It is drizzling again, and Chiyoh is in the courtyard, poking absently at an unlucky tadpole that has taken residence in one of the small, scattered puddles with a stick. She wonders if it will survive should the small pond dry up in the coming days, water dripping off the collar of her coat and sticking to her eyelashes. Blinking to clear her vision, she starts as a hand falls to her shoulder, its grip gentle but nonetheless giving no quarter as she struggles to free herself from the almost-cousin at her side.
“Let me go, you idiot,” she starts, and though he pretends he cannot understand when she speaks to her mistress in their mother tongue, his eyes narrow in annoyance, clearly understanding the specifics of her insult.
She has heard Master Robert call him that, across the table from him at dinner, when Hannibal will not answer questions simple as those pertaining to his day. Whenever Robertas goes to town or traveling, however, Hannibal becomes a different person, smiling and charming. But it would be in poor taste to let Robert know exactly what was going on behind the closed doors of his estate, so she leaves it to the future Count and her Lady to sort out how to respond should Robert ever walk in on them at an inopportune time.
Hannibal’s interest in Murasaki alone should make Chiyoh hate him, but her Lady knew exactly what sort of beast she was baiting, and Chiyoh did not have the energy or place to argue. Though she was mature in spirit—and her Lady often said so—she was still a child, and there was little room for the opinions of children in Robertas Lecter’s household.
Best tell your nephew to remember that, she thinks, as Hannibal presents her with the schoolbooks she has already rejected twice this week. Her brief formal education in Japan had also provided her with knowledge of French and English, but she occasionally preferred to act as all the other children in the village did—without worry or care—at least once her duties in service to her Lady had been completed.
“You have skipped lessons twice,” Hannibal reminds, leading her back inside with a hand on her coat, and she huffs. No good reason to behave appropriately if he was going to be such a bore. Just because he was a teenager, he thought he could order her around.
You’re the one trying to force me through more school! she wants to rave, but instead, she crosses her arms and plants her feet, despite the fact that it does little to discourage him from yanking her along.
“You’re highly adept at music, language, and sport, of course. But Uncle thinks it would be wise to expand your education to maths and logic as well.”
She can read well enough between the lines: Uncle thinks it would be a good bonding opportunity.
Chiyoh nearly snorts to herself; she would sooner lay down with a pack of rabid wolves.
She’s honestly counting the days until he leaves for medical school.
“Hannibal,” she says, very solemn, and he kneels down a bit to look her in the eye. The position puts him at an awkward half crouch, and she nearly laughs. “Leave me alone.”
“Chiyoh—,” he says, but she is already racing off, bounding out of the hall, past the courtyard and to the great stretch of open land beyond, uncaring of lessons or Hannibal or whether she gets mud all over her clothes.
She is smart enough without her cousin’s offer of logic or science to determine the best way to scrub them clean.
Peter, the boy that she sometimes plays with in the mushroom patch behind his grandparents’ home is smiling at her. But it is not a happy smile, she realizes, seeing fear lingering at the corners of his eyes and mouth.
They are not alone today. There is an older boy—older than Peter but younger than Hannibal—standing to Peter’s left, idly flicking a lighter open and shut.
“This is my brother, Thomas,” Peter says lowly, carefully. “He used to work at the butcher’s in town, but—.”
“Shut up, your girlfriend doesn’t want to hear about that stupid place,” Thomas growls, making as if he is going to smack Peter on the back of the head. Peter flinches, but Thomas draws back at the last second and hits nothing but air.
His laughter at Peter’s expense is a quick, cruel bark that makes Chiyoh’s eye twitch.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” Chiyoh corrects him, tone like ice.
It is clear that Peter does not like his brother, and Chiyoh can understand why.
“Whatever,” Thomas shrugs, pushing Peter towards the stream that runs along the house. “Do you want to see this, girl? There was a flood from the rains, one of those mangy old cats Grandmother keeps got swept away.”
In fact, Chiyoh does not want to see the stream, but leaving Peter alone with Thomas is not a good idea, so she follows as Thomas begins to walk towards the water, a swaying gait that perfectly matches his aggressive bravado. It does not escape her notice that Peter ensures that he keeps himself at Thomas’s back.
“Chiyoh,” he whispers, though the click of Thomas’s lighter silences him.
