Disclaimer: I am sick like a mother and too stubborn to get hopped up on cold meds. Also, I am not part of the quartet of goddesses known as CLAMP. Woe.
Notes: This fic was originally written for the LJ contest/comm xxxholicminibang (see my profile for the link to the original version, in prettier LJ format). Original prompt: "Jorougumo/immortal girl from recent chapters. Some kind of romance/intimate friendship. post-Watanuki's intervention, of course." I don't know how, but this ended up being four times longer than it was supposed to (a tidy 3000 words). What the hey.
Credits go to Shakespeare's The Tempest for the opening quotes/titles, poetry by Matsuo Basho, and Japan and Singapore in the World Economy by Shimizu Hiroshi and Hirakawa Hitoshi for info on the karayuki. Sources for the yaobikuni myth are scattered and sort of… everywhere. Much thanks to the Obakemono Project for all sorts of research on the creepy, crawly, many-eyed things of the night.
If you enjoyed this at all, give me some sugar. I am your neighbour. In other word, be kind, rewind, review!
Pearls That Were Her Eyes
Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made.
Look! These are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest
one. full fathom five
In the wreckage of the apartment building, Jorougumo felt the last of the Bordeaux singing away in her veins, and she mourned the loose, golden feeling that had flooded her limbs while Mokona drunkenly lambasted the little shopkeeper for not knowing how to play "Moonlight Legend", which he proclaimed to be the greatest of the Sailor Moon openings, louder and more incoherently each time he did so throughout the night. She had sipped wine and cackled as the shopkeeper's uncannily smooth hospitality became frayed; he grew more and more cat-eyed and irritated, finally all but throwing her out after they polished off the tenth bottle of liquor.
She was sure, however, that he had enjoyed himself - enjoyed being exasperated, enjoyed being shouted at to play the shamisen, to crack open more bottles, to fetch more snacks. Beneath all the grumbling, there had been a flash of something - something wise and tender and sweet in his face, something nostalgic. His face sharpened when he looked at her, something of the sweetness falling away, replaced by knowing-ness. Just for that, she left a biting kiss on his collarbone, and hoped it would sting; it was his own fault if he was still too polite to push a lady away. She wondered if it would leave a scar, or heal seamlessly in just another invisible reminder that his game of playing human was just that - a game.
That had barely been half an hour ago and already it seemed like distant memory; even though she had been pinioned by pipe fox's fire and almost suffocated by its fur, she had not felt even a fraction of the vulnerability that clawed at her now, as she waited for the answer to a question that she had waited… centuries… to ask. She wondered if this was what the human men had felt, trussed up in spider silk the color of sunlight, with her pincers tapping lovingly against their naked throats.
In the palm of her hand, the crimson pearl throbbed gently, like another heart.
"Of course," she said, trying to sound as neutral as possible, as if she wasn't pleading, as if she didn't feel the mad urge to fall to her knees and just beg, "you are the one that will choose."
The yaobikuni cocked her head up to her, staring up at her thoughtfully with those dark, unblinking eyes.
"Is your promise true?"
The yaobikuni's voice was very soft, small silver waves lapping against sand. Jorougumo felt her own throat suddenly become dry as driftwood, her thoughts tangling like seaweed.
You shouldn't trust me, she thought, suddenly. I am Jorougumo, I am the Queen of the Spiders, I have made my home in dark places, I have eaten men and monsters and cities whole, I poison the air around with me with my very aura…
Then she straightened. I am Jorougumo. I was here when Tsukiyomi and Amaterasu still shared the same sky, before the humans were even a shadow in a god's mind. And I always keep my word.
"It is," she said.
The yaobikuni gave a long, long sigh. "Very well then," she whispered. "I will live with you."
The crimson pearl throbbed wildly, almost searing her palm with heat. Jorougumo clutched it and turned her face away, almost feeling faint, struggling with - with - with some emotion she couldn't name, powerful as it was.
"Very well," she said, still in that neutral tone, when she had gotten control of herself again. She snapped a finger, and in her mind, she was at the center of a great orb web made of an almost endless number of different threads, glinting and sparking in the darkness that was not darkness. She found the thread she wanted at once - thicker, rough to the touch, impudently bright - and tugged it sharply.
She blinked and she was returned to the ruins of the apartment. The only difference was the brown-haired youth that seemed to come tumbling out of the air. He sputtered as he tried to place his awkward, gangly limbs on the floor without falling onto shards of broken glass and porcelain, or splinters of wooden furniture, that littered the small room.
"Geez, Aunty!" he snapped, scowling and straightening his dark jeans, brushing dust off of them as well as his t-shirt, which, oddly enough, sported a large Spider-Man. "Couldn't have warned me, could you!"
Jorougumo suppressed the desire to roll her eyes. "You should be alert to my summons at all times," she said pertly. "What warning do you need?"
"I was in the middle of watching Naruto," he said sulkily. "Gah!" He moved and glass crunched beneath his feet. "These are brand new Chucks…" The look of mourning dragged down his normally cheerful face. He was pointing to the strange, gigantic red and blue shoes encasing his feet. "Are you going to reimburse me for these if they're damaged!"
"Your accoutrement is your own concern," she said, sniffing. "Perhaps if you took better care of it…"
"Just because you traipse around in fishnets instead of proper shoes, and own a million pair of hooker boots…" he muttered. Now that his eyes were off of his clothes, they roamed around the apartment. "What are you doing summoning me to a rat hole like this, anyhow - GAH!"
He pointed at the yaobikuni, still kneeling on the tatami floor, watching them with a blank, placid stare that Jorougumo refused to admit she found both irritating and unsettling. What seemed like miles of her long, silvery, rippling hair rippled around her - her only garb - and over her and through a good portion of the apartment.
"Aunty!" he yelped. "What're you doing with a yaobikuni? They're cursed unlucky - "
"That's a superstition, Dobe," she said, bored. "One of those stupid made up human stories."
"Don't call me Dobe!"
"Then stop acting like one!"
"Who's acting like a - " His mouth dropped open, and he did a double take. "Wait a minute. Is this the yaobikuni, the one that you - "
"Yes," she said, cutting him off. "Now," and she turned back to the wide-eyed yaobikuni, as if she hadn't just been arguing with what looked like a fourteen-year-old teenager, "this is my manservant and liegeman, who will be serving us from here on out." She put on the sweet, light, pleasant smile that she knew he hated the most, and said, "Why don't you introduce yourself, Dobe?"
He gave a rough, surly bow. "Pleased to meet you," he said darkly. "No matter what she says, my name isn't Dobe, it's Dosha. I serve this wrinkled up old aunty, Jorougumo-dono - like I have a choice - and all those under her protection. Who're you, and how did you get stuck with her?"
"Manners, Dosha," Jorougumo said sweetly, giving another yank to his spirit thread, which she still kept clutched in one hand. He yelped again, and she found it a rather satisfying sound.
The yaobikuni blinked. "Pleased to meet you," she said, still in that soft, worn away voice. "My…. name…" A little of the blankness was leaving, but it was replaced by something coiling and shadowy and sad. "My name, I can't…"
"Yao," Jorougumo said abruptly. Those sea-silver eyes flickered up to hers. "It's Yao."
"All right, cool, whatever," Dosha said, unconcerned.
"And… from now on, I will be living with Jorougumo-dono."
