"Nani? You're real name is 'Hanta'?" Yukihebi asked while we dined in a stall selling yakitori. Even though there was a little curtain that hung partway down between the stall and the street, it was pretty easy to tell that a shirohebi was dining there by virtue of the large white serpent's tail jutting out.
The weeks leading up to the wedding went by in a blur. The kindly Ryu formally introduced herself to me as Husui, and allowed me to stay at the temple a little longer. Under the pretense of helping out with running some errands, I also had a few more lunch dates with the beautiful Yukihebi.
"Well.....not quite." I explain on our second lunch date. "That's more or less a nickname someone gave me awhile ago. It's stuck for as long as I've been in Zaipangu." Given the fact that she found me bleeding and unconscious in the mountainous forest, I could understand her skepticism at my moniker being 'Hunter'.
"So where did you come from originally?"
"I'm not sure- I can't remember too much from before I got here. Or even the details about HOW I got here. This elderly woodcarver and his wife in one of the villages north of here were looking for driftwood and found me washed up on the beach one day about ten years ago. They gave me shelter and taught me to speak and read in the local language and in return, I'd hunt small game and provide them with firewood and lumber. They asked around, and their best estimate is that I might originally be from the Grand Duchy of Suomiia- one of the western kingdoms."
"Why did they think that?"
"They consulted with one of the local scholars. Apparently Suomiian was one of the languages I tried communicating with them in at first, along with Albionese. There's also this..." I pulled down the shoulder of my shirt to show her a tattoo- a diamond-shaped shield depicting a lion on its hind legs next to an eagle with its wings spread and clutching a sword with both talons. A similar insignia that appears on the Grand Duchy's national flag. "Until I can regain more of my memories, that's just an educated guess."
"Suomiia? I bet its very pretty there...."
"I couldn't tell you, to be honest" I sighed. "My understanding is that 'Hanta' itself is a phrase Zipangu 'borrowed' from one of the western languages."
"It seems to be a common trend with the Zipanguese languge lately now that we've started trading with the western kingdoms- sometimes it's a word or phrase where that has no equivalent in Zipangu..." Yukihebi explained.
She nodded. "Sometimes certain foreign words are easier to pronounce then they are in Zipanguese- even for a native speaker."
"I must confess, Miss Yukihebi..." I tell her. "If you were my tutor, I think I'd intentionally fail every test I took so I could spend more time getting lessons from you."
"Hanta-kun...you're terrible!" she playfully admonished me. "Besides, I'm not sure I'd be that good of a language teacher..."
"On the contrary- I'm hanging on your every word. If someone else was telling me about this, I'd probably be sound asleep." I tell her.
Miss Yukihebi listened to my tale and sweetly complimented me on my command of the Zipanguese language. It looked as though she had a few more questions about Suomiia but thought better of it since I had hardly any memories of my presumed homeland. After lunch, we parted ways with her shopping for groceries and me returning to the temple to finish chopping up some firewood at the request of the Ryu.
Lady Husui was considerate enough to put in a good word for me with an innkeeper at one of the village's inns. He said he would need someone to tend fires as well as gather and split firewood at the inn once the cold weather started up. Although we were several weeks away from the start of the cool season, I convinced the innkeeper to have me start a little earlier than usual, reminding him that it was never too early to start gathering firewood and storing it someplace dry- still, he would only need me for two or three days a week until the cold set in.
On my second day at the inn, I had a visitor come by with something for me around lunchtime.
"Miss Yukihebi! Hi.....What brings you here?" I said, genuinely surprised to see the albino serpent girl.
"Hanta-kun! I just wanted to stop by and congratulate you on your new job" she said as she demurely bowed at both me and the innkeeper. "Oh...and I thought you might be hungry, so I made this for you." she put down her parasol and handed me a box carefully wrapped in a cloth.
I unwrapped it and before me was a bento box lunch. Opening it up, I could see that there was some chicken, a few slices of salmon, some mushrooms and diced potatoes sautéed in some kind of savory seasoning, a little cup of teriyaki sauce with a lid for dipping and some white rice. Garnishing the white rice was two pieces of cucumber painstakingly sliced to look like little snakes.
