Yamame Kurodani had thrown punches before. More than that: she had thrown, taken, sometimes pulled them (but not often); but among the many punches Yamame Kurodani had packed in her life, the one she unrolled now compared to none of its siblings. Not at all similar to the punch she had vended to one Parsee Misuhashi, the time the green-gazed one had turned up at (and spoiled) one of the many Oni-thrown parties – nor whatsoever like the punch Nikuyama had received during the same party (markedly soon after the other one) for holding the drunken earth spider back.
This punch was not like those. This punch – if it could yet be called one – was of a softer spin. A nudge of the fist – nothing more. A poke with the knuckles. Slow and ineffectual. Weak. Unwilling.
And as Yamame had fully expected it… or had hoped it would… all the punch did was make the human twitch in surprise.
This had two consequences. One: that his lips, already part overlaid on hers, briefly pressed down stronger. Two: that sensing this, an instinct jerking awake shoved her arms out against her human’s shoulders. Not a spider’s instinct – but something else’s, rocketing out of a reservoir of Yamame she had not in a long time, perhaps not even an ever-time, taken a careful look through.
When she opened her eyes, a human as red as a sheet of precious satin was grimacing at her from less than a hand-span away.
Yamame Kurodani, who did not for a moment doubt she was actively rivalling the human in tincture, suddenly felt as dumb as the dumbest fairy in Old Hell. Not to say she hadn’t been feeling dumb already; but, when at once her heart was relieved nothing too much had happened, and insanely happy that something had, it was an earth spider’s inviolable right to think herself more foolish than the rule.
Paran, as it seemed another rule, was the first to find his voice.
“… Cheers,” he told the pushing earth spider. It was a voice – and a “cheers” – as cheerless and empty of gratitude as it was humanly possible.
“… No problem,” Yamame returned – and it was a “no problem” as problematic as an earth spider could spiderly make it.
Nor did the problems end there. It took Yamame the worst and the best of herself to tear out of her human’s embrace and stand up to two very wobbly feet. The worst – to break said embrace effortlessly with her preternatural strength; the best – not to hate him for making her do so in the first place. Not three ticks of the clock’s quickest hand, and the human behind her spoke again.
Yamame’s fingers curled into claws at the sound of her own name. “… I’m going to bed,” she announced, not turning around. “That’s what we promised, right?”
“A question first,” said Paran, “if I can.”
“Go ahead,” Yamame allowed. “Quickly. I want to get some sleep myself.”
“All right.” Her human drew a deeper breath before asking. “Would that… have been safe?”
“Would what have been safe?” Yamame demanded. “Speak clearly.”
Paran swallowed audibly. “Would your mou—… Your lips,” he corrected. “Your lips. Would they have been… safe?”
Yamame Kurodani – once again – mustered out her best so as not to let her feelings for her human become stained black. Now? she thought, Now he asks me that? The tips of her fingernails dug into her palms. “… Which part,” she muttered, “of ‘controls diseases’ did you not understand? ‘Controls?’ I’m a spider. A twice-damned, stupid, silly spider. I’m venomous – not toxic.”
“Yes.” Yamame wrestled against the urge to turn around after all. It was not an even match. “My… It would have been safe. Very, very, very safe. Safer than… than messing up my dress. That, right there, was unsafe. This is my favourite dress, you know. My very, very favourite. My lips are… nothing. They’re nothing. OK? They’re nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Nothing?” asked Paran.
“Nothing,” Yamame assured, with all the surety it warranted. Though whether the spinstress herself was assured (of what she had meant, for one) remained a frustrated uncertainty. “A—Anyway,” she went on, before frustration curdled into flustering, “if that’s all the questions you had, then we had better… had best go now, because… because it’s getting really, really late – really. I’ve… I’ve got the project to wrap up, too, before I get knocked off my web. I’ve still got a lot of work to do. The landscaping – it’s really going to be a lot of work.”
“Right,” agreed Paran. “A lot of work.”
“Yes,” said Yamame. “A lot of work. So…”
“So good-night!” Yamame groaned, irritated, skittering for her bedroom door. “That’s what! Good-night, Paran!”
You stupid idiot, she added inside.
At the door (but safely past its frame) about to bash it shut behind her, Yamame Kurodani snuck one final glance tonight at her salon’s recently overbusied sofa.
A broken, broken man lay with his head pushed into its backrest, one limp arm slung across his eyes. A broken, dejected man, who – had Yamame been someone else, sometime else, and elsewhere – she may have suspected must have had a great debt attached to his name, or an ages-long vow ruined in a flight of fancy. On the inverse, had that someone else, sometime else, and elsewhere been Yamame Kurodani right now, they may have rushed over to comfort this man. To tell him that, in the long run, the greater scheme of things, debts, vows, other such human things – they licensed very little real importance. That life, as the gods so adored by humanity, had forgiven greater sins before. Those who may have been Yamame would be cruelly tempted to do so – if nothing more.
Yamame Kurodani in actual shut the door instead. The spring-loaded latch slid into place with a dull ring.
The spinstress tottered across her room and crashed, face-first, into her rumpled beddings.
There, in the messy sheets, blankets and pillows, Yamame Kurodani asked a certain part of herself what it was she was supposed to feel. The part which, Yamame knew, had for countless years been inside her most basic lining. The part which, paltry three days before, had told her outright paying court to touching and other human nonsenses was disparaging a mighty youkai such as she.
To her mounting misery, that part of Yamame Kurodani was three days dead.
The following morning, Yamame would learn two things.
A spider overstrained, told the first of these, slept very well regardless of an inside upheaval. As Yamame Kurodani was a spider beyond all doubt, so too did she sleep very well – regardless of a swelling in her heart refusing to heal. So well had Yamame Kurodani slept, in fact, and risen so early, that when she dug out of her sheets and quit her bedroom, her favourite human – who would be seen preparing to or breaking his fast already by this happening – was nowhere in evidence in the kitchen.
Though Yamame had met this reality with a blunted disappointment (why did she – questions like these by now were naïve), she put a fire under the stove all the same, and put on a tall stockpot of cold stream-water. When the water had heated enough so as to be little under boiling, Yamame grabbed the huge pot in two hands, and shuffled out the back-door, beyond which the little shower-cabin she and her human had built long months before was standing.
A delightful half hour later, Yamame Kurodani, wrapped in an earthen bathrobe embroidered with fractal patterns, walked back in through the same door. Towelling her hair (and promising herself to lash it back up soon), flushed and soap-scented, Yamame shuffled across the kitchen, then for her cosy salon, where she would complete her morning rituals on the cushions of her sofa.
And there, on that very sofa, as though waiting for this very Yamame to come in, was the very human Paran.
An addendum to the previous thing Yamame Kurodani had learned: a spider overstrained slept well. A human overstrained – patently not very much. This human must have slept poorly – shadows circled his eyes; all the same, when the spinstress loomed in the periphery of his sight, accordingly the human’s head was turned, and a smile amiably offered.
No further words but these; but for the time, Yamame was satisfied sitting down beside him and re-ordering her hair. The human was silently watching; still, beneath any vexation that may or may not have appeared to her mind at him doing so first thing in the morning, Yamame Kurodani felt on some level a touch gratified.
It was when Yamame was rolling her hair into a bun and tying it up with her second favourite bow, that her human (first of the favourites himself) spoke what was on his mind.
What was, was Yamame.
Or at least her name; but Yamame Kurodani obliged. “Mhm? What is it, Paran?”
“… A question.”
“Of course,” Yamame chuckled. The word was growing to be a regular snake. “Shoot. I’ll have some questions before I have breakfast, why not. You are making breakfast, too. I don’t care how short you’ve slept. It’s morning, and there’s work to be done. Well?”
“Yes, of course,” said Paran first of all. “As for my question…” There was a pause. Then, Yamame’s human spat the question out all at once. “Yesterday,” he said. “Yesterday, did I lose?”
The spinstress froze with her fingers tangled up in hair and ribbon. Yet when she faced her human, no mockery – or japery, or even shame – was visible. “What…” Yamame choked out, “What exactly do you mean?”
“Our game,” said Paran, so serious that, had one trundled by, the roll-bellied Yama may well take him for one of their number and employ him. “Our game yesterday – did I lose it?”
Winning and losing. This was intimate territory to Yamame’s mind, and well-trodden; but often though she had gamed with the Oni on which could faster empty a keg, or have the other drunk under the table, this game’s convolutions were – in the absence of a cleverer turn of phrase – by half more convoluted.
So Yamame Kurodani carefully recounted the rules in her head. So her heart flittered inside its cage when she recalled her adamant delivery of the terms. So her fangs pinched her lower lip as – one by one, from embarrassing start to agonising finish – she examined each and succeeding round of the game for earmarks of victory.
None were making themselves marked.
Yamame Kurodani, surrendering, nudged her head weakly left and right. “See,” she said, “I don’t think either one of us had the win.”
A slow, unexpected frown compressed the human’s brows in answer.
“… Is that so?” he asked.
Yamame shaped a powerless smile. “Isn’t it, though? We were interrupted. Ahead of that, neither one of us was failing too spectacularly. And afterwards… Well, afterwards we both soundly gave it up. So, there’s no winner here; none, maybe but whoever managed to chase an earth spider under her bed merely by smashing down her front door. That one won her own game. Not me, that’s for certain.”
“Not me,” the spinstress shook her head again. “Me, I’m about the only one who lost… things. My own game and… and more.”
“… How do you figure?”
“The… The last order,” Yamame flinched re-recalling; “before our visitor – you told me to… to turn around, yes? Twice, at that – and I didn’t. All right, we were interrupted, I grant you; but, if you want to get technical, that there was the last turn – your turn, and your order. So, if you want to get technical, I lost our game. You didn’t. You got your prize, even. We went to bed. To sleep. That was your prize, wasn’t it? So no. If you want to get technical, you didn’t lose anything. The only silly one who did was—”
“I didn’t want to get technical.”
Yamame Kurodani, her own brows meeting above her nose, looked to the side at her human.
Paran was fingering his eyelids. Then, Paran wasn’t fingering his eyelids; and, so released, his eyes wrenched open to give to Yamame a stare which pinned her to her half of the sofa. Not too long hers alone; for then, surprising her stone-still, the human reached out a yearning hand…
… And touched it to one of Yamame’s feverish cheeks.
Here was the second thing Yamame Kurodani would learn this morning. That a spider, however far strayed, could never escape completely from her own self. That, with time – and space, and separation – away from whatever had run it to its burrow, the spider would, as clothes stuffed in the farthest end of the wardrobe do, eventually become unearthed again. That, in the same fell comeback, it would string the muscles of her fingers taut – letting Yamame’s ribbon to fall on her lap, and her golden hair to spill down her shoulders. That – and this was the scary part – the spider would slip entirely beneath the human’s lulled notice.
The human’s and – what was even scarier – her very own as well.
“Ye—Yes?” yelped Yamame, clamping down so hard on her rousing instincts the Buddhist Hijiri would have welcomed her instantly with open arms. “What… What is it?”
Her human sounded pained. “… You look amazing with your hair down.”
Yamame Kurodani swallowed a globe of spit. “Then why… Why do you look like you’re upset?”
The human Paran removed his hand. Then, standing up, he gave to the spinstress a smile so sweet, so saccharine, almost at once Yamame Kurodani knew mistakes had been made – and not by him.
“Figure it out,” he told her gently, and headed for the kitchen.
Yamame Kurodani could not figure it out. Certainly not before her human called her over to breakfast – nor after they had finished wearing out their supply of delicacies in (what may be imagined as something even quieter than) their regular quiet. Not before the human stood up and hurled himself into clean-up routines – nor after he had shooed Yamame off to her own assignments. Not before the spinstress huffed an exasperated, “Snake!”… Nor after she had clicked the door of her study firmly shut behind her back.
Yamame Kurodani could not figure it out. But, much though she would sigh all over it afterwards, once her brain had swapped frustrating words for ink and lambskin, lines and curves and figures, what matter her human’s unspoken offences had made was fast unspooled into irrelevance.
Across the next hours, an unobtrusive (but still obscuring) hummock was raised from the surrounds of the bath-house described on the parchment, as was a tasteful parterre – with flowerbeds and winding flagstone paseos for the bathers to walk and moult the excess heat. A small arbour – to sit and take tea in – as well. Almost, and Yamame Kurodani, the Underworld’s most tireless architect, would have – for no reason but her creativity desired – added in tables for shōgi and other entertainments to the project, too; then, however – and it was a “however” as brusque as an overlarge prey tearing down a web – the flow of peaceful, productive hours was abruptly staunched.
The stopper to these hours… was a knock on her sanctum’s door. Against and despite the inner architect Yamame raging for having to put down her pencils, the outer, physical Yamame put on a pretty, welcoming smile, and turned around in her chair to call out:
“Yes? Come on in!”
Yamame’s smile brightened first – then shrivelled up and became a lack of one, as Paran’s own lack of smile unfolded into view. The human, stiffly, inched the door ajar till just the breadth of his head may be squeezed through. Which it then promptly was.
“… Visitors,” the frowning head announced.
And visitors they audibly were.
A voice, which could not have been Paran’s – less the man were magickally turned fifteen years younger and the opposite sex – spoke in irritable tones from the other side sooner than either Yamame or her human could do anything else to precede it.
“Would you kindly?” the visitor complained. “I know how to swivel a door, thank you. I’m not an invalid.”
Paran’s face turned fifteen years but older in – and for – and instant; then, sighing, Yamame’s favourite human shoved the offending door to the limit of its openness.
What stood with its hands mounted irascibly on its hips behind it, scowling a tiny scowl up at Yamame’s human, was something which – had the Underworld not been the Underworld, and Yamame’s home not Yamame’s home – could be mistaken for a female human nestling. As tall (or short) as Paran’s waist, no wider than half of Yamame’s favourite; but what this visitor lacked for in dimensions, the confidence with which she carried them became the responsibilities attached to her name. For here was one belonged to the Underworld’s mind-reader clan. Here was a woman of the Komeiji family – small though they were, all the same governors of the underground realm since uncountable years. Stuffed inside a dumpy, flower-patterned cloak (no doubt to ward off the tunnels’ cold), the bottom end dragging miserably on the floor; but mode of dress was no status indicator in the Underworld – and a Komeiji was a Komeiji, no difference.
“Never mind,” sighed the Komeiji girl, genuinely more fit to be lifted and spun than for governance. “Never mind. Have it your way. Menfolk… Hello there, Kurodani. Good day. I’m not interrupting, am I?”
Joined with the Komeiji’s levered attention, Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues – but for all intents and purposes mistress of the house as well – picked herself up from her chair, and bowed her head. “Good day,” she replied. “Um, I’ll be honest—”
“You will, too.”
“… I was at work just now,” Yamame finished, the edges of her mouth quirking. “Although, likely that doesn’t account for very much anymore. Now you’re here anyway, I mean.”
“Not much,” agreed the Komeiji; “and I am here anyway, yes. Now, now, Kurodani, don’t take this otherwise than it is – I don’t mean to keep a genius mind away from its entertainment overlong. Those need their release – else things happen. Things which neither of us could possibly regret more than the other. As a matter of— ugh, in point,” the little governess stressed, as though correcting a mistake, “in point of fact, I’ve still more chores of my own to tick off today. So say, Kurodani – why do we not sit down, and get it out of both of our ways at once? Hmm? Pretty please; and, if you would, don’t make it too hard a ‘please,’ either,” she added. “I know you don’t like us a lot; but, as someone I know says: not liking someone doesn’t mean we should want to make their every waking moment a tragedy.”
Yamame lifted a brow. “Visiting me is a tragedy?”
The Komeiji girl humoured the jab with a tiny chuckle. “I saw that coming,” she said; “but no, not really. The caves are, and that cold. I hate that cold – and the quicker we are done here, the quicker I’ll be able to get past what I need to get past of it to get back home. Well?”
“… All right,” Yamame gave up. “Very good. I’ll make—”
The little governess shrugged an arm out of her cloak, raising a hand up. “Thanks all the same,” she said, “but no need to make it official. Tea would make it. As a— bother, in point of fact, all I want is to ask you a few questions. The tea wouldn’t even cool enough to drink. So I promise you. Send your concierge away – he’s giving my brain an ache – and I’ll be gone sooner than you can decide if I’m bothering you at all, or if you should perhaps report me. So pretty please, Kurodani – pretty, pretty please.”
Yamame didn’t please – not yet at any rate; instead, she glanced over to where the man Paran – poised like a snake – was hovering above the Komeiji girl. The glance caught; and, sensing it, Yamame’s human quit eyeing the little governess and her cloak. Very faintly, Yamame shook her head. Very faintly, the human nodded his. Then, less faintly, he stepped out of the doorway to allow the Komeiji through.
Once she was, he shut it close again, with himself outside. A sprinkling of heavy footfalls, and he returned to whatever it was he had been doing before. Cleaning? Not unthinkable; but for Yamame’s bedroom, the house had not seen a mote of dust for months. Nor had the stove puffed stored-up soot, or dirt screech underfoot on the floorboards. Concierge, Yamame repeated inside her thoughts. It was a prettier word than “caretaker” and no mistake; but, she weirdly discovered, less intimate. Colder. More impersonal. Not the one she wanted.
Had she not been turned away, the Komeiji girl – who was, in point of fact, turned just so – could have caught the mother of plagues, Yamame Kurodani, bite down on her lower lip in frustration. She didn’t. The little governess was stuck, glaring after the departed Paran, as though the human had given her an insult the daughter of the Komeiji had at once fully expected, but silently hoped would pass her by.
“Why?” she was muttering under her nose. “Why do they do that? Why?”
Yamame Kurodani blinked away her strange grievances (not too far, but far enough) – then did so again, when the Komeiji girl turned around, and revealed her own lower lip to be squeezed between little white teeth.
“Why do they do what?” Yamame asked, her curiosity speaking before her mislike of her guest.
The Komeiji girl was a picture of ruffled pride. “The doors!” she moaned. “The deuced doors! It’s just a slab of wood with a handle on the side. Why do men think we can’t operate those by ourselves? It isn’t sorcery! Argh, it just… just gets up in my hair so much! So much in my hair!”
Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, met this new – but not unknown – plague with a sympathetic smile. Very little though it was, it was gratifying just the same.
Men and architecture weren’t, after all, troubles exclusive to herself.
>The caves are, and that cold. I hate that cold – and the quicker we are done here, the quicker I’ll be able to get past what I need to get past of it to get back home. Well?” >“… All right,” Yamame gave up. “Very good. I’ll make you a better coat”
I was totally expecting this. How dare she have cold in front of the beast seamstress in Gensoyko.
Twenty minutes later, Yamame quit her bedroom possessed of a twain of new things.
The first of these was an opinion. The second was a clear heart.
“Well, did you?”
These had been the Komeiji’s first words – after she had seated herself in Yamame’s chair, and Yamame – on her unmade bed.
“Well, did I what?” Yamame had returned.
The Komeiji’s patience had not been sewn with a thread which stretched much; and, the piece of her mind given what she thought of Yamame’s hostility (not much), and how much easier she would make it by answering straight (much, much), the little governess had restated her question.
“I didn’t kill anyone,” Yamame had insisted.
This had been good enough for the Komeiji. “That’s good enough for me,” she had said. “Good. It’s beneath you, and we would have been very put off if you had. Now, Kurodani. Why do you not tell me a bit about your work? What have you been poring over recently?” Once Yamame had picked her jaw up from her lap, and given a voice to her confusion (a suspicious voice) at such a dramatic transition, the little governess had laughed. “Mind, Kurodani,” she had told the frowning earth spider. “Hate us, deride us, push us away all your heart desires; but no matter your hate, we will always be – and have always been – on your side. Obscure, prevaricate, dissemble and delay all you want – but we will have already ascertained what needed be ascertained. The Moon-doctor’s pet spoke of spider poison, and yet this is not how you would have killed. Without this door is a scrumptious young human, ripe to sate all manner of appetites, and yet he is lacking for no livelihood. Behind me on the desk is evidence of higher pursuits than satisfying a petty instinct. The entire case is a foregone conclusion, Kurodani. Why have I dragged my feet all the way up here then, you’re wondering? This is because, in the eventuality the aforesaid pet comes to bother us again, my family wants something to rub in their face to demonstrate how useless they are being, and how productive you have been compared to them. That’s all. Mind, Kurodani. We will be putting your sisters to the question; they are more excitable than you, and closer the description – but you… You are their elder. That human we mentioned? He is proof – maddening proof, but proof – perhaps also their better. Taking after the best, perhaps.
“So you see, Kurodani,” the Komeiji had finished, smiling an impatient smile. “So you see – we are on your side. Notwithstanding how much you hate us, how much we are up in your hair, or how enervating you find our attentions – interests of the Underworld are always first to our minds. This is what I’ve been taught, and this is what I mean to propagate. So, to aid this noble, noble mission of mine… Give me something with which I could send a useless pet back to their master short of an ear – pretty, pretty please, Kurodani. The more, in point of fact, the better.”
That had been when Yamame had received her clear heart. The opinion had followed in a short time; and the opinion was this: that a Komeiji (or this Komeiji at least) made for as good and graceful a listener as a victim of listening to twice the architectural declamation at once (spoken and thought) might be. More graceful, for certain, than some Yamame had boasted to until now.
Twenty and one minute later, Yamame Kurodani, the Underworld’s greatest architect reaffirmed, stood in the entranceway of her house, watching one of the dreaded Komeiji mind-readers wrestle with the laces of her high travel boots.
Yamame’s human – one who, someway, somehow, somewise, had aided in establishing her innocence simply by being without the door – was now beside her, as well watching the little governess’s efforts. As not to agitate, enervate, or madden the recently smoothed-out mind-reader, Yamame held on to one of the human’s arms – keeping him well, and away, the front door, which – if opened by the wrong hand – might again ruche the delicate Kurodani-Komeijic relations.
The Komeiji girl at last tightened the laces on the twelfth tier (of fifteen) of eyelets on her boots, and gave both her hosts the benefit of her stately full height of two-thirds Yamame.
“Off to catch more spiders, then,” said the little governess, clapping her hands on her sides. “That, or the chill. Maybe both? Gods above, I hope not.” Then, very plainly noticing something – something in the arrangement of Yamame and her human – the girl’s little nose twitched with a nosiness worthy of a nose thrice the size. Paran’s, maybe. “Indulge me, Kurodani,” said the Komeiji, eyes narrowing. “Other than that you work together – far as I gather – what kind of… association do you two have, anyway?”
“Association?” Yamame looked up at her human. “What kind of association do we have?”
Paran looked down at Yamame. A Paran’s worth of words purled out of his mouth. This left the mouth resolutely closed, and the words at a secure count of zero.
“What I meant,” the Komeiji girl explained, “is what kind of relationship you two have. Other than that you work together. This is known.”
Yamame – again – looked up at her human.
This time – and she discovered this as the human sternly looked back – it was suddenly her mouth that wasn’t opening.
“… Partners.” The statement was delivered with Yamame’s voice, from Yamame’s lips, off of Yamame’s tongue. All but, and Yamame would have thought herself the deliverer. “We’re… We’re partners,” she said – in this instance quite consciously – eyes gliding back over to the Komeiji girl. “Mhm.” She nodded. “That’s probably the best word to put to it. We work together, live together, and trade services. That makes us partners – doesn’t it?”
The little governess’s brows rose halfway up her forehead. “Is that so, now?”
“We work together, live together, and trade services,” Yamame repeated. “Paran handles talks for me on the surface; in return, I lend him a roof over his head and food for his plate. He negotiates and ferries my payments, and in return, I… lend him a roof… and food for his plate. He cooks said food and keeps the house habitable, and in return… Well, there’s the roof – and the food.” The spinstress felt an ungainly pink slowly working up her face. “All right. Maybe it isn’t very balanced,” she confessed; “but it’s still a partnership! It is, isn’t it… right?”
The Komeiji girl said nothing; only, coquettishly tilting her little head, she slid her gaze diagonally up and to the side of the flushing Yamame.
Had Yamame Kurodani been quicker on the pick-up, she might have done the same the mind-reader had. Had Yamame’s human not been wrenching his arm out of Yamame’s hold – or looping it round her back, or grabbing her by the flank, or scaring the earth spider corpse-stiff doing so – she might, if nothing else, done something to hedge against the previously slow pink exploding red all over her face. Had those been the case, Yamame Kurodani might then stop her human from leaning down; she might swat away the fingers parting her hair. Most of all, Yamame Kurodani – had she but not been the surprised Yamame Kurodani she was – might not have the human pressing his lips to her cheek in full sight of their visitor.
The Yamame Kurodani she was, needless to say, did the explicit opposite to the above.
A moment later, as gently as tugging down a wallpaper to be reapplied soon, Yamame’s favourite human pulled his trespassing lips away.
“… Those kinds of partners,” he told her, his expression very serious, “they don’t do this, Yamame.”
Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, the yearly malady, had a great many replies to be given out in occasions like these. Many of those replies were clipped and easy to articulate – permutations of “Why?!” and “Stupid!” and “Snake!” and likewise; but whatever were pushing now out of her clamping throat, were blown away in a gust of clamorous, belly-hugging laughter.
Not her laughter – but the laughter of the Komeiji girl, now bent over and afoul of the nastiest bout of cackles.
“Oh my,” the tiny mind-reader gasped past the bouts. “Oh my, oh no… Oh dear, dear me. Mother is going to turn purple once she hears about this. Totally, totally purple! Taking after ‘the best,’ indeed! Oh dearest, dearest me…”
The youngest of the Komeiji, righting herself, wiped the tears from her autumn-sky eyes with a sleeve of her flowery coat.
“Oh my,” she said. “Well, I did ask. My mistake, and my stomach.” The Komeiji girl shook her head. Then, she grinned. “Gods above, Kurodani. Hope to Old Hell this one hasn’t had anything terrifying bound to him. Those kinds of men are the worst.”
Wild Random Theory: Paran is this Komeiji's brother, and thus Satori and Garion's crot- I mean son. Paran and this Komeiji seems to be irritable to each other, like siblings would. Perhaps Paran stumbled upon Yam's dwelling during his journey back home after spending some time wandering above ground like Garion.
Or alt-alternatively, Occam’s Razor applies to more than Yours Truly’s drinking night aftermaths.
Good day. OPenile Devastation here. Reminder C91 is coming up.
My work is demolishing me lately (12-hour shifts in the busiest season of the year messes up my Zen, dudes), and my update schedule has been atrocious to reflect it. Sorry for that. Worry not, however – for it is about to get even worse! Christmas is around the corner after all, and I can’t promise you an update before it hits fully, and I am embroiled in things sorely lacking for adorable spider girls. Additionally I have been oddly aching after some Banki writings of late… That makes two things I’d much rather weren’t happening.
Will you ever forgive me? Keep in mind: if you don’t, I’m cutting this story’s throat. So divide the world into those who forgive me and those who weep, and put yourself on the correct side, “pretty please.”
I dunno man...forgiveness isn't something I offer lightly. I suppose I will through, but only because I usually end of working 12s this time of year as well, since so many people take time off to be with family.
Whatever else to which Paran had been bound, nothing else than infinite diligence was manifesting.
The Komeiji girl sent off and fare-welled, two blinks of an eye had already seen Yamame’s human launched off again toward the kitchen. Must have been the same diligence, then (for what else, the earth spider couldn’t imagine), which had whipped him around when Yamame’s voice (nowhere so obedient) had at last worked out of her mouth.
“Stop right there!”
The voice had been rendered shrill by the pressures battling inside Yamame’s body – but it had worked, and that was everything that made a difference in the end. No deliberation had preceded it; still, when the human had matched her glare, it had all been very deliberate.
“… Yes?” Paran had asked, as equable as a brick wall. “What is it?”
Yamame Kurodani, never one to let a challenge pass, had taken the question and spun it around. “What was it, you mean!” she had said. “What was that? What were you thinking? Why? What was that even about?”
“What was even what about?”
“Cheek!” Yamame had spat, “Touching! And in front of Komeiji’s brat, too!”
Paran, brows rumpling, had folded his arms. “… What about it?”
Yamame had swallowed. “We weren’t…! That wasn’t…! I’d thought that was just for us!”
The human had not relented. “Isn’t it? I didn’t touch the girl.”
“That’s not what I—!” Yamame had begun.
Then, however – spearing through whatever arguments were still issuing from the earth spider’s throat – her favourite human had smiled. “… I did warn you,” he had told her, even as Yamame’s jaw had stuck so fast it might well have been nailed close. “I did warn you, didn’t I? That I’d be ‘very annoying starting today.’ Well. Here you have it, Yamame. Altogether your lapse.”
The human had uncurled his smile at having delivered these words; and then, leaving the earth spider with a beetroot for a face and porridge for wits, he had withdrawn – to whatever all-important house-chore had been interrupted by the Komeiji girl’s visiting.
It had been hours since; and Yamame Kurodani, she who had faulted her human with a brick wall’s stubbornness, now sheathed her drawing tools in the drawers of her desk, below a now all-but-complete draft of Myouren-ji’s bathhouse-to-be.
A list of invoices had been drawn up as well as lines and angles: names atop names atop names of material and materiel the Underworld’s architect and her associates would require from the priestess Hijiri. None too sparing, perhaps – beside hitherto projects her crew had taken under; but any overhead was a bargaining ground, and those may be taken or given in the midst and mists of negotiations. Negotiations which – if he was yet himself – Yamame’s human would, in the coming days, carry to Myouren-ji’s large-hearted master. Time would tell how large.
As for Yamame Kurodani, bound in the present, this marked the extent of her duties for the meanwhile; and the spinstress, stretching all four of her limbs, quit her chair, as well as her bedroom, and went off to find him whose own duties were yet to be satisfied.
This much she found in her salon – fixed once more atop her sofa, wreathed in a smell of cleaning salts, with the still-unfinished book opened on his lap. As she quietly approached, Yamame – undetectable on her bare feet – tugged the bow out of her hair; then, over and across the arm-rest of the sofa, the earth spider jumped – landing on her haunches at her human’s side. Though not the heaviest among her sisters (certainly nowhere near the top), all the same the cushions rippled underneath Yamame, and – as certain as a fly catching in the far end of a web – so too did this motion travel on, until it broke the human’s notice.
