by Nene Adams
(Author's Note: This story is set shortly in the Kwaidan universe; if you are not familiar with this Japanese fantasy series, please find the other tales at http://www.corrieweb.nl/library.htm. This particular work contains graphic sexual situations and violence; reader discretion is advised.)
Fujiwara no Kimiko sighed, sat down on a large flat rock that stood on the side of the road, and kicked off her woven-straw sandals. The zori were looking distinctly battered, as were her feet. She sighed again, remembering a time when her maid had daily rubbed scented oils into her flesh to keep her skin soft and white and sweet-smelling. Kimiko had not had calluses when she lived in the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees. It was astonishing how quickly one's complexion and the quality of one's skin deteriorated when one traveled rough on the Chrysanthemum Road.
As for her hair... it was better not to contemplate that horror too closely. The whole glorious blue-black length of her hair had been chopped off, leaving her with just enough to pull up to the crown of her head and secure with a paper ribbon in a young man's 'tea whisk' style topknot. She was disguised as a boy, after all. Kimiko had not thought herself a vain woman but sometimes, it was difficult not to contrast her former graceful and fashionable appearance with her current incarnation as a samurai's apprentice.
She had actually had to let her eyebrows grow out!
She sighed a third time when her 'master' — actually her sworn retainer and the love that made her liver squirm deliciously — hove into view. The squat, muscular woman's sandals slapped rhythmically against the surface of the road. Ichijo Ayumi walked with the typical bow-legged, rooster-on-a-dungheap strut of a samurai, one hand on the hilt of the katana that was thrust through her sash. The longsword was balanced by the scabbard of the shorter wakizashi blade on the other side; both weapons constituted a samurai's daisho, worn only by the martial caste of the island nation of Wa. Ayumi's black hair was slightly longer than Kimiko's but she also wore it pulled into a topknot.
Like Kimiko, Ayumi was dressed in a plain blue cotton kimono and hakama trousers, the utilitarian garments enlivened only by a red-and-orange checked obi that was tied around the middle. The large cloth bundle of a furoshiki - which contained their supplies - was fastened to a bamboo frame and strapped to her back. Kimiko had a similar furoshiki, but her burden was much lighter in consideration of her more delicate build.
Kimiko pulled off her straw hat. It was the end of autumn in the Floating World; there was a certain crispness in the air that foretold frost to come. Her stomach growled. Kimiko's thoughts were drawn away from her aching feet and onto 'hot tub vegetables' — chunks of radish steamed in miso soup — and filled dumplings and soba noodles and all manner of good things to eat. Ayumi stopped beside the rock and looked down at her with a faint smile. Kimiko's mind skipped from one appetite to another.
The samurai's crooked nose — the result of one too many breakages — actually made Ayumi more handsome in Kimiko's eyes. She looks as if an ox stepped on her face, but I think of her as divinely beautiful. Kimiko fanned herself with her hat and glanced side-long at her companion, who was now frowning and squinting at a distant figure toiling up the road.
Ayumi was not tall but she was broad and very strong, and incredibly skilled in combat. Kimiko's gaze roamed over the samurai's form and her mouth watered almost as much as her virgin yoni, even though they had not yet pillowed. The two fugitives slept huddled together in whatever shelter could be contrived. Ayumi did not like to stay in inns if it could be helped; the Regent's agents were still actively searching for the renegade samurai and the Kanpuko's runaway niece. If they were caught, a swift beheading would be a merciful end, but that fate was not likely given the Regent's desire for vengeance. He would make them suffer first.
During a night in Ayumi's arms, her young body desperate and throbbing for completion, Kimiko would not have cared if her uncle and the Rainbow Buddha himself, accompanied by a fleet of dragons and all the nightsoil of Heaven, came crashing down on her head, so long as Ayumi's hand would just wander there and rub there and a little harder there and oh, oh, oh! But the samurai was infuriatingly reasonable and refused to do more than lightly massage stressed muscles at the end of the day. Kimiko wanted more — to be precise, she wanted to share the exquisite moment of Clouds and Rain with Ayumi — and she was determined not to allow her samurai to delay much longer.