"Oh wow....this looks terrific!" I marvel as I take in the sight and aroma of the homemade lunch and begin to unwrap a wooden fork and knife I had whittled some time ago. I got in the habit of carrying them around with me wrapped in a small cloth- despite residing in Zipangu for the better part of a decade, I still hadn't mastered the art of using chopsticks.
"It's just a little something I thought I'd prepare and leave for you while I took care of some errands in town....."
"I don't know what to say, Miss Yukihebi. This is so thoughtful...." I didn't think it was possible, but the meal tasted even better than it looked as I took my first bite. "You didn't have to do this, really. Thank you very much- it's delicious!"
"You really like it? I knew how much you like yakitori, so....." the bashful serpent girl trailed off as she fretted and her cheeks were starting to turn crimson.
"Miss Yukihebi?" I ask
"You seem to be blushing...."
"Am...am I now? I-I'm sorry...." she stammered.
"It's a good look for you." I wink before I take another bite from the homemade lunch.
"Hanta-kun....can I ask you something.....?" Yukihebi appealed.
"Wh-why are you stabbing the food with that little wooden trident and then slashing it with the knife?"
"I....uh....ah, damn it." I stammer in response to the beautiful serpent-girl's query. "Promise me you won't laugh, Miss Yukihebi."
She quietly nodded.
"I know I've been in Zipangu for awhile now, but I never could quite figure out how to properly use chopsticks."
"Really....? I could show you how-"
I had to cut her off. "I don't think you appreciate how bad it is...."
"It can't be that bad, Hanta-kun."
"Oh yes it can" I correct her. "Picture this- about two years after staying with the elderly woodcutter and his wife, I'm out looking for some seasonal work around Kaijusokoku. After a full day's work clearing trees for this one family's estate, I'm pretty hungry and I head into town. As much as I like yakitori, I decide to change it up a little and order some Unadon at this little café. They had outdoor dining and it was a nice, mild night. I figure I'm doing OK with the chopsticks, but there's all these people gawking at me as they walk past."
Both Yukihebi and the innkeeper are looking at me, hanging on my every word.
"At first, I figure it's because they'd never seen a foreigner before and don't think anything of it." I continue. "Then, I get about halfway through my Unadon bowl and look at the other end of the table. Looking back at me is this little Ushi-Oni girl. Before I can even clear my throat and ask if there's something wrong, she just shakes her head and says 'You suck'."
Yukihebi put her hand to her lips to stifle a sheepish giggle while the innkeeper let out a much more boisterous chuckle.
"I'm sorry, Hanta-kun....I promised I wouldn't laugh." she apologized. Despite the apology, she continued giggling.
"But wait....didn't that ojiisan who took you in teach you how to use chopsticks?" the innkeeper asked.
"That's what I thought, but when I went back to visit them that winter, they said they actually gave up after a few weeks when I still couldn't figure it out and kind of let me do my own thing...." I sighed.
"Wait....what about the Ushi-Oni girl?" Yukihebi asks.
"Oh...she just kept staring, shaking her head until her mother finally scooped her up and told her...and this is a direct quote...it wasn't nice to stare at the foreigner who had no idea what the hell he was doing with his chopsticks. As she's getting carried off, the little Ushi-Oni is STILL looking back at me and shaking her head. So you could say I was so bad that I had an Ushi-Oni shaking its head in disbelief."
"That's rough, Hanta...." the innkeeper sighed.
"Yeah...so not too long after that, I started whittling forks and knives that I could take with me. The thing is...." I turned to Yukihebi "I don't really remember ever using them, but I...I just seem to be more comfortable using them than chopsticks..."
"Oh!" the shirohebi said while suddenly snapping her fingers as though she just remembered something. "I wanted to ask you something while I was here..." she continued as she started to nervously fret.
"What is it?" I ask as I look down at the bento she made me. Even with the perceived fork and knife handicap, I easily polished off half of it when I was telling them about the dining fiasco in Kaijusokoku.
"Well, Husui-sama wants me to pick some berries later on today and..." she was fidgeting again, this time tenting and un-tenting her thumbs and index fingers. "....and another set of hands would really help me finish this up much quicker. I can completely understand if you say 'no', but I was wondering if you wanted to join me and-"
"Sure- sounds like fun. What time do you want to meet?" I cut her off.
"Oh....well...." her eyes were darting back and forth between me and the innkeeper. "Is it OK if he meets me around two o'clock?" she meekly asked him.
