Nachtmerries, oneHieda no Aya!02X6/ifNow2020/09/07 (Mon) 11:25No. 201676▼
For want of another name, he was called Waranai, and for want of a horseman was he hired.
In the lows of night, and with the last-quarter moon behind gathering cloud, he could scarce be recognised apart from any other man of the place and of the time, painted as he was in broad indigo hue by the manner of his dress; and neither did his backswept raven hair serve to distinguish him much. But on his left he wore a sword, odd for the time, odd for the place, which was leaf-thin in the blade and triple-fullered, without guard nor languet on its nickel-silvered hilt, and opposite this on his right he wore its companion—likewise nickel-finished, and no less odd for the mode, but whose half-dozen brace of lead and powder was the less subtle by far.
Last of all he wore his boots, and they fell to ground as he dropt from saddle, and carried him up the last stretch to the mansion his destination proper.
The year belonging now-then to the Meiji Emperor, and the place in specific to the clan of the Hieda, and to yours truly, the eighth maiden of Miare, the mode dictated therefore that foot-wear of all kind, and boots especially, should retire at the threshold of house and home, and fall not a muddy step beyond. The fact that they invaded forthwith spoke much, then, to his urgency.
He kicked aside a screen-door and trod into the sitting-room, where he lowered down the woman: the one who had been the spur to his haste. Per the heat of the season, the screen-door was of lightest pine, and un-papered, and bounced out from its track at the rough treatment, making its complaint known with a harsh clattering protest. The din of it was an alarm to all the household, and in short order they came running: a flurry of scraping doors, and padding cavalcade of feet on straw.
The patriarch of the clan, Heitarou, mine uncle, was roused up first of all. In his arms was cradled the polished Spencer rifle with which he shared his pillow, and which he raised up as he came; but when he saw the kneeling form of Waranai he lowered it at once. Then he saw the pallor of the figure laid out on the straw-matting, and startled back again.
“A corpse,” he rasped, and threw up an abjuring hand, as if to save himself from defilement by the sight. Behind him, as is traditional for such ghastly revelations, a weaving-girl swooned, and fell down insensate.
Waranai scoffed, and shook his head. First of all, a corpse was not really so fearsome a thing to him; and second, this one was not so grisly among the ones he might choose to remember. Third …
“She is alive,” the horseman said, clarifying the matter. “But, I fear, poisoned.”
The woman’s right sleeve was torn away, and her arm laid bare at her side, fingers curled from unconscious pain. A pair of stark black pierce-marks on her wrist, from which venous streaks crawled up her arm, were dire testament to the likely species of culprit. Still, indeed, she yet drew breath, which at the very least could be felt, if it could not be seen.
“Snake-bite?” questioned my uncle, when he dared draw close again.
Waranai nodded, and explained. “I have found her beside the road,” he said, “near the Aizawa fields.” He lowed his head, in something resembling of a bow, and admitted, “I could not sleep, and had been out for a ride.”
Heitarou waved a sinewy hand. “The horses have never complained,” he said simply.
Waranai only nodded again his gratitude.
The situation was then in good haste relayed to myself. Despite my best effort, however, and much to my regret, I was unable to muster up the necessary strength to walk, asleep as I had been till just moments prior. Our horseman, then, who was well-built for the task, was called upon to convey the woman to me instead—after, of course, first putting off his mud-crusted boots.
Waranai strode into the room. That was to say, he strode into my room: that of a maiden’s, dishevelled, in her bed, and was wholly unburdened by the fact of it, the load somehow reversing entirely onto my own self. Were it another time, I might have … but the more pressing matter was at hand. Instead, he only lowered his actual burden down from his broad shoulder, where he had carried her in like twin sacks of poor millet won as gambling prize: an image which was doubly mis-apropos, as the horseman never wagered, and stood of a height which only a boyhood of wheat and oily pork could have built up.
My uncle did not follow behind him. That man was, like as not, back to sleep instead. For him, the matter would be resolved to satisfaction just as soon as the soiled straw-mats were cleaned up and turned over. A servant girl was left to kneel outside the room, in his lieu.
“Waranai,” I greeted our horseman, while I rubbed at a stubborn eyelid.
“Hieda,” he returned—for we were all Hieda to him, one of us or else another. Were it again another time, I might have corrected him. “I picked this up by the side of the road,” the horseman said, or perhaps in fact joked, but he remained unsmiling, and one could never tell.
I glanced briefly over the snake-bitten woman. The blackening in her arm was a morbid draw to the eye, branching tree-like, as if painted with ink and wash into her paper-white skin.
“You have not tied off the afflicted limb?” I wondered then, and asked.
In reply, Waranai only lifted up a sleeve of his own, revealing fresh nail-marks and dried blood underneath.