Dosha's mouth dropped open. "No matter what you say, Aunty, I think she is cursed unlucky. To have to live with you - "
Jorougumo bared her fangs in a smile. "Oh don't spread your sympathy too far, Dobe dearest. You're going to be living with us too."
"And I, of course, get no say in the matter…"
"No, you don't. Go prepare the Manor, make it liveable again. Yao and I will follow in a while."
"Whatever you say, Jorougumo-dono." He reached into his pocket, spun on his heel, and was gone.
The room was suddenly darker, and more claustrophobic, once he was gone. Jorougumo kneeled in front of Yao, not caring about the broken glass. "Now," she said, "I can transport us to my home, but you'll need a certain kind of key to enter. Dosha has one already."
Gingerly, she took one of Yao's hands in hers. The hand was very small, cool and light, but with a sort of hardness to it, like coral. Her fingernails had a faintly pearly sheen, and her skin was so pale and clear that Jorougumo could see the blue veins swimming in it like tiny rivers and streams.
Jorougumo tore her eyes away from the sight of that small hand so naturally entwined in hers. She gripped it, carefully, and conjured the shape in her mind. When the black-and-gold lights dancing across her vision faded and she remembered to let go, she saw the "key" lying in Yao's hand: a medallion of a stylized, curving spider at the center of a web, made of dull, beaten gold.
"There," Jorougumo said, not knowing why she felt almost breathless to see Yao cradling her sigil so gently, as if it was a living thing. "Hold onto that, and take my arm."
The girl obeyed, drifting abut in her slow sleepwalker's daze. Jorougumo drew the shape of a web in the air, and she and the yaobikuni stepped through it. She felt the girl spare one last glance at the small, ruined apartment haunted by violence and pain and the thin ghosts of love, It could've been, we could've been, I know we could've, if only -
But Jorougumo gave a ruthless tug, and they were in the foyer of the Manor, and Dosha, already with his pant legs rolled up and up to his elbows in suds, was complaining that she hadn't cleaned the floors in years.
two. a sea change
Time passed. Dosha, despite his many, many, many complaints, was a good worker, full of restless energy and an eye for detail that bordered on OCD. Jorougumo entrusted him to hire on a temporary working staff, all of them her subjects, of course, to make major repairs and do some construction to the Manor which she had, she admitted, allowed to fall into disuse. She left many of the details up to Dosha, who bitched at her when she showed some impatience over colour schemes, wall hangings, types of lighting, and the design for ornamental gardens - "This is the first time in two centuries that the clan head has kept an official and permanent residence!" Dosha bellowed at her. "I will not allow you to screw this up!"
Dosha also took the opportunity to slyly hire the help that she was usually impatient to keep: houseboys and maid servants to keep the house running, cooks and kitchen helpers (especially when they were entertaining guests), messengers and runners, and of course, attendants for Yao-dono. Of course, Jorougumo said distractedly, signing whatever pieces of parchment that Dosha - now holding the position of something like steward - thrust in her face and stamping them with her personal seal.
Whenever she really was too busy to answer an urgent question, she would just say to Dosha, "Ask Yao." This became her answer to many questions over time - "Ask Yao." At first Yao would be utterly tongue-tied and at the most she would be able to stutter, "Whatever you think would best please Jorougumo-dono," but after dealing with Dosha's bellowing fits for a while ("If I let this place look like 'whatever would please Jorougumo-dono', we would be in a CAVERNOUS, ROTTING MANSION in the FREEZING DARK with nothing for decoration but SPIDER WEBS in some weird CIRCUS ACT RIG, until of course she lets it be BURNED DOWN by PIPE FOX FIRE and LEAVES ME TO CLEAN UP THE MESS - "
"He's exaggerating," Jorougumo said to the wide-eyed Yao, in her haughtiest voice.
"Which part?" Dosha said sourly.
"It wasn't 'freezing'. It was pleasantly cool."
"Of course it wasn't freezing to you, because the icy meat locker feeling came from the pure evil of your aura," Dosha pointed out) she learned to voice her opinion, with the result that there were now some very beautiful fountains in the ornamental gardens, and a small lake with a bridge over it in which orange and white koi leisurely swam and snapped up small bits of bread, and sconces burning softly in dark corners.
Yao helped out with the construction, too. After Jorougumo nearly hung Dosha upside down for letting the yaobikuni work with the crew fixing the roof of the south wing, Yao had said, sounding confused and nervous, that she enjoyed being useful and working with her hands and just having something to do around the house, if it pleased Jourogumo-dono? Jorougumo dropped Dosha roughly to the ground, ("Um, ow? Are you even going to apologize?") and said, in very majestic, velvety tones, "Very well, as it pleases you."
All in all, Jorougumo enjoyed the sight of her new home rising around her: a warm, comfortable place, full of light and colour and the sound of running water. She would've preferred something… well, something much darker, in general, with far closer quarters, something cramped and luxurious - but Dosha insisted that since she had stopped "gadding about for decades at a time, drinking and gambling and treasure-hunting and partying and I don't know what…" and started officially performing her duties from a home base, that her residence had to be bright and welcoming to all, whether they be members of the spider clan or visitors of… other kinds. She used to conduct her business on the road, answering the calls of her kin wherever they were, and travelling and doing pretty much whatever she liked (as Dosha darkly muttered) - but that was before Yao, of course. It was Yao who needed a home, and it had become Jorougumo's responsibility to provide one for her.
There came a time, however, when she began to wonder if it was her home that Yao needed.
The priest came on one of the last, long, lazy days of summer, when the heat even made the cicada's shrill song fade away. Jorougumo was wearing one of the light, casual yukata that Dosha had left out for her, breathable white cotton chased with designs of wisteria, and her hair was drawn back with a few combs; it was too hot to leave her long hair loose, and it was easier to just wear what Dosha set out rather than try to dig through her now rather voluminous closet for her usual all-black ensembles. Even though they were made of far less fabric, their colour made them impractical in the heat. Yao wore yukata nearly every day as well, and today she was wearing one of her favourites: silver-lavender, covered in sprays of white plum blossoms, a violet sash tucked around her waist.
The two of them sat on the long, low wooden porch with the shoji slid open, taking in the sight and sounds of the innermost garden that Dosha had planned with maniacal detail. Yao had fallen asleep feeding the fish; with bread crumbs in her hands, her head rested on Jorougumo's lap, her silver hair spilling everywhere in fine ripples. Jorougumo remembered, as if it was a very distant memory, braiding all that long hair so that it could be cut off; the braid was safely tucked away in a lacquered cherry wood chest in her store room, with all of the other treasures she had gathered over the years. She knew, though, that she could never trade or sell or bargain off that braid, like she did to so many other items: rare sakes, peach wood rings, her own silk. It would be…. It just wasn't the thing to do.
She allowed her fingers to idly comb through the silver waves of Yao's hair - something she would never have done if Yao had been awake - and hummed to herself, an idle spinning song her mother used to sing her very long ago. It twisted her heart, to see what perfect trust Yao slept in her lap. She had the irrational urge, suddenly, to slap the girl or shake her awake, to say something cruel and watch the familiar shadows take up their home in the farthest corner of Yao's eyes, where the silver couldn't reach. For most of the years that she had known Yao, the pain had always been present, even under that frozen blankness. It had been like looking into pools to admire her own reflection, to see how cruelty brought out the lushness and the gloss of her mouth, the dark, soft gleam of her eyes. She wouldn't know Yao without pain. She wouldn't know herself without her cruelty. Without them, they were strangers, shivering and vulnerable, locked in a drowsy and dream-like midsummer garden, like fatal innocents waiting for the gates of paradise to be torn down.
