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Marisa offered more resistance. Despite my prodding and insistence, she would not yield. As obstinate as an old ass. I worried that she might simply flee were I to look away. The bashful docility that she had shown in her eyes in the garden were replaced by a hard stare that surely weighed as much as her resolve. I suspected that it was whatever consideration she held for me that prevented a more violent, and perhaps physical, response. Honeyed words alone would not sway her. Certainly, only my own confidence and resolve could break the impasse.
“Let us go together,” I said firmly, as one would command a hound. Without hesitation I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her along. Unseemly? Most definitely. But also necessary.
No doubt resentful, she nonetheless relented. I was certain that if she truly did not wish it, she would not abide my domineering act. Though we had just met, I already felt that I knew with certainty many of her qualities. Willful. Prideful. Talented. Things that could make her seem callous. But always dignified under fire. Her satisfaction and ambition were masked with the guise of an easygoing free spirit. And beyond – there were sensibilities that she shared seldom with anybody and often denied herself. Above all, a virtuous girl with all the baggage that both meanings entailed.
I wondered if perhaps she, reciprocally, had formed so certain an impression of me. A sharp glance from her seemed to penetrate beyond the foggy imbroglio of my memory. Whatever she gleaned, she did not share. “Do you have to be so rough?” she asked, token resistance still expressing itself.
“I must be certain that you will not flee, forgive me,” I gave a most empty explanation. For the moment it would be necessary to set aside my uncouth behavior. I manipulated the knocker with my free hand. It was a satisfying sound to hear. The dull thuds of metal of wood resonated loudly, surely making themselves heard even deep within the manor.
It only took a few moments for there to be a reply. The heavy wooden door swung open quickly and revealed an out of breath maid. She scanned our faces, looking as though it was the queerest thing in the world to see us standing there. Or perhaps it was just the sight of Marisa that caused her consternation. The maid’s expression was uncertain as her eyes lingered on her. If she were capable of making herself invisible, I had no doubt that she would have disappeared instantly.
I cleared my throat. Between symbolic resistance from Marisa and indecisive servants, I would be forced to take the lead. “I wish to take my midday meal with her,” I informed her, “would you be able to accommodate us?”
The maid looked at me. Her expression returned to a more agreeably neutral state and, as if she suddenly realized that her manners were missing, answered, “yes, such a thing would not be a problem. I’ll see to it at once.”
She bowed, though she continued to peer at Marisa out of the corner of her eye. More than that, it seemed that she was puzzled as to why I was holding her wrist and her brow wrinkled slightly as she stared some more. I cleared my throat to reminder her that her duty was not to gawk but to serve.
Before she could turn to leave, I expanded upon my request, “if it is not too much trouble, I would like to see the kitchen before the meal. Perhaps even talk to the head chef if it is not too much trouble.”
“Yes, that can be arranged,” the maid said with a polished smile. Whatever sense of professionalism she held snapped her into action. Offering no further comment or resistance, she bid us to come in. “I’ll go ahead and inform the kitchen of these requests, please wait here for a moment.”
She quickly disappeared down the myriad corridors, wasting no time at all.
The main entryway of the manor was an impressive affair. Clearly would-be visitors were meant to be awestruck by the almost-impossibly high ceiling, the large gilded mirrors that flanked the sides of a grand staircase whose railings had wooden trimmings rich with sculpted patterns and ends. Marble was used liberally on both the floors as well as in busts and statuettes that were positioned on the sides of the hall. A few large portraits hung on the second floor, but were half-hidden from our line of sight.
“Can’t be worth all the trouble it takes to keep this place clean,” Marisa offered her opinion with a toothy grin, “it’s no wonder those fairies are always slacking off.”
“I assume you harbor no love for this style?” I asked for some reason, despite feeling that I already knew the answer. Someone who had never learned to appreciate poetry could not be expected to hold sophisticated tastes.
“Naw,” she shook her head, “I don’t like it how voices echo and how cold things can be in here. Gimmie a small cozy room full of good food, drink and plenty of neat stuff to read any day of the week over this. Showing off like this is kinda pointless, don’t you think?”
“It is ostentatious,” I said, “but there is nothing wrong with wanting to exhibit that which you find beautiful to any company you may receive.”
