After my fourth or fifth glass of sake at the tavern, I felt a slender pair of arms slide around my shoulders and the warm swell of a large pair of breasts pressing into my back. Right away I could tell the arms were too dark to belong to the cute shirohebi who had been occupying my mind lately. Yukihebi also didn't have a colorful dragon tattoo wrapping around her upper arm, either.
"Hanta-kun....are you feeling OK? You haven't tried fondling me all week." a husky but still feminine voice asked loud enough for the other patrons to hear.
"Is that an invitation, Burei?" I ask.
Suddenly, the buxom human barmaid rediscovers her modesty and backs away from me as though I had just burst into flame. Burei was easily one of the longest-serving barmaids at this particular izakaya. While not as pretty as some of the newer hires, her brash, straightforward nature somehow endeared herself to alot of the regulars. Every once in awhile, drunkards needed to hear the hard truth, something the demure and prettier new hires were less than capable of. That's not to say Burei wasn't pretty, it's just that the upper left part of her torso was covered in tattoos that I found distracting and otherwise detracted from her nice figure and pleasant face that was marked with small nicks and scars from pervious altercations. She had a very mercurial nature where she could be verbally emasculating you in front of the other patrons one moment and genuinely concerned for your well-being a few seconds later.
"No...it's just......." she said defensively.
"What Burei-chan means to say is that you don't seem yourself lately, Hanta" one of the regulars spoke up. It was an older gentleman named Inken who ran an import-export business in town. Inken sometimes helped me out with finding temporary employment and a place to stay. He also somewhat overestimated my enthusiasm for mamono and would give me a heads up if a vessel was coming to port with any foreign monster girls on the vessel's manifest- they usually ended up being Minotaurs who were working as stevedores that the shipping company brought with them.
"After what happened to me in the mountains, I guess I still feel a little.....off" I said.
"I guess anyone would." Inken said sympathetically. "But I see it hasn't hindered your sake-drinking arm any."
"Say- are you sure it doesn't have anything to do with that white snake-girl that you're following around like a lovesick puppy?" Burei teased.
"I think I know who you're talking about." Inken said to Burei. "She's a cute one, Hanta..."
"That's an understatement..." I add.
"No offense, but what she's doing with you?" the businessman asked. Normally, I'd expect such a tactless question from the lips of Burei. "Does she have a thing for foreigners?"
"Must be my undeniable animal magnetism, right Burei?" I asked.
The barmaid harrumphed and turned her head away from me in reply.
"She's the one who found me in the mountains and watched over me at the Ryu's temple until I got better." I explained to both of them. "I think she's just checking up on me...she even made me a bento when I started my new job."
"All those times you walked me home after I'd been drinking here, making sure I didn't get robbed. You never made me a bento lunch the next day, Hanata." Inken frowned, rather subtly making his point about Yukihebi's interest in me going beyond concern for an injured traveler she decided to aid.
"Hey Hanta-kun...let me ask you something." Burei said.
"What is it?"
"You were out cold for a couple of days, right?"
"How clean were you when you woke up at the Ryu's temple?"
"Considering I'd been unconscious for nearly a week, pretty clean....."
"Almost like you had been bathed?"
"So that probably means your little snake-girl has seen you naked and had a chance to check out the goods." Burei pointed out.
My jaw dropped as I realized she was right. I had no reason to believe Yukihebi did anything untoward while I was in her care, but my heart was now racing at the mental image of the sweet albino lamia removing my clothes and gently scrubbing and pouring warm water over every square inch of my battered and vulnerable body. More frustratingly, it was almost a certainty that's exactly what had happened to me, but I had no way of remembering.
"Clearly she liked what she saw, otherwise I don't think she'd have you tagging along with her on all those chores." It sounded strangely reassuring coming from the raunchy barmaid.
"But....I don't remember it." I said as I could feel my face burning. I downed the rest of my sake so I could have something other than the very vivid mental images of Yukihebi tenderly caring for my naked and helpless body to blame for the crimson hues my face was no doubt turning.