"Jorougumo-dono." Dosha's voice was stiff and formal as the heavy brocade of her costliest kimono, which meant that either there were other servants listening in, or he was deeply upset. Since she could sense none of the other house staff around, she assumed the later.
"What's happened, Dosha?"
"We have a guest." Dosha's thin-lipped stoicism could only last so long, as in two seconds. "It's the priest!" he finally burst out, and then shushed himself as Jorougumo inclined her head toward the still-sleeping Yao. Her urge to wake Yao had disappeared as swiftly as it had first flared up. "The blue priest, the baby-eater. Aunty, that guy's bad news. My spidey senses are tingling, and not in the fun way. Toki's got him at the gate, and he's waiting for your orders."
She gently slid Yao's head from her lap, resting the girl's head on a cushion; she hardly stirred. "Let him in," she said, rising, tucking a stray strand of hair beneath Yao's ear. "Prepare the Sakura Room, and have Iwara deliver the food and drinks directly there. Send the shamisen player to distract - entertain - him until I'm ready."
Dosha grabbed someone along the way and repeated the orders, and then noticed that Jorougumo was walking away without him. "Aunty - !" Dosha half-trotted behind her as she strode through the halls, in as long a stride as her yukata allowed her. "Listen, I know this guy's got something you want, but is it really worth - "
She spun on him. "Reishi, Dosha," she said, tightly. "That's what the priest has."
Dosha's mouth dropped open. "The elixir of life…" His voice trailed off. "But how can he possibly…?"
"Does it matter? He's not pure enough to hold onto it in its original state, but it doesn't need to be pure. Even if it's in a corrupt form, it will prolong a life. And that's all we need. To prolong a life." She kept walking, her strides eating up the polished wooden floor. She went to her closet, and started throwing aside all the yukata and kimono that Dosha had unsubtly placed at the front, trying to find her old outfits which Dosha usually regarded with his classic, disapproving eyebrow tilt.
"Aunty," Dosha said, helping to empty the closet as well, "I love Yao-dono as well, but don't you think that maybe - "
"Maybe? Maybe what?"
"Maybe," Dosha said evenly, "Yao-dono would like to have the chance to die."
He didn't have the chance to blink before he went flying through the room, crashing right through the shoji and landing on the other side in a mess of torn paper and splintered wood. Jorougumo hauled him to his feet, and though she usually retained her human form with a minimum of effort, she had never looked less human with her eyes sparking and whirling gold and black, long fangs slitting past her lips as she snarled at him.
"Eight hundred years," Jorougumo snarled. "We have no idea when Yao was made, since she herself doesn't remember, but the yaobikuni have an expiration date, and that's eight hundred years. For centuries, that girl tied herself to worthless human beings who could only bring her pain. Even though she knew they would die, she waited endlessly for something good to come along - and now that she has a life, a real life that she lives for herself with people who love her, you want to take that away from her?"
"What would I be taking away?" Dosha shouted back to her. "Give me a break, a 'real life with people who love her'? You never let yourself love her! You're the cruellest one of all, to keep her alive like this. No matter how close you get to her, you still keep her at a distance, even after all this time. That girl waited endlessly? She is still waiting! She's waiting for you!"
Her hands on his collar went slack.
A tiny, terrified whisper dropped into the room.
A maidservant, Saki, hovered outside the doorway, and then Jorougumo realised how they must've looked: herself on the verge of killing her steward, as they stood over the remains of what had once been a very nice, very harmless, rice paper wall.
"Um, Jorougumo-dono…" Saki cleared her throat. "I was just sent to tell you that Kumiko-san isn't feeling well tonight, so Eri-san is playing her koto for your guest instead - in the Sakura Room as you ordered."
"Thank you, Saki." The little maidservant nodded and fled. She was left with Dosha rubbing his throat, muttering to himself the whole while.
"Go wake Yao," she said quietly. "Tell her I won't be dining with her tonight. Tell her I'm… I don't know, tell her anything. And Dosha?"
The stiff line of his jaw told him that he still hadn't completely forgiven her, but he still said, "Yes, Jorougumo-dono?"
"Keep her…" Out of the way. Out of sight. Just… away.
"Safe," she said, finally.
Aobozu was enough to make anyone's spidey senses tingle. It wasn't his blue skin, or the single roving, restless eye, or even the rough, powerful, fleshy lines of his heavy-jawed face. It was the controlled greed in his eyes, the continual hunger, as if he could feast on flesh and bone and blood and souls for many moons and never be sated. Although she understood how Aobozu made Dosha's hair stand on end, Jorougumo was unafraid in his presence; he was ruled by his appetites, straightforward in his needs. Because of that, she could deal with him. The only emotion she felt was a contained excitement, a delicate tension, like that of a well-trained dancer warming up in the wings. She had a job to do, a show to put on. She knew, as soon as his gleaming eyes drooped low in pleasure at the sight of her, that she would be brilliant - she would spark and sizzle and burn up the stage.
"Aobozu," she purred. She took her time strolling in, the sway of her hips bringing his eyes up to her pale gold, perfect thighs circled by black garters. As she knelt over him, she felt the cool black satin of her negligee sigh over her curves like a kiss.
"Jorougumo," the priest rumbled, her loose hair falling against his face. His hands gripped her hips, almost unconsciously, and she barely contained a smirk.
She pulled away, half-settling herself on his lap. "Shall we have a drink?" she asked innocently. "I asked Saki to bring some chilled sake, but a little birdy told me that you have something far better…"
Yao struggled out of her sleepy daze. In her dreams, the air, she was held in the arms of something large and dark and comforting. She knew the creature was dangerous - knew by the patient clicking of many legs, by the presence of sharpened fangs glistening redly in the dark - but that she was, at the same time, in the safest place she would ever find. There was a voice singing high above her, husky and velvety and deep, with gleams of a sweeter honey-gold. It made her feel safe as if she was being cradled deep in the ocean, made her feel loved as if she slept in the heart of a flower.
"Yao-dono, please wake up…"
Dosha's voice was strained. She struggled to sit upright, straightening her kimono, blinking all around and feeling oddly… bereft. "I thought Jorougumo-dono was here…"
"She was." Dosha helped lift her to her feet. "She regrets to inform you that she will unable to dine with you tonight, as she has an unexpected affair she must attend to."
Something was definitely wrong if he was being this servile. She grabbed the sleeves of his dark yukata, forcing his tense, unhappy eyes to look at her. "Dosha-san, it's me, remember?" she said. "It's Yao. I've cleaned pigeon poop from gutters with you."
"Oh, Yao-dono!" Dosha didn't even try to pretend to contain himself, or to scold her for talking about something as unladylike as bird feces; he threw himself at her in a reckless hug, and she patted what she could reach of his shoulder and his hair, deeply puzzled. "I'm so sorry, Yao-dono, I said something awful, I didn't mean it, I… I don't want you to die."
"That's good," she said, trying to keep her voice light. "Because I don't want to die either."