No notice harder to break than Paran’s; but with enough spider (still not the heaviest), that as well was doable.
Yamame’s favourite human shut his book. Then, as though expecting her all along, he turned – very calmly – and met with an earth spider after reparations.
For all the good it did his near future, he did short, good work of whatever surprise he had for Yamame’s appearance. “… Take it the project’s done, then,” he said. “… Is it?”
Yamame gave a nod. “Yes. The project – and figures; I’ve got everything done Hijiri may want to see.”
“Can I see?”
Had Yamame Kurodani not been the genius she was, she might have considered the human’s shaping frown a compliment for her work’s limitless attraction; yet since a genius she was, the Underworld’s architect held her celebrations off. “Not yet, anyhow,” she calmed her human down; “it isn’t even evening, yet. I’ll fill you in on everything, of course – so you know what exactly you’re dropping on Hijiri’s head – but not yet. No. Not yet.”
Paran’s brows began relaxing. It was a slow, careful motion – but there it was. “… When?”
“Later. After this. Maybe tomorrow.” Yamame bored her spider eyes into her human’s. “… I’ve let my hair down for you, you know.”
The human’s brows stopped relaxing. “… I see that,” he drawled. “… Why?”
“It’s not yesterday anymore.”
“… It isn’t,” Paran agreed, though not before taking a deeper breath. “It hasn’t been since morning, really.” The comment struck a wrong thread in Yamame’s mind; but sooner than she could untangle its meaning, her favourite human put his book away and demanded, “… So what?”
Had it been a demand? But Yamame Kurodani was too far woven into her own visions of the next few minutes to allow for sidelights on her human’s less understandable quirks. There was only one quirk which mattered now. The same quirk which, days before, Yamame Kurodani would have called human.
Now, all evidence presented, it seemed it was an earth spider’s as well.
( ) Go for the kill. ( ) The kill will come to her.
Which I’m really sorry about. Still, thought you might appreciate a heads-up. This story isn’t dead, or even dropped – but I am. Weather broke, and I caught a tough case of winter depression. This is going to blow over, I just can’t tell you (or myself) when. Sooner rather than later, I hope.
If only I had a cute dullahan to pick me up, that’d be gone in an instant...
And an earth spider, opposite to humanity, needed not moderate her quirks.
So – an earth spider yet, despite recent slights – Yamame Kurodani rose up on her knees. So the greatest of spinstresses fixed her hands on the human’s shoulders. So the mother of plagues – afflicted more herself as of late – matched her amber gaze against that of her partner’s. So she swallowed down the itch to curl up and roll away when the match was joined very well.
“I’m…” Yamame began, “… going to do something. Steady for me a little, OK?”
“What is that?” the human asked.
“Something to do with touching.”
“… What is that?” he asked again.
“Something you didn’t do yesterday,” Yamame explained. “Something you didn’t… want to do yesterday. That. That something.”
The human’s shoulders tensed up – then sagged. “… I see,” he gave up. “… Very good.”
Yamame giggled her nervousness. “That’s it? ‘Very good?’ No bargaining?”
Paran’s head rotated left and right. “No,” he said. “… No,” he said once more, firmer. “I knew what it would be.”
“Still you aren’t going to try to run away?”
His lips curled up sardonically. “Would running have worked?”
“Maybe for a time,” Yamame allowed. “Then, I’d track you down. Then, I wouldn’t be so patient anymore. I’m not patient even now.”
There was a wrong in the way her weight distributed on her human, and Yamame, the geometrical sage she was, let go of his shoulders, and looped her arms behind his neck instead. A fool’s hope had her impressed – for a moment – the human had leaned in the better to support said weight; but this impression went no further than the moment, and Paran’s expression remained as unsupportive as it had been.
Yamame’s impatience threatened collapse.
“So there,” she rounded off, at no point in particular. “There. That’s right. I’m going to touch you – and nothing else you say or do can head it off now. Not running. Not excuses. Nothing.”
“Nothing at all?” Paran wanted to know.
“Nothing at all,” Yamame told him, and it was all but a promise. “It is inevitable. You’re caught. Stuck. There’s no web, but you’re stuck all the same. There’s only one thing you can do now, and that’s to steady for me. So… do steady for me, Paran. OK?”
“… I would have anyway,” Paran grunted in return.
Yamame Kurodani did not believe him. Not at all.
Yet belief – wherever it was by now, the elusive thing – came out unnecessary either way; and the human did steady: straightened his back, shut close his eyes, even angled his head a few degrees to the side all in one smooth motion – as though all of these elements were crucial someway for what would follow.
They were, too; and Yamame – sliding even closer than she had been already – dimly came to understand how important each was to prevent further embarrassment for either one of them. For the further Yamame leant on her human, the more of her weight rested solely on his back. For the closer she was, the more apparent it became there would no longer be anywhere comfortable to set their eyes; and as for those delusorily few degrees at which his head was resting, Yamame found soon enough they smartly kept her nose from smashing painfully into his. Almost, and Yamame Kurodani – a spider seconds away from her goal – would have thought her human acquainted with being touched in this, unusual, way.
Almost… and she would have thought he had been, by someone else, already.
The idea bubbled up to the surface of her mind, and instantly began to jell into an ugly skin; and had Yamame not chosen just then to – at last – softly press her lips on her human’s, it may very well have soured the moment without reversal.
It was good, then, that she had.
The sensation – as many late sensations had been, where her human was involved – was novel.
Not the novelty of a stranger ritual being inflicted on her hands; nor that of a familiar one being laden with a new meaning. This novelty – it came from something external: external to the satisfaction of having achieved her desires, or having contested her shame and won said contest – external, even, to the faint, physical pleasure of her skin making intimate contact with somebody else’s. It was, in truth, external to any part of Yamame – whether the part was free, or engaged closely with her human.
What it wasn’t external to, was the human himself; and Yamame, a few long seconds more in the pass, at last put a word to this novel feeling.
It was being trusted.
It had to be; though her human had given her pieces of trust before, none had matched the trust he was now displaying. None had ever had him trust Yamame this far. None had, indeed, ever before had him allow the mother of plagues (insofar as anyone could disallow her from anything) this close to a part of himself so critical to his work – or indeed continued well-being. None had ever had him submit so completely to the whims of she, who could end this well-being with a thought. Most of all, none of them – even the flash of trust from the previous day, when they had been together in her bedroom – had ever made Yamame Kurodani’s tiny heart beat this fast.
Was trust supposed to do that? But Yamame Kurodani had no time to answer questions nobody anyway had asked; the human was making a distressed sound, and – with a pull of distress of her own – she remembered Paran had been keeping his breath inside him all the while.
Afoul of exceeding again her own principles and cursing whichever god had designed her human to be so dependent on air, Yamame broke the trust which he had so strenuously raised up from nothing.
The trust, the physical contact, all the rest – everything was broken together; and Yamame Kurodani, silently cursing, drew herself away.
And yet, when the human had sucked in his due of fresh air, and when he opened his eyes – first up to half-way, then with a rusty difficulty to full openness – her first thought was that she liked those eyes. Maybe not the eyes themselves – for this would brand her tastes odder than the oddest of youkai – but the way they looked at her cut a good approximate for her confused feelings. It was an approximate which Yamame – unaccountably – found herself wishing extended to indefinity.
It did not extend that much. It did not extend half as much.
It did not, in fact, extend as far as Paran’s mouth; but – once that, too, was opened – something else came out which arrested her attention.
“Here it is, then,” the mouth was saying. “All the work you did, right there. Months. You ass. You twice-folly-loving ass.”
Paran’s eyes – those delightful eyes – gave a blinking of their own; and – as though only now noticing the earth spider with whom he had been sharing something which, as far as Yamame’s understanding, one did not share with those they had but recently noticed – his stare became a little wild.
Throughout the next moments, the human Paran went through a peculiar sequence of changes. This was, perhaps, the least which could be said of a human who, in the span of the previous minute, had survived both the attentions of an earth spider and calling her a donkey. Still yet, for all the trust he had shown her, Yamame Kurodani was determined the end of these changes should (if nothing else) offer at least a feasible connection between the two.
It didn’t. Less – for whatever the connection was, Yamame, apparently, wasn’t it.
“… Not you,” said Paran, having gone from panic-Paran, through a shame-faced Paran, to a Paran who, had he but the ability, would burrow between the cushions of the sofa and die. “Not you, Yamame,” this last Paran groaned, denied his desires. “Just…”
A fourth version of Paran came on then, and this one had its hand firmly plastered over its face. “… Me,” it said. “Just me. All me.”
“That is selfish,” joked Yamame. No humour came out of it. “I don’t understand, you know. What about you? You did fine.”
“Still alive, yes,” Paran joked back. It made for two stillborn jokes that afternoon. “As well you don’t understand, Yamame,” the human sighed. “It is easy for you, because you’ve got a lot of pride to spare. Me – not so. That’s why this is so… difficult.”
Yamame’s chest squeezed. “It costs you pride to do these things with me?”
“Yes. A lot.”
Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, took in a sharp breath. It was a stopgap measure. A stopgap measure and a desperate bid – a bid not to burst into a spray of wounded pride and other emotional shrapnel. As good, so, that the gap was swiftly filled in by something else.
The something was the wounded pride of someone else.
Paran was choking. Not on anything physical; but, where the frailties of human physiology were in play, words, apparently, were enough to stop up a man’s throat. “That’s—” he rattled out at last, “That’s not it, Yamame. Not because— Not because you’re—”
“Not human?” she supplied.
Paran’s eyes shut, and his head wriggled left and right, pained. “That’s not it,” he restated. “That’s… not it at all. You’ll recall I’ve… kissed you, before, yes? Once… Almost twice; and I didn’t forget for a moment what – who – you were, either. Still did it. So, no.” He shook his head again. “That’s not it.”
“What is it, then?”
Paran’s eyes laboriously inched open. Though if this had been to do the obvious and allow him to see Yamame again, the part of her which lay the greatest hold of his attention was, evidently, located someplace on her waist.
With the kind of lateness too frequent recently, Yamame Kurodani, the spinstress with the most interesting waist, became conscious her arms had remained steadily hooked around her human all throughout their talk. This, maybe immediate to an outside observer, feature of their present arrangement now had the earth spider realising, all of a sudden, that her human was still firmly within…
What was that? Yamame’s brows squished together. Kissed?… Kissing.
… Still firmly within kissing range. The thought… felt wrong. Not in terms of accuracy – this much any aforesaid observer could swear to; but to be within a striking distance from a human, and yet to crave nothing more than to touch her lips to theirs – that was wrong. Wrong and unnatural. It was vulgar and forbidden, at once base and scandalous, and – as Yamame was quickly discovering – very, very thrilling.
Too quickly, and almost too thrilling; but – in a trend of ongoing confusion – she felt somehow impossibly fragile as well. Not to be selfishly entertained. Nor was Yamame about to selfishly entertain it; though the selfishness of the Underworld’s greatest architect was in some areas subject to naughty gossip. Still, something else had the alien thought run off. Almost, and Yamame would in fact have lost it completely, when her human spoke again.
“Would you accept,” sighed the human, “if I told you I have been wrong?”
“That’s it?” Yamame chuckled. “We’ve all been. I have been – and do you see me shedding pride about it?”
“Twice?” Paran pushed. “About the same thing – for months on end? No, this is different, Yamame.”
“What have you been wrong about?”
As Yamame had before, now it was her human who inflated his chest with a breath designed to stave off a more volatile alternative. As Yamame had not, he released it in a low, vibrating chuckle, which left him altogether deflated in the end – in more meanings than one.
“See,” he said, “now that, I can’t think how to tell you without clawing my eyes out.”
Those eyes having recently found an enthusiast in Yamame, she decided not to increase their peril any further. “Is it a human thing?” she asked instead. “I mean, what’s bothering your pride.”
Paran shook his head. “It’s a me thing.”
“A human thing, then.”
“A man thing.”
“There’s a difference?”
A small, diffident smile broke out on the human’s face. “… Guess there isn’t.”
A fifth in the line of Parans of late imposed on Yamame now came on; this one – it seemed was rapidly losing an aspect of itself. As like, the final vestiges of pride were sloughing off; or enough of it anyway – for then, the touch with which Yamame had been gifting her human for a while now was at last returned.
At first, it was her shoulders and they alone; then, as though at once hesitant but aware of the final destination, the human’s hands slowly travelled down Yamame’s sides, until stopping at her waist. The destination did not surprise her – not least because of Yamame’s previous observations – but the motion itself had somehow put her in a mind of running.
Yamame killed it off.
“So,” Paran murmured, digging his fingertips into the fabrics of her dress, “How… was it?”
The spinstress cocked her head to the side. “How was what, now?”
The probing of the fingers ceased. Then, at once, it resumed – as though the stopping had been but a misfiring nerve.
“Oh.” Yamame’s own nerves misfired. “Um. It felt… um.”
“… OK?” suggested her human.
The spinstress clutched at the offered thread. “Yes. OK. It felt… OK.” Very OK. “Or… not wrong. Maybe, if you hadn’t, you know, moved your head – then it might have been less OK. A cracked nose would have made it. Could have. Then, maybe if I’d timed myself better… Otherwise, it was OK. Yes. Very…”
Yamame nodded. “Very.”
“… You aren’t stupid,” her human said. “You aren’t, so I’m only saying this once; but that… all of that… That was also a sign of affection. You… know this, yes?”
Now you are telling me? “… I knew,” said Yamame. “Of course I knew. So what?”
“… No.” She shook her head. “No, no take-backs. I told you before, right? That I… liked you. So no, no take-backs. No. Hold on; in the first place, that doesn’t… How would I even—”
“Yamame.” Paran grunted. “I was joking.”
About which part? wondered Yamame. But the joke was done, and the only punchline which remained seemed a certain spinstress.
The human Paran, finality weighing down every motion, let go of the earth spider’s waist. A smile made of resignation was stretching out his lips when – for the first time since before Yamame’s kissing – his eyes re-joined hers in a quiet match. The match was nowhere as even as it had been then; though, even now, the Underworld’s architect couldn’t decide on the safer bet.
“So then,” said Paran. “Want to make routine out of this?”
Yamame frowned. “Routine?” The pick of the word had somehow struck her mental net at a crooked angle. “Why ‘routine?’ What’s wrong with ‘kissing?’”
“A routine,” Paran corrected. “Something regular. A rule.”
“Why is that?”
“To get used to it.” The human shrugged under her arms. “To get you used to it.”
Yamame Kurodani scrunched up her mouth. Not as though she did not want to; and yet, for all the not biting she had exhibited, it looked as if her human had harboured a bite all the same. “I’m fine, Paran,” she told him. “I may have tripped up my timing, all right, but I’m fine. Yesterday, too – I was fine yesterday, and I’m fine today. More importantly, you are fine. Still… alive, as you said. So, fine by any other name. Why should we need a… a rule, now?”
Paran made a tired sound. “… You’re clawing, Yamame.”
“My back – you’re clawing it.”
Yamame forced her fingers to splay. “… I wasn’t.”
“And,” Paran went on, “when I touched you – you were as taut as a bowstring.”
“I didn’t bite!” Yamame insisted. “It can’t be helped; it’s… instincts. I was fine, yesterday – after a while. Weren’t you the one who said, ‘we can never fully escape our natures?’ Well, I can’t – but I am trying. I want to keep trying, and I want to touch you. So there. I don’t want to quit; I just…”
“Need to get used to it?” asked her human.
“… Need to get used to it,” gave up the earth spider. “Yes. Need to… get used to it.” Stepped right on the sticky one, Yamame, she criticised herself inside. “Very good,” she sighed at her human. “Very good, Paran. Let’s get used to it. What rule did you say that was, again?”
“Simple is very good.”
Paran nodded – simply. “Then,” he said, “why don’t we try for… in the morning?”
“Morning sounds good,” agreed Yamame.
“And in the evening?”
“That’s good as well. So,” she summed up. “Morning and evening, then.”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “every morning, and every evening.”
“All right – every morning and every evening.”
“Until…” her human began.
“… Until,” he said, looking straight into her spider eyes, “we can do it – without you going into paroxysms… Yamame.”
And it was then that the snub caught.
And the tension, which Yamame Kurodani had endured since joining her human on her sofa, snapped not unlike a thread – as tensions and threads snap both, when too fat a fly (or any such noisy interruption) chooses to land. Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, the yearly malady, felt her towering pride sway just a little bit, even as she met the one attempting to tip it with a forehead rivalling the most crinkled of shirts.
“Really?! Really!” A note higher, and she would have been squeaking. “Honestly? Seriously – for real?! Have you just done this to me? No, wait. Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. Was that why… That’s why you were upset in the morning – because I didn’t realise you wanted to lose our bet? So then you could… So that I’d have to let you…”
Paran was smiling. “That’s about it, yes.”
“Are you even real?! That’s stupid! You’re stupid!”
“I told you, Yamame,” said the human – and it was as though victory itself was speaking. “I told you. That I’d be ‘very annoying’ starting today. Thrice, now. Well,” he breathed. “Here I am. Good evening.”
And then, clearly in an advance of his promise, he grabbed her shoulders, and kissed her.
Not close; an entire dinner (and washing-up after, and a deal of ineffectual flailing before) had been squeezed into the timetable, and still hours remained in the day. Now, however, evening was in full and undeniable swing (or the swing of the clock’s arms anyway), and Yamame Kurodani found its minutes filtering pleasantly through her mind’s internal web.
Not altogether; but, when her sole complaint was her human’s breath disturbing her still-undone hair every few seconds, Yamame Kurodani was willing toward concessions.
It was the most amazing thing.
No, not Yamame’s hairs not standing on the ends at being so tickled; nor even her permittance of this tickling made such an appraisal justified. What did, was the human’s decision to do so. A braver soul may venture: his own permittance. His trust.
And permit he had – and more. Yamame had had but to wash up after their meal, and miracles had come together; and she had discovered her human again on her sofa, seated comfortably, once her agreed part of the chores had been done. The human been the most absorbed, spinning the comb Yamame had left there in the morning between his clumsy human fingers; still when its owner had approached, the little tortoise-shell artefact from Yamame’s personal vaults had been put aside.
And then, working yet another miracle into the day, the human had opened out his arms, and, never speaking a spell, invited Yamame to fill in the vacancy.
Maybe being offered to be so trusted had won over her spider heart; maybe a deeper need of her being was satisfied by wrapping her arms and legs around something which she now, on some level, knew had a value beyond the obvious pragmatic. All which Yamame could do – all which she could think she could do – had been to accept with a grin that, she hoped, had spoken of gratitude louder than simplicity.
Yamame’s human – once more displaying a kind of spatial dexterity which Yamame would not have suspected in his species – had accommodated her very well: he nudged his nose and mouth into the gap between Yamame’s chin and left shoulder, which in turn allowed said chin to rather snugly come to rest against the human’s own shoulder. An effort of symmetry and consideration, which Yamame’s architect mind could at once see and treasure – even if her heart had not already been doing so itself in its cage.
It had not been until a few moments, then a full minute later, that aforesaid concessions about hair had had to be made. Now, an unknowable time of conceding behind her, Yamame Kurodani resolved that – no matter how “amazing” she looked when she had it down – the hair had to be re-leashed, and soon.
But with this first sullen realisation, others came in following; and Yamame Kurodani’s heart clinched once the next in line had fully appeared.
At a great risk, she had to talk with her human about tomorrow.
Angles at which she might hang the issue were but two – yet either had kinks in it which made her choice agonised. The human may very good start for the priestess Hijiri with the project as soon as the morning – or, he may be persuaded to stay with Yamame for just one more day and see to their new compact; but, while her heart was glad declaring the latter as the only proper course, Yamame’s heart was stupid, and had had to be questioned. The Komeiji girl’s investigation, the irritable natures of Yamame’s siblings which said investigation was like to... well, irritate, to boot with Yamame’s own status as an elder of her kin – these told her in no happy words her involvement in the case could not be walled off with a simple, “I didn’t.”
The brutal truth was, Yamame Kurodani wanted nothing more intensely than for her human to stay and be her cushion all day long. But, where blood and blame were being merrily spilt from hand to hand, upholstery of all kinds was liable to stain.
( ) The cushion had to go. ( ) It would make like a cushion and stay.
Two months late, then two weeks. I don’t know if we’re working up or tumbling even further down.
Hello, Sekimania here. We have not lost our heads yet, but it’s bound to happen soon or late.
First of all, I’d like to apologise for the gap in the updates. I’ve had a rough patch, is about as much as I’m willing to tire you with, and now I’m unemployed again (albeit with a load of money, so eh). You would think a lot of free time would mean a lot of opportunity to write – but the actuality of the situation would surprise you. Well, we’re back for now, and we’re slowly scrubbing the rust off. I apologise for any accidental alliterative atrocities I may have committed above. Those things – they threaten us all.
Hope the long-ish Yamabreak didn’t Yamamake you lose your Yamahope. I’m just gonna Sekisit here and Sekisee what the first vote in two months will Sekishow us. Me, I’m not Banki-ing on anything.
But Yamame Kurodani had been to parties enough; she knew where expensive coverings were best stored: in the next town over. But for the Underworld’s glowing capital no towns were available, however – and this one was no place for Yamame’s cushions. The Human Village, then – farther, and numinous though it was to Yamame – would best store her favourite. Yes, the Human Village had to do.
All of this was, of course, giddiness speaking; the human would store himself soon or late, even if Yamame said nothing and did less. All the same it allowed the Underworld’s architect purpose: enough purpose to screw up her courage, and gently dismantle the perfect arrangement she had been given inside her human’s arms.
“Paran?” The spider’s voice, surprising herself, turned out as little beyond a spider’s whisper. “We need to… talk. Yes. About something. Are you awake?”
The human’s responding sigh swept along the skin of her neck – and through her hair. Yamame’s shoulders flexed all on their own – then came again to a quiet rest, even as her human retracted his breath for a proper reply.
“… Can it wait?” he asked. “I’m in an amazing place right now.”
An unwitting giggle pushed out of Yamame’s chest. “My neck is an amazing place?”
Another giggle followed at that. “That makes the second time, you know?”
Paran’s head moved as though to give a questioning tilt. “… Of what?”
“You,” said Yamame. “Complimenting me. Isn’t it? This morning,” she reminded, “you told me I looked… amazing, right? With my hair let down. Now, my neck as well. That makes two, right? Or was that one just an extension?”
Her human made a rumbling sound. “But I’ve—” Then, his voice broke off. “… I’ll try to do it more often from now on,” he gave at length. “Gods know you’ve merited a compliment or two – or, well, more. Will have to put in more effort, I guess.”
But Yamame was clever enough to know there was more to this clumsy attempt at humour than a clumsy attempt at humour. “All right,” she said. “What is it I’m misunderstanding this time?”
Paran brushed the question off. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing I can’t work out.”
“And you are sure of this?”
“Yes,” Paran said, firmly. “Sure.”
“All right, then,” Yamame allowed. “Work it out, Paran.”
“Very good,” said her human. “… Yamame?”
“… You look amazing with your hair down.”
“We knew that already, didn’t we?” chuckled Yamame. “Though it’s a little inconvenient.”
“Your neck feels amazing as well.”
“That, there – that is a little more difficult to believe,” Yamame said. “Also something we had found out already. Am I really so short on good sides? Only my hair and my neck? That’s a little poor, isn’t it? My sewing’s pretty good, too – you know?”
The human beneath her swelled up with a breath that all but lifted Yamame a full hand-span. “I,” began her human, “I have wanted… have always wanted… to hold you – like this.”
Yamame Kurodani’s heart stopped.
When it shuddered into life again, it could have been hours later – or minutes, or less than minutes, or the clock beyond her bedroom’s door was a traitorous clock, and had modified its ticking to belie the ticking of Yamame’s own spider heart. Whichever of these was to the right, Yamame Kurodani was miserably all left – left dumbstruck and picking at the threads of her wits; most embarrassingly, Yamame Kurodani was left hoping, for the first time, that her human’s dull human senses would not detect just how far left she was.
Something else was telling either way. Yamame, muttering, told her arms to relax.
“… That’s not a compliment,” she accused, once her voice had returned from its trip to the left field. “Thank you, really – but it wasn’t, you know? And there was that word, again – ‘always?’ That’s not what I remember. At all.”
“… Going to have to work out harder,” Paran issued his surrender – a strained surrender, but one all the same.
There was a pause that issued, too; and though only one of these had been meant for her merit (at least so far as guessing stitched), still Yamame seized on both. As good she did; for then, sighing, her human cracked the pause and resumed negotiations of his promise.
“Very good,” he said. “Very good, Yamame… but I don’t mind this anyway.”
“Mind what, exactly?”
Paran shifted – as though the simple motion conveyed exactly everything.
“… This,” he explained finally. “I don’t mind this.”
Or, non-explained. Yamame smiled despite herself.
“This, being holding me?” she asked. “That is also hard to swallow, you know? Considering.”
“I did offer,” her human pointed out. “I offered, and I had offered, in the morning… obliquely.”
“That you did,” Yamame agreed. “… Obliquely.”
Minute by minute, it seemed more as if she had left her genius mind back at her drawing table. The cause did not escape her. More pertinently, the cause could not escape her, so long as Yamame Kurodani kept her arms closed. The thought was comforting (somehow); and with reassured control (of the cause, if not her own feelings), the most skilled of Underworld’s spinstresses spun on toward the understanding which she now (late as centuries) realised both she and her human had been awkwardly spinning around one another throughout the last minutes.
You’re stupid, she thought at her human; but what she said was, “Want to keep doing this as well, then?”
No, you’re stupid, Paran thought back (or Yamame was certain he had); but he returned, “I want to, as well.”
And like that, it was done.
Another catch, Yamame marvelled inside. Another compact between earth spider and human. Had trust been a game, they would have been breaking records.
But trust was no game; and Yamame, turned out, was no breaker of records, but of promises. Almost a breaker of embraces in addition; but by now this peculiar game was familiar to Paran, and the human – once Yamame had but begun to push – loosed what already soft hold he had on the agitating earth spider.
Agitating, and looking the part likewise – which Yamame confirmed positively as soon as she ran a smoothing hand down her golden hair. Paran, for his human’s part, gave the earth spider fussing on his lap a look of his own. The look was concerned. At the same time, the look was amused; it was a wonder of superposition which – had Yamame not been agitated and looking it – she would have quizzed on realms of possibility.
“All right, no!” the spinstress growled, gathering up tails of her hair. “That’s enough. No more! I’m tying it back up. Now! I don’t care if I’m amazing anymore!”
Paran was visibly jousting with a smile. “What’s that?”
Yamame scrunched up her brows. “Hair!” she hissed. “Hair! Which you’ve been blowing up for the last… oh, however long! I’m a spider! Can you imagine how aggravating that gets? When you breathe and breathe into my hair like that?”
“Very!” Yamame snapped. “Very, very aggravating! Should we let yours grow out, so I can blow in it for hours and hours? See how long before you tear?”
“We weren’t that—” Paran began to protest. Then, Paran’s first idea was shoved out of whichever vent in his head produced no voice; instead, a second idea took over behind his eyes. “Actually,” said this idea (or Paran did for it). “Might be able to do something about that.”
“Oh?” Yamame’s curiosity took the fore for a moment. “What’s that?”
“Something for your hair,” her human explained. “When I was going up last time, I said I would find you something nice. Yes? I did. Turned out, it was something for your hair. Still is, more like than not – somewhere in my bags. We could go get it. That is, if you’ll want to get off of me for a bit.”
Yamame didn’t. “Now you remember this?” she said, her previous frown triumphantly returned. “After all this time? Took you a pretty while.”
“Yes, pretty,” her human murmured under his nose. Then, he made a shrug. “Someone distracted me, Yamame.”
“Who? I’ll bite them.”
Had accusation ever had a name, it was “Paran.”
“… You,” said Paran, with double the force of his name. “You did, Yamame – for a pretty while.”
“… Oh,” said Yamame, and it seemed something else was taking on her name as well. A blush – of the stripe which didn’t fear visiting itself even upon the deadliest of earth spiders. “Um… Oh.”
May bite that one, for good measure, she decided. But, as she grudgingly climbed down from Paran’s lap – the human’s, not the accusation’s – the only thing squeezed between her teeth was her own lip.
It was a perplexing thought: perplexing, odd, and not a little late, and one Yamame Kurodani had taken as far as her bed in the end. The room where Paran had now been staying and sleeping for months had taken on his smell; logically, nothing about this had registered in Yamame’s mind as wrong. That it had registered had been less logical. Maybe the hours spent in immediacy to her human had made the similarity more striking; maybe Yamame’s mind had never threaded it with any importance because it had not been important before. The perplexing thought remained: that the heart of Yamame’s home had been co-opted, and with her full approval.
Once, this room had been everything which Yamame could call home.
At one time, one too long to count – when the Underworld had been younger, and Yamame Kurodani had been younger still – a foursquare space, one such as this, hewed from aromatic mountain pines and tiled over with mats-of-straw shamefully abducted from nearby human dwellings, had been all inside which Yamame Kurodani may sleep away her nights. A spider may extend its net wherever in the crown of a tree and live; since Yamame’s run-in with those frangible creatures known as “humans,” however, her spider’s mind had nursed an exuberant craving for walls and floorings, ceilings and doors, and pine-wood panels filled out with straw-mats. Yamame Kurodani had indulged those new needs, and found them closer and closer her heart as work on her cottage nearby the Underworld’s outlets drew to completion.
It had been in the same cottage which the Oni had found her, decades afterwards. The straw-mats had softened in the meanwhile, and the wood walls had grown mouldy and old; still, with her spider’s craft, wiles, and not a trivial amount of cheating magic, Yamame had kept her first home in a habitable state. Nowhere yet as spacious as her current home was (certainly nowhere so tidy, either), Yamame had nonetheless added to her house across the years, spinning whichever material was procurable, and in whatever way her whimsy swung; her spider’s eye and mind seemed to weave through the geometric of raising walls and ceilings as easily as it threaded the octagons of a web. Almost, and Yamame would have been satisfied with this selfish creation alone.
