kaigou: (6 festival god)
[personal profile] kaigou
This isn't even my genre, but unlike most stories, this one's worked itself out. That is, it keeps itself on play and there's no third-quarter "and then stuff happens" blank. Strange. Maybe the trick is to let stories stay in my head for much longer than I had?

I'll go into it later, what I'm trying to approach/address, but short version is a world based loosely on the Ming-dynasty age of merchant-pirates. But since I don't want to get into a specific time frame, for now I'm coming at it as influenced by, but not strictly-based in. Same for languages, so names and whatnot are placeholders for now.




The lion-dogs were waiting at the shrine's gate when Kini arrived, and she wondered if her third trip might prove the first time she'd see the huokei for herself. It had rained on the mountain, the night before, and summer leaves lay scattered in wet drifts across the shrine's little dirt courtyard. Kini shuffled her way through the leaf piles, pausing to let the lion-dogs sniff her straw sandals. They were the size of regular dogs, but silver-gray like stone come to life, with thick manes that ringed their cheerful, lolling faces. After a moment's perusal, the two dogs ran off, tumbling and yipping like puppies.

Kini set down her bundle by the small well, washing her hands and face before approaching the shrine. She was just rising from her knees, prayers said, when she looked past the rough-carved icon to the god's little home. It was a sacred building, said to house the mountain god when in residence. In her entire life of visiting the shrine she'd never seen the door propped open like it was now. She started, not even a heartbeat to wonder whether she had any right to approach and close it, before she realized someone sat in the doorway, watching her.

Instinctively Kini looked away, remembering Sozu's warning that the unfamiliar huokei was quite shy. Huokei were said to be retiring creatures, only lured out of their mountain homes by the most devout, and hushed, of prayers. Kini doubted she'd ever count as devout, let alone hushed. She glanced back, a little amused that a creature as still and waiting as the huokei could unnerve her so.

Its feet were bare, but one ankle was bound in rough cloth. Her elder sister's handiwork. The huokei's shins were wrapped in dark gaiters, but not the wide raw cloths used by people in the fields. The gaiters were solid, in a fabric that shone dully in the dappled sunlight through the trees. The leg with the bound ankle was propped before the huokei, the other leg hanging down, toes planted in the dirt. The huokei's arms were straight, hands curled around the edge of the top step outside the house's door. A tense position, if not for the injured ankle.

At least, she thought that's how its hands might be, if the sleeves of the huokei's jacket weren't hiding them. The sleeves weren't squared and large like a proper outer-jacket, but close at the shoulder and growing wider towards the hand. The jacket wasn't bound at the waist, but loose, and from the amount of fabric across the lowered leg, and the way it almost touched the ground, it looked like the jacket's hem would might reach the huokei's knees, or lower. What had looked black in the doorway's shadow revealed itself a deep green in the spots of sunlight. The color reminded Kini of deep water in a creek, in the shade, somewhere between green, gray, and brown.

Though the brown, she thought critically, might be dirt. Sozu had said the huokei seemed to be travelling, and perhaps huokei had observances about when and where to wash their clothes. All thoughts of a good scrubbing disappeared when Kini finally raised her gaze enough to look the huokei straight-on. It was studying her in return, just as closely, and she immediately gave it the slightest bow and a little smile, out of habit. Kini straightened up, blinking when the huokei leaned forward, bringing its face just enough into the light.

Its face was golden-brown, with eyes, nose, mouth like any person, but the markings made Kini's breath catch. Beneath each eye, a dark line ran horizontally from temple almost to nose, with a second dark line running parallel but half as long. From the lower line, three lines ran down to the chin, curving a little as they reached the huokei's jawline. Kini squinted at two more marks on the huokei's forehead. Just above each eyebrow, closer to the nose than temple, were little swirls. Like circles with tails resting above the huokei's lighter-colored arched brows.

Next to those distinctive marks, the hair was barely a surprise. Of course a huokei with a face that looked young, maybe about Kini's own age, would have hair silvered more than even Kini's grandmother's had ever been. The stories said huokei could live for centuries.