The first night we spend under a roof, Kimiko thought, absently watching the figure in the distance as it moved closer, I will seduce 'Yumi-san and we will play with each other's jade gates until we burst! She could imagine Ayumi writhing under her ministrations, reduced to panting moans and guttural instructions forced through a throat that was too tight with desire. In the darkness, she would be blind and forced to learn her lover's body by touch. Kimiko imagined her fingers gliding along the samurai's flesh, investigating each slightly raised scar, feeling the contrast between silken skin and the hard muscle beneath. She sucked in a breath, her body tingling with anticipation, her mind-of-its-own swelling with a wet heat that itched most pleasurably.
It was regrettable that the next village was so many ri away! She and Ayumi would be spending the night outside... again. Kimiko knew she could count on no more closeness than to be allowed to leech some of the samurai's heat when they lay together on a pine-branch bed. Her lower lip thrust out in a pout, Kimiko slapped her hat back on her head and stood up. Although one could not help the machinations of fate — no mortal was proof against unmei — it did seem unfair that she had to wait so long to consummate her love.
"Shigata ga nai," Ayumi murmured, reaching out her free hand and rubbing Kimiko's shoulder. It appeared the samurai had read her mind, or at least, understood the cause of her frustration. "It cannot be helped, Kimiko-san. You know that my affection for you is unchanged, but I refuse to pillow you hastily on the side of the Chrysanthemum Road as though we were unfeeling animals. You deserve better, which is why we wait."
Kimiko shrugged and echoed, "Shigata ga nai." What else could she do but bide her time? Sleeve touches sleeve as it is meant to, nothing more. The nightingale-joy of merging her body and soul with Ayumi's would come soon enough. She was simply suffering the impatience of youth.
Ayumi gave her a last caress, then the samurai's posture stiffened. The figure was now close enough for them to see that it was a woman tottering along on high wooden geta. The stranger's indigo and lavender kimonos were good quality, although a highly-ranked female would have never taken a step outside her home without being accompanied by retainers.
As the woman approached, Ayumi drew her katana half out of its scabbard and called loudly, "Moshi-moshi!" This was the traditional greeting exchanged between travelers, since it was well-known that hungry ghosts, while they could assume the physical aspects of a living human, could not pronounced the syllables 'mo' and 'shi.'
"Moshi-moshi!" the woman trilled in return. She proved to be middle-aged and handsome rather than pretty, although in the interests of fashion her eyebrows had been shaved off and replaced by smudges of ash high on her forehead. The woman bowed low to Ayumi and said, "Noble sir, you have been sent by the gods!"
Kimiko was used to being ignored by the people they met; as a mere samurai's apprentice, she was not important enough to notice. It suited her well on most occasions, since she could fade into the background and observe, watching for suspicious behavior. The Regent's spies were everywhere, and some of them were very clever.
"What do you mean?" Ayumi asked, sheathing her katana. Her manner was gruff but that was to be expected from a samurai, even though her low rank could be surmised by the plain kimono and her lack of a proper tonsure.
"I am a widow named Tomoko," the woman said, hiding the lower half of her face behind her raised sleeve, as if she was a coy maiden. The flirtatiousness of the gesture was blatant, as was the way she half-turned and hitched at the collar of her kimono, to show the nape of her neck — a woman's most erogenous part.
"My house lies not far from here," Tomoko continued, "where I live with my aging mother and my daughter. Since my husband died, we've fallen on hard times. Our servants ran away and I have no one to protect me from bandits when I go out to gather roots from the forest. I'm so afraid of being robbed or worse! Oh, how I have prayed that the gods would send a strong, handsome man like you to escort me home!"
Kimiko resisted the impulse to sneer as scornfully as possible. Could Tomoko be any more obvious? The woman's story was almost as much of a cliché as the ancient, hoary joke about the rice farmer, his three beautiful daughters, and the traveling Buddhist monk. Ma!
To her surprise, Ayumi actually appeared to consider Tomoko's suggestion. She certainly seemed to be admiring the shaved and powdered nape of the woman's neck. Kimiko's hackles rose. For the purposes of her disguise, she was not armed with a katana like a proper, fully trained samurai would be; an apprentice had to earn the right to wear daisho. She did, however, have a tanto knife up her sleeve. The blade was long enough to pierce Tomoko's thieving heart if she slid it in between those particular ribs, just so...
"We would be honored to escort you home, Tomoko-san," Ayumi said, and Kimiko gave a moment's sincere consideration to the notion of stabbing the woman she loved instead. Not fatally, of course; a small painful wound that would prevent Ayumi from doing stupid, thoughtless things like panting after the widow like a dog in heat.
