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They didn’t kiss. She didn’t vomit. It was a tall price to pay, but endurable.
Starting at the start, ending at the end, the Hakurei had attended to their story with both wine-flushed ears. Their chance meeting, the first days, the sowing of suspicions, the festival, their charades again, the research, wait, biding of time, the pre-final night... and the failed murder. All this the priestess had taken, weighing behind these two eyes like living embers, sternly attentive. Some details they had given a miss – those she needed not wit. The involvement of one Angel, their moments most private, their long talks, the boy’s excursions, their taciturn (but budding) love... And I only fell for her once my ghost-mother had been gone. A fair compromise ‘twas, if untrue. The Hakurei swallowed it withal.
And when Satori had picked up the baton, then Garion had pinned back his ears, for there were minutiae there he had never been aware of. That she read plenty was plain; but what texts these were: on ghosts, possession, spirits and curses, this was brand new tidings to him. Yet it makes for a sensibility, does it; I never could recall what it was she read. The one in him had always guided his attentions elsewhere. That they had held conversations on occasion also had struck him as new. Yet it is sound, for ‘twould be in those times I was elsewise preoccupied. Hmm.
Whenas, however, they had gotten to Garion’s parents and their stay under their roof, the Hakurei grew incredulous. “They know of this—of you,” she demanded. There was a stir in the fire of her stare at their affirmations. This one apprehended a case such as this when we spoke—of humans making friends with monsters, Garion remembered. And what of ours? Would she make exceptions? The crimson eyes said no.
The boy flexed his better hand.
“Good man lover-boy,” the Hakurei said, with a courtesy so stiff it was like to poke holes in their faces, “you make a needless thing and a monster will cry tonight.”
Satori turned about on his lap and glared Garion out of his gymnastics.
The priestess made a fraction of a smile. “Awfully dogged on her safeness, for havin’ tried to end her misery. Aren’t you just... pup?”
There is that name again. “Only proper,” he replied, “for making attempts at her life, to protect it now.”
“What was that?” the Hakurei repeated, “‘proper?’ Then it is just your fashion repenting for your sins? And weren’t there words of love somewhere in there just then? You love this little thing atop your lap dearly—or do you not?”
“I do.” This is no more question than I am a horse. “I do love her.”
“Then speak it plainly and don’t try to muddy my waters. Clarity’s a virtue I see too rarely in my work. At least outside of it I should be granted some. Ah, yes. That’s right, friend.” She answered to his frowning. “This isn’t part of my job description, to uphold peace in this sodden mess of a town. That’s somebody else’s berth. So pull your horns in and don’t make it my job description, or there’ll be two women put off with you this night.” The red-white priestess eyed him for a while. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you?” she asked him then. “What thing I told you that blasted morning, after the piss-up, just before you went and proved me all wrong?”
“Would that I hadn’t, would you ask?”
“Would that you hadn’t,” she corrected him, “you would quit making fists. Why’s he so damned ferocious, Komeiji? Are you sure for sure he hasn’t another blasted ghost in him? Well, bother that, not my headache. What I told you, lover-boy, I told you there was no helping it if you were in love with her.” She folded her arms on her breast. “Straightenin’ people’s brains ain’t my duty,” she said. “You love her, that’s damned all right by me. What the hell do I care? I don’t like her; don’t mean I must dream to make her every waking moment a tragedy. And, for the love of the gods, unless she gets under my nails, why the blazes should I? That’s but more work for me.”
“Then you haven’t complaints of our... arrangement?” Garion shied from the word marriage, though thinking it gave him a queer hope. She is a priestess after all...
“None at all?” the boy wanted to be certain.
The Hakurei hrrmed. At length, she lifted a finger. “Once,” she said, “you told an untruth when I questioned you.” She raised another. “Twice, you well-near charged me with fists just now. Thrice...” A pause. “... There’s none so far. So, why do we not make it like this: you don’t give me a ‘thrice,’ and I won’t go medieval on your arse? That sound any good?” Garion gave a nod, and the priestess waved her hand, dismissive. “Great, cheers. Then you and I are done, for the meantime. Good riddance. You’re not my type anyway.”