"I brought food," Kini called. The huokei twitched, and she wondered if it, too, had been holding its breath. The lion-dogs bounced back into the clearing, one shoving the other through a pile of leaves. The huokei raised one hand a little, made a snapping sound, and the two dogs stilled, wagged their tails, and settled down. Kini picked up her bundle and took a step forward. "My sister wants me to take a look at that ankle."

The huokei frowned, and Kini pointed. The huokei clearly understood, because it surprised Kini with a wry look and just the barest roll of its eyes. It started to stand but Kini waved it back down.

"Stay off it. Sozu knows about this stuff. She told me if you don't stay off it, it could be months before you're healed." Kini set the bundle down on the little house's wooden porch, unwrapping the cloth to reveal two more bundles.

She untied one, letting the cloth fall open to show three puffy dumplings. Kini held it out, and the huokei was still for a moment, then took the bundle from her. Its fingers barely brushed her hands, but the touch was enough to assure her that huokei were as warm as any human. Not cold as a grave, though maybe as silent as one.

"I'm Kini," she added. "I'm not sure if my sister's told you about me. She's told me some about you. Is your voice any better? Are you drinking the tea she made?" Kini paused, and the huokei merely stared at her, in the middle of tearing a dumpling in half. She waited, but the huokei only sniffed the contents, then clicked its tongue. The lion-dogs leapt forward, shoving each other in joyful excitement. The huokei waited until the dogs settled down to feed them the dumpling-halves, and Kini waited as well. The huokei still didn't answer.

"I guess that answers that. Let me take a look at your ankle, then I'll check your throat." Kini tapped her fingers against the huokei's swathed ankle. For a moment she thought the huokei had frowned at her, then it sighed around a mouthful of dumpling and raised its foot. Kini grasped the huokei's leg, straightening it out and laying it across her lap so the ankle would be propped up. "What is this?" She poked at something unyielding against her lap, a tube of some sort running the length of the gaiter. "Can you take this off? Did my eldest sister put this on you? She said it was just your--"

The huokei snorted and leaned forward, gold-brown fingers visible beyond the overlong jacket sleeve. It grasped the black tube, twisted, and with a soft click the item sprang free. It looked almost like the long knives gentlewomen wore for self-defense, but it had no bisecting seam to indicate where hilt met sheath. It had vertical seams running the length, but before she could ask or even reach for it, the thing was gone. A soft clunk told her it had been set down on the huokei's other side.

"Fine. I get it," she muttered. "All Sozu does is give me instructions and then yell at me when you don't even show up. Now you finally show up, and provide as much conversation as a stone kasu at the side of the road. Does this hurt?" When the huokei didn't respond, she sighed and unwrapped the ankle, setting aside the swathing to give the ankle a careful eye. A bruise ran along the outside of the huokei's foot, turning gold-brown skin to yellow tinted with purple. "That had to have been nasty-looking a week ago. My guess, another week off it, so no running about the mountain until then."

The huokei just watched, chewing each bite slowly. The jacket sleeves had fallen open, revealing arm-guards of a same material and design as the gaiters. There were additional metal tubes running along the outside of each from wrist almost to the elbow. Kini unravelled the bandage, found the middle, and placed it against the huokei's foot. Almost instantly the huokei jerked, and Kini grabbed the ankle. The huokei made a soft sound and Kini just as quickly let go.

"Sorry. You're ticklish, eh. Fine, let me see, no, this way..." Kini bent over, muttering to herself, cheeks heated from the embarrassment of nearly making the pain worse for one of Sozu's injured foundlings. Though a huokei was a first, in Kini's recollection. Sozu had been tending birds, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, and the odd frog for as far back as Kini could remember, though now most of Sozu's mending arts were used on Kini's five nieces and nephews. One more due any day, too.

