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“So, did you bite him?”
The question discharged from Ashi’s toast-and-egg-occupied mouth almost at once when Yamame had shuffled herself back to her kitchen, after seeing off her human at the house’s front door. It did not put her in a mind of clawing. Not least because Yamame Kurodani was in a mind of clawing already – whether at her face, hair, or whichever other irritant happened nearby her nails. Had been in it – ever since said door had closed behind her.
Though she was not about to claw in the earnest just yet; but, neither was she about to allow the criticism to fly free. Yamame drew up a chair. An inch short of folding down like a sheet of wet fabric, the eldest of Underworld’s spinstresses seated herself opposite of her sister. At the same time, she pulled in closer the toast-laden plate of which Hachiashi, in her elder’s absence, had used liberally and with dispatch.
“Why would I do that, now?” Yamame asked.
Ashi, giggling at the older spider’s naivete, pulled the plate right back. “Why, Yams,” she explained, snatching up another still-warm piece, “I didn’t hear a peep of struggle, and I didn’t sense anyone besides your genius self. That more or less leaves you and your overkeen teeth. And mind, sister mine – you are wearing a face like someone you totally adored has just expired in a spectacular way.”
Am I? thought Yamame, at the same time touching a finger to her lips. The lips were curving down at the ends. “… He hasn’t,” she insisted, manually kneading out the kink. “He won’t, either. This tunnel comes out straight to the surface, and he’s protected once up there. We’ve done this before – you know?”
“Spent half an hour kissing good-bye?” Ashi blinked, mock-disbelievingly. “No way, Yams; you’d have bitten off your tongue. Or his. Gods above know which first.”
“What’s my tongue have to do with anything?”
“See? Now I know you’re lying.”
Yamame didn’t counter anymore; only she bit into her own piece of toast and made a surly face. I wasn’t, she thought, in like a surly corner of her mind, And we didn’t. Not for half an hour.
Nor had they. Not at all. Only once had Yamame Kurodani given over a thought to matters which pertained otherwise than to work. Only after she had once more quizzed her human on the project’s musts-and-not-musts; only after she had given to him the details that had only stitched together in her sleep. Only afterwards had Yamame Kurodani permitted her selfishness to squeeze in a word of its own.
“Mm?” Paran had quit the impatient checking of his pockets crucial evidently before any length of travel. “What is it?”
“If,” Yamame had begun, “If you aren’t able… If it doesn’t seem like you’re able to come back by the evening—”
“As like won’t,” the human had nimbly cut her off. “Why?”
… Then don’t go looking for another spider to kiss, Yamame had finished inside her head. “… Nothing much,” her mouth had offered up instead. “So, when? Tomorrow? After? I’ll try to have Ashi out by then. I promise.”
Her human had hung his shoulders, as though the joke had landed wrong. “… Can’t say. Hijiri besides, I may need to get in touch with a few sources. All of it hinges on how well-wised up our priestess is on what’s to be done. Materials may be easier to come by if we’ve Hijiri’s name at the bottom of the invoice, too. Gods watching, I know of a woodcarver recently broke his leg, who—”
“How long, Paran?”
Her human had sighed a long-suffering sigh, and the last pretences to diligence with it. “… Three days,” he had told the staring Yamame. “Give me three days. Gods watching, Hijiri will have understood by then, and that woodcarver won’t have thrown in with the celebrations with a leg in a cast.”
“Celebrations?” Yamame had cocked her head. “What kind of celebrations do woodcarvers have?”
“Wooden, no doubt.” Paran had smiled. “I didn’t mention? There’s a holy-day lurking somewhere about this week. Couldn’t tell you which day, but most people in town better informed than I. No worries; I won’t be joining in. My employer’s gods don’t do holy-days.”
“But I have no gods,” Yamame had protested.
“Thus, no holy-days.”
What about yours? Yamame had wondered inside, Would yours give you a holy-day if you asked? But these questions never found a voice, nor an answer – only a quiet “Take care, OK?” when the human – named after his god – had once again opened up his arms for the god-lacking earth spider. Yamame had completed the last in a line of little blasphemies by pulling him down instead.
Then – a little more breathless, but no looser set in his duties than he had been the previous minute – the human had taken his blindfold, and fled.
“Are you done basking?”
