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It was at a later time that same day that grudging our brave Garion did break his heretofore unbroken rule.
As the unsolicited brush with the fell tollkeeper had drained his wit near-dry (even as one has said once already) and set his insides aflame, the gallant young man flagged markedly when at last he came home. Quiet he let Satori take his coat and shoes, and likewise quiet bathed. Alike tight-lipped he busied in the kitchen, making only meagre small-talk with his hostess. Alike still he dined with her and the red-haired pet-girl, and alike yet poked at his plate with numbly held silver, his mind a wayfare and his clouded eyes a wander. Although, indeed, he had been assured of the meal to stay his twinging stomach, now he found the very sight of food made it only turn, turn.
Of course, he had but himself to blame – he had, after all (of sheer stubbornness), consumed the vile-tasting rice balls that the cackling tollwoman had given him. “Twould be a shame!” he had told himself firmly as each had passed his clinched throat. “A waste!” The words came to haunt him now. “A waste!” he had thought. A waste, indeed!
So it was that with some regret (of which he made no show) stood our esteemed Garion from the vast table and excused himself, though not before remarking rigidly to the quizzical-eyed hostess that he might not come call on her tonight. And true, he would not do, though it dashed him; for his mood was grim, and his health, even as he muttered without conviction under his breath, the first concern.
Or perhaps, who knows? perhaps he simply wished a calm hour to himself in a soft, warm bed.
And now, our dear boy lay alone in his room, agaze at the featureless ceiling, and brooding.
One would not say it became him, to brood. And yet despite, he did; for he had many a pressing reason to, and it was not his wont to waste. Again yet he reproached himself for the blunder. It was such a basic thing, such silliness! Any mother may tell: a child must not accept food from a stranger. And yet he had gone and done just that. A child would have known better! Such a thing!
Cursing, swearing silent oaths, he tossed on the bed for a moment with no particular sense of accomplishment.
And what of the tollwoman? What was her affair? What had she wanted to achieve, bestowing him with the rotten things? Had he wronged her somehow? Had he told an insult, unknowing? She had been rude, indeed, rude and impudent in handling him, brutish even, though he had done her nothing but courtesies; and respect as he might her frank and self-serving caution, it riled him all the same how she had been. Quash his hopes first! Then try to poison him, will she! A monster she was, all right!
Squirming, he spat the word in the confines of his mind. A monster! A monster...
Unwitting, his thought turned to the dainty-faced Satori. She was a monster, too, was she not? She had made a point of making the fact explicitly clear. And yet, for all her thrashing, glaring and arm-flailing, she was scarce monstrous compared to the flax-haired, evil-eyed tollwoman. She might be haughty and arrogant, true, but what woman wasn't? And a woman she was, that was all but free from doubt. She did, far as Garion could tell, possess all the features of one. She had the proper frame, though she hid it under outsized clothes. She had the small, baby-like hands, unstained by the efforts and labours customarily taken by men. She had the tiny feet, and the smooth calves, and the small narrow shoulders, the little voice that knew his name, and the soft violet stare that seduced him always each time she wished of him something against his will. She had the elegant gestures, the slightly unkempt but velvety hair, the...
Garion snarled a few ugly oaths and then clamped his teeth shut. Why was he thinking about this? Was he not supposed to be angry with himself?
And then that underlying haze, that shadowy suspicion he had been feeling for the past days began yet again to loom at the fringes of his mind.
Was this not why he was here yet, suffering all these pains? A dry laugh might have escaped his throat, had he not been tense so. There was no reason to be angry, after all! Quell though the cursed tollwoman might have his big Garion-hopes, he was conscious they were little-founded in the first place; for it would have explained a lot, and he knew, even now, though he would not say: he knew that even if it seems foolish, senseless, that which he seeks, that which he wants, may very well be—
There was a knock on the door.
Garion nimbly killed the thought and rolled around in the bed to face toward the wall. Another small tap broke the silence, but the callous young man made no response. Again yet it sounded, ever-so-louder, but all the same the blond man lay still and without a word. Thrice it tapped, to no avail.
And then the door steadily creaked open.
Someone came in, a few tiny steps, then gently shut the door behind them. Nary a noise they ghosted across the room, toward the bed where the quiet young man lay. And then they stopped. Garion thought them petulantly to come away.
“Oh please,” a mild voice said.
There was a patter of glassware, and a squeak of springs when someone sat down on the bed beside the lying man.
“Turn around, please,” someone pleaded. “I know you're awake.”
And Garion did twist around to face the interloper.
Satori regarded him with a faint smile, but there was no humour in that smile.
“Here,” she said, sliding a silver tray closer to his hands.
