"Ah! Fuyu....I nearly forgot." the attractive middle-aged lamia said to her daughter as she was still talking to the takio drummer. "Your father and I were tidying up around the house last week when I came across this."
Fuyu's mother held up something long, slender and wrapped in a cloth that had been leaning against the temple's wall.
"No way! Where did you find this, mother?" Fuyu said in disbelief as her mother handed the item off to her. The pale, serpentine miko immediately went to work unwrapping the cloth.
"Do you still remember how to play?" Kaouru asked her daughter as her eyes lit up.
"I....I think so." she said as her eyes lit up.
The last of the cloth slid off, revealing a slender instrument with a few strings.
As soon as Fuyu had unwrapped the instrument, Kaouru swiftly picked up a similarly wrapped bundle that had been leaning against the wall, producing a shamisen of her own after hastily pulling it from its wrappings.
A small crowd was starting to gather around the two as the older shirohebi began rhythmically strumming the shamisen. The way she was going about it made it sound like Fuyu tuning up her instrument was part of some carefully rehearsed duet.
In no time at all, Fuyu's slender hands went from hesitantly plucking at the strings to fluidly and seamlessly working their way up and down the guitar's neck, finding and holding down the string along different frets as she held what looked like a small shell or comb against the lower strings of the guitar- a bachi.
"Ah.....you haven't lost your touch, I see!" Fuyu's mom gushed before turning her attention back to her own shamisen.
"It's been awhile." the shirohebi maiden remarked as she was now seamlessly matching her mother's rhythm and tempo on the three stringed guitar.
It almost seemed like everyone who had been summoned was now gathered around the mother and daughter- although the Yuki Onna was keeping her distance out of deference to the Shirohebi's averse reaction to cooler temperatures.
"Now....Koshu, was it? You're a musician as well- right?" the older Shirohebi asked loud enough to be heard over her three stringed guitar without missing a beat.
"Yes ma'am" the drummer nervously replied as Fuyu appeared to be intently examining the shamisen's strings as she continued strumming.
"Have you and my daughter made beautiful music together yet?" the middle aged lamia tittered suggestively. "Or perhaps you'd like to demonstrate your talents for a more mature and appreciative musician..."
Fuyu looked up from her Shamisen, but did not stop playing.
"Well ma'am. I don't have my drum set with me, and I haven't seen Fuyu play until just now....I have to say, I'm impressed. She's quite skilled".
The albino lamia blushed a little at her suitor's praise.
"Would you believe I taught her everything she knows?" Fuyu's mother boasted.
"You're very talented as well, ma'am. I can believe that Miss Fuyu developed her skills under your instruction."
"Oh my...no need to be so formal." Kaorou cooed as she paused playing long enough to dramatically fan herself with the shamisen's scallop-shaped pick
"Tsugaru Jongkara Bushi?" Fuyu asked her mother abruptly.
The mature Shirohebi nodded quietly before turning her undivided attention back to her instrument.
"HUI!!" The two of them called out in cadence before they began furiously strumming a series of short, staccato notes in perfect unison.
"Oh my! Quite impressive...." I hear a voice next to me speak up.
It was Lady Hisui.
"Karorou? Fuyu? This is really quite amazing....would the two of you be interested in putting on such a performance for the Harvest festival?" the Ryu asked the mother and daughter.
Fuyu slowed down her playing considerably while her mother had stopped altogether.
"Ah- I would consider it a great honor, Hisui-sama." Kaouru demurely bowed. "As I'm sure Fuyu would as well."
Her daughter concurred with a silent nod as she gradually stopped playing.
While lady Hisui was discussing the particulars with Fuyu and her mother, I figured this would be as good a time as any to take my leave and start packing for my upcoming trek into the hinterlands with Yuki.
Alot was weighing on my mind as I headed towards the exit of the temple's main building. It was kind of a shame, really. I didn't know some of the other shrine maidens that served alongside Yuki were so talented. Still, it was a little reassuring to know that I would get a chance to see the shamisen-wielding mother and daughter duet perform once again when the harvest festival came around.
"Hanta- a moment, please." a voice spoke up.
It was the younger Ryu. She had broken away from the crowd watching Lady Kaouru and Fuyu earlier and was standing before me.
The way Lady Hisui's niece was blocking the exit made it pretty clear I didn't have much of a choice in the matter.
"What is it?" I ask, trying to be deferential to the sapphire hued ryu.