"Poor Hanta....finally has the intimate moment with a mamono he so desperately wanted and now he can't remember it" Burei taunted.
"Hey now....there was that one Red Oni....even though I barely remember anything from that night, either."
"I know!" Burei said as she triumphantly punched the air next to her. "Maybe you could go out to the mountains and recreate whatever you were doing before little snake girl found you and got you all washed up."
"You mean fall off a cliff and bleed from my scalp and ears?"
"Well now that's just sounds dumb if you're going to put it like that." Burei chided. "Besides, there's no guarantee that some super horny Jorou-Gumo won't find you first and rape the shit out of you.....not that you'd mind."
"The Ryu's servants have been known to help out farmers and travellers before." Inken reminded me. "But it sounds like this one is going above and beyond her duties to tend to you, Hanta-kun."
"However...." Burei raised a finger towards me as if to caution me. "They're lamias, and I hear they can be very clingy and jealous- especially if you're seen with another woman. So be careful, Hakta-kun!" She grabbed my right hand and placed it on her right breast. "I mean...what would your little snake-girl say if she was here and saw you doing this?"
"Let's see....probably something like You're already in big trouble, so you might as well make it worth your while and grab the other one, Hanta-kun" I replied facetously in a mock falsetto as Burei decided to none-too-gently remove my hand from her chest while smacking my free hand away as it moved in to grab her left breast through her top.
"Whatever.." Burei grumbled. "Just be careful. I don't know about here, but they say that elsewhere the lamia can resort to trickery, witchcraft or even outright rape to ensnare men..."
The concerned look on her face indicated she wasn't saying that just to yank my chain or be mean. The more I thought about her words, the more concerned I grew about the seemingly too-good-to-be-true lamia I'd been spending time with.
"Will do" I tell her absently.
My first payday came a few days before the wedding date for Yukihebi's big sister, and Lady Husui thoughtfully offered to accompany me while I shopped for new garments to wear for the occasion. She directed me to meet her at a shop run in town by another Mamono where she said she might be able to get me a good price on a western-style tuxedo.
As we entered, we were greeted by a fair-skinned woman in a burgundy, floral print kimono with long, cascading jet-black hair.
"Ah! Greetings Husui-sama.." the woman sedately bowed. "Is this the gentleman you were discussing earlier? You forgot to mention how handsome he is...."
"Good afternoon, Lady Kenpu. I trust you'll have something available in his size."
"Indeed- even if I don't, I can probably make some minimal alterations to something we have on hand..."
"Oh dear- that won't take too long, will it?"
"I can do that right now, if necessary..." I could see her eyeing me through a curtain of her flowing midnight-black locks. "I'd just need to take some measurements, first."
To my shock, her hair appeared to twist around on its own volition, slipping up to the counter and grabbing a cord used for measuring before walking up besides me.
"Now....Hanta, is it? I need you to hold your arms out to your side." the raven-tressed Mamono said sweetly. I hesitantly did as she asked.
Sensing my unease, Lady Husui spoke up. "Don't worry, Hanta-kun. You're in capable hands. Lady Kenpu is an enterprising Kejourou and one of the best seamstresses in the prefecture."
I nodded before I felt something silky coil around each of my wrists, stretching them out a little more. A glance to my right showed me that the Mamono was using her hair to restrain my wrists and better position me.
"A little higher, please." Kenpu cooed sweetly as her prehensile hair guided my bound wrists further up.
"R-right...." I said, not resisting.
"So Hanta-san- this isn't your wedding by any chance, is it?" the Kejouro asked.
"Oh...no....it's not. I was invited by the sister of the bride." I said, thinking I had regained my composure. I was wrong.
"I see- so you're still single, then?" she asked casually as she began sliding her hands around my midsection with the measuring cord.
"Hnnngh....I...." her hair clamped a little tighter around my wrists as I began to squirm and tried my best not to laugh. " Ah....ha ha....Technically I'm single." I manage to exhale.
"So what's the name of the lucky girl who invited you to her sister's wedding if I may be so bold?" the Mamono seamstress asked. More tendrils of her hair were brushing up against my ribs and belly while I was held in place- on purpose, I'm convinced.