There was a glass of water on the tray, and a tiny white envelope.
Garion eyed them with a certain degree of scowl. “What is this?” he demanded gruffly.
“It's medicine,” Satori replied softly. “You have a stomach-ache, don't you?”
“I didn't ask for this.”
“No,” she agreed. “As a matter of fact, no, you didn't. Now take it. On your tongue, then down it with water. It's a little bitter, yes, but then, you might just find it to your taste. Now, Garion; don't be a child. Now, now.”
Averse still, he picked up the envelope and poured the contents onto his stuck-out tongue, then took the glass and drained it empty almost in one sup. Satori took it from his hands and set it down on the tray, even as the sulking man laid back down and faced the wall once more.
“You're welcome,” the small hostess said without a shade of irony. “You really ought to tell me if you aren't feeling well though,” she added. “I really shouldn't have to read your mind to find out. I can't say I like doing that; not a whole lot, at least.”
“I didn't ask you to do it,” he muttered.
“So? You're my guest, Garion.”
“My aches are my own. You needn't tend to them.”
“I'd like to, though.”
“Why, because I like you a lot, Garion.”
Garion tensed up. Stiffly, he cast a glance over his shoulder at his small hostess.
She was smirking.
“Amazing,” she said sweetly. “You can be shocked. Colour me impressed. Oh, but don't tap, please; you'll bruise your knuckles.”
“Good, good,” Satori praised. “I was getting somewhat sick of that. Now, pretty please, roll over here and look at me, Garion, won't you?” That, in turn, he did, though reluctantly. “Good,” the hostess said once more. She set aside the silver tray and heaved herself into a more comfortable position. Garion felt the mattress incline under his back, but stayed still. Glowering, he watched as the small hostess resolutely made herself comfortable. “Stop that,” she chided. “I didn't do anything wrong with you, did I?”
“Then stop glaring.”
He unscrewed his eyebrows with some difficulty.
“Do you want me to do away after all?” she asked.
He did not say.
She was very close to him though, and that he did not find it all that agreeable.
“Well, that's just too bad, isn't it?” she said. “The bed is a single. We can't do much about it, now can we?”
She gave him a look that could melt the hearts of men who were not Garion. Alas, Garion was nothing if not himself, so his heart remained whole and his eyes cold. “Am I really so loathsome, Garion?” she asked sadly. “You could really make a girl cry with these kinds of thoughts, you know. Are you angry with me, by chance?”
“No,” he said. “Not with you.”
“Then with whom? Tell me. I might just be able to do something about them.”
“It is my problem, not yours.”
“And you're not willing to share?”
“I see.” She sighed. “Well, I shouldn't push it then, I suppose.” She picked up the empty glass and, for a little while, fingered pensively the elaborate carvings. “Actually,” she spoke at length, “it was Rin that noticed something was off about you, not me. She observes you rather closely when you're in the house, did you know? You haven't spent much time with her since I stole you away, have you?”
“No,” Garion admitted.
“She still sneaks into your bed at night though, doesn't she?”
“She does,” he confirmed. “I am a sound sleeper however.”
“If you don't stir at it, then yes, you must be indeed. She makes a great deal of racket when she does that, usually. Oh, but you do talk with her, don't you?”
“Only when we do the dishes together.”
“Which isn't all too often, is it?”
“She has her own duties,” Garion pointed out.
“That she does,” Satori agreed. She stared at the glass a shade wistfully. “Where did you go today, Garion?” she asked. “Aside from the caves, I mean. Were you to any particular place? Anywhere of note?”
“Nowhere important,” he lied.
After all, he had gone to the bridge joining the above- and under-world.
One should presume the place possessed leastwise some semblance of significance.
Satori smiled. “Yes. And did you find anyone there?”
Garion gave up at that point. “I did,” he said. “The tollkeeper.”
“Ah, she. What was her name, again? Mizu?” The small hostess set a finger to her pale lips, trying to recall. “Mizushi?” she wondered aloud. “Mizuhashi, I believe? Was it? Garion?”
“She did not introduce herself.”
“She seemed unaware of what common courtesy entails,” the blond man went on. All of a sudden the urge to complain to someone—anyone—flared in his mind. And Satori, he knew, would listen. “She would not speak with me at first, even though I'd offered food. She told me to be lost, and only afterward did she—”
“You did what?” Satori intruded on his story.
“I offered food,” Garion humoured her.
“Why did you do that?”
“I always do when I encounter monsters in my travels,” the blond man explained. “They leave me alone once their attention is diverted.”
“Didn't it occur to you that she might feel insulted?”