Ashi’s arch question rethreaded Yamame to the toast-flavoured present. The younger spinstress, at once regaled by and annoyed with her elder sister’s distraction, was staring. Had been, if said annoyance was telling.
“… I wasn’t,” Yamame mumbled in her defence. “Only I’ve…”
“Oho?” Hachiashi’s carmine eyes needled on. “Only you’ve what?”
“Only,” said Yamame, “I was thinking. I’ve been nothing but stupid lately, you know?”
The younger earth spider made a sound lodged somewhere between a growl and a sigh. “Not stupid, Yams,” she insisted. “Single-threaded. There is a difference. When you tie yourself up for months for fear of changing that thread – that is when you are stupid. I know stupid, Yams – oh, I’ve known it – and you are not it, you bleeding genius, you. So don’t work at it, please. I don’t want a stupid sister.”
Yamame shaped a wan smile. “… Thanks.”
Hachiashi’s reply was cunning. “There. See? That. That is the second I’ve seen you smile today – and you are usually less reserved about blow-drying your fangs. The first, incidentally, was just then. Maybe you should bask some more, Yams – and let my fangs take care of the food.”
“Must I be mocked straight from the morning, Ashi?” Yamame moaned. “I had an anxious night.”
“Mocked?” Ashi faked a gasp. “Who-ever is mocking you, Yams? All I’m doing is teasing. I’ll have you know it is perfectly fine to bask. Whatever makes your pretty mug go happy, makes it go happy. There’s no shame in it; and if I really had to say something for myself, it would be that I’m not at all the one who started.”
“Started? Started what?”
“Teasing, Yams; pay attention.” Ashi tore off a chunk of her food before continuing, “Weren’t you, back there? I’m not blind; I saw you nodding. Showing off your accomplishments in taming humans is fine, but some of us may react poorly to brazen displays of intimacy. I, for one, am a-seethe with envy. A-seethe, Yams.”
Yamame knitted her brows. “Quit, Ashi. That’s not funny.”
“Why would it be?” Ashi replied, accurately rather calm than funny. “Truth seldom is. Amusing, perhaps; rarely funny. This is what you’ve been routinely forgetting about us, dear sister. We don’t care. I don’t know what self-effacing, backward, pity-ridden ideas the Oni have beaten into your pretty head. I don’t care. I’m an earth spider. I do what I do because it is what I am. There is nothing else more important than that. If I had a human I wanted nothing but to kiss all over, I would have spent way more than half an hour doing it. If I had such a skill for drawing pictures of buildings it was sought after even by those who otherwise claim to hate me, I would have exercised it. And if – by chance – I had an older sister who was so far, far above my planes of achievement I’d need another incarnation’s worth of patience and skill to match her and she still kept rising, well…” Ashi’s mouth warped into a smirk. “I’d tease that sister, Yams. Gods above, I’d tease that sister to pieces.”
“… Ashi,” Yamame choked out, “Are you… Are you angry with me?”
“Angry?” Ashi laughed. “I’m not angry, you bleeding blond star of the Underworld. I’m envious. There’s a difference.”
The blond star felt herself attiring an un-starry pink. “… I’m sorry?”
“We’re family, Yams. I love you. I don’t want you to be sorry. I want me to be better.”
Almost, and Yamame Kurodani, the bleeding blond star of the Underworld, would have apologised again.
Almost, and the mother of plagues would have put forward yet another apology – another apology, and perhaps another word of encouragement to her sister who – unknowably to Yamame’s single-threaded mind – had apparently been nursing an illness to match Yamame’s deadliest contagions. Then, however, the younger Hachiashi once more proved to be the nimbler between the two spiders; and, as she did the remaining piece of toast which she had thrown up into the air and caught in her mouth on the fall, Yamame’s little sister swallowed down the grudge as well.
“Truth be told, Yams,” she spoke up, instantly picking up another slice, “I am relieved first of all. Mind, we are family, and I do love you to death; but you are skittisher than the skittishest humans I’ve had the privilege to watch skitter, and I was somewhat, just a touch, worried.”
“Worried?” Yamame repeated. “Worried about what?”
“About whom, Yams. Mostly, I was worried that you might have done it.”
The elder spider’s brain threatened to begin shutting down. “… Might have done what?”