Then, the war had happened. At once at her doorstep, but miles below the layers of black basalt stone as well as her attention; at its close, it was still the disease-weaving spider to whom the Oni had turned in their desperation, to carve them a new home from the destruction their rage had left in its wake.
Yamame Kurodani had given them all she had, and grew from it.
And yet, at the tail of the new Capital’s first decennary, it was its very architect whom the glowing jewel of the Underworld had left with the greatest hunger. Appetite whetted to soreness, wits eaten away by the Oni’s interminable celebration of existence, Yamame Kurodani – now styled builder of the Underworld - had gathered up her tools, hitched up her skirts, and – with a tow-cart of treasure accorded to her by the grateful underfolk squeaking behind her the entire way – journeyed back to her little cottage in Old Hell’s upper reaches.
Across the next years, Yamame Kurodani would continue taking assignments in the Capital under the age-faded eye of the Oni Nikuyama; in return, more treasure, items and material were awarded to the earth spider, dredged up from the once-extravagant ruins of Yamas’ homes which yet remained. When enough of those had been gathered, when crates of plaster and stacks of wood and bricks had been stacked high enough under the vaulted walls of the cave which housed Yamame’s cottage – it was then that the great architect had allowed her desires to cast back upon herself.
And so, drawing on the indignation which she would never have confessed had festered on the underside of her heart, as well as the memories of first raising a home in the human-fashion, Yamame Kurodani, quite single-handedly, had lain the foundations of her new home, which stood even now nearby the Underworld’s outlets. Only this room had been spared the need of repurposing and recycling. Only this one room – not even in its entirety – with its mouldy straw-mat floors and panelled walls, had been worked into the heart of the otherwise brick, mortar and plaster shell of her new home.
Yamame Kurodani was a nostalgic creature like that at times.
This was why, helped no further by the delay with which it had come, the thought that the old heart of her home had been taken over by someone else was perplexing to say the least. An embarrassing parallel had not been lost on Yamame as she had leaned on the door-frame, and watched her human search his bags for his over-late offering.
Paran’s gift had turned out “something for her hair” indeed: a bright golden ribbon – a yard or so in length, four fingers across – and of a fashion which had made Yamame squeal in delight as she rushed forward to examine it. The thrice-folded core of the ribbon had been cut from the same fabric the lining of the wheat-gold dress – the one layered over with fish-scale, that Ashi had named the price for her advice – had been; from end to end, pearl-white lace of a web-like design had been painstakingly sewn on, folded-over, and sewn on again. The design had at once appealed to something inside Yamame’s aesthetic sense, and awoke an ember of jealousy in the pit of her stomach she would have thought impossible to wake at this point.
Paran had laughed when she had carefully felt the stitching with her lips. Yamame had stuck out her tongue at him in reply.
That a human’s creations could still make her jealous had honestly been a little scary; still, as she’d sat cross-legged on the floor and mothered her disordered hair, scarier things yet came back to haunt her.
Yamame had still to tell her human to leave with the project soon.
So she had. Told him, as simply and painlessly as she could.
Paran’s eyes had narrowed; and there, bubbling out from invisible holes and drying into a hard carapace over all, was the staid human Paran whom Yamame Kurodani had known and depended on for well long months before… well, before she had come to know the side of Paran with welcoming arms and likeable eyes as well as dependability.
“You do not want me listening in,” this Paran had said. No complaint had marked his voice; only there was a silent request for confirmation of a suspicion made good on already. “You do not want me listening in on further talk of killings. Is that it?”
Yes, Yamame had thought. “… A little bit of that, a little bit of no,” she had said out loud. “I want to get to work. That is one thing. My sisters, too; the sooner we can put their hands to work, rather than being riled by accusations – which I guarantee you aren’t true anyway – the better for me… and them. Them, principally. Komeiji’s brat knows I didn’t… do anything. That entire family is snakes, but they’re officious snakes when it suits them; they’ll keep pestering me if my sisters call on me and my age for support, even if—”
“—If Yamame Kurodani herself has done no wrong,” Paran had finished. “Very good. I will go. Hijiri wished to display your work as well; this should smooth over offences, if they persist.”
“Yes. That’s what I’m weighing on. More or less. That is why…”
“I will go,” Paran had said, again, with a note of finality. “Will you show me the project, Yamame?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Now is fine, isn’t it?”
A brow had risen on Paran’s face. “No bargaining?”
Yamame had thought it over. “… One condition,” she had decided. “OK, Paran? Only one, I promise. Is that fine?”
“What is it?”
Yamame’s smile had been winning as she’d replied.
“No distractions, OK?”
None had been made, either. Paran had shown nothing else than complete dedication to Yamame’s explanations as she described the project to him in vocabulary the priestess Hijiri as well was like to understand. Nor had he displayed anything else but unerring accuracy next, when Yamame had quizzed him on which parts of the project she had said were grounds for arbitration, and which were entirely undiscussable; nor next, when he had theorised what doubts he thought their employer may raise in addition.
Afterwards, however, a period of distraction was very gracefully approved.
So then, did her bedroom conversely smell like her?
In more meanings and in more ways than one, that was the first thought Yamame Kurodani awoke to the following morning. It had to, to some degree; though experience had taught Yamame that one’s own smell was not easily discernible until well into extremity. The thought steamed on inside her head even as she rose to a sit on the edge of her bed; it steamed on as she extended that to a wobbly stand.
By the time she reached the her bedroom’s door, it was little more than a silly soup boiling over. It was not the extent of silliness for that day, but Yamame Kurodani determined she had best emulate her human and not drink it until the full dish was done.
Yamame could not know it, but two more ingredients would be thrown into the pot before the day was out.
The first was as apparent as Yamame’s first shaky step into what was an already busy kitchen despite the hour.
Upon the kitchen table, a black stain on the tapestry of Yamame’s taste for bright decoration, legs dangling over the precipice, two carmine eyes sunken into the back of the human toasting slices of bread on the stove, was Hachiashi.
Yamame’s jet-haired sister was the first to register the arrival of the house’s mistress. The other earth spider’s gaze slid off of Paran’s back, and walked up and down the arrived Yamame.
“Nice. Mhm. Nice.” Ashi put forward the cryptic flattery that was her trademark never cracking a smile. Then she did crack a smile as she took in the blanket thrown haphazardly over Yamame’s otherwise naked shoulders. “Very, very nice. Good day, Yams. How are we this morning? Slept well? Stayed a touch late last night? Yams, but your legs are as long as the floor! I would kill for those legs. Wouldn’t you?”
The last question had been directed sideways from the spider sisters. No answer came, but for Yamame’s cavernous yawning.
“Hello, Ashi,” the elder of the spinstresses murmured, kneading at her eyes. “Straight from the morning, mm?”
Ashi gave a shrug. “Not my thought, Yams. Snakes, as you’re fond of saying.”
“Mm. Snakes,” Yamame repeated, numbly. “… Paran? Are you leaving soon? That’s your bag, isn’t it?”
It was, stood by one of the chairs at the table; but Yamame’s favourite human – who could have been the first addition to Yamame’s kitchen at its inception and remained there ever since for all he looked like a piece of animate furniture – only rumbled his acknowledgement of his name being brought to bear.
“… Will leave a few for you,” he murmured, it seemed to nobody who merited being looked at as much as being murmured at. Then, rust all but flaking off his joints, he turned around to physically face the earth spiders. “… Yamame,” he named the more dishevelled one. “… Good morning.”
“Mhm,” Yamame replied. “Good morning, Paran.”
The human made as though to do something; but something else caught in the corner of his eyes, and made them flick toward something other yet on the nearby table – or under it, or beyond it entirely. The eyes were soon on Yamame again, and the Underworld’s architect was wise enough to realise the thing which had the eyes so bothered was a question.
Nor had she to know. Trust. Trust had ever been the mortar of relations; so as good it chanced Yamame Kurodani had been stacking trust as of late.
All the stranger then, that – once the Underworld’s builder had given her sleepiest nod in weeks – her favourite human looked rather more startled than trusted. Neither had Yamame Kurodani, earth spider though she was, meant for the nod to be startling; but, it seemed as ephemeral as all other expressions of her human, soon that, as well, gave its place to something else. A decision? As like as anything; though his hands did twitch once in indecision as Yamame’s human extended them out. Out – towards the exact spider who had given the nod.
Oh, right, Yamame had just the time to think before her shoulders were gently pushed down on on either side; and then, There was something like that, wasn’t there?, when her human leaned down to level his eyes with hers.
There was little anything – thoughts, time, or ideas on what to do with it – in Yamame’s world between that moment and the moment in which her favourite human was once again, for the second day in a row, pressing his lips against her in open sight of a guest. Worse yet, this kiss around, Paran had clumsily missed both of her cheeks. Where he had landed instead, had been square between them.
Yamame kept perfectly still. There was a muted reply from her instincts, yes there was – but the human was doing nothing of note but kissing her. There was no need to respond. It was normal. It would pass. The instincts frayed away.
All the same there must have been a reply from Yamame herself; for then, the spinstress felt the human pulling himself free. Not saw – her eyes had shut close somewhere in those fleeing moments before; but when she opened them, Paran was as red as a brick, and covering his face in shame an arm’s stretch away.
Yamame wasn’t awake enough to secure anything above a frown. Her mouth ruffled into a pout. “… Why are you getting embarrassed?”
Paran looked away. “I had not…” Then, groaning, he let the hand drop loose by his side. “I hadn’t thought it through,” he gave up. “It is embarrassing – when it is not just us.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” Ashi put in edgeways from the table.
Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, shot her sister a venomous look. Ashi remained defiantly alive, but shut up. “… Are you leaving soon or are you not?” Yamame demanded again of her human. “Mind, I’m not throwing you out – I’m really, really not – but I did ask you a question. I’m not going to bite you or anything; I just want to know. The least you could do for me right now is spare me the guessing.”
“And more embarrassments,” Ashi chipped in.
“Shut up, Ashi.”
The younger spinstress sketched a shrug. “Yes, ma’am, Yams.”
The human Paran, who had made the best of the sisters’ verbal recreation to overcome the self-inflicted change of colour, righted his back. “Yes,” he said, all-Paran-like again. “I am leaving soon. I have eaten already; I’m only making these to take with. Well, and for you,” he added. “These are our last eggs.”
“Mm? Oh. Thought I’d smelt something good running out,” said Yamame, smiling at her own joke. “… Are they really?”
“More soon, if you do good.”
“If you do good,” Yamame corrected. “That Hijiri has to be someone, if she is building a bath-house with staying rooms. Not upstart priestry, I mean. More than likely she’s got connections she could shake down for eggs. Not that I’d know anything about that. Not half as good as you. That’s why you’re going to be shaking her down, right?”
“The priestess Hijiri holds some sway with the farmers, yes,” said Paran, very seriously. “I will ask about eggs.”
“Mhm. Very good.” Yamame made another yawn. Then, she noticed something else. “… Um. Paran?”
“That toast is burning, you know?”
As she watched her human hip around to pluck the egg-bathed toast from the jaws of calcification, Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, allowed her smile to wilt.
The human was leaving – again.
The news had not been ill-delivered – nor had it been news at all; but for all Yamame Kurodani counted down the hours until her next job, and for all she wished her human out of earshot once talk of his “spider-poisoned” kinsman was engaged, all the same the sense that circumstance had cheated her out of something was firmly stuck in a far corner of her mind’s web. Maybe not circumstance, Yamame thought, watching her human fumble over the cooking equipment; maybe Yamame herself had been the cheater, to have brought human things – trust, compassion, Paran – into this game of…
… This game of what? Youkai-hood? But could youkai-hood be cheated?
Yamame Kurodani, youkai since ages (or at least since Yamame remembered), breathed out her troubles in a hot sigh. This was pique speaking, nothing more. It was pique that she was being delayed. It was pique that she, Yamame Kurodani, would be required to wait until she may again bully her human into showing her more and more trust; it was pique that she, the yearly malady, was being overruled by something other than her own spider’s will.
It was pique that she was unlike to get her evening kiss as well as the morning one today.
Yamame shook her mussed-up head. “… Why, anyway?” she murmured, if for nothing else than to give her irritation an external vector to eat at. “Why are you always up so early? Why do you only sleep in when we are going out together?”
Atop the table, Ashi volunteered her own theory. “Simplicity, Yams,” she said, smiling a knowing smile. “Why, he knows you are going to come wake him up. So he waits.”
Sooner than Yamame could frame what she made of this answer, the human Paran himself wrenched away from the stove, stomped the few steps he had to table, and slammed a plate heavy under egg-infused toast down beside Yamame’s clever-mouthed sister. The human had not perceived it – could not have, with his poor human (if likeable) eyes – but to Yamame’s own spider eyes (and illimited amusement), Ashi had actually jumped.
Then, in the same cloying tone Yamame had only ever heard on those occasions she had been really, really stupid, Paran addressed the younger earth spider – younger may be, but an earth spider still – directly and without reserve.
“Hachiashi,” he told her, saccharine dripping. “… Shut up. OK?”
And then, miracle of miracles, gods-sent under the earth, Yamame’s sister gave an almost meek nod.
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.
>>15329 Of course she is pathetic. Why, Hachiashi is my self-insert after all! >>15330 >>15332 Did you rike it? ☆~( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) >>15331 I’ll have you know flattery is a low, low thing, and will get you everywhere updates, however short.
Yamame Kurodani, the blond star of the Underworld, passed the following three days inside a nebula of productivity.
At her sister’s side, and with said sister’s commentary on nothing and everything lavished preciously on every hour, Yamame had spent the first day picking and pulling lengths of thread out of another spinstress’s lifework. Though Ashi’s fingers had proven a match for her mouth and no mistake; and, at the end of the day, all sizes of squares and wedges of colourful fabrics ready for repurposing had been stacked in neat stacks atop Yamame’s work-desk. Gossip as well – though this thankfully took up no already scarce physical space.
At her sister’s request (or niggling, depending on who was asked), Yamame Kurodani had given the morning of the second day to nursing a cup of tea and poring over a letter to the Underworld’s housebound vicereine. Satori Komeiji had never featured much in Yamame’s faraway corner of the realm – nor were those few instances she had an especially fond memory for the great architect; still, the opportunity presented to communicate with the eldest Komeiji wanting the slatternly-robed governess worming through her thoughts, Yamame had found her natural humour furtively swaying her pen. “My dearest Satori,” Yamame had written – before throwing the parchment bashfully to the side. Then, the next sheet, “Hail, exalted Komeiji” had somewise come out to balance, and Yamame had thrown again.
In the end an honest (if simple), “dear lady Satori” had to do; and Yamame had at last proceeded to relate the late incident in detail which the aspirant youngest Komeiji, in her enthusiasm, might inadvertently have forgotten. Then, her own family name described below the paragraphs in fat, ostentatious runes – half in mockery and half in imitation of priestess Hijiri’s message – Yamame Kurodani had folded up her letter, capped off her tea, and made for Old Hell’s shining Capital.
The Oni Nikuyama had as always brought his arbiter’s resources to work in his lighthouse, and had sworn to get the letter in the hands of someone who, ultimately, would convey it the long way to Satori Komeiji’s bed-stand. This solemn oath delivered, the red giant had brought out his beloved tea urn; and Yamame, who had entirely expected such a bringing-out and had packed her own tea-box, whiled away the remainder of the afternoon in harrumphing company of an old friend.
The third day, Yamame Kurodani had handed in full over to her hobbies. Sooner than the day had been fully out, the greatest of the Underworld’s spinstresses had begun another work yet. Sooner than evening had described on her clock’s seemingly hurrying face, Yamame had traced the scraps retrieved two days before on thin sheets of lambskin with a piece of lead, broadcast the so-made stencils all across her desk, and out of the organised chaos which marked every trained mind’s working space, Yamame had begun to spin her newest piece.
Sooner than sleep had at last dragged her away to bed, a dress-like creation – held together for the moment with a host of colour-coded pins – had been hung up proudly in her bedroom’s garderobe.
So it was with some distracted surprise, that Yamame walked out of her bedroom on the fourth morning to find her favourite human returned.
Though “returned” may be yet a stretch when the human lay asleep, spread devil-may-care from end to end of Yamame’s sofa; all the same Yamame, the star of the Underworld, could not – and would not – fight against the bright smile that tugged at her lips when she smelt the scents of washing soaps and fresh skin hanging in a cloud over her human. Paran must have been returned for a while – or long enough anyway to shower and change into the gorgeous bathrobe Yamame had sewn for him for just such occasions. Why here, though? Why had he not gone back to his room, where a comfortable futon was ever ready for use? No gods were telling.
These idle questions were anyway walked away into the unknown when Yamame knelt on the floor beside the sofa and her carelessly sleeping human. Sudden, or merely unnoticed before; another thought had now snaked into emptied space. A simple thought, which somehow brought back to mind their bittersweet good-bye from days before, and jerked Yamame’s smile.
She wanted to tie him up.
No why or how had declared itself. Only this simple craving, not unfamiliar to her spider’s heart.
The ribbon, brought from Yamame’s bedroom to assist in morning hair rituals, had now found unexpected new employ. Had the mother of plagues not been mired in other diversions, other – more appropriate – tools may have been spun for the occasion; now, the ribbon – in a turn of irony, her human’s own gift – had to serve.
Nor would it serve badly; it slid easily enough under the sleeping human’s arms, and coiled nicely around his wrists. Twice, and thrice, and once again, the golden strip of fabric went and joined the two surprisingly hefty arms together at the outermost joint. Made to hold the wealth of Yamame’s hair, and then to stick out still (some of Yamame’s sisters said, in the likeness of a specially reckless butterfly), there even remained enough of the ribbon to tie into a pretty knot. Yamame stood up, swung a leg over her human, and – to secure a better angle – quietly sat astride him.
But Yamame Kurodani, grapple though she had with many troubling realities and won already, had still to face another: that the Underworld’s great architect, smaller though she were than her favourite human, even in this form had still an abundance of limbs and assorted body parts hanging from her airy spider’s heart. That a creature such as she, even if still not as heavy as some others she knew, had a weight to mind all the same.
That, this weight saddled out of nowhere on his lower body, her human was certain to notice something was wrong.
What was, of course, was Yamame; and the human did notice: gasped at first something about eggs, and strained at his hastily tightened binds. Then, with difficulty, his eyes inched open; and there, in those lovable, lovable eyes, mounting as quick as Yamame had mounted him moments before, was…
Too quick, and no mistake. Yamame had but thought to retract her fingers when her human once more strained violently at the ribbon tying his wrists together. Then, bent at the elbows, Paran whipped his arms back…
… And smashed the conjoined fists into the side of Yamame’s skull.
Yamame Kurodani had been hit before.
Never mind she worked on build sites, where bricks and bags of plaster flew from one pair of arms to another as ready as the insults which followed any failed pass; Yamame Kurodani had raised – and been raised in – a city of Oni. No amount of time spent nearby the Oni was a largely sober one; and no amount of drink could ever damp the belligerent underlining the horned folk had worn and patched for millennia. Yamame Kurodani had been hit before; and if she had to grade this latest hit against being rough-handled by a sake-soaked Oni, trounced by an overbearing Hakurei shrine maiden, or clawed at by an earth spider who had somehow missed a very straight pass, it was nothing to bite over.
So Yamame Kurodani did not bite. Though she did gnash her teeth until enamel squeaked; but she did not bite – and it was an enormous victory.
But whoever was winning, Paran was not he; and Yamame’s human – having furiously blinked away the previous one – now had an entirely new panic settling in behind his (how were they still?) lovable eyes.
“Yama—” He choked, even as his arms flaked and collapsed across his chest. “… Yamame?”
Yamame opened her mouth, but all which made out of her clinched throat was a rattling noise. The spinstress spun it into a groan, before the human could sense her… well, whatever it was he sensed in her. “… I am here,” she said, and her voice was a needle scraping on a fingernail. “I am here,” she said again, and this time it was only scraping on a thimble. “… Hello.”
“… Hey,” Paran replied.
“Welcome back,” Yamame scraped on.
“… I am back,” Paran agreed.
A butterfly made of silence wriggled in between them, likely landed on the flowery cockade binding the human’s wrists.
At its end, Paran wriggled it off.
“… Yamame,” he said, shifting under her uncomfortably. “… I did not mean to do that.”
“I know,” said Yamame.
“I am a nervous sleeper.”
“I know,” Yamame said once again. Whom to blame it on, too, she added in her head.
“… I’m so sorry,” Paran delivered his final argument.
Yamame squeezed her amber eyes shut. I know that, as well, she thought.
But if her human had in his journeys to and from the Underworld come again across the Komeiji, and somewise absorbed their gift, Yamame’s ultimate “I know” did not satisfy him. “I will make this up to you,” he insisted, shifting again. “Anything you’d like, Yamame. I promise.”
Yamame felt weird. At once she did not want to bite him. At the same time, she really, really wanted to bend down and sink her fangs in. Not as punishment in any form; but she had heard this promise before, and it set her heart stinging.
“… That’d make two,” she sighed. “I may be a silly earth spider, but I remember what you promise me. That’d make two favours you owe me now.”
“Or one bigger one,” Paran told her. “Well?”
“Those combine?” How? Which way? Yamame did not know anymore.
As her human’s had before, now Yamame’s eyes were rasping open; soon, and she was once more looking down on her pinned human. Something that – had she been but a second before – may have been a smile swiftly evacuated Paran’s face. All at once, she was reminded one more time of the teethier alternative to talk.
At length, however, anger seeping out together with the sweat on her exposed arms, Yamame shook her still-undone hair left and right.
“Very good, Paran,” she gave up. “Very good. I want you to report. Is that a big or a small one? Hmm? I’m not up to speed. I can sew a robe to make an Oni look like a statesman, but I’ve never taken favours in return. It’s a bit of a first.”
Paran made a nod – denying nothing and confirming less. “I will report, Yamame,” he assured her, as straight-laced as his best shoes. “Anything else?”
A small one, then, Yamame reasoned out. As my work would be. Go figure.
( ) Anything else, Yamame? *
* This, those thicker in my dear audience, is “a call for write-ins,” or “an author’s petty revenge.”
>>15360 I see my frayed sense of humour is incompatible with THP’s. Fine. I was poking fun. I’ve always viewed write-ins as something of a writer’s, “Ha, now you deal with this pot of mess you’ve brewed up for yourself (even though it was really I, the writer, who was in control the entire time)!” flick-on-the-nose sort of comeback.
In this case, it’s more of a case of, “I’ve had a bunch of ideas, but they’ve all run away with me in the meantime, so let’s let the readers steer me somewhere surprising instead.” We got a nice result last time. I’d counted on a repeat.
But moods came and went, and then were relevant no more. So too did Yamame’s.
Would that she were as quick at these talks as she was at the drawing table. Then, Yamame could have reached farther ideas than what was on hand – or under hand – or under Yamame, as it were. But she was not. So, drawing upon what was there – as well as her hair behind her ear, and a spidery smile onto her lips – the blond star of the Underworld asked her human:
“Would you like to tie me up, instead?”
Yamame’s human, for all he had been pinned under an earth spider for a well good bit now (technically since waking up), batted his eyes close and open again as though the spider had only begun pinning in earnest with those words.
“… Were you asking,” he coughed up at last – and the words were somehow something returning, “… Or were you ordering, Yamame?”
The mother of plagues, Yamame Kurodani, puffed up her cheeks viciously. That it was with pique, rather than some black contagion, only spoke of how much she was ready to restrain herself for her human. “Are we playing that again?” she huffed. “Are we, really? I don’t want to. I don’t want to order you. I’ll order you very good when it is on our work, thank you very much in advance. Outside of that, I… I don’t want to. And that’s final.” Yamame knew she would regret this “final” sooner than it made fully out of her mouth; still, with what authority remained from her topmost position, she rounded it off, “So no. I’m not ordering, Paran. Wiggle out of this however you like, but I’m not giving you that way. I want… I need an envoy and a house-minder. Those two. I don’t need a pet to boot. I’m no Komeiji.”
“… Asking, then,” her human concluded. “Why?”
Yamame shrugged – and her hair somewise slid free again. “… I don’t know,” she confessed, looping it behind an ear again. “Only I’d thought… Or hadn’t thought about it. It’s just something I… Something I just felt like asking, I guess. I let slide your human quirks. Why can’t you let slide mine? I have those too, you know.”
“This?” asked Paran, prodding his chin out at his restrained arms.
“… Something like that, yes,” admitted Yamame. “I wasn’t going to eat you. Or hurt you. Or scare you. Or anything, really; I’m an earth spider, yes – but I’m also more. I just… wanted to tie you up. I really, really wanted to tie you up. That’s all.”
That really is all, she said again in a gloomy corner of her head, even as her human shut his eyes and exhaled a long and heavy breath into the sticky air between them. Then, some kind of decision forging, Paran looked up at her again.
“… Yamame,” he said, “I will do you any favour you would like. Ahead of that, however, there is something you should – might want to – hear. I have made a decision.”
I saw, thought Yamame; but to humour her human’s quirks (oh how she humoured those), she volunteered, “What kind?”
“That I would lie less,” said Paran. “Maybe it is late, yes,” he immediately conceded; “but I have had some time to think calmly across the last few days, and I remembered some lies that had been… well, rendered somewhat pointless. I hadn’t entirely meant them to, but I had to consider maybe it was time to throw them out.”
“What brought that on?”
Paran sighed; then, mouth twisting dramatically, he wrenched his head left and right. “A certain earth spider had begun to explore, Yamame,” he grunted. “Worse, for I had kept her out of trouble for months before. Worse yet, I then let her bully me into assisting. Worst of all, however, I found out I wanted to assist her. It was like a landslide from there. Imagine me tumbling.”
Somehow, by an effort of will, Yamame kept her lips from curling up. “That makes you easy prey though, you know?”
“As well I am,” her human surrendered. “Maybe even easier. Maybe I had always wanted to help her explore. Maybe I’d only been lying I hadn’t. To her, and to myself.”
“That would make you easier,” Yamame agreed.
“And her, a lazy hunter,” Paran countered. “Going for such easy prey and all. Oof.”
Yamame Kurodani retracted her hand after the punch. “I will let that pass,” she allowed big-heartedly; “I won’t even bite you – but only because I’m curious as to what all of this is leading us up to. What was that we were talking about before this little sidelight on my hunting choices? Something about decisions?”
“To lie less,” Paran nodded.
“‘To lie less.’” Yamame nodded as well. “Admirable. The Oni would be proud. About what, for instance?”
“About what you ask me, for instance,” Paran returned. “That is why I am telling you. So that you mind what you ask from now on.”
“And why’s that supposed to be such a big concern?”
Paran shrugged his arms – as far, anyway, as his binds allowed. “Warning, is all.”
Yamame laughed. A human, warning a spider! “This is a tough stone to swallow, you know,” she teased the man trapped – she fancied, in more meanings than one – underneath her. “Come now. A self-professed liar, self-professing honesty? I want to believe you; I really, really want to. There’s trouble, though. I don’t know that I can. Can I, Paran?”
“Why not try?”
“There’s an idea. And I can really ask you anything? Anything I like whatsoever?”
“… Within limits,” Paran said, caution entering his voice. “Ask carefully. Then it is fine.”
“All right. I’ll give it a tug.” Yamame breathed in. “Then… What is your name?”
“Is it, really?”
“It is how I am known.”
That’s not un-true, Yamame had to admit. Oh well. “All right, ‘Paranseberi,’” she went on. “What is your favourite colour, then?”
“I am boring,” said Paran. “I like black.”
“You aren’t,” said Yamame, frowning. “Neither is black; it’s a very useful colour.” All the same, the spinstress inside her filed away a mental note. “Very good, anyway. Coming right along… Have you ever spent any significant amount of time with any of my sisters?”
A startled delay preceded the answer. “… I have,” Paran confessed at length. “Hachiashi and I have… sat and talked, on occasion.”
“Only Ashi?” Yamame wanted to know. “No others?”
“… I met one other, briefly,” Paran recalled. “I did not get her name; she had only come for something from the storeroom.”
“This is new. And you let her in – just like so?”
“Only human, Yamame,” her human reminded.
“That’s never stopped you stopping me,” Yamame pointed out.
“When storing our payments,” he corrected. “You browse, Yamame; browsing makes storing things difficult.”
Yamame smacked her human. “I do that, yes.”
Paran looked up at her, wounded – at least figuratively. “… Why hit me, then?”
“I don’t like being told I’m difficult.”
“That is not what I said.”
The star of the Underworld made a pout. “It’s what I heard,” she told him. “I’m a silly earth spider, yes, but even I can pick between the threads when they are this thick. Very good, Paran. I promise I’ll not put a single foot inside the storeroom until you’re done storing when we’re done with Hijiri’s guest-house. Which we should get you reporting on soon,” she remembered. “Though, before we go down to that, there’s still one more question I’d like to have answered – clearly.”
“What is it?”
But Yamame Kurodani, a huntress as earth spiders were, knew her human well: as certain as she was herself, he would flee from the last question Yamame had for him, if such an opportunity presented. So, if for nothing else but to close one avenue of escape, Yamame, leaning forward, got up on all fours. So, having first tossed her hair onto her back, she clamped her hands down on the human’s shoulders. So, for no reason but she did not feel safe enough, she locked her knees around his flanks as well. So, tying up the final snare, Yamame Kurodani gave the human the full amber favour of her eyes.
Then, and only then, did the eldest of earth spiders voice her monumental question.
“Tell me, you ‘Paranseberi,’” she said, “Tell me this – and no lying. How do you feel about me? How do you feel about me, really?”
But for all her spider’s spatial acuity, Yamame had never accounted for one unlikely direction: inward. And it was inward now where her human was quickly escaping.
First, with his eyes alone – for those shut like doors once the question had been voiced; then, with his mouth also – for it drew of the quiet air of Yamame’s salon enough to last its owner a long dive in one of the cold underground lakes. Then, with his arms as well – for he shoved them out before Yamame’s face, as though to bar himself from pursuit.
No bar enough to bar Yamame Kurodani; yet even as her spider’s pride began to play at the idea of swatting those brittle arms aside, it – and the sour taste spreading across her mouth – turned out all a premature frustration.
“… Untie me,” Paran said.
Yamame Kurodani, stunned out of her annoyance by the demand, sat right back. Then, eyes squinting, she noticed, “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“No,” Paran agreed. “Untie me first.”