"Y...Yukihebi..." I say, biting my tongue.
"Oh? Sweet little Yuki-chan asked you out?" Kenpu cooed as she resumed 'accidentally' tickling me.
"Ha ha....Ahhnn.." As I'm thrashing, I give my wrists a hearty tug but the Kejourou's hair holds firm. "Yeah....that's right. We....NNNGGHH.....we've gone to lunch a few times already."
"I know of her- she's kind, but quite bashful. Do you like her....?" the Kejourou asked as one of her tendrils of hair was slowly making its way towards my belt buckle. The cheeky Mamono with the silky but unruly hair could've had me in a helpless, quivering heap on the floor if she so desired, and she knew it. Instead, she seemed to take great pleasure from inflicting the slow burn- restraining me in front of the mirror and watching me watch her as she was tickling me and playfully interrogating me about the cute albino lamia. If anything, Lady Husui seemed entertained by my plight as she looked on.
"Well...heh heh....you see....AH!" I yelped as her restless hair roamed across my midsection. "You see...." I managed to collect myself somewhat. "We met under unusual circumstances. Lady Husui.....AH.....NNGH....said she's quite taken with me, but I'm not sure why. Still- it's not every day I have a beautiful Mamono...visit me at my new job and leave me a homemade lunch...."
"Oh how sweet of her!" Lady Kenpu cooed. "Alas...I'm not much of a cook, myself. My talents seem to be mostly center around garments." She flashed a wicked grin. "However, I do get paid quite well to run my hands and hair over all manner of delectible human men, order them to undress and hold them down if they get too restless. I think that more than makes up for my inability to prepare a decent meal."
"I guess it's important to love what you....AH!.....do...." I squeaked the last part after thinking that I had managed to get through a whole sentence without yelping, squirming or giggling. However, it seemed Lady Kenpu wasn't quite finished tormenting me.
"Hanta-san...I'll need you to hold still." the Kejourou said sternly.
"I'm sorry...." I tell her sheepishly. I figured the cat was already out of the bag when I continued. "It's just that I'm....kind of...ticklish."
Her hair remained firm against my wrists as I could see her reach down in the reflection of a mirror in front of us. Instead of behaving as though she was accidentally brushing up against me, she deliberately ran her fingers between my ribs and my underarms on each side of me for a several seconds.
"Gaah HA HA HA....stop! Please!" I try to plead through coerced laughter. The Kejourou simply chuckled softly as she relented and resumed her measurements. "I would say you're more than 'kind of' ticklish, Hanta-san...Mmm...even cuter when you struggle, though."
"Oh my....I bet Yukihebi would be most interested in learning her rough, tough foreign woodsplitter can be brought down with a well-placed flick of her tail or fingers." Lady Husui tittered as she watched my dilemma from the other side of the seamstress' shop.
"Oh come on...." I protested as I tried turning to face the buxom, mature Ryu. However, Kenpu's tendrils of hair held me in place as she wasn't quite finished taking my measurements. "You mean to tell me neither one of you are ticklish...?"
"Hmmph...." the elegant Ryu turned her head away from us. "As if that's any of your concern. That's between me and my late husband, young man...."
As Kenpu finally finished up with her measurements and released my wrists, she said to me in a mock-whisper that was still loud enough for Lady Husui to hear "Look at her blush so, Hanta-san. I think you have your answer."
"I think you're right, Lady Kenpu....I never said anything about her hubby, yet she brought that up on her own as though it was relevant."
Lady Husui said nothing as she scowled at me and the Kejouro seamstress.
"Here- try this..." Kenpu said as another tendril of hair held up in front of me a tuxedo that was on a hanger. "This should be just your size....or pretty close to it."
"Right..." I take the suit and head for one of the changing rooms and almost reluctantly emerge a few minutes later.
"Ah! You clean up quite nicely, Hanta-kun." Lady Husui gushed. "I think Yuki will be quite pleased!"