The innkeeper nodded, adding "Today has been pretty slow- so it shouldn't be a problem to wrap things up in two more hours."
"Good, then....I'll meet you by the wharf, then." she said as she began fidgeting. "Ah...well, I must get going, Hanta-kun." Yukihebi said with a nervous chuckle as she bowed and started to back away. "I have a few more errands to run for Husui-sama, so I should be..." she pivoted and immediately bumped face-first into a wooden pillar behind her.
"Miss Yukihebi....are you OK?" I ask, getting up from the lunch she made me while trying not to laugh at the sweet lamia's unintentional pratfall.
"I...I'm fine...." she tried reassuring me as she rubbed her nose before grabbing her parasol. The pale lamia then made her way to the inn's front entrance without incident.
"Bye, Yukihebi...see you in a little while!" I wave awkwardly as the sweet and very distracted serpent maiden left the inn, not quite certain she heard me.
"Wow, Hanta....your wife is pretty cute." My new boss said before turning his attention to my lunch. "Do you think she could make some more of those bento boxes? I was thinking I could sell them to departing guests and pay her a reasonable rate...."
"Wife!?" I hear myself sputter. "Oh no...you have it wrong- she found me in the woods and nursed me back to health. She's just helping me get back on my feet...."
"She seems pretty dere-dere over you for just a nurse..."
"Y-you think.....?" I ask, playing dumb. Of course, he saw how I was relishing the attention from Yukihebi, so feigning ignorance was a pretty fruitless endeavor.
"Don't worry, Hanta...once we clear up some room in the storage shed, I'll let you go early so you can pick berries with your waifu...." He chuckled.
True to his word, after clearing up some room in a storage shed behind the inn and some goodnatured ribbing about my cute lamia waifu, my new boss let me leave early to meet Yukihebi down near the waterfront.
I didn't have to wait for too long to find her as I began pacing up and down along some of the harborfront stalls. There was a small crowd gathering around a pair of street performers who were enthusiastically pantomiming a swordfight with wooden bokutos at one end of the street. I was watching them perform for a few minutes when I heard a now-familiar voice calling out my name and waving.
Just like when she visited at lunchtime, she was fairly conservatively dressed in a long red pleated skirt and a white haori top- her attire, white parasol, light complexion and long, sleek albino tail making her stand out even more among the dull, earthy tones common along the waterfront.
"Hanta-kun!" she smiled as she waved from the other side of the street performance. The show was reaching a crescendo as the two mock-combatants each yelled a shrill battle cry before charging, each of them successfully landing blows on their opponent's midsection. The crowd gasped as sticky, wet crimson stains suddenly blossomed on the light grey and light brown fabric of the two performers where the presumably harmless wooden blades had impacted. I had to assume the performers kept some sort of bladder or small watertight sack loaded with red dye or pig's blood on their person that they'd break when they 'killed' each other towards the end of their performance.
"Miss Yukihebi! Hi there....whoa..." I saw that she was now carrying two rather large, empty wicker baskets with two ropes looping out of the side so that it could be worn like a backpack once full. "Just how many berries does Lady Husui expect us to bring back?"
"Don't worry- she doesn't expect us to fill these up all the way." she absently reassured me as she watched street performers was finishing up, both seemingly uninjured and bowing as most of the gathered crowd was applauding them. The two then passed around wicker baskets for the more appreciative onlookers to drop coins or silver taels into.
"Oh...I also brought you this!" Nestled between the two baskets was a walking stick that I had been whittling from a tree branch while I was staying at the temple. It wasn't finished, but I was far enough along with it where it could be used for its intended purpose. "We're going hiking?" I asked.
"Sort of. Lady Husui said we need more black raspberries, and I know of a spot outside of town where they grow wild..."
"Well then....lead the way."
After about thirty minutes of hiking a gradual grade on the road south of the seaport and into a hilly forest, Yukihebi cautiously ventured off the road towards a seemingly impassable thicket and effortlessly pulled aside some of the low hanging tree branches and vegetation.
"Follow me!" she sweetly instructed as she peered through the underbrush, confirming we had arrived at the spot she was looking for.
I cautiously stepped through the thicket which almost immediately tapered off into an open meadow. Except for the part abutting the road into the city, the whole clearing was ringed by dozens and dozens of raspberry bushes. It looked as though we were one of the few to know about this bounty of little tart berries, as they appeared virtually untouched.