"It's just that....." she begins. "I wanted to say there was more to the Kiyohebi saga that I wanted to tell you before we were interrupted."
"I'm sure there is, but-" I began.
"You need to hear the rest." she insisted.
"Why is that? I mean what else is there left to say after the part about the serpent girl roasting her lover alive in a bell?" I ask Yuwaku curtly. "Does she whip out some skewers and help herself to monk yakitori?"
"There's plenty." the ryu said calmly. Instead of waiting for me to interject, Yuwaku continued. "You see, Kiyo immediately realized what she had done and was horrified. The serpent fled into deep into the forest and wept. As she wailed for the love that she had slain and cursed her new form, the color left her face, her hair and even her scales. Kiyo had ventured so deep into the forest that no sunlight could shine through." Yuwaku paused once again to see if I was paying attention.
"She wasn't sure how long she had been there and she had nowhere else to go. Kiyo certainly couldn't return home in this new form of hers....but one day, a Ryu passing overhead when she heard Kiyo's wailing and lamentations. Sensing a tormented and distressed soul, the Ryu alighted next to Kiyo and asked what was troubling her."
"Unable to bear the solitude and sorrow any longer, Kiyo told the Ryu everything- including how she killed the monk she yearned for in a fit of rage. This infuriated the Ryu at first and she was of the mind to strike down Kiyo for her deeds. However, the Ryu realized that Kiyo seemed contrite in her words. She told Kiyo that if she was truly repentant for what she had done, she would accompany the Ryu to her temple."
"Taking in strays? Are we sure you aren't talking about your aunt?"
Yuwaku's eyes widened a little and she was unable to stifle a chortle.
"Hush!" she admonished me. "If Aunty heard you saying she was the Ryu to who took in Kiyohebi, she would almost certainly smack you upside the head with her tail."
"So then what happened next in this legend?" I ask. This was certainly a dramatic turnaround from the tale of the murderous snake woman Yukau was cautioning me about prior to the meeting and Hisui's announcement.
"The Ryu took Kiyo back to her temple. There the serpent woman was taught various healing spells and traditional medicine to treat injured travelers and farmers- a way to make amends for her murderous outburst. Kiyo quickly showed herself to be quite adept at healing the ailments of the pilgrims who came to visit the Ryu's temple. Soon- the very sight of the white serpent was considered a fortuitous omen among the townspeople."
The younger Ryu continued.
"After years of dedicated service to her, the Ryu decided to imbue Kiyo with some of her water magic and it didn't take long for her to become venerated among the farmers and villagers for her ability to heal the injured."
"That seems to be dramatically different from what you were telling me earlier." I point out to Hisui's niece.
"I-it's like I said earlier..." the blue scaled dragoness stammered. "If you're going to enter any sort of relationship with her kind, you should do it knowing both the bad and the good." I shot Yuwaku a prolonged look that seemed to tell her there had to be more to it than that. After a moment, she continued.
"Wh-when I was first assigned to the Awaniko Islands, I was still quite young and inexperienced. The chief shrine maiden there had been handling many of my responsiblities and I needed to follow her tutelage for a period of time."
"No way- a Shirohebi ordering a Ryu around?" I smirk.
"It's not as unusual as it sounds." Yuwaku stated. "Technically an experienced miko would have more authority than a novice ryu, which I was at the time I met Totoihebi."
"When we first met, Totoi was absolutely stunning. Silky hair, flawless scales and she had this calm and dignified aura to her no matter what she task she was carrying out or who she was talking to." the ryu reminisiced fondly. "The villagers on the main island adored her and the other miko looked up to her. But one day shortly after I had arrived, there was an earthquake- a small one, but enough for a crack to appear in one of the temple walls."
"Was that some sort of omen?" I ask.
"Hardly." The dragoness scoffed.
I had forgotten that divine dragonesses were nowhere near as superstitious as humans tended to be. "But both Totoi and I were of the mind that it was quite unsightly and summoned a mason from the village to see if he could repair it. And it turns out the mason was a very tall and handsome bachelor- so, almost immediately Totoi and I began vying for his affections."
"How did that go?" I asked, already pretty certain of the answer.
"In hindsight, I never stood a chance- Totoi was more beautiful, more refined and better attuned to the wants and desires of the local menfolk than a novice Ryu such as myself." she sighed wistfully. "I still had so much to learn."
"However, I had underestimated how insecure Totoi was. It seemed as though she all but won over the mason on her own, but that wasn't good enough for her."