The jape was wry, but mayhap well-meant.
The Hakurei drew heftily from her drink, looking somewhere wall-wards to his left. The tips of her ears flared as the hot wine made at home in her belly. A slow blush painted over her round cheeks. She is nowhere so threatening when she is not... well, threatening. Garion had seldom paid womenfolk the heed they would have him, mayhap yes, but with his lifelong quest water under the bridge this had somewhat changed. The red-white priestess was perhaps holy, but her bearing was everything but. The coat covered her all now, but the boy recalled still the thin, Sun-burnt arms and the shadow-circled eyes she’d had on the day following the festival. The eyes tired even now, wrinkled by many a sleepless night, and the fingers gripping the vessel were blistered and cut. A worn-out woman was Hakurei Reimu, withal her young age. To compare her to Satori would be exposing old parchment beside silk.
And the silk liked to pinch.
“Stop that!” she scolded.
Garion murmured an apology. All in all she is pretty yet.
Satori rolled her eyes at the ceiling. Then she said to the object of their gossip, “Can I ask a few things?”
The priestess gave an allowing shrug. “Shoot.”
“Was there any trouble this winter? Or has there been, maybe I should say?”
“Other than you, no. The newbies called truce before first snow. And well for them; leastwise they know when to settle down.”
“That’s good.” Satori made some show of relief. “Then all is well.”
“As well as can be in this blasted place. Kas’s pissed off wherever; Marisa’s wintering. There’s nothin’ happenin’ that’s too major. Well, all the same I get called to investigate now and then; the usual nonsense. Maybe I should get Sanae to fly in for me. She’s all too zealous with no work. This has been a slow winter—which doesn’t stop things from cropping up time and time. Why, just latterly, I get this news of this feller—”
“The outsider?” Garion blurted.
“The—Gods be good, no. Outsiders I don’t even touch. Who knows where they’ve been? Why? Was there some outsider got under your skin recently?”
Then she knows nought of him. A mystery? Or mayhap I see plots where there are none? “... No such thing. Never you mind.”
“As you pretty well wish.” The Hakurei sniffed. “What was I saying? Oh, yes. No, wait, forget about that. Komeiji, I heard of that book you wrote. There’s words we must have ‘bout that.”
Satori was surprised. “That was years ago.”
“A book?” whispered Garion.
“An idle pastime, now shush. You’ve read it anyway.”
“Well,” the Hakurei went on, “years or not, I only heard recently. The thing is, I’d have liked for that thing to go by me firstly, you know what I’m saying? That’s flimsy stuff, monsters. The sort of thing best, uh... well, controlled, ‘fore it goes out to the rabble, all right? The other stuff, not my business. This? I make it my business. That’s me has to clean up any misunderstandings there come. You know what I’m getting at?”
“Yes. I will get someone to... Yes. I know.”
“That’s good.” The priestess drained the last of her drink. “Well, that was all nice an’ smart, talkin’, but the night’s not getting’ any younger. Got to get moving if I don’t want to freeze my ears off. You, lover-boy,” she said to Garion. “A word, outside. Alone, if your master’ll let.”
Satori made a sweet smile. “Won’t I just read his mind anyway?”
“That don’t damned make matter to me. Outside, pup. Chop-chop.”
They shuffled without the tavern, where the night was in strong going.
A chill-instilling wind was whistling down the street. Garion shuddered at its kiss. Ill fate to fly in this weather.
The Hakurei was no more pleased. “All right,” she said, “I’ll make this brief. ‘S anyhow why I wanted you alone, that your sweet little lover wouldn’t barge in her sweet little arse and make me stay out longer than I ought. Any-how-way, there’s one thing you best know, pup. That place your little one lives—that’s a bad place. Old Hell, or what they called it. The blasted thing does stuff to people.”
“She is a fickle creature, yes,” agreed the boy, “but not cruel.”
Ah, foiled. “Old Hell.”