A moment yet Hachiashi didn’t answer. Then she blew open, and out came a nasty snicker. “Would you believe Komeiji’s brat did the same thing to us? That girl, Yams; she is worse than her mother had ever been – and I’ve never even known her mother that good! Could you imagine she popped up banging on our door – almost banged a hole right through! – had us hunkered down in a circle on the carpet, glared us all over with those little grey eyes of hers, and in the end just went, ‘Well, did you?’ – like it was the most obvious thing we would? Yams, I thought I’d croak. Took us the best of the next quarter to wring out what she’d meant – though not before she’d already had a read of most of us. Maybe it was meant to startle us into blundering something. I can’t pretend to fathom what that girl’s mental processes involve. Snakes, right? Mind-leeching snakes.”
“Well,” Yamame dared a tiny smile, “… did you, though?”
Ashi sniggered. “Very good, Yams – but no. The girls all said no. No kill, no sight. Nothing.”
“What did the Komeiji say?”
“The Komeiji brat, imagine,” Ashi huffed, “said she’d read nothing to the contrary. Whoever did do it, well, evidently it wasn’t one of ours. Maybe we don’t all while away our mornings kissing up with humans, Yams – but we’re all very well aware of the rules. None of us want trouble from on up. We’ve lived there. I’ve lived there. ‘Gods above’ are handy to invoke, but they are nowhere as pleasant to summon in actual.”
“I’ll believe,” agreed Yamame. “I’ve had… run-ins. With priestry more than gods, but…”
“That’s one thing,” Ashi nodded. “Another is… We would never have hurt you, Yams.”
“Me? I wasn’t hurt.”
“No, you weren’t; but there is something close to you – someone close – that might have been, if it had been us after all.”
“… Oh.” Yamame bit her lip. There is one, isn’t there? “Um, right. Guess there is.”
“There is, Yams. I saw him myself, not too long ago. That’s why I marched myself up here as soon as morning today,” Ashi went on. “I was afraid— Well, no, not afraid. I was… tactically concerned things might have gone over to the sour side. I’d said some careless things to you; I’d said some pushy things to him, and… Yams, don’t take me wrong; you’re a genius – but you’re a skittish genius, and that’s your own disease. Mind, I hadn’t assumed you’d put a proven informant out of misery over… well, the two of you alone know over what it could have been – but it made me think all the same. About human things. About skittish things. Some tactical concern was warranted. Some.”
“… Mm.” Yamame had no recourse but to fall in again. Nothing’s gone sour, though, she thought. Nothing’s gone sour. Some things – even the opposite, if that’s the opposite of sour. What did that say about tactics? “… That’s all there is, then?” she asked after a moment. “That’s everything why you’ve come – because you were concerned about me and him?”
“Can’t I?” Hachiashi’s big, carmine eyes almost glittered with faked tears. “Can’t I come call on my elder sister from time to time wanting a mercenary reason? Oh, boo, Yams – boo!”
Mercenary? “I didn’t say that, Ashi. I’m asking—”
“Asking if we shall spare you the responsibilities of leadership off of the build site,” Hachiashi chimed in. “No, Yams. We shan’t. The girls look up to you. I look up to you. We know a genius mind needs a wide swath of playing space to spread its wings, so we give you that space. We still love you, though. We especially love you when circumstance presents we may need you to put in a good word for us for when someone takes us for a scapegoat. It’s your age, Yams. It may come with kisses, but it also comes with expectations as well.”
“Actually,” Ashi grinned, “now you’ve pointed it out, you’re right. Those are mostly your hair, not your age. It’s a very simple equation. You’ve the prettiest hair of us all, so you attract all the kisses.” The younger spinstress shrugged. “The age still stands, though.”
Yamame grimaced. “You’re mocking me again.”
“Teasing, Yams. Mocking is about flattering lies. Teasing is just embarrassing truths.”
Yamame groaned her exasperation into her toast.
Yet for all the exasperation Yamame Kurodani had had to groan, the reality leaned otherwise: that affairs with which she had been contending had now turned out healthier – or less sour – than her anxiety had had her switch and toss sleepless about in the night. Maybe Yamame, the yearly malady, had overappraised this malady in particular, and had chased her human out prematurely; on the other hand, maybe Yamame, the blond star of the Underworld, had done herself an unwitting service sending him off sooner rather than later – over the delays she knew likely in her heart they would have otherwise stretched until breaking point. Or Yamame would have, on her own. That, among recent uncertainties, was one out of the net.