“My shoulders are cramping,” he grunted. “And… it’s tantalising.”
Then once more he closed his mouth, and spoke no more.
What could she do? Yamame Kurodani, understanding at last what her sister had meant by “stubborn,” let go of her human and his shoulders; and, with a confused feeling of shame, began to pick apart the knots on her ribbon. When it sailed free, and Paran’s arms with it, Yamame watched on, bemused, as her favourite human rubbed kinks out of his wrists which they could not have possibly gotten from a bind this soft.
Maybe it was because she was bemused then, that – once the wrists swivelled around and offered up the human’s open hands – Yamame consigned her own into them without so much as a thought. A fidgety thought did come, yes it did – but only afterwards, when her favourite human gently brushed his fingers up the insides of her palms.
“… I like you, Yamame,” he said at the same time.
Maybe because her palms were ticklish, Yamame let go of a nervous giggle. Maybe because she was giggling, she did not at first notice the human’s fingers firmly threading through her own. Maybe because she then did notice, Yamame Kurodani did not feel her human tensing up for even more.
Quite suddenly, Paran was sitting up.
Quite suddenly, Yamame Kurodani was no longer alone on her topmost level.
Quite suddenly, right in front of the Underworld’s brightest mind, there was a human with his patience stretched way thin, and kissing her good-morning.
Yamame seized up.
Not least out of her over-excitable instincts were rising in any way. Those had been shushed into unwilling docility earlier, when her human’s touch had been much less delicate. Nor was Yamame surprised anymore at being surprised by something so dim-eyed and anaemic as a human. Maybe because her heart was leaping up at her throat, then. Maybe because a thrill was running down her spine making it arch back, as if to facilitate a wider channel of escape for said heart. Maybe Yamame Kurodani did not wish to show her insides to anyone, ever – least of all her human – and that was all.
Or maybe – just maybe, purely hypothetically, nothing too likely – Yamame Kurodani was afraid doing anything but seizing up would scare her human into breaking up the kiss, which – surprise besides – was unexplainably making her feel really, really good.
“Good,” Yamame? a tiny voice in Yamame’s head was jeering. Unaccountably, it sounded like Ashi’s. Not just “OK?” Not “trusted?” What is this? An old spider like you, enjoying physicality? For shame.
Shut up, Ashi, Yamame thought back. Ashi – or her voice – shut up.
But whichever word was correct, none were anyway quick enough to make matter; and Yamame found her breath catching when her human broke the kiss of his own accord. A hand-span or less ahead, he was working on his own breath – even if it was very soon to be expended again, and at length.
Because it was.
“I like you, Yamame,” Paran breathed out, very soon. “I really like you – a lot. More than twice as much as it is appropriate to like a youkai; probably twice again as much as I’m ready to tell you without my ears burning up. That’s what makes this so tantalising – because, even if it isn’t proper, and you are only a little less unpredictable since before you began exploring, I’ve realised I still want to tell you. But, I’m bad with words, and that’s the problem.”
“You are doing fine,” Yamame assured him. “Keep going.”
“I’ve had three days, Yamame” Paran said, shoulders going up and down dismissively. “It’s a long time to prepare. But since I have had those days, here are some other answers I came up with – so you are spared the effort of asking, and I, of having to rephrase them later. Yes, touching you feels good. I am a human; and you were right when you said we were bizarrely fixated on touching. It’s addictive. No, spider or no inside, outside you are shaped like a girl – a girl who, in her own words, is plenty soft in traditional spots. That is very apparently enough for me. No, just because I said you looked amazing with your hair down doesn’t make it any less amazing when it’s tied up. Only in a different way. Yes, your sewing is incredible. I haven’t seen very much of it, no – and I honestly couldn’t tell you what makes it incredible, because I don’t understand what does. The end effects are still beautiful. And really, no, I don’t much enjoy mushroom tea myself, either. I’d had our first client put a proper blend in our payment, and planned to get you to habituate. I regret nothing.” Paran paused, refilling on his breath again. Yamame, drunken on his voice for once coming out in abundance, let him to do so undisturbed. “And, finally,” the human resumed, “yes, I do have your notes. Hijiri had me accede to some adjustments. ‘Trimming the fat,’ such as she called it. I’ve all the details in those notes. I’ll go over those with you any time you like. We’ve time aplenty: Hijiri said four days until she has those materials you outlined delivered. I pointed the good priestess to whomever reliable I could. It is in her hands now – and out of ours. Worst case, you will have a slower start.”
“That’s a little sloppy,” Yamame complained.
“Spared me another day’s waiting for everyone to sober up. And, well…”
“Yes?” The spinstress smiled. “Was there something else?”
“… Yes,” her human sighed. “Yes, I did that because I wanted to keep my promise. Three days is three days. I’ll pay due if – when – it comes to it.”
“Very good. I’ll count on you being nearby then.”
“I don’t know that I’ll be,” Paran chuckled, all derisive. “Hijiri’s rein on her… disciples… is a little loose. Maybe best she sends our payment someplace in town, and I’ll take it from there. Safer for me, and a little closer to boot. And, Yamame? Speaking of safe…”
“Yes?” asked Yamame. “What is it?”
The human Paran (or ‘Paranseberi,’ as he was known in places – and his god alone knew what other names which he wasn’t telling), squared his back. The motion brought to Yamame’s mind the memory (and it was not entirely an uncomfortable one) of her own back misbehaving not minutes before. She squared hers as well.
Maybe because he mistook it for teasing, but Paran favoured her gymnastics with a warm smile.
“… Well, there is one last thing,” he then said, almost pulling the edges of his lips down by force into a more serious expression. “I will not be taking it now – because if I don’t take breakfast in the next ten minutes and wash my mouth down, I am going to faint – but no, I’ve not forgotten about what else we promised. I’ve been gone for three days, Yamame. That is three—” he hesitated, “no, two now…? Two. Two mornings and three evenings that we missed. You remember, yes?”
“Yes,” Yamame nodded, and somehow kept her own expression straight and professional throughout. “I remember. We did miss those, at that. Hmm.”
“Should we make up?” Paran asked, very seriously.
“I’ll think about it,” Yamame told him, very serious herself. “I’ll let you know, no worries. As soon as I’ve finished thinking it. In the meanwhile – breakfast? You’re making, of course. I can sew beautifully, but the stove’s your field of expertise – and cleaning, too. The ash is piling a little high below, you know? I was putting on water yesterday, and it got all over the floor.”
“… I’ll take it out after we’ve eaten,” her human proposed.
“Very good. And, Paran?”
“I know holding onto my hands keeps me from clawing,” she granted. “I’m still going to need you to let go, if I’m going to stand up. You know that, yes?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Well, let go, then. I won’t claw. I promise.”
“… Of course.”
Wins, as moods, came and went, and then – most often – were relevant no more. Yamame knew this much.
All the same, even as she tore herself away from her human and climbed back up on her own two feet, the Underworld’s great architect, Yamame Kurodani, remained stoutly confident. Confident that, with enough leeway in technicality (and one or two blind eyes turned), she could still persuade anyone onlooking that, for all she and her human now plainly looked like those partners who – in addition to living together, working together, and trading services – also did these kinds of things, that they were not. That theirs was a partnership of trust and skill, rather than a want for physicality and other nameless sentiments. That – once their food was eaten, and ash taken out – the eldest, most exalted earth spider of all, Yamame Kurodani, would not immediately take her human back to her sofa to discuss those oh-so-trifle missed mornings and evenings which so weighed down on his conscience. And if, by chance, there remained among the watchers-on those who stayed unpersuaded even despite her best efforts…
… Well, they would just have to nurse their envy without her help.
The four days following fluttered on by on quick, insectile wings. Yamame rounded out her project across that time; once done, she set down her drawing tools and resumed the work on her newest dress with relish. As evening brought each day to a close, she sat in her salon together with her human, and allowed him, who understood nothing of either of her hobbies, to take the related frustrations out of her mind.
Paran did… whatever it was that Parans did when Yamame weren’t looking.
The project had been gutted. “Trimming the fat” had been nothing but a furious understatement; and if the priestess Hijiri, for whom the guest-house had been meant, ascribed all of her guests with the same abstemious standards her notes were positively oozing, Yamame worried after the future years of her up-and-coming creation. Gone were the beautiful winding paths and harmonically arranged flowerbeds; nor had the common rooms within the house itself been spared the forbidding red ink of Hijiri’s dictations. An irrational moment’s swing had even seen Yamame’s human put under the scalding hand of blame. Was this how he who walked among earth spiders looked after her beloved works?
But Yamame Kurodani had met the good priestess of Myouren-ji before, once; and her impression from back when was meshing too well with the stern commentary prudishly calligraphed on the margins of Yamame’s own drawings. Nothing out of the expected was happening here. Nor was it within Paran’s duties to defend her work. This was all Yamame and what came out from under her pencils. Her human had done no wrong. He had done his best.
So, doing Yamame’s own best, the Underworld’s great architect copied the offending notes dutifully over to the main draft. Then, this executioner’s job done, she turned her weeping heart back to her dress in making. The heart calmed down a little after that.
These were boring days, when Yamame Kurodani had to wait an agreed date before she may put herself to work in actual. Yet even in ho-hum days like these, things still happened to earth spiders who – swimming in ho-humness as they were – had then no recourse but to slow and take more note.
Two such things happened to Yamame.
( ) A Show After a Fashion.* ( ) Trust That Binds, Bis!* ( ) A Cloaked Stranger the Den Approacheth?!* ( ) A Tea for… Three?*
>>15382 >>15380 A word of caution. I’ve written Futo before, but this is not her gig, nor is it meant to be. I was being fancy-storytelly for fancy-storytelly’s sake. Make adjustments as necessary. Sorry.
Now look here, if you want Futo (still not sure if I want to do more Banki), I could give some thought to Futo. But I know my limits; I really, really couldn’t keep up with two stories at once. If you want me to put this one on hold (since, yes, I understand it’s mostly boring-arse romance with a character not many can mount up a care about), and polish up on some dorky hermit (maybe headless horror) ideas, let me know, and I can think on it over the coming on week.
Or maybe bug this guy: >>15387 to bloody deliver already. Your words are wind. WIND.
>>15390 >If you want me to put this one on hold No sane man wants any such thing, you bloody pole. One thing at a time. It was bad enough going like 4 years without reading a proper story by you, don't go absconding and leaving a half-finished product behind.
>>15391 I’ll just ignore the bulk of this post and point out I left the decision in your hands, i.e.: the guys for whom, seemingly, Kurodani Yamame is Not Enough. >>15392 That is one responsibility off of my head, then. All accordingly to keikaku. To be quite blunt, I shake – shake! – my head at your characterisation; but, since we are all equal in our love for the red headless, you’ve my full Sekipport in your Banxendeavours nonetheless. Just keep at it, and keep your head about you.
Three days. Three days since her human’s return, inside an evening quietly creeping on, the first of those notable things was caught.
Though the hours which had had the evening preceded had not been empty of notice themselves; nor had Yamame Kurodani – who had, in the meanwhile, all but put the last stitch through her new dress – been about to let them be otherwise. A final, searching look into the tall mirror beside her work-desk, and the spinstress had quit the silent privacy of her bedroom, and walked out into the house’s cosy salon, where her human bade his afternoons as a rule.
Much to the human’s uprising brows, the Yamame who had appeared had been as gold and black as a starry night; for this piece had been designed after the puzzling, fish-scale dress – delivered those long days before from Yamame’s scrap-pile, stolen away by the most mercenary sister in Yamame’s memory. And yet this piece was no scale, but rings: sheets of tiny, black ringlets like mail, layered over similarly dark satin, itself cut into wide triangles which splayed on the skirt of the dress – especially when spun – in the like of a cave-dwelling bat’s wings.
But though she had walked – and span – in front of her human in this show after a fashion, still the human had but a returning jibe to offer in assessment:
“You look good in it, Yamame.”
Might be he had even meant it in this instance; still Yamame Kurodani – who had been too wrapped up yet in her creativity to egg on her favourite for something more than a useless compliment – had stuck out her tongue, and swished on back to her bedroom, where she would sew out the kinks in the dress her human had flagrantly passed over, but which had become very conspicuous when she had spun for him.
Paran’s eye allowing, she would still look good in it regardless.
Some hours passed; and when again she emerged, Yamame Kurodani was a spinstress with another beautiful stitch in the fabric of her career. Nor was the beauty of this stitch (or the spinstress) diminished by her putting back on her usual, earthen-coloured clothes. Why, had she but asked, Paran would likely confirm as much, as well – if only because he always did.
But even so, Yamame Kurodani did not ask. Not least because she feared a disagreement spoiling the confidence she had in her human; Yamame did not ask because – once she entered again her quiet salon – her favourite envoy, house-minder and issuer of useless compliments was midway into a delightful early evening’s nap.
As she always did when opportunity for mischief presented, Yamame Kurodani smiled a delightfully mischievous smile.
The spinstress had not been lying when she had asked why her human only slept in before their treks out together; but bring though it might back the memory of – mere days earlier – ambushing her human in his sleep springing right back in her silly face (or the side of her silly head, anyway), all the same Yamame, circling around the sofa on the tips of her toes, thought she had an idea coming on. The idea was not very original. Nor was it the smartest which the Underworld’s blond star had had in recent times; it was even less so when put beside how the last such idea of hers had threaded out.
But Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, was nothing if not an earth spider to the core; and earth spiders – they were nothing if not flexible creatures.
So Yamame tip-toed back to her bedroom yet again. So she quit it moments later with a length of stout, linen twine in hand. So she held one end between her teeth, and looped it round and round her forearms. So she, with some god (maybe Paran’s) evidently assisting, rounded it off with an askance knot joining both ends tight at her wrists. So tied up, she carefully laid herself out on her sofa beside her human.
Then, nestling her head shamelessly in his lap, Yamame shut her spider’s eyes close, and waited.
>>15407 It's 90% bullshitguesswork, mostly from: >“Oh my,” the tiny mind-reader gasped past the bouts. “Oh my, oh no… Oh dear, dear me. Mother is going to turn purple once she hears about this. Totally, totally purple! Taking after ‘the best,’ indeed! Oh dearest, dearest me…” >“Gods above, Kurodani. Hope to Old Hell this one hasn’t had anything terrifying bound to him. Those kinds of men are the worst. ”
Hello. Sekipocalypse here. I really didn’t want to write a blog post, but I feel some of you would appreciate an update. Not An Update, mind. Just an update. Nothing capital.
The short of the long story is, over the last few months I managed the following feats: lose my job, severely drain my savings by desperately trying to find a job where I was located at the time, sign up for a handful of courses just for the stipend money and the promise of employment afterwards (only to find out they given’t – that’s a word, right? Given’t – a toss about delivering on the latter, now they’ve my name technically on their “passed and done” list), resort to moving back in with my parents, and continue to fail at finding employment locally since. If life had a KK:DD (Kool aKievements to Depressing Dejections) ratio, well, let’s just say the average 12-year-old admin would love having me on at the same time right now.
Kurodani Yamame may have no Gods… but as for me, I have no motivation. That’s the simplest way to hack it off. I just don’t feel like driving this sappy romance train to the next station. The magic is gone. I would love to cast another rose-coloured Magic Missile in your direction, believe me, but that is the thing of things here – I’m just out of mana. Spent. As dry and worn and threadbare as my prose. Out of similes.
Truth be typed, I was about, right here, to propose to you a completely unwanted, unnecessary, and frankly superfluous follow-up to the follow-up to Sekibanki. But after one of you had the wonderful gesture of giving this story fan art (fan art for something I wrote – digest this delightfully unlikely turn of events!) I would just be a right sandpaper-lined cunt to deflect your feelings like that.
So, for the time, sorry. That’s really the best I can give you right now.
>>15415 For the record, posterity, and posteriors like you – I don’t like drones. The technology isn’t yet at such a level that they can be safely used in the capacity, say, Amazon or Pizza Hut want to use them. So, being a safety freak myself, I abjure any and all drones and improper applications of the term. Fie!
Waiting cocooned into boredom. That hatched into a butterfly of sleepiness; and ahead she numbered the hundredth breath of the human now serving for her pillow, Yamame Kurodani – care unrolled beyond limit – slipped into an early evening nap of her own. Though this sleep was offering no rest, and no mistake; and she discovered why as soon as opening her eyes – a muddy while later.
Above her, hovering (as though it were he who was an architect, and she – his latest project), a human possessed of two eyes which were as lovable as they were dumb, noticed her waking up. Nor did Yamame fail to notice his noticing; for before even she was fully awake, she sensed the human’s fingers distinctly ceased doing what they had been doing, and stuck – waiting, apparently, the earth spider’s response.
And this, Yamame gave – after she had given a capacious yawn first
“… Hey,” was the response.
“… Hello,” was the reply to the response, and the fingers remained stuck.
Nothing further for Yamame Kurodani. But perhaps to the good; for it gave her a window through which to take stock of herself below her mouth. Her arms were there, and tied as she’d left them – which the spinstress confirmed again with a touch of mistaken reply from her instincts. The dress, as well as what it was storing, and her legs also reported to her probing, as she squeezed the sleepy residue out of their muscles. Nothing was amiss…
… And perhaps because nothing was, Yamame Kurodani turned up a frown at her human.
“All right,” she demanded. “Give. Why my hair?”
Paran’s eyes shifted away from being lovable and deeper into dumbness for a moment. “… Was I supposed not to?”
Yamame ground the back of her head into his leg. “I didn’t say that,” she said. “I asked you a question. I didn’t want you to reason; I wanted you to answer. Why my hair?”
The human’s mouth hung open – maybe to unroll the pent-up reasoning – before an answer proper was seamed.
“… Safest?” he chanced.
Had biting him now not been like to validate his fears completely, Yamame would have sunk her teeth right in. But she did show those teeth in a grimace, and that had to do. “Hadn’t we gone over that?” she moaned. “I’d thought we had.” The spinstress thrust out her bound wrists. “See, here? I couldn’t have done anything anyway. Why the caution? I know, I still startle… sometimes… but you—”
Paran sighed. The sigh crashed against her extended hands, and, unaccountably, Yamame felt the balance of her argument tip away. “… Yamame,” Paran said, and his voice was tired, “let’s not.”
“Not pretend you couldn’t snap this tie without a second thought.” He paused, a new possibility presenting. “… Maybe even a first,” he corrected. “You said so yourself. You startle. That is grounds for caution.”
Could have, agreed the wry, sisterly voice inside Yamame’s head. Yamame fixed it with a go-away glare until it shrugged and went away.
But it had said the truth, as the human had, and that was the trouble. Far was it from Yamame Kurodani to confess it aloud and hand her house-minder his victory so soon; even so, stout though they were, her binds really were nothing against her youkai’s strength. A twist, and the linen twine would break easier than a web snagged by an overlarge animal. A turn, and sooner than his heart’s next beat, the human would be at the mercy of Yamame’s plague-bearing fangs. A bite – a short clench – and he would be visiting with his poor, namesake god earlier than leastwise one of them would have liked.
Yamame screwed up her mouth. Her error was on display; and the human Paran – never one to mistake her gestures for whichever others were more convenient at the time – smiled, and took the victory she wasn’t offering, regardless. He splayed out the fingers of his hand which he had kept locked in her hair, and began to – slowly, gently – scrape the rounded tips of his fingernails back and forth along her scalp.
“… It doesn’t feel good?” he asked.
Wrong-footed (wrong-handed?) by the question, Yamame gave up. Not before furnishing her loss with a token pout; yet puff up her cheeks though she could with all her youkai might, Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, the yearly malady, was still as capable of losing as any other old earth spider faced with the same circumstance.
… At least, so she hoped. She closed her ageing eyes.
“No,” she sighed. “It does. It feels good.”
It feels good, does it, the same internal voice, which Yamame had thought glared away, mocked. How easy it comes now. That word.
It did, too. Since she had first admitted (to herself as much as anyone) there had been more to Paran’s company than trust and assistance, the word – “good” – had come with reducing difficulty each time. Yamame Kurodani with an injured pride was not unlike the doctor whose pet had so recently come to level accusations at the spinstress and her siblings; she wrapped it up – thickly – until it was healed. Not so here. Not when the win was cheap, and the wound so small. Not so when she herself had all but bared her weakness herself.
And certainly not when offering it up felt so good.
All the same, as pestilential winds change and lash around, so too did Yamame come around soon to a new and bright idea.
So – the full imperious favour of her amber eyes presently trained once more upon her sometimes bland subject – Yamame raised her connected arms in a mute instruction. The human, understanding, issued the earth spider a nod – of his head first, then the full upper half of his body in turn. Yamame fastened on immediately. She slid her looped arms behind Paran’s neck, and, herself, nodded.
Then she braced, even as Paran began – with an ostensive lack of effort that surprised her even now – to right up, pulling her along: first up to a sit, then, farther, sideways onto his lap.
As it had at the ease with which the human human-handled its body, the spider inside Yamame now wondered at how naturally their arrangement had been changed. How these following moments – and no word passed between one and the next – saw the otherwise spatially insensitive creature called Paran somehow find just the perfect space in which to slot the – apparently easily handled – underground youkai. How – again, no customary human preamble ambling before – he quietly allowed her to slip her arms from the (awkward at this angle) place on his back, and rest them instead across her own lap. How, perhaps in reimburse, his own arms looped neatly around her waist, drawing her closer.
None of it spoke to the eight-legged architect lounging in Yamame’s head, of course. Still, even she, in all her geometrical brilliance, had to give that it cut a fair enough approximate to something that was not totally human and thus artless and clumsy. Something that, had she but the words and the promise nobody’s ear was turned, she would say was not completely without merit. On balance, it was even, in some unmannered and un-spidery way, pleasant.
Satisfied with being satisfied, the outside Yamame, presently embraced, produced a satisfied sound. Satisfaction threading in such volume just inside his arms had to alert even the dull-eared human; and Paran did alert – shifting below her, and letting roll a deep, vibrating sound of his own.
That was all he did, though.
At length – longer than Yamame was bothered to measure – the spinstress wove out of the sea of satisfaction, and back onto the land of words.
“So?” she asked her pillow.
Her pillow moved, lurching out of its distraction. “… So what?” it asked back.
“So, what if I couldn’t?”
Yamame jabbed out with one elbow. “What if I couldn’t break the bind,” she explained. “We’ve agreed that you like to… that you enjoy touching. That it comprises your lining, more or less. I’ve seen it at work – first hand, actually. So, what if I couldn’t? What if I absolutely had to have a few thoughts before I could break free and chomp your fingers off? Hmm? Where would you touch then?”
Paran, squirming, reeled in a hissing breath. “… Really?” he breathed out. “That still?”
“Really.” Yamame jabbed again. “That still.” She spun it into a firm, but friendly, rub. “Come, now. I know you like my hair. I’ve known it; it’s one of the rare things about me you’ve stooped to compliment. Right?”
“That, and my neck. Which makes for an amazing place, if you trust the rumour mill. Well. I want something else, though. So give. There has to be something… right?”
Paran caught – and chewed through, and swallowed – another chunk of thick air. Then, he gave his grunting assent, “… You promise not to laugh?”
Yamame giggled. “Have I ever? Very good, Paran. I promise.”
“… Very good,” Paran replied… and if ever had “good” really meant “bad,” Yamame’s human made the paradox now.
And yet, good or opposite, before much too long his answer began working out; and, with a sense of apprehensive curiousness, Yamame Kurodani looked on below to watch her human’s hand softly disengage from her waist.
All at once the image reoccurred to her of a morning prior to these revolutionary days – when the same hand had come away from the selfsame waist, in an approximate set of things. Then, the motion had been less advertent. Indeliberate. Accidental, even – if the human’s assurances afterward were to be given the faith they had begged; and it had startled Yamame all but out of her skin to have been so touched.
Now, that same, stray hand was boldly tracing her thigh through the fabric of her dress, doing so with such deliberation she almost jumped again.
Maybe, Yamame dully realised, it made no matter either way. Maybe touching her would always spell a degree of risk for her human – in his mind and reality both. Maybe that degree was even greater now, that she was awake, than when she had been asleep. Maybe Paran had known this, and more, and so dissembled every time.
That he was touching her even so made Yamame’s tiny heart squeeze.
Almost, and she would have lost his next words in the noise of her blood rushing through her ears. But the hand was stopped, cupping the rise of her knee underneath the dress; and Paran, with a pronouncement like a judge’s, spoke the terrible truth.
“These,” he said, his voice rusty with guilt. “I like these.”
Yamame did not laugh at first. Not at all; she traced and retraced the same thread of reasoning he had, from her waist to the point of her knee, confused all the way. “… My knees?” she asked finally. “You like my knees?”
Paran could not bear it. He clicked his tongue. “Your legs,” he rasped. “I like your legs, Yamame. At large.”
Yamame Kurodani, the eldest of earth spiders, cast downward to review her legs. They were, she had to say, decent enough legs – serviceable, for lacking in number. They carried her reliably from her work desk to her bed, and wherever else she required as well; they made for good support when she was carrying bags of plaster or pallets of bricks. They were, as Hachiashi had once said, as long as the ground – and thus perfectly functional. They walked, and jumped, and kicked, and stood all very good.
None of that registered to Yamame as overmuch impressive. Most legs did. What else was there?
At last, she ceded her defeat. “I don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t understand. Were you making fun just now? Why my legs? Is it because I’m a spider?”
Paran swelled up with a great sigh. “It is because you walk around in your sleepwear, Yamame,” he blew out. “Your legs show.”
Come to mention it, I do at that, Yamame thought. “And this is why you like them,” she questioned on; “because you’ve seen them a lot?”
Paran’s reply rang tragic. “It certainly doesn’t help.”
“But why my legs?”
“They are…” The human groped around for words. “… They’re exciting,” he concluded. “I guess.”
Yamame chuckled. “You can get excited? You? This is new.”
“I have… once or twice. I try not to show it.”
“It isn’t—” He hesitated. “… It is not proper.”
Now it was Yamame’s turn to be tragic. “We’ve talked about that, too,” she moaned; “haven’t we? Propriety? I don’t know about that. I’m a spider; I don’t know which ones of those things you humans do are decided proper or how. I just don’t know. I’m not greatly bothered, either.”
“But I am.”
Almost abruptly, Paran removed the adventurous hand from Yamame’s knee and reattached it to her waist. Almost, and Yamame would have been vexed by its escape – but for the human’s continued speculation.
“Maybe,” said Paran, “Maybe it’s all instincts. Maybe it is little different from you reacting to touch as you do, or biting. Maybe it is what we are. What do you say to that?”
“I say I like you less and less each time you remind me,” Yamame joked humourlessly. “I’ve told you this, too. I’m trying. I let you touch me every day. How long has that been, again? Have I bitten you so far?”
“That’s right. I haven’t. And did you know why? It’s because I’m trying, Paran. I want to keep trying, and I’m doing my best. Are you?”
“You’re stronger than I am, Yamame,” Paran noted.
“And this is why embarrassing me in front of others is fine, you think? And embarrassing yourself when it is only us two somehow isn’t? This propriety of yours seems to me more tangled the more I hear about it.”
The human said nothing.
“Is it a thing of pride, Paran?” asked Yamame.
“… It is,” the human conceded. “It is a thing of pride.”
“Then perhaps nothing can be done.”
Not yet, anyway, she added inside. Not all at once.
Though the silence which followed her admission was stiff and not a little stunned; but Yamame had handed victory over already inside this round of her bedroom clock’s arms, and one in addition hurt her very little. It hurt even less when she pushed her head entreatingly into the human’s shoulder. Symmetry struck again; and the same troublesome hand from before now trailed up and up the selfish spider, until its long fingers were in her hair again. Then it stopped hurting altogether.
“… So,” Yamame purred (purred!). “… My legs, then?”
“Your legs,” Paran agreed.
The spinstress made a little chuckle. “But that’s so trivial!”
“My mother always told me not to be simple,” Paran said sardonically. “I think I’ve disappointed her.”
Now Yamame did laugh. And she laughed in earnest…
… laughed, until her laughter lumped up, then died in her windpipe as she realised, with a mental raking of her nails, that the first time her human had ever openly mentioned his family had just caught then torn back free of her web. But Yamame Kurodani was a spider, surprised or no. She was the eldest among her hunter kin; and even out of their homes, the spiders’ hunting grounds were…
… They were elsewhere. Not here. Not in these human-infested realms overgrown with reasoning and words. But this was irrelevant.
The spinstress cleared her throat of the clog. The sound was at once too quiet and too loud for her sensitive liking. “Your… mother,” she said. It hadn’t struck out quite right, so she said it again. “Your mother. Yes? What… Who is she? What does she do? What’s her name?”
Assaulted by these questions (let alone the spider), Paran made like many prey make, and played an inanimate pillow. Then the reality occurred that Yamame was too close – that even she would not be fooled by so sheer a pantomime – and her human mirrored her coughing. “… My mother,” he grudgingly admitted; “she’s human. Though you would hear elsewise if you asked her servants.”
“Servants?” Yamame was surprised. “Your mother is so important?”
She felt the human rub his head against her left and right. “No. My mother, she…” He wavered. “Our… She inherited a large household,” he finally settled. “With kitchens and gardens and storehouses. Servants came with.”
“What does your mother do?”
“She… makes things.”
Yamame’s curiosity flared. “What kind?”
“She’s a… A craftsman,” Paran grunted. “Like… Well. Like you.”
“What does she make?”
“Is it terribly important?”
Yes, thought Yamame. But sensing her human’s reluctance (or was it shame?), she volunteered a weak, “Maybe not. Maybe it isn’t terribly important. What about your… your other parent?”
At first, no reply was forthcoming from her human. Almost, and Yamame would have thought him reverted to the previous tactic; that they were now on ground where proximity and temperature meant not a thing, and where a human may pass for a pillow and no spider could tell differently. Then, however, Paran did answer after all; and his voice was a tiny, sour thing in Yamame’s ear. “My father,” her human murmured, “was the simplest person I’d ever known. I think… I think he disappointed my mother more than I have.”
“Who… Who was he?”
“A man,” Paran grunted. “A man. With a lot to prove.”