"Wow....just look at this." I marveled.
"This land used to belong to a farmer many years ago." Yukihebi explained as we made our way further in. "From what I understand, the farmer had no family, so when he passed away, the land went fallow. I'm not even sure what he originally grew, but he was interested in growing the black raspberries as a secondary crop. With no one tending the land, the raspberry bushes just kept growing and growing until they pretty much took over."
Yukhebi then picked one of the bigger berries off a nearby bush's vine and held it in front of me.
"Here. Open wide...." she asked in a dulcet tone.
Without even thinking, I did as she said. She deftly slid the berry into my mouth, her fingers briefly resting on my lips before she pulled them away.
I bit down on the berry she offered me. A thought occurred to me- didn't a serpent tempting humans with succulent fruit end up getting them kicked out of paradise according to scripture in one of the western faiths?
"Mmm....a little tart." I observe, unable to get the sensation of the sensation of the pretty serpentine girl's fingers on my lips out of my head. "Then sweet...."
I had no way of seeing it for myself, but I could feel my face flush with warmth. I had to have been blushing- just like those times I was teasing Yukihebi.
"Oh....damn it...I...I...uh....must be a little winded from the hike out here." I chuckle nervously.
"Oh no! I'm sorry, Hanta-kun....I shouldn't have made you come all the way out here! You're still recovering..." The adorable lamia's hands clutched at her red pleated skirt as she bowed her head in apology.
"I'll be fine....it's OK, Miss Yukihebi" I try reassuring her. "I just need to catch my breath a little."
"O...of course. You just rest here for a bit and I'll get started with gathering some of the berries."
"Right..." I said, probably sounding as nervous and apologetic as her. "I'll join you in a little bit."
Yukihibe bowed slightly before turning around and making her way to some nearby berry bushes. She was happily humming a tune as she began putting berries in one of the large baskets she brought with her.
Holy shit! How can anyone or anything be THAT cute? I quietly marveled. A few weeks ago, I couldn't get away from the kind and beautiful serpent girl fast enough- mostly due to a misunderstanding on my part. Now she was doting over me, cooking meals for me and taking me on dates that were thinly disguised as 'chores' for the temple - complete with the Ryu's encouragement. I was even starting to warm up to some of her features that I initially had considered off-putting. I could honestly describe the serpentine part of her body that initially made me recoil in shock as 'sleek' or 'powerful'.
Convinced I had regained at least some of my poise, I picked up the other basket and made my way to one of the berry bushes next to Yukehebi.
"Make sure the berries you put in the basket aren't too ripe, Hanta-kun." the shirohebi said without looking up.
"Right..." I said as I went to work. "Hey Miss Yukihebi? What does Lady Husui plan on doing with all of these berries when we bring them back to the temple."
"Well...most of these are going to be used to make jams or preservatives that we'll either use at the temple or sell by the jar throughout the winter."
"Hey.....has Lady Husui thought about setting aside some of these and letting them ferment?"
Yukihebi seemed confused. "Why would Husui-sama let them rot?"
"So that you guys can make a flavored liquor out of them...."
"Oh..." she said hesitantly. "I don't think our temple can really condone that."
"I see...." I paused before speaking up enthusiastically, snapping my finger. "HEY! I know....have you guys thought about making and selling pastries where the berry jam is used as a filling?"
The beautiful serpent girl smiled at me. "We don't do that, but we do sell to a couple of bakeries in town. I think if we started making our own pastries like that, we might end up losing them as customers because they'll no longer see us as a supplier, but competition."
After several more moments of awkward silence, I had managed to get the basket not quite halfway full of the black raspberries. As I was contemplating how much more I should pick, I heard Yukihebi call out.
"Hanta-kun...you know what would be fun?" she asked. In her right hand was her parasol- although instead of opening it, she was now brandishing it like some sort of weapon. "Prepare to defend yourself!" Yukihebi declared in a playful tone.
Not quite sure what she had in mind, I picked up my walking stick. She charged at me, but since she basically announced that she was going to attack me, it was pretty easy to dodge and parry her swipes with the parasol. It belatedly occurred to me that she must have been inspired by the mock swordfight we saw by those street performers earlier before heading out to this particular meadow. As she began circling me, I halfheartedly lunged at her to see if I could use my walking stick to knock the parasol away from her. However, before I could get any closer, she brought her tail up to obstruct my forward momentum.