Kimiko trudged after Ayumi and Tomoko, thinking very dark thoughts.
Tomoko's house was set a little ways off the road, in the midst of a persimmon orchard. A gnarled wisteria tree grew beside the entrance, shading the veranda. Standing at the bottom of the steps were two more women — one older, with silver streaks in her hair (obviously the mother), and a young girl whose hair was styled in the girlish shimada-seventeen style.
"Welcome home, Tomoko-san!" said the older woman, bowing. Her kimonos were plum and orange and pink — an odd combination that somehow managed not to clash. In spite of her age, the woman's hands were plump and white, with only a few liver spots to betray her years, and her face was hardly lined.
The girl echoed her grandmother's greeting, adding, "Mother! You've brought visitors!" Her cherry-red and pale green robes swirled as she clapped her hands together once in excitement before remembering her manners and blushing prettily.
"This handsome gentleman is Azuma-san," Tomoko said, using Ayumi's pseudonym. She did not introduce Kimiko. "Azuma-san, this is my mother, Satomi, and my daughter, Hanabi."
Ayumi made the short, shallow bow that politeness demanded. The women encircled the samurai, chattering like magpies, admiring Ayumi's thick-set muscular body and bowed legs, paying extravagant compliments, and generally behaving like three mid-ranked whores whose easily flattered customer had a fat wallet and no head for cash.
Kimiko fumed silently. Had Tomoko put a hand down Ayumi's trousers to squeeze the samurai's supposed peerless part (hah!), she would not have been surprised. She felt that white smoke ought to be puffing out of her ears, thick as the clouds of steam generated by a salt kiln. Kimiko would have liked to put her sandaled foot to Ayumi's backside for nodding and smiling in the face of the women's false-faced pleasantry. Failing that, she would like to consign Tomoko, her mother and her daughter to the Hell of the Upside-Down Dung Eaters.
Turtle-head! Kisama! Baseborn devourer of dirty eels!
A drop of water falling on her head distracted Kimiko from her inner diatribe. She glanced up; fat iron-grey clouds were boiling in the sky. A chill wind had sprung from nowhere. Gooseflesh rose on her arms and pebbled the flesh of her breasts, making her nipples spring painfully erect. Kimiko shivered, more in fear of a soaking then actual cold.
Nevertheless, Ayumi must have noticed because she said, "My apprentice and I would be grateful if you would consent to shelter us for the night, Tomoko-san."
Tomoko simpered. "Oh, of course, Azuma-san! We would be honored."
"Yes, we're greatly honored to have such a handsome, strong samurai as our guest!" piped up old Satomi, rubbing her plump white hands together.
Hanabi bowed, seemingly too choked by glad emotion to articulate her gratitude.
Kimiko thought the entire situation stank like a bonze breaking wind in a shrine but she was determined to follow Ayumi's lead... or at least, she would keep her objections to herself unless it seemed that they were in danger of more than a crude seduction attempt. Ayumi was directed inside the house and Kimiko followed on her samurai's heels.
The place was very dusty; the hems of the women's kimonos had swept trails through the dirt that had accumulated on the wooden floorboards. Most of the paper-paned shoji-doors and screens were broken. Wind whistled through cracks in the outer walls. Tomoko showed them to a room that was miraculously clean, the screens intact.
The widow and her daughter fetched a futon and a brazier filled with charcoal, which Ayumi lit with flint and steel so she and Kimiko could warm their fingers and toes. After a few moments, Satomi came in with a big bowl of autumn rice with shiitake mushrooms, chestnuts, sweet potatoes and radish sprouts, sprinkled with sesame seeds; also a dish of sansai — hot udon noodles cooked with spinach, mountain bracken and bamboo shoots — and a pot of steaming green tea. Hanabi followed her grandmother with a plate of crunchy tempura crusts and bowls of pickled vegetables.
Kimiko might have hated their hostesses with every fiber of her being, but she was young and her appetite was keen. She dug into the food eagerly, savoring every bite. Ayumi was more circumspect but she, too, enjoyed the meal; Kimiko could tell by the slight crinkling at the corners of the samurai's eyes that betokened good humor.
A discreet rustling outside the door could have been mice but Kimiko would have wagered that it was the trio of women spying on them. She cast her eyes over the shoji-door and found three little holes in three paper panes. Kimiko was so intent on not-watching the watching women (yet keeping those holes in the shoji within her peripheral vision) that she almost jumped out of her skin when Ayumi cleared her throat.