“I have tried,” he said simply, and lowered the sleeve again, which was to my gratitude.
With some physical effort drawing closer, I studied the bite-wound more closely. I noted two things, then, which were discongruous to my eye: first, that the darkened streaks stopped abruptly short before the elbow, and second, that the bite had been on the wrist, and not, as should rather be expected, the leg.
I asked if it had really been a snake, and Waranai confirmed. On sighting it he had despatched it with a summary flick of his sword, and, lacking a spade with him, simply kicked its head to the roadside. When he did, the body followed behind, still attached, if barely, by a membrane of skin at its neck, and was lost into the tall summer grass. The snake, he said, had been milk-white, and in this regard he had not before seen its like, but otherwise it resembled an ordinary pit viper, which was a hazard everywhere in the land.
I wondered, then, if the woman were perhaps a suicide. Such a means was not unheard of, for those who wished the ephemera of their beauty preserved forever in death. And indeed her face was well-sculpted, if a little severe, with pleasant violet hair which splayed out to her waist. At the same while, she was dressed up all in patchwork hemp, like a vagrant, inviting speculation towards any number of reasons why.
“No,” said Waranai, shaking his head. “A young female suicide does not make the attempt alone, and out of earshot.”
“You are very sure of the strangest things,” I muttered.
“It is from experience.”
I wondered, privately, what sort of women he had lived amongst before.
I shook the distraction out of my head, and set my attention back to the bite-wound. “That is a strange thing, though, this … here, where it stops.” I tapped the place on the arm where the envenomation was halted. It occurred to me then that it might only have been slowed somehow, and not truly stopped, and I voiced as much my concern. “Perhaps to bind it would be of some help, still?”
I instructed the servant girl, who twisted up a cloth, and lamely tied it in a knot around the arm. Waranai looked at her as if she were an inept child, and all but shouldered her aside with his unsmall presence, taking over the task and fixing the tourniquet with a commandeered writing-brush.
He cocked out his elbow, and twisted.
His patient awoke at once—and clawed him across the face. Then she punted me across the ribs.
The triple effect of this was a muted cacophony of wheezing: Waranai, from that excessively painful sort of wound despite it only breaks the skin, I, from having the breath launched bodily out from me, and the strange woman, from exerting herself in accomplishing all this. The servant girl I thought had been spared, till I saw her doubled over and clutching between her legs. His legs, then, and he had been a boy. I hoped, for his sake, he was at least a second son.
Our horseman recovered first of all, and thought perhaps to restrain the woman, but must have doubted of the necessity. She in turn gathered herself up, collapsing more than once as her stricken arm failed to support her weight. Her face was twisted up with a snarl like a cornered greymalkin’s as she hastened to recover her breath, and she flicked her wide eyes back and forth between us others, though mainly at Waranai. I was last to revive from my stitches, after the servant boy, whom I shooed away rather viciously—I was not yet to the age of thirty, and had no need of wandering hands to support my own body, at the very least.
But my two guests glared across to each other, and it seemed that I had been forgotten.
“I hope you are not one of those girls,” said Waranai, and indeed the woman’s waking expression made her somewhat younger, “who shoots herself through the arm, and then cries out for attention afterwards.”
She, in response, stared into the horseman a violet-eyed stare of the utmost wilting disgust.
It landed on him as good as if she had tried to wilt a stone.
(I, personally, worried again about the women of his past.)
“Nosey bastard,” she said finally, letting up the attempt. She scratched at the back of her stricken arm, which yet remained limp. “I was fine regardless.”
Waranai only raised up one sloping brow, and leaned over onto an elbow. “Stone, scissors, paper,” he said, and threw scissors, pointedly angling the hand around in every which direction.
“Fuck yourself,” was the curt reply. The vagrant woman stood perilously up on trembling legs. “I have got myself a monster to kill.”
[ ] The horseman stopped her. [ ] The horseman only scoffed.
Nachtmerries, twoHieda no Aya!02X6/ifNow2020/09/14 (Mon) 05:43No. 201693▼
Thus self-identified, the killer-of-monsters made to limp herself away. She got as far as to raise her hand to the screen-door which led to the rear garden, before halting up, paralysed. The hand hung there portentously from its wrist, as if it were instead there hanged: limp, unresponding, and cadaverously pale.
She drew up a steadying breath in silence—which the horseman lanced through at once.
“You?” he said, touching his fingertips to his bloodied face, and there was a scorn spoken into his words which even I had not expected to hear from him. “A monster? … You shall sooner kill some innocent crow, from a poisoned breakfast.”
“You,” the woman returned, with scorn in equal measure, her other hand at once clenching tight—“you and crows both be damned!” She took the screen-door with her good hand and flung it aside, growling another curse as it rebounded into her in reply.