"Good," Dosha said, pulling himself away. He pulled a handkerchief out of his sleeves and mopped up his face, looking a bit more like his normal self, if one ignored the redness of his eyes. "Now let's see about getting you supper. Jorougumo-dono has a - a special guest," and his face twisted as if he'd bitten into a lemon, "so you'll have to dine in your room, but…"
"Oh," Yao said, trying to sound as if she wasn't disappointed, as Dosha began to lead the way to her rooms. "Um. That's fine. But Dosha-san, could you do me a favour? I forgot to ask Jorougumo-dono since I, um, fell asleep, but can you remind her that we have to wake up early tomorrow, if we want to make it to the beach before high tide?"
Dosha's lips pressed together tightly. "I don't think that will be possible, Yao-dono," he said, some of the stiffness back in his voice. And then, as if breaking character and becoming normal Dosha again, he muttered, as if to himself, "I get the feeling they'll be sleeping in very late…"
Dosha caught her - spider reflexes - and almost hyperventilated making sure that she hadn't injured herself anywhere. "I'm fine, Dosha-san!" she said, swatting his hands away, exasperated, as he tried to check her foot for splinters. He didn't let up until she was safely kneeling at the low table of her sitting room. She tried to laugh, and the sound came out strangely. "I was just a little, ah, surprised…"
Dosha went scarlet, as he mentally replayed what he had just said. "Oh but that's not what I - it's not what you - she's not some whore!" he finally burst out.
Yao felt herself going still again, and she was sure that the strange sensation of coldness she felt coming over her meant that the blood was draining from her face.
"I know what they call her," Dosha said passionately. "Like that merchant's apprentice at the gates, spouting that filth - it was hard for him to spout anything once I got him trussed up in that pear tree. Er, don't tell anyone I said that?"
Yao would've laughed, if she didn't feel sick.
"The Whore Spider." Dosha's voice was bitter. "The Binding Lady, the Entwining Bride, those are just polite names for what they're all really thinking of her. You know, the spider clan weren't very prominent before. There are many of us, yes, but few of us are powerful in their own right… except for the sovereign. If it wasn't for her," he said, forcefully, "being what she was, and using all of her wits and strength and power and - assets - if it wasn't for her using everything she has, most of us wouldn't be here… Yao-dono?" He tried to smile. "Yao-dono, please say something. Or if…" His head dipped low. "If you're going to leave Jorougumo-dono because of this, then do it quick."
"Leave her?" Dosha's head snapped up. She had never heard her own voice go so cold before - not with rage. "How could you even ask me that?"
"I - "
She cut him off. Her dark eyes glittered, and Dosha was forced to remember again that even if she had been born human, even if she had first appeared to him as a dazed, beautiful, and infinitely fragile girl-child who needed protecting from even herself, she had probably been alive as long as he had, and lived through dark times, through centuries of violence and tragedy.
"Have you ever heard of the karayuki-san?" she asked. "Or the joshigun?"
Dosha's nose wrinkled. "The girl army? Isn't that some human thing? I think I saw something about them on TV once… Around the end of the… the Meiji era? Girls went overseas for 'public duty' or something like that, but they were actually being sold for…"
Yao was nodding grimly. Her voice picked off where Dosha's had trailed off.
"I was living in a little village of the coast," she said, "with a fisherman who had lost his wife and his two daughters a few years before. I had tried… to drown myself, but he caught me in his nets. So he brought me to his home and nursed me back to health, and I stayed. The fishing… was very bad that year, and some of the villagers thought that I was the cause. They thought that Yamamoto-san - the fisherman - had brought bad luck upon everyone, by pulling me from the sea. They came after me…" She faltered, and pushed on. "They came after me, and tried to hurt me. When I healed myself, they thought for sure I was cursed. They decided to… to sell me. Yamamoto-san…" She forced herself to say it. "Yamamoto-san was the one who negotiated the sale."
She shook her head, her hair floating around her face, obscuring it. "Then I was in Singapore. I… worked… there for a long time. There were many… many other Japanese girls there. A lot of them from villages as poor as mine - as the one I'd lived in with Yamamoto-san, I mean. And I… things happened, there. Many things."
Yao took a breath. "One night, I was… badly hurt, by a client. I thought I was going to die. I noticed that there was… a spider, a little black and yellow spider, in a corner of my bedroom. And I said… I begged to see Jorougumo-dono."
Dosha jerked out of his reverie. "You knew her already?"
Yao nodded. "I'd met her once - no, twice, before that. I don't know… I'm not even sure what I was thinking. In the village, she had warned me that I couldn't possibly stay there, not for long, and I - I didn't listen to her, though I would've been saved much grief if I had. I'm not even sure why I wanted to see her so badly that night… to tell her that she had been right, maybe? That I shouldn't have trusted those villagers… Anyway… she came. She saved me. And she brought me back to Japan."
She still remembered that night in Singapore, the air sticky on her skin. Jorougumo-dono, brilliant and dangerous in a black Western style dress that gleamed with scarlet and gold trimmings, her wide skirts sweeping everyone away. There must've been gasps, to see such a high-born lady entering a pleasure house, but Yao hadn't heard them. She had been staring at the ceiling, feeling either blood or sweat trickle warmly down her temples. Her client, already grunting and pulling on his clothes, was already miles away. She remembered thinking, distantly, I will finally, finally get to die. And the relief of that thought almost drowned out the pain.
Then her client was swearing and saying, "Who the hell - "
And then he was choking and flailing and dying. And underneath all of that was the sound of the buzzing of flies.
She couldn't move her neck - it was probably broken, underneath the last of her client's crushing blows - but she was able to slide her eyes around to see him clawing at the golden noose around his throat, the one that gleamed strong and bright, like spider's silk.
"Heal yourself, would you," Jorougumo had said to her, not looking at her, her voice flat. "Your neck's at a funny angle."
She dragged her eyes away from the sight of her client - gone completely red and fleshy, gasping, cursing, sweat pouring off of him as he struggled for breath - and tried to remember the ocean, which seemed like another world from this stinking, heat swollen, death trap in Singapore. The silken feel of the waves closing around over her head... the playful, dappled, pale sea-light at the ocean floor, shifting over the sands... the cool caress of green sea weed, and the quick fan-like darting of silver fish...
Then the pain was gone and she could move her neck and her hair was streaming through the room and she barely had time to pull on a robe before Jorougumo was gripping her arm - not painfully, but tightly, as if she was a fish that might slip away at any moment. Jorougumo dragged her out of the brothel, to the confused shouts of the madam - Jorougumo silenced her with a single, sword-like glare - and out onto the streets, where red paper lanterns bobbed luridly overhead.
Jorougumo released her arms, but still wouldn't look at her, and Yao had clutched herself, still shaking, glad she was covered by the curtain of her hair.
"I will kill them all." Jorougumo's voice was just as flat and disinterested as when she first saw Yao. Her beautiful face was completely blank. "Everyone there. I'll kill them for you."
The red lanterns made a dizzying sort of light. She shook her head, trying to clear it. "I... Please don't... the other girls..."
"They are only human." The Jorougumo's voice was hard as diamonds, and that was what shook Yao out of her daze more than anything else.
"Exactly," Yao said, hating her voice for shaking. "They are only human."
The tension held, taut as the finest and farthest stretched of one of Jorougumo's web. Then she nodded her head curtly, and the tension broke. "Very well."
Yao's knees almost buckled in relief.
"Come with me," Jorougumo said. She drew a web in the air, and they stepped through it. When they stepped out on the other side, they were in the middle of a lush, cool forest, a small, tidy home before them. A lovely woman stepped out, dressed in white and blue robes. Her face had a pure and holy line to it, or it would have, except for the gleam of mischief in her jade-coloured eyes. The lady was a kitsune, her name was Youko-san, and she owed Jorougumo a favour or five, as Yao found out later.