"How does it fit?" Kenpu asked as she approached me with the measuring cord. Naturally my first instinct was to back away, but she reached out to check the inseam and leg to see if it required any further alterations. She seemed to let up on toying with me after I answered her questions about Yukihebi, although I had no way of knowing that right away.
"Pretty good, I'd say..."
"You may very well run the risk of upstaging the groom on his wedding day, if I dare say so myself!" Kenpu beamed as she clasped my shoulder with her hand instead of her prehensile hair. "Don't worry if that happens, just be sure to put in a good word for my shop!"
"Seven taels of silver? Damn it- Lady Kenpu should be paying ME after that little display!" I grumbled to Lady Husui as we made our way back to the temple.
"You looked as though you were enjoying yourself..."
"Whoa there....what did you just say??"
"What's wrong, Hanta-chan?" Lady Husui teased. "What was that you told me about your preferences in Momono back at the temple? "The rougher, the better"? Lady Kenpu's quite beautiful and I could see for myself that she was none-too-gentle with you. I'd think you'd be happy. Yet the whole time she was toying with you, all you could do was talk about Yukihebi....how very sweet."
I can feel my whole body burning up as the Ryu almost verbatim threw back a quote from me when I was desperately trying to distance myself from the shy but beautiful shirohebi.
"You.....you set that up with Lady Kenpu, didn't you? Was that supposed to be some kind of test?" I stammer, somewhat alarmed by the cunning of the Ryu beside me.
"I don't know what you're talking about." She said in a haughty and melodramatic tone. "Besides- Kenpu hardly needs any encouragement to bind and caress the eligible bachelors in this village under the pretense of taking measurements at her shop."
Her coy, evasive non-answer seemed to be confirmation in and of itself. Truth be told, if the beautiful, mature, worldly and sly Ryu was the one who was grabbing and caressing me, whatever resistance I might have been capable of mustering would've no doubt crumbled to dust in an instant. But I also remember seeing her by her husband's gravestone and how crestfallen she was even though her beloved husband had passed away so many years ago. As crafty and manipulative as she could be, I found it difficult to believe that one could feign sorrow and longing like when I saw her softly weeping over her dearly departed love's final resting place.
"Lady Husui.....can I ask you something?"
"What is it, Hanta-chan?"
"Some Mamono can use magic to enchant men, right.....? I have to ask. When Yukihebi was treating me, did she use any spells or sutras like that?"
"Oh my...it seems all you can think about is Yuki these days, isn't it?" Lady Husui teased.
"It's not like I....." I stutter "That's not what I meant....."
"Believe it or not, Yukihebi is very adept at using magic and spells for a number of purposes- including to heal injuries. I taught her myself." her tone was very serious. "But I suspect you want to know if you're feeling this way because she put some sort of enchantment spell on you, don't you?"
I nod quietly.
"If the man a Shirohebi loves and takes as her husband has been unfaithful to her, she is capable of pouring her demonic energy into him so that it feels as though he's constantly burning up and the only remedy is to be wrapped up in her body. It would physically hurt for him to be away from her with that demonic energy implanted in him and she could further torment him by denying him any physical contact. That is the true extent of a shirohebi's power of enchantment."
I involuntarily fell back a few paces after listening to what the Ryu was describing. True I was thinking of the kind, beautiful shirohebi alot more often, but not to the extreme that Lady Husui described.
"Young man..." she continued impatiently, as though she was disappointed I had to ask. "There is no trace of her demonic energy on you. You feel the way you do about Yukihebi because you've seen her true nature for yourself. She's not putting on an act or captivating you with a siren's song- spells and enchantment have nothing to do with it..."
"By the way, how often does she bring up the fact that she saved your life and nursed you back to health?"
"I'd say that I bring it up more often than she does..." I say. "Although come to think of it, I don't think she's really brought it up at all lately."
"She....she said she might be able to help restore my memories, too" I added hesitantly. "But she sounded unsure....."
"When we were picking berries the other day, she said she might be able to bring back my memories from before I arrived in Zapingu." I figured I'd leave out the part about getting cock-blocked by Lady Shimo.
The Ryu paused. "How did she sound when she told you this...?"
"Nervous....almost sad, even."