A lot in the manor was not to my taste. But I could recognize that someone definitely had a good eye for quality craftsmanship. Just because a lot of the paneling, wall skirts and friezes were… at times overstated visually did not mean that they had no artistic value to them. The décor was eclectic but expensive and perhaps that was the intention. A statement about the means of those who lived here, I found myself concluding. Or perhaps like most old estates, it was simply a collection built up during generations whose harmony was jeopardized due to its size and diversity.
“You get lost in your thoughts easily, huh?” Marisa said, showing some cheek, poking me on the shoulder with a finger. “If you’re going to grab a young girl’s hand, at least have the decency to pay her the attention she’s due. Especially if you grab her with clammy hands.”
“I am not holding your hand,” I remarked dryly. Her arms were slender and her hands delicate, and so it would have been easy to shift my hold by mistake. That hadn’t been the case. Nor did I suspect that her other allegation held any merit. She felt warmer than I, yes, but my hands hardly felt moist. “You do have a point, however. Excuse my thoughtlessness, I should not ignore you.”
She giggled. Yet, at that moment, I could not conjecture the reason.
The same maid from earlier returned, once again looking out of breath. Marisa rolled her eyes as she bowed to us. She inhaled sharply before speaking, “If you’ll come with me, I shall grant you the access that you requested.”
“After you,” Marisa said with a wink to the maid. She took the lead, bidding me to follow with a sharp tug of her arm. The reversal of spirits was a sudden return to her natural state, I divined. The maiden as the world knew her suffered little in the way of indecision. That truth partly explained the maid’s surprise at seeing her so toothless at my side. I could only begin to guess at how her headstrong behavior generally made an impression on those who got in her way.
The maid said little, guiding us down a corridor to the side of the great hall. There, a few other servants were busy in the daily upkeep of the manor. Most showed only partial dedication to their work; they readily stole glances at us as we passed. Marisa was the clear object of their curiosity. If their eyes came to rest upon me, it was only to acknowledge how I held onto her arm as she urged me along, walking at a half step ahead at all times. Others would perhaps show concern at the optics of the situation, but I held no such vainglorious concern.
Instead, I attempted to etch onto memory more of the floor plan of the estate. With its similar-looking corridors and mottled collection of objets d’art, it was difficult to surmise one’s position via landmarks. Distances were not entirely what I expected, either, and it seemed to me that corridors that should have ended in corners or rooms, projected for longer extensions than predicted. We kept to the first floor and, by my reckoning, were in the western wing of the manor. Natural light was scare as we snaked through succeeding corridors deeper into the structure. The kitchen was towards the rear of this wing, on a lower level than the rest of the floor following a short staircase, at a point where the terrain began to slope subtly towards the shoreline.
The smell of spices prickled the nose as we approached the kitchen. It mixed itself with other, more smoky, scents and lingered like a heavy cloud in the surrounding areas. When the maid guiding us opened the door for us, the intensity of odor multiplied manifold. The temperature increased discernibly as well – the trapped heat enveloped us as it passed on its escape into the cooler corridor. I finally let go of Marisa’s arm, seeing no need to further bind her directly to me.
“Is there anything in particular you would like to know?” the maid asked as we stepped in.
The kitchen was about what one would expect for a large estate: it was a large space with a tall ceiling which gave the hot air plenty room to occupy. Myriad windows occupied the top of one of the walls, allowing both heat and fumes to escape to the outside. These windows were joined by a few brick shafts that connected the larger ovens and stoves cleared to the outside, thereby clearing the thickest of the smoke. Around these, more than a dozen staff toiled, watching pots, mixing things and carting around ingredients. Those who weren’t concerned with the actual cooking process carried about wooden logs to feed the roaring fires that powered all the stations. Almost all faces I could see had either some grime to them or beads of sweat.
“We would like to know what it is you intend to serve us and from whence you’ve procured it,” I said, spotting a larger servant who barked orders at some of the other girls. No doubt she was the head cook and the woman to speak to. As our eyes met, she put down a ladle she had been using to gesticulate tersely at a young girl who had knocked over a vial of spice and came over to speak to us. The maid who had showed us to the kitchen slunk away, evidently not wishing to risk being a target of ire.
“You’re the master we’ve been ordered to please,” the woman remarked. She was larger in stature than the other fairies and had a fuller figure, no doubt from the privilege of having access to the estate’s storeroom. She looked up at us with the eyes of someone who was used to being listened to and not being interrogated.