“She’s a she now? Well, forget that. You know how monsters are made, don’t you? No? The stuff monsters are made of is, well, human stories: legends, old wives’ tales, fears, rumours... stories, all right? Yours, ah, that one is made of fear, of your dirtiest thoughts bein’ heard an’ read, basically. That’s not somethin’ people like most, issit? The bottom of it is, Old Hell—there’s magic in that place, catch? Ancient, powerful magic.”
The Hakurei blew a like powerful sneeze. “So,” she said, wiping at her face, “unless you want on the wrong end of my stick, pup, you best don’t do any such a thing might give this Old Hell any frisky ideas. That’s so. Truly said, if you keep that infuriating little thing out of mischief, I should even go as far as being happy for your rotting with her down there. As long as you keep her out of my hair, whatever, good luck, enjoy it.”
Was she so up in your hair before? “Very well.”
“That don’t mean I won’t crack down on you like an unholy storm of shit if you don’t,” she cautioned, red-nosed. “You don’t mistake me, pup. You haven’t my blessing, or approval, or anything—just my limited indifference. The first signs come you’re up to no good, I will hop down there like a bunny, and I will pull all that blasted heavy rock down on your heads. Are we clear here?”
“Good. Great, brilliant. Then go and kiss her sorry for the wait ‘fore she sets the town on fire, why don’t you?”
The boy nodded.
The Hakurei sighed, relieved; then she turned her face up at the black sky.
“Gods, I loathe to fly in this cold...”
“Good priestess...” Garion began prudently.
She returned her eyes to him. “You still here, pup? What did I say ‘bout kissing?”
“A question afore you go—afore we go.”
“What is it?”
“The outside world. Can one go there mayhap?”
The eyes narrowed. “What’s this? The pup feels vagrant?”
I was vagrant since my fifth birthday. “Curious.”
“Where’d you get this curiosity?”
“An outsider, yes,” she cut through him; “you said; my memory hasn’t failed me yet. What did he tell you?”
“Nothing.” He was ripped open from neck to gizzard. He was ill-suited to talk. “Thus I wonder.”
“That so? Curious, huh?”
Awhile she was a stone statue smaller than he, black-haired and flinty-eyed. Then her arms crossed once more on her chest. The furs and fabrics rustled.
“There’s nothing out there—not for you.”
“What?” Garion blinked. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean, I say,” the Hakurei told him. “There isn’t anything of interest to you out there. Your interest is inside, in this Land of Illusions. This is your home, no?”
“Still, there must be a way or a spell—”
“There isn’t.” The priestess set her brows. “Your place is here, inside the border. Aren’t we too greedy, ah? This country not big enough for your strider legs? And what of your sweet lover that you well-near got your arse toasted for? As I hate it, she’s a woman also in some manner; bein’ a woman myself I know what she’d do. Well, that’s assumin’ she loves you as well; I never heard ‘er say that, now, heh. Assumin’ yes anyhow, very probable she’ll make uproar. And who’ll have to clean up after she’s blasted someone up to bits? That’s right, pup.” The red-white priestess curled her lips mockingly. “So tuck in your pup tail and scoot back where you belong, because I damned hate extra work. The outside world isn’t for you—nor me, in fact, nor anyone else here. You best forget it. You’re nothin’ but wastin’ your time—time otherwise could be spent kissin’ your loverly little monster. Eugh.”
And with that last “Eugh,” she was gone.
The boy watched long after she had vanished in the black night sky.
Mayhap not so pretty after all, he noted in thought.
Anyway he would do no good standing out in the chill. The priestess had told him nought of matter but empty warnings. There was not much else he might do. There were sources yet—people he might ask. Here, he was done. No, not yet done. Satori.
The Hakurei had claimed she hadn’t heard anything of her loving him. I am of a mind to prove her wrong. The tavern rented beds to those few wanting peace outside home. Garion had coin enough, and the plain truth was, he wasn’t half so patient as he would have said.
She truly neverdid say she loved me, he remembered indignantly. Small matter now.
This night, he would make her scream it.
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