I don’t know what that means, wanted to complain; but then, her favourite human – quite without delay (and with a mind-reader’s insight) – hurried on with a much-needed explanation. An explanation which – clearly evidenced – required Yamame’s nose be put out of joint before all else.
He was pushing her away.
All but, and Yamame would have launched into a harsh critique of such a rude turn of events – only then, suddenly, it all became very clear and very silly; and Yamame’s nose, rather more colourful though it now was, was at once returned to its place.
A smattering of moments after, and the kiss – which was like to have been the human’s intention all along – was withdrawn; and Yamame Kurodani, the blond star of the Underworld, glowing like it was about to explode, managed to speak a flushed question.
“… What was that?”
Her favourite human frowned. “… A kiss,” he replied, very seriously. “It was a kiss.”
Yamame gave him a reproaching look. “I know what it’s called,” she said. “I’ve remembered. I meant, was that the evening one? Already?”
Paran looked wounded. “… It was an ‘I like you’ kiss.”
“We are doing those now?” Yamame blinked up at him, wide-eyed. When the human vouchsafed no answer, only stared on, she began to laugh. “No rules? No compacts? Nothing? Not even a little ritual? What would your god say if he saw?”
“My god,” Paran scowled, “sees and says nothing.”
Nothing you would deign to hear, anyway, Yamame added in a cleverer nook of her head. The cleverness was bitter and spoiled. The eldest of underground spinstresses therefore spun out a sheet of something else to cover – “cunning,” she liked to call it – and threw it like a cape around the human’s shoulders together with her still restrained arms.
The untreated linen was seriously beginning to chafe her skin.
“If that is so,” she smiled regardless as she told her so-captured human, “then we are still behind on the evening one, no? Shall we take care of that as well, while we’re both here?”
“Already?” Paran echoed. Somehow, someway, he had kept his face the antipode of teasing.
Yamame felt teased all the same. As well she responded in kind. “I could be tided over with another ‘I like you’ one, I guess,” she granted. “That is, if you really believe it’s too early. Or, we could have it done with off your human timetable, and go to bed a little sooner today. It’s your propriety, Paran. You exercise it.”
Because I will, too, she finished in the privacy of her mind, wrapping one leg around the human’s side.
Paran made a show of considering. It was a good show: threaded through with expressions of unfathomable internal conflict; but it was done so quick the human may very good have never bothered at all.
All the same, Yamame Kurodani never did find out which kind the kiss that followed had been meant to be.
All the same, Yamame Kurodani did not complain. Trust, care, partnership – now like as well – were communicating; and that, for now, was enough to wrap her heart in a soft blanket of pleasant emotions. It was a blanket she wished fervently a certain human had taught her how to sew sooner. Much sooner.
The best if from the start.
But even now the blanket had in it a hidden black thread.
Trust, care, partnership and like besides, something else had been woven in between; and the spinstress at Yamame’s heart dimly began to recognise what kind of material this was. It was coloured like “Shut up, Yamame;” it had the make of a warning; and when she touched it, the texture distinctly called up an image of a silly earth spider, with her easily disjointed nose, poking her fingers into things her silly earth spider’s mind could possibly never understand. It was an unspoken caution – a kind of black ultimatum – that any blanket gifted on no specific condition was just as readily taken away. That any compact spoken under no god was just as soon rescinded. That any kiss outside the rule was just as easily not given.
But then, Yamame thought, if not knowing much of her human’s parentage was the price to pay for these new privileges…
… Then she had been living with the promissory note inside her pocket for months already.
Then, the date came, which dates are given to do, unattended.
It brought the promise of work nearing. It brought Yamame out of bed an hour and more before the customary; it brought a mood underlined with excitement, but a number of pins and needles as well. Specially, it brought with it the second of those notable things, which earth spiders, unawares, blunder into now and then.
Yamame Kurodani, an earth spider as far as memory stretched, was sitting, cross-legged atop her sofa, and combing her freshly washed hair. The hour, for being so early, effected her human was nowhere awake – nor underfoot – quite yet. The giddying spinstress had therefore used of this free time; she had pinched some leftovers, boiled a pot of water, showered, and now tugged the twists out of her golden hair, all the while threading with the idea of, very soon, meeting again with Myouren-ji’s famed (or was she infamous?) master.
Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, had visited on Byakuren Hijiri before. But being called upon again by the very matriarch who had banished the earth spider officially from her domain in retaliation to an innocent (if admittedly indelicate) joke – it went around the eyes of all the needles in Yamame’s mental drawer. Maybe pride was speaking. Maybe being reduced to an outcast again had punched its fangs deeper under Yamame's skin than she had told herself. And what about my sisters? Those could be told to behave, as they had been – or otherwise threatened. But the other side? What about Hijiri and her supplicants; what about those youkai devouts of hers with no love for the underfolk? And what of those human visitors that Yamame had joked about, to whom the earth spiders were to be contractually displayed?
Yamame began counting bodies.
The count was bodied out of her head when a knock broke out like a rash on the house’s door; and Yamame, quietly grateful (for she was running out of digits), stood up to receive the visitor.
What… or who stood, two prim steps away the door outside when she opened it, was a total stranger.
Tall, a third again as tall as Yamame – perhaps taller even than her human, difficult as it may be – the stranger wore over all a hooded traveller’s cloak: dark and stained, and ripped around the knees, held close on the front with a patinated, silver crest. Their hooded face was turned away: gazing out, sideways from Yamame’s house, seemingly toward the smooth basalt stone of the cavern’s wall. Heavy boots, caked with rock dust and muck, told loudly of the length this creature had come to stand before her now.
Yamame Kurodani, never once having turned someone at her door away, stepped forward to greet this unexpected guest…
… And stiffened like a corpse when the senses at the core of her being shrieked at her all at once.
The stranger smelled like death.
Not the rich, cloying stench of rotted flesh; nor the sepulchral exhalation of an unearthed tomb. This was death absolute. It smelled of emptiness; it smelled of old ashes; it had an almost acrid scent of an underground cavern so deeply encased in layers and layers of ice it had been forgotten to the world. It was a void of smells – of sights, of sounds – whose grasping influence promised to take away everything: man, gods and youkai all. It was nothingness so great, so profound, the merest flicker of anything, even emotion, could light it up forever. It was hunger and oblivion.
Yamame recoiled. She wanted to run.
The stranger, perhaps hearing her teeth grind, turned their shadowed face… and pulled down the hood.
… And what produced from that hood was so simple, and stood in such sheer contrast with the horrifying smell, that briefly Yamame doubted her enduring sanity.
It was a face. A male, clean-shaven, human face – reserved, yet laugh-lined – and – though not at all similar – Yamame knew at once cut from the same whole cloth as the one she had been seeing (very closely) every day. A pair of inquisitive eyes, as grey as cold rain, looked out to her from under a fringe of closely-scythed hair the colour (and it seemed consistency) of dry wheat.
The stranger’s head cocked, as though opening for an answer to some unspoken question (or comment). Then, as if realising a mistake, his jaw hastily hinged open, and he spoke.
The yearly malady blinked. His voice had been shockingly young. “… Huh?”
“Are you?” the stranger wanted to know.
The one certainty brought to the fore, Yamame answered, “Yes. I am. And you…?”
The stranger frowned. There was a disbelieving pause. “You don’t know who I am?”
“No.” Her youkai’s mind was beginning to fold in on itself. “Who are you?”
A reply of sorts coalesced behind the stranger’s strangely aged eyes (or perhaps it was a trick of the colour?), but it appeared was taken on rein before it may travel down to his tongue. Instead, the stranger stepped a step back yet… and bowed. The bow was so complex and done with such flourish all but it seemed a spiral parody of itself.
“An it please thee,” the stranger intoned. “My name is… Santuko Takumi. A storyteller by trade. A messenger by necessity. Today, most of all.” He dug into his cloak, and out came a small, pink envelope. “She was very happy about it,” he said cryptically.
Yamame reached out and swiped the envelope from his fingers as though they were snapping vipers. Santuko… though she felt he could have been a Stefan, a Dias, or even a Paran for all she knew… backed away, prudent. It was a small victory – almost unnoticeable – and smaller yet, when Yamame saw the round, waxen seal stamped onto the lid of the envelope.
Two letters “K” – one regular, one reversed – ornately described within a circle of thorny vine. Opposite, yet united: joined into one symbol by a snaking tendril of the same vine (or was it really?), coiled round and round their touching backs. Yamame knew these twinned letters; for here was the sigil of the Komeiji family, stately all, even if the envelope itself was little so.
The spinstress felt a reluctant thrill in her chest.
“Is this passage new?”
The stranger’s delusive voice jerked her attention back up. His head was once more turned, those unsettling eyes locked on the same spot as before on Yamame’s cavern’s wall. The tunnel up, she realised.
“It’s… some years old,” she replied.
The man’s brows snaked together as if the words had been an insult directed at his own age.
“Are those stairs?” he asked either way.
“Are those new?”
“And they go out to the surface?”
Again, the man grimaced. “The Crone is going softer on me.”
But whoever this Crone was, and in whichever place she was growing soft, the stranger was disinclined to say. An almost hungry glint in his eyes, he bowed once more – and this bow was anything but complex – and made off at an impatient trot for the very opening they had discussed. Yamame Kurodani watched the man, who could not have been named Santuko if he had chiselled it into his forehead, until the darkness in the tunnel swallowed him whole.
Then, she closed the door.
Alone now, safe inside the familiar angles of her house, Yamame cast one last time at the seal locking the envelope. The sister “K”s gleamed back at her regally. Yamame cracked them in two between her fingers.
A sheet of perfumed paper slid out onto her waiting hands. Satori Komeiji’s beautiful longhand glowed at her from the front, all pretty arches and loops; and despite the strangeness of the previous minutes, or the pending meeting with the priestess Hijiri, Yamame found a smile tugging shyly at her cheeks.
「Dearest earth spider, Yamame Kurodani,」 said the opening line. 「Hopefully this letter finds you well.
Thank you for your input regarding the lately incident. With your account to complete ours, anyone to formally challenge us again on our alleged involvement should, in the words of someone we both know, come home short of an ear. As a matter of fact, I have already asked for my scissors to be whetted specially for this purpose. A small joke.
More importantly, thank you very much for writing. It’s gratifying – not to mention flattering – to be addressed by one of the Underworld’s citizens in this capacity. It reminds me what I, regardless of my own little problems, still very much am. I cannot state how much brighter your letter has made my study, not to mention my mood. For this, Yamame – may I address you by name? – I am infinitely grateful. Although I fully accept your reasons were not entirely selfless. Still. Never mind.
It has also been brought to my ears that your... shall we say, other endeavours? – have been progressing well. I mean both of them, just in case. As a matter of fact, I desire for you to know I am at your service as Old Hell’s vicereine in this regard as well. Should anyone, in any measure, expose those endeavours to danger, know that the full authority of my name and my station stand firmly at your side. It is perhaps a small consolation for the Capital’s grand architect, but it’s what I want to gift to you all the same. It’s the least you’ve deserved.
Consider writing again some time. And thank you once more.
Yours Truly (whether you like or no), —Satori Komeiji & h
Yamame, fully smiling, moved her thumb aside.
「—Satori Komeiji & husband,」 the signature proclaimed.
Not a lot of sense, perhaps. But enough anyway to keep Yamame Kurodani’s face a-smile when she tiptoed past her human’s room’s door.
Paran’s eight-mat nest-within-a-nest was as always a picture of neatness. No discarded pillows, crumpled papers nor loose pencils poised to stab at her heels; nor had Yamame to step over and around heaps of clothes and raw materials marked forever for later. Only this room, its soft mat floor, a few baskets of unknown personal effects stored under one wall, and – in the centre of it all – her human, pulled in a thick blanket atop his simple futon. There was a metaphor here somewhere.
Yamame salted it away for a less interesting day.
Across the room, and she was kneeling at the sleeping human’s side. Not touching him in any way; for Yamame remembered still the last time she had woken her human in such a manner. Instead, pushing against an unaccounted surge of awkwardness, she softly called his name.
The human remained stoutly asleep. Yamame, feeling hot in her ears, called out a little louder.
Paran, living up to his divine name, took mercy; and Yamame’s awkward efforts were at last rewarded with the sight of her human climbing to a sit up from his blankets – climbing, yawning, knuckling at his eyes – and finally looking on the close mother of plagues with a total lack of fear, surprise, or anything else which would have been there almost always before. The look somehow made her feel very warm.
But proceedings beckoned, and Yamame stored away this scrap as well.
“Sleep well?” she asked him. “You looked like you were.”
Her human let that pass. “… Going out?”
“It’s the date, isn’t it?”
“… Suppose it is.”
Would you postpone it if you could? a sillier part of Yamame wondered. The sillier parts of her human remained oblivious to her telepathic questioning.
“Anything to do while you’re gone?” Paran asked instead.
Yamame had prepared for this. “Take the trash out and burn it somewhere. Soon as you can. Maybe the stink will have cleared out when I’m back this time around.”
“I could take it to one of the side chambers.”
“That might help,” Yamame agreed. “I want you to take a look inside the kettle, too. There was scale in the water when I took it out to shower earlier.”
Paran’s misty gaze slid up and down her body as though to confirm whether she was saying the truth. “… All right,” he gave up. “Very good. Anything else?”
Yamame took a good, long look at her human. Not least because Paran looked right miserable straight out of his bed; though this alone could have been a fair reason any other time. Yamame took a good, long look at her human because she wanted a very clear picture of him in her mind.
It was a silly feeling. It was a silly feeling and an even sillier desire; and though even Yamame – mired up to her nose in silliness – could very good name it, the nimble spider of her interior spun it around.
Yamame knew what she was feeling. She might not be privy to the complete set of whys or hows or what to do with its; but she could at the very least tell when she was going to miss her human. Him and his – sometimes still puzzling – attentions both.
But what about him? If she walked out now, would he miss her also?
Yamame had but to look at his slack expression to know that, most likely…
>>15618 Knew I should have started a Sekistory instead. Curses! That is a mighty cute Microbanc, though. I want it cheering me on from atop my desk every day. >>15624 Is this a meta post? I think it’s a meta post…
Hello. Bancaster here. We aren’t out of the woods, not yet, but I’ve lit a fire. This can go both ways. I’m not quite satisfied with how the above blocks have turned out, but I’ve ascribed it to rust still coming off. No choice but to keep scrubbing.
Yamame Kurodani had no gods, no… but she did have faith. She believed, devotedly, that a web spun well would remain hanging even to the next week. She had faith that a nail hammered in right would not wiggle out on its own; she trusted, with never fraying certainty, that a properly laid roof should not begin to leak in its first rain. Yamame Kurodani believed in order: in an indelible marriage between cause and its effect, in the pull of the stone beneath her feet, and the heat of the fire under her stove. She believed morning came after the night.
More pertinently, Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, believed not even her human could have been left unimpressed on by their lately rituals. Paran may have had a brick wall’s permeability, but he was not quite that dense. Yamame Kurodani had given her best; she had done everything lay within her power to imprint her feebly understood feelings in whichever parts of her human had been dared to expose. He would miss her and no mistake… or, if not her – then her hair, her neck, or her legs.
That was the make of things. There was nothing else, for now, for her to do.
And just as much, she freely told him. “Nothing. Nothing that comes to mind.” She smiled. Then, matching his gesture from a few days before, she reached out and touched his cheek. Paran’s closer eye dropped shut lazily, and his head pushed softly against her hand. Yamame had to chuckle to patch over the heat unexplainably working up her own face. “We’re going to be overnighting on site, as agreed, so I’ll come to fetch you in seven days,” she said unceremoniously, rising up and coming away. “Seven or so, anyway. Hijiri may trip on some additional ideas along the way. That woman doesn’t know how to let a joke go. I’ll have to warn my sisters not to make any passing remarks about smoke towers and altars for sacrifice. We’re already light on stone as we are – never mind metal rods for braziers. It’s going to be a nervous build. Altogether not looking forward to it.”
Paran looked about to unleash something Yamame could have laughed at; but it expired in his mouth and must have turned sour very quick, for he was frowning dumbly at Yamame as the spinstress backed on her tiptoes to the door.
“Seven days, or abouts,” she told him, one hand on the sliding panel. “All right?”
Paran swallowed the dead words down. “… Yes,” he replied. “Seven. Very good.”
“All right. Keep count. Good day, Paran.”
“Yes.” He nodded. Then, bizarrely, he added, “Good morning.”
The paper-and-wood door tocked shut behind her. The spinstress, wrapping this latest mystery up together with the rest, briskly slid into her eagerly waiting shoes. Then she quit the warm confines of her house, before other thoughts rooted. The caves outside were damp and dewy, issues of recent rain upside. Yamame headed down.
The hour in following brought her before the large, two-storey shared-house, which her many sisters now – as they had since Old Hell’s unsealing a handful of years before – occupied in another subterranean bubble of the Underworld. Yamame strode in, knocking aside the stout, Oni-fashion door she herself had painstakingly ground down and fitted into its frame. A number of her sisters were accounted for on the ground floor. They swelled up like hungry fledglings from their seats as she entered the common room, giggling and yabbering all at once.
“Settle!” Yamame ordered.
Then, in clipped, uncomplicated terms she explained to them what they were about to do and – more importantly – what they weren’t.
To their credit, the explaining – presaged already by Hachiashi passing on the news some days ago – took only almost as much as Yamame’s journey down had. The eldest of earth spiders (now a little older still) then tentatively concluded her younger kin would not, in their illimited excitement, leave any necessary tools or manners behind when they followed; and she left again.
This time, for the Sun-bathed world above.
On a whim – a chiffon-sheer fancy, nothing relevant to anything – she chose a route through the anthill-like burrows that would not circle her around by her own domain.
The route would take somewhat longer to spit her out into Gensokyo’s open skies; but Yamame Kurodani was nothing if not a persevering hunter. She would navigate these seldom travelled tunnels. She would brave them however long she must – even if they winded, confused her ears with silence, or made her feel not at all like the spider she was.
She had, after all, been doing it for weeks already.
The endless forests of Gensokyo shimmered past wetly below her, mottled in half a hundred hues of green; until, at one sudden point, they sheared off to give way to the flats and meadows which marked the humans’ realm.
From her vantage high in the air, looking toward Sun-rise, it was possible to see the Human Village itself: a grid of terracotta roofs and packed-dirt streets sheeting a mild, loaf-shaped hill and spilling outward like an overlarge tablecloth, trimmed all around with a forbidding wall. The intervening landscape was a checkerboard of rice fields, orchards and grasslands, spaced evenly with highways for workmen and wagoners, all of which convened invariably on the closer of the town’s mirrored gateways. The graceful arch over the gate was positively festooned with hanging garlands, banners and wards against evil. The sidelong morning light cast them as large – but pointless – teeth in the arch’s extended shadow.
Yamame willed down the absolutely pressing business to see whether the town’s streets also were crossing at geometrical angles (or, since they were human streets, how off-angle they were); instead, she cast west, along the light, where Myouren-ji’s hunchback roof was bulging from the woods just beyond the farthest field out. The Buddhist temple, named so purportedly after Hijiri’s missing relative (or, some said, lover), had offended Yamame’s orderly sensibilities the first time she had lain eyes on it. Now, her architect’s mind clinically reconfirmed what her injured pride had since held close – that Myouren-ji was a fish, not a temple: a huge, landed, wooden fish, planted with its rounded belly sticking up, and buried halfway to its fins. All it would take would be one overdrunk Oni to heave it up and flip it over. Then it could go swimming again in the grey ocean of Gensokyo’s sky.
Or, equally likely, Yamame thought, the green sea of its woods. The strokes of fishy preference were unknowable.
Might be, and Yamame could name just the Oni for the job as well; only then, her feet touched her down on the rain-sodden approach to the temple’s main toori gate. A small, canine-eared server youkai, spotting her, skipped up with a wicker broom firmly held en garde in both tiny hands. Cataloguing the mother of plagues somehow as nothing much to fear – after all, who sane would assault Byakuren Hijiri’s home? – the minute youkai then grinned, cupped its hands around its mouth, and blasted an ear-shattering “GOOD MORNING!” point-blank at the spider.
Yamame Kurodani, ears ringing, grinned back and ruffled the tiny watchdog’s hair for its efforts. The replying expression reminded her closely of someone she liked.
But someone she did not was even closer.
At the far end of the approach, where it crashed on the fish’s (or temple’s) open mouth, spilling left and right into the shadowed courtyard, Yamame could see Myouren-ji’s master herself, standing in a discussion with the spear-wielding Bishamon and a gaggle of aides. The priestess – signalled by her adorable doorbell going off – bowed in an apology to the black-robed supplicants; then, cracking away from the group, she marched out to meet with the vaunted visitor from the Underworld.
Byakuren Hijiri, the Buddhist, master of Myouren-ji, the Sealed Great Magician, the Acharya Who Surpassed – and other such titles which Yamame held to little care – cut an imposing, fleshy figure out of the surrounding air. Hers was merely the secondary presence within the temple – the most elevated honours belonging by rights to the god Bishamonten’s standing representative – though anyone professing this illusion in a private conversation would be patronisingly corrected. The priestess Hijiri might indeed play second fiddle to the Bishamon, and – unlike the god’s avatar – wield no visible arms. That much might be true. And yet, anyone to challenge Byakuren Hijiri would very soon find the temple’s spiritual guidance an appealing last resort. She filled out her black clothes like a brawler. She stamped the heels of her hard-shod boots like a warrior Oni. She was a boulder carven down into a female shape, but – pleasing though it was – the form belied the explosive strength beneath. She was a thousand years’ rage, smothered under a will to match.
Most of all – and most acutely to Yamame – somehow, Byakuren Hijiri did not smell.
Not in the way Yamame’s human could be generously ascribed after scalding in the shower – nor that of a slice of bread left out too long and toughened to stone. Byakuren Hijiri did have a smell – but it was the smell of her environs, scooped up and compressed, until it conformed to her shape like clothing. Yamame knew it to be nothing else but a mask… even if she did not know what the mask was designed to conceal. She did not like it all the same.
The priestess stamped to a careful halt some twenty paces ahead. Then, recognising at last the identity of her guest, her priestly exterior rusted away in flakes. Hijiri palmed her face almost comically.
“… I’d hoped I’d been wrong,” she murmured, her matronly voice pained.
Yamame scented an insult. “Wrong about what?”
“I’d hoped—” Hijiri began. Then, drawing herself back up to her full height, she explained, “I’d hoped I’d misremembered your name. But you are. You are Yamame Kurodani.”
The earth spider crafted a retort, but spooled it in before it let fly. She sketched a dismissive shrug. “I’m not here to eat anyone, if it helps.”
“A little,” Hijiri granted with a sigh of relief. The humour had washed around her as if the priestess were never there. “Will that persevere? I spoke at great length with your… equerry. He has assured me of his confidence in your cooperation – in the most powerful terms.”
“My partner,” Yamame corrected. “My partner – and if he has, then I’ll just have to keep his promise, won’t I?”
“It is my hope that you do.”
For him if not for you, Yamame thought indignantly. She pushed the ugly sentiment out. “So?” she asked. “Can I come in, already?”
Hijiri did not appear to understand. “Pardon me?”
The earth spider motioned upwards – to the leaning toori overhead. “I’m still off the temple grounds, formally,” she pointed out. “I know the compacts of Gensokyo. I’m not entering – formally – until I’ve the guarantee nobody should attack me, or my sisters, over our past misunderstanding. I’m here to work, not to fight. I will if I must, of course… but that is bad for architecture.”
The priestess Hijiri’s eyes hardened into polished bronze… then, truth dawning, her shoulders unwound from the rise. “… Yes,” she breathed. “Yes, of course. My mistake. You may enter, as your… sisters may, also. Nor should anyone fight you over any past wrongs as long as your stay – less you start the fight yourselves. This, I promise. The temple, also, stands open to your worship and meditation, should you require.”
“Nicely said, Hijiri,” Yamame laughed as she closed in on the black priestess. “No deal, though. Try again with my sisters, whenever they should show up. Maybe you’ll hook one or two. Not me, though.”
Hijiri’s brows were disapproving. “Custom dictates visitors at least pay their respects to the Buddha before—”
“Not me,” Yamame cut across the reproach. There was only one being who schooled the eldest of earth spiders on the cultural peculiarities of the surface world, and the priestess was not he. “What currency would my worship be, anyway?” she asked, smiling a wry, little smile. “I’m but an earth spider lost to the world. I know only one god, personally – and I found out about him very late.”
“Never mind, Hijiri. It’s a small, private god – and he only likes earth spiders.” Yamame, coming up within an arm’s reach of the statuesque priestess, stopped and extended a hand. “Very good?”
Byakuren Hijiri’s dark eyes stared at her from unnervingly high above. “… What is this?”
“A ritual,” Yamame explained. “We shake, we say, ‘Very good,’ and then we go to our work. You’ve yours, I’m sure – and I’m itching to start on mine. I’m going to need to see the site, first of all. Did you know? None of your drawings showed how the guest house should stand against the rest of the grounds. I’m going to have to situate it before my sisters get here and start digging. The materials you’ve gotten us, too; I’d like to see what kind of quality we’re to work. I hope you didn’t leave them out in this damp. I’d hate to have to sit on each and every plank until it’s straight again. Well, then?”
For a moment yet, Byakuren Hijiri stared her down.
For a moment, Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, fully expected her new employer to renege on their contract. She expected to be cast out once again. She expected her hand to be taken, to be swung around, and hoisted bodily under the toori, out of the holy grounds. She clamped down mentally on the spell which could allow her immediate flight if such were the case. But then…
… But then, miracle of miracles, gods reached out of the temple nearby, and Byakuren Hijiri, master of Myouren-ji, did take her hand. She wrapped her tough, lukewarm fingers around, and squeezed. The squeeze was clumsy, and not a trifle overstrong; and Yamame, mischief treasonously bubbling up, crushed out the urge to see if an earth spider could throw a statue.
“… I’d been wrong,” Hijiri was saying.
Yamame dared a grin. “What had you been wrong about this time?”
The priestess Hijiri’s lips moved. It was a confused moment before Yamame had read this movement.
Byakuren Hijiri was smiling.
“Never mind,” she black priestess aped Yamame’s earlier line. “It is a small, private mistake. Very good… It is done. Isn’t it?”
“Ye—Yes,” Yamame agreed. “Very good.”
“Well, then.” Hijiri released the spider’s hand. Then, grinding around on one heel, she began to lead further into her domain. “After me,” she called. “I shall myself see to it no mistakes are made. Also, I shall later convey your respects to the Buddha – with apologies. You are here to work, not to fight – past mistakes notwithstanding.”
Against her pride rising hotly to the bait (and her knuckles hotly aching in their joints), Yamame Kurodani had to smile about this outcome. More than hammering out a truce with Myouren-ji’s master. More than arriving mere minutes from her beloved work.
Yamame Kurodani smiled because it seemed – with almost trivial patency – that “propriety” was not her human’s unique sickness.
>>15631 I'd assume this one > But being called upon again by the very matriarch who had banished the earth spider officially from her domain in retaliation to an innocent (if admittedly indelicate) joke
Might be a reference to Symposium of Post-mysticism: > Byakuren Hijiri mentions that Yamame came to the surface at one point to try and enter the Myouren Temple, but the monk denied her entrance as Yamame's reasons were essentially because she figured humans with spiritual problems would taste better.
I don't know whether that remark was canonically meant as a joke or not, but in this story, it's indeed meant as a joke.
Six days hence, Hijiri’s guest-house was propped on the edge of completion.
Yamame Kurodani, all tolerantly amused, had allowed the Buddhist priestess to drive her and her crew through the tipping point of the first day. She had listened as the master of Myouren-ji had speechified on her connections with those craftsmen who had piously delivered the materials. She had watched, with somewhat less amusement, how – once arrived – her sisters had been neatly swathed in Hijiri’s authority over the temple grounds; how, in a tone impervious to disobedience, the black priestess had begun to direct the earth spiders around the site: to stack these limbers here, drag those pallets there, don’t open those bags of nails yet, they’ll get lost – and so and such. Yamame’s sisters had suffered it all with spider-nimble dignity. When, however, Myouren-ji’s rain-jellied soil had begun to fly from their shovels in earnest, solid Hijiri had taken her fill of command, and – in the first instance the spiders weren’t looking – vanished in cloud of different responsibilities.
Work had sped up signally after that; and, by the time the Sun had dipped below the horizon, Yamame Kurodani and her sisters had been sitting in a circle atop the freshly laid foundations – gazing up at the nighting sky, and using outrageously of the rare occasion their eldest was nearby and available for prodding. Questions had been asked. Answers had been given – to some. The rest had been passed over in a giggling accompaniment, or taken to (now slightly distracted) sleep.
News had run, as news do; and by the noon hours of the second day, rumour and noise both had brought in the first eyes curious about the uprising construction. Some of those eyes had belonged to youkai, who openly questioned the earth spiders’ purpose. Yamame had placated each with promises of hot baths – and who knew what other conveniences? – available on the priestess Hijiri’s grant. Other such eyes had been human, and less brave.
It had taken the third day – and its sweltering afternoon – for the first pair of those to outgrow their instinctive caution. Yamame Kurodani had looked on thus (no small trepidation clinching her stomach), even as one of her sisters – whom she had sent to fetch some measuring poles – had been approached by one of those quicker developing gapers-on.
The younger spider – a small, tautly-strung redhead by the name of Nikiba – had been nosing and arming through a pile of mixed-up equipment in search for the poles as the first human – a pale-faced, someway scholarly-seeming male of some age – had shuffled in near. The studious male had asked something unheard… which had caused Nikiba to jump and knock down the very poles she had been seeking – which had stood in a bunch a little to the side all along. The human had begun to apologise profusely; and yet, even as Nikiba – now red all over from her lapse – had gathered up the tools, a brief conversation had stitched between the two. At its end, the human had nodded sagely at the information he had been offered, and walked away – altogether unharmed.
Nikiba had then to suffer an inglorious return to her sisters’ side… but humans had come in all shapes, sizes and curiosities afterwards.
Three days later, and the object of their gossip was all but ready for a hands-on confirmation.