“Hm, so you’re a ‘master’?” Marisa couldn’t help but grin as she looked at me, “I usually don’t get more respect than ‘hey you there!’, lucky you.” The head of the kitchen ignored her entirely, causing Marisa to silently mouth a ‘told ya so’.
“We aim to please, master, but my time is best spent keeping this place running smoothly,” the fairy said, wiping her hand on her discolored white apron.
“Forgive me if I do not mince words. I do not wish to trouble you more than is necessary. We wished to learn more about your kitchen and your methods,” I told her, “my companion here has her reservations whether your meals are solely for youkai or if they are also apt for human consumption.”
“Most of my food is for youkai. The staff, the Lady and the other residents,” she confirmed. “There is little practical difference between the food I would make for you, as the style favored here is heavily inspired by human food from beyond Gensokyo. Ingredients you may find unsavory will not be used, and well that they shouldn’t be, as they are rare and used only on command of the head maid or the Lady herself.”
“That is reassuring, thank you,” I nodded.
She nodded back, adding, “the satisfaction of our guests is paramount to the Lady, though I do not know if this one is refined enough to appreciate the subtly of flavor in our foods.”
“Wow, that’s pretty rude,” Marisa interjected but didn’t seem to get too worked up. The cook shrugged and made no apology.
“Be that as it may, I would have you ready a meal for us,” I said, “I trust that it will not a be a problem.”
“Of course not, we will work as hard as we can and grab the only the best from pantry and larder,” the cooked smiled, her eyes brimming with professional pride. She tilted her head at a nearby assistance who almost involuntarily twitched, understanding the message. She signaled two other girls to follow and they scampered off, presumably to the various storerooms in the back.
“We gratefully entrust ourselves to your care then,” I said, “and will not waste any more of your time.”
The cook nodded brusquely and returned to work. She approached a counter and gave out a few short instructions to nearby staff, then grabbed a large knife and began to chop up the ingredients that were being brought in. I signaled to Marisa that we should go and closed the door behind us.
“Satisfied?” I asked.
“Not really, but I guess I’m okay with it if you are,” she said, wiping off nascent beads of sweat from her brow.
The maid who had escorted us to the kitchen had been waiting outside patiently. “I shall lead you to the dinning room now,” she said.
We followed up the stairs and into the labyrinth of corridor, arriving to a room that was nearer to the front of the estate. It was sized like a drawing room, intimate and furnished with a large oval table that dominated most of the space. Underneath a pristine white mantle, hints of dark varnished wood that matched the complexion of the chairs showed. The chairs were set around equidistant around the table and two places had already been set near one end of the table. Brightly polished silver sous plats and cutlery were laid out. Vases and candelabra occupied the rest of of the table.
“My apologies,” the maid said, “the main dinning room is not to be used save for important events, but I hope that this room is to your liking.”
“It shall do,” I said, disabusing notions why such a stately manor would have such a diminutive dining room. The relatively subdued look of the decoration on the walls further confirmed the secondary importance of the space. Gone were the leaves of gold and gilded surfaces and instead comparatively austere paneling were the main draw.
She left us with a bow and told us that we would be attended to shortly. I pulled the chair for Marisa to sit. She gave a queer look in response but said nothing, smiled and sat down. Suddenly realizing something, she reached for her head and took off her hat, placing it on the empty chair next to her. Her hair was better-kempt than I supposed it would be, given her energy and apparent disregard for niceties. I sat next to her, at the head of the table by default.
“Nice forks, huh?” Marisa said, eyeing the bright silverware closely, “I can see my reflection in these spoons too. Real fancy stuff. Wonder if the food will be fancy too or that cook was just bragging about her skills.”
“I’m certain that it will be good,” I said. If the kitchen staff were as disciplined as they seemed, they would likely produce pleasing results. My broth had been satisfactory, after all.
“So… now that we’re here...” Marisa tried to fill the silence with aimless prattle. I surmised that she wasn’t comfortable in the somewhat formal setting, with the nearly oppressive silence weighing down the atmosphere.
“You’ve been meaning to ask me something,” I observed, somehow feeling like our close proximity had brought our minds into alignment. Whatever my talents in reading human expressions, I felt that they were amplified when in close proximity to her. It was an odd feeling but parts of Marisa had become as familiar to me as my strongest memories.