"Unroll the futon," Ayumi said in her curt samurai's voice-of-command that the lowly apprentice had better obey, "and get ready for bed." She punctuated these orders by pouring herself the last cup of tea and drinking it in a single long gulp.
Kimiko played the part of the meek, obedient boy apprentice, understanding that Ayumi also knew they were being watched by their hostesses. She shook out the futon — wrinkling her nose at the musty smell — and dug into her furoshiki to find a couple of lengths of cloth that were normally used to cover their pine-branch or haystack beds. These she put over the futon, tucking the ends under, then lit an aloeswood incense stick to help drive away the damp odor that permeated the room. When she was done, Kimiko unbound her cropped hair; the ends still curled slightly upward, as if astonished to be free of their former weight. From Ayumi's pack, she took out two extra-thick quilted cotton kimonos for them to use as blankets, and pulled the brazier closer to the futon.
"Master," she said, bowing to Ayumi, "will you come to bed?"
Ayumi stuck her feet out; Kimiko pulled off the woman's split-toed tabi socks. Once the samurai was settled in their cozy nest, she joined Ayumi under the kimonos. The room was illuminated by a single clay oil lamp, which she left burning in the corner. The only sounds that penetrated the oppressive silence were the faint rustling noises still coming from the corridor and Ayumi's breath, hot against the back of her neck. Kimiko squirmed as puffs of air tickled her ear.
"Tomoko and her family are listening and watching," Ayumi said, her voice barely audible, "waiting for us to go to sleep."
Were the women robbers who murdered their sleeping victims? It was a possibility; in these troubled times, when daimyos were declaring their independence from the Kanpuko's corrupt government and civil war threatened on the horizon, lawlessness became the rule rather than the exception. Kimiko grunted an acknowledgement; the grunt turned into a squeak when Ayumi's hand fastened over her breast.
"Would you like to give them something to watch and listen to, Kimiko-san?" Ayumi breathed in her ear. The samurai's body seemed to radiate heat. Kimiko began to sweat.
"Here? Now?" she asked, still squeaking in the most humiliating fashion.
"Here," Ayumi answered, her tongue tracing the shell of Kimiko's ear. "Now."
Kimiko let out a strangled moan. She flipped herself over in a single convulsive movement; now she and Ayumi were face to face. "Why?" Kimiko asked. She immediately regretted the question, since the samurai stopped touching her.
"Because I love you," Ayumi said after a long pause. Her voice was soft; her eyes were filled with affection and a burning spark of desire.
"And also because Tomoko would expect a virile samurai to play the peach-splitting game with his apprentice," Kimiko replied, just as softly. "I wonder why Tomoko-san didn't offer to pillow with you herself, since she made such a great effort to bring you within her walls." A smile took the sting out of her words.
"Are you jealous?" Ayumi sounded amused. Her hand touched Kimiko's cheek and slid upward to pass over her forehead. "I don't feel any horns."
Kimiko pressed her body against Ayumi's and fumbled at the knot on the other woman's obi. "Perhaps you should look elsewhere," she husked.
Ayumi's hands glided back down Kimiko's cheeks and were followed by a hot wet tongue swiping along her collarbone, and teeth nibbling the tendon of her neck. Kimiko arched into the caress, whimpering deep in her throat. There was a sweet, sweet ache centered between her thighs, and a heaviness in her belly that, perversely, made her feel lighter than air, as though her bones were hollow as a bird's and she might take flight if not tethered by the strength of Ayumi's arms.
Kimiko became aware that Ayumi was speaking but the words made no sense. She shook her head. The scents of female musk and sweat rose from the space between their bodies. Kimiko could taste the bittersweet flavors mingled faintly on her tongue.
"Turn over," Ayumi said, nipping her earlobe; the sharp pain penetrated the sensuous fog and made her pulse flutter in excitement.
Turn over? Kimiko did not understand but she did as she was told, lying on her belly with her head propped on her folded arms. Ayumi nudged at her thighs until she spread them wide apart, still bemused. This was nothing like the positions she had seen illustrated in a pillow-book for one to adopt with one's female lover. It was more like...