"Why? What else did she do?"
"She used her blue fire curse on him so that he woud want nobody else but her. To this day." Yuwaku sighed. "The man was positively smitten with Totoi almost as soon as they had met, yet she still used that infernal curse of hers..."
"But Yuki isn't Totoi." I remind her.
"I understand- I suppose my experience with her has made me quite jaded. Right now, I question if any of the handmaiden's in my aunt's service would be capable of doing what Totoi did."
"What makes you say that?"
"When Yuki and the others approached me after our announcement, I was convinced that each of them would be arguing with each other why they alone were worthy of being the one who spends the winter at my shrine." the younger Ryu began. "Instead, each of them selflessly decided to offer that space to someone they had never even met. Those who may be in greater need than them."
"I've only known your aunt for a short time..." I begin to tell Yuwaku as I slip past her towards the exit. "But I suspect she had a lot to do with that."
After a restless night, I figured I was ready to go after packing some provisions and heading to the temple.
Yuki was a vision- even moreso than usual.
Although the dress she was wearing seemed similar to a sleeveless version of her miko's gown, she was wearing a straw hat with a wide brim and a gauzy fabric that hung down from the brim like a curtain- an uchikatsugi. Up close, I could still see her face through the sheer 'curtain', although barely so. It gave the pale lamia an even more etherial appearence. I wasn't sure if the hat was meant to be stylish or protect her face from insects or the rays of the sun.
"Good morning, Hanta.....Yuki." A sing-song voice called out before Yuki and I could even greet each other. The two of us turned to see Fuyu dressed in a similar manner as Yuki, only her hat was a little smaller and the 'curtains' were pulled aside so the two of us could clearly see her face.
"Ohayo, Fuyu. You seem to be in good spirits this morning." Yuki observed after she quickly bowed.
"Well- Koshu had to depart for his home village yesterday." Fuyu began morosoley. "But this morning, Hisui-sama handed me the list of villages I'm supposed to hand out notifications in." She didn't say anything right away, but unscrolled the list and tapped her finger next to one particular name.
"Dashinmura?" Yuki asked.
Fuyu nodded eagerly.
"Koshu's hometown!" she squealed with glee.
"Does he know you're coming?" I ask.
Fuyu shook her head 'no'. "I want to surprise him! It's the last village I'm supposed to stop by, so it's not like I have to move on to the next town from there...".
She seemed so enthusiastic about the prospect, it was hard not to feel a little bit happy for her. Especially after that rather awkward introduction with her mother.
"Is anyone else travelling with you?" Yuki asked. "If you'd like, perhaps Shimo could accompany you..."
"Your sister and Fuyu's mother aren't coming- they told Hisui-sama they would take care of handing out the notices in town." another voice spoke up.
It was the other shirohebi miko- Kori. She was dressed similarly to Yuki and Fuyu, but she had a much more relaxed and carefree look to her today. Her straw hat with the gauzy veil was already off of her head and dangling loosely behind her, held in place by a strap around her neck.
"Why...I wouldn't be surprised if they roped Hiro or your father into helping them out." Kori continued as she nodded towards Fuyu.
"What about you, Kori?"
"Ah, well....I suppose it's a lovely day for a leisurely stroll to some of the seaside ports and fishing villages." she shrugged. "Hisui-sama is sending me to the coastal towns south of here."
"Well....I suppose it's time for each of us to depart." Fuyu sighted. Kori nodded.
"Yuki, Hanta.....have fun." she said with a michevious grin as she donned her hat. "Same goes for you, Fuyu."
Fuyu said nothing, but gave us a coy little wave as she departed.
Even though we weren't heading to the same destination as Kori, she was correct. It was in fact a lovely day for a stroll with the beautiful shrine maiden, with just a slight chill in the air to indicate that autumn is right around the corner. On the outskirts of the village, I could see the road twisting through the mountains ahead with its white flagstone striking a contrast with the surrounding trees as it began a gentle and gradual ascent into the mountains. Somewhere further into the foothills was our destination.
There was the faintest hint of a whisper as Yuki's serpentine lower half undulated along the flagstone. The pathway was probably nice and warm for her on a sunny day like today.
"Ah! Hanta-kun..." she said sweetly before we had gotten very far outside of town. "I nearly forgot- we should make one more stop before we continue."
For a moment, I wasn't sure what Yuki had in mind. However, after looking around, I recognized where we were. This was that stretch of the road outside of town that went past the old fallow field with all the blackberries she and I picked.