Suddenly I felt the Ryu's folded paper fan smack me upside my head.
"BAKA!" she snarled. There was no mirth or whimsy in her voice when she said this.
"Hey! What the hell was that for?"
"You idiot......do you know why she sounded so sad?" Lady Husui snapped. She was furious, and I found myself wondering what I said to provoke the wrath of someone normally so calm and collected.
"Because she wanted to help me but didn't want to get my hopes up- right?"
"No, moron.......she was sad because she knows that if your memories ARE restored, there's a likelihood you'll remember everything, get homesick and end up leaving her forever. But she offered to do that for you anyway..."
"She wants to help you no matter what, young man- even if it means she ends up losing you." she fumed "That's her way of showing you her feelings for you are genuine, and YOU ....you have the unmitigated gall to ask me if she was using spells or her demonic energy to influence your feelings towards her!?"
The Ryu's words cut like hundreds of daggers directed at me that had found their mark all at once. "I....I had no idea....I thought maybe she used some sort of magic when she was treating me and that was a side effect...." I began to say. "Besides- couldn't she come with me if I did decide to return home?"
"It's possible- but what if your homeland had fallen into the hands of anti-Mamono factions while you're away? By taking her back, you'll be sending her to her execution....and then they'll most likely kill you for consorting with her."
I was speechless. The Ryu might've been exaggerating, but I didn't think bringing back my memories could include consequences as dire as what Husui just pointed out. With each utterance from the dragon woman, I wanted to do nothing more than keep my mouth shut unless I ended up saying something else that would unintentionally insult her or Yukihebi.
"What did you tell her? What was your answer!?" Lady Husui almost snarled at me after a lengthy pause.
"I.....I said there was no hurry and that she had already done plenty for me."
"That's as good an answer as any..." she sounded almost relieved. "Young man, I have no intention of preventing you from trying to get your memories back. But even if you don't realize it, by doing so you may end up doing something that will only hurt Yukihebi....or yourself."
The remainder of the walk back was spent in silence as I weighed the possible consequences of taking Yukihebi up on her generous offer. Before I know it, we're across the footbridge leading into the temple.
"What was he like....?" I ask absently as I look at the clearing where Lady Husui's husband's gravesite is located. What kind of human could secure the undying affections of the crafty and voluptuous Ryu even decades after his death?
The beautiful, mature Ryu sighed wistfully. "Ken was such an idiot, but I loved him so and didn't want him any other way."
"How did you guys meet?"
"True story..." Husui said as her eyes lit up. I get the feeling she must've told this story hundreds of times and it never got old or tiresome for her. "I was still fairly new to the area and this strapping young farmer's son caught my attention. It was springtime, and it had been raining heavily....and from a distance, I see this farmer's son is on his way to the riverbank to leave me some offerings while praying for a bountiful harvest."
"Only the rains undercut the embankment and as he approaches the riverbank- *SPLASH!*- in he goes. It's pretty clear he can't swim, so as the current is dragging him away, I dive in after him and pull him out. He's bowing and thanking me ever so much, and I'm wearing this thin white kosode top that is now sheer after I dove into the river. We both notice this about the same time, and as he's apologizing, he takes two steps backwards and.....*SPLASH!* into the river he goes again...."
I chuckle...partly because I'm enjoying the vigor with which the buxom and sly Ryu is recounting the story and partly because the story itself is off to a pretty good start.
"So....again I dive in after him and pull him to safety on the riverbank. By this point, I might as well not even be wearing a top and of course this strapping young farmboy gets an eyeful. So I cross my arms and simply ask him "You didn't come here to leave offerings, are you?"
I laugh because it's so easy to picture the saucy Ryu delivering that line from her tale on this very day.
"So then what happened?"