“It’s just something that I feel that I already know the answer to, somehow,” she smiled sheepishly. But she hesitated no more, asking, “are you used to all this pomp and fancy stuff? I don’t think I’ve met anyone before who accepted all the craziness in this mansion so easily.”
“I have spent a good portion of my life in rooms such as these,” I replied. “Country retreats, townhouses, estates, cathedrals and more of the sort are no strange things to me. I find that it usually institutions such as government offices or universities that try their hardest to seem the most majestic.” I smiled, and deigned to offer a further opinion, “there is also a correlation between how opprobrious the head of these institutions is and how much supposed grandeur he wishes to flaunt.”
“I guess this place is all about being in your face,” Marisa said quietly, and echoed a previous sentiment again, “I don’t know how anyone could stand spending lots of time here. Give me cozy over this useless expensive crap any day.”
“I am fine with the simple life as well,” I told her, my mind going back to those days spent in our little cabin. There we didn’t have to worry about blithering noblemen competing to demonstrate status in acts of folly. And there we could share as much of ourselves as we wanted. A sudden sharp pain in my chest made me wince. It lasted but a moment.
“Is something wrong?” Marisa frowned, looking at my face with some concern, “you don’t look so good.”
“Ah, it’s nothing,” I forced a smile, “just the weight of memory. My apologies for transporting myself beyond your lovely company.”
“Well-” Marisa began, but was interrupted.
Sylvia entered the room, pushing a small cart with various trays on it. She smiled, adjusted her glasses and offered a curtsy. “Master, I’ve brought the first course,” she said, “and the wine.”
“Splendid,” I nodded and watched her place a pair of plates on our sous plats. She then produced a bottle from the bottom of the cart, an unlabeled dark thing. What was surely nerves made her fumble and almost drop the bottle but she rallied successfully. Grabbing a corkscrew, she uncorked the bottle. I motioned for her to let it breathe some and she nodded, bowing again before leaving.
The Russian-style service was unexpected, but not unwelcome. It seemed that it was not meant to be a hefty luncheon as our cutlery and first dish indicated a more light affair; we were served a jellied fish with a few fresh greens and a tangy red dressing. Marisa seemed to be unsure what to make of the food, examining with an eyebrow raised with a skeptic arch. I took the opportunity to serve the wine, filling our glasses with a respectable amount of the dark liquid.
“Perhaps this is congealed human marrow,” I joked, perversely pleased at seeing her look so revolted at the idea. I did not wait for her to recompose herself and chipped away from the corner of the brick. The fresh taste of fish had not been overwhelmed by the spices used in the gelatinous encasing. I could easily imagine the provenance being the nearby lake with the catching being done just this morning. The sauce was a richer counterpart to the natural flavor, with the consistency of hollandaise but with the color of a tomato and a far more herbal flavor. Marisa had been staring at my face as I ate, waiting to see if I showed any revulsion at the meal.
“It would seem that we are not so lucky to be served other humans yet,” I told her, “it is but fish and a few greens, rockets by the look of it. Eat and you will see that it’s not half bad.”
She looked at me with some disbelief and poked the edge of her jelly with her fork. It’s slight undulation gave her pause. Eventually, after she saw that I took a few more bites without any issue, she mustered up the courage to finally try some. “It’s cold and weird,” she said with all of the sophistication of a child. With a scrunched up nose, she added, “I guess it doesn’t taste horrible… but I’m not sure I like it either. Besides, there’s no rice. Feels weird to eat without rice.”
“Perhaps our next course will include rice,” I said, not really caring to humor her any further than that. I held the stem of my wineglass and gently swirled the contents about. It is a mysterious color, beyond red and closer than black. It is only when it sloshes towards the rim of the glass that tones of tasteful burgundy become apparent. I could not help but think that it was a wine made intended to deceive, to hide its true colors as it were. I brought the glass up to my nose and took a whiff and was puzzled by the results; there was a definite wooden quality to the smell but it was stifled and scarce, almost ephemeral, like a faint memory of days long gone.
I pressed the glass against my lip and allowed some of the liquid into my mouth. It rested lightly on my tongue, acting unassuming. Utterly unimpressive at first blush. Only when it began the journey down my throat did it begin to reveal its actual flavor. It was rich in body, but more than that, spirit. With what almost felt like self-importance, it let its flavor be known: though it had an edge which suggested that it would soon be naught but vinegar, it went down smoothly and revealed subtleties aplenty. The more I drank, the more I came to appreciate its intricacies; it was not fruity, but had a more mature and sharp flavor, an amalgam of oak and transubstantiated grape. The warmth it left in my throat and belly was a welcome comrade.