Yuki no doubt wanted to augment our provisions with fresh blackberries.
As we approached the portion of the thicket were it seemed like only Yuki knew the way in, the miko let out a sharp gasp.
It sounded like she was in pain.
"Everything all right, Yuki?" I ask.
"It's nothing....I just...." she began. "I don't think I slept properly last night- there's this dull ache in my shoulder. I probably could've ignored it until I put on this pack." How could I ignore an opportunity like this?
"Yuki- how about you go ahead and put the rucksack down?" I say to her.
She does this without much hesitation, although she appears a bit bewildered at first.
"Now....can I get you to undo your top a little?"
"Oh, Hanta.....right now?" the flustered snake girl began. 'I'm flattered, but I'm not sure this is the time for such activities. Lady Hisui sent us out with the specific purpose of-" Without saying another word, I place my hands on each of Yuki's shoulder and begin massaging- gently at first.
"AH! H...Hanta!" she yelped as I could feel her upper body tense up. I'm starting to wonder if I've taken too many liberties with Yuki so early in the trip when I feel her begin to relax.
"That's the spot...right there." Yuki said contentedly.
This felt quite nice- not just the mere act of running my hands over the lovely shrine maiden's shoulders and upper back, but that fact that she was feeling a little better after all she had done for me.
"This feels so good." she sighed, nearly melting in my arms. I half seriously wonder if I'll end up having to carry a limp snake girl to our destination after this.
"A little lower?" I ask.
She shook her head 'No'. "Harder, please.....this is long overdue."
Taking care not to grip her too harshly, I continue massaging and kneading her back along the shoulders much more firmly.
"Oh.." she gasped. "Even better."
I begin moving my hands a little further down her shoulders before she speaks up.
"Right there- that's the spot!" the miko said excitedly.
I say nothing, but immediately get to working attacking the trouble spot that seems to have been bothering my lamia travelling companion. My hands are between her shoulder blades right now.
"Mmm...yes- right there. That feels so good, Hanta..." Yuki says blissfully, her head turned to the side and I could see through the fabric that her eyes locked shut. "I've needed this for so long now."
I'm well aware that the two of us have to be somewhere within the next day, but damn it if the sweet, busty miko's happy little moans and sighs aren't giving me other ideas as my hands roam even further down.
Almost as soon as I'm ready to whisper in Yuki's elfin little ear that her front needs attention and give her bounteous bosom a much-needed massage, the two of us hear a crashing noise on the other side of the thicket.
It seemed too big and loud to be a wild animal.
It was coming from the other side of the vegetation that separated the field from the forest and adjacent roadway. While it seemed loud enough to have been Yuki's lower body thrashing as she made her way through the thicket, I could see she clearly was still on the same side of the thicket as me.
That could only mean it was another person or youkai.
I could see that Yuki looked concerned as well.
Eventually, someone else burst forth from the thicket.
Someone tall, red, muscular and clad in a two-piece tiger-skin outfit. It was a Red Oni. Lugging some sort of bucket, she seemed to be looking behind her before nearly walking into Yuki.
The Shirohebi let out a startled 'Eep!'.
"Ah! Sumimasen!" the surprised oni said in a deceptively soft voice, bowing slightly as she saw Yuki for the first time.
"I-it's alright....I thought the miko at our temple were the only ones who knew of this place." Yuki said as she politely bowed to the taller ogress.
"I....I only found out about this place a little while ago." the oni chuckled nervously as she used her free hand to scratch the back of her neck. She was a tall one, with well defined muscles and abs, yet the skimpy tiger skin loincloth and top displayed some rather feminine curves along her hips, bust and rear to accompany those muscles. "As soon as I heard about it, I just had this overwhelming urge to sample some of the ingredients myself."
I could see that Yuki's nose was scrunched up a little as she sniffed and then flicked the air around her with her tongue.
"Er...begging your pardon." the miko began timidly as she nodded timidly towards the bucket the Oni was holding on to. "But I think the berries you picked are going bad."
"Oh? These...?" the Oni replied, seemingly even more apprehensive than Yuki. "Yeah- that's mostly by design, actually. I'm working on something that I hope will be ready in time for the Harvest festival."
Yuki looked a little bewildered at first, wondering what value a bucket of fermenting berries could hold to anyone. Then she realized the red oni was already making plans to be in attendence for the festival her temple was putting on.
