My Poisonous Friend – Ch.1


My Poisonous Friend

“Honestly, it might not be so bad, living in the Lamia Village…”

~ Kimihito Kurusu, Monsutā Musume no Iru Nichijō, Chapter 63

 

Prologue

Rattrape-moi, papi!” laughed Khalil over his shoulder as he ran.

I didn’t waste breath answering – just stretched my legs and chased the younger man down the broad coastal path. Our route followed limestone cliffs that crumbled down to the sea, overlooking Mediterranean waters that sparkled in the early sunrise. To my right, cedars and gnarled cypress trees climbed the inland slopes and overhung the trail, trapping pockets of night air that cooled us as we ran.

When I’d arrived on the island six months ago, I couldn’t have done this. Well, six months ago I’d just taken a bullet to the chest. But even three years ago – before the Company had banished me to the West Virginia mountains – my body wouldn’t have kept up this pace. Island air and pleasant exercise were working wonders for my health.

Lamia medicine deserved much of the credit, of course. Madiyan had promised that her village had an excellent doctor, and she hadn’t lied to me. In the days after my arrival, Doctor Aemilia had stabilized my fractured rib and held me upright to breathe while I was crippled by coughing fits. The Medusa doctor had also assured me that the pharmacopeia of the Lamia Islands would beat anything that first-world drug companies have sold to the market. Certainly her medicines ensured that my wound healed clean, and I dodged the pneumonia that tends to nag at chest injuries. Six weeks after I was carried into Aemilia’s clinic, I’d walked out ten pounds lighter, and feeling twenty years younger.

The fact that Doctor Aemilia’s beautiful face had been my first sight most mornings hadn’t hurt my recovery, either.

Now I was running again, matching speed with a man half my age, and feeling good about it. After another mile our running trail turned inland. Fifteen minutes later we slowed, letting the sweat cool our bodies as we approached the Men’s Quarter.

As far as I know, all the Lamia Islands have a Men’s Quarter. It’s a place for husbands from the surrounding villages to gather and associate, cook our food and do “man things.” Simple brick dormitories provide rooms for those of us who don’t live in the villages. It’s also a refuge of sorts. Lamia often visit the Quarter, but are expected to keep their hands and coils to themselves while there. The lamia I’d encountered here mostly respected the customs. I couldn’t vouch for the other islands.

We entered between painted posts, greeted and joined a few more early risers heading for a low shelter where white smoke fluttered out of an open brick stove. At a distance I recognized the burly, bearded figure handing bowls around, and knew that it would be shakshuka for breakfast, again. I didn’t mind very much. Lamia culinary traditions are very basic, so husbands do most of the cooking for ourselves. Some of us are better cooks than others, which limits the menu somewhat, but humans are adaptable creatures. Especially if we’re hungry.

We took our steaming bowls of tomatoes and eggs and moved to an empty table. “Looks like Theo finally found one who can cook,” noted Khalil, nodding past me. I looked around as a pretty blonde lamia with red-mosaic scales appeared from behind the clay oven that backed up against the fireplace. She glided smoothly between the tables toward us, bearing a flat tray piled with freshly-baked pita.

We offered smiles and words of thanks for the bread. She returned an inviting wink and moved on to serve the other diners. I tore a piece of bread and scooped at my breakfast. “Not bad,” I admitted. “I suppose baking is more chemistry than art, isn’t it? Although I don’t recall seeing the women here eating much bread.”

“No, but they know we do.” Khalil waved a piece of pita at me. “Tell me, would you follow the smell of fresh bread into her boudoir?”

I grinned. “I suppose I might.”

We chatted idly in French, since Khalil found my DLI Arabic awkward, and I could barely follow his Algerian derja. English is rare on the island. Arabic and Greek are most common, since historically most of the men who came to the islands were North African migrants or Greek sailors. Japanese is popular among the younger lamia since Japan was the first country to take part in the Interspecies Exchange. Few of the women – or men, for that matter – speak my native tongue.

Khalil kept gazing past me. “Do you ever miss legs, Mark?”

“Sure. My ears get cold sometimes.”

Khalil snorted. “You dirty old man. This is the right place for us.”

I laughed along with him, and envied his certainty. Beyond the Quarter, where men gathered amid the hoarded scraps of their old lives, the island and its inhabitants were still foreign to me. Hardly hostile, but it was obvious that the lamia villages were not designed by, or for, human men. I didn’t know where I fit. Was I retired now? I didn’t even know if I could really hold a job here.