"Too tight? Too loose?" Kini halted, about to tie the bandage off. When the huokei didn't respond, she'd had enough. Kini yanked the bandage tight, and asked again. The huokei coughed around its bite of food, and put up a hand. The nails were long, little half-moons visible beyond the huokei's fingertips. The hand motioned, and Kini blinked, then grinned. "I get distracted. So, looser?" She loosened the knot a little, and the huokei wriggled its fingers. "Little more?" The huokei nodded.

"Good." Kini tied the knot, tucking the ends under the gaiter. She left the huokei's leg where it was, since at least it was propped up. "When you're done eating, I need to check your throat." She pointed to her own, then the huokei's.

It made a face at her, then licked its fingers before reaching for the last dumpling. This time, it tore the dumpling in two, but didn't offer any to the waiting dogs. Instead, it offered one-half to her. Kini shook her head, waving it off.

"You eat. I had mine on the way. Didn't think I'd see you at all. I've heard when you have too many kids, you can start to see things, or maybe that's when the baby's turned around the wrong way." She laughed at herself. "Not that I'd say that to Sozu, but I was starting to wonder, until I heard Tora's grandmother saying she'd met a huokei at the shrine. Old woman? Even more gray than you?" She bent over, mimed holding a cane. The huokei paused, stared, and gave a slight smile. "So she did meet you. Hard to believe her, seeing how she also swears she once got kissed by Kerasayuzoki-jeyo's grandfather." Kini grinned. "Lords don't come around kissing farmer's daughters. Or farmer's grandmothers!"

The huokei made another attempt to offer the dumpling-half, but didn't hesitate to bite into it when Kini shook her head again. Kini sat back, one hand stroking the huokei's hurt ankle out of habit. Sozu swore it helped the healing process, to be touched. The huokei didn't seem to mind, but then, the huokei didn't seem to react to much. It seemed, if anything, to be attentively waiting and watching everything around them, gaze darting back and forth except for the few times it looked Kini's way.

"Sozu says you don't have a name, but you've got to have one. It just feels rude to just keep calling you 'you'," Kini explained. She pointed to herself. "Kini." She pointed to the huokei, with an expectant look.

The huokei quirked one brow, so fast Kini wondered if she'd seen the motion. Then the huokei leaned over and grabbed a stick from the ground. It carefully drew something, and sat back for Kini to study the marks. Kini had to shake her head.

"I can't read," she explained. "Is your voice still that bad? Maybe I should tell Sozu to come up with something else--" She broke off, at a soft whisper. "Say that again. Did you just shush me, or was that your name?" This time, she managed to stay quiet long enough for the huokei to try again. It sounded like shhhh. Kini made a face and the huokei gave a little laugh, but still silent, and motioned her closer. She leaned over, and the huokei repeated the sound.

"Tehseh...uu?" Kini asked. "That's your name?"

The huokei frowned, coughed again, and said it a third time. "Tsiu."

"So that's what it says?" She pointed to the scratches in the dirt. "Tsiu."

The huokei shook its head, then pointed to the first character. "Dhi." Then the second. "Tsiu."

"Oh. I wonder what it means." Kini shrugged, certain she wasn't up for the excruciating sign language required to figure out that meaning, and she didn't want the huokei to injure itself just so she could have conversation. But the huokei was patting the hem of its jacket, then pointing to its sleeve. "Cloth," Kini said, guessing. She pointed to her own robe, a workable light blue hand-me-down faded from years in the field. "Like this."

"No," the huokei whispered. It pointed to the trees, then at the leaves scattered about, then to the deepest green of its own clothing. "Dhi."

"Green!" Kini nodded. "Tsiu? What does Tsiu mean?"

The huokei paused, and Kini was startled to see it chew its lower lip, a human kind of action. It shook its head, and Kini guessed the meaning was something that couldn't be pointed out. The huokei finished its last bite of dumpling, and Kini wriggled out from under the huokei's leg, to come up on her knees.

"You'll need to move your hair," she said, and took up her own ponytail in demonstration. The huokei looked reluctant but nodded, lifting up its mass of silver-and-blank. The back of its hair was more black than gray, much like Kini remembered her grandmother's hair, but unwrapping the bandage around the huokei's neck distracted her from wondering how such a young face could come with an old person's hair. Kini sucked in air between her teeth.