It was some hours until evening still. Yamame Kurodani, the great architect of the Underworld, had spent the last half of one in fisticuffs with a traditional Gensokyan sliding-panel front door, which – whichever way she pushed – simply refused to retract fully into its designed slot. Unaccustomed to doors which talked back, Yamame had all but taken the offending piece to the saw – until the saw met with and bent on the realisation that they were almost out of pinewood, and the resin used to glue it together had dried up in the late Summer heat. She was considering sawing it anyway when Hachiashi, walking by, turned her thoughts away from domestic violence.
“Going to go kiss up, Yams?”
Her jet-haired sister was chewing on a ball of putty, and pointing.
Yamame, rising from her argument with the door, followed the younger one’s finger. The finger was aimed like the muzzle of a tiny cannon at Myouren-ji’s black priestess – as ever standing in her slips at the temple’s yawing gate. A figure stood before Hijiri now, however: a tall, male figure, somehow as wide and muscular as the warlike priestess… and poised! The man was visibly offended by whatever words were pouring from Hijiri’s mouth – even though the exact range of his pique was invisible under the black sash wound around his eyes.
Yamame dropped her saw. Then, hopping off the house’s dusty veranda, she began at a slow, guarded walk toward the priestly two.
The man – sensing her perhaps, or taking his fill of Hijiri’s religious rhetoric – bowed stiffly, and turned to walk directly at Yamame.
Yamame’s next pace skipped. She quickened the following to compensate. Then, just to match, she did the next as well. Then the one afterwards. Something cracked inside her; and, before she thought differently, she was running.
She crashed into Paran’s hastily spread arms with a neck-breaking force.
Though nothing in actual broke on her landing; and her human’s wall-like-ness had for once proven it had a use, in addition to its annoyances. There was little wall-like in the way his arms folded down on her shoulder and the small of her back, but… Paran had never been anything else but a web of paradoxes. Yamame had known this. She had more than known this; she had even, very recently, shyly scuffled nearby the idea of accepting it. She hugged him back.
For what seemed a full minute – even if her hemming senses assured otherwise – she was suddenly back inside her warm, underground home. The correlation registered in a less faraway corner of her mind as strange – even wrong. The Yamame feeling at home simply did not care.
But her human was as parti-coloured as he had ever been; and he tore her out of this web as well.
“… How is it going, then?” he asked.
Yamame sighed. “It’s coming along,” she admitted. “Along enough, at any rate. We’ve had some snags and hiccups. All par for course. Why, I was about to absolutely obliterate one of the doors just now, if you’ll believe.”
Paran made a soft, vibrating chuckle. “Sounds tough.”
“Anything but,” corrected Yamame. “Actually, because pinewood is naturally spongy, the frame must have soaked up some of that damp and puffed while it was waiting in storage. That’s possibly why it won’t fit in, even though I’d drawn it out and ordered it myself. I’d even accounted for slight error – but not this much.” She paused. “… Or,” she gave up, “maybe you were only teasing me just now?”
The spinstress giggled into her human’s ear. “Snake! What were you talking about with Hijiri, anyway? Something about our payment? It looked like you were about to charge her with fists for a moment. That could have sealed the entire deal – you know?”
“Ah—” Paran tensed uncomfortably. “… No. Well… Not yet. She was— She was trying to warn me.”
“Warn you? About what?”
“About bothering the spiders.”
Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, felt a black swirl of resentment coagulate under the skin of her mood. “… I’d asked her not to do that anymore,” she hissed below her nose. “We’ve had human visitors for days. We haven’t even scared off a single one. Are these steps really so necessary? We weren’t going to…” Her anger bled into a rising blister of confusion. “… Hold on,” she told her human. “Why was she warning you? You’d spoken for me before, yes? At great length, even – allegedly. Hadn’t you?”
Paran’s long arms wound tighter around her back. Or, it might have been another tensing – and the arms locking was a side symptom only. Any way she diagnosed it, Yamame found she did not mind this illness at all. “… When I ended up here last,” Paran explained, “it was long after Sun-down. I was not wearing the blindfold. The priestess Hijiri meets with petitioners without counting; perhaps my voice has slipped her memory as well.”
“I think she remembers now,” Yamame said.
“She’s staring. Stunned like a bird on a glass window, too.” The spinstress giggled again. “I think I like that look on her face.”
Paran spat a cough. “… Well,” he said, “I’d told her we were partners – but not this close.”
Would you tell anyone? Yamame quietly wondered. But, circumstance presenting to file Hijiri’s teeth some more, she asked instead, “So? Shall we go and give her an even bigger stone to swallow?”
Paran laughed mysteriously. “I’d love to, Yamame,” he confessed. The phrasing… no, the pick of words had all at once somehow made her forget all about Myouren-ji’s insufferable master. “I’d love to,” Paran said again (and Yamame’s heart became silly for another second). “But the good priestess isn’t the only one staring.”
A pull of embarrassed panic rode over her pleasant distraction; and Yamame, ripping quite easily out of her human’s embrace, whipped around to match his heading.
Her sisters, dirty over all from the day’s work, were clustered in front of the guest-house. Then, a heartbeat later, and they weren’t clustered anymore; and the earth spiders returned as one to whichever tasks that needed doing yet, with all the dispatch the closing in evening harshly necessitated.
Yamame yelled a few words that weren’t very necessary. Then, she span back to her human.
Paran was standing still, as blind and tight-lipped as was his regular outfit. Only a minuscule jerk of one of his cheeks betrayed he, too, had found Yamame’s little slip all rather precious.
The great architect of the Underworld, Yamame Kurodani, pulled up whatever scraps of her self-regard that remained. “All right,” she said, smacking her hands on her hips. “That little sidelight on Hijiri aside, you need to get scarce. As I said – the work’s coming along fine – but we aren’t near enough done yet. That door needs obliterating – and it’s only one nail through this pretty mess. I can’t in good faith go loitering around, so you’re going to have to go about it on your own. Can you do that? A few more hours, and we should be able to put it to some semblance of a finish. I promise.”
Paran bent down in an obedient bow. “Very good.”
“Ask Hijiri after the payment in the meanwhile.”
“And don’t bother the spiders, either.”
“… Very good.”
Yamame Kurodani, about to re-join with her hard-working sisters, gave her human a last, cool and clinical once-over. He did not appear anything but himself on the outside.
“Paran?” she asked anyway.
“Why?” she demanded. “I told you seven days. We’ve only been six. I was going to go grab you first thing tomorrow. Why are you here?”
Her human – her favourite, favourite human, whom she would have never switched for any which had come to gawk at the earth spiders before him – slowly unrolled his tactful bow.
His eyes were unreachable under the blindfold; but, even so, Yamame Kurodani had but to look at the bitter warping of his mouth to know the man Paran was none too pleased with his own actions.
“… I guess,” he muttered at length, with rather more tartness than tact, “I guess I missed you.”
In time, all of Yamame’s promises were fulfilled. The guest-house had slowly but certainly been brought up to a state of usability. The rooms had been cleaned out; the front door – with some negotiation – had been dried, sanded down, and fitted. The veranda – swept clean of dust and waxed to a polish.
For their stainless performance, the earth spiders had been bestowed a pair of honours by Myouren-ji’s master in advance of their proper reimburse. The lesser of these honours – and one to come later – was the grant of stay within the house’s rooms until the following day. The lesser because – on her insistence not to use of Hijiri’s provisions more than they must – Yamame and her sisters had already been spending their nights inside the unfinished building. The house might be cleaner now, yes; but it was little different to what it had been before, and each of them had known it already by their heart.
The greater of the honours – more immediate and of more interest both – was the leave to trial the baths of the guest house with their own dust-and-plaster-caked bodies, then a humble supper afterwards. The baths had been provided with plumbing of human make, and supplied with water from a newly drilled-out hot spring – located by another of the animalistic server youkai with which Hijiri seemed to surround herself. Thus the earth spiders had tested their own work to the best of their own ability. Then, a fresh change of clothes; and the underground’s builders, steaming and chatting animatedly, gathered in the largest of the house’s rooms, to feast on human-fashion foods of such smells and variety, all but Yamame questioned whether she had affixed the “humble” part of Hijiri’s proclamation on her own. Halfway through the meal, however, the priestess stood up from her seat beside the Bishamon and her attendants; and her intent was made as clear as a dew-spotted web when she launched into a long homily on the core values of Buddhism, and their application for enlightened youkai.
The many foods kept the younger spiders’ slavering attention leashed tightly to their plates. Not Yamame’s.
The eldest of the spiders had but nibbled a little on the slightly familiar, but all the same foreign cooking, before her mind was somewhere else entirely. A nod to the nearby Hachiashi (unnoticed anyway), and the mother of plagues rose up to leave her sisters alone to their entertainment. Out, and into the sparkly-clean hallway; and soon, she was standing before the door of the tiny bedroom which had been laid aside for her private use for the night.
Yamame Kurodani sucked in a composing breath.
Then, she slid the door open, and firmly stepped inside. She pulled shut, and held the door close, behind her.
In the centre of the room, cross-legged on the brand new floor, the human Paran was calligraphing letters of Gensokyo’s runic script onto a large, washi paper roll with a long, ornate brush. The room was dim, only the orange glow of lampions outside filtering in through the thin, shoji wall; all the same, the human’s hand inked the shapes onto the paper with the long practice of someone who, in his distaste for shouting, has had to find other ways of communicating his thoughts over long distances.
A stitch of irony, it was still he who spoke first. Though to his credit he did not shout. “I think I’ve figured it out,” he said, never for a little stopping his hand in its work. “Why the priestess Hijiri kept warning everyone not to bother you, I mean – regardless of your requests.”
“Oh?” Yamame said from her position at the door. “Have you? Why’s that?”
“I’ve told you, yes?” Paran replied. “That this – that your work – would be twisted into politics? Well, here it is. The good priestess has shown effectively she can tame the Underworld. At least, she has shown she can control the earth spiders.”
“But that’s simply not true,” Yamame pointed out.
“What does it matter? Word has come out. Who knows?” Paran speculated. “I may be in for competition soon – imagined as it may be.”
Her human chuckled darkly at his own guesswork. Then, he put the brush down carefully, blew a few times on the wet ink, rolled the paper up, and – finally – looked at Yamame.
His eyes squinted for some reason as they walked up her legs. They glided up the airy shorts and shirt she had attired after the bath; they lingered a little as they travelled higher still. Almost, and they would have climbed to the peak at her face… Only then, they darted sharply to the side; and Paran – he who embarrassed earth spiders and lived – looked suddenly very small. He looked heavy, and squashed under said weight; he looked at once on the needle point of breaking, and about to spring up and run. He looked trapped.
Yamame Kurodani’s spider heart thumped inside its cage.
Not in the slightest because her youkai’s instincts roused at the sight. Yamame Kurodani’s heart thumped because the other part of her – that which had tasted of human things – roused at it as well.
The yearly malady opened her mouth to speak. The mouth was dry. She closed it, swallowed. Then, she opened it again.
“Paran,” she said, “if you want to, we could—”
“Would you like to go drinking?” Paran spoke over her. “I’ll take you. If you like.”
Yamame’s mind flickered between her previous emotion and her human’s abrupt offering.
After a moment, the latter won out. “You don’t drink, though,” she accused. “Not with me.”
Paran squirmed, seeming somehow to become even heavier in the process. “… I’ll drink,” he surrendered. “I’ll make an exception. All right?”
“And where did you want to go?”
“Somewhere in town,” he replied, a touch too fast to Yamame’s ear. “I’ve asked around. There are a few places we could go.”
“Could we?” Yamame’s brows met above her nose. “I’d thought the Human Village was closed to us youkai. More than that, I’m from the Underworld. Wouldn’t I get exterminated on sight? I could do without that tonight.”
Paran bit off a muffled curse. “That’s not what it’s—” He choked back his first response, and groaned. “I’ve asked around, Yamame. There are places. Safe ones. As long as you… As long as we behave ourselves. I wouldn’t have mentioned it if…”
Her human’s voice trailed off. Yamame felt a throb of guilt inside her chest. “All right, look,” she said, by way of apology, “if you want to drink, then we can drink here. Give me a minute, and I’ll go fetch us something. We’ve gotten some habushu, and I think plum wine, from visitors from your… town. I don’t know why, exactly, but—”
“It’s favours,” Paran grunted. “It’s favours, Yamame. They brought gifts, because you’d submitted to Hijiri, and were doing her flock a service. It’s custom to return these.”
“I’d thought Buddhists abstained from drink.”
“Maybe they were bribing you to stay away, then,” Paran joked impatiently. He waited, but the earth spider didn’t laugh. “… Sorry,” he sighed. “Very good. We’ll do as you like, Yamame.”
Her human looked up. He looked back down just as soon; but Yamame hadn’t failed to catch the tracing of a resigned smile.
“Trust me,” said Paran.
Yamame considered the options sat down on the floor in front of her.
>>15632 There are heroes left in spider enthusiasts!
Hello. It’s me. Ban, Ban, Ban, Banki Tamashii.
I’d just like to say sorry for this drought of choices. But, in the light of last one, I decided not to have another until I’m at a serious split of ideas. Which I now am. I hope reading these un-choiced chunks hasn’t been too discouraging. Your silence has been. Sniff.
Of course they haven't been discouraging. We've been busy devouring your every paragraph and know better than to speak with our mouths full, that's all.
That, and if we heap too much praise on you it might just go to your head. Though, if you still need a few more stokes to get up to a full head of steam, have this: your writing is a cut above the norm in these parts.
(x) No need to go out. More private, more intimate, know what I'm sayin?
So I wonder, would such a scandalous tryst be alright with Byakuren or not? It wouldn't seem to go against anything she says, at first glance. Probably come off weak if she's all about enlightened harmony between humans and youkai then speaks out against an example of the pinnacle of the concept.
In theory it's none of her business, but I feel like Byakuren isn't a good enough buddhist to just let it pass without trying to get at least one word in edgewise, trying to spin it to her cause or something.
A sprinkling of footfalls stole into the hall outside the door. Yamame allowed them to coast her thoughts over. The steps faded in, large room-wise; they passed by, very close, all furtive tap-tap-tap of naked feet on wooden floor. Then, as they had in, they faded out – slinking down the hallway until vanished.
Yamame Kurodani, the eldest and most feared among earth spiders, released the door she had been, until now, holding shut tightly behind her back. Then, she let her arms hang flatly along her sides.
It did not matter, ultimately, which way she took her human’s proposition, so long as neither of them lacked for a drink in their hand at the end. Though Yamame may have preferred to warm the insides of her creation for a while more; and yet, if she had to leave it unattended for a portion of the evening, how much would that weight on leaving it entirely in Hijiri’s care in the morning? Yamame’s heart was saying, “A lot.” But her heart was stupid, and could be diverted to other concerns; and if the nearest of those would much rather dull his senses with alcohol in friendlier environs than these: inside a foreign temple, encircled on all sides by earth spiders and other youkai, locked in a tiny, cramped bedroom with she whom fearful they had long ago styled the mother of plagues…
… Then, it was a very small thing for Yamame to go along with his wishes.
“All right,” she said, mock-mercifully. “Very good, Paran. Your town it is.”
Her human, Paran – whom she wished nothing more but to pull up encouragingly and embrace – pulled himself up to a stand quite unrequiring of her help. He breathed out explosively; and – for the first time since she had entered the room – he looked fully into her spider’s eyes. The look was filled with relief. Then, forcing it awfully, Paran pulled a sardonic smile.
The smile was filled with self-loathing.
In a single, glaring moment of insight, Yamame Kurodani – she who could read the geometrics of building, but not her favourite human – remembered where she had seen this trapped set of Paran before. She understood, in the same moment, why her spider’s heart had reacted to seeing him so the way it had. For Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, could recall of only one instance she and her human had been woven in a like circumstance; and it was indeed that evening a score of evenings ago, when – confined similarly in Yamame’s bedroom – the two of them had first grudgingly brushed up against the idea of touching each other without either of them succumbing to hysterics. The idea had outspanned what Yamame had sensed either of their estimations; and it had soon greedily swelled into something that she had, afterwards, felt had been rather less than innocent.
At least, it had been un-innocent enough to cause her human to lose out on his sleep subsequently.
In that above flash of insight, Yamame Kurodani understood the sublime tragedy of him, who called himself ‘Paranseberi.’ For what the spiders’ envoy was attempting to escape were not the youkai-ruled walls of Myouren-ji, nor were it the temple’s black priestess, whom the man sorely mistrusted. It weren’t the spiders themselves, housed nearby, whose whimsy was impossible to divine – nor even their eldest, who was even nearer, and infinitely more deadly.
What Paran was running from – was himself.
Less poetically, what Yamame’s favourite human was running from was not she, but rather the circumstance – wherein he had trapped himself by selfishly overtaking their agreed schedule. All, because – by his own confession – he couldn’t bear to go one more day without her legs. Or her neck. Or her hair. Or, a yearning thought suggested itself, perhaps just Yamame in general.
The thought lit up a hot blush under her cheeks. Yamame smothered it below as much web as she could spew mentally at a short notice. The dim lighting inside the room must have helped; and when Paran had approached, he showed awareness of anything but blushes.
“… Very good,” he said, confidence half-remounted in his voice. “Then get dressed, Yamame. I’ll wait… outside. I need a few cups of fresh air before you drink me under the bench.”
Wouldn’t you get those anyway while we walk there? Yamame wondered. Then, something else caught in the net between her ears.
“I am dressed, though,” she noticed.
“Then dress more,” Paran insisted.
“What for?” Yamame demanded. “Are you worried I’ll fall ill? If so, quit. I’m a youkai. More than that, I’m an earth spider who controls diseases. I know – I’ve asked you to forget this as often as you can. It’s still very real, though. What would that make me, then, if I somehow fell with an illness myself? I’d be the butt of jokes in the Capital for the next hundred years. So no, I’m not going to fall ill, if I can help it. And I can help it – you know? That’s what makes me… well, me.”
“Yes. That’s me. What?”
Paran rumbled. Then, in an after-quake, one of his hands rose up and gripped the bridge of his big nose. “… Yamame,” he murmured. “Can you face some unpleasant facts?”
“Yes,” said Paran. The hand came away, and a less crooked copy of the sour smile from earlier shaped on his mouth. “… You’re very pretty.”
The blush, which Yamame had thought under control, flared and erupted all over her face. She tried to mask it with a chuckle. “Ah— Well, Ashi has criticised me for this before. Yes? She says I’m… She says I’ve got… That my… Well, she says a lot of things – you know?”
“I’ll let my god sort out Hachiashi,” Paran promised. “That’s not my point. My point is, other… other people are going to look at you.”
“So? Humans can’t sense what I am in this form, unless they search specifically. Won’t they assume I’m simply another human if they just look?”
“What’s so dangerous, then? Why do I need to dress more?”
“… Would you be grossly upset if I said propriety?”
“Yes,” Yamame replied. “Well, no. Maybe not grossly.”
“… All right, then. Another way.” Paran reached out with his big hands, and patted them down on each one of her shoulders. His brows bunched up belligerently. “I’ve worked for you, Yamame,” he told her, in that saccharine tone he sometimes used. “I’ll say this, because I promised you I would lie less, but only once. I’ve worked a lot for you. So, if I can help it, then I’m not going to share you. And, right now, Yamame,” he added, “right now, I am trying to help it. So dress more.”
Ahead she may so much as sketch a thought on the blank sheet of lambskin that was her mind right then, the human’s cool hands slid wistfully along her uncovered arms, down and down, until her elbows. Then, they stopped.
And then, when it appeared most he had something else wholesale planned for the silly earth spider, Paran sighed…
… And softly, but firmly, moved Yamame out of the way.
It was no time… or it might have been all time, or perhaps it was nonsense to guess the time without her bedroom’s clock ticking out the arbitrary intervals… between when her human had quit the room, and when Yamame’s legs folded up underneath her.
She was upset.
Not grossly so, if anyone asked… but nobody did, and Yamame Kurodani, she who had been prized by the Oni for her sunny disposition, suddenly wished something smeared for a mile across the surrounding landscape. It could have been the door. It could have been the room in its cramped entirety; it could even have been her human, had Yamame not known perfectly it would have done nothing to mend his stubbornness.
Most of all, what Yamame Kurodani wanted fanged and pumped tight with volatile contagions – was herself.
Not because Yamame had missed some manner of opportunity here with her human. Time would be later to pursue these again. After all, inside the cracks between their jobs, all the two of them had was time. Nor was the mother of plagues upset because her own claims of exclusivity to her human had had their cloaks turned against her. Her sisters had always done the same implicitly, whenever all of them were gathered in one place. Paran’s claim on her had been no different.
And yet, someway, it had been; and it had made such a stupid grin crawl out and stick on her stupid face, Yamame Kurodani wanted said face dragged out, strung up, and slingshot at the Moon.
That she couldn’t go through with this plan was the upsetting part. She needed her face, in spite of its foolishness – if for nothing else, then to keep her human’s compliments valid. She gave it a disciplinary smack, and that had to do.
Then, drawing on her previous experiences, Yamame Kurodani climbed up from the spotless floor, and set about deciding a change of clothes that would at once satisfy her human’s waspish propriety, and leave it a little unsatisfied.
Her human was waiting outside – not immediately, but under the temple’s toori – gazing out into the darkness blanketing the fields beyond the tree line. The temple grounds, at this late hour, were still and lifeless, but for the noise emitting from the guest-house, where proceedings (or proc-eat-ings) were still in merry headway. Yamame made across the empty courtyard in a hurry, conspicuous in the murky light of the lanterns.
As the spinstress – who had chosen a set of loose-fitting, earthen overalls to wrap up her legs, but had kept her arms mostly on display – obviously approached, Paran swivelled on a heel to meet her. He absorbed her outfit at a glance – then again, and once more; and though she span in front of him daringly, grinning all the while, in the end, these plain clothes were deemed serviceable.
“Serviceable,” said Paran, confirming what his expression had broadcast already. “Shall we?”
Yamame quit spinning, and gave an assenting nod. Paran drew his own clothes about his wide shoulders, and began walking. Yamame followed.
Inside the minute, they had breached the thin, natural boundary of the woods, and emerged onto one of the many dirt highways which partitioned the farmland. Paran said nothing as he picked one between the three snaking outwards in separate directions, but, Yamame reasoned, if anywhere a human’s sense of direction should be superior to hers, it should be on this artificial terrain. They walked on, until another crossroads loomed out of the night. Paran, unerringly, chose again.
Her human kept himself cloaked in his quiet, even as a long road unfurled before them – seeming to go on and on, even to Yamame’s preternatural sight. All the same, she did not speak. She did not try to strike a conversation. They would talk later, anyhow; for now, something else was vying for her full attention.
Yamame had not expected the fields to be so loud.
She had walked the forests of the surface world at night before, had Yamame Kurodani, and those had been rightly alive with sound. Any slight exhalation of the wind would startle a murmur from the millions of leaves; any small prey scurrying through the brush would disturb the undergrowth noisily. A branch snapped underfoot would cast a dry crack to echo on for hours – two, she amused inside, could probably carry on till morning. The soundscape of a forest at night was a rainbow cacophony; even with her keen spider’s hearing, Yamame had imagined these man-made fields to be as quiet as the dead passages of the Underworld compared.
They were not.
A buzzing fly-cloud of sounds hung over the manufactured flats. To either side of the road fat crickets were grating out their single-note symphonies; in the rice fields farther out, small amphibians were splashing around, going to and from their nightly business. A lake of green-gold barley came next; and here, the hairy stalks seemed to sigh in delight as they rubbed on each other in the breeze. A bird – or otherwise small avian – which the earth spider had never heard before, was making home among them, creep-creeping lustily as if to fit in. And, over all, the low wheezing of unrestrained wind.
Yamame walked on, in a surprised wonder, head snapping left and right in response to the alien sounds.
Almost, and she would have bowled over Paran when the man suddenly stopped, not twenty minutes later. With an even greater surprise, Yamame realised the walls of the Human Village – backed by a nimbus of orange light – were now faintly visible.
“Yamame,” Paran was saying. “When you took me down to your Capital…”
“Yes?” Yamame asked. “I remember. What about it?”
Her human, mouth inched open to tell her what, turned about to face her. And yet, whatever the “what” had been, it must have been lost easily. Paran closed his mouth, shut his eyes, and shook his head. Then, he opened them again. “… I want to hold your hand,” he told her simply. “That’s all.”
This piece of spider wisdom let fly, Yamame offered up a hand. Her human wrapped it promptly up in his; but where the spinstress would have thought it done, Paran began toying around with her slighter digits… until – somehow, someway – they ended up laced together with his own.
Thusly was the human Paran appeased; and Yamame, her hand very warm, spent the remainder of the walk in a different wonder altogether.
As the walls of the Human Village slid ever closer, however, a less preoccupied aspect of her mind spooled out into activity. In passing, the architect Yamame noted the walls which hedged the humans’ dwell from all sides were not very high. They were easy enough on the eye, for being walls – topped all along with a cute miniature of the terracotta roofs which most of the houses in town wore atop – but not very high. Any youkai possessed of enough faculties to speak might persuade its body to simply fly over; a human – with long enough legs and a drop of spider blood in their veins – was like to clamber to the other side without too much trouble. Maybe then, Yamame guessed, the walls had not been designed to keep intruders out, but to contain the human numbers within.
The gatehouse was a different story by half. Yamame had witnessed the gate in its open state, six days before; now, the soaring arch was occupied not by fluttering wards or colourful banners, but filled out with a sheer, iron-studded slab of weather-beaten wood. The planks of which the slab consisted appeared to go on unbroken the entire way to the roof of the arch. Yamame shuddered picturing the sweat and blood gone into lumbering a tree so massive.
A secondary door had been worked into the vast wings of the gate, and it was now on that door that Paran knocked – four times in a sequence. A stretched moment later, the door squeaked ajar on rust-splotched hinges, and another human – a bland-faced male in a padded tunic – peered out the gap.
“We’re from the temple,” Paran told the watchman.
The man behind the door mulled it over. “All right,” he decided. “Come on through, then. Quickly! I’ve a bottle of good umeshu going on a Shōgi match. Can’t miss it.” He slammed the door and keyed the lock once Paran had shoved himself and Yamame through. “What’re your names?”
“Paranseberi,” Paran replied. “Yamame.”
“Paransaba…” the watchman struggled.
“All right. Paran, Yamame. ‘Case you’re going back and no one’s at the post, there’ll be a list a’ names nailed to the gate. Cross yourselves out. And don’t leave the door bangin’. Got it?”
Foregoing any and all “good evenin’s” may have been coming back to him, the watchman disappeared inside a nearby house. A light was on behind the window. A roar of mockery rocked the glass inside the frame moments later. Someone, earmarks were, had just lost rights to a bottle of good umeshu.
Paran was looking down at her inquiringly. Yamame smiled, and sketched a shrug. “Must have been a loaded match.”
“Mhm.” He gave her palm a brief squeeze. “Let’s go.”
And so they did – and he led her deeper into the humans’ uncharted world.
Yamame Kurodani’s first sentiment regarding the Human Village was that of smug validation. Her second such sentiment was of disappointment.
Here was a place built indeed by imprecise human hands; and though skill and care had marked themselves in these buildings, Yamame’s trained eyes at once drew a bitter parallel between this place and the faraway Oni Capital. Yes, streets were wider in the world above – fivefold Yamame and her human may walk hand in hand and never bother anyone; and yet the side alleys, snaking off either side of the thoroughfare as means of reaching individual homes, were as narrow and needlessly winding as those in the underground city. As well the homes themselves sweetened the overall impression – and they were pretty homes, and no mistake. Those roofs, for one, were absolutely gorgeous.
All the same, Yamame Kurodani couldn’t swallow down the disappointment in her chest. Might be her unfamiliarity was speaking, too; but – for some strange reason – she couldn’t moult the impression the buildings staring after her with their dark windows were different in some way from those described in the books, which her human had diligently procured for her study. Older, perhaps – less complex. More uniform. An effect of necessity, not art, taken for granted – rather than purposefully preserved.
Where the Oni trivially lacked for care in their architectural slant, humans – ostensibly – had an even deadlier illness plaguing their craft.
These (and other) thoughts evaporated from her head when Paran drew her up the short flight of stairs before one of the few houses that weren’t dark. He opened the front-facing door with an almost habituated jerk, and motioned her through.
A familiar scene visited itself on Yamame’s spider eyes and ears.
The floor of this house closest to ground had been ceded to an open taproom – so open, it spanned the entire width of the building. A thick trace of burnt pine resin clung to the air, already lousy with other scents – though no open fire was in evidence. The floor was raw wood, buffed from use, and dry rushes; and it was packed to the fringes of chaos with drinkers. Males and females – human – sat in twos, fours, even sixes, at rough-hewn tables: drinking and talking, boasting and laughing, and doing such an expert impression of a typical Oni drink-house that Yamame searched around for hallmarks of a brawl about to splinter the first chairs and chip the first teeth.
Paran was scanning around as well. “Crowded tonight,” he opined.
Yamame giggled at the scathing review. “I’ve passed out in worse. Are we going to sit?”
Nor was he lying. Yamame allied her efforts to his.
At length (of looking past mostly overflocked tables), her sharp spider’s eyes identified one possibility. At the far end of the taproom, all but inside the loneliest corner, a single townswoman in pretty robes was occupying a table much too spacious for one. The woman was drinking, as was well in the place – nursing a solitary care over a tall glass of colourful mixture, eyes secreted from the surrounding world under a fringe of close-cut, crimson-red hair. The other side of her table was waiting empty – if uninviting.
Paran nudged her out of her staring. He himself was staring, as she found out – somewhere off in the opposite direction – but none of it had stopped him.
“Over there.” He jabbed his chin out. “That. Isn’t that…?”
Startled, Yamame Kurodani followed her human’s frowning. On its point, over by another wall of the taproom, a table of four was sitting, up to their noses in beer-foam and conversation. Three among these four were human and male, and paying an undivided court to the remaining fourth. The fourth herself was smaller, longer-haired, and visibly female… even if there was scarce little womanhood filling out the golden, fish-scale dress which, despite all, still gleamed fabulously in the overworked light every time its owner called a toast.
Paran spat a chuckle at her reaction. “Isn’t it just?”