Ayumi settled between her spread thighs, careful to keep the extra kimonos over their lower bodies to camouflage their true actions from the spies. Kimiko closed her eyes; her heart was beating so rapidly, she actually felt more dizzy and sick than lustful. Her stomach — treacherous organ! — turned cold and hollow when Ayumi undid the ties of her hakama and lowered the back part, exposing her buttocks. One of the samurai's hands burrowed beneath her body, sliding under the waistband in the front of her trousers to press hard against her aching jade gate and the coral pearl that lay within.
Kimiko bit back a gasp and rocked her hips a little, rubbing her slick, tender flesh against the almost unbearably rough sword-calluses on Ayumi's palm. Pleasure spiked with a sensation that was close to pain flared through her and became a steady throbbing heat. Panting, she braced her knees and ground her yoni down into Ayumi's hand. The samurai grunted, her weight pressing Kimiko into the futon and giving her almost no room to move.
Ayumi began thrusting her pelvis against Kimiko's buttocks to simulate sex; the sensation forced the younger woman to slide back and forth over samurai's hand. She spread her legs further apart and tried to meet the rhythm of Ayumi's thrusts. It was maddening, it was terrifying, it was wonderful and what did the poets know of love, anyway? They spoke of touching sleeves and elegant assignations in the moonlight, not this. Not this meeting of sweaty skin and raw sensation; not this place where she hovered, transfixed on a cresting wave of pleasure that grew and grew and grew until she frantically worked her hips and chewed her bottom lip ragged to keep from screaming.
At last, Heaven was merciful and granted her release. The wave came crashing down into the place of Clouds and Rain, carrying Kimiko with it; her limbs trembled and shook, the futon muffled her cries. She was distantly aware that Ayumi was biting and licking the back of her neck. An aftershock coursed through her veins and she let out a weak moan. A heartbeat later, Ayumi's roar of false completion rang through the air. Kimiko could only lay quiescent, soaked and exhausted, while Ayumi used a paper handkerchief to gently wipe clean the evidence of Kimiko's climax.
The samurai re-tied their hakama and arranged Kimiko's limp body so that she was laying on her side. Ayumi spooned up behind her and smoothed strands of hair away from Kimiko's sweaty face. "Well?" she asked.
There was the tiniest hint of gloating in Ayumi's voice but Kimiko could not find the strength to take umbrage. Instead, she let the silence grow between them until the samurai had begun to shift in discomfort, then Kimiko whispered breathlessly, "Adequate, I suppose."
She did not have to see Ayumi's face to know that outrage had replaced the imagined smirk. Kimiko giggled and snuggled back against the other woman. Joy bubbled in her bloodstream until she felt quite giddy.
Ayumi's hand stole over her mouth. The samurai whispered, "Pretend to sleep, 'Miko-chan."
Kimiko nodded and closed her eyes, relaxing bonelessly against the bulwark of Ayumi's body. She was not sure how much time had passed — she was not even sure that she had not actually fallen asleep, since pillowing left her surprisingly drained and inclined to drift — but she stiffened when she heard voices in the corridor. It was Tomoko, Satomi and Hanabi.
"You may have the boy," Tomoko was saying.
Hanabi's answer came in a carrying whisper, "Why must I have the boy? I want the samurai!"
"The samurai belongs to the elders of this clan," Satomi said. "Don't sulk; you'll ruin your pretty face. The boy is young; his blood will be sweet."
"But his spirit has not yet ripened into manhood," Hanabi said with the suggestion of a pout in her voice. "His blood is not mature."
"Considering the way that Azuma-san was praying at the boy's inner sanctum, I'd say he was mature enough," Satomi cackled.
"His chrysanthemum seat was well used tonight," Tomoko added. "Come, clan-sisters. It is almost time. Let us prepare to take our prey."
When the sound of the women's departure died away, Ayumi prodded Kimiko's shoulder, silently urging her to roll over. When they were nose-to-nose, the samurai said, "Those women are nukekubi. I saw the mark on Tomoko's neck."
Kimiko came close to swallowing her own tongue in shock. Her pulse began to pound in apprehension. Nukenubi were monsters who had the ability to bloodlessly detach their heads from the rest of their bodies. They looked like ordinary mortals, except for a thin red line of glyphs at the base of the neck. At night, the floating heads flew through the air in search of victims, whose blood they drained. Their bodies remained inanimate, which was the nukekubi's sole vulnerability. If the body was destroyed, or if for some reason the head could not reunite with the rest of its flesh by dawn, the monster would die.
Ayumi stretched her arm and pinched out the oil lamp's flaming wick, plunging them into suffocating darkness.