"He introduces himself as Kenichi and then offers me his overcoat that he left behind on the riverbank. It's still dry but the two of us are both soaking wet. I offer to escort him home- mostly because I just know he's going to wind up in the river again the second I turn my back. But poor Ken is shivering and looks so miserable, so I decide to share the coat while we walk back to his farm. On the way back, he's so nervous and just won't stop talking about his crops and whether or not he should rotate them and how his dog may have some kind of bowel problem. Not even halfway there, I couldn't take it any more....but instead of telling Ken to shut up, I kiss him on the lips. Soaking wet, a nervous wreck and babbling a mile a minute, and the Ryu in the wet, clingy, see-through top escorting him home steals the farmboy's first kiss."
The Ryu is now blushing as she tells me more about the day she first met her one true love. She checks to see if I'm still paying attention- I'm hanging on her every word.
"The rest of the way back, he doesn't say a thing and just squeezes me tight. I'm telling you, I never felt as warm as I did when I was soaking wet and walking down that road with Ken on that cloudy spring afternoon, Hanta-kun."
"Who knew you were such a romantic, Lady Husui?"
"And when we get back, he asks me....Oh wise and beautiful Ryu-sama " Lady Husui began in a false baritone. Might you teach me to swim so that I may no longer burden you with my clumsiness?. I feign indifference, but my heart was beating so fast just looking into his smoky eyes. I just gave Ken a wink and told him to meet me at the lake where the temple is now located in two days." she starts fanning herself before continuing.
"So two days later, he shows up and I have him strip down to his fundoshi....by the Chief Gods, the body on that farm boy. It turns out he's actually a better swimmer than I thought- at least in the calmer waters around where the temple is now. But I don't tell him that- instead, I lie and say he has so much to learn and that he needs to meet me again in two days."
"So after three or four more times meeting like that, he begins to suspect something. When he's done swimming with me in the lake, I decide to come clean as he's getting out. But instead of confessing, I'm just stuttering and babbling like a stupid, giggling teenage girl. Ken doesn't say a word, but just leans in, wraps his strong arms around me and kisses me on the lips. And just like the day we first met....*SPLASH*...into the water we go. Only this time, neither one of us is in a hurry to get out. I knew that day that I had found my husband."
"What a lucky guy..."
"What an idiot..." she lamented. "He turned down the mermaid's blood and wouldn't even consider conversion to an incubus. Either one of those could've tacked centuries onto his life, but his stupid pride got in the way...."
"Forgive me, Lady Husui....." I said. "But as a human maybe I can offer some insight into what he might've been thinking."
"Young man, you know nothing of-" she began curtly, but I quickly cut her off.
"What if your husband thought the price for that lifespan was too high?"
"What do you mean?"
"What I'm saying is, what if he thought the mermaid's blood or becoming an incubus would turn him into something other than the human farmboy you fell in love with? Maybe that's why it was so important for him to retain his humanity."
I felt something clasp my hand- It's one of the Ryu's claws. She gently squeezes my right hand as she thoughtfully gazes at her husband's grave marker.
"I think that's what he was trying to tell me all along, but I was too stubborn to listen to him. I just wanted him by my side for all eternity." She sighed. "Poor Ken....the idiot ended up marrying an even more stubborn idiot."
"Have you thought about remarrying, Lady Husui? You still have your youthful looks...."
The Ryu gently pulled away from me. "I can't lie...." she said wistfully. "There are days when I yearn for a man's touch, but I could never be with anyone else. In my heart of hearts, I still love Ken and it would be unfair for any new lover of mine to be compared constantly to somebody who passed away decades before they were even born."
"I hope one day I'll find someone who's made me almost as happy as your husband made you, Lady Husui." I say absently.
Lady Husui turned her attention back to me. "Baka. That day may be closer than you think, Hanta-kun." the warmth and joy radiating from her when she was describing her first encounter with her beloved seemingly never left her soft features. For just a fleeting moment, I think the beautiful dragon woman is propositioning me. Then she tosses me the tuxedo from the Kejourou's shop- hanger and all.
"Let's show off your new threads- Yukihebi's waiting for you."
Author's Note- For some reason I was further inspired by Regulus Lion's fanfic In My Memory
I could easily see a widowed Ryu acting as a mother figure to some of the Shirohebi at her temple, up to and including playing matchmaker for them or spending time determining the worthiness of a boyfriend or prospective husband.