"Ah! Well- if you'll be at the festival, I suppose I might be seeing you there in a little while then." Yuki said as she curtsied, grabbing the hem of her miko's dress.
"Y-yeah....I'm really looking forward to it. Seems like I always have a good time, even if I don't always remember everything" the oni said to both of us with another nervous chuckle. "Well then, I'm pretty much done here, so I'll just let the two of you two do whatever it was that you were gonna do." she followed this up by giving us a wink that seems to say I know what both of you are up to before making her way past the two of us.
Oh crap- Yuki's little moans and sighs, all that talk of pressing harder and lower until hitting the right spot.....that was way too easy for anyone listening in to misunderstand.
Part of me wants to call out to her and explain that we didn't plan on doing anything very intimate. Not here, at least.
"Ganbatte!" the oni called out as she departed, still lugging the large bucket of fermented blackberries.
It didn't take us nearly as long to gather some berries this time around, since we were travelling light and didn't stop to hold a mock swordfight or resume giving Yuki a backrub. Neither one of us were willing to say anything about the matter, but I'm sure we were still both a little embarrassed that the passing red oni overheard me giving Yuki a backrub and assumed it was something completely different.
Before long, the two of us were back on the road and gradually climbing into the mountains. I had to marvel at how we had been climbing much of the morning and into the early afternoon, but it didn't seem like the trail was too steep anywhere along the way. Instead, it had been a steady, gentle climb into the mountains and forest, with the roadway levelling out at occasional clearing or meadow before continuing off into the distance.
"Guess I can see why they call this the Path of the White Serpent." I marvel as I see the path undulating through the edge of the forest and a little further into the mountains off in the distance.
"Actually, it's known as the Path of the Wise Serpent." Yuki corrects me as she parts the sheer 'curtain' on her uchikatsugi. "Although I can see why you'd assume it was 'White Serpent'..."
"So what's the story behind that?"
"Many years ago, the Daimyo commissioned the construction of a post road between the capital and major cities throughout the islands." the lamia explains.
"Well, it was said that the Daimyo at the time ordered them built so that decrees from the imperial court could be delivered to his regional governors without delay and artisans, magistrates, nobles and craftsmen could quickly make their way to the capital when summoned."
"So a road like this one?"
"Not quite- the first of these roads went along the coast-"
"The ones Kori and Fuyu are supposed to be taking?"
"That was the original alignment. However, washouts and landslides were a common problem during the rainy season or whenever a major storm moved through the area."
"Then this would be an alternate route?"
"Yes- although the winters in the mountains are harsher. It was said that the Daimyo had a seer who he trusted more than anyone else- a Shirohebi who was also rumored to be his concubine. She reasoned that a path through the mountains would be far more passable during the temperate months and even during milder winters- and thus would ultimately be worth the investment in time and resources to construct it."
"Makes sense. So the Daimyo names it in honor of the seer who convinced him to build it."
"Well- that's one version."
"What's the other version?"
"Oh my....the more popular version is a bit....how should I say?.....immodest."
"Yuki- come on. How can a story about building a road through the mountains be- as you put it- 'immodest'?" I ask with finger quotes to emphasize the last word.
"I...I've said too much." the nervous shirohebi stammered.
"I really shouldn't."
"Yuki- you know what's going to happen if you don't tell me after bringing it up out of the blue like that?"
"I'm just going to keep pestering you until you tell me."
She let out an exasperated sigh. She knew I was right, although there was a lengthy pause before she resumed speaking.
"It was said that the daimyo commissioned a map to chart out the route of this new road he tasked his subordinates with building." she began.
"But this particular map was quite large- bigger than any of the tables where he met with his ministers and advisors. Instead of using it in the meeting area, he instructed the cartographers to lay it out across the floor of his quarters one night."
"Then.....after procuring all manner of lotions and aphrodisiacs, he summoned his seer, Isohebi, to his quarters one night. Once she showed up, he proceeded to.....um........" the bashful shrine maiden trailed off.
"Proceeded to what?" I ask innocently.
Yuki furrowed her brow at me- clearly frustrated that I was having her spell it out for me.
"He proceeded to make........." she stopped, trying to think of a more tactful way of phrasing what she wanted to say next. "That is to say the two of them.......would go on to engage in......you....you know....."
"Engage in what? Calligraphy lessons?" I asked teasingly.
"They.... they made love throughout the night!" Yuki finally blurted out. "They h....had relations until Isohebi was too weary to move. It was said she was so exhausted that she simply fell asleep after being so very intimate with her lord."