Lips pulling into a frown, Chiyoh watches what happens next as if in slow motion.
Peter is focused on her, and Thomas uses his brother’s distraction to tug him close by the shirt and toss him into the fast-flowing water.
Sputtering and fighting against the current, Peter manages to grab blindly and get a slippery grip on one of the larger stones that line the edge.
“Let’s see if Grandmother finds your body washed up downstream,” Thomas cackles, reaching for Peter’s wrist to pry him from his handhold.
Chiyoh can’t remember the moment she decided to act, but she finds herself bowling into Thomas’s back, the wind knocked out of her at the impact. She falls to the grass, Thomas tumbling face-first into the rocky bottom, arms and legs scrambling for purchase on solid ground.
Peter exclaims at the splash but crawls gratefully to her side as she holds a hand out to him and pulls with all her might.
Both of them panting on the grass, she listens to the sound of the rushing water and Peter’s hyperventilating breaths.
A wordless roar pierces the air, and she blinks in disbelief as Thomas rises from the water beside their heaving bodies and rights himself. Two of his teeth are missing and a bloody scowl distorts his features as he screeches, “You little shit! I’m going to kill you and your little girlfriend!”
Another, far more innocuous noise, cuts through the racket, and though it is low in volume, the inflection still makes the hairs on the back of Chiyoh’s neck rise.
“I think not.”
Hannibal, she thinks, watching him prowl out of the woods like a jungle cat, oddly colored eyes shining.
Then: Shit, I am in so much trouble.
“Who the fuck are you?” Thomas croaks wetly, clearly not intimidated by the newcomer, who is slim and nonthreatening in the way that most other young people must appear to him.
“Who I am is not important,” Hannibal says, and grabs Thomas by his sodden clothes easily as he had lifted Chiyoh earlier, putting him facedown in the creek as Peter races for his brother and starts to scream as Chiyoh blocks his way.
She holds her friend back, mindlessly shushing his cries as she watches Hannibal.
His forearms are corded with tension, though he ignores Thomas’s desperately flailing hands as if they are nothing more than an insect buzzing about. Kneeling on the soggy ground and ruining his trousers, Hannibal draws Thomas back up for air what seems like an eternity after.
Water pours from Thomas’s mouth as he sobs and gulps for air in turn.
“You should be more courteous to your brother. You only have the one, after all,” Hannibal says, a tutor correcting an unruly pupil, and Chiyoh’s eyes go wide.
So, this is what it means, to meet a monster in human skin.
“T-Thomas, no,” Peter mumbles weakly, though he does not rush to his brother’s side even after Hannibal has released him to flop onto the bank like a beached fish.
“Would you like another dunk to solidify the point,” Hannibal says, not really a question at all, and Thomas shakes his head, something like a whine leaving his throat.
“No! Fuck you, man, fuck,” he spits, rolling away from Hannibal and glancing nervously up at Peter before returning his gaze to the ground.
“This experience should improve his future behavior immensely,” Hannibal says, addressing Peter, who numbly replies, “Um, yes, yes, thank you.”
“Chiyoh,” he says, holding out a muddy palm.
After staring for perhaps a second too long, Chiyoh laboriously gets to her feet and takes it without looking back.
“How do you know he won’t just bully him worse now?” she snaps, when they’re halfway finished with the twenty minute trek back home.
“He won’t,” Hannibal says, with such certainty her mouth snaps shut.
(Later, it occurs to her that of course he did not care; he was merely curious what chaos would ensue, and barring that, cared nothing for whatever destruction his actions caused.
One would need a soul, after all, to care, and to Chiyoh, everything that Hannibal was amounted to hunger and greed.)
Chiyoh sighs at the books that are placed at her elbow the moment she finishes the last of her porridge.
As if the change of venue would be the thing to change her mind about lessons.
Thinking of muddy clothes hidden in the laundry, her Lady’s ignorance at her whereabouts yesterday, and the slightly rotten smell of grass and floodwater, she bites her tongue and heaves the greatest tome open, something written in Latin and something needlessly complicated, she is sure.
Pretending that she does not feel the gentle ruffle of her hair, or the pleased hand at her shoulder, she merely steels herself for the possibility of a very long and very boring day with Hannibal ahead.