"She's newly healed, but she needs to take it easy for a few days. Take care of her," Jorougumo had ordered. "I have to go settle a conflict between some feuding clansmen before any more blood gets shed." And she had drawn another web in the air.
Jorougumo tilted her body slightly towards Yao's, patient, inquiring. "Yes?"
But she couldn't say that. Not to Jorougumo. Not to the Queen of the Spiders…
"Travel safe," Yao said softly.
Something like a smile had flickered over Jorougumo's face. "I always do."
"So you see, Dosha-san," she said, shaking herself out of her own memory, "why I would never leave Jorougumo over being called a name like that. I lost the right…" Her voice died. "I lost the right to judge, a long time ago, who she keeps company with. Now I wish nothing more… than to stay with her. That is all."
Even if Yao herself couldn't hear it - or maybe she could - Dosha could hear the longing thick in the girl's voice.
Many things had changed, in a short time. Even the Yao just a year ago - the one that was strange and silent and seemed to sleep walk everywhere and barely seemed to eat or breathe or, for hours at a time, even move - would've been glad to know that her eight hundred years were coming to a close, would've gladly slipped into death without a single regret.
Yao shifted, and at her throat gleamed dull gold: she wore Jorougumo's sigil around her throat, on a golden chain made of the lady's spider silk.
And Dosha thought that maybe, perhaps, he had been wrong about what Yao would want.
"Yao-dono, Yao-dono." Saki peered down at her, anxious and breathless. "Jorougumo-dono is saying that she'll leave you soon if you don't tumble out of bed in the next two seconds, those were her exact words."
"Eh?" Yao said, lost and muddled in her blankets.
"The beach, Yao-dono. You were so excited about it yesterday…?"
The beach. The ocean. Jorougumo…
"I thought," Yao said in a small voice, "I thought that Jorougumo-dono was still entertaining her guest this morning…"
Saki blinked. "No, Yao-dono, didn't you hear? Jorougumo-dono's guest left last night, not long after he arrived, actually."
Yao did in fact tumble out of bed, which caused Saki to squeak. She not only tumbled, she ran all the way through the hallways, almost knocking over a servant trying to repair a broken screen, and barrelled her way into Jorougumo's room.
The Jorougumo was dressed not in a yukata, but for a day at the beach - her idea of a day at the beach anyway, in a black mini dress with a wide white belt, a large, white, wide-brimmed tied off with a black ribbon worn over her gleaming hair. Large, dark sunglasses perched on her face, but she slid them down so that she good give Yao a proper stare down. She was dark and cool in the summer heart, effortless and confident with just a touch of exasperation at Yao's sleep-tousled hair and obvious lack of readiness.
No matter what happened last night with that priest that Dosha muttered about, Jorougumo was still her Jorougumo.
"Good morning!" Yao managed to squeak, before she launched herself at Jorougumo and hug-attacked her.
"Good… morning?" Jorougumo said, sounding slightly frazzled, both her sunglasses and hat knocked askew. "Dosha, did you put something weird in her tea again?"
"Not even remotely," Dosha said, rolling his eyes. "The weirdness is 100% Yao-dono."
"I'm - just - happy!" Yao could barely keep herself from laughing; she had to tilt her head up to meet the gaze of Jorougumo, who was much taller than her.
"Call the healer, will you, Dosha," Jorougumo said, mock-serious. "I think Yao must've hit her head somewhere…" Yao only laughed and hugged her harder, and Jorougumo placed her fingers on Yao's face, spreading apart her eyelids and peering into her eyes. "Her pupils don't seem dilated, but…"
"I'm just really happy!" Yao said, knowing she felt crazy and looked crazy and that her hair was standing up all over head like dandelion fluff and that she was still dressed in her pink shortie octopus pajamas and not caring at all.
A smile curled around Jorougumo's lips, and Yao felt her breath come short. That smile, at far range, was known to take down armies. At close range, it was enough to make Yao's heart stop almost completely and when it started up again, it seemed to forget how to keep proper time. She felt Jorougumo's fingers lift away, so her eyelids returned to their proper place; and then both of Jorougumo's hands drifted up to settle on either side of her face, gently as cobwebs and much warmer. Jorougumo was close enough - near enough - to - to -
Smush her cheeks together. "Heh," Jorougumo said. "Fish lips."
"Web head," she mumbled, feeling oddly disappointed.
"What has Dosha been teaching you?"
"I didn't get that from Dosha," Yao said primly, or at least as primly as she could with her lips squished apart like that. "He calls you other things. Like old, wrinkly, used up, drooping…"
With every adjective, Dosha seemed to wilt more and more, and Jorougumo's pleasant smile became more and more blinding.
"Haha, you know what's funny, Yao-dono?" Dosha said, nervously edging towards the door. "How we sometimes say things that we don't actually mean, in absolute jest, and then repeat the things said in jest at the most inopportune times…"
"Dosha," Jorougumo said, in those beautiful, throaty, honeyed tones that meant he was going to be facing incredible pain in the next few moments, "have you ever heard of this funny past time that human children call 'pulling the legs off a spider'?"
"So, milady," Dosha said, quietly, after Jorougumo got her revenge by giving him a particularly vicious noogie and an elated Yao went back to her room to change into her beachwear, "what happened to the nasty baby eating priest, after all?"
Jorougumo snorted. "Do you know what that disgusting creature wanted in exchange for the elixir? A taste of yaobikuni flesh. Just a little nibble, he said." She smiled widely, her fangs slipping out just a little, gleaming in the morning light. "I gave him a little nibble, all right."
"Terrifying," Dosha remarked, "but oddly comforting, at the same time."
three. something rich and strange
More time passed, and there were other days that were not so happy. There were sweet things and scary things, sad, stressful things and downright funny things. There was one day at the beach - after a few years, Jorougumo had a summer home built by the ocean, "so that I won't have to teleport there every damn sunny day," she grumbled - when they were visited by a very rude karasu-tengu who said some rather improper things to an unimpressed Jorougumo. What the tengu didn't count on was for the pale little waif in the white sundress hovering quietly behind Jorougumo to suddenly call up a handful of waves to pluck him out of the sky and drag him down into the ocean, her eyes flashing a terrifying, stormy shade of silver. He squawked and flapped around and eventually the waves released him - the girl's mouth had fallen open in a surprised little O - but when he went back to the mountain he swore to the boss tengu that nothing and no one was gonna make him ever try to shake down the Binding Lady and her freaky mermaid-eating pet, ever again. Things were peaceful for a little while after that.
It was around that time that she took Yao and Dosha to the Witch's shop (it would always be the Witch's shop, even if wasn't) for a moon-viewing party, which meant, of course, drinking. The twins liked for Yao to transform so they could play with her hair - braid it and pull it up and part it and twist it around and put all sorts of ribbons and clips and gewgaws in it, some of them nicked from the storehouse - and Dosha liked to get drunk and trade tales of cruel mistresses with the cute little shopkeeper, who had his fair share of horror stories about the Witch, and she and Mokona broke out all the dirty drinking songs they knew - she had picked up quite a number of them, in her travels, and Mokona had a great stash that he said the Witch had taught him as part of her and the Mage's legacy, bless the bespectacled fruit bat's heart - and the pipe fox bristled and whistled shrilly whenever she got within two inches of "his beloved Watanuki" as Mokona squeakily called the shopkeeper. Sometimes the shopkeeper's errand boy - errand man? - was there too, with a pseudo-stoic but actually irritated expression that could rival the pipe fox's or, as she liked to cooingly call it, the pipe cleaner fox.