"Is that a fact?" I query, unable to suppress a grin. "But what does any of this have to do with the road we're on right now?"
The beautiful albino lamia was clearly flustered, but there was undoubtedly a bit more to this tale that she was trying to tell me.
"And Hanta?" she asks.
"You weren't too far off...." Yuki continues.
"Really- About what?"
"The calligraphy. You see- besides the oils and perfume the daimyo had stockpiled in his quarters, there was also a supply of ink and some sumi brushes."
"So he was going to use his concubine's body as a canvas?" I ask, genuinely curious. "Sounds pretty kinky."
"No....n-not quite. You see- apparently his quarters were only illuminated by the light from a single lantern that night. Unbeknownst to Isohebi, they had been making love on top of the large map that the Daimyo had commissioned that night. Once she was asleep, the Daimyo took the brushes and ink along with a lantern and traced an outline of her sleeping form atop the map."
Now nearly as red as a tomato, Yuki pauses to make sure I'm taking this all in.
"They say THAT is how Path of the Wise Serpent got its name."
There was a considerable pause before I spoke up again.
"That's...uh....pretty steamy for what's basically a tale about a public works project the daimyo ordered built." I admitted.
"Well- there were those in the court who thought Isohebi wielded too much influence over the daimyo. It's likely they're the ones who started the tale- it may not be true, but it's certainly the most popular story behind how the path of the Wise Serpent got its name."
"Or maybe the daimyo himself could've started it to spread the word about what a stud he was for keeping his lamia concubine pleased...."
The shrine maiden paused.
"I suppose that's a possibility, although it seems a bit frivolous for the daimyo to do so." She then turned to me. "Bragging about being intimate with so many beautiful youkai- Is that something you'd do, Hanta?"
"Oh.....you know...." I say innocently. "I'm the sort who prefers quality over quantity."
"Is that so?"
"So then: W-would you consider me 'quality'?" Yuki asks bashfully.
"All signs point to 'yes', although thanks to circumstances beyond our control, we keep getting interrupted by your sister or Lady Hisui." I chuckle. "Although upon further reflection- if even just half of what Fuyu's mother said it true, Fuyu's dad must be the luckiest man in the whole prefecture."
"Hanta?" Yuki asked coyly.
"What is it?" I ask.
"You know there's nobody else around for quite some distance right now?" she asks as she looks around.
"Well, yeah...." I begin to say before it dawns on me where Yuki might be going with this.
"And you know what that means....?" she coos as her lower half begins coiling around me.
"Lots and lots of time alone together?"
"Exactly..." she smiles as she puts both of her slender hands on my shoulders. "Not to mention...." she titters as I can feel her lower body constricting.
Uh-oh. I'm not sure if I should be scared or aroused judging from that look in her eyes.
Clearly I'm not going anywhere anytime soon thanks to her- better make it 'scared'.
"....there's nobody to hear your cries when I start squeezing the pervert out of you." she whispers into my ear.
".....mmm, yes- perhaps I should finish what I started back in the temple before I was interrupted the other day." she muses as she mashes my face into her cleavage. Keep in mind that in and of itself isn't such a bad thing since my arms are still free
"Yuki...?" I wheeze.
"You should be ashamed of yourself, Hanta.....openly lusting after a married woman like Lady Kaouru like that!" Yuki playfully admonished as she applied a little more pressure and pouted. "Am I not enough?
"I...I'm sorry, Yuki. It's just that Fuyu's mom looked really good for her age." I begin before I realized that was probably not a good thing to say to a youkai species with a reputation for their intense jealousy.
Yuki squeezes a little tighter, indicating that was indeed the wrong thing to say.
"Fu fu fu.....you know there's other ways to bring you under control besides the blue fire curse, my perverted, sneaky little rat. Before I cut off the air, tell me- do you have a thing for older women, Hanta-kun?" she teases. "I mean besides shamelessly lusting over a housewife nearly twice your age, it seems like you've been spending alot of time with Hisui-sama."
"What can I say? The old gal still has it...." I tease- not an inaccurate statement, either. "Besides....seems like she's been busy playing matchmaker lately. I mean besides Fuyu and her new drummer friend, you think maybe trying to set up little old me with a certain shrine maiden who in all likelihood is going to age just as gracefully as Fuyu's mom?" While Lady Hisui's activities and motives may have been pretty obvious to me, they may not have been so apparent to Yukihebi until I just pointed it out. I didn't quite realize the full implication of what I asking Yuki until the lamia miko's face went beet red. No veil on earth could conceal that.