"You're quite good, nameless Ronin...but the berries shall be mine!" she said melodramatically in a voice about an octave lower than what I was used to as I quickly backed off.
"Damn right I'm good, mysterious but inexplicably cute bandit!" I played along. "I studied at the best walking stick dojo in the land!"
Yukihebi giggled softly at my show of defiance before moving in to take another swing.
"If I win, I get to......" whatever she was going to say next would be a mystery. As she closed in, her parasol suddenly sprang open right before a sudden, stiff breeze blew it out of her hands.
"Ah! No...." she yelped in despair as her 'sword' started to blow away in the wind. Although it didn't get too far, it still appeared to be well out of her reach. "Ha ha! Looks like I win! Do you yield, incredibly cute shirohebi bandit?" I said triumphantly.
"Never!" she said defiantly, a tiny smirk painted on the corner of her lips. "You should never take your eyes off your opponent, Blue-eyed Ronin!"
"Huh?" I wasn't sure what she was talking about until it was too late. Her parasol hadn't blown any further away because something was grabbing it. It finally occurred to me that it was Yukihebi's tail as both the tail and umbrella swung through the air, closing in on me with a blinding speed. As I flinched and braced for impact, I felt something gently hit the top of my head.
"Bop." Yukihebi grinned playfully as I opened my eyes.
Two more love-taps along my scalp. It was her parasol- clenched by her tail.
"Stop that...." I grumble.
"Do I win?" she asks.
I hesitate with an answer and get three more love-taps on the chest from her open parasol.
"Bop. Bop. Bop."
"OK OK....You win!"
"Yatta!" she beams as she gleefully draws in her elbows close to her torso, clenches both fists just in front of her chin and does a little shimmy in triumph. "I win! I win! I win! Yay!"
So damn cute.... I sigh. "Winner gets to carry both baskets of berries back to the temple."
"What!? No fair...." she pouted. Of course, I immediately make myself a liar by hefting my basket up and sliding my arms through the rope loops to start wearing it like a backpack.
"Hey Hanta-kun?" Yukihebi asks.
"Do you know if they have these kind of berries in Suomiia?"
"Damn it- I....I don't know!" I reply tersely. Right away I regret snapping at Yukihebi for asking a seemingly innocent question. The playful shirohebi recoils from the underlying hostility in my voice.
"That must be so very strange and terrible to go through life with so few memories about yourself." Yukihebi said sadly.
I couldn't argue with that.
"Hanta-kun?" She asked, her tone nervous and evasive.
"Yeah, Miss Yukihebi?"
"If......if you want, I might be able to help restore some of your memories. I can't say for sure it would work, but I can at least try and-"
"Thank you, Miss Yukihebi, but you don't have to do that. You've already done so much for me....."
"Are you sure?"
"Never say 'never'." I smile at her. "But there's no hurry. Besides....." I murmur. "What if there's things in my past that I might be better off not knowing about?"
"No! You're not like that, Hanta-kun." the gentle serpent-girl reassured me. "If you were, you would have a much darker aura."
"You can tell?"
She nodded. "Most Momono can- they have an inherent ability to detect and read a person's aura." She moved in close before gently cupping my chin. "There's no malice or darkness in your aura- just indicators of misfortune. I want to help you change that....if you'll let me...."
"Y....Yukihebi...." I stammer, well aware I'm endangering the bachelorhood I placed such a premium on earlier with each passing moment. I'm lost in the serpent-girl's red irises as she gazes into my eyes. So earnest. So kind. So beautiful. So sweet. "You've been nothing but kind and generous to me since we've met. I cannot put into words how much I appreciate that from you...." I gently run a finger through her white hair. "And I want to do something nice for you. I want to do something that would make you as happy as you've made me these last few weeks..."
"But..you already have, Hanta-kun. Just by being there...and just by letting me know that you're okay..." she murmured softly, not breaking eye contact with me. Her face was now inches from mine.
"But you deserve more- you deserve better...I WANT to do more for you...." Just as I decide that I absolutely had to kiss the pale Mamono beauty before me, the two of us hear a rustling of the undergrowth back towards the road into town.
"There you are, Yuki-chan!" a woman's voice calls out.