Well, moving to an unfamiliar country is always challenging, and I’d survived culture shock before. It wasn’t like I could go back now. My old life was buried under a stone with my name on it, somewhere in a Virginia cemetery. I doubted that anyone had left flowers.

Khalil interrupted my ruminations. “Whatever happened with that dark dragonne who brought you to us? Do you still see her much?”

“You mean Madiyan? No, she spends most of her free time with the other pregnant women. And no,” I protested to Khalil’s spreading grin, “it’s definitely not mine.”

“Eh, I do not blame you. She seemed very…intense.”  He shrugged philosophically. “And there are so many welcoming women here. Speaking of which, your village has a meeting tonight, yes?”

“Every Thursday,” I nodded.

“Two more days for me.” Khalil scraped the sides of his bowl. “Are you joining us for soccer today? We have almost enough players for both teams now. You know how the women love to watch us play.”

“This morning I can’t. I have language lessons in the village.”

“Oh!”  Khalil’s eyebrows lifted. “Fortunate you. Give la maîtresse a good pinch for me.”

I returned his grin. “I’ll give her your fond regards.”

We laughed, and returned our attention to our breakfasts.

Soon after breakfast, and fresh from the shower, I opened my narrow closet. There wasn’t much there. I spent too much time looking at the loose cotton shirts and trousers that served as the common men’s garments on the island.

Khalil had said I was in the right place. I wasn’t so sure. He hadn’t asked the right questions. There were a lot of things I missed since coming to the island. Like sleeping in air-conditioning. Or listening to jazz albums in the evenings. Browsing good cheeses at the market. Driving a convertible on twisting mountain roads, or even owning a car. Owning much of anything for that matter. Women’s legs weren’t high on the list of things I missed. Maybe someday they would be.

I was running late. I hastily dressed, then set out for the village.

Chapter 1: Man on an Island

The walk to the village was a half-hour alone with my thoughts. Just for practice, I picked out the trees along the unpaved road that could have concealed men, lying in ambush. But I was slowly getting used to thinking that the island was safe. Unless I bumped into an adventurous lamia on the road…and even then the main hazard was to my schedule – and, arguably, my dignity.

Most of the lamia on this island were Medusae, who respect things like schedules. A few hundred of them would be eagerly waiting for me at the community meeting tonight. Well, not just for me…a handful of men would be at the meeting. But I was the viande du jour. I’d been a bit surprised to find myself as the latest communal husband for Madiyan’s village. Eventually I would be “married” to one of the women for formality’s sake, she said. I supposed that it couldn’t turn out any worse than my last marriage.

I walked, and I thought about Madiyan. The enigmatic young medusa had made watchful visits to the clinic during my recovery, but afterward I had seldom seen her. She didn’t attend the regular community meetings, although I guessed her pregnancy had something to do with that. I was also aware that a single, intense weekend hadn’t necessarily made us friends. Still, she was the only person I knew when I arrived among the lamia women. While my basic needs were being met, I was still stumbling through an alien culture and a difficult language barrier, mostly alone. I’d been fortunate that Doctor Aemilia had made the effort to learn the languages of her human patients.

Madiyan had promised that I wouldn’t be lonely here, and I certainly had plenty of friendly attention. But it was hard to make meaningful connections when I couldn’t communicate effectively with most of the natives.

Which, of course, is why I was walking to my language lessons this morning. Gradually the empty road widened into a broad avenue running between white-plastered buildings. My solitude gave way to a succession of colorful, serpent-bodied women, each moving purposefully but none too busy for a thoughtful glance or a sly smile. I returned the smiles with simple greetings that I’d learned. Many of the faces were familiar from the weekly community meetings. I hoped to learn their names, eventually.

The streets, too, were becoming familiar. The village isn’t large. I took a last turn into a quiet avenue that ended at a two-storied structure of stuccoed brick, with neat blue tiles layered on the roof and matching shutters flanking the windows. A wide, open archway beckoned me from the bright sunlight into a cool vagueness. “Good morning!” I called out as I entered, allowing my eyes a moment to adjust to the relative dimness.

Yurilee’s home – and our classroom – was my favorite place on the island. The first floor was a library, and a museum, and a sultan’s harem. Wooden shelves contained books of many languages, including some in symbols I couldn’t recognize. Elaborate, hand-woven rugs covered the lamia-wide aisles between the bookshelves. Couch-sized pillows surrounded small reading tables. Gifts from Yurilee’s former students lined the walls – some exotic, some whimsical – each lovingly placed in its own decorative niche.

In short, a cozy place to relax and read a book. Which, since my teacher was nowhere to be seen, is what I did, dropping onto an overstuffed floor cushion and settling in with the Krataiic grammar she had given me to study.