It was getting to be that late hour of the night - or early morning, really - when nearly everyone was passed out. The twins were cuddling on either side of Yao, buried in the blanket of her hair, and Mokona was happily wheezing under the table. The pipe fox was curled around the shopkeeper's throat as usual, and the shopkeeper himself wasn't asleep, but already cleaning up, washing the dishes in the kitchen and rinsing out empty sake bottles. He had shooed Jorougumo and his errand man onto the porch, with a pot of jasmine tea - "because you don't need anymore liquor, and you should know several dozen times over that that Look doesn't work on me," he said severely, when she tried to pout her way into another bottle - and a last plate of mochi. Even though she had been allowed out of the cramped little sitting room made "especially for her" and allowed out on the porch, she was still seated on "her" cushion - the one stuffed with pipe fox fur, which, she could admit now, was actually rather comfortable. That and the honourary lamp filled with pipe fox fire were now more of a joke and a tradition than anything; the clear, steady light of the moon was more than enough to see by.
The years had treated the errand man well, she noted. She forgot how quickly humans aged; one moment he was a thin, gangling adolescent, and the next he had filled out, broad shouldered and well-muscled. He was perceptive for a human, with an unusually mature look on his face that he had grown into, just like his body, over the years. In the moonlight, she could see the ring made of peach wood that the little shopkeeper had tricked out of her many years ago, resting on the ring finger of his left hand. It was her fault for being greedy enough to want a taste of his blood, she admitted now; it had been richer, smoother, than even the best Bordeaux, with a bit of a kick. And she had been pissed off with him - with that sympathetic, understanding look that tinted his face when she said yes, she knew that Yao was being abused. Knew that Yao was being hurt all those years, and refusing to heal her own wounds.
"You, errand boy," she said. He slanted a glance at her. "You don't like me much, do you." You eat one seer's eyesight and the whole world gets grumpy… not that it hadn't been delicious and completely worth it.
He rolled his shoulders in the slightest of shrugs. "You don't like me."
"You're right," she said, with the kind of directness that Dosha lectured her on as being 'rude', but which Dosha himself employed all the time. "I don't. I think you're stupid."
He took a sip of his fragrant jasmine tea, completely unconcerned.
"You," she said. You're so stupid. Loving that little shopkeeper to despair, grabbing at what you can, when it'll all turn to ashes." She was drunk, she reasoned with herself. Everything seemed like a good idea when you were drunk and right now, lecturing the shopkeeper's errand man on the proper relations between supernatural beings and humans seemed not only like a good idea, but like a goddamn public service. She should be awarded for this. "You'll leave him, or leave you, or you'll leave each other. That's just the way things go. It's useless and greedy and stupid and short-sighted to hang onto things that aren't yours to keep - "
"My grandfather was a priest," the errand man said with what indeed struck her as a kind of monkish mildness. "He did teach me a thing or two about letting go of earthly desires."
"Obviously he didn't teach you any manners," she said severely. "Not that the man had any."
Something that might have almost been called a smile twitched at the corner of errand man's face, before it was smoothed out. "You knew my grandfather?"
"Knew him? Couldn't get rid of him! He was always after me to quit gambling or drinking or doing anything fun, and then he went around stinking of those cheap clove cigarettes. Filthy chain-smoking hypocrite. Rummaged around in my dreams sometimes, too." She blinked, suddenly suspicious. "I'm not dreaming, right? I'm not actually talking to that bastard Haruka right now?"
The errand man let out a quiet huff of breath which she supposed, for him, passed as a laugh. "Not to my knowledge, no."
"Let us be grateful for small mercies," she said darkly. "You know, I can't believe I didn't see the family resemblance before. You're just as…" She worried her lip, trying to find the right word. Delicious? "…Infuriating."
The errand man snorted softly. "You remind me of someone, too." It did not sound like he was making a flattering comparison.
She called him something rude and he raised his teacup in ironic acknowledgement. Jorougumo stopped talking to him after that, and instead found herself becoming fascinated with the way that he moonlight caught the edges of Yao's hair, and the silver gleamed into white. Yao always curled up on her side when she was sleeping, as if she could tuck herself inside of an abalone shell and drift away into oblivion.
For one tired moment, Jorougumo wished she could lose herself in that ocean of hair, just like the twins, and let herself be rocked to sleep by the sound of Yao breathing through the night.
That night in the Witch's shop, Jorougumo dreamed of the beginning. If it had been a story, it might've gone like this:
In a little farming village, a very long time ago, after many years of wandering and searching for a place where they could be free to live and prosper, a lady spider and her many sons and daughters moved into the second home of a bushi, one of the warrior class. This warrior's nerves were in pieces, dealing with both the resentful peasantry below him and the fearful daimyo above him. So he built this second home in order to rest and to recover, to reclaim the peace he had lost to the times.
At the melancholy hour of the evening, the spiders would gather quietly in the ceiling above the man and listen to him as he summoned a maid servant, and spoke in short, soft refrains that made the heart go still and the night turn a deeper blue. The maid servant, in her soft voice, would repeat them back to him, sometimes faltering, but pressing on, memorizing them. The bushi and the maid spoke of bees staggering out of peonies and the perfume of butterfly wings and empty cicada shells that sang themselves away; but no matter how closely the lady spider and her children listened, the warrior and the maid did not speak of their kind.
One evening, the lady spider decided to favour this quiet warrior with her presence. Perhaps when he saw her, he would find the words to properly honour her. She descended with perfect grace, her body shining in the dying light with speckles of black, red, and yellow, the proud markings of her clan.
Though the warrior was skilled in reciting poetry, he could not recognise the honour that was being done to him. Instead, he raised his long kiseru pipe in violence against the spider; in the air, it whistled past her, almost crushing her. She had to steal hastily and clumsily away.
The lady spider was stoic. "What can we expect," she said. "The humans never change. Ignorant and short-lived, they would spit on the robes of a god."
Her eldest daughter, however, was furious. The next night, she walked in the dreams of the warrior, appearing to him in the guise of a human woman, arrayed in many layers of robes that sparked and flashed: black, red, and yellow. At first she pleaded with him to be her husband, swearing that she had heard his poetry and pined away for love of him; he seemed to waver at first, drawn to the curves promised beneath her robes, to the silken streams of her hair, to her heavy-lidded eyes, to the lush rose of her mouth - but he held firm.
She could feel the fragile costume of her human flesh beginning to fall away. Beneath the edges of her robes, the wicked sharp edges of her legs tapped impatiently against the tatami floor of his home.
And she told him, "You have raised your hand in violence against my mother, and for this, you will not be forgiven."
Perhaps it was those words, or the gleaming of her thin, red fangs, that frightened the warrior into waking.
In the morning, though, she knew she had been careless. The warrior woke and the first thing he saw, lying belly up on his futon, was the ceiling where the lady spider and her many sons and daughter had nested for so long, living quietly and listening to him recite poetry. He ordered the maidservant to clear the ceiling of all the cobwebs and spiders, and to dump them in a distant field.
The lady spider again, bore this with grace and indignity, though some of her children wept at being forced from yet another home: the tiny, dry sound of a spider weeping is like husks of grain falling to the ground. The maid servant carried the spider clan out very tenderly, wrapped in a covering of violet watered silk, covered with a pattern like the sea stirring before a storm.