"G....growing old together....?" she squeaked nervously as she was fidgeting. "Hanta....a-are you saying....you and I....?"
I could feel her coils loosening.
It hardly seemed right to lead her on like that- except I wasn't. As much as I had enjoyed these past few weeks with Yuki, I had been more concerned about the here and now than any long-term planning.
It was never explicitly stated by Lady Hisui, but she had most likely arranged it so that Yuki and I could spend all this time together in order to get to know one another better rather than blindly rushing headfirst into any sort of long-term commitment.
Or at least that's how I saw it.
Her announcement from earlier today most likely wasn't part of the wily Ryu's matchmaking schemes, but both Yuki and Fuyu seemed adaptable.
"Th-that's no fair, Hanta!" Yuki pouted, now almost completely uncoiled from me. "Trying to catch me off guard by saying such things so casually."
She didn't say anything else right away, but made a big show of uncorking her canteen and taking a few sips from it.
Her slender fingers reached into the little basket of blackberries she had slung around her wait, popping a couple of them into her mouth before washing it down with a few more swigs of water.
"Shall we continue?" Yuki asked after a few quiet moments, her tone more businesslike.
I quietly nod in the affirmative.
Although I don't know the specifics of our destination, I have a feeling that we've gone past the halfway point while we were chatting and making our way up the path. One of the things I appreciated the most about the Path of the Wise Serpent was how we seemed to make considerable headway climbing into the foothills, but it didn't seem like we had done much climbing at all on the way up. Quite the accomplishment, even if this pathway wasn't designed around the outline of an albino lamia oracle who had just been fucked silly by her lord.
As the pathway began a gradual, downward stretch, I could see through the clearings in the forest a valley with a river, some fields and what appeared to be a decent sized town at one end of the valley.
"Hanta- can I ask you something?" Yuki queried as we continued.
"Sure- what is it?"
"Let's say you were paired with Lady Kaouru to travel out to our destination...."
"Fuyu's mom? Seems a bit unlikely, but go on..."
"Well, let's say we were shorthanded at the temple and Hisui-sama asked you to accompany her. But on the way there, there was an early freak storm that dumped sleet and frozen rain all over and the two of you got caught up in it. The two of you managed to find shelter, but Lady Kaouru's gown is soaked and she's chilled to the bone. What would you do in such circumstances?"
"I guess I'd give her a blanket, I suppose." I suggest meekly.
"The blanket is soaked- if you even have one. Same goes for your clothes. Lady Kaouru is shivering now."
"Uh....I'd maybe build a fire so the two of us can warm up and dry off our garments?"
"But there's no time for that- either that or the wood and kindling you brought with you is soaked, Hanta-kun. Then what?"
"Wow- Did I fall into a river or something? This is a really specific hypothetical instance where..."
"Lady Kaouru is in dire need, Hanta- what are you going to do for her? If you don't do anything for her, she could go into a deep sleep and never wake up. Why would you want to take Fuyu's mother away from her, Hanta!?" she presses
I know what's going on. Yuki wants some measure of payback for me having her explain the origins of this pathway's name and is peppering me with no-win hypothetical questions about myself and other women.
"OK then.....so I guess to save Fuyu's mother, I'm undressing and letting her naked body wrap around me in order for the two of us to stay warm."
"But Hanta....why would you do such an indecent thing with a married women?"
I knew it- if I suggested anything that didn't have to do with removing clothes or relying on my body heat, it would automatically not be enough and I'd be neglecting my hypothetical lamia travelling companion to the point of near-death. If I suggested anything where my naturally higher body temperature could help warm Fuyu's mom up, I would be a lecher and homewrecker.
Still, I might as well have some fun with this.
"You said it yourself. Lady Kaouru may get so cold that she'd enter a deep hibernation that she might never wake from. In fact....simply huddling together naked by the fire may not be enough. In all likelihood, we'd need to engage in some sort of physical activity to keep our body temperatures elevated."
"What do you mean?"
"I think Lady Kaouru and I would have to make love...."
"Hanta! You-" Yuki began before I cut her off.
"You shameless homewrecker! What about Fuyu and her dad?"
"Well.....you see, Lady Kaouru and I had to do it in the scenario you laid out. This is no time for half measures- Fuyu's mom clearly is in need of my body heat and spirit energy."
"Hanta, you pervert!"