“It’s her all right.” The elder earth spider stamped her foot. “I gave her that dress, you know! No, hold on. This is the Human Village. What is she doing here?!”
“The same thing as you?”
Yamame punched him in the side.
“You were saying something?” she asked him.
“… We’ll do as you like, Yamame.”
But please don’t punch anyone else, went unspoken.
As well, then, that she stitched around anything that might bounce her back. Hachiashi – in her cups and showing off – was just such a thing.
“Never mind her,” said Yamame. “I’ve had enough of Ashi in the past six days to tide me over for the next six. Months, that is.” She flicked her unoccupied hand, instead, somewise toward the red townswoman’s spot. “We can sit there. There’s an empty bench by that table in the corner. That’ll do, won’t it?”
Yamame giggled. “I kid. The bench opposite of her. That one’s empty. I bet if I grease her just right, she’ll even let us put out drinks down on the table, too.”
Her human shrugged his surrender. “We’ll do as you—”
“As I like,” agreed Yamame. “Yes. Well, let’s pick up those drinks, then. We’ll have more of an argument with some in hand, too.” She looked up at him and smiled. “You are buying, of course. Me, I haven’t seen a coin of our money since you swiped it from our previous payment. You didn’t spend it all on that ribbon you got me – did you?”
“No.” Paran smiled faintly back. “Not quite all.”
Yamame winked. “Good human. Come on, then.”
She began dragging him along for the bar. Paran coughed at her back.
“Ah— Yamame? One thing.”
The spinstress quit pulling on his arm and twirled around. Her human stitched out another dim smile. Then, slowly, he lifted up their still-laced-together hands until they hovered between them. His long fingers opened out – then closed, then splayed out again, in a mute display of helpless captivity.
With a pout, Yamame unlocked her own, smaller fingers.
Paran, never deflecting the allegation, nodded his thanks instead; both hands unobstructed, he dug under a half of his cloak. A grope or two after, and out produced a small, leathern pouch – held secure on a loop of thong, and heavy to the point of sagging with coin. Yamame’s human, emboldened perhaps by his evident wealth, then headed for the bar quite by himself. Yamame, shoving her now oddly lonely hand down a pocket of her overalls, trailed behind.
The barkeep’s heavily-browed eyes walked them all across the taproom. The ageing man behind the counter, Yamame now saw, must at one point in his life have been infected with a unique sort of illness; he suffered, even now, from its consequences, which – curiosity of curiosities – manifested in his chewing something on the inside of his stubbly cheeks relentlessly, even as he greeted his newest patrons. At the keep’s back, a tall cupboard – laded under a rainbow showcase of varying glass vessels – was reaching up to the naked beams of the ceiling. As Paran exchanged pleasantries, Yamame slid her gaze up the tiers of the collection – until it stuck on the highest shelf, where a row of vacant, print-press-labelled bottles was proudly exhibited. She tried to read the washed-out lettering, but the script gave up no sense to her any way she tackled it. What’s that all about? Her human could likely explain what these meant were she but to ask – but that would spoil the mystery of it.
“Any preferences?” Paran asked after making one order.
Yamame, perplexed as she was, only replied, “I’ll trust you.”
“Very good. Another one, then,” her human told the barkeep.
She continued to silently question the alien bottles as long as their drinks were poured.
Once they had been, and Paran was burdened with two tankards of – she thought – overly frothy ale in addition to being the speaker for the hated earth spiders, Yamame forded a path between the crowded tables toward the one they wanted. Almost at the goal, she cautioned back at her human:
“Now let me do the speaking. OK? Maybe try to make those glasses look heavier than they are, if you can. Very good?”
“Very good,” Paran complied.
“Watch and learn.” Yamame swished to a stop at the solitary townswoman’s table. Then, leaning down, she touched a palm atop it – just inside the woman’s field of view. She ahemed politely. “Hello. Could I have a moment, please?”
The woman’s head pivoted up with an unwillingness that rivalled the rusted-through door in the town’s great gate.
The fringe of concealing hair parted before one tired hand; and out from under the scarlet curtain issued a pair of chromatically likewise eyes. The woman’s mouth opened. Yamame noted the ruby glitter of blood from a bitten lip on the teeth. Her surface designation, it seemed, stretched a little farther than Yamame had measured at first.
“… What do you want?”
She had not released it with overmuch enthusiasm, but the red woman had a low, pleasantly breathy voice. Yamame Kurodani smiled the friendliest smile in her repertoire. The smile tore along the edge on the woman’s decidedly un-friendly stare, but the spinstress held it up like a battered shield.
“Nothing too much,” she assured. “I hope, anyway. A seat. Me and my partner here, we got our drinks before we could sit down, and by the time we went about it, there was nowhere to even ask – except here. This side of the table’s free, isn’t it? Could we?”
The red woman scowled. “… I’m waiting for someone.”
“No worries. We’ll make ourselves sparse once they arrive. Maybe some other table will have cleared by then. Well?”
She scowled on for a while yet, the red woman did, until the sheer brightness of Yamame’s smile burned a hole through the cloth of her defences. She rubbed at the corners of her eyes; then, switching targets, she levelled her glare at something behind the earth spider. Yamame peeked over her shoulder. Paran’s eyes snapped up to her face. Then, to the woman seated on the bench. Then, back to Yamame.
As though recalling something important, the human drooped suddenly almost halfway to the rush-strewn floor. The foam atop the twin tankards swayed precariously; and Paran groaned mightily like an old oak as he heaved himself up to full height again.
“Oof,” he complained.
The red woman made a sigh. She scratched irritably under the tall collar of her robe.
“Comedians,” she grumbled. “Fine. Sit. What do I care?”
Yamame squealed. “Thank youuu!” She stepped over the ungraciously granted bench and sat down. “Your dress is beautiful, by the way. A yu-kata, right? The blue and red really go with your hair. What’s your name?”
“Don’t talk to me.”
“Grumpy, this one,” Yamame commented to her human. She gestured him to sit as well. “I’m calling her Grumpy. What do you think?”
“Uh-huh,” said Paran. He slammed the tankards down.
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?
You know, I generally find that making a big deal out of the word 'love' and corresponding declaration is very silly. However, I'm going to need advance warning when it comes in this story, or risk a very embarrassing death by heart attack.
There are so many incredible things in this update I don't know where to look. It has Yams, Banki, MYSTERIOUS PLOT HOOKS and an impromptu history lesson on the cooling of beverages using the power of !!SCIENCE!!.
Oh, and it also has a cute couple up to their regularly-scheduled slice-of-life antics. Certifiably cute enough to make a dullahan barf.
> “I like it so much when you talk to me,” she told him. Hnnggggh! Somebody give me insulin!
> “Yes, I’ve never drunk with you before now. I realise. I had a reason.” I'm assuming the reason is that he's a talky drunk, and he's embarassed to be seen like that in front of the girl he liked? Or is there something else I'm missing?
>>15669 The guy has clearly been having issues with self-control around Yamame from the very beginning, hanging on to some weird notion of 'property' every step of the way to slow himself down. It's probably all he can do. And, well, alcohol is known to lower inhibitions.
>>15670 So he's been holding himself back because he's aware that Yamame is inexperienced with romance stuff, and he don't want to take advantage of that, right? His insistence on propriety is so that Yamame may understand all this lovey-dovey stuff, and that if she were to take things further, she will have the full knowledge of what exactly she's doing.
>>15671 That... may be one reason, but that alone would be too naive, I think. Consider the reason Paran is even doing this whole thing in the first place and the hints to his backstory. A capable, sane human like him simply doesn't end up in an uncomfortable hole in the ground helping a youkai that could kill you twenty times over in the span of a minute for no pay and no benefits. It's likely he has some kind of angle of his own, and getting attached to Yamame will hinder it. Or, Yamame being attached to him will hinder it. Maybe it will involve a betrayal of some kind, or he'll just have to leave the underground for good at some point.
It's something to do with his god, I'll bet my left testicle on it.
They capped off their tankards inside the next minutes; and Yamame’s human, wheezing dramatically, hauled himself upright from the table. The richer of the two that he was, it fell to him, by ancient tradition, to refill their drinks. Thus was Paran uprooted from his seat. Thus he seized their empty tankards, and carried them again to the ale-giving spring at the bar. Thus was Yamame Kurodani left, if only for the trice, alone with her thoughts. In this enforced moment of solitude, she allowed those thoughts to ungenerously loop inwards.
With a tiny jolt of surprise, she realised she was enjoying herself immensely.
There was something to say for that. Yamame liked drinking, and no lie; her days spent among the Oni in the Capital (at least, those she had not worked) which had lacked for a bottle of this or that drink could be modestly counted on a few hands. The red-skinned Oni partied as a matter of fact, not celebration; and to say their boiling blood was half sake (and other half fisticuffs) would be but a quarter lie. Yamame had given those years, then – which she had later realised had been formative in her civilised life – to these parties, much as she had to her flowering craft. The eldest of the earth spiders had so soaked up of the Oni and their ways, it was a wonder her head hadn’t sprouted horns, and her fangs were still sheathed elegantly under her lips.
But there were no Oni here. The taproom was noisy on the whole, yes – but it wasn’t tempestuous. There were no brawls being brawled atop the tables or below; there were no cups shattered ritualistically underfoot. Nobody was crowing their war-deeds at clamorous volume; whoever of the patrons who did boast did so in contained circles. The drinks had been made to taste, not to fold one’s insides like a map; and Yamame, who would by now have been (rather literally) roaring drunk on principle, only found a thin film of happiness clouding up her thoughts.
To divine why would have been as easy as avoiding a cow pie.
And yet, while cow pies are customarily easy to go around, one does not always succeed in the end. Nor had Yamame at all finished divining when, with a dull clunk, the second round of drinks was placed before her on the table. Her human clambered over the bench and sat down heavily.
“Thank yooou,” Yamame crooned, reaching out for her share.
And then, she went rigid up to the roots of her hair when her hand was pinned to the buffed table-top. Her deepest-sewn instincts pounded up to the surface of her skin. Her fingers, raking, curled up into vicious claws.
… Until, feeling rather sheepish, they flattened out again when Yamame’s human kissed her full on the lips, and she yielded all over.
“… I’ve waited for this,” he breathed, once they had separated.
Yamame Kurodani, mother of plagues, the yearly malady, cast around the room in a nervous search for spying eyes bent on stripping her of her oldest titles. None were prying openly. Yamame, hugging her rescued authority close to her chest, turned then on her human.
“Waiting for what?” she complained. “To embarrass me? Again? It hasn’t even been that long, you know.”
Paran indulged her sulking with a smile. “No,” he told her. “I’ve been waiting to kiss you. That’s all.”
“In that case,” she replied hotly, “In that case, we could have done that any time! Why here? What is it with you and your conveniently inexpressible urge to touch me in front of strangers?”
“Would in front of Hijiri have been better?” Paran asked. “Or in front of your sisters? Or perhaps while you were working? This was the first good chance.”
“And when we were alone in our room?” Yamame wanted to know. “Wasn’t that a good moment?”
“… Not very good.”
“… Because,” sighed Paran, “Because then, it wouldn’t end there. I really… really had been waiting.”
Yamame Kurodani, the eldest among the earth spiders, instantly sewed for herself a beautiful cloak of injured pride and heated accusations. In the very next instant, she had aged enough again to find it didn’t look as attractive anymore.
Who cares, anyway? she asked herself inside. Who cares? Ashi knows you do these things already – she has told you to do them – and she isn’t even visible from where you’ve seated your silly butt. And were these humans all around so important? Was Yamame Kurodani, she who had lived among the Oni and still had secrets, going to build an angry fortress to defend against a single indiscretion?
She had but to think how much she wanted him to kiss her again, to understand that, no – she wasn’t.
“… So, you invited me out here,” she theorised aloud. “To occupy ourselves with something else. In a place where you can afford not to look at me. To keep your dear propriety unstained.”
Paran looked ashamed. “… More or less.”
Yamame had to laugh. “You’re impossible! As good you don’t meddle with my projects; if I told you to design a bridge, it’d end up looping around three times before it came to the other end.”
“But you still want to kiss me… right?”
Her human looked even guiltier. “… Yes.”
“You’re impossible.” Yamame shook her head. “My dear sisters are more honest than you, and I wouldn’t trust them to throw a die without two sixes. If I had been an Oni, I’d knock you. I mean, look at you. You lead me out here. You have me drink. You make me feel really good; you say this is a good chance; you say that you want to kiss me. And then? You stare at me – like I’m too stupid to understand what you just said.”
“You’re not stupid, Yamame.”
“Then why are you not kissing me?” she demanded.
Altogether, it had not been very subtle.
Altogether, Yamame Kurodani would never attest to spinning webs from thread this thick. Altogether, if anyone asked, Yamame Kurodani had it on very good expertise this web had been spun by someone else: a younger, less accomplished spider; as well, it could have been spun by a human – just blundering into the craft, too thick of fingers, and too clumsy to manage a finer material.
But it worked. It worked, and that mattered for everything in Yamame’s mind; and something passed behind her human’s dumb eyes, even as they realised the trap he had sprung.
Might be, those were his human’s instincts thrashing about. Might be, it was Paran thrashing them, for they always reined him in short. Might be, it weren’t his instincts but himself he was thrashing – if for nothing else then for bringing Yamame’s hair, neck and legs (and the rest of her) out here, to this public place – over the dim privacy of the room they had been given for the night, where awful, propriety-staining things could have happened to those legs without an audience on-looking and on-drinking. Might be, Yamame had seen none of those things passing behind his eyes, and had imagined them entirely. The one absolute remained – that it had worked, and her human was wedging the fingers on her trapped hand apart, until his own were once more mixed among them.
And then, that he was kissing her again.
Across the following moments, Yamame’s world heaved, wrinkled, and shrank, not unlike a loop of yarn pulled tight on a crochet. It narrowed at first to but the few surrounding tables. Then, it withered down to just their own. Soon, and it was only their bench which counted; finally – and everything was elsewhere and far away. All that remained was Yamame, her silly face, her human’s silly face, and her human – silly enough to trust a youkai, an earth spider, this near, and communicating this trust so.
He paused the kiss, exhaling. His breath was hoppy, like their drinks had been. Then, he kissed her yet again: first on just the corner of her lips, then fully in the middle. Maybe he had misaimed with his eyes closed. Yamame, her own eyes shut in total confidence, could not say. She began to trim away from coincidence when he went through the same entire manoeuvre a second time.
“… This is your fault,” he whispered during another such pause.
Yamame had barely managed to clamp her mouth after asking, “What is?” when he was kissing it again.
“This,” Paran murmured meaninglessly. “All of this is. It’s all your fault.”
Am I so evil? Yamame wondered inside. But if evil had rewards like these, then, for the moment, she did not wish to be anything else.
But then the moment, too, was over. With a titanic effort, her human dragged himself free. He dragged and dragged, until, at long last, his eyes were a whole one hand-span away from hers. Yamame’s ears hammered; and she was dazed by how hard the returned din of the taproom throbbed inside of her head. She was choked, and – she discovered – not a little out of breath.
Somehow, by pure strength of a spider’s will, she persuaded her chest to allow in a change of air. Then, she released it in a hot, shuddering blast.
“… You really had been waiting, huh,” she admitted.
Ahead of her, Paran’s face squelched tragically. Yamame laughed.
It never mattered after that where they were anymore.
The eldest, most feared of Underworld’s spiders had climbed up, and pushed shamelessly out at her human, until he – who had very nearly sucked her lips off the front of her face – slid far enough out on the bench to let her slot in sideways onto his lap. Most pleased – about the lap, if not the lips – the spider had then taken up her drink again, and drank, all the while she had relayed the events of the past week to her envoy as it was dutifully required.
If Paran had assumed he would be prodded about his imputations of fault, then throughout the evening he must have had another colony of thinks coming. Though Yamame had been curious, and no lie; but to satisfy this curiosity meant dusting off an argument she and her human had been having for near on a month now. Yamame Kurodani did not dust arguments with others close by. The rising motes were certain to cause an uncomfortable cough. She had other ways of getting coughs anyway, had she but felt the need.
Asking that her human kiss her again each time he returned with new drinks, for one. He had been coughing before the third round had rolled in.
Another three rounds later, and their evening had rolled over to an abrupt end; and Paran, standing up to make good of his established function, quite casually attempted to kiss the floor rather than Yamame. The keg of apple-barley wine assigned for the night had run dry before too long; and the spinstress had called for stronger drink to take over the vacancy. The last round had rather plainly pushed her human away from tipsiness and over into tipping. So Yamame, giggling a little senselessly, wormed under one of his shoulders; so, as she bid the crafty barkeep an honest and heart-felt good-bye, she carried her limp partner outside.
In passing, she noted her younger sister and her entourage had at some point left as well.
Though, at first, Paran had made the task of walking him back to the town gate rather less than a walk in the park, as soon as Yamame had dumped him in a random backyard and let him be noisily sick over someone’s flowerbed for a while, her human had recovered the life-saving ability to shuffle along. The watch had since been retired from their post at the gate; and a list of names, faithfully recreated from drunken memory, had been nailed on the door beside a stick of charcoal on a string. Yamame stood her charge with his forehead against a nearby wall, while she deciphered the list for their names. Hers was misspelled. Paran’s, somehow, had been put down twice. Yamame crossed out all three.
Once they had left the decorative walls of the Human Village, however, the earth spider threw her caution to the wind. She drew from her preternatural strengths; and then, having sketched the familiar spell in her mind, she stepped up from the ground, and flew the rest of the way to Myouren-ji – low enough as not to overstress the already rather delicate human. The featherlike touch of wind on her skin seemed to whisk away some of the grogginess; and Yamame Kurodani, in a moment of idle introspection, realised that – as numb a drunk as he made for – she enjoyed taking care of her human in this circumstance as well. More, there was a glowing sense of fulfilment that he relied on her – trusted her – to keep him safe in this period of weakness, even though she was what she was… and even if it was not entirely his own idea.
She did keep him safe, though; and the youkai arrived with her human in the relative safety of Hijiri’s domain precluding the unpleasantness usually involved in such encounters. The temple grounds were absolutely still, and Yamame almost tiptoed through the courtyard as she made for her guest-house. Paran did not tiptoe; albeit, in his state, a regular plod was much less like to effect noisy accidents. They stopped at the drinking well for a minute, and Yamame roped up a pail of cold water to rinse down the worst of the sweat and evil breath.
When they had at last locked themselves in their assigned bedroom, Paran was flagging, and Yamame – tired. The earth spiders’ envoy stumbled blearily across the room, and fell – almost straight from verticality – onto the unmade futon. He was asleep before he hit it. Yamame Kurodani gave a weak smile at the display of sleeping technique. Then, she walked across the room, to where her meagre belongings were stashed in little piles. She hesitated for a heartbeat; but then, she slid down the straps of, and skinned her overalls. She tossed them to the side, and grabbed the bottom edge of her undershirt. She pulled it off – inside out – over her head. She bent down, picked out a long nightshirt from one of the piles, and wriggled inside. Then, finally, she tugged the ribbon out of her golden hair, and shook it straight over her back.
Yamame Kurodani had not considered what to do about her and her human’s sleeping arrangements. Nor had she to, yet. When she turned around, her human was sat, bolt upright, on the messed-up futon.
The thirty-second nap, it seemed, had granted him a sharper rise in awareness than the flight and cold well-water had combined. In the darkness of the room, it all but appeared as though he was – if not yet sober – then at least fully awake. His precious eyes were open, and staring.
Yamame Kurodani, at the end of her wits, spread out her arms helplessly.
“What?” she moaned.
Paran’s jaw unlatched, hanging open stupidly. It hung like that for a little while.
And then, quite calmly, he blurted the first stupid thing that came to his mind.
Yamame Kurodani was an earth spider. This, among everything else, had never changed.
Since the first, dim flashes of an ossifying sentience, she had seen the world through the eight-eyed prism of a spider. It was she whom those fearful, twain-legged creatures called humans had, in a previous age, styled the mother of plagues. It was she who – egged on by her fledgling mind – had brought to those humans the only gift she understood. It was she again who had run before the swaying fires, screams and strange, incisive tools of metal. She, and no one else, had then wandered to the next village, and the next, and the one after that, fruitlessly seeking one which would accept the sole boon she had to bestow. None did; and the fire and tools had hounded her again.
At the end of her journey, it was she who had turned her eyes from the Sun-kissed world of humans. A smattering of spiders, whom she had met along the way, similarly disenfranchised, had followed her steps as she had left behind the surface world, and descended into the snaking burrows deep in the womb of earth. The mother of plagues had festered in the juices of her anger so for a time; until, some years later, others had come – the Oni – and sealed the road behind them forever.
Yamame Kurodani had changed afterwards. She had learned much, and matured some. She had taken what knowledge had been offered by the red-skinned people, and paid it back with cunning humour and repartee. She had given to them the use of skills her spat with humans had left engraved in her mind, and received presents in turn. She had lived (and died slightly each morning after a party) among the Oni thus, and thought those days happiness.
Then, the meddling gods of Gensokyo had cracked the seal on the Underworld. And the world above had caught up to Yamame Kurodani.
No longer was she the walking terror she had once been. No more did the humans cry to the heavens at the sight of she who might fell scores of them with a single gesture or word. The world had aged, as had she; and Yamame’s diseases were grounds for panic no longer. She had been reduced – from the mother of plagues to but a yearly malady. There had been a grim satisfaction in terrorising the species which had spurned her; now, Yamame Kurodani was nothing more but an inconvenience – a nuisance to be avoided, only touched occasionally to bolster this or that god’s or doctor’s repute. She was hated, but not feared; and even if respect was given by some of Gensokyo’s humans who happened nearby her home, still Yamame was sure she hated them in return.
And now, one of them professed the opposite.
Yamame Kurodani knew of love. She possessed a firm enough grasp of human relations to understand how they paired. She had listened, after all, for hours on end to the nostalgic reminisce of the exiled Oni; and love had featured oft in those stories: either as a device, or at times the matter of focus. Nor was it unheard of for love to flower between one of their kin and the rare human bold enough (or with tough enough a stomach) to make a lasting impression. But the boisterous Oni had ever been close to humanity; and Yamame, though she drank and laughed and fought to match, was never one of them.
She was only an earth spider. A pest. A yearly malady. This, among everything else, had never changed.
Yamame Kurodani, her head swimming, gripped onto her nightshirt for support.
The human Paran, seated still atop his futon, might be staring – but he was not seeing. She had to make him. She had to tell him, even if her sillier parts were screaming at her to shut up. She had to make him remember.
“But I’m a youkai,” she said. “An earth spider.”
Paran’s reply was instant and unthinking. “I don’t care.”
“I’m not human.”
“I don’t care.”
Yamame bit on her lips. “I control diseases,” she pressed on. “I’ve caused people to die.”
Her favourite human shook his head, slowly – in a way which reminded her less of him, and more of her maddeningly self-centred sisters.
“I know,” he said.
“I almost killed you on accident.”
“Then why?” the earth spider demanded hopelessly. “Why me?”
Paran angled his whole body a little to one side. “You’re…” He squinted in an effort to determine what she was. “… You’re wonderful,” he decided.
“I don’t understand!” Yamame protested.
“Ah—” Paran tried – and failed – to snap his fingers. “That is part of your charm, too. You don’t understand how… how passionate you are. So, you don’t flaunt it. That’s what makes you wonderful. That, and,” he went on, before she could snip his thread of thought, “and you’re so secure. You know what you are – where you stand – but you’re unafraid to rise above it. You’re friendly, neighbourly, honest and hard-working. And you’re so, so very pretty.” He smiled. “You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. You’re so pretty it makes my chest hurt just to look at you.”
“I’m not a girl!” Yamame yelped. “I’m a youkai. A stupid, gods-forsaken earth spider. I’m not pretty!”
Paran’s smile melted from his face. “You aren’t stupid, Yamame,” he chided. Then, as if another idea occurring, his brows squeezed together, and he glanced uncertainly to the side. “No? Hold on… Maybe you are stupid,” he gave up. “I mostly hadn’t thought about it before. No matter.”
“Yes matter!” Yamame was shaking. “You can’t go and tell me something like that all of a sudden. I don’t even know what you want me to do!”
“Yamame Kurodani, you stupid spider,” Paran said with unflappable patience. Now, he sounded a little like her pipe-sucking Oni mentor, Nikuyama. “It should never have made matter what I wanted you to do. All that should matter is what you want to do. All I ever wanted myself was for you to do what you want to do.” He stopped talking for a few troubled seconds. “… That doesn’t make any sense,” he realised; “I just said—”
“I heard what you said. It made no sense.”
Paran shrugged. “Sorry. I must be drunk still.”
“You must be.” Yamame clutched the thought. “You’re worrying me. Why don’t you go back to sleep?”
“I just wanted to say I love you.”
“In a moment,” Paran assured her. “I’ll probably stop for a good while, too. I mean, stop saying it, not… God, this is so dumb. I’m so bad with words.” His eyes cringed shut. He rubbed the uneasiness out with his thumbs. Then, he looked again at the shaking Yamame. “My point is,” he told her, matter-of-factly, “I don’t care, Yamame. I’m too tired and too drunk to care. So I don’t care.”
Yamame began to feel her hairs coming loose. “What,” she whined, “What – exactly – is it that you don’t care about?”
“I was… probably… getting to that. I don’t care what they say about you, Yamame,” he explained. “I don’t care what they say about you in our town. I don’t care what they say about you out of it, in the Underworld or wherever else. I don’t care what I say about it when I wake up in the morning. I don’t even especially care what you do about it. I love you. I want you to know that. I want you to think about it when I kiss you. I want to kiss you. I want to push you down and kiss you all over. I want to—” He choked back whatever else it was he wanted. “It doesn’t matter. It never should have mattered. I don’t care if it matters. I don’t care if you’re a youkai. I don’t care what they call you; I don’t care what you did in the past; I don’t care what my mother says. I don’t care what you did to my idiot father. I don’t care. I don’t…”
And then, his stupid voice petered out and died.
Yamame stopped shaking.
She began to tremble instead.
When she spoke, her own voice was tiny, and felt like someone else’s.
“What…” it asked quietly, “What did I do to your father?…”
“… Ah,” said Paran.
And it was everything he said. It was everything he needed to say. It was everything he had ever needed to say, and he said it now.
The pieces dovetailed together in Yamame’s spider’s mind – so exquisitely, she wanted to puke.
The blundered confession. The reluctance to impart his own history. The past tense in which he had spoken of one of his parents. The insistence that Yamame Kurodani had done no wrong, when the Gensokyan doctor had put her under the hand of blame for the more recent attack. The intriguing to keep her out of the sight of their clients. The stiff, dead smile plastered to the lower half of his face even now. All so she wouldn’t find out. All so she wouldn’t learn that Yamame Kurodani had done an irreparable wrong…
… And, that she had done it to the one human – the one in the entire world – who she wished could forgive her and accept her and trust her and embrace her and love her and…
She could not bear it. It barely registered not everything was clear yet; it was enough what she understood. It was too much.
Before the first tears could drop, she tore across the room, ripped the door wide open, and fled into the night.
She felt, of course, acutely stupid about it the next day. The night had been a little cold, and sidling up to frogs in the rice fields to spook and watch them flop could only beguile her wounded emotions for so long. In the end, Yamame Kurodani wiped her cheeks dry, and returned to Myouren-ji’s sleeping guest-house.
Though still she rose as early as the first lighting outside. The last, seventh day of their project dawned; and Yamame’s responsibilities beckoned, wholly unenlightened of her internal conflicts. Who else, after all, could kick her sisters awake with no lethal reprise? Who else but their eldest may tell those deadly earth spiders to pack up their effects and shoo them home, to wait their rewards patiently like the good girls they were? None suggested themselves – less perhaps a certain human, who had broken in one spider, and at least allied with another.
But the human was still soundly asleep, snoring beside a pail of water which Yamame had drawn and left by his beddings before attending to her duties.
After they had left, Yamame examined her sisters’ influence on the guest-house. The damage wasn’t very bad; and it was with an almost pleasant distraction that she set to replacing the paper in the shoji walls where it had been punched through. She took out and trashed a chewed-up pillow from one of the rooms; one door had been jimmied out of its frame and stood beside, so she fitted it in again. A plank in the veranda must have offended one of Yamame’s sisters mightily; for it had been stomped in about the middle, and stuck out over the surrounding ones not unlike shivers of a broken bone. Yamame pried the splintered halves loose and cut a new one from the leftovers.
As she was buffing at the new plank with a scrap of sandpaper to at least make it appear close to the rest, a nearby wall slid open to issue out into the morning Sun a tall (but slumped) man, whose eyes were hidden under a black sash wound around his head. Someway, he managed to visibly squint at the pale light, groaned, and tied a second blindfold over the first one.
He who called himself Paranseberi, the earth spiders’ envoy, the sole priest of his god, and one who counted his family among Yamame Kurodani’s victims, looked upon the labouring architect. Or, at least his head turned her way – blindfold and all.
“… Good morning,” he said to her.
Yamame kept her emotions as veiled as he kept his eyes. “… Hello,” she replied. “How’s the noggin?”
Paran’s noggin cocked inquiringly. “State or contents?”
Yamame Kurodani giggled despite herself. Without feeling much more shame, she admitted inside – for the first time since meeting her human – that she loved these bland little japes he made. “State!” she moaned. “State, silly! The contents can’t be done much about – unless you desperately want to introduce yourself to the eldest Komeiji. Although, I hear she is pretty as well – in her own special right. So it’s your call.”
Paran ignored the jab. “… State, then,” he said. “A bit delicate. I’ll walk it off. It’s been a while since I last vomited after drinking. I’m far out of shape. Or you’re too far in shape. Has Hijiri come by yet?”
“She has an invoice for me. Our payment. We discussed it yesterday.”
A fraying thread of silence sewed into the air between them. Yamame continued to buff away. At distance, black-robed supplicants in a line began to file out of the temple after morning observations.
“… Yamame?” Paran spoke up at length.
“What is it?” she asked levelly.
“… You slept with me, didn’t you?”
The great architect of the Underworld clawed an ugly mark into the plank she had been polishing. She did not look up. She could not look up. She was looking up. She looked down.