Krataiic is a baffling language. The alphabet resembles Greek as seen through an old, warped mirror. The language flirts with logical syntactic rules but doesn’t respect them. And the pronunciations expect you to have an extra six inches of tongue. Which is why new husbands are required to spend time with language teachers like Yurilee. Even so, most men learn only enough Krataiic for casual conversation, and rely on their lamia partners to bridge the language gaps. I was working toward fluency, but it was slow going, even with an enthusiastic teacher.

I ignored the quiet, heavy sounds from the living quarters above me. Eventually I heard a tuneless humming, and looked up from my book to see a majestic creature descending the wide ramp, waving a glass tumbler in one languid hand.

Yurilee was large, and her serpent’s tail was mottled with green patches of verdigrised bronze. Her snake-like plekti floated around her face, strands of paler green that she had decorated with wraps of gold wire around the tips. Her traditional waistcloth and halter didn’t try to conceal the soft over-ripeness of her body.

She crawled near to loom over me, peering down over the lenses of her gold-rimmed demilunes.

“You are late today,” she declared.

“And you’re drinking early.” I nodded at her empty glass. At this closeness I could smell the familiar licorice scent, despite the florals she had applied upstairs. “Setting a poor example for your students, aren’t you?”

“Impertinent,” she sniffed. “You should show more respect for your teacher.”  She moved past me to open a cabinet and withdraw a fresh bottle.

I shook my head, watching. “How you can drink that stuff straight, I’ll never understand.”

“Years of practice, sweetbit.”  She splashed clear liquid into the glass and took a long sip. “Anyway, I am glad that you are late. I had a gentleman caller last night.” She glanced slyly over her shoulder. “Does that make you jealous?”

“Desperately. Where is he? I’ll scratch his eyes out.”

“You will do no such thing,” she admonished. “Julian is a very nice man. One of my former students, from many months ago. He came back to visit me.”

“Well, I can’t fault his taste in teachers.”

“Flatterer. I believe you are jealous.”  Yurilee refilled her glass. “You have me all to yourself today, you know. Surely you can forgive a lonely woman’s indiscretions, when you are away from me.”

I grinned up at her. “Your affairs are your business, Yuri. Doesn’t mean I don’t envy the man his pleasant evening.”

“Be diligent, and your teacher will reward you. Oh, and here he is,” she said, smiling.

I glanced up. Julian was a shaggy blond, more toned than muscular, wearing swim trunks. Judging from his unbroken tan, I guessed that he didn’t bother much with shirts. He walked lightly down the ramp, although I noticed a brief stagger as he descended, and he kept one hand on the railing. I couldn’t fault him for that, having spent a few nights in Yurilee’s bedroom myself.

Yurilee waited at the bottom of the ramp and then wrapped herself around him. My guts tightened for a moment…I think any man imagines murder, when seeing someone else kiss a woman he’s bedded. But I stifled the reaction. Yurilee didn’t belong to me. Any more than I belonged to any one woman on this island. Lamia were broad-minded about such things. I was trying to adjust.

Yurilee finally disengaged herself. “Julian, this is Mark, my current student. You will be great friends. Now,” she said, “I am going to bathe. Mark, I will be back very soon.” She drew herself up to an impressive height. “I trust that you two are gentlemen and won’t try to catch me undressing.”

Of course Julian and I had both contemplated her naked glory, up close. Her usual clothing didn’t hide much anyway. I shared a wink and a grin with him as, with fine dignity, our teacher glided out the doorway.

Then I recognized the man.

I kept my smile because I’d been trained to. Our first rule in the field was never to recognize anybody, anywhere. You never knew who they might be that day, or who was watching. I expected him to follow the same rule. Most of all, I hoped that he really didn’t remember me. Overlapping tours at a European embassy had put us in the same office for a few weeks, and we’d dozed through some briefings together. Nothing memorable. Except that in our line of work – my former line of work – recalling a face could literally mean life or death.

Well, there was nothing to be done about it. So I smiled.

The man called Julian walked over, and sprawled on a cushion beside me, stretching his bare, bronzed legs across the rug with a sigh. “I need a cigarette. And a nap. And maybe another cigarette.”

“Kept you up all night, did she?”

He nodded. “At least in the orgies we can take breaks. But this old gal knows some tricks.”

“I hope you’re not expecting sympathy.”

Julian grinned. “I’m not that full of myself. Just worn out. Sex isn’t going to kill me.”  He glanced at me thoughtfully. “You know, I think I know you from somewhere.”