"I can't just let her slip away like that, can I? And to ensure Lady Kaouru's well being and make sure Fuyu sees her mother once again, I'd have to make love with Lady Kaouru over and over- in a variety of positions- until I can see for myself that I've got her feeling warm all over.." I continue. "Maybe apply thoroughly some soothing medicinal balm to her chest."
"But the balm is soaked through after the-" Yuki began.
"Nope." I interrupted. "I took precautions- it's being kept in a water resistant container. And so, just to make sure she's all right, I'd slip her some medecine- probably some Gan Cao- orally and gently massage her breasts, explaining that once upon a time a beautiful Shirohebi treated me when I was injured, so now I'm returning the favor."
"Hanta...." Yuki clearly looked agitated and her cheeks were a bit puffed up. "I can't believe you!"
"Hey now- if you're going to put me in a situation where there's no good answer, I might as well have a little bit of fun with it."
"It seems like you were having a bit too much fun with that."
"Oh really? I didn't even get to the part where a passing Blue Oni discovers me and Lady Kaouru stripped naked with our bodies intertwined as I'm applying that healing balm to her chest."
"This is starting to sound like one of those ribald illustrated novels." Yuki fumes.
"You mean like the ones on your bookshelf?"
"I'll have you know most of those are there for their artwork." the shirohebi harrumphs indignantly.
"Is that a fact? Damn shame I haven't seen too many of them for myself. I bet the illustrations are just absolutely mind-blowing." I tease Yuki.
Before I can continue, I see the next town laid out before us in the valley. It's a little smaller than the harbor town Hisui's temple is located in, but the most striking thing about it is a bridge made up of several smaller cantilevers or arches where the Path of the Wise serpent crossed the wide but shallow and rocky river.
Yuki doesn't seem as impressed with the structure as I do as the two of us continue our gradual descent towards the riverbank and bridge. It's possible she's been here before- in fact, she's serving as my de-facto guide.
The arches....even without my lamia traveling companion or our Ryu benefactor, the way the bridge rises and lowers its way across the river reminds me of a ryu or Shirohebi's undulating lower body.
Some sort of sign, perhaps?
As we approach the bridge, I can see two imposing figures standing at the foot of the path leading up to our side of the span. They're both partially clad in some armor, although their midriffs are still exposed. Both of them are holding some sort of Naginata that's slightly taller than them. I can see that their skin is blue and both of them have fairly stoic and expressionless faces- two Ochimusha manning some sort of checkpoint.
One of them moves to block the pathway before the bridge as Yuki approaches. However, Yuki produces the scroll containing the letter from Lady Hisui.
"We're here on business from Hisui-sama's temple." Yuki says with a quick, polite bow before unfurling the scroll.
The Ochimusha blocking the path gives the letter a quick once-over before turning to her colleague and acknowledging her with a silent nod.
"Very well, you may proceed." She says as she steps back to her original position. "Safe journey, travellers."
"Thank you." Yuki nods as she makes her way past the undead duo and onto the undulating bridge with me quickly following her.
I realize the two swordswomen were manning an impromptu checkpoint meant to collect tolls from travelers or check their documents. The Danuki Korigashi had initially hired me to clear a path through the mountains and forest around a far more permanent version of this checkpoint so that she wouldn't have to explain the contraband she was travelling with or show any travel documents while plying her wares between cities.
Now that I'm actually crossing it, the bridge itself quite as impressive from this close up as it is from a distance. Yuki has actually gotten a little further ahead of me, so I increase my tempo to catch up with her.
"See that cloud up there?" I ask Yuki as I point to a solitary cloud lazily floating over the mountain range to the west of town. "I don't suppose that's some sort of out-of-season freak rain or sleet storm bearing down on us where we get soaked through and have to take off our clothes and huddle together for body heat."
The lamia shot me a sideways glance to indicate that she was not amused.
"Actually, we're almost at our destination, Hanta." Yuki said as she examined another scroll before putting it away.
The shirohebi nodded. "If we keep going straight on through, we'll almost certainly run out of daylight. I think it's wise to find a place to stay here for tonight."
I nodded in agreement as the two of us scaled the third 'hump' on the bridge into town. Part of me is wondering if an introductory note from Lady Hisui would carry enough weight to be granted a free night's accommodation- or would Yuki and I have to spend an evening out in the open, under the stars?
I realize I'm better off deferring to Yuki, since she seems somewhat familiar with our surroundings.
As for me, I had found myself in very much uncharted waters.