“I had thought—” He broke off and reconsidered the idea. “I had not thought about it,” he concluded lamely.
“I didn't think you had,” Satori said tartly. “If it were me, I'd pull your hair out.”
“I do offer you food,” Garion observed; “every day, at that.”
She made a face. “That's different.”
“Anyway,” he decided not to pursue it further, “she would not have it, as I said, but only at first. Then we talked. She did not prove to be of help. She was... unaccommodating, to say the least.”
Grunting, he lay his head on the silken pillows. An odd sense of wear and fatigue washed over him even as he did, and he shut close his eyes, eyes that were suddenly very tired.
“It's the medicine,” Satori told him. “Don't worry at it too much.”
“Anyway,” the little hostess went on, “you'll have to forgive her.”
“She can't help it. That's how she is. How she has to be.” She sighed once more and turned her gorgeous eyes upward at the ceiling. “She's hopelessly insane. That's one of the prerequisites for living down here, I suppose—for humans, that is, not as much for us.”
“She said she was—” Garion began.
“—not human,” Satori filled in, “I do realise, Garion; but she did use to be one, whatever she says. We aren't all... born monsters, you have to understand. Some of us are born just like you are: into human families, and only then... well, certain things happen and we wind up changed. She was one such case, I gather. She came down here first as a pretty human girl—very innocent, if I do recall—and as the years passed, the underworld began to change her—or she began to change herself. We do not know. We are hesitant to try and find out. She does tend not to mince her words, you might have noticed. We don't know whether she had been appointed guardian of that bridge by powers that be or had taken it up of her own volition, but that was what she did before the sealing—and that's her function now. Although, I confess it, I do hear more and more from my pets that they simply fly over the bridge instead of walking nowadays, only to avoid having to have words with her. I do not blame them, but you have to admit she's been bereaved of any amusement she may have had of it that way. There is nothing left for her to do. It might just be that she treated you the way she did because you were the first face she'd seen in months, and she wanted to poke some fun at you at your cost. Gods know it gets boring down here – lonely, too... if you happen to crave company.
“Anyway,” she continued crisply, “She wasn't doing it to get under your skin, Garion. So don't hold any grudges, please. I never spoke with her a lot, but I can imagine how she feels, seeing herself gradually become obsolete. What I can't imagine is how she feels as a former human. I wasn't born one; that's probably why I get into trouble whenever I interact with them. I've always been a Satori. Sometimes I wonder why I were... born into this particular body. Although I wasn't born, not so to speak. Or at least I can't remember being born... or having parents, or any family apart from my sister. I simply was, as if I'd always been. And how long was it? Oh, I don't know. As far as I remember, I've always been around. I told you once I used to be less civilised than now, didn't I? I can't remember much of those dark days. I was cold, blind, restless, an animal more than a person. Shameful, isn't it? But maybe that's why I can't remember being born. I don't know. I'll probably never know a lot of things. We all will never know a lot of things. Won't we, Garion? Wouldn't you say?”
She lowered her chin and looked at the lying young man, but his eyes were closed, his breathing shallow, rhythmical.
He was fast asleep.
“Wouldn't you say...” the small hostess repeated in a whisper. “Wouldn't you say... Stupid.”
She sat playing with the glass for a time, sighing and sighing, until at last she regarded the sleeping Garion once more. And she lifted her hand, a hand that was no bigger than a minute, and reached it out slowly, tentatively, toward Garion's face. And breath held and fingers near-trembling, she parted his hair to survey the ugly gash she had given him that day when he first brought that silly idea of his to her attention. She felt disgusted with herself and how she had done with him, as she ever did when she recalled it.
She let go of his hair, still staring at that rough, serious face of his, calm now, calm and unarmed, its haunted look that it had developed over the years and the customary frown gone. She thought that, like this, it was not a bad face to have, not a bad face at all. And then she started, for she realised all of a sudden she had been about to touch his cheek. And her little fingers quivered away, frightful, and her ashen lips took on a strange expression.
She stared on at him, wary that he might wake, but that he did not; and she breathed easier, and let her small shoulders drop. She looked down; and there it was, his coarse, practical hand, even now clenched into a fist, chary, chary.
Gently, she cradled that big hand in hers, and held it, held it until it relaxed.
It took a while, but she was very stubborn about it, and at length, it did.
Then she stood and straightened her clothes.
She would not be so selfish as to wake an exhausted guest solely to keep her entertained. She was a good little hostess, after all. And like a good little hostess, she set out to leave her guest to sleep undisturbed.
At the door, however, she stopped and looked back, and her eyes hardened like amethysts.
“One day,” she said ominously. “One day you and I will talk about this.”
And then she turned and left.
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