Dammit.

“I really don’t think so, unless you’ve seen me around the island.”

“I think I do, though. I think maybe we worked together, back in the day. Someplace rainy. Nothing like the weather here.”  He ran his fingers through his sun-colored hair. “We could have been in school together, too. Anything like that sound familiar?”

I kept smiling, but now I was just showing teeth. “If you’re going to bump me, get it over with so I can tell you to pound sand.”

“Hey, buddy, I’m just being friendly. It’s good to have friends, isn’t it, here with all these monsters?”

“I don’t need friends who are filing reports on me, ‘buddy’.”  And I don’t want to know why you’re here. Just leave me out of it.”

Julian shrugged. “I just thought you might appreciate a familiar face, that’s all.”  He glanced around the library. “And we always appreciate having an extra set of eyes.”

“No. I’m dead, remember? I don’t work for the Company anymore.”

“Sure you are, but we both know that you’re still a loyal American. Maybe you and the Company don’t trade Christmas cards anymore, but Americans should look out for each other, don’t you think?”

“I think you should leave me alone and don’t mention this again. I’m out of the game, and I’m staying the hell out.”

Julian sighed, and climbed to his feet, stretching stiff muscles. “If only it were that simple. But it’s a complicated world, isn’t it, Mark? I figure you’re going to want some friends around here, soon. Human friends, I mean. Otherwise, you’re really very alone, aren’t you?”  He shaded his eyes, looking out the doorway into the sunlight. “Give it some thought. We’ll talk again. I’ll be back around,” he winked at me, and exited.

I sat in the library. Out of old habit, my brain tried to guess at the intel Julian was trying to collect, here on the island. But I truly didn’t want to know. I had allowed myself to think that I’d landed in a magical oasis where such things couldn’t touch me anymore. Finding him here was an ugliness, like stepping on a venomous snake in a beautiful garden. I had to chuckle at the image…this beautiful garden was nothing but snakes. The women could handle him. It was none of my business, not anymore.

I tried to return to my Krataiic primer, but the alien characters danced and mocked me. I ended up reading an old newspaper instead, while I waited for Yurilee to return.

Yurilee was as patient as always, but I struggled with my Krataiic phrases. Finally I tossed my book on the table and reverted to English. “I’m sorry, Yuri, but I think I’m done for the day.”

“That is fine, Mark. I do not hurry to finish our lessons together. Although, the sun is high, and the day is young…”  Her voice turned coy. “Would you join me for a little bite?”

I laughed aloud. Yurilee wasn’t offering me an after-class snack. Somewhere in their evolutionary past, the Medusa tribe acquired a venomous bite, one that causes temporary paralysis in humans. Traditionally this allowed a medusa to have her way with a captured man. Of course, the Interspecies Exchange Act put a stop to that, at least officially. But I’d been bitten by “accident” during my first village meeting/orgy, and occasionally afterwards. Being helpless in a tangle of horny lamia is a disconcerting experience, although not entirely unpleasant. For an unexpecting victim, though, I’m sure it would be nightmarish.

The venom, incidentally, also causes the bitten man to stay erect for several hours. Which I’ll admit I can’t do otherwise. Maybe some of the younger men can. I’ve used other skills to entertain my partners, and hadn’t heard any complaints.

But Yurilee, in particular, had a nostalgic fetish for envenoming her lovers. Her “little bite” – and the ensuing festivities – would take up the afternoon, and leave me wobbly for another day. As much fun as that would have been, I had another engagement.

“You and your ‘little bites’. You know there’s a community meeting tonight. Are you trying to wreck me completely?”

Yurilee contrived a pout. “Of course not, Mark. I am just a selfish old woman.”

I grinned at her. “Amour veut tout sans nombre.

“Ah, you silly man.”  She tossed her head, disheveling her gold-tipped plekti, and smiled at me through the tangle. “You know I do not speak a word of French.”

“Sure you don’t. Look, I’m not great company today. Next time I’ll be a better student, and I promise to pay proper attention to my teacher. Can you forgive me until then?”

Her smile softened. “You will come back to me?”

“Of course I will. Every week, as long as you’re willing to keep teaching me this infernal language.”

“Yes, Mark.”  She reached forward and pulled me into a quick, anise-scented hug. “You are still my precious student. There will be many more lessons.”

Whitewashed walls dazzled me as I left the cool dimness of Yurilee’s library. Overhead, more splashes of white escorted the sun across the blue. I had a lot of nothing to do for the next few hours. So I got busy doing that.

To be continued…

 

My Poisonous Friend – Ch.2

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