“It was the room I was assigned,” she murmured. “I didn’t want my sisters to see me in… I didn’t want my sisters to wake up and start – start breaking things – even more things.” She punctuated the explanation with long, hard wipes of the sandpaper. “It was my bed by technicality – you know? You just were in it. I didn’t disturb you, did I?”
Paran began to jerk his head vigorously left and right. Then, abruptly, he stopped beginning to jerk it, and pressed his fists to his temples in pain. “Ouch, ouch, ouch. That’s… That’s not it, Yamame,” he groaned. “I woke up when you were leaving – but that’s not it. I wasn’t… disturbed.” With a sigh, he slung his arms along his sides. “… Just so this is out,” he said, “I remember everything I said last night. Somehow. Gods watching, maybe.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point,” Paran said pointedly, “is if there is anything you want to fight about, then we should have it out before Hijiri bounces by. We’ll both be too busy after that.”
Yamame Kurodani threw the useless sandpaper and leapt up to a spider-agile stand.
A thousand things broiled in her head that she wanted to fight about – if not with her human, then with Hijiri, or with any of her youkai devouts too confident to run. A thousand more pushed venomously onto her tongue as she bore down on the man who had made the eldest of earth spiders to bawl her eyes out like a prissy maiden from an Oni’s tale, and then had the gall to make an issue of having to share the bed. The bed which, in the first place, wasn’t even his. Almost two thousand things therefore broke from their strings and clattered down her puffed-up chest, each knocking her silly heart on the way. And it turned out, by the time she snapped at the collar of his robe and yanked his sash-wrapped head down to her height, that only three… only two remained dangling aloft. Only three—
Only two, two things, which Yamame Kurodani might want with her human in this moment of the morning.
( ) She wanted to kiss him. ( ) She wanted him to apologise. ( ) She wanted to kiss him. ( ) She wanted to kiss him. ( ) She wanted to apologise to him. ( ) She wanted to kiss him.
Though he was within a perfect kissing’s range, and that much was indisputable. To take it would have been simplicity. Move yet an inch, rise a little on her tiptoes, pull him slightly lower yet if she had to; Yamame could be kissing him inside the heartbeat, and there was nothing between them that would stop her. What could he do? Punch her? Strike the youkai who had wronged him horribly and still had him playing to her whims since months? It would be idiocy.
The core of the problem was, she really, really did want to kiss him. She wanted to move that inch, stand on those tiptoes, and all the rest. She wanted to force out of him this one, final indignity – to wrap it up, store it as a prized memory – to bridge her over the coming seasons. And yet, she couldn’t. Not because her human would hate her – this was already on the far side of the equation; nor because of any physical impossibility – which she had just now dismissed. It was something more prosaic by half.
She could not kiss him because she did not deserve it.
Yamame Kurodani, shrinking, released the front of her human’s robe and stepped away.
All her preparations, all the phrases rehearsed in a rankling corner of her mind – all aired out together with that simple realisation; and Yamame stood, pink-faced and trembling, without the faintest idea of what to do. She wanted to apologise. She must apologise, more accurately; but, the trouble part was, she did not know at all where she should begin.
So, she selfishly skipped right to the bitter end.
“… I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Paran’s blindfolded eyes judged her with an unseeable expression. “… What for?”
“For this!” Yamame flapped her arms, as though the answer was somewhere within the surroundings. “I’m sorry I got you so drunk. I’m sorry I made you come out here. I’m sorry I took this job even when you told me not to.” The sense of impending loss, which she had fooled herself she’d cried all out last night, flooded back twice as strong; and Yamame, burying her face in her hands, babbled on pathetically. “I’m sorry I sent you out again and again to find new entertainments for me. I’m sorry I started experimenting with touching. I’m sorry I had you carry all those heavy things down to my home. I’m sorry I had you keep it clean. I’m sorry I had you cook for me. I’m sorry I bit you. I’m sorry that… that I did… what I did, to your father. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Yamame,” Paran began. “That’s not—”
“No!” the earth spider yelled. “That -is- it! I haven’t done ‘no wrong!’ I bit you! I took away one of your parents! I may be a youkai, but I know the value of family. I’ve had my sisters to teach me about this. I’ve had Niku. I’ve had…” I’ve had you, she thought, but the words would not come out. “I—I could never take it if— I couldn’t bear it if I lost them! I understand that much. We have been together for so long! It’s the same for humans, isn’t it? And I,” she sniffed, “I took away one of yours. You must hate me.”
Paran’s reply was a cold hammer to her chest. “Yes,” he hissed. “I did. I did hate you.”
It was a reply Yamame had both anticipated and prepared for. It was a reply which nonetheless blurred her sight and turned her knees to jelly. It was a reply which made her throat clench up so hard and her jaw get stuck so fast, they could as well have been iced over. It was a reply that could have shattered her silly heart, had the yearly malady not been so used to hate.
It was not even a half of the reply Paran had for her.
“I did hate you, Yamame Kurodani,” he went on, his tone bland and void of sympathy. “I hated you more than I had ever hated anything. I hated you so much I prayed you would die. My father… expired after ten days of choking and coughing up chunk after black chunk of his insides. I wanted twenty days for you. I wanted forty. A hundred. The best if you suffered as long as you could. That is how much I hated you.”
“Shut up.” Paran’s words whipped her across the ears. “You stupid creature. You devastated my mother. The steadiest woman I had ever known, who had managed my father’s industry while he… caroused about, and did you know what she did? Nothing. She gaped on an empty wall for hours and hours, every day, until she was starving. I was a teenager then; I was fortunate to have the servants who knew the ins and outs of our family’s business. I grew up, hating you more and more with each year; but I was too busy – first with holding things together, then running errands for my mother once she recovered – to do anything about it. I’m past twenty five years now; I’ve another twenty five or abouts to live. I spent a quarter of that time hating you impotently from the bottom of my soul. And you tell me you’re sorry?”
“And then!” her human rode over her apologies. There was an accelerating quality to his voice now – like a mountain brook racing toward a waterfall. “And then, imagine you this, that a servant is one day speaking to a client as I happen beyond the door, and they make a mention of my late father. A fool he had been, if you believed them. A ‘drunkard’ – which he perhaps was, overfond of drink – but, most of all, they called his fate deserved. That it had been pride – unmarried to wits – not accident, that had impelled him to venture close to your tunnels. Our family, you see, had youkai exterminators a few steps back in the line, and my father had ever made a sharp point of this heritage. He claimed his blood was iron, not rayon, wrought from firmer things than those he vended day-to-day. I told you, once: that he had been a man with a lot to prove. And so he did.” Paran paused for breath. “And so he did prove it. That he had chosen you for this proving had made smaller sense. The servant said it had been random. That even the hawkish Hieda-lady, who makes a hobby of demonising you youkai, consents you, among all the rest, are at least reasonable. Maybe that was it, then: an easy, compliant target to display the youkai-hunters’ blood ran still in our veins. It ran out of my father soon enough.”
Yamame was staring now. There was a misaligned cast to her human’s smile as it quirked up the edges of his mouth. It almost seemed a smirk.
“My life that day, Yamame,” he told her, “was skinned and turned inside out. But no. My father isn’t why. Maybe I still hate you, somewhere in a place where I don’t like to look. Maybe you still make me feel disgusted with myself. But it isn’t because my father was a foolhardy idiot. That reason was torn away from me that day. Ahh—” he sighed, and the sigh was made of pure relief, “That felt good, though! My head aches even worse now, but it felt good. I worked away half the night at this.”
And again, he smiled the same spoilt little smile.
“Well, but I’m shutting up. Your turn now, Yamame. I’m all yours.”
>>15691 It may console you to know it is so because I fell asleep last night with my (cheap, $150, passively-cooled, Chinese) laptop seated rather precariously atop my nethers. I did not wake up to boiled eggs, but I did to a nasty bout of SAD. That’s Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a legitimate disorder, don’t you know – and a valid excuse to faff about take a short break and relax. Nyes. >>15688 And you should know you had be grinning maniacally on a very public and decently populated train. I know Ashi is my self-insert, but I’m feeling at the moment rather like our Yams. I hope you’re happy about this. >>15693 Oh, ooh! When you do that, read the more picturesque heaves of narration in younger old Michael Bell’s voice. It’s what I do. If it sounds a little like a complex procedure, that’s because it is.
Hello. I am Baank, the Lord of Sekistruction. I woke up with a blasting headache today. I think I’ll let my minions deal with you today. Haa haa, and all that. I’ll see you another day.
She stared at him, wide-eyed and cold, as if he had struck her after all. Then, she drew herself up.
Yamame Kurodani was an earth spider. A youkai. She was one whom long ago fleeing humans had decried the mother of plagues. She was one whose eight eyes, and so many segmented legs, inhabited their blackest nightmares. She was the Underworld’s great architect; she was…
… She was many things. She was many things, and more; and she pulled those things around herself – titles, curses and all – and spun them into an insulating coat. She picked away the ice which had bound her throat, and fashioned out of it plates of gleaming armour. She clamped her venomous teeth. She breathed in… and swallowed down the bitter implications of what she was about to say.
They stuck between her lungs: a hard, cancerous lump. But she said it anyway.
“… All right,” she said. “Very good, Paran. I’m not sorry about your father. Happy?”
“Hardly,” he snorted.
Yamame flashed her fangs. “Quiet! It’s my turn. Take a look at me. I’m a spider,” she pointed out. “I don’t attack unless it is in requital. It used to be otherwise, but not anymore. As you say, I am at least reasonable. I’ve been accosted by you humans before; if I gave something nasty to your father, then that means he had done something to necessitate I did. I don’t recall what – I couldn’t recall what – because this is normal to me. I have always been accosted by humans.” The spinstress dropped her tone. “But those other things? Those other things I said? I’m still sorry about those. You can’t take this away from me. I won’t let you.”
The human Paran – the good, stout, reliable human Paran – sagged at his wide shoulders, and raked his fingers down his face.
“… Your sister was right,” he grunted. “Those Oni did ruin you.”
And then, he cackled.
The cackle was low – low, grating and unpleasant; and it nudged a piece in Yamame’s mind which was at once remote and very important. A memory – for this was what the piece was – of that day, the one closer the opening of the month, when the two of them – the architect and her envoy – had turned over her previous assignment. When he, fully in his priest’s disguise, had been speaking with their client on the nature of those earth spiders who had delivered unto the humans their newest sanctuary. When Yamame, cloaked in the crown of a nearby tree, had been spying on.
The spider shape she had worn then had never known an emotion beyond the elemental. As such, it had never ascribed anything to their voices approaching the complexity of a tone or intention. There was only the way the sound rubbed against the feeling hairs on its legs: the intensity, its derivative range, the pitch, and the few signal associations which marked the source as either potential prey or a part of the environs.
The cackle now was the same as then. And Yamame, the two-legged version, recognised at once with nauseous clarity what it all meant.
It was derision. Mocking, undisguised derision: of her, Yamame, and her earth spider’s ways.
The lump in her chest dropped like a stone. Her voice, uncorked, unrestrained, came out in a toxic hiss.
“… I hate you.”
That got his attention snapping. “You what?”
“I hate you.” Yamame spat it this time – together with a globe of saliva. “I hate you. I see you now as you are, you Paransa-whatever your name is. A cheat. A liar. Toying with the spiders – with me – for some inexpressible end of your own. What did you hope to achieve, then? A name for yourself? He Who Outwits Spiders? Humans are all the same in the end, aren’t they?”
The human in front of her balled his hands into fists. “You—”
“But!” snapped Yamame, not without some vicious satisfaction of robbing him of a point, “But, I am nothing if not at least reasonable. So, I won’t hold a grudge. I won’t give you anything nasty. I will not speak ill of you to my sisters or my friends. But you will uphold your end of our… contract. You will carry my rewards to my home, as you are obliged. Then, you can leave. I will not molest you, because I have rules and I have honour. You can even keep your share of the payment. But then, He Who Outwits Spiders, we are finished.”
And suddenly, He Who Outwits Spiders was inches away from her, and screaming. He was flailing his arms, his face contorted with rage; and it was only Yamame’s frigid offence which kept her frozen to the spot.
“LEAVE!” Paran’s voice jumped half up another key. “Finished?! You and I? You stupid, self-flagellating, egotistical girl! You think you’ve earned my compassion? My loyalty? How can you even begin to understand what I feel?! I gave up my friends, my remaining family, my home in my mother’s estate! All for you! I scattered my pride on my father’s grave, and scrambled to undo the horrid reputation of yours I’d unwittingly helped to grow! All for you! I journey again and again, to and fro, through forests and fields riddled with youkai far less reserved than you, to carry requests and projects from those idiots I manage to persuade to trust you! And you think this has all been an entertainment to me? A pursuit of some empty glory? You think you can make me say those things I said to you – and then tell me to leave? So you can soak up in your delightfully prepared tub of self-pity? Never! We will never be finished, little spider. You made this about me, and I haven’t had enough! Ouch.”
He groaned the final argument, bending half over and kneading his temples.
A mistake had been made.
This much, Yamame Kurodani, the yearly malady, realised instantly; even her less sophisticated form could have told by the volume and pitch of his voice that her human was infuriated. A mistake had been made… but ahead any further such brilliant recognitions might bubble to the fore of her mind, an entirely new and undesirable voice entered their private battlefield.
They both wheeled around toward the edge of the veranda, beyond which the priestess Hijiri – resplendent in her black robes and the strange aura of one-ness with her surrounds – was standing. Again yet, it was Yamame’s human whose – oh, irony – human reflexes stitched out their circuit first.
The human bowed – deeply and with ceremony.
“Your ladyship,” he greeted the priestess. “Paranseberi bids good morrow to the Acharya of Myouren-ji.”
Nothing whatsoever remained in his tone of the explosive anger from not fifteen heartbeats before; and Yamame Kurodani found, as he dropped to the beaten ground, that there was an angle to her human’s personality – an entire mathematics perhaps – which she had never even speculated was there until now. His motions were slow, showy. His expression (what little of it visible under the blindfold) was trained; and his arms were joined inside overlapping sleeves in front of his stomach.
It made her chest clinch.
But the effects on the black priestess were expertly calculated; and Byakuren Hijiri did, too, bow – even as low to the tips of her boots. “Myouren-ji does graciously return the greetings,” she intoned. The master of Myouren-ji unrolled back to her stately full height. The ritual completed, she extended to Yamame’s human a hand holding onto a scribbled sheet of white paper. “The invoice we spoke about yesterday,” she explained. “These merchants and wardens should dispense the items when requested. They are all good patrons,” she added with sincere pride. “My apologies, master Paran; I had not anticipated your arrival until, well, later today. These delays are inevitably an effect of that.”
Paran laughed good-naturedly. “None necessary, master Hijiri,” he replied. “My prematurity alone did you this inconvenience. So I shall countervail myself.”
“Or perhaps,” Byakuren suggested a touch slyly, “perhaps I should send a servant out even now, so you two may wait, and… meditate for the next hour or two? Work out your differences? Our temple is always open.”
“Thank you all the same,” Paran said quickly. “Alas. My religion prevents my longer involvement with your temple. A theological conflict, you understand.”
“Sad. But then, perhaps I have another proposal for you. Would you like for a branch shrine to be erected to your god on our temple grounds?”
“A branch shrine?”
“A god, any god, does needs require sustenance, else they shall surely perish,” Hijiri said wisely. “A branch shrine in our temple would draw many an eye seeking to give their worship. We do get a grand number of visitors, after all. It would do us great honour also to mark our amiable connection with the mighty Underworld.”
Had Yamame not been what she was and known her human well – far as she did, anyway – she might not have caught the minute cracking in his priestly veneer. “Your words are heartening,” he said next, and the crack was patched over, “but I – we – prefer singular obscurity. I must refuse.”
The priestess sighed her obvious disappointment. “So like a spider.”
“So like a spider,” Paran agreed.
Hijiri spread out her arms. “Then our business, master Paran, is also complete.”
Yamame’s human – her human – laughed again. “Good priestess, not close! This one—” here he motioned at the lip-chewing Yamame, “she will want to display the guest-house to you in detail yet.”
“I have seen the guest-house already,” Hijiri said, confused. “It is above satisfactory.”
“On the contrary. Our beloved Yamame is extremely insecure about her skill in architecture. She will – with your leave – drag you roped around the building, counting on you to glare and scoff at every tiniest error made. Should you fail to do so, she will glare and scoff herself.”
“I… see.” The black priestess glanced at Yamame a little apprehensively. “My flock do cry for my return as soon as possible, but…”
Yamame found her voice. She roped it – and dragged it out. “… I will try to make good time,” she assured.
“There you have it,” Paran said. “It was a pleasure, master Hijiri, but I doubt it will be for you from now for the next five hours. Would you happen to know, perchance, where my cart is?”
Hijiri blinked away the momentary bewilderment. “It is… where you left it, I think. At the gate?”
“So it is,” Paran confirmed, looking out over the courtyard. “Then I bid the Acharya of Myouren-ji a sorrowful good-bye. And you…”
The human turned his unseen – but not unseeing – eyes fully on the earth spider up above. His lips moved in visible articulation… but no sound was issued. At first.
“… I will meet you on the road,” he said then.
And having this instruction – or demand – delivered, the human Paran, sole priest of his spider god, turned around on a heel, and stamped off across the temple’s dew-speckled courtyard.
It was not until he was half-way to the gate – and well past the point of non-awkward return – that Yamame’s stupid head at last puzzled out what it was he had said to her without using his voice.
Her tiny heart soared, then sank, then soared again nonsensically.
To her wilting credit, Yamame Kurodani had made a decent time.
She had ferried the priestess Hijiri (un-roped) around the guest-house, explicating its quirks which escaped an uninitiated perusal. She had shown to the master of Myouren-ji which rooms were best to be inhabited first, so as not to smoke up the interior with too many lampions and candles. She had invited the priestess inside the baths, so she may instruct their new owner on how to use – and if necessary, replace – its labyrinthine brass plumbing; she had even, feigning deep innocence, given a few pointers on how to tend the flowerbed, which Yamame’s sisters had planted along the guest-house in defiance of Hijiri’s notes.
The black priestess had frowned up a thunderstorm over the flowers. In the end, however, she had seemed to accept their budding existence – no doubt bending it in her head to this or that religious metaphor. At the tail end of the second hour, the earth spider and the Buddhist parted on peaceable terms; and Yamame, her tools and clothes bundled up, exchanged final good-byes with Byakuren Hijiri under the temple’s leaning toori.
“Should you have a change of mind,” Hijiri said by way of their fare-wells, “then know my proposal stands firm.”
Yamame’s sarcasm spoke. “Which one would that be?”
“The one about the shrine, of course. Myouren-ji welcomes all downtrodden beings; it matters not whence they come, nor their domain. If you should prevail it upon your… partner, then we should welcome your god also.”
Not mine, thought the earth spider. But you aren’t greatly bothered, are you? “I’ll prod him about it,” she lied.
“That is also well.”
Hijiri bowed then, with the same overblown ceremony she had given to Paran before. No flair for ritual dimmer than Yamame’s unless with her human; and so the spinstress offered up but the briefest of nods in return. Then, bolting the spell to the back of her mind, Yamame stepped outside the temple bounds officially, and launched in a powering arc over the roof of the forest.
As the wind of her flight pounded in her ears, Yamame Kurodani picked out the route she wanted from the Sun-blasted environs. Not in a die-straight line to the Goddesses’ Mount – onto whose slopes the warrens of the Underworld had spat out their secret openings – to the west – but north-westerly first: over and around the Human Village, and up the rising terrain along a certain lonely road. The road – called the Pilgrim’s Way, if one believed those men so ideologically strong that they broke the town’s safety to brave it – took whosoever shall walk it to the Hakurei hill first of all, and the red-white shrine maiden’s home there. Then, bounding off yet farther west, it led the bravest (or most foolish, but also bravest in a way) of those travellers into the youkai realm of Moriya.
It was this road which Yamame, otherwise unfamiliar with the changed geography of Gensokyo, chose to follow.
So it was with a sense of trepidation – and relief, but trepidation as well – that her spider’s eyes spotted a familiar figure trundling up the Sun-baked road with a push-cart laded precariously under a range of crates, boxes, bags and bundles. Yamame, grinning despite her every apprehension, thus broke her flight, and – making certain her landing was noticed – touched down some dozen paces’ distance ahead of the cart. It was sweltering down on the ground.
“Hello, stranger,” she called out.
The carter’s blindfolded face rose up lazily from its reverie. A thin smile sculpted briefly on its lower half. He stopped, and put down the cart.
“Oh no,” he said without much conviction. “A youkai.”
Yamame chuckled at the bland announcement. Arms looped behind her back, she skipped up to the cart, eyeing the containers with open curiosity. “Have you got everything, then?” she asked. “Hijiri didn’t swindle us out of anything?”
Paran shrugged. “We’ve got eggs.”
The spinstress giggled again. I really should tell him to work on these jokes. “Snake. And how’s your head? Still delicate?”
“It boiled out. I’m fine now.”
“That’s good to hear.” Yamame set belongings down on the cart and pried the lid off the first crate that happened under her hands. Her human watched her without a word. “Vegetables, fruit… Isn’t this rather a lot? Are you sure it won’t go to waste? It isn’t that cold in the caves – especially at this time of the year. Won’t it rot before long?”
Paran nudged his chin at a sealed jar beside the crate. “Saltpetre,” he explained. “Yesterday evening gave me an idea. I’ve used what money was left and bought some off of one of the merchants. Should be simple work to cut yourself an ice-box and keep the produce fresh. Or drink cool, depending. Whatever is more important.”
Yamame looked at her human, her mouth slack, and her heart ripping right in two.
He was so good.
Never mind he had, by rights, reasons to hate the eldest earth spider to bloody pieces. All the same, he had gone above the call of duty to better yet what Yamame Kurodani now considered as her day-to-day life. He had kept her house clean. He had cooked foods for her which would have been impossible to obtain before. He had gone out, twice and thrice and four times each month, to roam the town of his birth in search of those humans pliable enough to put their stock in the feared yearly malady. He had given her company. He had given her trust. He had given her affection beyond anything most youkai such as she experienced in centuries.
He had given her love. And yet she: Yamame Kurodani, the mother of plagues, the great architect of the Underworld, the eldest, most powerful among the earth spiders such as she was…
… What had she, in her majesty, ever given him?
Yamame gripped the edges of the crate – so hard, her nails poked into the wood.
“What is it, Yamame?”
Yamame winced. “… You don’t have to leave,” she emptied the words among the fruit and vegetables. “You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. If you want to, you can stay at my place as long as you need. You can use my kitchen. You can use my shower; you can keep using the room you’ve been using; you can even have my bed, if you prefer it over your futon. You can do whatever you like. You don’t have to leave.”
The human Paran – her Paran, whom she did not want to leave, but would let go at once if he did – blew out a wheezing sigh that seemed to go on forever. He stepped up onto the cart, ignoring the angry squeaking, and sat weightily down on one of the unopened crates.
“… It was never supposed to be about me, Yamame.”
Yamame, smiling miserably, stepped away and looked up at her favourite human.
The late Summer’s heat – as well as the carting – had made him peel off the outer layer of his robes. A thin, linen undershirt was all which remained, together with his airy hakama on the bottom, and it left his sweat-sheened arms exposed to cool on the air. The muscles inside these arms were thick knots, and bunched from the exertion. His skin was red and radiated hot; and together with his wide shoulders, back, and legs used to carrying him across the land, the man calling himself Paran was not unlike an Oni – whittled down from its rocky geometry to a more aesthetically pleasing shape. His hair was damp and matted from sweat, but was soft and smelled nice when he came out of the shower.
And you like how he looks very much, someone jeered inside Yamame’s head. Only you never named it so before.
“… Yes,” said Yamame, willing down an unaccountable blush, “Yes, you… You said as much, last night.”
“I may have tried to,” Paran conceded.
“I still don’t understand, you know? This is about me and you. Why shouldn’t it be about you?”
Her human jerked his head left and right. “Because I was mistaken,” he rasped. “Because it makes me feel vile.”
“Because I’m a youkai?” Yamame wanted to know. “Because I did… well, what I did? Is that the root of it?”
“It’s because you’re different.” Paran reached back and conjured a skin of water out of the assemblage. He levered out the stopper and poured it over his head. “… This should never have been,” he said, dripping; “I would have been satisfied being just your envoy.”
Yamame dared a smug little smile. “Would you really?”
“… No,” he surrendered. “Maybe not. But I almost had myself convinced elsewise, after you had bitten me. I almost had it. Then you began to experiment…”
“Then why does it make you feel so evil? It’s my fault, isn’t it?” You said this as well, she thought, albeit a touch earlier. “Why should you bear the brunt of responsibility, when I gave you no choice in it from the start?”
“Because you’re different,” Paran repeated stubbornly. “Because it makes me feel like I’ve been forcing you to do things with me.”
“You can’t force me to do anything.”
“No,” he agreed. “But I can make you, Yamame. And I have made you, on at least one count.”
Yamame fixed with him a hard stare. “You’ve never made me do anything I didn’t like.”
“Not even once?”
“Not even once.”
“… That isn’t the point.”
“Then what is?” Yamame exploded. “If this is because I am what I am—”
“It’s because those things mean something to me!” Paran growled. “It’s because I’ve made you do them, even as I knew you did not know what they meant.”
“Then explain them to me!” whined the spinstress. “I’m not an animal! I understand things when they are explained to me. You explained to me why human females wore ridiculous dresses sometimes. I understood that. I wore several for you afterward. You explained to me what it meant when you embraced me in your point of view. I understood that. I’ve embraced you dozens of times since. You explained what it meant when you wanted to touch your lips to mine – to kiss me. I understood that. How many times have we kissed? You explained how I’d stepped on a sticky one when I’d consented to build for Hijiri and her cronies. Well, that—” she smiled sardonically, “—that, I didn’t understand. But I took away the point.”
“What if I lied?” he insisted. “What if I told you something meant one thing, but it meant another? What if I have done so already?”
“Would you do that to me?”
He didn’t answer.
“I don’t really believe you would, Paran,” Yamame forged on. “I think you’d sooner make a face, crawl back to your room, and sit there glaring at your belly, contemplating what it would look like carved out, than you told a lie. That’s what I’d do, anyway, if I had that propriety hanging over my web day and night. Or, if explaining things to me is so scary,” she tried a different angle, “then let me figure them out on my own, then correct me after if I figure it wrong. We did that for kissing, didn’t we? Or did you perhaps give me a lecture beforehand – rather than telling me to punch you, if you tried to force it on me by accident?”
Paran’s blindfold managed to look a bit guilty.
“This is what I want, Paran,” Yamame delivered her ultimatum. “I want you to do what you want to do. If you want to leave, then leave. If you want to stay – stay. If you want to kiss me, then kiss me. If you want to tell me how you feel – tell me. If you want to lie to me, then lie away. I’m not poured from window glass. I’m not going to break. I’ll be a little embarrassed, perhaps – but I’ll weather it. I have already. Or haven’t I, Paran?”
Her human made a rusty sound. Then, leaning down with his elbows on his thighs, he accepted the challenge. “… Very good,” he gave in. “Then let us trial your method.”
“To the death?” Yamame teased.
“We’ll see. But this is what I want.” He threw the humour from his voice. “I don’t want to leave – I never have. But I am upset with you. Therefore, I want something from you. What is it, Yamame? Time begins… now.”
Yamame blinked up at her human – seated like a philosopher Oni atop a keg – in an exasperated protest. “... You’ve been needling me like this since yesterday,” she complained. “Are you one of my sisters now? What gives?”
“No hints,” Paran mocked. “Tick, tock.”
( ) She did something to him. ( ) She said something to him. ( ) She had him do something to her.
(X) She said something to him. > Talking about their problems like adults. Sweet.
Also, I wonder what will happen if enough people believes that Paranseberi the God exists. After all, considering how often Paran the human went out to seek for projects, a lot of people would've been at least be aware that Paranseberi is a thing. Will Paran the human become a divine being? Or will a new entity be born, different from Paran the human?
>>15705 “The Moon is beautiful,” I presume? That is almost four words. I counted.
Hello. This is the National Bank of Sekistan speaking. And so it ends. Some nine months after it reasonably should, but this thread is now past the bump limit.
I’d like to thank you here for your support in the last two months. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, having your comments has helped me take a load of stress off of my mind in this somewhat ridiculous time of my life. Actually, I have shared some of these comments with a fellow writer friend of mine. You’ve made a very skilled man jealous, you know. I’m attempting to subtly rope him into joining us on here as we speak. Maybe in a bit. He likes patches and watermelons, apparently.
To tide you over until I work out which of the thousand pictures of cute Yamams to use as our next OP, here is a question for you. Imagine you were presented with the unique opportunity to put a fully loaded and extremely unsafe M1911 somewhere to my cranium, and to offer me the choice between an honourable death by the greatest handgun ever designed by man, or writing shamefully at some length about a ‘hou of the Tou persuasion of your choice. The question then is: which ‘hou would you burden me with in this circumstance? All purely hypothetical, you understand.
Oh, and by way of the same course, if you have any questions – related or otherwise – of your own, do feel free to shoot them at my head as well.
> He likes patches and watermelons A magician and an Oni is an unusual pairing to be sure.
> which ‘hou would you burden me with in this circumstance? All purely hypothetical, you understand. Well, I'd say Yammy, but you're already writing about her anyway. Therefore, my answer shall be a certain beloved Shadow-Wolf, who once were my favourite 2hu, until you brought upon us KuroYam HNG, thus dethroning her place in my heart. She's still my 2nd favourite though, so all is well.
>>15711 I assume the contents must be the equivalent of harlequin bodice rippers but for us and with 2hus, as has been your theme the past few years (and don't you try to deny it).
I don't know. It's probably fun to do one of the recenthus, since there's not much material to work with, and so there's freedom to take them wherever you want.
Apart from that, Nitori is in dire need of attention, the poor girl. People like to ignore the fact that she's supposed to be haughty and ocasionally brutal (if you believe Akyuu) - but that's the whole fun part! No taste, I tell you what. Also, not many have made a decent attempt at describing and exploring kappa society, which I think would be a good element in a story.
Anyway, good luck with jobs and life and all that. I will pray for you.