"You must find the bodies," Ayumi said, pushing the clay lamp into her hands. "Douse them with oil and set them alight. I will deal with the heads."
"I don't... I don't want to leave you," Kimiko replied, trying to hide her unhappiness and failing miserably. Nevertheless, she rose to her knees and checked to be sure her tanto knife was still in her sleeve. The velvety darkness seemed to press on her at all sides. Her heart was in her throat. The sound of her own breathing seemed inordinately loud.
"I trust you, 'Miko-chan," Ayumi said, bestowing a nuzzle to the side of her neck. Kimiko realized, somewhat dizzily, that when the samurai gave full reign to her affections, she did not do so in half-measures. "Besides, I don't intend to end my cherry-blossom days in a monster's belly, and neither do you." Her voice lowered to a rich, deep tone that Kimiko had never heard before, and which turned her knees to water. "When the nukekubi are dead..."
Ayumi did not have time to finish the sentence. Alerted by her well-honed warrior's instinct, she leaped from the futon, katana arching from its scabbard. Kimiko was knocked over by the passing samurai; her hands scrabbled on the tatami mats, searching for the dopped lamp before all the oil was spilled. She found the clay vessel and staggered up. On her right, she heard a meaty thwack which she interpreted as Ayumi's sword finding a target; from the noise, she would guess that the samurai had batted one of the floating heads out of the air.
Kimiko left the room by the simple expedient of crashing directly through the shoji-screen that served as a wall, and found herself in the corridor. A lit lamp at the end of the hall provided subtle illumination. She made for the light, her tabi-clad feet slipping on the dusty floorboards. A hiss from behind made Kimiko glance over her shoulder; she saw Hanabi's disembodied head floating in mid-air, the glossy length of her black hair swirling as though stirred by a spectral wind. Upon spotting her, Hanabi hissed again, showing teeth like ivory needles, and flew towards her.
As far as she knew, nukekubi heads were virtually indestructible; only prayer could forestall an attack and not for very long. Kimiko began reciting the Thousand Hand sutra as she raced towards the end of the corridor. Hanabi shrieked, the shrill sound piercing Kimiko's brain as though an ice-cutter's pick had been thrust into her ear. She continued gasping the sutra, however, and kept moving through the pain. If she hesitated, Kimiko knew she would die.
She slid the last arms-length to the flaming lamp, lit the wick of her own, turned and hurled the blazing vessel at Hanabi's floating head. The body of the lamp shattered on impact, dousing the nukekubi in oily flames. Hanabi's shriek became a thin whine of agony and rage. Not waiting to witness the outcome of her attack, Kimiko snatched the other lamp from its stand and ran into the room on the left side of the corridor, staggering through the shoji-screen wall.
In this room she found some human skeletons piled into the corner, the bones rat-gnawed and yellowed with age. Fighting through thick dusty cobwebs, Kimiko burst into the next room, which was empty except for a broken loom. She heard someone coming behind her and slid the tanto knife out of her sleeve, holding it with the hilt in her fist and the blade flat against her forearm. Whirling about on her heel, Kimiko prepared to strike and was barely able to check the blow when she recognized Ayumi.
The samurai's face was dappled with crimson flecks of blood. "Please move your peerless ass, 'Miko-chan!" Ayumi ordered, pointing the chisel tip of her katana at the wall. Kimiko obeyed, going shoulder-first through the shoji and landing on her feet in a hail of torn paper and shattered bits of wood.
She glanced around the room, noting a lack of human remains, although she did see a few rats scurrying along the edges of the ragged tatami. Satomi's head flew through the large hole in the screen, silver-streaked hair flowing behind her with the speed of her passage. Tomoko was right behind her nukekubi clan-sister, a pair of curved fangs jutting from her bottom jaw. The fire-blackened head of Hanabi floated in last, one eye baked in its socket to an unwholesome pale jelly and the other glaring balefully.
Ayumi took a stance, legs apart for balance, her katana held in one hand with the tip pointed towards the nukekubi. To Kimiko, she said, "Go on. I'll hold them here."
Kimiko desperately wanted to stay at Ayumi's side and fight the monsters together. What if I never see you again? she screamed in the silence of her mind. What if you die and leave me alone? Unshed tears burned; she shook her head to banish this sign of weakness and put on a tougher countenance. Kimiko knew that if she chose to remain, Ayumi could not stop her. They might be lovers, but the samurai was also her retainer, sworn to obey her commands.