Then, however, something made a click in the star’s lazily flowing core, and Yamame’s brows crashed together above her nose like a pair of caterpillars who, all of nowhere, hated one another with a venomous passion.
“… Ashi? Say, here…”
The younger earth spider looked up from the plate of toast, which – by now – was near two-thirds cleaned. “Say what?”
Yamame breathed in. “Say. What was that you mentioned you’d said to him, again?”
“To whom? Paran?”
Hachiashi, who had by now scented out the approaching thread of interrogation, shrewdly narrowed her eyes. “I said I’d told him some pushy things, Yams. Which I did, too. Why-ever does my much-beloved sister ask?”
Yamame folded her arms on her chest. “I was under the impression,” she said, “that you and him weren’t on speaking terms.”
“That’s probably since I told him to tell you so, yes. He really did at that, huh.”
“Then the two of you have spoken?”
“We’ve more than spoken, Yams,” Ashi said, uncharacteristically drawing on a frown of her own. “We’ve talked. There were times you weren’t nearby, and someone had to tell to him a sprinkling of important little truths which someone else never had. About us, about the Underworld… About you, was the topic of most note. Then, I had him tell me some things about his side. Oh, the things, Yams! The things he told me – especially after I got him drunk that one time!…”
The caterpillars on Yamame’s face had now progressed to open war. “He doesn’t drink, Ashi. I tried to get him to, once. He told me he didn’t – very firmly.”
“That is funny,” said Ashi; “logical he would tell you so, but funny – especially as I’ve a vivid image in my head of him tripping and tumbling all over these very chairs right here. A leg broke off, even. Was it his? Chair’s? Chair’s, I think. One of those, anyway.”
Yamame Kurodani did her damnedest as not to glance sideways at the one chair she knew very good had now for a while suffered from one mysteriously wobbly leg. “… Why?” she muttered. “Why is it that neither of you has thought it meet to clue me in until now? Why was I being excluded?”
Hachiashi’s eyes all but began to glow self-satisfaction. “Ah, now there is something precious! Are you actually being jealous now, Yams? Good! Good, sister! Hold on to that feeling. Wrap it up! Imagine, next time you make for a rush start, or overnight on site hounding over those pesky last-minute details, I may be back down here, pretty dress on me, drinking your human under the table. Wouldn’t that be a sight?”
“Of course, I’d much rather you were doing that, Yams,” Ashi continued, smiling an angelic little smile whose innocence reached no further than the edges of her colourless lips. “See, for all that I appreciate what he does, I don’t think I like Paran. He is big, clumsy, stubborn yet indecisive, and arrests entirely too much attention of one of my sisters, whom I sometimes – just sometimes, nothing selfish – want to have to fawn over all by myself.”
Yamame Kurodani, star of the Underworld, began to feel an eclipse oncoming.
Mercenary. The word had not been an accident. It had been a hint.
“Ashi?” Yamame murmured, palming her face not unlike her human had been, a little over half an hour before, in the same room and not a much dissimilar spot. “Say, here…”
“What’s up?” Ashi leaned forward, giddy all over. “What is it, Yams?”
“… Would you like to stay for today?”
The younger spinstress clapped her hands together in delight. The sound was a dry branch snapping above a web. “Yams, that is wonderful!” Hachiashi was squealing. “Of course I’ll stay. Thank you; oh, thank you! What are we doing to do? Anything is fun with you.”
“… We could look over our upcoming project,” Yamame speculated, more by sheer force of momentum than that of any remaining willpower. “Someone would have to do it with you, sooner or later. We could also start finally tearing down those dresses. I’ve been forgetting about those.”
Ashi clapped again. “Anything’s fun with you, Yams – even if it’s terribly boring stuff. Can we gossip, too? We younger earth spiders do love to gossip, you know.”
“… Ashi?” Yamame groaned. “One question, before all.”
“What else aren’t you telling me?”
“Mm. Hmm.” The younger spider touched a musing finger to her cheek. “There was that one thing. See, there was a certain silly-named ‘Hachiashi’ on the board for house-wide laundry today. Imagine that! Not sure how it’s relevant, but here it is. Something I wasn’t telling you.”
Yamame Kurodani, she who had seen Old Hell destroyed and built again, now abruptly found herself wanting to cry at each and every snake and cheat who demonstrably constituted her inner circle.
Instead, she began to laugh, and laughed, until her belly hurt.