It was the lady spider's eldest daughter, sparkling brilliantly in her fury, who noticed that the maid servant was closer to them in spirit than to the master she served.
"How can you do this to your own kind?" the spider's daughter asked, as the maid servant set them down in a field. "Have you been chased out of your home, as we have been? Were you ensnared by their nets and their traps and their spears, and forced into slavery?"
"No," the maid servant said, gently. The silken thread of the spider clan gleamed yellow and gold, but the maid servant's hair rippled silver as waves. "I serve my master willingly, for he has been kind to me. You see, I was human once. Even knowing what I am, my master has given me a home and a place in this world."
The spider's daughter, hot-tempered as she was, was no fool. She could see the love shining quietly in the maidservant's eyes, as she had heard it in her soft little voice drifting and touching her master through the darkness with poetry, the way she could not touch him in real life.
"It will not last," was all that the spider's daughter could say. She wanted to chitter angrily at the girl for her stupidity, her naiveté, but her anger was gone. She could only think of the poetry that captured such fragile images, the words that were finished almost before they even began. "It will not last for long."
And the maid servant whispered, "But it's so beautiful, when it does."
That night, Yao dreamed of the beginning, too. If it had been a story, it might have gone like this:
There was once the daughter of a noble house who was very beautiful but very sickly. For much of her life, she was kept in her bedroom, attended by servants, screened from sight, and told that the world outside was dangerous: it brought evil and disease and pain and corruption and death. So this noble daughter learned to be content with her small view of the outside world, the window outside her bedroom that looked down the road and that gave just the briefest, most tantalizing glimpse of the sea. She could feel the faintest flavour of the sea in her mouth when she woke up, and dreamed of singing her way through silver-blue waters. But of course that would never happen. So instead she contented herself with her favourite wakame seaweed salad and platefuls of the pinkest, most succulent cuts of raw fish.
Since this noble house bought so much seafood, especially to suit the noble daughter's needs, the fisherman and his son came frequently to the house. From her window, she could see the servant's entrance, and more importantly, she could see the fisherman's son. He was dark-haired and sun-browned and broad-shouldered and smiling, healthy and strong and unafraid to walk in the world, and he smelled of the sea.
Somehow - she would never remember how - he began to look up when he and his father came to deliver the fish, and she remained brave enough to not dart away from the window. Their eyes connected; a nod, a wave. And he was gone, but he was there again, and again, and again. Soon there were smiles, and silly faces, and suppressed laughter, and after the fisherman and his son departed from their home, she would find things pressed into her hands by silent servants: a delicate branch of coral, a cunning little amulet carved out of pale driftwood, sand dollars bleached by the sun, shells that gleamed pink and pearly by the light of her lamp, tiny bits of glazed pottery smoothed by the waves. She kept them all in a jewellery box made of bird's eye maple, and on the rare times when she was alone, she took them out and admired them, and conjured an entire sea out of a few trinkets.
When the rains came that year, she fell sick once more, as she had so many times before, but this time worse than ever. The fevers ate her up with her cruel, licking flames, one right after another. In her delirium, she saw strange things: masses of billowing, poisonous smoke anchored by a single monstrous eye, a dancing cat with its tail forked in two manipulating its claws like a puppeteer, cruel-taloned birds with the mocking long-nosed faces of men, spiders that turned into women that turned into spiders. She screamed at the sight of the priest that they summoned to exorcise her room: could no one else see the blue-green gleam of his skin, the single eye where there should have been two, the faint wraiths of dead children reproachfully clinging to his knees and his robes?
Every night, she could see death coming closer, like a dark ocean gradually and quietly spreading over the land. And eventually, she welcomed it.
But one night, someone crept into her room who was not a servant or a monster, but who smelled like the sea.
"For you, milady," the fisherman's son said. The salt in the sea smell grew stronger, but with bitter overtones of copper. He held up a bowl to her, and said, "It will make you better, I swear it. You'll never fall sick again."
She trusted him, because he was kind and strong and he made her laugh even though before this they had never spoken a word, and because he brought her gifts from the sea. She let him part her lips, and put in the first carefully sliced piece of flesh that tasted like and unlike every other piece of fish she had ever had before: sharp and cruel and rich and wild. She opened her mouth for more.
And then she realised, as the slippery chunks went sliding down her throat in waves, that the fisherman's son smelled much less like the sea and more, far more, like blood.
Early the next morning, when the first fingers of dawn were just creeping over the garden, Jorougumo said to the yawning Dosha, "Take her home, will you? And make sure she gets a proper sleep."
"You're not coming with us, Jorougumo-dono?" Dosha said, pausing halfway through his stretch.
"No," she said. "No, I need have to a chat with the little shopkeeper. I'll be along later."
Dosha watched her through lidded, canny eyes, and said merely, "As you wish," easily heaving the sleeping Yao over his shoulders and stepping through the web that he drew up.
"Invited yourself over for breakfast, have you?" The shopkeeper's voice was dryly amused. She clutched at the blanket that she'd found around her shoulders that morning and smiled her very best predator's smile, slow and sensuous and full.
"If you'll have me," she purred.
The shopkeeper swept aside her come-on as easily as cobwebs. "Gluttons all," he said simply.
She pouted - but the shopkeeper's breakfasts were delicious.
Once he had sent the twins and Mokona scurrying off to clean up the breakfast table, he poured more tea for them - lemongrass, this time - and settled onto the porch where she had sat with his errand man only the night before. Or was it this morning?
The shopkeeper, she had to grumble herself, was good. He had gotten good, somewhere along the way. He'd adopted the mannerisms and the dress and the languor of a dead woman in order to keep her alive, and somehow made them his own. He'd adopted her endless patience, too; instead of talking, he simply sipped his tea, and waited for her to speak. Her long nails tapped against the polished wood of the porch, keeping time with her thoughts.
"You never asked me," she said, finally. "That time. You never asked me why I couldn't just get the pearl myself."
One of his shoulders dipped low in a half-shrug. "Finding and seeking… not everyone's talents lie that way - "
"Don't be stupid." She had always enjoyed toying with the shopkeeper - Mother had lectured her, before she passed on her rule, about playing with her food - but she was in no mood to see the shopkeeper equivocate to spare her tender feelings. "You used my silk as a focus to find her. You knew that I was already bound to her."
"Perhaps," the shopkeeper said quietly, "you already knew what you would find, and didn't like it. I wouldn't be surprised. I didn't much like it myself."
"That girl raised a barrier against me." She went on speaking as if she hadn't heard him. To her own ears, her voice sounded flat, disinterested, as if it hadn't taken years for her to pry this out of her own heart and drag it out into the light. "Before, just before. I threatened to kill her lover. They call me the Lady of a Thousand Eyes, but I have more than that. I have eyes wherever my people make her home, and one of them saw her… saw what that man she was living with was doing to her. I visited her. She made me leave. And after that, she raised the barrier against me, the exact kind of barrier that I had taught her to make - and out of the silk that I gave her myself, no less. What a perfect ruse, to nullify my own power against me. She made it so that the only person who couldn't find her… was me."
What she didn't tell the little shopkeeper was that it hadn't been long after that terrible, final argument between her and Yao that one of her kin came to her bearing the eyesight of a seer. She had seized upon it as the answer - this would increase her power, this would allow her to break the damn barrier that Yao had had the impudence to raise against her.