To her astonishment, Ayumi winked at her and said, "What keeps you, boy? Or do you linger for another taste of my devil's eye horn?"
Somehow, that impish wink made Kimiko feel faint with relief. Unless the gods chose to start hurling more ill-luck from Heaven — and accepting the hospitality of a trio of blood-sucking monsters already qualified as a divine turd of the lowest quality - they might just live to love another day. She grinned at Ayumi and jumped through the open window onto the veranda before the hungry floating heads could rally for another attack.
Once outside, Kimiko made for the persimmon grove, reckoning that the trees would provide an excellent hiding place for the nukekubi's vulnerable bodies. She risked a glance back at the house. The flying heads were darting around Ayumi, the clash of their teeth blood-chillingly audible.
The samurai's expression was blank; she had clearly entered mu shin, no mind — a trance-like state in which the conscious mind was set aside to allow her warrior's training full reign. The katana went back then swept forward, chopping at Tomoko and drawing blood before arching around in a glittering circle to spear Hanabi with the tip. The nukekubi's faces were becoming less human, more oni-like, their hellish origins evident in the horns the heads were sprouting. Their skin turned a sullen scarlet, and their screams were horrifying.
As Kimiko watched, Satomi's head, now fully transformed into an ugly devil's mask, flew at Ayumi with such speed, the samurai could not fully guard against the strike. Satomi fastened her teeth into Ayumi's kimono sleeve. Despite the samurai beating the nukekubi with her sword hilt, Satomi would not let go. Realizing they had little time left, Kimiko ran into the persimmon grove, lighting her way with the oil lamp she had taken from the corridor. Her last sight of Ayumi sent chills down her spine and froze her liver with terror — Satomi was chewing her way through the cotton sleeve, seeking Ayumi's flesh. If the nukekubi managed to bite Ayumi, it would be over.
Stumbling and cursing, Kimiko came close to knocking herself unconscious by running into a tree. When the stars cleared from her vision, she became aware of two things. The first, that she had bitten her tongue deep enough to draw blood; the second, that she had found the bodies of the three nukekubi.
The headless bodies looked like decapitated dolls; the neck stumps were smooth as a healed-over wound. She recognized Tomoko's indigo and lavender kimonos, Satomi's plum, orange and pink combination, and Hanabi's cherry-red and pale green robes. The skirts and sleeves spread out over a carpet of fallen persimmon leaves made a beautiful kaleidoscope of colors that Kimiko did not stop to admire. She scouted around a moment, kicking up a whirlwind of leaves in her haste, and found a pair of short, thin branches.
Using her improvised chopsticks to pull the flaming wick out of the lamp, Kimiko carefully sprinkled the oil over all three bodies. It was less dark now, more gray than black, and there was a pale streak of mauve low in the sky that foretold the rising of the sun. The stars were already fading. Dawn was not far away.
Kimiko dropped the flaming wick on the oil-soaked bodies.
She fell backwards, her face stinging, having underestimated the flammability of nukekubi. Flames roared high, licking at the tops of the trees with appalling eagerness. A handful of ripening fruit sizzled in the heat and finally exploded, a shower of sweetness that stank of burned sugar. Kimiko lay on her back, trying to blink away the bright after-images that pinwheeled in her vision. From the house came a hideous screeching. She scrambled to her feet, drawing her knife; the metallic taste of blood was in her mouth.
The fire consumed the bodies far more quickly than was natural. Kimiko heard a whirring close-by, like pheasant's wings, and hurried to hide behind a persimmon tree. The floating heads appeared in the grove, bobbing through the air and shrieking loud enough to make more fruit fall from the trees. All three mouths were wide open, black holes filled with fangs in a scarlet demon's face.
As Kimiko watched from her hiding place, the first rays of the morning sun crept over the horizon and trickled down into the orchard, slow as liana syrup. The nukekubi's movements became more frantic, their wails more piteous. Sunlight spilled over the still-burning bodies, which had already been reduced to vaguely human-shaped charcoal. The three heads flew here and there, gnashing and screeching and swooping around in circles that were centered around the fire.
Golden sunlight spilled over Tomoko; the nukekubi's face froze in an anguished grimace. The head dropped to the ground and tumbled over and over before coming to rest against a tree root. Tomoko's fangs champed uselessly at the air, then all motion ceased; her eyes glazed over and rolled back to show the blue-tinged whites. Satomi and Hanabi screamed their terror but there was no escape. They met the same fate as their clan-sister, the cleansing sunlight destroying the floating heads even as fire completed the task of destroying their bodies.