Drank in bigger gulps, the flavor came out with greater vigor, shedding that initial unassuming modesty altogether. It felt like the right wine for an estate such as this – they both were imperious and rich. Without a doubt it was the highlight of the meal and an exquisite selection. Its unlabeled bottle as well as its dark body is proof that things that could seem to be half-forgotten can be pleasing still.
The wine, at least, was something that Marisa didn’t seem to mind. “It’s pretty strong, I think, but nice,” she said. “Almost tastes dusty, kinda. But not in a bad way. Like a good worn book with lots of interesting stuff to read.”
“Something like that, yes,” I nodded, choosing not to share my feelings with her. It seemed doubtful that she could understand anything more subtle than that and so it would be a waste of time to try. Still, it seemed like the wine at least helped her muster the courage to take a few more bites from her plate. By the time Sylvia returned and brought the next course, she had at least made a valiant effort at half of the small jellied brick.
We were not offered soup. It seemed like we would be having three courses only. She quietly withdrew our plates and placed a new one contained what appeared to be a roast of some sort. Much to Marisa’s delight it seemed to come with a portion of rice, though it was truffled and not plain. This was a dish she could dig into earnestly and she shoveled in large chunks of it in her mouth. I was far more measured and preferred to sup slowly on the wine between small mouthfuls.
We did not speak that much during our meal but she did not let up on telling me just how much she was enjoying the simple flavors of the roast. I listened patiently but offered no real comment, simply content with seeing her overcome her reservations about the manor’s food.
It was during the final course that things took an unfortunate turn.
I refilled both our glasses with more wine when a powerful rumble shook everything. Immediately, an intense feeling of dreadful panic began to crystallize in both my gut and mind. Even as Marisa sprang to her feet and began trying to make sense of things, a wave of cold washed over me. The sharp pain I had felt once again invaded my chest and spread rapidly through most of my body. I gasped. It felt like all the heat spurted out of my body as if it were rapid exsanguination from an arterial wound. I just barely managed to gasp again, stunned, as the last vestiges of warmth bled out of my body.
Marisa noticed only too late that something was the matter with me. My vision grew increasingly cloudy. The last thing I saw was Marisa reach out towards me with a few grains of rice stuck to her cheek.
The temporal lost meaning for me.
In a fog that felt both unnatural and familiar, against a backdrop of void-like dark, I struggled to associate strong sensations that were both memory and present. The death that was and the death that would be. Haphazard arrays of images flashed, illuminating the fog for the briefest of instants. The light did little to explain things and I felt as helpless as I had those first few nights after… after…
Our tears, so casually flowing from our eyes…
I smiled bitterly, the cold ouch of old tears chilling my very bones. And things came to focus, the fog lifted. There was darkness, but it was no longer that impenetrable darkness. It was a normal night. And I was back in my quarters, back on the second floor, right where I had started my day. At least several hours had necessarily passed. My body felt heavy and my extremities cold.
I turned, finding that I was propped up on pillows. More importantly, I was not alone. The moon was still bright enough to drape things in the room in a faint light. Sprawled across the bed, her arms serving as a makeshift pillow, Marisa lay near my legs. She was fast asleep, looking completely defenseless. The first thought that came to mind was that her hat was nowhere to be found.
For whatever reason the girl had chosen to stay by my side after my collapse. Had I made so strong an impression upon her? Or was it merely her conscientious nature, normally hidden under her irreverent exterior? The proper conclusion escaped me. But a small voice in the back of my head told me that she did not really know herself. I did not wish to flatter myself without foundation and so pushed aside the question for the moment.
I smiled foolishly, finding that some energy was returning to my body. Wishing for greater warmth, I thought of the excellent wine from our earlier meal. I sat up and Marisa moaned, muttering something indecipherable in her sleep.
 It would be prudent to rest a while longer. Furthermore, she deserved a proper rest as well. Endeavor to move her to a more comfortable position without disturbing her sleep.
 By holding on to that distinct feeling of still being alive, I could animate myself past fatigue. It was my top priority to find out what had happened and prevent it from occurring again. Wake her up.