Then the Zashiki-Warashi came, the foolish, faltering girl who gained a backbone only when she spoke of the boy - the Witch's houseboy - the shopkeeper now.
"I do not care what you take from me," the Zashiki-Warashi had said simple dignity, giving a perfect bow with her forehead pressed against the ground, "but please, give him back his eyesight."
"Stupidity must be catching," Jorougumo had said. How many times would she be forced to see it? The women of her world sacrificing themselves for theses worthless human men who were less than trash, who could do nothing but betray and destroy them? "No human being is worth whatever you're willing to give."
"He is," Zashiki-Warashi said, and the clarity and the purity of her trust reminded Jorougumo too much of a little maidservant clutching a purple cloth, whispering, But it's so beautiful when it does.
"Let's test his mettle then, shall we?" And her aura had overcome Zashiki-Warashi, who could barely deal with the pollution of the human cities, never mind some serious evil like the kind Jorougumo was packing, and Jorougumo had trussed her up like a fly, and then decorated her mansion in the manner that Dosha had complained about so loudly. A world made of spider webs gleaming in the dark, herself at the center of it, waiting for the Witch's houseboy to come and prove himself unworthy, as all the other specimens of his miserable species had done, time and time again.
Come into my parlour.
And then the houseboy had proved… yes, just like Haruka and his grandson, he had proved infuriating. He was, in his own way, just like Yao. Willing to give his eyesight, his limbs, recklessly throwing his own life away to save the little house spirit. Why she had the unfortunate luck of running into idiotic martyrs, she didn't know. She had spoken to him, and in the back of her mind, the whole time, she could see Yao with her bruised and bandaged limbs, staring defiantly back at her as she crouched over her worthless human lover, her teeth bared, her eyes bloody, saying without having to form the words, Over my dead body.
"There are people who care about you," she had said to the boy, but really, always, to Yao. "But you don't realise it. You don't even care about yourself. You hate to see others get hurt... but you don't mind if you're the one getting hurt. You don't understand that when you get hurt, those who care about you are also hurt when they see it."
Even thinking of it now, Jorougumo could feel her lips curling up in a bitter smile.
"I really hate... that sort of thing."
Not that she would ever tell the shopkeeper that part of the story. If he was so damn clever, he could figure it out himself. For now, she was back in the present, staring at a cooling cup of lemongrass tea, while the shopkeeper regarded her with thoughtful two-toned eyes.
"Even if you're the one she raised a barrier against," he was saying, "you are also the one she chose to live with, after all."
Jorougumo snorted. "Because I fairly begged her, you mean."
"No. She chose on her own."
"I don't know why… I don't know why. That girl has an infinite gift for stupidity, for choosing to love the people who will hurt her the most - "
"Is that how you think of yourself? As someone who will hurt her?"
And she thought of the men captured in her webs, who even as she devoured them, looked at her with eyes of love.
"It's what I am," she said. "It's not something I can change."
"No," he said, sounding so confident and assured that she felt like throwing her full, steaming cup of lemongrass tea right into his face. "No, you are already changed."
A corner of her mouth turned down. "Hardly for the better."
"Your self-pity is annoying, and probably not good for your skin. It's all very simple. Yao-san loves you. Why won't you let yourself love her back?"
"It's not that easy!" she finally roared, almost relieved at losing her temper instead of just simmering with resentment. "You don't understand. You haven't lived long enough to understand. I remember Yao. I remember her. I remember her as the maidservant to a blind samurai, reciting poetry to a ceiling full of a spiders. I remember her as a Buddhist nun, being attacked in the forest. I remember her as a pearl diver in that fishing village that sold her. I remember her as a karayuki in that hellhole in Singapore. I remember her as a farm wife to a kamikaze pilot during the human war, always watching the sky. I remember her as a school girl on the streets of Tokyo, picking up salarymen in the park and looking for one who would keep her, who would stay with her 'forever'. I remember. She has always been too good for this world, too loving - even when loving destroyed her, she kept loving, again and again. Don't you see? No one deserves her - no one is good enough - "
The shopkeeper was shaking his head, as if he was dealing with a very stubborn child. "You don't get to decide that."
"Oh? And who does? Yao?"
"Precisely," he said, sounding as calm and unruffled as his errand man had the night before.
She forced herself to breathe.
"It's a good thing I don't listen to your advice," she said, presently. "Because you have obviously been hitting the kiseru a little too hard to be making any proper sense."
He rolled his eyes. "One day, you'll thank me." He began to load up the tea tray again. "No charge this time. I can't take payment from someone who already has what they want, even if they are too foolish to realise it."
When she came home, still seriously pissed off at the little shopkeeper and his stupid cryptic remarks, she melt her anger melting away at the sight of Yao waiting for her on the porch of the garden, once more feeding the fish. Bits of bread went arcing through the air, before the koi snapped it up eagerly, their scales flashing gold and white in the sun.
And Yao's face… lit up… when she saw her, and she ran through the garden in her yukata, not caring if she fell along the way. And in Yao's face, something (perhaps the same something that had been shaken loose and jarred by the shopkeeper's taunts) clicked into place, she saw that thing - that elusive thing that the shopkeeper had talked about in such a matter of fact voice, that thing that turned the world into something rich and strange.
It was love.
Yao… had been waiting for her.
She shouldn't keep her any longer.
She found herself kneeling before Yao, who stopped about a foot before her, and said, uncertainly, "Jorougumo-dono…?"
"Yao," she said, "I made you a promise, when I first asked you to live with me. Do you remember?"
Yao came forward, and knelt in front of her. One of her small, coral-white hands gave Jorougumo a shock as she pressed it against Jorougumo's throat, in the place where she wore a small silver locket on a black choker.
She knew, Jorougumo thought, feeling a little dizzy. She must've known the whole time….
"You promised me," Yao said softly, staring at the silver locket as if she could see precisely what was held inside of it, "that that would be the last crimson pearl."
"It will be." Jorougumo was ashamed of how unsteady her voice had become. "I promise to you again, truer than ever. It will be the last."
Without quite understanding how, her arms were around Yao, her hands stroking the girl's hair. This was Yao, she reminded herself. She woke up with pillow creases on her cheeks and she loved sashimi and to string empty shells together in necklaces and she gathered armfuls of flowers early in the morning and strewed them about the Manor willy-nilly, to Dosha's eternal despair. She was stubborn and wonderful and warm, and brave enough to keep her heart open and hopeful far throughout so much pain and loss and betrayal and grief. She could count off decades like beads on a string and call ocean storms to heel and weep crimson pearls and break someone's heart just by smiling. She was Yao.
None of this was easy, she thought, brushing Yao's hair away from her cheeks, and holding her face with both of her hands, drinking deep of the young girl's dark gaze, deeper than oceans, and far easier to drown in.
When she kissed Yao, she thought she must've broken her promise already, for she could smell the sea salt scent that meant tears. But the pearls that spilled from Yao now weren't a bloody crimson, but a pure, pure white, shading into gold.
"For you," Yao whispered brokenly, smiling through the pearls of her tears. They scattered into the grass below, gleaming and newly made. "For you, for you, for you," as she kissed her again and again.
She thought she could hear, from far away, something like laughter, and a little voice in her mind that sounded suspiciously like the shopkeeper's saying, all gleeful and haughty, I told you so.
Shut up, she told the voice.
Thankfully, it did.