"Onee-san?" Yukihebi asks.
"Husui-sama said I might find you here..."
"O-of course. What brings you out here?" Yuki's eyes darted between me and the figure approaching her from the undergrowth by the road.
"I just wanted to let you know the start for the rehearsal dinner tomorrow has been moved up by an hour. Also, I heard you were out running errands with one of the guests."
"Ah...OK, I'll be there a little earlier, then." the younger lamia said nervously. "I...I almost forgot. This is Hanta-kun..." she said as she pointed to me. "Hanta-kun, this is my sister Shimohebi..."
"Congratulations on your upcoming wedding..." I say as I subconsciously reach out to shake her hand before deciding that bowing would be a better course of action. Getting a good look at her, it's not difficult to see the resemblance between her and Yukihebi. Shimohebi is a little taller, has longer hair flowing down to her waist. She also has a much more confident, carefree and elegant air about her. As far as bust was concerned, Shimohebi appeared to be no slouch, but Yukihebi was the hands-down winner in that department.
"Hanta? So you're the soused-up foreigner that my dear sister rescued from certain death?"
"You could say that..." I said after overcoming the urge to correct her. Passing out drunk in the wilderness was probably a better tale then injuring myself while aiding and abetting a Gyobu Dankuki's smuggling racket- especially if its true that Shimohebi was marrying a captain in the town guard.
"Onee-san! That's not very nice...." Yukihebi said.
"I'm joking, I'm joking..." Shimo laughed as she playfully smacked me on the right shoulder. "It's good to meet the guy that my painfully shy little sister managed to work up the nerve to ask on a date! I hope I wasn't interrupting anything too ecchi."
"Shimo-san!" Yukihebi protests as her cheeks turn crimson. Apparently I'm not the only one who likes making Yukihebi blush.
"Of course not." I blatantly lie. "I'm glad she invited me and I'm very much looking forward to your upcoming nuptials" I say to Yukihebi's much more outspoken and boisterous sister.
"My my..." Shimohebi said aloofly. "A thick accent, but otherwise a pretty good command of the Zaipangu language for a foreigner. Tell me- are you the type of man who finds his eloquence after a few drinks, Hanta?"
"Actually....it helps sometime, but it seems as though I'm far more eloquent when I'm on death's doorstep, Lady Shimo." I turn to Yukihebi. "What was that I told you when you first brought me back to the temple and were watching over me?"
Yukihebi blushed a little before clearing her throat. "If I'm to die tonight, please let your face be the last thing I see on this world"
"Really?" Shimohebi sounded genuinely impressed. "How romantic! Well, I suppose nothing would forge stronger bonds of intimacy more than a confrontation with one's mortality. They say it's only during times of extremely adverse conditions when you catch a true glimpse of someone's character. And what could be more adverse than the prospect of eminent death?" Her eyes went from me back to Yukihebi. "Clearly my dear little sister liked what she saw from you when that moment came...."
As much as Shimohebi may not have liked me, I was hard pressed to find a way to better describe the relationship between myself and Yukihebi. I didn't quite have the heart to tell Yukihebi's sister that I didn't remember actually saying that, though.
"So tell me, Hanta...are you presently employed?"
"As a matter of fact, one of the inns just hired me on as a woodcutter."
"I see..." Shimohebi said as she eyed me. "You seem to have the physique for it, but I imagine there isn't alot for you to do at the moment."
"This is true, but the inn is stockpiling firewood right now and I imagine that work will pick up once it gets colder."
"Is that so....?" Shimo said almost absently before trailing off. "Very clever, Husui-sama. I see what you're trying to......"
"Onee-san?" Yukihebi asked, neither one of us sure what Shimohebi was talking about. "Yukihebi, I'll see you tomorrow." she turned to me "The rehearsal dinner is for families of the bride and groom only, so we'll be seeing you at the actual wedding ceremony then, Hanta."
"Ah...well, it's getting late- I suppose I should be heading back. You two take care now!" Shimohebi said as she took her leave.
After a few minutes of silence, I help Yukihebi with her basket as she slipped her arms through the rope loops.
"I get the feeling your sister doesn't particularly care for me." I spoke up.
"You may find this hard to believe but I think she likes you just fine, Hanta-kun. She's like that with everyone." Yukihebi reassured me.