Breathing hard, Kimiko dug her fingers into the tree bark. A sharp agony was lodged under her ribs, and it cut more deeply into her with every gulp of air she drew into her lungs. Part of her wanted to race back to the house and find Ayumi, to tell her that their plan had succeeded; another part held her paralyzed in place, dreading the discovery of her lover's dead body. When eating poison, lick the plate. One by one, Kimiko peeled her fingers away from the persimmon tree and forced her reluctant body to walk out of the grove. She did not know what she would find.
Before she reached the house, however, Kimiko heard a heavy body crashing through the orchard and she called, "Ayumi-san?" Oh, please, Merciful Kwannon, let it be!
"'Miko-chan!" Ayumi bellowed like a female water buffalo that had caught sight of its lost calf. The samurai was bounding in Kimiko's direction as quickly as her bowed legs could carry her. As soon as she was close enough, Ayumi grabbed Kimiko with her free hand; the other still clutched her blood-smeared katana.
"Were you bitten?" Ayumi asked. When Kimiko did not immediately answer, she shook the younger woman hard enough to make her teeth rattle. "Were you bitten?"
"Iye!" Kimiko responded at last. "Were you?"
Ayumi held out her tattered sleeve for inspection.
Kimiko was gratified to find the flesh beneath unmarred. She let out a breath and touched her scorched eyebrows, strangely relieved to find them mostly intact. "Buddha! I was afraid you were..."
"As was I," Ayumi admitted. She flicked the blood from her katana in a practiced movement, then sheathed the weapon and bowed. "My apologies, Kimiko-sama, for placing you in danger. I was not thinking of your safety when I accepted the nukekubi's invitation. In my arrogance, I believed that I could take care of the matter myself and keep you safe."
Recognizing that her samurai required a mistress now — not a lover — Kimiko drew herself up and asked in a formal tone, "What was your purpose?"
"My purpose was two-fold," Ayumi said, holding the bow. Her knuckles were white on the hilt of her sheathed longsword, and she sounded grave. "Firstly, I wished to destroy the nukekubi so that they would not harm any more innocent travelers on the Chrysanthemum Road. It is my duty to rid the Floating World of hell-spawn when such action does not interfere with the giri owed to my mistress, though I should have asked your permission."
"Yes, you should have asked." Kimiko paused to let Ayumi stew for a moment, then asked, "And second?"
"It was my wish to pillow with you, Kimiko-sama." Ayumi glanced up, her black eyes gleaming. "I thought that if I killed the nukekubi, we would have their house to ourselves for a few days before we had to move on."
Kimiko's jaw muscles were aching with the effort to hold back her smile. "Well, we did reach the Clouds and Rain," she said thoughtfully, tapping her lips with a finger. "Or at least, I did. It's a good thing that you don't have a jade pestle, 'Yumi, or this peach-bottom would have been split in half from the roughness of your riding."
Ayumi straightened from her bow, the corners of her eyes crinkling. "Am I forgiven?" When Kimiko did not answer at once, the samurai offered diffidently, "I found a hot tub. There is plenty of wood. And after you soak your bruises..."
"After?" Kimiko purred. The horrors of the night were receding, leaving behind the sweet memory of pleasure. Ayumi was correct; with the nukekubi gone, they would have free use of their house. To be alone, under a roof, without worrying about spies or monsters or the Regent's agents or robbers... bliss!
The samurai reached into the breast of her kimono and drew out a folded book — one of the cheaply printed 'spring pictures' books that were popular among lovers. "Perhaps we might try Dew-on-the-Mountain," Ayumi said, pointing a blunt finger at the appropriate illustration.
Kimiko sucked in an awed breath. "Ma!"
Ayumi nodded. "I'll start the water heating at once."
Kimiko followed her samurai, her lover, to the house where the scent of wisteria was already replacing the musty odor of death. Her greedy little yoni was tingling in anticipation. Saliva gathered in her mouth and she swallowed.
There was another illustration she had glimpsed in the book that looked even more intriguing than Dew-on-the-Mountain.
She wondered where they could find a gourd at short notice.
Ayumi motioned for her to hurry, and Kimiko ran to catch up to the warrior that she loved.