurodani clamped down on the unaccountable ache of hearing her human speak on friends of his that weren’t her. Almost, and she would have mistaken this as the first time such an emotion had stuck in her heart; but it wasn’t, and she clamped down even harder so. She kept her efforts overlaid by an indulging smile. “… What did you drink to, usually?”
“This is the queer part,” said Paran. “Nothing much elaborate. Weather, health, luck. Whatever occurred, so the rest of us could get to our drinks quicker in fact.” His shoulders lifted sarcastically. “But he was bigger than any of us, and took his drinking at importance.”
“Anything more… general? Something you do, perhaps?”
“Ah. Well… There is this.”
Paran gripped the handle of his tankard fully around, and raised it up. At his nodded behest, Yamame did the same. Then, Paran’s arm slithered deftly under hers; it looped around, until they were coiled together – like the links of an especially soft chain. The spinstress nonetheless found it easy to access her drink; though she nursed no illusion the pose would become tiresome soon, if kept up.
“And then we take the first sip,” explained her human. “Only one, usually. And we don’t throw.”
Yamame chuckled her relief. “And what does this stand for, again?”
“Who can say?” Paran made a careful shrug. “It’s a ritual. It probably has no meaning.”
“Some of our rituals do mean things,” Yamame pointed out. “Or do they?”
The question dangled between them on a fine string, until Yamame herself did not know why she’d asked it to begin with.
At length, Paran blew it aside with a sigh. “… Yes,” he granted. “Yes, Yamame. They do. Though this—” he looked to his drink meaningfully, “I cannot speak for this. I just don’t know. Sorry.”
“That’s fine,” Yamame excused him. “And you’re fine, too. Never mind that.” She gave her human another smile. “Well, then? To what?”
Paran rolled his eyes. “Spare me.”
“Why?” she moaned. “I said I wanted to fit in. This is all you gave me to work with. It’s not really my fault if I use it, is it? Or,” she speculated, her lips quirking down, “is it too difficult to come up with anything when it’s with me?”
Her favourite human made a pained sound. “… That’s not it.” He fixed the hold on his tankard. “Yes, I’ve never drunk with you before now. I realise. I had a reason.”
“But you drank with Ashi.”
“I had a reason,” Paran insisted.
Yamame frowned. She irrationally disliked the word. “And what’s that supposed to be?”
“You’ll figure it out,” her human told her. “You’ll figure it out, Yamame – if you think on it a little.” Then, before she could actually do think at any length, he pushed forward a suggestion. “Confusion to Hijiri?”
That, despite the swelling irritation, set her to giggling again. “I don’t know! She hasn’t paid us yet, has she? Would that be wise?”
Paran made a grimace. “My arm’s getting tired, Yamame.”
“Oh, well. Very good. Confusion to Hijiri, then.”
As one, they leaned in, and drank of the frothy ale.
Yamame’s favourite human – who had disengaged from his tankard with a full set of wizened white moustache – discreetly unlooped their arms, even as Yamame rolled the drink appraisingly in her mouth. Her initial impression had not lied, and the drink was hoppy first of all; but here as well, the sweet, fruity after-taste – even more pronounced in the liquid than it had been in the foam – was in full and delightful evidence. Yamame swallowed it down and purred happily.
“All good?” Paran asked. He had watched her reactions this time as well. “Old ‘keep here,” he went on at her nod; “he orders strong barley wine from the brewers, but waters it down and puts slices of dried apples in a few weeks before serving. That’s the sweet after you are tasting.”
“It’s delicious!” Yamame chirped. “A mite weaker than I’ve been used to – but a looot smoother. It goes down so easily! Those apples are a streak of genius.” The spinstress touched her tankard fondly, like she would an old friend. “A lot cooler than I’d expected, too. I wonder how.”
“Ah!” Paran snapped his fingers. “That, I do know.”
Yamame smiled even wider, and propped her chin on her hands. “Tell.”
She watched, happy all over, as her human drew once more from his own drink. Then, putting it down, he began to trace meaningless shapes in a wet patch on the table. “There is a fitting under the bar,” he explained, “with pipes which go down into the cellar, where the kegs are stored. The barkeep steps on a pedal for a small bellows, which are under the floor; this pushes air down one of the pipes, which is plugged into to a keg. The keg is air-tight, so the pressure pumps the drink out the other opening, which goes into the other pipe. That comes back up to the tap.”
“Clever,” Yamame approved.
“Convenient,” agreed Paran. “Anyway, the kegs – those ones that are connected at the time – are stored inside a casket filled with ice. That is how the drinks are so cool.”
Yamame was surprised. “Ice? It’s not even the end of Summer. Where did they get ice?”
“And therein’s another convenience. See, they do not collect the ice. They make it. A vat is filled with clear ground water, and they mix in a certain white powder… which I cannot in honesty tell you what it is. They use it for pyrotechny, as well – in fireworks and such.”
“Saltpetre,” guessed the earth spider. “Stands to reason. It is made from… Um. Never mind what it’s made from. Go on.”
Paran lifted a brow at her questioningly, but continued, “All right. Well, they pour it in the vat. The whole bog steams for a good time; but afterwards, the water is left a cold slurry. They add in saw-dust, and it all becomes a kind of iced mud that refuses to melt. They pack it into caskets, chisel out a slot for the keg, and store it all in a cellar. This slows the melting even further. I am told, if the casket is kept closed at all times – less when switching out the kegs – it can last weeks, or even months. All in the name of removing the coin from honest folks, who would prefer the poison they pour down their throats leastwise take away some of the Summer’s heat.” He sniffed. “It’s all very tragic when you boil it down.”
Yamame Kurodani did not answer immediately. She reached out, and absently peeled the foam-moustache from under her human’s nose with the back of her hand.