“Damned; yes, by the Lord God, I am the one,” muttered Waranai, but meant obviously none of it, and crossed himself frivolously.
My patience had by now quite run its course.
“Enough,” I said; or tried to say, but broke into a hacking cough instead, which nonetheless served to seize the attention I desired. “That is enough from you, Waranai,” I repeated, when I had recovered; and perhaps said it more harshly than I had intended, but by the flicker of sheepishness in his face I knew he deserved anyways to hear it. “And to you,” I continued, schooling myself back to calm and addressing the woman, who had frozen again at the threshold, “I believe I must apologise. I fear you have been ill-used by our household … your name, miss?”
She turned around, her violet eyes measuring me mistrustfully; but I saw at least by the way they darted up and down that it was only an unfortunate general mistrust of all humanity in them, and not of myself in specific.
“Hakurei,” she began to lie—
“—you are not,” I cut it off. “The gods do not look kindly on such deception.”
The was-never priestess sucked in a hiss through clenched teeth, and glanced out unsubtly at the dew-specked mulberry trees which covered much of our estate.
“Kuwabatake Hatachi,” she lied again. Which was to say, Twenty-Year Mulberry Field.
I resisted the want to sigh. “If that is what you prefer,” I said instead. A thought occurred to me then, and I smiled. “Then,” I said, bowing to the best of my ability—“I am Hieda no Aya.”
Indeed: Number-Eight of the Millet Field.
But ‘Hatachi’ only stared, the joke of it totally lost upon her. Alas.
“And this is Waranai,” I continued on, when he did not introduce himself. “Our horseman.”
At my side-long glare, he stood himself up, and bowed lazily in the foreign manner, but kept silent.
“Horseman?” questioned Hatachi, and squinted witheringly. “This; this … great big devil’s bastard … is to ride; is to fit atop a horse?”
“And quite adroitly so,” I insisted, which was only truthful. “Therefore forgive him his villainous mien. He was only born with it; but he is a good fellow, really, honestly. Though,” I cautioned her, raising a likewise finger, “he will not suffer such abuses—and especially not, when he has only acted in good faith.”
I smiled then at Waranai, who only snorted and shook his head, as if to disavow the appraisal of him: the surest sign that it was, indeed, true.
“You speak rather fondly of him,” grudged Hatachi; but if she said it not warmly, then she said it not coldly, either. “For a horseman.”
“For a horseman,” I agreed, still smiling.
She crossed her arms. “Well,” she gave, quite meaninglessly, “… if it is to be so.”
I nodded, also quite meaninglessly, which was the essence of humouring. “But now,” I said, and clasped my hands; “be it your wish that you will not submit to some care—still, you must at least submit to some rest. If you are truly a monster-killer, we would be glad of lodging you the night, and freely.”
The final word seemed to have some effect upon her, by the way her head raised up fractionally in reaction to it; but some conflict still dwelt within her.
“And of breakfasting in the morning,” I mentioned in addition.
This, now, had the greater effect. The remainder of her reluctance was at once drained away, and her tenseness also by half; and her eyes lit up in such a subtle way as might well have passed her for the Hakurei priestess, to anyone who had the good fortune of personally knowing the latter soul.
“I suppose I am fain,” she gave, and looked deliberately away into the mountains. “It is probably fled, all considered; the fucker.”
“To lick its wounds, no doubt?” I prompted; but she only pursed her lips, tasting some sour thought behind them, and so I pressed no further.
At my instruction, then, she was led away to her accommodation; and she lightly kicked her sandals off the veranda as she went, in the unconcerned way of those who kept themselves perennially destitute out of a healthy disregard for such worldly trifles. The attitude was a great commonality, it seemed, among killers of monsters—this and, it seemed also, careworn feet from likewise careworn sandals.
(Waranai collected them up for the servant boy to carry away, and then, breaking his earlier quiescence, remarked under his breath at soldierly length about the true value in good shoes.)
When we were finally left alone, I brought out some tobacco, and checked the hour on my pocketwatch by the light of a match. There stood elsewhere in the room an old brass lantern-clock; an arcane and unwieldy contraption, which ran on two different sets of foliot balances, their weights to be adjusted by the season in order to keep the traditionally unequal daytime and nighttime hours; but it was missing a sundry catalogue of little parts, which nonetheless made their absences greatly known. This had been a courtesy to me from my predecessor prior to her passing, and indeed I shared her preference for the well-tempered hours of modernity.
The smoke, ghostly blue as it rose from the end of the pipe, bade the horseman linger for another hour; and as for how this one was to be measured, it would matter none.
[ ] The horseman lingered. [ ] The horseman lingered not.