The wound was still raw, but healing slowly. Sozu had made it sound like someone might've tried to take the huokei's head off, all the way around... with a knife that had a cutting blade two fingers thick. Kini thought it looked more like someone had tried to strangle the huokei with a burning ribbon, judging from the ripples at the edges of the angry red streak. Her grandfather had gotten burns like that, when he'd been alive and still smithing.

She undid the second bundle and poked through the medicines to find Sozu's favorite cream. The huokei hissed at the touch, and Kini apologized, trying to do it with a lighter touch. She really didn't have the knack like Sozu did, but then, she hadn't spent her life treating everything and anything injured. She curled around the huokei to reach the front of its throat, using her knuckles to make sure the huokei didn't turn its head and pull at the healing wound. It was then she realized the huokei had the smallest ridge in its throat, a bare shadow of the prominent lump in Sozu's husband's throat.

"Ah, you're a boy," Kini said, absently puzzled as to why knowing was such a relief. She pulled back a little to study the huokei's face. It -- he -- had a strong jaw, but pillowed with just enough flesh in jaw and cheek to be girlish, or just a young boy. It didn't fit with the silver outnumbering the black in the hair, and the gaze too level and self-aware for an adolescent boy. That age, in Kini's experience, was anything but self-aware and never level-headed.

She finished off the cream, then wrapped the huokei's neck with a clean bandage, tucking the ends rather than tying them. She sat back and gently pushed the huokei's arms down, letting it release its hair.

"I guess that's all... Tsiu," she said, feeling self-conscious. She wrapped up the bundle of medicines, then thought twice and thrust the little box of cream at the huokei. "Here. You should probably apply this nightly, if you can."

Tsiu accepted the box, turning it over in long fingers, and set it aside, next to the knife. The dogs yipped and ran off at some signal audible only to them. Kini took it as a signal and stood, brushing off the seat of her robe. The huokei started to stand but she waved it back down, then pointed to the bound ankle.

"Stay off that." On impulse, she added, "you stay off it, and next time I'm here, I'll show you where the hot springs are. Up that way." She started to point the way, then thought twice. Tsiu didn't need to get any ideas about exploring. "And that way," she added, waving vaguely around, just to confuse things. From the huokei's expression, she'd succeeded. "It depends on how Sozu's doing. I don't mind coming. It's a trek up the mountain but it's a chance to be somewhere that I'm not surrounded by yelling kids." Kini picked up her bundle, tied the ends and threw it over her shoulder as a makeshift pack. "But I guess Sozu probably thinks the same, even if she's way too big now to be scrambling up a mountain. Not like you can come down it."

The huokei just stared at her, giving nothing away, those odd marks on his face suddenly more noticeable now that she was standing directly before him. Kini exhaled in a rush, hefted the pack again, and stepped back.

"It was nice meeting you," she said with a slight bow, age-to-age.

She hesitated, wondering if she should bow deeper, if the huokei's young face were misleading and he was really an elder who deserved more respect. She didn't get a chance. The huokei was already responding. One hand, palm up, the other hand, palm down, palms pressed together so his sleeves formed a straight line from elbow to elbow. She wondered if the overlong sleeves were designed to give that impression of unbroken cloth, as the huokei bowed its head, just a little, towards its arms. It was more of a nod, really, but Kini instinctively understood and bowed again, politely.

"Maybe I'll see you again," Kini said, taking another step back. "Be sure to stay off that ankle... Tsiu."

The huokei's smile flashed, and she turned away, waving over her shoulder. When she turned back to wave again from the shrine's gate, the huokei was nowhere to be seen, and the door to the shrine-god's home was closed as it had always been. There was no sign of the lion-dogs. Kini realized for the first time just how silent the shrine was, even birdsong sounding distant. She shivered, hefted the pack a final time, and turned her feet towards home.




I'll keep the rest behind a lock out of politeness, so let me know if you want to keep reading. I just got to get this out, and then I can go back to wallowing in code.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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