“I like it so much when you talk to me,” she told him.
Nor did the human reply at first. No. Only he stared on, unblinking, on the silly, old earth spider, who – for some unknowable reason – treasured him above every other human there was. A pale, red flush was working up his jaw; and, Yamame thought, it was too early yet for the drink to have been the source.
“… I’m—” Paran said reluctantly, “I’m bad. With words.”
“No.” Yamame shook her head. “No. When you do get into it, you’re good. Very, very good.”
“Well,” Paran breathed, “I didn’t—”
Across the table, the hitherto quiet Grumpy hawked tumultuously. She straightened up, groaned, and gulped down what had come up, with no less noise. Then, she went right back to steepling.
Yamame’s favourite human, now fully a-blush, cleared out his own throat. Although, in his defence, his had not been nearly so clogged. His stare darted to the wet smear on the table.
“… Well,” he murmured. “… Right?”
Yamame Kurodani, whose own cheeks wondrously kept from smoking, made a shy nod. “Mhm,” she conceded. “Right…”
And so they drank, for a time, in embarrassed silence – inasmuch, anyway, as silence may survive in any place of drinking and surfeit for long.
Nor did it. And it was again a male voice, which minutes later tugged their heads back up to attention.
“Seki,” said the voice.
Though not Paran’s; nor even did it belong to the hoary barkeep. Yamame Kurodani looked, then, beside their table – where saw yet another human standing in wait.
At once her spinstress’s eyes were drawn to the sleeves of the arrival’s spacious robe: many-layered, each one cut shorter than the one below; and varicoloured – each framed in a different hue: red, green and yellow, going inwards. On the outside, the newcomer wore a plain, woollen cape, as long as the knees, designed to keep the weather off at the cost of appearance.
“Seki,” he let out his voice again.
Yamame’s eyes startled farther up. The arrival’s face was messy, unshaved. Its features were crooked faintly into a mocking – and visibly habituated – set of a man whose heart has, across his life, learned to distil cynicism into lifeblood. His eyes were dark – circled with shadows – and…
… And they were trained exclusively on the red woman on the other side of the table.
“Sekibanki,” the man spoke for the third time, with a note of defeated finality.
As though only then registering her company had gained up, the red-headed woman lifted her glass – and flushed the remaining contents down her gullet in a single, almost barbarous dip.
She thunked her glass down. Then, she glared up at the newcomer.
“… You are late.”
The man spread out his wide-sleeved arms. Then, quickly, he covered them up again, as if the gesture had been entirely unwitting. “Ceremony prolonged. My Lady’s thought. Not mine.” He nudged his head, never looking, in the direction of Yamame and her human. “Your friends?”
Grumpy (or was Sekibanki her real name?) scowled hideously. “I don’t have those.”
She shuffled out to the end of the bench, and stood up.
“Sekibanki?” the robed man questioned.
“My place,” Grumpy (?) growled at him, clawing under her collar. “I’ve had it with people tonight.”
“Sake can be taken warm. I have some left over. Shut up and walk.”
And then, neither of them so much as acknowledging anyone else than one another, they weaved across the taproom, and out the exiting door.
At the utmost moment, as her glowering scarlet hair winked out behind the frame, something – something insubstantial, but vital all the same – seemed to flake away from “Sekibanki’s” blood-red core; and Yamame recognised all at once who – what – the lonely townswoman had truly been, all along. The door slammed shut behind her, frightening the nearby patrons.
Yamame Kurodani, the great architect of the Underworld – and she who had seldom been ignored so utterly prior to tonight – twisted around to look at her own, less messy human.
Paran, though he hadn’t to twist like she had, looked right back at her.
“… We’ve interrupted something,” he guessed, “haven’t we?”
“How do you figure?” asked Yamame.
“I have a hunch.”
The spinstress giggled at the reply. “Snake! I was joking, you know? I’m not that silly. Yes, I guess we have. A little late to apologise now. On the bright side, they left us the table. What sort of clothes were those, anyway? On the human, I mean.”
Paran’s brows scrunched up. “… ‘The human?’”
“The male,” Yamame clarified. “The female – Grumpy? – she was a youkai. I’m not sure what kind, but… she was. I hadn’t noticed myself, until just now.” She smiled. “Someone was distracting me, I think.”
Her human let the sally bounce off of his frown, and digested the news. “… I suppose this is that sort of place,” he gave up. “So? What about the clothes?”
“The sleeves on his robe. They were weird. As if he was wearing several, and every one was a different colour. Yellow, green, and then red, outwards… Is that significant in any way? It felt deliberate.”
Paran thought it over. Then, his forehead became an even greater wasteland of wrinkles. “Those are Toyosatomimi’s colours.”
“Toyosato—” He waved the name away on a second consideration. “A Taoist saint. Hijiri’s competition, actually. Though between the two, that one’s requirements are rather more stringent. No youkai, for one. Anyway, those colours you saw are flown as a rule by her acolytes. Maybe the order denotes rank. I wouldn’t know.”
“So that means…”
Her human sketched a mock sign against evil with his hand. “That means we saw a Taoist priest leaving this dive – with a youkai woman in tow.” He gasped with faked outrage. “That has to be heresy.”
Yamame grinned. “What’s Gensokyo coming to?”
Paran snorted. “What is it, indeed? At least, we shouldn’t need to worry after his making it through the night.” Then, less humorously, he added, “Maybe.”
He drowned his last guess in a hefty draught of ale.
Yamame, following his lead, washed down her own next thought.
A priest and a youkai, it was. Scandalous.
And yet, blasphemous beyond all doubt though such a match was…
… Why, exactly, did it sound so familiar and threadbare?